Pura Vida !! Pure Life ~ this is the mantra of all Costa Ricans. It is hello, good-bye, thank you, you're welcome, how are you.... it is like saying 'aloha' in Hawaii, with many meanings, and can be used to respond to almost anything.
This was my third journey to this Central America country rich in patriotism, diversity, happy people and the color green. We visited La Fortuna and the Arenal volcano area, Manuel Antonio National Park, and an all-too-short stay at a most wonderful coffee plantation 30 minutes from San Jose airport.
Arenal - the volcano has been 'quiet' for the last two years, the flows and the rumbling mostly having stopped for now. If you're lucky, you will get to see the perfect cone shape of this one on a clear day. We had that one clear day, as otherwise it rained a lot and was clouded over. Well, Pura Vida, you don't let rain ruin a Costa Rican vacation. When it rains, you see more birds. Especially when traveling, you always have to look on the bright side.
We stayed at two hotels: Arenal Manoa and Royal Corin. Manoa is a 3-star property, comprised of 2-room bungalows that are spread over a large property. They offer a restaurant, spa, hot springs pools (not some of the best) and a chlorine pool. The rooms all have patios with volcano views. Some rooms are closer to reception and the hot springs pools, some are closer to the spa and restaurant. If you don't wish to walk any distances, you can call for their golf cart or van shuttle. The massage I got here (from Sylvia) was fabulous. The breakfast buffet was good, with fresh egg and French toast stations. Dinners were expensive and did not live up to the expensive price tag.
I just loved the Royal Corin. With a location right next to the main road, I thought it would be noisy, but all rooms are soundproofed when the sliding doors to the balconies are closed. The building is 4 storys, a more traditional hotel, but with soft, Asian feel decor that is very welcoming. Their front
desk staff is also wonderfully helpful and friendly. My room was large and clean. They offer beautiful suites. All rooms or suites have volcano views. This hotel is not far from La Fortuna. It has a beautiful spa area with many treatment rooms and a few for couples. Their pools are also hot springs and they have a natural sauna, located over one of the source hot springs. The great Lava Bar is a lounge on the top floor and gets busy with hotel guests as well as outside patrons. It's very hip and trendy, done in red and grey. I would put the Royal Corin at a nice 4-star level.
Activities abound around Arenal and there was just not enough time to "do it all." I did go zip lining with Sky Trek, one of the oldest zip lining outfits here. It is an exhilarating experience and I highly recommend it. I also did a volcano hike, which is a great way to see bird life and look for animals - monkeys and sloths. Unfortunately, it poured during the hike, and though we did see some great birds, no animals were to be found.
Other hotels I inspected while here were the Arenal Nayara - love, love, love it!! - Tabacon Hot Springs Resort and the Springs Resort:
Tabacon Hot Springs has been there long before the resort was built. The hot springs are amazing, taking up many acres with lush jungle and dense foliage all around. The hotel is across the street from from the springs and a bit uphill if you walk. They have a shuttle to/from the hotel. We had a nice buffet dinner at the springs after a welcome soak in the pools. My favorite is the waterfall you can sit under and let the water beat down on your back. Delicious! Rooms are lovely at the resort and the buildings are spread out from each other. They put all their decorating energy into their 2-bedroom suites, which are very posh with all kinds of bells and whistles - great for families. View from the terrace is over the jungle canopy and you feel like you're in a luxury tree house.
Arenal Nayara is a romantic delight. All accommodations are stand alone bungalows with porches all facing the volcano. There are rocking chairs, a hammock and a hot tub on each porch, an outdoor and indoor shower and a king canopy bed. Each bungalow is surrounded by jungle so you feel you are isolated in your own jungle paradise. They offer a spa, great restaurant and a pool. They will be installing their own hot spring pools in the near future.
The Springs Resort is a haven for families. It is owned by the same owners as the beloved Peace Lodge, and they have really seen to detail at the Springs as well. Everywhere you look there is rich woodwork and wonderful flower arrangements. They have many room types for a hotel with only 46 rooms/suites. They offer a sushi bar and another restaurant. Many hot springs pools, some of them very shallow and not that hot for younger children to enjoy. Their really fun area is called Club Rios and located down a very steep hill (shuttles provided) along the Arenal River. They have guided tubing twice a day and guided kayaking two or three times a day. They offer a rock wall for climbing with a couple of very challenging routes, horseback riding and other planned activities of which families can take advantage. The downside is this resort is built high up in the hills and the roads within the resort are very steep. If you wish to go any distance on the property, you have to wait for the shuttles. There is also about a 2 km. very rough road off the main road that you need to travel to access this resort. Once you're at the resort, however, you don't ever have to leave it if you don't want to as there is so much to do.
The drive from Arenal to Manuel Antonio took us about 5 hours. There was some traffic through some of the larger towns and we made a few stops for shopping/lunch and photos. As some might know, Costa Rica is not known for it's great roads or it's signage. While there are only a couple of 4-lane highways, most of the roads are only 2 lanes - one for each direction. These roads are shared with huge trucks, buses, cars and motorcycles. When they are working on the roads - and it seems they are always working on the roads - you can be stopped for awhile for the traffic coming the other way to pass. Off the paved roads, the side roads are rutted and poor. You have to be very patient while driving around Costa Rica and it's not recommended to drive yourself. Professional drivers with the local tour companies know these roads well and the secrets of getting from place to place. I met a couple zip lining who had a GPS on their car and told me they got lost three times getting to Arenal from San Jose. They don't seem to believe in street signs, either.
Manuel Antonio is one of the largest and most beautiful of Costa Rica's national parks. It is situated along the central coast and the Pacific Ocean. Jungle meets the sea here, and there are no real 'beach hotels' in M.A. Hotels are built eco-sensitively in the jungle with as little damage as possible to the surrounding area. As in all areas of Costa Rica, there is much to do here and a lot of enrichment to experience.
For the first two nights we stayed at Parador, one of the oldest and the largest hotels in this area with over 100 rooms. It encompasses many buildings, with many different room types, mostly based on views. The rooms are basic, with balconies. The lobby and public areas decor is heavy dark wood Spanish. As this is not one of my favorite styles, I didn't care for this hotel. There were a lot of people milling around; the pool is small and the buildings seem very close together even though this is a large property. This hotel is used for groups due to it's size, and it has that kind of 'group' feel to it. The food was only ok for dinner. Breakfast buffets were good with some nice selection and a fresh egg and waffle station. Not far from the hotel entrance is a trail going down to a beach where you can do some nice snorkeling. They do not maintain any lounges or beach facilities on the beach. If you wish to enjoy the beach, you take your own towels and sit on the sand. Though this is tauted as a 4-star property, I would classify it more as a 3- or 3.5-star.
After Parador, our last two nights in Manuel Antonio were a little slice of heaven. This was at Arenas Del Mar. We had a one-bedroom suite with a huge terrace and outdoor hot tub. Our suite shared a foyer with another room which could also be booked as the 2nd bedroom to the suite. This hotel is the only luxury property with beach access and it's own beach club. They offer a pool, restaurant, lounges, umbrellas and tables at the beach. It's not a white sand beach, but Pacific beaches are not that anyway. They also have access from another trail on their property to a second beach which is a long stretch of pretty sand where you can walk all the way to Manuel Antonio National Park. They do not have beach amenities at this second beach due to the very public nature of it. I love this hotel. It is part of a group in Costa Rica that is noted for their sustainability and conscious efforts to be 'green'. The food at their restaurant is wonderful - great fresh fish and inventive, tasty soups, and a fresh approach to breakfast - NO BUFFET - we ordered a la carte off the menu. What a treat! This is another property built up a steep slope, and they utilize golf carts to get guests up/down the hills. They offer a lovely spa with treatment rooms offering jungle views, two pools, a great restaurant and helpful, friendly staff. I would classify this hotel as a high 4.5-star property.
I also visited Si Como No and Gaia. Si Como No has a most wonderful ambiance. It only has 36 rooms and you get the feeling there are less than that due to how the hotel is constructed. Though they welcome children, they offer an adults-only pool as well as a family pool. They have two restaurants and we had a tasty lunch at their seafood restaurant, Claro Que Si. Rico Tico is their other restaurant for breakfast - another buffet. They also offer their own wildlife refuge for butterflies, crocs and caymans and a frog refuge. We did the frog refuge at night and it was an incredible experience. Saw many of the colorful, tiny frogs that one always sees pictures of as representation of the wildlife in Costa Rica. It was a trip highlight.
Gaia is set up in the hills with panoramic views of the entire jungle/agro area and the ocean. They only have 20 rooms, but, once again, offer 7 different rooms types. We saw a garden room, not large and very contemporary in decor. In fact, all of the rooms are very contemporary and stark. There is little wall art and virtually no extraneous bric-a-brac around the rooms. It was a cold feeling to me, though they are beautifully done. This hotel has four owners and we met one of them. This is a gay-friendly hotel though by no means is this the majority of clientele. Their La Luna Restaurant is fabulous. This was where we had our best meal. Mahi Mahi ceviche melting in your mouth is an epicurean experience, to be sure. I like Gaia; it is very unusual compared to other properties.
Besides the night frog jungle hike, we did a boat tour through the mangroves and canals called Damas Island. We learned a lot about the difference in mangrove trees, white, red and black, and their relationship to the rest of this wetland area. Saw some great bird life. We then hiked Manuel Antonio National Park with a private guide and this is the ONLY way to do this if you are at all interested in wildlife, bird life and the local flora. The guide takes a good quality telescope on the hike and he seemed to magically conjure up animals and birds that guide books said were illusive or would be sleeping at the time of day we were there. The trail heads through the jungle and down to the beach, then loops along a trail that parallels the beach back to the small village of Manuel Antonio. If you don't have your own guide, you will miss so much of the wealth of this magical place.
I liked the town of Quepos, too, though we did not get a chance to walk around and really look at it. We only passed through it about four times. Instead of a road trip over the mountains back to San Jose, we took Nature Air's small plane for a 20 minute flight back to the domestic airport in San Jose. The drive would have been 2.5 to 3 hours, depending on traffic, and it's usually not good from M.A. to San Jose. From there we were met and whisked away to the delightful coffee planation inn, Finca Rosa Blanca. We had such a short time here, but I fell in love with this small, intimate property of 8 rooms and 3 villas - each villa is made up of two rooms that you can book separately or together for a family. They offer their own coffee planation tour twice a day. There's a pool and restaurant with great views overlooking San Jose. You are only 30 minutes from the international airport here, but you feel you are miles and miles away from the bustle of San Jose - and you are! I recommend at least 2 nights or possibly 3 at this lovely, intimate inn. There is much to do in the general area and this is a perfect base for seeing volcanoes, whitewater rafting, going to Sarchi to see the famous ox cart factory and many other great day trips.
Costa Rica is a small country, but within this small, compact country, there is more to do and experience than in a lot of countries double or triple in size. I would encourage anyone who has not been here at least once to go soon and then to go often (as you will want to do). A good first time trip should be at least 10 to 14 nights. This is a country where you want to move around and soak in all the love the Ticos have for their country and want to share with you. PURA VIDA!! You contact me through my profile page at Linda Lewis to learn more about Costa Rica vacations and Central American adventure travel.