Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Costa Rica trip review - Part 1

I've had a chance to breathe after my trip to Costa Rica and I'm ready to write about it!  It's long so I'm going to split the post up into 2 parts, this part will talk about our time at Arenal and the second part will be about our time at Guanacaste.  The trip included me, Mike, and my parents. 

Sunrise during our flight

There are multiple international airports in Costa Rica, with one being in the capital city of San Jose and one in Liberia. We flew into the Liberia airport as that was closest to our 2 destinations.  We rented a car after much debate.  We wanted the flexibility but there were definitely pros and cons.  Read up on this carefully if you decide to rent a car so that you are aware of all the fees, there are potentially large insurance fees and a large security deposit.  The security deposit is refundable.  But the roads can be small and windy.  There were bridges that were one lane only so you had to wait for any traffic coming the opposite way before you could cross the bridge.  I would definitely say try to save any long drives for daylight.

We were in Costa Rica for a week.  The first part of the trip was spent near the Arenal volcano, which was previously active but has been dormant since 2010.  However, there is still plenty to see!  First, logistics.  It took a bit more than 3 hours to drive from the rental car place in Liberia to our lodging by Arenal.  It was a beautiful drive but again, the roads were a bit challenging.  There was a lot of vegetation and beautiful mountains and lakes.  We even saw monkeys crossing the road at one point.

A rare moment without rain at our hotel

We stayed at a 2 bedroom villa we booked through VRBO.  The best part is that it was on the grounds of the Arenal Volcano Inn so we also had access to the hotel facilities.  The hotel grounds were beautiful, the villa served our purposes well, it wasn't luxurious but About the best pit also couldn't be described as basic.  It was a good middle ground and the service was good.  It also included a buffet breakfast which was appreciated.  We ate at the restaurant a couple times and the food was pretty good.

The first night, we got to the hotel a bit after 5:30pm.  It had just gotten dark and we were happy to be off the roads.  They even greeted us with fresh passion fruit juice, which was a nice touch.  Once we settled into the villa a bit, we went to a local store to buy some fruit and snacks to keep around the villa.  We also had dinner at the hotel's restaurant that night since it was the easiest option.  Plus, they had 2 for 1 drinks!  We had a nice dinner and an early bedtime so we were ready for the next day's adventures.  It had started raining in the afternoon but we were hopeful that the rain would go away the next day.

About the best photo we could get given the rain on the river

Unfortunately, no such luck.  But in spite of the rain, we still had plans and things to see.  We had booked a tour with Anywhere Costa Rica and they picked us up at the hotel promptly at 7:45am.  We were prepared with water shoes and rain coats because our first stop was a Safari Float on the Penas Blancas River.  There were 6 of us as well as a guide and we floated down the river in a Raft.  I was worried we wouldn't see any wildlife because of the rain but we saw monkeys, an alligator, iguanas and of course, lots of plant life.  The guide was really knowledgeable and very entertaining.

 Cute puppy we ran into counts as wildlife too, right?

After ending the safari float, we stopped at a local Costa Rican home where we were provided with coffee and some snacks.  We also get to play with a friendly puppy!  We drove from the home to the next stop on our tour, which was a cocoa plantation.  On the way, our guide spotted a sloth so we stopped the car so we could all get out and take photos of the sloth.

Coconut bread, farmer's cheese and plantain slices 

Next, we were at the cocoa plantation.  This was really interesting!  I had no idea how cocoa beans turned into chocolate and it was really cool to learn about that process.  We also had the opportunity to taste the various fruits grown on the plantation, including the fruit of the cocoa plant.  The tour ended with the opportunity to taste some of their fresh cocoa in chocolate bar form as well as in hot chocolate form.  Delicious!

Just hanging out by the road

The tour bus then picked us up and took us to a local restaurant for a buffet lunch.  After lunch, we were all ready for a nap and that was good timing since the tour dropped us back at our hotel.  We had the opportunity to nap and get dry (it had rained pretty much all day).  Then we were off to see some local hot springs.  We had an evening pass to Tabacon hot springs and it was thankfully only about 5 kilometers from our hotel so it wasn't too bad driving there at night.  Of course, it started raining again as we got there but we had no choice but to roll with it!  

It was beautiful and we really enjoyed exploring the different pools.  Some of them were fed from a natural spring heated by the nearby volcanic heat and some of them were man-made pools heated artificially.  There was also a lot of variety in that some of the pools were crowded and some were secluded.  There was even one with a full bar and a tv playing football.  The only downside is that it wasn't well lit at all so we had a hard time really appreciating the full beauty of the area.  Once we were done with the hot springs, we changed and went back to the main building since dinner was included in our evening pass.  It was a delicious buffet dinner that had a lot of vegetarian and vegan options.

There are a lot of options for activities around Arenal.  I was trying to stick with ones that weren't too active since my parents were with us.  But there are plenty of more active things in the area like sip-lining, river rapids, horseback riding, waterfalls, hiking, etc.  The next morning, we explored a bit of the more active side of the area.

Mike and I on a hanging bridge

Beautiful view from near the top 

We drove to the volcano area and the Sky Adventures Park.  Be warned that this was a bit of a tough drive, even in the daylight.  It was a climb on some unpaved, narrow roads.  They had a lot of options ranging from a calm sky tram to zip lining, hanging bridges, and even rappelling down a waterfall.  Mike, my dad and I chose the hanging bridge walk.  It was a bit more arduous than I expected and it definitely tired my dad out!  A 5k hike through the jungle is not the same as a 5k walk.  It also continued to rain so it was muddy and slippery in places.  But it was beautiful.  We saw some amazing views from the hanging bridges.  We learned a lot from the guide and we really enjoyed it overall.

My dad by the waterfall at the end of the hike

And that was it for Arenal.  We had lunch at the Sky Adventures Park and then got back into the car to drive to our hotel by the beach.  More on that to come next week.