01 May 2013

Two Weeks in Costa Rica

The nice thing about Costa Rica is that it is small enough that you can spend two weeks there and see a lot of the key sights. Most visitors head out of San José pretty quickly, and then visit La Fortuna and the Arenal volcano and the cloud forests at Monteverde and Santa Elena. This takes about a week, leaving you with another week to spend on the beach, and this is when you have a choice to make: Pacific or Caribbean coast? Although I was sorely tempted by the possibility of nesting turtles at Tortuguero on the Caribbean side, it wasn't really turtle season, and so we decided to do some of the Pacific beaches instead. You could just about fit in Tortuguero as well as the Pacific, but it will be a bit rushed.

Here's how we organised our time. Most of these hotels were chosen through a combination of my guidebook (the latest Lonely Planet) and the top-rated properties on Booking.com, and for the record, most places offer pretty good free wifi and some form of free breakfast, and will help you organise activities and travel.

San José
When you fly to San José from Europe, the lengthy flights mean you will almost certainly arrive in the city at night, which means staying there one night. A lot of the buses and excursions from San José leave early in the morning and, uncertain about jet lag, we decided to stay two nights in the city. We were starting to run out of things to do at the end of our first full day, but we left early the following morning. We also stayed for one night at the end of our trip.

Hotel Fleur de Lys, San José

Both times, we stayed in the eastern part of the city centre, which I would recommend, because it's quieter, cleaner and prettier. We first stayed at Hotel Fleur de Lys, which was great. It's a small hotel in a beautiful, rambling house, with shiny wooden floors and local art on the walls. There was a free breakfast buffet, full of goodies, from fresh fruits to breads and the usual rice and beans. The staff were extremely helpful and friendly. On our return, we stayed at the Hotel Aranjuez, which was slightly cheaper and a little less central, but still only 15 minutes walk to the Teatro Nacional. This hotel is formed of a series of interconnected houses and its labyrinthine hallways are a little hard to navigate, but the rooms are clean and comfortable, if a little spartan. A free and extensive buffet breakfast is served in the garden terrace each morning.

The breakfast buffet at Hotel Aranjuez, San José

La Fortuna and Arenal
We took a public bus from San José to La Fortuna, which cost $7 and took about four hours — not much slower than a private minibus — so I would recommend using public transport at this stage. Do keep an eye on your bag on the bus though, as the on-bus policeman warned us. We stayed at Hotel Campo Verde, at the base of the volcano and about six miles out of town. There isn't much in La Fortuna anyway — most of the activities are outside, and transportation to and from your hotel tends to be included — but we did have a couple of $10 taxi journeys to go into town for dinner. This hotel was one of my favourites: the rooms are a series of canary yellow cabins with their own porches and amazing views of the volcano; we were in number 11, which had a front-row view. You do get the odd bug in your room, but then you are staying in a field... Breakfast is included, but involves fruit and a choice of eggs on toast, yoghurt and granola or rice and beans.

Hotel Campo Verde, near La Fortuna/Arenal

In terms of activities in the area, a couple of companies run combo tours: we did a four-in-one that included a river safari, a tour of the La Fortuna waterfall, lunch at a nice restaurant in town, a guided hike around the volcano, and entry into and dinner at the Tabacón hot springs. At about $220, this isn't cheap but is an efficient way of combining multiple activities, especially if you would otherwise have to factor in the cost of taxis.

The best way to get between La Fortuna and Monteverde is via "jeep-boat-jeep," actually a minibus-boat-minibus service that picks you up from your hotel, takes you to Lake Arenal, ferries you across, and delivers you to your hotel at the other end. This costs $25 and takes about three hours, saving you a good 90 minutes' driving on very poor, rocky, unpaved roads.

Hotel Mar Inn, Monteverde

In Monteverde, we stayed at Mar Inn, which was a little more rustic than some of our other hotels, but clean and perfectly fine. Again, the staff were very friendly and helpful and can arrange pretty much any kind of tour or transportation you might need. I enjoyed sitting in the hammock outside our room, watching the birds in the garden and enjoying the view over the town. NB: the hotel is pretty high up the hill and a short but very steep hike up from the town centre. Breakfast — scrambled eggs on toast or pancakes — was also included.

While we were in Monteverde, we discovered that it's actually quite hard to leave the cloud forest. We wanted to go to the beaches of the Nicoya peninsula but all of the public buses involved long journeys with multiple changes. Nor was there a car hire place in Monteverde and it would cost $100 for a car rental company to drop a car off there for us to return to San José. We decided to spend the $100 on two tickets on one of the tourist minibuses to Tamarindo and the roads were so bad, we were glad we weren't driving.

El Sabanero Eco Lodge, near Tamarindo

Our cabin (the wifi didn't reach this far...)

Our hotel, El Sabanero Eco Lodge, was about 10 miles outside Tamarindo. Its main selling point is its amazing infinity pool, but the lodge was a nice place to hang out too. The rooms are small cabins, but not as pretty or well kitted out as at Campo Verde. The air con failed one night (apparently due to a power cut) and the hot water didn't work on two evenings (of course, as soon as the manager went to turn the hot water on at the mains came and had a look, it eventually started to work). I liked the cabins, though, even if it was a little scary to wake up one night and find the cabin completely surrounded by a herd of cows! The howler monkeys were also pretty noisy, but all part of the experience. Don't come here without a car though; taxis into town are expensive and the buses are unreliable.

El Sabanero Lodge's amazing pool

Mal País
It is only about 100 miles from Tamarindo to Mal País, right down at the bottom of the Nicoya peninsula, but it took us most of the day to drive it. We drove to Playa Samara via the "fast" (i.e. paved) roads, and then went the scenic route for the rest of the journey, which involved almost no paved roads, lots of steep hills and several river crossings. But it was an adventure and the views were stunning! We were able to stop at a number of different beaches, and I really would recommend the drive — in dry season, of course.

Moana Lodge, including the sunset view from the cliff-top restaurant

In Mal País, we stayed at Moana Lodge, which is a lovely hotel on the cliffside above the town. The more expensive cabins have 180 views of the coastline; our room was lower down, but well appointed and with a nice terrace (they just need some better outdoor lighting). There is a cute pool, hot tub and chill-out area and the beach is only minutes away. The hotel's key selling point is its restaurant, Papaya, perched on the clifftop and offering amazing views of the coast and the jungle. A good and well presented breakfast is included; we also went for dinner one night, enjoying a selection of tapas as we watched the sunset.

Originally, we had planned to drive from Mal País to Quepos, via the Paquera–Puntarenas ferry, but after our epic road trip, we realised we had been too optimistic and had to cut our planned trip to the Manuel Antonio national park, a real shame, because who doesn't want to to go a national park brimming with cute monkeys frolicking on the beach? With hindsight, I would have cut a day from La Fortuna or Monteverde to have time to visit Manuel Antonio.

The Ylang Ylang beach resort pool, Montezuma

Instead we drove a little way along the coast to Montezuma, staying at El Sano Banano hotel. The main attraction was that you got access to the pool, beach and facilities of the hotel's pricier sister hotel. The Sano Banano was cheap and cheerful — much too noisy at night and without proper curtains — but the pool was amazing and we were only staying one night...

Back to San José
To get back to San José, we drove 45 minutes from Montezuma to Paquera, where we caught the car ferry to Puntarenas, which took about 70 minutes and cost about $30. From there, it's only about 60 miles to San José. Because we were driving along Highway #1, we assumed the road would be relatively fast, but there was rarely more than one lane and we often slowed down to 20 mph. It was a scenic journey, though, and by this point we had learned to be grateful for small mercies: namely paved roads and no river crossings!

And now I just have to decide where to go on my next adventure!

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