Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Costa Rica (Arenal, Monteverde, San Jose)

This December we were looking for a destination which wasn't a long flight away and gave us some time to relax, basically didn't offer much places to see. At the same time, we wanted to enjoy some adventurous activities as well. So, we chose Costa Rica. Here is our brief itinerary:
Day 0: Arrive in San Jose --> Transfer to La Fortuna
Day 1: Rafting --> Hot Springs
Day 2: Horse Riding --> Hike
Day 3: Transfer to Monteverde
Day 4: Ziplining --> Touring around
Day 5: Jungle hike --> Transfer to San Jose
Day 6: Day tour of San Jose --> Fly out

Where to go in Costa Rica?

Costa Rica is mostly known for its beaches, rainforests and volcanoes. While picking our destinations, my focus was to pick places which had good rafting and ziplining options and beaches were a strict no from Sumit. So, when I researched, I could see that popular picks were Arenal volcano(La Fortuna town), Monteverde cloudforest, Manuel Antonio and Guanacaste for its beaches and Tortuguero national park for its canals. Since we didn't want to do much hopping around, we chose La Fortuna and Monteverde.
Overall, I would add more activities to my itinerary. I felt I had a lot of free time than I would have liked. I would have also chosen to go to Guanacaste or Manuel Antonio instead of spending a day in San Jose. Arenal and Monteverde are fun and beautiful and green though. 

Where to fly?

San Jose (SJO): It is a popular airport with many connections to offer and flies in to the capital so we got our tickets for here.
Liberia (LIR): This airport is closer to the Guanacaste and Monteverde area and is more popular for the tourists. But we did not find good tickets to this place and hence decided to transfer by road from San Jose.

Our itinerary:

Day 0:

Arenal Volcano - La Fortuna
We arrived at the San Jose airport around 10 am and had booked our private transfer to La Fortuna. So, we went straight from the airport to La Fortuna. It took around 3 hours for us to get there. We were staying at San Bosco Inn and it was a very good choice. They had a very spacious property right next to the downtown. rooms for decent enough with a patio to enjoy the short lived rainstorms.
The downtown itself is very small and you can walk around the entire area in about 30-40 minutes. We ate at Nanku restaurant. The typical Costa Rican dish includes rice and beans and is called tipica. Good for vegetarians like us, it reminded us of rajma chawal, though without the Indian "tadka", but was filling enough.

Day 1:

Today was the rafting day. It was my first time and as I am terrified of being in water, I think I hardly smiled that morning. Our tour was booked by Wave Expeditions and this was the best thing we did on this tour. I highly highly recommend it for anyone travelling to this place.
We were picked from our hotel and were driven to the banks of Sarapiqui river which was about 90 minutes away. There was a stop in between in a town which is famous for iguanas and oh boy, we saw so many iguanas that I doubt I'd ever see in one place ever again. Our guide had given us instructions on what to and what not to do. Listening to the instruction on what to do when you fall off the raft did scare the hell out of me, but well, I had to get it off my bucket list. 
Bar by the pool - Tabacon Hot Springs
We were then split in to groups of 6 and given instructions once again by our guide on the raft. Five of us were newbies and Sumit was the most experienced one with this being his second time. I was lucky and did not fall off the raft. A few people from other rafts did and it looked scary to see people floating away with the river, but they were all rescued and were alive, which was pacifying!
There was a much needed lunch at the end of our two and half hour workout which tasted delicious. Then we were dropped off at our hotel after another 90 minute bus ride.
In the evening, we headed to Tabacon Hot Springs. Simply beautiful and a very relaxing spa. there were many different spring pools and we kept hopping from one to the other. we got towel and a locker on our entrance. Spent around 90 minutes in there and then we were ready for our dinner. Not many options for the veggies in that buffet, but we were able to stuff ourselves with some rice, beans, nachos, guacamole and some fruits. After a long adventurous day, we were ready to head back to our hotel around 10 pm to crash for the night. 

Day 2:

With Chocolate
Mmm.. Veggie sushi rolls!
We had horse riding and hiking on our itinerary this day. We got to the La Fortuna waterfall park around 8 am. Here we walked up to the stable and were given a horse each for a group of about 20 people. The name of my horse was "Chocolate". Initially I was a bit scared that I would fall off from the horse, but then ten minutes later, I was quite comfortable and enjoyed the horse ride. It was fun when the horse tried to gallop a bit. Once we reached the trail head of the waterfall hike. We got off the horses and started hiking downhill. Some steps initially and then some more hike to get to the waterfall. It was a pretty sight and the water was cold, but it was raining. So, I wasn't too happy about the rains. All drenched, I didn't even feel like getting in the water. Other tourists were happily swimming though. After a bit, we hiked back uphill and then horse ride back to the stable, with a an obligatory stop at the native village (arggh!!- precisely why I hate these tour organizers). Anyhow, it was fun experience. Hike was pretty good, strenuous though. I'd recommend it for the hiker sorts.
We had the rest of the day to ourselves and we spent some time watching a movie at our hotel and some time walking around the town. It was sushi evening for us. We found an excellent restaurant to satisfy our veggie sushi cravings, Kappa Sushi.

Day 3:

Transparent butterflies!
Today was our transfer day. Time to pack our bags and head to Monteverde. We got to the Arenal Lake by bus. Then it was an hour long boat ride. Very beautiful views on our way. Just that I was freaked out about the boat capsizing. After an hour long ride, it was an hour long drive to our lodge close to the cloudforest. As soon as you enter the Monteverde area, roads disappear. There are no roads and all rides are super bumpy. Monteverde is also a little colder compared to Arenal area, but less rainy. After we got to our hotel, we headed out for some lunch and sightseeing.
Hello cockroach!
After filling our tummies with tipica(Costa Rican typical dish of rice and beans), we walked around the small town. Headed to a butterfly garden. They have guided 45 minute tours. Our guide was really enthusiastic about telling us everything about the insects and butterflies and this visit was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed touching the butterflies and cockroaches. Then, we headed to the frog pond, which was a sheer disappointment compares to the butterfly garden. A dull and boring guide and tiny frogs trapped in a glass cage. Trust me, California Academy of Sciences has a better exhibit! After we headed out, we went to the downtown for some dinner. We dined at the TreeHouse restaurant and it was a very lively and fun place to be in the evening. Lovely ambiance and live music. That was our day 3 in Costa Rica.
That's the way a frog moves!

Day 4:

It was time for ziplining today! Early morning we headed to the Selvatura park. Got our gear on, and paid some extra cash to choose the superman ziplining(I highly highly recommend this!). I was initially scared for the first zipline, so much so, that I braked using my glove accidentally and was hanging in the middle. Luckily, better sense prevailed and I let go off my brakes and was able to continue my zipline without having to be rescued by our guide to my embarrasment. After the first zipline, other 12 were a piece of cake and super duper fun. There was a tarzan swing in the end, which I chickened out of, but looked like fun! And I super glad we chose the super man swing in the end. It was the longest zipline and your harness hangs you like a superman from the rope. So, you get beautiful views and its an awesome superman-ish feeling! :) Must must choose this option. I don't have our picture, but this is what it looks like.
After spending almost the entire day here, we headed for our hotel and after a brief nap, headed to their small downtown area for dinner. We ate at restaurant exactly opposite the Tree House. Good food again. And it was time for some rest after a long adventurous day! We were staying at the Cala Lodge in Monteverde. Nice clean wooden cabins. No heaters, but well insulated though.

Day 5:

Hiking time!
We were scheduled for some jungle walk today. We spent a couple of hours hiking in the Monteverde cloud forest with a guide. This was the most disappointing activity. We spotted a few birds, squirrels and monkeys. But, it wasn't much adventurous. I think we were used to the adrenaline rush by rafting and ziplining by now :) But, only a couple of hours and we were back to our lodge for a quick pack our bags and grab a bite before heading to San Jose. We had a private transfer by Interbus. It was a 10 seater van and having no roads in that hilly area made me nauseous. So I sat in the front. It was a beautiful ride, just that all the nausea made it terrible for me.
Once in San Jose, we checked into our Santo Tomas hotel in the downtown area. Beautiful boutique style hotel. Reminded me of Hotel Transylvania. Headed out for dinner and got back in time to watch a  movie.

Day 6:

Those are all business cards from around the world
I hate myself for signing up for a day tour. And I also hate myself for choosing Irazu volcano over Poas volcano. So, don't do any of these unless you want to regret later. I should have stuck to my instincts of DIY trip and headed to Poas volcano. The tour took us to Irazu, but it was cloudy, so we didn't see much, except that I could tell that there is a crater here, right in front of me, but I can't see it. Then, there was a short visit to a church followed by a visit to a botanical garden. Total waste of time. I could have flown in a day earlier and gotten over my jet lag to get ready for my New Year party. But well, lesson learnt for future.
After we got back, it was time to find some Indian food. We researched and headed to Taj which was close to the airport area. Food was decent enough and quiet authentic. After stuffing ourselves and taking a couple of samosas to go for our long long flight, we headed back to the hotel. We took a short nap and packed our bags for the long flight home.

How to get around?

Cabs are your best bet. Monteverde and Arenal, cabs are cheap, but they are a bit expensive in San Jose. I had extensively read online that one shouldn't be driving in Costa Rica. But after my trip I met a friend, who recommended that we should've driven. So, next time I think I will most likely drive. Having driven in India, it won't be tough I think.

What could have we done better?

  1. Book early: We made our booking about 5 weeks in advance and it seems we were late as most of the hotels were not available. Given it was a peak season, book early.
  2. Spend lesser time: I felt we could have added more activities or visited more regions in the given amount of time.
  3. Done tours ourselves: Should have definitely not done the San Jose day tour. Rafting and Ziplining were freaking awesome and are a must do. Even horse riding and hiking. Should have added hiking to the Arenal volcano. But the observatory was closed and we ditched it.
  4. Nicaragua: A short day trip from Arenal and Monteverde is totally do-able.
  5. Tour Company: made our bookings via Anywhere Costa Rica which was super convenient and if you are looking for travel agents to plan your itinerary, I would recommend them.
  6. Laundry: You would need to dry your shoes if you plan on doing rafting one day and hiking the next day. There are many laundry services in Arenal and they helped us with drying our shoes, since I had carried only one pair of closed-toe sport shoes. So, you might want to carry an extra pair.