Note: The majority of this blog post, as well as the Kauai post, is being written in May of 2013! I've been a terrible blogger! It will not be as detailed as the previous Borneo post, or future posts. I apologize, but hope you enjoy, anyway!
You're probably thinking -- "Costa Rica? Really? Didn't you just go to Borneo?" Well, at least that's what I'd be thinking if I were you! And I know that it must sound extravagant -- after all, Borneo was a "trip of a lifetime". Let me explain...
A few months before (winter 2011) our trip to Borneo (April 2011), I began looking into summer camp options for our children. (Around here, at least, camps are often a bit cheaper if they're booked prior to certain early winter dates.) At the time, we didn't have anything planned for the summer of 2011 aside from a few brief family visits, so I thought the kids could do two weeks of summer camp. Well, it turns out that summer camp is expensive! Day camps around here run about $350/week/child. Multiply that times two children times two weeks, and you're budgeting about $1500! Camp is fun, but surely, we thought, we could provide an even more enriching experience with a $1500 budget...
... So, I began searching. Kayak has a very cool "explore" tool: you plug in your (flexible) travel dates, budget, and other "requirements", then Kayak pulls up a world map with pinpoints on every destination available, honoring your constraints. I plugged in "summer", "under $300", and sure enough one of the destinations that came up was "San Jose, Costa Rica" for roughly $250 round trip on Spirit Airlines. Unfortunately, my husband would not be able to join us on this trip because due to a lack of further vacation time, but I speak Spanish, had been to Costa Rica once before (for our honeymoon), and so I knew I could handle it. I booked the tickets and started planning a 10-day trip that would keep our total budget (including the $750 I spent on airfare) as close to $1500 as possible.
We spent three days at a small property located about an hour from Arenal called Biothermales - $45/night in a small, beautiful "casita" which included a mini kitchenette, followed by three days at a farm called Finca Rio Perla - $30/night in their Posada, which was basic, but perfectly clean and really just lovely, and three days at Korrigan Lodge - $100 a night in a beautiful detached room on stunning grounds, including a fantastic breakfast . . . all steps from the gorgeous Punta Uva beach! We used Interbus, a shared van service offering scheduled pick-ups for transportation between destinations. The entire 10-day trip cost under $2000. I was pretty proud! ;-)
My thoughts/memories of the trip that other travelers may be interested in:
- We booked through airbnb.com, and communication with the owner was fantastic.
- Casitas are LOVELY -- perfectly clean with nice furnishings, small kitchenette, nice patio area in front of each.
- Hot springs were very nice, but not luxurious.
- Property was very quiet, lots of beautiful hummingbirds and butterflies.
- We were the only guests on site for our three nights and we saw no visitors to the hot springs, although technically they are open to the public -- I think if you were to travel with friends and rent all three casitas, you would have a fantastic time!
- The owner set us up with a very affordable day excursion with a private guide who took the three of us horseback riding through gorgeous scenery, to lunch at a local restaurant, and then on a river tour that included a stop at a local farm. It was a wonderful day, and a great way to experience the countryside and local wildlife - we saw sloths, monkeys, bats, etc. on the river tour.
- In the middle of our first night, the pipe in our bathroom burst! It was a terrifying sound!! Of course, it was not the fault of anyone -- just unlucky timing! However, the staff person on hand was able to deal with the problem immediately and was very kind and helpful. Not an ideal experience, of course, but looking back it makes for a great story and no harm was done at all!
- Also, that same night, my youngest daughter developed a fever and was ill our entire first day! Again - just poor timing -- it must have been a bug she caught at home or on the flight, as we hadn't been in Costa Rica long enough for her to have fallen ill from anything she had experienced there. Luckily, it was 24-hours, and again, the staff person was very kind, checking in on us and making sure we were all fine.
Finca Rio Perla
Let's start with the GOOD:
- The farm is just BEAUTIFUL! The scenery is spectacular, and it is remote and off the beaten track.
- The Posada (small lodge) is lovely. Rustic, and very basic, but lovely. Perfectly clean simple rooms and shared bathrooms, a nice common sitting area with hammocks. . .
- The food served is fantastic. Nearly all of it is sourced from the farm -- it's fresh and delicious!
- You can, as we did, pay a small additional amount to take part in various activities on the farm -- these include farm chores such as collecting eggs, milking goats, etc., horseback riding, walking to various waterfalls on the property (more on this next), visiting the greenhouse area, seeing the macadamia groves, etc. . .
- The waterfalls on property are fantastic! The relatively smaller one can easily be walked to from the Posada -- it's not ideal because the trail down to it is muddy and just not so pretty, and once there, it's quite shaded so the water is fairly cool. There is another, that is further up the road and beyond the macadamia groves, that is SPECTACULAR. It's HUGE, sunny, and completely private! It's like something out of Jurassic Park. Honestly, it was such a privilege to spend time at such a beautiful spot! The pool was great from swimming, and if you want (I did!) you can hike up to a ledge that must be about 20-30 feet high and jump into the pool!
- We arrived the day before the property owners were heading back to the USA, having been on site for several weeks (months?). Maybe everyone had just been there long enough . . . I don't know . . . But the owners were just not very friendly. And, it was VERY clear, that tensions were high between them and the local staff. Really, you could cut the air with a knife, and it made our first night very uncomfortable. Once the owners left, everyone was more relaxed and we had a great time.
- Also, my children are picky eaters. Believe me, it drives me crazy. But knowing this, and knowing that we'd be eating what we were given for three days on the farm, I came prepared with "supplementary calories" (bags of nuts, etc.). However, when the kids didn't relish the food we were served that first night, the owners were very "stand offish" about it. Really, they just weren't super nice.
- Despite paying for scheduled activities during our time there, no agenda had been set for us when we arrived. This was uncomfortable, and we really never knew what we'd be doing. I sort of had to ask if we could please do things. We weren't "invited", and it was just uncomfortable. They knew I would be arriving with two young kids, and I had read that other guests spent the afternoon making ice cream, milking goats, etc . . . None of these things were actually PLANNED for us, and so uncomfortable, I had to ASK if we could please do them. And, on our third day there, which was Sunday, we were basically told that "usually they don't work on Sundays", so unless I "wanted" to do something, nothing would be planned. Hmmm. . . that puts me on the spot! Of course, I didn't ask for anything, but then we were really left with nothing to do.
Oh, one more great memory from our stay here!
There was only one other visitor during our stay in the Posada, and on our last night, we were the only visitors! It was an odd feeling being in such a remote and unfamiliar place, essentially by ourselves (there was one staff person sleeping downstairs). That night, there was an unimaginably HUGE AND POWERFUL THUNDERSTORM! I am not exaggerating. This thunderstorm last for THREE HOURS without cessation and was RIGHT OUTSIDE!!! By the end of it, both girls and I were huddled in one twin bed! The roof of the posada is tin, and the walls were thin -- it was SCARY! But, of course, as a memory -- AMAZING! Really, I've never experienced anything like it! ;-)
- This lodge has four small self-standing rooms (like little cabins, but with sleeping area and bathroom only) with front porches with hammocks. It is set in an wooded area just steps from Punta Uva beach and it is BEAUTIFUL! There is great attention to detail in everything from the furnishings, to the wonderful breakfast that is served and included in the price, to all of the interactions with the owners -- a French couple who have settled here.
- It's steps from the beach! The owner's dog accompanies you, if desired!
- On the property and at the beach we saw numerous monkeys, sloths, insects, tarantulas . . .
- We did not have a car, which is definitely best if staying here. Otherwise, you can do what we did -- hire taxis -- they charge, if I recall correctly $10 each way from the lodge into Puerto Viejo or, in the other direction, Manzanillo.
- The lodge owners can help you plan just about anything you want to do -- and there's plenty to do! We had an absolutely amazing dinner at Refugio Grill -- outdoor seating (only 4-5 tables, I think) by candlelight, steps from the beach. We also:
- did a chocolate tour (I believe it was HERE, but I'm not sure!), where we had a really interesting guided tour through the plantation, saw how cacao beans are harvested and processed, and ultimately enjoy a yummy chocolate treat!
- visited the Jaguar Rescue Center -- the kids LOVED this!
- had a private guided tour of the jungle down around Manzanillo -- a fantastic, interesting day with an amazing guide!
- Puerto Viejo is worth a visit, of course, but it's very small and a little "rough around the edges". I took no photos while I was in town, mainly because I didn't feel comfortable carrying around an expensive camera. You're safe, but I'd say a little vigilance and common sense is in order if you want to hold onto all of your belongings!
- I wish I had spent MORE time down in Manzanillo. Some of the remote beaches that can be reached from a short walk through the jungle, are stunning . . . plan some time there, if you can, just do NOT bring anything of value with you that you'll need to leave on the beach if you go for a swim.
Other thoughts about Costa Rica that I may as well share
- I LOVE IT! Honestly, it's so beautiful and there's so much to see. You can have whatever type of vacation you're looking for, here. You can go basic, like we did, spend little but still have a fantastic time . . . or you can spend a lot more and travel in style.
- My husband and I visited Costa Rica for a delayed honeymoon in 1998 -- at that time, we visited the Arenal area (LOTS of fun!), the Monteverde Cloud Forest (not the highlight for us -- forest was amazing, but not a lot of wildlife to see compared to other areas) and the Osa Peninsula, where we really "honeymooned" at Lapa Rios (if you can afford it, this place is well worth the visit!).
- If I go back, I would love to visit the Tortuguero area. It's a little out of the way, but from what I've heard, offers an authentic wildlife viewing experience -- I think a trip to Tortuguero, paired with a few days down around Punta Uva would be a fantastic itinerary!
- From what I've heard, unless you just want an "easy" vacation in a sunny place where you can see lots of monkeys -- avoid Manuel Antonio. It was my gut feeling all along, which is why we've never been there, but I just have friends I trust return from the area . . . It's pretty, there's lots to do (zip-lining, etc.), and may be exactly what some people are looking for. . . and that's fine! But, if what you want is a little light "adventure" and authentic wildlife viewing, you're better bet is to head to Corcovado down south or Tortuguero up north . . .