Costa Rica Eco Tour Aug 9 – Aug 16, 2003
My daughter was privileged with a great opportunity, one which she will probably never forget. She was in the middle of her second year in University and it all began with one of the routine mailings from StudentAwards.com. "Win the ultimate Ralph Girl vacation plus a $2500 scholarship" it said, then went into more detail. Sponsored by Ralph Lauren and L’oreal Canada, it offered one of four vacations. The choices were Costa Rica, Whistler, California, or Broadway. The odds looked slim to nil but she thought, "hey, what if?".
She applied, then didn’t think much of it, well, until the phone calls started coming in to her apartment around mid-February. It may have been the shock of winning or just the lack of sleep, but she was speechless. The trip was for two, so she decided to take her mom. Since I’m her dad, I decided to join them (at the last minute). I was hoping to use my air miles to cover the air fare, but alas, that was not to be. I ended up booking my air through more conventional means (cash works, air miles didn’t).
All ground arrangements were done through an outfit called Costa Rican Trails. I’d never heard of them before, but found them very professional and easy to deal with. I first had to contact them to see if a third person was even possible at that late date. The specific package was the "Close to Nature" tour. They were very obliging at fitting me in. After that, I managed to get airline reservations on the same flights and no further away than one row.
This was a great trip and I would highly recommend it to anyone. A certain level of physical fitness is obviously required, but trips can be customized. I’m sure our abilities were discretely "assessed" when we were picked up at the airport in San Jose. We passed! Costa Rican Trails provided a book of coupons for each activity and hotel; this also listed the itinerary and all the pickup times.
Worthy of note is the fact that a lot of fresh fruit (pineapple, papaya, watermelon, grapefruit) and freshly squeezed juices were served at all the hotels we visited. Unlike the Caribbean, there was no evidence of watered down or powdered juices. Before we left, I read one report that said no-one went to Costa Rica for the cuisine. I heartily disagree.
The only disadvantage was that we were in different hotels almost every day, so it was impractical to unpack and we had to live out of our suitcases. Also of interest, most of the hotel rooms were marked as no smoking. Bosque de Paz restricted smoking to a small area outside the lobby. If this is an issue for you, be warned.
My rating system is out of 5 stars. Nobody gets 5!
Costa Rican Trails did a great job. Rating 4.5 stars. We had our own vehicle and didn’t have to share with anyone else. Our driver (Alfredo) was friendly, prompt, courteous, a good driver and after the first day was like a member of the family. With a few exceptions, the general arrangement was that we would tour during the day, then Alfredo would drop us at our next hotel and ensure that we got checked in OK. He would then confirm the next pickup time and date, give us the option to change it if we wanted, then return to his home in San Jose. We spent two nights at some of the hotels, and on these occasions, we were left on our own for the second day. On the day we were at Arenal, the trip back to San Jose was too far for Alfredo to conveniently drive back, so he stayed over at a local hotel for the night.
Day 1 (Saturday, Aug 9, 2003):
This was a flying day; Toronto to Miami and then Miami to San Jose with a scheduled 59 minute connection. Flying day is always "fun". There should have been lots of time, but some passenger checked in, got his boarding pass, checked his luggage and then failed to board the aircraft. The result was that the plane had to be unloaded so that his luggage could be removed! This took 40 minutes, leaving us a 19 minute connection (from gate A16 to gate E11, which, if you know Miami airport, is some hike). We barely made it, and kudos to American Airlines, so did our luggage. We also found the seating on AA to be very comfortable, with lots of leg room and adjustable headrests that worked for short and tall. The baggage allowance was two bags at 50 lbs each, plus a carry-on with a maximum weight of 40 lbs. Air Transat and Skyservice take note! 44 lbs total, bah! Rating (American Airlines 4.5 stars, the passenger who caused the delay, 0 stars)
Costa Rican Trails met us at the airport and transferred us to our first hotel, the Alta. Nice place. I’ll give it 4.5 stars. The architecture was very Spanish in style. The majority of rooms have superb views of the valley, the Poas volcano and the city stretching out in the distance. According to their literature, all the rooms have been individually designed with custom crafted furniture throughout and are in very good condition. As advertised, ours had a great view and was in first class shape. We found a small ‘soda’ (local restaurant) just down the street, had a few beers, examined the menu, saw the food and considered returning for dinner. Unfortunately, it got dark sooner than we expected. So, discretion applied, and we trashed that idea and ate dinner at the hotel. The dining room and the stairway to it was lit either by pillar candles or by subdued lighting. Very romantic. The meal and service was excellent. I don’t believe the hotel has a web site, but there’s lots of information out there.
Day 2 (Sunday, Aug 10, 2003):
We had a continental breakfast (included in our package) at the Alta hotel. Alfredo picked us up shortly after, and we toured through the hills to the Poas volcano, the butterfly farm, the hummingbird sanctuary and the La Paz waterfall(s). It’s about a 2km (easy) trail through the rain forest to view the various waterfalls. Note that there are a ‘lot’ of stairs on that trail and the last bit is a steel walkway securely anchored into the side of the hill. The buffet lunch at the La Paz waterfall and butterfly conservatory was excellent. Our admission included lunch which included everything except bottled pop and beer. (4.5 stars).
Alfredo then dropped us at the Sueno Azul Hotel (Spanish for Blue Dream) for a two night stay. After crossing what Alfredo referred to as the "two beer bridge" (very narrow) and then the "no beer bridge" (it appeared to be a little spindly, and was so narrow that we had to fold in the mirrors on the van in order to cross it), we were met at the lobby with drinks and personally greeted. The resort is located on a 1200 acre private ranch and nature reserve near the Braullio Carillo national park and spectacular views abound of the forest, mountains, rivers and private lakes. The grounds included nature trails, a pool, a jacuzzi and a river you can swim in. No TV, no radio, no phones, and we didn’t miss them. Just a lovely room overlooking a nature reserve and pond, with the river in the background. We had leather and wood rocking chairs on the patio overlooking this tremendous view. It was low season, and at the time we were there, we were the only guests. Talk about personal service! For dinner, we picked our table and dinner time well in advance. We felt like the idle rich. This place should have 5 stars, but ….
Day 3 (Monday, Aug 11, 2003):
This was white water rafting day, so Alfredo was not to pick us up. After a full Costa Rican traditional breakfast (included), Aguas Bravas, the rafting company, picked us up. There was some confusion here: our original itinerary said white water rafting while a second one said it was to be a tranquil ride on calm waters, and to bring our camera and binoculars. We hedged our bets and prepared for both. It turned out to be white water rafting which was MUCH better. We just left our stuff (at least anything we didn’t want to get wet) in the car. We were really impressed with their professionalism and safety procedures. They did a full safety briefing, and evaluated the ability of the guests (without being obvious about it). They had the proper safety equipment on each of the four rafts, and provided two safety men on kayaks. The rafting was over about 8 miles of class 2 and 3 rapids on the Serapiqui River, with a stop in the middle for swimming and fresh fruit, followed by lunch (included) and videos of that days trip at a local restaurant. The video was so good, we purchased a copy. Aguas Bravas dropped us back at the hotel for dinner and our second night at Sueno Azul. Got to give Aguas Bravas 4.5 stars. As a side note, they claim they have never had to make a claim on their insurance. I can believe this, but there’s always some idiot….
Day 4 (Tuesday, Aug 12, 2003):
After a full breakfast at the Sueno Azul (included), Alfredo picked us up and we toured to the Arenal volcano and the Tabacon Hot Springs. We stayed overnight at the Tabacon Resort Hotel with a room that overlooked the volcano, or at least, was supposed to! Mother nature didn’t co-operate that night and the volcano was shrouded in clouds. We spent most of the afternoon at the hot springs (absolutely fantastic), dined at a local restaurant recommended by Alfredo (great food), and then returned to the hot springs in the evening. We didn’t want to leave here! Spectacular! Rating: Tabacon 4.5 stars, Mother Nature 2 stars (it cleared long enough to get a few photos).
Day 5 (Wednesday, Aug 13, 2003):
After a full buffet breakfast at the Tabacon (included), Alfredo picked us up and transferred us to Bosque de Paz for a two night stay. This is a 1000 hectare (3000 acre) private wildlife preserve, located about a mile above sea level, and virtually touching the clouds. Our two days here included all meals, billed as gourmet Costa Rican cooking. We can’t disagree with that; the food and service were excellent. It was like being invited to dinner at a friends home. The menu was preselected by the chef, but we were asked about dietary restrictions and personal preferences when we checked in. Bosque de Paz includes tons of hiking/nature trails, with streams, waterfalls and more varieties of plant and wildlife than I can count. This was just a little piece of Eden. Rating 4.5 stars. Do you see a pattern here?
Day 6 (Thur, Aug 14, 2003):
More hiking and good food at Bosque de Paz.
Day 7 (Friday, Aug 15, 2003):
Alfredo picked us up after lunch, for a tour and transfer back to San Jose for our last night at the Britannia hotel. Along the way we stopped at several artisan shops, one with every piece of equipment powered by a single waterwheel and ‘many’ drive belts no less. The Britannia is an older hotel, originally built about 1912, right downtown and very classy. After checking in, we made our way to a local grocery store to stock up on coffee liqueur and coffee. The baked goods in the bakery smelled so good, we also bought bread, cheese, meats and cerveza for an impromtu ‘picnic’ in our hotel room. I’ll give the Britannia only 4 stars since the room was small and it was a bit of culture shock coming from 3000 acres of Eden.
Day 8 (Saturday, August 16, 2003):
Travel day back to Toronto (via Miami). This was the real fly-in-the-ointment! The current security advisories targeted someone in-transit through the US, so our boarding passes were marked with a big red stripe, marking us for special attention. We got it! Our luggage was unpacked and examined closely. I felt sorry for the gal; some of the stuff was wet clothes left over from the rafting trip, packed in a plastic bag to keep the dry clothes dry, and were somewhat pungent, to say the least. My carry-on was unpacked and repacked (twice). Then, to add insult to injury, after clearing customs and immigration in Miami, we were required to exit the secured area of the airport, and had to go through security AGAIN. This time my carry on was x-rayed, unpacked (yet one more time), scanned for explosives and my shoes were removed and x-rayed. American Airlines did a great job again; the security people were polite while they did their job, so 4 stars each.
Links: Costa Rican Trails – www.costaricantrails.com Alta Hotel – (I don’t think there’s a website, but there’s lots of info if you do a search) Sueno Azul Resort – www.suenoazulresort.com Aguas Bravas – www.aguas-bravas.co.cr Tabacon Resort – www.tabacon.com Bosque de Paz – www.bosquedepaz.com Britannia Hotel – (I don’t think there’s a website, but there’s lots of info if you do a search)
StudentAwards – www.StudentAwards.com
Rating: "Pura Vida" (Costa Rican for cool, Bob speak for 4.5 stars). Would we go again? You bet! It was really hard to find "anything" wrong with this trip. The hotels and ground arrangements were first class all the way.
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