Monday, January 31, 2011

Costa Rica During the Holiday Season

We are back from our second trip to Costa Rica. I should say we have been back from our second trip for about a year now, but I'm finally getting around to write about it! This one was 10 days during the holiday season (dry season). We visited Monteverde, Manual Antonio, and the Osa Peninsula.

Well, traveling during the holiday season certainly was different. Can't say we'd do it again. One thing that is nice is that you do have very cooperative (non-rainy) weather, so it makes doing outdoor things less messy. However, for us, that is probably the only good thing.

We did not enjoy the crowds, especially in Monteverde and Manual Antonio, that accompany the peak season. It made driving difficult; you needed reservations for popular tours; and it just felt like you weren't really on vacation. (The Osa Peninsula's remoteness pretty much insulates you from the crowds, so if we had no choice but to go during the holiday season again, we'd just go to the Osa.) Furthermore, things are more expensive, and they say you can see more animals during the rainy season (which is not to say we still didn't see lots of animals).

Posts for this trip journal will include Monteverde: Hidden Canopy Treehouse, Monteverde Bat Jungle II, Santa Elena's Canopy Tour; Manuel Antonio: Villas Nicolas II, Mangrove Forest Tour; Osa Peninsula: Bosque del Cabo, Sunset Tour, Bats at Bosque, Matapalo Trail, Equinas River Tour, Golfo Dulce Dolphin Watch, Silvestre Wildlife Sanctuary, Kayaking in the Golfo Dulce, Jungle/Beach Horseback Riding...

Costa Rica: Notes & Things To Help You Plan a Trip

Where & When To Go

We had 15 days for our first trip. Looking back at our itinerary, quite a lot of time was spent in car rides and flights and waiting for flights, and we could have done some of this differently to make the most out of our time. However, we wanted to experience all of the different regions (and did a pretty good job - the only one we missed was the Caribbean coast). Where you go depends on your interests and the pace at which you want your vacation to go. (You can read over my previous posts that are divided up by region in the link at bottom of page.)

As far as when you go, if you don't mind crowds, and you have the money, go during the peak season (mid December to late April). If you don't mind getting a little wet, prefer less crowds, and would like to save a bit of money (or use this saved money to stay in nicer places), go during the "green" (rainy) season (May to mid-November).

We had read that during the wet season, rains are usually limited to a brief afternoon downpour, and, for the most part, that's what we experienced. I wouldn't want to get stuck inside the entire 15 days, but I welcomed the days that it did rain and thunder. It creates a beautiful atmosphere. And the hotel rooms were so awesome, getting stuck in them for a few hours while it pours can be quite nice! Driving in it - and flying through it - is not so fun though!

It seems like wherever you want to drive to in Costa Rica, it's about a 5 hour drive. Driving can be a very nice way to see the country. This is what we did for the first 4 days of our trip. If you do decide to rent a car, GET THE GPS! As a tourist, it seems impossible to figure out how to drive anywhere. I swear, not only the small roads, but the main highways also, are frequently not marked! We would have NEVER found our way around without a GPS. It was $6 more a day, and WORTH EVERY PENNY!

Some destinations are hard to reach without a car, while others are hard to reach with one. In this case, the country's domestic airlines, Nature Air and Sansa, are the best way to go. They're a real timesaver and an amusement park ride with amazing scenery in themselves!

Though it's not a big deal, to save some time and cabfare, if you have a domestic flight right before/after an international flight at San José's Juan Santamaría international airport, you should consider using Sansa because they fly in and out of San José's international airport; whereas, Nature Air flies in and out of the smaller, regional Tobías Bolaños/Pavas airport. (So if you use Nature Air, you would have to take a taxi between the two different airports.)

Buses are another means of getting around, but the only time we rode a bus was a local one down the main road in Manual Antonio.

Costa Rica's temperatures are quite moderate. The variations are due to elevation rather than time of year. Basically, it's colder in the central part (mountains) and hotter and more humid at the coasts. For more in-depth info, check this website.

Consider keeping paper items and anything important in ziplock bags, as it's very humid! Books and paper just wilt.

We were kinda worried about bugs. A coworker of mine who had been to Costa Rica had a really bad reaction to some bug bites in Guanacaste. We brought deet but didn't use it. (Don't really like that the stuff melts synthetic clothing...) If you plan to spend time in the rainforest or the coasts, I guess I'd recommend a small bottle of Off spray. That and just bring lightweight clothing that covers you everywhere. It was the beach destinations - Manuel Antonio and Tamarindo - where we got most bitten, but it wasn't that bad. If you are super-sensitive to bug bites, I'd try googling this a bit more. Could be different at different times of the year.

Health & Immunizations
You just need what you're normally recommended to have in the US. (I'm not sure what that is now.) The guidebook said that malaria, dengue fever, leptospirosis and cholera exist in Costa Rica but is not widespread. Foodwise/drinkwise, they say to avoid tap water, ice, raw vegetables and fruits to be safe; however, the reputable hotels are usually fine. We never had any problems.

The Costa Rican currency is the colón, though US dollars are widely accepted. I think the only time we definitely needed colones was for the local bus, which is not to say don't bring any colones. Also, keep in mind that while Visa and Mastercard are pretty widely accepted, you will pay a foreign transfer fee - depending on the credit card company - that seems to be around 3%. While this is convenient - and sometimes necessary - using traveler's checks can eliminate this extra cost.

I know a bit of Spanish (my husband knew "no entiendo"). We managed okay. We also had a handy little Spanish phrasebook, that I would definitely recommend bringing if you're not fluent. In San José, in taxis, in small shops - these are some of the places where it is helpful/necessary to know some Spanish. I think it's just a good thing, to not come across as a dumb American, not interested in learning at least some greetings in another country's language. Though even a little goes a long way, I wish I had been better prepared and knew more.

Hotel Amenities
All hotels had coffee in the rooms, except for Hotel Aranjuez (it was outside the room) - though usually not enough sugar (next time, we will pack some extra sugar packets) - and at Lapa Rios you could have coffee delivered to your room for $3/day (our room was a 5 minute walk to the restaurant). All rooms had reading lights and terraces/decks (because of the type of rooms we chose). I think all had hairdryers except for Hotel Aranjuez and Lapa Rios (can't use hairdryers or hair irons at Lapa Rios at all). And either the one in Arenal or Sapo Dorado didn't work. Only Villas Nicolas had an air conditioner, and I think we used it there, but it was never needed in any of the other places.

What To Pack & What To Pack It In
Keeping in mind that we'd be traveling on the domestic airlines, we had to keep our 2 suitcases at 25 pounds each. Fortunately we already owned a lot of lightweight items because we've done a lot of primitive camping. When considering how many t-shirts, shorts, pants, underwear, socks, etc. to take, keep in mind that - although it may cost you $10-20 per load - you can have your laundry done by the hotel. Personally, I like to be very streamlined in my packing, especially for this kind of trip; you don't waste so much time unpacking and packing and sorting through things at each destination.

Sitting in the airport, waiting to board the plane, we mentioned that we should have brought framepacks instead of our traditional suitcases. In retrospect, with a suitcase I can get to my stuff easier; whereas - depending on how many compartments and pockets it has - a framepack would've been more difficult to find what I was looking for. Unless I was planning to do some camping, I'd probably opt for the traditional suitcase. My husband would still opt to bring framepacks.

We also mentioned that we should have brought a waterproof bag for the camera. Though in the trip, I didn't find that I needed one. Maybe if you were planning to do more watersports and you wanted to take pictures, a waterproof camera bag would be necessary.

When we got there, flip flops for around the hotel rooms would have definitely been useful. CDs for the rental car would have been nice. (We were craving Gipsy Kings.) Most importantly, a pair (or 2) of binoculars is almost essential, if you're interested in seeing wildlife. If you go on guided tours, the guides do let you look through theirs, but you're constantly sharing them.

Here are some handy things to consider. This is by no means a complete packing list:
  • lightweight rainjacket with hood
  • fleece jacket (or other lightweight yet warm jacket or sweater)
  • hat
  • lightweight, detachable pants
  • lightweight long-sleeve shirt
  • t-shirts
  • athletic tops/tanks (can keep you cool and wick away moisture)
  • warm pajamas/nightwear (if you're staying in San José or the mountains)
  • swimsuit
  • hiking boots & socks or athletic shoes
  • pair of long socks to wear with rented/lended rubber boots (if hiking in water, mud)
  • Tevas (or other water-shoes)
  • flip flops (come in handy in rooms, around hotel grounds, casual walks etc.)
  • sunscreen
  • chapstick w/ sunscreen
  • sunglasses
  • bug repellent
  • Cortizone
  • travel size toiletries
  • day pack
  • lightweight flashlight w/ fresh batteries
  • large and small Ziplock bags
  • Costa Rica guidebook
  • Spanish phrasebook
  • binoculars
  • camera (w/ extra battery and plenty memory cards)
Also consider:
  • extra sugar packets (There was never enough sugar packets for our coffee.)
  • If you're planning to cook - small quantities of olive oil, salt, pepper, etc. (We wouldn't have had to buy whole bottles then leave them.)
The Lapa Rios and Bosque del Cabo FAQ's have a lot of good information, both specific to Lapa Rios and general to Costa Rica.

Recommended Reading

If you are planning a trip to Costa Rica and have never been there, I highly recommend you purchase a travel guide. I might be able to give you some useful information, but this should only be used in addition to a real travel guide.

We used Costa Rica for Dummies 2nd edition. In fact all of the places we stayed at were based on the reviews they got in this book, and most of the reviews were spot on.

Enrichment Reading
The book that I brought along for my nerdy leisure reading was Tropical Nature, and I highly recommend this book, if you are interested in the flora and fauna of the rainforest! It makes what you experience in the hikes all the more worthwhile and enriching. I would recommend starting it on the plane ride to Costa Rica. It's the whole idea of getting your brain primed - for instance, you don't start noticing certain things around you until you start hearing or reading about it.

(Remember, this was valid for a trip we took in 2008. Some things may have changed...)

next post >> Costa Rica During the Holiday Season
first post from the previous trip << Costa Rica: day 1 - Adventure, Exploration and Relaxation