Holiday review by Absfab
Date of trip: 03/12/2019
Number of people: 2
Full details of the special bits are included in the individual accommodation reviews, but here are a few outstanding general points: Even though I was travelling on my own I felt safe every minute of the day. I took some expensive camera equipment and at no point was I worried about it. Just be sensible. As a nature lover, I saw more in 18 days than I could ever hope to do anywhere else. You get the sense you'll never see it all however many times you go back. The people are lovely. Genuinely friendly, enthusiastic and proud/passionate about their country. Tip everyone who makes you feel good. The guides (it takes YEARS of studying to qualify and get official certification) and drivers are some of the best I've ever met and they deserve to be rewarded. Tribes partner Swiss Travel are very professional, well presented and reliable. I had all their details in case of emergency or further questions and I felt confident I was in good local hands. I loved the little prop plane that took me from Drakes Bay to San Jose. What a way to see the Osa Peninsula etc from the sky. It gives you another view (literally) of how diverse the country is.
An extraordinary trip. One that I was VERY excited about before I went (having always dreamed of going) but which exceeded all expectations. I am an avid amateur wildlife photographer with a passion for birds, and Costa Rica was inevitably one of the best locations the planet can offer. But it was obvious that it has so much to offer anyone who wants natural beauty, friendliness, safety and excitement.
Very good, attentive service.
Having been there now, there are some details I think might be useful for first time visitors:
Wifi - where and when it's available or patchy. It didn't bother me, but if you're someone who can't live without Twitter, messages and football results, you may want to plan accordingly.
Electricity - turned off at some places to avoid light pollution etc (highly commendable and useful for some people to know so it doesn't come as a surprise)
Take a really good torch/head torch, preferably one that can be ratcheted up in brilliance. Great for dark paths, places that turn the electricity off at night, and for spotting frogs etc at night. You can take great photos lit by a good torch.
Truly waterproof clothing (hat, jacket, trousers). You'll need it at some point.
Hiking boots and good socks for forest walks.
Zip lock bags of various sizes to keep stuff dry, especially up in Tortugero, or to put muddy/wet shoes and clothes in until you get to the next place.
A good lightweight rucksack.
A proper metal water bottle. They try hard not to use plastic bottles and there are endless places to fill your bottle up with fresh water. Stay hydrated - it's blooming hot!
If you're interested in birds, take the full second edition Birds of Costa Rica (940 species) as opposed to the cut down 350 species version. You'll be amazed at how many you'll see, even in three weeks, and you can get the guides to help identify everything before you forget.
Take a small bar of soap as well as some hand wash soap. Laundry is expensive.
Take a small notebook and pen. Relying on your phone isn't a good idea.
Insect repellent and sunscreen is a must.
I met some extraordinary guides at every location I stayed. I had some tours sorted out for me by Tribes and then went from there... if a guide was exceptional I organised private nature tours to out of the way locations that the guide felt passionate about. Their knowledge is extraordinary, and they took the time to explain things clearly.
Inevitably there were some that surpassed all expectations, both in terms of knowledge, enthusiasm and level of spoken English. The guides at Selva Verde were fab (Ronal was extraordinary... book him if you can, and Melanie was great too). Geiner from Naturaleza Pura Vida tours in Manuel Antonio was exceptional too - I visited wetlands and cloud forest separately with him. His whole family live for birds! And Eduardo at Corcovado Lodge, an indigenous Boruca native, has knowledge of the forests where his people have lived for thousands of years that is understandably second to none.
You'll get the most of your guides if you're genuinely interested in what they have to say. I felt for them on occasion when they had to take people round in a group who just didn't give a damn. There are some very rude people in the world and I wonder why they bother going to somewhere like Costa Rica if they'd rather be getting drunk by a pool.
The private drivers I had were all lovely. Their English ranged from excellent to basic but at least they tried. Hey... My Spanish is non-existent so fair play to them! They were friendly, professional, smart, punctual, and I always felt safe.
Tip your guides and drivers well - they deserve it.
Social & Environmental Responsibility:
Incredible levels of innate environmental protection was evident. The whole country is built upon a sound ethic. The history of the country is intriguing (the guides and drivers have great knowledge) and the fact that they have no military, spending their money on infrastructure/education/hospitals/the environment instead is a lesson to us all. Any country that is powered by 100% green energy must be doing something right. Of course there are some things that can be improved but at least they're working on it at every level, unlike the rest of us.
The places you stayed
I wouldn't recommend this hotel. I stayed there the first night having just arrived from the UK and was put in a horrible room (515). There were open sockets with wires exposed, curtain falling down, and a window that didn't open and looked out onto a well which was full of scaffolding/building work up against the glass. Luckily I went straight to sleep and then left early the next morning. I felt it was because I was a single traveller that I was shoved somewhere so unpleasant.
I had my final night booked in there on the way back so as soon as I turned up I told the receptionist that I wouldn't accept such a horrid room again and that they should give me something suitable. To be fair, the guy was friendly and immediately said 'let me see what I can do' which implied they had planned on doing it again. They did give me a much nicer room (719) up on the top floor overlooking the main pedestrian street so it was bright and sunny. But to be honest, it's just not a very together hotel. The location is fine if you want to spend time in San Jose. It felt safe and the staff are friendly.
Unless you have a burning desire to see San Jose, I'd give it a miss. It takes ages to get in and out of the city from the airport (two hours) and although this hotel is in the centre, there is very little to see. I'm a great walker of city pavements but try as I might, I could find little to see. There are a few lovely old buildings and the central market is worth a quick look, but otherwise it's endless sports shops and no parks.
Tortuguero National Park
The independent lodges were spacious and clean, and although basic, fine for the environment. There is no glass, just screens. This is worth mentioning as although it didn't bother me at all, it might bother some as I overheard in the restaurant. The frogs are stupendously loud (brilliant - I loved them) as are the Howler monkeys at dawn, and together with the TORRENTIAL rain on the roof, and the fan which you need on as it's so humid, this noise bothered some people.
My main issue with this lodge is that although its grounds are beautiful, you can't leave them. There are no trails you can explore - not a problem in general - but if it rains like it did when I was there (hosepipes from the sky for 48 hours), you are stuck in your cabin. Anything you might see/visit is by organised boat trip (very interesting and enjoyable) but that's only for a couple of hours out of the day.
We were lucky in that it was sunny for the first afternoon we arrived but it rained non-stop after that. You need to take kit for these conditions. An absolutely waterproof jacket and trousers (a poncho doesn't hack it), plastic bags to pack your clothes inside your suitcase and not leave out as everything gets damp if you do unpack, and some shoes suitable for walking in water and getting in and out of boats.
The pool bar is great (very friendly bar man who serves a good cocktail) but no one used the pool while I was there because of the weather. It looked lovely and clean though. The buffet food was fine and the quantities were very generous. Be warned, they allocate you a named place at a table to sit on with other travellers etc so if you're not one for being organised like a school trip, this may not be for you.
Don't get me wrong... it was a lovely place to see and I got some fabulous photographs, but I wouldn't visit there again as I felt terribly hemmed in.
What an extraordinary and heavenly place. I love the very wide spread layout of the small blocks of rooms up on high stilts. I was lucky enough to have room 45 which was at the farthest extreme of the plot, right on the Sarapiqui river edge. I could lie in my private hammock (all rooms had them) and watch the river and the primary rain forest on the opposite bank. You can walk from reception to any other part of the hotel complex via beautifully smooth wooden decking walkways, all of which are covered. Great for trundling suitcases while keeping dry from the rain or cool from the heat. Being raised up gives you great views of the well-tended gardens, flower bushes visited by industrious humming birds, and extraordinary trees full of birds of every hue. You can wander at ground level amongst the foliage and enjoy the butterflies close up. There are some great trails, well sign posted and manageable for most abilities.
Across the road from the hotel is more of their land that features the Ocelot Trail. This is a two hour hike up and round over craggy roots (you'll need hiking boots and drinking water) but well worth the effort. It's hard going in the heat, but you'll probably have it to yourself and the sights are definitely worth it. Lovely views, streams, lots of small frogs (Blue Jeans Dart Frog, litter frogs etc), lizards, butterflies, birds etc.
A nice pool area has some great wildlife hanging around, but the best thing is the feeder area right next to the first floor buffet restaurant. Bananas are put out every morning on a huge feeder area in a sort of amphitheatre. You can grab a coffee and sit up on the gallery bench watching the most extraordinary array of colour and behaviour even the most uninterested wildlife person would find fascinating. There's always someone (generally guides) around to point out the best things or give you info. I even saw a Nine banded Armadillo scuttle past one early morning which was a thrill. Toucans muscle in and all the minor birds scatter, waiting their turn to get back to the bananas. The squirrels are the only things unperturbed by the Toucans.
As mentioned already, the guides here are fantastic. Ronal is one of the best I had on the whole trip. He took me on a night trail (just me which was great) and I was blown away by his obvious connection with nature. He also has great photographic technical knowledge which is handy.
The bar manager (sorry, can't remember his name) is great fun and mixes some superb cocktails. He's good company at the end of long day.
The buffet restaurant is good and you won't go hungry.
The gift shop is comprehensive and is under new management. It sells some good souvenirs as well as basics if you need them.
If you're into other activities like white water rafting etc, there are some really good places on the doorstep, highly recommended by other guests I spoke to.
I will definitely go back to this hotel.
Between San Jose and Arenal
Another outstanding place and totally different. I had a private transfer (Christian was my chatty, informative driver) from Selva Verde up to this montane area. The second half of the drive is on massively pot-holed roads so very slow, but that's all part of the charm. Just sit back and enjoy the views (Christian stopped suddenly for me to take pictures of a Gray Hawk he'd just spotted). The terrible roads mean it will always be a special and protected place.
It's like staying in the grounds of a private house. With just 12 rooms it's quiet and all about nature so if you want TV, bars or other facilities, move on... nothing to see here. The owner family all take part in looking after the guests. The young son and his friend Stephen did the front of house service (they have excellent English and are very keen) while the father Mario was my lovely, knowledgeable tour guide early in the morning and the mother was the most fantastic cook (best food of the whole trip as it was home cooked and super fresh). There's no bar - I didn't see any alcohol on offer with meals but didn't ask. Just saying in case you feel you need to bring your own!
There are no communal areas apart from the dining room which is just open for meals but has a coffee urn early in the morning. The rooms are separate to the main house and are clean and spacious with an ensuite shower. It's here that they turn ALL the electricity off at 9pm to protect the environment so if you want to wander outside your room for any reason, you'll need a good torch. Get up early and go to bed early!
The grounds are so beautiful and very well tended. A lovely stream runs right through the centre of mown lawns, and great gangs of Agoutis, Coartis, Black Guan etc come to feed on the grain left out by Mario. Great to watch and photograph. But of course, this place is all about the birds, or more specifically, the HUMMINGBIRDS. They gather in huge numbers around the feeders, and will even hover around your head if you're walking along the terrace. They are mind-blowing and you can spend hours watching so many varieties confuse you with their colour flashes.
The mapped trails are very special, taking you through unspoiled montane forest terrain. Rocky rivers gush under little bridges, butterflies flutter in the sunshine and birds zip around the treetops. The Resplendent Quetzal is a local resident (I wasn't lucky enough to see one sadly) as are many Trogons, Tanagers, Toucanettes, monkeys etc.
If nature is your thing, go here to absorb it in calm and quiet.
A different type of place entirely. A very good hotel with all the 5* facilities you'd expect. I had a lovely room (319) up on the third floor of a small block overlooking the very well kept gardens. Great sunset views from the balcony. Huge room, TV, air conditioning, luxury sheets, huge bed, lovely ensuite shower etc. Nice welcome basket of fruit. Lovely housekeeping staff. Food is excellent and the waiting staff very friendly and professional.
Pool areas, restaurant, bars etc all very well run and maintained. There's a great resident Iguana who scuttles under the sun loungers with impunity. The sunsets are something else. Much more of a typical beach/luxury type hotel which was evident from the number of very loud Americans (yes, sorry to typecast) getting drunk in the pool all day.
That said, it's extraordinary what's right under your nose. The trees just behind the main bar had sloths sleeping in them, Scarlet Macaws flew past often, white-faced capuchins play in great gangs on the tiles roof of the spa, butterflies are everywhere.
There's a beach you can walk to just down the road, otherwise you'd want to go out on tours etc. The concierge can book these for you but it's cheaper to go direct. I did a fantastic mangrove boat trip with Iguana Tours (definitely do this if you can - it's a different world) and a great catamaran trip out of Quepos marina (Planet Dolphin Tours).
I did a general tour to Manuel Antonio National Park which Tribes had already pre-booked for me. What a madhouse it is to get in! SO busy which was quite a shock after the other places I'd been but it's still an amazing park. Although they restrict the number of tour groups at any one time, there are log jams along the trails. It does however mean that there are lots of pairs of eyes to spot things so we saw monkeys, frogs, lizards, boa constrictor, iguanas, sloths and all sorts of birds. The trail also takes you down to the beach which is very pretty, but again, can get a bit busy. Nice cafe half way round (they ban food and drink being brought in by the public to safeguard the park/wildlife).
It was here that I met Geiner the tour guide and arranged other tours with him because of his passion/knowledge.
The Parador is a great hotel whatever your interests. I'd leave at 5am to go birdwatching for 5 hours and be back in time to have breakfast in luxury just as everyone else was surfacing!
Corcovado, Osa Peninsula
Again, somewhere that exceeded all expectations and is simply heaven. Starting the adventure at La Hacienda, the pretty little riverside office in Sierpe where guests board the small boat with their luggage (wrapped in huge waterproof bags as the salty spume out on the ocean is detrimental for cameras and clothing alike), it's a two-hour power ride to the lodge. The river banks are strewn with great wildlife that the boat captain spots for you with a practiced eye. We saw a Potoo, Scarlet Macaws, an Osprey, herons, Pelicans etc
Make sure you're wearing plastic shoes suitable for a wet landing (ie getting out of the boat directly into the wash) at the other end. It's a great way to feel you've landed on your own James Bond beach. The staff shift your luggage around for you and are very adept at helping you in and out of boats. A tractor with people trailer takes you up the very steep hill from the beach to the lodge. I did walk it once and it's a great work out but you can radio from the beachside cabin at any time to get the tractor to come and pick you up.
It's like a big family here. Everyone lives on site while they're working as it's so remote, and they all seem to get on really well. Lots of laughter and groups chipping in together.
I was welcomed by the manager Steven Watson (Costa Rican but has lived in the states) and a refreshing fruit cocktail (non-alcoholic) and a fabulous lunch, then taken to my own cabin (number 1).
The cabins are along concrete paths (you'll never get muddy feet) and all surrounded by their own garden areas and are very private. Comfy bed with ceiling fan above, a safe, hanging space, huge shower area with sink + toiletries, an outside shower, and a very spacious separate toilet + bidet + sink room. Good lighting, nice towels etc. The paths are lit at night but only sporadically so I was pleased to have my head torch.
There's a main bar where two young bar men serve great cocktails, the back of which is open to a fabulous view of the forest. You can sit and spot birds, Coartis, monkeys etc. Between 5pm and 6ish the sunset bar just down the track is set up to serve cocktails (Claudio did the honours - he's a real character and full of info) as you sit and watch the skies shift through colours of the rainbow. I heard a young puma visited a couple of days before I arrived. He hung around for an hour!
Steven blows on a conch shell to summon everyone to dinner at 7pm in the evenings (you'll be asked during the day for your choice of two main courses). Food is great and you certainly won't go hungry.
I had two separate guides while I was there. Fabian took three of us along one of the Corcovado National Park trails which starts just by the private lodge beach. It's exceptional to have direct access to the park like this. No one else does! It was easy hiking and we took our time spotting a couple of harmless snakes, lizards, birds, monkeys, coartis etc. Spotting the gigantic crocodiles that had ridden out with the river mouth tides into the ocean to wait for unsuspecting pelicans to fish was amazing. Definitely no swimming there. Other areas are perfectly safe though. The private lodge beach is something out of a movie. Picnic lunches are brought down and served after trail hikes or boat trips. I can still hear the ocean, feel the warm breeze and see the pelicans swooping as I write this. There are hammocks for an early afternoon nap, or you can paddle/swim in the waves. Truly idyllic.
If you don't fancy the sea, there's a great pool with loungers up in the main lodge area. This is also where you'll find wifi connection (not available in your cabin etc). At night you can wander around the pool edges and shine a bright torch into the foliage to see frogs etc.
I did a pre-booked boat trip out to Cano Island one day. It's about 45 minutes straight across, whereas many other day trippers have to travel a couple of hours at least. Great snorkelling, and a small beach with lovely rock pools to explore. There's a toilet and ranger's station to keep an eye on the visitors. Lovely birds, and an extraordinary Green Bee - iridescent metallic emerald green - that looks like an alien and only lives on Cano island. Gotta love Costa Rica!
Eduardo was the lead guide for this trip. He is extraordinary. He's an indigenous Boruca native and works at the lodge most of the month before returning to his native village to be with his family the rest of the time. His whole culture is based on nature/the forest so there's nothing he doesn't know. The lodge has only just secured his services and he's a real asset. His English is very good.
I loved the staff, the setup, the location, the ambience here. They are professional and try very hard to make sure your stay is everything you'd hoped for. It's perfect if you want to relax and see Costa Rica at it's best. I was happily loving it on my own but I reckon it would be a perfect honeymoon destination!