Story by Jeff and Stephanie Sylva – Photos by Tatiana Martinez Davis
This year we finally decided to take that trip to Costa Rica that we had thought about for many years. We were constantly hearing what a great destination the “rich coast” was, and some friends had recently traveled there and raved about the tour company they used. Costa Rica has become a very popular destination in the past ten years; and after our trip with Caravan Tours, we understand why. The country’s rich bio-diversity and natural beauty of rain forests, cloud forests, volcanoes, beaches, plantations, and abundant wildlife offer travelers a wonderful opportunity to experience the wonders of nature, while its friendly people provide a welcoming atmosphere. And in today’s economic times, a Caravan Tour to Costa Rica proves to be a good travel bargain.
Why use a tour company?
We think that a group tour is an excellent way to see Costa Rica, especially if it’s your first visit. A tour gives you an informative introduction to a variety of places in Costa Rica and allows you to get the most out of your vacation. We may not have seen everything in Costa Rica, but we certainly got to see and experience a lot of what it has to offer. Caravan Tours has 57 years of experience in the business and does a great job with its Costa Rica tours. For that matter Caravan does as many as two tours a day during the busy season. We felt that the tour was a great value because it was all-inclusive. With all airport transfers, transportation, three meals a day, tour host and local guides, and all entrance fees, activities and all tips (except for the bus driver and the Caravan tour guide) included, you don’t have to worry about a thing. Tours leaving the first three weeks of January or during the months of September through November are priced at $995 per person, double occupancy. Tours leaving the last week of January through mid-August are priced at $1095 per person, double occupancy. There is an additional charge of $189 per person for taxes and fees. Airfare is not included. This is for a ten-day, nine-night tour.
Value and Quality
You might think the price sounds right, but that the quality of the hotels and meals might be questionable. This was not the case. We found the hotels to be quite nice, in some cases excellent. Meals were usually buffet style and reflected regional cuisine. The meals were also healthy and plentiful, yet did become a little repetitious at times. We felt that if we had been traveling alone that choosing a place to stop to eat could have been tricky. The convenience of having our eating establishments well planned was something for which we were thankful.
The best aspect of our tour, apart from the price and convenience, was the tour guide. Our guide, Tatiana, spoke excellent English and was a veritable fountain of knowledge. Tatiana could identify any bird, animal, or plant life that we came across. She possessed a wealth of cultural and historical information, and always presented a professional, warm and friendly demeanor. Other local guides, such as we had Tortuguero National Park, were also excellent.
Another thing that impressed us about Caravan Tours is that they actually heeded the suggestions of travelers and made changes to their itinerary based on these suggestions. We found this out from our friends who had recommended Caravan to us and pointed out such changes in some hotels and activities when they looked at our itinerary. Although the pace of the tour can be a little hectic (most mornings begin with a wake-up at 7:00 AM or earlier), we felt that each day’s schedule was perfectly planned with the right amount of travel, sightseeing and activity, together with well-timed rest stops and meal times.
The Best of Costa Rica
Our tour took us to four areas of Costa Rica with a number of other sights in between. Our stays included San Jose, the capital city; Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean coast; Fortuna, which is at the base of the Arenal Volcano; and Puntarenas and Dona Ana Beach on the Pacific coast. We stayed in an excellent Holiday Inn, the Aurola, in downtown San Jose for two nights at the beginning of the tour and again on the last night.
One of our destinations while staying in San Jose was the Poas Volcano and Escalonia Cloud Forest. Visibility at all of the volcanoes and the cloud forest can be “iffy” because of quickly changing weather conditions; however, we were lucky to have superb weather and visibility throughout our trip. We had dramatic views of the volcano’s mile-wide crater and enjoyed a short hike through the cloud forest to a stunning volcanic lake.
After our morning at Poas we returned to San Jose for a short bus tour of the city and a visit to the Gold Museum, which houses an impressive exhibit of pre-Columbian gold artifacts of the Mayans. We also had a couple of hours to browse through the shops on the central boulevard, although San Jose is not a shoppers’ paradise.
A Wide Array of Wildlife
Our second destination was Tortuguero National Park and the rain forest. After traveling by bus through the very scenic Braulio Carrillo Park and enjoying one of Costa Rica’s most popular tourist attractions, the Rainforest Aerial Tram, we took an hour-and-a half river cruise to our hotel in the rainforest of Tortuguero. Spotting crocodiles, caimans, monkeys, numerous exotic birds, and two-toed and three-toed sloths on our trip up the river was just a prelude to the many wildlife sightings were we in store for over the next two days.
Our accommodations in Tortuguero were wonderful, despite the lack of TV, phone, or air conditioning. The Anhinga Lodge is comprised of wonderfully-appointed, individual chalets dispersed throughout the jungle of the rain forest and connected by raised cement walkways. The resort has a wonderful pool and bar area, restaurant, and a full treatment spa. It was amazing to enjoy such lovely accommodations and amenities in the midst of such a wild environment. Anhinga Lodge is a sister property of the Pachira Lodge, located next door. Some Caravan tours stay at Pachira, and it also is very nice; but it doesn’t have the individual chalets and is not quite as charming as Anhinga.
All of us on the tour were constantly amazed by the idea of watching monkeys bounding through the trees, exotic birds such as parrots and toucans nesting on branches, and an array of colorful lizards and iguanas sunning themselves every time we strolled along the walkways.
Anhinga Lodge was a perfect blend of the beauty of the wild and the pleasures of civilization. This is probably best evidenced by the means of waking each morning. If the sound of the howling monkeys didn’t wake us early in the morning, then the knock at our door by the morning coffee service attendant would wake us. Each morning we would start the day by sitting in our rocking chairs on the porch of the chalet sipping on some of the wonderful Costa Rican coffee brought to us by the attendant while listening to the symphony of birds and other wildlife in the jungle around us.
Cruising the Rainforest in Search of Wildlife
On our first morning in Tortuguero we broke into three groups of about 15 people and boarded boats to cruise the river and canals of the rainforest. With an eagle-eyed driver who spotted wildlife obscure to the rest of us and a highly-informative naturalist guide, we cruised the rainforest observing crocodile, caiman, howler and spider monkeys, Jesus Christ lizards (so-named because of the ability to “walk” on water), boa constrictors, and a slew of the more than 300 species of birds such as snowy egrets, anhinga, parrots, kingfishers, toucans, and macaws that inhabit this jungle paradise.
Our guide and driver were able to spot wildlife that none of us saw, and then maneuvered us so close to it at times, that we were actually close enough to reach out and touch a resting caiman or boa – though we were all wise enough not to succumb to the temptation. Our guides were so good at spotting wildlife in the trees and along the river banks that some of us facetiously suggested that some of this wildlife was “planted” and our guides knew where to look.
Save the Green Turtles
The coastline along Tortuguero is the major nesting area for leatherback turtles during late March and April and for green sea turtles from late July through October. The town of Tortuguero was once the center of an abundant export trade in turtles, dating back to 1541 when the first Europeans settled in the area. In 1970 Tortuguero National Park was created to protect the turtles and the surrounding rain forest. We visited the Green Turtle Research Station and learned a lot about the efforts to protect the turtles’ nesting habits, eggs, and young hatchlings. Travelers can opt for an added excursion during the nesting seasons to observe the young hatchlings in the early hours of the morning as they make their way to the sea.
This is the only additional excursion that Caravan offers; otherwise, all excursions such as river cruises, aerial trams, entrance fees, and tips for guides are included in the package price. One additional side trip that some from our group took was the zip line canopy adventure, which was easily arranged by the outfitters at the lodge.
Hot Springs and a Volcano
Our stay in Fortuna took us to the Lomas Del Volcan Lodge at the base of the quite active Arenal Volcano. This lodge also had very comfortable individual chalets scattered among the beautiful grounds and gardens of the resort. Again, we lucked out with the weather and had breathtaking, unobstructed views of the active, steaming volcano.
Sitting on the patio sipping cocktails before dinner and again in the morning sipping fresh coffee on our chalet’s patio, we marveled at the sight of the volcano and the intricate formations of steam that encircled the cone of the volcano. Scenes like these, as well as the many wildlife sightings we experienced on our travels throughout Costa Rica, are what make Costa Rica a wonderful destination for natural beauty.
One afternoon while in Fortuna, we enjoyed a few hours soaking in the natural hot springs at the Baldi Resort. Although we were somewhat disappointed when we discovered that the hot springs were a part of a luxury resort and not located in a natural grotto of volcanic rocks, we did have a great time relaxing in the 25 intricately-constructed pools. The pools range in temperature from 82 degrees to 109, and are all heated naturally from the hot springs of the volcano.
On to the Pacific Coast
After leaving Fortuna we enjoyed a beautiful hike through the forest canopy at Hanging Bridges, a series of six suspension bridges. Our bus route then took us around Lake Arenal offering fabulous views of the lake and the volcano. From this vantage we were able to see some of the active lava flow from the volcano.
Our accommodations in Puntarenas on the central Pacific Coast proved to be a bit of a surprise for us. Our resort was the Doubletree Resort by Hilton, an all-inclusive resort on the black sand beach of Dona Ana. The resort had a number of pools and swim-up bars, lavish buffets, non-stop snacks, and a long list of scheduled activities and entertainment. The pier (complete with full service bar) was a perfect spot to watch the gorgeous sunsets.
From the Doubletree Resort Caravan offers the option to take the trip to Manuel Antonio National Park, a beautiful white sand beach and wildlife refuge, or to simply stay at the resort and partake in the “all-inclusiveness.” We opted to see Manuel Antonio, having been advised by friends that the area is beautiful. Despite the long bus ride and lack of time at the Doubletree, we thoroughly enjoyed Manuel Antonio as we floated in the beautiful blue waters at this pristine beach while observing the monkeys cavorting in the trees along the shore.
Caravan’s Special Touches
In addition to the expert guides, well-planned itinerary, wonderful accommodations, and ample meals, Caravan also included a number of special little touches that made our tour that much better. At two lunches we were entertained by dance troupes performing cultural dances. At one rest stop our driver, Hector, distributed beautiful bouquets of tropical flowers to each of the female travelers. On a couple of occasions complimentary cocktails or beer were included, such as the last night’s farewell dinner in San Jose where a glass of wine was included with the quite delicious sit-down meal. Entertainment at this meal included an interesting fashion show with models dressed to represent some of the exotic wildlife we had experienced on our tour.
One of the problems when trying to experience as much of a country as you can is that you have to travel. Caravan did an excellent job of breaking up the bus rides with rest stops that included more than simply a bathroom opportunity, such as stops at a pineapple plantation, a banana plantation (very interesting), and a coffee plantation. It’s true that these stops may have had the intention of souvenir shopping, but the tours or demonstrations at these stops were also very interesting.
A Small Nation—Large Appeal
It was pretty amazing to us that a nation about the size of the state of West Virginia could have so much to see and do—so much biodiversity. We have come to admire this small, still-developing nation for its commitment to peace and environmental preservation. Since 1949 Costa Rica has had no standing army. More than 11% of its 51,000 square kilometers is part of the National Park system; 25% of the land is protected by parks, reserves, and Indian reservations combined.
Our tour enabled us to see and experience a variety of Costa Rica’s natural and cultural attractions in a very convenient and informative, yet economical, way. If we had traveled on our own, we would have still enjoyed Costa Rica. However, because Caravan provided everything, from transportation to meals and expert guides, we were able to appreciate this beautiful, friendly nation that much more.
If You Go
* For tour information: call 1-800-CARAVAN (800-227-2826) or visit www.caravan.com.
* Hotels: Different Caravan tours may stay at different hotels. The four mentioned here are highly recommended.
* Pocket money: You don’t really need to bring much. Rarely do you need to buy food; just alcoholic beverages, and Caravan keeps a constant supply of bottled water on the bus. All tipping is included, except for bus driver and tour guide (they are well-deserving). Use plastic for souvenirs. There is a $26 airport exit tax.
* Official Costa Rica Tourism site