We had to reschedule our summer vacation due to work requirements, and when I looked for travel bargains for reusing my airline tickets, I was surprised to see Costa Rica on top of the search results. In our case, all we had to do was pay the change fees and we had our airline tickets. That was the easy part.
Tip #1: Book Your Hotel Early… Like, Now
It turns out that the Christmas season is Costa Rica’s busiest season. Two of the hotel resorts I was trying to book had no two consecutive nights available between Christmas and New Year’s. Others had two consecutive nights, but no more. We decided this made it a good opportunity to stay at a few different hotels and stay in different areas of the country during our week’s stay. The lesson here is book your hotel(s) early.
Tip #2: Be Prepared for Delays
Booking a rental car and actually getting one are not the same thing. One implies, but does not guarantee the other. I found websites by some of the locals and of course checked the big car rental chains. I ended up booking with US-based National, but when I got to Costa Rica, they didn’t have any vehicles. None. There was a family in front of us who’d been waiting a couple of hours, so the shuttle driver offered to take us to our hotel. I gave him a nice tip – after all, it wasn’t his fault they didn’t have a car for me.
The next day they didn’t have any cars either, so I went online looking for anyone who did. One company reported having vehicles, so I booked a four-wheel-drive small SUV. I thought. The taxi driver couldn’t find the car rental company, FOX Rental, who was working with/for/under another company, Avanti. Turns out that both companies are part of a third company, U-Save Rental, and that’s the name that appeared on the sign and in the telephone directory. Once we found them and the taxi driver started unloading our baggage, I noticed two other families sitting around, and I asked the taxi driver to wait while I checked.
Sure enough, they had no cars. We asked the driver to run us by National one more time. We joked, as we saw a car loader pulling up, “Hey, there are some cars!” To our surprise and delight, they actually were being delivered to National’s lot. We had lucked out. In this case, booking early didn’t really help. According to another family we saw at the hotel, even if you pre-pay (they didn’t pre-pay with National), it’s no real guarantee there’ll be a vehicle waiting for you.
The key seems to be a matter of timing – either getting there before the Christmas rush, or getting there a few days after, when the rental lots get replenished.
We ended up getting a Toyota Yaris with only 7 kilometers on the odometer (yes, they’re metric in Costa Rica, but they drive on the right-hand side of the road). The car seemed small to me when I was standing in the National lobby, but its trunk held our two rolling duffle bags, my roll-aboard bag and my daughter’s rolling backpack. We put another two backpacks on the floor and seat in the back, and we were off.
Well, not quite. The folks at the National counter asked if we wanted a GPS navigation system. “No thanks, I brought my own,” I stated. “Did you download the maps for Costa Rica before coming here from the US?” “Uh… no.” “Well then, your GPS won’t do you any good.” I thought about it and said, “Well, if you can just give me directions from here to our hotel, I’ll download Costa Rica maps from when I get there.”
They very pleasantly and courteously gave me directions, highlighting a printed map, and about ¾ of the way through, and noticing it was already dark outside (in the tropics it consistently gets dark between 5:30 & 6PM year-round), I said, “I’ll take a GPS please.” It was a good move, as my family will vouch.
We made it to our first hotel and checked in without incident. The next day we looked at the surroundings, and noticed that with a couple of blocks were a Kentucky Fried Chicken, a Wendy’s, a McDonald’s, a Quizno’s, and a Taco Bell. But that’s because of the district our hotel was in. It’s not typical of Costa Rica.
What are typical in Costa Rica (at least from this trip) are delicious food, breath-taking scenery, genuinely friendly people, occasional good roads, safety awareness, humidity, and iguanas.
One thing we thought we might regret doing, but are so glad we did, was to venture away from the US-based hugemongous hotel resorts and stay at a local hotel. In this case, a hotel in the Guaranal area, inland from Jaco and Parrita, called Hotel Ecológico Paraíso Carlisa. They’re a little difficult to find if you don’t know where they are, and you’re not likely to know, if you look for them by that name, but they’re easier to find if you leave out the “Ecológico” in their name. Their website is http://www.hotelparaisocarlisa.com/en/ and the pictures on their website are pretty accurate representations of what we saw.
Frankly we were ready to give up on finding them after driving for hours, but we had no trouble once someone (the folks at the DoubleTree, who had no rooms) was nice enough to tell us “Just go to the intersection of Route 34 and Route 239, turn north on Route 239 and drive on the gravel road for 20Km, and it’ll be there on your right.” It was well worth it.
The hotel’s website has great pictures, so I’m just going to include a few I took that aren’t well represented. Below is one of the few places on the hotel grounds where the parrots hang out. Our family used to have a lilac-crowned Amazon parrot.
These lovely and vocal birds cost about $850 in a U.S. pet store, but there were several of them (along with a few other breeds) on the hotel grounds.
We absolutely loved the lush garden setting and natural surroundings of the hotel grounds. My wife commented, “Now I know where all our indoor plants come from!” She could name several of the exotic plants growing quite well in a natural setting.
And the food – we had such delicious and varied foods. Some meals were “tico” or “local” Costa Rican dishes and some meals on some days were more American or European. All were delicious.
But the part our daughter enjoyed the most was the horseback tour to the cascade (waterfall), and hand-feeding the animals. One of the roles the Hotel Ecológico plays (and the reason they added the “Ecológico” to their name) is animal rehabilitation.
They foster orphaned and otherwise at-risk animals until they can be released back to the wild. While we were there, they had a juvenile howler monkey, a juvenile kinkajou, a few pacas, and what our host called a “tiger” cub (actually a Margay Cat).
While there we made friends with another vacationing family, an Italian family living in Cuba. What interesting conversations we had. Their son was the same age as our daughter, and surprisingly the Italian boy living in Cuba played or knew many of the games and shows as our Texan daughter.
Aside from the delays with the car and getting lost trying to find the hotel, we had a wonderful trip to Costa Rica. We drank the water and ate the fruits and did not get sick. The food was good everywhere we went, and the people were nice. But don’t go to Costa Rica thinking it’s cheap, because our experience was that everything cost about the same as in Dallas.
- Book your hotel as soon as you book your flights, and as far in advance as possible. My mistake was booking the flights early (six months early), but not booking the hotels until only three months before the trip.
- If you plan to go during a busy season, try to arrive a little early (for us, if we had arrived the day before Christmas, we would have had no problem getting a rental car).
- Plan to either rent a GPS navigation device, or bring your own but be sure to download the maps for Costa Rica before your departure.
- Do the normal international travel things like notifying your credit card companies that you’re traveling so they don’t shut down your account because it looks like someone stole your card number, and set up your international calling/texting/etc. on your wireless phone plan.
- Check out some of the websites about Costa Rica before going. CostaRica.com is a good one. Their section on Costa Rican slang and idioms can help explain some words you will likely encounter that aren’t technically Spanish: http://costarica.com/travel/slang-idioms/. They also claim to have excellent maps. I wish I’d gotten one, and plan to get one before my next trip.
- When buying souvenirs, look for “Made in Costa Rica.” We were pleasantly surprised to find many things made locally.
- Stores in the San Jose (Costa Rica) airport take US dollars as well as Costa Rica colones. Outside the airport and hotels, you can use your credit (not debit) cards, and of course you can exchange for colones. My experience is that the hotels have good rates, and the ATMs work pretty well. When we went, it was 493 colones/dollar, so a 10,000 colones or “10 mil” bill is about $20 USD.
- Try stepping outside your comfort zone, if your comfort zone is American hotel and restaurant chains.
- Share your experiences with us!