Costa Rica via Caravan bus tour
The first and, so far only, time we’ve been to Central America. Also the first and, so far, only time we’ve traveled by bus tour. February 4–13, 2007.
As usual, Jean did most of the research. After reading an interesting article about it in MoneySense, we had been considering Chile, but I didn’t want to take a full two weeks off (though Jean already had that much booked), and Chile is far! Didn’t seem to make sense to have such long flights and stay for only 10 days. So, we returned to the idea of Costa Rica, which we’d had in mind to visit for a few years now. Although we’d never taken an organized tour before, it just seemed a sensible approach for this “eco-focused” country. After my dismissing a relatively rustic Canadian tour (OK, I’m a wimp) and another in which all the interesting activities seemed to be “optional add-ons”, we went with Caravan tours, recommended by Fodors.
Caravan didn’t include flights as part of the package, so we booked that bit on Expedia. Air Canada’s direct flights were somewhat expensive, and the cheapest option—a small airline that transferred through Phoenix, making the trip twice as long as it needed to be—seemed crazy. So we went with Continental’s transfer through New Jersey.
Turned out that Jean had a conference in Toronto the end of the week leading up to our week off—including Saturday. Hence the Sunday start of our vacation.
We packed ahead (all summer stuff anyway), and Jean took most of the luggage with him when he left for the conference on Wednesday. Saturday afternoon, I took the bus up to join him. The line-up at Greyhound was crazy! Is this typical now? Good thing I was early or I would have had to wait for the next bus. But bus definitely loses its convenience if you have to plan ahead for it. [Ah, how times have changed, says Cathy from 2019.]
It was freezing cold in Toronto (and Waterloo). But, given that we were heading to tropical weather, we didn’t want to have winter coats and boots with us. We managed with layers—plus keeping the gloves and toques. It worked reasonably well for our relatively short walks outside, but there was no real hiding from the wind, and I did sorely wish I had long johns under my not-wool pants.
Dinner in Toronto was supposed to be at Jamie Kennedy’s, but Jean had also been looking for a place to take important clients out to, and guess what he picked? Then he decided he didn’t really want to go there two nights in a row. So we went to Red’s Wine Bistro. Which really was very nice. They specialize in matching wines to food—every menu item has a glass of wine on offer—and they do that very well. They also happened to be having a Winter-licious special on, which I took, pointing out to Jean that my whole meal was cheaper than just his entree.
The cold dampened any enthusiasm we had for walking in Toronto Sunday morning, so after breakfast we headed to the airport plenty early. It worked out well; they were expecting delays out of New Jersey due to winds, so they put us on an earlier flight to increase the odds of our making our connection. [They did what? says Cathy from 2019. You used to get service from airlines?] Indeed, our new flight was delayed, but we still got there earlier than we would have on our original one (had it been on time).
The flight to Costa Rica was also delayed, though, this time in part because it was overbooked and they kept having to bribe people to fly the next morning instead. Though we briefly considered that a night in New York might be fun, overall we wanted to stick with getting the entire Costa Rican tour we had paid for, so we stayed pat.
When we finally took off, the winds made the flight itself slightly longer than scheduled; it felt longer than the five hours it was. We got there around 11:00 at night and were greeted by Caravan staff, who quickly drove us off to our hotel. One other couple from the tour was on our flight: a young couple from Norway who weren’t too talkative this evening, but who proved to be fun once we got to know them a little better later on.
The hotel itself was pretty much like a Holiday Inn anywhere. We didn’t have time for much but to get to bed and be ready for the next day.
Day 1: San José
We were up at 6:45 for our hotel breakfast (not bad; lots of tropical fruit and fresh omelets available), then on the bus for an 8:00 departure to Poas Volcano park. On the way, tour guide Rosita gave us some history of Costa Rica, which was pretty interesting. Some highlights:
- Costa Rica’s lack of mineral riches caused it to develop much differently than other Latin American countries. It wasn’t worth fighting over or plundering, so people living there were left alone to cope, surviving on the agricultural richness. So there are no ruins to visit here.
- The country has no army but does have a good, state-run healthcare systems. (What Rosita doesn’t say is that these facts are connected: the military was abolished and the savings used to fund the healthcare system.)
- While there are some poor people and some rich ones, the majority are middle-class. (Indeed, we later note far fewer beggars in San Jose than in most big cities we visit.)
The Poas volcano is one you can walk right up to and look down into—except that it’s often completely shrouded by clouds. This day, though there were cloud coverings, it did periodically clear for us to take a peak. It was not quite interesting enough to stay and gawk at for our entire allotted time, though, so we did a nearby hike, which gave us views of a lagoon.
After a nice stop for lunch, we were bused back to San José and dropped off at the National Theatre building. From there, we walked to the Gold Museum, which has some interesting archeological exhibits. Then we went back at the hotel, with free time for the rest of the day.
We decided to take a walk around San José. It was heading into rush hour at this point, and it is quite the hectic city. With all the zooming cars about, it was really not a relaxing walk, but at least we got our exercise. We then stopped off at an art gallery that had some interesting paintings, but we decided against buying anything on the first day. (We knew we were coming back to San José at the end of the trip.) Unfortunately, on the way out of there, Jean twisted his ankle on a dip in the sidewalk. Though it didn’t prevent us from doing any of the activities, it was destined to bug him for the rest of our time there, and for a while after we were home as well.
Day 2: Aerial tram en route to Tortuguero
This was our earliest departure day, with bags having to be out by 5:30 and ourselves on the bus by 6:15. At this point, because we were heading by boat to a National Park, we couldn’t bring all our luggage. We packed into a smaller bag for the next couple days, and the big luggage was stored until the stop after that.
The drive took us past pineapple plantations. We went into the rainforest for an aerial tram ride. It was a beautiful day, and the ride was pretty cool. You really felt immersed in the rainforest atmosphere as you slowly glided above it. The guide pointed out various birds, butterflies, spiders, orchids, trees, ferns, and other vegetation.
Afterward, a very lively guide took us on a short hike through the forest. The most interesting animal we saw was a sloth, but we also spotted birds, squirrels, and more spiders, and learned more about the vegetation of the rainforest.
Waiting for the rest of the group to finish, we visited the gift shop, and bought some very delicious chocolates as well as neat recycled paper products. Lunch followed at a restaurant that had a beautiful garden in the back, with neat plants that attracted colourful birds.
The rest of the day was mostly travel, during which we entertained ourselves with an audiobook (Mark Hadon’s A Spot of Bother, at this point). We later discovered that our book listening was entertaining others as well, as the book has some rather funny parts we couldn’t help reacting to. Anyway. A big part of the drive was through this big Dole banana plantation, which was sort of interesting at first, but it was really big, and eventually you tired of looking at blue-bagged banana plants. (The bags coat the bananas in pesticides. Isn’t that nice?) Also a bit weird is that we got this police escort on motorcycle through that whole part of the drive. Rosita was a bit cagey on why that was. But she made it clear that we weren’t allowed to get out anywhere in the banana plantation. Hmm.
After that was a boat ride out to our resort in Tortuguero. We were greeted with drinks and snacks by the young and attractive staff at that resort, then were assigned our rooms. As promised, they were nothing fancy—no luxuries like phones, televisions, or air conditioning. But there was a decent bed, overhead fans, showers, and electricity. And the resort included a beautiful pool and a bar area looking out over the beach. (You could not swim there due to the crocodiles.) Here we did a little talking with Amy, a single woman from California who has done a number of interesting trips.
It was otherwise a pretty quiet evening. We attended a presentation about the park followed by dinner, then we read by the bar area. The biggest excitement came when something large skittered by us and I screamed. Turned out to be just a crab.
Day 3: Tortuguero rivers and town
Morning featured a two and half hour boat tour during which we saw a lot of wild life—howler monkeys, spider monkeys, white-faced monkeys, blue herons, vultures, caimans (like small crocodiles), turtles, white egrets, sloths, iguanas, geckoes…
Just a small sampling of the wildlife we saw…
After a snack at the lodge, we were boated to the village of Tortuguero for a little visit there. We first visited the Turtle Interpretation Center, where we saw a film on efforts to save the long-lived sea turtles that were being hunted to near extinction. Then a short walk on a beautiful Caribbean beach brought us to the village itself. It was very small, and just didn’t look like a Canadian town at all…
After lunch and and a dip in the pool, we were off on a second boat tour, visiting different canals and such. Again we were able to see a lot of wildlife, particularly a lot of birds.
And yet more wildlife viewed—these are all especially nice photos, aren’t they?
Back at the bar, we talked to a couple from Massachusetts who manage o do a fair amount of travelling even on the mere 2 weeks of vacation that Americans typically get. (Many of the other Americans were teachers, which gave them much more time for travel, of course.)
Then a Caribbean band was brought in to entertain us. At first everyone was fairly subdued. Jean tried to get me dancing, but I was hesitant to be the only ones on the floor. But with time, they were able to persuade just about everyone to get up and shake their maracas, and it was a lot of fun.
Day 4: Road to Arenal
We were awoken early by the sounds of the howler monkeys—something we had somehow slept through the night before. But there was no doing that today. Jean went out to investigate, and found that monkeys were right there, by our cabin, jumping around on roofs.
Then after breakfast, we took another boat ride out of the park, spotting more wildlife on the way, such as spider monkeys, little bats, and crocodiles.
Then it was a bus ride to the same lunch place as before, then we were off to another wildlife refuge, which had a suspension bridge. It was also known for the red-eyed frogs that Costa Rica is famous for, but we didn’t see any; not the right season, perhaps.
Then it was more riding toward Arenal volcano area. It was a nice drive, actually; we saw fruit plantations and gradually got volcano views.
Our Arenal lodgings were very nice. Everybody was in a lovely little cabin (with TV, phone, and air conditioning), and each cabin had a view of the active volcano. When it got dark we were able to see the lava flowing, and Jean managed to get a couple good shots.
Day 5: Wildlife refuge, Fortuna, hot springs
Quite a busy day ahead, that started with some nice clear views of the volcano during the day. Then we were back on the bus for a ride to the Caño Negro wildlife refuge—on the way viewing sugar cane plantations and enormous numbers of large iguanas lolling around a bridge near a restaurant named after them. (Apparently, they are very tasty, but aren’t currently available on many menus.)
Arenal volcano by day, and two of the many iguanas lounging near a bridge
In contrast to the Tortuguerro boat tours, this time we were on a bigger boat, and our guide was a young woman. We saw many of the same types of animals—Jesus Christ lizards (named so because they walk on water), a type of fish that’s been around since the fossil age, howler monkeys (which our guide could provoke to howl), caymans, turtles, bats, various birds—but found out different things about them. The highlight of this tour was the “golden monkey”, a howler monkey with a very unusual coat colour. She’s the only known one in the world. Though it took some time, she did finally emerge long enough for us to get a reasonably good look at her. And a photo.
Extremely rare blonde monkey; welcome to Nicaragua!
We also happen to boat right up to the border of Nicaragua, as indicated by a sign. Several people buy T-shirts here (but we didn’t). (I later read that Nicaragua isn’t such a bad place to visit these days…)
After a pretty decent lunch at a small restaurant, we were bused into the town of Fortuna for some free time. We were taken by some of the art shops once again. After some debate—not among our most dramatic—we agreed on a large, brightly coloured painting by a local artist. The trick for the rest of the trip was to not forget our tube anywhere; that would be a (relatively) expensive loss. We also picked up a few crafted wood items; we found that these were very attractive.
Our next stop was the Hot Springs resort. This is a large commercial complex built around naturally occurring warm spring water of varying temperatures. We were warned not to attempt the very hottest, which can result in serious burns! It was quite the place. Some springs are built around a swim-up bar; some feature “cool pools” you can dip into for a rest from the heat. There were also little trails and things. It was not a bad two hours.
I haven’t said too much about the food so far, because there hasn’t been that much to say. It’s generally been buffet stuff, usually not so bad (at this point in the trip), but obviously nothing gourmet. But at this point Jean and I were just tired of lining up with trays. So back at our resort, we decided to order off the menu instead! It was a good decision; we quite enjoyed our meal of sea bass (we each tried it a different style), Chilean Chardonnay (too hot for red! And Chilean wines are good), and banana foster dessert.
Day 6: Cloud forest, Pacific ocean
In the morning, we had to “pay the piper”; that is, pay for our supper the night before. In doing so, we were informed that our MasterCard is “no good”! Hmm. We paid by Visa, but figured we should probably figure out what’s up with MasterCard. That involved figuring out the Costa Rican phones, which isn’t as easy as you’d think. Eventually, we did get through to MasterCard. Indeed, they had noticed “unusual activity” on our card, in the form of buying a painting in Fortuna. And so had frozen the card. We assured them that was us, and the card was released for use.
When we were home later, we discovered that the call (maybe 5 minutes long?) cost us $65! A real lesson in a) informing your credit card company of travel plans and b) bringing a phone card with you.
Anyway. It was mostly a travel day today, but as usual, there were tours on the way. This one was to a Cloud Forest, which aptly describes the climate there: not rainy as a rainforest can be (though we had a little rain there when we visited), but definitely a lot of cloud cover. It was also cooler.
We were divided into two groups for a guided walk. (Just to be walking around at all was nice at this point.) The focus was more on vegetation and smaller animals. Impatiens, which we pay to plant, are mostly considered a weed here. We saw the work of leaf cutter ants, and of the ficus (not sure of that name), which wrap themselves around other trees to grow, but ultimately kill their host. We can walk through one dead example. We also noted the dramatic growth rate of an area that three years earlier had been a development.
The neatest part was viewing a toucan up close. This bird had lost its mate, so park officials could afford to feed it without risk of interfering with the bird’s reproductive cycle—these birds do not choose another mate after theirs dies. This meant it stuck around for tourist photos, though you still couldn’t go right up to it.
After our buffet-style lunch, we were on the road to the beach area of Jaco. On the way, we stopped by a bridge that had many crocodiles lying around it. Jean found these critters quite fascinating.
Upon arrival at our Jaco resort, we were greeted with tasty cocktails and given our room assignments. The rooms seemed a little grubby, and an attempt to shower was a challenge, as the water seemed to veer between icy cold and scalding hot. Fun.
The beach the hotel faced was quite lovely, but unfortunately, not really recommended for swimming, since it had a very strong undertow. It was more of a surfing beach. Still, we ventured in a little bit, to play in the waves in the shallow part. The sand here was a dark colour, which looked interesting, but was kind of gross all over your feet.
The buffet dinner that night was terrible; definitely the worst of the vacation.
Day 7: Manuel Antonio National Park
After a mediocre buffet breakfast, we were off to the popular Manuel Antonio National Park. It was a hot, sunny day—ended up being the hottest of the vacation.
On the way, Rosita warned us about the white-faced monkeys of the park. Rather smart little guys, they sometimes steal cameras. It’s not that they’re interested in the cameras themselves; it’s just that stealing cameras is a good distraction from their real goal: stealing food. While people are busy trying to get their camera back, their lunch disappears.
Not long after arriving, we saw a similar play. First, one monkey took an empty plastic bag and waved it around. As everyone’s attention was drawn to that, another went for the sandwiches. Next thing you know, several monkeys were happily chowing down on someone’s lunch.
Jean and I decided to start the visit with a hike up to a viewpoint. It was not as steep as we’d feared it might be, but we were still sweating like crazy. It was just really hot.
After that, it was time for a swim. The water was amazing—so warm. Not used to that with salt water! Swimming around, we talked to Juan and his wife about Cuba—they were originally from there, but now live in Florida. The sand here was soft and white. We could have spent more time here than the tour allows, but…
On the way, out, we spotted some other beach thieves, in the form of raccoons. It was a mama trying to get some food for her babies (pictured below). Outside the beach were a lot of interesting little vendors as well. (Human ones, to be clear.)
The afternoon was free time at our “lovely” hotel. Woo-hoo. We and other guests have discovered that it’s not only temperature that is a plumbing problem; the water pressure is also terrible, to the point where you sometimes couldn’t get water at all. The hotel had two pools, but one was down for maintenance (full of green slime) and the other was crowded and had no shade. So it was an odd choice as a place to have a lot of free time at. We managed to kill some time watching Suzie, one of the women on the tour, test out her surfing skills. She got in a few good rides. But ultimately, we couldn’t face another dinner and extra time here. So we arranged with another couple to go into the nearby beach town of Jaco. Our plan was to stay and have dinner (our Fodor’s book had three places to recommend); they planned to just shop a little and head back.
Jaco is not a very attractive city. Jean comments how Caravan is good at not taking us to towns like it during the visit. It has a real run-down beach city feel; tacky souvenirs (where we’d found others quite attractive), smelly garbage… We didn’t feel unsafe, but we also weren’t inspired to linger all that long. Dinner wasn’t served before 6:00, though, so we ended up killing some time at an Internet Cafe first.
Dinner, fortunately, was quite good, although the service seemed super-fast. No sooner were you done one course than the next arrived. Guess that’s not such a bad thing. Anyway. Somehow word of us going into town for dinner got around to the other guests, and we got a lot of questions about it. (“How was your romantic dinner?” “Well, not that romantic, but definitely fresh and tasty!”) But it seems most aren’t willing to pay for an extra dinner when they’re on an all-inclusive trip, despite also not being thrilled with this “resort”’s food.
Day 8: Sarchi, coffee plantation, San José
The morning was devoted to “shopping”, which doesn’t impress some of the guests. Our first stop was described as the smaller shopping area, but it actually had some nice stuff—jewelry, T-shirts, wood items. We made good time here, so we had time to walk around in the little town some.
The buffet lunch seemed particularly good today; maybe it really was, maybe it was a contrast with our last hotel. Either way it was a good thing.
Then we were off the bigger shopping area which, in my opinion, wasn’t actually quite as good as the smaller one. Oh well. We did get a little colourful T-shirt for my nephew and some inexpensive earrings for me.
Our next stop was the coffee plantation. We were promised a tour, but first we had a lot of time to buy coffee and related products. I did get four bags (one a gift) and also tried their cool mocha coffee, which was very good.
The tour was a lot of fun. It was done a bit like a play, with various actors pretending to be plantation workers of various types. The whole thing was done in both English and Spanish, which seemed a bit pointless at first, but I guess it’s policy, and you got used to it. I also did learn a lot about how coffee is grown (apparently I knew almost nothing about that before), different types of coffee, how it’s roasted, and that Costa Rica really does have good environmental policies—all coffee waste products here get reused in some way.
Then, we were back to the Holiday Inn in San José. We had a ridiculously hard time confirming our flight the next day (Continental is the only airline that won’t let Rosita do that for us), but we finally managed it. To find there had been no change. I guess this all makes you appreciate the ease of the Canadian phone system…
Our final dinner was a sit-down dinner in the top-level restaurant of the hotel. Even though it was not primo food, it was really nice to have this kind of meal. Good idea. We sat with Charlene and Wally, the couple who went into Jaco with us, and the young Norwegian couple that we’d talked to several times during the week—they were quite fun once you got past the initial shyness. So, good company there as well.
Get back to where you once belonged
Policy is to have us at the airport three hours before our flight, which meant another rather early departure. Everyone else was waiting in the bus for us, which was a little embarrassing, but we all had lots of time.
There wasn’t too much drama on the way home. We had to line up to pay a special airport fee before checking in, and we found that breakfast options were incredibly limited—I actually ate Burger King, of all gross breakfasts. The flight was slightly delayed out of Costa Rica, but it didn’t really threaten our connection. We even had time to have lunch at the much better options in New Jersey. And the flight back seemed and actually was shorter than the flight there.
Back in Toronto, it was very cold. We found we’d missed a lot of cold, so I guess our timing was good. We jumped into a cab and got back home. Work for me the next day, but Jean had the rest of the week off.
See also: Smugmug photo album of our trip