Saturday, September 28, 2013

Getting To Costa Rica

For our one-year wedding anniversary, we promised that we would travel again.  We also knew we had to surf again.  Then I decided I needed to be with the monkeys.  So it seemed only natural that we head to Costa Rica. They have world class surfing spots and monkeys running around like whoa.  It also happened to be green season so there were good deals to be dealt.

I had a couple of concerns.  Like for one, neither of us speak even the slightest amount of Spanish.  Also, the green season thing made me a little weary.  I read conflicting things about the weather at this time of year (Labor Day time).  Some hotels and restaurants even close down for the season right at the week we wanted to go.  If Costa Rican's didn't want to be in Costa Rica then, did we?  But then I thought, we were going to a RAIN forest and surfing so we would be getting wet most of the time anyway! We're going!

I didn't know how I was going to narrow it down because I like to see everything.  I researched the heck out of the place and based on several other opinions of friends and family that had been there, we opted to go to the jungle/volcano area for half the time and then the beach. David said the only thing he requested was that there was air conditioning at our hotels because he thought it was going to be very hot.  That helped narrow it down quite a bit because Costa Rica is known for their eco-friendly approach and unless you are staying in newer, and I'd say more than a 3-star spot, you are not going to find that.  C'est la vie for a budget-friendly trip!  (That said, this is a very easy place to travel on a budget if you wanted.)

We found direct flights from Newark to Liberia on United at a very reasonable price.  The flight was only 4 1/2 hours and it flew by!  (Haha, get it?!)  We took the Supershuttle and it took an hour and a half from the Upper East Side.  Travel Tip: Don't forget to factor in time for possibly picking up about 12 other people!  Luckily, we still had left early enough that it was alright but I was starting to freak out a bit.  Also a tip, just because you have two travelers does not mean if you share a suitcase, you can go over 50 pounds.  Logically this makes NO sense but there is no getting around this.  Either pack separate bags or make sure you pack a foldable bag so you have extra room to stuff as much as possible into it when you go over the limit.

We landed in the new and small Liberia airport and a short line at customs and a passport stamp later, we were off to Avis in their shuttle. We had been warned about the extra insurance they make you add on so we were expecting it but the woman next to us was furious and making such a scene.  The cars are cheap to rent but then they make you get these insurance packages that jack up the price and there is not too much you can do about it.  Just expect it and it doesn't sting so much.  (The employee had the best response to the lady screaming that she used her American Express.  He said, "Ma'am, there are many credit cards in this world and I do not know all of their policies but if you want to drive away with this car, you will need to pay for insurance.")  We also opted to get a 4x4 which we were grateful for and the navigation which was somewhat helpful.  I think we could have been OK with just our maps.  Our Avis guy was the first real (limited) conversation we had with a local and he was so nice, a trait we consistently found in people we met there.

Begin road trip #1.  Tamarindo -> Arenal.  Let me start by saying we knew this trip was going to have some surprises.  We prepared for this but at the same time, its hard to truly prepare for unknown.  I packed extra snacks and made sure we had water.  Little things like that which I normally wouldn't have been too concerned with made a world of a difference.

The infrastructure is minimal in general and they are expanding the highway we were on but at least this road was paved to get us started.  Otherwise its a dirt road here and there.  There are not really shortcuts in this country.  So to get to our hotel, Tabacon, you have to drive AROUND Lake Arenal.  It doesn't seem that large, until you have to drive around it!  It was reminiscent of the Road to Hana in Maui.  You weave in and out of the shoreline through this mountainside on a tiny road.  We had no idea it would be like this and we just laughed at how absurd this three hour portion of the trip was.
Map from Arenal.net, a great resource.  

It was bright and sunny and we turned one of the hundred bends and saw this.  

At some point, these signs started to appear for Toad Hall.  They were really funny and I'd estimate they started about an hour before you actually reach the place.  I found a very small sentence about it in an older Fodor's guidebook and when we reached it, it was like the greatest feeling ever after that ride.
One of the hundreds of signs from Toad Hall.  

We got some food (nachos were yummy!) and took in the amazing view; a green jungle valley is literally the backdrop.  We found out they are also a hotel, huge gift shop AND a bird sanctuary!  There was a five month old toucan named Sam, and a couple of parrots that spoke Spanish.  The owner was sweet and from Long Island.  I knew something felt familiar!  I was going to get my good camera (excuse for the shotty photos that dont do this place justice) but thunder was rolling in the distance and it started to drizzle and get dark so we had to go but I could have stayed there the rest of the trip!  Oh also when we were leaving a giant cow decided to escort us to our car.  That was nice.
Our lunch seats. 

The view from the seats above. 

About a half hour down the road was Tabacon.  I don't know what exactly I was expecting but it was not what it was.  It was way better.  We were greeted with the full treatment: towelettes, welcome drinks and a golf carted escort to our room that had a lovely welcome note and a chocolate "happy anniversary" cake.
Welcome to Tabacon! 

The layout of the hotel is very spread out.  I still cant decide if I liked it or not.  The main area (front desk, bar, computers, etc.) is at the entrance area and then there are separate buildings with other rooms, like condo style.  The main restaurant is up a small hill to the back and the spa and thermal pools (included when you stay there and a big reason we did) are actually down the road.  It's a five minute walk across the street and they have a shuttle van.  The buffet dinner is over there too.

We took one look at our suitcases, one look at ourselves, and put on bathing suits as fast as we could to head to the hot springs.  It was pretty much dark at about 5PM when we got to the most magical place in the world.  It was raining a bit, as it does in the evenings in the rain forest, but it didn't matter. The steam was rising from all the natural springs and it was just a gorgeous maze of hot pools awaiting people to dip in them.  I've never seen anything like it.
Tabacon: steam rising from the pools.  The volcano naturally heats the water to about 100 degrees. 

We didn't want to leave but we were starving and exhausted so we went to dinner at the hotel restaurant because it was easy.  Also an unexpected and therefore funny experience because the place is kinda fancy (like amuse bouche style) but it was nice because it was quiet, except for the frogs.