My wife and I visited Costa Rica from January 6 – 15, 2018. It is a remarkable country both politically and naturally. A stable democracy surrounded by countries that have gone through political upheaval, dictatorship and civil war, Costa Rica abolished its army in 1948 and put the money into education and healthcare. Only slightly above the equator, with long shorelines along the Caribbean and the Pacific and with diverse typography, Costa has a remarkable diversity of climates, habitats, flora and fauna, with more species of birds in this tiny country than in all of North America. After clearing much of its rainforests for grazing land and agriculture, Costa Rica began to restore it natural environment decades ago and is now a prime location for eco tourism, with much of the country designated as nature preserves.
Costa Rica also offers a very nice lifestyle and very friendly people, almost all of whom speak English. The universal phrase is “Pura Vida”, which means pure life in Spanish but is the way Ticos live. Costa Rica has been named one of the happiest countries in the world, mostly because its inhabitants don’t stress about things the way most foreigners do. Ticos have a very relaxed, simple way of life. The phrase “Pura Vida“ can be used as a response to “How are you?” but also as hello, goodbye and great.
Our goals for the trip were to experience Costa Rica’s diverse ecology and have time for rest and relaxation. We planned the trip through our travel agent, Louise Kemper of Travel Experts, who worked with local tour company, Rico Tours. Based on our travel agent’s advice, we split our roughly 10 day trip between two locations, one near the Arenal Volcano, in the north central part of Costa Rica in the rainforest, and Guanacaste on the Pacific Coast. Average temperatures in January are in mid-70s in the rainforests near Arenal, with almost daily chances for a little rain, and in the mid-80s on the Pacific coast with little chance of rain.
Logistics – We were able to fly from Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) airport directly to San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital, via Southwest and returned from Liberia in the northwest of the country to BWI via Houston, TX on Southwest. Our tour company arranged private drivers and vans to get us from the San Jose airport to our resort new Arenal, Nayara Springs, from Nayara Springs to our second resort on the Pacific Coast, the J.W. Marriott Guanacaste, and from the J.W. to the airport in Liberia. The drive from San Jose to Arenal takes you over the continental divide and through cloud forests and rain forests and is quite a scenic trip.
We considered some in-country air options for the trip from Arenal to the Pacific coast but were glad we elected to use vans because a charter flight crashed in Costa Rica the week before we arrived. Costa Rican roads are a mixed bag but probably better than remembered by visitors who have been there a number of years ago. Most roads are well-paved, well maintained two lane highways and not very crowded outside population centers. We traveled on one stretch of new four-lane divided limited access highway near Liberia and hopefully there is more of this to come. Side roads, however, can be heavily pot holed and partially washed out, making for a slow and very bumpy ride. We were warned about bad roads and the need for motion sickness medicine for the car from others who had visited but only encountered relatively short stretches of really bad roads, and we survived without motion sickness medication. It might be a bit worse if you were traveling on a big bus instead of a private van that is able to maneuver around some of the pot holes.
Nayara Springs Resort – The Nayara Springs Resort is an exclusive boutique hotel with only about 60 individual villas, each featuring a large bedroom, living room, two dressing areas, a large indoor and an outdoor shower and a patio with queen size lounge, hammock and 6 ft x 10 ft private soaking pool fed from a natural hot spring. Daily laundry, twice daily maid service, a private concierge and option of breakfast in room are all included. There are three restaurants, a coffee bar, fitness center with yoga sessions daily and a spa on site, as well as additional restaurants and a wine bar on an adjoining property operated by the same company. The resort offers once daily shuttle service into La Fortuna and now offers its own private tours to nearby attractions. We found the private tours offered by the hotel to be only modestly more expensive than group tours offered by others and Nayara Springs’ tours included a wonderful picnic lunch with wine and beer. Nayara Springs is one of the nicest resorts in which we have ever stayed and the lush grounds and on-site nature trails give you the opportunity to experience Costa Rica’s beauty without even leaving the hotel.
Arenal Volcano – We did two excursions near the Arenal Volcano, one was to the Mistico Hanging Bridges Park and the other to the lava flow from the 1969 eruption. Mistico Hanging Bridges Park offers a hike along well tended mostly-paved trails over a series of fixed and hanging bridges through the rain forest. With an attentive eye and the help of a good guide you can see an amazing diversity of plants and animals in a wonderful environment in the canopy of the rain forest. There are some steep patches on the Hanging Bridges Park trail and you have to be comfortable crossing hanging bridges, some at pretty good heights above the ground, but on the whole the hike is not too rigorous. Much better seeing animals and birds with a private guide, hopefully carrying a spotting scope, than with a group. The lava walk is interesting but with much younger (post 1969 eruption) vegetation, a less scenic natural setting and more strenuous hiking conditions.
There are a number of other areas for touring from hotels in the Arenal volcano area but we choose to avoid those with multi-hour van rides and full day itineraries so we could enjoy some R&R at our hotel. Both our hotel and our tour company, Rico Tours, offered lots of touring options that you can review before you go.
J.W. Marriott Guanacaste – The J.W. Marriott is a much larger property than Nayara Springs with good-size but traditional hotel rooms, five restaurants, an oceanfront bar and a large pool complex and beach. It is located within a large private golf and beach community know as Hacienda Pinillia on the Guanacaste peninsula south of Tamarindo. Both the community and the J.W. Marriott Resort were very nice, but not as nice as the Nayara Springs Resort in terms of accommodations, amenities or service. The large pool complex, with plentiful lounge chairs and pool side drink and food service, is the best feature of the J.W. Marriott. The biggest negative to the J.W. Marriott is that it is somewhat isolated and the road between the highway and Hacienda Pinillia is a couple of miles of potholes. We ate all our meals at the J.W. Marriott. The food was good and there was enough variety among the restaurants for our four night stay. Our room came with a buffet breakfast and our favorite restaurants were the pool and beachside Azul Grill for lunch and the Sabanero Steak House for dinner. Portions were very large and we shared entrees, salads and sandwiches for most meals.
Coast Near Tamarindo – We did two outings to coastal areas near Tamarindo and the J.W. Marriott. One was a boat tour of a mangrove forest along Estero de Playa Grande where it meets Tamarindo Bay and the other on the beach near Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas. On the mangrove forest tour we saw a crocodile and many different birds and on the beach we saw sea turtles laying their eggs. According to guides the crocodiles do occasionally pick off surfers who chose to swim across the relatively narrow Estero de Playa Grande that separates two beaches on Tamarindo Bay despite warning signs and numerous shuttle boats. Our tours to the coast near Tamarindo were group tours with multiple-hotel pickups in small vans but featured good guides and attentive staff. We arranged these tours through Swiss Travel, which has an office at the J.W. Marriott. The walk to and from the beach at night to see the sea turtles was fairly rigorous and requires you to traverse the beach in total darkness.
Costa Rica As A Retirement Option – On many lists, Costa Rica is ranked among the top overseas locations for Americas looking for an affordable retirement location. While we did not inspect retirement housing options during our vacation in Costa Rica, I can see its appeal, particularly for those living in the West and Southwest for whom it is a relatively short trip. What makes Costa Rica stand out is its stable democracy, good healthcare system and diverse and pleasant climate. Everyone readily accepts dollars and almost everyone speaks English, making it a particularly easy place for Americans to live. Our sense is that U.S. retirees favor the Pacific coast where communities appealing to such people abound.