I meant to post of review of our trip but ever since we got back it has been one thing after another. I tried to keep a diary as we went along, and finally decided to cut and paste it here as my review. Special thanks to Roadadvisor and Framptonian for the great advice. Here goes:
Our first day was a long day of travel. The flight into SJO on Jet Blue was very smooth and took less than 3 hours. Everything went fine at the airport with retrieving our luggage. We tried using the ATM near baggage claim but our bank cards from our Credit Union did not work. At this point, the next morning, I’m not sure why the cards did not work. We rented a vehicle from Alamo, using the airport as the location. They promptly drove us to their offsite facility. When we arrived, we learned there was no Toyota Prado which is what we reserved. In the end, we rented a Rav4 which saved us about $100 and was fine for the trip to Samara. The process of changing the paperwork seemed to take forever.
The drive to Samara was an adventure. I took a bad wrong turn leaving the Pan American Highway and got on route 3. This was following our GPS that was not working properly and had been mis-programmed by Alamo. We took Route 3 through Atenas all the way to San Mateo before taking a right turn to Esparanza. This was a long wrong turn, but I knew we were going in the right direction. Rather than doubling back we stayed on 3. This definitely added some time but it was an interesting drive, and I personally like driving. We made a couple of wrong turns and went around in circles where the road turns north near Barranca. My family commented that I was driving like a crazed Tico. I took that as a complement of the highest order. There was a moment at a three-way stop where I really had to punch it, cut someone off and perform an aggressive merge. It was safe but fun! After that the rest of the drive went fine. We stopped at Caballo Blanco (White Horse) for some ceviche and an Imperial and it was back on the road. We made it to Samara just before dark. It took about 5 hours total. We are staying at Casa de la Playa.
On our first night it stormed pretty badly with lots of close lightning. Being from Florida we are used to it, but it was still impressive. My friend and I went out after the storm and got some Pizza at Pizza a Go-Go and a few cervezas. It was fine after a long day on the road.
Day 2 & 3 – Samara
We started our day with a light breakfast at the bakery on the main street. The people working there were very friendly and the pastries were delicious. We especially like the pineapple turnovers that had just come out of the oven. We also had fresh fruit drinks which were great. Prices were very reasonable. After this we walked down to the bank to use the ATM. Our cards would not work which was becoming an issue. It took a while, but after buying a phone card at the Super Samara market, we called our local Credit Union and got it straightened out. By default the cards could not be used out of the country without letting them know. When we came back to the house, I was looking out the back window and saw something in the trees. It was the first of many monkeys that would come visit us. Of course, we did not feed them. We also saw what I believe are parrots, but I have not had a “bird person” look at the pictures yet. There was also the coolest squirrel-like creature with a gray tail, brown body & white tail. We took a ride down to see Carrillo and it was beautiful. It is a long crescent-shaped beach with maybe 5 families on a Saturday. We walked around a while then continued driving about 5km up into the hills before turning around. For lunch, we ate at Coco’s on Main Street Samara. My wife had Arroz con Pollo, and my friend and I had our first Casados. Nice little place and we ended up going back on our 3rd day. We spent the rest of the day walking around town and on the beach, very relaxing. That night it rained so we went to dinner late at Mi Gusto Italian. They were already closed, but agreed to make us some pasta dishes which was very accommodating. Food was good and reasonable, plus it was nice of them to stay open late or us. One of the highlights was meeting Local Expert Framptonian (hope you are doing well!)
The next day we decided to drive to Hula Jungla in Carrillo for breakfast. There was a menu in the house we were staying in, which had many breakfast items. When we got there, it was hard to tell if it was open as no one was there. Breakfast was very limited but the owner spoke decent English and was very flexible. My daughter had a cheese omelette, my wife had toast (fresh bread) with homemade mango passion fruit jam. My friend and I had our first unconventional breakfast, grilled corvina (fish) and chicken with beans and rice. The place was very small but very friendly and the food was great. After breakfast we walked along Playa Carrillo for a while. A private plane took off from the small runway across from the beach right over our heads which was pretty cool. When we got back, there were about 7 monkeys eating in the trees right behind the house. They were really close and we tried not to bother them. This was a great picture opportunity, and they came out incredible. Also saw some iguanas and many different kinds of birds. For dinner, since it was Father’s Day and my wife’s birthday, we decided to splurge and go to El Lagarto. Yes it is a little expensive by local standards, but in line with US prices. I had the Surf & Turf 1, which had a nice sized filet mignon with a healthy piece of Dorado (Mahi), along with a baked potato, piece of grilled zucchini and a grilled tomato for $22. It was a great meal. With drinks for 3 and food for 4, our bill was $121. One thing I should mention is that there are dogs everywhere. There were a couple walking around El Lagarto, one at the bakery, another at Gusta. Best to ignore them so they don’t harass you. One observation is that these are “real dogs”, not living a pampered life. Although they hang around everywhere, they are not a nuisance at all. Just ignore them. We also saw horses and a donkey in the street, which just added to the flavor of the town.
Our 4th day began with breakfast at the Soda Sherif on the beach. Very reasonable and a decent breakfast. By now we were really enjoying the fresh fruit drinks with water (pina con agua. We looked at some souvenirs then decided to check out another beach. We hopped in the car and drove to Playa Guiones. It was a scenic but rough ride, complete with many potholes, washed out sections and minor water crossings. It was actually pretty easy, but rustic. The beach area was much more modern and “Americanized”. After walking the beach and buying some T-shirts we drove back to Samara for a second lunch at Coco’s. After that we walked around town, looking in shops, etc. After several cervezas and finally a nap, we had dinner at Café Esmeralda. I had read so much about the fish with avocado sauce I had to try it. It was great and very reasonable. Actually, all our dishes were really good. Dessert was a large slice of heated pineapple topped with a freshly made caramel sauce – OMG was it tasty!
Day 5 was a travel day. We began with another breakfast at Soda Sherif, checked out of the rental house and hit the road for the Lost Iguana Resort by Arenal. We expected the worst but the ride really wasn’t that bad. We only took one wrong turn in Tilaran that we realized immediately. The entire ride took just about 4 hours and 15 minutes. We stopped at the Super Compro in Canas for a snack on the way. This is where our lack of speaking Spanish took a comic turn. My wife had to use the restroom. I can still see her face when she emerged. I guess while she was sitting there listening to men speaking she realized she was in the wrong restroom! The first view of the volcano from the far side of lake was breathtaking. Little did we know what was in store for us. When we got to the dam, the volcano was in full view. I mean top to bottom. We couldn’t believe our good luck. Because it was around 3:30 and we had some time, we drove over to Sky Trek and on to the gate at Arenal Observatory Lodge. Although there were a few clouds, we could still see the entire volcano close up. Absolutely breathtaking, and one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen. We finally drove back to the dam and on to Lost Iguana Resort. As we drove through the gate, we knew it would be special. The grounds were magnificent, and the staff was very friendly and helpful. When we arrived at our room, we walked in and looked out the back door, and there was the volcano in full view, simply awesome. We unloaded our stuff and made our way to the bar by the pool for happy hour, with a perfect view of the volcano from our seats. While we were sitting there it let out a big puff of steam which was cool. Talking to a few people at the bar, it seems this was the first time they had seen the volcano in several days. I feel very lucky to have witnessed this. The resort will call everyone if the volcano erupts after 11pm which is pretty cool. I’d love to see a night eruption. With our luck you never know. Tomorrow morning we are doing Hanging Bridges then drive into La Fortuna to hike to the waterfall.
Our first full day in the Arenal area began with a picture perfect view of the volcano from our room. It was very active, and we would hear thunderous roars along with the classic “puff” of smoke. It remained clear most of the day. We started with the included breakfast buffet at the Lost Iguana while we watched the USA – Algeria World Cup game. After breakfast, it was off to the Hanging Bridges. We did not use a guide. It was tough to see any wildlife other than birds. We caught up to a small group who did hire a guide and they were looking at a family of monkeys in the trees. We recognized a few people in the group from the hotel, and they invited us to take pictures with them. I was able to get a great shot of a mother holding her baby. The guide was even able to call to the monkeys. We tagged along with the group for a while and gave the guide a 10,000 Colone tip. It was a pretty long hike considering it was only 1.9 miles. A friend who is traveling with us is wearing a protective boot on his foot, and my wife slightly twisted her ankle about a quarter of the way in. This didn’t help us speed through.
The plan for the afternoon was to hike to the La Fortuna Waterfall. My wife decided not to join us because of her ankle, and decided to stay at Lost Iguana and get a massage. A good move by her. The rest of us hopped in the car and drove into town. We had lunch at Soda El Rio which was fine then drove to the falls. It was a brutal climb out, especially for my friend with the boot. We drove back to the hotel, hopped in the pool and headed to the swim-up bar for happy hour. My now relaxed wife met us there. For dinner we headed back into town for pizza at Anchio. It was really good but a bit on the pricey side compared to Samara. On the way back to the hotel, we drove out to the bridge by AOL and saw a tiny trickle of lava before calling it a night. Back at the hotel we heard many roars from the volcano but it was pretty cloudy. Thursday will be our last day in Costa Rica, and we are booked on Sky Trek at 9:00am.
Our final full day started with breakfast at the hotel then a ride out to Sky Trek. My wife was quite uneasy about it. Let me tell you this was an awesome experience. We felt very safe and the guides spoke good English. They were actually hilarious and added to the great time. The cables were fast, high and long. One of the guides took my camera and did a cool video for us. They also took pictures of us. Well worth the money. After the activities of the prior days and a few injuries in the group, we decided to spend the rest of the day at Lost Iguana. Lunch was fine and we had several beverages at the swim-up bar. For dinner we went to Linda Vista Lodge. The view was great and we did see some lava. Our only complaint was that the windows were open and the bugs were pretty bad. Flies got in the water and a palm-sized beetle landed on my friend’s side plate. Food was OK but you can’t beat the location.
We had to leave early the next morning to make our flight home at 12:30. I’m glad we left when we did, because it is tough to pass on the curvy roads. We stopped at the Super Mega in La Fortuna to pick up some packaged coffee, then Café Vienna for some pastries for breakfast and a cup of delicious coffee. I became known as “Tico, Man of the Road” for my aggressive driving style. I was very safe, but when in Rome…… Everything went fine and we made our flight.
To summarize, this was a great trip. Samara gave us a good taste of local Tico life, and it was decidedly “un-Americanized”. We really enjoyed this aspect. Arenal was much more civilized which was fine, but very different. I’m glad we experienced both. Eating at the Sodas when you are the only one there gives the opportunity to mingle with locals and the food is great and cheap. The roads are not as bad as we expected, and the GPS was well worth it.
Pura Vida!! We’ll be back.