Costa Rica Familiarisation Visit

I had never been to Costa Rica before and was not sure what to expect on my trip. I knew they were very much into saving the environment which appealed to me and the fact they export a lot of bananas (107 million to be exact; which I found out during my visit!) but not much else… it turned out that it is such a beautiful country with a lot of places to visit and things to experience.

8-day Costa Rica tour

My 8-day tour was with Trafalgar and was called Monkeys Jungles & Volcanoes, one of a few different Costa Rica tours they operate. Over the course of the tour we were visiting four places and going both sides of Costa Rica and you can put your feet into both the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean all in one week!

As it was an early meet at Gatwick with the rest of my tour group (other travel agents), my trip started the night before in the Premier Inn Gatwick North.

The Premier Inn is a great hotel just across the road from the North Terminal and has comfortable rooms, even though I was flying from the South Terminal it was very easy to take the shuttle train between the terminals, it runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week and takes just two minutes to go from one terminal to the other. I met my other travellers near the British Airways zone in the North Terminal, there were 25 of us in total including our two leaders, Chris & Mark from Trafalgar.

British Airways flight to Costa Rica

BA have a direct service twice a week from Gatwick to San Jose – Saturdays and Wednesdays are the days they currently fly. We travelled out in economy with BA and it was very comfortable with lots of choice on their in-flight entertainment system with films and TV programmes to keep you entertained throughout the 10.5-hour flight. I managed to squeeze in three films along with a couple of classic episodes of Friends to fill the time. Being a vegetarian, my food came along earlier than the others on the flight but it was nice and there were a couple of choices that you could choose from. On this flight, there were two meals along, once after take-off and then one before the flight landed with a snack provided in-between.

Once we arrived in Costa Rica, we had to complete a landing card and then make our way through the quite lengthy line at immigration. Once through, we collected our luggage and met with our Trafalgar Tour Director, Fabian who was going to be our guide for the tour. I can’t really describe just how brilliant Fabian was, he is from Costa Rica and local knowledge was excellent. He really enhanced our tour and should anyone get Fabian on one of their tours it will only mean you will have an excellent time! I would think all Trafalgar Tour Directors would be of the same quality.

Getting from San Jose Airport to Sheraton hotel

Once on the coach, it was around a 30-minute journey from the airport to our hotel for the evening, the Sheraton in San Jose. For 2017 customers on this tour, they will stay at InterContinental Costa Rica and from 2018 it will change to the Sheraton, they are located next to one another and close to the mall in San Jose should you feel like taking a quick visit to the shops on arrival!

We had time for a drink in the bar, a beer was around US$5, before a welcome meal with the whole group in the evening. When we had drinks in the other hotels during the rest of the week the beers were all around the US$5 mark, cocktails and any spirits were more expensive. The Sheraton does have a pool on the top of the hotel should anyone wish to take a quick dip of a visit the rooftop for a nice photo.

Day 2: Trip to Tortuguero National Park

On our first full day in Costa Rica, we departed shortly after 7am for our stay at Laguna Lodge in Tortuguero National Park. We drove through San Jose downtown before departing on Highway 32 over the continental divide towards the Caribbean Sea side of the island where we would have two nights at the Laguna Lodge.

During our lunch stop, we got to see the one animal I really wanted to see during my trip… a sloth! It’s a good job that Fabian is an expert animal spotter as he saw two different sloths in the trees. Over the course of the 8-day tour, we did get to see quite a few more and you get to become a bit of an expert yourself, being able to tell whether it’s a two or three finger sloth variety!

To get to the Tortuguero National Park, an hour’s boat ride is needed. And it was on the boat where we got to see our first sighting of several different monkey varieties!

Tortuguero means Land of the Turtles and if you book on the tour of the National Park between July and September, you can get the chance to see the turtles laying eggs on the beach. Sadly I was just short of this by a few weeks, but we got to visit a Sea Turtle Conservation Centre+ to learn more about how the local village get involved in helping protect the turtles for future generations.

Day 3: Trip to Tortuguero National Park

Although it was hot and very humid on our first couple of days, day 3 saw our first lot of blue sky. In the morning, we had a three-hour boat tour to spot the local wildlife. On the boat trip around Tortuguero National Park, we did manage to see quite a bit: a few different types of monkey (including the White-Faced Capuchins), a mother with baby Caymans, toucans as well as many other birds.

After the tour and lunch, it was the first chance to relax with a few hours by the pool in the afternoon. We did venture on to the beach, but it is not safe to swim in the Caribbean Sea as it’s so rough so we dipped our toe in then enjoyed the rest of our cocktails by the pool!

Before dinner, we had a Caribbean food tasting where we could try local dishes which included some pasties and also Plantain which is very similar looking to a banana but needs to be cooked before being eaten.

Day 4: Arenal National Park

On Day 4, it was time to move on to the Arenal National Park. We took the one-hour boat again to get back to our coach and once on board, we made a couple of stops en route to Arenal. This included a stop to sample some fresh fruit from local sellers, plus visiting a Hearts of Palm Plantation which is run by a local family.

Hearts of Palm is a vegetable harvested from the inner core of certain palm trees – they provide us with a sample which they have cooked and we placed it into a wrap and was very, very nice!

Onwards for our journey, we also stopped off at a Wildlife Centre which helps injured animals. There were a few crocodiles, turtles, snakes and one sloth which sadly had its head tucked away as otherwise, this would have been my best photo of the trip as there was only around one meter between us. If you wanted to hold a snake you could but I declined as they are not my favourite animal!

Once we arrived at our accommodation, Arenal Paraiso Resort & Spa there was time for a quick sample of the hot springs they have. The hot springs are pumped from the volcano which is called Arenal – starting at the top of the springs it’s 40 degrees but as you make your way into each pool lower down, the temperatures decrease.

After dinner at the hotel, it was time for us all to become supports of Costa Rica! Costa Rica was playing against Trinidad & Tobago in the World Cup 2020 qualifiers, most of us purchased their shirt as they were very good value compared to the prices of football shirts in England. Being a football fan myself it was probably my favourite evening of the trip as Fabian taught us a local chant and once in the local bar we all got into it and the whole pub sang along to the chant, luckily Costa Rica won 2-1 so we all carried on celebrating until the early hours!

Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

Day 5: Arenal Volcano walking tour

It was an early start with a few sore heads after the football the evening before, although it was a lovely sight to open the curtains up to in the room as we had the Arenal Volcano staring right back at you surrounded by blue sky. As we had arrived in the dark the day before, you couldn’t see what direction it was in.

Each room at the Arenal Paraiso Resort & Spa had a balcony with chairs so if you wanted to relax with a view up to the volcano, you can.

We had two walks planned for today. The first was up to the volcano – which is still active – and we sat at the lava rocks part of the way up the volcano to learn about when it last erupted. The second walk was a 20-minute drive away from the volcano to the Hanging Bridges where the 1.5-2 hour walk takes you around the canopy treetops to spot local wildlife and look out over the Arenal Volcano. Part of the walk takes a detour to a waterfall which is worth the few minutes it takes to get there.

You do walk over hanging bridges, so be aware if you’re afraid of heights. But the views you get across the Rainforest are well worth it. After we returned to the hotel, we cooled off in the hot springs and swimming pool before dinner.

Day 6: Crocodiles, ziplining and pizza!

Today, we travelled again over to the Caribbean Side of the country to Manuel Antonio National Park, which would be our final hotel stop. To get there, it was back over the continental divide again where we all got the opportunity to walk over a bridge to find 45 crocodiles beneath us in the river! So long as you didn’t drop anything you were fine, as don’t think you would ever get it back!

After a light lunch, it was time for one of the highlights of the trip: ziplining! You zip along at eye level through the rainforest attached to the line, some of them at high speeds, and one where you could go upside down! If you wanted, you could be attached to one of the instructors who would then do all the breaking for you while you admire the stunning views surrounding you.

It was an exhilarating experience and something that will definitely stay with me. At the end of the activity, you could also buy a photo to remind you of the experience which was not too expensive, around $15 for a photo.

Once we arrived at the Parador Resort & Spa, there was a Pizza evening for our dinner. At each hotel, we stayed at they did seem to get better and the 5* Parador made sure we ended up in a beautiful hotel.

Day 7: Exploring Manuel Antonio National Park

On Day 7 we started the day after breakfast by having a tour around the hotel which isn’t part of the normal Trafalgar tour but as we were all Travel Agents gave us a chance to see what the hotel has to offer.

After the tour, we went out into the National Park to visit the best beach in the area, it was a 20-minute walk into the National Park to get there but it’s well worth it. The National Park costs $16 to enter. If you wish there are trails in the National Park should you wish to try and spot more wildlife or one last sloth! There are over 109 different animals and 184 species of birds which call Manuel Antonio National Park home.

Later, in the afternoon most of the group chilled by the pool and caught some last rays of sun before the farewell dinner at the hotel. A few of us, including myself, might have been gluttons for punishment as Fabian took us to a local bar where again there was drinking until the early hours!

Day 8: Flying from San Jose to Gatwick

Day 8 was our last day which saw us depart the hotel back to San Jose where would catch our British Airways flight home back to Gatwick. We did stop en route back to the airport and if you wanted any last-minute souvenirs there is a small amount of time to purchase them. At the airport, there are a few cafes to get a bottle of water or hot drink and a small bite to eat, they don’t work particularly fast at the airport so allow enough time to get checked in and through security!

We all managed to get some sleep on the flight, they served dinner on board and breakfast before we landed in the early hours of Sunday morning where we all said our goodbyes to make our way our journeys home.

Review of 8-day Costa Rica tour

One of the things you hear a lot in Costa Rica is the saying “Pura Vida” which means “Everything is Good” or “Good Life” and one thing for sure is that they do seem to live the good life in Costa Rica and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. If you want to explore a county in a week then this tour certainly covers a lot of Costa Rica in a week. I would recommend, if you can, to have the three-night extension at the end of the trip if you just wanted just to relax for a few days.