Family Trip

Costa Rica

December, 2007


This was a little "different" trip for us, so this will be a little longer review than usual. I hope you find it interesting. After a little introduction and "set-up", I'll cover our travels and activities on a day-by-day basis. We left on Sunday, Dec. 23 and returned the following Sunday, Dec 30. This is normally part of the "Dry Season", but as several people told us, they were getting more rain than usual this time of year, sort of an extended rainy season.

Setting the Stage

We (Susan and I) had decided that we wanted to take our kids on a trip, sort of like the old style "Family Trip", only our boys are grown and gone, and one is married. This made scheduling a bit of a problem and the only time we could all agree on was over the Christmas holidays, one of the busiest travel periods. Once we had the date set, we had to decide on a destination. Our kids are not big on water sports but we all agreed that we wanted to go someplace warm. The idea of Costa Rica came up since some neighbors had recently gone there and enjoyed it. We all agreed that would be an interesting destination and the preparations began. Although it was July when we started, most of the preferred resorts were already booked solid for that popular travel period. We were working through a travel agent who worked with us very well and after a couple of false starts, she put together a workable itinerary. One interesting part, as it turned out, is that the travel agent went to a local company, Elegant Adventures, who are travel organizers which specialize in high-end travel in Central America. Elegant Adventures arranged some of the resorts and all the transportation between the several locations. After the arrangements were mostly complete, we found out that Elegant Adventures is owned and run by neighbors who live in the same subdivision as we do. This had some significance later on…

Getting there and back

Air travel was arranged by the TA and was on Delta, non-stop from Atlanta to San Jose, Costa Rica and return. The flight down was about 2:45 late (apparent delay of the incoming flight into Atlanta) and the return flight was about an hour late. Flights were comfortable enough and each had a typical airline meal included. There were several ground transfers involved and all were on time (or early) and comfortable. Customs and Immigration in and out of Costa Rica was quick and easy. It soon became apparent that the travel industry in Costa Rica was generally well oiled and anxious to make guests feel welcome. Even before we had cleared Immigration, representatives of Elegant Adventures had met us and pointed us in the right direction. They continued to help us on our way until we were in the van heading to our first stop.

Overall Plan

The plan was to take ground transportation to the La Mansion resort in Manuel Antonio and spend three nights there, then go up to the Arenal Volcano area for the next three nights, and finally spend one night at Villa Blanca in the cloud forest before returning to San Jose and our flight home.

La Mansion at Manuel Antonio

The ride from San Jose to Manuel Antonio was almost three hours and we were almost 3 hours late getting into San Jose, so we didn't arrive at La Mansion until about 7:30 PM. When we made our reservations relatively late, the only "room" they had available was the "Presidential Suite". It was two rooms and they would move out the dining table and put in one queen and one single bed (Susan and I and younger son Lee). Older son Michael and his wife Liz would get the bedroom. And what a suite it was!!

The bedroom at La Mansion: the other room was almost as nice

Very roomy and luxurious. There were some minor problems, like no place to hang our clothes without going into the bedroom and getting used to sleeping under a big chandelier, but overall it was very nice and somewhat unique. And the view from the nice balcony was wonderful, complete with a elegantly set dining table on the balcony and a telescope for keeping an eye on the Manuel Antonio beach area..

The view off our balcony, toward Manuel Antonio Park Beach

We found a basket with a bottle of wine and some snacks with a "Welcome" card from the owners of Elegant Adventures and shortly a "bellboy" appeared with another basket with a bottle of Champagne and chocolates. From what I could tell, the Champagne was provided for all guests on arrival. We cleaned up a little and headed down to dinner. It turned out that they had just recently opened their Jacques Cousteau restaurant, and it was very good. We had a very nice meal with excellent service. Indeed, this was just the first of the outstanding service we received at La Mansion.

The next morning we enjoyed their (included) breakfast that featured fresh fruit and your choice of several main courses and the excellent Costa Rican coffee. Susan, Lee, and I took a walk down the hill to a small beach close to the resort. While there, we saw a tree sloth with a infant up in the trees overhead. This beach really didn't look very good for swimming or snorkeling, so we headed back up the hill. Since we didn't have anything planned for that day (Manuel Antonio park is closed on Mondays) we checked at the front desk and a guy there recommended a "Mangrove tour" of Damas Island. It sounded good to all of us so we signed up for the tour, which included lunch. When the van arrived to pick us up, I wasn't real surprised to see the guy who suggested the tour driving the van… he just happened to be at the front desk when I was asking. After a 30 minute van ride we (and about 7 other people) boarded a boat for a tour, looking for animals, especially monkeys. The guide, Juan, made it interesting as we found various habitats around the waterways, but no monkeys. We did find a Silky Anteater, a small and relatively rare anteater that lives mostly in the mangroves. Juan also found a Tree Boa (constrictor) and brought it into the boat for everyone to see, then released it back to the mangroves.

Juan is showing the Tree Boa around the boat.

Then we got word from another boat that the monkeys were just a little ways up the river and headed that direction. We did find about 5 or 6 monkeys but they had already been fed and were more wary than hungry so we didn't see much of them. After the tour was over we went to a restaurant (D'Angle) in Quepos for a rather late (3:00 PM ) lunch which we enjoyed very much: either it was good or we were hungry!

Susan, Lee, Liz, and Michael enjoy lunch after the mangrove tour.

That evening, Christmas Eve, a reception and a special dinner at La Masion was included in the package, and a very nice dinner it was.. A 5 course meal including a very nice variation of "surf and turf", wine, and all the trimmings, including a coffee liquor called Café Rica served over ice. The staff continued to be very attentive during the reception and dinner.

For the next day (Tuesday and Christmas day) we had scheduled a tour of the Manuel Antonio park and had to get an early start because entrance to the park is limited; late comers may not get in and this was expected to be a very busy day at the park.

Liz, Susan, Lee, and Michael waiting to start the park tour.

The park was nice and quite a few white-face monkeys make their appearance, as well as a family of Raccoons, but truthfully I was a little disappointed. I think I would have enjoyed it more if we had explored some of the more remote areas of the park, rather than sticking to the main paths with hundreds of other people. I would advise others to try to visit on less busy days and in small groups to enjoy it the most.

One of the White-Faced Monkeys at the park.

After the tour was over the operator served a light fresh fruit snack at a local restaurant. We then went back into the park to enjoy the beaches (we had worn swimsuits under our clothes for this purpose). Susan, Liz, and Lee went swimming in the waves while Michael and I stayed on the beach and I took photos. When we had all had enough (and the swimmers had enough sand in their swimsuits) we left the park: Susan, Lee, and I caught a taxi to La Mansion and Michael and Liz stayed a while to do some shopping. We hung out at the pool and our balcony resting for the remainder of the day.

A view of one of the three beaches at Manual Antonio Park.

That evening there was another reception (featuring some pretty good Sangria) before a buffet style dinner in the patio area. This was buffet done first class! There were numerous very attractive and tasty dishes. While dining, the owner of La Mansion stopped by our table and introduced himself and he was a friend of the owners of Elegant Adventures, so he knew we were their neighbors. I am certain that all guests at La Mansion get very good treatment, but I suspect that we got a little "extra" special treatment. (But, hey… it was fun!!) The next morning (Wednesday) we packed up and got in the van to ride to the Arenal volcano area.

Magic Mountain at Arenal Volcano

It was a five hour ride from Manuel Antonio to La Fortuna, at the base of the Arenal volcano. The ride was pretty interesting most of the time, but the traffic was sometimes very congested since this was a popular vacation time and that day was a holiday for most Costa Ricans, so many of them were heading for the beach.

Many highway bridges are one-lane. You may wait 10 minutes for your turn.

One view along the road from Manual Antonio to Arenal Volcano.

All of the resorts that Elegant Adventures partners with in that area were full, so the Travel agent had booked us into Magic Mountain which she described as "a nice Holiday Inn". I'd probably put it a notch above most HIs I've stayed in: it was almost brand new, very clean, well maintained and had an excellent location and view. We looked out our glass doors past our little balcony, and out onto the Arenal Volcano (when it was not shrouded in clouds).

The view out our room and balcony at Magic Mountain.

The room seemed a bit small, but perhaps that was because of what we had at La Mansion. We ate lunch at the restaurant in the resort and it was good, but a bit pretentious for the type of resort. We walked the mile or so into town (La Fortuna) for a look around. We returned to the Magic Mountain to relax and had dinner at their "Sports Bar" above the other restaurant. It was OK, but they tried to imitate an American Sports Bar and just didn't quite have it right. This was probably the least "successful" meal of our trip.

A view of the volcano at dusk from a park in La Fortuna.

The next morning (Thursday) we enjoyed the included breakfast (lots of fresh fruit, eggs, bacon or sausage, breads, etc.) and spent the morning goofing off and walking into town again, where Michael and Liz found two paintings to go in their house. We relaxed and then had a pizza lunch at a restaurant close to the resort. At 2:00 the van appeared to take us to our tour of the Arenal Volcano and other activities. The tour included a visit to the park and a walk part way up the volcano, as far as the general public is allowed to go. There were numerous signs about "Zone of high volcanic risk". On a good day you might be able to see red lava around the top of the volcano, but on this day the top 500 ft or so of the mountain was covered by clouds, although you could occasionally hear a faint rumble.

A much closer, but cloud obstructed, view of the volcano.

After the tour and walk around the volcano, we loaded up and headed to a hot spring. There are several of these facilities in the area, with multiple pools of varying temperatures, generally around 100 degrees F. After some time in the pools, and a refreshing drink, we loaded up and headed to dinner where we had a choice of several entrees. The meal was fine but it seemed as though they stretched it out a bit too much, perhaps trying to give us our money's worth, but we ended up just sitting around for 30 minutes after finishing desert. We were delivered back to Magic Mountain a little after 9:00 PM.

The next morning (Friday) promised to be interesting. Before leaving for the Arenal tour we had booked all of us on a "Canopy Tour", otherwise known as "Zip-Lines". Steel cables are strung between mountain ridges, you put on a harness and are hooked into a pulley that is placed on the cable and you go for a ride. And it can be quite a ride!! It was misting and/or raining lightly much of the morning so you really couldn't see very far, especially when zipping along at 30 mph or so. On the shorter (about 200 M) lines, you could see the landing area from the take-off point, but on the longer lines (like 540 M and 980 M) you really had no idea where you were going to end up. Of course, when you're in the middle of a line and look straight down several hundred feet, you can see very well!

Susan zipping along one of the shorter zip-lines. (What?!, you don't recgonize her??)

It was quite exciting and highly recommended for anyone with a bit of a sense of adventure. Some of the other zip-line participants were then going to go rappelling down a 300 foot cliff, but we had not signed up for that part of the tour and decided we'd had enough excitement for the day. After returning the hotel, we relaxed for the rest of the day, going into town for a dinner of local type food at an open air restaurant.

Saturday morning we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, packed up, and waited for the van to take us to the Cloud Forest and Villa Blanca.

Villa Blanca at the Cloud Forest

Villa Blanca is another of Elegant Adventures favored resorts and it is very unique. Set in the cloud forest (we were in the clouds most of our stay) the environment is very different from most of the other areas of Costa Rica. You'll see vegetation here that you will find nowhere else and the resort itself is very different.

Some of the flowers along the nature trail.

Individual "casitas" (cabins) with plenty of room and truly spacious and elegant facilities as well as very nice common facilities (including a movie theater with Dolby-THX sound system) make for a unique experience. Villa Blanca is a certified "Green Resort" and they are careful to not disturb the environment. (We felt that their signifncant use of inefficient wood burning fireplaces was somewhat inconsistant with this since these are a very inefficient way of heating and produce a large amounts of CO2. Of course, we did enjoy the fireplace in our casita though.) We had a very nice lunch in their restaurant and then spent the afternoon walking the nature trails and watching the humming birds around the feeders. We also had a bottle of wine and some snacks that we just had to use up before we headed home the next day.

Relaxing by the fireplace in our room. We HAD to finish that bottle of wine.

At 6:00 PM we gathered for a guided "Nocturnal Nature Walk" through part of the rain forest, spotting insects, reptiles and such. After the walk we headed to the restaurant for a very nice dinner. Both the food and the service was truly first class.

An example of the food at Villa Blanca. It tastes as good as it looks.

Sunday morning some of made it up in time for the 6:00 AM "Bird Watching Tour". For a real birdwatcher this would probably have been very good, but for us "interested but not dedicated" types, it was a little disappointing. Perhaps the main problem was that it was (as usual) very foggy and the birds that would be colorful in clear air conditions all looked gray in the fog. The guide could identify the birds and point them out in a book which showed all the colors, but, looking through the fog, all I saw was gray birds. The guide did point out some other interesting items, like the large Leaf-cutter ant colony and the story behind the beautiful little church overlooking the resort. The tour was supposed to be 2 hours long, but we finished at about 90 minutes, which was fine with me so we headed in for a tasty and welcome breakfast.

The walkway toward the common buildings at Villa Blanca.

We then packed up and relaxed while we waited for our 10:30 van back to the San Jose airport. Villa Blanca was very nice and we enjoyed our visit, but unless you like to relax a lot, sitting around and reading and such, a couple of days there will probably be enough. There are limited activities close by and many of the other activities you might want to do are an hour or more away by car.

Return Trip

The 90 minute ride to the airport was uneventful and both check-in and customs clearance was quick and easy. You should be aware that there is a $26 departure tax per person, and cash (either US or Costa Rican) is very much preferred. If you forgot to get any souvenirs or gifts to take home, you'll have plenty of opportunities in the airport.

Waiting for our flight at the San Jose airport. I think they're ready to go home.

General Comments

We all had a great time and we look forward to going back sometime. When we go again there are some things I'd do differently, and some I'd do the same:
  • Go during a less busy time. Although things did still run pretty smooth, you could tell that the facilities and activities were strained to their maximum. A less crowded environment would be nicer.
  • For a one week trip, limit the resort changes to one (two resorts total). Changing twice and adjusting to three different resorts just takes too much time on a 7 day trip. (Which is another reason to avoid the busy period: the schedule we ended up with was the best that could be worked out on such notice.)
  • Our neighbor who had visited Costa Rica gave us two pieces of advice: don't try to drive yourself, and do the Zip-lines. I tend to agree with both suggestions.

Photo Album

Manual Antonio from our balcony

Click on the picture to view the album