Costa Rica Vacation
We were looking for an excuse to escape Texas and decided on a Costa Rica Vacation to celebrate our granddaughter's and our daughter's birthdays as well as an excuse to get the entire family together, have some fun, experience a new country, and enjoy some cervezas. Wow, what a good time we had on this Costa Rican vacation - unbelievable lodging, beautiful scenery, lots of laughs, new adventures, and lots more.
This article will cover our stay at two award winning hotels, three zip line tours, rappelling down and through 135' waterfalls, horseback riding, a round of golf, some time on the beach and several hot springs, a hike through the jungle over swinging suspension bridges to a water fall, white water rafting, and more.
We all fell in love with Costa Rica - from our perspective, some of what makes Costa Rica phenomenal includes:
blue sparkling water of both the Caribbean and Pacific oceans plus rushing rivers, cascading waterfalls, and large lakes
flat lush green pastures with grazing cows leading to mountains and a towering volcano at over 5000 feet
unbelievably colorful (reds, pinks, yellows, whites) flora and fauna, dense tropical forests, and jungles
a variety of wildlife from parrots to toucans and howler monkeys to iguanas and two toed sloths
But best of all from our opinion are the native Costa Ricans who are friendly and outgoing and always have a smile on their face, a "Hola" (hello) and "Pura Vida" (good life) greeting, and are willing to help you in anyway they can. They are proud of their heritage and love their country and do all they can to keep it clean (we have never seen a more litter free country!), green, and eco friendly. In fact, Costa Rica is recognized as a leading country in human development and environmental sustainability. And it has the largest percentage of protected areas in the world which contributes to it being the most popular country in South American for eco tourism. A beautiful country with friendly and outgoing people.
Hotel Punta Islita And Adventures
Our family of 13 flew into Liberia airport and crammed our bags and 5 grand kids into 3 small cars and set off on a 3 hour drive to Hotel Punta Islita. About 2 hours into the drive it was time for a potty stop and a couple cervezas at a small outdoor bar in the middle of nowhere. It didn't take long to meet one of the locals who is regarded by the bartender as a bit "crazy." He's an old, very friendly codger with no shirt, a scraggy dog, a long flowing beard, and a long sharp machete. The grand kids were immediately invited to pet the dog while he smiled and rambled on in Spanish (no idea what he was saying) and then proceeded to entertain the adults as he danced to the music, tried to do a cartwheel only to land flat on his back, get back up and shake it off and flex his muscles as he sang to the music. We got a few laughs, bought him a beer, and high fived him good bye. He and his dog and machete disappeared back into the jungle!
After a grueling 30 minute drive (at 8 PM in the dark dense forest) on a very bumpy twisting and turning road with lots of ups and downs, we arrived at Hotel Punta Islita, and were warmly greeted by Louis - who we quickly named "L." He could see that we were beat and thirsty and he handed us a complimentary drink, told us to go relax at the bar, and not to worry about checking in now, come back tomorrow. And to our surprise he took our three cars to our Villa, unloaded our bags, and brought the cars back - just a small example of the excellent and friendly service we would experience over the next 4 days at Hotel Punta Islita.
After a few drinks and linking up with my brother and his wife who arrived earlier that day, we decided to go check out our Villa - wow, wow, wow! The Hotel Punta Islita has won a number of awards over the years, including Travel & Leisure's "Best Hotels in the World" and it is impressive with a spa, great restaurants, luxury villas, rooms with a plunge pool and stunning views, an infinity pool over looking the ocean, a beach bar and pool, 9 hole golf course and more.
Over the next few days we enjoyed the pool at our Villa, took a fun zip line tour through the forest, played 9 holes of golf, met several of the town folk in nearby Islita as we watched a local soccer match, ate and drank way too much, had lots of laughs, enjoyed the beach, the beach bar, and the beach pool. Click on this link to learn more about our stay at Hotel Punta Islita.
A Fun Day In Samara, Costa Rica
All too soon it was time to say good bye to our friends at Hotel Punta Islita and move from the beach to the jungle. With 13 people, we can't drive too far before making a potty, cerveza, or food stop - I won the award for requiring all three every 2 hours or so! Which means, shortly after getting off that bouncy twisting dirt road from Punta Islita, we stopped in Samara to enjoy the beach, beach bar, and beach food.
Just short, Samara is a beautiful beach with soft sand, palm trees swaying in the breeze, and some good waves for body surfing! After playing in the sand and surf it was time for some food and cold drinks and we found a perfect place with beach side tables, excellent food, live music, and cold cervezas and excellent margaritas! I fell in love with this small friendly town on a beautiful stretch of beach, lots of restaurants, some unique beach front lodging included a tree house, and plenty of activities from zip line tours to surfing, fishing or horse back riding on the beach.
By now we had created several cheers and toasts and sitting on the beach sipping a margarita called for several of them. Any of our crew who was having a good time could yell "Costa" and the rest of group would raise glasses and respond with "Rica." Another was "Punta" with a loud "Vida" in response - which means "good life" - and we were truly enjoying it. By the way, the Costa Rican brewed Imperial (in light, regular, or silver) is outstanding and we put a big dent in their supply!
It was hard leaving Punta Islita Hotel, the beach, and Samara but we were looking forward to the next five days in the jungle around the Arenal Lake and Volcano. After nearly 400 of years of inactivity, Arenal Volcano began erupting in 1968 and when it blew it's top it destroyed the small town of Tabacón and covered an area of over 5 miles in rock, lava, and ash. It continued to erupt until 2010 and has been inactive since then - as we drove past it on a bumpy dirt road on our way to a zipline tour, I crossed my fingers and hoped it would remain inactive. The volcano sits in the middle of Arenal National Park which is a major attraction for birding, hiking, and wildlife viewing. The reason we came to this area is because it's home to one of the best hotels in the world and the area offers lots of exciting adventures and attractions.
Nayara Spa & Garden Hotel
The last hour of our drive to the Arenal area and our destination (the Nayara Hotel) was demanding - a narrow, twisting and turning, roller coaster ride in the dark and fog - but after downing the cold beer we were handed as soon as we walked into the Nayara Hotel atrium and quickly jumping in one of the hot tubs followed by a delicious Pina Colada at the swim up bar, we forgot about the drive and were ready to enjoy the food, hotel, adventures, and city of Fortuna.
Nayara Spa & Garden Hotel is luxury boutique hotel with a stunning setting - a wide variety of beautiful and colorful flowers and dense jungle plants and trees surrounding 3 different hot tubs, a neat pool and swim up bar, an open air restaurant, spa, adult pool, fish pond, and all of the rooms and villas. It's quiet and peaceful except for the birds chirping, the frog ribbitting, and a tame colorful parrot saying " hola." It's not surprising that Nayara is rated the:
Number 1 Resort in Central & South America according to Travel & Leisure
"#1 Hotel in Central & South America" according to Conde Nast Traveler
4th best hotel in the world and in the top 5 "Most Romantic Hotels in the World" according to Trip Advisor
Our room at Nayara was fantastic - much larger than a standard hotel type room, rich wood floors, bamboo ceiling, a 4 poster king bed, a beautiful wood patio with a hammock, and two wooden chairs, and dense jungle fauna and flowers surrounding it.
And our room had a large outdoor shower, a huge indoor shower, and a jacuzzi bath tub on the patio! I had to try all three and the hotel's hot tubs at the pool sure felt good after a full day of activities. The showers made me smell like a rose, but all of our wet clothes didn't smell that great and I noticed that people would tend to shy away when I walked by! Everything from rain jackets to shorts and tee shirts and bathing suits was hanging from every hook and cranny in our room trying to get dry from getting drenched in the rain, waterfalls, or river or from enjoying the pool and hot tub!
The Nayara was one of the reasons we came to the rain forest and the city of Fortuna, but the main reason is because the area is loaded with exciting adventures and lots of things to see and do as well as some good restaurants.
Adventures in Fortuna, Costa Rica
White Water Rafting with Desafio Adventure Company
After downing a delicious breakfast buffet at Nayara, a Desafio Adventure Company shuttle bus picked us up for our first adventure in the jungle - white river rafting down Rio Balsa! What a blast - over 20 continuous Class II and III rapids, lots of laughs, a few scary moments, a dunking in the river for 4 of us who fell out of the raft on a huge rapid, and some beautiful scenery. Read about our White Water Rafting Trip with Desafio Adventure.
Arenal Hanging Bridges
The next day we had a full day of activities starting with a hike in the rain through the jungle at Arenal Hanging Bridges - a complex of trails and bridges through the rain forest. And it was a true rain forest the day we were there, but that didn't stop us from enjoying a fun couple hour hike.
You can take a tour or walk the trail on your own, which is what we did. The twisting and turning trail leads you through a dense forest with a wide variety of trees and plants and wildlife - in fact, we had our first verified (at least 2 people saw it) monkey sighting; across six hanging suspension bridges up to 98 meters long and what seems like 300' feet above the rushing creeks and ravines below; and across ten static bridges. The goal, which is about half way is to make it to the cascading waterfall. The suspension bridges that sway left and right and up and down (particularly when one of our party starts jumping and swinging left and right yelling "Costa" and the jungle echoes with "Rica") were fun.
The rain that day was cool and refreshing during our hike and every night in the jungle was a downpour pounding on the roof of our room. Turns out that we were visiting during the rainy season but we got very lucky - it rained every night and during our Hanging Bridges hike but during all of our other outings and adventures it was overcast but not raining!
Zipline Adventure at Sky Adventures
After the hike, we went to Sky Adventures for lunch and a zip line adventure. Lunch was good but the view of Arenal Lake and the Arenal Volcano towering above the jungle and into the clouds was amazing. Before zipping, we all needed to down a couple drinks to build our courage - we heard that the zipline was adrenaline pumping and a tad scary! To start the tour you ride the slow-paced Sky Tram gondolas to the top - a 2500 feet long ride that rises 650 feet through the rain forest with magnificent panoramic views of the jungle, Arenal Volcano, and Arenal Lake. After seeing the first zipline I was tempted to ride the tram back down.
But I sucked it up and enjoyed the circuit of zip lines stretching across canyons and between treetops. There are ten zipline cables and they range in height from 98' to 250' and in length from 650' to an amazing 2450'! Not only are they long and high above the jungle floor, they are blazingly fast! A thrilling and scenic ride which is like a roller coaster - after the initial fear was over, you're ready to do it again yelling all the way with your hands in the air! A fun day zipping calls for another cold cerveza and a loud "Costa!"
The Combo Tour With Arenal Munda Adventura- Zipline, Rappel, & Horseback Riding
On Friday morning, we took a short drive though Fortuna to our next adventure with Arenal Munda Adventura. We signed up for the "Combo Tour" which includes 12 ziplines, a rappel down a waterfall (the exciting and scary climb back up a rope ladder was included at no additional charge!), a short tour of a native village, and a horseback ride back to the cars. Wow, what a fantastic adventure. Click on Combo Tour Adventure to read more, but here are the highlights:
the ziplines are fast and some of the longest and highest in Costa Rica
I struggled up the steep and twisting climb to one of the zipline thanks to having to carry what seemed like over 100 cervezas, 22 Pina Coladas, 14 margaritas, and 300 pounds of good food
the rappel straight down 260' beside a cascading waterfall with a thrilling surprise at the bottom was unbelievable and the climb straight back up the face of the cliff was a unique thrill
the horseback ride back had a couple of laughs, some "Costa" chants, and one rambunctious horse
After that great adventure, we headed straight to the nearest bar and restaurant for some appetizers, cold drinks, and laughs about our adventure with Arenal Munda Adventura. After which, since we were all stiff and sore from all the adventures, we decided to head to Baldi Hot Springs to soak in the hot tubs!
Baldi Hot Springs
Costa Rica is loaded with natural hot springs and on our list of things to do was to hike to one of them but we could never find the time and I didn't have a backpack big enough for 15 beers, chips, peanuts, and salsa! So the next best choice was Baldi Hot Springs which is very commercial but has several hot springs, water slides, a spa, hotel, two restaurants, and best of all, two swim up bars! Their web site says there are "25 thermo mineral hot water pools flowing naturally from the base of the volcano with pools ranging in temperatures from 93, 100, 102, 104, 109, 110, 113, 116, 152 degrees." And they claim that "these natural waters have multiple health benefits, both physically and chemically, due to its temperature and organic minerals. These healing waters reduce pressure on joints and muscles which creates a feeling of relaxation and also assists our metabolism while stimulating digestion." Couple that with a couple cold cervezas and I'm in heaven!
We started at the bottom pool at the entrance (probably because it had a swim up bar) then worked our way up the hill stopping at several different pools on our way to the restaurant for a surprisingly good buffet. There is a swim up bar at the bottom and another one half way to the restaurant - perfect! Each of the pools are a little different:
all have man made rock structures and lots of plants and fauna giving you somewhat of a natural hot spring feeling - which is hard to get when you have a Pina Colada in your hand!
some have cascading waterfalls which felt great and similar to a pounding massage on a tired back
one big pool had three super fast slides that got lots of rides by most of us and several giggles as the riders came screaming down the slide and bounced across the water
a small cave that is home to a very hot natural shower and what feels like a sauna with an adjoining cold water cave
A full day of adventures, five hours of hot springs, a good buffet, and several cervezas and I slept like a baby! I woke up refreshed and water logged but ready to go Canyoneering.
Canyoneering with Pure Trek Canyoneering
Pure Trek Canyoneering met us in the Hotel lobby at noon, took us to their headquarters for a good Costa Rican lunch (chicken, rice, beans, fruit, juice, and more) followed by a 15 minute ride to the base of the mountain where we piled into some open air 4 wheel drive trucks for a bouncy trek up the mountain to get our gear and start our exciting waterfall rappelling adventure. We had a blast over the next 3 hours rappelling down four cliffs that ranged from 45 feet to over 165 feet, hiking through the rain forest beside rushing creeks and ravines, and finally munching on cookies with warm coffee at the end of the trip! Wow, thrilling, chilling, exciting, adrenaline pumping, and fun as we bounced off the cliffs, free fell a few feet, and got drenched in a couple waterfalls. Read more about this outstanding adventure with Pure Trek Canyoneering.
We were all depressed that evening knowing that an exciting and fun 10 day vacation to Costa Rica was about to end - with drinks in hand we had a couple "Costa" and "Punta" toasts. We had lots of laughs as we reminisced about our favorite hotel, mishaps, favorite adventures, best guides, worst drive, best food, and more. A large part of what made all of our tours and adventures fun were the guides - all of which spoke pretty good English, had a great sense of humor, seemed to want to get to know you, always had a smile on their face and some words of encouragement, were focused on your safety, enjoyed their jobs and wanted to make sure we had a fantastic time on their adventure. The same is true for the staff at both hotels.
A Depressing, Tiring, Long, Misadventure Home
Little did we know that the adventure wasn't over on our day of departure. We started heading to the airport in our 3 rental cars 30 minutes late and experienced a horrible 3 hour drive in the rain and fog over narrow, twisting and turning roads that went up and down some roller coaster hills. The roads made 3 out of 5 kids throw up as well as two adults. I followed the Aeropuerto signs and drove through the airport looking for a Budget car return sign with the GPS screaming "recalculating" and telling us we we had another 5 miles to go to get to the airport! I wasn't sure what to do so we proceeded out of the airport and followed the GPS which took us on a freeway with no exits for several miles. Now we are starting to run out of gas and worried about making our flight.
Finally took an exit, found a gas station and an English speaking attendant who told us not to follow the GPS and he drew us a very detailed map on how to get back to where we had just come from. 45 minutes later we are back at the same airport and still can't find a Budget car return sign - stopped a policeman who flagged down a Budget van who said to follow them to the car return. There were some minor delays turning in the car and stuffing 8 adults and 5 kids and what seemed like a 100 bags into a small van to get us to the airport. Now we are really getting close to our departure time but as we walk through the airport doors we feel confident we would just barely make the flight.
Then we saw the first very long line to pay a departure tax - that line was followed by a long line to check our bags, which was followed by a really long line to go through customs. Next was another long line to go through security. Wow - we were the very last ones to board and the airplane door hit me on the butt as it was closing.
We were flying Spirit home with a 3 hour layover in Ft Lauderdale - since Spirit is a no frills (plus hard seats that don't recline and have a drop down tray smaller than my book) they don't offer food and we are all starving so we figured that the layover would give us time to eat and have a drink. Wrong! We're all tired and hungry when we find out they don't check our bags through to Dallas which means a long wait to find our bag, a longer wait to recheck them, an even longer wait to go through customs, followed by another long wait to go through airport security. Made it with an hour to spare only to find very limited choices for food and long lines to get a crummy dry burger! The three hour ride from Ft Lauderdale to Dallas in the stiff seat on a full flight didn't make the day any better. And to top it off, it must have taken Spirit 45 minutes to start sending bags up to the baggage area.
Not a great way to end a fabulous trip!