|Caravan's 10 day Costa Rica tour
|I haven't seen any reviews of Caravan's 10 day Costa Rica tour on this forum. Since we thoroughly enjoyed it I felt I needed to share with others who may be looking for someting like it. Caravan is an American tour company out of Chicago - check their website for itinerary, dates, prices . Air fares are not included in their tour prices. I have used Caravan twice now and highly recommend them!
Four women, ages late forties to mid-sixties, took the Caravan bus tour April 2 - 11/08. I had previously taken the Caravan Canadian Maritimes tour and was very pleased with it - nor did they disappoint me with this trip!
The bus was comfortable, we made stops about every two hours when en route, rotated seats on each leg of the trip, and most days we were at our hotel by 4 - 5 p.m. Starts every day were early, from 6:30 - 8:00 a.m. departures, with luggage out 1/2 to 1 hour before, but there was always ample time for breakfast. Water is provided whenever you want it, and there is a bathroom on board for emergencies.
We had a wonderful driver, Rolando, who got us in and out of places you'd never imagine a bus could go! And he spotted two toucans in a tree along the road and gave us the opportunity to see them up close.
We had 45 people on board ranging from a 10 (?) year old granddaughter, one couple (30's?) to people in their 80's - majority I would say 60+, but all made good travelling companions. We had a few singles as well, but mostly couples.
Out tour director, Tatiana, was fantastic and went above and beyond, sharing her knowledge and love of her country with us. She would have Rolando stop along the way and she or Rolando would purchase fresh fruits to show us how they grow - cashews or pineapple, for example. She kept everything flowing smoothly and displayed only grace and cool-headedness when having to deal with unexpected things such as two separate accidents leading to a broken sink and a broken toilet - no personal injuries, fortunately.
Most meals were typically Tico, and we loved gallo pinto from the first breakfast. Meals became a bit repetitious after a while, but we generally had no complaints about the food.
The Aurola Hotel in San Jose was wonderful,and we did venture about two blocks to a fairly large supermarket to look around and pick up a few snacks and local alcohol. We were able to sample a local coffee liqueur and local orange liqueur - both delightful, and purchased both for the trip! Around $10 U.S. for 750 ml. Most familiar snacks are available, and some we'd never seen - all around prices at home.
You can pay your departure tax at the Aurola and can also exchange money into colones. We exchanged $20 U.S. each, but in hindsight I don't think its necessary - most places take U.S. currency and you receive change in colones, so you do acquire local money along the way.
You can also leave a piece of luggage at the Aurola for the duration of the tour, no charge. I used a wheeled carry-on on the plane that I knew was too large for the bus, so filled it with stuff I wouldn't need till our return and checked it there (we were adding on 5 nights at the beach in Esterillos after the tour), and used a day bag throughout the bus tour.
San Jose isn't a city I'd want to spend much time in - not a great amount to see and a busy city . We felt safe walking the bit we did in daylight and not alone, but people were advised against going out at night, even across the park to a local pub (one block away). There is a lot of petty theft, not necessarily violence, but better safe than sorry.
And use common sense - no jewellery, cameras, etc to attrack attention, and keep your passport, credit cards and surplus cash in the hotel safe - carry a copy of your passport. We were constantly advised to not carry our passports on us throughout the trip.
While we were waiting in the lobby the morning of our departure, we witnessed an example of what can happen. A lady from a different Caravan tour had visited a nearby church before leaving for the airport and as she took out her wallet to make a donation an "old lady" snatched her purse and ran. She lost her passport, cash everything, and last we saw after assistance from hotel and Caravan staff, they were taking a taxi - we assumed to the U.S. Embassy.
We stopped at Gallery Namu just behind the Aurola hotel - a lovely gallery of Artisan works - a must visit if you're so inclined! (They do have a website if you want a preview). My travel companion was carrying a small camera, and when she had to return to the hotel for her credit card, a distance of one block, was advised by the gallery operator (ex-pat U.S.lady) to leave her camera there & not carry it on the street. This said, I wouldn't hesitate to venture out a bit from the hotel, just use common sense and don't go alone or after dark.
When we arrived at Poas crater after a short hike, the lake in the crater was clouded over, but the cloud drifted in and out while we were there and we did get to see the entire crater. The walk up is fairly easy along a trail with lovely foliage and even hummingbirds, but I was surprised that I did get a bit winded because of the elevation, so just took my time and enjoyed the walk. There was a small medic van going along the route for anyone having problems or who couldn't do the walk.
The city tour and visit to the museum was interesting - just seeing the traffic was an eyeopener!
The arial tram through the canopy of the rainforest was a wonderful experience. As expected, we didn't see a lot of wildlife, but the trees, vines, and the serenity was enrapturing. We found ourselves whispering to each other to not break the peacefulness and trnaquility of this enchanting forest. The walk with a local guide afterward was interesting and informative - and we did see lots of leaf cutter ants working away, which was one of my "must sees!"
The highlight for us was the Tortuguero portion of the trip. As we approached our cabin in the jungle at Anhinga Lodge, part of Pachira Lodge, we were greeted by a troop of howler monkeys, vocal and active. Couldn't ask for a more wonderful welcome!
We were also lucky enough to be awakened by them the following morning around 5 - 5:30 a.m. We couldn't see them, but we did video their calls - the most incredible sound you've heard, right outside your room! That afternoon they treated us with another visit. This time no calls, but they played in the trees, draped lazily over branches in the heat or formed monkey bridges of 2 or 3 adults to allow the babies to run across their bodies from tree to tree. We weren't lucky enough to hear them up close on our final morning, but they were conversing in the distance.
The canal boat tours were so enjoyable - I really felt like I was drifting down the Amazon. The lush foliage emcompassing the slow-moving canals and the wildlife was an incredible experience. We saw monkeys of various species, toucans, herons, anhingas, caiman, crocodile, basilisk lizard, a water snake, morpho and other butterfies floating by, sloths and other wildlife. Our guide was amazing - he spotted creatures we'd have never seen without him!
We chose to not go to the turtle station as it wasn't the season for seeing turtles. We enjoyed an afternoon at the pool, our visit from the howlers. One of us and a few others went for the thrill of zip-lining, arranged at the hotel. We did go on the afternoon canal tour - again, well worthwhile.
We had a shower during our morning boat trip, but we donned the slickers provided and were comfy and dry.
I'd highly recommend using insect repellent here - two of us provided a buffet during the night and forearms were covered in bites the next morning - itchy and irritating - we figure a combo of mosquito and sandfly bites. We all had some on our feet and ankles as well by the time we left - our fault, we had repellent but forgot to use it! Take some anti-itch cream along too, in case! and a flashlight is a good idea for walking around the resort at night - here and other locations.
As we neared La Fortuna, Volcan Arenal became visible - totally clear! And was also entirely visible for part of the following day. She puffed a cloud of smoke as we drove closer. Our hotel was the Arenal Springs - very comfortable, beautiful flowers everywhere. We loved our garden showers!
That evening we were taken by Rolando and Tatiana to the active side of the volcano, even though cloud had now enshrouded the top third of the mountain. We joined many others stopped along the road, and were fortunate enough to occasionally see a distant display of fireballs rolling down the side of the volcano.
La Fortuna offered many shops for souvenir shopping - some beautiful cutwork wraps were avaialbe here, and the local mercado was interesting and a good place to pick up any snacks or necessary items.
The Rio Frio-Cano Negro boat tour was well worth the drive getting there. Different from the Tortuguero canals, but interesting birds and countryside getting there and along the river.
Baldi Hotsprings was "touristy", but it is attractively done, and we did enjoy our dip into a couple of the hot pools. Cravan takes care of the deposit for your towel, and you can either leave your things in a box behind the counter (if you have no valuables with you), or for $5.00 U.S. you can rent a locker - we got all of our stuff for two people in one locker, and left a camera there until we were ready to change, then took pictures. Drinks were $10.00 U.S. each - we didn't partake at that price!
Our walk through Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve left us disappointed and feeling it wasn't worth the time. In retrospect, and after viewing my pictures of foliage etc. from there, which I found surprisingly impressive, I think the reason for that is that we were rather rushed through by the local guides. the footing can be a bit treacherous so you're watching your footing all the time you're moving. When we did stop, our guide gave a brief talk about whatever we were observing, then the group was on the move again. I found myself stopping, snapping a picture quickly, then rushing to catch up. Had we been able to go at our own pace I feel we would have appreciated the stop a great deal more than we did at the time.
I have arthritis and had a femur fracture a year ago so I do have a bit of restriction and concern about terrain I'm comfortable walking on. I was concerned about this walk and asked Tatiana if there were a lot of inclines & declines. Her answer was no, some steps here and there. Well, there were hills up and down, as well as the steps, and the trail is covered in small pebbles making it slippery on inclines/declines. Roots, rocks and vines protrude here & there on the path, making it a bit treacherous in spots. You're given a walking stick, but still have to be careful. Two of our group fell - no injuries other than to dignity, but care is required. I would say that anyone who has difficulty climbing a rather steep but short incline or who is somewhat unsteady could have problems on this walk, although we had people in both categories who managed it. The first hill give you a good idea of the trail.
The meal there o.k., but was the most disappointing of our trip, but the shop next to the restaurant was the best we'd hit so far, in our opinion. Good variey of souvenirs, fair prices. I bought a framed collage of butterfly wings here for $22.00 - farm raised an no endangered species, so I didn't feel too guilty about the death of such beautiful creatures.
Doubletree Puntarenas Resort was beautiful and the food was great! And drinks are included!
Two of us were in building 1 - facing the parking lot and behind another set of rooms, and our AC wasn't working well, but was repaired quickly when we reported it - plugged filter. The other two of our quartet were in building 3 facing a beautiful triple pool where we spent the following day with them. Wonderful!
We chose to not go to Manuel Antonio the following day. We have travelled extensively in the Caribbean and seen beautiful white sand beaches and turquoise water. Leaving at 6:30 a.m. for a 21/2 to 3 hour bus ride to be there for 2 hours, 20 minutes of which would be spent walking one way to the third and most beautiful beach, just didn't appeal at that point. It had been a lot of early mornings and long days, and though very enjoyable, a "day off' was very appealing! Only 8 of our 45 did go, but from what we heard they all felt it was worthwhile. We just enjoyed the pool and cocktails at the swim-up bar.
I think Caravan needs to look at their itinerary now that they're using the Doubletree rather than the previous hotel which was about an hour from Manuel Antonio, or maybe they can find accommodation closer to the park once again. Its a shame to miss the park, but at the end of a long trip, that's a long day for only a two hour visit. Doubletree is just too enticing at that point compared to anther long day on the bus!
We had lunch and shopped at Sarchi on our way back to San Jose. Good food, good shopping. We did check out the shop across the street and felt the selection was better at the oxcart factory, but just our opinion.
The church at Grecia was an interesting stop - we thought we'd be just driving by, but we did get to stop for a short visit there.
The Britt coffee plantation was fun, and the samples of chocolates, coffee and liqueur was devine!
School kids were performing a masquerade when we arrived - an extra treat! A school band and dancing kids in elaborate cotumes mingled with the crowd before we left for our plantation tour. Yes, the play-acting is a bit "hokey", but they have fun doing it and you can't help but laugh along with them as they comically act out the history of coffee in Costa Rica. Beats a boring, dry video!
And so ended our Caravan tour - all of us tired but greatly satisfied with everything. We all loved Costa Rica and this was one of our most memorable trips in 30 years of travel!
We moved on to Plays Esterillos Este for a 5 night stay on the beach. I will post a separate review of our stay there, which was also wonderful and a good end to our vacation.
Additional comments re; questions we had prior to the trip:
We wore Keen sandals the entire trip, changing to flip flops or Crocs in the evenings. Sneakers would also be good during the day.
I wore shorts most days, occasionally capris, both for day and evening - dress for dinner is very casual other than the farewell dinner.
We didn't require a jacket at any time - but we were there in the hottest season.
I would certainly take binoculars, even my inexpensive 8X ones helped see the wildlife.
Farewell dinner: the Caravan booklet does state no shorts,sandals, flipflops, Tshirts for the dining room. I feel they need to revise this some, as sandals, dressier flipflops were worn by many people and was not frowned upon . Yes, people dressed up a bit, no shorts or muscle shirts or tank tops - just use common sense, but its not as restrictive as the booklet says.
All hotels but Pachira/Anhinga had in room safes at no charge.
There are hotels where you are required to put used toilet paper in a waste bin rather than flush - this is not as gross as you may think! Make an effort to remember, that's the hard part - you don't want to be the one who plugs the system!
I welcome any questions and comments - we found this forum helpful when making our plans and will try to answer any questions