I retired this past May and was so excited to travel that I got right to it with a trip planned to Costa Rica that promptly got postponed to due covid. We thought that by January 2022 covid worries would be over and we could enjoy the high season there. When December came around, omicron had arrived and we went back & forth before deciding to go for it. Costa Rica was a place we could go for sun, warm water and a cultural experience to boot. The covid numbers were flat there, and we knew we’d be outdoors most of the time.
I began planning and came upon the Costaricatravelblog.com which was really helpful in figuring out which experiences we would want to have there. I would recommend checking it out because Ricky and Nikki live there and have been writing about CR since 2007. It offers a comprehensive list of places to visit and places to stay.
I had built up some points with Marriott Rewards with hotel stays and by having a Bonvoy credit card that I use to pay all of our monthly expenses. So I started by looking for Marriott hotels in the Guanacaste area. Once I saw the huge infinity pool that went right up to the beach, I knew I wanted to start our trip at the JW Marriott Guanacaste. The hotel rates in high season are in the $500-$700 range so 2 nights there had sucked up all of the points I had built up over a year’s time. But, it was worth it. I have never seen a larger, more thoughtfully laid out pool than this one and we spent hours in it and poolside. Watching the sunset from the beachfront infinity portion of the pool left us in awe.
My daughter speaks Spanish pretty well and once our bartender Dennis saw that she spoke some Spanish, he engaged her in conversation and helped her get comfortable speaking it again, since it had been a few year’s since she’d had the opportunity. Dennis was the first of three great bartenders on our trip and made one of the best gin & tonics I’ve ever had, using a variety of Fevertree tonics, my new favorite being the Indian tonic.
The JW is pretty isolated and not easy to get to (you go over a long, rocky, dusty dirt road before getting to the paved roads of Hacienda Pinilla, the gated community that the JW is part of). The road was bad in our shuttle van but I have to admit that I enjoyed watching the luxury cars coming off of that road on their way to the hotel completely covered in dust. Anyway, when you go there, plan to stay there. We rented a private shuttle to the hotel which was $140 from the airport, about an 1-1/2 ride. Because we knew we needed to test negative to get back to the US, we made the decision to take private transportation throughout our trip. Our driver Alex was friendly and we felt comfortable. He pointed out a howler monkey in the trees on our way in to the hotel and we were so excited to arrive. We were brought to our room, which was large and cool and had a lovely view of the pool and ocean.
I had read about a beachfront restaurant called Lolas that was within walking distance on Playa Avellana, so our first morning at the hotel, we walked down the beach about a mile and a half and found Lolas-a real local treat! We had made a reservation the night before for 9am breakfast, but we ended up there around 8:30am. We sat under the palm trees on beautiful wooden chairs and watched the locals leisurely get the place ready for the day’s business. 9am came and went and then a shirtless gentleman came over to us and said that they were just getting things started and wouldn’t be able to serve us until about 9:30am. My initial thought was, wow that’s not the way you run a business; it was then that I began to understand what Pura Vida is all about and we chilled 🙂
We had a delicious Costa Rican breakfast of Pinto Gallo, creamy eggs, tortilla, avocado & sour cream. My daughter ordered their signature Lolajito & I had the Monkey to drink! After we inquired about the T-shirts we saw hanging near the bar, the same shirtless gentleman came back with a box of Playa Avellana T-Shirts he had screen printed. Of all the places we went in Costa Rica, Lola’s was the most authentic, enjoyable Costa Rican experience.
Back at the hotel, we joined a mixology class where we learned how to make three local, unnamed drinks. The first was with tequila, passion fruit and lime; the second was with Titos, basil, lime and ginger syrup and the third was with Cacique Guaro (a Costa Rican liquor made from sugar cane) lime and another type of syrup. All three were delicious. We asked bartender Gustave how we would order them again if they were unnamed. He said “just ask for drink #1, #2 or #3 from mixology class and they will know what to do.” I guess he wasn’t expecting these drink mixes to go any further than the JW.
Our first evening we had trouble making a reservation at either of the more formal restaurants and so, somewhat disappointed, we went to The Sand Bar. The Pura Vida sandwich (shredded beef, plantain, smoked cheese, cilantro mayonnaise, tomato and lettuce) was a yummy surprise and we left satisfied.
Our second evening we had dinner at the hotel restaurant Tamarine and had the duck and bulgogi. Both were very good but the vibe wasn’t quite right-a little too serious, not relaxed and friendly.
The last morning we had breakfast at Mansita. The buffet was expansive and the biggest surprise was a delicious yucca fritter (it looked like a large tater tot) but was the most tender, scrumptious treat!
Overall we had a great stay at the JW but there was a lack of communication & knowledge among the staff – several times we were given info that wasn’t accurate about what was open and what wasn’t. The concierge office seemed overwhelmed having to make dining reservations for all meals for each guest (I’m sure due to covid) and it clearly hurt their level of responsiveness throughout our stay.
Final thoughts here-the hotel is expensive but it is a beautiful destination and you should be plan to stay and enjoy what it has to offer -just stay for a short time (2 nights was perfect) to experience that pool and sunsets so that you can explore the rest of what Costa Rica has to offer.
Next morning we headed off to La Fortuna to stay at Tabacon, which became our favorite destination of the trip.
We got our ride from RIDECR and our driver Andres was such a wonderful host to us. Andres engaged my daughter in conversation and had her speaking in Spanish for most of the ride, slowing down enough to help her understand and find the right phrases and words in Spanish – he was TERRIFIC! We stopped at Cafe Macadamia for a break and bought a delicious slice of mango cake.
We arrived there as night was falling and we took a quick walk around the grounds. We had dinner at Tucanes, the mussels were huge and served with chorizo, tomato, onion butter, garlic toasted sourdough and were awesome! My daughter had the octopus cooked at low temperature and I had the sea bass in a coconut sauce with shiitake mushrooms. The sauce for the sea bass was flavorless. Although the visual on the octopus made me a little squeamish, I did have a taste and it was incredibly delicious and tender, so that dish was the clear winner.
After dinner we headed down to the warm springs and found our way around in the dark (paths are well lit). We went from one spring to the next, marveling in the natural setting and the rush of the water in many of the pools. We ended up at the swim up bar which truly looks like you’ve stumbled onto paradise at night and had wonderful drinks with Douglas our bartender. We met two great couples there and enjoyed the warm water when suddenly there was a downpour! We had put our phones and robes under a canopy but they got soaked! So, lesson: leave your robe in a locker and only bring a towel down to the springs. A dry bag for our phones would have been a good idea too!
The following day we had an early breakfast (expansive and included in the stay) and headed out with Jacamar Tours on a Sloth and Bird Tour. We hadn’t been walking for more than a few minutes when the guide spotted a male, three toed sloth up in the trees. To our surprise and delight, he slowly made his way down the tree to just above eye level with us and proceeded to slowly move to another branch and then just hung out right in front of us for about a 1/2 hour! This was the most memorable part of the trip! We later saw a two toed sloth further up in the trees, a toucan and a Jacamar bird, along with the clay-colored thrush, the national bird of Costa Rica. Our guide chuckled & said the bird is ugly, but was chosen for its song.
And, this guy (two toed sloth)
We went back to the springs after the tour, going up to Shangri-la, a private part of the springs for guests only (Tabacon does allow a number of day passes to the springs). We enjoyed the Morpho Tonic and the Paradise Tonic. The Morpho was the most beautiful color of purple with gooseberry and basil as delicious color and flavor contrasts. We went from spring to spring and then decided to eat at Ave, right at the springs. I had what I believe is the BEST BURGER EVER, an angus burger with cheddar and gouda cheese, on a delicious brioche bun and homemade BBQ mayonnaise. My daughter had the Beef Carpaccio appetizer for her meal. Of the two restaurants at Tabacon, we found Ave to be very tasty with a nice, relaxed vibe.
Our room at Tabacon was huge and well laid out. A hotel Ipad in the room made it simple to review menus, reserve dinner, contact the concierge and the room controls used the latest technology. We were given a waterproof bracelet to wear while we were there that gives you easy entry to your room (no searching for your key card).
We sadly left Tabacon for a one night stay at Volcano Lodge which had a great view of the volcano from the pool and we were lucky to have a clear day there. Natalie checked us in and was super! The cool pool was nice and clean and the rest of the staff great, but the thermal pools are artificially formed and the water wasn’t moving as it does at Tabacon. Our room had a private thermal pool but there was brown scum in it and we decided to pass. The rooms are very basic (even though we had a “superior” room) and the doors seemed flimsy. It was okay, but I wouldn’t stay there again. After experiencing the hotel and natural springs at Tabacon it is a hard act to follow!
We had decided (with some consternation) against the zip line and hanging bridge experiences due to my fear of heights, so we headed back to the beach in Guanacaste the next day.
Our new driver (RIDECR) was more reserved so it was a much different trip. He did pull over at a beautiful lookout point at Lake Arenal. Shortly thereafter he tried to communicate that he was driving slower because something was wrong with the car. We pulled into Cafe Macadamia again (we believe that is the regular pit stop for shuttle drivers) and in no time another shuttle pulled up to replace the one we were on and we were on our way again! We had mentioned to the driver earlier that we’d only seen one monkey since we’d been there and he said “you’ll see monkeys!” Another two hours went by when suddenly he pulled off the side of a busy road and started backing up. We were startled when he came and opened the shuttle door and put his finger to his mouth to say “shush” to us and we thought, okay, what is going on! We stepped out and he pointed straight up and there they were, ten monkeys in the tree above us-such a great surprise! A few were swinging, a few were just laying on their bellies with their limbs hanging over – it was awesome and we were grateful to our driver who we had thought was anti-social. More likely that he was just insecure about his english!
We arrived at our last hotel, Jardin del Eden (Eden’s Garden) a boutique hotel which is a sister hotel to Tamarindo Diria (next door and beachfront). We had first booked Diria but has seen some comments about the noise level in rooms so close to the beach, so we booked Jardin because it is set back from the beach but offers a beachfront garden with a small bar and plunge pool and the perfect place to watch the sunset! The winding stairwell up to our room reminded me of a quaint European villa and the room was large and open with a balcony overlooking the pool. This hotel included breakfast and dinner in the rate which was great. Breakfast was always plentiful and delicious, dinners were not quite as good – we selected from two choices each morning for that evening. Although some days it is really nice to not have to think about what you are going to eat in the evening, I would say that I would have preferred exploring dinner in Tamarindo. I think dinner included is a recipe for the suppliers and chefs to become lazy about food quality and taste. A perfect solution would be to offer an “opt out of dinner” option while you are staying there, so each morning you could decide whether or not you’d like dinner there, based on the menu and your plan for the day. I understand that makes it more difficult for them, but isn’t hospitality all about getting it just right for the guest?
The pool at the hotel was lovely and as an adult only hotel it was blissfully quiet. The trip down to the beach meant a trek on a lovely downhill path, but then crossing the street to continue to the garden area was a little tricky. Luckily, once you were in the garden you had access to the bar, a bathroom, the Diria grounds and the beach, so there is no reason to make the trip back and forth too often. The path back uphill to the rooms or lobby is a bit of a workout. Our bartender Richards (yes, with an s) was a character and he made us feel like a million bucks! So excited to to see us, such a great sense of humor, so happy to practice Spanish with my daughter and the drinks were good too!
Tamarindo is a city beach, so if you are looking for pristine quiet, go elsewhere. We saw big local families picnicking in the shade, horse back riding along the beach (and the operators don’t pick up the poop), lovers, vendors selling hats, and sunglasses, Mariachi players who roam from beachfront bar to bar for tips and surfers everywhere! Don’t leave your belongings anywhere, be aware of your surroundings and stay off of the beach at night. There were times when we (especially my 26 yr old daughter) felt uncomfortable on the street. Tamarindo is a wild place!
The Spa at the Jardin was inside a poolside canopy, which is so much nicer than going inside to a spa. We got massages and facials while the soft breezes kept us comfortable even on an 85-90 degree day – both services were excellent. In fact, the massage might have been a BEST EVER for me. The spa had daily specials, so our massages were only $40 for a full hour-a bargain!
We booked a sunset catamaran tour through the hotel and found our group on the beach that morning (after standing through the wrong group’s welcome speech and itinerary 🙂 They piled us into a long row boat and waited for a wave to lift us off the beach and off we went, out to the catamaran that waited for us in deeper water. We all scrambled onto the boat and secured our spots up front. The crew was local, knowledgable and friendly and they sailed us out to a spot where we could jump off the boat, snorkel and swim around for about an hour. There was an open bar (with a limited number of options) and the bartender was friendly and there to make sure we had a good time; it was great. We had barbecue chicken, rice and various chips. On the way back they relied on the motor and it got pretty choppy with waves. We never felt afraid, but it brought us to talk about the brave explorers who would go out into the wide open ocean to find new worlds, not knowing what they would encounter and we couldn’t help but feel appreciation and a sense of awe for them.
We returned from the boat just after the sun set and although there were no clouds to add to the beauty the whole sky became a brilliant orangey color. We ran back to the garden to say goodbye to Richards and had hugs before heading out to main street Tamarindo to shop for souvenirs.
Although we had brought antigen tests with us, we had decided to use the hotel’s testing program the day before we flew out. They came to our room to test us and we got the good news in a few hours-negative!
We shuttled to Liberia airport late the next morning, not knowing what we would encounter with pre-flight covid testing requirements. Southwest handled the covid test verification very smoothly (requiring us to show a completed affidavit of negative test result, our passports and checking it against the document emailed to us from the testing company that shows your first and last name, passport number, test result, date and name of lab. We were on our way back to the USA! What a great trip!!!
Amy’s tips for a Costa Rica trip
-If you want the beach, go in the dry season November-March
-If you can afford it, use a private shuttle service. It gives you the flexibility to stop if you want to, talk to the local driver and decreases the chance that you’ll test positive for covid. After seeing the roads there and going through some of the neighborhoods, I wouldn’t rent a car there.
-Carefully choose your hotel. Look at all of the amenities offered, the location, what meals are included (breakfast is a must!). The spread was really impressive and it gave us the chance to experience many types of costa rican food. Ask yourselves, Is it is just a place to sleep between activities or is it a place you want to luxuriate in. $600/night is crazy, but not so crazy if you are spending every minute there and feel like you are living the life!
-We only brought $200 cash with us and did not bring a debit card. I tried a cash advance with my credit card but couldn’t remember my pin (you know that 4 number thing they send you when you first get your card?) Well, they won’t give it to you, even if you answer security questions and give them your credit card number, and 3 digit code. So, for tipping and souvenirs, bring more cash.
-It’s a good idea to put your passports in the hotel safe. It’s not a good idea to drive off without them and not realize it until you are 4 hours away (like we did). Set an alarm on your phone the day you leave to remind you to check the safe! We were looping back to Guanacaste after our trip inland so we were lucky in that. We called right away and the hotel got them and held onto them for us! It stressed us out for the afternoon though, so don’t make that mistake!
-Be careful to understand you cellular international calling/data plan. After two days our plan was maxed out and we could only use our phones with wifi.
-Try to learn some Spanish before you go – our trip was so much more fun because my daughter, not me 😦 could communicate and the locals loved it, even if its not perfecto (my favorite Spanish word)!
-If you really want to see all the best, you probably need 2 weeks there. Every new place is far from the last place. We wanted to get to Manuel Antonio and Nasara but ran out of time.
-Great thing about all of the places we stayed? Just about every employee was a local, who was brought in and developed into a hospitality pro. That made us feel good about our hotel choices and made our Costa Rican experience more authentic.
-We ended up spending about $2,500 total per person (after points used for a portion of the hotel costs) for the 8 days. A lot of money but I think we did it right! Please feel free to ask questions about our trip, I’d be happy to help you experience the Pura Vida!