Please plan my Costa Rica itinerary for me.
August 30, 2015 6:22 AM   Subscribe

Hey, I'm going to Costa Rica December 5th to 19th this year. I am in over my head as far as planning where I will go and stay. Can you help me? I'd like to get reservations all set, and I have no idea what I am doing.

My goal for this question is to end up with a detailed itinerary complete with hotels, excursions, and (least important) restaurant recommendations. I am hoping that some of you might have done a trip to Costa Rica already and are willing to share exactly where you stayed, for how long in each area/city, and the hotels you stayed in.

Important information:
Flying into San Jose at about 2:30 p.m. on Sat December 5. Leaving San Jose 11:30 p.m. Saturday Dec 19th.

I am prioritizing birding excursions. I have a field guide already. I am especially interested in endemic and tropical birds. Hummingbirds, Trogons, Parrots, Tanagers, Antbirds, Cotingas, Woodpeckers, Manakins, Euphonias etc.

I am currently, however, pretty out of shape physically, so would prefer something kind of chill. I will be working on conditioning before I go.

Budget is middling. I would like to spend less than $1000 for lodging over 14 nights. Paid excursions will be a treat, but think more along the lines of $100 for a day trip rather than the crazy $5,000 birding trips. More likely I'll usually just find some areas to wander on my own to bird. (Suggestions?)

Beach time would be cool, too.

Do I need a car? Do you have a place you'd recommend renting from?

Bonus: what and how to pack. December is a transitional season, from wet to dry. I have a rain coat and will be getting good shoes. How will I do laundry?

Previously this question and this one are helpful. But I am looking for a lot more.
posted by Stewriffic to Travel & Transportation around Costa Rica (11 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Also, I know a lot of (most?) people speak English, but I am bilingual.
posted by Stewriffic at 6:27 AM on August 30, 2015

For ideas on where to go birding, I would recommend that you check out the itineraries of birding tours by companies such as Field Guides and Wings. They know the best places for visiting birders to go.
posted by jkent at 6:58 AM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

You don't need a car. I went to Costa Rica in January 2011 with some friends, and we took buses everywhere. It's good that you're bilingual though (I'm assuming English and Spanish of course), because the bus drivers don't really speak English. For laundry, just make sure to stay at places that have washing machines available, which will probably cost a few bucks. and TripAdvisor will be your best friends in the next few days.

Two of us did some birding on the trip, and I'll describe where we went. Unfortunately I don't remember details of what we saw where, but as @jkent said, check out the itineraries for the birding tour groups to get better info in that regard. Main thing, of course: You'll want to hit as many ecosystems as possible.

We actually started out on the Osa Peninsula, which can be pretty rugged, but the elevation changes made for a high density of biodiversity. Lots of trogon species, if I remember correctly. (Although this was my first tropical birding experience, so two trogons seemed like a lot!) There are so many wild scarlet macaws that they got annoying. And if you're into this sort of thing, the tinamous and currasows around the biological station in Corcovado NP are incredibly tame. (A bit sketchy to count if you're a "lister," but they're cool to see anyways.) We also had a pair of tapirs come right into the biological station. We were there for a field course and stayed in two research stations, so I'm not sure what kind of access regular civilians have there. I remember seeing some ecolodges in the area, but I got the sense they'd be a bit over your budget, so I don't think I can help you with lodging here. This is the one place where I'm not sure if you can get by with buses, actually.

From there we went to the páramo, staying I believe at the Paraíso Quetzal Lodge in San Gerardo las Dotas. (As we still refer to it, "The Kwetzel." [Do not pronounce "quetzal" like "kwetzel."]) Even though it's in the páramo region, the area around the lodge is pretty foresty, but very much not your classic lowland tropical forest like what's on the Osa. The Lodge has organized morning trips to go see resplendent quetzals, appropriately, which you should absolutely see when you're there. I remember it being quite chilly, especially at night, so bring something warm. (If you stay there, see if they still have my hygiene bag, lol.)

Monteverde (cloud forest) was our next stop, and should be high on your list. Yes, it's somewhat crowded, but you can still see a lot, especially if you go early in the morning. It's also pretty flat, if I recall, and so would be easy enough to tackle if you're concerned about your endurance. I think we stayed at the Manakin Lodge in Santa Elena, but wherever we stayed it was unremarkable.

Lastly, we did a lot of walking around Arenal. You should definitely go there and see the hot springs, especially if you can plan it so that's the end of your trip—your legs will thank you. We did manage to pick up some new species in that area as well. (I believe our 300th for the trip was a woodpecker at some random guy's house. When we asked if we could walk around his property and pajarear, he welcomed us with open arms and papaya. Gotta love the Ticos.) We stayed at Gringo Pete's, which was fantastic. If I'm remembering correctly, they had a feeding platform set up in the backyard, which attracted some avifauna. Mostly blue-gray tanagers, but some more exciting stuff too.

Have fun!
posted by dondiego87 at 7:58 AM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, regarding clothing: Zipoff pants. Dorky I know, but each pair does double duty, and that matters. I would also pack a pair of jeans for the páramo if you make it up there.
posted by dondiego87 at 7:59 AM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

We just booked a ten day trip to Costa Rica through Anywhere Costa Rica, and they were very helpful when it came to guiding us to locations and excursions with our open ended questions (Where are the animals? How can we stay at Mt. Arenal in luxury luxury luxury? Where can we avoid loud drunk tourists at the beach and relax?). They also arranged our private transportation all around the country, which is amazingly helpful not to worry about. Exciting!

We aren't going on this trip until November, so ask me about it in December. 😄
posted by oceanjesse at 9:31 AM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, renting a car in Costa Rica is scary! If you get into an accident, you can't leave the country until things are settled in court.
posted by oceanjesse at 10:53 AM on August 30, 2015

I stayed at OTS' station La Selva and had a fantastic experience. It was budget-friendly but not spartan, the staff and scientists and naturalists were incredible, and the flora and fauna were spectacular. I am using those superlatives very consciously; I am not a person who generally returns to vacation spots, but I am planning to go back there. Highly recommended. (The website also has a good packing list.)
posted by minervous at 5:53 PM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Convertible pants, purchased. I spent literally 9 hours straight researching. I have tentatively decided I want to go to Arenal and get my hot springs on, Monteverde for cloud forest, birding, and coffee tour, San Gerardo de Dota for more birds and crazy cold weather, and maybe Manuel Antonio. This is hard!
posted by Stewriffic at 5:58 PM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, I see I'll have to up my budget or at least do some major price swings from place to place.
posted by Stewriffic at 6:01 PM on August 30, 2015

I did actually go to Manuel Antonio back in 8th grade (2002 maybe) and remember it being mind-blowingly beautiful. And I think you're right about the budget — Costa Rica is touristy enough that $70/night would be impressive. My suggestion is to stay in the cheapest non-sketchy hostel you can find in places where that's possible, and then splurge when necessary. Bring a combination lock for hostel lockers, because some places make you rent them.

Also! If you have some more free time in Monteverde/Santa Elena, take a tour of the Quaker cheese factory. It felt like a super weird thing to find in that part of the world.
posted by dondiego87 at 7:08 PM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Two recommendations -- La Carolina Lodge, seriously go there, you won't regret it. And then Playa Grande -- not too far away but a LOVELY beach that is not crowded and very untouristy. We stayed here -- perhaps a little more basic, but inexpensive, clean, well-located and the people who run it are AMAZING. I'm jealous!
posted by EtTuHealy at 7:43 AM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

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