As ever, I will be brutally honest, I paid for this out of my own pocket and I have certain expectations.
Great scenery, good infrastructure, lush jungles, and an abundance of wildlife makes this a photographers dream destination.
We hired a small 4×4 and whilst the standard of driving was worse than the UK (in Costa Rica nobody gives an inch), it was much better than we expected. I was quite comfortable driving everywhere, the roads were generally in good condition (other than the occasional massive pot hole). Unfortunately, we ended up taking a wrong turn and went through the centre of San Jose – not recommended!
We decided to spend the first couple of nights nearish to the airport, to avoid driving too tired.
We had the hotel collect us, and had the hire car dropped off at the hotel – this worked well.
The Hotel Buena Vista had nice grounds, with lots of planting that attracted a range of bugs and insects, and was a fine place to relax for a couple of days and let the body clock adjust to Costa Rica time.
Hire car was from Vamos, I took the super insurance so absolutely everything was covered. Not needed thankfully, but for peace of mind it was worth it.
The drive up to Arenal was nice, the traffic not too heavy, and our next hotel, Arenal Observatory Lodge and Spa was decent enough.
More importantly it was situated next to the Arenal volcano, which although is now pretty much dormant, was still emitting some gas.
The lodge has several miles of well-maintained trails around the property, and some resident coatis, which were on the list of ‘things to see’.
We did the evening frog walk, and whilst we had spectacular success seeing various species of tree frog, including the red-eyed tree frog (another target species) the 2 hour forced march in near 100% humidity was a bit much!
Staying at the Monteverde Lodge & Gardens we were spoiled by the on-site nature walks, on-site butterfly house, great food and nice surroundings.
Visiting the Monteverde Cloud Forest reserve was not quite as spectacular as hoped, mainly because it was quite busy, and all a bit too ‘manicured’. This is understandable, people visit because it’s accessible. We were fortunate enough to see a sloth, mainly because we overheard a guide pointing one out, although it was a long way off, and sleeping.
Nearby however was a much smaller reserve, Curi Cancha – well recommended. We had a good guide, and saw spider monkeys, the resplendent quetzal, green toucan, and a variety of other life.
Avoiding the crowds, we went back to Curi Cancha for a night walk, and it was fantastic. Frogs, tarantulas, wandering spiders, all were targets for the macro lens.
On a map, Monteverde to Tortuguero isn’t that far, unfortunately the trip involves going down to San Jose then right across the country. It was a solid 6 hrs of driving, the last hour on unmade roads. It’s than an hours boat ride down river to the town of Tortuguero, followed by another boat transfer to Tortuguero Lodge.
Despite being on the coast, if the wind dropped the humidity was pretty high, but manageable.
A boat tour through the canals was well worth it – sloths, monkeys, caiman and kingfishers were all sighted. We were also fortunate enough to have great sightings of a couple of different sloths, which are on everybody’s must-see list.
The grounds also had plenty of strawberry poison dart frogs, tiny, but beautiful.
Having seen what we wanted to see, we left here a day early, preferring to stay near the airport for our last night, rather than risk the drive against the clock.
We found most of the staff at the Tortuguero Lodge pretty unfriendly. Receptionists and bar staff rarely smiled, and my cheery “buenas dias” was met with a mumbled reply. One notable exception was one of the waiters, Manuel. He was always friendly, and exceptionally helpful.
British Airways – more specifically the state of the cabin and the whole experience with BA.
We cashed in a bunch of Avios (frequent flyer points) and decided to go business class. Pretty much none of the experience was ‘premium’, the lounge was awful as it was a shared lounge – they are having a new one built. The plane was filthy – wine stains up the wall, seat and floor covered in crumbs, the divider between the seats needed wiped as it had food on it still and every single plastic surface was grubby. It was the same both ways. Couple this with a fairly poor (for business class) seat, poor food (no choice of starter) and surly staff on the way home, it was definitely not what one expects of a ‘premium’ product.
Costa Rica is reasonable value, but if you are used to paying $1-2 for a beer in Asia, be prepared to pay double that. Same went for food. Granted, we were staying in mid-range places, but when lunch is costing $40 for 2, it’s definitely not a budget destination. I have no doubt you can eat and stay much cheaper, but given the camera kit I was travelling with we wanted a reasonable level of comfort and security.
That said, as a destination for a photographer, it is fantastic. We only went for 2 weeks, so restricted our travels to 3 main areas. I would gladly go back and visit Monteverde again, Tortuguero was OK, and Arenal is worth going back to if the volcano kicks off, unfortunately they think that may not be for over 100 years while the magma chamber refills. There are other parts of the country I would love to go and see, plus, I still need to see a properly active volcano.
It’s very easy to get there from the UK as there is a direct flight from Gatwick to San Jose (10.5 hrs), many people speak English (lots of American visitors) and with my reasonable Spanish we had zero communication problems. Everything generally felt safe.
All in all it was a great 2 weeks. I came back with some fantastic images and good memories.