Costa Rica, part 1: San Jose & the Central Valley

Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to be chosen to go with an exclusive group of fellow Signature Travel Network travel consultants for an educational journey through Costa Rica in early June.  The entire trip was masterfully organized by the wonderful folks at Memorable Costa Rica, a local expert tour operator, and we were treated like VIPs from start to finish.  Obviously, since this was an educational journey, rather than just a regular vacation, we did a fair share of work, but managed to have quite a bit of fun mixed in with learning about all the different lodging and sightseeing options in the four main areas we visited.  The group was really wonderful, almost every local rep we met was great, and it just reminded me that folks in the travel industry really are generally fun and lovely people!!  In any case, our general itinerary started out with a few nights near San Jose to explore the Central Valley, then we headed up to the Arenal volcano area for a few nights, another night further up into the clouds of Monteverde, and finished with a few nights on the pacific coast in the Guanacaste province.  These are really the main tourist destinations, but of course there is more to see- so I'll have to plan my own vacation there to check out the Manuel Antonio area, the Oso peninsula, and the Caribbean coast!!!  

However, back to this trip.  I, and several other agents, found it interesting that we were not taken into San Jose at any time, in any way.  Some folks flew in early or stayed a bit later, but the main group of us didn't see anything of the largest city in the country, which may be telling.  I mean, you don't come to CR to see a city, you come for nature!  In any case, we stayed just outside of town at the Real Intercontinental, which was a perfectly lovely host hotel, located only about 20-30 minutes from the San Jose international airport.  This was a fairly typical large four star resort, with modern & clean rooms, many choices for restaurants, an awesome breakfast buffet, lovely pools, and even banqueting space (weddings are becoming popular there).  The newer rooms in the Club Tower were particularly nice, most with views out onto the neighboring lush hills.  Here are a few shots of the property (just click on the photo to see the next one):

As you'll see from the photos, however, it's not the most *unique* setting, so for people looking for a more authentic Costa Rican experience there are other options!  Several folks elected to spend a night in downtown SJ and were fortunate enough to experience the adorable boutique Hotel Grano de Oro (www.hotelgranodeoro.com).  Reports were glowing about this place, and I'm really sorry I didn't have the chance to visit it in person.    

Another option that we did visit is actually a coffee plantation called Finca Rosa Blanca.  This former residence is now a really funky little hotel, located also only about 20-30 minutes from the airport, but far removed from a "big city" feel.  Each room is completely unique with elaborately hand-painted & mosaic filled bathrooms, and all boast sweeping views out over the coffee plants & lush vegetation.  The main house has a gorgeous multi-level entrance hall/lobby, and then there are a few villas hidden away in the gardens as well.  Guests can enjoy the apparently fabulous organic coffee at any time (but not being a coffee drinker, I can't verify for you that it is tasty!), and there's a restaurant on-site as well.  Now, we were getting our first taste of the "green season" in CR with a fairly heavy afternoon shower, so my photos are pretty terrible, and do NOT do it justice (especially the pool!).  It definitely is not for everyone either, as it is not what you would call sleek or modern, but if you're looking for something different that really feels like you're in Costa Rica- this would not be a bad starting-off point.

Finally, another really, really fabulous option for folks flying into San Jose is to go directly up into the mountains, near the Poas volcano to the Peace Lodge.  Now- this is more like an hour from the airport, so this is only an option if your flight arrives by the early afternoon (before 2pm ideally), and it certainly is not easy for a tight budget, but MAN - we all absolutely fell in love with this place.  Luckily, there is so much to see & do here, that even non-guests can come and purchase a day pass to enjoy the associated La Paz Waterfall Gardens, which combines hikes to waterfalls with a natural preserve/mini-zoo... I can only imagine that day-guests would be jealous of the hotel guests if they got to see the rooms!  First off, let me tell you about the rooms - a) there aren't many of them - less than 20 I think - so they're named by butterfly species, and b) they all boast ridiculous views out over the canopy, all with jacuzzis and hammocks on the porches.  They're full of local rich wood finishes, with elaborate bathrooms (again- this is a trend in CR) and even fireplaces.  I couldn't get a good shot of the bathrooms, but imagine a stone tub that seems to be tucked into a corner of the rain forest, with an open shower that turns into a waterfall.  Located high up in the hills, there's no need for air conditioning - but there are plenty of pools tucked around either for the lodge guests only, or also some for day-guests as well.  There's even a pond filled with trout for guests to catch & have the kitchen serve them up for dinner!  Simply beautiful:

So, yeah, the lodge itself is pretty spectacular, but the gardens/grounds/waterfalls are not too shabby!  I think in general you always have a guide with you as you meander down through an Aviary, filled with toucans, scarlet macaws and other pretty birds, through a crazy hummingbird area, down to a butterfly garden which is just magical, ect. There were monkeys, a snake building, and of course some froggies.  In many cases, the guide will allow you to handle &/or feed these guys too- so it's very hands-on and great for kids!  Finally, at the end there are even some jungle cats, which was fine for me until we got to the giant, majestic leopards.  The male broke my heart because he would not stop pacing and was drop-dead gorgeous.  Apparently they are all rescues, and the male once escaped but came back to his enclosure on his own, so it's all as PC as a zoo can be, but still sad for me to see such a great animal behind glass/bars.  (There are lots of pics- many have already been posted on Facebook, so you may have seen them before!) 

Tucked in among the animals & waterfalls, there is a large buffet restaurant for lunch, but, well, it's not particularly gourmet, fyi.  Once you get past all the animals, there's a small museum casita where you can learn about traditional life (which we skipped) and finally some paths for hiking down to the waterfalls.  We did a bit of an abbreviated version since we were in a rush, but you could conceivably spend hours wandering around in the jungle past amazing, giant, pristine waterfalls. The paths were safe & well maintained (though sometimes slippery), and there's a convenient shuttle to take you back up to the top so you don't have to worry about going back UP all the millions of stairs you're going down.   

So, to sum up, if you're able to arrive into San Jose early in the day, and you've got the budget, Peace Lodge is DEFINITELY worth at least a two night stay, but if you're arriving later, then you do have several lovely options both in and around San Jose.  Next up: the mighty Arenal volcano - one of the highlights of this marvelous little country.