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Costa Rica and Antigua Vacation, anyone been? Suggestions?

post #1 of 24
Thread Starter 
Thinking about a February trip with the woman to perhaps Costa Rica or Antigua to get away from the rediculous cold. We've both never been to either and although I've been doing some research I'm having a hard time finding out where to stay. I have read about the rainforests and volcanos in Costa Rica which sounds nice as we both like hiking. Antigua is closer to Puerto Rico where I have been a few times before so I think it would have to be similar in some respects to PR which is a good thing as well.

If anyone has been to either, I'm open to any suggestions on beaches, best things to see and do, best places to stay (not necessarily the most expensive), if I should do all inclusive or not, tips on airfare, etc. We do have a budget of course, I think we'd like to keep the trip under a few thousand if possible including airfare.

post #2 of 24
Originally Posted by visionology
Thinking about a February trip with the woman to perhaps Costa Rica or Antigua to get away from the rediculous cold. We've both never been to either and although I've been doing some research I'm having a hard time finding out where to stay. I have read about the rainforests and volcanos in Costa Rica which sounds nice as we both like hiking. Antigua is closer to Puerto Rico where I have been a few times before so I think it would have to be similar in some respects to PR which is a good thing as well.

If anyone has been to either, I'm open to any suggestions on beaches, best things to see and do, best places to stay (not necessarily the most expensive), if I should do all inclusive or not, tips on airfare, etc. We do have a budget of course, I think we'd like to keep the trip under a few thousand if possible including airfare.


I used to live in Costa Rica, but it was almost 20 years ago and things have changed. But, the Volcano south of San Jose, I believe it is in the city of Cartagena, just down the Panamerican highway, is a must. You walk up to the edge of a green smoking volcano, Really cool. Take the train ride to Puerto Limon. It is an adventure to say the least. THe cloud forest at Monte Verde is cool, no pun intended. Buy some cheese from the Quakers there. The bar scene in San Jose is interesting, because just about everywher you go, they serve you free bar food with every drink. This can range from little pieces of lasagne to frijoles to salchichas to you name it. They call them bocitas.

There is a very strange bar there called Nashville South, near Parque Morazon. It is an expat bar. They play Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, just meters from a statue of a general who tried to unite Central America. Just a fascinatingly weird scene.

Hope this helps.
post #3 of 24
You've got a lot of options if you're coming to Costa Rica. Februrary is usually a good month to come down as it's our dry season with not too many tourists. Translation: cheaper packages to be found. The advantage of all-inclusives is not having to drive to your destinations while leaving "exploring" down to a minimum. However, San Jose isn't where you'll want to be if you're interested in rain forests or beaches and is impossible to drive around as a tourist. Driving around the country is by far easier. Renting a car from Budget or other major companies is only about $100+/week so if you're looking to save some cash, feel comfortable with driving around, etc. it's not such a bad idea. If you prefer something a little more organized and planned, you should find quite a few packages available. In terms of destinations, I'd recommend Monte Verde for hiking. It's Costa Rica's more famous biological reserves and really rather beautiful. Arenal, a still-active volcano, is relatively close by as well. If you're looking for beaches, I'd really recommend Manuel Antonio. I see it as a really good first step for first-timers in Costa Rica. It's rather touristy in nature but I really can't see it as a negative. Hotels run the gamut of luxurious to reasonable with some of the best restaurants I've seen (not because of food, but because of location, build, etc. See ). The town itself is located next to a national park with plenty of quiet trails and beaches not to mention loaded with wildlife. One beach in particular has reefs only about 50ft or so out so snorkling is fairly popular. You might also find packages that go to Guanacaste. It's not necessarily bad, but it is the drier side of Costa Rica and not nearly as pretty in my opinion as other areas in the south. The area has become very popular over the last few years in terms of resorts ( a Four Seasons opened not too long ago) as more and more tourists visit every year. I have friends coming down to visit me in December for about a week and I plan on taking them to Monte Verde/Manuel Antonio as well as a few other towns where I have family. Sorry to say it but things have changed, Stu. The free-food bars are really in the minority these days. In fact, I can only name 2 or 3. Irazu volcano in Cartago stays pretty year-round but I don't really recommend people sticking around the central valley as there isn't much to see other than the coffee plantations which is really more of a day-trip thing. A train package could be an idea, such as America Travel, but itineraries are very limited as railways are hardly ever used anymore. My advice would be to stick to the Pacific as there is more to see/do there.
post #4 of 24
Originally Posted by whodini
Sorry to say it but things have changed, Stu. The free-food bars are really in the minority these days. In fact, I can only name 2 or 3.

Sorry to hear that. When I lived in CR the colon was like, 72 to the dollar. A man could live like a king on $5 an hour. Are Nashville South and Key Largo still around?
post #5 of 24
My family owns property in Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica (Guanacaste region) and also in Arenal. The Playa Hermosa beach is near perfect and has won numerous awards for cleanliness. There are great restaurants in the area (Gingers and La Finisterra are my two favourites) and there are tons of things to do. One thing that you absolutely have to do while in Costa Rica is a canopy tour. They are great fun and there are some excellent options just a stones throw away from Playa Hermosa. Another thing I like about Play Hermosa is that the Liberia International Airport is only 20 minutes away (You can get direct flights from Houston). Roadways in Costa Rica are generally not good so the short distance is a real luxury. If you'de like any more information on the area just pm me. I'd be glad to help you out.
post #6 of 24
I had this magazine from the '70s, if I believe correctly, and it talked about how Costa Rica was becoming extremely restrictive towards its middle-classes. Either way, the magazine showed some picturesque scenes, and several nice modernist type villas.
post #7 of 24
Thread Starter 
Thanks everyone for your responses thus far, I am going over your information and researching those items on the net. I will be responding with some questions soon enough. Thanks for the offer Stazy, as well. whodini, do you live in Costa Rica full time? My girlfriend is so excited, she really has never been anywhere. I would like to go to a couple different places we've never been each year, we need to do a lot of things while we are both young and without children.
post #8 of 24
I was in CR this past August. We spent most of our time in Manuel Antonio. The resort in which we stayed was called Costa Verde, and I think it's worth recommending. Nice villas with extensive hand-made hardwood furnishings. Also, it's something else to take your breakfast on the balcony and watch monkeys frolic in front of you. We also spent some time in a hot spring resort outside of Cartago. Quite a bit outside, actually. I preferred the former. Prices on the hardwood and leather rocking chairs you see everywhere were actually best in Manuel Antonio. We had intended to spend some time in Jaco as well, given the press it gets. But we found it annoying after an afternoon, and moved on. The roads are pretty good in general - though some of the old Chiquita banana railroad bridges are interesting - but the signage is third-world abominable. I wouldn't rent a car, because the bus system seems pretty good. Certainly, in MA we parked the car and took the bus into town.
post #9 of 24
I do live here semi-full time. I'm originally from L.A. but am studying medicine down here (something practically free if you're a national like I am). I'm here in San Jose for another 2 years so feel free to message me if you need help/advice. Stu, it's around 510 colones to the USD right now. Things are still fairly inexpensive (typical meal=$2-3, beer=$1-2, etc.) but you'll pay more for nicer stuff due to import duties. I'm not familiar with Nashville South since I typically stay away from downtown SJ at night. It's funny, and please don't take this the wrong way, but your comments sound like my father's when he originally came down through here in the late 60s. I'd be curious to see what it was like back then. Then again, he's moving up here in another few months after not visiting in over 25+ years. To see the look on his face... Stazy mentioned Playa Hermosa which typically is less crowded than Manuel Antonio and very close to the airport. You'll find a lot of packages for that area and its beaches like del Coco and Ocotal (which I'll be doing dives at in another month ). It is close to some national parks and a few hours from Arenal. As I said before, you're likely to find more resort packages in Guanacaste than any other part in Costa Rica. If you'd rather not go the resort angle, I'd go with my original recommendation of Manuel Antonio/Arenal/Monte Verde. SGladwell apparently stayed at the resort/restaurant I originally gave a link to. My family has a beach house in Jaco and while it is a "surf town," I wouldn't necessarily recommend it. Yes, there are lots of tours, excursions, etc. offered in town, but you'll find the same in just about any beach town. The beach is so-so but as newer resort construction continues, it'll be a heavily-crowded beach within the next few years. I wouldn't recommend taking a bus unless you get your hands on a bus schedule (find one in a Fodor's Costa Rica) and are prepared for the unexpected, especially since it's your first time here. Town-to-town travel is one thing but traveling the country is quite another. Case-in-point, I took a bus with some friends to Manuel Antonio a few months back on a Saturday thinking we'd come back Sunday. Come to find out on Saturday that tickets for all the buses on Sunday were sold out, as were private buses and mini-buses. We were "stranded in paradise" overnight before catching a bus back home Monday. I don't see the point in having these kinds of "adventures" just to save a few bucks. Taxis are also fairly cheap travel from town-to-town or restaurant-to-restaurant especially in Manuel Antonio where your hotel can be a good mile or two uphill from the beach.
post #10 of 24
Thread Starter 
Doing a lot of reading, comparing, etc and I have a few more questions if you all don't mind.

It seems like the pacific side from what you have all said is much better than the Atlantic (which no one mentioned) so I think pacific it is. Now just a matter of which area. How far away are the main sightseeing tours like Arenas, Monte Verde, Canopy Tours, etc from Manuel Antonio and Playa Hermosa? How far away is Manuel Antonio from the airports since Stazy mentioned Playa Hermosa is 20 minutes from the Liberia airport. I am having a tough time finding airlines from CT that travel to CR regularly, I really hate going to NYC.

Cost: How much do things typically cost in Costa Rica? You mentioned food being $2-3 and beer $1-2 which seems very low. Is this typical? How many places take American money if any?

I haven't talked it over with the girl yet but I think we'd like to be fairly close to the ocean, if not on it, just because coming from inland CT it would be nice to go out on the balcony and look at the water each morning. Plus I do photography and plan to take a LOT of photos so it would be good to be accessible to the water. Now if I only had an underwater housing for my camera... I look forward to the wildlife, when we visitied the rainforests in PR they were a great hike but very void of any wildlife other than small lizards.

San Jose:
I've read some website about some places targeting tourists such as pickpocketing and some shady activity at night. What are the areas to avoid and what are the good areas. Anything similar to say an Old San Juan with little old shops, bars, and restaurants? Those are the kind of areas I typically like.

Getting Around:
I hear what you are saying about the bus, I def don't want to be stuck somewhere overnight because of shady travel. It's hard to say if I would like to rent a car, it's a nice thing to have but in some trips ends up more trouble than it's worth. Is the cab system very reliable, as in if you call them they will actually come? Hopefully some of the hotels have shuttles, etc.

Beaches and Snorkling:
What are typically the best beaches on the pacific side? I think what we are looking for is the crystal clear blue water. Do you see sharks at all? I'm not a big fan of the shark. Any suggestions on the best places for snorkling? I'd like to do scuba diving but we aren't licensed yet and I don't know if we'll have the time to get it done before.

What typically goes on at night in CR? Any bars, clubs, lounges that you recommend? Any other suggestions?

post #11 of 24
Location: Playa Hermosa is about 70 miles from Monteverde and Arenas is a tour company so I don't think they are exclusive to one area. There are a few canopy tours that are all under 30 minutes away from Play Hermosa. I'm sorry I can't help you much with flight information except. Being from Canada I don't know what type of route to suggest, etc. The only thing I know is that we always take Continental for our trips to Costa Rica. Cost: Things are generally pretty cheap. And everyone accepts American money. There is no need to buy Costa Rican currancy. Resort: There is one hotel in Playa Hermosa called La Finisterra. It located on top of a hill and has great views of the ocean on one said, and forrest on the other. I've attached a picture of what the scenary looks like. There is another hotel called El Velero that is right on the beach (It also has a pretty good restaurant). If you want to rent a private house there are also some options available. I've attached some pictures of one house in Playa Hermosa that can be rented. There is also a four seasons hotel that is about 45 minutes away from Playa Hermosa. It is very secluded but is top notch. San Juan: Sorry, I don't know much about it. Getting Around: I think the easiest way to get around is by renting a car. I didn't see very many (if any) taxis in Play Hermosa. Beaches and Snorkling: The play hermosa beach is nice but the snorkling isn't great. There is a boat tour that leaves from Playa Hermosa that takes people to a cove-like snorkling spot and a private beach (It's a great way to spend a day). There are also scuba diving companies in Playa Hermosa. Some of them offer training courses where you can get a license. Deep sea fishing trips are also available if that type of stuff interests you. (My cousin caught the attached fish). Nightlife: There are quiet a few pubs/restaurants in and around Play Hermosa. The closet thing that resembles an "American" style bar is a place called Monkey Bar. It has live music (not always good music though) and a pretty good atmosphere
post #12 of 24
You caught me at a bored moment...let's see if my computer will stay on long enough for me to answer (been having problems lately). Location: Arenal/Monte Verde is a good 5 hours or so from Manuel Antonio and about 2-3 I'd figure from Liberia. Manuel Antonio is a good 4-5 hours from San Jose Intl. No matter where you go on the Pacific, you'll find scuba, canopy tours (usually via zip-lines), 4x4, river rafting, etc. offered at most beach towns, usually 15-20 mins from the location depending on the activity. I wouldn't worry so much about distance for those. Canopy tours would probably be best around Monte Verde as it's green year-round. Not sure what to tell you in terms of CT travel but most major airlines fly down to San Jose daily and quite a few also go to Liberia. Shop around. Cost: It's as relative as a trip anywhere else and really can be as cheap or as expensive as you want to be. Staying at beach towns will be more "expensive" depending on location because of its focus on tourism. You can google for hotel rates to see what I mean. In terms of food, expect to pay $5-10 for a typical meal in these towns although you can shop around for specials (TONS of happy hour places). Away from the touristy places, you'll find small cafes called "Sodas" with meals typically in the below $5 range. There's a small place by my school, for example, where I get lunch every once in a while. Full plate of chicken, rice, beans, plantains, salad, veggies, and a beer with tax/tip incl. usually runs me under $4 (a meal called a casado). Most of the day activities, especially in tourist areas, will typically cost you a little below or at US prices depending on the company. Again, several companies have sites on the web for that stuff. Resort: I'm a photographer myself. PM me your email and I'll show you some shots of the different locations I've been to. I'm sure you'll find some packages that offer beachfront views but they'll probably come at a premium. If you decide to pick and choose your own hotels, which is easier these days as more and more places have online reservations, you'll probably be better off budget-wise but you'd still have to deal with transportation. Knowing that Feb usually isn't a popular tourism month might actually lean towards a package in terms of discounts. Google Manuel Antonio for shots of wildlife. Same with Monte Verde. San Jose: This isn't Old San Juan. Sorry. There is a historic street known as Paseo Colon and while you'll see older stores, it's actually more of a downtown metropolis. There is a stretch with older government buildings/parks that's fine to visit during the day and see things such as the National Theatre. At night, however, it really becomes another thing entirely. The area around Mall San Pedro is pretty popular with the younger crowd with plenty of bars, clubs, and lounges. While I do have a good time when going out with friends, I really can't see telling my friends back home that taking them to these places is an absolute MUST. Another area known as Escazu typically is more upscale and is very popular with Americans. While farther away from me than San Pedro, I prefer the scene over there as there is a healthy mix of bars. If you decide to spend a night/day in San Jose, I'd probably point you over there. One place is particular is a favorite of mine for live music. I've heard the house band play anything from salsa and meringue to American R&B (and done rather well, I might add). Getting Around: I'll take a guess and assume you speak limited/no spanish. While more and more Costa Ricans are learning the value of speaking english, it isn't quite universal. However, let's say you're staying a Holiday Inn in San Jose and wanted to get to Escazu. The hotel would be able to call you a cab out there and I'm sure could arrange something where they can call another one to pick you up or hail one back. Taxis are literally everywhere here and yes, if you call them they will typically be at your door in under 10 mins. Most major hotels will have shuttles to/from the airport and some to other parts of the city. If you're thinking of staying in San Jose, shoot off an email to a chain here asking what they offer in terms of transportation to get a more precise answer. Beaches and Snorkling: It really depends on the beach. Some beaches you find will have the white sand you've been dreaming of while others won't, and I'm talking about neighboring beaches. The locations already discussed will have great snorkling/scuba diving but you might have to rent a boat/tour to take you to a more secluded beach/reef. As I mentioned with Manuel Antonio, inside the national park you can just swim out to the reefs and have a field day. Visibility when was last there was around 25-30 ft. depending on the area. See pic: As a scuba diver, you typically will not see sharks in shallow water, let alone by these reefs so close to the shore. I'm actually hoping to catch glipses of a few when I'm up in Ocotal as I've never seen them before. I wouldn't worry about them. One recommendation I do have about snorkeling is that if you go solo, bring crackers in plastic bags. The tour groups have practically trained the fish to recognize the color of the cracker containers and aren't shy about eating right out of your hand. Nightlife: Already mentioned but I will add that there's a beach bar in Manuel Antonio that has a very famous party every Saturday night, usually with a bonfire. I'd highly recommend it. About every place with an ocean view has great happy hours, such as the Barba Roja and the Avion Bar. There is not a lack of nightlife here. Also note that the national park is closed on Monday's.
post #13 of 24
Thread Starter 
Wow thanks for the info guys! You should get together and write a book That is one monster fish Stazy, looks like a swordfish. whodini I'll send you my email so you can send those photos in a minute. I took some nice photos in PR with my old G3 so I'm excited to be going back south now with an SLR and good equipment. As far as us speaking Spanish, I'm a Puerto Rican with limited knowledge but my girlfriend is Puerto Rican and a Spanish teacher She can be our translator for the trip but shes been trying to get me to learn so I'm sure she's gonna be quiet and let me struggle ordering food, cabs and whatnot sometimes. Being Spanish we appreciate the Spanish things, the food, the music, the culture. I'm at a tossup whether it's even worth it to go to San Jose if it is really just a typical big city, especially being so far away from both beach towns. It would have been ideal to hit it quickly right after flying in but that won't work with all our luggage. Thanks again Neil
post #14 of 24
To fill in what whodini wrote: Location: About 4 and change from San Jose airport to Manuel Antonio. Pay no attention to the signs as you progress telling you that it's further away than it was a half hour hence. You're still going the right way. Cost: The "typico" plates (beans, rice, bread, some veggies) are cheap and great for breakfast. Restaurant food is basically about US franchise-hut (Fridays, etc.) quality and price. The town before Manuel Antonio, Quepos (sp?) has a great open-air produce market along the ocean, or at least they did when we were there. That's really cheap. Beer is also cheap, and the local stuff is pretty good, which is to say almost Central European. My pick of them was Bavaria dark. Resort: Here's a pic of the view out our balcony at Costa Verde. The beach was still a good mile hike (or a cheap and easy bus ride) downhill, but you can see it while you take your breakfast. As you watch monkeys frolic about in front of you. (There are no phones in the room there, which was a blessing for us but may be an issue for you. I don't know if other parts of the rather sprawling complex have phones or not.) San Jose: didn't see a compelling reason to spend time there, so didn't. Beaches: when we were planning our trip, everyone said Manuel Antonio had the best beaches in the country. Don't know if that's true, but they were pretty great. Also, go into the national park early if you want to get to the best beaches. They're secluded and completely worth the extra trouble, though the public beach isn't half bad, either. Nightlife: can't say we went to any clubs or anything that I'd recommend. But we also tended to have full days starting with sunrise (~6am) so we were rarely out past midnight.
post #15 of 24
When I go to the Caribbean, I like to stay at private islands and do absolutely nothing except sit on the beach and read. I just want total peace and quiet. On the islands, you can of course swim, do water activities, etc., but there's no night life or anything. So, if that's for you, I really suggest you look into going to island where the hotel owns the island. One of my favorite islands is actually off of Antigua. It's called Jumby Bay. I also like Petit St. Vincent a lot, but that's not by Antigua, but I think Jumby Bay is my favorite anyway.

Sorry, I didn't see you budget. Jumby Bay is pretty expensive.

Perhaps you can check out Anguilla too? I've been there, and it's a nice, relaxing place to be.
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