Spring Break In Costa Rica

To relax after exams, we visited volcanoes, swam in hot springs, swung in the rainforests, and dived into the ocean all in Costa Rica.

Spring Break In Costa Rica

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by RoBoNC on March 29, 2008

For a college student, spring break is a week from studying, writing term papers, and the daily grind of college life. As we finished up fall mid-term exams, my roommate thought we needed to start planning for spring break. It is never too early to start planning, especially considering where he wanted to go, Costa Rica. He had just finished studying for a semester there and thought it would be a great idea for both of us to go for spring break. I was all for it, but first I needed a passport. It was a good thing we planned far in advance.

We took off from Raleigh-Durham airport connecting in Miami on American Airlines. We landed at Juan Santamaria International airport in San Jose. After checking into the hotel, Charlie’s friends took us for a night in San Jose. The prostitution scene in Costa Rica is very much legal as I saw from the many different women trying to hustle their next john. There are parts of Costa Rica, especially near the University of Costa Rica, which look like the United States. Restaurants such as Burger King, Dominos, Papa Johns, and Taco Bell line the streets. I guess you could say it looks like any American college town.

For dinner, they took us to a small restaurant and trying not to be too adventurous too soon, I ordered something that I was used to. Taco Bell helped to crave my late night hungers and keep me awake while cramming for exams. My food of choice is the Chalupa, which is what I ordered at this restaurant. Although, it was not the same thing at Taco Bell, it was still good. A Chalupa here is a flat piece of dough deep fried to create a hollow cup and then it is filled with beef, chopped onions, and salsa.

Another great restaurant we ate at is unique because of its location. (I cannot remember the name.) The restaurant is located directly next to the runaway across from the airport. Zoning laws prohibit any construction within a certain distance of the airport, but since this restaurant was built before the airport, it was grandfathered in. We ordered some of the best fried calamari that I have ever eaten while eating it in their outdoor seating area. Because of the location, we were able to eat while watching airplanes take off and land. Make sure you bring some earplugs!

We visited active volcanoes, swung through rainforests, visited coffee plantations, and swam in the crystal blue waters of the Pacific. For a small little country in Central America, this place has it all. ${QuickSuggestions} The currency in Costa Rica is the Colon. As of 2008, the colon trades at 495 to the US dollar. The major tourist destinations and resorts usually accept US dollars.

Spanish is the official language, but English is widely used in the heavily tourist areas.

Prostitution is legal in the country so do not be alarmed if women approach you for sexual services. Just ignore them and move on and they will move on to someone else.

Costa Rica has some of the best coffee in the world. Make sure that you buy enough to bring back home. Try to avoid buying it at the airport, as it is more expensive.

A great Costa Rican dish is Gallo Pinto which is a mixture of rice and beans. It can be eaten at all meals, but it is consumed primarily at breakfast.

To quench your thirst, try a refresco. It is a beverage made from fresh fruit. It is a common drink in most Hispanic countries.

The emergency number in Costa Rica is the same in the US, 911. ${BestWay} Juan Santamaria Airport is the main airport in Costa Rica located about 12 miles away from San Jose in the town of Alajuela. Most of the major American airlines fly into Juan Santamaria and the airport also serve as the hub for TACA/Lacsa airlines. TACA is the national airline for El Salvador and Lacsa is the hub for Costa Rica. The other airport is Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport in Liberia which serves the resorts located on the Pacific side of the island. Liberia is about a four hour drive from San Jose. All the major American airlines also fly here, but Continental has the most flights.

Although we did not drive in Costa Rica, there are car rental facilities at the airport. However, I would very much discourage it. Just riding around the city in taxis and with the family we visited, traffic rules seem nonexistent. There are three lanes but five rows of traffic. Pedestrians do not usually have the right of way. In fact, the taxi driver actually sped up when pedestrians were crossing the road. The roads are need of repair and many are riddled with potholes.

An easier and inexpensive way to get around is buses and taxis. Taxis are cheap and are great while in the major cities. The buses are excellent for getting around the country as they make stops in most of the major tourist destinations. Some hotels can arrange tours that include transportation such as the Costa Rica Marriott.

The Gulf of Nicoya separates mainland Costa Rica from the Nicoya Peninsula. It is faster and easier to take the ferry across the gulf instead of trying to go around it. The ferry station is at Puntarenas and has three ferries that depart daily to the town of Paquera and Playa Naranjo. Prices and schedules can be found at www.nicoyapeninsula.com

Marriott Costa Rica

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by RoBoNC on March 29, 2008

Costa Rica is the most visited country in Central America for its national parks and beautiful beaches. San Jose, the capital, is the main entry point for most tourists arriving into the country. Hotels in San Jose range from budget to expensive and locally owned to major hotel chains. Best Western, Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn, and different Choice Hotels can all be found in the city at very reasonable prices. However, if you are looking to splurge, look no further than the Costa Rica Marriott. Do not confuse it with the Marriott Courtyard also located in San Jose.

The Costa Rica Marriott sits on a 30 acre coffee plantation, located three miles away from the airport, but you feel as if you totally secluded. The hotel offers free shuttle service to and from the airport. Although we did not rent a car during our stay, the hotel offers free parking or valet for $4.50 a day, which is very cheap, compared to most other Marriott properties. We drove up the long driveway from the main road with the hotel’s yellow exterior and unique architecture grabbing our attention. As the shuttle van pulled up to the front of the hotel, the bellhop promptly met us to take us to the front desk.

After checking in, we were escorted to our room. The room was elegantly decorated with beautiful Spanish paintings and decorative art fixtures that made you feel at home in Costa Rica. The beds, like all Marriott properties, had down comforters and custom duvets and all the fluffy pillows you can ask for. The hotel even offers turndown service so after a hard day of seeing the sights, your bed is already for you to crawl in to. The rooms come with refrigerators and a wet bar. For an added touch, wrap up in the terry cloth bathrobes.

The views from the room are spectacular. From our balcony, we had views of Costa Rica’s Central Valley Mountains towering over the driving range directly below. The hotel has its own pro shop and offers golf lessons on site. There are five different golf courses less than an hour away from the hotel.

The hotel also offers a fitness center, three tennis courts, a sauna, and the Palmas Wellness & Spa facility. I decided to spend my time at the hotel in one of the two pools that they have on site. While I was enjoying the sun, a waiter asked me if I wanted something to drink. Although I wasn’t 21, that didn’t matter since legal drinking age in Costa Rica is 18. I ordered a Pina Colada and I expected to get my white fruity drink in a glass maybe with a little paper umbrella in it. Imagine my surprise when my drink arrived and it was a pineapple on a tray. They literally took a pineapple and cored out the middle filling it with the Pina Colada. So instead of drinking out of a glass, I just drank it straight out of the pineapple. When I was finished, I started eating the pineapple because I realized I just paid $14 for a drink and I was determined to get my moneys worth.

The hotel has four restaurants on site. The Antigua and Casa del Café serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The Case del Café is a coffeehouse serving some of the best coffee I have ever drunk, not to mention a great place to eat breakfast. The other two restaurants only serve dinner. The La Castilla has an international menu featuring live music and the La Isabela Tapas & Wine Cellar is a Spanish restaurant in a fine dining atmosphere.

The hotel offers an excellent concierge desk that can assist in making reservations for different activities and tours. We used them to book two tours, one to the Arenal Volcano and Hot Springs and the other to take a swing through the rainforest on a canopy tour. The front desk can easily change foreign currency into the local currency, colons.

Conde Nast Traveler has ranked this hotel as one of the top ten hotels in Mexico and Central America.
Marriott Costa Rica
San Jose, Costa Rica, N JOSE CR

Canopy Tours Through the Rainforest

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by RoBoNC on March 29, 2008

With the rise of ecotourism, Costa Rica has become an important destination. With 25% of the country set aside as national parks and protected areas with beautiful beaches surrounding it (the best ones are on the Pacific side), then volcanoes, mountains, and rainforests scattered about, Costa Rica is excellent example of biodiversity. In one trip, you can see it all. On this trip I wanted to combine the eco-side of the trip with adventure. I got all I asked for when I took a rainforest canopy tour. Many people who visit the rainforests prefer to walk the trails and admire its beauty from the ground. However, I wanted to see the rainforest from a different perspective, the air.

We booked our tour with the concierge desk at the Marriott. The tour van met us at the front entrance and we proceeded on our one hour drive to the rainforest. Our tour included lunch so the driver asked us what we wanted to eat. The choices were beef, chicken, or IGUANA!!! I have an adventurous spirit so I said put me down for iguana. However, once we arrived, I was informed that the females were breeding, so the iguanas could not be eaten. Oh well, there is always next time. After lunch, while we were waiting for the canopy tour to begin, we were allowed to enter the iguana pit. It was a large pit full of iguana, perhaps as many as 200. Most were very photogenic except for this one particular iguana. He was situated in the corner, alone, and was the biggest iguana in the pit. I thought to myself I am going to get a close up. I quickly thought again. As I got closer with my camera, fins on his head fanned out and his mouth open wide. He resembled the dinosaur in Jurassic Park, the one who spits venom at its prey. I was immediately informed by the staff, that that particular iguana is the king of the pit, and that was his defensive posture to tell me to back away. I didn't have to be told twice.

There are many different tour companies operating canopy tours throughout Costa Rica, but they are all pretty much the same. The canopy tour consists of many different platforms of varying heights located in the treetops of the rainforests. The rider is outfitted with a harness that is used to hook up to strong wire cables strung throughout the rainforest. The cables transport the rider from platform to platform.

After signing the necessary waivers and performing a safety check on our equipment, we were ready to swing like Tarzan. After climbing to the first platform, I hooked on to the cable with my carabineer and just slid all the way to the next platform. The experience gives you a new look at the rainforest from high atop the trees. You may catch a glimpse of a Poison Dart Frog, a Red-Eye Tree Frog, or the almost 900 different species of birds, which is more than the US and Canada combined.

The greatest thing about the canopy tours is that anyone can do it. Being athletic or in peak physical fitness is not a prerequisite. There is usually a minimum age requirement which is usually 12. Dress in something very comfortable since you will have a harness wrapped around your waist and underneath your buttocks. Shorts are acceptable. Most of the tour companies recommended hiking shoes since there is a small portion of hiking involved. I wore tennis shoes which were more comfortable and I had no issue with hiking trails. You may want to bring raingear since it will probably rain. Usually it is a light mist and it actually feels good on the skin to counteract the heat. Most important, bring a camera. Some of the best views of Costa Rica can be seen while swinging from platform to platform. The guides that goes with the group are have no problems taking pictures of you while swinging in the rainforest. It is a great way to remember this extraordinary experience.

After two hours and 24 platforms later, it was time to head back. We boarded the van for the hour drive back to San Jose. The canopy tour was exhilarating a must for anyone visiting Costa Rica. My trip to Costa Rica happened almost ten years ago and the tour company's name has escaped me. But the Costa Rica tourism website (www.visitcostarica.com) has many to chose from or check with the concierge in your hotel if there is one available.

Tabacon Hot Springs and Arenal Volcano Hike

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by RoBoNC on March 29, 2008

The Arenal Volcano is Costa Rica's most active volcano and is located about 90 miles northwest of San Jose, the capital. The volcano has become a popular tourist destination in Costa Rica ever since 1968. The volcano has been dated back to almost 400 years and scientists had classified it as extinct; that was until July 29, 1968. The volcano decided to wake up and a powerful eruption destroyed the town of Arenal, killing 87 people and destroying crops and livestock. The volcano has erupted continuously ever since very much like Mount Kilauea in Hawaii. In 1991, the Costa Rican government established the Arenal Volcano National Park. The park covers 41 square miles that includes the 5,436 ft Arenal Volcano as well as Chato, a second volcano whose crater contains an emerald colored lagoon. The park includes the Arenal Observatory Lodge and the Museum of Vulcanicity. The volcano heats many hot springs nearby leading to many resorts in the area capitalizing on this natural wonder. Visitors can swim in the natural waters, be pampered with massages in the spa, or just relax with a nice meal and a drink. We preferred the latter.

After booking our tour with concierge desk at the Marriott, the tour van picked us up for our ride to the Tabacon Grand Spa and Thermal Resort. Although you can stay at the resort, it is very expensive with a basic room starting at $230. It is probably a better idea to stay in San Jose, drive to the resort and purchase a day pass which entitles you to all the luxuries as if you were staying there. Although the rates were cheaper when we went in 2001, the current rate is $60 for an all day pass from 10am to 10pm and with the option to add meals during your visit.

The bus left San Jose for the three hour bus ride to the Arenal Volcano, but not before stopping in the quaint little town of Sarchi, for brunch. Sarchi is about an hour from San Jose, but it seems farther than that. Sarchi is a popular destination for tourists for the countless souvenirs and artisan shops that cover the town, not to mention that it is a nice side trip from the hustle and bustle of San Jose. All of the homemade painted bowls, wooden utensils, furniture, as well as the oxcart. The oxcart was Costa Rica's first vehicle when it gained importance from the coffee trade. Coffee growers needed the oxcart to transport the coffee beans over the mountains and to the coast. It eventually became a status symbol. The oxcart is still used today although trucks have replaced it. They can still be seen around the Costa Rican countryside and they are used in parades. Sarchi is small but vital to Costa Rica because they have two factories that supply the country as well as the rest of the world with handcrafted oxcarts. Unlike most tourists traps where locals try to sell you crafts, which are nothing but cheap knock-offs, most Costa Ricans come to Sarchi to buy furniture for their homes. So if you want to take a piece of Costa Rica back with you, then Sarchi is the place to go. However, our stay here lasted until our meal was over, so my experience of Sarchi was but a fleeting memory.

Although the drive to Tabacon Resort was about three hours, the stop for lunch and the magnificent views of the Costa Rican countryside made it go by quick. We entered the resort and put our clothes in the lockers and then grabbed our towels headed for the hot springs. The resort is filled with flowing rivers emptying into river pools as well as natural waterfalls heated to a comfortable 102 degrees. Swimming in the water was like getting into a Jacuzzi, but only on a larger scale and the water was natural. The resort says that the water is 97% rainwater and 3% magma-based. Hot springs are formed when rainwater enters the earth and is then heated by magma in the earth's core. The water rises to the surface bringing all the natural minerals with it. This water is better than your household water used to fill the Jacuzzi because it provides physical and biological effects. The minerals in the water help to improve oxygen flow in the tissues and it helps to strengthen the skin's defenses.

As with any heated pool, too long of exposure could be unhealthy. To spend my breaks out of the water, I had a few drinks from some of the water bars. The resort has some freshwater pools with bars in them so you can swim up to them and get a drink without ever having to get out of the water. If the water makes you hungry, there are restaurants on site as well as the Grand Spa if you need more relaxation than what the hot springs can provide.

With the hot springs comes the natural beauty of the area. There are nature paths surrounded by tropical gardens with so many colorful flowers that it almost looks unreal. Many people have commented that the pictures I took look like a scene from a postcard. Along with Arenal Volcano towering 5,000 feet in the air, you will be hard pressed to find another place anywhere in the country with this much beauty.

My only regret on this trip was that I was not able to see the fiery demonstration of the Arenal Volcano. There are two departure times, 8am and 3pm. Not realizing this, we missed our opportunity. It just gives me another reason to go back. The tours to the summit last about an hour and half. It is suggested that you take the 3pm tour for it offers the best views of the lava flow when the sun is setting.

For more information go to: www.volcanoarenal.com and www.tabacon.com
Arenal Volcano
Near La Fortuna, 90 miles NW of San Jose
Alajuela Province, Costa Rica

An Education in Hispanic Hospitality and Culture

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by RoBoNC on March 29, 2008

After landing in San Jose, we proceeded to Immigration and Customs, where I received my first stamp in my passport. After acquiring our bags, we hailed a taxicab to our hotel, the Costa Rica Marriott. The ride from the airport to the hotel was only about five miles, but I was holding my breath the entire time. Driving laws are merely guidelines in this country. While we were driving down the Autopista General Canas, the main road from the airport to the hotel, I noticed that drivers didn’t care that there were only two lanes on the highway. Two lanes quickly became four as drivers made their own lanes. It didn’t faze our taxi driver at all because he drove just as aggressive as the others and refused to allow anyone in front of him. I also realized that crosswalks are more of a decoration. A pedestrian was walking across the street and instead of slowing down, our taxi driver sped up. I don’t know if he was trying to hit him, but it made the pedestrian realize that the crosswalk wasn’t a safety zone.

Charlie, my roommate, had spent six months in Costa Rica studying at the university and he lived with a family while he was there. After a few hours at the hotel, we were met by one of the people who he lived with as well as his girlfriend. They decided to give us a night on the town and show us around San Jose. I was wondering why they kept taking us to all the prostitution areas. She would point out girls on the street corners while asking me what I think of them. I realized that they believe sex rules everything in America. While prostitution may be legal in Costa Rica, it is not legal in the US, except in Nevada and Rhode Island. Because of the legalization of prostitution in the country, the sex tourism industry is just as popular as the ecotourism. I thanked them for showing us this side of Costa Rica, but I had other ideas in mind for my trip.

The next day, we were invited to their house for dinner. I was given a couple of rules before our visit. If I was offered a gift, I was to not refuse it, as it could be taken as a sign of disrespect. The second rule was that I needed to be careful about what I said. Specifically, saying that something looked nice in their house, such as a picture. The reason is that they would try to give it to me.

I was given a tour of the house while we waited for the children to get home from school. The children came home wearing their school uniforms and we made our introductions. Although, I don't speak Spanish, the children were able to communicate with me a little in English. The parents and I tried our best to communicate with each other, but everything was pretty much lost in translation.

Before we sat down to dinner, I noticed some very odd while I was in the living room. I was watching the Cosby Show in English with Spanish subtitles. I felt that it was odd that I was in Central America, but yet most of the stations on TV were in English. Only a few stations were broadcasted in Spanish. I wonder if they try to learn English just so that they can watch TV without having to read it.

As we sat down to eat, I noticed something else that was a little odd. I was so excited to try some authentic Central American cuisine, but instead we were having fried chicken, corn, and mashed potatoes. The food was excellent; it just wasn't what I was expecting. The family was trying so much to impress me and make me feel at home, that they went out of their way to make me something that they thought I eat back at home. While at dinner, the father gave me a shirt as a gift. He owned a store in town that sells odds and end items. Costa Rica is a developing country with 18% of its citizens living below the poverty line and GDP per capita of $12,500. For him to give me a shirt when every dollar he makes is needed to feed his family, it was the ultimate act of kindness.

The next morning, the two oldest kids picked us up from the hotel for a day at the beach. We piled into the back of their Toyota Tercel and prepared for the long drive to the Pacific coast. It probably would have been shorter, but we stopped every five minutes so that he could use the pay phone. He had to make a call to his family, and while we take cell phones for granted, they are a luxury in this part of the world. After he was able to make contact, we were now on our way.

At the town of Puntarenas, we had to use the ferry to cross the Gulf of Nicoya. The one hour ferry ride gave us beautiful views of the many different islands scattered in the gulf. After docking on the other side, we crossed the Nicoya Peninsula on our way to the beach. Playa Hermosa, located in the province of Guanacaste, is translated into “beautiful beach.” It was exactly that. The beach had fine white sand with warm blue pristine waters. The four hour trip was well worth it.

On the way back to San Jose, we began to discuss our different cultures and the stereotypes that Hispanics hold of Americans. They view Americans as greedy people who only want to make a dollar. While they don’t hold that view of everyone, that is the perception that they get from American television. Corporate greed and the demise of Fortune 500 companies such as Enron only add to their view of Americans.

I brought up the race issue that faces America with regards to white and black. Believing that America is the only country that grapples with issues regarding race, I was sorely mistaking. They told me that Costa Ricans deal with race issues just as Americans, except theirs are with the Nicaraguans. I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a Costa Rican or a Nicaraguan but they can spot them in a crowd and are viewed as lazy and stupid. They told me that you can tell a Nicaraguan by the way they talk. They chop the ends of their words off making them sound stupid. Who knows what Nicaraguans think of Costa Ricans?

Aside from the hot springs, rainforests, and beaches, this trip was a chance to experience a culture outside of my own. I was able to explore places not listed in Frommers and was able to talk candid about subjects that affect us both. The wonderful generosity and hospitality that I was shown on my trip gave me a different perspective on Hispanic culture.


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