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Travelzoo Experience: Pura Vida Awaits in Costa Rica

One of the most coveted perks at Travelzoo is the Travelzoo Experience, in which Deal Experts and other employees take advantage of the same travel, entertainment and local deals we publish to our subscribers and report back on their experience.

Where can you go waterfall rappelling in the morning, soak in enchanting geothermal hot springs at night and then to sleep in the comfort of an eco-friendly, luxe 5-star hotel overlooking a volcano … for a great rate? You’re looking at Costa Rica in the low season! Our entire trip was like being in the magic of "Jurassic Park," without the fear of a velociraptor eating you, or your bank account.

We booked an upscale air-inclusive package because it was just the right amount of luxury and eco-adventure. The 5-star property, Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort in Arenal and the inclusion of the thermal hot springs in the package was uniquely plush. The second half of the trip was to the Los Suenos Marriott, which had an amazing system of pools and canals that all connected throughout the property and overlook the ocean. It was here we enjoyed lying by the pool and watching all types of tropical birds, including a pair of wild parrots, fly over head.

We started our six-night trip with a slight delay due to “maintenance issues” with our aircraft and arrived in San Jose six hours late. We were told many times that driving through the mountains to Arenal at night is not preferred, but had no other choice but to make the drive.

Travelzoo Tip: Study the map, be familiar with the route and get a GPS at any cost. We borrowed one from a friend, downloaded the most recent Costa Rica map and pre-programmed the airport and our hotels as our favorites. It literally saved our trip, and our marriage.

As the early morning sun crept through our window, I crawled out of bed with one eye open to see Costa Rica in the daylight for the first time. As I swept back the curtains, I literally gasped. Arenal in all its volcanic glory, was right out of our door. I was breathless. We explored the thermal hot springs that morning and went back to the adults-only Shanghai Gardens at night -- you have to do both! It’s relaxing during the day, exotic and romantic at night. Truly enchanting. And my skin has never felt so soft.

During the rest of our time in Arenal, we went waterfall rappelling with Pure Trek Canyoning, on a self-guided hike to La Fortuna Waterfall, enjoyed the hot springs and ate fabulous casados (local dish of chicken or beef with rice, salad, beans and plantains). If you would have told me six months ago that I would rappel down a 160-foot waterfall, I would have told you that you were crazy! Another perk of our low-season adventure: our tour group was only seven other couples, compared with two or three times that amount in the high season.

Travelzoo Tip: If you have your own car (which I recommend) I would also suggest driving to La Fortuna Waterfall on your own and paying the $10 park admittance fee versus the $50 tour. Pack your swimsuit and a light lunch and enjoy the falls before the trek back up the steep trail!

On Day Three, we drove from La Fortuna to Herradura, to the Los Suenos Marriott. It was about a three-hour drive, past scenic Lake Arenal to the coast. We left early in the morning so weren’t hungry for lunch, but many towns would be a good stop off for lunch for typical Costa Rican fare. The majority was a beautiful drive, but if you’re not aggressive you’ll get stuck behind slow moving trucks, so watch out.

While at the Marriott in Herradura, we made a quick jaunt over to Jaco, a sleepy little surf town about 10 miles south. Many restaurants and coffee shops line the main street with locals and tourists checking out all the shops. It’s here that you can buy the traditional pottery, mango wood bowls, coffee, jewelry and other souvenirs. 

Travelzoo Tip: If you’re jonesing for the Internet, stop off at one of the breakfast shops like Mus Anni’s and enjoy the free Wi-Fi.

It was overcast on the morning we went, so we skipped the beach that day but you can easily get surfing lessons if you’re so inclined.

The day after our trip to Jaco, we took a one-hour drive south to Manual Antonio National Park which was the absolute highlight of our trip. It only cost US$10 to get in and worth every cent.

Travelzoo Tip: We skipped the extra money for the nature guide, you won’t need one in my opinion.

During our easy three-hour hike, we saw all types of lizards, howler monkeys, a raccoon, little marmots, and we did, in fact, see a sleeping sloth! I would recommend taking the main path up to the Mirador trail, going up to a majestic look out and then hiking back down to enjoy the white sand beaches. We saw most of the monkeys either on the Mirador trail or down on the beach playfully running around.

Travelzoo Tip: Again, bring your swimsuit, plenty of water and a light lunch if you want to stay in the park and enjoy the beach for the afternoon.

On our last day, our trip back to the airport was uneventful, sans the small earthquake we felt while in the airport terminal! It sounds weird, but this seemed old hat after all we experienced during our eco-adventure. You’ll see the phrase pura vida, which means pure life all over, and you’ll really understand why when you see the natural beauty and respect the Costa Ricans have for their natural resources.

If you’re up for non-stop adventure, don’t mind a little rain and want great value, go to the lush rainforests of Costa Rica in the low season. Pura vida awaits!


To find vacation deals like the one described above, visit our Central America vacations section.

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Tips by

Deal Expert, Chicago
Tuesday, July 30, 2013
See more Tips from
Ashley Pyle