Last-minute trip to Costa Rica

By Glenn Schmidt
This item appears on page 12 of the July 2020 issue.
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Sun and ocean meet at Playa Flamingo, Costa Rica. Photo by Glenn Schmidt
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Sun and ocean meet at Playa Flamingo, Costa Rica. Photo by Glenn Schmidt

Costa Rica, in Central America, contains a total of 67 volcanoes, most of which are dormant. Before my wife, Kris, and I and two other couples visited in January 2020, I had known about only two.

Arenal, the volcano we saw during our visit, stands 5,479 feet tall, less than half the height of Irazu, the country’s tallest. Nevertheless, it looked pretty imposing from our perch at the Arenal Observatory Lodge & Spa (www.arenalobservatorylodge.com), less than 2 miles away.

Surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows, we were having a delicious lunch at the lodge’s restaurant, El Jilguero. If you go there, try to time it so you arrive before noon, which is when a park ranger sets out food for the local wildlife.

Arenal violently erupted in 1968, destroying a nearby town, and last erupted in 1998, but it’s been quiet since then. On the day we were there, it was both quiet and shy, exposing its summit only on brief occasions through the shielding cloud cover.

If we were staying longer, the lodge, the only hotel located inside  Arenal Volcano National Park, would have been a great choice. Instead, we stayed one night in the town of La Fortuna at Hotel Villas Vilma (www.villasvilmahotel.com), where $78 bought a clean and quirky room in half of a colorful cottage. This hotel was only 5 miles from the volcano.

Arenal Volcano making a rare appearance through clouds. Photo by Glenn Schmidt from his hotel in La Fortuna

An entry fee of about $12 apiece got us into the park, but that also gave us access to some delightful walking trails.

We had flown into Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport (also known as Liberia International Airport, one of four international airports in Costa Rica) due to its location in Guanacaste province, the northwest section of Costa Rica, notable for good restaurants, hotels and beaches. The airport is 7 miles southwest of the town of Liberia.

Getting to Liberia from the American Midwest was a challenge for the three couples involved with our trip. Kris and I flew American Airlines from Madison, Wisconsin, with a brief stop in Dallas. Travel times on the return trip didn’t match up quite as well, so we had to overnight in a Dallas airport hotel.

Brion and Cathy, the second couple, flew Delta Air Lines from Milwaukee, with a layover in Atlanta, Georgia. My brother and his wife flew Sun Country Airlines direct from Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Liberia in a little over five hours.

In Costa Rica, don’t expect to drive through the countryside at anywhere near the speeds you’d travel in the US. The roads we traveled were good, but the many curves, small towns and occasional mountains conspired to keep our rented SUV’s pace to a minimum. Several times, especially near beaches, the blacktop roads were replaced by rutted gravel tracks that rattled the joints in our bodies and slowed our vehicle to a crawl.

Kristine Schmidt watching monkeys in trees in Arenal Volcano National Park. Photo by Glenn Schmidt

We didn’t find parking to be a problem, even in some of the busy beach towns, but parking rules seemed to be at a minimum and somewhat random to our North American eyes.

We parked the way everyone else seemed to park — wherever there was room. For example, next to an open-air restaurant in Tamarindo, we parked in a narrow alley that had no exit. No signage indicated whether parking was allowed. We asked the waitress if it was OK to park there, and she said, “Oh, sure.” We never got a ticket and never saw any parking enforcement.

Our trip to Costa Rica was a last-minute decision, about 16 days before departure, so our choices of accommodations were somewhat limited. I’ve used both Airbnb.com and Vrbo.com with considerable success over the years, so I was pleased to see that each of them had some inventory. While few Vrbo properties appeared to have been reduced for last-minute buyers, some of the Airbnb choices approached fire-sale prices.

The deal on a 2-bedroom condo at The Oaks Tamarindo (786/245-7837; www.theoakstamarindo.com), near the seaside town of Tamarindo, was too good to pass up. For $705, my wife and I and our friends Brion and Cathy secured a week in a large 2-bedroom, 2-bath condo at a beautiful gated resort with four swimming pools. Located about 7 miles from the ocean, this place was maintained very well and seemed very well managed, and the staff was friendly. The resort’s occupants seemed to be evenly divided between Spanish and English speakers.

My brother and his wife, who were in Costa Rica a week longer than the rest of us, went in a different direction. They spent a week near the Arenal Volcano at The Springs Resort & Spa (www.thespringscostarica.com) and a week near Tamarindo at the JW Marriott (www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/sjojw-jw-marriott-guanacaste-resort-and-spa), next to the Pacific Ocean. Each of these sprawling properties was beautiful and remote. And expensive. The per-night cost was between $300 and $400. 

The exchange rate for Costa Rican colones while we were there was CRC567 per US dollar. I had read that American dollars were acceptable throughout the country but that any change returned would be in colones. That turned out to be true for us. I had brought along quite a few fives, tens and twenties with me in US currency and used them in small transactions. For larger ones, such as restaurant bills, I used credit cards and had them run the transactions in the local currency.

Glenn Schmidt enjoying Costa Rican coffee in an open stairwell of his rented condo. Photo by Cathy Pagel

Grocery stores are a great window on other cultures. Three supermarkets were within 10 minutes of our condo. Having a full kitchen meant we didn’t have to eat in restaurants for every meal. One night, we cooked brats out by the pool, and on another night we made spaghetti.

We also bought freshly roasted Costa Rican coffee, among the best coffees I’ve ever tasted. I asked one roaster what my two favorite coffees (Costa Rican and Hawaiian) had in common. He answered, “Volcanic soil.”

Just before we left Costa Rica, we discovered the roaster Sun Burst Coffee Costa Rica (phone +506 2667 0818, www.sunburstcoffee.com). They produce particularly tasty coffee, and they specially packed some for us to take home. It’s located at the Do-it-Center on Highway 21, a few miles south of the Liberia International Airport, and there were signs for it everywhere. I have since ordered coffee from there online, and it’s outstanding.

Our best restaurant meal was at Coco Loco Bar & Restaurant (phone +506 2654 6242, www.cocolococostarica.com), on Playa Flamingo (Flamingo Beach). I carefully devoured the delicious red snapper, served whole, while the sun relentlessly pursued the horizon. My wife had shrimp. The price for both of our dinners and two colas came to $40.

The temperature may have been 90 and the sand about the same, but a nice breeze and some beach umbrellas kept us quite comfortable until the night engulfed us. 

The rewards are many and the drawbacks are few in Costa Rica. I got by on my college Spanish and didn’t hit anything with the car (despite the locals’ tendency to walk, stand and do unpredictable things right next to the roadway). Exploring out-of-the-way places was almost always productive and surprising. 

What more can you ask for when you’re escaping winter?

GLENN SCHMIDT
Sun Prairie, WI