We recently had a vacation in Costa Rica and used this guide in San Jose, Heredia, the volcanoes of central Costa Rica, Quepos and Manuel Antonio/Rain Forests, Tamarindo Beach, Monte Verde/Cloud Forests and Santa Elena. I will start the review with comments on the layout of the guide itself and comment on whether or not it is user friendly. Then I will give specifics regarding the content of the guide and our various experiences using the guide. Then I will identify a few of the weaknesses of the guide. I will end the review with a general comment on our travel experiences in Costa Rica that may assist other travelers.
The guide is full of beautiful color photographs and insightful well-written essays. This is the major strength of this book. Major landmarks are described and put into historic or geologic contexts. The book is organized by major geographic regions, making it easy to use as a planning tool as well as a field guide when actually traveling.
We used the guide first when we spent 3 days in Manuel Antonio on the Pacific Coast. Driving from San Jose to Manuel Antonio we passed many farms and farmhouses. The average Costa Rican family does not have central heating, air conditioning, and many do not have a hot water heater. The hairpin turns between San Jose and the beach road is exciting with continual new vistas at every turn. The beach road from Jaco, to Puntarenas, to Quepos, to Manuel Antonio gradually becomes more and more primitive. Along the way you will pass many turquoise school houses. Elementary school children wear white shirts and black pants or skirts. Upon graduation to 7th grade, the children wear bright blue shirts and navy blue pants or shirts. Mothers walk young children to school and then walk them home for lunch. The children return to the school houses around 1 pm and then the school day seems to end for younger children around 2 and for older children around 3. You will see beautiful Costa Rican school children playing and walking and riding bikes in every village. We selected Manuel Antonio for the famous beach and Manuel Antonio National Park. The beach was indeed fantastic. The Pacific was refreshing but not cold and the waves were pounding but manageable. The restaurants were exceptional and reasonable. For example one night I had a dinner salad of sautéed grouper over heart of palm and greens for $8. Another night we had large tuna steaks cooked to perfection with black beans, rice, and slaw for $8. We were advised to drink bottled water but selected to drink the local water which was perfectly safe. We spent one whole day in the Manuel Antonio Park seeing spider monkeys, sloths, iguanas, humming birds, butterflies, and the wonderful pink faced Capuchin monkeys. Go early to the park since only 600 visitors are allowed in each day. Wear your bathing suit so that you can swim in the secluded beautiful beaches within the park.
We then spent 3 days in Heredia, north of San Jose, so that we could visit the volcanoes and the Guayabo archeological site. I wish we had more detail in the book about this aspect of the trip. We visited Poas Volcanoe first which was well described in the guide. However we should have visited earlier in the day because the cloud cover obscured our view. We hiked in the cloud forest observing the large navy blue humming birds. We then went to La Paz waterfall, a spectacular site. We then tried to get to Barva Volcanoe through beautiful mountain dairy and coffer farms. When we were 6 kms. from the top of Barva the road ran out and the undeveloped rock road would have broken our car's axle. We could have hiked the 6 kms. to the top but we would have had to abandon our car at the trailhead which we were reluctant to do. The next day we went to Volcano Irazu which is so high it is above the cloud line. It was very impressive, however we then drove to find Guayabo. There are very few road signs in Costa Rica so this was a search through beautiful mountain towns and farms. We finally found the entrance road but the pavement ended and the road was full of deep muddy potholes. We were still 10 kms. from the site and again we feared breaking an axle and we also feared leaving our car and hiking to the site.
We spent 2 days in the Guanacaste region in North West Costa Rica in Monteverde to visit the famous cloud forests and then 2 days in the Nicoya region of North Pacific Costa Rica on the beautiful Tamarindo coast.
There are several ways to reach the small town of Santa Elena and the Monteverde region. You must have a 4 wheel drive vehicle to explore this section of Costa Rica. We strongly recommend the route from Sardinal/Rancho Grande to Guacimal to Santa Elena. Don't take the Highway 145 route through Las Juntas even if you are approaching the region from the North. The roads are extremely rough on the Las Juntas route and are much better on the Sardinal/Rancho Grande/Guacimal route. The Pan American highway, highway 1, runs the length of Costa Rica but it is heavily traveled by giant 18 wheeler trucks and old farmer trucks barely able to climb hills. This makes for interesting driving on the twisty turns of this mountain highway system.
There are numerous hotels and restaurants in Sana Elena, some of which are very luxurious and many of the restaurants are gourmet with extensive wine lists. The views are spectacular and it is possible to see the Bay of Nicoya from these high mountains. When in Monteverde, the primary attraction is the Reserva Biologica Del Bosque Nuboso de Monteverde. This rain forest is spectacular and there are over 785 miles of hiking trails of numerous and various lengths and difficulty levels. We were able to see three separate sightings of the Quetzal. This beautiful bird is green and red with long streaming turquoise blue tail feathers. However, when driving to Monteverde, we also saw the Mot-mot, which has beautiful coloration and can be seen around pastures and farmland in these mountain highlands. We also went on a Sky Walk of 5 suspension bridges in the cloud forest tree tops. This gives a completely different view of the cloud forests from a walking tour. I strongly recommend using a guide for both tours since they have the ability to identify unique creatures hidden in the undergrowth. We were able to see a large male orange and black tarantula spider pointed out by our guide.
We also visited Nicoya peninsula and spent 2 nights in Tamarindo, a town of cheesy, over priced surf shops but an incredibly beautiful beach. There are mangrove, coconut palm forests populated by the grey, black, and brown striped Costa Rican squirrels. North of Tamarindo is the Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas where over 8 species of marine turtles come to lay eggs. We missed turtle season however which falls between November and the end of January. The National Geographic guide went into depth explaining the life cycles, habitat, and variations of the marine turtle populations.
In terms of the weaknesses of the book; we found the maps were not detailed enough for rural or minor road exploration. We wished more details on Guayabo and Barva had been included so that we could have made better decisions about our time. For example, the trip from Heredia to Irazu to Guayabo back to Heredia took 7.5 hours. The road conditions in Coast Rica require 4 wheel drive when not driving in San Jose or on Highway 1. This recommendation should be made more frequently throughout the text of the guide. Finally I wish the guide had told us more about car rental issues in Costa Rica. We used a travel website and selected the lowest rate, which was a Costa Rican company and not a US chain. They were $100 less expensive. However, the mandatory Costa Rican liability insurance increased the rate from $150 to $400. We should have checked to see if other car rental companies included liability insurance in their quote so as to really select the best deal for a week long car rental. When we rented from an internationally known car rental company the Costa Rican casualty insurance was considered optional.
The strength of Costa Rica is not only the beauty of the country but also the beauty of the people. Stunningly beautiful women and handsome men are seen walking or waiting for buses, tending cows or chickens or children, or working in small sodas (roadside stores). Everywhere we went we were treated warmly by the people. People were generous with their time and knowledge.
We found the guide to be very helpful and readable, with beautiful photographs. The maps could use some improvement so you may want to purchase a more detailed road map for your trip.