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First time in Costa Rica: Alajuela and surrounds, Tortugeuro, and FlySANSA

First time in Costa Rica: Alajuela and surrounds, Tortugeuro, and FlySANSA

Old Feb 23, 17, 7:36 am
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dsf
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Join Date: May 2006
Location: Surbiton, Surrey, UK.
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First time in Costa Rica: Alajuela and surrounds, Tortugeuro, and FlySANSA

Just yesterday returned from a 10 day trip to Costa Rica and felt compelled to just say: wow. What a fantastic place. My girlfriend and I had a great time, pretty much as perfect as we could have hoped for. I'd like to post a summary of what we did in the hope it will interest and help others, plus plug the trip report I made for our internal flights as well as my external blog for (much) more details, should anyone be bothered!

Itinerary summary
We flew into SJO (of course) and had decided to use Alajuela as our base, rather than San Jose. Honestly, there is not one thing we read or heard about San Jose that made us interested to visit there, and in fact we steered clear throughout our entire time. And I'm a city boy, both at home and when I travel!

We stayed in Alajuela for 5 nights, opting to take day trips to attractions in the surrounding valley, before flying to Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast. Stayed for 3 days there, then flew back for one last night in Alajuela before an early morning flight to start our trip home.

Alajuela

Our accommodation was Hotel 1915. This is, according to our book, Alajuela's oldest and best hotel. It isn't luxury, in fact facilities were limited, but it was beautiful and clean. Breakfast is free each day, from a menu of around 6 choices, and all the staff were very helpful. NB we thought there was a tour company attached to or even based in the hotel itself, but saw no sign of it.

Alajuela town centre is small and easily navigable on foot. There are numerous easy to find restaurants and places to drink; of note, we ate at Jalapeños Central (tex mex, vicious margaritas) and Chante Vegano (vegan food) and drank several local craft beers at Monteleones.

The town squares are pretty, fairly busy, and very nice places to sit and chill as the sun comes down. The museum is small but fairly interesting - probably more so if you can read more than 50 words of Spanish - and the market is a nice place to wander around. If you were visiting Alajuela on a day trip, you can easily do everything in half a day, but we found it a very nice town to "live" for 5 days.

Day trips

I refer to these things as day trips, but in all honesty most of the experiences finished by 2pm or even earlier. By doing so it felt like we both crammed a lot in but still had plenty of time to relax - it was a holiday after all. We visited:
  • Zoo Ave - a rescue animal sanctuary just a short ride from Alajuela. Mostly birds but also caiman, a sloth, some monkeys, and others. There's also a nice restaurant on site, though they seem to put iguanas and peacocks on the door as security to scare you off.
  • Volcan Poas - a longer ride up to the crater of a volcano and a dormant crater, now a lagoon, plus a visitors centre and disappointing cafeteria.
  • Sarchi - a town full of furniture makers and arts and crafts, also the world's largest ox cart. At the largest craft maker you can watch the painters and wood workers in action in the workshop, and eat at the restaurant upstairs.
  • La Paz Waterfall gardens - another rescue animal sanctuary with an aviary, butterly garden, hummingbirds, as well as big cats, monkeys, a traditional Costa Rican casa, and a steeply stepped walk to see 5 waterfalls up close. Massive highlight is that you can hand feed a toucan, with the bird sitting on your arm!
For the first 3 trips we made our own way via public transport. Alajuela has many buses, and in fact around 4 different bus stations which are not particularly well organised or signed for tourists! However, every local we spoke to in pidgin Spanish was extremely helpful. The Poas bus is well-signposted, but there is only one a day at 0915: don't be late! And the Sarchi bus does not leave from any of the stations, but a stop on a street nearby.

There is no public transport from Alajuela up to La Paz, nor any organised tour groups, so we asked at the hotel and they arranged a cab with the fantastic Catherine, who drove us there early and waited for us while we did the whole tour. Then on the way back she took us for lunch at a local restaurant in Frijanes. We missed all the bad weather and high number of large coaches, all of which arrived just as we were leaving.

In general, we feel like we probably exhausted Alajuela, but never got bored: it was just about right, and everything we saw was great. Certainly no temptation to visit San Jose!

Flights to/from Tortuguero

I've written up (and included pictures in) a trip report of our internal flights with Fly Sansa. It was quite an experience, in a number of ways!

Tortuguero

We knew we were out of season for the turtle nesting/hatching, but that wasn't a concern for us. We wanted a relaxing time by the water, plus to see wildlife in its natural habitat. Tortuguero ticked all the boxes! We stayed in Casa Marbella, right in the centre of the village opposite the church - staying in a lodge is not our style, we wanted to be amongst everything. Casa Marbella has a large decking area looking out over the Tortuguero river, an amazing place to sit and drink a few beers as the sun sets. It's also close to the Budda Cafe as well as all the other shops and restaurants - who am I kidding? Everything is close to everything else in a village with a population of 700! You can reach the caribbean beach in less than a minute.

While there we took a dawn tour along the river and canals, into the Tortuguero national park. This is 3 hours on a boat witnessing herons, otters, caiman, monkeys, ant eaters, ... so many animals in a fantastic, beautiful, peaceful protected habitat. It's quite mesmerising and well worth it. By taking such a tour you have to pay for a day pass into the national park itself, so we also went on the shaded walk in the forest itself and saw spiders, lizards, toucans, monkeys, turtles, etc. There's an informative turtle research field station at the. north of the vaillage which is also worth a visit.

You can hire your own kayaks/canoes if you wish, but that's not really my thing. Costa Rican food is nice but I wouldn't say it's an amazing destination for cuisine. The best food we had in Tortuguero was at Miss Junie's, which is run by one of the descendants of the family who founded Tortuguero.

Everything we read said that Tortuguero is a cash only place - no ATMs, no credit card acceptance. This wasn't true at all!

Pura Vida

For our last night in the country, we splurged some cash to stay in the Pura Vida hotel in Tuetal, just a short drive north of Alajuela. The rooms here are private villas set in stunning gardens. The owners are staggeringly friendly, informative and funny folk and the food is amazing.

Summary

We loved Costa RIca. As I said at the top, it was our first time there and couldn't really have been better. We felt safe the whole time, every local we interacted with was kind and generous and friendly, and even with poor Spanish we had no difficulty being understood (also, English is widely spoken!)

Hope this is all interesting and/or useful to someone. We wouldn't have even gone there, let alone had such a great time, were it not for all the advice we gained from reading widely across Flyertalk. If by some chance you're interested in significantly more detail, plus photos (and profanity, be warned) then you can find the full 10 part report of the entire holiday on my blog.

Last edited by dsf; Jan 15, 19 at 3:42 pm Reason: added links, fixed a typo or two
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