Costa Rica

Costa Rica a Natural Paradise Part 2

the ultimate caravan review

This week’s post is a day in the life on tour of the Costa Rica Natural Paradise tour, by Caravan. For this week, and for the next few weeks, it will be mostly journal style, but my hope is that you will get an idea of what to expect on this tour, and see if this is right for you. You certainly can self guide in Costa Rica, but if you want someone to take care of the logistics so that you can just sit back and relax, then I think this guided tour could be right for you. I realize this sounds like an advertisement for Caravan, but I assure you I am not getting compensated in any way by the tour company, monetarily, freebies or otherwise.

I want you to get your vacation money’s worth. If you read this and it sounds good, go! If you read this and it doesn’t sound good, that’s OK with me, I don’t want you go and have a bad time.

Synopsis
Costa Rica A natural Paradise
Downtown San Jose is in the center of the picture

This is a continuation of last week’s post. For those of you just joining, I will give you a quick synopsis. The tour group consists of about 40 people on a tour bus seeing highlights of Costa Rica with a tour director. While the country may seem small in comparison to the US or Canada, it is still pretty big, and I bet you could spend an entire year exploring and not see everything. The tour is kind of a “Jack of all trades”. If you are looking for a specialized tour like fully guided wildlife, or birwatching etc., then I recommend that you DON’T buy this tour. If you have someone in your family that likes birds and wildlife and another who likes art and culture, like i do, then this might be good for both of you.

I can’t tell you what to do, but if you have the vacation time I might recommend you stay a few days after the tour to explore on your own. Perhaps to see the things you wished the bus would have stopped for, which would mean winging it, but you never know what really resonates until you experience it.

Costa Rica A natural Paradise

The 3rd day

You start the day off very early with another excellent breakfast hosted by the Barcelo hotel. You then get a drive-by tour of San Jose, this is one of those moments I would have liked to get off the bus to explore downtown on foot more. I understand time constraints and safety though. You do get a nice visual slice of the city. I must say San Jose looks like a nice city with many amenities. You spend maybe an hour driving by the sights, then you are whisked away to the next destination. Which is……

Costa Rica A natural Paradise
A neighborhood on the outskirts of San Jose
Costa Rica A natural Paradise
A young lady out for a smoke
Costa Rica A natural Paradise
That looks safe right?
Costa Rica A natural Paradise
Not the best photo, but I thought the sign was pretty.

Costa Rica A natural Paradise

The Wildlife Rescue Center

If you aren’t a fan of zoos, rest assured that this isn’t a zoo. It is what it says: a rehabilitation center for wildlife. They reintroduce animals back into the wild whenever possible. There are some animals that are unable to be rehabilitated, but they do their best for the interest of the animals. Since it costs a lot of money to run a facility like this, and most people are not willing to donate freely, I’m glad the tour company supports something like this. You are encouraged to join the speeches by the rescue center, but are not forced; you can spend more time looking around. Lunch is catered by the rehabilitation center. While it isn’t as good as the hotel, it is still pretty good.

Costa Rica A natural Paradise
How gorgeous is he? A Macaw of some kind. Sorry they didn’t have a sign for him

While I would rather see wildlife in a natural setting, I appreciate the fact that there are animals here that, no matter how hard you looked, you might not ever see in the wild, like some of the owls and some animals that you probably don’t want to get that close to, like the big predator cats, and crocs. Since it is a rehab center, everything in there is something that you could see in Costa Rica, and nothing that shouldn’t be there like elephants or lions and such. After 2 hours or so it is time to move to the next location for more hours spent on the bus. The next stop is not an official destination, but it is notable.

Costa Rica A natural Paradise
While eating lunch at the rescue, this man was hand painting this mural, I just had to get a pic. That’s talent!

Costa Rica A natural Paradise

Zarcero

This is not an official stop, so I can’t guarantee you tour will stop here. We stopped here so that people can go to the baño (bathroom), to stretch their legs, and to get ice cream if you desire (I know we desired!). This is where it might be a good idea to know a bit of Spanish or else you will end up pointing to the ice cream you think looks good.

Costa Rica A natural Paradise
It is a gorgeous church, and topiary garden.

Zarcero is a pretty little town of just over 4000 people. It has a beautiful cathedral church in the center of town, and a cute little topiary garden that is fun to explore with it’s weird shapes. You may not have a lot of time to hang around, but it is a good opportunity to take some snapshots of local culture. The townsfolk are very receptive to the tour, greeting everyone who passes by. The tour company’s reputation, coupled with the relaxed locals, might make this a good place to practice your Spanish.

Costa Rica A natural Paradise

The long trek through the countryside

This is where the bus ride starts to drag on. It is nice that they stopped in the town above, or else the ride would be painful. While the countryside is very pretty, the bus ride starts to get a bit old. There’s not much they can do about this, it just is what it is. It’s hard to even get pictures, because of the moving bus.

Costa Rica A natural Paradise
The countryside of Costa RIca

Costa Rica A natural Paradise

La Fortuna

The long and painful bus ride turned out to be worth the wait. This is my personal favorite area, because of its sheer diverse beauty. The area is well known for its prominent landmark: the Arenal Volcano. Other than the obvious volcano, the area has plenty of farms and wildlife rich rainforests.

Costa Rica A natural Paradise
This is still my wallpaper on my phone a year later. This is the view from the hotel room.

After your long journey, you may be treated by the hotel Magic Mountain to a welcome drink. You then have just enough time to put your bags in the hotel before another fantastic dinner. The hotel may not be as fancy as the Barcelo, but the food is just as good. After dinner may be a good time to take a dip in the pool, as this one has a swim up bar, and at the time had some good happy hour deals. The hotel also has an absolutely fabulous view of the volcano, which I took full advantage of. If you don’t get a top floor room, I recommend you befriend one of the tour guests who does. It is worth it to get a bird’s eye view, especially at sunset, that is of course if you don’t have overcast skies.

Costa Rica A natural Paradise
Not bad for a backyard view from the hotel. The Arenal Volcano at sunset.

Costa Rica A natural Paradise

Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge

This is one of the river cruises, with a local wildlife guide. While river cruise is excellent, the bus ride to get here is looooong, really really loooong.

Costa Rica A natural Paradise
You will see many roadside fruit stands like this one from the bus.
Costa Rica A natural Paradise
Another thing that is common. This open air “soda” or restaurant
Costa Rica A natural Paradise
They love their football or soccer for you Americans.
Costa Rica A natural Paradise
Perfectly legit
Costa Rica A natural Paradise
On our way to the boat.

The river cruise happens to be a very wildlife diverse river that borders Nicaragua. I think they chose it because of its excellence in biodiversity and quality of wildlife guides, it is quite excellent. While the tour director “Laura” was no slouch herself when it comes to knowing her stuff, the river cruise’s ability to see things was outrageous. It’s hard to translate in pictures, but there were times when I thought to myself “how the &%$# did they see that?” For instance the bats, the guide saw them from hundreds of feet away, when I can barely see them with a telephoto lens.

Costa Rica A natural Paradise

This wasn’t the first time we saw monkeys, but it was the first time we got as close and when we saw so many. I know monkeys are common in Costa Rica, but I don’t care, it’s exciting to see them. Especially when they are so active.

You might be put off by the fact there are 40 other people on the tour, but it does have the potential to create some fond memories. My favorite moment of the whole tour was when the tour boat went along side of 2 young Tico men fishing on the river. Just as we pulled up along side of them, the one man caught a tiny little fish. Just as he did the entire boat cheered, not quietly but ceremoniously. There was woo-hooing, clapping and cheering, as if for a moment we were at a sporting event and the home team scored, it was so loud. The man was not smiling so much because he caught a fish, it was because he was laughing so hard at the people on our boat.

Costa Rica A natural Paradise
Probably one of my favorite pictures. They are both laughing at our group.

Costa Rica A natural Paradise

Camera Settings and Recommendations

The average person does not want to mess around with camera settings, I get it, and in a regular setting you won’t have to. Here though, if you don’t help your camera, then you might mess up a bunch of your shots, and I don’t want that. The professional and amateur photographers already know this, and can skip this if they wish.

This part of the tour is probably best if you have an SLR with a good telephoto. If you already have an SLR great, but if you don’t, a point and shoot with a good zoom is highly recommended. This is not a good spot to let your camera do the thinking. There are times when you will be shooting towards the sun, and times you won’t. Even if it is clear, there are times when there are animals in the shade of trees, but chances are there will be a mix of sun and cloud. While the boat may move slow, it is moving and vibrating and going up and down.

I recommend you set your camera to Tv, or shutter priority, meaning you set your shutter speed to a high setting like 1/500th of a second. You can set it slower if it is cloudy, but you may lose a few shots due to blur. Your camera will then change the width of the camera opening to compensate. Couple this with auto ISO and hopefully you won’t lose shots. It is better to have high ISO and deal with the grain, than to have a blurry and ruined shot.

Costa Rica A natural Paradise

Another way to go is Av, or aperture priority. This sets your aperture, then the camera decides how to set the shutter speed. The aperture number is how wide the opening is, with a higher number being a bigger fraction of a whole. F/1.2 means the opening is 1/1.2 x smaller than 1, alternatively F/22 means the opening is a mere 1/22 the size of 1 whole opening. Basically the smaller the number the MORE light it lets in. So set it as small as your camera or lens will let you. This way you can get higher shutter speeds. Again you might want to set auto ISO, or just set it to a mid range setting like 800.

The higher you set the ISO, the more grain you get, with 100 being low, and 6400 being very high. Every time the number doubles, you double the sensitivity of the light sensor. 100 → 200 → 400 → 800 → 1600→ 3200→ 6400→ 12800 etc. With advances in technology, ISO is seeing less grain as it goes up, however, generally anything past 1600 is pretty grainy. As I said though, a grainy shot is better than a ruined shot, although some people think a grainy shot is ruined. I recommend playing with your camera in a dimly lit room to see where your tolerance lies.

Costa Rica A natural Paradise
This is 6400 ISO, notice the grain. I even removed some of it with Photoshop. This was taken on a different day of the tour, but I wanted to show you an example. My aperture was at its widest, and shutter was at a 1/160, which is quite low, but I couldn’t get it higher. The lens is a Canon 400mm 5.6 fixed focal length, on a 7D, which is a pretty good camera setup.

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Cameras

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Costa Rica A natural Paradise

Hot springs!

You know how long it took to get to Caño Negro, well guess what? You have to go all the way back again. You are however rewarded for your patience with a trip to the hot springs, not far from the Magic Mountain hotel. It is a beautiful area, at the base of the Arenal volcano, with several pools (25 of them) all fed with natural spring water. The nice thing about this place is that each pool has a different temperature, so you can play Goldilocks and pick the pool that is “just right” There are no pictures from the spa, because it would be hard to relax at the spa whilst keeping an eye on your camera. Plus I doubt the other guests would be happy with you taking pictures of people in their bathing suits, so you will just have to take my word for it.

The resort and spa

It’s funny that the tour stays at one hotel, and then goes to another for its pools, but I’m guessing the price is what keeps the tour from staying there. For contextual purposes, is the hot pools are at the Baldi Hot Springs Resort Hotel & Spa. It is about double the price of the Magic Mountain, if you don’t want to take the tour and want to self guide.

That’s it for part 2

Well I hope you enjoyed what I had to say. If not I hope you enjoyed the pictures. FWIW, I enjoyed telling it. While the next day starts in the same area as La Fortuna, you pack your bags in the morning and set off, and don’t go back to the hotel,so I will leave that for next week’s post.

Thanks for visiting. If you or anyone you know is thinking about Costa Rica, please tell them about this guide; hopefully this will help their decision, and you will help me too. Share me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Pinterest.

Till next time: “Que la pases bien” (have a good time)!

– TheGlobeTrevor –

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