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March 14, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Costa Rica - Part 3

Day Three:

We started the day with a buffet breakfast at the Hotel Kioro Arenal. Through the panoramic windows, we had breathtaking views of steam and ash boulders being emitted from the top of the volcano. Our Adventure guide Mike told us that there were only a few dozen completely clear and sunny days in the area. We were lucky enough to have two of them.

Our first activity was the zip line excursion at the opposite side of the Arenal volcano. While the bus ride there was not long, we did travel over some unpaved "roads" and I was again grateful that we had a highly skilled driver. Upon arriving at Sky Trek Adventures, we were shown a video about zip lining and given instructions about what the activity would involve.

At this point, we were given the option to zip our way through the rain forest or take a nature walk to see the area's flora and fauna. About half a dozen members of our group opted out of the zip line experience, including a 6-year-old girl who was too young to qualify for zipping (the minimum age was 8), one other child, and a few of the adults.

The nature walkers took off with our guide Bernal who gave them an informative tour that including sightings of sloths, giant butterflies, and countless unusual plant species. The rest of us got suited up with helmets and harnesses and headed off for a Sky Tram ride (picture the old Skyway at the Magic Kingdom) over the jungle to reach the first zip platform.

Riding Sky Tram

Family in harness

Getting hooked on

We had two brief practice zips in which we were taught the proper position to ride (in a tuck, with your back to the ground), how to slow down (open your legs), and what to do if you get stop short of the end platform (turn yourself around, then go hand over hand to pull yourself in). Then we were off for the thrill of a lifetime. Each of the next six zip lines were different, the longest line was 2,500 feet, the highest was 524 feet above the rain forest floor, and the total distance covered was nearly 2.5 miles.

The children were required to ride the lines with Sky Trek guides so that their weight would be enough to propel them across the full distance of the lines. The children were also the first to go over the lines because the guides needed to circle through quickly to assist the maximum number of guests. I don't have words to describe the sensation you get when you see your nine-year-old daughter flying on a thin cable over the jungle at 30+ miles per hour. She was laughing with glee, but I had to choke back a scream.

Before long it was my turn to ride. My harness was clipped on the wire, an attendant gave me a push and all of a sudden I was hurtling through space. The wire buzzed and trees were zooming past. I was afraid of not stopping in time and afraid of stopping too early. And most of all I was wondering what on earth I was doing swaying in the wind over the treetops at automobile speeds. In about a minute, I had made it to the first high platform. My overall impression was, "mmm, I don't really think I need to do that again." But once you decide to take the first line, there's no turning back. Our tour guide Mike acted as cheerleader and therapist and made sure we all were happy as we continued the adventure. The next five lines each got progressively easier and I was finally able to look around while I was flying and enjoy the majesty of Lake Arenal, the volcano, and the lush surroundings. Back on terra firma, I met back up with my kids who were begging for more. They loved every minute of it!

We returned to the hotel for a buffet lunch of chicken, fish, vegetables, and the ever-present rice and beans. Various members of our group spent the next several hours at the hotel napping, swimming, or enjoying the services at the spa.

Hotel Kioro Grounds

In the evening we were transported to the nearby Hidalgo Hot Springs. This multi-tier natural spring had areas that ranged in temperature from well over 100 degrees to a cool 75 degrees. We happily hopped from one pool to another while enjoying a beverage and the company of our tour mates. Surviving the zip lines together was a fabulous opportunity for bonding. Dinner at the springs was steak with tortillas and homemade guacamole.

Day Four:

We started with another breakfast buffet. Rice and beans with Lizano were now as familiar in the morning as Rice Krispies and milk (though those were available too).

Our first stop of the day was the Coriscana Pineapple Plantation, one of the largest in Costa Rica. Here we learned the Costa Rica is the largest pineapple exporter to the US, supplying Dole, Del Monte and other brands. And sure enough, since I've been home, every identified pineapple I've seen has been from Costa Rica.

Our tractor tour of the plantation included a lesson in pineapple production, from planting the tiny buds (they look like soft pink pinecones) to harvesting and packing the ripe fruit.

Pineapple on plant

Pineapple field

Pineapple Harvest

Enjoying Juice

Of course the best part was when our pineapple guide plucked fruit off the plant, hacked off the rind with a machete and then served us slices right there in the field, delicious and juicy. At the end of the tour we were treated to fresh pineapple juice served in hollowed out pineapples, so sweet.

We then continued on the bus to the site of Aventuras del Sarapiqui, for a river rafting experience on the Sarapiqui River. Our hosts provided us with a picnic lunch of tacos with fresh tortillas - one of the tastiest meals of the trip.

The Adventures by Disney materials advertised the rafting experience as being in class 2-3 rapids. Because of the earthquake I mentioned previously, we were unable to experience the section of the river with the class 3 water, so our tour was a more gentle class 1-2 float, with only small sections of white. All the members of our tour from the youngest to the grandparents were easily able to participate.

rafting

My husband was a bit disappointed that we didn't have more water thrills, but I was perfectly happy to use the raft ride as a chance to get a closer look at some of the Costa Rican wildlife. It was thrilling to see a dozen species of birds and hear howler monkeys in the trees. Our raft guide, Mau, beat on his chest like Tarzan and the howlers would mimic him back. After our trip we learned the Mau was the raft guide filmed in the Travel Channel program Disney's Best Kept Secret, if you happen to catch a rerun of that program you can see our jungle friend.

To spice things up a bit the raft guides and our Adventure Guides staged an impromptu cross-raft water gun battle. The splashes were a great way to cool off!

For dinner, each family was on their own. Most of us chose to have a simple dinner from the menu at the hotel restaurant. We finished the evening with a dip in the hot tub in our room. While soaking, we enjoyed an amazing view of the Arenal volcano at night.

Volcano at Night


Day Five:

We left our luggage outside our hotel room at 7:00 a.m. Our bus driver took the bags on a six-hour drive over mountain terrain to our next destination.

Meanwhile, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of, you guessed it, rice and beans (again, other choices were also available). Then we took a quick jaunt to a tiny airstrip where our group piled into two 19-seat prop planes.

natureair.jpg

The plane ride was a half-hour hop over the mountains to the Pacific coast of Costa Rica with stunning scenery every moment of the way. We were at our next home, the Hotel Parador, just outside of Quepos. We were greeted by staff with cool washcloths and cold fruit drinks. So refreshing!

Lunch on the terrace was grilled-to-order sandwiches, burgers, chicken, or steak, accompanied by a lovely selection of salads and fruit. Our companions during lunch were a group of giant iguanas, some as big as my arm. Although I'm sure we were not supposed to do this, many in the group (OK, me too) ended up feeding them. Their favorite appeared to be carrot cake, though they actually took lettuce from one of our tour-mate's hand.

Iguana with cake

Iguana with lettuce

After lunch we were shown to our rooms. While the rooms were smaller and less well appointed than those at the Arenal Kioro, they were still perfectly fine and here too the views were incredible.

Hotel Parador view

Hotel Parador view

We had the option to go on a hike in the afternoon, but the entire group opted to relax by the pool. Adventure guide Mike played a spirited game of Marco Polo with the kids, chatted with all the adults, and generally made sure that everyone got a as relaxed as possible.

For dinner, the children were invited to a Junior Adventurers dinner in a private room at the hotel where they munched on pizza and chicken. Mike and Bernal had planned to show them a movie after dinner, but the kids voted to have a mini talent show instead. So our Adventure Guides got to enjoy karaoke and hip-hop performed by my kids. They are my heroes! While that was going on, the adults in the group were downstairs at the Parador restaurant feasting on shrimp kebabs and salmon.

Day Six:

After breakfast (rice and beans!) we headed out to Manuel Antonio National Park. We had nature guides accompany us through the forest with scopes to help us find and identify the wildlife. During the one-hour stroll we saw several sloths, bats, land crabs, and countless bird species.

Bat under leaf

Sloth in tree

By mid-morning we were at the Manuel Antonio beach, an absolutely perfect stretch of sheltered water that was the warmest ocean I had ever encountered. After cooling off, we were joined at the edge of the ocean by a family of more than a dozen capuchin monkeys. They were everywhere, climbing overhead, jumping from tree to tree and sometimes just lounging on the branches. Many times these incredible primates were only 5 or 6 feet away from us. We even got to see a mother carrying her baby on its back.

Monkey in tree

Capuchin

Being in such close proximity to such intensely beautiful and strangely human creatures in the wild was an experience I'll never forget.

After more time in the water, we walked back to the National Park entrance where our guide Mike treated us all to fresh coconut milk. A local vendor hacked the top off a coconut for each of us and we slurped up the juice inside with a straw. Very refreshing!

Coconut Machete

Coconut Stand

Drinking coconut

Lunch was on our own. We chose to eat at a local spot called The Marlin and then followed our meal with some shopping at a beachside bazaar for local trinkets and handicrafts.

My husband and two of our girls chose to stay at the beach for more water time, while I took our tour shuttle back to the hotel with our other daughter to have hot showers and cool drinks.

For our final group dinner, there was an extensive buffet including such treats as grilled lobster and decadent made-to-order crepes. As an after-dinner surprise, Mike and Bernal treated us to a slideshow of shots they had taken of the group throughout the trip. I barely even noticed them taking the photos, but they got some priceless shots of our vacation time together.

Day Seven: Departure day.

Family with the Guides

After breakfast, we loaded back into the tiny prop planes and were taken back to the airport at San Jose. Mike and Bernal dropped us all at the main terminal where we said our goodbyes to them. Everyone hugged and exchanged email addresses. A few members of the tour group were staying on in Costa Rica, but the majority of us went on through passport control and security at the airport to wait for our flights home.

Even before we left, my family began debating which Adventures by Disney tour we'd do next. My husband wants Alaska, one daughter wants the American Southwest, one wants Ireland, and the other the Galapagos Islands. I'd still like to try France or Italy, but I'm sure no matter where we end up, it will be an adventure to remember.

March 13, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Costa Rica Part 2

By Erin Foster
March 2009

My family and I recently returned from a week-long Adventures by Disney excursion to Costa Rica, the Path to Pura Vida. As a longtime Disney park-goer, I was well aware of the level of the attention to detail and family friendly service Disney provides. We chose Adventures by Disney because we wanted to have that level of service while branching out to show our children (three girls ages 12, 9, and 9) a bit more of the world. The trip exceeded even our very high expectations.

Day One:

We awoke predawn and after a relatively quick four and a half hour direct flight from frigid Newark, we arrived at sunny Juan Santamaria airport in San Jose Costa Rica. Right from the start we were met with great Disney service. A representative holding a sign with our name on it met us as we exited the plane. She pointed us to the baggage claim and immigration, both of which were finished within 15 minutes. Another representative then greeted us and immediately put us into a comfortable, air-conditioned van for the 20-minute ride to the Hotel Intercontinental.

Our two Adventure Guides for the week, Mike and Bernal, met us at the hotel entrance. Much more about them later, but suffice it to say that they were two of the warmest, most charming individuals you'll ever meet. Bernal handed us cool, fruity drinks and told my daughters about our itinerary, while Mike helped my husband Jeff with the check-in. Before I knew it, we were in two connecting rooms overlooking the hotel pool.

That first afternoon we were on our own. We dined at one of the Interncontinental's world-class restaurants, Factory Steak and Lobster. While we waited for our entrees, our server brought us complimentary house-made made empanadas. Yummy! The steaks, salmon, and fresh corn we ordered did not disappoint.

After lunch we went for a stroll to the nearby Multiplaza Escazu, the largest mall in Costa Rica. My kids had never been to a non-English-speaking country before, so even the familiar stores (Benneton, Hallmark) seemed interesting with Spanish signage. Their favorite spot was a large toy store where they enjoyed looking at Hannah Montana merchandise in Spanish.

When returned to our room, there were gifts for us from Disney, two nice tote bags with binoculars, and some books for the kids. The girls swam at the hotel in the evening and we all turned in early to get rested up for our adventure.

Day Two:

We packed our bags and left them in the room for the hotel staff to transport to our Mercedes Benz coach bus that would be our main mode of transport for the week. Then, we headed downstairs to a private dining room where we would have breakfast and meet the other members of our tour group.

Breakfast was typical of the morning meals we would have every day: a buffet with eggs, pastries, bacon, cereal, fruit and yogurt, along with ever-present rice and beans and plantains. Our guide Mike introduced me to the national sauce of Costa Rica, Lizano. This all-purposed flavoring is everywhere and is used as a topping for eggs, meat, rice, and just about anything else you can think of.

There were 27 members of our tour group. Four couples with no children, a family with 11-year-old twin boys, a family with an 11 year-old girl, a family with a 6 and 8 year old girls, a couple with their 13 year old granddaughter, and our family of 5. The mix of adults and children balanced well and we were all fast friends.

Our first stop on the tour was to have been the La Paz Waterfall and butterfly gardens. However, an earthquake a few months earlier had made access to that area difficult, so we first made our way, via bus, to the Espiritu Santo coffee plantation tour in Naranjo (Disney had informed us of the switch several weeks before our departure.)

Our guide Bernal, a Costa Rican native, had grown up on a coffee farm so he was able to give us an entertaining and informative history of coffee in Costa Rica on the bus ride to the tour. We were greeted at Espiritu Santo by samples of four different coffee roasts grown just steps away from where we were standing. Even the children had fun tasting the different intensities of coffee ranging, from very mild to Wake-Up-Right-Now.

Coffee tasting

We then got to see every step of coffee production, from the planting of seedlings, through harvest of the beans (they look like cherries on a bush), cleaning, drying, roasting (23 minutes for a light roast), and packaging. The entire crop of the farm we toured Arabica beans sold exclusively to Starbucks. I have a two-Venti per day Starbucks habit, so when I heard that I felt like the mother ship was calling me home.

coffeecherries.jpg

After the coffee tour, we made a brief stop at a park next to the church at Zarcero. This is the site of a fanciful topiary garden filled with larger-than-life stylized birds, lions and other creatures.

topiaryarches.jpg

topiarylion.jpg

We then made our way through mountainous terrain (many thanks to our patient and skilled driver) to the Hotel Kioro Arenol at the base of the active Arenol volcano. We were immediately shown to our rooms in one of several small outbuildings. These rooms were easily the largest standard hotel rooms I had seen in my life, larger than several apartments I've had over the years. Each room had two queen-sized beds, a large daybed, a spacious sitting area, a writing desk, a bathroom, a separate shower area with a rainshower-style head, plus a full-sized hot tub. Because we were a party of five, we were required to have two rooms. Our connecting accommodations took up the entire first floor of a building. But the best feature of the hotel was the view from the rooms. This was taken while I was sitting on my bed:

volcano1.jpg

volcano2.jpg

volcano3.jpg

The grounds of the Hotel Kioro were lush with tropical plantings. Other features included two pristine pools, a seven-level hot spring, a small gym and game room, restaurants, and a spa with a menu of services as thick as a phone book. Our package included two free tropical fruit masks, but I we never did get to use them because we were too busy relaxing in the hot springs.

Dinner with the group was in a private dining room in the hotel. Most of the adults chose fresh fish from the menu and there were some typically American choices available for the children. After dinner we were treated to a performance by a native dance troupe and members of the tour were invited to learn some Costa Rica dance moves.

Day Three -- To be continued ... zip lines, rafting, pineapple farm tour, up close and personal with monkeys ...

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Erin Foster lives with her husband and three daughters just outside New York City. She has been to Walt Disney World at least 30 times. In late 2007, Erin was selected to be part of the first ever Walt Disney World Moms Panel. Since then she has answered nearly 4,000 questions from guests about every aspect of Disney World travel at disneyworldmoms.com. She is not a Disney employee and her postings here, there, and everywhere are her own and do not represent the positions or opinions of the Disney Company. Costa Rica, the Path to Pura Vida, is her first Adventures by Disney trip.

March 12, 2009

Adventures by Disney - Costa Rica

By Erin Foster
March 2009

COSTA RICA TRIP PLANNING

As Disney fans, my family became aware of the Adventures by Disney tours almost immediately after they became available. Exploring the world with our family while being treated to the same great attention to detail and quality of service that we had come to expect from our many visits to Walt Disney World was an opportunity that was just too good to pass up. So for us, it wasn't really a question of if we would eventually taken an Adventures by Disney trip, but rather where and when.

Many of the European trips appealed to me (I love the charm and sophistication of European travel), but after spending many hours reviewing the various tour options, everyone else in my family chose the Costa Rica Path to Pura Vida as their destination of choice. Zip lines! Wild monkeys! I was roundly outvoted, so Costa Rica it was.

There are minimum age limits for all the AbD trips. The minimum for Costa Rica is age four. However, one of headliner activities on the trip, the zip line excursion, has a minimum age of eight, so we knew we wanted to wait until our younger children (twin girls) were at least that old. This was a great decision for us, as you'll see later on. Because of scheduling issues with family commitments, we ended up going on the trip when our twins were nine and our older daughter was 12.

Once we decided we were ready to go, my husband called Adventures by Disney and spoke at length with a representative who answered several questions we had about the accommodations and described all the costs associated with the trip. We were informed that there was an early-booking discount available that would give us substantial savings. AbD also told us that they could arrange to book our air transportation for us, but because we had some frequent flyer miles available, we decided to get our flights on our own. We were lucky enough to secure seats on one of the few non-stop flights from the New York area to Costa Rica.

Our biggest decision about our trip was how to pay for it. We are Disney Vacation Club members and could have used our DVC points to cover some or all of the trip. However, in doing the math we figured out that because we still wanted to spend good deal of vacation time at Walt Disney World, our points would work harder for us if we used them at WDW rather than with Adventures by Disney. We decided to pay for the trip with cash. We would later learn that three of the other families on our trip were also DVC members. They all chose to use points for the trip, so this is something for DVC members consider carefully based on their unique travel patterns and financial situation.

Once the trip was booked and we made our deposit, an Adventures by Disney agent called us to confirm our flight information and to make sure that our passports were in order. One aspect of travel to Costa Rica that AbD does not discuss is the medical aspect of travel to Central America. We mentioned our trip to our personal physician who recommend several preventative vaccinations. However, many other members of our tour group did not take any medical precautions and all were absolutely fine. This is something you may want to discuss with your own doctor.

A few months before the trip, we received an update call about the trip from AbD. There had been an earthquake in Costa Rica that impacted one of the advertised activities for the trip. The La Paz Waterfall Gardens that were described in the AbD literature had become inaccessible. The representative explained that an alternative activity, a tour of the Espiritu Santo coffee farm, was being arranged. The rep spent a good deal of time on the phone answering our questions. I have to say that as a serious coffee addict, I was actually quite excited about the change in the itinerary.

The next time we heard from AbD was about a month before the trip. Two large boxes arrived from UPS. They contained welcome packets with luggage tags, some travel instructions, a suggested packing list, and some gifts: sturdy AbD messenger bags for myself, my husband, and my older daughter and colorful shoulder packs for the twins. The bags were a great surprise and ended up working well as personal carry-ons for the plane ride.

I spent the week before the trip packing a big suitcase for each of us. As it turns out I, as usual, over packed. I brought lots of jeans and sweatshirts, thinking they would be needed in the evenings. I also brought a few dressy outfits for each of us. None of this was necessary as the entire trip was warm and casual. The only thing I under packed was sunscreen. I had brought two large bottles with us, but these were gone by the 4th day of the trip. We were able to buy more at our last hotel, but I would certainly recommend that you bring gobs of sunscreen with you.

Then after many months of waiting for trip to finally arrive, we were off "¦

To be continued ...

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Erin Foster lives with her husband and three daughters just outside New York City. She has been to Walt Disney World at least 30 times. In late 2007, Erin was selected to be part of the first ever Walt Disney World Moms Panel. Since then she has answered nearly 4,000 questions from guests about every aspect of Disney World travel at disneyworldmoms.com. She is not a Disney employee and her postings here, there, and everywhere are her own and do not represent the positions or opinions of the Disney Company. Costa Rica, the Path to Pura Vida, is her first Adventures by Disney trip.

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About Costa Rica

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to All EarsĀ® Guest Blog in the Costa Rica category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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