Friday, May 15, 2015

Costa Rica is Pura Vida...When Done Right

You feel it as soon as you land in Costa Rica.  There is a sense of peace or relaxation that permeates the air.  Is it the people?  Is it the culture?  Is it the landscape all around you? Yes, yes and yes.  See...Costa Ricans have embraced a living and existence centered around "pura vida" which simply means "pure life."  People, friends and family are important.  The land around them that they work, live and play in is highly regarded and protected.  Every level of creation that co-exists with them is valued and loved.   While tourism is on the rise, Costa Rica is not willing to lose its identity for the sake of bringing in more and more tourists.  If you plan on visiting Costa Rica, you too must respect and value everything around you.  They do not tolerate visitors who want to come in and destroy things for the sake of pleasure or recreation.   But everything combined in Costa Rica is what sets it apart from so many other tourism choices and it is what makes it one of my most favorite places to visit.

I could write this whole article on why I loved the change in climate such as when you drive from the dry Guanacaste area and trek up to the lush rainforest that surrounds the Arenal volcano.  Or why I loved the smiles on literally everyone's faces.  Or why I loved the noises of the wildlife that are around you every day.  But I really want to focus this blog on one thing...where you stay in Costa Rica is probably the most important decision you will make in regards to your vacation.

Costa Rica does not take up a large footprint when it comes to land mass.  It is smaller than the State of Kansas.  So you would think you could stay about anywhere and be close to about anything.  But that is where so many make a mistake.  Getting around Costa Rica by bus or car can be an adventure. The roads are windy and rough in several spots which makes travel somewhat slow-going.  So while it looks like it should be only a 30 minute trip (as the bird flies) turns into a 90 minute trip by car due to having to slow for every corner and fender-dismantling bump in the road.  So staying in one area of Costa Rica can pretty much isolate you from a lot of other areas unless you like spending hours in a car each day introducing your kidneys to your tonsils.

But this is where Costa Rica is so unique.  One area has you looking down on the rainforest from your cloud-forest lodge while another area has you surfing with dolphins and taking in the beautiful sunset over the Pacific and those two areas can be separated by a 4 hour one way trek.  So splitting your stay between various areas is the ideal thing to do.  I know I know...unpacking and packing back up is not a fun exercise, but you will thank me when you get home.   Take 3 or 4 nights and spend them in the lushness and quietness of the rainforest.  Become one with nature.  Find your inner zen. Take lots and lots of videos and pictures.  You will want to because you will want to capture all there is to see so you can make your friends back home green with tree-frog envy.  Then pack up, brace yourself for the denture loosening drive down the mountains to the beautiful Pacific and enjoy a new sense of relaxation as you kick back in your hammock with a local Imperial (google it) in hand.

So you took my advice, you planned a split stay.  Yay!  Now here is another bit of free advice.  Choose a lodge or hotel that lets you actually experience Costa Rica.  We had the pleasure of staying in two different resorts during our stay.  One was the RIU Palace Costa Rica and the other was a boutique hotel called El Mangroove.  Go ahead...take a guess as to which one I am about to write a very favorable review for.  Any guesses?  How many think the RIU? Bzzzzzz!!  Wrong! For those that already guessed El Mangroove...ding ding ding.  You win.

When you come to Costa Rica, you need to stay at places that try to incorporate as much of the local decor, landscape and food into their resort as possible.  The RIU Palace came up with a big zero in all three.  If you go to a RIU Palace in Cancun. Take good pictures because you will not need to go to another one anywhere else.  They all look the same.  Same room decor.  Same lobby decor.  Same bland buffet choices.  Same non-local specialty restaurant choices.  Same drinks same everything.  It is really a shame.  You trek all that way to a new destination only to be welcomed by the same thing you would see in Jamaica, Cancun, Punta Cana etc.  It is just no bueno.  I read the reviews of those traveling to the RIU in Costa Rica and I shake my head at today's travelers, especially those from here in the US.  I read things like "best food ever" or "most luxurious place we have been" or "best resort ever" and it just makes me cringe.  What have we done?  Have we become a society that thinks travel to a foreign Country needs to be as homogenous as possible as to not take us out of our social comfort zone?  Have we become so used to mediocrity that we actually think bland food, stale bread, luke-warmed entrees are a step above what we normally get?

If you are not used to what I just wrote above, then the RIU Palace Costa Rica is not for you.  I will give the RIU Palace high marks when it comes to their staff.  For the most part, every staff member was friendly and happy and always greeted you with a friendly "hola." Our pool guy, Jose, was awesome.  He paid attention to what we liked to drink and was always around when we needed him and was a genuinely warm and friendly guy.  So the staff at the RIU gets an A!  The rest of the RIU gets a C...maybe C+.  The thing that really surprised me was how cheap things were done in the rooms.  Plywood and white paint were the two most-used supplies when decorating the room.  The coffee table, the desk, the headboard were all nailed-together plywood and simply painted white (and the paint job was not that good).  They then simply laid a glass top on the desk and coffee table which is something I have never seen before in a 4+ star resort.  The whole room was a "get up in the middle of the night nightmare."  The glass top on the coffee table had 4 sharp corners and were perfectly placed at shin level.  They then thought it a good idea to place the whirlpool tub directly between the bed and the bathroom and it too had some really nice pointy corners that would love to welcome a leg or a toe at 3am.   I just kept looking at the layout wondering, "what were they thinking??"  But here is where I get picky in case you think I am not being picky enough yet (HA)...our room was "ready" for us by around 2:30pm the day of our arrival.  We had found some trash that was had not been picked up when we sat our things down and then found the remote control  for the TV to be all cracked and busted.  I went to turn on the TV and nothing worked.  I opened the remote and discovered the batteries were in backwards.  Yes I know that is picky, but this is supposed to be a 4+ star resort.  If you tout yourself as a 4+ star resort, then attention to detail is a must.  If you replace batteries in a remote, the first little detail you should do is make sure it works.  And if you replaced the batteries, surely you noticed that the back of the remote was broken.  When you see things like that, it makes you start to look around.  Our rain shower head in the shower was broken to where it was more like a rain pour instead of a shower since water was coming up around the shower head and not through it.  Then once you see that, you notice that one of the glass blocks they used to separate the shower from the rest of the bathroom is cracked in half.  Would I have noticed all of this had the remote worked and not been busted up?  Maybe, but 4+ star resorts have to do better in my opinion if they want to be lumped into the "deluxe or luxury" resort market.  Other than the landscaping and staff, there was nothing deluxe or luxurious about this resort.

Now...lets move to the second part of our stay and get back to some more positive things.  El Mangroove does it right.  They thought things out.  The construction, the decor, the layout of the resort fits perfectly within its surrounding environment.  Service?  Impeccable.  Staff was friendly and there for anything you might need.  Rooms were what you expected at a 4+ star resort.  Clean, comfortable decor, tons of space for clothes etc.  Their rain shower head worked as it was supposed to.  Food and drink were excellent.  If you are a foodie or a mixologist...this is the place for you.  They did a good job of incorporating the countries abundance of fresh vegetables, fruits and fish into their menu.  The fish tacos at their pool/beach side restaurant were wonderful.  I am bragging on their food because it enhanced the stay.  The food and drink are a part of a hotel's success or failure and El Mangroove gets a A in the food and beverage department.  Service was great at their pool or in their restaurants.   Was it slow at times?  Maybe, but you are on vacation!  Why are you in a hurry for your meal to get over?  Central and Latin Americans are not on the same rushed schedule as we are here in the US which makes me quite envious to be honest.   The only other negative some might find with the resort is that a lot of the rooms will not have a view of the ocean.  They built the resort to go with the landscape, including existing trees and many of the rooms have wonderful mangrove views, but only a small handful have ocean views.  This is a small resort.  If you want big and sprawling and lots of restaurant choices onsite, this is not the resort for you.  If you want a relaxing, intimate, luxury, service-oriented resort, then check out El Mangroove for your vacation to Costa Rica.  They exude "pura vida."  You will actually know that you are in Costa Rica.

So before I end this article...I have to give a shout out to CATOURS.  We used them for our excursion up to the Arenal volcano area where we zip lined at speeds up to 50mph and at heights above 600ft over the top of the rainforest.  We also had the pleasure of having one of their expert guides along with us who helped us understand even more why Costa Ricans believe in pura vida. We also used them for our transfers from airport to hotel, hotel to hotel and then hotel back to airport.  They were wonderful and professional and I HIGHLY recommend using them on your next trip to Costa Rica.

So in summary...please do Costa Rica right.  Pick a place that let's you see the culture and the environment and for sure plan it to where you will come home knowing full well what pura vida really means.  You won't be sorry if you do.