Thursday, October 11, 2018

Costa Rica Trip Review - Playa Ocotal (Food, Photography, Drone Flying, Driving, etc...)

COSTA RICA

We took a 4 night adventure to Costa Rica to experience their food, culture, and incredible sights. Travel time was at the end of February and the beginning of March of 2018. Here is some insight that might be helpful for those considering a Costa Rica trip, especially to the Guanacaste region (Playa Coco, or more specifically Playa Ocotal). We had originally planned a resort stay, but when we had to push our travel period back a few months I change to an entirely different type of trip altogether. One of not just relaxation, but of experience and something totally different. Just for an idea on what kid of travelers we are, here are some of the trips we have taken mostly out of Amarillo. This does not included any of my storm chasing adventures that have gone all the way to ND and MN. Since having our 2 kids our trips are generally limited to OKC, Dallas, ABQ, and Denver. Last summer we took the kids to South and North Carolina, but that was the first airline flight for both as we normally drive everywhere. Before the kids we would drive to Houston or Phoenix without hesitation, though we wouldn't push much past that. Our only trip out of the Country before this was Jamaica on our honeymoon in 2010, which we stayed on a secluded resort a only did a couple guided off resort tours. This trip was nothing like those.

We did tons of research on everything we might encounter on are trip, from renting a vehicle and driving to food and activities. It paid off on being prepared as much as we could for everything that came up. Hopefully some avoid a few of the things we stumbled across while there.







Flights to Costa Rica

We did tons of research on everything we might encounter on are trip, from renting a vehicle and driving to food and activities. Budget was a bit limited, but since we payed for our flights using Southwest points on their Rapid Rewards programs it gave us money to spend elsewhere. We earned a companion pass by using the Southwest cards when we bought a new A/C for the house, so we had plenty of points to spend. Just had to cover the the international fees. There were no flight options out of Amarillo to Liberia, so we looked at Dallas Love and OKC. We eventually chose OKC for a number of reasons.We drove to OKC the night before our flights, because they are 5:55 flight to Houston Hobby. Easy to get through the airports at times like that and the flight had plenty of empty seats. The flight from Houston to Liberia was a full ride though and plenty of drinking was going on by all of those around us. Not too annoying. Nothing a good book or music cant distract you from if that is not your thing. It was like everyone on our flight knew each other but us. Kinda strange in a way. We ended up flying home from Liberia to Houston with about 80% of the same people. Get those early boarding spots with Southwest so you can sit together. We were in the A 35 thru 50 area for all of our flights.

The flight over the Gulf was super smooth. Was a nice change after bouncing on the OKC to Houston flight. Probably had a lot to do with a storm system moving into the Plains and strong winds aloft. Even flying over Mexico and Central America was pretty smooth. If you are lucky, like we were, you may get an incredible view of volcanoes if you sit on the west-facing or right side of the plane (seats to the left when walking on the plane). You get a great view of Volcano Momotombo in Nicaragua if the sit on the west-facing side, if the skies are clear. Even had a steam cloud at it's top when we passed. Landing was easy and we even arrived early,  Liberia airport is under a major upgrade process and they are short on gates. We sat waiting for a gate to open for at least 20 minutes. 





Immigration & Airport

Immigration was a fun experience. Pretty long line but at least it moved a a good rate and it helps you will have the paper work done on the plane before you even land. Southwest went through and handed it out about 1 hour before landing. Heard horror stories of people landing their late at night at taking hours to get through. First question the agent asked us was if we spoke Spanish. That made me worry that it would be difficult, but it was because we didn't really mark where we were staying. We were staying at a house, but no where has addresses there so we couldn't really put anything. He ended up just writing "house" down. After that we were on our way to grab our bags and to ran our bags through Customs scanners.

We you clear all of that and are release into the airport. Be ready to be "helped" by plenty of guys in official looking uniforms. They are supposedly working there entirely by tips (what one of them told us). We had rented with Dollar and I saw the guy holding a Dollar sign outside right as we got helped by one guy. Just bypass these guys and roll your own bags the few feet further and find your car rental or shuttle group. They literally roll your bags a few feet. It was pointless. It was not a long wait for the shuttle to Dollar, but their airport is very short on space out front.

Car rental and Driving

I rented with Dollar for a number of reason. Specifically it was the reviews I read online about them on how they handle the insurance in Costa Rica and the experiences people had with them. There is a mandatory insurance that is required by the government and their website does a good job of being able to easily book with that insurance so you know what you are getting. I ended up paying about only about $7 more than my original booking. That was probably just do to currency conversions. They did try to upsell there top insurance, but I only had to say no twice. We went with the Suzuki Vitara 4x4. I had originally booked a Jimny 4x4, but didnt want to drive a standard there. I ended up using manual mode on our automatic all the time, but mostly just to get up the hill to our house. If you plan to travel around much, I definitely recommend a SUV. It is easier to see and drive, but also with the road conditions there it comes in handy often.

The very main highways are nice, but there are not many of them. They are stripped and and have plenty of well marked signs. Problem is, no one else driving even slightly follows the speed limit and pays any regards to strips on the road or if they are on a blind corner. After the form you sign at the car rental talking about $500, the last thing you feel like doing is speeding. It is easy to do if you dont watch it, since everyone else is.


When you get off the main highways it is a literal free for all. Just expect the worse and you will be ready for. Very narrow roads with trees, walls, and fencing right next to the road. Massive potholes are everywhere. Playa Coco and Ocotal are no exception. Some of the worst drivers on the roads are the vans and huge buses driving other tourist around. You expect the bad driving from the random locals, but it is the tourist bus drivers that surprise you.

What makes driving really dangerous in Costa Rica inst really the other drivers though. It is the constant pedestrians, bicycles, and motorcycles. This was more of an issue on the local side streets near towns than on the highways. Motorcycles are dangerous just because you never know when they are going to come flying by you out of no where. The pedestrians and bicyclist will drive you crazy though. At times you will think they are trying to get you to hit them. There are lots of cases where there are sidewalks or a shoulder to walk on, but everyone walks on the pavement. Around dusk is the worst. Driving is downright frustrating then and really dangerous. Early mornings around 8 are quite nice as there are not many out on the roads yet.



Accommodations

There are a wide array of options for staying in Costa Rica, but it really depends what you plan to do. I had originally booked a resort and probably would have only gone off the resort once. After a change in our travel date and I did a little more research, I found there were some very reasonably price house rentals. If you are traveling as a bigger group it could be decent savings even. We also leaned toward a house, so we could eat more local and really experience Costa Rica. It turned out to be a great decision.

We rented the "Lighthouse Ocotal" near Playa Ocotal that I found by just looking at Google Maps and scan up and down the coast. It is a good sized 3 bedroom house with a separate apartment that is a "lighthouse". There are 4 total bedrooms (with 5 beds) and 3 bathrooms, and a large couch big enough for at least 1 to sleep on if needed.  The beds were really comfortable and I am really picky about beds when I travel. We slept great. We did get woke up every morning from nearby construction and really loud birds. We ended up moving from the master bedroom to one away from the trees so we could sleep past 6am. Getting up at 6 has it's perks too though. The bird watching was incredible, especially with the infinity pool. The patio had constant visitors in the morning and the weather was perfect for us.
















What makes this house is the patio. The house is perched halfway up the hillside (over 50ft above sea level) with an incredible view to the NW looking over Playa Ocotal and out over the Pacific. It is a large patio area with lounger chairs near the infinity pool that you will never want to leave. Also a hammock is hanging out there, which I passed out on one night listening to the ocean while my camera was taking pictures. This patio make the house worth every penny.



The house has a nice kitchen for any cooking you might want to do. A pineapple was cut up and waiting for us with a bottle of rum when we arrived.


This house also made being able to fly my drone super easy. The big patio and clear view made taking off and landing super easy. Also it was separated more than other locations so I wasnt bothering anyone with my flights. Also well within distance of being able to fly out over the ocean.

The house was located up a pretty steep, but at least a solid concrete hill. You will need to put it in low gear to make it up easy. The house lies behind 2 security gates and the neighboring hillside is so steep, the gates are all that is needed. Max, who we rented the house from is at the first house by the gate, so if you need anything he was literally just down the hill.



Our last night there, a Saturday, gave us a very special surprise. At 10pm while we were packing up for a return home the next day, the explosion began. We thought the house was being bombed. It was that loud. A firework display was being launched from the beach below offering us an incredible view. The land acted like and amphitheater making the explosions even louder. Best firework display I have ever seen because of out vantage point. Lucky for me my camera was taking pictures when it started. I busted out the video camera and caught the rest of the performance.
























































Firework video from Lighthouse Ocotal -

Driving up the hill to Lighthouse Ocotal-


Eating

Many places, food and retail took both dollars and colones. We took about $250 colones with us and it worked out well. Probably could have got by with about $150 colones, but for 5 days in the country is was more than enough with having dollars and a credit card.

The food of Costa Rica is what makes staying off a resort and seeing the country really worth it. Most of it is priced about the same as food in the US, unless going somewhere "fancy" or on the beach. Just do plenty of research about where you are going to go, because there are some "crap" places. We were in a hurry one night and after our first place was already closed, we just picked a random place on the corner called Jimmy's Burger. I ordered a taco, which was a deep fried taquito covered in cabbage. That was one 1 mistake. All the other meals where amazing, especially Le Coq and Chorotacos, both in Playa Ocotal. I would have been perfectly happy just to have had those 2 restaurants over and over. Still want them, everyday actually.

























If you want to get real adventurous, there is still a Subway and a Papa John's in Playa Coco. If you head into Liberia, there is a McDonalds, Taco Bell, and a few others not far from the Walmart. The Walmart was super interesting, just from the standpoint of how much security they have there behind their barbwire fence. You can find Dr Pepper there though, just for reference.

I want to go back to Costa Rica desperately and I would stay in the same region just so could go back to those same restaurants. They were that good.





















Beach time & Volcanoes

I really wish out vacation had been more like a full week, just so we could have had more beach time. While the black beaches get real hot, there was plenty of shade back up from the water if you stay down there for a large part of the day. I had a blast trying to snorkel around some coves off of Playa Ocotal and saw a number of fish. The water was just the right temp in the low 80's. I could have spent all day down there. The crowds were minimal which made it even better. If you are willing to hike a little you can get beaches all to yourself. After spending time at beaches in the US, it will make you love the peacefulness these beaches bring. It is true serenity.









The other part of our trip that we didnt spend at the house was hiking on a volcano. I ended up at the wrong entrance, but the hike was still awesome to the hot springs. Not a lot of people around so it was a peaceful hike through the jungle with a couple stops at some waterfalls along the way. You have to visit at least 1 volcano when you go. I would love to go back and see more of them.








Drone Flying in Costa Rica

I only ended up flying from our rental house and around the nearby beaches from there.Any of the volcanoes are off limits so I didnt even risk that. My biggest concern was just getting my drone into the country. Due to wanting to keep all my other camera equipment with me in my backpack, I was forced to put my DJI Phantom 3 in my suitcase. Not my first choice but it worked out fine. I have a hard shell backpack case which I put in my suitcase with my tripod and then padded it up what I could with a pillow. I kept all the batteries for the drone, in the special battery bags, with me in my backpack (carry on). I didnt have any trouble leaving on either flight (going to or coming from).

Before I went to Costa Rica I did register my drone with them and I put my registration number on my drone with my US number. I have left the number on there in hopes it will be ready to go "when" I get to go back to Costa Rica.





Drone Video -
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGPu4s1uqPI



Conclusion

Hopefully this can help you on your trip. If you have any questions, dont hesitate to ask. Feel free to contact me here, Facebook, or Twitter.






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