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The Best Budget Hotels in Central America

Finding great budget hotels is like winning the travel lottery because they allow you to make your travel budget go even further. Over the years we’ve become expert at choosing the best budget hotels and for the first time we’re sharing what we think are the best budget hotels in Central America, gleaned from more than three years of travel through Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama. We’ve personally vetted all of these budget hotel options so you don’t have to. Consider them Trans-Americas Journey approved.

Best budget hotels in Central America

San Jose, Costa Rica: Hotel Aranjuez offers a range of spotlessly clean rooms in three adjoining houses in a safe, quiet neighborhood of Costa Rica’s capital convenient to most attractions at extremely reasonable rates which include the best hotel breakfast buffet we’ve ever had in any price point. We stayed here repeatedly and they even have (limited) parking.

Hotel Aranjez - San Jose, Costa Rica

El Tunco Beach, El Salvador: There are two places called Papaya Guesthouse in this beach hangout. You want the one directly across the street from a hotel called La Guitara. Look for the enormous wooden gate. This place is spotless, has a nice little pool and sitting areas with hammocks and offers rooms with A/C and large, stylish rooms with fans and private baths for US$25 plus perfectly acceptable smaller rooms at smaller price points (US$14) with shared bathrooms (that’s what we went for). Toss in WiFi, parking, a great staff and a decent shared kitchen and you can’t beat it.

Panama City, Panama: Hostal Amador Familiar (dorm beds from US$15 per night and private rooms with a fan from $30 for two people) is beyond spotlessly clean thanks to the tireless efforts of the best hotel housekeeper we’ve ever seen at any hotel in any price point.There’s a large, shared, semi-outdoor kitchen which stocks paper towels and  tin foil for guest use in addition to the usual supplies. Breakfast is included.There’s a large and secure parking lot. It’s located in a quite neighborhood from which you can easily access Casco Viejo, the Amador Causeway, downtown Panama City and other areas.

Hostal Amador Familiar - Panama City

Cahuita, Costa Rica: At Cabinas Palmer US$20 got us a clean private double with bathroom, fan, TV, a furnished porch with a hammock, free coffee and bananas all day, use of a shared kitchen, parking and WiFi. It’s right in the center of town, just ask for it when you arrive.

Gracias de Dios, Honduras: We called Hotel & Restaurant Guancascos home while we were in Gracias and you should too. Located just below the Castillo San Cristobal fort, the 17 rooms (US$10 dorm and rooms from US$26) are spotless and well-appointed, the staff is charming, free Wi-Fi works in the common area and in the three rooms under the restaurant, which is excellent. Owner Fronicas “Frony” Miedema, a Dutch woman who’s lived in Honduras for more than 20 years, will be happy to give you information about the area and arrange tours and transportation. When we were there the hotel was also in the final stages of gaining green certification, making it one of only a few eco-certified hotels in Honduras.

Guancasos hotel - Gracias del Dios, Honduras

San Ignacio, Belize: Nefry’s Retreat has four peaceful, clean rooms with WiFi and A/C for around US$20 located about a five minute walk from the bustle of the town’s main drag. We really liked the homey feel. It’s not a rock bottom price, but it’s value for money especially in Belize.

Bocas del Toro, Panama: Hostal Hansi, located just off Main Street in the town of Bocas, has a wide range of different room types from singles with shared bath (from US$11) to private doubles (from US$25). WiFi and use of a spotless kitchen is included. It’s quiet and clean (there is a resident cat) and it’s extremely popular. Hansi does not take reservations so get there as early as you can to see about available rooms.

Hostal Hansi - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala: Hotel Contemporeneo down by the lakeshore, delivers clean, quiet rooms with a bathroom, a TV, secure parking and a good WiFi signal for 120Q (about US$15). We even scored a lake view (ask for room 4 or 5).

León, NicaraguaHarvest House was created by Jason Greene, a smart, surprisingly young man from North Carolina, and it’s spotlessly clean, brightly painted, comfortably furnished and has a huge shared kitchen. Rooms, which range from singles with shared bath to small private apartments, were irresistible (from US$15 per night or from US$150 per month). We booked a double room with shared bath for a month, spending less and getting more than we would have in any hostal.

Harvest House, Leon Nicaragua

 

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Border Crossing 101: Paso Canoas, Panama to Paso Canoas, Costa Rica

Crossing international borders in Latin America is rarely easy or pleasant (why do they always smell like pee and desperation?). Things are even more complicated when you’re driving across borders in your own vehicle as part of an overland road trip. These border crossing 101 travel tips will help you travel from Paso Canoas, Panama to Paso Canoas, Costa Rica smoothly with or without a vehicle.

From: Paso Canoas, Panama

To: Paso Canoas, Costa Rica

Buen Viaje PanamaPaso canoas border

Lay of the land: It took about 15 minutes to exit Panama at well-manned offices with no hassles and no exit fees. Entering Costa Rica was equally painless.

Elapsed time: 1 hour.

Number of days they gave us: We asked for and got 30 days since that’s all that was left on our vehicle importation permit (see “Need to know” below). The standard tourist visa duration issued in Costa Rica is 90 days which is given without a fee to US citizens.

Fees: US$15.50 for three months of mandatory driving insurance and US$6 for vehicle fumigation.

Paso Canoas border station Panama costa Rica

The border facilities on the Panamanian side are larger and newer than those on the Costa Rican side.

Vehicle insurance requirements: You must buy local insurance to drive within Costa Rica. At this border insurance was only sold in three month blocks.

Where to fill up: Fuel was cheaper in Panama than it was in Costa Rica when we crossed the border, so we filled up before leaving Panama.

Need to know: Costa Rica is always one hour ahead of Panama so be sure to change your watch. Oh, and we recommend you just play dumb and drive through the fumigation station without giving them time to turn on the hoses and collect the US$6. That’s what everybody else was doing.

This border crossing tip is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT FOR ANYONE DRIVING ACROSS: While Costa Rica will renew a tourist visa if you spend 72 hours outside of the country (and that rule is often not enforced) but foreign vehicles are only allowed to be in Costa Rica for 90 days out of every 180. This means that once you use up or cancel your temporary vehicle importation permit you can’t get a new one for 90 days.

Costa Rican officials can “suspend” your temporary importation permit when you leave the country which puts it on hold until you return at which time the clock starts ticking again with whatever amount of time you had left on your original permit. That’s what we did with our Costa Rican truck paperwork since we knew we’d be returning to the country.

Costa Rica's poor quality roads - Carratera en mal Estado

This sign on the Costa Rican side of the border says “Road in bad condition” and that pretty much goes for most of the roads in the country.

Duty free finds: There are two large “Mall Libre” facilities on the Panama side of this border but they were pretty shabby when we were there.

Overall border rating: Easy, breezy – just the way we like it.

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Border Crossing 101: Paso Canoas, Costa Rica to Paso Canoas, Panama

Crossing international borders in Latin America is rarely easy or pleasant (why do they always smell like pee and desperation?). Things are even more complicated when you’re driving across borders in your own vehicle as part of an overland road trip. These border crossing 101 travel tips will help you travel from Paso Canoas, Costa Rica to Paso Canoas, Panama smoothly with or without a vehicle.

From: Paso Canoas, Costa Rica

To: Paso Canoas, Panama

Welcome to Panama Paso canoas Border crossing

Lay of the land: Exiting Costa Rica was a swift process that took less than 15 minutes and involved no exit fees. On the Panama side our first step was to buy insurance which is mandatory for anyone driving in Panama. Then we got our Panamanian visa which was given without forms or fees. Then we went upstairs and had our insurance papers stamped before returning downstairs to a glass-fronted booth marked “Tursimo” where we handed in our paperwork and were told to wait for 20 minutes. Nearly an hour later we got our completed paperwork back.

Elapsed time: 2 hours

Fees: US$15 for 30 days of mandatory driving insurance.

Number of days they gave us: Humans get 90-180 days. We were given 180 days at this border. Vehicles, on the other hand, get 30 days which can be extended in-country up to two times for a total of 90 days. You can extend your vehicle importation permit in Panama City or in Divisa, a tiny town at a crossroads on the Pan American Highway about midway between David and Panama City. We extended in both locations and highly recommend doing it at the Divisa office if you can. Staff at the Panama City office did not know what they were doing and made mistakes that then had to be fixed by the very, very knowledgeable and helpful staff in Divisa. Even they seemed annoyed by the ineptitude of the PC staff.

Beware of accidents sign Panama

Vehicle insurance requirements: You must buy local insurance before driving in Panama and it costs US$15 for 30 days. They sell insurance in one month blocks with no discount for purchasing multiple months at the same time.

Where to fill up: Diesel was cheaper in Panama than it was in Costa Rica when we crossed so we waited to fill up on the Panama side of the border where diesel was US$3.81 a gallon.

Need to know: Though there is a tourism information office at this border it was locked when we were there. A lot of the agents at this border spoke English. It’s good advice for any border crossing, but be sure to check the facts on your vehicle importation permit at this border. We didn’t realize until much later that the authorities at this border had mistakenly listed Eric’s nationality as Costa Rican and this error had to be fixed later. **If you will be shipping your vehicle onward from Panama to Colombia your paperwork has to be perfect and this border is known for making careless mistakes that if not noticed at the time have to be corrected later. Panama is always one hour ahead of Costa Rica so you’ll need to change your watch.

This next border crossing tip is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT FOR ANYONE DRIVING ACROSS: We were not aware until we arrived at the border that Costa Rica will renew a tourist visa if you spend 72 hours outside of the country (usually not enforced) but foreign vehicles are only allowed to be in Costa Rica for 90 days out of every 180. This means that once you use up or cancel your temporary vehicle importation permit you can’t get a new one for 90 days.

Luckily, Costa Rican officials can “suspend” your temporary importation permit which puts it on hold until you return to the country at which time the clock starts ticking again with whatever amount of time you had left on your original permit. That’s what we did with our Costa Rican truck paperwork when we left the country since we knew we’d be returning.

Panamerican Highway Panama

Duty free finds: We crossed near Christmas so the duty free shops were scenes of shopping chaos. We avoided them. If you do find bargains, remember that you’re allowed to bring US$200 worth of alcohol per person into Panama with you. However, alcohol is very cheap throughout Panama compared to prices in neighboring countries because taxes are lower (though there are nasty rumors that the Panamanian government may be increasing them soon).

When we were in Panama the country had the cheapest alcohol prices we’ve seen in any Latin American country from Mexico south and you could find things in Panama that were unavailable in other Latin American countries including our sorely missed bourbon (both Woodford Reserve and Maker’s Mark) at well-stocked and well-priced stores like Filipe Motta.

Overall border rating: Easy and relatively snappy, even during the busy holiday period.

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Border Crossing 101: Sixaola, Costa Rica to Guabito, Panama

Crossing international borders in Latin America is rarely easy or pleasant (why do they always smell like pee and desperation?). Things are even more complicated when you’re driving across borders in your own vehicle as part of an overland road trip. These border crossing 101 travel tips will help you travel from Sixaola, Costa Rica to Guabito, Panama on the Pacific coast smoothly with or without a vehicle.

From: Sixaola, Costa Rica

To: Guabito, Panama

Sixaola River - Costa Rica, Panama border

The Sixaolo River marks the border between Costa Rica and Panama.

Lay of the land: Private vehicles are allowed to pass the line of parked and double parked commercial vehicles lining the road leading up to the border. Before you reach the bridge (you’ll be relieved to know that the dilapidated, one-lane death trap we had to cross has since been replaced with a shiny new bridge), park your car and go to the Costa Rican immigration booth on the right hand side immediately before the bridge. Fill out the form and hand it in with your passport for a quick and easy exit stamp. Enter the aduana (customs) office immediately to the right of immigration to either cancel (if you are not returning to Costa Rica or have used up all your days) or suspend (if you are returning to Costa Rica) your Costa Rican temporary vehicle importation permit.

Once the easy and efficient Costa Rica formalities are taken care of cross over the bridge.

old bridge Guabito, Costa Rica - Sixaola, Panama border

We drove across this bridge between Costa Rica and Panama, but you won’t have to. A new bridge has since opened.

Scary old Sixaola bridge Guabito/Sixaola border crossing

We drove across this bridge between Costa Rica and Panama, but you won’t have to. A new  bridge has since opened and this old bridge is just used by pedestrians.

On the Panamanian side of the bridge you pass through an automated fumigation sprayer. The next set of windows is immigration where you hand off your passport and get your entry visa. Then travel two doors down to get your entry stamp. Between these spots is the aduana (customs) office where you handle the temporary vehicle importation paperwork. However, before they will do anything they will direct you to the one and only insurance office where you need to purchase the mandatory liability insurance.  Once we’d purchased our insurance, the vehicle importation permit process was fast and easy and after a customs agent took a cursory glance at the contents of our truck we were on our way.

Our video, below, gives you a sense of what it was like to drive our truck across the rickety old bridge between Costa Rica and Panama before the new bridge was opened. Hold on.

Elapsed time: Just over two hours but if we hadn’t had to wait for the lone insurance saleslady to get back from her lunch break this would have been our fastest and easiest Central American crossing by far.

Fees: There’s a US$3 stamp per person entering Panama, no fee for temporary importation of the truck, a US$1 fee to fumigate the truck entering Panama and it was US$15 per month for vehicle liability insurance. That’s a grand total of US$22 for both of us and our truck.

Number of days they gave us: Humans get 90-180 days. Vehicles, on the other hand, get 30 days which can be extended in-country up to two times for a total of 90 days. You can extend your vehicle importation permit in Panama City or in Divisa, a tiny stop at a crossroads on the Pan American Highway about midway between David and Panama City. We extended in both locations and highly recommend doing it at the Divisa office if you can. Staff at the Panama City office did not know what they were doing and made mistakes that then had to be fixed by the very, very knowledgeable and helpful staff in Divisa. Even they seemed annoyed by the ineptitude of the PC staff.

Vehicle insurance requirements: You must buy local insurance before driving in Panama and it costs US$15 for 30 days. This can be only done at this border at a small desk upstairs in the entrance to a department store (ask your immigration agent where it is). They sell insurance in one month blocks with no discount for purchasing multiple months at the same time.

Where to fill up: Diesel was about 40 cents cheaper per gallon in Panama than it was in Costa Rica when we crossed so we waited to fill up on the Panama side of the border where diesel was US$3.92 a gallon.

Need to know: Panama is always one hour ahead of Costa Rica so you’ll need to change your watch. This next border crossing tip is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT FOR ANYONE DRIVING ACROSS: We were not aware until we arrived at the border that Costa Rica will renew a tourist visa if you spend 72 hours outside of the country (usually not enforced) but foreign vehicles are only allowed to be in Costa Rica for 90 days out of every 180. This means that once you use up or cancel your temporary vehicle importation permit you can’t get a new one for 90 days. Luckily, Costa Rican officials can “suspend” your temporary importation permit which puts it on hold until you return to the country at which time the clock starts ticking again with whatever amount of time you had left on your original permit.

Panama Costa Rica border

The new steel bridge between Costa Rica and Panama was under construction when we were at this border, just to the right of the death trap bridge which we had to drive across.

Duty free finds: The smattering of duty-free stores include a down-trodden department store and a couple of liquor stores that had limited selection but decent prices. You’re allowed to bring US$200 worth of alcohol per person into Panama with you.

Overall border rating: Excellent. This crossing point was smoothly run, hassle-free and relatively quiet–almost no commercial traffic and only a smattering of other foreigners.

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2013 – Best Adventures & Activities

This post is part 2 of 4 in the series Best of 2013

Welcome to Part 1 in our Best Of the Trans-Americas Journey 2013 series. Part 1 is all about the Best Adventures & Activities we enjoyed during the past year of travels on our little road trip through the Americas including SCUBA diving in Panama with a man named Herbie Sunk (true story), some truly adventurous jungle horseback riding in Costa Rica and paragliding over one of Colombia’s largest canyons. Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2013 and Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year.

First, a few relevant road trip stats: In 2013 the Trans-Americas Journey spent time exploring Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador through which we drove 8,546 miles (13,753 kms) spending US$2,400 on fuel and crossing four overland borders.

Now, in no particular order, here are the…

Best adventures & activities of 2013

Best thing we tried for the very first time: Paragliding really is the best way to appreciate Colombia’s Chicamocha Canyon which is one of the largest in the world. When Parapente Chicamocha (parapente is the Spanish word for paragliding) offered to take us up, up and away we said yes. Quickly. Before “I hate heights” Karen could change her mind. We arrived at the launch site with owner Sergio and a team of wing wranglers and pilots then stood around and watched  the birds waiting for them to catch thermals so we could too. Then we ran of the top of the hill (well, Karen dragged her feet a bit) and the thermals took us up a few thousand feet above the canyon floor. We spent about half an hour rising, circling, dropping and rising again over the canyon. Eric says the view was great. Karen never had her eyes open long enough to really appreciate it and her forearms are still sore from the death grip she had on her harness.

Eric took our GoPro up with him and our video, below, shows the gorgeous scenery and the thrill of flying during our paragliding adventure above Chicamocha Canyon in Colombia. Don’t miss the acrobatics Eric goes through just before landing…

Best controversial tour: Like many Colombians we struggle to find a middle ground between Pablo Escobar fascination and Pablo Escobar revulsion. When we got an assignment to write an SATW award-winning piece about Pablo Escobar tourism in Colombia for the awesome travel/food/sports/world journalism site RoadsandKingdoms.com we booked one of the half-dozen or so Pablo Escobar Tours offered in Medellin, Colombia. We’re still struggling to find a healthy middle ground when it comes to this narco terrorist (pictured below during a rare and short-lived stint in jail), but taking the controversial Pablo Escobar tour helped a little bit thanks to a guide willing to share personal stories and his own struggles with Escobar’s legacy.

Selling Pablo Escobar - Roads 7 Kingdoms & Slate magazine

Best SCUBA diving: The water around Panama’s Coiba National Park (which used  to be a penal colony and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is full of rocky formations and sea mounts which attract the big stuff like sharks and rays. We spent two days SCUBA diving in the area with Herbie Sunk (real name) who is the owner of Scuba Coiba based out of Santa Catalina. There was lots of current and not much viz when we were there (March) but we still had a ball and even in the less-than-perfect conditions we could appreciate these unique dive sites. On the surface we saw dolphins, leaping mobula rays, bobbing turtles and even a whale shark.

SCUBA diving with Manta Rays - Coiba National Park, Panama

Best horseback riding: If you’re gonna call it “Adventure Horseback Riding” and charge US$60 for 2.5 hours you’d better deliver. Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica did just that with super sure footed horses, varied and challenging terrain and even a boa constrictor sighting (there she is, below). This is not a ride for beginners, as we found out one heart-pounding, thrill-packed, fabulous afternoon.

Boa Constrictor - Selva Bananito Eco Lodge, Costa Rica

Best nearly deserted wind sport beach: Cabo de la Vela in the Guajira peninsula of northern Colombia is hard to reach and hot as hell but it’s also one of the best places in the region for wind sports as our traveling companion at the time, an avid kiteboarder who travels with not one but two kites, verified. As we sought the shade on shore he spent hours in the water (that’s him kiting, below) and raved about the consistently kiteable winds and the often deserted water.

Guajira Kite Surfing -  Cabo de la Vela, Colombia

Best white knuckle landing: Any time you get into a small plane you know that take off and landing are going to be extra exciting. Still, we weren’t quite prepared for the fly-straight-at-the-mountain-bank-hard-then-drop-straight-down-onto-the-“runway” landing that the pilot of our Air Panama flight artfully made into the dinky, waterside Playon Chico airstrip in Panama. The extra gray hairs were worth it, however, since this is the only way you can get to Yandup Island Lodge where we learned a lot about the area’s Kuna people, the largest indigenous group in the country.

Fasten your seat belts, stow your tray tables and check out this epic landing in our video, below.

Best festival: We attended/survived our first Carnaval (aka Carnival) in 2013 and while annual celebrations in Rio and New Orleans hog all the limelight we’re here to tell you that the festivities in Las Tablas, Panama hold their own with gorgeous, dueling, foul-mouthed Carnaval Queens, relentless water cannons during the day and fireworks that approach the noise, mayhem, and danger levels of a combat zone at night.  Go inside the madness of this five-day non-stop mega-party in our series of posts about Carnaval 2013 in Las Tablas, Panama.

Calle Abajo queen pollera carnival Tuesday night

Best border crossing adventure: Going from Panama to Colombia (or vice versa) may be the most difficult overland border crossing in Latin America. Shipping our truck from Panama to Colombia was an adventure in and of itself. This border crossing also lead to an enjoyable adventure when we got on board a sailboat and spent five days sailing through the postcard-perfect San Blas Islands (below) from Panama to Cartagena, Colombia where we reunited with our truck. Blue, blue water. White, white sand. Dolphin escorts. Even our open-water passage into Cartagena went pretty smoothly.

Sail San Blas Islands, Panama aboard MS Independence

Best difference of opinion: You can choose to explore the Panama Canal on a small tourist boat during a partial transit trip, which takes five hours and travels through three of the six locks, or during a full transit trip, which takes more than eight hours and gets you through all six locks traveling from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean (or vice versa). ONE of us had his heart set on the full transit from ocean to ocean. The other one of us spent the day wondering when the boat ride and subsequent interminable bus ride back to Panama City would end. Adventure really is in the eye of the adventurer. One man’s awesome day is another woman’s hostage crisis.

Our adventure/hostage crisis on the Pacific Queen booked through Adventure Life resulted in one awesome time lapse travel video, below, that will take you from ocean to ocean through the Panama Canal in just 10 minutes.

Best milestone: 2013 was also the year that finally entered the Southern Hemisphere when we crossed the equator in Ecuador as the photo of our Garmin GPS, below, proves.

0 latitude - Crossing the Equator - Equador

 

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The 22 Best Hotels in Costa Rica

For a country the size of Vermont, Costa Rica has a mind-boggling number of hotels. During our six months of traveling in the country we spent more than 130 nights in hotels, and we made it our mission to seek out and experience the best of the best hotels in Costa Rica.

Here are our 22 favorites (plus one that got away) including a crazy big bargain in San Jose, the best new luxury boutique hotel in the country, eco hotel superstars on and off the beaten path, great choices on both coasts, sure-fire romance options and family adventure finds. For those of you plotting (or dreaming about) Costa Rica vacations, your trip planning just got easier. The links take you to our more in-depth coverage of each outstanding hotel.

Best new luxury boutique hotel in Costa Rica

We stayed at Kura Design Villas, in the hills above Uvita, right after it opened. Karen still wishes she was hanging out in their stunning four-way infinity edge pool. This one really was a jaw dropper and one of the best new hotels we’ve seen in some time. It’s easily the best new hotel in Costa Rica.

Kura Design Villas room - Uvita, Costa Rica

These traditional masks are usually colorfully painted. Kura’s owners have special unpainted versions made just for them – just one example of the attention to detail at Kura which is easily the best new hotel in Costa Rica.

Best carbon neutral hotel in Costa Rica

Arenal and La Fortuna were not our favorite destinations in Costa Rica. However, the region is home to Rancho Margot which is owned by a former fast food executive who has created a sustainable, carbon neutral hotel that is beautiful, comfortable and a shining example to other aspiring eco operations.

Arenal Vocano from the hill above Ranch Margot - La Fortuva, Costa Rica

Early morning view of (now dormant) Arenal Volcano from the hill above Ranch Margot, one of the most impressively eco hotels in Costa Rica.

Best budget hotel in Costa Rica

Though most visitors simply pass through Costa Rica’s capital on their way in and out of the country we thoroughly believe there are many reasons to spend a couple of days in San José. One of the is Hotel Aranjuez which offers a range of spotlessly clean rooms in three adjoining houses in a quiet neighborhood at extremely reasonable rates which include the best hotel breakfast buffet we’ve ever had in any price point. You will be amazed.

Best cloud forest hotel in Costa Rica

Not all cloud forests in Costa Rica are created equal. For example, we were seriously nonplussed by Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve with its crowds and strip of tourist traps and crappy hotels and hostels. However, we loved the cloud forest around San Gerardo de  Dota, home to resplendent quetzals, tapirs and Dantica Cloud Forest Lodge & Gallery where minimalist rooms hug the hillside in a private nature preserve.

 Dantica Cloud Forest Lodge - San Gerardo de Dota, Costa Rica

Floor-to-ceiling windows let the cloud forest in to your room at Dantica Cloud Forest Lodge & Gallery in Costa Rica.

Best family-friendly jungle adventure hotel in Costa Rica

There are plenty of jungle adventure parks in Costa Rica where you can zipline and hike all day long but there’s only one that also offers you the chance to spend the night as well. That would be Rainforest Adventures. They have two locations (one near San Jose and one near Playa Jaco). We spent a night in one of the basic but comfortable eco and family-friendly jungle bungalows at the Rainforest Adventures Atlantic operation (one hour from San Jose). It was the perfect end to a day filled with the great guides, a trip on their patented aerial tram, a zip line on steroids called the Adrenaline, a night hike filled with odd, odd creatures and more.  You even run the very wonderful risk of seeing tapirs right from your room.

Aerial Tram at Rain Forest Adventures Costa Rica

The aerial tram at Rainforest Adventures in Costa Rica.

Best eco hotel on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica

One of the very last hotels we stayed at in Costa Rica ended up being one of the most impressive. Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve scored points right from the start when the dedicated owner pointed out a rarely seen potoo bird camouflaged on a tree trunk mere steps away from the deck of our bungalow. Toss in some of the most serious eco and sustainable practices in all of Costa Rica, the absolute best adventure horse back riding trip in Central America and no internet connection and you’ve got a great stay.

CabinSelva Bananito Eco Lodge, Costa Rica

A sustainibly built and totally comfortable and stylish bungalows at Selva Bananito Eco Lodge & Preserve on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica.

Best hotel near Poás Volcano National Park

Poás Volcano National Park is Costa Rica’s most visited national park and there’s no shortage of hotels in the area. But for chic design, flawless personal hospitality and gourmet food you can’t beat Poás Volcano Lodge. Did we mention that you can see the volcano from some of the rooms?

Poas Volcano Lodge

Stunning room #5 at Poas Volcano Lodge, our pick near Costa Rica’s most visited national park.

Best hotel on a coffee plantation in Costa Rica

Running an eco hotel is hard. Doing it along with an organic coffee plantation and pulling them both off with panache is close to impossible. Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation & Inn manages just fine, thank you very much. The hotel is whimsical and surprisingly green and the coffee is uber certified and delicious. It’s the best place we found to get your Costa Rica eco fix and your Costa Rica coffee fix all in one place.

Finca Rosa Blanca, Costa Rica - Organic coffee

Organic coffee and a whimsical take on eco hotel style combine to put Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation & Inn on our list of best hotels in Costa Rica.

Best hotel for art lovers in Costa Rica

It’s best to think of Xandari Resort & Spa, in the foothills above San Jose, as one enormous gallery for the creative out put of the owners, architect Sherrill Broudy and his artist wife Charlene. If tan is your favorite color this place might not be for you.

 Xandari Resort & Spa, Costa Rica

Space, views and art everywhere at Xandari Resort & Spa in Costa Rica.

Best romantic hotels near Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica

Odds are Manuel Antonio National Park is on your Costa Rican itinerary. After all, it’s fairly easy to reach, wildlife sighting are virtually guaranteed and it’s home to one of the most gorgeous beaches in Costa Rica. There are also two very romantic but very different hotels nearby. Choose Hotel Makanda by the Sea for suites with kitchens in extremely private jungle settings. Choose Parador Resort & Spa if full service pampering and the best bed with a view is your idea of romance.

Pool Parador Hotel Quepos Costa Rica

One of three pools at Parador Resort & Spa, a romantic retreat near Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica.

Best Bali bungalow in Costa Rica

There’s a triple whammy going on at  Bali Rica Casitas on the Costa Ballena along the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. 1. the flawlessly hospitable and knowledgeable owners. 2. Its location in the laid back foodie town of Ojochal. 3. One of the two fully equipped casitas was shipped over in pieces from Bali and re-built on site. Really.

Best hotel near Tenorio Volcano National Park in Costa Rica

When we decided to visit Tenorio Volcano National Park in Costa Rica we were rewarded two times. The park delivered the most beautiful river we saw all of Costa Rica and near the entrance we found what turned out to be one of our favorite Costa Rican eco hotels. Don’t let the chic, modern facade fool you. Celeste Mountain Lodge is all green at heart.

Views Celeste Mountain Lodge Tenorio Costa Rica

The stylishly green dining room and lounge of Celeste Mountain Lodge near Tenorio Volcano National Park – both are worth a visit in Costa Rica.

Best hotel with private zoo access in Costa Rica

The Peace Lodge at La Paz Waterfall Gardens Nature Park is pricey and a bit over the top but there’s nowhere else in Costa Rica where your room comes with exclusive after-hours access to jaguars, monkeys and more.

Best beach hotels on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica

We preferred the beaches on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica over the beaches on the Pacific side. Part of the reason was the sheer range of hotel options on the Caribbean side, from the stark chic of the splurgy Le Cameleon Boutique Hotel, to the affordable Caribbean cottage vibe of Aguas Claras Bungalows to the stylishly organic Shawandha Lodge.

Le Cameleon Boutique Hotel - Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

Yep, even the floors are white at Le Cameleon Boutique Hotel on Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast.

Best high and low end hotels in Cahuita, Costa Rica

The town of Cahuita, gateway to Cahuita National Park and a fine place to chill on the Caribbean Coast, is littered with budget guesthouses. During multiple visits to Cahuita we stayed in a number of them. For our hard-earned travel money, the best of the lot is Cabinas Palmer with super clean rooms, each with a small porch and hammock, free coffee and bananas all day, friendly owners, good WiFi and free parking all for less than US$20. If you’ve got more in the budget check out French-Canadian owned Playa Negra Guesthouse a bit out of town.

Best hotels on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica

We explored the Osa Peninsula from the Puerto Jimenez side and from theDrake Bay side and managed to land in the best hotels both times. Lapa Rios Eco Lodge, on the Puerto Jimenez side, has been fine-tuning its eco approach for the past 20 years and they’ve got it down to a luxurious science. On the Drake Bay side the Aguila de Osa Inn is a stunning haven with an even more stunning driveway (hint, it involves a boat).

Sunrise Osa Peninsuala Costa Rica

Sunrise over Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, home to two hotels that made this list.

Best family adventure hotel in Guanacaste, Costa Rica

We loved our stay at Blue River Resort & Hot Springs, near Rincon de la Vieja National Park, because of the uncrowded on-site natural hot springs and their awesome extreme tubing trip. But as we were leaving it occurred to us that this Costa Rica resort is also great value for families. There’s plenty to do, each room has tons of space and rates start at US$127 per night for up to five family members per room including full ala carte breakfast.

Hot Tub Blue River Resort and Hot Springs, Costa Rica

Forget the crowded, expensive hot springs in La Fortuna and Arenal and head to the soaking pools and remarkable value at the family friendly Blue River Resort & Hot Springs near Rincon de la Vieja National Park in Costa Rica.

The one that got away…

Every hotel owner we talked to in Costa Rica raved about a hotel called Monte Azul located on its own nature preserve in the shadow of Mount Chiripo, the tallest mountain in Costa Rica. Part luxury boutique hotel, part art commune, part wellness center, part bespoke tour agency and part artesenal farm and gourmet restaurant it sounded like paradise. However, despite our best efforts, we never got there. If you’ve stayed at Monte Azul make us jealous in the comments section below.

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