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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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Check In Checklist: How to Choose the Best Budget Hotels

One of the beautiful things about traveling in Latin America is that travel expenses like accommodation can be very, very affordable. However, budget hotels can also be fraught with hidden disappointments from toilets that don’t flush to grungy, ill-fitting sheets to missing shower heads. Hotel bargains are certainly out there, but no matter where you’re traveling, it pays to run through this handy check in checklist to make sure you choose the best budget hotels before you settle in.

Economy Inn Motel

 

17 point budget hotel checklist

Besides basic cleanliness and security issues, we mentally run through this checklist before we check in.

  • Is there a seat on the toilet and does the toilet flush? If you’re a dude, or you’re traveling with a dude, also ensure that the toilet seat will stay up on its own and doesn’t just flop down.
  • Do the faucets work?
  • Is the bathroom light bright enough to shave by?
  • Is there a shower head or just a bare pipe?
  • Is the mattress really just an amateurishly-disguised torture device? Go ahead. Sit on it.
  • Exactly how lumpy and stained are the pillows? Go ahead. Take off the pillow cases to see for yourself.
  • Are the sheets clean and at least partly cotton? Ever since we moved into a room that turned out to have curly black hairs in the bed we are not above throwing back the covers to get a better look at the bedding.
  • Does the fitted sheet or base sheet actually stay on or are you going to wake up with your body directly against that mystery mattress?

motel-room

  • If there’s a mosquito net, check it for holes. Are they patchable? PACKING TIP: We always travel with plenty of white thread and a sewing needle. Why white? Because most nets are white and if you darn them with colored thread each colored repair will look like an insect against the white net.
  • Are the light bulbs bright enough to read by or just a tease?
  • Does the fan work and is it quiet enough to sleep with when it’s on? If the hotel runs on generator power, be sure to confirm that the generator runs all night or you’ll lose the fan just when you need it most.
  • Are the ceiling fan blades above the light source? If the blades are below the light you’ll get a crazy-making mild-strobe effect when you turn them both on at the same time.
  • Do the curtains close well enough to provide privacy? Do they blow open when the fan is on? PACKING TIP: We travel with a metal clamp like the sort used to keep papers together in an office and this works like a charm to secure unruly or ill-fitting curtains.
  • Do the windows have screens on them and are they (relatively) free of holes?
  • Is the TV (if there is one) in a position where it’s actually viewable from bed? We’ve been in a disturbing number of budget rooms in which the TV is placed in a corner behind any form of seating.
  • Are there any electrical outlets and are they in locations that are actually accessible?
  • Does the Wi-Fi signal (if there is one) reach the room? The pat answer you’ll get to this question is always “yes” so we find it’s also helpful to locate the actual router to make sure your room is within range.

Relax Inn motel

Check out our tried and tested list of 9 Best Budget Hotels in Central America to make your travel budget go further in Costa Rica, Belize, Guatemala, Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras.

A version of this story was originally published on the Travel+Escape website which we’ve contributed to frequently.

 

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How to Buy the Best Binoculars for Travel

If you’re like us, seeing wildlife is a big part of the thrill of travel and we’ve had plenty of exciting wild animal encounters throughout the Americas including an amazing array of birds in Belize, penguins in Antarctica and these guys in the Galapagos Islands. It helps that Karen inherited eagle eyes from her dad. It also helps to have a good pair of binoculars, like our new Steiner Optics Navigator Pro 7X30 binos (buy on Amazon or B&H), made by the only company in the world that focuses solely on binoculars. Of course, price matters. However, no matter what your bino budget is here are the basics about how to buy the best binoculars for adventure travel.

lizard on Steiner binoculars

Our Steiner binoculars made friends with the locals at Anaconda Lodge in the Amazon in Ecuador.

How to buy binoculars: key terms

All binoculars come with a confounding set of numbers, such as 8X42. Once and for all, here’s what those numbers mean.

The first number refers to the power of magnification. In the case of 8X42, those binoculars have the power to make things look eight times bigger than they would with the naked eye. So, if you’re looking at something that’s 800 feet away it will look like it’s only 100 feet away.

The number that appears after the X refers to the size of the objective lens in millimeters. The larger the number, the larger the objective lens. Why does that matter? Because larger objective lenses let in more light which means you see brighter images. This is especially important in low light situations like dense forests, cloudy days or at dusk or dawn.

Steiner binoculars - Cotopaxi volcano, Ecuador

Karen and her Steiners in Cotopaxi National Park in Ecuador.

How to buy binoculars: lens coatings

Like cameras, binoculars are only as good as the lenses and one of the key elements of the lenses is the coating on the outside. This coating controls how you see wave lengths of light which affects how you see color when using the binoculars. Low end binoculars often have lens coatings which drop some wave lengths which can result in color distortion.

Higher end binoculars, like Steiners, apply multiple coatings to ensure all wave lengths reach your eye ensuring that you see all colors true to life. Steiner actually created a new lens coating process for its binoculars.

Steiner binoculars - Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Karen and her Steiners in the Galapagos Islands.

How to buy binoculars: focus

It’s true that different binoculars are suited to different needs because seeing a small close object in low light conditions, like spotting a bird in dense jungle, requires different performance than seeing a large object far away in bright light, like a whale in the ocean at distance. For most people, it’s not practical to buy binoculars for each and every situation. That’s where a little something called Sports Auto Focus, offered on many Steiner binoculars models, comes in.

Our Steiner binoculars have Sport Auto Focus and it’s terrific. Karen set the focus of the binoculars one time and the Sport Auto Focus now maintains her settings between 60 feet (20 meters) and infinity. This means she can be looking at a blue footed boobie on the shore of a nearby island one second, then whip around and look out to sea at a pod of dolphins in the far distance without the need to change the focus at all. It’s honestly our favorite thing about our Steiners.

Steiner-binoculars-searching-for-whales

Karen and her Steiners in the Galapagos Islands.

How to buy binoculars: durability

In recent years it’s become easier to find lighter binoculars that are still high quality, which is good news for travelers. But the truth is that quality lenses and a durable body add weight. Our Steiners, for example, weigh 18.5 ounces, in part because they are housed in tough rubber which guards against damage from drops and bumps and provides a comfy, grippy surface in your hands.

For us, a bit of extra weight was worth it for better lenses and better body protection and carrying our Steiners has never been an issue thanks, in part, to the nifty strap we talk about in the next section.

Besides dropping, the other big travel threat to binoculars is moisture inside the binoculars. We’ve taken our Steiners into many super humid situations with confidence because most Steiner models have a nitrogen pressure system which uses dry nitrogen inside the binoculars to reduce the internal oxygen content (and, therefore, any humidity in the oxygen) to a minimum.

How to buy binoculars: worthy accessories

Since Eric almost always has a camera to his face, Karen is the one most often using the binoculars and she’s been carrying binoculars around her neck for decades but she never went for the cross-chest strap accessory because, well, they just scream “bird geek!”. However, we got a cross-chest strap for our Steiners and it makes a world of difference.

First, the weight of the binoculars is evenly distributed, so neck ache is eliminated. The chest straps also means that Karen can walk quickly, run or even gallop on horseback without having a pair of binocular banging against her chest because the cross strap holds them in place. Yes, she looks like a bird geek, but the benefits are worth it.

Another smart accessory to consider is a small, detachable external floatation device that will keep your binoculars afloat if they fall into the water.

There are many more math-intensive things to consider–like field of vision,  zoom configurations and prisms–when buying binoculars, but these binoculars basics should get you started. This hyper-detailed binoculars buying guide from B&H is a great resource if you feel like studying up even more.

Steiner binoculars - TatacoaDesert, Colombia

Karen and her Steiners in the Tatacoa Desert in Colombia.

Steiner Optics supplied a pair of binoculars for us to use and review out here on the road.

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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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An Arenal Alternative – Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park, Costa Rica

You say your trip to Costa Rica must include fuming volcanoes, outdoor adventure and relaxing hot springs but without the crowds and prices of Arenal? We say head to Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park instead which is shaping up to be a cheaper, less crowded and more exciting alternative to Arenal.

Cheaper than Arenal

Now that Arenal Volcano is no longer erupting (yes, you heard that right), the one big reason to travel to Arenal  Volcano National Park and La Fortuna, that crowded eyesore of a tourist town, is to soak in the volcano-heated hot springs that continue to bubble up to the surface even though the lava stopped flowing years ago.

In Arenal it will cost you at least US$25 per person (and up to US$95 per person) for the privilege of stewing in communal juices along with hundreds of others. We know. We did it. Our ho-hum experiences made us determined to find an alternative to Arenal and we think we hit pay dirt in the Guanacaste region of northern Costa Rica.

Waterfall Rincon de la Vieja Volcano National Park, Costa Rica

We had this remote waterfall all to ourselves near Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park in Costa Rica.

More exciting than Arenal

Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park is about a 1.5 hour drive from the town of Liberia, primarily on a rocky dirt road in reasonably good condition which winds past bucolic farms and picturesque small villages. Clouds often obscure the park’s namesake volcano so we contented ourselves with sightings of flocks of noisy green parrots and the occasional capuchin monkey along the way.

The clouds did occasionally part, allowing us glimpses of Rincón de la Vieja Volcano which, following impressive explosions in February of 2012, has been put firmly back on the active volcano list unlike the now dormant Arenal Volcano.

Rincon de la Vieja Volcano National Park, Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s Rincón de la Vieja Volcano in the background as seen from the grounds of the Blue River Resort & Hot Springs.

Close to the action in Rincón de la Vieja

On a clear day you can see the crater of Rincón de la Vieja Volcano from almost any point on the spawling grounds of the Blue River Resort & Hot Springs which has 20 cabañas, each with more than 700 square feet (65 square meters) of space and all the amenities you’d expect in a much swankier location including a huge TV, air conditioning, two double beds and an enormous bathroom all starting at US$127 for up to five people including breakfast, taxes and use of all of the hot springs. A family of five would pay more than that just for hot springs access in Arenal.

Butterfly Blue River Resort and Hot Springs, Costa Rica

Critters, like this butterfly, love the grounds of Blue River Resort & Hot Springs in the shadow of Rincón de la Vieja Volcano in Costa Rica.

If looking up at the business end of an active volcano doesn’t release enough adrenaline for you Blue River Resort & Hot Springs also offers day trips to local attractions like Caño Negro. You can choose from a nine platform zip line, a Tarzan swing, horseback riding, hiking and an activity we think the resort owners need to rename “Extreme Tubing”. After all, when was the last time you needed elbow pads to go tubing?

Welcome to extreme tubing

When the guides for our rafting trip on the Rio Azul  (Blue River) handed us not only a helmet but elbow pads as well we thought he was just being overly cautious. Isn’t tubing like napping on the water during which the biggest danger is losing hold of the tube toting the cooler full of beer? Not this time.

Adventure river tubing Blue River Resort and Hot Springs, Costa Rica

Eric heads off down the Rio Azul for some extreme tubing at Blue River Resort & Hot Springs in Costa Rica.

White water river tubing Blue River Resort and Hot Springs, Costa Rica

White water everywhere during our extreme tubing trip with Blue River Resort & Hot Springs in Costa Rica.

For nearly two hours we hurtled down the Rio Azul atop special extra-plump, extra-durable tubes with hand holds. We shot through narrow channels of swift-moving white water, bounced over rocks, pin-ball-machined around boulders and, sometimes, ended up upside down. By the time we reached the take out point we were grinning and very, very grateful for every single piece of protective gear.

River tubing Blue River Resort and Hot Springs, Costa Rica

Moving fast down the Rio Azul during an extreme tubing trip near Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park in Costa Rica.

See those elbow pads in use in our video, below, shot during our extreme tubing trip down the Rio Azul in Costa Rica which, as you’ll see, really is extra blue.

Less crowded than Arenal

Even with the elbow pads we still ended up with some bumps and bruises during our trip down the Rio Azul, so we were grateful for Blue River Resort’s natural hot springs which fill four very large pools with soothing water directly from the volcano. There’s also a cold plunge pool.

When we were at Blue River Resort we were often the only people soaking in pools that could easily have held 20 people.

Hot Tub Blue River Resort and Hot Springs, Costa Rica

You can have a volcano-fed natural hot spring pool all to yourself at Blue River Resort & Hot Springs near Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park in Costa Rica.

To get even closer to the healing powers of the volcano guests have free access to a vat of slate gray, sulphury volcanic mud which can be applied to your skin before entering a sauna where the volcanic minerals work their magic. Our skin felt silky for days afterward. One warning though: do not do this while wearing light colored swimwear since the mud stains like mad.

Volcanic mud, Rincon de la Vieja Volcano, Costa Rica

Healing mineral-filled volcanic mud for guests of Blue River Resort & Hot Springs in Costa Rica – just don’t wear a light-colored swimsuit when you slather it on.

Guanacaste Travel Tip

If you’re exploring the Guanacaste region or crossing the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua at Peñas Blancas then you’ll probably need to spend a night in the town of Liberia. We can recommend a budget hotel called Hotel Liberia. It’s central, clean, moderately priced at US$40 double (we recommend haggling) for a private room with a fan, bathroom WiFi and ample, secure parking. Dorm beds are available for US$13 per person.

If you’ve got just a bit more to spend on style, check out the nearby Casa de Papel Bed & Breakfast. The exterior of the building is decoupaged with old newspapers (hence the name). Inside is an eclectic mishmash of antiques. Rooms spread out around an interior garden with a pool (a rarity) and a jacuzzi (even more rare). Rates vary from US$75 double down to US$30 double and quality varies accordingly. The US$30 room, for example, is fan only, tiny and a bit claustrophobic. Parking, WiFi and continental breakfast are included.

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Another Way to Get Wet – Rio Pacuare, Costa Rica

Sure you could go to the beach to get wet when you travel to Costa Rica. Us? We headed for the Rio Pacuare for some Costa Rican white water rafting.

White Water rafting Rio Paquare River rapids

Navigating the famous rapids of Costa Rica’s Rio Pacuare (that’s Eric with the GoPro strapped to his helmet).

The right rafting company in Costa Rica

There are plenty of companies that will take you rafting in Costa Rica but we liked the sustainable tourism approach of an operation called Rios Tropicales.

The company has planted more than 50,000 indigenous trees on the 2,000 acres it owns along the river in a massive reforestation effort. They formed a foundation to create and implement environmental education programs in local schools and they helped build two rural health clinics. Staff for their river lodge was also hired from local villages.

But what about the rafting? It all starts with your guides. Rios Tropicales has a river guide training program that’s based on international standards and practices but the guides themselves are 100% local. Back in 1985 they were the first rafting company to hire guides from the nearby town of Turrialba then they started hiring and training locals from the small community of El Tigre including indigenous Cabecar Indians.

Over the years some of Rios Troipicales’ guides have gone on to open their own rafting businesses in other parts of Costa Rica and the company continues to help promote them. They’re called “ecopreneurs” and they include one former Rios Tropicales guide who is now offering awesome-sounding chute rafting down a unique stretch of river near Manuel Antonio National Park.

 Rios Tropicales Rio Paquare white water rafting trip

The start of our Rio Pacuare rafting adventure with Rios Tropicales.

The right river in Costa Rica

You have a number of raftable rivers to choose from in Costa Rica but one that’s near the top of everyone’s list is the Rio Pacuare. It’s a beautiful river and it’s got kick too. The Rafting World Championships were held on the Rio Pacuare in October 2011.

Rio Paquare River in Costa Rica waterfall

Costa Rica’s Rio Pacuare provided an adrenaline rush of rapids and just enough calm sections to appreciate the waterfalls and lush jungle all around us.

Rios Tropicales offers single day rafting trips on the Rio Pacuare all the way through to four days on the river. We opted for the two day Rio Pacuare rafting trip with an overnight in the Rios Tropicales ecolodge on the banks of the river.

Rio Paquare River at Rios Tropicales

A deceivingly-calm section of the Rio Pacuare in Costa Rica.

Day 1 on the Rio Pacuare

We got wet a bit sooner than planned during our Rio Pacuare rafting adventure. During the second set of rapids our guide, Ricardo, steered us left when we should have gone right (or maybe it was the other way around) and we ended up rocketing down a hairy little line through whitewater with a huge boulder and a five foot drop over a mini-waterfall directly in our path. The white water commandeered our raft and we high-sided on the boulder. It’s a miracle we didn’t flip.

White Water rafting Rio Paquare River

Good and wet as we came THIS close to flipping at the start of Day 1 of rafting on the Rio Pacuare in Costa Rica.

The word Pacuare means “little macaw” in the local native language. We didn’t see any macaws but we did enjoy the jungle as we got in some sight seeing during the tranquil floats between exciting rapids on our seven mile (11 kilometer) trip to the Rios Tropicales ecolodge.

dog chihuahua white water rafting Rio Paquare River Costa Rica

Yes, that’s a chihuahua in a life vest hitching a ride on the gear boat during our white water rafting adventure on Costa Rica’s Rio Pacuare.

Rios Tropicales Rio Paquare River Lodge

These rapids marked the start of Day 2 of white water rafting on the Rio Pacuare in Costa Rica.

Lounging at the greenest river lodge in Costa Rica

The wooden buildings of the Rios Tropicales ecolodge, the first one ever built on the river, spill out along a stretch of riverbank and include a shared dorm, clean, basic private rooms with bathrooms and some plusher private rooms with more space and even better views.

The entire staff is from local villages and the whole place is powered with hydro-generated electricity which makes perfect sense as you watch the river rush by and listen to umpteen waterfalls tumble down the hillsides, one of them crashing past our room.

If a day of rafting didn’t release enough adrenaline for you you can fill the afternoon with zip lining,  horseback riding, hiking and swimming in waterfall-fed natural pools.

Zip Line Rios Tropicales Rio Paquare River

Eric kept the adrenaline pumping with some post-rafting zip lining at the Rios Tropicales ecolodge on the Rio Pacuare in Costa Rica.

Even though we were all off the river our guides were definitely not off duty. They doubled as cooks, waiters and bar tenders too and they were good at it, serving up Cacique-spiked punch during happy hour and whipping up a big, fresh, filling dinner made with local ingredients whenever possible.

Jumping off waterfalls Rio Paquare River

Umpteen waterfalls tumble down the steep banks along the Rio Pacuare offering their own adventures.

Day 2 on the Rio Pacuare

Our second day on the Rio Pacuare was even more exciting than the first. Our 11 mile (17 kilometer) journey took us through class III and IV rapids with very few dead stretches in between. In some stretches the canyon was so narrow it felt like the rafts might not fit through.

Rios Tropicales White Water rafting Rio Paquare River

Our raft powering through one of the class III and IV rapids that spiced up Day 2 on the Rio Pacuare.

White Water rafting Rio Rio Paquare River white water rafting

Heading into another rapid on the Rio Pacuare.

What slower water we encounterd was livened up by Ricardo who had us surfing standing waves in the raft, out of the raft and riding the current down stream and generally goofing off. Then it was back to doing our best to paddle in unison in order to get through the next rapids. Turns out, white water rafting in Costa Rica is a pretty good way to learn the Spanish words for “left,” “right,” “forward,” and “back.”

Rio-Paquare-river-float

Catching our breath during a calm section of the Rio Pacuare in Costa Rica.

Rio-Paquare-River-canyon-swim

Bobbing and floating with the current and cooling off in Costa Rica’s Rio Pacuare.

Watch us flip, float and flail through the rapids, sail through the zip line and surf standing waves in our video, below, shot on our GoPro during our white water rafting adventure on Costa Rica’s Rio Pacuare. It’s long, but we didn’t want to leave any of the adrenaline out!

Costa Rica rafting travel tip

The Rio Pacuare is highest from October through December so if it’s big white water you want (class IV and V) plan a trip then.

Read more about travel in Costa Rica

 

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