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DEAR TRIP COACH...
We usually vacation in Europe, but with the weak dollar we decided it's time to explore the Western Hemisphere. We've just become empty nesters and have taken up bird-watching, so we're heading to Costa Rica for 10 days. We'd love advice on where to go and what to see. Winston and Judee Lee, Piedmont, Calif.
"Should we get local currency at the airport when we arrive?"
Don't bother—U.S. dollars are accepted throughout Costa Rica. If you find that you need colones, most major towns have ATMs, and hotels will often change amounts under $100. Avoid street hustlers offering to change money illegally.
"Any suggestions on what to see in San José?"
The Museo del Jade has the largest jade collection in the Americas (Calle 9 and Avenida 7, 011-506/2287-6042, $7). A few blocks south, in the basement of the Plaza de la Cultura, the Museo del Oro Precolombino has 1,600 gold artifacts (011-506/2243-4202, museosdelbancocentral.org, $7). Costa Ricans are quite proud of the Teatro Nacional, around the corner. The neoclassical- and Renaissance-style building was built in the 1800s after a European opera company couldn't find a suitable theater (Avenida 2 near Calle 3, teatronacional.go.cr, $5).
"How should we get around?"
When traveling between tourist destinations, make reservations with Interbus; air-conditioned minivans pick you up at your hotel (011-506/2283-5573, interbusonline.com, from $25). For places not served by Interbus, go with one of the other private bus companies. The website of the Costa Rica Tourism Board has a complete list of companies and itineraries (visitcostarica.com). Buses can fill up quickly, so make reservations a week in advance. Theft runs rampant in the bus stations, so always have a lock on your bags, and be ready for clever scams used by thieves, who often work in pairs.
"We're excited to go bird-watching in a cloud forest. Would Monteverde be a good choice?"
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve is one of Costa Rica's most popular destinations, so you'll want to hire a guide to get you away from the crowds. Daily birding tours are offered by Anywhere Costa Rica (888/456-3212, anywherecostarica.com, $57 per person) and the Tropical Science Center, an organization that operates within the reserve (011-506/2645-5122, cct.or.cr/english, $50 per person). Because birds are most active in the mornings, both tours begin at 6 a.m. and last five to six hours. Book at least two days in advance.
"Are there other good birding spots that are off the radar?"
Santa Elena Reserve, about four miles northwest of Monteverde, has many of the same bird species but isn't nearly as crowded (reservasantaelena.org, $12). To see the quetzal, the region's most famous species, go to San Gerardo de Dota, a town about 50 miles southeast of San José. The rooms at Mirador de Quetzales, six miles outside of town, are rustic, but the lodge offers the best quetzal viewing in the country (011-506/2381-8456, exploringcostarica.com, $90, includes breakfast, dinner, and a two-hour tour). The new Dantica Lodge & Gallery is a more stylish option (011-506/2740-1067, dantica.com, from $127).
"Winston wants to try a zip line, and we'd like to explore the rain-forest canopy. Any recommendations?"
A ride on a zip line is an adrenaline rush, pure and simple—the trees and wildlife become a blur when you're whizzing by on a cable. Most zip-line tour operators offer something in addition to the ride so you get a good look at the canopy. At Monteverde, The Original Canopy Tour begins with a hike and ends with you rappelling through the canopy (011-506/2291-4465, canopytour.com, $45), and Costa Rica Sky Adventures includes a ride on its Sky Tram, which takes you through the canopy at a leisurely pace. Sky Adventures also has a zip line and Sky Tram near Arenal volcano, about four hours northeast of Monteverde (011-506/2645-5238, skytrek.com, from $60). The junior suites and chalet rooms at Arenal Lodge offer spectacular views of the volcano—you might get lucky and see it spewing ash or even lava (011-506/2460-1881, arenallodge.com, from $99).
"Every town seems to have a butterfly farm. How do we choose one?"
It's hard to top La Paz Waterfall Gardens, about 40 miles north of San José. In addition to a butterfly observatory, La Paz has a hummingbird garden, a serpentarium (home to snakes), a frog exhibit, a lake where visitors can fish for trout, bird-watching areas, and, of course, waterfalls (011-506/2482-2720, waterfallgardens.com, $32). Combine La Paz with a visit to nearby Doka Estate for a tour of the coffee plantation (011-506/2449-5152, dokaestate.com, $16).
"Could you recommend a beach near San José or Monteverde?"
The white-sand beaches on the Nicoya Peninsula are so pristine they look like they've been Photoshopped for postcards. At Playa Grande, you can watch endangered leatherback turtles come ashore to nest. Hotel Bula Bula, on the south end of the beach, rents kayaks and boogie boards (011-506/2653-0975, hotelbulabula.com, from $110, rentals from $10). About 40 miles south, Playa Carrillo is surrounded by cliffs and hills that protect it from winds, making the beach ideal for snorkeling and swimming. The newly remodeled Hotel Esperanza is within walking distance of Playa Carrillo and offers spa services, water sports, and horseback riding (011-506/2656-0564, hotelesperanza.com, from $88).
If you really want to get away—and don't mind a splurge—go to Tortuguero National Park, on the Caribbean coast. The park, which is accessible only by plane or boat, is famous for the green turtles that nest on the beach. The rest of the park—including rain-forest and wetland habitats—is best seen by boat. Rather than put together a piecemeal trip, book with Costa Rica Expeditions. Packages include transportation to and from San José (arrive by plane, leave by boat), lodging at Tortuga Lodge, all your meals, and boat tours (011-506/2257-0766, costaricaexpeditions.com, two-day packages from $268 per person).
"Are there any artisans we should seek out?"
Costa Rica is known for gold jewelry, ceramics made in pre-Columbian fashion, and exotic-wood products. At Esmeraldas y Diseños Dos Mil, near Parque la Sabana in San José, artisans make gold jewelry while you shop (011-506/2231-4808, esmeraldasydisenos.com). For ceramics, go to the town of Guaitíl, on the Nicoya Peninsula, where pieces are handcrafted and fired in wood kilns by family cooperatives. You'll see exotic-wood items throughout the country, but the gift boxes and bowls by artist Barry Biesanz stand out. He has his own shop, Biesanz Woodworks, in Escazú, a town about five miles outside San José (011-506/2289-4337, biesanz.com).
Costa Rican cuisine can be a bit bland. Take a cue from the locals and liven the food up with Salsa Lizano, a sauce made from chilies and pureed veggies. Addicted? Buy a few bottles to take home in any grocery store