Rincon de la Vieja: Geysers, Mud Pits, and Horses

We had always wanted to visit here. The Rincon de la Vieja is a compound volcano, kind of a small version of Yellowstone. There are nine craters, with some oddly shaped peaks, geysers, mud pits, hot springs, and cold waterfalls. It sounded like nothing I had ever seen in Costa Rica, and we found that to be true. 

This is an area that is not promoted very much in the US. This seems to be because the couple of hotels that have been there for awhile are European owned, and they have been promoting to their home markets. Also, until recently the road has not been very good. My wife and I made an attempt a few years ago in a Toyota Corolla. We had to give up, the road was too bad. But now ICE (the national power company) is building a geothermal power plant in the area, and has improved the road. 

We had the opportunity to inspect three hotels, all completely different. 

First up was the hotel we stayed at, the Rincon de La Vieja Lodge. This is a diamond in the rough. It is very rustic, and not without a couple of problems. But the staff is very sweet and the new manager is trying to put it into shape. If you are a serious hiker on a budget, and want to stay close to the entrance to the National Park, then this would be a good choice. 

The standard rooms were small, but looked comfortable. The log cabin bungalows are a legitimate bargain at only $80.00 per night, including tax and breakfast. Ours had a view of one of four ponds on the property, and you could hear the small river rushing behind our unit. There were small porches front and back. They are better than most rustic accommodations, but it would be easy to make a few improvements. The shower was serviceable, but not attractive. The bathroom needed a countertop and better light. Small complaints, I know. But easy to fix and would have made the unit much nicer. They also turn the electricity off after 10:30 PM, but I was told that this was being remedied soon. 

The restaurant serves typical food at a reasonable price. I had a steak that was pretty good, and my wife had a chicken and mushroom dish that she enjoyed as well. There are no menus and the staff speaks very little English. We speak enough Spanish that we were fine. But we could hear confusion around us as those less fluent tried to muddle through. 

The new manager is still working on implementing some new tours. So there was not a lot to choose from. We took a very nice horseback ride to the hotel’s own natural hot springs, and to a beautiful mirador (scenic overlook). We did not have enough time to take a whole day ride back to a beautiful waterfall and cold swimming hole in the national park that looked very inviting. There is also a good network of hiking trails within the national park. The hotel has its own canopy (zip line) tour. 

One intriguing activity was an overnight canopy tour. About halfway through, there is a platform with a tent. The guides leave the guest with coffee and chocolate for the morning. You then finish the canopy tour in the morning, and go to breakfast at the lodge. 

I forgot to ask what they offer for overnight bathroom facilities! But it sounded like it could be fun and romantic. 

So the short review on this property is that it is good for someone on a budget, and may be the best choice for the serious hiker. It is lacking attention to details, but my hope is that the new management is able to whip it into shape. The reasons to stay here are the price, access to the park, and the fact that it is located in an absolutely beautiful setting. 

borinquen hotelThe other end of the scale was the Hotel Borinquen. For those in the $300 per night range, this place will knock you out. The rooms are beautiful and fully appointed. Great for a getaway or honeymoon. They have bubbling mud pits on site. Their sauna is actually built over one. There is a wooden slatted floor, and the steam comes up through the floor. Their spa appeared to be first rate with beautiful views into the forest. This is also built over a rushing river, that I am sure would be great background white noise to listen to during a massage. They offer different treatments with the volcanic mud. There is a very nice pool, too. The hotel offers a full compliment of hikes and horseback tours into the park. They also offered “ATV safaris” and have a pretty decent canopy tour onsite. I was only able to glance at a menu (there are two restaurants), but it looked like the chef is creative, and there were some interesting options. 

Strangely enough, their hot springs were not anything special. There were just a couple of circular pools maybe 12 feet in diameter. I was surprised that such an upscale place that had done everything so right did so little with such an attractive asset. 

The short review on this property is that those with the higher budget will like this place. Great for honeymooners. Anyone that wants to see the hot springs and mud pits, but does not want to rough it, will be very comfortable. You will also have the opportunity to be one of a few North Americans that have even heard of this place! 

In between, there is the Hacienda Guachipelin. This was a pleasant surprise. It has zero curb appeal, we drove past it on the way to the Rincon de la Vieja Lodge. We were not impressed, and kept going. On the way back from the Lodge, we drove past the back of the hotel and glanced into the area where the rooms were located and saw a beautiful lawn surrounded by attractive low buildings. So we thought we would check it out. 

This was a genuine find. The rates are very reasonable with standards going for around $80.00 per night, plus tax. The superiors are larger and only about ten bucks more. No TV, no phones, no a/c, no problem! The rooms were very clean and nicely appointed. We happened to be here for lunch. We did not stick around to eat, but I did check out the buffet. It looked very good for the price ($12.00). Fresh salads and veggies, the usual choices of chicken, pork and “tipical” Costa Rica dishes. 

waterfall

The nature is the attraction here. They offer a full compliment of tours. One of the more interesting to me was the whitewater tubing. Helmet and life jacket while floating on a tube. It looked like big fun. Like the other properties in the area, they offer horseback rides (they have their own horses) and hiking into the park. They also have a canopy tour. Some of these can be combined, and they had a canopy / rappelling tour that looked pretty neat.  Funny thing was that after we returned home, we caught an episode of Samantha Brown’s show on the Travel Channel.  She was doing the white water tubing and rappelling tour.  She liked it! 

They do some things with horseback riding to the mud baths too. They have a spa, but it is located offsite. So we did not have a chance to inspect it, but the pictures looked good. 

We found that this hotel was a great mix of comfort and activities at a reasonable price. It will probably be the one I recommend the most to my clients. 

We only had time to fully inspect three hotels. I heard good things about the Buena Vista Lodge as well. I guess we just have to go back!

“Over the top” in Arenal

Costa Rica is known as the land of the reasonably priced boutique hotel.  But sometimes, it is fun to splurge at a top resort, too. “Over the top”, is exactly how I would describe the new “The Springs Resort and Spa” at Arenal. We did not stay here, but we were invited to use the springs one evening. We went back the next day to tour the grounds and see the suites. 

springsThis property is owned and was developed by Lee and Cindy Banks, the owners and creators of the La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Peace Lodge. I first met Lee about ten years ago at the yearly tourism convention. He owned the land that was to become La Paz, and had just installed the first paths and walkways. Here was this young guy in probably the worst location in the exhibition hall. But you could tell he was a very dynamic person, very bright, and full of energy. The videos he had of the waterfalls were very impressive, and you could see that he was on to something. Over the years, we have all seen what La Paz has become. 

Was it possible to improve on La Paz? I would not have thought so. But this is an amazing development. My first impression of the place was that a whole teak forest died to construct the main building. It IS beautiful. I didn’t say anything, but I was a little sad. I perked up when it was pointed out to me that the wood was not teak at all. It was laurel, a local renewable wood. It was just stained to a teak color. The huge planks that supported the stairs, roof, etc. were not wood at all. It was the expertly painted concrete and fiberglass. The color and grain were a perfect match. Seamless. I know that it sounds Disneyish, but they did a great job of it. At least it is sustainable, and keeps the natural feel to the place. 

They were in a “soft opening”. Many of the amenities were still under construction. Men and women currently share the same spa. But eventually one whole floor (14,000 square feet) of the main building will be dedicated to the health club and separate men and women’s spas. There will be a casino too. Not my favorite activity, but there is a market for that kind of thing. There is a formal restaurant, and a more casual one. 

But the Springs were amazing. Twelve pools in all, with more on the way. Yes, this place is open to the public for day trips. But I don’t see it becoming as crowded as the other springs in the area. The pools are split between some modern ones of different temperatures, including one with a swim up bar. There are several more natural appearing pools with waterfalls, in the woods. These were our favorites. 

springsresort3There are several different room classes. From beautiful standard doubles, to full blown villas. All high end, and very well done. This is not a cheap option by any means. Rates start at $375.00 per night in high season, and go all the way up to $1400.00 for two attached villas. 

The admission for a day package at the springs is $40.00 per person. Meals and beverages are extra.  

They are also opening a wild cat exhibit soon, and this will be included in the day package.  There was a shelter that was being closed near San Jose.  These were animals that for one reason or another could not be released in the wild.   There was a fear that the animals were going to be destroyed.  The owners here stepped in, and are putting the finishing touches on an exhibit of these beautiful creatures. 

In short, I think that the day package is definitely worth it. The rooms are worth the price, but not in everyone’s budget. Like the Peace Lodge, these will be great for honeymooners or just as a splurge. But even at this price point, I think they are a good value.