Costa Rica Specialist on Tour

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They came—from all over the U.S. They saw—some of the greatest outdoors in our hemisphere. They conquered—the primeval forest canopy on foot, on horseback, by zipline.

And who are “they”? We are talking about the 10 travel agents, now certified Costa Rica Destination Specialists, who successfully completed Costa Rica Tourist Board’s Specialist Program Part I and Part II (available at achieved a total of six CEU points from The Travel Institute; and then won the lucky draw from among hundreds of now qualified specialists, for a familiarization trip reward.

Briefly summarized, the FAM itinerary included an overnight coming and going in San Jose, hosted by the Ramada Plaza Herradura; an overland drive to the Dominical coast, with three nights at the Hotel Cristal Ballena; an overland drive to Manuel Antonio National Park and a 2-night stay hilltop at the Parador Resort & Spa; the return to San Jose, stopping for lunch and a visit to the Poas Volcano en-route.

There was unanimous group consensus that first, this was a well-planned, wonderfully guided and balanced itinerary embracing rainforest and cloud forest scenery, exuberant flora and fauna, some great soft adventures, excellent hotels and inns in which to stay and others to visit, and excellent hospitality from Costa Rican hosts. A special kudos went to Sarah Garrido of Burson-Marsteller, Costa Rica’s public relations representatives in the U.S., who accompanied the group.

Next in the report: while the group enjoyed the boat trip off the Dominical coast to see the whales and dolphins—two agents said it didn’t , of course, compare to Alaska—everyone’s favorite activity was the excursion to Don Lulo’s Nauyaca Waterfalls, magnificent chutes that plunge down some 200 ft. into deep pools that are ideal for swimming. Of course, you have to first get here…along a rugged path on foot and by horseback. These activities are all part of the attractions Don Lulo has added to his cattle ranch, where visitors are also welcomed to his well-maintained mini-zoo (with macaws, toucans and tepezcuintles) and to enjoy a specially prepared lunch—roasted chicken on the menu, reported tour member Lizbeth Coughlin, of Four Seasons Travel in Wilmington, NC. “We just had a great time,” she adds, “for it was an experience seemed to us all genuinely hospitable and totally Costa Rican.”

“We travel agents did everything,” Christopher Rieder, of AAA Travel in La Mesa, CA, reports. “Those who didn’t ride, got up on the horses, and those who are afraid of heights—me—got up on the first platform of a most professional zipline operation outside Manuel Antonio National Park, swung out on the first leg of the treetops journey, and we there we were—zipping through the canopy. Well, there’s no turning back, there’s the thrill of going forward, and at the end, you’ve been there, done that, and you feel great.”

Rieder, who had been once before to Costa Rica—staying in San Jose and Tamarindo Beach on the Pacific—says this trip felt more like the Costa Rica he was looking for. “I feel even more comfortable now in saying to clients. It’s important to try new activities when they are so easily accessible, to just plain explore a bit, meet the people in a country that’s hospitable and safe. Let’s choose the places you’d like to be—say San Jose, Arenal, Monteverde and somewhere on the Pacific Coast. I will reserve the hotels we agree on and arrange transfers between different parts of the country by private car or often comfortable mini-buses. We can pre-book some excursions, but it’s important for you to have quality time for your own discoveries.”

Agent tour members were particularly impressed with two of the hotels they visited around Manuel Antonio National Park. “Our best meal ever was at the Arenas del Mar Beach & Nature Resort,” Coughlin says, “and our visit also included a tour of this deluxe, eco-friendly, 38-suite hotel that opened last year; I think this would be a great place for families.” Perched on a forested hillside with unbeatable views of two beaches (and with direct beach access), Arenas del Mar followed in construction and operations the guidelines laid out by the Costa Rica Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST)—from solar panel water heating and recycling programs to support for reforestation, protection of the squirrel monkeys and participation in local school activities.