Our Costa Rica Expert, Aaron Daker, recently had the opportunity to speak with Active Travels about his favorite destinations, new hotels, and some of the best months to travel. As he has been designing Costa Rica itineraries since 1997, Aaron is a wealth of information and up-to-date on all the exciting happenings in Costa Rica. We hope you enjoy his Expert insights!
Active Travels: Welcome to The World is Your Oyster episode number 4 with Active Travels.
Today, we have a very special guest, Aaron Daker of Costa Rica Experts who we have been using since day one as our Costa Rica packager are that we do clients and you’ve been amazing. I think we’ve had over a hundred trips probably that go out with Costa Rica Experts and every one of them, people are more impressed than the last, the way they put together the trip based on what they want in activities, lodging, and transfers. So big thank you and thanks for being here.
Aaron: You’re welcome. It’s great to be here with you.
Active Travels: So I guess the best way is just to tell people first about Costa Rica Experts.
Aaron: Well, we’ve been around a long time. We’ve been in business for over 30 years, and during that time we’ve specialized in our one destination, Costa Rica, and it’s been great to be able to be very knowledgeable in what we do and have personal relationships with our suppliers in Costa Rica. So it’s really been great over the years. I’ve been here since 1997! Crazy! I’ve been to Costa Rica close to 100 times – somewhere in there. ISo, ’ve been to all the properties that we recommend to our clients. I’ve met the guides personally and have experienced almost everything so that I’m ready to be able to make the perfect experience for almost everyone.
Active Travels: So how has Costa Rica fared during the pandemic?
Aaron: Well, I mean, since tourism is one of their biggest industries, it has been really tough. People on the ground have suffered a lot because most Americans and people from other countries haven’t been able to travel. So it’s been really tough but thankfully Costa Rica has been open and welcoming tourists since November, and now is the time when they’re starting to rebuild the economy. Tourism has started to pick up again, and they’re so thankful to have us back and have the industry really starting up again.
In the beginning, in November and December, it was pretty slow and we were just kind of getting started, but now it’s pretty much packed to where we were before. Hotels are still operating at a lower capacity. Some of the other services are restricted in terms of the number of people and so forth, but otherwise, it’s been flowing really well. We’ve been really happy with the return of tourism.
Costa Rica was one of the first countries in Latin America to get the vaccine too. So the vaccine is really starting to take off there. You know, covid numbers have been up and down, but now they’re in a down place and have been on the downtrend for a while. So we’re hoping that it will continue on the downtrend and numbers will start to level out as they have here in the US.
Active Travels: I know we’ve had a steady flow of travelers come to Costa Rica through you. One family just got back. They had a great time. I know another family going out in July and I know we’ve had a ton come holiday time. So, how are you keeping travelers safe until everyone is vaccinated?
Aaron: You know, in some ways, Costa Rica as a destination was always made for a moment like this. Everything is outdoors. And most of our experiences are private. People are using private driver services from point to point. So, really distance is a natural thing there. So, it’s kind of made for a situation like this. We’ve been really happy with the job that our suppliers are doing. We obviously have vetted out everyone that we work with, and we’re using the most reliable people, but this is a moment when they’ve really stepped up in terms of health and safety, and caring about every little thing that’s happening with our clients in order to make them as safe as possible.
Like I said, a lot of things are still operating at a reduced capacity, which is sort of one of the benefits of the pandemic. You know you go to one of the restaurants, it’s half full. That sounds great. I’d much prefer that to having to wait in line at a busy restaurant.
They are still wearing masks in vehicles and some indoor settings, which still makes sense at the moment. In the US, we’re not doing that much anymore, but I feel like in tourism (like the plane), that makes sense for now. So, let’s just roll with it and ease back into this a little bit.
I think the biggest thing is the natural outdoor space. Over 25% of the country is national parks. You’re going there for this nature experience, this outdoor experience. So, that is naturally going to be the safest.
Active Travels: Where are your favorite places to go in Costa Rica? I’m just curious.
Aaron: Okay, so that’s a loaded question! My personal favorite I would say is the Osa Peninsula. So, this is the remote, virgin tropical rainforest destination in the Southern Pacific region of Costa Rica. A lot of people don’t know this, but there’s actually multiple destinations around the Osa Peninsula. So a lot of our clients do a trip where they go down to two or three of the properties around the peninsula. When you’re staying in a place like that, it’s much more off the beaten track, much more remote. Your lodge is providing all your guides, meals, services, and everything. Where you stay matters more in a place like that too. To me, that is the ultimate Costa Rica experience because it really is the very best nature experience that you can have.
Have you been to the Osa Peninsula before?
Active Travels: Actually, I’ve never been. I’ve sent many clients there, but I have never been.
Aaron: Well, we’ll change that!
Active Travels: I would like that very much.
Aaron: One of my favorite properties there, Lapa Rios was just purchased by an amazing family in Costa Rica that owns Pacuare Lodge ( another premier ecolodge in Costa Rica). They’ve started a renovation of the property and have new rooms there which are unbelievable. Really spectacular. A few of them actually connect together so they can make a big unit for a family. That’s another thing that didn’t really exist there before. It’s over a 1,000-acre private nature reserve. Sometimes people have the experience of going to Africa and staying in a private reserve, but when you go to Lapa Rios – the nature and wildlife are right there. I remember laying at the pool and five toucans were sitting in a tree right there. You don’t have to even leave the property to get into the experience.
Also, they have a lot of programs that are amazing. They hire mostly local people to work at the property. I’ve always found that to be one of the coolest things. That really falls under sustainability and ecotourism – one of the main features of Costa Rica. A lot of the properties do this where they hire people in the local community. A lot of them don’t even speak English, and they hire them and teach them English, tourism, and everything. To me, that’s also been a really special thing when I go to a place like that: to meet those people, to learn their story about how they came into the industry, and to find out they come right from the local town that’s like twenty minutes away, and also their son works there too and maybe their uncle is the tour guide. It’s really spectacular.
Active Travels: I was wondering if there are any other properties that are new and you’re really excited to turn people onto besides Lapa Rios.
Aaron: There’s nothing new-new because of the pandemic, but let’s back up. What was new last year?
I really love a new property in Monteverde called Senda. It’s part of the Cayuga collection. They manage several amazing properties in Costa Rica. This is really the first – I guess one of the first luxury properties in Monteverde, which is one of the highlight destinations in the country. So in the past, when people wanted to see the highlight places (Arenal Volcano, Monteverde, Manuel Antonio, some of the other destinations) when they got to the Monteverde portion, there would be very limited accommodations there. There was one property that was upscale and then a couple of other ones, but this is really the premier property of the destination. I really think it’s going to make Monteverde more interesting for more people that maybe wouldn’t have gone there before because they want a level of the best food and guides and the whole experience. It was available at one or two places, but they didn’t have a lot of rooms. So a lot of times they were sold out if they had groups or whatever. SO, that’s one that I’m really excited about.
Also, personally, I love birding. I know that’s kind of a nerdy thing and not everyone is into that, but I do find that a lot of people don’t think they’re interested in that at all, but then they go to Costa Rica and start to experience it a little bit and then they’re like, “Wow. This really is spectacular.” The guide gets them excited about it. That’s a really good activity in Monteverde. They’re known for quetzals, which is a really spectacular bird, and you can see them there, and a lot of others too.
Onsite at Senda, they have their own guides that operate the tours. They also have a really beautiful nature reserve right next to the hotel called the Agouti Reserve. So people can go on their own and do hiking around and bird watching and have night tours. And Monteverde as a destination does have a lot of the same activities that you can find in other places like ziplining – the same company that does the ziplining in Arenal. So people can do that there, hanging bridges, a coffee tour. There’s a lot of stuff to do in the area. In the past, I think a lot of people have overlooked it as a destination, but I think now is the time to really start to think about it as a place to recommend to your clients.
There’s a lot of other hotels too. I could go on and on.
The Nayara Tented Camp is a really spectacular property that we’ve been getting a lot of amazing feedback on. That’s the full-on safari-style luxury tented experience in Costa Rica. All the rooms have really big beautiful private pools. It’s a really spectacular property. Nayara is one of the best properties in the country. They have several hotels that are right in the same property area. So you can go from each property to the restaurants on the other ones, which are definitely some of the best in the Arenal area. So, that one is definitely a not-to-miss property. And they have some tents that you can combine together to make a bigger tent for a family as well. So that’s something to keep in mind.
Okay, a few more. Have you heard of Kasiiya?
Active Travels: No
Aaron: So Kasiiya is a small beachfront property in the Guanacaste area of Costa Rica which is the North Pacific region. They’ve been adding a few rooms. Maybe they have six or eight rooms now. They’re also safari-style luxury tents. It’s just a few rooms on this big beautiful property with three private beaches. It’s just a stunning location. They’ve created a very special experience. They include all the meals and they have a team of guides that are on the property that take you out on different activities each day like snorkeling – they have their own boat. The beaches are very beautiful for swimming and snorkeling right in front of the hotel. It actually reminded me of some of the elements of going to a remote destination like the Osa Peninsula, but it’s in Guanacaste which is typically the more touristy area where a lot of the big resorts are. In fact, this property is not too far from the RIU Resort, but you’d never know it because it’s completely private and really spectacular place. I’ve been to a lot of other destinations too, and I feel like this is one of my favorite places I’ve been. It’s really amazing. So that’s something to keep in mind.
Also, the W Resort which is next to the Westin in Reserva Conchal. So for people that want an all-inclusive resort experience, the Westin has always been our favorite. Now, right next door, they’ve built the W Resort. They do have an all-inclusive plan there. That beach is definitely one of the best beaches in Costa Rica, Conchal Beach. I love it. I think it’s really beautiful. It’s very expansive, long, huge – perfect really – beach. And, the W resort there was built a couple of years ago. It’s not too new, but on the newer side of things. For someone that wants a full resort experience, that’s a really good choice. Also, Costa Rica Sky Adventures just built a zipline on the property. I haven’t been there to check it out yet, but I believe you can zipline from the hotel to the beach and then around the property. Does that sound cool? It makes sense because now people that are traveling to that resort can do a zipline experience right there at the property and not have to drive an hour away to where one of the other ziplines are. So, it’s really beneficial for that kind of resort experience. Ha, can I keep talking? Or are we done?
Active Travels: We love all this information! Keep going. I’d love to hear.
Aaron: So, the Caribbean side of Costa Rica has always been very off the beaten path. A lot of people don’t go there, but now it’s starting to have more offerings. There’s a new property there called Aquas Claras. That’s also part of the Cayuga Collection. It’s a beachfront hotel in the Puerto Viejo area, which is on the Southern Caribbean coast. This is a really beautiful property too. On my last visit to Costa Rica, I visited this property. It’s right on the beach, again a beautiful beach. The Caribbean beaches obviously are a different level of beach than the Pacific side, right? The Caribbean beaches have beautiful clear blue water for snorkeling, swimming, and everything. So, they have some private bungalows and full resort facilities. It’s a small upscale resort. They don’t allow young children so that’s something to keep in mind, but a family with older kids or a honeymoon couple would be a great fit for this property. They have really good dining. It’s excellent. I was really happy with it. We’ve been getting really good reviews from our clients we’ve been sending there as well. Again, it’s an off-the-beaten-path property with local flavor. Because you know, the culture is very different on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. It’s an Afro-Caribbean culture with also different food than the rest of the country too. It has a lot to offer. It’s something for the little more adventurous traveler to keep in mind.
It also pairs well with Tortuguero which is on the North Pacific coast, which is similar to the Amazon where you tour through the jungle canals by boat. So that’s a good pairing. You can also pair it with the Pacuare River for rafting. And as I mentioned earlier, Pacuare Lodge is a premier property there. There’s also Tropical Rivers. Either of those two properties could combine with all three of those. That would be like the Caribbean circuit. That would be another great trip for you guys that I could set up for you.
Active Travels: I have another question for you Aaron. When is your favorite time to go to Costa Rica? Can you go year-round? Or are there certain times to avoid?
Aaron: If I were to pick my favorite month in Costa Rica, it would probably be May or June. So that’s just after high season, just before the busy time of the summer starts. So, that’s sort of like a little pocket. You know, even though that’s considered the green season, in general, they get a lot of rain in Costa Rica – say in October- but May June, July August, that’s always been a very good time for travel. You know, you can get some times where you get a little bit more rain, but it’s not really that big a deal. This is a tropical destination. If you get a tropical shower, you move on. Everything’s still happening. The dry season is obviously the most popular time to go. So that would be from Thanksgiving until around Easter time and through the end of April really. That’s the high season. That’s when most people are going to want to go. So there are some pros and cons of both. If it’s cold in the US and you want to go to Costa Rica, and it’s warm there, that’s obviously a benefit, but there’s going to be a lot more people because everyone is traveling at that time – especially Christmas. I, personally, would never want to travel over Christmas because I know it’s the busiest time, but a lot of people can only travel over Christmas because that’s the only time the family can be together. And then, of course, we’ll find a way to make an amazing experience for Christmas in Costa Rica. So, all the way around, there’s always something to make everyone happy. Even in October, the rainiest month of the year, on the Caribbean side where we were just talking about Aguas Claras and Tortuguero, it’s dry on that side of the country at that time. So if someone wants to travel then, we can send them that away.
Active Travels: And this is why we work with you, Aaron. You know Costa Rica inside and out, and your team and your suppliers are all just the best – the best of the best. So thank you so much for spending this time with us today.
Aaron: Oh, one more thing I want to mention. We actually have our own office in Costa Rica that we own and operate. So we have staff there and they’re available for our clients 24/7. So, I think that’s another thing that’s really special about our company because we are able to be in touch with them constantly and they’re really looking after our clients at all times. So you know that there’s that extra layer of care being spent for your clients.
Active Travels: We’ve used that because we had a family come in, and the son from Colorado came in like a day earlier than the rest of the family because their flight was late. So they took care of that situation.
Active Travels: Yes, over the weekend and by text…
Aaron: That’s how it goes. They’re there to handle this stuff because you know with travel stuff goes wrong. I mean it’s always at the last minute. Sometimes it’s in the middle of the night. Who knows. People are coming to us to plan their trip and they’re putting their trust in us to handle the details. Otherwise, they would just do it themselves. They want us to be there to assist them for this reason so they don’t have to think about it. And that’s the beauty of what we do. We handle the details. Our clients go on the trip and they have the best time. And if something goes wrong we’re here to make it better.
Active Travels: Well, we’re grateful to have worked with you all these past years and looking forward to working with you.
Aaron: I’m grateful for you too. It’s been mutual.
Active Travels: And thanks for joining us today, Aaron!
Aaron: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.
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Stretch image feature: Lapa Rios Ecolodge