El Castillo, Costa Rica

We drove from San Jose to the small town of El Castillo near La Fortuna and stayed a few nights. It is definitely a lot easier to visit this area with a rental car. The town of La Fortuna is a good base for doing activities in the area but I am really happy we stayed further out in El Castillo; La Fortuna definitely felt very touristy and more like a little city. Where we stayed was much more comfortable and closer to nature. We stayed at a small hotel and farm called Essence Arenal. For the three of us, the cost came out to about $25USD per person per night. The hotel is part of a working farm so you can tour the land on your own or with someone from the hotel. Also, most of the food that is served at the hotel is from the farm. They offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner at $6USD, $7.50USD, and $12.50USD respectively and all meals are vegetarian. We really enjoyed the views and the hospitality.

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The view of Arenal from our hotel in El Castillo.

There’s also a small restaurant just up the road called Comidas rapidas la pequeña that was more affordable and very delicious; some of the best food we had while in the area. Definitely get the fried chicken and the patacones. We also drove down into the town of El Castillo for lunch one day and ate at Restaurante Amigos and Pizza John’s. At Restaurante Amigos, the food was very delicious, though the portions were small. Pizza John’s was surprisingly good. Three of us ordered two pizza’s and had more than enough to share. The owner makes the dough (and the mojitos!) from scratch every day. It’s a lovely place to sit upstairs and take in the view.

While in the area we, rented kayaks on Lake Arenal. Our hotel arranged it with someone in town and we drove down to one of the two boat launches. We paid $20USD per person for the day and were gone about 3 hours.

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We also hiked Cerro Chato from the El Castillo side. When doing research, some websites and blogs said that this hike to the volcano lake at the top had been closed, but we did not find that to be true. We drove towards the Volcano Arenal Observatory but right before the entrance to the observatory is another parking lot with a sign that says “Hike Cerro Chato.” We asked a lot of questions at the entrance as we had heard this could be the wrong trail, but, in fact, it was the correct trail. It cost about $10USD per person and we were given a map which was not very helpful. We were also told that the hike would take about 2 hours up and 2 hours down but it definitely took us closer to 3 each way. I am definitely a slow hiker and this was by far the most difficult hike I have ever done but it was very invigorating and getting to the lake in the crater was pretty amazing. There are definitely spots on the hike where you are climbing over large rocks. I am only 5’3″ and do not have a lot of upper body strength so this was definitely difficult for me and I would have had a very hard time if I would have been by myself. I would also note that when we hiked Cerro Chato, it was the end of the dry season (early April) and it had not rained in at least four or five days. This definitely made it easier as I cannot imagine being able to complete the hike if it had rained recently as everything would be so slick and muddy.

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Here we are scrabbling down of the many hills on our way up Cerro Chato.

We also drove down to the river that runs just east of El Castillo. This is technically a road crossing when the river is low and we watched a handful of SUVs cross the river, but we were just there to bask in its cold water to help out our sore muscles. We read that there are some free hot springs in one of the rivers nearby but due to sunburn we did not partake.

Overall I really enjoyed our time in El Castillo. It was very relaxing but there are lots of options of things to do nearby including hiking trails that you can do on your own or with a guide. This area was definitely much easier to visit with a rental car. The roads are very bumpy and it would be very strenuous to walk to and from the town of El Castillo from where we stayed, and the public transportation was spotty at best.

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El Castillo, Costa Rica

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

During our stay on Cat Ba, we stayed in two separate hotels. First, we stayed at the Hai Long Hotel. We had a spacious room with a view of the water and breakfast was included. At 600,000VND (for a triple room) per night, it was one of the more expensive places we stayed yet still under budget. This hotel was really nice by Vietnamese standards but it still had some oddities. For instance, our bathroom had a bathtub but no shower curtain, making it essentially still a wet bathroom. Also, the elevators smelled like gasoline and the hot water was heated with coal brought in by the employees through the lobby. Overall, it has a great location in town and was a better option than other hotels we looked at (and better than the other hotel we stayed in).

We spent one night at Le Pont. While the amenities at Le Pont are wonderful (great views, 20% off already affordable food and drinks, and a less congested location but still walking distance to town) the rooms were another story. Kyle and I splurged for the bungalow, which was nice since it had its own bathroom, but the bed was really hard (much like most beds we slept in while in Vietnam). Also we weren’t given any sheets and the pillows had mold growing on them. Because the bungalow is located near reception and a lounge area, light poured into our room throughout the night. For $22USD, we expected more given that our usual room cost about $27USD a night for all three of us.

Rheanna had a similarly bad experience with her private room ($10USD). It was separated from the dormitory by only a slatted wall, which did not block sound at all. She was pretty sure that her bedding had not been changed between her and the previous guest. Also her room was located right behind the bar at Le Pont, which sometimes has music blaring into the wee hours. Le Pont has great reviews online, so if you still want to stay there I would give this advice: in the low season, arrive before booking a room and only stay on the left side of the reception area. There is a ramp up to the bar area on the right and that is where most of the dorm rooms and private rooms are located. The left side was significantly quieter when we were there then the right side. The views from Le Pont are beautiful, so if you are going to stay there, spend some time enjoying it. We had two day tours planned and therefore really didn’t get to enjoy the view.

While on Cat Ba, we took two day tours around Ha Long and Lan Ha Bays. We had saved some money by staying on land at night and going on different tours during the day. Plus, the weather was not amazing while we were there, so the overnight on a boat would not have been clear or warm. We took our first day tour with Asia Outdoors because we’d heard they were the best and worth the extra money. On the tour of Lan Ha Bay, we boated for about an hour, kayaked for 1.5 hours, then had a delicious lunch. After lunch, we boated around for another hour and then kayaked for one hour. Our guide for the day was named Fouk and while he was nice and he answered our direct questions, he was not very forthcoming with the history and make up of the nature surrounding us and provided minimal instruction on how to kayak . He also didn’t have a commanding presence over our group. The tour was fun and I felt safe on the boat, but I expected more out of the tour. At a cost of 495,000VND per person for a double kayak and 600,000VND for a single person (which did not necessarily mean you would get a single kayak if you wanted it), it wasn’t the stellar experience I hoped for. Maybe I have been spoiled by great guided tours in the past (see blog entries for Canada and  Maine).

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The scenery of Lan Ha Bay was stunning.
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One of the many floating villages we passed while out on our boat tours.

The next day, we took another day tour (one that was offered at Le Pont Hotel) which included boating, kayaking, a visit to Monkey Island, and lunch on the boat. For $16USD per person this tour did not include an English speaking guide but the plan for the day was just as unexplained as the day before with Asia Outdoors. We were first dropped off on Monkey Island for one hour with no mention of the fact that the monkeys are somewhat aggressive and will try and take your objects out of your hand. Thankfully, we knew this ahead of time and were prepared to guard our belongings closely. We then boarded the boat again and later kayaked for the first time with the guide for about an hour. The afternoon kayaking session was 40 minutes long and our guide did not join us in the water. Lunch was provided and was just as tasty as the lunch we had with Asia Outdoors. All in all, it was roughly the same tour for a lower price. We were just happy to be out on the water for day.

It did not seem like we could haggle the tour price at Asia Outdoors though we definitely had to discuss the price that we saw on their website versus the price they were quoting us. As for the other tour, we definitely got a discount from Le Pont but found out that others on the tour were able to get it a bit cheaper ($15USD per person instead of $16USD per person). I’m not sure what you can get away with in high season, but we definitely tried to haggle down prices everywhere we went.

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Seeing monkeys up close was fun but also nerve-racking as they had no fear of humans and were very interested in taking the things that belong to us.
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Here we are returning from an hour of kayaking. Back to the junk boat for us to eat some tasty lunch.

The Vietnamese food in Cat Ba wasn’t amazing but if you do a little searching (and get off the main street near the water), the options get better and cheaper. We did eat and drink at a restaurant/bar called the Flightless Bird Bar. The drink prices were good (Vietnamese liquor and soda for 28,00VND) and the pizza was delicious. Just past the Flightless Bird Bar there is a little Vietnamese place with phở, bún, and rice dishes that were really tasty and the prices were great, about 35,000-40,000VND per bowl.

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam