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Signature: Best of Costa Rica and Nicaragua

12 days from £2,422pp

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Signature: Best of Costa Rica and Nicaragua:
Trip Dossier

These two central American neighbours have a lot in common: rugged volcanoes and fertile landscapes, luscious rainforests, Pacific surf and Caribbean palm-flecked sands. Both have friendly, relaxed populations and prolific wildlife.

But there are big differences too: the heritage of Nicaragua’s colonial and revolutionary history is still very much in evidence, while Costa Rica has become one of the world’s top eco-destinations and hub of active adventures. On this holiday we introduce you to the best highlights of both countries.

We’ve put together a range of adventurous yet undemanding experiences which include a tropical river trip and an island stay on Lake Nicaragua, you get to peer down into an active volcanic crater, clamber over a Spanish colonial fortress once besieged by Nelson, and go spotting exotic birds and spider monkeys swinging through trees where iguanas laze. You’ll be staying in independent simple and hospitable lodges and small hotels carefully selected to complement a holiday where you’ll come to know and love the gentle pace of life.

Short itinerary

Holiday itinerary

Day 1

Transfer to your hotel in central San José.

Day 2

Transfer to lodge close to Arenal lake and volcano.

Day 3

The Skytram and Hanging bridges in Arenal Volcano National Park.

Day 4

Optional opportunity to luxuriate in natural hot springs at Ecotermales

Day 5

Visit Caño Negro Wildlife Reserve; boat on Rio San Juan to El Castillo, Nicaragua. Night-time caiman spotting.

Day 6

Jungle nature trail in Indio Maíz reserve; guided discovery of the fortress.

Day 7

Boat to the port of San Carlos; by road to Granada.

Day 8

City tour and boat trip on Lake Nicaragua to las Isletas.

Day 9

Night-time visit to active Masaya volcano’s crater.

Day 10

Transfer to Ometepe Island on Lake Nicaragua.

Day 11

Guided tour of the island’s cultural and natural top sights.

Day 12

Ferry to the mainland and transfer to Managua airport for international flight.

Detailed itinerary

Day 1

Transfer to your hotel in central San José.
 
Bird
You will be met at the airport by our local representative who will take you to your hotel in the centre of San José. Founded in 1737, the capital was built on the profits of exporting coffee, produced from the fertile soils of the surrounding Central Valley. These days little remains of the city’s colonial or indeed agricultural heritage. It does though have some fine museums and restaurants as well as a lively nightlife
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Bird

Day 2

Transfer to lodge close to Arenal lake and volcano.
 
arenal volcano

You’ll be picked up from your hotel and driven by public coach to the Arenal region, a journey of about four hours. The fertile volcanic landscapes are overshadowed by the conical Arenal volcano (1,674m), which used to be very active: nowadays lava flow and volcanic eruptions are infrequent (there’s been nothing since 2010).  

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arenal volcano

Day 3

The Skytram and Hanging bridges in Arenal Volcano National Park.
 
arenal hanging bridges

The Sky Tram, a gondola up to the highest point of the private Arenal reserve, is a fun way to spot wildlife in the tree tops before taking in the views of the surrounding mountain range and rain forest, and of course of Arenal volcano, from the viewing platform at the top. Follow a gentle 3km trail over six hanging bridges and eight fixed bridges, some measuring up to 22m in length and constructed from galvanized steel and aluminium designed to blend with the natural environment.

The bridges are situated at the junction of upland and lowland forest, this blending of ecosystems means that there is a high diversity of both plant and wildlife species (over 700 species of flora and 300 of bird have been recorded here). Expect to be able to observe a range of birds, butterflies and plants (including lianas and giant ferns); snakes, frogs and lizards inhabit the forest here but are harder to spot.

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arenal hanging bridges

Day 4

Optional opportunity to luxuriate in natural hot springs at Ecotermales
 
ecotermales

Optional excursion to Ecotermales hot springs. These waters provide a more off-the-beaten-track experience than their better known and more overcrowded cousins. The farm on which the falls are situated is well back from the road that runs between the lake and the town of La Fortuna. The springs, five free-flowing pools, are set in a natural river gorge vary in temperature from 38ºC to 43ºC depending on the pool. To add to the convivial atmosphere, facilities include a restaurants and small bar serving cocktails and beers.

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ecotermales

Day 5

Visit Caño Negro Wildlife Reserve; boat on Rio San Juan to El Castillo, Nicaragua. Night-time caiman spotting.
 
Monkey

Drive to Caño Negro Wildlife Reserve near the Nicaraguan border. This protected area embraces a lowland forested wetland and was established to be a safe haven for migratory birds. You'll be driven to the small town of Los Chiles to begin your nature cruise. It's an enchanting three hour boat trip up the Río Frío through the reserve to Caño Negro lake, a shallow overflow from the river in the wet season (it's dry in March-April).  En route you'll be looking out for sloths, monkeys, caimans, bats and tropical flora. Finally, settle down to a lunch at a restaurant on the river bank, after which you continue to the border crossing point into Nicaragua.

The rest of today’s adventurous journey is by motor launch on the stately and serene Rio San Juan, which connects Lake Nicaragua with the Caribbean coast. The trip is delightful, the banks sheltering a mix of farmland (cattle, fruit, maize) and pure tropical forest, speckled with egrets and other, more timid riverine creatures. It’s increasingly wild, tightly forested and unpopulated, so it comes as a shock to round a bend in the river and be confronted by a huge stone fortress atop a hill overlooking the little river port El Castillo. The fort was built by the Spanish to protect the affluent city of Granada from attacks by pirates. Your hotel is on the narrow ‘main street’ of the  vehicle-free town.

After nightfall, go searching for caiman under the moonlight, accompanied by a specialist guide. As you glide through the darkness, a journey orchestrated by the nocturnal sounds of the rainforest, the guide’s spotlight will reflect the beady red eye of watchful caiman as they rest in the vegetation along the water's edge. You may be able to get up close to one to see its delicate markings and maybe its razor-sharp teeth. The baby caiman are particularly endearing, and could fit into the palm of your hand (don’t pick one up though!).

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Monkey

Day 6

Jungle nature trail in Indio Maíz reserve; guided discovery of the fortress.
 
el castillo

Just 3km downstream from El Castillo you’ll come to the Indio Maíz Biosphere Reserve. This area of rainforest is bursting with wildlife, including huge scarlet macaws and big cats (jaguar and puma lurk here but sorry, you won’t see any of those). But on your guided walk around the small part of the reserve open to visitors you might spy a tapir, a manatee, a Harpy eagle and American crocodiles..

The trail is two kilometres long and you may take over two hours to follow it. Wildlife used to be hard to observe in the thick woodland but since a hurricane thinned out the trees it’s easier to identify a profusion of exotic birds and frogs while enjoying the company of watchful lizards and lithe spider monkeys swinging from branch to branch.

Later, it’s the human history rather than the natural world history which comes under the spotlight as you are taken on a tour of the formidable fortress, constructed in the 17th century to defend Granada from European pirates. Its location above the town-on-stilts which carries its name is above foaming rapids which would have impeded progress by river of any intruders. The guide and a series of placards will narrate its extraordinary history, which included an assault by a youthful naval officer named Horatio Nelson. It’s very evocative: you may well be the only visitors, able to imagine how the guards felt as they surveyed the forest below for unwelcome visitors. Those views from the top over uninterrupted rainforest are as impressive as the monumental stone walls and rusted cannons themselves.

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el castillo

Day 7

Boat to the port of San Carlos; by road to Granada.
 
Rio San Juan

By boat back to the rickety port San Carlos on Lake |Nicaragua and on by road to Granada on the shores of Lake Nicaragua. Founded in 1524, Granada is the oldest city in the New World and lies at the foot of Mombacho volcano. At its height it became very prosperous on the back of the gold trade. The city was regularly plundered by pirates and completely razed by American mercenary William Walker at the beginning of the 19th century.

However, Granada has since been wonderfully restored and its colourful colonial houses and cobbled streets which run down to the banks of Lake Nicaragua are a delight. Visitors are carried about in horse and carriages reminiscent of its glory days, but the city is now able also to offer some excellent contemporary restaurants, bars and artisan shops within its gracefully arched colonnades. 

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Rio San Juan

Day 8

City tour and boat trip on Lake Nicaragua to las Isletas.
 
Granada Nicaragua

On your guided walking tour to explore the city with its baroque churches, narrow streets, markets, colonial mansions and convents you will be told about the city’s eventful history. The historic core is so compact that you can experience much of it on foot with many of the most interesting places within the vicinity of the main square.

 Later, you’ll head off for a boat ride on Lake Nicaragua. The vast lake, more like an inland sea, with surf-tipped waves and reflecting fiery sunsets, is the largest body of freshwater in the Americas after the Great Lakes. The gentle cruise takes you around some of the myriad of forested islets formed by eruptions of the looming bulk of the waterside Mombacho volcano, many of which now host the private villas of Nicaragua’s wealthy classes.

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Granada Nicaragua

Day 9

Night-time visit to active Masaya volcano’s crater.
 
Masaya Volcano

Relax in delightful Granada during the day, for at sunset you will head off on a private adventure to Masaya volcano set within Nicaragua's first national park. It's an easy drive up to the rim of the volcano's crater with views into the steaming, sizzling orifice itself, where the boiling, incandescent magma (it's on its way down, by the way, so there is no danger of an eruption) is an impressive sight. You should be able to observe the bright green parakeets approaching the volcano to roost. You may also watch a cloud of fluttering bats departing from their caves, another extraordinary natural spectacle.

There follows a visit to an underground tunnel which was formed by lava streams. Equipped with flashlight and helmet, you enter the tunnel to observe the contorted rock formations. The exhilarating experience ends with a visit to a viewpoint where you can spend a few minutes looking down at the red and glowing lava in the fiery depths of the crater mouth. 

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Masaya Volcano

Day 10

Transfer to Ometepe Island on Lake Nicaragua.
 
Ometepe

You’ll be driven to San Jorge port, a jumble of rickety buildings also sprawling on the shores of Lake Nicaragua. The road takes an inland route through farmed fields and countryside, and half the distance covered is on the fast Pan-American Highway. From there embark a car and passenger ferry to Ometepe Island, dominated by its twin volcanoes.

Ometepe is a serene and as yet undeveloped island. Even in comparison with the rest of Nicaragua, the infrastructure is basic with rough (but gradually improving) roads and simple accommodation. Much of the surface is still covered in primary rainforest home to many different species of monkeys and parrots. The island is also peppered with citrus, banana, watermelon, avocado and cacao plantations - thanks to the island's fertile volcanic soil. It has a long history of human occupation though and there are collections of pre-Columbian stone statues and petroglyphs, carved by the Chorotega indians centuries ago.

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Ometepe

Day 11

Guided tour of the island’s cultural and natural top sights.
 
ometepe ferry

Ometepe Island, where the people have been spared many of the political upheavals which have afflicted the country, has a human presence stretching back thousands of years. Your full day guided tour will take you first to the nature reserve at Charco Verde. Palm trees and densely-packed, fruit-bearing tropical vegetation define the lake shore, which is indented with small volcanic beaches. The reserve is enlivened by the presence of over 200 howler monkeys, and the calls of migratory and indigenous birds. There's a calm lagoon covered in mangroves and fallen trees, creating a fairy-tale atmosphere - the area is famous for its mythology.

Move on to the Pre-Columbian Museum  El Ceibo, where there are archaeological displays of ancient artefacts found on the island including a number of intricate carvings of animals and people. Continue to the village of Altagracia to view the pre-Columbian statues in the courtyard of the oldest church on the island. After lunch you will drive to an organic coffee farm to learn about the entire process of coffee production. Finally, stop off at Ojo de Agua, a forest-fringed natural swimming pool with a café for a refreshing swim in the crystal clear waters. 

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ometepe ferry

Day 12

Ferry to the mainland and transfer to Managua airport for international flight.
 
Managua
Return to San Jorge on the ferry and drive on to Managua airport for your international flight.
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Managua

Essential information

Transport

5 journeys by road, or road and boat. 

Accommodation

This trip uses modest independent mid-range accommodation in convenient and often delightful locations.

Meals

Breakfast daily, lunch days 3, 4, 11; dinner day 5, full board day 6.

Guides

We carefully select our local partners, some of whom we have worked with for over 30 years. Their English-speaking guides understand the expectations of our clients very well, and are consistently singled out for praise by the latter on their return.

Included excursions

  • Arenal: Sky Tram and hanging bridges.
  • Caño Negro Wildlife Reserve.
  • Rio San Juan: Nature trail in Indo Maiz rainforest reserve. 
  • Granada: Guided city tour and las Isletas boat trip.
  • Granada: Night-time visit to Masaya volcano crater. 
  • Ometepe Island: Guided cultural and landscapes tour.

Summary of nights

12 days, 11 nights: San José 1; Arenal 3; Rio San Juan 2; Granada 3; Ometepe 2.

Included in the journey price

• Services of our team of experts in our London office.
• Services of Journey Latin America local representatives and guides.
• All road and boat transport within Central America.
• Accommodation as specified.
• Meals as specified.
• Excursions as specified, including entrance fees.

Not included in the journey price

• Tips and gratuities.
• International flights from the UK.
• Meals other than specified.
• Airport taxes, when not included in the ticket.
• Optional excursions

Currency

The unit of currency in Costa Rica is the colón. In Nicaragua it is the córdoba.

Daily spend

It is very difficult to give a guideline for essential expenses but a budget of around US$40 per day should cover the cost of meals not included in the holiday price, drinks and the odd souvenir. Eat at the best restaurants and you will pay considerably more.

How to take it

Cash machines are available in San José and Granada: taking a debit or credit card with a PIN number is the most convenient way of withdrawing money while on your trip and in many shops and restaurants you can also pay by card. However, since cards can get lost, damaged, withheld or blocked, you should not rely exclusively on a card to access funds.

We recommend that additionally you take a reasonable quantity of US dollars cash (no more than is covered by your insurance), which you can exchange into local currency in San José and Granada at the beginning of your trip. Dollar bills should be in good condition, soiled or torn bills may be refused. You can exchange sterling but the rate may be unfavourable and there are fewer outlets providing this service. US dollars are accepted as payment in many places.

Tipping

Tips are welcomed and local guides often rely on their tip as a significant proportion of their income. We recommend approximately $10 per person for a half day and $20 for a full day for guides and half that for drivers.

Most service industry workers will expect a tip of some kind and so it is useful to have spare change for hotel porters, taxi drivers and the like. It is common to leave 10 - 12% in restaurants.

Insurance

Travel insurance is essential. Details of our recommended policy can be foundon our Travel Insurance page.

Airport taxes

If you have purchased your flights through Journey Latin America, the international departure tax is usually included in the ticket.

Journey grade

This holiday should be suitable for adventurous travellers of all ages. If you have a disability please contact us. 

Climate

This itinerary takes you to tropical climes where the sun is strong and temperatures high – often over 30°C. Those travelling between May and October journeys should encounter higher temperatures (around 35°C) and high humidity. It is a bit cooler at higher altitudes. The ‘official’ rainy season is May to October. 

Clothing and special equipment

Bring plenty of light breathable clothing, comfortable walking shoes or boots. and a waterproof jacket. We suggest that you plan to ‘layer’ your clothing; it is more efficient and flexible to put on a couple of light layers than one thick jumper, and sensible to have long sleeves for areas where mosquitos may be lurking. Sandals are a good informal option for evenings. Protection against the sun (sunblock, sun hat) and mosquito repellent are essential and you should bring swimwear. A daypack is useful for carrying around sunblock, guidebook, water and any extra layers.

Please get in touch with the office before departure if you have any doubts.

Vaccinations

Preventative vaccinations are recommended against the following; typhoid; polio; tetanus; hepatitis A. For specific requirements you must consult your GP.

You can also find helpful information on the Masta Travel Health website.

Visas

Holders of a full British passport do not require a visa, although passports must be valid for at least 6 months after the trip begins.   Holders of a full British passport do not require a visa, although passports must be valid for at least 6 months after the trip begins. 

APIS and ESTA - important flight information:

ESTA - if flying to the US, or via the US, you will need to fill in an application to ESTA online.
This costs $14 per person, and must be applied for by you personally.
Passports must also be e-passports with embedded digital chip. Avoid locking suitcases if transiting the USA, as their customs authorities retain the right to break into them.

APIS - Many countries now oblige airlines to provide additional information about passengers prior to the flight departure. This Advance Passenger Information (APIS) must be supplied to us promptly in order to issue tickets and avoid fare increases. We will provide the airlines with the relevant details if we are booking your international flights. If the information is not provided you may be denied boarding.

Clients with a different nationality should refer to our Briefing Dossier and check with the Costa Rican and Nicaraguan Consulates.

Water-To-Go

We’ve partnered with Water To Go to offer Journey Latin America clients a 50% discount on 7cl filtered, reusable water bottles with every booking. The bottle can be refilled at any water outlet and has a filter that eliminates 99.9% of bacteria and viruses, allowing the water to be safe to drink.
Contact your Travel Consultant for more information and to include the purchase in your booking.
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