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Signature Costa Rica and Panama: The Caribbean route

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This sunlit holiday combines natural riches with one of the greatest feats of human engineering, the Panama Canal. Relax in soothing hot springs in the shadow of the picture-perfect Arenal volcano then visit the Caribbean jungle waterways and mangrove forests of the wildlife-rich Tortuguero reserve.  Cross into Panama to spend time on Bocas del Toro, white-sand islands off its Caribbean coast, and in the lush forests of the rugged interior at Boquete. After this, travel to Panama City to sail through the Panama Canal.

Costa Rica has an extraordinary diversity of flora and fauna and its people are extremely welcoming. The comprehensive network of national parks with their extensive trails is always very accessible.  In line with its love and respect for the great outdoors, Costa Rica also has been at the vanguard of adventure tourism, with activities on offer from zip-lining to white-water rafting.

Panama has a different rhythm, and is a real melting pot of cultures as a result of being at the crossroads of oceans. The Panama Canal, one of the world’s most crucial transport corridors, is a stunning piece of engineering.  You will pass through some of the locks on a launch and explore the historic capital, with its history of pirates and naval battles. 

Holiday itinerary

Day 1

Arrive in San José and transfer to your hotel.

Day 2

Transfer to Arenal volcano area.

Day 3

Excursion to Ecotermales hot springs.

Day 4

Transfer to Sarapiqui via Tirimbina and the hanging bridges.

Day 5

Transfer to Guapiles and Tortuguero

Day 6

Explore Tortuguero National Park.

Day 7

Transfer by road and water to Bocas del Toro.

Days 8,9

At leisure at Bocas del Toro.

Day 10

Transfer to Boquete via Oreba Chocolate Farm.

Day 11

Coffee finca excursion.

Day 12

Transfer to Panama City.

Day 13

Panama Canal partial transit.

Day 14

Transfer to the airport for your international flight.

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Places visited on this holiday

Signature Costa Rica and Panama: The Caribbean route

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San Jose, central highlands and central valleys
Central San José
Costa Rica’s busy capital, San José, is a city on the move, where the choking traffic and crowds are mitigated by the eager friendliness of the people. There are some good museums and excellent restaurants but no colonial core: it’s a modern place, full of offices, North American style bars and malls - many US citizens visit or are resident in the country and their cultural influence is strong. The landscapes around however are delicious, both in the rolling coffee country of the highlands and in the fertile central valley, watched over by the smouldering Poás and Irazú volcanoes.
When's the best time to go to San Jose and central highlands?

If good weather is your priority, choose the dry season Dec - Apr when there is plenty of sun. The green (i.e. rainy) season is quieter in terms of number of visitors. San José, at 1,150m, has a pleasant climate with temperatures averaging 15-25°C.

What's the official language of San Jose and central highlands?

Spanish.

How do I get local currency in San Jose and central highlands?

Colón. Notes can be withdrawn from the many ATMs using a UK credit or debit card. You may have to authorise your bank first, and withdrawals may be limited to amounts lower than in the UK. US dollars cash can be exchanged in banks too.

What's the time difference between San Jose and central highlands?

GMT -5 hours.

What places combine well with San Jose and central highlands?

A visit to the Caribbean or Pacific coasts for a beach wind down; Arenal, in the north, the most spectacular volcano; Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, for excellent bird watching. There are light aircraft flights from San José airport to many destinations. Costa Rica is a tiny country so road journeys, even winding ones through the highlands, are relatively short. Some roads are in good condition while others are poor and  require 4WD vehicles

How do I get to San Jose and central highlands?

There is a direct flight from London Gatwick to San José (11 hrs) as well as non-direct flights via US and European hubs.

What are the cultural events in San Jose and central highlands?
International Arts Festival: San José, Mar. Music, dance, film art exhibitions.
Independence Day: San José, 15 Sep. music and dancing in the streets starting the evening before.
El Tope: San José, 26 Dec. A horse parade through the city is followed by fairs, fireworks and bull-running south of the city.

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Arenal and the north
Arenal Volcano
The pleasingly conical volcano Arenal rises from a skirt of thick forest and the waters of Lake Arenal. Once famous for its eruptions of molten lava, it erupts infrequently nowadays (nothing since 2010) The landscape here is ruggedly beautiful and comprises one of Costa Rica’s many conservation areas, protecting a territory of amazing biodiversity which contains half the known species of birds, mammals and reptiles in the country. It is also popular among adventure-activities enthusiasts, and visits are serviced in the formerly dozy town of La Fortuna. Cloud forest, waterfalls, caves and thermal pools – this is a diverse and captivating region.
When's the best time to visit Arenal?

If good weather is your priority, choose the dry season Dec - Apr when there is plenty of sun. The green (i.e. rainy) season is quieter in terms of number of visitors. La Fortuna, at 1,150m, has a pleasant climate with temperatures averaging 15-25°C.

What's the official language of Arenal?

Spanish.

How do I get local currency in Arenal?

Colón. Notes can be withdrawn from ATMs in La Fortuna using a UK credit or debit card. You may have to authorise your bank first, and withdrawals may be limited to amounts lower than in the UK. US dollars cash can be exchanged in banks too. If you are not going to the town of La Fortuna, bring your cash with you from San José.

What's the time difference between Arenal and UK?

GMT -5 hours.  

What places combine with Arenal?

A beach wind-down at Manuel Antonio on the Pacific coast, or Nosara on the Nicoya Peninsula: each 5hrs by road; Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, for excellent bird watching, 3 hours by boat and bumpy road. Costa Rica is a tiny country so road journeys, even winding ones through the highlands, are relatively short. Some roads are in good condition while others require 4WD vehicles.

How do I get to Arenal?

Fly by light aircraft from San José or travel by road from the capital, 3.5 hours.

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Caribbean coast
Costa Rica Caribbean Coast
Eastwards from San José and the coffee-growing highlands sprawl the banana plantations of the sultry coastal plains fronting the Caribbean Sea. Long isolated from the rest of the Latin-influenced country, this region has a predominately English-speaking, Afro-Caribbean culture: a very informal, relaxed atmosphere pervades. Here there are exquisite volcanic beaches at Cahuita and Puerto Viejo. 

Accessible only by boat is the partly submerged Tortuguero National Park, with its network of canals, lagoons and swamps defined by a profusion of tangled tropical vegetation. It’s alive with several species of monkey, iguanas, sloths, river otters, poison dart frogs and hundreds of species of birds.

When's the best time to visit Costa Rica's Caribbean coast?

It’s hot all year round (often over 30°C). It rains here on and off all year round, with drier periods in Feb - Mar and Aug - Oct. Turtle watching season at Tortuguero is Mar - Oct. 

What's the official language of Costa Rica's Caribbean coast?

Spanish, English.

How do I get local currency in Costa Rica's Caribbean coast?
Colón. Notes can be withdrawn from ATMs using a UK credit or debit card. You may have to authorise your bank first, and withdrawals may be limited to amounts lower than in the UK. US dollars cash can be exchanged in banks too. There are ATMs in Limón but not elsewhere along the coast.
What's the time difference between Costa Rica's Caribbean coast and UK?

GMT -5 hours.

What places combine well with Costa Rica's Caribbean coast?
Arenal, in the north, the most spectacular volcano; Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, for excellent bird-watching. Costa Rica is a tiny country so road journeys, even winding ones through the highlands, are relatively short. Some roads are in good condition while others require 4WD vehicles. 
How do I get to Costa Rica's Caribbean coast?

There are light aircraft flights to Tortuguero from San José. Otherwise travel is by road (and boat to Tortuguero); and along Highway 32 to Limón on the Caribbean coast, 115 km. 

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Bocas del Toro and The Caribbean
Bocas Del Toro

From the desolate beaches that pepper the coast near the Costa Rican border to the impenetrably wild forests on the fringes of the Darien Gap, the majority of Panama’s Caribbean coast has remained unspoiled since well before Captain Morgan arrived to plunder Portobello in 1668.Vestiges of this period are evident in the now tranquil fortresses that look out majestically over the stunning bay of Portobello.

Far removed from the glittering sophistication of Panama City is the Caribbean archipelago of Bocas del Toro, near the border with Costa Rica. Long isolated from the rest of the country the forested coral islands and adjoining mangrove-stifled mainland it still has a remote, pristine ambience. Banana plantations brought the region into the embrace of the country’s economy and now developers have their eye on the virgin real estate for future condominiums. However, much of the province is protected: the Bastimentos Marine Park is an important conservation area offering superb diving and snorkelling. With a laid back Afro-Caribbean culture alongside friendly indigenous villages, it’s a lovely place to relax.

A short distance off the Caribbean Coast lies The San Blas Archipelago, which is described in more detail on the San Blas Islands page.

 


When to go

Situated within the tropics, Bocas del Toro has a balmy climate with high temperatures (over 30°C) all year round. Although there is plenty of sun, the province receives copious rainfall throughout the year; the drier months tend to be Feb-Mar and Sep-Oct. The region lies outside the main hurricane belt.

Language

Spanish, English and native tongues.

Getting local currency

Balboa. The national currency is at parity with the US dollar, and only US banknotes are used. (There are some local coins equivalent to US cents). There’s an ATM in Bocas del Toro town where you can use a UK credit or debit card. You may have ask your bank to authorise withdrawals before you leave the UK, and amounts may be limited. You are best advised to acquire dollar bills before travelling to the province. Panamanians are sometimes reluctant to accept US dollar notes of higher denominations.

Time difference

GMT -5 hrs.

Combines with

The Chiriquí highland region of temperate cloud forest (70km by road), with mountain villages and prolific wildlife, is ideal for hiking: quetzals and jaguars may be spotted in La Amistad International Park; a few days at a rural retreat in Boquete (3hr scenic drive) with a visit to a coffee finca.

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Boquete and the Chiriquí Highlands
Coffee Plantation in Boquete Panama

Inland from David on the sultry coast, the highlands of Chiriquí province provide a welcome relief from the humidity. The cool mountain air, rugged mist-shrouded hills, Alpine forests and boulder-strewn rivers come together to create a delightful landscape, while the fertile volcanic soils produce an abundance of coffee and citrus fruits. Visitors flock to the attractive town of Boquete, a centre for outdoor adventures. The volcano Barú (3,475m) looms above the town and River Caldera runs through a steep gorge, while the La Amistad National Park straddles the border with Costa Rica with hiking trails, bathing pools and waterfalls.

When to go

Temperatures in the highlands (1,000m) are uniformly high at 25°C all year round but at altitude the air is much fresher than on the coast. The rainy season is Apr-Nov while Jan-Mar is fairly dry. The region lies outside the main hurricane belt.

Language

Spanish.

Getting local currency

Balboa. The national currency is at parity with the US dollar, and only US banknotes are used. (There are some local coins equivalent to US cents). There are  ATMs in main towns and cities (including one in Boquete) where you can use a UK credit or debit card. You may have ask your bank to authorise withdrawals before you leave the  UK and amounts may be limited. You are best advised to acquire dollar bills before travelling to the province. Panamanians are sometimes reluctant to accept US dollar notes of higher denominations.

Time difference

GMT -5 hrs.

Combines with

A beach wind-down on the Caribbean Bocas del Toro archipelago, with 6 large tropical forested islands and scores of smaller ones. The islands have pristine beaches, coral reefs, and excellent snorkelling and diving.

Getting there

It’s a 1 hour flight from Panama City to David, from where it is a 1 hour drive up to Boquete (38 km) on a paved road.

Key Events
Feria de las Flores y del Café: Boquete, Jan. A festival to celebrate flowers and coffee takes place over a two week period starting the second week of the month, during the coffee harvest. It attracts vendors and visitors from well beyond the region.
Independence from Spain Day, Boquete, 28 Nov. A day-long parade of marching bands from all over the country.

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Panama City
Panama City

Panama City is more cosmopolitan than Latin, and enjoys a strategic position which has led to an eventful history, with immigrants arriving from all over the world. On the Pacific coast Panama la Vieja, the first Spanish colonial site of the city and a conduit for plundered gold and oriental silks and spices was sacked by pirates and abandoned. The city moved to what is now known as Casco Viejo where vestiges of colonial streets and buildings have been restored, cocktail bars and trendy restaurants have opened and a lively cultural hub has been established. The sky-scraper filled modern city, hub of commerce and international trade linked to the Panama Canal is an energetic quarter buzzing with shopping malls, sophisticated restaurants and entertainment. Away from the bustle along the Pacific coast, you’ll find relaxed resort hotels with a multitude of activities.

When to go

Situated well within the tropics, Panama City has a typical tropical climate with high temperatures (over 30°C) all year round. May-Nov is rainy season. The city lies outside the main hurricane belt.

Language

Spanish

Getting local currency

Balboa. The national currency is at parity with the US dollar, and only US banknotes are used. (There are some local coins equivalent to US cents). There are a few ATMs in the city where you can use a UK credit or debit card. You may have ask your bank to authorise withdrawals before you leave the UK, amounts may be limited, and vary from bank to bank. Notes can be obtained from exchange houses and also from banks which will supply advances on a debit or credit card. Panamanians are sometimes reluctant to accept US dollar notes of higher denominations. 

Time difference

GMT -5 hrs.

Combines with

 A couple of days staying in Soberanía National Park, where residents include a large variety of mammals, amphibians and reptiles, as well as a profusion of bird species.

Getting there

There are flights via US and European hubs, the journey from London takes around taking around 13 hours.

Key events
Carnival, Feb-Mar. is celebrated with much gusto in Panama City: costumed revelry, music and dancing culminate in a big Shrove Tuesday parade.
Semana Santa, Easter. Celebrated with religious processions. 
Independence Day, 4 Nov. A huge parade through the old city. 

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Panama Canal and Soberania National Park
Panama Canal

Panama is a fascinating country but the main draw for visitors is undoubtedly the 77 km Panama Canal linking the Pacific with the Caribbean. This colossal project was completed in 1914 and since then has transformed shipping routes world-wide. In addition to being crucial to international trade it is now a worthwhile tourist attraction. Soberanía National Park fringes the eastern banks of the immense artificial Lake Gatún alongside the canal and is blanketed with a dripping rainforest which explodes with vivacious wildlife, especially tropical birds. The Canal Zone also hosts hiking trails and a railway – the trails were built to transport looted gold - between Panama City and Colón on the Caribbean on mules; the railway was built to aid construction of the canal.

When to go

Panama’s Canal Zone and the rainforest have a typical tropical climate with high temperatures (over 30°C) all year round. May-Nov is rainy season and the flowering months are Apr-May. The region lies outside the main hurricane belt.

Language

Spanish

Getting local currency

Balboa. The national currency is at parity with the US dollar, and only US banknotes are used. (There are some local coins equivalent to US cents). There are a few ATMs in Panama City where you can use a UK credit or debit card. You may have ask your bank to authorise withdrawals before you leave the UK, amounts may be limited, and vary from bank to bank. Notes can be obtained from exchange houses and also from banks which will supply advances on a debit or credit card. Panamanians are sometimes reluctant to accept US dollar notes of higher denominations.

Time difference

GMT -5 hrs.

Combines with

A few days in multi-cultured Panama City, with its history of plundered gold, pirates, and international trade;  Portobelo, east of the Canal at the Caribbean end, a town built on a beautiful bay which much impressed Christopher Columbus who landed there. Its history of pirates and pillage is manifested in its ruined forts and the sunken galleons in the bay, a popular spot for divers.

Getting there

The southern, Pacific end of the Panama Canal is 15 km (20 mins by road) west of Panama City. Soberanía National Park is 28 km from the capital, a drive of 30 mins.

Speak to an expert Travel Consultant or send us your enquiry today.

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