The last time we visited Puntarenas in 2014, all we did was walk off the ship to the nearby beach and do a little souvenir shopping. So, when we learned that we would be returning on our 2017 Azamara Quest sailing, we decided to explore further. Rather than book one of the "canned" group excursions with the cruise line, we opted for a private tour with Arenas Travel, a locally owned and operated tour company. Arenas has over 25 years experience in providing group and individual tours of the area. More importantly for cruise guests, they are very aware of cruise ship arrival and departure schedules.
We arranged for Arenas Travel's "7-IN-1 Puntarenas" tour through their website a few weeks prior to our sailing. We received good communications via email from Valerie, the Sales Manager. We were instructed to meet the Arenas representative pierside at 8:00am. We disembarked Quest at 8:00 am and Geovanna, our Arenas guide for the day, was waiting for us at the bottom of the gangway holding a sign with my name on it.
After introducing herself and welcoming us to Puntarenas, Geovanna led us down the long pier to where a new Toyota van was waiting for us. We were introduced to Alex, our driver for the day, and off we went. Our first stop was Esparza, purported to be the oldest town in Costa Rica, where we toured a unique Catholic church.
From Esparza, we drove to the Tarcoles River where we boarded a small open tour boat to hunt for crocodiles and other wildlife along the river.
The river boat tour was quite a contrast to a ship's tour we took the day before where we visited the Tarcoles River by standing on a busy highway bridge and looking down at some crocodiles. Today, we got 'up-close and personal' with one of the biggest crocs on the river. His name is Tornado, and he's more than 15 feet long and weighs in at 1000 lbs. The Captain pulled the boat up right next to him. Tornado seemed uninterested in our arrival.
This croc was huge! If he had wanted to, I am pretty sure he could eat any one of us in the boat in about two bites. Our guide walked to the back of the boat, reached into the water and grabbed Tornado's tail. Was he crazy? He lifted the tail out of the water and asked if anyone wanted to touch it. Of course, Rickee could not resist the temptation. I would have, just to prove my masculinity, but I was too busy shooting video and taking pictures. Seriously, are you kidding? There's no way I was going to touch that thing!
While everyone else was at the back of the boat, tormenting the crocodile, I was at the front of the boat taking pictures, just a couple of feet from Tornado's massive head. In other words, at death's door. Fortunately, Tornado did not see me as lunch and finally disappeared under the water and swam away.
After my brave, death-defying photo session with Tornado, the boat continued down the river where we saw a lot of other wildlife. We saw tons of interesting birds, iguana, lizards.
After our one hour tour, it is becoming more obvious that Costa Rica is a birder's paradise, with more than 900 different species. If you love wildlife, Costa Rica is a great destination. After our river tour, Alex and Geovanna drove us to an incredible hotel on top of a mountain. Villa Caletas has to be one of the most magical places we have ever visited.
The property is perched on the top of a mountain overlooking the ocean and other mountains. It was breathtaking. We were seated on the terrace at a table for two and served a beautiful Costa Rican meal. We were offered our choice of chicken or fish, and we both chose chicken. It was a meal and a place we will not soon forget. And, should we have the opportunity to return to Costa Rica, a stay at Villa Caletas will be on our itinerary.
One of the best features of a private tour is a flexible schedule, something that is just not possible when you are on a ship's excursion on a bus with 50 other people. A perfect example of a private tour's flexibility was evident as we were leaving Villa Caletas after our lunch. Alex (our driver) spotted a Toucan in a tree, so he stopped the van and the four of us got out to take a closer look and get some photos. Try doing that on a bus with 50 other people!
After admiring the Toucan, we drove to a local shop where we had the opportunity to shop for souvenirs. It was one of the largest and nicest souvenir shops we have ever visited. Afterwards, we drove a few minutes down the road to a fruit stand where we enjoyed a sample of locally-grown fruits. We also learned a technique for selecting a good pineapple. We mentioned to Geovanna how much we loved the mango, and soon, the proprietor brought us a plate of sliced mango to take with us!
Our next stop: monkeys! Just a few more miles down the highway, we turn onto a somewhat hidden unmarked gravel road to what could best be described as a clearing in the forest with a small structure/building. As soon as the van comes to a stop, Geovanna and Alex start blowing loud whistles. We have no idea what is going on. We don't see a monkey anywhere, other than a stuffed toy monkey hanging from a tree in the yard. Geovanna exits the van and walks toward the trees clapping her hands, blowing the whistle and loudly yelling, in Spanish, what translates to "Monkey come, Monkeys come!" Suddenly, there is a rustling in the surrounding trees and dozens of Capuchin monkeys are running all over the place, hanging from branches, chasing each other, and eventually, climbing onto Rickee!
The little monkeys are very curious and friendly and a blast to watch. There are monkeys running all over the place. Monkeys were hanging from tree limbs. Monkeys were running all around us and gently grabbing our legs, hoping to climb up and find food in our pockets. It was insane. Insanely fun!
I think the monkey experience was the highlight of the tour for us. We would probably do the tour again just for that. We finally were able to pull ourselves away from the Capuchins and, after a brief tour of downtown Puntarenas, Alex and Geovanna returned us to the pier right on schedule. To say that we were impressed with Arenas Travel would be an understatement. We thoroughly enjoyed our day. Geovanna was so knowledgeable about the area and the history of all the places we saw. And, Alex was a great driver, something you really need on the narrow, winding and crowded roads of Costa Rica! The private tour costs $135/pp (group tour is only $80/pp), making it very less expensive than some cruise line group tours. In our opinion, there's no comparison. A private tour is the only way to go! Arenas Travel offers a wide variety of private and group tours tailored for cruise ship visitors. We can highly recommend Arenas Travel and encourage you to check out their website for more information: ArenasTravelCR.com.