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Fishing and Sight Seeing in Costa Rica - 01/03/19

Costa Rica trip February 2019


It had been a while, nearly 18 months since Sandy and I last went on a long haul vacation. This time we were accompanied by daughter Jenny for the full 16 day duration and Dominic Garnett was joining us for the six days fishing near the start of the trip.


We decided to take a more leisurely approach to the trip, travelling up to Gatwick the day before as it is a long drive up from Devon.  We checked into a hotel and also booked our car into the hotel’s car park for the duration of the holiday for convenience, and because it is far cheaper than long stay airport parking.


The following morning we simply caught the shuttle bus between the hotel and the terminal having printed the boarding passes there the night before. We had breakfast in an airport lounge where it was quieter and more comfortable (but was not cost effective as we were allowed on item of food, which for me was a bacon sandwich).


The flight to San Jose, capital of Costa Rica was 10.5 hours, so we landed at around 4.30 their time. We had booked the holiday using a local travel agent we had been referred to. It was a bit more expensive but the local knowledge definitely proved invaluable throughout in the trip.  This included being met before we got to immigration to make sure we had no glitches and to escort us to the waiting air conditioned taxi.


There are air conditioned tourist buses (they are the taxis) everywhere and these can easily be booked by your hotel making travel around the country very easy.


As it had already been a long day we stayed nearby, within 45 minutes drive at the Xandari Hotel in Ale Juela. It was dark when we arrived but were awake early with a great view over San Jose to the mountains on the far side. The hotel styles are generally a reception lodge with other lodges scattered around the site as felling trees is illegal. We had been booked into No. 27 which was undoubtedly the best on the site for space and for the view.


I was awake at six and immediately into bird watching mode with my camera, being greeted by chachalaca, a pheasant sized bird but very noisy. Later in the day at reception, I was given a list of birds seen in the grounds. (146 species there alone).


There were cold and heated swimming pools which Jenny and Sandy used while being buzzed by swallows drinking the water, as it is very hot frequently in the 30C range.  The food was very good and the staff attentive and friendly being able to help me identify some of the birds and also the agouti that I spotted in the undergrowth.

We walked along paths past a series of five waterfalls which were beautiful, the biggest was over a 70’ drop, but from top to bottom was around 350’ so we took it gently.  The superb flora and fauna was a constant throughout the trip as the government there is conservation minded. There are many National Parks preserving the environment, but if you own a piece of land, you can register it as a private area of parkland and receive tax breaks, but it has to be managed. For a farm, you can have animals grazing under trees but not rip up the land for hedgerows. This creates a wonderful environment for the wildlife and I read that nearly 47% of the land is protected


After a couple of nights, we picked Dom up from the airport (this time it was a weekend and immigration was slow as two planes had landed together, so it took him over 2 hours to get through before we could pick him up. Our driver gave water and snacks and tried to keep us amused and teach us bits of Spanish to pass the time.


Once we had collected him it was a three hour drive to Manuel Antonio where our next hotel Cape Verde was.


To make the trip more bearable, we stopped off on next to a bridge that overlooked the river and crocodile reserve. The indigenous species there are the central american crocodile and spectacled cayman. There were about 10-15 below the bridge, and a crowd of people photographing them.


The second stop was on the Pacific coast overlooking a bay with some construction at the far end.


Our new hotel, the Costa Verde, was the same style as before with a central lodge and our lodge was just one big room with three double beds, a bathroom and a kitchen.  It was spacious but we did expect a bit more privacy.  Manuel Antonio is a government reserve and the forest grew right up to and around the lodge. The hotel was unusual as some of the rooms were made from the fuselage of discarded aircraft as well as wooden cabins like ours. There were three types of monkey, sloths, plus many species of birds different to before as we were now lower and at the coast.


The next morning Dom and I were off fishing being met by Benn of Jackpot Sport Fishing at 6.40 ready to fish at 7.00 from the Marina Pezvela at Quepos.


This trip, unlike most of the other fishing trips I have undertaken was a step into the unknown. I had no experience of Costa Rica, nor did I know anyone who had stayed or fished there, but I wanted to catch a rooster fish. I searched around for information, found Jackpot and did research  asking for a list of references. Everybody praise Benn and his team. Benn is an ex-pat, so clearly understood just what I wanted. I had booked six days fishing and wanted to try lots of different techniques, but had no desire to go big game fishing where I thought I would just sat in a chair, have a rod passed to me to reel in as you see on the films. He understood and promised this wouldn’t happen.


Day 1 started by buying a licence at the marina for the week, then we went inshore fishing on Chloe Frijole heading north along the shore until we reached a river mouth and tried to catch pilchards for bait. Dom is more into fly fishing and spinning whereas I prefer bait and spinning, so he stood on the front of the boat casting whilst I tried to catch the sardines at the rear.  Although we saw and tracked bait balls, they fish were not easy to catch as they were somewhat distracted by the jacks and spanish mackerel trying to eat them that were everywhere and with so much food, weren’t interested in Dom’s offerings.


Eventually we got enough and travelled a bit further up the coast after snook and the species I had travelled to catch, rooster fish.


The first fish we caught was….a catfish which fought well on light tackle. We managed a few snapper, Dom had mangrove, yellow-tail and cubera whereas I only had mangroves. Then I lost a rooster fish at the side of the boat and Dom lost a giant needlefish (they grow over 10lbs) when it leapt and threw the hooks, a pattern that continued throughout the week.

We were using circle hooks (which is mandatory for bait fishing) so it is necessary to wait for five seconds before winding to set the hook, but then, unlike tarpon fishing when you play them hard, you don’t here and I lost too many fish with the hook pulling out before I learnt.


In the afternoon we switched to south of the marina and caught snapper species as before plus grouper, one of which we kept for dinner.  I lost more fish in the afternoon, not helped by using an outrigger which didn’t break free well enough. I did hook one fish which we believed to be a big cubera snapper which simply stripped line from the reel as it plunged down into the reef and I could do nothing about it.


In the evenings, we ate across the road rotating between three restaurants where they would cook our fish to whatever method we wanted (reducing the cost as we provided the fish). The meals were always very good with everything freshly cooked and, on the whole, were superior to the pub food we get in this country.


One evening we were sitting by the balcony with a root dangling down from the plants above when a juvenile sloth climbed down, and it hung there watching us for several minutes. One of those never to be forgotten moments.


The next day, we were serenaded by a morning chorus of howler monkeys and birds as we left early again, but this time we were offshore fishing off Good Day. We also saw the most beautiful butterfly, the biggest I have ever seen.

Benn suggested we go to the mark Furuno Bank, about 30 miles from the marina and try for sailfish.


It was hot and to protect ourselves we had hats which covered our neck and ears, either with a shroud or a wide brim. Sunglasses are essential and a scarf to cover the rest of your face is advisable. You do look like a bandit from a cowboy film but it stops you burning.  Don’t forget the factor 50 sun lotion too, I forgot to put in on the back of my hands one day and paid the penalty.  Drink plenty too, Benn had two fridges on board stuffed with drinks which we could help ourselves to, and we did more than once an hour. This is not to be taken lightly. The water temperature 30 miles out was 81F, and when we got back to the cool of the marina in the evenings, it was still 30 – 35C.

Benn took us big game fishing teaching us the knots, how to set the bait, how he prepared the teasers with different options, where to fish the bait and how to move it when fish come. Everything except unhooking the fish, and he then took the photographs too. He went through all the procedures and Dom and I both came away surprised at the complexity and attention to detail needed to be successful. This is totally different to how it is portrayed on television and so much more enjoyable. Everything he had promised.


There were rods with just teasers, rods with marlin baits, assortment of attractors and our rods baited with ballyhoo. The beaks and tails are removed to make them swim in a controlled direction, weighted to keep them the right way up. The trace is heavy gauge monofilament to prevent the bill from slicing through it, and even then you can feel how rough it is after catching a fish.


We search the sea looking for signs of fish. One is the pods of spinner dolphin numbering around 200 and is a sight not to be missed, but beneath them are other fish and tuna so an obvious place to look for sailfish.


The first sign of action is a bill rising from the water thrashing at the teasers. It is then you need to bring your bait alongside the fish as the teasers are removed, the fish will normally turn and take the bait. Once again you wait 5-7 seconds before winding to set the hook and then the fight starts. The fish usually leaps from the water repeatedly making the most spectacular fight, but in doing so it tires and the battle doesn’t last very long. What a spectacular fish displaying such vibrant colours!


It is illegal to lift them into the boat for the regulation trophy shot, but you can bring them alongside and Benn took the pictures using a selfie stick while you hold them down in the water to speed recovery before being released. It is an experience you will never forget.


Each fish was tagged so scientists can learn about the movement and can then protect its breeding grounds, and we could even give them names which seemed a bit bizarre, but can add to the experience for those involved.


So Benn was as good as his word, we came back having learned a lot about this type of fishing which is just as involved as any other aspect of the sport.


The next day we went offshore to mark 'The 26'.  We ran through a shoal of bonito and all our rods went off at once, I had two and a fish they call a tuna mackerel which looked very similar.  We found a large pod of spinner dolphin with many yellow-fin tuna visible below and I had to try and catch one of these. Using a lighter spinning rod with only a 40lb trace I struck into the biggest sailfish of the week. It took about 30 minutes to get to the boat aided by great steering from the skipper Manuel, and eventually a 95lb fish was unhooked and tagged.


In the afternoon we switched to reef fish some 200’ deep. The bait was pieces of fish and as the weight hit the bottom, you immediately had a take, but Benn said not to bring it up until you had a second fish on a little while later, as to bring the bait and lead up and down over this depth can be tiring, and we had several double hook-ups and many new species. Several didn’t recover from the pressure change and when we had caught enough for all our meals we stopped. It was such a shame as there were so many species but neither Dom nor I would kill a fish unnecessarily.


One other highlight of the day was undoubtedly the pineapples that got sliced up at lunchtime. I am not keen on them in this country but out there, freshly cut they are to die for. If you had to choose between a marlin take and eating pineapple you would struggle to choose, they were that delicious.


Dom wanted to have a go at fly fishing for sailfish the next day.  This involves using teasers to bring the fish in, gradually drawing them into he boat, and when close enough, Dom would cast a fly alongside the fish as the Jackson lifted the teasers from the water.  The fish is allowed time to turn before the hook is set by pulling on the fly line.  We had three rises from fish during the day. The first didn’t last long enough to cast a fly to but I caught it on bait, the second felt the hook which didn’t set, and the third came back three times to take the fly, and on the third occasion the fly seemed to strike home, as the line streamed from the reel we all cheered, then the fly flew out.  It wasn’t going to come back again so we flicked a ballyhoo out which the fish immediately took and Dom was able to wind down and catch the fish, disappointed not to have it on the fly. It was just so exciting seeing the fish come within a few feet of the stern where we could all see it. It was like stalking sailfish with a fly


The next day we were back inshore fishing, and again went off to catch bait. At one point we could see five bait balls, but struggled to catch a fish as they were being attacked mainly by spanish mackerel and jacks. The mackerel have excellent teeth and just taking the fish that took our bait and the lures that Dom was using, everything disappeared; one even bit through a swivel leaving just the top half. I have never seen metal swivels bitten through before.


The day was slow and we managed jack cravelle which are great fighters and mangrove snapper.  Dom managed the local fish known as a bass which was the dinner for the night.


The crew were highly amused when we said we were going fishing when the boat landed. We showed them the tackle we were going to use in a “stream” alongside the harbour. Coarse tackle with size 12 to 16 hooks, little bits of shrimp and a BB shot on 4lb line, Dom had his LRF tackle.

We had a couple of hours before sunset yet added quite a few species to make out total 29 for the holiday. The highlight was the sergeant major I caught which Dom photographed with his General (a 6” toy which make the fish look huge) to add a touch of humour to the proceedings, much to everyone’s amusement the next day.


The last day we decided to go all out for the roosterfish I had come for and had managed to avoid apart from the one I lost. We caught sardines and lookdown which are meant to be the preferred bait for roosters.

Good Day went about 20 miles south where some rocks protruded from the surface which he said had been productive before and were not heavily fished due to the distance from the marina. Finally, after about 30 minutes I caught my rooster fish and it was as beautiful as I had hoped. It wasn’t huge but that never matters to me.  Then I caught another, it was a bit like buses all coming at once. Dom then caught the next one that was a klonker, all of 40lbs.  We also hooked several of the big needlefish but we just couldn’t get the hooks to hold.


Finally, Manuel said we had less that half an hour to go when Dom and I had a double hook up, we both had a rooster each and it seemed the perfect way to end the trip which had exceeded our expectations.


One last thing to note is on the Pacific side of the country if you are booking a trip is there are two seasons, dry and wet. It is best from the start of November to the end of March, and Benn takes his boat out of the water for annual maintenance in September  and October as these are the worst months.


I can’t praise Benn, Manuel the skipper, or Jackson the crew highly enough. They did just what we wanted, taught us so much and were always good humoured.  The details if you fancy a trip are or


The following morning Dom had to go back to the airport and to home, Sandy, Jenny and I embarked on the next stage of the holiday towards the cloud forest which was about 3-4 hours away.


Our next stay destination was the Hotel Belmar which was of a wooden construction and here we had our rooms in a building opposite. As we were at a much greater altitude, the weather was much cooler and we watched the cloud cover skimming the nearby hills.  This was another great hotel with ranging grounds including a walk along a stream where we watched coati mundi, and agouti and the variety of birdlife we had now come to expect. Once again the food was of a very high standard, and like the Xandari Hotel at the start, it is on the list of hotels that Sandy plans to go back to.


Here we went on trips organised in advance. The first one was to the cloud forest where an English speaking guide had been pre-booked to walk as through the reserve teaching us about the wildlife and the plants as we walked and traversed suspension footpaths between the hills, often above the trees in the valleys. Some of these trees had over 100 other plants living on them. We were told never to walk under howler monkeys as they don’t like people and are well known for defecating on the people below.  We then took a cable car from the bottom to the top of the hill to get a panoramic view.

You can also descend by a series of zip wire, some aver half a mile long, but at my age and weight I passed on the experience and took the car back down.


This is one of the must do experiences if you like flora.


The next morning we were transferred to the Arenal Volcano area for our next excursions. As ever, the air conditioned taxi turned up with water and snacks for the journey, which was a little different this time as we had to board a ferry and cross a lake to get to our accommodation. It was unusual seeing what appeared to be Winnibagos floating on the lake with people living inside.


We arrived at the Mountain Paradise Hotel, another with chalets spread across a site which was planted with shrubs and flowers and was an idyllic place to stay with two large bedroons, kitchen and two bathrooms, one with a “shower” which was a stream of water failing over a man-made rock structure before falling as a shower. The staff were friendly, but this hotel had one failing, it was the only place where the food at breakfast was not great. I would rate it as very average, although the birdlife made this another place where I used to get up at 6am and go taking photographs before breakfast.


The first day trip was to the Don Juan Coffee plantation where our guide talked us through the process from seed to harvest showing us both old and new methods and, of course, we tried the coffee at the end.  I’m a tea drinker but we brought some beans back for our friend Roger who said it was some of the best coffee he had drunk.


We then were shown the chocolate area and finished by trying the produce which the guide freshly produced, and then onto sugar cane.  It was informative and entertaining – and we loved the produce. Our trip organiser had even sorted our lunch there before we returned to the hotel.


The following day was another I had been looking forward to; it was a day trip to a nature reserve and a boat trip along a river. We started off there with a freshly cooked lunch in a typical farm where they had buffalo and made their own mozzarella.

Then the farm owner lead us to a small boat just big enough for us and our english speaking guide who knew most of the species of wildlife we saw; three types of kingfisher, herons and so many other birds. Jenny enjoyed seeing both male and female jesus christ lizards, so called as they can run across water. Both types of crocodile were lazing on the banks and Sandy even spotted a colony of bats roosting on a dead tree fallen in the river. This was a fantastic trip and I could do it repeatedly as I love the wildlife and the skipper and guide were excellent at making sure we didn’t miss things, even turning the boat so we could have another look and take better photographs.


The final day was one of the highlights of the trip for Sandy who is keen on geology and this was a walk up the lava flow from the Arenal Volcano which erupted from 1968 to 2012. It was described as a difficult walk and so it proved, both in the loose surface and the steepness. We could see how plants were slowly colonising this area and compared it to unaffected areas. Some of the plants were truly beautiful. However, this trip also included bathing in the warm volcanic waters. Some of the people we were grouped with just wanted to bathe, so this became more of a route march whereas we wanted to learn more about the volcano so were a little disappointed. Next time we would plan to spend more time just learning about the volcano (Arenal appropriately means sandy).


On the last day we were collected and returned downhearted to the airport. As with all holidays, when they are good you want to stay longer and this one we would put as equal first with India from our experiences over the years and Sandy is already planning the next trip which says it all.


We have to thank two people in particular, firstly Justin De Boom who organised the non-fishing part of the trip. He selected great hotels, even putting us in the best rooms on occasions, he organised air conditioned taxis at every stage when we had to move, great excursions tailored to our interests and english speaking guides for the trips. We couldn’t have put this together without his local knowledge. He will tailor your holiday to suit your interests. It may cost a little extra, but I think it is well worth it. 


His details are :-


Also Benn Gilmour of Jackpot Sport Fishing, he went the extra mile to see that we had such a memorable time.  I was taken ill there with throat and ear infections and he even made sure (assertively) that I was seen by a doctor in a local clinic and got appropriate medication which I couldn’t have done without speaking any Spanish. Again, I would highly recommend him.


His details are ;- or

Keith Armishaw