To tour group, or not to tour group
Advantages of group tours
Organization and efficiency: If you decide to travel with a tour group you will almost certainly find that you pack a lot into your days. If you want to see and do the most possible things in the least possible time, then an organized tour may be your best bet. Just remember when you are scanning that impressive list of activities on the tour brochure that you will be locked into a pretty tight schedule.
Knowledgeable guides: Assuming that you make the effort (and shell out the cash) to choose a high quality tour, you will have round the clock access to someone who knows a great deal about the local environment, customs and infrastructure. Guides and tours will almost never take you anywhere that people don’t routinely go on their own, however a guide will spot wildlife and describe ecological phenomenon that most novices would simply pass by.
The SEP principle: The Somebody Else’s Problem principle is a great one to have working for you when you are traveling. If for example, the hotel you are supposed to stay in on Friday, washes into the ocean on Thursday, if you are on a tour, it’s somebody else’s problem. A high quality tour operator will pay big bucks for someone to get to the location ahead of your group, stay up all night making last minute reservations at an even nicer hotel, rearranging transportation and meals and making sure that the travelers never even know there was a glitch.
Cost: The cost of an organized tour can be either an advantage or disadvantage. Rental cars are very expensive in Costa Rica (4WD is recommended by almost everyone and costs upwards of US$80 a day), guides are not cheap (US$75 – 200 a day), and you might have to rent a boat or charter a plane to get some places on your own (US$60 – US$750 depending on the destination). Generally the larger the group the more the costs are spread around and the cheaper the price per person.
Disadvantages of group tours
Organization and efficiency: Calling organization and efficiency a disadvantage may sound like a mistake until you consider the limitations listed below that these features place on travel
You better make darn sure your plane arrives on time, because most tour operators in Costa Rica are ground only. If the tour leaves without you, most operators will try to get you caught up with the group as soon as possible, but none of them will give you any refunds for missed activities.
We met a very nice couple who paid for a very expensive scuba diving trip that they couldn’t take because they were bumped from an overbooked flight. You could also end up paying for activities that you miss due to illness. If you decide to take a tour it is a good idea to consider travel insurance.
Changing plans is not an option: You find out that there is an arribada (thousands of turtles gathering at sea to come ashore at the next full moon and lay their eggs) massing near Nosara beach, and they will be nesting on Monday… sorry the tour is white water rafting on Monday and not headed to the beach until Wednesday.
Efficiency can seem hectic: It is likely that you will see and do more on a tour than by traveling independently, but it is also likely that you will wish you could just sit on the beach instead of getting back in that damn bus to go see the orchid garden at some point. It might be possible to opt out of some days of a tour, but it might not. Often tours go all day and you end up in a different location each night. You might get to sit on the bus if you want to…
Flexibility: This may be the most important advantage of traveling in Costa Rica on your own. Although it is advisable to have an outline of your travels before you leave home some of your most memorable experiences are likely to come from spontaneous changes of plans. Flexibility also means that if you miss out on part of your trip due to unavoidable delays or illness, at least you don’t have to pay for the privilege.
Adventure: One of the main jobs of tour companies is to smooth everything over and eliminate the possibility of unexpected adventures). I reserve the term adventure to refer to travel experiences forced by circumstances. This is not the same as bungee jumping, whitewater rafting or any of the other “adventure tourism” standard fare.
Independent travelers experience adventures that you’ll never find at Disneyland. Adventure here might be getting talked into helping round up cattle, falling short of your destination while hiking and spending the night in the jungle or ending up in a hotel so roach infested that you wish you were in the forest, spending a day on a local fishing boat instead of a charter or missing a turn and ending up on a beach that is truly deserted. Adventures aren’t always pleasant, but they are inevitable and usually exciting and worthwhile parts of traveling on your own in Costa Rica.
The people: Many organized tours have stops at indigenous people’s villages but that is sort of like trying to experience the culture of the United States by visiting the football hall of fame in Canton, Ohio. If you want to meet people you have to eliminate the insulation provided by a tour company and risk adventure on your own in Costa Rica (see above).
If you have traveled independently, you know the negatives and the rewards. If you have never traveled outside an organized tour, or never traveled at all then I can’t give you any excuse not to head out on your own. It is something that everyone should try at least once.