December 2018 - January 2019
Costa Rica – Pura Vida
We’re getting lazy in our old age. There was a time when we wouldn’t have thought twice about taking a ferry, finding a bus to a bigger town, changing buses, walking across a border and finding another bus on to our destination. Too much hanging about, so we booked a shuttle service from Bocas del Toro to our hotel in Costa Rica. Actually, it still involved a boat, bus, walk across the border and another bus but at least we knew it was a joined up service.
We must note that we met the friendliest border security man on the planet. Our bus had to pass through a random checkpoint as we were approaching the border. It’s not uncommon in many parts of the world to find security checks on roads near borders. This guy did his duty of checking our passports but was smiling and joking and friendly throughout the process. He thanked us for visiting his country and said he hoped we’d come back. American immigration officials should take lessons.
The journey took us past the massive fruit industry in this part of the world. Mile upon mile of banana plantations and pineapple farms and hundreds of refrigerated containers with Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte on the sides.
Still on the Caribbean just a little up the coast, is the small town of Cahuita. It’s the closest town to the national park of the same name. To the north of the town is a black sand beach and to the south, in the park, is a beautiful white sand beach. Sadly, we were so fixated on taking pictures of the animals, we didn’t take any of the beaches (doh!). Playa Negra (the black sand beach) is supposedly one of the most beautiful in the world (it’s got some ‘eco’ credentials) but, actually, we weren’t overly impressed. Perhaps we needed to be there when it was sunnier. Playa Blanca, however, was stunning. (We didn’t want to leave our camera on the beach while we were playing in the surf which is why we don’t have photos.)
The national park has a nice trail through it. On good advice, we went early and had the place to ourselves – on our way back out, the Sunday hordes were arriving with their coolers and picnic baskets. On the plus side, those picnic baskets attracted crab eating raccoons which were fun to watch (and, obviously, are happy to extend their diet beyond crabs). On the path, we saw hermit crabs of varying sizes and lines of leaf cutter ants. In the trees there were white faced capuchin monkeys and lots of birds. In the distance we could hear howler monkeys.
Back at our hotel we enjoyed the world’s smallest swimming pool (or is it the world’s biggest bath tub?)
Photos at: http://www.pbase.com/mr2c280/cahuita
As the buses didn’t join up, we had to spend a night in San Jose. About the Costa Rican bus system (and I use the word ‘system’ loosely). There are dozens of bus companies all using their own terminals. There are no posted schedules, no route maps, few designated bus stops -- you just have to know where to go, when the bus will be going by, and to flag it down. In South America we found that each county had its own system that we had to figure out but none were as incomprehensible as this one. (The Ticos to whom I've mentioned this agree whole-heartedly.)
The terminal where we arrived was close to the terminal from which we we’re leaving (well, actually it didn’t exist anymore but we quickly figured out that the bus company had moved to the big new terminal across the street). We got a room in the area, hmmm, well, most bus terminal areas in the world are not the best and this was no exception. Druggies and prostitutes what can we say – we were in our (very basic) room before dark. It was fine though, we never felt threatened.
Photos at: (we’ll be in San Jose later)
Up in the mountains away from the coast the air is a bit cooler (but still plenty warm enough). This place is the adventure hub of Costa Rica with zip lines, thermal pools, trekking, horse riding, canyoning, white water rafting and views of the perfectly conical Volcán Arenal.
So, our biggest problem was, of all the things to do and of all of the companies offering, what would we choose to do. Our first stop was the posh Baldi Hot Springs Resort. 25 thermal pools ranging in temperature from 32 to 67 degrees (no, you don’t go in the 67 degree pool) as well as cool dip pools, waterfalls and slides. It’s all man-made but tastefully done to look like a tropical rain forest (but most natural thermals don’t have swim up bars!). We splash out (pun intended) and have a couple of cocktails. Should mention that the water slides were described as ‘extreme’, they were, Pete worried he’d damaged his bits.
The next day it was off to the zip lines. We (accidentally) took the early tour and it worked out to be a private tour – us, two guides, a photographer and a trainee. The later tour had 40 people on it – we lucked out. The zip lines took us over waterfalls and through the canopy. We were extremely lucky to see and photograph the Arenal Volcano – the top is usually shrouded in clouds. Later, we took the ‘limousine’ (see pictures) back to the start of the zip lines and hiked down to the famous (well, famous in Costa Rica) La Fortuna Waterfall and had a dip in the pool at the bottom.
The next day was all day guided hiking on Arenal. Morning was to the ‘Arenal Observatory’ where we hiked through primary and secondary rain forest. We saw lots of red-eyed tree frogs, hummingbirds, butterflies, an eyelash pit viper, an orange kneed tarantula in a hollow log, huge orb spiders and, best of all, an anteater that climbed up into the trees (we didn’t know they climbed trees). Our guide also introduced us to many plants and fruits that have interesting uses and unique smells. In 1968 Arenal unexpectedly erupted killing 87 people and burying 3 small villages. Tourists, flocking to see the fiery night skies and flowing lava, turned the sleepy farming village into a bustling tourist town. The lava stopped flowing in 2010 so we could safely hike up to the lava rocks where the flows ended and see the scars on the mountainside. On the hike up we saw coatis (relatives of raccoons) and white faced capuchins. It was steep, we were glad we brought our poles. At the end of the day we went to a thermal pool of a totally different kind – a natural hot spring coming out of a huge culvert under a road. It’s where the locals go to swim. Our guide painted our faces with mud packs (don’t know what it was, could have been horseshit for all we know).
Photos at: http://www.pbase.com/mr2c280/la_fortuna
Santa Elena & Monteverde
Santa Elena is not far from La Fortuna as the crow flies but there’s a mountain in between so it would take 7 hours on rough dirt roads by local bus. A far more practical route is known as Jeep-boat-Jeep (actually, it’s minibus-boat-minibus but Jeep-boat-Jeep sounds cooler). Booking a shuttle service that uses Laguna de Arenal cuts the travel time to 4 hours (told you we were getting lazy) and there’s the bonus of more great views of Arenal from the lake. Laguna de Arenal is a man-made lake for a hydro-electric dam that provides 17% of the country’s electricity.
Whereas La Fortuna is in the rain forest, Santa Elena is in the cloud forest. The air (when the cloud isn’t about) is much dryer and cooler – a relief after a month in the heat. Santa Elena is also an adventure hub but has a more laid back vibe. One of the few free things to do was to climb up Cerro Amigos, where all the telecommunications towers are. It was only a 6Km hike from our hotel but 600 metres of that is vertical. Sadly, Jackie didn’t agree that the man had said to do it early so, by the time we got to the top, the clouds had rolled in. Still, it was good exercise and we saw a cool beetle.
Jackie really loves the zip lines (Peter is not as impressed) so it was another go. This time it was more and longer lines and a Tarzan swing at the end. Great fun (per Jackie), expensive 5 minutes of actual excitement (per miserly Peter). We then walked along a series of high hanging bridges that are up near the top of the canopy. On trail, we sat for a while and along came some mantled howler monkeys. We also spotted a blunt headed tree snake that had just slithered off the hanging bridge onto the top of a tree.
Up early to the Monteverde Cloud Forest. This privately run, non-profit reserve was originally created by Quakers who had come to Costa Rica fleeing the draft in the U.S in 1949 (Costa Rica doesn’t have an army). It now uses the profits from tourism to purchase and protect more primary cloud forest land. We were so very lucky lucky lucky lucky to see several resplendent quetzals. This bird’s amazing plumage was revered by both the Aztec and the Mayans (revered to near extinction). We were alerted to their presence by a falling avocado pit. The quetzal’s favourite food, they eat small unripe avocados, use their beaks and strong throat muscles to strip off the flesh, then regurgitate the pit.
Just outside the reserve is the Colibri (hummingbird) café where they have lots of feeders and hundreds of hummingbirds come for the free food. Quite accustomed to humans, we were able to stand right next to the feeders and get great close-up photos of the birds. The staff occasionally have to chase away the cheeky coatis when they try to climb up and reach the sugar water in the feeders.
After the guided tour in the morning (and the mobs of people all trying to get photos) we spent several hours walking through the cloud forest on our own. We stood on the continental divide where rain to our left would flow to the Pacific and to our right, the Atlantic (well, technically, the Caribbean).
Photos at: http://www.pbase.com/mr2c280/santa_elena
Our original plan was to travel to Liberia, spend one night and take a bus the next morning but, once again, the lazy option had us on another door-to-door shuttle service. Tamarindo is Costa Rica’s top surf and party destination. As we neither surf nor party we were just looking for a place to spend Christmas where there’d be a wide choice of restaurants, etc. But, there is always wildlife. Entering our hotel we were greeted by a big iguana and, on Christmas evening, a troop of howler monkeys came to feed, on the fruit of trees, in the hotel’s gardens. So, mostly we walked the beach, swam a bit and lazed about because it was blistering hot and we just can’t take the heat anymore.
One little odd thing of note. Many places that have dirt roads spray them with water or oil to keep the dust down. After a walk on the beach, we came up a back road that had been sprayed with something. It looked thin like water but black like oil and there was a strange sweet smell in the air. As near as we can tell, they had sprayed molasses – perhaps a byproduct of the sugar industry. Anyway, it stuck to the bottom of our shoes and stones and sand stuck to them. Peter chiseled away at the stones but the soles were still sticky. More sand and stones stuck the next time we wore them but then, a walk on the beach getting them wet and it all wash off so it must have been some sort of water soluble substance. Anyway, sorry if we’ve just bored you, Peter thought it was weird enough to be interesting.
Photos at: http://www.pbase.com/mr2c280/tamarindo
Heading back up into the hills, it is a welcome relief from the heat of the Pacific coast. Costa Rica has some world class whitewater rafting and the book says the Rio Pacuare is the best of all. So, we made the trip inland to have some fun. LP says:
“The river plunges down the Caribbean slope through a series of spectacular canyons clothed in virgin rain forest, through runs named for their fury and separated by calm stretches that enable you to stare at near vertical green walls towering hundreds of metres above. The 28 kilometre run has class II to IV rapids through rocky gorges, past an indigenous village and untamed jungle.”
What more can we say, 3-1/2 hours of great fun – have a look at the pictures.
The other reason for coming to Turrialba was to visit the country’s most important archaeological site. Guayabo is composed of the remains of a pre-Columbian city that was inhabited from approximately 1500 BCE to 1400 CE. Discovered in 1968, only a small area of the 232 hectares has yet been excavated (finding funding is a challenge) but what has been found is an impressive aqueduct system that provided clean drinking water to the city. Not much is know about the culture of the people that lived here but they were clearly a unique civilization, different from the Mayas to the north and Incas to the south. The important buildings are circular and would have had conical roofs. The orientation of the main entrance road, passing guard houses on either side, would force a visitor to first see the largest conical building (the chief’s residence) with the Turrialba Volcano directly behind.
Photos at: http://www.pbase.com/mr2c280/turrialba
Quepos and Manuel Antonio National Park
So now it’s back to the Pacific coast and more national parks. The most visited national park in Costa Rica is Manuel Antonio, and for good reason – stunning beaches, protected rainforest and amazing wildlife. We stayed in the small town of Quepos, a few miles from the park, as it is only a 15 minute bus ride and much cheaper than the resorts near the park.
There are 6 beautiful beaches in the area and one of them is outside the park, so, Playa Espadilla was our first destination. We’re not normally ‘beachy’ people but we managed to spend a day sitting on loungers under an umbrella drinking beer. It was a struggle but we managed to sit there most of the day.
The next day we got up early to be, as advised, at the national park for the 7am opening. Bad advice, it was a zoo (and we don’t mean the animals). Everyone else had the same idea and the park has very strict regulations about what can be taken in. So, there was a 200 metre queue to get through security and that was after queuing to buy tickets. The numbers may have something to do with the fact that it was the last day of Christmas holidays.
Once through, however, we were able to take some less travelled paths as most of the people were either heading straight to the beaches or were with wildlife guides spotting animals along the main road. This took us to the first beach (Playa Espadilla Sur) where few people go because the surf and rip-tides make swimming dangerous. We see tiny spotted deer, lots of crabs and a crab eating raccoon on the beach. At the end of the beach we take the trail up over the headland through the thick forest and here we encounter mantled howler monkeys, white-faced capuchin monkeys, agouti, and our first toucan. At high lookout points we see pelicans and brown boobies. We look for whales but can’t spot any. It’s blisteringly hot and humid in the forest so we descend to find a breeze and some shade on a beach.
An exploration of Quepos takes us to their new marina with posh shops and sea view bars that wouldn’t be out of place in Florida. Sport fishing is a big thing here and sailfish are the target (but even the bar’s coasters reflect Peter’s opinion about the stupidity of spending vast sums to try to outsmart a fish).
Photos at: http://www.pbase.com/mr2c280/quepos
This stop was primarily to break up a long bus journey but it is also considered one of the top spots for whale watching. From a marketing standpoint they certainly have the ideal landform to advertise the tours – a huge whale-tail shaped beach. (We copied a couple of Internet images to PBase so you can see what we mean.) However, as perfectly shaped as the beach may be, it isn’t whale season and the prices they were charging to go in the hopes of seeing a stray whale were too much for us. We did walk out to see the beach and it is quite impressive (although, we suspect, probably more so from the air).
The marine park, at the right times of year, hosts migrating humpback and pilot whales, three types of dolphin, nesting sea turtles and colonies of sea birds. Uvita, surprisingly for such a small village we discover, has several really good restaurants.
Photos at: http://www.pbase.com/mr2c280/uvita
Aguitas de Drake (Drake’s Bay)
Sir Francis Drake stopped here once, in 1579. After a bus ride to the end of the road (literally) we are in the village of Sierpe. From here we take an exhilarating high-speed boat ride along the Rio Sierpe, through the rainforest and a mangrove estuary. The boat then navigates tidal currents and surfs the mouth of the river to get to the ocean and on to Drake’s Bay and Aguitas. There are no piers or docks so the boats back up to the beach and we all step into the surf to get ashore.
This is a small village with a collection of dirt roads, lodgings and restaurants (it’s actually a nice little place). Aguitas gets us to within an hour’s boat ride of Corcovado National Park. (There actually is a road to Aguitas but it’s only passable part of the year and, then, only by four wheel drive vehicles.) It’s actually a bit of a boomtown as the national park is attracting more and more visitors. We end up in a brand new hotel and we’re accidentally upgraded into the best room we’ve stayed in in Central America so far.
Corcovado is the last great original tract of tropical rainforest in Pacific Central America. Its biological diversity makes it home to half of Costa Rica’s species. We take a day trip from Aguitas and, on a guided tour see squirrel monkeys, spider monkeys, howlers, agoutis, coatis, a crocodile, a basilisk and more. As a bit of a bonus, on our way there we spot a humpback whale.
The next day we went snorkeling at Isla del Caño. This island is a protected biological reserve and, other than one small beach that is used as a rest stop between dives, people aren’t allowed on it. We are, however, allowed to snorkel in the waters surrounding the island and here we see white-tipped reef sharks, hawksbill turtles, box fish, parrot fish (and many others), a tiger moray eel, a shoal of jacks and a very big, tasty looking lobster. Sadly our camera is not waterproof – so no photos.
Photos at: http://www.pbase.com/mr2c280/drakes_bay
San Jose (for the third time)
San Jose does not have a reputation for being a particularly visit-worthy city and, given our short times in the less attractive areas (near the bus terminals), we can see why. However, we felt we should at least give it a chance, so spent a day at some of the bigger museums and toured the national theatre.
The Museo de Oro Precolombino y Numismatica located under the Plaza de Cultura has an extensive collection of Costa Rica’s most priceless pieces of Pre-Columbian gold. There were plenty of signs in English but, unfortunately, they weren’t particularly informative. Although, it is nicely presented and there are many beautiful gold artifacts. The top floor contained a very interesting and informative history of currency (numismatica) in Costa Rica.
The national theatre was built in 1897 with money donated by coffee farmers. It is San Jose’s most revered public building with a marble lobby, ornately painted walls and ceilings and European works of fine art. In the past tickets were priced so it was the preserve of the rich and famous. But now the tickets are priced to encourage all Costa Ricans to visit to see the performances of opera, ballet and plays.
The Jade Museum, like the gold museum had lots of unlabelled bits and pieces and rather banal ‘information’ signs. Nice to look at but not edifying. Pete wrote that piece! J- the museum has the largest collection of American jade in the world. There are 5 floors of nearly 7,000 pieces that are finely crafted, depicting fertility goddesses, shamans, frogs, snakes etc. The artifacts are very well presented but, yes, the information could be more detailed. I guess Pete was feeling a bit jaded (intended) when he got to his third museum of the day.
(Somewhat unrepresentative) photos at: http://www.pbase.com/mr2c280/san_jose
Alajuela and Volcán Poás
Our final stop in Costa Rica brings us only a short distance north of San Jose and closer to the airport that we will use to take us on to Guatemala. The main draw, other than the airport, is access to Volcán Poás. This active volcano is one of the most accessible in the world as it is possible, quite literally, to drive right up to the craters edge (saves all that hiking malarkey). Alajuela is similar to San Jose with its narrow, one-way, grid system streets but the traffic is not as manic and it seems cleaner and less cramped with more parks and open space.
At the top of the mountain (2704m) it was very cold and windy and we really needed our fleeces and wind breakers for the first time in Central America. Due to recent activity and the emissions of toxic fumes (the park only reopened a few months ago) we were limited to only 20 minutes at the crater’s edge. We had to wear hard hats and were advised about the use of the emergency shelters (see the pictures of where flying rocks have hit steel barriers). There is an ambulance just down the road on full-time standby.
The enormous crater measures some 1.3km across and 300m deep and we can see yellow sulfur deposits, bubbling mud and steam rising. Cool! (but too cold to stay more than 20 minutes).
Photos at: http://www.pbase.com/mr2c280/alajuela
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