Great start to our new adventure – United had us change gates as it turned out our original plane was not properly equipped electronically to land at Panama and as a consequence the departure got delayed by 50 minutes. With a connection time of just over one hour we didn’t think we would have any chance of making our flight to Costa Rica. Luck was on our side, we got off our plane and made a quick dash to where our connecting flight was waiting, to be the last ones to board – Phew!! An hour later we were on the ground in San Jose, Costa Rica and we even had our luggage!! As always the inevitable immigration queues awaited us but we were through in less than an hour. The relative calm inside the terminal was quickly replaced by the turmoil outside – tour/taxi company reps all lined up shouting, waving placards and just a mass of traffic.
Amidst the chaos we managed to find our hotel pickup and were quickly whisked away into the melee of rush hour San Jose traffic. Aggressive driving would be quite an understatement. Our hotel was well out of the city, fortunately, but will we ever find it again when we come back as the route was through tiny streets, twisting and turning with no street signs to help – our GPS had better be good. The Buena Vista certainly lived up to it’s name – lovely spreading views over the San Jose Valley. Just a small hotel with colourful gardens blooming with bougainvillea and many other vibrant tropical plants.
Day 2 – A nice warm start to our day but breakfast was a bit of an odd concoction – scrambled eggs, rice and black beans (together), toast and bits of fruit. Black beans are very much a staple here and they are not at all appetising – no flavour to speak of. Our rental car duly arrived at 8am but it took a while to get all the paperwork completed with lengthy explanations about what the insurance does and doesn’t cover, ie. loss of licence plates is not covered. If you park illegally over yellow lines, the police can remove your rear licence plate and you have to pay $100 before they will return it.
By 9.30 we were loaded up and our little Hyundai 4×4 was ready for off. Out the gate and up the road we went straight into the countryside – first impressions, not a particularly prosperous country but a few steps up from rural Indonesia/Philippines and without the smells. Interestingly, Costa Rica has no military forces, having elected some time ago to spend their limited resources on education of the young instead. We will be relying heavily on our GPS as street names don’t exist – finding everything is by Point Of Interest. First stop was the Poas Volcano National Park via an interesting route – climbing up to 2700m on narrow roads, big ditches really close to the side of the road, twisty, potholes, big trucks coming the other way and many one-way bridges, with a top speed of 30kph. A hefty entrance fee had to be paid at the gate before we walked up to the crater lake view. Really very impressive – large crater with steamy lake. There was a time limit of 20 minutes due to the fumes (which really didn’t seem any worse than Rotorua) and signs everywhere telling you what to do in case of an eruption. Did a little loop walk around the cloud forest which were a bit like the swamp forests in the southern US but with more colour. Treated to our first sight of hummingbirds feeding on the bright flowers.
Lunch stop at a little local restaurant, Bob chose the omelette and I opted for something that I had no idea what it would be except that it had white cheese – turned out to be a piece of toast with a huge chunk of fairly bland white soft cheese. Suitably sated it was on for another hour of mountain roads – this area is the spine of the mountain ranges that run the length of Costa Rica. Very slow going, with no engine braking capacity in our little vehicle. Nice drop-offs on the passenger side as well!! Passed by a couple of pretty waterfalls tumbling down the steep mountains.
Maria (our GPS) found our destination for the next two nights – Tirimbina Lodge – an ecological reserve/research facility with a few rooms for guests. Clean and fairly basic but with wifi and a small restaurant. Their park closed at 5pm so we only had a short time to do an exploration walk. They have a 260m suspension bridge crossing a swift flowing river over to forest walks. Saw a few birds and a sloth way up in the trees. Dinner at the lodge was a simple but adequate buffet with salads, veges, rice, black bean stew, chicken or beef finished off with a coconut ice like dessert.
Day 3 – Up at dawn to search for the bird life and was rewarded with seeing a toucan. We joined the 8am chocolate tour – a good move to get started in the relative cool of the morning. Had a short walk to the traditional plantation where we got the rundown on the cacao trees. The fruit grows on the trunk and on old wood from the most tiny flower. The fruit changes colour when ripe but never falls from the tree – size can be anything from 6-12 inches and oblong in shape. We were then taken through the traditional process of making cocoa/chocolate with sampling encouraged along the way.
1. Opening the fruit – broken open to reveal the beans about 1in in diameter lying in a sticky white mucous. We sucked on the pulp which was very sweet and almost like a lychee in flavour.
2. Spit out the beans – the bacteria from your mouth is enough to start the 7 day fermentation process. 3. After fermentation the beans are dried in the sun and when dry roasted for just 15 minutes. This is enough so that the outer husks come off easily and are reading for grinding. At this stage they are quite bitter but when ground with a bit of raw sugar and cinnamon, along with the fats from the bean, they turn into a sweeter, much more palatable paste.
4. Boiling water was added to this paste so that we could sample hot chocolate with a variety of different condiments to try adding to it – cornflour, nutmeg, pepper, chili and vanilla essence.
5. To get to the chocolate bar stage – the beans are ground, conched and tempered. The completed product was rather nice.
Our knowlegeable guide made this a very interesting tour – on the way back she was able to explain all about the different plant and insect life we were passing.
Sitting back on our verandah relaxing in the heat of the day, we were treated to a steady flow of different birds flying in to feed on the flowers in the garden – like our own private aviary. The gardens around the lodge were stunning – planted to attract birds and wildlife. Some of the birds were quite plain, but others more vibrant – one black with bright red wings, another little one blue and grey, as well as the busy little hummingbirds.
Drove up to the next town for a look at local life. Managed to find a nice little bakery for our lunch then walked up and down the “main” street. A couple of nice looking butchers, appliance stores selling mainly TV’s and washing machines plus other general clothes/shoe stores. If you wanted some day old chickens you could buy these out of a cage on the pavement outside their equivalent of an RD1 store (only much smaller).
Returned back to Tirimbina to explore the forest some more. The suspension bridge passes through the forest at canopy height so that you get a bird’s eye view. The monkeys had arrived in the trees outside our room when we got back so they were fun to watch.
Decided to eat local for dinner – just down the road was a small Soda (these are family run kitchens in the front of the house and serve basic Tica fare) – our plan for a light meal didn’t quite pan out. After being shown in the freezer what we could choose from, selected fish and should have opted for one between us as in addition to a crispy fried fillet there was rice, slice of white cheese, lettuce and tomato salad, black beans, fried plantain and another concoction – I think another type of bean (yellowish and mush). Needless to say we couldn’t eat it all but what good value for just $15 for two, including a drink. I think we were a bit of a novelty to the locals.
Night-time driving isn’t recommended in CR and we saw why – proper lights on bikes and even motorbikes seems to be optional!! Fortunately we had only a very short way to go and made it back without incident.
Day 4 – Off to Arenal – we didn’t have very far to go and arrived way too early to check in so just waited in reception and read our books. The volcano was not visible due to low cloud and misty rain. Arenal Paraiso, our hotel, is one of probably twenty resorts in the region, with hot springs and thermal pools. Our room was a little cabin, nice and clean and would have had a nice view on a clear day. The hot pools layered down the hillside, getting cooler as they went down. Ate in the hotel’s restaurant – standard international fare and nicely presented.
Day 5 – Weather still a bit miserable so decided after breakfast to search out the nearby butterfly conservatory which was shown as being only 15kms away. How hard could that be!! Well we got our first taste of “minor” CR roads. The last 10 kms were on an unsealed road – no gravel, just a stony surface but the potholes were the challenge. We understand the need now for a 4×4 – if you had a lower ground clearance you could quite easily wipe out the bottom of the car. Made it eventually (it took nearly an hour!) but the place was quite manky – we did get to see come colourful butterflies though and also their amazing frogs. ‘Blue Jeans’ was the best – only the size of a thumbnail with a bright red body and vibrant blue legs. Another a little larger was black with bright green splotches. Both were highly toxic little beasties. The highlight of the place was a young Canadian woman back at the front office who took us through their display of mounted butterflies and insects imparting lots of information.
Battled our way back down the grotty road – feel very sorry for tourists who make this trip by bus – it would be an extremely uncomfortable ride. Back on the tarmac we did a circle drive around Lake Arenal – mainly farmland with the odd bit of forest and view of the lake, before going back down past our hotel to the nearest town of Fortuna in search of a cafe which we had noticed when we came up the previous day. After several goes around the town finally found it and it was worth it. Real hot chocolate made with frothed milk and a solid block of chocolate to stir into it – YUMMY!
Back home for a relax then out again just down the road for a light dinner, then returning home again for a soak in the pools under the stars.
Day 6 – Monteverde here we come!! We were warned that the last 35kms of our 100km journey would be rough. They weren’t kidding – unsealed, average speed 15kph, windy, pot holes and rough as well as steep hills both up and down. Finally got to Monteverde after a nice lunch stop at a German cafe in the middle of nowhere, but the challenge was to try and find our hotel. It wasn’t listed as a POI in our GPS. The town is on a very steep mountain side – one narrow sealed road goes through the middle, but all other roads are rough. Fortunately we just happened to spot a sign for our hotel as it was not an easy find. This was a little boutique hotel – again nice and clean with a little balcony but fairly basic – perched on the hill above the town and if you thought Wellington was windy, come to this place!! It was blowing a gale. Steep walk down to the town which didn’t have much to offer apart from a few souvenir shops and cafes. The walk back was a severe cardio workout. Dinner was back down the road (not quite so far as the main town) to a new restaurant associated with the hotel for a very pleasant meal. Saw some more wildlife today – coati on the side of the road and monkeys near the town.
Day 7 – With the wind persisting we decided that a coffee tour would take care of our afternoon, so just walked down to a nice cafe for lunch. Our scheduled pickup for the afternoon tour never eventuated so it was another relaxed afternoon. Found a nice restaurant for dinner, not far from our hotel, for one of the nicest meals we have had since leaving NZ. Not expensive, simple but lovely fresh ingredients and a good atmosphere.
Day 8 – An exercise in patience. We knew we had a long trip today so set off mid-morning through the town to search for the road to Punta Arenas. Found the road alright but after a short distance there were cones strung across it and a very disinterested road worker fiddling around with them. After about 10 minutes he finally acknowledged us and indicated that the road was closed for some time! OK what now – back into town and the information office revealed that the road is open only until 9.30am and then for 1/2 hour at noon – the rest of the time it is closed for road construction. The good news was that there was an alternative route that would be a little bit longer – YEAH RIGHT!! Firstly it took a lot of finding and what a road – the sign as we entered the road said trucks and buses were prohibited. It quickly became obvious why – it was incredibly steep, narrow and winding and only a bit of concrete on the excessively steep grades.
We traipsed for miles and miles up and around the mountains with no real idea if we were on the right route. We did finally meet up with a much better grade of metal road which gave us a little more confidence, before reaching a major highway – the Pan American Highway which starts in Alaska and traverses the length of central and south America. That was just the beginning of our frustration – road works, big slow trucks and Maria taking us through Punta Arenas on virtual donkey tracks before she finally got us on the correct road. She also doesn’t recognise one-way streets. The long and the short of it all was that our 3 1/2 hour trip took over 5 hours but Maria did find our hotel in Manual Antonio – a nice little place set in some tropical forest with 6 bungalows, a nice pool and restaurant. Treat for the day – at dusk the Titi monkeys came through and entertained us with their antics in the treetops. After a pleasant dinner in the restaurant wandered up the road to see what was around. Manuel Antonio seems to be like most of Costa Rica, built on a hill!
Day 9 – Down to the beach area which is a very popular tourist haunt but it was so crowded and touristy that we just had a quick walk on the nice beach, a fruit smoothie then came back to the hotel for a relaxed afternoon swimming in the pool and reading as it was too hot and humid to do much else.
Saw my first CR snake (and hopefully the last) outside and just below our balcony – about 4 ft long, bright green and skinny and hopefully harmless. We sussed out a nice place for dinner – no shortage of eating places in this town – sea bass with ginger in a light coconut curry sauce with fresh vegetables – very tasty.
Day 10 – Headed back into the mountains again. Had the luxury of a straight road for the first 30k before beginning our ascent up to 3300m. Just love Maria – we started out with a journey time of 3 hours, after an hour it was still 2hr 50 minutes. The last part of the journey was the most challenging yet – our itinerary said it was a well maintained “country” road – what it omitted to say was that it was an almost vertical drop into the valley with only one lane in places, so it was with some relief that we arrived at our destination. Savegre Resort Hotel was very new and exceptionally well laid out with stunning gardens. This area is obviously a bird-watchers paradise as most of the guests were on bird-watching tours.
It was a pity that we only had the one night here – the drive in warrants staying for several days to get the most out of it. We did manage to see Costa Rica’s poster bird – the Quetzal – in fact a breeding pair. Ended our day with a light meal in the bar/lounge and marvelled at how they would have got all the materials in to build the place with the only means of access – the one torturous road.
The gardens were just beautiful with so many plants that we are familiar with back home except that they are probably native to this region – hydrangeas, impatiens, agapanthus, cigarette plants and hibiscus. The hummingbirds were flocking in their droves to feed on all the different plants.
Day 11 – Back up that “hill”. The only saving grace was that we only encountered 3 vehicles coming the other way and all in places were there was room to squeeze past each other. 30 minutes later that 9km was behind us and we only had an hour or so to get to our next stop of Orosi. Well that was the intention – we were travelling along happily on the Pan American Highway only about 20kms from Cartago when we came across a road sign that we didn’t understand except the bit about roadworks – 5km later all was revealed – the road was closed and impassable due to a washout from several months ago. The workmen told us we had to turn around and head for Los Angeles – YEAH RIGHT AGAIN!! An hour later after traipsing around yet more narrow mountain roads with no real clue as to where we might be, we miraculously emerged on to the PanAm Highway above the washout. Poor Maria had no chance at all of finding her way on the detour and was continually confused. Challenge No 2 was finding a route through Cartago and the smaller town of Paraiso to the final destination of Orosi – an even smaller town in a mountain valley. Our little hotel with just 6 rooms and a cafe was again clean and tidy, owned and run by a German couple. TD decided it was time to strike me, so the rest of the afternoon was a right-off with just an apple and soda biscuits providing the gourmet meal.
Day 12 – Booked on an early morning coffee tour to an organic farm just 20 minutes from Orosi. It was interesting to learn about the process which was not really too different from growing cacao. The thing that surprised us was how unsanitory the processing conditions were – but as they said, the roasting process at 240degrees C kills anything anyway. The organics went as far as having their own bio-digester which provided them with enough methane to fire the roaster. It was a very small scale farm but it was good to see how it all operated. They were having a difficult time though with the changing climate in their region – the plants had started flowering way before they should and they were getting rain at the wrong time as well. All the beans were harvested by hand mostly by the local indian people.
Finished the morning with a drive around the lake and a little walk around the town – not much on offer – a small old church which they were very proud of and some local shops.
Day 13 – Time to head back to Alajuela and the Buena Vista Hotel. This meant returning through Paraiso with all it’s potholes and busy Cartago, then navigating around San Jose – great plus for us was it’s a Sunday so much lighter traffic, except for Paraiso. As we crested the hill from Orosi we encountered a huge line-up of cars – all Hondas – there must have been several hundred just parked on the side of the road and across intersections making progress through their one-way streets a nightmare. Once out the other side we had a hassle free ride back through Cartago and through the suburbs of San Jose. We popped out the other side and wonderously Maria got us back to the hotel. For the first time on our trip it took us a lot less time than anticipated.
There was not very much in the immediate surroundings of the hotel and of course no footpaths but we had a walk down the hill to get a better look at the city below us – got chatting with nice chap who was preparing a bit of land for building – commanding views. He was keen to learn all about NZ and we stayed talking with him for quite a while.
Impressions of Costa Rica – definitely a 2nd world country but very well educated and very keen to promote their Pura Vida way of life. Eco-tourism is very strong following their ‘Green Revolution’ some years ago. Very safe to travel around and lovely people. Lots of mountains, cloud and rainforests with abundant wildlife. Their climate is such that they have an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables. Roads are the biggest challenge and would be too daunting for many people to self-drive and not pleasant to bump around on in a bus. There was one American couple staying at our hotel at Orosi and he had freaked out on the short road from Paraiso to Orosi which was really quite good (sealed although a bit steep, narrow and winding) and wanted to pay for a driver to take him back. Loved the birds and all the amazing flowers – so colourful.