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A Taste of Costa Rica

Travelling with my dad and Anne-Marie

sunny 22 °C

Red-eyed leaf frog - the mascot of Costa Rica

Red-eyed leaf frog - the mascot of Costa Rica

It seems I have to cast myself way back in time to catch up on this story about Costa Rica. Island life in the Pacific is slow, and a month and a half ago feels more like three months ago. Also, it has been such a change of scenery since we arrived in the Pacific that the details of our last weeks in Latin America seem harder to recall.

We were travelling with my dad and Anne-Marie who had met us in Panama in early November. After visiting the City and the area of Boquete, we took a long bus journey from David, in northern Panama, to San José in Costa Rica. Anne-Marie and I had considered breaking up the journey by going to the Osa Peninsula and the Parque Nacional Corcovado for a few days. This destination however was hard to reach and travelling there from the Panamanian border appeared to be too adventurous for our party. Reluctantly we abandoned that plan and decided to focus on the highlights of Costa Rica's North instead.

San Jose post office - one of the prettier buildings...

San Jose post office - one of the prettier buildings...

Our stop over in San José was short and of a practical nature as San José is not exactly the prettiest city in the world. Dave and I needed a day in town to get the keyboard of our laptop fixed (the new one we bought in Ecuador...), and it's the hub for pretty much all buses to elsewhere in the country. Even though Costa Rica's capital can't boast many interesting buildings (whether old or new) I thought it had a nice, lively atmosphere, and kind of liked the place. We also found a couple of worthwhile museums and restaurants, always a key ingredient for me to appreciate a city.

My dad and Anne-Marie visited the Museo de Oro Precolombino (Gold museum) on their own whilst Dave and I were at the computer shop. We then went to the Museo de Jade (Jade museum) together after a lunch break in one of the many sodas (as local cafés are called) of the Central Market. Both had good exhibits, and I had never seen so many finely chiselled jade pieces before. In the evenings, we first ate at Café Mundo, a trendy spot with a large terrace near our hotel, and to which we returned for apéritif the following day. On our second night, we caught a taxi to go to Restaurante Whapin, a Caribbean eatery in another neighbourhood. After taking a few turns, and giving the driver various instructions to get to the restaurant – addresses in Costa Rica function by landmark rather than by street names – we found out that the place located 200 metres east of the small lighthouse was also within walking distance of our hotel. The taxista had a good laugh at us whilst he cashed in his fare and provided directions to get back by foot after dinner.

Volcan Arenal clears soon after arrival

Volcan Arenal clears soon after arrival

There's likely more to see and do in San José, but we left the capital the next morning for the small town of La Fortuna, at the foot of Volcan Arenal. This volcano is one of the easiest active volcanoes to visit in the world so we were all very excited to potentially see some live lava. As a consequence, we were all equally disappointed to learn that the volcano hadn't spouted out anything for the past 11 months and looked rather dormant at the moment. We still enjoyed looking at it from the balcony in front of our rooms. When we arrived, it was sunny and we could see the top. Perhaps we should have rushed to to the national park and observatory at the foot of the volcano on that first day as thereafter the cone remained mostly covered in cloud. Instead we chose to spend a relaxing afternoon and review the many tours you can partake in.

In the end, we decided that renting a car was a better solution for us than going on various tours. This gave us the liberty to visit the area's key sights at our own rhythm, and actually turned out to be more economical overall. We explored the local forest canopy from the trails and hanging bridges of the Puentes Colgantes de Arenal pathways in the morning. We then drove along Lake Arenal for a bit and had lunch in a lovely roadside café with a great view over the lake. In the afternoon, we walked around some of the trails of Parque Nacional Volcan Arena. We saw a large Ceiba tree and took another look at the lake whilst standing on the 1968 lava flow. Unfortunately, the volcano was hidden by clouds the whole time and we all agreed that it wasn't worth continuing to the volcano observatory. As it felt too warm to go to one of the area's many thermal baths and we had already had a long day, we simply headed back into town for dinner.

At the twisted waterfall

At the twisted waterfall

The following day, we had planned a horse-back excursion to the pretty Catarata de la Fortuna (La Fortuna waterfall). It was raining heavily when we woke up, so we first hoped that the tour would be cancelled, and actually called several times to ask about it. It wasn't cancelled, but we were lucky enough that the rain stopped just about when we were climbing onto our horses and did not start again until late in the evening. Don't take this trip if you like your horses to go fast. We hardly went beyond snail pace, and the horses really only respond to the guide's voice command. The last bit of trail is done by foot and leads down into a canyon to the waterfall. This is pretty amazing and I wished we would have had more time to hang around this trail and by the waterfall. We even spotted an eyebrow viper (poisonous) curled up in a tree on the way. We took a detour back to the ranch with our horses and stopped at a Maleku show-hut. The Maleku are an indigenous tribe living north of Volcan Arenal and the traditional hut is there to show tourists their ancient ways of living and more importantly sell their handicraft. I loved their rainmaker tubes, especially the giant one they were using for the show, and could not resist buying a small one as a gift for someone back home.

Giant rain maker stick

Giant rain maker stick

Later on that afternoon, we went to the Baldi Hot Springs. I have seen many thermal baths in my life as they are quite common in Switzerland and I'm a big fan of them, but I had never seen anything as extravagant as these – it was the Las Vegas of thermal spas! There are 25 pools and 12 different temperatures to choose from (apparently... we lost count after a while). The pools stretch out into a lush tropical garden, some are so hot that you don't even want to dip a toe in (have you ever tried anything above 44 degrees? At Baldi, there's one a 67 degrees!). At least three of the pools feature a bar so you can sip your cocktail whilst sitting in the warm water and watch TV. Some have jets and jacuzzi bubbles, others have lie-in loungers. There's a pool with various water-slides (kind of scary, but I did give a go to one of them), and the last one is towered over by a giant waterfall under which you can sit if you tolerate the high temperature and intense pressure of the water. Check out http://baldicostarica.com/tour/photo-gallery.html for some photos of the extravaganza, we only managed to get one with drinks in hand at the bar.

By the swimming pool bar

By the swimming pool bar

The next morning we moved on to Monteverde via the popular jeep-boat-jeep route. The jeep is more of a 4x4 mini-van but it still gets you there much faster than you would through any other route. On reflection, I preferred the Monteverde region to the Arenal region. We stayed in a cute little hostal in the village of Santa Elena. It was called Cabinas Eddy B&B and managed by Freddy, a charming young Tico (as Costa Ricans are called), and his wife Shirleny (www.cabinas-eddy.com). We thought it was easily the best value place we found in the whole of Costa Rica and were very happy about the excellent breakfast of fruit and eggs each morning. If you are looking for it, it is right next to Casa Tranquilo. Whilst the village was still very much geared up for tourists, things seemed to be a bit more low-key and less brash in Santa Elena and Monteverde than in La Fortuna. At least we did not get solicited by a tour salesman each time we walked through town.

The star attractions of the area are the various cloud forests which you can visit from dawn to dusk. We took a guided walk through the Reserva Santa Elena one early morning, and were shown many plant and bird species by our enthusiastic guide. Despite keeping our eyes peeled, and smelling them occasionally, we spotted no howler monkeys. We could not find any sloths either. Apart from the forest, there are a number of other interesting places to see. My dad and Anne-Marie went to the small Santa Elena orchid garden, whilst Dave and I visited the ranarium. We all came back thrilled with what we'd seen. Dave and I returned to the ranarium that night when many of the frogs were more active and displayed off all the colours of their body. We also took an amazing tour at the Bat Jungle. This included over an hour's talk to learn more about these animals followed by a walk through a bat house. It was led by a very passionate Belgium biologist who had landed there after meeting his other half in Costa Rica. We all walked out of it believing that bats are the most important and astonishing animals on earth, and swearing that we were going to install bat shelters on the walls of our houses. Watch out, we may try to convert you to do so as well... To find out more about the Bat Jungle and bat houses, visit www.batjungle.com and www.batcon.org/index.php/get-involved/install-a-bat-house.html.

In the cloud forest

In the cloud forest

From Monteverde and Santa Elena, we took a tourist transfer van to Tamarindo where I was hoping to see a giant Leatherback turtle lay eggs for my birthday. If a bit pricey, the tourist transfer van seemed the easiest option to get us from A to B in this case. This way, we could avoid changing buses three times and having to wait by the roadside under potentially pouring rain (rainy season was proving to be quite reliable in Costa Rica) until the next connection turned up. It also saved a bit of travel time and meant we didn't have to get up at the ungodly hour of 5am. On the road, we saw two different groups of howler monkeys and stopped at a café which had a colony of semi-domesticated macaws in the backyard. We also passed Puente de la Amistad (Friendship Bridge), a short-cut to the Nicoya peninsula financed and built by the Taiwanese government in 2003.

Tamarindo lies in the northwest of the Nicoya peninsula and is a well known tourist spot with a developed infrastructure. Many go there first and foremost for the sun, the surf and the party. We took the long trip because I had read that the critically endangered Leatherback turtles, the biggest of all sea turtles, come to lay their eggs in nearby Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas de Guanacaste from November to February. Dave and I had longed to see a turtle laying eggs since we visited the impressive TAMAR project centre back in Praia do Forte, Brazil (see “The treasures of Bahia state” posting) so we were very excited about the prospect to finally being able to witness this. In the end, we did not see a Leatherback, but a sub-species of the Green turtle (locally referred to as Black turtle). It was indeed only the beginning of the nesting season for the Leatherbacks, and by now this species is unfortunately so endangered that only very few of them come ashore. Chances were just better of observing a Black turtle.

Turtle eggs being laid

Turtle eggs being laid

We drove to an unprotected beach (shocking!!) and followed our guide unto the sand stretch with our red lights. White lights are prohibited as they disrupt the turtles who are trying to navigate their way ashore. Soon after, he spotted one who was already digging her bed to nest. We watched her quietly for a while so as not to disturb her. She re-started her bed several times as she was bothered by roots or other things in her way. Another tour group arrived on the beach and our guide decided to take us to a neighbouring beach to limit the numbers watching the same turtle. There we found another animal within minutes. This turtle had already dug her hole and was entering her trance to lay her eggs. This is the best moment to approach without disturbance. We could take a few photos and even touch her carapace. Once she had finished her job, the guide moved the eggs to another hole he had dug a few metres up the beach. This is to prevent locals from finding the eggs for consumption. Regrettably, these are still considered as a delicacy or an aphrodisiac. Locals can easily follow the turtle tracks to find the original nest and since we were on an unprotected beach, there was no one there to keep them from doing that.

Whilst we observed the awe-inspiring spectacle, a lone biologist from the Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas arrived to take measurements, count the eggs and mark the turtle. The guide told us he spends every night on three beaches of the area to help the conservation effort as much as possible. We all walked away having mixed feelings about the whole experience, and I believe we do have to question ourselves about whether it is right to gawk at these age-old creatures in a moment that normally commands utter privacy by anyone's standards. That said, it immediately renewed Dave's and my desire to act for the protection and conservation of these animals. We asked the guide how we could help the biologist and offered our last week in Costa Rica up for turtle volunteering. We even phoned and emailed the park's director to see how we could help. In the end, we could not make it work this time as a minimum of two weeks is required from volunteers given the required training. The project will remain in our heads however, and we will continue to look for an opportunity to save the turtles.

Blue and gold macaw

Blue and gold macaw

The following day was my birthday and I managed to buy two pieces of clothing (a funky dress and a top/skirt) in a local shop where they were sewing the pieces in the design studio above. I also had a swim and a relaxing massage on the beach where the sound of the waves mixed in with the chill out music emerging from the bar next door. Later in the afternoon, we drove back towards San José to see some things in the surrounding area and be closer to the airport as it was nearly time for my Dad and Anne-Marie to return home. We did not go back into the city however, and stayed in Atenas, a small village of the Central Valley, not too far away from the international airport.

The next morning, we drove up to Volcan Poas, an active volcano that has the bad habit of getting covered in clouds from about 10am. This pretty much kills the chance to see anything apart from other disappointed tourists near the rim of its main crater beyond that time. We did not make it before the cloud descended, despite getting up early. We were lucky enough though to get a rainless walk around the remainder of the national park's trails and a peak into the old crater which is now filled by a lake. We also took the time to go to Zoo-Ave, a worthwhile bird park that ended up having lots of other animals too, and the butterfly farm of La Guácima. The latter we fitted in due to Anne-Marie's flight being delayed by a whole 24h. This confirmed my belief that it is better to avoid flying with Iberia if you can help yourself (they still seemed to have problems scheduling that flight a week later when we returned to the airport. Why would you try to land a long-haul flight at 3pm, when the rain is most likely to be torrential?).

View over central valley

View over central valley

We really liked to share a piece of our journey with my dad and Anne-Marie. We think the travelling together went well, although I guess we'll find out how they really felt if they ever travel with us again. After their departure, we only had a week left in Latin America before starting our slow return home via the Pacific Islands. We were torn between lazying on the Caribbean coast (more specifically in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, much recommended by Basak and Sam) or heading to Bahia Salinas near the Nicaraguan border, for a week of kite-surfing.

We picked the kite-surfing...

Click for more photos of San Jose and surroundings, La Fortuna and Monteverde.

Posted by barbla 16:49 Archived in Costa Rica

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i bin au gàra mit eu graist,+ i glauba t am au.B.

by beat

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