Costa Rica, 2012
If you like jungles, beaches, monkeys, flowers, tropical wonders, and are not easily perturbed when things do not go according to plan, then get yourself to Costa Rica! That is what Honza and I did this past February. I had heard lots of great things about this Central American nation from fellow adventure seekers and nature lovers, and given Costa Rica's permanently warm climate, it offered a much needed reprieve from the winter doldrums (not that they are particularly prevalent in California).
My flight from Dallas was scheduled to get into San Jose around noon, while Honza's was due at 6pm, so the plan was for me to pick up the rental, check us into the hotel and arrange for a shuttle pickup for Honza. Of course, from the very get-go, the plan failed. Thunderstorms in Dallas precipitated long delays on all outgoing flights, and so I did not arrive in San Jose until mid-afternoon. When I eventually made it to the Hertz counter to pick up our rental, the smiley but not so cheerful representative greeted me with: "You see my friend, the problem is your reservation was for noon and it is now 3pm". He gladly informed me that due to strong demand, they had given our car away. The only vehicle left was an SUV for a staggering $700 a week. Costing more than what I would expect a Ferrari to go for, and several multiples of the price Honza and I had agreed to, I elected to wait at the airport for a few hours for Honza to arrive before making any rash decisions.
My best advice to visitors arriving into Juan Santamaría international airport is to get out of there as quickly as possible. The place is extremely sketchy. Everywhere you turn, pesky, pushy locals try to sell you taxi service, tips, trinkets, and God-knows what else. Even the Hertz counter was unsettling, bearing the prominent sign: “sex with people under 18 is serious.” Waiting three hours in this environment for Honza was painful. My persistent presence did not escape the attention of the solicitors who pestered me to no end. One of the private taxi drivers even sent his son to do his bidding. It felt like the Spanish inquisition.
When Honza finally arrived, he was equally astonished by the astronomical increase in price of the one and only rental remaining, and we decided we would just take a taxi to the hotel and try to make alternative plans the next day, after a good night's sleep.
La Paz Waterfall and Poas Volcano
On the upside, our hotel in San Jose was very nice. Situated in the suburb of Santa Ana (which the locals seem to pronounce Santana), the Hotel Studio had luxurious rooms, a rooftop swimming pool, gym, and excellent breakfast. Heeding the advice of our guidebook to get into and out of San Jose as quickly as possible, we never actually visited downtown San Jose. The only points of interest there, really, are a church and museum — something both of us were willing to skip altogether. We, therefore, wanted to plan a day trip somewhere nearby, spend one more night in Santa Ana, and then head up to Arenal, where, according to all the guidebooks and online guides, all sorts of treasures await.
The only problem was, we had no transportation. With the help of the Hotel Studio's assistant concierge, who had much difficulty understanding our apparently complex scheduling requests, we determined that if one added up all the taxi charges for a day trip to the La Paz Waterfall, transportation to Arenal, taxis to and from the hotels, one more trip to Manuel Antonio, and a final one to San Jose, all that would actually cost even more than the exorbitant price of a rental. So, with gritted teeth, we booked the cheapest option Budget Rent a Car had: the most beat up, basic Toyota Yaris I had ever seen for $530 USD per week with insurance (which did not even seem to come with comprehensive coverage).
Equipped with a so-called car, we took off for the mountains. Without GPS, and hardly any help from the crude map Budget proffered, we relied on the sparse road signs, mountainous terrain, and blind intuition to navigate this foreign country. Needless to say, we took the wrong turn frequently. But that was often a blessing in disguise, leading to bucolic pastures and stunning views.
La Paz Waterfall and Gardens is a privately owned ecological reserve just 50km north of San Jose. Named after the 121ft high waterfall, the reserve features a hotel, an impressive aviary, butterfly observatory, monkey cages, and some zoo animals like jaguars, pumas, ocelots, and, well, oxen. I cannot imagine spending more than a day here, but the hotel does attract visitors who like have an extended stay, relaxing in the tranquil gardens.
The aviary is proud to offer visitors a chance to pet and feed a few toucan, which are vibrant in color and personality. Despite their brilliant colors, they are surprisingly good at camouflage.
Taking the shuttle bus back to the entrance saved us precious time needed to drive up to Poas volcano. When we arrived at the park entrance, we were told the park would only remain open for another half hour, and the trails would be closed in fifteen minutes on account of the impending thick blanket of clouds. Debating whether or not to pay our entrance fee and be disappointed by not seeing anything, or worse, getting drenched, we prudently asked whether or not there was rain in the forecast. The guard looked at us, puzzled, and said: "rain? Who knows?" Uneasily, we paid our fee, proceeded to the parking area, and hurried the half mile trail leading to the crater vista. At first, we were not quite sure what we were looking at was even a crater. All we could see was thick soup of cloud and fog.
But the viewing platforms and crowds of people reassured us there was definitely something down there. Ready to give up, Honza suggested we turn around, but I suggested we just give it ten minutes and see if we might not get lucky. Sure enough, the thick clouds eventually dissipated revealing a giant crater lake with a plume of smoke rising from its side.
Going down the mountain, we saw many groups of locals having a Sunday picnic by the side of the road, except, this was not your ordinary picnic. My idea of a picnic involves a blanket over a grassy meadow, maybe even a picnic bench, possibly with a view. These Costa Rican locals, however, chose as their ideal spot the ditch by the side of the road. We hadn't seen anything like it. A picnic in a ditch? Honza cleverly dubbed it a “ditchnik”.
Arenal Volcano and LakeThe drive to Arenal lake and volcano took a good 3 hours even though it is no farther than 80 miles from San Jose. Given that it is high up in the mountains, Arenal is surprisingly hot and humid, probably because it rains every day. You cannot call it a rainforest if it does not rain, right?
When we arrived, we took a trail walk (can't really call it a hike since it was so short) through the jungle over a series of suspension bridges (for some reason they call them hanging bridges here) and some interesting birds, lizards, monkeys way up in the tree canopy, and leaf cutter ants. It was fascinating watching the ants struggle up and down the tree trunks, carrying cut-up leaves more then five times their size.
In the afternoon, we “cooled off” in the hot springs of the Baldi resort in Arenal. They feature 16 different hot springs, each with its own temperature, from uncomfortably hot to lukewarm. The hot springs on the warm side felt like a spa with built in stone chairs that give you a comfortable emersion in the water. There are swim-up bars as well and even two very scary water slides. One could easily spend a whole day here. Since Honza and I arrived late in the afternoon, we opted for their buffet dinner option, which was really not very good.
The next morning we took a hike near the volcano with some good views of the lake. The vista was pretty cool, and the tour guide informed us Will Smith was in the area filming, but that was probably a joke because the only celebrities we saw along the way were two little coatimundi, or pizote as they call them here. They are very cute little furry guys, but they are no movie stars.
After the volcano hike, we drove over to La Fortuna waterfall, and rediscovered along the way how pathetic our little car was. On some of the hills I actually had to go into first gear. It is just not cut out for some of the "roads" out here. The dirt road to the waterfall had many uphill sections of 50 feet or so that were paved and every other part was littered with course gravel and potholes. We wandered why the locals skimped out on paving all of it. So Costa Rican! Why pave all of it when you can pave only part?
La Fortuna waterfall itself is an impressive waterfall. It has a drop of 70m (240ft), and the pool at its base attracts many visitors as its cool waters are a welcome relief from the humid heat. The hike down to the pool is rated strenuous, and there is even a warning sign at the trail head warning people with heart trouble not to attempt it.
Coming back from the waterfall, the Arenal downtown looked like a bit of a dump to us, but even a dump can look good when sunlight hits it the right way.
Our hotel in Arenal was the Hotel Lavas Tacotal, one of the cheapest in the region. And you sort of get what you pay for. The beds were so uncomfortable, they were probably imported from Guantanamo Bay. Given that in just two days we had explored about all there is to explore in Arenal, we decided to forfeit our last day's booking and head to the beach instead.
That last evening in Arenal we had dinner at an American-themed steakhouse across the street from the hotel. The food was really good, and the waiters, dressed like cowboys, would not stop saying mucho gusto, which is the Costa Rican way of saying de nada, to every single gracias Honza and I uttered. It was so engrained in us by the end of the evening that Honza used the phrase with much gusto all the rest of the trip.
When we left Arenal early the next morning, we experienced some true torrential rains. It was an encouraging sign that we made the right call to head to the beaches early. The journey to Manuel Antonio, however, was arduous. The national park is probably only about 160 miles from Arenal, but it took all day. Sugar cane carrying trucks hogged the mountainous roads and were impossible to pass, going up the endless hills at less than ten miles an hour, and inevitably we also took a good number of wrong turns on account of the dearth of road signs. We left before 9am and arrived at our hotel near 3pm.
Our hotel here was the Kayak-Lodge, a family owned and operated hotel situated in Damas, a small village a few kilometers from the park. The owner is a charming man who also runs a kayak tour of the mangrove forest. I highly recommend these accommodations. The rooms are clean, well-equipped, and the included, made to order breakfast in the morning is delicious. The lodge is at the end of a long pockmarked road off the main coastal highway. It was an adventure just to make it across without losing a wheel, so be careful if you choose to stay here.
Once checked in, we drove down south to Dominicalito beach and Motapalo beach in time to catch a pretty spectacular sunset.
The next morning was dedicated entirely to Manuel Antonio. We set our alarms for 6:45 following the advice of all the guide books, which urged tourists to show up early as the park only lets in a certain number of visitors so as not to overcrowd the tiny 4-acre grounds. It is in fact popular, but one would probably be fine showing up at 9am just as well as 7am.
The park really is small, even at a leisurely pace, one can hike through all the attractions in an hour or two. The guidebooks recommend hiring a guide to point out the small variety of flora and fauna, but Honza and I got by just fine overhearing the inconsequential commentary of the other groups' guides. We could hear what others were observing but were not obligated to linger longer than we cared.
We saw a good number of monkeys, sloths, people ogling at sloths, people pretending to be ogling at sloths, and even one large iguana. But our most anticipated attraction was the Playa Manuel Antonio, one of the nicest beaches in Costa Rica. When we got to it, it was fairly deserted but by early afternoon, hardly an open patch of sand was to be found. The ocean water was a pleasant 82 degrees, and we made many swimming tours of the lagoon.
Pura Vida gardens
On the last day of our trip, following another terrific breakfast at the Kayak Lodge, we started the trip back to San Jose. We had all day to do it, so we leisurely drove up the coast, checking out a few volcanic beaches before heading east on Hwy 27 to San Jose.
Along the way we made a stop at a private botanical garden owned by a retired American couple. It was just off the coast at the end of a seemingly endless, windy, steep dirt road that the Yaris could barely tackle, even in first. The gardens are huge (54 acres), feature some fascinating flora and priceless views of the highest waterfall in the country as well as the Pacific Ocean.
My favorite flower was the torch ginger, an extraordinarily complex and bright red passionate blossom, the likeness of which I had never seen. It is not native to Costa Rica, in fact it is Indonesian, but it looked like it belonged here and embodied the pura vida philosophy of Costa Ricans.