Tuesday, 21 February 2012

A journey around Costa Rica

Costa Rica is one of the most beautiful ecologically diverse countries that I have had seen in the world. Our initial impression, as you can see from the pictures below, is how beautiful the scenery is with lush tropical rain forests and the flowers and trees were in full bloom.



Our trip would take us from San Jose (the capital), over the mountains to the southern part of Costa Rica around Golfito and then north up the Osa and Nicoya Peninsula’s along the Pacific Coast before heading inland back to San Jose.  You can follow the route using the map below.

My cousin Tom was in the process of planning for his retirement and his plan was to relocate to Costa Rica with his wife and then 13 year old daughter. He has been visiting Costa Rica regularly for many years so he knew the country very well.

On this trip he was scouting for retirement property mostly along the Pacific west coast of the country. My wife Gail and I were going along for the ride, travelling in a separate vehicle so that we could experience the diverse scenery and culture, and hopefully pick up a few Spanish words along the way. Residents of Costa Rica call themselves Tico’s so my cousin and I inherited the names of Tico Tom and Tico Rico for this trip; a handle we still fondly use today.

We flew from Toronto to Charlotte, North Carolina and then from Charlotte to San Jose, Costa Rica. There were no direct flights from Toronto to San Jose so we spent most of the day flying (approx 8 hours when you factor in the connection in Charlotte).

Upon arrival at San Jose the humid air hit us immediately. It was late January so we were going from a Canadian winter to the dry season in Costa Rica. Unlike North America, which has 4 seasons, Costa Rica has 2 seasons: namely the dry season from Nov - April and the wet season from May - Oct.

After picking up our vehicles at the airport we headed out of San Jose towards Cartago which would be our first stop for the night. San Jose is a difficult city to drive in because not only were we there at rush hour but also there were no street names in the entire country.  This made it harder for us to keep up with my cousin who knew the city and the country road system.

While this was the dry season, San Jose sits in the Central valley between 3 mountain ranges so the only way to get anywhere is to go up and over the mountains which brought rain, fog and cooler temperatures.

In Cartago we had our first local dish of arroz con pollo (chicken and rice). We would eat a lot of this during the trip because it was simple, tasty, filling, easy to order, and inexpensive.

Our first full day would take us to the southern part of the country towards Golfito and our nights stay at the Las Gaviotas motel.  Our meal here was interrupted by a power failure so it took quite a long time to get it served.  But we were on vacation and one thing you have to learn when you are travelling is that anything can happen so don’t sweat the small stuff.


The next day we headed towards the west coast and then north up the Pacific Coast where we would look at several properties.  This was the Osa Peninsula with stunning scenery everywhere you looked.  This area was largely untouched by large commercial development.  In Zancudo we saw our first property which was on a wild and unkept beach.  We met the owner and he was still in the process of major renovations which looked like it would take a long time to finish.  It looked to be a work in progress and not worth spending time to look at it anymore than a few minutes.


We then headed into Corcovoda National Park which National Geographic called the most biologically intense place on Earth.  It is considered the crown jewel in the extensive system of national parks and biological reserves throughout the country. The park is very popular with tropical ecologists and visitors can expect to see an abundance of wildlife which you can see from the pictures below.  I captured the photo of a hummingbird that had just hit a glass window and we thought it was dead.  But after about 10 minutes it was back flying and feeding again.  Our plan was to drive into the park and along a dried up river bed to a unique hotel set back in the park.  After a couple of hours meandering along the river bed and searching for the hotel we decided to give up as I started to hear noises in the steering area of our rental vehicle.




We continued north along the Osa Peninsula.  It was getting late and there were not many motels in this area so with the sun setting we decided to stay at the El Mirador cabinas.  Although it was dark it looked like a clean place and it was only $40 US for each cabina per night.   Because we couldn’t see, we had no idea how beautiful the scenery was until we woke up the next day and saw for ourselves.  It was so nice and peaceful that we decided to stay for 2 days and look around the area at some property.


We continued up the coast until we had to take a hand pulled barge to cross a river.  When I mean hand pulled I mean 2 guys got in the water and pulled us across the river 2 cars at a time.  The original bridge had been washed away by the heavy rains during the wet season. 

We came to our next destination at Hotel Domilocos in a small town called Dominical.  The town had a dusty pot holed dirt road as its main street.  This felt to me like what a Wild West town would be like 100 years ago…only with cars instead of horses.   Here is where we would meet up with a Caldwell real estate agent that my cousin had lined up back home.  This is the area that they would eventually move to a year later.  But for the next couple of days the agent had lined up 6 or 7 properties for us to see.  Some of the properties where still just trees in the jungle so in some cases we felt like explorers from another era.


We left Dominical and drove on the outskirts of Manuel Antonio National Park.  I remember this road vividly as a washboard road that was very rough and bumpy because of grading to resurface it.  We flew across those rocks, swerving from one side of the road to the other.  Fortunately there were no other vehicles on the road and we certainly made excellent time.  It’s no wonder that vehicles in Costa Rica don’t last long.  Eventually our vehicle had to be replaced because of a steering problem and my cousin got a flat tire shortly after that was likely caused from driving on this rough road.

Our next stop was Jaco and stayed at Hotel Nasau.  Tom had been at this place before.  It was really nice and we seemed to be the only ones staying there this night.  Jaco is a bustling city on the Pacific coast with lots of traffic.  It is common practise in Costa Rica to have locals approach you when you park on the street and ask for money to watch your car.  They are dressed with an official looking yellow marker on their shirts and they will sit on the side of the street looking after your car so no one will steal it.  This is how some people make their living. 

From Jaco we headed north into the mountains to see a unique piece of property in Atenas.  I remember this property specifically as it was a former convalescent care centre run by a Jewish American Princess who was looking to move back to the US.  It took us forever to find it as we kept getting directions but always seeming to miss it.  I thought the property was nice but it turned out to be very expensive and not practical for what my cousin wanted. 


After seeing this property we headed back towards the coast for an overnight stay in Puntarenus at the Las Brisas hotel.  This hotel just happened to be owned by a former resident of Montreal who had been in Costa Rica for almost 20 years. 

The next morning we took a ferry ride across the Nicoya strait and then drove up the Nicoya Peninsula.  We drove over the hills of Nicoya to the coast on a dusty narrow road.  I remember in one place that the road was just being developed and met up with a grader.  There was only enough room for the grader or us and it pulled off so we could pass.  Once we made it to the highway it was a nice drive along the coast as the weather was sunny and hot with white sandy beaches that were empty.  As we got closer to our next destination of Samara we decided to stop at one of those white sandy beaches for a much needed swim in Puerto Carrillo.  The waves where about 5 feet high and we spent the next hour body surfing on top of the crest of the waves.  It was exhilarating after a long hot drive. We each held my wife’s arms for safety because she is not much of a swimmer.  Unfortunately one gigantic wave took us all out and her arms where pulled in different directions like a wishbone.  This caused a small tear in her shoulder, so we found out when we got back to Canada, and 6 months later she had surgery with and a couple of months of therapy.  


In Samara we looked for a specific hotel that Tom had known about but there was no room at the inn.  Unexpectedly a local, who had overheard us talking about where to stay, came over to us to say he knew a place owned by a relative that had room and would take us there.  We were kind of leery trusting a stranger but we were running out of options.  As it turned out the Esperanza hotel was brand new and one of the nicer places we stayed at during the trip. 

The next day couple of days were dedicated to some rest and relaxation so our drive to Nosara was only a short distance up the coast from Samara.  Here we would stay for 2 days at the most beautiful place we stayed at during the trip.  The B&B was called the Villa Mango located in the mountains overlooking the ocean and white sandy beach.  It was owned by a husband and wife from France and there were only a few guests staying there so we had the place pretty much to ourselves.  This was a highlight for me.


On our last night at the Villa Mango, Tom decided to take us to a local restaurant at Lagarta to have dinner and watch the sunset.  As you can see from the pictures below this was one of the most magical sunsets we have ever experienced.  A must place to see the sunset.


We were on the road again and this time we would go as far north as we would go at Tamarindo before heading inland and back towards San Jose.  At Tamarindo I replaced our vehicle with another as our front end had become too defective to drive.  We ate at this nice restaurant below and a view of the white sandy beach.  The beach was almost empty.  I guess no one in Costa Rica goes to the beach which is fine for us tourists.

Our last stop on the Pacific Coast was at the Hotel Mareada in Playa Grande.  This was the third place we tried to find accommodations in this area.  The first place we booked was called Poncho Villa.  While the grounds of the resort were nice we found bugs in our room.  My cousin and I were a little hesitant about complaining because it was so hard to find a place in the area.  The management had no other rooms so thank goodness for our wives who put their foot down and insisted on getting our money back.  Luckily we found this nice place at Playa Grande.

The next day we worked our way back into the mountains and stayed in La Fortuna at a nice little motel called Roca Negra.  Because of the mountains there was quite a bit of rain and fog but the flowers on the grounds were very beautiful. 

In fact the flowers throughout the entire country were so beautiful.  The following pictures are just a small sampling of the flora of Costa Rica.




The next day was going to be exciting.  We headed towards a still active volcano called Arenal and at the base of the volcano are hot springs called Tabacon.  The plan is for our wives to have a spa day at the hot springs while Tom, myself and the 13 year old girl would go zip lining at Sky Trek Adventures nearby.  We would hook up back at the Tabacon Hot Springs later in the day.

I had never been zip lining before and wanted to try it but I am a little afraid of heights so I was a bit nervous.  The course was a series of 7 platforms arranged throughout the jungle.  The first 2 platforms were a trial run of a short distance of about 100 feet just to practise.  I conquered that without much trouble so I decided to continue.  Well that was a mistake.  The remaining 5 platforms were about 600 feet across the jungle, flying at about 60 kms an hour 600 feet above the jungle floor.  I could not turn back and besides the 13 year old was having a ball so how could I let her see me quit.  The experience was nothing short of spectacular and now that I have done that I will never do it again.  What I didn’t like about the experience was that it was pouring rain and the grease from the zip line covered my eye glasses and face so I couldn’t see a thing.  Also I didn’t have my knees high enough to the wire, causing some drag, so I did not make it all the way across to one of the platforms.  I stopped about 25 feet from the end and the only way to get to the platform was to crawl backwards along the wire hand over hand.  I’ve now done that and another first for me.

Now that we were in dry closes again we headed for the hot springs for some much need relaxation.  Meanwhile the women were relaxing and soaking up the hot springs atmosphere. As you can from the pictures below the grounds of the hot springs are beautiful and worth the pricey entrance fee.


It was getting late and we still had a 3 hour drive to our final destination of the trip at the La Posada hotel in San Ramon.  We drove through the winding roads in the rain so by the time we got there we all had headaches and were exhausted.  San Ramon is only about an hour from San Jose where we would catch our flight home.

This ends our successful Costa Rican adventure.  I highly recommend coming to Costa Rica for a visit.  The scenery is beautiful and the people are friendly.  We have been back to Costa Rica once since this trip to visit Tico Tom and other parts of Costa Rica.  He now lives in Panama…..a country we have never been to so I hope we can go there someday.

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