We visited Costa Rica in successive years when it became a big eco-friendly, adventure packed, and reasonably priced vacation destination. The country has no army, and decided to hitch their wagon to preserving their pristine rain and cloud forests. A lot of Americans also travel there to learn Spanish, as we hear their Spanish is a more traditional form of the language. We went to see the cloud forests, learn more about the indigenous animals and plants, and go ziplining through the forest.
We landed in San Jose, the capital, and spent a night there to get acclimated. Downtown San Jose is a big, dirty city, filled with lots of people, bars, office buildings, and local markets. It is a must see, but one day of this is enough. The best part was visiting a native arts and crafts center called La Casona. It is the best place to buy Costa Rican souvenirs, and native crafts. They negotiate, and are very grateful for your business.
The downtown area has a several block long pedestrian mall. It contains most of the department stores, museums, and cafes, primarily servicing the many workers in the nearby office buildings. It also contains many local type markets that sell fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat. It is an old area, with little air conditioning, but lots of charm. We found a friendly cafe for lunch and a cold beer. Most meals serve both rice AND french fries!! We found the Costa Ricans, or ticos as they like to be called, a friendly and warm people. Most everybody in the service business speaks English as well.
We headed out early the next morning to the Monteverde Cloud Forest, about a 4 to 5 hour van trip to the top of Costa Rica. The first hour or so is through the city. The 2nd hour is through the rolling foothills, and coffee farms. The last couple of hours through the mountains are on a dusty, windy, rut filled dirt, rock and gravel road. Our only break during the next couple of hours came when we stumbled upon a large family of monkeys right on the side of the road.
Fortunately, we got to our hotel, which was the best one in Monteverde, called the El Establo. It sits on the mountainside, and offers the most fantastic sunsets and sunrises we have seen. I can tell you with no reservations, that the shades of blue, as I looked out onto the Pacific and the Nicoya Peninsula, are the most beautiful shades of blue I have ever seen. I have photos to prove it.
The next day was the day we really looked forward to, more than anything. The morning would bring a tico naturalist who would lead us through the cloudforest, and explain and show us all of the flora and fauna from the ground. We saw everything from tiny orchids the size of a fingernail, to large birds the size of eagles. After this, we would take the Selvatura Zipline OVER the cloudforest, on a series of 19 zip lines!!! We were very excited, but also a little nervous. Time would tell.
We strapped on all of the gear, which felt like a leather diaper with clips and safety line. We completed the look with a helmet, and leather gloves. They loaded us into a shuttle bus and took us up the hill. At any point, Sheri would have turned back, but she reluctantly kept going. We went through a 15 minute training and orientation, then walked up to the first tree/pylon holding the cable. As our time got close, we got even more nervous. Before we knew it, we were on the platform, getting attached to the zipline, and with a big shove, we flew over to the next station. It is the thrill of a lifetime, very exhilarating, and takes your breath away.
We went through 18 more, some quite long, most hundreds of feet over the forest canopy, with speeds that made my eyes water. I finally worked up the nerve to look down onto the forest canopy. It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the trip. We thought of doing it again, but decided we would save it for another trip. We built up quite an appetite, however. We adjourned to the cafe on the grounds of the forest, and met some ex-pats who live part of the year in Costa Rica. It turns out many Americans have built nice homes, and raised the price of real estate, adversely for the natives.
We celebrated that night by walking about a mile down the dirt road to an Italian restaurant for pizza and pasta. We enjoyed the national dish, a red bean and rice dish, but needed a break after 3 days of eating it for breakfast, and dinner. But Costa Rican beer is excellent and always ice cold.
The many motorbikes that race over the dirt roads are for hire as well. But we opted for a cab, which is just a guy in a car. We had one cab break down completely. It was a fairly new SUV, and the suspension broke from the frame, and we ended up on only 3 tires!!! Ouch!! But the rough roads, potholes, and rocks make for some tough, everyday driving.
Another early morning, as we boarded another van to the coast. The ride back was a little better, although the driver did a real acting job while crossing a wooden bridge that had more holes than planks. He pretended that it was dangerous, that we might fall in, and that his unique skill kept us safe. We looked for monkeys, but found a lot of iguanas instead.
We got to the docks in a little town to board a ferry. They loaded our bags, sat us down on some benches, and loaded a lot of local vehicles onto the ferry. Little did we know what was ahead. The ferry ride started out in bright sunshine, and gentle waves. The 4 hour trip changed dramatically, when it started to rain, and the waves started crashing onto the deck. Though we were safe, we did not realize that everything in our suitcases were soaked!!!
We were headed to the Nicoya Peninsula, the sight of the beautiful hues of blue that I mentioned. We landed at our beach resort, called Playa Tambor, an all inclusive resort on the Pacific. We met several nice people, both guests and wait staff. We sort of adopted an young man named Wendell. He waited on us for most of our breakfasts and dinners. It turns out, he lives in the hotel’s dorm, works 4 weeks in a row, from sunrise to late at night, then gets 3 days off. He goes home to his wife and baby, then repeats the process. We became friendly, so we started tipping him well, and I gave him my watch on our last day here.
The Nicoya Peninsula has a lot more untamed jungle, with wide, sandy beaches, and dotted with several hippie towns for local and American surfers. I played in a golf tournament with another retired American man for the next two days. It turns out it was a professional tournament, and I could have won a Maserati or Lamborghini.
We enjoyed most of the activities at the resort. It included floor shows with native music, a casino, a dance show, and all kinds of activities, including a spa, golf, tennis, fishing, and surfing. The food here was excellent, since they had upscale seafood and meat emporiums. During dinner, a family entertained us with their music and dance. A little boy, maybe 8 or 9, played the wash board, and danced with a distinct and emotional movement. He captivated the diners, to the point where several older women were dancing with him, while he played the washboard. He was the most entertaining of all the performers we saw that week.
Now the golf tournament was another story. I got paired up with a tico physician (named Sugar), and this crazy, retired American living in San Jose. His name will come back to me in a minute. He was running a gambling web site from Costa Rica, and had a local(tica) wife. He had driven to the resort from San Jose, so he offered me a ride back to our resort after the first day. We rode again the next day, but played in different groups. He ditched me after we were done since I finished with a better score.
The cars were there for the taking on the 18th hole, which was a par 3. The car was just beyond the green, which made it an obvious target for some of us. They gave us quite a bag of goodies for playing: a golf shirt and cap, golf balls, towel, mug, water bottle, drink holder, and a strange but delicious box lunch, plus all we could drink.
I skipped out on the 3rd day of the golf so that we cold take a ride over to the hippie village of Montezuma, about an hour away up the Pacific Coast. We rented a 4 wheel SUV and driver for the trip there. The road was entirely mud and marsh, with soft sand, hills, almost vertical climbs, and a fearless driver. He stopped off at a few places to show us the beaches and little villages on the way.
Now Montezuma is basically not much more than a wide spot in the road. But it is a mecca for young people, backpackers, surfers, and hippies. It is the most quaint town that we saw in all of Costa Rica. It reminded us a little of a gold rush town like Folsom, or Columbia, just not as nice. The biggest pastime in this town was eating and drinking. The cafes and bars were packed, nobody was fishing or surfing, and there wasn’t much else going on.
I mentioned that when we arrived, we found almost all of our clothes wet from the rain storm and waves. When we got to the resort, we had to practically buy all of their T shirts, just to have something dry to wear for a couple days. I even signed up for a massage that was the worst one I have ever gotten. But the resort offered a lot of activities, beginning each morning around 8 am. We headed over to the activity area, which is a long table staffed by adventure consultants. They offered any and all types of activities, that I mentioned earlier. My golf guide even offered us his villa on the top of the hill for a great price on our next trip here. After I was done with the golf, I gave him my golf shoes, glove, hat, and a dozen golf balls.
As we prepared for the long ferry and van ride home, I found out at the travel desk that plane service is available back to San Jose. Where do we sign up? I immediately bought 2 tickets for tomorrow, but had to send our bags a day ahead by land. Now that worried us a little, since the small plane had weight limits.
We had another fun evening with our new friends, and Wendell. We hated to say goodbye to him, and all the nice people at the resort. They brought us a bottle of champagne to celebrate our new friendship. It was kind of sad that the young folks only get a few days off each month.
We took the resort’s van out to the airstrip, not far from where I played golf. It was only an airstrip, nothing more, nothing less. No waiting area, no staff, no airplane. After about 15 minutes, a small plane appeared in the horizon. Our driver immediately grabbed some flags, and ran out onto the runway. He doubled as the ground crew as well. The plane unloaded about 10 passengers, and we boarded. Again, the driver was now helping us board, offering bottles of water, and helped the pilot with his duties.
We took off over the ocean, and had the most pleasant and scenic flight back to San Jose. It was hundreds of times better than the ferry/van experience. We were quickly settled in to our San Jose area hotel(same as before the Intercontinental), and our bags were waiting for us. One more night in San Jose, then we head home.
Our last day and night in San Jose were very relaxing. We went across the street to a big modern shopping and entertainment mall. But first, we decided to have dinner at the top of the highest mountain in San Jose. The cab driver ended up waiting for us outside the restaurant, since it was such a difficult drive up to the mountain top. But the night view of the city was spectacular, even if the food was not. We ended up back at the mall so that we could buy coffee, and a few more souvenirs for friends back home.
I now realize why this particular story is so boring. It was a safe, but predictable country. That is not a bad thing, since we have been to scary places too. Other than the zipline, and treesful of curious monkeys, most everything else was very ordinary and predictable. The lush green forest, and beautiful blue ocean were memorable, but safe. By coincidence, there was an article in today’s CC Times Travel Section. If I had seen that before planning this trip, I doubt we would have gone.
We hated to say goodbye to Wendell, as he was a charming and polite young man. As I said earlier, I gave him my watch, and a generous tip for the week. He was quite grateful, as he was also headed home the next day to see his family. In fact, it was he who ordered some champagne for us at dinner, so we invited a couple of friends to join us. We had our own small party, as we enjoyed the boy playing the washboard with is family.
We want to visit more Central American countries in the future. We would like to see the Panama Canal, Honduras, and Guatemala. By the way, Costa Rica has the best duty free shop for wine that I have ever seen. We bought both Chateau Laffite, and Margeaux for very reasonable prices.
The coffee is also excellent there, along with the fresh fruit. Will we go back again? I honestly don’t know, but it is a place that we will always remember.