Published: September 12th 2009September 10th 2009
I watch a dog watching the rain at Maxi's restaurant in Manzanillo - good Caribbean food and music!
Our Costa Rica Trip - Part I
This blog is primarily a summary of our trip, focusing on the best parts, and the occasional comment on what didn't work as well. Accompanying this 2-part narrative are what I think are the 120 best photos from our trip. We also took a lot of videos (especially since Miles had his flip camera along), and I have not even begun to deal with them yet. At some point I'll post a few.
Having purchased reduced-fare tickets just weeks before traveling, I threw myself on the mercy of a travel service. I had previously skimmed through the guidebook Key to Costa Rica,
and really approved of its philosophy. See the website here.
Many of the accomodations and activities described are arranged through ACTUAR,
an organization that promotes rural, community-based, and eco-tourism.
So, I sent off an e-mail to the author, Beatrice Blake, (who offers an itinerary planning service called ACTUAR CONSERVacations) describing my family, our ages, and what kinds of things we wanted to do. I said that my primary goal was to experience the rainforest and to visit at least 2 ecosystems, and that I
wanted to go through parks and natural areas with a bilingual naturalist guide so we would know what we were seeing. I also wanted to support eco- and community-based tourism and get off the beaten path. Rollie wanted to volunteer (and I knew from looking about that it is very hard to find any opportunities for less than a week’s commitment; we just didn’t want to take up ½ of the trip that way). Also, we had to plan in a few adventures like the zip line and some white water rafting for the boys. I said that we wanted to spend the bulk of our $$ on activities and not fancy accommodations or meals.
So with all this in mind, they put together a fabulous trip that hit all those notes. I think the best thing was that in most of the places we stayed, the hosts really were generous with their time, telling us about the area, their lives, giving tips, and in one location even taking us on a local tour and discussing the plants - their medicinal uses and some comparative botany. This particular host also played a mean game of ping pong - and
the boys and Rollie had fun with that! It was like staying at B&Bs in the US, not like being at impersonal hotels - and this is just our style of travel.
There was only one lodge that was a bit disappointing (we'll get to that in Part 2), and it was not the one the travel guide had wanted to book for us - the one she thought would suit us best was all booked up.
Arriving late in San Jose (flight was delayed leaving Miami), we had some SNAFUs with customs forms (hadn't filled out ones for the boys as we were told it wasn't necessary) and at first couldn't find our driver, but finally arrived at Kap's place, a brightly decorated, comfy hostel with kind staff, who brought us coffee (which we needed badly), and helped us settle in. The boys loved the trampoline in the courtyard, we loved the open coffee bar, internet access, and directions to eateries within walking distance.
On the flights over I began reading a book I scooped up on whim along with a Guide to Central American Birds, called Monkeys are Made of Chocolate,
by Jack Ewing. He
came to Costa Rica in the 70's from the US to run a rice and cattle plantation on the pacific coast, but became increasingly fascinated by the ecosystem of his property, and ended up allowing it to undergo re-forestation. He eventually converted it to a self-sustaining eco-lodge set in a wildlife preserve and education center (it's called Hacienda Baru). Each chapter focuses on a different animal or plant species and talks about wildlife corridors, swamps, and is amusingly written in the Gerald Durrell tradition. This helped give me some advance knowledge of the things we were going to see on our travels, and I highly recommend the book to anyone planning a Costa Rica trip.
Arenal Area Overview
La Catarata Ecolodge - great place, terrific grounds, warm and welcoming staff, lovely to be within walking distance of La Fortuna waterfall (and Cerro Chato if we had wanted to hike there). This lodge is a campesino-owned collective and in addition to the location, we enjoyed the beauty of the grounds, the good “comido tipico” food, the very friendly staff. Here the sound of the rain on the roof at night began to become part of the rhythm of life. The
rain comes down so heavily that the sound is almost palpable, as if it had texture and dimension.
Skytram Zip Line
While Max and Miles did the zipline, Rollie and I had the rainforest tour at Skytram - Excellent bilingual guide. Learned about basic rainforest ecology, many common plants we would see throughout our trip, like strangler figs, walking palms, fish tail, donkey ears, diffenbachia, and other tropical plants commonly exported and sold as houseplants in the US (impatiens in the wild!). Also saw: big lips orchid, glass wing butterfly, my first Blue Morpho (very exciting for me!). The boys loved the zip line experience. We all enjoyed the extremely quiet tram ride up to the platform - we saw birds and butterflies below us because it was so quiet.
Ecotermales Hot Springs
A simply lovely place - slate pools, natural warm stream flowing into them, and a very hot one bubbling up into one pool set off to the side that was so hot I could only stay in a minute or so - but it felt so good! We pretty much had the place to ourselves for about ½ an hour - so much fun. I
had a caipirinha drink - nice. Will have to learn how to make these. We enjoyed the cooling spray at the top pool, and the little waterfall of the stream entering the pools, and then, much to my delight, it began to rain - and being in the warm water while it rained felt great. This entire experience (dinner in a candlelit open-air dining room) felt very luxurious (tho good thing I had my DEET spray with me!) - as if we morphed for one evening into the type of tourist who goes on a vacation
rather than taking a trip. Know what I mean? Vacation and relaxation can be very good as a break from absorbing another culture and new landscapes. I am VERY glad we got there early - at just after 4 PM instead of at 5 when big tour busses arrived and it got more crowded and noisy.
Arenal Hanging Bridges
Really good guide. She knew how to take photos thru binoculars!! The bridges themselves were pretty cool, and the guide knew a LOT about the area’s plant and animal life. At the start we got to see a pit viper they had found in
the AM (in a barrel to keep people safe) and two eyelash pit vipers just hanging out on branches near the trail. Other highlights included: Blue Jeans poison dart frog, tarantula holes, enormous leaf cutter ant mound, and our first Howler monkey.
On the downside, it seems odd this tour was scheduled for mid-day. So - wildlife lovers do this in the early morning (plan to arrive at daybreak). Ask to have the lodge pack you a breakfast for the drive and then get up early and go! The guide said repeatedly “we saw X, Y, Z this morning.” People we met at Skytram also said they had seen scores of monkeys in the morning……. Obviously, wildlife viewing should happen in the early AM!!
Another critique I have is that the driving schedule was weird, too, for this section. SkyTram was located on the opposite side of the area from our lodge, so when that was over we had to rush thru the small butterfly garden (onsite at SkyTram) because the driver was waiting for us, and were driven the 30 min drive over terrible roads all the way back to the lodge for lunch (when really it
would have been sensible to have had lunch at someplace there near the activities) - and then came all the way back over the very same long road again to get to Hanging Bridges. Not well-planned, this segment. And then in the late afternoon, back to lodge and out again by taxi to get to Ecothermales.
Also our guide at Arenal Hanging Bridges kept saying things like “You can see X and Y here, but not Z, but you can see those at Monteverde in the primary rain forest” - so this kicked up a lot of doubts in my mind about the wisdom of “avoiding” the heavily touristed Monteverde if, in fact, there are aspects of that ecosystem that we should not have missed. It’s a bit like the Grand Canyon - yes, it is over-visited and that causes stress on it, but really, would you SKIP it? Well, maybe, if you can be happy knowing that in Canyonlands you are seeing a less-visited, possibly stranger, but not as dramatic, area. So I keep consoling myself for this choice with talk like that, and the rationalization that maybe I will just have to go back and go to
the Osa Peninsula, to see primary rainforest in a much-less traveled region. But…....will the money fall out of the sky??
A Note on Interbus
This is a wonderful service. We had said we were willing to take buses, and didn’t want the expense nor trouble of renting a car. I am really happy with that decision, but I also think that taking public buses would have been more time-consuming, confusing, and possibly left us more open to theft or such. The arrangements to get from area to area by Interbus were a very tourist-friendly option and one I would recommend to friends. The drivers were friendly, knew good places to stop for clean rest rooms and good food, and all the transfer places were convenient. We enjoyed talking with the other passengers also.
Caribbean Coast - Part I
Playa Chiquita to Gandoca
So we were driven from the Arenal area to the Caribbean coast (about a 5 hrs trip) and fetched up at Playa Chiquita EcoLodge - a lovely, casual lodge, and very lively & interesting couple (a former lawyer from Germany and his wife from Brooklyn) running it; the boys loved playing soccer with their boy.
Nice private walk to beach, deserted beach - wonderful reef tidal pools. We saw lots of interesting wildlife. At the lodge the inner courtyard was beautifully planted, and we loved the open-air dining area/lounge. The cabinas were cheery. Here we learned, alas, that Miles is as suceptible to mosquitos as I am, so learned our lesson that he too needed a mosquito net. But we didn't really have to think about it anyplace else -as this was the only place where there was a hook for a net for the 2nd bed, but we didn't ask for an extra net, whereas in all the other Caribbean locations every bed had a net. What I liked most about being here was the dawn chorus of the Howler monkey troupe that moved around in the trees rimming the courtyard. The sound they make is extraordinary, like some combination of a chainsaw breaking and an old truck trying to start. Also the first day we got there the rain held off till nightfall and the beach was great - warm, not too rough, and the tidal pools fascinating.
Advice: if you have early transfers, and breakfast is included in your stay, make
certain the tour company has notified your hosts (or that you do so), so you can get breakfast before
you get picked up. In a couple of places we had an early bus to catch (here at Playa Chiquita, for example) and while we never actually missed the chance to eat, it was rushed, and at one location we had to hurriedly eat something they could prepare quickly. If breakfast is included then you do want to have time to eat it (and get coffee!) - especially with 2 hungry teens in the party.
Advice: At Playa Chiquita do not eat at the French place if you can avoid it, unless a very slow evening and spending a chunk of change work well for you. Just like at the Outer Banks here in the US, the ordinary food is a bit more expensive than you think reasonable beacuse the supplies are trucked down a narrow coastal road in all kinds of weather, and the elegant food is over the top expensive. Yes, when it finally arrived the meal was good, but we experienced very very very slow service. Also, I think the waitress was weirdly snobby?? A better bet
for a fine meal and extremely friendly service: JungleLove down the road. The nearby corner store is a great place to buy snacks, rent bikes and pick up a bottle of wine for after dinner.
Advice: Even if you have all quick-dry gear and such, be aware that basically nothing
will completely dry out until the sun comes out. For us, the sun didn’t show for about 5 days in a row. Also, be advised, laundry (when you are charged per kilo of washed, dried clothes) is heavier than you think. If you use a laundry service (because you are desperate for a few dry clothes), be sparing, and take change to pay with.
On our second day here Rollie and I left the boys playing soccer, exploring the beach and playing poker with the lodge owner's boy, and biked thru a constant rain down to the tip of the peninsula at Manzanillo - we got damp, but my rain jacket kept me surprisingly dry up top (love Gore Tex and pit zips!); it was a very pretty ride, with lovely flowers, scenery, good lunch at Maxi’s, great reggae music and nice atmosphere.
Advice: For our Day
3 trip down to the point to the Dolphin Watching expedition we were to take the public bus, and it arrived about 15 minutes earlier than we had been told it would, so if I were not weird about being early we would certainly have missed it. So - be quite early for the bus!!
Note: The directions we received about where to go to get the dolphin boat in Manzanillo were just wrong. We tried the park headquarters, then the tour building, and no one knew, had heard of us, we were told our boat captain had possibly gone to Panama! Eventually, however, they located him. He had been waiting for us down on the beach next to Maxi’s. So - this connection could have gone more smoothly.
Dolphin boat ride. Seeing the dolphins was cool, but the trip up the lagoon was the best part of that trip for me. The boat captain, Hermonides, was really personable too. We steered up the lagoon, seeing monkeys and birds, and then walked along the beach quite a ways to the village. In Gandoca no one arrived to meet us (I think we were running late), so the boat
captain took us to a café and then tracked down our guide.
Our guide in Gandoca (Gilberto) and learning about the turtle rescue project were 2 of the highlights of the trip. Seeing baby leatherback turtles was very gratifying. The healthy turtles that could crawl up through the sand of the nursery nests had already done so, but the volunteers will exhume each nest after a certain number of days with no hatchlings goes by. They thereby rescue the weakest babies unable to get out on their own, and then they open up and chart the reasons for not hatching for the remaining unhatched eggs. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable about the turtle rescue project, and the local wildlife, & plant life - and spoke very good English. He gave us encyclopedic quantities of information about turtle nesting habits, egg laying, the local culture of eating/selling turtle eggs that has been turned completely around by the recognition that turtle conservation and conservation tourism are a far better way for the community to earn $$. We also met a lively woman vounteer, who was originally from Romania, but had emigrated to Brooklyn, and was in her last few days
14 Poison Dart Frog
Blue Jeans Poison Dart Frog
of a 2 week stint - so she gave us some insight into the the rhythm of shift work they do to keep the eggs safe 24/7.
About the turtles: evidently, although a few green turtles nest in this area, it is mostly leatherback turtles that come up on these beaches between Punta Uva and Gandoca to lay eggs. When the female leatherback turtle is about 20 to 30 years old she returns to her natal coast from places as far away as Nova Scotia to lay. She lays about 100 eggs per nest; she mates, produces one clutch, and then swims back out, mates again, lays again, and perhaps repeat the cycle a 3rd time, and then off she goes for the remainder of her 70 to 80 years, done with reproducing. We learned that about 1 in 100 of the eggs that hatch will survive to adulthood. The baby turtles must crawl along to beach into the ocean in order to be able to return - the volunteers can't just go put them in the water, because apparently there is something about the sand of their birth-beach that they imprint on - and this is how they
can make their way back later. Some of the babies exhumed from the nest had an unclosed shell on their bellies; we were told that the gap would close in a few hours. The babies were placed in cool, dark, sandy box , and then released onto the beach at night.
Here in Gandoca I think we finally started to relax into being wet. Every path was a mini river and you just had to wade everyplace. Having the Chacos was excellent (I sprang for these sandals at our local outfitter), since I am kind of a wuss about stepping on sharp things and everyone else in the family went barefoot a lot. In hindsight, I would suggest that any rainy-season visitor planning a Caribbean segment buy rubber boots for the whole family in San Jose. At some point you do just want to have dry feet, or possibly take a break from walking though oozing mud (we did a LOT of that). I am extremely glad we all had umbrellas and raingear. I would also suggest buying umbrellas - big ones, not the mini-folding ones we brought, and then leaving them behind on departure.
Next blog: Yorkin
to Cahuita National Park to Turrialba, back to San Jose, and home.
There are more photos below