Published: February 25th 2011February 25th 2011
Far off in the distance of my life there was a trip to Costa Rica in the works. My wife and I were literally one click away from purchasing tickets to the Central American enclave in the fall of 2009..... but we hesitated because we suspected troubled times ahead. Our intuitions were confirmed, considering the fact that I spent the early part of 2010 receiving costly medical treatment. This mandatory delay made a trip to Costa Rica necessary for me as a matter of personal restitution against my poor health.
Our departure from Boston was well timed, as the unrelenting snowstorms of February in New England continued to paralyze the East Coast. We slipped out between blizzards, and within a few hours, we found ourselves flying over the burning jungles of Central America. For a change of pace, we decided to reserve deluxe accommodations for the entire trip, in the hopes of providing the reader with less stories of food poisoning and bed bugs.
When we exited the Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) in Alajuela at 3pm on Feb. 6th we found a plainclothes airport “employee” who politely greeted us and showed us where to wait for our car
rental shuttle. The representative at the off-airport Thrifty Car Rental agency was amiable and spoke English very well. I forgot my to bring my drivers license, but fortunately my wife had hers, so she was automatically elected to be the designated driver for the entire trip. The four wheel drive vehicles that Thrifty offers are standard transmission, so we had to upgrade in order to get a vehicle with automatic transmission, because my wife is not one-hundred percent confident of her skills on a stick shift. It is required in Costa Rica to have proof of entry (passport) and a driver license if a police officer stops you for a traffic violation. It is also required that you purchase the state mandated insurance coverage ($150US/week) to protect you from personal injury liability. The Thrifty representative told us the fee could be waived if we had something in writing to prove that we had such insurance, but we did not have any evidence of coverage. Even after purchasing the state mandated insurance, you are still liable for damage to your rental vehicle and/or other vehicles. If I return to Costa Rica (or anywhere) and rent a car, I will carry written
documentation outlining my specific details of coverage as it stands with rental vehicles of which is often provided by my credit card company or my personal automobile insurance policy.
We purchased a GPS Roadmap of Costa Rica prior to our travels, so my job as co-pilot was dramatically simplified. I must say that it’s only about 95% accurate, so you can expect to get lost 5% of the time:) We got lost at around dusk in Naranjo where my wife found herself driving the wrong way on a one way road. A man who owned a local ice cream shop noticed our confusion and asked us where we were going. We told him we were heading to “La Fortuna” and he got in his car told us to follow him. He guided us out of town and we began to realized how helpful and wonderful the people of Costa Rica are. We got lost on occasion because the GPS was not entirely accurate and the road signs in Costa Rica are not in great condition. As we got closer to tourist destinations, we realized that the road signs were often intentionally vandalized. The milage and/or destinations would be crossed
out with spray paint. I figure the people who damaged the signs want lost tourists to stop/stay at their nearby restaurants/hotels. At one point, after following a few miscues on our drive to Santa Elena, the local townsfolk posted a person on an intentionally unmarked road, where he offered to sell us a map of the area..... A scam that is still easily overlooked, as the people of Costa Rica are generally especially helpful and kind.
We spent our first two nights in Costa Rica at the Tabacon Resort near La Fortuna. We arrived at about 8:30pm. The service, room (with a free upgrade providing us with a view the volcano), and the location was outstanding (and very expensive). The only things that I was not impressed with was the mixed drinks. Mixed drinks in Costa Rica apparently have NO ALCOHOL!!!! I ordered them at the Tabacon and a variety of other locations and they always came up short in regards to alcohol content. If you want to feel your drink, stick with beer or wine or maybe straight shots!!!! The nearby hot springs at the Tabacon have an entry fee of $60US (free entry with a room), but
if you go just downstream from the resort, you can enjoy the thermal waters at no charge (and with no amenities).
Our only full day in the area was spent hiking around the Arenal (pronounced are-en-all) Volcano. We stopped at the first location that offered access to walking trails near the volcano. It was where the 1968 Lava Flow had occurred. Although vapors and smoke were coming out of the volcano, lava hadn’t flowed since September 2010. A fee of $10US per person was collected in order for us to enter the 1968 Lava Flow Trailhead (the same price as the nearby access point at the Arenal Volcano National Park). The hike was short, but on a well maintained trail which brought you thru a jungle forest, past a small pond, and up the partially grown-in remnants of a the 1968 Lava Flow. It was a nice area and we saw monkeys in the trees (considering that we saw monkeys everyday in Costa Rica - they are either everywhere - or we are lucky), but we were really impressed with our second stop: The Arenal Observatory Lodge. Entrance was $2000 Colones per person ($4US) and the area was VERY
well maintained (except for the “museum”, which was interesting, yet outdated). We had a drink at the restaurant, which seemed to have very good food, and then we walked around the grounds for the rest of the afternoon. We only wished we had given ourselves a bit more time to make the hike to the nearby Cerro Chato Volcano. On our way to the Observatory, we picked up a tourist hitchhiker who was planning to hike to La Fortuna via the Cerro Chato Volcano, so you can easily spend an entire afternoon in the area. That evening we drove to La Fortuna and ate at a restaurant that served Costa Rican cuisine to gringos, which is probably a good way to describe most of the restaurants in La Fortuna.
I must mention that on our trip, we did offer some of the local people rides in our deluxe Rav4, and they always accepted our offers with gratitude. We used our best judgement and only picked up people who fit safe profiles. Tourists need to be cautious in regards to theft and violence, but in general, we felt safe lending people a hand when it seemed suitable.
the Tabacon Resort are allowed to use the hot springs on the day they checkout, so we sat in the pools the morning before our trip to Santa Elena. The day before, on the road that led to the Arenal Observatory Lodge, we noticed signs for attractions in Santa Elena marking substantially less milage than the suggested trip around Lake Arenal. The people at the reception desk of our hotel said that way was not accessible by car (it was said that a horse could make the trip), so our only option was to go around Lake Arenal. We left at 11:00am and arrived to Santa Elena at dusk. A few miles before we got to the lake, we passed a group of Coatimundi begging for food that a tourist was feeding them. I always wonder how the Western world can spend so much money on education and still end up with so many stupid people. Anyway..... along the way we stopped at a small town on the lake and later had lunch in Tilaran. Tilaran is a not a tourist town, so this stop was a refreshing break from the barrage of tourist destinations that our trip involved. We
had lunch at a small café on a side road and picked up some groceries. It must be noted that the road from Tilaran to Santa Elena had a majestic quality reminiscent of a fantasy sequel to Lord of the Rings or something.
In Santa Elena we stayed at the Arco Iris Hotel. The accommodations were perfectly simple and the breakfast (offered at $7US per person) was an example of great quality authentic local cuisine. The town of Santa Elena is an overwhelming full blown hub for the tourists who are staying in the area. We ate at restaurants that catered to tourist such as Tree House Café and found all the food in town to be very good. My diet is almost vegetarian I-tal style, so I do have a limited point of view in regards to menu items, but I was happy with everywhere that I ate in Costa Rica.
We decided to wake up early the following morning and take a guided tour of the Santa Elena Reserve. Our guide was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic, so we had a great time. The tour was given in English, as most of the tourist destinations in Costa
Rica provide their services in English, but it is worth mentioning that knowledge of the Spanish language is VERY helpful. We saw sloths and a mini-frog that we would have never noticed without the guide, and we swung on an actual Tarzan swing. After our tour, we took a short hike to a lookout tower, which on a clear day would give you a good view of the Arenal Volcano. Our next stop was our opportunity to experience Costa Rica’s national pastime - The Zipline. We did not have reservations to ride at the nearby Selvatura Park, but they had no problem accommodating us. You get to walk across some of the hanging bridges as you move thru the three hour tour and the experience ends with a ride on an extremely frightening high-tech rope swing, so we thought the whole thing was well worth the money.
The next morning at 10:30am we drove to Nosara via Juntas and stopped at Barra Honda National Park to check out the caves. We arrived to the west coast beach of Playa Garza near Nosara in time to watch a beautiful sunset. At first glance, Barra Honda National Park appeared a bit
run-down, but it was one of the best events of our trip. We walked with our guide for a bit more than a mile to get to the cave entrance. He told us about the plants and animals of the tropical dry forest and pointed out monkeys and snakes. We were excited that he insisted on giving his tour entirely in Spanish, and he was very patient with our limited understanding of the language. Our guide had us actually “splunk” (albeit limited) while we were inside the caves, so the experience seemed very authentic.
That evening we arrived to what appeared to be an eerie-absolutely empty version of our resort hotel L’Acqua Viva in Nosara. They made an error with our reservations, but quickly found a room for us. The room had stains on the wall from the air conditioner and mold in the shower. Normally, I wouldn’t care about such distractions, but at $250US per night it didn’t seem right, so we complained to the management, and they gave us a spectacular upgrade. The rest of our stay there was wonderful. That night we had dinner under the stars at La Luna and drank mixed drinks with no
alcohol. One complaint I have (other than non-alcoholic mixed drinks) about many of the high end restaurants in Costa Rica is that they often don’t take credit cards. They are expensive considering that a meal for two with drinks will easily cost over $60US, but they refuse to help protect the tourist’s finances by accepting credit cards. The US dollar was excepted everywhere we went and prices for anything and everything were generally the same as in the United States.
We had one full day in Nosara. Everyone in Nosara STRONGLY advised us to leave our car empty of valuables, so theft is apparently a big problem there. I planned to spend most of the day surfing at Playa Guiones, but the waves were big and unmanageable, much like the surf in the middle of a nor’easter in New England, so I didn’t go out. We hung around the beach for a few hours and enjoyed the grounds of our hotel in the afternoon. That evening we watched a baby turtle walk on the beach toward the sunset at Playa Pelada, then had a beer at the beachside bar (Olgas), and ate an excellent dinner nearby at a place
called “Mexican Restaurant” whose patrons were mostly local Costa Ricans and surfers.
The roads on the Nicoya Penninsula are generally unpaved which is inducive to dust. Lots of dust... dust in your eyes, mouth, and places the sun doesn’t shine. We were not looking forward to another day of driving, but we had hotel reservations in Montezuma, so we had to keep things rolling. We stopped in Samara (about a thirty minutes drive from Nosara) and thought the town was a really cool place to chill out. Nearby, La Playa Carrillo seemed like a fun beach that you can drive up to and have a barbecue or something. We drove south to Estrada and hoped to continue traveling the coastline thru Malpais and on to Montezuma. In Estrada, the road had a river crossing and then it turned into a full blown 4WD adventure. We quickly realized the difficulty of travel on this road and we decided to take the interior route to Montezuma. We later spoke to a couple who said they had tried to make the coastline drive many times with no success, which made us feel better about our decision. The drive from Nosara to Montezuma
took over five hours, and we got lost a few times because our GPS wasn’t one hundred percent accurate.
Montezuma is in a wonderful location, situated directly on the beach and within easy walking distance of a waterfall. We spent the night at the sister hotel of the Ylang Ylang called El Sano Banano. Montezuma is a wild town full of ex-patriots, hippies, and college kids. Getting stoned and drunk seemed like a regular pastime for this town, so my warning is to avoid the hallucinogenic mushrooms if you order a salad (or maybe you want them???). The beaches of Montezuma are pristine. For our last day in Costa Rica we decided to chill out at the waterfall, which was crowded, but it was also a refreshing area to take a swim.
That evening we had dinner in Montezuma and then took the ferry from Paquera to Punterenas and then made our way to the airport. Funny enough, it was refreshing to be on the ferry away from the madhouse of Montezuma which was overrun by stoned American and European tourists. The Ferry passengers were singing along to the Latin music that was playing over the loudspeakers, and
the Costa Rican families seemed so happy. Poverty is an obvious fact of life in Costa Rica, but the people there do have opportunities, and they seem to be full of positive vibes.
We drove back to the airport on a Sunday night, so the traffic was not bad, but I don’t know how things would have been if we had to deal with crowded roads. We didn’t see any signs for the airport while we were on the Pan-American Highway. At one point, we were driving down a four lane highway and discovered that the road was completely barricaded. All the cars were diverted off the highway with no signs telling anyone where to go. It took us seven hours to get from Montezuma to Alajuela. We arrived to our hotel at midnight. When we checked in, the front desk person gave us coupons for a free drink at the Casino Fiesta which is located just across the street. We went over there and watched a fully pro Latin ensemble (Orquesta La Solucion
) perform for about an hour. Their music really made the night something special as the stress of travel was really starting to bring us down.
The airport in Alajuela was well organized, so we had no difficulty with our departure. A return trip is certainly worth our consideration, but it probably will not happen for years to come. Links and Downloads Costa Rica - Travel/Road Maps Arenal Volcano 1968 Lava Flow - Trail Map Arenal Observatory Lodge - Trail Map Santa Elena - Local Map Nosara - Local Map Surfing in Costa Rica - Maps and Information Car Insurance Explained
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