The lost volcanoes of Costa Rica

Published: April 16th 2016
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It's Tica Time!It's Tica Time!It's Tica Time!

The Costa Rican's refer to themselves as 'Ticas', who an I to argue?
Due to my current hectic travelling schedule, I’m a bit behind on the blogs but have found a few days in the country to finally try and catch up with some of the outstanding ones.

Rewind to February and after a cold January (especially my week in Finland) it was time to jet off to find some winter sun, it’s a hard life sometimes.

I was going to be away for most of the month, the main part of my trip was to be in a different country but the first week I decided to pop into Costa Rica since I was headed in that general direction anyway. I’ve visited a few places in the North and a few places in the South of America but this was to be my first sojourn into the central part of the vast continent, it’s always good to venture into pastures new.

Sadly, the first direct flights to Costa Rica (to be referred to as Crica now as I can’t be bothered to type it all) wouldn’t start from the UK for a couple more months so I had to transfer via Madrid to get there, still the flight wasn’t too
Teatro Nacional de Costa RicaTeatro Nacional de Costa RicaTeatro Nacional de Costa Rica

Famed for being the best building in San Jose, with some of the awful architecture I saw there, there wasn't a lot of competition.
bad and I arrived at San Jose and took a cab to my hotel. I didn’t really know what to expect as I had done very little planning for the trip and hadn’t really read much at all. The extent of my planning was to pick a hotel in San Jose about five days before I left and so thought I’d just wing it from there.

Driving from the airport into San Jose, the route takes you on Route 1 which is the famous Pan American Highway, which reaches from the top of North America right down to the bottom of South America (except for the 60 mile break in the Darien Gap in Panama and Colombia), so it felt quite cool to be on such a road which could take you almost anywhere on the continent. However, for the next couple of days I was to become very familiar with Route 1 in and out of San Jose, spending an hour or so a day stuck in the bad traffic of the city. I arrived at my hotel and checked in and promptly fell asleep ready to see what Crica had to offer the next morning.

Museo Nacional de Costa RicaMuseo Nacional de Costa RicaMuseo Nacional de Costa Rica

They enjoy a good sphere there
picked the Hotel Santo Tomas as it was quite centrally located in San Jose, thinking it was going to be a nice place to stroll around, on driving through San Jose the night before I realised it wasn’t going to be a very pretty city to walk around still the hotel itself was nice enough. Sitting down to my first experience of the local specialty of ‘Gallo Pinto’ (beans and rice) for breakfast, chatting to the hotel owner I realised that Crica is a pretty small country and you can do most day trips from the capital. Feeling lazy I thought this would be a good option and so decided to book up a few tours for the next few days to keep me occupied before my second leg of the trip.

For the rest of the day I wandered around the capital, my first impressions were right, it really isn’t a particularly pretty city and there were some fine examples of terrible architecture to be found. They seem to specialise in ugly American hotel chain buildings from the 1980s. During my visit to Colombia they said that God made Colombia so beautiful, he made the people crazy. Perhaps

A big ball at the museum, they found balls these like this around the country, mysterious balls, no one knows what they are for..
in Crica God made the country so beautiful, they made the architecture crazy.

To be fair there were some nice parts of town to be found and some pretty parks, so not all bad but it was pretty safe and even possessed its own China town. The National Museum was worth a visit as it was pretty cheap and has some good views of the city.

Compared to all the other Latin American countries I’ve visited (which actually isn’t that many) Crica seems to be much more advanced in education and general living standards, they also seem to have a large industry in supplementing American’s dental and healthcare. San Jose was full of dental practices aimed at the American market and my hotel had a few people who had travelled there for that sole purpose. And as they reminded us on every tour I did the country has something like 97% literacy, no military and people don’t need guns. I liked to think of it as the Switzerland of Central America.

Due to the high number of the aforementioned American visitors, English is widely spoken so getting around the country is pretty easy and you can do
The splender of San JoseThe splender of San JoseThe splender of San Jose

Not the prettiest of cities, terrible architecture abounds but don't write it off completely.
all the tours in English if you want, sort of ‘Latin American – Lite’.

The following day I was up early for my first trip, I knew I’d be working quite hard the next couple of weeks so I thought I’d take a day trip to swim in the Pacific, always a nice thing to do. After a very early start (seems I am able to get up at 6am for holiday stuff, just doesn’t seem to happen for work) I joined my tour and drove along Route 1 (back past the airport) to head to Puntarenas on the Pacific coast to catch a catamaran to Tortuga Island. The plan for the day was sail to the island, do some snorkelling, go on a banana boat ride, have lunch, lounge on the beach and sail back to the port and home in time for dinner, sounded good to me.

It all started well enough, we had a good breakfast (rice and beans of course) before getting on the catamaran and sailing off across the ocean to the island paradise, all very good. The sun was shining and the breeze was keeping us all nice and cool, it was
Out of townOut of townOut of town

The average looking Costa Rican street.
lovely. Once we arrived at the island the boat pulled up to the beach and everyone disembarked. The island is named ‘Tortuga’ which is Spanish for turtle, as it is shaped like a turtle (well you have to use your imagination a little bit) and it was every bit the tropical paradise you would hope it was, palm trees swaying in the breeze.

Ah yes, the breeze, well it was about 11am at this point and the breeze had started to pick up a little, but not that much that it would bother you, but then it was time to go snorkelling. So those of us who wanted to go got our snorkels and climbed into a smaller boat and headed out to another island to have a go. By this point there was a bit of a swell on the sea and the guides were starting to look a bit concerned, but we managed to get a bit of snorkelling done, it was the roughest seas I’ve ever snorkelled in and although it was quite good fun, you started to feel a bit seasick with the waves being so big. Eventually they decided it was too rough and
Tortuga IslandTortuga IslandTortuga Island

Literally the calm before the storm, lazing on a tropical Pacific island for the day.
we had to go back early, the wind was getting a lot stronger by now.

After lunch they announced it was too rough to take anyone out in the banana boats and the staff were looking more and more concerned. We were meant to leave about 3pm from the island but by this point the wind was much too strong, the seas too rough and we were warned not to sit under the coconut palms for obvious reasons. Eventually they came up with a plan, emergency evacuation, the sea was too rough to bring the catamaran into shore for us all to get on, so we had to all go in a small dingy to the catamaran, this took about an hour to load up everyone and it was a bit hairy getting off the small boat. Once everyone was on board we thought it was fine but it turned out that it was still too rough to go back the way we came, so they took us round to a deserted beach around the next island and we all had to get off the boat in a small dingy once again, however this time it was dark, still
Our entertainmentOur entertainmentOur entertainment

Ah, life under a palm tree is fun
sitting on the deserted beach at night meant you got an amazing view of the night sky.

The next stage to our journey was getting everyone to the ferry port further up the peninsula we were on, to achieve this we were put in an old American yellow school bus, I was quite excited at this prospect as I’d never been in one before but that soon wore off when I realised our bus had no lights and they had someone driving in a car in front of us with the headlights on to light our way, this was a bit terrifying especially when the car drove too far ahead on the windy roads…

At last we reached the ferry port just in time to make the 9pm ferry back to Puntarenas and finally we could all relax as the danger was over, I don’t think the café staff on the ferry had ever seen such a busy night as they did that night, everyone was starving at that point. Eventually I made it back to my hotel about midnight, ready to be off out again at 6am the following morning, call this a holiday!

Yeah, so 6am the next morning, out again for another tour, thankfully it was an easy tour of a coffee plantation, volcano and waterfall gardens, so not much physical or mental stamina was required. I was hoping for a less dramatic day however the weather was certainly not on my side. We drove along Route 1 (my old friend) we climbed up the central valley to the north west of San Jose, through Alajuela towards the Poas Volcano national park. As we climbed it started to get cloudier and rainy, this was not good weather to hunt volcanoes in. There was still time for it to pick up though as the first stop was at the Doka coffee plantation for breakfast and a tour. Breakfast was, you’ve guessed it, rice and beans but of course the coffee was excellent. The tour of the plantation was very interesting and now I can be an official coffee snob if I want to, you do know a lighter roast has more caffeine in? Personally I prefer the pea-berry coffee, a much nicer flavour than your normal berry dontchaknow.

Post plantation it was time for some volcano action, this was my main driver for the
Evacuating the islandEvacuating the islandEvacuating the island

It may not look that rough in the picture but a storm was a coming..
trip to Central America but more of that in the next blog. The Crican volcanoes were to be an added extra to the holiday, but any volcano is a good thing in my books. As we arrived at the national park the heavens had opened, the rain forest was living up to its name, typical. We walked up to the rim of the Poas volcano and nothing, just thick cloud and the faint smell of sulphur, what a disappointment, we could have been anywhere, I am not even sure if it was a real volcano, rubbish.

To our guide the disappointment was clearly obvious in our faces so she kindly organised a bonus trip of a visit to a local cheese farm. Driving towards the farm in the mist, it could have been Wales really, it also seemed a bit of a random activity to be doing when in Crica, still it turned out to be a lot of fun. We all got the chance to milk a cow, that was odd, the milk is strangely warm when it comes out (well it makes sense it is warm, you just don’t expect it to be as milk is usually
At least the sunset was prettyAt least the sunset was prettyAt least the sunset was pretty

Finally, 3 hours late, we managed to leave Isla Tortuga
cold) and then they had a dog that would perform a dance for some cheese, very cute.

The second half of the day was a visit to the La Paz Waterfall gardens where they also rescue animals from the wild and look after them if they can’t be returned. The gardens were up in the cloud forest close to the Poas volcano and it was still a bit damp, but added to the atmosphere. They had many beautiful animals, lots of lovely toucans that you can hold and many rescued big cats of which I can’t really remember the names of. The humming birds are also amazing; the way they move doesn’t seem natural but they are fun to watch. The day ended with a walk to see the spectacular waterfalls of the gardens, thankfully only a short trek in the rain but very beautiful indeed.

After the disappointment of the invisible Poas volcano, my next trip was to see the stunning and famous Arenal volcano, a fine example of a stratovolcano and the most famous in Crica, surely this time I’d get some volcanic action???

In a word, no.

After another early start, beans and
Buenos Dias Central ValleyBuenos Dias Central ValleyBuenos Dias Central Valley

The area holds most of the population of Costa Rica as well as the capital of San Jose
rice and a trip to see the world’s largest ox cart, we arrived at Arenal only to see a big load of nothing. Yes, the rains had come and this was meant to be the dry season. Pah! Rubbish Costa Rican volcanoes.

Still, all was not lost as I knew soon I’d be spending plenty of time with the volcanoes to the north so it wasn’t the end of the world. We also had the afternoon in the Tacoban hot springs close to the invisible volcano. The water bubbles up from the ground heated by the geothermic activity and bubbles through the jungle in a most beautiful setting, even in the wet weather it was lovely to sit in the thermal pools surrounded by the lush rainforest, highly recommended.

My last day in Crica was to be activity day, walking up in the morning I wondered why on earth I decided it would be a good idea to go white water rafting, what an idiot I was. The plan for the day was a two hour rafting trip and then zip lining through the canopies. Zip lining I am absolutely fine with and enjoy a lot, the rafting however..

Then I remembered the only other time I did it, some years ago in Australia, then I was terrified but actually really enjoyed it once I had finished, so my rational self knew I’d enjoy it, my irrational self was scared I’d fall in the water and get washed away.

The rafting took place on the Rio Sarapiqui which eventually flows into Nicaragua to the north, the drive there took us through the Braulio Carrillo National Park which had been closed the previous couple of days due to a landslide but fortunately for us they had cleared it, it also took us through the one and only road tunnel in Crica, woo!

We also passed over the bridge where you can see the Rio Sucio (dirty water) and Rio Frio (clean water) just as they merge, this things are exciting I’m sure you will agree. We reached our rafting destination of Pozo Azul on the Sarapiqui and were told that they had moved the rafting to the morning rather than the afternoon, I was quite pleased actually to get it out of the way first. The river was a mixture of type 2 and 3 rapids,
Your average Centro America breakfastYour average Centro America breakfastYour average Centro America breakfast

The Gallo Pinto (beans and rice) are served everywhere and are rather delicious, yet after three weeks of them, a bacon sandwich is rather welcome.
which means nothing to me but all I know is I wouldn’t want to try anything scarier than type 3, that is more than rapid enough for me. I was a bit nervous for the first twenty minutes or so but after a while I relaxed and started to remember why it was actually fun and I do believe I even started to enjoy myself and enjoy the environs. Finally, the rafting came to an end and we had all managed to stay out of the river thankfully. Next up was the zip lining, now that I do enjoy. The zip lines were mainly between the tops of the trees and then the final one was over the river itself, you can pick up plenty of speed but it’s all pretty easy to do and loads of fun.

And so that ended my Tica Time, it was a nice country, a lot more touristy than I expected and mostly full of Americans, I don’t think I met one other British person while I was there, but still it was a beautiful place to visit, if only they had some volcanoes.

The next morning I took my final trip
Coffee beforeCoffee beforeCoffee before

Beans growing on the bush
on Route 1 to the airport and headed north on a plane to my next destination….

Additional photos below
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Coffee afterCoffee after
Coffee after

The three grades of processed beans, you probably drink the ones in the middle, the ones on the right are too posh for you.
They claim it is better than Colombian coffeeThey claim it is better than Colombian coffee
They claim it is better than Colombian coffee

The Colombians claim theirs is better and don't get me started on what the Nicaraguans say.
Emergency exits are situated here, here and here.Emergency exits are situated here, here and here.
Emergency exits are situated here, here and here.

You may normally chose to ignore such signs, but the following week I was with people who were actually on the edge of this volcano when there was a big earthquake in 2009, ignore the signs at your peril..
Volcano ahoy!Volcano ahoy!
Volcano ahoy!

What a cool sign, don't see many of them in London
The Poas VolcanoThe Poas Volcano
The Poas Volcano

What I hoped to see.

20th April 2016

American Costa Rica
Yes the Americans discovered Costa Rica more than 20 years ago and sadly in my opinion have ruined the ambiance. But Costa Rica allowed it so who am I to judge. Sorry your adventures were less than you hoped. That is the tough part of travel. Things don't always go as advertised....glad you hung in there with a good attitude.

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