Orosi Valley - 10 to 18 December 2012

Published: December 19th 2012
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It took forever to get back on to the ‘main’ road (ever upwards with steep drops each side) and we were already missing the tranquility and comfort of Trogon Lodge. Luis, our driver had a couple of words of English - more than we had of Spanish and we got by with sign language for most of the two hour journey to the Orosi Valley. He showed us a map of the route and it was quite funny as the ‘legend’ showed, main roads, secondary roads, tracks and dangerous roads and guess which one we were on!

We finally drove through the city of Cartago and the town of Paraiso before stopping at the top of the valley where Luis pointed out where we were. It was such a lovely view and we could see the town of Orosi below us which looked larger than we had thought. Tucked between the steep flanks of the Irazú Volcano and the highland cloud forests of the Tapanti National Park, the Orosi Valley is definitely one of Costa Rica’s most stunning destinations. The entire valley was ringed by dramatic mountains and a network of virgin forest. Banana plantations and coffee fincas 'stepped' up the hillsides with the rolling clouds dotted across them and the skyline.

Our next destination, the village of Orosí is mostly famous for its yesteryear lifestyle and we wanted to end our journey of Costa Rica here, to experience rural living away from the usual tourist routes. The valley way below us was shaped by the Rio Reventazón that flowed through the village. On both sides of the river the hills rose steeply mostly covered with the dark-green colour of coffee leaves. The straight lines in which the little trees were planted were visible as well as the red ‘seeds’ on the ripe plants which made a nice pattern across the landscape. Looking at some of the steep tracks between the small farmsteads we wondered how one could walk let alone drive a vehicle up there. We saw a few horses and they looked like they would topple down the hill but seemed to stay firm footed! We were hoping to hire cycles whilst we were here but I think we will definitely give that a miss.......

We drove down the hill and into the quaint little village which was originally named for an Indian chief in charge of the town at the time of the Spanish invasion. Orosi was an attractive area for the Spanish conquerors because of its abundant water supply, hot springs and stunning waterfalls. It is now one of the few well preserved colonial areas in Costa Rica, having survived numerous earthquakes throughout the years and has a population of 4500. Luis our driver seemed to know all 4500 as people were constantly waving or blowing their horns, even the local police, whom he overtook on the hillside, just waved and smiled.....he had lived here since childhood and was obviously a well known character.

We shortly arrived at Orosi Lodge in the middle of the village our accommodation for the next week. The small, colonial-style lodge has an enviable location with rooms that overlook the Turrialba Volcano as well as the Irazu Volcano, which is the tallest active volcano in Costa Rica reaching upward of 11260 feet. The local organic coffee is specially brewed for the lodge and served on their small terrace coffee shop, which was decorated with paintings by local artists and contained other locally made products. The coffee was also provided free to all the rooms. The lodge has six rooms and a separate two storey chalet which we had booked. Our chalet had its own large roof terrace overlooking the valley with 360 degree views of the volcanos and plantations. It also contained a fully equipped kitchen and we were looking forward it to cooking for ourselves for a while, there is only so much hotel food that you can eat.......

We soon settled into Costa Rican life as the lodge was surrounded by local homes with families and children many festooned with christmas trees and decorations. From our balcony we watched and listened to every day life going on, children playing, mothers walking with children, locals going off to work in the plantations, bands playing, children singing, church bells ringing which was lovely. On a negative side though were the noise levels, dogs (most people had at least one) barking all day and night and the noisy cockerels with their very early morning calls. On our first night we heard some extremely loud bangs from fireworks. We asked Andreas our host and he said it was his neighbour who loved fireworks and they were all handmade. Apparently once he blew all the glass out of his neighbour’s windows and the police were called but nothing was ever done so he continues to make them. He was practicing for the New Year celebrations seeing how loud he could make them - glad we will not be here then. After a couple of days though the noises blended into the background (apart from the fireworks) its surprising what you can get used to!

The main street of Orosi - calle principal - had a supermarket, some restaurants, fruit stands and bakeries, as well as a greengrocer who also sold shoes! There was a small Swiss Bakery which was also a Spanish School and Tourist Information shop which sold tasty bread and cakes. The lady owner who was Swiss/Italian gave us samples of her cakes to try and they were all delicious but sadly encouraged us to buy more! Next to our lodge were the local swimming pools heated by the thermal waters of Rincon de la Vieja Volcano. Everyone was friendly and most people acknowledged you as we wandered around the streets and did our everyday shopping. One day we set off for a walk trying to find a large swingbridge that crossed the river only to come to a dead end but this elderly chap just smiled and gave us hand signals of where to find it.

The village had the usual football pitch near the centre and behind this was Costa Rica’s oldest Catholic church still in use, Iglesia de San Jose Orosi, built by Franciscan monks in 1735. The Church was of a low simple design with adobe and cane walls, tiled roof and small detached bell tower - the bells of which we heard frequently. Inside the wooden ceiling was held up by several massive wooden pillars. The altar was ornate and there were two rows of wooden pews down the aisle with a wooden balcony over the main door. Oil paintings depicting the fourteen traditional Stations of the Cross stations lined the plain white walls but most of these were badly in need of restoration. Next to the church the remains of the monks recently restored monastery now housed a Religious Art Museum containing paintings, silver, furniture, clothing and ancient artifacts from the 1700‘s. Some of the old wooden carvings were masterpieces and looked like plaster rather than wood. It was a really interesting museum to spend a couple of hours and the building itself was fascinating with its ancient tiled floor.

Whilst in Orosi we hoped to see one of the nearby volcanos which are among Costa Rica’s largest. However we were unable to travel to Turrialba which is adjacent to Irazu because of increased activity. The last major eruption on the volcano was in 1866 but in 2001, the volcano reported increased activity, displaying strong fumaroles at the central craters. The volcanic activities have increased since 2005 and in 2010, the volcano emitted ash causing two villages, La Central and El Retiro to be evacuated - best avoided then! We were however able to get to Irazu and were hoping for a clear view as from the top it is possible to see both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans but we had been told that such clear days were very rare and it is typical for the volcano's summit to be covered in cloud for much of the time!

Luis the local taxi driver that had brought us from San Gerado de Dota became our driver/guide and took us on several trips around the area. So early one morning we set off for Irazu Volcano and as we drove up the views were wonderful, carrot, onion and potato fields as well as numerous other crops were being harvested, mostly by hand, cattle roamed the roadsides and we even saw a couple of sheep, the first we had seen in Costa Rica. This was rich farming land and productivity was all around us - the fields were alive with workers bringing in the crops and most of them waved as we passed. We stopped and admired the wonderful views out over the Cartago Province and the valley. We were feeling lucky as the day was clear and we were hopeful that we would get good views of the craters. Alas it was not to be, as we neared the summit the cloud descended quickly and within in minutes you could not see a yard in front of you. We just made out the small kiosk at the entrance to the National Park where we paid $10 dollars each and Luis said we should wait and hopefully the cloud would clear. We waited a while but then decided to walk along the trails but the cloud got denser and you could not see the path in front of you so so we headed back and had coffee in the small souvenir shop - still hoping it would lift.

Irazu Volcano is still active and it last made international headlines when it erupted in March 1963 on the day that former US President John F Kennedy visited the country. We had met a Costa Rican chap in San Jose who remembered the day that Kennedy flew in - he said he was only a young lad and he ran up to the car waving at him - no security in those days - its sad to think that Kennedy was assassinated in November of that same year. This chap was married to a Polish girl and they now lived in Denmark, he was in Costa Rica to see his parents and recovering from a serious injury he sustained whilst serving with the Danish Army in Afghanistan. He was interesting to talk to and gave us some travel tips for CR. From 1963 to 1965 the volcano experienced a period of intense activity, which destroyed the peak’s surroundings and seriously affected the cities of Cartago and San Jose. People walked around with umbrellas and many buildings collasped under the weight of the ash. The last noticeable activity was in 1996, and since then Irazu has been a quiet giant - that’s what they told us anyway..... The eruption decimated crops in the area but left the soil enriched for decades to come and farmers are still benefitting from the eruption as we had noticed on our way up to the volcano. The activity has resulted in the volcano having five large craters, among these are the Diego de la Haya, which is 2000 feet deep and the Main Crater which has a diameter of 3200 feet and is 1000 feet deep. We could see from our visitors leaflet that they looked pretty impressive......alas although we waited for over an hour the cloud did not lift so we were unlucky and did not get to see the craters or the views out over the Pacific and Caribbean Oceans - maybe next time.....There was a lovely ‘quote’ printed on the volcano leaflet which we thought was quite appropriate, ‘This Land belongs to all the Costa Ricans, some have already died, others are still living - but the majority have yet to be born.’

We descended back down the mountainside and stopped in the city of Cartago to visit the famous church, La Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles (Basilica of of Our Lady of the Angels). This unusual Byzantine style Basilica is one of the more classic churches in Costa Rica and a really impressive building which can be seen for miles around. One of the largest pilgrimages in Latin America takes place here in honor of La Negrita.

La Negrita is a small black statue of the Virgin Mary kept in a shrine in the Basilica. The story behind the statue is as follows: ‘On August 2nd 1635 a young girl was playing in a stream while her mother was washing clothes. On top of a rock she found the little statue and took it home. When her mother found out she was very angry and ordered her to take it back because the real owner was probably very upset. The little girl went to the box where she had hidden it and it was gone. The next day when they returned to the stream the statue was again on the same rock. The mother, upon finding it was very upset, thinking that her daughter had lied. Again they took the statue, this time with the intention of bringing it to the local priest. The next day when they went to get the statue to take it to the priest, it was gone again. They immediately ran down to the stream and there it was once more atop the rock. This was taken as a message from God and a shrine and church were built on the site.‘ The original church was destroyed in an earthquake in 1920 and the current church was built six years later - the year my mother, Kathleen Groves (nee Godsell) was born and the Queen. On the north side of the church is the shrine to the Virgin Mary and it was on this very site where the statue was first discovered - back then it was a valley with a stream but now it is the centre of the city of Cartago. So, on August 2nd of every year, there is a pilgrimage of the faithful to the shrine. People from all over the country walk to Cartago (some walk on their knees) in order to pray to the statue and to ask for miracles. The walls of the main room of the shrine are lined with gifts left by those that have been cured by the power of the Negrita. Most of the trinkets were miniature metal versions, some in gold, of the body parts that have been cured by the miracles - a very emotive and moving place in Costa Rica.

Just a few blocks from the Basílica we visited the ruins of St. Bartholomew Temple or Las Ruinas. This church was dedicated and destroyed by an earthquake in 1575, when Cartago was the capital of Costa Rica as well as its only city. The church was rebuilt and was destroyed again by another earthquake in 1910. It is still widely believed that the church was destroyed due to a local priest who was thought to be a womanizer. Locals believed that the church destruction was divine punishment and that the church should not be rebuilt. A sign inside in Spanish and English said, ‘According to an old legend, every foggy night in Cartago, it is possible to see a headless priest inside the ruins whose ghost must wander forever as a penance for desecrating a holy place.’ The huge stone outer walls are all that remain of the church and the inside has been turned into a small park where people come to relax, the day we visited they were just finishing off a huge nativity scene in the centre of the gardens, complete with real life calf, ready for Christmas. Cartago was the first capital of Costa Rica, founded in 1563 by Juan Vasquez de Coronado, and the city has the distinction of being the first Spanish settlement in the country. It remained the Capital until 1823 when San Jose was chosen, the main reason for the change was because Cartago was situated so close to the foot of the Volcano Irazu, which had nearly destroyed the entire city in 1723.

We left the city and travelled into the countryside but roadworks meant slow progress. A few months earlier, after heavy rains the road and several houses disappeared down the steep valley and a new tarmac road was being built. After a steep descent we arrived in the abandoned village of Ujarras to visit the ruins of Costa Rica’s oldest church. A fine example of Spanish colonial architecture the Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Limpia Concepcion which was constructed in the 1560's. Built near the Rio Reventazón, this church was once home to a miraculous painting of the Virgin. According to local lore (there are many other legends), a painting of the Virgin was found in a box by a native Indian fishermen who brought it to Ujarras, after which it could not be moved. A shrine and later a church was then built on the site by the locals to commemorate the Virgin. In 1666, it is believed that the Virgin also helped the residents of the area to defeat British pirates who had invaded the Caribbean Coast. The villagers finally abandoned the area in 1833 following recurring floods and earthquakes and sadly only the limestone ruins remain which have now been declared a national monument by the Costa Rican government. The grounds around the church were extremely well cared for and are the venue for an annual local procession from Paraiso to Ujarras every April.

We had visited three very different churches all within a few miles of each other, all were very moving and all had been destroyed or badly damaged by the earthquakes that rock this country.

We travelled on passing green rolling hills and several plantations before stopping at the Cachi Dam. Luis said that we could walk across the dam and he would meet us on the other side. The dam supplies the area with electricity and was huge. As we crossed we noticed that there was only a very low fence on each side with a very long drop. We paused in the middle and met up with a group of nuns who were also walking across when this huge truck came speeding past. The whole bridge shook and wobbled and we all got quite a shock, the nuns laughed but we all walked very quickly to the other side of the bridge before any more traffic went past.........

A short distance from the dam Luis pulled up outside a wooden homestead called the Casa del Sonador (The Dreamers House). It was a family owned woodworking shop and although the original artist had died his two sons continued the tradition, making intricate carvings of local peasants, farmers, strange faces and religious figures as well as a variety of animals. The carvings were all sculptured from old coffee wood and some of them incorporated the straggly roots of the plants. With just a carved head and the roots left as hair they looked like images of Medusa's Head. We do not usually buy anything but could not resist a carving of an elderly planter holding a basket of coffee beans - quite apt we thought - not sure what we are going to do with it though without a house..... We chatted to the two carvers one of whom had some English which he said he had picked up from tourist visiting his workshop. He thought that we had really strong accents compared to the more usual American tourists that he meets - we said that they had the ‘accent’ not us!!!!! A little dog was wandering around amongst the wooden shavings strewn all over the floor below the stacked shelves of statues, it looked like it had just had its tailed chopped off and was very sore. They told us that the dog arrived a few days ago, minus its tail and they were not sure what happened to him. The dog seemed happy to stay with them though and they were happy to keep him - a lucky dog and at least it did not get attached to Paul.... It had been a long day out with Luis and we were shattered when we finally got back to the lodge but delighted we had fitted so much into one day in the valley.

A few days later (after chill time) we called Luis to take us on a coffee plantation tour that had been recommended by some other guests and was also the ‘free’ coffee that was supplied at the lodge. The plantation produced organic coffee and the mill also had its own roaster so we could see the whole process in one location. It was located on the south slope of the Irazu volcano in the village of Birrisito de Paraiso the next village before Orosi, so not too far to travel. The farm had been continuously cultivated for over 100 years and had produced Arabica coffee since the 1940‘s. The current American owners moved to Costa Rica in the 80s, bought the farm and built their own home on the land, before ‘going’ totally organic in 1992. Luis dropped us off at the farm and said to call him when we were ready to leave.

We were welcomed by the owner who gave us an introduction before his wife arrived carrying a small hummingbird that she had just rescued from inside her house. It was not looking too good but she placed it on one of the bird feeders outside and it soon perked up and flew off - it was a lovely emerald green in colour and was a Rufous-tailed Hummingbird. We walked to their coffee fields and they explained the process of producing good organic coffee from the planting of the beans to harvesting the crop, detailing all the problems they had with the weather, shade, weeds, disease and bugs. It was amazing really that they had any product in the end! We returned to the farm where they showed us the next stages, including extracting the beans from the fruiting cherry and slime, drying them on large concrete floors, or if the weather was bad mechanically using a large turning machine that the chap had constructed. A clever Motmot had taken up residence in a shed where the unwanted outer fruit was discarded - he had worked out that he would not have to fly too far to find a tasty meal as the place was crawling with flies and bugs. A tilted sifting tray sorted the best beans from the poor ones using a small wooden paddle - a very ingenious yet simple design. The owner had made most of the machinery himself and it looked quite ‘cobbled’ together but seemed to do the trick. He said it was a small scale version of what larger coffee planters used and he was even proposing to sell versions to other small planters. Many large coffee growers had recently gone out of business with the recession and smaller farms were now slowly increasing (returning full circle comes to mind). They showed us their worm compost enclosure where they also produced their own fertilizer - as to be expected it was crawling with worms and we could not get out of the shed quick enough......... Finally we arrived at the roasting ‘garage’ which had a delightful aroma - after nearly three hours we were ready for a cup of the ‘final product’ and indeed it was really good coffee. We came away with an in-depth knowledge of the whole process as well as a bag of their best coffee and they also insisted on presenting us with a huge bunch of bananas which we will never to able to get through...... Bananas and oranges are usually grown amongst the coffee plants to provide necessary shade as well as providing the coffee planters with reciprocal crops.

We spent our last few days in the valley sitting on our balcony overlooking the hills watching the world go by. Many birds came into the gardens below us as we were near the edge of the Tapantí National Park which was home to colonies of Oropendola and we could hear these most evenings and see them fly around the valley. It’s a largish bird that looks black from a distance but is actually dark brown, with bright yellow tail feathers that look golden when they are in flight. There are two species the Montezuma Oropendola which we had seen quite a lot of and the Crested Oropendola which we had only seen on the coffee plantation. They are quite strange birds with a distinct call that you soon get to know when they are nearby. The male sits on a horizontal twig, with its claws wrapped most of the way around and then it spreads its wings and swings around the branch so that its hanging upside down with its yellow tail feathers prominently displayed above. I have managed to get lots of ‘just the tail feathers’ in my photographs as they twirled just as I pressed the shutter! The bird also has an unusual nest, a long narrow woven basket hanging from the highest branches of tall trees, sometimes in clusters of dozens and we had seen many of these around Costa Rica.

The Orosi Valley was everything we hoped it would be, apart from the noise that is.........but a small price to pay. We wanted to experience typical costa rican life and boy did we get that! From our balcony it went on all around us, all day and all night - people at their daily tasks, an elderly lady who lived opposite would always wave and smile to us, next door to her four young lads would sit outside their front door playing board games for hours - always happy. Youngsters walked around the village calling out for people to buy their goods - onions seemed to be the main crop and they held up huge strings of these dangling from each hand. A couple of teenagers sold pegs door to door - the pegs were attached to a small circular washing line for hanging out socks we think. Th elderly lady opposite seemed very pleased wth her purchase.....Washing was always being hung out across fences and hedges and men would be out in their gardens or on the hillsides clearing the land for the next batch of crops. Next door to the lodge three little girls would run up and down the track playing games and their favourite was hiding a wooden spoon that the others would look for shouting out, caliente o frío (hot or cold), a game played all over the world. Many people in the village were decorating their houses for Christmas and there were hundreds of ’father christmases’ perched on the tin roofs. Outside their front doors little nativity scenes were displayed and the little shrines on the street corners were also being adorned for the festive season. Every night we would just get off to sleep after the dogs had stopped barking when the cockerels would start - some as early as 2 am - just another day in the valley.

Our last night was also Saturday night and ‘downtown’ Orosi went out to celebrate - it was nearly Christmas and we would could hear people singing carols, some had good voices but many did not...... The ‘firework’ neighbour let off some of the loudest bangers we have ever heard - still obviously not loud enough for his NY party! A restless night followed and we awoke to the church bells at 6 am...... at least we were not leaving until 10 am so could laze in bed - but then the birds started........ so it was time to get up...............sitting outside on the balcony having breakfast with the sun shining on the hills and the cloud clearing from the two volcanos - would not have missed this for the world. Luis picked us up and drove us back to San Jose where we had just a few days left in Costa Rica. We said goodbye to him and thanked him for being our ‘spanish taxi friend’ in the Orosi Valley.

We spent the next couple of days in San Jose sorting out travel arrangements for our return to the UK. The Cristina Apartments welcomed us back, we had become regulars now having returned here four times during our travels. Elizabeth on reception was great and organised anything for us without any problems. She also arranged for us to stay on in our room as we had a midnight flight and booked a late taxi to take us to the airport. We visited the nearby bank to sort out exit visas so that we did not have a long wait at the airport. The cashier at the bank was called Fabian which was also my father’s name although dad's full name was Fabian Nigel Anthony Patrick Groves. We have frequented the L'Olivio restaurant which is attached to the hotel (a top restaurant in San Jose) many times during our visit here and the staff always kept our regular table when we returned. The food at the restaurant was really great and the staff so friendly and welcoming and luckily for us it was only just a few steps from our room. We also returned to the Museo de Arte Costarricense (Museum of Costa Rican Art) nearby and the last time we visited they had an excellent display of carved wooden artifacts - some of these were just unbelievable, intricate designs all from one piece of solid wood. What stood out for us was a huge pillar of linked hands reaching to the ceiling and carved out of one solid tree trunk. Also a massive circular ball with carved pictures of costa rican life - stunning. When we left we wandered along the pavement outside and met a local artist who was drawing the Museum building itself - you may remember from a previous blog that this used to be the San Jose Airport Terminal and was a beautifully restored building (not like airports today!) The artist said he had been commissioned to display some of his work in the museum the following month and it was a shame that we would miss it. He showed us a couple of his drawings - a very talented artist and he was delighted to be displaying a total of 15 churches that he had drawn around the San Jose area as well as the airport terminal building itself.

We have so enjoyed our three months in Costa Rica and a lasting memory will be of the wildlife, particularly the birds - we have seen at least one different species every day of our journey and there are not many places in the world where you can do that. Paul will probably say dogs rather than birds though, as he has picked up so many 'strays' in Costa Rica that I lost count! All in all we have seen about 200 birds that we could name and many more that we could not. According to Wikipedia there are 894 bird species in Costa Rica, more than in all of the United States and Canada combined - quite distinct for a country roughly the size of Scotland. We hope to return to these shores one day - there are still nearly 700 birds that we have not seen! There are also a few places we did not get to and would also like to return to some of those that we did........we have met some delightful people, locals and other tourists, had many great experiences along the way and will take with us wonderful memories of this very small country - yet so ‘big’ hearted in every way.

This will be our last blog for a while as tomorrow we fly back to the UK and are looking forward to spending Christmas and New Year with Kerry and Cliff, as well as family and friends - see you there...................

If we miss you, we are ‘off again’ at the end of January to Dubai to see Geoff, Sharon and Maisie before we head to Indochina - it would be lovely if you join us again on our travels, we have so enjoyed receiving comments, messages and emails from so many of you, thank you so much.........adiós - till the next time............

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2nd January 2013

Hi Sheila and Paul, it was a pleasure to travel with you in Costa Rica. Looking foreward to Indochina. Have a great time with the family - lots of love Christa and Reiner
9th January 2013

Happy New Year
Hi Christa and Reiner - Lovely to hear from you and glad you enjoyed our blogs of Costa Rica. We are currently staying in a little fishing village in Devon overlooking the harbour, although picturesque we have not seen much sunshine and both of us have had dreadful colds (we kept so well on our travels) so are really looking forward to our next adventure in Indochina - see you there.......
4th July 2015

Birds !
Dear Madame, I am a avid birdwatcher from India. I have enjoyed all the Birds of Costa-Rica. Thank you .
4th July 2015

Thank You
Thanks for your comment and glad you enjoyed the birds of Costa Rica - you have some lovely birds in India - we saw quite a few when we travelled around Sri Lanka. Regards Paul and Sheila

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