The Caribbean to the central highlands: from cancelled flight to Costa Rican delight. October 17 to 23rd

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October 23rd 2018
Published: October 23rd 2018
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“All good for our pick up from the airport, at this stage” read my reply email. Emphasis on ‘at this stage’.

Looking at the email to the ground transport company in Costa Rica, second day in, it read relevantly of what was an exhausting 48 hour period beforehand.

On the day of departure, arranged many months in advance, we got a text one liner. ‘Flight cancelled’. Into a spin it threw us. No reasons given.

As well as trying to fit work in myself that day, P2 kicked off the alternative planning involving lengthy calls to the insurer, travel agent and AirNZ, plus emails to ground transport Desafio and our first hotel night. Several hours and dollars later, with a fortunate late check out from our Airbnb, meant we’d got it at least half sorted.

The resulting late flight took pressure off us both and I’m certain my parents, taking us late that day, with time to share the usual hot chocolates at Auckland airport. We moved on through security unhindered and with anxious anticipation that somehow the San José hotel might let us check in 4 hours before check out!

LA was the plan B. Houston was cut altogether, as would have to be the United Airlines connection that same day, three hours after the arrival there. We flew in mid afternoon to sunny skies and with around 9 hours to spare.

To the beach before sunset? Hmmm. Security, not too bad or lengthy considering, but the check in for the now repurchased flight was deferred to no more than six hours before.

This was dependent on who you spoke to though, and one of the head attendants manning the entry at Delta, Ralph, dressed in Delta ‘breast cancer research’ pink, made quick work of ridding us of luggage, and arranging a slightly earlier check in. Thumbs up to Ralph!

Toying with the idea of taking a taxi to the beach, when we saw the bumper to bumper traffic outside, we cut that idea and took up the ground-seating-only in the hectic Tom Bradley terminal. Sipping a regular coffee, that could’ve been equal to two in NZ, we remained well awake. Super size USA.

By nearly midnight, the usefulness of the Delta business lounge for food and showers had been exhausted, and as non business customers, it was money well spent.

Then on to a packed flight, and squashed in at the economy rear seats of DL1388. After a dodgy cockpit light was assessed, our pilot finally announced “I’m going to Costa Rica”. Thank goodness, I was beginning to think I was off to somewhere else!

Dozing off only briefly in the 6 hour journey, the crying children and loud speakers eventually too, had us soon descending into San José. Lush green hills proved the wet season had begun and no reunion was to be arranged with P2 like in 2016

Juan Santa Maria airport is undergoing an upgrade and looking very smart inside, as well as more construction continuing outside, including some greenery walls planted over the concrete.

Bright and early, Otto from desafío met us and off we went, blending with peak hour San José traffic. A recent documentary on this country formed the basis of our Spanish chat, all 60 minutes in, and soon we were boring the vaqueros off Otto on how clean green Costa Rica was painted internationally.

Traffic and an excess of cars in the city was one sore point, but I’m thinking this is universal.

The check in at holiday inn was a little lacking in clear communication, the oxygen deprivation and sleep debt explaining all. Eventually we got to our room, zoomed downstairs for breakfast and by 9.30 were starting to plan a morning.

Zombie like, we moved from A to B, the Museo de Oro, and not much else, although with coherence I did exchange dollars to cólones and push P2 quickly around the local discount mart for essentials before we headed into the abyss of El Caribe, sin tiendas.

The Two O’clock pick up came around far too fast, and with weak takeaway Costa Rican coffee in hand, we met Dixon from Desafio, and I promptly spilled it on the pavement. So that’s why I wore black that day.

Seven hours of stop-start travel then ensued.

To the back of the bus, we assumed position, three others (from the US) boarding at the airport, an hour after leaving the City. Not only is San José in a traffic crisis it seems, but the Port of Limon adds a massive dimension of commuting frustration. It would have to be in the vicinity of a good 99% truck and container traffic, snarling in both directions, all the way from the mountain pass east of San José, through Parque Nacional Braulio Carillo, to the Caribbean side of the country and Limon province in the east.

What usually could be 3-4 hours doubled, so that when 9pm rolled around, we rolled in to passionfruit lodge.

Karine and Philipe told us they moved here from Biarritz in France a year ago, settling in Lilan village as an option for Costa Rica, that involved deciding on where in the world they could go. Arriving to a friendly welcome so late in the day, we felt instantly welcomed

This beautiful lodge is a tropical paradise, and with all past events, led us to a lengthy sleep that night.

10.30am wasn’t the rise & shine time I had in mind!

To make the most, and scope out Cahuita a little more, we wandered into town in the 28C
plus heat. A slight miscalculation from our knowledge sources (I.e. the reliable google maps) turned a half hour into an hour to reach playa negra, but worthwhile it surely was. Hot black sand, sunshine and a lot of fruity smells.

The beautiful warm water had a challenging current, with surf, which explains the “girls surf too” and the do nothing else but ‘Eat-Sleep-Surf’ hostel, clearly appealing to a dedicated crowd.

Dusting off the black sand, we trudged back via the Abastecedor Bordón minimarket on the main highway 36. I tried desperately to have my honed Spanish understood by a Spanish speaking Chinese man, only to be told ‘I understand her (local customer) not you’. We may have gone on to discuss what he wanted to know of my experiences of China, but that definitely put me in my linguistic place.

Sullen in mood from poor language skills at Chinese run markets, it had to be the big Cahuita national park day to follow.

P2s research came to the fore again, and with alarms firmly set at 5:15 (when consequently most life is rising), Philipe the owner kindly dropped us into town at 6am saving us a 6km walk. The guards were at the ready at the Cahuita entrance for our $5USDpp compulsory but affordable ‘donation’. Community run, it’s unique, and at just after 6am, quiet.

Squirrels, vultures, howler monkeys greeted us on the first stretch of level walking. Alongside playa Blanca the path weaved to the first point, Punta Cahuita, leading to Punta Vargas and around 5km into it, Playa Vargas. Well signed all the way, we were appreciative of the shade as heat rose.

Come 9.30am we’d meandered more than hiked, but clocked up seeing a Jesus lizard, numerous green and brown lizards (whiptails/ racerunners), crabs crawling with shells, locusts, agoutis, coatis, the northern raccoon, a large green iguana, and various sea and forest birds as well.

That hot black sand by our picnic table demanded a swim. Assured by a few others being around, the calm sea was inviting, warm and idyllic. A little murky (probably due to the wet weather), the sky went from clear to dark in the distance, within no more than half an hour.

The local prediction of afternoon rain rang true, as in many tropical climes, so that when we’d reached the end of the boardwalk (8km from Cahuita) through dense jungle of Los Cavitas, rain drops were falling on my head.

The weather never deters the monkeys and howlers though, seeing playful white faced capuchin and squirrel monkeys, while the howlers continued to roar loudly in the distance.

The pace quickened as the rain fell and we made a good solid tramp through aisles of Sangrillo trees to the entrance we’d begun at by just after 1pm. Having a camera malfunction on my part, it was eyes-only sighting, as we met a sloth, within a short stroll of the exit up a tree.

We kept walking. Buses could be hailed but on the highway away from Cahuita town, and after a half hour wait, apparently on Tico time.

Despite P2s tiny blister, we were so fortunate to chose that. Discussing what so far had been seen, blending my eyesight with his camera, I declared, ‘I want to see a toucan’. Lo n behold, we’d hit toucan central in the form of a very tall tree, their behaviour holding
us captivated for ages.

Damp was the permanent state on such a day, and with relenting rain, our hopes of the nighttime tour rose. Though come 7pm and dark truly fallen, it was wet boots and umbrella for a tour of the lodge gardens by torchlight. Incredible looking frogs & even a tree snake were sighted, but when the conversation turned to 2m crocodiles in the lodge pond a few metres away, I thought of heading back to make dinner rather than be dinner. “It’s safe!” We were reassured.

Rain oscillated from light to heavy all night, but waking to clearer air the next day, I trundled off for a jog whilst P2 found another rare bird and took sharp photos of it. Summer tanager, the bird in red, made a cameo and the lodge owners, having never seen it before, were very impressed. ‘Your career’? they asked. With that sized lens, it could be.

Dixon our driver turned up soon after, beginning the private transfer to the other side of the country and leading us back over highway 36. Fortunately it was the sacred Sunday, easing the traffic conditions, but unlike other Spanish speaking countries, a lot remained open. Before crossing over the pass, we stopped at the same roadhouse as before for gallo pinto and coffee, then wove steadily up the hill of dense and misty rainforest.

Straight through with few hitches to San José, we navigated the constant undulations that is overlooking this metropolis.

With plenty of highly secured homes and gated communities, we passed private schools, the main university, and lots of local life. In the interests of Dixon’s health, we pulled into a pharmacy for a BP check, his prescription waiting, the visit sure to keep him well when doing transfers in San José!

Another few hours up highway one and we passed our previous Arenal / La Fortuna turn off from 2016, then carried on winding up down up and down all the way into Punta Arenas district. Then those hills of the central highlands revealed themselves. ‘See that misty peak? We’re going there!’

The road to Monteverde is being perpetually worked on, and at the mercy of wet season erosion or slippage, it makes for a curly, bumpy trip for a good 16km. Dixon kept us safe, and pulling into town, we went from a bright red sunset and empty hills, to the sealed main road of the dual village hub, Santa Elena - Monteverde.

On the fringes, moving over the rough roads again, was our oasis for the next few nights. Antoni, a well spoken son of the family that run Cabañas Pradera, took us over all we’d need to know and dragged both of our backpacks to the cabana. A fan for drying second day damp washing, printouts of a variety of birds on the wall, gas hob and a big fridge - what more do we really need. Although when we figured out the gas was disconnected outside, I’m sure señor could relax for the night. No more questioning from this visitor.

A cooler, high altitude setting was welcomed after the humidity of Cahuita. Misty forested peaks at 6am otherwise gave way to a warm clear day, with sunburn easy at this higher place. Prearranged tour options led us to Esteban Menéndez, found on one of P2s searches, and he enlightened and surprised us with facts / figures (like 14000 butterfly species and thousands of birds) and wildlife viewing opportunities at Curi Cancha.

Warming into the day with bird sightings at road side areas, we literally had it all to ourselves before our 7.30am Curi Cancha entry.

Numbers are limited, most filling out by 8am, and with a guide the chances are greater due to their allocated number of tourists apportioned. It had to be money well spent at 90NZD pp. Esteban delivered amazingly well, and P2 got superlative photo compliments to his delight.

The air was thick with birdsong and nothing else. Slowly, steadily, we took various trails, beginning seeking tadpoles and frogs, a disappearing armadillo, a green snake, agoutis, coati (which I spotted up a tree), bees and wasp nests, citronella berries, a very old mahogany tree, and numerous near signature birds of Costa Rica. Some were native, some live fast and die young (the mesmerisingly rapid moving hummingbirds), and others had headed here or were going away on holiday/ to their next destination.

The one characteristic sound at Curi Cancha persistent and sharp, was the ‘lekking’, although not a unique phenomenon of hummingbirds. This is when males haven’t been successful in finding a mate, whom then cry in sorrow and attract other misery (which of course loves company), thereby ruminating ad infinitum. Much like men drinking in a bar perhaps. Along with the male coati up the tree, whom evidently steals his mates food for their young, leading to a very unhappy female, I could spot some similarities in this story.

Five hours slipped away so fast. On our route back to town, I asked Esteban for local advice on the fish front. Three days of pollo (chicken) had taken its toll, sealed by forcing a vegetarian option on one night, when choices slipped further. Despite being surrounded by coast, a rich coast at that, fresh fish wasn’t anywhere to be found for self catering. Nor could I reconcile how locals afford to pay for the food basics that we had at the supermarket. Next time I’m at my local, I’m taking note of my good Western fortune.

The days are always young when you get up at 5am, and see trillions of birds, which only ever occurs on holiday! So after a leisurely lunch we explored more of our hood. The perros and perritos were out, barking up a storm, just like the one brewing on the Nicoya peninsula and Gulf, visible all 1500-1800 metres below us. That’ll explain why I was a tad breathy at Curi Cancha, above Santa Elena, and so fitting of the Cloud Forest name (Monteverde bosque nuboso).

And the sun has set on our first 6 days, a third tiresome for other reasons, and the rest filled with scenery and interactions that only strengthen our choice to come here.

The lowlands of Guanacaste are ahead

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