Pura Vida in Costa Rica

Published: July 26th 2008
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Lunchtime in Monteverde

Goodbye to Panama

We left Bocas del Toro in Panama by a fast water taxi, sitting beside a local man carrying a rather terrified looking chicken, then reached the Panama/ Costa Rica border by an even faster and scarier land taxi. The border is crossed via a old, worn bridge, which takes you to the Costa Rican town of Sixaola, where the formalities were fast and efficient. Neither of the border towns was attractive, so we hopped on the first bus out of there along the Caribbean coast to Puerto Limon.

Costa Rica may be the most rich and developed country in Central America, but the government aren't spending much money on either roads or buses. We travelled in what would best be described as an old school bus as far as Puerto Limon, a very slow journey as we had to stop every 500 metres it seemed to pick someone up or let someone out. The Caribbean coast towns looked appealing, especially Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, where there were plenty of backpackers around, and where it was quite tempting to jump out there and join them. But we pushed onwards, and three hours later we arrived in Puerto Limon, where we quickly connected to a faster bus to the capital, San Jose.

Onto the capital

Costa Rica is renowned for its national parks, wildlife and eco tourism, but its capital isn't going to win awards any time soon. San Jose was founded much later than many Latin American capitals and hence has few colonial buildings of note. It looked nice enough as we approached it from above, but when we arrived in the centre we found it to be a sprawling, concrete jungle. Perhaps a quiet Sunday afternoon in the wet season is not the best time to judge a city, but our first impressions weren't too favourable.

We checked into Hostel Pangea, which from the outside resembled a nuclear bunker, but which, inside, was welcoming, friendly and full of traveller comforts. Pangea is run like an army camp in many ways, with lots of rules and regulations (you have to wear a bracelet tag for security, you have to do this, you have to do that), but it was a nice place; with a bar, restaurant, pool table, swimming pool and free Internet available you could spend all day here and see nothing of
Cute crabCute crabCute crab

A friendly face in Monteverde Cloudforest Reserve
San Jose if so desired. The hostel was packed with backpackers - many of whom, rather intriguingly, had chosen to visit Costa Rica as they felt the rest of Latin America was too unsafe.

The next morning we had a proper look around the city. First stop was the Jade Museum, which had excellent displays of pre-Columbian Jade, gold and stone artifacts from Costa Rica. All the exhibits were labelled in English & Spanish, there was a wide variety in the types of artifacts shown; all in all, it was a great place to visit. As it was Monday, the other San Jose museums were closed, so we walked around and looked at the squares. These ranged from the attractive Parque Central with its plentiful trees and its bizarre cow-art- display, to the Plaza de la Deomcracia, which Rough Guide accurately describes as "one step up from a concrete parking lot".

There is one building which looks very out of place amidst all the fast food restaurants and concrete in downtown San Jose: the Teatro National, which is modelled on the Paris opera house and which was built in the 19th century by levying a tax on coffee, Costa Rica's biggest export at the time. Speaking of coffee, there were plenty of nice cafes in and around the centre, and as I sipped an espresso, on a terrace looking out at the theatre, I could feel my impressions of San Jose beginning to change (a little).

Lava watching, waterfalls and hot springs

I laughed when I saw that the price of the tourist shuttle bus from San Jose to La Fortuna was 10 times the cost of the local bus. But I wasn't laughing later during the 5 hour journey on that same local bus. There wasn't a single stop, not even for a toilet break, so I was regretting those 2 breakfast coffees I'd had that morning. Furthermore, I think the driver may have set a new world record for the how-many-people-can-you-fit-on-an-old-bus competition (previous record held by another Costa Rican driver on the trip between Sixaola on the border and Puerto Limon two days previously!). We arrived in La Fortuna eventually, but barely had the will or energy to go looking for a room, so went with the first offer at the bus station, which was a reasonable $14 a night for two of us
Volcan ArenalVolcan ArenalVolcan Arenal

A rare view of the summit of Volcan Arenal, Costa Rica´s most active volcano.
in Cabinas Jerry.

The eruption of Volcano Arenal in 1968 was the start of what eventually became the transformation of La Fortuna from a quiet, rural village into one of Central America's biggest tourist centres. Arenal has been erupting pretty much continuously since 1968, by day spewing gas clouds from the crater, and by night sending rivers of lava down the volcano's sides. Alongside the popular lava watching tours, more recent attractions such as hanging walkways through the forest, zip line canopying, horse riding tours and luxury hot springs have appeared. In fact, it's unlikely there's a single person left in La Fortuna not selling tours, or at least not involved in tourism.

On our first evening we booked a tour to (hopefully) see the lava flows. Clouds hovered ominously over the summit, but the guide reckoned it was a good time of year to see the flows. Quite why we handed over $30 each to this man instead of taking a taxi (or even hiring a car) I just don't know, but he turned out to be a very poor guide, telling us little about the volcano or its history. However, we did see a tiny bit
Making a splashMaking a splashMaking a splash

It may look like a bomb has gone off but it´s only me landing in the water from the slide in Baldi Hot Springs
of lava flowing, which was a magical sight even though we were a good 10km away. We also spotted howler monkeys and three toed sloths in the tress overhead, examples of just how close you get to the exotic wildlife in Costa Rica. On the way back we had a quick stop at some natural hot springs, quite a pleasant place to round off the evening.

Another worthwhile attraction was the Rio Fortuna waterfall, 7km from La Fortuna on the slopes of Cerro Chato, which we reached by hiking from town. At the entrance you pay $7, which gives access to a trail leading down to the falls, leading to a good swimming area, with cool, clean water close to the bottom of the 75 metre high waterfall.

Our time in La Fortuna coincided with Ruth's 26th birthday so I had to take a few hours to do a spot of present shopping in the local markets. On the big day, I (with Ruth's agreement) vetoed our usual activities of hiking or volcano climbing, and instead, we spent a day of leisure in the Baldi Hot Springs, on the slopes of Volcan Arenal. Even the usual afternoon downpours
Ruth & a TarantulaRuth & a TarantulaRuth & a Tarantula

Getting to know Cleopatra, an orange knee tarantula in Mundo de los Insectos
couldn't spoil this - there is absolutely no better place to be than in hot springs when the skies open. My personal favourite part was the water slide, a fast, scary and slightly unsafe piece of fun (one American girl needed stitches after banging her head on the way down). I think taking 20 turns on the slide was a bit excessive, but every once in a while you need to act like a big kid! As we sat there in the hot baths, with the rain falling, looking at the smoke rising from Volcan Arenal, I could feel Costa Rica finally beginning to weave its spell on me.

Monteverde: the highlight of Costa Rica

We reached Monteverde by a van-boat-van combination from Arenal, which cost $18, but which cut about 5 hours from the alternative slow bus trip. Crossing Laguna Arenal was a lovely journey, which reminded me of the Lake District in England - apart from the presence of a very active volcano behind us, of course. When we reached Monteverde it was raining very heavily - a fairly common occurrence here but one which didn't stop our enjoyment of the area. Monteverde/Santa Elena was the
Birthday girlBirthday girlBirthday girl

At Baldi Hot Springs
highlight of our time in Costa Rica; you could easily spent a week (and a small fortune here) enjoying all the sights.

Before I came to Costa Rica, my vision of frogs was of a green, croaking, fairly small animal. I now know much more after our visit to the Ranario in Santa Elena, where we saw 20 or so different species of frogs and toads. The variety in terms of size, colour and sound was astonishing. We decided not to go on a guided tour, which worked out well as we overheard most of the guides giving information about the frogs, but we also had as much time as we wanted to attempt to find and to take pictures of each species. Night time was a good time to visit as it's then that the frogs are most active, though it is more difficult to take pictures and to locate some of the smaller, camouflaged species. My personal favourites were the lovely coloured Tiger Frog & the acrobatic Rufous-Eyed Stream Frog, who put on a great display of climbing for us in his window cage. Many Costa Rican frogs are poisonous, and it's difficult to see them in the wild, so the Ranario was well worth our time.

The cheese factory tour was our next stop, where, in addition to learning about cheese, we learned much about the founding of Monteverde and the subsequent growth in tourism in the area. The first foreign settlers in the areas were Quakers from Alabama, who, fleeing the draft in USA in 1949, and attracted by Costa Rica's abolition of its military the previous year, established a community in Monteverde alongside some local farmers. One of the first enterprises was this cheese factory, while later they were involved in the setting up and running of the famous Monteverde cloud forest reserve.

The Monteverde Reserve is the biggest attraction in Monteverde. It consists of a series of trails through the cloud forest. Though it was similar to cloud forests we've been to in Ecuador and Peru, the trails here were better maintained and easier to follow. After seeing little animal life on our last cloud forest trip, we didn't expect to see too much here either, but there were enough strange insects, colourful butterflies and even a friendly crab to keep us entertained on the trail. There are about 8 trails
Froggy styleFroggy styleFroggy style

These two frogs had no inhibitions in front of all the cameras.
in all, though a couple were closed as it was the wet season.

Next door to the reserve was the hummingbird gallery, a fantastic exhibition, with a good selection of hummingbirds. Entry was free - proof finally that you don't have to pay for everything in Costa Rica. Hummingbirds are difficult to see in the forests as they are always on the move but here they were attracted to the numerous feeding stations and they paused just long enough for us to take pictures. Like the frogs in the Ranario, the variety and the colours were beautiful.

The final place we visited was the Mundo de los Insectos (World of Insects) where we were shown a wide variety of insects from Costa Rica, firstly dead example in the museum, then live ones in their window cages. Ruth was braver than me, picking up a Hercules beetle, a praying mantis, a stick insect, and, scariest of all, an orange knee tarantula. I politely but firmly declined!

Costa Fortune

So that brought our time in Costa Rica to a close. As in Panama, we had just over a week to see a whole country so there are no doubt many worthwhile places we missed. We did find Costa Rica far more tourist oriented and hence more expensive than previous countries we've seen in Latin America. If you're on a short trip and have money to burn then I think it's a great country to visit, as everything is set up for you on a plate. For longer term or budget conscientious travellers, the prices can be a bit shocking, especially as similar attractions can be seen for a fraction of the price in neighbouring countries.

Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 26


Cows in San JoseCows in San Jose
Cows in San Jose

Bearing an uncanny resemblence to Amy Winehouse.
Strawberry poison dart frogStrawberry poison dart frog
Strawberry poison dart frog

Tiny but very dangerous

28th July 2008

Great to see the wildlife in such proximity - love the colourful frogs!

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