(2010) Costa Rica – Pt 2

We had spent the first half of our vacation inland, and now it was time to hit the coast.

Wednesday – a day of rest. We were in a beautiful hotel just minutes from the Pacific Ocean. Craig and Aaron went off to do their own thing and Dan and I did our thing. The previous night, like most of our nights in Costa Rica, had hard rains and they were wonderful to sleep to. The morning dawned bright and almost clear, with clouds flitting across the sun and a slight haze in the atmosphere. Dan and I left the hotel property for the 25 minute walk to the beach. What we didn’t realize was just how far above the beach we were! There was a sidewalk for most of the trip, but the ground was wet and slippery in some parts. But it was interesting to walk by the numerous businesses and check them out at our snail’s pace.

Along the way down we saw signs about how kids were helping to save the native animals and realized that the bright blue lines periodically crossing the road at powerline level were actually designed to help monkeys and sloths move around safely. I saw a couple of monkeys using one on the last day of my trip and it was nice to know that they weren’t just a sign of good intentions.

We reached the beach at the lowest point of low tide and I was amazed at how wide the beach itself was. The sand was smooth and soft under my feet and the water a comfortable temperature for swimming. We saw the river that separates this beach from Manuel Antonio Park, a river that requires a boat to cross it at high tide. But at low tide it was maybe 6′ wide and 6″ deep. Easily crossed by foot with your shoes off. But for those who didn’t want to take off their shoes there were two men waiting in their boats, set up like a bridge across the narrow river. I don’t know what they charged for the privilege of walking on their boats, but I had heard that it was $1 at high tide for a ride across.

Dan swam a bit in the waves while I walked along the beach. We’d heard too many stories about not leaving your stuff unguarded at the beach, but upon reflection I think that was more appropriate at the park beach, where the monkeys and raccoons were bold and would help themselves to anything they could grab. What I didn’t realize as the sun rose into the sky was just how fierce that ball of hydrogen was. I found out later when I saw the bright red line where my shirt sleeves ended. While on the beach I called Craig and Aaron on the two-way radios we’d brought with us. They were at the other end of the beach, just making their way down from the main road. They had told us about a sloth they had seen – a sloth! It would be our first sighting and we were excited to check it out. We walked to the far end of the beach, looking for the trail that would lead back up to the hotel. I thought I had found it, but a security guard stopped me and asked for my room number. I realized then that this trail led to a private resort. I produced the cartoon map of the area that Hotel Byblos provided and through some very bad Spanish on my part, and very bad English on his part, we were directed to the correct trail. Now it was time to go back up.

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View while walking down to the shore from our hotel

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Mosaic floor in one of the restaurants

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Sort of like the de-evolution of mankind

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A very wide, low tide beach

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Getting ready for the day’s visitors

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No, I have no idea what this is (army dude for scale)

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Not much of a river to cross at low tide

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But still some people used their “foot bridge”

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More people start to arrive

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Coral-covered rocks

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Other swimmers watch the pelicans

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Dan , the bobbing head, enjoys the ocean

The little dog was playing in the waves the entire time we were at the beach

It was a lot steeper going up, as well as a lot hotter. I was sweating and I could now feel the sun sizzling on my skin. I wanted nothing more than to step into the shade, but that wasn’t going to happen any time soon. About 1/3 of the way up we rounded a corner and there were Aaron and Craig, making their way down. We stopped to talk to them and they gave us explicit directions on where to find the sloth before we continued on our way.

The sloth was hanging out in full sight, which surprised me. I had expected it to be hidden up in a tree and almost invisible to my eye but instead there it was, just casually hanging from the branch and scratching itself lazily. Nice, but I was sweating and hot – it was pool time. I figured that I’d see more of them while I was here anyway.

We took a quick dip in the hotel pool (which didn’t appear to be heated and cooled me off quickly) and then walked back towards a taqueria we’d seen for lunch. Sancho’s was a small place – two tables and some counter seats – that sat right on the main road. The place was bustling when we got there and we placed our order with a well-spoken young man. The owner was also the cook, an American who was busy behind the counter whipping up one delicious dish after another. Our meals were huge and I was disappointed that I was full before I could eat it all, as it was incredibly good. The service was super friendly and I didn’t hesitate to go back there later.

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Looking back as we hike up the trail

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And interesting sign – and very accurate

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The sloth!

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And away he goes…

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This guy was waiting for us when we came out of our room

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Look at that eye!

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The maids were startled and seemed happy when it ran off

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These guys were all over the place, delivering who-knows-what

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Lunch at Sancho’s

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The owner/cook of Sancho’s

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Yes, it was hot

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But the food was worth coming out for

After we finished eating we stepped outside and caught the bus that would take us down to Quepos, the small town that we passed through on our way in the previous day. The bus itself was about 50 cents and ran every 30 minutes or so. It was clean and since there was only one road, it was easy to navigate. The rains moved in just as the bus pulled into town, but like most tropical rains I’m used to, it passed quickly. It took us less than 30 minutes to walk around the central district of Quepos, the town is so small. We found a cigar store where we bought cigars where the leaves came from Cuba, but the Costa Ricans rolled them. Does that make them legal in the States? Regardless, we have a couple of them now.

As usual, I love seeing the odd sights that I find when traveling out of the States: a woman riding her bicycle with her small son tucked into the basket on her handle bars, the man riding his bicycle with a 4′ fish hanging from the handle bar, living rooms that open out to the street just like the businesses next door… All different from the life I’m used to. After exploring what we could, we took the bus back up the twisting and narrow road to our hotel. It had felt good to see more of the local culture and not just the touristy section where we were staying.

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Quepos

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We don’t need no stinkin’ stroller!

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Cigar store humidor

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Sorting through the leaves

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The one that didn’t get away

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Quepos

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Quepos houses on a side street

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The road to Manuel Antonio

We decided to take the bus back down to the beach, this time with the intent to swim. The time was coming in and on the high side. I was surprised to see that the high tide mark went all the way up to the tree line at the edge of the beach. We stashed our stuff under some trees in a vain attempt to keep it dry and then went and played in the surf. It rained hard while we were out there and it was fun to dive under the 8′ waves as they curled over and broke. Because I’d seen the beach at low tide, I knew that everything under my feet would be nothing but soft sand and that made me feel better. I was still cautious about the rip tide that occurs off the coast and I stayed pretty close to shore.

That evening we all got together and walked down the road to El Avion, an incredibly unique and good restaurant. The main feature of El Avion is that the bar is contained in the fuselage of a Fairchild C-123 and the rest of the restaurant was built around it. Check the link for the fascinating history behind this place. We got a bit of information simply because the owner of the restaurant was at the table next to us, trying to impress a young lady. But what was important was the excellent food and service. That night there was another heavy rain to lull me to sleep.

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El Avion

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The restaurant from the street

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A closer view

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There was a lot of seating space, including upstairs as well

Thursday we’d made arrangements to head out to sea and do some snorkeling. The hotel recommended Plant Dolphin and we were not disappointed. Their shuttle van picked us up bright and early and along with some other guests, took us to the new marina in Quepos. The crew brought the Tom Cat up to the dock and gave us a quick briefing on the rules of the boat. The boat itself was a beautiful twin-hulled catamaran with a covered seating area, small galley and two heads (“bathrooms” for those not current in their boating lingo). The crew said that the boat could hold 45 people but fortunately for us, there were only 17 on board that day. I can’t imagine any more people than what we had – it was perfect.

We motored out of the marina and very shortly caught sight of a couple of bottlenose dolphins in the distance. They said that it was unusual to see this type of dolphin and were excited to get closer. The crew gave chase but we were never able to get any closer to them. Unfortunately, the time I spent tracking the dolphins through my camera gave me the unpleasant experience of seasickness for the first time in my life. I tried to quell those nasty rumblings in my stomach but it was not to be stopped. I spent the rest of the ride laying on a bench, keeping my eyes closed so that I wouldn’t get any worse. In fact, I got better before we landed, but didn’t want to push it so I could still enjoy the rest of my day. Another passenger wasn’t thinking that far ahead and instead of resting, he partook in the tasty mahi-mahi that the crew had prepared for lunch. It didn’t stay down long, I’m told.

So while I bobbed gently on the boat, the rest of the group grabbed snorkels and fins and checked out the aquatic life off the shore of the park. Apparently I didn’t miss out on much, as the heavy rains that Costa Rica has been experiencing have really clouded up the water. Visibility was down to about 6′ and not much was seen. I was very happy to be out of the shuttle van and back at the hotel. Needless to say, I wasn’t up for too much more that day. Everyone agreed that “nap time” was in order and it was just what the doctor ordered.

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Crocodile eyes from the night before

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Translucent flower

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Batman, the hotel cat

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A better view of the main hotel building

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Our boat

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A good name for a catamaran

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Leaving the marina

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The tour company

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Fishermen behind a swell

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Another tour boat joins us

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The elusive Bottlenose Dolphin

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Off-shore islands

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Getting lunch ready

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Everyone enjoys the fresh mahi-mahi

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I want nothing to do with lunch

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Snorkeling while I “rest” comfortably in the shade

I’m not a very good nap taker and woke up and got bored before Dan was ready to move. I decide to try to get a photo or two of the Capuchin monkeys that populate the trees around the hotel. I wandered up to the reception area and saw Davis there, so we talked for a little bit. We watched with great amusement the antics of a White-faced Coati as it ate the fruit from the palm trees and the Capuchin monkeys scolded it. I called Aaron from the front desk and suggested that he bring his camera out, as I knew that he would want to see this as well. That’s when we Davie and I were surprised by a troop of probably a dozen Squirrel monkeys came clambering through the property. They are endangered and friendly – probably one leading to the other. Other guests came by and we watched the new monkeys climb on everything in sight while the Capuchins watched with intensity. Meanwhile, more Agouti scampered around in the grass below the trees. It was a virtual zoo, and I never even had to leave the hotel.

We eventually wandered down the road to try somewhere else for dinner. Anaconda was recommended to us, but it was only open for lunch. Instead we tried The Cantina BBQ – it looked like it had great potential with its open air setting and cozy atmosphere. It failed. To be fair, it appeared that one (possibly two) large parties were seated just before us. This was Thanksgiving, after all. But we sat at our table for a long time without a single visit by the waitstaff, to the point where Dan had just stood up to leave. Naturally, that’s when someone finally came by to get our drink orders. We decided to stay. The entire meal was a bust. The service was consistently slow and the food was mediocre. In fact, I found myself wanting to warn people away when they stopped to look at the menu. But what really amazed me was that this establishment was owned by the same man who owns El Avion. What a tremendous difference between the two places! I left disappointed. There was no rain that night to lull me to sleep, either.

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I was excited to take this picture from my balcony

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And then I saw these guys

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Playing in the trees at the main hotel building

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There was a lot of monkey concern about this Coati

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And then a troop of Squirrel monkeys came through

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Cute, endangered Squirrel monkey

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The Coati didn’t want to show its face much

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It has teeth!!!

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Meanwhile, the Agouti are nibbling in the grass below

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The Squirrel monkeys move along

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Leaving the Capuchins to deal with the Coati

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This little guy found something good to eat

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Late to the party, a vulture drops in for a visit

Friday was our last full day on the coast. Hotel Byblos’ owner, Davis, had highly recommended a specific guide to take us through Manual Antonio Park. His accolades were genuine and sincere and we decided to take him up on it. Prior to now we had wandered the trails on our own, to see what we could see without the aid of a local guide knowledgeable in the native flora and fauna. Let’s see what we’d been missing. Dagoberto (I’m not really sure how he spells his name) and his sister picked us up at the hotel and a total of 8 of us drove down to the park’s entrance. The park’s initial “path” is actually a wide dirt road, which is good because it is crowded with other tour groups and people. Guides were everywhere, their tripod scopes set up to best catch sight of everything from birds to frogs to sloths. I was so pleased to have a small group, especially when a group of over 20 people trudged by us. Dago had an incredibly keen eye (as well as communicating with the other guides) and was able to show us birds in far-off trees, frogs mere feet from us but camouflaged out of sight and shared an incredibly vast knowledge of the plant life around us. This guy knew his stuff.

The park had suffered from recent rains and storms and many of the trails were closed. Or at least that’s what I believe happened. I do know that all of the guides seemed to follow the same route, an easy loop in and out with the standard stops along the way when an animal was spotted. We saw and iguana sunning himself high in a tree, watched racoons steal chips from tourists’ bags on the beach and saw both male and female sloths, as well as a young one hanging low in a tree. In addition, he pointed out some frogs, butterfly chrysalis, red crabs and some Jesus Christ lizards. There were very few monkeys to be seen in the park, which was a surprise to me. All in all, I felt like I saw more at our hotel than we did at the park, but it was still a very interesting place to visit. And I could only wish to have been able to remember half of what Dago told us. Dago’s sister had gone ahead of us on the trail and reserved a table by the beach and had set out bowls of cut up fruit and glasses of water for us to have. Other than that, we rarely saw her on our trip.

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Our guide

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A male sloth (with white mark on back)

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Laughing Falcon (that’s the name, really!)

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Iguana – but I’d already been spoiled by the one at our hotel

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Woodpecker, as seen through the telescope

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Woodpecker, as seen through my camera (center, right trunk – small!)

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Sleeping Tree Frog

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Red crabs

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A nameless cool bird

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Path through the park

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Dan & I

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Hermit crab

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Orchid flowers

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Racoons – the same the world over

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Another frog

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Do Not Feed the Monkeys – but I only saw one

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The beach inside the park

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Armadillo

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Jesus Christ lizard

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Three bats hanging from a branch

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The cutest sloth in the world

The tour ended at the park entrance on the other side of the river. It was low tide again so most of us tried to jump the river or took off our shoes. I tried to jump but managed to land in the water anyway. Oh well, I had to try. Dago dropped us off at our hotel (after regaling one of the group members about the number of animals we’d seen on our hotel property. I don’t know where she was staying, but she hadn’t see anything since their arrival. After an afternoon nap, our group of four wandered down the road and had another great meal at Sancho’s before packing it in for the day.

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A less populated beach in the park

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The beginnings of a sunset

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Monkey bridge in action!

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Pacific coast sunset

Sadly, it was time to leave. Our flight wasn’t until 6pm, but we’d been advised to arrive 3 hours early and plus, we wanted another try at visiting a coffee plantation before we left. Aaron had found the Doka Estate that advertised friendly tours and good coffee. It was also directly on our way to the airport.

We left quietly, the Montero right where we left it when we first arrived. Back up the coast and then we took the “new” highway. There had been a lot of talk about this highway, as it had opened 6 months ahead of schedule and then suffered from massive landslides ever since. We saw the evidence of these slides in the raw earth lining the hillsides. Even the concrete drainage ditches had been pushed out of the way. The only thing that delayed us was manmade: an accident scene that blocked most of the two lanes of traffic flowing in our direction. Fortunately we got there early and didn’t have a long line of traffic to sit in.

Craig had written directions for Doka and after only one wrong turn (and the polite but much-too-fast-Spanish directions from a local, we found the place. We were just in time for the next tour which would put us at the Dollar return lot with just enough time to catch our flight.

The tour was an hour long and there were maybe a dozen of us. We followed our guide to a grassy plot where he described the 28 year life span of the coffee bush and then demonstrated how it is picked. The workers are seasonal and well-paid for their labors, but it is hard work and not something the locals like to do. Therefore, most of the pickers are Nicaraguans who come in for the harvest which lasts for about four months. We then went into the mill, proclaimed as the oldest still-operating wet mill in the country. We followed the yellow painted lines through the mill and the fermentation tanks – until Dan asked about what powered the roasting fires. Our guide then took us away from the yellow safety zones and into another room where the heaters were, even opening up one of the doors to look at the intense flame inside. He explained how Costa Rica only grows the Arabica bean that it is so famous for, and how coffee roasters buy their beans for their own brands (Starbucks and Folgers, to name a couple). The guide demonstrated how the best beans are sun dried and must be turned every 45 minutes with a shovel-like instrument. Dan tried it as well, pushing the beans into almost-neat rows on the concrete slab.

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Doka Coffee Estate

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Doka

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The only Beetle I saw the entire trip

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Inside the eating area

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Wall mural

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Costa Rica’s army

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Our guide

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Illustrating the different parts of the coffee fruit

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Demonstrating the picking technique

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The fruit in various stages of ripeness

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These are planted among the coffee bushes to hold water

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The mill

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Traditional carts used to haul the harvest

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A modern load is brought to the mill

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Watching the beans pour into the pool

Here is a short video that shows the beans in the initial sorting stage

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Fermentation tanks

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The dryers

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What powers the dryers

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Bags o’ caffeine!

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See? This is how they’ll conquer the world

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Traditional sun-drying, turning the rows every 45 minutes

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Dan gives it a shot – maybe some day he’ll drink one of those beans

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The roasters

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Workers crossing the mill site

Time wasn’t slowing down for us, so after an in-depth explanation of how roasting can “make or break” the flavor of a bean, we bought a LOT of coffee from the Gift Shop and then high-tailed it to the Dollar lot.

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Banana plants interspersed among the coffee bushes

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Heading for work

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Some vehicles are apparently exempt from the country’s environmental policies

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The faces of Costa Rica

There were no problems with the return of the truck and the shuttle quickly shuttled us to the airport, where we began the complex process of leaving the country. After paying our “exit tax” – I love a country that taxes you to leave – we stood in line to check our bags. A loud American family in front of us was holding up the line because one of the suitcases was over the #50 limit. Instead of stepping aside, the man proceeded to open the suitcase right there and pull out various items which his wife then stuffed into their carry on bags. They finally got out of the way and it was our turn. Ha – both of our bags came in at under #35. Sometimes it’s really good to travel light.

We saw that same family again at the security check point. Apparently they were sport fishermen and had their reels in their bags. The security guards didn’t like the line on the reels and asked them to remove it. As I tied my shoes I watched them begin the tedious process of pulling off 400 yards of fishing line. I bet they never make that mistake again.

The flight home was easy. We stopped over in Miami, staying at a nearby hotel before our flght at 10am the next morning. We took NJ Transit buses home from the airport which took a little longer than we expected and didn’t get home until 3pm. Fortunately, it wasn’t as chilly as it could have been and we were dressed for the 45 degree weather. It sure was a change from the beaches of Costa Rica though.

Return to Part 1

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