(2010) Costa Rica – Pt 1

Jungle Love

Dan had made an observation after Thanksgiving 2009 that if he had only taken 3 days of vacation time, he would have had a nine day holiday. I didn’t let him forget this year. We talked with some long-time friends of ours, Craig and Aaron, and decided that we’d all go somewhere together. Countries and city names were tossed about before we agreed upon Costa Rica. Warm, tropical, exotic…what more could you ask for at the end of November in New Jersey?

We’d chosen Costa Rica months before we’d actually leave, which left a lot of time to research, plan and research some more. I made extensive use of Trip Advisor and compiled lists and spreadsheets. I was having fun. Dan left the planning up to me, and I spoke with Aaron about what he and Craig were hoping to get out of this trip. This would be a new experience for Aaron, who hadn’t so much as left the country before. He tortured us all with his internet tales of expired visas, landslides, muggings, crashing planes… It was almost more work to convince him that he’d have fun that it was to plan the trip itself.

Finally November arrived and the nitty-gritty details were falling into place. The rental car was reserved, the flight times double checked, currency exchanged, hotel reservations printed out. It was time to go have fun.

November 19-28, 2010
New Jersey to Costa Rica

Craig and Aaron would fly to Miami, where Dan and I would meet them after our flight from Newark. Everything went as planned and we boarded our flight together to San Jose, CR. American Airlines further dropped on my personal Airline Ranking Scale, what with charging $8 for a pillow, having really bad monitors and video quality and showing not only a movie not listed on their schedule, but an awful movie at that (Dinner With Schmucks). They showed it on both legs of our trip, too.

Our plane landed in Costa Rica around 10pm but by the time we got off the plane, gathered our luggage and went through customs it was almost 11pm. The people at Dollar Rent-A-Car assured me that someone would pick us up, but when we reached the Dollar booth, it was closed. We went outside and were immediately besieged by taxi drivers looking for a fare. We declined all, but still didn’t see any evidence of our shuttle. After some time and confusion, we finally relented and took a couple of guys up on their offer to drive us to the hotel (we could pick up a shuttle in the morning). Fortunately for us, we walked right by the Dollar Shuttle stop on the way to their car. A couple of people were already waiting there and said that a shuttle was on its way. Excellent. We thanked the men for their help and waited for the shuttle. It was there within 5 minutes and took us directly to the rental lot.

When we arrived, another customer was at the service desk having problems, as he had reserved a manual transmission car by accident and he was trying desperately to find an automatic. He said that he knew how to drive a stick shift but he wasn’t very good at it. This was very evident as we watched his attempts to leave the lot. When it was my turn at the counter, renting the car (SUV? Truck?) was simple. While they didn’t have the exact car I’d reserved, it was still a 5-speed diesel, which was the important part. The clerk was very helpful and clear on the contract and our options. After hearing all of the horror stories of driving in Costa Rica, we went with all three insurance coverages and left nothing to chance. The truck was a Mitsubishi Montero and had barely 200 kilometers on the clock. We’d take care of that.

We packed in our gear and left the rental lot behind. Craig had uploaded the latest GPS maps on his Garmin and led us to our hotel for the night – the Doubletree in Alajuela. We pulled in around midnight got to our room and fell asleep without further ado.

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Looks like the pigeons could use some flying lessons

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Craig & Dan

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Aaron & Colleen

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Drink samples at the airport – awesome!

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Our flight

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Our room for the night

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Dan showing off

The next morning dawned bright and we walked around the pool area to the hotel restaurant. Breakfast was included and it was delicious; so many fresh fruits and juices to chose from! And fresh-made eggs and side dishes and pastries – it was all too much. Eventually we stopped eating, packed up the SUV and headed north to La Fortuna.

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Front lobby of the DoubleTree

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Fountain by the pool

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Jacuzzi

The roads were crowded but good. I drove, Craig navigated, and Aaron and Dan enjoyed the scenery from the back seat. Craig led us out of the busy town of Alajuela and quickly into lush, mountainous countryside. Craig had almost turn-by-turn directions from the hotel, including a recommendation to stop at El Mirador soda shop. A “Soda” in Costa Rica refers to a small store that also serves quick, hot meals in addition to bottled drinks and snacks. This one also had a clean bathroom. We stopped and loaded up on drinks and unfamiliar treats before continuing on our way.

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Welcome to Costa Rica!

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The ubiquitous Coca Cola sign

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El Mirador!

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Craig checks out the colorful choices

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Special soccer canister

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Checking out the view at El Mirador

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More hillsides and clouds

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Good roads in Costa Rica

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I’m lusting after a Toyota Land Cruiser

We saw signs for a butterfly garden and figured “What the heck? We’re on vacation!”, so we stopped. At first we weren’t going to stay and go through the garden, but the nice girl who came down from the gift shop described it to us, so we agreed to the $5 entry fee and grabbed our cameras. It was a small place, but very nicely maintained and with a great variety of plants and butterflies. They also had hummingbird feeders set up which were very popular with quite a few different types of hummingbirds.

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Welcome to the Butterfly Garden

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This butterfly had vivid blue inside the wings

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Butterfly and flower

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The butterflies were in a plastic-sheeted greenhouse

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It is nice when they sit still

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Butterfly

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Back outside to see the hummingbirds

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The fog had rolled in…

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Hummingbirds at rest

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Hummingbird

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Feeding

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Hummingbird

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Ohh – a different one!

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Brilliant colors

After we left the butterflies and hummingbirds behind, there was still a short jungle path that we could take. It would be our first real plunge into a tropical jungle and I was curious to compare it to the rainforests that I knew in the Pacific Northwest. It didn’t compare at all. The differences are great, but both are beautiful in their own right.

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Dan heads off in search of Tarzan

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Welcome to the jungle…

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Even the leaves support plant life

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Green stuff, everywhere!

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Misty views

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Aaron & Craig

In just 3 1/2 hours we had passed through La Fortuna and took the turn into our hotel for the next three nights, The Volcano Lodge. The sky was still cloudy and there was no hint of where the Arenal Volcano was, other then a slightly darker mass of clouds in one particular area. The hotel was laid out so that every room would have a few of the volcano – when it was visible. But even without a volcano there was plenty to look at. The grounds were lavishly filled with exotic flowers and plants, musical birds filled the trees with song and the staff was friendly and courteous. Our rooms were next to each other, with back porches and comfy chairs for relaxing in. Towels were rolled into fancy animal shapes on our beds and a ceiling fan circled lazily overhead. It would be a pleasant place to rest our heads.

We had lunch at the restaurant closest to our rooms (there were two on site) and enjoyed the tasty meal poolside. The grounds were mostly empty of people and we spent the rest of the day wandering around the extensive property and relaxing. There were almost no flying insects to annoy me and the only mosquitoes I encountered were deep in the jungle.

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Our hotel room

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Looking through the room from the back

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A dove greets us in our room

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And even fancy paper!

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Our view out the back door

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The pool/restaurant area

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The restaurant

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Pool area

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“Lush vegetation” is an understatement

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Eating a late lunch

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A common sign of Costa Rica’s drive for environmental awareness

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Walking around the grounds

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Flower

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More flowers

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And yet more flowers!

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Air plants on a large tree

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Arenal volcano!

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Unknown bird

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Bananas

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Aaron and Dan – and a strange flower

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Craig tries to hide

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The clouds slowly blow away

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Happy Hour at the pool

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Full moon in Costa Rica

The next morning was wet. A hard rain had fallen most of the night and it had only relented slightly by morning. The hotel put out a fantastic buffet breakfast and I was enjoying the fresh local fruit once more. Custom-made omlettes held up the line but I could see that they would have been worth the wait. As it was, the other people staying at the hotel had gathered to eat before their planned tours departed and the restaurant was almost full. It was interesting to see and hear the variety of countries represented in the buffet line.

After breakfast we hopped into the SUV and drove the short distance to Arenal National Park. The mountainside was thick and green and the clouds played in the tree tops. We turned down a dirt road and a few miles later passed through the park entrance. Only one other vehicle was in the gravel lot when we parked, tall grasses towering 12′ on either side of us.

We followed a well-marked path that led us through the thick jungle. The rain was incredibly loud as it fell through the trees, hitting thick leaves along the way. The path became riddled with puddles and we saw very little other than the greenness surrounding us. The rain was warm and I didn’t mind it, other than trying to keep it off of my camera.

The park map we were given was very short on detail, not to mention that there didn’t appear to be that many trails to chose from, so we opted for the slightly longer route to the lava beds, one that would take us to “The Big Tree”. And a Big Tree it was! Massive roots stretched out on all sides, creating sinuous walls around its base. The branches were high above the canopy and they themselves supported their own little ecosystems of plant life.

After marveling at the Big Tree (which is actually a Ceiba tree) we continued on, coming to a quick set of rough steps that led up to the lava beds. The trail was rudimentary but easy to follow. A few other hikers were already here and the rain had abated, but didn’t leave us much of a view. The Arenal Volcano is famous for its almost eternally glowing lava on the west side. However, the last couple of weeks hadn’t seen any activity. As our hotel clerk quaintly put it, “The volcano is sleeping”. No lava for us!

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A wet morning for a hike

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Still excellent roads

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“Turn left at the police station…”

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“…and follow the dirt road.”

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Very tall grasses at the parking lot

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Dan in the tall grass

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Dan’s not worried!

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The only critters I saw that day

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Jungle hike to the Big Tree!

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Aaron takes a swing

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Fungus

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Funky flowers

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Behold: the Big Tree

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Craig gives us a sense of scale

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Aaron and Craig check out a massive nest of spiders along a root

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More funky flowers

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Flower? Or root?

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On to the lava fields!!!

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Yep, that’s lava

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We were not alone

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Dan is disappointed

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Looking across Arenal Lake

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Yes, we were soaked by now

A short video taken while hiking in the rain. Yes, it really was that loud!

We returned from the lava beds and to our SUV. It was time for lunch. We didn’t want to drive back to La Fortuna, as our next activity would be closer to where we were now. Not having a lot of choices in roads, we headed further west along the shores of Lake Arenal. The lake is man-made and incredibly, this one dam alone supplies 45% of the entire country’s power needs. It is also surprisingly pristine. Houses and docks didn’t clutter the shores – just more trees. The road that skirted the northern edge of the lake wove deep along the hills and over the numerous rivers that fed it. It wasn’t very far, but it took a little time before we reached the town of Los Heros. Actually, we never reached the town proper. Instead, we stopped when we came to a Swiss-styled restaurant along the way. Eat Swiss food while vacationing in Costa Rica? Sure, why not? Hotel Los Heros was an expansive property, with cows, a barn, chapel, hotel, restaurant and other out buildings, and all of this spread out on a rich green hillside. There was even a small train that they ran up the hillside to another restaurant, this one with a beautiful view of the lake and volcano. Or at least it would have been beautiful if the rain hadn’t been falling.

Lunch was good, albeit my traditional Swiss Rosti was a bit salty. I tried to buy a bottle of Fresca to drink later, but the owner of the restaurant came over to explain to me that Costa Rica is trying to move away from plastic bottles, and she is required to pay a deposit on the glass bottles. If I wanted to buy one “to go”, I’d have to pay quite a bit extra for the convenience. I found this national policy an interesting one and decided to just wait and buy what I needed later.

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Another one-lane bridge

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Coffee-colored river

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Los Heros property

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Los Heros Restaurant

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Inside

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Traditional Swiss rosti!

After we ate our meals and had the enlightening conversation with the owner of the restaurant, we headed back out into the rain. Our next goal was a tour on the Arenal Hanging Bridges. “Hanging bridges” are simply suspension bridges, but hey, hanging bridges sound so much more interesting. We paid our admission and followed the well-made path into the jungle. I don’t recall how many bridges there were, but they ranged from 28 meters high to less than one meter. The trail was easy to follow and the rain came and went as we wandered around. There was a large waterfall on a side trail that we took, and that’s where my camera battery died. We still had Dan’s camera, so I did my best to continue taking a photo of each bridge and of various spots of interest, at least until it got too dark.

By the time we had reached the last bridge, we were ready to go back to the hotel. The other tourists on the trail weren’t very numerous, but there were enough near the end for us to want to get away from them. Despite the signs asking visitors to keep noises to a minimum so as not to scare the animals away, one family felt the need to cheerfully sing the “ABC” song as they walked along. I was very glad not to be visiting Costa Rica during the “high” season. There were plenty of people as it was; I couldn’t imagine having to share the trails with even more of them.

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The road to the Hanging Bridges

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A lot of secondary roads were paved like this

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Waiting for construction vehicles to finish up

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We’re finally there and ready to go

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Well-manicured gardens

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Signage:”No Somoking”

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The first bridge

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The bridge itself

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The path – very easy to navigate

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Looking up at the next bridge

Crossing one of the higher bridges – in the rain, of course

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It was getting dark in the forest

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By the time we left, the clouds had fully moved in

Back at the hotel we had hot showers and kicked back for a bit. Throughout our trip, I was pleasantly surprised to always find hot water available and power to run the fan and air conditioner. After drying ourselves off as best as we could, we took the SUV in to La Fortuna where we ate at the La Bistra (I think?) restaurant. The food (and service) was okay, but nothing worth repeating. The waiter was minimally pleasant and when I asked about making a simple alteration to a dish I wanted, he told me “No” – very definitively and without emotion. The rest of the group laughed about it, as I did I, once I got over the shock of his callousness.

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A couple of toucans in the tree behind our room

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A melodic little bird

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Another little bird behind our room

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Food in bags at the local store

Monday was zip lining day! We got up early and under almost dry skies we headed back down the same road that we did the previous morning. But instead of turning off at Arenal National Park we kept on going, further down the road and then up, up, up, to Sky Trek. We had heard really good things about this particular zip lining company and they did not disappoint. We had arrived without reservations, which I think is not all that common, as most people go through their hotel to make their tour plans, whereas we just flying by the seat of our pants on this trip. There weren’t any openings for another hour, so we made our reservations and then went back down the mountain to explore the town of an unknown name and find something to munch on. It was a tiny place we drove through, with a couple of dozen homes, a school, church and some businesses. Interestingly enough, a few of the people that we saw reminded me of families that you’d expect to see in the backwoods of Appalachia, not inland Costa Rica.

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The laundry facilities at the hotel

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Building in progress along the way

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Heading down the road to see what’s there

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Local coffee brewing process

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The town

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Finding stuff to eat

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Fresh fruits and vegetables

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I don’t know what the fuss is about with the one lane bridges

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River crossing

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For sale!

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Also for sale!

We arrived back at Sky Trek in plenty of time for our our trip through – and over – the forests. I left my camera in the locker they provided, as I understood that no pictures were allowed and also figured that carrying it would be awkward and possibly dangerous to the camera. I was very disappointed, but I felt it better to be safe than sorry. The tour started by fitting our group (which numbered about 20) into harnesses, helmets and gloves. We then all piled into the Sky Tram and took a relaxing journey to “the top”, a platform area complete with restrooms and beverages. Once gathered there, our lead guide took us aside and showed us how our equipment worked. He demonstrated the proper position to maintain while flying along and the “feet out” signal to look for when approaching the next platform. He then had everyone take a “test run” on two short stretches of cable – maybe 40-50′ each. This was the point of no return. If you weren’t comfortable with zip lining after those two test runs, now was the last chance to say something and ride the tram back down the mountain. Otherwise it would be a 100% commitment. Naturally, we all chose to go.

The first line would be the highest of the eight lines, but not the longest. This line was surprising to me because just after your are pushed off the platform (the guides help make sure you have enough momentum to make it to the other side), you see a layer of treetops below you. No sooner do you adjust to being above the trees, then suddenly they drop away, following the steep slope beneath them. Now you are sailing over nothing – just you, a cable and a beautiful view of Arenal Lake and – almost – the Arenal volcano.

Landings were fairly simple, once you got the hang of coming in fast and having a guide break your speed for you. Only after it was too late did I understand how easy it would have been to bring my camera on this adventure. I watched others pull out their cameras and take pictures of their friends and families, just as I was watching my friend Craig take pictures with his camera – until the battery died. Ah – I guess this would be one of those “living for the moment” moments. The rest of the group was very good about waiting for others to get pushed off and the guides were fantastic in assisting us in the ins and outs of the process.

We were waiting on the platform for the last zip line when the skies opened up. It was a cold, hard rain and there was no where to take shelter. We quickly lined up on the platform in order to get out of the rain as soon as we could. Dan and I shivered as the rain pounded, person after person taking off before us. I wasn’t looking forward to this zip, as I knew what rain felt like at 35mph on a motorcycle in full gear; having it come down while wearing shorts and a t-shirt wasn’t going to be fun.

But it was fun. Sure, the rain pelted, but the temperature rose slightly and the zip line itself distracted me as it suddenly dove into a “tunnel” cut through the tree canopy. I came in fast onto a much larger platform than the rest had been, everyone gathered around until the last person had landed. At this point the guides thanked us for taking their tour and explained the last little zip line that they used for “photographic purposes” (even though they didn’t expressly say that, but the photographer was a dead-giveaway).

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Dan and I waiting for the guys

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A bicycle tour makes its way

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Transition from dirt to brick pavers

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Statue out front of Sky Trek

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Inside the Sky Trek main building

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Views of Lake Arenal from inside the main building

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Not much of a view of the volcano today

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Lake Arenal

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A guide of the various lines

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Someone else coming in to the final platform

Zip lining completed and Gift Shop ransacked, we headed back to our hotel and had lunch at the other restaurant on the property. It turned out that restaurant wasn’t as closely related as we thought, as we couldn’t bill the meal to our room like we did at the other restaurant. But the food was ok and due to the odd time of day, we had the place to ourselves.

We went to the jacuzzi for a little bit and later that afternoon we took the SUV the mile or so up the road to Tabacon Hot Springs for a relaxing time in the natural pools. Wow – what an amazing place! Again, I didn’t pull out the camera, as taking pictures in the dark, in the rain and with steam swirling around isn’t the best of conditions, but I borrowed some photos from the Internet. Tabacon has an entire resort on site, but we paid an entry free just to use the hot springs. The springs themselves feed down through a densely forested ravine, filling pool after pool with soothing, hot water. Pool temperatures varied, as did the current, the depth and the number of people. Tabacon also boasted some tiled pools, one with a slide and a swim-up bar. It was an extensive complex and easy to find a secluded spot for yourself. One of the main pools had an 8′ high ledge that allowed water to cascade over a stone bench, thereby creating a sauna-like area behind the falls. I believe that the pools for formed by hand, but they appeared very natural and in fact, surprised me with the roughness of the stone and the frequent layers of pumice that covered the bottoms of some pools. In all honesty, all I could think of was how this would never fly in the litigious United States. But I wasn’t in the States. I was in Costa Rica and enjoying the rain on my face as I soaked in these natural hot springs.

That evening we drove back in to La Fortuna for dinner. We had been given a coupon for free beers at a restaurant and who were we to refuse free beer? Oddly enough, the coupon listed both the restaurant we’d already been to, as well as one across the street and down the block. We chose the restaurant we hadn’t been to yet. It was a very late meal and we were the only customers in the open air restaurant. Imagine our surprise, however, when the same waiter from the previous evening came to our table to take our order. And imagine my surprise when I ordered a dish off the menu and he said “No, that is only available for lunch”. It was quite a coincidence. Fortunately, the dish that I *could* order was even better than the one I couldn’t and I would say that it was probably one of the better dishes I had while in Costa Rica. The dish, by the way, was simply a boneless chicken fillet with rice and roasted plantain. I could eat roasted plantains every day. The food on our trip overall was not well-seasoned (other than salt) and had no spiciness to speak of. This was fine with me, but left Dan slightly disappointed.

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This time we had a swan!

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After having another good meal at the restaurant

Tuesday. It was time to leave the land of fire and steam and head to the coast, land of monkeys and sand. We had a leisurely breakfast and packed our gear back into the SUV. I had originally wanted to continue the drive around Arenal Lake and then head south, but the guys had found a coffee plantation near San Ramon that they wanted to visit. That sounded interesting to me (and I ignored their “potential landslides/dangerous roads” arguments against my proposed route) so back down the road to San Ramon we went. Everything looked different with the change in weather and direction and we once again stopped at El Mirador. This time the gentleman behind the counter gave us a verbal tour of the candies and treats available and I think we bought much more than we needed.

As we cruised through San Ramon we all kept our eyes peeled for the small signs for the Naranjo Coffee Plantation. Apparently they didn’t do a good enough job, as we eventually found ourselves on the road to the coast without ever having seen another sign. Their loss, and we kept on driving.

The roads were in great shape, although they got rougher and had more frequent potholes once we hit the coast and started to head south. And Costa Rican drivers? They’re great! I don’t know what all of the fuss is about as far as “driving in Costa Rica”. I’d prefer to drive here than in New Jersey any day. Granted, most secondary bridges are one-lane, but everyone seems to be ok with this and approach the bridge with common sense. Landslides appear to be quite a problem as well, but that would be my only concern with regard to driving there. I was having a blast.

We stopped at a tiny restaurant on the side of the road for lunch – I’m not even sure what town we were near. The husband and wife were doing laundry when we stopped by and they dropped everything to make us a fresh, hot meal. It was very good and fun to watch them work in their tiny kitchen.

The road took turns in following the coast closely and diving inland for great distances. A couple of small towns were on the way and we made very good time. At one point we passed miles and miles of planted palm trees. We speculated the purpose of these trees but eventually got our answer from our tour guide – they are used in the production of palm oil .

Only one thing really stood out from our drive: we had stopped at a random store on the side of the road. I was impressed by what they sold: food, household goods, car tires… it was truly one-stop shopping. While we were buying some beverages, a public bus stopped out front. A man jumped off the bus, ran directly into the store, grabbed a bottle of something, paid for it and then ran back out to the waiting bus. I had never seen anything like it before. Eventually we came to the town of Quepos, which is the last town before Manuel Antonio Park. We were all mistaken in our thoughts that there was actually a town called Manuel Antonio, something which made itself apparent when Dan and I tried to walk to it the next day.

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An elephant for our last day!

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House near La Fortuna

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On no! One lane bridge!!! Whatever shall we do?

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Looks like everyone knows the drill…

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We ran into some fog

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Local company advertising zip lining

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Roadside market

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San Ramon, CR

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Dealing with gutters and driveway access

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Road construction near San Ramon – note the workers at the top of the hill

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Temporary bridge

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Our first peek at the ocean

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Lunch!

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Working in the kitchen

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It was clean and well-kept

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Even the wood stove

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Food, with phrase book

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The owner

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Craig enjoys his meal

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Stopping along the Pacific

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Surprisingly well-signed roads

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Heavy rains

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But the guys aren’t worried!

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I saw a surprising number of Bramha cows

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Moving the moo-stock

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Palm oil plantation

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The appearance of wooden houses surprised me

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Quepos

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Quepos

The road out of Quepos was steep, narrow and twisty. And also busy as buses, shuttle buses, cars and motorcycles all made their way to and from the park. At the top of the hill we found our hotel, Hotel Byblos. As we were checking in, Dan and I saw a BMW 1200GS in the parking lot and had to check it out. It had Texas plates – oh! someone we’d like to talk to later! I spoke with the gentleman at the reception desk and asked if I could leave a message for the owner of bike and he informed that it was actually the hotel owner’s bike. He passed the message along and Davis (the owner) said that he would join us for breakfast the next day.

Hotel Byblos has some hotel rooms, but it also has many individual bungalow. We had reserved two of these and quickly made ourselves at home. The air was much more humid and warm here and we had to make constant use of the ceiling fan and air conditioner in order for any of our clothes to dry out. The room was clean and open and the main window opened out to the tropical ravine wall across a small stream. The grounds were well kept, but kept in a very wild state. A small turtle and crocodile lived at the far end of the property, Jesus Christ lizards skipped down the stream, an iguana lounged around on the foot path and a large rodent-family critter scampered across the hillside. And I haven’t even covered the animals that lived in the trees above us.

We had dinner at the main restaurant at the hotel and retired to our rooms in preparation for a busy day the next morning. Welcome to the jungle!

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Hotel Byblos

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Pool at Hotel Byblos

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The lower restaurant

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Random statue

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A small stream runs through the property

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Our bungalow in the center

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Home Sweet Home

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Looking at Aaron & Craig’s place from ours

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Inside our room

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The chandeliers came in handy

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Outside our room

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Davis, the owner of Hotel Byblos, and his 1200GS

Continue to Part II

Tell me what you think! I want to know!