Makin Memories is currently under extensive galley renovations. Having not had much vacation this year, we grabbed the opportunity to do a quick get-away to Costa Rica. What follows is the description of our too-short stay in an incredibly gorgeous country. We would go back in a heart beat!
The adventure begins! We had enough points to make the 6:45 AM departure easier by staying near the Tampa airport the night before. Up and at ‘em at 3:30, we showered, used the fantastic new long-term parking lot and train and arrived at the Tampa airport to bypass part of TSA so they could train a sniffer puppy who was very enthusiastic in his duties, wiggling in circles around the passengers and finding nothing amiss, at least while we were near.
We ran into Tully and Catherine as we zig-zagged back and forth in the check-in lines. They were on their way to NC for Thanksgiving with Catherine’s family. Jerry and Tully got to talk strategy for Al’s retirement roast for a few moments and then we sat for a bit waiting to board. The people-watching was entertaining, as always. People with little dogs in carriers, others who looked like they opted out of changing from their bedclothes to come to the airport and others dressed to the nines in 4-inch heels and nightclub attire. It never fails to amaze us what people decide to travel in. The best was the New Yorker, who could barely make the legal ride-height requirement at Disney, who was sporting a hat larger than he was and as he got closer, we could see that he was wearing not one, not two but three hats! A New York Yankees ball cap and then 2 Stetsons on top of that. We shrugged and agreed that there really was no way for him to sensibly pack them!
The plane ride was a couple of hours and was easy. Seeing the route along the ICW that we navigated on the first part of our Loop brought back memories. Being able to see the Keys and reefs where we have snorkeled was amazing and we both sat transfixed by the perspective we had. Not having a route map left us guessing that we came across the Gulf and over the Yucatan to head further south. The beaches gave way to dense greenery which folded upwards into lushly forested hills and higher up it appeared as if a woman’s gauzy, green scarf had floated over and settled gently onto the peaks and valleys of the mountains.
Arriving in Costa Rica was like being parachuted onto the set of Jurassic Park or King Kong. The sun was shining on us in the bowl of San Jose but the surrounding mountain tops were shrouded in swathes of misty clouds that ribboned in and out of the jungle tops. We rented a car from Geraldo who looked at Jerry’s driver’s license and asked Jerry if he knew what people who shared a name were called. “Brothers?” Jerry asked. Geraldo grinned and stated, “No, we are tocayos!” And so we learned a new Spanish word (tocayo=name-twin) probably the first of many new words!
We arrived at the hotel (Doubletree San Jose) and were amazed to find the lobby totally open-aired and decorated for Christmas.
It reminded me a little bit of the hotel lobby where Bitzi and I stayed in Kauai when I was pregnant with Leland. The hotel is lovely, designed in terra-cottaed, arcing walkways from which rooms and suites branch off for maximum privacy. They upgraded us which was very nice, giving us access to free breakfast and cocktail hour drinks and snacks. The sun was setting as we enjoyed a beer by the pool, listening to all the different bird calls and we caught sight of the Great Kiskaddees who make homes in the surrounding trees. We enjoyed a fabulous meal at the open-air, pool-side restaurant and watched the stars peep out of the sunset colors above the hotel grounds.
A quick workout in the gym and a great breakfast of fresh fruit and eggs with local pastries and fantastic sausages in Hilton Honors Club geared us up to hit the road. We did a quick recon of the city of San Jose and then beat it out of town towards the mountains. We have never been huge fans of cities but I would really like to go back one day to visit the Cemetario Obrero, which looked really cool. On a wave of traffic, we were swept past its raised mausoleums and beautiful statuary with no way to pull over and explore it. I always love visiting graveyards in foreign countries but this one will have to wait.
Most of the day was spent riding up, down and around mountains with breathtaking views. We were in sunshine one moment and shrouded in mist the next. We broke up the drive in the town of Zarcero where the locals were decorating a park filled with topiaries in front of a twin spired church.
We HAD to stop and explore here. The church was open-aired and simply lovely, standing watch over the town since “El ano de Senor 1907.” Later we found out that this is one of only 6 or 7 spots to make the Atlas Obscura’s Costa Rican list (https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/parque-francisco-alvardoa)
Back on the road, we maneuvered around semis and buses that had to swing wide on blind curves to make it around them without losing paint. Jerry relaxed into his Mario Andretti manual driving mode and we made decent time, arriving in La Fortuna to get out, stretch, enjoy some sangria with lunch and explore for a bit before circumnavigating the Arenal volcano, which unfortunately was shrouded in dense cloud.
We found our Airbnb and sat out on the room’s balcony to just chill and take in the view of Lake Arenal. The air is cool and damp and the birds are amazing. Our balcony is surrounded by various kinds of ginger, verbena, papaya, palms and some dense shrubs that I can’t identify. The birds are beautiful colors and are very social, especially when Jerry plays their own calls on his phone from the ornithology app he has.
We were swarmed by scarlet rumped caciques, hummingbirds and social fly catchers, all of whom acted like an intruder had come into their midst when they heard the calls emanating from his phone!
The bnb kitten joined us for a bit of purring and perching before running off to join her mama and leaving us to soak up the sights and sounds of this jungle paradise. We can see the sides of the volcano but owing to the dense mist and low clouds I wonder if we will ever see the cone.
We have a 9:30 reservation at the Arenal Biological Reserve but we are up early, thinking maybe we would hike the lava trails before arriving there. Unfortunately, those trails didn’t open until 8 so we went ahead and drove onto Arenal just as the ticket booth and restaurant were opening. We checked in and asked if we might do the tour earlier. The man replied that if we wanted to go immediately, he would change our reservation. Knowing that we would free up a lot of the rest of the day, we opted to do just that. We had chosen a self-guided tour, which in retrospect was still probably a good option due to the fact that once we were in the park, it began to drizzle and then pour. We were dressed appropriately in rain gear and hiking shoes and with an umbrella and a shower cap to protect the camera, we took our time walking through the gardens and into the canopies while guides hurried their charges past us. If the weather had been good, using a guide would have been the best choice but given the conditions, we were okay with the way we explored the park.
It’s called a rainforest for a reason and it was amazing to hear and see all the birds during the lulls in the rain. The rain roared onto the canopy and that roar echoed as the water cascaded down from leaf to leaf until we were surrounded by walls of water cascading all around us.
The torrents came and went, interspersed with periods of calm, during which the birds and frogs immediately started calling and darting around. It was magical! We descended a steep path to the waterfalls, which were running hard from the rain and torrents of muddy water poured into a river of café au lait.
A shaft of sunlight penetrated the canopy to spotlight a Blue Morpho butterfly before the rain resumed and forced it into hiding. What a treat to see the iridescent blue of this gorgeous butterfly in the wild!
We navigated several hanging bridges that spanned the gaps between mountain sides, allowing us a bird’s eye view of the canopies beneath us. They were not stable at all and when more than one person was on them, they jerked and swayed so that keeping one’s footing was precarious at best but the view, even with the pouring rain, was amazing!
We finished up the walk and celebrated with some coffee and hot chocolate. The temperature was comfortable even when we were wet but hours of being wet can still be a bit chilly so we were happy to get back in the car and dry off a bit.
The main mission was to find sloths and we both realized that without an expert to help us spot them, we might walk right past them and never know it so we decided to go to the Sloth Park which seemed too touristy and way too close to the town of La Fortuna to actually have sloths but we opted to try it out anyway. They guarantee you will see two breeds of sloths and our hopes brightened.
Eliezer was our guide and we set off into the jungle with a couple from Vancouver and a family from Texas in tow. Almost immediately Eliezer spotted an Aricari, a small breed of toucan. He set up his monocular and we each got to see it. He even took photos with each of our cameras so that we could preserve the memory.
He educated us about how we could tell the difference between 2 and 3 toed sloths (the 3 toed are grayish green with algae and are most closely related to anteaters while the 2 toed ones are buff-brown and are related most closely to the armadillo). They can live at least 3 decades and will stay with their babies for 6 months and then leave them to roam about the jungles.
The babies stay in the same area until they are about 3 years-old when they are full grown and then they will start to roam as well. This particular park had a lot of sloths that were young and they thrive here because there are no real predators like jaguars and ocelots, which are prevalent in their other habitats.
We were blessed to see many 3 toed sloths and even one 2 toed sloth that was missing one hand. Eliezer thought he might have tried to cross the street and gotten hurt that way but he seemed to be doing okay with just one hand. I was pretty proud when I actually spotted one sloth before Eliezar pointed it out to us but the others that he showed us, I never would have seen were it not for his direction. We also saw a swarm of honeybees on the side of a tree, protecting their queen as they searched for a new home. Eliezer said they would stay on that tree about 20 days while scouts looked for a new home for the colony – it was amazing!
We identified a huge termite nest that, when touched, seemed to come alive with tiny termites. We were challenged to taste them, which I did but Jerry opted out of. There was a hint of mint and a tiny crunch and not much more to them than that. We also found wild anise which is supposed to be an effective, natural bug deterrent and the smell was wonderful.
All in all, the Sloth Park is an amazing place to learn about these adorable little animals and we would highly recommend it. It was the perfect way to feel very thankful on a Costa Rican Thanksgiving Day! We returned to town and ended up at a restaurant that advertised typical Costa Rican food where we enjoyed some locally brewed Kolsch with an appetizer of chips and pico de gallo, guacamole and black bean puree.
Thanksgiving dinner consisted of roasted chicken, BBQ ribs with sides of plantain patties. We retired to our room, making plans to do the lava field walk in the morning before the drive to Santa Elena.
From your bed, you can tell if it is raining around dawn by listening to whether the birds and frogs are chirping or not. We had heard rain off and on all night long and as the sun came up, we hoped that the rain would have abated for a while but it came and went in the manner that now seems typical for this area of Costa Rica. So, we gathered our belongings and packed the car, hoping for a break. We got lucky! The rain stopped and there were actual patches of sun here and there, which we hadn’t seen since our arrival here. We bade the hotel kitties adieu and hot-footed it over to the lava park where we were the first people to arrive.
We got our tickets and Jerry grabbed a walking stick and off we went. We opted for the longer 4k walk that wound through the forest, around a small lake where there were supposed to be caiman (we didn’t see any) and then up into and across the lava fields to finish up down in a sugarcane forest.
As gorgeous as the walk was the day before, with its man-made walkways and tree-like railings, I liked this one better.
While man must have hacked the original trail and added some of the rocks that formed stairways, the majority of the walk was totally natural and really felt like you were walking through the jungle. There were large and small openings in the rocks that must have been homes for something but I am not sure we wanted to find out what! Up and down we went, around the lake, and all the while we were shrouded on all sides by lush greens of all shapes, sizes and colors. There were relatives of our begonias here and there, philodendrons climbing the trees and lots and lots of species we couldn’t readily identify.
As we emerged from dense jungle into scrubbier jungle, the lava fields became apparent. We walked over crushed pumice, both black and red, climbing and climbing until we reached the summit. The sun popped out to light up Lake Arenal and dappled the surrounding folds of green hills. We took some photos and remarked on the berries that grew along the trail. They are not blue like our blueberries; they are almost iridescent blue and we wondered what magic was in the soil to make them that amazing color.
We started down the trail, passing old people who wheezed their way down and around the volcanic boulders of the trail. I was half terrified for them (especially the old men who were walking all alone with nothing but their trekking poles) and half applauded their ability to carry on and do what they felt called to do regardless of whether it might have been the wisest choice for them or not. We landed on a lava gravel trail that wound through towering sugarcane or some other kind of bamboo-like grass and finally entered a forested area where we came across honest-to-goodness leaf-cutter ants scurrying along an invisible trail. I was so happy to be able to get really good video of them.
After a two-and-a-half-hour walk, we felt energized and ready for the 4 hour drive to Santa Elena. We had seen a German Bakery (been there for 20 years, we later found out) on the map of this area and had decided to stop there for breakfast or lunch along the way and we were pleasantly surprised at how authentic the food was. Almost all of the patrons were speaking German and that is another thing that we have noticed since arriving here. Costa Rica has a VERY international draw.
Unlike many tourist destinations in the states and Europe where the predominant tourists hail from Asian ports, here the languages are varied with French, German and Spanish being the most recognized and the Asian languages being the least represented here. We enjoyed a lovely lunch with a sinful apple strudel for dessert and got back on the road.
We had both been pleasantly surprised at the condition of the roads in Costa Rica, as we had expected very poor quality. Until late this afternoon, the roads have been fantastic, almost all newly blacktopped. Jerry has had a great time winding around corners, shifting gears like a native and challenging oncoming buses and trucks for the best half of the roads which are usually right down the middle.
True to the guidebook, as we got 30 or so miles out of Santa Elena, the roads devolved into unimproved washboards of dirt, gravel and rock. The fun was definitely over. The winding switchbacks didn’t change, nor did the type of oncoming traffic but the suspension in our car degraded to a kidney-jarring test of endurance and by the time we got to our Airbnb, we were both exhausted and so happy to find a warm welcome at the Pension Santa Elena.
Here we have a sweet little room with its own private slate bathroom, a communal kitchen complete with fridge, stove and microwave and a sitting room. It has a warm, hippie commune vibe (I think Annelise would love it here) and is owned by a Texan and his Asian wife. Their kids were sitting the reception desk when we checked in and were wonderfully welcoming. The rooms are spartan but clean and have everything we need along with a unique feel. We hung out in the common area, reading and people watching and finally hit the hay.
There is no AC but none is needed as the breeze is omnipresent and always cool, due to our elevation. There are no bugs, so windows were left open which resulted in a bit more noise since we are right on the main road through Santa Elena. Around 10 PM all the people-noise mostly abated but the motos (sin mofles) were audible pretty much all night long, grinding their way uphill through town and then gunning down the hill behind the pension. We were tired and so slept pretty well despite the noise.
11/30 started with a great breakfast, which was included in our pension’s price. They gave us a flattened-out bottle cap which served as our token for breakfast.
The two little ladies next door took our orders (which were guesses since the menus were AWOL) and delivered fresh-made tacos with black bean puree, scrambled eggs and queso for me and scrambled eggs with fried potatoes and toast for Jerry. The sides were a very spicy pico de gallo and a pineapple chutney that was really tasty. I love the unique experiences to be had when you let someone serve the local choices.
We had decided to just let the day happen and so we meandered through town and picked up some souvenir-gift items, some cookies and energy bars and then decided to take the bus to the Monteverde Biological Preserve. We caught the bus right outside our hotel and rode the 5 km uphill to the preserve where we were given wristbands and in, we went. The walks were amazingly different from the walk we did at Arenal. For one thing, the weather was threatening sunshine, a commodity that had been sorely lacking since our arrival! The walk was way more physically demanding than any we had done prior to this one but not enough to make us anything more than aware that we might feel it later. We had packed trekking packs with enough water/juices and bars to make the 3-4 hour walk without discomfort.
This hike was definitely more physically tough, with very steep ascents and descents and a lot of muddy trails. The views were spectacular along the way, when we got a chance to look up from where our next footfall was safest…waterfalls and massive trees filled with epiphytes and vines.
We followed a family across the hanging bridge that provided a birds-eye view of the forest canopy below. By the time we got to the middle of the span, the child, who was in her dad’s sling, was crying with fear and their poor dog refused to put another foot forward and stood visibly shaking at what she saw beneath her feet.
With a bit of coaxing, they all made it safely to the other side and collapsed to decompress with snacks for the dog and the kid. Makes you wonder sometimes why people set themselves up to make things more challenging than they need to be! Oh well, been-there-done-that and survived and I bet they will too.
Finally we got all the way up to the Continental Divide where we watched cloudy mists blowing over and through the tops of the massive trees on one side and saw how the constant winds on the other side produced an “elfin forest” of trees that were dwarfed by the adverse conditions. It was an amazing sight, especially since the sun was more present than were the clouds.
I have been really pleased with my hiking shoes that I bought a few months ago. I tried on very expensive Merrills, Keens and other hiking shoes, knowing that I didn’t want hi-rise boots. None of them fit well enough and I continued searching until I found a pair of $30 Columbia zero-drops at Dick’s that felt perfect.
Yesterday proved that I can walk for miles in the pouring rain with wet feet and even after hours of this, my feet still felt comfortable. Today shows that I might have a shot at walking the Camino since I had to put on damp socks and wet, muddy shoes and I was still able to hike for hours over very challenging terrain and I was still comfortable. In fact when we were finished with the hike, we decided to walk the 5k back to our hotel and while I could definitely feel that we had done in excess of 10 miles that day on top of 8 the day before, I felt amazingly good (once I got home and got my shoes and socks off)!
I can’t leave out the fantastic experience we had because we decided to walk home. As we left the park, I caught sight of a hummingbird zipping past us and then saw a staircase and sign that said Hummingbird Gallery. Up we went and what awaited us was simply awe inspiring. There were typical hummingbird feeders but also little ones that people were holding up and the hummingbirds were zipping and whirring around so fast you almost couldn’t see them.
We learned that there were 8 species of them from teeny tiny ones to others that were really big and everything in between. The colors went from black and white to the ruby throated hummingbirds to ones that glowed purple. The differences were astounding and these little guys were definitely not afraid of us. They whirred by our ears to hover or land on the feeders we held and were quite territorial, often whacking into each other hard enough to knock both birds to the ground for a second or two. We stood for probably about a half hour just taking in this amazing sight and if that weren’t enough, we turned around to see a Koati digging for grubs in the forest next to the gallery!
Quite an inspiring morning and afternoon. It gave us a lot to talk about on the walk home.
We rested for a bit in the afternoon, made an early dinner of left-overs from our Thanksgiving meal which really was just as good the second time around and then got ready to do the guided night hike that we had signed up for the day before. 70% of Costa Rica’s animals are nocturnal so we were really looking forward to this night-hike and it didn’t disappoint! Tony spoke really good English and took 6 of us into the forest where we spotted a Blue-Crested Mot Mot, roosting in a tree. Even with 7 spotlights shining on him, this bird refused to move, nor did the other birds that we later spotted in trees like the Brown Jays, a Green Toucan (who looked a lot like a green nerf ball) and a Wood Thrush. We also spotted an Orange-kneed Tarantula who was very shy and retreated into his hole when our footfalls vibrated too menacingly for him.
We saw a pair of Green Palm Pit Vipers garlanded into hanging figure eights of chartreuse scales, waiting on dinner to happen by. Tony took close-up photos for us and explained that the pit viper can sense temperature which was why he wasn’t being attacked, even though he was really close to the first one. He said that the snake can tell the difference between human and rat temperature which is why the snake will only attack a human if it feels threatened rather than just because it is too near. If we were rat-temperature, it might be a different story.
We saw bats and a Koati high in a tree, along with a pregnant mother sloth and her baby. I would recommend the night hike to everybody who goes to Costa Rica. The guides communicate with each other so that if one finds something cool, the others know to take their people to that spot later on. Tony lit up a little mushroom with his flashlight and then told us to shut off our lights. When we did, we saw that the little mushroom was bioluminescent and glowed with an eerie purple light. It was amazing! We got home about 8:30, grabbed a gelato and crashed.
We got up and packed this morning, had breakfast of yogurt, muesli, fruit and toast and hit the road for Jaco, which is on the Pacific coast.
We just sort of picked the destination a few nights ago and felt like it might be a cool place to dip our toes in the Pacific and chill for a night before heading back to San Jose. The drive was much easier out of Santa Elena than the drive in was, over mostly improved roads. We coasted downwards through lush, green canyons under a blue sky. There was definitely a different feel to the villages and countryside. It seemed more tropical with palm trees starting to show up, here and there. It was so nice to see the sun for a change!
As we neared the coast, we decided to stop at Carara National Wildlife refuge for a walk to break up the trip. This is where the dry forest meets the rain forest and was very different from where we have been. We saw Agoutis and iguanas and had a lovely walk through the woods, seeing more fungi than animals and birds but enjoying the walk just the same.
We were disappointed not to see Scarlet Macaws, though we did hear them. They are supposed to be active in the park during the day, though the guidebook did say it was best to try to see them early in the morning or in the evening as they migrated to the park or back to the white mangroves where they overnight. We were fortunate to see very cool spiders and a myriad of different mushrooms, which we really didn’t see prior to this.
We were forewarned in our guidebook that we would either love or hate Jaco depending on our age and what we wanted out of a stay. We grabbed a bite to eat at Senor Harry’s as we were a bit too early to check in and LOVED the fresh ceviche and guacamole that was made tableside and seasoned to our desired degree of spiciness – or lack thereof!
Our Airbnb, Tuanis ( which means go for it!) was lovely in a jungle motif sort of way. It was just off the main street and just past the heart of downtown Jaco. Our host, Ricky was from California and looked like he taught surfing for a living. There is a very laid back and chilled sort of atmosphere here.
We were a block from the beach and had to dip our toes into the water. It is a black sand and pebble beach with decent surf and we watched as surfers came out of the woodwork to take advantage of the beautiful late afternoon and sunset. This was a great place to relax and we took advantage of it.
Walking downtown after dark was a different story. The atmosphere turned a little frenetic and there were police everywhere, we even watched them arrest someone and throw him in the back of the policia pick up. That was enough, we grabbed a caramel ice-cream and headed home where we read and just enjoyed the air-conditioning for the night!
The journey is coming to an end but what wonderful sights we have seen. We took a brisk morning walk along the beach and then had some breakfast and off we went.
We opted for local roads which added an hour to the trip back to San Jose but we were really glad we did. We scooted along the coastal road for a while and then were in the midst of the agricultural areas of Costa Rica. We wound through palm groves planted in perfectly straight line, which gave way to plantations of bananas, in which all the hands of bananas were bagged, we guessed that this might protect them from monkeys. We ducked as a bright yellow, crop duster wheeled above us to swoop around and dust the grove again. So, maybe the bags protect the bananas from insecticides? Further along were groves of papayas and then other trees we couldn’t identify. The roads became potholed and threatened to rip our undercarriage apart if strict attention was not paid to navigating. It was worth it though, we spotted a regular toucan and a scarlet macaw up in trees above the road as we passed. We wound up, down, around and over the mountains marveling at the tiny concrete block homes that were seriously out in the middle of nowhere, clinging to the edge of a mountain. Their views were magnificent, all cloud topped peaks above and wavy green folds of canyons below.
One of the amazing things we have noticed about the homes, no matter how rich or humble, how city-bound or in the middle of nowhere they are, they are all protected. Barred windows are the norm and walls with broken glass and razor wire are not uncommon either. We haven’t done much research about the crime in this country but we have heeded the warnings not to leave anything valuable in the car even for a short time. Our car has been in private parking lots everywhere we have gone and we have still not left anything in it that had any value at all.
We finished up our drive from Jaco, cresting a ridge to see San Jose spread out below us and wound through back roads to arrive back at our Doubltree where we chilled by the pool and read and wrote travel notes for a while. We enjoyed a relaxing day, took a walk and saw a Rainbow Eucalyptus tree that was amazing, it is the first one I have seen outside a botanical garden and it was gorgeous! A literal rainbow of colors peeks through the peeling brown bark.
It seems that the time has fled too quickly but I know we will treasure the memories we have made here forever!
To Be Continued at another time in the Future. We LOVED this place!