Rocky & Sarah's Travel Diary
officially Republic of Coast Rica, Spanish República de Costa Rica, country of Central America, covering an area of 19,730 square miles (51,100 square kilometres). Extending from northwest to southeast, Costa Rica is bounded on the north by Nicaragua, along its 630-mile (1,015-kilometre) southwestern coastline by the Pacific Ocean, on the southeast by Panama, and along its 185-mile northeastern coastline by the Caribbean Sea. Costa Rica is the second smallest Central American nation after El Salvador. At its narrowest point, in the south, only 119 kilometers separate the Caribbean from the Pacific. Even in the north one can savor a leisurely breakfast on the Caribbean and take an ambling five-hour drive to the Pacific for dinner. At its broadest point, Costa Rica is a mere 280 km wide. On the ruler-straight eastern seaboard, barely 160 km separate the Nicaraguan and Panamanian borders. And while the Pacific coast is longer, it is still only 480 km from the northernmost tip to the Panamanian border as the crow flies.
Maps courtesy of www.theodora.com/maps used with permission.
PHOTOSThe photos have been moved to the photo album.
RENTING A CAR We decided to rent a car and tour around since it would allow us to see as much as possible in the limited time that we had. Your best bet is to book in advance although it is not unheard of to just show up. We decided to use Avis, and by booking on-line, we received a $25 off discount on the price of the rental. A place like Expedia.com (U.S.) or Expedia.ca (Canada) can give you a list of rates from all of the major companies. Reserving a car at the airport (the major rental companies have kiosks there) does not mean that you will have a car right at the airport. What actually happens is that they pick you up and drive you out to the rental depot. The charge for this is 12% of your total cost, which will most likely be much more than a taxi. The town of Alajuela is literally down the road from the airport. The airport Hampton Inn is probably the closest hotel to the airport and a number of rental agencies are located behind it (like toyota, national, and dollar). It takes maybe 5 minutes to drive from the Hampton to the airport.
DRIVING AROUND Driving in itself is not much different. Tico drivers are not overly aggressive. The biggest problems you will encounter are a) potholes and b) the lack of signs to get you from one city to another. You also will not get any decent maps either.
There are also a few minor problems, like twisty mountain roads, clouds/fog, and mystery speed limits. I highly recommend following the posted speed limits because you do see quite a few police cars on the side of the road with radar guns, especially between Quepos and Jaco and San Jose.
A four-wheel drive vehicle is not mandatory in the dry season but I would recommend one if you are considering going to the Monteverde Cloudforest Reserve. The road is very bad and it already takes you 1.5 hours to go 35 km in a truck. The roads IN Monteverde are even worse.
ACCOMODATION Lodging is expensive in the high tourist areas, which we were obliged to visit. Tourism wasn't crazy when we were there so accommodation was somewhat obtainable. A lot of places were nearly full but we were turned away only once.
We decided that there were a few things that we had to see. These were Manuel Antonio Park, the Monteverde Cloudforest Reserve, and Arenal Volcano. Since we had to start in San Jose, our route took us south through Cartago over the cerro de la muerta to San Isidro and over to Dominical. Then north along the coast to Quepos, through Jaco and Puntarenas and up to Monteverde. Then around Lake Arenal to La Fortuna and eventually back to San Jose.
Our first stop was at the Orosi Lodge, in the village (and valley) of Orosi, near Cartago. It took nearly three hours to get here since we had to a) go right through San Jose, and b) were brand new to the non-sign system of roads. We only had to stop for directions twice. The valley itself, is known for coffee plantations and an (apparent) view of the Irazu and Turrialba volcanos. We only spent an afternoon and night there, and unfortunately the weather and visibility were poor, so we saw nothing. The Lodge however, was comfortable and cosy. There isn't much in the village although the Lodge can provide you with a hand drawn map of a number of interesting things in and around the valley. The "hot springs" next door to the Lodge are not quite "hot" and not worth going to.
Following Orosi, we decided to make the harrowing drive to Dominical for some beach-ing. The drive over the cerro de la muerta is kinda "white-knuckling" since you are basically driving through clouds, with little visibility, on wet roads with lots of turns and bends with sheer drops on the side of the road. By the time we got to San Isidro (nearly 2 hours later), the weather had turned sunny and warm (which happens as soon as you leave the mountain pass). The road to Dominical is pretty good and it is neat driving towards the coast because the mountains/hills go right up to the beach. You don't see the coast coming and all of a sudden, you end up there.
Dominical looked like fun, although we decided to stay at a resort just on the edge of it called Hotel Roca Verde. The beach resort had a pretty private beach although due to pretty strong riptides all along the coast, swimming was not advised. You could walk down the beach and not see anyone around. We were there on Saturday night (which happened to be Rocky's birthday by the way) and the bar was having a dance/party with DJs, lights, sound system, etc. Saturdays are apparently very popular at this establishment.
We decided to drive to Quepos on Sunday because we felt that getting there the day before the park closed would provide an easy way to find "cheaper" lodging. It turned out to be true – the Costa Verde resort was booked pretty solid for every other day except Sunday and Monday. We were provided a decent discount by opting to pay by cash and not credit. Their restaurants are pretty good, with the one across the street having a great outdoor grill for dinner. Prices were somewhat expensive, but in line with the quality of what you got. Every night around 5:30pm the Anaconda Restaurant is inundated with monkeys. It's really cute to see, although I expect that the reason for them was because they used to feed them.
The Costa Verde resort was on the road to Manuel Antonio National Park, and although most people would agree that the beaches are great, the real reason to go is to try and see endangered monkeys within the interior of the park. The park is about a 10 minute drive from the town of Quepos and if you go first thing in the morning (the park opens at 8am), you basically have everything to yourself. Please note that you can park for free directly in front of the park entrance (we didn't know that, and parked at the beach, which cost us around $2US. The road to the entrance is kind of hidden, so you might end up at the beach parking area anyway. If you're concerned about finding a guide beforehand, don't be. There's always a number of them hanging around the entrance with their telescopes. The guides were selling their services for $35US per person. We opted against getting one and although we probably missed a lot of stuff we both weren't in the mood to go hiking all over through the bush. If you just pay attention and keep an eye open, you can see some interesting stuff, like the small bright red land crabs that you can see just off the main trail. We were also lucky to see pelicans and a number of very large rodents (that we can't remember the name of). On our way out we noticed some people that had started at the same time as we had (with guides) and they really didn't seem too excited about the whole thing - considering we had walked most of the beach trails and lied on the beach for a half hour in the same length of time.
We'd both recommend coming to see it, especially early on a Tuesday morning when you'll have enough space to yourself. You can walk the trails with sandals (not flip flops), and beware the heat and riptides. There was a toilet at one of the beaches, but nothing else of note.
Outside the park are some free public beaches that aren't quite as nice as the ones inside. There are a bunch of hawkers outside with juice, pineapple, coconut, towels, shirts, etc.
The road from Manuel Antonio to the Monteverde Reserve isn't nearly as bad as you'd think - until the last 30km. The coastal highway up to Jaco and Puntarenas is in pretty good shape and the main North-South Panamerican highway is also pretty good. On our way through we ended up passing a rolled over compressed gas truck. When you turn off the Panamerican highway the road get worse the further in you get. It took us over an hour and a half to traverse the 30km to Santa Elena (the town next-door to the Reserve).
Nonetheless, we persevered and got to Santa Elena in the mid-afternoon. Our accomodation of choice was the mountain view room at the El Sapo Dorado hotel. Our room view was of the Nicoya Peninsula and except for all the clouds and wetness (go figure) the place would have been unbelievable. The restaurant was quite nice with a nice patio and view, but really pricey. To get to the hotel you go up a steep track to the office, and then up even further to the cottages. This is where the 4-wd comes in handy. A neat place to eat, we found, was The De Lucia Inn/Restaurant. The menu does not exist, rather they bring over a platter of raw meat/fish/chicken and point to each and tell you how it will be done. It was a rather unique way of presenting meal options and makes life a lot simpler when dealing with foreign languages.
The next day we headed out from Santa Elena around Lake Arenal and down to La Fortuna to see Arenal Volcano. ALong the way we stopped and grabbed a few shots of the wind turbine farm at the north end of the lake, which was super cool. Unfortunately, when we got to La Fortuna, the volcano was enveloped in fog which made it impossible to see. Apparently you have to be really really lucky to see it, so we decided to try our luck and hang out for the night.
There were a lot of places available to stay, but to be honest, we can't remember the name of the place. However, it was at the base of the volcano, although all we saw was a wall of white. We left the desk clerk with instructions to wake us up at night if it cleared (since you'd be able to see the lava). The next day we bought the post-card instead, a couple of handmade hammocks from a roadside stall, and debated on whether to head to San Jose, stay in La Fortuna and see if our luck would turn, or go somewhere else. We decided to move on to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui, primarily for the drive.
We can't recall the primary reason for going to Puerto Viejo, but I think it was to hit the Selva Verde eco-lodge. The rainforest frogs and turtle pictures are from the lodge. The only real complaint about the lodge was that half of the hiking trails were closed when we got there, so we ended up lying around in hammocks and relaxing instead of doing much of anything. Also during that time it was really humid (as you would expect in a rainforest), so we just loafed and tried to stay cool. The food at the lodge wasn't spectacular by any means, and in our humble opinion (as well as Frommers), it wasn't really worth the price. It seemed to be geared more towards package tourists and not so much for independant travellers. But each to his own.
The final day consisted of driving back to San Jose, which was as much of an adventure as you could imagine. We really didn't know where we were going most of the time and somehow managed to make it. Halfway through we think the road signs disappeared, so it was random guessing that got us into the city. We dropped off the car and stayed at a hotel near the airport instead of going downtown on our last day. What truly sucked was that it was the day before the elections so there was NO ALCOHOL being sold. Anywhere. Period. We ended the vacation with a few dips in the pool and some lame american food at a nearby restaurant. The next day we watched the Super Bowl in LAX while waiting for our connecting flight. And that's that.
Some final thoughts... Of all the countries that we've visited, Costa Rica deserved more time than we could spare. There are some very very neat adventures that you could take, but it requires planning in advance and some serious coin. The people we met were as friendly as we expected, and the country was very well developed for tourism. We felt that it was the place's biggest fault. The "developed" feeling isn't the same as, say the way the backpacking industry is in Australia. I guess it's all the retired Americans. Would we go back? We would, but much further down the line. In fact, we would probably visit Nicaragua and Belize before heading back to Costa Rica, for comparison purposes, of course.