Costa Rica revealed over 10 days and 500 road miles.
Costa Rica offers unique challenges for the intrepid do-it-yourself travelers. Here, we share some challenges uncovered on this, our second Costa Rica trip, as well as a few secrets to help smooth the way.
Our itinerary for this trip of 10 days started with our desire to get into and out of the capitol San Jose as quickly as possible. As discussed in my story of our first trip 10 Days in Costa Rica 2016 , San Jose traffic, noise, air pollution and difficulty in simply navigating the streets is as challenging as LA or Atlanta during rush hours– on steroids.
We arrived mid-day in the capitol San Jose, cleared Customs and were picked up by the folks at our chosen car rental agency. Less than an hour later we were in our rental SUV on the way out of San Jose, headed 2.5 hours north to the cloud rain forests around Arenal volcano and the lake at its base.
We choose places to stay that are off the beaten path, and our digs at Hotel Linda Vista suited us just fine. After checking in and checking out the view from our balcony we had ample time to enjoy dinner at the restaurant as the sun set over the lake and the volcano.
Check out the brief video to get a sense of the serenity of this place
Check the captions (click on an image, hit little i in circle at top right).
My shot of a cow, a rain forest, and a river flowing to Arenal lake at the base of the volcano is, for me, one of a kind. Where else would you capture this picturesque combination?
Jungle Canyoneering & Rappelling
We hit the sack early because the next day was a challenging canyoneering and rappelling trek, featuring hiking along gloomy, steep and slippery jungle paths, threading our way down narrow slick rock river canyons, and rappelling down increasingly taller waterfalls.
Video snippet of Robin backward ziplining
Just getting to the trail head was an adventure, with a dusty, lurching and noisy ride up perpendicular limestone roads in bench seats attached to a large 4X4 flatbed truck with giant tires capable of tackling deeply potholed and switchback gravel trails. All in the heat and humidity of a tropical rain forest.
We expected this adventure to be the highlight of our 10 days, and we weren’t disappointed. Our photos and video snippets nicely convey the steep terrain, the long drops from the top of waterfalls down to the rain forest floor below, and the sheer exhilaration of facing one’s fear of heights or bugs or gloomy jungle environments or whatever.
It’s a good idea to get Zen with your fear or the adrenaline rush which anyone will experience who doesn’t do this kind of exhausting hiking and gulp-inducing rappelling in the jungle every day. Some days are a triumph, and this day was certainly that!
Check the captions on the pics
Those first two days we explored the nearby, quaint and colorful town of La Fortuna, spent hours walking on acres of a resort to dip in a variety of hot springs a few miles outside of La Fortuna, and joined another couple on an evening guided paddle down a jungle river, spotting for wildlife with flashlights.
The third day we planned to move east to our next destination near Chilamate, a nice half-way place to explore for a couple of days on our way to Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast near the border of Panama.
Video snippet of La Fortuna
Hot springs video
More amazing hot springs photos
Rio Celeste Falls
On our way (actually, out of our way) to Chilamate, we took a side trip northwest to Rio Celeste (Blue River) to see the amazing azure blue of the falls and the river. This trip had not been on our original itinerary but discussions with locals (and hundreds of breathtaking images on the Internet) convinced us to go.
The drive to and from Tenorio Volcano National Park and the subsequent arduous hike up muddy rain forest trails to get to the falls viewing area took a half day, but was absolutely well worth the effort!
More photos of Rio Celeste falls here
Video snippet here
On our way to the national park, we drove past miles of pineapple plantations and many rural farms both large and small. Leaving the park, as we made our way east toward Chilamate, we passed through miles of the unique rural settings of Alajuela Province, dotted with farms featuring live fences, many commercial pineapple fields, and the rugged, steep ravines and forested hills that characterize so much of Costa Rica’s landscape.
The yellow diamond-shaped road signs certainly got our attention, as they warned us to proceed “despacio” (slowly) because, well, a wide variety of critters might be present.
The newer road signs show several silhouettes, and we seldom saw the same group of critters on a sign we had seen earlier. We certainly slowed down as we studied the ever-changing silhouettes. It’s almost as if each sign was chosen to represent the unique mix of creatures in that particular area, which idea struck me as whimsical and, surely, impractical. But hey, what does this gringa know?
Luckily, the roads were in terrific condition and the weather was perfect, which made for driving those twisting, steep roads over river gorges and through numerous villages a bit less tiring. Arenal volcano loomed on the horizon, a constant companion which we didn’t lose sight of until we got fairly close to our digs for the next two nights at Selva Verde Lodge.
Selva Verde Lodge
Here we spent two nights in the rain forest. You wouldn’t think there was a rain forest in the midst of all the traffic on the highway right in front of the reception area, but once you walk into the property a hundred feet or so, the sounds of the roadway drift away as you’re enveloped by the dripping greenery of the rain forest, the bright colors and sweet aromas of tropical plants, and the hoots of Howler monkeys.
Although this is a popular stopover for Tourismo buses and large tour groups on guided Costa Rica treks, somehow Selva Verde Lodge has managed to maintain a very organic feel, as if the place grew out of its surrounds rather than being placed there.
Actually, Selva Verde Lodge is well known as a pioneer of conservation and ecotourism. Although the property encompasses more than 400 acres of rain forest, the feel is cozy and homey, with lengthy covered walkways connecting the main reception area up by the highway with wings of guest rooms and the central pool, dining areas, two bars, a shop and a nifty covered area with displays that are part of the environmental education center supporting field courses for teachers and students.
We stayed across the road and back up in the rain forest, in a cramped but quiet and comfy cabina or cottage with an attached screened porch. A number of small cabinas were perched on a steep hillside, connected to a lengthy covered wooden walkway, and surrounded by the thick growth of the rain forest.
Because we were there during the week, we had the entire area to ourselves. Below us, our lonely SUV was parked near a pond, the centerpiece of a large clearing of the rain forest, surrounded by brightly colored tropical plants and walls of towering bamboo. This area attracted all sorts of insects and wildlife, and offered a view to the sky where we spotted Scarlet Macaws, Toucans and Scarlet-rumped caciques. The latter reminded us of large Red-winged blackbirds.
Robin spotted an aguti one evening and the next morning as it came down a forest path to forage for fruit. A beautiful and deadly Strawberry Poison Dart frog (locally called the bluejeans frog) posed for Robin’s camera early one morning.
The silences in this place were countered by a Howler monkey calling nearby every day and into the evening. At night the pattering of rain on the tin roof and the clattering of a family of (I suspect) coatimundis or South American raccoons, playing and chattering, woke me at midnight. I remember I was grinning at those little devils as I fell back asleep.
The security guard sat alone down the hill near our car under a wan security light, often perched on his motorcycle until 10 each night, peering at the lit screen on his mobile phone. Each night he locked the security gate up at the road as he left. We never had to use the key to the gate lock, as we were asleep long before his shift ended.
Check out our photos here
Night Hike in the Rain Forest
Of the several places near Selva Verde Lodge available for a night hike, I chose Tirimbina Biological Reserve because of its 800 acres of rain forest, 2/3 of which are set aside for conservation. Only 1/3 is used for ecotourism. This preserve also got high marks by visitors on the TripAdvisor La Fortuna forum.
Our night hike started with the sighting of a mother sloth and baby a mere 30 feet above our group in an almond tree as we started down the path into the preserve. The rain accompanied us as we crossed an apparently never-ending swinging bridge over the roar of the Sarapiqui river some 60 feet below.
My LED flashlight lit up the foaming rapids below, enhancing my sense of vertigo as I carefully balanced on slippery wooden boards and slid my hand along the cold, wet steel cable that served as a springy handrail. The bouncing of the bridge underfoot became magnified with the many footsteps ahead of me. I was glad to reach solid ground at the end of that passage, but as the rain forest closed in around us, I found myself focused on keeping my balance on the wet, slimy, muddy bricks that are commonly used in Costa Rica for raised footing on jungle paths. I have hiked many such trails before but in the rain and the pitch blackness of this night, I found it wise to stop before I focused my light on the surrounding trees and understory, attempting to see the eyes of a coati, anteater, kinkajou or even an aguiti peering out of the brush. But no such luck.
An hour and more later, our little group returned to the main building of the reserve, having spotted several large frogs, leafcutter ants and tree roots that glowed in the dark. Sometimes the critters just stay at home, especially when it’s raining. Still, it was nice to get out and about in the nighttime rain forest.
After two nights at Selva Verde Lodge, it was time to pack up and head some 3-4 hours east and south to Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, where we would spend the next four nights near the village of Cahuita.
Soothing Suizo Loco Lodge
Even if “Suizo Loco” means “crazy Swiss” in Spanish, we found this lovely little place tucked into the rain forest within hearing of the waves on the beach suited us just right. It was simply perfect. Our private roomy cottage was situated near to the open air dining, kitchen and pool area and the imposing reception building, yet far enough away from the other cottages to afford us peace and privacy.
We had the wall of rain forest within 100 feet of us, which meant the shy agutis would come out at dawn and dusk to scavenge around the kitchen area for bits of fruit tossed out by the ladies who ran the place like clockwork. In fact the family employed by the husband and wife team who built Suizo Loco had been there for years, lovingly tending the property and caring for guests while keeping the place secure and the encroaching jungle at bay.
Brief, Zen video of Suizo Loco pool in the early morning.
Brief video-chilling on our porch during an afternoon rain.
The grounds, pool and buildings were carefully tended, and guests were catered to in an unobtrusive way. Kindness and genuine warmth were the hallmark of every communication we experienced. The food was terrific. The atmosphere was quiet, sedate and laid back. It was the sort of place where we quickly felt at home, especially after a day spent roaming beach trails, spotting for wildlife in the trees and the salt water bay beyond.
In the afternoons we would sit in comfy chairs on our little patio and enjoy the sounds of the waves crashing on the beach a half mile away, the ocean breeze keeping us cool and bringing the signature odor of verdant growth, dead vegetation, salt, and wet, loamy soil. Each day the Howler monkeys called nearby, while tropical birds flitted and soared above giant rain forest trees, darting in and out of the canopy on their way to and from nesting or feeding.
Where the Rain Forest Meets the Coast
Our days in this idyllic area of the coast were spent exploring a national park and two reserves. Our favorite was Cahuita National Park mere minutes away.
There, we hired Richard, a local guide who was born and raised by his grandfather back before the national park was created and when the entire area was undeveloped. Richard was also formally trained as a wildlife guide, and he pointed out more animals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, flowers and trees than we had ever been introduced to in a single morning. It helped that the overnight rain had brought out everything from sloths and monkeys to iguanas, bats, vipers and Jesus lizards. The only other place we had experienced so much wildlife, so accessible, was when we visited the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica two years earlier.
The beaches here beckoned, so we spent the next day as typical beaching-it tourists. We arrived as the park opened, paid the minor entry fee, and walked a long way down the canopied beach trails to a deserted beach that didn’t offer riptides (red flags warn swimmers).
A momma raccoon and baby were foraging among the sea grape trees that line the shore, (check out the quick video) and I spotted large cat tracks in sand still damp from the early morning high tide.
Our third day was spent driving farther down the coast, visiting Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge This is so undeveloped and off the beaten path as to be virtually invisible. Here again the rain forest abuts the coastline. A lengthy, canopied and deeply shaded trail parallels the beach, winding through the tropical vegetation. Wildlife is everywhere; on the trail, off the trail, on the beach, and in the mangrove estuaries behind the beach trail.
The coast itself is almost all iron shore (sharp, ancient coral reefs), offering stunningly beautiful vistas, with crystal clear water reflecting the myriad of colors of the coral rock, algae, and plants in the shallows. There are a couple of small beaches where people swim, the most stunning by far being Punta Uva.
If you ever go to this area, it’s worth it to hike down that sandy, shaded path for 3 kilometers or so from the parking area to Punta Uva beach. Bring a cooler, a book to read and let yourself be transported. If you’re there during a week day, and arrive early, you will have the place to yourself.
Check out this brief but beautiful Punta Uva video snippet
Puerto Viejo, Playa Blanca, and a Hidden Gem
After a few hours at Punta Uva, we drove back up the highway and managed to squeeze our way into the noisy, crowded, trafficky, rough-and-ready backpacker haven of Puerto Viejo De Talamanca, where we had a so-so sandwich served with blaring music at a seaside beer joint.
There I photographed a derelict sailboat, driven onto these shallow, rocky shores years ago, serving as a reminder that nature rules. Always.
We were happy to get in and out at a nearby food store and stop for gas on our way back up the road to our quiet Suizo Loco digs. On the way we discovered a super cute and scenic little restaurant sitting right on the iron shore in the little village of Playa Negro, mere minutes from our cottage.
My photo of Robin getting ready to chow down captures the setting festooned with so many vibrant Caribbean colors.
This was another experience we encountered by taking the lesser-driven path. In this case we got off the paved highway and bumped down the rough, jarring, dusty gravel roads to and along the beach, where the incoming tide crashed on the iron shore, sending geysers high into the air as the water forced its way into “blowholes” in the ancient limestone. The trick is: I was comfy taking such rough tracks because we were in a SUV, which kept us well off the ground and readily negotiated large, rain-filled potholes.
Trip pics here– be sure to read the captions!
Jaguar Rescue Center
It’s a good thing we enjoyed the beaches when we did, because our last full day the monsoon rains came. So off we went to the Jaguar Rescue Center back down near Puerto Viejo. This place was awesome, and well worth tramping around in our rain jackets, dodging from one covered area to another, following our young PHD-in-Sloths British guide who kept us entertained and informed about the lives of the orphaned sloths, anteater, toucan, forest deer, the peccary (pig), margay (forest cat), and after awhile I lost count.
This rescue center, like hundreds all over Costa Rica, is fully funded by donations from visitors. Many visitors volunteer their time a day or a week, helping to care for the many injured and (ideally) rehabilitated wild animals that are brought to the center. You can watch the staff vets work with the injured and sick critters, and have your heart strings pulled over and over again, especially when you see all those baby sloths in their hammock, nestled among the yummy leaves they enjoy eating and being cooed at by volunteers.
Here’s a quick video of a sloth moving surprisingly quickly as it heads for its morning meal.
Children will love this place.
Our final day we bid a wistful goodbye to Daniel and his staff at Suizo Loco Lodge and headed back up the highway to the nightmare of the traffic snarl around Limon and the tortuous, seemingly never-ending drive back across the rain-lashed mountains and into San Jose. I had allowed four hours for a three hour drive and it took us six, so be warned- that’s Costa Rica!
Back in noisy, polluted, crowded San Jose we stayed near the airport, dropped off our rental SUV right next door, walked over to Denny’s for dinner, hit the hay and flew back home the next day, bringing along sweet memories of the past nine days of adventure, discovery and tranquility in the wilds of Costa Rica.
My YouTube channel videos covering this trip
COSTA RICA TRAVEL TIPS
Costa Rica is rather unique among Central American countries, in that a road trip is relatively easy to plan and, for accomplished navigators and competent drivers, fairly straightforward to execute. With a rental car, a GPS (Waze is popular, and very useful, throughout Costa Rica) and an up-to-date printed map, we developed our own road trip itinerary. This allowed us to experience the abundance of Costa Rica’s climate zones, which include active volcanoes, high-elevation cloud forests, lush jungle rain forests, lowland, tropical dry forests and beaches. By staying in different, off-the-beaten-path places, we were able to become steeped in the environment and experience the amazing biodiversity of each, while enjoying periods of rest in serene, natural settings.
More important, traveling independently gives us the freedom to be where the animals are, when they are. Most rain forest animals are active at dawn and dusk (and of course, many are active at night), so unless you’re up very early or out on a guided night hike, the chances of seeing animals in the wild like sloths, anteaters, monkeys, aguiti’s, coatimundis, reptiles, amphibians and an amazing variety of bird life are lessened. The reason is simple– most tour vans don’t even get started until 8am or later and by the time they arrive at the parking area of the destination (after having made a circuit of local resorts or hotels to pick up riders), the morning is well underway. The animals have moved further into the rain forest, away from the noisy vehicles and people, or else have moved off to a quiet place to rest before the evening feeding period.
Many tour package visitors are left with seeing and learning about trees, plants, insects, maybe iguanas, birds, amphibians, butterflies, beetles and the like. Which is awesome, but not the same as having all the time you want to observe a mother sloth slowly moving from one branch to another while her baby clings to her, or being captivated by the sight of a troop of coatis marching along a ridge above a raging river to their home tree, silhouetted against a blazing sunset. Or being within fifteen feet of a family of squirrel monkeys feeding just off a trail in the morning light. Or a dawn hike accompanied by a troop of howler monkeys just overhead in the trees, raising such a din that you need to shout to be heard. Or getting to know the resident agutis and their habit of raiding a nearby kitchen area for fruit every evening. Or looking for that little fruit bat that wraps itself in the same banana leaf every night to go to sleep and if you’re up early enough you can watch it wake up and get on with its day. Or keeping an eye on the resident flock of scarlet macaws as they wing their way overhead each morning, calling raucously to each other as they head out to feed for the day, and repeat the procedure, following the exact same flight path, as they return each evening.
Tip: Best Way to See Wildlife. If its wildlife in the wild that you want to encounter, we strongly advise hiring a guide. This typically is not something you need to arrange in advance, as most guides hang out at the visitor fee pay area. Many guides in Costa Rica are graduates of a naturalist guide training program, and many are also lifelong rural residents who are intimately familiar with the surrounds and the habits of wildlife in the area.
Our travels in different environments have taught us that experienced guides see everything long before you do and of course the safety they provide as they look out for vipers and other things that can blunt your enjoyment is, in a rain forest or jungle, extremely valuable. Plus, as you spend more time with guides, you may find yourself becoming adept at spotting the elusive sloth 80 feet up in that almond tree off the path, where people below are strolling completely unaware.
Being on our own schedule allowed us to get up and out before dawn, to plan for our own meals (or just grab a snack) to be able to enjoy an evening hike or a quiet paddle down a river in the rain forest, using flashlights to spot for animals as the night descended.
Our road trip itinerary also allowed us to spend one day or several in a chosen area, to familiarize ourselves with the people, the roads, and familiar places to grab a coffee, snack or to stock up on food or gas. In our travels, we have run into local events, ranging from parades and art shows to farmer’s markets or a typical Saturday night celebration in a small town square. Such happenstance often serves as a highlight of our vacation!
Tip: Local Knowledge is King. You can Google and read TripAdvisor reviews all day but you’ll simply never glean the level of useful and detailed info you can get from talking with locals, or knowledgeable frequent visitors. We chat up the locals, from the staff at our accommodations to the guy watching our parked car. This is where we glean the very best tips about where to go, the best way to get there, the best nearby whatever to visit (private sanctuary with night hike or sunset paddle or swimming beach) and critical info like how to find a local optical place to fix your only pair of prescription eyeglasses that just popped a lens (yeah that happened.) There’s not a trip we’ve ever taken that our plans haven’t been positively enhanced, and often changed, after an exchange with a friendly and helpful local.
The local network of families and friends have often brought amazing and unique experiences to us. We have had helpful people hook us up with a family member who took us canoeing down a jungle river at night using flashlights to spot for wildlife. We enjoyed a meal of freshly caught fish prepared for us in an otherwise empty restaurant that was closed for off season. More than once, on different Caribbean islands, we’ve gone out snorkeling in a boat operated by a local fisherman who took us to a quiet, lesser-known spot than frequented by the tourist boats, a spot with amazing and abundant, healthy corals and fish.
Once we met the son of a Caribbean island scion who had some down time between SCUBA charters and took us out on his brand new dive boat for an amazing morning of private snorkeling. Later we visited him in his ancestral home dating from the 18th century. You simply won’t have opportunities like those if you’re on a tourist bus and a tight timetable, with 8-20 of your newest friends.
For interacting with and learning about wildlife and the local scene, for being steeped in local environs and for the flexibility to experience serendipity, you can’t beat the freedom of your own itinerary and transportation.
PS: It helps that we plan our trips usually during shoulder season, when fewer visitors are about. In the case of tropical environments, we typically opt for the dry season, when the bugs are reduced and the roads are not muddy bogs. A little bit of research is all it takes to understand the best month, and even the best weeks to visit your chosen bit of the planet.
Tip: Front-End Load Your Itinerary. This is particularly true in tropical environments, where the heat and humidity can sap your energy very quickly. We’ve learned to plan for the more physically demanding driving and activities of our trip early on in the itinerary. This leaves us some well-earned down time to chill out and reflect on our adventures, typically the last day or two before we fly back home.
This approach is particularly applicable to Costa Rica, which beckons with all manner of outdoor adventures and excitement, from hiking and paddling to zip-lining and rappelling in the rain forest. (see my previous Costa Rica post https://lynnsmithdestinations.com/2016/03/27/costa-rica-2016-10-amazing-days/ There are animal rescue centers to explore, cocoa and coffee plantations that beckon, horseback riding or white water rafting, butterfly gardens and jungle trails galore. Chances are very good that every day you’ll be on your feet, walking, and a lot of it over hilly, rugged terrain. Even a day or two spent on a beach can be taxing, what with all the walking in that soft sand or hauling your beach goodies on and off the beach, or just the effort to get up and head for a nearby bar.
Most people don’t “train up” for a vacation, they get ready to wind down. If experiencing the outdoor activities and the unique environments of Costa Rica are why you came, consider front-end loading your vacation with the more physically demanding experiences, preferably with a somewhat “down” day or at least an afternoon in between each to allow time to recharge. Those “down” times can be spent with relaxing activities like visiting hot springs or waking early to take a quiet morning wildlife walk around your accommodations, perhaps coupled with an evening wildlife guided walk. A “down” day can also be considered one of the days you spend driving to your next destination, with stops along the way at places of interest or to food shop, eat at a local restaurant, or stroll around a village square.
Tip: Driving in Costa Rica. Honestly, this one is covered a lot, if you Google the search string. I would say read as much as you want: certainly the warnings about aggressive drivers, lanes that disappear without warning, who has right of way at single-lane bridges, slow-moving truck traffic in rural and city environs, lack of signage throughout the country and even “up to date” printed maps and Google maps that simply don’t reflect the reality on the ground- we found much of what we read to be true. But that’s no reason to despair; just be prepared.
We strongly recommend you rent an SUV to get you off the gravel and potholed roads which you most certainly will encounter, and to get you through wet-foot crossings, which you agree to avoid in your rental contract but, as we discovered, that is simply not possible in some situations. A 4X4 isn’t really necessary (although it was handy for us because of course I book us into off-beat places like Hotel Linda Vista some miles back into the rain forest on a very rough gravel road and situated way up a steep, switch-backed and partially paved road on the side of a volcano. But, that’s me.)
As mentioned earlier, do get and use Waze. More and more rental cars in San Jose come with a Waze phone. True, it’s one more thing to deal with, and they tend to use Andriod vs iOS so forget your Apple power plug- you have to use theirs and it’s strictly a car charger.
When in the mountains or around a volcano, remember that cellular service (and satellite reception) will be sketch at times, so make sure you know where you are headed and how to get there before you trundle off. It’s best to make arrangements or confirmation calls when you have good service.
We found that generally Waze was more accurate than Google maps, but we used both and even the most recent “Toucan” map of Costa Rica (Google it and buy it ahead of time.) Don’t forget your sense of direction, a working compass and common sense, as you will often need to suss your way around. To me, that’s part of the adventure of getting out of your comfort zone when traveling, but it can be stressful. So do avoid planning for tight timelines– leave yourself PLENTY of time between destinations and especially that last leg as you head for the city and/or the airport to go home.
Bridges can be out. You may run low on gas which can be tricky if you’re driving in the country. You may find a brand new 4 -lane highway that doesn’t show on anything but seems to go where you want, like we did. We took it and were so glad we did! Sometime you hafta trust to the driving gods.
Don’t drive at night unless it’s a short hop, on a stretch of road you know very well, no rain, no fog (which can be present around any volcano- they have a perpetual cloud overhead that stretches for miles and rain can pop up at any time at elevations, which is pretty much true anywhere.)
There are drivers who frequent the TripAdvisor Costa Rica forum who drive the typical tourist routes to and from San Jose and La Fortuna, Limon, and the popular west coast destinations. Learn who they are. Ping them via TripAdvisor before you go to get latest road conditions and tips on gas stations and places to eat along the way where you plan to drive.
As you enter towns or villages, it can be difficult to know where to go when you are faced with several roads at an intersection. Watch the traffic flow and observe the condition of the pavement- those alone can tip you off to which road is the more traveled, which is likely the very highway you want.
Look out for the port of Limon and highway 32, which crosses the mountains and is a major artery into and out of San Jose. It rains up in those mountains, hard. The roads are narrow, twisting, foggy and drivers cut you off even as you get stuck behind many trucks in a row. Be patient. We saw a rental SUV halfway off the mountain and were lucky to get past just before the road was closed- for hours (it made the nightly news in San Jose.)
The traffic in Limon will likely be awful- we got stuck in a 2-hour snarl (on hwy 32) and did not move at the port of Limon- on a Sunday! (There simply is no alternative route, as you can see on a map.)
For all the logical reasons, if you plan a driving vacation, we suggest strongly you don’t plan it around holidays. That includes the week leading up to a holiday and the week afterward.
Tip: Go for the Offbeat.
The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica has received sporadic reviews in various articles in the past 4 or 5 years, from Travel & Leisure to Lonely Planet and the New York Times. This area of the country doesn’t support high-end (or even mid-end) resorts, and it doesn’t see near the amount of tourist traffic that the Pacific side sees, so it hasn’t quite caught the eye of the general tourist trade.
Because the areas around Cahuita and Punta Negro still retain a quirky, laid-back Caribbean village atmosphere, I chose to make this area our place to relax, enjoy the sea, and see a lot of wildlife. Also, lodging and activities here are a lot less expensive than in the more heavily trampled areas, which fits with our travel style.
This area is truly a gem- a combination of the tropical Caribbean island life and funky seaside villages carved from the rain forest, all overlaid with the Tico laid-back and friendly attitude you find throughout the country. Sure, there’s the backpacker scene in Puerto Viejo De Talmanca, which isn’t our thing. And we’ve read of the drug trafficking and petty crime that can occur, but of course we take sensible precautions.
This is a good place to inject that it is always a good idea to pick up some useful phrases in the local language when you travel. The further you get from the big cities, the fewer folks you’ll run into who are fluent in English. Let’s face it, we’re all shy in an unfamiliar tongue, so do come prepared. There are all manner of apps out there, Google Translate is one, where you don’t need an internet connection to communicate with someone. Having a few simple phrases on hand will help you as you shop in local food markets, purchase gas, buy tickets to a private reserve, make arrangements over the phone, or just communicate your genuine appreciation of your hosts’ hospitality.
With its well-established system of national parks and protected areas, Costa Rica has since the mid-1990s been considered the poster child of eco-tourism. However, signs of the burgeoning growth of tourism abound. Manuel Antonio, the most popular national park in the country, has suffered from environmental decay and loss of habitat from too many visitors, raw sewerage being dumped into the Pacific, etc. We heard from every guide we encountered that this former crown jewel of the Costa Rica Pacific coast has turned into an island amidst uncontrolled and extensive growth. Species of monkeys and other animals that can’t merely fly away are further endangered as the gene pool continues to shrink. The guides consider a stint at Manuel Antonio a requirement to be endured, as they aspire to be employed in the misty Monteverde Cloud Rain Forest Preserve in the north, or the new jewel of the untouched primary rain forest, the Osa Peninsula.
I’ve experienced this dynamic of Discovery, Build-out, Exploitation and Decay in my home state of Florida for decades. My travels since the late 1970s have truly shown me how as few as three years can make the difference between experiencing a place, environments, people and cultures Before and After the airports or cruise ship terminals are built, the hoteliers take over the prime environments, and the rough-and-ready tracks are replaced by pavement and insidious development. Thus, in planning for our trip, I had determined to avoid the overly-trammeled tourist paths.
My travel mantra remains to experience the wild places before the rest of humanity and the inevitable hyper-growth catches up to these areas. So, my plans for our Costa Rica vacation had us driving from the airport in San Jose up to the cloud rain forests in the mountains near Monteverde, spending three days exploring the area, maybe glimpsing Arenal volcano from a distance, then driving back to San Jose to catch a short flight down to the off-the-grid Osa Peninsula, best described as a primitive paradise of rain forests, empty beaches, and backwater settlements.
We knew that this itinerary would entail a lot of hiking along steep rain forest trails, as compared to leisurely snorkeling or driving around tropical islands taking in fauna, flora, history and various cultures. And we weren’t disappointed! I had planned for guided night walks, zip lining and rappelling down waterfalls, so this trip would be less relaxation and more work-out but hey, you can always hang around and relax at home, right? Besides, the main goal was to spot a lot of wildlife and to be thoroughly steeped (once again) in a tropical rain forest– a favorite environment.
The driving out of and back into San Jose was as challenging as LA, Atlanta, Miami or Boston. There was the poor air quality, many, many trucks, lanes that came and went unexpectedly, a decided lack of road signage anywhere, noise, and really crazy drivers on motorbikes and in a variety of sh!tbox vehicles.
While I played road warrior, Robin gamely “navigated”, combing through printed Google maps at various scales, a country driving map provided by the rental car folks with indecipherable scribbles illustrating a short cut to the toll road out of the city, and Trip Advisor forum tips ranging from “Don’t even try this trip if you have less than 4 hrs to make it before dark!” (I made it in 2.5) to “Forget the rental, take the bus or hire a driver.
We actually enjoyed the trip once the traffic was behind us. We left the Pacific coast and started up the blindingly dusty gravel roads into the scenery of small farms, ranches and towns tucked into the steep mountain terrain.
The SUV kept us high enough to clear most of the boulders strewn across the twisting, steep and straight-drop-to-nowhere track as we crossed extremely gusty passes that rocked our boat and whipped up large dust-devils that obscured the view. Thank goodness for a new vehicle with working AC, but no recirculation option meant we ate dust the whole way into Santa Elena. To add to the excitement, the loose footing meant we slid out on almost every hairpin and we seldom got above 25 mph. Not to mention the bone-jarring potholes and the sun glaring off the dusty windshield and the grimy inside of the windows. Challenging? Tiring? You bet.
IN SANTA ELENA
I was ready for a cold anything when we arrived at our little motel-like digs, tucked down yet another dusty, potholed “street” in a sketch part of a sketch town, above the dusty little backpacker berg of Santa Elena. But the tiki bar in the tiny eating area was closed (at 6pm??), so we got a nice hot cup of coffee, which failed to refresh. Still. We were here, so off to town we drove, looking for a spot of chow.
We ended up eating at a diner-like affair on the main drag, which was paved with bricks that slumped into large potholes. The place offered “tipical” fare, which is typically rather dull.
Robin learned that night that “beef” in this part of the country at least, was lacking in flavor and chewability. I figured the chicken is always a smart choice, when traveling to Central America destinations, and was rewarded with a meal I could tolerate, but barely. Subsequent tacos where the backpackers hung out was the smartest move, and the location for the coldest beer too, ha.
We spent the next two days and one night hike exploring the cloud rain forest of the Monteverde national preserve and a nearby private property with extensive trails and wildlife viewing. See our photos for a genuine sense of this portion of the trip!
The cool, windy, misty and mysterious cloud forest was hauntingly beautiful, and because we arrived early in the morning, we were treated to a rare sighting of a mated pair of Resplendent Quetzals. We paused for quite some time to watch the male busily digging out a nesting hole in a dead tree. The best shot I could get was the male’s resplendent tail feathers poking out of the hole and jiggling with the vigor of his efforts.
The next night we were delighted with all the critters we saw during a two hour guided night hike through rain forest trails.We spotted coatimundis, an aguti, an anteater sleeping in the fork of a tree,
OFF THE GRID
A special, serendipitous experience began with our decision to go down a track way off the grid (seriously, even Google maps is clueless), past a “Closed- turn back” sign which we ignored “Hey this road looks traveled– uh, mostly”. That track was hands-down the most challenging, painful and exhausting driving at 15mph I have ever done but the scenery was spectacular and the payoff at the end of this hour jaunt was this magical old homestead-cum-hostel carved out of the rain forest on top of a steep ridge with a spectacular view of Arenal volcano and the lake at its base.
We were met by two playful kittens as we painfully hauled ourselves out of the dust-covered SUV. The panorama view pulled us to the edge of the grassy parking area and a steep drop off. The rain forest rolled away toward the massive volcano, pitching down sheer ravines and covering the steep series of ridges. Waterfalls cut through the wall of green in the distance, glinting in the afternoon light. The wind at this elevation (likely 6,000 ft) was cool and steady, with gusts enough to blow my ball cap away.
The only sounds were the wind, rain forest birds, and the swishing of the landscaped greenery around the property.
The kittens cavorted while we took photos. Only after taking in the sights did we turn our attention to the lodge-like structure behind us. Heavily constructed of massive logs, the place stretched out across the cleared hilltop, offering plate glass windows to the view before us.
I smelled wood smoke as we entered the arched, high-ceiling entryway, went down a short flight of stone steps, and walked the length of the cavernous dining area. A couple was seated at one of the tables, enjoying the incredible view.
I approached a solid wooden counter at the end of the room and saw a huge fireplace behind the counter and a stack of large logs that looked like a wood pile for some serious stoves. And sure enough, I could see into the industrial-sized food prep area to my left and there were two men, chopping away on greens and veggies on long metal trestle tables. Behind them open wood burning ovens were glowing away, coughing clouds of smoke back down the chimney and into the area with each gust of wind outside.
The atmosphere was so, well, atmospheric! The prevailing quiet, interrupted by the chopping and the sounds of gusting winds buffeting the building– the smoke, the rasp of a heavy wooden chair across the stone floor as Robin sat down at a table behind me— it was all so weirdly transporting. I felt like time hit Pause for five seconds. What a tranquil, timeless kind of place.
The spell of course was broken as our host ambled out and asked in Spanish if we’d like to eat. A brief confab ensued, with Robin leading the way in her capable Spanish to the conclusion that there was little on offer and we’d be taking pot luck. Or, as our host described it, a “tipical” meal, which we were grateful for, having eaten little that morning besides a scrambled egg and squashed protein bars retrieved from our backpacks.
While we waited for lunch to be served, I repaired to a couch nearby, joined by the kittens, who wore themselves out playing, then settled down in my lap for a snooze. The quiet descended again, and the smoky stillness of the airless room started to lull me to sleep until I got up to open a couple of windows high above the plate glass expanse to let in some of that invigorating mountain air.
Following our meal, we buckled in and buckled down for the return trip to Santa Elena, back up and down that killer, twisting, slippery, rutted track. The forest soon engulfed us but was broken here and there by open vistas of incredibly steep pastures dotted with trees and tangled underbrush. Not a cow or horse, donkey or mountain goat in sight. I couldn’t imagine spending a day on a small horse, struggling up and down those pitches chasing up cattle. What a hardscrabble life the rural farmers and ranchers must lead!
Back to our little, high-ceiling room at the Monteverde Mountain Lodge, with its lovely, dusty landscaped garden area, the noise of construction from a third floor addition, the incessant racket of muffler-less motorcycles at all hours, the barking dogs throughout the night, and the sound of the wind slamming against the building. We slept with windows closed, earplugs in and a small fan blowing the dust around the room and into our sinuses, eyes, ears, luggage and any drink left uncapped.
TO THE OSA
We were glad to take our leave after three days in Santa Elena and head back to noisome San Jose, getting lost and tangled in city traffic, making our way back to the rental car place, and catching a small but beautifully appointed plane, us the only passengers, down to Puerto Jimenez on the Osa Peninsula.
At the tiny airstrip next to the graveyard in the noisy, crowded, dusty town, we were met by our driver, who carefully placed our bags in the bed of the pickup and covered them with a tarp as a nominal dust cover. Now we faced what we well knew to be an hour-long, truly bone-jarring ride down yet another dusty, god-awful road through ranching and teak wood-growing country.
The scenery was pleasantly distracting, with the Golfo Dulce to our left framed by high mountains, and the flat farming terrain to our right, bordered by towering rain forest hills folding back to the western horizon. Even so, it was difficult to see a lot through the blur of the jouncing and thumping, and taking photos was completely out of the question. We just endured and tried to chat up our driver, who was shy due to his lack of English. Robin was in the back seat gritting her teeth to protect her tongue and my Spanish is beyond desultory, so it was a non-chatty drive.
The fun part was the road-guard Capuchin monkey, whose image resolved out of the dust as we approached a section of canopy road. It sat facing us, and as the truck slowly approached, it hiked itself up on all fours and bared its teeth– a clear warning to stop. We laughed and, suspecting it was holding traffic for its family to cross, we looked up into the trees overhead and sure enough, five more monkeys were making their way down a tree. The road-guard glanced at them, then glared at us, teeth bared, then glanced at them again. I half expected it to motion “hurry up there!” to the troop, who eventually crossed quickly right behind the guard.
With one last glare and teeth-baring, the road-guard jumped across the road, following the troop, and we resumed our trek, amused and thankful for the short break from our rough ride.
IN THE RAIN FOREST
el Remanso was our home-away for the next five days and boy, it was worth every strained muscle in our backs and necks to experience this paradisiacal unspoiled, wild place.
Some folks choose their vacation spots for the food, or to be pampered, or just to relax. We tend towards the “active” vacation experience. I’m deeply grateful that Robin is more adventure-minded, gathering experiences vs, say, souvenirs. As hard as she works, she deserves some pampering or just hanging out by a pool but she’s game for hiking her butt off, sweating buckets, eating unknown and perhaps not-great food at unpredictable times, sleeping on mattresses that are more park bench than not, or being awakened at the barest crack of dawn by the startling, abrupt and incredibly loud Howler monkey calls right outside the cabin.
Things like the probability of running into the fer-de-lance, the most dangerous snake in Costa Rica, or falling off a steep trail or a zip line or on rappel may give her pause but she is a brave and tenacious fellow traveler! Of course before we went I didn’t tell her that the reason the fer-de-lance has such a fearsome reputation is that many people are bitten because of its association with human habitation and that many bites actually occur indoors. Kinda like I didn’t tell her a lot about Australia’s enormous variety of toxic and venomous creatures before we slept in the open (no screens, no doors) in the rain forest of Tropical North Queensland.
All this to say that I respect and admire Robin’s willingness to undertake these journeys rather than insisting on a vacation of pampering or even just relaxing. We have done some pretty adventurous stuff and I guess our activities this trip certainly added to the list. Plus, Robin delighted and surprised me with her willingness to undertake rappelling down waterfalls in the rain forest, no less. I am very proud of Robin’s stamina, strength of character, determination, and the extreme focus she brings when it’s Game On and time to learn how to do something on the fly, depending on your sense of balance, timing, and paying close attention to things like thorny plants, army ant columns, snakes, scorpions, spiders and slippery and dangerous footing.
I could wax on about the el Remanso property, the awesome staff, the incredible logistics challenges they face daily to just keep the place running way out there on the tip of the Osa, way far from any hospital or store or easy access to even get in and out of that area. It’s most definitely for the fit, outdoors wildlife peeps, the adventurous, the hearty and hale.
If it’s dawn yoga or a spa treatment you seek, this ain’t it. But they do have a fantastic yoga platform just off one of the many winding gravel paths that snake throughout the property, as well as a lovely massage area quite secluded but where one has a stunning view of the ocean way down there through a gap in the forest canopy. But we saw nobody using those services.
What we did see, and hear, and experience on many levels was the never-ending parade of wild animals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and birds galore.
We could hear them moving in the forest canopy, shuffling or darting along the forest floor– even whipping past (a bat just missed hitting me in the ear one dusk- I actually felt the wind from its wings.) We observed critters sleeping, hunting, mating, nesting, rooting and just going about their business. We could smell the musk and piss from the monkey troops overhead and just upwind. We spotted deer and peccary tracks at the edges of creeks, and coati and ground-dwelling bird tracks in the moist beach sand.
We felt the salt air from the ocean shore and the mists rising from rushing waterfalls, and the cold water flowing over our feet as we carefully stayed to the center of the river’s flow to avoid snakes on either bank. Sweat poured down our arms and dripped off our fingertips in the 100% humidity hovering over the riverbed during one night walk, way deep in a ravine, cut off from any breezes.
And yes a fer-de-lance made an appearance, darting under our night river walk guide’s boot. Rinaldo the guide didn’t spot it but I happened to be watching for snakes in the circle of my flashlight and warned Rinaldo to stop. Later we got an eye level close-up view of a non-venomous green snake stretched out on the limb of a small tree, bent on getting to the two small birds eggs in a nest mere inches away.
What I didn’t miss were man-made sounds. The rain forest was all-encompassing, all-present, and spending an entire afternoon walking trails quietly or sitting on the deck and just listening and watching, was all the conversation anyone needed.
The new moon hadn’t made its appearance so the nights were draped in absolutely black night skies, the stars bright as diamonds on display, the planets shimmering and the satellites barely moving, if at all. We’d turn off all lights in our cabina and in minutes the show was on. Some nights I hated to go to bed but the daily dawn chorus and an at-first-light hike with guides were typically waiting, and we needed our rest to get through the heat, humidity, and just plain day-long workout hikes.
We visited in-between seasons, so what few guests we saw (maybe 10 toward the end of the week- the place accommodates 31) were other couples, some younger than us, some older. Several were semi-pro bird watchers, there was one pro photographer hired by the management to gather shots for marketing. There were no children in tow.
As the owner and his wife explained, most visitors are there for the outdoor activities, the wildlife, and being in the rain forest. Many learn of this magical place by word of mouth. Still, el Remanso has earned the Trip Advisor 2016 Choice Award, consistently gets 5 star reviews, and people like Bear Grylls and other TV animal kingdom and critter show producers discovered this place some years ago. It won’t be long before Travel & Leisure does a piece that brings this area to the attention of a lot more travelers, but for now the sheer pain of getting there keeps the hoards at bay.
I hope they never pave that hellish road leading in or that’s the beginning of the end.
Again I point to our photos with captions and the videos on my YouTube channel Costa Rica playlist as well worth the time, if you want to experience these places vicariously. I’ve worked hours to edit shots and videos and welcome the opportunity to share with friends and family. Please feel free to comment on photos or videos too!
Costa Rica is definitely a place to visit time and again. We have quite a few friends who have a long history visiting and some who are planning to retire there–that’s a whole different topic. But as such magical places become easier to access and the tourist numbers keep growing exponentially, there will be changes, and in my experience few of them are good.
If you do your homework on Costa Rica, you’ll discover why this tiny country may have a real shot at avoiding the worst of the negative effects of a shrinking globe, population pressures and attendant problems, greedy developers, corrupt officials, infrastructure collapse, pollution and the whole ball of wax. Sure they have challenges, such as the Taiwanese mafia holed up in Puntarenas and manning fleets of illegal shark finning boats, poachers trawling the national marine parks, turtle egg poachers, wildlife poachers, etc. But I prefer to look at the potential of the majority of ticos and maybe even some of the ex-pats to continue to lead the way, raise voices, and raise hell to protect the future of this achingly beautiful slice of Central America. Pura Vida!