The Hendersons Costa Rica trip in 2005
Costa Rica Travels
We had heard so many wonderful things about Costa Rica that we decided as a fitting start to Life After Simpson to check it out for ourselves. Although we’ve traveled a lot in the US, Canada, Europe and New Zealand, we just weren’t sure what to expect, so we booked a tour with Overseas Adventure Travel – this was the first formal tour we’ve ever taken, other than the two weeks we went to Europe with Choral Union in 2002.
The ‘theme’ of the tour was National Parks of Costa Rica. The tour company arranged for a guide, Javier Rodriguez, a bus and driver (Olman Ramirez), lodging, most meals, nature walks, a visits to farms and shops and some optional activities. There were 16 tourists, all Americans.
“Bits” about Costa Rica
This is a country of contrasts. It has two seasons – wet and dry (their summer). Summer is from November through April. It has two sides – wet and dry – the dry side being the Pacific or west coast. The climate on the wet side is Caribbean. Our tour was in the central and dry side (there was an optional trip extension to the wet side, which we did not take, opting instead to go on our own to the beach town of Samara at the end of the tour). The food is excellent – fresh fruit is plentiful, and the seafood, especially the tilapia (which is farmed), dorado (also known as Mahi Mahi) and sea bass are fresh and flavorful. Chicken and beef are widely available and are frequently cooked with peppers and onions. Beans and rice are also staples. However, we found that the Ticos don’t generally do a good job with pasta – imagine lasagna with barbeque sauce (Tom’s mother is rolling in her grave at that!).
The countryside and parks are very clean, but the towns and San Jose have a lot of litter, which seems contrary to Costa Rica’s reputation as an environmentally conscious nation. The hotels were very clean and the water was safe (we learned that some of the beach towns use water from rivers, which isn’t very safe, but we didn’t run into any problems).
The economy is largely agrarian – bananas, pineapples and coffee are widely gown. Tourism is extremely important.
We felt quite safe, although we took precautions with our valuables by locking them in the hotel safe. We were surprised on our last night in San Jose to see that the hotel security guard was carrying a 12-gauge pump shotgun as he patrolled the hotel grounds.
The sun rises at 5:00 a.m. and sets about 6:00 p.m. all year round. Typically we were awakened not by an alarm clock but by a cacophony of birds.
In 1948, Costa Rica abolished its army. In theory the money saved was to go to education. Javier told us that two of the country’s former presidents are in jail and one soon will be, so it appears that corruption is a problem. Money earmarked for road improvements doesn’t seem to be making its way to the intended target.
Day 1 – Thursday - February 3 - The tour started out with a drive from San Jose to the Volcan Arenal area. En route, we stopped at Eco Termales Hot Springs for a refreshing dip and lunch, then continued to our lodging, Eco Lodge Lago Coter.
The flowers along the way were spectacular – hedges of hibiscus growing along the road, beautiful bougainvillea, poinsettias 4’ tall and impatiens dotting the roadside.
The roads, well, that’s another story – the potholes were enormous and plentiful.
Volcan Arenal is supposed to be spectacular, but we really couldn’t see much of the volcano. Several days later we overheard someone telling another tourist that he’d been there 17 times and had only seen the volcano twice. Even Mount Rainier isn’t that shy!
The birds at Eco Lodge were beyond description – every color and size imaginable. Outside the dining room window the owners had set up a bird feeder – below are some pictures of the feathered visitors. It's a shame we don't know the names of most of them.
We were in a rain forest and the first night the weather lived up to the name – we thought the metal roof would be ripped off the cabin. There was no insulation and the jalousie windows didn’t seal. As a result, the next morning our swimsuits still weren’t dry and the clothes we took out of our suitcase felt clammy and damp (the cabin was fairly typical for many of the dwellings in Costa Rica). We weren’t really cold, but it was an unpleasant experience putting on clammy clothes first thing in the morning.
Day 2 – Friday – February 4 - We were taken to Lake Arenal (man made, very large) for a kayaking trip. It rained pretty much the whole trip, so we got fairly well soaked, but still, we weren’t cold. However, at one point, I looked up in the trees to see a bird and the rain that had collected in the brim of my hat dumped down my neck. Brrrrr.
We returned to the lodge for lunch, then had some time on our own, followed by a nature walk through the grounds.
Javier pointed out various plants along the way – the trail was good, albeit a little muddy. At the bottom of the trail was a little indigenous hut, where the Maleku people meet to give tourists the opportunity to learn about their culture. There are about 600 Maleku living near Lago Coter now. Javier acted as the interpreter while Reynaldo explained their culture. They had for sale many masks and ‘rain tubes’ (wooden tubes that had rice or beans in them – when you turned them, they sounded like rain falling).
That evening, we hung up our clothes, hoping they would dry – our swimsuits still weren’t dry.
Day 3 – Saturday – February 5 – The adventure on day 3 was a floating trip down Rio Tenorio.
There were a few small rapids, but it wasn’t all that rigorous. The high lights were the birds – very different from those in the Volcan Arenal area, a few crocodiles and iguanas, and a lot of howler monkeys. This was on the ‘dry’ side of Costa Rica, so it was quite warm – after a couple of days of not feeling very dry, the heat was welcomed.
After the float trip, we had lunch at a restaurant along the river, then stopped for a brief walk in the little town of Canas. It is a fairly typical small Costa Rican town – the church on a little square in the center, some shops, some of the roads paved, others not.
The poverty in Costa Rica isn’t nearly as bad as we’ve seen in Mexico (that is one of the reason we haven’t gone to Mexico since we left Southern California many years ago – I think the poverty would be too depressing).
There are a couple of windmill farms along the shores of Lake Arenal and this area is supposed to have ‘world class’ wind surfing. I’m not surprised – it is certainly windy enough!
We returned to Eco Lodge to pack up for our move to Monteverde. Our swimsuits still weren’t dry!
Day 4- Sunday – February 6 – The next stop on the trip was the Monteverde area. As a crow flies, it is probably only 35 or 40 miles from Volcan Arenal to Monteverde. However, getting to Monteverde involved a drive on a stretch of unpaved road, about 37 km, with several switchbacks, no guardrails and breathtaking views. The drive took about 4 hours. Monteverde is a ‘cloud forest’ – the forest canopy is frequently in the clouds, so the vegetation and birds are completely different than in the rainforest around Volcan Arenal. The residents of the area have declined the government’s offers to pave the road – they are trying to control the number of visitors they get each year – even so, over 200,000 make the slow drive to the area.
After we had lunch in Santa Elena, we were driven out to a little dairy farm. The owners are hoping to go all organic someday, but it will take a while to get the entire herd converted (the cattle can’t have had any vaccinations, and the feed and pasture must be organic in order to qualify for the certification.
We learned how to make ‘farmer’s cheese’ and some of the folks milked one very patient cow. Gaudi, the girlfriend of the owner of the farm (who is an OAT guide and was currently on assignment in Belize) took us through the steps.
Once we checked into our hotel, El Establo, we found ourselves looking out on a breathtaking view of the Golfo de Nicoya to the west and a sunset – how can you describe?
The hotel is fairly new and is owned by the decendents of the Quakers who came to this area in 1951 from Alabama. They did so because they did not want to live in a country that had a peace-time draft (this was the Korean War era). There were around 100 people who immigrated to Costa Rica – they bought about 3000 acres in the Monteverde area and established some businesses and farms. Later the area became a haven for nature lovers, however the first settlers had to be hearty folks – they brought their possessions in by oxcart. Now the road is the much-improved two lane dirt road that we traveled on to get to Monteverde. That’s progress!
Day 5 – Monday – February 7 – We took a ‘nature walk’ through the Monteverde reserve – it was a bit rugged. We didn’t see much by way of birds, but the vegetation was varied and lush. Later that day, we did a canopy walk – suspended bridges at the canopy level, so we could look down into the forest.
From the canopy, you couldn’t see the forest floor, the leaves were so thick. We also visited a hummingbird garden. I can’t count how many species or individuals we saw. Hummingbirds are fascinating – they are absolutely fearless and incredibly territorial. Their aerial acrobatics never cease to amaze.
We also visited an ‘insectarium’ where there were thousands of butterfly and beetles on display, the collection of a former Oregon resident who moved to Costa Rica to study the insects. The colors, sizes and varieties were stunning.
Day 6 – Tuesday – February 8 – One of the features of the tour was a visit to a local school followed by a home-hosted lunch. Education in Costa Rica is free and mandatory, although we learned later that the children of migrant workers, of which there are many, don’t necessarily benefit from the system. The school we visited had around 117 students, up to about grade 8. The children sang the Costa Rican national anthem to us, then we were asked to sing the Star Spangled Banner to them. Fortunately, they had a recording, so we didn’t have to sing it a cappella. Tom made his conducting début leading us in our National Anthem. Afterwards, the children performed a number of folk dances, in costume, for us, and then took us to their classroom to show us some of their work.
They didn’t speak any English and our Spanish is heavily tilted to Italian, so communication was a bit challenging. Around noon we went with Ron and Joan Strawn to the home of a little girl for lunch.
The home was very modest – the parents, the little girl, Roxanna, and her four brothers live in a house consisting of a living room, three bedrooms and a kitchen. It was spotless. The mother prepares the meals on a two-burner stove, rather like a camp stove. The food was excellent – rice, potatoes, vegetables, and chicken cooked in a typical Costa Rican fashion – shredded with onions and peppers.
After lunch, we were taken to a horse farm, where the owners saddled up 17 horses for us (including Javier) and led us through the fields. The best part was coming across a white face monkey in one of the trees. The horses were very docile, mine wasn’t really interested in the goings on. The bridles did not have bits – first time I’ve ever ridden on a horse that wasn’t fitted out with a bit.
Day 7 – Wednesday – February 9 – We left Monteverde to go to the ‘dry side’ (Pacific) of the country and Manuel Antonio National Park. This is a very small park – only about 1000 acres – and it is a coastal forest. Last November there was an earthquake in this area, and some of the bridges had not yet been repaired, so the going was a bit slow, even by Costa Rican standards. Along the way we stopped at a bridge over a river to look at the crocodiles – there were some huge specimens basking in the summer sun. They are ugly, frightening and primitive.
We were surprised to see so many Brahma cattle – some of them were walking down the street in one of the towns we passed through.
We stopped for lunch at Jaco, a beach town north of Manuel Antonio. After lunch, Tom and I took a stroll along the beach, which was beautiful – sandy, warm – we walked in the water part of the way and it was probably 85 degrees or so.
Our lodging at Manuel Antonio was incredible – it was high on a hill overlooking the Pacific – the Hotel Parador. It was really a luxury resort, with three swimming pools. Tom and I took one look at that and decided to forgo the evening outing to a nearby cantina – we just wanted to get into the wonderful pool- we swam while the sun set – it was fabulous (I’m running out of superlatives here).
Day 8 – Thursday – February 10 - In the morning we went into the national park. We took our swimsuits with us and had a few hours to swim prior to the nature walk through the park. The beach at Manuel Antonio is much nicer than Jaco beach – gentle waves, sandy floor, very warm water.
Afterwards, we went on a nature walk – we saw several sloths, coatimundi and a troop of squirrel monkeys, which are endangered. Javier, our guide, told us that it was very unusual to see these little guys. We were able to get close enough to get some pretty good photos.
The afternoon was free, so Tom and I walked down to a little cove not far from our hotel and spent a couple of hours happily splashing in the warm ocean water. Beaches, by law, are all public in Costa Rica, but this one was so secluded that you might think it belonged to the hotel.
That night we sat on our little patio and enjoyed a glass of wine while we read and watched the geckos scurrying about.
Day 9 – Friday – February 11 – Back on the bus, this time to San Gerardo de Dota.
We stopped on the way near San isidro to visit the shop of a pottery artist, Gerado Selva. He demonstrated how he makes his beautiful pieces. We didn’t buy anything, though, because we were trying to keep our luggage to a minimum due to the weight restrictions on Sansa Airlines, which we were going to be taking from Samara to San Jose at the end of the trip. Also, we didn’t want to have anything breakable in our baggage.
The drive to San Gerardo de Dota involved going over some very high mountains (12,000 ft) then descent into a valley (still at 6,900 ft) to our accommodations at Trogon Lodge. At the summit, we were supposed to go on a nature walk, but it was frightfully cold and wet, so we stayed on the bus.
Trogon Lodge has the most wonderful gardens – fuchsias, roses, and calla lilies. The accommodations were little cabins – again, metal roofs, jalousie windows and this time tongue and groove floors but the tongues and the grooves didn’t always meet. As in the other places we had stayed, the maids did incredible things with the towels.
Hummingbirds live throughout the grounds at Trogon Lodge. Outside our cabin window was a tree that looked a bit like a lilac. It ‘belonged’ to a little hummingbird that spent most of the day eating and trying to defend his tree from others of his species who dared attempt to get a sip of the nectar of the flowers.
The elusive quetzal is supposed to inhabit the valley – two people in our party saw one, but we didn’t.
Day 10 – Saturday – February 12 – One of the optional activities was ‘zip lines’ through the forest canopy. The zip lines are cables strung between trees.
On the trees are mounted platforms for takeoff and landing. The ‘zipper’ has two harnesses – one about the waist, another about the chest, with lines that attach to a pulley on the cable. A third line attaches directly to the cable. As long as the cable doesn’t break, the zipper is quite safe. A guide is at the originating platform, and another at the receiving platform. The only thing the zipper needs to do is to guide him/herself along the cable to make sure his/her body doesn’t twist. If the zipper clamps too tightly on the cable, he/she runs the risk of not making it to the other platform. In that case, the zipper has to turn around facing the origination platform, and hand over hand, pull himself along to the destination.
The object of the zip line was supposed to be to get a good view of the life in the forest canopy, but most of us were too involved in the thrill of the experience to bother looking at the canopy. Tom got a couple of pictures of the view from the zip line.
For dinner that night we fished in the trout pond on the lodge’s grounds. While not exactly sporting, the odds for the fish were improved by our tackle: a broom handle for a pole and Puppy Chow for bait. However, we managed to catch our quota and had a wonderful meal of very fresh trout. Here’s me with my first fish.
Day 11 – Sunday – February 13 – Back to the capital, San Jose. En route, we stopped at a small coffee plantation. We had the experience of picking coffee for a while – not particularly difficult, but tiring – a good coffee picker will pick about 16-20 baskets a day. In ˝ hour, I managed to pick about 1/16th of a basket. I don’t think I’d be very successful as a coffee picker. Most of the pickers are migrant workers, many from Nicaragua. They live in housing provided by the plantation and earn very little (I don’t remember exactly, but I think it was about $1.30 per basket, each basket probably holding 20 pounds of beans).
Once we arrived in San Jose, Javier took us for a walk in the downtown-shopping district. It was very lively, with families enjoying the Sunday sunshine. It certainly had the feel of a Central American city – the shops frequently had loudspeakers broadcasting advertisements of their wares or music, which made for a festive atmosphere.
Prostitution is legal in Costa Rica and there was one ‘working girl’ obviously intent on getting business from the tourists in the area – she circled around our group and several others, while she carried her ‘Victoria’s Secret’ bag. It was sad, really, because she was young and pretty, and I wondered what would become of her when she could no longer ply her trade.
Days 12-16 – February 14-17 – On our own. The last four days of the vacation, Tom and I had a vacation from our vacation. We traveled by Interbus, which is a van service that takes customers from their hotel to their next hotel for a very modest fee. The vans are air conditioned and fairly comfortable. It took about 5 hours to go from San Jose to Samara, on the Pacific Coast of the Nicoya Peninsula.
Samara is a small town with a fabulous beach, several hotels and restaurants. Most of the streets (Samara is only about four blocks long by two blocks wide) are paved. The ATM is located in a mobile van, something of a novelty. There is a ‘super market’ (about the size of a 7-11 store, but crammed full of stock). One enterprising Tico runs horseback rides – he lets his herd have free roam of the town, rounding them up when they are needed for his business.
Our hotel was on the main street, about 2 blocks from the beach – an easy walk. It was run by some Italians, and had a small restaurant that served excellent pizza. There were two small swimming pools and some lounge chairs around them. It was very comfortable - $60 a night including breakfast.
The best part of Samara is the beach – the bay is a half moon, with a coral reef at the outside (it keeps the waves to a minimum and keeps out the sharks). There are a few pebbles, but mostly an incredibly fine sand (which works its way into your swimsuit – it takes several washings to get it out). The water is about the same temperature as the air.
In the four days we were at Samara we didn’t do anything except walk along the beach, sun bathe, read and splash in the surf or the pool at the hotel. The one exception was the snorkeling trip we took. What an experience! The hotel booked the trip for us. At 9:00 a.m. we walked over to the ‘tour office’ (the owner’s home). He fitted us with fins, handed me the ladder to the boat and Tom the mesh bag full of snorkel masks, then walked out to the street where he had parked the wheelbarrow carrying the outboard motor and fuel can. Off we trundled the 2 blocks to the beach. When we got there, we found that our boat was a 17’ fiberglass ‘rowboat’ with many patches.
Tom, the owner and our guide (Pancho, who speaks virtually no English) drug the boat to the water and in we went. Pancho took us on a site-seeing tour of the cove and the next cove over, then he anchored the boat near an island in the Samara cove. There is a coral reef between the island and the mainland and the snorkeling was unbelievable! We’ve snorkeled in Hawaii and Key West, but never have we seen so many fish as at Samara. After we got tired of the little coral reef, we got in the boat (with great effort because the wave action was heavy) and putted off into the bay. Pancho pulled an enormous pineapple out of the cooler and cut it up with his machete for us to munch on (the pineapples in CR are wonderful!). A few minutes later he went out to the reef on the outside of the bay and threw the anchor (hand made from rebar) over the side. We jumped in the water again and saw more fish. Pancho is a great swimmer and was able to catch a couple of fish with his bare hands and bring them to the surface for us to see – one was a puffer fish that had inflated himself to maximum size. When Pancho let him go, he skimmed over the water until he was able to deflate himself enough to dive.
Day 17 – February 18 – Friday – Another adventure – this time in the air. We were scheduled to return to the US the next day, so we booked a flight from Samara to San Jose where we would spend one night, then go to the airport early on Saturday. We asked the hotel to call a cab for us to take us to the Samara-Carillo airport. It was only a 10-minute drive – the airport consisted of a little bus stop type shelter (no seats, no check in counter, no security screening).
The roof was of palm fronds, but many of them were missing – blown off in a windstorm.
We were early, so we walked across the road to the beach where there were some picnic tables.
A few minutes before the flight, the ground staff – a woman pushing a small wire cart onto which she had loaded a couple of safety cones and a fire extinguisher, came out of her house, walked over to the ‘terminal’ and collected our tickets. The plane landed, the pilots got out, loaded our baggage and we were off.
The taxi down the runway was really bumpy, and the pilot couldn’t keep the aircraft going straight – the runway, after all, was dirt and rock – a little better than the road to Monteverde, but not much! The flight was beautiful – we were at 9,500 feet and could see the beaches and when we turned inland, the farms and hills.
Day 18 – February 19 – Saturday – We got up very early to get to the airport for our flight. After going through check in, paying our departure tax, going through security and loading on the plane, it turned out that one of the engines on the aircraft wasn’t getting any fuel, so we de-planed and were taken to a hotel to rest. As a result, we had a 20-hour layover in San Jose and didn’t get home until Sunday. However, no complaints – we’re home safely and tanned!