08 January 2011

Costa Rica Trip

We escaped to the tropics over Christmas again this year! This time we decided to venture into Latin America. Costa Rica, it turns out, is Latin America "lite"! Yes, it's in Central America, and yes, they speak Spanish, and yes, it's a third world country. But that might be the extent of its Latin Americanness.
We had a very enjoyable two weeks as we sampled the country's main attractions.

What I liked the most was that we spent most of our time out in the wilderness, hiking through forests, and taking in the natural beauty and wildlife of the country. We saw three toed and two toed sloths just about everyday. We also saw toucans quite frequently. Costa Rica is famous for its birds and though neither Daryl nor I are birdwatchers, we really enjoyed seeing many colorful, beautiful birds everywhere. I loved seeing the many different types of hummingbirds. We were also extremely fortunate to see the Monteverde quetzal, found only in the Monteverde cloud forests.

When we planned the trip we wanted to be sure to sample the major offerings of the country. The three musts we were told were: active volcanoes, cloud forests, and rain forests. Of course, we had to check out the capital, San Jose, too, and we definitely wanted to enjoy a few days at some nice beach. So we acquired a guide book - THE ROUGH GUIDE TO COSTA RICA - and came up with the following itinerary: a night in San Jose, two nights in La Fortuna from where we could get to Volcan Arenal, three nights in Santa Elena, the base for the famous cloud forest of Monteverde, five nights in Manuel Antonio which promised both a rain forest and great beaches, and a final couple nights in San Jose for a visit to another famous volcano, Volcan Poas. To get around we decided rather than rent a car, we would take the Gray Lines, a private shuttle company, which picked you up from your hotel and dropped you off at your next hotel.

This plan worked really well and the trip was overall, rather successful. One thing I would do differently is skip Manuel Antonio and go further south to the Osa peninsula where the Corcovado Reserve is.

We flew first class to Costa Rica due to some weird circumstances. The airline we had originally been booked on - Mexicana - went bankrupt in the summer. When we looked into airfares after that we found that for only a little extra money we could get better flights, flying first class!!!

We arrived in the evening and spent the first night in the town of Alajuela which is close to the airport. The warm temperature was immediately noticeable. Our hotel, Mi Tierra, was a bit more modest than I hoped for, but it was spotless and had a pretty garden with tropical vegetation, and an inviting pool. After checking in we went into the little town in search of food, seeking out the suggestions in our guidebook. Well, we soon found out that street names didn't exist and even with a map, places were hard to find. We did eventually find a Mexican place called Jalapenos. Tasteful decor and friendly waiters made us feel like our vacation had really begun. We had tostadas and enchiladas which came with lots of vegetables, roasted, flavorful, and satisfying. The local beer - Imperial - went nicely with this. Daryl said it was the best Mexican food he had ever eaten.

The next morning, after a breakfast of tropical fruit, scrambled eggs, and toast, we explored Alajuela. In the daylight it looked a lot more cheerful, despite the shabby buildings and narrow streets. Daryl suggested we go to the zoo for an introduction to Costa Rican wildlife. We took a city bus - old and clunky - and it turned out to be quite uncomplicated to get to the zoo. We had a lovely time gawking at parrots and monkeys and various cats. The highlight was seeing iguanas of various colors and features, parading around the entire zoo. Daryl had never seen an iguana before so it was a thrill for him.

For lunch we had heavenly papayas, bananas, and pineapple purchased from street vendors back in town. We spent the afternoon exploring the capital San Jose. Our hotel, the Fleur de Lys, was gorgeous. It was very central and such an elegant, classy place. San Jose was crowded and walking through the pedestrianized Avenue Central and Avenue 4 felt like being part of a herd. Because it was a week before Christmas, there was quite a festive atmosphere in the city. At various squares there was live music. San Jose is a very understated capital city. It's best feature is the presence of quite a few landscaped parks in the city center. It doesn't have grand buildings and great museums like most capitals. The only remarkable building - the Teatro National - happened to be closed for the holiday season. I believe the interior looks like a Parisian opera house.

I had been hoping we'd find a classy restaurant with fine food for the evening, but we had no such luck. The only eating places we could see in the downtown area were fast food American chains. We stumbled upon a vegetarian place called Vishnu, where we dined on veggie burgers.
The next morning we had a typical Costa Rican breakfast at our hotel. Fresh, tropical fruit, eggs, fried plantains, queso fresco (cheese), and gallepinto (rice and beans). By 8:00 in the morning we were on the road to La Fortuna, the base for the volcano called Arenal. The ride was quite pleasant and it was interesting to see the mostly uninhabited Costa Rican countryside. It's so green and the land rises and falls constantly.

We arrived at La Fortuna at around midday. Our hotel, Monte Real, was delightful, with sliding doors leading to a terrace from where we had a view of the volcano. You quickly learn that the volcano is almost always covered in cloud and more than half the tourists that come here, leave without seeing the volcano. We learned that there are lava flows periodically and at night when this happens Volcan Arenal is quite spectacular. The volcano was dormant while we were there, but on a late afternoon tour to a viewpoint we were able to see the entire volcano quite clearly. So we were happy.
La Fortuna is also famous for its thermal springs. On our second day we arranged with a tour company to visit the La Fortuna Waterfalls, followed by a hike through a forest which had a trail that consisted of eighteen hanging bridges, and then ending the day at Baldi Hot Springs resort.
The tour company (Red Lava), unfortunately, didn't deliver has promised! We were told we would have our own private guide with a four wheel drive that entire day. That's what we paid for and that's what we signed up for! They took us to the waterfalls and then left, telling us they'd return two hours later. We hiked down a scenic, steep trail to the waterfalls, which were quite lovely. Then we discovered that there were pools nearby and people were splashing about in them. We hadn't carried our swimsuits, so to our great disappointment couldn't jump into the tantalizing water.
Another driver turned up at the time promised and took us to the Hanging Bridges. He was actually quite knowledgeable and the hike with him was pretty informative. He then dropped us off at a hot springs resort - but not the one we had signed up for (Baldi). We were persuaded to go to this smaller place, Laureles, (saving Red Lava money, of course) which was actually not bad at all. We had excellent views of the volcano from the various pools. If I hadn't felt cheated I would have been fine with the place. Anyway, the driver dropped us off, arranging a pick-up time with us.
We had a great time soaking in the hot water and then intermittently cooling off in a swimming pool. After a fun, fun time, and me constantly reminding myself to get over the fact that we should have been at Baldi, we dried up, got into our regular clothes and went to wait for our driver. Half an hour later we were still waiting! You can imagine our state of mind. It was pitch dark and we were hungry too. We walked over to the gates and explained our problem to the guards in pathetic Spanish. The guards were super helpful, called up the tour company, and about fifteen minutes later we were rescued! Phew!

As if we weren't depressed enough about the tour company's flakiness, the dinner options back in town were pretty dismal. By now we realized that Costa Rica's culinary scene is rather underdeveloped. Rice, bland beans, and fried plantains are staples for every meal and this is always an option. But we wanted something different. We settled for an Italian restaurant that carried a few vegetarian pasta options. Daryl's pasta primevera was worse than he was expecting and my pizza had a thick, doughy crust and too much tasteless cheese!

The next morning we took a jeep, then a boat, and then a jeep again to Monteverde across Lake Arenal. Our base was Santa Elena, a bustling little town. We stayed at Hotel Don Taco where we had a cabin with huge windows providing views of the Gulf of Nicoya. This part of the trip was the most memorable. First, there were the cloud forests. Hiking through the Monteverde and Santa Elena Reserves was utterly magical. You are enshrouded in mist, and completely surrounded by nature. Because of a steady drizzle we had to wear rain ponchos. You hear a constant splattering sound. The trees appear to be weeping. There is such an amazing amount of green. The tree trunks have thick carpets of moss over them and the branches above are covered with enormous epiphytes. Strangler vines dangle like ropes all over the place. You hear bird sounds and of course, we saw a fair variety of birds. Best of all, we actually saw a quetzal!
Another memorable aspect of this place - Monteverde (Santa Elena) was that it was cold! At night the wind howled so fiercely it kept us awake. It was hard to believe we were in the tropics as we zipped up our coats and dug our hands deep into our pockets! The continental divide goes through the Monteverde forest, causing the howling winds!
A final, but important note: Santa Elena had a few really good restaurants. Our favorite was The Treehouse. This restaurant has three walls, with one side open to the outside.  The floor is a raised platform built around a large tree. The effect is gorgeous. The menu was great too  with many cutting edge veggie options. We had an amazing fondue on our first evening there. The cheese sauce was full of flavor and they gave us a whole lot of fresh veggies for dipping.
Monteverde is also a famous coffee producing region. We saw coffee plants for the first time here and went on a tour to a local coffee farm to learn how coffee is grown! Costa Rica coffee is delicious and smooth, a bit like Kona coffee, only stronger.
I learned a few depressing facts about coffee. The growers make about $1.00 per pound of coffee. They ship their dried coffee beans to coffee companies around the world where they are freshly roasted and sold to retailers. Think about what you pay for a pound of fair trade, shade grown, organic coffee. The grower, who is responsible for paying the pickers a living wage, only get a $1.00. Who gets most of the money that you pay for your coffee?

On Christmas morning we left chilly Monteverde for Manuel Antonio. Boy, were we ready for warmth and beaches! We decided to make our dinner and enjoy a lazy afternoon/evening by the pool. I have to say, our Christmas day turned out to be blissful. Our apartment was elegant and luxurious. The pool and pool area were just perfect for relaxing. There was forest all around the building and when we sat out in our apartment terrace we felt like we were in a rainforest. Birds and monkeys (mainly capuchins) were frequent visitors, evidently loving the dense tropical vegetation. We swam in the pool, drank beer, read our books, and cooked a simple, but tasty meal, featuring plantains, rice,  and lentils. Daryl made a dessert with bananas, roasted, sliced almonds, dark, melted chocolate, and ice-cream. OMG! It was heavenly.

We spent five glorious days in Manuel Antonio. We were a mile from the nearest beach and a half hour walk to the park. I have to say this park is completely overrated. The forest, after Monteverde, is pretty ordinary. But the beaches within the park are lovely. The Manuel Antonio Beach is especially nice because it is calmer and better for swimming. The water temperature is unbelievably warm. The beaches outside the park are quite unremarkable. Even though the place didn't meet with my expectations we still had a great time.

We spent our last two nights in Alajuela. On our last day we went on an organized tour to see another active volcano and the La Paz waterfalls. Volcan Poas has a lake at its crater. Again we were lucky to be able to see the crater. What an amazing sight with vapors curling up into sky and the sulphur deposits around the rim.
The La Paz Waterfalls were the most thunderous falls I have ever seen. There's a series of four waterfalls, each more powerful, than the previous. What a finale!!
And that was it!!