Posted by Deborah

CR Trip Log

Costa Rrrrica!

Waterfalls, volcanoes, hot springs and problem rental cars: Our amazing, almost perfect budget vacation to this beautiful Central American country.

From June 1-10, 2007, Seth, Kirk and I flew to Costa Rica for what turned out to be one of my most adventurous, fun and memorable vacations.

What follows is a log of our experiences with some extra info about our activities and expenses just in case you’d like ideas for a trip of your own. If you want even more details, like phone numbers or addresses, just ask.

Also, visit my flickr site to see about 300 pictures from our trip (that’s edited down from more than 1,200!).

Pura vida!

How it all started:

I had a lot of vacation to burn before taking a six-month leave this July to study in Mexico. I knew I wanted to visit another country but keep my costs low. I was prepared to go by myself if I had to, but managed to convince Kirk, my good friend and dance partner extraordinaire, to come with me. Seth, my hardworking stud, joined in at the last minute when his boss offered him some free comp time for working oodles of nights and weekends in the month before a major product launch.

After hours of scouring vacation packages and travel Web sites, we settled on a do-it-ourselves Costa Rica trip, based loosely on a $940 Gate-1 Travel trip. That price included airfare, car rental and hotels for a seven day exploration of three main cities. We thought we could hit those cities and more on dates of our choosing for the same price by doing it on our own. And we did. The only downsides: We spent a lot of time planning (though I would argue that was part of the fun) and we didn’t have the tour company connections for nice hotels at bargain prices.

Day 1 – ALAJUELA (Friday, June 1)

The four-hour direct flight from Charlotte Douglas International Airport to Juan Santamaria Int’l Airport, San Jose, Costa Rica, was one of the things that swayed us to pick this vacation spot. US Air has a direct flight to and from Costa Rica/Charlotte every day. (Of course, they’re too cheap to give you snacks anymore so you may need $5 to buy one, but otherwise the flight was perfect – smooth and on time.)We breezed through customs and waited about a half hour for the car rental company shuttle.

Car rental took a while because they thought we had a less expensive car than we had booked, and they were just slow. But we finally got our little bluish-purple Diahtsu Terios, manual shift instead of automatic, but functional. Driving through Alajuela, a city right next to the capital of San Jose, was a bit of a nightmare. It didn’t help that several streets were blocked off or riddled with gigantic potholes, or that the Lonely Planet guide had the wrong address for our hotel. Seth had gone out to look for the place on foot, and Kirk and I somehow ended up getting there before him. He found it eventually and we set off to find dinner.

Our first meal in the country was a Tex Mex joint, followed by a walk past an impressive Catholic church in Alajuela’s parque central. We finished up the night with dancing and drinks at the Jazz Café in San Pedro, another suburb of San Jose about 20 minutes away. It felt strange to be in a Latin country listening to blues and jazz sung by Ticos in perfect English, but the band (the Blues Devils) was excellent. Kirk and I danced in the back even though nobody else was dancing.

On the way back, our cab driver (yes, we took a cab even though we rented a car, just to avoid driving in the city at night) gave us the “real” city tour through the downtown, the transvestite/transgender prostitute district and a couple of slummy neighborhoods. The fun wasn’t over yet. We got back to the hotel to find the front gate locked, and our keys only worked for the door, not the gate. We banged and yelled and rang the doorbell for at least 10 minutes before waking up another guest in an adjacent building, who also couldn’t open the gate. Then, finally, the hotel rep on duty (who had called the cab for us to go out earlier, so should have known we would be coming back later that night!) opened the door. He’d obviously fallen asleep and didn’t even apologize for leaving us hanging out there.

Food/Entertainment:

  • Jalapeños Central – downtown Alajuela. About $6/person for entrees, drink and tip.

The consensus on this was “yummy.” It was a lot of food, all delicious, and the owner, a very friendly guy who’d relocated to Costa Rica from Brooklyn, let us sample several juices we’d never heard of before such as mora (blackberry), guanabana and gas (citrusy flavored).

  • Jazz Café – San Pedro. $5 cover, drinks about $5/each.

Excellent drinks and great live music. Bands change every night, but you can check the web site to see descriptions.

Hotel:

  • Hotel Los Volcanes – Alajuela. $64 with tax for a triple with private bath. This included airport transportation if desired, internet use and a delicious breakfast of eggs, fruit, granola and juice the next day.

Aside from the late night gate incident, the hotel had a beautiful courtyard and by far the best breakfast of any other place we stayed at. It was also the most expensive. If I had a chance to redo this trip, I’d probably go for a hostel closer to the bars or else a hotel further from the crazy city traffic or closer to where we were going the next day.

Day 2 – POAS/FORTUNA

After our made-to-order hotel breakfast, we drove about an hour and a half to Volcan Poas National Park, the first of three volcanoes that we saw. (We would’ve been there sooner but a road we needed was blocked off). At Poas, you can get really close to the huge, steaming crater. We had a field day taking pictures and then hiked about 40 minutes to a lagoon that was supposedly void of any animal life because of its high sulfur content.

For lunch, we randomly pulled up at “Mirador del Poas” just outside the park. It turned out to be one of our best meals. We had our first casados, a traditional Costa Rican meal that generally includes a meat (chicken, fish or beef), rice, beans, some kind of salad or veggie and plantains. Mmmm. I still crave them now. In general, most of our meals cost between $3-6 U.S., including tax and tip. We had major sticker shock after returning to the US.

Our next stop was La Paz Waterfall Gardens, about an hour from Poas and well worth the $29/person entrance fee. The gardens were beautifully landscaped and included an aviary, butterfly garden, orchids, hummingbirds, frogs, snakes, Costa Rican farm house, trout pond and five waterfalls. Not to mention the bathroom sinks shaped like waterfalls – how cool! In a way, this place was a deal because a lot of cities we went to had separate butterfly gardens, frogs, etc., all for individual costs. Here, we got to see everything at once. Kirk and Seth were more impressed by the butterflies than they thought they would be, snapping close up shots of butterflies eating nectar and emerging from cocoons. As a Wisconsinite, I was proud to read that Holstein cows from my state were imported to that area to help start their farms. A highlight for all of us was the newly completed aviary, which had a mix of wild birds and rescues. One rescue, a toucan with a chip in his beak, came up to eat seeds and fruit out of our hands. A nearby African grey parrot grunted like a monkey, spoke like a human and rang like a cell phone. Oh, and the namesake waterfalls were gorgeous, too.

Next, we drove about 2.5 hours through a crazy rainstorm to La Fortuna, a growing tourist hub just a few kilometers from Volcan Arenal. Arenal is the most active volcano in the country, spewing out a steady stream of lava every day. Kirk heard that Arenal had been dormant for 400 years before lava began flowing in 1968. That was the impetus for the growing tourism industry in the area. La Fortuna, where we stayed, is about 4 miles from the volcano’s crater and 4,500 feet lower. Kirk also heard that Arenal is the 3rd most active volcano in the world, behind one in Hawaii and another in Italy.

We checked in at our hostel, “Sleep Inn Hotel,” where our host, Carlos “Mr. Lava Lava man” helped us set up activities for our next few days and then led the way to the side of the volcano where you can see the lava flow. It was pretty amazing to be that close, though we were all exhausted from the long day. I made friends with a little stray dog that decided to climb into my lap.

Food/Entertainment:

  • Mirador del Poas – just outside Poas Volcano. About $3,500 colones ($7)/person.

One of our best lunches: huge plates of fresh traditional Costa Rican food plus fruit drinks, and all very reasonable.

  • Soda El Rios – La Fortuna. About $5/person.

Not the best, but it was fast and decent. We had a little miscommunication about the “agua dulce,” a local drink that tastes like hot tea with molasses. When I asked for the drink with water instead of milk, the waitress brought me plain water. But trust me – there is, indeed, more to agua dulce than just water and milk.

Hotel:

  • Sleep Inn Guesthouse – La Fortuna. 479-8068. $5/person. Owner Carlos Lopez, carlossleepinn@hotmail.com

This place was a trip. It was by far the most basic accommodations we had – hard beds crammed into a tiny dorm-sized room, van seats as couches in the common area, and a somewhat messy shared outdoor kitchen on the porch. But, what do you expect for $5 apiece? And owner Carlos “Lava-Lava Man” made up for the lack of luxury. He was very interesting to talk to, genuinely nice and extremely helpful, and all that meant a lot. He or his kids were always out keeping watch over the hostel porch when he had guests. Carlos also hooked us up with discounts on a couple of tours. I might opt for a nicer place if I ever go back to Arenal, but I would still use Carlos for help arranging activities.

Day 3 – LA FORTUNA

The previous night, we had booked a rafting tour of the Rio Toro, ($60/person) which is about an hour and a half from La Fortuna and has class 3 and 4 rapids. It was definitely more intense than North Carolina’s Nantahala River. The company, Wave Tours, picked us up at the hotel at 8:30 a.m. On our way to the river, we stopped at a famed iguana haven. We saw dozens of HUGE iguanas sunning on trees, the road, and the ground outside the restaurant there.

Turns out it was just us rafting that day along with our guide, Juan Carlos (J.C.), kayaker/photographer Avrian, driver Palomo and guide-in-training Carlos. Traveling in Costa Rica’s off season was turning out to be quite an advantage for us. Although another rafting company had about three boats behind us, we only saw them once. It felt like we were out on the river by ourselves the whole time.

J.C. was an excellent guide. No one ever fell out; I’m sure because of his expert navigation. However, we did get a chance to voluntarily practice floating down a rapid. It was pretty scary, even though I knew that three experienced rafters were around to rescue me if something happened. Seth and Kirk made fun of my “about to get wet” face, which Avrian captured multiple times in the photo CD we later purchased ($30).

Halfway through the four-hour, 10-mile trip, the guides had us pull over for a fruit and cookie break, spreading out a whole watermelon and pineapple, mangoes, oranges, and bananas on the back of the overturned kayak-table.

By the end of the trip, we had seen toucans, monkeys and small waterfalls; and covered 40-50 rapids, including some that we “surfed” into backwards. I wish I remembered some of their nicknames. We celebrated with beer (and fruit juice for me). On the way back to town, we stopped at a restaurant/inn where we could change and eat lunch, which was included in the trip package. It was kind of hole-in-the-wall place, with a run-down pool. Trying to rinse off in the cold showers (no curtains of course) was entertaining. I accidentally knocked over one of the guys’ beer bottles, which sent a glass chip flying into my toe. Oops. The food was okay. I think I embarrassed everyone by asking if the napkins were toilet paper. I still think they were, but yes, I should have kept my mouth shut.

When we got back to the hotel, Kirk and I sketched out some plans for the next few days, and then we all went to dinner at the Lava Rocks Café, where the food unfortunately looked better than it tasted. We followed that with a trip to the Baldi Hot Springs ($18/person with our “Lava-Lava” discount, plus $5 for lockers). It looked like a glamorous spa except the hot springs were heated naturally by the volcano. There were at least a dozen different pools of varying temperatures. One was extremely hot, probably just used for steam during spa treatments. Kirk proved that he has the highest heat tolerance of the three of us by lying on a stone bed in one of the hotter pools and we had fun watching a bat circle around one of the pools. I really enjoyed the springs, but it was a little pricey – not so much the entrance fee as the outrageously overpriced drinks and all the extras that added up like locker rental fees and towel deposits. If I could go back, I would spend more time here – at least three hours – and start out during daylight so I could see the tropical gardens and go down the waterslides that were turned off at night. Kirk and I had a good conversation with Carlos before turning in for the night.

Food/Entertainment:

  • Wave Tours – Rafting trip on the Rio Toros. 8:30 a.m. to about 3 p.m., includes transportation, snack, lunch and guide.

Lunch was so-so but overall the rafting trip was everything we expected and more.

  • Baldi Hot Springs – Arenal. $18-25/per person, plus $5 for lockers and towel deposit.

Beautifully landscaped. A bit pricey but worth the experience.

  • Lava Rocks Café – La Fortuna.

Nice presentation, food could’ve been a little better. Sea bass was tough and the “filet mignon” the boys ordered turned out to be pork chops. It was misleading because there was a pork section on the menu and this was listed with the meats.

Hotel:

  • Second night at Sleep Inn. See above.

Day 4 – LA FORTUNA/BAGACES

In the morning, we picked up our rafting photos, grabbed breakfast at a bakery and walked through the main Catholic Church in La Fortuna. We sat inside until Kirk creeped me out by telling me that the crucifix was staring at me. Then, we drove to “La Catarata de Fortuna,” a huge 200 meter waterfall just a few minutes from our hostel. After a steep but thankfully short climb down to the fall, we swam in a nearby pool that was far enough from the pull of the water to be safe.

We had our first car issue today. Kirk had locked the keys in the car, perhaps because he was distracted by a crazy guy who came over to talk while he was locking up. Or at least, that’s what Kirk says. 🙂 All worked out fine, though, because we managed to break into our own car and get the keys out with the help of five Ticos and a wire coat hanger! It was very assuring to know that we could break into our own car. We bought the guys drinks to thank them for their help.

After a tasty lunch at El Jardin, we had planned to hike around the volcano in Arenal National Park but the weather wasn’t cooperating. It was raining heavily and didn’t look like it would let up anytime before the park closed at 5 p.m. So we headed out early to our next destination: Volcan Miravalles. This was prompted by a tour I read about in my Let’s Go on a Budget guidebook. It was way off the beaten path, but well worth it. More on that to come…We drove for about 2.5 hours to Bagaces, which was about 30 minutes from the tour we were going to take the next day and virtually void of tourists other than us. We just happened to arrive during a festival honoring the town’s patron saint, so we joined the community at the central park to watch a drama group and folk dancers.

Later that night, we had our first chance to salsa in Central America. It was SO HOT there, hotter than anywhere else we’d been. But we danced anyway, and had two rounds of incredibly cheap drinks (as in six drinks for a total of $8.)

Food/Activities:

  • El Jardin – La Fortuna. About $8-11/person.

Another place recommended by our hotel manager Carlos. This was probably the best food we had in La Fortuna. Mmm. I had a juicy filet mignon plate with vegetables, plus guanabana juice.

  • Random soda – Bagaces.

We had trouble finding a good dinner spot in Bagaces, I’m not sure if that was due to the festival. This place was nothing special, though the fruit bowl was tasty.

  • La Catarata de la Fortuna waterfall. $6/person. Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

There’s no lack of waterfalls in Costa Rica but this one was particularly nice because you could swim by it.

Hotel:

  • Cabinas Tamarindo – Bagaces. $12/person.

This place was cute, with pale blue walls and outdoor rocking chairs overlooking a little lawn. We also all paid the same price but landed two separate rooms. The only problem was the finicky shower water and missing toilet seat in our bathroom. Oh, and the front gate locks. (What is it with hotel gates in this country?) We couldn’t get it open even though our key was turning and turning, so Kirk eventually climbed the wall and let us in from the inside. Again, if I did this trip over again, I’d probably spring for one of the more expensive hotels closer to our tour that had its own hot springs. We wouldn’t have stumbled into a festival, but it probably would’ve been worth the convenience.

Day 5 – VOLCAN MIRAVALLES/MONTEVERDE

I couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend my 25th birthday than sitting in a hot tub just a few feet from a volcano crater in Costa Rica.

At first, I was worried that the tour of “Las Hornillas” we had booked might have been too good to be true. My guide book described it as a combination tractor and horseback ride, suspension bridge, waterfall hike, crater tour and mud pit bath – all for $30/each. But it was everything the book described.

We had to get up early to meet Luis, a representative from the company, in a town called Fortuna (yes, another Fortuna) about 25 minutes away. From there, we followed him to Volcan Miravalles, where Johnny, the company/property owner, was waiting at a wooden house overlooking the crater. He had company – four toucans, two adults and two babies of another species. They were wild birds that simply hung out there for the bananas Johnny fed them, but they might as well have been pets. One of the babies decided that my head would be a good landing pad.

Again, off-season traveling worked to our advantage. We were the only ones there. After we’d had fun feeding the toucans, we hopped onto the back of truck and Luis drove us up the side of an adjacent mountain (I guess this was the tractor part?). We were technically driving up the peak of the volcano, but Miravalles is unique in that the active part of the volcano, the crater, is actually lower than its peak. It’s also supposedly the only active crater in the country that you can walk in. On the hill, we met Herman, who helped us onto horses. I don’t think Seth or Kirk had ever ridden a horse before but they did pretty well, especially considering that Seth’s horse loved to run. It was nice because since it was just us, we weren’t plodding along in a line. We even had some open stretches where we could trot or canter.

We left the horses tied to trees while we hiked through the forest, first crossing a suspension bridge over a huge waterfall, and then continuing along a trail past three other falls. We saw a species of fig tree that usually grows on top of another tree until it kills it and Seth knocked his head on a rock when he wasn’t paying attention to the trail. Herman told us we could swim in one of the falls but it didn’t seem that safe to us, so we opted to wait for the thermal hot tub later. We rode the horses all the way back down the mountain, took a break to eat bananas (and give some to the toucans) and then toured the crater.

Instead of lava, this crater was filled with hot, bubbling mud pushed up by the heat of the volcano. Herman pointed out the fumaroles (steam vents), sinkholes and hornillas (little ovens), which were basically little round mud pits. They had different names depending on whether the holes contained more mud or more water. Some of the steam vents were so hot that you’d burn yourself if you put your hand in front of them. For me, the coolest thing was listening to the “heart” of the volcano, which was a spot where you could hear mud and water churning beneath the earth’s surface.

Further away from the center of the crater, we were able to take a mud bath. That was amusing, and smelly. After the mud dried, we joined a toad in a sauna that was heated naturally by the volcanic steam, rinsed off and soaked in two different hot tubs, also filled with natural hot water.

I didn’t want to leave, but after 4.5 hours, it was time to get lunch. We ate at the nearby Animal Ranch, which was attached to some kind of petting zoo attraction. We took a pass on that, though. We stopped at the geothermal plant to see if we could get a tour of how the Costa Ricans harness energy from the volcano’s natural resources. But apparently, you have to schedule those tours in advance and it sounded like they mostly do them for large school groups.

We stopped briefly at a grocery store in Bagaces, and then drove around for way too long trying to find this free “hidden” waterfall listed in Kirk’s guidebook. It was certainly hidden, because we never found it. So, we headed out for our three hour trek along the bumpy, windy road to Monteverde, a city in the middle of the mountain cloud forest.

I’m amazed we had no car troubles on this drive, though we did have to navigate through a herd of cows earlier on. (That happened at least three times during our trip.) We checked in at Casa Tranquilo and then headed to Moon Shiva restaurant for dinner. We’d heard there was live music there nightly but it had ended by the time we got there.

After eating, we had drinks at El Sapo Dorado (the Golden Toad), a beautiful hotel bar with great wooden floors. We did a little salsa dancing but it was kind of lame because we were pretty much the only ones on the floor. Back at the hostel, Seth and Kirk put on paper party hats and lit candles for my birthday. It was quite a sight.

Food/Entertainment:

  • Las Hornillas Tours – Volcan Miravalles. $30/person.

A great value and a beautiful tour. Owner Johnny was very friendly and so were his toucans. Definitely worth a detour.

  • Animal Ranch – Volcan Miravalles.

Kirk’s BEEF Gordon blue was surprisingly amazing. My chicken and rice and Seth’s steak were okay. Nice scenery outside and fun statues.

  • Moon Shiva Restaurant – Monteverde.

An Israeli-run spot that wasn’t as hip as guidebooks had promised (but then again, this was the off-season.) More importantly, though, the food was great, especially the filet mignon. The coconut cake was a little dry. Get there before 9:30 p.m. if you want to hear the live music.

  • El Sapo Dorado – Monteverde.

Nice ambience with stained glass windows and hardwood floors. A little pricier than other bars, seems like it caters to a tourist crowd. Had interesting drinks like a zombie and tropical toad.

Hotel:

This was by far the nicest looking hostel we’d stayed at and the best value in terms of comfort. It looked like an oversized cabin with batik prints on the walls and an open porch with a hammock upstairs. Our stay also included breakfast, which was basically fruit, granola and make-your-own eggs. The only drawbacks were the mini-scorpion in the bathroom and not-so-helpful owner. We had to really work to get him to answer questions about the area and later he started doing laundry at the same time he’d told Seth he could use the machines. One bonus though – we originally had a triple with a private bathroom for a similar price but ended up in two separate rooms that shared a bathroom with only one other room.

Day 6 – MONTEVERDE

Today, we decided to try one of the zip line tours that everyone talks about in Costa Rica. Originally, I think these were designed to see wildlife in the treetops. Now, they’re more about the thrill, or perhaps the idea of feeling like a monkey swinging through the forest. Our guides at Aventura Canopy Tour never even said a word about the nature around us. We were hoping for at least a little of that. But they were cute, and it was still a lot of fun.

The tour included 14 zip lines, two suspension bridges, a rappelling drop and a Tarzan swing. That swing was ridiculous. Essentially, it was like bungee jumping only after you free fell down, you would swing out into the forest and back, like a pendulum. The first drop was so scary. I couldn’t even scream, I just made this weird gurgling sound like I was being strangled. But I’m proud to say I was the only girl (of the two others on our tour!) who did it. Whether I would do it again, that’s another story.

After a quick lunch at a local soda, we drove to a nature theme park called Selvatura that had all kinds of exhibits and zip line tours as well. We just visited the insect exhibit, Jewels of the Rainforest. The collection was put together by entomologist Richard Whitten, who lived upstairs. It was more interesting than I thought it would be, especially for a fairly small museum, and our tour guide was very knowledgeable.

Next, we went on a two hour night hike where we used flashlights to see bugs, ants, a sloth, a sleeping bird and this critter that I can’t remember the name of. He looked sort of like a raccoon. Our guide was very nice but he wasn’t very good at reading his crowd, even when people asked directly to stop spending so much time studying the ant colonies. I think he had to focus on insects a lot because it’s not that easy to spot the bigger mammals. Seth and I could’ve probably done without this, but Kirk enjoyed it.
We ate dinner at a decent, but overpriced pizza joint, and stayed in to rest up.

Food/Entertainment:

  • Aventura Canopy Tours. $30/person with student discount from Mr. Lava Lava man.

Good variety of zip lines and other ropes course stuff. Cute guides. Could’ve told us a little more about the forest. The last zip line was impressively long – about 600 meters.

  • Selvatura’s “Jewels of the Rainforest” exhibit. $10/person

Not sure I’d rave about this as much as Lonely Planet, but it was definitely worthwhile. In addition to information about bugs, the museum had several artistic displays of shiny beetles and colorful butterflies, plus a cool introductory video.

  • Soda Maravillosa. Downtown Monteverde.

Decent food and cheap. Good for a fast bite.

  • Pizzeria Johnny’s – Monteverde.

This won’t be on my list of places to go again. The food was good, but nothing special. And the nice atmosphere enough to make up for the inflated prices. Tourist trap.

Hotel:

  • Casa Tranquilo, night two. See above.

Day 7 – MONTEVERDE/MONTEZUMA

We’d planned to spend the morning in Monteverde and then head to the beach. But before we even left the hotel, we accidentally scraped our passenger side mirror against a telephone pole. Whoops. Well, it was getting in the way of photos anyway. J Hopefully, Kirk’s credit card insurance will cover the damage. If not, the rental company didn’t charge too much.

Since the coffee tours were off-season and a little pricey, we decided to tour the local cheese factory instead. It sounds strange, but this is actually the oldest and largest single employer in the city. Quakers who left the states in order to avoid the Korean War draft founded the city around 1950 after months of scouting the country and hauling their stuff onto the undeveloped mountain. They wrote the US FDA to find out how to make cheese and decided that would become their livelihood. The factory has since expanded several times. Even so, it didn’t take long to walk through the place, and frankly, it wasn’t that exciting. But the historic slide show was really interesting, and of course, we liked the cheese samples. We bought some caramels and ice cream (mmmmm) and then stopped at several local shops/art galleries to pick up gifts. We bought pottery, embroidered handkerchiefs, artwork and coffee. The guys also got shirts with the local soccer team logos.

By early afternoon, we were on the road to Puntarenas, where we were going to catch a ferry to a surfer hotspot on the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula called Montezuma (essentially the Asheville of Costa Rica, except all the hippies here are also surfers). But first, another car adventure. Just after we got onto the main international highway (if you can call it a highway!), we were pulled over by a police officer. I was so confused because I never saw him (apparently he was standing on the side of the road with his speedometer in hand) and we had just started accelerating after making a left onto the highway. I thought there was no way we could’ve been speeding, but apparently we were going a couple of kilometers over (we looked it up on the GPS later). I’m still not sure how we got out of a speeding ticket because I was so out of it that I wasn’t as polite as I should have been. We were certainly lucky.

Our guidebooks weren’t quite right about the ferry times so we ended up waiting almost an hour to get on the 5:30 p.m. ferry. Puntarenas certainly doesn’t have much allure. We ate perhaps our least appetizing meal at a soda across the street from the dock, keeping an eye on the car and trying to avoid these guys who were supposedly helping us get in line, but in an extremely pushy, overly-aggressive way.

We sat on the top deck of the ferry and sipped drinks during the hour and a half ride. Then we had another hour of driving into Montezuma. We checked in at Hotel La Cascada, which was possibly the nicest place we stayed of all our budget hotels. The three story building had two huge porches filled with hammocks and family owners who lived in the back.

It was a drizzly evening, but we still wanted to go out. We had dinner at El Sano Banano, a well-known restaurant in the center of the small downtown. A scraggly white cat patiently waited by our table just in case we caved and tossed him something, which of course we eventually did. They gave us so much food that we couldn’t finish, we figured at least somebody could benefit from the leftovers.

We spent the rest of the night at the laidback Bar Montezuma and later the more upbeat Chico’s, where we danced even though only we were the only ones on the floor most of the time. It felt like a spring break hangout for hippies, minus the crowd. It was hard to see the ocean in the dark but the stars were crystal clear.

Food/Activities:

  • Monteverde cheese factory – Monteverde. $10 for a 1.5 hour tour.

Not an essential element of touring Monteverde, but interesting.

  • Ferry to Puntarenas. 1.5h Ferry Puntarenas to Paquera. About $12US per car and $1/person, something like that also on the way back. Leaves usually every two hours but schedules seem to change.
  • El Sano Banano – Montezuma. About $20 per person including drinks.

Pricier but it was excellent food and huge portions. Fish could’ve used a little less pepper. If you come before 7 p.m., you can eat while watching a movie in the main dining room.

Hotel:

  • Hotel La Cascada. About $30 for a triple.

Aside from the bathroom door that stuck, this hotel was great. Clean, well cared for, and nice owners. The owner also has a very cheap laundry service. Ask for a room upstairs or toward the back for a better view.

Day 8 – MONTEZUMA/QUEPOS

I’d heard there was a waterfall not far from our hotel (thus the name La Cascada) but the guys were waterfalled out. Instead, we walked around the rocky beach just across the street from our hotel, packed up and went to eat breakfast at the Bakery Café downtown. We’d read that monkeys often come by there to snatch scraps from diners, but they weren’t there that morning. However, a beautiful blue ouraca bird did eye us up while we were eating. I’m sure he wanted crumbs, too. We browsed in an interesting, multilingual bookstore just across the street as well as some shops downtown. Seth bought me a gorgeous pearl necklace/earrings/bracelet set for my birthday that a resident surfer had made.

Our next mission was to spend some time swimming and sunbathing at the beach, not just walking around one. That’s a bit tricky in Montezuma because most of the beaches, while scenic, are extremely rocky with rough waves that are ideal for surfing but not so great for swimming. We’d read that we could walk to a beach with fewer rocks but our estimated 30 minute jaunt ended up being a treacherous hour plus hike along beach rocks. We never even made it to the nicer beach. Since we were running short on time, we just turned back and made do with the rocky shore. Apparently, there was a trail behind the beach that we had missed. Oh well. We still enjoyed lying out on the beach for a little while, and at least our hike gave Kirk a zillion opportunities to watch the crabs (his newfound fascination.)

We just barely made it to the 4 p.m. ferry. We thought we were early because we’d been told the ferry left at 4:30 p.m. Again, we were lucky. But that was it for the day, though.

Back on the mainland, we started our drive to the coastal town of Quepos. We were eaten alive by mosquitoes when we stopped to take sunset pictures. Then, we nearly drove into a river. Our two lane road suddenly became a one lane bridge, with no signs of warning. We were in the lane that disappeared. Kirk veered left to get half the car onto the bridge. If he hadn’t, we would’ve gone straight into the water. A couple of Ticos pushed our car back on the road, which was in amazingly good shape considering. We had only one flat tire.

Kirk and Seth spent about an hour trying to change the tire before we flagged down help. A taxi driver had a better lug wrench, and he changed the tire in 15 minutes.

We later learned that there was construction in progress to widen the bridge, thus all the signs saying “bridge ahead” had been taken down. Very smart.

We didn’t arrive at The Wide Mouth Frog hostel until after 9 p.m. and the ornery British manager was not at all sympathetic of our situation, or the fact that we’d tried to call him to say we’d be late. We grabbed dinner at a random place that was nothing special and then wandered around looking for a nightspot. We landed at Sushi Tsunami, which is normally just a restaurant. It was more fun than I expected given the small crowd. We took over the dance floor and I later joined a crowd of students who were drumming on djembes over the blasting dance music.

Food/Entertainment:

  • Bakery Café, Montezuma.

Not as good as we thought it would be from the guidebooks, but in a great central part of town and decent food. Too bad we didn’t have visits from the monkeys.

  • El Pueblo, downtown Quepos.

Don’t bother. The waiter tried to give Seth a different beer because they were out of the one he’d ordered, thinking Seth wouldn’t notice the difference. The atmosphere was nice but the food was basic, if that.

  • Sushi Tsunami, downtown Quepos. Weekend dance parties. $2 cover for guys includes a free drink.

Considering the limited options for nightlife in Quepos, this was a great find. Otherwise, karaoke is it.

  • Ferry Peninsular to Puntarenas. 1.5 hours, about $9 per car and $1.50 per person. Three hours drive to Quepos from there.

Hotel:

  • Wide Mouth Frog Hostel, Quepos. $51 for a triple with AC, plus a deposit for towels.

It was nice to have AC for once, but the rooms were overpriced for the quality. The included breakfast was nasty oatmeal and the owner was not a nice man at all. However, they did have a nice swimming pool in the courtyard and two gigantic dogs (if you like dogs).

Day 9 – MANUEL ANTONIO

After a short drive, we made it to Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. If not for all the tourists and vendors, I’m not sure we’d have found it. There’s no official parking or sign that you can see from the road. We had to wade through a mini beach lagoon to get to the park entrance.

Although this is one of the smallest parks in the country, I’d heard it was worth seeing because the animals there are so used to people that they’ll come right up to the visitors. That turned out to be true. While hiking, we saw a baby sloth, monkeys and hermit crabs.

We thought we were hiking to Playa Escondido, or Hidden Beach, but apparently it was simply an outlook of said beach. We weren’t the only ones to get confused. Our beach karma didn’t seem to be in our favor here, either. We finally made it to Playa Gemela, which was beautiful and relatively secluded, but still not a great swimming spot. However, it had one very cool thing the main beach didn’t – wild howler monkeys. A mother with a baby on her back dropped a mango close to us, then came down to pick it up. I couldn’t believe she’d come so close to humans, especially with her baby. We eventually did get our chance to swim in the ocean at the main beach, where we stayed until 3 p.m.

We ate a late lunch at El Avion, which was housed in and around a C-123 cargo plane that had once been intended for Contra rebels to use in Nicaragua during the Oliver North Iran-Contra Affair.It was never used, though. The restaurant owners bought it from the US government for $3,000. What a great idea to make it into a restaurant. It even had another upright plane inside that served as a dumbwaiter between the ground-level kitchen and two stories up above. The top patio had a spectacular view of the ocean. Best of all, a gang of brown howlers were, well, monkeying around, right next to the restaurant when we arrived.

After that, it was time to get back to San Jose, where we had planned to spend our last night salsa dancing and sleeping at Hostel Pangea, famed for its mechanical bull, rooftop pool bar and musical owners. But that apparently wasn’t meant to be.

We made it past the bridge that had delayed us the night before, only to hit a huge crater of a pothole literally minutes later. This time, our back tire was flat. Only now, we had no spare. I’m still kicking myself for not trying to call our rental car company again earlier that day. We’d had so much trouble reaching them before and had just a few hours of driving left to get to the airport that we figured it would be okay to let things be.

We flagged down cars looking for a cell phone. But few Ticos had phones, and those who did had unreliable or broken ones. We were lucky to find Paul, who lives in Texas but was born in Costa Rica and down there for a couple of months of surfing.

He let us pile into the back of his truck with all of our stuff, drove us to a pay phone and helped us arrange for the car rental company to bring us new tires. We had no choice but to leave the car on the side of the road under a mango tree.

Then, our savior Paul let us hang out at his beach house while we waited FOUR HOURS for a Euro car rep to arrive. Paul’s place was a beautiful bungalow in Playa Hermosa (near Jaco Beach, about 40 minutes north of Quepos.) We felt guilty for interrupting his Saturday night plans, but I don’t know what we would’ve done if he hadn’t been kind enough to help us.

By the time the car company had come with the tire and we’d made it back to Jaco, it was midnight, so we took Paul up on his offer to crash there rather than drive another two hours to San Jose. Our plans for one last night of salsa dancing were ruined, but at least we were all safe and could return the car in one piece. And, as far as accommodations go, Paul’s living room was nicer than many of our hostels!

Food/Entertainment:

  • Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. $7 /person.

Well worth a trip for the friendly wildlife and nice beaches. Beware the poorly labeled trails, though hiking them wasn’t strenuous or long.

  • El Avion Restaurant. $20-30 per person.

MMMMmmm. Great food plus an amazing ambience and historical background, all they need now is a gift shop. Seriously. The drinks (margaritas and my “funky monkey” concoction) were fantastic. Mahi-mahi had a little too much pepper, but I was able to scrape most of it off.

Hotel:

  • Paul’s bungalow/Hostel Pangea. $9-10 per person.

Paul’s bungalow tuned into our impromptu hotel Saturday so I can’t rate Pangea. But I would definitely try to stay there if I ever went back to Costa Rica simply because it sounded like so much fun in my guidebooks.

Day 10 – ALAJUELA (Sunday, June 10)

We got up really early in order to reach the airport with plenty of time to handle any car hassles. We only stopped once to pick up some last minute treats and breakfast at a local grocery. The drive was windy but full of breathtaking views of the central valley. We were at the car place by 10 a.m. and spent over an hour there, making sure to get the rep to sign a damage report before we left.

I had fun doing some last minute shopping at the airport terminal, though I was disappointed that there was not one Costa Rican restaurant there. I was really looking forward to one last casado before we left.

The flight back was smooth and on time. I got searched getting on the plane and Kirk got searched when we got back to Charlotte, but otherwise, things went quickly.

Aside from our car troubles, I couldn’t have asked for a better trip or better company.


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