Costa Rica

The Basics: I really enjoyed my time in Costa Rica. My parents and I arrived on January 10th and spent one month traveling around the entire country by car.

Photo and Video Gallery - Updated February 10, 2009

February 14, 2009 | San Jose, Costa Rica

Reflecting our trip through Costa Rica, my parents and I have made some observations that might help others thinking of traveling to this country.

Some areas of the country typically have sunny, warm weather in January and
February – especially the northern Pacific coast called Guanacaste.  The Caribbean coast is very rainy and it’s not like those sun showers in south Florida that only last for a few minutes. When we were in Puerto Viejo the inclement weather was non-stop. It’s definitely not always that bad because many of the houses were flooded and roads washed out. But while there were torrential downpours in the Caribbean, the Guanacaste never saw as much as a drop of rain.  

We missed the culture in Costa Rica.  We did not learn anything about the people or their customs. We heard very little music in Costa Rica.  The Caribbean coast had the most culture due to the Jamaicans that settled in that area in the early 20th century.

The food is better in Costa Rica than the guidebooks and online information indicated.  My family loves to “dine” so we naturally gravitate toward restaurants.  We often had the “tipico” dish of rice, beans, salad, plantain and perhaps a piece of fish.  We enjoyed the “tipico” but also tried some of the other items such as whole fish, grilled vegetables and other dishes. There is not much variety if you just stick to Costa Rican dishes, but meals served at international restaurants are very good and less expensive than in the US. 

The plant and animal life in Costa Rica is beautiful and intriguing.  We were constantly amazed by the monkeys and other wildlife.  The reality is that some folks may come to Costa Rica and not see all of the things that we did.  We traveled in the country for a month but spoke to those who had traveled for only a week or so.  Some of them did not see monkeys and other animals that we observed.  It depends on where you travel as well. If you go on a rainforest or cloudforest tour with a guide you will almost be guaranteed of seeing interesting wildlife- sloths, tarantulas, toucans, howler and white-faced monkeys.

Some of the roads in Costa Rica are not good.  Some are paved and good for driving.  There are a lot of trucks traveling these roads and passing on a curvy, narrow road is sometimes frightening but necessary if you are going to get anywhere.

We traveled around Costa Rica in a Toyota Yaris rental car that we picked up from at the San Jose airport.  This cost around $1,000 for the month and was cheaper than using buses or domestic flights since three of us were traveling together. The buses only become a better deal if you are traveling solo. We easily got around in our sedan even though many gringos have 4x4 jeeps that rent for nearly twice as much.  The roads are well marked in areas but some of the signs are confusing so it is a good idea to have someone in your group who can ask for directions in Spanish. The locals are always happy to speak slowly and show you the right way. 

Spanish is not essential but desirable.  My mom and dad don’t speak Spanish but I do and they had to turn to me a number of times to clarify a situation, ask for directions, etc.  If you don’t speak Spanish take a class before you go and at least learn “buenas” and “gracias.”

The cost for a night’s accommodation ranged from around $60 to $140. This is the middle range for a three-person room with a nice breakfast and the possibility of air conditioning and TV. Most of the rooms have tile floors, rustic wood furniture and bedding.  We enjoyed staying in places with swimming pools. 

Most places will not have TV.  Take along reading material and an iPod. We wish that we had brought our iPod speakers so that we could have played music more often.  Most rooms don’t have adequate lighting for reading so take a headlamp if you want to read at night. 

We took a laptop.  Before booking a B and B or hotel check to see if they have wireless internet access.  We found that to be essential especially since we were traveling for a month.  We used Skype to call home and found it to be effective.  If you plan on making any phone calls from your computer or an internet café bring your own headset.

Take or buy a small clothesline and clothespins.  You will want to launder some small items and they will need to hang to dry.  We had our clothes laundered several times and found that each town or B and B had laundry services that could do wash and dry a load for $5-$10.

Avoid San Jose - nothing much to see here but a big Central American city. Try to time your flights so that you don’t have to spend a night in the city or near the airport.  Also, consider flying out of Costa Rica’s other international airport in Liberia.

February 7, 2009 | Samara, Costa Rica

Sometimes you are a little unlucky and then lucky.  Well, I guess you could say that happened to us on this trip.  On the Caribbean coast in a town called Puerto Viejo we experienced some horribly rainy weather.  Now some people might not mind that but my parents and I are definitely people seeking sunny weather.  We were staying in a very nice B and B with a great private deck and a wonderful view of the ocean.  Unfortunately, much of the time it rained.  We experienced more rain than we have ever had on a trip before. The swimming pool and the area around it became a muddy swamp and almost an extension of the ocean. 

On day four at the B and B, we awoke to more rain.  Even though we had reserved our spot for five more days we convinced my dad to go and ask to cancel the rest of our reservation even though there was a no cancellation policy.  We were delighted that the B and B owner agreed to let us leave.  We packed in about five minutes, loaded the car between torrential downpours and got out of there.

Our trip from the B and B offered us some real insights as to the amount of rain the area had been receiving.  On the road to San Jose we saw numerous houses that were severely flooded and we empathized with the area residents as they tried to reroute water away from their already meager and humble dwellings.

As we approached the city of Limon, we encountered severe flooding on the road.  Although the water came to the top of our tires we made it across the high waters. 

We had decided to return to Samara, a town on the Pacific Ocean where we stayed in the beginning of our trip in Costa Rica.  The weather there was dry and the internet confirmed that we would again find dry weather.

Our trip back to Samara was a long and tedious one.  It took us approximately nine hours to drive the route and along the way we encountered a lot of rain, numerous trucks and slow traffic. Near San Jose there was dense fog that made it almost impossible to see along the mountain roads.  Thankfully, on the other side of San Jose the sun began to shine, the rain subsided and we knew that we had made the right decision to travel across the country in search of the sun.

We were lucky enough to be able to return to Entre dos Aguas, the B and B where we stayed on our first trip to Samara.  This morning the owner of the B and B showed us the front page of the national newspaper that featured a photo of the road in Limon where we had encountered the flooding.  Hours after we passed along the road the flooding increased and cars and buses were swept off of the road. 

So we were unlucky and then lucky.  We are glad that we left Puerto Viejo when we did and we are lucky to have again found the sun. We will remain in Samara until Monday and then return to San Jose for our flight back to the states. For now, we are preparing to go to dinner and proudly display our sunburns from today.

February 3, 2009 | Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

From January 30 to February 1 we were right outside of Fortuna, a fairly nice sized town, at the base of a volcano.  There was a heavy cloud coverage much of the time and the view of the volcano was often obscured but we were able to see it occasionally and one evening we were delighted to see the brilliant lava flow. Sitting on rocks beside a mountain stream we shared the view and the “oohs and aahs” of people speaking many different languages.

One afternoon we visited the hot springs.  Pools of varying degrees of water provided a relaxing and enjoyable respite and unlike some other hot springs, this water had no foul odor.  The well-designed walkways and landscaping along with the well-equipped bar made for a fun afternoon.   

From the volcano we had a five-hour drive to the Carribbean cost where we spent our first night at a delightful B and B.  The owners, one Asian and one Canadian, had designed an area with fascinating gardens busy with birds and butterflies.  The rooms were cozy with arched windows and even screens-the first we have encountered in Costa Rica.  A gorgeous small pool and several meditation areas seemed like a place we could stay for a while.  Unfortunately, we already had reservations at another location farther south and had to move on. 

Today is day 24 of our trip and it is raining.  Now we know why everything is so green and lush! We are spending some time writing, reading and just relaxing.  We are glad that our B and B has a very large private deck with comfortable wood chairs so that we can still be outdoors and not get soaked.  We have a wonderful view the ocean and the huge waves.  All around us are banana, mango and papaya trees.  Butterflies, birds and frogs are plentiful in this area.  Snakes are probably here, too, but we haven’t encountered any of those yet.

The town closest to our B and B offers a diversion from the beach.  Along with hotels, B and B’s, shops and restaurants there are hippie types both young and not so young.  The dirt streets, casual atmosphere and reggae music add to the Jamaican-like atmosphere.  Unlike the other parts of Costa Rica that we have visited this area is partially inhabited by blacks.  The blacks are descendants of Jamaicans, thus the reggae music and the dred locks and woven caps worn by many of the men.  The town of Puerto Vallejo lies on the Caribbean Sea so it is easy to think of Jamaica while visiting here.

Workers outside of our B and B are building a swimming pool.  This apparently has been a long and arduous process.  Workers in Costa Rica are very laid back and work slowly often pondering the work for many hours before taking action.  The pool’s progress or lack of, has given us a topic for conversation and observation.  Workers in Costa Rica are not paid well when compared to US wages.  They do receive insurance coverage, paid holidays and meals while on the job.  

January 30, 2009 | Fortuna, Costa Rica

On Tuesday and Wednesday, we explored much of the Santa Elena and Monteverde areas. The mountains in this area are referred to as the “cloud forest”. While in Santa Elena we experienced high winds that continuously blew mist from the cloudy peak to the clear sky overhead the town. This phenomenon set up some nice rainbows. The small town of Santa Elena seemed similar to towns that might be found in Alaska.  Many of the buildings are made of rough cut logs with metal roofs.

While in the Monteverde area we took several tours.  The coffee plantation, the butterfly farm and the cheese factory were all informative and interesting.  They were learning experiences and gave us a chance to not only learn about coffee, butterflies and cheese manufacturing but also to talk with some of the locals and to learn more about the CR culture.

On Tuesday night we took a hike in the rain forest.  The darkness and the wind made the hike even more intriguing.  While on the hike we saw a huge anthill, tarantulas, a gray fox, sloths, raccoon-like mammals, porcupines, and birds and some other animals native to this area of Costa Rica.  

On Wednesday morning, we hiked into the mountains.  The trail was steep at times and always muddy.  The vegetation we saw and the challenge of the climb made it a fun adventure. The climate is so moist that moss and orchids grow on all the trees.
As we drove from Santa Elena to Fortuna we were excited to have some paved roads.  Most of the roads in Costa Rica are passable during the dry season but are composed of fairly large rocks.  The boulder like surface of the road makes for a bumpy ride and the huge holes every now and then make for a slow ride.  A person might expect to travel for one hour to go 25 miles when traveling in most areas of Costa Rica.  We were delighted at the sights of ranches with cows and horses and the mountains and valleys.  Most drives are slow but picturesque.

Near Fortuna is Lago Arenal, a huge manmade lake.
On the drive to our B and B in LaFortuna we stopped at a magnificent restaurant overlooking the lake.  The restaurant (open-air, as our all of the restaurants in Costa Rica) offered a delightful lunch of all organic fruits and vegetables and a macadamia bread made at the restaurant.  Along with the passion fruit tea we enjoyed the food and the view.

The temperature here is very pleasant with some intermittent rain showers.  Our
surroundings are green and lush. Our B and B is actually an operational farm with horses, cows and chickens roaming around the grounds.  The B and B owner is a tico who apparently does quite well.  She speaks “un poco” English and apparently is a good manager since the operation here appears to be quite smooth.  Our room features high wooden ceilings with a Jacuzzi tube and large windows.  Outside of our small cottage are banana and coconut trees heavy with fruit. Arenal volocano can be seen from the patio when it’s not too cloudy.

We do not have internet at our B and B and went to town after arriving in Fortuna to use the internet access and to call home.  While checking out Facebook, I was extremely saddened to see that one of my friends from Lynn University had passed away. I shared many experiences with Brittany Givens-Copeland.  For one semester, she and another friend and I shared a room in Ireland as we attended the American University in Dublin.  I’ll always remember the fun trips we had together to Paris, London, Belgium, and Netherlands. 

January 25, 2009 | Samara, Costa Rica

Today is Sunday.  It is a very quiet day at our B and B.  People who have been here for a while are reading, sitting by the pool or sitting in the hammocks.  Of course, some have gone to the beach.  

This is our last day at this B and B and in Samara.  We have decided to leave a few days early to visit Montverde in the mountains.  We had not planned on going to the “forest in the clouds” but we heard from other tourists that it is a fascinating place.  We are headed for a rustic lodge there and truthfully won’t mind a few cool days.  Going to the beach every day, sitting in the sun and swimming in the ocean has tired us out.  (Just threw that in so that our friends in Illinois can be a bit envious!)

We have found some other delights here in Samara-one being the “Café Rica”.  This is a delightful liquor made from, what else, coffee.  In a small glass with a few ice cubes it is a great way to end a meal.  We hope to bring some bottles home depending on what we find at the airport shops.  With the restrictions on fluid ounces that will clear the baggage inspectors we realize that we must purchase the “Café Rica” at the custom shops and carry it on the plane.  My parents recall the “good old days” when they brought back a dozen bottles of creamed rum from Jamaica in their suitcase.  

We continue to love watching the monkeys and hearing their howls even if it sometimes begin at four in the morning.  I have developed a great imitation of their sounds, which seems to frighten my parents a bit! 

My dad continues to work on his surfing.  He is often out in the ocean with twenty-somethings but still he continues to battle the waves and his body. I tried surfing today and did pretty well considering that it’s been a few years since I’ve lived near the ocean.

One day before heading to the beach we tried to do a little shopping in town.  There really isn’t much here but my mother was able to find a couple of bracelets and a pair of earrings to purchase. She does continue to eye the variety of wooden bowls here but hasn’t found a way to stuff one into her suitcase yet.

We have enjoyed the refreshment known as “pipa fria” while in Samara.  The locals take a machete and whack off the end of a coconut, stick a straw in it and serve it that way.  The coconut continues a clear liquid referred to as “coconut water”.  The water is low in calories (from 55 to 100 calories per coconut) and is supposed to hold some great nutritional value.  The literature indicates that pure coconut water is so sterile that it’s used for blood transfusions when no real blood is available.  We hope to be benefiting from it since it is supposedly more nutritious than milk and orange juice. 

January 21, 2009 | Samara, Costa Rica

We have been in Costa Rica for eleven days.  We are currently in Samara at a B and B.  The evenings are rather peaceful since our room doesn’t have TV but we are able to watch movies on our computer and connect to the Internet.

We were a bit concerned about where we would watch the inauguration but the owners of the B and B let us watch the events from their office TV.  We were amazed that the Canadians and the people from Holland that watched the events with us were almost as interested and excited about the occurrences as we were. They asked us a variety of questions and were much more knowledgeable than we might have been if their countries were swearing in a new leader.  It helped us to further understand what an important influence the US is throughout the world. 

The monkeys of Costa Rica have definitely provided us with a show.  About three years ago, the previous owners of the B and B found a baby monkey that had lost its mother.  They kept the monkey and nurtured it to adulthood.  At some point they released the monkey into the wild but it continues to return to the B and B property and we have been fortunate enough to observe the monkey and its new baby on many occasions. This monkey has a 2 ½ month old baby that either rides the back of the mother monkey or hangs onto her stomach.  Obviously, the monkey is rather domesticated in that she brings her baby onto the property to feed off of the new leaves on some of the trees.  Along with the mother and baby, we have observed five to eight other monkeys on a daily basis.  The howler monkeys, as they are called, make a sound that is somewhat a mix between dogs barking and a donkey braying.  The sound is quite unique and captivating.  We have spent quite some time watching the monkeys in the trees and seeing them swing from tree to tree while howling and eating all of the new vegetation in sight.  They are so human like.  We observed the white-faced monkeys in Manual Antonio but they were not as fascinating or humanlike as are the howler monkeys.

My dad took his first surfing lesson this week.  He actually did a great job and was able to “ride the waves” several times.  It did take most of the day for him to recover though since surfing takes a lot of upper body strength and while learning to surf one finds that the time in the water and fighting the waves can be quite tiresome.  Some videos (bloopers) of him can be found by clicking the “Photos and Videos” link above this journal.

We have continued our dance lessons and “learned” the salsa at the last class.  It is interesting trying to follow the “professor’s” instructions since they tend to be in Spanish that is beyond our comprehension.  We are taking classes at the Intercultural School here in Samara.  There are students from all over the world that have come here for one month to a year to learn Spanish.  It seems that some of the others are more inclined to learn the language than are those of us from the US.

Tonight we attended a cooking class at the Intercultural School.  We learned to make empanadas that are fried pies with chicken and potatoes inside.  We were intrigued in that the dough of the empanada is made from corn flour but has a number of vegetables blended into the dough.  Again, there were folks from many countries attending the cooking class.  We were asked to speak only Spanish, which definitely narrowed our scope of conversation.

The temperature here is probably around 85 to 90 degrees.  Some days the sun seems so hot on the beach it is hard to believe that the temperature back home is below 30.  (Just to rub it in.)  I decided to test my sun tolerance this afternoon and now I believe I might have a sunburn.  I am hoping to be as dark as a “tico” before I go home but didn’t know that I would have to suffer to get there!

January 17, 2009 | Samara, Costa Rica

On January 14th we traveled six hours to a small beach town called Samara. Contrary to the guidebooks, the roads in Costa Rica have been smooth, very well marked and more than passable.  Only a few detours had us worried but we survived even those after stopping and asking for directions.

We are staying at a small B and B named Entre Dos Aquas.  The owners are a
young couple from the U.S. and the B and B has seven rooms with additional housing for the owners.  The rooms are rustic but very clean and comfortable.  The walls are made of whitewashed stone and the beds are made from large timbers that were most likely harvested in this area.  The most unique feature of our housing is the shower.  It is a bit like showering in a cave with rocks and shells imbedded in the walls and floor.  My father has discussed doing something similar in our house when he returns since a bathroom renovation is already in the planning stages.  My mother seems less likely to go along with the plan!

The Costa Ricans make good use of the natural resources and are striving to be eco-friendly.  We see the phrase “Pura Vida” throughout the country and efforts to get to the “pure life” being made in places where we have traveled.  My mother has found that taking time to put on make-up and to fix her hair is fruitless and that the “pure life” is almost required when it comes to grooming.  This may not be her favorite part of traveling in Costa Rica.

On Thursday night we began our dance lessons at the International Language School.  At first we thought that we might be the only three participants but other tourists and students from the language school joined us prior to the beginning of the lesson.  Pancho, our dance instructor, was a skilled dancer and gave us a lot of individual attention.  The meringue is a dance we hope to master with the appropriate swaying of the hips and the various twists and turns.  So far, we are not there yet.

We were a bit worried that our trip was so peaceful and restful that we might not have anything to remember.  Well, on Friday we had some excitement.
My mother was by the pool enjoying a good book, my father was lying in the hammock and I was in the room when we heard a ruckus in the woods next to us with shouting and gunshots.  We all scurried to the front of the B and B as did the other guests and the owner.  More shots rang out and I could see a man frantically running up a dirt road followed by two men with guns in pursuit.  Since our room provided the best view of the activities below, the maids, the owner and other guests ran into our room to see what was happening.  

After things quieted down we were told a number of different versions of what had happened.  For obvious reasons the B and B owners were not very happy with the occurrence.  The story told most consistently was that the “federales” were chasing a young man and couldn’t keep up with him so they shot at him.  The young man, a “Tico” as the natives are referred to, apparently was returning to his home in the mountains while being sought by the federal police.  We will probably never really know the whole story but it did give us something to write about.  We considered elaborating on the story-we were nearly shot, we helped to chase the bandit-or adding some more earth shattering events to the story but perhaps it was exciting enough.

I believe that there is very little crime in Costa Rica-at least crimes related to one’s person.  The Costa Rican government constantly warns touristas to leave nothing in their cars and to take all personal belongings with them instead of leaving them in the car.  Apparently, crimes of theft have been frequent in the past and in an effort to increase and improve the tourist trade everyone works for visitors to be safe and secure.  We feel very safe and all the “Ticos” are very friendly toward us. 

A few words about food in Samara. Eating in local restaurants is one of the most
important aspects of our trips.  We have found the food to be quite good- even though the guidebooks indicate that you shouldn’t expect much.  The food is moderately priced and the fresh fish, beef and chicken dishes are typically quite delightful.  Rice is served with most meals and we have enjoyed “tipico” dishes, which are what the locals eat. The “tipico” meal consists of rice, beans, salad and plantain along with a choice of meat.  There are many cows being raised in the country and Costa Rica is known for their beef production.  We are not big beefeaters so we have tasted only a few dishes made from beef.  Again, those were quite delicious.

We have been disappointed in the lack of music being played throughout the country.  We have found that as in Puerto Rico the restaurants and other establishments don’t play music.  We find that a little strange but it seems to be consistent at least in the places we have visited so far.  We haven’t had much opportunity to practice our dance steps at this point.  Note to self:  bring ipod speakers next time!

January 13, 2009 | Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

After enjoying the breakfast at the B and B, we decided to go to the beach. Our first trip to the beach was on Sunday and it was very crowded with not only foreign tourists but native ones as well.  Many Costa Rican families seemed to be enjoying the beach while swimming and picnicking.  The area near the beach is busy and congested with vendors and restaurants.  Today the beach was not nearly as busy and we enjoyed some time under the umbrellas and in the water.  

After spending some time at the beach we headed to a spice farm known as Vanilla Villa.  Here we learned how vanilla beans are grown and produced.  The farm is a small organic farm that also produces allspice, cocoa, pepper and other spices.  We were surprised to learn that there is a lot that we don’t know about these spices including that it takes approximately seven months to prepare a vanilla bean after it is removed from the plant.  No wonder they are so expensive.

Our tour guide explained the growing process for the spices along with the procedures for each after picking.   At the conclusion of the tour we were treated to some delicacies prepared using the spices.  It was a nice activity for the afternoon.

After the tour, we headed to another restaurant on the beach road to watch the sunset.  Looking out over the ocean and seeing the small islands and sailboats in the distance provided us the chance to view another great sunset.

After dinner in the town of Quespos, we again cooled off in the pool and jacquizzi, answered email, uploading photos and then called it a night.

Tomorrow we will drive six-hours north to our next hotel in Samara.

January 12, 2009 | Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

We visited the small town of Quepos adjacent to Manuel Antonio.  It is a busy little town with a lot of traffic and small narrow streets.  In town we shopped for local crafts and took the opportunity to ship some of the Costa Rican coffee back home.  

We ate lunch at one of the more popular “sodas” in town, Soda Sanchez.  Plates of fresh fish, rice, beans, vegetables made lunch a somewhat Mexican fare at very inexpensive prices.  

The weather here is wonderful but the high temperatures make basking in the sun more difficult and risky.  

In the evening, we enjoyed the view and dinner at Aqua Azul.  The view was spectacular and the dinner the best of the trip –serving fresh pan-seared tuna and the gourmet presentation made it worth the price.  We had an opportunity to meet the owner, a woman from the U.S. 

We have noted that a number of the restaurants and B and B’s in the area are owned by people from the U.S. 

January 11, 2009 | Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

We arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica in the early afternoon.  The flight from Ft. Lauderdale to Costa Rica was an easy two-hour flight.  We rented a car at the airport and thus began our 31-day trip to see all of Costa Rica. 

The drive to our first destination was about 3 1/2 hours away.  The highway
between San Jose and Manuel Antonio is smooth but narrow.  The mountain road winds around and around making the relatively short journey a fairly long one.  As we made our way through the mountains we passed through a few small towns.  

Along the route there were many “sodas”-small stores selling beer, soda and water and some selling snacks and even lunch.  We stopped at a “soda” with good food and a great view of the mountains and valleys all lush and green.  

We finally arrived at the B and B, Didi’s, where we are staying for four days.  Bird of paradise, palms, hibiscus and other plants offer a backdrop for our stay in a rustic but comfortable location.  Squeaky beds and floors give us all an opportunity for jokes and laughter.

Today we took a nature hike through the rainforest.  The plants and animals were numerous and unique.  We saw toucans, white-faced monkeys, sloths and many other creatures.  After debating on whether or not to take a guided tour we were glad that we finally did.  The guide certainly knew where the animals might be found and shared information that we would not have known otherwise.

At La Hacienda, an open-air restaurant set within the jungle plants, we enjoyed a good dinner, great Costa Rican coffee and an opportunity to talk with the owners, a formerly retired couple from Florida.

Each morning we enjoy sitting on the front porch of the B and B and eating the nutritious fruits and breads that are served.  In the evenings, we find it refreshing to cool off in the pool and jacquzzi.

On the porch we also get a chance to catch up on email and to use Skype to make phone calls back home.