Costa Rica: Two weeks in rustic Nirvana

Costa Rica

If you’re thinking of going to Mexico, you may want to save your pesos, Amigo. I’ve been there (Acapulco and Puerto Valharta, Cabo San Lucas, Cancun and Mazatlan) and I can honestly say that — as an ugly, uni-lingual American who gets all twitchy when people start talking funny — Costa Rica is a better place to go (unless, of course, you’re looking for cockfights or cocaine).

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Our view from The Hotel Don Carlos.

It took 3 days to realize that Costa Ricans are not just pretending to be nice to get your money (like they are in Mexico, Jamaica and New York City). No, Costa Ricans are genuinely nice people. And not just the ones who work in tourism. We accosted people all over Guanacaste (the Pacific Western area) who eagerly told us where we could go. Even if their English wasn’t perfect, we got the gist through hand gestures.

Luckily, the inability to speak English turned out to be the exception rather than the rule. There are a number of retired Americans living down, too. So speaking Spanish isn’t a pre-requisite to getting around. And reading it isn’t either, because there aren’t any signs to read (more about that later).

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Looking down to the Atrium Cafe.

We hopped the red-eye shuttle to LA, changed planes and flew the bulk of the trip to Guatemala City sitting next to the cast of West Side Story. Ten hours later, we finally arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica. (“Current local temperature, 85 degrees”). It was long flight, but they showed the movie “Center Stage,” and you’d be surprised how time flies when you have your face buried in a barf bag.

Our first clue that this would be a good vacation occurred after we got through customs. Upon arrival, unlike Mexican or Jamaican airports, we weren’t immediately set upon by obnoxious locals trying to screw us with expensive cab rides. Instead, they simply offered to take our bags and were easily rebuffed with a simple, “No, thanks.” We never had to pull out and brandish our .38 caliber sidearm once. We took a city cab to the Don Carlos Hotel where they received a predetermined sum of money (US$10) as a voucher (which we paid in advance). If only getting home from SFO was that cheap.

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The stairs in the lobby.

Our hotel was a quirky, converted house on the upper east side of Centro (downtown). It had about 40 rooms and ran US$80 a night with free continental breakfast in the atrium cafe. The staff was exceptionally helpful and cheery (indicative of the Costa Rican people in general we later learned). They converted money at the current rate of 313:1 right at the front desk, which was a boon as the Bancos are agonizingly, DMV-style slow. The rooms were acceptable if not luxurious by US standards, about on par with a Holiday Inn, only with character. Their idea of cable TV included E!, The Cartoon Network and CNN, plus Spanish-dubbed versions of USA Network, TBS and some local station. This, despite the fact that everyone in Costa Rica has DirectTV dishes. Obviously, we didn’t watch much TV.

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Amy climbs the first platform.

We planned to spend two nights in San Jose before going on to Playa Samara (Samara Beach), so we made arrangements to go on the Original Canopy Tours. Located two hours outside San Jose, one of five tours is operated out of Iguana Park, a place full of, not surprisingly, iguanas. (While iguanas are capable of many fascinating activities, like swimming underwater for impressively long periods of time, they are also capable of sitting on rocks without ever moving.) But, the park also had some colorful macaws, too. After securing our belongings in a locker room, we headed out.

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Amy, hanging on for dear life.

Essentially, you hike up a mountain path in blazing heat through a rain-forest, climb up a tree to a wooden platform around the base of the tree and get hooked up in a nylon harness. They then connect your harness to a long, 200-foot rope that extends out across the forest to the top of a tree farther down the mountain. Once secure, you step off the platform and slide down the rope to the next tree platform located about 100-feet above the ground. In all, you slide to four different trees as you go down the mountain praying the government inspects these contraptions every once in awhile.

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Me, about to fling myself into the abyss (Spoiler: I live).

It was a lot of fun. For me, anyway. Amy found the experience nothing short of harrowing. (The photos really can’t do the 100-foot height justice. It would be like falling from the top of an eight-story building. You don’t get up after that kind of drop.) Yet, despite a serious (and understandable, in this case) fear of heights, Amy climbed to the platform, got hooked up and swung the 200-feet over the forest to the second platform with a minimum of begging for the release that death would bring. Once past the initial slide, her terror subsided by .000001%. But by the last run, she stopped screaming herself hoarse and almost enjoyed it.

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The other couple was never heard from again.

Getting down from the final platform required a simple 100-foot repel down the last tree to the forest floor. Amy, still in shock, accomplished it with aplomb. I can’t say that I would’ve overcome a fear of my own that bravely. Quite simply, the girl has cojones.

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Peter Crosby, action hero.

Later, after inhaling several Imperials (cervezas), we took a cab to a restaurant we’d heard about up in the mountain that overlooked San Jose. Since it was pitch black, all you could see was the lights. But it was spectacular nonetheless. The restaurant served a buffet of tico (what the Costa Ricans call themselves for some reason) food complete with guaro, the local liquor similar to tequila. After we ate, local dancers came out and did traditional dances that didn’t suck. (Or at least, didn’t suck when after a few Guaros.) One of the dancers even dragged me out on the floor with her to dance (what is it about me that makes them do that?) I’d had a few by then so Amy got a picture of me making an ass of myself. Sadly, that’s nothing new.

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At the top of old smoky.

The next day, we were driven up to Volcan Irazu, an extinct volcano an hour northeast San Jose, and got outfitted with bikes and helmets for a 30-mile downhill mountain biking trek. At 11,000 ft, visibility was bad because, well, you were inside a cloud. A very wet, cold cloud. Fortunately, we’d brought along wind-breakers. At the top of Irazu, we viewed the neon-green(?) lake that occupies its extinct crater, and wondered if Geiger-counters would be going off the scale where we stood. Then we hopped on our bikes figuring “How hard can it be to bike downhill?”

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Riding bicycles down a volcano.

The answer turned out to be EXTREMELY hard. After a two-minute ride along smooth paved asphalt, we hit the rockiest freaking roads this side of a Mr. Slate’s quarry. Not just rocks, we’re talking boulders. And lots of ‘em. The first two hours of our trip was focused on not painfully racking our respective genitalia. We had to go extremely slow, which no doubt annoyed our guide who was a professional downhill cyclist (before an accident destroyed his knee, reducing him to a tourist guide). Later, the roads improved somewhat to just normal-sized gravel and all we had to worry about was going so fast we’d fly off the road and wipe-out down the breathtakingly lush, green side of a volcano. We didn’t feel like finding out how well our medical coverage worked outside the U.S.

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Us on bicycles, riding to our doom.

Finally, we hit paved road. It was smoother, but even faster. In fact, just letting go of the brakes — even for a moment — resulted in a turbo-blast of acceleration that would have you doing 90 kph into a sharp hairpin turn within seconds. Again, we thought biking downhill should have been easy, but being hunched over for four hours puts a lot of body weight on your wrists. So, not only were we tired, but our wrists were killing us as well.

That’s when it started to rain.

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Cuban cigars and Costa Rican beer, Mmmm.

The road got very slick, and I almost died careening towards the edge of a banked curve near a cliff. Luckily, my auto-racing experience paid off as I didn’t lock up the brakes and could steer away from the edge. Our guide, who witnessed my near brush with eternity, assured me that no one had ever died on this tour, but many people had broken limbs. That was a relief.

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Packing up.

That night we limped around downtown for awhile and went to dinner at a nice Italian place named Barclon de Europa. Then we stopped in a bar called Key Largo for a cerveza as the place was supposed to be popular with American ex-Pats. It was eight o’clock when we arrived (fairly late, considering the sun goes down abruptly at 6pm sharp in Costa Rica) but it was pretty dead. We read somewhere that many women who hang in these types of bars were part-time(?) prostitutes (it’s legal for ladies 18 and over). So it’s not surprising that the “Sugar-Daddy” concept is wildly popular in a country with an exchange rate of $300 to $1.

The following morning, we hailed a cab to the airport to catch our puddle-jumper flight to Playa Samara where our resort was located. As we inquired about getting on the flight, they informed us that since this was the rainy season, the Samara airport was flooded and no flights were going there. Apparently, they had notified us by e-mail yesterday…back in San Francisco. Oh, thanks.

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Our car was white.

Still, they helpfully suggested that we could rent a car and drive. It was only a 4-6 hour drive over Third World roads in a country where road signs — when they had them — were clearly marked…in Spanish. Our cabbie, Paul, sensing our apprehension, offered to drive us there and pick us up a week later. While we graciously thanked him for his insane offer, we decided to take the huge gamble and drive the trip ourselves. Paul grabbed our luggage and drove us back to the city to a Payless Rent-a-car and waited while we rented a Daihatsu Terious, a cute little 4x4 much like a Suzuki Samurai (except that it has none of the US-mandated safety features that make the Samurai such a safe car). Then he led us to a bank so we could get more colones. Finally, he let us follow him to the Highway. We thanked him and paid him handsomely for his two hours(!) time and were on our way.

In mere moments, we were lost.

Asking for directions with a map in Costa Rica is a lost cause. There just aren’t that many roads, and Costa Ricans don’t know the names of their own roads anyway. Your best bet is to just ask “Donde esta ______?” and add the name of the town. Then drive in whatever direction they point.

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This is artistic photography, people.

After much swearing, cursing and irrational blame-placing, we found our way back onto Highway Primero. We spent the next two hours or so, dodging in-ground-swimming-pool-sized potholes and inhaling full-strength leaded gasoline exhaust (this is one of the few times I’m glad for the EPA). We drove along the biggest highway in the country “until we got to the Shell station, then turn left.” (On the map it was Route 18, but it was known as “the corner with the big Shell station” to Costa Ricans.) These people are crazy.

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On the ferry to Playa Samara.

Around 5:00pm, we made it to the ferry. Yeah, a ferry. A big, flat boat that you drive up onto with twenty other cars and trucks to cross a river. We were about fifth in line waiting for the next ferry, but the sun was going down. Driving the unmarked roads of Costa Rica at night didn’t appeal to me because we were getting off the “main” (i.e., paved) roads as we approached the coast.

As luck would have it, the fourth car waiting in line was being driven by a retired couple from San Bruno, California. They were headed to Samara as well, though to a different hotel. We had a nice talk and then followed them from the ferry to Samara, at which point we parted ways.

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Why we kept missing signs.

The road wasn’t as bad as I expected until we got to the beach town where it ended. We had to drive the last 4 Kilometers (2.4 miles) over the bumpiest excuse for a dirt road we’d seen since Irazu. And we thought it was tough going on a bike! Despite the short distance, it took us a full twenty minutes to drive to Villas Playa Samara. There were so many potholes — called moon-craters for obvious reasons — that you couldn’t even drive around them. You had to drive into and over them. While doing so, we marveled at a culture’s ability to not give a rat’s patootie over the condition of their roads. It was unfathomable, until we realized that the road was traversed predominantly by people and/or livestock. And they couldn’t afford cars, let alone drive them using hooves. Several times we drove the stretch of dirt only to see a horse or Brahma bull in our headlights, completely oblivious and unmoved.

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Breakfast at Playa Samara.

The next morning was overcast and rainy, so we walked around the grounds. The place wasn’t as nice as where we stayed in Puerto Valharta. Our room was a bit rundown. The couch was threadbare and worn. The refrigerator was prehistoric. The bed exhibited signs of having supported a few big-boned guests over the years, too. The window unit air conditioning was quiet by bomb shelter standards. There was no TV, phone or shampoo, in all, pretty disappointing. There was, on the other hand, a very comfortable 2-person hammock that was ideal for reading. Fortunately, we didn’t really come to Costa Rica to stay inside the room.

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Damn howler monkeys disturbing our meals.

We came for the sunshine and Mother Nature had hung out the “Back in 2 weeks!” sign. Late September is considered the “Green Season,” a euphemism for “Pack a raincoat.” It rains cats and dogs each afternoon, then it supposedly clears up. Unfortunately, we arrived around the same time as Hurricane Keith. While we were never in danger of being hit, Keith kept the weather overcast and Rochester-like the first few days.

There were moments in the morning when the sun was out, and we tried to get to the pool. But, our desperate need to get a tan overshadowed the fact that we were perilously close to the Equator. After only 20 minutes, I had a nice, even, bright red glow head-to-toe. Mercifully, the clouds arrived, otherwise, my translucent Caucasian skin would’ve gone up like flash paper.

Lousy tanning weather killed the whole concept of laying in the sun 24/7 imbibing umbrella drinks and sleeping.

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Huge birds await today’s catch.

Restless and bored, we abandoned our plans to remain on-site for the duration. Instead we ventured up to Guantil, a native artisan community in search of pottery and the like. Surprisingly, we actually found the place without much trouble. Emboldened by our directional success, we headed West to the coastal town of Tamarindo, the biggest beach town in Guanacaste (which isn’t saying much). Tamarindo wasn’t much bigger or nicer than Samara. Instead of two shack-like businesses, there were maybe six. So we went home determined not to waste our vacation in such a “rustic” setting.

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Arenal Volcano.

On Wednesday, we checked out early and drove North to Parque Nacional Volcan Arenal, an active 1633 meter (5356ft) volcano in the center of Costa Rica.

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The Tabacon Spa and the Volcano.

We got lost outside Tilaran, and stopped in a pizza place — inexplicably, Costa Rica has thousands of them! — that was owned by an American from Orlando who pointed us in the right direction. One lap around Lake Arenal and we arrived at the Tabacon Resort/Spa (US$120 a night, and worth it). The place was one of the few structures we came across built to US standards. Walls were concrete, not corrugated aluminum and there were windows instead of big holes to look out of. Our room looked out over the disturbingly small valley dividing our hotel from a volcano that only three months ago belched red-hot, molten magma and toxic gases down its side consuming two unlucky tourists and their guide. Not surprisingly, we took every opportunity to see what the volcano was doing at any given moment. (We observed the red glow of lava and three smoking hiccups during our stay.)

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Night time at the volcano observatory.

We settled into our room and, deciding that we hadn’t risked our life sufficiently yet, booked a guide to take us for a hike into another rain-forest and to a volcano observation point. Along the way, we saw more howler monkeys and toucans, not to mention small, fern-like plants that close up when you touch their fronds, exposing a pointy defense mechanism against predator’s. The guide pointed out other less interesting life-forms as we huffed our way up to the observation deck. Once, there, they mercifully provided a cooler of beers. We couldn’t see the volcano too well as cloud cover had moved in, so we piled into their van and drove back.

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104 degrees of pure heaven.

That night, we hopped the lodge-supplied shuttle and went over to soak our tired limbs in the spa’s volcanically heated 104F springs.

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Climbing down to the waterfall.

The spring runs through the volcano and somehow comes out at the spa, where they’ve done a nice landscaping job it. They did a credible job of keeping the design luxurious and this side of Disney-esque without being too uncomfortably shabby or au natural.

The hottest springs travel over a wide 4-foot high waterfall into a pool where you can sit. The water continues down into or past other man-made pools of varying temperatures (so you can cool off or work up to the hottest one). The largest man-made pool is a heated mineral bath with a swim-up bar. Despite a pedestrian restaurant, I give the place five stars.

The next day, we pushed our luck and signed up to go on a hike. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a “climb.”

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Me, on a rock.

The itinerary involved biking to a park, hiking down to a waterfall, hiking up a dormant volcano to the crater lake, then back down to our bikes where we’d ride back to our lodge. A full day affair to be sure. Our guides, a young couple who constantly reminded us of our age and poor athletic condition, suggested that we bail on the ride up to the park as a previous group felt it was too hard and we readily agreed. So we started at the park and hiked down a perilous rock and tree-root trail to a spectacular 100-foot waterfall and swam in the pool at the bottom.

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One of the indigenous bugs.

After hiking back up, our legs were already getting a bit wobbly. Not a good start. That’s when we were informed that it was a 2.5 hour CLIMB…to the top of the volcano! There wasn’t even a real trail. We followed a path cut through dense forest by previous heavy rains. Every step was like taking stairs two at a time. It was exhausting. The lack of oxygen at that elevation had my heart was pounding audibly.

I literally had to stop every few minutes to catch my breath as we pushed up the side of the volcano for what seemed like an eternity. There was no end to it. As we got higher, we entered yet another cloud. (We spent a lot of time in clouds, which explains our feeble tans.)

However, the cool fog was a welcome relief since we were sweating like pigs. Pigs someone was trying to kill in a sauna. Our clothes were soaked, as were we, so we no longer had any pretense of keeping up our appearance. We just prayed to reach the top. And finally, after three hours, we did.

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If I wasn’t so beat, I’d have killed the photographer.

The top was a circular clearing in the forest maybe twenty feet in circumference. The cloud completely obscured any view of the surrounding landscape. We couldn’t see anything beyond twelve feet ahead of us. Even the crater lake was imperceptible. We happily sat down and ate a tuna fish sandwich while we rested up for the trip back down. Only after we began our descent did we find that going down was harder on our knees than coming up. To compound our woes, the rain-forest had begun to live up to its name. Now every step was a new opportunity to slip and slide down in the now-forming mud. Amy fell first, and I followed in kind shortly after.

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Yeah, that baby is active all right!

Eventually, we made it down alive, albeit covered in mud. We had already decided to bail on the bike trip back, so all that remained was the quarter-mile walk to the Observatory Lodge where the van was waiting. On the way, it began to pour. Hard. Sweaty and soaked already, we weren’t upset about getting any wetter, but we walked as fast as our abused limbs would carry us anyway. The adjective that best described our condition at that moment was “miserable.”

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Tabacon steaminess.

At the Lodge, we got our coats out of the van — we didn’t think we’d need them because it was so hot — and warmed up while explaining that we’d like to pass on mountain biking back to the Tabacon Lodge.

Obviously disappointed, but careful not to offer us any refund, they drove us back where we spent the evening up to our necks in soothing hot, spring water vowing to always use the elevator from now on.

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Tabacon Lodge. (Nice to know volcanoes are good for something…)

We reluctantly checked out the next day and drove through La Fortuna, plus several more mountains and clouds, on our way back to San Jose, ultimately rechecking into the Don Carlos for the night.

For my birthday dinner, we drove out to La Pueblo — a commercial area filled with assorted nightclubs and restaurants as well as cigar shops and bad art galleries — for some seafood and Guaro con Fresca. In the morning, we dropped off the rental car and boarded a plane back to reality.

Eleven and a half hours later, we were in our apartment cleaning up after the cats who had run amok during our absence. In all, it was a great trip, one I’d heartily recommend over Mexico or Hawaii.

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