As soon as we walked off the plane into the airport in San Jose I felt comfortable because the floor tiles were shiny and polished, the air conditioning worked and the walls were not peeling paint but were displaying scenes of the country we were about to visit. Everybody smiled, from the customs officer to the taxi driver who delivered us to our hotel for less than we expected to pay without any haggling or confusion. “Welcome to Costa Rica,” everybody said, because it was obvious that we were newbies with our pale northern tans, our tagged luggage and lack of common currency. No matter, US dollars were pretty well equal modes of payment like the local Colones and accepted everywhere. We were not used to think in terms of tens of thousands for a meal and it took a mental adjustment to figure in the local currency, which basically was 500 Colones to every US dollar, mas or menos.
We left Vancouver in pouring rain, huddled into our rain jackets, running shoes, socks and sweaters which we now had to stash because we landed in July weather with temperatures in the high twenties. The first night we spent at a hotel owned and operated by – you guessed it – a Canadian expat. News from home traded for news about the country we were about to visit and we instantly felt at ease and dropped all of the trepidations and negative expectations that we tend to succumb to when we fly into a so called ‘3rd world country’. Costa Rica is not one of those. It’s very clean and people are proud of their natural riches and their ecology. That is after all what they promote and also what they believe is the proper way to run things. The bathrooms are always clean, no plastic drift or roadside garbage like in Mexico; even some restaurants offer paper straws for their cocktails instead of plastic. Recycle bins are displayed everywhere even in remote mountain villages like Monteverde, usually in groups of five: tin, plastic, glass, paper and organics. Impressive, I thought.
Our first faux-pas came at the car rental agency. We thought we had gotten such a sweet deal, just $ 220.- for two weeks! My excuse is that we were tired from a long odyssey because of delayed and missed flights and a 12 hour unscheduled layover in Mexico City, but the guy behind the counter was so polite and friendly, so swift and persuasive. We walked out with a gold plated $ 500 insurance policy that meant we could drive off a cliff, kill anybody in the way and total the car and still not pay a cent. “You are insured 100%” he told us, swiping my credit card faster then a Vegas card shark.
We drove along an excellent road past clean and tidy small towns up towards La Fortuna at the foot of the Arena Volcano which rose before us like a giant pyramid the closer we got. Thanks to GPS guide ‘Waze’ we found our hotel nestled in the jungle and close to the spectacular Fortuna waterfall. We drove into town for dinner and had to park alongside precarious deep gutters that bordered all roads on both sides, evidence of the tropical daily rains; ferocious downpours that pass as fast as they arrive. Fortuna is a small town featuring a central square full of tropical flora, a dozen or so souvenir shops, all offering the same goods: wood carvings, clay toucans, parrots and frogs in all sizes, fridge magnets. Sevral restaurants from the local Sodas to high end eateries are easily found, all are covered for the rains but open on all sides, sort of indoor-outdoor, offering a wide range of international fare as well as the always present Gallo-Pinto, the local rice and bean concoction that is present at every meal from breakfast to dinner.
We signed up for a canopy tour that included seven zip-lines and a visit to the lone village of the indigenous Malekos, which today consist of about 650 souls, all that remain of a once thriving populace. This was our chance to zip across the lush jungle canopy in the place where zip-lines were invented. Seven different cables, the longest 1km long, criss-crossed waterfalls, deep gorges and draped through the top of trees and across the jungle. We were instructed and put at ease by the young professional guides, strapped into a harness and supplied with a leather glove to use as a brake. We survived and after the last zip, I had it down to a fine art and instead of clenching my teeth and buttocks, I actually looked around the verdant and fecund green forest zipping by below. The indigenous Maleko’s demonstration was all about a song and dance in a palm-thatched shelter, selling their primitive balsawood carvings for exorbitant prices.
At the foot of the Arenal Volcano, which most of the time wears a crown of clouds, there are a lot of hot springs and thermal baths. We booked into one with several cascading pools and a dinner buffet. Very luxurious and relaxing.
The next day we drove to Monteverde, a mountain town up in the cloud forest. At first the road followed along the shores of Lake Arenal, through pastoral green rolling hills that reminded us of Switzerland until we actually stopped at an authentic Swiss Chalet hotel, (Hotel Los Héros) and dairy farm, replete with grazing cows, a restaurant adorned with ceremonial large Swiss bells, red and white chequered table cloths and curtains and coffered wooden ceilings. A little piece of transplanted Switzerland, down to the details. The owners even brought over a small train with a little train station and 3km of track including a timetable for departures.
A few kilometers on we passed a German bakery that offered real butter pretzels and Christmas Stollen as well as artisan bread. “I could live here,” I exulted, savouring my pretzel. Suddenly the pavement gave way to hard packed gravel and we started to climb up towards the cloud forest. The gravel road deteriorated into a goat path, meandering across pastures and through dense forest. At times I felt like we were driving up a creek bed. Only the reassuring voice of our GPS told us we were on the right track. We bounced and scraped up the mountain in low gear for about 20km – I still had all my fillings – until we arrived in Monteverde on the continental divide, famous for it’s coffee, orchids and more extreme zip-lines, water rafting and trekking. We were happy to have arrived at our pre-booked hotel which turned out to be rustic with lots of wooden accents but modern with all the amenities, run by a super friendly host, Ernesto, who was full of information and suggestions. Monteverde is a small town with a steep, paved triangular core lined with craft and souvenir shops, adventure tour agencies and several restaurants. We took the Orchid tour with Christel who surprised us with her encyclopaedic knowledge on the over 400 local orchids. I now know how to identify a real orchid and the ones we get at home at Safeway or the flower shop are artificial hybrids, not found anywhere in nature. We had dinner at ‘Morpho’s, named for and decorated with the famous local blue butterfly. They offered a perfectly modern artisan cuisine served up by young local servers in a cool atmosphere with free Wi-fi and meditation music.
We also signed up for a night walk and were the only two with our condescending and somewhat patronising guide. “Look where you walk, listen for sounds, keep your eyes and ears open and don’t stray from the path.” What were we a couple of unruly kids? He lightened up somewhat when he was able to show us a tiny green frog in his flashlight beam, a couple of sloths high up in the tree and a green viper coiled beside the road. We also saw part of tarantula and a couple of lizards. Two hours later we figured it had been worth it and I devised a new guide metering tool, all on a scale of ten. Knowledge – Communication – Social skills. Our guide came in at 8/7/4.
The next day we took a self-guided walk in the bio-reserve, which was basically a walk on marked trails without a whole lot of wild life. The highlights were the fact that I could now identify orchids, some very tiny, and dozens of hummingbirds – we counted 8 different species – which were swarming the feeders outside the – what else – ‘The Hummingbird Café’.
In the afternoon we joined a coffee, chocolate and sugar cane tour with a young and very funny guide. Julio was full of beans himself and I liked him right away. The plantation consisted of about 6 acres of coffee bushes, which were shaded by banana palms and all the picking and processing was done locally. I found out that the light roasts contain more caffeine than the dark espresso roasts which contain more aroma and flavour. Julio also took us through the chocolate process from the fruits, the seed fermentation to roasting and then shaved us some delicious chocolate mixed with sugar and spices. Last but not least myself and another tourist cranked the sugar cane press and we all got a drink of that. I rated Julio with my new scale and he came in at: 9/9/10.
We met a couple of young Dutch women at our hotel and all four of us went out for dinner at ‘Las Rocas’, a brand new restaurant with a spectacular, panoramic view all the way down to the Gulf of Nicoya, some 150km away. A glorious sunset set the perfect stage for a gourmet dinner cooked by the former #3 goalie for Costa Rica and a chum of Keylor Namas, Real Madrid’s keeper. I for one was very impressed.
The first 25km out of Moneverde was a gravel road; steep and peppered with treacherous pot holes,; a slow drive in our Nissan sedan. Once we hit pavement, it was clear sailing all the way along the tropical coast to Tamarindo also know as ‘Tamagringo’, a busy beach known as a surf, yoga and party destination, evident by the several surf board rental shops and the strong breaking waves along Tamarindo bay and plenty of bars and restaurants. Several large and ugly hotels and condo developments obscure parts of the beach but the town is still a long shot from similar spoiled destinations in Mexico. The streets are all unpaved but otherwise litter-free and 4-wheel drives, old VW vans and ATV’s make street crossing a game of chicken. We tried boogie boarding and loved the easy rush of catching a breaking wave and coasting all the way to the beach.
We were too late in the year to observe the nesting of the huge leatherback turtles north of Tamarindo, a yearly ritual and spectacle that only nature can produce. At our small hotel we met a couple of Canadians and decided to follow them along the coastal road south to Nosara. On the map the road was an obscure thin line, not at all the fat red delineation of a major route and we were in for some more adventure driving including fording two rivers. I watched our new friends in their 4×4 ploughing through the muddy 2 foot deep and 20 foot wide creek and gunned our sedan and smashed into the water and barely made it out the other side with water seeping in under the doors. Yeah, that was fun, once we were through it. On the next river I crossed at an angle, trying to pick the most shallow part and again we just made it, drenched with muddy water all the way up the roof. Twice I missed a sink sized pothole and hit the bottom of the car but kept on driving. Clutch ok, breaks ok, steering ok and no smell of gas. Our GPS led us faithfully to our hotel in Nosara but it did not mention the treacherous ditch off the road and the vertical, slippery driveway. I spun out at the top and was just able to crest and slide into a small flat spot by the hotel, next to an old Land Rover. There was no way we could stay here for four days. We’d be trapped with our inadequate and battered sedan. The manager was very nice and understood after seeing our mud streaked car and let us out of the reservation. We did a six point turn around and slid and crept back down onto the main dirt road which seemed luxurious after the extreme driveway. Just across the street a sign advertising ‘Lagarta Lodge’ beckoned and we followed the road into a most luxurious hotel complex, perched on a steep high bank with infinity pools overlooking a panoramic vista over the jungle canopy, a muddy river delta and the endless breaking surf along the coast with the wide expanse of the pacific all the way to the horizon. Damn the price, we were here to stay, in the lap of luxury. Swiss owned and managed as it turned out.
The 26 room lodge seemed to be overrun by the Swiss. At dinner I counted eighteen of them, all easily identified by their unmistakable chatter. I walked by a table of Swiss and greeted them in their own idiom telling them that I heard that the owner was also a Swiss but it wasn’t me. “But it’s me”, the slender tall fellow said quietly, smiling at me. “Oh, please to meet you,” I blurted out, not knowing if I had just been had or if the fortyish looking lad in a washed out T-shirt, shorts and sandals was really the owner of this multimillion dollar establishment. As it turned out, him and his very pleasant wife really were the sole owners of the hotel and he later talked to me about the challenges of building something to Swiss and European standards in the tropics. All the machinery, fixtures and finishes had to be imported, only the teak furniture, the concrete and the labour was local and how difficult it was to train the locals to the level of Swiss workmanship. “They reach a certain plateau of know-how but then it’s a quantum leap to excellence, but as you can see we got it done”.
Every morning we listened to the ferocious howl of the howler monkeys and watched the hummingbirds from our balcony. Playa Pelada was just a short fifteen minutes walk down to the beach where a gentle surf washed up to the two pristine, sandy bays that were virtually deserted; just a few sun-seekers looking for shade under the palm trees or wandering along the sandy expanse. Suddenly I heard my name being called and when I turned around it was the two Dutch girls we met in Monteverde. What were the odds along the hundreds of beaches in Costa Rica?
Around 5:30PM we were presented with daily spectacular sunsets, a different palette of pinks, oranges and yellows lit up the firmament and coloured the distant cloud banks over the mighty Pacific and then it got dark very quickly.
We left, a bit sad, driving south along the coast on another pot holed gravel road past the beach town of Samara were the pavement started and five hours later we drove back into the multi-laned gridlock of San Jose, our adventure in the northwest third of Costa Rica just about over. We stayed again at Adventure Inn decorated with murals of the lush, tropical landscape of this singular country and conveniently close to the airport. I tried to clean our battered and bruised car with a threadbare rag before I returned it to the rental agency. I apologized for the mud streaked exterior to the agent. “No problemo”, he reminded me to my chagrin, “you have the big insurance.”
The Ticos or locals we met in this warm and verdant country were the friendliest people with sunny outlooks and always ready for a laugh or a smile. We never felt pushed or cheated, either in restaurants or shops and we were always treated with respect. They are proud of their country and happy for us to visit them and partake in their riches of sun, nature and hospitality. They say that Costa Rica is the Garden of Eden or the Switzerland of the Americas. Costa Rica is all of that and more, a country on the cross road between sustainability and modernisation, promoting eco-tourism instead of mass tourism. We’ll be back. Pura vida.