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Costa Rica: Let's Go!

Posted by Adventure 16 | 04.05.2016

 

Costa Rica-Let’s Go!

 

I first have to ask myself why it took me so long to go to Costa Rica? I don’t have a good answer. I’ve known friends and customers who have been going for years and have all told me how wonderful it is. It might be that they were all mostly surfers and that was what they would mostly talk about. Don’t get me wrong. I have been surfing off and on since the mid-eighties and enjoy it quite a bit, but I can’t get myself to travel that kind of distance for a single activity. Sure, they have a pretty impressive volcano too. Climbing a volcano in the tropics wasn’t selling me either.

After returning from a belated honeymoon to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico last November that ended up not being the dream trip we were hoping for, we felt we needed to redeem ourselves. It’s not that it was horrible. The weather didn’t cooperate and they were experiencing a kelp bloom that left the coastlines littered with mounds of kelp decaying in the tropical heat. Erika had told me a number of stories throughout the years of her visit to Costa Rica about 10 years ago and how she has always wanted to go back. I still wasn’t sold. I’ve been to Mexico 15 to 20 times and love it. I’ve been to Belize, Puerto Rico and the Cayman Islands on the Caribbean side and liked them all very much. What was going to sway me? A night of drinking shortly after we got back from the Yucatan did it. Erika was reeling about our trip and decided then and there to book us flights. Ok, we’re going to Costa Rica.

We decided on splitting the trip between the southern peninsula of Osa and the northern of Nicoya. Having a feeling I was going to really enjoy it, we chose to leave the interior and Caribbean side for next time. After weeks of searching the internet and reading books (ok, maybe the week before we were to leave) on where to go and where to stay we were finally ready.

The trip didn’t exactly start off as planned. We had a 1am flight out of LAX that would put us in San Jose at around 7am. That was great. Much like flying to Europe, one sleeps on the plane and arrives in the morning on a new day. We had also planned a connecting domestic flight on a small 15 seat Turbo prop plane to the Osa peninsula. Well, after our customary beer at the airport bar we gleefully approached our gate shortly after boarding was to have started. There wasn’t a line. In fact no one was even standing. It was at that time the announcement came over the P.A system that they were still waiting for the pilot. That’s not good we thought. Then a short while later another announcement saying that there actually is no pilot and a replacement has been called. Anyway, 4 hours later we were finally in the air. Due to the late/early hour we were not able to contact the airline of our connecting flight and were starting to get a little worried. Luckily, Erika’s mother was able to reach them first thing in the morning while we were still in the air to reschedule us on a later flight. Phew, thank you Helena. The rest of the way went without a hitch. We got to SJO and had a few hours to wait at the airport café until our connecting was ready to depart. A couple of Imperial Lagers later and we were heading to Drake Bay on the Osa peninsula. Before the flight on a small plane, much like on large planes, they weigh your check-in baggage. Then they weigh you while holding your carry-on. I always wonder how close they get to maximum load weight. If you’ve never flown on a single prop commuter plane before you really should. They typically don’t fly much above 10,000 ft so you get the most amazing views of the land/sea below. However, it is a little unnerving because you’re staring at the back of the pilot and co-pilot. It’s amazing how little they actually touch the controls and how many buttons and knobs they have and are constantly manipulating. 

The airport in Drake consists of a short gravel runway cut into the jungle with a small two room open-sided shed that acts as ticket counter, baggage claim and souvenir shop. Our host had arranged a local taxi driver to pick us up. Because of Drake’s remoteness there are very few cars around. Most locals zoom around on dirt bikes and these ruggedized moped type bikes. The roads (being kind there) are mostly just dirt and gravel. This is true throughout Costa Rica except for the highways and streets in the interior closer to major cities and towns. Our taxi driver, Franklin, was waiting there with his trusty mid-eighties Toyota Land Cruiser. Bald tires, check. Plastic sheet covering missing side window, check. He loaded us in the back and after slamming the back door 4 or 5 times to get it to latch, we went bounding down the dirt track.

Mark relaxing in the outdoors, Costa Rica

After checking in with our host at our cabina, we decided to head to town to get provisions after a quick check of the beach in front of our place. That’s it. Town will have to wait. The water was bathtub warm and the view back to our cabina and surrounding jungle covered cove was breathtaking. The palm trees around the cabin remind of the Corona Christmas commercial. If I owned it they would definitely get Christmas lights. The town of Drake Bay is relatively new. Not to say that there is much there now, but only as far back as 5 years ago there were only a couple of restaurants and a handful of hostels and cabins for rent. Now there are two small markets and close to a dozen restaurants.

The following day we went Corcovado National Park. The park comprises most of the peninsula and is regarded as being one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems in the world. There are only a few official entry points into the park. We decided to enter through the Sirena Ranger Station which is a bit further, but offers a better chance to see a greater variety of wildlife. The trail head is about a 1hr 15 min boat ride away from the main beach in Drake. These boat rides are wet landings on local panga type boats. Since you are traveling along some of the most beautiful coastlines in the world the ride seems to fly by. As well as paying an entrance fee, one has to enter and be led by a guide. Our guide was Raner. He has been guiding for over 15 years and was very knowledgeable. The first animal we saw was a wild chicken. I thought that was a local nickname for some exotic fowl, but no. It was a wild chicken. Guess what we saw next? A wild goat, horse, cow? A wild turkey. Actually, a pretty bird. The males have some interestingly colored plumage. We went on to see Scarlet macaws, toucans, caiman, Leaf-cutter ants and the 4 varieties of monkeys that inhabit the Park. Howlers, White-faced capuchin, Squirrel and Spider monkeys. Apparently, it’s somewhat rare to see all four in one outing. We really lucked out. The hike was a casual meander through the dense jungle ending at our lunch spot on the beach. It was a great way to see one of the many wonders of Costa Rica.

Mark wet after a dip in the ocean

There is a mythic beach on the far side of the bay that has a notoriously beautiful and torturous trail leading to it. My first concern was that everyone talks about the distance in hours and not mileage. The other concern is that one needs to double everything in Costa Rica. If you have a 5 Mil Colones note then you have what is the equivalent to $10US. They say it will be a 10 minute wait. It’ll be 20. They say bring a quart and a half of water. Bring three. It’s roughly a 2 1/2 hour hike one way that twists and winds up and down along the coastline in sometimes stifling heat and humidity to the beach of San Josecito. The reward is an amazing little cove with a tiny island in the middle and some of the bluest and warmest water you will ever swim in. We enjoyed the beach so much that we stayed a little longer than planned and hitched a ride back on one of the panga boats that had brought other sightseers to the beach. The hike ended up being almost 5 miles from our end of the bay and we probably would have wanted more water than we had for the return.

We took the opportunity that afternoon to rest and enjoy doing nothing.  Since the sun rises around 5:30am and it sets around the same time in the pm almost year round, you really do need to get an earlier start than you would back here in the states. Doesn’t hurt to help beat the heat as well. First thing the next morning we were on to our second destination on the Nicoya. To get there our plan was to fly back to San Jose and drive to the ferry in Puntarenas and then drive to the small artsy village of Montezuma. Lucky for us no one had told us how bad the flight would be back to SJO. Apparently, it is well known for being the windiest, bumpiest flight in the area. Remember, these are small single prop airplanes. We had violent gust pushing the plane from side to side almost half of the flight. The approach to the landing seemed to be putting us down sideways and at the last second the pilot righted us and put us down with the lightest of landings I’d ever experienced.

We rented our little Daihatsu 4X4 and headed out of San Jose on Toll Road 72. Nice highway cutting through the outlying mountains and going over the deep gorges finally dropping us off at the small port town of Puntarenas. This was my first time driving onto a ferry. Pretty cool experience. For about $20 they take you and your vehicle the 70 minute trip across the Gulf of Nicoya. All you do is grab a beer from the very well-stocked bar, grab a seat on the observation deck and take in the sights of the gulf. Not a bad way to get around. After departing the boat it was another 1 ½hrs to our destination in Montezuma. On the way we drove through a small town celebrating some sort of Equine festival. Besides the usual scary traveling carnival rides they also had a really small rodeo corral. Don’t know if was being used for bull riding or for bull fighting it looked like it had seen better days. At about the same time as we were checking it all out, traffic ground to a halt. Slowly and one by one, the cars ahead managed their way around the obstruction. When it was our turn we finally saw what had caused the slowing. Two wagons each being pulled by a team of the biggest oxen I have ever seen. The size of Clydesdales with horns to match their stature. Once past them and through the town of Cobano we hit crummy “roads” again and finally made a steep descent into Montezuma. 

Montezuma is a small village at the southernmost end of the Nicoya peninsula. Known as a hippie/yoga type of town, it has been greatly populated by expats from Europe, USA and Canada. A small downtown (one block long) with a nice sized mini-market, restaurants and a few little shops. Our cabina was about a 10 min walk from downtown and a across the street from a little beach. Not bad. 

Mark and his Surf Board

We drove west the next day to the stretch of surfing enclaves. Every few miles there was a little stretch of a town, each with a well-known surf break. This side of Nicoya is the surfing mecca of Central America. This day we decided to just take swims at each of the beaches as we worked our way back to our home base. Back in town, we made reservations for a horseback ride on the beach for the following day. Erika made the error of checking out the reviews of the tour on Trip Advisor when we got back to the cabin. Not good. One out of five stars. Oh crap! 

Mark riding a horse along the beach

Turns out it was a highlight of the trip and couldn’t have been better. We were greeted at the tour office by a quiet, gentle, old caballero. Didn’t know English, but somehow probably through hand gestures and humor we hit it off. The horse were good and responsive. I’m always worried about getting those type of horses that are on the same trail everyday and take their time on the way just with their nose in the rear of the horse in front of them and then virtually sprint back because they know they are heading to the corral. This trail was amazing. For $35 we rode for 3 ½ hrs on the most beautiful deserted tropical beaches I’ve seen. Just Erika, myself and the caballero. Sweet! Speaking of sweet, the turn-around spot at the waterfall that flows into the ocean. Oh, I didn’t mention the friggin’ waterfall did I? Yes, there is a waterfall at the turn-around point where you get a chance to stretch your legs and take a natural shower if you want. Caballero busted out the most amazingly sweet and tender pineapple we have ever had. What a great little surprise. 

Today was surf day. I was really looking forward to it. We had scouted out Playa Hermosa a couple of days before and it looked perfect. Different breaks all in the same beach break. It broke biggest outside then reformed halfway in for a slightly smaller wave and then the perfect whitewash with a slight almost face on it for the beginning. It’s been a few years for me and I was hoping for this to kickstart my return to surfing. I paddled straight out the outside. My arms felt pretty tired, but I used to be able to sit and wait a few, rest and be ok. So, I waited until a perfect little peak popped up in front me.  A little A-frame. I paddled over the right that was just starting to break and I got onto it. Trying to control my thoughts not prematurely thinking of what I was going to do on the nicest wave I would ride in years, I went to pop up. There was no pop. My arms gave and my legs didn’t even try to get under me while I just tumbled over the top of my board and listened to the sound of my air bubbles I was expelling while sinking to the sandy bottom. Well, having not paddled in a long time and having everything from my waist down destroyed by the horseback riding the day before it wasn’t meant to be. I was able to play in the reform area for the next couple of hours and one of the most amazing kook sessions of my life. Pushed Erika into a few and might have actually gotten her bitten by the bug. Beers were definitely deserved that afternoon.

The following day we enjoyed a nice lazy morning, complete with some of the excellent coffee Costa Rica is known for. When we finally got our butts off the proverbial hammock we took a short, but demanding hike up to Montezuma Falls. It’s a short meandering hike up to the lower falls, then a rather precarious climb using tree roots and vines as rungs up and over to the upper falls. The climb was so sketchy that we opted not to swim in the upper pool fearing the climb down would be not be so great done while soaking wet. The lower pool was just as wonderful. The cool water was refreshing and a nice change from the bathtub warm ocean. There were also a couple of ledges higher up to jump from. We chose the more comfortable 10 footer. What a blast. Considered the #1 thing to do in Montezuma according to Trip Advisor it did get a little busy, but there was room for all to enjoy this natural waterpark. 

The same afternoon we were to fly back to San Jose. The Budget rental car office was on the way to the airport, so we stopped on the way and got a ride from the rental office employee to the airport. Again, when I say airport I mean a narrow asphalt strip cut into the jungle. The airport in Tambor didn’t even have a hut for check in and baggage claim. Only a roof to keep the sun and rain off and a couple of benches. It did have a restroom though. Having to be there to check in an hour before we were smart enough to bring along a few road cokes (beers) and we were thankful for that. It was a scorcher and as the sun went down on our last full day in Costa Rica, we sipped our beers with a large iguana keeping us company for the wait. Once again the flight into San Jose was a white knuckler. It doesn’t get much wilder, but I have to say it was probably one of the softest touchdowns I have ever experienced. After approaching  the runway in what felt like completely sideways, the pilot managed to right us and ever so delicately put the plane down on the tarmac.

Our flight home was not until the following morning, so we had booked ourselves into the Wyndham Hotel near to the airport. At check in Erika was sly enough to tell the clerk that we were on our honeymoon and he kindly upgraded us to a suite. Not exactly true, but so far this trip felt like one. It was a bit of culture shock to be in a proper big city and have all the modern conveniences. Not that we were roughing it by any means. It was still a change from what we had gotten used to. Should we have dinner at the Hard Rock Café across the street or have a meal at the bowling alley before throwing a few games? We chose a nice little Costa Rican joint in a strip mall down the street. After dinner and a few cocktails in the hotel lobby’s Pirate Bar we decided to play the slots in the casino attached to the hotel lobby. 20,00 colones later we called it quits and back to our huge suite. That’s about $40 USD. 

We had an early flight the following morning. Grabbed a ham and cheese croissant in the terminal with prerequisite pre-flight beer. Breakfast of champions. It was altogether a forgettable flight except for the planning of our return trip to Costa Rica.

Pura Vida! or pure life. I always thought it was some dumb saying that somebody from the Costa Rican tourist board dreamt up. However, spending just a short time there I can tell you there is something to it. The people are genuinely sweet, nice people. Not at all the experience I’ve had everywhere else in the region that I’ve traveled. Not once did I feel like someone was trying to scam, take advantage or cheat me out of anything. Not true elsewhere. I can’t recommend CR enough. From the mountains to the beaches and the jungles. The people and the landscape make it truly unique and special.

 

 

 

 

 

Costa Rica Gear

I consider most of what I took on this trip to be gear. From fast drying clothing to rechargeable battery packs and headlamps. Here are a few things that were bought for this trip and a couple of tried and true classics.

 

Patagonia Blackhole Duffle 60L- We initially bought them to be carried on, but we like to travel with a knife and I like have a bottle of something so I don’t have to worry about finding a store when I first get somewhere. So, we checked them on. They are lighter than their ancient cousin and the flat bottom is more like a suit case. The also carried in backpack mode extremely comfortably.

Patagonia Duckbill Trucker Hat- The regular Patagonia Trucker Hat is inarguably the best fitting hat out there. The problem is that they don’t handle being crushed in a duffle too well. They also tend to fade when exposed to salt water and the sun. The Duckbill was designed with runners in mind, so I figured if it could handle sweat than it could handle saltwater. It worked terrific. After a couple of days of putting it on after and ocean swim a salt ring developed just above the rim. I simply soaked in clean water for a few minutes and was it was good as new. I also learned it floats. I went for an ocean swim with it on because the sun was so intense a rogue wave got and knocked it off. After the whitewash cleared there it was just floating there.

Chaco Z/1 Sandals-Not new to me. I wear these daily, but needed to give them a shout out. I only took Chaco Flips and Chaco Z/1’s. For anything too gnarly for the flips I wore the Z/1’s. Anyway from hiking through the jungle in Corcovado(wear socks because the ants might get you) to horseback riding and hiking the coast trail in and out of water in Drake Bay these always excel.

Exofficio Sport Mesh Boxer Brief- Also not new for this trip. I’ve been a fan of the GNG Boxer Brief for over 10 years now. They quickly became my daily underwear as well as for travel. However, for hot and humid locals I found the Sport Mesh to be even cooler and slightly more breathable. Because of the humidity slowing dry times a little I ended up taking two of each and it was perfect.

Luci Outdoor Rechargeable Light by Mpowered-The electricity in Costa Rican is from what we heard is not very reliable. It’s a matter of not if, but when the power will go off. So, we brought along one of these gems. We had already fallen in love with them for camping after getting tired of replacing the batteries in our BD lights and even replacing our BD lights themselves. These things are light weight and compact with a built in solar panel. We never needed to use it for a power outage, however, we preferred its light over the ugly and extremely bright fluorescent lighting on our deck in Montezuma.

Marmot Kompressor Backpack-Never leave home without one. Couldn’t tell you how much I use these. On our third one now, these “summit packs” are the best. It packs into even the fullest piece of luggage with no problem. And are surprisingly comfortable to carry. I’ll often carry it on short day hikes here at home or on a dog walk when I’m not sure of the weather and need to carry an extra layer and a bottle of water and great for the beach as well.