Alajuela To Manual Antonio Park
Before we could explore the unique natural beauty of this Central American country, we spent a day in the city of Alajuela, part of the built-up urban zone north of Costa Rica's main airport.
After our two-night hotel stay we caught a mini-bus out of the capital, San Jose, and headed west through mountains to Puerto Quepos on the Pacific Coast. Situated just down the highway from Quepos, Manuel Antonio National Park is both a nature reserve and a major attraction for travellers.
Between the park and Quepos is the tourist zone, an area feeling considerable development pressure. One can find some real jungle by following the beach (Playa Espadilla) into the park and getting on to one of its many hiking trails. Look for wildlife such as monkeys, frogs, sloths, lizards and an amazing variety of birds or, instead, go find a deserted cove for some secluded swimming in the warm choppy waters.
The Costa Rican government has threatened an imminent closure of the park due to sanitation problems. The story is here. We witnessed nothing "appalling" during our visit, although we were troubled by the blurred distinction between park and resort area. Let's hope a crackdown brings some ecological sanity to this lovely place.
Dominical To San Isidro
We weren't exactly searching for serenity after Manuel Antonio, but we rented a Daihatsu in Quepos and drove south. After sixty hard kilometers on a potted dirt road, arriving at the surfers' mecca, Dominical, meant a return to paved highway and some relief.
This is an ill-defined town with an unappealling beach; mostly a place for wave-worshippers. We stayed only an hour to watch surfers and have lunch, then continued south. We had no firm destination now and stopped at a few places, each time saying we'll come back if we have to. One laid-back resort with lovely isolated log cabins almost grabbed us, but the price was high and on we went.
We knew what we were seeking when we found Playa Ballenas. Moderate surf, miles of beach, little development. As a bonus, the perfect air-conditioning, that is, non-electrical: the "hotel" comprised a row of permanent tents. These were set up about fifty meters back from the high tide mark.
Playa Ballenas, near Ojochal, means 'beach of whales' and we heard two explanations. This is either where whales come every year or it is named after the whale-like appearance of the rocky islands offshore. We put in four nights here. I broke up the routine with some solo cruising in the mini-SUV searching for photographs.
For these, I travelled south towards Golfito, keeping mostly to the Pacific coast, going inland to cross the isthmus of the Osa Peninsula. A leisurely drive punctuated with short stops at roadside produce stands and quiet agricultural towns.
Golfito seems a distant outpost even in this small country. A duty-free zone has been granted here and the shopping compound was seeing a roaring trade. I had heard rumors elsewhere of a smugglers' paradise and on the drive back, there was a bus waylaid by local cops who had the passengers scattering their fresh-bought goods all over the side of the highway. Sportfishing is Golfito's other main attraction. The Osa Peninsula, across the bay from Golfito, is one of the wettest places in the world. I drove mostly in the sunshine, as thick clouds hung stubbornly over the distant land mass.
The first half of our vacation fortnight was nearly over. Before tackling Arenal Volcano and the Monteverde cloud forest, we returned to Quepos by driving into the mountains and visiting San Isidro for a day.
San Isidro del General is in a high valley near Costa Rica's spine. A pleasant place. This is what's known as a 'bustling market town'. Near here is Chirropo, Costa Rica's highest mountain, on which you can stand and see both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Would have liked to stay longer, but our itinerary was set.
We stayed one night in a business hotel after taking a second-floor balcony meal and then returned to Dominical to tackle the same evil, rock-strewn road back to Quepos, where a plane was waiting to fly us north.
Quepos To La Fortuna
Volcán Arenal is Costa Rica's youngest and most active volcano, erupting continuously since it "woke up" with a major explosion in 1968.
The second week of our Costa Rica holiday began by dropping our rented Daihatsu in Quepos and flying north by small plane. After a brief stopover in the capital, our short flight ended in La Fortuna, a farming town lying east of the volcano and a jumping off point for visitors wishing to explore the volcano region and the celebrated cloud forests near Monteverde on the other side of Lake Arenal.
We found a lovely spot to stay just outside of town; a group of cabins in a garden setting on the road leading to the La Fortuna waterfall.
It's a fair hike down a well-built trail with hundreds of steps cut into the earth. The reward is a close-up view of this major waterfall and a chance for a dip next to its crashing roar. If you look closely at the picture above, you'll see a cable strung across the water indicating the safe swimming zone.
After a couple of days in La Fortuna, ever mindful of the volcano's looming presence, we hopped what is called the taxi-water-taxi over to Monteverde, the small commercial center of Costa Rica's cloud forest zone.
First a mini-van is taken to the shore of Lake Arenal from La Fortuna, then a comfortable launch brings passengers down the lake to the far side where another minivan is waiting to finish the trip. It's a pleasant crossing with views of an unpeopled, wind-swept shore.
Getting to Monteverde this way means a three-hour crawl in a loose-springed van along a twisting, dusty road; past remote ranches and coffee plantations with views to the east of Arenal and at least one glimpse in the west of the Nicoya Peninsula and the Pacific Ocean. The sign above must be somebody's idea of humor.
Monteverde To The Pacuare River
We stayed at the Arco Iris resort - not the cheapest in Monteverde, but reasonable - and witnessed this phenomenon of a foggy drizzle out of a clear blue sky.
It's a little ramshackle town - no charming squares or magnificent buildings. Just a launching place to get to what was a highlight of the trip. The Monteverde Forest Reserve is a number of unique densely-foliated mountainside areas northwest of the capital, San Jose, that have been set aside for protection from logging and resource extraction. A brief history of how this worthy program was begun, with impetus from cheese-making Quakers, can be read here.
The morning ride to Selvatura Park was a steep climb up above the town. With its well-ordered parking lot, restaurant and gift shop, you might wonder just how wild and natural this place really is, but in the few moments necessary to round the first corner of the trail, skepticism gives way to wonder. You've entered another world - enveloped by soft, damp fog under a fantastically green canopy, surrouded by an orchestra of birdcalls.
A path of just over 3kms. winds in a great circle using a system of eight suspension bridges to cross the plunging ravines of this rugged terrain. Pack a sweater, it can be cool at these elevations.
Another night in Monteverde and then a return by the same excrutiating gravel road to La Fortuna to prepare for our final adventure: rafting on the Pacuare river.
We stayed at the same garden lodgings as our first stay in La Fortuna, catching a glimpse of toucans in the large trees. The little fellow on the right hung out with us during our patio breakfast.
As part of our deal with tour company, a van picked us up early at the hotel and drove us overland to the Pacuare River launch site.
I give high logistical marks to the rafting company for getting us to and from the launch site, preparing the meals, organizing the groups and ensuring safety, but in the end, for me, the military precision was a little too, well, military.
The attitude carried over to the rafting itself, with orders being shouted to paddle in lockstep, everything done to the clock. I was left with the sense of having my experience of this wild tropical river defined by impatient, arrogant guides.
We were assigned the same raft as three rednecky American sex-tourists. That didn't help. And I had to fight to bring my weather-sealed camera along. The rafting company sells back pictures taken by the guides and heavily discourages the clientele from taking their own. But the river was still beautiful and wild and they got us back to the airport.
All in all, we concur: Costa Rica really is a traveller's paradise: mostly friendly, accessible and affordable with a breathtaking variety of scenic wonders amazingly close at hand. In two short weeks we only saw a fraction of these. Which argues, of course, for a longer, future visit.