Costa Rica Day 1 – London to San Jose
Time for another trip – this time to Central America, first stop Costa Rica. It’s the first time we’ve travelled with British Airways for many years. And there’s a reason for that. It’s not a great start, with a last minute change from an 11.30 to a 9 am departure. So we decided to travel to Gatwick the night before and stay at the less than celubrious White House Hotel in an executive room, which frankly I can’t imagine any self respecting executive would be seen dead in.
We’re up at 6 am for our taxi to the airport. Once there, it takes an hour to make it to the front of the check in queue to be told the flight is running 30 minutes late. We head through security. Now the delay has gone up to an hour. So we opt for a Wetherspoons breakfast. There’s a surprising number of people drinking beer for so early in the morning. I make do with Diet Coke – it’s going to be a long day…
We finally board the aircraft to be told they’re a crew member down and we must wait for a standby to arrive. Another 30 minutes delay (and we’re pretty much back to the original advertised departure time) before we’re finally ready to take off for the 11.5 hour flight to San Jose. I find a mini series I haven’t watched before (Mare of Easttown; 7 x 1 hour episodes should see me through the bulk of the flight) and settle down for the long journey.
It’s not very well catered and by the time we finally embark at San Jose we have been sitting in the plane for 13 hours and I am tired, hungry and grumpy. Another hour sees us through immigration and customs, then we have to contact our first night’s accommodation – Hotel Your House who, it is claimed, will send a shuttle to collect us in 10 minutes. It actually takes 30 minutes before we are finally collected in a tiny car with a boot somewhat smaller than our suitcase. With some pushing and shoving and a prevailing wind, we manage to get the suitcase in and drive the short distance to the hotel.
The sun set while we were standing outside the airport waiting for our lift, so our first glimpse of Costa Rica is of the highway in the dark. We make it to Hotel your House 18 hours after departing last night’s hotel. The accommodation consists of a row of motel style rooms built in the owner’s garden. She is also the owner of a rather shitty dog. Once we’ve checked in, she leads the way to our room, armed with a dustpan and brush to clear the way.
We had initially planned to go for a wander upon arrival but we should have arrived at 2.30 pm, when it was still light. So, tired from the journey and time difference, we pretty much go straight to bed at 8 pm. The adventures will have to wait until tomorrow…
Costa Rica Day 2 – La Fortuna
This morning is our first full day in Costa Rica. I am awake at 5 am (which is actually 11 am in the UK and also in my stomach). Two hours until breakfast and I’m starving.
At 6 am it gets light and I can brave going outside to sit in the garden without standing in anything produced by the little dog. It’s a pretty garden with a gazebo and plunge pool set among the shrubs. Breakfast is served in a clearing in the garden and is very tasty – fried rice and beans, omelette, sausage and plantain. Although I go off my food a bit when I see quite how often the cook fondles the little dog whilst cooking.
After breakfast, we take a walk to find a shop to stock up on supplies. The accommodation is just off the main airport road so it’s not the most scenic walk, but it’s nice to be somewhere warm and sunny away from the British winter. Once we have found a store and stocked up on essentials (diet coke and crisps), it’s back to the hotel and a little relax in the garden until it’s time to collect our hire car.
Car hire is very expensive in Costa Rica, so we have gone right to the bottom of the budget options with Mex Rent a car. Even that is setting us back $942 for 18 days. We check out of the hotel (the owner gives us a lift to the hire car company) and pick up our car – a Toyota Rush. It’s definitely seen better days (years even) which is fine. Last time we hired a 4WD car was in California. It was pristine with only a few miles on the clock and we were terrified of actually taking it off road. No such problems here. We could probably drive it off a cliff and get away with it!
We set off for today’s destination – La Fortuna. It’s a 73 mile drive, starting on the main Route 1 for 25 miles, then onto a smaller road. It’s a bit pot holey but not as bad as I’d anticipated. The most interesting part of the journey is the rickety rackety bridge over the Rio Peñas Blancas. It looks like it was made from Meccano and you have to queue up to cross, as it can only take one vehicle at a time. Just after the bridge is a viewpoint, so we pull over to take some photos and a walk back across the bridge. It’s a long way down – one of us walks further across the bridge than the other!
Shortly after, we turn a corner and there is Volcán Arenal standing over a mile high with clouds just obscuring its peak – it’s quite a sight. After a brief photo stop, we reach the town at the foot of the volcano; La Fortuna and our hotel for the next three nights; Xilopalo.
The hotel is literally at the end of the road with rows of cabins with verandas set in gardens full of all sorts of wildlife. Before we’ve even finished checking in, we spot a huge iguana walking along a branch outside reception and a hummingbird. We finally complete check in amidst the various wildlife interludes and are shown to our room. It is very pleasant and has a volcano view. Plus the staff attach bananas to the tree directly outside our window which attracts plenty of birds (and squirrels).
After sitting and admiring the view for a while, we take a wander into town, stopping at a bar for a couple of beers, then a bakery for some amazing cream cheese stuffed bread. We eat on the bench outside our room with its volcano backdrop, watching dozens of exotic birds feasting on the bananas, plus a colony of enormous ants busy transporting leaves back and forth along a tree root.
The combination of jetlag, an early start and a long drive (followed by a couple of beer) means we are settled in our room with no desire to move again by 5 pm. To be honest, the view is so cool that moving seems counterproductive. I could happily just sit on my veranda for the next 3 days…
We watch the sun set over the volcano which threatens to be stunning, before clouds descend and obscure everything. Then take an early night before setting off for a more up-close volcano encounter in the morning.
Costa Rica Day 3 – Volcán Arenal National Park
It rained in the night. A lot. We went to bed in a cabin surrounded by gardens and woke up surrounded by a moat. As I get older I find it harder to deal with the change in time zones so I am awake (and hungry) by 5 am. Luckily, there is some leftover pizza bread in the fridge and I sit and watch the visitors on the tree outside our room as the sun rises – so far today there have been squirrels and dozens of different birds, including woodpeckers, hummingbirds and 4 toucans.
We decide to stick with our original plan to go to Volcán Arenal National Park, despite the fact that the volcano is barely visible behind the clouds.
The 10 mile drive to the National Park is uneventful, apart from an emergency stop for a couple of coati in the middle of the road (actually it’s more of an emergency stop for a couple of cyclists who brake suddenly to take photos of the coatis). Then we have to go off road. Very off road. We decide to start with the Sector Península where a mile long trail takes you to a lookout over Lake Arenal. First, we have to reach the entrance, which involves a 1.5 mile drive along a very bumpy track. As we bounce our way over the rocks, we’re suddenly very grateful to Mex Rent a Car for giving us such a decrepit vehicle.
We reach the entrance, fork out the £25 foreigners’ entrance fees and consult the map; Costa Rican national parks are very eco friendly, there are no paper maps or guides available, so it is necessary to consult the map, and preferably take a screen shot before setting off.
We set off along the Sendero los Miradores, which is surprisingly well paved bearing in mind the road we had to drive down to reach it. The trail leads through the rainforest to a platform over the lake, where you can take photos (as long as you watch out for crocodiles). Half way down is an observation tower you can climb for views of the lake and the volcano (in theory, although it’s still shrouded by cloud).
We return to our car via Sendero Tororoi, which returns, via a lot of steps and a bridge, to the car park. We can hear, but not see, howler monkeys in the trees around us.
We return along the bouncy track to the Sector Volcán. Here we follow two more hiking trails; Sendero las Coladas, which takes us to a bridge where we can climb onto a lava flow created when the volcano erupted in 1992.
Then we return via Sendero el Ceibo. I’m not sure what Ceibo means, so look up the translation; Ceiba Tree (helpful) it turns out this one is 400 years old and 30 metres tall. It’s so big you can climb in between its massive roots.
It has rained on and off all day, but as we are almost back at the car, it starts to bucket down. We make a run for it, but still get soaked. We drive to the final lookout, the Mirador Principal, which is supposed to provide the best view of the volcano. By now, we can’t even work out where the volcano is, so we give up and head back into town.
We stop at the bakery for some lunch; today’s choice is bread stuffed with cheese and fried beans. After lunch, a nap and some more bird watching, we head out to a Costa Rican restaurant. The bakery in La Fortuna is amazing but it’s time we ate something other than bread! We go to a nearby restaurant and order the Comida Tipica; a choice of meat with rice, beans, plantain, mashed potato and salad. I choose the vegetarian option which is basically the same but without the meat. All the carbs represented – they’ve even stuck some tortilla chips in the mashed potato for good measure. I should have stuck with the bakery – at least the bread had some cheese in it.
We return for another early night – it’s been a long day with a lot of walking and we are rather weary.
Costa Rica Diary Day 4 – La Fortuna
It’s our last day in La Fortuna and there is no rain forecast for a full 6 hours. However, the volcano remains stubbornly hidden behind the clouds.
I manage to sleep until gone 6 then get up to watch the hotel staff hoist bananas up a flagpole to attract the birds, and watch as group after group of different species turn up for breakfast – things get particularly fractious between the budgies and woodpeckers. My breakfast this morning is (not surprisingly) from the bakery – bread stuffed with cream cheese and pineapple.
This morning’s activity is a trip to La Fortuna waterfall, which is accessed via a flight of 530 steps – a jolly sensible activity for two old codgers with dodgy knees!
We drive to the top of the waterfall, pay the $18 each foreigners’ entry fee and after an armed security guard has taken our temperature, set off down the steps to the waterfall. It’s quite spectacular – presumably aided by all yesterday’s rain – as it thunders 70 metres over the cliff top into a pool below.
After taking some photos (obviously) the old man braves a dip in the pool. It’s very rocky and the current is strong, so I wuss out and opt to swim lower downriver. It’s lovely and refreshing, although the force of the waterfall makes it a bit like swimming in an infinity pool. I happily swim hard towards the waterfall then floating back downstream a few times.
Then we have to climb the 530 steps back to the entrance. It takes less time than I’d anticipated – all those hill training sessions are paying dividends!
At the top, are an orchid trail with no orchids and a butterfly trail with no butterflies, although we do see a very beautiful hummingbird. We return to the hotel, via the bakery – bread of the day – chicken, cheese and beans.
After lunch and a regroup, we decide it’s time to find sloths. We haven’t spotted any in the wild, so head for a sloth trail, where you can pay $15 for the privilege of looking for sloths. This particular place (Bogarin) has been mentioned in blogs as averaging 6 sloth sightings per visit. We walk along the trails, necks aching from constantly looking up, toes hurting from tripping on tree roots because we’re not looking where we’re going. We see plenty of wildlife (birds and agouti) but no sloths.
Eventually we spot two sloths– a mother and baby. To be more accurate, we spot a group of people looking up a tree, rather than actually spotting the sloths. It’s quite exciting, apart from the fact that they don’t really do anything except hang from a tree. They are also hanging very high up in the tree, which makes them difficult to see/photograph. I can think of better ways to spend $30.
We walk around for 90 minutes but don’t find any more, so we follow a sign saying ‘Trail Reception 100 metres’. The old man is adamant that this is not the way we came, but we continue to follow the signs regardless. Unfortunately, it’s the reception for a different sloth trail company to the one we started at. So we end up having to walk down the main road, and round the block to where we parked the car, with the old man harping on about how he told me so. With sloths finally ticked off the ‘to do’ list, our time in La Fortuna is almost at an end.
Costa Rica Diary Day 5 – La Fortuna to Liberia
It’s our final morning in La Fortuna and it rained heavily in the night. The volcano has disappeared completely behind a thick blanket of cloud and our last chance of seeing it in its entirety has gone. Never mind, it’s time to move on to another volcano – Rincon de la Vieja. As accommodation around the volcano itself is expensive, we are staying in the nearby town of Liberia.
Today’s drive is 80 miles, the first half of which skirts the shore of Lake Arenal. So, the plan is to go slow with plenty of photo stops, arriving at our hotel in Liberia around lunch time. By then, the temperature should be 32 degrees. Luckily, it has a pool!
After a breakfast of fruit and gallo pinto (rice & beans) for us, whilst watching the birds eat their breakfast of bananas, we set off. The drive round the lake is somewhat underwhelming; there are very limited opportunities to actually see it due to vegetation and even when we can, the road is too narrow and winding to stop safely.
Once we reach the north west corner of the lake, the road takes three sides of a square to join Route 1; the Inter American Highway. Google Maps sends us along a short cut (the 4th side of the square). It’s unpaved, very bumpy and very steep. It’s significantly shorter but with hindsight, I think we would have gone round. At least we finally get a good view of the lake when we reach the top.
On the hill is enormous wind farm, and then, once over the top, we rejoin the actual paved road. It’s like entering a different world; we leave behind the cool, green rainforest and all of a sudden we’re on the hot, red plains of Guancaste – cattle country.
Soon, we reach the highway and drive the final 25 miles to tonight’s destination – Las Espuelas – a roadside motel in Liberia. We reach the motel 90 minutes before check-in. Although it’s on the side of the motorway, it’s surprisingly quiet and serene inside the hotel itself. The accommodation is in rows of cabins, leading to a very nice pool. There is no chance of an early check in. No matter. The old man has important candy to crush, while I decamp to the pool. 100 laps later, we can finally check in.
After the old man has faffed sufficiently, we head into town for a wander and dinner. By now it’s gone 3 and the combination of no lunch and a long swim are taking their toll. A read of Lonely Planet’s guide to Liberia has left us with low expectations. The first thing we notice about Liberia is that many of the roads are one way, so getting where you want to go isn’t as simple as it sounds. We finally reach the centre of town and park up near Central Park.
After a quick wander around the park (which is really just a plaza) we for the old man’s restaurant of choice. It’s shut. More faffing before we finally settle on a nearby Indian restaurant (Masala). By the time the food comes, I’m ravenous, but it’s worth the wait – Palak Paneer; cheese cooked in a spinach sauce, served with cumin rice.
After we have taken the obligatory photos next to the Liberia sign, we return to the motel for an early night. This travel malarkey can be hard work sometimes.