On my own in Costa Rica

San Jose

1 March

Today was another very long travel day. We were up just after 4am, ready to leave at 4.45am on the minibus that was to take us to the port for the 6am ferry. We arrived just as it was starting to get light so were treated to a lovely sunrise, which we watched whilst two trucks were being loaded onto the rather small ferry. It was a very tight squeeze! The load was obviously regarded as a little unstable by the crew, as well as us, as they spent the first 20 minutes of the trip strapping the big truck to the ferry so that it didn’t shift along the way.

Dawn at Omatepe Island
Dawn at Omatepe Island

We had a disturbing incident, if that is what you can call it, along the way, when a deaf and mentally impaired girl went into labour. By the time we reached Rivas, she was becoming very distressed as she had no understanding of what was happening to her. Luckily the ambulance was waiting and she was whisked away as soon as the trucks were untied and unloaded (so it was hardly ‘whisking’).

Ferry port on Omatepe
Ferry port on Omatepe

Our driver, Manuel, was waiting for us in Rivas and we proceeded on to the Costa Rica border crossing, which was about 20 minutes away. The Nicaraguan procedures were completed in about 15 minutes but the Costa Rican side took somewhat longer! We had to queue ourselves for this one and is the reason we caught such an early ferry. It is apparently always busy. I went through pretending I was leaving the country with the group and was then only given a 15 day visa, which is somewhat inconvenient, so it looks as though I will be spending more time in Panama than Costa Rica. Three hours later we left the border and continued onto San Jose, passing trucks lined up for miles waiting to cross.

Ferry arriving at Rivas
Ferry arriving at Rivas
Banana truck tied down on the ferry
Banana truck tied down on the ferry

The countryside we passed through was extremely dry and brown until we approached San Jose where it became much hillier and greener. We were all extremely tired and many people dozed along the way. I found the bus a bit too uncomfortable, though, so was awake the whole way.

The road wasn’t too bad, particularly from Puntarenas, where there were a number of tolls, but the first part had miles of road works so was very slow. At one point our driver was pulled over by the police for overtaking. This was incredibly unlucky as everyone overtakes at inappropriate and dangerous moments. It was just unfortunate that the police car happened to be coming the other way on this occasion.

We eventually arrived at the hotel at about 4pm. After checking in, we had the usual orientation tour and then there was a little time for a look at the shops and a quick beer before dinner. This was a farewell dinner as the tour ended tonight for 6 of us. It was held in a cafe across the road that had been converted from an old house and had some fairly bold and colourful murals on the walls. After saying our goodbyes to the people leaving early tomorrow, the rest of us were all ready for an early night ourselves.

San Jose

2 March

Gardens outside the National Museum in San Jose
Gardens outside the National Museum in San Jose

I had breakfast at the hotel and then spent almost the entire morning on the internet, catching up with diaries and organising what I was going to do next. After that, it was off to the shops to try and find the requisites for packing up a parcel to send home. I now know that rolls of brown paper do not exist in San Jose.

Park in San Jose
Park in San Jose

Once I had given up on that, I went to the markets, but there were just lots of stalls all selling the same sort of souvenirs and as I really don’t need to add any more weight to my pack, I set off for the Jade Museum, via a bakery and a sad looking park where I ate my purchase. The Jade Museum was closed on Sundays and, as I also hadn’t found a hairdresser, open or closed, (my hair is in dire need of attention), the day was becoming highly unsuccessful.

Cultural Centre Plaza
Cultural Centre Plaza

From the little I have seen of San Jose, itself, it is unimpressive. There are a lot of fairly ugly modern buildings, mixed in with the old but they don’t seem to sit well together. The parks have a lot of concrete in them and even those with grass and trees look tired and uninviting.  The one in which I had lunch was also being treated to some loud, heavy rock music from a nearby stadium.

Sad looking park in San Jose
Sad looking park in San Jose
Metal building in San Jose (a school)
Metal building in San Jose (a school)

I returned to my new room at the hotel for some R & R after the efforts of the day. I now have my own room as I am officially out of the tour group and it is wonderful to have my own space, although it is also good to have company for dinners etc. I did a little sortie to the supermarket with Alan and Shirley to buy coke to go with the rum I am carrying around and which is adding to the weight in my pack. I am obviously just going to have to drink it to make my pack a bit lighter!

I joined the tour group for dinner and we walked down to the Central Avenida for this. It was a very large restaurant and, as it happened, the same one we went to for a beer after we arrived yesterday. The food was excellent but a bit on the expensive side. We had been warned that Costa Rica would be more expensive and this has certainly been the case so far. We all had to walk back together after dinner as we had to cross a park where there are apparently a lot of aggressive transvetites. (Yes, I believe everything the tour guide tells me!) There were none in evidence tonight though and I can say this quite definitely as there were actually no people in the park, aggressive or otherwise!

La Fortuna

3 March

I was awake early so decided to catch the 8.40am bus to La Fortuna. I had breakfast, then got a taxi to the bus station where a line of backpackers were waiting for the ticket office to open, which it did about 15 minutes before the bus was due to leave. I need not have rushed! It cost about $4 for the taxi ride and $5 for the 4 hour bus trip to La Fortuna. There seems to be something not quite right in that….

On the road to La Fortuna
On the road to La Fortuna

The bus inevitably started mostly with foreigners but gradually filled up along the way with local people until there was standing room only. I ended up with a rather large young lady sitting next to me, who was travelling with her young daughter. The latter (aged 4 or 5) had ringlets and was complete with eye shadow, lip stick and nail varnish and was obviously a little disconcerted by me.

The bus was more comfortable than I expected with padded seats and opening windows (no air con but that was fine). The luggage was all stored underneath and we were given tickets for our bags, which we had to produce for the bag to be returned, so it all seemed very organised and relatively safe.

Mural in a town on the way to La Fortuna
Strange mural in a town on the way to La Fortuna

It was a lovely ride through the mountains where there was a large amount of vegetable and fruit production and so it was all very green. We also passed through a number of small towns, all of which were a lot more affluent looking than any we had been through recently. A couple of them had very attractive churches with gardens in the front. The road was very windy and quite slow as there was a lot of traffic, particularly trucks.

A lot of tin roofs
A lot of tin roofs

I arrived in La Fortuna at about 1pm and retrieved my bag from the tangle of backpacks that was disgorged from under the bus. I then made my way to the hotel I had booked on the internet, and was greeted by a number of very vocal small dogs but no owner or even a reception desk, in sight. As I really didn’t like the look of  the place, I walked across the road to another hotel where I was greeted by a very friendly and helpful owner so I checked in there instead.

My next mission was to find a hairdresser and managed to find the only hairdressing chair in town, hidden in a cosmetic shop. The hairdresser was obviously more used to cutting men’s hair and was very handy with the electric shears. The edges are now very neat around my ears! And to think how fussy I used to be about my hair!

Central plaza in La Fortuna
Central plaza in La Fortuna

After this, I wandered the town for a bit and sat and had a beer with some of the group when I found them in a cafe. They had just arrived and were staying along the road from me. Then it was back to the hotel and pestering the hotel owner about tours to do. I really wanted to do a day hike but there wasn’t anything going that was either close enough or actually was running. (They would only go with a certain number of people). This whole area is geared more to adventure trips like white water rafting, ziplining etc which I didn’t really want to do so ended up with a tour up the volcano and a visit to the hot springs (for tomorrow).

I met up with some of the group for dinner, which was very nice. Whilst it was really good to travel on my own this morning, it is also reassuring to know there are still people around that I know.

La Fortuna

4 March

I didn’t have to rush for any buses this morning so took my time getting up and going.

Steps down to the waterfall
Steps down to the waterfall

When I was wandering around looking for somewhere for coffee, I bumped into Ghislain and Denise so had breakfast with them and then we all got a taxi out to the waterfall.

It was a good walk down a lot of steps to the bottom where we were supposedly able to swim. However, the swirl in the pool into which the water fell was a bit too strong, so we went in the stream.

Hammocks for sale
Hammocks for sale on the walk back from the waterfall

It was quite refreshing, to say the least, after the heat of the day. At least it cooled us down and prepared us for the climb back up the steps, which were actually not quite as bad as anticipated. They are obviously still working on the complex at the top as well as re-building the path that appeared to have been washed away at some point.

We walked back to La Fortuna, which was about 5km, passing one or two galleries and craft shops and I then got ready for the next trip of the day.

This was a hike on Arenal volcano, a visit to Baldi hot pools and a buffet dinner. I was picked up first and then we drove to a lodge to pick up a Scottish couple. After that, it was a short drive up to the volcano where Franklin ‘guided’ us around.

Arenal volcano
Arenal volcano
Entrance to Baldi hot springs
Entrance to Baldi hot springs

The hike was very short in length but was prolonged by Franklin demonstrating his knowledge of local flora and fauna, as well as telling groan-inducing jokes. I was fairly unimpressed as were the other couple, as I discovered later.

By the time we got to the hot pools, I was making noises that perhaps we should arrange to be picked up earlier than 9pm (which after all is nearly my bedtime), but the male member of the group thought he might want to stay longer. As it happens, the timing was perfect. We had dinner, by which time the pools had emptied of the young and beautiful. The food wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated and the pools were something else! To quote the Scottish chap: “Its Las Vegas tacky”!

Wet bar at the hot springs
Wet bar at the hot springs
Baldi hot springs
Baldi hot springs

There were a series of 25 hot pools of varying temperatures and we dipped into most of them, the best being the jacuzzi one. There were lots of tropical plants and coloured lights and, of course, a couple of water slides, although we didn’t try them. So, as it happens, it turned into a good night. We were picked up at 9pm and I was delivered back to the hotel, very relaxed and ready for rum.

Monteverde

5 March

Getting off the ferry
Getting off the ferry

I went out for breakfast early as I was being picked up at 8.20am to catch the ferry to Monteverde. I met Cherie and John in the street and so joined them for a quick meal before dashing back to the hotel to pack and be ready on time. The minibus arrived and we proceeded round the town picking up other people (mainly backpackers) until the van was full. It took about half an hour to drive to the ferry where there were two or three boats waiting. We were loaded onto the biggest and I ended up sitting next to, and talking to, a lady from Michigan, for most of the 45 minute trip across the lake.

On the way to Monteverde
On the way to Monteverde

Once on the other side, there were more mini buses waiting to take the disgorged passengers, of which there were quite a number, including the tour group I had just left, to Monteverde. The luggage was all piled through the back window and onto the backseats, in the usual way, and then we were off. I was sitting next to a lady from Marlborough so had quite a chat to her and the people I was with at the hot springs last night were also on the bus.

Wind farm on the way to Monteverde
Wind farm on the way to Monteverde
Forest
Forest
Looking up at a bridge
Looking up at a bridge

The road, the whole way, was unsealed and very dusty but it passed through some beautiful hilly scenery. We proceeded very slowly, stopping once at a cafe and arrived in Monteverde about 1pm. It was a door to door delivery service so I was dropped off at the hotel, which was a little way out of Santa Helena, where I was greeted by the owner, Niria.  She was quite talkative and very helpful, and, before I knew it, I had the rest of the afternoon planned out. The room is very comfortable, the only drawback of the hotel (or rather B&B) being the television, watched by Niria’s slightly deaf husband, that seems to blare all day outside my room.

Favourite food of sloths
Favourite food of sloths

I was picked up at 2pm and taken to the Selvatura Park, along with several others including some from my tour group. There was potential to do ziplining (otherwise known as flying foxes) but I opted instead to walk along the suspension bridges above the forest canopy. I joined up with Cherie, John and Barbara and, whilst it was very enjoyable, it wasn’t as interesting as I thought it might have been as it was all very similar to bushwalking in NZ. There were 8 suspension bridges in all and the flying foxes were fixed above the forest canopy over the bridges.

On one of the suspension bridges
On one of the suspension bridges

We were delivered back to town on a shuttle bus and I went for a coffee and to the supermarket before walking back to the hotel. Having spent an hour or two researching where to go next (and getting quite put off with the price of accommodation so am no further ahead), I went to the restaurant next door for dinner. I was the only person eating and was entertained by the television (ubiquitous in cafes and restaurants here) where they were building up to a World Cup match between Paraguay and Costa Rica. Luckily, no Spanish is required to follow what was happening!

Looking down from the bridge
Looking down from the bridge

Monteverde

6 March

This morning was spent searching for the elusive quetzal in Curi Cancha Cloud Forest. This bird is the national bird of Guatemala, was sacred to the Mayans and can usually be found in Costa Rica. Not today, however. With more organisation from my host, I had joined a group, led by a guide, Raphael. There were a few other groups going around the tracks with us, some of whom, judging by the camera lenses and binoculars were very serious bird watchers. As I am not among them, the most exciting thing I saw this morning were the humming birds but they were on feeding trays so were hardly ‘spotted’!

Bird watchers at Curi Cancha
Bird watchers at Curi Cancha
Strangler fig tree
Strangler fig tree

We also saw some sort of viper, (non poisonous but quite big and enough to get people excited), a couple of toucans in the distance, some yellow birds and a couple of animals, one the was a bit like a racoon and the other like a giant guinea pig, all of which have names that I have forgotten. All in all, it was an expensive and disappointing morning.

After this, I walked the couple of kilometres back to the hotel, stopping for a coffee along the way, and then sulked in my room for a while. I spent quite some time on the internet looking for places to stay next and came to the conclusion that Costa Rica is extremely overpriced and I need to leave. Monteverde, itself, seems to me like a giant overpriced theme park and both this town and La Fortuna should be avoided unless you are a serious bird watcher or a backpacking thrill seeker.

Humming birds at the feeder
Humming birds at the feeder

When I ventured out of my room to talk to Niria, I was offered coffee and cake which was very nice. She has been exceptionally kind and helpful whilst I have been here. I sat and had a chat to her and her husband for a while. They own a farm about 20 minutes away and he has 14 horses and a lot of fruit trees. (She has no interest in the farm at all.) They had hands of bananas hanging in the kitchen, one of which had 190 bananas on it!

I went for another walk around town, which didn’t take very long and, after spending a bit more time on internet research, went to the same place next door for dinner. Each time, I have been the only person in the restaurant, but various family members and friends seem to stop by for a drink. The food has been good and plentiful each time and it has been much better than going to one of the real tourist places in town. The hotel is a little way out anyway, and I wouldn’t have wanted to walk on my own into town in the dark so the restaurant next door has been very handy.

Quepos

7 March

I caught a 6am bus this morning heading for Puntarentes. Niria came to the fore once again and not only got up to make me a coffee and sandwich, but also drove me to the bus depot, which saved a 20 minute walk with my (heavy) backpack, in the dark. I think she has really gone beyond the call of duty as a host!

Hills near Monteverde
Hills near Monteverde

Inevitably, the bus was full of backpackers with me being the oldest by 30+ years. We picked up and dropped off local people along the 3 1/2 trip to Puntarenes. The road was extremely slow and dusty and it took 2 1/2 hours to do 35km. We stopped at the junction with the main road, which was obviously a crossover of bus routes, as a lot of people got off there, a number of the backpackers being a little bewildered as to what was happening, it seemed. There was a huge traffic jam going in the opposite direction to us but I never really discovered why.

On the road from Monteverde
On the road from Monteverde
Pier at Puntarenes
Pier at Puntarenes

We arrived in Puntarenes at about 9.30am and had to wait for an hour for the bus to Quepos. By this time, there were only 2 French girls, an Israeli couple and me left as the rest had gone to catch ferries or changed buses for Liberia. The Israeli girl was a bit alarmed that I was going to find the toilets as she had read that Puntarenes is extremely dangerous. We had already had the police on the bus giving us a talk about security so she may have been right but I wasn’t about to embark on another 3 hour bus trip without going! (You never know whether the public buses will stop along the way or not.)

Puntarenes beach
Puntarenes beach

This bus was much more of a local bus and had a lot of stopping and starting. I think we had probably been put on the slow bus rather than the non-stopping, but it was all quite interesting. As we got to Jaco and beyond, more tourists got on and off. The coast along here seemed to have a lot of resort type places and was more developed.

River at Quepos
River at Quepos

We arrived in Quepos about 1pm and I made my way, absolutely dripping in the heat, to the hotel I had booked. The man, whom I assume was the owner, judging by his manner, wore plentiful gold jewellery and didn’t have a lot of English, checked me in and I headed for the shower, only to find that there was no water coming out of the taps. When I went to query this with the man, I don’t think he believed me until he found that the cleaners hadn’t got water in the other rooms either. (Wonder how clean those rooms were?) I was assured that it would be back on later and I went off to town feeling extremely hot and sticky.

Late afternoon sun at Quepos
Late afternoon sun at Quepos

When I first walked to the hotel, I was a little unsure about the area. There were a lot of fences with barbed wire on the top and this generally is not a good sign. Having walked around a little, I’ve realised the hotel is probably not in the best of areas but is not too bad as long as I don’t wander around at night. (Rum, wine and peanuts for dinner – always good for diary writing!) As I was extremely thirsty, I stopped at a Mexican cafe and had a beer and tortilla wrap, which wasn’t quite the intention but was welcome nevertheless. I sat at a table by the window (if there had been a window, which there wasn’t) and watched the people go by, which I always find extremely entertaining.

The place seems to be a mix of locals, ex-pats, tourists and oddballs which makes it very interesting. My first impression was that it was quite a poor and somewhat sleazy area but, judging by the marina and ongoing building, there must be a lot of money here somewhere.

Farmers market at Quepos
Farmers market at Quepos

As it happened, there was also a bookshop right in my line of sight whilst I was sitting in the cafe and, as these are irresistible, this was my next stop. Luckily, most of the books were second hand, albeit more than I would normally pay, so I was able to buy one to add to the weight in my pack. The customers coming and going and the staff (Americcan) were fascinating in themselves so quite a while was spent perusing! At one point, a missionary started pontificating, but luckily the shop owner cut him off.

Across the road from the marina in Quepos
Across the road from the marina in Quepos
Marina at Quepos
Marina at Quepos
Unknown fruit on market
Unknown fruit on market

I walked down to the waterfront where a farmers market was setting up and then around the marina as far as I could. There were security guards at all entrances, a small cruise boat sitting slightly off shore and a number of largish yachts moored. It is also obviously being extended as there was a large area cordoned off and a number of diggers in action.

Quepos marina
Quepos marina
Sunset in Quepos
Sunset in Quepos

I bought a large pineapple and some mangos at the market and then sat and watched the sunset, talking to a Canadian Dutchman afterwards. After that, it was back to the hotel via a supermarket and a nice cold shower, there being no hot water in this expensive hotel. I decided I had better cut up the pineapple before I had the rum, knowing my propensity for self harm with a sharp knife and not having anyone to help clean up the damage, but this proved to be a bit messy as I had to use plastic bags in place of plates. It was a very tasty pineapple though!

Onions on the Farmers Market
Onions on the Farmers Market

Blog writing, whilst plugged into music, was the finale of the day – just hope there’s no-one in the next room, listening to my singalong.

Quepos

8 March

This morning, after venturing out to the bakery for supplies and stopping for coffee at a local street place, I set off for Manuel Antonio National Park, which is a 15 minute bus ride from Quepos. This is apparently one of the best parks to visit as the rainforest comes right down to the sea and there are always lots of animals. Well, what a farce this turned out to be!

Just a few people at Manuel Antoinio
Just a few people at Manuel Antonio!

I arrived at about 8am, paid the entrance and got a guide, just like you are told to do. I was teamed up with the squeaky clean all American family (Mum, Dad and 2 boys), who were not too bad apart from the mother’s voice hurting my ears, and then we joined the trail of people across the park. It was so ghastly, it was a joke. I had read that they only let 500 people into the park in a day. Wrong! There must have been 500 in the first half hour. There were lots and lots of Costa Rican families accessing the beach (it being Saturday), as well as all the groups of tourists accompanied by guides. Half the tracks in the park were closed for repair, including the one that had all the views of the ocean. To add to it all, a helicopter started flying overhead, taking photographs of real estate for sale, according to our guide, something they are not allowed to do. I’m surprised there were any animals around at all. The American mother and I were not happy!

Some sort of sloth, seen through the guide's telescope
Some sort of sloth, seen through the guide’s telescope
White face monkey
White face monkey
Spot the howler monkeys!
Spot the howler monkeys!

However, we saw a few sloths, albeit through the guide’s telescope, white faced monkeys, bats and lizards. The best part though was hearing the howler monkeys and then seeing a troupe of them in the trees. Once we had finished the tour, I was able to retrace my steps and actually managed to have 2 minutes on my own watching about 7 or 8 babies swinging from branch to branch, and this made it all worthwhile. (There weren’t as many people on this part of the track as they had all stopped at the beach.)

Road sign in Manuel Antonio
Road sign in Manuel Antonio

I met Alan and Shirley and Cherie and John coming along the track so joined them for lunch. We were all extremely hot and a beer was very welcome. Some of the others found us in the cafe and it turned into a very pleasant and unexpected interlude.

I then thought I would start walking back to Quepos, which is about 7km, rather than catch the bus. Having walked up the hill, in the midday heat and humidity, I abandoned the idea though and caught the bus, of which there are plenty plying backwards and forwards between the two places.

Manuel Antonio
Manuel Antonio
Just another sunset
Just another sunset
“Beautiful” (flashing) lights on hotel roof!

Once back at the hotel, I realised what a very red face (literally) I had and was pleased to discover that there was a rooftop swimming pool – just what I needed. Later on, I walked back into town for a coffee and then joined the locals sitting on the wall watching the sun go down. There were lots of families out strolling, including a couple of very small boys trying to fly a kite but as there was absolutely no wind, they were never going to achieve their purpose. They were having a lot of fun though and they did manage to bash me in the face with it at one point! There were also lots of dog walkers, the owners either walking in the traditional way or riding their bikes with the dogs on leads beside them. It was all very amusing to watch.

As it was then getting quite dark, I made my way back to the hotel and settled in for the evening.

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