Pacific to the Caribbean

San Jose

9 March

Quepos main street on a Sunday morning
Quepos main street on a Sunday morning

After a restless night because of the heat and humidity, I went for a last walk into Quepos where I had a coffee and then returned to the bakery where I had bought bread and pastries yesterday. It was closed! I should have thought of that. As it was Sunday morning there was very little open but luckily I managed to find one place that sold empenadas and a sandwich.

Quepos marina
Quepos marina
Promenade for sunset watching
Promenade for sunset watching
Mosaic and statue in Quepos
Mosaic and statue in Quepos

Back at the hotel, I packed up and waited in the air conditioning until the last possible moment before checking out and then strolled down to the bus station where I waited nearly an hour for the bus to San Jose. I amused myself by watching and listening to the other people waiting though. There are so many Americans here, either living permanently, escaping their winter or just as tourists.

The 3 hour trip passed uneventfully and we arrived in San Jose at about 3pm. I got a taxi to the hotel, which is a lovely old restored house, painted bright pink. My room was the last one available and as there had been a mix up with bookings, I almost didn’t have one.

Fleur de Lys Hotel
Fleur de Lys Hotel

As my pack is really too heavy, I had decided that I have to send some of my purchases back to NZ, expensive or not, so I then went on a mission to find a box. Luckily, I chanced upon an office supplies place, who didn’t sell them but gave me one of their broken down ones, which I taped up. Not ideal, but better than brown paper (which also seems elusive in San Jose, anyway).

Back at the hotel, I packed up the box and pottered about before having a pre dinner drink on the veranda (welcome cocktail included in the room although as there was only a splash of alcohol in it, it was more of a fruit punch really!). I then had quite a surreal dining experience in a wooded panelled restaurant, surrounded by French people and a waiter that dotted around very Manuel-like, speaking bits of English, French and Spanish. I’m struggling enough to remember where I am without experiences like that! However, unexpected turn of events like that make travel all worthwhile, as you never quite know what is going to happen next.

San Jose

10 March

Inside the Fleur de Lys hotel
Inside the Fleur de Lys hotel
Inside the hotel
Inside the hotel

Well, the hotel that seemed so delightful yesterday was not quite so endearing at 4.30am today. Somehow, not only had I failed to notice the train tracks that passed within 2 metres of the hotel, (obviously no trains on Sundays) but also, large groups of very loud French and American tourists left the hotel between 4.30 and 8am and, as my room was right next to the reception area, I heard everything.

When I got up, there was no water coming out of the hot tap and brownish water coming out of the cold. Something was not quite right! Apparently, a pipe had broken on the roof and water had been distributed around the place, causing some damage in the process, but wasn’t quite making it to the taps. The problem continued throughout the day, with workmen labouring all around the hotel.

Anyway, I whinged and whined at Reception about the tourist noise and they gave me another room upstairs and I am so glad they did or I would not have appreciated the extent or the novelty of the place. It is all very old fashioned and the building has obviously been added on to here and there. All the rooms have their own names my current one being Narcizo and my previous one something unpronounceable.

Verandah of the hotel (not my beer!)
Veranda of the hotel (not my beer!)
One of the lounge areas in the hotel
One of the lounge areas in the hotel

My one and only mission of the day was to post my parcel. I’m not quite sure why posting a parcel was such a mission but it was – maybe something to do with not speaking the language and nobody understanding what I was asking for (box and brown paper). However, the mission was eventually accomplished at vast expense and I have no doubt that when I get home and look at the purchases I will wonder why on earth I bought them and then spent money shipping them home, but at least my pack is now 3kg lighter!

After this, I almost felt I needed a lie down to recover but thought I had better do something cultural instead so went and had a look at the Cathedral. Unfortunately, there was a service in progress and when the offertory bags started coming along the pews, I left. I then headed for the Jade Museum, which is apparently worth visiting but was closed last week (was it really only a week ago?) when I went. It was still closed so I was obviously not meant to see it. After this, it seemed like a good idea to go back to the hotel for a rest.

San Jose Post Office
San Jose Post Office
Strange graffiti in San Jose
Strange graffiti in San Jose

I went out for a walk again later. The streets were much busier than the morning but I still feel San Jose has little going for it as a capital city apart from the temperature, which is bearable, and the lack of humidity, which is wonderful. I stopped for a coffee and spent a bit more time people watching and then came back to the hotel to try and lighten the rum load! The workmen were still going with drills and saws and there was no water at all. It didn’t come back on until 8.30pm.

Puerto Viejo

11 March

Today was a travel day. I arrived at the bus station in time for the 10am bus to Puerto Viejo only to find that it was full (of backpackers) so had to wait until 12 for the next one. Whilst there, I bumped into Helen from the tour group, who had sensibly bought her ticket the day before, and arranged to meet her later for dinner.

The journey was uneventful and passed through some lovely scenery once again. Puerto Viejo is on the Caribbean side of the country so I was back into tropical, green vegetation once again. The only stop was in Limon for a few minutes. Judging by the amount of container storage places along the road (Maersk and Dole being prominent), the number of trucks heading that way and the number of container ships moored off the coast, this is a very busy port. I’m not sure of the appeal for the cruise ship passengers from the very modern ship that was berthed there though! From what I saw of the town, it was distinctly unappealing.

My current abode
My current abode

The bus arrived about 4pm and I walked to the hostel I had booked. This was new territory for me as I thought I would try a private room in a hostel rather than a hotel to see if I would meet more people. I can’t quite bring myself to try the dorms though! The room was OK and there was a nice common area but everybody seemed to be out and about.

Balcony outside my room
Balcony outside my room

I went for a walk to the supermarket and then met Helen. Puerto Viejo is absolutely full of cafes/restaurants and souvenir shops and has lovely beaches and a well known surf break. We picked a small local soda place (cafe) and had a very good chicken dinner, Caribbean style and then it was off to bed.

Puerto Viejo

12 March

Puerto Viejo
Puerto Viejo

For the first time, I made my own breakfast (possible because I actually had a fridge in my room and bowls etc in the hostel kitchen) and afterwards had coffee across the road (couldn’t work out how to light the gas stove for water, otherwise I would have made my own).

I then went for a short walk towards Puerto Viejo before meeting Helen to go for a walk along the beach in the opposite direction. The idea was to walk as far as we wanted and catch the bus back. However, the bus never arrived, so we walked most of the way back along the road and part way along the beach. (Mad dogs and Englishmen out in the midday sun!)

Beach near Puerto Viejo
Beach near Puerto Viejo

We had rests along the way and I had a dip in the sea, which was beautifully warm and hotter than the lovely cold showers we are experiencing in the hostels.

Surfboards and bike - Puerto Viejo in a nutshell
Surfboards and bike – Puerto Viejo in a nutshell
Big spider
Big spider
Tree chopping Cost Rica style
Tree chopping Costa Rica style

We both adjourned to our separate hostels for an hour or so and I sat downstairs to read. I eventually became conscious of a persistent saw-like noise, which culminated in a big thump. This was when I realised they were chain sawing limbs off a tree right outside the hostel. Health and safety did not seem to enter into the situation. The saw man was on a cherry picker stretched to the limit and was waving a long arm saw around until he achieved his purpose, whereupon the branch fell straight down onto the road.

One or two other men did actually stop the traffic at this point but otherwise there was no attempt at crowd or traffic control! Very entertaining and quite mind boggling from someone from an over the top health and safety conscious country.

Sign on pub wall in Puerto Viejo
Sign on Outback bar in Puerto Viejo (obviously Australian owned)

There was a momentary lull in the tree felling and I was able to escape from the hostel when Helen arrived. We walked in and around town, such as it is, which is mainly cafes and souvenir shops. There seems to be an abundance of hippy type stuff in the shops, no doubt to cater for the ageing hippies in evidence around the place, as well as a very strong smell of incense everywhere. There are also bicycles to rent  and this seems to be a preferred form of transport for both locals and tourists.

Cafe near Puerto Viejo
Cafe near Puerto Viejo

It was very hot and sticky and the blue sky had disappeared so Helen went off to Skype her sister and I came back to my room to read. We stopped so that I could have a coffee fix along the way and, whilst there, watched a young couple (probably Eastern European, judging by the language) with backpacks, a young boy and a baby in a pushchair going from place to place, obviously looking for somewhere to stay. I didn’t envy them! Unfortunately they ended up in a room close to mine and the toddler soon demonstrated the power of his lungs, which brought back memories of a certain son, who also had a tendency to be extremely vocal.

I met Helen for dinner and we went to a different soda place, where we had a good cheap, chicken cassada, which is a typical Costa Rican dish and very tasty. The walk back to the hostel was via the supermarket so that Helen could spend her last few colonnas, as she was leaving tomorrow.

Puerto Viejo

13 March

The day did not begin well and I became very grumpy when I realised there was yet another handicap to travelling solo. I tried to book a couple of hikes with guides, one a night jungle walk and the other in Manzanillo Park, neither of which I could do without a guide, apparently. However, no one else was booked and the guides will not go with just one person but I could, of course, always pay for two people, if I wanted to go…….. I think not! I was definitely left wondering why I am doing what I am doing and whether it is all worth it. There are distinct advantages to being part of a tour group, if you can put up with the 17 other people. I also had to change rooms this morning, as the one I had with the private bathroom was booked by someone else. This put me in another grump although I would have to say, the new room is a lot nicer and the shower tonight actually had hot water, so maybe there are some bonuses to sharing (which, of course, I am not normally good at).

Street in Puerto Viejo
Street in Puerto Viejo
Path through the trees in Manzanillo
Path through the trees in Manzanillo

Having dropped off my washing at the laundry for a proper clean, rather than the rather random hand washing it has been having, I decided to go to Manzanillo. Being a glutton for punishment, rather than wait half an hour for the bus, I started walking, in the midday heat again. I was quite warm, to say the least, by the time the bus came. It is only 12km from Puerto Viejo to Manzanillo and I had already walked half of them, so it didn’t take long to get there.

Street sign in the trees at Manzanillo
Street sign in the trees at Manzanillo

Once off the bus, I followed the beach until it came to the trees/forest at the far end and wandered through there for a little while until I became a little uncomfortable as to how far it was safe to go. However, even the short walk away from people, made me feel a lot better, and by the time I had cooked myself for an hour or two on the beach, with a few dips in the warm Caribbean in between, I was even better. I also had a chat to the German lady that I had sat next to on the bus from San Jose.

Fishermen at Manzanillo
Fishermen at Manzanillo
Manzanillo village centre
Manzanillo village centre

Whilst waiting for the bus to come back, I had a walk around Manzanilla itself. That took about 5 minutes and then I watched a crowd of boys playing soccer. The fancy footwork was quite amazing, given that the footwear was flip flops!

Soccer players and their audience in Manzanillo
Soccer players and their audience in Manzanillo
Street in Manzanillo
Street in Manzanillo

On the bus, a local boy treated the entire bus to his rap collection of music at a fairly loud decibel, which, I have to say, I didn’t fully appreciate. I picked up my beautiful smelling laundry from the backstreet laundromat, pulling down their net door curtain in the process (luckily, ‘los siento’ is one of the few words I have learned in Spanish), and then came back to the room for a shower and to finish the rum before heading out for dinner, at a place of my choice (and mine alone!)

Cafe sign in Puerto Viejo
Cafe sign in Puerto Viejo

This was at a cafe that had been dismissed the night before as being too expensive (and it was really, but oh well….) It only opens when they have caught some fish, there is no menu and the choice was the standard size fish or the big fish (can’t remember the name of it). They also did cocktails made by an ex New York barrista. Need I say more? Drinking alone again, (how sad), I enjoyed the entertainment as well as the food. The father caught the fish and the son (who sounded very American but I thought I heard his father say he was Hungarian), was the waiter and a very unconventional one at that. He came and sat at the tables and chatted, lured people in and was generally very amusing. The only fly in the ointment was a very loud English girl who was having some fairly lewd conversation with the 3 men she was dining with and, of course, I had no choice but to listen.

After a couple of rum cocktails and the most expensive dinner I have had to date, I then wended my way back to the hostel and bed and listened to the torrential rain that seemed to come out of nowhere.

Puerto Viejo

14 March

The rain was torrential during the night (apparently the first in 3 months) and it was quite overcast and grey until lunchtime, although still hot and humid. I did very little this morning and then hired a bike for the rest of the day, mainly because I had booked a tour at a chocolate place and there was no other way of getting there.

Along the road
Along the road

I soon re-discovered the joy of cycling, although it was a little disconcerting to find that there were no brakes. On checking the other rental bikes that passed me, this seemed to be a consistent feature with them all and it wasn’t until a lot later in the day that I realised that I could brake by back pedalling. This did not come naturally to me, however, so it was a good that the road was flat the whole way!

I cycled towards Manzanillo for about 7 or 8 kms, passing a troupe of howler monkeys along the way, and then turned round and headed back towards the chocolate place, called Chocorata. Getting to the entrance was an adventure in itself as the road was stony, had a lot of schoolchildren (and mothers collecting them in cars and on bikes) and was not conducive to cycling, especially without brakes and control of the bike, neither of which I appeared to have at this point.

Bike parked at the Chocolate place
Bike parked at the Chocolate place
Lychee tree
Lychee tree

Anyway, I parked in the allocated shed and proceeded to the start point, where a couple of Germans joined me. Three Italians also came along and the languages became interesting! The owner/guide was originally from Switzerland and spoke 5. Luckily, the Germans spoke English, but the Italians only spoke Italian, so the tour ended up being conducted in German, English and Italian. For some inexplicable reason, I seemed to understand more Italian than German.

Road into chocolate place
Road into chocolate place

The chocolate farm was not at all as I expected. It was run by the owner with one helper and absolutely everything was done by hand. No modern machinery here! He led us through the coca plantation, where we were also able to sample lychees and mangosteen, as well as spot an armadillo and howler monkey. We tried the white coca pulp, which surrounds the bean, the beans in their natural state, then dried and roasted and finally as a chocolate drink, made with a combination of the ground bean paste, caramalized brown sugar that is produced in Costa Rica and spices. Very tasty! We were also given a sample of the finished chocolate product to try and, naturally, were encouraged to buy some.

Coca pods on tree
Coca pods on tree
Pulp of the coca pod
Pulp of the coca pod

Drying the beans
Drying the beans

Roasting the beans
Roasting the beans

Removing remaining husks from the ground beans using high tech hairdryer!
Removing remaining husks from the ground beans using high tech hairdryer!

Coca plantations have a major problem with fungus that first destroyed the trees in 1978. There is a constant battle against this even now (similarities to the kiwifruit, here) and many growers have given up and the banana companies have taken over the land. The work is very labour intensive (especially when it is all done by hand) and the grower can only expect $1.50 per kg from the large chocolate companies in Europe, who want the bean for manufacturing. The farm we toured produced 1000 kg per year, so the man is obviously making his living through doing the tours and selling the end product locally.

Grinding the roasted beans to make paste
Grinding the roasted beans to make paste
The finished product
The finished product

After the tour, I cycled back to Puerto Viejo, out the other side and round some of the backstreets before returning the bike to the hire place. By this time, I was feeling a little saddle sore so went in search of supplies for the evening and had a night in.

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