Costa Rica - 2018
October 2018 - From City life in San Jose to Coffee, Volcanoes, Rain Forests, Wildlife and Sandy Beaches. A journey through one of the friendliest and most sincerely welcoming cultures we have experienced in our travels
Traveling during the "off" season can be risky at times but rewarding if you are lucky. We happen to have been blessed with rewarding experiences despite the period of travel mostly because we remain flexible and keep expectations in check. This trip was no exception to that and provided many memorable experiences at every turn.
Prior to landing @ SJO we saw a beautiful sunset that lit up the thunder clouds surrounding the plane. Landed @ SJO airport to rain and thunderstorms. The airport seems new and is very modern, much nicer than LAX! Easily arranged an Uber for the trip to Hotel Grano de Oro. The trip took about an hour due to traffic and rain.
Arriving at Grano de Oro we drove through an industrial area that appeared to be a bad part of town but a few turns later brought us to this lovely hotel. The boutique Hotel is a converted tropical mansion which feels a bit like someones private home. It sits about 15-20 blocks from the center of San Jose where you'll find the Mercado Central and the National Theater. Convenient and much quitter than staying in the central core which is noisy and busy. The rooms are nicely appointed although some are very small. The restaurant is beautiful with a central courtyard for dining when the weather is cooperating. The food and service from breakfast to dinner were some of the best that we experienced on the trip.
We chose to stay 2 nights here in order to explore San Jose. Then move to the highlands outside of the city to explore that area for another 2 nights. If we could rewind I would have chosen to stay all 4 nights in the highlands at Finca Rosa Blanca. Its about the same distance from the airport but less traffic than going downtown. We could have easily arranged tours, taxi or an Uber to get downtown and explore.
Day 1 San Jose
Spent the rainy-day exploring San Jose on our own. With about ½ the country’s population living in the City it is crowded noisy and very third world. Our research said that there was nothing to see in San Jose and you shouldn’t spend much time there. While there isn’t the same amount of historic architecture, museums, etc… that you would expect in other major cities of similar age and history, there is plenty of culture to experience in a few days of exploring. I’d recommend getting out of the central core and explore the back streets with a guide or on your own.
Our first stop was the massive Mercado Central, definitely an immersion into the culture!
We spent time at the Beautiful Teatro Central and were fortunate to hear the National Orchestra rehearsing for a concert that night.
The Gold museum and Jade museum were both high rated things to see in the city but were somewhat of a disappointment due to their small number of exhibits. Don’t get me wrong, what was there was beautiful and told a great story of the country’s history.
The highlight of our day was an evening Urban Adventure tour with our guide Angel who exposed us to a few local highlights including an artisan chocolate maker, back streets sights and sounds, a sangria bar and great restaurant. We ran into a large protest by civil workers outside the parliament building. Parliament was voting that night on a tax increase for the country to fund civil projects and pensions. Who knew that our cultural immersion would include a taste of Costa Rica politics! Stopped at Café Deseos for a nice Sangria, then off to Restaurant Silvestre for Costa Rican style tapas. Nice restaurant and great food. Set in an old mansion with several smaller rooms and a nice central courtyard.
Day 2 Heredia
We woke to a beautiful mostly sunny day today and moved on to the highlands of Santa Barbara just outside of San Jose to Finca Rosa Blanca, an inn set within a small coffee farm at about 4,000 feet elevation. The buildings look like something that Gaudi would have designed set within a lush tropical forest filled with trees, flowers, wildlife and of course Coffee plants. The resort is somewhat isolated so other activities such as shopping and dining are a 20 minute ride away. The rooms were large and less ornate than the Grano de Oro but well maintained, clean with spectacular views and setting.
We took a private tour today that focused on the culture of the highlands. Visited many small towns including Barva, Santa Barbara and San Joaquin. Met Bombi, an artisan mask maker, saw a few churches, the old president’s mansion from the early 1900’s and a much nicer Mercado than the one in San Jose.
Dinner tonight at the hotel overlooking the valley, and San Jose city lights in the far distance. The staff is very friendly, and the food was good. Rooms here are isolated so our first night was spent listening to all the strange animal noises outside of our room, fun experience.
Day 3 Heredia
A beautiful sunny day today. We started the day with a trip up to the Poa’s volcano national park. This park was recently re-opened since its closure due to eruption in April 2017. Beautiful drive as we climbed in elevation through massive coffee farms including Starbucks at Hacienda Alsacia a global research and development facility. As we climbed higher, the landscape changed to dairy farms and strawberry fields. Many roadside stands and stores hawking the fresh strawberries and cheeses from the region. The Park limits the number of visitors and advanced reservations are needed. The limit I presume is due to the conflict about opening the park between geologists and the parks system. Visitors are issued hard hats and escorted by groups for a 20-minute peak at the crater. New bunkers were constructed for visitors in case of another eruption. I’m not sure either would do any good if the thing decided to blow again. On the way back down the mountain we stopped at a local artisan wood carver who created beautiful works from the indigenous wood from the area. We couldn’t help from picking up a few works for home. Stopped at a local restaurant for a typical Tico lunch then returned to the hotel where we spent the rest of the day relaxing around the pool and our room while enjoying the fresh cheese, bread and goods from day's trip through the mountains.
Day 4 Arenal
Today Manola drove us the three-hour drive from Barva to The Springs Resort in Arenal/La Fortuna. Manola has become a good friend as he was our tour guide and driver for the last three days. He is also a typical CR driver and needless to say this trip was no different.
We departed north from Barva toward the Nicaragua/CR border through the last of the central valley coffee farms, passing dairy, sugar cane and tropical fruit farms along the way. Through the mountains we ran into a major tropical rain storm with heavy, sight limiting rains and rivers of water on the roadway. Once we cleared the down pour, as we were moving through dairy country we ran into rush hour and a traffic jam of cows being driven down the roadway to the next fertile pasture for grazing. There are many roadside sellers in CR, many selling fruits from the nearby farms or picked from the wild. Manolo stopped alongside one along the way (stopping in the middle of our lane, not pulling to the side of the road which is a common practice in CR) a bought a large bag, 2 kilos for less than $1 US of Mamon fruit to munch on along the way, the bag was nearly finished by the time we arrived in La Fortuna, apparently one of Manolo’s favorites (and ours too…).
We arrived at the resort entrance which is off the main road and proceeded down a long private road to the resort. Just a short way down the road we encountered a tree full of howler monkeys feeding on seeds and fruit. The resort appeared about a mile in and is reminiscent of a luxury destination resort in places like the big island Hawaii. Although smaller at less than 200 rooms it is large for Arenal standards. The resort is well appointed, landscaped and maintained. The staff are very friendly and accommodating. The rooms are massive with 14’ ceilings, local hardwood finishes and all the modern conveniences. But the view is the most stunning part of the property! When reserving the hotel, it was one of the only properties in this area where the rooms had an actual view of the Volcano. So glad we booked this one as the view is absolutely amazing, a full picturesque view from inside and on the balcony of the Arenal volcano. Clouds surround and sometimes envelope the volcano but when it appears, contrary to logic more so in the wet season than the dry season, it is an incredible site. We had a late lunch in one of the resorts open air restaurants while viewing a major downpour and lightning show, wondered around the grounds a bit and enjoyed the rest of the evening on the terrace of our room taking in the amazing scenery.
Day 5 Arenal
We’ve been blessed with good weather during our trip. Aside from the few downpours we’ve seen a lot of sun considering this is the wet season. This morning we took a very hot and humid guided hike through the tropical rain forest along the Arenal river, onsite at the resort. We saw many species of plants, several small Strawberry Poison Dart Frogs and armies of large rain-forest ants in long columns carrying chunks of leaves from the forest floor back to their nest. We then toured the animal Sanctuary at the resorts Club Rio to see rescued Toucans, Capuchin, White Faced and Spider Monkeys, Sloths, Puma, Ocelots, Margays and Jaguarondi.
The rest of the afternoon we hung out in the numerous pools on property that are all fed by the natural hot springs. Each pool is a different temperature, so you can hop between them or pick your favorite temperature. I prefer the one at the lowest temperature 87 degrees, oh did I mention this one had a swim up bar too? Not that the swim up bar influenced my decision in any way.
We had dinner in the resort’s “Italian” restaurant, more an Italian/CR fusion at best, while enjoying a spectacular sunset and tropical storm lightning show.
Day 6 Arenal
We decided to take the day off today😎😊 and enjoy the resorts facilities. The Perdido springs is an area of cascading pools set in a tranquil tropical forest that feature the waters from natural mineral springs. Each pool is kept at a different temperature ranging from 76 to 103 degrees. We spent hours soaking between pools and lounging under the shad of the tropical forest.
We took a break for a late afternoon lunch at the resorts Treetop Grille that overlooks the tops of secondary growth forest. During lunch we were entertained by a sloth slowly moving through a tree and a pair of Curassow, a turkey like bird but better looking, chasing each other around the trees.
Day 7 Manuel Antonio
Transition day today as we move to our next destination Arenas Del Mar near Manuel Antonio State Park and the beach. We hired a driver for this trip since there are not many other options. The airline that used to do most of the inter country flights has shut down due to some operating issues? Maybe its best that we traveled by car. The drive was approximately 6 hours and took us back across the same mountain range and same road until about San Ramon where we split and headed south west towards Jaco and our final destination. Manuel Antonio is located on the Pacific side of the country about the middle of it N/S. Scenic countryside ride until just south of Jaco where we ran into another strong tropical storm producing heavy rain and flooding on the roads at times. Just before the rain we were fortunate to see a large flock of Macaw's flying around. Beautiful, large and multi colored Mary said they look like Kites when in flight.
We traveled through Quepos, the closest town near ADM resort and park, then up the hill towards our destination. Still raining very hard, we found the private road leading to the resort. A narrow very steep descent into a gated entrance and the covered open air welcome reception area where the driver pulled right in adjacent to the desk. No vehicles are permitted past this area other than the golf carts the resort uses to shuttle guests around the resort. After processing our check in we jumped into a covered golf cart, still pouring rain, a shade opened in front of us from the covered reception area as we headed out into the even narrower and steep trail to the main part of the resort. As the shade opened the driver said “Welcome to Jurassic park” it truly felt like that looking ahead into the secondary forest, pouring rain and steep narrow cobble stone and gravel road.
The resort is small, set on a steep hillside just above the Ocean/beach and crashing waves. In a deep secondary tropical forest with 7 separate three story buildings housing the guest rooms. The paths/roadway is steep and narrow but golf carts and drivers are readily available to take you to and from your room to other areas in the resort the staff is genuinely friendly. The rooms are small but clean, well maintained and private. We opted for an ocean view room and were perched on the third floor above the ocean cliff where the crashing waves could be heard clearly down below. Consider a larger room if you are traveling with family or desire more space.
We went to an early dinner at the resorts restaurant on the beach and sat under cover in the open air space watching an epic thunderstorm as we ate. After dinner retired to our room to watch an epic thunder & lightening show for the rest of the night. Thunder so loud we were convinced that a few trees and buildings were hit through the night, what an amazing show!
Day 8 Manuel Antonio
This morning the rain and thunder subsided so we took a walk through the resorts forest path looking for wildlife, but all was quiet since the heavy overnight storm. Taking advantage of the break in the storm, we headed to the beach that runs between the resort and MA national park for a walk along the sand. There are two beaches easily accessible from the resort, a small private beach called Playita where there is a restaurant, bar, pool and a large area with tables, chairs and lounges set under the shade of tropical trees just above the sand. The second and much larger beach is a long stretch of public beach that runs between the resort and MANP.
After breakfast, we headed back to the public beach, lounged in the sand under a big shade tree near a tree holding a large sloth and her cub. The water was very warm and waves were moderate making for a great time in the water to cool off.
We took an early evening tour of the local farmers market in Quepos with our guide Estaphan who shared great information about the area on the short drive there. The market was open air like what you might see in California with mostly food stalls, but a few crafts were there as well. Everything form basic produce to exotic fruits and coffees we represented, and we tasted many fruits and vegetables in season that are part of the local diet. Mamones, also known as Lychee fruit are some of my favorite. We tasted coffee, local cheeses and more. There was also a “food Truck” the German butcher selling brats, sausages and pate, didn’t expect to see that here. Although they do say that the best restaurants/food are those with expat chefs.
Day 9 Manuel Antonio
We woke this morning to the sounds of the local howler monkeys. If you have not heard them they have a very loud, low guttural cry that echoes through the hillside. We decided to go out after daylight and try to see them on the resort grounds. Right near our room we observed about 4 of them swinging through several trees providing a frequent low howl, it was an amazing site.
Another warm rain free day which was a welcome change from what we experienced on day one. We decided to spend the morning in Quepos to do a little souvenir hunting, so we hailed an uber, walked around the town but not much to see here other than the locals going about their daily chores. We walked along the Malecon, amazed at how low the tide was and how different it was from what we saw the night before. Last night waves were breaking right up to the Malecon, today the break was more that 300 yards from the Malecon leaving boats in the working marina land locked and sitting in the sand. Along the Malecon we walked to the new Marina where a few new bars/restaurants and shops were open catering mostly to tourists as this is where charters and fishing boats depart
Couldn’t find an available Uber when we were done in Quepos so we took a local taxi up to Se Como No another local resort in the small town of MA perched higher up the hill from ADM where we are staying. Nice lunch near the pool overlooking MANP and the ocean below.
Headed back to ADM and hung out at the private beach, Playita for the rest of the afternoon
Day 10 Manuel Antonio
Up early for a private tour of MANP this morning, booked through the resort with our guide Ely. Ely was a young local guide but very knowledgeable about the local wildlife and had a keen eye and ear in locating things for us to see. We were blessed with great weather again today mostly sunny after a brief overnight shower which was ideal for wildlife activity in the morning. The park is beautiful, mostly secondary growth with a portion along the beach. Throughout the park we saw several birds including Toucans, clay colored Thrush (national bird), blue-crowned Manakin, Heron, Hummingbirds and many more. We saw green frogs, snakes, two and three toed Sloths, Aracari, Howler monkeys, white faced Capuchin monkeys (the local mafia, they’ll steal anything they can), Racoons, Agouti, tent-making Bat, Iguana, Caiman, spiders, army ants and much more. In addition to the wildlife the beaches in the park are beautiful.
After the tour we had pizza for lunch at El Wagon which was a recommend from a couple that we met earlier in the week. Wood fired, not bad. After lunch we returned to our resort beach La Playita for a few cocktails, swim in the warm ocean and a nap in the lounge chairs under the shade trees. We stayed until after the beautiful sunset and watched the evening rain storm roll in.
Day 11 Manuel Antonio
Our last day at MA/ADM. We were scheduled for a catamaran trip this morning but received word last night that it was canceled due to weather. So instead we spent the morning having a casual breakfast enjoying the views and a few hours on La Playita soaking in the sun and sounds of the waves crashing on the rocks and sand. Back to the room, packed up and bid farewell to the CR coast.
Headed back to San Jose and Hotel Grana do Oro for an overnight before our flight home tomorrow. Rain most of the way and heavy traffic due to a national holiday and end of a three-day weekend for the locals. What was to be a 3-hour drive became a monotonous 5 hour grind. We stopped just before Jaco to observe a flock of Macaw's feeding in the trees along the road. They were beautiful to watch as they cried and flew around chasing each other.
Dinner at the Hotel Grano de Oro was a nice treat. The room, food and service were nicely done and capped off a great trip.
Day 12 San Jose
Uneventful but long travel day today. Left the Hotel at 10:00am landed in LA at 9:30 and finally home at 11:30pm
A few things we learned about Costa Rica
Costa Ricans are well educated, articulate, happy and love their country. One of the friendliest and most sincerely welcoming cultures we have experienced in our travels.
English language is very prevalent throughout the country, a little less in more rural areas and with some local vendors. They appreciate any effort you can make to communicate in their native language.
Costa Ricans are terrible drivers! On our trip we chose to hire a driver to move between areas visited and use local transportation (UBER, Taxi, etc...) Rental cars are very inexpensive but if you choose to drive in Costa Rica you do so at your own risk. Terrible and aggressive are not two characteristics that you want in others that you share the road with. Even our hired drivers seemed like they just graduated from the knock off version of the Mario Andretti school of self-centered driving.
Drive as fast as you can
Continue to drive 1/3 of the way into intersections before you stop and look
Pass on any double lined blind curve
Stop completely in the lane of traffic to drop someone off, buy something from a roadside vendor or just to chat with someone on the side of the road.
Not to mention that road signs and directions are nonexistent in most cases. Most if not all roads are two lanes, many rough and poorly maintained, most are curvy and mountainous. If you choose to drive, rent a car only at your destination for short well-planned local trips.
While the food is good, fresh and wholesome, Costa Ricans (Ticos) in general live a life sustained by rice, beans, some chicken and pork, yucca/cassava, plantains and tropical fruits and they love their coffee and sweets. Local dishes may be perceived by others as bland and poorly seasoned but hearty and fresh. When asking travelers, most will say that the best restaurants/food for the foreign palate are those owned/cooked by expats.
There is no standing military in Costa Rica. Abolished in 1948 but they do maintain small police force (Think National Guard) instead. Instead of an army, they spend their money on Education, Healthcare, and other Social services.
According to those we interacted with, there are very few guns in the country. This in their opinion keep violent crime at a low to nonexistent level. May need to do some fact checking here but if its true something the we can learn as a country! I guess the NRA hasn’t been to Costa Rica yet 😎
In our experience the country seems safe. San Jose is not the cleanest, streets are dirty and the smell of exhaust is prevalent due to very high traffic. Always take precautions in a foreign country that limit the chances of you becoming a victim.