Expensive. Americanised. Touristy. All words I had heard a number of people use to describe Costa Rica in the last few weeks, and so perhaps my expectations were tempered. But, in the short time I had there, Costa Rica delivered on all fronts, with a combination of great activities and meeting great people giving me my best week since leaving Guatemala. The country was a pleasure, too, with spectacular and diverse scenery and a whole lot of smiles – the national motto and all-purpose phrase of greeting and approval is “Pura Vida” (literally “pure life”), and Ticas have an infectious enthusiasm that goes deeper than the usual tourist industry sales pitch positivity.
Arriving in La Fortuna in a torrential downpour may not have been the best start to Tica life, but, once dry, I booked a tour for the next day, had some food at the hostel and had myself a much needed post-Sunday Funday early night.
The tour I had booked was billed as the “2 volcano extreme hike”, which might be a bit of a misnomer, given that we only ascended one volcano (the other, Volcan Arenal, is too active to be climbed and was seen from a viewpoint) and there wasn’t much extreme about it. It was, nonetheless, a fun, varied and active day.
We started at the Arenal Observatory Lodge, looking out over the volcano, and then headed to Cerro Chato, an inactive volcano. We had a big group but the guides were lively and well-organised, and the climb was a lot of fun, with a fair bit of scrambling and plenty of room to be adventurous. Thereafter we headed to a waterfall (just in time for our daily drenching from above) and then to a hot river, warmed by geothermal activity, which was a bit like being in a jacuzzi with a very strong current. The guides gave us local spirits mixed with Fresca (kind of like Lilt) and volcanic mud facials – a pretty luxurious end to a good day.
The next morning I set off for Monteverde – right next door on the map, but a hell of a long way by road thanks to the natural obstacles of lakes and mountains. The quickest way is the “jeep-boat-jeep” combo – a shuttle bus (sadly not an actual jeep) to the lake shore, a boat across the lake, and another shuttle to the town of Santa Elena, the base for exploring the Monteverde region. We got some stunning views on the boat ride, as well as a bit of drama when someone found a huge spider on them and nearly jumped overboard.
Monteverde and Santa Elena are known for wildlife and cloud forests, and also for being the birthplace of ziplining in Central America (as well as a number of other adrenaline sports – the Queenstown of Central America, if you will). I met Germans Jannis and Julia and Canadian Marcel just after checking in, and together we booked a night hike (most of the animals are nocturnal) and a zipline tour.
The night hike was a mild disappointment, not seeing much other than insects and spiders, but wildlife is pretty random so you win some and lose some. The ziplining the next morning, on the other hand, was pretty sensational.
The tour started gently with a few short ziplines, but quickly escalated to a much higher level of adrenaline. We had a few stunning kilometre-plus rides over the canopy, initially hooked up vertically and then “Superman-style”, hanging below the rope on a harness, looking down over the canopy far below, knowing exactly how far we’d fall if the equipment gave way!
The piece de resistance, however, wasn’t a zipline but rather the “Tarzan swing”, which involved walking to the end of a rope bridge, being checked over for attachments by the instructors, and the stepping through a gate into thin air. It was a 45 metre free fall followed by a huge swing through the air – pretty close to a bungee jump, which isn’t something I thought I would ever do! I’m glad I went early, and then got to enjoy everyone else’s shrieks of horror from the safety of the ground. It really, truly feels for a second like you’re going to die, and then when you realise you won’t the adrenaline rush is enormous.
The four of us and 2 American girls from the tour (Carly and AP) headed for an substantial Costa Rican lunch to get over the morning’s activities. A casado is a typical Costa Rican plate, consisting of meat or fish, rice, beans, plantains, cheese and salad – a variation on the regional theme, but definitely tastier than the average Nicaraguan or Guatemalan comida tipica.
The rest of my time in Monteverde was pleasant, including a walk to a giant Ficus tree that you can almost climb into, more incredible tacos, and an evening drinking and hanging out. I left early the next morning, with fond memories of this little town up in the clouds.
Friday (2nd June for those keeping track – yes, I’m a bit behind!) was an epic travel day, with an early bus from Monteverde to the capital San Jose, and then another bus onwards to Cahuita way down on the Caribbean coast – in total, the best part of 12 hours. I got to see dramatic changes in the scenery, with Alpine hills giving way to a high volcanic plateau and eventually the humid, flat coastal lowlands of the east coast – the first time in my life I had seen the Caribbean. I also met up with an old travel friend in San Jose who travelled with me to Cahuita – Laurien, who I met on the Stray bus in New Zealand last year and who has been in Central America for several months (but until now always ahead of me).
The bus from San Jose to Cahuita was backpacker-heavy, and as we got off we met an English guy called Nick who joined us in our search for accommodation. We found a triple room in a basic but charming little place right on the waterfront, with wild waves crashing against the rocks.
We spent a fun evening in a streetside bar in the little (and quite un-touristy) town, soaking up the Caribbean vibes and chatting about everything from travel to politics to feminism to space travel. The next day we set off to explore the national park – 12km of pristine coastline and rainforest right on our doorstep, bursting with nature and wildlife. We saw monkeys, hermit crabs, bright blue butterflies, and even the elusive Jesus lizard (which can walk on water) – the only disappointment was no sloths. They were certainly in there, but sadly out of view.
Cahuita was a lovely off-the-beaten-track stop in this heavily visited country. Laurien and I moved on to the much more touristy Puerto Viejo the next morning, just a short half-hour bus down the coast. We spent a pleasant afternoon and evening exploring the beaches and a couple of bars – apparently it’s a good place to party, but we were looking for a quieter time and were happy to get a reasonably early night. When you’re travelling longer-term it’s important to have some chilled days – it’s very easy to feel the need to do something all the time, or to drink with new people every evening, but that’s not sustainable over 3 months.
The next morning we visited the Jaguar Rescue Sanctuary, which rehabilitates and/or rehouses wild animals ranging from big cats to monkeys, reptiles, birds and sloths. They didn’t have any jaguars when we visited but we finally got to see some of Costa Rica’s favourite animal, the sloth – big, sleepy bundles of fur wearing dazed smiles. We also saw ocelots, toucans, spider monkeys and a whole range of wildlife up close – it felt much more intimate and real than a zoo, and was fully worth the $20 we spent.
After that, it was time for yet another border crossing – the hottest, sweatiness one to date, crossing the bridge over the croc-infested River Sixaola to get to Panamanian immigration. The landscape in this corner of the country is richly, consummately tropical, with banana plantations, muddy brown rivers and dense rainforest, everything coated in a thick haze of heat and humidity, life reduced to a slow crawl by the elements.
Formalities complete, we had a hectic shuttle ride to the port of Almirante (tearing terrifyingly through mountain roads to make the last boat) followed by a much more sedate water taxi across to the archipelago of Bocas Del Toro, my first stop in Panama. That, of course, is for the next entry – I’m playing catch-up so plan to write up my time in Panama pretty soon!
Where I stayed
La Fortuna Backpacker Resort – a sprawling but rather regimented chain hostel, decent facilities (bar, restaurant, pool) but little charm, and the unedifying experience of 1 bathroom for a 12 bed dorm
Monteverde Backpackers – part of the same chain but somehow vastly different – small, cosy and comfortable, with piping hot power-showers for those chilly mountain nights and free breakfast.
Spencer’s Cabins, Cahuita – a cheap hotel rather than a hostel, really basic but great location on the water
Pagalu, Puerto Viejo – only had one night here but liked it a lot – well-run, spacious, super comfortable beds and a nice vibe