Travelogue – Costa Rica
We spent a week in Costa Rica last August. For a small country (19,000 sq. miles) Costa Rica is overloaded with choices but it was the quiet isolation of the crooked finger shaped Papagayo Peninsula that we chose as our destination.
Costa Rica is an earthy jewel like no other, a string of volcanoes and the Andes-Sierra Madre range carve a rugged backbone between the Pacific and Caribbean shores. More than a quarter of the country is protected and Costa Rica has long led the way in ecological sensitivity.
Did you know that for a place that represents only 0.01% of the world’s landmass, is home to 5% of it’s wildlife? You do now.
The Papagayo Peninsula’s abundant territory that clings to the Pacific coast has an incredible 70% of open space and kodak moments are bountiful with only the symphony of native birds for company. The squirrel and howler monkeys also make their homes here and are Papagayos’ most popular inhabitants. I don’t have a very good record for seeing local indigenous wildlife. They day I go searching for them is normally their day off, but seeing a monkey was like seeing another person on the tube, and it never got boring.
Brown sand ladened the peninsula’s beaches with the contrast of aquamarine water that was a bit too chilly to get anything more than your knees in but we lucked out with the weather as August is the month that summer has already become spring, but only once did it rain (for about an hour) in this rainy of all rain forests.
The north-west area of the country is known as Guanacaste. Those willing to explore it will be hugely rewarded. There are the National Parks of Palo Verde, Santa Rosa, Tenorio and Rincon de la Vieja which is home to a volcano that last erupted as recent as 1991. Guanacaste’s north-west isolation also has endless beaches, seaside towns, volcanoes, canyons, stunning waterfalls, cloud forests at 4,600 feet above sea level, hot thermal pools and more canopy and zip-lining activities to sap the most energetic.
Santa Rosa National Park is an important nesting beach for olive ridley sea turtles which lay their eggs in sand between July and November and night time tours are available.
Rincon de la Vieja known as a mini Yellowstone has steaming volcanic hot springs and boiling, bubbling ponds. We wanted to visit one of the famed National Parks and chose Palo Verde, where we spent a day.
A colleague of mine who knows Costa Rica well told me to trust the local GPS even when it sent you down barren dirt tracks and he was right as we drove from the hotel to Palo Verde National Park. There may have been a row or two but we managed to navigate the 2-hour journey pretty well even though we ingratiated ourselves with many backwater villages and it’s people on the way.
Palo Verde covers 76 sq. miles and we wanted to explore the Tempisque River on the north-west tip. The park is actually pretty flat and with a 2-year old a river cruise provided us with the least strenuous option. The trip was arranged by the hotel and we chartered a boat with a very knowledgeable and bilingual guide and a patient and intrepid pilot.
Off the bat we were told that 100 crocodiles patrol every mile of river bank and for over an hour I thought once again I was a jinx, but then suddenly to howls of excitement from my daughter, we saw one, staring us down like a wax-work model, and then another, and another.
Our guide pointed out a gamut of birds and wildlife including herons, storks, snakes and iguanas. Again the monkeys were the stars as they flew through the air putting on a show for the camera-waving tourists in the boats below.
It was a very worthwhile excursion and we had lunch there as well before we headed back to the coast.
On arrival we had flown from Miami into Liberia, once a dusty market town but now Guanacaste’s commercial centre complete with an international airport. There wasn’t an awful lot to see, some vestiges of it’s colonial past but mostly banks and fast food restaurants.
One trip I would have loved to have made was to Nicaragua. The border was about 90 minutes away with the pretty town of Granada another 30 minutes further on. The trouble is that you can’t drive across the border and we would have to have taken a bus, or go by pre-arranged trip. The border town of Penas Blancas is said to be busy too and is only open at certain times. I was up for the adventure but I got outvoted.
The whole idea of this holiday was to do nothing, which is a break from the norm for us. The hotel was beautiful and had everything necessary to do nothing more energetic than swim, eat and drink. Being handed the scenic jogging map on arrival was a case of mistaken identity and we only set foot on the lustrous Arnold Palmer designed golf course to explore in a golf cart the peninsula’s biodiversity and hang out with it’s natural dwellers such as the ginormous iguanas, sloths, anteaters, howler monkeys and a multi-coloured cast of birds.
Our hotel’s architecture was inspired by the local environment and habitat. I stared at the reception building long enough to see it resemble the lip of a clay pot complete with a roof that resembled the splayed wings of a butterfly. Guest room roof’s mimicked leatherback turtles and the shells of armadillos.
Those of you that are regular readers know that I have a predilection for hotels and our room was right up there with the best I have seen. Built into a hillside surrounded by nothing other than trees with swinging monkeys I considered every night to sleep on the terrace with my feet dangling in our personal plunge pool instead of the bed that resembled a cloud.
For our stay temporary membership of the Prieta Beach Club was afforded to us, where we could hide away and listen to the crashing surf whilst picking at sushi.
We only ate in the hotel and Beach Club, the nearest life at Playa Hermosa or Playa Ocotal was a few miles away and although we had a car, it all seemed too much of an effort and the funky beach town of Tamarindo will have to wait for another time.
One disappointment was that Costa Rica didn’t appear to offer anything distinctive in the food stakes. A lot of black beans, salads and fish but it would explain the Italian, Spanish, Brazilian and Pacific Rim themes of the onsite restaurants.
The local beer was good though, with my taste buds preferring the Imperial over the Pilsen. Costa Rica has one of the richest economies in Central America and this is mostly because of it’s exports. Costa Rican bananas and pineapples are wanted all over the world and so is it’s coffee.
19th Century Costa Rica was a ‘coffee republic’ and coffee remains inexorably entwined with the country. Sadly the best stuff, mostly from the Central Valley, gets shipped but high-quality coffee was still served in the hotel and we spent one afternoon at an enlightening coffee-tasting.
Football is the countries national sport and I was often reminded of Paulo Wanchope and bar staff were excited to tell me all about Bryan Ruiz, who moved to Fulham from Holland last season.
The local team in Guancaste is Municipal Liberia, who have had an interesting few seasons with new owners and financial regularities resulting in their demotion to the Segunda Division, this after winning the Costa Rican championship in 2009.
Costa Rica has such a rich array of places to explore and it seems that every inch of land has something worth getting there for whether it’s one of the many ecological areas, spectacular wildlife, natural wonders, the beaches or some historical and rich cultural towns and cities.
The Costa Rican’s or Tico’s as they are known have a common greeting of “pura vida,” translated simply as “pure life” and they are an infectious lot with smiles as big as the oceans either side of their beautiful land. Every Tico we met had a real passion for their country. Yet after seeing bits of it, it’s so blatantly obvious why.