The photos for each section of our trip are linked from within the text usually from the name of the town we visited. They aren't ordered; you'll only know what the photo subject is by context. The master folder is here.
George, who owns the Alegria BnB, met us at the airport with a sign on a stick, and drove us to his sprawling bungalow in a suburb of San Jose called Alajuela. We met his brother Frank. The bungalow has five bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, and George’s prices are quite reasonable given the general cost of accommodation in Costa Rica, which we knew would be higher than most places we’ve travelled, especially in this high season for snow birds.
Jan 10th. On Wednesday morning Frank went downtown on the bus with us to help us find our bearings - he had a part to pick up for George’s truck. We changed some money and discovered that Scotiabank doesn’t have free ATM service in Costa Rica, although it does in Chile and other countries. We withdrew the maximum we could and it cost about 1% on top of the Scotia exchange rate, which is about 2% less than the straight exchange rate.
We spent the afternoon in the local museum and learned about the history of Central America in the 1800’s, the “filibusters” who seized land and set up slave plantations on the Mosquito Coast and other locations, William Walker, the first canal that was in Nicaragua rather than Panama, etc. I think they started the original United Fruit Company. Ernie will lend me a history book about that.
We ate at Jalapenos and washed down our meals with jamaica, a hibiscus drink that Any introduced us to in Quito a few years ago, that tastes vaguely like strawberries but needs sugar to be drinkable.
January 11th. I want to think of Costa Rica as a N. American country that just happens to be in Central America, efficient and with attention to detail. The prices indicate that it is. But some things yank you back to reality.
Various websites, and our BnB hosts, directed us to thebusschedule.com to book our trip to Quepos. I picked one that left Alajuela and made a stop in Atenas, but Frank said we’d have a faster trip from San Jose. There was a bus company called Transportes Morales that made the trip direct and we were to pick it up at the old Coca Cola plant - which has not been there for years, but that’s where people still send you to catch the bus. Turns out, Transportes Morales also no longer exists, and has not been there for a long time, according to the locals, even though it is still listed as an option in many tourist brochures. We had to take a cab a considerable distance to a second bus station to find a bus that would take us direct to Quepos. Why does this company, with its daily trip schedule, still get updated regularly on thebusschedule.com? Well, that remains a Central American mystery.
The bus was fairly comfortable, and air conditioned. We had the seats at the back with cramped legroom, but we made do. Ernie was planning to pick us up when we arrived in Quepos, since we booked a place right across the road from him, but we arrived early. We had a beer at Dos Locos and emailed Ernie, who luckily was home and online, so he and Terri picked us up and brought us to Mono Azul.
After a nap, Terri served us supper. They have a small efficiency suite that they rent for a month or five weeks at a time. Terri enjoys being able to prepare her own meals rather than eating out for all her meals.
January 12th. We awoke to white-faced monkeys walking the power lines in front of the hotel. There are four kinds of monkeys that are common here: squirrel monkeys, white-faced monkeys, spider monkeys and howler monkeys. The white-faced Capuchin monkeys are most common, and are fairly carnivorous. They will eat insects, birds, and possibly the smaller squirrel monkeys if they catch them. A troop of them wander through every morning, and there are ropes above the pool at Ernie’s place that they use like a monkey highway, just as the power line across the back of our yard in Scarborough is a squirrel highway.
Our room for the first night was quite poor, a bit of a cave with a hollow spot in the mattress where a spring poked through (on Deborah’s side!), and the wifi didn’t reach the room. This morning we were moved to a better room with a decent mattress and better flow-through breeze; we have fans rather than air conditioning. We have no chair, not much better wifi, no towel rack, the shower curtain doesn’t reach the floor, and there are no places to hang jackets and shirts, not even a few hooks on the walls; but the room is clean and the shower works, with hot water provided by one of those little electric heaters that sit right on the shower head and always make me nervous about the possibility of electrocution while you’re having your shower. Our room opens onto a courtyard with a pool and lots of greenery, and beyond that is the lounge and front desk area, which is all open to allow maximum ventilation.
After changing rooms we walked downtown on a back road, very steep - my knees and leg muscles began to feel it, especially since I’d been fairly house-bound for the last few weeks. We were warned by a grandmother about a very long slender light green snake that crossed our path - not a poisonous one, she said. It had been raining buckets for two nights in a row, and she said that the rain washes snakes down from the higher elevations. In the palm oil plantations the harvesters wear rubber boots to avoid being bitten by a very common and very poisonous snake, the fer-de-lance or terciopelo, and possibly other slithery denizens. Deborah claims that the most poisonous spider in the world also lives here.
When we reached town we ate behind the bus station at stalls with outdoor tables that Ernie and Terri had told us about. They are good value meals, generally anchored by black beans and rice, which is the staple on your plate in Costa Rica. Ernie is annoyed that he can no longer find an breakfast meal called “Tipico” which includes that plus a couple of fruits on the side - he’s particularly fond of fried plantain. I had a tamarind juice as well. Then we took the local bus to the entrance of Manuel Antonio Park and back, just to get the lay of the land; it’s what we do on the first day of every new town or city. We had to pay twice, but only about 75 cents each per ride, and we were dropped right at the door of our hotel.
After a nap and a dip in the pool we joined Ernie and Terri for “Happy Hour” around their pool and met a number of other regular snowbirds. We saw two scarlet macaws and lots of other birds, including parakeets that ate away at the date nuts above our patio umbrella until they’d stripped all but some yellow stringy stuff from one end, rather like mangos sucked dry or like miniature Wilsons (cf Tom Hank’s movie) which they then dropped to the poolside. Deb didn’t sit right up under the umbrella, and got bombed by one chewed date nut that stained her shirt, but it washed out.
For supper we went to a restaurant called El Avion, which is built in and extends out from an old cargo plane that houses the bar. It is there courtesy of Oliver North and the CIA, a result of Reagan’s Iran-Contra Affair which dominated the news around 1986. We sat at a long table of twelve Canadians and enjoyed our meal.
Afterward we sat in the lounge at Mono Azul and listened to a pretty good guitar player, Johnny Thompson, who used a looper and occasionally a wah pedal to build up some performances of well-known tunes that sounded like at least two guitars. He didn’t sing terribly well, but his guitar playing was excellent. I noticed that the use of a looper limits you, however, to songs that use the same fairly simple progression, and when the chorus progression is the same as the verse. A backing track allows you to play along to more complex progressions, if you build one, but if you screw up playing along to a backing track it just keeps sailing on without you...just like falling off a sailboat. Johnny had a British girlfriend named Cari. I forget her name, but she visits Toronto regularly, has lots of friends there, and seems very friendly. She didn’t sing at all, but she played percussion into the mic with various hand percussion items that Deborah became very curious about, and afterward she showed Deborah what the different items are. Johnny’s “constructions” with the looper were fast and snappy, and intricate enough to be interesting to listen to. I’d love to try a looper on a keyboard, if that’s possible.
January 13th. Deb went to the beach with Terri while I began this blog for our first few days in CR. When she got back, we went into town for another bus station breakfast, this time at the neighbouring stall. At 3 p.m. Napoleon, who we’d been Skyping with for a couple of months from home so that he could practice his English, drove up to Mono Azul and took us down to the Marina Pez Vela (the “sailfish” marina) to have a drink, watch the sunset and the close of a three day offshore fishing tournament, which is an excuse for a very big party. They hold several of these throughout the year; there is a big international tournament planned for April. Napoleon talked about the palm oil plantations he serves as an agronomist, about snakes you might find there, and many other topics. He described the buffalo that pull the carts, which he hopes we’ll see next week. He said that the harvesters used oxen, but the oxen were too stupid to avoid a snake in their path, whereas buffalo will spot it and back the cart away from it. They used to lose a lot of oxen to snake bite; I read that it is probably a safer bet, if you get bitten by a snake, to go to the nearest vet, because he’s certain to have anti-venom in stock. Napoleon said that if you get bitten, you must kill the snake and take it with you to the clinic, partly to select the right anti-venom, but mostly so that the clinic can observe the size and thereby select the appropriate dosage.
We talked about the common staple on your plate, even at breakfast - black beans and rice. It is called “gallo pinto” which means “painted rooster”, because it appears in a pile on your plate like a rooster with spots on its feathers. You often see it as a menu item as just “Pinto con huevos”, or “Pinto con…” whatever else they can think of to serve with it. I like mine with hot sauce, of course. Hot sauce on everything savory.
By six p.m. we’d returned to Mono Azul, which has live entertainment each Friday and Saturday evening until nine p.m. That’s a decent window of time for it - it is dark, through the dinner hour, and ends early enough for tired tourists to get to bed and not be kept awake by the music in the open areas of the hotel, since room windows are draped but open. On this evening we listened to a British single guitarist and singer, Marco, who was very good. He had two guitars and had trouble keeping them in tune because of the humidity. A young lady dropped in with her new wife, married within this past week, and her fiddle. She volunteered to play along with Marco, and he was delighted. Several Canadians dropped in for drinks from across the street at Tico Tico, which are the little efficiency suites where Ernie and Terri live. Some of us sang along and tried to provide harmonies, but I’m not sure that he was quite so delighted with that.
January 14th. Today is Sunday. The traffic on the road up the hill in front of us wasn’t as fierce early in the morning as it is through the rest of the week, which was nice for sleeping in a bit.
In general I’m trying to get used to letting the traffic wake me up early (as if I have a choice!) and going to bed a couple of hours earlier here than I do at home. An afternoon nap still fits into the plan, in the afternoon heat under a vigorous fan, and since sunset is around six, an earlier sleep isn’t difficult to deal with. Our diurnal clocks are confused, farther north, by electricity and entertainment that allows us to remain awake much later, and by shorter and longer seasonal lengths of day, not to mention daylight savings time changes. On our winter escapes, I generally have to break my Toronto routine.
We rode the bus to the end of the road, to the entrance to Manuel Antonio park, but we didn’t go in. We’ll save that for a day when we can arrive early in the morning while it is still cool, and before the day trip tourist buses arrive from San Jose. It won’t be tomorrow, because the park is closed on Mondays. We had breakfast at a small hostel restaurant that Ernie and Terri like. I took a photo of El Faro, a hotel on the hillside with suites made of shipping containers, and Ernie gave me a photo of a red monkey and of a macaw above the pool at his villa. We saw a pair of them but I didn’t have my camera out. We hunted for the occasionally resident sloth but didn’t see it; but John, the Mono Azul co-owner (with Paige) pointed out a small toucan. He played a toucan sound app on his phone and the toucan answered. He got a bit worked up but wouldn’t come down close enough for a photo; then his mate returned from wherever he or she was, and it seemed unlikely that he would come down so we gave up.
Deb and Terri went shopping for snacks while I napped and dealt with emails and such, and then we walked over to the Tico Tico Villas for Happy Hour. We took some cassava (“yuca”) chips and some plantain chips. We sat beside the pool and watched a smaller group of capuchins pass by. I took some fast snaps with my little camera, and wished I had a better one.
Because it is Sunday, most stores and restaurants downtown are closed. We considered bussing down to town just for supper. The town is only a few minutes away down the hill, and the fare is only about sixty-five cents; but in the end Terri invited us to help her finish the fish she’d brought home from El Avion two nights ago, so we did that and picked their brains about what to do in our so-far-unplanned nine weeks, since we only booked this place for the first two weeks. Deb wrote down names of towns, hotels and attractions in her notebook.
January 15th. We woke up with sore throats. Deb had drippy sinuses all night, and mine were only a little better. She slept in for a while. When she got up we had good timing: a tour was leaving and hadn’t eaten much of their buffet breakfast, so Paige the owner invited us to eat it, so that she wouldn’t feel so bad about wasting it. We shook our heads with her over the young Americans who pile up their plates with food and then barely touch it. What a bizarre culture…
We went downtown to Damas Island, which is not a worthwhile destination - it is a very impoverished area just across a waterway. We rode a little water taxi there and back. Later, Ernie, who is too tender-hearted to be able to stand seeing squalor and who is a Habitat for Humanity building co-ordinator, pointed out that at least here in Costa Rica everyone has good free health care and education, and clean drinking water.
Afterward we explored a bit more of the downtown and then napped, which is important to do when it is very hot out and you have a sore throat. When we awoke I spotted John the owner and two staff members quite excited about something around the back of the hotel, so I went to find out what it was. There were no less than five toucans there. Later I saw them again at Tico Tico Villas across the road, and got photos. I was told that there is a facility up the hill from us that feeds them and is trying to rebuild the local population. We saw two pairs of scarlet macaws squabbling and flying around in pairs (there’s a protection centre that sets up nesting boxes nearby), and a green iguana climbing around in a tree beside the pool.
January 16th. Last night the perfume of “night blooming jasmine” was so heady it could have knocked you from your chair. The blossoms aren't even fully open yet. This morning it is more subdued and fades into the swirling kaleidoscope of other tropical odours.
We went to Manuel Antonio park in the morning. This is a protected area of land and water, about 2000 hectares of forest and a further 55,000 hectares of ocean. It costs about $16 US per person to walk down a fairly short trail to the beach, which is a nice cove. It costs triple that to have a guide, but we just stared in the direction that guides were pointing and saw what we needed to see: insects, a couple of three-toed sloths (some sloths are two-toed), basilisks, titis (squirrel monkeys), howler monkeys, land crabs, and other critters. There are racoons on the beach that travel in packs, in daylight, smaller than the racoons in Toronto and relatively unafraid of humans - the titis and racoons will raid your bags at the beach and steal your lunch. There are hardly any birds - one guide was overheard explaining that the titis decimate the bird population, possibly by eating the eggs from their nests. (Later I learned that the capuchins and the toucans are the more likely culprits.)
It was a good hike, about a half-hour each way to the beach and back, and the water was really warm and relaxing. I kept my long sleeved shirt and hat on, and the salt kept me buoyant stretched straight out with my toes pointing at the sun.
Now we’re off to a place Terri knows about, Barba Roja (“Redbeard”) which serves two for one burgers on Tuesday evenings.
January 17th. Today was supposed to be a trip to Jaco in Ernie’s rental car, but Deb and I entered our third day of the “grippe” overnight. I woke up with sore muscles, a deeper cough and other symptoms, although my sinuses aren’t so drippy. However, we decided that we might feel miserable pushing ourselves, and I agreed with Ernie that sitting together in a rental car for an hour each way might be bad for he and Terri. So we’ll remain relatively supine today - maybe a short bus ride into town and back...we’ll see how we feel. I anticipate a series of naps. Napoleon invited us to his house on Friday. We might be better by then.
An example of why we try not to pre-plan our trips too much happened when Deb introduced herself to our new neighbours, two French Canadian ladies. They were on the Caribbean side and were walking around in water up to their knees. So my plan now is to work our way up the Pacific side for the first six weeks, and save the Caribbean side for the second half of the trip.
We saw a sloth at our hotel this morning. Didn’t have to go to Manuel Antonio park at all. Apparently it lives in trees beside the hotel. It sleeps on its back, with rear claws locked onto a branch. This one has a baby on its chest, but it is too high up to see either the baby or the mother sloth’s face. We will watch to see when it has its “call of nature”, and comes slowly down the tree to poop on the ground at the base - this happens about once a week.
January 19th. After two days of convalescence, we walked up the hill with Ernie and Terri this morning . It’s their early morning exercise routine. We saw about five blue morpho butterflies, which are incredibly large and incredibly blue, but they don’t settle, so my photos were blurry - I’ll try again with a high speed burst tomorrow. Today we’re having a farewell breakfast with some of the Canadians who’ve been at the Tico Tico villas with E&T. We’ve seen a large number of titis lately. A titi is a squirrel monkey. They’re more common than cats, it seems, and about the same size.
January 20th. Deb and I walked alone up the hill this morning. I went right to the top, and got photos overlooking the marina, a photo of the blue morpho which will have to do until I get a better one, and of the macaws and titis. I’m stunned at how unnecessary it was to go into the park and pay the entrance fee - everything we saw there, and more, we’ve seen outside the park mere steps from our hotel, and sometimes on our hotel grounds. John, the owner, even saw and photographed a sloth on the sidewalk this morning, trying to figure out how to cross the road through traffic. John picked him up and carried him over. The macaws are flying free throughout the valley that runs adjacent to the road past the Hotel California, and that is because the Gaia hotel has been running a reintroduction program for them. They have a prehistoric, grating call. A girl from Calgary, Lisa, referred to them as “Mackays”, so I told her those are Scottish birds with plaid feathers that wake you up in the morning playing their small bagpipes, which is quite a different sound. A guy at the hotel who is Spanish calls them the McCows, so I’m going to tell him the short children’s ditty about the guy who's so glad that cows don't fly.
I’m doing some reflection on moods and attitudes these days. I was not as excited about coming here as I have been on previous trips to other places. Even after I’d arrived, I wondered how I would hold out for eleven whole weeks. I had to rationalize by reminding myself that not all vacations are the same, not all are constant change and adventure; I miss being able to play music, but I’ve had vacations like this before - in a beach hut for several weeks in Sri Lanka, for example. There is no denying that this is a very beautiful corner of the world, and I’m in shorts all day. When I was younger I had some experience with depression and learned about internal causes and how to combat them. Last night we watched an episode of Doctor, Doctor - we’ve just begun season two - and learned that a mismatched blood transfusion can cause a terrible sense of foreboding and a powerful, unreasonable sadness. So now I’m speculating that some sort of health imbalance, maybe related to the root canal infection I had until just before the trip, and maybe the airplane colds we are just barely recovered from, have been responsible for my mood, which ought to be euphoric, by any logic involving external factors.
My ruminations were extended by a tour group who spent a few nights at the hotel. About half the group were the grumpiest, rudest people we’d seen. Is this a byproduct of internal maladies? They say people are generally happier and more trusting as they pass the age of seventy, (and easier to cheat); perhaps people feed off each others’ negativity on a tour bus. The tour guide told John as he was getting off the bus that he’d never had such a difficult group. They had no shame in calling this little hotel a "shit hole", and proceeded to make a sport out of swapping negative opinions and observations. It is not priced like a five star and has never been advertised as such. One old woman dragged the guide over to a spot beside the pool to demonstrate to him that it smelled like urine; I happened to pass between them and stopped to point out that what she was smelling was the heady fragrance of night-blooming jasmine. The next morning, the guide thanked me for that intervention. One lady threw a public tantrum at Paige in the lounge because her shower “didn’t work”; Paige went to her room and was back in fifteen seconds, having solved the problem. Another gentleman’s shower wasn’t so easy to fix: drinking water in Costa Rica is clear and clean, but tap water is not always free of sediment, which can clog the valves in the showers over time. Late at night with the hardware store closed, John couldn’t repair it fast enough for the guest, who loudly assured the group that he would be leaving a bad review on Yelp. John offered him the use of other showers, but that didn’t mollify him. I felt bad. John and Paige have spent a lot of their energy and their slim margin on prioritized improvements for the hotel, and by our observation and the reports of others who know the property, it is transforming rather quickly into a very comfortable choice for N. Americans.
I wonder if there is a kind of background level of depression that some people simply have to live with, like having tinnitus. That would explain some of my emotional response levels, and perhaps the behaviour of that minority of nasty or grumpy older population. I think there is a high incidence of depression in seniors, perhaps triggered or exacerbated by loss of friends, a spouse, broken relationships, and/or ill health; and some may have suffered from it as a lifelong condition. How much of it is nostalgia for the past, lament for lost youth, missed opportunities, regret over roads not taken, and the futility of trying to go down new roads at this late stage, to embark on new (and ultimately unnecessary) ventures? It runs counter to the research that says that people are generally happier after the age of seventy. These thoughts are an occasional backdrop for my own existence, but I have a lot to be grateful and content about; I suspect they are prevalent and even verge on being debilitating for others my age and older.
At 3 p.m. Napoleon picked us up and took us to his house in the Palma Tica compound where he lives with his wife Lesley. They have company housing and a pool, BBQ, security, etc. It reminded me of company housing compounds in Africa, and the bungalow they live in was very reminiscent. We had a long chat and a dip in the pool, and Lesley made us a dinner of patacones with dark bean paste, with chickpea and chicken soup. Deb was very familiar with patacones, which are flattened discs of green fried plantain, but she hadn’t had them for quite a while. They were delicious. Because Lesley speaks English about as much as I speak Spanish, I got a little Spanish practice. I also get some when Deb speaks in Spanish to explain something to Napoleon, or to include Lesley in the conversation. Lesley has a great sense of humour...they both do, actually.
January 22nd. Yesterday was a morning at the Beisanz Beach, which is a local-knowledge beach with somewhat difficult access. Snorkel boats drop their snorkelers overboard there, but access by land is down a long path with lots of monkeys and uncertain footing. The beach has great scenery and the sun was shining. There is too much ancient lava rock for my liking, often protruding from the sand and making it difficult to walk in the water without stubbing your toes; surfing there would be dangerous. One should wear water shoes here. I regretted not packing my mask and fins. Next time, fewer clothes, mask and fins in my backpack, probably a pair of binoculars, and a guitalele in my carry-on...
In the evening we had fish and chips at Mono Azul - it was a disappointing plate, two small pieces of mushy fish with huge batter to make them look like more, which is a too-common trick with chefs. The tartar sauce was either ranch dressing, or just like ranch dressing. At $16 US per plate, I expected more; even the “second one half-price special” didn’t help much. There’s also an automatic 23% tacked onto every bill - 13% tax and 10% tip - so even the special came to about $40 CAD for the two of us. You can probably see why I was unimpressed; the more they overcharge, the bigger the surcharge is as well. We have fantastic fish and chips in Toronto, which is not even right beside the sea, for half the price, and they have fishing boats and a marina right at hand here. The pizzas have been very good at Mono Azul (they sometimes come as a special with two free beer or sodas), and the hamburgers when they are on special for $10 aren’t bad, but in general I’m inclined to explore for alternatives for evening meals now, among the restaurants in town which I suspect don’t have the “road-up-the-hill-to-Manuel-Antonio” premium pricing. Hotels in the town are half the price or less, depending on how fancy or how basic they are, but the older ones downtown are still clean, have air conditioning and sometimes more spacious rooms. We went to a falafel restaurant on Saturday evening, which was also just a shade more than ok. Deborah really enjoyed it. Dinner at Barba Roja last Tuesday was ok, with two-for-one burgers, but burgers get old...breakfasts usually please me here, but dinners not as much. We’ve been back twice to the Casa Linda hostel for breakfast, near the park entrance - they serve a fine fruit plate and follow that up with eggs and gallo pinto, for the same price as a normal gallo pinto plate which doesn’t include fruit (but might include meat). This is all part of what you learn once you’ve been in a town for a couple of weeks.
Today we are switching rooms. Paige upgraded Deborah for five extra days that she asked to be here, to a larger room with air conditioning - she said she’d take into account that there was no commission she’d have to pay to Expedia, since this was a direct booking. We get to move in this morning, so now we have a week more in Quepos. It is a large room with a large bathroom, a couple of chairs and a table on a private little porch out front, a towel rack and hangers for shirts, and a TV. It is a fitting event because it is Deborah’s birthday today. This evening we’ll celebrate with pasta at an Italian restaurant in town called L’Angolo’s, a double celebration because Ernie had his birthday recently too.
We went for a walk this morning but didn’t spot anything worthy of a photograph. The sun is shining brightly and the humidity has dropped. Yesterday we were almost drinking the air, it was so humid, but the rain went north of us. Juan Carlos has his day off today; tomorrow we’ll get him to set us up with a tour or two, and/or an onward destination; and we expect to do a day trip or two with E&T and/or with Napoleon. We’ll visit Jaco with E&T tomorrow morning.
The hotel has had its share of problems and drama with staff, which Deb believes would make the basis for a little novel. There is a battle between the housekeepers, one of who is a fast, efficient utilitarian cleaner while the other makes towel swans and inserts flowers, and takes her time making the place look awesome - even decorates the spacious handicapped washroom off the lobby with flowers. There have been hard feelings; Paige has had to intervene and assign each to their own set of rooms. We got the young creative one, but after our move we’ll have the Soviet-style one again, I believe.
Kevin the chef (from New York?) has just quit - low wages and a desire to avoid being a line cook and dishwasher have probably driven him to seek a more high end position, which is logical considering that we’re told that he worked in Michelin 5 star restaurants at home. But he didn’t give notice - just took an unannounced day off and then returned this morning to tell them he’d found a different job. He has to move out of his free room, mind you. Paige and John are both sporting aprons and doing dishes in the kitchen today, and have closed the restaurant until 4 p.m. Such are the challenges of entrepreneurial property owners in Costa Rica. Deb and I ate at one of the three “soda” restaurants behind the bus station - she had her favourite huevos rancheros with gallo pinto, and I had a casado con chuleta: salad, black beans, rice, casava chunks in a thick gravy, and a pork chop loaded with fried onions. We were served by our favourite waitress, Heidi. It was a better meal than last night’s fish’n’chips, at less than a third of the price - tax and tip included, Deb’s breakfast was only $5 and my lunch plate was only $6. We always top up Heidi’s tip. “Soda” is the generic name for a small restaurant that opens onto the street here. We changed money at another ATM and concluded that they both charged the same - too much, about 3.5%; using a visa card alone saves you at least half of that fee.
I have to record one of Ernie’s travel stories that was pretty clever and may be useful someday. He and Terri were lost in the mountains outside of San Jose in a rental car. Night falls quickly, and there were no signs to find their way back to the city. On fellow directed them down a road that soon narrowed to a gravel track. It seemed they’d have to pull over and sleep in the car; Terri was upset, anxious about being robbed, although that isn’t likely in this country. Suddenly a bus drove past them. Ernie sat up and started the car - he was sure that if there was a bus, it had to lead them to a town. Sure enough, they suddenly found themselves cresting the hill and dropped into San Jose. Now they had a new problem - how to find their way around at night in a strange big city. Terri asked a fireman at a gas station, but only understood the first two things he told her - Spanish speakers generally speak very quickly. So one of them, I don’t know who, suddenly had a brainwave: they flagged down a cab and Terri jumped in it, and Ernie followed in the rental car. The cabbie led them right to the Best Western Hotel...the best $5 they’d ever spent.
Today Gerard the Irish tourist staying at Tico Tico was at the Beisanz beach when someone put a thermometer in the water. It registered 86 degrees Fahrenheit. And I saw a Costa Rica t-shirt that read, “No army since 1948”, which is when they disbanded it to focus the money on healthcare and education. They’re pretty proud of that, as they should be.
January 23rd. I walked past Kevin the chef on the street last night, talking to someone who had a bit of a junkie look to him. He obviously wasn’t at work somewhere else. This morning John says he’s still in his room, but since he hasn’t/won’t talk to John or Paige, they don’t know what to make of his absence, which now has the odour of a strike rather than outright quitting.
Evening: Kevin is back on the job. Perhaps Paige or John will fill me in later. Today we went to Jaco with E&T. It’s a party town for young people, with several U.S. restaurant chains and many streets of the same souvenirs in almost every shop. I prefer smaller, quieter...i.e., Quepos. But when the surf is up Jaco is a top destination for surfers and spectators.
January 25th. Yesterday morning we went to the Villa Vanilla spice farm. It was a bit expensive for what it is, but I appreciated getting to pick up some botanical knowledge in a concentrated way with a knowledgeable guide who could speak English very well and answer questions. We got to taste vanilla beans drying, see what their vines look like, see cocoa trees and pods, eat a green peppercorn - an awesome burst of flavour that puts dried black peppercorns to shame. We learned the difference between Ceylonese cinnamon and Cassia, which is “Chinese”, “indonesian” or “Vietnamese” cinnamon, said by purists to be not pure cinnamon but is sold all over N. America as cinnamon because of an earlier US ruling that allowed it to be called cinnamon. Cassia has a sharper, more intense flavour and a higher concentration of coumarin, which is a blood thinner. People on blood thinners already have to consider how much cassia they are ingesting. We watched a worker scrape the thin layer of Ceylonese cinnamon bark that is used, and chewed on a soft, fresh strip of it. We ate some delicious treats they’d prepared for us using their own vanilla, cocoa and cinnamon, and were back in Quepos by early afternoon.
We spent part of the afternoon on the phone discussing our dental coverage with our insurance company back home. There’s a strong possibility that I might have another root canal infection, a month after having the previous one taken care of, on the diagonally opposite side of the mouth. Dental care is good here and we have coverage (pay first, recover later) but it is going to cause us to adjust our immediate plans - perhaps stay a little longer at the Mono Azul, and/or maybe miss out on a trip we’d planned with Napoleon to a tilapia farm on Saturday.
This morning Paige gave me some Thieves Oil along with a good story that goes with it, which I may have heard about once before in my life, but I’d never had a bottle of the stuff. She says to rub it on my gum, which I will more because of the cloves in it than the supposed antibacterial qualities. We’ll see what sort of results I get; at least it seems harmless, and cloves do give toothache relief. Some people wear it to ward off airplane colds; after the one I just had, I might be inclined to put a few drops in a Japanese breathing mask and wear one of those on the plane. It sent me down the rabbit hole learning about “essential oils” - bogus claims, debates about distillation processes and quality control, stuff like that. Given a choice, I’d just chew a clove (which we haven’t been able to find yet), but this is a gift horse that I’ll apply to the mouth and not look in the mouth.
Paige also told me how people in the islands deal with the gameyness of wild birds like geese - if one were inclined to eat a Canada Goose, for example, you’d capture it and feed it clean domestic feed for six weeks, and most of the gamey flavour would go away. Beats hanging it in a tree for six weeks like the early hunters used to do, until it gets “ripe”. Paige says chickens are everywhere in the islands, totally free range and even pecking around the grocery stores. One islander she knew wouldn’t bother keeping them from “scratch” (good word for chickens) but would just capture a few grown chickens and keep them for six weeks on good food. The gameyness was reduced, it fattened them up (keeping them stationary also helped) and then they were much more edible.
The things you learn…
We hiked around town today, found a funky old restaurant away from everything called the Banana Club, which Napoleon had recommended to us. It must have been an important part of the town before the new marina was built. The menu looks very “tipico”.
We're stuck with a Saturday dental appointment, which puts a kink in our plan to take Napoleon up on his invitation to a tilapia farm. We’re still working on getting the appointment time changed. I got a photo of a very fine old beautifully painted ox cart, and my best photo yet of the resident sloth, possibly one of as many as five who live just steps from our bedroom.
January 26th. Today is for relaxing, doing research on this area and onward possibilities. I learned why there is an ancient “Banana Club”, complete with Tico food, and games tables for foosball, ping-pong, and billiards. The United Fruit Company moved their operations from the Caribbean coast to the Pacific coast in the 1930’s, and the American executives had houses in the hills above the townsite, at the foot of which the Banana Club still sits. The company cleared and drained a low lying mangrove swamp (you can take tours of the mangroves from here today), laid out a street grid and built a barrier along the shore to hold out the ocean. The town is actually below sea water at high tide. There used to be train tracks along the sea wall, leading to the marina where bananas would be loaded on ships.
In the 1940’s a banana blight wiped out the crop and it was replaced with African palms for palm oil. Palm oil is easily transported overland by truck, so Quepos declined as a shipping port. Since the 1980’s tourism has been the main economic driver of the town, and there is a great sport fishing marina, the Pez Vela (“sailfish”) with boutique shops and high end restaurants. Cruise ships stop here.
January 27th. Yesterday the titis came down to join us for happy hour. I got a few good photos, some within arm’s reach. And this morning I photographed a road kill fer-de-lance and researched its scale pattern and head shape, compared to a similar almost venom-less snake referred to as the false fer-de-lance. Turns out, a knowledgeable snake expert wouldn’t confuse them.
Last night’s supper at the Banana Club was a step back in history. I had patacones Mexicana. Once the local crowd trickled in, the music videos were up on the big screen and they were loud, so the customers got louder, and we left as soon as supper was finished. Such aural environments are a torment for Ernie, who has hearing aids. Deborah doesn't enjoy them either.
My dentist Valeria Marin looked like she was still in high school, but she was extremely good, gentle and kind, and explained everything to me thoroughly. The root canal had already been done on this tooth, and there’s a pin and a crown on it, but it has cracked right through the two roots. A bit of bacterial infection set up in the crack and ate away a bit of the bone. She did an aggressive “deep cleaning” and prescribed some gel that she said will limit the bacterial attack; if the infection returns I can take the clindamycin that I already have in my toiletry kit. That should hold it at bay for eight more weeks, until my own dentist can study it and help me decide whether to get an implant or a bridge. Alternatively, we could call our regular insurance company (the emergency insurance did not cover today’s trip to the dentist because it wasn't caused by a blow to the mouth) and see if they’d go for me having the extraction and bone graft down here, and possibly an implant and crown as well. It’s cheaper than doing it at home, but it could also be a nuisance trying to travel and see the country while also making it to a series of appointments.
Napoleon picked us up from the dental office and drove us out to Playa Palo Seco, where we ate a whole dorado on a platter and then walked on the beach and photographed the sunset. When we returned to the car there was a Costa Rican bullfight on the screen. It wasn’t a traditional Spanish style, and they don’t kill the bull, but a crowd of foolhardy young men dressed as clowns and Supermen harass and torment it in the ring. Every so often it takes a run through the crowd and knocks one of them down, maybe gores him or steps on him a few times. I can only feel sympathy for the bull, I must admit.
January 28th. An afternoon at Ronnie’s at the “Battle of the Bands”, which isn’t a battle at all but more of a chance for local musicians to gang up and play together, left me a bit underwhelmed at the musical talent in town. It was a fundraiser for PAWS, which cares for animals and has a spay and neuter program, a sure sign that many seasonal and permanent residents of a place are Europeans and gringos. Most of the musicians we’d already heard at our hotel or at Barba Roja, and they played the same pieces. Mercifully, the walls were only pillars with big open spaces between them, as they are in most restaurants, so the sound wasn’t too loud for us. We sat on stools at a far open corner away from the stage. The only surprise was a Brit, Mark (“Marco”) who led a group by playing his bass and singing lead. He was much more energized and captivating than when he does his guitar single at the hotel. As a single, he doesn’t engage the audience much, and I’m sure he bores himself with the repetition of his patter and jokes from one week to the next. Another highlight of the afternoon was a big guy named Ralph, who is an excellent roadhouse musician. But basically we stayed for three hours because we’d foolishly bought raffle tickets at 1 p.m. and we wanted to see if we’d win a catamaran trip or a dinner for two when our ticket was pulled at 4 p.m. But we didn’t.
I got better sloth photos today. There’s a young one that likes to sit where the upper fronds of a palm near our bedroom spread. He nestles in and snoozes there for much of the day. A pretty young American bimbo, as pretty bimbos are wont to do, took liberties with the rights of the sloth. She shook the palm to wake him up and get him moving so that her friend could get a better photo, until I suggested to her that she might not want to be standing at the base of the trunk if that sloth got scared and fell. Also that if he only had 400 calories to expend in a day from the leaves that are the only things he can eat, stressing him like this was not a particularly kind thing to do.
January 29th. I am less of a man than I was five hours ago. One second molar less, in fact. We dropped into the dental office to ask when we might be able to get an appointment for an extraction, since Deborah is convinced it ought to be done sooner rather than later, and we had cleared it with our insurance company. Jose Chacon invited me into his office to have a look, glanced at the x-ray Valeria Marin had done, and offered to do the extraction and bone graft right on the spot. He comes well recommended, this dentist, so I thought, what the heck, and gave him the green light. Saves making a special trip to San Jose for the same procedure.
It was a bit of a difficult extraction - one pesky root, and that one was touching the mandibular nerve so it hurt a bit. But now I’m at home, with a sore jaw, nursing it with Tylenol 3 and wondering when my hunger will overcome the pain. I haven’t eaten yet today, but I’m still not much in the mood; but Deborah brought home yoghurt so that’ll be easier than having to chew something. Total bill for extraction and bone graft - prices are regulated by the gov’t - was $150 CAD. Turns out that in this tiny little town there are fourteen dentists, three pharmacies and several medical clinics. Other companies have standing armies; this country has an army of very kindly health care and dental workers.
Two weeks for the gum to heal and the stitches to dissolve, and then according to Jose my best choice will be a bridge rather than an implant. Or nothing at all. He says many people just chew with the surrounding teeth, with no ill effect. I’d have to wait six months before getting the implant, for the bone graft to take. I think I’ll get the bridge.
January 30th. I am doing my best impression of a chipmunk, at least on one side. The jaw is sore and swollen. I’ve taken the second of my two antibiotic tablets; apparently that’s all I should require. Hour by hour, the trauma seems to dissipate, but it’ll be a few days yet before it feels normal, and two weeks for a complete healing. In the meantime I’m like Marlon Brando when he was made up for the set of The Godfather. Which, incidentally, came out in 1972 and was the first movie he was in that made any money since 1958. Weird, given his star power and looks in his younger years.
Ernie has been very ill with dehydration and a bacterial infection. He got taken down the hill to the clinic at the same time as I was in the dentist’s chair. His bill was paid online by our RTO insurance plan before his IV was even finished. We are both convalescing, and neither of us can drink at Happy Hour until the antibiotics are completed. While Ernie was in the clinic, a tourist girl was struck by a motorcycle; she suffered a fractured skull and a helicopter landed on the soccer field beside the clinic to airlift her to San Jose. The vehicles race up and down around blind corners on this seven kilometre stretch between the town and the national park, and the street is very narrow with no sidewalks, just deep concrete ditches. You have to be extra careful where you cross. There are no crosswalks, no buttons to press to activate yellow flashing lights, nothing like that. For a town that relies on tourists for its economy, you'd think it would take better care of its clientele.
John gave me some insights this morning into challenges faced by expatriate owners of properties in Costa Rica. He and Paige are being sued by two different employees. The suits could drag on for three years or longer. One was brought by a cook who was observed by other staff stealing ten kilos of beef, and was fired for it. She alleges that she was entitled to the beef for unpaid wages, since she was hired for 36 hours per week but regularly hung around for 40 - of her own volition, mind you. The judges, having local relationships in the community, tend to side with locals, who think all foreigners are exploitive fat cats with no scruples rather than brave risk-taking entrepreneurs who provide good jobs for locals and who also deserve some rights and protections.
We have booked a shuttle from our hotel front door to one in Granada, Nicaragua, for February 2nd. Now we must find and book a suitable hotel. And tomorrow morning we’ll be going down to the marina at 5 a.m. to view the “blue blood supermoon eclipse“.
January 31st. The moon was large and beautiful, but cloud obscured the blood moment, and we weren’t in the path of the eclipse. But I guess we can say that we were there, got the photo if not the t-shirt. The birds at the sea wall sing as loudly in the pre-dawn as they do at sunset when they all congregate in the trees along the shore. This morning the howler monkeys were particularly loud and active, just a half a block from the hotel. They have a favourite high spot and don’t really seem to leave it. I found a few hours to read about Costa Rica beside the pool today, mostly history, culture, birds and fauna. The howlers apparently exist in large part on leaves of fairly low nutrition, so like the sloths - but not as slothful - they tend to lay around on high branches most of the day, where they enjoy a safe environment as long as they don’t get picked off by a Harpy eagle.
My reading was only interrupted by the shenanigans of a group of mid-western ladies who were having way too much fun with a male inflatable doll pool toy. Hairy chest, moustache...there was a missing appendage, but they improvised…
While reading, I suddenly realized that I was admiring the lifestyle and temperament of the resident sloth. It seems an admirable model. Maybe Quepos has brought that upon me. Good thing we’re headed to Granada on Friday, when we’ll be surrounded by more to trigger our interest in daily adventures.
Feb 3rd. This morning I awoke to roosters crowing, followed by loud whistles and calls from the vendors and deliverymen to the enormous “mercado” which operates every day of the week in Granada. Our Casa Cuiscoma hotel is kitty-corner to the market. Yesterday, for perhaps the rarest experience, I awoke to howler monkeys howling goodbye every five minutes or so. I took my last photo of the sloth that has taken residence outside our room.
The shuttle arrived on time (!) and we said our farewells and proceeded to Nicaragua. If we knew then what we know now, we’d have chosen the plane, which we’ve been told is cheaper, and faster, and includes border taxes - we’re not sure if that’s all true. We had a good ride (I got to ride shotgun) to a highway stop somewhere north of Jaco, and then a bumpy, cramped ride in a different van to another stop at Liberia, and then the rest of the way to the border. At the border we had to exit the van and walk across a long, hot stretch of pavement between trucks, carrying our backpacks; I spotted some pedicabs but our driver did not arrange any for us; I didn’t know where to hire one or how far we’d have to walk. Nor, for that matter, exactly how we’d recognise who we were to meet on the other side. Basically he just dumped us at the border to fend for ourselves.
We were set upon by clever, well-dressed hustlers almost immediately. The first insisted on accompanying us to a kiosk where we had to pay $7 apiece (US) for a stamped receipt, and then we walked to the immigration office where an exit officer accepted the stamped receipt and stamped our passport. All along the way a hustler with multiple bills folded between his fingers and a calculator in his hand tried to convince us that we’d have to pay an entry tax at the Nicaraguan border in cordobas, and that he was the only one who could give us cordobas (at an exorbitant spot rate, I’m sure). Deborah almost fell for it, but I managed to drag her away.
When we finally arrived at the Nicaraguan border another slick, clean fellow in a white shirt, sporting a lanyard with a name tag, engaged us to learn if we needed a ride or had someone picking us up. He showed us how to get into the building where we paid a dollar each for another stamp at the door (not sure what that was for) and then another $12 each for entry tax into Nicaragua. We got receipts and some sort of green ticket (Deborah promptly discovered she has only one in her pouch, and wonders if she lost one immediately or it didn’t get handed to her, or whether there was only one for the two of us. I guess we’ll find out when we try to leave the country.)
Our line was painfully slow in the dripping humidity while people ahead of us couldn’t come up with the fee and had to sort things out and eventually leave the line. In the meantime, our slick hustler was around the other side of the building (how was he allowed to pass back and forth?)
He found a driver who’d been contracted to pick us up by Easyride, the company we’d booked our trip with, and found out that the driver was looking for us. He grabbed the name sign from the driver’s hand and said that he’d get us. He reappeared on the other side and waved the sign at us, so we believed he must have been our driver. When we got through and went out, we found that he wasn’t - our driver stepped forward and identified himself, but of course we were concerned and uncertain because we hadn’t been told we’d be passed off to another company at the border, and we were looking for an Easyride shuttle van rather than a private car with no markings. The hustler picked up Deborah’s backpack in the guise of being helpful. After we got to the driver’s car he placed it in the trunk and then demanded a tip for his help. Our driver was giving no sign of connection to this guy and our belongings were safely in the trunk; my menace began to swell, so I stepped closer to him and asked, “In what way did you help us?”
“I carried your luggage,” he replied. Of course, I’d been carrying the larger backpack and both the small backpacks as well.
“But we always carry our own backpacks,” I stated.
I don’t think he liked the look on my face and my proximity. He said, “Ok”, and disappeared back into the crowd. Upon reflection I realized that we were very lucky that he hadn’t simply disappeared with our second backpack. We’re going to have to tighten up our procedures for meeting people we haven’t met before, and ask for more proof that they are who they say they are.
Our actual driver turned out to be a great guy named Eric who’d spent time in Michigan and who has a pending daughter-in-law from Quebec, and pending son-in-law from Vancouver who is a businessman in San Juan del Sur. He engaged us with questions about Canada the entire remaining journey. He’d also been fooled by the professional looking schtick of the hustler, in spite of being Nicaraguan himself - he had thought the man was a border service employee.
He was very keen to try real maple syrup; fortunately Deborah had brought some small bottles with her as gifts, and gave him one when he delivered us to our little hotel.
We spent the evening walking the central park and locating a restaurant on a crappy map. The architecture is great, so we’ll photograph some of that in the daylight today when we do our orientation walking tour. We were sent to two restaurants that were obviously geared to rich westerners, but managed a good meal in a pizzaria used by locals, along with the most popular local ice cold beers, a Victoria Classico and a Victoria Frost. Both were fine for washing down pizza. Our hotel provides breakfast (we’re about to see what that looks like), and later in the day we’ll try typical Nicaraguan street food in the central park, in particular a dish called vigorón.
Feb 4th. Breakfast was delicious, and we lingered a bit, then headed out into the town to explore. Granada is less than I expected but has its charm. They keep the streets clean, and the buildings freshly painted in bright pastel colours. There is a central square and a couple of very modest museums. Attractions are overpriced for what they are - they appear to be trying to become another Costa Rica but are lacking in quality of the attractions, and it ends up being little more than gouging and collecting disappointing reviews on TripAdvisor. At least, those reviews which are not supplied in copious numbers by staff, friends and family members of the enterprise.
We went into the wrong museum - thought we were going into a chocolate museum but found ourselves (after we’d paid) in a pre-columbian pottery museum, very small and not as interesting as it should have been for the price; and Deb suddenly realized she’d had a coupon on her guide map to get us in for 40% less, but they wouldn’t give us the difference. Turns out that the “Chocomuseo” right next door was free, although there was not a lot to it. The point was largely to pique your interest in taking a $19 workshop in making your own chocolate. Reviews for the workshop were hit and miss, so we missed.
Food is not expensive, more like Toronto prices or less, depending on what you eat. In the first evening we followed two suggestions that ended up in restaurants that were way too western in terms of menu and prices - the kind of places that you spend a romantic dinner in once a month or so, but not when you eat out every evening. So we went to a pizza place across the street where we saw Nicaraguan families going. We had good pizza and the most popular Nicaraguan beer to wash it down: Victoria “classico” and Victoria Frost. The name seemed odd but is possibly in reference to victory during the civil war.
Before we left, a young lady came in and launched into song with her ukulele. After two songs, she passed the hat, and we chatted a bit. The next night (last night) we spotted her again in a youth orchestra in the central square, in front of a cultural centre for the arts. She arrived in a parade of energetic youngsters from a local barrio who clowned, juggled, did acrobatics and rode unicycles. She played clarinet, guitar and her uke. This evening we will go to Cafe Los Suenos to hear her perform again.
Last night we went to the central park to try the dish Granada is known for: vigorón, and a nacatamale. Vigorón is yucca, pork, pork rind, and chopped cabbage salad, and maybe some other vegetable. Nacatamale is a tamale in a banana leaf with some tomato sauce, pork and something hot inside. We ate at the Kioskito El Gordo - here, when a man is fat, they call him “the fattie”. I put a link on the word vigorón to an excellent page about Granada that Deborah discovered. The actual dish is in a photo about two thirds of the way down the page. I have a photo of turtles in a fountain beside the kiosk. An aside: there are organized beggars everywhere. They aren’t starving. Some of them drag unhappy children along who’d rather be playing. There are some who are unwell and sleeping on sidewalks, but sidewalks are warm here, like in India; we have people in Toronto in the same condition but we don’t see them because they are in hospital wards; or they sleep on streets because of mental problems that have them avoiding shelter accommodations, even in the coldest weather.
This morning the sounds of the market didn’t wake us, because it is Sunday. The rooster began around 3 a.m., I think; he crowed at ten second intervals which gradually lengthened until an interval of 30 seconds, and then he stopped for a while. Then he repeated the cycle, several times. Finally I drifted back to sleep for a short while until dawn.
At breakfast we spent a couple of hours chatting with other guests, including Uwe and Yingzi (German and Chinese) who are working on a sailboat, an Alberg 30 that they are having commissioned in Guatemala with the intention of hiring themselves out for day sailing in Belize. They live in Belize but are here for some dental work. There are many small islands in Belize, so if they have clients who want to do overnights, they’ll do some island hopping to huts and more remote resort properties, rather than accommodating them on the sailboat.
Through the day we wandered through the streets without accomplishing much of anything except to soak in the vibe of the place, the colours of the houses, and the general geography of the city. We wandered in and out of hotels, hostels and restaurants. We found a hostel Deb was looking for called the Oasis, which is really well organized and large; Deb swapped a book she doesn’t like for one that we hope she will. We learned that we’d have paid half there what we pay at our hotel for a private room, although I kinda doubt the room would be air conditioned and it might have had shared showers. But we’d have had the ability to share travel advice from other younger backpackers. We ate at the Cafetina Volcan - tostones con queso y con carne (mixto) and a quesadilla. I discovered that the other beer which is popular in Nicaragua is called the Toña. Quite refreshing.
We went to the Iglesia La Merced and climbed a narrow spiral staircase 71 steps (Deb counted them) to the bell tower, where we stood beside the bells (I forgot to take a photo of them, but there are some here) and took photos of the rooftops across the city. Every city building has an enclosed inner courtyard garden, usually with a fountain. Entry is from a locked gate and door directly onto the street. So all living is interior, private and secure. The exception is the central park, where people walk, talk, sit, and mix with vendors who sell food, cute clothes and souvenirs from stalls or carts. The cobblestoned main square, marked by an important statue to the heroes of 1811, is kept clear, so it is just a pedestrian mall and a parade ground.
There is another hotel trying hard to be a hostel as well and capture the market at both ends, and it is a lovely building right on the central park called La Sirena, but it is expensive. Even our little hotel was too expensive compared to the competition, but that was our mistake for booking through an internet booking site instead of directly through their Facebook site - I tried to use their regular website, but it was down, and we got tricked by the booking site (yet again! - I hate those online aggregator sites). We do have comfort, quiet (only five rooms and only half of them occupied), classic furniture, an excellent mattress and superb housekeeping and breakfast service. And the owner upgraded us to an air conditioned room to apologise for the fact that his website had been offline and we hadn't been able to book directly.
This evening we’re going to the Cafe Los Sueños to hear the young singer/ukulele player perform, and until then we’ll research and decide whether to visit the island of twin volcanoes, Ometepe.
Feb 5th. As we crossed the border into Nicaragua, some cultural (or economic?) differences became immediately obvious. There were horses tethered alongside the roads, feeding; and horses pulling carts of all sizes; some cows; and free range chickens everywhere. We hear them through the day as well as very darn early in the morning. Here in Granada single horse carts move everything - construction materials, garbage, produce, locals going shopping; and there is a long line of carriages waiting to take tourists around the city - too many for the number of tourists, and since they might only get one fare in a day (or in several days?), they charge $30 US for up to four people for a ninety minute tour. We got talked into a one hour version with just the two of us for $15, and I didn’t regret it. “Jonathan” took us to surrounding blocks of the city that we wouldn’t have walked on foot, and we got a good tour, mostly in slow and careful Spanish so that my ride served as my daily Spanish lesson as well. Immediately afterward we toured the small local museum and watched several videos that covered some of the history our chariot driver had explained.
When you know a little of the history of a city, it becomes a much more interesting place. Granada is the oldest city in the Americas, founded in 1524 by Herandez Cordoba, after which the currency is named. We saw William Walker’s home, and the burnt front of Iglesia de La Merced which was scorched in the fires he set when he burned Granada down in a pique because they wouldn’t accept him as their president. It’s been left in that condition as a historical reference. We saw the fort that protected citizens from pirates who sacked the city three times in its early years, although if my Spanish was good enough, I understood that they were overrun once because their gunpowder got too damp in the humid environment. I’m guessing many current Granadinos, as they call themselves, are descendants of the pirates.
Our entertainer last night didn’t disappoint. She was more than I expected - she went on for an hour or longer, song after song, mostly folk songs in Spanish from here, from Chile, from Colombia, etc; and a couple of calypsos in English from the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. I took some video but it was way too dark because I stupidly didn’t realize that zooming in wouldn’t capture as much light as staying zoomed out, after dark. She attracted a large audience, well away from the rowdier bars and other music - there were a half-dozen mariachi style bands up the street, and some brass players, but everyone in front of the cafe stayed stuck like glue, and applauded heartily after each song.
Ometepe is off the menu for us - Deb argues that we can enjoy a volcano visit in Costa Rica which is easier to get to, maybe in a rental car. She’s researching our onward destination as I type this. We’ll probably stay two extra nights here, though. There’s a history of Nicaragua lecture in La Sirena on Wednesday that we’ll catch, but the main attraction for me is a concert by the Tunas - a large group of the same Spanish traditional musicians who gave us an impromptu private concert at a college in Chile.
Staying isn’t difficult financially either; meals are good, and cheap (the two of us can split a meal and a smoothie for $10), a clean air conditioned room is $50 US or less, and a 12 oz beer is $1 US. If I drank more than one a day, I’d be in heaven.
Feb 6th. Granada’s charm has grown on me. The streets and houses aren’t pretty but they’ve painted their walls nice pastel colours, as I’ve mentioned; and the beauty is interior - the courtyard gardens inside each home. Most of the large homes are now turned into hotels or hostels, sometimes with cafes, and some are separated into three homes instead of one.
The streets are nicely paved, with no potholes - but they make up for that with open holes on narrow sidewalks. You have to watch your step. I was astonished when we crossed the border at how much better the highway was, consistently and all the way for the remaining two hours until we arrived at this city.
We bought our onward tickets this morning at the TicaBus terminal, and felt foolish. Our tickets will only be $29 each (recall that we paid $89 for the shuttle bus, but having seen the invoice confirmation for $71 each I’m convinced that the extra $18 “deposit” was actually a booking fee for the hotel). We might have to dismount at the border but the coach will continue the journey all the way and the border fee will only be $4. Weird. Mind you, we’ve also heard from fellow travellers that the fee is only $3; the extra dollar is for the driver who will collect our passports and have them stamped for us en masse. That’s happened for us at other borders; perhaps the agent who stamps them gets to keep some or all of that.
Deb’s tablet has frozen in some kind of reset-reboot loop and is unusable, but our hotel host has lent her his front desk PC to try to get it going again. She’ll have to find her apps and reload everything, but we’re hopeful that the steps she is following online will work. Our host has also extended our stay for two nights, for only $39 a night - recall that we had to pay $58/night using the online booking site. He told me via Facebook that his direct booking rate in February is about $45, so he’s doing us a bit of a favour to make up for the extra we had to pay by going that route. It’s a good thing...there are hostels and hotels several to each block, so tons of competition.
We detoured through the market this morning. The mercado is huge. We’ll explore more of it later.
Feb 7th. We had to take Deb’s tablet to a repair shop in person. Our host tried to arrange a repair with two different techies on the telephone, but they were unresponsive. He says that he has similar problems with electricians, who will make an appointment and then not show up. However, the family of computer guys in the shop we found on Real Xalteva seemed extremely helpful and friendly. Our attempt to install drivers for the firmware using the Windows 7 computer at the front desk failed. We learned how to open the tablet and disconnect the battery, but that’s about it. I learned what the process will consist of, so I don’t feel bad about paying the charge, which we’ll only have to pay if they are successful - our fingers are crossed.
We walked through more of the mercado on the way back to the hotel. That place is huge, a labyrinth of stalls for all sorts of produce and dry goods. There are actual stores in the city, including supermarkets, but not so many - most commercial activity seems likely to happen in the mercado, by small vendors, traders and growers.
We walked down Calle La Calzada, which is the main tourist strip; we’ll probably do the same walk today for better photos, because it got dark. I ate a hamburger - another couple explained to us that they love Nicaraguan beef. I’m always leery of beef outside of N. America, with the exception of Kobe beef from Japan, but sure enough, the hamburger was excellent - and we’d seen the guy who grinds it by hand in the mercado a couple of hours earlier. We also had a pupusa, which is a cornmeal pancake with chicken inside, or cheese, or beans, etc, and with cabbage salad on top. The cabbage is sliced thin and sometimes has bits of sour gherkins in it. I had to give up my tablet to Deborah and watch the tv for my daily Spanish lesson, while Deborah booked a place for our first night in Liberia.
Deb’s pedometer says we walked 14,000 steps yesterday. Except for picking up the tablet and strolling down La Calzada, I might rest my feet a bit today. But we’re going to attend a “history of Nicaragua” lecture after Deb has had a curry that she smelled coming from one of the restaurants, and they’ve threatened to rope us into a salsa lesson, but the possibility of me doing a salsa seems extremely remote. I’ll watch…
But right now I’m munching on roasted cacao beans that I bought in the market, and waiting for the water to come back on after a street level repair. I’ll have a shower and then we’ll hike through town.
Feb 9th. Well, Deborah’s tablet is now a “bloque” - a brick, a slab. The techies couldn’t fix it. We’ll try someone else, in San Jose or Toronto.
But we had an adventure instead. We rode the “chicken bus” to Masaya to find the craft market. There were no actual chickens on our bus. They are retired school buses from N. America, mostly Bluebird or similar models, still with English instructions to children in them, but dressed up and kept running forever. There is a dense network of these buses throughout the country, going from village to town with their endpoints painted on the front of each bus. They weren’t like a coach, but they are actually more comfortable than our minivan shuttle was a week ago, and a tiny fraction of the cost. Our half-hour, fifteen kilometre ride to Masaya cost 40 cents each, which was the standard, posted fare. I photographed a sign that warned that if you vomit on the bus you have to pay a fine for cleaning the seats equal to twice the fare.
We got down at the bus terminal in Masaya, which is, logically enough, right at the mercado, and the mercado is just as enormous and labyrinthine as the one in Granada. We negotiated a maze of tunnels and came out on a street at the other end. After about a five minute walk further (we ignored nasty old ladies who told us it was very far, to take a cab, and that the price would be $20 U.S.) we were at the “national craft market”, which was fun. We didn’t buy, just admired - with airline luggage restrictions, we’d have had to buy a souvenir and then pay for an extra bag to transport it on the plane, since our own bags are already full and we have no desire to make them even heavier than they are. But we gawked at lots of hammocks, pottery, and cheap little “guitars” and marimbas. Masaya has a marimba school, we were told, and we watched a young player in his family band. They got the only money we spent there, in their tip jar. But you don’t find real instruments in a market for tourist souvenirs. We did see lots of mango trees with green fruit, which Deborah had looked forward to seeing.
After a great meal at the Blue Cafe and a rest, we went to the Tres Mundos building, arriving at about 6:30 p.m. for a Tunas concert that was to start at 7. We were the first, besides the Tunas themselves, and helped ourselves to the two seats in the front row, right in front of the stage. I felt we were entitled, given that we’d extended our stay by two days to enjoy this special rare event. It was the first time the Tunas have played in Nicaragua. The only electrified guitar player, a doctor (as many of them were), chatted with us and gave us little wrist ribbons in Nicaraguan flag colours to commemorate the occasion. Many of the instruments were traditional but none of them were old; the clothing was traditional, but I spotted one fellow in the back playing a guitalele just like my own. They were a great male chorus, with a strong tenor lead and good harmonies. They goofed around a lot and the audience ate it up. That was a peak experience of our stay. The concert will be posted to their website eventually. The whole chorus didn’t come - they are all volunteers and pay their own way, and it was a free concert - but there were fourteen on stage, eleven of them playing instruments, including one lovely 4 string bass that looked exactly like my guitar that I acquired and rebuilt after Rod stepped on it, but with a long neck and strings.
The Tunas are such an old university tradition that they first appeared in the writings of Cervantes. And speaking of Don Quixote, there are wind turbines all across the countryside of Nicaragua. They are trying to become energy independent, and they are behind Costa Rica but closing fast. They have great winds off the largest freshwater lake in Central America, and of course both countries have plenty of sunshine, year round.
We’re both enjoying our books right now. Deb has Plain Song, a slice of life in a small town in Colorado, a bit comic but mostly heart-warming, she says. I have stories by Jimmy Buffett called Tales From Margaritaville, written while he was writing and recording some of his albums, which seems an admirable way to get two-for-one from your creative sweat. This morning we are sitting down to our last breakfast and by noon we’ll be at the Tica Bus station, boarding our coach for the trip to Liberia. Sitting at the table, I thought about how much old wooden furniture there is. It lasts forever if it can dodge the termites. It is all made from tropical hardwoods, plentiful and cheap. Sol would love it here.
Feb 10th. We have woken up in Liberia. We almost didn’t. What we’d heard about the border was true - the Tica coach took us all the way through and the cost was only $8 for the two of us instead of the $40 we paid to come through on foot the other way. The immigration official leaving Nicaragua obligingly stamped the passports for the entire bus collectively, for a tip of $1 each, I think, and then returned them in person at the door of the bus, merely checking the photos as she returned them.
At the Costa Rican side there was a line-up but no charge for re-entry and no snafus until Deb sent her backpacks through the scanner (which no-one was looking at anyway). We each have one large backpack and one small one. Deb, who usually tracks me carefully to make sure I don’t miss or forget anything (of course I never do) left her small backpack on the rollers. A lady came chasing her to the bus to tell her. Deb stared in disbelief for a moment or two that she could actually have done such a thing, and then it hit her like a large wave. She raced back inside, and it was still there, thank goodness.
The Tica bus driver stopped somewhere roughly where Liberia ought to be and let two people out on the highway. I patiently waited for him to go into the bus station, but he continued down the highway quite a distance. Deb got suspicious and turned on the gps on her phone (I’d had mine on earlier, and should have left it on).
“Doesn’t it look to you as though the blue dot is going away from Liberia?” she asked.
This time it was my turn to wallow in disbelief, but she marched to the front of the bus, sat on the steps and interviewed the driver, who claimed he’d only known about two passengers who wanted to go to Liberia, not four. He said he couldn’t turn back, and we’d have to take a bus back from his next scheduled stop, which was Cañas. However, he stopped earlier, let us down at a stop beside an overpass at Bagaces, and told us to cross over to the stop on the other side and catch the more local bus from Cañas to Liberia, which we did. It came within minutes, and was a fine coach, not like the Nicaraguan school buses that network from town to town. It took us another half-hour to get back but cost only $2 for the two of us.
The last problem was that although Deb had wanted to be in charge of choosing our destination hotel (and you always have to have one to tell the immigration official), we had only one tablet and I couldn’t hover over her shoulder, so I just said that it should be, for the first night, as near as she could manage to the bus station. She did find one that is pretty close. But she told the passengers near us, and the driver, that she wanted to get down near the centre of town. Many people got off the bus, and we did too; but not all. We collected ourselves in a nearby Taco Bell and hit the washrooms, then found the Hostel Nanku on Deb’s phone gps and it was eight blocks away. After negotiating in the dark with a sketchy “taxi” driver with no meter and an imprecise price for the trip, we decided to hike there - and passed the bus station we should have arrived at by bus. Three blocks later we were at the gates of a home with a lovely black and white Great Dane, but Deb’s phone gps is as imprecise as the taxi driver’s price schedule (I should have taken out my tablet, I realized), and the hostel she’d picked turned out to be back two blocks in the direction we’d come, and just around the corner.
The room is not bad, but doesn’t have an ensuite bathroom and worse, it has no windows so you can’t really tell the time from the light coming in. The air conditioning makes it liveable. The mattress is ok but beneath that exists an odd topography. After Deb gets up I’m going to lift the mattress and see if I can explain the positions I had to mold myself into in order to sleep.
I’m up early, as always, enjoying Costa Rican coffee provided by the hostel, with a pair of doves nesting in a planter ten feet away and only five feet off the ground, and an iguana on the wall just behind them - maybe thinking about the eggs and how to get down the wire strands of the planter to oust the doves and do breakfast. I’m pretty sure his mission is hopeless, given the physical logistics.
We have to change our room in order to stay the extra night. Then we’ll breakfast, learn what Liberia looks like on foot and by local bus, find a tourist info centre if one exists, and hunt for a slightly more perfect hotel. However, we’re here for one more night regardless - a nod to Deb’s aversion to uncertainty - and that hasn’t been a bad thing so far. Liberia is one of the cities with an international airport, so lots of travellers use these hostels. We talked with a blended family last night (Costa Rican and Minnesotan) who gave us some good tips on nearby natural attractions that had attracted Deb to this city in the first place. The city doesn’t look difficult to get around from here.
Later: The little I’ve read tells me that Liberia is a colonial city that is known for its white buildings and has some history to it, which usually also means a museum. One source says it has 20,000 inhabitants; another says 300,000. That’s a pretty big difference. It’s in Guanacaste, a unique province in Costa Rica which was annexed to Costa Rica 200 years ago, but Nicaragua has never been completely thrilled about that, or so I’ve heard. It’s a dry region, relatively speaking, with its own culture and costumes based on a blend of peoples and a cattle ranching economy.
The white buildings resulted from pioneer wattle and daub construction - a white soil with lots of calcium made mud that baked hard but was brittle, so they mixed it with cattle dung to provide the fibres that would make it stick to the wattle and not split when struck. Then they put a top layer of strictly white mud, like stucco, that gleamed in the hot sun. Most of those old buildings are gone, replaced with newer construction, but there are some portions of the old white church which have the same wavy surface that was achieved with that top layer of mud.
We walked around town and discovered that the “museo” on the map doesn’t actually exist. There’s nothing but an old fort for military personnel, guarded by a friendly, lonely policeman. So we had some Peruvian style ceviche for brunch and walked home past the thoroughly modern supermarket where we picked up some stuff for supper and for breakfast. That’s one good thing about these hostels: they have kitchens that all are welcome to use. And they are securely locked, with a receptionist on duty day and night; and you have a key for your own room, and sometimes smaller cubbies like bus terminal lockers to lock your valuables inside.
We booked a room right next door, this time with a private bathroom (Deb hates going to a shared bathroom even though it is just across the hall, no different than our bathroom at home except that there we don’t have to wait until others have finished their showers) and air conditioning, for the same price that we’re paying here. We’ll probably only stay one night, though. The town has no attractions that we’re aware of beyond what we’ve actually experienced, and so tomorrow we’ll go to a lovely waterfall and swimming hole called Llanos de Cortes, and then probably onward - we haven’t decided where yet. We were going to see the park by Rincón de la Vieja, which involves hiking on a trail for about three kilometres in the heat to visit hot springs, a small waterfall and a mud bath of some kind, in a forest reserve - about $100 for the two of us to ride the shuttle there and have park entrance. Still thinking about that. The nearer one is just a cheap local bus ride away, still with a three kilometre hike in and a swim in cool freshwater under a picturesque waterfall at the end point, and can be accomplished in about four hours, according to a girl who was there today. She’s from Quebec but has been in Nicaragua five years, teaching yoga and who knows what else, but she has to make a run into Costa Rica every ninety days to have her visa extended.
I wanted to rent a car for Rincón de la Vieja, but reports of petty theft and smash-and-grab theft from autos are rampant, and rental cars are always identifiable targets for ladrones. Our helpful Minnesota-Tico blended family went for breakfast in their truck this morning, left some stuff in the locked truck (which belongs to the Tico husband’s father) and come out from breakfast to find their window smashed, and Kim’s camera and a few other small things taken. If that happened to us with a rental car (even though we’d likely keep our stuff locked in the trunk) I’m not sure that our collision damage waiver or other insurance that comes with the rental would completely cover the damage, not to mention what we might lose from our personal effects. We wanted to rent one from a company in San Jose that Ernie rents from, but our email on the form they provide on their website wasn’t answered, and it has been a week since I sent it.
This evening we’ll walk a few blocks back into the central plaza where we saw a stage set up for dancers, and if we’re lucky they’ll be in traditional Guanacaste costumes. There seems to be a big parade planned - we can hear drum corps and bugles in the distance. They are going to elect the queen of the parties that are coming - between Feb 23rd and March 4th, if I heard our hostel host Gerardo correctly. There will be horse parades, bullfights, and other events.
Oops: we went, we paid $12, we almost died from the volume which threatened to pulverize our organs and damage our hearing beyond repair, we asked for our money back and got it, and we left. Humans are often completely insane. They learn that they can tattoo pictures on their skin so they cover themselves with often ugly pictures (that will be even uglier when they are old and their skin sags and wrinkles) using dyes with heavy metals, risking skin cancer within a few years. They learn that they can amplify sound even in a small space way beyond what they need to hear, so they do; I worked with a bass player once who had hearing aids in both ears from amplifier volume damage. This is what we had hoped to see.
We’ve been in three different rooms for three nights - two at Gerardo's, and tonight we’re right next door at Hostel Pura Vida, because he didn’t have a spot for us. Until this morning, that is. There are constant cancellations to be taken advantage of at the last moment. But for the same price we now have the ensuite bathroom that Deb prizes.
We sorted our bus travel out, with Gerardo’s help and that of an online Facebook group I joined where members respond to your questions about the incredibly convoluted bus system, where bus companies own their own terminals and rival companies dump you at the highway or pick you up there because they don’t have permission to use the terminals (and sometimes don’t want to, in the interest of keeping a tight schedule, it seems). Then we took a local coach almost back to Bagaces and walked for 35 minutes in the heat to a remote local waterfall and swimming hole called Las Cataratas de los Llanos de Cortes, “Waterfalls of the Plains of Cortez”, which was pretty nice. It was a four hour round trip, including waiting on the highway for a bus to come along that would take us back to Liberia, but a very refreshing swim and shower under the waterfall.
Deb asked me to mention (in case others read this and pass this way) that the walk in was first 800 metres and then there was a locked gate through which we had to slip through a hole and walk another twenty minutes before reaching the falls and pool. There was a small building that the municipality might have used to collect a parking fee, but it was all closed up, no-one in attendance. The taxi driver at the bus station wanted $16 to bring us here, but would have had to dump us at the locked gate anyway, which he probably knew. A young Spanish couple travelled with us but declined to share a cab (budget travellers) and it is just as well that they did because I’d have been embarrassed to talk them into paying half of the cab and then still have to walk so much further in the heat.
I saw a real life version of a Costa Rican drip coffee system. We shopped in the Maxi Pali supermarket and made two suppers and two breakfasts for ourselves in the hostel kitchen, which felt more pleasant than going out this evening after our bit of hiking and mild heat strain. Deb was a little nauseous; I put it down to the heat, and she has recovered. One thing we did that was smart was to go in with our shirts and hats, and wear them soaking wet on the hike back to the highway - so we had some evaporative cooling going on, even more so when there were hot, strong breezes, which are common here in the second half of the day.
Liberia was a service centre for cattle drives from Nicaragua, originally. It was called Guanacaste in those days, and the herds got to drink at the Rio Liberia while the thirsty cowboys got to drink in the town. Now it simply accommodates people who arrive at the airport and head quickly onward to Pacific coast locations, generally. Gerardo says it has grown a lot since he was a child, and it isn’t very large yet. But I guess populations are swelling just about everywhere.
Tourism is 95% of the economy now, it seems, and many travellers are distressed at the costs. They feel like walking dollar signs. It’s not the first place we’ve been that’s like this. On Ometepe in Nicaragua (which we should have visited - we learned after the fact from other travellers who’ve been there that local buses get you from town to town quite easily, while everyone previously told us we’d have to take expensive taxis everywhere, or rent scooters on rough roads) the same taxi ride that costs a local $3 costs $20 for a tourist. At least in eastern Europe and most other places we’ve been recently, including the far east, visitors pay what locals pay. For accommodation during high season, which this is, we’re having a tough time making direct bookings with places - even when you go to their website it often bounces you straight to booking.com, which adds a 20% commission even though they claim there are no fees (who are they kidding? Nobody takes over the whole online world and provides their service for free); and often the hostels or hotels are locked into quoting the booking.com price, or risk being bounced from their system and losing business, since so many young travellers are now using these enormously successfully rip-off “apps”. There are many of them now, but it is false competition, each one a new manifestation of the octopus Expedia.com, according to Paige at the Mono Azul. I would not recommend the kind of exploration adventure we’re doing in Costa Rica this winter to a budget traveller, frankly; and perhaps Costa Rica doesn’t even want to see budget travellers, just quick vacationers who want volcano hikes, cloud forest and zip line thrills and will pay top dollar for them. Geoff Wild lamented that each national park here charges separately, unlike Canada and the U.S. who will sell you an annual park pass to visit all the ones you want. Nicaragua is another story - they aren’t far behind in following Costa Rica’s example of trying to make most of their income through tourism, but at least you can still be a budget traveller there; local buses are cheap and you can ask hotels for a direct rate there, to do an end run around the aggregator booking sites. We met Marie, a lovely Quebecois teacher’s daughter who has been there every winter for twenty years and lived there solidly for the past five in Leon, and she loves it.
I read an observation lately that the most successful entertainment companies in the world - Youtube and Facebook - don’t create any of their own product; the most successful “taxi” companies, Uber and Lyft, don’t invest a penny in taxis or insurance; the most successful accommodation companies don’t own a single hotel. It’s a brave new world, and frankly I don’t like it much when it comes to travel accommodation, but the only way around it is to find much more creative ways to travel. Our last winter was very successful using largely couchsurfing, but couchsurfing doesn’t appear to have taken hold in Central America, and we’re happy to use small hotels and hostels - just not so happy about the gouging by the online aggregator booking sites.
Off to bed...gotta get up early to make our three connections to La Fortuna.
Feb 12th. We were up by 5:30, had breakfast and made the bus station only a block and a half from the hostel by 6:25 a.m. for a 6:30 a.m. bus, but still had to wait. We missed our first connection by ten minutes when the bus driver in Liberia wouldn’t leave for Cañas until fifteen minutes after its scheduled departure. But there was another bus to Tilarán within another twenty minutes. We caught it, and began rising into the hills on a winding road. It was nice scenery, but still pretty dry.
The average person in Central America is pretty fine: friendly, kind, devout, family-oriented, curious about strangers but not nosy. Taxi drivers are the exception. You begin any conversation with one with the premise that they are all f’ing liars, especially in towns like Liberia where they troll the bus station looking for gullible tourists. If they prove otherwise, it might only be until the right opportunity to rip someone off presents itself. One studied the app on his phone and proceeded to assure us that there’s no way we would make Tilarán on the local buses before 10 a.m., and that if we didn’t, that would be our last chance to make La Fortuna by tonight.
Our app from Gerardo showed two buses after that one, but we arrived in Tilaran by 9 a.m. anyway. The taxi driver wanted $40 U.S. to get us the first 50 kilometres to Tilarán; we paid about $8.50 U.S. for the two of us, in safe, comfortable coach seats.
Hostel travellers heading to Ometepe all tell each other about taxi drivers at the bus station in Rivas who tell the backpackers that if they wait for the bus to San Jorge, they won’t make the last ferry to Ometepe, which makes little sense considering that locals want to make that connection just as much as tourists do. They all want $20 U.S. for a $1 bus trip, and within minutes, usually, the bus actually pulls into the terminal and they scatter to the winds looking for locals with heavy shopping bags instead.
Mind you, Gerardo's app wasn’t perfect. It said we should try to make a 10 a.m. bus to La Fortuna from Tilarán, and that the next one after that would be 2:45 p.m. Next door in the Hostel Pura Vida, they’d made up a really useful photocopied map with directions to most places young travellers would want to go. The map gave the La Fortuna bus departure from Tilarán at 12:15 p.m., and that matches what the young lady agent at the terminal told us. She said the 10 a.m. bus would stop before it arrived at La Fortuna, and we might be stuck in Nuevo Arenal overnight, which would be a pain since we’ve paid for our night in La Fortuna already. We sat and drank delicious Costa Rican coffee for three hours in a clean, quiet food court beside the bus terminal, sheltered from the stiff Central American winds in the hills.
Leaving Tilarán, the vegetation turned green almost immediately, and before long we were into lush forest that reminded me of Byron Bay, with epiphytes in trees, sometimes all along a tree branch. We rode a narrow but good asphalt road up the west side of Lake Arenal, across the north side and back down the east side, winding and going up for great views and then back down again with the volcano always in sight, before cutting away from the lake through a forest reserve on our way to La Fortuna. We passed through Nuevo Arenal on the way, and liked the looks of the town, as well as the homes in the hills. There was a Swiss (“Helvecia”) settlement, a German bakery, and signs of other immigrants from Europe. We arrived at the bus station, and had only a short hike to our “Cabinas” which turned out to be a simple room in a house rather than cabins of any sort, but it was clean and we had a private washroom, so we had warm showers and a nap. Liberia, being so hot, didn’t have heated showers anywhere, which hadn’t pleased Deb at all.
Feb 13th. La Fortuna is a gentle, clean hill town whose main economy is based on tourism to Arenal volcano and its surrounding attractions. It has been overcast with occasional showers and occasional sunshine for days, I’m told, and that remains the forecast, but it is also cool in contrast to Guanacaste. It is raining right now. It is perfect shirtsleeves and shorts temperature, probably all year ‘round. It’s small, so walking around town is easy, and there is lots of budget accommodation. It has a very pretty central park - all central parks in small CR towns are a full block in size with walkways and gardens through them, and a church across the street on one of the four sides.
Our first room in Cabinas Lupita was fine but the next morning we have already moved closer to the centre, to Soda El Rio, a nice little al fresco dining room with large rooms behind. We have a ground floor room with large bathroom, AC if we want it (we didn’t need it last night) and a large private bathroom, for about $53 CAD. We might do some hostel hopping - a friend stayed at Arenal Hostel Resort (a hostel resort? bit of an oxymoron? but pricey, as the name might suggest) and I’m going to explore a funky place called the Sleeping Indian which appears to have a large open second floor lounge and interesting decor.
The rain is heavy now, a noisy downpour on the tin roofs. Ernie left his lights on yesterday and when they tried to come and find us the battery was dead. He and Terri came into town in a cab, we lost communication with them (we both depend on wifi apps on our phones), but as we were walking around they were sitting in a restaurant having supper and suddenly spotted us and came out to snag us and invite us to sit with them. That’s how small the town is.
I’m not sure what we’ll do while we’re here, apart from enjoying the weather and the town - a vacation from Toronto and the winter. We’ve made friends with the very friendly counter clerk at a little Chinese lunch counter. Deb is considering a tranquil raft tour in hopes of seeing birds and animals, but we might see more birds, up closer, at Ernie and Terri’s hotel, where they gather them like stray cats and feed them fruit. Ernie’s keen to do a zip-line or at least walk the hanging bridges through the forest canopy. There’s a really fine waterfall just outside of town, with 500 steps to the pool at the bottom, where you can go for a dip on a hot day. That’s about my speed...but we might have to wait a bit for a hot day.
I suspect there might be some chocolate involved in our future, given tomorrow’s date...and this is a cocoa growing area. Or cacao, as they write and say it.
Feb 14th. Yesterday we had breakfast at the nice dining room, open on all sides, next to our spacious bedroom at Soda El Rio. The only disappointment was the coffee, but now I've tried it at three different restaurants. I’m not sure that the taste isn’t simply normal for Costa Rica coffee. Tilarán bus station had pretty good coffee, but nowhere else knocks my socks off; my Sumatran from the Bulk Barn at home is better. Even the espresso machine at Rainforest Café didn’t impress me.
We had a nice day yesterday, taking photos and driving around to decide what to do today. We settled on going to Mistico, a forest canopy walk where you’re likely to see a lot of birds, animals and flowers from high hanging bridges, and good overlooks to the volcano. Yesterday was overcast most of the day and there was one torrential downpour, which Ernie says is the first he’s seen here (he’s been here in previous years), but the sky is clear and blue this morning so it looks like a good day for a walk in the treetops. I’ll get a good photo of Arenal volcano as well [sadly, moments after I typed that, the sky clouded over, very quickly].
We saw Ernie and Terri’s villa room at Roca Negra, which has lots of garden and a flock of fancy geese of various types, chickens that lay where they like (they have four eggs beside their porch) and peacocks. They have a great view of the volcano out their front door. The volcano is the dominating feature of the town. Arenal erupted in 1968 and destroyed a nearby town, Tabacón, but it has been dormant since 2010. Ernie says you can see red lava flow occasionally on the other side, and people drive around to do that. Tourists think La Fortuna was so named because it was spared during the eruption but it actually got its name long before because of the fertile soil which is the result of volcanic eruptions and dust clouds. It is a gardener’s delight.
Deb and I reflected on the volcanoes we have known up close: Haleakala in Maui, Mount Merapi in Indonesia during an active eruption, the hot steam jets and mud baths of the town of Rotorua and other volcanic cones we passed while driving around New Zealand.
After a tour of Ernie’s place we made a stop to make reservations at a steakhouse for Valentine’s Day, and then went to a “termales”, a hot springs - not the fancy expensive spa version, but a more low rent one across the road where locals would go and have picnics - there are picnic tables, grills for charcoal, and multiple pools descending from the highest and hottest ones to the cooler ones at the bottom. One could have tuned a lobster pink, others were just not warm enough, but we found a couple in the middle that were just right - the littlest bear that Goldilocks encountered would have been proud of us. We also proved we aren’t quite as old as we think we are by succumbing to the gravitational pull of dual waterslides. Terri has video.
That was a good day. We ended it with a burrito at the Rainforest Café and slept soundly. Today the plan is: all you can eat breakfast buffet at The Corner, then treetops, steak and chocolate.
9 p.m.: the Mistico Hanging Bridge walk in the forest reserve was a few hours long, very vegetative and meditative. We saw hummingbirds and a blue morpho butterfly. We saw spider monkeys for the first time in the wild. Except for a strong prehensile tail, they seem very human. We saw smaller black howler monkeys but in the shade of foliage I couldn’t get a photo that worked. At one bridge a ranger pointed out what looked like a serpentine pile of poop on a slender branch. I’d seen a dog creatively poop on the top of a rock beside the path yesterday, and that’s the first connection I made, but that was incorrect. It was in fact a very small but poisonous viper called, in Spanish, “Kiss of Death”, but a.k.a. the Eyelash Viper. The ranger pointed out that it has little protuberances over its eyes that look a little like eyelashes.
There are scads of tarantula dens, little holes in the sandy exposed areas of the hillsides, but we didn’t see one. Apparently a guide on a night walk will tickle the outside of the den with a twig and the tarantula will emerge to see what might be there; we should have tried that, but merely assumed that it isn’t something that works during the day. We didn’t see anyone else trying it.
It rained just before we left the forest. We had a coffee with a view of the cloud-shrouded volcano, and came home for a nap; then we went to a steakhouse where the steaks were great but the service was marred by a weak attention span and an inability by the kitchen to present a dish as described on the menu. What we did get to eat was delicious. Then we came into town and walked a bit in the square, and watched the Ticans crowded out the door of the church with ash on their foreheads, this being Ash Wednesday. There are no doors on this church - it is always open, on at least two sides. It has a half-pipe vaulted ceiling that gathers and focuses the sound beautifully, like an echo tunnel we’d walked through in the forest reserve. We listened to some of the singing, and marvelled at the blissful temperatures and the blissful relaxed vibe of the town, with the kids chasing each other around the dry fountain. We stepped inside the Chocolateria and each of us chose something to our liking.
This is a town that one reserve guide pointed out that he is proud of, unlike Quepos, Puntarenas and Limon, for example. This town takes pride in its appearance, cleanliness and infrastructure, and spends money on those things. You could live here year-round and feel very safe, comfortable and friendly with your neighbours. The one thing that I haven’t seen or heard is any music - no mariachi, no guitars even in the bars or restaurants, no singers apart from the church choir, no cultural centre. If there is one, I haven’t seen it yet.
Feb 15th. Today was low key. We walked to a nice property down the road which has gardens and bird feeders. We might do that again tomorrow morning, even earlier. At Don Juan’s we met a very nice girl from Berlin named Anouk. I worked quite a while on photos that Deb and I gathered, and we had spaghetti supper at a pizzeria with Ernie and Terri, with brownies and ice cream for dessert for Deb and Terri.
You’d think that Costa Rica would have excellent coffee everywhere, but it ain’t so. I’ve tried six places, including three that are supposed to be top end in town but the best and only really good cup of coffee is at My Coffee, run by a guy who has a coffee farm, who is also a barista and coffee taster. The others have that typical 100% Arabica slightly acidic flavour, and are lacking in body. My Coffee is smooth, “suave”.
Feb 16th. The Great Mashed Potato Catastrophe:
This morning I am thinking about cooks. That might seem pretty random. A cook is in one of those lucky occupations. He can travel anywhere in the world, eat and drink for free and sometimes even wangle a room in a hotel as part of his position. In some parts of the world the job doesn’t pay a lot, but it should.
A few weeks ago Kevin walked away from his job at Mono Azul, said he’d “hit the wall” and simply went AWOL for a few days. Here in La Fortuna there are signs on several restaurants that are asking for cooks to apply. On Valentine’s Day we experienced “The Mashed Potato Catastrophe” - a glitch that marred our dinner in a minor way: the menu said that mashed potatoes came with the steak we ordered, and mashed potatoes aren’t a regular part of a tipico meal. Terri got really excited about having mashed potatoes, but the waiter came back out of the kitchen to report that the mashed potatoes “aren’t ready yet” so we couldn’t have them. We struggled to comprehend how a steakhouse couldn’t have mashed potatoes “ready” to eat. The waiter assured us that we could have baby potatoes sauteed in garlic, at least - but when the dishes came out the chef had arbitrarily substituted yucca. He was one of those “minimalist” chefs who artfully arrange a few vegetables on the plate and call it a dish - thank goodness the steak was a decent size. That saved our meal. Now, Terri doesn’t like yucca and had really looked forward to her volcano of mashed potatoes, so I marched up to the desk where the cashier lolled backwards on his chair talking into his smartphone and insisted that the plate should look as described on the menu. I wanted to see the bacon, mushrooms and mashed potatoes. The waiter had dropped off the dishes and studiously avoided us, talking to a friend just outside the restaurant on the opposite side, but he came over when the cashier called him. They both claimed that the bacon and mushrooms were “in the sauce” which annoyed me - not as described, you see - but they couldn’t wiggle out of the mashed potato issue. The waiter volunteered to go back and pitch for us to get the sauteed in garlic baby potatoes that he’d promised us, at least (which he should have been attentive enough to arrange in the first place), and I agreed. A few minutes later he brought us each a few slices of baby potatoes sauteed in garlic, minimalist in quantity and not-so-artfully arranged on a side plate, one for each of us.
Last night we went for supper again at a pizzeria and three of us ordered spaghetti dishes. The waiter returned to say that only two of us could have spaghetti because there “wasn’t enough spaghetti” for three of us to have it. Ernie and Terri were facing the street, and noted that there was a supermarket right across the road - one of four or five in this tiny town. Not enough spaghetti? Why would they not send someone across the street and buy a few packages of cheap spaghetti? Deb and I shared ours, which solved our immediate problem.
Suddenly last night I caught myself thinking about the job of a cook and kitchen manager. There’s a logistical nightmare to making sure you have all the food you need for each menu item, in stock and fresh, delivered on time (although uncooked spaghetti has shelf life, after all). There’s a loud, slippery, hot work environment. You need support staff, and if your restaurant owner hasn’t provided enough go-fers, dishwashers and cleaners, salad and fruit cutters, your supply chain and person-power brigade breaks down and you do all the work they should be doing as well as cooking the food. All things considered, cooks have a tough job and probably have a lot more wage bargaining power than many of them realize.
It has been raining a great deal here. Ernie rented a motorcycle to go for a run up to Tilarán and back. We hope he doesn't get chilled. I got good bird photos today -- at least, the best I can get with my tiny little Canon pocket camera. I'm beginning to crave a camera with more zoom, and jiggle suppression.
Feb 17th. La Fortuna is kind of a spooky town - like Brigadoon, or Pleasantville. The people appear to be without strife of any kind. The only person that I saw who might have a mental issue was carrying a donation bucket with a sign on it that asked for “Help for Mental Health“. The town is clean...it rains every day. Dogs wander freely but all act like family members. There are two policemen and everybody waves to them. The senior class in high school has to wear fuschia shirts, and they don’t rebel - they are neat as a pin. There’s no live music apart from the church choir. There are no activities in the town apart from the expensive ones the tourists have to pay for that are all related in some way to the volcano.
There are bicycles for coming down the volcano as there were in Haleakala, but none for rent within the town; they’re barely missed, since you can easily walk everywhere, but I’d have rented one to explore some of the edges of the town if I could. There are horses for tourists to do volcano trail rides, but none within the town site. There are speed bumps around the immaculate central plaza, which is a park rather than a parade ground. There is a pavilion in the park, but no dancing ever seems to happen. I think there’s a bus for locals but I haven’t seen it circulating within the town - maybe it brings workers and shoppers from outside. There are multiple large supermarkets, not many people rushing through them and the shelves are all full. There are greengrocers including one large one that has every kind of fruit and vegetable neatly stacked high, and at the end of the day the stacks seem just as high...who buys them? What happens to them at the end of the day? Do they end up in the hotel kitchens? Yes...spooky...perhaps the townies are all under some sort of spell. if they were, of course, they wouldn’t know it. Only a suspicious outsider like myself might sense it. I would be bored to death in another day if I lived in the town; was I imagining that some of the townspeople looked a little wistful as they watched us hike to the bus station?
In a half hour we’re off to San Ramon, where we’ll stay one night with a young man who appears to be trying to be a sort of superhost for couchsurfing. Apart from him, I haven’t encountered other couchsurfing hosts, although they were common in South America, where I found that making my requests in Spanish in parallel to English brought them out of the woodwork...not here, though.
Feb 18th. The ride down to San Ramon is 29.8 miles and takes two hours. It is two lane blacktop with single lane bridges across many creeks. It took us some time to connect with our host. We dropped our backpacks at his house, which was down a very steep road and steps into a ravine, and showed a risk of occasional flooding - there was a concrete and brick dam around the front porch that you have to step over to get to the front door, about two feet high. Isaac lives there with his mother Roxanne and his father Omar. Roxanne shares her son’s passion for collecting couchsurfers from all over the world, and she has a collection of souvenir bills from many countries. We put pushpins in their world map, and signed their guest book - we were the 93rd entry in their book, it seemed. We enjoyed their pets - three chihuahuas and a cat. One of the little dogs is a tiny ball of personality with feathery fur, and he is the “favourite son” who spends his nights in the house with them, and wears a little red jacket like an organ grinder’s monkey.
However, we slept on bunk beds in Isaac's room while he slept on the living room couch, and the house felt cramped - we felt that with five of us, we were in their way a bit. So we declined their enthusiastic invitation to stay a second night. It was much more comfortable to stay in a small hotel in town, next to the Centro Cultural Social, which was close to the event we wanted to take in.
The Gran Hotel is an interesting building with very tall ceilings but a strange architecture, all corners and blocks at 45 degree angles. It looks like a movie set, with apartments inside a sheltered area, even one with a balcony. It belongs to Larry and his family. Larry is Nicaraguan, from Granada, but worked underground in a gold mine in Alaska for three years, which might have been his ticket to buy this hotel. He is a very large man, with a very large and cheerful daughter who helps him and his wife to run the hotel.
We saw a couple of small, inexpensive museums, including one that has a music school in it, and a room dedicated to the three time president of Costa Rica who disbanded the army, and enshrined it in law, in 1948. Like Uruguay, in some ways the progressiveness of Costa Rica puts N. America to shame, as his profile makes clear.
Delightfully, we connected for the fourth time with our new friend Karol Barboza, who came to town to do a volunteer performance for a cultural event a block and a half from our hotel room. I got some better video this time, and we had a long chat, including sharing a pizza afterward. She gave us her opinion on where we ought to go next; there is stormy weather forecast until Wednesday on the Caribbean side, where she says it always rains and where “summer” is actually in the last four months of the year. The Pacific coast has nicer weather, it seems. Her hometown is San Isidro de El General, and although she isn’t there these days it seems like that’s a better destination.
Karol described how her career is building slowly, which makes her feel more secure than if she experienced a sudden flash in the pan success. She’s been at it for nine years, including some tours in Europe where her expenses were covered by a Swiss group, and three years in a small band that created and played the music for circus performances, mostly on the clarinet I think, which must have been a lot of fun. We’re hoping she gets to play in Toronto someday. She is building a presence on iTunes, Spotify and SoundCloud, and has just produced her first CD which includes a couple of her own tunes and some by friends. The applause this afternoon, like the applause we heard when she sang in Granada, was very strong and enthusiastic.
Some of the other acts were also very well-developed. It is a monthly event - this was the 99th month - where young people showcase the acts they are developing. We watched clowns telling stories through clowning, miniature peep-box theatres, and puppetry. One lady had a portable pirate ship set, and used a hand puppet parrot and Indonesian style shadow puppets on the sail of the ship, with a light behind her, to tell her story.
Feb 20th. We talked about renting a car, but it hasn’t happened yet. Now that we have figured out the bus system (what an exaggeration that is! Even Ticos have trouble navigating that!) we’re finding it easier, certainly cheaper, and less risky, to travel the buses from town to town. Following Karol’s advice, we caught the coach to San Jose Puntarenas station, then a cab over to the MUSOC station and were immediately on a comfy Marcopolo coach through the central valley on a sunny day. Our coach took us on what some wit called “the highway of death”, but it was well-maintained, narrow two-lane blacktop all the way, except for a few spots where the soil underneath had washed out and the pavement had fallen away, so that the road was reduced to a single lane. There were some rock fall areas as well. We went up the hillsides into the cloud forest, and through the National Quetzal reserve area, and then down into the next valley to San Isidro de El General, which is Karol’s home town, although she’s stationed in San Jose these days. The two coaches only cost us 8,700 colones for both of us, so about $20 CAD for the day’s journey.
We ended up in Cabinas El Prado, a kind of motel with little brick buildings which Karol had recommended. Google maps placed it 150 metres from the bus station, but it was more like a kilometre away and has a dirt road in, so we didn’t find it at first. The desk clerk was friendly and switched our rooms when I complained about the lack of wifi signal in the first one; he gave us a handicapped suite closer to the router, low and large, with an enormous bathroom to accommodate someone in a wheelchair. There is a bar and swimming pool next door where we have breakfast included in the price of $39. We ate supper there because I was too lazy to walk back into town, but the barmaid and waitress had her thumb on the scale, as the English saying goes, so we won’t have supper there today. But the beer was cold.
Which brings me to a point: many foreigners find Costa Rica very expensive, and it can be if you stay in accommodation designed for tourists, and eat meals in those restaurants. If you go to smaller hotels that cater more to locals, and generally don’t have N. American style semi-resort amenities, and you eat in the restaurants that locals go into for their meals, and ride buses that locals ride instead of renting cars with pricing aimed at foreign visitors, or taking shuttles and tours sold to you by agents in tourist hotels, it isn’t more expensive to be here than it is to vacation within our own N. American borders. You’re bringing foreign exchange into the economy, which is a good thing, but you aren’t contributing to pricing inflation that makes many things difficult for Ticos to afford.
Today we’ll meet Karol’s parents, visit their home, walk around downtown, photograph a beautiful church, and maybe bus back up to the cloud forest to try to catch sight of a quetzal, which is a rare and beautiful species. I thought it was the national bird, but someone today told us that the national bird is actually a clay-coloured thrush called the yigüirro, very dull but with a beautiful song. As an aside, the national bird of Nicaragua is the mot-mot, while Guatemala’s is the quetzal, and the scarlet macaw represents Honduras.
Later: Karol has a great family: Alberto and Flory, and her four siblings Josselyn, Steven, Carlos and Nicolas. Alberto just retired as a nurse. We met Alberto’s brother Elryn and two cousins Luis and his fraternal twin whose name I have forgotten. The cousins were replacing Alberto’s roof.
The kids have diverse interests and career goals. They were all musical, and Steven was playing with Karol the second night we spotted her in the small orchestra in Granada, but we didn’t know him then. In number and in the musical streak in their genes, they are quite like my own siblings, but like my own family, they are pursuing careers outside of music. Josselyn, for example, is studying to be an audiologist.
Karol is the only hardcore troubador, and she literally plays on buses and passes her hat the way we saw people doing it on the metro in Santiago, dodging the subway cops, with battery operated amplifiers and all, right under the signs that ask people not to tip the illegal buskers. Karol only has to carry her ukulele, but Flory says that Karol can make $30 or $40 in two hours of “bus-busking” in San Pedro, a district in San Jose. That’s pretty good in a country where the average weekly salary isn’t much above $150. She’ll step into pizza parlours and launch into song, or get hired by a local pub owner for an hour or longer. She has travelled internationally with her music, has played in a travelling circus as I mentioned in a previous post, and is slowly building her repertoire and reputation. Flory is proud of her daughter in spite of initially being aghast at her chosen path; she loves that her daughter can lift the spirits of an entire busload of passengers, some of whom are ill, or angry, or sad, distract them and make them forget their troubles for five minutes, and carry that lingering joy with them for some time even after their bus ride is over. I’d love to help her search for venues in Toronto, for the Spanish community and the rest of the Torontonians.
Alberto and Flory made us a chicken salad and took us for an afternoon drive to a local forest reserve called Fudebiol, to an outdoor education centre a little like the ones our school board uses. That’s where my photos were taken today. It was more hospitality than we had a right to expect merely by announcing ourselves to be their daughter’s first official Canadian fans.
It was also an all-day Spanish lesson for me, and I could understand almost everything that Flory chatted about with Deborah. I’m occasionally expressing myself in short phrases and sentences, and supplying missing words to Deborah when they escape her, so my linguistic goal is within reach. The image in my mind is of a solid glacial block of non-comprehension that is very gradually warming and melting away at the edges.
Flory makes lovely bright hand-painted flora and fauna on trays and other objects for tourists to buy, and she pressed a few items into Deborah’s hands as we were leaving, as a gift. Steven was making artisanal bread, so we bought a loaf while it was still in the oven, and he’ll deliver it any minute now on his bicycle. It will be flax, sesame, rosemary and some hot spices, which sounds interesting. It’ll make good sandwiches for the bus to San Gerardo tomorrow.
Feb 22nd. Yesterday we walked downtown and took in San Isidro. If you arrive by bus, your first impression of any town is not thrilling, because bus stations are often in a fairly seedy, commercial or industrial part of town. The main square of San Isidro doesn’t match La Fortuna, but it isn’t bad, and the cathedral is lovely. The stores show evidence of a healthy commerce in the region. Many of the residents don’t live downtown, however, but in the hills that cradle the town, and their neighbourhoods are quite attractive. One never gets past the unfriendly feeling of being on a street of houses with bars over every door and window, maybe some barbed wire, certainly a high metal fence; but the people are friendly when they have a reason to say hello.
We went to the bus station and found our bus for San Gerardo de Rivas. This was a municipal bus that carried us up higher into the hills for an hour, and at the end of the line, the last stop, we were steps away from the door of the Roca Dura Cafe and Hotel.
Now, you’re thinking “Hard Rock Cafe”, I’m sure...and there are a couple of guitars painted almost surreptitiously on one wall, but the main reason for the name is that the hotel was built by some enterprising fellow on the steep side of a ravine, and built of tropical hardwoods, tile and river rock around even bigger rocks that he couldn’t or didn’t want to remove, which are now part of the decor. It’s a pretty funky building. You enter off the main road but you access rooms on multiple levels with a combination of spiral staircases and regular ones.
Deborah’s jaw just about hit the floor when she saw our room. It might be that we are the only people who wanted a private bath (there are also dorm rooms) and so they simply gave us their best room - no room number, they simply call it “the apartment” - in spite of the constant “panic box pop-ups”on Booking.com which tell you that this is the “last room available at this price” and similar bogus messages. In any case, we got the room I’d hoped for, with its own “hard rock” emerging from the wall, tons of space and lovely tile throughout, and a sliding glass floor to ceiling window that looks out onto the ravine with two armchairs in front of it, for viewing the bird life. She is no longer puzzled about why I’d been nudging us toward coming up here, and booking a room in this little hotel. We booked for one night, as we usually do in case it turns out to be a dump, so that we can then hunt for a second choice for the next night - the standard pattern for us is to have two nights in a place with a day in between for seeing the sights, so our days alternate between travel and soaking in the destinations. But when she saw our room and the funky architecture, she immediately asked if we should book for more nights, possibly five, maybe even a week...but we’ll probably still move on after two nights. Even paradise has its limitations when you have to climb up and down hills to get anywhere interesting.
We had lunch, a plate of “spaghetti of the house” which was designed by the most nutrition-conscious cook you can imagine, with a delicious sauce but also a large proportion of deliciously cooked al dente vegetables, and peanuts. For supper we ate Steven’s artisanal “Natty Bread” with butter and ham, and it was delicious. Steven has long dreadlocks, known as “natty dreads”, or natural dreadlocks, so he made a pun to come up with the name for his artisanal bread product. He is in the process of hunting for an oven that can do a dozen loaves at a time, rather than his Mom’s kitchen oven; and he has also embarked on a development project on his Mom’s piece of country property - he’s exploring ideas of sustainable farming and land use.
Today we will eat trout - there are lots of trout ponds up here, as there should be. We will probably have to eat it here at the Roca Dura, because the restaurant that was recommended is only open for three days on the weekends; but if the spaghetti is any indication, the chef here will probably not disappoint us. There is also a pizzeria owned and run by a Canadian, we’ve been told by two different people.
We hiked down to the river, quite a drop, through vines and bamboo. We took photos, and constructed the first Inukshuk this location has ever seen, I think. The hills are covered with all manner of trees, including bananas and mangos, cacao, citrus, and fruits that only birds prefer; and the flame trees are in blossom, dotted over the hills. We walked back down to the bridge, about two kilometres down the road to the next bus stop, and then back up the steep hill.
We’ll probably do a little hiking, maybe to a hot springs that are about a kilometre beyond the bridge we walked to yesterday, but mostly today is just for relaxing and soaking in the environment and the bird life. The vistas are to die for.
The big news in the Barboza house this week was that Karol’s dad Alberto and brother Carlos did the Chirripó half-marathon last week and each came second in their age divisions (they are 62 and 18). The half-marathon is uphill from here; the full marathon includes the return, which is tough on the knees. We met a local lady who said it takes her eight hours to do the round trip; they did it in three.
Right now I’m enjoying morning coffee in the cafe, which is not yet open - the night watchman, who I managed to communicate with completely in Spanish, let me in, made me a coffee and told me to keep the doors locked until the cook arrived and then let her in. That’s the kind of place this is. He wasn’t concerned that I am sitting at a well stocked bar full of bottles which are not under lock and key. Luckily for him, my only interest at this hour is caffeine and fresh morning mountain air. Although I might raid the scrap bucket from some bait for an improvised bird feeder at the open window of our room; some of the prettiest smaller birds are already summoning up the courage to fly in through the always open windows of the cafe to inspect for any kitchen scraps that might have been left behind.
Later: turns out that the “night watchman” is actually the owner, a slender older man with grey hair in a long ponytail who gets up earlier than I do and was simply in the kitchen making up a breakfast for himself. All us older men tend to get up earlier than our wives...it’s a pattern that I’ve observed.
Deb and I had a pretty stiff hike today. The hot springs were further than we’d been told, and we climbed a path up the mountainside to find it, only to find ourselves at the top of a paved road that now leads to a developed site with two lukewarm pools, pristine but not very rustic or romantic. The pools at La Fortuna were more fun, designed in a more interesting way, and the price there was the same for everyone no matter what country you come from - here it was about the same price for Ticos but double for tourists. We thought about spending twenty dollars to sit in a warm pool, and decided that the hike up there, which included an encounter with a flock of wild red parrots, had been the better part of the adventure, and there were dark clouds in the sky and a lengthy hike back, so we passed on submerging ourselves in the pool. The parrots were timid, and I only got a photo of one before something spooked them and we discovered that there’d been at least twenty of them hidden in the leaves of the tree before they all flew away at once like a school of fish.
The rain came, eventually. At supper, we are looking out on a wet little hamlet with clouds that have descended and obscured the treetops on the other side of the soccer field which comprises the open square of the village. But we are enjoying our “trucha entera”, a whole trout on a platter with fries and salad, which fed both of us from one order. We’ve had fun chatting with Lili, the young server, who is curious about us. And Deb gets a big mug of hot chocolate as her dessert, since they have no cakes or other unhealthy desserts here. In the morning we will have a leisurely breakfast and bird-spotting time before the bus arrives to take us back down to San Isidro. There we’ll have a few hours of twiddling our thumbs before another bus leaves to take us to San Vito, which we’re told is also a lovely town with the famous Wilson Botanical Gardens nearby.
Feb 23rd. So difficult to leave here. We slept in total darkness, no light pollution through the window; we woke to early morning bird song instead of roosters and traffic. After 6 a.m., there are tough motorcross type motorcycles at the front of the hotel, young men going to work, perhaps guides and construction workers, but you don’t hear them at the back of the building in your room overlooking the ravine.
We enjoyed our huge room with ten foot wood panelled ceilings, gleaming tiled floors, and walls of polished river rock - aesthetics mean something, as long as they’re the right ones. The owner has a passion for polish. He and Lili were polishing the hardwood floors in the cafe when we went to bed last night, but he’s up before me in the morning, doing food prep for the day in the kitchen, making himself breakfast and coffee for me, two hours before the restaurant opens and the cooks arrive. His faded jeans are full of holes, but his shoes are shiny. There are minor improvements I’d suggest to him - a collection of wooden chairs on a patio at the back that could use the same shine, a shaving mirror for the bathroom, a restoration of the ancient gourd guitar that’s hanging with the steer skulls and other decorative pieces on one of the mid-levels. But I have no desire to be so picky. The place is clean and quiet and the food is delicious. Perfect for someone who is old enough to care and still young enough to handle the stairs (which I’m just beginning to find a little troublesome this year; I might have to get into some yoga and resistance training for leg muscles).
11 a.m. The bus down the mountain took an hour and dropped us right beside the cathedral, a few steps from a Subway restaurant with wifi, so I’m uploading photos from the past two days right now (I think the Roca Dura just didn’t have the bandwidth to let them go through to Dropbox) while we cool our heels until the 2 p.m. coach to San Vito. The Tracopa station is right behind the cathedral, so Deb was there and back with the tickets in about three minutes. You don’t need to purchase them in advance, but it guarantees a seat, usually somewhere up front, since most people don’t pay in advance. It’ll be about a three hour ride, so we’ve stocked up with the “sub of the day” for when hunger catches up to us. Breakfast was filling and delicious. Most Canadians probably wonder that rice and beans with every meal can be delicious, but with a bit of butter, some onions and peppers, and salsa picante, and a bit of ham and two large eggs with huge yellow-orange yokes on the other half of your plate, it really hits the spot.
We rode the coach down the wide valley between two ranges, high up on the western one. The mountains got smaller but were green right to the tops, and the views were breathtaking. The forest thinned out. There are more palms, some coconuts, dense stands of bamboo, and lots of grazing for cattle. After two hours we turned off onto a smaller two lane blacktop, serpentine and like a roller coaster. After an hour of this we arrived in San Vito, but Deborah heaved several loud sighs as she battled motion sickness, and I confess to having slightly more active salivary glands than usual, although one never knows if that could as easily be the water or something one has eaten.
The cheap little hotel we’d booked for our first night was close to the bus station we arrived at, but it was such a let-down after the Roca Dura that I couldn’t overcome my disappointment. It was clean enough, but drab, not even a picture on the wall. The internet bandwidth connection was a joke, incredibly slow and kept dropping, so Deb couldn’t update her offline maps and other stuff on her phone, and I couldn’t load pages on the tablet. This is the Hotel Pittier…”pity, eh?”
I’d also left my Tilley hat on the bus, which was a major blow - that’s an old friend, expensive and important to keep the tropical sun off my head for the remaining four weeks. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed...my email address is inside it, and Tilley has a loss guarantee. I’ll email them as soon as I can get to a better wifi connection. [ed. that did no good - Alex Tilley has sold the company, and the "insurance" that should be included in the very high price for these hats is very limited and only valid for the first year that you own them. I'll never waste my money on another one.]
In the meantime, I steered us to a better hotel, the El Ceibo, where we’ll be happier for the second night - I know that I will. We booked it, and will hike our backpacks over there first thing tomorrow morning, before going to the botanical gardens...if it isn’t raining. The forecast is for rain for the next two days, sadly. We’ve been lucky so far; perhaps we can’t be lucky all the time, although I’m a pretty lucky guy normally. Maybe I take it too much for granted.
Feb 24th. My Tilley hat is gone for good, it would seem...the local Tracopa agent phoned the destination of the bus and they said it just wasn’t there, some other passenger must have helped himself to it. We’ll see how Tilley’s “insured against loss” brag holds up when I get home in four weeks (it turned out to be a hollow promise). I emailed them the sad story, and then Deb took me to a pet store that had a stock of hats, and I got a dark green model made in Costa Rica for a fraction of the cost of a Tilley, to replace it.
Our El Ceibo hotel is a palace compared to the Hotel Pittier, in case anyone else passes this way, and only about 45% higher in price. Hotel Pittier, to me, in spite of being clean, wasn’t secure for leaving your bags for the day while you are out, and the lack of wifi is a frustration. It was like a tired old man with no hope or imagination left. We had a nice breakfast at El Ceibo once we humped our backpacks over there, and headed off to the Las Cruces Biological centre, which has incorporated the Wilson Botanical Garden.
We spent four hours there wandering around. I’m not sure I’d recommend it for the price for foreigners, but a Dutch couple we were with got lost in the woods and saw a jaguar and a troop of monkeys, which got some of the resident scientists quite excited - one had been there for weeks ostensibly to research monkeys, and hadn’t seen any. We talked to Karen, the wife of a hummingbird researcher from the University of Oregon, originally from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and we sat in the hummingbird garden wondering how we’d ever catch one of the flighty little things with our little camera. There are twenty different species of hummingbird in Costa Rica, she told us. I got a shot of one a few days ago in San Isidro, mind you.
One note worth mentioning: we followed a map that took us up a hillside on nice paths with gentle slopes for walking, but grooming at the park has been neglected and there is a lot of leaf litter on the paths. Karen doesn’t let her kids wander up those paths, or anywhere that they can’t see the bare ground in front of their feet. Her husband (Tim?) stepped on a fer-de-lance under the leaf litter the first year they were here. It rolled under his foot, and was obviously pained by the encounter. It came up striking at his leg. It probably would have been a dry bite, since they tend to reserve their poison for animals that are small enough to be prey, but it still scared the hell out of him, and her.
We had a very special close encounter with a mot-mot up there on the hillside who simply posed for me on a branch barely ten feet from my face, and didn’t even take flight when we moved to leave; and lots of pretty little birds working on some bananas at a feeder just outside the dining room - honey creepers and other species.
We rode home with the Dutch couple and went to Soda Iris with them for lunch, across from the Tracopa bus station. They assured us they’d had a great meal there the day before. Sure enough, the cheerful ladies brought us out a veritable banquet of gallo pinto with carne en salsa for three of us, and Deb had “pipicks” (chicken crops) which she hadn’t had since childhood, apparently; we had a big cabbage salad, pasta shells with tuna, a huge plate of platanos and patacones, and the lady brought us some “black plantains” which she’d boiled just because she wanted us to sample them - they were starchy like a potato - and boiled yucca, which also tastes something like potato, but I’m fond of it, in moderation. Marianna had “jugo de mora” (blackberry juice) and Harry had fresh orange juice. The bill for all of this was under twenty dollars, and each couple simply paid half.
Feb 25th. At El Ceibo they gave us a room on the second floor at the back, overlooking a valley. “It’ll be quieter,” they said. Unfortunately they assigned the room beside us to a couple who came in loudly at 4 a.m., probably drunk from partying at the all night disco, who then engaged in loud and lustful amorous activity until they passed out with their television still blaring the same hyped up voice of the Spanish announcers on the cars that drive around with deafening speakers on their roofs, advertising such things as...all night discos. Perhaps this explains the steady increase in population of the latin American countries.
In the morning the sky was clear and the sun was bright (it had rained hard through our dinner the afternoon before), but the coffee shop was closed. So were all the rest we looked for. With the help of some locals, we were directed into the only Soda that operates on a Sunday morning, it seems - hidden just inside gate of the cathedral grounds, on church property. That's quite a trick for getting people at least to the door of the church every Sunday morning. The Soda Emaus ladies fed us a nice breakfast, and charged less than most places, and less than I expected for what they served us.
Sadly, Deborah got news as we were packing to leave that Fred, her mother’s partner, died overnight at the age of ninety-nine. I think everyone had expected it, given his last days and hours in the hospital - he had a living will that requested no extraordinary measures for life support, had been suffering from pneumonia at home lately even before falling and suffering fractures. After some time in the hospital bed, they took him off his intravenous. It’s a bit difficult for Deb to be so far from her Mom and sister at the moment, but impractical and unnecessary to cut our trip short.
The Recepcion was also locked up tight until at least 9 a.m., so it was lucky timing that we had settled the bill the evening before. After packing and abluting, to coin a verb, we humped our backpacks up to the bus station just outside Soda Emaus - luckily El Ceibo turns out to be very close to the station for the bus company we needed to get to Neily. It was what I call a “municipal bus”, with many stops along the two hour trip through lush green hills that I can describe as “soft Rockies” - the Italians settled in San Vito for good reason. Many hills had the contours of ancient terracing from pre-colonial times. During the last half hour the driver negotiated a black diamond drop through hairpin turns into a valley where we arrived at the Neily bus station. The bus went about as fast as a bicycle most of the time, which was perfect for enjoying the scenery on a brilliant sunny day. All the houses in Costa Rica are cheerily painted in diverse colours. The galvanized tin corrugated roof panels only last about ten years, so the roofs are often unsightly, and of course like anywhere some people keep their homes and yards spotless while their neighbours allow trash to collect and build up.
At Neily we had a seamless and immediate transfer to a similar bus right beside us, which left as soon as we were aboard for Golfito. That leg took another hour through a flat coastal plain. I love having a tablet with gps on these trips - following the blue dot, anticipating our arrival at each destination, never overshooting our goal. We were dropped right at the ferry terminal with ninety minutes to spare before the next run, but a very assertive restaurateur at the Restaurant Blue Marlin right at the dock took us under his wing, made us sit down to a beer and an enormous plate of rice and shrimp with patacones and salad, bought our tickets for us in advance for the ferry, and delivered them to our table while we ate. I’ve read that there is a slow $2 ferry that takes 90 minutes, but it didn’t seem to be operating on this run (maybe it is also a car ferry) so our tickets were for the $6 fibreglass minibus on water with about 36 or 40 seats and two enormous outboards, like some of the dive boats we’ve used in other countries. This trip was only 30 minutes. This boat apparently does “tropical tours”, as well.
We are essentially in a mangrove forest here, and we have booked a room at La Chosa del Manglar, which is in its own little 4 acre forest reserve. It is in the south end of town, and was a bit of a hike in the heat from the dock to the reception, along one side of the airport at which many visitors to the Osa Peninsula begin their journey. But we have a little cabina deep within the property and it is pretty quiet - I think there are only a few flights per day, and very little traffic. We fussed until we got a better room - no point having air conditioning in a room with missing panels of glass, is there? As we went through that process we were greeted by numerous noisy scarlet macaws in the trees around us, about half a dozen capuchins who aren’t shy at all (I see at least two feeding trays where they probably come down for bananas), lots of land crab holes around the boardwalk to our cabina, and an enormous iguana that also seemed thoroughly trusting and confident, eating lawn salad as we photographed him from six feet away.
Feb 26th. La Chosa is quite a fine place - the video on the website gives you an excellent sampling of our experience last night and this morning - with an earnest staff of gardeners in orange shirts who are anxious to invite you to drink the free coffee, even at 6 a.m. when they are already skimming the pool or sweeping up leaves, which is a constant daily chore in a jungle resort. I love beginning my day with coffee at 6 a.m., and that just isn’t possible everywhere.
There’s a huge palapa style dining and lounge area with wifi and very decent furniture. There are only ten rooms - booking.com claimed there were “only three left” when we booked, but actually we only met two other guests, and Enoch, who showed us our room, then one more, and finally came up with a third one when we were fussy about the first two. He seemed to indicate that there were numerous choices, and we couldn't see any sign of life in the rooms we passed. There’s a communal kitchen but no restaurant (there are twenty-odd restaurant choices within walking distance), and the bar is nothing more than an architectural feature at the moment. So La Chosa has all the bone structure of an "eco-resort", but is costing us only $71 CAD (including 13% VAT) per night for a very cozy cabin of our own in the depths of its 4 acre forest. We learned later that the room they finally put us in has a rack rate closer to $100 CAD per night, but they put us there to make us happy for one night...and so we extended for three nights. They’re doing themselves a favour in any case, because besides Deb and me, I only know of one other young French couple who are here today.
There are tours for sale as well, but the odd thing about tours and parks is that you often see just as much on the outskirts, in comfortable surroundings - the very elements that are marketed to tourists to sell additional park tours are also used to market eco-lodge resorts like this one, so there’s actually good reason to simply consider being right here as the experience we came to find. Good free coffee, the bird feeder right in front of the palapa outside windows with no glass, and all the usual range of birds feasting on a banana (until the monkeys catch on and come to steal it). It’s a short hike to meals and to your cabin for a nap in the middle of the afternoon, and you’re installed on comfortable furniture. I could sit here for a long time and watch the succession of birds right from my chair where I’m typing this. Two days ago Karen told us about her hike into the ranger station in Corcovado park nearby - “We were picking ticks off each other,” she said,” from every warm crevice on your body that you can imagine. I was so glad I was with my husband and not someone else.”
When you’re up in the hills, you miss the water; when you’re at the coast, you miss the perfect temperatures of the highlands, so air conditioning matters. However, air conditioning also allows you to seal up your room at night to keep out the noise of traffic, dogs barking, roosters and wild birds early in the morning (although those last two I don’t mind), and in this location, small planes taking off from the little airstrip beside the resort. And a flock of very noisy Marsh Hens that walked through behind the palapa around 6:45 with a very distinctive call.
As I sit here now though, the traffic noise is distant and the place seems quiet and peaceful. Last night we went to bed early, exhausted from travel; but tonight we will probably walk the paths of the resort looking for nocturnal residents - coatimundi, glass frogs, and other creatures (later: I didn’t find any…)
7:14 a.m. - Deb joined me in the palapa, and I knew it was an unusual event that she was up before seven, but an half hour later there was an even more unusual event (but not so unusual for this little strip of the Americas): an earthquake not quite as strong as the one I experienced years ago in Japan. The news reported it immediately as a 4.8; but there was a 5.9 last Saturday that originated off the coast of El Salvador. This morning, the whole building shook and there were tremors for a minute afterward, and an aftershock five minutes later. Luckily nothing came tumbling down, but I imagine a few items fell off shelves in local grocery stores.
Later we walked through town, had a lovely lunch in a small Soda Valeria (Deb loves to support the little kitchens run by ladies supporting their families), took photos of at least twenty querulous screeching scarlet macaws in almond trees and the hollows of dead trees nearby. We returned just in time to photograph a spider monkey that had joined the capuchins. It has a very bird-like call. Staff said it had been rejected from its troop and therefore spends its time around the ecolodge. The receptionist gave Deb some bananas to set out on the rail so that I could get a photo.
In the late afternoon we walked to town for ceviche and a new watch battery for Deborah. We saw hundreds of green parrots flying toward the beach in the dusk, always in pairs. I guess they feed all day and then return to roost somewhere near where the macaws were nesting and eating. It got too dark to photograph any, unfortunately. During the day they stay high and well hidden, too challenging for the zoom on my tiny shirt-pocket camera.
Feb 27th. I woke at the first rays of dawn and jumped out of bed to hunt for glass frogs, with no success. Maybe this isn’t their habitat. Or maybe they were hiding from the loud flock of marsh hens (I don’t know their actual name) who surrounded our cabin and performed the morning function of a rowdy gang of roosters. I’ve hunted on this page for the sound, but it will take a while to pin them down - but I have found many of the other birds we hear. The woods here are a tapestry of sounds, mostly birds but also frogs and crickets. There are hundreds of birds; if you only listen to one or two, the oropendola is a dramatic call.
By seven, the sound landscape was taken over by the deafening calls of dozens of green Mealy parrots (you can hear them on that page) who were off on their search for breakfast, passing through La Chosa in pairs, while pairs of macaws flew toward the beach and the almond trees for their favourite food.
A gardener was sweeping paths even before 5:30 this morning, and the coffee was already on. But now it is only me and the birds and the monkeys. We’ve decided that today will be a day to sit in one place, maybe swim in the pool, read novels and study Spanish (for me). Tomorrow we will head to Uvita, via the coast road up around the gulf that separates the Osa Peninsula from the mainland.
Feb 28th. Three weeks left now until our return on the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere. We walked around town last night, bought our onward bus tickets to Palmar Norte where we switch buses to go to Uvita, and had fish filets at the Marbella waterfront soda. This is easy living, soft and dreamy as long as you have air conditioning to escape the midday heat. I mentioned the tapestry of sound yesterday; but there’s also an olfactory banquet. The vegetation and floral abundance makes the air heavy with aromas.
The ride to Uvita took us through the Corcovado park, and then through a hot, dry coastal plain, with grazing cattle, palms, bananas and other trees in monoculture rows. It is not as dry as Guanacaste, but not as lush as the Osa Peninsula. If I were to pick a favourite place, it might be Puerto Jimenez. We arrived hot and tired after six hours on what I now call “municipal coaches” - i.e., the interior fittings are like a city bus, but the seats are more comfortable. The second bus was standing room only at first, and no-one was lining up, but we managed to get two seats and have our backpacks put in the wheelchair space - we’ve only once seen a wheelchair customer; usually that space is piled high with backpacks and packages, but I guess they’d all have to be moved if there was actually a disabled customer.
We’ll find out tomorrow, on bicycles, what the town site is like. There are falls nearby, and a famous “whale’s tail” beach, but the beach is behind a narrow strip of national park so you have to pay $6 a head to enter, and the falls cost a couple of bucks to visit as well.
Our new digs, El Tucan Hotel, is laid out like a hostel, with common areas between two strips of rooms, and one single cabin treehouse in the front yard. Karol Barboza recommended it to Deb when we shared a pizza in San Ramon. There are “chill” areas, hammocks, a garden, a bar and restaurant - but the restaurant is closed for lack of an operator at the moment. It seems to be a dry, dusty town this distance from the beach, and there is some traffic noise - when we bus, we tend to choose places close to where the bus will stop, both coming and going.
I was excited to see a piano, but it is in terrible shape, with broken strings and hammers, quite unplayable. I thought I’d seen a photo of a guitar, but there isn’t one - must have been another hotel we’d considered. The receptionist suggested that we’d best time our beach trip for low tide, or within two hours to either side of that, otherwise there’s no actual beach. Napoleon said to go to Playa Ventanas, but we’ll have to ride the bus ten kilometres back in the direction we came in order to do that. We might...or we might just save our beach time for the Caribbean, since we’re not really beach people anyway, so we’re not desperate to hang out on a beach. We just want to see what the fuss is all about in Uvita, since a lot of people seem to prefer the “vibe” here as opposed to Quepos. Could be a case of the emperor’s new clothes, or the hype that surrounds places that young people like to gather to create “the scene”...tomorrow will tell.
This evening, we hear - not for the first time - the high squeal of the wheels of rail cars negotiating a curve in the tracks, but it is not a train. They are crickets, extremely loud, and their sound comes in waves of intense sound at sundown, alleviated only by the countervailing Cuban music playing on the loudspeakers in the common area.
Mar 1st. The owners of El Tucan announce themselves via a placard at the reception desk as a young couple who gave up everything in Italy, travelled around south and central America for fifteen months, and then bought this place and settled here. It’s a romantic tale. I suspect it began as a great dream and a lot of hype, but the dream has faded a little. The tour book at the reception describes the hotel as “the world’s greatest hostel”, with “unrivaled service”, and the owners express a wish to meet and chat with everyone. But the young lady owner that I met kept her head down painting many dozens of border rocks that define common area spaces with white paint all evening, by hand, with a small brush (when I saw her moving on to a new rock, I asked her if she had ever experienced deja vu...), and she wasn’t very cheerful or outgoing, at least by that hour of the day - she left that up to her reception staff, who are friendly and enthusiastic. If it were me, I’d have dipped each stone in a wheelbarrow full of white-wash using metal tongs. The job would have taken hours instead of days.
The Italian “Ristorante” doesn’t serve any food but they haven’t taken the sign down. They’ve lost their cook (speaking of deja vu) and haven’t found a replacement. I haven’t seen much of a kitchen, per se. Spaghetti would be an easy offering for an “Italian” restaurant, and inexpensive hostel food for budget backpacking travellers. You would think they could make some simple snack foods available but they haven’t; they have a bar that is stocked and the receptionist can give you a beer, but no-one ordered anything at all on our first evening - maybe this crowd is too healthy or philosophically removed from alcohol to support a bar. They offer “smoothies”, which are healthier, but I’ve only seen the staff drinking them. There is a well stocked grocery store and a smattering of restaurants just around the corner on the main highway, however. And there is free coffee at the reception.
The mood seems subdued, the staff fairly inexperienced - they’ve been here three weeks, I’ve eavesdropped later. The receptionist offered to rent us bicycles, but Deb asserted that free bicycles were included in her booking, and they were surprised about that. But she found her booking confirmation to show them; as has happened elsewhere they suggested that booking.com might have stated that in error, but we know that only the property owner provides the details of the booking offer to booking.com. They said they’d have to confirm it with her but they didn’t return with either a yea or a nay; yet later Deb found a card inside our room saying that free use of the bicycles is available to anyone who uses these more expensive private rooms.
The owner tried to charge us for the bikes as well in the morning. She claimed they’d started to levy a “maintenance fee” when they arrived, which is a daily rental charge not mentioned in the booking details or the placard inside the room (and they’ve been here for two years), which had allowed them to increase the number of bikes from 3 to 7 with four new bikes - but none of the bikes are new, they’re all old and rusty and haven’t seen a lick of oil in months, if ever, so I’m not clear on what they consider “new”, or “maintenance”. We couldn’t adjust seats on most of them and mine was pretty hard and narrow - I’d happily have swapped it with a wider seat on a different bike. I only ever saw five bikes, actually; and I overheard her say she has 45 guests when the place is full, which it is tonight, apparently.
Still, we signed out two - she said that “if we have a problem” with the rental charge she wouldn’t impose it (huh?!), and we went to breakfast at a nearby tipico soda built in the front yard of someone’s home down a secluded side street. When we returned both the owners were having a shouting match with the owner of a larger property who said clients here had been hiking on his private property and had been sent there by staff at the reception. The puppy who is wandering about got smacked pretty hard by the owner (the husband) for peeing in the reception area; I remembered reading a review that had complained about them slapping or kicking dogs on their property.
The two young French foreigners running the reception are possibly Helpx or Workaway “volunteers” staying for free in return for a room, and providing their language skills to European backpackers of several languages. I’ve seen such positions offered on those hosting sites, where we are hosts ourselves, of course. But the owner herself opened the reception at 6:45 a.m., after painting rocks all evening before - trying to cover too many roles herself, perhaps...but what do I know after only one evening and morning? The only Tico we’ve seen is a young lady who cleaned rooms at check-out.
We took the bikes to a waterfall that is well-known in Uvita. I didn’t have my camera - I had changed into my swim suit - but there are photos and videos here. There is a slide worn into the rock and kids up to maybe the age of 20 can climb the rock face and slide down or can jump from the cliff above. Kids my age would probably fall and die; I slipped on the rocks in the water in a pool at the bottom - no damage other than a slight abrasion on my hand, but it could have been worse. My balance isn’t what it was once was, perhaps; or maybe it was just bad luck. But it was a grueling ride in the sun, up to the falls on a rocky, bumpy road and back down - so bumpy that Deb was afraid to coast downhill, so we walked the bikes up the hill and she walked most of the way down as well. If I were here for any length of time, I’d rent a quad.
We’re enjoying the ambience of El Tucan during the day, and cooling our heels while the owners impose a three hour wait between check-out of the room we were in and check-in to the one right next door...silly, but that’s what it is. Maybe it takes three hours to do the laundry and they don’t have fresh sheets on hand, or maybe it's just "policy"; but if they’d left us in the room we were in, they wouldn’t have had to make up our room. We told them we’d be perfectly happy not to move, but they claim the room has been previously reserved and they can’t simply put the new people in a different room. And seeing us sitting there waiting for our new room, the owner asked if she could have the keys back for the bicycles to assign them to someone else; we might not get them back later. It all seems a bit childish, but we’re “going along to get along”. It’s not a great loss, given their condition, and Deb has put her foot down to insist on a taxi to the “whale tail” tomorrow.
Deborah, who tends to like everyone, can’t stand her manner - called her “a bitch” under her breath. Both she and the husband do seem to be cut from the same cloth. But they’ve moved us into a slightly nicer room, better decorated and more suitable for us, with only one double bed and some stands for our backpacks, a strong air conditioner and a pretty nice bathroom, at only five dollars more for the night, so I’m content. Good food and good beer, comfy places to sit in a warm tropical location...I might even spend a little time in a hammock this evening.
Mar 2nd. We had a comfortable night in room #6, and I saw the owner lady being kind to the puppy, so I’m feeling more charitable about them in spite of the crappy bikes and their weird policy about those.
Deb and I went to the Parque Nacional Marino Ballena this morning, managing to hit low tide. A $4 taxi ride is about twice the metered rate but they don’t use meters here - anyone with a car can call himself a private taxi, and that’s the going rate to the park entrance. It’s still less than two TTC tickets in Toronto. The beach is super at low tide, and we walked out to the Whale’s Tail, a rocky outcrop that fans out in both directions but can only be walked to when the tide is out. Some people see Northern Humpback Whales from California there at this time of year. We didn’t, but it was a beautiful setting. We were there and back by ten a.m., showered and checked out.
(It’s kind of funny how the “national parks” separate you from the beaches that are supposed to be public access. You pay to walk through 60 metres of woods in order to gain access to the public beach. Manuel Antonio park works the same way, although they also sell guide service at ridiculous prices; but because there are crowds of people pointing and talking, the animals and birds stay pretty well away from you in the parks, compared to how close they’ll approach outside the parks in hotel gardens and other locations where people aren’t trying to chase them down, all gawking, pointing and chattering at once.)
Now we’ll take the bus into Quepos, where we’ll stay overnight. We’re going to spend a night as “official” couchsurfers with our friends Napoleon and Leslie, but they had to go to San Jose today for a medical appointment, so we’ll stay with them tomorrow night, Saturday. We first met Napoleon online, when he placed an ad on the Quepolandia website for a person to do language swap with him, English for Spanish. We got to know each other on Skype on Sunday mornings, then met in person when we arrived in Quepos, and we described our travels and our continuing connections with young foreign visitors to Canada. When we explained Helpx, Workaway and Couchsurfing to him, he thought Couchsurfing was a great idea for meeting foreigners, making distant friends and practicing his English, so he created a host profile for himself. He lives a little out of the way, on the Palma Tica company housing compound, but has already collected two references from people who’ve stayed with him while we’ve been busing around Costa Rica, one from Wisconsin and one from Warsaw. Now we’ll be his overnight guests and leave him a reference as well.
We ate brunch at the bus station restaurant - they have a buffet where you select your items and pay for them separately. The bus was a nice coach, but took two hours to go about 52 kilometers. It was the milk run. The forest got more lush around Dominical, and the bus took us for a tour through the town. It looks like a prime stretch of beach, and is very popular with surfers, but sports rip tide warnings. We had tried two hotels there but one wanted a bank transfer a day in advance - always a dangerous practice, we’ve met people who’ve been burned by that - and the other wanted a deposit through Paypal. Both were expensive, and something’s fishy when a credit card won’t do to hold a room, so we came back to Quepos overnight, where, like most Costa Rican hotels, we made a reservation without even the need for a credit card. We took a kind of workingman’s hotel in the Tico part of town, but a pretty new building, catering to bus and truck drivers and commercial travellers. Our room is clean, large and new, tiled throughout, and has a large private bath and air conditioning, which are the two prime prerequisites for Deborah. After we found it - some partiers had toppled their sign a short while ago, and they were cringing about the $1100 cost to replace it, so there was no identifier on the street - we had a nap and then went to the sea wall to catch the sunset and the intensely loud choir of birds that congregate in the trees along the sea wall at sundown every day, which is one thing you can count on in Quepos.
Mar 3rd. I guess there’s regulation in Costa Rica requiring hotels to have a room available to disabled people. We’ve ended up in that room three times now, with last minute bookings - most disabled people probably have to book well in advance to reserve a room, so if you book the day before arrival and they aren’t booked out, you can have them. You’ll get a larger room and bathroom (to accommodate a wheelchair). The downside, in this room, is no chair at the desk (I guess they don’t consider that a disabled person might be travelling with a companion), no hooks to hang things up on wall or doors, and in this room, no hot water in the shower - that last one is a bit weird. I still can’t understand why a country with so much sunshine and hot temperatures can’t put passive solar heating tanks and/or pipes on their roofs to provide free hot water in their showers, and soak up solar energy to counterbalance what they spend on energy to run their air conditioners. Still, even the cold water isn’t really cold, certainly not as cold as it runs through pipes in Canada at this time of year.
The room isn’t very soundproof during the day but we slept well through the night, and in the morning we had coffee and an omelette at a tiny but very upscale coffee counter carved from the corner of the Super Jordix supermarket just two blocks from the hotel. Two cheerful hardworking young guys are making a real go of their business in a space that’s lucky if it is 80 square feet, with a six stool counter and one table outside. They have specialty coffees and a selection of breakfasts; their seats are always filled and they do a busy take-away service as well.
Mar 4th. Napoleon picked us up from the hotel and brought us to Damas, to the Palma Tica housing compound where he lives with Leslie. After shopping for ingredients on the way there, Deb prepared a chicken curry to be served the next day, and then we drove out in the company truck to a property run by Leslie’s aunt, uncle and cousins. We drove along rocky roads and through a moonscape area caused by an enormous flood event which cut off their community of Santo Domingo for months. The Salvegre river changed course, and one palm oil plantation lost about ten hectares of trees which were simply washed away downstream. (This was the same flood which had washed away entire bridges from the main highway.)
We arrived at a recreational property comprised of picnic areas and swimming pools beside a collection of tilapia pools containing fish of different sizes The pools are fed by spring water from the hills, and so are the swimming pools, so the water is constantly refreshed and simply flows over the top and away down the hill when the pool gets too full. People go there (but fewer these days because of the road) and Leslie’s cousin Walter casts his net into the pool, selects the biggest fish and throws the rest back to grow bigger (they take about 8 months to grow to eating size). Then another cousin fries them up fresh and delivers them poolside with salad and patacones. They were delicious.
Walter and his Dad also make attractive outdoor furniture with fibreglass that looks like wicker or rattan but lasts much longer in the outdoors. We saw tables and chairs in the picnic area, and two stools in Napoleon and Leslie’s house. They are only sold in Costa Rica, unfortunately, because of the prohibitive cost of shipping to other countries.
Today we’re simply hanging out - Leslie will “attend” morning mass by television at 7 a.m., and then Napoleon gets to tune into his religion: football. There’s an important match this morning between Barcelona and another team whose name I’ve forgotten, and other matches throughout the day. We’ll research our trip to Tortuguero, eat our curry, hang around the company pool, and practice our English and Spanish. Our relationship began as a language swap, and that continues. Tomorrow we’ll ride with Napoleon into San Jose, where he has a work related appointment.
Mar 6th. Napoleon helped us choose a hotel and clarify travel details from San Jose to Tortuguero, where we’ll head on Wednesday (tomorrow). Yesterday we got up before dawn and for gas and breakfast Napoleon drove us door to door to our hotel in San Jose, the Casa Leon. It is old but large, cool, clean and secure, with lounging areas inside and out to read books, has good wifi and is right next to the Museo Nacional, which we wanted; also to the zoo and the route of the walking tour of San Jose set out in the guidebooks, which includes a number of other museums - most of which we don’t need to see because we’ve seen similar ones, e.g. the Pre-Columbian Gold museum or the jade museum, in other cities in S. America. We’re in a block of small live theatre venues: “Mystery and Magic”, “Harlequin” and traditional comedy venues, and not far from the grand gates to Barrio Chino, across and down from the Teatro Nacional which appears to be running Alice in Wonderland, among other shows.
Unfortunately the hotel is also right beside the train tracks, which I hadn’t known; we had train whistles all day and especially in the evening when the workers are commuting. The Incofer commuter trains use diesel engines and there are no drop bars at crossings, so they blow their whistles constantly. I went to bed with my earplugs in - an indispensable item of travel, for me - and through the night they mercifully let up, I suppose when the workers were all home in their beds, so we slept quite well until morning.
It had taken three hours to drive to San Jose, faster than the bus but there were numerous fender-bender accidents on the highway, and one serious accident involving a motorcycle and probably a broken leg, all of which caused traffic back-ups. Once we were settled in and had an early nap because of having gotten up so early, we walked through part of the walking tour to arrive at the zoo. I’d been worried about the zoo, about finding it too small, overpriced, and/or a 19th century zoo with small enclosures and sad animals. In fact, many enclosures are small, like oversized bird cages for the birds, but there aren’t a great number of mammals there, the mammals aren't behind bars, and the grounds are also a botanical garden. It may not have been pleasant for the birds, but they seemed content and we enjoyed the greenery. We saw many species that we might never have seen in the wild, including various poison dart and glass frogs, snakes, and birds, and a tapir. This was my primary reason for going to a zoo: I’d hunted at night for exotic frogs, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to see many snakes in the wild. Many birds have habitats that we just haven’t been in, I assume. So it was a worthwhile stop on the journey, and I collected interesting photos. (The link is to a folder that also contains photos from our last days in San Jose, two weeks later.)
Along the way we saw a statue of William Walker who’d been defeated in his attempts to invade Costa Rica (at least, the citizens had been up in arms because they'd been convinced that this was his intent, which may have been a ruse designed to galvanize them into joining the struggle against the fillibusters), and we almost bought the Hemingway Inn, which is for sale.
Breakfast was at the Nuestra Tierra, which James Kaiser lauded in his guidebook. It’s right around the corner from the Casa Leon. We had a “completo” tipico desayuno (breakfast) with a fruit plate before the meal and with our first actual traditional chorreador of coffee poured through right at our table - no other restaurant in Costa Rica has offered this until now - and a pot of hot whipped milk for cafe con leche. The restaurant is decorated in a funky bright style with carved wooden models of creatures you normally see painted on wooden plaques for tourists to take home.
After breakfast we spent a very full afternoon in the National Museum. The entrance is through a butterfly garden with a flock of blue morphos, among other specimens. We spent an hour there alone, and three more hours in the rest of the museum soaking in more details of the history of Costa Rica, pre-Columbian history, a special exhibit of illustrators of birds and wildlife, and a presentation on Isla Cocos, which included an immersive screen of underwater experience on one entire wall with bean bag chairs to recline in while you imagine that you are scuba diving with the cameraman. We were lucky here too - always ask for senior rates. In some countries they restrict those to citizens, but here we paid $4 US apiece to get in instead of $9 apiece. Still a little more than the admission cost for nationals, but not much, and well worth the price, especially the time spent in the butterfly garden.
Mar 7th. This was a crazy travel day. We were up and out to the cab just as the sky was beginning to lighten, and off to the bus station where bought our tickets to Cariari. We sat for an hour to be first in line so that we could jump on the two front seats with windshield viewing - Deb boarded right away and claimed the seats while I loaded our two backpacks. We left the station in our comfy Marcopolo coach at 6:30 and went past active volcanoes Irazú and Turrialba, both smoking like industrial chimneys. We went over and down through Braulio Carrillo national park and onto a flat plain on the other side where everything was emerald green and lush pasture land, with lots of cattle and some horses. We went over some slight hills and then through more flat plain with extensive banana plantations.
We were supposed to arrive at 8:30 to make a connecting bus to La Pavona, which was to leave at 9 a.m., but there was construction on the highway and that bus had left without us. They must be used to this sort of thing, because they already had an really old yellow school bus pulled up behind us, and loaded our luggage. The driver distributed tickets in advance for the public water taxi from La Pavona to Tortuguero, and made himself a quick 12% profit on each fare. The seat spacing was designed for the femurs of nine year olds, and I had to move to a different seat, but within two kilometres our driver had delivered us to the local municipal bus (marginally more comfortable) and transferred all our luggage for us. After another hour and a half on roads of hard pack and rocks, a bumpy ride at bicycle speed, we arrived at the river’s edge. All Costa Rica roads peter out into rocky roads like this, often sooner rather than later. Our driver had a placard above his head which read “Jesus is the pilot; I am his copilot”, which of course gave us confidence in the offs that he would get us where we needed to go.
We’d been told two different departure times for the public water taxi: 11 a.m. and noon - “the water is low”, one of the drivers had said. A uniformed lady told us to sit at tables in the waiting area and didn’t mention anything about when the water taxi would leave; we knew we should have at least a half hour to wait, but as soon as we sat, she began a hard sell for her tour company. I smelled a hustle, and walked up and over the bank to the river where, sure enough, water taxis were arriving and leaving. I told Deborah to go talk to some captains while I watched the bags, and she returned to say that we should go at once, and that there would be an 11 a.m. departure of the public water taxi. The tour lady seemed perfectly content to let us sit there an extra hour and miss our trip down the river while she tried to sell to us. I learned the next day that our hotel is connected to this particular lady’s tour company, Caretta Tours, which explains why she had our name on a clipboard before we even got off the bus. The hotel gives out our names and gets their cut (no privacy laws here, apparently!) and we are targets for “the hard sell” before we even arrive.
We boarded the water taxi and began our trip, with many slight groundings and lots of hazards of tree debris. There is no public maintenance of the water way, it seems. Oddly, the outboards on the back of these boats don’t have any propeller cages or lengthened skegs to protect them from damage from groundings. It was to be a one hour trip on the water but I suspected two, and it turned out to be three. The waterway reminded us of Tigre Delta, the Okavango Delta, and the everglades in Florida, until near the end when it widened out to look like the Me Kong Delta, complete with floating rafts of water lilies. We saw lots of blue herons and white herons, a kingfisher and some other birds but couldn’t focus our cameras in time, and later we had some good shots of birds in the town that we hadn’t seen before.
In the middle of our journey, we rounded one corner to find a tree had fallen completely across the channel and two guys in a boat from the Tortuga Lodge were trying, with chainsaws and machetes, to figure out how to clear it. An overcast day turned into a rainy one as we watched the not-so-professional proceedings and wondered if we’d be camping overnight on the sandy beach.
One boat made a run over it and almost damaged his propeller, but we were too large and our boat too full of passengers. As it became partially cleared, other boats coming upstream charged at the gap and barely made it over. Finally, our pilot backed our large taxi through it (so that he could lift his propeller and see that it wasn’t hitting any vines or logs), and we made it after some shoving and adjusting. He could jump out and push the bow around because the water is very shallow through the entire length of the river - in fact, they struggle to find passages through it with enough depth to float the boats. We came quite close to the trees at times. One lady grabbed a branch that threatened to slap her, and she tried to hang onto it so that it wouldn’t whip back into the faces of the people behind her, but of course she couldn’t hold it and it whipped even harder, prompting the captain to yell at her, “Don’t hold the branches!”
Shortly afterward, a larger empty taxi came alongside and we were required to do an on-the-water transfer to the other boat, passing our own backpacks and suitcases across - switching horses in midstream, which is a cautionary expression. The passengers, including Deborah, had to hold the two boats together, while several men including me lifted and handed the backpacks and suitcases across.
After three hours we arrived at the dock at Tortuguero. A young man, “Boa”, met us and walked us to our seafront hotel, El Icaco, mainly so that he could also sell us tours once we arrived and settled in - later I learned that he works for the same tour company which is linked to this hotel and one or two more. We have a clean, freshly painted and tiled room, very comfortable, and we look directly out over the waves of the Caribbean Atlantic. I’m listening to their steady conversation now. The only annoyance is the very sketchy wifi, which matters because of the way we travel. We need to do research every other day for our onward journey, to choose routes, figure out the bus puzzle, and book accommodation.
We immediately went out for a meal, hoping to experience the Caribbean version of gallo pinto, which is simply called “rice’n’beans” but uses coconut milk and peppers and other spices. What we were served was not any different than what we’d been eating for weeks in the rest of the country, sadly; and we were in a restaurant mentioned in the guidebooks that is supposed to serve “creole” food. We walked the length of the town, which is quite the little tourist trap village but a bit cute. Meals are expensive, as you might imagine in a place that’s overrun with tourists - mostly from France it would seem, at least the majority that we spoke with. The tourists have no cooking facilities so they are a captive market (no shared kitchen facilities in these accommodations); and supplies have to be brought in by boat, which increases costs. I suspect that locals don’t pay the menu prices the tourists are handed, mind you.
Deb went on a night tour while I wrote this. She has my camera as well as her own, so I hope she comes home with some good photos and has seen enough to warrant the cost of the tour. The guides make a killing here, at $20 a head for a walk in the dark, or sitting at the end of a canoe with six paying tourists doing the paddling while they steer and provide naturalist commentary. Boa decried the lodges which use motorboats as being bad for the environment, and urged us to email the ministry of tourism to complain. If he ever goes to work for a company that has motorboats, his tune may change, of course. As in most places near national parks, I suspect we’ll see as much just outside the park boundaries as within - the birds and animals don’t actually know they’re supposed to stay inside the park boundaries, and the part we’re able to walk through is quite small, with the entrance just at the end of the sidewalk on the very short main street of town. (Later: this turned out to be an accurate prediction.)
Mar 8th. The waves continue this morning - just ocean swells, not that big but they crash suddenly on a sharply inclined beach with a dangerous drop-off. Hotel owners and guides dissuade the tourists from entering the water - they claim that it goes from two feet to five feet very quickly and that there is an undertow. It doesn’t hurt to keep people out of the water when you are trying to sell them tours to fill up their days, of course; what’s the point in letting them lie about on the beach? But I’m perfectly willing to believe them. They’ve offered us a pool at a partner hotel instead. So the ocean is a visual and an auditory experience, accompanied by the birds all around us. I’m up before six, as usual, soaking it in. The temperature was cool overnight; we have no air conditioning but even just using the slow overhead fan had me chilled by 5 a.m. My morning shower was hot and comfortable. Oddly, there’s no lip on the shower floor, only a slight gradient to a narrow drain, so the water quickly built up to spread across the entire bathroom floor, but I decided that wasn’t my problem.
Last night Deborah played “the Guide Game”; I stayed home and waited - she was an hour later returning than she expected, and I fought with the wifi. (This morning I located the router and I’m sitting right under it, so I’m getting better connection.) I had to chuckle when I went for a walk at the boat dock and picked up a brochure that wasn’t from the Carreta Tours lady, who had a lock on the dining room at the bus-to-boat terminal, it seems. She got quite concerned about where I’d gotten it. I collected tour brochures from numerous operators, and they are all the same. So are the prices from every other operator as you walk through town. Price fixing is a basic reality in this town, in a country which has for several decades focussed its effort on building an “industry without chimneys”. There’s no competition, only a wall of collusion; there’s only rare variance in the description of tours. The brochures are designed and printed by the same hand, and God forbid there should ever be a single operator who offers a $19 price for a $20 tour offered by everyone else - I’m sure he’d be run out of town.
During the day we walked the tiny village and saw guides accompanied by willing sheep who’d been fleeced into listening to often inane commentary on the village they could as easily experience with their own senses. When I was a guide on the Athabasca Glacier we’d make up funny stories for gullible tourists about the Albino Penguin, among other topics, while winking at the ones who saw through the tall tales. They’re not so impolite here as we young Bombardier half-track cowboys were, at least to your face; but Deborah’s night guide Boa began with a rustling in the leaves (very common as lizards jump from the path), shone his light around and saw nothing, but proceeded to speculate that it might have been an armadillo, since they “aren’t afraid to make a noise”, before launching into a natural history lecture about the armadillo and its place in the forest. According to Deborah, he had style, but much of their time in the dark was spent searching, and the price of the tour hadn’t included the loan of flashlights for participants. (Later he told us he has a much better tour on his own website, for almost twice the price, which he wants us to plug in my blog, but he still didn’t mention providing decent flashlights. I’m not sure that being surrounded by bright flashlights would impress the night creatures anyway; maybe if they used red lens filters, as we’ve done before when viewing sea turtles nesting in Mexico, that would be less disturbing to the animals.) Deborah saw one small snake, and a frog. “I saw three reptiles and three insects,” she said, “Three dollars per critter.” Her photos weren’t terribly good, but Boa was able to take some and volunteered to send them to us, so perhaps I’ll have the snake and the frog to add to our photo folder later. [March 26th - three weeks later, he still hasn't sent the photos. A hollow promise from a man who is used to hoodwinking tourists and is not as good as his word, no matter how charming his style.]
I think I’m relatively immune to guide-hype and disappointment, and will avoid any experience that seems more projected on a curtain of imagination than reality when you pull the curtain aside, but I’m enjoying being in this quirky little corner of tropical paradise. I watch tourists arrive and immediately queue up to select expensive overhyped tours with brochure photos of things they’ll never actually see themselves, as if without those they won’t have had the essential experience of being here. The experience of getting here, and being here now, collecting memories, is enough for me. Yesterday in the sandy little village I took photos of the Montezuma Oropendola, and we watched the Blue-gray Tanager, which has a lovely pastel shade of blue that I like, among many other birds.
It is raining again, off and on. We’ve booked our onward travel to Cahuita - we’ll go by “lancha” and shuttle rather than back the way we came. For today, we’ll stroll the town again, have a meal and perhaps walk through the park, but probably not...Tripadvisor reviews are a cautionary tale, and important to skim before you step into something with high expectations and then have them dashed. You get to read the hard truths if you select the “Terrible” and “Poor” or even “Average” ratings. Those reviews make it clear that it isn’t much different than we’ve already experienced elsewhere.
We made a friend at Casa Leon who is also here now, Rick - a young electrician from England. He came over to say hello this morning: “How was your towel this morning?” he asked. “Kind of regular”, I answered. “Rectangular.” “Ah”, he stated, “mine was a turtle,” and he proceeded to show me the photo on his phone. So I showed him mine from yesterday, and Deb volunteered the information that we have two swans on our bed this morning, complete with small purple petal eyes.
Rick said that of the three tours he’d taken as part of a package while he was here, the canoe trip was the best, but because of the fairly constant rain this morning we’ll skip it. The guides all insist that you have to book the canoe trip the night before anyway, and that they will purchase your park entrance tickets for you, lining up early in the morning before the park opens to beat the rush of tourists, because it is “high season right now”; I’m not sure that this isn’t just part of the sales pitch, trying to get you to commit to the tour as an impulse buy, but the weather report from the night before can’t be trusted down here and I don’t want to stay an extra day just to paddle a guide around in the rain which appears to be a continuation of yesterday’s downpour. The main attraction here are the green sea turtles who come ashore to lay their eggs, but that only happens from June to October - makes sense to me that those months would be high season, therefore. Gotta use your critical faculties when considering the elements of a guide’s sales pitch. Some guides sell tours to look for leatherback turtles, who do come ashore at this time of year, but there might be five of them all season...they’ve had one so far. So your odds of being delighted with your tour and your guide are pretty damn slim.
By 10:30 a.m. the rain has increased to a hard downpour, and in the rain a young man is installing a tv dish antenna. Like other workmen we’ve seen using power tools in town, he is operating an electric drill on a tin roof in the pouring rain. If he triggers a short, he gets electrocuted and then tumbles from the roof to break limbs or his neck.
Luckily we have an end room on the second floor - #6 again, must be a lucky number for us - where Deborah was able to open a large window that other rooms don’t have, facing the ocean, where she sat and watched birds in the nearby papaya tree. There will be 8.4 mm of rain today. After 4 it will rain harder. Today will be a day to read in the lounge area and simply enjoy the perfect temperature, I guess...maybe stroll around between showers.
2 p.m. We’ve been “downtown” and back, had a great meal with the Caribbean chicken and the “rice’n’beans” I’d been searching for, reasonably priced, at Flor del Caribe, which is a clean, spacious patio near the park entrance. Deb had rice with seafood and with patacones, and proclaimed it delicious as well - she had more than she could eat so I helped her clean her plate. Many if not most sodas have their own house salsa piquante, made differently from place to place; this restaurant had a jar of something that looked like pale applesauce, but it was a delicious piquante addition to the rice and beans. We made it there and home without getting soaked, but the rain is now coming down in buckets, hour after hour, hammering on the tin roofs of the hotel buildings. We’re just reading, answering emails, being entertained by Facebook, etc.
The rain and the lunch made me sleepy so I napped, which I usually do for an hour each afternoon.
By 4 p.m. the rain had stopped, so around 4:30 I made up my mind to go for a walk. The park had closed at 4 but we could walk along the beachfront. Rick had said that when he walked the park he came out at this end, right where we are staying. We strolled along a trail and the dwellings of the town disappeared; there was an arrow pointing into the forest, so we followed it. We were inside the park from the back end, although that wasn’t confirmed until Deb saw a sign on her way home. We looked for frogs on the “fake pepper plants” where Deb had learned to look, but didn’t see any. Eventually she decided she’d gone far enough, and turned to go home by the beach; on her way, she saw the park limit sign which is posted at the beach rather than on the forest trail.
I kept hiking, looking for frogs, snakes...anything. The reviews I’d read turned out to be right on the money. The park was moist and green, a real rainforest, but devoid of drama. I saw a pair of elusive wild turkeys step across the path in front of me. They looked like peacocks but with shorter tails. The only mammals I saw were dark forest bats that swooped around me eating the mosquitoes that were beginning to sample me at dusk; one bounced off my hat brim.
I was hoping that I’d arrive at the front gate of the park and be able to buy a beer to take home from the little store near the entrance, but the light was fading and I had no idea how much further it might be, so I turned toward the beach which had better light because there was no foliage, and headed for home.
The sand that I thought was hard packed down near the waves turned out to be spongy, almost like quicksand, and I realized I’d take longer walking on that, and the tide was coming in. There seemed to be fog rolling in, as well. There was loose sand above the tide line but that would also be slow slogging, so I decided my only reasonable route for a quick return before dark was along the forest path I’d come in on. Deborah had walked off with the flashlight and my poncho, and I was wearing sandals on a track that snakes might share. I began to swing my arms and march quicktime, speed walking my way back, and made it back in half the time I took to walk in. By the time I got home at about 6:15, it was suddenly too dark to see the ground, and I arrived at the room minutes before the hardest, loudest downpours of the day - the night sky split open and all the water poured out. Lucky timing. Making it out of the rainforest by the last tiny bit of light was the best exercise I’ve had in months.
Mar 9th. The surf is high this morning, large powerful waves are rolling in from further out at sea, but the air seemed dry at first. The ocean breezes are a delicious cool-warm temperature, but quite strong and steady - I suspect the trade winds are blowing this way from Europe and Africa at this time of year. It is light out, and I’m looking out over the waves watching for the sun to rise. Pounding downpours woke us up overnight but have passed. Our hotel is waking up, and Jennifer, Calixo’s niece, is working with her aunt in the kitchen, I think; coffee will soon be made. They open at 7 a.m. for a limited breakfast menu, but yesterday she sweetly brought me a cup of cafe negro by 6:30, so I’m hopeful that may happen again this morning. However, a young man is doing breakfast set-up, so I may have to wait until 7.
Tortuguero is a simple ocean-side village with no vehicular traffic. It’s a nice contrast from San Jose, and I sure don’t miss the sound of diesel trains blaring at crossings throughout the city. Here there are only the sounds of surf and bird calls. One side of the village is bounded by the ocean and the other by the river that flows from the delta. There are sandy pathways instead of streets between the houses. On the first day they strike you as being as organized as a maze, but it doesn’t take long to find your way around - we are clever rats, after all.
The birds haven’t been singing this morning, however, and I’ve just realized why. Within twenty minutes of sitting here, another torrential downpour arrived, and then another - they are arriving in waves. The birds are simply staying in bed a little longer this morning. The oropendolas began calling tentatively from their perches by 6:35. One sopping wet young man arrived with an armload of cut heliconias and stuffed the stems down into a sand-filled planter to decorate the dining hall, where a window grate in front of the kitchen sports a miniature dugout canoe filled with two watermelons, three pineapples and a papaya. Above these is a flag of Costa Rica, and above that, a photo of a smiling Nelson Mandela. Marcus Garvey spent time in Costa Rica, and is also venerated on this coast. Yesterday I watched a group of young men slapping dominoes on a table behind a sign that signified that they were members of the Mawamba Lodge.
We will step out for breakfast at 7, at the same place we ate last night, because they were so good at supper. By 9:45 we’ll be at the boat dock with our backpacks, where a captain of the lancha will have our names on a clipboard and we’ll be taking the expensive way outta town, a fast smaller boat to Moin and a private shuttle van to our next hotel in Cahuita. It is the only alternate way out, and the only way to avoid backtracking to La Pavona, riding the bone-shaker bus to Cariari and then transferring to a bus from Guapiles to arrive at Cahuita.
We had another close call with one of our backpacks. We arrived at the boat dock and were told to get into one boat even though we clearly stated who our captain was supposed to be. There was no-one with a clipboard. They put all the bags at the back of the boat. Then after much discussion between guys on the dock we were told we’d move to the boat of the captain we’d first been assigned to, “Cholo”. One guy picked up Deb’s main largest backpack that I usually have to carry and said he’d walk it across, and we should follow him. Deb took the two small packs and followed, and I took the other large backpack and followed her. I arrived at the dock beside, delivered my pack to Cholo, and once he’d piled them all in the back of his boat we were invited aboard. We didn’t leave right away. Two girls were sent back to the first boat. There was discussion...then somebody showed up at the front of the boat asking whether a blue backpack that he was holding belonged to anyone on board...it was Deborah’s.
The trip out took a different route, of course - much longer. It took three hours without any hangups on shoals, on a speed boat. Boa had explained to Deborah that there are four main rivers out of Tortuguero, with many channels, and many man-made canals which were built to move timber before the useful trees were exhausted; we had seen the sawmill frames in the village that were used to slice timber into boards. Now the tour boats navigate through this maze of waterways.
We saw many cranes and herons and other water birds, a dozen or more kinds. We arrived at Moin and had a taxi waiting for us, driven by Josue (Joshua), who cheerfully regaled us for an hour, and played Walter Ferguson’s songs through his car radio when he learned that we were interested in him. Josue is a young cousin, apparently. We sang Harry Belafonte’s song Jamaica Farewell to him, which he hadn’t known before. He showed us where Walter lives so that we can look for him sitting out in front of his house tomorrow - Walter is 98, but still sits out in the sun to greet and chat with people going toward the park gate. We have some maple syrup for him, and we gave some to Josue as well for being such a great host in his taxi.
Our Cabinas Cahuita turned out to be basically ok, but the wifi router doesn’t work. There’s actually a pool, about the size of a large hot tub, and it looks clean. Chris the owner claimed the wifi outage was an electrical problem caused by a pole that was damaged at the corner of his street, but I don’t believe that. Something else is wrong...we connect, but get a couple of seconds of throughput every minute or so, not enough to be functional. We had to go the Cocos Bar nearby to connect with the outside world and do our blog. Fortunately, there’s a calypso band playing here tonight. Deborah recognised one of the guys from our guide book, a brother of the guy who is playing, and they are also relatives of Walter Ferguson. Everyone is speaking English around us here in the bar, but they are bilingual here and speak a lot of Spanglish...or rather, Creole mixed with Spanish, Josue says. He told us about “jaki”, a red fruit that you eat with bacalao, salt cod; within a few seconds it hit me - that is what Harry Belafonte sings about in his song, “ 'Aki and rice, salt fish is very nice”, which is how we got into singing the song aloud in his cab. Josue was delighted to hear it.
Our hotel sent us to a restaurant called La Fe Bumbata, where we ordered a dish with “coconut sauce” which is a signature ingredient, but it was a real clip joint and we got fleeced, paying double Costa Rican standards or even N. American standards, about $20 CAD for a very modest single dish that we shared in a restaurant that wasn’t fancy at all. No drink, no dessert, and very common cheap ingredients except for the coconut sauce which they priced like it was liquid gold. It’s not. Anyone can make it. They can’t used the excuse here that food supplies have to be brought in by boat - we’re on the main coastal highway going toward Panama. When I saw the price I crossed my fingers that it was a large portion size, but it wasn’t. I didn’t pull Deborah away because she had her heart set on tasting the coconut sauce, but we’ve scanned menus at other restaurants all down the main street of town, and we’ve chosen others we’ll go to instead, tomorrow. We’re narrowing our choices for breakfast - Rick panned several other possibilities. We met Rick again at the Cocos; he came by the route we chose not to take, and took twelve hours to get here including four hours waiting for a connecting bus, but he arrived yesterday evening.
They serve draft beer here at Cocos, at least, only $2 per mug. Jaki (“hakee”) is not in season right now, sadly. We saw one fruit on a tree, but the harvest is not yet underway. Deb is having a watermelon batida and listening to calypsos on her phone; we’ll be learning Callaloo and Rice’n’Beans to sing at home with our uke and guitar buddies.
Tomorrow we hope the rain will have stopped and we’ll stroll the beach, and go through the National Park. You can get into this park for much less than the other parks, and many people claim this is the best park in Costa Rica. How odd. We’ll see.
Mar 10th. A frog was in our room last night. We put him outside, but later Deb saw him squeeze under the door to get back in. I can’t imagine what is in our room that would cause him to prefer to be here rather than outdoors - there aren’t any flies, and Deb killed the only mosquito last night before bed. Maybe it is a safe place to hide out from snakes.
The wifi is working again this morning, and the owner’s (Karen’s) smile is warm, so the day has started out well.
Breakfast was very good at the Soda Kawe, and the prices were “normal”. Then we went into the park for a three hour walk. The reviews were correct, we saw more within the first hundred metres there than at any other park - the photos show it. But the rain started almost immediately after we'd covered that first hundred metres, and continued the whole time we were there. We saw our own Eyelash Viper, spider monkeys and capuchins, racoons, golden orb spiders, great variation in mushroom species, a tree full of gold-crowned herons, and other critters. There were red flags up to warn people not to swim, but many people were swimming anyway, and there was a surfing school in session.
On the way back from the park we got to meet Walter Ferguson and chat with him and his family in their living room. His eyesight is almost gone. We didn’t impose for too long, but we presented him with some pure Canadian maple syrup and told him how much we loved his songs. He’s 98. His grandson, who isn’t much younger than we are, volunteered to take a photograph of us with Walter.
Back at our hotel, we chatted with a couple our ages who told us that they’ve been getting senior rates on buses and trains in Costa Rica, and saving a lot of money that way. On the San Jose commuter train, they even rode for free from Cartago to Alajuela. I wish we’d known...but we’ll see how much use we can put this knowledge to for the final ten days.
We went to the bus station to find out when buses leave tomorrow for Puerto Viejo. After a “compartido” supper of Caribbean chicken casado at the Hotel Vaz, we strolled down to the seashore and collected room prices in case we want to return here. It’s a sleepy little town but there are some lovely balcony rooms right at the water’s edge owned by Jenny from Leamington in southern Ontario. And several other choices.
On the way home, just as it was getting dark, a very excited young Italian girl chased after us to draw us back and see something we hadn’t seen yet on this trip: a mother two-toed sloth with her baby, who was becoming quite independent, in a very low tree a block away from our own room. The mother kept an eye on the youngster, and both were quite active; every so often they met to touch noses, and then the youngster would be off again to the end of a branch nearby.
Mar 11th. The sun is shining this morning. I wanted better photos of the sloth mommy and baby (more light) but they have moved on. Breakfast at Soda Kawe was perfect. The British couple have left for Panama this morning, and we are headed to Puerto Viejo to check out the scene. Deborah has finally been convinced that we can simply arrive in a town and then find a room, instead of booking in advance at higher cost and buying a pig in a poke; I’ve been telling her that for a long time, but the British couple do that as standard practice, so suddenly she is convinced. Here we go, stepping off the deep end…
Well, that worked out brilliantly. We got off the bus at La Parada Puerto Viejo, which is uniquely decorated for bus stations in Costa Rica. It, and the town in general, look like a corner of Jamaica where everyone speaks Spanish much of the time. It’s as if we’ve visited two countries in one.
The first choice from Deborah’s research was about a 1.2 km walk further, but I didn’t have my tablet gps on so I didn’t twig that we should stay on the bus another two minutes. In any case, we put on the backpacks and prepared to hike up the main street, checking rates and rooms as we proceeded. The first hotel, right across the road, was the Hotel Maritza. We walked in, found we could have a lovely room with air conditioning, private bathroom, mosquito nets and all, breakfast included, for $78 CAD, so I said, “Why go any further?” We are right next to a spectacular curving beach called Playa Negra and a block from the main street where we expect to hear calypso every night. The whole town is a small grid of about five streets parallel to the bay and six or seven streets perpendicular to it. We’ll see what other sorts of accommodation experiences we can have while we’re here - maybe a place with a large garden, or a place with a pool...but we’re feeling awfully pleased with ourselves for having ended up right here, right now. The owners like to garden, it seems - they have flower arrangements outside every room and in the reception, and a little plant nursery beside the shared kitchen where we are welcome to cook if we like, with access to coffee makers, toasters, stove (we have a fridge in our room) and all the pots, plates, cups and cutlery we might need.
We walked all over town, had coffee at Cafe Rico where there was a two-toed sloth in a palm tree about ten feet off the ground. I swear he winked at me as I took his photograph. Very good coffee, but expensive. We’ve napped and we’re “chillin’” until we feel like swimming, eating or can hear some music playing nearby. Deborah is being chewed at by no-see-ums, unfortunately...they are called “bichos” in Spanish, which is remarkably close to what she wants to call them in English.
Then we discovered that Gindra also makes and serves Rondón - one of the other customers was eating a bowl of that, and pronounced it delicious. We had read about Rondón, and learned one theory that it was a originally a kind of spicy coconut milk chowder made of whatever the cook could “run down”. Then we learned that Gindra only sets up on Friday, Saturday and Sunday...and this was Sunday...so Deborah’s first (and possibly last) chance to eat Rondón was right now! So we split a bowl of that. And waddled slowly home. Deborah mentioned the possibility of ice cream for dessert, but when we passed the ice cream shop a block from home, she was too full to follow through. I have a feeling we’ll fall asleep before hearing any music tonight. It’s Sunday anyway, so I’m not sure if or when there will be music. There are a lot of churches in these towns...not as many cathedrals, though, on the Caribbean edge of the country. Different religious strokes...here there are rastafarians, baptists, JW’s, 7th Day’ers, “Church of God of Prophecy“ (a new one for me), variations like that in addition to the one Catholic church just next door which had a musical mass earlier today.
It was already hot and humid so we stopped back at the room to rest and dry out with our air conditioning. That’s “chillin”” in the best sense of the word.
In the afternoon after reading for a while I went for a swim and did some body-surfing, which I learned to do as a kid -- in Mombasa, I think. I must have been twelve. I caught one particularly good wave and made it about a hundred metres into knee deep water, to the astonishment of a nearby fellow who was trying to learn to surf on a rented board. The trick is to feel the undertow suck you toward the building wave, leap up in the air ahead of the wave and stiffen your body with your feet higher than your head - become a surfboard, in other words, and slide down the wave on your belly. When it is working you can feel that your head, arms and upper torso are in the air ahead of the wave while the rest of you is being pushed along by the water as you slide down the front of the wave.
I tried to find out how to join a tour of a reintroduction program for green macaws, who’ve been reduced to dangerously low numbers over decades by trappers who sold them internationally This is illegal now but possibly still happens. A combination of poor reviews about logistics, and lack of information and speedy response from the centre kept me from nailing down the details - no clear instructions for getting there from town if you don’t have your own car, a bus schedule that doesn’t align with the one hour per day tour time, a steep hill to climb that a taxi might not get up, and reviewers said you are expected to have your own binoculars - the loan of binoculars isn’t included in the stiff price of the one hour tour, nor is any assistance provided to get anyone up the steep hill, especially older people who might actually support the green macaw program and be interested in seeing them. The website is devoid of any commentary on these logistics; they just want you to book your tour in advance. When I asked how we could get there, the email reply was “if there are just two of you, you can take a tuc-tuc” - but no advice on cost or where to find one; we haven’t seen one in Puerto Viejo in the two days we’ve been here (I found out a day later where they line up). If a taxi has difficulty getting up the hill, would a tuc-tuc make it, with our weight in it?
The organizers of these tours drive me nuts - why would tourists with backpacks be expected to have powerful flashlights of their own for night tours, and their own binoculars as well? Just carrying cameras of our own is about as much as we can handle, and enough to lose in case of theft.
I guess we’ll pass. Instead, we’ll stroll up “Cashew Hill” tomorrow, to a lodge that is high up with a view over the bay. There will be sloths and birds and rainforest along the way, for good photos. We might take a day trip to Manzanillo; chances are we’ll see three types of toucans and some green macaws that have been released from the program.
This evening we had a nice “rice’n’beans” dish, and we were supposed to hear the Caribbean Kings play at the Hot Rocks bar two blocks away. Carl Hammond always said that latin musicians were the most unprofessional he’d ever worked with in terms of punctuality - he had to be cruel to be kind in training his young jazz musicians to be on time for rehearsals and gigs. The entertainment tonight promised “tribal dancers” (in the new age sense rather than the traditional one, I suspect - but we’ll never know, because there weren’t any); and ‘’drums, drums”. There were drums, and a bass player and a guitar player, but the singer was flat and the musical figures were too repetitive to sustain my interest so I drifted home, nursing a tall boy (called a "lata" here, from the word for aluminum) of Imperial Silver.
On the way I suddenly spotted a two toed sloth bravely negotiating the balcony on the second floor of the Centro de Carne Canada, supposedly a Canadian butcher; but he wisely stayed safely on the second floor which advertised “vegan” food. He appeared to be picking up scraps from the day’s meals that had fallen from the balcony counter onto the first story roof below. I got a few good photos...but a crowd of younger tourists gathered, maybe fifty at peak size, all taking photos and chatting excitedly; so went to the corner and hid behind some greenery, and eventually they lost patience and all drifted home, as did I. On the way, I got a photo of a land crab as big as my foot.
Mar 13th. It is overcast this morning, and Deborah (what a miracle!) got out of bed before 6:30 a.m. to hike up the hill behind town with me. I thought Cashew Hill Jungle Lodge was at the top of that hill, but in fact it is quite near the bottom. It does have good views of the bay and the beaches from its open yoga space, where perhaps thirty young women were stretching their way into the day...sorta gave me a boot camp vibe, I’ve gotta admit. It is a yoga retreat completely now, not a hotel any longer.
We walked to the top of the hill, to where the trail began to descend on the other side, and there was no sign of vehicles having travelled down that side so we turned back. There was one amazing tree that I forgot to photo; I was distracted by another nearby filled with oropendola nests, with the birds very busily flying back and forth to the nests.
We are struggling now to decide how to fill our final week in Costa Rica. Anything we haven’t seen feels too far - over on the Nicoya Peninsula, for example - or too rainy, like the Orosi Valley. We did a good job of planning our travel, but perhaps not the best job we could have done. It is difficult to know how long it will take to get from one place to another and how many things there are in each place that might draw your interest or make you feel content. We filled nine weeks when we had ten to play with. I began to believe we’d be content to just sit in one place for the final week, or most of it, and that’s what we might end up doing; I’m not good at doing very little, but this morning it is relatively cool, so strolling to coffeeshops and reading books isn’t a bad way to spend our time, and the beach is mere metres away if the sun shines and we get too warm.
We have air conditioning and muskoka chairs outside our room in front of blossoms that the hummingbird likes. We have our own fridge and a clean shared kitchen. We have many choices for groceries or restaurant meals, and some musical variety from night to night. If I am forced into a sedentary final week, there aren’t many places I can consider that cover all our needs so near at hand. The bus ticket office is right next door and we can do some short day trips to Punta Uva and/or Manzanillo. It is like being in a resort that actually includes an entire town within its gates. We may have to endure a few rainy days, but I’ll give it a try.
We connected with Rick again, who is also in town. I checked out the Bri Bri Springs brewery but they wanted a lot of money for their tour and the price of one of their artisanal beers was four or five times the beer I already know that I like in the supermarket. There are no free samples; with no prior tasting, unless you pay for a “flight” of five small samples, all I could envision from that pig in a poke was the flight of my 8,000 or 10,000 colones (= $24 CAD). I didn’t want to risk an expensive disappointment. And Rick doesn’t drink. One thing I learned is that they make “basi de temporada”, using champagne yeast, which is how I make my ginger wine, and they make it out of any fruit that is in season. There’s a fruit yeast that I would choose for that, rather than champagne yeast. I should bring a few yeast packets from home on my next tropical trip. They also make a ginger beer, but it isn’t alcoholic.
There was a map that showed two locations for Tuesday 2 for 1 fish tacos at Tasty Waves, but the map was inaccurate and we misread it, so we ate at Mirna’s Soda instead - good basic Caribbean rice’n’beans with beef chunks in a spicy sauce.
Mar 14th. Pi day, and Stephen Hawking died early this morning. During breakfast the sky was dark southeast of here and later it rained. When it cleared up we walked about in town, somewhat aimlessly, and picked up a few items to cook in our shared open air kitchen at the Hotel Maritza. It was overcast most of the day but the silver lining is that it was cooler than when it is sunny...although still quite humid. I alternate shirts: when we return from a walk, I hang my shirt up in the air conditioned room and put on the dry one I’d hung up after my previous walk. We read books, I did some Spanish work, and we found several excuses to stroll, the last one being for ice cream; we might check Hot Rocks later this evening to see who is playing. A thoroughly idle day.
Mar 15th. Hot Rocks stage action last night displayed the usual level of (un)professionalism. There was a slide behind the stage that announced an open jam beginning at 7 p.m., “featuring our amazing Open Jam House Band!” I got there at 8 p.m. of course, having learned my lesson from last time. There was hardly anyone in the place. They certainly weren’t selling any drinks, which is the main reason to have a band. I waited for twenty minutes. Some Cuban salsa played quietly on the p.a. system and a couple danced, but they weren’t officially part of the act, as far as I could tell, and they were dancing in the dark on the edge of the stage. A keyboard player played half of a piece before giving up. The drummer did a little solo workout. No-one turned off the p.a. music. The musicians did innumerable sound checks, then wandered away from the stage for a beer and maybe a joint next door. Two guitar players strapped on their guitars and appeared to be tuning or trying out licks with their amps turned off, ignoring the miniscule audience, and the Cuban p.a. music continued. After twenty minutes of this I finally shook my head, rolled my eyes and left.
The howler monkeys are giving a concert this morning. We hear them at odd moments throughout the day, but mostly first thing in the morning. The temperature is balmy, there are cool breezes, and the sky is only partly cloudy. Deborah, who hates the heat of midday, is sleeping through the best part of the day.
Outback Jack’s, just around the corner from us, is closed. You can see some old 360 degree photos in the link. It is a shack that doubles as a whimsical junkyard with old toys, clocks, musical instruments and other flotsam, and used to serve food and drink. Dozens of old trumpets, french horns, trombones, clarinets and saxophones hang from the ceiling; one or two of them still playable with a little work, but they are rusted and painted different colours, gradually deteriorating into total silence. There are old motorcycles that have been ridden right into the ground, and bikes that will never cycle, and an “internet café” consisting of an old Remington typewriter with an old dial-up modem balanced on it. There’s a “Wheel of Misfortune”, which is appropriate: the owners offered the place for free to the winner of an essay contest, but that was three years ago and I don’t think anyone took them up on it. Or perhaps they did, but recoiled from the challenge of returning the place to its former glory. One previous travel writer has mentioned it, but he didn’t do it justice.
We had a fairly good breakfast at Hot Rocks, and then walked up (down?) the highway to the hostel Deb had originally selected online, and past the one that Rick is staying at. We found the Rockin’ J’s hostel which seems to have dozens of rooms and a breakfast to try tomorrow. We found a lovely garden hotel with bungalows we’d have stayed at, right on the waterfront, but Deb is comfortable where we are for now, and there’s a sense of security for her being so close to the bus station for when we are ready to leave, and so close to meal choices, shopping and other conveniences. We swapped novels at a couple of different hostels along the way. We’ve already decided to stay until at least Saturday morning, and it could be longer. We found a scooter rental that we could use tomorrow to explore Manzanillo and Punta Uva; we considered it for today but there is a small risk of rain - fortunately, therefore, it has been a cool and pleasant day for hiking along the road. I picked up more photographic memories.
We’ve used our well-equipped shared kitchen for two days now, frying up some smoked pork chops from the Canadian butcher, which tasted pretty good.
Rick is a practical joker. He described some of his pranks, such as putting a scotch bonnet pepper inside a chocolate in a box, handing out chocolates to all his mates at work, who were in on the prank, and making sure the target got the last chocolate in the box...the one with the scotch bonnet inside.
Another involving chocolate was a more complex tale: a very young fellow wanted to get into the army and was training hard every day. One day he bought a Kit-kat and immediately regretted it. “I’ll have to run an extra five kilometres to work this off,” he complained. He tried to sell it to a colleague, who offered him 20p for it. “But I paid 50p”, he said. “Too bad”, said the workmate, “I guess you’ll have to eat it, then.” The Kit-kat sat, uneaten, and the wheels began to turn in Rick’s head.
Rick made a paper which said that whoever had purchased that Kit-kat had won a vacation in Ibiza. He used photoshop and Kit-kat logos, and the phone number of a local butcher shop. He slit the Kit-kat wrapper and slid the fake coupon inside. The friend who’d refused to pay 50p suddenly relented and told the kid “Here, I feel sorry for you. I feel like having a Kit-kat now. I’ll pay you the 50p you paid for it.”
The kid happily handed him the Kit-kat, and the friend opened it and “discovered” the coupon for a free vacation. The kid was mortified and despondent, and everyone else was in on the joke. After the kid had moped for most of the day, the friend offered to sell him back the coupon for the 50p, just because he was such a good guy. The kid was delighted with the kindness of his friend and very excited about his pending vacation. He raced off to phone and claim his prize, but the phone was answered by the local butcher. He was sitting in the cafeteria trying to figure out what Kit-kat’s actual phone number should be when someone else felt sorry for him and let him in on the prank. Of course, he became disconsolate and royally pissed off, but they didn’t let it rest with that.
“You know,” said the “friend”, “the situation could actually be worse than you think.”
“What are you talking about,” asked the kid.
“Well,” replied the friend, “you realize...I’ve eaten your Kit-kat...and got my 50p back as well!”
Rick texted us that a band was actually playing this evening at Hot Rocks. Sure enough, “Mike Joseph Di Gud Frendz” was playing pretty good “Reggae, Calypso, Dancehall Mixup!” They started only a half hour late (were missing a bass player but finally someone stepped in) and they worked hard. They gathered a crowd, the bar owner mixed the sound and set volume levels himself from the floor, and beer was sold, so it was a success all ‘round. Of course, we can’t understand the lyrics - can’t even distinguish whether they are creole or Spanish - but it was rhythmically satisfying and the guys could sing with good pitch.
On the topic of musical professionalism, two nights ago Rick texted that our friend Danny from Kitchener was at Hot Rocks, but I was tired and had sore feet so we didn’t go...and we missed a bit of drama. Danny and his wife are punctual and professional, so they started at the advertised time, but they were in the middle of apologizing for not having a drummer, who was late for the gig, when he showed up drunk and without the set list they’d sent him. They were already five or six songs into their set. There were sparks, and then he got publicly fired, right on stage. Later another drummer was found who sat in and lasted for the balance of the night.
Mar 16th. Breakfast was cheap but basic at Rockin’ J’s, but I took time to admire the funky decor and furniture, and the fact that they have many dozens of tents set up on two open floors, and dozens of large lockers for backpacks. This place takes backpacking and hosteling to a whole new level. There are bikes and surfboards at hand - $40/hr for surfing lessons, pretty steep but not the most expensive around, and many young people take them up on it.
We waited 90 minutes for two buses that didn’t arrive according to their schedule, but we finally made it to Manzanillo and then to Punta Uva. At Manzanillo we went into the national park, which is free but there are two young girls in green t-shirts taking donations for “cleaning the beach” at the entrance. We saw an adolescent sloth almost immediately, and then within a half hour we added a Rainbow Boa to our count of “critters we’ve actually seen in the wild”. In direct sunlight it has iridescent colours, apparently, but ours was in the shade and I saw only a hint of that iridescence.
At Punta Uva we didn’t see any critters (we were hoping for a green macaw or two) but we stayed for a swim, and just to bask in the experience of being at what James Kaiser calls “perhaps the best beach in Costa Rica”. At one point I observed brown water at the surf edge of the beach, then green with the sand beneath, then blue, then darker blue, then the horizon and above that, a mauve purple colour gradually shifting to clear blue higher in the sky.
Manzanillo beaches are pretty good as well, and both have snorkeling, but when you have waves good enough for body surfing, snorkeling isn’t easy; we might try that tomorrow if the sea is calm. The beaches are safe, with gradual entry and no rip tides as there are on the Pacific coast, and very nice sand, with plenty of shade to sit in under the almond trees.
We got home, cleaned up and went for supper with Rick - tried to get some rondón so that he won’t go home to England without having tried it, but no-one had it made up. It’s generally an “end of the week” dish. Gindra hadn’t set up her pots. We had a nice smoked jackfish with a dark Caribbean sauce at Rustic Corners, owned by Gindra’s cousin; he’d smoked it himself...a smart move, because a smoked fish lasts a long time if you don’t sell it all on the first day and you keep it in the fridge, and he has only four tables.
We stopped for ice cream and then strolled to the Hot Rocks where they were doing free salsa lessons on stage, but nothing else happened after that so we came home. Maybe they were going to do karaoke: there were two mics set up on stage, but we didn’t know how long we’d have to wait and perhaps it would have been painful anyway.
Tomorrow is our last day in paradise. We thought we’d stay two or three nights, and we’ve been here a week. I was somewhere else one winter when I described the feeling of being one of the lotus eaters, and this has been a bit similar. Living is so soft and easy here that we just kept extending our stay for one or two more nights at a time. It helped that we really couldn’t think of anything more in Costa Rica that we’d like to visit. But we do have some final plans for the last two days, in Alajuela.
Today was a day to read, stroll the beach, eat Gindra’s oxtail and mackerel in coconut sauce for supper, and hear calypso at the Lazy Mon. Finally we got to hear some genuine calypso, from the original artist of Rice’n’Beans; it wasn’t Walter Ferguson, although he recorded many others. I can’t find the name of the guy we saw this evening, who looked to be 70-ish, but I recognise his voice from the youtube video of the song, which unfortunately doesn’t list the artists. He rode herd over his musicians, though - the bass player was his youngest son, I think - and made sure that they started on time, and that when he said a ten minute break, he really meant ten minutes. When they dallied getting back to stage, he was already up there to bark into the mic to get them back in line.
Between “Don’t Want Love”, the calypsos “Rice’n’Beans”, “Callaloo” and a handful of other songs, I think I might come up with a full set of fun songs to perform about food.
Mar 19th. Yesterday was a travel day. At morning coffee Deborah said goodbye to “El Lobo”, a pure white “wolf” who strolls the streets of Puerto Viejo. He has an owner, but dogs who are large enough to fend for themselves learn to navigate traffic and wander around on their own in latin American countries.
Rick got a ticket on the same bus. It took a little over four hours to reach San Jose, with a couple of construction delays. Deborah showed our ages on the passport copies she carries and got us tickets for seniors at 2/3rds of the cost of normal adult fare - how silly we were never to ask for this on our previous longer trips this winter.
We arrived in San Jose, switched buses (and bus stations, because there are so many different companies that serve different provinces and they each have their own stations in every town) with a short two dollar cab ride and got to Alajuela, where Rick found his Alajuela Backpackers hostel while Deb and I proceeded to Jalapeños Central, a restaurant popular with English speakers who arrive at the airport - the international airport is in Alajuela, about a half-hour bus ride from downtown San Jose. It has Mexican food. We had a farewell burrito together and said good-bye to Rick, who is flying home to Liverpool this morning.
There is a flock of red-headed parrots right in downtown Alajuela. They seem to be nesting in the trees right in the central plaza, but we were amused by three that seem to have torn a hole into the attic of a nearby house, like racoons and squirrels do in Toronto. The flock keeps in constant screeching communication with each other, and sometimes they all fly off at once to who knows where.
We phoned George at Alegria BnB from the restaurant to let him know we’d be there shortly - surprise! he hadn’t checked his email. Par for the course with George, it seems, even though he’d asked me to let him know what day we’d arrive. There’s no-one else here anyway, and he has five spacious rooms in his sprawling suburban bungalow, all made up and prepared for the arrival of guests, and each with its own private bathroom. I’m not sure that he doesn’t simply prefer his peace and quiet to running a business, but he says the busy season is almost over for him. And he’s of an age that it becomes increasingly difficult to surmount problems that crop up with his computer. He says he’s been having problems with it, and wonders if he should upgrade to a Windows 10 machine.
The cab ride in San Jose was a bit amusing: the cabbie, an older fellow with a limp, had been cruising and slowed down at the bus station just long enough to catch our eye when we decided to take a cab instead of hiking six blocks with our backpacks. He immediately came under fire from larger, younger cabbies in the bus station who’d apparently staked the place out for themselves and had failed to get us in their cabs. There was a torrent of abuse and swearing in Spanish, and a bit of a struggle just to get our backpacks into his trunk. The word “puta” was shouted a few times.
By contrast, the following Uber experience was so clean, honest and seamless that I wondered, not for the first time, why the cab companies don’t follow the Uber model - the price for distance covered worked out to be the same (we paid the cabbie more than the meter would have read, since he stated his price up front and we had agreed to pay it). The difference, I suppose, is that like much of the digital commerce world, Uber has little capital invested - the drivers’ own capital pays for their cars, which are newer cars (I don’t actually know who “owns” the red taxis, but they could be leased, as many drivers in Canada have to do, from owners who have cab licences). In many cases I believe that the Uber driver buys a nice car and then uses Uber and/or Lyft (sometimes both at once) to help him meet the payments on his new car, which he wouldn’t otherwise be able to own. I hate putting cabbies out of work, but I also hate dealing with their nebulous pricing, sometimes dishonest change-making in unfamiliar currencies, and their propensity to lie about connections, or to take you out of your direct way to inflate the fare.
We used Uber to get to the Alegria BnB for another two dollars, but it was deducted painlessly from our credit card account. We’d had some issues with Uber involving phone numbers and payment methods on the accounts that we couldn’t seem to update while on the road, so after Chile we stopped using it, but we managed to puzzle our way through re-activation of our accounts - Deb’s, and mine for a back-up. Mine is on my tablet, and I have no sim card or data plan, so I order the ride from a wifi location and then rely on offline Google Maps or Here Maps to lend some precision to the journey, especially when the Uber maps for the drivers don’t have our destination registered, which happens surprisingly often. It happened again this time. It’s hell in a country like Costa Rica which stubbornly clings to a lack of actual street addresses and relies on landmarks that only locals know, to identify a location; my Google map showed “Alegria BnB” with the blue dot that was us moving toward it, but his Uber map didn’t show anything more specific than our Pueblo Nuevo neighbourhood.
Deborah’s KnowRoaming sim card has also failed us during this trip. She has been unable to complete phone calls while in Costa Rica.
This evening we’ll be in the upscale neighbourhood of Escazú, at the Jazz Cafe Escazú, attending the television taping where Karol B is performing along with many other artists. During the day we might stroll the famous (in Costa Rica) “multiplaza”, which is the country’s largest shopping mall, and we’ll see what else we can find to fill the hours before the taping begins. Tomorrow, probably the art gallery in San Jose. And Wednesday morning early, we fly home.
Mar 20th. We ate George’s delicious breakfast at Alegria BnB, and relaxed until afternoon, when we puzzled our way through the bus system (even the bus drivers we asked gave us conflicting information and opposite directions) to the Multiplaza, which is Costa Rica’s large indoor mall, no different than the large indoor malls in every city in N. America. We had a terrible meal in the food court and then hiked down the side of the highway for fifteen minutes to reach the Jazz Cafe Escazú, where we were paid to clap and grin for the camera while Karol and a line-up of other young performers provided a great show for Channel 13, Costa Rica’s version of Canada’s CBC Television. It was one of the highlights of our trip, after getting to know Karol over several meetings. Afterward, we Uber’d back home to Alegria late in the evening, a 35 minute trip on a six lane highway with two toll booths.
Today we visited the Museum of Costa Rican Art, which was a flat experience. The building is beautiful, it is the old airport building. The main show was erotic art, which bored me, I’m sad to say - I’ve seen the same theme in other museums, and I don’t feel like walking around feeling aroused below the belt in a museum...I prefer to be aroused from the neck up. Worse, they wouldn’t give us the wifi password even though they had a strong network set up, so I couldn’t do the photo-translate feature on my tablet. Every placard was only in Spanish, which takes me forever to read. I sure wish all museums would join the 21st century - a few have: the logical and inexpensive solution to serve tourists in potentially dozens of other languages is simply to provide wifi connection - entire cities in other countries have provided city-wide, free and open wifi, for a decade now - and let people access their own translation services. No money needs to be spent on translators, and none on new signage.
So I opened my google maps (offline, downloaded maps that work with the gps location function) and looked for somewhere else nearby to visit. After a twenty minute hike through the Sabana park we arrived at the Museo La Salle, a private Natural history museum.
Now, imagine you’d never seen a gem, and suddenly saw one close up. You might think it was one of the most beautiful things you’d seen; if you saw a few more, you’d be impressed, and you’d probably still imagine they were quite rare.
When we saw our first blue morpho butterfly in the wild we thought it was the most beautiful butterfly in the world. Even when we experienced a flock of them we thought they were rare and beautiful, and that there was only one kind of blue morpho. Imagine my shock when I stepped into a gallery that had dozens of variations of morpho butterflies, and literally 8,400 examples of 1200 butterfly species from all over the world, according to their brochure. I moved from one display case to the next and kept having my breath taken away by a new design, a new shape, new colours. It’s the biggest butterfly collection I’ve ever seen. It blew my mind. I did two full circuits of the very large gallery, slowly.
In addition, we saw all the stuffed birds, mammals, fish and reptiles you’ll ever encounter in Costa Rica. The stuffed specimens look horribly sad compared to living ones, even when they’re living in a zoo, but you can learn a lot in a short time. Some were donated from zoos for stuffing when the animals died.
We took the bus home to Alajuela in rush hour - literally inching along the entire way. It took perhaps ninety minutes to go thirty kilometres. We used up our remaining colones on dinner at Jalapeños , which is an institution in the town, and we bought some coffee that comes from the region where the Cup of Excellence awards are usually won. It was double the price of my Sumatran at home, so I have high hopes for it. I’ve had a few, but very few, excellent cups of coffee in Costa Rica.
Now we’ll try to get our heads in the right space to face our return to a cold March in Toronto. We have a very early flight tomorrow morning.
Mar 21st. We forgot to check our flight departure time in the morning in case it had changed; Murphy’s Law: it was leaving two hours later. We had four hours to kill. We dawdled, and we had almost got to the check-in counter when there was an announcement asking for volunteers to delay their return until tomorrow. Air Canada had oversold the flight. They made us an offer we couldn’t refuse, and we accepted it. We should have gotten transportation to a hotel nearby, an overnight in the hotel and vouchers for meals, and $800 credit - each - for another Air Canada flight. They gave us special yellow tags for our backpacks and a green sticker on our boarding passes that said “VOL” for volunteer, but finally when the plane boarded they had empty seats - people who hadn’t made the flight - and they rescinded the offer. What a tease that was! I was very disappointed.
It would have been a fancier hotel than the ones we usually choose to pay for ourselves. It’d be hard for them to live up to George’s breakfasts, though. George packed us a “breakfast to go” and drove us to the airport in his Crown Vic this morning. He bought his Crown Vic in an online auction for $2300 from a Fire Chief in the U.S. Even after $1200 shipping and another $2300 in various entry taxes, he got himself a great vehicle, with massive trunk space for guests’ luggage or to stack three or four bodies on top of each other if he ever needs to do that.
The trip home was fine. The Air Canada Rouge movie app line-up was very poor - they should be embarassed, considering the entertainment menu we used to have on board - but the SD card from Deb’s dead tablet worked in mine, and we had episodes from season 2 of the Detectorists, courtesy of Laurence, to keep us cheerful. On the bus from the terminal to the subway, a serious-faced young man saw us climb aboard with our backpacks and jumped up to offer his seat to Deborah...he wore a black t-shirt with a white skull on it, that read “I’m your worst nightmare”...but apparently not really. That's Canada for you.