Sweet, Sweet Costa Rica

Trip Start Jan 12, 2007
Trip End Nov 19, 2007

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Flag of Costa Rica  ,
Tuesday, July 31, 2007

When I vacationed in Costa Rica 5 years ago I was a little underwhelmed, as I found it to be beautiful but a bit culturally bland. But this time around, on the camping circuit, Costa Rica (July 13-30) was a little taste of paradise, especially after the austere conditions in Nicaragua. Pretty much everything about it worked for us from the low-cost ($4 to $6) but good quality places to camp, to the well-stocked grocery stores, to the good roads, to the fast Net connections, to the friendly cops, to the Groovy 91.1 radio station (which puts anything we have in Vancouver to shame and gave us a welcome break from our tired CDs and the b-side 80īs love songs that are played on the radio in the other countries), to its volcanoes, hot springs, beaches, and assorted other natural attractions.

Our first stop was the town of Tamarindo (2 nights) on the northern Pacific coast about 2 hours from the Nicaraguan border. The entire region - Guanacaste - is experiencing an unbelievable real estate boom (AOL co-founder Steve Case just announced plans for a $800 million resort) and Tamarindo felt a little bit like a beach-town version of Whistler, with lots of tourists and higher-end shops, yet still with enough rawness (like dirt roads that flood when it rains) and natural beauty (like a gorgeous, never ending beach that was great for boogie-boarding) to neutralize the negative aspects (like Subway and Pizza Hut) of the development boom. It didnīt hurt that we were camped at a makeshift site on the front lawn of decent hostel that was a 30 second walk, in one direction, from the beach and a 30 second walk, in the other direction, to the best stocked grocery store (fresh baguettes, imported cheese, etc.) that we had seen since Mexico.

From Tamarindo we headed east to the tiny inland town of La Fortuna, which is the base for viewing the continuously erupting Volcan Arenal (which we could see from our campsite, albeit from the "wrong" side).

There is definitely a "Gringo Trail" that runs from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico down to Costa Rica and we are starting to see familiar faces wherever we go. In Tamarindo we ran into 3 American travelers that we had first met briefly on Caye Caulker in Belize and, for $20 (the first time our bank account has gone in that direction in 6 months) we drove them from Tamarindo to La Fortuna, and then continued to day-trip with them a bit in La Fortuna, including a hike to the base of the volcano. It was nice to have the added company for awhile (not that after 6 months of living in a van together, Ades and I donīt still find everything that each other says to be extraordinarily fascinating).

After 3 days in La Fortuna, we continued east to the blink-and-you-will-miss-it village of Chilamate, where Adrienneīs good friend, Meghan, her Costa Rican husband, Davis, and their 2-and-a-half year-old daughter, Lluvia, live. Chilamate is Davisī home town and they are in the process of constructing the "Chilamate Rainforest Eco Retreat" on 20 acres of property that they bought last Christmas, doing the bulk of the work themselves. The property came replete with 4 cabins (one of which we stayed in), a small open-air restaurant (which they have enlarged and where we hung out) and a lot of lush rainforest, all located on the bank of the pristine Saripiqui River, which is very popular for white water rafting. They couldnīt be happier, and we couldnīt have been happier hanging out with them; before we knew it we had spent 7 nights.

Our last stop was the Puerto Viejo area (5 nights), which is on the Caribbean coast almost at the border with Panama. It reminded us a bit of the Sunshine Coast or the Gulf Islands, as it has a granola-eating, self-help-book-reading type of feel and was full of little inns, stalls selling homemade jewelry, bakeries with tasty treats and restaurants with mixed and matched chairs. It has also had kilometers of empty white-sand beaches that ended only where the thick rainforest began. I liked it so much that we spent an hour talking to a real estate agent and a morning driving around looking at investment property. Miss Sensibility isnīt so sure.


- Thermal hot springs, La Fortuna: In addition to being nice to look at, Volcan Arenal has created a series of thermally heated hot-springs at its base that have been turned into tourist attractions. The first night we went to one called Baldi Thermal, paying $20 so that we could get the upscale experience. (Another one down the road that is even more upscale charges $40). There were about a dozen pools of various sizes and temperatures, with suitably dim lighting and swim-up bars, and it had the overall look and feel of a pool complex at a high-end spa that you might find in Hawaii. It was worth every penny, and not just because it was our first hot bath in 6 months! The next night we opted for the more budget($6), more local Los Laurels which only had 2 pools and not much ambiance but nonetheless provided an amazing view of the volcano, including at one point the spewing orange lava.

- Bull-riding competition, La Fortuna: We stumbled on the local fair grounds one night and became entranced by the bull-riding, especially by what goes on under the stands as the rider prepares to mount the angry bull. Ropes being tied, bulls being prodded, gates being held closed, cowboys on horses, the beer's flowing - you could have bottled the testosterone.

- Lluvia: Basically the cutest morsel you could imagine. And the fact that she speaks mainly in Spanish, including when answering questions we ask in English, made her even that much cuter to her gringo aunt and uncle.

- Activities, the Chilamate Rainforest Eco Retreat: From the hike at dusk on their property, to white-water rafting on the Saripiqui River, to a horseback tour of their property and beyond, we did it all. And when you are in with the locals, you pay local prices.

- Howler monkeys, Cahuita National Park: The park is just up the road from Puerto Viejo and we spent a day their hiking, swimming, snorkeling and bird watching (harder than we thought). Feeling fully satiated and just about to leave, we spotted a howler monkey swinging on the tree canopy above us. And then another. And then maybe a dozen more by Adesīcount.


- No complaints about Costa Rica, just missing out on important events at home, both the good (Jason and Dianaīs wedding) and the bad (my dadīs problems with his eye).
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