Costa Rica -Caribbean and highlands

Trip Start Sep 08, 2008
Trip End Feb 28, 2009

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Flag of Costa Rica  , Province of Limon,
Sunday, December 14, 2008

As usual, getting to the border was a series of many different buses. I had been told the border crossing was long and difficult but did not experience any of that. I got dropped off right at the border, paid the fee to enter the "border area", then walked to the Nicaraguan side and walked another 500m to the Costa Rican side. Because it was already late in the afternoon, I could only make it as far as Tamarindo, on the Pacific side of the Nicoya peninsula. The bus from the border to Liberia (100km) took an hour less than the bus from Liberia to Tamarindo (50km). One reason being the state of the road and the other being due to the bus stopping at every single beach town on the way down. It did not matter if the beach town was 10km there and back on a dirt road, the bus was still driving there to see if there was anybody to pick up or drop off. This appeared to be a never ending bus ride.
Once I arrived to Tamarindo that evening, I went to the first hostal I could find and it ended up being the best and cheapest one. I was given a twelve person dorm to myself that was a pretty big and then decided to go out quite late with the Australian guys that I had met in the bus. I also made friends with the lifeguard who showed me the best places around town and really had a good time. We even went dancing salsa in the local bar. Tamarindo was one of the most American places in Costa Rica with luxury hotels, big air conditioned shopping malls and fashion boutiques. The beach there was beautiful. It is no wonder there were so many tourists. Actually, most of them were not tourists but expats who moved to Costa Rica in search of 'pura vida' lifestyle.
I had to be in San Jose by 10 pm the following day because I was meeting up with my mum who was flying from France for a week of vacation with me. The trip from Tamarindo to San Jose was a painful nine to ten hours ride. I had the choice of a 'direct' chicken bus at 3:30 or! Or a series of different buses from town to town. The main problem was the bad state of the majority of roads from Tamarindo to San Jose. As I knew mum wanted to rent a car anyway, I created a new option which was driving to San Jose with a rental car. It also allowed me to give a ride to a friend of the lifeguard who was going to a friend's funeral (who had been shot dead a security guard).
I was really glad this guy came with me when the car stopped working an hour after we had left Tamarindo! He did all the talking to the mechanics next door, then to the emergency assistance and two hours later, we had another car brought to us...and a much better one! The next time we stopped, I did the talking but it definitely helped to have a local with me: I got pulled over by the cops for "he said speeding". I still doubt that as I was being very careful to avoid ending up in this situation and I was following a car that was going much faster than me. Anyway, after a little bit of talking and I got away with a small bribe. Next was the work on the road, which made us stop for a good half hour in the middle of nowhere. Then last was an accident that created heavy traffic right outside San Jose. All in all, the trip that was supposed to be five hours by car compared to the ten hours by bus, ended up being ten hours. I was just on time to meet up with my Mum, whose flight was delayed anyway. 

Like when she came to visit me in Thailand, it was a week of nice hotels and good food to take me out of my backpacking routine, if there ever is a routine when backpacking. We left the dirty, filthy town of San Jose the next day to make it to the Caribbean coast. It was a long but beautiful ride through the forest and volcano parks, sometimes on paved road, sometimes on dirt paths. We took our time to stop here and there to visit a few towns and the only ruins in Costa Rica, Guayabo. Of course, those are extremely disappointing, especially when you have seen the magnificent Maya ruins in other Central America countries,   but the set up and the landscape was very nice...let apart the dirt rocky road that leads to it. We sometimes wondered if we were on the right road, thinking that this inconvenient path could not be the way to a national point of interest. That happened a lot during our trip but we only had to remind ourselves to think Central America, the land where bus terminals are empty parking lots, restaurants are little carts on the streets and roads are narrow dirt paths. It is just a different way of seeing the things we are used to in our modern countries.

We arrived on the coast at dark but drove along the beach and guessed the lines of palm trees thanks to the very bright moon reflecting on the waves. The road had a few holes but was nothing compared to what was in store for us for the rest of our trip. We could not drive fast anyway due to the numerous animals that were crossing the road. In France, they are deer and rabbits, in Costa Rica, they were turtles and crabs.  We casually spent two relaxing days on the beach, enjoying the tranquillo Caribbean vibe of Cahuita and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca before making our way to the highlands.
We started with La Fortuna under fog, rain and cold (18C). La Fortuna was home to Costa Rica's most active volcano, producing ash columns, explosions and red streamers of molten rocks almost daily for the past forty years. Well that is according to the book because all we could see was dark grey clouds. We could not even distinguish the swimming pool of the hotel that was 200m from our bedroom, never mind fancying a dip. No wonder the Lonely Planet mentioned that it takes time for Volcan Arenal to peek out from the cloud forest!
We gave up on La Fortuna and drove to its neighbouring sister town, Monteverde. The town neighbours on the map, but not in actuality timewise. In fact, the drive from La Fortuna to Monteverde was a forty-kilometre three-hour trek on dirt paths scattered with holes filled up with rain in the fog. Where the view was supposedly magnificent, we could not see 100m across, but we stopped to imagine what it could be like. Monteverde was the first North American Quakers (religious group also known as the 'friends') settlement in the 50's. As pacifist, four Quakers refused to be drafted into the Korean War. They were jailed in Alabama in 1949. The incident ignited and exodus and members of the group came to dairy farm in these greener pastures, eventually conserving them. Tourism grabbed hold when a 1983 National Geographic feature described this unique landscape, and subsequently billed the area as THE place to visit. It was really well preserved, there was no easy access nor paved road in order to keep it secluded and most of the houses aroused Swiss wooden chalet charms.   
Once in Monteverde, we got lucky, the rain stopped so we could visit a coffee plantation and processing mill. The guide was brilliant and we got to taste many different sorts of delicious coffee. At dark, we went on a jungle night tour and here again, if the animals we saw were not the biggest nor scariest ones, the guide was very good at explaining everything about them. Basically, we saw nothing more than worms, ridiculously small frogs, grasshoppers, crickets, sleeping birds and two tarantulas, but the thrill of walking in the jungle at night was something on its own. We also visited a cheese factory and the ranario, frog sanctuary along with the butterfly garden. We had the most knowledgeable and interesting guide hence we had the best time there. As part of the numerous amazing things that I learned out there, did you know that there were over 40,000 species of butterflies all over the world? And did you know that as frogs do not have any genital parts, their reproduction consists of the male, always smaller than the female for that particular reason, hopping on the female's back and giving her a back massage for two weeks non stop? So the female just walks around, eats, sleep and carries out its normal activities with a guy on its back for two weeks straight. Cool or not cool?
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