Thursday, January 30, 2020

Off to Costa Rica December 2019

I might be the last American to visit Costa Rica. Yes, many of you have already been to Costa Rica. Hopefully, I can show you parts of Costa Rica you have not experienced. The first few days will be spent in the capital of Costa Rica, San Jose, a vibrant city that many tourist skip.

We (Margarite is tagging along... Again) arrived in San Jose right on time. The airport is small and very easy to navigate. We arranged to have a driver pick us up. We have learned over the year, having a driver meet us with a sign, and a limo/van is one of those small luxuries that makes arriving in a foreign country much less stressful.

We will be spending the next two nights at the Gran Hotel Costa Rica, Curio Collection by Hilton. The building was built in the early 1900s, but recently renovated. We booked a Junior Suite but were upgraded to the Presidential Suite, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Suite. Some of the furniture in the suite was the same furniture used for President Kennedy’s stay, back in 1963. The year Margarite was born.

We arranged a city bike tour for 3:00 PM with Chepe Bike’around. Tomas our guide met us at our hotel. Tomas took us around the city for a few hours. After sitting on a plane for half the day, this was a great way to get the lay of the land and get some blood to our legs.

Bike tour video

San Jose is not a tourist city, it is a living city. What I mean, Venice, Italy, Cartagena, Colombia, and Dubrovnik, Croatia are what I would call Touristic City, it is rare to find locals living in these cities. The locals have all been forced out by the tourist industry.

San Jose is a city full of energy and culture, not tourists. Our bike ride took us through many unique
districts of San Jose. One, in particular, known for its restaurants. Every corner has two or three restaurants. Each night people (locals) come to this area to enjoy the food.

Another nice thing about San Jose is the number of public parks. These parks are not huge, usually a few square blocks, but lots of them.

Today we did a free walking tour. Rod, our guide works for Amazon four days a week (he is responsible for stopping product knock offs in Europe) and does this walking tour on Fridays. While we covered some of the same areas as the bike tour, we went into a little more depth. We spent time touring the local graffiti art wall. This wall is near the parliament building, and some of the art makes political statements.

We finished the tour just before lunch. One of my goals during my visit to San Jose was to get ice cream at Lolo Mora’s ice cream. Lola Mora is located inside Central Market since 1901 and since then one of Costa Rica’s favorite ice cream. After more than 115 years, only one ice cream flavor is available, and they say you don’t need more to be happy.

We headed to the Central Market and grabbed lunch at a very cool, local restaurant. We sat family-style with San Jose locals each as friendly as the other. What a great experience.

Shortly after lunch, we found Lolo Mora’s ice cream. I am sure for Costa Rica standards it was excellent, but it did not live up to my expectations, a bit icy and not very creamy.

In the afternoon, we took a tour of the National Theater, the pride, and joy of San Jose, built about 100 years ago. Originally financed by the local coffee growers, though they quickly (three years into construction) ran out of money. The government taxed the peasants to finish the project.

Most of the material used to build the theater were imported from Europe. The tour was given by
actors who stayed in character most of the tour. This was a great way to get a feel and understanding of the history of the theater.

Today is the Festival of Lights. There will be a huge parade tonight starting at 6:00 PM and going until midnight. We went for a run at 6:00 AM, and people were already camped out on the parade route to ensure that had optimal parade viewing. A positive of the parade being tonight was that the main road was closed to all traffic, this made for a great morning run with no traffic.

After the run, we decided to head out of town before the city got too crazy.

If you come to Costa Rica, plan a day or two in San Jose, you will not regret it.

Our final destination today will be La Fortuna / Arenal Volcano area. La Fortuna is 90 kilometers from San Jose but a three-hour drive. And for all of you that have already been to Costa Rica, why did you not warn me about all the tolls. Just by luck, I had a bunch of coins with me.

We arrived at midday. We rented a beautiful cabin, actually a shipping container made into a cabin. The owner did a fantastic job of building this cabin even building a hot tub with a volcano that erupts hot water.

This evening we did an Eco-Garden Night Hike. We did this hike at Eco Garden Arenal. Eco Garden Arenal is a family operated project, Mom (Patricia), Dad (Jose), Son (eleven-year-old Joshua), and Daughter (eight-year-old, Elizabeth).

The hike started at 6:00 PM. Jose and Joshua spent two hours walking us through their nature preserve. We saw sloths (too far for pictures at night), some birds, lots of different frogs, and lots of insects. After the hike, Patricia served us home-made empanadas. What a great ending to a fun day.

We will be spending the next four nights in Fortuna.

This morning we scheduled a Lost Canyon Adventure Tour. A family from Atlanta, Georgia joined us.

This activity is hiking to the top of a waterfall and then repelling, climbing, and jumping down. It was a ton of fun. The guides were great and believe it or not, safety was their top priority.

Rather than I try to describe the activity, watch this short video.

In the afternoon, we relaxed at our cabin/shipping container. It is really a cool cabin.

Dinner was at Nenes Restaurant, the service was great the food good, not fantastic, but there was lots of it.

In the morning, Jose picked us up for a birding hike, the same Jose from the night hike two days before. We saw all kinds of birds before going to his nature reserve where we saw more birds, a crocodile, and had a great breakfast.

We spent the afternoon walking in the town of Fortuna. Not my cup of tea, while the surrounding area is beautiful, the town could use some zoning. Think of the Jersey Shore crossed with Little Italy, New York. The largest restaurant and most crowded was a pizza place, and the amount of billboards and neon signs rivals the Jersey Shore.

This evening we had a cooking class at a locals’ home. Their property was once a large farm but as the couple got older and the farm work harder they decided to build a few beautiful homes that they rent out on Airbnb as well as hold cooking classes in their home.

We made a fantastic dinner, that we enjoyed with the couple. Antonio, the husband makes his own moonshine. It tasted similar to Grappa, very strong and extremely hard to swallow.

This morning we scheduled our last activity in Fortuna, a mountain bike ride around Lake Arenal. We had half a dozen other riders join us. It was a medium-level ride with a few river crossings.

This video will give you an idea of the ride.

Tonight we have dinner at the hot springs, and tomorrow we are off to Monteverde.

Many of the people that we met are staying in resorts, I understand why. As much as San Jose was not touristy, Fortuna is. There are many places in the world to enjoy outdoor activities and spectacular views of volcanoes that I would recommend before recommending Fortuna, Costa Rica.

We left La Fortuna (also known as the Jersey Shore) on Wednesday morning. Our destination this afternoon is Monteverde, Costa Rica also known as the Cloud Forest.

We headed north along the eastern shore of Lake Arenal, which is the largest lake in Costa Rica. After we passed the north shore of Lake Arenal, we headed Southwest along the western shore. We continued on a more westerly path driving South between Lake Arenal and the Pacific Ocean.

The total drive time will be a bit over three hours. To break up the drive we stopped at Viento Fresco Waterfalls only 26 kilometers from Monteverde but an hour of driving. While the roads are in fairly good shape, they are windy and topped with gravel.

Viento Fresco Waterfalls was the perfect stop. You would never know there are these wonderful waterfalls just off the road if it not for the signs. The area is rolling hills not really mountainous and fairly dry, lots of wind from the West. In fact, during the last hour of the drive before to reaching the falls, there were hundreds of windmills generating electricity. I guess they did not hear about these windmills causing cancer. Just saying!

We hiked down and viewed three of the falls, each slightly different. We spent 45 minutes walking and viewing the falls.

As I said we had 26 more kilometers to go, an hour of drive time.

Monteverde is a tourist town, but not touristy like La Fortuna. There were similar shops and restaurants but not the large billboards and neon signs.

We had not planned any activities, so we checked out the information center to get an idea of what to do. Hiking the Cloud Forest is the big attraction in Monteverde.

Today we will visit the Curi-Cancha Reserve. One of the smaller reserves in Monteverde but known for lots of birds. Our goal was to spot a Quetzals. This bird is known to hang out in the Cloud Forest. It is the National Bird of Guatemala, but we did not see them when we were there.

Being the Cloud Forest, there is a lot of rain, mostly a constant light mist. This morning it was raining a bit harder than normal, which kept most of the birds away. We did see a lot of hummingbirds, but they are too fast to photograph.

The reserve was still worth the visit.

The best part of Curi-Cancha Reserve is there is a Cheese Factory not too far from the entrance. Guess what they sell at the company store? Ice Cream!

We had an excellent lunch at Taco Taco. They served the best homemade salsa, unfortunately, they do not sell it to the public.

We heard that the University of Georgia has a satellite campus/research center in the area that was worth a visit. After a bit of trial and error, we found the place. It had been part of the University of Georgia for about 18 years but was now Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE). Once we found the right people, they gave us a map and allowed us to wander the property. Lots of butterflies, but most moved to fast to photograph.

Today is our last day in Monteverde. We got up early and spent five hours walking the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve, one of the largest reserves in Monteverde. This morning the rain was heavier than the day before and the wind even stronger. Still, the forest was delightful to walk through. With the rain as heavy as it was there was not a lot of wildlife but plenty of green plant life and some crazy flowers.

Here is a quick Video

Of course, we had to stop for ice cream.

I had mentioned we had stayed in a cabin made from a shipping container. This seems to be a thing around here. We spotted this one as we drove around. It is a very cool design, with an awesome view.

We will be spending the next seven days at the beach Playa Manuel Antonio. Hopefully, we will find some cool folks to hang out with. I will keep you posted.

Wait, what about the Quetzals? Our timing was off, they do not return to this area of Costa Rica until January to nest. We missed by just one week.

The drive from Monteverde to Playa Manuel Antonio was more windy roads from the mountainside to the beach. Some of the roads were gravel, but many were paved asphalt roads.

We had not booked a place to stay and planned to figure things out once we arrived. The drive was about four hours. We arrived just before noon. We decided our first stop should be the beach. We found a gravel road where you could drive right onto the beach.

We arrived at a deserted beach except for a family that must be famous as several photographers were taking their pictures. It was like they were being swarmed by paparazzi. The day had a slight overcast so the sun was not too hot, we decided to stay and watch the photoshoot.

The water, Pacific Ocean, was like bathwater with waves, maybe 80 degrees in temperature. We watched and swam for a few hours. There was no one else on the beach, just us and this mysterious family.

Finally, the photoshoot was over. The sun was setting. This family must be the Kardashians of Costa Rica. Now that the photoshoot was over, we chatted up these folks. They were very interested in our four-wheel-drive SUV. To make a short story long, this family are heirs to Del Monte Foods of Costa Rica. They bought a mansion in Playa Manuel Antonio several years back, and this is their first visit. As they arrived, they found out you cannot get to the mansion, Casa Castillo without four-wheel drive. They had a stretch limo and a Ferrari neither had four-wheel drive.

They offered us a room in their mansion if we shuttle them back and forth to the mansion for the week. We of course agreed.

The house overlooked the Pacific and had a staff of six, the pool boy, maid, three chefs, and Alex the house manager. Talk about luxury.

The house was surrounded by jungle, which meant lots of monkeys.

We spent a good bit of time at the pool and shuttled the family to the beach when asked.

Not having children, we did learn one thing about the next generation, socializing no longer means talking with each other. Yes, they hang out together sometimes for hours but not a word is spoken. I think they call it social media. I think a better word would be unsocial media.

One day, we took the family to Manuel Antonio National Park a couple of miles from the mansion. We had our guide Nathan gave us a tour of the park. Being Christmas week the park was very crowded we still saw some iguanas and lizards. After the tour, we all hung out at the beach and then had a nice lunch at Morpho Beach Bar.

On Thursday, we booked a Mountain-Bike tour, we convinced six of the family members to join us. Three stayed back at the Mansion.

We took a taxi van since our SUV would not carry eight people, and the trip was too far to shuttle. Clearly, the Taxis are not happy with Uber.

It was good we left the other three behind.

The ride was rolling to steep hills on a gravel fire road. We stopped three times to swim in the waterfalls and rivers. We had one big crash but not major injuries.


This is a video of the ride, a bit long, five minutes, but worth the watch.

That is it for Costa Rica, my sixth country visited in 2019, 68th country/territory visited in my life. I hope everybody’s 2019 was as good as mine. For 2020, I hope to visit at least six new countries. What I have booked so far, Slovakia and Poland in May, I will have a special guest on that trip. In June, I will be visiting Bolivia, with yet another special guest. I will be doing one of my first repeats. In February, I will be going back to Guatemala, by special request.

Remember if there is a country you would like to learn about CLICK HERE and put your suggestion in.

Have a great new year.

WATCH this - Bonus Update - Costa Rica

We made it back in one piece. The Kardashians of Costa Rica or I should say their film crew sent me the trailer for the next episode of their reality show. It is only two minutes long but worth watching. It gives you a much better idea of what our week was like.

Kudos to Charlotte and Cam for filming and producing the video.



All Pictures: