Costa Rica is a small, truly beautiful gem. Its coastlines, the Pacific and the Caribbean, lie only 119km apart, but in between there are active volcanoes, alpine peaks and crisp cloud forests. This small, developing country seems to be trying to preserve the natural habitat it has left. It seems a world away from Nicaragua where we not only saw, but experienced in the sweltering heat, the effects of mass deforestation. Costa Rica gives you a glimmer of hope, as previously it suffered the same fate as its neighbours, in the 1990s the country had one of the worst deforestation rates in Central America, 80% of the forest had disappeared (due to rearing cattle and producing fruit). We have seen here a massive drive to protect and respect their natural world.
So, we had heard Costa Rica was expensive, how bad could it be? When we began to book accommodation, we freaked out and moved our onward flight forward 2 weeks, giving us just over 3 weeks. On reflection we may have been a little hasty. You could easily blow a grand on a night somewhere, but equally it’s very easy to find good budget accommodation and eat nice cheap local food. If you can stomach rice and beans for three weeks, we’ve done pretty well on it.
From Nicaragua we went to the border to find our Pura Vida! We had heard it takes long time to cross. These two countries do not seem to be friends, like all over the globe we seem to hate our neighbours the most, same old issue we’ve seen everywhere, Immigration! So we prepared ourselves for a long wait. Making it across the Nicaragua border and through to the Costa Rican side in 10 mins flat, we started to wonder what all the fuss was about! Then we saw the extent of the queue to get our Costa Rican visas. In the end our driver got sick of waiting and decided it was time we pushed to the front, using Freda as his excuse! No yellow line here to wait behind, it was a free for all, and it soon became clear why the queue hadn’t moved. I was forced to the front of the scrum, reluctantly brandishing our passport (and Freda)! We left with our head hung low, we may have been out of England for a while, but it’s still hard to tolerate queue jumping! I wasn’t proud, but at least we hadn’t paid our way to the front like many other gringos I saw, pushing seemed a little more palatable (due to the fact we were with child of course)!
We picked up our hire car, which we debated about for ages. People say you need a 4×4 in Costa Rica, but they were a complete rip off, so as we are tight we went for a 2×0 car and kept our fingers crossed. We did the right thing, people seem to think you to need a 4×4 to drive anywhere nowadays. There were only a few times where we had to admit defeat in our car and walk the last kilometre. With our new found freedom, we made our way to a small town on the Pacific coast called Brasilito.
We spent a few days adjusting to the new country and the Guancaste region was a beautiful area to do this in. It is famed for Playa Conchal, which gets its name from the sand found here that is composed of hundreds of millions of tiny crushed shells.
The shallow beach and white sand lead to a beautiful turquoise sea, not a bad place to spend an afternoon. Although, there was trouble in paradise, we had an early taste of Costa Rica’s petty crime problem. We went for a walk along the deserted beach at sunset, without a thought we left our flip flops, Freda’s sandals and an old wet tshirt on the beach, returning to find them all gone.
Bemused about why anyone would take cheap old battered shoes and Mitchs wet (but treasured Angkor beer) t-shirt, we mooched back to our hotel bare footed! It was a low point for my regard of humanity, taking children’s sandals is below the belt. Anyway lesson learnt, if people will steal old grubby flip flops and a childs only pair of sandals, my guessing was anything is up for grabs. The beach walk was very nice but maybe not worth the amount of time we then had to spend looking for Freda’s replacement shoes! Costa Rica has a lot to offer, but shops are not one of them!
We drove up to the Volcan Arenal, another perfectly conical volcano, we have definitely been spoiled with amazing volcanoes on this trip. It impressively sits of the edge of Lake Arenal, surrounded by beautiful national parks and reserves.
We stayed on an eco farm, something I was keen on doing, as Costa Rica is the home of eco tourism, it was beautifully basic. From our balcony we watched various animals and giant insects, our favourite being a wild sloth making his way slowly around, what a life.
We also went on a very informative farm tour. Our guide Alberto, a Spanish biologist, wowed us with amazing facts about plants and bio dynamic farming, which is pretty cool.
Freda here is getting a try of the fruit from the cacao tree, she was a bit put out that it didn’t taste of chocolate. But she did love the fact he kept picking up things and letting us eat them, hope she doesn’t get any ideas!
We did manage to drag ourselves away from our beautiful lodge and go on a day trip, visiting an immense waterfall.
We walked to the bottom and swam in the river, amongst the rainforest, it was pretty special.
Not being satisfied with that, we then took a trip to the mystical, hanging bridges of Arenal, they seem to be a Costa Rican thing! We walked through the rainforest, spotting all sorts of wildlife, from monkeys to beautiful birds, while walking over some very long, high, wobbly, hanging bridges.
Our next port of call was just over the other side of the national park. About 25 km as the crow flies, but a three hour drive down, around and then back up the other side of the mountain. They say in Costa Rica if you want to go 30 km, allow an hour to go anywhere.
Monteverde, is one of Costa Rica’s main tourist attractions for a good reason. A handful of national and private parks surround the small town of Santa Elena, sitting right up in the mountains, we had (again) read that you needed a 4×4 to get here, so we nearly didn’t go. Luckily in our blasé manner, we ignored all advice and went anyway….it was fine. Monteverde is a special place, known as a cloud forest, these type of forests amount to a very small percent of the worlds woodland and create an ecosystem like no other.
A big tourist draw here is zip-lining. Freda had seen some pictures in a brochure and was desperate to try it. I told her it was just for adults, her response was “no mummy, there is a child on this picture.” So we searched around for the one that would take a child on a km long zip line over the top of the canopy. As Costa Rica is the home of the zip-line, and Monteverde maybe the best place to do it, we thought it would be rude not to. We did 14 lines and a dizzyingly high Tarzan swing.
It was stunning, we all had a blast, although it was a little unnerving watching my daughter turn into a little speck down a km line attached to a stranger, through the trees.
We only had one full day in Monteverde, so after the zip lining, we went to the main park. We did a couple of hours walking in the hope of seeing some animals. Freda does limit our potential as she generally doesn’t stop talking…….oh my god seriously though, she never stops talking! But, she seems happy walking and talking for a couple of hours, spotting ants and other insects that most people would just walk over and picking up leaves and bits and pieces off the floor. This can be a small worry when Costa Rica has more venomous snakes than you can shake stick at. Anyway, Freda is such a little trouper, even when it rains and she’s tired and muddy, she just gets on with it. We’ve done a lot of walks here, by the end of each one we may have lost our mind with the incessant talking, but we’re very proud of her, I’m not sure how many four year olds would traipse day in day, day out around forest after forest.
We had a moments peace at the park entrance where there was a fantastic hummingbird garden. You had to be quiet, thank god, but the birds were completely unfazed by people.
We left the stunning area of Monteverde and made the long decent down the mountain, making our way to the other most visited park in the country…….we thought we’d tick them off the list! Manuel Antonio is one of the smallest parks, but here the rainforest creeps all the way down to the beach, it has good trails for kids and apparently it is easy to spot wildlife, the only down side is that it’s very developed and busy.
We went to the beach outside the national park for our first day, Freda made some friends on the beach. Result, someone else she can talk to! A lovely American family that had quit their jobs and set out on their travels (sound familiar). The next morning we went to the national park, but unfortunately as we have now hit the start of the rainy season, it was raining……..hey ho, could be worse?!
Upside to the rain is that there are less people, and on this day there was hardly anyone in the park! Downside is that we got soaked again, but it was beautiful. We added a few more animals to our list, we are racking them up here, even with old chatting pants.
26% of Costa Rica is made up of stunning national parks, they seem to be one after another. Basically it’s all we’ve done, so next on the list was the national park Ballena, which is a spit of land jutting out to sea that looks just like the tail of a whale. With a back-drop of mountains covered in rainforests, it’s as beautiful as it comes.
We took the long walk out to the end of the tail, marvelled in the view and walked back. The hotel where we were staying was a private reserve set in over 300 hectares of secondary and primary forests. Iguanas sat outside each cabin, all with their own drainpipe as their home. Not too sure where they went when it rained! Or come to that what anything does when it rains.
When it rains here, it’s really rains!
So you may be getting a bit bored of all this nature stuff, but really there is nothing else in Costa Rica. We did a looping route around the country, so headed from the Pacific coast to the Caribbean side, and in between we had some days in the mountains. Mount Chirripo is the highest mountain in Costa Rica, and we spent a few nights at its base. We didn’t attempt the 12 hour climb (due to our ‘fun sponge’), but instead we did a few walks and spent the rest of the time in our little mountain lodge, sheltering from the rain. Our hut was quite challenging for city folk like us, as many bugs entered the house, the worse being a huge leech, like the ones used in Victorian medicine, yuck. The leech went down the toilet with some bleach, but when you have a view like this at breakfast, it was almost forgiven, but not forgotten!
It was nice to do a few normal things here in our little hut, like cooking and washing, they even had Sky TV, so Freda was over the moon. Only downside it was a steep 5 minute walk up or down the mountain, on a muddy and wet path, so we made sure we only left once a day, so we then only had to climb back up once a day.
We wound our way over the mountains and then back down to the valleys on the other side, slowly making our way to the Caribbean. Costa Rica may only be 119km across, but there are some bloody long drives. It doesn’t help maters when you get stuck behind a sugarcane train!
We stopped for a couple of days in the Orosi valley, a pretty agricultural area next to two massive volcanoes, one is shut at the moment as its so active! We saw a couple of old churches, which were our first sighting of any interesting historical architecture. I read that there are no old buildings left due to the large volume of earthquakes, but who knows, the Spanish were also here long enough!
We left our pretty little house in Orosi and carried on to the Caribbean coast, it had been a really nice stay apart from a god-awful night bird that spent its time repetitively making the same hideous noise for hours!
So the Caribbean side was a bit of a let down, I mean of course it has these beautiful beaches!
There was also some good food and they had some really nice national parks, where we once again we saw wild sloths and these guys.
So, what am I moaning about? We stayed in a small town on the road to no where called Manzanillo, it was the worst place I think we’ve stayed in so far. Not the accommodation, just the village. I have never been to the Caribbean and I’m not all that sure if this small area of Costa Rica resembled the Caribbean in any way, but all I know is that people here were very unfriendly and pretty weird, we think may be it was because most of them were stoned. Also it had a massive expat community, but I would harshly describe them as a drop-out community. Overall there was an air of seediness and a lot of drug peddling. Still we managed to make do, visiting the fantasitic Jaguar Rescue centre, no jaguars though as I don’t think there are any left here. However, they did have a lot of sloths, which were so cute. Anyone for a basket of babies?
The baby sloths mainly come to the rescue centre as orphans, the centre gets them ready for the wild and then releases them. It’s a very noble program to try and help many animals that are mainly affected or hurt by the development happening on the coast.
We also had a chocolate tour at a local indigenous family farm. Here’s Freda trying her hand at stirring some Cacao seeds, desperately longing for the moment she can try some chocolate!
We happily left the Caribbean behind and headed to a coffee plantation, just north of San Jose. Run by a rather odd American but a nice place, although the owner took an instant disliking to us, calling Mitch a heathen as put he put milk in his coffee. We didn’t venture in to San Jose, when Havanas your next big city, it seemed a bit pointless. But, we did go to a tourist hotspot on the outskirts. So much so, we banged into our first Chinese tour group in months. We had to increase our pace to avoid the tour, however every now and again, we dragged our heels and suddenly found ourselves surrounded by clapping, shouting and screaming all around the animals. They were even trying to grab the animals for pictures! I think it may be some time till the Chinese catch up with the Costa Ricans in their stance on wildlife conservation. The animals at the Waterfall Gardens were rescued mainly from being kept as pets, as it is illegal to keep a native animal as a pet in Costa Rica, these unlucky ones could not be released back in to the wild.
Along with its small animal park, we also went for a walk down past some tumbling water falls. No Chinese here though, probably too far to walk! I know, verging on racism, but when you have been shoved out of the way when entering a toilet cubical by a Chinese tourist, pushed aside trying to board a bus, seen a guy pull off a butterfly’s wing, the tourist that I have witnessed certainly aren’t flying a good flag for China. I guess much could be said for some Brits abroad, we try our best to keep the flag flying for good behaviour, apart from maybe the odd forced queue jumping……….
On our last day we went for a walk around, in I think, our first primary rainforest. There’s not much left afather most forests were chopped down and they are spectacular, here’s the king of jungle!
What Costa Rica lacks in pretty architecture, culture and beautiful historic towns, it makes up for it in spades with the tremendous scale of care and preservation for its natural habitats. It’s been a fantastically eye opening journey for all of us all, I have felt privileged to be able to see some tremendous nature.
I also felt sad at times that maybe this will be the last time I do get to see something like this, as our planet is changing so fast and maybe when Freda is my age, with her own children, they may not even get to see such animals, plants and trees in natural, untouched forests. We have learnt a lot about the impact humans have had and continue to have. Science seems to have a pretty bleak outlook for the future. But, maybe if more countries can turn it around like Costa Rica, find a balance and a reason to protect our planet, Costa Ricas I think is unashamedly tourism, but why not? People here seem to have found a renewed respect for the natural world and understand it’s importance, for them and for their future. Maybe this gives me some hope, I’m going to have to take that or I would be too miserable.
If you have made it to the end of the longest blog in the world, thank you so much for reading this far. I must try to write more often. Tomorrow we are off to Cuba, very excited, I’m looking forward to telling you all about it………….