COSTA RICA         November 1999

A recurring theme on this holiday was,  "Well, it's only money!".  It's a phrase we utter after a moment of impulse or a costly mistake.  And we said it a few times this holiday!

We flew into Miami, which was to be our springboard for CR and later, possibly a week or so of total relaxation on a Dutch Antillean beach.  Not having been to Maimi before we were totally unprepared for the dominant language to be Spanish, but it's a sprawling and pleasantly green city, with masses of black vultures roosting on top of the Dade County Court House!  Walking around Miami, our game of "tease the camera salesman" ended in the impulse purchase of a lovely little DV Camera, instead of the usual "Thanks, but no thanks!"
Well, it's only money!   But enough of Miami, on to Costa Rica!

Map showing Costa Rica

The flight to San Jose flies over Cuba and then follows the East Coast of Nicaragua down to CR, but we couldn't see any of the land below due to a flight delay, which meant we travelled at night!   Arriving in a foreign airport is always a challenge - and SJ was no exception.  Minor chaos as the baggage tumbled out of a chute onto a minute carousel, only to be swept off by two airport staff into an impenetrable mass in the middle of the reclaim area!  Eventually we stumbled over boxes and cases and got our bags and having pre-booked our Hotel for the night, walked out into the melee of taxi drivers, porters and assembled ticos.  Immediately we were engulfed by half a dozen eager faces, and tried to walk through them with polite "No thanks, we're fine…", until there was only one left, asking "Where you go?  What Hotel?"   Brian told him, he whisked the bags from us and we found ourselves following him through the Car park and into the dark depths of the lorry park.  He stopped beside a battered old Nissan and then from the shadows another man approached - and my defense antenna started to quiver.  Brian talked to the new bloke who flashed open his jacket to reveal a gun!   I instantly imagined the story line "Bruised, battered, naked bodies of two European travellers found…" and expected at any moment to be facing the wrong end of that gun as the car groaned, squeaked and positively hurtled the 14 km. of uneven road into San Jose itself.   Brian, meanwhile chatted amiably to the man with the gun, (I did have time to admire his damnably cool playing of the situation!) and without incident we were deposited outside our requested Hotel!  I hadn't heard the original bit when the man with the gun  (an off-duty policeman!) had asked if he could have a lift into the Town!

The Hotel Milvia, just outside the centre of San Jose was a haven of comfort, friendliness and peace and I heartily recommend it as a place to stay.  Not least because Costa Rican coffee was permanently available and the wake-up call was hundreds of parakeets screeching overhead on the way to their breakfast!    From there, travel into central San Jose was an easy, cheap bus ride and Fodor's  CR an informative and useful guide.
We were a bit disappointed with the Museo de Oro; loads of individual pieces, but all so very small!   We sampled a coffee while people-watching at the Gran Hotel with its attractive colonial façade in the main square.  A cosmopolitan mix, generally well dressed, a few mobile phones in evidence though queues more people were standing at the public pay phones.  Many pavements were being resurfaced with brick sets and the ones that weren't, were positively dangerous, but don't dream of compensation if you trip - it's not an option!   The main squares are called Parques and have trees, pigeons and the odd bits of modern architecture, including a weird green spider-like gazebo donated by a former dictator of Nicaragua!  Fine by day, but at night these Parques are apparently the haunt of drunks, prostitutes and a variety of undesirables.  Gutting fish in the Mercado Central in San JoseHighly enjoyable for the senses was the Mercado Central, San Jose's market; a warren of dark narrow passages flanked with stalls selling exotic spices, gloriously colourful flowers, smelly fish and meat, fruit, pets in cramped cages, local handicrafts and a host of other items. After that we deserved another coffee, this time at the delightful and newly decorated art deco Teatro Nacional.   The strains of music and flamenco dancing floated through as the cast rehearsed 'Carmen' for the following night.                                                           A stall of glorious flowers in the Market

We hired a car from the cheapest Car Hire firm we could find - a four-wheel drive Suzuki Sidekick (Vitara, elsewhere).  Two years old, 64,000 miles on the clock, a bit basic and only a junior 4WD when compared with the big boys!   Still, it drove OK and off we tootled on a day trip to the old capital of CR and a valley renowned for its Coffee fincas.   Cartago is much older than San Jose, but its colonial buildings suffered from repeated earthquakes and a big one in 1910 inspired the Government to move to SJ in 1923.  Interesting to see is the Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels; outside a mix of architectural styles in grey and white - until one walks inside and immediately is transported into a light, open, airy, interior.  Beautiful coloured tiles on the floor, intricately decorated wooden columns and lots of stained glass make it one of the most fascinating Church interiors I have ever seen.   From there we drove into the Orosi Valley, a verdant green mix of tropical forest and coffee plantations, beautiful but for the weather which was cloudy and threatening rain!   Despite the possibility of rain we walked around the Lankester Botanical Garden - created in 1950 by an Englishman who wanted to help preserve some of the local flora.  It has an amazing collection of about 800 orchids (mostly not in bloom in November!), bromeliads and various other epiphytes clinging to a large variety of trees.   The fern, heliconias, bamboo, torch ginger and masses of other plants encouraged a wide variety of birds, too.   We saw our first iridescent hummingbirds zipping about in the herbaceous borders and little rufous-collared Sparrows.  The University of CR now maintains the Gardens.

In geological terms, CR was the last part of the land bridge to emerge between the two Americas and as such, is quite young. One can't come to CR without wanting to see some of its amazing geological attractions.  So, on our second day we drove up and up, round and round, through field after field of cabbages and crops where the rich dark soil was steaming as it warmed in the heat of the sun, until we reached the top of the closest volcano to San Jose - Irazu.   Up at the top there were the gates into Irazu National Park and an $8 entry fee per person.  We turned round and drove all the way down again - the trouble was we couldn't see 10 feet in front of us - let alone would we be able to see across the crater!  We started to understand the meaning of 'cloud forest'

One of the other reasons for travelling around CR is to see some of the 850 species of birds that are crammed into this avian haven!  And none is more elusive or exclusive than the Resplendent Quetzal.  Our first trip out of SJ was southward between the Cordillera de Talamanca and the Osa Peninsula in quest of the Quetzal.  We drove along the InterAmerican Highway, gradually getting higher and colder, and in the middle of nowhere were stopped by a rather fierce Policeman who demanded to see our 'papers'.  I got very flustered (I think it was the sight of the revolver on his hip, just at my eye level!) and fumbled unsuccessfully through my handbag, until a short burst of clear thinking made me look in the document case!  We were shrugged on our way!  Leaving the Highway we drove down the side of the mountains on a rough road, through forest and glen, past hamlet and stream until we arrived at Alberge de Montana Sevegre, in the mist.  Thirty years ago this was primary forest and now it's a mix of farm and eco-tourist cabins.  The Alberge boasts Quetzal all year round in the surrounding epiphyte-laden forest of giant oak and laurel trees.   We settled in, bought ourselves a sweatshirt each, and organised an electric fire for our cabin - it was mid afternoon and decidedly cool!  Then, with boots, waterproof capes and binoculars set off for our first trail through primary rain forest.  And it was disappointing!   The fine mist of the cloud forest made it drippy, slippy, damp and cold with poor visibility as well!   In an hour of walking (mainly uphill) we hardly saw any birds at all - well, would you sit out in that kind of weather! - and then it started to rain properly.  We decided to walk back down the rough track and were within half a mile of the cabins when just ahead of us, sitting on a bare branch watching our approach, was a beautiful male Resplendent Quetzal!  A male resplendent Quetzal - just stunning! He wasn't at all perturbed by our presence and we had a most perfect view of both him and his 20inch tail feathers!   Sadly, no camera although the photo (above) I found is exactly as we saw him!   'Mrs' Quetzal also made a brief appearance.   Despite being wet through, cold and tired I floated down the rest of the track back to the warmish cabin!
Outside the dining room picture windows there were hummingbird feeders - and the tiny irridescent zoomers were a delight to watch.  They have such wonderful names, too:  Scintillant Hummer, Magnificent Hummer, White-bellied Mountain Gem, Steely vented Hummer, Green Violetear and even a Bananaquit!   Our other favourites at this site were the Emerald Toucanet and the Collared Trogon, both spotted on another walk to find the elusive Quetzal.

Time to go down to the sea and the endless Pacific beaches!   Everywhere, 'Finca Vende' signs  and evidence of just how back-breakingly hard it is to keep the forces of nature under control in a country where a common saying is "The only thing that doesn't grow is what you don't plant!"  Fields are bounded by 'living hedges'; just bare sticks cut from any shrub, stuck in the ground seem to sprout verdant growth in no time at all!
The first view we had of the Pacific was through drizzle at Dominical.  No sea-side spot looks its best in drizzle, and the outskirts of Dominical were no different.  Rain-filled potholes, soggy looking restaurants and a once pink-washed Hotel persuaded us to move onward.  In fact we stayed at Hacienda Baru, in a bungalow suited for six, with kitchen, lethal electric shower and no television.   It backed onto a never-ending Pacific beach and gave us a couple of 'firsts'.   A six-thirty wake-up call, a pair of Wellies and a trudge down to the sand to watch the release of a bucketful of newly hatched Olive Ridley Baby turtles being released onto the beachturtles!  They made a wonderful sight, madly paddling across the sand towards the pounding waves, oblivious to the elegant surf-skimming pelicans waiting for their tender breakfast.

 In this small 'turtle hatchery' they gather over 9000 eggs and hope to release 7500.  We all know the grim survival statistics of turtles around the world, and can only be happy that so many people are trying to help in their survival.   On the way back for breakfast, the treetops bounced and shook as a group of Chestnut mandibled Toucans foraged for their fruity breakfast.  Such delicacy in the transfer of fruit from one end of the huge beak to the throat and such obvious noisy delight in family gatherings.

Leaving Hacienda Baru we travelled up the coast towards Quepos on a road which has a rough surface, potholes the size of swimming pools but excellent birding!  Northern Jacana searched and skittered on their long legs, a Crested caracara menaced on a wooden fence, about 40 large Wood Stork flew overhead while a white Ibis gracefully picked its way through wet grass.  So engrossed were we in watching both sides of the road, I'm surprised that Brian noticed the rear wheel of the car wobbling dangerously outwards!  When he inspected it, it was only just held on by two wheel nuts, the others having sheared off somewhere back in one or other of the potholes probably!  A bit of roadside maintenance and then we literally crawled the next 20km to Quepos, checking on the wheel every two kilometres.  The car hire company promised us a new car for the following day, but we were rather stuck at the hotel, instead of being able to go to Manuel Antonio National Park for the day.  One compensation was that the hotel food was excellent and then at breakfast a troupe of tiny Titi monkeys (squirrel monkeys) came squeaking, jumping and squabbling for their free bananas.   Our new car turned up after lunch and we were able to set off to Carara Biological Reserve.  Before we went to CR I had decided that I wanted to see Scarlet Macaws.  The guidebook said to be at the Tarcoles Bridge just before dusk to see them flying over to their nighttime roost.   The Tarcoles River is wide, fairly fast flowing and home to some gigantic crocodiles.  They lay, apparently asleep, half out of the water on the muddy bank quite oblivious to the tourists above.  In the past the Bridge had got itself a very bad name as the haunt of pickpockets and armed robberies and I must admit as the dusk fell I kept hold of my bag and binoculars tight. Scarlet Macaw We did see two Scarlet Macaws fly over, but knew them not by colour but purely by  noise.  Quite a disappointment.

Our next choice was to catch a ferry from ugly Puntarena over to the sparsely populated Peninsula de Nicoya.  Another drizzly day giving only poor views of the pelicans roosting on a Reserved island.  We drove off at Paquera and followed a road leading south to Tambor.  A vast amount of the land around Tambor has been bought up by the Barcello family, a Spanish concern that has seemingly flouted local eco-laws and built a huge 'Hotel & Leisure Complex' on the edge of one of the loveliest bays in CR.  Their guests are flown in to a tiny Airport, and remain 'locked' into their sanitised and expensive glimpse of CR.  We stayed at a little B+B, in a tiny bedroom and had to make do with cold showers!!!   More wonderful birding at the mouth of the little river; Inca Doves on the sand, Curlew and Wilson's Plover, a variety of heron and in full morning light, a flight of 7 Scarlet macaws!  The local Curu Biological Reserve is trying to re-introduce these magnificent birds in the area.  A Scarlet Macaw at a nest hole

A morning visit to neighbouring Curu Reserve was delightful, two Spider monkeys joined us on the track - one, hanging on to the car aerial with prehensile tail, while urinating on the windscreen!   We saw Roseate Spoonbill, Amazon Kingfishers, a Blue -crowned Motmot and some well named Fiery-billed Aracari.  The Aracari were squabbling and fighting over the rights to the juiciest Papayas on the trees!  In Curu they were rehabilitating a baby Racoon and a young Spider monkeys.  Rocky the racoon, played with a young puppy until devilment got into him and he abandoned common sense and fiddled with all the merchandise in the shop!   The young Spider monkey spent his day copying people - walking on two legs - not at all usual for the species, but as the warden said "Monkey see - monkey do!"

Our host at Tambor was quite keen on birds and suggested a wonderful spot, down a side turning off the road to the next village.  We found the single track and despite a bit of mud, it looked passable.  Dicey bit when we wondered if the projecting rock in the road would hit the suspension or sump, but we got through.  The track went downhill through patches of muddy slippery wetness; a stream and we then started to get a bit concerned about getting back UP the track. It began to rain more heavily and we finally decided to stop just short of the river (and the best part for birds!)  If only it hadn't rained the place would have been stunning.  A shallow, wide river with beautiful green overhanging trees and shrubs, absolutely idyllic except for the mud and wet!  We decided to go back before more rain made the return uphill journey completely impossible.  The car came to a halt at a particularly gooey, muddy spot and we could see that if the left front wheel slipped into the previous drivers' rut our car would be damaged and stuck there!  It's called a 4WD, but with only road tyres and a straining 1600cc engine it's not certain we'll get through.  I got out of the car and in the pouring rain (at least it was warm!) collected stones from the stream to put in the deep rut, and with bare hands scrabbled mud to flatten the profile and actually started enjoying the feeling of smearing mud and being wet through!  A howler monkey 'howled' from not far away - was he laughing at our predicament?  Brian decided on a daredevil dash - 'make or break' slipslide through the offending stretch.  It worked! but he kept the car going  far up the hill before stopping to let a soaking wet, muddy me, back in!

Does this look like $680 of damage!We drove back to the mainland and an expensive mishap, using the Tempisque River Ferry.   Another  'Only money' episode coming up!   We were in Canas, one of those towns that you stop in purely for convenience and a meal; we got into the car, checked side mirrors, reversed … into a Mango tree.  The damage was superficial, but was to cost us dearly.
 One of the best known places in CR is Monteverde.  It is a Reserve that was started as a peaceful Quaker community in 1951 and has expanded through farming and cheese production to full eco-tourism.  We decided that we wanted to see the place for ourselves.  The road up to Monteverde is beautiful; a slow gradual ascent through verdant pastureland and forest, the hills shaped gently by weathering.  Roadside hedges are interlaced with multi coloured Impatiens and orchids; houses nestle in little groups each with some small evidence of self sufficiency.  But the surface of the road is dreadful.  Potholes, rough stones and unevenness for 40 km up and the same on the other side, going down!  How the tourist buses make it - is amazing!  There are two aspects to Monteverde; the commercial Hotels, the tour operators, the shops and restaurants aimed at tourists and then the Cloud Forest itself.   Luckily for us we met up with a delightful couple who were also staying in the same hotel and who had arranged a local tour guide for a half-day trip into the Cloud Forest.  Going around with someone who knows their biology, ecology, plants, animals and birds was such a pleasure that the four hours flew by.  We wandered slowly along trails and our young guide linked conservation ideas with ecology, the importance of understanding the interdependence of species within the forest, and birdsong with glimpses of Prong-billed Barbet and Black-faced Solitaire (sounding for all the world like a squeaky door!)   He was so committed and sincere in his work, it was a wonderful morning and he even managed to 'scope' the lower half of a Quetzal as it fluttered into the forest.  Though very lovely, cloud forests have a lot of rain and drizzle, and the next morning we set off down the mountain to some blue skies and the most famous Volcano in the country.

Arenal has to be the most handsome Volcano, sitting as it does at the end of a large man-made lake, perfectly peaked, with verdant greenness all around.  The tip is often obscured by puffy white clouds, but we saw it clearly from our B+B.   Perhaps the most impressive view though, is lying back in the thermal pools of Tabacon Resort with a drink to hand!  Imagine looking up through layer upon layer of warm water as it tumbles down through beautiful gardens, with palm trees and green forest to a powerful monster regularly spitting out red-hot boulders and clouds of ash!  Magical!  The number of hotels and B+B's has proliferated around the Arenal area at break-neck speed, and we couldn't help wondering what would happen if the daily spectacle of fire and brimstone suddenly stopped!
Back to SJ and the Car Hire people.  Being honest we tell them about the dent.  The man they sent spent ages looking at the damaged back door - phoned his superior and then promised to do all he can to make the bill as small as possible.  But of course they have your neat little signature on the VISA slip.  All he can say is "Wait until the Operations Manager has seen the damage."  We both feel an "Its only money" … coming on!  The next morning, despite yesterdays protestations about doing "his best for us" - the Americana Car Rental bloke tells us that there will be a $680 charge for the purchase, fitting and spraying of a new door…   plus, of course the Hire charges!

Leaving one of our bags at our lovely SJ Hotel we caught a long distance bus to the Caribbean side of the island.  £2.30 for a four-hour, comfortable journey and we are even dropped outside our next destination - Aviarios del Caribe.  A small wildlife Sanctuary set on the Caribbean coast, now looking after disabled and orphaned sloth.   The situation of the place is idyllic, a long varnished wooden verandah  (wood from the damage that was caused by the huge earthquake in 1991) looking out over the fresh water channel - La Estrelle River, with reeds, trees and  shrubs all around.   I immediately booked in for an early morning bird trip up the river.  Nighttime was disturbed by the resident female 3 toed sloth - Buttercup - 'calling' for a mate and the local Howler monkeys, but I'm up and ready by 6.30 the next morning.  Kali, the boatman paddles absolutely silently out into the area where the herons and egrets roost at night and I see my first Boat-billed Heron (weird!).  Along the River there are loads of Heron of all types, an Osprey perched on a tree looking for breakfast, a Least Bittern scurrying into the reeds and we watched spellbound as an Amazon Kingfisher tried to swallow a fish the same size as his own head and neck!  He did, and the fish was still wriggling  in his throat!

Buttercup, the three toed sloth, is an orphan whose mother had been killed by a car and she was taken in by Luis and Julia.  They learnt, bit by bit, about keeping sloth and have over the past eight years become good authorities.   They hope to be able to rehabilitate some of the sloth that they nurse back to health and have a succession of research students to help.  Some of the facts about the sloth are quite astounding, for example it takes them ages to climb up or down a tree and if a baby falls off its mother it is simply abandoned.  Sloth metabolism is very slow and digestion of their vegetarian diet equally so.  They defecate only once a week and slowly descend to the base of a tree to do so, then slowly climb back up again!  Further down the Caribbean coast we saw about half a dozen wild sloth in our walks.

The Caribbean coast has a reputation for being a laid back and easy going - 'Bring yo' Bong, man' kinda place - but I have to say that we didn't once get asked to share anything illegal, or even see anything druggy!  All the villages have an easygoing feel about them and we seemed to inhale calmness and peace strolling along the shoreline of Cahuita National Park.   Our last stop was at the Hotel Shawandha.  French designed and owned, known for some exotic bathroom tiling and an attempt to blend wooden chalets in with the surrounding forest.  Not quite as tidy and well-run a place as we had expected but the French chef certainly knew how to prepare and cook food!   And I did love the dawn chorus of Mealy Parrots and Montezuma Oropendolas as they foraged in the treetops at 5.30 in the morning!  I wandered out onto the track I front of the Hotel to look at birds and saw a sloth climbing slowly down from his tree.  A young CR came along the road and stopped by me, and I do believe I was propositioned by a 14-year-old!  He spoke no English, but kept showing me two fingers crossed over one another and suggesting "Playa? Black on White?"   I declined the offer!
Manzanilla is the last village on the coast, it has traditional fishing boats and just one restaurant where we sat upstairs on the balcony watching youngsters playing football on the sand and ordered Lobster!  (A whole lobster with butter, onion and tomato sauce, beans and rice cooked with coconut milk for less than £10!)
At breakfast the next morning we were watching some ants cutting leaves and trailing them back in neat lines to their nest and discussing how they all work together,   " No insurrection in the ranks, perhaps they're Quaker?"  I said,   "Well, I've heard of Quaker Oats but not Quaker Ants!"

The trip back to San Jose was uneventful, and the Hotel Milvia a lovely, welcoming place.
The Car Hire Company was still insisting on the $680 costs for a new rear door (plus $340 hiring cost) and CNN News was full of the impending chaos on roads and in Airports as 34 Million Americans travelled to join their families for Thanksgiving Weekend.  We phoned British Airways in San Jose to ask if we could change our Miami - London tickets and fly back to UK early and got provisional seats - to be confirmed on arrival in Miami.  After a lovely dinner at the Hotel, Brian went to the Hotel office to check email and we got the news that Dad was quite ill in Tenerife and also flying home early.

The rest is another story …..
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