Friday, 3 June 2011

A day trip to Cartago - 22/05/2011

Our last day in Costa Rica was to be spent in the town of Cartago - previously the capital city and situated at the base of the Irazu volcano.  A drive into the hills, interesting ruins and a magnificent cathedral were something we were looking forward to.  At a mere 40 minutes outside San Jose, we were under no time pressure.

We caught a tico bus in San Jose (after spending a bit of time buying gifts at a local market), and were soon winding our way south-east on the Pan-American Highway.  Cartago is higher than San Jose, and at 1435m has a cooler climate, which was noticable once we stepped off the bus.

The town itself was severely damaged in a series of earthquakes between 1822 and 1910, and one of the first stops we made was the ruins of the Santiago Apóstol church.  The town square is situated next to these ruins, and a gorgeous garden has been planted within the roofless walls of this once great building. A sobering reminder of the great forces of nature that can reduce human structures to rubble in seconds.

Santiago Apóstol ruins...
A garden amongst the ruins...
Continuing our walk, we headed east towards the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles - a huge white cathedral built in 1639.  This too was seriously damaged by an earthquake, but has since been beautifully restored.  The cathedral has a fascinating history, having been consecrated to a small black stone statue of the virgin Mary.  Standing outside the main entrance, it was odd to see lottery ticket sellers doing business with people just leaving the Sunday service.

Basilica de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles
Crowds leaving the Sunday service...
By this time we'd worked up an appetite, so we headed for a local pizza restaurant (not being in the mood for beans and rice).  By the time we'd walked out, storm clouds were threatening, so we decided it was time to head to the bus station.  Soon the rain started bucketing down in true tropical fashion, and lasted the whole trip back to San Jose.  We'd timed our visit to Costa Rica just right - the rainy season was about to begin in earnest.

Until next time....

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

A day trip to Atenas - 19/05/2011

Our trip back to San Jose from Monteverde on Monday was generally unremarkable (apart from the gorgeous views as we descended from Monteverde) and around 4 hours later we arrived back on the yellow brick road of Kap's Place. We spent the next couple of days resting, blogging and catching up with Gary on his recent trip to Panama.

We had heard from a number of people that one of the most pleasant areas to live in Costa Rica is a small town called Atenas.  In the 90's this place was brought into the spotlight by National Geographic magazine as having "the best climate in the world" for humans to live, with the balance of temperature and humidity bieng "just right".  At around an hour and a quarter outside San Jose, we decided a local bus ride would be the way to go.  So on Thursday 19th we trundled off to the bus station known as the "Coca-Cola Bus Station", which as the name implies, was built on the site of an old Coke factory. Keeping our eyes peeled for the notorious pickpockets, we soon found our bus to Atenas and hopped aboard.

Hard at work...
The ride took us north-west out of San Jose, on the Pan-American highway that we'd been on a few times already and soon the chaotic city streets gave way to lush green hills.  We turned off to the west and wound our way through picturesque valleys and steep hairpin bends until Atenas announced itself with the "Monument to the Oxcart Driver" just outside the town.  Atenas was originally built on the historic "camino de carretas" (oxcart trail) which was used to transport coffee.

Planning to take over the world....
Stepping off the bus revealed a surprising level of humidity, despite reports to the contrary.  We spent some time walking around the small town, which is built in typical fashion around a central park.  We had the obligatory lunch of beans and rice at a soda overlooking the park, and continued on until we came across an estate agent.  An enlightening chat with Dayana the realtor revealed how expensive properties in the area are - mainly due to the influx of "gringos" from the USA over the years.  Apparently the hills surrounding the town are just high enough to take the edge off the heat and humidity - hence the population of expats.

Out to lunch...
A coffee in another little streetside cafe and soon it was time to catch our return bus to San Jose. Back on the Pan-American highway the traffic quickly became horrendous - a collision between a motorcycle and a Mack truck being the cause. Another sobering reminder of the gung-ho attitude of drivers in Costa Rica.

Hasta luego...

Sunday, 29 May 2011

La Fortuna to Monteverde 16/05/2011

The shuttle bus arrived for us on Monday morning at 08h00, and off we set for Monteverde.  This cattle and dairy farming area was settled during the Korean war by a group of Quakers from the United States, who opposed the draft and wanted to lead a simpler life.  It is also well known for it's magnificent cloud forests.

Although the shorter route would have been a jeep-boat-jeep ride across Lake Arenal, we had already paid for our shuttle ticket, so off we trundled (read: rocketed), retracing our route north-west around the perimeter of the lake.  Our driver was particularly "motivated" that day, and we became quite familiar with the grille shapes of oncoming Mack and International trucks.

Macaws at the staging post
We arrived at the staging post a couple of hours later, where we had a brief lunch and then swapped buses for the climb up the mountains into the cloud forests of Monteverde.  After turning off the Pan-American Highway, we headed for the small town of Juntas, after which the climb started in earnest.  The "blacktop" road soon gave way to gravel, and the incline rapidly increased.  Winding our way up, a magnificent view opened up, and each twist in the road revealed a new vista.  Despite the view, our numb backsides were thankful for the relief of sighting the small town of Santa Elena 2 hours later.

More turtles...
Our hotel was a small backpackers lodge called the Pension Santa Elena, with the now familiar eclectic feel of a traveller's rest.  A maze of passages led us to our room, again very basic but sufficient for our needs.  As we planned to stay for only a single night, we thought we'd take advantage of the rest of the afternoon and explore the town.  A large spicy pizza was followed by a walk to the nearby snakepark where we had a very enlightening introduction to the snakes (and spiders) of Costa Rica.  All I can say is that when you walk in the jungle here, you need to keep your eyes WIDE open for these guys...


Coral snake
The following day would be another death-defying bus ride back to San Jose...

Hasta luego....

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Uvita to La Fortuna - 12/05/2011 to 16/05/2011

Our time in Uvita had drawn to a close - we said our goodbyes to the great folks that run the place - Tra and Elizabeth, and boarded our shuttle bus to La Fortuna.  We had decided to visit La Fortuna for a number of reasons - it's in the northern region of the country and is built in the eastern shadow of one of the famous volcanoes of Costa Rica - Arenal Volcano.  On the western side of the volcano is a man-made lake (Lake Arenal) that serves as a source of water for a major hydroelectric scheme, as well as a great place for windsurfing.

The trip to La Fortuna took around 8 hours - even with a typical tico driver behind the wheel!  Just in case you haven't heard, Costa Rica is known for being a dangerous place to drive.  The normally gentle people morph into demons and drive like they're being chased by the hounds of hell.  Overtaking on blind rises and corners are the order of the day, and seeing a huge Mack truck bearing down on you can be slightly nerve-wracking.  The whole of Costa Rica is pretty much hills and mountains, so getting anywhere can take a lot of time.

Lake Arenal from the western side
More of Lake Arenal
The north-western side of Costa Rica is a lot drier and less forested than other areas, and as we travelled inland from Puntaneras towards Arenal we noticed cattle ranches becoming prevalent.  Then as we crested the hills on the western side of Lake Arenal, we were provided with a spectacular view of the lake with the volcano being clearly visible on the eastern side.  As we descended towards the lake, the vegetation became thick forest again, and we passed numerous tourist lodges as we wound around its northern edge.  Eventually we crossed the dam wall, and the volcano loomed up ahead of us.  As we passed around the eastern side of the volcano, the town came into view, and soon we were in the bustling tourist town of La Fortuna.

Arenal volcano
Arenal volcano from the road
We hadn't booked a hotel, so we alighted at the main shuttle drop-off point, and walked around until we found a great little hotel called Pepito's Place.  Great value for money, very clean and modern, but the lack of self-catering facilities meant that we would have to eat out for most of our meals.

We decided that we'd like to see some wildlife up close, so we arranged through the hotel to go on a riverboat cruise the next day.  The cruise would take place within a nature conservancy called
Silvestre Caño Negro, close to the Nicaraguan border.  So at 07h30 the next day, we were picked up by a small bus and headed out towards the reserve.  Along the way we stopped for a coffee break at a roadside restaurant, where we were treated to the sight of huge iguanas living in the nearby trees beside a river.  Being able to see these huge lizards up close gave us a taste of what was to come.

More iguanas!
After a 2 hour drive, we finally arrived at the reserve and had a quick snack before boarding the boat.  Within minutes of being on the river, the guide pointed out some sleeping long-nosed bats on a riverside tree.  Soon after that we spotted a sloth quietly munching its way around the top of another tree, which was followed by the sighting of camans (related to crocodiles), "slider turtles", numerous bird species, spider monkeys and howler monkeys.  What an amazing treat to see these wonderful animals in the wild instead of a zoo.  We returned to the riverside lodge where we had a delicious lunch of (you guessed it) chicken, beans and rice.

The riverboat
The river
A caman
Spider monkeys
The following few days were spent exploring the town (we considered hiring some quad bikes but the tourist rates are steep), doing some shopping and generally eating too much.  One evening we were sitting in our room doing some reading when the floor started rocking from side to side.  After a moment of puzzlement we realised - earthquake!  It turned out that the epicentre was near San Jose, hundreds of kilometers away.  Watching the news was sobering - the capital city was rocked by a 5.8 on the richter scale.

Our time in La Fortuna was drawing to a close, so after perusing the map we decided that our next stop would be the mountain town of Monteverde.  And so we booked our ticket for another early morning bus ride.

Hasta luego..

A finca in the forest - Uvita to San Isidro 09/05/2011 to 11/05/2011

After a few days in the heat and humidity of Uvita, we decided to travel light and take some time to explore a town called San Isidro up in the cooler hills.  We packed our smaller daypacks with some overnight gear (leaving our heavier bags at Tucan Hotel for safekeeping) and at 07h00 on Monday 9th we climbed aboard the "tico" bus (the local transport) at a nearby stop.

The bus meandered its way north along the coast, stopping regularly (sometimes randomly on blind corners and rises) to pick people up, all of them locals on their way to work or school.  We immediately noticed the friendliness of the local people - everybody seemed to know everybody else; the driver exchanged gossip and laughs with kids and adults alike.

Bustling streets of San Isidro

The main church in San Isidro
At Dominical the road then veered inland and we started to climb the forest-clad hills up a narrow, winding road.  At least the state of the road was good - in the rainy season this climb must be treacherous.  Occasionally we would see a tourist hotel or lodge, but mostly it was the tenacious houses of the ticos that were perched on the hillsides amongst the trees.  On and up we climbed, until about 2 hours later the terrain flattened out and we entered the town of San Isidro.  This town is situated on the Pan-American Highway and mainly serves the farming communities in the surrounding hills.  The temperature here is cooler, but the most noticable thing is the difference in humidity to where we'd just come from.  We found our hotel to be very basic and bland and not worth a mention, but it would serve it's purpose for the following few days.

The hills around San Isidro

The next day we ate a breakfast of beans, rice and eggs (a staple in Costa Rica) and walked around the busy town, passing numerous "sodas" (small tico restaurants) and a large farmers market selling meat, fish, poultry and fresh produce.  We were also on the lookout for estate agents to try and get a feel for the type and cost of property in the region.  Later that day we received an email from an agent to inform us that a farm was available to view about 45 minutes drive from the city, and so we arranged to see it the next day.

A cabin in the forest

A river runs through it...
Fortunately for us the owner of the farm (an American from Texas by the name of Nancy), picked us up from our hotel, and drove us out and up another winding dirt road in to the hills close to the Chirripo National Park.  We arrived to find a small forested plot with a recently renovated wooden house on stilts, and 2 more cabins further up the hill.  A river ran across the bottom of the property and 4 tilapia ponds were scattered amongst the trees.  A gorgeous property, with great potential to live self-sustainably, yet possibly overpriced.  We started to appreciate what your money can buy you in this fascinating country.

Later that afternoon we returned to San Isidro in time to eat a late lunch and then catch the tico bus back down the mountains to Uvita.  Stepping off in Uvita again we were hit by the humidity, so off to the supermarcado we went, ice-cold beers on our mind....

Until next time

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Uvita - Some Like it Hot... 06/05/2011 to 08/05/2011

Airconditioning in our room at Tucan Hotel was a godsend - the humidity continued to rise during our first night, and was at 70% at its peak.  At that level, sweat was not evaporating and all that could be done was to increase the cold beer intake!

We awoke the next day with a mission in mind - to visit a waterfall that was recommended to see, about a kilometer up the track into the hills.  By the time we had ascended the steep road to where the path down to the waterfall began, we were soaked in sweat.  Then down along the wet path we went, under lianas and stepping carefully over leafcutter ants, the thickness of the jungle quickly enveloping us.  Although this path is well-used and popular with tourists and locals alike, it gave us an idea of what the untouched jungle further up the slopes of the surrounding hills must be like.  The waterfall and river at the bottom was beautiful, exotic birds were calling in the trees and flashes of vivid colour appeared and then quickly disappeared again behind the lush leaves.

The following day was spent relaxing and reading, with rain falling in bursts as the hotel owners prepared for a barbeque that night.  Evening fell to the smell of cooking meat, and by the time it was cooked, an ensemble of expat musicians had set up their gear for an evening of great entertainment.  Many cold beers and hours of great music abruptly ended when the power went down - a common occurrence in a country with regular storms and masses of rain.

The following Sunday was spent relaxing, and in the late afternoon we took a long walk to find the beach, which was a few kilometers along another dirt track towards a surfing town near the Balleno Marina National Park.  By the time we got there the rain was threatening and it was getting late, so we decided not to pay the entrance fee and turn back.  By the time we returned to the hotel, we were rain-soaked (but still sweating!) and the only cure was more cold beer...

Hasta luego....

San Jose to Uvita - 05/05/2011

After a couple of days spent in San Jose recovering from jet-lag and exploring the bustling city, we settled on the small Pacific coast town of Uvita as our next stop.  Having been warned about the perils of driving on Costa Rican roads (the tico drivers being more hazardous than the road conditions themselves) we decided to buy a 2 week unlimited bus ticket that would allow us to travel around with less stress (as well as being cheaper - car hire here can be prohibitively expensive).

Road improvement
A taste of the jungle
We left at 07h00 on a Thursday morning, and soon we were leaving the city on the winding, hilly roads west through Alujuela, Herradura and down to Jaco on the coast.  The small, airconditioned minibus stopped near Jaco where we stepped out for a break, totally unprepared for the wall of humidity and heat that hit us!  The hills beyond the small tourist town (very popular with surfers) were blanketed in thick jungle and mist - this was the type of landscape we had come to see!

Pacific views

We continued along the coast road towards Uvita, crossing wide rivers with views of the Pacific, the hills and jungle growing higher and thicker.  Finally we arrived at our destination - the Tucan Hotel - on a little side track off the main road.  This place is a great backpackers lodge with a very friendly atmosphere, ambient music, hammocks everywhere and a general chilled-out vibe.  This was to be our home from home for the next few days, and we were to get our first taste of real jungle.

The Tucan Hotel - chilled out to the max
Wall murals
Hasta la próxima vez...

Saturday, 7 May 2011

San Jose

After a long and tiring journey, we finally made it to Costa Rica!  Our uneventful flight from the UK was almost 9 hours, and we arrived in Atlanta having crossed 7 time zones.  We had a further 4 hour wait for our next flight into San Jose (Costa Rica), which was spent sampling some Georgian beer.  After handing over a ludicrous amount of money for the beer, we finally boarded the flight to San Jose.  The sun set as we flew, and jet lag started to take its toll.

Arrival in San Jose in the evening was an interesting affair, as we had to find our transfer fom the airport to the hotel amidst a flurry of taxi drivers vying for our business.  Unregistered taxis are known for trying any trick in the book to get business.  If you make the mistake of responding to unsolicited offers by an unmarked taxi, such as divulging which hotel you're staying in, the response might be "your hotel has burnt down - I will take you to the sister hotel".  You'll end up somewhere dodgy, where the owner gives kickbacks to these guys for bringing in  business.  In the end though our guy found us and we made it to the hotel without incident.

The national theatre in the city centre
Our hotel ("Kap's Place") was/is an eclectic, friendly place in downtown San Jose, with an open plan and communal kitchen, and we quickly made friends with some interesting people, including a guy from Wisconsin who entertained us with stories of his adventures in C.R.  The city itself is bustling, and driving is not for the faint-hearted.  Just watch your belongings like a hawk (pickpockets are rife)!

Kap's Place - reception

A sample of the local flora
A couple of days in San Jose recovering from jet lag allowed us to plan the next step on our journey.  Watch this space!

Until then