Costa Rica was a late addition to our travel plans, a recommendation by friends Paul and Rick. Our US electronic visa was only good for 90 days and with committed house sits through to February we needed 172 days. So after 80 odd days we were left with no option but to leave and hope that we would be able to get back in for another 90 days without too much fuss.
We were due to land in San Jose just after 2.00am and needed to get to Hostel Bekuo before reception closed at 3.00am. A slight hiccup on the dates (not me this time) led to a frantic phone call as we boarded the flight. Last minute accommodation for the first night was bunk beds in a mixed dorm, Julie’s first experience of dorm life. We tiptoed in trying not to wake the other guests only to have the receptionist flick the light on.
A short 10-minute walk from the hostel saw us in the centre of an ordinary looking capital city. We wandered through a couple of small parks before finding Cafe Rojo, a vegetarian oasis. The following day, a Saturday, saw the streets jam-packed with market stalls. It felt like the whole city was crammed into three or four streets. A sea of bodies picking through the plastic crap and knick-knacks.
We spent two of our three weeks in the small beach town of Puerto Viejo, a five-hour bus ride from San Jose. It felt kind of weird to be back on a long distance bus. Puerto Viejo is on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, towards the Panama border. Just before the town is Playa Negro where we spent the first week. A long thin black sandy beach with a splattering of accommodation.
Owned by an Italian, Casitas Las Flores, is a cute little setup of four bungalows or casitas. Managed by a gregarious Canadian couple, Shevonne and Joe, it has a friendly vibe and a pretty jungle garden. The beach just a 5-minute stroll and the town, a 10-minute bike ride.
Being close to the jungle you have to expect the odd visitor or two. One night Julie came back from the bathroom to find a brick sized cricket on the edge of her pillow. Heavens know what would have happened if it had landed on her head. We also found ourselves surround by ants one morning. Thinking quickly we put down a barrier of water to stop the advance. It worked!
Just up the beach is Banana Azul, a small hotel with a handkerchief sized swimming pool. We spent a couple of lazy afternoons on the beach sipping cocktails. The sea is wonderfully warm but can be very rough. There are several rips and just 2 years ago a Canadian drowned right outside the hotel. Drownings are the second most common cause of death in this beautiful paradise.
Around the corner from the hotel was Julie’s new favourite yoga centre. It’s here that she met Alison, a Canadian who recently gave up teaching to travel. The ladies hitting it off straight away.
The nearby Jaguar Rescue Centre was the highlight of our whole trip. Despite its name, there are no jaguars. Set up in 2008 by two Spanish biologists, the centre’s main focus is on rehabilitation and reintroduction of rescued wildlife. During our guided tour we saw sloths, howler monkeys, owls, a baby toucan, an anteater, hourglass frogs, red eyed tree frog, snakes, various macaws, spectacled caymans, a baby racoon playing, an ocelot, and a jaguarundi. We were also fortunate to witness a previously released female howler monkey come down from the trees to show off her baby to her ‘human mum’ whilst the rest of the troop patiently waited nearby.
For the second week, we moved south to Angler's Lair, the home of Janet, and Nick. We had the downstairs space with sides open to a lush jungle garden complete with resident sloth, and a bedroom that’s like a bat cave. We weren’t surprised to share the outdoor shower with the tiniest of frogs. Who needs a rooster alarm clock when you have howler monkeys making their thunderous calls at five in the morning? Nick and Janet’s dog, Zuri, was the size of a small horse and would often spend the day downstairs with us. We also had a troop of capuchin monkeys pay a visit and hang out just feet from the house.
Nick and Janet invited us to join them on a trip to The ARA Project, a green macaw rehabilitation and release centre. On the dirt road up to the centre, we saw the biggest spider either of us had ever seen. In typically fisherman style the spider gets bigger each time we talk about it, but it was at least the size of a softball. The centre is manned by one full-time project manager and several volunteers. These amazing birds had been hunted to the edge of extinction in the region. The young often finding themselves caged for life in some rich Costa Rican home. Well worth a visit.
Julie would bike 30 minute to yoga catching up with Alison on-route. The return journey would require a pit stop at CariBeans, a small cafe serving great smoothies. They also run a chocolate making tour and have yummy samples. It’s here that yours truly went over the handlebars of the push bike in front of the crowded cafe. A couple of days later the pain in my ribs was almost unbearable.
We discovered Alice’s, a small ice cream parlour. A run down looking building that has the atmosphere of a morgue but serves incredibly tasty homemade ice cream. A lick of paint would do no end of good for this little treasure, but we don’t think the American owners are too bothered. Also close by, Pita Bonita, a great little restaurant serving wonderful kebabs, pita bread and hummus. The owner swinging in his hammock smoking a joint. Life on the Caribbean coast is a little laid back to say the least. We also ate at a ‘soda’, an open sided family run street cafe as well as Christian's Caribbean street cart.
Unlike the northern end of town the beaches on the southern side are all golden sands straight from the tourist brochure. Still, the sea can be treacherous especially after a storm.
For the last part of our trip, we headed back to San Jose to pick up a bus to Monteverde. The adventure capital of Costa Rica, where you can zip line, bungy jump and jungle trek. We stayed at Sleepers Sleep Cheaper Hostel. Another great little find by Julie.
The zip lining was great fun even for those of us a little fearful of heights, that's me. With 16 lines, ranging from 100 metres to one kilometre long we soared through the mist covered treetops. On the longer lines, we would get to tandem up and zoom along together. By the end, you could just see our smiling faces through the mud splatters.
The night walk at Refugio de Vida Silvestre was a big disappointment. The lack of wildlife wasn’t the issue. Zero organisation and lacklustre attitude of our guide were the big issues. The trek seemed to take place in somebody’s over-sized garden. With groups of 10-20 people tramping around talking loudly, it’s a wonder we saw anything at all. We did see a snake, millions of leaf cutter ants, ilingo (cross between a raccoon and possum) and one sloth that was sadly hounded paparazzi style.
The following day we were up early for a day hike at Reserva Biologica Bosque Nuboso. Our guide, Elvin, was everything the previous night’s guide wasn’t. Very knowledgeable and passionate about flora and fauna. The guides worked together to point out the various wildlife. With the aid of Elvin’s telescope, we managed to see the elusive and rare quetzal bird and a hawk. Julie the ace wildlife tracker spotted an agouti hiding away just off the footpath. Back at the visitors centre there is a feeding area for hummingbirds. Hundreds of these amazing colourful speedsters zoom around your head jumping from feeder to feeder. Laying in wait in a tree was a striped palm pit viper.
So that was our unplanned visit to Costa Rica. Hot, humid and stunning. This is the place to come if you want laid back beach life and amazing wildlife. Don’t stay in San Jose for more than a day. The real magic of Costa Rica is found along the coast and in the rainforests. We didn’t get to try the Pacific coast, but we understand it’s more built up and commercial than the Caribbean side.