7 December, 2009
Costa Rica 11.27.09-12.2.09 — TravelogueComments : 9 Posted in : Bars and Tasting Rooms, Bars in Costa Rica, Dining in Costa Rica, Guaro, Restaurants, Travel, Travel Guide for Costa Rica on by : The Gourmez
We have seen the rainforest, the volcanoes, the busy streets of San Jose . . . and they were fantastic.
For our full gallery of trip photos, head to yellow5labs, our photo website. For a select few and my narrative of the journey, read on!
We left Durham on Friday and flew United to Washington DC, then TACA to San Salvador and San Jose. The trip took about 8 hours in all, including layovers. TACA is a great airline; both planes had lots of legroom and one included meal on the 4-hour flight to and from San Salvador. I’m not used to free meals on planes anymore, so was surprised that we were offered one. Of course, they were nothing to write home about, but there was a yummy cookie sandwich with caramel cream. It’s all about the food, people. And the clouds as we descended. They were the first of many gorgeous views. Seriously, I dare you to count how many times I repeat gorgeous view in this travelogue.
Practical Information: United doesn’t charge for baggage if you are headed on an international journey (yippee!). Customs was simple once we landed in Costa Rica. The airline passes out the forms you need, then you’ve got just two points to get through before you can claim baggage. Lines were very short and fast for us. We exchanged dollars for colones at the airport money exchange, which takes quite a cut (they paid about 500 colones per dollar; the present rate is about 600 to 1) but I think was worth it to avoid the lines at the banks in downtown San Jose. Taxis drivers wait in line at the exit, then walk you to the booth where you pay a set rate for your location ($25 for ours – Barrio California, which is a little farther than downtown San Jose). Then we were off!
Slowly. San Jose has plenty of traffic and every time we were on the highway during this trip, there was at least one accident slowing things down. It took us about 45 minutes to get to our bed and breakfast, which is twice as long as it would take otherwise. But finally, we reached our destination.
La Gioconda is a lovely little hotel with only five rooms. There is a nice garden out front, a covered patio for eating breakfast and hanging out, a pool table, a small bar, and lots of hospitality. Our room, Cielo Azul, was huge and the shower was like a space age capsule with multiple options of jets. There’s also Shila, their German shepherd, and Berta, their cat. Breakfast was included each morning and consisted of fruit, sweet breads, toast, cereal, orange juice, coffee, eggs, a fantastic cream cheese, and pineapple and guava jams. We booked our two tours with the assistance of the front desk and owner, but our lack of Spanish made those little details, like payment, fall by the wayside! We ended up paying for both tours with our tour guide on the last day because we didn’t realize we’d never paid for the first (though secretly hoped we hadn’t and wouldn’t be charged)!
Practical Information: Missing payments bring me to the English-Spanish communication fun. Neither of us knows Spanish but we were able to do pretty well. Most Costa Ricans we came across seemed to know a little English, but not so much that any communication beyond the simple greetings, prices of items, etc., was easy. Of course, there were many people who knew English perfectly, such as Antonella, the hotel owner, and the tour guides, so that was helpful! Ordering at restaurants worked out fine, except for how we kept ending up with the wrong meals. So, it was a language adventure, but we expected that – we were traveling to a foreign country after all. This was merely our first time being in one where English is not as widely spoken.
Ben’s boss surprised us with a gift certificate to a nearby Italian place, Limoncello, when we arrived. After the meal, I decided that we needed to explore a little, even though it was dark . . . and we didn’t know Spanish . . . or the first thing about San Jose street markings beyond that there are only occasional signs. As you may imagine, I got us lost! Not helping matters was that I thought the mark that Guillermo, one of the receptionists, had placed on the map was for our hotel when it was really marking Limoncello’s location, making it so I didn’t realize we were located on the same street I wanted to explore! Oops. After an hour or so of wandering around in a large circle, we found our way back to the hotel and collapsed.
The next day was dedicated to exploring the city. As we walked down Avenida Central, the main strip, we ended up at a Family Values rally at the Plaza de La Democracia, complete with mobs of people holding white balloons and gay rights counter protesters. Ah, just like home!
I, however, was most interested in my pastry.
Yummy, cream-filled goodness! We wandered to a craft market next, and then circled around Avenida Central, taking in the pedestrian mall, The Gran Hotel, and the Teatro Nacional. First thing you need to know about San Jose is that every intersection results in a gorgeous view of the volcanic mountains that surround it.
Second thing you need to know is that every store and house is barred and often rimmed with barbed wire. This results in unattractive buildings aside from the landmarks. So, it helps to know where you are going before you get there, or you might not realize that the plain store in front of you is, in fact, an art gallery or a lovely restaurant.
This lovely restaurant was our stop for lunch and we had a typical Costa Rican platter (casada) that included dirty rice, fried plantains, various meats, and tortillas.
It was pretty good, simple food, which we would see lots more of throughout the week. I also tried a guaro sour, made with Costa Rica’s national sugar-cane based liquor, Guaro, that I liked a lot. It was similar to tequila but smoother and with a hint of anise.
The highlight of the first day was definitely the Teatro Nacional, a theater built by the Costa Rican government to foster an appreciation of the arts. It was completed in 1897. It is an ornate, beautiful building and I’m a bit disappointed that I didn’t insist we see a show! Here are some of my favorite shots of it:
We headed back to the hotel then and didn’t venture out again until dinner. We opted for a soda, which is Costa Rica’s equivalent of a local pub or bar, and ate and drank the evening away. Due to ye olde language miscommunication, we somehow ended up with Olla de Carne, a traditional beef stew, instead of a potato-based one, and fried fish instead of a fish empanada.
The food was fine, regardless, and the thick, bright stew sauce was intriguing.
Day 2 was spent on a tour with absolutely gorgeous views from the bus as we made our way to a coffee plantation, Volcan Poas, and La Paz Waterfall Gardens.
Both our tours were with Expediciones Tropicales and I thought they were really good. The guides spoke nearly the whole time we drove, in addition to giving the tours of each spot themselves, in both English and Spanish. The prices were high, but not a bad deal at all considering each included admissions prices to the parks and two meals.
We started at the Doka coffee plantation, where our guide showed us the different stages of the coffee plant’s growth and took us through the processing plant where two layers of shell are removed through soaking the beans and drying them in the sun.
The beans are then shipped out to their final destinations throughout the world, where roasting takes place, as unroasted beans last for a much longer time. We tried their Peaberry coffee and I wasn’t impressed by it – probably because we already drink Costa Rican coffee in the US, so it was nothing new! But I enjoyed seeing the process.
Next up was the Volcan Poas. On a clear day, you can see the turquoise lake in the crater but this day was not clear, nor is it usually. We glimpsed the lake for about two second after we arrived and then the clouds moved in and didn’t leave. Here’s a shot from the top of the viewing platform and the whiteness beyond is pretty much all we were able to see, though it’s still fun looking over a crater!
We then took the trail to another crater lake nearby and I nearly died on the way, due to the altitude and overheating in my sweatshirt! As someone who doesn’t usually get winded on walks, I was surprised by how hard it was for me this day! The trail views in this cloud forest were worth it, though.
We couldn’t see the other lake, either, due to the clouds. Animal-wise, we could hear some birds but didn’t see them and other than a squirrel-type creature, we didn’t see any animals. We did learn about the Poor Man’s Umbrella, which is the largest leaf in the country.
Next up were the La Paz waterfall gardens, with a gorgeous view from the top of their Peace Lodge.
We were led through many animal enclosures, starting with the aviary.
The toucans were definitely my favorites and there was one pesky one that kept brushing up against people and cut Ben off at one point. There were also parrots and plenty of other feathered friends.
Then we headed into the butterfly garden where an amazing number of them fluttered about in all stages of life. The bright blue morphos were the most striking of course –
– But I was most partial to these little black postmen with red sections.
We passed a sloth on the way to the hummingbird gardens.
There were plenty of hummers in the bushes and on the feeders.
After lunch, we went through the serpentarium with venomous snakes galore, though no pictures due to low lighting, and the cat’s lair. The ocelot could fit his paw through the fence and people actually tried to play with him – not I! I value my limbs.
There were also cougars, jaguars, and jaguarundis.
After a quick walk through the frog garden, we proceeded to the waterfalls. There are five total, but an earthquake earlier in the year had wiped out the bottom portion of the trail so only the two uppermost falls, El Templo and Magia Blanco, are accessible.
We had to backtrack on the same steep trail (around 400 stairs) to return to the Peace Lodge from the falls. More near death hiking for my lungs, but I am happy to report that I lost weight this vacation!
We were spent by the time we ended up back at La Gioconda, so we ordered in Chinese from one of the few spots that deliver on a Sunday night. Once again, we ended up with the wrong order! Somehow, balls of chicken with rice and potatoes became fried fish with coleslaw and French fries in the process, even though Antonella did the ordering and I heard her confirm the right choices! Ah, the mysteries of miscommunication.
We explored more of San Jose the next day, starting out with San Pedro, a nearby suburb to the east. Once again, the views on the walk were simply gorgeous.
The houses were more appealing here and it felt similar to older LA neighborhoods to me. San Pedro is the location of the University of Costa Rica and home to a large mall and an impressive roundabout with a fountain.
With the assistance of Ben’s GPS, we found the Calle de la Amargura, a street that is well known for its lively nightlife. During the day, it was pretty calm and we enjoyed a great lunch at one of the cafes, including some sort of beef-filled wrap with a creamy fruit sauce. It was my favorite dish of the trip but I forgot to take a picture.
We then strolled through some of downtown San Jose’s many parks.
We came across the Edificio Metalico on the way, a pink building made entirely of metal, and the Casa Amarilla, a former presidential residence.
We continued down Avenida 3 until we got close to the pedestrian mall and crossed the two blocks toward it, stumbling over the central post office, Edificio Correos, in the process. It’s a beautiful building.
Our souvenir-shopping destination was the Mercado Central, San Jose’s indoor central market that spans a city block. Lots of fish, grains, and vegetables, in addition to souvenir stores are located inside. I had a yummy glass of fresh fruit punch, a Costa Rican staple made with pineapple, papaya, and many more tropical juices.
We then met up with my cousin, Kelly, and her husband Adam, for dinner, who had randomly chosen the same time to visit the country as we had. We ate at Gran Bingo Multi Color, a casino on Avenida Central that came complete with blue lighting and light up menus.
We opted to split a platter between the four of us and were served a huge pile of various fried meats with some beans, tomatoes, and tortillas. The best of these offerings was essentially a corndog. I still don’t think I’ve recovered from eating that much meat! It was overwhelming. We then continued down the avenida and spent a while at Manolo’s Churrereia, where I had a dulce de leche filled churro that was delicious and an extremely sour margarita that was not. We were then serenaded by a local man, much to Kelly’s embarrassment and Adam’s delight. Adam spent the rest of the evening fascinated by the street vendors selling bootleg DVDs and other wares on garbage bags in the middle of the pedestrian mall. Every five minutes, it seemed, they would snatch up their bags, hiding all their goods, and hold them just as though they were regular old trash bags or they would stuff them into backpacks. A few minutes later, they would set up store again. Adam spoke with someone who explained that they did this whenever the municipal police cars came by. The other police apparently don’t care, because they were standing around the whole time, whether the garbage bags were opened or not. It was highly entertaining and, I assume, all part of the job!
We spent our final day on a tour to Volcan Arenal, Costa Rica’s most active volcano, and the Tabacon Hot Springs. Most of the day was spent on the bus, travelling the three hours to get there, but the tour guide kept us interested with information about the different cities and regions we passed through including their types of climate and agricultural products. Did you know that microchips are Costa Rica’s #1 product? Well, now you do. Again, the views from the bus were gorgeous.
We stopped briefly at an oxcart factory, where people were assembling the bright, detailed oxcarts traditionally used to transport coffee and sugarcane across the country (not any longer).
As we got closer to Arenal, the views of it and its neighboring mountains got better and better. Arenal was always shrouded in fog, but apparently, the amount we could see was more than most people do.
We arrived at Tabacon, a five-star resort, and spent a few hours soaking in their fantastic hot springs, with no smell of sulfur. It was gorgeous with lots of plant life, a few white-nosed coatis, lizards, and many lovely, hidden soaking pools.
We then headed to a few viewpoints, hoping to see some of Arenal’s lava flows and flying rocks, but alas, it was too cloudy. The scenery was still fantastic, though.
Then we journeyed back to San Jose, staring out at the black night or sleeping for the three hour trip back.
We flew back home the next day, flying TACA to San Salvador, then Washington DC, and United to RDU.
Practical Information: You need to pay a $26 exit fee first thing at the airport. There are ATMS to the left of the counter where you pay, if you want to avoid using a credit card and paying a cash advance fee for it. Make sure you keep your receipt for checking in with your airline and making it through security. Also, Washington Dulles airport’s customs, passport checks, and security are a pain late at night! Even with a two hour layover, we barely made it to our domestic flight on time and frankly, I’m still surprised our luggage did!
We arrived back home around midnight, to be greeted by a loudly purring and meowing kitten at the door. A great end to any vacation.
I really enjoyed Costa Rica. San Jose is a typical big city, with lots of pollution, traffic, and danger of crime, but we had no problems other than a few insistent beggars and everyone we spoke to was really nice, even a local woman who wanted to warn us that our nice camera might be stolen so badly, that she actually called a friend by cellphone to tell her what to say in English. We ignored the warning anyhow, but what a nice thing to do! Besides the usual cons of a big city, though, I liked its touristy sights, masses of people, and enjoyed walking around.
The real draw to Costa Rica, of course, is the beauty of the countryside, including rainforests, volcanoes, coffee plantations, bananas, and everything else. I can definitely see us coming back again to check out the Caribbean and Pacific coasts and the forests of the South. If only vacations were limitless!
Please feel free to ask any questions you have about the trip or what to expect in Costa Rica below and I will try to answer them!