Pura vida! Welcome to Costa Rica, amazing home of rainforests, volcanoes, beaches, big cities, and tiny hamlets. The people here are warm and friendly, and there is enough adventure for everyone. The culture is inviting, the scenery magnificent, and the weather is just right. This is a “green” country. The people, mainly a blend of Spanish and Indians, are called Ticans. The language is Spanish, although many people speak English. “Pura vida” is the Tican way of saying “Enjoy life!”
While familiar in many ways, the culture of Costa Rica has enough unknown aspects to be intriguing. Driving from the airport to our hotel in San Jose, we saw a cow grazing by the overpass and a horse trotting along the road.
We spent the first day at the Gran Hotel, luxurious 1930s style lodging. It’s the only hotel in the country deemed historic. During lunch and dinner, a piano concert was in progress. Very chic! Our breakfast was typical Tican: beans, rice, chorizo and cheese, with strong coffee. The staff was very friendly and helpful. The maître d’, Rudolpho, was especially kind. We visited the zoo, the Musee Nacional, and a Butterfly Garden. While almost everyone we met was warm and friendly, hang onto your purse and camera. Theft can be a problem. An open air Mercado, or market, has clothing, books, souvenirs, purses, and much, much more. Great shopping! We chose Nuestre Tierra for lunch. Lunch was cerviche, a delicious mixture of shrimp and fish. Again, we were met with warmth by the staff. After an afternoon of wandering, dinner at the hotel was Robespierre, a wonderfully tender steak dish flavored with rosemary, thyme, and sage.
Cars were permitted to drive only on alternate days, depending on the last digit of the plate, odd or even. This reduces traffic and air pollution. We didn’t need the car, since we walked everywhere! Stay in the areas there are people, and don’t wander into the less populated neighborhoods to avoid any trouble. The city of San Jose is vibrant, but also crowded. Most of the shops are completely open on the street side. Shopping is diverse, much like one finds in any big city. Throughout the city are cow sculptures: dancing cows, chess cows, pink cows. It’s called the Cow Parade. It’s very whimsical!
We visited the small National Theater Museum, to uncover the history of Costa Rica. The early people wore beautiful gold ornaments. We saw exhibits on native animals and much more. The plaza was great for people watching and feeding the pigeons. Everywhere are fresh produce stands and small kiosks selling magazines, toys, snacks, and the like. It makes a very colorful city scene! Parks provide green space and quiet oasises. The mountains are always in view. We wandered over to the zoo, where alligators, tropical birds, big cats, monkeys, snakes and flowering plants in vivid colors engrossed us. Ponds and streams created a natural habitat.
Spanish influence is evident in the ornate wrought iron and the decorative wood. At the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica, we discovered more about this beautiful nation. There are dioramas of early natives, 16th century Spanish cannons, burial customs, pottery, native animal exhibits, colonial furniture, displays highlighting the coffee and sugar industries, and the painted oxcarts that are part of the culture.
After a breakfast of fried yucca and sausage in tomato sauce, which was very tasty, we left the city for the country, driving along the two lane highway with hundreds of other cars. At one of the sodas, or snack bars, we stopped for lunch. It was next to a tranquil river and was very pleasant. Most sodas are open on the sides, to catch the breeze. We enjoyed the ride, seeing the mountains, forests, and tiny villages. Each one has a church, school, soccer field, and soda. We stopped at the Do It Center, a Tican version of Lowe’s or Home Depot. Checking it out was fun! There were kid’s toys, cookware, and appliances. It’s a nonprofit community organization. Our drive took us to the Pacific beach, at Playa Hermosa to the hotel, El Valero. Our hotel had a pool, private beach, and open air dining. It was the opposite of San Jose, being very small and quiet. It is a paradise! A small animal made some interesting scribble designs in the sand! We swam in the warm water and watched the brilliant red sunset. Since it is near the equator, it was dark by 7:00. The staff, once again, was very pleasant. Dinner was delicious, a Chateaubriand. It’s made with beef, mustard, mushrooms, and sherry. Our room was pleasant, and a porch catches the ocean breezes.
Another hearty Tican breakfast of tortilla, cheese, beans and rice with strong coffee helped us start our day. We spent the morning snorkeling and swimming. We were virtually alone on the beach! We saw some very pretty fish and found some unusual shells. The water was very clear and warm. What a great way to start the day! We were curious about Play del Coco, a seaside resort not far away. A short drive brought us to a colorful and sleepy little town. We shopped at the Mercado (shoes, dresses, masks, CDs, etc), and had a cool drink in the secret garden of a soda. One of the pubs was called The Louisiana Restaurant and Bar. Our Lady of Mt. Carmel is the Catholic Church in town. It’s open to the public, is a very pretty church, and a good place to have a quiet moment. We enjoyed our long stroll on the beach. On the way back, we shopped at a supermarket, which was much smaller than an American supermarket, but had Costa Rican foods and so was most interesting.
Our dinner was tapas at Ginger near the beach: summer rolls, salmon caprese, Azteca soup, and Ahi Tuna. It was all delightful! We sampled the native liquor, guaro. It’s from sugar cane, very popular with Ticans. It was very sweet, and we didn’t care for the taste, although in a mojito, it was better. A moonlight beach walk, and it was time to turn in for the night. Tomorrow I dive!
Today was exciting, because I went diving! Marine wildlife was abundant! We say many varieties of fish and sea turtles. The water was clear; the guides knew their sites. I’d love to do more on another trip! This was my first Pacific dive. Greg sat on the deck and did sightseeing. Afterward, we drove over to Playa Panama on the winding road, which consisted of a small hotel and a beach. Great for really getting away! We arrived back at our hotel to find the electricity out. Apparently, this happens often and it’s anybody’s guess as to when it returns. We all managed, and tonight was the hotel BBQ. The food was delicious, of course. There were many people from the community who came in, and we met some Americans who now live in Playa Hermosa. We had some interesting conversations! We joked with the bartender! The day was a good one! We really like Coast Rica!
Now that we know the beach, we want to get acquainted with a volcano! Mt. Arenal is an active volcano in central Costa Rica. Roads were twisting, narrow, hilly, and gave us beautiful views! We took photos, of course! We stopped at a combination German bakery/café/indigenous craft shop! German food in a Central American country was a twist. While we were eating our bratwursts, a man on horseback came trotting up the street, and then back again. We don’t see that in Florida towns! We browsed the little market and then continued on our way. Lake Arenal is breathtaking! We noticed that the wildflowers are a combination of tropical and ones we grow at home, making it quite exotic. We stopped for coffee at a small café overlooking the lake. A security gate at the entrance reminded us that there is a crime problem if we aren’t careful. The trip to Arenal Park took us 6 hours, due to roads being unpaved and our stops. We watched a monkey run across the road. We spent the night at Mt. Arenal Observatory Lodge, with a clear view of the volcano! We heard and felt the rumblings, and after dark, we watched the red, glowing lava flow down the mountain! It was an awesome experience! How often can you sit in bed and watch a volcano! The park has hiking, windsurfing, fishing, biking, and more. We hiked in the rainforest, an exhilarating experience! When we reached a waterfall, we splashed in the pool to cool off. Everywhere we saw hummingbirds and butterflies! Two specialty drinks are offered at the bar, both of them flaming in honor of the volcano! Tomorrow we go rafting!
The rafting adventure was magnificent! We ran on three rivers with capable guides. Our guide, Tony, caught an attractive, though poisonous, tiny blue jean frog to show us. We bobbed, leaped and flew down the waters. After the elating raft trip, we had our tasty lunch with our group at a Tican steakhouse. A sloth hanging in the tree got our attention. A quick tour of the charming town of La Fortuna let us appreciate the culture of Costa Rica, especially the relaxed pace of life and the appreciation for education in this country. We like the colors, the food, the music, the friendliness.
Santa Elena is a mountain town, reached by a single very narrow, unpaved, winding road. There are potholes, no guard rails, and a creek ran across the road at one spot. It was dark on the way. I didn’t know if we would make it to the top. However, Santa Elena is worth all that! It is a splendid place to visit! We stayed at the Hotel Finca Valverde’s. Once we followed the porter up a long and snaking path, we were able to settle into our hotel room in the midst of the rainforest.
We sat on the porch having coffee and watching the kinkajous, toucans, and other tropical birds. After breakfast, there was the Orchid Garden. It was heavenly! So many species! Colors, sizes, and shapes varied. There was Chunches, a cafe/bookstore/laundry. It’s a great place with a large selection of books and plenty of food choices! It was here we met Cindye, a Texan who loves living here, and knows where to find anything! There was the Serpentarium. It was full of snakes and lizards of all kinds. There was the Coffee/Sugar Cane Plantation Tour. We rode in an oxcart and made candy at the end of the tour to take home. How often do we get to do that! So much to do in one day! There were hotels, restaurants, shops all with a small town flavor. The town is very small, so walking is the best way to get around. At the end of the day, we were tired, but very happy to have seen and done so much. And tomorrow, we zip in the canopy!
Today’s breakfast was at the Treehouse Hotel and Restaurant, which has an actual tree growing up through the roof! The Tican coffee has become our favorite. It’s strong and full flavored. We ate hearty because today was our Canopy Tour in Santa Elena Cloud Forest at Selvatura Park. It was raining, but we were in the rain forest! There are trails and gardens to occupy time while waiting to zip. A sky Walk was exciting and gave us spectacular views. Vegetation is huge! The feeling as we zipped above the canopy is like flying! We looked down at the trees, and flew through them from one platform to the other. This was our first zip, and we loved the experience! Awesome! I went on the Tarzan swing, while Greg watched! What fun! We watched some monkeys playing in the trees. It continued raining, so we suggest packing ponchos for getting out and about.
For supper, we drove the short and steep distance to Chimera, in Monteverde, where Cindye works in the evenings. The views were lovely. The food, tapas, was scrumptious! Especially tasty was the mango sorbet. Very moderate in price, too.
A hike up to the Treehouse for breakfast, only to find the coffee maker broken! Oh no! Fortunately, Chunches and Cindye were available, so we had breakfast there and chatted with our new friend.
The Cheese Factory in Monteverde has many varieties of handmade cheeses. We bought some tasty looking Gouda. A few shops along the road were open, so we looked in. Back in Santa Elena, we visited the Frog Pond, full of tropical frogs and toads. This was a good time, since it was raining again. The Butterfly Garden was nearby with dozens of delicate, gorgeous, colorful butterflies. The Glasswing has transparent wings! Both attractions were fun! Unfortunately, it was time to head back down the mountain. We had to say good bye to Santa Elena and to Cyndye! Back down the narrow, steep, and serpentine road to San Jose once again. On the way, we stopped at a soda for lunch. A man drove his little herd of cattle down the road past us. Very picturesque!
Back in the heart of San José, we again stayed at the Gran Hotel. We felt like old friends, the way the staff greeted us. From our room, we had a good seat for the street entertainers on the corner. We were across from Teatro Nacional Plaza and all the people. We had dinner at Le Monastere, a former monastery perched high on a hill with fantastic views of the city lights at night! Food was excellent! It was highly recommended by the hotel staff and worth the drive to get there! A night time stroll through the city was great for people watching on our last night here. There were some street performers, and music wafted out from clubs.
Once we were at the airport, we found most food courts take only cash and the ATM machines were both out of order. By counting our change, we were able to buy a drink and bag of chips each for lunch! Adios, Costa Rica! Prices for most places were moderate, amenities were modern, the weather was good, and people were great! We are looking forward to another visit!