Travels in a Green Land - Costa Rica
Updated: Jul 25, 2018
The first thing that struck me, flying into San Jose, are the mountains upon endless, jungle-clad mountains. They were quite breathtaking especially coming from a very flat Florida. Reminiscent of my beautiful mother country, South Africa, although significanty more green, it almost brought tears to my eyes.
San Jose is a busy metropolis which I would have like to have explored more fully, but time constraints only allowed one night. I spent a wonderful afternoon and evening at Hotel Grano de Oro – an absolute gem in downtown San Jose. The hotel staff were so friendly and made me feel very welcome. Besides the beautiful rooms, the hotel is fascinating and very eclectic. In contrast to the very modern reception area, the rest of the hotel had an “old world” feel to it. I was mesmerized by the endless passageways, staircases, hidden gardens and fountains, not to mention the delightful jacuzzi terrace. My host, Marco, gave me a wonderful tour of the property and many of the rooms – all slightly different but equally impressive. The hotel also boasts a first-class restaurant.
Since walking around alone at night is not advised, and since it was pouring with rain, I decided to dine at the hotel. I was a little shocked at the prices in Costa Rica and let’s just say I ate modestly – my meal was delicious, but I don’t think there was enough on my plate to feed a mouse, let alone me. I ended it off with a marvelous espresso dessert – after all I was on vacation and it made up for the minimalist dinner.
My next stop was Parque Nacional Tortuguero (Tortuguero National Park), an amazing water-based wilderness area (similar to the Amazon I would assume) comprising an endless labyrinth of canals and tropical rainforest, on Costa Rica’s northern Caribbean coast. Its beaches provide very important nesting grounds for sea turtles, in particular the endangered green turtles. The park can only be accessed by boat or canoe and provides shelter for a myriad of species, both water and land based. It’s freshwater creeks and canals are home to species such as crocodile, spectacled caimans, and river turtles, while the surrounding jungles abound with wildlife including tree frogs, poison dart frogs, Jesus Christ Lizards, green macaws, toucans, howler monkeys, spider monkeys, tapirs, to mention just a few.
The route to Tortuguero National Park took us through the beautiful Braulio Carrillo Cloud forest – reaching a height of 4,000m (12,000ft). More than 90% of the park is primary forest and it has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in Costa Rica. The winding, two-lane road took us high into the mountains, with walls of forest to one side and deep forest covered ravines to the other. The scenery was breathtaking, but the roads rather dizzying. Thankfully I’m not bothered by heights.
We passed through numerous tiny villages and small banana plantations, en route to our breakfast stop. After a hearty Tico breakfast of scrambled / fried eggs, beans and rice and Vienna sausages (I assume a bacon substitute), along with some fresh fruit juices, and of course coffee, we continued on to the port of Tortuguero. Along the way we were privileged to see a sloth descend a telephone (or perhaps power) pole. Not even a full day in Costa Rica and I’ve already seen what I came here to see! Who could ask for more?
At the port hoards of tourist lined up with luggage to board their long motorized boats to the various lodges. Those of us heading to Pachira lodge were privileged to keep the same guide as we had on the bus, Julio. Hancy our “captain” navigated the river and canals effortlessly, pointing out wildlife along the way. Wildlife included an iguana (coming from Florida, this wasn’t very exciting) and a Jesus Christ Lizard. Although we have these in South Florida, ours are a mottled brown, whereas this one was a striking green!
A later boat tour, after lunch, revealed many more fantastic creatures including 2 more sloths (one two and one three-toed), spider monkeys, toucans, macaws, Tiger Herons, Anhingas and howler monkeys.
My Pachira Lodge accommodation was very comfortable, hidden amongst the trees bromiliads and helaconias, complete with my own deck and rocking chair. You’ll find no TV or Satellite here, but there’s more than enough entertainment of the natural kind. There’s never a quiet moment, surrounded by tree frogs, birds, insects, and last but far from least, howler monkeys. Their distinct barking provided a unique wake up call each morning.
My host, Roberto, gave me a great tour of the property and also of the adjoining Anhinga Lodge. They both offer fully inclusive 2 or 3 night programs.
Traveling during the wet season, did have it’s “moments”. My first night was filled with sounds of thunder, lightning and torrential rain, beating on my corrugated roof. Daybreak didn’t bring any relief either. We had a morning jungle hike scheduled and just as luck would have it (or so we thought), the weather cleared with minutes to spare. I wasn’t taking any chances though, to wore my trusty poncho just in case. Our walk revealed yet another sloth – poor creature was drenched and looked very miserable – just before another downpour. We wandered through the forest like a group of drowned rats, not really seeing much of anything! It looked as though this wet weather was here to stay!!!
I then proceeded to Evergreen Lodge where enjoyed a site visit with my host, Heidi – yet another beautiful property (had a “lord of the rings” feel to it) with stunning rooms hidden on raised walkways beneath the trees, it also offers guests kayak to cruise up the surrounding canals. Heidi pointed out a vine snake and also some poison dart frogs on the property. I enjoyed a wonderfully refreshing soursop dacquiri on the house – a drink that I’ll definitely try again.
With the conclusion of lunch, the clouds eventually lifted and so did our spirits. The Monkey business also started! We had spiders and howlers, spider’s chasing howlers, and baby howlers. At this point I made up my mind that Spider monkeys were mean! I was later to find out that howlers usually caused all the trouble and were the aggressive species. I was so entertained by these arboreal antics that I almost missed the boat (literally) for our afternoon visit to Tortuguero village. I was the last to arrive. Luckily it was just a short hop across the river.
We visited the sea turtle conservation center and small museum where we learned about the different turtle species and the efforts that have been made to protect them and their habitats. Tortuguero hosts the largest green turtle (Chelonia mydas) rookery in the Western Hemisphere and is also important for nesting populations of leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) and hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) turtles. The Costa Rican legislature declared Tortuguero National Park in 1975 to protect the nesting turtles, the beach and the adjacent terrestrial habitats. Although human consumption of turtles has dropped significantly due to education and the opportunities provided to locals in conservation thereof, around 400 turtles are still killed by jaguars each year – but this is part of nature!
The beaches here are of beautiful black volcanic sand and stretch on for miles and miles. They are frequented by a number of dogs – whether these are strays or have owners, I don’t know, but they are all in great shape and seem to be fully enjoying an unrestrained life!
The little town was interesting with many vendors offering ice cold coconut water – right out of the coconut – a very refreshing drink! I explored the single road with all it’s curiosity and gift shops before heading back to the lodge for my last night in Tortuguero.
Next stop Ojuchal! After a short flight in a very small plane to Limon and then San Jose (on Sansa Air), I enjoyed a fascinating coffee tour at Finca Rosa Blanca, about half an hour from the airport. As my flight into San Jose arrived rather late, I assumed I’d miss the tour, but upon arrival the group was waiting for me.
The tour took us up and down hills, and past streams, and gave me quite a workout (as I mentioned, coming from Florida I’m not used to hills). I learned some fascinating things and some quite unexpected facts about coffee – Did you know, and this came as quite a surprise to me that light roast coffee has the most caffeine and dark roast has the least. The bitter flavor of dark roast comes from the burnt coffee and not from caffeine!!! We had a coffee tasting where we smelled, "sucked in" and sipped coffee – very much like a wine tasting.
Upon returning to Rosa Blanca I enjoyed a lovely lunch with Jim (who I met on the tour), overlooking the beautiful grounds - so close to the city of San Jose, yet seemingly a million miles away. I explored the property and met the manager, who explained how they were trying to create a fully sustainable system. Greenhouses grow all their own vegetables and herbs, while chickens which provide the eggs and also compost for the greenhouses. They also plan to go fully “solar” in the next year or two. Costa Rica is a really progressive little country and is doing so much in the way of sustainable energy and conservation.
After the tour I proceeded by Supershuttle to Ojuchal – a 3 ½ hour journey along a mainly 2 lane highway. Traveling through Costa Rica is by no means boring and beautiful scenery is everywhere. It was a fascinating drive through farmland, forests, fields, beside beaches and through palm and banana plantations to reach my destination. And, as the season would have it, it rained the entire way.
In Ojuchal I was greeted by my wonderful friends and hosts for the next 5 days, Carlo and Tineka Vos, the owners of Eden’s Nest – a wonderful lodge set high up in the trees! I was welcomed by a tasty dinner prepared by Mauricio – jack of all trades - at the lodge.
After a hearty meal and feeling quite exhausted I headed to my “jungalow”. These beautiful bungalows set high up in the trees on raised platforms provide all the comforts of home, including a full kitchen with stove top, coffee maker, blender, toaster and pretty much everything you need. Did I mention that they also have the most amazing hot showers! Each jungalow also has it own deck with chairs and tables overlooking the jungle below. It’s an amazing spot for birdwatchers and on my first morning, while enjoying some fantastic Costa Rican coffee, I was privileged to see toucans, flycatchers, hummingbirds, a Grey-headed chacalaca and a kingfisher. During my stay I also saw a Yellow-headed Caracara, Black Vulture and Grey-headed chacalaca.
My days at Eden’s Nest were jam-packed with activities. Carlo and Tineka were amazing hosts, taking me to explore little known waterfalls (Cascada Pavon), secluded beaches, mountain farms where you’ll learn to milk cows and make sugar, and also enjoy a very hearty farm breakfast!
We explored the Central Valley town of San Isidro de General and walked around the fascinating food market.
En route back to Ojuchal, we stopped for a late lunch at Chicharrone - a delightful little restaurant with a wonderful view and some entertaining parrots.
Versatile Mauricio even gave us a breakfast cooking class one morning, where we learned how to prepare the traditional Gallo pinto – comprised of rice and beans, scrambled eggs, fried plantains, and a corn tortillas. He even included some empanadas. Making the tortilla’s definitely involved the most skill – he made it look so effortless, but clearly it takes years of practice and Tineka and I were less than proficient in creating the perfect circle! The breakfast was accompanied by a wonderful fresh pineapple, banana and coconut smoothy – all fruit courtesy of the lodge’s garden! There’s nothing better than freshly picked, locally grown fruit!!!
We visited the famous Manuel Antonio National Park in Quepos, where my knowledgeable guide Mauricio (a different Mauricio from "Costa Rica Green Experience") pointed out the amazingly diverse wildlife inhabitants – we (or should I say he) spotted squirell monkeys, both a two- and three-toed sloths, white-faced capuchins, a caiman, spiny tailed lizards, a stick bird (correctly called a Common Potoo) and even a porcupine (in a tree no less). The beach was stunning, but a little overrun with very noisy tourists, all trying to feed (clearly prohibited) the capuchins – who were making the most of the situation!
On another day we headed down to the Sierpe River with Kokopelli Tours (about 45 minutes from Ojuchal) to explore the mangrove forests by boat. Our guide (and captain) Kenner, pointed out an amazing variety of birds and other wildlife along the river that we alone would have missed completely. The bird life here is fantastic and we saw the Rufous necked wood rail, tree swallows, scarlet macaws, great kiskadee (a type of flycatcher), Riverside wren, Purple gallinule, ibis, Boat-billed heron, Green heron, Bare throated tiger heron, anhingas and a barn own. The other wildlife included white-faced capuchins, Squirell monkeys, Howler monkeys, caiman, crocodile, long-nosed bats and the elusive river cat (lol).
Unfortunately, I was unable to visit the biological diversity hot spot, Corcovado National Park, due to too few people (tour only runs with 5 minimum), but that is an adventure for next time! I was blessed with the most amazing weather, and although it rained almost every day, it was always in the afternoon, after our touring concluded.
My last day was spent exploring a beautiful, secluded beach with my Carlo and Tineka, and their adorable dog, Jessica (most lovable dog you'll ever meet), and just relaxing at the lodge.
After a wonderful time in Ojuchal, I sadly said my goodbye’s to Carlo, Tineka and Jessica, and caught another small plane back to San Jose for my last 2 days in Costa Rica. After a rather turbulent flight, I was met in San Jose by my wonderful Costa Rican Trails guide, who carted me off to the little village of Sarchi, about 30 minutes outside San Jose. This village is known for its traditional Costa Rican, painted wagons (ox-carts or La Carretas). The town’s central park boasts a giant painted wagon – the worlds largest.
The history of the wagon dates back to the 1800s when they were used to transport produce (mainly coffee beans) from the Central Valley to Puntarenas Port, on the Pacific coast. Trains of these wagons could be seen crossing the countryside and the journey took about 2 weeks. At this time the wagons were simple and not painted. With the increase in coffee exportation, Costa Rican land owners became increasingly wealthy, and the story goes that one land owner traveled to Italy where he saw decorative wagons filled with fresh flowers, and this is where the idea for the painting the wagons arose. Unable to grow the flowers found in Italy, in Costa Rica, he had the wagons painted with flowers instead. Another story goes that with the building of the National Theatre in San Jose, a lot of Italian artisans, including painters came to Costa Rica and they started the tradition of painting the wagons. The actual origin seems unclear, but painting and decorating oxcarts began in the early 20th century, and each region began creating its own design allowing for identification when in transportation. Many of these paintings included bright colors, geometric figures, and even portraits of people and beautiful landscapes. Oxcarts were further enhanced by adding designs to their wheels and entire wheels were painted and decorated to create a distinct look for each family.
Oxcarts became a source of pride for many people and contests were often held to award the “most creative and inspiring ox cart designs.”
Although the oxcarts are no longer used to transport produce, in March 1988, La Carreta (the wagon) was designated the National Labor Symbol for Costa Rica. In addition, on November 24, 2005, the typical oxcart was declared Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.
Today there is only one oxcart factory in Sarchi, where you can see oxcarts traditionally made and painted. Fabrica de Carretas Eloy Alfaro has much of the original equipment that was used to make oxcarts over the years. The small outdoor factory uses a waterwheel to power most the machinery.
Oxcart wheels are very complex to build. The wood, usually Spanish cedar, mahogany, and laurel are first stacked to dry. After drying each piece is carefully cut into the shape of a wedge. Each wheel is made up of sixteen different wedges which are bound together with a heated metal ring to make a wheel. The wheels are then sanded. You can still see painters at Eloy Alfaro continuing the tradition and painting every intricate detail by hand with small brushes. Not only the oxcarts are painted, but just about every surface of the factory. It really is a beautiful site. I think my favorite painting is a replica of the Alegoría al Café y al Banano (Allegory of Coffee and Bananas) that is painted on a wall. The original of this mural can be found on the ceiling of the National Theater in San Jose. It depicts bananas and coffee being exported at the Port of Limon.
The huge giftshop offers an amazing assortment of souvenirs with prices that cannot be matched. If you’re looking for gifts, the half hour drive from San Jose is well worth it.
Besides the oxcarts, Sarchi is also known for its furniture. The town is full of furniture stores offering beautiful handmade wooden pieces made from native Costa Rican woods.
Leaving Sarchi we proceeded to Poas Volcano Lodge – a long winding drive, high up into the mountains. I was taken by surprise and was quite unprepared by the temperature change up here. It felt and looked more like England or Ireland than Costa Rica – at a chilly 60 degrees (falling to about 52 later). I fortunately packed one fleece, but no long pants – this would have to suffice. Poas Volcano lodge, originally a farmhouse, was a haven, situated in the middle of a dairy/strawberry farm. The hills around us were shrouded in a thick mist which seemed to drown out all noise – it really was an incredibly tranquil place. I wandered around the grounds snapping away at the old gate posts covered in lichen and air plants, I explored the two trails, pottered around the green house and admired the flowers, birds and spectacular views.
I loved the main lodge with it’s numerous seating areas, it’s large wood stoves and countless books – it was like a large homely library – heaven to me!!! The staff were wonderful and so friendly and accommodating. While waiting for dinner I was offered coffee and cookies while sitting beside a wood fire and reading a fascinating book on the history of coffee. This is definitely a place that our clients would enjoy – just to get away from it all and relax!
After a tasty meal of chicken and veggies, I had another early night. I was very excited for the next day and my stay at Peace Lodge. I’ve been wanting to visit La Paz Waterfall Gardens for years – mainly for the habituated hummingbirds and the tree frogs. I also heard that the waterfalls are quite beautiful – however no one told me about the 200 odd stairs that I’d have to climb (my calves are still suffering – 5 days later).
I was greeted by blue skies and sunshine this morning – quite a contrast to yesterday’s mist and rain. I was eager to get to the gardens early as I knew how unpredictable the weather could be. I enjoyed a site visit and saw some amazing accommodation options at Poas Volcano lodge, before my ride left for La Paz.
I didn’t want to waste a single moment so headed directly from my room (more on that later) in search of hummingbirds. Even being habituated, these little creatures are virtually impossible to capture on film as they never stop moving. I headed on to the tree frog enclosure where I couldn’t find a single frog – these little creatures are masters of disguise. Fortunately, one of the guides assisted me – how he found them so effortlessly I’ll never know. I snapped some pics, and then headed off to the waterfalls. I’ve never encountered so many steps, but the walk was definitely worth it. I saw 5 beautiful waterfalls and made it to the bus transfer stop, just before ANOTHER downpour.
The rain continued all afternoon and, unable to go out and explore, I spent the majority of my day on my balcony, snapping away at the hummingbirds visiting my feeder - the show was endless. Hummingbirds are fiercely territorial and there were a lot of squabbles. It was a very relaxing afternoon and quite a nice change of pace. I really enjoyed my room with it’s touch of a button fireplace, which was very welcome in the chilly weather.
Towards the late afternoon the rain eased a little and I headed out to explore once more. I visited the rather tragic butterfly garden - all the butterflies seemed to be dying. Whether it was the cold weather or just a natural progression that caused this, I don’t know. The big cats were so majestic, but it was very sad to see them caged and the dreary weather didn’t help the mood! I realize that this is a sanctuary for injured or previously owned wildlife, but it’s still not pleasant to see such beautiful creatures confined – they all looked so pitiful and I returned to my room quite depressed. The continuing hummingbird show lifted my mood again.
I enjoyed an early dinner at the restaurant – I think this is my least favorite time of the day as it’s quite sad eating alone – but the spectacular soup really made up for it. I tried the curried papaya soup, which seemed like an odd combination, but exceeded all my expectations - so good that I was tempted to order another bowl for dessert. I also tried a pisco sours – cheers to you Dad! I know you always wanted to try one – I wish we could have tried it together! You would have loved Costa Rica!
I returned to my room and enjoyed a well-deserved deep water soak in the world's (or at least Costa Rica's) best bath tub! The bathroom in this place is just insane – the shower resembles a cave and there’s a waterfall next to the bath tub.
My last morning offered a brief break in the weather and I enjoyed breakfast outside in the sunshine.
A nearby tree offered me the most wonderful hummingbird display and I managed to get what I came here for - photo's of hummingbirds (not at a feeder). What a great end to a perfect vacation!
Costa Rica – I will return!!!