LOVE TO WANDER
This has been such an enjoyable and relaxing trip to a very beautiful and peaceful country. I think Costa Rica would make an excellent choice for a honeymoon destination. Pura vida is a rather over used expression here and you do get a bit tired of hearing to by the end of three weeks, but it really does sum up my overall impression of the country very well. The direct translation is "pure life", but in Costa Rica, pure vida is used as a greeting, a thank you, you are welcome or simply to express that something is awesome. It's a quick way of summing up an expression of peace between one another and an attitude to life in this - one of the happiest nations in the world. The country has its problems, like all others, but the Ticos like to focus on all the positives instead of their fears or worries. Pura vida sums up their general outlook on life and symbolises Costa Rica's ethos of moving forward and simply enjoying life.
The Ticos I have met all seem to have a sunny disposition and there is good reason for that - Costa Rica is an oasis of calm in an otherwise troubled part of the world:
Our trip was booked through Round the World Experts who co-ordinated the itinerary I had constructed myself very well - all the ground arrangements and transfers worked seamlessly. Local tour operators in this area are Swiss Travel (who most of our excursions and transfers were booked with) and Costa Rica Vacations (highly recommended by other travellers we talked to). These agents may well be able to offer you more expert local advice than a UK based agent would and possibly a small saving, but wouldn't be able to book international flights.
When is the best time to visit Costa Rica?
The dry season/"Summer" is from mid-November to April and is considered the best time to visit. It can, be very wet even in the dry season though and humidity is extremely high. In the rainy season, days often start sunny, with rain falling in the afternoon and evening. In the rain/cloud forest, the weather is very iunpredictable and humid at any time of year. The Pacific coast is sunnier than the Caribbean coast.
The Costa Rica currency is Colon(es), but US dollars are widely accepted everywhere. We didn't use any colones on our whole trip, except for spending the change that was given to us when we paid in US dollars.
Top Ten "Must Dos" for a luxury trip to Costa Rica:
Best Hotel Award:
Lapas Rio Eco Lodge was easily the best hotel we stayed in, taking into account both the room, the facilities and the overall experience. Interestingly, it wasn't the most expensive either. Taking all costs into account (so hotels where full board and all excursions were included can be compared on a like for like basis with breakfast only hotels) our two favourites - Manatus and Lapas Rios - were also the cheapest overall. Nayara was wonderful, but twice the price and Kura was almost three times the price. With travel, you don't always get what you expect or pay for. Hopefully, this is helpful info. for future travellers.
Wish I’d seen:
My parting thought:
"If history continues, power will reside in societies that have considered their resources, not those that have spent them." The Quetzal and the Macaw - David Rains Wallace. From what I have seen, Costa Rica seems to be doing a pretty good job of making the most of its natural resources, protecting biodiversity and benefitting from tourism in a sustainable way - long may it last...
Suggestion for Further Reading:
How United Fruit Company Shaped the World - Peter Chapman
Glad I packed:
Brolly, binoculars, bug spray, hiking boots, good flashlight.
Where to next?
Aberconwy, Wales ...
Kura Design Villas bills itself as "the most glamorous romantic resort in Costa Rica". It is a boutique, adults-only hotel high in the Uvita rainforest with just 8 suites all of which have panoramic views over the iconic Whale's Tail of Uvita.
It certainly is a unique place to stay, although the minimalist architect design may not quite be everyone's cup of tea. Everything looks fabulous here at first sight, but scratch the surface a little and you soon discover that the sacrifice for that is a compromise on practicalities which can irritate you after a little while.
The sun shades don't shade the sun loungers. The coat hangers won't hold your clothes. The hammock looks fantastic, but is really hard to get in and out of. The closet is too short for a long dress. There are no locks on any of the doors - including the door to your bungalow, which may not be to everyone's taste (although there is a room safe).
The road up to the hotel is extremely steep and accessible only with a 4x4 vehicle. We were (again) very glad to have booked a private transfer driver.
I won't go on, because ultimately, this has been a really relaxing place to stay. The location is stunning and the staff have worked very hard to make our stay great. It has been great, but I would be cautious to recommend it to friends and personally, I wouldn't return here.
The infinity pool - a bucket list item for me finally received a huge tick. I had the pool to myself for a whole hour and swam with vultures circling overhead with a 180 degree view of the sea and mountains - simply unforgettable.
A complimentary laundry service - always a great bonus at the end of a long trip!
Photo I wished I had taken:
The in room amenities kit - see photo no 7 - ??!!
I looked up "whale's tail" when I was researching this trip. Wikipedia came up with: "whale tail is the Y-shaped waistband of a thong or G-string when visible above the waistline of low-rise jeans, shorts or a skirt that resembles a whale's tail." It wasn't what I was looking for at the time, but, with the benefit of hindsight, it was strangely for appropriate for this hotel.
The drive from Lapas Rios to Uvita took just under three hours and brought us roughly half way back to San José, so it makes a good stopping point for a few days. The scenery up to now has been all jungle and forest, so Uvita's beaches make a nice change. Our hotel is located high up in the mountains directly above the iconic Whale's Tail - a rocky sandbar shaped like a whale’s tai that is exposed only at low tide. The reef that protects this remarkable formation from dangerous currents and strong waves makes it a good place to swim. The walk from the Uvita entrance to the beach to the tip of the whale’s tail is about 2kms - far enough to walk in the tropical heat/humidity. The Kurà hotel runs a daily complimentary shuttle service down to the beach to coincide with low tide. Entrance to the Marino Ballena National Park is $6 pp. It is, like all the Costa Rican National Parks we have visited so far, very understated.
Parks are part of the Costa Rica soul. When words like, "miracle", "vision" and "conversion" are used to describe the process of creating the National Parks, you know it is something very dear to the national heart.
There is little else to do here but chill out and relax and at this stage of the holiday, that's absolutely fine by me. You can do a day trip by boat to the Caño Island Biological Reserve where you can snorkel along coral reef. I'm sure this would be a great trip, but my snorkelling skills are not et up to it - still work in progress.
Souvenir I am glad I bought:
An original, water colour painting of a sloth from the local market in Uvita (Wednesday mornings) - a nice reminder of one of the highlights of our trip. His smiling face is a great souvenir and will help get me through the snow that awaits us back home.
Lapa is the Costa Rican name for the scarlet macaw. When the American couple who founded Lapa Rios first visited the area, they spotted a number of macaws flying across the jungle in tandem, creating a river of red. Inspired by this beautiful image, they named the lodge Lapa Rios – River of Scarlet Macaws. It took them 8 years of searching to find the perfect place to realise their vision of creating an eco lodge in Costa Rica. They poured everything into it - savings, pension pots, heart and soul. It was well worth it - this is such a stunning place.
Today, the 17-bungalow lodge preserves more than 1,000 acres of primary and secondary rainforest, and assists in the development of the local community. Since its opening in 1993, Lapa Rios is one of National Geographic's Unique Lodges of the world.
Our bungalow had an uninterrupted view of the Pacific Ocean from every angle. Whether you were sitting in one of the two queen beds, on the terrace or in the indoor shower, you could look out onto the sea. An outdoor shower and a white lacey hammock completed the picture perfectly. The room is completely open (with mosquito nets fitted all around) allowing you to feel the sea breeze as you lie in bed - no need for air con here! Mosquitos were not a problem at all during our stay - and if there was one, it would definitely have found me! The bungalows allow you to completely immerse yourself in the rainforest - a truly memorable experience.
There is a wide range of complimentary activities available and a customised itinerary is carefully prepared with you at the start of your stay so you can make the absolute most of your time here.
The restaurant offers a wide selection of fresh local food immaculately prepared and presented - true perfection. Coffee/tea is brought to your bungalow at 6am (or whatever time you choose) and sundowners can be requested at 4.30. Drinks are very reasonably priced for a hotel of this quality too. Only alcoholic drinks are chargeable - everything else is complimentary.
I thought it was not possible to improve on the luxury of Nayara - but it is. With one hotel left to experience, Lapa Rios Eco Lodge definitely wins the best hotel award for this trip so far. I wished I could have stayed five days here - there would have been plenty enough to do.
The only downside is the very long steep climb from the bungalows uo to the lodge and pool, but everything else is just so exceptional, that ceases to matter - but it definitely isn't disabled friendly.
I was booked onto an early morning bird watching hike this morning, departing at 5.45am. There was no need for an alarm though - the howler monkies were up and about making their presence heard well before that. A dawn chorus is always a wonderful thing to hear, but listening to it as you gaze over the tree tops across the impenetrable blue of the Pacific Ocean sipping a cup of nutty flavoured Costa Rican coffee magnifies the pleasure enormously. The hike went across open fields, where it is easier to see the birds. You still need very good binoculars though - which the lodge provided. With the aid of their spotting scope, we saw the nests of humming birds, owls and herons with young chicks inside and a Jesus Christ lizard actually walking on water. I have no photos to prove it unfortunately - the conditions were too challenging this morning - so you will just have to take my word for what you can see here at Lapa Rios.
Dan Kieran’s book “The Idle Traveller” invites you to re-assess what you are searching for when you travel. He urges you to bin the travel brochure, glide rather than fly, embrace disaster, be epic in your travel pursuits and immerse yourself in the life-changing experience of true journeying. It is an entire philosophy of life rather than just a book about travelling. His philosophy is to slow down and enjoy life - to remember to smell the flowers along the way. One of my favourite passages is when he describes how he takes a regular daily walk with his two year old daughter. He lets her lead the way and thrills in the novelty of the route she chooses to take and what sparks her curiosity along the way.
The hikes at Lapas Rios are rather like that. The guides know exactly where they are going, of course, but no-one has any idea what they will actually see on the walk - it's an adventure waiting to unfold itself wherever your walk takes you. Today, we saw:
Wellness is something the Costa Ricans take very seriously and spa facilities abound in the hotels. I don’t normally bother with them, but the welcome massage had wetted my appetite and if there was going to be a hotel where I would treat myself, then Lapa Rios Eco Lodge was going to be it. A head to toe mid morning massage outside, listening to the ocean and tropical birdsong and feeling a warm breeze on your skin as the treatment progressed was definitely a very memorable highlight of this trip for me.
A troop of howler monkies attacking us with branches as we walked under their trees fringing the beach - a reminder that we are but guests in the jungle that is their space.
The day started early at 5am with a beautiful sunrise - doubled by its reflection in the Pacific Ocean. The first few minutes just before I wake up are usually like intermediate steps from light to shadow - my vision is dim and my mind not yet fully focussed. This morning, I was woken by the loud shrieks of howler monkies and the din of a million cicadas, then soothed by the sound of the ocean as the sun rose over it. It was the quickest move to sharp focus I can remember - the sunrise was absolutely spectacular - the outstanding highlight of this trip.
The tropical day is always the same length - the amount of daylight and darkness doesn't vary all year. The sun rises at around 5am and starts to set at 5pm - definitely an early to bed early to rise sort of place.
A 4 hour guided hike through the forest yielded all sorts of treasures. The tropical sun shines brightly and directly - not at an oblique angle like in temperate zones. It makes everything crystal clear and almost transparent, lighting up the veins in the leaves so clearly that you can almost see the sap travelling up and down. Butterflies and dragonflies gain a captivating translucence in light like this.
Our guide today remembers when the lodge here was first built - there were no trees then, they had all been cleared and the first three bungalows were built on grassland/cow pasture. The lodge is surrounded by secondary forest, carefully replanted by its owners and the guides here to attract as many species of tropical birds as possible. Primary, hardwood forest neighbours the property and that is where we hiked this morning. Our guide also remembers when gold mining was allowed in Corcovado - before the National Park Service put a stop to it and paid squatter families (farmers) to leave. In 1975, a Japanese company wanted to buy Corcovado forest and grind it into chips to pack stereos. The hardwood is very valuable for furniture too - a single mahogany tree can be worth $10,000 - you can understand the attraction of logging. By 1985, game animals were practically eliminated from Corcovado. In 1987, United Fruit pulled out of Costa Rica after a strike over wages - oil palms were becoming more popular than bananas. Unemployed banana workers turned to gold mining instead. There was a long campaign to "Save Corcovado" and the miners were gradually persuaded to leave. Thankfully today, the forest has regenerated and Corcovado National Park has 500 tree species and 365 bird species, 8 of which exist nowhere else in the world.
We set off at 10.30 from Bajos del Toro on a cool, wet morning and arrived at San José Domestic Departures terminal a couple of hours later, all set for a short flight to Puerto Jimenez on the Osa Peninsula. The little plane - with a cheery “Pura Vida” emblazoned on its carriage - had 12 seats only 5 of which were occupied. Check in was pretty painless. Interestingly, we were weighed in as well as our bags - maybe a sign of things to come on international flights? We paid a $10 excess baggage charge (one bag was, we knew, 20% over the 40lbs weight restriction - but well worth it for being able to bring the hiking boots and the SLR camera). We flew at 9500 feet over the corrugated iron grooves of San José outskirts, through the clouds and over the sea to the hot and sunny South Pacific coast of Costa Rica. By 2pm, we were being greeted by the Lapa Rios Eco Lodge staff with two fresh coconut milk drinks, safely installed in a land cruiser and transported down the very bumpy gravel road for 45 minutes onto the next stage of our adventure. Our route was blocked mid way by a huge bull which had to be captured by a couple of cowboys with lassoes, which added a bit of drama.
Lapa Rios Eco Lodge has welcome down to a fine art, including a short but invigorating massage on arrival to get you in the mood for deep immersion into the rainforest experience. On the short walk from reception to our bungalow, we saw a pair of stunningly brightly coloured macaws, a toucan and a spider monkey - this was obviously going to be a very special place indeed!
Macaws mate for life and often spend 50 and sometimes up to 90 years together. When one member of the couple dies, the other soon follows.
Tip for Future Travellers: My tweezers were confiscated at the airport - put them in your main baggage if you bring them, not your hand luggage!
El Silencio Lodge & Spa is located in picturesque Bajos del Toro on a 500-acre private cloud forest reserve flanked by the Juan Castro Blanco and Poas Volcano National Parks.
The suites at El Silencio Lodge & Spa are thoughtfully arranged up the mountainside to give you privacy and good views of the cloud forest. There is a spa on site and an area where you can do zip lining etc. if that takes your fancy. We had suite no 11 which is a good steep walk up from the lodge (although there are golf carts available to take you if you really needed them). There is a heated outdoor jacuzzi in each suite, but it takes two hours to warm up, which is a bit frustrating.
As the name suggests, it is extremely peaceful here. There are a large number of activities and excursions available, but all need to be pre-booked and it is probably best to do this before you arrive than when you are here as the timings are difficult to co-ordinate and minimum numbers + notice for transportation etc. is required. A number of the activities seemed to be either cancelled or fully booked - i.e. - they weren't running, despite being written on the board. It would be far better if there was a pre arranged programme covering the most popular activities so that you could ensure you made the most of your time here and costs were kept to a minimum by grouping people together.
There is a garden in the grounds laid out with flowers specially designed to attract hummingbirds, which they do. You can hike to three waterfalls just 2kms from the lodge. A mystic hiking trail, visit to the organic farm/garden and tree planting are complimentary activities, but everything else has to be pre-booked and paid for.
You can only book into the restaurant on a daily basis. We were given a choice of 6 or 8.30 when we arrived at lunch time - not ideal really. If the hotel is busy, it may be best to ring ahead to "book your slot". Being early to breakfast is also a good idea if you want to be sure there is something other than water melon left in the tropical fruit selection when the hotel is full. The restaurant is good for lunch, but the evening service and menu didn't really impress. On our second night, the starters we ordered never arrived and it took an hour and a half to be served our main course. While we were waiting for dessert to arrive, we were given the good news that our jacuzzi had been fixed (although way too late in the day to be of any use to us) - but it was still stone cold when we got back to our room. anyway This was getting a bit like Fawlty Towers?!
The location is the real winner here - the restaurant, service and facilities definitely need some improvement. It's a shame because the staff are universally lovely, try so hard and are always so sorry when things go wrong - a bit like Manuel really - very lovable.
It's not many trips that offer you a bare knuckle ride two days in a row. Yesterday, we were expecting adventure. Today, we were expecting a quiet drive to the colourful little town of Sarchi about an hour or so from El Silencio. There is a tour to the village, but the hotel's excursions board (see more on the accommodation review) wasn't offering it, so we opted for a local taxi with a wait of 2 hours top allow us to explore the town. The tour would have cost $93 each and lasted 6 hours (including 2 hours driving). A local taxi cost $80, so quite a saving.
Sarchi's claim to fame is that it is home to one of Costa Rica's most famous crafts - the traditional painted oxcart, which is recognised by UNESCO as an example of world cultural heritage. Carefully hand decorated in their entirety with designs based on Costa Rican plants and flowers, these oxcarts have become something of a national symbol for Costa Rica. Their initial use dates back to the late 1800s when they were the main mode of transporting coffee beans to markets along very poor roads. It took a couple of weeks to get the coffee to where it needed to be. They were replaced by motor vehicles back in the 1970s but today, they still play a major role in parades and religious celebrations and of course, the tourist trade. You can see how they make and paint the oxcarts at Fábrica de Carretas Eloy Alfaro, just west of the town centre, 100m north of the Palí supermarket.
I was curious to know - why did they bother painting the oxcarts? It must have taken a long time and cost quite a bit in paint and labour? Apparently, different regions – and sometimes even individual families – developed their own particular design and colour scheme to distinguish their valuable oxcarts from others and protect them from being taken and used by someone else.
There is not really much else to see in Sarchi, but it is always interesting to spend some time in a typical town when you are visiting a new country. Even just walking through a supermarket and comparing prices is all part of a journey. A typical Casado lunch, for example, costs you 2500 colones in Sarchi ($4.4), including a drink. At the hotel, it costs $20, with drinks on top. We bought a litre of local beer in Sarchi for $4. It costs $9 for a small bottle (330ml) in the hotel, so we saved nearly half the taxi fare! Everything was priced in colones, but dollars were readily accepted, with change given in colones. The church is very pretty - built in the 1950s and beautifully decorated. If we had had a car, we would have visited the Else Kientzler Botanical Garden, which has over 200 species of flora, but that is the penalty for not self-driving - a loss of some freedom. On balance, being driven was definitely the right decision for us.
The climate was very different in Sarchi even though it was just an hour away. It was 27 degrees C there and very hot and sunny compared to 22 degrees C up in the mountains of Bajos del Toro. Umbrellas were being widely used for shade here rather than for protection against the rain.
The road wound slowly past coffee and sugar cane plantations. The coffee industry developed differently in Costa Rica from the rest of Central America where a narrow elite controlled large estates worked by tenant labourers. In Costa Rica, the production was entered on small scale growers with a wide network of high-end traders supporting them with progressing, marketing and financing. Another example of how Costa Rica has fared better than its neighbours.
The drive to Sarchi was along very steep, winding roads with some gravel sections. It was fine on the way there, but the return journey was a different matter with the car's engine failing on the steep slopes five times. This trip turned into more of a thrill seeking experience than we were expecting. We drove the whole way with the engine alert light flashing holding the grip rails tight and hoping the taxi wouldn't break down on us. We were very glad to get back to the Lodge.
Casado Tipico - A traditional Costa Rica lunch comprising seven ingredients - usually beef/chicken/trout fillet wrapped in cheese, fajitas with rice, beans, sweet plantains, hash of the day and creole salad.
Gallos Ventanas - Don Rafael Yglesias Castor - ex-president of Costa Rica (1894 - 1902) was known as "el gallo". A chef had the idea to place a bean in each of the tortillas to make the folded tortilla looked like a Gallo (rooster). The idea caught on and people began to order "gallito" or "un gallo". Eventually, the tortilla got missed out and the dish became a small portion of food - mainly rice, beans and salad - popular in the countryside.
The transfer from Arenal to Bajos del Toro took a couple of hours, driving past peaceful scenery of papaya, pineapple and yucca fields high up into the mountains where our next hotel - El Silencio Lodge - is located. Beautiful pink flowers, which I have yet to identify, lined the roadside. Most of the houses we passed along the roadside were one storey high, built from breeze blocks and all with corrugated iron roofs. Many had neat little front gardens with colourful plants growing and often, there was someone out front, sweeping up the porch.
Wispy white clouds so thin you could see through them stuck firmly to the mountain tops despite the breeze as we approached the long uphill road to the lodge. The warm, nutty smell of coffee (a thoughtful leaving present from Nayara) accompanied us for the whole journey.
Our driver was very proud to share with us his love for his country as we travelled - pride in the mountains, forests, rivers and beaches and in the peaceful democracy Ticos enjoy - very different from neighbouring Nicaragua. Tensions between Costa Rica and Nicaragua are obvious and there is concern over the growing level of immigration. If you see people working in the fields, they are likely to be Nicaraguans rather than Ticos and quite possibly, they are here illegally. There is a good healthcare system in Costa Rica they can access. Interestingly, I have seen many young adult in Costa Rica wearing braces on their teeth. Orthodontic treatment is all free here - unlike back in the UK.
The next day took us an hour back down the windy mountain road to the Sarapiqui River and a knuckle clenching raft ride on the white water rapids with Pozo Azul Adventures.. These are Class II/II rapids and rough enough to be quite a thrilling ride. You don't just get a bit wet on this ride, you get completely soaked. We had 4 cheerful Americans accompanying us on the raft and Alberto ("Babyface") as our guide. The penalty for falling in (which happens maybe as often as once or week or so, Alberto told me) is double Piña Coladas all round for the group. Well - Tim and his mate up front weren't about to let that happen any time soon. The rapids may have been fast, the current strong and the water over our heads at times, but we gritted our teeth and dug deep to paddle through the rapids back to dry land. This was only my second time white water rafting and I was very glad it wasn't my first attempt. Every time we "survived" a bumpy section, the paddles were lifted aloft and we hollered - "High Five - Pura Vida!" Between us, there was over 465 years of experience on that raft and we weren't going to let this river beat us. By the time we got back to dry land, the orders were placed pretty prompto: 2 left shoulder transplants, one hip transplant, 1 Valium, 2 stiff rums (guess who) and a siesta (yep - that was Alberto). The trip was great fun and health and safety was taken seriously. It felt exciting - and thrilling - but not really dangerous. I was holding onto my oar so tightly and concentrating on the rapids that I couldn't take any photos - but one of the team on the bank at the worst/best (depending on your point of view ) part of the rapids kindly obliged.
The afternoon was spent taking a peaceful hike (4kms return) through the forest trails up to the three waterfalls in the El Silencio Lodge grounds - beautiful.
Fresh pineapple, cut into huge slices and served as a half-way point snack on the rafting trip. It is so sweet and ripe here you can eat the core easily - in fact - it is delicious. Transporting it such a long way to the UK must dry it out.
Glad I packed:
Reefies, rash, waterproof pouch.