Costa Rica has earned several accolades on my first trip in the region: longest border crossing, most expensive everything, most ‘touristy’, best shower, first time in a cloud…
There haven’t always been obvious differences between the countries that I visited on this trip; El Salvador and Nicaragua, for example, have broadly the same level of infrastructure. Guatemala stood out for its strong Mayan culture. Costa Rica is immediately different; it has a very strong North American feel and is the first country where tourists seemingly outnumber the locals. The border crossing from Nicaragua was the longest one of the trip, thanks to the sheer volume of people trying to cross; getting into Nicaragua had taken rather a long time too but this was due to an inordinate number of forms and a very slow border guard! The guards in Costa Rica are brisk and efficient, once you finally reach the front of the queue.
One of the reasons Costa Rica is so affluent – in comparison – is that it has no standing army. The army was abolished in 1948 (the old headquarters in San Jose are now the home of the national museum) after Costa Rica’s last civil war. The President at the time claimed it was because Costa Rica needed pencils and books more than bullets. I’m sure that was true but he may also have been motivated by a desire to prevent another military coup and the threat to his own position. Still, given the experiences of the rest of the region with military rule and civil a war, it turned out to be a pretty canny move. It has meant that Costa Rica has been reliant on American support, not least to guarantee their security soothe more obviously “Americanised” culture here is not unexpected.
What Costa Rica does have in spades is breathtaking scenery. The drive into the mountains is truly beautiful, with panoramic views stretching as far as the eye can see, just lush green forest everywhere. The roads are largely unpaved which makes the drive slightly more exhilarating than I would have liked but all too quickly we are up in the mountaintop town of Santa Elena on Monteverde.
Monteverde is famous for its cloud forest – the elevations are so high here that the mountain tops often disappear into the clouds – teeming with wildlife and adrenaline adventures. It is also home to a number of coffee plantations. I visited a small, family-run farm. The tour guide, Diego, is one of the great-great-grandsons of the founder and we met several brothers, cousins as well as Mum and Dad on the tour around their coffee fields, learning about the coffee harvest as well as their sideline in cocoa and sugarcane. It was a really interesting morning, where I got to taste raw cocoa beans, straight from the fruit (kind of like lychee if you’re interested), through to raw cocoa paste and finally some handmade ‘chocolate’. Needless to say, my backpack now has a very strong coffee smell having bought about a kilo for family and colleagues (I’m not a huge coffee drinker myself).
I even got to go into a cloud for the first time, on horseback. I normally shy away from these kind of activities as the animals can be very badly treated but Marvin grew up with horses and, as he shows us some pretty impressive tricks, the horses clearly trust him, giving him a well-earned reputation for caring for his animals. I can’t quite say the same for his poor guests; every five minutes, he turns around to shout at us to “move your horse more” and berates us for us going too slowly “see you tomorrow!”, he jokes about how long it will take us to get around the route. But the banter aside, he turns out to be a really good teacher and has me galloping for the first time despite not being much of a rider. It’s a lovely afternoon in the mountains but as we make up our way, the temperature drops dramatically and everything saddlery gets rather wet; it’s not raining, per se, but there is a fine mist in the air and I realise we have entered the cloud layer. It’s quite bizarre as one minute you’re in the sunshine and the next, you’re really not. The views become misty and murky as the visibility drops, along with the temparture, as the wind picks up. And then, after about 30 minutes, suddenly the sun is back out.
The scenery back down the mountain makes the two hour bus trip to the Arenal lake fly by and suddenly the Arenal Volcano is looming ahead under a heavy hat of thick dark clouds. The temperature – and humidity – difference is palpable; Monteverde was a chilly 20 deg C overnight and saw me back in jumpers and long trousers, a pleasant break from the sweaty 40 deg C of the past few days. We drive around the base of the volcano through rolling green countryside to the town of La Fortuna. I have clearly been spoiled by too many quaint colonial towns because the squat concrete buildings and tourist overload of La Fortuna makes me want to immediately get back on the bus. So I decide to ease myself into it with an evening trip to some hot springs. There are resorts advertising hot springs, all fed by the geothermal waters from the nearby volcano, all down the road between the lake and the town. I opted for one of the more popular ones – blissfully peaceful midweek – and spent a rather lovely four hours relaxing in the warm waters, with temperatures between 40 and 50 degrees C, surrounded by lush palm trees and atmospheric lighting. It’s hard not to feel relaxed after that!
So the next day, the little town actually started to grow on me a little. I had a lovely morning walking to a nearby waterfall, surrounded by quiet little pools. It was good to get some exercise and fresh air with a four mile walk and over 500 steps down (and back up) to the falls. Cue a pedicure, a smoothie and some reading in the afternoon and, all in all, it’s been a pretty good day. La Fortuna still isn’t somewhere I would spend a lot of time but I feel like I made the most of you time here.
My penultimate stop is the capital city of San Jose. One of the youngest cities I have visited on this trip, the oldest building in San Jose dates back to the late 1800s; the old liquor factory funded the development of the city, before coffee was imported from England, and now serves as one of many museums in the city centre. My first impressions aren’t great, to be honest. The downtown area has a really gritty feel, with a packed pedestrianised street carving the city centre in two. Costa Rica has a population of around 5 million people, of whom about 3 million live in the central area including Can Jose; it’s said that, at anytime, 1 million of them are on Avenida Centrale! However, things distinctly pick up with a walking tour (courtesy of Barrio Bird). I meet Carla in one of the little parks that I discover are dotted around the eastern edge of the centre, in an area once home to politicians and coffee moguls and now the home to Congress, the “metallic school” (imported from Belgium in 1897 when metal buildings were all the rage in Europe) and an amazing collection of street art. Wandering the streets with Carla gives me a much better sense of San Jose’s personality and history, from the tallest building (a whopping 8 storeys, thanks to earthquake threat) to beautiful murals painted into the side of a house depicting the story of Don Quixote (the bane of every Central American school child’s existence, by all accounts). She takes me into a couple of art galleries, explaining the meaning of some fearsome looking face masks, used by indigenous tribes to ward of evil spirits, and the techniques behind exquisite carvings and weaved baskets. Carla also proved to be a great source of advice, pointing me in the direction of a cool little cafe and a boutique selling unique products all made by Costa Rican artisans; I am now the proud owner of a lovely bag made from cork!
My last two days are in the hills overlooking San Jose and Alajuela, in a remote yoga resort called Pura Vida; this is Costa Rican slang for “awesome” and it is exactly what it says on the tin. I’m actually the only guest for most of stay – a couple of people were here on my first night but leave after being here for a couple of weeks looking very relaxed – so I get the huge site largely to myself. I really wanted to have a couple of very relaxed days at the end of such a busy trip to make sure my batteries are fully recharged before going back to work next week and I have definitely achieved that. Private yoga lessons in studios with spectacular views of the valley, delicious and healthy vegetarian feasts, (more) hammock time and a bit of sunbathing by the pool all leave me feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, although also not wanting to leave!
I’ve had an amazing trip: 5 countries, Mayan ruins, colonial towns, history, culture, art, beaches, endless buses and yoga. There’s still so much I want to see and experience in this part of the world that I can’t help planning the next trip or two…
Costa Rica Directory
Stayed: Monteverde Inn (a beautiful little hotel in its own private nature reserve, with stunning views and around 3.5km of trails. Best showers ever, and solar powered so guilt-free; the owner is hoping to be 90% self-sufficient in the next year. Some way out of town but worth it)
Ate: The Treehouse (self-proclaimed one of the ten most bizarre restraurants, built around a huge tree. Very pretty with good food and reasonable – for Costa Lotta – prices)
Stayed: Hotel La Fortuna (a bland hotel in a bland town, enough said)
Ate: Soda El Rio (a typical Costa Rican cafe with a good daily deal, possible to eat for under $5). Baldi Hot Springs (as part of my hot springs excursion, an unlimited buffet meal with plenty of savoury and sweet options – good value considering restaurant prices). La Central (an open air cafe-restaurant on the main strip serving cheap breakfasts and a good range of vegetarian options)
Drank: The Rainforst Cafe (a pleasant cafe wth huge cakes and a good selection of cold coffee-based concoctions). The Green House (a little organic cafe offering delicious smoothies, vegan ice-cream and some amazing sandwiches. Not cheap but better quality than a lot of other places in town)
Stayed: Hotel Inca Real (worst hotel of the trip, the less said, the better). Pura Vida (technically closer to Alajuela than San Jose, beautiful resort offering yoga, excursions and spa treatments. Great food. Excellent service from really friendly staff)
Ate: Mercado Central (the middle of the central market is home to a plethora of local soda serving cheap, tasty comida typico). Cafe del Mundo (a slightly more upmarket Italian restaurant in the old district, huge portions, good service and good value).
Drank: Cafe-Te-Ria (a tiny little cafe serving great coffee and cakes, excellent wifi)