by Kitty Kroger
(Note: more pictures of this trip can be found on kittykroger.smugmug.com)
After I returned from Southeast Asia in February, I was smitten by travel fever. Within a few weeks three friends and I made a rapid-fire decision to sign up for an eight-day Costa Rican nature adventure with Caravan Tours.
We flew on a direct flight with Alaska Air. The plane tickets were quite inexpensive—about $500 round trip.
Monday 4/3. Day 1. San Jose
When we arrived on Air Alaska at the airport in San Jose, Costa Rica, a van was waiting to transport us from the airport to the hotel. As the driver led us to the van, there was an enormous clap of thunder. I was delighted; it reminded me of my childhood summers on Flathead Lake in Montana. What a way to start this trip. Surprisingly, though, there wasn’t much rain that evening. Nevertheless, Caravan advised us to always have rain gear on hand.
The van ride to the hotel took over an hour because of the notorious traffic in San Jose. The Hotel Club Intercontinental was quite lush. There were two pools and a spa at the hotel, plus numerous rooms for business conferences. In the huge lobby a pianist entertained us with jazzy renditions of popular songs. We sat on comfortable seats around small circular tables with glasses of wine and put in requests to him. He told us that he was a classically trained German pianist.
After the buffet dinner, consisting of a wealth of options, including vegetarian ones, and the requisite rice and black beans, with crème Brule for dessert, we had an orientation to the country and an introduction to our 15 or 20-member tour companions by our tour guide Lauren. Lauren is 37 years old, a single mom with an 11-year-old son.
Here is our tour bus. The bus was big; our group was small. Much of the time I sat in the back of the bus and took pictures out the window, a difficult task because of the swaying and bumping.
(From time to time I’ll include in bullets some general facts about Costa Rica that I learned along the way.)
- It’s called a “green country.”
- Strict laws exist against smoking. Infractions bring about a warning, then a fine of over $1000.
- If caught drunk driving, your car will be taken away.
- Wild animals are protected.
- Mail is not sent out by the post office because the country wants to eliminate junk mail. To pay bills you have to call the bank and find out the amount, then wait in line at the bank to pay. If you want to mail a personal letter, you don’t write an address but instead a description of where the house is located: for example, near Los Zapatos market three houses from the corner of the Pajaro School.
- Gay marriage is not allowed but there are still demonstrations in favor. There is an attitude of “Pura Vida” by the populace, which in this context means something like “whatever.”
- Everyone says “Pura vida.” It is used as a response to “How are you?” as well as meanings more generally such as “It’s all good,” or “That’s just the way things are.”
Tuesday April 4. Day 2. Poas Volcano, Escalonia Cloud Forest
We had to have our suitcases outside our doors by 6:15, then go to the breakfast buffet, and check in at the lobby by 7:20 am. These times were similar most mornings. Throughout this tour we spent a lot of time on the bus, getting to all our locations, since we were traveling a long way and hitting many different sites. Some people complained about being on the bus for so long, but I figure that’s the trade-off for seeing a lot versus staying longer somewhere but seeing fewer sites.
We headed off to Poas Volcano, having been told there was only a 30% chance of seeing into the crater because of overcast weather. However, we managed to get a splendid view! There was a cloud of ash rising from the volcano. Only a picture can capture the splendor of this volcano. See below.
More information: “Part of the Pacific Ring Fire Circle, Costa Rica has over 200 identifiable volcanic formations dating back over 65 million years. Today, however, only 100 or so show any signs of volcanic activity, while just five are classified as active volcanoes.” (Source: https://www.govisitcostarica.com/travelInfo/volcanoes.asp)
After viewing Poas, we walked along a trail in the Escalonia Cloud Forest. [Note: Unlike a rain forest, a cloud forest is almost completely covered by fog. It has less rain but more humidity.] It was lush—my first experience in a tropical forest.
We proceeded by bus to a coffee plantation tour. The altitude here and the rich volcanic soil create an excellent environment for growing coffee beans. Our guide went through the coffee-making process, step by step. I will try to roughly repeat it.
First, coffee beans in the ground produce only after four years. The coffee flowers smell like jasmine. The trees produce good beans for 30 years, after which they are replanted. The beans are picked and placed into plastic baskets. Workers, many of them Nicaraguan, receive $2 a basket. It takes one-to-two hours to pick a basket. The beans are put into containers that hold the equivalent of twenty baskets. The container is filled with water. The low-quality beans float to the top and are skimmed off.
A chancadora is a grinder that removes the red skin without removing the seeds.
Station 3 ferments the beans to remove sugar. The they are laid in the field to dry for five days. Then the dried beans are roasted. Below is a picture of me raking the beans by cutting across them.
To make decaf, you can either use acetone or steam. Our guide’s favorite coffee was French roast. I bought a small bottle of coffee liqueur for a friend.
On the way back we stopped at the Church of San Rafael in Zarcero in Alajuela, Central Highlands, known as the pink and white church. Truly lovely.
We continued on to Fortuna, where we stayed at the Magic Mountain Hotel overnight.
Wednesday, April 5. Day 3. Fortuna, Rio Frio cruise, volcanic hot springs
We headed north, driving two hours, passing through sugar cane, teak, bananas, plantains, pineapple and orange plantations. Oranges are harvested by hand and they aren’t sweet. We saw iguanas in trees. Farmers burn crops to prepare the fields for new ones, but there is a pending law to prohibit this in an effort to mitigate pollution.
We drove past rural houses and little villages. Some houses had satellite dishes on their roofs. We were told that the satellite companies offer free satellites for three months, but then people can’t get rid of them. 200-300 channels are available, but it’s expensive.
Somewhere on the trip I saw a Walmart, a McDonald’s, and several other fast food places, signs of the encroachment of the United States and other wealthy countries.
More scenes of the countryside and the small villages:
Next we took a cruise on the Rio Frio, which runs through the world-famous Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge. We saw various species of birds including anjingas (long-necked, long-tailed swimmers). We also saw various species of iguanas, and howler monkeys.
The boat was large enough to seat about 50 people; it was covered, with decks on the front and back. Our guide was named Gary and spoke excellent English. I talked to him and learned that he came to the U.S. when only three-years old, and returned to Costa Rica after primary school. He had lived in New Jersey and Orange County, California. We talked about immigrants and refugees. Nicaraguans are the main immigrants in Costa Rica. There are also African refugees who get stuck at the Costa Rican border into Nicaragua because Nicaragua won’t let them through to the U.S.
At a certain point we came to a sign that said “Welcome to Nicaragua.” We had reached the northern border of Costa Rica, at which point we turned back. It’s a porous border.
Nicaraguans receive free medical care at hospitals in case of an emergency. About 6% of Costa Rican medical care goes to Nicaraguans. No one can be charged by the hospital if they get sick. Their children also have the right to an education. It is easy for Nicaraguans to pass through the porous border. At times when there are more laborers than needed, the country tries to deport them but it is easy for them to return. according to our guide, they can earn as much in one week as in one month in Nicaragua.
In the afternoon we returned to Fortuna and visited a volcanic hot springs. There were 25 pools. They were supposed to get hotter as one ascended, but we only entered four or five. Many of them had circular bars in the hot springs for one’s drinking pleasure.
- Intel and Microsoft do telemarketing.
- The population of Costa Rica is 4,895,000 people. 60% of them live in San Jose, the capital. The traffic there is similar to Los Angeles traffic—horrible! Everyone talks about it. There are driving restrictions. Different labeled license plates have to not drive on certain days.
- There are many motorcycle accidents.
- Gasoline is $6 a gallon and comes from Venezuela. Costa Rica is trying to buy more oil from the United States and Mexico.
- The average salary is $600 per month. After the U.S. recession in 2008, the economy plummeted. No welfare is allowed without a doctor’s statement that one is unable to work.
- There are two seasons: “rainy” and “more rainy.”
- In mid-May it rains constantly. People hang their wet clothes inside their houses behind their refrigerators.
- Highway 1 goes from Alaska to Argentina.
- Presidents serve four years, then take a mandatory break, after which they can run again if they want to.
- Very few homes have air conditioning because it is expensive. People get used to the heat.
- Crop production is not widely mechanized except for rice production. Rice and beans are eaten at least once daily.
- Lots of fish are available for eating.
- Schools serve breakfast and lunch, and very natural foods are provided.
- School children must wear uniforms. The colors vary from grade to grade. Our guide Lauren’s 11-year-old son wears a tie to school.
- There is no transportation to school.
- Students must learn English and French in high school.
- The literacy rate is 98%,
- College is cheap. Students graduate debt-free. Tuition may be around $600 for four months, for example.
- The average wage is $1000 per month. Without a diploma it’s hard to find a job.
- There are many bicycle races in Costa Rica.
Thursday, April 6. Day 4. Hanging Bridges, Lake Arenal, Pacific Coast and Leatherback Turtle National Park
On this day we headed west towards the Pacific coast.
On the way we visited the Hanging Bridges. These are suspension bridges over the jungle floor, some very high. There are 6 or 7 of them. Several of us hiked and traversed the bridges. They rocked from side to side and it was difficult to balance. Below is a picture of me crossing one of them. I held onto the sides for dear life. (Just kidding.)
Walking through the forest canopy was a wondrous experience, especially since I had never before been in a rainforest. Water drizzled on us from the wet leaves but sheltered us from the rain. Most rainforest activity goes on in the canopy, not on the ground. We saw frogs, a spider with the strongest web on earth, wild hogs, cicadas, mating ants.
We made a loop and returned to the beginning of the trail. On our way to our next adventure, we passed a huge lake, 30 x 30 miles. This was Lake Arenal, the largest lake in Costa Rica.
More information: “The town of Arenal was relocated to higher ground when the lake was expanded with the construction of the Arenal dam in 1979. The old towns of Arenal and Tronadora now lie abandoned at the bottom of the lake, with the new town of Arenal existing to the northeast on the lake. This hydroelectric project is hugely important to Costa Rica, initially generating 70% of the country’s electricity, now closer to 17%, and was also a driving force behind Costa Rica’s green energy policy.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Arenal#cite_note-2)
- 97% of energy in Nicaragua comes from alternatives—mainly hydro-electric and thermal, but also wind and solar (only 1%).
- Century 21 sells property on this lake. Condominiums and hotels are being erected throughout Costa Rica.
- Bamboo is used a lot. It grows fast—up to 11 cm per day.
- ICE = Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (English: Costa Rican Institute of Electricity). This is the government electric company; it provides all the electricity for the country.
We finally arrived at the Pacific coast and to the Leatherback Turtle National Park in Guanacaste. We took a walk out onto the beach and Lauren showed us where the turtles come to nest between November and February. The turtles fear the lights of the large hotels and are driven off, so people are asked to turn down or turn off their night lighting and use only red lights, which don’t affect the turtles. The Marriott Hotel has cooperated with the use of red lights. When observers come, they are also given red lights.
Next we went into a viewing room and saw an excellent movie in English called “Peace, Love, and Sea Turtles: Leatherback Turtles of Costa Rica.” Leatherback turtles have been around for over 100 million years, but they are now an endangered species. Hotels and poachers are some of the reasons. They are the largest marine reptile in the world and weigh over 1000 pounds. They grow to six and a half feet long. They are key to the eco-balance. There are seven living species of sea turtles in the world, and four of them are found in Costa Rica (the olive ridley, the green, the hawksbill, and the leatherback).
According to Earthwatch Institute, “The leatherback sea turtle population in the Pacific, once the stronghold of the species, has declined by over 90% since 1980.
“Many of the remaining Pacific leatherbacks nest in the sands of Playa Grande, Playa Ventanas, and Playa Langosta on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Female leatherbacks dig holes with their flippers and lay about 80 round eggs, a process they’ll repeat up to 12 times during the breeding season. In about two months, the fragile hatchlings will emerge.
“The world is a dangerous place for these tiny turtles and their parents. They’re threatened by climate change, boat traffic, fishing gear, and humans harvesting their eggs.” (http://earthwatch.org/expeditions/costa-rican-sea-turtles)
We arrived at the Marriot Hotel in Guanacaste on the hot Pacific coast for a two-night R&R. The rooms were, needless to say, beautiful.
Friday, April 7. Day 5. At the Marriott Resort in Guanacaste on the Pacific.
In the morning we went on a walk with guide Andres and saw wildlife, but sadly I didn’t take notes. Later in the evening we took a beach walk with a different guide, Randall, to see lobster, hermit crabs, sea urchins, anemones, termite nests, termites to eat, piscinas de rocas (tide pools), wild almonds, and oregano. (I took notes. And pictures: Langostina shell, hermit crab, and our guide Randall smashing an almond pod and giving us a taste.
I also took a Latino dance class, just for fun and exercise. (No pictures.)
More factoids (are there ever enough?):
- There are water restrictions on the west side of the Continental Divide, where it is hot and dry.
- Some rain forests receive 80 to 260 inches of rain a year.
- Water is brought in to the hot western areas from the rain forests for cattle and horses.
Saturday, April 8. Day 6. Bird- and crocodile-watching cruise on the Tarcoles River
We left and drove a long way past many cattle ranches to the Tarcoles River, where we had a cruise along a mangrove forest. It was very hot and muggy. Below is our guide Lauren, in red.
On this cruise we saw crocodiles and birds. Below is a Great Egret and some crocodiles.
That night we stayed at the San Bada Hotel on the border of the national park. It was probably the only third class hotel—there were roaches and it wasn’t well kept up. But the patio had a beautiful view of rain forest trees. There were flying insects so we had to keep the balcony doors closed.
Our group was given a free happy hour by Caravan Tours. We took the elevator to the sixth floor and sat overlooking the ocean, watching the sundown. Spectacular! I had a daiquiri and a couple of beers.Below is a view from the roof.
Sunday, April 9. Day 7. Manuel Antonio National Park. Aerial Tram
This was our last full day, and one of the best. We started out with a two or three mile hike in Manuel Antonio National Park. Up and down steps and trail. At one point a howler monkey let out such a loud boom it startled us all. We couldn’t see it, however. We saw a sloth, white-faced monkeys playing, termite nests, and an agouti.
“The agouti (ah GOO tee) is a rodent from Central and South America rain forests that looks a bit like a really large guinea pig….”
White-faced monkey. (Picture by Maya Conn)
Then Martha and I waded in the ocean.
After lunch our tour group took an aerial tram ride though “dry” LOL rain forest, where it poured in on us from all sides. We got soaked so I didn’t get many pictures.
Then we entered a small butterfly garden, where there were some beautiful red flowers. We saw a few butterflies. See below.
That night we stayed at a comfortable hotel in San Jose not too far from the airport. We left our hotel about 10 a.m. for the airport, where we departed on Air Alaska at about three. On the plane ride home, I sat next to two Nicaraguan sisters, Priscilla and Jacqueline, who were on their way to visit their brother in central California. We talked books. Jacqueline is an addicted reader and had lots of recommendations. I can’t remember Jacqueline’s job, but Priscilla is a psychologist with a Spanish firm, Mspfre Insurance Company.
They also told me that healthcare is free but very slow; people turn to insurance policies to get faster results. As mentioned above, the government also pays for Nicaraguan immigrants who need healthcare. This causes some conflict in the society. Education is free in public schools—but there are stringent tests to get in. Private colleges charge tuition, but there are few or no entrance tests. So the rich often send their children to private schools.
Sometimes great experiences occur on the plane or at the least expected times.
We arrived home about 11 p.m. Great trip!
Where to go next?