Costa Rica


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Costa Rica is a Central American country bordering Panama to the south, Nicaragua to the north, and both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Costa Rica was sparsely populated by indigenous peoples before its discovery by Christopher Columbus in 1502 and the Spanish conquest that followed.

The name Costa Rica (Rich Coast) was given to the land by the Spaniards from the heavy gold jewelry worn by the natives. Eventually the natural resources were limited and the settlement did not grow rapidly, being merely a starting point for Mexico, Central and North America. Later in 1821 Costa Rica successfully declared its independence from Spain and two years later after disputes seceded from Mexico. In 1948 Costa Rica was declared a democracy.

Since the late 1980s, Costa Rica has become a popular nature-friendly travel destination, with an organized system of national parks and protected areas, covering about a quarter of the country, the largest in the world as a percentage by territory. This ecosystem contains a rich flora and fauna, and despite the small size of the country is estimated to host 5% of the world’s biodiversity. The country also has many beaches in the Pacific and Caribbean, as well as many active volcanoes. Since the 1990s, Costa Rica has developed ecotourism and adventure activities.

Costa Rica has historically managed to stay away from the political turmoil and violence that neighboring nations still suffer from. Costa Rica does not have an army, it abolished it constitutionally in the 1940s, allocating the funds saved to health and education. It is one of the Latin American countries with the highest human development index, third globally in terms of environmental performance and one of the happiest nations in the world.

The country’s vast variety of flora, fauna and landscapes with rainforests, volcanoes, and beaches are a magnet for visitors from all over the world, especially the United States. In terms of tourism, Costa Rica is ranked as the most expensive country in Central America and perhaps in all of Latin America. Food, accommodation, activities, entry fees to national parks are expensive compared to prices in Western Europe and North America.

 


People

Costa Ricans, also called Ticos, are a multinational society of many different ethnicities.

The country has a population of about 4 million, of whom 83% are white or mestizos, 7% are African-European (mulattoes), less than 2.5% are Native Americans and 1% are African-Americans. The main religion is Catholicism and Spanish is the spoken language.

Unsurprisingly, Costa Rica has been named one of the happiest countries in the world, mainly because its residents do not stress about everyday things. Ticos have a very relaxed, simple way of looking at life. For this reason, as well as the heavenly environment, the most famous phrase, the motto of the country and the popular way of greetings, is Pura Vida, which in free translation means simple, pure life.


Places

The country’s capital and largest city is San Jose.
Costa Rica is morphologically divided into the following distinct areas:

The Caribbean coast is the least visited and relatively isolated area of ​​the country.

The Central Valley is the population center of the country where the capital is located.

The Central Pacific is one of the most visited areas in the country, with many beaches, tourist accommodation and national parks.

Guanacaste is the arid region, with little rainfall any time of year, great beaches for surfing, and some volcanic parks near the Nicaraguan border.

The Northern Plateaus is a sparsely populated mountainous area, most famous for its active Arenal volcano, surrounding hot springs and volcanic lakes.

South Pacific coast. One of the most important biospheres on the planet, full of exotic endemic flora and fauna, and some of the most beautiful and remote tropical beaches.


Costa Rica. Pura Vida

August 2021

Costa Rica wasn’t high on my travel bucket list. Countries with so much tourism development, in U.S. standards and style, do not meet the standards of authenticity, exploration and adventure I am looking for. On the other hand, my curiosity to get to know every part of the world was added to by the pandemic restrictions of the neighboring countries and so, after the road trip to Colombia, here we are starting another road trip in Costa Rica.

The flight with a layover in Panama City provided stunning views of both Atlantic and Pacific oceans as well as the canal. Additionally, the Copa Airlines employee probably forgot to charge us for the luggage that was not included in ticket fee. Entry into Costa Rica has no restrictions for those vaccinated.


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Boring stories of car rental frauds

Τhings began wrong upon arrival in San Jose.Actually, problems started a few days ago when I booked a car online through an app. Confirmation never came, despite the long wait.  After contacting representatives of the app, I managed to cancel the reservation. But there were no available vehicles anymore. Through the expedia website I make a new reservation, of an SUV car with full insurance coverage, at a much higher price. I was aware of the special laws of Costa Rica but I did not have any other options. Just to mention some of the terms that apply and cause headaches to travelers:

  • The vehicles available in the country are much less than the demand.
  • There are some agencies that trap customers with various legal terms and exceptions that are not covered by insurance.
  • Not any insurance covers damages from crossing rivers and driving on beaches.
  • International insurance is now valid in Costa Rica where local insurance is obligatory.
  • The cost of insurance can be exorbitant and the user does not know the amount if not in direct deal with the agency.
  • Local companies usually do not offer full insurance with zero liability.
  • The expedia coverage is valid only for American citizens and not in Costa Rica!
  • Expedia does not have customer support with physical representatives but with virtual ones, ie bot machines that respond to chat with predefined messages without providing solutions.
  • Cancellation is not possible after the arrival time.

The rental company, offers to cancel the reservation if I wish and hopefully the amount will be returned by expedia. But there is no vehicle available in any other agency at that time and the trip are impossible to completed by public transport in uor available time. It rains a lot outside, time passes by and despair overwhelms me.

I have never been robbed yet in any country and at this moment I feel that I am being robbed legally!
We finally decide rent the vehicle, a brand new luxury Hyundai Tucson (the expedia insurance fee was returned after a few days). But I do not need luxury here, neither unnecessary stress for such an expensive car, I just need reliability. I regret not booking a simple Yaris that cost just € 250 a few days ago, but everyone advises that many parts of the road network can’t be passed with a low clearance car, especially during the rainy season.

The road trip begins

The luxury SUV fits into a cosmopolitan lifestyle so we make a stop at a nearby mall. Actually we visit made to make exchange and get local SIM card. It’s already dark and the trip to La Fortuna in the Arenal area is just beginning. The road is not easy, narrow, uphill and winding, it also rains heavily. After 15 days of driving in Colombia I was hoping for better conditions. Tired and sleepy after a long day of traveling from previous destibnation, Colombia,  the trip of 3 hours seem endless.

Arenal

La Fortuna is a small town and starting point for tourists visiting the Arenal volcano and the surrounding area with the homonymous national park and the largest lake in the country. As everywhere in the country, all kinds of organized activities are offered at reasonable or unreasonable costs. Even a simple walk in the national park to see the mountain, has a fee. We choose one of the private companies that have set up facilities in the area, “Sky Adventures Arenal Park”, which offers the most impressive zip lines on top of the rainforest canopy. The price is $88! Definitely the trip can not go on with such expenses, but fortunately we will control that on next days. The view of the volcano is spectacular although the clouds hide the crater. We get the equipment, helmet, boulder, gloves and pulley. I didn’t have with me a simple helmet holder for GoPro, which they rent for $ 10 non-negotiable! Let me stop whining about money. I had done zip line before, in Laos, but this is more exciting here. The adventure begins with the sky tram, wagon that take you to the starting point. Here are 7 consecutive steel ropes from which you hover 200m above the forest and for 750m length each, advancing at speeds of 70 kms/h. The dense vegetation of the jungle under your feet, the view of the imposing volcano and the lake in the background, make the experience worth every dollar… (oops, money talk again). The sounds of the forest and the pulley rolling on the rope are enriched by the screams of a funny scared young guy.

We decide to skip the well-known waterfall of this area because there are simply more impressive ones in this world than this tourist trap. We do the same with the other big national park, Monteverde which has similar and equally expensive activities, as well as a bad road to get there. Well on this road the car would prove to be worth the mon…

Garza – Ostional

Beautiful routes around Lake Arenal descend to the Pacific coast. It will take 5 hours to arrive in Garza where with finally we find through the darkness and water holes, the simple wooden accommodation by the sea, managed by a young Italian. After settling in, in the darkness of the deserted surrounding area, we look for the only restaurant that operates by the main road, where we will enjoy excellent dishes. We meet again the Italian who declares himself world nomad, together with his friends. By daylight, the endless beach is revealed enchanting, as well as the ocean with its sea breeze. Sea turtles spawn here but we do not meet any, only a strange dead animal that we later discover that it is a coati, usually seen crossing the road…

The strong waves of the ocean offer an opportunity for surfing, but they inform us that the low tide does not make this beach suitable and we should carry the boards further north to Ostional beach or Nosara. The idea is rejected since I do not intend to soil the car interior with seawater from the boards. To reach Ostional we have to cross a relatively deep river. The Tucson proved capable, if we had rented a Yaris it wouldn’t cross the river. The impressive Ostional beach has black sand reminiscent of Iceland.

Montezuma, Santa Teresa

The village of Montezuma is located at the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. Since the area is relatively far from the main roads, it is therefore not overcrowded.

Montezuma is one of the most beautiful places we’ve been in Costa Rica, with quiet beaches, dense forest, some wildlife and a small village. The room we stay in is also tasteful, a wooden structure on upper floor surrounded by dense vegetation, next to the owners’ villa. Although the monkeys left traces of their presence around, they did not show up. The weather is rainy every day, but just for a few hours.

Apart from the beaches, the village has another point of interest. Following an uphill road, then a path in the forest and finally a descent, you reach some waterfalls that I didn’t find quite impressive. Some people swim in the murky waters of lakes below the waterfalls, but I really did not find anything tempting in all of this. A guard collects a small entrance fee at the entrance of the path, but I think that mostly the sweat was not worth it. Santa Teressa is another Pacific beach with a romantic atmosphere and wild waves, which despite its remote location, is visited by many surfers.

From Montezuma we return further north after making a short stop at Tambor beach. A friend recommended it to us but there wasn’t anything remarkable. Then from Paquera port we intend to cross the bay of Nicoya by ferry, saving a little driving time. At the moment I go to get tickets I discover that I do not have my wallet. I panic. From the wide pocket of my pants it probably slipped off at some point during the day, either in the room or at Tambor beach. My ego can not forgive so much nonsense, losing my wallet on a trip!

We call the house lady who does not speak English and she assures us that she hadn’t found anything in the room or in the garden where the car was parked. We return to Tambor beach where I remember there was an old man collecting empty bottles. I do not find anything, obviously if he found it he would keep it.

Luckily it contained just some daily money, less than $100, and a credit card that I canceled.

We ask some passers-by, to which police station do you hand over if you find something, but they answer that … they do not hand it over. Disappointed we return to Paquera, of course the ferry has left and the next one departs after an hour and a half, so we continue a little further north to the port of Playa Naranjo from where another one leaves a little earlier. After over an hour crossing under the cloudy and -as every day- sporadically rainy sky, we reach the port of Punta Arenas, which is built on a thin peninsula.

Jaco

Jaco is a med-sized seaside resort town for the locals. On the endless beach you’ll see the Costa Ricans having joy time by the beach, you’ll enjoy the ocean vibe as well and maybe you will see pairs of macaw parrots flying over your head.

Uvita

Much further south is Uvita. If you look at it on the map, you see a peninsula that has the shape of a whale tail. It’s just a coincidence that humpback whales come to these waters in their migration trip from Antarctica and also from Alaska. Although I’ve seen whales up close in Madagascar in a boat without other tourists, the sightseeing trips in the Uvita area are also worth it. Okay, the truth is that I am very uncomfortable with group tourism but fortunately the sight of so many whales rewards me. In the open sea there is a small island named Isla Ballena (Whale Island) where many species of seabirds nest and there is a through cave from where the waves burst out like… whales. We get back disembarking on the double beach of the peninsula with the shape of a tail. I enjoy a unique landscape with reflections of palm trees and sky on the thin water surface over the sandy beach.

Even further south of Uvita is the Osa Peninsula and Corcovado National Park. It is considered the diamond among the national parks of the country, with the richest ecological variety. National Geographic has described it as “the most biologically intensive place on Earth in terms of biodiversity.” Unfortunately the time and vehicle required, as well as the weather conditions of the season, preclude such an experience. We attend the most touristic Manuel Antonio National Park on the way back, a bit north of Uvita.

A strange symptom makes me wake up at night. My finger has a small, persistent pain and intense itching at the same time. I thought I was bitten by a mosquito or even a venomous spider, so I put on some cream and go back to sleep. Next night I see swollen 3 of my fingers and the itching was much intense. Long story short, the following days all fingers of both hands swell, and rashes appear on the wrists and arm. Nothing similar has happened to me in the Amazon or other wilder parts of the world, but the touristy Costa Rica does not welcome me much. On some beaches I noticed a warning sign about a tree called “manzanillo de la muerte”, which is toxic if you touch. But I do not remember touching any tree on the beach. I search online for other toxic plants in Central America and all I can find are reports of poison ivy. The symptoms match and even appear days after contact, lasting up to 3 weeks! Maybe there at Montezuma Waterfall, some of the roots I was holding from were toxic? Although I had difficulty grasping the steering wheel or other objects, I didn’t bother to deal with the issue and left to heal on its own. Finally, a few days later, still having dysfunctional hands, I decided to go to a pharmacy and ask for cortisone cream. The pharmacist suggested that I also take some pills. I asked him if he knew the suspicious plant and he answered no. The symptoms gradually began to subside, without being totally eliminated for several days after returning to Greece.

Manuel Antonio National Park

The smallest national park in the country but perhaps the most visited. Shortly before the entrance, self-appointed park rangers indicate a parking spot on the street trying to distract the customer from a regular parking lot next to the entrance. The visitors are annoyingly a lot. Almost everyone is in groups with a guide and portable telescopes from where they observe the animals in the trees. Voices of excitement are heard when  medium-sized animals, like a bat are spotted. A spider, even a sloth on top of a distant tree. This way I’m not interested to see any animals. Fortunately, there are some paths that are not followed by the groups, but they do not have interesting fauna, except for small frogs for the variety of which the country is famous. The park includes a double beach here too and at the end a forest peninsula with a relatively large size and height. On the path of the perimeter route we meet a large cayman alligator and many capuchin monkeys. With some patience and interaction with them, I gained their trust and some… handshakes. One of the two beaches gathers the majority of visitors, while the other is almost empty, since the waves are huge and the red flag warns of danger. At one point, a rocky islet nearby softens the waves, but here too swimming requires attention as the currents are strong and dangerous. In this enjoyment of the calm but also of the wildness of nature, big iguanas go down to the beach in search of food and warmth. At the time I was trying to get some photo shots of the large reptiles, something is moving above my head. A sweet sloth is watching me, hooked on the branch just above me. Trying not to stress him, I take close-up shots and caress him gently. He is receptive and quite curious, but doesn’t like to touch him on the head. It is slowly retreating to a higher branch but is still at a point of contact. I would love to hug him but of course I do not take him off the branch, protecting the peace of this so vulnerable animal. In the Brazilian Amazon, where sloths were indigenous pets, they were more familiar with hugs.

There is not enough time to visit the Atlantic coast, nor does it make sense to dedicate a lot of driving without enough time to enjoy these places. The schedule includes more realistic points of interest, which are not mentioned in the tourist guides. After all we are more interested in the daily life of locals. Heading north and then west, we pass again through Jaco and spend the night in the Orotina area, in a budget, wonderful resort with swimming pool, in dense nature. Through foggy mountain passes we enter into the mainland again to visit the town of Zarcero with its unique gardens, where the ornamental plants are cut in the shape of animals and other imaginative forms. Of course we don’t miss the two cities with names referring to our homeland, Atenas (Athens) and Grecia (Greece). We decide to skip Poas volcano, although located nearby.

San Jose

Initially I wasn’t keen of ​​spending time in the capital San Jose. Few tourists visit, describing it as boring and relatively dangerous. Once again personal taste is so subjective and it’s better for each traveler to self discover points of interests. San Jose has no typical attractions, except for a few public buildings that retain colonial architecture. But the daily life of the citizens, the local markets and environment that is not set up for tourism, made me feel the essence of the trip as I prefer. Even the storms that broke out for a short time, added to the images and vibe that this city of Central America lives.

I did not expect from Costa Rica to excite me and it really turned true. The small troubles did not play a role in this, but mostly over-tourism that has eliminated the authenticity and traditions of the local community, has commercialized every infrastructure and has predetermined activities. To be fair though, if I had spent more time exploring the most isolated parts of the jungle and the country’s rare biodiversity ecosystem, if I had added the adventure factor, I would probably have had a different experience.

I am not unaware that Costa Rica is a model of successful and sustainable development, with absolute respect for its national product which is the natural environment. Recalling the moments and the admittedly enchanting images I obtained, I conclude that even if it does not fit me perfectly as a destination, the trip was really worth it.

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