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.
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 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.
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.
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.