300 mile detour

Lately, we have been griping about the serious amounts of rain soaking us during what is supposed to be the dry season in Costa Rica. We were lucky that we managed to visit Tortuguero the two days when the rain was intermittent, and downright sunny the morning of our jungle canoe trip. After Tortuguero, our next stop was the small beach community of Cahuita. While it was a very nice Caribbean village on a crescent shaped white-sand beach, we didn’t see much through the sheets of rain that descendedfor two straight days. Hoping for better weather in Bocas del Toro, Panama, we headed for the Costa Rican-Panamanian border. The border was nearby, and then it would be a scant 30 miles to the Caribbean paradise that awaited in Bocas.

Desired Route to the Border

Driving to the border, we passed flooded fields, rushing rivers that overflowed their banks, and houses surrounded by ponds of muddy brown water. We wondered why people were flashing their lights at us as we drove down the road, and quickly realized they were trying to warn us that the border road had been washed out. Not two hours before we arrived, according to the crowds gathered at the gaping hole in the road, the waters overtook the road and washed it away.

We scrambled to look at our maps to figure out our detour. With sinking hearts we realized that we had to drive all the way back to San Jose and across to the Pacific coast of Costa Rica to get to the other border, takings us 300 miles out of our way. Rain, fog, wrong turns and two mountain crossings slowed down our drive, and an exhausting 10 hours later we collapsed into a cheap hotel in the small city of San Isidro. We will forge on tomorrow for the small surfing community of Pavones, Costa Rica on the sunny Pacific coast to rest for a couple of days before continuing into Panama.

Our 300 mile detour

Jesus lizards and apocalyptic downpours in Tortuguero

Our original plan was to drive from Arenal to Tortuguero National Park, with a one day detour to Volcan Poas. The largest active crater in the world, it also is the only volcano in Costa Rica with a paved road leading to its summit. After our attempts to see an active volcano at Arenal were thwarted by clouds, we figured we might as well drive up to the crater of a bubbling volcano to take a peek in its sulfurous depths.
I guess it wasn’t in the cards for us to see a volcano in Costa Rica. A few minutes after passing signs indicating that we were only 37 km away from the Poas Volcano, the road suddenly ended in a tangle of construction equipment building a bridge as the road up a steep hillside. We wondered what had happened. The river below the bridge must have taken on a huge surge of water. Huge fallen trees clogged the ravine and all foliage had been ripped from the riverbanks, leaving only exposed rocks and mud. Later we realized that this spot was close to the epicenter of an earthquake that had occurred a month earlier, and wondered if this earthquake had caused all of this destruction.
We gave up our plans to visit the Poas Volcano after looking over our maps- it would take us hours of driving to wind our way around to the other entrance to the park. After turning around and backtracking 10 km, we headed for the ‘mini-Amazon’ of Tortuguero National Park. The park is only accessible by boat or airplane, and is home to the small village of Tortuguero. Narrow sand paths wind between colorful houses on stilts. From the soccer field you can practically see across the width of the island to both the black sand beaches of the Caribbean Sea and the muddy waters of Laguna Tortuguero. Dodging the periodic downpours that temporarily flooded the sandy walkways, we wandered the island for the afternoon and sampled the delicious Caribbean dishes.

The next morning our knowledgeable and strong guide, Roberto, paddled us in a canoe through the park for 3 hours. While we had to don our raincoats a couple of time for brief showers early in the morning, after an hour the sun broke through the clouds. Drifting quietly among thick carpets of lush vegetation and towering walls of royal palms, we observed the abundant wildlife. Three varieties of herons stalked through the weeds, small yellow-beaked jacanas scampered across floating plants, grinning caymans sunned themselves on logs, and iguanas and other lizards perched on branches. We saw a bright blue and green basilisk lizard, which looks very dinosaur-like due to a crest on it’s head. The nickname for this reptile is the “Jesus Christ Lizard” from his ability to run across the surface of the water on his elongated webbed hind feet in order to avoid predators. Spider and howler monkeys leaped through trees and clambered down branches while feasting on leaves. The tour completed, we managed to time our boat-ride back to our car perfectly too, as the skies opened up with deafening downpours for the rest of the afternoon. Hopefully the rains will let up as we travel further south down the Caribbean coast.

Our most expensive cheap day yet

After leaving Monteverde, we drove through the verdant Costa Rican countryside to Volcan Arenal, one of the most spectacular active volcanoes in all of Central America. There is a slight catch though: the volcano is often covered with clouds since the area gets about 20 feet of rain a year. Unfortunately for us, the volcano was completely obscured by clouds the entire 48 hours we were there.
As we’re traveling on a budget that gets tighter and tighter as our trip gets longer and longer, we are working diligently to keep expenses down. We try to buy food in supermarkets instead of eating in restaurants, camp rather than stay in hotels, and hit the tiendas for beer rather than go to bars. After driving for 2 hours around the town of La Fortuna looking for a cheap place to stay, we stumbled upon Cabinas Don Carlos. While their cabinas were about $50/person, they were kind enough to let us park our car on their beautifully landscaped grounds and camp overnight for free. We ended up giving them around $8 USD for their generosity, and got a coffee and juice in the morning in return.

Almost free place to stay in hand, we ate cereal for breakfast, made bean sandwiches for lunch (which are better than they sound), and had a cheap dinner at a local soda. Expenses for the day: about $18. Pretty good, but there was one catch. We do shell out the big bucks if we think there is something special that we should not miss. And we couldn’t miss the Tabacon Hot Springs despite the price. After closing our eyes while charging our $60 day passes on our credit cards, we spent an enjoyable day wandering the lush jungle grounds, sitting under hot waterfalls and in steaming pools, sliding down the hot water slide, and sneaking in beers in our water bottles. So despite spending next to nothing on food and lodging, we ran way over budget after buying the passes. We just couldn’t pass up visiting Tabacon after Chris’s experience there 6 years ago. To bad the price has tripled since then. Good thing we visited now though; at this rate of inflation in another 6 years it would break the bank.

From dusty beaches to cloud forests

A bumpy, dusty ride punctuated by six river crossings brought us from Playa Negra to the beach community on Playa Guiones. The long, narrow, white-sand beach and small town were separated by a band of natural forest, and Chris had his pick of waves on the huge beach break. We spent a relaxing afternoon and the next morning catching waves and reading on the beach before driving to the cloud forests of Monteverde and the small town of Santa Elena. Heading inland from the Pacific coast, it felt like a special treat to drive on pavement after the jolting dirt roads we were used to on the Nicoya Peninsula. This all changed when we exited the Pan-American Highway for the winding mountainous road that leads up to Santa Elena. Steep ravines plunged off the side of the curvy road, and we were glad we brought along a full-sized spare after a sharp rock punctured our tire. When the tire pressure monitoring system light lit up on our dashboard, I first thought we might have a hard time figuring out which tire had a slow leak, as we already dealt with this annoyance once on the Nicoya Peninsula. However, the second I stepped out of the car I could hear a hissing sound over the whipping winds and could actually see the tire rapidly deflating. We kept our fingers crossed that we wouldn’t spring another leak in the remaining bumpy 10 miles to the town of Santa Elena. Flat tires are a daily ritual there, so luckily there were plenty of llanta repair shops to help us out. Tire patched, we found a cheap dorm room at a newly opened hotel and filled up at a local soda, a small restaurant serving comida tipica, or typical Costa Rican fare.
Hiking in the Santa Elena Nature Reserve, we could hear a beautiful variety of birds signing in the misty forest ceiling, and squelched through ankle deep mud on the wet trails. This was one of the first times we hiked through a real jungle on our trip, so we enjoyed the hanging vines, huge ferns, moss-draped trees, and colorful flowers. Afterwards we indulged in home-made ice cream at the local cheese factory (where we decided not to sample to Chocolate Cheese), splurged on an Italian dinner with great red wine, and hit the bunk beds early since we had a 7:30 am guided hike through the Monteverde Reserve the next morning. Our knowledgeable guide pointed out monkeys, birds, tarantulas, poisonous plants, and we were lucky to spot two very rare resplendent quetzals roosting in their favorite place, the avocado tree. The national bird of Guatemala and arguably the most beautiful bird in Central America, quetzals are being driven to the verge of extinction through illegal hunting and loss of habitat. Less than 50% of the visitors to Monteverde ever glimpse a quetzal, so we were very grateful for the sharp eyes and expertise of our guide. Hoping to see even more wildlife, we also took a guided night hike in a nearby forest. As the sun set, lots of cuddly mammals scurried around, foraging for some last food before they curled up for the night. Several cute agoutis (cat-sized gerbils) strolled by, followed by a trotting grey fox, lots of raccoons, and a coati (a raccoon relative). Fireflies flickered in the darkening forest and crickets chirped throughout our hike. Our guide’s binocular-sharp eyes picked out minuscule frogs, sleeping birds, and lots and lots of bugs, and also lured some huge orange tarantulas out of their hovels. Without these guides, I’m sure we would have missed over 90% of these animals, plants, and insects.

Is there such a thing as too much free time?

An entire lovely month has now slipped away as we’ve been relaxing in our hexagonal cabina on Playa Negra, and we’re finally going to leave. While we could easily stay here another month, we’ve decided to try our luck at a Playa Nosara, a beach about halfway down the Nicoya Peninsula. The surf is supposed to be good, and it looks like the living will be easy there as well. What have we been doing here for the last month though? Our days have been gorgeously occupied with surf sessions, home-cooked meals, friendly dogs, waxing surfboards, feeding semi-wild horses, ping pong tournaments, mustache growing, hand-washing laundry, pimping out our car, website development, lots of reading, and spear fishing. Turns out that in Costa Rica, life expands nicely to fill up available free time.