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Costa Rica, Feb. 1997

Duration: 3 weeks

Notes for the traveler:

Costa Rica is quite a small country (about the size of West Virginia), but has a remarkable variety of climatic zones: cloud forest, rain forest, arid scrubland, swamp, beaches...Some areas were cool and pleasant during our trip, others were hot and muggy. If you're traveling through the whole country, expect variety.

Costa Rica has set aside a large fraction of the country (about 30%) in nature preserves, though enforcement is spotty.

Compared to other Central American countries, Costa Rica is relatively wealthy and developed. Most people can read and write, the phones work, you can drink the water (or at least brush your teeth with it), the main roads are decent (though often slow because of ponderous trucks), buses run on time, and hotel reservations are taken and respected. Most people speak some English, so it's easy to get around as a tourist, though as always people appreciated it when we tried to speak their language.

On the other hand, minor roads are often quite bad, and even the main roads are usually just one lane with no shoulder, so travel can be very slow indeed. E.g., from San Jose to Puerto Jimenez (on the Ossa peninsula, on the way to Corcovado National Park), a distance of 200 miles as the crow flies, took 9 hot and uncomfortable hours on a non-stop bus. From there, it was another hour by chartered taxi to our lodging outside Corcovado. Consider flying.

Most inexpensive hotels have no hot water, though some have ineffective heaters to provide lukewarm water.

Food is usually simple, and can be boring. There is little variety. The national dish is "gallo pinto", a mixture of rice and beans with some very mild spices. Fruit is often available---rinse it, and eat it without worries.

Prices are considerably lower than in the U.S., but not dirt cheap. In 1997, we paid $15 or more for a decent hotel, and $4-$8 for a typical dinner. Figure about 1/2 of the U.S. rate (though the dollar may be stronger now).

Our trip included:

1. A few days in the capital, San Jose
Most guides to Costa Rica suggest getting away from San Jose as quickly as possible. I'm inclined to agree. There are a few museums (the Gold Museum is supposed to be interesting, though we didn't go), and we spent an interesting day wandering through the farmers' market and walking around the city, but given all of the great things to do in the country it's hard to see why you would spend much time here. If you do find yourself in the city for a couple of days, we highly recommend the "Hotel Grano de Oro", which was very comfortable, friendly, and pleasant, if rather pricey by Costa Rican standards.
2. Monte Verde cloud forest
Our introduction to wet tropical forest. We took a guided day tour along well-maintained trails...a guide is definitely worth it, at least for your first outing: if we'd been on our own, we wouldn't have known where to look, what to look for, or how to identify and interpret what we saw. And what we saw included rare and impressive "Quetzal" birds, a sloth, and howler monkeys, in addition to the more usual carpenter ants, strangler figs, hummingbirds, etc. Normally, one is allowed to camp overnight only at a hut far into the forest; unfortunately that trail was closed due to a mudslide while we were there.
It's not just the insects and animals that differ greatly from what we're used to in the U.S.---many of the plants and trees are also remarkable. Giant strangler figs are particularly impressive: their seeds are deposited by birds high in the branches, where the plants start taking their nourishment mostly from the air. They send out roots that slowly wind their way down and around their host tree, eventually reaching the ground. Finally able to draw nutrients from the soil, they continue to grow, both upwards and in width, until eventually they engulf the tree in a web of roots and branches. The tree then dies, both from being shaded out and from the strangler's constrictive pressure on its outer layers. Eventually the host tree decays completely, leaving a huge, hollow strangler fig in its place.
Other trees are also interesting, like the one shown at right, which has spikes (presumably evolved to discourage animals from climbing it) all around the trunk.
Also in this area, we hiked around a private nature preserve (where we saw a tapir, among other things), visited a butterfly farm, and took a "canopy tour" that featured climbing up the inside of a huge, hollow strangler fig tree and zipping between two elevated platforms along a cable. We also found a scorpion in our shower one night!
3. Rincon de la Vieja volcano
Interesting hiking through dry tropical forest and grassland, and dramatic scenery as we climbed the flanks of the volcano. After a hot, somewhat difficult climb through dry grasslands against very strong headwinds, we cooled off in a warm pool under a waterfall. We then descended (having been told that the all-day hike to the summit isn't worth it, since often there's nothing even visible because of heavy fog). After the descent, we hiked over to yet another pool under a waterfall...this one much bigger (both the pool and the impressive waterfall), and with warm water issuing from rocks off to one side. Finally we hiked back through a stretch of forest, where we saw a family of comical-looking coatimundis hussling across the road.
4. Playa Grande---sea turtles
This beach is a nesting area for sea turtles (there's also one on the Caribbean coast, Toruguero, which we did not go to). At Playa Grande, the beach is closed during the night but guides take people out to see the female turtles come ashore and lay their eggs. (The guides are some of the same people who used to raid the nests for eggs, which were used in the local cookie factory, as recently as 10 years ago). No females came ashore the night we were there, which was at the end of the season, but we did go out early in the morning and find a nest that had "broken" during the night. The eggs all hatch at about the same time, and the baby turtles, which are just a few inches long, all work their way up to just below the surface. Then, when the night-time temperature falls low enough, they climb out and head for the sea (attracted by the whitish color of the foam---they will head towards any light, so lights from towns or hotels along the beach can make them crawl the wrong way, fatally). Usually, some of the baby turtles that started out deep in the nest aren't able to make it out at night. These will be dug out and eaten during the day by birds and other predators, which are able to find the nest easily once all of the other turtles climb out of it.
According to the nearby turtle museum (which has an unspectacular but very interesting display on the life cycle of the sea turtle), once the nest has hatched, it's OK to dig out the otherwise-doomed turtles that didn't make it during the night, and take them to the sea and give them a chance. We tried this with about 4 or 5 of them, but, sad to say, birds snatched them all up out of the ocean within a few minutes. Depressing, but part of the normal cycle.
5. Corcovado National Park---rainforest
We stayed for several days at the edge of this large and fairly remote rainforest, where we saw three kinds of monkeys: howler monkeys, spider monkeys, and white-faced capuchins. Also a flock of colorful (and raucous) macaws, a "flock" of bats that formed their own bat-house from a palm leaf, and a fer-de-lance snake (most poisonous in Central America). Plus many interesting trees, insects, etc., including a flying beetle the size of a hen's egg that landed on a lodge-worker's hand; after it dug its legs in when someone tried to remove it, the worker said "no moleste mas"---"don't bother it anymore", and just left it there until it flew away. As at Monte Verde, we did a day hike with a guide, and definitely recommend it. We also did an all-day trek up a river, a relatively easy way to cover a fair amount of territory.
We also did a 2-hour horseback ride...my horse was so small, I felt sorry for it. (I also discovered that the leg position for horseback riding was very painful to my knee).
The western edge of Corcovado is on the Pacific, and has beautiful beaches with excellent (though sometimes dangerous) body-surfing.
6. Turrialba area---rafting on the Pacuare River
We did a 1-day raft trip on the beautiful Pacuare River. The water was pretty low, so we had a relatively calm ride, though the guide did a good job turning even tame rapids into an adventure by choosing exciting routes when possible. The scenery was great. We saw a small amount of wildlife, including an eagle and a poison-arrow frog.
There is a plan to dam the Pacuare and flood everything that we saw...a tough issue, since the country certainly needs power and hydro is one of their only resources; but nature tourism is a major industry. I'd hate to see them dam the Pacuare, but it's hard to be critical from here in the resource-rich, dam-happy United States.
We stayed for one night at the "Turrialtico Lodge", a great location on the top of a promontory overlooking the valley below. After we went to bed, Alec Baldwin dropped in for drinks...with a woman who wasn't his wife. They apparently were staying at the very ritzy hotel in the valley, right in the middle of a big sugar cane field, where we ended up staying for a night at the end of our trip, on the way back from the Caribbean. It was indeed nice, but when we jogged a few miles down the road to use the tennis courts in a small enclave of houses belonging to the owners of the adjacent cane processing plant, we had to stop playing after a short while: the air pollution was unbelievable. Our hands (and the ball) turned black from the ash in the air and on the court.
Also in this area, we visited a macadamia nut farm/processing plant, where the foreman showed us around for a small fee, and sent us off with a big bag of nuts.
Leaving the area on our way to the Caribbean, we had just passed a truck on a long uphill, when we came around a bend and saw a sloth crawling (very, very slowly) across the road! We pulled over quickly, and I grabbed the sloth and hustled him off to the edge of the road before the truck came by. He hissed gently at me and moved his arms around slowly. I put him in the grass (not very good photo at left), and we watched him briefly, but we were worried (probably needlessly) that our presence would make him nervous and lead him to do something bad, so we left. We then worried about him (her?) for the next several days (should we have carried him to a tree? What if a dog came along? etc.), until we passed through again on our way back and saw the track where he had crawled through the grass, and Juliet eventually spotted him up in a tree.
7. Puerto Viejo---Caribbean coast
My friend Mark Bertin and his then-girlfriend said the southern Caribbean coast was the highlight of their Costa Rican trip. Things here are very different---a black caribbean culture, with English as the first language.
We were less enchanted by the culture (perhaps because we didn't experience it so much), but we still enjoyed the area very much. One day, we (and two other travelers) hired an ex-pat American hotel owner to show us around. She took us to an iguana farm, run by assimilated Bri-bri indians, where iguanas are raised and released to try to again build a wild population, a traditional source of food.
We also visited a less-assimilated indian village---a small group of grass huts, elevated on wooden stilts, where a bunch of indians were sitting around talking. We bought some of their crafts---a drinking gourd, and some bows and arrows. I found it all very interesting. They had just cooked some palm nuts, and gave us some. We thought they tasted great---reminscent of artichoke hearts, but with a nuttier, drier texture---and that it's just a matter of time before they're "discovered" by some him American restaurant.
We tried to pay with travelers checks at the small hotel we were staying at, but the woman there said she didn't want them. Disappointed, we nearly headed off on a 45-minute trip to the nearest bank in order to cash them...but then the woman's brother agreed to cash them for us. It turned out he was the former president of the country! I told him that we had greatly enjoyed our visit and that we appreciated the country's efforts to protect their wildlife and rainforest...and that we hoped that they wouldn't dam the Pacuare river (see above). He quite reasonably said that nature is important, but the people need electricity, and Costa Rica has no oil or coal and they don't want to go nuclear, so a dam might be necessary.