Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A chico and chica in Costa Rica

We wrapped our 2009 with a vacation to this beautiful tropical paradise and got drunk on adventure, good food and pretty sights. There could've been no better end to a roller-coaster year.

I was attracted to Costa Rica since the moment I saw that my Yoga haunt was having a teacher training there. Well, I didn't end up trained but it seemed like a perfect spot for a winter getaway - reasonably priced, tons of activities and close enough to not lose half our week in travel.

Two weeks before we left I hit the library and cleaned out the Central America travel shelves. Clearly, I ended up with too much information to process but Lonely Planet's budget travel books were handy. Since the country has a ton of beautiful destinations, I used the internet and the books to narrow it down to a handful. We were going just 2 weeks before Christmas so I didn't want to be stranded without a bed and a roof over my head. I charted out a rough itinerary and booked a few hostels and inns. From our previous experiences, hostels have mostly turned out great. We stick to private rooms with attached bathrooms so we usually get hotel amenities and a great atmosphere for much less. The last bit of preparation was to brush up on my basic spanish. There is an online educational soap-opera called Destinos which was fun and quite useful.

The airport we flew into is about 18 km north east of the capital city - San Jose. While most people use SJ as a hub to move around, it did not have any big attractions so we decided to skip it and get right on with the rest of our trip. Our first stop was to be Arenal, home to an active volcano and numerous hot-springs. Due to a flight cancellation, we missed the last bus to Arenal and were left with no choice but to take a taxi. Taxis are quite expensive for long trips, but one such ride across a trip could be slipped in. And guess what, I bargained at the taxi office, in my broken Spanish, and shaved off 30 USD from my bill.

We reached Arenal late that evening and headed straight to a hot springs called Eco Termales. For about 30$ a person, we could lounge in 5 different hot water pools of varying temperatures. The place was clean, barely crowded and extremely relaxing. My only gripe was that the showers in the changing rooms had no hot water. Yeah, irony.

We took a taxi to El Castillo from there and checked into our volcano view cabin - Cabinas El Castillo. This place is supposed to have the best views of the lava flows at night. Sadly, very sadly, the volcano fell dormant 2 weeks before we got there (probably) as an after effect of a mild quake. Nevertheless, the cabins were charming and the food excellent. The Tilapia at their restaurant is highly recommended.

Early next day we found that the top of the volcano was still hidden by heavy fog and got a ride from two friendly Canadians to the Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal (exactly what it sounds like). We took a trek/ hike into the forests to a lovely viewpoint from where we could see the fog much more clearly. Well, the other couple had been here 4 days and still not seen the volcano so we shut up. The hike was beautiful though, we saw caotis, birds, grass-cutter ants, mint blue beetles and some fascinating flowering plants.

We bid our goodbyes to El Castillo and it's still hidden, freshly dormant volcano. Maybe next time. Our next stop was Santa Elena. To get here, the easiest way is a taxi-boat-taxi ride. The whole things costs around 20$ per person and was arranged by our hostel in Santa Elena. Considering we had not paid for it nor had any receipts to show, everything went smoothly. The boat ride across Lake Arenal is fabulous. The lush greenscapes, the view of the volcano and the rolling hills made us happy we chose this mode of travel. At the other side of the shore, we had a taxi waiting for us. This part of the ride was extremely windy and scary. The roads are bad, the lanes narrow and the terrain scary. Motion sickness tablets are surely a godsend. We passed through several small villages and little towns before we reached the rather touristy destination of Santa Elena. You know it's a tourist spot when the place has only 3 small streets but more than 10 hostels, 6 restaurants and 2 huge and hip souvenir stores.

We stayed in Pension Santa Elena which is a charming little hostel. Even though our room was only slightly larger than our bed, the folks there are extremely helpful and
gave us all the information we needed on the adventures, trips and tours, not to mention the good discounts on them. On the first night there we went to a quaint little restaurant called Morphos and followed it up with a quick visit to the TreeHouse restaurant. Nestled under the canopy of a tree, this place is lighted beautifully, has great cocktails and peppy Tico Music.

Early the next morning we headed out to the Monteverde National Park. Monteverde is one of the world's most beautiful cloud forests. By definition, the altitude and location of a forest ensures a lot of rain clouds and a permanent light dewy , misty look. Walking through this place is nothing short of dreamy and early mornings are a great time. We took a guide so that we could spot some of the birds and the animals. The guides are extremely knowledgeable ornithologists and nature lovers and they come equipped with binoculars and great spotting power. Through our hike, we spotted a ton of colorful birds and some white faced monkeys. After a point, our guide and fellow hikers proved to be too much of bird enthusiasts for our standards so we broke away and headed out on our own. We trekked up to a point called the inter continental divide. On a clear day, it is rumored that you can see both the Pacific and the Carribean seas from this point. We saw fog. The hike itself took about 3 hours but the entrance ticket is valid for the whole day. There are buses at several times to take you back to Santa Elena.

After the morning hike we geared up for the big adventure of the trip- canopy zip lining. I had read about this and seen it on TV a few times, I knew it absolutely had to figure on our list. We asked Diego at Pension Santa Elena for the biggest and the scariest and he suggested Extremo Canopy. It is said that canopy ziplining in this area is one of the best in the world, simply because you zip line between mountains and the scenery is just to die for. For 40 dollars per person you get to slide on 14 cables, each of varying lengths and at different heights. It is pretty scary but the sights definitely trump the fear factor. We even got to see two full rainbows in the valley below us as we were zipping across. The last one called the Superman is a 1 km long zipline between two cliffs at almost 600m height at the lowest point below. I do not have any words to describe that ride. Since the day was clear, we could also see the Pacific coast from that height even though it was almost 200 km away. There are some awesome videos on youtube if you search for it.

We had planned on visiting Jaco for it's beaches but were advised to skip it and head directly to Manuel Antonio and Quepos. So the next morning we took a shuttle ride at about $30 per person for the 4 hour ride. We got off at Manuel Antonio Backpackers hostel for our next stop. The guy here thought I was a Latina for all of 2 minutes and that has remained a bragging point for my Spanish skills since then. Manuel Antonio is marked by its lovely Pacific beaches and the adjoining national park is home to many species of animals. Quepos, a bustling town about 20 minutes away is the nearest hub to this destination. After checking out the hostel we headed to the beach.

The public beach is outside the national park and fairly crowded. Folks there will try to fleece you for bringing you drinks and for renting the lounge chairs but otherwise it is a pretty beach. While there, we even managed to snag a good deal for a sea kayaking /snorkeling package the next day for about 45 per head including lunch. Sunset was spectacular and we walked up the hill to our hostel - a 3 mile hike. We did stop for dinner at El Avion. This place has an old unwanted Airplane inside which they have a bar. The food is pretty good and you have a view of the ocean as well, almost like the perfect date.

The next day was our date with the ocean. After a nice breakfast at Alejandro's down the street we took our free shuttle to the kayaking area. This place is a small cove in the ocean and the water is unbelievably minty icy blue. We had another couple and the guide in their own kayaks. I have only been kayaking once before and that was in a lake that was just a glorified swimming pool. Compared to that, the ocean is a bit difficult. We stopped our kayaks a little into the sea and dove in to check out the fishes. The reefs are pretty dead and nothing compared to Seychelles or South France but the fishes made up for it. There were quite a few varieties in bright beautiful tropical shades that teased you by almost touching your fingers. The rest of our kayaking trip involved an unexpected underwater moment and the loss of a favorite top that I shall not dwell into. As is customary by now, I also ended up with a few scratches on my feet and a dark tan. But, the color of the water was totally worth it. Too bad we couldn't take the camera along. The lunch that came with the package was at the local Best Western- really good food, especially the juices and the Arroz con Pollo. We later checked back into this same hotel and decided we needed some luxury on our last day- namely an ocean view, a tiny TV and free towels.

That night we went to a spa, my first such experience ever. The fact that it was pouring heavily and we couldn't be doing anything else made me feel a tad better. Plus of course, the massage was right out of a catalogue, complete with doors open to a drizzly green tropical paradise with a light aroma of incense and several calm Buddhas staring at you. After days of heavy adventure and a lot of activity, this was pure indulgence. And Heaven. The dinner that night was at a local version of KFC. Also heaven :D

The next day was our last day. We headed out to the Manuel Antonio National Park. This hike was memorable because of the sheer number of animals we got to see and at the end of the hike we landed on some of the prettiest beaches I have laid eyes on.
White sands, coconut trees, green green trees, very few people and the infinite turquoise sea. The white faced monkeys we struggled to spot in Monteverde were literally posing for us here. Not to mention raccoons, iguanas and all the unnamed animals by the mangroves at the edge of the park. Beautiful, beautiful Manuel Antonio.

As we took our bus from Quepos to the San Jose airport later that day we knew we had missed some of the incredible beaches on the Caribbean and on the Nicoya Peninsula. Yet, I think this was one of our best vacations ever. Things to do, things to eat and things to remember. Just how we like it.