Costa Rica

Costa Rica

Feb 29th - Mar 12th, 2020

After a relaxing week in Belize, the next country on my Central America itinerary was Costa Rica. I arrived at San Jose International Airport in the early evening on a flight via Panama, as there are no direct flights between Belize and Costa Rica. Citizens of most western countries can visit Costa Rica without a visa, but you need to present a return ticket at immigration. They seem to be quite strict about this, and you may not be allowed to enter, if you cannot show that you have a flight reservation leaving the country.

To start my trip, I had decided to spent two days in the capital, San Jose, which is not what you'd call a beautiful city. There are a few interesting historical buildings and some nice museums, but no one comes to Costa Rica in order to see San Jose. I stayed in the very nice and centrally located Aurola Holiday Inn hotel. Walking around San Jose during the day is perfectly safe, but that's not true at night. Even the taxi driver from the airport warned me about the fact that I should avoid going out on my own at night. San Jose is located on a plateau in the center of the country at an altitude of 1,200 meters. The city itself has a population of around 350,000, but forms part of the central value metropolitan area with a population of more than 2 million, which is about 40% of the whole country. I spent the next morning exploring the city by foot, and did discover a few beautiful sites and buildings such as the impressive National Theatre, which was constructed in the late 19th century,

or the neoclassical style buildings of the Metropolitan Cathedral (constructed in 1871) and the Old Post Office (built in 1914-17).

One place I would highly recommend you visit in San Jose is the Museo de Oro Precolombino, which is located in a modern underground space right underneath the Plaza de la Cultura. The museum has a lot of good information about human history in this region of the world, and a very impressive collection of pre-Columbian gold artefacts. I was amazed by the level of craftsmanship that created these incredibly intricate treasures, which are among the few that were saved from being shipped to Spain and melted down in the 16th century.

For my next 7 days in Costa Rica, instead of more sightseeing, I did something a bit different. I had been learning Spanish by myself with an app for a few months prior to my trip, and I had decided that it would be a good idea to attend a proper language class. In my search for Spanish language schools I found a number of schools that offered Spanish lessons together with surfing lessons, which sounded like something I definitely needed to try. The school I picked was called the School of the World located in Jaco, a beach town at the Pacific coast.

I had arranged a car through the school to pick me up in San Jose for the 2 hour drive to the coast. The school is located near the center of town, and about a 10 min walk from the beach. They have a wide range of accommodation options, from shared dorm rooms to deluxe rooms with their own kitchens. The school offers a number of different programs, including Spanish lessons for all levels as well as surfing, photography and yoga classes. The minimum length is 1 week, but some people stay there for several weeks. I had chosen a combination of Spanish, surfing and yoga, which meant I spent three hours every day in Spanish lessons, many of which were just one on one with a local teacher. Even though I was only there for a week, it definitely improved my Spanish significantly. The same can not be said about my surfing skills. We had 1 to 2 hours of surfing every day. The waves at Jaco beach were great, not too big and scary for beginners, but still quite challenging. While my surfing certainly did improve somewhat near the end, I spent a lot more time falling off the board than standing on it, but it was a lot of fun nevertheless.

Jaco is one of the major tourist centers along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. The whole town seems to consist of mainly hotels, restaurants, bars and shops that sell beach wear and paintings of sunsets. Jaco is most famous for its 4 kilometer long and wide black sand beach, which is sheltered in a bay. Despite the large number of tourists here, the huge beach never felt crowded.

Due to its orientation to the west, the beach was the scene to some of the most spectacular sunsets I had ever experienced.

Jaco is also a good base for day trips to some of the many spectacular national parks the country has to offer. That is why I decided to stay another to nights in Jaco, after the end of the school. I booked a day trip with a local tour operator to visit the nearby Manual Antonio National Park. They picked me up from my hotel in the morning for the one hour drive to the park. We stopped for a local lunch along the way, where we had our first animal sightings: a pair of beautiful scarlet Macaws and two tiny owls.

Since it was a Sunday the park was quite busy. Many locals come here from San Jose on the weekends to enjoy the stunningly beautiful beaches inside the national park, whereas foreign tourists mainly visit to see the animals. Out first interesting animal sighting was a huge tree snake right above our heads, which we would have never seen if our guide hadn't pointed it out.

The animal I was most hoping to find here, was the sloth, which I had never seen in the wild before. Costa Rica is home to two of the world's six species of sloths, and Manual Antonio National Park is among the best places to find them. Even though they don't move much, they are very difficult to see, since they tend to hide far up in the trees. Camouflage is their only defense against predators, so they blend in almost perfectly into the branches and leaves. The reason that sloths move so slowly, is that they have the slowest digestion system of any mammal. Thus they have evolved to conserve as much energy as possible, and they can spend up to 20 hours a day sleeping. We managed to see two of these gorgeous animals just hanging out in the trees above us.

The beaches inside the national park are not only busy with people, but also with lots of monkeys. It is forbidden to feed them, but the monkeys don't seem to know that, as they are very adapt in stealing food out of peoples bags or sometimes out of their hands.

For my last three days in Costa Rica I ventured inland to the town of La Fortuna. To get there I had booked a car through, which I had never used before, but which worked very well. My driver, Flori, was there on time and patiently allowed me to practice my rudimentary Spanish with her throughout the 3.5 hour drive. The other nice thing about transfers booked through is, that you can specify in advance if you want to make any sightseeing stops along the way. I had asked to make a stop at the bridge over the river just outside of Jaco, which is famous as a place to observe huge crocodiles. And I was not disappointed, the river was swarming with these giant reptiles. One of the surf trainers had told me that during the wet season, they sometimes get swept out into the ocean and end up on the beach. And they can be very dangerous to surfers and swimmers.

La Fortuna is a small town about 2 hours to the north-east of the San Jose. It is mostly known as the gateway to the Arenal Volcano National Park, which is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. I had three nights booked in the Magic Mountain Hotel, which is a very nice and large hotel located a bit outside the main town and close to the volcano. On my first day in La Fortuna, I had a full day tour booked through GetYourGuide. The tour started at La Fortuna Waterfall, which we reached by driving up to the top of hill over a rough road in a trailer pulled by a tractor. From there it was a 20 minute steep walk down into the valley and across a narrow suspension bridge to reach the falls.

The waterfall was very impressive. You are allowed to swim in the pool underneath the falls, but we were warned to not get anywhere near the falling water, which drops more than 70 meters and is powerful enough to kill a person instantly.

On our way back from the falls we stopped at an indigenous village, one of the last few to survive in Costa Rica. It belonged to the Maluku Indians, which is one of the 8 remaining tribes in Costa Rica. Indigenous people make up less than 2% of Costa Rica's population. We spent about an hour at the village learning about the people and their traditions, and were able to buy some handicrafts. And just outside the village we came across a two-toed sloth hanging out in a tree.

After a nice lunch, we drove up to the slopes of Arenal Volcano, which is an active strato-volcano and dominates the landscape with its 1,633 meters high perfect cone. Having emerged less than 8,000 years ago, it is the youngest volcano in the country. After it lay dormant for hundreds of years, Arenal erupted violently in July 1968, burying several nearby villages and killing almost 100 people. The volcano continued to spew out lava almost every day until 2010, when the eruptions suddenly stopped. Except for the occasional puff of smoke, the mountain has been quiet for 10 years now. We did a short hike through the 1968 lava field, but we could not go higher up, since the summit climb has been closed since 1998 (after a few tourists were killed by falling ash and toxic fumes). We were very lucky with the weather, as the mountain was completely clear of clouds, which apparently does not happen very often. We also had great views in the other direction across the Lake Arenal.

On our way down we saw a Yellow-throated Tucan sitting in the tree. And when we entered the forest we noticed these trails of what looked like large insects with green wings. Only when we looked closer did we notice that these weren't green insects, but colonies of ants carrying neatly cut green leaves. There were thousands of them, and the trails went on for hundreds of meters up and down the mountain. It was a fascinating spectacle to watch.

The last activity on our day tour was a visit to the hot-springs. La Fortuna is famous for its numerous hot-springs, which are fed from the piping hot water wells emerging from deep underneath the volcano. The resort consisted of a series of small and large pools with water of varying temperatures, ranging from frigid to hot. Soaking in the hot pools with a cold can of local beer was a wonderful relaxing way to end the day.

I woke up the following morning to a sound I hadn't heard in weeks - heavy rain outside. I realized this was the first rain I had seen in my entire month in Central America. It was a much needed respite to a serious draught in the region. But it did not last long and by early afternoon the blue sky was out again. I decided to visit the Hanging Bridges Park, which was about a 20 min drive by Uber from my hotel.

After the rain had cleared, the view of the volcano seemed even more spectacular from the lookout point of the park. Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park is a large nature reserve in the rain forest to the north-west of Arenal volcano. It's best to buy the entrance tickets online in advance, since they give you an exact time, when you can enter, in order to avoid over-crowding along the trails.

The beautiful walk through the park, which takes around 1 to 2 hours depending on how much you stop, crosses more than 15 suspension bridges, some of them at great heights above the jungle floor. You can do the walk by yourself at your one pace, or book a guided nature walk or a bird watching tour. The jungle is very dense in this area, and you can see a huge variety of trees and plants, amazing flowers, exotic looking birds, and if you are lucky some monkeys. They even have pumas and jaguars in these forests, but those are rather difficult to find.

I did not have nearly enough time to explore all of what Costa Rica has to offer. It is known as one of the premier countries for eco tourism. Environmental protection is taken very seriously here. In fact the Costa Rican government has announced an ambitious plan to become the first carbon neutral country in the world by the year 2021. So I definitely have to come back and explore this amazing country in more detail.

On Thursday, I took a car from La Fortuna straight to San Jose airport for my flight to Panama, but at this stage it started to look unlikely that I would be able to continue my Central America trip for much longer, as the COVID pandemic began to shut down the entire world. I did make it to Panama, but had to leave only a couple of days later.

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