Itinerary: San José – Parque Nacional Tortuguero – La Fortuna – Parque Nacional Arenal – Tamarindo – Reserva Monteverde – Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio – Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
In the Netherlands the weather is cold and wet, so it’s a good time to go somewhere warm and sunny. Like Costa Rica. The country in Central America of which 27% is desgnated nature area and which has no less than 186 nature reserves, including 32 national parks. It’s nature that makes so many tourists come to Costa Rica. Some of it also comes for adventure sports, but don’t expect any in this travelogue – adventure sports is not my thing.
After being on my way for more than seventeen hours (with a transfer in Atlanta, USA), I arrive at Aeropuerto Juan Santamaria near San José, the capital of Costa Rica, around 9 p.m. local time. I go through customs in no time and my luggage also comes quickly. I take a taxi from the airport to the city, where I have booked a room in a hostel on Calle 11, between Avenida 16 and 18. That’s the way addresses are indicated in Costa Rica, street numbers without a house number. Ticos (residents of Costa Rica) hardly even use those street numbers. An address is usually ‘turn right at that park’ or ‘two blocks after the church’. Even the taxi driver doesn’t know the street numbers I give him and calls on the way with someone who tells him where to go. Indeed at the park on the right…
After being seated in row thirteen on the plane, I am assigned room thirteen in the hostel. Luckily I’m not superstitious. I’m tired of the long journey and the time difference, so it’s time to go to sleep.
My biological clock is still a bit confused and I wake up early. After a fresh shower, I have breakfast in the covered courtyard of the hostel. The friendly owner of the hostel serves me a Costa Rican breakfast: rice with beans and eggs. A hearty breakfast that’s a good start to explore San José. Outside it’s about 25 degrees. Finding your way in San José is easy: the Calles run north-south and the Avenidas run east-west. San José is located in a valley between the Cordillera Central and the Cordillera Tilarán and is – in my opinion – not really a beautiful city. Lots of inconspicuous low-rise buildings and boring office buildings, a small park here and there (such as the Parque National and the Parque España) and above all a lot of traffic.
Apart from that busy traffic, San José makes a relaxed impression. In the Avenida Central, which is partly car-free, it is busy with both Ticos and tourists. Here many standard shops and international fast food chains. I walk through the Mercado Central, a covered market that started in 1880, where one part is aimed at tourists (t-shirts and stuff) and the other at the daily needs of the locals (vegetables and meat and stuff). You will also find a large number of small eateries here, some with a bar, others with seats that are reminiscent of an American diner. It’s a good place to get cheap and good local food. You can’t eat more locally than at Bedu in the Mercado Central, it is packed with Ticos.
After lunch I walk along the Parque Central, which is more of a square than a park, with a cathedral and a remarkably large bandstand in the middle. Below the Plaza de la Culture is the National Museum and on the south side of the square is the Teatro Nacional, one of the few old buildings in San José. In the square small children run between the pigeons and feed them corn kernels. I treat myself to an ice cream and sit on a bench in the square for a while before I go looking for a supermarket to get some groceries.
Parque Nacional Tortuguero
After packing my things and having breakfast, I go to pick up my rental car this morning. Because of the roads in Costa Rica (not infrequently unpaved) it is wise to rent an all-terrain vehicle, in my case I get a Daihatsu Bego 4×4, a popular car in Costa Rica. Leaving San José is easy, but I’m not out of town yet or I’m driving in the wrong direction. The signage here is rather poor and signs appear sparse.
It works something like this: suppose you want to go to A and you find a sign with A, B, C and D straight ahead. You drive straight ahead. There is probably no sign at the next intersection, so you drive straight ahead. After a while a sign follows: B turn right, C and D straight ahead. But where has A gone? It may be that you just have to drive straight ahead and that A is indicated again on the next sign. But it’s also possible that you have to go to the left and then to the right and that’s where you’ll find another sign with A on it. Or that you first followed A, now you have to follow D and then A appears again on the signs. In short, the signage in Costa Rica is sometimes very adequate, but sometimes also maddening!
Down some back roads and small villages I manage to find my way to Guapiles. The route leads over the lush green mountains north of San José. From Guapiles I follow the directions I got when I booked my overnight stay in Tortuguero, which is very convenient. At Cariari I pass a police check. I have to show my driver’s license and passport, the policemen are interested to learn that I am Dutch, after which I can continue my way.
At Cariari the asphalt road ends, the rest of the route is on a bumpy dirt road, full of potholes. This is when you are glad you have a 4×4, I’m not sure whether an ordinary passenger car would have survived without damage… The road continues between meadows and banana plantations. At Pavona you can park your car in a guarded parking lot and buy a boat ticket. You cannot reach Tortuguero by land. A boat will take you over the Rio Suerte to Tortuguero village in just over half an hour. Everything here is very green, everywhere you look is jungle, like if you have left civilization.
I am neatly dropped off at Rana Roja, which is just before Tortuguero village. It’s a beautiful place to stay: private cabins surrounded by jungle. The windows are not glass, but mesh, allowing the fresh air and jungle sounds to enter your room. Whistling, chirping and chattering are heard everywhere. There’s no internet and no cell phone coverage. The weather is beautiful, about 28 degrees and the lodge has a swimming pool, which I happily dive into. In the evening I have dinner in the lodge’s ‘restaurant’ run by a local family, where the food is simple, but very tasty.
The boat picks me up at six in the morning for a cruise at the canals of the Parque Nacional de Tortuguero. This is one of the areas with the most precipitation in Costa Rica and even when it is dry it is very humid. Just before I am picked up there has already been a heavy tropical shower and during the three-hour boat trip it will be alternately dry and wet. I say it’s called ‘rainforest’ for a reason…
During the boat trip along the lush banks we see a single caiman, a few howler monkeys and above all many birds, which is especially nice for the English couple with whom I share the boat and who are absolutely crazy about birds. When I come back to the lodge, breakfast is long over, but the owner comes to tell me that there is still food left. I’m happy with that, I’m hungry. After reading on the veranda of my cabin for a while, I ask if someone can take me to Cuatro Esquinas. This is the entrance to the national park (and only a short boat ride from my lodge), from here you can take a short walk (about two kilometers) in a part of the national park. You can walk there and back, but I cross somewhere to the beach and walk back along the beach. This is the Caribbean coast, but the weather (with the occasional shower) does not really make it beach weather.
At the end of my walk I arrive in Tortuguero village, a small village with mainly souvenir shops, restaurants and boat trips. The village exudes a Caribbean atmosphere and the Jamaican influences that you encounter all along the Costa Rican east coast, you can see it in the recurring red-yellow-green-black, men with rasta hair and Bob Marley t-shirts. It is very quiet, there are few tourists. And the food at The Coconut House is very good.
Parque Nacional Arenal
To go back to Pavona by boat, I can choose between the 6 a.m. departure or the one at 11:30. It’s going to be the 6 a.m. one, after all, I still have a long drive to La Fortuna ahead of me. I’m not the only one who is up so early, the boat is full. Back in my rental car the potholes in the road turn out to be full of water due to the rain, which make sthem easier to spot. But driving faster than about thirty kilometers per hour is not wise.
Back on the paved road I drive via Guapiles and with a wide curve to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui, then via San Miguel to Ciudad Quesada and from there to La Fortuna. It rains almost non-stop along the way. The route partly goes through mountainous area, but there are so many clouds that you hardly notice it, except that the road winds up and down. Fortunately, the signage here is better than around San José. Early afternoon I arrive in La Fortuna, a town that sits at the foot of the Arenal volcano. But the volcano is completely obscured by the clouds.
I spend the night here in… a tent. The Arenal Backpackers Resort has a number of ‘luxury’ tents (under a shelter), with a double bed and electricity. A kind of five star camping. I spend the afternoon reading in the hostel’s open bar/lobby, browsing the internet and getting groceries. It strikes me that every day the sun rises early and sets early too: at 5:30 p.m. it’s already dark. I have dinner at Las Brasilitas, an open restaurant near the hostel, this time not Costa Rican, but Mexican food.
In contrast to yesterday, today it is dry and a nice 25 degrees. First I go to the Catarata de la Fortuna, a waterfall (or actually two) just outside La Fortuna. It is still early and I am the only visitor. You can view both waterfalls from a vantage point at the top of the falls, but you can also go down via a steep path to get to the falls. The roar with which the water plunges into the river is impressive. It is a beautiful waterfall, surrounded by tropical greenery, definitely worth a visit.
Next I drive to the Parque Nacional Arenal, fourteen kilometers west of La Fortuna. Arenal was an inactive volcano until 1968, when it suddenly erupted, covering the entire area with a thick layer of lava. Now the Arenal is one of the ten most active volcanoes in the world. A walking route runs through the park, through a bit of rainforest that started to grow after the 1968 eruption. Every now and then I run into someone, but there are few other visitors.
At the end of the route you come to the 1968 lava flow. Large black boulders lie on the slopes. A bit of climbing gets you to the top where you have a great view of the surroundings and of the volcano, which is right in front of you. It is (as usual here) cloudy and the upper part of the volcano is covered in clouds, but it’s still a great sight and well worth the walk. On the way back, a second route runs through rainforest, where I encounter birds and squirrels.
In all it’s a three hour walk out and back. In the afternoon I buy food for tonight at the supermarket (I don’t feel like eating in a restaurant again) and I sit down to read for a while in the bar/lobby of the hostel.
After I have packed my things again and checked out, I leave La Fortuna and drive west. The first hour and a half I drive through the mountains of the Cordillera de Tilarán. Kilometer after kilometer the road meanders over the mountains and around the large lake Laguna de Arenal. From Tilarán the road goes down almost in one go and the weather clears up. From Cañas I take the Panamericana north. The Panamericana is the road that runs from North America all the way through Central and South America. Driving here is a lot more relaxed than in the mountains, because no matter how often you have driven in mountainous areas, it remains intense.
At Liberia (the town, not the country) I turn left to the Nicoya Peninsula. My destination today is Tamarindo, but before going there, I drive to Brasilito first. Along this part of the west coast of Costa Rica you will find several beaches. I park the car and walk across Playa Brasilito to Playa Conchal, one kilometer away. What a difference with this morning: thirty degrees, no rain, beach and the smell of the sea. The Pacific of course.
After relaxing on the beach for two hours, I drive the last part to Tamarindo. After checking in at Villas Macondo, I hang the clothes that have been wet since Tortuguero on a clothesline. The last few days the air was always so humid that nothing dried, but here the air is a lot drier and my wet clothes dry quickly. After showering and exploring the local supermarket around the corner, I lay down by the pool with a book. This warm, sultry summer evening I have dinner at the open restaurant Nogui, right by the sea.
The next day I take it easy. I read in my travel guide about my next destination (Monteverde), what’s there to see and – not unimportant – how to get there. I check my e-mail and walk about in Tamarindo. If anywhere in Costa Rica it becomes clear that the country thrives on tourism, it is here in Tamarindo. There are many American tourists (Tamarindo is popular with surfers) and the town doesn’t appear very authentic. The streets are completely filled with hotels, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and surf shops. I walk along the beach and take a seat at the open bar/restaurant Copacabana, with relaxing music and sea views. It’s a nice place, so I stay for lunch. The rest of the afternoon it drizzles and I continue to relax: read a bit, browse the internet a bit, eat a bit of ships, practice a little Spanish…
I leave Tamarindo early the next morning and drive across the Nicoya Peninsula. The environment here is not really spectacular: a long road, sometimes a small village, left and right meadows and further away some hills. Via the Puente de la Amistad I return to the Panamericana. After filling up the gas tank just to be safe, it’s a few more miles to the south before I come to a turnoff that leads to Monteverde. The last 32 kilometers are on a dirt road up the mountains. The road is reasonably passable, but a 4×4 is still recommended. The higher, the better the view becomes. Every now and then a car comes from the other side and besides that you have to watch out for crossing dogs and a cow that refuses to move. The road is slippery, so I can’t drive too fast: it takes me an hour to cover those 32 kilometers.
At the end I arrive in Santa Elena, a small village near the Reserva Monteverde and the somewhat smaller Reserva Santa Elena. It’s drizzling like I check in at the Pensión Santa Elena, which despite its name is just a hostel. The shorts and slippers make way for long trousers and walking shoes.
In the afternoon I first go to the Jardin de Mariposas, or the butterfly garden, just outside Santa Elena. A guided tour is standard and as I am the only visitor I get a private tour. Before I go to the butterfly garden itself, a young (American) girl who is crazy about all things crawling and flying explains to me about all kinds of insects that occur in Costa Rica. Beetles, grasshoppers, cockroaches, tarantulas, you get to see them all in person. There are four butterfly gardens, each with a different type of vegetation and other species of butterflies with beautiful colors. The bright blue butterflies, which you often see in the wild, don’t want to be photographed (as soon as they sit still, they fold their wings – which are ‘just’ gray-brown on the outside).
After the butterfly garden I go to the Renario, a kind of frog garden. About 25 species of frogs that you find in Costa Rica live here. Some are large (about ten centimeters), others are very small, a single species only one to two centimeters. Some species are green or brown and hardly visible because of their camouflage, others are poisonous and very striking because of their bright red color. The famous green frog with the big red eyes, which is a symbol of Costa Rica, can also be found here. Here too I get a private tour by an enthusiastic young girl who knows all about frogs. Many frogs rest during the day and then hide. With the same entrance ticket you can come back in the evening when the frogs are more active. Early evening I walk back to the Renario and indeed, the frogs are a bit more awake. The second time you don’t get a tour, but with a flashlight you can look for the frogs yourself.
The next morning at 7:30 a.m. I start my three-hour walk through the cloud forest in the Reserva Monteverde. This cloud forest is created when warm air from the Caribbean Sea rises against the mountains of the Corillera de Tilarán, where it condenses into clouds, mist and rain. The Reserva is located at an altitude of 1,000-1,500 meters and is a mandatory stop for just about anyone visiting Costa Rica. THis also means that it can get very busy, but on this Friday morning in the shoulder season there is only a handful of visitors. Every now and then I run into someone, but most of the time all I hear around me is water drops falling from the leaves, the wind blowing through the treetops, the occasional bird and my own footsteps.
You will not encounter many animals in the Reserva: they know that many people come here and therefore stay far away in other parts of Monteverde, which is many times larger than the Reserva alone. But the cloud forest itself is also worthwhile. Moss-covered trees, ferns and other tropical plants, lianas that swing back and forth, a stream here and there. At one of the highest points you are literally in the clouds. There is a lookout point, but because of the clouds you can’t see anything there. The reserva sits on the Continental Divide, which runs from Canada to Argentina. On one side all water flows to the Caribbean Sea, on the other to the Pacific.
After my walk through the cloud forest, I give two Dutch students – who are staying in the same hostel as me – a lift back to Santa Elena. If I expected rain anywhere during this trip, it is here, but instead the weather is pretty good and in the afternoon the sun actually breaks through gently. After lunch I spend a few hours reading.
Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio
After getting breakfast I bump back down the mountains via the dirt road that connects Monteverde and Santa Elena with the rest of the civilized world. After a short stretch of the Panamericana I end up in the village of Orotina. And I don’t want to be there at all. How I get out of the village is a mystery to me, so I ask a taxi driver if he can help me. He is kind enough to drive ahead of me to show me where to go (the Ticos are very friendly and helpful anyway). At the edge of the village, at a large sign indicating Quepos. I thank the taxi driver and continue. The road runs along the coast via Tárcoles, Jacó and Paritta to Quepos.
From Quepos, the road winds along the hilly coast to the village of Manuel Antonio, seven kilometers away. The national park of the same name is one of the most visited in Costa Rica and Manuel Antonio is therefore a busy village. My hostel is somewhat hidden back from the road between Quepos and Manuel Antonio. A little further along the road I find a restaurant, with a veranda at the back, where you have a nice view of the surroundings. Here I order coffee and a casado. After doing some groceries I sit down in the garden of the hostel, read for a while and study the information about the Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio.
The next morning I’m up early again. You may think I’m crazy to get up so early every time I’m traveling. But I’m really not the only one. There are always other people who also know that early morning is the best time to visit nature reserves. This is especially recommended in Manuel Antonio: from about 9 a.m. it quickly becomes busier and whole families with cool boxes come to visit the beaches in the park. In the village there are men with whistles who, with lots of gesturing, try to direct you to parking spaces. Paid parking spaces of course. However, if you arrive early, when it’s still quiet, you can ignore the men – who are also there early – and just park a bit further down the road. For free.
It is only a short walk to the entrance of the park. In Manuel Antonio you can follow a number of trails, none of them very long (one to two kilometers), very different from Monteverde. There are some nice beaches (Playa Espadilla, Playa Manuel Antonio) and a peninsula, but that route is closed during my visit, for maintenance or something. Several animals live in the park, including capuchin monkeys. They hang around Playa Manuel Antonio and are not very scared, even though there are many people around them to photograph them. They are curious types, who stare into camera lenses with investigative looks (and if you’re not careful, run off with your camera).
After my visit to the park I walk back to the village, where the main street with shops and restaurants runs directly along the beach. I treat myself to an ice cream first and then go for lunch. After that I sit on the beach, with my back against a palm tree. Just do nothing for a while.
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Prior to this trip I had decided that I would spend the last two days in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. Great idea, but from Manuel Antonio (which is on the Pacific coast) Puerto Viejo (on the Caribbean coast) is literally on the other side of the country. Until now I always needed half a day to drive to the next place, but today I need most of the day to get to Puerto Viejo. This can be done in two ways: via the (tarmac) main road like I came and then via San José and Cartago to Puerto Limón on the east coast and then to the south. Or the first part via (unpaved) back roads to Cartago and then continue the same road. The latter is really much shorter and so I try that first.
But no. I manage to get to Londres from Quepos, but when I check there whether I’m on the right track, it turns out that this route is impassable. There is another possibility, but because it is not only a shorter, but also a slower road bumping over the mountains, I decide to give up my attempt and take the main road. That is obviously a lot more relaxed. Instead of going around San José, I end up in San José, but I have to refuel, so that’s okay. It’s just that now I run into the problem of bad signage in the Costa Rican capital again…
In the end I drive towards Cartago and via Turrialba and Siquirres to Limón. This part of the route also goes through the mountains and takes longer than the map suggests. From Limón, the road heads south for the most part parallel to the coast. It’s 3 p.m. when I arrive in Puerto Viejo after this long drive. As a reward, the most beautiful hotel I have stayed in this trip is waiting: hotel Pura Vida, named after the slogan of Costa Rica. A great hotel with a patio with tropical plants and seating areas, where I first relax with a drink.
Come evening I look for a restaurant and sit down at Chile Rojo, on the first floor at a bar table overlooking the ‘main street’ of Puerto Viejo (always nice, bar tables where you don’t look at an empty seat in front of you …). I am just enjoying my mojito when I see the Policia Migracion entering . Moments later, the waitress comes to tell me that they have to close the kitchen because the kitchen staff is of foreign origin and does not have the required papers. So no food… I pay for my mojito and sit two doors down. Not a bad choice: the food is very tasty and it’s happy hour, so two cocktails for the price of one.
Puerto Viejo is a small village in the extreme southeast of Costa Rica, near the border with Panama. Many people of Jamaican descent live here. They came to Costa Rica for work at the end of the nineteenth century. You can see those Jamaican influences in the looks of the people and in the red-yellow-green-black, the colors of Jamaica. The atmosphere is that of a relaxed Central American coastal town. The main street runs parallel to the beach. First along a bay and if you walk about a mile further, out of the village, you come to Playa Cocles. A white sandy beach with palm trees and beautiful waves and therefore popular with surfers. It is thirty degrees and although it is still cloudy in the morning the sun breaks through at noon. Finally, sun, blue sky! Nice to spend some time on the nearby beach El Parquesito.
The last (sun-drenched) days of this trip are very relaxed. I no longer get up early and I dont’have to drive long distances. Just take it easy, read a bit, listen to music a bit, practice a bit of Spanish, eat, have coffee, and relax under the palm and almond trees on the beach.
On my final day in Costa Rica I leave Puerto Viejo and drive back the same way I came. It’s raining and it will continue to do so until just before San José (the weather is good in San José itself). Between Limón and Siquirres I reach an average speed of only thirty kilometers per hour, because of a local bicycle race. For this purpose, the entire route is not permanently closed off, but the road it is temporarily where the cyclists are. They drive in the same direction as I do, so I’m behind them until I get to Siquirres…
The rest of the road continues nicely (although the slow traffic in the mountains sometimes causes delays) and around noon I drive into San José. The traffic in the city is a drama during the day. But I’m almost at the end of my trip and have plenty of time, so with a little patience I reach the Paseo Colón a while later, where I drop off my rental car and hail a taxi to take me to the hostel. I have the same room as at the start of the trip. I have one more casado at Bedu in the Mercado Central and call it a day early, because I have to go to the airport at 4:30 the next morning. At the end of this nice trip, only the prospect of seventeen hours in an airplane remains…