After more than two weeks in Costa Rica, we have decided that it is completely unlike any of the other Central American countries we have visited. By all reports, we did expect it to be more “tourist friendly” but it has surpassed our expectations. This is a mixed blessing but, overall, this change of pace has been refreshing.
Our top five differences:
1. Driving. The roads are built to a reasonable standard. Highways are generally marked and the choice of solid and dashed lines is not completely random. Cars have front and rear lights and drivers often use these lights appropriately. Potholes are rare enough that they surprise you and we haven’t yet witnessed a single horsedrawn cart on the highway. Also, no missing manhole covers – a pleasant bonus.
2. Ecology. We no longer pass piles of garbage in the roadside ditches. In fact, wherever we go, there are not only trash bins but bins for recycling and even compost. There is clear pride in the environment and general recognition that caring for it is vital to the country as a whole.
3. English. At least basic English is spoken widely (especially in the hospitality industry). This has pros and cons. On one hand, I think I am losing the little Spanish I had managed to absorb. On the other hand, it is sort of exciting to have real conversations with people other than Dave. (no offense to Dave)
4. Camping. After months of overnighting in hotel parking lots, balanarios (swimming resorts), hostel yards, and beachfront restaurants, we are starting to see real, honest-to-goodness campgrounds again. People don’t even look at us funny when we use the word “camping”. It is bliss.
5. Costs. Unfortunately, prices in Costa Rica are also much closer to North American prices. Gone are the days of $3 lunches we had become accustomed to back in Guatemala. A meal out and even groceries are much closer to what we would pay at home. Not only this, the ridiculous exchange rate makes everything seem even more expensive. With one dollar being equal to approximately 500 colones, grocery bills can exceed 100,000 colones. A typical cash withdrawal could be 200,000 colones. It is by far the weirdest currency to use and this is complicated further by the prevalent use of American dollars. We often pay for something with a few American dollars and are left trying to make sense of the thousands of colones we are handed back in “change”.
All in all, though, we are loving Costa Rica. The abundant camping options help us keep to our budget (way fewer hotel stays) and the impressive array of animals (thank you difference #2) leaves us in awe wherever we go.
After a few days at Playa Samara, we decided to head inland towards Arenal Volcano. Here we made another happy discovery: a microbrewery with organic farm, hotel, pool and onsite camping. We could treat ourselves to pints of delicious dunkel before wandering (Dave’s edit: stumbling) back to our camper for the night. The facility was also an interesting experiment in sustainability. We took a tour with the owner and were seriously impressed. Two water sources service the property: rainwater capture and a municipal supply. It is set up such that the rainwater is the primary source for garden and livestock (municipal supply being backup). In the restaurant and hotel, the reverse is true. Chemical use of any kind is limited with weeds being controlled via machete (apparently a machete is the universal tool). The refuse from the pig pen is treated via a biodigester and methane gas collected from it is piped to the staff quarters as cooking fuel. A pretty cool place – they are doing a lot of things right there.
Volcano Arenal was shrouded in mist while we were there so we headed towards La Fortuna where we camped at Thermales Los Laureles: a lovely hot springs resort. Geared mostly towards Ticos, it is not fancy but there are seven pools (a couple of which are cool) and a seriously fun little waterslide. We also took in “The Hanging Bridges of Arenal.” It made for a nice little 4 km walk across suspension bridges and up into the tree canopy but we both felt the $24 admission price tag was a bit steep for what it offered.
It was also around this time that the brakes on the truck went from sounding “a little off” to what I would describe as screaming for replacement. We had been hoping to deal with this in San Jose but this no longer seemed wise. We postponed further sightseeing to visit the local shop and administer some TLC. Interesting note – while food prices are comparable to Canada, mechanic shop rates are a bargain. Another pleasant surprise. While we were waiting for new brakes, we had a chance to explore town and check out the local shops. Chester even got a new bed and retractable leash.
The next day, we decided to visit Ecoglide, the local zipline park, in the morning. Yes- these are popping up all over Costa Rica now…and it is a bit commercial…but it is also a wicked fun time. And how else can you fly above the treetops? 13 cables with the longest being 430 m.
The real highlight, though, was the Tarzan Swing. I can’t really describe it…but here’s the video.
Moving on, our next stop was San Jose. We weren’t necessarily excited about seeing any of the City sights but it was a necessary stop for a purely administrative reason…namely, we had a problem with our vehicle permit. We realized that it is set to expire on December 31 and we cannot get a new permit unless we are out of the country for 90 days (not in our plan). After visiting Panama (for about one month), we will be coming back through Costa Rica in mid-December. On top of this, my sister and her family are flying to Costa Rica to spend Christmas and New Years with us…all of these dates were decided months ago and it all amounts to us needing an extension until about the first week in January. We had first contacted the Canadian embassy about this but they offered surprisingly little help. The agent suggested we contact the tourist bureau (gave us a number) or customs (no number or email provided). Follow-up emails to the embassy went unanaswered (seriously, no response at all….I’m almost motivated to complain to my MP) and the phone line did not work via skype. The tourist bureau was responsive but unable to help us directly.
Our next line of attack was to visit the customs building in San Jose in person. It wasn’t exactly straightforward, but after extensive discussions with a very helpful young man, Anthony (Canadian embassy could learn a bit from him), I think we have a work-around. Apparently, we can suspend our permit when we enter Panama and, when we return, request an extension to our permit by the number of days we were away. Just in case we have any problems, Anthony even gave us his contact info including his personal email and cell number. Wow….just wow.
Our hotel in San Jose was unremarkable save for our parking spot. The only available parking was on a street in front of the building which had been paved over so many times that our truck and camper sat on a thirty degree list. I was sure it would tip over at the slightest breeze. The resulting gutter was so deep that even Chester was confused; he actually fell into it (about an 18” drop) when he went to pee on the nearest tree.
We kept our visit to the City short and headed for the town of Cahuita. Along the way I asked Dave if that was smoke I was seeing but he assured me it was only fog and clouds. The next day we learnt that Volcan Turrialba had started spewing ash with some areas needing to be evacuated.
It was a long day of driving but we were richly rewarded when we pulled up to “Camping Maria”. Located right on the Caribbean, this campground is an easy walk to the village and the beach and it is run by the lovely Maria. It comes with a great covered area for cooking and eating, a billiards room, a huge library and hammocks scattered among the grounds. If this wasn’t already enough, Maria also delivers freshly brewed coffee to the campers every morning (included in the $14 price tag). I would be lying if I didn’t say this place felt like a little piece of heaven.
Near the campground, we discovered the sloth sanctuary just 10 kilometers up the road. We spent two hours here learning about these truly fascinating creatures and had the chance to observe them up close. Some random, interesting facts about sloths:
• They are actually quasi-cold-blooded mammals (body temp 28-32 degrees) – that is why they need so much body hair!
• They move slow to conserve energy but if they really need to (i.e. for survival) they can actually move quite a bit faster.
• They don’t drink water – they get all of the liquids they need from leaves/fruit.
• They only deficate and urinate once per week. (Dave’s edit: Aha, that’s why they move so slow? Removed by Kristel)
Although the goal of the facility is to rehabilitate and release the animals if possible, there are a number of permanent residents that are not candidates for release. This is primarily because they were rescued as babies and do not have the survival skills to make it in the wild.
Our tour also included a canoe ride through the sanctuary’s waterways, overhanging with lush trees and literally teeming with birds. Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and happy to help us identify many of the local flowers and birds.
We’re back at Maria’s now putting this blog post together. We planned to stay three days and that has quickly turned into five…and we may still be here for a couple days yet.