The brilliant decision to drive from Panama City to Costa Rica and across this extraordinary country from the Caribbean side to the Paciﬁc side in just 10 days was going to be a challenge, but of course MB (Monsieur Blue) and I knew we could do it! Under pressure but with high hopes and a positive attitude, we would attempt to capture and experience as much of her scenic areas as possible!
The famous catch cry of Costa Rica, substituted for hello, good-bye, how are you or you’re welcome, by the local Ticos, is always Pura Vida! meaning Pure Life. And what a pure life it is! From long, savage beaches to bustling cities, volcanoes, Toucans (didn’t see one unfortunately), lava hot Thermal Springs, Sloths and noisy Howler Monkeys, this epic place has it all! Exhausting but fun, our journey began here…
Costa Rica, it’s nice to meet ya! After a quick stopover in Bocas del Toro (see blog), the nearest hip beach spot from the border, we had to ditch the hire car at the airport in Changuinola as you cannot take cars from Panama into Costa Rica. Not a problem! We found a taxi from Almirante (the nearest town from BDT) to the border, and it literally dropped us right outside the somewhat downtrodden immigration oﬃce. The only way to cross over into Costa Rica is by foot via the bridge which crosses the Sixaola River and in torrential rain, this was interesting! Our taxi driver though, was kind enough to urge us to purchase one of the huge umbrellas for sale across the road (great marketing) for this soggy journey into the unknown!
Upon entering Sixaola, the ﬁrst town in Costa Rica on the other side of the bridge, we simply got our passports stamped, no questions or money exchange needed, found another taxi and were on our merry way! We had reserved a car from Alamo Car Rental ( www.alamo.com) in Puerto Viejo, our ﬁrst port of call and had the nice taxi man drive us straight to the source. Easy, comfortable and cheap it was a great start regardless of the weather! Pura raining Vida… here we come!
PUERTO VIEJO – Being the outdoorsy type that I am (NOT), I decided on a whim to book us into a Glamping experience @ Faith Glamping Dome for our stay in trendy Puerto Viejo. Now this pretty beach side town is well known for its laid back, environmentally sustainable style culture, with a long stretch of wild beach, jungle and dimly lit roads popular with the locals and brave tourists who power peddle or walk along them. In keeping with the harmonious theme, ‘Glamping’ in amongst jungle, but on the beach sounded like a perfect start.
With a lot less ‘glam’ in my ‘ping’ than I had imagined, setting up home for two days in a Nasa inspired globe tent with a ‘renovation required’ outdoor bathroom, in a deluge of constant rain, and the added bonus of an army of blue crabs as big as my head spouting from huge holes in the ground, my faith in this plan along with my non existent survivor instincts ﬂowed out of the domes zip doorway! This damp glamp getaway was not all it was cracked up to be! With little light and no hot water (did I mention it was GLAMPING not CAMPING) and a slippery wooden, uncovered deck to skate glacier style around every time we went out, my hopes of romantic sunset drinks by candlelight were quickly dashed as there was no where to sit except inside on the bed or huddled under a small awning next to the toilet! Damn man… no Glam! On the upside however, the space inside our galactic globe was lovely, comfortable, dry and spacious and the glamorous and plush ergonomic QS bed was spectacular! In hindsight, if we only knew that six of our ten days were going to be fraught with unrelenting downpours, I would maybe have chosen a more suitable style of accommodation!
Cold, wet, tired and beyond starving by this time, a swim and sunbathe was out of the question, and so after a half hour lecture and tour of the property by our sweet, spiritual and dry host, we set oﬀ for a warming lunch in the main town and we were gifted with a fabulous feast of authentic Italian pizza and robust red wine @Amimodo Ristorante. You see, there is always a silver lining to rain clouds! After lunch, we decided to go for a long drive to discover the area, passing hoards of saturated, poncho clad, serious faced folk on rickety pushbikes along the way. Brave people…I’m sure their biking holiday sounded much better in the brochure! A deserted old Caribbean style ﬁshing village was at one end of the long beach road and the small main town oﬀered the usual shops full of ﬂoaty tie dyed dresses, t-shirts, hemp wear, crystals, leather goods and wooden artefacts. Apart from a few supermarkets, and the empty bars and restaurants, there wasn’t much to see through the constant swish swish of the windscreen wipers!
The morning after a semi-comfortable ﬁrst night (but with a bursting bladder as I refused to go to the toilet in the middle of the night and step on a spider or come toe to claw with one of the ninja crabs), the sun decided to show her lovely face! Rushing to the deserted beach with glee, we frolicked in the huge waves and took a visit to the nearby wreck, that was until Miss Precipitation decided to appear again. Dashing through the jungle to the car, a two hour drive to visit the nearest big town Limon set us on our way.
Strike 1. Unfortunately, Limon town was disappointing as it was ugly and industrial with a run down port area, street beggars and traﬃc jams. So after a quick look around and an unremarkable lunch in a street side cafe, we headed back to Puerto Viejo hoping to check out the Sloth Sanctuary that we had passed along the way. Strike 2 and the sloth park had just closed when we arrived! BUT we did manage to score a private viewing of their resident rescued sloth, 26 year old gorgeous Honeybee in her throne and learnt many interesting facts on bizarre sloth behaviour from her very knowledgeable and kind keeper!
Puerto Viejo also has a Jaguar Rescue Centre which would be a lovely outing too if it also wasn’t closed the day we went! Strike 3! A visit to the Costa Rican chocolate and coﬀee shop for some scrumptious caﬀeine and cocoa fuelled supplies ended our session in the rain and we sloshed back to our ‘dome home’! Upon arrival, beautiful Howler Monkeys communicating with each other across the trees by deafening guttural cries were there to greet us, along with a family of agile Spider Monkeys leaping from limb to limb. A fantastic end to our day was provided by nature at her ﬁnest! An amazing dinner @ Koki Beach Restaurant kept us in good spirits and the unexpected ﬂoorshow from their in-house baby sloth crawling athletically around the roof of the dining room was the best part of the day! Myself and most of the other diners acted like crazed wildlife cinematographers, ﬁlming its antics whilst forgetting our lovely meals! Take that Sir David Attenborough! This alone made our ﬁrst impression of Costa Rica totally awesome and well worth every single drop of rain… Pura Vida!
LA FORTUNA – The next part of our mammoth journey began early the next morning as we bid farewell to Faith Damp Glamp – Camp and drove towards the centre of Costa Rica. Popular amongst hikers and thrill seekers, this area, approximately ﬁve hours drive inland from the Caribbean coast, is famous for the long volcanic strip of the Arenal Volcanic National Park, Thermal Hot Springs and the La Fortuna Waterfall. Due to our limited time, we could not venture out and climb the volcanoes rocky facade or marvel at her bubbling hot molten red lava, but decided on the next closest thing…
In desperate need of a bit of ﬁve star sophistication, we treated ourselves to a night at the Hotel Royal Corin Spa. Ultimately positioned at the base of the impressive and active Arenal Volcano, a room here costs as much as a small country but well worth it for the view, the large balcony overlooking the hotels three private hot spring thermal Romanesque style pools and the psychedelic ‘disco light’ shower complete with sourced hot water! Groovy baby!
Having our very own thermal pools ranging from cold, warm or bunny boiling hot, as well as two jet spa’s set at 40*c AND a steam room, I was away with the fairies for three hours! Whilst I immersed myself in the holy waters and was puriﬁed from top to toe in the sulpha smelling steam room, my poor darling MB sweated uncomfortably, most of the time, like a lobster in a bouillabaisse! Maybe it was just me, but the delicate feel of the natural minerals soothing our skin and melting away the trials and tribulations of the past few days was amazing and I’m positive ? we looked 10 years younger, if not a bit pruny, when we eventually and reluctantly emerged!
Public thermal pools are all around as well for entry fees ranging from a low $4USD to a whopping $40USD depending on where you went, but seeing the line up of cars and mass of people congregating near them, made it feel like you were about to go rogue in a human petri dish. Hence we decided on a two for one deal and got the pools and the hotel in one location! With the clouds descending and our view of the volcano rapidly vanishing, rain appeared once again (shock), so warm, ultra clean, energised and dressed up, we headed into La Fortuna central to soak up a bit more of the local action! We enjoyed a hearty steak dinner in an American style bar/ bistro that was the only place that seemed to be throbbing that night, due to a live in-house blues band. A chat to some fun Canadian girls next to us and our day/night was complete, as the next day we were oﬀ again, this time to the paciﬁc side for hopefully some sun, fun and relaxation on Playa Tamarindo Beach!
PLAYA TAMARINDO – In my opinion, one can never have too many sneaky spa treatments, so after another dip in each one of the thermal pools and a quick sweat session in the steam room (none of which were being used for some unknown reason) after breakfast, we set oﬀ in the bloody rain towards Guanacaste and the Paciﬁc coast. The six hour journey, with a quick rest stop for a plate of local Empanadas and a coﬀee, was long and slightly tedious. Powering along the backroads and then onto the long Trans America Highway and then witnessing the unseeable and horrible event of an iguana get hit by a truck, was the only thing we encountered.
Having read that there are many little beaches along this coastline, we had to choose one, so headed for Flamingo Beach (Playa Flamingo), where apparently the sand was a shade of dusty pink, hence the name. Lovely! Arriving just after 2pm, we stripped oﬀ and had a swim in the clear azure water and a much needed nap on the not a grain of pink sand in sight beach! Needing accommodation for the next two nights, and Flamingo Beach being more of an American condominium retirement village, oﬀ we drove again in the direction of Playa Tamarindo just 30 minutes away, hoping and praying it was ok as we really needed to chill!
Driving into Tamarindo, our prayers were answered as the place was pulsing with life, the sun was shining and it looked ultra cool! Accommodation options were plenty, but spying a vacancy sign for a small B&B up a spiral staircase and above a restaurant, we quickly ditched the car and enquired. Here we scored a bargain, as low and behold, there was a spare room plus a shared terrace, with a full breakfast and cleaner everyday and a car space for $60USD p/night! The space was fantastic! A spacious and artfully decorated room next to the beach and a lovely sitting area outside, it was perfect in every way and a lot of enthusiastic high ﬁves were given between MB and me, as by this time were had become slightly manic! There were three rooms in this B&B, and only us and the couple next door (who decided to have a very vocal drunken sex romp till all hours of the morning…hilarious) were residing.
Celebratory sunset drinks on the beach welcomed us to this very vibrant and pretty area, which reminded us of Thailand, our other favourite country, so it was natural that we automatically felt quite at home. Also, the sun was shining and it was steamy and hot so all our boxes were ticked! A lovely dinner with our feet in the sand with a great jazz duo playing in the background and a night cap on our very own private terrace, rounded oﬀ a long but fantastic day!
Quad bikes are a ﬁrm favourite around this beach town and the four wheeled monsters revved around everywhere, wildly driven by salt ravaged surfers with their well used waxed boards strapped to the back. Finding a scooter rental place (as is our mojo) we left our well travelled, dusty little car in the parking area for the day and explored Tamarindo in buzzing style, salivating at many of the huge Spanish style mansions set in amongst the hills and watching a group of zealous Howler monkeys play in the trees. Attempting to locate the beach of Playa Coco (which sounded close and interesting) was a bit of a disaster as it ended up being over an hour and a half away through rocky roads (hence the quad bike ﬁxation) which was not agreeable with our little sewing machine of a scooter! So turning back, we ended up just having a lovely afternoon on our local beach, soaking up some much needed rays and relaxing over a delicious lunch of tacos and people watching. A long walk along the sand and some late afternoon retail therapy of bikini shopping (Costa Rica is known for its fantastic range of skimpy Del Toro swimwear) and another day was done and dusted. Phew!
A fantastic seafood dinner in the balmy outdoor setting of the very upmarket El Pelicano Restaurante in the main street was just what was needed to round oﬀ the night and as we were enjoying our dessert, who walks past us but the Canadian girls we had brieﬂy met in La Fortuna! It IS a small world after all! Having already reserved a room for the next few days for the ﬁnal leg of our journey, the next morning we head oﬀ once again to discover Costa Rica’s colourful capital city of San José.
SAN JOSÉ – Do you know the way to San José? Not really, but ﬁnding out it was only about three and a half hours drive from Tamarindo made it achievable! By 10am we found ourselves back on the Trans American Highway and ﬂying past local soda joints (family run diners) and street stalls selling everything from Pipa Fria (coconut water) to huge avocados and the local and deadly moonshine wine called Vino de Coyo. Made from sap, this drink is so potent that if you consume it and go in the sun it makes you more inebriated! Needing our wits about us and not really wanting to go into coma or spend a night in the local hospital, we did not buy any or partake in this peculiar Costa Rican ritual!
First impressions of San José do not take your breath away, but embracing the town in one day quickly changes that opinion once you discover her beauty. Not overly built up or dominated by ugly sky rises, the combination of ﬂamboyant street art on old and interesting buildings, alongside Spanish style houses, little local trams trundling along sounding their horns, a Chinatown and numerous parks and recreation areas, it was easy to see why this city, surrounded by mountains and with a temperate climate, is a drawcard!
Our ﬁnal home away from home was @Hotel Casa 69 in Calle (street) 69, a vibrant blue and yellow hacienda style guesthouse in an area surrounded by similar homes which had been transformed into backpackers, boutique hotels and hostels. The afternoon weather had turned cool, so a drive around the town to fully appreciate where we were and to get our bearings was a great idea, as the next day was Sunday and we would explore the city on foot. MB needing a dose of the motherland, managed to locate a gorgeous and intimate French restaurant La Terrace not far from our guesthouse for our ﬁrst romantic dinner in San José, so a beautifully crafted and award winning dinner in a restored Spanish home was enjoyed! The French couple who owned the restaurant had lived in San José for many years, as did some of the other patrons, so we managed to receive a lot of local tips and information and enjoy some stimulating conversation!
Strolling around San José the next day in the beautiful weather and soaking up her vibe was glorious! With four pedestrian street malls crammed with shoe shops, fast food chains, pubs, cagey casinos and cheap clothing outlets, viewing the spectacular outdoor bronze and marble sculpture exhibition (positioned in various streets around the commercial inner city hub) by the renowned Costa Rican artist Jiménez Deredia, was a creative addition. Needing a break from the throng of Sunday strollers, we headed over to Calle 33, a long street that is ﬂooded with various bars and restaurants and only a 15 minute walk from our area. We enjoyed a relaxing lunch in the popular gastro pub, the Costa Rica Beer Factory which is set in an old stone building and cleverly decorated with pops of colour and quirky furniture and sipped artisan craft beer whilst watching the world go by.
With dark thunder clouds looming, MB and I decided to take refuge and use our time intelligently, visiting the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum and the National Coin Museum, which is located beneath the Plaza de la Cultura in the main square. At $12USD per entry, this four ﬂoor building houses the full history of pre-columbian gold and coins throughout the ages, with some artefacts dating back to AD 500. It was truly interesting and well worth the 1.5 hours it takes to truly comprehend it all!
Sunday being our ﬁnal full day in Costa Rica, we of course found time to do a spot of shopping, ﬁnding a little designer boutique tucked away up a side street, with ﬁve rooms all displaying handcrafted wares by local artists and designers. A cheeky pair of authentic cowboy boots also snuck their way into my luggage, snapped up from one of the many western themed stores located in the quieter part of town.
With a peaceful marijuana rally slash protest in one park and a rap music competition in another, the walk home to our heavenly hacienda was decidedly more colourful than we had imagined! Lured by the chargrilled aroma of bbq steak whilst passing a warm and lively Argentinean bistro, La Esquina de Buenos Aires on the way, we made this exuberant little restaurant our ﬁnal nights destination and we got dressed to impress for this tasty last supper in Costa Rica!
Flying back to Panama City the next day (as we were all done with driving by this time), we reﬂected on our wondrous and fascinating journey with a new found aﬀection for this diverse and intriguing area of Central America. Go and admire the endless beaches, be awed by her unique ﬂora and fauna and get lost in the streets of her big cities and tiny towns. This country is so enormous, that we only ﬂeetingly experienced a very small part but there is so much to appreciate, that Costa Rica will surely delight everyone at once and also present extra special moments just for you.
…”Costa Rica is more than vacation destination; it is an interactive sensory experience”… AnywhereCostaRica