Updated: Oct 21, 2019
A Road Trip Through Costa Rica, by @emmaharrick.
Costa Rica has always been high on my travel "to do" list. I was attracted by the nature, wildlife and endless beautiful scenery. Inspired by a culture of positivity and the countries commitment to the environment. To say my visit did not disappoint would be an understatement.
The best way to see the mountainous country is by car, although make sure it is a 4 wheel drive, the roads become more pot holed as you venture out of the central valley and eventually there are no roads altogether. I had limited time so my trip was arranged based on the best circular route around the landscape and a goal of getting back to the airport for a flight to Panama. I did miss out on some areas I really wanted to see but that just means I have to go back for another visit. I wouldn't hate that!
My trip took me from the bustling city of San José deep into jungle territory. Then on to rainforests resting in the foothills of Volcanoes and finally west to the Pacific coast towards a much dryer climate, surfer hangouts and marine parks. For those planning a trip or just curious about the country read on for a run-down of my road trip.
1. San José
San José, a city that feels authentically Costa Rican. Skyscrapers do not dominate the skyline and the most popular restaurants are little "Soda" shacks serving traditional Casado in a questionable lean-to sticking off the side of someone's house. Casado is a traditional dish meaning "marriage" referring to the marriage of flavours on the plate. It usually includes a seasoned meat, beans and rice, salsa (Pineapple if you are lucky, Costa Rica's biggest export), fried plantain and salad. It's pretty tasty and great for fuelling up on those long days spent exploring. There are hip modern restaurants too but what's the fun in that.
San José is not overly spread out and is easy to explore on foot. The Central Avenue is pedestrianized and fun to wander along. It is dotted with artwork, sculptures and people dancing. The most beautiful building in the capital is the national Theatre, with its grand marble entrance way evoking images of ball gowns, bubbles and bow-ties. It was a superb setting for my first experience of true Costa Rican drip coffee. If in need of a rocket fuel boost definitely give it a try. As impressive as the Theatre was my top two spots in San José were the Central Market and the Barrio Amon Neighbourhood. The market is vibrant, full of life and happiness. Not a tourist trap but a bona fide community spot where you will find locals shopping and stopping for a spot of handmade ice-cream or even a family meal. In contrast Barrio Amon is a peaceful picturesque historic area full of lovely restaurants and parks. It is also scattered with a vast array of colonial architecture which is credited to the growth in the economy from Coffee exportation (I am a sucker for a wrought iron balcony). A highlight for me was strolling past the house of one Ernest Hemmingway who stayed in the charming peach building. He even penned some of his work there.
A perfect introduction to the country. My time in San José taught me some key information about Costa Rica. It is a democracy where Presidents can only serve for one term to prevent the rise of a dictatorship. The democracy is a party system and the people appear to be very politically engaged. One of the most profound points to me is that the country has no Army. In 1948 Costa Rica decided there was more important things for them to spend their money on. They would invest in Education, Welfare and the Environment. The country also has a climate policy of being completely carbon neutral by 2021. I think we could all take a leaf of Costa Rica's book!
Another important insight I gained here was into the "Pura Vida" attitude of the people. Pura Vida is Costa Rica's equivalent of Hukuna Matata, meaning pure or simple life. The people here really do embody this as a way of life, approaching everything with a positive, laid back, friendly and calm attitude. It was refreshing and motivating. I hope to instil some of that Pura Vida magic in my own life. Maybe we should take another leaf out of that book.
2. Boca Tapada
Heading north out of San José and the central valley the road was tarmacked but windy and high! My advice: best to avoid peering over the edge.
Eventually after three hours the road ended and the gravel, mud and holes began. Twisting and winding on-wards finally arriving in the jungle, about 20 min North of the town of Boca Tapada. A wooden cabin away from it all retreat - Pedacito De Celio. It was hot, balmy and beautiful. Tropical birds perched on rooftops, monkeys swung around tree tops and the sound of cicadas filled the air. Time here is best spent hiking through the heart of the jungle and on long lazy boat rides along the San Carlos river. I would like to take a moment to advise against venturing into the jungle alone, it is a scary place especially at night, trust me! It is also a challenge to spot wildlife without an experienced animal sensei. I will never cease to be amazed by the ability of the jungle guides. They spot all kinds of creatures, great and small, however camouflaged or concealed they may be. Animals I would never have seen with my own untrained eyes including: miniature Blue Jeans frogs hiding in the undergrowth, Hummingbirds darting from flower to flower, Spider monkeys flying through the canopy, rare Green McCaws resting in the branches, Howler monkeys hiding in plain sight and midnight Tarantulas peeping out of their nests. Taking to the river, one boat trip whizzed me all the way up to Nicaragua. This area served as a reminder that we often view borders as solid tangible lines on a map but that is not what they are. Here the small hand built houses based along the river are not two separate villages in two separate countries. They are a community, a team, working together to provide for themselves, their families and each other. Boca Tapada is one of the less visited areas of Costa Rica but I certainly wouldn't miss it. The wildlife and the people were a genuine insight into real life here and the inhabitants of this incredible place. It was heart-warming and beyond energising. Oh and the wildlife is to die for.
3. La Fortuna
Journeying an hour or so west from Boca Tapada leads you through alluring scenery to the foot of the Arenal Volcano. The Volcano dominates the landscape and it's the stereotype image of a magma filled giant. It is perfectly conical, covered in rain-forest vegetation at the base and turning to deep black rocky lava as it nears the summit. The climate is unpredictable and a little crazy. Cloud cover was pretty impenetrable most of the time I spent there but it was still an experience I will never forget. Hiking along the ridges of the volcano in torrents of rain, wind battering your body and a smile on your face. Even in the clouds the view was spectacular and let's face it Volcanology is pretty fascinating, especially to geeks like me. I also had my first Sloth sighting in La Fortuna, and acted like an excited five year old peering through my binoculars. Memorable to say the least.
Another bonus of all the Volcanic activity in this area is the plethora of natural hot spring spas. The perfect place to warm up after your shower proof cagoule let you down. Stopping of at the relaxing Ecotermales was definitely a highlight for me. Their rule is: start at the lowest level. They increase in temperature as you make your way up through the pools towards the source. My rule is: always have more than one Pina Colada. It was very rejuvenating and the rain eventually did stop. I also banked a special memory here as this was the first time and hopefully the last time that my cocktail umbrella served a purpose.
4. Manuel Antonio
The next destination of road trip al a Emma was Manuel Antonio on the Pacific coast. The five hour drive provided a view of the changing landscape and climate. It is much hotter and dryer out west. The lush plant covered roadside became a bit more dusty and heat waves began to appear.
Manuel Antonio has a much higher tourist footfall than the previous stops. This is largely due to the Manuel Antonio National Park. Because of the park the town and surrounding area have become a trendy scene with bars and restaurants aplenty. I did not go to the park. Reports suggested that the maximum number of people the rangers believe should visit Manuel Antonio park a day is 600. It has been so busy this year that over 1,600 people are being regularly allowed access and the rangers are now (thankfully) staging protests. I am all for travel and tourism as it can have positive impact (it is often an incentive for the development of these parks in the first place) but in my view there needs to be an element of control and I would prefer to visit somewhere where my footprint is a minimal as possible.
After hearing these tales of overcrowding it made much more sense and seemed more responsible to take another short drive south to Uvita. My point of disembarkation was the Marino Ballena national and marine park, a much quieter, more sustainable option. Dolphin Tours offered the perfect tour solution: a small boat with less than 15 people onboard and the staff and marine scientists do everything in their power to preserve and protect the area. It was an incredible morning. There were Dolphins, Turtles, Birds and beautiful scenery. Snorkelling was allowed too, in limited areas, and there was not a 3 hour queue to enter the park. I know where I would rather go.
Another stand out place visited in the Manuel Antonio area was the "Kids Saving the Rainforest" Clinic and Sanctuary. An organisation started in 2000 by two nine year olds with a mission of protecting the plant and animal life of the rainforest. They have grown over the years and now purchase old plantation land, when they have funds, in order to restore it to its "wild" natural state by replanting and encouraging native species to take over. They also rescue injured wildlife and nurse them back to health with minimal human interaction allowing release back into the wild, where possible. It is a truly altruistic place, where volunteers share their conservation passion and it is an educational experience not to be missed.
If you ever visit this area do not be surprised to spot aircraft fuselage dotted around. One hip spot is the El Avion restaurant that has been constructed around an old aircraft. That aircraft has a particularly interesting, scandalous story as it was involved in the Iran-Contra affair. In summary the Reagan Administration had set up a network of arms sales to Iran to release US hostages being held in Lebanon and to fund the Nicaraguan, counter-revolutionary guerrilla fighters. The restaurant cargo plane is one of the aircraft used to transport the weapons and now serves up pretty delicious burgers.
Unfortunately, Manuel Antonio was the last stop on the Costa Rica road trip as it was time to head back to San José and catch a flight to Panama.
I was excited to be heading to Panama but sad to be leaving Costa Rica. I highly recommend a trip there. The country had shown me one hell of a good time. The bio-diversity, people and culture had captured my heart. I will never forget the land of "Pura Vida" and already cannot wait to go back.
If you do decide to take a trip there definitely consider some of the following hotels and eateries, I certainly enjoyed them:
Eat - Alma de Cafe, San José
Stay - Pedacito de Cielo, Boca Tapada
Stay - Lomas Del Volcan, La Fortuna
Eat - La Parrilla de Maria, La Fortuna
Stay - Costa Verde, Manuel Antonio
Eat - Baldi's Fresh, Manuel Antonio
Side Note - I would like to just take a moment here to give myself a pat on the back as I successfully drove on the right hand side of the road for the first time. To most people that seems totally normal but for us crazy people from the UK the right hand side of the road is weird and scary and I managed to conquer it so I am celebrating this little victory. Just to add to this, I drive a tiny car and the hire car should really have been called a hire bus.
Now I have big time holiday blues but keep your beautiful eyes peeled for notes from Panama.
Until next time,
Peace and Love,
A special thanks to Rickshaw travel for their expertise.