Living the Pura Vida

A Costa Rican honeymoon

There are holidays, and then there are honeymoons. The difference being that on a honeymoon there is a shameless over use of the “H” word in an attempt to get an upgrade or free stuff from hotels and airlines.

In our case the best we got from the “H Bomb” were some excellent towel art bed arrangements and a miniature bottle of wine. We’ll take what we can get.

So yes, we tied the knot, put a ring on it, clamped on the ball and chain, made honest people of each other…actually scrap that one.
In the aftermath of a most excellent wedding and an even more excellent party, we set off to Costa Rica with the echoes of “La Bamba” ringing in our ears. If you ever need to hire a party band check out Aisha Kahn & The Rajahs, they wrapped up their brilliant set with the most rocking La Bamba EVER, and it became the theme tune for the entire honeymoon.
Reinforced on one particular boat trip, where the captain introduced his “Marinero” and then himself … 🎶 Soy Capitan, Soy Capitan 🎶.

Our preconception of Costa Rica was one based around wildlife and their excellent and refreshing stance on the environment, being that the country reflects 6% of the entire world’s bio diversity and works tirelessly to maintain this. Their main economy being coffee, tourism and, ironically, palm oil, I was curious to see how the balance of tourism, farming and protecting environment worked together. And also there was the pressing need to see a Sloth in real life.

I believe it sometimes takes a while to see the real beauty of a place especially when you first arrive, it takes time to see beyond the immediate surroundings and refocus on the wider horizon. I think I was expecting to land straight into an Eden like jungle of colourful birds, flowers and waterfalls and be cuddling Sloths within the first 5 hours. But that is never the case.
Flying into San Jose was like most other airport arrivals, a journey to the city through suburbs, industrial areas and drive through Taco Bells, nothing remarkable, and certainly no Sloths.

Steve The Imposter

We spent a total of three days in San Jose, at the beginning and end of the trip. We arrived on New Year’s Eve and the streets were teaming with people buying their food for that evening. It seems you can sell almost anything on the streets of San Jose, as long as you have a blanket to lay your goods on and access to large quantities of random stuff to sell. We were expecting lots of party options and outdoor events that evening but discovered that most places were closed by 10pm. NYE is celebrated at home with family, so the city itself was quiet that night. To be fair we were passed out by 9pm due to jet lag and post wedding exhaustion anyway, so our ambition for a massive NYE was never going to happen!

SJ itself was surprisingly fun. I think we had lowered our expectations of a Central America/ Caribbean capital city having been previously burnt by our visit to Trinidad’s Port of Spain, which was less than alluring. But this city has a lot to offer. On our first day of pavement pounding, we were about to head into the National Theatre to do the backstage tour, as it’s a beautiful old building and I was keen to see behind the scenes. But outside we were approached by a guide from “Free Walking Tours”. This is a global enterprise, you can find these tours in most cities, and the local guides are reliant on tips. So you can’t really lose. If the tour is bad you don’t pay.

This seemed like a great idea to get us orientated and learn a bit about the city direct from a local. Steve was a charismatic and engaging character and took us and about 12 others through the city imparting little gems of local wisdom. His favourite advice to tourists was to be aware of the prostitutes who wait in the corners of Central Park…”they may look like women but…you’ll be in for a BIG surprise”, he chuckles at his own joke.

Prostitution is legal in CR and San Jose is rife with sex tourism, but the legality keeps it off the streets, there is even a central hotel dedicated to the oldest profession, and seems less apparent than in other countries we’ve been where it’s not legal. Anyway, we were on our honeymoon so the sex tourism could wait for now!

Steve took us on a whirlwind tour of the city, including the excellent central market where we subsequently spent a lot of time mooching around the labyrinthine lanes of produce and “Sodas”, small family run kiosks and little restaurants serving up traditional CR food. We found an excellent empanada Soda which we revisited on our last day.

He also told us about the smart way the country generates power. About 20% is generated from volcanos, the rest from wind, water & sun. I guess if your country has such resources then it makes sense to use them. We may not have volcanos, but we certainly have wind, and water; just saying Boris.

On a later Google session, doing retrospective research on the Free Walking Tour in San Jose, we found a forum that warned tourists to look out for a guide called Steve, as he was not a legitimate FWT guide and was in fact an IMPOSTER!

But we really liked Steve, and he gave us a brilliant tour and info about CR and it was our choice to pay him or not. The fact that he was an imposter made him all the more endearing. One excellent tip he gave us was something to do on New Year’s Day, when pretty much everything was closed. He suggested to go to visit nearby Cartago, the old capital city about a 45 minute bus drive away.

An easy bus trip there took us to The Basilica, a huge multi domed building, grey & white and pretty utilitarian from the outside. But inside was stunning! Beautiful dark wood panelled domes trimmed with gold and finely painted columns. It’s a predominantly catholic country and as “Steve the Imposter” told us, non-Christian religions are not allowed in CR. Obviously they exist but there are no places of worship other than churches & cathedrals.

One very noticeable point about San Jose, especially at the end of the year, when all workers get paid double, in cash, is the amount of police on the streets. Steve told us there are three forces, one for serious crime, one for street crime, such as traffic incidents and keeping the roads clear, and one specifically to protect tourists. This is how seriously they look after the tourist economy.

One last point before we leave San Jose on the hunt for Sloths. The heart of this sprawling city is a bustling grid of scruffy, practical high st stores, butchers and clothes shops. But head NW of the city to the Barrio Escalante for an entirely different experience, a more cosmopolitan area of restaurants and bars. Here is a concentration of excellent places to eat and drink. You’ll find craft beer bars, coffee roasters, kombucha producers, and possibly the greatest dirty martini I have ever had the pleasure to drink. It’s the heart of the gastronomic scene in SJ complete with appropriate street art, facial hair and tattoos. If we were to live in San Jose this is where we you would find us.

The Cloud Forest on a clear day

If you are planning to visit Costa Rica then it is advisable to hire a 4×4 car or jeep. It just gives you that extra scope to explore. The main roads however are really good and it’s easy driving, but as soon as you leave the tarmac highways you are likely to encounter stone and earth tracks and some extremely steep hills.

Our first trip was a bit of a detour from the Pacific coast which was to be our main base for the bulk of our trip. But we felt a visit to the Monteverde Cloud Forest, about a 2hr drive north of San Jose, was necessary, I had had enough of the city and was desperate from some greenery and wildlife.

CR is a hiking enthusiast’s dream. And as soon as you leave the city for the higher land, you find yourself amongst the hostels and eco lifestyle areas where walkers base themselves for hikes through the mountains and cloud forests.

Up in Monteverde we found a great little hostel, Monte Fresco, that treated us to an ‘H Bomb’ upgrade to their en-suite penthouse complete with balcony and resident cat. Plus some excellent towel sculptures and a bottle of wine. Not bad for $25.

We booked ourselves onto a night tour of the forest and joined a gaggle of hikers, twitchers and general wildlife enthusiasts. You can spot “an enthusiast” by the fact they wear appropriate clothing for the activity in which they are about to partake. We however do not. As we looked around at the boots, the rain resistant North Face jackets and bepocketed trouser, we considered the possibility that this tour could turn out to be uncomfortable for us. As there we stood in short sleeves, flip flops and a definite lack of mosquito repellant. And we had completely neglected to bring our 12inch telephoto lens….

As fortune would have it, we were totally fine. It wasn’t cold under the canopy at night and apparently the bats have eaten all the mosquitoes. Our guide was able to spot the tiniest creature from a 100 yards and then use his scope to allow our inadequate camera to steal a magnified photo of minute frogs, glow in the dark scorpions and snakes coiled high in the trees. But no sloth …yet

Next morning we were driven to Selvatura Park to experience the series of bridges suspended high in the canopy. The park sounds at first instance like an adventure playground, which in a sense it can be if you want to do all the zip line and adrenaline stuff, but we took the less terrifying option of the bridges. Less terrifying than dangling from a zip line, but still reasonably squeaky bum as the longer of the bridges spans hundreds of meters of canopy and looks down on the rooftops of the trees at giddying heights.

On this particular day the cloud forest was not cloudy, leaving the otherwise Jurassic Park style misty bridges, bright and clear but still alarmingly wobbly especially when a crowd of teenagers bowl on at the other end.

The tour of the 8 hanging bridges ends with a stop at the humming bird garden where the birds buzz around your head as they sup from the sugary feeders. They are so insect like with the sound generated by the speed of their wings, it took all our restraint not to swat them!


Imagine swatting a hummingbird! The shame!

Back in the car and off to the Pacific coast and where we were to base ourselves for the next two weeks.

I got bitten in the face by a Costa Rican Horse

I’m one of those really irritating people that thinks they are Gods gift to the animal kingdom and therefore loved by all creatures great and small. I want to stroke everything that moves and truly believe I have some kind of spiritual connection with all beasts. Unsurprisingly, I am deluded. Even my dog doesn’t like me that much.

We always seek out riding experiences when we’re away, and they can often be a bit hit and miss. Having grown up with horses I can be a bit snobby about the horses I like to ride. I am not really into the “zombie pony” you often get at tourist experiences, numb and bored. While, staying in Manuel Antonio, a small but touristy hub of activity and a good base for all sorts of trips and tours, we chose one Trip Advisor highly recommended tour, taking horses through the forest up to a waterfall where you can swim in the natural pools. I knew as soon as we saw the horses that this was not going to be the best. Despite excellent reviews we could tell these horses were knackered. Try as you might to actually “ride” these horses, in the end you are just sitting there on top a moving body on auto drive. I am a snob, but its just not my thing.

After an evening of cocktails in Manuel Antonio we met a recently married gay couple who were raving about this riding experience they had just got back from that they found via Airbnb. Suitably lubricated and impulsive we booked it there and then, true believers in a personal recommendation.

Markus is Austrian and moved to Costa Rica some yers ago, buying about 60 acres of primary and secondary jungle to develop a series of eco cabins and tour experiences up in the hills overlooking the Pacific Coast. It’s a beautiful place to visit and interesting to chat with him about the ease of settling here as a foreigner, always with our mind on our own future and options of where to live in the world!

To our relief the horses were happy, and not Zombified from repetition and the numbing effect of having thousands of tourists pounding on their backs. Well I say happy, and this is where my naive belief that all animals love me fell crashing to the floor. As I practiced the blowing on the horses nostril in a “getting to know you” kind of way, this particular equine friend took a very poor view of this action, and lunged, open mouthed at my unsuspecting face! I have never seen a horse open its mouth quite so wide, it encompassed my entire lower visage from nose to chin. A horse bite is basically just a massive pinch with flat surfaced teeth. Damn that hurt, it took all I had to style it out for the rest of the day!

I think this guy was having a bad day and was very anti-human, as he then proceeded to bite Markus on the back. I must have ruined this horses day by blowing on his nostril. Lesson learnt and fortunate to leave with a just bit of bruising and a slightly squashed ego!

The tour itself was lovely, Markus took us high up across his land, through the jungle to fresh water pools where we swam with his two dogs who were living their best lives in this idyllic jungle environment. Then we were treated to a delicious lunch back at his complex, which although still under development, showed the early signs of a really great place to spend time out. His staff were either volunteers or were being paid with board and lodging, such as our Thai chef who spent her life travelling the globe and working these kind of jobs to subsidise her journey. And the most important aspect of the whole trip was that Markus was clearly an animal lover and treated his horses with the respect they deserve, even after one of them took a chunk out of his back! Respect the beasts!

Find Markus on Airbnb https://www.airbnb.co.uk/experiences/1129347

The Hunt for Sloths and Other Beasties

You will soon realise that Costa Rica is teaming with wildlife, but it takes a while to tune in your eye, unless you have a troop of monkeys living in the tree outside your hotel window, you might need some help spotting some of the less flamboyant and unexpected furry friends.

We split the two weeks we had on the Pacific coast over two areas, the first being Manuel Antonio where the protected National Park can be accessed and the other, an hour further south to Uvita where there is whale watching and diving. So a surf and turf of locations were in store for us.

Manuel Antonio is small but with a huge tourism focus it is the spring point for loads of trips and tours which can make the place seem a little artificial with far too many visitors. But its fun for a few days after which you will have really exhausted the good selection of restaurants and bars and will be itching to see more of the true landscape of Costa Rica.

To get into the National Park you will need to buy a day pass to access the jungle pathways and a beaches. There is a restriction on bringing in your own food and picnics to reduce littering and to impact on the local wildlife, so the beaches are clean but are still teaming with Capuchin Monkeys and bandit faced Racoons who steal anything and everything.

We took a guide into the jungle, this is the only way to really see and learn about the wildlife, otherwise you spend your time crook-necked searching the trees for creatures and seeing nothing. Plus it was Px’s birthday and if we didn’t get to see a sloth there would be hell to pay so we needed some guarantees. But…its really really busy. The irony of going on a guided wildlife tour to spot shy and unusual species with a ton of other tours all setting off from the same point was not lost on us and I was finding it all a bit frustrating. The wildlife must look down on us and have a right giggle. However as the tour goes on the crowds naturally disperse and the guides are excellent, knowledgable and enthusiastic about their subject. We ended up with a really good haul of creatures by the end of the trip including a sleepy sloth, high up in the canopy. Followed by a beach walk and a quick snorkel in one of the coves. But we were keen to break away from this tourist trail and although Manuel Antonio is beautiful, there are just too many damn humans!

Off the beaten track – Los Campesinos Ecolodge

Only about 25k outside of central Manuel Antonio we took the very steep and off road trip up to a lesser known reserve which really delivered in terms of less tourists and deep jungle surroundings including suspension bridges, waterfalls and an amazing locally cooked lunch.

Los Campesinos Ecolodge “is a community cooperative, dedicated to Sustainable Rural Tourism and friendly to the environment”. The drive is challenging but lots of fun if you like a bit of 4×4 off roading, and takes you well into the primary jungle complete with low hanging clouds and lush vegetation. Once there you pay for your ticket grab a map and take yourselves around the defined routes. Great for a relaxing walk in stunning surroundings.

Uvita – Whale Shark Whale

It was time to get in the water and head down to the quieter less intense town of Uvita, where Px had booked a hum-dinger of a place to stay, THIS was the honeymoon suite, saving the best till last, our stay at Tiki Villas Rainforest Lodge was dream like, stunning surroundings, lovely staff and most importantly an outdoor shower. Waking up here each morning, sitting on the raised balcony listening to the forest wake up is unforgettable. It was a tear inducing moment the day we had to leave this place.

The trip from Manuel Antonio took us past Dominical, a small but bustling town popular with expats and surfers, this place is so laid back it’s on the floor, but with some real gems that are worth a visit, especially the really impressive Fuego Brewery. With its huge restaurant and tap room, complete with its own coffee roastery and kombucha production, this place dominates the beer industry in this region.

And if you are missing a classic hipster coffee menu then check out Cafe Mono Congo, they roast their own beans and are located idyllically on the banks of the Rio Baru. Good place to find local yoga classes and suchlike.

Our focus for Uvita was all about the sea, diving, snorkelling and whale spotting. This region flows at a much slower pace and is encompassed by the protected Marino Ballena National Park, a huge stretch of beach and ocean, with its famous “Whale Tail” an expanse of rock and sand formation shaped like a Whale Tail and coincidentally attracts hundreds of Humpback Whales each year.

You can walk the Whale Tail, a vast expanse of sand with the ocean surf on either side of you as you walk the length of the tail. On entry to the reserve you are told at what time the tide is due in, where both surfs meet and cover the tail entirely. Having walked the tail we needed to see the real thing and booked a boat trip via Dolphin Tours who were very obliging and gave us a good deal if we paid cash *nudge nudge wink wink*.

The boat operators are under strict guidance to not overcrowd the whales and are really good at heeding these rules. So once a Pod has been spotted the boats take it in turns to get close enough for passengers to see and then peel off to let the next take its turn. This way the Whales are not freaked out by the noise and will continue to come back to these waters. We were thrilled to see a mother and its calf surfacing, such a majestic sight, especially when the baby did one of the classic playful nose dives.

Job done! Whale box ticked, or so we thought…as there was more to come.

The next day was a dive trip, Px opted to snorkel and I signed up for two dives from the same boat. We chose the highly recommended Mad About Diving to take us out, run by marine biologist Pablo and his partner Laura. He told us about how he is involved in a conservation project to regrow the lost reefs of the ocean. He explained how they had discovered a way to speed up the growth of coral, known for its painfully slow progress, and then replant it back in the ocean, by literally glueing it to rocks. His passion for this project was infectious, and he told us that they had just got government funding to support his team to continue this conservation. Could be a great place to revisit as a volunteer to help glue that coral back to the reef!

To the diving…which I was pleased to ease back into comfortably after a break of a year or so since my last dive, and to ticking two underwater boxes in one morning. First was the sighting of a stunning Eagle Ray, huge, black with white spots and a metre long barb. So elegant as it wafted past us into the distance.

On the second dive we had barely gone below 5 meters to look up and be confronted virtually face to face with the most beautiful Whale Shark. If you read back on my posts about the Philippines you’ll see we spent about 15 dives looking for one of these guys only to be disappointed, and here was one, out of season and not been seen in the region for about 10years! It was breathtaking. About 6m which is actually quite a small one, but close up seemed massive! Its mottled and ridged skin that caught the sunlight as it circled above us.

Px was snorkelling so was getting the same experience but from the top view! It would have been terrible if one of us had seen it and the other hadn’t! We both came out of the water that day squeaking with delight and saying we don’t need to go on the other dive trip we had planned, nothing could beat this day.

The vision of this incredible fish (and it is a fish “most notably being by far the largest living nonmammalian vertebrate”) gently gliding past me at arms reach is something I will never forget.

Box

Ticked

The Journey Home, Uvita to San Jose

Coffee and Community

The reluctant departure from Uvita was tempered by a planned drive back to San Jose high up into the mountains and to include a stop at the country’s largest and most respected coffee producers CoopeDota .

Located in the small town of Dota, where the coffee production facility dominates the valley, the Co-op is proud to collaborate with with over 600 growers who deliver their fresh beans to the factory in small wooden tip trucks. You can take the really informative tour around the production units, learning the process of producing coffee from fresh bean to cup. The tour culminates in a tasting, or “cupping”, where you learn how the beans are graded by taste and smell. Not dissimilar to wine tasting, with lots of slurping and spitting and chin scratching.

As you exit through the gift shop you can pick up bags of beans and merch and a free coffee, not that you’ll need any more caffeine after that tour!

The road we took up into the hills from Dominical led us through a small unremarkable town Tinamastes, unremarkable except on a Tuesday. If you find yourself in Tinamastes on a Tuesday, as we did, you’ll stumble across the farmers market. We were intrigued by this huge gathering of local and non Tico, baggy clothed, besandled expats, all greeting each other fondly, with stalls of home grown produce from vegetables to Kombucha, jewellery to cheese. We hung out in this market enjoying the familiarity of a farmers market, eating street food and browsing luscious looking produce. There was a real community atmosphere, clearly this was the big weekly meet up and place to trade and catch up.

A later Google session revealed this is a very defined community linked to wide reaching sustainable projects. The market itself Feria Tinamastes, is operated by Vida Autentica who run workshops and courses on farming and sustainable living, With farm projects such as Fuente Verde where you can volunteer to really get into eco-community life and learnt to live off the land. Not for the faint-hearted comfort lovers I would imagine!

The journey from Uvita to San Jose was stunning, from the hot humid coastal region driving up through the clouds to to chilly hilltop villages, pretty hairy driving at times but beauty all the way. Coming back into San Jose was almost like coming home, we’d made a good job of familiarising ourselves with the city at the start of our trip and were looking forward to one last night in Barrio Escalante now that everything was open again after the New Year. We hit as many bars and eateries as possible in 24 hours. Including another spin around Central Market and those Empanadas, and food court Amore De Barrio which could have been in London with its street food Kiosks serving up Taco, Ceviche, Burgers, easing gently back into London life before we head back from this wonderful country, with dreams of living there one day.

One last recommendation….for the best Dirty Martini, potentially in the world go to Apotecario in Barrio Escalante 🍸

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