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Costa Rica -Pura Vida!

Costa Rica 1-1-11Costa Rica was on my bucket list for the past 8 years. I used to dream and plan this trip whenever I was bored at work  , so this was a pretty well fleshed out plan!  So when we decided to make a trip in early December, I was ready with my excel spreadsheet, list of activities I wanted to do and places I wanted to see.  The  beginning of the trip was inauspicious. Tanay had a lingering cough for the past week and we were hoping it would get better soon. Unfortunately, three days before the trip,  he was diagnosed with pneumonia.  On the morning we were supposed to leave for the airport, we got up early in the morning, checked up on Tanay and decided we cannot go and just turned back and went to sleep. Fortunately, Tanay had really perked up by morning and seemed much better by afternoon. Another trip to the doctor confirmed that his wheezing had reduced, so we rearranged our itinerary, got a new flight for the next day and managed to salvage the rest of the trip.

We reached San Jose at night and were greeted by the rental car company representative. We hired our rental car through Adobe Rent A Car.Costa Rica 1-1They were most accommodating when we had to push our car rental by a day and were prompt in picking us up and transporting us and our baggage to the car rental place.  Though the formalities took some time  (they seem to have adopted the Southern African motto of “Hurry Up Slowly), they were done with a smile and before we knew it we were sent off with a recommendation to stop at Denny’s for dinner.  The airport area was crowded with flashy restaurants but many of them had a huge wait time, so we decided to grab something by our hotel. Unfortunately, by the time we reached the hotel, it was late night and there was no one that spoke or understood our English  help us.  By this time (it was past 10pm), we were tired and decided to make do with the snacks that we had in our bags and pretty much crashed.  We woke up to appreciate the beauty of the Hotel La Rosa De America. Beautiful cottages, all decorated with flower motif, the sound of birds in the air and the promise of a hot Costa Rican breakfast!

IMG_4810After enjoying our breakfast, especially the fresh fruits and fresh fruit juice  (we would later realize that the fresh fruits were a hallmark of Costa Rican breakfasts) , we drove to the coast to Carara Bird Park, the first stop of our modified itinerary.  It took us a some more time because the traffic in Costa Rica didn’t move at quite the breath neck speed that we were used to in USA — even with well maintained empty roads. Carara is famous for its birds.   This park was in the transition zone, not really the rain forest but not the dry northern forests either.   Our research had informed us that unless you hire experienced guides, it would be difficult to see any of the birds.  We had hired Mauricio earlier via the net, who met us at the gate and immediately , even before we said hi, pointed out a hawk high up in the treetop. Armed with a spotting scope , he led  us down an uneven 90 minute trail and showed us several different species of birds and animals.  The path was semi stroller friendly – we had to lift the stroller in certain areas but it was all to no avail since Tanay was anxious about being in the narrow pathway in a jungle like atmosphere and wanted me to lift him up throughout the trail.  We learnt quickly that Costa Rican plants could prove to be deadly as well, there were some deadly mushrooms and toadstools lining our path.  We saw the tiny but deadly green and black poison arrow frog – which apparently has enough toxins to make a human heart stop beating.  We managed to see the Agouti – a large squirrel like rodent that’s about a size of a big cat.  We saw some Capuchin Monkeys, Bats and Iguanas too.  There were plenty of humming birds but trying to photograph these extremely swift and tiny birds was a challenge but we managed to get some pictures of a Long-billed Hermit bird.  Mauricio managed to show us the most defining bird of Carara or indeed most of Costa Rica – the brightly colored scarlet macaws.

AnimalsBy now it was lunch time and we were pretty famished.  But we had one more stop-over before lunch.  Our research informed us that right outside Carara National Park, is a Crocodile Bridge and weCosta Rica 1-1-6 can see crocodiles down  in the river. I was a bit skeptical but the Crocodile Bridge across the Tarcoles river definitely lived upto its name. We had to park at the side and then walk on the narrow pavement/side-walk at the edge of the bridge  to come upto a good viewing point. But at a quick count there were more than 40 of these crocodiles lazing on the banks or floating idly in the river.  It was sort of awesome and grotesque at the same time.  It appeared safe enough but I was clutching the kids a little strongly when we were on the bridge.


Casado Platter

Just on the other side of the Bridge was the Restaurante Los Cocodrilos – an almost dhabha style restaurant that had food, a snack shop and a souvenir shop all mixed into one. As in most places in Costa Rica, the fresh fruit juice didn’t disappoint. We also ordered fish and the casado platter – which appeared to be most popular or national food of Costa Rica. It was in my opinion the Costa Rican version of thali. It had rice and beans and vegetables (one cooked and one salad usually), some fried meat that you can choose and a piece of cheese and  its all topped with a delicious fried ripe plantain. It is essentially a working man’s lunch so its unlikely that we could polish off a platter by ourselves but the food was certainly delicious.

We had a long drive after this to Monteverde- the Costa Rican cloud forest region. The cloud forest is a unique eco system that is at a higher elevation and served by the low hanging cloud cover that is present at the level of the tree canopy.  This often means that there is more “life” and growth at the canopy level than at the bottom – where often the sunlight fails to penetrate.  Monteverde is a small town about 1000 people who reside full time but getting there was an adventure. There is only a dirt road that goes uphill with some sheer drops on either side and we went bouncing away for the better part of an hour.  We reached Pension Santa Elena which was quite in the center of the town .  This was not an expensive hotel , so I wasn’t expecting much but it was very reasonable, the rooms were clean but crowded. Since we hardly spent any time inside the rooms, they were perfect for us.  Being in the center of the town helped because Seejo could step next door and get some tacos for dinner.   After dinner, I stayed in the hotel and read books to the kids while Seejo and my mother went on a night safari that was arranged by the hotel.  They came back raving about the snakes and frogs that they saw and so I was very excited to see the cloud forest during the day.

Animals1We had hired Marco from Pasion Costa Rica, a really personable and friendly guide who told us a lot about Costa Rica’s history. He and his family were local and lived there for a couple of generations. One of the fascinating things that I learnt from him was that in 1948 (just after World War II), the President of Costa Rica abolished the military.  This leaves the country a lot more money into development and a lot of it was poured into schools.  School teachers receive an above average pay and there are schools everywhere.  Poverty didn’t seem as apparent in Costa Rica and in general the Ticos (Costa Rican natives) were happy and country seemed to be developing , especially compared to their other Central American neighbors. Given the craziness in America and India, it was kind of strange to hear people who were more or less happy with the government.

It was a terrible day for animal sightings though at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve.  Marco tried a lot but it just wasn’t his day or ours. The start was good. We stopped at a Hummingbird Feeding Center – and we saw more hummingbirds than we have ever seen before.  It was a good place to appreciate the differences in types of hummingbird – both color, size and features.  We also managed to see a mammal called couti – with a long curved tail belonging to the raccoon family.  Other than that and a few birds, we pretty much didn’t see anything of interest.  The cloudforest itlsef was beautiful, lush, green like a rainforest but much more cooler due to the high altitude.  The hanging bridge was spectacular and great way to view the canopy. There were tons of epiphytes (plants like orchids that grow on branches of other plants and get moisture from the air and water around it )  and ferns and interesting looking plants . Throughout the trip, we hired private guides for two reasons (1) Seejo’s photography and (2) we didn’t want to disturb other visitors with wailing or whiny kids.  The kids did slow us down and within an hour or so , the kids were tire. Marco was nice enough to suggest another trip – so we left Annika and Tanay with my mom at a restaurant and went off again. But to no avail. The quetzal – one of the birds that you see only on Monteverde was proving to be extremely elusive.

However what I am truly grateful to Marco  was the recommendation to eat at Restaurante Sabor Tico. One of the best things we ate was chooreadas (corn pancakes made with squeezing out the juice from young or baby corn) .  The chorreada was a revelation on how corn cakes could really be.  This also seemed to be bit of a rare thing because I searched for chorreadas in all other restaurants that I went in Costa Rica and couldn’t find it.  The other revelation was the Horchata. I have had Horchata in US before but  I never really understood what the fascination was with this till we had it here. Horchata is rice milk with cinnamon and vanilla.  Unlike the watery sugary drink thatI was used to, this version  was creamier with a just a hint of cinnamon and sweet without being cloying.  I think we each had a couple of glasses.

Costa Rica 1-1-12

A room with a view!

That evening we made our way to the Lake Arenal area where we planned to spend the rest of our trip.  We had booked one of the cottages at  the Arenal Lodge – a hotel located in the midst of 2000 acres of rain forest. We had booked a villa and the view from our room made up for a lot of the issues that we had with the room itself.   I probably could write an entire post about the view.  One of the walls of the room was completely glass and faced the magnificent Arenal volcano.  Waking up to that view was a once in a lifetime experience! The rooms at this lodge could do with some better maintenance but the grounds were beautiful.  There is a Hummingbird garden and lots of walking and hiking trails. Getting into the resort was a good 10 minute drive frm the gate to the lodge.  The reception area is warm with a restaurant and a room for kids which our kids loved. There was a play area out back which really couldn’t be used because it was wet and dirty and not maintained well.  There was an infinity pool too which we didn’t use but had wonderful views of the volcano too.


Cana Negro Safari

The next morning we had pre-booked a tour from Jacamar Naturalist tours to take us on a river safari on the Cana Negro Wild life refuge near the Nicaraguan border.  We were picked up promptly by our guide and then joined by two other ladies on a small bus for a 1. 5 hour drive to Los Chiles area.  The drive itself was wonderful to see the country side and appreciate the farms and fields all bordered with living fences (gnarly tree stubs that are planted close to each other to create a fence)  which was a typical feature here.  On the way, we stopped to see toucans and howler monkeys and of course tons of iguanas.   The tour is organized that we stopped at the house of a local family for snacks (sweet arepas) and then accompanied by their son (the captain of the boat), we went on a 90 minute river cruise.  Cruising slowly on placed water has the tendency to just relax you. There is something very serene about floating on water and just watching the animals and plants on the shore. We also saw the two-toed sloth – the good things about sloths are that you can take your time to spot them because they are so slow moving.  Sloths are nocturnal tree dwelling creatures so if they are hanging upside down on a tree during day time, they are easy to spot.

arepas and coffee

arepas and coffee

We then went back to the local family for lunch where they had laid out a feast for us. More casados – (special veg) one for my mom and a their in house smoked pork one for me.  They also had an amazing dessert called buneulos that reminded be of gulab-jamun. They are small balls made of combining yucca and cheese and fried till they are golden brown and then covered in sugar syrup.  These delicious tiny morsels might have been more Nicaraguan than Costa Rican.  It was a very pleasant trip managed by Jacamar tours and I was very impressed with their service.

I would have provided Jacamar five star reviews if it wasn’t for the evening tour  that we did. We had booked them the previous day via the Arenal Lodge for an evening/night tour just for me and Seejo.  When they didn’t turn up at the assigned up, the hotel called them and we realized that they had no record for us.  They scrambled to find us a guide – which was probably a last minute replacement.  I am not sure if it Is the fault of the guide or the location ( I expect a combination of the two)  but it was definitely not worth the time or money.  Our guide (and I forget his name now) took as to a private garden owned by Jacamar for a two hour walk guided by flashlights. Now, keep in mind that we knew that we weren’t going to be seeing birds and the big mammals and were ready to see frogs and bugs and other interesting nocturnal creatures.  We started off by seeing a rain frog and then another variety of rain frog.  Then we walked and walked and pretty much saw nothing – not even a small bug.  Then I noticed a sleeping toucan and Seejo noticed a couple of other birds sleeping. This is when we realized that the guide was clueless. He was clearly unaware of these birds and I realized that if we could spot them and not him, then he probably is not a good spotter – one of the important qualities in a guide.  After walking for about an hour seeing only these 2 frogs, he started getting desperate and showing us another frog and yet another frog – all in the same pond! Keep in mind these were the regular rain frogs – nothing

the lone frog

the lone frog

that we couldn’t spot otherwise.  Fortunately, the tour ended before he decided to point out he mosquitoes.  After a snack of arepas (not as good as the ones in the morning), we were dropped back to the hotel.

Arenal Mystico Hanging Bridge Park

Arenal Mystico Hanging Bridge Park

The next day morning, we went to see the hanging bridges at the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park – just outside the Arenal lodge. They are a series of about 14 suspension bridges each one at a different height and length.  They are not only an engineering marvel and allowed to us to an up close and personal glimpse of the rainforest canopy.  AT some places we were so high that we couldn’t

Penis Root Tree

Penis Root Tree

really see the forest floor.  Seejo and I decided to leave my mom and go on our own because Tanay was a bit nervous about these pathways and insisted on us carrying him.  But this was really a good tour. The animal spotting gods smiled at us and we saw toucans and poison dart frogs at the get-go.  A whole family of peccaries came out of the forest (almost as to say Hi), waited for a few minutes and then disappeared inside again.  We saw a family of bats, the aptly named penis root tree, a very well camouflaged pit viper, three toed sloths and a variety of birds (motmot, Black-throated Trogon and toucanettes) . We heard the screams of the howler monkeys –the sound carries at least a couple of miles and then we saw them a little while later.   The pit viper was incredibly scary – because I had just supported myself on a tree branch next to it minutes before.  Even after the guide pointed it, I had difficulty separating it from its surroundings. IT was startling to think that I might have touched it if I had stopped to fix my shoe a few minutes later.

After lunch, we spent the evening at the Baldi Hot Springs Resort. We were not impressed by the kids area because the water was too cold, Tanay was freezing and didn’t want to be in the water any longer.  The hot pools were amazing,  Water is really warmed naturally and flows into the pool at one end . The closer we are to that end, the temperature and force of water are high. We started at the warmer end and slowly made our way to the “hot” part where we received a pounding massage!  We lazed on the water, had a couple of drink sand then cleaned up and stopped for dinner.  The security guard at Arenal lodge had insisted that we stop at Nene’s restaurant to have the best ever ceviches. Not having a better choice, we did exactly that.  The ceviches were indeed wonderful.  In fact the ceviches we had everywhere on this trip (and we had one for every single meal) was fresh and never disappointed.

Birds at Arenal Lodge

Birds at Arenal Lodge

We had a leisurely breakfast next morning at the Arenal Lodge. Breakfast usually had rice, beans, fied banas, sausae links, eggs, pancakes, fresh fruits (pineapple watermelon and cantaloupe were in season) and some sort of assorted breads. While the food was good, the excitement was watching birds attack the fruits they kept on a ledge.  We could always see an assortment of Tanagers eating theCosta Rica 1-1-35 fruit!  After breakfast, we stopped at the Arenal area to pick up some wooden souvenirs and then drove back to San Jose.  We stopped in the early afternoon at a little town called Sarchi – famous for their bright and colorful oxcarts.  These oxcarts were a way of transporting coffee beans in the years gone by but they still remain a symbol of Costa Rica.  Sarchi houses a small factory that still makes these oxcarts by hand and paints them but they are now sold as souvenirs and as collectibles.

By this time, it was near evening and we turned to our final hotel in Costa Rica – a pretty fancy boutique hotel  called, Alameda Cariari. We picked up some Braziliam food from the nearby mall and then ate and packed up. We had an early morning flight to Dallas and then a connecting one later at night to DC.   Our flight had a connection at Dallas for a long time. So we rented a car and drove down to the nearby Grapevine Mills mall.  We had enough time to grab snacks and take the kids to the aquarium and Lego land and then eat dinner.   Which  made Dallas the highlight of our Costa Rican trip for Annika.

Costa Rica lived upto its expectation and its philosophy of– Pura Vida (Simple or Pure Life) .

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Copyright Deepa