We touched down on Costa Rican soil excited to be only a couple of days away from seeing some familiar home faces, and only a couple of days away from Tetley tea bags and a supply of Cadburys Chocolate that even Han didn’t manage to consume in the first 48 hours. Han’s parents were making the journey over for the festive period to join us for 2 weeks exploring the Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Costa Rica, and we had arrived a day ahead of schedule in the capital of San Jose.
We had originally planned to take a 22-hour bus all the way from San Salvador, through Nicaragua, stopping off for food at a Burger King (no, really) before clearing another border and alighting in San Jose a day later. However, due to
- Some miscommunication with our Spanish and the tellers English
- Some extremely heavy usage of buses just before the holidays
- See (1)
We found ourselves stuck in San Salvador, knowing we had around 48 hours to find a way to Costa Rica. With options slowly dwindling, and the prospects of sitting on really bad buses for over 40 hours, swapping, changing, money altering, food finding, and more swapping of buses not really hitting the ‘this is how life should be’ big button of fun, I made the executive decision to buy Han an early Christmas present and to take to the airs.
Around 1 hour after take off, a mid air meal, free beverages and a smooth landing, my mind was happy at it’s decision and we found ourselves taking the relatively clean and orderly Costa Rican bus service to the capital away from the airport.
My first thoughts of Costa Rica were one of a developed country, with a large influx of American merchandise and money, buses that have designated spaces for large oversized backpacks and taxis that charge by the meter. It was a relative breath of fresh air to arrive in a country and not have to figure out by how much the taxi driver or bus driver was ripping off the white faced Gringo.
Founded in 1738 and lying in a valley surrounded on two sides by imposing volcanoes, we spent a fun morning pottering around the markets, walking the streets and seeing the usual tourist sites of a theatre, some churches and an ex-fort-turned-museum. After a break for lunch, where cheesecake was found, and found to be tasty, we then went in search of a church that the Lonely Planet recommended and soon found that first impressions are like judging the proverbial book by its cover.
Once we scratched beyond the surface, we delved deeper into packed streets, the markets, the darker alleys and the rubbish filled gutters; a chaos that only works because its chaos. Seen from above the packed non-pedestrianised streets would look like an army of ants marching forever in random directions with no apparent rules or purpose. Hundreds, if not thousands of people, milling, swarming, walking, shouting, bumping; cars honking, pushing, shoving through the human mass. We spent an hour in search of the church, which we eventually found, and quickly decided that it was time to try and head back to the relative calm and safety of our hostel.
San Jose to me felt like a mixed bag of westernised changes that were attempting to boot polish a chaotic, over populated city with a national psyche that in parts still wasn’t ready or wanting to change. You had areas of big chain stores, wide streets, clean malls, brands that I knew and then you had the ‘real’ Costa Rica with packed markets, shouts, calls, fume churning buses and the usual array of cheap street food and haggling.
The next day was full of excitement from both parts of the Ager Family. We held up our lovingly created ‘Alan + Margaret’ signs at the arrivals, wondered where my juggling bag had gone (forever lost on a bus, it turned out), and welcomed with smiles, hugs and ‘where is the rent-a-car situated’ discussions.
We had planned a wonderful two weeks together, first a week down on the coast of the Pacific Ocean in Manuel Antonio, before travelling North through the country to a taste of the Caribbean, where we would be for Christmas Day through to New Years Eve.
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With directions in hand, a car filled to the brim and two surprisingly awake non-jet-lagged Agers we were off and made good time, finding our hotel fairly easily, only stopping once for a float of crocodiles that had lovingly photogenically stopped just beneath a bridge basking in the early morning sun.
We checked into our ‘has a swimming pool, has a bar, has a menu, has air conditioning, has a tv in the room’ hotel, and Han and I drew a collective breath as the penny pitching backpacker trail was momentarily diverted into hotel luxury. 5 star all inclusive it was not, 5 star all inclusive was not what we wanted, and to us, being able to jump into a clean swimming pool during the midday heat would be bliss.
With only 4 nights on the Pacific Ocean we spent a good amount of time on the beach and began our wildlife adventure tour that would be Costa Rica. An Iguana slowly lumbered up the tree as we munched on our breakfast, then white faced capuchin monkeys came racing across the roof of the bar area during lunch.
As I spent a day catching up on some work with a beer in hand, the sun rising high in the sky with a blue lagoon of cooling water next to me, the Agers took a morning excursion wildlife spotting with a local guide. They arrived back mid afternoon posing with photos of tree frogs, bats, snakes, sloths, howler monkeys, iguanas, racoons, yellow crested herons, crocodiles and more. In fact, the beach that their excursion passed through was closed due to the crocodile doing his morning laps in the ocean blue.
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The next few days roughly followed a pattern of visiting a wildlife reservation or local town, before hitting the beach in the afternoon or evening as the sun slowly set, giving its daily show of majestic reds, oranges and yellows. We swam in waterfalls, saw a troupe of toucans calling out to each other, followed a river upstream to watch its lapping water soothe the spirit, juggled on the beach, ate out, ate in, ate at a restaurant-come-clothes shop. We visited a vanilla farm and learnt about hibiscus, coffee, cacao, turmeric, basil, cinnamon as well as the aforementioned, only edible orchid, second most valuable spice itself.
However, before we knew it was Christmas Eve’s Eve and we were navigating our way through the mess and sprawl that is the suburbs of San Jose. With a few stops thrown in, and 7-8 hours of driving and navigating later, we emerged unscathed and excited to find our festive accommodation on the Caribbean Coast.
I had left the accommodation finding and booking to the Agers, and they had found a place a little off the beaten track at the end of the town of Puerto Viejo. We slowly carefully trundled our way down the dirt track, opened the gates with our host and had out first look at our house for the next 8 nights. Best described as a one storey 4 large garage abode, the place had adjectives like holistic, karma, Buddhist, serenity, and peacefulness oozing from its walls. Placed within a forest 200m from the beach, at night time gently lit up by turquoise, yellow, red and orange soothing lights, the house was like nothing any of us had stayed in before, and after working through some teething problems we all soon learned the houses quirks and workings and enjoyed our time there.
Cut off from the rest of Costa Rica until 1979 when a road was built to the area, to me the town had a very mixed feel to it that was unique from the rest of what we saw of Costa Rica. The area only received electricity in the mid 80’s, private phones in 1996 and the broadband internet in 2006, and this meant that the Spanish culture hadn’t pervaded and taken over the Bob Marley musical pueblo. Due to its inaccessibility until only 34 years ago, the main language flung around seemed to be English, or Creo, and the Jamaican colours of red, yellow and green seemed evident.
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Rastafarians and their wares lined the streets and the flavours and tastes seem to be more exotic and flavoursome than the more traditional rice and beans affair. So much so that during one expedition to the local supermarket, I used my pigeon Spanish only for the woman to question me with:
“You see the colour of my skin? Im Caribbean! Don’t speak that Spanish to me man”
With 8 days staying on the coast, naturally we had quite a bit of beach and swim time, fighting with the waves as they crashed onto the golden sands. Sometimes happy to just read in the hammock, play in the sand making sand castles, or watching the world go underneath a coconut tree in ‘wish you were here’ style photo poses, we soon all wound down and slowly relaxed for the week.
However, also being Costa Rica where wildlife almost invades your life without asking, we also got to experience some amazing birds, reptiles, insects and mammals who were gladly pottering along as we wandered briefly through their lives. Howler and Spider Monkeys soon became a normality so much that they were almost becoming annoying at one point, bright blue butterflies that spanned over 20cm in width became a no-show and spiders large enough to cover your face were definitely becoming creepy and crawly.
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Christmas Day itself arrived with bucks fizz in hand and roasted beef loin to cook over the barbeque in the garden. We ambled to the beach and enjoyed a beer, along with a run along the hot white sands, and presents were given out and received. Skype got a battering as loved ones were called and silly hats and moustaches were donned all around. We ate, drank, played silly games and cajoled like all good Christmas’, and went to bed 10 pounds heavier and two belt buckles looser.
However, before we knew it New Years Eve approached and it was time to say farewell to our fleeting English friends and relatives. We had all had a wonderful time together; for Han and I it had a been a most welcome break from the backpacking organisation and penny pinching travels that we were living through; for Alan and Margaret I suspect it was a well earned rest and journey through and in the Central American lifestyle, views and wildlife. For all of us I know it was a great, fun, amazing adventure where we got to experience a lot of what Costa Rica could throw at you, first on the Pacific, and then afterwards on the Caribbean.