San José

I ended up in Costa Rica after meeting a Costa Rican guy on a course I attended in Fribourg Switzerland last year. The conversation pretty much went “you should come to Costa Rica”; “okay, that seems like a good idea”; and here we are.

Anyway, the guy in question is called Guillermo, and he lives in San José. The Dutchie and I had floated the idea of leaving a bunch of our stuff with him prior to heading down the Carribbean coast, and so we planned to catch up with him in San José in the evening. As it turns out, it was a holiday in San José and he had the day off work, so I wanted to head down earlier; also as it turns out, Anouk lost her phone, so there was no point in her sticking around in La Fortuna to make her WhatsApp date.  As such, we had our clothes laundered (sorely, *sorely* needed), then caught the bus out of La Fortuna for San José at 12:45.

I’m ahead of myself, though: I haven’t actually spoken about La Fortuna as a town.  I liked it, it had a good feeling to it, and lots of cute little nooks and things to explore. It was definitely a bit of a tourist town, but not in the same was as Tamarindo was: for one, where Tamarindo was an American enclave, La Fortuna was more European (many Dutchies and Germans); for two, La Fortuna was less trashy, and generally had way more chill.

In the morning before catching our coach (no apologies for the non-chromonological order of this post), we went for breakfast at a reggae bar called something along the lines of ‘Lava Lounge’, which fundraised to take care of stray local dogs.  We had some delicious huevos rancheros–and the waiter, Max, was hilarious.  At no apparent prompt, he tapped me on one shoulder while walking off in the other direction, and I started giggling hysterically.  It was so ridiculously unexpected.

Leapfrogging ahead in time once more, our bus to San José took quite a while–some 4.5-5 hours–though glady I managed to get some sleep for around an hour of that.  Upon arrival, we found a really nice hostel: Van Gogh hostel, near Terminal Mepe.  It was clean, spacious, quiet, and the owner was a lovely guy.  We’re going back there this upcoming Sunday.

Our next movement was to try and find somewhere to buy the Dutchie a new phone, because she is a legit addict.  The hostel owner suggested we catch an Uber to Walmart, which we did.  We then failed at finding anything at all we were looking for: Anouk found a phone she liked, but neither that store nor any other had the actual item for sale.  Then we couldn’t find an appropriate daypack for the Dutchie either, and we couldn’t find a needle and thread for me (as my pack has lost a strap).  Also, our blood sugar was getting pretty low, so things were getting somewhat silly.

At this point Guillermo came to our rescue, picking us up, and taking us to an Irish pub for dinner. We then went to a cool little bar, Casa, where I had some delicious sangria.  Anouk was also in heaven, as both the Irish pub (the Craic) and Casa had huge beer lists.  There really seems to be a cool craft beer/indie-type bar scene going on in San José.

Today, the phone/pack mission continued.  We headed to a nearby mall, failing to find a new phone for Anouk or a needle for me.  We did get some thread, though, so that was halfway there.  We also stopped by a bookstore, so that I could get some more books with which to practice my Spanish reading comprehension :).  The Dutchie, meanwhile, found herself a travel neck-pillow, which folds up to be a soft toy elephant.

I asked lots of people in the mall, and eventually someone suggested that we go to the central market in town to get a needle.  We were starting to run a little short of time, so caught a taxi, and not only found a needle almost immediately, but had time to continue the phone mission!  A lady who assisted with my Costa Rican phone number recharge gave us a place to head towards, and we started ducking into each and every phone store on the way, finding the phone the Dutchei wanted, and comparing prices.  And finally, success!!

San José I think has a bit of a bad rep.  It’s not really tauted as a travel destination, but our feeling is that you have to dig below the surface a little.   Yes, it’s gritty–my ‘danger danger!’ signals were going off in the areas around the bus stop, for example–but there’s a lot of life around, and a lot to discover.

We also saw reflected what the Tico from our ex-Tamarindo bus had been talking about, with many immigrants and a lot of economic disparity.  This is something our hostel guy expounded upon at breakfast time, too.  He’s an interesting guy who has travelled a lot and lived in quite a few places, and he sees the same trends occurring in Costa Rica as in the seemingly rest of the world at the moment.  He said that there were huge issues with refugees and irrendentism, pointing at Nicaragua taking land from Colombia, for example, and making a play at Guanacaste in the north of Costa Rica (where Liberia is located).  There’s a wall that has gone up between Costa Rica and Nicaragua to assist with issues, and he said that there are similarly hot borders across Central and South America, narcotrafficking, money laundering (he said this was 90% of Panama’s national income, for example), and deeply antagonistic relationships.  Coutnries such as Costa Rica and Colombia are pointed at as debauched capitalist societies, against the interests of countries such as Nicaragua (which, as you can tell, came up a lot).  There’s a lot of xenophobic scape-goating taking place in Costa Rica and Nicaragua alike, and these sentiments are mobilised by politicians and media for instrumental purposes.  The Costa Rican middle class has its taxes raised to pay for the poor, while the rich get richer. Diatribes in the region take an economic left/right slant rather than the more conservative/liberal slant you see in left/right arguments in Europe, for example: but the issues are the same.  Our poor hostelier couldn’t see any future that wasn’t bleak, that didn’t result in war in the next 15 years, in the region or more generally: with lack of education, inequality, corruption, exploitation, and mobilised xenophobia, he sees it as a powder keg.

The Dutchie and I are now on a bus to Puerto Viejo, on the south-eastern coastline of Costa Rica.  We’ve ditched a lot of our stuff at our San José hostel, partly beacuse there’s been a rise in dangerous drug trafficking-type people in the area, and partly because why would be schlepp it around?!  We actually only managed to get one seated ticket for this bus, so we’re together in the baggage/disabled area, which I honestly don’t mind.  We have WAY more room than in the seats,a can get up and stretch etc, and I can whip out my keyboard and type out our adventures of the past few days.  3.25 hours down; one or two to go.

It was not air conditioned.

Puerto Viejo

After our long standing bus arrived in Puerto Viejo (and I had been indoctrinated into the local radio stations), things went rather quickly downhill.  Walking to our hostel, people were looking at us appraisingly–and not in the ‘check out the gringas’ kind of way, but more in the ‘we could definitely rob these chics’ kind of way.  We made it to our hostel, however, that wasn’t any better at all.  We were greeted by a guy who gave off the weirdest vibe, who led us around the hostel before disappearing once more. The living area of the hostel was nice, but the rooms were gross–my bed was literally a mattress on the floor in the doorway, and in the path of water leaving the shower. Also, while it had a mosquito net, it didn’t actually reach the mattress, which kind of defies the point.  The whole place felt unsafe, so the moment I had the WiFi password, I started looking for somewhere else to stay.

After a brief and over-priced dinner at Koki Beach, which is full of rainbow-coloured rocking chairs and similarly-hued beverages, it was more than bed-time.

First thing in the morning, it was time to check out the town: in large part because I’d somehow forgotten to bring a bikini!  After a humungous breakfast, I finally found one, while Anouk managed to buy 2-3 sets and a new wardrobe.  We also checked out a couple of prospective places to stay, including one I’d spotted the night before, called Veronica’s Place.  It was run by a friendly family and full of cute little coloured cabinas, so it was clearly the place for us :).  Newly equipped with bikinis, and with our room available, we grabbed our stuff, hired some bikes, and headed for the beach.

Playa 506 is a hostel located at Playa Cocles, which I’d seen advertised while trying to find somewhere to stay.  It was too expensive (USD20 for a dorm bed, wtf), but reviews had said the restaurant was nice, so we stopped for a snack (a delicious Greek salad!!) and a drink before carrying on.  Our next step was Punta Uva Arrecife, which had a cute little beach for some proper swimming.  As always, Anouk went in the water first, as once I get in, there’s no getting me out!  Though in this case, I pretty much crawled out and went straight to sleep in the sun for an hour.  It’s lucky the UV index seems to be so low here.

Under the shadows of raucous toucans, we then cycled back to Puerto Viejo properly, finding somewhere with drinks and WiFi so Anouk could message her boyfriend, and then bed.

Cahuita

Imo, Cahuita National Park is a must-see in Costa Rica. It’s an absolutely beautiful little park, full of wildlife, nestled against the ocean just north of Puerto Viejo on the Carribbean coast.  Before anything else, though, we had the most epic of breakfasts at ‘Bread & Chocolate’, in town.  Oh my god.  Have scrambled eggs ever been so delicious?!?!  Though I could barely walk afterwards…

We headed to Cahuita at a fairly leisurely 9am, catching the local bus straight there from Puerto Viejo.  After being dropped off in town, we stopped to buy an exceptional amount of nappy rash cream, because between being the sweatiest human imaginable and the vicissitudes of bike riding the day before, I had no thighs left to speak of.  At least, not thighs with skin on them.  We also tasted some kind of dragonfruit-looking thing which tasted a bit like grapes and peaches.

Next it was on to the national park, where we paid a donation fee, then got to walking.  We walked quickly at first, wanting to outpace the dawdling tourists, and one of the guides took us to task, saying “go! Go with your stress!”.  Forgive us if we’d rather listen to the sounds of the jungle than to inane chatter.

The trail follows the curve of the beach around the coast, and we stopped for a dip before it came down the eastern side of the promontory.  It was such a lovely walk–we saw hermit crabs, big dark pelicans, a real-life wild raccoon, some very noisey howler monkeys, lots of butterflies, including those gigantic blue ones (speaking of which, one thing I forgot to mention in my Monteverde post was seeing the most amazing butterfly–its wings were entirely transparent, like glass, with just a rim of brilliant yellow and scarlet outlining their edges.  It was gorgeous.  And kind of impossible.).  We ALSO saw a SLOTH!!!  A SLOTH!!!  Given I’d been walking along with my face pointed to the sky looking for one, I feel like we more than deserved it.  And what a cutie!

Post-swim, we continued to follow the trail, then switching to the road along the coastline.  It definitely wasn’t the right way to go, but we had some spectacular views of dark abandoned beaches.  A park ranger drove past us and clearly went ‘wtf are these white girls doing’, and then started following us in his car from a distance, I guess making sure we weren’t attacking ocelots or anything.

Near the exit to the park, where the bus stop would be, there was the entrance to a long wooden walkway, through land that was more swamp-esque than that we’d encountered in the park until then.  We started along it, listening to the sounds of the birds, looking at spiders, and being party to a big argument between a few groups of howler monkeys.  They’re so loud!  It sounds like there are gorillas in the trees, something huge and meaty, rather than these tiny little fluffbuckets.  And what angry fluffbuckets they were.

Finally leaving the park, we made it back to Puerto Viejo, and weren’t capable of much before sleep.  Again, though, Cahuita was gorgeous, accessible, and an absolute must-see.

Manzanillo

Our final morning in Puerto Viejo started near dawn as usual, as we got up to pack our things then head to Manzanillo, by the Panamian border.  There was another park there that had been recommended to us by the guy we hitched a ride with in Monteverde, and he’d specifically recommended a beach which is accessed via the park.  We set off with the intention of making it to the beach before heading back to San José for our flight the following morning.

Arriving in Manzanillo, the place was fairly packed with what seemed to be locals–it seemed as though there may have been free or cheap beach-front camping, and the infrastructure (toilets, showers) was there to support it.  We bypassed all of it, heading straight into the park, which didn’t seem to require a fee or donation this time.

We followed the path along the coast before cutting inland to make it to the other side of the headland, where the beach was.  Unfortunately it didn’t go quite to plan, and we mysteriously ended up completely turned around, somehow finding ourselves back by the town instead.  The only explanation is that the jungle rejected us, as in “YOU ARE NOT READY”, and thus pushed us out.  On the up-side, we saw another sloth (woo!), and a beautifully-coloured cicada.  We also heard some monkeys, though they were on private property, so we couldn’t take a closer look.  It seemed as though they were a type we hadn’t yet heard in Costa Rica, so I’m going to go with them being capuchin monkeys, aka white-faced monkeys.  We have no way of knowing one way or the other, so let’s roll with that.

Now that we were back at the start anyway, we opted for beaches closer to the township, though still within the national park.  As it turned out, they were rocky and sea-weedy, with strong waves, so the most we could really achieve was sitting in the water and getting bashed.  When I got out, I ended up getting as though I were wearing a nappy made of sand, which was not the most pleasant thing.  There also wasn’t much I could do about it without, you know, flashing the entire beach.  This was particularly out of the question, given as I was standing up, I heard noises from behind me–I then turned to discover that not only were there now a lot more people on the beach, but they were alllll guys.  It felt a bit weird.  So I walked over to Anouk and pointed this out, and we gathered our things to head to the next beach.

I pulled my top on, and Anouk commented that it was good that I was “hiding the jiggles”.  (I asked her if she was now naming parts of me!)  However, Anouk did no getting dressed-again of any kind, and as we walked up the steep path from the beach, we turned to find that literally every guy was sitting with their neck craned around to watch.  A lot of wolf-whistling ensued.

Soon enough it was time to leave the next beach as well, though happily we stopped at showers on the way to the bus.  Then it was time to head to Puerto Viejo, have a brief lunch (again at Bread and Chocolate!), and head out.  We would thence make it to San José and the same hostel we’d stayed at previously, prior to flying out to Barranquilla Colombia via Bogotá the following day.

Puerto Viejo is an interesting place.  It’s increasingly affected by local drug trafficking, cocaine from Colombia and Peru, and it’s hard not to imagine the high-speed boats zooming along in the dark off-shore, their holds full of white powder.  Puerto Viejo has a lot of people selling pot, which I gather is legal in Costa Rica, and has a massive rasta culture going on.  Immigrants to the area are largely from places such as Jamaica, and so you see the flag everywhere.  At one point we were (perhaps innocently) followed by a guy with a disability that led him to drag his feet along the ground, and to walk with jagged motions like those of a spider.  With the tenor of the town, it felt like we were being followed by a voodoo spirit–or perhaps I’ve watched too much American Horror Story. But I suppose that’s a reflection of the town overall–it feels like a place with a lot of untold stories, danger, and more than its fair share of dark magic.
Wrapping up on Costa Rica, it’s a place I would 100% recommend to anybody who enjoys nature or the outdoors.  It also has a certain spirit to it, whereby it’s impossible to worry about the past, or future–Costa Rica is a place entirely located in the presence.  It’s also affordable–for the 13 days, I spent $1k Australian dollars, and as you’ll have gathered, that included a lot of activities.  I definitely hope to go back someday, as there’s always room in my life for more sloths and volcanoes :).