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Trip Report Three weeks in August 2011 - trip report

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Three years after our first visit the arrival at SJO has a certain homecoming feeling. Familiar companies, familiar sounds and sights. Our first night we stayed at Adventure Inn (again) because it is close to the airport, the highway and there is a mall nearby. We noticed several improvements at hotel. Next morning a car was delivered by Wild Rider rental company, on time. The hand ver procedure was fast and efficient. Then Luis and his family came and we enjoyed seeing them all well.

To help us navigate the San Jose we brought a Garmin with NavsatCR map. Following its instructions we avoid driving the downtown of San Jose. when we were on the Panam highway we saw a lot of people walking towards Cartago, on some places the policia closed part of the road to avoid possible accidents. After Cartago the road was empty and stats gaining the altitude fast. No clouds or fog only nice views. For lunch we stopped at soda / antique shop Charlie's at KM55. Waiting for our first casados we examined the collection of old items and pictures. Food was good and owners very friendly. We have spent two nights in Cerro de la Muerte region to look after the quetzal. The place name is Paraiso de Quetzal, a mountain lodge with 10 cabinas and excellent views. It starts raining in the afternoon but we were able to observe many hummingbirds from the covered porch of the main building. Burning logs in the open fireplace only added to the atmosphere of a mountain lodge as we know from our country. During the night natural A/C was working full force so several blankets and a hot water bottle helped us stay warm. Early morning wake up into beautifull stairy night then owner Jorge Serrano took us to nearby finca where we have the pleasure of spotting that magnificient bird, quetzal. A young male, high in the tree, well camouflaged, was kind enough to glide nearer to an open branch. Mission no.1 accomplished. On our own we hiked around the hotel property (trails are well marked and between 1.5 and 4 km long). It rained hard in the afternoon so we decided to have some yoga lessons: in the bed, close your eyes, zzzzzz..., open your eyes then repeat it once more. Well, the air is thin at 2650 meters and slopes are steep. The morning after was a sunny one, more vistas towards west and another, shorter hike on property. Then we start our longest drive this year, towards Puerto Jimenez.

A very long drive it is, from Cerro to Puerto Jimenez, all the time on PanAmericana. The road was in good condition till Chacarita, then it almost disappeared, and was pothole on pothole to La Palma. Luckily a completely new section is made between La Palma and Puerto Jimenez. We booked 4 nights at Cabinas Jimenez, and were upgraded to bungalow. Very nice small place, our bungalow was big and comfortable and very clean, with porch that overlooked the bay. Also a small pool to refresh oneself after long and sweaty hikes. We hit the bed early. Our first full day in PJ should be a free day - no such thing on my tour. In the morning we have a breakfast at Carolina, nicest looking eatery on main road, then it was time to arrange for Corcovado NP permits. At noon we decided to check the situation on the Cabo Matapalo road. This is 100% pure Costarican 4x4 road. We crossed several streams / small rivers which were shallow enough for our car. Before the junction Matapalo / Carate there was one that we didn't want to try. Parked the car at Buena Esperanza Bar (aka Martina's Cantina), put on our hiking boots and continued on foot. Soon enough first morpho butterflies were showing their splendour amd monkeys were seen in the trees, first howlers and spiders, then we spotted also a capuchin. In about 1,5 hour we reached Backwash Bay were a pair of scarlet macaws were waiting for us. Another first ! High tide prevented the walk back along the shore so we backtraced. Spent some time and money for batidos and cervezas at BE, slowly drove to PJ where we had a meeting with Ballardo Diaz (Jaguarman) that should be our guide for next two days. He came and gave us brief description of what a one day hike in Corcovado looks like. For dinner we take out family pizza from Mail.It. That is a real italian pizza! It should be as pizzaiolo is from Trieste, and we had a long conversation with him and his lovely wife. The start for one day hike was set at 4.40 am. Slightly nervous as our guide was 40 minutes late. We decided to go with a taxi ($150 both ways). Arrived in Carate at 7 am and immediatelly made our first crossing. For this we have with us Keen closed toe sandals. After 45 mitues of walking on the black sand beach (luckily the weather was shifting between cloudy and overcasted) we reached La Leona ranger station, one of the entarnces to Corcovado NP. The path takes us into the secondary forest and follows the ocean. Ballardo took good care of us, he obviousely knows his way in this jungle. Our safety was his main preocupation. Along the path he shows us "usual suspects" of this type of jungle, and a family of coatimundis roaming for the land crabs was the highlighy of the hike. After about 2,5 hours we came to Rio Madrigal, changed the shoes again and crossed it. We continued on the beach for another half hour then we had to return back due to high tide. Our walk back was at much faster pace. We were back in Carate at 2 pm, and our driver already waited for us. He then spoted and stopped several times for us to see and take pictures of among others, a hawk, an aracari and finally a squirrel monkey, another first sighting for us. It just happens that we saw more animals outside then inside the park. Again, Buena Esperanza was excellent place to have a cerveza fria with guide and driver. I then paid Ballardo for both tours, the one we just finished and the one we should took next day (half day Cabo Matapalo birding tour). He set our start of the tour at 5 am. For dinner we went to Mariqueria Corcovado and had excellent seafood soup. Another very early wake up. This time we decided to use our car so we were seating in it from 5 am till 6.15 am, waiting for Ballardo. He never shows (more detailed in a separate post) so we just drive and had our birding tour by ourselves. The road we drove even slowly, stopping frequently to take photos of many birds we saw. Parked our car at usual place and hiked all the way to Playa Matapalo, seing a fair share of animal kingdom, a fami;y of squirrels monkeys and keen billed toucans being our favorites. We walked for about 2,5 hours one way, and 2 hours back, part of it on the beach. Backwash Bay was a nice stop again. Back in PJ we met TFC with his family and enjoyed theirs company for dinner at Las Palmas Restaurant. Thus we ended our time in the land of the scarlet macaw (a beautiful bird producing ugly sounds).

Driving on Costanera Sur up north was easy, road is new and smooth. Arrived at Hacienda Baru around 5pm, nice grounds and new pool. We got one of the old cabins, two bedrooms and a living room and a safety box made of concrete big enough to hold even the large photo equipment. For next morning we booked Mangrove Tour. Woke up early to meet Christian who was our guide. The birds were not really in the mood but the walk was interresting nonetheless, its highlight being an observation platform near the pond where egrets were nesting. Since HB was full that night we have to move a few km to Hatillo where we slept one night at Alma de Hatillo owned by Sabine. She is originally Polish so we have had some stories to exchange. Rooms are smaller yet clean and we slept well. The pool is one of the biggest we have seen. But we have to befast to catch the low tide at Whale's Tail in Uvita. Walking up to the tip of the tail was interesting although you cannot appreciate its famous silhouette from the ground level. Beach is fringed by lush vegetation with a backdrop of equally green mountaines and many locals were enjoying their day out. On our way back we stopped at Tiki Villas - as ordered by Luis. What a place !! And it is even in our budget range thatis it is very affordable for what it offers. A great place to enjoy after spending some days inside the Corcovado NP, or when you decide to treat your best part with a romantic weekend. For dinner we went to Coconut Spice, a Thai restaurant with CR flavor in Dominical. The food was good but the waiter was great ... He even learns some Slovenian words. After a relaxed sleep at Alma it was Sunday and we headed up the road towards Perez Zeledon. Our activity horseback riding with Linda at Rancho Tranquillo, some 20 km inland in the beautiful mountains. Linda really loves her horses and in return, horses loved us - very important when you are as unexperienced as we are and are ready to take a 4 hours ride up and down the hills. Linda picked the horses for each of us and off we go, accompanied by Linda and a young Tica girl that is helping her. Ahh, what a life for these kids ... Being outside, driving bikes and quads, riding horses to nearby waterfalls, ... Our ride was slowly paced with excellent scenery around and many interesting info given by Linda. After about two hours we reached Diamond waterfall, one of tallest in CR and "operating" only in rain season. I decided to take a closer look at it and came back wet and muddy but with some great photos. We mounted the horses again and on our way back we saw a tayra, quite difficult to spot in the wild, unfortunatelly taking photos from the horse is not what I am specialized in. So memories only. Short before our arrival at stables the young Tica and my daughter were allowed to ejoy themselves in some galloping ... What I was thinking when decided to join them !!?? After taking care of the horses, washing and escorting them to the pasture we had a lunch at Linda's house. What a view, in fact, the house is one big room with one IMAX view. Pizza was excellent and after some more talk we shake hands with our two hosteses wishing them good luck and many happy clients. Relocated back to Hacienda Baru we opted for another birdwatching tour, the Rainforest Experience. In the morning our crew was down in numbers - the steep hills did not appeal to my wife. So the two of us had Diego Porras for ourselves. What a guide - we have seen whatever was in the reach of his ears and his telescope. The hike across the road and up then down the hill was quite demanding butwe enjoyed Diego's knowledgeable expalnations with interest and time just fly by. So we were ready to drive our shortest leg this trip, from Dominical to Manuel Antonio. All the towns we were during now already six weeks in Costa Rica did not prepare us to what Manuel Antonio is. A windy road goes up and down the hill from quepos toward the entrance of the MA NP and it is lined with hotel after hotel, restaurant after bar after night club ... A totally touristy place. Luckily La Posada Jungle Bungalows hold up to our expectations. Small from the outside the property is big from the inside, with friendly owner and helpful staff. We had a bungalow, nicely decorated, good size shower, and AC (and TV), sitting area facing the small pool. We feel good vibe here. Public beach is close, maybe three min walk, entrance to the park next door. Dinner we had at Marlin, bit overpriced but as I said MA is a tourist place not a local one. Next morning we scanned the beach, quite nice but not very swimmable, yet with many sunbeds and umbrellas to rent alongside with many water and land activities offered. The goal of our visiting MA was the park. We booked Juan Luis Brenes for a private walk. Much younger then I expected yet very professional (he was 30 min early and I really appreciate when I do not wait). Anybody noticed that i used the term walk and not hike?! Because MA is more like a big city park then anything else. With dense foliage and many animals but nonetheless. And many groups with guides just adds to this impression. When I asked Juan how does it feels like walking it in the season, in the morning, he replied :"you don't wanna be here!!" i think he is absolutely right. However it was a pleasant walk, we saw several animals and inside the park there are two nicest and most swimmable beaches in Costa Rica. The entrance fee of $10 is good for whole day so one could have a guided walk in the morning, get out for a lunch or a shower if staying nearby and returned for an afternoon on the beach. However this is the least interesting National Park we have seen and experienced so far in Costa Rica. Dinner that night was at Los Gemelos, a funky bar with reasonable prices and good food. We hit the bed early as quite long and at the end bumpy ride up to Monteverde was ahead of us.

Monteverde! When emailing Rolf that we are planning to visit Monteverde area again he asks: "Why?! You've been here already ...". Exactly, and we loved it so much that we have decided not to leave it out of this year itinerary. The area, THE views, THE host and THE guide ... we have to repeat all of them. Driving from Manuel Antonio I have prepared myself to tackle again (in)famous bumpy road. Turn off at Sardinal and a newly paved road snakes uphill. Where are the bumps? Sure enough we got our share of the holes and the rocks but only after the paved road hits the junction at Guacimal. Till that point it was smooth sailing, the weather cooperates and views were fantastic. Another surprise awaits for us when we reached Santa Elena - a newly opened gas station! We stayed once more at Rainbow Valley Lodge. After much hugging and handshaking we were shown the Cabin that Rolf was working on in 2008, and what a place he made!! Very comfortable, separate bedroom with own bathroom, no "suicidal showers" but real gas heated thing. Well equipped kitchen with large fridge. Can accommodate up to 5 persons. One coati has welcomed us after a thorough inspection, seemed pleased with what he found (however he did not show himself any more during our stay). The weather was fine, slightly cloudy and breezy, the views familiarly great in all directions. An excellent sunset and a light dinner at Tico y Rico in Santa Elena was all for that day. At night natural A/C worked at full so another blanket was needed. Early morning wake-up to enjoy a cup of coffee in front of the cabina. Due to below treetop level the views are less spectacular then from the balcony of the upper apartment but spotting the hummingbirds is easier. On our arrival we have contacted Andres Alvarado, another "must do" for us in that area. He is an example of what a nature guide should be. Excellent English, walking talking nature encyclopedia, and in love with the nature "up to the ears". We raved so much about him that Rolf wanted to check him out. We drove up towards Monteverde Cloud Forest Resrve to pick him up and then back down to San Luis waterfall. A 15 min drive ... but not when with Andy. After about an hour later we parked our car at the trailhead, paid US$10 for the entry and get each a walking stick - do not forget to take one if hiking up to San Luis as you will surely need it. At very slow pace, stopping often to listen to Andy about some birds and plants and differences between Cloud Forest and Shadow Forest and Rain Forest and Midget Forest ... we have reached the stream. The trail follows it and cross it several times before stops at the waterfall. What a sight, almost a 100 meters tall, in 2 sections. One large pool directly beneath it and a second one, more protected away from the main drop, for those "swimming in the jungle" pictures you have always wanted to take. We returned back in equally slow pace (the slowly you walk the more you hear and see). Our lunch was at CASEM where local ladies has opened a kitchen behind the souvenir shop on the other side of the road from Stella's bakery. Very basic place with very basic prices but the food was simply excellent. Try Arroz con pollo, best I have eaten in CR. After driving Rolf back to the lodge (yes, even if you are a lodge owner in Costa Rica there are duties to be fulfilled) we've been invited to Andy's home. With a coffee in the hand and listening to Andy's plans for the future time passed by so fast it was already getting dark outside. One side note: Andy has two daughters which he cares about and loves them as much as he loves the nature (and I am sure also his wife). Tonight dinner was at El Fogon, a newly opened old style Tico restaurante 10 min walk from Rainbow Valley Lodge. Open side design, wooden tables and benches, one can supervise the cook as he is preparing the food in the open kitchen on the fogon. The menu has all the good old costarican food on it, and what we ate was tasty and plentiful, prices being affordable for Monteverde. Our second full day starts with my self-exploration across the road where I have taken a shoot of bellbird (beginners luck) in 2008. No such luck this time, the "wood was not in the mood"! For breakfast (there is no breakfast offered at RVL, Rolf knows his limits) we went to Santa Elena to Panaderia Jimenez. Freshly baked sweets and coffee ... best for fresh Monteverde morning. Some "sightseeing" around the main (and only) road, not much has been change up here (luckily). Many hikers in their pro hiking boots and pro hiking vests were also wondering around, probably waiting to join one of the many tours and activities offered here. At 1 pm we met Andy at La Selvatura for a birdwatching tour on the road near the Santa Elena Reserve. The road is surely facing the Caribbean side since soon after we started our hike also the rain started, pretty heavy, reminds us how wet we were at the end of Selvatura walk in 2008. So we decided to find less wet place and since this time the headlights were switched off we were able to drive some 5 kilometers toward Pacific side. Not a drop of rain on this side and we had our share of interesting birds (just don't ask me which ones, I forgot the names so fast ...), spotting an albino and taking many pictures. For dinner we went to Marisqueria Marquez, a decent seafood dinner but nothing to write home about. Since all good things came in the package of three, we asked Andy if he could show us the bird we were listening to every morning ... the elusive bell bird. He just happened to have a bell bird watching tour scheduled for a couple so our last morning in the clouds of the Monteverde Cloud Forest we joined them. A full hour before they arrived we have tried our luck and binoculars sweeping the trees around the gas station (said to be THE spot for bell bird and toucan sighting) with no luck. We could hear them but seeing one was too hard for us. Sure enough only 30 min after Andy and his other guests arrived he spotted a young juvenile on the tree close to where we were looking. Then another juvenile, then its mother and at last, an adult bell bird decided to show us how wide he can open his beak and how long his moustaches has already grown. After filling the memory card fast with something like a hundred photos we said our goodbye to Andy (www.forestalive.com ) and started our quite long drive towards the Caribbean lowlands. The road from Santa Elena to Tilaran is comparably bad to the road to Cabo Matapalo - large rounded stones and even larger potholes - but the scenery is awesome!

Arriving in Tilaran from Monteverde everybody needed a rest; we found a panaderia on the way out of the city, and have s short but sweet late breakfast. Continuing our drive towards Sarapiqui was much smoother, all of it on paved roads. Firstly on the scenic road around Lake Arenal. On the shore where are the boats we have spotted a captain that took us on the lake tour with his boat Calypso three years ago. Of course we have stopped the car to greet him, and get his business card this time. Soon after the rain starts and it follows us almost all the way to Sarapiqui. The volcano sighting was, well, not much. The bumpy road down the Monteverde takes its toll on the car, rear right tyre was alarmingly low so we stopped to breath it some new air. No surprise after, rain has also slowed down, and so we arrived at Posada Andrea Cristina. Alex and his son were out, guiding some birdwatchers, so we first settled ourselves into the tree cabin, but only till my wife noticed otherwise harmless but nonetheless impressive looking spider. So we switched to ground cabina. Then Alex and Kevin came home and another round of hugging and greeting, as we have exchanged quite many emails from 2008. Alex Martinez is a local guide and nature lovers, he has started an wildlife sanctuary named Tierra Hermosa (www.tierrahermosa.com ) and our daughter's wish to volunteer there was one of the main reasons for our return to Costa Rica. While she will help in the refugee our goal was to enjoy some relaxed days at Puerto Viejo. After a sumtous breakfast and giving some first hand info to other fellow travelers (majority of guests of Posada Andrea Cristina came from Europe, and they are mainly serious birdwatchers) we all went to see what has been done in last three years in the refugee. A lot, specially with the limited funds Alex is working with. A house for volunteers, several small cages (there are all injured animals waiting to get better and be released back in the nature) and a platform for bigger aviary - working on it will be Tanja's main job. There was a smal capuchin monkey confiscated by a police, a green ara with missing feathers on its wings, and a racoon, all of them waiting to be reintroduced back to the nature. After lunch in local restaurant (chicken soup was very good) me and my best part drove another four hours to Puerto Viejo, Playa Negra, Banana Azul. The Banana Azul will be our luxury hotel to end up this year travel. On arrival we got our pre-booked room for 4 nights, No.8 or Dolphin room. It is on the far end from the sea, has a big balcony on two sides, two double doors to the balcony which helps it to be cool during day and specially during night time. The bed is big and comfortable, there is one hammock and one wooden chair outside (a cushion for it would be great). We liked the room and the hotel as such. enough luxurious for us. A small dip pool is clean and upon arrival the receptionists gave us amply info about hotel and specially about safety. General safety was (is) much debated so let me start with it. Being there for 5 days, we have never had an issue with it. However, we used our car to go to and from the town. And walking around Puerto Viejo gave us a somewhat different feeling then one we had in 2008. The positive, vibrant "vibe" was nowhere to be found. Much less young and smiling people on the streets, not many tourists to be seen. wandering around. They were there, surely, but mainly sitting in various bars and restaurants. So, although we didn't feel unsafe, we did not even feel very "welcomed". And when we received a (honest) warning from one of the bar owners to put away (out of sight) our camera, we knew that something has changed in Puerto Viejo. However that are only our personal impressions, gathered during relatively brief (several hours in total) time in town. Also important to mention is that we have arrived on Sunday, August 14th, when a horrible act had happened (we learn about it only after returning home reading TA forum). Back to our story. After a delicious breakfast we headed up the road towards Manzanillo. It was Mother's Day in Costa Rica and many families were on the beach in Manzanillo, enjoying their day off. Lunch at Maxi (hmmm, not exactly as good as I have imagined to be) and watched some softball being played at the local soccer field. Then we have seen another familiar face from 2008, a guide that took us to Gandoca-Manzanillo NP and of whom we forgot the name. To rectify this we have approached him and after a while he somehow start remembering us. He gave us his business card and later in the evening I have mailed him a photo taken with him during our hike. He surely was the guy on the photo, his name is Omar Cook, he said that he looks much younger on that photo. We have had a great time so decided to spent another day with him. Back to hotel for more hammock and book time, and early to bed. Day 2 was dedicated for some more walking. We decided to stroll the Cahuita NP. First we stopped at Punto Vargas entrance where they told us that the entry fee is $10 pp, so we went to Cahuita where at Kelly Creek the entrance fee is non-obligatory donation. We donated $10 and walked for about two and a half hours till the point where you can see the Puerto Viejo side, and then returned. A group of howler monkeys were the highlight of animal life, and with a help of others we have also a good sighting of a three-toed sloth. And my wife spotted a small eyelash viper napping close to the trail. All in all, it is a very easy and scenic trail, and if you take it slowly you can spot a fair amount of wildlife for yourself. For lunch we went to Miss Edith only to learn from her menu that she is very popular ... prices were higher then we wanted to pay for. Back to Puerto Viejo fo some ice cream at Dam Good Coffee, near the bus station, and more hammock and book time at the hotel. On third day we did some more relaxing and also visited the town for souvenir (bought none) and postcards (bought plenty). Thursday was our last full day. We met Omar in Manzanillo and he took us to Bribri to meet a family of local inhabitants. The family have a small orchard where different trees and plants are, and the head of the family showed us how they produce colours from different plants. Afterwards we enjoyed in the preparation of chocolate, roasting the beans on the open fire and grinding them by hand. The whole family is involved, some of the daughters making souvenirs from calabash. It was easygoing and informal and we had a great time with them. Then Omar decided that a visit to nearby waterfall would be a good call. It was a nice walk, but not an easy one, and it was also very hot that day. I have happily waded in the cool water of the river that we have to cross several times, just to cool down a little. The waterfall is also nice, not very tall but scenic. A couple of local boys were jumping into the deep pool and they did it happily for us to take pictures. If alone I would be tempted to take off my clothes and to dip in the refreshing water myself. Not many wildlife yet very interesting talk we had with Omar about life on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. Back to Manzanillo for a lunch at Soda La Playa and a walk up the beach. While Puerto Viejo has lost its charm to us, not so Manzanillo. The people looks happier here, the beach is much nicer then the one around Puerto Viejo, and for me, even better then the beaches at both sides of Punta Uva. For those seeking the laid back caribbean atmosphere IMHO Manzanillo is the place to try. There are new places with food emerging and also new accommodations available. The beach and the sea are great and being close to NP means a that wildlife is always at the reach of a short walk. For our last night we were moved to Room No.6, one of the Oceanic rooms. Both its size and the size of the bed were smaller, and it was also warmer due to have only one set of doors to the balcony. It was clean and served the purpose but we were much happier at Dolphin Room. One more word about in-room wooden safe; in one of the reviews there was a description of the "very unsafe wooden box". Well, this wooden box happens to be in a form of a small table, with thick hardwood panels and a top made by at least 15 cm thick chunk of tree trunk, with a total weight more then 50 kg. No way that anybody could steal this from the room, and drilling a hole in it would be heard all over the place. One last word: walls are really paper thin. If having to do my honeymoon even at our age we would choose a place with more privacy.

Driving back to Sarapiqui was faster, our daughter was alive and well, and the road over the Braulio Carillo NP was empty. Not so San Jose, arriving around 3 pm we entered into the heavy traffic time. We followed GPS directions strictly so eventually Adventure Inn was in our sight. Returning the car to Wild Rider was easy and fast. They were more interested in how we spent our holidays then in searching the car for eventual scratches (which were none, I am a prudent driver). Sleeping our last night near airport gave my wife the chance to buy last minute gifts and coffee, and to prepare the suitcases for return flight (very important balancing job, due to very restricted weight limits imposed by Iberia). Have dinner at food market in Cariari Shopping Mall, chinese food just to change the taste a bit.

Flying back through Panama, have four hours to search many airport shops, but found nothing of interest (or it was as expensive as in Europe). Iberia has lowered its standards further down, seats were harder then ever, poor food (left half - not very common from me to left food that I have paid for). Hopefully will be able to find another carrier for our future arrival in Central America.

Under the line, Costa Rica has delivered it again. Not with a WOW factor of our first visit, yet we have had great journey, people we met were all friendly, the tourist infrastructure is improved as well as the roads. We had more rain but never had to cancel our plans. The hikes and the guides we had were all ranging from good to excellent and of course, meeting old and new friends were almost as important as seeing the quetzal or the bellbird. Not very soon, but we'll be back.

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