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Trip Report Three weeks of wandering through Costa Rica - pura vida!

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February 9 was the start of my sixth trip to Costa Rica over the past five years and my goal was to visit some off-the-beaten track destinations, return to a few of my favorite spots, stay in as many locally owned lodges as possible and (hopefully) utilize and improve my Spanish. This report will be in bits and pieces since I’m in the process of editing way too many photos, but will post a link to them later.

Arrival at SJO was a major effort to coordinate as I was bringing some items for an Alajuela friend along with an extra suitcase full of goodies for another friend’s grandson and meeting up with my two travel companions who had picked up our rental car from Wild Rider a few hours earlier. My United flight via Houston was on time, customs/immigration wait was minimal and the ATM by baggage claim was easy to spot.

Rosti Pollos by SJO turned out to be the perfect place to meet and hand over the extra bag and laptop. After a quick roasted chicken salad for lunch, we hit the InterAmerican by 3:00 pm. I knew that we couldn’t make it to La Carolina before dark, so I looked for a closer alternative – and there’s not much in this part of the country. Although Cañas is not a tourist destination, but strictly a place to drive through, it worked out well for us to stay at Hacienda La Pacifica. http://pacificacr.com/english/hotel-2.html

Arriving at sunset, we found expansive grounds with deer grazing in front of our room. There were very few guests – the three of us along with a small tour group from Europe that we saw in the restaurant that evening. The room was large, clean and had some beautiful woodwork. I believe that the majority of the grounds are used for research purposes, but this is a good place to overnight if you know you can’t make it to your Guanacaste destination before dark. We had some great cerviche, grilled tilapia, veggies and margaritas for dinner. Downside was that this was probably our worst place for mosquitoes during the entire three weeks of travel.

Next morning I woke up to my “alarm clock” of howler monkeys and looked out to see agoutis hopping around the lawn and coatis heading back in to the forest. After a good breakfast of scrambled eggs and fruit, I got my first taste of driving in Costa Rica – I loved it! The road up to Bijagua was quite deserted on a Sunday morning, well paved and beautiful scenery with Miravalles and Tenerio volcanoes beside us. It was a great way for me to get used to driving a manual transmission once again.

Turning off just past Bijagua I hit positively the worst road I’ve ever experienced in the country – and that includes the infamous roads in Monteverde, the Osa and Arenal Observatory Lodge. It was slow going, but arriving at La Carolina was worth it. This hidden gem has 170 acres of rainforest and pastureland, main lodge and several private cabins. It is rustic and geared for independent travelers, not anyone who is looking for luxury accommodations. Bill and Karien Harwell are the owners and are very outgoing, friendly and helpful. The staff (including guides) does not speak English, so you’ll certainly get more out of guided tours, etc. if you have a basic understanding of Spanish.
http://lacarolinalodge.com/

Karien had upgraded us to a private cabin by the river with a queen and single bed, fireplace, large front and back porches with a hammock and our own hot tub overlooking the jungle and river. It was so peaceful and quiet on our porch that we never even made it to the other hot tub by the river.

The meals at La Carolina were mainly casados. They were delicious, hardy and served family style, so you get to chat with other guests. We met a couple who had just left Santa Teresa and said it was so hot, dry and dusty there that people were wearing masks – that made us appreciate our beautiful setting even more. Much of the food is grown on their land in the orchards, gardens or from their dairy. The rates per person included all meals, guided tour of the property, horseback riding and a guide to accompany you to Tenerio National Park. At night there is limited power available and most lighting is by candlelight for a wonderful atmosphere. Do bring a flashlight for your walk back to your cabin.

Karien and Bill (and their two small boys) are only here five months a year and the staff runs the lodge in their absence. We had great fun hiking the property with Justin spotting a blue jean frog, violaceous trogon and howler monkeys. Birding and photography in the garden can occupy you for hours with toucans, tanagers, hermit hummingbirds, wild turkeys, woodpeckers and honeycreepers flying in to the fruit stations. We went horsebacking riding with Justin and Juan Carlos and found the horses to be well cared for, gentle and easy for novice riders.

Our morning at Tenerio National Park exceeded all expectations. Juan Carlos accompanied us to the park, but it is not necessary to have a guide. The trail was slick in spots, but because it had not rained in a few days, it was no problem walking it.

Rio Celeste waterfall is probably the most beautiful spot in Costa Rica – and we were the only three people there, truly a pura, pura vida moment in time!! It was magical standing there absorbing the intense blue/turquoise colors of the water and thinking it just can’t be real. We were so fortunate that it had not rained since that will dilute the color of the water. They have recently built some new railings and you are no longer allowed to go sit on the rocks close to the waterfall or to swim there. Because the roads are so bad and it’s a remote area, you are not going to be overrun with other visitors. Legend has it that when God was creating the world, he dropped his paintbrush and splattered blue paint in the river, thus creating the intense color of the water.

If you are looking for gourmet restaurants or higher end luxury hotels, then you probably would not be comfortable at La Carolina. We loved it and would happily return if we are in this region again. Hint: stop in Bijagua for beer or wine and you can keep it chilled in an ice cooler off the rancho. Alcohol is not available from the lodge.

Sadly leaving there after a few nights, we spent ½ day driving through the idyllic countryside on our way to Arenal, getting lost a few times, waving to ranchers and farmers on horseback, waiting for cows to move out of the road or off the bridges, smiling at baby calves and foals frolicking in the pastures. La Fortuna is definitely not an off-the-beaten track spot, but since it was my friends’ first visit to Costa Rica, I figured they would want to spend a couple nights there.

We spent a few hours driving the Cabanga road and found a nice little bakery run by a man who spoke perfect English after living in Canada for years. As we made our way down the slopes to Nuevo Arenal, we had a beautiful day to view the lake and all but the very top of the volcano.

We had a small cabina at Arenal Green, a family owned lodge on the road to La Fortuna waterfall. It was a pretty tight fit for three women and luggage, but it was clean and convenient with nice landscaping, great breakfasts and good birding near their small stream where I saw siskins, hummingbirds and tanagers. http://www.arenalgreen.com/

That evening we did a bit of shopping in town and had a delicious casado de pescado at Soda la Parada followed by mora and coco ice cream at Pops. In fact, we enjoyed the food at la Parada so much that we returned the next night – dinner for under $10 can’t be beat - and their banana batidos were soooo good!

The next morning was spent hiking the trails at Arenal Observatory Lodge - $6 pp for non-guests. The lush grounds there are a mecca for birds and offer plenty of photo ops. We walked down to the waterfall and enjoyed the hummingbirds feeding in the porterweed. The colorful Montezuma Oropendulas were taking over the fruit feeders, but once in a while some tanagers flew in.

EcoTermales was the ideal spot for the afternoon and was my main reason to return to Arenal. I love the tropical atmosphere and soaking in the thermal waters. Sitting under the waterfalls with the water massaging my back and neck was another pura vida moment! After my first trip and zip lining at Arenal Paraiso, I realized that I am not an adventure seeker, but enjoy the quieter, more relaxed pace of hiking, bird watching and photography. This will probably be my last trip to the Arenal region since other areas fit my interests a lot more.

Back to San Jose where I met up with some Tico amigos to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day at Café Mundo. Traffic was totally insane that night since so many people were heading out to celebrate. We had a great evening catching up since my last visit in May.

Up very early the next morning and off to Tortuguero where we met Modesto Watson at the Moin dock. The Limon highway has some major roadwork projects so it took longer than usual to get there, plus we stopped off at Rio Danta for breakfast. This was my third trip to Tortuguero with Modesto www.tortuguerocanals.com who runs Riverboat Francesca tours. He is an excellent guide and during our three day/two night visit we spotted numerous species of herons, egrets, crocs, sloths, kingfishers, swallows, spider and howler monkeys, blue morphos, frogs, parrots, northern jacana, pelicans, basilisks and caimans. We enjoyed the beautiful grounds and beach at Laguna Lodge and doing all the boat tours. http://www.lagunatortuguero.com/en/

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