A very long Southern Costa Rica trip report

Old May 6th, 2005, 08:33 AM
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A very long Southern Costa Rica trip report

Despite pulling an all-nighter before we left and despite not having any reservations other than our Sansa flight we felt well prepared for our return trip to the southern pacific zone of Costa Rica.

Our bags were both small “day” packs, easily under 25 pounds and easily carried on to international flights. Most of our clothing was wicking polyester and aside from the digital camera we had few toys other than reading material and headlamps. Our guidebook was a Moon Handbook and we did have a copy of the Berndston map of Costa Rica.

After an uneventful flight and connection through Miami we arrived in plenty of time for our afternoon flight. Customs is a breeze when you don’t have to wait for your bags and after a short walk to Sansa we were killing time reading waiting for our puddle jumper to Puerto Jimenez.

Our flight was slightly delayed by another Sansa plane with a flat tire. Small planes look almost comical when listing to one side and this plane was no exception. Sansa quickly towed its marooned plane out of the way and we were off.

I always like flying over Costa Rica as you can see many distinguishing features of the coastline. Our flight landed in Bahia Drake, unloaded a few, picked up a few and took off again.

Upon arrival in Jimenez we walked into town and looked at some of the more budget offerings of which the town has many. Mainly in a desire to see the beach ASAP we decided to walk out to the Iguana and spend our first night, starting off were we had ended our last trip. The walk was longer than we remembered but pleasant, as it was afternoon and shady. A short ride from the manager at Parrot Bay helped the cause.

We arrived at the Pearl about dusk and luckily they had one room available. Walking back to town was not an option this late and we would have had to have sprung for a cab.

The Pearl has hot water now and has received a paint job. Toby and Lauren plan to blow out the ceilings (loft) the next rainy season, which will really improve the feel. I must admit a little sticker shock as I paid for our room ($90). Super green season was about $50.

Dinner was outside with a bonfire and quite well done and pleasant. We had immediately bumped into another guest we knew from a previous trip and had rooms next to each other. Feeing the effects of our travels we turned in early and slept like rocks.

Breakfast at the Iguana was great as expected. We almost hated to leave as we were enjoying the company of the guests in a familiar setting. After a long walk on the beach with Chester and a swim with Susie we paid for dinner and caught a ride into Jimenez.


Ronald Aguero is a cab driver in San Jose and is recommended by the Iguana for all transfers in the city. For reasons unknown to me Ronald was at the Iguana and preparing to drive back to San Jose. Ronald seemed like a nice guy and after dropping us off and refusing payment we shook hands and off he went back to San Jose.

We had some quick shopping to do and needed to send a few last minute messages while we were near computers and such. We figured out where the Carate collectivo departed from we did our shopping and wandered around town. After looking for old friends and a quick lunch at Restaurante Carolina we started towards the collectivo stop.

As I crossed the street a van approached me with flashing lights and waving arms. It was Ronald. I had left my nalgene water bottle in his cab. Despite me not being a paying fare and despite Ronald’s destination being more than seven hours away he turned around and came back to look for me. I shudder to think of how much time I cost him that day.

For anyone looking for a driver Ronald speaks excellent English and is available for airport and private transfers from San Jose. His van is new and neat and could hold up to 10 people in a pinch. Ronald can be reached at – cell 380-6483 and casa 430-7719 or [email protected] . A picture of Ronald is posted on the Iguana Website.

The Carate collectivo is a fun way to get down to Corcovado. I think it was about $6 and took slightly less than 3 hours. The scenery gets great around Matapalo. The road even goes through a small piece of primary rainforest.

The trip is dusty and not for the faint of heart if you like seatbelts or good brakes. Two vehicles currently make the run. You have a choice between riding in the back of a truck on bench seats or crammed into a SUV. The truck has a better breeze but is dustier. The collectivo is the only public transport to Carate, which is evident by the people waiting on the side of the road for mail, and small packages as you pass.

Cabinas Carate was full when we arrived so we tossed our bags in the Corcovado Tent Camp horse drawn wagon and walked down the beach to the La Leona Eco Lodge. Luckily some guests of Corcovado Tent Camp had been on the collectivo and were met by the wagon.

The La Leona lodge is a tent camp owned by the same family that started and sold Corcovado Tent Camp. Large tent platforms face the ocean and contain large wall tents with 2 twin beds for $20 night each with meals available at extra cost. All the tents are being upgraded with private baths attached to the rear but now share a common bathhouse. Meals were expensive and we opted to eat breakfast only and do lunch and dinner from our supplies. The tent camp has a nice network of private trails. Tours are offered by resident gringo Reed.

When we entered Corcovado our first day we hiked about halfway to Sierana. The trails are easily followed and wildlife is abundant. Scarlet Macaws and monkeys everywhere as well as the many giant trees you find in primary rain forest. This section of Corcovado has some of the most impressive and easily accessible forest we have seen in Costa Rica. You feel like you are walking into a cathedral and once you get away from the park entrances you are alone. The trails of Corcovado Tent Camp and La Leona were completely empty although involved more climbing.

After several days of hiking we decided to continue on. While walking out to Carate with Reed he flagged down the ranger’s quad and loaded us all up with our bags. Yes- four people on a quad with a young Tico at the helm- only in Central America.

We arrived back in Jimenez after dark and found budget digs in town. Sorry folks- forgot the name but the place was a block down from the Moon recommended Juanita’s Mexican Bar and Grill (dinner was good). Rooms had overhead fans, small TVs, suicide showers and ran $8/night per person.

After we checked out the next day the hotel watched our bags for us while we rented a bike and went to the beach the next day. My wife did not like the hotel much but what wife happily spends the night in a less than $20 hotel room? She was not in love with my decision to rent one bike and ride Tico style to the beach either but the Ticos seemed to get a kick out of it. In all fairness to my wife, she had been slightly bruised in a riding fall a few days previous and sitting on the handlebars was tough for her.

After a nice lunch and a swim at the Pearl we switched bikes with our friend Susie and rode back into town to catch a 4:00 bus to Dos Brazos. Dos Brazos is an old gold mining town bordering Corcovado about 14 kilometers from Puerto Jimenez. Dos Brazos is not an official Corcovado Park entrance but smart money says it will be soon. Dos Brazos is about to get electricity and is a shadow of 7000 plus population during the gold mining heydays of the eighties.

We stayed in a small converted whorehouse/ bar, now a budget restaurant offering 4 rooms. Yes the place really was a whorehouse evident by the remaining 2 jail cells next to our room. The place retains its name –Los Mineros, from the old days but has upgraded the grounds, rooms and restaurant area. Private cold water showers, mosquito nets and breakfast for $15 a night per. We were the only guests.

The French owner was friendly and sent us off on many day hikes to local waterfalls and such. The trail network in quite rustic and in many places we feared we would get lost and were turned back by the vegetation. We needed a machete, a compass, or a map (or all three) to safely hike the trails. Unfortunately we had neither so once we exhausted the trails close to us we spent our days walking the rivers. The rivers are and were the best trails in the area. Horses use them and you can easily walk upstream in water shoes One can envision the heavy machinery which used the river as an access not to long ago.. Rubber boots are available for purchase at the local Pulperia for about $7 and are recommended by locals- give them to a Tico when your vacation is over.

You can read about damage to the park from deforestation and mining but until you see it you will fail to comprehend the devastation. Granted, the jungle is covering up the wounds but this place was leveled by heavy machinery during the eighties. Massive remnants of machinery are still visible and you can see many areas of primary virgin rainforest next to steep clear-cut eroding cattle farms.

We did not see as much wildlife as one would expect and one could only conclude that the local Ticos continue to hunt. Forget about seeing a Tapir in this neck of the woods. We saw lots of birds, heard the howlers from a distance, but tasty mammals were hard to come by. The word is that as most of the virgin forest is now gringo owned the animals are making a comeback.

The only drawback of taking the collectivo boat from Puerto Jimenez to Golfito is the 6:00 AM departure. The first bus out of Dos Brazos departs at 7:00AM. Not wanting to spend another night in Jimenez our host suggested a cab leaving Los Mineros at 5:00AM. Susana made the arrangements and after a hurried breakfast of fresh bread with coffee our ride showed up promptly at 5:00. An hour and C10,000 later we boarded the collectivo ferry to Golfito.

The collectivo boat is fairly small; say 35 feet and loaded. The more time you spend in Costa Rica the more you feel like a character in 6 Degrees of Separation. The boat was filled with the familiar faces of people who had been driving cabs, waiting tables or otherwise interacting with us since we had arrived on the Osa. Interesting. The boat is quite slow, sort of low in the water and diesely costing about $2 for the trip.

During the hour and a half ride we viewed dolphins at about the halfway point. We were encouraged by the site of a boat full of Ticos as excited to see dolphins as we were. Despite the poor environmental showing in the country as a whole the people like their wildlife as much as the tourists

After an unremarkable breakfast in Golfito, a trip to the bank, quick shopping and an hour on the internet we boarded a collectivo boat to Zancudo. The Zancudo boat departs from a different dock than the Puerto Jimenez. As all taxis will take you anywhere in town for C400 Golfito it an easy town to get around.

You want to like Golfito at first glance. Heavily forested hills coming down to an absolutely beautiful natural harbor. A yachtsman’s dream. Despite the surroundings the town is still dealing with the forlorn port town complex and we were glad to be leaving. Perhaps I have read too much negative press to give the town a fair shot.

The Zancudo boat was smaller and much faster ($5??). After about half an hour we entered a Mangrove complex and pulled up to a public dock. Luckily we made friends on the boat who offered a ride to our hotel of choice thank you Wesley- no cabs in sight.

Wesley was about 17, living in Zancudo with an aunt. The mini van had no tags but started and soon took us to our first choice of lodging, the Moon recommended Coloso del Mar.

On first impression Zancudo seemed flat and swampy. Most of the hotels and restaurants looked unremarkable from the single road that spans the peninsula. We met and liked our host Marcel at CDM and checked into a wooden beachfront cabina for $25. The cabina was a duplex, built of native hardwoods with a tiled bathroom with warm water suicide shower. Our first look at Zancudo beach was through our palm shaded front yard.

Wow, a breeze. The first thing we noticed was a real sea breeze, quite welcome after the sweltering heat of Golfito. The breeze however welcome was soon forgotten for the scenery. What a beautiful beach. By this time I had spent several days looking across the gulf to where I now was. Little had I suspected how nice the view would be looking back across the gulf.

Our days in Zancudo were spent riding bikes ($5 day- 2 this time) and walking the beach. The surf could get up during high tide but if you walked north you entered the lee of the land (Matapalo Point) and sheltered water. During low tide Granny and the kids could play in the surf.

Luckily the beach was so nice because there is not much else to do other than eat. Several Italian restaurants compete with several Tico restaurants. The food at Coloso del Mar was good as was Sol y Mar. Gringos in Zancudo are late risers and breakfast before 7:00AM is hard to come by. Tours of the mangroves are available and Zancudo is famous for it’s sport fishing. Taj Mahal comes fishing and plays a benefit concert every winter.

Wanting to continue south our host Marcel arranged a taxi to Pavones for C15,000. We enjoyed Zancudo so much but all that was left for us to do was look at real estate listings.

The road from Zancudo to Pavones is rough but we only got stuck once. Our whole time in Zancudo we saw not one rental car. Other than surfers you actually see few rental cars south of Golfito or Puerto Jimenez. Not driving allows us to relax, look out the window and daydream. We live on a dirt road so the thrill of driving dirt has long passed.

We drove into Pavones and our driver gave us a quick tour. After watching the wave break for about five minutes I felt we had taken all Pavones had to offer. Granted we were located on a beautiful section of remote pacific coast. You can walk from Zancudo to Pavones at low tide but we felt like we were in a different country. Surf town always have so much testosterone flowing around and since we had seen the sights (the wave) we negotiated transport to the village of Punta Banko. My wife was voted for traveling back to Zancudo but I remembered a funny website I had come across of a place called Rancho Burica.

Rancho Burica said they were at the end of the road and sure enough the road petered out at the bottom of a hill next to a little place on the beach. One of the Dutch owners showed us their high end $20 a night option with a shared garden shower and mosquito net. I was put in charge of choosing the cabina and I chose badly. For several days we shared our room with several bats that seemed rather determined to stay in residence. The room was cute as were the grounds and surrounding cabinas. Communal meals were served in a private restaurant with excellent Tica cooks and beer and soda was sold through the honor system.. We were the only non-Dutch guests and 2 owners named Otto and Hak were running the lodge.

It turns out one of the owners was surfing in the area during the late nineties and saw a penciled for sale sign. The Dutch surfer called 20 of his closest friends; they pooled their cash and bought a piece of paradise. The 20 owners run the lodge communally. Profit is secondary to surfing but the place was not totally given over to the surf image. Our hosts did not like the vibe of Pavones either and prefer to surf in front of the lodge when the break is good.

The beachcombing was incredible at Punta Banko. Lush forest comes down to meet the beach, which stretches to Panama. Low tide revealed great tide pools to soak in and at high tide the boys would paddle out to surf the challenging breaks. Motivated individuals could hike down the beach to Panama or walk up into the reservation.

These guys were a hoot. Everybody spoke 5 plus languages and was well versed in international affairs. Every European I met so desperately wanted to meet a George Bush supporter in person so they could vent. My wife and I were unable to fulfill this need. Instead we all got to vent about Dubyah together. I feel almost sorry for a Bushie planning to spend a week in Punta Banko with 20 well-educated crew cut Dutch surfers.

The Tiskita lodge is in this area and gets high marks from Moon and others. Tiskita spearheaded a Scarlet Macaw release program and a turtle hatchery involving trading turtle eggs for groceries. We intended to walk up the hill and meet the slightly famous expatriate owner but after a few days we were running out of cash. Banks in this area are in even shorter supply than tourists in rental cars. Nobody takes credit cards (or travelers checks past Zancudo) therefore we headed back into Golfito before we had a chance to explore the Indian reservation or Tiskita. A riding tour would have been nice as the terrain was challenging to walk. Horses continue to be the main form of transport for the fincas past Rancho Burica

The bus driver for the Punta Banko- Golfito bus spends the night at Rancho Burica. After dinner I heard the bus park, found the driver and in bad Spanish told him we wanted to ride the bus in the morning. Promptly at 4:45 AM the driver knocked on our wall and we loaded up for Golfito by 5:00.

The bus takes 3 hours and winds around the mountains fairly close to Panama before dropping down to Golfito harbor. The bus got quite crowded as the route progressed filling with Ticos headed to town for the weekend. After about 2 hours the bus came down to a small 2-car ferry across a river. We all got off the bus, crossed the river and got onto another bus (same driver). Before we boarded the driver tugged my wives sleeve. She had dropped her wallet on the previous bus while disembarking.

We unloaded from the bus in Golfito and hopped a collectivo taxi to the bank. Closed as it was Saturday but all we wanted was an ATM. Several unsuccessful attempts later we were still without cash. Helpful passerbies gently pointed out we were at the wrong bank. Wrong bank? Aren’t all banks in Costa Rica closed an Saturdays? I had forgotten about the Puerto Libre being a main draw for Golfito.

We hopped back into a cab and sure enough pulled up to the very busy Free Port where Ticos shop once a year tax-free. Everthing you could imagine was for sale within the walled complex. Several Banks were open and we cashed travelers checks in time to make the return collectivo boat to Jimenez.

No dolphins this time and not as crowded. We sat on deck as soon as we were out of Golfito harbor and the hour and a half passed quickly. Unloaded in Jimenez. You would not believe how many Scarlet Macaws hang out in Jimenez next to the soccer field. You can forget how endangered the species is when you spend time on the Osa.

We stocked up on batteries (our headlamps were getting heavy use) and arranged for the cab ride to Bahia Drake. This cab was a spurge at C47,000 but otherwise we would have spend another night in town waiting for the morning bus. The Ricon to Drake Bay bus leaves Rincon at 11:00AM.

The ride was interesting. The road is fairly new and many say pushed through by logging interests. Steep hills and many stream crossings through a mixture of primary forest and clear cuts. I had never seen slash and burn previous to this trip. We saw plenty first hand in addition to the logging on this drive. After one last serious stream crossing we entered the Bahia Drake area and the village of Agujitas. This last river is the main barrier to driving to Bahia Drake. Use caution.

Our first choice of lodging was no longer available so we fell back to our second choice of Mirador Lodge and Cabinas, which we contacted via radio. We drove back up and were met at the bottom of the hill by the very friendly Jose Vargus(SP?). Jose and his family founded and own the lodge in addition to another place down the hill. The advertised rate for Mirador Lodge was $35 day per person meals included.

The price gives one pause. Immediately we were greeted by a friendly family offered fresh juice and shown to our room. The rooms were quite simple but had nice views and private cold water baths. As we had come to expect in Costa Rica the rooms were spotless and we had been provided with candles for light at night. The Drake Bay area just got electricity last October and while the lodge is now wired and on the grid some of the cabinas with the best views are not. Several cabinas have fans in addition to suicide showers.

We walked down the hill and combed the beach. Our first impression was unexpected. I had envisioned Agujitas to be unspoiled wilderness on the edge of Corcovado. Instead things felt a little crowded with the tourists and the village. Don’t get me wrong – we liked the area but aside from Pavones or maybe Manual Antonio I had never seen so many people on the beach in Costa Rica. Not crowded by US standards, but not deserted either. The Bay felt slightly polluted which made sense do to the size of the village and proximity to Rio Sierpe.

The food at the Mirador had proved to be quite good. All produce was grown next door at the hotel’s organic farm. Breakfast had a fruit course in addition to eggs as you liked. Dinner started with a soup course and always had a fresh desert. Coffee or tea was available whenever you liked and fresh juice was always brought out to guests returning from tours or checking in.

The next day we did a tour, our first this trip, to Sierana Station in Corcovado Park. Lunch was packed for us and the tour was arranged through the hotel’s tour service. A boat picked us up and deposited us at Sierana after about an hour and a half. We traveled through some fairly heavy rollers at one point and landed at low tide on the beach near Sierana Station.

The tour was fine. Our group was small but we had gotten used to hiking at our own pace and already knew a bit about the forest. By this point you have seen so many freaking monkeys that we set our sites on the elusive tapir. We saw many tapir tracks, some tapir scat but no tapirs. We should have spent the afternoon and night in Sierana and caught a ride back to the Mirador the following afternoon. We did see all sorts of birds but the forest we hiked through had been cut over and was not nearly as impressive as other sections. I am sure that once you get an hour or so away from Sierana the scenery would change.

The tour ended at 1:00. High tide and serious rollers to land in. I did not know this was possible but in Costa Rica, no problem. The boat ride back was fun and we skirted the rocky coast for a few sections. Very rugged and imposing, similar to Punta Banko in size and surf.

The next day we hiked to Playa Sanjosito. The walk was nice passing by some of the more remote lodges on the way to Corcovado. As you leave Bahia Drake and travel down the coast you will notice the water clarity improve as well as the quality of sand on the beach. More crushed coral than other places in Costa Rica. Playa Sanjosita was about 2 hours from the Mirador, another 3 hours and you enter Corcovado.

We met a man offering boat rides up the Rio Claro near Playa Sanjosito. He brought us across for free and when we hiked back we took up on his offer of a short tour. We saw caimans, kingfishers, and a sloth on our short $2 boat ride and enjoyed our guide’s company.

Another lazy day at the Mirador and we had to head home. This was the only point where not having set reservations affected our plans at all. The morning flights out of Drake Bay were full. Instead we had to boat up the Rio Sierpe and catch a cab to Palmer for the flight back to San Jose. Costs work out to be about the same as a direct flight from Drake Bay.

We met the Tico owner of Poor Mans Paradise at the Palmer airport and we were entertained by local stories. An acquaintance later told us of the owner’s ordeal of being lost at sea of the coast of Nicaragua for 25 days. The owner seemed quite genuine as we found the owners of the Mirador. (Mariana had packed us a lunch for the plane- some people ate pretzels and drank coke- we had mangos and OJ)

Another lodge near Drake Bay deserving an honorable mention is the Delpin Armor Eco Lodge. The owners put out the local Drake Bay bulletin and are working on the area being declared a marine park off limits to the shrimp boats. I was not aware of the destructive nature of commercial shrimping until reading about it in literature from the Delphin Lodge. Delphin Lodge seems to be a driving force in a local conservation effort determined to protect the tourism dollar through better environmental stewardship.

All in all, another great trip in Costa Rica. At no point were we seriously troubled by our lack of reservations. We were able to decide what we wanted to do each morning over breakfast and never felt rushed.

Our transportation costs were minimal. Even with the cabs rides and round trip flights we spent slightly over $240 each. Arranging the cabs was as simple as saying ”I think I want to go ___” and “how much” in horrendous Spanish. If we wanted to stop and smell the flowers we stopped. If we wanted to continue on we continued and we never had a moment of “I need a car”. The only people who need cars in the southern pacific are cab drivers and surfers. Consequently you see few rental cars filled with worried looking families like the more traveled sections of the pacific coast.

I would recommend most of the places we stayed but especially the Mirador for its family feel and value. We liked the section of coast from Zancudo to Punta Banko and liked Coloso del Mar and owner quite a bit. Dos Brazos was educational but might be better enjoyed with a good guide and a fan at night. Rancho Burica was fun but check for bats first and don’t get caught down there without cash. Carate was great and we enjoyed Reed and the folks at La Leoana Lodge. The Iguana was as expected but we like the area and perhaps the price better during the height of the rainy season.

We did this vacation for about the cost of 2 plane tickets to anywhere past Hawaii. The curse of Costa Rica for us is its proximity and ease of travel. I fear we will go nowhere else. My wife is planning our next trip to the Caribbean side already.

The Moon guide was useful but lacking in some vital information for this region. the very optimistic Southern Costa Rica Handbook would have been better and a close second place would go to The Lonely Planet guide . The map we brought was totally useless for this area. Bernston shows a road around the Osa to Drake Bay via Carate and few of the roads south of Golfito. Bernston has also not updated to show the road from Ricon to Drake Bay.

I wished we had included a candle lantern in our luggage in addition to 2 travel umbrellas. We will not be bringing our lightweight breathable raincoats to Costa Rica again or our hiking boots. I will be buying some poly wicking shirts before I return to the tropics. My wife stayed relatively dry in her shirts. The only casualty we had with our gear was a blown out pair of Teva sandals already slated for replacement after this trip.

US customs was a breeze and after a day of travel beginning with the boat ride on the Rio Sierpe we arrived back in Virginia before 11:00 PM.

Pura Vida, Greenfieldhunter
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Old May 6th, 2005, 11:44 AM
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Fantastic report, Greenfieldhunter. I admire your sense of adventure! You experienced so much - thanks for sharing.

My husband and I visited Osa last summer. We stayed at Cabinas Las Colitas, a short walk from Delphin Lodge. Your report contains some excellent information for those who wish to visit or return to the area - me, me! Thanks much!
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Old May 6th, 2005, 01:21 PM
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Greenfieldhunter,
Great report! I loved reading of your adventure and what an adventure it was. You visited places I definitely want to see--and soon! Zancudo, Pavones, etc. Your description of the ferry to Golfito brought back memories from last June. I especially got a BIG kick out of your "wife on the handlebar" story! What a trooper she is! And I can just imagine the Ticos enjoying the sight. I love the way you travel, what a great way to truly absorb this wonderful country! Salud! . . .and Pura Vida!

Hi, Molly2!
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Old May 9th, 2005, 06:44 AM
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Thanks Molly and Shillmac for the kind word. Shillmac you are dead on- my wife is a trooper. Neither of us usually travels in this manner (or at least not anytime recently).

We have wetted our appetites for other regions of Central America but I can only wonder if any country anywhere will have people as warm and welcoming as Ticos?
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Old Nov 16th, 2006, 03:32 PM
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Love the blog! Thanks!
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Old Jun 6th, 2007, 07:13 PM
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What a wonderful way to travel! I was so surprised when you commented this isn't your typical style of travelling. Maybe more of us should try it?

Great info on these less known eco lodges in the Osa. Will be cutting and pasting your report into my "favorite reports" folder. Also pencilling in a spontaneous trip to CR to my "to do" list. Thanks Greenfieldhunter - you made it sound easy.

 
Old Jun 6th, 2007, 07:49 PM
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Hi greenfieldhunter:

Nice hearing from you again and what a great report, it sounds like you had a delightful experience everyday.

I enjoyed your detailed report very much.
Good work as usual.
Thanks again
Percy
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Old Jun 7th, 2007, 03:20 AM
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What great info, loved the report!
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Old Jun 7th, 2007, 12:12 PM
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grreenfieldhunter posted that report 2 years ago, right? Has anyone heard from him LATELY?

What about Jerry, gannetmusic? He e-mailed me that he had been very ill and would get back with me and hasn't. I've been worried about him and have e-mailed again with no response. He hasn't been on Fodor's in several weeks. . .
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