Costa Rica
A trip log by Evelyn C. Leeper
Copyright 2013 Evelyn C. Leeper


We used to take a lot of trips on our own, but as we get older, the convenience of having someone else do a lot of the work--and deal with the luggage--becomes more appealing. So this is another organized tour (like our last one to South Africa), this time with Caravan Tours, which got a lot of positive reviews and was reasonably priced.

Again, I will start with the tour company's description, which will also serve as a table of contents (but was not always strictly adhered to):

We decided to treat ourselves to new luggage, at least for the larged checked piece. One advantage of international travel is that you can check one bag at no additional charge. When we travel on our own, we never check luggage, even overseas, because if we need to manage our own luggage, we would rather have just carry-on luggage and do laundry if necessary. But with a tour, they will handle only one suitcase per person, which means you cannot bring two small bags, but only one large one. Also, there is rarely time to spend a couple of hours in a laundromat on a tour.

We had a large suitcase. But it has a hole in it where a spear had poked through on a trip to Africa back in 1986, a couple of teeth missing from the zipper, and no wheels.

Anyway we bought a new 27" suitcase on wheels, and the best deal also included a 21" carry-on on wheels, so we replaced Mark's small carry-on with a much larger one.

Which leads me to ask: are we the only people who have collected enough luggage to be able to open a luggage store? Trying to keep up with developments in luggage design has resulted in an archive of hard-sided luggage, canvas luggage, backpack luggage, two-wheeled luggage, and so on. So in addition to a couple of large (but old) suitcases, we have a garment bag, three briefcases, a dozen carry-ons, a dozen shoulder or flight bags, and three dozen tote bags. (It seems as though every conference and film festival, and a lot of charities and tours, think that what you need is another tote bag. Yes, it is a great way for them to advertise, but after a while it gets out of hand.

Things were made more complicated by the fact that we needed two small bags for our stay at Tortuguero National Park, because we cannot take large suitcases on the boat there, but can only bring small bags onto the bus.

Anyway, we ended up taking the 27" suitcase, the 21" carry-on, an L. L. Bean backpack carry-on suitcase, and a briefcase for the netbook and other small items. For most of the trip, the backpack will be packed into the large suitcase, and the tour company will manage the two new suitcases But the backpack and the new small suitcase will be used for Tortuguero.

And if you thought the luggage was complicated, let me tell you about the shoes. We were told we would need waterproof shoes with good traction for the Cloud Forest Trail and the Hanging Bridges, footwear for the beach, and shoes other than running shoes or zoris for the restaurant the last night. But since I do not have waterproof shoes with good traction, I have settled on one pair of shoes with good traction that I will not mind getting wet (and possibly throwing out at the end), and another "dry" pair. This is another reason you need a large suitcase for tours--they seem to think everyone wants to have to bring their entire closet for a ten-day tour. (What many people suggested was to buy a pair of cheap gum boots when we got to Costa Rica, but whether we will have the opportunity before we need them is not clear.)

Anyway, that is enough complaining about luggage and wardrobe.

For more general comments about packing, worries, and so on, most of what I wrote in my South Africa trip log applies. One major difference is the money. While in Africa we had to change money for South Africa, but also had to deal with Zimbabwe, which had no working currency of its own. Costa Rica's currency works just fine, but apparently US dollars are almost a parallel second currency, especially in the tourist areas, so we do not need to change a lot of money into colones. (The symbol for colones is very close to "¢", but written before the amount, so I will use that.) And when we called the bank to tell them we might be using our ATM card in Costa Rica, they had at least heard of the country. (Before the South African trip, when we called and mentioned Swaziland, they had no record of it in their list of countries.) Also, the water and food in Costa Rica is perfectly safe, and the electricity (and outlets) are the same of North American ones, so we did not need adapters strung together in some odd configuration just to plug something in.

Day 1 (01/19): We left the house at 5:30AM and though the check-in line was long, it moved fast, so we got to the gate by about 7:15AM for our 9AM flight. We met one other couple from our tour (Harry and Chris) who saw Mark reading the information booklet Caravan sent everyone. (We had not put the tour luggage tags on yet, because they seemed a bit flimsy, so we figured we would wait until the airline handling was done.)

When you sit in the back of the plane, you get to board early and so are pretty much guaranteed overhead room for luggage, but the downside is that the beverage service takes forever to get to you. You also end up getting off the plane last.

We got through immigration and went to the luggage carousel. We waited about a half-hour until all the luggage had come off. We were starting to worry when Mark saw a large suitcase sitting on the floor at the other end of the carousel. This turned out to be our suitcase. Apparently someone pulled it off the carousel, realized it was not theirs, and just left it there. The suitcase survived very well, but the peripherals had some problems. The hard plastic luggage tag we put on seems to have broken--all the was left was the plastic "string." And one of the TSA luggage locks had the plastic sheath stripped off it. It looks a little less secure (there are holes that expose the internals), but since we have an excess of locks, it is not a problem.

We found our transportation and got to the hotel, the Real Intercontinental, without running into a lot of traffic. It is in a fairly upscale area, with a mall across the street and not much else nearby to go to. So we went to the mall.

The Multiplaza Mall is about on the level of a suburban mall in the United States, with a lot of familiar stores (Payless Shoes, Hallmark, etc.). One difference is that it has a supermarket (the Auto Mercado), which one does not see much in the United States, where food shopping is considered completely different from mall shopping. This is partly because we tend to do a lot of shopping at once that requires a car, rather than a bit at time that we could carry. The supermarket in the mall has basket-carts, a little larger than the hand baskets we have, but with wheels and a handle to pull them like a small cart if you want. It does not have supermarket carts like we do.

We went to the food court, which had about half familiar chains--Taco Bell, Burger King, etc.--and half unfamiliar ones--El Frogoncito, Rice 'n' Smile, etc. We had a taco al pastor at El Frogoncito, and two mini-sundaes (mango and pineapple) at Burger King, mostly to sample the food, since all our meals are included on the tour.

The movie theater was showing almost entirely United States films. Prices were cheaper than in the United States, though, with basic evening prices being ¢2600 (about US$5), matinees ¢2000 (about US$4), and all shows on Wednesday ¢1600 (about US$3).

There were two bookstores in the mall, but one (LibroMax) was having a close-out sale at 50% off everything. Even so, their selection was fairly poor, at least for us. Most of their "Literatura en español" were books originally written in English or other languages and then translated. The other bookstore (Librería International) was much better, and I found a book of Jorge Luis Borges's Miscelánea that I bought. It was ¢10,800, or about US$22, and almost 1100 pages. Both had a lot of DVDs starting at ¢3900 (about US$8), almost all in their original languages with subtitling in Spanish. The American ones seemed to be primarily dual-region (Region 1 and Region 4), and with all the extras.

We went back to the supermarket and bought some plantain chips and some dried pineapple for snacks. We did not find gum boots, which we had hoped to buy for the days we needed waterproof shoes, but as it turned out (Spoiler Alert!) it was never so wet that we really needed them.

Dinner was at 7PM, and was the ubiquitous hotel buffet, not bad, but not an enormous selection (fish, beef, or vegetarian for the main course; potatoes; lettuce, cucumbers, and tomato for salad; and small pudding squares for dessert). With dinner, as with every meal in Costa Rica, we had a choice of a couple of different fruit juices (which varied from meal to meal) or water (without ice). The juices were goo, but seemed a bit watery compared to what we are used to here. After dinner we met our tour director Fiorella and had the orientation meeting, with general information ("Use the bus restroom only for #1, not for #2.") and things specific to the next day (bring rain gear, breakfast at 6AM, leave at 7:20AM).

Oh, and the national "slogan" is "­Pura vida!" ("The good life!") which is supposedly what you say when someone asks how you are or how things are going.

Day 2 (01/20): Breakfast was at 6:15AM, the usual breakfast buffet with some "American" hot foods and some Costa Rican dishes (such as gallo pinto, which is a mixture of rice and black beans). We left at 7:30AM, and got a bit of a Costa Rican primer on the way to Poás Volcano. Today we would be traveling through four provinces of Costa Rica: Cartago, Hereria, Alajuela, and San José. San José Province is in the central valley, at 3000 feet, and has 65% of the country's population of 4,300,000. (2.6% of this is composed of Americans living here.)

We passed a lot of American chain restaurants and hotels, and some American chain stores, but there were also local versions, such as "PriceSmart Membership Shopping". This seems aimed at that 2.6% I mentioned above, rather that a native Costa Rican population (the "ticos").

Costa Rica is the size of West Virginia, and its primary industry is tourism (60% of the economy!), with technology second, then coffee, pineapple, and bananas. (Fiorella said something about beer being second, but I think that was a joke).

All the houses we passed had fences (often with razor wire) and bars or grills on the windows. Fiorella said that by law all property must be fenced or squatters are allowed to come in, or in some cases the land can revert to public land. The bars on windows allow people to open the windows to cool off the house without completely compromising the security (or letting animals in). This does not explain the razor wire, though, which seems to indicate at least some level of crime. (In the United States, one sees gated communities, but I cannot recall ever seeing private homes surrounded with razor wire.) There are also ADT signs on many homes.

It took almost two hours to get to Poás Volcano. Although the day was clear and sunny most of the way, at the volcano itself it was overcast and "foggy"--or more accurately, we were in the cloud that sits over the volcano something like 70% of the time. And the entire caldera was filled with the cloud. There was one small area near us visible, but it was not the main caldera, but just part of the interior rim.

We did see some nature along the way, including bromeliads and a plant with big round leaves called "poor man's umbrella." We also saw a pair of hummingbirds close up and watched them for a while. We did not walk the Cloud Forest Trail--it started with about three dozen steps on uneven ground, many very high, and with no hand rail, and I just felt that by the time I got to the top of it, most of out time would be up. Also, without a guide, it is not clear how much we would have gotten out of it.

One complaint about Caravan is that the tour director really is a tour director rather than a guide. On the bus rides, she does point things out and give bits of history, but it is nothing like what we got from our guide/tour director in South Africa from SmarTours.

Lunch was at a restaurant called El Mirador de la Valle, overlooking the central valley. I had mahi mahi, black beans and white rice (called in Cuba "moros y cristianos"), plantains, rice pudding, and strawberry juice. (Strawberries seem to be a big crop here around the volcano.) The view was nice, but we ate on the veranda and it was very windy.

Our next stop was the "Café Britt Coffee Plantation". Mark points out that it has an introduction, a humorous skit, a demonstration, and a shop, but the one thing it does not have is a plantation. They claim that they have some coffee plants, but that the beans (berries, actually) had been just been picked the day before. It is coffee harvesting season, so that could be true, or it could just be something they tell everyone. In any case, they seem to be just a few paths along a paved walkway. The skit and demonstration were amusing and informative, though. (For example, do not use boiling water, but let the temperature drop a bit before pouring it over the grounds.) Apparently this is the major "coffee tour" in Costa Rica, although other companies also have them. Had we been here on our own, we would not have bothered, because it is a fair distance from San José and they charge as if it is an attraction rather than an advertisement. (Yes, you can get samples of coffee and their various candies, but not that much. They had their entire line for sale, with all sorts of buy five, get one free for this, and buy three, get one free for that sales. However, having heard from several people who had lived in Costa Rica that both "1820" and "Volio" were better coffees, I held off buying coffee until we got to where I could get those.

Something else at Café Britt that was annoying was that they began by saying we had to sign some forms. They made it sound like they were release forms of some sort, but they were just entries for a prize drawing--except they asked for your name, address, and email address. Basically, it was a ploy to add names to their mailing list. (Their trick at their airport shop was even sneakier. They would say they were trying to conserve paper and could mail yqou your receipt rather than printing it up and handing it to you. Then they handed you a piece of paper about the size that the receipt would have been for you to write your email address on. Think about it.)

Dinner was another buffet. I suspect almost all the meals with be buffets, with the same sorts of cucumber, tomato, and lettuce, followed by rice, vegetables, and a couple of meat choices, and finally a small piece of cake for dessert. Only if we are on the road away from hotels will we actually be served.

Afterwards, we bought two hours of WiFi, which came to about US$3.70--or would have, except that when we went to pay, we were told it was included. I guess for some tours it is easier for them to give away the WiFi rather than worry about collecting a couple of dollars from people who have no other charges.

We also had to repack luggage for Tortuguero. As noted earlier, we could not take our big bags to Tortuguero, so we needed a carry-on-sized bag each instead.

Day 3 (01/21): We had a quick city tour by bus before leaving San José, seeing parks, the soccer stadium, the National Theatre, El Castillo de Don Quijote (?--a hotel with Don Quijote-themed decoration outside), and so on. Fiorella's English is less than perfect, and her accent at times makes it difficult to understand what she is saying.

The National Theatre was built from 1890 to 1897 and was the fourth in the world to have electricity (the first in Central American).

On the outskirts of town, we passed a shantytown, which looked a lot like some of the South African townships, except everyone is there because they are poor, not because they are forced to live there because of apartheid. So the entire shantytown is poor--there are no nicer houses or amenities. Anyone who could afford them moves out.

Fiorella showed us the back of the old five-colon bill, with a picture that is also on the ceiling of the National Theatre. It has four major mistakes: it shows coffee growing at sea level (it really grows only in the mountains), it shows women picking coffee wearing Italian-style blouses with scoop necks and short sleeves (you wear long sleeves and high necks to pick coffee, since the bushes are thorny), it shows oxen tied by their necks to the wagons, and it shows bananas growing upside down. This may be the record for most mistakes on one unit of currency.

Bits and pieces:

We drove through Costa Rica's only tunnel and arrived at Guapiles. Here we stopped at a butterfly garden and had a snack. The butterfly garden was fairly small, but full of different butterflies, and I took the opportunity to practice using various settings on my new camera (a.k.a. Mark's old camera). I discovered that when taking close-up pictures one need to aim using the screen rather than the eyehole (because of parallax), but also that I have problems aiming or even holding the camera steady that way. Maybe it is something I will get used to.

This stop seems to have been heavily financed by Caravan. The yellow railings for the steps and walkways were donated by Caravan (as were the ones at Poás and almost everywhere else).

We arrived at La Pavona and boarded the boats for the hour-and-a-half ride to Tortuguero National Park and the Pachira Lodge. Along the way we saw some animals: snowy egret, little blue heron, caiman, alligator, spider monkey, and Montezuma oropendola.

When we arrived we got our rooms (actually half of a duplex cabin) and then we had lunch, another buffet, with a slightly smaller set of choices than in San José. The food here is good--nothing spectacular, but reasonable enough. I do miss eating in local places the way we do when we travel on our own.

Our afternoon activity was to go to the Green Turtle Research Station. This not being the turtle nesting/hatching season, however, no one was there, and so all there was to do was to watch a video about the turtle and the research and conservation efforts. (Oh, and a line of leaf-cutter ants carrying bits of leaf across the path.) Then we walked along the beach where the turles do nest in season and then through the village of Tortuguero. We did not meet any school children, though, because it was still vacation. (School vacation is coffee harvest season, which is December and January.)

The town, not surprisingly, is full of tourist services--souvenir shops, restaurants, tour agents and so on. But there are also a few local businesses that we saw (and there may be more local businesses further away from the town center or back from the main street (though the island it is on is not really wide enough to support a lot of other streets). The hardware store had a list of "deadbeats" in the window, with a list of how much each of them owed the store. I do not recall ever seeing anything like that before.

We had a coconut from a stand. First they sliced off the top with a machete and stuck a straw in it. After we finished drinking the water inside, they cut the coconut open and we used a piece of shell to scoop out coconut meat. There was not as much as you might expect; most of the coconut is husk.

Back at the lodge we took some pictures of the sloth that lives in a tree near our cabin. It was there the whole time, sometimes high up in the branches, and sometimes only about ten feet above the ground.

The rooms are very basic, with windows which are really only curtained, screened openings in the wall. There is no air conditioning, only a ceiling fan. And you cannot flush the toilet paper, but must throw it in a wastebasket in the bathroom. There is a covered porch running around the cabin, so the rain does not come in through the windows, but the fact that they are always open means that everyone can hear everyone else.

Dinner had just two choices for the main course (fish or beef), with vegetables, salad, and rice. One cannot be a picky eater on these tours but obviously, having to bring everything to Pachira by boat made it more limited than most.

Day 4 (01/22): We were told that the howler monkeys would wake us up at 4AM, but they did not.

After breakfast we had another boat cruise. We saw a lot more on this cruise: green iguanas, keeled-bill toucans, green vine snake (swimming in water), yellow crone night heron, emerald basilisk (a.k.a. Jesus Christ lizard, because when young it can actually run on the water!), spider monkeys, snowy egret, little blue heron, two-toed sloth, pair of colored Agari toucans, caiman, Amazon kingfisher, green ibis, hummingbird (there are 54 species in Costa Rica--Manuel did not specify which kind this was), bare-throated tiger heron, and an anhinga and babies in their nest.

The green iguanas were actually orange-brown, and could be found on tree branches rather than on the ground.

The Jesus Christ lizard is so called because the young ones can walk (well, run) on water. Eventually they get too large to do this. They do not have webbed feet, but apparently use the curvature of their toes to keep them above water. We got to see this, and some people even got videos. You can see it by looking on YouTube--I am sure there are dozens of videos there.

The lunch choices were chicken and beef. I was surprised not to have a fish choice, because Costa Rica is known for its seafood. After lunch we had some time to backup our pictures, check our email, and so on. (There was free WiFi, but only in the reception area and the porch just outside it.)

There was a trail but it required gum boots (which they would provide), and with instructions such as "always walk with at least one other person" and "make sure you have registered with the front desk that you are going on the trail," it sounded either riskier or just more complicated than I was ready for. And of course the heat and humidity did not help.

At 3:30PM, we left for our afternoon boat cruise on different (and smaller) canals. As with the canals of Mars, a better translation of the Spanish "cañal" would be channel--they are not artificial. On this cruise we saw royal terns, laughing gulls, a slated-tail trogon, a chestnut mandible toucan, iguanas, emerald basilisks, a troop of howler monkeys, a Northern jacana, an osprey, a river otter, raccoons, and a "blue-jeans" frog. There is not much "megafauna" in Costa Rica (human-sized or larger), and what there is (e.g., jaguars, tapirs, etc.) tends to be deeper in the forest. So a river otter here has the cachet of a hippopotamus in Africa.

We also passed a Canadian research hut. This was probably for the Canadians on the tour, just as in many countries, the tours take United States tourists past the United States embassy.

There was entertainment before dinner--a calypso band and some "enforced festivity." This was dancing and a limbo contest. Given my current leg problems, I was not interested in taking part in either of them, but watching was fine. The problem is that the people running the entertainment tended to be persistent in getting people to dance. One of them grabbed my arm to try to pull me onto the floor, and I had to grab her arm and remove it! Maybe I need to carry a cane just to signal them that I am really not interested.

Day 5 (01/23): Today I did hear the howler monkeys when I woke up. Yesterday I did not, and they certainly were not loud enough to wake me up, as was claimed.

I also heard heavy rain during the night, but we had none during the day.

After breakfast we took the boat back to the bus, about an hour-and-a-half trip. We saw iguanas, spider monkeys, snowy egrets, little blue herons, a bare-throated tiger heron, a crocodile, a caiman, and lizards, but nothing we had not already seen.

(There are no alligators here. They are found strictly in North American and China.)

We stopped again at La Pavona for the toilets before boarding the bus. Last time they were out of toilet paper; this time they had no water pressure to flush with.

During our drive we saw more fauna: cattle, chickens, horses, and a goat.

We next went to the Corsica Finca Piña (Corsica Pineapple Farm), though our visit was limited a large covered patio and the gift shop. That is just as well. First of all, the actual farm probably has snakes (which are somewhat common here), and also, if we had visited the actual farm, we would have to say some on the customs form on the way home and then they would want to see the shoes we had worn there (to make sure we were not brining back seeds or anything) and it would turn into a whole megillah.

At Corsica we got another humorous presentation, this time about growing pineapples. We did learn how to choose a good pineapple. Supposedly the "check for loose leaves" rule is not the way, but rather you should look for four things: big "eyes" (those roundish sections of the outside), a symmetrical shape, a green healthy crown, and a golden yellow base." Then we got to sample pineapple, pineapple juice, and pineapple fruit cake.

Lunch was at El Ceibo named for a 250- to 400-year-old ceibo, or kapok, tree in front of it. When I hear "kapok" I think of the material that they used to stuff life jackets with. (I do not know what they use now, but I doubt it is kapok.) They was even less choice here for lunch; for the main course, it was pot roast or nothing. (There were vegetables and salad, but no other protein.)

There was also an entertainment provided by a dance school. This consisted of one dance by a woman dressed and made up Charlie Chaplin, and another with four women dancing to "All That Jazz" from Chicago. At the end, when they turned around, you could see on their tushes "ca", "ra", "van", and ".com". Apparently Caravan sponsors dance schools as well as handrails.

We passed a MaxiPalí supermarket, with its parking lot surrounded by a fence topped with razor wire, and a guard booth at the parking lot entrance. This must be an upscale supermarket if it needs to provides a guarded parking lot for its customers--yet another sign that while much of Costa Rica may be a wonderful place to live, the wealthy are more of a target for crime than the average person, and the police and the judicial system seem to be less effective than we are used to.

We arrived at the Arenal Springs Resort & Spa, where are rooms are again half of a duplex, though a much fancier one than at Panchira. This has air conditioning, a refrigerator, and free WiFi in the rooms. (You still need to toss your toilet paper in a wastebasket, though.) Our rooms were quite a ways from the reception area, and uphill, but luckily Franklin (our driver) drove the bus to the corner near them so we did not have to carry our somewhat heavy overnight bags from Tortuguero all that way.

Our room had a lovely view of the volcano--covered with clouds the entire time we were there, of course.

Day 6 (01/24): On the way to breakfast we passed a big blue parrot in one of the trees. This is the only parrot we saw during the entire trip.

We had a long drive to the Cañ Negro Wildlife Refuge. One thing we passed was an "iguana tree". This was a tree (or rater a few trees) with iguanas on almost every branch. This is not a natural occurrence. It seems that the owner of the property had some sort of store there, and a few iguanas would be in the tree. Tourists would stop to take pictures of the iguanas and the owner, knowing a good thing when he saw it, converted the store into a restaurant, and started feeding the iguanas, which of course attracted more of them.

On the boat cruise in the actual wildlife refuge we saw a caiman, mangrove swallows, kapok trees, snowy egrets, howler monkey (including "Blondie"), ringer kingfisher, tropical kingbirds, a two-toed sloth, great blue herons, long-nosed bats, a boat-billed heron, and a white-faced (capuchin) monkey.

Our guide said that the kapok trees are also called "Avatar trees" because they look like the tree in the film Avatar.

"Blondie" is a golden-haired monkey who is actually a howler monkey with unusual coloration because of a recessive genetic trait. Currently she is the only golden-haired monkey in Costa Rica and is unlikely to reproduce, because she is basically an outcast from the troop. Presumably other pairs could produce a golden-haired monkey, but unless the mother is unusually protective, it would likely be driven out as an infant and not survive.

And as a bonus, we got to check another country off on our list! we went up the river to the Nicaraguan border and then actually crossed over and were in Nicaragua for a very short stretch. This was not entirely to let people say they had been to Nicaragua--though that probably entered into it--but also to point out at least one difference. On the Nicaraguan side of the border, there were traps set out to catch crabs on the river. These are prohibited in Costa Rica.

Lunch was at the Heliconia Restaurant at the dock, and then we returned to La Fortuna (the town near where the Arenal Springs Resort & Spa is located). Although the Arenal Springs Resort & Spa has its own spa, the group then went to Baldi Hot Springs. Since I did not go to our hotel's spa, I do not know what it was like, but Baldi was quite elaborate with many pools of varying temperature, both outside and in a covered area to protect from both rain and sun. There was even one that was really too hot to spend any time in, and was outside an equally hot sauna. But we did spend an hour or so soaking in comfortably warm pools. I notice that my leg did not bother me at all in the pools, which I attribute to a combination of the water taking a lot of weight off it, and also to making sudden sharp movements impossible.

When we went to dinner I took a look around the dining room and kitchen, and noticed that everyone in the kitchen was much darker-skinned than those in the dining room, reception, etc. (except possibly the busboys). This has not been true elsewhere, and I wonder if La Fortuna's relative proximity to Nicaragua means that the hotels and other businesses in La Fortuna have a lot of Nicaraguan immigrant labor. (In other parts of the country, much of the manual labor on the farms is done by Nicaraguans.)

Day 7 (01/25): Again, there was heavy rain overnight, and this time we had it during the day as well, but after all, we were going to a rain forest. Most specifically, we were going to the Hanging Bridges near Lake Arenal.

When we got there we had our choice of three routes: a hard one that covers six bridges and enough distance that people would have to keep up a fairly brisk pace for the time we had, a medium one over three bridges, and an easy one over one bridge. The easy one was basically only a fifteen-minute walk and we had about an hour and a half, so we opted for the medium one. What they did not mention was that it involved a lot of climbing. Now, we have gotten to the stage that when we see an attraction description that mentions climbing (e.g., "a climb up the 3427 steps gives you a beautiful view of the tin mines") we usually look for something else. (This is not unlike my rules for choosing films at the Toronto International Film Festival--I would avoid anything with phrases such as "a harrowing look into the human soul.")

Anyway, the other problem was that the trail had been paved with blocks consisting of squares with the centers removed. Walking on it was like walking on ice cube trays, and I had to pay constant attention that I did not catch my toe in one of the depressions. I guess it drains well and is not slippery, but it is very uncomfortable to walk on.

There were more than just three bridges, because there were also several "non-hanging" bridges. The hanging bridges did sway back and forth a lot, but were very sturdy. They were certainly sturdier than the bridge we crossed in Thailand that consisted of a fat branch and a couple of ropes. These hanging bridges were quite high, but with the rain and all the foliage this was not obvious unless you worked at looking down. Looking out from them you saw rain forest, but with no sense of your height.

This would have been a nice walk but for the climbing--and the rain. I had a rain jacket and hood on, and it was not raining hard, but wearing glasses makes the rain a real nuisance, and of course one is less eager to pull out binoculars and camera in the rain. On the other hand, there is a lot less to see in the rain--most of the animals take cover anyway. (We rarely see all the birds and squirrels in our backyard when it is raining.)

We passed lots of roadside signs for "Toad Hall", a hotel/spa/general store that sounds like the Costa Rican equivalent of Wall Drug in South Dakota. Most of the people on the bus did not understand the literary reference (that Toad Hall was in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, and I am not really sure what it is supposed to mean. It does not seem like there is any real similarity between the two.

Most of the rest of the day was spent in the drive to the J. W. Marriott Resort & Spa in Guanacaste (hereafter referred to as "the Marriott)". Guanacaste is an entire province, but there does not seem to be a more specific address or town for the Marriott, so I am not really sure it is along the northwestern coast. We stopped in Liberia on the way so that people could pick up snacks, beverages, and souvenirs, since everything of that sort at the Marriott is very expensive. We took this opportunity to buy coffee to bring home, as the Costa Ricans I asked on-line said that coffees such as "1820" and "Volio" were better than the (in their opinion) over-hyped Café Britt. We also got a tchatchka--a coffee cup (what else?) and not made in China either. (That is a philosophical problem with tchatchkas these days: does it count if it was made in China?)

The Marriott is a five-star resort. The rooms is very comfortable, with air conditioning, a patio, a refrigerator, satellite television, and so on, but it has its peculiarities. One is that the patio is screened but the hooks holding the screen down tend to loosen and then the wind makes the whole thing rattle very loudly, so you have to tighten them down every day. The bathroom is very large, and seems even larger because it has sliding walls separating it from the bedroom. You can close these to make it a separate room, but the default left by housekeeping is to leave the walls open, effectively making the bathroom part of the bedroom. (The toilet is in a separate room with traditional walls and door.)

Unlike the other hotels, the Marriott does charge for WiFi. Normally it is US$15.95 a day, but there was a special Caravan rate of US$10.95 a day. Given how little there was to do, we decided to spring for a day's worth starting the next morning.

In the mean time, we watched a Mexican "mash-up" horror movie (El castillo de los monstruos), which had a Frankenstein monster, a vampire, a mummy, a wolfman, a gorilla-man, and probably a few other monsters I missed.

Dinner was a mixed bag. The salad selection was quite extensive, and there were at least a dozen dessert choices, but the main courses were undistinguished. There was a pasta station where one could get pasta sauces to order, and it was also serving fried snapper, but the line for it was ridiculously long, and the snapper was barely warm with a soggy coating after sitting under the heat lamp all evening. The other main courses were slightly better, but none were truly hot. The service was actually worse here than at the other, less fancy places--it was very difficult to get a waiter's attention to get a cup of coffee at the end of the meal.

Day 8 (01/26): What does one do at a resort? We had breakfast, walked on the beach, watched a Mexican science fiction film in the room, ate lunch, lay in a couple of hammocks reading, watched Apollo 13 dubbed in Spanish in the room, went down to the pool for happy hour, lounged around the room some more, went down to the beach for the sunset, changed for dinner, and had dinner.

Day 9 (01/27): This was our last real day in Costa Rica. We headed back toward San José. At our first bathroom stop (a small restaurant with handrails from Caravan) we could have bought a small bag (80g) of peanuts for ¢1000, or about US$2. Over-prices rest stops seem to be global.

After lunch we had a cruise on the Tarcoles River. On the cruises in Tortuguero, the guide had a laser pointer to help us pick out animals in the trees. Here the guide joked that he would use his laser point, and took out a mirror that he used to reflect the sunlight into the trees.

Species we saw included crocodile (only a few feet away), great egret, osprey, little blue heron, white ibis, kingfisher, jacama, winbrill (?), black-legged kittiwake, mangrove swallow, great blue heron, spotted sandpiper, yellow-crowned night heron, cattle egret, crested caracara, yellow-headed caracara, tri-color heron, frigate bird, and roseate spoonbill (which is really great-looking!).

Then on to San José and our hotel, a Quality Inn not too far from the airport, but not too near anything else. I guess they figure we got all our shopping done in Liberia or earlier, though frankly, we id not have very many opportunities for shopping for either food or souvenirs. With all the meals included, food is not quite as important as on some tours, but the souvenir opportunities have been limited to small shops attached to places where we had lunch, or shops in the town of Tortugeuro. None of our hotels after the first one was near any place where one could buy anything at a real store. I like real stores. They don't have to be as real as Boxer in Hluhluwe, South Africa, with its waist-high open-top freezers with packages of chicken heads and feet, whole ox heads, packages of mixed offal, and so on, but someplace where people who live there buy stuff is far more interesting than a tourist shop.

However, one advantage of a hotel convenient to the airport is that they had a printer for the purpose of printing boarding passes.

Before dinner, we were treated to a dance show, again sponsored by Caravan. Apparently they (help) subsidize a dance school in return for getting dance performances for their tours. Presumably everyone benefits from this. At this performance we saw typical Latin dances such as the merengue, the salsa, the samba, and the tango.

Dinner was supposedly at the fancy hotel restaurant that did not allow sandals or running shoes, but it did not seem that fancy, and a couple of people on the tour seemed to have no problem with their running shoes. The food was a little nicer, with steak as an option for the main course, and a complimentary glass of wine.

Day 10 (01/28): We discovered that we had missed a week of bitterly cold weather back home. (This was a lucky coincidence, as originally we had planned on taking the tour a week earlier, but that one was full.)

We took the 9AM shuttle to the airport, which got us there a bit early, but the next one would have been too late. We paid our exit tax of US$28 each, checked in, and got to our gate. We had some colones left, so we went to the shop and bought a bunch of small packages of Britt chocolate. They had a "buy two, get one free" offer that made the individual packages a better deal than a large package, plus we got a variety. And we managed to spend almost exactly what we had left in colones--we ended up with 20 colones, or four cents!

One unpleasant surprise was that not only do they x-ray all your carry-on stuff the usual way, but that they hand-search it in the jetway as you board, and that you cannot carry tape on boar (well, duct tape or similar). Mark had a roll of "Gorilla" tape for repairing his palmtop, and they confiscated it. Luckily, we are talking about something that cost only a couple of dollars, but I wish everyone could agree on what you can and cannot carry on. (I am reminded of the India versus Yugoslavia conflict: in Yugoslavia, you could not put batteries in your checked luggage but had to carry them on, while in India, you could not carry them on (even in the equipment!), but had to check them.) I understand that part of the security is not being predictable, but there has to be some consistency. Otherwise, nothing stops some country from deciding that you cannot carry anything on boar that contains staples, or anything magnetic, or anything green.

Oh, and Costa Rica also does not allow any liquids, even those purchased in the secure area (although it appeared that duty-free liquor was okay).

On board, United said that a "safety announcement" was starting, and then had what was basically a commercial for United before getting to actual safety information.

Summary: [Some of this will repeat things said before.]

I had wanted to go to Costa Rica for quite a while, since it ha a reputation as a tropical paradise--very good infrastructure, safe, and dedicated to preserving its natural beauty with extensive National Parks, Preserves, and so on. Parts of it are indeed at a "First World" level, but the more rural areas are not as developed as many of the rural areas in the Unite States. Undoubtedly we have pockets which resemble the rural areas of Costa Rica, but proportionally they are much smaller. (I am not including areas within National Parks in Costa Rica or the United States, since they by design will be less developed.)

As for safety, almost every home we saw was surrounded by high fences, razor wire, or other protective barriers. True, there is a law in Costa Rica requiring that you fence your lot to demarcate it or risk having squatters regard it as open land and come in and settle there. But that would be satisfied by a simple picket or rail fence. Reading various blogs, the answer seems to be that often one cannot rely on the police to protect one's home. This is attributed either to low taxes, resulting in an understaffed police force, or to a police force that is corrupt and not interested in doing their job well. The result is that the wealthier people live in gated communities, drive to gated supermarkets, and in general wall themselves off.

This may be exacerbated by the fact that one must pass a psychological test to get a gun permit. Until recently, that test was given only in Spanish, meaning all the wealthy ex-patriate Americans had difficulty getting permits, but now one can take the test in English.

Some people say Costa Rica is a freer society, but I am not convinced. Taxes are certainly lower, but clearly so is the level of services provided. Yet regulations abound: no smoking in any public places, helmet laws for motorcyclists, psychological tests for gun permits, regulations about fencing your property, regulations about recycling, and so on.

And unfortunately, the nature aspect was a bit of a disappointment. This is probably more my fault than any failing on Costa Rica's part. After two safari trips to Africa (east Africa in 1986 and southern Africa in 2012) I was used to seeing a lot of megafauna. But in Costa Rica, the three largest (non-domesticated) animals we saw were crocodiles, monkeys, and river otters. Costa Rica is known as a great birders' destination, but even the birds seemed less varied and profuse than in Africa.

And the structure of the trip was such that we had little or no opportunity to see anything of the real Costa Rica--walk down a street, shop in a regular store, ride a local bus.

Overall, I am glad we went. New places are always interesting, and this was a short enough (and cheap enough) trip that the fact that it did not quite live up to my expectations was not a major downer. And in terms of seeing nature, I am sure Costa Rica is the best choice of all the Central American countries.


Evelyn C. Leeper (

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