Gonzo Adventures in Costa Rica - February 2019

Six Gonzos and/or associate Gonzos decided that Costa Rica was a much better place to spend most of February than Nova Scotia. Not a decision that required any major brain power. Thus, Karen White-Smith, Linda Jessop, Christine Gaillard, Jeff Kirby, Ray Williams and myself left our not so fair province and headed south. Unfortunately, since we live in the a**-hole of the country we had to go west to Toronto before going south, a perennial thorn in the side of the travelling Nova Scotian.

First, some random information. Costa Rica has an area of 51,000, while NS has an area of 55,000, so not a lot of size difference. However, if you could iron Costa Rica flat it would probably be twice as big. Costa Rica has almost 5 million people, while we have about 950,000.

It is getting fairly close to the equator, which means the amount of daylight is fairly constant all year, and the temperature is also fairly constant throughout the year in each part of the country. That being said, there are numerous geographic differences from one area to another, which affect the climate, the ecosystems and the topography greatly. We had planned to see several areas, and expose ourselves to as much sunshine, culture and adventure as possible.

Flights were generally ok and on time. After that, things went a bit off schedule, but as travellers, you have to have Plan A (what you're hoping will happen) and Plan B (being flexible about whatever actually takes place). We had rented two little 4x4 SUV's from Budget, booked and paid for before we left Canada. We finally got shuttled to the Budget lot, where it took almost 3 hours and a LOT of paperwork to get out of the yard. There were no major issues, just that nobody seemed to know what they were doing, cars hadn't come back in on time, blah, blah.

By now it was almost dark. Our first night's hotel was in a suburb of San Jose, I had been there before, but the place is a maze of un-named streets and no civic numbers. People drive scooters, motorcycles, cars, trucks, ATV's all over the street; lanes and lines are applied there generally just to boost the sale of traffic paint. Of course, the two cars became separated and no-one had their phones geared up, everyone was going to buy a SIM card on arrival, which didn't happen. After touring the barrios for an hour or so, both cars finally located our small, family run hotel, where we settled in for an excellent dinner & cold libations.

In the morning, we were up with the roosters (literally), and getting ready to depart for the town of Sarchi, reputed to be a craft center, and then on to the Rio Cuarto area to a village named Santa Rita. Every place is named Santa something. We were delayed slightly in leaving, as I had previously arranged to teach a brief meditation class at the local ashram, and the novitiates had been waiting patiently for many weeks.

We then went to Sarchi, which was a bit of a disappointment, but we did get SIM cards very cheap, and neon ribbon to tie to our car antennas to aid in finding each other. The off to Santa Rita. The roads were all paved, but they are very narrow in places, and the area is extremely hilly with sharp drop offs at the side of the road. We came around one hairpin, so sharp we had to be in first gear, then started up the hill only to discover the crappy little Ford Ecosport didn't have enough power to get up even in first. Backed down, across the road at the bottom, one passenger got out, put it in 4-wheel drive, and floored it. The only way the car finally got up was by revving the engine repeatedly and popping the clutch. The grade had to be in excess of 30%, for sure nobody was ever going to bike up that hill.

Our digs at Santa Rita were great, a family run organic farm with a restaurant literally hiding in the woods out back, and a private swimming hole in a dammed up brook. Lots of dogs running around, & we went to a Macaw re-hab center, swam in a lake in an extinct volcano, and got to sit on Brutus the water buffalo, which is pretty much like sitting on top of an army tank.
A bird on the head is worth two in the hand Our bridge club
At the old swimmin' hole Brutus and I coming to an agreement
After a couple of days in Santa Rita, we set out for Boca Tapada, a tiny spot in the middle of nowhere in the northeast section of the country, near the Nicaraguan border. To get there we went through Pital, a medium sized town where we stocked up on snacks, money and a machete. Our goal was the Laguna del Lagarto Lodge, a private forest reserve in the jungle that I last visited in 2003. From Santa Rita it's about a 3-4 hour drive on mainly dirt road, fairly passable at this time of the dry season. This lodge is a favourite of birders from all over the world, over 300 species have been recorded here. The lodge is modest, but beautiful. There were about a dozen or so others there, all bird fanatics, even a bunch from Israel. My mother always told me if I couldn't say something nice about someone, not to say anything at all, so we will move on without further mention of the Israelis.

Our days started with Ray going for a run at 5:30. A couple of us did a hill walk at 6:00. Then, those who had managed to drag their lazy asses out of bed did Yogasize with Swami Ray for half an hour, then on to breakfast, which was always fresh fruit, fresh juice, LOTS of coffee, rice and beans and eggs. We did some of the hikes on their many kilometers of trails, looked at scads of birds, and went canoeing in the lagoons (which was pretty much like a skit from Laurel & Hardy) and generally kept very busy despite the heat. We also went to the lagoons at night to feed the Caimans (member of the crocodile family, 5-6 ft. long) and went on a night-time frog expedition.

You really don't want to mess with either the Caimans or the frogs, Caimans are usually not a danger to humans, but they're dangerous looking, and a lot of the tiny frogs are very poisonous. We also had a snake 'incident', which turned out to be a piece of tree vine, but was worth some screaming. I got a few ticks, but they seemed to be more of a nuisance than a disease carrier. A few other itchy biters were using us a food source, but again, nothing serious. Since this place is a long-ways out in the boonies, the food choice was somewhat limited, but delicious, overall a calorie positive experience.
Hiking-armed with 'snake sticks' The professionals demonstrate canoeing skills
Caiman- Reason # 1 to be careful when walking at night Red-eyed tree frog
Many of the birds are surreal to look at. Toucans (6 species in CR) appear to be made of left over, brightly-painted parts of plastic toys; King Vultures are spectacular, but dangerous looking. The Lodge has feeder stations set up with photo platforms, and some visitors spent the entire day there. Temperatures here are in the low to mid 30's in the day, cooling off to the mid 20's at night, fairly humid, but pleasant. In the late afternoon we would retire to the covered patio, sip on a mango smoothie with rum and discuss what the poor people were probably doing back home. Not that we really cared. Evenings were spent pretty much the same, bedtime seemed to be 9:30 or earlier.
Keel-Billed Toucan- note the blue feet Collared Aracari
Red Legged Honeycreeper King Vulture estimating how many calories I contain
While we were in the area, we also took a boat down the river 15-20 km to the Nicaraguan border, then stopped at a little 'Soda' (local name for canteen/restaurant) for some fruit and drinks, saw lots of different marine birds and 'real' crocodiles (not Caimans) on the river bank, ate more ice cream, yadda, yadda.
Hope that canoe doesn't tip, buddy.... ....and here's why. All 12' of it
After a few days of this, we moved on in the general direction of Santa Elena in the Monteverde area, in what is known as the Central Highlands of the country. Monteverde straddles the Continental Divide and is at around 4600 feet of elevation.

The highest mountain in Costa Rica is Cerro Chirripo at 12,500 ft.; we would be passing Arenal, an active volcano at only 6,000 ft. Our trip took us through the touristy town of Fortuna (didn't even stop) and along the north shore of Lago Arenal, a 30 km. long lake with mountains on either side. We stopped in the village of Nuevo Arenal where we pigged out big time at a German bakery (lots of Germans in CR), and took a short detour to visit the father of a friend who lives on a farm nearby.

On his property is a 500 year-old Cieba tree, about 180' tall and over 200' wide at the crown. This tree was used as the basis for the Tree of Life in the movie Avatar, and it is simply awe inspiring. There are dozens if not hundreds, of other life forms, plant and animal, living in this one-piece ecosystem. The tree sits about 400 meters from the road at the top of a very steep climb, in a small clearing, overlooking Lago Arenal and across the lake to the mountains. It is probably the most impressive living thing I've ever seen, including Giant redwoods and whales.

At the time of the Spanish colonization of Latin America, Costa Rica was populated by 8 individual groups or tribes, which seem to date back about 10,000 years. They were not as organized as the Maya to the north, and seemingly have left little in the way of archeological evidence. However, at the base of The Tree, small shards of pottery and other artifacts have been found at shallow depths, indicating this tree was an important site for these peoples. There is some thought that it was planted at this particular spot purposely. Also, this tree has attained its size because the area around it has been kept clear for its' 500 year history, allowing the tree to get more than its' share of sun and water.

Driving is always an adventure in Costa Rica. Other than a few of the main roads, most routes are 'dirt'. I'm being generous with the word 'dirt' here. At this time of year, they are dry, extremely dusty and full of protruding rocks and deep holes, very likely there is a loose gravelly shoulder, and a steep drop off on one side of the other. Plus, there's the ever present thrill of what surprise will be in store for you around any given corner. At one point we stopped to aid an American couple whose little car had slid into the ditch (thankfully on the upper side of the cliff road), but couldn't really do much to help, until a van load of muscular local Ticos (what Costa Ricans call themselves) came barrelling by, skidded to a stop in a cloud of dust & literally picked the car up and set it back on the road. They seemed to enjoy the challenge and we all drove on merrily after a lot of bad Spanish and high fives.
Traffic Alert # 1- Cattle in road! Traffic Alert # 2 - Gringo Tourists in road!

We arrived at our Inn just outside of Santa Elena in time for cold beer and a homemade pizza in their wood fired brick oven. Mmmmm. The Monteverde Inn is again set on a private reserve, very comfortable but not at all fancy. They too have a number of hiking trails on the property, and you're within a few kilometers of all sorts of Reserves, Preserves and Parks in the Monteverde area. Monteverde is home to several zillion types of butterflies and insects, and about 20 species of hummingbirds. The temperatures are near 30 deg. in the middle of the day, but warrant a jacket or fleece in the evenings. The usual morning routine of run/walk, Yogasize and breakfast was followed daily by some sort of adventure or activity.

View from one of the trails at Monteverde 'Hanging bridge' on one of the trails
A fellow hiker Fern, about 12- 15' high
Horses on the horizon View from the road near Santa Elena
Since Monteverde is pretty much the zip lining capital of the world, we had to visit 100% Aventura Park, There is a series of 8 zip lines culminating in the mile long, three hundred foot high 'Superman' line, where you're hooked in the middle of your back and pretty much 'fly' the mile over and mile back. With a bit of peer pressure, everyone did that of course. Then there's the 'Tarzan' swing, an almost 300' tall swinging rope with 150 feet of free fall to get your heart pumping (or stopping), but only two of us managed to scare the living crap out of ourselves on that one.
The latest in Free Fall fashion A picture is worth a thousand words....
After the zip lines/ free fall, we needed some calming pursuits like visiting a butterfly garden ...and meditating at a defunct bar
Leaving the Monteverde area with some degree of regret, we headed down through the mountains to the westward, where our destination was Playa Samara on the Pacific coast. Time for some warm water, warm sand and more cold drinks. Unfortunately, one of our cars expired en-route in the town of Nicoya, but Budget delivered another piece of crap in only 4 hours. When we were planning this expedition, the only hotel I could find in the Samara area that could accommodate us was the Colina del Mar, up a few stars from what we had become used to, but it deserves those stars. Set high on a hill about 3 km. outside the town the views are stunning, the pool refreshing and the staff amazing.

Not that we had time to rest, there was kayaking in the mangrove swamps and rivers, gyrocopters to fly in, swimming at some of the most beautiful (and un-crowded) beaches anywhere, and a boat trip to top it all off. Not only that, the Howler Monkeys wake you up at 5:30 am every day, so you can get an early start before the heat sets in. Samara is in the dry tropical forest, mid 30's every day, and not much cooler at night. AT this time of year, the greenery is subdued from the heat and months of no rain, but the beautiful wet, warm Pacific is at your feet every day.
Kayaking in the mangroves Yes, there are no seats, you ride in the back
Looking for dolphins Playa Carillo, a beautiful beach where there are no tourists
Some prefer to sit idly by and watch....... Others prefer to soar like eagles
At one point, we decided to go to an out-of-the -way beach called Playa Barrigona. It is at the end of a property (60+ hectares) owned by Mel Gibson. We asked for directions at the hotel, the guy there told us to go out a certain road, take the first left, which was really a wide cow path, cross the river, etc., etc. If we missed that turn, we could go to the next, which was a better road, just further. Again, we were to cross the river and go on for a few kms. The problem was that I assumed that crossing the river meant there would be a bridge. Never assume. The road stops at the waters edge and starts again on the other side. It's all good.
Who needs a bridge ? Playa Barrigona
After a few days of bliss at Samara, it was time to head home. We drove on to Liberia, our exit city, and from there to Toronto, where I immediately encountered a surly CBSA agent, the first a**hole I had met on the entire trip. Just another reason to hate Toronto, as if there weren't enough reasons already. I can't speak for my fellow travellers, but I had a great time; with any luck I'll go back in November/December of this year for 4-6 weeks. Anyone interested? A few more random pics:
View from the gyrocopter Jeff coming in for a landing
Picnic Pineapple field
Birds along the Rio Oro Hanging out
Unknown local flora Our favourite beach, Playa Carillo. Maybe an extinct volcano?
Green Iguana, about 20" long Laundry day