2017 Grateful 30

Cappy got to us. We caved. Before heading cross country to Alajuela (with its fabulous cathedral) where we’d spend our last night in Costa Rica, we took him up on his offer. We had nearly three hours on the water. We caught a needle-nose but it got away. We went snorkelling but didn’t see any turtles, as the noise from the compressors on the nearby dive boats had driven them away. We got time on our white-sand beach and the crew did get us some scallops for lunch. And we saw lots of pelicans on weird looking islands. So all went to plan.

El Capitan, Cappy

The haul – even the oyster was good

Prepping lunch

Scallop ceviche

It killed me to leave those shells behind, but taking sand and shells or indeed anything from the beaches or nature reserves in the country is a very strict no-no. I was all set to try until Cappy pointed this out to me and then, armed with full knowledge of my crime, I couldn’t claim ignorance.

It’s been a long, packed, couple of weeks. Costa Rica is stunningly beautiful in parts. By far the better off of the Central American countries, and definitely the most stable, it still has its share of poverty. The homelessness in San José is heartbreaking. The influx of Nicaraguan immigrants replacing the Tico emigrants heading north is taking its toll.

If you plan on going, these are some things to keep in mind:

Things to do:

  • Pay attention to the exchange rates. For the most part, you get a much better deal if you pay in colones. The best rate I got was using an ATM card.
  • Check your receipts. The 10% service charge in bars and restaurants is often included. An additional 5% is semi-expected, if the service was good – and the service invariably is good.
  • Buy your souvenirs from places that sport the Made in Costa Rica labels. So much of what’s on offer is made in China. Leave your money in-country and buy from the local crafters. Be sure to ask for the cash price.
  • Get up early and swim in the morning and afternoons – the heat in the middle of the day is a killer and in the rainy season (May to December) the rain will start about 4pm.
  • Remember to bring an umbrella and rain gear – it will rain every day from May to December.
  • Pack your hiking boots, if you plan on trekking in any of the national parks. It can get muddy and the path isn’t always smooth.
  • If you want to go fishing, shop around.
  • Stop by the roadside Sodas (cafés) – pick the ones with the trucks parked outside.
  • Eat the fruit – amazingly fresh, especially the pineapple and mango.
  • Sample the local fruit juices and wines from the roadside stands. Vino Coyol (Costa Rican Moonshine) is quite something.
  • Bring a spare swimsuit as things just don’t dry quickly.
  • Shake hands with everyone from taxi drivers to hotel receptionists – it’s the done thing. Civility is everything in Tico.
  • Bring LOTS of insect repellent. It’s expensive to buy.
  • Give yourself time to travel. Beaches are far better on the east coast – just sayin’.
  • If you’re visiting volcanos, go early morning as visibility is much better. Check with the rangers before you pay your admission fee that you’ll be able to see something.
  • Wait till you take a coffee tour before buying coffee – you’ll learn a lot and make better choices.
  • Visit the Hidden Garden Art Gallery – even if you don’t plan on buying.

Things not to do…

  • Don’t rely on GPS or Google Maps for accurate times to reach your destination. Tico traffic is horrible. Add half again to your estimated time to be on the safe side. For example, if it says 4 hours, bank on it being closer to 6. The only place it might be accurate is on Route 1, the InterAmerican Highway.
  • Don’t attempt to pack anything you’ve scavenged in your hand luggage – your carry-on bags will be searched at the airport.
  • Don’t leave your shopping till you get to the airport – prices are a good 50% higher than elsewhere.
  • Don’t bother buying third-party car insurance if you’re booking your rental via Expedia or some other conglomerator. It won’t be recognised in CR and you’ll just have to buy more at the rental counter.
  • Don’t expect to have phone coverage everywhere – some of that rainforest is quite dense and signals don’t penetrate.

I’m back home now, on a train, heading to the lake house. And while I’m grateful that I had the chance to visit Costa Rica, to experience it all in such good company (thank you LKB, for the invite), I’m glad to be home. A recent article I read on the joys of living a mediocre life (although I think the article is badly titled and mediocre is the wrong word to use) talks of living the quiet life. Perhaps it’s age. Perhaps it’s a state of mind. Perhaps it’s simply the magic of Hungarian village life. Whatever it is, I am inordinately blessed to have the best of all worlds. A country retreat. A pied-à-terre in a beautiful city.  And the wherewithal to travel to places like Costa Rica. Gotta love life.

Calling in the boat

Apparently, if you put lemon juice in an oyster shell and leave it a week, it makes a great skin cream

A baby starfish

A baby lobster

Okay, so I was wrong…

The west coast fights back. Costa Rica has its say. Irish woman proven wrong. Pick your headline. I am suitably chastened.  I said I was singularly unimpressed with the beaches on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. And while I’d still take the Caribbean, given the choice, the west coast has proven me wrong.

On our last travel-free day before we headed inland towards San José, we mosied up the coast to Playa Hermosa to check it out. And what a surprise. When we managed to find access to the beach that didn’t involve going through a hotel or a bar, we spotted lounge chairs. Eight of them. I needed some distance from the sand fleas and the ants and, anyway, the sand was too hot to lie on, so we made a beeline for the bar … with the chairs. The deal is that if you order drinks [extensive menu] and perhaps have lunch [best fish burger ever], you can lay around all day for free. [In Costa Rica, all beaches are public so even the likes of the Four Seasons [with its 3 king/2 queen suite at $24 000 per night] has to let you through to access its beach. I wasn’t particularly tempted. Unless they’d shipped in the sand from the east coast, I figured it would be more of the same.]

When we arrived, we got chatting to El Capitan (Cappy), a leathery Tico who was holding court under a big almond tree in front of the bar, La Casita del Marisco. He did a hard sell on a 3-hour boat ride that would include fishing for needle-noses, snorkeling to see a 100-ft turtle, and then an hour on a pristine white sand beach before heading home. And while we were snorkeling, his crew would be getting us some scallops, which the restaurant would then cook for us for lunch, along with the needle-nose fish or whatever we caught. The emphasis, though, was on fishing, not catching. Now, had we had this offer three days ago, we’d have jumped at the chance. And when he proudly told us that by coming out with him, we’d be supporting the local community in a country that has been without a standing army for some 60+ years (which, given its neighbours, is quite something), I nearly caved. Yep – he’d mastered the sell.

But it was a beach day. We had unexpected sun. And relatively clear water. And lovely friendly waiters with even lovelier margaritas made with José Cuervo Gold and fresh limes. And good food.  And Camile, with her massage table just two palm trees away [fabulous]. And the promise of a magnificent sunset [a tad too cloudy in the end].

The people watching was great. We saw Cappy snare four other tourists and send them off in his pink boat with his crew. We watched two others come back with some fish that the restaurant cooked up for them. Some locals dropped by for lunch. Others milled around. One beach hawker from Nicaragua finally sold one of his clay pots to a couple who sat and ate and drank for the 7 hours we were there. [I’d have bought one had I the kilos to spare but it’s looking like I might have to toss my toothbrush.] Apparently they make the stuff  and then come across the border to sell them in Costa Rica, as tourists are thin on the ground at home. They stay for a couple of weeks and then go back, and make some more. What a life.

Someone else was telling us that it can take as many as three days for truckers to cross the border from/to Nicaragua, if they haven’t hired a facilitator. And even then, there’s no guarantee that the facilitator won’t abscond with their money. And yet I’m sure when I was over the other side, I saw a three-country two-day trip advertised, which I assumed was Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. I never did check. I like the sound of Panama though. A shame all I’ll get to see is the airport.

The BBC has a good timeline of Costa Rican history, if you’re interested. I hadn’t realised that CR had a woman president back in 2010 – Laura Chinchilla. Or that former President Oscar Arias Sanchez won a Nobel Prize in 1987 for the peace plan he devised that was signed by Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.  Or that in 1986 Oliver North finagled the building of an airstrip in Guanacaste in exchange for an Oval Office photograph with President Reagan [some of the best surfing in the region can be found at Ollie’s Point near the Nicaraguan border – now that’s a memorial].  And as for curiosities from the time, El Avion Restaurant and Bar, in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica, is actually an old C-123 plane purchased by counter-revolutionary Nicaraguan guerrilla fighters in 1986 with the help of the CIA. Next time.

Lisa Tirmenstein has a fascinating article on Costa Rica in 1856: Defeating William Walker while creating a national identity. To my shame, I didn’t know who William Walker was [apparently he was an American mercenary who wanted to turn Costa Rica into a slave state] and so wasn’t that pushed about travelling north to Santa Rosa National Park to see where he and his international band of mercenaries were defeated in 14 minutes. I was just happy to be on the beach [particularly Hermosa Beach, with the many fond memories I have of JNP and TM in a bar at a beach by the same name in California many moons ago].

When God finished painting the sky…

Mr Frommer (or whoever penned his guide to Costa Rica) describes the hike into the Rio Celeste as ‘an easy trail’ that could be jogged in 1 hour or ‘strolled’ in 3 or 4. We honed in on the words ‘easy’ and ‘strolled’  and adding these to the description of the Río Celeste as one of ‘Costa Rica’s best-kept secrets’, we were sold. We should have sought a second opinion.

Part of the Tenorio Volcano National Park, the Río Celeste is incredible. Two clear-water rivers merge and become a stunning blue. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Scratch ‘easy’ and replace it with ‘medium to difficult’, depending on the day. If it’s been raining, you’ll be knee-deep in mud. Some of the inclines are 45 degrees and more, and some of the steps are knee deep. The path, such as it is, is strewn with rocks, crisscrossed with streams, and often littered with fallen trees and branches. So you can scratch ‘strolled’, too. At the very least it’s a hike or a trek. Doable in runners on a dry day but not advisable – yep, I fell flat on my ass on my way down one of those inclines. Hiking boots are the way to go. But I’m still getting ahead of myself.

We paid our $12.00 entrance and trotted off at a nice pace. The beginning of the path has been laid with cement and is reasonably flat. Then there’s a soft climb …. for about 30 minutes, until you reach the Catarata – the waterfall – and the stunning blue pool it falls into.

Its 60-90 ft high (depending on what you read) and is accessed by climbing down some 250+ steps. I managed 150 before I figured enough was enough. I really wanted to make it to the end of the trail, to see where the two rivers meet, and I know my limits. At this stage, I knew Mr Frommer was taking the proverbial or else whoever he had write that part of the book had never gotten this far.

Next stop on the itinerary is the Poza Azul, the Blue Lagoon. The trail gets more difficult with lots of rocks and trees and water to negotiate – and it goes up, and up, and up. I thanked my mother for raising me to be polite, as giving way to those coming towards us and those coming from behind gave me a legitimate excuse to take a breather.

So on we went, past the pool, and across some hanging bridges. Posted signs assured us that they’d take one person at a time but, unlike elevators, the signs didn’t specify size. I didn’t dally. The smell of sulphur was getting stronger and the water beneath us was bubbling in spots. BuLoking over at the volcanic complex from the next viewing point, it was difficult to tell that they were, well, volcanoes: Tenorio 1, Tenorio 2, and Montezuma. It really has five main craters – but we could only see these three. The others are Bijagua and Olla de Carne.

The river slipped in and out of view. The colours were amazing. The creatures of the forest did their part and played their accompaniment beautifully. We hadn’t yet reached the place where the Buena Vista and Quebrada Agria rivers meet, that place called Los Teñideros. Apparently, this roughly translates as the dyeing pool or the dyeing of the rivers, or the stainers. It’s also known as El Teñidero (the dyer). Some say the blue is caused by travertine (a form of limestone) that precipitates out of the water and reflects blue. Others say it’s because of the copper in the water. More still reckon on a chemical reaction between calcium carbonate and sulphur. But the scientists have weighed in. The water is only blue when it’s in the river bed. Take it out and put it in a glass and it’s clear. Turns out, it’s not chemical at all. It’s optical. It’s about how we see the sun reflecting on the water.

Sunlight contains the entire color spectrum, similar to the way we see them all in a rainbow. In any other river sunlight penetrates to a certain depth and no particular color is deflected or reflected back to the surface, so it looks transparent, while in the Río Celeste the water passes some of the Sun’s rays, but reflects the bluish tone group. So the water appears blue to the human eye.

But why here? I did notice a layer of white-looking rocks forming a line across the river where the two colours divide. And I did wonder. And I wondered rightly, as it turns out, because those rocks are covered in a substance…

…a type of mineral that is composed of aluminum, silicon and oxygen, and being suspended in the water, is responsible for reflecting light from the Sun, so that the flow looks blue.

Whatever the explanation, the result is spectacular. Legend has it that when God finished painting the sky, He dipped his paintbrush in the Río Celeste. Why don’t I find that difficult to believe?

PS. About the blue bottle in the featured image… When we stopped at the Blue Lagoon, I noticed it on the fence and thought – interesting! Some clever park ranger has left it here so we can compare blues. When we got the end, to El Teñidero, I saw what I thought was another one. So I moved it, setting it up to take my photo. No sooner had I clicked than a Tico tourist came and snatched it from me. It was his water – the same bottle. He had words. When I showed him this photo, he got it. I hadn’t been trying to steal his water. I looked around a few minutes later, and there he was lining up his bottle and snapping away. And then someone else asked to borrow it. But I’ll have you know – I was in there first.

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble

Earlier this week, I caught myself disparaging the Pacific Ocean and its beaches, saying in the same breath how much I preferred the waters and sands of the Caribbean. I had to slap myself silly to get my head back into reality. There’ll be a time I’ll be damn glad to be on a beach, any beach, regardless of its parent. But this week, I’m being choosy. I am singularly unimpressed with the beaches on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. And with the water. Give me the Caribbean side any day.

So, in search of some diversion, we took ourselves off to the Rincón de la Vieja, an active andesitic complex volcano in north-western Costa Rica.  And yes, I had to look up andesitic – a dark, fine-grained, brown or grayish volcanic rock that is intermediate in composition between rhyolite and basalt. Enough! I don’t need the detail. Enough to know it’s a park with a volcano, one of many in the country.

Part of the Pacific Ring Fire Circle, Costa Rica has over 200 identifiable volcanic formations dating back over 65 million years. Today, however, only 100 or so show any signs of volcanic activity, while just five are classified as active volcanoes.

Our attempt to visit Poas came to nowt as the volcano was closed to the public because of recent activity. Our attempt to visit Irazú came to nowt as visibility was nil. Our attempt to visit Arenal was foiled because of bad information – we got there too late. Park closing times and last admission times are different. Beware. So, rather than try again, we decided to play it safe and at least try to see the bits and bobs that go with volcanoes in the   Rincón de la Vieja National Volcano Park (Parque Nacional Volcán Rincón de la Vieja). It’s the largest volcano in the region of Guanacaste, standing more than 6000 ft tall and 9 miles wide. Dating back 600 000 years, it has at least 9 volcanic craters (of which we saw none – but we’d come to expect that).

Laguna fumarolica


Boiling mud pots


We hiked the flat 2.5-mile loop through the Las Pailas (the cauldrons) sector and contented ourselves with bubbling mud pools, mini-geysers, and fumaroles. [I had to look that one up, too: an opening in or near a volcano, through which hot sulfurous gases emerge.]

It stank to high heaven in places and was hotter than I imagine Hades to be, and still it was glorious. I can’t begin to describe the noise in this tropical dry forest – the cacophony of sounds from birds, insects, animals. It’s amazing.

The noble butterflies kept us company. Leaping lizards kept us amused. And leaf-cutter ants kept us enthralled. I’m not a great fan of hiking on a balmy day let alone in 30+ degrees with humidity. Even still, I enjoyed it. The trail is easy; doable in runners. It was sweltering in parts, so I shamelessly brought out my umbrella and mentally apologised to all those Asian women I have smirked at in the past.

There are seven hikes in all, each varying in length, intensity, and reward. This one was grand for me. I know full well that if I go downhill, I will need to come back uphill – I prefer to stay on the flat.

Fascinating as the volcanic bits were, it was the trees and their roots that I’d go back for. I can’t ever remember seeing such complicated knots on something living. Mother Nature truly is a remarkable woman.

Las Pailas sector is open daily (except Mondays) from 7am to 3pm. The Santa Maria sector is open 8am to 4pm. Admission is $15 for non-nationals. Don’t forget to sign out when you leave.


The legend

Rincón de la Vieja means “Corner of the Old Woman”. An indigenous legend tells about Princess Curubandá, daughter of the Curubandé tribe chieftain, who fell in love with Prince Mixcoac, the son of an enemy tribe chief. Curubandá’s father ended her forbidden lover’s life by throwing him into the live volcano crater. Devastated, Curubandá became a recluse living the rest of her life high on the volcano’s slope. She learned natural medicines from the volcano and developed healing powers. People seeking medicinal cures were told to go to “the corner of the old woman” by the volcano. And thus, the Rincón de la Vieja Volcano received its name.

Moved by art

I bought a piece of art today because it made me cry. Titled Grasses in the Night,  it’s a monotype by Costa Rican artist Lorena Villalobos. In it I see human frailty (the delicate grasses) and our inability to see the danger around us (the darkness). News of the Manchester terrorist attack has hit me hard. Never before, in my lifetime, has the value of human life been so low. When a young man can take the life of an 8-year-old child and believe he is on the side of righteousness, then we are all reduced to blades of grass in the night, grass that can be trampled on by unseen feet, when least expected.

Grasses in the Night – Lorena Villalobos

I came across this piece in the Hidden Garden Art Gallery, the largest of its kind in Costa Rica. Located about 3 miles from the Liberia International Airport on the road to the coast (between Payless Car Rental and the German Bakery), the gallery consists of 15 rooms (about 3500 square feet of wall space) with more than 400 pieces from over 60 national and international artists on display. Most are original pieces but there are some giclée prints, too. While some of the featured artists now live abroad, everything on show was created in country.

As I moved from room to room, I racked up quite a sizeable spend in my head. It was such a pleasant change from the sameness that pervades the tourist offer in Costa Rica and indeed many other countries, what I like to call the MTs (empties) – made for tourists. It’s an amazing space. Some of the rooms have wide open windows looking out on to the gardens. And despite the heat, there’s an airiness that lends itself to a leisurely browse.

Hernan Pérez

Sophie Aymon

Rebeca Alvarado Soto

David Villalobos

I was particularly taken with this wooden carving – Paso al Futuro (Step to the future) and wished I had an unlimited budget and a private plane to fly it, and everything else I’d picked out, home.

I got chatting with the owners, Chicagoans Greg and Charlene Golojuch. The pair had always planned to retire to Costa Rica but when redundancy forced their hand about six years ahead of schedule back in 2008, they took the plunge armed with little more than high-school Spanish and the determination to make good the change. Greg set up shop in a room at what is now their gallery. He was approached by Argentinian-born artist Carlos Hiller with a view to representing him. Hiller’s underwater work is on permanent exhibition in the gallery and the artist himself occasionally paints in public, using his art to create social change.

Hiller then introduced another artist to the Golojuchs, and, as luck would have it, another couple of rooms in the building became available. And then a few more. The recession had hit and businesses were downsizing or folding, freeing up space. Call it luck or happenstance, the Golojuchs recognised the gift of opportunity and took it. Introductions and approaches were made to other artists and now the variety of what’s on show speaks for itself.

I was impressed to see original work by Otto Apuy, the artist responsible for the mosaic church in Cañas. Exhibited both nationally and internationally in museums, Hidden Garden is the first gallery to carry his work permanently. Word has it that Apuy started painting when he was two years old. He’d put a chicken’s foot into a pot of paint and then make imprints on the wall. Some 60 years later, his body of work that embraces multimedia and has been exhibited nationally and internationally has earned him the moniker Renaissance Man.

Susan Adams is another artist I recognised from my time Stateside. Back in 1995, Adams received an unexpected invitation to a private showing of the Monet exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute. She was so inspired that she quit her job and moved to Costa Rica where she’s spent the last 20+ years painting. If more people did rather than simply think about doing, how much happier the world would be.

Perhaps what sets the Hidden Garden apart from other galleries I’ve visited around the world is its lack of pretentiousness. The Golojuchs speak fondly of the artists they show and talk animatedly about their work and the stories behind their creations. There’s no falsity, no self-promotion, no BS. Instead, there’s an aura of sincerity, an air of respect, and a genuine appreciation for the art in their care and the artists who have created it.

The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10am till 4pm. If you’re in the vicinity, it’s worth stopping by. And if you’re not, it’s worth a detour.

Featured image: Cocina Duty / oil on canvas by Russell Chauncey.

Coming down the mountains…

I have no meas on money. It’s there to facilitate day-to-day living. I don’t aspire to great riches or a six-figure bank account (they’re easy enough to come by in Hungary, given the high denominations of the bank notes). But I loathe waste and while I might spend hundreds of thousands (of forints) on a rug, I balk at spending 700 on a coffee. But the older I get, the wiser I get. I’m finally beginning to realise the value of money.

View from the balcony

The room we’d booked in the Ceiba Tree Lodge was at the top of a flight of stone steps through a lovely jungle garden. But our cases were heavy and it was raining and we were only there one night. They had a lovely room in a separate house down by the car park with a private balcony and just as nice a view of Lake Arenal – for an extra $25. It didn’t take much thought. What good is money if you can’t use it to make life just a tad easier. I’m learning, lads, I’m learning.

I’ve never come to the breakfast table to find a hibiscus on my plate (SJ take note). I’ve never eaten fresh rose bananas, fresh pineapple, fresh mango, and fresh guava (don’t like) – all from the garden – accompanied by fresh eggs from chickens I could hear squawking in the distance. It was a glorious start to a day that would be a wash-out.

We settled up and headed out – destination Coco Beach via Liberia. The lake views were stunning but the day was overcast and the photos don’t do the 85 sq km expanse of water any justice. Although the largest lake in Costa Rica, it looks like a puddle on the map when compared to Lake Nicaragua next door. Still, the houses with the landscaped gardens and high gates that overlook the lake are quite something. It’s another world up there, far removed from the bananas and the pineapples. Another world entirely.

We stopped at the Lucky Bug gallery where I nearly bought a bathroom sink. I was a firm yes if it had weighed in under 5 kg. But it was more than 6. I know I’ll live to regret not tossing some of the coffee but hey… decision made. We travelled through the valleys, once again marvelling at the lush, green land and the idyllic setting. Judging by the plethora of accommodation and cafés bearing Austrian, German, and Swiss names, the area is now home to more than just a few Europeans. Perhaps that’s whom the realtors are targeting. The whole place seems like it’s up for sale.

Finding ourselves on Route 1 (by mistake – neither of us can figure out the damn GPS), we double-backed to Canás to see the Iglesia de Cañas . Artist Otto Apuy is responsible for covering the outside of the church in mosaic tiles. The nearly 30 m tall central tower is covered in more than a million pieces of ceramic tile. Quite something. But unfortunately closed. Even on Sunday.

We very nearly gave in to a primal urge to stop by the rodeo but good sense prevailed. I still don’t have a handle on crime in Costa Rica and the rental SUV has an open boot. I was loath to put temptation in anyone’s way, so we gave it a miss. Call me paranoid but I’d not seen a cop in San José or in Puerto Viejo, and since embarking on our drive back West, we’d run into armed duos on nearly every corner of the smallest of towns.

It being Sunday, we stopped in Liberia to check out the Iglesia La Ermita de la Agonia – a nineteenth-century whitewashed stone church that is the only remaining colonial church to be found in the region. The book said it would open from 2.30 to 3.30 so we had lunch while we waited. And we waited. And we waited in the company of lizards and iguanas. Amazing what runs across your path in the towns and cities of Costa Rica. But the doors remained shut. I’ve checked since then and apparently it’s been opening every day but Sunday from 8 to 4 since 2013.  The Frommer guy must have cheated on that section, as the 2017 book has it at the one hour per day. mmmm…. guide books… do the people who write them really go to all those places?

Liberia is home to the main international airport on the West Coast. And believe me, that’s about it’s only claim to fame. I was unimpressed.

We headed towards the coast, the rain clouds following in our wake. Not quite sure what to expect, what I didn’t plan on seeing was a resort town, complete with bar after bar advertising happy hours that run from 11 am to 7 pm. Thankfully, our hotel is off the main drag so quiet enough (man, have I gotten old). Not so great though is that the rainy season (May to December) has well and truly kicked in. The forecast for the week is rain, rain, and more rain. We’ve simply traded jungle rain for city rain. It remains to be seen what we can find to do to amuse ourselves. 




Fresh and green are the pastures…

I learned a valuable lesson a few years ago from my good friend GM. Cut your losses. If you’ve paid to see a movie that turns out to be complete shite, leave. Write off the money and save your time.

We woke to dark clouds and thunder. It had been a stormy night, knocking out the electricity and playing symphonies on the tin roof of the cabin. We had one more night to spend in Puerto Viejo, all paid for. But why waste a day when we had a mammoth cross-country journey facing us on Sunday. So we packed and left, hitting the road about 7.30am for what Google promised to be a 5 hr 25 min journey over to Lake Arenal. A quick check online and we’d booked a room at the fabulous Ceiba Tree Lodge. All sorted.

We retraced our steps, back on Route 36 to Route 32, hanging a left at Limón. We had to make a pit stop at the cemetery as I’d been intrigued by the tombstones on the way in but hadn’t wanted to stop. I’m now even more intrigued by the whole section reserved for the Chinese dead.

The container parks that lined the road testify to the roaring dockland trade that issues from the city. But it was all a tad depressed looking. As we passed through Banana land, even the direst looking shack had a satellite dish on the room. Outward appearances don’t matter in Costa Rica. It’s what’s inside that counts – and they have their priorities.

We hung a right on Route 4 and headed north into Pineapple country. And things started to pick up. The lawns were manicured. The fields cleared. The houses bigger and brighter. As we passed through valley after valley, a line from the 23rd Psalm came to mind.

Fresh and green are the pastures where he gives me repose.

It is magnificent country. Agriculture abounds. The wealth is in the land. Forget the toucans and the sloths. My new favourite animal is the Brahman cow. They’re the most common type of cattle in Costa Rica as they have sweat glands and can better adapt to the climate than, say, your average Friesian. They’re plain gorgeous. If I could put a couple in my bag to take home, I would. The souvenir lot are missing a trick – there’s a notable absence of soft cuddly Brahman at the souvenir joints.

We were making good time driving through villages like La Virgen (am still amused at how stuff simply doesn’t translate – particularly the signs) and La Union (I was waiting for La Bachelor on the far side but no…) so we headed over to the Arenal National Park only to find that we were too late to get in. It opens from 8 to 4 but as it takes about 2 hours to hike in to and out from the volcano, last admission is around 2pm – but I suspect this is decided by the look of you.  Not that it’s explained anywhere. This was our third time to strike out with a volcano. We  had to content ourselves with a view from afar.

We headed back to La Fortuna, to the fabulous El Nuevo Rancho de Perla restaurant for a steak dinner (I’ve been living on steak since I got here) and a round of the local artisan shops. We passed spa after spa after spa. But who in their right mind would visit a hot springs in 30-degree weather? Although the guide book says that the area around Lake Arenal is the least developed in Costa Rica, it’s by far the poshest and more tourist-oriented place I’ve seen so far. And the guide book is current. The mind boggles.



2017 Grateful 31

Catch anyone looking treeward in this part of the world and you can almost be certain that they’ve spotted a sloth. And it’s exciting. The fact that they’re metres above you, high in the trees is neither here nor there. That’s what zoom lenses are made for.

They’re quite something. They live in trees and only come down once a week to do their business – and always in the same place (bringing their intelligence into question). They have four stomachs and sleep more than 10 hours a day. All have three toes but some only have two fingers. And the retain their grip even when dead. mmmm… how can you tell a sleeping sloth from a dead one then?

We visited the Jaguar Rescue Center in Puerto Viejo one morning between beach sittings. The name is a tad misleading as jaguars were thin on the ground – but there’s a story.

In 2007 a baby jaguar was given to Encar [a Barcelona native] and Sandro. Her mother had been murdered because local farmers suspected she had killed two goats. The baby jaguar was dehydrated and very sick. Encar and Sandro did everything they could to save it but in the end the endangered baby jaguar died. Encar and Sandro decided to name their animal rescue center in honor of her and the Jaguar Rescue Center was born.

Their goal is to rehabilitate animals and reintroduce them back into their native habitats This isn’t always possible and some of their rescues are now permanent residents. Crocodiles who associate humans with food or ocelots who’ve become too fond of chicken. In operation for nine years, the Centre has quickly become the go-to place when tourists find injured animals on the roads or the police find them in drug raids. Power lines play havoc with the monkeys. Machetes are the weapon of choice against the cats. And the poor sloths don’t do well on the ground. [The intrepid LB spotted one limping on the side of the road. She stopped, bundled him up and brought him back to a tree. He seemed well able to grip so was perhaps only stunned.]

The rehabilitation process is simple at times – take the cats for a walk in the jungle and each day they go farther and farther ahead till the day they don’t come back. Toucans and sloths are easy to rehabilitate as they’re solitary creatures, but parrots need to find a mate before they’ll go back and monkeys need to find a family to hang with. Orphaned monkeys quickly identify with their human carer so to assimilate them back into a group, a volunteer needs to stay with them in their enclosure all day. When they’re first born, they’re fed like a baby with regular 3-hourly feeds during the night.

There’s an interesting volunteer programme that attracts willing help from all over the world. The guides know what they’re talking about and gave plenty of useful information that I never thought I’d need. Like, shiny frogs are poisonous. And when it comes to snakes:

Red on black, you’re alright Jack; red on yellow, kill the fellow.

Not that they’re advocating mass serpenticide – their advice regarding snakes (143 kinds in the country) is to simply stay away.

The 90-minute tour costs $20. The proceeds from the tour go back into the Centre as do all proceeds from sales at the gift shop. This place really lives its ethos. Tours are daily at 9.30 and 11.30. Worth stopping by if you’re in the neighbourhood. Worth checking out if you fancy volunteering for a few weeks.

It’s been a mad week of late nights and early mornings. Costa Rica seems to have its self together when it comes to the environment, looking after animals, and living clean. It’s slogan – Pura Vida – the Tico equivalent of the Swahali hakuna matata. Translated, it means pure life and it’s the law of the land in CR. Bitch that I may about the humidity and the heat, and the mozzies and the ants, I’m grateful that I’m getting to see part of Central America and to experience a way of life that is so laid back it’s still in the middle of last week. It’s no wonder so many foreigners forget to go home. I can certainly see the attraction. Except for the humidity, the heat, the mozzies…

The end of the road

Google maps said it would take 4 hours 25 minutes to travel from San José to Puerto Viejo. They were just a tiny bit out – it actually took 7 hours 46 minutes. But hey. The jackknifed truck wasn’t holding up traffic. Neither were the two trucks and three cars we saw in ditches. But for some unknown reason, about 10km on the SJ side of Guapiles, it took us an hour to travel 2.5 km. Thankfully the food vendors were on the ball. Word had spread of the tailback and they were out with the plantain and pineapple chips, so we didn’t starve. It was teeming rain; the thunder and lightning added to the sound effects. But traffic was moving against us, which ruled out an accident or a mudslide or just about anything else we could think of. We never did see what caused the delay but in the drive to Limon, we rarely, if ever, had the chance to break the speed limit.

Driving into Limón, through the massive banana plantations and the mountains of shipping containers, there’s little doubt as to what Costa Rica’s main export is. But given that the country’s main port offloads and onloads from here, with Route 32 between the product and the end-user, I’d not be a trucker in Costa Rica for all the chocolate-covered coffee beans the country could produce. Driving that road on a regular basis would play havoc with my sanity.

We hung a right onto Route 36 just before Limón, heading to the coast, down past Puerto Viejo. We were heading for Punta Chiquita, one of several beaches that dot the coast on the Caribbean side of the country. Puerto Viejo was hopping as we drove through. Lots of tan-limbed twenty-somethings on vacation. Plenty of bars and cafés and restaurants and shops selling just about anything anyone might need for a beach holiday.

As we left the lights behind us and drove up the coast, the vibe muted somewhat and the laid-back Costa Rica emerged. This side of the country is predominately English-speaking, many of the locals originating from islanders who came years back to work the plantations. We’re staying in a cabin in the rain-forest – one of six that make up the Mar y Luz hotel. It’s never silent. The orchestra of sounds plays 24/7 with birds, howler monkeys, cicadas, and lots more in concert. It’s hot and humid. Nothing dries. The ants and the mosquitoes are delighting in fresh blood. But it’s all rather amazing. The plants, the shrubs, the trek through the jungle to get to the beach… all quite something. There was the mother of all storms last night – the tin roof and open walls really accentuated the whole effect. From the safety of my mosquito net, I got to see and hear it all.

On the drive to the end of the road at Punta Manzanillo, the southern-most tip of the Costa Rican coastline (next door is Panama), it was easy to see how development is slowly creeping in. By all accounts, the Caribbean side isn’t nearly as developed as the Pacific side, tourism-wise, so it will interesting to compare. There is a lot of land for sale – plenty of sites, one in particular that I’d rather like. Just 2.5 acres with beachfront. Am not sure I’d cope with the humidity though – did I mention that nothing dries? I’m up at 5.30 every morning to catch some cool. The heat starts to roll in about 7 and by 8 I’m dying. The rains come promptly at 5. One day I’ll live by the sea, but, unlike the multitude of foreigners who call this part of the country home, I doubt it’ll be this side of Costa Rica, no matter how much I enjoy looking for sloths. [A young Italian aeronautical engineer runs the local pizza shack; a Spanish lady runs the wildlife refuge; half the wait staff are North American.]

A dead Irishman

I just found a dead Irishman from Limerick, I said, quite pleased with myself. Well, he said, there are a few of us alive here, too. Conall French and his mum Aisling (from Bray, Co. Wicklow) own an art gallery in Costa Rica. Gallería Namu runs along Fair Trade principles rather than by consignment. Artists are paid up front for their work, which is then sold on to discerning tourists and collectors. Their mask collection is quite something. And if you’re simply interested in knowing more about the artwork of the various indigenous tribes, then this is the place to visit.

I’d stopped in on my way back from a visit to the Foreigners’ Cemetery where those unfit for burial in the nearby Catholic cemetery (i.e., foreigners) are housed. Located at the corner of Avenida 10 and Calle 20 , Cementario de Extranjeros is now home to the remains of people from Germany, Norway, Wales, Ireland, England, Scotland, the USA, Peru, Panama …. and many more. It’s quite fascinating. The closest I could find to Hungary was Salzburg. But it was hotter than Hades and the ants were feeding on me so I was quickly losing the will to search.

Up a block on the other side of the street is the Cementerio General de San José. There are over 5200 vaults on the hectare of land including the graves of 22 former presidents.  The statuary is quite spectacular – among the best of any I’ve seen. So much so that it’s knocked Zagreb off its No. 1 Cemetery pedestal – in my rankings at least.

I had thought I was visiting Cementerio de Obreros de la ciudad de San José, but it was actually the cemetery next door – the workers’ cemetery, far more utilitarian in its statuary. The box-shape crypts are quite different to anything else I’ve seen in the various cemeteries I’ve visited. And I’ve been to a few.