Pura vida in Costa Rica

Flying from Cuba to San Jose, Costa Rica, I was finally officially travelling on my own. I’d left my boyfriend behind and had four months of solo travel ahead. It didn’t take me long to meet new people though, and before I’d even got on the plane I had a couple of Dutch buddies to sit with.

Also making me relax was the fact that I’d lined up an awesome Costan Rican family to stay with for my first few days. A friend of an ex-colleague, the dad of the family, Carlos, was waiting for me at the airport arrivals holding up a big sign with my cutely misspelled name on it. The whole family had come to meet me, and this was just the first of incredibly nice things they did for me. On the drive from the airport, in between stories from Danny and Sofia, the 12- and 18-year-old kids, Carlos would interject with “Anna! Look! That’s the museum/library/building where I work.” I loved how much they loved showing me their city and the way they were all so fiercely proud of San Jose. They live in Moravia, a quiet suburb considerably safer than downtown, where I would have been staying if I’d been sleeping in hostels.

The family was just so delightful and hospitable and really great to hang out with, The dad Carlos is so funny and super clever as well as being the nicest person on Earth; mum Siria is a gorgeous woman who is adorable and also super intelligent (a running theme in the family); Sofia is 18 and such a sweet and brilliantly talented girl, a med student no less; Danny is a delightful kid, with excellent English and he’s sooooo cute. There is also the aunt, who is absolutely hilarious, and she beat cancer recently so is obviously enjoying life a lot. She’s brilliant. And the gran, a really sweet lady who puts up with my gaping lack of Spanish. There’s also Mari, the housekeeper who very kindly made sure I didn’t go out in stinky clothes. Such a great family. Oh and how can I forget Dolly and Cookie, the dogs, and Camilla the turtle who eats dog biscuits…

Costa Rica is just as beautiful as I’d expected. Not only does it have cracking rainforests, lots of sunshine, impressive beaches and fascinating wildlife but it also has some of the nicest people.

One of the most interesting things I learned about Costa Rica is that there is no such thing as an address. You literally give directions from a landmark, such as 200m west, 400m south of the bank. Hopefully the bank will never become a supermarket or the whole system will be shot to pieces. Costa Ricans get their mail sent to PO boxes, and half their time is spent driving to and from it just to pick up a flyer they didn’t want.

A little rundown of what I’ve been up to in Costa Rica…

On my first day I hung out with Danny (my 12-year-old Costa Rican brother who is the sweetest kid and a genuine gentleman), walking the dogs and eating food.

Day two was my 27th birthday! Danny and I went to the zoo, then we got home and the family had got me a birthday cake and sung happy birthday in Spanish and got me a really thoughtful gift, a guide book to Costa Rica, which I needed. Nicest family ever. I love them all to bits. Emma, my travel buddy who I met online, also arrived today so she hung out at the house with us and we all chatted into the night.

The next day Emma planned to go to the beach/rainforest combo of Manuel Antonio, a few hours away. The bus was supposed to leave at 12pm, so we had to leg it to make it in time, only to discover it left an hour later. This was rather a recurring theme in my Latin American travels. Then it was a three-hour journey past palm tree forests and beaches to this small town backed by a rainforest. When we got there we ran straight into the sea and it was so warm and gorgeous, the sky going a bright pink as the sun set behind the rocks. Then we had Mexican for dinner, which I’d already started craving. It was awesome, they put a hard shell taco inside a soft shell taco, genius. Then we had a cocktail and a salsa dance inside an old fighter jet, as you do.

We’d found our accommodation online, and made the big mistake of booking a really expensive cabin in the forest, not knowing there was a cheap hostel right on the beach. A lesson learned, we soon moved on to cheaper digs.

On our first morning we got up late by mistake so it was too late to walk in the rainforest as all the animals are out early so we hung out on the beach and met Miguel, who ‘works’ on the beach – he bums about finding people accommodation, tours etc and getting commission (and steaming at the same time). He sorted us out a mangrove kayak tour for the afternoon and I haggled it down from $65 each to $50. The kayaking was great, it was like paddling down a mini Amazon.

Then the tour guide Franklin seemed to take a shine to me so asked us to have a beer that night, and he took us to a very local bar, which was pretty fun, aside from the toilet with no door and pee on the floor. We then arranged to meet him in the morning for an unofficial tour of the rainforest (saving us $30 each!).

We met Franklin the next morning in the rainforest and went on the hunt for wildlife. He could hear a rare bird called Bell Bird in the trees so we waited until no one was around and jumped off the trail and hacked our way with a machete through the dense jungle to find the bird. Even though this was the first we’d heard of it, we pretty soon got caught up in all his hype and felt like it was our life’s goal to get a photo of this bird. Franklin has only seen it twice in his almost decade of being a tour guide and when I spotted it before him I felt pretty damned smug, even if I didn’t care a jot about the bird. But being in the thick of the rainforest was brilliant fun. Definitely getting off the beaten path!

We promised to buy him dinner that night to say thanks but then it rained SO hard that we couldn’t leave the room. (Franklin if you happen to be reading this I’m so sorry we stood you up…) After the tour we carried on alone further where we saw a family of monkeys playing in the trees, then the baby monkey started eating a tree a metre in front of us. We then headed to a beach, had a swim, went back to town and chilled out until the rain started hammering down at 5pm. I’ve never seen rain like it. So we sat in the room practising Spanish and eating Haribo. We both had packs of cards but unfortunately neither of us knew how to play…

A couple of days later and I was back at my Costa Rican family’s house. On the Sunday we drove up to Poas Volcano, where you can look into the crater at the lava. When we got close though, there was a massive queue of cars and a one in one out policy.

After attempting to walk, the queue eventually moved and we finally got in and saw the most incredible sight. Plus, it was such a beautifully clear day that we could see the distant Arenal Volcano from there, which is beyond rare. From there we drove to a waterfall, but what was really fascinating (yet extremely upsetting) was that we drove along a road that was ruined two years before by a huge earthquake in which an entire town just dropped through the cracks. There was a restaurant there, which a couple had just walked out of and got into their car, only to see the restaurant drop into a void right in front of them. Very very sad and scary to see the destruction that is still all around; houses pulled to pieces and a road that just drops off into a valley that didn’t previously exist.

We did the tourist thing the day after that and got the bus to La Fortuna, which is the base for seeing the Arenal Volcano and really close to Monteverde Rainforest. The bus stopped about 50 times during the 4.5-hour journey to pick up passengers who would lean right over you and drip sweat into your lap. Got here fine though and we’re staying in a posh hostel that has tents as well as dorms, and that’s where I am right now, in a tent!

Here is a picture of me, writing these very words

The night we got here (last night) we went to the bar just to hang out and I intended to write the blog, but a Canadian girl invited us to join her and her friends, but it turned out she was kinda annoying… We went to bed around half 12 then she came to the tent area to say goodnight to someone at about 2am shouting to her friends and thoroughly annoying all the people trying to sleep.

Day 9
Awoken at 7.30am by someone mowing the lawn one metre from our tent. Today we spend the day in the Baldi hot springs http://www.baldihotsprings.cr/ which has dozens of pools of natural hot springs water ranging from hot to boiling, scalding hot. An amazing, invigorating experience, and even though it was overcast Emma managed to get terrible sunburn, damn that Costa Rican sun! We spent the day there with Malcolm, a 64-year-old Californian who is here with his English friend John who sadly got what sounds like glandular fever and is thinking about going home early.

After the hot springs we’d booked a volcano trek so us and 5 others from our hostel went on a guided walk of the rainforest surrounding the Arenal Volcano. It was brilliant, the guide knows all the bird calls so was talking to them and they responded! I saw my first (and second, and third etc) toucan, plus monkeys and hummingbirds. Our tour included the hot springs (we cleverly went there earlier so we could make the most of it) so we had dinner in the springs and spend 3 more hours boiling like lobsters, this time in the dark…

Costa Rica highlights:
The scenery looks like it does on the postcards, it’s stunning, so much green.
The people have been consistently friendly.
Camping under a volcano.
Spending time with my Costa Rican family.
Seeing the lava of a volcano.
The food!!!

Food (it deserves a special mention):
At my Costa Rican family’s house I was spoiled with amazing lunches, homemade with such freah ingredients (a theme for Costa rica in general). On my birthday they made me a special Costa Rican breakfast of rice and beans and scrambled eggs in a tortilla wrap for my birthday.
Yesterday we went to a restaurant called Lava Lounge where I had tortilla wraps with chicken, rice and onion cooked in a ginger and satay peanut sauce served with some sort of delicious chutney (Phil this is the recipe I was talking about – make it!!).
Also they do the best nachos here. First they fill the plate with black beans in sauce all mushed up, then the nachos, plus shredded chicken, jalepenos, guacamole, cheese, salsa and a million other yummy things I can’t remember now.
The burgers are fantastic, because the salad is so fresh. The other day I had a bacon and avocado cheeseburger, it was amazing. Plus there were two kittens in the restaurant, about 6 weeks old, playing round our feet, which helps.

Right I’m off to sleep, it’s midnight and I’m exhausted from all that lying around in hot springs! Buenos noches x