This is the first of five reports covering a five-week roadtrip through Costa Rica.

Also of interest:

Costa Rica - Roadtripping

Costa Rica - Central Valley

CR Photos - Flora & Fauna

CR Photos - Scenary



JAN 20
San Jose

We stumble, bleery-eyed off the flight from Mexico City. It’s 1:30 am in San Jose. The pre-arranged and paid pick-up is not there. I am not surprised.

There had been a flurry of emails between self and the hotel manager, me determined to ensure she understood that 1:30 am on Jan 20th actually meant the night of Jan 19th but her dismissive assurance had not left me assured. Not at all.

Smelling distress, the touts descend.

“Let me be of assistance nice lady. I am from the tourism ministry and I am here just to help, such as yourself. Your pick-up is not here. I can fix this.”

He was fronting a lineup of exceedingly scruffy looking fellows, all claiming to be official taxi drivers. But I was no idiot. I’d read my Lonely Planet guide to Costa Rica. No disappearing off into the Central American night with just any hustler.

But he was waving his cellphone in my face.

“Let me help fine lady. I can call your hotel, Discover the problem. We will fix it.”

I gave him the number. Gustav answered.

Stumbling along in fractured Germ-lish, we established that he had no reservation for us. BUT, he did have a room available if we could get a cab to bring us to the suburb of Kalexma.

We book an official cab at the airport arrivals kiosk and ride off into the Central American night.

It’s disconcerting ...driving through the deep dark night, one knows not where. Not a clue, entirely dependant on the goodwill of the fellow at the wheel of this rattletrap old minivan. We pull up to a heavily fortified building in what is obviously an industrial district.

“Hotel Kalexma,” the driver states ...flatly.

“Is this safe?” I ask.

“When the gates are locked,” he replies.

A decent-looking young fellow was now unlocking the “cage” area that was the front entry of the building. A building that did not look anything like a hotel, although I now noticed a small sign saying, “Hotel Kalexma.”

The cab driver had unloaded our bags and roared off.

There didn’t seem to be much choice. It was 3:00 am, a rough part of town, no one spoke English, the Germ-lish speaking Gustav was nowhere about and the lad had just carried our bags into the cage. We figured our best bet for a safe sleep was on the other side of the locked gate.

A woman came out rubbing her eyes and smiling a lot. She gave me a room key and pointed at a door. Good enough.

A half-hearted attempt had been made to slap a coat of lime green paint on the walls. There was a double bed and a bathroom. All very old and decrepit. But clean. There was no window in the bedroom, just a skylight with a fan, venting to the outdoors. The bathroom has a small window very high up – 12 foot ceilings. We stumbled into the shower - cold water only. Never mind. Tomorrow is soon enough to face a cold shower when you’ve been in transit for forty-eight hours.

Crawled into bed, a basic but adequate foam mattress. Checked for evidence of bedbugs first. Thankfully none. As I was falling asleep there was a rustling and scratching on the ceiling that I chose to ignore. There is nowhere else to go at 3:00 am.Bouganieville

After all that, we slept in till 1 pm. As I recalled, breakfast was included, but we’d missed that by four hours, so we set off in search of food.

Everything looks much different in the light of day. My internet booking bargain isn’t so bad after all. It is definitely a working class establishment, set on the industrial edge of town, but if one looks past the steel bars and razor wire on everything (all pretty normal for many parts of the world) this is fine. Masses of mauve bouganieville grow wild, peaking out from every back yard.

We spend an interesting couple of hours wandering around the neighbourhood – though the grocery store, hardware store and so on. I like visiting the places where locals shop, checking out prices and available products. It tells me a lot about the economy and what people have money to spend money on ...or not.

Our wanderings here tell us that prices are steep and selection is scant. Steve wants Beans in a CR grocery shopto buy a jerry can for extra fuel. There is only one choice, a cheap can that would cost about $5 at home. Here it is stickered at $36.

The one place selection exceeds all expectations is in the matter of beans. In the grocery store I come on row after row after row of beans. All sizes, all colours ...and I have no idea how one would cook them, but I guess we'll find out.

Brunch was taken in a little bar down the road – the best burger I've had in years.

Tomorrow we hit the road in our little truck ...assuming this internet booking proceeds as planned.

JAN 21
Poas Volcano

The fellow with the truck arrived promptly at 8 am so after signing our life away we loaded up the little truck, a Diahtsu Terios. It looks really small. With our packs and the little styrofoam cooler we bought for lunch fixings, the truck is full.

Diahtsu Terios We set off for the Poas Volcano - only 47 km from San Jose. Seems like that would be a 30 minute trip but it takes three hours because the roads are goat trails, twisting up, down, around and through the coffee plantations. The coffee plants are in full leaf, creating undulating hills and valleys of the most intense, rich green. High in the hills, the air is fresh and cool, a distinct contrast to the dirty mugginess of San Jose.

It’s also nice to see that once away from the city, steel bars and razor wire become much less common.

The volcano is pretty cool. It last erupted about 20 years ago, but is still fuming away.Volcan Poas We’ve been told its best to go early in the morning, before clouds and steam obscure the view. But if they do, just wait five minutes because the wind is constantly blowing the steam clouds this way and that. The view changes by the minute.

From the parking lot we took a footpath takes you to a viewpoint on the rim that looks directly into the heart of the crater. It is 1.5 km across with steam vents popping out all over the walls. We look down into the seafoam green waters at the centre of the crater, conscious that just 300 metres below the surface, an extruding dome pulses with internal temperatures that can reach 900 degrees Centigrade. Thus the steam vents.

We sure put a lot of trust in the seismologists and their equipment, I’m thinking. Assuming they will give us sufficient warning to clear out before this thing blows again like it did in 1995.

Sitting in the sunshine, watching the crater fume, a park ranger noisily hoofs it up the path behind us.

“Are you the Canadians?”

“Well, yes, we are Canadians.”

“Here,” he said, dropping some coins into my hand. “I am so sorry, I overcharged you.”

It’s not like I ever would have realized. On the second day of using colones, I don’t have much of a clue yet what my change should look like. I just push money at people and trust them to be honest. Seems like my trust is not misplaced.

Carrying on through the rolling hills and picturesque villages, evening finds us in Grecia, a bustling little town. The hotel we’d noted looked a bit grim from the street and I thought, "Oh dear, here we go again." but it was a pleasant surprise. Lovely courtyard garden, pleasant modern room, nice lounge off our room with big windows and comfy couches and yes, hot water in the shower!

JAN 22
Grecia, Sarchi, Zarcero, La Fortuna

Awakened before dawn by a couple of parrots arguing over who was going to fetch breakfast. Amusing to listen to for sure.

After all the carousing I heard going on in the street last night, I figured this town was not into early starts, so we lollygagged for an hour before setting out at seven to find breakfast. We walking up and down the streets, but breakfast was a no go The town was buttoned up tight and I mean that literally - they roll steel grates down or across all the shops and houses.

Some weeks later we met a couple holidaying in Cahuita on the Caribbean side. When we told them about our breakfast woes in Grecia they had a good chuckle. “My wife here is from Grecia and I can tell you, she does not get up till noon and neither does anyone else in town!”

Fortunately we still had left over lunch fixings in the truck - buns, bologna, and a can of cold peaches. After our fruitless walk about town, this made a delicious breakfast.

Took the road to Sarchi this morning. Sarchi is renowned for its talented artisans and sure enough, wall-to-wall souvenir shops - decorated carts, wood carvings - bowls, condiment sets, vases, animals, brightly painted wood parrots and toucans, leather rocking chairs, stools, and lots of carved furniture. Prices are not cheap, but not unreasonable either. Bought three little "feather" paintings. They are unique and were cheap - less than $3 each. Unframed, they take up no room in the bags.

This road leads to La Fortuna, only 107 km, but it has taken all day. The road is up and down and around. And of course, exceedingly narrow. In fact, we went bowling “Costa Rica style” today.

This is what drivers do when road workers paint lines on these goat tracks ....and position pylons on the lines, presumably to keep tires off them. Of course the transport trucks that cruise through here are much wider than a single lane and send the pylons spinning across in front of you. Swerving to avoid those, you start hitting your own, it quickly becomes a free-for-all. We were laughing so hard at the same time feeling so badly for the road workers who are working so hard at this. I cannot imagine they were doing the whole job this way, but in one area we saw a worker using an aerosol spray can to hand paint the line.

The countryside we were traveling through is agricultural - rich, rolling terraced hills. Lush luxurious greens and where the fields end a dense rainforest jungle picks up. Exquisite landscape. Hard to photograph though, both because the preponderance of power lines continuously mars the shots, but also because the roads are narrow and without shoulders. There is virtually nowhere to pull off.

Electricity is everywhere. Even the squats built out of flattened barrels, pushed into valley washouts, have wires and sprout TV antennas. So many of the structures that we see clinging precariously to the hillsides look like a stiff wind would bring them down. But I imagine they are like the leather-faced elders slumped in the bus shelters, much tougher than we could ever imagine.

CR townHad lunch in Zarcero. We were planning to drive on through but our attention was captured by a church with an amazing topiary display. In Costa Rica the churches are basically the town centre, with large courtyard gardens extended out in front of them. This garden was filled with evergreens that had been trimmed and fashioned into animals and other designs.

There was also a permanent nativity scene ....on which someone had obviously expended their heart and soul. There was a stable, for sure, but also lakes and waterfalls and fields and animals and my favourite feature, a wash line hung withZarcero Nativity baby Jesus' underwear flapping in the wind.

Lunch was pizza and pina con leche, which is a frothy pineapple drink made with milk and ice and pinepapple. Totally refreshing. Liked it so much I had two at dinner that night. Our Spanish is progressing. Or to be more accurate, Steve's is. He was actually able to translate the pizza toppings on the menu. The only one that stumped him was hongas - which are mushrooms. Don't misunderstood this though, reading is relatively easy. Talking is harder, but it is starting to come. But understanding the machine-gun-delivery Spanish the Ticos communicate among themselves with? It would take years. "Despacio, por favor" (slower, please ) is the first phrase we mastered.

Followed up on the pizza with ice cream cones in the topiary park and sitting there in the sun, licking my strawberry ice cream, I just knew, once again, that I am the most fortunate girl in the world.

Carried on to La Fortuna which is at the foot of Arenal, an active volcano. Steve was intent on staying at a place called "Sissy's Cabinas" strictly because the price was $6 per night. He was in one of his cheap moods but I insisted on a nice room tonight, one with a lovely front patio. Villa Fortuna also has a large, clean pool – a great asset in this weather – hot and muggy in the mid 30s today.

JAN 23/24
La Fortuna

It was quite a night. About 10:30 the light went out. No problem. I've run into this before. In Europe they usually warn you that light / heat are going off at a certain time, but no matter. I grab my little flashlight, wash up and hit the sack.

Just fall nicely asleep and the power jumps back to life ...which would have been bad enough, but the sudden blaze of lights sent the cockroaches scurrying. The one that ran behind the closet is as big as a cat ...no lie. So, being me, I let out a shriek which woke Steve up. No, the sudden blaze of light hadn't. He has programmed himself to ignore all stimuli except the sound of me shrieking. Up till then, he knows I'll handle it. But the discovery that we were sharing the room with wildlife required a marital consultation.

"Are you sure they don't come up on the bed?"

Steve spent several years working in the tropics so he knows about cockroaches.

"No, Carolyn they don't come up on the bed. Unless they fall off the ceiling. That only happens if there are so many, they knock each other off. Now go to sleep."

That wasn't so easy to do because in addition to the visual stimulus of the light which I now refused to turn off, Horst in the next room was hacking away. The man had a deep, painful sounding croupy cough and my shrieking had obviously awakened him.

Eventually, sleep claimed me .....sometime during which Steve got up and sensibly turned off the lights. Which meant that when nature called a few hours later, I padded off to the bathroom in the dark ...in bare feet.

Yes, prepare yourself for another shriek. Not only was there a cockroach in the bathroom but I stepped on him. Not enough to kill him, just break his back or something ....he was flailing about doing crazy 8's with the two legs that did work. Bloody hell.

Steve called plaintively from the bed, "Need help, honey?"

No, I don't need help. I gave birth twice without drugs, I can put down a cockroach. Thank goodness it wasn't the one as big as a cat.

So, back to bed, after washing my feet and scrubbing the brown cockroach juice off the floor ...all of which gave Horst time to go through his hacking cycle again. Sorry Horst.

Steve's final comment before rolling over? "Bet you wish we'd stayed at Sissy's so you could blame me for all this."

With morning came a pounding rain. Was sure glad for that covered patio where we laid out the food we’d had the foresight to lay in the night before - fruit bread, watermelon and a fine smoky cheese. Great breakfast.

We would really like to see that volcano. It last erupted in 1968 when it did so with such violence that 78 people were killed. Mostly these days it rumbles away in the mist, but when the clouds clear it is renowned for its showy lava flows.

Drove out to the waterfall in the afternoon. Nice drive through fields of yucca, papaya, and sugar cane.

The waterfall? That is the first time I've felt ripped off this trip. They charged us $6US each to see these falls and believe me they were no great whoop.

CR cowCute cows though. Saw them enroute ...big, ugly looking beasts with ibis sitting on their backs picking the nits or whatever off. Of course every time you stop and pull out a camera they fly off in a great squawk. No matter, I am beginning to understand that everything in my life does not have to be recorded. The camcorder broke a few weeks ago and at departure day the part had still not arrived. I have to admit to some relief at not having the bloody thing hanging off me.

The town of La Fortuna, where we are staying, is a mid-sized, typically Costa Rican country town. How to describe such a place? Main drag of shops, each leaning heavily against its neighbors. Many attempts to add on, half-heartedly repair, spruce up with a splash of bright paint - but the paint always seems to run out before the job is done.

Everyone is an entrepreneur. Shops all try to cover as many bases as possible, thus La Fortunathe shoe store will also have a display of school supplies. The veterinary clinic was where we bought a phone card and beside the rack of flea repellants was a display of lace tablecloths.

There is always a great deal of noise ...the pounding Latin American beat pours out of shops and sodas everywhere. “Sodas” are the small, informal cafes indigenous to every culture in the world. In Venice they serve pannini, in Sacre Coeur it's donairs, in Vancouver they are coffee bars.

Cars parade up and down the streets with humongous speakers bolted to the roof, blaring out messages. I assumed the commanding volume indicated a message of great importance. So I asked an English-speaking local to translate. He told me, "Ricardo’s band is playing at the disco tonight!!!"

Everything solid seems to have settled at different levels. Thus, the shops are each at a different state of settlement. You are always stepping up to or down from. The street always seems to be significantly higher than the sidewalks and there is always a ditch to not only leap across, but because of the differing levels ...leaping up and down as well. There have been erratic attempts at building narrow ramps at corners but I have no idea how a wheelchair or stroller would manage ...which may be why I have not seen either.

You must watch carefully where you walk ...the cement work is quite broken up, there are uncovered manholes everywhere and it's obvious that the North American predilection for "suing the city" has not caught on here.

There is always a certain smell in the tropics. It's a comforting blend of vegetation rotting in high humidity, the sweet scent of tropical flora, a touch of open sewer. I term it comforting because for me, it is reminiscent of my grandfather's dairy barn ...the warm smell of animals, fermenting silage, manure ...I don't think obsessively fastidious people would be truly happy here,

That said, what I've seen thus far of Costa Rica is extraordinarily clean. The buildings, the sidewalks and so on are all falling apart, breaking apart ...but doing so spotlessly. The people, both men and women, are always sweeping, mopping, hosing down. There is not a candy wrapper or a plastic bag left lying about.

Time to give up on the volcano ...she’s not going to show. In the morning we’ll head for the coast. Time to see the beach.


Next trip report will take us up to Guanacaste region ....to come in March..

Carolyn Usher