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

Also of interest:

Costa Rica - Roadtripping

Costa Rica Trip Report One

CR Photos - Flora & Fauna

CR Photos - Scenary

Having your own wheels in Costa Rica means you don’t have to stay in San Jose. Yes, there are some museums and galleries and historical sites, but overall San Jose is dirty, smoggy, virtually impossible to navigate, dangerous and not very interesting. And that’s what the locals had to say about it! Keep going.

About 20 km northwest, Alajuela is central to exploring sites in the central valley and only 2.5 km southeast of the Santamaria International Airport where most visitors arrive anyway. Hotels, hostels and B&Bs in all price ranges abound, many perched in the midst of the lush rolling hills of the coffee plantations. The fresh air is free and the views of Volcán Poás to the north can be spectacular.Small Town CR

At an elevation that in places exceeds 1100 metres, the Central Valley is spectacularly enclosed by mountain ranges to the north, east and south. To the west, the valley slides gently into the lowlands that meet the Pacific Ocean.

It would be easy to make Alajuela the base camp and take day trips from there, but that would mean missing the experience of waking up in Costa Rica’s small towns and villages.

Grecia, for example, while just an hour or two from San Jose is a world away in terms of its culture and sensibility. According to the guide books, Grecia’s only claim to fame is the “big red church” so it is a small town that simply goes about the business of being what it is. Looming over it all, the big red church anchors the town centre and presumably, the people.

Costa Rican churches always seem to be fronted by a large park, the centre of social activity. These parks are formal in design, with walkways, benches and statues, fountains and topiary. The park is where it all happens ...youngsters chasing each other in games of tag, young lovers nuzzling, mothers parading their new babies and old men playing checkers. This is where the religious festivals happen and also where the drunken debauchery of fiesta plays out.

ZarceroMy favourite Costa Rican church-park was in Zarcero. This church is renowned for its elegant formal topiary. No doubt about it ...absolutely awesome. But over to the side I noticed a year-round nativity set-up. Yes, there was the requisite stable and donkeys, shepherds and wise men. But there were also fish ponds and waterfalls and a miniature village complete with baby Jesus’ nappies snapping in the wind – way over the top, that nativity. But that is the charm of Latin America – to our North American sensibilities, it is all, way over the top.

There is a special pleasure in staying put in a small town ...at the least over a 24-hour cycle. There is a hum to a town, a rhythm that reveals itself when you sit quietly and watch life unfolding around you.

For instance, we learned, from local signage, that Grecia had been voted the “cleanest town in Latin America” and while we haven’t seen every town for comparison, Grecia has our vote. Every man had a rake, every woman a broom, all industriously cleaning the patch of pavement in front of their establishments.

It seems that the shops try to cover as many categories as possible. It’s not unusual to see what is primarily a shoe store, for example, with a display of pots and pans in one corner, ladies underwear in another. To purchase a long distance telephone card we were directed to the veterinarian’s shop where there was also a display of table linens.

Our quest for a notebook led us into a hardware store that also carried stationery where we lined up with all the moms and overexcited kids stocking up on school supplies. Education is mandatory to grade 9 and the new year was about to begin on Monday. Costa Rica has a 95% literacy rate, the highest in Latin America.

Costa Rica also boasts socialized health care, with modern clinics throughout the country. They’ve had democratic elections since the 19th century and the country has no standing army. In Latin American politics, this is as good as it gets.

Winding up down and around the narrow little roads between towns, Costa Rica often evokes memories of shabby little European villages. But it is still Latin America and that demonstrates itself in sidewalks that while spotlessly clean are often hazardous. Open manholes, uneven pavements and cement slabs that buckle up against each other. It is a matter of keeping a sharp look out in front of your feet. The litigious concept of “suing the city” obviously has not migrated this far south yet.

Roads between villages follow the original pack trails through the coffee fields. The terrain is one of gently folding rich green hills, the sky is invariably bright blue and the temperature a balmy 22 degrees on average in the central valley. It’s a virtually perfect climate.

The best part of road tripping through the central valley is the travelling itself, meandering from one small town to another, taking lunch in the small cafes called sodas, stopping for photos, stumbling on local markets, discovering the charms that hide in the corners of the country that other travellers, buzzing by on the bus will miss.

That said, there are a few spots worth putting on your “not to be missed” list:

This small town is home to Costa Rica’s craft persons. Not all of them of course, but having driven the width and breadth of Costa Rica I can attest to the fact that Sarchi is where it’s at, shopping wise. Costa Rica is well known for its brightly decorated donkey carts and artists have Sarchi Artisancarried the colourful themes over to all manner of wall hangings and pottery. Wood carvings of toucans and parrots figure big as do wooden vases, condiment sets, salad bowls, and so on. There is lots of carved furniture ...in the main too heavy to contemplate flying home unless you have your own Lear jet but the one exception is the Costa Rican leather rocking chair. The chair comes apart and fits into a box that while large, is acceptable to the airlines. We negotiated a price of $60 US for ours and frankly, it’s now the most coveted chair in our house. Prices in Sarchi are as good and often better than you will find anywhere else in Costa Rica.

Volcán Poás
The volcano is only 37 km north of Alajuela but the nature of the roads is such that the trip can take several hours. Go first thing in the morning because the steam venting off the crater can gather and settle in, obscuring the view. That said, if the view is obscured when you arrive, go for a walk. The view changes minute by minute as the vapours diminish or are moved off by the wind.

Volcán Poás consists of a 14,000 hectare national park that is also a protected Volcan Poaswildlife area. Public access to the crater has been facilitated with easy-to-walk paths and viewing platforms of the crater. The main crater is 1.5 km across and 300 m deep. When you look into the crater from the viewing platform you see a thermo mineral lake, some 350 metres in diameter with temperatures that reach 60 to 95 degrees C. Underneath all that, in the depths of the crater is a dome whose temperatures reach 900 deg C.

The last patch of real excitement at the volcano was in 1995 when the crater spewed volcanic ash. Since then, it’s confined itself to venting vapour.

La Paz Waterfalls
Just 20 minutes down from Volcán Poás, make a stop at La Paz Waterfalls. This is a commercial venture but they pack a lot into this park. There are actually five different waterfalls, the spectacular result of Río La Paz descending a dramatic 1400 metres down the flanks of Volcán Poás. The park provides excellent viewing platforms over 3.5 km of trails. When you finally make it to the bottom they take all the pain out of it by shuttling you back up to the top. The park also boasts excellent butterfly and hummingbird gardens as well as amenities like a restaurant and lodge.

Braulio Carrillo National Park
Until 1987, Costa Rica’s ability to connect with its Caribbean port of Limon was limited by its (now non-functioning) railroad and a treacherously narrow Cr Rainforestmountain road. Today, huge transport trucks fly down the modern highway, making quick work of their run to the Caribbean ports. The highway was constructed through virgin rainforest so to protect it from exploitation, the Braulio Carrillo National Park was created. Today, the drive alone is worth it, an extraordinary journey through pristine rainforest with leaves as big as market umbrellas. Stop for a while though to walk, to hike or to take the Rainforest Aerial Tram.

Butterfly Farm
In the 1980s a Peace Corp worker looking for a reason to stay met up with a local who bred butterflies as a hobby. A year later he also met a lady who was researching her master’s thesis on non-traditional exports. They married and put his interest in butterflies together with her ideas about establishing sustainable businesses and Costa Rica Entomological Supply (CRES) was founded.

Their strategy was to persuade local farmers to become guardians of their own Butterfly Farmerforests by developing a business that was dependant on the integrity of the habitat – to ensure that they earned more from protecting the environment than they would by chopping down trees. Each specie of butterfly flourishes on specific vegetation. Encouraging rather than destroying this vegetation results in prolific butterfly populations, ensuring the financial success of the farmers.

Today, what started as a tenuous backyard experiment has become a source of livelihood for 90 families scattered across Costa Rica. They breed the butterflies then deliver the pupae to CRES for sorting and shipment to markets all over the world. Today, CRES ships over 20,000 butterflies a week.

It’s a fascinating story, told well at their demonstration farm in La Guácima de Alajuela. Tours begin with a 25 minute film detailing the process through macro photography that offers views otherwise unattainable. From there, a walk-through tour of the process from breeding to packing and shipping, concluding with as much time as you wish for enjoying and photographing the many species of butterflies flitting freely through the netted enclosure. The enclosure, by the way, is not to keep the butterflies in, but to keep predators like wasps and lizards out. In the wild, butterflies have a survival rate of 2%. At the farm they boost that likelihood to 90%.

Zoo Ave
Costa Rica is widely lauded as being the ecological Disneyland of the world ...850 species of birds, 260 different kinds of mammals, 65,000 classified insects, 180 types of amphibians, 235 reptiles and 835 species of fish. So, where are they all? To be honest, I was disappointed. I thought there would be ToucanetteScarlet Macaws sitting in the trees like sparrows. In five weeks I got one sighting, a pair screamed past me so fast I barely realized they’d been there and that was in Corcovado, the most remote and inaccessible park in Costa Rica. If you come to the end of your trip and you still haven’t made a dent in that list of 850 species of birds, head for Zoo Ave (pronounced SOOOAVVVAY). You absolutely will see Scarlet Macaws and Toucans. I promise.

San Jose
Still determined to tackle San Jose? Here is what you need to know to navigate through the city:

  • Streets running east-west are “avenidas”.
  • Streets running north-south are “calles”.
  • The term “100 metres” or more likely “cien metros” actually means the equivalent of a block – thus “setecientos metros” does not literally mean 700 meters, but instead means seven blocks.
  • Yes, most people you speak to will answer you in Spanish – take a deep breath and watch their hands. Follow their hands.
  • There are exceedingly few addresses or street signs so don’t get frustrated looking for them.
  • Addresses are provided as being relational to landmarks – thus the email from your hostel confirming your reservation will say something like ours did: “50 meters west, 25 meters south of "John Paul II" traffic circle, La Uruca, San Jose”
  • When you are looking at a map, count blocks from or to recognizable landmarks – thus the market is seven blocks past the National Museum. Find the National Museum (presumably it’s a big building that will be recognizable) then literally count the blocks past it. Don’t look for street signs that are unlikely to exist.
  • Don’t leave anything in your vehicle to attract a break-in.
  • When possible leave your car in a locked and guarded compound.
  • When you are parking on the street and an urchin jumps out of the bushes with an offer to “protect” your vehicle agree. Give him ½ the money up front, ½ on your return to your undisturbed vehicle.
  • Every man has his territory and he expects to be paid for his services. For example, when you stop at the grocery store he will direct you into a parking spot – pay him. When he directs you out again – pay again (if you plan to return). He is not a beggar, this is his job.

Stay calm. Navigating through San Jose is stressful. Newlyweds should avoid it if they want to survive the honeymoon. The rest of us will manage with some interspousal sniping and shouting. But we all survive ...and then we tell people, “Stay out of San Jose.”

La Paz Waterfalls
Rainforest Aerial Tram
Butterfly Farm
Zoo Ave

Costa Rica Tourism

Carolyn Usher