03. COSTA RICA

Costa Rica.

Monday Dec. 8
After our long bus ride (Just about 20 Hrs) we needed a day of rest.  We were in a very good place to do that. We found Anna on couchsurfing. She had an apartment in a gated community in a rather up-scale suburb of San Jose.  The apartment was a move up for us from my mom’s place in Antigua. Annas apt had a stove that you could just turn on: didnt need to use matches to light it. And the apartment had a nice big wonderful Maytag washing machine.

The best thing about the apartment was Anna. She was a wonderful person, very friendly, relaxed and fun to be with.  We slept on the couch that folded down into a bed. It was very comfortable. And… Anna had wifi.  Ohhh we were in heaven.

Her place was so comfortable that we just stayed in the apartment relaxing for two full days.

We did go into San Jose (capital of Costa Rica) to see the sights.  Well, there are not a lot of sights to see in San Jose, Costa Rica.  The best way I can describe San Jose is its like a plain piece of toast with nothing on it. Its not something that is going to dazzle you and propel you to come back for more. Once is enough. So was San Jose.

But just in case we missed something we went into San Jose a few more times. We saw the Jade museum: Hmm not bad.. not great. We went to the Gold Museum… ditto. We did wander into the insurance building that the Jade Museum was next to. The 11th floor offered a nice view of the city. However, to see the view, we had to enter an office.. so we did. We walked into an office and one of the guys working there was nice and not too busy. He stood up , told us sure, go ahead. The three of us looked out the window while he pointed out some of the city sights. In broken English of course.

I never found a good cup of coffee in San Jose.  My repeated dissapointment was that I could find a place that had a good quality espresso machine, and they did appear to have decent coffee beans, but the people there just didn’t know how to treat coffee and make a respectable cup of espresso.  Most often it was just thick American style coffee.

On Friday night Anna, Soon Jeong and I went out.   We went to a Jazz Cafe club and saw/heard Lebanese music with Belly Dancers. It was good. Cover charge was $8/pp   Hmmm in Costa Rica and watching Lebanese belly dancers… Go figure. They were good at it though.

costa-rica-belly-dancer

The time passed so quickly. We were so comfortable at Anna’s place.. A place we could really relax. It felt like only a couple of days but a in a flash it was the end of the week. Time to get off the couch and get going!

Sunday Dec 14:
On Sunday we took the bus north to La Fortuna (2,065 Colonies ea). La Fortuna is a tiny town that did not exist on the tourist map10 years ago. In the mid to late 90s some tourists decided that La Fortuna was a cool place to be. One of the most active volcanos in the world is there: Volcano Arenal.

Arenal was a dormant volcano until July 29, 1968. Then it blew it’s top and pretty much took out the town of La Fortuna. Since 1968 Arenal has been constantly active with small eruptions and spewing of lava every 5-10 minutes. Now volcano watching is a big tourist attraction. The word spread about La Fortuna’s volcano and the surrounding jungle which supports a lot of wildlife and many colorful birds.   Thus, an industry that has nature as its product was born in La Fortuna.

Monday Dec. 15
The tourist industry has been booming in La Fortuna and there is now a Hanging Bridge Tour. That means you can pay $37 (each), to be driven 20 minutes up the canyon road to a park that has some suspension and regular steel bridges. You walk thought the jungle crossing 15 bridges along a 3km trail while hoping to see some animals.  On our Hanging Bridge Tour we did not see any wild animals, save for an occasional nondescript brown bird.   We did this in the morning.

costa-rica-hanging-bridge

In the afternoon we continued to see the famed tourist highlights of Costa Rica by paying $45 (each) for a package tour that included volcano watching, a buffet dinner, and hot springs.   At about 5:00pm our volcano tour guide walked our group of 15 people along an old dirt road and pointed out some interesting plants and one monkey. Actually, I spotted the monkey first..told him and he pointed it out to the group. He also showed us how to use a particular fern plant to make a white tattoo.  A rather temporary tattoo that could be washed off.

costa-rica-tatoo

This portion of the tour took about 30 minutes. It was just about sunset and this was the best time to see animals.  We only saw the monkey. Back into the shuttle bus and we were taken to a trail. We walked 20 minutes in the dark to a covered, kind of shed with wood benches. In the dark we sat on the benches all facing the volcano and waited, and hoped that Arenal Volcano would spit  and spew lava. Our guide did tell us interesting stories of his experiences watching and climbing the Arenal.  He kept dangling the bait by saying that , Ya never know… at any moment there could be a huge eruption. I remember one time when nobody expected….blah, blah, blah.   We ended up with just his blah, blah, blah… the volcano was sleeping that night and we saw nothing.

At the hot springs we lined up for the buffet dinner… but the waiter said there were not enough people for a buffet so, we were given a Group Menu to order from.  The food was not that good and the service was below that. We hurried up to finish our dinner and get into the hot spring baths because we only had 30 minutes left before the shuttle bus would take us back to our hotel in La Fortuna.  The hot springs?… not all that hot.

costa-rica-la-fortuna-warm-springs

The Lonely Planet guide book listed a coffee shop in La Fortuna that had great coffee.  We went there and outside of the shop named Down To Earth Coffee, there was an old guy (about my age I guess, that is not too old but not too young either) wearing an apron. I asked him if they sold Real, Good Espresso! He boasted that they sold the best coffee in Costa Rica and he would personally make it.  His enthusiasm and confidence was most persuasive, I ordered a double espresso and Soon Jeong ordered a cappuccino.   Even before he got that little espresso cup on the counter I could smell the aroma of pure GOOOOOD espresso.  Yes in deed, that deep rich smell and the thick crema on top…. it was .. Well, it was the very best espresso or coffee of any kind that I had in all of Central America.

Mr. Matias did more than that, he sat down with us and gave us a full history, geography, and production lesson on coffee in Costa Rica.  The new info that I had not known about was that, in the world there are three highly coveted regions that produce exceptional coffee. These coffees are so good they are very carefully guarded to preserve their integrity: Kona, Blue Mountain and, here comes the surprise… DOTA coffee from the Tarrazu region in Costa Rica.  Yep. Dota coffee right along side of Kona and Blue Mountain.   News to me too!

costa-rica-down-to-earth-coffee

Mr. Matias took 40 minutes to explain about DOTA Coffee : the high altitude (5800 ft) and the peculiar annual weather pattern that made Dota a superior coffee.    He also told us about his family and their long history in the coffee business.

It was a very interesting and delightful hour and a half. When we parted, I thanked him and said goodbye and was walking away when Soon Jeong reminded me that I still needed to pay for the coffee.   Mr. Matias said, no charge, it was worth the good conversation.

That double shot of Espresso will be tough to beat in my book; superb coffee FREE, and a free coffee lecture with it.

That was the best bargain we had in La Fortuna. The Consado lunch at Lave Rock restaurant was pretty good too.

costa-rica-lava-rock-consado

Tuesday Dec 16:
The best way to get to Monteverde, the next stop on the tourist trek, was to take a van to the lake, then a boat across the lake, then another van into the, even smaller, town of Moteverde.  We did that. It was a little more than a 3 hr trip.

The town was so small we decided to just walk carrying all of our luggage.  I must say that we had trimmed down the weight of our luggage by leaving one bag at Anna’s apartment. Monteverde is another La Fortuna: it exists only for the tourist industry, nothing else.

We checked a few places and they were around $25 for a room that was not very good. Very basic facilities. We did find a place that was on a dirt road one block off the main road.  The room with a private bath was $20 per night but the room with shared bath was only $5 per person per night.  Because we were the only ones there… the shared bath was essentially our own. So we took the shared bath option.

Once we were settled in our room we explored the town. .. That used up 30 minutes.

Wednesday Dec 17.
We dished out $45 each for the Canopy Tour. This is also known as Zip-lines.  One America who was running a youth hostel in town had all the info on the 5 companies that offered Canopy Tours.  We took the one that actually took you though prim forest. (A couple of other companies run their lines across cow pastures and non-jungle like areas.)

Both Soon Jeong and I agreed that the Canopy tour (zip lines) was the best value for the money. That was because it was predictable.  They put the cables up and had their equipment and employees in place. The product could be delivered as advertised 100% of the time. In short, you could get what you paid for.  Other things were subject to monkeys, birds and the two toed sloth. And you can never depend on a two toed sloth. The three toed sloth is only a little bit better.

Zip lines… just see the photos and you will get the idea of how cool it was.

costa-rica-canopy-line-1

costa-rica-canopy-line-3

Thursday Dec 18:
We took the city bus up to the Monteverde National Reserve and paid $17 each entrance fee. If we wanted to hire a guide it would cost another $17 EACH for the guide.  We did not get the guide because I considered it just a blatant rip-off.

We got a trails map at the ticket office and went for a walk in the “Cloud Forest” as it is known.
It was an amazing forest. It was a very dense jungle with vines, plants, and huge trees. I loved it because it was green, green, and more green.

costa-rica-moteverde

Unfortunately, when we started it was misting. Then the mist got heavy. Then it decided to drizzle and for the remainder of out walk in the reserve it alternated between heavy mist and a drizzling rain.  This pretty much soaked us.  As for wildlife we didn’t even see the brown birds.

AND… the real bad news was that a drop of rain got into the battery compartment of one of our cameras and …..PHZZZZZ that was it… it died.   100% Nada, zilch, zero and nothing.

That was not the end of our bad luck for that day.  We arrived at the reserve early and got started as soon as they opened at 7:00am.  We finished by 11:00 and caught the 11:30 city bus back to town.  While waiting in the lodge for the return bus, Soon Jeong and I got to talking with another couple. Well, I left out camera Monopod at the lodge.   Back at our hostel the owner helped us and fortunately the stick (Monopod) was still there.  I paid a TukTuk driver to go get it. I got it back.

In the late afternoon we went to a coffee shop were we could get wifi. I got on my computer and Skyped a phone call to Travelocity.com. Before leaving Annas place I had made a reservation to fly from Costa Rica to Peru.  This reservation got cancelled.  I tried to  make the reservation a few more times at Anna’s and each time it got cancelled. Fianlly It did appear that I successfully made the reservation.   However, in Monteverde I got another e mail say that reservation had been cancelled.  So in the coffee shop I called them to find out why.

Its along and frustrating story so I’ll cut to the end.. After 2 hrs   (make that 2 irritating hours of talking to people who could not think or do anything beyond what they were programed to do)  of talking on the phone to 8 different customer service representatives with Travelocity, I was able to get the reservation 100% confirmed.

Friday Dec 19:
At noon we went to the Frog Pond. The frog pond was a kind of zoo for Costa Rican frogs only.  Costa Rica has 119 frogs and 17 toad species. All toads in Costa Rica are poisonous to touch them. They have glands behind their eyes that can secrete the poison through the skin.

costa-rica-frog

A lot of the frogs are nocturnal so they were hiding when we were pressing our noses on the glass cages. We had a guide and she told us all about each frog in the cage; how many eggs they lay, the names etc.   The entrance ticket also allowed you to make a return visit after dark so you could see the nocturnal frogs.

We signed up and went on a coffee tour of a Fair Trade coffee Coop farm at 1pm.  It wasn’t bad but there was a lot our guide could have done to make it more interesting and entertaining. One handicap of the tour was our timing: mid December is too early for harvesting the coffee so they only had a little coffee coming into the processing plan about every other day.   Our day was not one of those days.  Nothing was in operation. But it was good to learn of what is required to be certified as a Fair Trade coffee.

Fair Trade coffee takes 5 yrs to get certified. There are a couple of agencies that do the certifying, one in the US and one in Europe.  Fair Trade is more than just getting a fair price. It involves labor requirements such as, children of farmers cannot work in coffee, they must go to school. If there are hired workers, their children must attend school as well.  Environmental policies are also included. E.g., for trees to shade the coffee the farmer cannot plan only one type of tree; thus creating an unnatural monoculture. They must plant a variety of indigenous trees for shade.  And of course they are very limited to the chemicals that can be used on the coffee.

costa-rica-coffee

The small plantation we visited was only 11 hectors.  Our guide, who happened to be the daughter of the farmer we were visiting, said that her dad did not make enough money from the coffee so he also grew bananas and sometimes did other part time jobs.

After our coffee tour we went to dinner with the couple we met the day before at the Monteverde reserve.  In the tiny town of Monteverde we had run into them about 5 times in the course of our stay there. So we decided to have dinner together because, it would not have been a surprise if we ended up at the same restaurant anyway.  A real nice couple living in New York. They both were Shiatsu massage therapists.

After dinner we hurried back to the frog pond to see the night frogs.

Saturday Dec 20:
We loaded up our luggage and took the morning bus back to San Jose to Anna’s place.
That evening we took Anna out for a Korean dinner.

Sunday Dec 21:
Anna left in the morning for her flight back to Canada. We spent the rest of the day packing and getting things loaded up for our flight to Peru the next day.

Monday Dec 22:
Up and off to the airport. Everything went well with our flight to Peru. It was a direct flight to Lima. Only 4 hrs.    On our decent into Lima airport Soon Jeong and I were very surprised to see a city that was almost totally lacking in color.  There were no colors. It was all brown rocks and brown bricks.

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