Thursday 20th November 2008 (Day 6)
We walked over a long, narrow, dilapidated wooden bridge from Panama to Costa Rica. The bridge had rails down the middle but we saw no trains! However, part way across we had to squeeze ourselves against the railing above the wide fast flowing river in order to allow a large lorry to edge its way past us as it travelled in the other direction.
A little form filling on the other side (what happens to all those forms so beloved of immigration?) and we were on our way into Costa Rica. Another mini-bus and another 2 hours before lunch.
The countryside was not very different at first being tropical rain forest with small houses scattered along the edge of the road. The traditional houses were of wood – much like a shed or summer house but perhaps a little larger. Usually they are on stilts and we could see why. With the heavy rain they are often surrounded by water which lies on the saturated ground. Some lack any glass windows and are roofed in palm leaf thatch or corrugated iron. The homes built more recently or by the more wealthy follow a similar pattern but in concrete – and with glass windows.
After some while, the views became more distant with mountains and forest. Still it was a cloud-covered sky but then what does one expect in the rain forest?!
A stop at a wayside café provided pretty basic food and we opted for some portions of cheese that turned out to be some form of sweet!
Costa Rica has a population of 4.1 million and is heavily dependent upon tourism and bananas for its economy. The rural people seem fairly poor although we did notice that much of the housing was better than the rural housing we had seen between David and Bocas del Toro.
The largest settlement that we passed through was Limon, a fairly large and bustling town with many shops and cafés. Whilst there was Pizza Hut and a mall with an ATM, there were also distinctive local shops not found elsewhere. There were also quite a number of Americans sitting in the pavement cafés. Apparently both Panama and Costa Rica are very popular with American retirees.
Within a couple of hours we were at our new hotel, La Quinta, a lodge at Sarapiqui. This is a 15 year old small eco-friendly development providing some 30 bungalows in a forest setting. Some care had been taken in the rooms which were by far the most attractive and least run-down of any yet visited on this tour. Once a ten acre farm belonging to a local family, it had been turned into a eco-friendly natural forested wildlife centre with semi-detatched wooden chalets complete with balconies – and each with its own hammock. The accommodation had been extremely well done as had the entire site – with nature trails, a bird feeding/watching area, frogland etc etc. There was even free wifi in the reception area which pleased Jill immensely and enabled her to upload a lot of her photos after spending time editing them.
Friday 21st November (Day 7)
Sadly we only had one night at La Quinta and at 11.00 the next morning we were off on our travels again after a walk around the site looking at plants and wild life. Adrian managed to snap a green and black frog before we left.
We headed for the Volcan Arenal area and stopped at a small town on the way where there was a supermarket and a restaurant/giftshop. The latter was next to a river and the trees overhanging this, as well as the land nearby, were frequented by many iguanas.
Our next hotel (Lomas del Volcan) was, if anything, even better than the last. It occupied a beautiful area below the volcano and the wooden chalets were detached and some distance from their neighbours. Again there was free wifi and two free desktop computers – however the connection was incredibly slow.
Before we reached the hotel, we stopped in the nearby town where we were given about an hour to explore the shops etc. Adrian, Helle & I found a back street and walked towards the distant hills passing local housing and accommodation for only $5 a night! We were unable to see the volcano at any time as it was covered in heavy cloud.
Saturday 22nd November (Day 8)
The rain that had dogged us earlier had seemed to follow us and as we left Lomas del Volcan, visibility dropped to almost nothing. We had been due to visit the national park and the volcano area itself and Nicasio, our driver, faithfully drove us there. However, Jackie asked at the park entrance whether there would be anything to see and the park attendant confirmed that it would really be a waste of money to pay the entrance fees. Therefore we turned around and began the journey to Monteverde where we were to stay for two nights. This was around 40 to 50 miles along unmade single track roads where it was just possible to pass the occasional vehicle coming the other way. We spent much time travelling around Lake Arenal. This man-made lake occupies the site of the former town of Arenal which was destroyed by volcanic eruption in the 1960s. It now provides 70% of Costa Rica’s electricity via hydro electric power.
Enroute we stopped for coffee and again there was free wifi with an extremely fast upload time so that all our photos safely reached our Picasa website.
All the way to Monteverde, we travelled in pouring rain with visibility at virtually zero. We had been looking forward to staying in one place for two nights but, in the event, it was not a good place to be entrenched for so long. The owner of the hotel, Jose, told us that the weather the previous night had been horrendous and that powerlines had blown down. He had no internet available for our use and the rain was lashing almost horizontally.
We had arrived at about 12.30 and left our luggage in our rooms after speaking with Jose. About half an hour later, our minibus took us into the nearby town for lunch. It was blowing an absolute gale and the rain was unrelenting. We bought some food from a supermarket and then went to a local restaurant “The Treehouse” (literally built around an enormous living tree). The menu was restricted by the fact that there was a powercut but we chose a vegetarian sandwich accompanied by what may have been Yucca chips.
We then were taken back to our hotel (Hotel de Lucia) where we were freezing cold and sat huddled in our rooms reading until it was time to be blown across the road to the restaurant for our evening meal. The time set for this had been brought forward to 7.00 p.m. as there was little else to do but the meal was good and occupied about two hours before we returned to read again and have a relatively early night.
Sunday 23rd November (Day 9)
We had been due to visit a cheese factory as it was thought almost certain that the Rainforest Reserve would be closed – it had been yesterday as several large trees had been blown over and it was unsafe to visit. However, in the event, it was open – and we set off at 9.00 a.m. to meet our guide and to be taken on a walk along the one trail that they were allowing open. The journey there was eventful in that Ken and Sue discovered a small but unmistakeable scorpion on the seatback straight in front of them! Naturally they were anxious that it should make its exit fairly speedily. Nicasio stopped the minibus and Jackie enticed it onto the “Explore” welcome notice and deposited it by the side of the road!
When we met our guide, he told us that 2008 had broken all records as, at various times, it had been the driest, wettest, hottest and coldest year to-date.
We did not see a Quetzel as it is really the wrong season – but we did see many humming birds, a wood turkey, a stick insect and various other flora and fauna.
On the way back from the reserve, we stopped at a bakery to buy coffee and items for lunch before returning to the hotel. There had been a little blue sky and some watery sun but both were short-lived and the wind and rain returned – although it was possibly not as cold as yesterday when Jill had gone to bed in a fleece!
Adie went into the local town of Monteverde on the minibus as it took other folks to the canopy for walks, zip wires etc. Whilst he bought some water and other bits and pieces, Jill made up the diary and read “Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett which Sue, our new next door neighbour had lent her.
After Adrian returned, we both went out up the unmade road some two hundred yards to the internet café where we were able to purchase a wifi connection and download our emails. There was one from Zoë giving a link to the website of her new school, one from Tricia and one from Margaret with family history data. The purchase of internet time also included two free cups of coffee.
After our return to our room (again in the pouring rain) Jill had a shower and washed her hair and we amused ourselves with Spanish on the ipod and reading before joining Helle as prearranged for a meal at the restaurant opposite. Jose the owner was there and he came to chat to us. We told him that we liked everything about his restaurant apart from the weather – he said that global warming was to blame and he didn’t know where things would end up. It was all very worrying.
After our meal we returned at around 8.30 p.m. to pack ready for an early departure in the morning.
Monday 24th November (Day 10)
We had breakfast in the hotel restaurant and then were on our minibus ready for an 8.00 a.m. start on the journey to Rincon de la Vieja. It was a good thing that we had determined to be up early for the Hotel de Lucia was having an extension built and workmen arrived before 6.30 a.m. drilling, hammering, singing, whistling and listening to very loud radios – they are the same the world over!
We drove for about two hours, retracing our steps down the mountain and even stopping in the same café where the free internet was available! This time we only remained for about twenty minutes – long enough to download emails but not to upload photos.
We travelled onwards, with the weather at last becoming marginally better until we arrived at Liberia – a very westernised/Americanised town with an enormous supermarket and many ultra modern shops. Jill bought a Costa Rica cap identical to one she had seen a girl wearing at the restaurant at Hotel de Lucia and was well pleased with that for a cost of around £4.00.
We then set off again for our two night stay in the middle of nowhere – down a private toll road. By now the sunshine and warmth that we had briefly enjoyed in Liberia had disappeared and our usual low cloud and driving rain had returned! We arrived early – at about 1.00 p.m. – but our rooms were not to be ready until around 2.00 p.m. so we needed to wait in the bar area for about an hour. Nicasio joined us there briefly for Jackie to give him a vote of thanks and his tip and he left us for home after we had given him a round of applause. He had indeed been an extremely careful and competent driver and we could only hope that others would be the same. He told us via Jackie that he had enjoyed being with us and was sorry about the rain!
Shortly after 2.00 p.m. we were allowed into our rooms – in a long wooden terrace with a veranda from which were hanging hammocks. They were built much more crudely than those in the two country parks where we had stayed previously and the bathroom “ensuite” was very basic. We wondered what it would have been like to stay in the accommodation we had thought we had been going to - this had become over-booked and our group was moved to this one. On a beautiful sunny day it would doubtless be idyllic as the setting was lovely. However, we arrived in the customary torrential rain; only the wind having let up somewhat.
One point of interest was a small troop of monkeys swinging in the trees outside our rooms. They included a mother with baby on her back and Jill got a fairly good photo of them. The monkeys evidently did not appreciate our arrival as they began stripping of large quantities of bark and aiming it at us!
Adrian and Helle each went on separate walks of about two hours. They bumped into one another at one point. They returned pretty soaked and muddy but having had a good time. Everyone else in our group stayed in or near their rooms. Jill continued to read “Pillars of the Earth”.
At 7.00 p.m. we met up in Bar area for Jackie to tell us about some of the options in Nicaragua. She also told us that we were having to change our itinerary in that country. Apparently there is quite a lot of violence in the wake of recent elections and it is particularly bad in Leon – so that the UK Foreign Office is advising against all but essential travel there. As a result we are now going to avoid it and skirt around the trouble spots.
The whole “hotel” is rather like a backpackers’ or YHA. There is a large German group staying here as well and indeed most, if not all, of the books that are available on loan are in German.
By 9.00 p.m. we were back in our room, ready for yet another early night listening to the rain. However the temperature is considerably warmer than it was at our last stop so that is at least one blessing.
Tuesday 25th November (Day 11)
Although we had a pretty good night’s sleep, we spent a lot of time listening to heavy rain beat down on the roof of our wooden “hut”, All of us, except Dave, met up for breakfast at 8.00 a.m. when we needed to make a decision as to whether we would go for a five hour walk up near the volcano (although the track to the crater had been closed). As it was raining pretty heavily still, some nine of us decided to stay and read, use the internet, or go for local walks. Free coffee was available so that was good and Adrian and I used the internet for about 15 minutes to check our emails – and that proved to be free also.
I finished my Ken Follett book and started one that Helle had lent me – “The Gathering” by Anne Enright. We had bought some Emmenthal cheese in the supermarket at Liberia as well as some crackers so we ate those for lunch and then took a few photos of the brightly coloured butterflies near our room and also a large parrot-like bird that had a very wide repertoire of sounds. There were some exceedingly large light blue butterflies but they were too fast for us to capture on our cameras.
Before supper, Adrian did some more Spanish courtesy of Michel Thomas on the Ipod and I washed my hair and made up the diary.
Everyone gathered in the bar before supper to hear the arrangements for tomorrow when we will leave for Nicaragua. However Jackie wanted to liaise with the Nicaraguan driver who had just arrived to stay the night, ready for our morning departure. Therefore we reconvened after our meal and learned that we were aiming for the 2.30 p.m. ferry crossing and so would have a slightly later departure than originally envisaged. We then paid our bill – in Costa Rican colones – before going to our room to pack.
Wednesday 26th November (Day 12)
We had a somewhat sleepless night due to gales and further torrential rain. Really we marvelled that our wooden accommodation managed not to blow down – it must have been far better constructed than it appeared!
We left Rincon de la Vieja at around 8.30 a.m. for our journey across the border to Ometepe in Nicaragua.
See the Nicaraguan diary for details of events after we left Costa Rica.