Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Costa Rica: How One Family Changed Coasts in Search of the Sun

How to Find a High Season Reservation

We took over three of the four machines at the friendly Manzanillo internet café, searching, searching for a path to the sun.  We didn’t know  how far we could push the Kia in one day, and decided that it made sense to make a stop overnight in the Arenal area, which seemed to have a good selection of hotels.  Would any be available?

Eureka – Dan struck gold on If we were ready to share a “junior suite”, there was a cancellation at four star Mountain Paradise Hotel.  The website looked good and the emergency price was right.  The website, which works via chat so that the entire interchange can be saved in case of dispute, was having more trouble with Guanacaste.  The rains everywhere else had added to the demand.  Very little available, and what there was didn’t sound too appealing.

Back to VRBO.  Six houses/condos were listed as being available for our dates in all of Guanacaste. (There is a very useful tool on the site where you can just plug in your dates and they’ll show you what is showing a vacancy – saves loads of time in a situation like this.) I sent out my emails and within two hours had three responses back.  Of these, there was one, “Tres Hermanos”, that looked as though it would fit the bill – walking distance to the protected Playa Junquillal in a gated community; three bedrooms, two full baths, and an intriguing-sounding third floor terrace that boasted views of the mountains and the sea.  No reviews, but we took it, fingers crossed.

The Drive

The next morning we saddled up the poor Kia – four adults, four bags and various leftover groceries,   all a little heavier for the damp – and set off over what was left of the road to Limon.  Back through the cloud forest, and into the mountains.  The axels lived through the potholes, we lived through the anxiety (no thanks to you, Avis rent a car) and the GPS held true.  We arrived at Mountain Paradise Hotel ( on a trying-to-be-sunny afternoon.  Hummingbirds in the flowering bushes!  Friendly helpful staff, happy to book us into the twilight nature walk! Dry sheets!   Heated pool with swim-up bar!  On-premises spa treatments! Commodious, impeccably clean shower room on a waterfall theme with real vines! Restaurant with what would be a stunning view of the volcano if it weren’t for that pesky cloud!  Fifth Dimension and other hits from the 60s and 70s blaring over the restaurant intercom…  Well, almost perfect.  Over dinner, we missed Chena and Mommie.  And, as we tromped on our nature walk leapfrogging half a dozen other tourist groups along the same trails, spotting the same birds, we missed the tranquillity of the Manzanillo jungle, and Omar.  The volcano never appeared.

We set the GPS and drove off again in the morning, Guanacaste or bust.  By noon we arrived at the gates of Tierra Pacifica and were shown the way to Tres Hermanos.  Wow.  I had somehow not realised that the picture on the web was of just the one house.  Large, set apart, and boasting all the modcons.   Leather sofas, an indoor shuffleboard table (!), even a TV.  Terraces here,  terraces  there, and plenty of sun.  Landscaped communal pool with classy lounge chairs.  Secret back pathway to the beach (key required).  If we were looking for a change, we certainly had found it.  And never have I seen my family so enthusiastic about laundry – all our disintegrating cottonwear came out for a wash and a stint in the sun, as did we.

The Guanacaste Rental

The development in which Tres Hermanos sits is not all that developed yet.  Buildings stood on perhaps 20 of the 73 building sites.  Most lots were sold, though.   At this point it’s kind of perfect, because there aren’t too many houses, and what was probably once a ranch remains much as it was -- perfect for birding from that third floor terrace.  In the morning, there were frigate birds over the water.  As the day progressed we watched mangrove blackhawks rising on the thermals, pelicans, orange-chinned  parrots, white-throated magpie jays, cedar waxwings in from the States, grosbeaks, flycatchers.   There were nesting Inca doves in a palm tree near the front door and rufous-naped wrens squabbling over a site on the back terrace.    In the evening kiskadees flocked to the dead tree across the way. One evening, we looked down just before sunset to see two streak-backed orioles snuggled into a gently swaying palm frond, fast asleep.
But there this thing about being in a gated community.   I guess it comes with the beautiful  Italian tile and the modcons, but it made it kind of difficult to feel part of the scene, as we had on the Caribbean coast.    I felt safer where I didn’t need a gate, I have to say, especially on New Year’s Eve, when it seemed that some Tico (or at least Spanish speaking) dignitaries were partying in the complex, and the guards were packing some serious-looking firearms.

We were warned repeatedly during  our stay to watch our belongings, but I never felt personally unsafe in any way, and I think the frequent warnings were partly a function of a very hospitable people who would have been mortified if you lost your mobile phone.  Pilfering may be “a fact of life in Central America”, as one of the VRBO owners put it – but you wouldn’t leave your passport lying around at a tourist attraction in London either. 

Caribbean or Pacific Coast?

Guanacaste is a different scene from the Caribbean coast.   There is surfing in both places, but you’d be well-advised to bring your board to the Carribean side.  By contrast, if you ever want to learn to surf, you must go to Tamarindo.  I don’t know how the waves are, but it must boast the highest concentration of surf schools in the world.  If you can’t learn here, take up pinnocle.

Tamarindo has all sorts of stuff that Puerto Viejo doesn’t have, like souvenir shops with items you might convince yourself to want, shapely beach bunnies with no tattoos (or at least smaller ones), T shirts that do not mention Bob Marley, an incredible Auto-Mercado with not only tortillas but filo pastry, and the only overpriced and terrible restaurant we encountered in Costa Rica (except at the airport hotel on the way out, which doesn’t count).  Needless to say, we missed Puerto Viejo --  although I must say that the entertainment value of the resident iguana at the overpriced and terrible restaurant was worth something.

Playa Junqualill is worth a visit, too.  It’s a protected white sand beach, and aside from a much-appreciated café and a house or two, there is no building on the shore.  (There are a couple of camp grounds, which is how Ticos tend to take in the beach.)  Even at the height of the holiday, there were not very many people and by 3 January it was all but deserted.   Scuba and snorkelling are available from Tamarindo,  although we wouldn’t recommend travelling here for scuba or snorkelling.
More real than Tamarindo was nearby Paraiso, which may not offer a lot in ordinary times but over the New Year’s holiday had a fiesta each night featuring a rodeo.  On New Year’s Eve, the crowd was buoyant and easy – young couples trying out their moves on the dance floor, kids bouncing on the trampoline, giant grasshoppers flying overhead (thankfully pretty far overhead), and excited descriptions of the ferociousness of the bull and the expertise of the rider issuing from the loudspeaker.  In between bull riding were dazzling equestrian displays, complete with rope tricks.  Every possible sort of person seemed to be there.
It was difficult to tear ourselves away from that upper terrace, which came equipped with a grill, but we did try one restaurant, Villa Deevena, in nearby Playa Negra, which we can wholeheartedly recommend.  Lovely continental (European) menu poolside at a pretty little hotel. 

San Jose

A few words about San Jose:  they’re right that there isn’t a lot to recommend Costa Rica’s capital for the tourist.  Very little shopping unless you are interested in a pair of trainers and some new sweatpants – we were told that well-to-do Ticos and westerners shop out in the suburbs at gated malls that have lots of American products.  And the architecture is…functional at best.  If you are just going to Guanacaste you may want to come fly into Liberia, which is less crowded.
That said, we liked Hotel Fleur de Lys (, which is pretty (lots of old, burnished wood), well-situated for the museums and within walking distance of a good Italian bistro (Roma) and a great Argentine steak house (La Esquina de Buenos Aires).  We enjoyed awaiting our children’s arrival on the street-facing terrace.

We took in two of the three “must see” San Jose museum:, the Museo Nacional and Museo de Jade Fidel Tristan Castro, which is located at the bottom of the headquarters of Costa Rica’s foremost insurance company, INS (different Fidel Castro).  Both have interesting displays of artifacts and a history of Costa Rica from pre-Columbian times.  Museo Nacional takes a not entirely optimistic view of recent history as well.  If you have time for only one, you may wish to choose on the basis of your political orientation.  Museo de Jade gives the capitalist interpretation (“These jade pendants were worn by important persons”) whereas Museo Nacional has a Marxist slant (”These jade pendants were used by the chiefs to distinguish themselves from the workers.”).  If, like us, you want to see both with a lunch in between, we recommend the lovely  tiled Hotel Don Carlos, which also has a nice terrace looking out on an unusually attractive street.
There are taxis everywhere in San Jose, and they are very reasonably priced, so there is no need to have a car.  The cash machines here and elsewhere give a choice of colones and dollars, and most businesses accept either – although we can only guess that you are more likely to get the Tico price if you pay in colones.
If you do find yourself in San Jose, we found that it was one of the few places that you could get a Costa Rican sim card for your mobile.  Try the ICI (national phone company) offices near the cathedral.  You will need to take your passport (here or anywhere you try to get a sim card), as they will need to take a photocopy of it.  We found having a Costa Rican sim very helpful, although it is much easier to just buy a phone card if you have access to a landline.  

Final Thoughts

Will we go back to Costa Rica?   Yes, we will definitely be back, and we don’t say that about many places, given how many parts of the world we have yet to see.  The luxurious natural beauty and the gracious people really make Costa Rica a special place.  We would not, however, recommend going seat-of the-pants without a Spanish speaker on board.  People generally speak English about as well as I speak Spanish, which is to say, with a command of a few nouns that are useful in food contexts and limited familiarity with verb tenses.   Had the kids not been proficient, the experience would not have been as smooth.  If you have a plan to begin with and stick to it, however, I think you would do all right without a lot of  Spanish, relying on vociferous hand gestures and  the goodwill that you will encounter. 
We may have some arguments about which coast to return to, and I think we will be consulting the weather maps a little more assiduously next time, but we will be back.

In fact, we hear that they have a special “pensioners visa” that might be just the ticket in a year or two….

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Lessons Learned on Costa Rica's Caribbean Coast

More travel adventures from Penny, our No Crowds reporter last seen in North Africa, this time with her family in Central America.

You may come across a crowd or two in Costa Rica – but it won’t always be a human crowd.  It could, for example, be a crowd of howler monkeys.  Or hummingbirds.  These crowds, I think, are okay.

Manzanillo – the last town along the Caribbean coast before the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, a 12 kilometre bicycle ride south along the only road from relaxed surfer town of Puerto Viejo, right on the ocean…perfect.   I booked a house (, asked the caretaker to find me a turkey for Christmas, and considered our plan settled.  When a second place, down the road and (as it turned out) over a river from the first came available, we decided to extend our stay and take that one too.  Our farflung family (we are in London, with offspring on the east and west coasts of the States) would be together again in warmth and beauty).

We arrived a couple days before Christmas, after a 6 hour drive from San Jose along some roads that I have to say weren’t in the very best shape. 

CR Lesson No. 1:  Do not, under any circumstances, let anyone(this includes you, Avis Rent A Car) talk you into taking a “brand new” Kia instead of the four wheel drive that you ordered.  But in any case we made it, through the cloud forest and along the Guapiles Highway to Puerto Limon, and then south along the sea.
The house, “La Patita” was everything, well nearly everything, we expected – burnished wood, outside living, right in the middle of the jungle.  However, the only place to cook a turkey in the “full” kitchen was the toaster oven.   Oh well, cancel the turkey.  I was going to feel funny eating it in front of the toucans anyway.
Morning 1, 5:15 am.  What the hell was THAT?  Okay, I had just started Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Lacuna” (recommended reading for any Latin American adventure, and really, just generally), so I knew that howler monkeys could be scary.  But I thought they howled, like “aawoooh”.  This was more like roaring, and we seemed to have one in the bathroom.  Evidently time to get up.

CR Lesson No 2:  People rise with the sun and go to bed early…for a reason.

As soon as the sun was more or less up we snuck through the grounds of Congo Bongo ( to the beach.   The houses of Congo-bongo, which are available to rent, looked comfortable and beautiful and the path to the beach is amazing: sloths overhead, every kind of bird and butterfly,  frogs, crabs,  and lovely, flowering vegetation.

The beach runs south to the town and then to just nothing to the north almost as far as you can see.  It’s littered with… driftwood.  Palm trees come down to the shore, and there are no buildings at all, just the occasional path from tourist lodgings or houses.  Talk about no crowds – that morning, it was just us.  And some sandpipers and willets, and a couple of circling blackhawks and a flock of parrots.

CR Lesson No 3 – Can’t imagine more romantic beaches!

Manzanillo village is a  thrown together, one-story beach town that is somehow instantly accessible.     The anchor of the village is Maxi’s, a multi-level restaurant and bar that seems to serve as the communication centre.   Gringo-type tourists tend to sit down upstairs and have a meal (the food is very good).   Ticos tend to have a beer and watch football (that’s soccer to some of you) on the widescreen TV, or queue downstairs for carry out  to be eaten on the beach.

CR Lesson no 4:  Female Costa Ricans are Ticas and male Costa Ricans and mixed crowds are Ticos.  In December, many of the tourists will be Ticos.
Because the town is small and tourism a bit tenuous, an informal network of friendly and interesting people were happy to show us their paradise and help us have a good time.  Because many of the residents are descendants of Jamaican immigrants, there are even quite a few who speak English.
Did we want someone to come and cook for us?  Okay, we’ll tell Chena.  Chena and her friend Mommie were waiting for us when we first arrived, cooking incredible freshly caught fish. Delicious.  For Christmas, it was Caribbean lobster.  Unfortunately, I’ve lost Chena’s number, but if you ask for her at Maxi’s, they’ll know how to find her. The songs Chena and Mommie sang as they cooked come back to me even as the colours and smells of Manzanillo fade.

Did we want someone to take us around the refuge?  Omar would stop by. In addition to knowing the terrain from childhood, Omar has trained up on the local wildlife.  He showed us how to look for sloths, and vipers, identified all those bird calls we had been hearing, and is clearly expert on medicinal plants (telephone 506 2759 9143).  I do not often go walking with a man with a machete, and was interested to learn that, unlike a Glock, a machete has many uses.  Omar really knew how to use his, deftly punching a coconut for its juice and then carving it for us and some passing hikers at Manzanillo point. (He also leads kayaking expeditions around the lagoon, which I was sorry to miss, and rents cottages.)
Did we want to go horseback riding?  Michael brought a couple of his own and borrowed another, so that we could ride out on the beach.  (Delicate, responsive horses they were.)
Scuba diving? Semi-bespoke lessons available at the dive centre in Punta Uva, a bit north of Manzanillo  (  Snorkelling?  The best spot is just off the beach near the phone tower, and equipment can be rented in town.

But here begins our tale of woe. Snorkelling and scuba diving require smoothish seas.  They are not very good in the rain, and impossible when there is a lot of turbulence, especially here where the currents can be a bit tricky.  And it rained every day we were there – usually all day.
Don’t get me wrong, we’re Londoners.  Rain does not stop us.  We hiked  in the rain, biked in the rain,  rode horses in the rain, canopy toured in the rain (try Terra Aventura or ATEC in Puerto Viejo), tried out the yoga centres in the rain, watched the surfers, who thought the stormy waves were great.  We took in the inaptly named Jaguar Rescue Center (, which actually rescues primates and sloths and is well worth the visit, but doesn’t have any jaguars.  We were told repeatedly that it is unusual for it to be so rainy in December. 

CR Lesson No 5:  It can rain a lot in a rainforest.

We ate a lot of good food in the rain, and in beautiful places.  Arrecife Lodge is a lovely little place that serves tempura-style fish and chips on the beach at Punta Uva.  We had a great meal at a four-table Argentine grill, “El Refugio”, and a spectacular one on Christmas Eve at Pecora Nera.  And we enjoyed talking to the proprietors --in this neck of the woods, he or she is likely to be an expat who came on holiday and, understandably, just had to stay. 

True story:  one (rainy) night we drove ourselves into a ditch.  Within 45 seconds, the proprietor of a nearby restaurant runs out – not to worry, he has a four wheel drive and will get us out.  60 seconds later, a white van stops, the passenger jumps out with a strap that he fixed to our bumper.  Within no more than 5 minutes of our having arrived in the ditch, we were back on the road.

CR Lesson No 6:  Pura vida! 

Good meals, rampant nature and pleasant people aside, we were getting a little bored with the wet factor.  We played bridge and bananagrams at our burnished open-air tables with the house dog Congo and his hopeful friend, a rotweiller mix, and listened to the rain.  We watched our resident howler monkeys, hummingbirds and butterflies when the rain stopped.  No mosquitoes (we were told it was too wet for mosquitoes, go figure).  But we wanted sun!

A trip to the internet café was discouraging – no sun for another five days, at least.  In quiet desperation, I wrote to my friend Katharine, who was VRBOing on the Pacific coast.  “What’s the sun situation over there?” Word came back that there was sun in Guanacaste, on the Pacific coast.
Surveying the house we had rented just outside the Manzanillo for the second half of our stay: “Paradise Found”, we weren’t so sure we were ready for it.  “Paradise” is situated alongside another VRBO property “Dolphin Lodge” 200 or so meters up the dirt (now mud) road into the reserve, and wasn’t really very …convenient.  The description on VRBO had mentioned a  “creek” at the entrance to the reserve --  but where we come from “creeks” aren’t 3 meters across and shin deep.  It must be gorgeous there on a moonlit night, but when it rains you are essentially trapped in the dark.    We had paid for “Paradise”, but we were going to have to move on.

We had already been immensely lucky – Dan and I got out of Heathrow on one of only four flights that had left on the 19th.  But we were of one mind – time to press that luck further.  Time to find a place to stay on the west coast during the busiest season of the year, when not only snowbirds from America, but the Ticos all head for sunny Guanacaste.  We had avoided that side, as we had been told it was developed, American, and altogether too much like Florida, complete with gated communities.  So be it.  Sun.  What could be found at the last minute there? 

To be continued.  

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Can You Handle 18 – From 13 to 88?

No, it’s not a math class, it’s a family reunion.

Now I don’t know about you but just the term ‘family reunion’ sets off my gagging reflex. It’s not my family. I’m crazy about them, spread out as they are across Australia, Europe and the US. It’s the idea of an organised  get together –I’m thinking Disney or a cruiseship – that seems so ‘yuk’. Did you know that 34% of adult Americans (that’s 72 million people) have travelled to a reunion in the last 3 years. and that there is even a magazine that covers the industry?

But my family’s genome is decidedly contrarian and crowdphobic so our challenge was to find a location, undiscovered by Reunion Magazine that would be a good fit for 18 people ranging in age from 13 to 88 with a diverse set of tastes and interests.

Reader, we chose Belize. (Can you tell that I’m taking a Bronte class?) And here’s why.

It’s a tiny country in Central America (about the size of the state of Massachusetts, formerly known as British Honduras) where the official language is English. It has a small but diverse population and punches way above its weight in terms of what it has to offer: climate, world class Mayan antiquities, a magnificent Barrier Reef, over 1,000 islands, excellent fishing, diving and snorkeling, rivers for canoeing, and jungle and wildlife reserves for exploring.

So where did we go and why?

To the oldest jungle lodge resort in the country, Chaa Creek. What started as a farm owned by a young ‘counter-culture’ English couple in the 70s is now a ‘grown-up’ resort, still owned by the same interesting couple.  Chaa Creek describes itself as ‘wildly civilized’ and that actually sums it up nicely as the place is, at the same time, both supremely relaxed and highly sophisticated. Accommodations are tasteful and comfortable. The staff is capable and charming and there are a vast amount of things to see and do.

For our gang of 18, there was truly something for everyone. Just take our New Year’s Day activities as an example. Following a hard night at the Blue Angel Bar in San Ignacio for the younger crowd, a large group rose early and took off for Guatemala and the ancient ruins of Tikal. Another group, including my parents in their 80s, headed down the Macal River in canoes, finishing the day drinking beers on San Ignacio’s main street, while our 13 year old daughters spent the day getting beauty treatment at the Spa.

During our stay, we also rode mountain bikes, went horseback riding, lounged by the pool, visited several magnificent and deserted Mayan antiquities and went deep underground in caves to explore the Mayan underworld.  Chaa Creek even organized a special lunch for my sister’s birthday that looked like something out of an Isak Dinesen story, involving horses, champagne, dining  ‘au plein air’ and an ancient Mayan site.

And so, for you crowdphobic travelers who think that trying to get your family together is at best an exercise in herding cats and at worse, a commercial nightmare, head for Chaa Creek Lodge in Belize. There are 18 of us who are sure you’ll have a wonderful time.

Photo Credit: Leland Hedges - the view from his bedroom at Chaa Creek