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 cafĂ© 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.  

No comments:

Post a Comment