Tyres and Teeth

A garage in Costa Rica

I could not celebrate Costa Rica week here on Taraji Blue withour re-sharing this blog post. First written and shared back in May 2011 it’s a tale of pure stupidity, naivety and sheer determination… and it is one of my favourites…

Well I never knew there was any such place where one could have their tyres repaired and their teeth whitened in Costa Rica – less so did I ever imagine we’d end up there! This is a tale of jeopardy, bad luck and pure stupidity.

Lets start with the stupidity….in one of the most remote places in Costa Rica,  30k from the nearest village, we parked our car for three nights whilst we took a boat to Tortuguero and promptly but accidentally left the lights on. On our return the battery was inevitably dead. Thus followed 2 hours of phone calls and negotiation with local farm workers and coach drivers to procure the necessary battery, spanner and jump leads.  We tried the jump leads first, but the battery was too dead to respond, we so watched as the last tourists departed the car park and drove off into the distance. In very broken Spanish, and using a free Daily Mail Spanish guide, we half explained our predicament to locals with lots of pointing, arm waving, noise mimickery and gesticulation. This, and the charms of a local woman, persuaded one begrudged boyfriend to return to his boat and lend us his battery to trick the car into starting. With lots of pouting and huffing, we got the battery started, showering praise, money and thanks on the locals who helped.

Now for the bad luck…Almost three hours later we were well on our way, daring not to stop, switch the engine off or use air con for fear of draining the charging battery. We bounced along the dust track, eager to make up up lost time with a long journey ahead. Not having the required tools to tighten the battery bolts to the car, every bounce, bump and necessary serve lurched my heart back into my mouth in fear of the battery bouncing loose of its connections, rendering us back to square one.

After a brief pause to lift the bonnet and check the battery was ok, we continued on our way and made it 2.5 hours later to the town of Guapiles. We were feeling much better in ourselves, and had started to enjoy the attention from the locals who, for the last half hour, had been running alongside the vehicle, shouting and waving. We’d assumed this was curiosity and waved back, smiling. It was not until we pulled up at the lights in Guapiles that a local shouted to us in English that we had a puncture. I cannot repeat what language I bestowed on our car, but suffice to say it was far from complimentary. We were quite literally now at the end of the road and as far as we could go without switching the engine off. We turned around and made our way back to the many garages lining the road between Guapiles and Cariari, opting, in our haze, to choose one that specialised in tyres and dentistry! Having little option, and enjoying the quirkiness of the situation, we pulled in, dragged out our Daily Mail Spanish Language guide from the glove box and tried to explain our predicament. Within two minutes the car was ramped, and in another 5, the tyre fixed and replaced – all for the bargain price of £1.00. It did make me wonder whether their dentistry was of an equivalent price range and quality and I was almost tempted to try the whitening. Alas, time was of the essence and we’d lost about 4 hours by this point and faced the danger of travelling on mountainous roads in the pitch black – a big no, no. So onwards we pressed…

Into jeopardy i.e right into rush hour in San Jose. 1 hour spent in traffic, going no-where with nothing to do but helplessly watch the sun descend behind the mountainous horizon. We were now approximately 5 hours behind schedule and facing the prospect of driving toward Arenal Volcano in the dead of night.

Escaping the traffic, we eventually headed onto the Pan American highway and put our foot down, eager to make up the miles. This is easier said than done because we faced two new obstacles…..a rapidly emptying petrol tank and locals wandering the roads with no illumination what so ever. I felt like a blind man trying to dodge bullets.  I quickly turned the sat nav’s attention to local petrol stations, all of which seemed to be on the opposite side of an impassable road, or taking us way off track. We therefore settled for one in a local town off Highway 1, which the sat nav said was 1.7k away. This is where and how my respect for sat nav’s ended. It either recognised the day we’d had and wanted to inject some false hope into a futile situation or it downright lied to add fuel to the fire. 40 minutes later, with the engine coughing on sand, we were high in the hills surrounding Highway 1, on roads with perilous turns, severe drops and no signage, facing local drivers who were using the roads as a rally track with no regard for lost, angry and defeated tourists. It was the type of road we’d avoid in the daytime, never mind at 7pm at night. We had little option than to keep going, pulses racing, tears forming and hope sinking to new levels.

We eventually made it into a town and were directed round and round one way systems looking for a petrol station that did not seem to exist. At this point the sat nav proudly announced we’d arrived at our destination – it’d sent us to a bus station!  Dejected and patience at an all time low, we asked the locals for help, and were sent bouncing and stuttering into the next village where, to our immense relief we found a petrol station which was open. We were now at least 6 hours behind schedule and had taken a significant de-tour off track to get to the petrol station.

We did eventually reach our destination late that night, but were many hours later than expected and shattered and weakened from the journey. Thankfully, the owner of the accommodation had waited up for us and would honour our late arrival with a cold beer and soft bed.

It’s a day and a journey we can now look back on and laugh at. We can also learn from it, but will hopefully never have to repeat it!

Additional adventures from our time in Costa Rica are available in our Costa Rican travel blog. We also have an online Costa Rican photo gallery.

Tortuguero – a cost effective and beautiful way to visit

Tortuguero boat pier

Tortuguero is not overly promoted within Costa Rican travel guides – and for this reason, a lot of people who travel there do so on a fly in package that can cost hundreds of dollars a night …per person!

When reseraching Costa Rica we were enticed by the brief description of Tortuguero presented – that of a natural and unspoilt water world which offers a seducing array of wildlife and fauna. There was the promise of boat trips along the canals to spot wildlife such as sloth, monkeys, snakes, iguanas and jaguars. There was the option of night walks on the beaches to see turtles laying eggs or the eggs hatching (seasonal) and primary rainforest to explore.  I was seduced by the idea of being in such a place where I could connect with nature in a way like never before and I was desperate to find a way to visit without succumbing to spa style hotels and re-mortgaging the house.

The main obstacle for visitors is the fact that there is no road entry, but this only made it more alluring to me. Unfortunately our research repeatedly threw up lots of costly fly in packages at 4/5* hotel complexes which, to me, seemed a little out of kilter with the place itself. Few guide books (if any we came across) even suggested independent travel. We therefore took to online forums, keen to ascertain if and how independent travel would be possible. That’s when we stumbled across the Tortuguero village website – a little gem which offered insight into the local accommodation and offered details of how to get there for independent travellers. One look the price of the boat journey ($7) and the accommodation and guiding on offer at the fabulous Casa Marbella ($55 a night for a superior room facing the river) and we decided it was a no brainer – we could get there under our own steam, stay in an amazingly friendly local B&B, choose our own accommodation and activities  and save hundreds of pounds off the price of  a fly in package! We booked it there and then. It was absolutely the right decision.

We drove to LaPavona (Carairi) from Arenal – a journey we expected to take about 5 hours. We allowed ourselves a window of a few extra hours too, wanting to ensure that we arrived in plenty time to make the 4pm boat. The directions provided on the  Tortuguero village website are a little unorthadox, but incredibly useful but they certainly do the trick … Because you are travelling through the middle of no-where, the directions rely on an accurate vehicle mileometer (ours was not!) and navigation by local stores and handpainted signs along the way.  Navigating in this way, it took us a couple of hours to travel from Guapiles to LaPavova, with the satnat offering little reassurance beyond Cariari.

It is also appropriate to highlight that the directions offered on the village website have not been updated in a wee while – so;

a) when you are asked to reset your mileometer at Cariari petrol station, be aware they now have two petrol stations, one before and one after the bridge – reset your mileometer at the second one.

b) when you are coming back through Cariari on your return journey, be aware that the main street is one way (and not signposted as such!)

c) The first mileage stated is 18 miles – we found it was a few miles less than this. If you hit the crossroads you have gone too far

d) When you arrive at the end of the road (quite literally) there is what looks like a car park and an outbuilding with tourist signange on it for tortuguero. Ignore this and drive past until you can drive no more – then you will see a selection of car ports on your right and this is La Pavona.

e) The rates for car parking (per night) are cheaper in the offseason (I think we paid $5 a night for secure parking). Many of the staff at the farm speak only spanish, but there is one young lady who speaks excellent English (The relevancy of this will become clear in a subsequent post!)

g) Allow yourself plenty time for the journey – the mileage as described on the directions might appear small, but the roads (if one can call them that) are in a terrible state. I cannot for one minute understand why car hire companies ban people from taking their cars to Monteverde but allow them to travel here – there is pothole after pothole. Our 4×4 had significant clearance, but we’d often find one side of the vehicle at a significant angle as we bounced from hole to hole.

h) If you are contemplating this journey, it also helps to know that LaPavona (where you get the boat) is the name of the farm and not a village, so you cannot find it on a satnav by name alone (trust me, I tried!).

We arrived a little battered and bruised from the journey, but extremely excited. We found ourselves in an amazing open sided building from which the most enticing smells of traditional food were wafting. We offloaded our luggage from the vehicle and settled down for a cold beer.

I had all kinds of ideas in my head about what LaPavona would be like, and I laugh to myself now when reflecting on it. I imagined a restaurant on a traditional seaside pier where we’d sip a cup of coffee over a nice meal, watching boats leave and arrive.  In actual fact, the pier is a gentle slope of rubble from a raised grass embankment off a gravel driveway and the only boats that come and go are the timetabled ones – three or so times a day.

The boats depart once the public bus arrives, so shortly after 4pm we opted for the ClicClic boat from Lapavona (Cariari) and piled our (sensible, light and soft sided!) luggage onto an open sided long boat which rocked and rolled as passenger after passenger climbed aboard. Little did I know I was about to embark on one of the best boat trips in the world.

The boat trip took over 1.5 hours and stops as required to pick up and drop off locals at villages on route. The natural canals through which we travelled were narrow and flanked by primary rainforest. We dodged flotsam and jetsom in the waterways, meandered around tight bends and drove through hanging vines.  It is incredibly difficult to describe just how amazingly beautiful the boat trip was. We were travelling through some of the most pristine forest in the world, miles from anywhere, heading to an exotic island filled with diverse wildlife. We scanned the water for otters, caimens and capybaras and were cooled by the spray from the speeding boat. Everywhere we looked tarzan style environments filled our vision. Trees seemed greener and larger than ever before. The water looked silken and undisturbed. I grew very envious of the local villagers living in such a paradise. However one thought kept ringing around my head – why on earth would you fly in and miss this incredible boat trip? Why?! I swear I would go back to Costa Rica if only to take this boat trip. In fact, when it came to the end of our three nights in Tortuguero, I desperately did not want to leave but I was so, so, so excited about the trip back along the canals. I pretty much ran to the pier and grabbed a front seat as soon as the boat arrived and sat there in the baking sun, smile on my face, $7 in hand….waiting.

The benefits of travelling to Costa Rica in the green season

A Vista Above the Clouds

I was initially very reserved about travelling to Costa Rica in the green (i.e rainy) season  – Not that we had a choice, as it came about as a result of a last minute planning.  From my research on the internet and from verbalised experiences of friends of friends I was informed to expect torrential downpours for pretty much our entire visit. I therefore went a little crazy, purchasing new lightweight waterproof coats, trousers, hiking boots and even bought waterproof hiking gaiters. I expected the worst and was, therefore, utterly delighted when it turned out that the green season is one of the best times to travel…here’s why:

  1. Everywhere we went we benefited from much cheaper rates – allowing us to visit and stay at some places that might otherwise been our of our financial limit
  2. Everywhere was much less busy than expected – restaurants, hotels, attractions etc It meant that we had an opportunity to experience Costa Rica as it is meant to be – in quiet contemplation of the forests, allowing the sounds of the rainforest to lull you to sleep, being woken by the sun rising opposed to noisy neighbours. Bliss!
  3. If you are prepared to get up and out early you can ‘miss’ the rain. For example, we often were out and about, hiking in the rainforest by 7am. This allowed a blissful (and cool) 5 or so hours of hiking before the afternoon rains came. This was especially true of Moneteverde Cloud Forest, where an early start meant we were one of the first few into the reserve, and were able to pretty much have the forest to ourselves before the afternoon storms. Once the rains hit, we were pretty much ready for a rest anyway, so we’d head back to our cabin in the forest for lunch during the rains and emerge again mid afternoon once the weather had cleared.
  4. There is a remarkable absence of other tourists. In the Selvatura Park, Santa Elena, we were seemingly the only tourists on the entire canopy tour and on the sky tram. We were allowed to wander freely and as a result, had the huge swing bridge to ourselves. What’s more, the absence of other tourists on the canopy tour meant the bridges were steady and provided a great opportunity to observe the rainforest and take photographs of the rainforest canopy completely undisturbed. On one occasion, we even sat down in the middle of the bridge for refreshment, gently swinging in the breeze and watching the wildlife in the treetops beneath us.
  5. It was quiet – oh so quiet! The overwhelming feeling was one of tranquillity and peace with nature.
  6. Reservations were not required for major attractions. In peak season you’d normally have to book well ahead for sky trams / walks, and for entry or tours into reservations. But the green season meant that we had complete flexibility for our itinerary – we could turn up to whatever, whenever the mood took us and linger for as long as we liked.
  7. Do not underestimate the experience of being in the rainforest in the rain – it’s what it is supposed to be like! What’s more, the rain brings out a plethora of wildlife that you might not normally see. For example, whilst hiking around Monteverde Cloud Forest in the rain, we were delighted and flabbergasted to see crabs darting beneath our feet. You had to watch where you were stepping to ensure you did not crush them. We were also informed that in some rainforests of Costa Rica, there are also turtles in the rainforest!
  8. It’s cooler (Thank goodness!). I cannot imagine what the heat and humidity would be like in the height of the summer!
  9. The afternoon rains often clear the clouds for the evening, providing some amazing star gazing opportunities in the evening. When staying in Arenal, we spent most nights sitting outside under the starts with a cold beer in hand, revelling in the cool breeze and watching the milky way overhead.
  10. Evening storms are often rain free, providing a spectacular lightning display. Whilst staying in Arenal, we  choose our accommodation specifically so we could have an uninterrupted view of the volcano – the lightening storms each evening behind the volcano turned the mountain into a eerie and stunningly beautiful silhouette.
  11. It does not rain half as much as you might expect!
Photos from our trip are available in our Costa Rica photo gallery.

A Costa Rican Itinerary

Rainforest is reflected on the silent waters of one of Tortugeuro's many water channels.

I expected little but fell head over heels in love with the Costa Rica. So much so, that I had some ‘re-integration’ issues returning back to ‘normal life’ after immersion in such a naturally beautiful and bewildering country.

The guide books do a very good job of managing down your expectations about the wildlife you’ll encounter and the extreme beauty of the country. This serves only to ensure that you are totally blown away when you start exploring the paths  that few tourists travel in such a diverse and welcoming country.

We had less than two weeks in Costa Rica – we weren’t supposed to be there. We flew in from Florida after NASA rescheduled the launch of Atlantis, STS-135. It was a last minute decision, and one that meant we had very little time to plan and research the country as thoroughly as usual. We had one Saturday afternoon to cancel all Florida plans and then schedule and book our trip to Costa Rica. As usual, we turned to trip advisor for advice and inspiration, grabbed our atlas and decided on the following itinerary:

  • Three nights in Monteverde Cloud Forest
  • Three nights at Arenal
  • Three nights in Tortuguero
  • Two nights in Santa Clara in the jungle
  • One night in a suburb of San Jose before our flight home.

Each part of our trip will be chronicled in subsequent blogs.

We booked it all independently and hired a 4×4 to travel around. Our aim was to explore the country independently, seeing a diverse range of ecosystems and wildlife in the cheapest way possible. Due to last minute planning, we ended up travelling in the rainy season which I was initially very concerned about, but needn’t have been (a separate blog on this will follow) . I wouldn’t change a thing about the itinerary, the accommodation we stayed in or the places we visited. I was extremely glad that we took enough time to enjoy each place we stayed in, opposed to feeling like we had to rush from place to place. This gave us the luxury to stop when we wanted, wander off the beaten track when the compulsion took us, and take time to explore the less obvious tourist spots and really ‘get under the skin’ of the country.

There were many, many highlights of the trip, here’s a few of my favourites:

  • Zip wiring at 40mph, 300feet above the Arenal rainforest with a tremendous view of Arenal Volcano.
  • Being brave enough to hike around, and stay around, the Arenal Volcano (I am PETRIFIED of volcanos and this one was very active until recently)
  • Watching a green sea turtle lay her eggs in the dead of night on Tortuguero’s beaches ( I cried like a baby!)
  • Kayaking the waterways of Tortuguero on our own, getting terrorised by a huge bee, finding birds, lizards and monkeys in the trees and revelling in both the sounds and silence of the rainforest
  • Exploring the Monteverde cloud forest seemingly on our own -there is nothing quite like having a forest almost to yourself
  • Staying in a treehouse in the jungle – we hiked to some waterpools and swam under the sheltered canopy of the forest, watched an exotic bird display to attract a mate, and spent a day picnicking in the treetops watching the sloths and birds with a cold beer in hand
  • Driving the 4×4 around the gravel tracks of Arenal volcano, drifting corners and winding round tight bends, swerving to avoid snakes
  • Watching the Milky Way emerge overhead of Arenal Volcano at midnight, celebrating 9 years of marriage with a whisky in hand and my fantastic hubby by my side.
It really is an awe inspiring country which is very accessible and very enjoyable to travel in. Go, explore! I defy you not to love it.

Reviewing Los Pinos, Monteverde

Cabin no. 12 at Los Pinos, Moneteverde, Costa Rica

I am so glad we chose to stay here, especially after seeing some of the other hotel accommodations in Moneteverde. Not that there is anything wrong with the other accommodations – quite the opposite! There is a fabulous array of boutique hotels and spas, friendly hostels and B&Bs run by locals, but to me, some of the larger hotels  look a little grandiose for a hilltop village surrounded by a cloud forest. In contrast, I found our cabin (no.12 / standard cabin) at Los Pinos to be a perfect blend of rustic comfort in an absolutely beautiful and secluded location.

Cabin 12 was located at the bottom of a dirt track which was just about big enough for our 4×4 to fit through. We were the last in a row of 4 cabins, and as such enjoyed complete seclusion and tranquillity. Adjacent to our cabin was the start of one of the few hiking trails at Los Pinos, so we were situated right on the fringe of the rainforest and benefited from varied and unexpected wildlife sightings right from our bedroom and kitchen window – including a family of raccoons! During our entire 4 day stay, no humans wandered by our cabin, and we saw just 5 of the other guests from Los Pinos when wandering around the beautiful grounds and plantation.

The wildlife in the ground of Los Pinos was fantastic. During out stay we saw:

  • Raccoons
  • Hummingbirds
  • Keel-Billed Motmots
  • Beetles
  • Butterflies
  • Agoutis
  • Vultures
  • Hawk
  • and at night, our cabin was surrounded with hundreads of fireflies – like tealights in the forest they danced around us and light out path through the grounds to the village.
Photos of Los Pinos and Moneteverde are available in our Costa Rica photo gallery.

We benefited from the most amazing decking area adjacent to our cabin, which was elevated above ground level, protruding into the trees. It was a great spot for hummingbirds which were attracted to the beautiful orchids and other flowering plants beside our cabin – it was a great opportunity to take pictures of them in the wild opposed to baiting them with nectar feeders. We often found ourselves enticed to come back t the cabin after a strenuous morning hiking, revelling in the chance to relax on the patio furniture and cook a meal from all the fresh (free!) ingredients gathered from the on-site fruit, herb and vegetable plantation.

Each cabin has its own garden area – some are filled with beautiful tropical flowers, others benefit from covered decking and porch areas, meaning you can sit outside and enjoy uninterrupted views of the wild afternoon storms with a hot cup of Costa Rican Coffee in hand. Each cabin looked as inviting as the next.

For the very reasonable price we paid (and despite very favourable reviews) I expected much less from the cabins. People warned of their rustic nature – but I found them utterly charming and more than fit for purpose. You get a lot of bang for your buck here. The cabins are extremely comfortable (though don’t throw yourselves down on the sofas as they are a little threadbare and you might end up getting prodded by a spring or two 🙂 ) The beds were extremely comfortable – I slept like a log and woke early every morning, refreshed and excited to face the day. The bedrooms also had a programmable safe, satellite TV and open wardrobes.

The cabin was surrounded with picture windows on two sides, offering you amazingly private views of the forest whilst you’re having your breakfast / supper. We had a private driveway (more on this later), and the most fabulous warm and clean powerful showers which were a godsend for the early morning and just the thing for easing aching muscles after a day’s hiking (don’t take these showers for granted – many places in Costa Rica suffer from water pressure).

The kitchen was wonderfully appointed – there were so many gadgets and gizmos that I had no idea what some of them were for. Crucially there was a coffee maker, which meant you could enjoy your own fresh Costa Rican coffee whenever you wanted. There was also a microwave and a two burner stove. There was also a fridge and a small freezer compartment – we often bought supplies from the supermarket in Santa Elena and then stocked up our fridge for packed lunches, breakfasts and dinners (and cold beers!). They also provided kitchen towels, washing up liquid, wine glasses, plates, bowls etc and a toaster oven.

Also provided was a much needed (!) dehumidifier.  This we could not have done without -it was working to maximum capacity most of the time. We found ourselves having to empty it after a few hours of it running – the humidity was incredible. I have never experienced anything like it. You step outdoors and instantly you are drenched in your own sweat – and that’s the way you stay until you retire indoors once more. That said, the cabin was never uncomfortable, and it cooled down tremendously in the evening, allowing for an excellent night’s sleep.

The drive to cabin 12 was a challenge in itself! It was incredibly steep (and aimed straight at the cabin’s front door!). It tested driver skill, the car’s brakes and driver willpower. However, getting the 4×4 down the driveway was nothing compared to getting it out again! There was no room to turn our intermediate sized 4×4 round next to the cabin, nor beyond it, so the driver was required to reverse up an incredibly steep slope, and then continue reversing along the very windy and narrow dirt track all the way to reception. The first time we did so, we arrived at reception somewhat camouflaged having brought most of the surrounding foliage with us. But we got better at it over time 🙂

I’d recommend taking time to wander around the grounds during your stay – they are beautifully planted and full of orchids, palm trees and even pineapple plants.

As touched on before, Los Pinos has its own plantation and, as guests, you are allowed to wander freely through the poly tunnels to pick your own produce. We gathered handfuls of fresh basil and rosemary to cook up a pasta supper. Also on offer was tomatoes, lettuce, strawberries, chives, mint, sage, parsley, coriander etc. It was fantastic fresh produce from the heart of the forest.

Los Pinos perfectly located for all local attractions. Within walking distance you have an ATM, bakery, tourist office (where you can book sky tram etc), a butterfly farm, Johnny’s Pizzeria (nice) and the incredible and romantic Chimera restaurant (latin infused tapas) – where we had one of the most incredible meals ever (think seabass in mango and papaya sauce, amazingly composed soups and slow cooked pork with white beans and caramelised onions). A little further afield (5 mins drive) is the the reptile and orchid centre, the centre of Santa Elena with its supermarket and treetop bar and Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. About 15 mins drive away is the Selvatura Park.

We thought Los Pinos was a perfect place to relax, we wholly enjoyed our stay there and would not hesitate in returning – it is a gem! Visit the LosPinos website for further information.