Costa Rica Part I – The Monkey Trail and the Microcerveceria

Ah, Costa Rica. True to its reputation, the land of Pura Vida did not fail to impress. For three weeks we basked in the warm waters, surfed the waves, hiked the jungles, ooohed and ahhed at the amazing flora and fauna, and drove some epic roads, including several river crossings.

Where the road appears to end...

Where the road appears to end…

Many people go to Costa Rica with a return ticket home in two or three weeks and end up staying for 18 years. We met a bunch of them. Many were wearing what we like to call “skirpies”, a mix of a flowing skirt and loose pants that sort of ends up looking like a big bag hanging down from the waist with legs holes cut out. Men’s and women’s styles seem to be the same, they might even be one-size-fits-all, and the colors and patterns are almost always very bright and busy. You know the ones I’m talking about. Anyway, there’s a reason that people get sucked into the black hole of Costa Rica, and it’s not the skirpies. It’s la pura vida. Unlike most of the rest of Central America, Costa Rica is still very rich in its natural habitat. While agriculture is abundant in some areas, and of course necessary to feed the inhabitants, huge swaths of the country have been preserved as National Parks and private reserves. This means that Costa Rica has managed to maintain an incredible amount of biodiversity. Combine that with gorgeous coastlines, jungle, lakes, and mountains and you’ve got the recipe for a land of natural beauty where people forget to go back home.

The allure of Costa Rica means that it’s easy to base much (or in many places all) of the economy of tourism. This means that there are lots of gringoes (primarily Americans) around and the prices are generally about the same as the US, even higher in some cases. We were able to offset the higher costs by free camping almost every night, which is easy just about anywhere in Costa Rica.

We happened to make it across the border from Nicaragua about an hour before the Costa Rica – Netherland World Cup Quarterfinals game. We immediately noticed an abundance of Costa Rica flags draped over the cars, balloons and decorations at all of the restaurants and little roadside “sodas”, red t-shirts or striped jerseys, and a buzz in the air. We quickly found a decked-out local bar along the side of the road and squeezed into the last open table in the corner. Immediately a high school brass band in the corner started playing, nearly causing pain with the sheer volume of their music. As the game started several patrons pulled out their small vuvuzelas and blew a few happy notes. Everyone cheered at each little tiny thing that went in the Costa Rican team’s favor. Yay he headed the ball the right way, yay, he told the ref off for a missed foul call! And of course booed loudly at anything unfavorable. It was hot in that bar, we were all dripping with sweat, which made the cold beers even more welcome. As the beers went down the cheering and vuvuzelas got louder and more frequent. By the end of the tense 0-0 game there was such a racket filling the bar that we could scarcely hear ourselves think. And somehow it got even louder when Costa Rica scored in the shootout. Then that sad moment came when the Netherlands scored the winning shot and everyone’s faces dropped and the bar went quiet. Despite the loss it was a great way to start our time in Costa Rica.

We spent our first few nights near the top of the Nicoya Peninsula enjoying the waves.

Our first of many great free camping spots on the beach.

Our first of many great free camping spots on the beach. Playa Avellana

Then we decided to drive all the way down the peninsula, along a rough road that is known as The Monkey Trail. After leaving the pavement, we soon came to our first real river crossing. We had driven through small streams and large puddles before, but this was a wide, flowing river. We walked it and found at the deepest it only came up to our knees and had a solid rocky bottom. So we drove across, no problem. Of course we were both grinning like little kids when we reached the other side.

Gathering our nerves for our first major river crossing.

Gathering our nerves for our first major river crossing.

The Monkey Trail was rough and steep, but no worse than anything else we’ve done and the beautiful views, the jungle, and the monkeys running along the telephone wires made it even more fun. Each day of driving ended in another beautiful free camping spot on the beach all to ourselves.

Have van, will camp, preferably by beach.

Have van, will camp. Prefer beaches with good swimming and surfable waves.

View out the sliding door of Playa Islita.

View out the sliding door at Playa Islita.

Hobie tends to settle right in to every awesome camp spot we find.

Hobie tends to settle right in to every awesome camp spot we find.

Emily asked for a coconut and Tim turned into a monkey.

Emily asked for a coconut and Tim turned into a monkey.

Deliciously fresh coconut water.

Deliciously fresh coconut water.

Playa Islita at dusk.

Playa Islita at dusk.

Playa Islita at dusk.

Playa Islita at dusk.

We did a few more river crossings as we made our way down the peninsula, but there hadn’t been much rain, so they were all shallow and easy.

Our second river crossing was followed by a narrow, rough, jungle road. Just what Chimera likes!

Our second river crossing was followed by a narrow, rough, jungle road. Just what Chimera likes!

As we neared the end of the Nicoya peninsula we were following what looked like the main road on the map, which was also the way our GPS routed us. Suddenly the road appeared to end on the beach, but we saw that there were tire tracks that continued on down the sand. We’d done some beach driving before so we followed the tracks for a ways until we noticed that the tide was coming up and the beach was getting pretty narrow, so we quickly retreated. We thought perhaps we should try another way and just as we turned around a friendly Tico came strolling down the road and told us that this was the best road, along the beach, and just wait for an hour and the tide would turn. So we sat and drank a beer, then followed the tracks onto the sand. We ended up driving along the beach for 4 or 5 kilometers, usually following tracks, and mostly in hard sand. Just when we were nearing the turn back to a dirt road we nearly got stuck in a pile of loose pebbles, only barely making it out by gunning the engine.

Where the road appears to end...

Where the road appears to end…

...continuation of the "road" along the beach. We were amazed that our GPS took us this way.

…continuation of the “road” along the beach. We were amazed that our GPS took us this way.

Here's one for Jevon!

Here’s one for Jevon!

Beach road

Beach road

Beach road curling around the rocky point.

Beach road curling around the rocky point.

Near the end of the beach road we had to drive over some deep piles of pebbles, which we quickly bogged down in and only barely managed to escape from.

Near the end of the beach road we had to drive over some deep piles of pebbles, which we quickly bogged down in and only barely managed to escape from.

We beach bummed it for a few more days, enjoying the great views and warm waters. In several different places that we camped we were invaded by hermit crabs at night. The whole ground would suddenly start moving as they jerkily shuffled along.

Hermit crab carpet!

Hermit crab carpet!

Hobie's food bowl was stalked by this colorful big daddy crab.

Hobie’s food bowl was stalked by this colorful big daddy crab.

Yeah, that's a big tree.

Yeah, that’s a big tree.

This awesome giant tree was made up tons of smaller trunks, which each seem to start from the top as vines curling down.

This awesome giant tree was made up tons of smaller trunks, which each seem to start from the top as vines creeping down.

Thunderstorm and moon from another beautiful beach campsite.

Thunderstorm and moon from another beautiful beach campsite.

Ready for some cooler climes we headed up into the hills of the Monteverde cloud forest and Lago Arenal.

Heading into the hills. This photo hardly conveys the steep angle that we climbed in granny gear.

Heading into the hills. This photo hardly conveys the steep angle that we climbed in granny gear.

Monteverde Cloud Forest

Monteverde Cloud Forest

We found a great place to camp next to a lodge that had a big garden and all sorts of animals around. Two two guinea hens who came to steal Hobie's food.

We found a great place to camp next to a lodge that had a big garden and all sorts of animals around. Two guinea hens came to steal Hobie’s food.

Hobie wanted to make some new friends but they weren't so sure.

Hobie wanted to make some new friends but they weren’t so sure.

Always ready for a new adventure we attempted to drive on the back road from Monteverde to Volcán Arenal. We had read that there was a sketchy bridge over the first river, then no bridge on the second river, and it had been raining pretty hard so we had our doubts. The drive started out steep, rocky, muddy, and foggy, but easy enough. When we came to the first bridge our first reaction was “no way are we driving over that!” The bridge was made from two giant tree trunks with planks on top, just wide enough for most vehicles. If the wood was new then it would have been no problem, but the bridge was clearly old, and had been subjected to the rain and humidity for a long time, so the wood was in rough shape. Not to mention that it was leaning slightly to one side. We walked across, looked underneath, jumped up and down on it (and felt it sway), then decided to ask a local. We walked across the road to a man shoeing a horse and asked about the quality of the bridge. His response was that the bridge is fine, no problem, but the next river is impassable, swollen with too much rain. So we turned around and headed the long way around Lago Arenal.

Rolling green hills on the way to Lago Arenal.

Rolling green hills on the way to Lago Arenal.

An unusually smooth section of road.

An unusually smooth section of road.

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Inspecting the questionable bridge.

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On the way to Lago Arenal.

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Yes, yes, yes!

We made our way along the lovely lake shore and when we were just about ready to find a place to pull off for the evening and crack a beer we saw a sign that said Microcerveceria. A microbrewery! After months of drinking mostly the typical local lagers with little flavor we thoroughly enjoyed our Pale Ales and Nut Browns and ended up camping just down the road at the edge of the lake so we could return for dinner and more beer.

Our lovely and very windy camp spot at Lago Arenal near the microbrewery.

Our lovely and very windy camp spot at Lago Arenal near the microbrewery.

Tim enjoying a delicious pale ale at Lago Arenal Microbrewery.

Tim enjoying a delicious pale ale at Lago Arenal Microbrewery.

Microcerveceria!

Microcerveceria!

We drove the lush jungle road almost all the way around the lake, stopping at a delicious German bakery, soaking in the thermal river with tons of locals on the flank of Volcán Arenal, and camping in a great spot on the edge of the lake with an amazing view of the volcano.

Lago Arenal

Lago Arenal

Our first glimpse of Volcán Arenal through the clouds.

Our first glimpse of Volcán Arenal through the clouds.

Jungle road

Jungle road

Volcán Arenal

Volcán Arenal

Kingfisher on Lago Arenal.

Kingfisher on Lago Arenal.

Can you spot the cute little green van?

Great camp spot, Lago Arenal.

Van family + awesome old stump + lake + volcano = la pura vida

Van family + awesome old stump + lake + volcano = pura vida

Our next destination was the small town of Zarcero, known for it’s amazing topiary gardens, so we headed down the winding highway. Pretty soon Mandy (our GPS) was telling us to turn off the highway onto what looked like a residential road. We assumed it was a shortcut and followed her directions, Mandy is usually pretty reliable, but before long the pavement ended and we were climbing a steep, rocky hill. We decided to keep going (always an adventure!), even though evening was setting in, but the road just kept getting worse and worse and the fog thicker. Before long we were slowly crawling over huge rocks and ruts in four-wheel drive, barely able to see the cows in the foggy pastures along the sides of the road. We cursed Mandy as we scraped the skid rails again and again, but we had to admit it was very beautiful way up in the misty hills. We only passed a few other cars and people, all of whom stared at us open-mouthed, which we’re pretty used to by now.

Curious cows in the mist.

Curious cows in the mist.

When we finally made it to Zarcero it was dark and we had no idea where to camp for the night. We drove down the rural farm roads looking for some place where we could tuck away out of sight, but it was all fenced ranch land. Finally we drove up a dark dirt road and came to a dairy farm (lechería). As we pulled in some men and children came out of the small house and stared at us, so we asked if they knew where we could park for the night and they eagerly told us to camp right there. We were very grateful and pulled up alongside the barn. The kind men and children came over to talk to us for a while, asking all sorts of questions about the US and our travels. They clearly didn’t see gringos very often, especially not in overlanding rigs. We fell asleep to cold mountain air thick with the scent of cows.

Our first (and so far only) time camping on a dairy farm. The scent was very rich.

Our first (and so far only) time camping on a dairy farm. The scent was very rich.

Hobie loved the green hills.

Hobie loved the green hills.

Lechería camp spot.

Lechería

The gardens of Zarcero were incredible. So much care is put into creating the amazing topiaries, they are truly works of art.

The amazing topiary gardens in the Zarcero town square.

The amazing topiary gardens in the Zarcero town square.

Emily and Hobie in the hedges.

Emily and Hobie in the hedges.

The master gardener/topiary artist.

The master gardener/topiary artist.

Stay tuned for Costa Rica Part 2, full of monkeys, more river fording, and the elusive quetzal!

6 thoughts on “Costa Rica Part I – The Monkey Trail and the Microcerveceria

  1. Hey guy, hope all is well. We met up in El Zonte a few weeks back. Glad to see you are enjoying the adventure. I’m leaving Nica for Costa Rica tomorrow. When are you thinking about crossing the Darien – I need a container buddy :)

    • Steve, nice to hear from you! We actually loaded up the van today to ship this weekend. The three of us are getting on a sailboat bright and early tomorrow morning to set sail for Cartagena. Good luck with the shipping process, let us know if you need any advice or information about it. Hopefully we’ll meet up again down the road. Safe travels.

  2. Hola Tim and Emily,
    Me gustan mucho las escenas de Costa Rica. Que playas maravillosas. Thank you so much for sharing your adventure. Your van is so intrepid. I need to christen mine. I hope to spend some time in Utah in September Vanagon camping. There is a neat couple that live between here and Chile (on the Chilean side of Lake Argentina). If you are going to be in that proximity in the fall, I should get you two in touch. She, Linde Waidhofer, is a world class photographer and knows the National Parks there very well. He, Lito Tejado Flores, among other things is a well known mountain climber and could tell you tales of Mount Fitz Roy.
    vaya linda, Tia Juanita

  3. Tim you make a great monkey!!! Hope the coconuts were worth the climb, And to both of you, you take terrific pictures and write terrific narrative., We love you lots and wish you many days/weeks/months of happy and river-free-crossings travels.

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