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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ready for some cooler climes we headed up into the hills of the Monteverde cloud forest and Lago Arenal.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The gardens of Zarcero were incredible. So much care is put into creating the amazing topiaries, they are truly works of art.
Stay tuned for Costa Rica Part 2, full of monkeys, more river fording, and the elusive quetzal!