Archive for Costa Rica

Why do people go wild when they travel?

When recalling a night spent in Cusco, Peru while I was travelling recently, I couldn’t help but think “wow I did some risky stuff when I travelled”. That time in particular, I was probably quite lucky that nothing went wrong. After reading this article on SMH, it reminded me again of some of those situations.

I can’t relate to the parts about drugs, but this part of the article did hit home – “People ride on the roofs of buses because it’s fun, and nothing will go wrong. Probably. They take rides in dodgy boats, because what choice do you have? They hang out of train doorways, they cling to the back of taxis. They do all these things that they wouldn’t do at home because overseas you can, and you want to, so you do.”

The night in Cusco aside, I can think of two times where I took risks because I found myself in a situation where I didn’t have much other choice.

The first was in Venezuela, towards the end of 2011. I had been travelling with a friend, but was on my own again after we wanted to see different things, and was heading for Choroni on the Caribbean coast. I had booked a bus ticket from Merida to Maracay, where I planned to change to another bus to Choroni. When I arrived at the bus terminal in Merida, the ATMs weren’t working. I was running low on cash, and had been told that there weren’t ATMs in Chorini, but wasn’t too worried as Maracay was a much bigger city. I figured there would an ATM at the terminal there.

The long distance bus trip went smoothly, despite the freezing aircon on Venezuelan buses, and I arrived in Maracay early in the morning. The first thing on my “to do” list was an ATM search, but after a decent time spent wandering around, I couldn’t find one in the terminal. Eventually, I approached a woman who worked at one of the bus company ticket offices. When telling this story, I often credit the Spanish skills I built up for saving me in this situation, as she couldn’t speak any English.

I explained that I needed to get a bus to Chorini, but needed to go to an ATM first to pay for my hotel. Her fist suggestion was taking a taxi to Chorini, which was much faster than the bus, and they could drive me to an ATM first. I didn’t want to pay for a taxi, as the bus was about one tenth of the cost. Her next idea was storing my bag in her office, while she took a taxi with me to the city centre to go to an ATM. After locking my bag in her office, my thoughts went to if I would ever see it again, while she was questioning me on whether I had enough money to pay for the cab. I assured her that I did, and she flagged one down.

Crossing my fingers and hoping for the best, we made small talk during the short trip to the centre. When we got there, she made the taxi wait, and stood guard while I withdrew money. Despite having no idea where I was, the trip back to the bus terminal seemed slightly more relaxing. Her questions revolved around whether I was planning to come back to Venezuela, while I took comfort in the fact that it seemed like we were heading in the direction we came from.

When we arrived back at the terminal, she got my bag and walked me over to the bus I needed to take to Chorini. With nothing more expected than an appreciative thank you on my part, she was gone and I was on my way. In hindsight, I could have planned a lot better, but was lucky to find someone so helpful. And to top it off, when I arrived in Chorini, it turned out the info I was given was old, and an ATM had recently been installed!

The second time I relied on slightly questionable transport to get me out of a sticky situation was in Costa Rica in late 2012. I had planned to stay a few days in Jaco on the Pacific coast, but decided to go somewhere new and headed to nearby Playa Hermosa.

The day I was leaving, I had an afternoon flight to Miami, and had planned to take a bus from Jaco to San Jose, and get off at the airport. My side trip to Playa Hermosa didn’t change much, I would get a taxi back to Jaco in time to make the bus to San Jose. The problem occurred when the owners of the place I was staying were nowhere to be found when I needed to leave, hence no one was around to call me a taxi. After ringing the bell multiple times to get their attention and walking to the main road to try to flag one down both failed, I headed to the nearest hotel I could find to see if someone there could call one.

The girl at the desk was very helpful, and promised me a taxi straight away. About 5 minutes later, a blue, unmarked car showed up. Taxis in Costa Rica are red, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that this was a friend of hers, not an authorised taxi. I weighed up my options for a few moments – I had no idea how else to find a taxi other than walking back to my hotel, and I was running out of time to make the bus to make my flight. Despite knowing it went against everything we were advised, I agreed to go with him after confirming the price several times.

As we headed toward Jaco, I once again found myself hoping for the best. Given there was only one road, I at least knew I would be able to tell if we went the wrong way, and was prepared to jump out of the car if I had to. It turned out that I didn’t have to worry too much as I arrived safely at the bus terminal a short time later. When we got there, he offered me a lift to San Jose for a much faster trip, which was above my budget even if I didn’t want to go any further than I had to in a dodgy (but utlimately successful) taxi.

The moral of both stories? Better planning would have prevented these situations. But as Ben mentioned in his article, there is a certain feeling of invincibility when you travel. It may not have been something I did on my first or second trip, but after travelling for awhile and gaining confidence and experience, the thought of “it will be fine!” definitely applied.

As for the night in Cusco, that is another story for another blog!

Note: stay safe when you travel! Stick to official taxis and don’t take rides from strangers.

Why it’s worth stopping in Liberia

Taking a break from Sydney for today to write about one of my favourite countries, Costa Rica.

Costa Rica isn’t known for having amazing cities, and anyone who has been to San Jose usually agrees that it’s best to spend as little time there as possible. Liberia in the north western part of the country is a lot smaller, very hot, not overly attractive and used mostly by travellers as a transport hub. Liberia has connections to the beaches in Guanacaste and north to Nicaragua. I changed buses there when going from Monteverde to Tamarindo, Tamarindo to San Juan del Sur and San Juan back to San Jose.

But with two of the country’s most worthwhile attractions in close proximity to the city, it is worth staying a few days.

Parque Nacional Rincon de la Vieja

If you are looking for a picture perfect volcano, Arenal is your best bet, towering spectacularly over La Fortuna when its head peaks out of the clouds. But going to Arenal in the hopes of seeing volcanic activity may end up being a disappointing experience, it’s been quiet the last 3 times I went through Fortuna in 2010, 2012 and 2013.

For a multitude of volcanic encounters, Rincon de la Vieja is the place to go. The walk to the crater was closed when I visited for safety reasons (Jan 2013), but there are plenty of other things to do and see. I entered the park in the Las Pailas sector, which is the starting point for two major trails. The group I was with decided to begin with the trail to the waterfall, saving the volcanic loop for after lunch.

A rainy morning meant we set off through a wet forest, trying not to slip on the muddy path while dodging berries the monkeys hanging out in the trees above us were throwing in our direction. As it cleared up, the path opened out into a grassy clearing, with views stretching out to the Golfo de Nicoya. We reentered the forest before arriving at the stunning falls. The waterfall spilled over a tall cliff covered in forest plants, which wrapped around the edges of a perfectly formed pool. The water was cool, but was balanced out by the natural hot spring running over the rocks on the side of the pool. The warm water that gathered in the small rock pools was perfect to sit in and relax, but swimming through the cold water again to get back to my bag was less fun!

In the afternoon we ventured on to the loop trail that explores the volcanic area of the park. Despite being a third of the length, I think it took us longer to complete. After going past another impressive waterfall, we started to smell sulfur and pass signs warning us of extreme temperatures. The rain started up again, as did the howler monkeys (which sound like dinosaurs). This, combined with the forest we were walking in, made the location feel a lot more remote than it actually is.

Our first volcanic encounter was a cluster of fumaroles, emitting so much sulfurous steam and gas we could barely see the trees surrounding them. The smell was so overpowering, I could only stay for a few minutes. There was another natural spring nearby, this one so hot the water was bubbling. As the path continued towards a volcancito (small volcano), we noticed bursts of steam sneaking of out much smaller holes in the ground we were walking on. When our thought process lead to what that meant we were walking above, we were torn between hoping the ground didn’t give way and surprise that we could even get that close.

My favourite part of the trail was the bubbling mud pots. A collection of large holes filled with mud doesn’t sound very exciting, but watching them spit mud into the air was strangely hypnotising. The temptation to wander off the path and get closer was tempting, as the fences were definitely not designed to keep people out. But hearing the popping sounds they emitted was a good reminder of what was under the ground below us and that safety is important.

Getting there: I booked a transfer through my hostel in Liberia for $20. Park entry is $10, bring ID.

Llanos de Cortes

Even though Lonely Planet describes this as the waterfall to see if you only have time for one, it’s still easy to think it’s “just another waterfall”. There are plenty of waterfalls in Costa Rica; often visited ones in Fortuna and Montezuma and ones you see on tours run eccentric conspiracy theorists in Puerto Viejo (that’s another story).

A lesser known falls near a small town near Liberia might not be a the top of your list, but it’s worth every bit of effort you put in to get there.

Located just outside Bagaces, about half an hour from Liberia, the waterfall is accessed by walking (or driving if you have a car) along a short dirt road off the Interamericana. Marked only by a small store on the corner, you would miss it if you didn’t know what you were looking for, but the bus drivers that route are familiar with the turn off. When you get on, tell them you want to go to “la catarata” and they will stop there.

The road leads to a small station where you pay a donation (mil colones is sufficient) that goes to local schools, and then continues to the falls. A short path next to the carpark takes you down to a small clearing in the forest, where a sandy beach joins the large pool at the bottom of the waterfall. The height of the waterfall is impressive on its own, but the added bonus of being able to climb behind the curtain of water and enjoy the falls from a different angle sitting inside a rocky cave makes for a unique experience.

A different trail leaving from the carpark takes you to the top of waterfall. For a Victoria Falls moment in Costa Rica, if you are brave enough you can climb out onto the fall and look over the edge at the pool below.

Getting there: Buses from Liberia to Bagaces leave frequently from the local terminal, the cost should be no more than mil colones. Tell the driver that you are going to la catarata to be dropped off at the road. There is no food at the waterfall, so bring anything you want to eat with you. There is a bakery in the bus terminal that sells sandwiches. To get back, wave down any of the buses going along the Interamericana to Liberia.

In Liberia, I recommend staying at Hospedaje Dodero. Jesus and Shawn are amazing and have a wealth of information about the area. Ask about the path to the other waterfall when you visit Llanos de Cortes. There is a kitchen and common area with hammocks at the back. For anyone who likes dancing, Jesus always knows the best places to go.

A tip I received from another traveller is that Playa del Coco is a good day trip from Liberia. The buses to that beach leave from the Pulmitan terminal, where the buses to San Jose leave from.

Conquering Cerro Chirripo

Ever since bad weather prevented me from climbing Volcan Baru in Panama in 2011, I’ve been thinking about going back to do it. There is something special about the idea of ascending a peak so high that on a clear day allows you to see the ocean on both sides of the country.

In January this year, I got the chance to do one better, Cerro Chirripo, the highest peak in Costa Rica. At 3800m, 400m higher than Baru, this was always going to be a challenge. I wasn’t worried about the altitude because I had been higher in Peru with no problems, but was trying to determine the possibility of making the trip to the summit and back in a day. The recommended way is to climb the first 14 km, and stay overnight at the lodge that is situated there, then do the remaining 5 km the following day.

This presented a few challenges; the limited number of park permits meant reserving space in the lodge well in advance or camping at the ranger station to attempt to get one of 10 last minute passes. This, combined with a recommendation I had been given not to attempt it in a day, led me to do the exact opposite.

After picking up our day passes and buying snacks to take with us, my dad and I got an early night so we could begin our trek at 3 am the following day. Officially 38.2 km return (I’d say it was actually closer to 40 km) and 2.5 km of climbing (starting at 1300 m and going up to 3800 m), this would surpass the Grand Canyon and the toughest thing I’ve ever done.

Racing against the clouds to make it to the summit before the view disappeared, we arrived at the lodge (14 km) just before 8 am. The first 5 km had been mostly uphill, before it leveled out slightly, then started an intense, unrelenting climb for about 4 km between 8 and 12 km. We were walking in the dark until about the 9 km mark, and were treated to amazing views of the Southern Cross just above the horizon (in the northern hemisphere!).

The last kilometre before reaching the lodge was the hardest part of the whole climb. After a strenuous climb to reach 3000 m, the trail does a cruel descent after the 12 km mark. It was disheartening as all our hard work was seemingly undone, and we knew we would have to do it all over again. I don’t think that what I was doing after the 13 km sign appeared even counts as walking, it was more like plodding, and took everything I had to get to 14 km.

After stopping for breakfast and checking in with the ranger, we started the last 5 km (I’m sure it was really 6 km), to the summit. The race against the clouds was truly on, we could see them coming in our direction from the Pacific side of the country. Following multiple incorrect guesses about which peak we were climbing, the summit finally came into view. After a few quick photos, we made it up the last, almost vertical, 100 m by 10 am and we were rewarded with near perfect 360 degree views.

There were a few clouds on the Pacific side, but we could see the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Panamanian mountains to the south, and as far as the active Volcan Irazu in the north, which was sending thick, white smoke into the sky. We also had a great view of the lakes nestled on either side of the peak.

We took pictures, signed the guestbook and chatted with the locals who had also made it to the top. At only a few meters wide, and higher than anything else we could see around, the summit was a magical spot, and we ended up staying there for about an hour. There was something extremely peaceful about eating an early lunch in this isolated place, with only the falcons whizzing by for company. It was a surreal feeling that we were alone, standing on the highest point in Costa Rica, worlds away from the rest of the country bustling below us. We were the last people who made it the summit that day, and with the cloud increasing as we left I wouldn’t have wanted to arrive any later.

The way back down started off easier. With no need to worry about the clouds, we took our time and stopped for several rest breaks. With about 8 km to go, I could feel blisters on the side and underneath my toes. From that point on, it was an increasing form of torture, even harder to deal with than the most challenging uphill sections.

I couldn’t get back fast enough, for no other reason than to take off my shoes, and arrived back at 4:30 pm, making the day a 13.5 hour round trip. I haven’t run a marathon yet, but when I do and I’m feeling tired, I’m going to think of Chirripo. I don’t think I will ever find a physical activity more challenging, and that was definitely a once in a lifetime experience.. I am never doing it again!

Accommodation: Hotel Uran (located in San Gerardo 50 m from the trailhead)

Getting there: Bus (2 hours, 1,500 colones) or taxi (half an hour, $30/15,000 colones) from San Isidro

Passes: Stop at the ranger station at the entrance to San Gerardo, cost is $15 for 2 days or $10 for one day (per person). Overnight passes and lodge reservations must be done a few days in advance

The second time I attempted to learn to surf

After this terrifying experience, it took me over a year to give surfing another go. For the longest time, I told myself that I should have tried again in Santa Catalina (Panama) a few weeks after Salvador, but it was much too soon. When I was in Montezuma in February, I started entertaining the idea when I realised that there are plenty of beaches in Costa Rica where the waves would have been a lot smaller than what I experienced in El Salvador.

When I was in Jaco and Tamarindo in December last year and I didn’t give it another go, I knew I was just being chicken. I vowed to try before leaving Costa Rica this time, and while I still have 2.5 weeks to go, I knew when I was in Samara that it was then or I was chickening out forever.

We left it until the last possible minute, but Christina and I finally manned up and signed up for a lesson on our last afternoon in Samara. There had been hardly any waves all day, and we weren’t even sure if we would be able to have a lesson, but when 5pm rolled around, our instructor was there to take us out and it was finally time to face my fear.

The on shore part of the lesson where we practiced standing up on the board was easy enough, but I knew it would be a whole different thing once we got in the water. The waves were quite small, which was perfect for me. The last thing I wanted was waves taller than me and water too deep to stand in (like in Salvador), but luckily I didn’t have to deal with either. After standing up on the second wave, falling off heaps of times, and realising that the waves were nowhere near as strong as in Salvador, I had an AMAZING time. I can’t think of anything recently that I have been more glad I gave a second go. By the end of the lesson, neither of us were amazing, but we could both stand up and go straight. And the thing that surprised us the most, is that we both had a really fun time. I’m hoping to get another lesson before I leave Costa Rica, right now I’m thinking Uvita will be the best place to do it.

This is one of my Costa Rica bucket list items done, next stop Chirripo!

Costa Rica on a budget

It’s no secret why people visit Costa Rica; stunning beaches on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, active volcanoes, diverse wildlife, waterfalls and unique cloud forest. Its popularity means that travelling here is never going to be as cheap as its northern neighbors in Central America. But with a few key ways to stretch your dollars, it’s possible to visit the many amazing places the country has to offer without maxing out your credit card.

Take public buses

The fastest, easiest and also most expensive way to get around Costa Rica is by private shuttle. These operate between most major towns, and are easy to book through hostels and tour agencies. However they cost up to 5 times as much as travelling by public bus. From San Jose, direct buses run to almost every town in the country, with the longest trip I have taken about 5 hours. When travelling between other cities and towns, it can get more complicated with multiple changes required, but with some music, snacks and a bit of patience, it’s worth the money you will save. A recent trip from Monteverde to Tamarindo with 2 friends was going to cost $50 per person in a shuttle, and we did it for about $10 per person on public buses.

Eat Local

Restaurants in Costa Rica can be expensive, especially in tourist destinations. As a general rule in beach towns, the closer to the water a place is, the more expensive it is. Local restaurants called Sodas are a great alternative for trying typical Costa Rican food and saving money. Casados (a typical meal), include your choice of chicken, beef or fish, with rice, beans, plantains and salad.

Make the most of Happy Hour

Most bars in beach destinations offer 2 for 1 specials at different times, usually in the afternoon or evening. For the girls, Ladies Night generally rotates between different venues on different nights of the week, with no cover charge and free drinks. On karaoke night at Sharkys bar in Tamarindo, free shots are the reward for anyone brave enough to sing!

Choose your activities wisely

A lot of things to do in Costa Rica (aside from laying on the beach) come with a decent price tag attached. In some cases, the same activities are offered in multiple places, so it’s worthwhile to check where the best place to do them is. Canopy tours are available all over the country, with prices at the beach approx. $60 per person. The tours in Monteverde are by far the most spectacular, where you will be soaring above the canopy and only paying $45. Volcan Rincon de la Vieja is a good alternative to Arenal, with more volcanic activity and an abundance of wildlife in the park. Without giving away secrets, it is also always good to ask locals about free things to do, such as the tree climbing in Monteverde and hidden hot springs near La Fortuna.

Pay with Colones

While it’s convenient that most places in Costa Rica will accept US dollars, there are times when it is a lot better to pay with local colones. Hostels, souvenir shops and some restaurants that list prices in dollars will almost always be using the exchange rate of 500 colones to 1 dollar. This isn’t always the case for smaller vendors; bus ticket offices, grocery stores, local restaurants, where you will usually end up paying more if you choose to pay with dollars.

Research hostel options

Almost all hostels in Costa Rica offer free wifi, hot water and common areas, however some also include free breakfast and communal kitchens. My favourite hostel in the country is Vista Serena in Manuel Antonio, where I stayed for New Year’s Eve. Located on the hill overlooking the ocean, Vista Serena has a large balcony perfect for relaxing and watching the sunset. It also has a restaurant, kitchen, free breakfast and flat screen TV with an impressive movie collection. The owner, Conrad, is extremely helpful. I highly recommend staying there!

Top 3 ziplines in Central America

Tikal, Guatemala

My first ziplining experience was after visiting the Mayan site of Tikal. It started pouring right when we finished the tour of the site, but we had been promised the “best zip line in Guatemala” and we were still determined to do it. Only a short drive from Tikal, we were ziplining in the jungle. We were soaking wet and muddy by the end of it, and had to ride the rest of the day in the bus to Belize, but it was totally worth it.

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

At the time I did the Tikal zipline, I definitely wouldn’t have debated it was the best in Guatemala. I didn’t have anything to compare it to though, and after experiencing the one at Reserva Natural, Lake Atitlan, I have changed my mind. While zipping through the jungle was fun, it’s hard to top the views of the lake on the Lake Atitlan course.

Monteverde, Costa Rica

Hands down my favourite zipline. Located in the Montevideo cloud forest, the course includes 15 cables, some above the canopy. Pictures don’t really do it justice, I’ve been twice and would go back again. The video below is from one of the shorter cables.

Selvatura Park

Tabacon hot springs

Before I went to Costa Rica, I did a bit of research on La Fortuna because I LOVE hot springs. There are two main options, Tabacon and Baldi, and I ended up going to both. Tabacon is the more expensive of the two, but I was prepared to splurge and it was totally worth the $60 USD entrance fee.

Tabacon hot springs are completely natural, set around a flowing thermal river. The water in the river is heated underground by magma from the nearby Arenal volcano, before rising to the surface. The pools formed in the river have temperatures ranging from 25 to 50 degrees celsius.

The main area of the resort features a large pool with a swim up bar and a waterslide. I prefer to go further upstream, where smaller pools and waterfalls offer a great place to relax. 

On my second trip to Central America, I spent a bit of time talking up Tabacon to my friends. Corinne and Jayne decided to come with me, I was confident they wouldn’t be disappointed. We were almost ready to leave when we discovered the mud bath, but we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to indulge! 

We stayed in La Fortuna, about a 15 minute drive from Tabacon.

Tabacon Hot Springs

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