By Lori Sweet
Lush tropical rainforests, active volcanoes and warm sandy beaches are often what people think of when they hear or read the words, Costa Rica. It’s true those things are found there, but the one aspect that brings all of this together are its people. The people of Costa Rica are referred to as "Tico's". The population is approximately 4.9 million in an area of 51,100 square kilometers. Costa Rica is considered to have the highest density of biodiversity worldwide.
It's location between North American and South America is bordered by the Caribbean Sea to the east, Pacific Ocean to the west, Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south. On a clear day when travelling north west towards Paos Volcano, you can actually see both coasts. It is close to the equator, so the sun is almost perpendicular most of the year. This results in consistently nice weather. Sunscreen is a must 12 months of the year.
Our first trip to Costa Rica took place in January. This is considered high season and one of the busiest times for tourism, yet it didn't seem crowded. Schools are on summer vacation at this time as well. We were staying in a condo that a family member had rented through Airbnb. The condo was in an area called Escazu, an approximately 25-minute taxi ride from the Juan Santamaria International Airport. There are also lots of hotel and bed and breakfast options in this area. According to our taxi driver, who spoke wonderful English, this area is considered the Beverly Hills of Costa Rica. There was only a one hour time difference from home, so jet lag was not an issue. It is a 5.5-hour flight from Toronto to San Jose or from Toronto to Liberia. Liberia is considered the major center for the countries tourism industry.
Getting to know the locals!
Our taxi driver William, gave us some information about the area on the way to the condo. He suggested seeing San Jose before branching out to tours of the countryside. We made arrangements for him to pick us up the next day and take us to San Jose. Making a connection with someone local is a great way to get a feel for the area. This proved to be a great idea as the week progressed.
San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica, is located in the Central Valley. It is full of restaurants, shopping areas and museums. It’s very commercial and has several of the chain restaurants and stores you would find in many North American cities. There is a lot of the noise, traffic, hustle and bustle that you would expect in a city such as this.
After we had spent a couple of hours exploring the downtown, William came back to pick us up. He asked us if we would like to go to a neighborhood gathering for dinner that night. We went to a neighborhood park nearby, where we purchased a traditional dinner for the equivalent of $5CAD and listened to a 9-piece band play traditional music. Dinner consisted of steamed pork tamales wrapped in banana leaves, arroz con pollo (rice, chicken and vegetables), marinated vegetables and frijoles molidoes - the best refried beans I have ever tasted! A drink called fresco de cas accompanied dinner. The cas fruit is blended with a sweetener to make a drink with a hint of guava. The locals ate and danced and socialized under the stars enjoying the warm evening breeze.
Coffee, Volcanoes and Gardens
During the next few days it was time to explore the country side that we had heard so much about. We had arranged a day tour with Costa Rica Guides. They pick up at your hotel or other accommodation, which is very convenient. The tour included a visit to Doka Coffee Estate, Poas Volcano National Park and La Paz Waterfall Gardens. The tour included a bilingual guide as well as breakfast and lunch. The fertile and rich slopes of the Poas Volcano provide perfect growing conditions for coffee. Doka has been a working coffee farm since 1908. According to our guide Marco, 60% of their harvest is purchased by Starbuck's. After a tasty traditional breakfast of beans and rice, fried plantain, eggs, tortillas, fresh fruit and of course coffee, we were given a tour of the plantation. We were shown the process from seed to harvest all while a hint of roasting coffee floated in the air.
We continued on our way as our motor coach climbed toward the top of the volcano. Once we arrived at the visitor ‘s center we joined a walking trail that brought us to an elevation of 2700m. You could feel the difference in altitude as the air became thinner. Taking your time was suggested. Once we reached the top, we were treated to a spectacular view of Lake Botos, a water filled extinct crater that is home to many cloud forest birds. Making your way back down, the trail veers to the right. Following the path, you arrive at a platform that looks down on the Poas caldera. On the day we visited, the sulfuric rain fed lake was a milky white. Sporadically, fumes of steam and smoke would rise from the edges. So intense is the effect of the acid rain around the caldera, that vegetation is almost nonexistent and what you can see is stunted with a brown or black coloring.
Our next stop was the Le Paz Waterfall Garden. They have an animal sanctuary and environmental education program. All of the animals here were rescued and were not able to be successfully released to the wild. It affords the visitor an opportunity to see a wide variety of animals from Costa Rica up close, as well as an opportunity to learn about them. There are monkeys, jungle cats, ocelots, and snakes to name but a few. We enjoyed the antics of the several varieties of toucans we encountered. The gardens also have 5 impressive waterfalls. Once you are finished your treat of aqua dulce (sugarcane tea), you can then venture down the walkways, pathways, bridges and stairs to witness the power of nature. As you approach each waterfall you can hear, feel then witness the force of the water thundering over the falls to the rocks and the river below.
Two days later, we decided to go on another day tour with Costa Rica Guides. This tour was to Arenal Volcano National Park and Baldi Hot Springs. Our guide today was Eric. Our first stop was in the artisanal village of Sarchi. It is the home of the world's largest ox cart, built in 2006 and in the Guinness World Book of Records. Following this stop, we headed up the mountain towards the town of La Fortuna. This tourist town sits within sight of Arenal Volcano. The volcano is one of the most active volcanoes in the Western Hemisphere. After a typical lunch of rice, beans, vegetables, fish, chicken or pork at La Perla Restaurant, we made our way to one of the Arenal Volcano National Park lookouts. From here you could see the impressive volcano as well as Lake Arenal. Under this lake is the original town of Arenal. It was covered with water in 1979 when a huge hydroelectric dam was built.
The final stop of the day was the Baldi Hot Springs Resort. The resort is considered the world's largest hot springs. The thermal waters are found in 25 different pools of various sizes. As you work your way closer to the volcano, each successive pool becomes hotter. Many of the pools have waterfalls and as you float in the water soaking up its mineral and healing properties, you can hear any number of the approximately 400 species of birds singing all around you. Once you are rested, relaxed and rejuvenated, you can make your way to the coffee shop to indulge in some Costa Rican coffee. Dinner is a delicious buffet eaten under the night sky in view of the Arenal Volcano.
Our trip back to San Jose in the dark was noteworthy. As our driver skillfully negotiated the twists and turns of the mountain road, we entered a cloud forest. Driving through this area in the daylight is one thing, in pitch dark, quite another. Cloud forests are unique highland forests characterized by 100% humidity. Needless to say, we were driving through dense fog.
Eric, our guide for this trip was a wealth of knowledge. He talked about the climate and biodiversity of this impressive landscape. He mentioned places to zip line, hike, white water raft and relax on a sandy beach. He explained how Costa Rica has one of the most stable and oldest democracies in Latin America. He also taught us about the words “pura vida", meaning "pure life". This phrase is slang for hello, goodbye, thank you and all is good. Eric was an excellent ambassador for his country and a prime example of the friendliness of its people.
Costa Rica may mean 'rich coast", but it is rich in many other ways, namely because of its people. We felt richer for having visited!
Lori is a freelance travel writer and travel photographer based in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. She has had a life-long passion for travel and for learning about other cultures, while travelling on and off the beaten path. Taking detours along the way has enriched her experiences immeasurably. Lori enjoys writing and photography, so it was a natural fit to combine this with her love of travel.
Lori was in education for 30 years. She was able to combine that with 14 years of part-time work as a Tour Director for a travel company that provides motor coach trips across North America. Upon retirement from teaching, she moved into the tour company office as a tour planner. She now spends her time working on other interests. She has kept a travel journal for over 30 years!
Lori has taken online and live travel writing and photography workshops and is a member of the International Travel Writers and Photographers Alliance (ITWPA).