Costa Rica – pura vida.

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It’s only 250km from David, in Panama, to San José, in Costa Rica.

Our aircraft was a twin engined prop that seemed to feel the bumps every centimeter of the way.

The name of our hotel is about the worst play on words that I have ever encountered.

The ‘Sleep Inn’, apart from its atrocious name, isn’t such a bad pub. It’s situated in the heart of San José and very close to the walking street of Avenida Central.

Costa Rica is in the tropics and the rainy season is due to start, so every afternoon it rains.

Stupidly we forgot to take our umbrellas when we first went out walking.

We should have known better.

Europeans, in the form of Christopher Columbus, reached Costa Rica in 1502. In 1524, after, the indigenous people were conquered, Costa Rica was incorporated into the province of New Spain.

It remained under Spanish influence for the next 300 years.

With a total population of about 4.5 million, there are about 60,000 indigenous people in Costa Rica today. Antonio Saldaña, the last indigenous leader with any political authority, was assassinated in 1910.

It’s a prosperous country, by Central American standards, and consistently performs well in the United Nations Human Development Index.

This isn’t evident as you walk around San José as there seemed to be a lot of street people in the area near to our hotel. As over 25% of the population live in the capital, it’s probably to be expected.

The next day we went out walking around San José, this time with our umbrellas.

There is an abundance of street sculpture in the city and we encountered some of it on our walk.

The first, and most famous, is the Fat Lady sculpture ‘La Chola’ by Costa Rican artist Manuel Vargas, closely followed by Fernando Calvo’s ‘Farmers’

The Main Post office was an impressive building from the outside, with a very utilitarian interior.

The Catedral Metropolitana was originally built in 1802 but was replaced in 1871, after an earthquake, with a design by Eusebio Rodríguez. The design of the new church combines Greek Orthodox, Neoclassical and Baroque styles.

Inside the National Theatre or Teatro Nacional is the Alma du Café where we tried typical Costa Rican filtered coffee. You choose which blend you would like, from seven varieties, then it is served at the table with an individual filter for each cup.

There was a free tour of the Teatro Nacional which gave us a good insight into this slice of Europe in the heart of San José.

Architecturally it’s Neoclassical, part French, part Italian with touches of Masonic symbolism in the details.

Construction started in 1891, and it was opened in 1897. The first performance was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust.

The building is used as a venue for state events. The sloping floor can be leveled, using winches, so important dinners and balls can be held.

Receptions for US presidents JFK and Barak Obama have been held in the Teatro Nacional.

While we were waiting for the tour of the theatre we did some people and pigeon watching in Plaza de la Cultura.

This social centre of San José is where people meet, children play and others just ‘hang out’

The Museos del Banco Central is a bunker style building under the Plaza de la Cultura. Built in the 1970s, it’s shaped like an inverted triangle, with three underground levels.

There in an excellent Anthropological exhibition, tracing the history and culture of the pre-Hispanic indigenous peoples of Costa Rica, from 500 BC to 1,500 AD. This is largely done through their highly developed craft of gold smithing.

There was also a small exhibition of local contemporary art.

Costa Rica’s main source of income isn’t coffee or bananas but Eco Tourism. They pride themselves on their sustainability in many areas, but it’s their nature sanctuaries and reserves that are their bread and butter.

The expression “pura vida” or pure life is widely used by the Ticos, or Costa Ricans, as they are very proud of their political freedom, economy and environmental credentials.

They have the largest number of foreign tourists of any Central American country.

They also have gambling.

Side by side with the eco sites are the casinos. This is the seedier side of San José and there were a number around our hotel. In fact the Sleep Inn had its own casino right next door.

We booked what was called a Combo Tour. This was a day tour to three locations, the Doka Coffee Plantation, Poás Volcano and the Lapaz Waterfall Gardens.

Max was our guide and he kept us on a very short leash.

The 112 year old Doka Coffee Plantation is 10,000 acres in size and had a turnover of $40,000,00. A far cry from the tiny Finca Dos Jefes Finca, in Boquete, Panama, that had 7 acres and needed the coffee tours to make money.

Doka, surprisingly, wasn’t organic, they were about making money and everything was on a grand scale.

The coffee at Dos Jefes Finca was much better.

The drive to the Poás Volcano was through a very fertile region with strawberry farms lining the roadside.

We walked to the volcano and were very lucky, as the clouds cleared and we could easily see the caldera and the lake inside the crater. There were clouds of steam erupting from the centre.

Poás is an active volcano that is 2,708 meters high and has erupted 39 times since 1828. It’s last major eruption was in 2009 when it was near the epicenter of a 6.1 magnitude earthquake that killed at least forty people.

We then walked for a further twenty minutes to Lake Botos which fills an inactive crater that last erupted in 7500 BC.

The entire area is surrounded by a cloud forest located within the Poás Volcano National Park.

Our last stop was the Lapaz Waterfall Gardens. This has over 28.327 Hectares of rain and cloud forests, waterfalls and wildlife. There are humming birds, butterflies, reptiles, monkeys and jungle cats.

It’s a bit Disney World but very well done and impeccably maintained.

Apparently all the birds in the park come from refuges, where they were rescued from poachers or donated by ‘collectors’

Manuel Antonio.

We took the shuttle bus from San José to Manuel Antonio.

Part way through our drive we stopped on a bridge overlooking the Rio Grande de Tácoles. There, sunning themselves on the muddy bank, were a group of rather large alligators.

This portion of our Costa Rican stay was as much about some R&R as it was about sightseeing.

So after finding an ATM, which involved a bus ride back to Quepos (there were none in Manuel Antonio) we had a walk on the local beach.

Then we had a drink at one of the beachside bars.

As we were sipping our beverage there was a large bang on the roof. Another dint in the corrugated iron, as a coconut plummeted from a nearby palm.

Australians, especially those who live near the beach, don’t really understand how lucky they are. This was a dark sand beach that in places almost turned to mud. The Pacific surf was pounding and the water was tepid but everyone, including us, had dirty feet. This beach is regarded as one of the gems of the Costa Rican Pacific coast.

Very few beaches that we have visited have fine, golden sand.

We were staying at the aptly named Jungle Beach Hotel, which was sitting in the jungle and overlooking the beach.

It’s claim to fame are the monkeys that apparently visit the hotel at breakfast time and in the evening.

In our first 24 hours the only fury animal we sited was the hotel’s pet rabbit.

There were huge swells during our stay, caused by storms off the New Zealand coast. The locals must have been tearing their hair out, as the beach was virtually closed, in fact it disappeared for a lot of the day.

Surf board, sun lounge and umbrella rentals were at a standstill.

This must have been doubly disappointing as we were there on a long weekend holiday and the place was packed.

Only the seasoned surfers were out on the breaks as the waves were three to four meters high.

I saw at least one broken board.

We booked a guided tour to the Manuel Antonio National Park.

Our hotel offered a tour that we thought was expensive – so we shopped around. We soon discovered that all the tours are the same price, there are just a lot of agents selling them.

It was suggested in Lonely Planet that seeing the park with a guide guarantees you will see things.

They were right.

Our guide, Marvin, would suddenly stop, set up his telescope and say: “There’s a Two Toed Sloth up there” And sure enough, there it was. As hard as I could try, I could not see it until it was pointed out to me.

He did the same thing with snakes, lizards, birds, monkeys and even spiders.

He was continually seeing things we couldn’t. I know it was his job but he was very good at it.

He was continually telling us stories about the wildlife. One we all liked related to the ‘pooping’ habits of sloths. Apparently they only come down from the trees once a week to poo. They can pass up to a third of their body weight and have to dislocate their coccyx in order to do it.

This obviously makes them very vulnerable to predators.

All the guides had high powered telescopes to view the birds, animals and insects in close-up.

They could be very cleverly used with a smart phone. All they did was push the lens of the phone up against the eye piece of the telescope and then zoom in on the image to get rid of the edges of the eye piece.

The telescope was equivalent to about a 500-600mm telephoto lens.

The results were remarkably good.

So much for all my expensive camera gear.

The Manuel Antonio National Park is the smallest in Costa Rica, only 1983 hectares, but one of the most popular.

The popularity not only comes from the flora and fauna, but the beaches that are in and near the park. It’s also a marine reserve with 55,000 hectares under protection.

The nature walk with Marvin only covered about 1.5km but took three hours.

We were constantly stopping and Marvin would conjure up an animal, seemingly out of thin air.

The walk took us to the end of the promontory and from there we could wander around.

We did so for another hour or so, but could never see what Marvin saw.

It was hot and the humidity was high so we walked back to town for a cool drink.

The tide was coming in and the waves were still large – but not a big as the previous days.

One night we walked up the hill to the restaurant El Avion.

The main claim to fame of El Avion is that the bar has been built inside a 1954 Fairchild C-123.

The aircraft was reportedly purchased by the US government in the ’80s for the Nicaraguan Contras. It never made it out of its hangar and was eventually purchased by the owner of the restaurant.

As well as the unique environment, the food was rather good.

On our last night a group of Howler Monkeys passed by the hotel. We had now seen the monkey trifecta in Manuel Antonio. White Faced, Squirrel and now the Howler.

They are called Howler Monkeys because of the sound they make. It’s similar to the screech of a Formula One engine – at full revs.

One Response to “Costa Rica – pura vida.”

  1. Alex Mifsud says:

    With a bit of free time today I said, “I wonder if Bruce has added anything to his blog”. I never thought so much could happen between Cuba and Costa Rica. Hats off to you two; you know how to squeeze every bit of sight and seeing out of sightseeing. Cheers, Alex (from Waltham St – do you remember it?).

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