Costa Rica , March 2006 with Celia and Ralph and Wanda 

 This is the itinerary of the trip  and the  hotel Barcelo Palacio where we stayed in San Jose

Ten days in an air conditioned Mercedes bus – 44 of us and still comfortable

  The best part was the all inclusive – free drinks as long as the booze was CR

First Impressions on the way to Poas: Clouds hanging over the volcanoes, Barba, Irazu and Poas –all day and into the evening. Beautiful green, lush mountains with coffee bushes and flowers for export under protective canvas filters to tame the sun. There was lots of traffic through the provincial capital of Alajuela just north of San Jose . We saw the statue of the Drummer Boy, Juan Santa Maria, and were told the story of this national hero who single handedly in 1856 drove William Walker and his band of plotters out of Costa Rica . He burned the house down and the invaders fled. Then, we caught a glimpse of the town square in Alajuela, which was sheltered under dozens of huge mango trees and possessed a plaza full of locals of all ages. It would be fun to stop and walk among them thru the plaza and visit the church on the other side of the plaza. Behind the church we caught a glimpse of our morning’s destination, the Poas Volcano.

 The road up to the volcano was tortuous. After thirty minutes of twists and turns we finally reached the tourist center at about the 8,800 ft elevation. We walked slowly up the 660 meter trail halfway to the rim and met Ralph coming down. "The clouds are lying in the crater today and it looks like the fog is moving in." We turned around and slowly returned to the gift shop, café and museum at the center. We saw our first ‘poor man’s umbrella’ and other great leafed ferns lining the walk and remembered Grandmother Larson’s beautiful ferns and plants from Eshom. Wanda had similar plants with huge leaves, elephant ears, I think, in Visalia in the 60’s. Many of the trees are in bloom now – rose colored and white reminding me of Southern California in the winter as spring approaches.

 The second day we visited the rain forest. We got on our Mercedes bus early in the morning and drove two hours down to 1,500 feet and the Rain Forest National Park. Costa Rica has set aside 30% of its landmass as National Parks and Environmental Reserves and has created visitor improvements in those places that offer the eco-tourist something unique. This Rain Forest has a teleferique running through it at several levels for viewing. Each gondola takes six passengers and a guide a total of 1.5 miles into the forest and 1.5 miles back, each trip at different levels. The ‘soto bosque’ is the lower level with lush growth and little filtered sunlight; the return is via the mid level and upper canopy levels, among the treetops, the monkeys and birds. The light rain on our ponchos on the return heightened the adventure of getting close to the giant ferns, palms and other lush green plants.  As we left the visitor center we crossed a river just as a tapir appeared downstream – an exciting spectacle

 Lunch was at an outdoor restaurant that had a huge ‘mariposatorio’, a huge screen enclosed space containing 15 species of butterflies and an exhibit case showing the development phases of butterflies. The botanical garden surrounding the butterfly facility has several spectacular types of birds of paradise – a glowing red variety with multiple ruffled flowers. We descended out of the rain forest with its 270 inches of water annually into the coastal plain on the Caribbean , or eastern, side of Costa Rica . We passed through thousands of acres of banana plantation and grazing land on a bumpy and 2-hour drive to a pier to catch our boat to Tortuguero. We would visit a banana plantation on the return. But now, we caught a fascinating preview as we glimpsed a young man in harness pulling maybe thirty big bunches of bananas which were hanging on hooks on a conveyor and trestle which ran through the plantation to the washing and packing area.

 Tortuguero means ‘Land of the Turtle’, a 22-mile stretch of volcanic black sand beach where green turtles nest and lay their eggs. Tortuguero is also a village of 950 people who make their living now serving the tourists. This is an island and the village is on the canal side and the nesting area on the Caribbean side. The tourists gain access only by boat or by air in small planes. The trip in from the pier where the bus left us was by a 1 ½ hour boat ride that had its own high points. We passed a six-foot crocodile and two monkeys, one a white face and the other a spider monkey high in the trees along the river in the Tortuguero National Park . In the southern inlet we met up with a supply boat that had run aground in the middle of the channel. Our driver got out and helped push the heavily laden barge off the sandbar. Great shopping in the visitor center store which gives a portion of each purchase to the maintenance of the green turtle nesting area.. Here I bought my beautiful purple heart wood cane. I learned very quickly to walk with the cane, a great relief. The girls and Ralph walked the short distance across the island to the black sand beach nesting area. We were a few weeks early for the nesting which occurs each year when the mama turtles come ashore and lay their eggs in nests they dig in the sand and then cover. When this annual event is finished the mama turtles turn around and head back to the sea. The little turtles hatch by themselves and find their way into the water without any help from the parents.

Archie Carr, a biologist, spent a lifetime trying to protect the turtles and established the Archie Carr Sanctuary and the Caribbean Conservation Corporation that now controls visits to the nesting areas.

The resort where we stayed on the canal in Tortuguero reminded me of Hawaii., especially Hana on the rainy side of Maui . The Caravan guide listed the resort as somewhat primitive. But it was wonderful, once you learned that the left faucet was the cold one and the right one the hot.. Oh well, we should have figured it out. ‘C’ in Spanish stands for caliente, hot.    

The Laguna Lodge was great. The food was wonderful and the grounds were spacious and tropical. The weather was picture perfect, very little rain and not too warm.

We spent on evening at the outside bar drinking pina coladas and listening to a short history of the area. Then during the visit two trips by boat into the system of channels that penetrate the rainforest. Spectacular small crocodiles, turtles, monkeys and birds were right along the shore in the trees and vines. Hard to photograph but the birds and animals were easy to see with the binoculars.

 Now, back to the bus by our waterbus. Then the promised quick stop at the outdoor banana processing plant on a plantation owned by Del Monte. Only the best quality bananas are exported, the seconds go into the local market. The stalks after the individual bunches are cut off, washed and packed (all green, of course), are recycled into paper.

 The bus ride was a long one from the pier near Tortuguero to La Fortuna in the northwest of Costa Rica , stopping once again for lunch at the butterfly restaurant.

 Sunday on the Rio Frio with Bernal Sanchez (the local guide)--A special trip to Los Chiles and a boat ride on the Rio Frio to the Nicaraguan border. Along the road we saw our first orange groves and lot of pineapple, but no bananas like the Del Monte plantations of the eastern coastal plain. Along the road were cattle ranches with mixed herds, but mostly made up of brahmas. This was the area of the continental divide.

 Highlight roadside stops along the way included spotting a tree full of huge, fat iguanas in a tree as we crossed a bridge. Then spotting a two-toed sloth in a tree and learning from Anita, our guide for the ten day tour, more than we really wanted to know about two-toed sloths: the sloth comes down once a week to defecate. He stays most of the time high in the branches of the tree. It takes him an hour to come down and an hour back up to his nest in the fork of two huge branches. The sloth moves very, very slowly.

 We arrived at the pier in Los Chiles and boarded a sightseeing boat and began to cruise north. The shoreline was populated with birds and animals: anhinga, flycatchers, orioles and turtle, but most importantly howler monkeys. We caught sight of ‘Blondie’ and the guides said that we were very lucky because Blondie is seldom seen. She is a mutant from the traditional brown howler with a gold mantle to a completely gold colored monkey. Bernal watches for her on every trip up the river but only rarely spots her.

But we were not so lucky on the return trip down the river to Los Chiles. We had stopped briefly to view the flamingos and osprey in the wetlands at the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua . Bernal and his brother had made a special trip to repaint the marker that stands on the frontier. Now we were returning and about a half mile from Los Chiles and dry land the boat conked out. "Don’t worry folks, I have phoned headquarters for a tow", were the reassuring words from Bernal. Sure enough a tow soon arrived and pulled us into the pier.

Now to lunch in Los Chiles and a visit to the best woodworking display on the trip. Besides being an excellent tour guide, Bernal is a fine wood worker. On arriving at the restaurant we got a quick look at the items for sale. We browsed after lunch among the parquet vases of woods of Costa Rica , bowls, animals, birds in all shapes and sizes. Bernal says his technique is improving all the time and the vases and other things coming now from his father and brothers in their shop are improving all the time. They are beautiful and I loaded up. Sorry I bought my beautiful cane in Tortuguero because the canes in Bernal’s display area were much better with inlaid sections of native woods. But I learned there that my cane was made of purple heart and it has served me well. Lunch was the best in Costa Rica . It was served family style and was all authentic native dishes: fried casaba, rice with chicken, black beans and squash with onions.

So, we arrived at La Fortuna and our hotel at the foot of the Arenal Volcano. The view of the volcano was magnificent and crystal clear, a lucky day for us since it is often covered with clouds. There was a gardenia bush covered with blossoms near our cottage door.

 I sat in one of the leather strapped rocking chair that one sees all over Costa Rica on the small veranda in front of our room.  

I considered, it seems, for the first time on the trip the variety and color of the flowers I could see from just this one vantage point. And we have been moving from vantage point to vantage point for a week tomorrow. But today, I caught my breath and began to smell the flowers.

 We were lucky the night of our tour up the Rio Frio to return to the Arenal Volcano at night and witness a display of lava flowing down the side of the volcano. Arenal is really active and we got our proof at the last minute after waiting about twenty minutes in the dark with our eyes glued on the distant south side of the volcano where the lava spills over the side of the crater.

 It’s morning and we will board soon for the Cloud Forest, another private preserve.

On the way Down to the Pacific coast to Jaco we took in the Cloud Forest and a hike that was a bit aggressive for this old man with a cane. But we got close up views of termagers and humming birds and enormous ant hills climbing the mountainside in a row with an almost ghostly layer of fog over the forest. Jaco is on the Pacific coast and is a destination for water sport enthusiasts.

The Amapola Hotel there is four stars. Since the hotel was all inclusive the lemmings from the bus swarmed into pool and the swim up bar for afternoon refreshments.

Wanda, Celia and I sat on the edge of the pool in comfortable deck chairs and sipped our pina coladas
We didn't stay at the Terrazas del Pacifico which is on the water, but it looks simply wonderful. (Celia do you remember the La Posada in Manzanillo?)

The highway from Jaco to San Antonio National Park was smooth. There were small ranches along the road with mixed herds of cattle, papaya and mango trees and palms. When the Spaniards came there were many tribes of Indians living on the slope up to San Jose . The Indians held out against the conquerors until the leader died, then resistance collapsed. The Spaniards tried everything including capturing the chief’s wife and holding her hostage.  Along the Pacific coast Banana culture was phased out in the 1950’s and the mainstay of agriculture on the coast now is the African palm, the fruit of which is pressed for oil.

 

 

We entered the national park on foot along a sandy path under a canopy of trees, the path was up and down and then flat with gorgeous views of the sandy beaches and black, rocky shoreline.

We were visiting Costa Rica during the best time-- the dry season from January to March. 

Bird watching guides are available -- young men with tripods and long lens telescopes who take small groups of tourists. We hiked to the second cabana and left our things there for some time in the water. There was a lovely breeze and calm waters compared to the rough surf and giant waves more common on the Pacific beaches. At the entrance to the park are numerous vendors. The bird mobiles that moved and pecked in the breeze were fascinating. Loly, the driver, washed our sandy feet with a hose attached to a water tank on the bus before letting us into the bus.  That evening we had a good bridge game in the gazebo at the Amapola, boys against the girls. The boys won.

 Then, our last day of touring up from Jaco to San Jose by way of Sarchi, the village of the ‘Carretas", oxcarts painted in bright colors with floral designs, lunch, then on to an iron church imported from Belgium after the original 1800’s church collapsed in an earthquake. We enjoyed a memorable view of a yellow ‘Cortes de Amarillo’ tree through a side door of the church. In the square in front of the church I purchased a miniature desk and chair from a vendor. It is made from cocacalo wood and has four small drawers that open. I bought it originally as a gift but liked it so much that I kept it for myself adding it to my collection of wood carvings and turned items from Costa Rica . The final stop was the Britt demonstration coffee plantation where clever actors act out the history of coffee culture in the country. Coffee in Costa Rica is  mellow and mild.

 We ended the tour back at the five star Barcelo Palace hotel ready for another all inclusive treat. With generous tips to our driver, Loly, and excellent guide, Anita Monge, we left for the airport. We appreciated our guides splendid commentary. help and concern on the hikes through the rainforest and over the trails where we discovered the beauty and wild life of Costa Rica .