Ok, I’m letting inertia keep me on track with my goal of posting my articles regularly. So I’m kicking off my 3 (maybe 4) part series about Costa Rica. As it was a 3 week trip, I’ve got a lot to report on and lot’s of stories to tell. So I think breaking it up into multiple parts will make it easier for you all to read, instead of one enormous post. I hate reading those long blog posts that feel like they have no end, but I have some compulsion or feeling of obligation like I have to finish. Anyway, yes, I’ve decided to do multiple parts is the point, so here we go!
(that’s part one for those of you who aren’t newly minted Spanish speakers like me!)
Before we start, I’d like to tell you 2 points of interest.
1) The dollar is accepted almost everywhere in Costa Rica, along with their currency the Colón. The exchange rate while we were there was 554 Colones to $1. And it’s usually somewhere around there. I recommend working in colones because then you won’t be subject to any local’s made up “exchange rate”.
2) People from Costa Rica are colloquially called Ticos. A boy from CR (Costa Rica) is a Tico, and a girl from CR is a Tica.
We took off in the evening on Wednesday with Frontier Airlines. We found our tickets on CheapTickets.com with a round trip fare of around $500. We had been hoping for something a little lower, but we also bought these tickets a month in advance, so it’s pretty good if you keep that in mind. They’re a low-cost airline based out of Denver, but they still good quality despite the price, and they go all over the States, to Mexico and to Costa Rica. They were the only low-cost airline that we found that went to CR. I looked at their Route Map and it seems like they go to some smaller cities and smaller airports which is nice too if you don’t want to go to a major hub.
We flew out of SFO with a short layover in Denver and then on to the capital of Costa Rica – San Jose. We arrived early in the morning since our flight had been over night. Our hostel had a cab that picked us up at the airport for the cost of $20. All the guidebooks and hostel websites warned of scamming taxi drivers who will get you at the airport, pretend to call your hotel, tell you that they are all booked or have no record of your reservation, and then try to take you to some hostel that they have a deal with. We wanted to avoid this so we were happy to take the cab that our hostel provided. Upon reflection, I bet we could have taken a public bus at a much lower price but this seemed to be the easiest way since we hadn’t researched any alternative.
We stayed at the Kabata Hostel, which I do not recommend. I’ve stayed in a wide range of hostels, lots of standard hostels, some nicer ones, some really nice ones, and my fair share of sub par. Therefore I feel confident in grading this place as sub par. I mostly say this due to our experience on the way out of the country because we stayed here again when we left (to utilize the airport transfer) and we had a really bad experience. I don’t think I need to go into detail, but just take my advice and pick somewhere else if you go to San Jose. (But also don’t stay at the Hostel Pangea because we heard one of our contacts got bed bugs there!)
It really shocked us how awful San Jose was. We read in the books (and heard from others) that it was nothing special and to not spend any time there. It was weird to see the capital city of a country that was not the pride and joy of that nation. I didn’t see any beautiful parts of the city (I read there was a Park and a Zoo, which may have been pretty).
It’s extremely dirty, and not in the way I’ve seen other places described as dirty. Before going to Athens I read about how depressing and filthy it was and I thought it was totally fine and clean. This was truly dirty, full of trash and they have really bad sidewalks and gutters (that are about 2 feet deep) that collect trash like none other. There are some Museums, but none that really sounded interesting. We had lunch at their big public market but that wasn’t that exciting either.
Basically, as strange as it is to say, the capital city is not a special part of Costa Rica and I don’t think you need to spend any time there. We stayed there the day we arrived and took a bus out the next day. Moving on!
The first leg of our trip was 3 nights in Tortuguero, located on the Caribbean coast. A charming feature of Costa Rica is that one coast is on the Pacific and one coast is on the Caribbean so you can brag about visiting two different oceans on one trip!
To get to Tortuguero we had to take a bus from the Caribbean Bus Depot (Gran Terminal de Caribe) to Cariari. It was about a 4 hour trip and it about $6 for the both of us. Basically any estimation of time that a guidebook gives you for a bus trip in Costa Rica, on a public bus, should be multiplied by 1.5 due to the miserable road conditions and the fact that they stop to pick up anybody on the side of the road to take them anywhere they want to go along the route. This seems to be a luxury the Ticos enjoy: buses that pick you up at your local restaurant and will drop you off at the first banana tree after the river, closest to your house. You catch my drift.
When you arrive in Cariari you buy a ticket to your next destination, La Pavona. You can buy a ticket that includes the ticket for the boat you have to take for around $3. The trip to La Pavona is around 2 hours. La Pavona is literally only a drop off to the boats that take you to Tortuguero. I was nervous since the book didn’t give any information about what you do when you get to La Pavona, but that’s because you have no other option besides getting on the boat, or having a cerveza at the one outdoor bar there.
The boats are low lying, with awnings that seat about 12 people. They’re great because you have to take them to get to Tortuguero, and the boat ride in itself is like a sightseeing tour. It’s a beautiful river jungle cruise, as I’ve said before, the best way to see a place is from a boat.
After about a 30 minute boat ride we arrived in Tortuguero. It’s a little riverside hamlet with brightly painted houses along the waterfront. I call this a hamlet because I think a town that doesn’t have a bank, can’t really be called a town. If you come here, please remember to bring in all the cash you will need. When we got off the boat we were approached by some aggressive guides trying to get us to sign up for a tour or offering to escort us to our hotel (for a price I’m sure). Being the confident travelers that we are we politely declined and made our way to our hostel. There was also this handy map at the boat landing.
You can see from the map that Tortuguero is located on a strip of land between the river and the Caribbean ocean (the two blue sections), just for a little reference.
We walked east towards the ocean, turned right after the Soccer field and found our Hostel El Icaco. In contrast to our first lodgings, this place totally exceeded our expectations. It was right on the ocean, had a great vibe, a kitchen, a hammock lounge and everyone who worked there was SO nice (especially Martha!). This place was sort of a mix between a hostel, hotel and B&B. It had hostel prices ($35 a night for a private double room, with bathroom), but they had someone clean the room everyday and they brought breakfast to us – get ready – on our ocean view balcony! It was great! And, not some skimpy little breakfast, we had pancakes and eggs, fruit and coffee. It changed everyday and was cooked fresh for us by the owner when we woke up. I absolutely loved this place and I think it’s the best that Tortuguero has to offer in the way of hostels.
The day after we got to Tortuguero we decided to hike around in the National Park. It was a little expensive ($10 for a day pass, the hike was only about 2 km) but we saw tons of flora and fauna. Plus when we got too hot on the trail we could just step out onto the beach for a little breeze. Here are some nature shots, courtesy of Eric.
The hike was really cool as it was our first experience of nature in Costa Rica (of which there is plenty). I had to wear these fabulous knee high rubber galoshes, y’know, just in case a snake wanted to bite me. Don’t worry mom! It wasn’t wet season, I didn’t see any snakes.
Our next day was the highlight of Tortuguero, the river nature tour. You can either tour the river by canoe or motorboat. We chose the canoe a) cause it’s cheaper and b) cause it’s quieter so you don’t scare away the animals with your big motor. The tour starts promptly at 6:00 am and ours was hosted by none other than Don Chico. Now, Don Chico had as much (if not more) personality than his name implies. If you want to find him in Tortuguero, head over to the Soccer field and ask for him at the Miss Miriam 2 restaurant. That’s how everything works in Tortuguero, if you want to find something you reference it according to the Soccer field and ask for someone at somebodies restaurant.
Don Chico didn’t speak any English but my francophone Spanish sort of got us along. He knew a lot of the species names in English though, which is all we really needed. As we were in a canoe we could sort of break away from the pack of boats all starting their tours at the same time, and go down the smaller canals. Eric took amazing pictures of the animals we saw on our tour.
Besides these animals we saw Howler Monkeys, Morpho Butterflies (those beautiful blue metallic beauties) and Green and White Herons. The tour was great, definitely the thing to do in Tortuguero and Don Chico of course, was amazing. He taught us a lot, without a lot of chatter.
We spent the rest of the day napping, reading, planning the next leg of our trip and playing on the beach. Overall, this was my favorite of all our days in Costa Rica, we spent the enjoying ourselves and all the Tortuguero has to offer.
The next day we crossed the country to head to Spanish school on the Nicoya Peninsula, which was on the exact opposite side of the country. I’ll cover that thirteen hour trip and our stay on the beautiful beach in Samara in my next post.