Costa Rica (March 2016)

30 Mar

Anyone that knows me will be aware I recently went to Costa Rica with Tucan Travel and had THE BEST TIME.  So this is a blog post about everything I did, ate, saw and the people I met. Spoiler: this is a long blog post.

The highlights? Seeing a Jaguar in the wild, ziplining through the Monteverde Cloud Forest, walking along a hanging bridge I’d fallen in love with on Pinterest YEARS ago, seeing SO many sloths (all moving?!) and eating great food and getting drunk with Laura in the Treehouse Restaurant and learning how to make chocolate ❤

The tour I went on had everything – all the highlights of the country, time to chill, adrenaline options and the peeps on my tour group were wicked, as were the tour leaders. A lot of older/retired people in my group (I was the youngest for most of the trip) but they were SO young at heart! Two people, John (retired, in CR with his wife) and Franklin (second tour guide) also had a big impact on me as they taught me more about ‘mindfulness’. Now, I don’t want to come across as *that* person that always posts motivational quotes and bangs on about being positive, but chatting with John and Franklin has made me pursue mindfulness since I’m back at home and I already feel better for it.

Anyway, this blog is about Costa Rica – I’m sure I’ll post about mindfulness at some point in the future!  I’ve broken it down by each place I visited, so if you’re reading this to get tips, hopefully that’ll help. In reality, it’s just because it’s how I want to remember the place…

SAN JOSE
Eat: I had the day to myself so I decided to go straight in and try a local cafe and have some Tico (Costa Rican) grub. I settled upon a place called Cafeotecha / Restaurante Kalu. It’s on the east side of the city and located in the middle of a really nice homely area of town.

The cafe does coffee and the restaurant has an extensive food menu. They even did cider which made me realise it’s probably a slightly classier place than the soda I was expecting! So, at 3pm I ordered a cider with a Full Tico Breakfast (got a compliment about my odd order from the waiter, score).

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I had gallo pinto (rice & beans), tortilla salsa, avocado, eggs, plantain + bacon to make it less veggie… Virtually every single breakfast option involves rice, beans and eggs in Costa Rica, so although this doesn’t seem like a ‘traditional meal’ it actually is! Avocados are everywhere and really tasty due to the CR climate, plantain and banana plantations line the Caribbean side of the country and there’s a lot of Mexican food on offer in CR, so the salsa and tortillas are also standard fare. All in all, great meal in a lovely setting – the cafe has a lovely outside garden which is GREAT when armed with cider and sunshine.
See: The Jade Museum is one of the things that appears on every ‘San Jose’ things to do lists. To be honest, I originally went to kill time. However, it’s actually a great way to spend a couple of hours and the little market next to the museum is a great place to buy cheap Imperial beer t-shirts 😉

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The Jade Museum has a few different rooms. One is full of jade objects… ok, all of them are, but that’s literally ALL that’s in one room. The others teach you all about indigenous Costa Rican history which, for me, was the highlight of the museum. You can learn about shamans and spirituality, how they used Jade for rituals, how the natives lived, used jade and their beliefs.

Listen: For the first time in my life, I went to the symphony. However, in San Jose the National Theatre decided to open the season with a 10.30am performance. It was my first day there so, coupled with jetlag, it was really weird going to the theatre in the morning! When I left I felt like it should have been 8pm… when, in fact, it was midday. Very odd.

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Anyway, the symphony was incredible – it was the Costa Rican National Symphony orchestra and I got stalls tickets for $20 (but you could sit in the rafters for only $2!). Comfy seats, a little warm, but the outstanding music made up for that.

The theatre itself is stunning too. You can take a free guided tour throughout the day (well worth it) and the cafe within the lobby does SUCH good coffee and cakes! I went for the Mocha with Amaretto which, unsurprisingly, was delish. They have loads of different blends on offer and if you’re in Costa Rica for coffee (most people are) then give the cafe a try, as well as the symphony #classybitch.

Love: What did I love about San Jose? Y’know, it’s like most capital cities: a mix of people, busy, noisy, dirty but with lots of hidden gems and a bustling art scene when you stray outside the centre. I really enjoyed the area I stayed in (northwest of centre by about 10 mins) – it was clearly the hipster part of town with trendy coffee shops, cool eateries, lots of street art etc. It’s a place I was happy to spend 2-3 days in, but I think that’s probably as much as you need considering how much more there is to Costa Rica!
MANUEL ANTONIO

Eat: The better places to eat are actually a short bus ride / 20 minute walk from where I stayed next to Manuel Antonio National Park. We went to El Avion, the main feature being an old airplane which sits in the middle of the restaurant and has been converted into a neon bar. But more about that later.

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I had nachos and beer while I was there (#LAD) but, nice and varied as the food is, the main attraction is the atmosphere. The views are incredible; we got there for sunset and with the fans twirling above us and the music playing, the whole place felt magical. Great views of the Pacific ocean!

As I said, you can actually go inside the airplane and have a drink. It’s neon and dark – a total contract to the nice restaurant outside! You can even go in the cockpit, which is also fun whilst trying to balance a beer…  One of the best bits? Walking back to my hotel from the restaurant. It’s downhill, takes about 20 minutes and is well worth it. To your right you have the waves of the Pacific Ocean and to the left you have the chirping and buzzing of insects in the forest. Gorgeous.

See:  So, obviously, the main thing to do here is wander through the National Park. I could go on for pages about the wildlife I saw, but I’ll keep it brief. Firstly, get a tour guide. $15 for a few hours and they’re fantastic. With their telescopic lenses you can see distant wildlife far away and you can use your mobile to take brilliant quality photos through the lenses.

As well as sloths, birds, monkeys the National park offers some spectacular beaches with way better sands and surf (and quieter) than the free beach outside the park. There are also some great hikes – I did the loop hike which was tough work but well worth it. Beautiful views, like the below.

Listen:  The sound of the sea. Oh, how I love the sound of the sea. I went in the ocean in a bikini for the first time since losing weight. Felt goood. But the sound of the sea feels better.

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Love: By the time I reach Manuel Antonio, I was fully in love with Imperial beer. Which, having never liked any beer other than Beer Lao was quite a big deal for me. It’s now officially my Costa Rica drink, the one that takes me back.

MONTEVERDE
Eat
: Treehouse Restaurant in Monteverde is great. It literally has a huge tree growing in the middle and I spent three hours there with my friend from my Tucan tour, Laura, eating and drinking and discussing everything and nothing.

I went for a breaded chicken and cheese passionfruit sauce salad. It was DIVINE. Laura had a steak which she also loved. The ambience of the place was great, the service was friendly and at night they have live jazz music. We recommended the place to other people on the tour and they all loved it too. Basically, go if you’re in Monteverde!

See: TOTALLY WENT ZIPLINING AT LAST! I love adrenaline, so if you want to feel the blood rushing through your veins, then I can’t recommend ziplining enough. You can zip line all over Costa Rica, but Monteverde Cloud Forest is the original and the best place to give it a try. Selvatura offers you 18 lines, ranging from 25m to 1 kilometre, all adorning the primary forest.

Trust me, there’s nothing like feeling the breeze as you fly through the trees. I also opted to go one step further and do the Tarzan swing and the Superman zipline: both are as amazing and terrifying as they sound! For the Tarzan swing you jump off a platform and literally swing through the trees. I loved it so much that I kept raising my feet so the guy couldn’t slow me down, haaa. The superman zipline was SO SO SCARY. It’s 1,000 metres and you literally feel like you’re flying… but it’s scary because obviously you can’t see the wires holding you to the zipline! The feeling of flying and seeing my little shadow on the treetops was incredible.

See: Understatement of the century: there are a lot of birds in Costa Rica. The National Parks are teaming with them and Monteverde is especially great for bird-spotting.

The birds of Costa Rica are amazing; they’re noisy, colourful and many are elusive. I was very lucky to see the Quetzal on a guided tour but also when I was wandering around Monteverde National Park on my own! However, going on a guided tour means you’ll not only see the birds, but you’ll learn about the different calls too. You’ll also see plenty of other birds that, true, may not be as famous or brightly coloured as the Quetzal, Tucan or Scarlet Macaws, but are just as beautiful.

Love: I fall in love with photographs from time to time. I’ll see somewhere and it immediately captures me. Oak Alley Plantation in New Orleans, for example.

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And this one above. I always knew it was a photo from Costa Rica, I was just never sure where. So when I realised it was Monteverde, in the section of the Cloud Forest I was visiting I was SO happy. As you can see in the photo below 🙂

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LA FORTUNA/ARENAL VOLCANO
Eat
: Right, I ate a LOT while in La Fortune, so I’mma give you a condensed version of the best places to munch.

Place 1: The Rainforest Cafe. I went here every morning for breakfast. Cheap, quick and amazing food. I went for the Strawberry pancakes with maple syrup (or the banana version) every morning. So, so good.
Place 2: Soda Viquez. It’s really local, basic and the food is great. Served on plastic plates, it’s very cheap and when our group sat down we also got complimentary garlic bread and rice pudding.  However, the highlight was the coconut and pineapple milkshake Dusted with nutmeg and SO good. I actually went back and just sat down for a shake one afternoon…

See: Central American is prime volcano location, with a number of volcanoes in Costa Rica still very much active. Although Volcán Arenal hasn’t erupted since 2010, it’s still considered active… which makes hiking it a safe, but still very fun, experience.

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We hiked to the 1992 lava trail, which offers spectacular views of The Arenal Volano and the surrounding area. There are lots of very reassuring DANGER signs, but it’s honestly an easy, safe hike – if you want more of a challenge you can head to the neighbouring Chato Volcano which has a beautiful lake in the crater to greet you.

See: I went to the Hot Springs in La Fortuna. Twice. I know. I am  NOT a Hot Springs / Relaxation person but screw it, when there are pools of water heating naturally by an active volcano available, I’ll jump in.

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There were water slides, seats with jacuzzi jets which you can sit on. And the best pool was tucked at the top of the spa – the piping hot spring flowed right into it and if you jumped in the cold pool before getting in the hot pool, your toes tingled. It’s essentially the swimming orgasm. DO IT.

Love: A sloth was trying to get laid in La Fortuna. It was hanging on an old sign right by the side of the road, so obviously we stopped. Turns out this sloth was simply on the wrong side of the road and had tried to cross earlier in the day, but kept getting scared by the cars. So, our driver tried to get her to cling onto a stick so he could carry the sloth to safety (and the men) but she got so scared that she stopped moving and closed her eyes.

So we left her. Luckily the next day she was on the other side of the road (we assume so because she wasn’t on the road so that can only be a good thing). So below is a photo of me and the joy I feel being around animals trying to make their way in the world.

I loved that little sloth. So much.
TORTUGUERO
Eat
:  Oreo iced coffee. That is all. Discovered at a place just off the main green bit on Tortuguero village,  name forgotten, oreo iced coffee forever burned in my brain.

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See: The chance of seeing a Jaguar in the wild is virtually nonexistent. They’re nocturnal, live deep in the jungle and there aren’t that many of them in the wild these days. AND I SAW ONE IN TORTUGUERO ON THE WAY TO LUNCH?!?

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Our Tucan tour guide, Franklin, spotted some howler monkeys kicking up a fuss, so we stopped the boat the take some photos. Then, we realised the monkeys were looking at something… and two jaguars appeared by the water’s edge. We must have been no more than ten metres away from them, with a perfect view of this one for about ten seconds. This photo was taken by another guy on my tour, John McAuthur, as I gazed on, stunned. If luck is on your side, then you could be lucky as we were.  But we were super lucky soooo you probably won’t.

See: Less a ‘see’, more a ‘stay’, but it’s my blog, but sshh. All Rankin’s Lodge is an incredible place. It feels remote and relaxing, but is an easy and beautiful 30 minute walk from the middle of Tortuguero. Willis, the owner, is BRILLIANT. He’s hilarious, knowledgeable and happy to take you in and out of town, tour the national park and gives you all sorts of tips about the area.

The lodge is beautiful – there are hammocks next to the water’s edge and an honesty bar, fully stocked with imperial (and water!) The food Willis’s wife cooks is delicious – honestly, try the Caribbean chicken or the fish, divine!

The cabins are spacious, comfy, clean and unusually cool considering the climate – there are fans if you get too hot. You’re only a 5 minute stroll from the beach and Caribbean sea, but it’s the views of the river that are most amazing (see below).

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Go here. It may not be as central as some other places, but you won’t regret it. Only thing that could improve it would be a swimming pool (as you can’t swim in the sea at Tortuguero due to turtles and riptides).

Love:  The way of life in Tortuguero is what I love. Having to go by boat everywhere. Roaming around the National Park in a boat was dreamy. This sunset:

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This view:

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The whole place. I just loved the whole place. And true, I didn’t go during prime turtle season but that just gives me a glorious reason to go back 🙂

CAHUITA
Eat
: I ate at Ricky’s Place a couple of times and it was really good. For some reason it’s not rated that much on Tripadvisor but I’d deffo recommend it.

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Ricky’s place is really central and opposite Cocos bar. So, you get their music, but don’t have to have it TOO loud. The food is good too. The portions are HUGE – the nachos are dirt cheap, a starter and way more than I could eat for a main meal. The chicken and fish options are good too – try the coconut rice with tomato chicken and plantain (above photo).

Happy hour runs until 6pm and the cocktails are strong. Service is a little slow, like everywhere in Cahuita, because they’re all so chilled out. Sit outside and watch the local guys playing dominos… so much fun!

See: Cahuita is on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica and offers all kinds of paradise including Playa Negra (a black sand beach), reggae music everywhere and a coral reef just off the shore of Cahuita National Park.

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I’d never been snorkelling before, so I figured the Caribbean was a pretty epic place to give it a try. The sail to the coral reef is beautiful (you might even spot dolphins) and the reef itself is stunning. The sea is clear too, with a guide on hand to spot things for you; I swam with multicoloured fish, lobsters and even sharks.

Be sure you head to Playa Negra (above photo) afterwards to relax and continue to make the most of the Caribbean sea.

See: The Jaguar Rescue centre is WELL worth a visit. I was staying in Cahuita, so it took me about 40 minutes on a local bus to get there. I was thinking of not visiting when I found out there are no jaguars there BUT please DO go, it was a great morning.

There’s everything else you could wish for here – sloths, pelicans roaming around free, owls, crocodiles, tucans flying about and other wild cats. I was lucky enough to see an ocelot actually awake and roaming around! ANOTHER WILD CAT FTW.

The guides are wonderful too – they only do two tours a day (9,30am and 11am) and the guides are all volunteers, so please give them a tip as they not only have a wealth of information, but they’re clearly passionate about what they do.

Most animals who arrive here come because they’re captured trying to be snuck through borders, or because they’re injured. They try to send them back to the wild, but some just wouldn’t survive. It’s a wonderful place and absolutely worth donating to.

Love: Much as I didn’t want to be hit on, I have to give the local guys in Cahuita creds for taking rejection so well. And for their sassy lines.

The best line I got was this one:

“Hey  baby,  wanna come to my bedroom for a smoke?”
“Non gracias.”
“Is it that you don’t want to come to my bedroom or do you not smoke ganja?”
I laughed and said “Both.”
“No worries baby, we can drink water on the street.”

…full marks for persistence.

…BACK TO SAN JOSE!
Eat: A short stroll from my hotel (located in hipster San Jose) was a cafe called Cafe De Los Deseos. it opens at 2pm and is beautifully decorated. The bar is laid back and the eating area is quirky too.

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The food is delicious – I went for veggie quesadillas (mushrooms and lots of cheese with salad). Really tasty, some of the best food I’d eaten on my 14 day tour of the country! They also do Imperial beer on tap and it’s really well priced too.

The staff are lovely and helpful – all in all a brilliant place. Tasty food, good prices – a really lovely find. Oh, and I managed to find the only cafe in San Jose with a toy lion ❤ #MeantToBe

See: The National Museum was worth a visit – at the time they had a fascinating exhibit on colonisation on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. The stone spheres are very interesting too! They’re considered an unsolved mystery, like the Easter Island statues. Hundreds have been found all over the county and no one knows for sure who made them or why.

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The butterfly garden is lovely and there’s lots to learn about pre-Columbian gold and Costa Rican history. I managed to get round the whole place in about 2 hours, I would have liked a little more to view – perhaps something more related to artwork. But all in all, can’t complain. Easy to find, affordable and a good way to spend a couple of hours.

Listen: I had a brilliant night at El Sotano. My friends and I went and all liked the place – our ages range from 25 – 65!

The bar is cool and nicely decorated with a piano free to play too. Drinks are reasonably priced and the DJ played 80s indie music which I liked! In the live room was a Madness tribute band but this didn’t disturb those of us in the bar.

The highlight was the jazz bar underground. Really intimate, great acoustics and a wonderful find. Well worth a visit.

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Franklin translated this poem for me; it’s about positive karma and not wasting your life. Very apt. A bonus was getting to listen to his voice as he translated – if you ever get him as a tour guide you’ll understand. Haaaa.

Love: Pura Vida. A Costa Rican phrase which means ‘Pure Life’. It’s used as a greeting, an agreement, a simple statement. It’s the law of the land in Costa Rica and it reminds me of all the positive times I had when I was there.

How can I not love a country whose law of the land means to live life simply and enjoy yourself? I challenge you to go to this beautiful country and not be inspired to live La Pura Vida yourself.

 

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