Costa Rica: Part Two
During our first eight days in Costa Rica, we had briefly stopped in the capital of San Jose before spending the majority of the week exploring the area surrounding Volcano Arenal. Over the next week and a half, we would make three more stops and visit both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts of the country.
On our ninth day in Costa Rica, we were heading to the mountainous town of Santa Elena to spend a couple days hiking the famous cloud forests. From La Fortuna, we took the two and a half hour bus ride ($9.83 total) to the town of Tilarán, then had to wait in Tilarán for about two hours before catching the next bus ($4.33 total) to Santa Elena. From the taxi from our hostel in La Fortuna until we arrived in Santa Elena, the day took almost nine hours, but we did save $32 by skipping on the more direct shuttle route.
When we got off the bus in Santa Elena, we were reminded how quickly the terrain and climate of your surroundings can change. Santa Elena is on top of a mountain, and the unrelenting winds are a constant reminder of that. After weeks of sitting at the bottom of our bags, our hoodies, jackets, and long pants were finally going to serve a purpose. It felt like we had moved to an entirely different region of the world.
With about an hour of daylight, we decided not to waste any time and check out our first sight in the area. A short walk outside of town is a large ficus tree. Some time ago, its host tree died, and the surrounding branches of the ficus were left behind, forming a ladder ascending to the tree line above. We climbed the interior of the network of branches to the top, the only difficulty occurring when Andy got stuck towards the top when the opening narrowed. After twisting, turning, grunting, and cursing for a minute, we were both at the top looking out at the forest below and the Pacific Ocean in the distance. We had only found out about the tree a few days prior while talking to a friend in La Fortuna and, like many of our favorite things in Costa Rica, it was free.
The next two days in Santa Elena were spent hiking around the cloud forests. Cloud Forests are almost like high elevation rainforests that exist because they sit amongst the clouds most of the year. The first one we visited was the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve (normally $16/person, but we were given free bracelets). We spent most of the day hiking nearly every foot of the trails in the reserve with a couple of recently acquired friends from the Netherlands. In total, we ended up trekking about six miles through the mud, unsuccessfully looking for wildlife. It wasn’t until we boarded the bus back to town that we saw a coatis sneaking across the parking lot.
We had a bit better luck the next day, after only a few minutes in Monteverde Cloud Forest ($22.50/person), we spotted five of the elusive quetzal birds. We considered leaving right at that moment. It’s hard to top that. Aside from the quetzals, the most memorable aspect of the cloud forests is how dense they are and how the plants grow on top of each other. Within each of the reserves, plants are growing on grass, which is growing on trees, covered in moss.
After spending a few days cooling off in Santa Elena and the surrounding cloud forests, we headed to another of Costa Rica’s most famous destinations, Manuel Antonio. To get from the mountains to the Pacific coast, we started at 5:00AM and caught three buses ($15.10 total) before arriving at our hostel that afternoon.
The main attraction in Manuel Antonio is the national park of the same name. We were told that they only allow six hundred people in the park each day, and a line begins to form before its 7:00AM opening. 6:00AM the next day, we were standing at the ticket office by ourselves. However, it wasn’t long before others started to show up and, five minutes before opening, the line extended down the street outside.
Manuel Antonio was well worth the early wake up and the entrance cost ($16/person). We saw countless monkeys, some as close as an arm’s length away. Gangs of raccoons would wander through, looking for any stray food or unattended belongings. The agoutis that we were so excited to see in La Fortuna were now as common as squirrels back home. The beaches, framed by jungle, provided the perfect setting to eradicate the mental reminders that we only had two weeks until our flight home. We spent the next day on a nearby public beach and made sure to enjoy the sunset from the deck of our hostel. The last Pacific beach sunset of the trip.
Just three days after arriving in Manuel Antonio, we were once again on the move. It took us nearly an entire day to get from the Pacific Coast to the Caribbean town of Puerto Viejo. Much like our previous travel day, we needed three buses ($37.44 total) to get from one destination to the next. We arrived in Puerto Viejo with empty stomachs and nearly every restaurant kitchen closed for the night. The man grilling meat skewers ($1.67 each) on the street corner in front of the grocery store was a savior.
Puerto Viejo definitely has the Caribbean feel, but it is still very much Costa Rican. Jerk chicken is not as prevalent as we had hoped. Instead, the gallo pinto gets some coconut milk added to it, and the omnipresent pollo en salsa gets some added spice. Otherwise, the scenery you would expect from the Caribbean is here in abundance. Over the three days in the town, we visited the beaches of Playa Cocles, Punta Uva, and Cahuita National Park, undoubtedly some of the best we’ve seen in our lives.
We did get our jerk chicken, something we had been dreaming of since Caye Caulker. On our first full day in town, we were headed to another place for food when we stumbled across a man with a grill, a couple of tables, and some plastic chairs right on the beach. It’s sights like this that make us forget every volcano we’ve hiked, every rare animal we’ve seen, and every waterfall we’ve swam in. It’s a place much like this that you’ll find the two of us when death takes us. Speaking of death…
Rip currents are a very real thing. Playa Cocles has some intense rip currents. We went to Playa Cocles. We now know just how powerful rip currents are. This is a story best told in person.
All of the beaches we visited in Puerto Viejo were amazing. Some not as well suited for swimming (Playa Cocles), but all pristine and picturesque. Cahuita had the added bonus of howler monkeys roaring in the background while we sat on the beach and jumping from limb to limb above our heads as we walked the trail.
In Puerto Viejo, we also got the closer view of a sloth we had been hoping for. When walking back to our hostel from dinner, we noticed a sloth climbing across the power lines alongside the road. Unfortunately, with nothing but other power lines to climb on, the local fire department had to be called to rescue the sloth. Watching the rescue unfold over the course of a half hour was our post-dinner entertainment for the night. It wasn’t the last sloth we saw though, the next morning there was one resting in a tree in the backyard of our hostel. Not bad considering we stumbled across more around Puerto Viejo than we had on the “Sloth Paradise” trail in La Fortuna.
If the last 1300 words weren’t indicative enough, these eleven days were exhausting. We somehow managed to see the country’s highlights, while still sticking to our budget. At the end of the entire nineteen days, we felt that we had visited nearly every site and saw animals we never expected to. The only things we missed out on were those that would’ve required a car to reach. We have a small list that we’ll keep as our reason to return. We got so much out of Costa Rica, but it also took a lot out of us. We were heading to the Panama border pretty banged up. The constant relocating every few days was starting to wear on us. Andy had a recently healed jellyfish sting, a large cut on his leg, a possible ear infection, and a recent near death experience. Between all of the people we met and the experiences we had, Costa Rica will certainly stand out. The country is as beautiful and mesmerizing as everyone makes it out to be. It really is like a natural amusement park, crowds included. We’re still not sure anyone actually lives here.