Costa Rica – Christmas, 2010/New Year, 2011

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

This year, David and I decided to celebrate Christmas in Costa Rica. In the past, we would arrive in the country and then “plan as we went”. This is a fun and great way to travel…taking local transportation, wandering around looking for hotels, etc. However, due to the fact that it was Christmas, a busy time to travel and that we only had a couple of weeks, we decided to go through a tour company.

Over the internet, through tripadvisor.com (a great website for travel information) we found Pacific Trade Winds (PTW) to help us organize our trip. We had researched activities that we wanted to do, sent the list to the PTW and they set up an itinerary for us to review. After a couple of changes, we paid for the trip. I must say that we thought it was reasonable. We had 14 nights in hotels, 15 breakfasts, 3 lunches, all of our tours, transfer to and from the airport and transportation between cities for $1,500. I can’t say enough good things about this company. A week before our trip, they sent us 20 vouchers for everything and the rest went like clock work! We never had to wait more than 15 minutes two times for a pick-up.

There are pros and cons for traveling this way. The pro is that it was so much easier to arrive and have everything planned. The con was that we were locked into the itinerary, so when we were in Monteverde and the weather was horrible for the 3 days we were there, we couldn’t move on. However, in the future, we will definitely consider another pre-planned trip like this when time is limited. It was just so nice, not to have to think and plan!

Tuesday, Dec 21, David and I both made our way to Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. Wednesday, we flew out of Santo Domingo on Taca Airlines on the 8:50 AM flight. It was our first time flying on Taca. It was a nice flight. I watched “Letters to Juliette” during the three hour flight.


We arrived in San Jose at 9:30 Costa Rican time, which is a two hour time difference from the Dominican Republic. After going through customs, we were greeted by a guide from Pacific Trade Winds who explained where to go, after we had retrieved our bags, for our ride to the Grand Hotel.

Our guide was waiting outside and gave us a history of Costa Rica on the ride to the hotel. Honestly, it was a bit overwhelming. David and I both agreed we would have preferred to look out the window at the scenery, rather than learning about the last volcanic eruption and looking at various pamphlets that the guide had for us.

The Grand Hotel is located in downtown San Jose next to the National Theater in the Plaza de la Cultural. Behind the hotel is a pedestrian walkway where most of the stores are. It is a great area for the locals to shop or just hang out and people watch. At night, there are many entertainers in that area.

The Grand Hotel was a lovely, old structure. The rooms were updated but didn’t have air conditioning. Originally, we had a room that looked over the plaza area, but with the windows open, it was too noisy to sleep. We changed to a room on the inside of the building.

After checking into the hotel, we explored San Jose. We tried to exchange money at a bank. It amazed us how long the lines were and the wait was. The tour book was right about having to wait forever to exchange money. We went to a couple of banks and finally found a Scotiabank, across the plaza, from our hotel that had the smallest line.

We visited Mercado Central, a marketplace, where many of the locals do their shopping. There was a variety of shops, lunch counters and souvenir shops. We ate at one of the lunch counters. A local lady was eating there and was very helpful with explaining what the different foods were. She said that the food at this counter was good and cheap and that she ate there everyday. They were making large corn tortillas with cheese that was very tasty. Then, we sampled the corn tortilla topped with an egg and rice and beans. Both were served on banana leaves. They use banana leaves to serve food and wrap foods to be cooked. Banana leaves were sold in stores, which I found interesting.

At the other end of the pedestrian walkway was Mercado de Artesania. This market was dedicated to selling souvenirs. Popular souvenirs for Costa Rica are beautiful wooden bowls, painted coffee bean carts that were used when harvesting coffee beans, the traditional coffee mugs with coffee filters and wooden jewelry. I didn’t buy anything as it was the beginning of the trip. It was fun to window shop.

We made our way back to the hotel and had a glass of wine and beer at the Cafe 1930 in the lobby of the hotel. Part of it is outside and offered a great view of the plaza. It is a great place to relax and watch the people or in our case, the entertainers that night. All the while, listening to the piano player at the cafe. Wow, could he play!!!

For dinner, we were going to look for a restaurant suggested in the guide book but on the way, we passed a grocery store. Neither of us were really hungry, so we got some fruit and went back to the room….it was a long day and with the time exchange, we were very tired!


Thursday – December 23, 2010

We slept really well except we forgot to turn the phone alarm off!!! It was set for 4:30 AM, Dominican time, which was 2:30 Costa Rican time….grrrrrrrrr!!!! We did get up at 5:20 to pack and be ready for our 7:00 AM pick-up to head to the town of Fortuna. Breakfast was a lovely buffet on the fifth floor of the hotel. We had eggs, gallo pico which is the Costa Rican version of rice and beans – it is so delicious, fruit and toast. Costa Rican coffee is delicious!!

We were picked up at 7:00 by Gray Line tours for our 2 1/2 hour trip to Fortuna. We were one of the first to get picked up and got to see various parts of San Jose while collecting others who were heading to Fortuna.

The trip was through a mountainous area and the weather was foggy, drizzly and cold. I was beginning to worry that we wouldn’t have enough warm clothes. However, on the other side of the mountain, the sun broke through and the afternoon was lovely.

We stayed at La Fortuna Hotel on a side street from the downtown area. It appeared to be relatively new, very clean, simple but adequate. I guess that is how I would describe all of the hotel rooms that we had. When I set the tour up, I expressed that we didn’t want to stay in 5-star resorts with pools and spas. We wanted no-frill rooms that were close to the center of town. Our rooms were adequate on this trip but next time I think I would like a little more of an upgrade. Oh well, honestly, how much time does one spend in a room while traveling?

Fortuna is a small tourist town at the base of Arenal volcano, one of the 110 active volcanoes in Costa Rica. Our room looked out on the volcano. Sadly, the weather was so poor the three days we were there, that we had a 10 minute view of the whole volcano.

We walked around the town which had a lovely park in the center that was crowned with large Catholic Church at the north end. Visiting some of the souvenir shops, we came across a great piece of folk art. We both fell in love with it and contemplated buying it. However, it was too big to travel with and we feared, to fragile to send back to the states. It was a picture of the volcano with local houses in the front part. All of the picture was made various pieces of material…wood for the fence, sand, plastic palm trees glued on. It was such a great piece of folk art made by an elderly gentleman in San Jose. We did try to locate him on our last day in San Jose, at the end of our trip, but had no luck.

We had a couple of tours arranged for our stay in Fortuna and had a free day. We decided to go to on the Caño Negro area for river boat tour on Rió Frió, which was near the Nicaragua boarder. Caño Negro was designated in 2007 as the core of the new UNESCO biosphere called Agua y Paz (water and peace). This biosphere encompasses more than 2 million acres of wildlife habitat in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Dinner was at a local restaurant that appeared to be popular with locals and tourist. It was located across the street from the park. We had the “casado” plates. It is a popular dish and is called casado (which means married) because it is what men expect for a meal after they are married. It is served with fish, meat or chicken and has sides of rice, beans, salad, mash potatoes and/or sweet plantains.

While we were eating, a young man drove up on a motorcycle that was obviously packed for a long trip of traveling. He looked hispanic and after he had placed his order, curiosity got the best of me (!!) and I went over to talk with him. I approached him in Spanish and soon learned that he was from Austin, TX. Gratefully, we switched to English! His name is Alejandro Chacón and is a recent college graduate. He was on a motorcycle adventure driving from Austin, TX to the tip of Argentina – Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire). He is keeping a blog at: www.motorcyclesouthamerica.blogspot.com.

After a quick walk through the park, where we bought beautiful California grapes (!), we went back to the hotel and called it a day.


Friday – December 24, 2010

Our day started out with breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast with strawberry jam and fresh pineapple, papaya and banana. Since our morning was unplanned, we hired a taxi to take us to Arenal lake. The weather was overcast, cloudy and relatively cold. We walked along the lake for awhile and at the other end, we saw a coatimundi also known as a pizote, which is a member of the raccoon family. It has a long tail with rings, much thinner and longer in the body and legs. They tend to be comfortable around people and look for a food handout. We also saw some cutter ants. These are amazing little ants that cut up leaves and march one-by-one carrying their little leaf load back to the den. It is an amazing sight to see a long line of pieces of bright green leaves on the forest floor.

Our afternoon was a “Liquid Lava” hike around the base of Arenal volcano. I am glad that we had prepaid for our tours because with the way the weather was, I don’t think I would have been too motivated to walk around in cold and rain. Thank goodness for Gor-Tex and that we remembered to pack our jackets! We had excellent tour guides and saw a three toed sloth, spider monkeys, various birds, owl butterfly and a toucan. The tour ended at the panoramic viewing area of the volcano. We were given a drink of Liquid Lava (rum, fruit juice and grape juice) to enjoy to view with. You guessed it, by the time we reached the viewing area, it was dark and the mountain was socked in with clouds so our panoramic view was of darkness.

After our hike, we went to the Baldi Hot Spring for a soak in the wonderful hot spring pools. We spent a couple of hours there soaking in the warm water and sliding down the water slides. It was a great way to warm up from the elements! Often, people can get a view of the hot, red lava running down the side of the volcano from the hot springs. We weren’t so lucky. The volcano hadn’t been active for about a month and if it had been, the clouds surrounding it this night would have prevented us from seeing anything.

After the hot springs, we attended Christmas Eve Service at the Catholic church in town. It was all in Spanish but it was fun to watch the people and try to figure out what the priest was trying to say. We stayed for 1 1/2 hour and when they started serving communion, we decided to leave. Bed felt good this night!


Saturday – December 25, 2010

MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!

had a 10:00 AM pick-up for our canyoning adventure. Canyoning is our new favorite sport! It is hiking through streams, jumping down small waterfalls and repelling down the larger ones. This canyoning hike took to two large waterfalls – the first one was 150’ tall and the second one was 220’.

Again, the weather was cold and rainy. I was freezing even before we started hiking. Gratefully, one of our guides gave me his jacket, which helped a little once we got wet. We had a great group of people on our tour. Some of them were staying at our hotel. Our new friends are from the New York area are Jenny, Henry and Hong….wonderfully, nice people that add to the fun of the day!

After hiking we had a lunch of rice, beans and macaroni salad, along with meat and chicken. We got back to the hotel at 3:30 and washed up.

Christmas dinner was at the Liquid Lava Restaurant in Fortuna. We did the “mexican theme”….sangria, nachos and quesadillas. The night ended by watching the classic “Home Alone” back in our hotel room!


Sunday – December 26, 2010

Today was our Caño Negro boat tour. It was a two hour drive to the river. On the way, we stopped for a break and saw trees full of iguanas near the restaurant. They were very good size and the males were a beautiful bright orange….just hanging out in the trees.

The river is located in the town of Los Chiles. Fortunately, this day was sunny and much warmer than the past two days. There were several tour boats and we also saw a couple of boats being loaded with luggage for people traveling, by the river, to Nicaragua. That would have been a fun adventure. While cruising the river, we saw for birds – egrets, Amazon Kingfishers, Great Blue Heron, Snakefish and the Common Potoo. It was our boat captain who spotted the Common Potoo and how he saw this bird is beyond me. It has a body of brown and white and blended perfectly into the tree. I took a picture but if you look at it, you will think it is a picture of a tree trunk!!

Other wildlife we saw, were Jesus Christ Lizards called such because they appear to walk on water. They are bright green and very pretty. There were several Caimans, part of the crocodile family but much smaller, sunning themselves along the shoreline. On a tree trunk, we saw about seven small long-nose bats. They were lined up on the tree trunk and would occasionally bounce altogether. Also, we were treated to seeing a beautiful blue Morpho butterfly. Of course, there were Howler monkeys and White faced monkeys in the tree tops.

We had lunch just outside of Los Chiles at the Doña Sonia restaurant. Since I don’t eat meat or poultry, I had the rice, beans and vegetable plate.

We were treated to seeing a three-toed sloth on the ride back to La Fortuna. The locals call these animals “perezosos” which means lazy in Spanish because they barely move. The sloth we saw was eating…it was so very cool to see one and to actually see it moving. Due to their lack of movement, the sloth’s fur is a small eco-system. The rain forest, where they reside, is so wet and the sloth rarely moves. This allows for two species of blue-green algae to live on the sloth. The algae causes the sloth to have a greenish color that provides camouflage for the sloth in the forest. A non-parasite insect also resides in the fur and feeds off the algae which keeps the algae growth under control. I was able to get some great photos of this sloth eating!!!

We arrived back to the hotel at 3:30 and after a light grocery store meal of fruit and canned fish, we went to bed early.


Monday – December 27, 2010

Today was a travel day to the Monteverde area. You can guess the weather….rainy, cold and overcast. David and I brought one pair of long pants, one long sleeve shirt, I brought my fleece jacket and we both had our Gor-tex jackets. This was our layered “uniform” for the first week of the trip. Each night, I would rinse out our shirts, which were fortunately, quick drying material!

Our pick-up was at 8:30 for a boat ride across Lake Arenal. On a clear day, this would have been lovely, today it was cold and long! On the other side of the lake, we were met by a van that we loaded into for our one hour ride on a dirt road through the mountains. We met a father and son traveling together. Dad lived in Boston and the son had grown up in Yarmouth, ME! During the trip, we met a group of cattle being herded down the mountain by cowboys! Along the hillside, we saw the coffee plantations. We passed over the Pacific Crest line and our driver said on a clear day, you can see the Pacific and Caribbean ocean along with the Arenal volcano. Not this day with the fog, clouds, rain and high winds.

We stayed in the town of Santa Elena at the Finca Valverde hotel. Finca stands for farm and this hotel was located on an old farm. The lodge and our room was surrounded by the rain forest. To get to our room, we had to walk over a suspension bridge that crossed a gully with a stream way below. Each day, we were treated around 11:00 AM to visits from the white faced monkeys that lived nearby. They would come out for treats of bananas and nuts….so cute, curious and gentle.

We walked around the town, which was obviously built up due to tourism. There were mostly hostels, restaurants, tour companies and souvenir shops. At the Morphos restaurant, I had a cappuccino and David had a blackberry and yogurt smoothie. This restaurant is named after the beautiful blue butterfly and the walls were painted with murals of the butterfly. The tables were large, rustic wooden furniture. It was a unique place.

We did a night tour of the rain forest at the Hidden Valley Trail up the mountain from Finca Valverde. There was a beautiful sunset just before we started our hike. We saw several birds sleeping, a leaf bug…this looked just like a leaf. Our guide showed us a tarantula’s den and coaxed the tarantula out far enough for us to see it. Also, we saw an amazing anthill that was 10 years old. It was the largest anthill I had ever seen!


Tuesday – December 28, 2010

This morning, we had a 7:30 pick-up for our zip-line tour with Adventura Tours. We met Kayla Christoffersen and Twigz (James) McGuire, a couple of college students from Winona College in Winona, MN who were traveling through Costa Rica. Once we got geared up with the proper harnesses and gloves and received our instructions, we were lead to the course to zip along 12 zip-lines, repel down one tree, swing on a Tarzan swing and end it all with a Superman zip-line position, 330’ above the ground.

It was a BLAST despite the rainy, cold weather. The rain made it interesting for stopping at times as the lines were really wet and it was tough to slow down when you were approaching the platforms.

Somewhere along my travels I saw a t-shirt that summed up the adventures of life: Don’t feel the fear – live the adventure!!! I couldn’t have said it any better and it is my new mantra!

Back at the hotel, we fed the monkeys bananas and then heading to where we had taken the night tour. It is known as Sendero Valle Escondido (Hidden Valley). Along the way, there were several art galleries and souvenir shops that we stopped in to look around. One of the better art galleries was the Cooperativa de Artesanía de Santa Elena y Monteverde. It is home to about 90 artist who sell their creations. Some were even working there while we looked around. There were many tempting things to buy. We particularly liked a carving from the root of a coffee plant, however, we decided against buying it.

Eventually, we arrived at Hidden Valley and walked the trails. We didn’t see much wildlife – a common robin (not like our robin) which is the country bird and an agouti, which is from the rodent family and looks like a guinea pig but with longer legs. We revisited the 10 year old anthill and enjoyed the views around the valley.

After the hike, we walked back into the town Santa Elena and visited the local bakery. David had a delicious piece of white cake with some kind of sweeten cream sauce. I had a sweet bread with cream cheese. Then, we went across the street to the local cheese factory store (La Lecheria) and shared a coffee ice cream. My gosh, it was extremely rich.

After all of the snacks in the afternoon, we opted for a meal from the grocery store of salmon, fruit and gallo pico in a can. The night passed quietly in our hotel room with some reading before turning in.


Wednesday – December 29, 2010

Today was the suspension bridge tour which was just so-so mostly due to the weather. We didn’t see any birds or animals except for an agouti and a pizote (of the raccoon family). Our guide gave us tons of information about the various plants. In all, we crossed 8 suspension bridges.

One interesting thing we did on this tour, was climb inside the truck of a tree that had been hollowed out by a ficus tree. They had rope steps that we used to pull ourselves to climb up to the last suspension bridge.

Back at the hotel, Luis, the manager of the hotel, gave us a ride to the local medical clinic. For the past couple of days, especially during the night, I had felt like I had symptoms of a bladder infection. I knew that ignoring it wouldn’t make it go away, so bit the bullet and went to the clinic. I was right, I had an infection. The Dr wrote a prescription and sent us on our way.

I was impressed with the Dr. Fortunately, he spoke English. Up to this point, I had been doing relatively well with my Spanish. They seem to speak it very clearly and I was able to follow the conversations much better than in the Dominican Republic. However, when it comes to my health and money, I want conversations in English! I felt better about going to the Drs in Costa Rica, rather than the Dominican Republic.

In town, we got the prescription filled and had a great veggie burrito for lunch. The burrito was from a little stand in Santa Elena and it was delicious!

The rest of the afternoon was spent taking a tour of a sugar cane and coffee farm, Trapiche Finca. Trapiche is the Spanish word for the sugar cane press that the farmers used in earlier times to extract the juices from the sugar canes. They would hook the oxen to the press and the oxen would walk around in a circle to operate it.

This tour was one of the better ones that we took. We really enjoyed just walking around the farm. It was in such a lovely setting. Once in awhile, when we looked across the rolling hills, with the views of the Pacific ocean, we were reminded of our trip to Italy. Our guide was a member of the family who owned the farm but he didn’t live on the property. The farm had been in the family for several years.

The beginning of the tour he introduced us to the aracache plant which grows in the ground and is related to the celery family. Due to the fact that it take much work to prepare, it is mostly used on special occasions like weddings and holidays. At the end of the tour, we were treated to a taste of it. It was OK, but nothing too exciting.

Our guide continued to show us the banana and plantain trees that were growing on the property. The trees take around 10 to 15 months to grow before producing fruit. The life of a banana tree is about 8 to 10 years. After this period, they cut the tree down and use it for compost for the coffee plants on the farm.

Next, he showed us the sugar cane field. It takes the sugar cane about a year to grow. It is a miserable plant to harvest because the leaves are razor sharp and the stalk has small thorns on it. In the past, they would burn the fields before harvesting the cane but today, it is against the law as it burns the trees as well, if the fire gets out of control.

In Costa Rica, the Nicaraguans harvest the sugar cane fields and in the Dominican Republic, it is the Haitians that do the harvesting. It is considered the lower end of the working ladder and is beneath many Dominicans or Costa Ricans to do that type of work. The other option, is to use machinery designed for cutting the sugar cane fields.

As many of you know, I love, love, love coffee! So, it was fun to learn about one of my favorite beverages. Initially, when they are planting coffee seedlings, they will plant two together. It takes about 2 years of growth before a plant will start producing coffee beans. Then, it will produce them for about 5 years. After the 5 year period, they will cut the bush and in a year and a half, it will regrow and produce beans again.

When the beans are red, they are ready for harvest. Harvesting is done by hand and put in a basket that is strapped around the worker’s waist. The next step is to remove the outside hull and put the beans in a rack for drying. The racks are in an enclosed structure made of a white tarp-like material. The heat from the sun dries the beans. They know the beans are dry enough by the sound they make when they are picked up and dropped through the worker’s hands.

Once dried, another hull is removed by a machine and sent on to the sorter. A single round bean is top quality. The smaller beans and 2 beans that have grown together is are considered a lower quality.

Finally, it is roasted over an even heat and not fire. When the beans are finished roasting, they are taken from the machine and the heat is sucked away because if they allowed it them to cool, they would continue to roast too much.

They used wonderful oxen carts, that were brightly painted with beautiful designs, to transport the beans from the fields to the processing area. The wheels were solid and decorated as well. They didn’t use the spoke wheels because the mud from the fields would build up on the wheels and easily break.

Other crops that were grown on the farm were pineapples and papaya trees. They also had beautiful hydrangea flowers…one of my favorites…..growing on the property. Plus, a beautiful German Shepard dog running around. I seriously believe I could spend a good couple of months living and working on that farm. It was beautiful!!!

Our last stop was at the sugar shack. They had an old distillery set up to demonstrate how “guaro” – alcohol made from sugar cane – is made. Today, it is illegal to make guaro to drink as it is usually 80% proof alcohol and what is sold for alcohol in stores today is about 30% proof. This farm still produces guaro with special permission from the government because they use it as a natural bug repellent for the coffee bean plants against the beetle bug.

In the sugar shack, they boil sugar cane juice down in large kettles until it is caramel consistency. Once boiled down, it is poured into a mold, about the size of a medium mixing bowl. These “chunks” of brown sugar are sold in stores and as one needs sugar, they break or cut pieces off and put in recipes, coffee or whatever.

With some of the caramelized sugar, we made candy that they call perica. The caramelized sugar was put on a wooden counter top. We were given a wooden spatula to stir it with. We could mix in coconut, nuts, chocolate into the sugar. Then, we stirred the mixture fast until it cooled into a fudge-like consistency. It was good but, oh my gosh, extremely sweet!!!

Our tour ended with a cup of coffee, made the old-fashioned way with dripping the hot water through the filter into the cup. It is called Cafe Chorreado. The celery root flavored aracache was served on tortillas and lemonade made with brown sugar were also offered. It was a great, informative tour.

After the tour, we got dropped off downtown Santa Elena and met Joe, from Ottawa, who we met on the suspension bridge tour this morning. We had a glass of wine at the restaurant Trio, located behind the local grocery store. It had a porch that overlooked the river. For the first time in 3 days, the wind wasn’t blowing and we were able to sit outside! We walked back to the hotel and packed to get ready for our morning pick-up. We are headed to the beach! I can’t wait to see sunshine and warmth!!!


Thursday – December 30, 2010

Wouldn’t you know it? Today, when we got up it was a beautiful, sunny day with NO WIND!!! Of course, this was the day we were leaving to travel to the beaches on the Pacific coast. Our destination was Manual Antonio a national park. The ride down the mountain was scenic with beautiful views of rolling hills and the Pacific ocean. For the first 6 miles, the dirt road down the mountain was very rough and bumpy. Once on the paved main road, the traveling was better.

Our four hour trip took us through an area where there were Howler monkeys, which we stopped to see. Then, passing over a bridge, our guide let us out to see the alligators in the river below. There were about 15 of them and a couple of them were huge!!!! I believe that one could easily have topped the 200 pound mark. As we got closer to the coast, we passed through large groves of coconut trees. The coconuts are harvested and processed for their oil.

The village next to Manuel Antonio is Quepos. We really didn’t care for this place. It was much dirtier than the other villages we had visited and there was more of a homeless population. Many of them looked like surfers who had come and never left.

The Manual Antonio area is very hilly with beautiful vegetation. Along the road are various hotels and restaurants. At the end of the road is the Manual Antonio national park.

Our hotel, Las Tres Banderas (The Three Flag Hotel) is owned by a Polish man, Andy. Initially, Andy immigrated to the US before settling in Costa Rica, hence “three flags”. It was a small hotel which he built in the early 1990s and was surrounded by the jungle vegetation. Our room had a lovely little balcony in the back that looked out onto a beautiful garden full of flowers.

After checking in, we hopped a taxi back to Quepos and wandered around. Close to the water, there was a pedestrian street with a local market offering vegetables, jewelry and other trinkets. We ate dinner at “El Gran Escape” restaurant. I had cerviche and seafood paella. The cerviche was good but had more of a vinegar flavor than compared to cerviche in Peru, which is made with juices from a limon (a cross between a lemon and lime). I think I prefer the Peruvian cerviche over the Costa Rican. David had a Portebella mushroom sandwich.

After our dinner, we got a taxi back to the hotel and spent the rest of the night reading and watching television.


Friday, December 31, 2010

Boy, what a way to wrap up the year 2010! This morning our tour was a sailing and snorkeling tour around the shoreline of Manuel Antonio area. It was on a catamaran that was about 40’. There were 5 of us tourist and a crew of 4! Our main guide was Minor and he was wonderful and charming! We motored out of the sound to the sea. Once out far enough, we set the sails and drifted around for awhile. It was so relaxing, sitting in the sun, drinking rum and fruit drinks and listening to the tunes of Jason Mraz…”I’m Yours” and some reggae tunes.

The scenery was lovely, the beaches of the Manual Antonio park with the palm trees gently swaying. The lush, green vegetation covering the hills and the small islands off of the shore. We saw a melon nose dolphin and some flying fish.

After awhile, we went into a cove and went snorkeling around a volcanic rock formation in the water. Unfortunately, the tide was coming in and the water was murky, not clear. We were still able to see some pretty tropical fish. My favorite were blue ones with neon blue dots. There were other all blue fish and some fish with blue and yellow strips.

After snorkeling, we swam around the boat and did some diving from the boat. It had been years since I have done any diving. Quite fun!! Lunch was served on the boat – grilled fish, veggies and fruity, rum drinks. We got back to shore around 1:00. It was a glorious morning!

We stayed close to the hotel after our tour. The rest of the day was spent reading on our balcony.

New Years Eve was celebrated at the hotel. The buffet dinner was part of our hotel package. The buffet was a Polish feast of sauerkraut, Polish sausage, many other meat dishes….all of which, I am told, were very good. I ate the Chinese fish and vegetable dish, rice and salad. We ate dinner with Cindy and Matt, a mother and son from western Massachusetts. We actually met them at the hotel in Monteverde and met up with them again in Manual Antonio. Also, we shared the table with Josh from Colorado who was traveling in Costa Rica for a month. It was fun sharing travel stories and experiences with them.

Later New Years Eve, we met a family from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada who were also staying at the hotel. My gosh, I thought that I had traveled in my lifetime…I didn’t hold a candle to these people! For starters, Vivian, the wife/mother, who is an architect and her husband took a trip around the world for their honeymoon. After that, the families’ hobby was traveling. Their two college-age children are so well traveled. I am envious! I had an amazing conversation with Vivian and her children and really didn’t get to talk much to the husband. As I was heading back to our room, I saw the husband, Bill, and made a brief comment to him about how wonderful his family is and how I so enjoyed meeting them. We started talking and he said that he was a lawyer in the Edmonton area.

Well, over 30 years ago, on my first trip to Europe, I met and traveled for four months with two men from Edmonton, Alberta. Peter is a lawyer. So, I mentioned to Bill that I had met and traveled with Peter V from Edmonton, who is also a lawyer, and possibly Bill knew him. Can you believe that not only did Bill know Peter but they went to law school together???? Is it six degree or should I say one degree of separation in this case! The world is definitely getting smaller and smaller!


Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year!!! We took a taxi to Manual Antonio Park and got there around 9:30. The park was still open, which surprised me. The travel book said that the park is open to the first 600 people and that you should get there early. I had no desire to get attempt to get there early and was prepared to wait, if we had to. Amazingly, no one else attempted to arrive early because we were able to purchase our tickets and walk right in.

Tour guides are available for hire at the gate. They have high powered scopes which allow you to view the different birds and animals along the way. Honestly, at this point in our trip, David and I were “tour and guided out” so we opted to walk in and leave to chance whatever we might see.

Walking ahead of us was a family from the area. Their daughter taught Spanish to English speaking people and knew English really well. Her father was amazing at spotting birds and animals! He was pointing things out to the guides! He showed us a toucan but most amazing was the boa constrictor. This snake was high up in a tree and had just constricted around an iguana for a meal. He was in a knot and he looked like a burl on a tree. How in the world this man ever saw this snake is beyond me.

At the park, there are three beaches. One beach was closed off due to debris that was left behind from the result of a recent bad storm. The first beach was crowded, so we continued on to the next one. The second one was the one we had seen from the sailing excursion. It was not as busy and lovely. We sat and read on the beach for awhile and then continued exploring the park.

The next trail we took was to Cathedral Point. Along the way, we saw a large red headed woodpecker. The view at the top of the trail was beautiful. Below, the water was an amazing turquoise color. Walking out of the park, we saw a two-toed sloth. So despite the fact that we didn’t have a guide, we saw lots of wildlife that day!

After leaving the park, we started walking to find a place to each lunch. We walked and walked and walked….all uphill!!! One reward for all the walking we did was we were treated to seeing a group of howler monkeys and one had a baby on her back. Finally, at about the top of the hill was El Avion (The Airplane) Restuarant where we ate lunch. A US airplane was the structure for the restaurant. This airplane had quite a history. It was the sister airplane that was shot down in Nicaragua involved in the Iran-Contra scandal. David wasn’t hungry so just had a soda, I had a great vegetarian sandwich.

After lunch, we caught the local bus to Quepo. Since it was New Years, many of the stores were closed. David bought a pair of reading glasses at a pharmacy that was open and we were able to check our email at an internet store. For dinner, we did the grocery store meal of tuna and fruit.

We were very tired when we got back to the hotel. We watched the Rose Bowl to, sadly, see TCU of Fort Worth, TX beat the Wisconsin Badgers by 2 points!!! Obviously, I was cheering for the Badgers!!


Sunday, January 2, 2011

Today was a travel day to the town of Domincal, 1 1/2 hour south of Manual Antonio on the Pacific coast. This morning, we said so long (I don’t say good-byes because that is so final) to our new friends, Cindy, her son, Matt and Josh.

Check out of our room was at 11:00 and our pick-up was at 1:00. After we finished packing, we went out to the lounge area and sat and read our books until our ride arrived. I must say that one great thing that came out of this trip is David discovered the joy of read a book! He has always read magazines, articles on the internet but hardly ever, in our 23 blissful years of marriage, has he read a book. On this trip, he read one book and actually bought a book in the airport that he thought would enjoy reading.

It was a rainy afternoon when we arrived in Dominical around 2:30. In Dominical, we stayed at an eco-lodge Villa Rio Mar. It was a lovely resort sitting on the river. The rooms were cabana style that had a sitting area on the porch surrounded with mosquito netting. The sitting area also was furnished with a dining table, refrigerator and sink. Inside was the bedroom and bath. It was a real cute concept.

Walking along the road that followed the river, we saw a couple of toucans in the tree. Dominical is a sleepy, one dirt-road town. I loved the atmosphere here….very kicked-back, lots of hippie, surfer dudes hanging out. It is a great place to end our trip. Dinner was at La Suraza on the main street. David had rice and calamari (his favorite) and I had fish and chips. At the restaurant, they had two adorable parrots on a perch at the restaurant. They told us that the wings were not clipped and if you fed the birds, they would hang around. They were so pretty and quite the squawkers!!

The beach wasn’t as pretty as those at Manual Antonio. The sand was dark and rocky. Not that there was trash but it just looked dumpy. There was a road that gave access to the beach. There were hostels and a couple of restaurants along this road as well as various vendors selling souvenirs, beach towels, sarongs and jewelry.

Back at the hotel, at night, we looked for the cute little frogs that are so popular in Costa Rica. For all of the amazing wildlife we have seen, we have yet to see one of the colorful frogs. Tonight was no different but we tried.


Monday, January 3, 2011

We started the day with a continental breakfast of fruit, yogurt, toast and coffee. We had an 8:00 pick-up for our dolphin and whale tour. At the beach, where we were getting our boat for the tour, we saw a two-toed sloth in the tree. We have been so lucky with seeing the amazing wildlife that lives in Costa Rica….all except for the frogs!!

We got our boat on the beach of Ballena (Whale) National Park. On the beach, at low tide, the causeway forms what appears as a whale tail. There are four of these formations in the world, two in Costa Rica, one in Cuba and one in Vancouver. During high tide, the formation disappears.

On this tour, we saw turtles which was exciting because I didn’t think we would see turtles due to the time of year we were there. We saw two of them swimming close to shore. We saw dolphins, needle fish and a humpback whale and her baby. We were able to watch the whale for a long while and the baby treated us to several breech jumps. This is when the whale jumps vertically out of the water and slams down into the water causing a huge splash. So cool!!!

We were treated to going through a cave in the boat. This area is called Ventana (Window) Beach because looking through the cave is like looking through a window. It was another great tour.

Back at our hotel, we got our laundry, exchanged some money and walked into town. In town, we dropped the laundry to be done and shared a piece of cake from the local bakery.

We wandered down to the beach and sat on a log and watched the surfers. Domincal is a popular surfing spot. We talked to a local about the border conflict with Nicaragua and Costa Rica. In the very northeast corner of Costa Rica, there is a small tip of land. When “google map” outlined the map for Central America, it didn’t recognize this little tip of land. Hence, Nicaragua claimed it was their land. This piece of land is important because Nicaragua and Chavez – the Venezuelan president – want to build a canal, similar to the Panama canal across the Nicaragua/Costa Rica border.

We walked across the access road to Coco Restaurant and had a dinner of veggie burritos, salad and margaritas. After watching a beautiful sunset, we picked up our laundry. After such a pretty day, the rain came at night. We took a taxi home to avoid walking in the rain and dark. We read on the porch to the pitter patter of the rain and went to bed early.


Tuesday – January 4, 2011

Today was a free day and honestly, after such a full two weeks, we were not motivated to do much of anything. It was nice to have a day to relax. After a continental breakfast, we walked into town and hopped on the internet. Then, we walked down to the beach. It was a beautiful, sunny day. The beach and waves were beautiful.

We got back to the hotel around 1:00. While David took a nap, I went to the restaurant for a light lunch of cerviche. After David woke up, we read our books and played mini-golf. We had dinner at the hotel restaurant of pesto pasta, read some more and then went to bed.

It was a very welcomed, lazy and relaxing day.


Wednesday – January 5, 2011

Our trip is coming to an end. Today was a travel day back to San Jose. After breakfast, I packed and read while waiting for our ride. David took a nap! One thing about David, he can’t pack….he just shuts down, so that is my “job”. The other thing about David is he loves to take a nap!!!

Our pick-up was 11:30 and we were taken back to Manual Antonio for a transfer to Grey Line, which was about a wait of about a half-hour. While waiting, I bought a small miniature painting depicting a typical Costa Rican farm house, coffee cart with oxen next to a lake and a volcano in the background. A perfect souvenir!

It was a long day of travel as we didn’t realize that we would be several others riding back to San Jose. We had several pick-ups in Manual Antonio and then in the town of Jaco, further north on the Pacific Coast. We arrived in the outskirts of San Jose around rush hour. San Jose is clearly a city that has developed rapidly and the infrastructure has not developed with it. Traffic was bumper to bumper and slow moving. After dropping off several other travelers, we were finally dropped at the Grand Hotel at 7:30.

We mellowed out at the hotel at Cafe 1930 listening to the piano music while eating a light dinner of pizza and wine. After dinner, we walked around the plaza area and pedestrian street.


Thursday – January 6, 2011

This was our last day! We had a 2:00 airport pick-up for our transfer so had the morning to pick up last minute souvenirs. We walked to the artisan market and bought a few things….magnets, book markers, a replica of the coffee carts and a couple of miniature paintings on feathers.

In our tour book, Gallery Namu was recommended for art work by local artisans. We were hoping to possibly find another piece of art by the artist we saw in Fortuna. They didn’t have anything by him, nor had they heard of him. We enjoyed looking around and were tempted to buy a couple of pieces of art. However, the pieces were from Panama…wonderful baskets woven by Wounaan and Emberá tribe women. Perry and Michael bought several of these baskets on one of their cruises to Panama. The other piece of artwork that we loved were amazing carvings from the Darien region of Panama carved from palm nuts that resembles animal ivory. These carvings were so intricate. It was hard to believe that they were able to carve in such detail out of such solid material. Although these pieces of art were absolutely lovely, they didn’t represent Costa Rica, so we decided not to buy them.

Back at the hotel, we listened to the piano music a final time while waiting for our transfer to the airport. Our flight left San Jose at 6:30 at night. We arrived in Santo Domingo at 11:30, connected with our taxi driver and spent the night at the Quality Inn at kilometer 22. I highly recommend this hotel to anyone who has an early or late flight in Santo Domingo. It is part of the Choice Hotel chain from the states and offers the same comforts that we are familiar with in the states.

The next day, our taxi driver drove us to the mine so David could get his truck and then, we headed back to Cabarete. Our three beach dogs were just prancing, they were so happy to see us. So cute, so fun!

As with any trip, it is always good to come to the comforts of home! So glad that we were able to experience Costa Rica. Now, onto adventures offered in 2011!

Happy 2011 to everyone…may this be our best year yet!

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