Costa Rica – Pura Vida

As soon as we entered Costa Rica we noticed a huge difference from travelling in Nicaragua. We passed lush forest on clean wide highways, with no cows or horse carts on the roadway. Affluence was apparent in the numerous large billboard advertisements for hotels, tours, restaurants or businesses. In the first hour we saw a 3-foot iguana cross the road in front of us, and passed signs for 4 of the country’s 27 national parks. Houses and hotels were in good repair with tidy manicured yards. In the city of Liberia, we stopped at a strip mall that except, for the palm trees, looked like it could be in any city in Canada. 

Costa Rica

As luck would have it, leaving Nicaraguan was almost as frustrating as getting in.  For the first time since leaving home, we hired a helper. In the parking lot, we stepped out of the car amid a chaos of people. We knew that first we had to find a customs guy in a blue shirt, and then get our vehicle papers signed by a black uniformed policeman. These officials do not have offices. They just hang out in the parking lot. Mr. Blue Shirt just happened to be standing right in front of the van. He handed me a declaration form, then pestered me to hurry and fill it out. Almost grabbing it from me, he took our import papers, glanced over the car, asked about the bicycles and walked away. He did not return.  We could not see him anywhere.

We waited and watched for him, all the while refusing offers from various helpers. But when Charlie approached us, his persistence won us over. Wearing a faded pink t-shirt tucked into high belted blue jeans, he insisted that he could have us out of Nicaragua in 30 minutes. As soon as we agreed Charlie was off and running. “Come on Elizabeth” he called me. He set a mean pace and I almost ran to keep up. He pestered Mr. Blue Shirt who had miraculously reappeared but was busily inspecting other cars. Finally getting our paperwork, we headed to the policewoman. At first she ignored Charlie, while gazing at nothing across the parking lot. She finally signed off.  The rest was straight forward, except at Charlie’s pace. The explanation from Charlie was that we failed to declare the bicycles coming in to Nicaragua, but were obviously leaving with bicycles. This is some kind of infraction. Charlie explained that if he had not smoothed it over with the customs officer, we would be facing a fine. Well …. maybe. Who knows what goes on in the minds of those who make up and administer border rules. But as promised, we were out of Nicaragua in 30 minutes.

On the Costa Rica side, we faced the longest line ever for Migración. Hords of people wanted in to the country and the line stretched way down the road. We spent the entire lineshuffle chatting with an American family who are currently living in Grenada. They advised that even though we were driving a vehicle we could be asked for a bus or plane ticket as proof that we would eventually leave the country. In all of CA this seems to be unique to Costa Rica. I had previously read directions on the internet detailing how to make up fake flight tickets in order to satisfy the “proof of moving on” requirement. Sure enough, when we reached the window, the official mentioned the plane. For lack of a better plan, I started naming off all of the countries we were going to drive to after Costa Rica. He looked at me for a bit and then without speaking, stamped the passports and waved me away. The vehicle importation was time consuming, but organized.

Our first stop in Costa Rica was a campsite at the Balbo’s Potrerillos restaurant and bar, which sits about 10 meters from the edge of the Pan American highway, fifty miles east of the Nicaraguan border.

Backyard at Balbo’s

Edward, the Dutch owner, is talkative and energetic. He relayed the history of his place, led us down to the river to see the alligator, showed us all of his reclaimed material projects, like tables built from car tires and wood pallets, and told us about the many bicyclists who stop in. One died recently after being hit by a car. While eating our evening meal, we could see that police had set up a check stop on the highway right in front of the restaurant. Edward told us that they were searching for Nicaraguans who were trying to enter Costa Rica illegally. Desperate for a different life, they pay about $1000 US to have someone smuggle them across the border. Edward encouraged us to move our seats closer to the action in case it got interesting. Umm, no thanks.

We spent three days camping on the beaches of the Nicoya Peninsula. Lazy days on the beach, swimming in the warm waves, bicycling for groceries, or hanging out at camp.

Tent camping on the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

At Camping Elimar the tents were all arranged in front of an outdoor kitchen, with electrical plugs supplied for each tent. All wiring and plugs were attached to the palm trees. There were about two dozen small tents, with many people staying for months. Nancy stopped by several times a day to talk, chatting happily in rapid Spanish, patiently repeating everything for me, again and again.  She was here visiting her son who had a job near by. She cooked a big seafood soup for everyone, washed her sons clothes in the outdoor sink and kept the kitchen clean. This was her two week vacation from her home in San Jose. 

Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

Pierre came over to talk because he heard we were from Montreal. A tall lanky Québécois with greying hair, he spends his time spear fishing to supplement his food supply, trying to live on $10 a day. When he asked if he could catch a ride to the tiny town of Montezuma on our way out, we readily agreed. We would drop him off on the main road and he would walk or hitch the rest. His friend Juan wanted to come too. An Argentinian, Juan spoke only Spanish and so Pierre explained the situation. Juan had written a book of short stories, and makes money selling it to people on the beach. Sometimes he makes sandwiches and sells them too. Juan wanted to go to Montezuma to try sell his books on the beach there. When Juan heard that we were giving him a ride to Montezuma he brought over a copy of his book as a gift. Typed on white paper, it is stapled into the cardboard cover, a repurposed wine box cut to size. Before the day was out we had gained a third rider, William, a Costa Rican who previously managed the camp. 

Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

We told Pierre that we would be leaving at 830 in the morning. We three Canadians were ready to go on time. The other two were nowhere in sight. Pierre explained, emphasizing each syllable, with his French accent, “you have to drive to the gate and honk the horn. Otherwise they will never get in the van.” It seemed rude to us, but it worked. Just as we were turning left toward the main road, Pierre said, “the main road is closed. We have to take the road along the beach.” We had specifically not wanted to take that road. It was really bad. But according to William, a section of the main road was closed for construction. This seemed unusual. But who are we to argue with a Costa Rican in his own country. So we turned right and headed for the back road. 

The three men were all in their fifties and even though there were no seats for them, they thought it was a luxury ride. Pierre lay happily on the bed. William sat perched on one corner, and Juan sat on the floor. But not for long. He got up on his knees, put his arms around our seats and sang Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind”, in Spanish. Then he downloaded photos of Mark Twain and held them up to Bobs head, laughing. “Eh? Eh?”, he asked, meaning “ doesn’t he look like Mark Twain?” His hearty laugh kept us all laughing. He said that Pierre would buy us all lunch in Montezuma, to which Pierre explained, “Juan has these crazy ideas. He is always dreaming”. The road was difficult, with large sharp rocks, and steep narrow pitches. It took 45 minutes to go the 7 kilometres. When we dropped the guys at the corner, I thanked Pierre for navigating. “Oh” he said “I did not know the way. I never was here before.”

It was a short drive to the ferry, which took us back to the mainland and on to the Pan American once again. The highway follows the pacific coastline, bordered by 12 foot fuchsia flowering shrubs, very tall trees, and grass green vegetation falling all over itself. We camped near two different beaches, both having long stretches of dark volcanic sand, and few people. 

Hoffman’s woodpecker, Costa Rica

On Thursday we needed a a tire repair. Two guys, 15 minutes, $20. On Friday we needed a new battery and some electrical tweaking. It was $200 and about 2 hours. We were happy to be back on the road soon after lunch. While waiting in the busy mechanic shop I purchased ceviche from a woman who was selling it from a cooler in the trunk of her car. All the guys were buying. She cut open a bag of Ranchitos, poured ice cold ceviche over the chips and handed me a spoon. Cold wet chips with fish bits.  It was a wee bit better than it sounds.

We decided to spend our last days in Costa Rica on the Oso Peninsula. From the Panamerican, it is about 70 km of good pavement to Puerto Jimenez on the shore of the Golfo Dulce (sweet gulf).

Golfo Dulce, Orso Peninsula, Costa Rica

We camped at the Palapa Huts Lodge, where you are encouraged to swim, read or lounge. This peninsula is home to Corcovado Nacional Park, which National Geographic has called the most biologically intense place on earth. Just to give an idea it has 40 species of frogs, 100 species of butterflies and 400 species of birds including 16 types of hummingbirds.

Cherrie’s Tanager, Orso Peninsula, Costa Rica

We booked a hike at the reception with guides Andrew and Ronnie.  Or at least we thought they were guides. It turned out to be like a farm tour, with the farm being a rain forest. We left at 6 AM in an old Land Rover, driving down a field track, splashing through mud holes and making at least 6 river crossings. After leaving the car at 7,  we slid up and down soggy red clay hills, crossed rivers and rested in the jungle shade. At about 1030, we stopped at the family cabin, built on a beautiful high spot looking over the Gulf.

Andrew’s family cabin, Orso Peninsula, Costa Rica

Ronnie made coffee from stream water and we sat on wooden benches having our lunch. This is Andrew’s family estate, and they pasture four horses on the land around the cabin. Andrew let the horses in to the yard for a drink, telling us that he dreams of being a cowboy some day.

Andrew and two of the horses at the family cabin, Orso Peninsula, Costa Rica

Age 17, he has already enrolled at the college in Lloydminster Alberta, to learn to be a ranch hand and is excited to be going to the Calgary Stampede in June. While we ate he tried roping shrubs and posts.

After lunch we climbed to a lookout for views of both the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf. It was breezy and beautiful.

Toucan, Costa Rica

Throughout the day we were delighted to see toucans, macaws, guinea of the mountain, hummingbirds, and kingfishers.

Spider monkey, Costa Rica

The squirrel monkeys and spider monkeys were fighting above us as we tried to take photos and we had to dodge the sticks that were raining down on us. We came across the golden orb spider which spins a gold colored web. There were many small butterflies that would not sit still, and a larger one often flitted by, with its pretty baby blue colored wings.

Golden Orb spider, OSA Peninsula, Costa Rica

There were numerous weird insects, mauve and orange flowers, and tons of different plants used in cooking or medicine. Ronnie picked wild lemons for me because I told him that lemonade in Canada is not real. We saw bats on the Ceiba tree and took photos standing in its ancient crevasses.

Inside the Ceiba tree, Costa Rica

We got lost at the waterfall, and Ronnie machete hacked our way down a steep muddy switchback. At 30 years of age, he is married and works for Andrew’s dad on their 7 properties.  He carefully pointed out the wildlife that Bob and I probably would have missed in the dense foliage.

Hawk, Costa Rica

At one very high point, we stopped so that Andrew could catch the wifi and do a live PR video on his Facebook, pointing the camera at us and asking us how we liked the hike. We were baked from heat and humidity, drenched with sweat, and covered with mud and burrs. An impromptu interview for all the world to see was just what we had hoped for.  We did our best to look cheery. 

Facebook live video overlooking the Golfo Dulce and blue mountain ridges

The Plan Head to Panama and meet up with friends Krys and Merv who flew in to Panama City last week. Also plans are shaping up for van shipping from Cologne to Cartegana. Funny we seem to run into Michaela and Peter once a week, usually at a grocery store, and they have set our ship date for January 31.

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