Costa Rica

It’s New Year’s Eve, 2011, and we’re all in Costa Rica!  Why fly on New Year’s Eve?  We needed the miles on AA to be platinum! More amazing than that is the unbelievable fact that after 10 years (!!!!) Gerry Jr. and Oscar have agreed to travel somewhere with us!

You can sometimes get pretty stymied as to what to give your grown children for Christmas.  Sure, you can give them all kinds of things that they need – but which they should really buy for themselves (ahem!) or you can give them something they simply cannot afford.  A vacation!  In an exotic place!

The requirements for this trip:  Beach.  Gerry Jr. was working in Wisconsin for the year and her demanded beach. Oscar was not opposed, but then Oscar is pretty easy going.

So, on December 31, 2011 we boarded American Airlines and flew to Miami and then on to San José, Costa Rica.  We were met at the airport by a driver and relocated to our hotel (The Beacons) for the first night, just outside of Escazú.  The hotel was very nice, but the dining room was closed for a New Year’s Eve party for dinner, leaving us high and dry and hungry!

Gerry Sr. on the Tarzan swing.

We’re easy – we went to the bar and had “tapas.”  Gerry Sr. retired early, but Gerry Jr., Oscar and I tried to hold out until  midnight.  Oscar arranged with the bartender to bring us

champagne at midnight, and we continued to drink cocktails in anticipation.  Constantly checking our watches, because we were pretty tired and getting tipsy, midnight came and went…Oscar went to the bartender and asked what happened…Oops!  Different time zone!  We still have an hour to go.  We can’t!  We celebrated at 11 Costa Rico time (12 San Juan and Miami time) and then went to pounce on Gerry Sr. to wish him a Happy New Year.  We were giggling like lunatics, but having a great time!

This is the way I felt most of the time.

New Year’s Day Gerry Sr. and I got up early and walked around the little town.  We took pictures…but there was nothing remarkable.  Finally when the kids got up and we were all fed, we meet our driver for the trip to Arenal, at the foot of the volcano by the same name.  We’d be staying a few days so that we could take advantage of the zip-lining and the canyon-ing.

Our hotel, the Royal Corin, has a swimming pool filled with hot water heated by the volcano!  We’re right at the foot of the volcano but we never see it.  Our weather was awful and it was always covered by clouds and fog.  Fortunately, though raining, we could still enjoy the pool.

That is an aside because the same afternoon we arrived in Arenal, we were scheduled for zip- lining in the canopy.  Mind you, I did not think this was a very good idea.  But, a friend in San Juan had done it recently, and so I figured if she can, I can.  That sounds braver than I felt.

Actually it wasn’t so bad.  The safety thing is the part that really concerned me and I was reassured by the preparation and the orientation we’re given that it would be safe.  We practiced first on a line about 6 feet off the ground…and then off we went for the real thing.  Though it is fun and quite an adrenaline rush, don’t think for a minute that you will actually get to see much of anything.  Either you’re going to fast (like Gerry, Gerry and Oscar) or you’re petrified and concentrating on not going too fast, hence looking at your own knees or only where you’re going (like yours truly).  It’s daunting.  It is a little too rushed.  But the feeling of accomplishment: (What’s the phrase?) Priceless!

Others enjoyed it more!

Half way through, there was an additional thrill called the “Tarzan Swing”.  Needless to say, for me that would have really been stretching things, so I did not participate.  The “boys” all did, as you can see from the pictures.  Gerry Jr. screamed a few choice obscenities in his fear…some people laughed.  His mother was appalled!

That evening we had dinner in the hotel.  Very nice.

We’re ready!

The following day we had some free time in the morning which was useful as one of our suitcases did not arrive – the one with everybody’s shoes!  I had nothing for the canyoning (we needed shoes that could get wet).  So we went into the little town near the hotel and tried to do some shopping.  There was ONE shoe store in the town … Gerry Sr. found something he could use, but I decided to use the sandals I brought.

After lunch, it is off for canyoning.  Do you know what that is?  I didn’t until I went to Costa Rica.  Canyoning refers to rappelling down the sides of canyons…in our case, in waterfalls.  If you think zip-lining took courage – this you cannot imagine.

Canyoning uses the same equipment set up (almost) as the zip lining. An explanation, but no practice, and next thing you know you’re standing on the edge of a 160 foot drop, getting ready to jump backwards.  It must be part of the strategy that they have you do the highest one first.  I made it to the bottom in about 15 minutes and one piece.  Average descent time is probably 30 seconds.  I got soaked and scraped.  People at the top and the bottom were shouting encouragement.  I think my family wept with relief when I was finally back on the ground.

But, it wasn’t that bad and each time it got easier.  Though I never launched myself out into space and free-fell as did Gerry and Oscar, I did improve my speed from jump to jump and the last one, which was probably about 60 feet only, took 10 minutes.  Just kidding!  Gerry and Oscar, who learn by watching, really got the hang of it quickly and could get down with only the merest touch of the feet on the cliff.

All agreed that this was definitely 1) better than zip-lining and 2) a “got to do again!”

Sr. got the hang of it!

Oscar got the hang of it.

Jr. got the hang of it.

Me? Not so much!

Afterwards, back at the hotel, we lolled in the hot water of the pool while sipping vodka and soda.  That evening, it was the Rose Bowl on TV and an early bedtime.

The next day we planned to spend sitting in the sun and relaxing by the pool but the weather was uncooperative.  We went back into Fortuna to look around, had lunch at the famous Lava Lounge, and spent the afternoon in the pool under intermittent rain.

That night we walked down the highway about a quarter of a mile from the hotel and had a nice dinner outside in one of the most casual places you can image! It was called Benedictus Steak House. I think we ate at picnic tables!  The food was good (but inconsistent) and the chef/owner very (too) talkative.  Back at the hotel, we drank palomas and played Originz” (a word game) and watched another bowl game on TV.  Which one?  I have no idea!

The following day (now it is January 3rd) we left for the coast and the beach. The weather was cold and cloudy again.  We never did get to see the volcano. We were picked up mid-morning for a very long and tedious drive to the west coast to our final stop, Nosara. The roads were awful.  Plus there had been a storm the night before – high winds and rain – that brought a lot of trees and branches down so you can imagine the obstacle course we were driving.  At one point I commented that driving in Costa Rica was more frightening than rappelling down a 165 foot waterfall!  The roads are narrow, pot-holed, washed out – you name it.  And still, there a huge trucks driving on them.

We did see a lot of diverse topography.  Near the volcano it was tropical rain forest, everything very lush, streams gurgling or rushing, fog gently creeping through the jungle.  Around

Lago de Arenal, we saw a lot of cattle – whether dairy or meat or both – I don’t know – but very picturesque:  Cattle with a huge hump on their shoulders, mostly white and some with horns.

At the far northern end of the lake, we crossed over a mountain ridge and the landscape changed again.  Now it was like a deciduous forest. With leaves turning brown and the wind, it felt like it could even be late summer or early fall in Wisconsin. Except for the occasional palm tree!

The view from Tierra Magnifica

On the west side of the lake, and of Costa Rica, we are now in the province of Guanacaste.  Guanacaste is the name of the national tree of Costa Rica and its translation into English is still unknown to me.  It is a huge, magnificent tree and the wood from it is very beautiful.

If I were to do this again, I would fly between places as the drive was too long and I felt like we wasted an entire day.

The part of Guanacaste where we stayed, Nosara, is on the northern peninsula.  There are not a lot of tourists here, mainly because it is hard to get to.  Kilometers and kilometers on an unpaved road to get from Nicoya to Nosara and then to where we are staying.

Nosara!  Nosara is not the first place that might come to mind when you think about the west coast of Costa Rica but for us it had a special association.  We are staying at Tierra Magnifica, a boutique hotel owned and operated by the father of some Red Arrow Camp campers (Red Arrow is where Gerry Jr. and Oscar work in the summer).  This is a very beautiful property, generally booked for groups (weddings, retreats, etc.).  We were there during a break, and had the entire place to ourselves!  It was wonderful.  The hotel is perched on the top of a mountain that overlooks the bay far below – so there is a gorgeous view of the sunset every night.  There is a private chef for the place so our meals were indescribably good. Steve and Ericka (owners) couldn’t have been more welcoming and genteel with us. (It was Steve who made all the arrangements for us for this trip, including all our excursions.)

Enjoying paradise!

Steve joined us for cocktails and dinner that first night, and regaled us with the stories of how his family came to settle for a couple of years in Nosara.  After dinner, the four of us repaired to Oscar and Gerry’s room to play more Originz and 20 questions.

Gerry Jr. and Oscar had a big room with two double beds and a nice size bathroom.  Gerry Sr. and I had a room with a tiny bathroom, and one double bed.  I think this is probably the first time that Gerry J and Oscar have had better accommodations than we adults did!

By 9pm, we were headed to our own room.  I could not keep my eyes open, but my sleep was fitful all night.  The wind was howling and I could hear howling, things breaking and flying.  The storm was confirmed by daylight, when we found all sorts of broken lamps, branches and leaves.  I am not sure if this wind is normal:  The car rental guy and the bird biologist say yes, Steve and his employees say no.  At least it was warm and sunny after all the rain in Arenal.

Two things I don’t want to forget about last night.  1) BIG toads.  They were on the stairs near the lights, eating insects.  They were probably the size of grapefruits, but toad-shaped.  This morning we found two large ones and a smaller one in the kitchen. 2) The sunset.  We didn’t actually watch the sun sink into the Pacific because we have trees between our veranda from where we watched and where the sun went down, but watching the sky and the bay below us change colors was worth at least 20 photographs.

Back to the main narrative now and my talk of a long and difficult night for sleeping…I woke up about 5 am to the howls of the howler monkeys.  Boy, were they noisy! I went out onto the balcony where I saw the first rays of dawn in the same place I saw the last rays of sunset.  This is truly a paradise.


Gerry and I got up about 5:30am to go on a birding hike.  Our guide was Felipe, a biologist.  He took us to the Hotel Lagarto Lodgewhich also has a spectacular view – this one over the Nosara River, the Nosara Beach and the hotel’s own private nature preserve.  The preserve is a collaborative effort with the government of Costa Rica to protect and maintain the land in exchange for not paying taxes.  The arrangement is good for 100 years.  I think it is similar to what the Schackelfords are doing at the farm.  We walked through the preserve talking about trees, plants, animals and birds.

Mangroves in the preserve

We did see a troupe of howler monkeys making their way through the trees, several hummingbirds of two different species; we saw a female of the (here I can’t read my own writing but it looks like it says ) maneiki’ species, and heard males; we saw a shrike, heard wrens and saw a red poll.  We also saw linnets, vultures, a hawk, butterflies and moths. Though we didn’t see a lot, we learned a lot.  Felipe will be our guide again on Saturday for a kayak trip.  We returned to the hotel about 10.

We lounged around at the hotel until lunch.  After eating and a brief rest, we four headed to the beach for surfing lessons.  All three men tried it and were successful at getting up and riding a wave.  I caught most of it with my cameras, except for the movies I thought I was taking…  The lessons took about 2 hours, so we were back at the hotel by 6.  We had dinner and went to bed early because we had to get up early the following day again – for fishing!

Well… the fishing was a total bust for Gerry Jr.

First fish of the day – destined to be bait.

In the morning we went out deep to fish for bill fish.  It was super wavy and Gerry was miserable.  Finally, he asked to be taken to shore.  On the way in with him I was feeling a little queasy myself, so I considered getting out with him and taking him back to the hotel.  But, I don’t know how, I fell asleep.  The water was so rough I should have been banging my head.  I woke up just as we were dropping Gerry off, and I felt great.  So Gerry got off alone, and the remaining three of us went back out to fish “on shore”.  Now we started catching fish!  First, Dad got a black tuna that we used for bait, then  Oscar got a jack, then I did;  Then Dad did;  Oscar yet another, and me too;  I pulled in a black tuna and a third jack, Dad gave up early;  Oscar then caught a beautiful “gallo” – a rooster fish – and finally – dinner!  An albacore tuna.

Here I am in the “chair” with the big rod I didn’t think I could pull.

We got to sit in the big chair to pull our fish in.  The rod itself was heavy and pulling in a 20-30 pound fish is back-breaking.  I didn’t think I could do it. It was so unfortunate that Gerry had to get off the boat.  In the afternoon, the water was really calm and the fishing was fun.

Oscar and the guide with his rooster fish (catch and release!)

After fishing we stopped in the village of Guiones and had a bite to eat.  Once back at the hotel, I worked on pictures – looking for some good ones for Oscar to post.  While I was waiting for the computer, I went out onto the balcony and saw the howler monkeys again – they were really close and really noisy.

Dinner that night was just the four of us, as Steve and Erika had other plans.  It was a quiet evening.

Saturday morning, Gerry Sr. and I got up early again (third day in a row!) to go kayaking and birding on the river.  Felipe is our guide again.  While we were waiting to get started, we saw a big family of howlers right above the patio – and we got to watch some spectacular jumps.  We also saw two ivory billed woodpeckers.

Some times the river was like this…

The kayaking was really enjoyable.  The river was calm and quiet and we saw lots of birds, especially herons and sandpiper types – wetlands birds.  The highlight was watching 3 male tiger herons displaying.  They make a loud noise, almost like a roar or a bellow, stretch out and puff up their necks. Think like something you’d see on Animal Kingdom.  We also saw cattle egrets, black and turkey vultures, snowy egrets, three colored herons, blue herons great and small, green backed herons, a mangrove hawk, an osprey, a falcon, willets, sand pipers, kingfishers (belted, ring necked and green).  It was very much a successful birding adventure.

and some times it was like this.

One of my favorite parts was turning into a creek from the main part of the river and moving into a primeval scene of giant white mangroves on both banks – it really made you feel as if you were lost in time.

We came back about 10:30 after having brunch at the Lagarta Lodge with Felipe and going into “town” to buy a replacement bird lamina for the one that blew off my lap and sank in the river.  We also bought some coffee to take home with us.

Another cool bird

Some of the birds we saw…

We found the kids both up and near the pool when we got back – and everyone in a good mood.  JJ was staying out of the sun after having gotten badly burned on his face while in the boat the day before.

Katy made us another delicious lunch and then I took a long nap.  I finally got up about 4 and all of us climbed into the car to go to the Sunset Bar at the Lagarta Lodge.  (JJ was enthusiastic about the “bar” part!)  The sunset was beautiful and we all enjoyed our tropical drinks (none of that vodka and beer stuff we drink at the hotel!)  It was fun and we got a little goofy.  Naturally, Gerry and Oscar were mortified by their parents.

Bathed in the glow of the sunset!

The sunset from the Sunset Bar. Worth the drink!

We went back to Tierra Magnifica for dinner with Steve and Erika – Eating Oscar’s fish!  Tonight was our latest night on the whole trip – it may have been all of 11 when we went to bed!

Sunday morning, I got up early and enjoyed the quiet.   Steve and Erika are off on a jaunt, the kids are still asleep, there are no monkeys, and very few birds.  I was feeling a little sad that Gerry Jr. was to leave us that morning.  Thinking about it made me think we should have planned to all leave together, but we do have more to do  – and I was hoping Gerry Sr. and Oscar might get a chance to try the surfing again.

JJ left about 11:15 for a long drive back to the airport (not in San Jose) and we packed up for our excursion to San Juanillo, towels, bathing suits, coolers.  According to Felipe it would be about a 40 minute drive.  It seemed longer, perhaps because we didn’t know where we were going.  With the roads here (gravel and in awful condition) one can’t drive very fast to begin with.  We also had to cross 4 streams.  The first was the biggest and Gerry freaked out until we saw a car coming from the opposite direction.  We watched it cross apprehensively, but the driver assured us it was okay.  We braved it – the novelty was great!  We gained so much confidence that the other 3 (all much smaller) barely gave us pause.

San Juanillo wasn’t much; a cluster of buildings near a soccer field.  We had a good lunch in a place called “Ancient People” – but it should have been called “Weird People” – What a collection!  Tattoos were everywhere, as was hippie attire from the 70s.  At the table next to us, 2 women and a man (young all) were talking a load of BS.  One of the women had a voice that was so awful it was painful to be subjected to her idiotic conversation.

From the restaurant, we took the “path” to the beach.  The other was a “road” as explained to me, not politely, by the owner of the restaurant.  The beach was beautiful with big black rocks creating a breakwater in the front and around the sides of a crescent shaped beach.  There were plenty of almond trees for shade, and though the beach seemed deserted, in the shade there were many groups of, again, weird people.  We walked the beach from end to end – one direction I went with Oscar, the other I went with Gerry.  Everyone, men and women, had long hair and most were thin to the point of ugliness.  Lots of Indian print fabrics used as beach blankets, sarongs, scarves – you name it.  There were even four women dancing with them to the beat of a drum and a flute playing man.  Oscar was struck by the number of naked children.  We heard German, Spanish and English.

The two crescent beaches at San Juanillo

Gerry Sr. and Oscar at San Juanillo Beach

There wasn’t really much to do – we tested the water – so we packed up our stuff, returned to the village and headed down the “road” to the other beach.  This one was full of fishing boats and fishermen – fewer people but definitely more locals.  The beach stretched out to a rocky point, with beautiful crescent bays on either side.  One side was clam, and it was here that the fishing boats were anchored.  The other side had waves big enough for surfers but the rocks made it appear pretty dangerous.  I wandered around taking pictures, but we didn’t stay there very long either.

The drive back was easier and faster and before we knew it we were back at the hotel cleaning up for dinner.  We met up with Steve, who was talking to Nate (Felipe’s partner) and we all decided to go for pizza together.  At dinner, we were told that all the weirdoes we saw were probably from an ashram nearby called Pacha Mama.

A big spider!

Our final day was January 9th.  Oscar slept in, but Gerry and I went off in search of the waterfall that is on the Tierra Magnifica property. What a hike!  It wasn’t so much far, as it was steep.  The waterfall wasn’t very big and the biggest excitement we had was an army, millions strong, of ants, streaming through the forest.  Gerry managed to step in them at which point he lost his head and one of his shoes down the steep slope.  My Outdoorsman!

At the waterfall

Once Oscar was up, we had to go back down to the waterfall, because he was upset that we had gone without him.  He wasn’t much impressed by the waterfall, but to make the arduous trip worth our effort, I suggested we crawl and climb all over it and doing so we discovered another big spider.  (The first one was a tarantula on the steps near the pool that we found one evening.)

We drove into town and had lunch at Rosi’s (in the same building as Experience Nosara of Felipe and Nate fame.  We had a good casado with sword fish (mind you this was not pez espada) Casado is a combination plate a main (fish, chicken, beef, vegetarian) with black beans, rice, vegetables and salad.  This fish version was the best I had had in Costa Rica.  Actually, the food in Costa Rica, though fresh, is not particularly good.  (But Katy, our cook at Tierra Magnifica, is quite good.)  We rented a surfboard for the afternoon and Oscar mainly, but also Gerry, got some more practice.  Oscar and I also took a long walk down the beach to the southern end where we discovered a river (later confirmed on a map).

Tired of the beach finally, we went to Robin’s for ice cream, and then picked up the Toyota rental guy and he took us back to Tierra Magnifica and relieved us of our rental.  We had dinner with Steve and Ericka and wound up our trip and our day with a final sunset in Nosara.

Tuesday we were up early and ready to leave by 8.  Goodbyes and good lucks all around.

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