Costa Rica… (Part 3)

WATERFALLS & NATIONAL PARKS

You’re back! Good… just in time!

We (my wife and I) wanted to take a drive and get lost somewhere. Kinda, sorta… Vanessa’s dad had told us of a place near a community of German ex-patriot artists (seemed very random to me, yet oddly specific) nestled off the Pacific side of the Pan-American Highway at the 80 km marker,  about one and a half  hours south of San José.  He told us we would find great trails through the rainforest, a river that flowed down to the Pacific Ocean near Manuel Antonio National Park, and several cataratas (waterfalls).

Road to Costa Rio de DotaRainforest 1Cataratas 1Rainforest 2

The place he was referring to is San Gerardo de Dota and the Savegre River.  It’s about a 15 minute drive down a long, steep winding mountain road from the Pan-American Highway (Route 2) to a small cluster of 3 or 4 places you can stay at, ranging from $93 – $179 per night.  We ended up at the Savegre Mountain Hotel.  We spent $108 and were very pleased with the decision we made.

HummingbirdsSucculentsEntrance to Costa Rio de DotaThis area is well-known for the 170 bird species that can be found here, including the incredibly beautiful Quetzal (an incredibly important figure is Mesoamerican myths and legends), and is frequented by bird-watchers.

Funky fungusRainforest 6Rainforest 7Rainforest 2In the morning, after a nice breakfast (included in the price), Vanessa and I left Devan with his abuelo (grandpa) and headed off for a nice long hike down the Savegre River, towards the cataratas we’d heard about.

Rainforest 3*V in the RFRio Savegre CataratasFor the most part, it was a fairly easy trail due to the safety features that had been installed in the appropriate locations, including a foot bridge across the river and a few place where stairs and/or handrails were necessary.  We saw so much incredibly beautiful flora and fauna, animal species and rock formations that it was hard to stay on the move.  We kept stopping to take more  and more pictures.

Salvagre Catarata 1Catarata SavagreRainforest 4Cataratas 3Finally, we arrived at the waterfall we’d been hearing get louder as we got closer.  I was amazed at first sight!  I know that it is a natural occurrence in the rock due to its formation and erosion processes, but I swear that it looks like there is a giant face that had been carved out of the side of the waterfall 2,000+ years ago!  Absolutely breathtaking! You can see it in the photos, here – but to be there in person is something completely indescribable!

There are plenty of other activities to engage in while staying in  San Gerardo de Dota, such as horseback riding and rafting, amongst others.  It is a beautiful place and I highly recommend it.

The Savegre River flows down the mountain and leads to Manuel Antonio National Park and the dumps into the Pacific Ocean.  Manuel Antonio is located about an hour drive south of Jacó via Highway 34, along the coast.

Manuel Antonio National Park is incredible on multiple levels!  Once there, opted to join a group of people who were led by a tour guide through the park along it’s groomed walking trails.  The difference in price for a guided tour versus going it alone was about $2-$3.  We were even able to take our son in his stroller, which by the way, is an awesomely heavy duty, all-terrain, super-comfortable BOB Revolution(We LOVE this stroller!).  An umbrella stroller might be able to make it…?  If you’re traveling with small kids, just be prepared to do some heavy lifting and prolonged carrying!  Fortunately, we didn’t have to!

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The tour guide brought with him a spotting scope, enabling us to view much of the wildlife that was a bit difficult to see due to distance (ie. high up in a tree or through the rainforest floor or understory) in detail and with great clarity.  We were even able to put our cameras up to the eyepiece to take pictures that made you feel as though you were right next to them.  In fact, several of the pictures that you see here, I had taken through the spotting scope.

MA 7MA 9MA 6The tour guide was full of wonderful information and very open to questions and discussions.  If not for the guide, we would not have seen even close to half of the wildlife that we did.  There is a wealth of flora and fauna, as well as the numerous species of wildlife,  throughout the rainforest layers (forest floor, understory, canopy and emergent) that will absolutely astound you!

MA 11MA 4On a trail that was extremely close to the beach, we encountered some deer.  Most of the group continued on, while we stopped and hunkered down to watch them go about their business.  To our amazement, shock and surprise, a doe (a deer – a female deer) approached me and my son Devan.  The doe got so close that Devan was able to reach out and pet her nose, a couple times, and she even licked his hand.  The guide had looked back to us and saw the entire event transpire.  He later told us that he had never seen anything like that happen before.  We were truly lucky and will never forget that magical moment!

MA 13MA 12Manuel Antonio National Park is definitely a must see in my book.  It is not the only national park where you can experience the rainforest, up close and personal, by yourself or with the aide of a tour guide, but it’s the one I can personally vouch for.  We loved it and I think you will too!  The Savegre River flows directly into the ocean at the very end of the guided tour, affording some magnificent views and opportunities to see a brackish water (a mix of salt and fresh water) mangrove ecosystem, first-hand.

Next up in this series on Costa Rica (and the last) are the volcanoes! There are seven to choose from, so there shouldn’t be a problem finding one near you, where ever you may be in the country, to explore and revel in!

Costa Rica… (Part 1)

¡PURA VIDA!

It seems like almost everybody I know or have ever met has either been to or wants to go to Costa Rica!  I mean, what the heck is so special about this place, over any of the other countries in Central America that neighbor it, that makes it the #1 destination choice for so many?  In fact, over the last 25 years, the emphasis on this “paradise” has been steadily on the rise.  To be honest, I was also on the Costa Rica bandwagon for many years, mostly due to the hype and word of mouth. “One of these days,” I’d tell myself, “…I’m gonna go there and find out for myself!”

Finally, I’d found my golden ticket!  The perfect reason to turn my long-time fantasy into a reality ended up being my wife… but it’s not what you may think (I know some of you are sick puppies)!  I didn’t go there for my honeymoon or some romantic getaway.  Rather, I went there with my wife and our son to visit her family (and meet her father for the first time).

Side of the volcano

Vanessa & Devan

Vanessa, my wife, is Costa Rican.  Her dad is Costa Rican and her mom is half Costa Rican and Argentine.   She was born in California, raised in Escazú, Costa Rica and then moved to the U.S. when she was 11 years old.  Vanessa is a Tica… and thus, our son Devan is a Tico!

I’ll start by saying that I have been luckier than most in that I was there for 3 weeks.  One or two would have been nice, but three weeks allowed me to do much more than the average tourist can accomplish…you do the math.   This was possible because we were able to stay with her father, thus saving a nice chunk of change on hotels.

Santa Ana - John's houseEssentially, our base of operations was my father-in-laws house in Santa Ana (pronounced Santana – like the guitar player), just outside San José, the countries capital.  The first week we didn’t venture out very much, but then again, there was really no need to.  We had some adventures on foot around the neighborhood as we were acclimatizing to our new surroundings and the weather, but not too much more.  We simply relaxed and were thankful to be there.

However, I must admit that despite being more relaxed than I’d been in quite a long time, two things immediately struck me as extremely odd AND disturbing!

1)  The first thing that bulged my peepers was the overwhelming amount of decidedly American businesses that assaulted me from every possible direction from the moment we left the airport to the moment we turned off the main road closest to the house we were staying at. We were completely inundated with junk food galore and a whole lot more.  I’m talkin’ Taco Bell, Wendy’s, KFC, Denny’s, McDonald’s, Burger King… you get the picture, right?  It never seemed to end!  And that was severely disappointing!  I went there to get away from all that crap… really!

Abuelo's backyard barbed wire

Barbed wire...

2)  Secondly, I was shocked to see barbed wire adorning each and every home I saw, regardless of town, neighborhood, mansion or hovel… EVERY residence had it!  When I asked what the deal was with all the barbed wire, I was told that, “It keeps the criminals/thieves out of your house… anybody will steal anything, if they get the chance.”  So I said, “So, crime is pretty bad here?” – “No! Costa Rica is virtually crime free.”  I then asked, “But I thought you said that ‘anybody would steal anything’ if given the chance?”  To that, I received a response that blew my mind and made me laugh in the same breath!  Ya know what it was?  “Ah-hah!” stated in a decidedly comedic tone, such as Eddie Murphy’s old Jewish patron of the neighborhood barber shop character from Coming To America … you following me?  Sheer genius!

CR restaurantIf you’ve ever been anywhere in Central or South America, Costa Rica will come as no real surprise in regard to infrastructure and general lifestyle.  For those who have never been, you’re apt to find several curiosities, though none are unpleasant, they are simply different from what you’re used to and thus, all the more intriguing and ultimately endearing.  Some examples are the shops and markets, driving habits, vehicles, roadways, city planning, and parking to name a few.

Upscale neighborhoodOn the flip-side, there are supermarkets and shopping malls that easily rival those in the United States.  But the biggest mystery I encountered, hands down, was the fact that there are NO street names!  If you were to ask someone’s address, you’d get a response that contained a series of landmarks and distances from those landmarks to the next.  WOW! That one has still got me scratching my head!

Anyway, if you’re good with directions, like I am, It’s not too big of a deal.  But if not, I suggest sticking to guided tours, pre-arranged transportation, or simply staying within eyesight of where ever it is that you’re staying!

Also, this should go without saying, but always safeguard your valuables, don’t carry excessive amounts of cash on you, and never act like a typical American! Remember, you are not always right and that you are a guest in another country!  Costa Ricans are some of the warmest and truly kind people you’ll ever meet, but if you act like a jerk, you’ll wish you hadn’t!  This should go without saying and is applicable no matter where you go!

Downtown San JoseBull ridingIf you like hustle and bustle, make sure you visit downtown San José!  It’s no New York City, though it is Costa Rica’s equivalent.  There’s plenty of opportunities for shopping, eating and taking pictures.  If you were to visit only one place in San José, I would suggest you visit the Mercado Central!  It is an indoor marketplace filled with small shops and sodas (little food stands) of every variety.

Indoor market San Jose

Mercado Central

You can find anything you need as far as souvenirs are concerned right here. Plus, the quality is pretty darn good as well.  This place is the locals choice for one-stop shopping.  We saved considerable time and money by going there!  And with all that there is to see and experience in Costa Rica, the last thing you want to be doing is wasting time shopping or circumnavigating downtown San José!  Get in, get it done, and get out! Don’t waste even a single day shopping or roaming San José…just go see and do the things that you came to Costa Rica for!  There is so much diversity in landscape, environmental zones and amongst the people of this country, it is hard to imagine not trying to make the absolute most of your time here!

Comida tipico 2DulcesComida tipicoOne way I like to experience other cultures, to get a real feel for who and what a people are, is to dive headlong into that cultures food!  I won’t lie…Costa Rican food is a bit on the bland side in comparison to Mexican or Cuban food, for example.  But let me be clear, typical Costa Rican food is very good! However, it won’t knock your socks off with exotic flavors.

Devan & the bulls

Devan & the bulls

Roadside Cafe

Roadside Cafe

Gallo Pinto

Gallo pinto... Yum!

Costa Rica is best known for its gallo pinto, which translates to spotted rooster.  Essentially, gallo pinto is rice, beans and eggs.  This is Costa Rica’s national dish. It is served with cilantro and Salsa Lizano.  Gallo pinto is comfort food all the way!  For the absolute best food when traveling in Costa Rica, do yourself a favor and get off the beaten path!  If you try to stay in town or go to an establishment that is a bit more upscale, you’re going to get slightly less authentic dishes that are tailored to your gringo tastes.  They’re still quite good, but they won’t be the truly authentic, typical fare enjoyed by the locals. BTW, make sure to bring some Salsa Lizano home with you… It will easily become a favorite for you and your family!

Pacific Ocean view from roadside cafe

Pacific Ocean view from roadside cafe

Next up is getting out-of-town to see some of the many incredible things there are to experience while in Costa Rica.  Some of these include volcanoes (there are six of them), rain forests, beaches, fincas (estates or farms), national parks and resorts.  I’ll also clue you into the rainy vs. the dry season and how it will affect your trip, if at all. Stay tuned, as the next in the installment will arrive shortly, packed with pictures and who knows what else!

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