Our less than inspiring Miami experience was rounded off with the delights of Concourse D at Miami International Airport. My last experience with this exceptionally dull terminal was during long layovers on a flight to Peru a few years ago. It hasn’t substantially improved. From the initial deafeningly unfriendly check in with American Airlines (Plus paying $60 to check 2 bags, which seriously grips my shit on an international ticket) it didn’t improve much. A classic piece of hostile security theatre to get to the departure gate including a “WALK… don’t walk…WALK! WALK FASTER!” Section where you had to pass a very cute (“DO NOT PET!”) sniffer dog and then the lamest bag check I’ve seen in years, and then you’re into the dreaded Concourse…
Aside from this it was a reasonably efficient flight and we arrived at San Jose airport in good time. Friendly immigration officers set a good tone for the country and our luggage…arrived.
And then it was time to pick our hire car up. I have a poor recent record with hire cars, and as such was a little reticent about this. It would be alright if they dropped you at a nice quiet nearby town however the first bit’s always the worst bit and Pips valiantly nominated me as the first driver, from the hire car depot straight out onto Highway 2. Waaaaaaaa. I definitely wasn’t looking as calm and collected as the photo above whilst I gingerly eased the beastly Daihatsu into the hordes of honking traffic.
This was one point where I regretted not blowing the budget on something big and nasty like a Hilux. In truth though, the little Daihatsu turned out to be absolutely perfect on some properly sketchy roads later on with permanent 4WD, no overhangs to speak of and decent off road tyres.
Car hire rates in Costa Rica fluctuate enormously according to demand and it’s best to book ASAP. I went with Auto Europe reselling for Europcar and got an “Economy SUV” for 4 days for £196 including basic insurance. You don’t need the extras if you have an annual policy, but its still scary having the £1500 blackmail hold on your credit card.
We swung onto Highway 2 in the general direction suggested by Google Maps… and promptly hit the back of an exceptionally durable traffic jam which was to plague us all the way through San Jose and a good distance the other side. This wasn’t a great introduction to the country, and our decision not to stay in San Jose proper looked like a very good one. Concrete jungle doesn’t begin to cover it.
Some sort of reliable GPS is absolutely indispensable, although we did experience a few “Google Special” route changes. Very little of the distance is actually on highways, most is skipping through and around town centres, with accordingly changeable and often somewhat bizarre traffic systems. One lane, two lanes, middle lane merges, strange traffic light sequencing, a one way road that suddenly goes two ways…it’s all there. Accompanied by somewhat enthusiastic fellow drivers and vast potholes all over the place.
It was with some relief then, that we finally emerged onto a calm, sinuous country road some two and a half hours after leaving Alajuela… Well above the suggested time by Google Maps and frankly ludicrous for a 35 mile trip. On the point of darkness, we turned into our home for the night, Rinconcito Verde. A really lovely place close to Ujarras on a scenic road, and with a good environmental ethos- Entirely solar powered and with recycling of everything, very rare in even enlightened Costa Rica. Even the soaps were knitted from organic yoghurt.
Time then, to enjoy the sunset from the bath…
Well sadly this wasn’t to be, as the heating for the water was on the blink, although Pips notched up a good few laps of the pool. It was very, very nice to be somewhere so far from the madding crowd, with only the blaring jake brakes of the trucks on a nearby road to remind ourselves of civilisation.
Margarita, the stand-in manager waxed lyrical about the safety of the area, and the overall stability of Costa Rica. After a few beers, it was time to turn in, listening to the chirruping of the local wildlife.
The next day dawned with brilliant sunshine… after a spectacular breakfast it was time to hit the road. We had in mind a day of meandering around the scenic Orosi loop which takes in plenty of pretty villages, hot springs, bakeries and a national park- Basically all of my favourite things.
Pips valiantly volunteered to drive. This of course had nothing to do with the fact that these roads were somewhat friendlier than yesterday, although I will concede that they had their moments of slight unease…
Some of the bridges around here took a little bit of negotiating, albeit undoubtedly friendlier than the river crossing that would have been there before! Thankfully though the rental company did seem pretty sanguine about off road use though, contrary to their terms and conditions- The guy showing us the car pointed out the diff lock, “In case we got stuck in any rivers”.
Our first stop was the pleasant, sleepy little village of Orosi, home to great landmarks such as its historic church and, more importantly, Panaderia Suiza, a great little bakery run by a Swiss woman, strangely enough. After indulging our historical interest we indulged in pastry and coffee, and chatted to a local, in this case a Labrador named Scott. (Yeah, I know, right?)
Orosi church is the oldest Catholic church still in use in Costa Rica, built in 1743 and very well preserved. Scott is a street pup who was rehomed with a local alcoholic man, returning to Panaderia Suiza each day for food. As the guy explained, they look after each other… aaah. Scott had a prodigious appetite even for a Labrador cross, devouring at least 2 massive bowls of dog bits whilst we were there.
Moving on after coffee and lard, we got directions for nearby Parque Nacional Tapanti, a small national park a few kilometres out of town with various walking trails. After negotiating the somewhat intense dirt track up there, we spoke to the friendly Ranger at the gate. Exchanging pleasantries, he explained that his daughter also lived in the UK with her husband… 25 miles away from where I live, in an obscure corner of Somerset. Life really is all about bizarre coincidences and it’s lovely that the world feels like a small place sometimes. He explained that he was due to visit at the end of the year, and I implored him to pay Minehead a visit.
Onwards and upwards…first gear most of the way up the rough track, right up to the end viewpoint, and indeed the tantalising Jurassic Park-style gates across the track at the end. We decided against crashing them, I’m sure it is against a byelaw of some kind.
The trails in Tapanti are on the whole pretty mellow and short, although even still, with this kind of humidity you feel the steps pretty acutely! We did the top couple and then…gave up. Sadly very little in the way of wildlife spotting other than a troupe of monkeys on the track up. I can only assume that with thousands of hectares of pristine rainforest they choose to avoid the gringo tracks!
After a brief wander round, it was by this point seriously hot. And we were seriously overdue some lunch. The drive back to Orosi provided some comedy potential, with a couple of ropey bridges to cross and also a bit of road reconstruction in progress requiring Pips to drive through what resembled a ploughed field where once had been a road of sorts. All was rewarded upon arrival in Orosi.
Lunch turned out to be ace… A bargain basement Casado from the big restaurant opposite the sports field, as recommended by Lonely Planet. Brilliant value for money at around £4 each, filling and dare I say it, reasonably healthy. It’s a bit of a staple over here, and I’m all for it. After picking up a few supplies at the Supermercado in town, we cracked on. Back to the Rinconcito for our final night. The night’s refreshment came from a Nicaraguan beer, a lovely mellow drop…
The next day involved another cross-country schlep. It’s fair to say that this wasn’t eagerly anticipated given the intense journey from San Jose here- It is however what you need to do if you want to see the best bits of countryside.
Thankfully the traffic was far more relaxed, with absolutely no San Jose gridlock on the way. We opted to stop around Alajuela, in the vain hope of a coffee shop pitstop. The gods of roadside dining were smiling on us however, since an establishment called The Cakery loomed large around the corner, in a nice suburb of the city.
This turned out to be an eye wateringly expensive cup of coffee and cake. We continued.
Next stop was our home for the night, Villas Escondidas near to Grecia, a good deal at $65 a night for a huge room with two huge double beds. And indeed a great, but freezing pool.
We managed a run into Grecia to have a look around and grab lunch… By this point I think Pips was a little tired/hungry/hangry as she spontaneously declared it a “Shithole”… Slightly harsh I felt as it was one of the nicest towns I’d ever encountered in South/Central America, spotlessly clean and with this amazing church in the middle of it:
Regardless of how nice the town was, however, you always need to be a little bit wary in urban centres. We’d parked a few blocks from the main square since all of the other on-street parking required an app, and that was just something I wasn’t going to engage with on holiday… On our way back to the car a bloke followed us from about a block away, took a good look at the car and then started taking a good look at the other nearby cars too. Theft of things from cars is something that you really do need to be careful with.
Aside this, though, I really liked Grecia with its clean orderly streets and lovely square. I did need to get a local SIM though, which I bizarrely achieved by speaking to a man in a Movistar van parked outside the supermarket… easy! Stop me and buy one.
The next day brought with it more automotive exploration, up towards Zarcero, north of Grecia. Unfortunately the sat nav really wasn’t playing ball for…reasons and we ended up blindly trundling along Highway 1 for ages until I clicked onto the signs counting down the distance to Tamarindo. Er, that’s on the Pacific coast. Sure enough, a quick re-check revealed that we had been going the wrong way for quite some time. A brief moment of contemplation about just firing down to the Pacific was binned in favour of Plan A.
About an hour later than planned we rocked up in Zarcero, famous for its…bushes. A magnificent array of topiary around the church. I was impressed… Some of them were quite obscure, but there was nonetheless a lot of skill involved. The one below definitely has a bit of Botero inspiration.
Aside however from the lovely church and well-manicured bush population, Zarcero was somewhat of a workaday town with little else of interest going on so we carried on up into the hills, our destination was the village of Bajos del Toro which, according to appearances on the map, in the utter middle of nowhere.
This is quickly confirmed as you wind up into the hills, seemingly endlessly. Fantastic open vistas around every corner, some of the most beautiful countryside we’d seen yet in Costa Rica. In fact, much like highland parts of Panama, it all felt a bit like home- Lush hills, small fields and, bizarrely, loads of Jersey cows!
Getting close to Bajos del Toro, the road started getting steeper and windier, with loads of hairpin+ bends… almost going back on themselves whilst simultaneously climbing precipitously. First gear was required a LOT. And then, possibly coincidentally just after the very posh hotel complex, the tarmac ran out. 2 miles of bouncing later and we were into the village.
This place was brilliant, a one horse town in the truest sense of the word with little other than a couple of restaurants and a supermarket. Somewhere that it would have been good to spend a couple of days, this is a bit of a hub for adventure activities and aside from that has a real ‘end of the world’ feel… silence is golden.
The road does carry on around the back of Volcan Poas to rejoin one of the bigger rutas in the area, however I couldn’t vouch for its quality and it is a very, very long way. We were, once again, distracted by lunch. Despite the smattering of decent looking restaurants in the village we’d passed the Aberdeen Steakhouse on the way into Zarcero and it was calling our name. Rice and beans wouldn’t have been the same.
This entirely did the job, a huge steak at a decent price. Well recommended, on the road just south of the town of Zarcero, from appearances a proper truck stop.
And so, quickly as it had begun, it was our final day in the highlands. We had initially intended to see Volcan Poas on our last day, prior to dropping the hire car off in Alajuela, however it turned out not to be worth it. Due to volcanic activity a few years ago access to the park has been severely restricted. Ignore what Lonely Planet says about it! We only found this out as I was chatting with the receptionist at Villas Escondidas however it is now run on a reservation system- You need to navigate a horrendous, laggy Governmental website to first register and then to book a slot. You have to arrive at the Poas car park 20 minutes before your slot, and you are then taken on a 20 minute guided tour up to the caldera and back to the car park. That’s it. And if you miss your slot, you’ve missed your slot. Tickets need to be printed… It’s all a bit too much hard work really and a real shame since none of the hiking trails are open either. It’s a fairly reasonable $15 per person, but a shadow of its former self.
Instead we decided, on the recommendation of our guesthouse owner, to visit La Paz. It’s in broadly the same vicinity as Poas, and is part of a luxury lodge (We’re talking £500+ a night!). There are a series of trails around 3 waterfalls and the river, and a vast array of wildlife, much of which has been seized for being an illegal pet, and cannot be returned to the wild. There are also displays on rural life, an identikit buffet restaurant, yada yada. It’s undoubtedly steep at $45 a person, however is a decent day out and we saw lots of wildlife that is either rare or damn near impossible to see in the wild. The tip jars everywhere do take the poss somewhat though.
Getting there was a bit of a trial, we were both very much done with driving on Costa Rican roads by this point and, when you need to get somewhere in a hurry, the ‘charming’ distractions, agricultural traffic and general poor state of the roads becomes annoying. We also encountered our first suicidal dog who, having cheated death after forcing me into an emergency stop due to his kamikaze car attack, then continued trying to bite the tyres for a good few hundred metres up the road.
Some of the most interesting parts were the frog and reptile houses, these were staffed by enthusiastic experts who explained all about the different varieties, including some of the really scary mega toxic ones. I did feel slightly guilty that he had to wake the frog up for the next couple of photos, however the contrast is amazing. Camouflage works! Like a gremlin, he just added water, allowing me an amazing shot. His assertion that they go back to sleep after a couple of minutes didn’t help my guilt one iota though.
Tearing ourselves away from the frogs, we headed off down the waterfall trails. It’s a very slick park and the trails are immaculate, no clambering over boulders or the fear of getting lost. There are an awful lot of steps though. Luckily since this is essentially a wildlife theme park for Americans, there’s a shuttle bus which runs from the end of the trails back to the start.
However, this was not to be the slick transfer operation we had expected due to chickentruckgate. After a strongly priced coffee in the upstairs cafe and then the obligatory “Exit through the gift shop” we emerged to the bus stop to find a truck, full of live chickens, broken down where the bus stop should have been. A couple of guys were transferring its cargo to a second chicken truck, however this was causing gridlock on the steep uphill bend. The stink of chicken ordure was quite something to behold.
A third chicken truck seemed to serve no purpose whatsoever in proceedings, apart from providing a little solidarity to the other two chicken truck drivers, however this had the effect of completely gridlocking the road since lorries wouldn’t make the hairpin with it stuffed on the corner… Net result was a very late bus, a very grumpy Frenchman waiting for it and the inescapable conclusion that we should have just walked back up the trail at the very start.
Regardless, we did get back to the start, and in the face of intense protest from Pips we went back around a few of the animal houses. I needed my last Toucan fix.
Thankfully the road back to Alajuela was almost normal, and we got back in good time. Home for the night was the Barcelo San Jose, a 5 star hotel that we managed to nab for an incredible £60 including breakfast. A little old school in the 1990’s dark wood executive style, but pleasant enough and with super comfy beds. Plus all of the usual luxury hotel accoutrements including hordes of super fluffy towels and slightly scant robes. The minibar/s were locked, probably since they knew we were on a pikey Booking.com rate.
The bar here was incredibly dark and dingy, and this seemed to be by design rather than fault. After a couple of overpriced beers we hatched an incredibly unwise plan to pop to the local offy for some cans. The Barcelo isn’t in the worst area of San Jose, although it is a bit of a gated enclave. The guard on the car park gates directed us to the local corner shop and commented “It’s safe now, but after 10pm I wouldn’t go out”.
It was 8pm.
We reached the local corner shop (full bandit screen setup and a locked buzzer front gate), grabbed a six pack and hightailed it back to safety. This had not been a sensible outing, and was a further blow to my “savvy international traveller” self-image.
We certainly weren’t going out again. A quick look at the band in the bar confirmed that, whilst they were OK, the bar was still crap and possessed all the atmosphere you’d expect an executive hotel filled with crusty elderly tour guests to possess. So, tonight’s hashtag is #wildfridaynight. Pips found this pose intensely amusing, however I maintain that it is super comfy.
And that folks, is that. Next up: See y’all in the Caribbean!