After our dramatic entrance into San Jose on a tiny 12 seater plane from Caribbean Tortuguero, we found ourselves in a big city that everyone had tried to tell us that we’d hate. The reality was that it wasn’t too bad, at least for a few days. Here is our account of exploring Central Costa Rica…
San Jose & around
The centre of San Jose is fairly compact and although there is a notable absence of colonial buildings, there are some good quality museums, and who doesn’t love a museum? We visited the Gold Museum, but there is also a Jade Museum and a National Museum. We even managed to find a fine beer house called Stiefel Pub near to where we were staying, have a posh French meal courtesy of our lovely friends (Rachel, Jeff, Agota – thanks again!) and go to a mini-music festival (long story, don’t ask!), although some parts of San Jose are certainly seedy looking after dark with plenty of rooms-by-the-hour and prostitutes trying to lure you in. Prostitution is actually legal in Costa Rica, but that doesn’t stop it looking dodgy! San Jose also definitely lives up to its reputation as a traffic choked city. Even for a foreign-country-driving-pro like Alex, San Jose tested our patience severely.
We decided to rent a car to escape the city and explore some of the sights around San Jose.
The Orosi Valley loop is a day trip which takes in the scenic towns and villages of the coffee growing valley and skirts around the Lago de Cachi, a manmade lake with an impressive dam. As we were off-season and the weather was not very good, it had the sad air of a tourist destination that had been closed down, and much was obscured by mist. Ever the optimists, we decided to take a hike in the National Park of Tapanti, the wettest (hint!) national park in Costa Rica. Needless to say, it rained… a lot! We managed a soggy hike and a soggy picnic without seeing many animals, but the flora was very beautiful for the couple of us who managed to see something through the thick rain.
We had wanted to visit Irazu volcano, but as its neighbour Turrialba had been erupting an ash cloud, we decided to go to Poas instead. Again the weather seemed not to be on our side after a long but scenic drive from San Jose where we bought fresh strawberries and a tasty cheese called Queso Palmito. In fact, it always seemed to tip it down as soon as we got out of the car! We decided to take a chance and shell out the extortionate entrance fee even though the visitor’s office said it would be unlikely that we would see the crater at all due to mist. But, ha! They were wrong. As soon as we tipped up to the crater viewing point, the mists slowly started to clear and we had probably the best view that one could ask for.
Three hours or so by wiggly winding roads from San Jose is La Fortuna, the gateway town for the imposing Arenal Volcano. Apparently only 1 in 2 people manage to see it because of the changeable weather. When we arrived, the weather was typically not on our side and we were incredibly worried that we wouldn’t get to leave the apartment, let alone see the volcano. Luckily for us, on the second day the rain cleared off in the morning and as we set off we could see the volcano in its entirety. We chose to hike a 3 hour route called the 1968 lava flow which takes in a variety of scenery including a forest with mantled howler monkeys, a lake, the rugged lava flow itself, a view-point of the volcano and Lake Arenal below, and a smooth descent adjacent to farmland.
Our final destination was to be Monteverde, famous for its cloud forest. The drive from La Fortuna to Monteverde hugs the edge of Lake Arenal which has a distinct Swiss-German feel, before descending through dramatic valleys from which it is possible to see the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Some of the roads are dirt/gravel roads and are not in very good condition, so our choice of a 4 wheel drive paid off.
We had limited time in Monteverde so we decided to embark immediately on a night walk. We had really enjoyed this activity in Tortuguero, so we were keen to try it again. We had the tour in the Curi-cancha Reserve and it was absolutely brilliant! We saw orange kneed tarantulas, sleeping birds, a scorpion, a rare golden beetle, frogs, spiders, bats feeding from the same feeders that hummingbirds do during the daytime, and our guide even expertly called us owl!
For our daytime activity we had to visit the main attraction which is the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, a unique and endangered habitat. The weather wasn’t great (for a change!) but that did mean that we got to enjoy not just seeing, but being inside the clouds of the cloud forest! We definitely understand why it’s called the cloud forest. The walk was enjoyable as the vegetation in the forest is incredible, just looking at a square inch of a tree reveals plants upon plants, each delicately playing its part in the ecosystem. Everything seemed like it had its perfect place – apart from us humans crashing about in multicoloured rain gear and taking ridiculous selfies!
We managed to see various creepy crawlies, see-through winged butterflies, white-faced Capuchin monkeys and birds including one which we never saw but christened the “rusty gate bird” due to its un-oiled call, like that of a haunted house. There is 1 hanging bridge in the reserve and that is where we were lucky enough to see 2 resplendent quetzals flying over. Later on in our walk we located a man-made quetzal nest about 100m from the entrance and got an even better view of the male bringing in food for its infant. Quetzal feathers were more valuable than gold to pre-Colombian Mesoamerican cultures, symbolising freedom, sacredness and status.
Despite the more challenging weather conditions we encountered during this leg of our trip (more of that to come we suspect as we enter the rainy season!), we managed to see a good chunk of what we had set out to see. Lovely green diverse nature and wildlife packed Costa Rica delivered again, giving us volcanoes, epic scenery and an array of exotic (to us!) animals. Keep this up Costa Rica and you might just have a chance at The Spice of Life Travels’ top country award!