Liberia, Tamarindo, Santa Elena
23.01.2015 - 29.01.2015
The border from Nicaragua to Costa Rica has a reputation for being a pain to cross, with several sources telling me to expect long queues and fussy officials. The two countries have had a bit of a tiff and apparently the best way to resolve the squabble is to make life difficult for tourists that want to leave one and enter the other.
As usual at border crossings, there were two stops - the customs desk of each of the countries involved, separated by a small bus journey. Leaving a country tends to be a formality - get your passport stamped, pay any exit fee and off you go, and so it proved here. The entry to Costa Rica was not the 4-hour nightmare experienced by a couple of Austrian girls in our dorm in Ometepe, but there was still a long queue and the stern fellow behind the desk demanded to see proof that I would leave the country. I didn't have any so he told me I could only stay a maximum of 10 days' stay - or actually, as it turned out he'd written in my passport for some reason, 15. After another queue to check my bag I was out of there and on the bus in an hour so I got off lightly.
The way it'd worked out a lot in recent weeks was that I'd end up in a ghost town and/or travelling on Friday/Saturday nights, and the same was true here. I stayed one night in a town not far from the border called Liberia, and met up with Irish Paul who had come here separately. After a tremendous local 'casado típica' meal (rice, beans, plantains, chicken, salad and cheese) we had a drink in the one pub/diner we saw and called it a night.
It's been a couple of months now since I left the US and as much as I'm enjoying dipping my toe in the local culture I've had enough of the fizzy nonsense on offer in the countries' pubs. Belikin in Belize, Gallo and Brahva in Guatemala, Pilsener in El Salvador, Toña and Victoria in Nicaragua and now Imperial here all taste the same and after the first one has gone down to quench my thirst, I'm pining for my real ales and IPAs. At least Imperial has a decent label.
After a long day's travelling, it was another early start the next day as we'd arranged to go to Rincón de la Vieja National Park. There were various hiking trails here, and we chose a circular route in the morning encompassing several hot mud springs and another in the afternoon ending in a lovely waterfall and pool that others chose to swim in. I instead found a long flat rock and went to sleep.
There was a disappointing return on the animal front; we saw a few butterflies but that was about it. The most common beasts we encountered were ticks that surreptitiously attached themselves to any exposed body part and drew blood before you noticed they were there. Normally insects give me a wide berth but here I was peppered by them - I don't think I've ever been bitten so much. One even got me in the middle of the palm of my hand. As I refuse to use insect repellent it was my own fault as I was warned beforehand.
At the exit from the park we saw a large iguana that was wild but presumably enticed to the area by staff scattering fruit around. After I'd finished filming the reptile I looked down and saw about five ticks on each of my legs.
That afternoon Paul and I caught the bus to the resort of Tamarindo on the Pacific coast. We found a decent hostel called La Oveja Negra (Black Sheep) and went out on the town around 9 o'clock, determined to see somewhere lively as it was Saturday night. After a few hours at Sharky's Sports Bar and Aqua nightclub, chatting to a couple of Costa Ricans (Alejandra & Irene) and a few comedy Americans, it was time to call an end to another long day.
It was very hot and humid in Tamarindo - and, by Central American standards, very expensive, nearly up to London prices. Our second day here was a very lazy day indeed, the most interesting thing being we found a craft beer pub where we supped a couple of slightly disappointing locally-brewed 'ales' with a Canadian girl called Julie, who we'd seen in Rincón, whilst watching the sun go down and bats swooping around gobbling up the annoying insects.
I did my bit for Anglo-Irish relations by edging past Paul in a captivating table tennis match that swung one way then the other, and three buses later we found ourselves in a town called Santa Elena on the edge of the Monteverde cloudforest. Not, however, before the third bus broke down and we found ourselves stranded in some random outpost for a couple of hours or so. Everyone else stood around chatting whilst Paul and I found the nearest pub. There we for some reason seemed to attract the local village idiots, one chap in particular fastidiously sanding his spanner (not a euphemism) in front of us for about half an hour.
That night I arranged to go to a bar to meet Will, the other Irish lad I'd hung around with at various stops recently. I'd just eaten a below-average spag bol topped with plastic cheese slices when he arrived, and one of these events precipitated me feeling somewhat nauseous. It was hard to concentrate on our conversation as I was convinced I was going to be ill out of one end or the other (plus the bar was far too noisy) and, sure enough, within the hour I'd had the sort of 'anus explosion' Jovan promised me after eating the spicy sauce in Mexico City, and also chundered at the side of the road in the rain. Another trip low point.
Whatever the cause (and I was blaming the revolting cheese), I was laid up in bed for the next day whilst Paul went off for a hike in the cloudforest, the main reason people visit here. I was much better the following day so took a look around Santa Elena. It was drizzling and very windy all day (unsurprising since it's next to a cloudforest) so I didn't see much except this lovely rainbow.
Costa Rica has a higher standard of infrastructure than the other Central American countries I've visited. For example, the tap water was drinkable, comfy buses ran promptly to a defined timetable and in some places you could even flush your bog roll rather than placing it in an accompanying basket. One reason it is so high is because it is hugely popular with tourists (reflected in its higher prices), mainly for its biodiversity. They take conservation very seriously here - a quarter of the country's area is protected and deforestation is practically zero. It is also #1 in the Happy Planet Index, a measure of countries' ability to "produce long, happy and sustainable lives for the people that live in them".
I got to the cloudforest eventually. One of the most sought-after animals in the forest is the Resplendent Quetzal, a colourful bird with a long tail that gives its name to the Guatemalan currency. Despite our excellent Bobby Ball-lookalike guide Adrian Mendez, there was no sign of it, or for that matter many other animals, but we did see a few hummingbirds and a white-nosed coati.
Bobby was doing his best to explain about the birds and plants we did see, and he did such a great job that even though we didn't see much it was still a very enjoyable couple of hours. Beside the entrance to the forest there was a cafe, outside of which were half a dozen bird feeders, and surrounding these feeders were hummingbirds of various sizes. I stayed there for about an hour as they flew all around us (at up to 50mph according to Bobby) with no fear of humans at all. By holding a finger out next to one of the feeders, the birds would fly over and perch themselves so they could drink the liquid contained within. This was one of my favourite things I've done in my time away.
To top it off we saw an armadildo outside the cafe.
Hummingbird/armadildo pics taken by Natasha Lappos - mine were mostly blurred.
That's it for part 1 of Costa Rica. Thanks to recent rain, part 2 is mostly written already so hopefully you'll be bang up to date very soon.