Costa Rica – Playas del Coco

After Monteverde our last stop is on the beach again, at Playas del Coco near Liberia. Another Airbnb for three nights, a comfortable townhouse with AC, right on the swimming pool in a little development a couple of blocks from downtown Playas del Coco. It’s a great place with a supermarket and several restaurants right around the corner.

A day relaxing out on the beach. It’s Easter Sunday but not very crowded.

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Next day we take a snorkeling trip off the beach. It’s on a diving boat and while the divers do their thing a few of us go off snorkeling at several spots. Due to recent weather the water is a little cloudy but we see a lot of fish. At one point we saw a sea turtle off the bow while we were taking a break; I jumped in but couldn’t catch up with it.

After almost three weeks Lisa’s trip is ending. We have a delicious breakfast at a German cafe surrounded by giant iguanas begging for food, then one last Costa Rican iced coffee. I drop Lisa at the airport then head south towards Panama, the last country in Central America. After all this time traveling through Costa Rica together it feels odd not having someone in the passenger seat.

I make one long day’s drive down the PanAm highway, past Monteverde and Manuel Antonio, stopping along the coast for the night.  Friends have told me that the main border crossing to Panama at Paso Canoas is a nightmare, so I head to the smaller crossing up in the mountains at Rio Sereno. Before crossing I stop in the town of San Vito to use up the last of my Costa Rican colons. A hearty lunch then off to the gas station where I get 8,492 colons worth of gas.

 

 

Costa Rica – Monteverde

Back up into the mountains, we are are spending three nights in the Monteverde Cloud Forest. First day we take a hanging bridges tour through the cloud forest.

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We don’t see much wildlife, but the cloud forest is pretty cool. I’m still scanning along the sides of the trail hoping to see more tiny frogs, but the best I can come up with is this giant millipede.

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Lots of interesting plants.

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In downtown Santa Elena. It’s odd because the last 12 miles or so of the road up here is unpaved, very rough and rocky, then once you get into town it’s nice smooth pavement. We stop in a little coffee shop and Lisa gets one of her favorite Costa Rican iced coffees.

We’re staying in a little Airbnb house about a mile outside of town. They have several dogs who are always happy to see us, including the greatest little puppy.

We visit the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Lots of great trails through the cloud forest. We get an early start, so it’s still quite cloudy.

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Again, not much wildlife but lots of unique plants.

 

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On our last night in Monteverde we take a night hike through the cloud forest. It’s a lot of fun and we actually see more wildlife than we did walking through the forest during the day.

A tiny frog. Sorry for the blurry pictures but it’s hard to get a good shot with just a flashlight.

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Tons of different insects.

and several birds roosting for the night. We saw a hummingbird nest with baby hummingbirds but I couldn’t get a good picture.

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Costa Rica – Parque Manuel Antonio

From Costa Rica’s Central Valley we drive south then east on the Pacific Coast to Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. It’s a small park but very beautiful and supposed to be full of wildlife.

On our first day here the park is closed so we head to the beach. For about $10USD we get a parking spot right on the beach plus our own beach chairs and umbrella for the day. The beach chairs are nice but they’ve seen better days; every time I get up or sit down another piece of plastic falls off of mine.

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We have dinner at El Avion, an old cargo plane parked up over the beach and converted into a restaurant.

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It’s a great place to watch the sun set.

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Next morning we spot some wildlife even before leaving the our hotel/casino, there is an agouti scurrying around the grounds.

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Since the park is so small they limit the number of people allowed in at any one time. We have to wait maybe 15 minutes at the gate for people to leave before we can enter.

There are several trails through the park, none very long so it’s easy to go everywhere. First wildlife sighting in the park is this little tree frog, I have been hoping to see one of these in Costa Rica.

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Next is the famous Costa Rican Laughing Deer.

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Lots of giant land crabs lurking in the jungle.

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There are several beaches in the park. It seems like most of the people come here for the beaches rather than hiking around the park. Probably because this is the start of Semana Santa (Easter Week) when everyone abandons the cities and heads for the beaches. This one is the closest to the entrance and the most crowded, but still not bad. It’s a perfect day for the beach.

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There are monkeys everywhere in the park but it never gets old watching them frolic in the trees.

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On another trail up to the high point of the park

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Then down to another beach. These raccoons were begging for food from everyone who passed by.

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Another agouti. They’re hard to spot because they blend in so well but every once in awhile we would see one scurrying through the jungle.

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Another stunning beach, less crowded as it’s farther from the entrance.

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Plenty of monkeys here as well.

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Next day we drove back towards Liberia, crossing the famous Crocodile Bridge. For some reason dozens of huge crocodiles hang out in the water here by the highway bridge. Given all the concessions at the end of the bridge I suspect there’s somebody throwing chickens off the bridge every once in awhile to keep them here. Everybody parks off the end of the bridge then walks out to see the crocodiles. No big fences or anything, just a standard highway railing not even waist high.

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Costa Rica – Around San Jose

Leaving Arenal we head towards the capital city of San Jose. Or try to. I don’t have any wireless as it’s been easy to find wifi when parked so far. I’m using OSMAnd which allows me to download and store maps for offline use while driving. It has worked well so far but not today. We get about 20 minutes south of La Fortuna when the road is blocked at a bridge which is under serious construction. The guy at the bridge tells us the only way is back to La Fortuna then east to San Jose. Throw in some more construction and terrible traffic going into San Jose and a three hour trip turned into six and a half hours. We check into the hotel late in the afternoon and find a local stir fry restaurant for dinner, then back to the hotel and spend the evening watching Harry Potter in Spanish.

Next morning we are off to the Toucan Rescue Ranch not far outside San Jose. We arrive a little early and grab a delicious lunch at Sibu Chocolate. They have delicious, if pricey, chocolate. I was afraid to ask how much one of these giant bars cost. Lisa stocked up on some smaller packages for people back home.

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We get checked in at the Toucan Rescue Ranch and take the afternoon tour. Despite the name their primary purpose is sloth rescue, although they do have a ton of toucans and other animals. They raise abandoned babies with the eventual goal of releasing them into the wild.

The sloths in the chairs are “teenagers”, not babies but have a way to go to full adulthood. There are six or seven there and they just spend their day in a big sloth heap, eating occasionally. There are some older sloths that can’t be released so this is their permanent home.

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We are staying overnight here at the ranch, so after the tour we are free to wander around and look at the animals for the rest of the day. Our little cabin is next to the owls, and we hear them hooting softly all night. On the other side are the large toucan enclosures, the call of the toucans sounds almost like frogs chirping.

The big event is in the morning, when we join the real baby sloths for their breakfast. The tiny ones are fed by eye dropper every few hours, while the bigger ones are able to eat soft flower petals. It’s very entertaining.

 

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We then spend three nights at an Airbnb southeast of San Jose. This is a little different, just a room in the family’s house. It’s a very cool house, the husband is an architect and designed and built the house, and has another one in progress next door. They make us feel welcome, the first night they have a couple of high school and college age nieces visiting and we join them for a big family dinner.

Tired of not being able to actually see into a volcano we drive to Volcan Irazu, the highest volcano in Costa Rica at 11,260′. It’s not too difficult to visit as the parking lot is only about 1km from the crater rim. It’s a little disappointing as all of the pictures show a stunning bright green lake in the crater, but apparently last year there was a fracture in the lake bottom and all of the water drained back into the volcano. It’s a great view though, it was cloudy down below but we have driven up above the clouds.

There are supposed to be good hiking trails in another section of the park, at the end of a rough 4×4 trail. We take it as far as I can go but I am stopped by a 40 degree hill made of loose softball sized rocks. Even in 4-Low with the center differential locked I can’t get up more than a couple of feet before sliding back down.

We turn around and on the way out Lisa yells “WHAT IS THAT??? STOP!!”

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It’s the Sanatorio Duran, originally a TB sanitorium then used as an insane asylum, orphanage, and a prison. Supposed to be the most haunted spot in Costa Rica. It’s been closed since the volcano erupted in the 1960’s but today for just about $1 each anybody can go inside and play. It turns out that one of Lisa’s lifelong ambitions is to play in an abandoned insane asylum so this is her day.

It is pretty creepy inside, it’s mostly empty but you can see fixtures in the old lab, operating rooms, examining rooms.

The handprints are in the children’s wing, where young TB patients lived. All that is left of the pharmacy is the sign.

Next day we drive to Orosi, a small town in a scenic valley. It’s a little wet so we skip hiking in the National Park nearby. It takes a couple of hours to drive a big loop around the valley, stopping in the town and visiting the church dating back to colonial days (1743) and the ruins of another church from the 1600s which was destroyed in one of the many earthquakes since.

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Costa Rica – Arenal

After two nights in Liberia we leave the heat behind and head to the mountains. Our destination is La Fortuna, at the foot of Volcan Arenal and surrounded by rain forest. It’s a popular tourist destination, full of hot springs, ziplines, rain forest, and ATV tours. When we arrive at the end of Lake Arenal we have a great view of the volcano while eating lunch.

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We’re staying three nights in a cabanita a few miles outside of town, with a good view of the volcano. It tends to be cloudy, so seeing the entire volcano is rare. Some people visit and never see it.

Lisa says this place has the best shower of her life. It’s all rainwater so the water is very soft, and the shower is huge with a gigantic waterfall head, great water pressure and endless hot water.

On the first night we are driving into La Fortuna for dinner when we see a large group of people standing on a bridge. I’m wondering what the big attraction is when Lisa suddenly yells out “SLOTH!!!”  I just pulled around the corner and threw my flashers on (in Central America pretty much anywhere on any road is fair game for a parking spot) and Lisa jumped out and scurried to the sloth bridge. After awhile I get myself parked a little less obnoxiously and join her; it turns out that there are actually two sloths in the tree just ten feet off the bridge, a mom and a baby. They don’t seem to notice the crowd, they’re just hanging there eating leaves verrry slowly.

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For our first adventure tour we go to Mistico Park for some canyoneering.

 

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On this trip you make your way down a deep narrow rain forest canyon towards the river, using ziplines, rappels, hanging bridges, wading, and jumping. It was a ton of fun, probably the best activity in Costa Rica.

 

Arenal is an active volcano, but dormant since 2000. It erupted many times from 1968 to 1998 and although dormant it still emits deadly gases, so people are not allowed anywhere near the volcano. The closest you can get is on the 1968 trail, which goes up into the lava fields from the first, and largest, eruption in 1968. It’s a good hike, passing through many different types of vegetation and of course the lava fields.

 

 

On the last day we go ziplining, I think it’s mandatory in Costa Rica.  The longer ones were incredible, speeding along for half a mile at 650 feet above the rain forest overlooking Lake Arenal and the volcano it really does feel like flying

Another video, getting good use of the GoPro

Costa Rica – Liberia

Crossing the border from Nicaragua to Costa Rica was not too difficult, just long. At the Nicaragua exit there were several buses discharging people into the long line for immigration, so we stood there for quite awhile. Had to pay $2USD for immigration then another $1USD for a local tax, kind of strange since neither Nicaragua or Costa Rica uses the US dollar. They wouldn’t accept my $1 coin left over from El Salvador either, had to be a paper dollar. Once the customs paperwork was was done we then had to find the police officer hiding in the chaotic parking lot to sign off on the papers, then on to Nicaragua. Their immigration office was in between buses so that went quickly, then started the customs paperwork at one office then walked a couple of blocks down the road to buy insurance and complete the temporary import permit. Probably about 3 hours in total.

I got a beach condo from VRBO for the week outside Liberia, near Playa Potrero. The complex is nice but almost deserted. The condo is right on the pool and has cold AC and decent wifi so I’m set for the week.

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Short walk to some nice beaches, also almost deserted this time of year.

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Not much else around but a handful of beach restaurants and bars, with one tiny grocery store. It’s a relaxing week.

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After the week on the beach I went to Liberia for a couple of days, at an Airbnb in town. I figured since I have a couple of days to kill I’ll try to get the yellow fever vaccine I’ve been meaning to take care of. It’s hard to figure out if I really need it, the rules are complicated depending on which countries you’ve been in and where you are going but better safe than sorry. The Liberian Ministry of Health is just a couple of blocks from the AirBnB but they tell me they don’t do vaccines, just issue the yellow fever certificate. They suggested that I try a pharmacy, so I go into the first one I see, which forwards me on to another one in downtown Liberia (which is all of about 4 blocks by 3 blocks). Arriving at the downtown pharmacy they tell me that they do have one vaccine left but I’ll have to wait for the doctor to come back from lunch in an hour or so. Finally the doctor arrives, I pay about $100USD and get the shot along with all the paperwork and the box the vaccine came in. Next day back to the Ministry of Health with the paperwork and the box, fill out more paperwork and I have my official certificate of yellow fever vaccination. Good for the next 10 years.

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Moved to a much fancier Airbnb near the airport in preparation for Lisa’s arrival the next day. Nice two bedroom condo in a big development, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Huge iguanas hanging out by the pool. It’s convenient though, when I’m getting in the car to go to the airport Lisa’s plane flies right overhead, so I know it’s on time (the Liberia airport has just a handful of international flights each day so when I see the Southwest plane going by I know it’s her)

Lisa’s plane comes in

Liberia is in the northwest of Costa Rica, the hottest and driest part of the country. We spend one day hiking in Rincon de la Vieja national park. The trail to the top of the volcano is closed due to recent volcanic activity and deadly gases (it actually erupted after we were there in May and June) so we take the trail to the La Cangreja waterfall instead. The first half of the trail is through forest but once we break out into the open it is pretty hot. From up in the hills you can get a glimpse of Nicaragua and Lake Nicaragua off in the distance.

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The final section of the trail drops steeply and roughly into the canyon, which is nice because it’s about 20 degrees cooler near the water.

When we arrive at the waterfall we jump right in and cool off. The water is perfect after a long sweaty hike.

This picture is like the one you see on Tripadvisor etc, just the waterfall with nobody in it. I figured it would be crowded but no, just two people getting ready to leave. We had the whole waterfall to ourselves for about half an hour before people started showing up. By the time we left it was starting to get crowded.

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Swimming in the waterfall:

Costa Rica – La Cangreja

By now it was into the full heat of the afternoon and the sunny part of the hike was quite hot. We made it back to the forest and stopped by a stream to cool off. Lots of interesting plants around.

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Ran into a bunch of Capuchin monkeys along the trail. They were not happy to see us, they were breaking off branches from the trees and throwing them down onto the trail at us.

In downtown Liberia we found a good restaurant and had a typical Costa Rican dinner, heavy on the rice, beans, plantains, and chicken. After dinner Lisa passed on the cakes and got the first of many Costa Rican iced coffees.

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Nicaragua

After making it past the Honduras border, things are very different. The road is wide and smooth, there are many nice looking farms with fat cattle and horses. Also the first speed trap I’ve seen in a long time, Nicaraguan police set up at the side of the road with a speed gun on a tripod. Luckily I always drive the speed limit.

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I pulled into Leon late afternoon, but it’s still very hot, up in the 90s. Too hot for camping or a hostel with only a fan, after a little while looking around I find a nice Austrian hotel with all of the usual amenities just 2 blocks off the main square.

It’s down the block from this scary looking teaching hospital. The ER is right at the corner with Land Cruiser ambulances parked in front.

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The square is nice once the sun hits the horizon and the heat dissipates.

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Leon has lots of good places to discover wandering around the city center. More in the morning and late afternoon, at midday it is blazing hot and the streets are deserted. There’s a touristy restaurant right on the square with outside tables under an awning and a mister to keep the heat down but it’s still quite hot during the day.

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The big activity is volcano boarding on nearby Cerro Negro. It’s an active volcano but has not erupted since 1999. Since the slopes of the volcano are all volcanic ash at a fairly steep angle, it’s the perfect spot for sliding down on a piece of plywood.

It takes about 40 minutes to hike up to the top, lugging the board and a little pack with the denim volcano suit, gloves, goggles, and some water. At the top we walk along the rim of the latest crater, watching steam venting out of crevices. The ground is hot at many points, you can scrape away the top inch of ash and feel the heat coming up.

There’s not much technique involved, just sit on the board and hold a rope attached to the front. Your feet go outside the board on the ground for braking. You can dig your heels in to go slower or just skim along the top of the ash to go faster.

Since I only have one shot at this I want to try to go as fast as I can without wiping out. I got the fast part OK but still wiped out a few times. First outing of the new GoPro and it came through intact, but with a few scratches.

Cerro Negro Volcano Boarding

On that last wipeout the board really smacked me hard in the ribs, about sternum level. I didn’t feel too badly the same day but next morning it was a struggle to get out of bed. Rather than moving on that day I decided to spend another couple of days in Leon relaxing.

Next stop is at Lago Apoye, a hostel with a mini campground. Nice place with a decent restaurant right on the beach.  The water is warm but not super clean.

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From my spot in the camping area I can sit and watch monkeys climbing through the trees overhead. Also the occasional huge tree climbing iguana. One day I looked up after hearing some rustling and saw a three foot iguana about twenty feet up directly overhead trying to cross from one tree to another.

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Apart from a couple of brief rain showers the weather is pretty good.

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Spent some time talking to Nikos and Georgia who are from Greece. They had traveled through Africa previously in a Land Cruiser setup like mine, then returned to Greece, bought a van, customized it for camping, and shipped it over to Canada to start their travels through the Americas.

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Back to the city, this time Granada on the shores of Lake Nicaragua.

Another nice, but hot, colonial town with lots to see. Lots of tourists as well.

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Last stop is in San Juan del Sur on the Pacific coast. Stayed at a campground a little way out of town run by a retired American Marine from Alabama. Interesting place, lots of other overland travelers here. They have a pool, restaurant, and bar with events to attract the local expats such as Taco Tuesday and Wing Friday.  Tons of retired Americans and Canadians live here and it was fun to hang out and get an idea how they ended up here in Nicaragua. Met one guy from St Charles IL.

Below you can see my Land Cruiser, my friends Will and Cate’s big white camper Moby, a US Army communication truck converted into a camper by a guy from Colorado, not sure about the fourth one, they may have been a French couple. Also met John and Mandi when they stopped in for a few days, which was pretty cool as I had been following their blog before leaving on this trip.

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Ended up spending a week here doing not too much. My Nicaraguan vehicle import permit is for 30 days and I want to use the full 30 days here before moving on to the much more expensive country of Costa Rica, as I have some time to wait before meeting my daughter Lisa in Liberia at the end of the month.