Central/South America Whistle Stop Tour: Costa Rica

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

costa rica

Part 1

Getting from Panama to Costa Rica is no mean feat. Caribbean Tours is a reliable local company that organises small buses from Almirante across to various Caribbean resorts along the coast. Resort is something of a misnomer when applied to the east coast of Costa Rica, as will become clear from the rest of the travelogue.

The boat ride (same small plastic speedboat) from Isla Colon to Almirante was terrifying. The little vessel skims the waves and frequently jumps up and down, leaving you to wonder if you can swim the short distance to the various mangrove-covered islets on the way.

Almirante is a veritable rust bucket that we mercifully avoided as we boarded the bus straight on arrival. From there then on, the views are amazing: tropical rain forest at its most magnificent and small settlements all the way to Changuinola, a fairly large city and an important port. The procedure of crossing the border between Panama and Costa Rica is strictly for rigorous backpackers. It involves queuing in the blazing heat on each side, being finger-printed, etc., crossing the notorious Sixaola bridge, waiting some more, and finally getting on another bus to various drop-off points.

Our first destination was Cahuita, between Puerto Viejo and Limon, the capital of the Eastern Costa Rica and the country’s major commercial port.

Kelly Creek

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Cahuita is cute, touristy and safe. We stayed at the best hotel there, a mere 5 bedroom tropical style guest house, beautifully renovated and decorated by Erica Eriksson. Our hostess, a slim ponderous woman of international background (Swedish by birth), and an ardent animal lover, bought Kelly Creek two years prior and has since turned it into a small jewel.

The twin building hotel faces the beach immediately in front and a creek on the side where caimans can be seen swimming early in the morning.

A family of monkeys, iguanas and a racoon have made their home on the grounds of the hotel and are as friendly as you would let them be without getting too close.

The rooms are vast, with brand new bathrooms and fabulous hard wood floors. The beds have mosquito nets, a necessity in this part of the world.

Kelly’s Creek is at the edge of a National Park and if you wonder off the small beach in front, you would be required to sign off to continue further along.

Erica is a wonderful hostess and a good conversationalist whose knowledge of Costa Rica is considerable. She has clearly had an interesting life, but doesn’t indulge the curious. Keeping a perfect balance between hospitality and discretion, she gives you all the space you need to enjoy the truly unique environment of Kelly’s Creek. It was she who directed us to the best restaurant in Cahuita and even reserved us a table.

Sobre las olas

Juventino Rosas’ Over the Waves waltz may be a rather unusual choice of a name for a restaurant in Cahuita, Costa Rica. The only plausible rationale is the fact that the Italian-owned eaterie overlooks the sea and is quite romantic at night.

We had our best fish meal there: fabulously cooked rare tuna and a freshly caught grilled sea bass under the palm trees and the sea breeze.

The guests were seized by huge excitement when a large sloth decided to perform some slow motion acrobatics in the trees above and this was our cue to leave. Sloths can be cute, but not when hanging over your dinner plate.

Dining out in Cahuita is both overwhelming and extremely limited: while there are countless places touting for business in the usual style, most serve poorly prepared or triple-fried food. Do not expect salads that you are accustomed to having in Europe. Raw vegetables can be dodgy anyway (deep country farms fertilise with human manure, we read) and $9 would only get you a few finely shredded leaves with 2-3 slices of tomatoes, some boiled carrots and a shaved onion ring or two.

Porto Viejo

Puerto Viejo in Spanish, or simply PV to the locals, has achieved an almost mythical status on the internet thanks to the myriad of backpackers who have turned it into a Destination.

Looking at post card pictures on various blogs or reading exalted and charming offbeat commentary about its laidback magic, you might be forgiven for dreaming about spending your next vacation near Playa Negra (black sand beach).

Here is the hard truth about PV, in no particular order:

  1. Playa Negra does indeed have black sand which turns to sand flee-infested mud on contact with the heavily polluted sea water. Do NOT walk barefoot or you’d get stung on the soles of your feet. This is why you hardly ever see anyone swimming and never sunbathing.
  2. Expensive “hotels” are nothing but glorified hostels with none too clean bedding, noisy fans, broken mosquito nets, creepy crawlies on the walls (ah, but this is the jungle, don’t you know) and tepid shower water, assuming the showers work at all. All this is dressed as some high falutin ecological initiative of course. Breakfast is not included and is equally overpriced for what it is. Fruit is the only edible thing on the menu.
  3. Trash, trash, trash everywhere. The eco credentials of PV and Costa Rica in general fall apart in the most spectacular fashion when you drive up the main street of the settlement. I use the word advisedly. PV is not really a town nor a village. Rather, it is an amalgamation of shacks built originally by European hippies who settled there for some reason that escapes me. It must have been dirt cheap at the time. Now it’s just dirt.
  4. The rusted facades covered with loud graffiti, the open sewers, the frequently closed WCs (running water, it seems, is a scarce commodity in PV), the scruffy tourists and even scruffier residents, the dodgy vendors, the stray dogs, the piles of rubbish at every corner, and lastly, the utterly overwhelming stench of general filth mixed with marijuana are all so demoralising that you would want to weep – unless, of course, you are a committed, pot-smoking backpacker determined to eschew 21st century comforts.
  5. The hippies that time forgot. They are there in force: playing loud rasta music in Bob Marley dedicated bars, sporting dreadlocks or matted long hair, moustaches and beards (my fellow traveller remarked that every male in PV looked “like Jesus”), wondering about in a daze and exuding the pervasive smell of  sweaty tank tops or worse, heavily chlorinated water mixed with bodily fluids. Many of these characters are a caricature of their youthful 60s selves, riding rusted bikes or skulking in corners, vaguely ogling the 20-something talent, there to partake of dirty dancing and affordable intoxication of any and every kind.
  6. Supermarkets are a joke. Stocked with imported American cold meats and cheese of the worst existing quality, packaged under vacuum and probably out of date, they sell inedible food at insane prices. Avoid if you possible can or survive off Tortilla chips by known brands as we did.
  7. Cafes. Once again, dirty, overpriced, often dispensing local food that’s fried beyond all recognition or flavour. We had ice cream at an Italian cafe, but got driven out by the sewer stench after a while. The rest are not worthy of a mention, just see above.
  8. Estate agents are primarily of European stock. Having settled there for years, they peddle the same inventory for additional income, try to hook a buyer for one of the pricier plots and are hardly ever there to show you anything, using instead local drivers who prefer to act as their own agents for their own friends.
  9. When it rains, it pours and it pours forever. This, after all, is the rain forest. If you like to see it in all its glorious authenticity, there is probably no better place than from the relative safety of a PV “hotel” deck.

You wouldn’t get bitten by anything more than a few mosqitos and can reflect on the awesomeness of nature while you count the hours and days until you can make a run to the local shop. Rain in Costa Rica is a powerful thing and you simply have to wait it out because dancing, or even walking in the rain is a sheer impossibility.

When it stopped raining, on our 4th day on the Caribbean coast in CR, we grabbed a local taxi, having negotiated a $10 fee for the 1 km trip to the bus “station”. Bus is the only way you can get out of the province unless you rent a car, a wholly unadvisable thing to do because you would be crossing a jungle to get back to any civilisation.

The bus trip to San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital, is supposed to take 4 hours.

We knew this was nothing more than a hopeful estimate, so stocked up on drinks and snacks and embraced resignation.

The rudimentary and somewhat capricious air conditioning on board provided relative comfort in which we could observe the changing landscape. And what a landscape it is, when undisturbed by man!…

The jungle, in its unadulterated state, is simply Jurassic Park awesome (in fact, the movie was filmed on an island off the country’s Pacific coast).

Sadly, the province’s capital and country’s main port, Limon, is, if anything, in a worse shape than PV.

A few small settlements dotted the route and as day turned into night, we began worrying about the bus breaking down or worse, hitting something in the impenetrable fog that descended upon the thick jungle on each side.

San Jose

When we finally pulled at the San Jose bus station, everyone breathed a sigh of huge relief – until, that is, we were assailed by a swarm of “taxi drivers”. One of them, duly registered and seemingly official, assured us that the fare charged would be the one on the meter, then a minute after we got in, announced his real rate: $40 US dollars to our hotel. Outraged, we got out and started walking. Mercifully, a police station was round the corner and one of the policemen spoke enough English to burst out laughing when we narrated our story. It turned out, the actual fare was $8 and the first taxi that drove past was instructed to charge us precisely that.

Buoyed by the prospect of a clean room, hot shower and palatable food, we practically danced into our 4 star hotel, hastily booked while eating ice cream in PV.

Sadly, the bed sheets had not been changed, so by the time we were given a new room, it was too late to dine at the restaurant. Tortilla chips it was once again.

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Volaris staff busy at work.

We voted on Costa Rica that night and decided to give the Pacific coast a total miss, going instead to Mexico. We booked a midday flight to Guadalajara through a local airline, Volaris. The trip to the airport was meant to take 15 minutes – we had chosen our hotel precisely because of this proximity. To our intense irritation and mounting alarm, this took just over an hour due to road repairs and general traffic. By the time we reached the airport, some 50 minutes before our flight departure, Volaris’ counter was deserted. Frantic calls netted some minor official who assured us that it was impossible to get a boarding card less than an hour before the flight. Still, we kept remonstrating and ended up in Volaris’ airport office where coffee drinking staff simply laughed us out, showing us the finger to boot.

In utter despair we stopped at the airport flight information desk and asked if we could board ANY flight out of Costa Rica, as soon as possible. An ill-humoured assistant inquired slowly: “Jiyou mean jiyou don wan to be here no more?”

We nodded as fiercely as we could in confirmation.

A flight to Bogota was the first to leave Costa Rica and we booked it without hesitation – how could it be any worse, even if it was Colombia?!

DISCLAIMER: we did not visit the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, which has, by all accounts, some of the most spectacular properties in the world (i.e. Villa Manzu), natural reserves and architect-designed 5 star villas and resorts, and is as polished as they come.