We are travelling through Central America for a few months including Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama. Our journal is separated by country and while each stands alone they are part of one journey.
Liberia: After a good night’s rest we head off early to Monteverde. We thought this was via Canas and Tilaran, but we were persuaded by a local at the bus depot that it is better to get a ticket to Lagarto and catch a small bus up to Monteverde. It turns out Lagarto is only a river crossing on the Pan American highway at an intersection with a small dirt track, the local landmark is a small shop. We are dropped off at Lagarto at 9.30 in the morning and then told by the shop owner the next bus to Monteverde would be either 11.30am or 3.30 pm, or alternatively we could ring for a taxi, which would take an hour to arrive and cost $US50.
We sip on a cold Fanta and eat some crisps for breakfast, an hour later a tour guide in a minibus pulls up and asks if we want a lift to Monteverde. He’s driving there to pick up some passengers and return them to San Jose. He is happy to give us a lift and no, doesn’t want any money. In air-conditioned comfort we drive up a very steep windy dirt track and reach Monteverde for an excellent late morning expresso of locally grown coffee.
Monteverde: is a cute little mountain village on a lake nestled beneath the Cloud Forest with an active volcano as a backdrop. Our quaint accommodation in the mountain village is beside a dirt track, tourist expansion has turned the track into a bit of a thoroughfare, and young travellers’ demands means disco music replaces the sounds of nature. Nevertheless, the friendly management gave us some insights into some local sights. The view from our room provides some entertainment watching a motorbike rider holding a shovel across the handlebars while his passenger balances a wheelbarrow on his back, handles and arms in the air.
A visit to the Monteverde Cloud Forest and a three hour trail walk with a most enthusiastic guide complete with Leica telescope provides a rare sighting of two Quetzel birds, as well as leaf cutter ants, suspension bridges, mosses, bromeliads, howler monkeys and an assortment of other animals and birds which he describes in graphic detail.
We round the walk out with a visit to the hummingbird garden where numerous futile attempts to photograph these fleeting birds, then a stroll through a huge butterfly park. Our guide offers a detailed description of the life cycle while we are surrounded by amazingly colourful butterflies.
About 10 years ago after a comprehensive study of its economic future Costa Rica put tourism, especially ecotourism on its major export agenda. Now 25 percent of the country is national park and 10 percent is private park under a unique scheme. The government implemented a plan to encourage private sector environmental tourist parks. Large tracts of existing primary and secondary forest were privately owned but unused. The government provides a payment per hectare per annum to owners who turn the land over to national parks on a ninety-nine year lease. The other ten percent of this land, owners are allowed to develop as eco-tourist parks. This has resulted in lots of private ecotourism resorts and a boom in eco- tourism.
Not mentioned in the guidebooks, but clearly a well-worn track is the jeep-boat-jeep trip from Monteverde to Fortuna. It involves a bum-numbing, one and half hour jeep ride followed by 30 minute boat ride across the lake and another 30 minute jeep ride to Fortuna. The really adventurous do it by horse, boat, jeep, even more bum-numbing. But the trip does avoid an even more arduous overland trip.
Fortuna: is a small mountain town overlooked by a classic cone shaped volcano that spurts steam, smoke and red-hot boulders, a spectacular sight that is overed by cloud most of the time. A two-hour hike to the Kodak viewing opportunity at dusk provides us with near perfect cloud cover. However, the hot springs bath near the base of the volcano is most civilized and from wet and warm evening vantage point the clouds lift and the hot boulders and steam are seen in the distance. The hot springs are a popular tourist destination offering five different pools ranging from quite warm to par-boiled.
We ask the guide about seeing some Sloths in the area. We take a short cab ride out of town to a regenerated private jungle on the riverbank. The owner enthusiastically shows off his property including herons, caymans, butterflies, frogs, birds, snakes, and a garden of gingers and heliconias. We explain our mission is Sloths, and he points out a couple of nocturnal two-toed ones sleeping up in the trees, but from the ground they just looked like a couple of mouldy old rugs someone had thrown into the tree.
However, his prize was the diurnal three-toed mother sloth and her baby. Sloths are amazing animals and move like they are tai-chi masters, slow and purposeful. The mother was demonstrating the art of tai-chi to the baby combining a lesson in culinary etiquette. The effort of coming to the ground level bathroom means it is only executed once or so a week. We were fortunate enough to witness this journey, watching the sloth slowly travelling down the tree carrying its young – a special treat for us.
Because of the ecotourism focus, Costa Rica has some quite advanced tourist facilities including tourist minibuses that link the backpacker destinations, which we had not before come across in Central America. For $25 each we sit in an air-conditioned minibus for a few hours with other westerners and go from Fortuna to Tamarindo Beach on the Pacific side close to our Easter holiday destination of Jonquilla.
The journey goes through some pretty country and around the Eastern end of the lake which has such strong winds we pass a wind farm located next to where international windsurfing competitions are held. We pass Liberia through again and head to the Nicoya Peninsula, cattle country which is hot and parched in the dry and wet and boggy in the wet.
Tamarindo Beach is all that can be expected from a fishing village turned backpackers haven turned general tourist destination mainly for Americans. We stay the night but are glad to move onto Jonquilla beach the next morning.
Jonquilla Beach: Guacamaya Lodge is owned by a Swiss brother and sister, Bernie and Alice who had just celebrated 10 years in Costa Rica. Their six cabinas sit on a hill a couple of hundred metres from the beach. Jonquilla sits on a crossroad and has a bar, a general store, a restaurant and a couple of accommodation places. Just before this crossroad, is a small new subdivision of about 20 properties. We met some Canadians from Calgary who were building their holiday home there, heaven knows why, except you can get a direct flight from Calgary to Liberia!
This place is very wet in the rainy season and very hot and dry now. We are staying here over Easter as we have been warned to stay off the roads and find a quiet place because Central America goes crazy over Easter. And after a lot of traveling and bus rides we are pleased that there is little to do. Our time is filled by decisions around eating, reading, napping, interrupted by walks to the beach and into the bush.
Our activities are constantly observed and receive uninvited comments from the local family of howler monkeys, who take on the role of the local roosters in the morning and a mariachi band at dusk. They execute these roles from selected trees within metres of our cabana. During the few days we are here Jonquilla Beach is full, the beaches are lined with campers with tents, and campers without tents and all with many grandmothers and children, music and laughter.
After our few days of absolute laziness, Bernie gives us a lift in his ute for an hour and a half drive on a bumpy, dusty dirt road to Santa Cruz. We arrive to find that the bus is already full so we wait in the sweaty waiting room for the next bus to San Jose. Yet another a five hour hot, crowded and cramped bus ride from hell.
San Jose: Our accommodation in the capital San Jose was selected from a photograph we had seen in a hotel in Granada, Nicaragua. We spent the first night there but unfortunately the room in the photograph had already been taken, the room we got was too dark and small to be photographed. The next day we move two blocks and $10 extra up the street to some more acceptable lodgings. San Jose is quite a nice city with a big long pedestrian mall, several good places to eat, plenty of vendor markets and plenty of youth, doing youth things.
We especially want to visit Poas Volcano, and to see some more nature and waterfalls, only an hour or two out of San Jose, but the local transport isn’t working in our favour. The receptionist Juanita suggests it is better and easier to take a day tour. We take her advice and head off at 6.25 am the next morning for a most agreeable day visiting the coffee plantations, a volcano, a couple of waterfalls, and a privately owned nature park complete with nature resort, huge river and a suspect suspension bridge. We also manage a boat ride down a tributary to the San Juan River. The tributary is navigable for medium sized boats from the Atlantic and judging from the river traffic it is also a significant thoroughfare especially in the wet. We spot alligators, toucans, bats, monkeys, kids in canoes going to school, and mums in canoes on their way home from market shopping.
That night back in town and with great excitement we find a travel guide to Cuba. We buy it without hesitation and then spend the next day working through various combinations of how to get from San Jose to both Panama and Cuba. With great determination we head downtown to Taca airlines headquarters, alas, the ticket could not be swapped, changed, converted, traded or rerouted and other flights were not available. Our decision made for us we did a rough itinerary check to get us to Panama City by the end of the month, including enough time for the mandatory Panama Canal trip.
We catch the bus south to San Vito, enjoying a comfortable ride during the first half of the trip, the second half, another three hours was a cramped disaster. The trip is spectacular as it climbs up over a mountain passage and through a cloud forest and then wanders down a fertile valley crossing numerous rivers and streams. We turn off the highway and climb up the valley into San Vito, a small country town established by Italians in the 1950s. Because of the terrain, all the taxis are old four-wheel drive vehicles, they squeeze in as many passengers as they can, on top goes the baggage, produce and the animals. We find some nice accommodation and restaurants and enjoy the crisp mountain air after our time by the ocean and our bumpy bus rides.
Six kilometres out of town is the Wilson Botanical Gardens established some 20 years ago and now a research centre for universities. Early Sunday morning we set off in a taxi for a five hour wander through the gardens, full of spectacular tropical plants and abundant bird life. Lingering too long we miss the only bus back to town by 10 minutes. So we start walking and after a few kilometres we are picked up by Carlos the local school teacher who kindly gives us a lift back to town.
Always interested to find a short-cut, our map suggests it seems possible to cross the Border and go directly from San Vito to Volcan and Cerro Punta in Panama. However, this short-cut turns out to be for locals only and we are forced to go the long way. This involves a bus from San Vito to Neilly, a bus from Neilly to the frontier, a walk through immigration, a bus from the frontier to Conception and then a bus to Volcan and Cerro Punta.
But no-one and no guidebook has advised us of the construction of the new border crossing between Costa Rica and Panama. As a result the temporary immigration counters are hidden in alleys and car parks, there are no signs or checkpoints and the crossing is chaos even if you do speak Spanish.
The bus drops us off on the wrong side of the border in Panama and we forced to hike back for our exit stamp for Costa Rica and then walk back into Panama. On the Panamanian side hidden down an alley is a ticket office, next to the ticket office is a small boy sitting at a card table who sells a $1.00 stamp, after you buy the stamp you can go to the ticket office, show your $1.00 stamp, passport, credit card and your onward ticket from Panama, someone else then scribbles an illegible instruction which you take to the other side of the Transamerican Highway through the truck carpark over a small mound across a small bridge up a small flight of steps to the third door on your left – the first door is not in use, the second door is for vehicles. Here you show your $1.00 stamp, passport, credit card, your onward ticket and pay $5 for a tourist card. Then you go down the steps, over the bridge…. back to the ticket office, queue and in the fullness of time you will get a Panamanian visa stamp in your passport. From here, we walk to the minibus, to take us to Conception and David.