01/02/2014 - 12/04/2014 30 °C
Costa Rica was a bit of a blast from the past for me. Having spent 5 months there on exchange when I was 18, the prospect of reliving the adventure was certainly exciting. As was showing Brendan around some of the old haunts he’d heard so much about.
It’s well known along the gringo trail that Costa Rica is the most expensive country in central America. And having tightened the strings on our budget, we were realistic about how much time we could spend there. So we opted to just pick a couple of places to visit as we made our way down to Panama.
Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. Taking up only 0.03% of the world's surface, it contains nearly 6% of the world's biodiversity. And 25% of the country is in fact protected national parks – the largest percentage in the world for a country. It was clearly evident too particularly as we bussed down the incredibly beautiful country. Where Nicaragua had seemed somewhat dry at times (and definitely less developed), Costa Rica was bursting with lush green, mountainous landscapes. This made our first stop a no brainer – to the mystical cloud forest of Monteverde.
We took a guided tour into the cloud forest on our first day, and opted for the Spanish speaking group in order to put our Spanish to the test. It went surprisingly well, it’s pretty amazing how much you can understand piecing together words you know mixed with body language. As we were about to start the tour there was suddenly a load of commotion and probably 50 oldies with their guides, decked out with binoculars all running to a particular spot to try and get a glimpse of the illustrious quetzal. I didn’t even know what a quetzal was, but the guide and ‘birdies’ as they’re known were all too quick to explain. It was quite a sight actually watching people scramble for the perfect viewing spot, then the bird would fly off to another tree and the sea of oldies would scream & race to the best spot!
Turns out we were apparently quite lucky, as on the three hour walk we managed to spot 3 of them. And they were rather beautiful.
It was lovely to be up in the mountains for a few days, surrounded by nature. And it was our first taste of chilly air in months too.
We visited a butterfly farm while we there with loads of creepy crawlies
Next stop was the capital, San Jose, and the opportunity to drag Brendan down memory lane with me; visiting the university I attended, having a few beers on the trashy bar strip I frequented on so many occasions, even stopping for a photo in front of my favourite restaurant (and cause of the serious weight gain all those years ago). If it weren’t for my history with the city, we probably would have skipped through it, just as we had with all the other capitals from Guatemala southwards. They’re generally pretty dangerous places, and not set up with any tourist infrastructure– except for Mexcio City of course which we loved, and as we’d learn, Panama City too.
Our third and final stop in the country was a little beach town on the Caribbean coast (there’s a bit of a pattern emerging here I think), right down near the border of Panama called Puerto Viejo.
The jungle literally jutted all the way out to the beach, and with an awesome Caribbean vibe & stunning beaches we settled in nicely.
We spent our days riding bikes to the various beaches, doing yoga, eating local cacao and sipping cervesas.
A highlight was our trip to the Jaguar Rescue centre – no jaguars anymore, but plenty of rescued sloths, monkeys and incredibly colourful birds to keep us entertained.
One lovely & familiar saying we kept hearing throughout the country was 'Pura Vida'. It literally means 'pure life', although the real meaning is closer to 'plenty of life' or 'full of life',' and is a quintessential Costa Rican phrase, often used instead of 'how are you' or as a greeting/farewell. It's really a true reflection of the Costa Rican people too as they are so lovely, friendly & smiley. It is the most stable & peaceful country in the region, they even permanently abolished their army in 1949 becoming the first sovereign nation to do so.
One interesting thing of note we heard along the way is that Nicaragua now is what Costa Rica was 20 years ago in terms of tourism & its effect on the country. Costa Rica is well set up for tourists with loads of activities to choose from, and is a popular spot with more than 1.5 million visitors a year. It was definitely the easiest and safest country to get around in central america, kind of like central america 101 for tourists (like Thailand is for South East Asia). So definitely a great place to start for those interested in exploring Central America, but not yet game for the likes of Guatemala or Honduras. On the other hand, if you want somewhere a bit more untouched, less touristy and loads cheaper, perhaps Nicaragua is for you......