The first time I visited Costa Rica — a six-day trip including travel time — my base was in Puntarenas, a city on the Nicoya Gulf close to the Pacific Ocean. I fell in love with the country. Eschewing a typical tourist vacation for a second trip, a friend recommended that I begin with a four-day tour for a maximum of six people that fit my budget and purpose for a hands-on, in depth study, of all the country offers.
Within a few days, the affable and informative American tour guide introduced me to the country's beautiful way of life (or Pura Vida), to friendly Ticos, as Costa Ricans are affectionately called, and to Gringos, the non-pejorative name for foreigners that are among the four million people calling the country home. The first days were a whirlwind of activity as we — driver, guide and me because all the other clients had rescheduled — visited at least a dozen places in the central region of the country.
Driving from Alajuela adjacent to the capital of San Jose where I had spent the night at a very inexpensive B&B, home to a feisty monkey, we visited Grecia. An agricultural centre that was settled in the early 1800s, its pièce de résistance for me was the deep red metal church that was made in sections in Belgium. When the carefully numbered pieces arrived during the 1890s in the Caribbean port of Limon, they were hauled across country in colorful oxcarts, the design of which identified the owner like a coat of arms. Each piece was carefully secured with nuts and bolts; more recently the seams were sealed. Depending on the tale, this church replaced others which were destroyed by earthquakes, or one by fire. Facing west like most churches in Costa Rica, the altar is made of marble from Carrera, Italy, but copies a Spanish design. Outside, a water garden graces the grounds.
A few kilometers down the road Sarchi was once a major rest stop on a caravan route from the Caribbean coast. The Rio Trojan (river) splits the sprawling city into two sections, north and south. Craftsmen still create carts like the ones that hauled the church, furniture and souvenirs in traditional and custom designs with vivid colors. It seemed obvious to me that the shops along the main road catered to tourists, but later I would see the objects they sold in people's homes or in hotels. Learning how they are created was most interesting and provided lots of photo opportunities. I took a stroll off the main road to catch a glimpse of more quiet neighborhoods away from the commercial center.
Further west, Zarcero, north of Naranjo, clings to the mountains at about 5,000 feet above sea level. As a gardener, I delighted in the extensive topiary garden in front of the church. Cyprus bushes have been incredibly sculptured into a variety of shapes including animals, people and arches. It also features a small grotto.
Overnight stays at fincas (farms offering bed and breakfast), and a 25-year old hotel called Pico Blanco in Escazú, named for a nearby peak, provided me with insight to the vida tranquilidad. I mention the hotel because an Englishman with a great sense of humour who had immigrated to Canada and then bought a vacation home in Costa Rica to which he and his wife have retired, watched the hotel grow from five rooms to a sprawling facility. He gleefully showed us where a rooftop bar overlooking the valley and a much-needed garage were being built.
As darkness descended by the hotel the stars twinkled and the night sparkled with a 'strings of jewels' as the lights came on in the houses on the hills and in the valleys in and around San Jose.
My next surprise was a mosaic of natural, large blue stones that lined the walls and oversized square tub in the bathroom nearly as big as my adjoining room at a B&B on a farm in San Ramon. Called the 'City of Poets' as a result of a literary movement in the 1880s, the town has a growing Gringo population and offers a number of attractions including a gorgeous church that took 27 years to build. It was in San Ramon that former President José 'Pepe' Figueres Ferrer, whose widow Henrietta lives in Montgomery, Alabama, abolished the Costa Rican army during his first term in 1948-49.
These rustic facilities contrasted with a comfortable estate inn sequestered on 300 acres in Barrio San Juan located a few kilometers from Santiago de Puriscal. The caretaker has lived on the property since he was born and he stayed when a Canadian couple, who originally retired to Costa Rica and built a home elsewhere, bought the property and went back to work. My very large room with a private bath had great views on two sides of the grounds where all sorts of fruit trees, including grapefruit, filled the landscape. I took a lukewarm shower because I had yet to master the on-demand hot water equipment fondly referred to as a 'suicide shower.'
Although I had no time to ride the horses or swim in the pool, it occurred to me that this would be a peaceful setting in which to recuperate after a medical procedure which costs less than in the States. In fact, I found out later that some B&Bs specialize in having guests post operations.
After the tour, I hired a driver to take me to the coast. Near the small village of Ojochal close to Dominical, I stayed in an expanding hotel perched high above the beach where two rivers converge on their unending trip to the Pacific Ocean. The pool offered me a welcome reprise from the very hot weather, which contrasts with the more temperate clime in the mountains that I prefer. While I had brought a strong sunscreen lotion and bug repellent with me, I found I needed a bug spray called Baygon (a very strong product available in grocery stores) when an army of ants decided I have sweet blood.
If you are lucky enough to find as I did the delightful French restaurant run by Canadians in Ojochal, you will be well rewarded for seeking out the Exotica. The presentation with fresh flowers on the plate was equal to that of a five-star restaurant without the prices, and the food was excellent. However, when I wanted an economical meal, I selected a soda, a hole-in-the-wall family operated eatery, crowded with locals. Dishes like Gallo Pinto or a Casada, a plate including the omnipresent rice and beans and other items that a bride supposedly fixes for her new husband, are served. On top of it all was chicken fixed in some manner, a thin pork chop or breaded fish, whatever I chose.
After such a full week, it was great to move into a casita
(small house) that soon was nicknamed Casa Elena which I rented by the
week near Santiago de Puriscal. The owner would sometimes drive me into
town and he introduced me to his family, a surprising but delightful
occurrence. Dredging up Spanish from the computer of my mind was necessary
to communicate with them. Living alone provided the opportunity to experience
Costa Rica from a different perspective.
Dark falls about six P.M. every evening year round, and the sun gently rouses one from slumber about twelve hours later. The first things I saw each morning through the rear windows of the casita were plants, flowers, and trees; the first sounds I heard were those of birds singing and the babbling brook below. Fond memories.
Sometimes I ate at one of several good restaurants in town that offer a variety of fare from pizza to Cerviche, chicken, and thin hamburgers that contained little fat (where's the beef?). I learned to drink beer poured over ice but eschewed drinking coffee from a glass because it was just too hot to hold in my hand.
Like most towns in Costa Rica, the center part of Puriscal includes a once impressive church (in ruins due to an earthquake) facing a large park. It reminded me of Texas towns where a courthouse dominates the square. A new Catholic church that was cheaper to build than the cost of repairing the old one sits a short distance away between the divided road leading to and from San Jose. In many towns the main thoroughfare is divided from one end of it to the other. Taxis line up on one side of the park waiting for fares while stores face three sides of it and students congregate on its benches. Others are found on side streets as well as a Tobacco Factory offering tours and selling its products.
Living an hour's bus ride from San Jose enabled me to enjoy some of the sights in the capital. Distance is measured in time rather than kilometers due to curvy roads, potholes (not on this thoroughfare), and traffic. Because addresses as we know them are non-existent, The Gran Hotel Costa Rica, built between 1928-30 and offering upscale accommodations at Cultural Square, serves as a landmark for locating nearby attractions. Among those are three museums - Jade, Gold and National - and the National Theater. A few blocks down the pedestrian street from it on the right — maybe 300-400 meters as Locals measure distances — the News Café served good food and English was spoken. Other restaurants dot the area as well as many stores.
The National Theater, a scaled down copy of a European performance hall once condemned by the Catholic Church, was built in the 1890s under the supervision of Ruy Cristóforo Molinari, an Italian architect and theater expert. Influential members of San Jose society wanted an acceptable place that would attract foreign performers. It's marble staircases, gilded ceilings, parquet floors made from local hardwoods, and a 19th century Italian painting caught my eye. The canvas depicts coffee harvesting and a copy of it once graced the face of the defunct 5 Colones paper bill. I wasn't lucky enough to buy for only c100 a souvenir copy of the money from a street vendor.
The least expensive seats on the third level accessed by a side door of the theater are not high enough to cause a nose bleed. When performers sing in foreign languages, a Spanish translation appears on a screen above the stage. Having attended symphony performances in many countries, I was most impressed by the quality of the performance on a Sunday morning. Evening performances are also held.
One of the things Gringos say they miss from home is Starbucks. Personally, I don't understand why, when some of the finest coffee sold is in Costa Rica. Café (meaning coffee) Britt invites visitors to its finca (farm) to taste their product and tour the facility. A full day's tour for a fee also includes lunch and a tour of a butterfly farm. The visit I made to The Butterfly Farm, located across from El Club Campestre Los Reyes in La Guácima de Alejuela west of San Jose, included a ride in a carreta, a cart painted like those made in Sarchi. It's an education to see all the stages in a butterfly's life.
Another day's excursion took me to Arenal, a working volcano that is presently calm, and to the two lakes it shadows. Walking quietly toward it, I could hear it grumbling like a train's engine climbing a steep mountain. Even if it is shrouded in clouds as it was that day, the lakes offer the best wind surfing in the world with gusts up to 40 or 50 miles per hour. While I didn’t surf, I took advantage of swimming in hot sulfur springs that descended from Arenal. In a hotel where no one was allowed to spend the night, I sat under a waterfall holding on tightly as it massaged my body with great force.
During my stay, I took cabs, which are inexpensive and drivers do not expect tips, and busses, part of an efficient country-wide system with low fares, or I hired a driver with a vehicle. I had been warned that if I decided to rent a car, to do it in Costa Rica, and to use a company that is recommended by someone I trusted, if possible. I was told it would be wise to photograph the car before accepting it and to note any damage on the contract no matter how small. I quickly realized that if I drove I’d have to keep my eyes peeled rather than admire the scenery and deal with the local philosophy that rules of the road are meant to be broken.
In keeping with Murphy's Law, not everything was perfect on my trip. For example, on some roads, the driver zigzagged relentlessly around potholes or put the truck in 4-wheel drive to bounce over ruts. The power was off about six hours at the beach hotel, making it necessary to eat dinner by candlelight as it stormed outside. Checking messages at an Internet Café required patience because of the slow speed. Dead flies had to be swept out of the casita and the muddy footprints mopped away each morning because it was the rainy season.
Costa Rica has only two seasons, verano (summer), when it is dry from about December 15 until May 15, and invierno (winter) when everything is lushly green. Now I know them well... for it's my home.
To get started on creating your first of what certainly will be many vacations filled with fabulous views, exquisite flowers and the friendly people of Costa Rica, check out the websites below.
Helen Dunn Frame, who has traveled in about 50 countries and lived in England, Germany, New York City, San Francisco and Dallas, now lives and writes in Costa Rica. She has written countless travel articles about her experiences that have appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the United States and overseas. She has visited Greece five times; the last trip was when she started writing her novel Greek Ghosts (see her book panel above).