Saturday, 21 November 2009

Got 4 days and 3 nights?

Heading south from the Pura Vida Hotel . . . this week we asked our manager if she's cover while we played hooky in the jungle . . . heading south in "The Beast" we dropped quickly around the bottom of San Jose (recently rated #80 out of 81 municipalities in Costa Rica) and out to Cartago.  At Cartago we got lost (always happens) but 15 minutes later are heading up into the cloud forests along the Cerro de la Muerte.  The cathedral at Cartago is well worth a visit so when you get lost why not take a minute more to drop inside - this is the scene of a million "pilgrims" walking to Cartago on August 2nd each year - not to be missed if you are in country then.

A little bit of history on the "mountain of death" can be found on Wicki here: Cerro_de_la_Muerte

We dropped by Jorge Serrano's Quetzal Paradise to check it out for a tour of animal rescue people we will be hosting next year.  Jorge was not in but 2 of his sons showed us their spotless and rustic jungle lodge: Quetzal Paradise .

It is best to be there early in the mornings for Quetzal sightings on jungle walks they have from the lodge.  From there we continued south to visit with friends at the Borucan indigenous area.  Boruca is a tiny artisanal village that is the center for delicious wood carvings of masks representing creatures from the jungle and past lives of the Borucans.

If you are following me on a map you'll now be about plumb center of Costa Rica heading south on the only road to Panama towards San Isidro . . . just before San Isidro is the delightful birding area centered on San Gerardo de Dota . . . good idea to take a break and drop off the clouded highway at San Gerardo and maybe visit one of the lodges run by the Chacon family.  Continue south past San Isidro also known by the name of one of the founders, Perez Zeledon.  To visit Boruca continue south on Route 2 (route numbers are only on maps not on the roads themselves so don't bother keeping an eye out for them on the road too often).

You can turn off at the tiny village of Terraba which is part of the Borucan reserve.  Or you can continue on the 2 another 20 or 30km and turn at the sign that says "Boruca 8Km".  Once in the village it is easiest to go to the "museum" - a small display area where villagers bring their masks to display and sell.  You can ask to visit the homes of those who display and you'll maybe see some more stuff you'd like.  There is no "gringo" accomodation in the village but there are some rustic cabinas behind the bar - no sign, just go to the bar and ask.  If you visit in December there is a riotous festival that starts December 30th and drinks its way to Jan 2nd celebrating the attack of the conquistadors among other things.

Head out of Boruca now as you're not stopping overnight back down to Route 2.  Oh, did I mention a 4WD is essential?

Go around the loop and back north up the coast for those following me on the map and stop and the "fancy tile fish bus stop" and turn inland to our friends Daryl y Donna at Shelter from the Storm . Probably nay certainly the best appointed villas in all of Costa Rica.  And most pleasurable Innkeepers . . . stay a few days or if you want to keep on our nutty schedule "4 days and 3 nights" stay just 2 nights.  Make sure you eat at Exotica - funky on the outside, wholesome and creative dishes on the inside - just a great way to end your first day!

The next day you maybe take off at one of the local beaches - ask Donna and Daryl which they like.  Rested and relaxed on day 3, you have a mere 1 hour drive to the famous Manuel Antonio and stay with Rebecca at Mango Moon Hotel .

This road is nearing completion . . . for years the barrier to travel to the Zona Sur (everywhere past Manuel Antonio to the south) was this bone jarring 50km of gravel, dust and dirt punctuated by pot holes.  Today - nearly a superhighway . . . if you blow through it quickly you can do it in 45 minutes but like us you might want to renew an acquaintance with Dominical - often called the surf capital of Costa Rica after its huge and impressive beach and surfer waves.  But not being surfers you may want to skip it too - we dropped in and found a couple of nice bits for the hotel and a lovely Toucan painting that is now in our Orchid Restaurant.

Turn into Manuel Antonio (they forgot to put up a sign) but turn left a bit past the "airport" on the biggest road you can find.  Drive into Quepos and up the manuel Antonio park road loaded with 50 or 100 smallish hotels and turn right at mango Moon 1/2 way up past Barba Roja.

Park up - if you left early from Uvita and Shelter from the Storm you'll have time for the nice little park.  Don't leave anything in the car or it won't be there when you get back.  And make sure you hook up with a real guide at the park entrance who can show you things you'll never see on your own.  If you took a little picnic he or she could show you some tiny tiny beaches perfect for a couple on a romantic getaway.  Of course you may have to share it with giant red grasshoppers or a family if Capuchin monkeys.

That night ask the hotel for their best dinner recommendation that night and retire with your room with a view of the Pacific.  The next morning you're on the way back up north . . . we liked our Kayak trip in the Damas mangoves just north of Manuel Antonio a few years back but today we had no time for that.  We did stop at the Rainmaker cloud forest reserve about 30km north of Damas and up about 10km of bumpy road but the gate was closed so maybe skip that idea.  Particularly problematic was there was no way ti turn around so we had to drive backwards on a very bad dirt rutted potholed track till we could find enough space to make an 8 point turn with our "Beast" the 4WD 4Runner.

Head north and maybe stop at Bejuco - a lovely deserted beach - we brought our picnic lunch from M. Antonio and a nice balkery - proscuitto and french bread . . . mmmmm!

Keep going north to Jaco - stop for gee-gaws or keep on going . . . head inland near the crocodile bridge at Tarcoles and then on in the long slog up to the meseta centrale behind concrete trucks doing 10kph and often at least once stopping for an accident (everyone must stop on this road sometimes for an hour while they sort out which insurance company is to pay).  I thought you might like to know that while sitting in line with endless other drivers waiting for the crunchy decisions to be made that there is ONLY 1 insurance company in Costa Rica - the government :-)

Continue on up the windy road past the gringo retirement haven of Atenas (very nice I might add)  and on to Route1 towards San Jose . . . get off  near the airport (200 meters after the airport exit to Alajuela) and you'll be back at the Pura Vida in 4 days.  Your last day will take about 3 1/2 hours but depends how many digressions you make (it takes us a day).

Have a great trip - if you are tight on time you'll find this itinerary wont wear you out and you'll get to see quite a bit of the country.  Thanks Daryl, Donna and Rebecca for your hospitality!

Friday, 13 November 2009

A 10 Day Tour - a worthy route suggestion

A nice couple from Barcelona showed up late last night "on the fly".  They just landed on the Iberia flight from Madrid (the only jumbo that lands in Costa Rica), snagged a car at the airport, found us in the guide book and drove the 10 minutes to the hotel without getting lost.  2 or 3 accomplishments all in their first evening in Costa Rica!  They headed for bed with the statement, "We'll need some ideas tomorrow morning!  Buenas noches."

We get quite a few guests landing at the airport with little idea what to do . . . but this couple had two basic destinations in mind at the breakfast table the next morning.  First the Caribbean and then the Southern Zone or south Pacific side of Costa Rica.

So we spent the next hour in the garden plotting out a route on a map.  Two maps we recommend the National Geographic which has all the parks and indigenous areas marked nicely - this works well if you are visiting parks and such.  The other, perhaps better map, is the Toucan map of Costa Rica - it has very good road markings as well as points of interest and some good town maps.

The route started from Alajuela heading across the top of San Jose (best to avoid San Jose on weekdays and definitely not a place to get lost in at night).  The road goes through Heredia (a bit convoluted there) then up to San Rafael (caution: there are 47 San Rafaels in Costa Rica) and then over to a road that on maps says the number 32.

Just as a point of reference (or lack thereof), it should be noted that the number 32 or any numbers that show on Costa Rican maps are rarely to be found on Costa Rican roads.  If you are expecting signs, numbers and such they are few and far between but that's part of the adventure.  Personally I hate GPS (in Costa Rica as you miss a lot of good bits to get lost in) but do recommend a cheap compass when you get turned around in a barrio somewhere you don't know the name of.

If you are trying to follow this route on a map  . . . look for San Jose heading north from Tibas and then "westish" towards the big road in the direction of Guapiles.  This route (#32 :-) will lead you into a cloud forest,  through a big tunnel (well actually a small tunnel but big for us) and you should be careful as visibility can drop down to nothing in a cloud forest.

This is the main highway to the Port of Limon so there are lots of fast big rigs on this 3 lane road coming at you though they are usually slowed to a crawl by slow big rigs overloaded with things like concrete blocks.  There ARE times when such impediments to progress can be appreciated and driving in a cloud forest is exactly that circumstance.  Slower is better.

After Guapiles you are now coming down the Caribbean slope and a complete climate change.  Cold mountain air is being subsumed by very warm and very humid tropical goop.  You'll gradually notice the transition but soon get used to it like you lived there all your life (maybe).  You'll pass through Siguirres without even noticing it (but you should because you need this turn off for a very interesting and different route back).

The road now flattens past pineapple and bananas everywhere and eventually to the Port of Limon (this town is best avoided - this week it was voted 81st worst town in Costa Rica . . . it could have been better except there were only 81 towns in the survey).

 The road south (assuming you are still following me on a map?) skirts around the bottom of Limon town and eventually cuts right towards Cahuita and Puerto Viejo (we have a few Puerto Viejos too, this one is known locally as Puerto Viejo de Talamanca).  You will notice you are now very Caribbean as you pass through a bit of a dump south of Limon and in an hour or less you'll see the Cahuita signs on your left (take any one of them - its worth a brief visit even if your hotel is not to be there this night).

This blog item is not about the destinations - that you can find in tour books easily.  It is about a route for 10 days so apologies if you wanted more (email me for that).  The road then continues south and eventually dumps into Puerto Viejo and points south.  There are a couple of things you could do going further south - one is to drop down to Panama for a few days to the Bocas del Toro (only about 3 hours south) but if you do that I'd leave the rentacar at your hotel and taxi to the border (and one heck of a bridge) at Sixaola.  Be aware this area can experience devastating floods in the high rainy seasons.

Another trip we'd highly recommend is a day or two in the Bribri village of Yorkin - your hotel can tell you how to find this trip.  You'll drive past the village of Bribri and then take a dug out canoe upriver to Yorkin.  This is a delightful indigenous visit - they even have a little lodge now if you'd like to stay and experience a lovely people or you can return the same day.

Continuing our 10 day itinerary, I'm going to assume you made it to Puerto Viejo and maybe stayed with our friend Wendy at Cashew Hill Lodge and perhaps stayed day 2 and 3 there.  You'll need a few more days to stay longer on the Caribbean and will kick yourself that you couldn't but come back next time.

Now head north back past Limon (there's a great canal route, not road to Tortuguero just north of Limon).  Head to Siquirres again and cut across the mountains to Turrialba (Route 10 - hmmm like you'll find that number anywhere?).   Here's an optional overnighter we'd not miss - the excellent Casa Turire would make a nice 1 or 2 day stopover to see the Irazu volcano, lake Cachi area, the Orosi valley, the precolombian ruins and such in the area.  We'd suggest day 4 and 5 in the area.

Day 6 will find you heading west to Cartago (stop at the cathedral) and then south on the famous Cerro de la Muerte (sometimes known as the Pan American highway) and the scene of the 1948 escape of the wife of Don Pepe Figueres who was busy taking over the country with a small insurgency of 2000 folowers to right a bad election.

You might stop a few hours at San Gerardo de Dota (but you don't have time to birdwatch the amazing Resplendent Quetzal that inhabits this beautiful region).  Keep going south to San Isidro and perhaps drop by the delightful indigenous region centered on the village of Boruca (needs a 4WD).

Keep on going south turning at Palmar and the strange perfectly round pre-colombian stone globes.  Turn right at Chacarita and meander down the little road to the super nice one horse town of Puerto Jimenez.  There's lots of places to stay but you'll be tired so try Nico's Black Turtle Lodge - rustic tree houses for the night of  Day 6 and 7.

 Day 6 will take you maybe 10 hours of traveling if you skip San Gerardo!  You don't want to miss a sunset paddle in the Golfo Dulce . . . absolutely a treat for kayakers of all sorts of shapes and sizes.
For the adventurous you'll want to go to the end of the road at Carate (most people say that Pueto Jimenez is the end of the road but adventurous types say it is 2 hours further across some rivers and loads of dirt roads and tracks).  You'll maybe stay at Lana's Luna Lodgewhere they'll REALLY take care of you . . . and let them show you the way into Cocovado - one of the most bio-diverse areas anywhere on the planet and still barely touched by humans (see above - 2 hours past the end of the road . . . plus when the dirt track ends drive another 20 minutes into the jungle.)

That gives you Day 8 and 9 in the jungle with pecaries, sloths, lovely ant eaters and a trillion species of bugs.  Again not long enough but our visitors from Barcelona wanted to see both sides of the country in 10 days.  Which you can't really do!

So day 10 is taken driving back from Carate - its a tough 10 hour adventure up the coast road through Palmar Sur, Uvita/Ojochal, straight through Quepos/Manuel Antonio (assume you are following this on a map of Costa Rica?).

Its then another grind into San Jose at least as far as the airport and your last night and a delicious gourmet dinner at the Pura Vida Hotel in Alajuela.

Thus we'd recommend a stopover at Uvita (well that will make it an 11 day journey except you gotta stay 2 nights at our friends Daryl and Donna and the amazing hospitality, ludicrous humor and 180 degree views of the south Pacific at Shelter from the Storm ).  Or if you wanted to also visit the famous Manuel Antonio you'd want to spend another 2 nights there perhaps at Mango Moon .

OK, so to do this lot you can't easily stay 2 nights at every location and do this trip in 10 days.  It's so hard to get a feel for a place in an overnight stay so you'll need to cut some corners somewhere or maybe just do the rest on the next trip.

 If you have questions and need help with an itinerary idea, just email us at The Pura Vida Hotel - we'd be happy to give you some insights into what may work for you on your next tropical adventure.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

20th Anniversary of the Escuela

Yesterday we were invited to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Escuela . . . and the unveiling of another donation from Fundacion Educar - but a little different one this time - an art piece called "Remembranzas de Tuetal Sur".  The story of a remarkable influence on the children of our village is told on the foundation web site.  But it would have to be a much bigger web site to tell the real story and it will be years before the real story plays out in the lives of children who were not held back by being poor.

The Educar Foundation (Maryland, USA)  is the brain child of Jim Locke who decided to help some kids in Costa Rica - today 1000's of kids have been touched by the work of the foundation.

Our small school was built 20 years ago thanks to the vision of a small group of residents who ignored the local school officials who thought the village would never amount to much.  They convinced a local farmer to part with some of his finca for a pittance so the kids of the village could go to a "local primary school".  They scraped a few hundred dollars (in colones of course) to build a school house.  The bathroom would have to wait.

By the time Jim Locke discovered the school it had a few classrooms, two bathrooms and about 250 kids in what most would agree a very poor neighborhood.  Like most everybody in Costa Rica, this didn't mean their kids were hungry but it did mean some parents often had little work and there wasn't a computer or a book to be seen in the neighborhood.

There was however something interesting going on at the school . . . situated between the Caja clinic (EBAIS as it is known in every village of Costa Rica) and the church.  3km or a mile or so down the road some of the kids were coming out of the bad barrio (known as the Infernillo by all around it) and showing up at school every morning in uniform.  There was and is a high rate of teen pregnancy and some families with big problems unable to provide supplies for their kids or an evening meal.  The school, Jim observed, despite the poor neighborhood and some questionable parents from the Infernillo was well disciplined.  The neighborhood was quite rural and yet somehow the school had managed to snag a full time psychologist (unheard of in rural schools) to help the troubled kids.  The neighborhood was known for youth problems and yet the kids in the school were polite and very well disciplined.  The neighborhood was dusty and unkempt but the school was spotless.
Today, the school is still spotless and orderly . . . there are over 350 kids, more bathrooms, a covered sports/assembly area, twice as many classrooms, a library well stocked with books, a computer room with 26 PC's and a trainer to maintain them and teach the kids.  Much of this came through the foundation and organized into a teaching tool by another remarkable individual . . . the director, Senor Humberto Soto.  Mr Soto leads an excellent team of teachers and assistants finding new ways every day to manage meager resources (such as a government allowance of 30 cents for lunch) into appetizing meals for the body and the brain.
The 20th Anniversary of the school had some unusual guests of honor - the business charge d'affaires, Peter Brennan, from the US Embassy who spoke about the strong connection between the US and Costa Rica.  Also invited was the artist who designed the statue, Ruth Moreno who engaged us with her tale of how the village is intertwined in her art piece.
The village is named after the Tuete bush a rather weedy looking thing that is constantly under threat from neighborhood gardeners who mistake it for the weedy thing it looks like.  Two Tuetes are known to be in protected captivity (as a result of these continued assaults on the village mascot) - one at the front of the school and the other in the Pura Vida gardens.  Maybe the school officials who originally ignored the pleas for a new school 20 years ago knew something about Tuetes?
The next step in the evolution of the village may be the addition of a sports field and perhaps a small road around it to create a village center (and perhaps slow down traffic at the school).  There is the beginnings of a plan . . . something that has made no progress in 10 years . . . and has no funding.  The village and the school may bring this forward?  A first step at "centering" the idea may have come at this 20th anniversary event - the arrival of the "Remembranzas" below (with "Mr Jim" as the staff and kids know him being interviewed at the ceremony):

On this day of the 20th anniversary there were a number of visitors who were surprised by what they found at this little primary school in a so called "poor village".  Our guests who come visit the school most weeks of the year bringing a book or maybe a bag of books for the library are also surprised by what they find.  Loud and clear the message goes out around the world that Costa Rica has achieved one of the highest literacy rates and then I explain . . . "they did it without books" (another tale on this subject is here: "what is literacy in Costa Rica?")

Well they are doing it without books in most schools here through the creativity of the teachers, the drive of some good directors, a pretty decent infrastructure and in a few cases the additional support of Fundacion Educar.  As Jim Locke puts it when asked "Why Costa Rica?"

He replies simply, "Costa Rica will do something with my investment."

You'll be welcomed too on your next visit.