Costa Rica (2011)

What a fabulous way to spend the week of Thanksgiving!

Part I: Guanacaste | Part II: Arenal

Part I: Guanacaste

November 19, 2011 – November 23, 20211

We got up around 3 am and were excited to start our adventure. Getting out of the house on time was better-planned than usual, and we arrived at the airport with plenty of time. Our flight was uneventful, and we even landed in Miami a few minutes early! I had been eager to sink my teeth into a few books, so I read almost the whole way there. Once in Miami I found the Dunkin Donuts and was excited to try their new Wake Up Wraps–but apparently I had blocked out the horrid experience with food that Pam and I had there a few years earlier. When I got to the counter I was half shocked and half unsurprised at the fact that it was a simple self-service counter with hardly anything to self serve. Without breakfast and rising concern about lunch (given our landing time in Costa Rica), I grabbed a Greek salad and a sub for Kevin from Au Bon Pain. I also found a container of edamame at a sushi place between there and our gate. Kevin got a breakfast sandwich from Nathans and post minor freak out, I found a place called “The Counter” that made omlets, so I ordered one that was ready in 10 minutes (in just enough time to eat and board our next flight)! This flight left early, and so we landed in Liberia ahead of schedule. Unfortuntely, we realized too late that we probably couldn’t bring any food through; I scarfed down my salad before we got into the customs line, and chanced it with the edamame and sandwich, which was promptly confiscated.

After a short shuttle ride, Kevin dealt with getting our Hertz rental car while I peeled off layers of clothing and basked in the hot sun. The rental car of choice there was a Toyota Yaris with no hub cabs, and we got one that looked like it had been through the wringer. But given what we’d heard about driving in Costa Rica we weren’t overly concerned. A half hour later and we were on the road to find the Occidental Grand Papagayo in Guanacaste. Although it seemed pretty straight forward, we took one wrong turn and ended up about 20 minutes out of the way! Once back on the scent, we pulled over into a plaza that was still being built to get our bearings, and a very friendly man approached us, confirming we were on the right track. We felt good giving him a couple bucks for a zoomed in, cartoon-like map. A few minutes later we were checking in!

There are worse places to get lost!The resort and our roomTurns out we arrived just in time too, since the lunch buffet was about to close. The hotel attendants took our bags, put wristbands on one hand and a passion fruit drink in the other, and quickly ushered us to the restaurant. We were pleased with the selection and although we felt a bit scummy from traveling, we were happy to sit down and try and relax. After eating, we went back to the front desk where they loaded us and our luggage onto two bench seats on the top of a van, and drove us to our room, #2003. We laughed and thought, “this couldn’t possibly be safe!” as branches and rain pelted our heads (though the sun was out). When we got to the room, we were underwhelmed. The place looked like it hadn’t been updated since the 1970s and had a few problems we had to call about, but everyone was nice and responsive, so it would do. We decided to put on our swim things, get ourselves a spot by the pool, and start relaxing ASAP! After a drink and a nap, we returned to the buffet for dinner, and were eager to get up for a fresh start in the morning.

viewfromroom iguanaSunday started off much better, and sort of set the stage for the rest of our time there. Fighting others to get restaurant reservations for dinner was always first thing (due to the limited seating), breakfast at one of two restaurants (both of which would make eggs or omlets however you pleased), laying out in the sun until around noon (when it typically got cloudy or started to rain), reading/relaxing on the porch, me practicing my Spanish with whoever was working at the bar or restaurant, and so on. We also ended up partaking in some of the resort’s silly activities: we played ping pong, took some walks on the beach and around the resort, shot the BB gun at targets, took two sunset walks, and did water aerobics. (Sadly, I kept missing the Latin dance lessons!)

beach monkeyrockWe did end up getting into all of the different restaurants, including Mexican night at the Grille, the Oriental, and the Italian (the latter of which was the very best meal of all). I also managed to get in some yoga, and we even ran at the gym twice (so as not to feel quite as bad about all the food and drinks we were consuming)!

usatsunsetThe sunset walks were memorable, and quite intense since they were all nearly straight up- and down-hill. We checked out the “Disco” one night, but it was as lame as it sounded so instead we sat on the porch overlooking the pool and had drinks there instead. After the four days, I ended up with a little racing stripe of sunburn on my nose because of how I happened to put lotion on my face, but other than that, we emerged tan and not pink! The nightcaps of amaretto on the rocks were also something I really enjoyed. Our last full day in Guanacaste, we bought a few souvenirs at the gift shop, and planned (as best we could) our driving adventure to Arenal.

coatiA couple funny stories to note though: the first is about “Costa Rica Jungle Junk” (title by Kevin). One day, as we were walking down to the beach, we happened to catch a man at the shower trying to change into a different set of bottoms (probably thinking no one was around). Yeah, so that was a sight. The other was regarding the coati, known locally as “pizote”, which is the “largest and most conspicuous member of the raccoon family in Costa Rica”. When I first saw the tail of one of these on the patio, I thought it was a cat. I was amazed just how close I was able to get to these creatures, and how unaffected they were by people! They would come right up to you, or try to get into a bag you had close by, probably because many people fed them (although you weren’t supposed to).

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Part II: Arenal

November 23, 2011 – November 26, 2011

We’d been warned by colleagues who had been to Costa Rica that the roads required drivers to have a certain, shall we way, heightened level of awareness. Our trip from Liberia to Guanacaste had been on a well-paved road, but we weren’t sure what the rest of our Wednesday driving adventure would bring. Once we got back to Liberia, we thought going through Canas and Tilaran to Arenal might be a bit more eventful. We were told this trip would take about four hours. So what happened along the way? One pit stop with me asking “¿Dónde está el baño por favor?”, one minor incident of getting lost in Tilaran (towns were more challenging because they presented you with more options than the narrow, windy and hilly roads where where were no options to turn anywhere), and rain the whole way. Kevin did good, with some mad driving skills! People there do tend to drive straight down the middle line, which is especially daunting when you turn a steep corner and immediately face an oncoming Mack truck! One tree had come down in all the rain, and we were delayed for a few minutes while it was being cleared from the road. There were also several one-lane portions of road (or bridges) we had to cross, which looked like they had once been two lanes, and seemed in danger of being washed out some day soon. We stopped at Cafe y Macadamia for lunch (where Kevin was stung by a bee, it started really downpouring, and we paid way too many colón for what really was a fabulous lunch and some fancy coffee drinks). Overall we were very lucky, and arrived at Nayara before sunset, as per the plan.

showerAs at the Grand Papagayo, we were promptly whisked into the check-in area by kind souls bearing passion fruit drinks and helping with our luggage. This place was absolutely beautiful. Before we even got to our room, we were in total awe of all the amazing landscaping. The grounds were meticulously maintained with every kind of plant and flower you could imagine, and little signs were everywhere explaining what each of them were. Our room (#18) provided an outdoor shower with a lava rock base that provided full privacy using a ten foot orange wall and surrounding plants and flowers.

volcanoWe also (supposedly) had a view of the volcano from the most fabulous wood patio that came with our own private hot tub, unique handmade chairs, and a rainbow-colored hammock. The inside was large and absolutely gorgeous too.

parrotLater we discovered that parrots hung out at the more public areas, like the pool (with the swim up bar), the various hot tubs, and the restaurant / lobby area. (They even said “¡Hola!” back if you said it first.)

poolbarSince this place was a spa and it was practically a monsoon out there, I decided to book a spa treatment for that afternoon before dinner, which we planned to have at the on-site restaurant (for convenience). And it was, without question, the best massage and facial I’ve ever had! I was half outside, listening to the sound of real rain pouring down in sheets, while soft music played and someone worked on me with all manner of oils, clays, and lotions. (Pity they didn’t sell any–the mask they used on my face felt fabulous and smelled so earthy.) I was only chilly near the end, since it was completely dark out by the time the hour and a half was over. I returned to our room in a state of total relaxation and gratitude!

After I got dressed in something new, we walked the very short distance to the restaurant and had dinner. One of the highlights for me was the hearts of palm appetizer, which was kind of like scalloped potatoes (with palmitos instead), but not at all cheesy or heavy. It was heavenly, as was the rest of the meal, and the dessert that we picked from the cart of scrumptiousness. After dinner we made plans for the rest of our stay, which didn’t include too much — we wanted to take a trip to a nearby town called La Fortuna and go to the Arenal Volcano National Park, which also apparently had an observatory.

The next day was Thursday, Thanksgiving. It downpoured all night, but in the morning, we were able to finally sort of see the volcano from our patio! In retrospect this really was something to be thankful for, because it was the only time we would see it while we were in Arenal. We enjoyed a fantastic breakfast at the Nayara restaurant (which was included), greedily eating as many fried plantains and pieces of fresh papaya as we could get our hands on. I had coffee for the first time in a very long time, but it probably still was as good as it tasted. I also got sidetracked by the chocolate croissants, which reminded me of breakfasts in Italy. Since it was still pouring when we were ready to head out, we decided to drive into La Fortuna to do some shopping first, but we arrived too early in the morning for many of the stores to be open. So, we adjusted to plan B and started driving to the national park and observatory, with plans to return to La Fortuna later.

After evaluating rock and dirt road #1 from the car (which happened to go up a crazy steep hill), we thought it would be better to drive back to rock and dirt road #2, which wasn’t as steep. It must have taken us about an hour to get up to the observatory, since this driving required different but equally mad skills from Kevin. But when we got there we realized it was terribly muddy, still pouring, and we were not at all dressed for a hike. Plus even if we did hike, we’d not see anything but fog and rain anyway! We decided to bag that idea and headed back down to La Fortuna.

churchfortunaAt this point the shops were open, so we started at the top of the street near where we parked, and entered them one by one. In the very first one, I found all of my remaining souvenirs, but without wanting to be rash, I waited to buy them until I’d seen everything. Most of the stores had similar items: a lot of small (often household items like placemats, jewelry and other intricate boxes, and statues) made from the exquisite cocobolo wood, long, skinny tribal masks of various sizes, brightly colored hammocks, and the usual mix of jewelry, T-shirts and other clothes, photo albums / frames, and so on. As we walked, we also started scoping out some potential places for lunch. We had seen a place called Lava Lounge somewhere, but it was much more touristy than I wanted to do, so we decided having a drink there after lunch might be nice, just to check it out. After doing the rounds, we settled on one of the sodas that served “tipical food”. This soda in particular appealed to us because we watched people being served casados, or “plate of the day”. It was pretty much like Subway where you pick what you want and get it all on one plate. They had black beans, rice, two kinds of chicken, lightly fried yucca root, mixed vegetables, a variety of salads, potatoes, and yes, more delicious fried plantains! They also served us an amazing red fruit drink, that had actual pieces of fruit floating at the top. (I’m not sure we know exactly what it was, but it really was to die for.) After paying something like $5 for our plates, we walked through the park and checked out a quaint chocolate shop, where we each got one little goodie–mine had a gooey mix of chocolate and expresso inside it, and was the perfect little treat. Then we headed back to the Lava Lounge and had our drinks. Our first day at the Grand Papagayo, we’d found a drink we really liked, but couldn’t seem to get any bartender to make it the way we remembered after that. So when I saw it on the menu at Lava Lounge, I ordered it. Kevin got a Tokyo Tea. After a few sips, we switched. I don’t know what that first bartender did! Of course, we never did go wrong when ordering caipirinhas at any place.

plate hottubdrinksAfter all that, we came back to our room and weren’t sure what to do. It was still cloudy, foggy, and drizzling. We decided that we’d try out one of the three hot tubs that were in private alcoves near the pool bar, and maybe have another drink there. I took the Costa Rican Spanish phrase book we’d brought, figuring I could read up a bit on the words and phrases we were hearing, and maybe try them out on the young bartender who came to check on us every now and then. Two of the phrases I’d been taught by a friend before leaving, “pura vida” and “tuanis“, were aptly and repeatedly used, especially after overdoing it with too many drinks from their lengthy cocktail menu. Of course, I’d like to believe that before feeling the intense effects of all this alcohol I practiced my Spanish with the bartender well, I really have no idea whether that’s the case. Given my (our) state that evening, we ordered take-out from the pool bar. Kevin had an absolutely delicious chicken sandwich called the Monster that I vaguely recall having a bite of, and I had a salad that had avocados and hearts of palm and a bunch of other things I practically inhaled before going to bed around 6 pm. Yes, I definitely overdid it! I remember waking at various times during the night. One time, I was overwhelmed with curiosity about a loud slapping noise I kept hearing. After walking around the room and out onto the patio in the dark, I realized it was the sound of the heavy rain hitting some of the big flat leaves that surrounded us.

In the morning, I decided to try and detox from my Thanksgiving binge by doing some yoga. We were finally more selective at the breakfast buffet, and discovered there was a woman who could make us omlets. So, we did that and practiced Spanish a bit with her too.

We didn’t really have anything planned today either, except for a 1pm tour at the Eco Termales Hot Springs, which would also serve us food. With that in mind, I vowed not to eat anything else until then. I had started feeling sluggish from all the food and lack of exercise, and at one point even craved the kale and parsnip dish I’d been eating so much at home. From driving to La Fortuna, we knew exactly how close to us that Eco Termales was, so we read out on the patio until we had to leave. When we arrived, it was raining pretty steadily. I wasn’t really interested in changing into my bathing suit since the weather did make it a little chillier than is comfortable for me. But the man at the front desk gave us each a towel and a key for a locker, and asked us when and what type of meat we’d like to eat.

jenwaterfallhotspringsWe decided on an hour, since that would be 2 pm (a kind of “linner”). After changing, we “toured” ourselves down a path that seemed to be made of crushed lava rock, and saw the pools for the first time. The steam coming off them made them incredibly appealing, and I hopped right in. We were instructed that every 15 minutes, we were to get out of the hot pools and take a dip in the cold water basin, to regulate our body temperatures. Of course, I said “no way!” to that, choosing to regulate myself by sitting out of the water, or sticking just my feet into the cool water on occasion. When I did this, and then got back into a hot pool, my feet tingled like they had been asleep. I wasn’t particularly wild about that feeling. We ended up trying all three pools, and Kevin even took a quick dip in a sectioned-off area of one pool that was too hot even for me! By 2 pm we were hungry, so we toweled off and went to find the restaurant.

spiderA few things to say about this. I nearly had a spider the size of my hand come out of my towel as I went to dry myself from the springs. We took pictures, and I had a mild freakout and paranoia after that for a short time. We were not sure at all whether to change. We felt funny being at the (empty, outdoor) restaurant in bathing suits and towels, but weren’t sure whether we were going to go back to the springs after eating. Kevin ended up getting his shirt and I just kept my towel around me. After serving a tropical pineapple juice and water, the waiter went off to prepare our meal. I don’t think Costa Rican food has the best reputation, but I personally loved it. We were given a big bowl of salad with lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, avocados, and hearts of palm, lightly dressed. Another bowl of white rice that had little bits of celery and carrots in it, another one of black beans, and a bowl of small, round, and lightly fried tortillas. Then we were each served our meet of choice. Kevin got beef, and I got tilapia. Both were incredibly yummy. After our main course, we were each served a small bowl of rice pudding for dessert. Content with how much time we’d spent in the hot springs, we decided to leave after eating afterall.

After more reading and relaxation, we got bored and decided to head back into La Fortuna, to have very bad coffee drinks and dessert at the Rainforest Café, a place we had seen during our walks around town. There were way too many coffee drinks to choose from, and it took us awhile to decide. Kevin got a frozen one, and I got one that had alcohol in it, kind of like an Irish coffee but way beyond. We also shared a piece of a mystery cake that was lightly iced in chocolate, but delicious nonetheless. After than undulgence, we started thinking about the fact that we had to leave ridiculously early for the airport the next day, so we started scoping out places to get dinner take-out. I was obsessed with getting an empanada, figuring if I was bad, I was going to be bad. We went to several places that said they had them but didn’t, and checked out several other sodas to see what they had. After many unsuccessful menu reviews, I remembered that the Rainforest Café actually had them on their regular menu, so we went back there and I poorly asked our waitress in Spanish for two empanadas to go. While waiting for about 10 minutes while our dinner was made, it started pouring hard again. With two umbrellas doing little good for our lower halves, we walked back to the car with empanadas in hand and drove back to the hotel. We packed up as much of our things as we could, and then sat down to eat our dinner. I’m not sure whether it was the fact that these things sat for awhile waiting to be consumed, but they were almost pure grease. And, I ate every bite!

The next morning we got up at 5 am, packed the rest of our things, and embarked on our drive back to the airport in Liberia. On our way out, I asked one of the workers when rainy season was over. (We had booked the trip thinking it was over in November, but based on our experience, we figured we were mistaken.) He indicated that really it only stops raining in April. Well, lesson learned! Expecting it to take the same four hours back, we figured we’d stop quick somewhere along the way for breakfast. Kevin wanted to check out the German bakery we saw on the way in. Unfortunately, it was Saturday, and every time we arrived at a town, the places were closed. It didn’t help that we made incredible time. We were very near the Hertz car rental (with over an hour to spare) when we decided to stop and check out the Subway. Yes, the restaurant! We were curious about what they’d have for breakfast. We ended up splitting an omlette that you would never in a million years would be made at Subway, and spending the last of our colón there. Oh, and the other interesting thing? It was SUNNY! We crossed some line where the weather drastically changed, and it was bright and hot as we’d remembered it from earlier in the trip. We imagined it had been like this here the entire time. I stood out in the hot sun for as long as I could while Kevin returned the car, and before long, we were back at the airport.

Now, being planners, we had already paid our departure tax when we drove back through Liberia on our way to Arenal, so we were at the airport ridiculously early, with nothing to do. We found out what time we needed to go through security, got waters, and then sat out on a bench and read for what seemed like ages. We then went through security and sat at the (outdoor) gate. They had a little lunch counter and gift shop, but there wasn’t much in either. At this point I wwas feeling tired and ravenous, but what choice did I have? Then, we found out we were delayed for a half hour. More waiting. Right before we finally got on the plane, I asked Kevin to buy two more waters for me so I’d have them until we get to Miami, and they were confiscated (unopened and sealed) right before we walked up the stairs to board the plane. I was livid (which is why, I believe, I ended up getting sick the following week). Cursing profusely, I boarded the plane, only to find they didn’t serve anything resembling a meal since it was only a three hour flight. In Miami, I was able to quickly grap a Caesar salad and bowl of fruit, and on the second flight I started to feel (physically and mentally) better. A familiar shot of amaretto helped. We arrived home late, to a howling kitty, after all the usual Logan airport hoopla.

Apart from losing my cool on the way home and the rain in Arenal, this was a really lovely way to spend a Thanksgiving week. Everyone in Costa Rica was very nice, and generally spoke some English or were patient with bad Spanish. I wish I could go back to Arenal and La Fortuna when the weather was nice–the pictures of the same places online shocked me, seeming almost like a completely different place.

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