Tuesday, July 19, 2016

More Costa Rica by Sea (June 12–15) and Land (April 15-30), 2016

While Abracadabra is in the yard getting scraped, sanded, epoxied, primed and painted (sounds painful, no?) we have time to bring our blog up to date. In our last Costa Rica travel post we tried to connect a place we had visited during our land-based travels this past April with places we visited during our sailing trip along the coast in May and June. We’re not sure this geography-based narrative is all that coherent for readers but . . . once begun, we’ll see it through.

The picture below was taken along the coast of the Nicoya Peninsula but we have pasted it here rater than including it in context for the simple reason that Facebook shows the first picture of each of our posts and we really want everyone to see this great picture!

At Least Twelve Shades of Grey

By Sea (June 12-15, 2016)

            Bahía Ballena (June 12 – 14):

Our trip around the bottom of the Nicoya Peninsula, from Bahía Sámara to Bahía Ballena (Whale Bay), was a nine hour motor. It began in flat, calm and dry conditions. 

Anchor Up 05:45

A short time later we were in drizzle and rain with uncomfortable swells. 

Soggy Captain

The rain/drizzle stopped in the afternoon, but there still was not enough wind to move Abracadabra along. As we rounded the entrance into the Golfo de Nicoya we entertained ourselves by trying to identify Montezuma, a beach town we had visited for two nights during our April driving trip. We think we spotted it and maybe even the casitas where we stayed, perched on the hill above town:

Montezuma . . . We're Pretty Sure

As a transit anchorage Bahía Ballena is a good choice; well protected and calm. As a tourist anchorage – not so much.

Our neighbors included a ketch left on the hook quite some time ago and a lot of fishing boats. One of the fishing boats was quite large and . . . fishy.

Sea Birds Waiting For Fish Cleaning Time

We decided not to go for a swim. 

The village near the anchorage looked a bit down at the heels and the funky bay-side bar/restaurant we had read about didn’t seem to be in operation. Even if it was open, we found its location immediately behind the busy fish loading/cleaning dock . . . uninviting. Hmmm ... and getting to town seemed to require (a) tying the dinghy to a “health-hazard dock” (muchos barnacles and broken concrete) or (b) a surf landing on a distant beach and a loooong beach walk. We dined Chez Abracadabra.  

We entertained ourselves by speculating about some aviation activity across the bay. On our first morning we watched a small plane on approach into the bay drop down and . . . dive into the jungle. A lack of smoke and fire suggested there must be a small airstrip hidden from our view. During the day we saw several planes swallowed up by the jungle but none take off. Over dinner we combined this activity with reports that Costa Rica doesn’t question wealthy foreign residents about the source of their income . . . and sketched out several bad but entertaining movie plots!

            Bahía Herradura (June 14-15):

We were happy to sail two of the five hours it took us to cross the Golfo de Nicoya to the anchorage at Bahía Herradura (Horseshoe Bay). Sailor Tip: Leaving Bahia Ballena we dodged several long lines that were marked only by small plastic bottles and we saw lots of debris as we crossed the golfo. It made our plan to day-hop down this coast rather than travel over night seem like a good one. But heads up if you come this way – whether you travel by day or by night.

Marina Los Sueños (loosely: Dreams Marina), one of Costa Rica’s expensive sport fishing marinas, is located in Bahía Herradura. We did not stay there and as far as we could tell there weren’t any sailboats there – only sport fishers. The anchorage across from the marina was comfortable but crowded with tourist lanchas and (more frugal) sport fishers. We were the only representatives of the cruising community.

Horseshoe Bay

The next morning we decided to press on to our planned “splurge” stay in Quepos at Marina Pez Vela (yep, where we are now). After three weeks at anchor we were ready to treat ourselves to a couple of nights out, shore showers, unlimited electricity and water, a big grocery shop and an even bigger trip to a laundry.

We had sufficient wind from a sail-able direction for more than half the trip (about five and a half hours out of nine), which was a treat. At 15.30 we tied up to the gas dock at the marina, and after we checked in we were escorted by courteous marina staff to our home at Slip B-4 -- right in front of a restaurant serving the best pizza in Central America (Mercato del Porto)! Sailor Tip: Sport fishers tie stern-to. Staff at Costa Rica's marinas are more familiar with sport fishers than sailboats and may assume a stern-to tie when responding to your question of whether your slip is a port or starboard tie. Keep that in mind if your sailboat, like Abracadabra, doesn't back worth . . . uh, doesn't back well.

From Quepos south we didn’t/won’t sail past locations we visited during our April road trip, so this seems like a good time to segue back to that trip. We’ll return to our stay at Pez Vela and our sailing trip in our next post. For now, back in time to April:

By Land (April 15-27, 2016)

After a couple of days enjoying the beach resort thing at Playa Flamingo, we packed ourselves into the Costa Rica rental car agency SUV of choice (a Daihatsu Terios) and drove down the Pacific Coast of the Nicoya Peninsula to Montezuma. Travel Tip: The travel literature suggests using a 4-wheel drive for this trip during the rainy season. We recommend it any time of the year because the roads become brutal shortly after Playa Flamingo. Or you might, unlike yours truly, notice that the “suggested routes” in the tourist literature send drivers down the (more often paved) roads of the mainland and across to Montezuma by ferry from Puntarenas. Just an idea. 

            Montezuma (April 15 – 17)

We arrived in Montezuma happy to see the pool at Casitas Sollevante (“sol levante” = “rising sun” in Italian). This little mid-range hotel is very pleasantly landscaped and is perched on a hill overlooking the Golfo de Nicoya. Its bluff-top location makes for nice, breezy verandas most of the day; the hammock at our casita – heaven. But getting from the hotel into the town of Montezuma requires a drive down a long, bumpy and ill-lit road; venturing out at night requires drivers and passengers to trust in a beneficent cosmic force. Our group self-catered modest dinners on the veranda of our casita and visited restaurants for lunch. (Travel Tip: There didn’t seem to be many hotels that didn’t require an equally long, bumpy and ill-lit drive to get to the restaurants around Montezuma.)

We could hear howler monkeys in the nearby forest and heard and saw lots of birds - which for some of us made it sad that few of the windows in our little two-bedroom casita opened. Travelers who prefer ceiling fans and natural breezes for sleeping are pretty much out of luck there.

Montezuma was sleepy in April. We visited some nice restaurants and a good ice cream shop, but our guests found little in the way of cute tourist souvenir stuff shopping (those who live in 36-foot sailboats don’t often shop for souvenirs). There are lots of energetic activities available around Montezuma: zip-lines, scuba diving, ATVs, surfing lessons, bar hopping, etc. but it’s not the best location for short walk on the beach types.

We toured the Mariposario Montezuma (Montezuma Butterfly Farm) which is also home to the Butterfly Brewing Company for those who like exploring micro-breweries. We enjoyed talking to the young German girls who were volunteering at the mariposario almost as much as looking at the Blue Morpho butterflies they were helping to raise.

Blue Morpho - Wings Closed

Blue Morpho - Wings Opening

Brenda and Susan on the
Blue Morpho Lookout

          Santa Elena / Monteverde (April 17 – 21)

From Montezuma we traveled to the mainland by ferry. The ferry, which docks in Puntarenas (from punta arenas - Sand Point) is inexpensive and efficient. It’s a great way to get across the Golfo de Nicoya, though not as nice as our sail across two months later!.

Bryce Bringing Our Little Terios Aboard

Brenda - Looking Nautical

We didn't stop in Puntarenas, but our brief drive-through convinced us to give the area a pass when we came across the golfo on Abracadabra. Puntarenas has a bit of a rough port town feel to it and the docks we saw were industrial looking. Fine for getting work done. Less fine for just hanging out.

It was easy driving for most of our way to the Santa Elena/Monteverde “cloud forest” area. Another Travel Tip: As one turns off the main highway to Santa Elena/Monteverde the roads get quite iffy again. See above re: renting a 4-wheel drive.

The bulk of the modestly priced hotels and the tour and transportation companies are in Santa Elena. The nearby village of Monteverde looks like it is mostly art galleries and a few restaurants. We checked into Hotel El Atardecer in Santa Elena. Our first night was very quiet but the next day it became clear that the hotel caters to bus tours. Of students. FYI, our four day study of student bus tours suggests that university students are quieter than middle-school children. Travel Tips: Costa Rica’s mid-range hotels often host large bus tours; go really cheap or expensive-spa-boutique and you may avoid them. Also, because Santa Elena is in the hills most of the hotels don’t have air-conditioning; heat-sensitive visitors might want to consider packing hiking boots and going in the rainy/muddy season.

Santa Elena and Monteverde are chockablock with tourists and it’s a bit overwhelmingly touristic for some. But the area offers many tour opportunities – even for people who don’t want to do the zip-line/water fall rappelling thing. We took a very fun and informative tour offered by the El Trapiche (The Press) coffee company. It combined information about the production of several Costa Rican products that require the use of a press:


Sugar Cane

They also told us a bit about bananas (no press involved):


Another tour we really enjoyed was given by the Monteverde Cheese Factory, and not just because it included a cheese tasting at the end! The tour was given by a descendant of the original Quaker settlers of the Santa Elena/Monteverde area (see historical aside below) and was particularly appreciated by Brenda and Bryce, whose parents owned and operated what today would be called an artisanal cheese factory in Ontario, Canada. Sadly, the internet now shows that this tour is no longer in operation, though the cheese company recommends a tour company which may include information about the factory in its tour. 

Since our visit to the factory we have become loyal (and heavy) consumers of Monteverde cheese and recommend that, even if you can't take a tour of the factory, you consider trying Monteverde manchego -- it is likely to be available at the local Central American supermercado!

A Highly Condensed Historical Aside: Eleven Quaker (Society of Friends) families left the United States to avoid the draft in the 1950’s and settled in the Santa Elena/ Monteverde area. Costa Rica had abolished its army in 1948. In various places in Santa Elena and Monteverde there are pictures of the settlers bringing electricity and rudimentary roads to the then undeveloped and very remote area. One of the early settlers learned the art of cheese making in order to preserve some of the milk produced by the community’s dairy herds. The resulting cheese business has expanded and Monteverde cheese can now be purchased in several Central American countries. The Quaker community has also been instrumental in preserving a portion of the cloud forest.

We visited the fledgling Quaker History Museum to learn more about these early settlers and found that the museum has a very optimistic website and not much infrastructure. An enthusiastic young man walked us through the pictures and few artifacts there and we learned a bit about those early settlers. Maybe next year they will be in full operation . . .

Three of us toured the Santa Elena cloud forest preserve. We chose it over the more heavily visited Monteverde preserve to avoid large groups of hikers and because we had read that the greater percentage of secondary forest in the Santa Elena created wider sight-lines for visitors interested in seeing wildlife. We did avoid crowds and had only five people on our tour, but we didn’t have a big wildlife day. We enjoyed a great walk in the mist (read: cool) and our guide was very informative about the different plants we were seeing and the birds we were hearing.

Brenda In The Forest

Cloud + Forest = Cloud Forest

Our Tour's French Contingent -- 
Taking a Picture of a Stuffed Animal To Share With 
Their Baby Who Was Staying At Home With Grandma

A (Blue Crowned - ?) Motmot

One day Brenda and Susan decided to rest up from the rigors of tourist life, so we toured a couple of things on our own. We visited another butterfly farm, where we got a different recipe for making butterfly-attracting food (the fruit must be fermented, not raw, we were told) and saw a wide variety of butterflies (the names of which we do not now remember).


We also toured the orchid garden behind the Orchid Garden Café (where we also had very good coffee and lunch). We were fascinated to see the zillions of different types of wild orchids,



some of which are spectacularly tiny:


          Lake Arenal (April 21-25)

Our group's last stop was another popular location on the Costa Rica Tourist Trail -- Lake Arenal. It’s kind of an odd tourist destination because it was originally marketed as a place where tourists could watch the eruptions of the Arenal volcano . . . but then the volcano quit erupting in 2010. By that time a huge tourist infrastructure had been built up around the volcano so . . . tourists still flock to the area by the literal busload. Build it - and advertise it - and they WILL come. 

Present-day tourists can enjoy pretty views of a nice lake and the volcano. There are also opportunities for spotting the type of wildlife everyone comes to Costa Rica to see: howler monkeys and birds (which we heard and saw) sloths (which we didn’t) and coatis (which are really fast little buggers and hard to photograph).

Hey - Stop! I Wanna Get A Picture . . . . 

There is also a big hot spring and mud bath business that has sprung up in the area - even dormant volcanoes create hot springs, apparently. Not being big on hot water bathing with large groups of strangers we can’t tell you anything about this tourist activity. 

And of course there are . . . zip-lines . . . lots of zip-lines!

Brenda treated us to a fishing trip on Lake Arenal arranged by our Airbnb host, Mairon. Susan and Mairon actually caught fish - though we don't think the guide will be boasting about their catches on his website. The rest of us fished briefly and unsuccessfully -- but enjoyed the ride on the lake.  

Susan - The Most Successful
Fisherperson of the Day

We really enjoyed our volcano-viewing day. 


We opted to purchase a day pass at the Arenal Observatory Lodge. The $10 per person day passes (which they don't promote heavily on their website) gave us access to the lodge’s well-groomed grounds and several well maintained walking trails. We walked to a nearby waterfall and visited the hotel’s little museum. We also had a just fine lunch at the lodge's restaurant. 

There are other places to view the volcano, including the Arenal national park, but the lodge offered us the opportunity to view, lunch, view, walk, rest, view -- all at our own pace. 

Bryce at the Waterfall
Arenal Again
Great Sibling Shot

The lodge's restaurant deck offers not only lovely views of the volcano - there are several bird feeders nearby which attracted several types of birds we hadn't seen before. Not being true birders, we didn't write down the names of those we saw . . . 

Bird Of Unremembered Name - ?

We also spent a lot of time just enjoying Casa Isabelita, a nice house above the lake which we found via Airbnb. We could see and hear lots of animals (more howler monkeys) and birds (Susan got a picture of the elusive toucan). We had access to a lovely little community swimming pool. And we were able to make simple dinners “at home” (see above re: our group’s unwillingness to trust the roads of Costa Rica at night).

Chef Brenda

We found some nice places for lunch nearby and can recommend The German Bakery in Nuevo Arenal and Cafe y Macademia near El Aguacate. There's also a nice tourist souvenir shop next to The German Bakery in Nuevo Arenal.

          Liberia (April 16-17)

Because Brenda and Susan were departing from the airport in Liberia (where about a month later we checked Abracadabra into Costa Rica) we spent their final night at the Hilton Garden Inn near the airport. It was a really pleasant splurge after a couple of weeks in the small rooms of mid-range hotels and self-catering cottages.

Once our guests had checked off the various departure boxes and were inside the airport security area we moved to the Best Western El Sitio in Liberia (just fine, though the pool was a weird green color) and walked into town. Liberia is not a big tourist destination but it does have a couple of blocks of pleasant “old town”.

Liberia's Tiny Historic District
Has Some Pretty Old Buildings

We had lunch at the Cafe Liberia, which is in a lovely old building and offers very nice sandwiches at lunch. Don't believe any taxi driver that says it's not open for dinner, just FYI.

And Liberia isn't a bad place to get a haircut:

A Complicated Cut 
Requires An Explanation . . . 

Road Trip Wrap Up

Before we return to Our Life Aquatic, here are some general thoughts about Costa Rica as a tourist destination (Sub-title: It’s Not Mexico, But That’s Okay):
  • Costa Rica is not a bargain travel destination. In particular tourist-class restaurants and the larger hotels are almost U.S. priced. We enjoyed the country a lot more once we got over worrying about that.
  • Most tourist services (food, tours, hotels, souvenirs) are quoted in U.S. dollars. Sometimes that means payment should be in U.S. dollars. But even when the final bill has been in dollars, we’ve sometimes gotten credit card receipts showing payment in colones. Other times the dollar price quote just means the business is anticipating the constant tourist refrain of: “What’s that in U.S. dollars?” and the bill will be in colones. We enjoyed the country a lot more once we gave up trying to win – or even understand -- the currency conversion game.
  • We had guides who spoke good English, were well educated on their subject (and sometimes well educated in general) and were willing and able to answer questions. From time-to-time in Mexico and other Central American countries we have found guides working from laminated tour notes who were unable/unwilling to speak off book. That’s not been a problem in Costa Rica. Reminder: Guides aren't highly paid and appreciate tips.
  • It’s a clean country -- really clean to those arriving from another Central American countries. And you can drink the tap water! But you still shouldn’t flush toilet paper.
  • The country’s main product is its bio-diversity and for the most part that product is well presented. But it’s sold relentlessly. It’s difficult to take a stroll to stretch your legs without paying $15+ per person to walk through a “reserve” (though many hotels have a "reserve" which is available to guests). 
  • OMG there are zip-lines everywhere.
  • Many of the tourist activities in Costa Rica are of the high-octane variety: zip lines, volcano climbing, waterfall rappelling, jet-skiing, etc. There are relatively few museums or pre-Hispanic ruins to tour. Culture vultures may be disappointed.
  • The Costa Rican people are extremely polite and kind. E.g., if you speak Spanish they will let you stumble along without interrupting and when they finally rescue you, it’s often in a very sweet way that suggests they appreciate your attempt. (I.e., they don't assume you are stupid, as they seemed to do in Honduras.)
  • The yatista buzz is that the country is rife with opportunistic theft -- little violent crime, but watch your wallet, cell phone and dinghy outboard. So far we have not encountered this. Knock wood.
  • The country’s typical cuisine is fine, but not exciting. Gallo pinto (a rice and beans dish) is healthy, hearty and tasty . . . the first five mornings it appears as part of the hotel's included breakfast. And the tourist restaurants all seem to have the same menu. But keep in mind there’s likely to be a Pops Ice Cream somewhere in town, which can make up for a lot (choco-almendras, trust us on this).
  • Don't buy coffee that's not labeled "for export" - the good stuff is exported. Small local restaurants can sometimes offer very bad coffee.
In sum: Costa Rica is a very easy place to travel independently. But we have discussed whether it might not be a good place to take a tour arranged through an educational organization or a tour company with an educational focus. It's easy to find tours that provide good information about the country's flora and fauna (every kid in town knows the term bio-diversity). But it's difficult to impossible to find a local tour guide who includes information about the country's history, art, architecture and culture in his (so far, it's always been "he") tour. In addition, paying for activities up front as part of a packaged tour might lessen the financial discomfort we began to feel after several days of paying $15-$30/+ per person per activity . . . and that's without ever riding a zip-line! Just some thoughts for your consideration.

Our next post: Marina Life.

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