It finally happened. Our adventure began with a late flight into San Jose, Costa Rica! I thought I would be able to sleep on the flight, but no way José! The excitement was overwhelming. Billy had no problem slumming on his phone for the roughly three hour flight.
Travel Tip: If you are flying out of a major US Airport, and are leaving your vehicle, I highly recommend using The Parking Spot. They are a parking/shuttle/car wash service that makes parking convenient, and is usually cheaper than the airport.
Instead of napping, I studied the travel guides, and brushed up on my Spanish with Duolingo to make sure all our bases were covered. Little by little those high school Spanish classes started to come into focus. We had been practicing the last few months just to brush up on the basics. For the life of me, I could not get my son to practice. He is totally disinterested in learning a new language, but I am hoping he will come out of his shell as he grows.
As we were getting closer to San José, Amber and I struck up conversation with a fellow passenger, and Costa Rican man who was in his 50’s. His English was not the best, but we were able to communicate well enough. He owned a goat farm and was traveling to Houston to fetch some prized goat semen for his flock. This guy was serious about his goats. The prized semen that he bought in Houston went for high dollar, and came from a superstar goat nicknamed “the machine.” Apparently, this goat had impregnated some 1,500 females in his short life!
While Amber and I chuckled about the serious goat business, our airplane was descending into San José. The city from the air looked bustling and busy. The plane touched down around 10 PM and we made our exit to immigration. It took us around an hour to navigate the snaked line up to the counter. We couldn’t help notice the other people in queue with us. By the clothes they wore, many of them were obvious “birders.” This line was not fun for Billy.
We made it through soon enough, and were excited to finally be in a foreign country. The first stop we made was near the baggage claim. It was the Kolbi desk. Kolbi is a cellular carrier in Costa Rica. Their logo is of a cartoon frog. All of the travel guides suggested to pick up a local SIM card, even if you are not planning on using it. To our surprise, they accepted US cash. It costs $40 for the foreigner special SIM card which consisted of roughly a months worth of phone and data. Our plan was, we would use the SIM card with my phone, and pay the extra $10 a day that AT&T charges for international usage on Amber’s phone (little did I know that your phone has to be unlocked and paid for before you can use foreign SIM cards).
Travel Tip: If you have AT&T, SIM cards will only work in an unlocked phone. AT&T will only let you unlock your phone if it is totally paid off!
Our next stop was customs. This line was also quite long even though it was 11 PM at night. It took us 30 minutes or so to get through this one. Once we got through, we got outside only to be greeted by hundreds of taxi hagglers and shuttle drivers holding signs. It was very chaotic and hot. Granted, we had just left 40 degree weather. Towards the back of the line I spotted our hotel shuttle, “Barcelo.”
After the greeting, our shuttle driver informed us that we would still need to wait for another 30 minutes until the next run. We were exhausted and this was not appealing, but the cabbies wanted too much for the short ride, so we waited. We finally arrived at the Barcelo tired and ready for bed. Everyone so far that we had dealt with spoke remarkably good English. The clerk at the front desk was no exception. As he was setting up our reservation, a look came across his face that worried me.
He signaled for us to come away from the line and to the end of the counter. As politely as possible, he informed us they had a pipe rupture and flood the room we had reserved, and they would not be able to have us that night. We were in a country that was foreign to us, not speaking the language, late at night, with nowhere to stay. Thankfully, the guy made some calls around town, and found us a room at another hotel. They even gave us a lift in their shuttle, and offered to come pick us up in the morning for their free breakfast. My worry slipped away as we arrived at the other place.
Finally, we settled into our new hotel room. The view of the city at night from our room was incredible. I was not used to the city noises. We got cleaned up and laid down for bed. Billy was out cold, but I could barely sleep. Half from excitement, and the other half from nerves.
The next morning, Amber woke me up to catch the shuttle back to the Barcelo for breakfast. I told her that I would rather sleep in and pass. She agreed, but went downstairs to let them know we would not be joining them. After we slept for another hour or so, we woke up to San José.
There was a Hard Rock Café within view of our room. How cool! Being a musician, we have always tried to visit one when we can. Before we did anything, I had to pick up our rental car, which was at another hotel 15 minutes away. While Amber and Billy got around, I exchanged 20 US dollars for Costa Rican Colones at the hotel counter and asked for them to fetch a taxi. The taxi arrived, and the driver did not speak English at all. No worries, I had been practicing! In very broken Spanish, and using the help of google translate, I was able to get a ride to the Alamo Car Rental at the Best Western. The ride was around $14 US.
Travel Tip: Agree to a predetermined price before leaving. The cab drivers will always take advantage of tourists. Later on, a hotel clerk told me that my ride should have been around $8-10.
Trees lining the interstate looked like Banyon trees, with roots snaking along the gutters. San José was quite the booming city, and the driving, whoah! It reminded me of driving in the Middle East on deployments. I’d be lying if I said I didn‘t have doubts about getting a rental car and driving around down there. It seems so limiting not having the freedom of a vehicle, and in hindsight, I am glad we had one.
Once again, I got the all too familiar look of something wrong at the Alamo clerks desk. Our reservation was for an automatic, 6 cylinder, mid-sized SUV. The guy informed me that someone had messed up and they did not have my reservation, but he had something smaller, and cheaper, but it was a standard. Now, I am not the best with a stick, but I can drive one, so I settled for that. It was a Diahatsu BeGo. The interstate was right off the hotel parking lot, so I did not get a chance to warm up.
Using Google Maps, which worked great, I navigated my way back to our hotel to meet Billy and Amber for some kind of brunch. When I pulled in, they were waiting for me, and relieved to see me. It can be a little scary running off alone in a foreign city that you don’t know. We decided to walk across the pedestrian bridge and eat lunch at the Hard Rock Café. It was very exciting walking there.
Unfortunately, the restaurant was closed to the public for another hour while they held some type of private event for bicyclists. Bicycles were huge in Costa Rica. We saw them everywhere. Fortunately for Billy, there was a McDonald’s right next to our hotel. The whole time we were planning this trip, I told Billy that he would have to step outside his comfort zone, because Costa Rica doesn’t have McDonald’s–let alone cheeseburgers! Boy was I wrong. We ate our McDonald’s lunch, which surprisingly tasted the same as the US, then packed up our Diahatsu for the journey to Monteverde.
Driving in San José was intense, especially with a standard! Motorcycles were whizzing all around us and riding the lines between cars. Leaving the city, we hit traffic on the interstate. The cars were slowly moving, and to our surprise, there were vendors standing in the middle of the interstate between cars! These folks were selling everything from dried plantains, slushies in plastic bags, pork rinds, to sunglasses and toys.
A couple of tolls and 50 kilometers later, we found ourselves near the pacific coast. I had hinted that we would be near the beach on our drive North to Monteverde. Now, on travel days, I like to take my time, enjoy the scenery, and try to make stops at places that catch my interest, and knowing how much Billy loves the ocean, I was going to surprise him with a quick trip to the beach. Amber was a great navigator, and searched nearby beaches. Punta Arenas is one of the larger, more touristy spots nearby, but I did not feel like fighting the crowds, and opted to go to a smaller beach off the beaten path. I did not mind driving a little out of the way, as long as we could get to our place in Monteverde before dark.
Travel Tip: Google Maps was invaluable on our journey. I have read other travel guides that recommend using Waze, which I had downloaded, however, I did not need it because Google worked great.
On the map we saw Playa De Doña Ana, and on a whim, decided to go there. We were thrilled catching glimpses of the ocean along the way. Pulling into the beach parking lot, we were greeted by a security guard. He had us park backwards in the spot. I guess this is a thing in Costa Rica; we saw it everywhere. There was a booth to pay for entrance to the beach with a lady that was full of smiles. Tienes Cambio? Do you have change? The cost for all three of us was 4,500 Colones, about $10. They took USD and gave me Colones back. After a short walk through well maintained tropical grounds, there was a couple of Baños with showers, and changing areas. To top it off, there was a restaurant just off the beach that was filled with locals.
Billy was super excited to be at the beach!
This place was heaven. Billy and Amber couldn’t get changed fast enough. I opted to be a party pooper and not swim, as I still had a lot of driving to do, and wanted to be focused, sand free, and dry. The beach was black sand. Beautiful! While they swam, I let my camera go wild:
The restaurant just off the beach.
Billy staring out into the Gulf of Nicoya. In the background you can see the Nicoya Peninsula.
Billy discovering some sea shells.
Mama finally got changed and ready play.
Rock formations on the beach.
Caught an Iguana napping high in a tree. The beach was teeming with wildlife.
After about an hour I had to be the bad guy, and cull my family out of the water. We still had a few hours of driving left. I did not want to be lost at night in Monteverde. They grudgingly came out of the ocean and got cleaned up. On the way back to the car we spotted a few monkeys in the trees beside the walking path.
Going for a swim can work up an appetite! Costa Rican highways are dotted with Soda shops. We were tempted to stop, but we kept seeing signs along the Pan American Highway for “Café & Macadamia,” which seemed a little more legit. Pulling in we were greeted by another security guard. This is very common in Costa Rica as auto break-ins are all too frequent, especially towards rental cars. Using broken Spanish, we made our order. Turkey sandwiches with coffee! The clerk gave us all handfuls of fresh macadamia nuts. Apparently, this place was a macadamia plantation. They were delicious as well as the rest of the food! The seating area was stunning!
The seating was a screened in outdoor area decorated with tropical plants. The floor was made from crushed macadamia shells.
Waiting on our food, checking out the joint.
A blooming banana.
Chocolate banana and orange cake.
Chocolate coffee banana frappe.
Turkey on ciabatta with fresh fruit. Yum!
With full bellies, we tipped the Los Guachimanes, parking lot watchmen, and jumped on the highway to Monteverde. Our hosts recommended that we avoid taking highway 606 due to construction that would hold us up, and to instead take 145 through San Juntas. Getting to San Juntas from the Pan American Highway was not too bad. Once we hit the gravel roads, I felt at home. Going up the hills reminded me of growing up in East Tennessee. Another recommendation from our host was to stop in San Juntas at the mercado, supermarket for some groceries, and any other last minute necessities. San Juntas had brick roads, and in the middle of town was a “Bali.” Owned by Wal-Mart, imagine a neighborhood market, but open air, fence topped with barb wire to keep the monos monkeys out, and with a Latin American flare. We grabbed some snacks for the road, and to my surprise, they had Coke Zero! Sin Azucar.
The stretch from San Juntas to Monteverde was extremely rough road. Thankfully, I had years of experience driving on similar roads in East Tennessee. The difference between Tennessee and Costa Rica was, there were semi trucks and tour buses driving on these roads! Even so, the views were incredible! You could tell that some places had been clear cut in the past, but other places were older forest. The higher we climbed, the forest became more dense.
Travel Tip: Even though the roads can be rough in Monteverde, they are not impossible! Don’t be discouraged! Many local folks don’t have 4WD up there! We went during the dry season, but I would want 4WD in the rainy season.
We arrived at our Monteverde Forest Hideaway just before dark where we were greeted by our Host Olman and his son Nicholas. We were delighted to be there. Olman gave us an overview of our retreat for the next few days, pointed us to Santa Elena, and left us for the evening. While we were unpacking the SUV and checking out the place, a motmot landed right off our balcony!
Billy was excited to finally be at our cabin. I love this picture!
After getting settled, we decided to go grab some dinner in Santa Elena before it got too late. It was a short seven minute drive into town. Parking was a little difficult, but I finally found a spot. One of the places that caught our eye was “Taco Taco.” The vote was unanimous, and it was delicious!
Near the restaurant was another super mercado. Amber wanted to grab a few groceries to cook breakfast in the morning. Our cabin was amazing. We were all exhausted from the road. Amber and Billy had no trouble getting to sleep. You could hear every cricket for miles. It was so decompressing. Even though I was dead tired, I still had trouble sleeping. My excitement kept me tossing, because I knew what was in store tomorrow… zip lining!