Saturday, February 18, 2017

Costa Rica 2017 - A 5 Year Anniversary Trip

For 7 years I've been waiting to get back to Costa Rica. The weather, the people, the food, the atmosphere, it's what makes Costa Rica such a great place to visit, and I imagine, a great place to live.

After a year of dropping hints and discussion with my parents, I eventually convinced them to come watch the boys while Jeremy and I took a much needed anniversary vacation, just the two of us. 5 years!

After much planning and discussion we settled on a revisit to Monteverde then a tour around the Guanacaste Provence, which was all new for us. 

As it turns out, flying from LA to Costa Rica takes a lot longer than flying from Houston. After boarding a 11am flight, we finally made it to Liberia at 9:40pm. Being a very small airport, there aren't many options for getting a car this late at night. So we did what almost everyone else on our flight did, we stayed the night at the Hilton Garden Inn (free shuttle) then got our car in the morning. The hotel was nice enough for a night and has a restaurant that is open until 11pm for all the late day travelers.

Saturday morning we took the Alamo shuttle from the hotel to rent our car. We rented a 4 wheel drive to make sure we could get around all the roads, specifically around Monteverde and Tenorio. Something to remember about renting a car in Costa Rica; you must purchase 3rd party liability insurance. This is not the same as the car insurance that your credit card covers, nor is it personal medical insurance. This is the minimum required insurance in Costa Rica, much like in the states. And while the cost of the car may he reasonable, $99/wk, the insurance cost is not. It came in at a whopping $350 for the week we were there. I was really disappointed that this was not mentioned when we reserved the car online And it wasn't included in the price during reservation time. Alamo fail.


The drive from The airport to Monteverde reminded us how beautiful Costa Rica is. It also reminded us about driving in Costa Rica, the good and the bad.  I actually really like driving in the country.  It's simple, not too many cars, the signs and road indicators are more guidelines than rules, and everyone just generally gets along.  The system works.

About 1/2 the way to Monteverde is paved but after turning off 1 to 145 the road quickly turns to dirt then rough gravel. It's slow going and having a 4 wheel drive is very nice in some areas. I could easily see how it would be required during the rainy season.  At some point we stopped following the GPS and followed the signs posted along the road.  That served us just fine.

We pulled into the Monteverde Lodge and Gardens around noon then headed out to see if our favorite fig tree was still standing. Not only is it still there, but it's also become quite popular. Apparently the secret fig tree isn't so secret anymore as it's now listed on hostel maps around the area. Oh well, it was still fun to find it again and to climb to the top. 

The next day was Sunday. We headed up to Selvatura for the canopy tour and hanging bridges hike. We knew this company since we had used them 7 years ago. They have 18 zip lines and some of them are really long. The staff is nice and we had a great time. They also have a Tarzan swing which is scary but fun. 

After zip lining we stopped by Don Juan for some coffee. When we entered the woman asked us about doing a tour. We debated on a tour, but since we'd done it on our last trip we decided to just have some coffee on the terrace and relax for a bit. As we were sipping our coffee the woman approached us and said that if we did want to tour it would be free since we visited them 7 years ago and came back. We were taken back by this generosity, but mentioned we didn't have time for the whole tour which would have lasted from 3-4:30. We mentioned it would have been nice to do the chocolate tour, since it wasn't part of the tour last time we visited, but maybe next time. As it turns out the tour that was going on was just about finished with the coffee portion and was about to do sugarcane and chocolate! She invited us to join them and we happily accepted. 

I'm really glad the way everything worked out. The sugarcane was fun to see again and our tour guide, Alex, was really good. This time we pressed the cane (3 times for optimal juicing, and then Alex added lime to the sugar juice. This was not done last time and I can tell you the line made it taste much better. It was actually pretty good. 

The chocolate part of the tour was next and it was really cool. We tasted all the stages of chocolate from the pods, you can suck on them, to the final product. After the coco pods ferment in a jar for a week they are then left to dry for 1 month. After drying they are roasted for 5-8 minutes and chopped up to make coco nibs. After grinding the nibs he added vanilla, then powdered sugar cane, and finally hot water. A bit of whisking and bam, best hot chocolate I've ever had. We brought some coco nibs and sugar cane powder home so I could try to replicate it myself.

As we were leaving the tour we actually met Don Juan who was walking around the property. A short little old gentleman, we went to say hi and were instantly treated with hugs. On our drive out we also had the rare chance to see a sloth in a tree! 

While in town we ate dinner at two restaurants: De Lucia and Restaurant de Thomas. Both were amazing. The first we had visited back in 2009. I had written "amazing" in my guide book and after 7 years it still was. An unique restaurant, we had a delicious sea bass and the best steak we'd had in years. So tender and juicy, and wrapped in bacon, because why not. The second restaurant we happened upon our second night. Tucked away in a small shopping area, and very unassuming, we walked in to find 5 small tables and a tiny kitchen. Unsure if we would stay, other patrons looked our way and told us it was the second time they'd eaten there in three days. Sold. The meal was so delicious. I had the seafood pasta with homemade pasta and shrimp in a white wine cream and tomato sauce. Jeremy had the tuna steak with wasabi ginger sauce. Both were out of this world delicious.  We also had desserts at the Tree House restaurant in downtown.  


Leaving Monteverde we left at 6am and took 606 to 605 which is still a dirt road but much smoother. Incant even begin to describe the beauty of the landscape. After hitting 1, we headed north to Adventure Tours for some white water rafting. Our final destination for the day was Tenorio and this was right on the way. In fact we were about to raft the Tenorio river. The company, Adventure Tours had some great reviews so we went with them and were not disappointed. The staff was really nice, our guide, Samuel was good, the rafting fun, and the lunch afterward was one of the best plate lunches we had on the trip. I think the rapids were better on our last rafting trip which we did in Manuel Antonio, but I also think that was because it was June which is the start of the rainy season. This trip was about 1/3 float and 2/3 rapids of some type. During the float we had fun messing with the other boats and swimming. The water this time was perfectly clear, and we did get to do a 10 foot drop at the end! (Class IV)

A short drive up 6 lead us to the Tenorio Lodge. After checking into our room, which was huge with large floor to ceiling windows and stunning views, we had time for a quick jacuzzi soak before dinner at the lodge. There are a handful of lodges around Tenorio and while the room was nice, the food was really subpar and the bed and pillows uncomfortable. 

Tuesday we got up early and headed to Tenorio National Park. Hiking the Rio Celeste was one of the activities I was looking forward to most on this trip. The Rio Celeste is an unreal natural torquise river that is formed by the confluence of two smaller rivers. When these two rivers mix the Ph balance in the water changes due to the mineral and metal deposits of each. Larger minerals fall to the bottom forming the white band you see and lighter minerals float to the surface. When the sun strikes the water the minerals refract the light and your eye sees the beautiful blue. Down river of the confluence is a large pool, the blue lagoon, and a stunning waterfall. I'm so glad it wasn't raining, as the rain turns the water muddy and the effect goes away, though I'm told it comes back 10-15 minutes after the rain stops. This was the only hike we did this trip but it was super fun... and muddy. Sorry the pictures don't do it justice, for some reason blogger color "corrects" on upload.  Follow the link at the bottom to see them on flickr.

Back in the town of Bijagua we ate lunch at Soda Los Mangos (see posts from 2009 to understand why we HAD to eat here) and I somehow managed to pull off enough Spanish to purchase a mango and huge avocado from a fruit cart on the side of the road. Dos Mil Cien. 


Being without kids it was easy for us to hotel hop, so that night we left Tenorio and headed north to the Rincon De La Vieja area. This is just north of Tenorio but of course you can't drive as the crow flies. It was about 1 hour between the destinations. In the park we stayed at Hacienda Guachipelin. Our original idea was to do a full day adventure tour here on Wednesday but we got in early Tuesday night, and because we were guests of the hotel, we were able to use the hot springs that night as part of our stay.

Unlike Tabacon in La Fortuna, these springs aren't lit up and glamorized, nor are they adult only, as we found out in the last thirty minutes when we were treated by 10 rambunctious 8-9 year olds. Nonetheless we had fun. There are about 8-9 pools for relaxing, all of different temperatures. There is also a man handing out paint brushes and pots of mud. Of course we had to partake. Nothing says Happy Valentines like painting your spouse with mud. After letting it dry for 10 minutes it's time for a rinse in the (cold) shower or (colder) river and then into one of the pools. We spent about an hour there and afterward our skin felt really smooth! 

There is a lot to do on the property. You can hike into the National Park (bring your passport in with you), or hike to any of 3 waterfalls. You can also do one of several adventure activities or combine several of them for an adventure day pass. Since we had already done the hot springs and had gone rafting a few days before and zip lining earlier in the trip, we didn't feel the need to repeat those. We debated on just hiking around then heading out but something told me we'd really enjoy the tubing down the river, so we signed up. 

We opted for the 8:30 am horseback ride to the river entrance. From there we each got our own tubes and were put in immediately into some awesome rapids. It was a 5km river and it went by so quick. Easily 90% rapids and they were sooooo much fun! We laughed the whole time and somehow neither of us flipped out. You could have put me on a bus back to the start and I would have done it all day long. 


From the Hacienda we headed west to the beach. Playa Hermosa, Playa Flamingo, Playa Conchal, and Playa Tamarindo were all on my list. If we had one more day we would have done some beach hopping, but alas our vacation was coming to a close and we only had one more day. We opted to get into Tamarindo earlier and check out the town and the hotel. Along the way we commented how nice it was driving in Costa Rica and how easy it was. No real rules, more like guidelines, and everyone just makes it work. And just then "IGUANA!!!!" Slam the breaks! 

Once in Tamarindo we stayed at Hotel Argo Iris. A cute little boutique hotel just off the stop enough to be quiet at night, but close enough to easily walk to the beach and into town. They also had some resident iguanas. The room was small but nice and had A/C. My only complaint was the huge gap in the door which meant bugs (and a cockroach) could get in. Also the restaurant, Seasons, had live music until about 9:30 on Thursday night and our worn out selves were ready to crash at 8:30. The music wouldn't have bothered us but it was fairly awful. 

That night we walked the town, had fresh brews at Volcano Brewing, and Jeremy graciously stopped in like every store with me while I found a few dresses to take home. My intention was to get some colorful beach dresses, but of course I came home with two new black ones. I really tried to branch out!

We ate dinner that night, and lunch the following day, at beach restaurants right on the sand. You pay for the novelty but it was still nice and the food wasn't bad; in fact my mahi magi was pretty good the first night. Two things about Tamarindo: 1, it's totally an American tourist destination. Everything, or nearly everything, is in dollars. 2, it's slooooow. As in the service is so slow. But hey, your on the beach, pura vida. 

Our last day we opted for surf lessons over a catamaran sunset sail. Best decision. We took lessons from Iguana Surf (I-wanna surf). A group lesson is 4 people/instructor (we had 3) and was $45/pp including board, lesson, locker rental, and rash guard shirt. Turns out I wish I had rash guard shorts (do they make those?), or at least board shorts. My thighs have such bad board rash on them. Perhaps I was doing something wrong on the get up.

We had a blast surfing. Both Jeremy and I got up almost right away and our instructor was very helpful. We had a 2 hour lesson the rented the boards for another 2 hours. By the end we were exhausted and the waves were getting a bit too strong for us beginners. 
After lunch and we headed to the hotel pool for a dip in some fresh water. There we chatted up some other guests for a while before showering and heading back to town for sunset. After all, what better way to end the vacation than with drinks in hand and sunset on the beach! 

Dinner our last night was at the Green Papaya. A taco bar near our hotel. I am so glad they were open for dinner and not just lunch. In fact I'm feeling full just writing this. First, the atmosphere is great. Beautiful tiki ambience with wood tables and outside bar tables with wooden rope swings for seating. First came chips and dip. Best homemade tortilla chips ever. Next was the tacos. Oh My Goodness. Nothing, and I mean nothing, I have ever had in my life compares to these tacos. In fact I don't know if I can ever visit Torchies again. These things were huge and out of this world delicious. Each plate came with two tacos so we split them, Mahi Mahi on one order and Seared Ahi Tuna for the other. Each taco came with two huge chunks of fish, seriously fist size, on top of red cabbage and some aioli or sauce. The mahi was so fresh, delicate, and tasty. The tuna was rubbed in a ginger sesame wasabi that was packed with flavor. I'm salivating as I type. If you are in Tamarindo you must go here.

After feeling incredibly full, and realizing coffee shops aren't open at night here, we retired to our room and rested. Vacation would be over soon.

Friday morning we headed out back to Liberia. We opted to prepay for gas for the rental car because I thought our flight was at 7am which meant driving at 3am but it turns out it wasn't till 9:30 and we could have easily got our own gas. Also, a point of note, the $29 exit visa cost is now included in the airline fee, so no worry about having to get that at the airport.

As I sit here on the plane I reflect on the amazing trip we had. Thank you so much to my parents for watching the boys for a week. We miss them and can't wait to get home, but we also were so happy to have this time to ourselves. 

Costa Rica, we will be back. 

Pura Vida!

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