After my horror run of bad luck in Nicaragua, I was looking forward to the relative safety and comfort of Costa Rica.
With a history largely devoid of civil wars, Costa Rica has enjoyed economic prosperity and stability envied across the isthmus.This prosperity has only been helped by a nationwide focus on tourism, and in particular ecotourism. These factors have themselves led to a variety of negative consequences for the small nation. As far as a backpacker/adventurer traveller is concerned, the conspicuous nature of tourism has it's drawbacks also. While the prevelance of english has helped me somewhat, I much prefer to be an oddity or be embraced by a community as a (temporary) local than seen as just an ATM, which can happen in the more tourist oriented areas of the globe. So I was approaching Costa Rica with both excitement and apprehension.
Thanks (again) to previous travellers, I knew what I was facing at the border before I got there. I've now found out that the single most effective deterrent against touts on borders is to show them that you have a step-by-step list of what needs to be done. When they see that they are really not needed, they keep their distance (and border crossings become a more relaxed, cheaper, albeit longer process). I got through the border no problems, and the only non-official fee I paid was about 10c in Nicaraguan currency to an old man to watch Isabella while I went through the process. He dutifully stood by her, not letting anyone near - 10 cents for peace of mind is cheap, as far as I'm concerned.
My first stop was Liberia. As my boat from Panama wasn't leaving until the 7th, I was now in an unusual situation - I had time to waste. So my original plans of one nght in Liberia turned into two. The fact that I had negotiated with a local guesthouse owner for a good deal helped somewhat. Unless the place is already charging rock bottom prices, everything is up for negotiation. I ended up getting a room for 15 bucks a night if I cooked my own brekkie. The normally provided breakfast is dominated by melon, of which I'm not a fan so I was happy with that deal. I've found that hotels are like real estate: get the worst room in the best hotel - I had a small room, but with access to a jacuzzi, pool, high speed wifi and the lounge had an art gallery inside!
I did leave the guesthouse for a bit - on the first night, I hit up a recommended pizza joint for the best Italian I've had since leaving home. It really takes travelling to discover the strengths and weaknesses of your home town - until you leave, you have no idea what is normal and what isn't around the world. For the record, Perth punches above it's weight on a culinary level. Food seems to me to be the most prominent and demonstratable argument for racial diversity in any city. Whenever someone boasts about the diversity of their home, the conversation invariably turns to the variety of delicious cuisine that can only be supported by a critical mass of immigrants. I for one hope to never be far from a cappucino machine, decent thai place, or late night kebab joint again. But I will miss the lack of decent Latin American and Middle Eastern cuisine (and will support those that we already have - TMLP & Two Fat Indians, I am looking at you).
The next day I went to get some stationary, and have a look around the town. However, my knack for turning up in places for local holidays continued - that day was the anniversary for the annexation of Guanacaste (of which Liberia is the capital) to Costa Rica. There wasn't really much on that was photo worthy - a few stands selling food, a radio DJ and some kids rides in the Parque Central.
The next day I headed to San Jose. Originally, I was headed towards La Fortuna and Volcan Aerenal as the guidebook waxed lyrical about the constant lava flow, an apparently spectacular sight at night. However, the guidebook was printed in 2009, and Aerenal has been dormant for 2 years. Not wanting to travel out to see yet another dormant volcano, I headed for the capital. I had booked a good guesthouse online, but when I arrived, I found out they didn't allocate me a space. I was about to head over to the neighbouring hostel (a good second choice, with a pool) when the manager said I could fit in the dorm (which I had booked for 2 nights) for the first nght, and then move to a semi private room the next day, for the original price. Score. I checked in, and headed out for dinner at a local soda (diner) and picked up some beers on the way back.
The next day was touristy day. Markets followed museums of jade, and old buildings galore. I got back to the guesthouse for the opening ceremony of the Olympic games,and an intended siesta. Some guests had noisy kids, so that killed the siesta. I made a mental note to return the favour after a planned night out mixing it up in San Jose. I got a new pair of jeans to replace those stolen in Antigua, and headed out to see what San Jose could offer. As it turs out, not much. I went through several areas, but found each place to either be completely empty or a place for professional hookups (prostitution is legal in Costa Rica, and in some bars the entire female population seem to be working). The one bar that seemed cool was so packed you'd need a snorkel to breathe, and it was a sports bar (there wasn't any major games on that night). So I ended up having a beer at the local and returning to the guesthouse earlier than expected.
The next day, I was heading for Playa Uvita, a good launching point for the border with Panama. But first, I needed to have lunch. I chose a particular restaurant, known for a particular set of attributes of all its waitresses, and the iconic orange shorts. I have never been to a Hooters restaurant before, but it was definitely on my list of things to do this trip (albeit something I thought I'd do in the US). It's an unusual place, that's for sure: there is an obvious underlying fun and sexual nature to the restaurant, but in most respects it's a respectable restaurant - the food was fantastic, service was fast. It was expensive (prices on par with most restaurants in the US), but worth it for the familiar food and safety (I could order water without having to worry about it's impact on my digestive system). The best indicator of the ambience of the restaurant: there were a few single guys there (myself included), but it was mostly families and groups of friends (of both genders). All in all, the restaurant chain has a reputation asa bit seedy which isn't deserved, and I look forward to my next visit (rumor is that one is coming soon to Perth).
Blatting out of San Jose, I started heading up into the hills, one of which is ominously named Cerro de Muerte (hill of death). It earned this moniker before the Pan American tamed it, and is no longer the dangerous ride it once was. However, it did start raining. Normally, rain in the tropics is no problem - it is warm enough that you can just persevere for the 10 mins or so it takes to pass under the clouds. But in the cloud forest, at 3000m above sea level, it's a different story. I was getting cold quickly, and the combination of altidtude, tight corners and slow trucks meant I was going nowhere fast. I wasn't enjoying the ride, and I felt that I really should be. So I promised myself that I would stop at the next place that would have me. As it turned out, the next place to stay happened to be a Quetzal sanctuary/farmstay. Quetzal are brightly coloured birds that were considered sacred by the Mayans, and are still revered in modern times (It features prominently on the Guatemalan coat of arms and currency). It was expensive, but all inclusive and so I had a warm shower and turned the heater all the way up to Hades in a desperate attempt to dry all my clothes for the next day. In the morning, I went for a self guided walk along a trail, saw a few birds but no Quetzals. As I was packing up (and enjoying my warm, dry clothes) the manager came running, and practically dragged me to a telescope, with which he had found a family of Quetzals. They truly are beautiful birds, and surprisingly large.
The next destination was Playa (beach) Uvita. As I had plenty of time until my boat for Colombia left, I was taking my time getting to Panama. The hostel was pretty close to the beach, and so after checking in, I headed out for a swim. There were alot of beginner surfers practicing in the 3 foot waves, but no sign of the famous Costa Rican surf that would please an experienced surfer. It was picturesque though, with the palm and mangrove trees lining the cocoa coloured sand and gentle, lapping breaks. I met a British couple at the hostel, who are also heading southbound in a campervan, albeit at a slower pace. It's a great comfort to meet on a similar adventure, knowing that others are going through the same trials and tribulations, and share common goals. I will soon post a list of the blogs of people I meet on the way, so you can get an idea of how others are doing what I'm attempting.
After Uvita, It was time to cross another border and enter Panama, the last stop in Central America. Again I printed off the instructions for crossing, and also a ticket for my boat trip (Panamanian authorities sometimes require proof of onward travel, despite the obvious form of transport I arrive on). Getting through the border proved fairly easy - the only holdup was that I arrived at noon, which was lunchtime for the transit police who needed to check and stamp my insurance paperwork. Thankfully, the no mans land was well populated with restaurants, so I took my cue to also have lunch. A tout tried to help me, despite my insistence that I was capable without him. I did manage to give him the slip when leaving, meaning I paid only the official and necessary costs. An interesting point to note is that Panama is the only country so far that has properly fumigated Isabella - only Belize and Panama had the equipment to spray motorbikes (car fumigation booths at every border aren't suitable - I don't want to breathe in the spray), and Belize barely did anything.
All Photos Available Here