Two months have passed since Ned and I left Charlotte safely ensconced in the family home of Wison, the bell hop at the Country Inn in San Jose, Costa Rica. We had lots to take care of at home, and the time passed quickly. Early on, though, I would wake in the morning feeling as if our journey had been a dream. Did we really do all of that? Reading our own blog felt surreal. Ned and I loved catching up with friends and family, and I loved catching up with my much missed solo time running in the mountains.
As many of you know, we spent part of the time home preparing for and participating in the Mexican 1000 off road race in Baja. Having successfully completed the 1200 mile race in Ned’s Willys Jeep rock crawler, “Killer Bee” in 2011 and 2012 (see the stories on our website), Ned decided to build a “Baja-911” for the 2013 race and did a fantastic job transforming a roached-out Porsche Targa into a functional off road machine. The result was the eye-catching, unique “Coco-latte.” Unfortunately, we had some catastrophic issues in 2013, including a carburetor fire and a broken oil line, but we were determined to try again this year. Ned fixed all of the problems from last year and we were ready.
It’s always exciting to be on the starting line. Nothing beats the feeling of taking off with a green flag and 1200 miles in front of you. The car was amazing; the motor strong, the suspension working great, soaking up as many bumps as a tiny 911 with 8 inches of suspension travel ever could. If the race course had been the same as in previous years, we probably wouldn’t have had any problems. But the course was changed this year and it was too rough for this valiant little car. We made nearly 430 miles the first day, but ran into not only deep ruts with big rocks that gouged at Coco’s belly, but also silt beds…really deep, Porsche burying silt beds! Countless times we were buried, unable to move and were rescued by fellow racers with 4×4’s (didn’t we wish we had the Bee this year!). In addition, we had lost the starter AND the ability to idle, so Ned had to keep his foot on the throttle while I got out and waved the tow strap, begging for a tug, buried to my thighs in nasty silt.
In the end, we made it to Bahia de Los Angeles at midnight the first day, (it’s a four day race) but Coco was too beat up to continue. It was an arduous day and a valiant effort for all three of us, but this year we felt like we brought a knife to a gun fight. We also felt the tickle of the travel bug. As fun as racing is, we were missing life on the road.
On May 28, wondering how we would enjoy Costa Rica after our so-so experiences in the rest of Central America, we flew back to San Jose. We were warmly welcomed back by the great staff at the Country Inn; Fabio at the front desk, Flory our waitress and of course, Wilson. It was also wonderful to see Charlotte again. It took us a day and a half to get her repacked with supplies and water and then off we went. Rusty, but finally on the road where we belong.
Our time in Costa Rica was wonderful. The scenery is gorgeous, and the people are friendly. Having avoided the vicious wars that have plagued the rest of Central America, Costa Rica has a much more relaxed feel. We had worried ahead of time how we desert rats would deal with the rainy season in the tropics, and I can’t say it was the most comfortable time I have spent. It was hot and humid, and I ended up with lots of bug bites. We have screens to put up to leave the windows open at night, but most of the time there wasn’t even a whisper of a breeze. I spent many nights sweltering in Charlotte, lying on a towel to soak up the sweat, scratching at welts.
Ned wasn’t as bothered by the heat, and really, in spite of it, I had an amazing time. We even came to enjoy the daily thunder storms, listening to rain splattering on the tin roofs of open air restaurants, and watching lightning dance outside. Costa Rica’s national motto is “Pura Vida,” literally, pure, good or clean life, which I found appropriate. Costa Ricans use it in greeting, meaning all’s going great. The country also lends itself to fun, beautiful photos, so enjoy this trip through Costa Rica as Ned narrates our journey.
Our friend Wilson opens the gate to the driveway at his family’s home where Charlotte has been stored for the past two months.
We brought some little gifts for the family. Wilson wears his new Lake Tahoe baseball cap while Kat explains a Lake Tahoe snow globe to him, his Mom, Marta and the family cat. Unfortunately, his Dad, Jesus was away that day.
I felt bad that Charlotte had to leave her 90wt mark on their tile driveway. It’s a VW thing, I hope they understand. We also had a dead battery and a low tire to deal with. Our amazing Micro-Start Anti-Gravity Battery saved our butts yet again with a quick jump start from this pocket sized miracle black box. (Thanks again, Ricky and Micro-Start!)
Wilson stops the never-ending San Jose traffic as I back a dusty Charlotte out into the mean streets. The adventure begins again…
Like Wilson, another great employee who embraced us with kindness at the Country Inn (our adopted Command Center in CR) was Flory, our waitress. We had enjoyed free breakfasts and Flory’s smiles and warm, friendly service on our previous visit, and it was great to see her again. One morning she shared a bit of her story with us: Flory grew up in a small fishing village on the Pacific coast. There was no electricity and no hotels yet. She had 12 brothers and sisters. She got her first pair of shoes when she was 5 yrs old, and she loved them so much she went to bed with them on (with much teasing from her older siblings). Flory loved to dance and drove her mother crazy. When she was a teenager she learned Salsa and other dances from the local prostitutes, which really made her mother nuts. Later, her husband would take her out but would not dance, so she danced by herself. Now her husband has passed away and she has to work as a waitress. She does not go out but still loves to dance when she is alone at her house. Flory has 5 grand kids who all live in San Jose.
We’re going to try something new here; showing maps of where we’ve been. Let us know if this is helpful or confusing. We’ve drawn black Sharpee lines on all the roads we’ve driven.
Finally after two months down time we hit the road again. It felt like we had been home way too long and had lost our groove. I think we were both feeling a bit apprehensive about getting it back. We stayed the capital of San Jose, which is down in the right hand corner, only long enough to repack Charlotte, then quickly headed northwest to the area around the Arenal Volcano and Lake Arenal. This was about a four hour drive.
Along the way we passed numerous signs advertising this place called “Lands in Love,” featuring Israeli food. Huh? We had to check this out. It turned out to be kind of a tree-hugger’s/animal lover’s sanctuary. Israeli? I had Pad Thai, and Kat had a plate of fruit and cheese. We enjoyed our lunch outside surrounded by rain forest.
Then we checked out the “Pet Motel” where 142 rescue dogs live, hanging out on old couches and chairs and making more racket the anything we heard later in the jungle.
This was the best (and only) shot we got of Volcán Arenal which was shrouded in clouds the whole time. It is the beginning of the rainy season here which means it pretty much rains all the time except when it doesn’t!
Just outside the tiny town of La Fortuna, we stopped for the night at this brand new hot springs “resort.” Most of the resorts around here are pretty high end, but this one was not a hotel and was designed more for the local and dirt bag bus-living crowd. They even let us camp in their unfinished parking lot for 12 bucks.
It was really cool to experience our first of many Costa Rica thunder storms sitting in these natural hot pools while a thunder and lightning storm raged and copious amounts of rain fell.
The only level place in the whole hot springs was the bathroom. So that’s where we did our morning stretches. How convenient, all our morning “duties” out of the way in one room!
The road the next morning led us into ever thicker jungle. Or is that rain forest? We still haven’t figured out the difference.
Lake Arenal is a good sized, man-made lake. It took about three hours to drive around two thirds of it on a slow, very windy, rain soaked, but paved road.
We stopped for a late breakfast at this wonderful German (!) bakery. Its owner was a German guy who started the place 14 years ago and admitted to us he’d been stuck there about 13 years too long. Our food arrived looking so good that we dived in without snapping a photo…sorry ‘bout that. But we sure enjoyed our bratwurst, eggs, pretzel and apple strudel!
Charlotte and Vaca Muerta had some admirers on the road towards the Pacific coast after leaving Lake Arenal and heading west.
We got a kick out of these tree fences the first time we saw them. Turns out they are everywhere in Costa Rica. The trees grow so fast that people just plant ‘em in a row, string some barbed wire and they are good to go.
Here you can see a mature tree fence keeping those happy Costa Rican cows from climbing further up the mountain.
After Arenal in the upper right hand corner, we headed southwest to the coast of the Peninsula de Nicoya. We stopped first to the left of my finger at Samara for a night. The next day we headed south down the coast on dirt roads all the way to the tip. Along the way we found some good muddy roads, some deep river crossings and got lost more than once. After dinner in Playa Santa Teresa we continued driving long into the night. Originally we thought we’d get back up into the mountains of the interior and it would be cooler with less bugs. Wrong! I ended up driving in a big circle until midnight and wound up back at the top of the peninsula where we originally came in. (directly above my finger)
Upon arriving at the Pacific Ocean in Samara, Surfer Ned (from Nevada) checks out the tubing action and decides to suit up and paddle out.
Wow! Big action on a rented Boogie Board.
That was enough water for me! However, Kat says that’s the biggest smile she’s seen in a long while. Maybe I’m missing my calling here?
I preferred the dry beach, (no rain for a moment) a cold beer, a nice sunset…
…making faces with the locals…
…and pigging out on this fresh fish/shellfish platter!
We spent a hot and muggy, but dry night in Charlotte (glad we’re not in a tent!) watching crazy rain and awesome lightning. The next morning we headed south down dirt roads with great views along the coast.
“OH MY!” take one…
These colorful little guys were everywhere along the road. They were miles inland from the beach/water but seemed pretty happy just running around in the road. We watched one tumble about 40 feet down an embankment end over end, only to shake it off and start climbing up the cliff again. We learned later that they are deadly poisonous to eat.
Happy Costa Rican cows and happy Costa Rican cowboy. All the cattle we saw were Indian Brahmas. Presumably they hold up better in the tropical heat and wet than other breeds? We also couldn’t figure out why, despite green grass everywhere, they always looked skinny.
The first river crossing we came to was a no-go for sure. Rio Bongo was flooded way over its banks, causing us to backtrack and drive around endless muddy roads most of the afternoon, half lost, trying to get further south and back to the coast.
We made it through, though. This was land’s end at the bottom of the peninsula.
We headed back north along the coast watching the sun sink into the Pacific.
Once dark we found ourselves deep in the steamy jungle again, looking for a way north and east into the mountains, hoping to find a cooler, less buggy place to spend the night. We kept running into flooded rivers which I had to wade first in order to see if they were too deep for Charlotte. Fortunately, none were more than knee deep and she motored through them like a Chris-Craft. They do look more ominous in the dark though.
Good driving lights are a savior on dark nights in the jungle! But horses? Where are the elephants, rhinos and big cats?
I wound up pulling into the parking lot of this deserted restaurant around midnight. Within minutes some guy appeared out of the dark and asked what we were doing. After explaining we were looking for a place to sleep and if they had breakfast in the morning, we were once again welcomed with open arms. Restaurant parking lots are the ultimate home on the road!
At midnight the restaurant owner had told us that the kitchen would open for breakfast at 8am. Perfect. However, at 6am sharp, Enny came to tell us cheerily that the “cocina” was open! Time to get up! Don’t want to keep our self-appointed hosts waiting. We ended up having a great breakfast and a nice chat with Enny who had only owned the place for two years. It was a huge restaurant set up for tour bus groups, but she told us the busses were few and far between. Out back was a nice swimming pool which she said the locals come to use daily and that income appeared to keep the place going. We almost felt guilty that she opened up her big kitchen just for us. I think we were probably her only customers that day.
Our big loop of the Peninsula de Nicoya took us back to the Parque Nacional Barra Honda which we’d read had a cool cave tour… Later we drove back down the paved road along the northern side of the peninsula and took the ferry (dotted line) back to the mainland. From there we headed south along the Pacific coast.
Joe and Mariela were our guides in the Parque Nacional Barra Honda. The park has 42 discovered caves, but many more are thought to still be in hiding. We first drove our guides in Charlotte up a steep 4WD road for about half an hour. (Sure don’t get to do that in a stateside national park!) Then we spent about an hour hiking in the jungle to the cave. Once at the cave we roped up and descended over 70 feet straight down into it and spent the next hour exploring an awesome underground fantasy world.
Interesting flora and fauna along our jungle walk included this “pokey tree.” Being the brilliant naturalists that we are, you’ll have to follow someone else’s blog to learn the official names of these things.
A seed pod that when broken open contained syrup that tasted like chocolate mixed with honey. The natives used it to sweeten beverages (that is until packaged sugar arrived!).
Smart worm. The best camouflage ever. Who wants to eat a bird turd?
Another seed pod that looked like the Fuller Brush Man had been there. Anybody remember him, or are we really dating ourselves?
Big yellow frogs
Ready to descend.
Here I’m looking down the 70 foot ladder to Kat and Joe at the bottom.
“OH MY!” take two.
We’ve been in some really cool caves, but this one may have topped them all.
After the cave, we drove back down the peninsula and caught the 5pm ferry to the mainland. We spent the crossing having cocktail hour (beer) in Charlotte, feeling nice and dry as the rain hammered her windows
After a night in Jaco along the coast, to the left before the map starts, we tootled down the coast until we arrived in Sierpe where my finger is. We really liked this very un-touristy little ‘burg which is off the beaten path. The waiter at the German Bakery had told us about it and about a boat ride in the mangrove swamps that was not to be missed.
Have we mentioned it rained most of the day… Everyday. Somewhere along this leg to Sierpe Charlotte rolled 10,000 miles from home.
We had a pizza dinner in this open air restaurant along the river in Sierpe. The cool mural was enhanced by the rain hammering on the tin roof, and the lightning reflecting off the river enhanced the tree growing out of my head.
The restaurant kept this poor crab on a string as a pet. He lived in a potted plant.
It was a rainy night.
At 6am the next morning the sun was shining brightly and so were we, as we set out on our boat ride through the mangroves to look for critters.
And here are some of the critters we saw…
Jesus Christ lizard – because they can run on water for over 100 yards we were told!
Just missed a full faced shot of this Ocelot. Oscar was very excited because in six years of doing these tours, he had never seen one.
Mangrove roots look cool at low tide. Oscar told us the river level varies by over seven feet with the Pacific tides.
We first saw these floating Hyacinth plants in the Mekong River in Cambodia and nick-named them “salad bars.” Our guide Oscar in Sierpe explained how they came to be in CR. According to Oscar, the plants were originally introduced by the infamous United Fruit Co. to clean up the toxic pollution the company created in the Costa Rican waterways, mostly from palm oil production.
Besides keeping the river clean, Hyacinths have nice, pretty flowers.
A native totem pole to the Green Monkey God.
Oh wait…that last shot got turned sideways!
The reflections off the river were magical…
Our little pink hut where we spent the night.
The inside was far from pink. All the upper lattice-like walls were open air with screens. The big fan made AC unnecessary, and the rain serenaded us to sleep.
Charlotte found a VW friend in this cool ’63 Splittie owned by our innkeeper, Edwardo. A sharp eye will notice that the bus has been shortened about two feet in its center. This modification was done in the mid 70’s before someone drove the bus down to Costa Rica. Edwardo has owned it 36 years and drives it every day.
Edwardo’s garden was full of nice pretty flowers and butterflies.
From Sierpe we headed north and then east again, up the Pan Am and over the highest pass in CR. Our goal was to cross to the Caribbean side of the country before exiting into Panama.
Ugg! We really don’t like the Pan American Highway. The few times we have had to be on it, it has been choked with trucks. This day was no different.
We did have open road at the top of what we’ll call “No Name Pass.” We climbed and climbed for about an hour, much of it in second gear. When the road finally leveled out and descended, our GPS said we’d climbed from sea level to 10,979 feet! There were no signs or any fanfare denoting this as anything unusual.
We didn’t make the Caribbean side that day but instead drove off up a dirt road into the mountains in search of whatever. We just like the mountains better than the ocean. This was our camp site for the night. It was up a steep track that didn’t look very used and was slick from the endless rain. There was a wonderfully loud, rushing creek and waterfall just behind Charlotte, but it was down in a gorge so steep and slippery you didn’t want to get too close…shades of that scene from the movie, “Romancing the Stone.” About 5am, an ancient Toyota truck crawled by us with a wrinkled farmer at the wheel. He yelled a cheerful “Buenos dias” as he motored by. Later, when we were functioning, we also motored up the trail following his tracks. They ended, along with the road, at a clearing with a shack and just enough room for the Toyota. There were hundreds of tomato plants stretching all across the impossibly steep hillsides and we could see the old guy way up the mountain waving at us.
Up in the remote mountains is where we like to be.
Finally we made it to the Caribbean coast and wound up in the funky town of Cahuita. It had a decidedly Rasta air about it with stoned-looking ex-pats wandering the streets and dreadlocked Marley look-a-likes offering us ganja on every corner. The yellow squiggly line is the border with Panama and where the Sharpee line ends is where we crossed into Panama.
We had dinner at a cool Italian place that featured two huge couches with coffee tables and the biggest flat screen in Costa Rica. We ate dinner on a couch watching ‘80s MTV re-runs. At around 8pm it was movie time and the night’s feature was “The Book Thief.” Nothing like a last night in Costa Rica consisting of Italian food, mixed with WW2 Nazi drama, in a smoky Rastafarian village on the Caribbean coast of Central America. Ah, global living at its finest!
Our final Costa Rican resting place was in a parking lot next to the beach, right smack in the middle of Cahuita. Not a soul paid us any mind. Pura Vida!