Monday, 8 March 2010

Costa Rica Round-Up

I’m in the departure lounge of San Jose International, and it’s cute! Petit, one might say, sporting as it does a meagre sixteen gates. Heathrow probably passes sixteen gates sitting upon the throne post-breakfast. I like to imagine it would have a full English and then read the Telegraph while at stool. San Jose International is very busy this morning, I suspect an expansion project or second international airport will be necessary very soon.


It’s been a while since I did any bona fide travelogue-ery so I think a round up of my Costa Rican exploits is in order. It’s as brief as it could be. Which when you are writing up around a months worth of travel isn't very brief at all.

I last travel blogged my waterfall scaling escapade in Montezuma. As you may remember I was not impressed with Montezuma town proper. It’s very dirty, very touristic and the huge number of dope smokers means it fully earns its nickname ‘Montefumar’ (fumar being the Spanish verb for smoking). Not the ideal location for a reformed pothead to find himself in. My actual destination was Manuel Antonio on the southern Pacific coast of the mainland.

Montezuma bay

on a boat

Next up however was a one hour speedboat ride across the bay to the infamous tourist destination Jaco. Which is either pronounced ‘hack-o’ or ‘yakko’ depending on the dialect being spoken. I’d been warned not to go and that it was full of ‘disgusting’ prostitutes, but that's where the boat left from.

It was a horribly built up pit of sleaze there’s no doubt about it. The only thing it had going for it in my book was that the hostel was the single place I have stayed at so far (USA included) that has been equipped with a frankly luxurious 3Mb broadband connection. And it had air-conditioning.

Needless to say, I tucked myself away in the dorm and downloaded several series of Top Gear which has been my faithful cultural anchor throughout the journey so far. I will soon have watched everything Clarkson and co have ever recorded and am not quite sure what I’ll do when that fateful day finally arrives. But I digress.

The hostel in Jaco

I checked out of whatever the hostel was called (probably Jaco Backpackers or some such) around 7.30am and went to queue up for a bus before the sun got too hot – Jaco is the hottest Costa Rican town I visited. I got talking to a nice American lady who was an experienced CR veteran. We boarded the bus to Quepos together but sadly I’d overcompensated for the massively dehydrating effects of Jaco’s supremely inhospitable climate. I had to bail in a small town called Parrita and find myself a portacabin.

Now this was not quite the disaster it might at first seem. Firstly the inter-town buses cost around $2 a piece despite the large distances they cover so I wasn’t massively out of pocket for my unplanned toilet stop. Secondly, as is usually the case after around five minutes, conversation with the female had dried up to a trickle. Thirdly I was supremely happy to be in a medium sized Tico town which was not in any way touristic. I had a wonderful lunch and some free wifi at a place called Don Camilo’s, which is a fairly generic restaurant name in CR, and caught the next bus to Quepos, which cost a dollar.

At Quepos I did not stop to do any sightseeing as it’s another dodgy little tourist trap and immediately boarded the Manuel Antonio bus, tame monkeys and giant iguanas set firmly in my sights.

In Manuel Antonio I stayed at the imaginatively titled Manuel Antonio Backpackers.

It was probably my joint favourite time in Costa Rica. Some of the Swedes from Funky Monkey turned up and I met a bunch of interesting Canadians, Americans, Germans and another Brit. I made a visit to the national park and saw a kind of giant rodent, several very tame Howler and White-Faced monkeys and a variety of large lizards and iguanas. On another trip a friend also photographed a bright green venomous snake in the act of consuming a large toad two or three times the size of it’s own head.

The provocatively named 'bastard palm'

Houses in Manuel Antonio - there are many different styles of house building in close proximity: mock Asian, European, Latin, Modern

We also went out to a couple of awful attempts at a club night which reinforced my notion that should I experience a total death of ambition at some point I could make a fortune with a truck and a soundsystem travelling around the country putting on decent shows. ‘Cause they don’t have any. The 20 years past visit’s of Depeche Mode and Iron Maiden are still being discussed and while I’m sure it does exist somewhere a native music scene was at no point promoted to me. Each town just has a ‘discoteque’ or two playing the some combination of salsa, meringue, house and reggaeton. Which doesn’t sound too bad until you realise all the DJ’s are playing from the pretty much the same bag.

From Manuel Antonio I plotted an expedition to the mountainous cloud forests of the Monteverde region. I hoped to do the whole trip in one day. I got on a bus to the port town of Puntarenas and settled down to the metal-fusion stylings of Planet X. Sadly, when I arrived and booted it round the corner to the Monteverde bus stop I’d missed the last bus by half an hour. I was going to have to pay for a night in Monteverde and a hotel room in Puntarenas. Puntarenas stank, and looked like someone had transported Southend-on-Sea to Mexico and then dropped a bomb on it. It was ruined and I felt a constant need to look over my shoulder.


There was no internet in sight and the tourist information office was shut because it was a Sunday. I found a bank that bizarrely was open and they told me to check in to the Imperial Hotel as it was cheap. As I’d already spotted it I decided to take the path of least resistance. I never really felt that paranoid in Costa Rica, but walking around the place with my big touristic backpack made me feel, and look, like a target and I wanted rid of it ASAP.

I the entirety of my life I have rarely encountered such a poorly-monikered facility as the ‘Grand Imperial Hotel’. A crumbling wooden edifice it was managed by a fat, balding fifty-something man who could literally only read by holding items such as bills, maps etc around two inches from his squinting visage. He was still quite capable of renting me a smelly little hole of a shack for $20. I put up and shut up, set my alarm for 6am and got an early night.

I have to admit that Puntarenas was slightly more attractive in the beautiful morning light. I caught the 7.15 bus after a traditional beans, rice and scrambled egg breakfast – which really sets you up for the day but doesn’t leave you feeling as bloated as an English. It was a tiny little broken down thing but yet it bravely set off like a faithful pack animal responding to its master’s whip. It was a slow and winding crawl, sometimes on tarmac and sometimes on gravel but many hours later we shuddered into Monteverde with what was left of my spine.

The village of Santa Elena forms the tourist hub of the Monteverde region – from here you can book all kinds of activities ranging from coffee plantation tours to bungee jumping. Sadly the first thing I had to deal with was the ridiculously pushy host of the place I’d booked into. Everywhere, from the booking confirmation email, to the receptionist, to a poster on the bedroom wall and even extending to an obviously fake laminated letter beneath the transparent table cloth on the kitchen table was the repeated instruction to only book tours through the host.

I really hate being told what to do.

So the repeated exhortations just made me want to absolutely nothing, especially nothing booked through her. The village did have a snake warm and ‘Insect World’ however so I trundled off to pay them a visit.

Insect World was up first and it was, tbh, a little bit disappointing. The downstairs was full of glass display cases of the kind that went out of fashion in the 1950s. Hundreds of pins skewered a host of giant, exotically coloured and shaped beetles, butterflies, scorpions and spiders. Possibly most dramatic were the giant locusts whose size simply astonished me. Upstairs they have the live stuff, which is what I’d paid up to see. Poisonous scorpions, big skittery tarantulas, a Wandering spider – which did NOT come out of its cage, no surprises there – and various big cricket-y hings, giant beetles etc. The guide was absolutely fearless, poking and prodding various fearsome bugs that simply couldn’t be bothered to appear threatening. I declined his repeated offers to hold the wriggling beasties.

I pootled up the hill to the snake farm. Which turned out to be a snake zoo. I’d been hoping to hold some nice big snakes (funny how I love holding snakes but would rather run a marathon on hot coals than hold a tarantula) but that wasn’t on the agenda. I did see some pretty cool snakes though. Interestingly, none of the venomous snakes were moving, whereas several of the much larger constrictors were very busy – trying to escape from their glass prisons. Some of them were performing quite astonishingly acrobatic feats in their attempts to scale the walls of their enclosures.

The deadly Eyelash viper

The next day my buddy Bren showed up and we checked into a far nicer hostel a couple of doors down the street. Here the dope smoking, music loving host got us beer and mainly just let us get on with it. A vast improvement.

Bren convinced me that we should book places on the ‘Extremo’ tour in the morning.

Ever heard of a 'canopy tour'? No, well there all the rage in CR. Basically they involve either walking, swinging or zip-lining through hills and tree-tops. Extremo involves 9 cables crossing valleys at heights of...I don't know. Far too bloody high!

They pop you in a climbing harness and then you hike to a hilltop, get attached to a cable and then zip across the gulf separating two hillocks. There is also a Tarzan swing where you are attached to a rope and then pushed off a ledge to have a swing around...trouser-browning stuff. Then there's the superman. 1km of cable with no controls on your speed...

It's fine for the Special Forces I'm sure, but I was never meant to travel by being strapped to a half inch steel cable and pushed of a cliff by a small man called Jose.

From Monteverde it was a four-and-a-half hour bus ride back to San Jose. Fortunately I’d learnt my lesson and slightly dehydrated myself before the ride meaning it was as smooth and comfortable as a four hour ride in a twenty year old bus in Central America is ever likely to be. I stayed at Galileo hostel again, it’s very like 491 and they are very friendly there. Saturday I had one more Casado for old times sake and caught a taxi for San Jose International.

Voodoo out.

I realise this would have been better as two or more articles... In future should I write more about the travel or my thoughts and random stuff? Let me know.

I understand people have been struggling to sign up to Blogger in order to comment. If you have a googlemail account it’s quite straightforward as you can just link Blogger to that.

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