While we were in San José last week we decided that we were going to go take a tour or two. Most people that come to Costa Rica fly in to San José, stay a few days, go on a bunch of tours then get their arses to the coast and the beaches. Though San José doesn’t offer much to do in the big city proper, there are some of the best sights in the country within an hour or two of the city limits. To be more exact, San José is in the center of the country and because of Costa Rica’s smaller size, almost anything in the country can be reached and experienced in one day. Of course, some of those days will be excruciatingly long but they can be done nonetheless.
Since we have a two and five year old with us, a lot of the more common day trips weren’t going to cut it. As much as I would have enjoyed rafting class 4 and 5 rapids, rappelling down a majestic waterfall, galloping horses through a jungle or even ziplining down a 1/2 inch wide cable a mile long while precariously hanging a hundred feet in the air those just aren’t in the books for us this go around. Cole could probably do a few of them but Jordan is just too young. Micki and I toyed around with splitting our small group up but we decided against it for this trip.
That being said, before we even got into Costa Rica we were perusing the guides and online travel sites finding things to do while in the capital. Seeing that I was just getting over a nice Christmas cold the first few days we decided to spend acclimatizing ourselves to this country. It was a shame that not only was everything closed for New Year’s (which was a bit of a surprise since everything in Mexico was still running full steam ahead Christmas day) but everything was also closed the second as well. Here we had budgeted 2 days to check out the sites, sounds and smells of San Jose and besides for long walks down quiet streets and 3 ice cream breaks in two days we barely got a feel for life in this Central American town. It just goes to show that we should have listened to one of our own credo’s, never travel on or near a holiday in a foreign land.
Ask us about the time a few years back when we had gotten into a lot of trouble leaving a country in Asia a few days too late because we never realized that the country almost literally shut down for 3 days during one of their many festivals. As a result we overextended our passport visas and had a hell of a time getting through immigration. Let’s just say we had to grease a few palms to continue on our journey. And then there was the time we were travelling through the Philippines and stumbled upon a local festival that was barely a footnote in any of the travel books we carried. It turned out that every town in that area was completely booked up months in advance and people were literally renting out half their bed to make a few extra bucks. We were lucky that we generally always have a backup plan when we travel but those extra 4 hours on a bus and then a ferry weren’t exactly expected when we had gotten up that morning. Since then we always check to see what’s going on ahead of time and always plan our travel dates around the holidays.
In some ways the few days of quiet were good because it gave me a chance to fully recover and left us time to plan our next steps. Those steps would take us on a lengthy day trip to some quintessential Costa Rican areas. There are literally three things that pop into my head when I say the name Costa Rica: jungles, volcano’s and coffee. We were lucky enough to stumble on a day trip that encompassed all three. We booked our trip late the night before and packed our day bag as well. Though Costa Rica is on the Equator and is considered hotter than hell on the coasts, the reality is that San José and it’s environs are mountainous areas. Though you’re closer to the sun, the temperatures don’t usually get over the mid 20’s. I wore shorts and a t-shirt the first few days in town but almost everyone else was wearing jeans and a shirt. At night when things cooled off it wasn’t uncommon to see people bundling up with jackets and thick sweaters.
We knew that the volcano and other areas we were planning to see might be a little cooler than in downtown so Micki and I decided to wear our jeans and bring our jackets. We did throw some shorts in the day bag just in case we needed them but it turns out we chose wisely. The bus that was picking us up in the morning showed up a 6:15. Yes, that’s AM for anybody that knows me. There’s usually a better chance that I go to sleep at that time than wake up but since the kids are usually up around 7 it wasn’t too bad. We were all excited for the trip and it clearly showed that morning. Since we were in Heredia which is a little north of San José we met up with a bigger bus coming from that direction. The areas we were going to were all North of San José proper.
Once we were all settled into our new bus and starting to head towards the coffee plantation, the kids took a short nap while Micki and I chatted with some of the other tourists that day. We got to know a Winnipeg couple very well over the course of the day. Nothing like travelling 5000 km’s to get to talk to people you might have once called your neighbor! Our first stop was the Duzu Coffee Plantation. We all got off the bus and had a very nice breakfast overlooking the fields of coffee beans.
After eating, our tour guide for the day Paula gave us a tour of the plantation. We learned all about the beans (almost like a berry with two beans per pod and very sweet straight off the tree), the harvesting (every bean is hand picked only when they are ripe and red), the de-shelling (done by large machine), the drying (rows and rows of the beans are left in the sun for days almost constantly being raked, moved around or shoveled back in at night or when there’s the smallest threat of rain and all done by hand) and finally the roasting process which I found out is usually done in whatever country has bought the beans. I also found out the differences between all the roasts and then we all got to sample the coffees to our hearts content. Micki enjoyed it tremendously but since I’m not a coffee drinker, the kids and I went to town on the chocolate covered coffee beans. Jordan only had the chocolate but Cole had a few of the beans and we found out he shakes just as much as I do when he eats them. Micki and the rest of the group bought a bunch of beans in the gift shop and we all got back on the tour bus.
Our next stop was Poás Volcano National Park. The bus driver spotted a large 3 toed sloth in a tree as we drove to our destination (we all stopped to take some pictures) and a few great views across the valley. When we climbed out of the bus, we were glad we wore our long pants and brought our jackets. It was cold! Though the area never froze, it could easily drop to 3 or 4 at night. Our group slowly made our way up to the crater rim. It was a bit of a hike (especially carrying Jordan) but the group wasn’t in a hurry. When we got to the rim, the wind was blowing something fierce. In a way it was good because it afforded us a nice view into the active volcano. Because of the heat, sulfur, gases, height, etc. some days you can’t see anything. We got to see the green sulphuric water, the fumaroles (steam and gas vents) and the entire rim. We quickly snapped a few pictures and then barreled back down the hill to get out of the stinging wind. We got quite a few laughs watching other people complain of the cold as they made their way up with nothing but a t-shirt and shorts and not knowing that the temperature was about to drop another 10 degrees by the time they reached the rim.
As we left the park we got to stop off and buy some fresh strawberries. It seems that the area isn’t only good for growing coffee! We quickly wolfed a bag down and continued onto our final destination of the day, the La Paz Waterfalls. More than any of the other things we had seen that day we were looking forward to La Paz. Though the main attraction there is it’s series of 5 jungle waterfalls, it also contains a zoo like section with some of the best examples of Costa Rican wildlife in the country. We knew the kids would really enjoy that part of it.
The rain was threatening to come down as we walked into the place but our excitement was high. We knew that the area was known for it’s daily rains but we were hoping for the best. We managed to visit the majority of the park before the clouds let forth their over abundant bounty. In simple terms, we got wet. Before that though we got to see the bird exhibit including a bunch of very tame toucans. We got to see the monkey exhibit that included capuchins, spider monkeys and even a few marmosets. We explored the butterfly garden with thousands of them everywhere and we even got to see a few leaving their chrysalis. We saw frogs and snakes and then the hummingbirds. These were amazing because there were hundreds of them zooming everywhere around you. I think they were Jordans favorite. Cole really enjoyed the jungle cats. They had an impressive display with the small Ocelots and Margays and the Jaguarundi. This last is also known as the otter cat because it looks more like an otter than a cat. The last two groups were the Pumas (cougar, panther or mountain lion) and the king of the tropics, the Jaguar. The Jaguar was actually frightening in it’s size and speed. Not to mention that I swear it looked at you like you were breakfast.
After checking out most of the animals we all stopped for a really tasty late afternoon lunch. Once we were done eating the buffet the rain finally set in. We were partially ready for it but only had 2 plastic ponchos with us. Luckily for us another one of our group had a spare to lend us. With our ponchos on we headed out on a long march. The majority of the walk was down steps as there was only a short distance between each waterfall and most of that distance was height. We were already a little tired once we reached the first waterfall but they were gorgeous and we really wished that it was nicer out so we could fully appreciate them. As we continued our downward journey we got to walk under one of them and got even more wet. When we finally emerged we were hot, tired, soaking wet and glad to see our bus waiting for us. As tiring as the walk down those steps was, it would have been murder to have to go back up again.
There was a large group of wild white nose Coati (like raccoons but with long noses) hanging around the bus hoping for handouts and the kids enjoyed watching them as we climbed aboard the bus back to our place. All in all it was a great day and both us and the kids enjoyed it tremendously. They both fell asleep on the ride home and we finally got to the hotel around 7. Considering we were under 150 km’s at the most from our hotel at any time, it was definitely a long day.
To that end, we finally got to see the wild side of Costa Rica and started to understand the spell that this country holds over all who visit it. It is a nature lover’s paradise with mountains, volcanos, jungles, rainforests, raging rivers and lakes surrounded by warm tropical oceans on both sides. If you love the outdoors, this place if for you. Just don’t forget to bring your rain jacket…