Road Trip to the Caribbean!

We spent last weekend celebrating Dad’s birthday on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica in the relaxed beach town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and surrounding tiny coastal towns of Cahuita and Manzanillo.

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The 115 mile trip took us SIX HOURS (that included about an hour for lunch)! Yes, it is slowwwwwww going on these roads. We had to skirt around San José (yet still got caught in traffic) and then climb through the mountains and into the clouds of Braulio Carrillo National Park topping out at about 5,300 feet before heading down to the eastern lowlands,

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The blue bags protect the bananas from bugs and being damaged.

banana and pineapple plantations and finally arriving at the Caribbean coast. Most of the route is two lanes and it’s especially slow when you’re behind large semi trucks in the mountains and also going through a few mile very congested stretch of road just outside of the port city of Limón which is full of semis and commercial shipping / sea container yards (Chiquita and Del Monte among them).  But we eventually made it to our lovely beach home for the weekend.

 

Our first adventure was to Cahuita National Park, Dad’s birthday choice, where we enjoyed a beautiful hike that ran parallel to the coast and saw iguanas, sloths, beautiful flora and a picturesque coastline! We were hoping to swim and snorkel here but unfortunately the water was quite rough due to a coming storm so we really didn’t get to swim.

The tiny town of Cahuita had a very chill vibe with lots of local characters and color!

 

Puerto Viejo is one of the larger towns in the area and we were surprised at the number of tourists and expats that lived there, as well as all of the English spoken and prices in USD. That was quite a change from Atenas!  We had some fabulous meals (Madre Tierra is a must for fancy tropical cocktails and dinner on the second floor, Chile Rojo had yummy sushi and Pan Pay offered delicious pastries) and enjoyed a little shopping here too as the weather wasn’t so conducive to outdoor activities.

 

We also visited the Jaguar Rescue Center which was awesome and we highly recommend it for anyone traveling to the Puerto Viejo area. The center takes in injured or sick animals and their goal is to rehabilitate them and release them back into the wild. There aren’t any jaguars there today, but the center began when a sick baby jaguar was brought to the home of the eventual founders after its mother had been killed by farmers. There are a lot of sad stories of injury and abuse (sadly, many stories due to humans) but most animals are eventually released. However, there are a few that are permanent residents including a margay (member of the cat family) and a crocodile that had been abused. The center is mostly volunteer run (with the exception of two veterinarians) and offers small group tours at 9:30 and 11:30am every day. We were able to see baby sloths and monkeys and get closeups of two types of toucans that live in Costa Rica, the Keel-billed Toucan and the Chestnut Mandibled Toucan.

 

We were hoping to spend some good time at the beaches, but with the storm and huge waves, we instead enjoyed quality time relaxing. We did drive south along the coast along some beautiful stretches of coast to the town at the end of the road, Manzanillo. I loved the feel of this town – authentic, colorful and laid-back! Hoping we’ll get back here one day to further explore the area and do some hiking in Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge. Here are some of the colorful quaint homes in Manzanillo:

 

and a few more photos for good measure. ha!

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Special beverages!
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My sweet boy
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Coconut oil for sale was popular in the area. We had to stop of course!
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‘thatch for sale for roofs’

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Tarcoles and Carara National Park

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View from Crocodile River Bridge over Rio Tarcoles.

We had a fun day with mom and dad watching the huge crocodiles that congregate in the Rio Tárcoles under the Crocodile River Bridge in Tarcoles as well as hiking in nearby Carara National Park. Both sites are just a couple kilometers from each other and only about 40 minutes from Atenas so it was a perfect day trip for us, but they’re also easily accessible from San José or anyone heading towards the South Pacific Coast (Jaco, Manuel Antonio, the Costa Ballena) of Costa Rica as they’re located right on the main route, Route 34.

The Crocodile Bridge is a quick stop, but definitely worthwhile as the crocs are HUGE and fun to watch right below the bridge. The nearby town of Tarcoles also offers crocodile boat tours for those with a bit more time.

Carrara National Park ($10 entrance for adults) is an unassuming national park where if you blink, you might miss the sign and parking lot just off the highway but I highly recommend a hike and spending at least an hour or two exploring. It’s always hot and humid, but the trails are mostly all shaded.

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Hiking at Carara – Photo credit: Karen Solle 🙂

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This was our second visit and we’ve seen monkeys both times. It’s located in a transition zone where the Pacific dry north meets the humid south coast so there is an abundance of flora and fauna in the park. We decided not to hire a guide this time around, but there are typically a few waiting around the main entrance and they are fantastic as they know where the animals are hiding, what to look for and they often have a telephoto zoom lens or spotting scope so hikers can see up close the wildlife high in the trees.

Despite our not having a guide, we still saw a ton of wildlife and other hikers are usually happy to point out what they discovered or where to find a specific species on the trail which is super helpful. We discovered a scarlet macaw high up in a hole in a tree pruning itself as well as agoutis, leaf cutter ants, two howler monkeys swinging from the canopy, a number of unique birds and towering trees with amazing root systems. We hiked all of the trails in the park (3 interconnected loops) and estimated we walked about 4 miles in total. On a side note, I highly recommend the Costa Rica Wildlife Guide (Amazon aff link) so that you can identify what you see. Even the kids get into this!

After all that exercise, we enjoyed a delicious typical lunch with fresh fruit juices at Soda El Guacimo, a popular roadside restaurant with excellent service, just a couple miles north of the Croc Bridge.

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Casado con pollo (chicken, rice and beans, salad, green beans and sweet plantains)
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Soda el Guacimo: “May Peace and Labor Ever Live” (last line of the national hymn)

Our Border Run to Nicaragua

We’ve been here for 3 months already (wow!), which means we needed to renew our 90 day visas and do a border run. Many longer-term expats in Costa Rica do a day trip to Nicaragua or Panama to take care of the visa, but we wanted make a weekend of it so we headed to the northwestern part of Costa Rica (Guanacaste), famous for its beautiful beaches, and visited Nicaragua at the border crossing of Peñas Blancas to get our visas renewed.

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Arriving back into Costa Rica after renewing our visas in Nicaragua.

The 4 hour drive from Atenas to Playas del Coco was an adventure in and of itself with beautiful views, mostly two lane roads and a variety of different landscapes – mountains, tropical forests, the Pacific Coast and finally the dry, flat Guanacaste region known for its sabaneros (cowboys) and cattle.

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Playas del Coco

We based ourselves at an AirBnB condo in Playas del Coco for 3 nights and enjoyed spending time at the beach, swimming in the pool of our little complex and exploring the area. Playas del Coco is a cute town once you get to know it with basically one dusty main street lined with restaurants, shops and a couple of grocery stores that ends at the beach. It seems that stand-alone houses are few and far between here. Rather, lots of condo complexes surround the town and there are many more tourists here than we typically see. The beach wasn’t our favorite in the area as the water was cloudy and the sand was rocky, but the sunsets were beautiful, the boardwalk was lively with food vendors, tourists and weekending Tico families, and we found some amazing sea urchins at low tide.

 

We also visited Playa Hermosa just north of Playas del Coco to watch the sunset and enjoy dinner at Aqua Sport, located in the sand right in front of the beach.  The made-to-order ceviche and whole pargo rojo (red snapper) were amazing. The sand was much nicer here and there were lots of people enjoying the long wide beach.

 

Last but not least, we drove the 10 minutes to Playa Ocotal located just south of Playas del Coco and spent our last morning there. An almost deserted black sand beach, this was unexpectedly our favorite of the three! It was a smaller beach with calm clear blue water, amazing tide pools with tons of life and lots of beautiful seashells. Snorkeling off the beach is also popular here. You do need to be aware of riptides as the signs note as it gets deep quickly and currents can change, but we stayed in the shallows. Apparently, Father Rooster’s is the place to grab lunch as they are right on the beach and well-known for their fantastic pub fare, but we unfortunately had to hit the road.

 

Thankfully our border run to Nicaragua overall went very smoothly. We planned for spending the better part of the day to make the 1.5 hour drive to the border, do the crossing and then drive back to our AirBnB, and despite an extra half hour getting there due to construction and an extra hour on the way home due to an accident ahead of us, it all went according to plan. We had amazing views of three volcanoes (Miravalles, Rincón de la Vieja and Orosi) just east of the route which also made the trip pretty special.

The crossing at Peñas Blancas is a busy one so there was about a 4km line of trucks waiting to cross into Nicaragua. They have to go through a different process so we were able to pass them and parked right in front of the Costa Rican border crossing. There were a lot of people wanting to ‘help’ us for a tip but we said no thanks as it’s a pretty straight forward (thanks to My Tan Feet for that). After paying our $7 per person exit tax, we waited in the short line to have our passports stamped out of Costa Rica. Next step is to walk or hire a pedicab over to the Nicaraguan border in order to enter Nicaragua. Of course, we opted for the quick and fun pedicab ride.

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Pedicab ride
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Nicaraguan border crossing office

The Nicaraguan border agent confirmed with us that we were just staying for the day, we paid the $12 per person entrance fee and he then stamped our passports. Then we were officially in Nicaragua which was a bit livelier than the Costa Rican side with a bunch of little stands and shops selling latest in wares as well as a number of small sodas (typical, family run restaurants) with meats grilling right out front. We chose one and enjoyed a delicious lunch (rice, beans, grilled chicken, cheese, tortilla and salad) complete with a Victoria, the national cerveza of Nicaragua, to celebrate our arrival.

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After our celebratory lunch, we turned around and headed back out of Nicaragua paying our exit fees and then pedicabbed it back to the Costa Rican office where we waited in yet another line to get stamped back into the country. All in all, it was a long day with two little ones, but it was an adventure and we were happy it all went smoothly.

We’re now trying to decide where our next border run will be in early February – Nicaragua again but maybe at Los Chiles instead of Peñas Blancas, Panama, or we may take a flight to Guatemala (to visit Antigua) or Mexico City and make another weekend trip out of the event.  Any suggestions?

9 Costa Rican Fruits We Love

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Our fruit bowl

We’ve enjoyed so many delicious tropical fruits while we’ve been here! Of course, Costa Rica is known for its pineapple, mango, papaya and coco which are all a regular part of our diet, but here are a few fruits that are a bit different and some you may not have even heard of before!

  1. Carambola (Starfruit) – The carambola trees are full of fruit right now, and we’ve had fun slicing them up to highlight the ‘star’ part for the kids. Ticos enjoy putting them in the blender to make fresco (natural fruit juice).
  2. Jocote – When we first arrived here in late August/early September, there were little jocote stands all over selling bags of this delicious small fruit. I admit I was a bit skeptical as I had never heard or seen these before, but once we tried them, we couldn’t get enough. They are picked when they’re greenish/yellow and they quickly ripen and turn to red after a day or two. The taste is something completely unique – they’re part of the cashew family and the yellow innards have a delicious sweet nutty flavor when ripe.  img_1695
  3. Granadilla (sweet passion fruit) – Palmer’s favorite fruit which he likens to ‘a sweet oyster that grows on a tree’ (Ha! — only a Mainer would come up with that analogy!). The edible slippery insides offer a seedy sack of sweet goodness which you slurp down…thus the oyster reference. img_2827
  4. Maracuyá (passion fruit) – My absolute favorite! Passion fruit is very sour, but makes for the BEST fresco once blended with a bit of sugar and water. On a sidenote, check out its gorgeous flower.
  5. Plátano (plantain) – Plantains are very versatile and used for both salty and sweet meal accompaniments. The salty version is called patacones and are made by using green plátanos which are cut into thick slices, fried and then smashed and fried again giving it a crunchy outside with soft inside – they’re sort of like the french fry of Costa Rica. The sweet version is called ‘maduros’ and you wait until the plátano turns brown before peeling and then frying them whole in oil until they’re soft and sweet. Maduros are often eaten with breakfast. plantains
  6. Cas (Costa Rican guava) – This is another fruit that is often made into fruit juice. It has a mild guava flavor and is super refreshing on a hot day.guava-144145_1920
  7. Guanábana (soursop) – This larger spiky fruit has a white fleshy inside with black seeds that again is used to make fresco. It has a citrusy flavor but also a creamy consistency giving it a unique taste. soursop-2837863_1280
  8. Caimo – We just discovered this fun yellow fruit yesterday at the feria and had to give it a try. It has a soft and super sticky inside with a mild taste that combines melon and pear flavors.
  9. Mamón chino (rambutan) – This is another fruit that was in season in September and October and found around much of the country piled high at roadside stands and at markets. The funky looking fruit has a delicious sweet white center with a dark brown seed inside that you eat around. rambutan-2477584_1280

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