A Day at Parque Nacional Marino Ballena

We spent a day at Parque Nacional Marino Ballena (Marino Ballena National Park) in Uvita over the Christmas holidays. It’s a beautiful national park located on the Costa Ballena (South Pacific Coast) of Costa Rica about 3 hours from our place in Atenas or 3.5 hours from San José.

The park is famous for migrating humpback whales and also for the ‘whale tail,’ a natural formation which appears at low tide when a sandbar is exposed and connects the mainland with some rocky formations just offshore so that it looks like a whale tail.

After checking the tide charts, we decided to check it out with Mom and Dad and enjoyed a few hours on the beautiful palm-fringed beach. It was quite a hike to get to the sandbar from where we parked and no shade of course so we lathered on the sunscreen and hoped for the best.

Using Alice’s shirt as a hat to avoid burning my scalp!
The trials of fair-skinned boy in Costa Rica.

Beautiful vistas and beach fun.

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We also enjoyed treasure hunting for sand dollars and other beach creatures.

Dad professing his love once again to Mom. awwwww

Here was our perspective from the beginning of the sandbar looking out at the ‘tail’. Can you see it? 🙂

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All that exertion deserved a cold beer and a seriously delicious BBQ lunch at Lone Star BBQ & Grill in Uvita which didn’t disappoint.

On our next visit we are hoping to see some whales, maybe even some nesting turtles and discover the little nearby surf town of Dominical! We’re realizing once again that there’s never enough time, but so thankful for the time we do have here in Costa Rica.

 

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Making Memories at Manuel Antonio National Park

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While we were staying near Playa Bejuco over the week of Christmas with the fam, we all decided to make the one hour drive and enjoy a day in Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio (Manuel Antonio National Park), an extremely popular tourist destination in Costa Rica for lots of good reasons.

It’s actually the smallest national park in the country, but the most visited due to its beautiful white sand beaches and abundant wildlife that is often easy to spot. In fact, some of the monkeys are known for steeling bags and opening backpacks to get to the snacks which we saw happen. Apparently, Pringle cans are banned as the monkeys know what they contain and the park is trying to ensure that the monkeys stick to their normal diet. The park is located two hours from San José on the Pacific Coast just south of the town of Quepos.

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White faced capuchin monkey

We opted to forego a local guide (we’d been here in January and discovered that as the park is so popular, there are large guided groups stopping everywhere to look at something), though they do often have a spotting scope which is very helpful because so it’s much easier to see the sloths and monkeys that are high up in the trees.

We walked to one of the four beaches in the park, Manuel Antonio Beach (also the most popular as it’s good for swimming and closest to the entrance), and spent some time relaxing on the beach and swimming. Oscar just learned to swim that week in the pool without any type of float or life jacket and he did an awesome job practicing in the ocean here with Uncle Keith, Auntie Annie and Grandpa. A couple of us also checked out Espadilla Sur Beach which is just behind Manuel Antonio Beach and much less busy. There are also other trails in the park which you can hike to see a waterfall and at least one of the other beaches, but we’ve yet to check them out (the heat and humidity and two little ones makes that tricky). 🙂

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Beautiful Playa Manuel Antonio

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As far as wildlife, we saw lots of seemingly fearless capuchin monkeys, a couple of sloths,  two chestnut-mandibled toucans, parrots, red land crabs and Oscar found an interesting salamander-type animal on the edge of the path. We even saw one sloth moving from one tree to another right next to the path near the entrance and quite low to the ground so that was very special. And Oscar was happy to discover his favorite monkey, cute little squirrel monkeys, on our walk back to the car outside of the park.

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Oscar’s discovery

After enjoying our time in sun, we headed back but had to make a pit stop and enjoy some cool ‘pipa fría’ (cold coconut water) sold at many of the stands just outside the park, It was SO refreshing after the being in the sun for so long!

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Selfie success…with everyone except dad

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We then headed to El Avión, a cool restaurant built around a C-123 Fairchild cargo plane with amazing ocean views, for a well deserved lunch before heading back to our oasis up the coast.

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Oscar and Alice at the controls…hold on tight!

 

Chillin’ in Esterillos Oeste

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Soda Margarita

We spent a week on the Pacific Coast over Christmas at a beautiful home with mom and dad and Keith and Annie and enjoyed lots of pool and beach time and exploring a few nearby towns (Uvita and Manuel Antonio). The closest town to our rental home was Esterillos Oeste, a super chill small town laid out on dirt roads right along the beach with a few restaurants, a small grocery store and a couple places offering surfboard and boogie board rentals. It’s about 20 minutes south of the popular surf town of Jaco. We had stopped here once before a few months ago just to check it out quickly, but finally made it back this time to soak it all in.

At low tide, tide pools appear at the northern end of the beach along with La Sirena, a statue of a mermaid gazing out to sea..kind of random, but kind of cool. Supposedly, no one knows how it got there. The beach has some good waves but it’s shallow for a ways out so it’s fun for swimming and boogie boarding (we all had a ball trying to catch the waves – Oscar is quite a pro now!), and popular for surfing too (Keith was stoked to catch some rad barrels). Ha!

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Treasure hunting
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Ice cream and granizado (like a snow cone but better) vendor on the beach
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La Sirena

We also enjoyed a delicious lunch at Soda Margarita which came recommended by a local, but finding it was half the fun. After starting off along the road and then walking along the beach for awhile looking for a ‘little pathway’ just beyond ‘La Sirena’ statue, we had to stop and ask a few people along the way to find this hidden family-run place. We finally arrived after inadvertently crossing a few backyards and were pleasantly surprised by the casual and friendly atmosphere and delicious traditional meals, pescado entero (whole fish) and arroz con camarones (rice with shrimp) to name a few, along with their fresh fruit juices.  The kids were entertained trying to crack open a coconut they had found as well playing with all the animals (kittens, dogs and parrots) at the home.

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Pescado Entero (whole fish) with patacones (fried plantains), rice and salad
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A coconut entertaining the kids

More adventures from our Christmas week coming soon! Happy New Year!

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?

Weekending: Playa Bejuco

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We just discovered a new little slice of heaven after a fun-filled weekend and thought we should share. Playa Bejuco is located on the Central Pacific Coast about 2 hours from San José or 1.5 hours from Atenas (if traffic is moving – we hit a major accident and it took us much longer than expected) and halfway in between the major tourist areas of Jacó Beach and Manuel Antonio National Park. We didn’t know anything about it beforehand, but we found a place on AirBnB that looked great and was located right near the beach so we thought we’d give it a try.

And wow, we were blown away by how awesome it was – away from the big touristy beach areas, it offers an almost deserted wide and long sandy beach that is great for boogie boarding (though you still have to be careful of dangerous rip currents), shelling, making sand castles and gorgeous sunsets.

We did see a few surfers as well, but it seems that the beaches north of there are better for surfing. We joined the Ticos and pulled our car right up to the beach under the palm trees and based ourselves there for the better part of the morning. No need to lug a cooler and food, towels, sunscreen and toys a mile down the boardwalk! There are a couple small hotels, but virtually no other services except for the occasional ‘pipa fria’ (cold coconut water) or ‘granizado’ (snow cone) vendor, unless you head out to the main road, Route 34, so we brought our snacks and bevies with us. Exiting onto Route 34, there’s a little shopping complex called Esterillos Town Center which along with a grocery store and a few Tico restaurants also offers a pizza place and a middle eastern restaurant that also has live music on certain days.

We also checked out the tiny town of Esterillos Oeste also located on a beautiful beach just a few miles north of Bejuco and discovered a quaint laid-back Tico town complete with a few nice-looking outdoor restaurants, surf shops, grocery store, a few lodging options, church and soccer field. What else do you need?!

We can’t wait to go back and explore this area a bit more. Perhaps we’ll enjoy some horseback riding on the beach, a surf lesson and a day trip down to Manuel Antonio.

Pura Vida!

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