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!

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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?

Highlights of the Central Valley

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The Central Valley of Costa Rica is located in the center of the country (surprise surprise) and is well known for its coffee production, gorgeous vistas, narrow windy roads, quaint towns and authentic villages. I think of it as the cultural center of the country, and I love that we are living in this region with that being one of the main reasons.

Here are a few towns that we’ve enjoyed exploring in the Central Valley:

Sarchí

Radiating color, Sarchí is a lovely small town nestled in the hills about an hour from San José and not far off the route to the Arenal Volcano so it’s a great place to stop on your way there or even on the way back. It’s most known for its high quality locally made furniture, carretas (elaborately painted oxcarts which were used to haul coffee beans) and artesanía (handicrafts) which make for lovely souvenirs or home decor. The main plaza contains a stately mint green colonial church as well as the world’s largest (supposedly) oxcart. Palmer and I just recently made a trip there to purchase some wall art for our home and it was a success! The Eloy Alfaro Factory just a short walk from the parque central is a must-visit. Yes, it’s a tourist trap and on the pricey side, but it has a huge selection of quality products AND it’s a historic oxcart factory which is really fascinating. The employees are happy to give you a little tour of how the machines run using hydro-power and you can even see the local artists at work painting in the back. Sarchí is a great stop for a couple hour visit!

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Okay, there is nothing ‘handmade’ about this poster, but isn’t this a cool find in Sarchí for some local flair for our walls? Oscar loved pointing out the starfruit which he’d never seen before after we found a tree and brought a couple home the other day.

Grecia

Grecia (or ‘Greece’ in English, and yes, we live in Atenas, ‘Athens’ in English) is another small town located just about 15 minutes from Sarchí so they make for a nice little combo visit. Famed for it’s red metal church (Catedral de la Mercedes) that was made in Belgium and then sent to Costa Rica, it’s a beautiful symbol of the town. It’s also billed as “The Cleanest Town in Latin America” so it’s got that going for it. And last but not least, Grecia is where you come to buy a used car in the Central Valley. Palmer can attest to that and we spent many hours visiting the numerous tiny used car dealerships (most have between 10 and 50 cars) on the road heading south out of town to find the best ‘deal’. After many test drives of cars 10-15 years old, and carrying thousands in cash in my backpack for 2 days, we finally made a decision and got it done after 20 minutes in the lawyer’s office (yes, a lawyer is required to purchase a vehicle in Costa Rica)!

Special shout-out to Café del Patio, an amazing restaurant just a block and a half off the parque central! This small and fairly new restaurant offers some seriously exquisite sandwiches and main dishes at very reasonable prices. Palmer and I both ordered the veggie sandwich made with their freshly baked bread which came with french fries and a delicious small salad topped with fresh bean sprouts and just the right amount of homemade citrus vinaigrette dressing. Of course, I always order the fresco natural de maracuyá (passion fruit juice) to go along with any meal here if they offer it. It’s seriously my favorite (nonalcoholic) beverage. Everything was FIRST RATE in quality, presentation and taste! At first we were a little confused wondering why the waiters seemed so somber and unfriendly, but we soon realized they take their food and service very serious. The chef (wearing a Cordon Bleu Paris shirt!) even came out of the open-air kitchen to ask how our meal was. We’ll definitely be back here!  (Okay, I just reread this section and wow, can you tell I’ve been doing some side hustling as a travel blog writer? Think I might need to tone it down a bit. Ha!)

Zarcero

This little town is definitely more off the beaten path and the journey along the narrow road (north of Naranjo) with breathtaking valley views at every turn is half the fun. There are lots of little roadside stands selling honey and queso palmito (locally made fresh cheese) along the route and the area is well known for its organic farming. As for the town itself, it’s lovely blueish purplish Iglesia de San Rafael, overlooks the famed Parque Francisco Alvarado, a garden-like park with the bushes trimmed into huge animals and interesting designs. It’s fun to try to figure them all out, and the kids had a blast playing hide and seek.

Barva

Another charming town surrounded by mountains, we took a drive here one Sunday and enjoyed the playgrounds on the parque central which sits in front of the imposing Iglesias San Bartolomé and strolling with the locals. Café Britt (the most famous coffee producer in Costa Rica) and Finca Rosa Blanca offer coffee plantation tours which we haven’t yet done, but it’s on the list. We did visit the Museo de Cultura Popular which is just outside of the downtown. It’s a really neat little museum housed in an old farmhouse and its surrounding gardens that is operated by the Universidad Nacional. There are little exhibits dotting the property that highlight different aspects of Costa Rican culture…from kids games to local festivals to coffee production to what a typical 19th century farmhouse looked like. It’s free on Sundays and also has an onsite restaurant that looked very nice.

This is just a taste of what we’ve discovered so far in the Central Valley and there is still more on the list – Orosí Valley and Turrialba to name a few.

It’s also a great base from which to explore the rest of the country which is a good thing as we have lots of fun trips to other areas coming up in the next two months (Guanacaste border run, Puerto Viejo and Cahuita on the Southern Caribbean coast and Tortuguero to see wildlife). Stay tuned my friends!

Roadtripping…Arenal and La Fortuna

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We’ve been busy moving into a new house and a few visits with the doctors but things are settling down now, so I wanted to share a bit of our trip over the Costa Rican Independence Day (September 15th) long weekend. We are hoping to visit many different parts of the country while we’re here, and so this first adventure took us to the Arenal area which includes the town of La Fortuna located at the base of Arenal Volcano. I had been there a couple of times before on previous trips as it’s quite a popular tourist area, but it was a first for the rest of the family, and it did not disappoint!  It was about a 2 and a 1/2 hour drive north of Atenas along narrow windy mountain roads with beautiful vistas at each turn…though also sometimes harrowing with cars trying to pass each other on these hilly roads.  The area offers fantastic hiking, horseback riding, zip lining and canopy tours, wildlife viewing, hot springs and more!

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La Fortuna waterfall

Our AirBnB house was about 3km out of town on a dirt road with views of the volcano from our front porch. It was perfect…and our hosts Lidiana and Eddie were the sweetest couple and made sure we were making the most of our time.

The first night Eddie invited us to come watch the sloth he had rescued (which they named “bodoque” which in this part of the world roughly translates to ‘small cute round thing’) come down from the tree and eat her dinner. It was AMAZING!  Who gets to see a sloth in the wild lumber slowly from her comfy spot up in the tree down the branch and hang out directly in front of us to eat her dinner?!  I think the sloth seems a pretty good representation of the Tico culture – very chill. The kids were excited to learn that sloths only go to the ground to pee and poop so that was the topic of conservation for most of the remainder of the night. We also found a bunch of frogs and toads with Eddie’s help in our little yard (Oscar was thrilled), and he even went and found a Red Eyed Tree Frog and brought it to the house to show us.  I didn’t realize how camouflaged they are when they are not moving – we had to wake him up to see the red eyes and feet.  It seemed like we were in an infomercial for visiting Costa Rica!

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Two toed sloth “Bodoque” enjoying flowers for dinner

 

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Red Eyed Tree Frog!
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Sleepy red eyed tree frog

The next day we visited La Fortuna Waterfall and hiked all the way to the bottom and enjoyed a dip in the refreshing pool at the base of the falls. You could even see trout in the water it was so clear. I was impressed by how beautiful the park was and how well-maintained the trail was, and even more impressed that Oscar hiked back UP the 500 steps without needing any piggy back rides. Even Alice hiked most of the way back up! People, these are major milestones for us! We are excited that they enjoy hiking and being in nature…though Alice does get freaked out about ‘buggies’ every now and then.

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Our little hiker wanted a picture taken of herself.

Our last adventure for the weekend was a visit to the natural hot springs.  With the volcano nearby, there are many hot springs in the area and some beautiful hot spring resorts that you can pay to visit and enjoy (i.e. Baldi, Tabacón) hopping from pool to pool figuring out which temperature suits you best. They are super nice and most offer lunch or dinner as well so people can spend the majority of a day there. Many of the hotels even pipe in the warm water to their pools. However, we opted for the free hot springs across the street from Tabacón rather than shelling out about $100 for the four of us to spend an hour or two swimming at one of the nicer places. What a little gem this was! We went in without any expectations and found a little oasis of mostly Tico families enjoying a lazy Sunday wading and relaxing in the river that conveniently offers tons of small pools for everyone to have their now little slice of relaxation. Next time, we’ll bring lunch and some cold beverages so we can spend a bit more time there!

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La Fortuna – parque
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Majestic Arenal
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Chilaxin in the natural hot springs

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Explorer in training
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Oscar named his new friends “nippy” and “fluffy”

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