The Top 5 Sloth Lies

Sure they’re cute and all the rage and everything (you’ve seen this footage of actress Kristen Bell totally losing it over sloths on the Ellen DeGeneres show, right?). But don’t be fooled! Sloths have been spinning an intricate web of lies for decades. Why so cunning? You’ll have to ask them. All we know is that during our nearly six months in Costa Rica we saw dozens of sloths and these up-close observations revealed these Top 5 Sloth Lies. Let’s get started with this adorable baby sloth, then get down to some sloth facts.

Baby sloth Jaguar Rescue Center Puerto Viejo Costa Rica

Sure this baby three-toed sloth at the Jaguar Rescue Center in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica is cute as hell. But what’s he hiding?

Sloth Lie # 1: Sloths are slow

This is generally true. However, when a sloth wants to move a sloth can gain ground more quickly than you think. Check out this female two-toed sloth, with baby in tow, booking along the telephone lines in the Costa Rican town of Cahuita on her way to a nighttime snack.

Three toed sloth Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

A male three-toed sloth on the move in Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica.

 

Sloth Lie # 2: There are two-toed and three-toed sloths

No. ALL sloths have three toes. What varies are their fingers.  So-called two-toed sloths are blonder in color and nocturnal. So-called three-toed sloths are grayer, have an adorable bandit mask on and tend to be active during the daytime.

Two-toed v Three-toed sloth  Costa Rica

All sloths have three toes. It’s the fingers that vary. Here’s a three-fingered sloth, above, and its two-fingered cousin, below.

 

Sloth Lie # 3: Sloths are rarely on the ground

Um, whatever. We saw sloths on the ground all over the place. Sure, they don’t like it down there since they’re more vulnerable to predators but the idea that sloths only come down to the ground every few weeks is silly in our experience.

Sloth on the ground

Yep. That’s a sloth on the ground, a supposedly rare occurence which we managed to see quite a few times in Costa Rica.

 

Sloth Lie # 4: Sloths are cuddly and adorable

Sure, if you like damp, moldy, stinky, bug-infested fur. Why do you think sloths spend so much time scratching? We wonder if Kristen Bell knows about this…

Three toed sloth Costa Rica Central America

Sloths spend quite a bit of time using their huge claws to scratch their skin which is pretty much always itchy since their fur is damp, moldy and bug infested.

 

Sloth Lie # 5: It’s hard to get a sloth’s attention

Want to get a sloth to look you in the eye? Whistle. One of the sloth’s few predators is the harpy eagle whose call is a sustained whistle. Let one rip and any sloth within ear shot will whip its head around to get the source of the sound (you) in view. Eric spent hours playing this trick on a male sloth that settled into a guaruma tree right off the patio of the home we were house sitting in the hills above Playa Matapalo. Never gets old.

sloth costa rica

A male two-toed sloth checking Eric out after he discovered the whistle trick.

Two toed sloth Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

A two-toed sloth taking a nap in Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica.

Mom & baby sloth - Costa Ballena, Costa Rica

A mother sloth with her baby on the Costa Ballena in Costa Rica.

For more slothy goodness, including a whacked out theory about sloths taking over the world and some truly disturbing sloth “art” (of them, not by them), check this out.

 

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Border Crossing 101 – Peñas Blancas, Costa Rica to Nicaragua

Crossing international borders in Latin American is rarely easy or pleasant (why do they always smell like pee and desperation?). Things are even more complicated when you’re driving across borders in your own vehicle as part of an overland road trip. These border crossing 101 travel tips will help you cross from Peñas Blancas, Costa Rica to Nicaragua smoothly with or without a vehicle.

 

From: Peñas Blancas, Costa Rica
To: Nicaragua
Date: October 13, 2012

Lay of the land: You are leaving one of the richest countries in Central America (Costa Rica) and entering one of the poorest (Nicaragua) and the differences become apparent right at the border. The Costa Rican side has a brand new air conditioned immigration hall, working ATMs and an inviting cafeteria. The Nica side, though pleasant and orderly, is dusty and peppered with sandal sellers, money changers and stray dogs. And don’t expect to find anything to eat.

Big rigs can get backed up for miles on either side of this border. If you’re driving your own vehicle across you are allowed to cut the line in front of them.  But drive carefully. This is a two lane road so passing the parked big rigs means driving against traffic in the wrong lane. Go slow and always be ready with an escape plan that allows you to merge back in with the parked big rigs if a bus or other vehicle needs to get through in the oncoming lane.

On the Costa Rican side you need to cancel your vehicle importation papers at an office on your left about 200 yards (200 meters) after you pass through the gate into the border zone. Then you drive a short distance to the new immigration office where you get an exit stamp.

Penas Blancas Costa Rica to Nicaragua border crossing

On the Nica side things are a bit trickier. As you leave Costa Rica and enter Nicaragua you must pass through mandatory vehicle fumigation. You then pull up to the immigration and aduana (customs) building where you first to go to the immigration window to get your entry stamp. However, before you step up to the window you first need to pay US$1 to the municipality at the booth in front. Following this you need to go to the building across the parking lot and pay the tourist vehicle entry fee of US$5 in the tourism office. Then you need to buy mandatory liability insurance for your vehicle at one of the insurance desks in the room next door.

Once the insurance is in hand you take these documents and receipts, along with the standard car documents with copies (title, registration, drivers license, passport), and go to the aduana office (DGI) adjoining the immigration area you first visited. There, your paper work is reviewed and entered into the computer and you are given the preliminary importation document. You then need to track down the police inspector and the aduana inspector who will each quickly inspect your vehicle and its contents before signing the paperwork.

Once those signatures are in hand you re-enter the aduana office and bring your papers to the uniformed officer sitting at a desk next to the agent who issued you your preliminary paperwork. The officer reviews your documents, staples some papers together and signs off on them. You then return to the same agent who issued the preliminary paperwork and he or she takes the documents and gives you your final importation permit.

Told you it was complicated. At this point you are free to go with just a quick check of your  documents by officials as you exit the border area.

Elapsed time: About half an hour on the Costa Rican side and another hour on the Nica side.

Fees: There are no fees to exit Costa Rica. On the Nica side we paid US$4 for mandatory fumigation, US$12 per person for our visa, $5 tourist vehicle entrance, $1 per person municipality fee and US$12 for 30 days of vehicle liability insurance. There was no fee at all for the temporary importation permit for our truck. That’s a grand total of US$47 for the two of us and our truck.

Number of days they gave us: We were issued 90 day visas and a 30 day temporary importation permit for our truck (see important CA-4 visa information below). The vehicle importation permit can be extended twice for 30 days each time at the DGI office in Managua shown on the map below.

Vehicle insurance requirements: You must buy insurance (US$12 for 30 days) at the border in order to drive in Nicaragua.

Where to fill up: Gas (and everything else) is cheaper in Nicaragua so wait to fill up there. Note, the nearest gas station on the Nicaraguan side is in Rivas about 22 miles (35 km) after the border.

Need to know:  In 2006 El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras joined together to create the so-called CA-4 (Central American 4) group of countries all honoring and enforcing one CA-4 visa governed by rules spelled out in the CA-4 Border Control Agreement. Tourists are allowed to spend up to 90 days in total in any combination of the four participating countries. The clock starts ticking on your CA-4 visa the moment you step foot in any of the CA-4 countries Though Costa Rica is in Central America it does not participate in the CA-4 Border Control Agreement so your time in Costa Rica does not count against the total allowed to you under CA-4 rules.

Also, our ATM cards did not work at most of the ATMs in Nicaragua. Consider stocking up on dollars in Costa Rica where dollars are dispensed from ATMs at no additional charge. There’s a BCR mobile ATM on the Costa Rica side of the border which does not charge a transaction fee and will dispense dollars.

Exchanging cash can be done safely and easily in Nicaragua at either the banks or with licensed money changers that are usually found on the street outside of banks. The licensed money changers offer a better rate than either the banks or the ATMs. Check what the official bank rate is then shop around among the money changers.

Duty free finds: There are no duty free shops on the Costa Rican side of this border. There are duty free shops on the Nicaragua side but alcohol, particularly the awesome local Flor de Cana rum, is cheaper at supermarkets inside Nicaragua.

Overall border rating: We’ve now crossed the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica at Peñas Blancas four times and it’s always been relatively efficient and free of corruption or bribery. Even the money changers and kids offering to help you with your paperwork on the Nica side aren’t too persistent.

NEW Costa Rica to Nicaragua border crossing (updated)

A new border crossing between Costa Rica and Nicaragua over the Rio San Juan, which forms part of the border between the two countries, is scheduled to be open in 2014. However, this is Central America and 2015 seems more likely especially since these two countries have ongoing border issues tainted by accusations of territorial expansionism.

We wouldn’t have believed this crossing was even real if we hadn’t seen a well-under-way “Santa Fé Bridge” over the Rio San Juan when we visited the area. This US$30 million Japanese-funded project began in 2012 and, when completed and opened, this new route will be a much more direct way of heading north or south, by-passing the coastal mountains of Costa Rica and the chaos of Managua, directly linking central Nicaragua with central Costa Rica.

This new crossing should also alleviate the truck backup and craziness at the overburdened Peñas Blancas border, currently the only land border connecting these two countries. In preparation for the opening of this border crossing the notoriously slow and rough 60+ mile (100 km) section of road heading into San Carlos, Nicaragua from Managua, which used to take several hours, has been upgraded into one of the best roads in Central America with perfect pavement, multi-lanes and (for the moment) very little traffic.

Rio San Juan Bridge - Costa Rica Nicaragia border

Construction of the “Santa Fé Bridge”, a US$30 million dollar Japanese-funded project that will span the Rio San Juan and create a new, easier border crossing between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. This is what it looked like when we were in the area in December of 2012. Officials say this crossing could be open in 2014.

 

 

Crossing the border from Nicaragua to Costa Rica? Get the details in this post

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How to Have a Costa Rican Road Trip

There are good reasons why so many people rent a car when they visit Costa Rica. As we discovered during our nearly six months and more than 5,000 miles (8,000 km) of driving in Costa Rica, the country really doesn’t have an adequate public transportation system and the best parks, activities and adventures require wheels. With that in mind, here are our top tips about how to have a Costa Rican road trip and how to rent a car in Costa Rica without getting ripped off.

Costa Rica animal crossing sign

The mind boggles at the number of hazards on the roads in Costa Rica.

Road rules in Costa Rica

In October of 2012 a new schedule of driving violation fees was established in Costa Rica. Many of the violations seem to go unpunished. For example, there is a US$40 fine for littering from your vehicle in Costa Rica, though it’s unlcear how frequently that law is enforced given the amount of roadside trash we saw. Speeding and drunk driving rules, however, are strict and fees are expensive at US$568 per violation. That said, we saw very few cops on the road and only a handful of vehicles pulled over.

As in most Latin American countries you must carry a fire extinguisher and reflective triangles in your vehicle.

Costa Rican law requires a front and back license plate but we were never hassled about our missing front plate.

Ox cart Costa Rica roads

Costa Rican bus? Not quite, but close.

Navigating in Costa Rica

There really are almost no road signs in Costa Rica so don’t bother looking for signs on the highways telling you where and when to turn or signs in towns telling you what street you’re on. When we left Costa Rica there were rumors of a campaign to improve signage in the capital, San Jose, but that’s not gonna help you out on the highways and in the small towns.

Unlike most of its Central American neighbors, dependable GPS data for Costa Rica seems to actually exist. Sadly we didn’t have a GPS unit when we were there.

We managed to find our way around Costa Rica thanks to a combination of Eric’s genetic GPS, asking locals and our ITMB maps which are detailed, accurate and cover the entire country which is head and shoulders above any map you’ll find inside Costa Rica.

Estimated drive times are almost always much shorter than reality so if someone says it takes four hours to drive from there to there plan on six. Or seven. As we’ve mentioned, road quality is poor and even “highways” in Costa Rica are generally only two lanes (one in each direction with no passing lane) and they nearly always wind through mountains unless you’re driving along the coast. This adds up to slow going, especially once you get stuck behind a slow-moving 18 wheeler, and you will.

Costa rican driving yield sign - Ceda El Paso
Many bridges in Costa Rica are single lane so look before you leap. Specifically, look for triangular signs that say “Ceda el Paso” which means you need to yield to bridge traffic coming in the opposite direction.

 

The drainage ditches along many roads are 2-3 feet (1 meter) deep and there’s no shoulder on the roads. It’s best to think of them as moats.

Key Costa Rican road trip tips

We never found a car wash under US$10.

The whole country is the size of West Virginia yet we somehow managed to drive more than 5,000 miles (8,000 km).

All those intriguing peninsulas usually require taking the long way around so be prepared to put in more miles (and time) on the road than you think.

Cop shakedowns are not common in Costa Rica but police checkpoints are. However, we were rarely questioned at any of them and the officials just wanted to take a cursory glance at our paperwork.

Costa Ricans are the slowest drivers in Central America. Sometimes infuriatingly so. For example, the guy you get stuck behind as he crawls through the hills always seems to speed up just enough on the straight-aways so that you can’t pass him.

Gas prices are regulated by the government so all stations charge the same price. The price of diesel ranged from US$4.27 to US$4.85 when we were in Costa Rica and gas was even pricier.

Costa Rica's poor quality roads - Carratera en mal Estado

This sign is no lie: roads in Costa Rica really are in an unexpectedly bad state.

One of the first things representatives of the Institute of Costa Rican Tourism (ICT) did when we met with them was apologize for the shameful condition of the roads in Costa Rica. They are far worse than in neighboring Nicaragua and El Salvador with pot holes, buckling pavement, narrow sections and a chronic lack of street name signs, directional signs or street lights. Oh, and did we mention the unmarked topes (speed bumps)?

If you are driving your own vehicle keep your fingers crossed that nothing breaks. For the most part, only crappy Chinese-made replacement parts are available for the makes and models of vehicles that are commonly sold in Costa Rica. We learned this the hard way after needing to have a bunch of steering components replaced.

Related tip: If you do need to see a mechanic in Costa Rica don’t take your vehicle to a chain called AutoPits. Yes, the name should have tipped us off but it seemed like a modern chained and it’s owned by Grupo Q, a large vehicle dealer with a presence in several Central American countries. However, AutoPits sold us inferior parts not made for our truck and installed them incorrectly. No wonder the parts failed after just a few hundred miles, rendering our truck undriveable. After a lengthy battle between AutoPits and our credit card company we were left paying the full AutoPits bill (US$1,200) and needing to replace the parts with the good stuff (thanks Rare Parts).

Welcome-to-Costa-Rica

At the border with your vehicle

You and your vehicle with get a 90 day permit when you enter Costa Rica overland. However, even though tourists visas can be renewed for an additional 90 days by simply leaving Costa Rica for 72 hours then returning, foreign vehicles are only allowed to be in Costa Rica for 90 days out of every 180.  If you want to get a new 90 day temporary importation permit for your vehicle it has to be out of Costa Rica for at least 90 days.  Also be aware that you can “suspend” your temporary vehicle importation when you drive out of the country. This means that whatever time was left on your importation when you left the Costa Rica will be available to you when you drive back into Costa Rica.

It now costs 17,216 colones (US$35) for 90 days of mandatory vehicle liability insurance (Poliza Turista) which is a considerable increase from our 2012 crossings when the price was only 8,365 colones (about US$17).

Get complete details about procedures and customs requirements for driving a foreign vehicle into Costa Rica in our Border Crossing 101 post about traveling overland from Nicaragua to Costa Rica.

How to rent a car in Costa Rica (without getting ripped off)

Rental car companies can be super aggressive about buying very expensive in-country insurance when you pick up the car you’ve reserved. They will insist that it is mandatory. They will NOT let you off the hook by simply saying that your credit card company provides rental car insurance. Do yourself a favor and get a letter from your credit card company on letterhead stating the details of the rental car insurance coverage your card provides. Also get the appropriate toll free phone number you can use to call your credit card company from the rental car company desk in Costa Rica should the agent in front of you still insist that you need to buy expensive additional insurance.

It’s worth splurging on a GPS unit for your rental car (offered by most rental companies for a daily rate) and be sure to reserve a 4X4 vehicle. As we’ve noted, the roads in Costa Rica suck and you’re going to want the extra clearance, power and durability even if you’re not planning on doing any off-roading.

When we left Costa Rica we heard that some car rental companies were considering adding more environmentally friendly rental cars to their fleets.

Monkey crossing Costa Rica

A hand made monkey crossing sign in Costa Rica.

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Rear View Mirror – Costa Rica Travel Tips & Observations After 170 Days in the Country

Like most travelers, we had high expectations for Costa Rica which has been in the eco tourism game for decades now. Many of the “usual suspect” destinations, including superstars Arenal and Monteverde, disappointed. However, we persisted and here are our top Costa Rica travel tips and observations.

After nearly six months in Costa Rica we managed to find some remarkable beaches, parks, bird watching and more just off the beaten path. Don’t miss Tenorio Volcano National Park, the Rincon de la Vieja National Park area, the Southern Caribbean Coast, San Gerardo de Dota and SCUBA diving with hammerhead sharks in Cocos Island.

The tap water is drinkable almost everywhere in Costa Rica but there’s also a growing craft brew industry, including Witch’s Rock Brews on tap in Tamarindo (below), that you won’t want to miss out on either so save up some thirst.

Volcano Brewing Company Witch's Rock Pale Ale Tamarindo Costa Rica

The Costa Rican government recently announced that it will close its national zoo and release as many animals as possible as part of a “no cages” policy, though animal experts have expressed doubts about the likelihood of release for many of the animals.

Terror-cleaning-product

 

Eighty percent of Costa Rican hotels have 20 rooms or less.
The capital, San Jose, was one of the first five cities in the world to have electricity.
Supermarkets sell a cleaning liquid called Terror.
Pura vida (pure life) is the official slogan of Costa Rica and Ticos, as citizens call themselves, really do say it all day long–usually instead of goodbye. Somehow it’s charming, not hippie dippie.
It’s illegal to plant Robusto coffee in Costa Rica because it’s considered inferior to Arabica and growers are afraid Robusto plants could cross-pollinate with existing Arabica plants and affect the quality of Costa Rican beans.

Coffee growing

In January of 2013 the Costa Rican government also banned “sport hunting.” The country is not a major sport hunting destination nor is it full of recreational hunters (though they exist) and it’s unclear whether or not this new ban, which allows subsistence hunting by indigenous groups and culls to control overpopulation, will help reduce poaching in parks and other protected areas.

The-city-of-witches-1_newsfull_v
The official seal of the city of Escazu (a swanky suburb of the capital that is sometimes called the city of witches) features a black witch on a broomstick.

Costa Rica really did abolish its military in 1948.

Banco de Costa Rica (BCR) ATMs don’t charge a transaction fee.

 

US dollars are accepted throughout Costa Rica almost as commonly as Costa Rican colones and dollars are dispensed right from the ATMs at no additional charge.

Costa Rican money colones

Smoking is not common but we were surprised that in Costa Rica until May 2012 you could still light up on buses, at work, in restaurants, etc. though all neighboring Central American countries had long since banned all indoor smoking.

Chifrijo Costa Rica

Costa Rica is not known for its cuisine but chifrijo (left) is a delicious stand out. Created in San Jose, chifrijo is a bowl of white rice with red beans, a bit of tangy broth, chopped onion and tomoto, cubed pork, a squeeze of lemon and chicharon (fried pork skin) sprinkled on top.  up on top. We had excellent chifrijo near Playa Jacó and in Cahuita.

Costa Rica has better radio stations than neighboring Central American countries. We heard LCD Soundsystem, Mumford & Sons and classics like Nirvana and Pearl Jam on a regular basis.

The Costa Rican President is a woman. Her last name is Chinchila.

Foreigners pay US$10 per person to enter Costa Rican national parks. If you’re planning on visiting a few parks consider getting an Amigos de los Parques Nacionales pass which is good at 12 national parks including Poás (pictured below), Tortuguero and Corcovado (check the list to make sure the parks you want to visit are covered). Choose from passes that are valid for up to 14 days (US$40) or for 14 days or more (US$100). Card holders also get 20-50% discounts at select hotels and attractions.

Poas-Pano_01-04-06

Adult prostitution is legal but that doesn’t mean the industry is without exploitation.

They call flaky puff pastry filled with potatoes or chicken or beef “enchiladas.” They’re delicious, but confusing.

A comedor (a local cheap restaurantis called a soda.

They call pico de gallo (chopped tomatoes, onions and spices) chimichuri.

Zip Line - Selva Bananito Eco Lodge, Costa Rica

Costa Rica is much more expensive than any other country in Central America. For example, you’ll pay around  US$20 for a dorm bed in a hostel. Meals average US$6 in the cheapest sodas or market stalls. We paid nearly US$5 per gallon for diesel and gas is even pricier.
You can actually get a passable slice of pizza in San Jose.
There are at least 70 different zip lines in Costa Rica.
The whole country is the size of West Virginia.

Costa Rica has announced that it is aiming to be a carbon neutral country by 2021. Nobody we talked to was really sure exactly what that means or how such a goal would be achieved but we think getting the belching buses off the streets would be a good start.

Start planning! Get your bearings in Costa Rica and see where some of the best surfing, whale and dolphin watching and turtle nesting spots are located with these handy maps.

Get our top tips for planning a Costa Rican Road Trip

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The Other Half – Corcovado National Park, Osa Peninsula, Drake Bay, Costa Rica

You can explore the Osa Peninsula in Southern Costa Rica from two main gateways: Puerto Jimenez on the east side and Drake Bay on the west side. Both gateways give you access to Corcovado National Park, but in very different ways. We first traveled to Puerto Jimenez and explored this wild peninsula from that side. Then we headed for Drake Bay to see how the other half lives.

Drake Bay, with its bustling fishing village, hotels and guesthouses, sport fishing operations, even a 13 platform zip line, felt busier and more built-up than the Puerto Jimenez side of the peninsula. however, Drake Bay is still one of the least visited areas of Costa Rica and the wildlife that the Osa Peninsula is famous for is all around you–you just have to get out of Drake Bay to see it. Luckily, that’s easy.

Osa Peninsula beaches Corcavado National Park, Costa Rica

Pristine beach just down the coast from Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

Corcovado National Park by boat

From Puerto Jimenez our explorations of the Osa had been on foot and we never really entered Corcovado National Park at all. On the Drake Bay side of the peninsula it was all about water access and we finally got into the park itself on a day trip to the San Pedrillo Ranger Station entrance of Corcovado National Park which started off with a 30 minute boat ride (US$85 per person including boat, guide, lunch and US$10 per person entry fee).

Rough coastline and beaches  in Corcavado National Park

Rugged coastline within the boundaries of Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

From there we waded through water to reach a hump of high ground covered in secondary forest and primary forest which we walked through for about an hour and a half spotting spider monkeys, tree frogs, agoutis and lots of birds–including squirrel cuckoos and mangrove cuckoos–along the way.

We were hoping, as we always do, for a glimpse of a tapir as well. They’re known to live in Corcovado but they’re most common at the La Sirena entrance which is more difficult and more expensive to get to from Drake Bay.

The flat, shaded, slightly muddy trail ultimately spit us out on the beach which we walked along before heading back to the San Pedrillo Ranger Station for a picnic lunch with ocean views.

White-nosed-coati-Corcavado

A white-nosed coati roamed around as we ate lunch on the grassy picnic area in front of the San Pedrillo Ranger Station entrance of Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.

After chowing down and watching the antics of a disturbingly tame white-nosed coati looking for handouts we hiked up a different trail for about 20 minutes to reach a lovely waterfall and swimming hole. However, we were almost stopped in our tracks by soldiers.

Monkey skull Corcavado National Park, Costa Rica

A monkey skull along the trail in Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.

When army ants attack

About midway up the trail to the waterfall we noticed that the ground appeared to be moving. It only took a split second to realize that millions of army ants were swarming all around us. We didn’t need to wait for our guide to tell us to run and we all sprinted through the seething mass. Miraculously, only a few of us got bit.

San Pedrillo River Corcavado National Park, Costa Rica

The San Pedrillo River in Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.

San Pedrillo waterfall Corcavado National Park, Costa Rica

We braved swarming army ants to reach San Pedrillo waterfall in Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.

On our way back down the trail, after a refreshing dip in the swimming hole below San Pedrillo waterfall, we found that the army ants were still swarming over the trail right where we’d left them. This time we conceded defeat and bush whacked our way through the undergrowth off the trail, giving the ants a very wide berth.

Tree butress Corcavado National Park, Costa Rica

In the shallow soil of Corcovado National Parks trees need buttressed roots like this to help keep them upright.

Great Curassow Corcavado National Park, Costa Rica

A great curassow in Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.

Way too close for comfort

Our encounter with the army ants was nothing, however, compared to Eric’s stand-off with a pack of wild peccaries.

It all started when Eric headed out on a trail to explore more of the bays and beaches around Drake Bay. He rounded a bend and saw some white-lipped peccaries on the trail in front of him. We’ve seen (and smelled) peccaries in the wild before but this time was different. Instead of giving Eric a cranky glare then going about their business, these peccaries, which look like boars or wild pigs but aren’t, quickly closed the ground between them and Eric causing a face off between man and a whole mess of beasts.

White Lipped Pecary Osa Peninsula Corcavado National Park

Just one of the white-lipped peccaries that menaced Eric on a trail near Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

We later learned that run-ins with packs of peccaries 50 or more strong are not unheard of in these parts. We’re not sure how many were in the pack that Eric encountered but they were clacking their self-sharpening tusks alarmingly and a few came to within five feet of him.

We only have one or two pictures of this pig/man face off because Eric was actually swinging his camera around as a form of defense. Yeah, that’s how serious it was. Though the most common advice in a situation like this is to climb a tree, Eric sought higher ground by walking uphill and the groundskeeper of a nearby hotel the showed him a trail that dropped back down onto the main trail beyond where the peccaries were located.

Scarlet Macaws Corcavado National Park, Costa Rica

Scarlet macaws near Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.

Making your Drake Bay entrance

You can drive right to Drake Bay or even fly in. We chose to make our Drake Bay entrance by boat from Sierpe and what an entrance it was. After parking our truck in the guarded lot at the boat dock in Sierpe we headed down the Sierpe River in a open-sided boat.

Boat from Sierpa to Drake Bay Costa Rica

Leaving the town of Sierpe in our boat, headed for Drake Bay.

We sped past huge crocodiles and trees full of birds along mangrove-lined waterways. Eventually the river started widening as we approached the mouth of the river where it flows directly into the Pacific Ocean.

Crocodile River river Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

Massive crocs like this were a common sight during our boat ride up the Sierpe River to Drake Bay.

At this point the captain told us to put on our life vests. It can be a rough ride when rivers meet oceans but we made it through without even getting splashed. We scanned the surface for signs of dolphins and soon the calm arc of Drake Bay came into view.

Spotted dolphins Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

Spotted dolphins paying in the Pacific near Drake Bay, Costa Rica.

Hotels in Drake Bay

Our boat dropped us off at Aguila de Osa Inn, which we’d chosen because the hotel is part of the Greentique Collection of sustainable hotels and because we simply had to meet owner Bradd Johnson. Bradd opened the lodge 20 years ago making him a card-carrying member of the Costa Rican Eco-Tourism Early Adopters Club. Okay, we just made that club up, but it really should exist.

Bradd, a super gregarious US native, originally bought property on the mainland of Costa Rica before realizing that Drake Bay was poised for an eco-tourism boom and could use a decent hotel. The eco part evolved along with Bradd’s awareness and is now a major focus.

Of course they recycle, but with a twist. Recycleables are given to local school children who collect the money for the items and use it to improve their schools. All guests get a corn-based, totally biodegradable and reuseable water bottle. All staff members are from the local community.

Gladiator Tree Frog Osa Peninsula Corcavado National Park

A gladiator tree frog spotted on the grounds of the Aguila de Osa Inn in Drake Bay, Costa Rica.

Aguila de Osa’s 11 rooms and two suites have gorgeous floors and handmade furniture in woods that are no longer available but were plentiful during construction and much of the hotel was built by hand. Though Bradd brought in a full arsenal of power tools his local workforce preferred their own traditional tools.

Many of those original construction workers went on to full-time jobs at the hotel and some of the staff have been with Bradd since day one, which is part of the reason the service at Aguila de Osa is so natural and polished.

The same can be said for the food. Rates are all-inclusive and you will not go hungry. Meals are huge, delicious and varied. Beware of the never-empty cookie jar!.

Another reason we chose Aguila de Osa is its private location and surrounding jungle which gives it a great feeling of remoteness from Drake Bay even though the village can be reached on foot in less than 10 minutes. We saw frogs, sloths and scarlet macaws in the trees and landscaping near our room. And speaking of rooms…be aware that the rooms at Aguila de Osa are reached via a series of fairly steep ramps and staircases.

Giant brown Callipogon lemoinei long-horned Beetle

This long-horned beetle was nearly five inches long.

In his spare time (ha!) Bradd helped form the Corcovado Foundation which works with Costa Rica’s national park service and local communities to stop illegal logging and hunting which still threatens the area.

When we weren’t in Corcovado National Park or being menaced by peccaries we took advantage of Aguila de Osa’s free kayaks and paddled the languid waterways right off the hotel’s dock where we had the natural wonders of this area all to ourselves.

Drake Bay Osa Peninsula,  Costa Rica

The calm waters and arcing beach of Drake Bay.

Osa Peninsula and Drake BayTravel Tips

You may read accounts of the horrors of the roads on the Osa Peninsula. We sure did. However, we drove nearly the entire peninsula and found 99% of the roads to be paved and in perfectly acceptable shape. Even the shortcut road that bisects the peninsula between Puerto Jimenez and Drake Bay is said to be good these days. We chose to drive the long way between Puerto Jimenez and Sierpe (roughly three hours) because we wanted to take the boat from Sierpe to Drake Bay, and we’re glad we did.

Be aware that small cruise ships (60 passengers or so) do sometimes stop at Drake Bay and the trails and picnic areas at the San Pedrillo entrance of Corcovado National Park can get very, very crowded when there’s a ship in port.

Oh, and Drake Bay was named after Sir Francis Drake but some locals give his last name a Spanish pronunciation so don’t be surprised if you hear it referred to as “Drah-kay” Bay.

Costa Rica mainland & Chirripo the highest mountain in Costa Rica

The Costa Rican mainland seen from Drake Bay, with Cerro Chirripó, the highest mountain in Costa Rica, in the distance.

 

 

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Immersed in Eco – Corcovado National Park, Osa Peninsula, Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica

Southern Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula is accessed via two main gateways: Puerto Jimenez on the east side and Drake Bay on the west side. Both give you access to Corcovado National Park, but in very different ways. We, of course, explored both sides of this largely untouched spit of land that was actually an island a mere two million years ago. We traveled to Puerto Jimenez first and soon found ourselves immersed in eco, from our critter-filled surroundings to our remarkably green lodging.

Sunrise Osa Peninsuala Costa Rica

Costa Rican sunrise as seen from Lapa Rios Lodge on the Osa Peninsula.

Welcome to the wild side

Corcovado National Park is considered by some to be the most wild and unspoiled park in Costa Rica. This 263 square mile (425 square km) park boasts 13 different vegetation types which means there’s enough habitat diversity to support an incredible array of species including endangered Baird’s tapirs, massive and rare harpy eagles and all four of Costa Rica’s monkey species.

Capuchin Monkey Corcovado Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

A white-faced capuchin monkey navigates a palm frond on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

Squirrel Monkey Mono Titi Corcovado Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

Squirrel monkeys are the most rarely spotted monkey species in Costa Rica but we saw plenty of them in the Osa Peninsula.

Spider Monkey Corcovado Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

This spider monkey mom didn’t even stop eating when we showed up but her baby seemed as curious about us as we were about them.

Trails through the park can take days to complete and require river crossing and other moments of seriousness. During the wet months (July to November) parts of the park may be closed altogether.

Corcovado is actually just a part of the vast Osa Conservation Area which covers the entire Osa Peninsula and part of the lower Pacific Coast. According to Osa Conservation, a non-profit group applying scientific principles to preserve and sustain the peninsula, this part of Costa Rica is home to the most significant wetland ecosystem and mangrove forests of Central America.

This includes the largest remaining tract of lowland rainforest in Pacific Mesoamerica, more than 700 species of trees and more than 10,000 types of insects. It’s a mind-boggling place even if you don’t have a PhD.

Once we left Puerto Jimenez, a surprisingly enticing mid-size fishing village with more than enough accommodation, eating and activity options to keep you busy for a couple of days, we entered a world of cattle farms, untouched jungle and nearly deserted coastline. Whether we were technically within the boundaries of Corcovado National Park or simply in the Osa Conservation Area a feeling of wildness soon took hold.

Iguana Corcovado National Park Costa Rica

They grow them big in the Osa. This bad boy iguana was more than three feet (1 meter) long from nose to tail.

Hiking in the Osa Peninsula

While on this side of the Osa we stayed at Lapa Rios Eco Lodge (much more about that later) which operates its own 1,000 acre (4,000 hectare) Lapa Rios Reserve. Guests have access to guides, rubber boots and walking sticks to enjoy a network of private trails through the reserve.

One morning we drove up to the trailhead of the lodge’s Osa Trail then hiked gently downhill for about three hours. Along the way we saw king vultures (one of the largest birds in Latin America) soaring in the distance, green and black poison dart frogs right on the side of the trail and we heard (but never saw) troops of monkeys in the trees.

Lapa Rios beaches Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

The forest gives way to sand along one of the many beaches of the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

The next morning we walked to a nearby beach and strolled along it for hours. A black hawk was gorging on small creatures trapped in a tidal pool in a rock formation and was so intent on eating that it let us get remarkably close. We kept inching forward, amazed that the bird did not fly off.

Further down the virtually deserted coastline we came across a section of beach that was blanketed in rock that looked like dense wet sand but was actually solid sandstone sculpted into sand-like ripples and lumpy piles by the tides.

Black Hawk Corcovado Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

This black hawk let us get incredibly close, unwilling to fly away from its lunch of small animals stranded in tide pools along an Osa Peninsula beach.

That afternoon we went on a guided bird watching walk along the dirt road and put the bird check list every Lapa Rios guest receives to the test. By the time we returned to the lodge we’d seen more than 20 different species of birds plus a three-toed sloth and a two-toed sloth.

Scarlet Macaws flying Corcovado Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

The Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica has the highest population of endangered scarlet macaws in Central America and the ridge top patio of the Lapa Rios Lodge is the perfect vantage point to watch them from.

Face to face with a fer-de-lance

In case you didn’t get enough wildlife during the daylight hours Lapa Rios guides lead a night walk every evening as well. It was raining the night we went but that meant a bonanza of frogs taking advantage of the wet conditions they love. We saw red-eyed tree frogs, masked tree frogs and the largest smoky jungle frog we’ve ever seen. That sucker must have weighed five pounds (2.3 kilos) and was bigger than a softball. Scary stuff.

Red eyed tree frog Corcovado National ParkCosta Rica

Night time is the right time to see red eyed tree frogs on the property of the Lapa Rios Lodge on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

Red eyed tree frogs Corcovado Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

We will leave the caption for this one up to you…

Smokey Jungle Frog Spider Monkey Corcovado Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

Is the softball-sized smokey jungle frog the most imposing amphibian you’ve ever seen?

The rain kept a few of the night walk stars in hiding so we missed out on seeing a kinkajou or an owl. We did, however, see one of the deadliest snakes in the world and well within striking distance.

Ever since we entered Central America we’ve heard about the fer-de-lance (warning: there is a very gruesome photo of the type of damage inflicted by fer-de-lance poison near the bottom of that link). The fer-de-lance is a legend among poisonous snakes and a real killer in Latin America. We’ve seen a fer-de-lance behind glass but never in real life, despite the fact that its reputation as a super-camouflaged and aggressive snake keeps our eyes glued to the trail every time we go for a walk.

Fer de Lance snake Corcovado Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

Ladies and gentlemen, we present one of the most poisonous snakes in the world, the fer-de-lance. Best hope this is the closest you ever get.

Not 20 minutes into our night walk at Lapa Rios our guide stopped the group and trained his flashlight on a section of a rocky embankment right on the edge of the path which winds between bungalows on the property. Coiled up in a niche between rocks was a fer-de-lance. Our guide seemed nonchalant and asked us all to walk slowly past but the trail was only a few feet wide so it was impossible to avoid close proximity to the snake.

Once we were all safely on the other side of the fer-de-lance we realized that we’d have to walk right past it again at the end of the night walk. As nerve wracking as that was we’re glad we’ve now seen a fer-de-lance in the wild. This will hopefully make it easier for us to spot one on the trail.

Yellow-headed Gecko Corcovado Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

We consulted the species geeks at projectnoah.org to confirm that this colorful specimen is a yellow-headed gecko.

How green is Lapa Rios Eco Lodge?

Though Lapa Rios Eco Lodge, part of the Cayuga Collection of sustainable hotels, has earned and maintained its eco reputation over the past two decades we still arrived with eyebrows raised. However, over the course of our stay we learned how Lapa Rios goes beyond the usual “green” measures. Here are just a few examples:

  • the gorgeous pool is totally chemical free, kept clean by 100% water purifying bacteria instead
  • there are no soda cans or straws on the property
  • no insecticides or herbicides are used on the property
  • more than 90% of employees live locally and if they own a motorcycle to commute it must have a cleaner-burning four stroke engine
  • though some of the original construction was done using fallen wood collected in the Lapa Rios Preserve the owners have since realized that fallen trees provide essential nutrients to the soil so now building is done almost exclusively with bamboo
  • waste from pigs is turned into fuel used to run the employee kitchen
  • housekeeping staff really adhere to the posted policies about re-using sheets and towels
  • natural palm roofing is being replaced with synthetic palm to avoid cutting palm trees down when roofing needs to be replaced or repaired
Cabo Matapalo Osa Peninsuala Costa Rica

Cabo Mataplo seen from the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

One warning: Lapa Rios is built on the slopes of a ridge and most of the 16 bungalows require a fairly steep walk up and down, particularly bungalows 9-14 which require more than a hundred steps in each direction to and from the main lodge and restaurant (don’t miss the chef’s gourmet take on chifrijo, by the way).

There are two bungalows located off the driveway near the lodge which require just a few steps but they lack the ambiance of the rooms lower down the slope and you really do want that ambiance.

We stayed in room #15 and felt completely surrounded by nature. Turkey-sized crested guans hopped around in the trees at eye level off our huge patio. Chestnut mandibled toucans seemed to be everywhere. Troops of monkeys passed through the canopy. Even endangered scarlet macaws made an appearance, though they are best photographed in the early morning from the spectacular deck off the main lodge up on the ridge top where you can watch them fly in the sunlight below you.

Chestnut Mandibled Toucan Corcovado Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

A chestnut mandibled toucan snacking on palm fruit on the grounds of Lapa Rios Lodge on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

Lapa Rios is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and the property is for sale. But don’t worry. The creators of Lapa Rios have included a clause that the lodge’s eco focus must remain and that the reserve must continue to be protected by any new owner.

Iguana eating Corcovado Osa Peninsula Costa Rica

Lunch time for an iguana on the Osa Peninsula.

Osa Peninsula Travel Tips

You may read accounts of the horrors of the road off the Costantera Highway down the Osa Peninsula to  Puerto Jimenez. We sure did. However, the road is now fully paved–beautifully so in many stretches–all the way to Puerto Jimenez. We made the drive from Ojochal on the southern Pacific Coast to Puerto Jimenez in 2.5 hours. Then we hopped into the transport provided by Lapa Rios and someone else drove the last 45 minutes to the lodge itself. This last bit, we admit, was in pretty dreadful washed out condition but the road was in fine shape as far as Puerto Jimenez.

Oh, and bring high knee socks to wear with the rubber boots you will probably need to borrow if you’re hiking here. Trails can be muddy and slippery almost any time of year and rubber boots are often the best choice. If you wear short socks with tall rubber boots the top edge will rub your skin raw by the time the hike is over.

Surf junk Osa Peninsuala Costa Rica

An Osa Peninsula garbage truck hauling away someone’s broken surf board.

 

 

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A Whale of a Welcome – Ojochal, Costa Ballena, Costa Rica

The Pacific Coast of Costa Rica has more than its share of beach towns but many of them are too full of gringos (looking at you Play Jacó) or too full of surfers (looking at you Dominical) to hold our attention for long. Travel a bit further south past Uvita to a stretch of coastline known as the Costa Ballena (Whale Coast) and you’ll find Ojochal where locals, expats and a handful of travelers mix to create a tiny, welcoming charmer of a town with a laid back pace, great places to stay and some awesome unexpected foodie finds. It’s the perfect base from which to explore this stretch of coast which got its name because its the site of twice yearly humpback whale migrations and awesome whale watching.

Costa Ballena, Costa Rica

Mountains meet the sea on Costa Rica’s Costa Ballena (Whale Coast).

Honestly, we probably wouldn’t have even stopped in Ojochal at all if we hadn’t met Mac McIver. He was part of the awesome group of SCUBA divers onboard Undersea Hunter’s M/V Argo liveaboard dive boat during our fantastic trip to Cocos Island to dive with hammerhead sharks.

Being the generous and proud Texas transplant that he is, Mac invited us to his home, which is also home to his Bali Rica Casitas guesthouse in Ojochal. We, of course, called him up when we were passing by. That’s when we got to meet his awesome wife, Sharon, and the two of them quickly made us love Ojochal as much as they do.

Eating in Ojochal

Who knows why these things happen, but Ojochal has experienced a big influx of French Canadians. They (and foodie transplants from other parts of the world) brought their love of good food with them and now Ojochal has a higher density of noteworthy places to eat per capita than any other place we visited in Costa Rica during our more than 5 months in the country. Yes, that includes the capital, San Jose.

Be sure to check out the shockingly authentic Indonesian food at Ylang Ylang, homemade pasta at Fabrizio’s Cocina Italiana and absolutely passable pizza at Mamma e Papa. Ojochal also has not one but two outstanding bakeries. Sadly Citrus Restaurante and Exotica were closed when we were there. Next time…

The food scene is Ojochal is so vibrant that a regional nonprofit organization called El Sabor de Ojochal was started in 2013 to promote local cuisine with food festivals, a restaurant week and other seasonal events.

Drinking (in the views) in Ojochal

Ojochal is not on the beach (it’s on the inland side of the Costenera Highway), but many of it’s hilltops provide sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. Hotel El Castillo occupies one such rise. The hotel was recently taken over by Scott Dinsmore and David Russell, creators of the successful Restaurante Azul in Dominical (which now operates out of the hotel) and its six spacious rooms (from US$99), lobby, bar, restaurant and pool have all benefited from a refurbishment.

Even if you’re not staying at El Castillo, we recommend that you head to to the hotel’s dramatic lobby and pool for sunset cocktails. It’s the best ocean view in the area and the bar tender knows what he’s doing.

Hotel El Castillo, Ojochal, Costa Rica

A moody sunset from the pool bar at Hotel El Castillo in Ojochal, Costa Rica on the Costa Ballena.

What to do on the Costa Ballena when you’re not eating

Ojochal makes a great base for exploring nearby natural attractions including Playa Ventanas (Windows Beach), one of the most unique beaches in Costa Rica thanks to a rock formation through which the surf has worn away twin tunnels (or windows) which fill and empty dramatically (and a bit dangerously) with the tides.

Playa-Ventanas-Costa-Ballena

One of the dramatic ventanas (windows) the sea has carved through solid rock at Playa Ventanas on the Costa Ballena in Costa Rica.

Marino Ballena National Marine Park (US$10 per person) is home to one of the most iconic beaches in Costa Rica. Playa Ballena (Whale Beach) is so named because at low tide this spit of sand looks amazingly similar to a whale’s tail. Be sure to check the tide tables before you visit this park since this beach is the centerpiece and it closes to visitors at high tide.

Whales Tail - Marino Ballena National Marine Park, Costa Rica

That spit of a beach jutting out into the Pacific Ocean looks like a massive whale’s tail at low tide and it’s the centerpiece of Marino Ballena National Marine Park on the Costa Ballena in Costa Rica.

And then there’s Cascada el Pavon waterfall, a lovely cascade through a rock chute that’s been worn so smooth it almost looks man made. Water tumbles into a delicious swimming hole reached via an easy,short trail right off a back road around Ojochal. While you’re out there, be sure to stop at a nearby open-air restaurant called Tilapias El Pavon for the lightest, fluffiest fried yucca we ate in all of Costa Rica. Yep, you’re eating again.

Cascada el Pavon waterfall - Ojocjal, Costa Rica

Let us know if that rock is still in place above Cascada el Pavon waterfall near Ojochal on the Costa Ballena in Costa Rica.

Sleeping in Ojochal

For romance, relaxation and value for money you can’t beat Bali Rica Casitas, plus you’ll be in the gracious hands of our friends Mac and Sharon McIver. Choose from just two stand-alone casitas with kitchens positioned for privacy on the garden property where toucans will be your only neighbors.

Spa Bali Rica Casitas, Ojochal, Costa Rica

The dramatic (and very, very relaxing) soaking tub at the spa at Bali Rica Casitas in Ojochal, Costa Rica.

Casa Bambú charms with a private jacuzzi and a cozy jungle cabin feel ($85 double). Bali House (US$125 double) is a traditional Balinese structure which was shipped over piece by piece from Bali. It’s larger and even more romantic with a private plunge pool and private Balinese wooden gazebo. There’s also an on-site spa with one of the most dramatic soaking tubs in Costa Rica and a pavilion for yoga, meditation, painting, whatever.

Bali-Rica-Ojochal-Costa-Rica

The Bali House casita at Bali Rica Castias in Ojochal, Costa Rica is a traditional Balinese structure that was shipped piece by piece from Bali.

After our time in Ojochal we were ready to explore more of the hidden corners of the Pacific Coast so we jumped at the chance to do some house sitting for a homeowner with a spectacular home in the hills above tiny Playa Matapalo further north up the coast where sloths, toucans and spectacular Pacific Coast views greeted us every day.

On our way to that house sit we paused not far from Ojochal to check out the best new luxury hotel in Costa Rica. Read our full review of Kura Design Villas for iTraveliShop.com.

Pool at Kura Design Villas, Uvita, Costa Rica

Kura Design Villas above Uvita in Costa Rica.

Kura Design Villas - Uvita, Costa Rica

Kura Design Villas above Uvita in Costa Rica. Be sure to check out our full review of Kura Design Villas to see inside these amazing rooms.

Infinity pool - Kura Design Villas, Uvita, Costa Rica

Karen enjoying the mind-blowing four-way infinity edge pool at Kura Design Villas above Uvita in Costa Rica.

Infinity pool - Kura Design Villas, Uvita, Costa Rica

Yes, that’s fire inside the pool at Kura Design Villas above Uvita in Costa Rica.

Mom & baby sloth - Costa Ballena, Costa Rica

And we leave you with the mother and baby sloth that moved into a guaruma tree just a few yards from the patio of the home we were house sitting in the hills above Matapalo along Costa Rica’s Costa Ballena.

 

 

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Whale Watching – Pacific Coast, Costa Rica

Within the first 25 minutes of our whale watching cruise on board the Tom Cat 1 Catamaran out of Quepos on the southern Pacific Coast of Costa Rica we saw a full fluke and a full breach. Over the next three hours we saw at least two dozen humpback whales including mothers, calves and males in equally dramatic displays. We’d seen a few whales while hiking the newly opened Cathedral Point Trail in Manuel Antonio National Park, but nothing compared to the experience of being on the water with these huge animals.

Here are some humpback highlights.

Humpback Whale breach Costa Rica

This full breach of a humpback whale was an awesome way to kick off our whale watching trip in Costa Rica.

Humpback Whale breach splash Costa Rica

Humpback whales pretty much win every belly flop contest.

Humpback Whales Manuel Antonio National Park Costa Rica

It wasn’t uncommon for us to see groups of humpbacks, not just individual whales, during our whale watching trip in Costa Rica.

Humpback Whale fluke Costa Rica whale watching

An impressive full fluke.

Humpback Whale watching Costa Rica Manuel Antonio National Park

This humpback cruised past us not far from the catamaran we were on during a whale watching trip in Costa Rica.

Humpback Whales Breach & Fluke Costa Rica Whale watching

Either this is two humpbacks or we’ve got photographic evidence of a humpback version of the Loch Ness monster.

Humpback whale breach - Costa Rica whale watching tour

They make it look so easy and so fun.

Humpback Whale Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

A humpback checking us out as we checked it out.

Humpback Whale flippers - whale watching Costa Rica

Spouting and showing off those powerful flippers.

Humpback Whale spout Costa Rica whale watching

A humpback spouting and relaxing in a small cove off the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.

Humpback Whale tail fluke Manuel Antonio whale watching

Yeah, this fluke display got a round of applause from passengers on the boat.

Humpback Whale fin Manuel Antonio whale watching Costa Rica

A tiny bit of a massive humpback breaks the water as it travels by our whale watching boat in Costa Rica.

Humpback Whale fluke tail - Costa Rica

Our guide told us that the fluke displays and tail slapping that we saw were probably a way for male humpbacks to communicate and show off for the females.

We could practically see whales right from our room at the Parador Resort & Spa in Quepos. Built along an undulating ridge line, the 129 rooms at the Parador take advantage of some of the most spectacular coastal vistas in an area known for spectacular coastal vistas.

Parador Hotel Quepos Costa Rica Manuel Antonio

The Parador Resort & Spa in Quepos, Costa Rica has one of the most spectacular views on the Pacific Coast, including parts of Manuel Antonio National Park and passing whales.

Opened in 1995 by the Schans family, the Parador is one of the largest and most resort-like accommodation in Quepos. Set on 12 ares, the Parador includes three pools, a petite but full-service spa, walking trails and beach access. You wouldn’t think a resort of this size could be very green but the Parador is consistently recognized for its eco efforts including composting, water and energy conservation, collection and use of rainwater and support of local reforestation and beach clean up programs.

Pool Parador Hotel Quepos Costa Rica

One of the three pools at the Parador Resort & Spa in Quepos, Costa Rica.

With 129 rooms there are a lot of categories to choose from but our advice is to go big. The most spectacular rooms at the Parador are the premium plus rooms and the suites which earn every penny with spectacular ocean and coastal views, including portions of Manuel Antonio National Park. Want to do some whale watching right from bed? Book room #5532, which made our Best Hotels of 2012 list as “best bed with a view.”

 


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Get a Glimpse of it All – Manuel Antonio National Park, Quepos, Costa Rica

Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica has both feet squarely on the beaten path. Tens of thousands of locals and foreigners travel to this park on the Pacific Coast above the town of Quepos every year. There’s almost always a line to get in. Why? Part of the park’s popularity is its easy-to-reach location. It’s also home to one of the best beaches in Costa Rica and visitors are pretty much guaranteed to see both types of sloths, monkeys, frogs, migrating whales (in season) and more. Are there more peaceful, less trampled parks in Costa Rica? Absolutely. However, if your time is limited Manuel Antonio is a good place to get a glimpse of it all. Just don’t expect peace and quiet.

Baby Capuchin monkey Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

We are shamelessly luring you into this post with this adorable baby white-faced capuchin monkey spotted in Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica.

Howler monkey Manuel Antonio National Park Costa Rica

We have no idea why this howler monkey was sticking its tongue out.

Three toed sloth Manuel Antonio National Park Costa Rica

A male three-toed sloth. All males have that black racing stripe down their backs.

 

The animals of Manuel Antonio National Park

The animal sightings start within minutes of entering Manuel Antonio National Park (US$10 per person, closed Mondays). As you walk in along the wide dirt access road keep your eyes on the trees and bushes on either side.

We saw a green tree frog almost perfectly camouflaged on the green leaf of a banana tree. A three-toed sloth was climbing up the trunk of a guaruma tree, hand over hand rope climb style. We spotted a nocturnal two-toed sloth sitting out the day in a tree a bit further along.

Three toed sloth Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

A three-toed sloth works its way up a guaruma tree in Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica. It may still be at it…

White-faced capuchin monkeys hang out in large groups near this road too, sometime even scampering across on the ground. And don’t even get us started about the insects.

Capuchin monkey Manuel Antonio National Park

A young white-faced capuchin monkey swings over to check out Eric’s camera in Manuel Antonio National Park.

Capuchin monkey Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

A white-faced capuchin monkey finds the perfect perch for some people watching in busy Manuel Antonio National Park.

Three toed sloth Costa Rica Central America

Sloths are often covered in mold and infested with insects and they spend much of the day carefully scratching with their impressive claws.

Warning: We’ve heard stories of visitors who didn’t hire a guide (like us) being accused of “eaves dropping” as guides with spotting scopes working with paying customers spot and explain wildlife along the roadway into the park.  But there’s only one way in and the road can get crowded and it’s often inevitable that you will end up in close proximity of a guide whether you hired him or not.

The trails of Manuel Antonio National Park

Only five percent of the three square miles (6.8 square km) that are protected within Costa Rica’s smallest national park are accessible via trails. Sadly, many of those trails have been closed for maintenance for more than a year, much to the frustration of Manuel Antonio rangers. When we asked park rangers what the problem was one simply responded “the government.” This made us grumble that for US$10 from every foreigner who visits you’d think they could find the funds to keep the small network of trails open. Sheesh. But we digress.

When we were in the park for the first time in January we were able to hike the Serruchu Point Trail up to a view point over Escondido bay.. However, this trail was muddy, slippery and in poor condition. It would not surprise us if this trail was closed for “maintenance” soon.

In January we were also able to hike the Gemelas Trail, which splits off near the base of the Serruchu Point Trail, to reach Gemelas Beach with its two small “twin” coves and dramatic rocky cliffs. However, when we returned to Manuel Antonio in September this trail was closed.

Playa Gemelas Manuel Antonio National Costa rica

The trail to Gemelas Beach in Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica may or may not be open to hikers.

The looping, climbing coastal Cathedral Point Trail, easily the highlight trail in this park, was closed during our first visit in January but when we returned to the park in September the Cathedral Trail had re-opened thanks to private investment from a local car rental company called Europcar.

Yes, it’s sad that a Costa Rican national park had to seek a private sector partner to get this trail upgraded but at least, in this instance, the partnership worked. Cathedral Point Trail is now a delight with numerous miradors (view points) looking out over the Pacific Ocean with a prime views of migrating humpback whales in season. Want more whales? Check out the humpback highlights in this photo essay from the whale watching boat trip we did while we were in Quepos.

Humpback whale watching Manuel Antonio Quepos Costa Rica

We saw migrating humpback whales, including this mother and calf, from one of the view points on the newly upgraded and re-opened Cathedral Point Trail in Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica.

The mostly-shaded trail which climbs up and over the headland is well-built and there are only a few discretely placed Europcar signs along the way. In this case we felt this was a fair and reasonable tradeoff: we get a killer new trail and Europcar gets a couple of tasteful, small ads.

One of the best beaches in Costa Rica

The hiking is good (especially now that Cathedral Point Trail is back online) and the animal sightings are fun but the real gem of Manuel Antonio National Park is its namesake beach, Playa Manuel Antonio.

You will see park visitors rushing right past loitering sloths and beckoning trail heads to make a beeline to the calm, protected waters, perfectly arcing expanse of white sand and shaded high water line of this beach. There are even nearby showers and toilets.

Playa Manuel Antonio National Park Costa Rica

Playa Manuel Antonio, one of the best beaches in Costa Rica and one of the busiest.

This really is one of the best beaches in Costa Rica, as the expanse of bodies in the sun and shade will attest. Many of those people bring picnics and snacks with them, a fact that’s not lost on the park’s population of monkeys, racoons and coatis which have been turned into clever, lazy, fat and furry beggars over the years thanks to visitors who choose to ignore the park’s regulations against feeding wild animals.

Two toed sloth Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

A nocturnal two-toed sloth naps away the day in a tree just a few steps behind Playa Manuel Antonio.

White Face Capuchin monkey Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

The family that picks nits together…

Some of these animals have also become thieves, making off with unattended grocery bags and even entire backpacks. You really can’t turn your back on your belongings even for a second.

If you want to lose some of the crowd head a few hundred yards down the trail to Playa Espalda. Just be aware that the furry thieves are on this beach too.

Playa Espalda Manuel Antonio National Quepos

Playa Espalda, behind Playa Manuel Antonio via a trail that bisects the narrow spit, is nearly as beautiful and often far less crowded than its more famous neighbor.

Hotels around Manuel Antonio National Park

The area around the entrance to Manuel Antonio National Park is a jumble of mid-range accommodations and a few budget places as well. There’s also a scary resort literally right at the entrance. 

For a wider range of hotel and restaurant options and a more relaxed atmosphere head downhill away from the park entrance. Before you get all the way down to the town of Quepos (where you don’t want to stay unless you’re really, really, really on a budget) you’ll find hotels and restaurants lining the road.

For example, we handled sleeping and eating by staying at Hotel Makanda by the Sea. This place has six villas with full kitchens, three smaller studios with kitchenettes and two deluxe rooms plus one massive, sexy, four bedroom house with a huge living room, gourmet kitchen, private pool, outdoor grill an

Makonda-by-the-sea-Hotel-Costa-Rica

Karen enjoying the infinity-edge pool at Hotel Makanda By the Sea near Manuel Antonio National Park.

There’s also an awesome infinity-edge pool with Pacific Ocean veiws and a steep trail leads from Makanda down to a small, rocky beach which disappears at high tide

We had great wildlife encounters all over the hotel’s 12 acre (5 hectare) grounds including endangered titi (aka squirrel) monkeys swinging through the branches above the walkway to our room.

Titi monkey Squirrel Monkey Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

An endangered titi (squirrel) monkey in the trees above the balcony off our room at Hotel Makanda by the Sea near Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica.

One evening we pulled into the Hotel Makanda parking lot and discovered that a big stand of bamboo fallen over the driveway. Imagine our surprise when our headlights illuminated a sloth in the jumble of leaves and branches. The poor thing was clearly uncomfortable on the ground where it’s vulnerable to predators and was doing its slothy best to “hurry” to safety up a nearby tree.

Beach Makonda Hotel Quepos Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

Us watching the tide roll in on the small, rocky beach below Hotel Makanda by the Sea. Photo courtesy of Dos.

Manuel Antonio National Park Travel Tips

Your US$10 entrance fee to Manuel Antonio National Park allows for multiple entries in the same day just in case you want to take photos during morning and afternoon light or you didn’t see all the animals you wanted to see during your first visit.

If you arrive at the park in your own vehicle you will likely be accosted by parking touts on the side of the road who will claim that their lot is the very, very, absolutely last available place to park. They may even be wearing official-looking uniforms, but that doesn’t make them right. Some of these touts are located a mile (2 km) or more away from the actual park entrance. Just continue driving all the way to the park entrance and check on availability for yourself. We were able to park our very large truck mere steps from the entrance both times we visited.

And if you know who Manuel Antonio was, share the knowledge in the comments section below.

 

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Beach Bargain Travel Guide – Playa Jacó & Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica

When we traveled to Costa Rica for the first time back in 2000 Playa Jacó was a beach village populated by fishermen, surfers and in-the-know backpackers. Not long before that the area was so remote that old-timer fishermen can remember seeing jaguars on the beach. Recently we found a very different Jacó full of bungee jumping towers, sports bars and lots and lots of gringos. The streets were paved and backpacker prices were hard to come by, even if you move on to neighboring Playa Hermosa. Neither beach ranks as the best in Costa Rica but they are among the most accessible at just over 60 miles (100 km) from San Jose. With that in mind, here’s our beach bargain travel guide to these two popular Pacific Coast destinations.

Beach bargain hotels in Playa Hermosa and Jacó

We were looking for a more mellow vibe (and, perhaps, nicer prices) so we hightailed it out of Jacó and drove five miles (eight km) south to Playa Hermosa where we chose to stay at the clean and charming five room Costanera B&B. The surf is a few steps away, the Italian owners were welcoming and the mid-range price (from US$35 double) includes an awesome breakfast.

Though descent truly budget accommodation was hard to find in Jacó we did spend a night at the perfectly acceptable Jaco Inn Hostel in a private room with a shared bathroom for US$25 including use of a shared kitchen. Bring insect repellent.

Playa Hermosa Puntarenas Costa Rica

A rare shot of the two of us together as we wander down Playa Hermosa. Photo courtesy of Dos.

Beach bargain food in Playa Hermosa and Jacó

You can’t miss the signs for Taco Bar along the highway near Jacó and you shouldn’t miss a meal (or three) there either. It’s not a bargain at around US$10 for a plate with two big fish tacos and unlimited access to a delicious and varied salad, sauce and condiments bar. But it is a delicious, fresh splurge that satisfies.

We learned too late that from 4-10 they’ll sell you a two taco plate for the price of a one taco plate but you need to present a flyer (available at some hostels and hotels including the Jacó Inn Hostel) to get that special price. Do not confuse Taco Bar with Jacó Taco. They are not the same.

If you have access to a kitchen at your hostel or hotel you should know that the Auto Mercado in Playa Herradura, four miles (six km) north of Jacó, is the best-stocked supermarket on the Pacific Coast, though there are decent supermarkets in Jacó as well.

What to see and do in Playa Hermosa and Jacó

Endangered scarlet macaws are slowly making a comeback along the Costanera Highway around Jacó . They’re often spotted in the trees on the hillside near a large dusty turn out off the highway just south of Jacó. We saw scarlet macaws there on numerous occasions and it’s worth a shot to try your luck, especially in the morning or late afternoon. Plus, it’s free.

Scarlet Macaws Playa Hermosa Costa Rica

Endangered scarlet macaws are slowly making a comeback near Playa Jacó and we know where you’ve got a good chance of spotting them.

Scarlet Macaws flying Jaco Costa Rica

Endangered scarlet macaws are slowly making a comeback near Playa Jacó and we know where you’ve got a good chance of spotting them.

Scarlet Macaws Costa Rica

Endangered scarlet macaws are slowly making a comeback near Playa Jacó and we know where you’ve got a good chance of spotting them.

To see more macaws and other tropical birds visit Carara National Park (US$10 per person) 14 miles (22 km) north of Jaco. Notably, in May of 2013 Carara unveiled a .75 mile (1.2 km) handicapped accessible walkway, a rarity in Central American parks.

Near the entrance of Carara the Costanera highway crosses the Rio Tarcoles. You will always see vehicles parked by the bridge and people on the bridge looking down at the river. Why? A large group of very large crocodiles lives beneath the bridge.

Lagartos Crocodiles Rio Tarcoles River bridge

On your way to Playa Jacó and Playa Hermosa park and walk onto the bridge over the Rio Tarcoles for safe-distance views of the enormous crocs that live in the river.

We also enjoyed watching our friend Dos take surfing lessons in Jacó where there’s no shortage of surf schools and instructors to choose from.

Learn to surf lessons Jaco Beach, Costa Rica

Our friend Dos making the most of the surf on Playa Jacó.

 

Jacó Travel Tips

Chifrijo Costa RicaA few miles after you exit the pay highway from San Jose and enter the Costanera Highway headed to Jacó you will see a handful of roadside stands on your right. Look for one with a handwritten sign that says “Hoy Chifrijo.” Pull into the dusty parking area and be prepared for the best example we had of San Jose’s signature dish. Chifrijo (left) is a big bowl filled with white rice and red beans topped with chopped tender pork then chopped chicharon (fried pork skin) then doused with pico de gallo and a squeeze of lime. The chifrijo they make here (US$5 including a soda) is so good it made our Best Food & Beverages of 2012 list.

 

 

Oh, and learn to pronounce Jacó correctly: it’s Ha-COE with the emphasis on the final syllable.

These two beaches are so popular that we suspect some of you have been here too. Share your own Playa Jacó and Playa Hermosa beach bargain travel tips by leaving a comment, below.

Sunset Jaco Beach Puntarenas Costa Rica

Sunset from Jacó in Costa Rica.

 

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