Tuesday, July 01, 2008
Adventure in Costa Rica - The Journey
Costa Rica, at least to me, has always been one of those places that I wanted to visit, but not quite enough to actually make it happen. Sure, I've heard of the nice beaches and the incredible variety in scenery and wildlife, but still, places like Australia, Egypt, or China have been above Costa Rica in my list of places to visit. After all, the pyramids, the Great Barrier Reef, or the Great Wall just are more obvious targets for "must see" places. So I filed Costa Rica under "cool to see if I get the chance" just above other Central American countries like Honduras or Panama.
All that changed this spring however, when the in-law's 50th anniversary came up, which was to be celebrated with a trip to Costa Rica. As it turns out, Costa Rica is not just "nice", but it is incredible!
A little research revealed that even though Costa Rica only represents about 0.1% of the world's land mass (the surface that is out of the water), it hosts an incredible 5% of the world's bio-diversity. In other words: about 1/20th of the world's animal and plant species can be found in Costa Rica. Or, to look at it slightly different: If you go to Costa Rica, you will get to see about 50 times as much as other places!
Our trip to Costa Rica started out in Houston, with a convenient direct flight into the capitol city of San Jose. Total flight time was a little over 3 hours, so shorter than many of the domestic flights I take in the US. We arrived in the afternoon and traveled on to our first hotel, which was just slightly outside of San Jose. The parts of San Jose I got to see where not really inviting, and I wasn't to sad to not have spent much time there. It looks like most capitol cities in relatively poor countries do: Most locals seem to gravitate there, and there are many poor areas and not much to do for a foreigner.
We spent our first night at the Vista del Valle Plantation Inn, which was just far enough outside the city to be cool. It is set completely in what I would have considered the jungle (until I saw the real jungle) and has some very nice scenery. It was nicely secluded and completely quiet. The perfect way to start a jungle vacation and to forget about the stressful days that had lead up to the trip. In fact, the thought had occurred to me that this hotel would have been the ideal place to disappear to and write a book. Nobody there to bother you. Nice places to sit and and just lean back and relax.
Our room at the Vista del Valle Plantation Inn
The only thing that was slightly less than perfect was that it rained as we arrived. Our trip took place in May. For those of us that didn't pay in geography class: That means the rainy season is about to start. I hadn't really paid too much attention to that, and besides, a lot of people told us that that was a great time to go, as the weather was not quite as hot, yet it didn't rain all that much yet. "2 hours every afternoon to cool things down" is what people who went to Costa Rica before had told us. We figured we could handle 2 hours of rain a day.
So we spent a nice night at the Plantation Inn (it stopped raining later) and had a nice dinner at the hotel's quiet restaurant (the only one easily reachable there without a car). I really only have good things to say about the hotel. The hotel was nice. The rooms were all in little bungalows and were quite nice, with a certain jungle-book-flair. And the people there were very nice too (a statement that is true for just about everyone I met in Costa Rica). When we arrived at the hotel, we didn't check in, but we simply left our luggage in the van and we were just shown around the hotel's gardens and swimming pool area, the restaurant, and all the different plants they had (since this really felt like the middle of the jungle). When we finally arrived at our rooms, our luggage was already there, and we realized our vacation had already begun 30 minutes earlier. In short: It was a very nice experience.
The next morning, we continued our journey to get the the first "real" destination: The Corcovado Jungle Lodge at the edge of the Corcovado National Park, one of the must stunning national parks in all of Costa Rica. National Geographic calls it "the most biologically intense place on Earth". The lodge we were headed for was right at the edge of the park and a perfect starting place to explore it. However, our interest wasn't just in visiting the park. Getting there is a little adventure all in itself. From San Jose, one can take a small jungle-hopper flight into Palma Sur, which is a small jungle airstrip. We took a flight on Nature Air, the world's only carbon-neutral airline (according to their own claims anyway). The flight itself is - shall we say - "interesting". The plane is relatively small, and the weather wasn't all that great, so it was a bit bumpy. What impressed me most was landing in the jungle. You could swear they are putting the plane down into the palm trees, until, at the last moment, the landing strip appears and everything works out fine (against all odds, as it seems to the rookie jungle passenger).
Nature Air flight from San Jose to Palma Sur
Palma Sur airport is quite small. Hardly more than a roof on four posts. There is no baggage claim there. The pilot gets out of the cockpit and fishes your bag out of the cargo hold and hands it over right on the tarmac.
Palma Sur airport. Terminal A I guess...
From there, you are on your own. Well, almost. We were in luck, because our assigned guide from the Corcovado Jungle Lodge (who was assigned to us for the entire stay there) picked us up and packed us into a van for the 20 minute ride to a nearby river, which was our "road" to Corcovado. That's right: The remaining 2 hours of the trip took us down a river and across the ocean to our final destination. I really enjoyed this part of the trip. After all, it's not every day that you go somewhere without roads. The boat was small and could only fit about 8 people (including our guide and the boat captain). (Note: We were told there was a 25lbs baggage weight limit due to this boat ride, but the guys there had never heard of such a limit). The boat ride was pretty entertaining as there was lots to see along the winding river, and even within the river, since there are crocodiles. However, the boat is big enough to provide enough protection for even the most squeamish of passengers.
The boat in front (blue top) is the one we rode to the hotel
Going through the mangrove on the way to the hotel
A bit more than the first half of the boat ride was spent on the river, and we stopped several times to look at wildlife or the scenery. Danny (our guide) took the time to point out all kinds of things, from crocs to birds and other things. After about an hour, the river opened up into a pretty wide delta before it opens up to the Pacific ocean. At that point, the ride got a bit bumpier, and would not have been all that great for those who tend to get sea-sick. Personally, I enjoyed the boat-ride part of the trip a lot. After all, how often do you go somewhere these days where the journey includes transport on a boat?
One of the "friendly natives", an American Crocodile. Not at all like gators...
After a boat ride that all-in-all took a bit less than 2 hours, we reached our destination at the edge of the national park. Casa Corcovado is a small eco tourism hotel that is completely cut off from the rest of the world. There is no Internet and cell phones do not work. The only means of communication is the hotel's radio. Electricity is available within limits, since all the electricity is produced by the hotel by means of solar collectors. All this goes along with Costa Rica's push for sustainable eco tourism, and I was quite impressed by the entire setup. Here we were, in the middle of the "real" jungle, with unbelievable scenery and wildlife around and hardly any connection to the outside world, yet we had electricity and a swimming pool. Nice!
The hotel itself is set up as a series of bungalows and individual small buildings that blend into the environment quite nicely. Every room is its own building that's a bit separate from the next building over. There is no air condition and no glass windows. Mosquito netting is all that is needed, as the temperature year around is such that no heating or air condition is required. However, I am told that in February and March, it does get a bit warm and the ceiling fan is much appreciated. Overall, the entire style of the hotel reminded me of colonial times. The contrast between the wilderness and the amazing flora and fauna all around, and the comfort of the hotel, was quite startling.
Our "room" at Casa Corcovado
The same room from the inside
The hotel's restaurant and bar
Ready for a dip in the jungle swimming pool?
The total capacity of the hotel is about 40 or so people, but when we were there, there never were more than 15 people counting the six of us. It made for a very nice atmosphere at breakfast and dinner, which was always held at the hotel's restaurant, which really was the only place to get food. The menu was limited to a few choices each day, but every day it changed. Most of the food was Costa Rican, and I quite enjoyed it. For instance, for the first course of the first evening, soup was served out of a cut-in-half coconut that was collected right on the beach belonging to the lodge. Pretty cool!
So those were the first 24 hours of our trip to Costa Rica. Our vacation and our adventures hadn't hardly even started yet, but as I fell into my bed dead-tired at 6pm (which is when the equatorial pitch-black night starts), I realized that the trip had already been worthwhile. The rain had started again and dripped on the roof. We could hear the sounds of the jungle. And nothing else. A perfect setting to get a good night's sleep before we were ready to venture into the jungle. But that shall be the topic of my next blog post...
This post belongs to a series of posts describing our trip to Costa Rica (May 2008). The following is a list of all 4 posts in this series: