Costa Rica - Off the beaten track
My aim is to see the world. All of it. Therefore, I usually don't go to the same country twice in order to be able to see another country I have not visited yet.
This year, I made an exception. And I am glad I did. After 9 years, I went back to Costa Rica to volunteer again in this awesome seaturtle project on the caribbean side of the country. I will do a separate post about this soon, stay tuned.
9 years ago I went only for that project and did not see much of the rest of the country. This year I had time to add another week to indulge in this country of plenty.
I like holidays off the beaten track, so all I booked beforehand was the flight and a hotel in the area I planned to see. I did not research, what I could do and see there. I did google though to rule out destinations I don't need to see. Since Costa Rica is booming, there are a lot of destinations flooded with tourists. I prefer holidays where I can meet locals, engage with local culture and wildlife, etc.
So, the first destination that went OFF my list was Puerto Viejo. As it is a very beautiful spot, it is one of the main tourist areas. Pretty much all the tourists I met in Costa Rica were there at least a few days. Other destinations that went off my list were Jaco and Manuel Antonio and of course San José. The capital city did not impress me much when I was there 9 years ago so I decided to skip it this time completely. I went to the old capital instead, Cartago, and stayed literally in paradise. El Salto Ecolodge in Paraiso was just what I needed. A cosy little boutique hotel, ecofriendly, awesome views over the Orosí Valley and Lake Cachí, great food and the most friendly and open owner you could imagine. Really a home away from home.
As I said, I did not plan much ahead. I rented a car (4x4) and explored the valley in front of me. At the hotel, I downloaded google maps for the area to work offline and then just drove off.
I was close to the Turrialba volcano that just started being active again 2-3 weeks before my holidays. So I tried to go see it of course. But being in Costa Rica during rainy season means there is a lot of fog around and it does rain every now and then. The rain does not bother me much, it is still around 27 degrees Celsius in October/November so you only get a little wet but not cold. The fog on the other hand was a bit annoying, always clouding up around the top of the volcano. So seeing the volcano was not always possible. Best times were before 9 am or after 4pm. And then again, you can not get too close to the volcano anyway. About 8 km from the volcano, the police installed road blocks, not allowing tourists to get any closer. So instead of seeing the volcano, I had a nice chat with the police officers showing me pictures from the morning or the day before where the volcano was clearly visible from the point I was right at that moment. Charming, right?
And then, the one officer even tried to make a deal, he offered to take me closer to the volcano if I go on a date with him. Since the view was really bad anyway, I declined. But that encounter made my day.
Just driving around with no goal but to see the area is very nice. You can stop wherever you like it and you are very flexible. But you have to be prepared that in Costa Rica, everything takes longer than expected. For one, mostly only the main roads are paved, and even those have many many holes in them. The lesser travelled roads were mainly gravel or even dirt roads. That is why I rented the 4x4, and I was very glad I did.
With these roads, you understand that maximum speed is hardly ever over 40 kmh, on the even worse roads where I usually drove even only 10-20 kmh, so travelling around takes time. And you have to be flexible, because every once in a while, the road you took just stops. Either because a landslide made a big hole into the road where only the knight riders car could jump over or the road just ends and you have to go all the way back. I enjoyed it even more like this.
One day, I went to see the Sanatorio Durán. I found this while googling places I DON'T want to visit. The Sanatorio is an abandoned sanatorium from 1918. Since I do like abandoned places I thought I'll give this a try. I was there in low season so I had the whole sanatorium to myself. It is a huge place and it is said to be haunted. Well, I did not see any ghosts, but while I was there, it did feel a little creepy, especially while being all alone. More interesting than the ghosts was the architecture, or more how the rooms were used. There was a bakery room just in front of the Morgue, and behind that was the dining and cinema room. There was a huge building only for women and children, and a smaller one for guys and one building for married couples. After about 1.5 h, a local school class showed up at the place. They did not know I was there so I decided to have a little fun with them. I hid in the darkest room there (the x-ray room) and when some of them came there and flashed their phone-lights into the room (yes it was that dark), they got scared to actually see me there, staring at them...and then we all laughed. It made both our visits excellent.
Cartago was the capital of Costa Rica before San José. As I said before, San José is not my cup of tea. And if you ask around, you will not find many people (if at all) recommending that city. Cartago on the other hand has much more charm, friendlier people, it is safer and a little smaller. I spent almost a whole day in the market in the middle of the city. I have to say I love those markets with all their food stalls where you can buy fresh and local produced fruits, veggies, meat and fish. I spent over an our at one of the fruit &veggie booths, talking to the owner. He basically gave me a lesson about all the local fruits he had on display. And he gave me each and every single one of those to eat. I am talking about fruits like the guanabana, mamón chino or the kas but also the variety of bananas and platanos. Did you know that even the most common banana comes in different colours? While they all look yellow from the outside, there are bananas with a white flesh, yellow flesh, golden flesh, etc. And they all are extremely delicious. At the end, the owner did not even let me pay for all the fruits I ate, that is how generous and friendly Ticos are and how much they enjoy talking to interested people as well. So if you go there, don't hesitate to chat up the people working there, even if you don't speak spanish too well.
In my later post about the seaturtle project I will also talk more about the diversity in nature, as Costa Rica is a paradise for wildlife and nature lovers. And the government actually cares for conservation. There are many national parks and protected areas, recycling is not only theoretical and this year, 98.12% of the energy was generated from renewable sources. Costa Rica is really one of a kind. It has something for everybody: sandy beaches, waves for surfing, national parks ideal for birdlovers and wildlife spotters, volcanos, adventure & hiking opportunities and the best fruits and foods you could wish for.
I am a swiss photographer (www.fmphotography.ch),
a travel, wildlife, volunteer and outdoors addict who cares about zero waste, the environment and simply our planet.