Vacation to Costa Rica and Panama

Aug. 5-19, 1996

Jeff Ward

Aug. 5

We (Jennifer F., hereafter referred to as JF, and I) leave Monday evening for CR (Costa Rica) on an all night flight. This is our first trip to CR. I went to Guatemala once about 15 years ago, but she has never been to Central America at all. The plane is small and completely full. I couldn’t sleep because it is noisy and the captain or somebody keeps interrupting. The flight is very uncomfortable. We stop in El Salvador for about an hour, but we’re not allowed to leave the plane. I sat next to a guy going home to El Salvador from Calif. for the first time in many years. We have a conversation in Spanish. My Spanish is pretty good, JF’s is only fair—she studied French in college. The conversation is interesting, but I would rather have the window seat that he is sitting in. Lessons learned for next time: no all-nighters if possible; window seat; and find out what kind of plane it is first—this thing is just too small.

Aug. 6

We land in Alajuela, CR, and share a taxi ride to the capital, SJ (San Jose). Everything outside looks pretty nice and clean for Latin America. We go directly to the Hotel Bella Vista and check into #10 which is an upstairs room. The hotel is small and economical—probably a large house that has been converted. Sleep! We get up in afternoon, walk down the street, have lunch at a fried chicken place. Then we walk downtown, eventually finding the P.O. There is a postal and stamp museum there, but it is not open. We now have some CR paper money, and each kind of bill has a different building or monument on the back. As we walk thru town, we see several of these buildings and monuments. We go to the Jade Museum. It is very interesting with lots of beautiful jade artifacts as well as other archaeological items. We are on something like the 11th or 12th floor, and there is a great view of the city from here. The downtown area has numerous parks and plazas. It rains a little. We return to the hotel, and later walk to dinner at the La Hacienda restaurant (mentioned in the guidebook). The steak dinner is great! The guidebook is turning out to be very helpful.

Aug. 7

I take a few pictures of SJ. In the hotel cafe, I eat the free breakfast that comes with the room. The waitress/cook messes up the order somewhat. We tour the National Museum which is only about a block away. Like yesterday’s museum, there are many school kids visiting. I get a good feel for CR cultural history from the two museums. We walk down the hill and look at vendor stalls. There are some good ideas for souvenirs here. Then we leave SJ and take a bus to Limón on the Caribbean. We go thru mountains, where there are many coffee fields. We go to the Hotel Puerto in Limón (again, from the guidebook), but the name has changed. It looks OK, so we stay. The guidebook says that sloths live in the trees in the city park. We walk over there to try to see them, but no luck. We walk along the waterfront at night and feel the warm Caribbean breezes. We find a Chinese restaurant for dinner. The rice and beef I ordered has good flavor and a huge quantity of rice. Eating and most other things are very economical in CR. They served my beer on ice, but I decided to be safe, so I carried the ice cubes outside and threw them in the street.

Aug. 8

I go out for coffee alone. On the wall where I stop is a poster with a photograph of Costa Rican Claudia Poll winning the swimming gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics. I remember watching that event on television at home only about two weeks ago! We again walk to the park, but still can’t find the sloths, even though a local guy tries to help us find them. We walk along the waterfront and take pictures. Then we take a bus south to the small resort town of Cahuita, not far from the Panama border. The road parallels the coast, and at times we have beautiful views of the Caribbean beaches. Two operators of cabins in Cahuita are on the bus, one sitting next to me. I practice some Spanish with her. Somebody offers JF a drink of something like rum, but she declines. We arrive at Cahuita and check in at the Cabinas Palmer—one of the ladies on the bus owns it. We then walk to the black sand beach, swim, and take pictures. We return to the cabin, and I try to dry out my tennis shoes. We go to dinner at Miss Edith’s. (The guidebook raves about this place.) Even though we are the first customers of the evening, we have to wait more than an hour. No alcoholic beverages are served here, but they have excellent fruit drinks. The food is very good. After dinner, we go to a bar down the street from our cabin. There are only a few customers. I drink beer, we listen to the music.

Aug. 9

We catch the bus to the entrance of Cahuita National Park, on the main highway a few miles from town. We will be heading toward town as we walk thru the park. The hike takes most of the day. At first we see various kinds of crabs, lizards, and butterflies, and hear the howler monkeys. I recognize the sound from my Guatemala experience. JF is skeptical that monkeys would sound like that (very eerie, like a haunted house is supposed to sound). After a while, the trail parallels the beach. It goes by the visitor center and campground. Later, we see a group of howlers at close range, just above us in the trees. We swim at the white sand beach, not far from town. As we near town, it starts to rain fairly hard. We leave the park at the Cahuita entrance station. It is only a few blocks to our cabin. Later, we go to dinner at the Cahuita NP restaurant, right next to the entrance. On the way, we see a sloth crossing the road and watch it for about ten minutes. This is incredible. Who would believe that such an animal could exist? It moves in a kind of exaggerated slow motion as if it had a terrible case of arthritis. There are a few dogs nearby, and they give it a wide berth. A local man says the sloth crosses the road every evening at about this time. He also says in his Caribbean English, “Nobody like sloth.” But I also notice that nobody bothers sloth. Even the occasional passing vehicle makes sure that it misses it. At the restaurant, we make plans to go next morning to Tortuguero (at the north end of CR’s Caribbean coast near Nicaragua) to see the giant turtles lay their eggs.

Aug. 10

We have breakfast at the same restaurant as last night. This is also where we catch the Tortuguero tour bus. I take picture of a huge June bug in the road. It’s as big as a mouse. We go by van to Moín (just past Limón), then board the tour boat for Tortuguero. It travels thru the inland canal system just in from the coast. The boat driver/guide is very good at spotting wildlife. But he misses the sloth that I spot sleeping in a tall tree that leans over the water. It turns out to be the only other sloth we see during the entire trip. The boat turns around and goes back for a closer view. Then the other boats behind us take their turns. I’m a hero, but few realize it. We stop for lunch along the way. There are many tourists, and most seem to be from Italy. There is a pet toucan here that hops down from the rafters, then eats off a tourist’s plate. Toucans are so adorable looking! They are easily my favorite kind of bird.

We arrive at Tortuguero. There are problems finding a place to stay at first, but we eventually stay at Cabinas Tortuguero, right in town. A ranger gives us an orientation about the night’s turtle watch. The rules are pretty strict. We eat dinner at a nearby restaurant. Good service—we are almost the only people there. We walk around the area at night and come across some exhibits about the giant turtles and their habits. We then go a place more-or-less next door to the dinner restaurant for a beer. At the next table are a bunch of Americans (early twenties). They are wondering what band did “Funky Town,” a 1979 song that is playing over the speaker system. So I tell them it was Lipps, Inc. (pronounced like “lip sync”), an obscure studio band from Minneapolis. I explain that I am a big pop music fan and that this is one of my favorite songs from that era.

At ten in the evening, we go on the turtle hike. It is cloudy and very dark with no moon. After walking along the beach for at least a half hour, the ranger spots drag marks in the sand indicating that a giant turtle has beached to lay eggs. We wait for maybe 45 minutes while the ranger watches the turtle. It is a Green turtle, the most numerous of the three species of giant turtles that lay their eggs on these beaches. When the turtle finishes digging and starts laying, the ranger illuminates the back of the pit with his flashlight so that we can see the eggs dropping. We watch the turtle lay maybe 100 eggs. The turtle then starts to bury them with sand, but we have to leave before she finishes.

Aug. 11

We have breakfast at the same place as last night. I take pictures of the green parrot they have captured as a pet. (This turns out to be one of the best photos I take during the trip. I have a big print mounted on my office wall along with a shot of the Cahuita black sand beach.) We go on a boat tour thru nearby canals with the same boat and guide that brought us here. This is really good. We see toucans, giant grasshoppers, a small fresh-water turtle, a small crocodile, many different kinds of birds and butterflies, bats, monkeys, an iguana, and great scenery. Along the way, we stop at a Canadian research station. We walk thru their grounds and see a hummingbird and a red poisonous frog. We then return to Moín with the same boat and guide. More monkeys, including spider monkeys, iguanas, birds, a river otter, plus some dead fish apparently due to pollution from farms. We take a cab to the bus station in Limón. After a brief wait, we take the bus to SJ. Same highway, but the opposite direction thru the mountains with the coffee fields. We return to the Hotel Bella Vista. Our room is upstairs, but in a different location. We discover a second route to the lobby—this one has a series of CR coats-of-arms on the wall showing the historical development from the first version to the present day. We walk to the post office, but the stamp museum is closed. It is Sunday, but they said it would be open. For dinner, most of the restaurants we would like to try are closed, but we find an Italian one open. It is quite good, but then we didn’t go to a bad one the whole trip. At the other two tables in our little alcove, we meet an American couple on their honeymoon and a Swiss couple. Some of the conversation is in Spanish. The Swiss couple speaks French, but JF, who is fluent in French, is too bashful to use it with them. We trade stories of our experiences and tips on how to do things in CR.

Aug. 12

We again have the free breakfast at the Bella Vista. This time I and the waitress/cook do it right. We go to the Post Office to see the stamp museum. This is somewhat of a disappointment because I expected them to have something close to a complete collection of CR stamps. Instead, they are displaying several private collections of various themes that include stamps from around the world. However, they do have a good selection of CR issues. I buy some commemorative issues at the philatelic window to use on my own mail. They include an issue honoring CR athletes, including Olympic participants. We leave SJ and take a bus to the Arenal volcano. We stay in the town of Fortuna at the Hotel Burria. Dinner is three doors down at a place recommended by the guidebook. We can see the volcano, except for the top, which is in clouds. The volcano has been continuously erupting since the late l960’s. We take an evening tour to the volcano. The red hot lava cascades continuously down thru the clouds while the guide, in Spanish, gives the history of the volcano and its impact on the immediate area. It’s like watching fireworks. Then the tour takes us to a natural hot springs where we take a dip for about an hour and a half. In the men’s dressing room, there is an immense green grasshopper. Bugs can be huge in the tropics.

Aug. 13

We have breakfast at the same place as the night before. I decide that I just have to take back some of this Lizano sauce that most restaurants put on every table (like they do ketchup in the U.S.). It is a tangy, mildly hot sauce of a sort of brown color and very delicious. It is made in CR. We decide to visit the waterfall area outside of town. We take a cab as far as the road permits—maybe a mile from the falls. On the way, we meet three girls from Orange County, CA. At the falls, there are many tourists from all over the world. I meet two guys from Minnesota, a girl from Germany, and a girl from Hong Kong. There is a large waterfall, a smaller one, and a beautiful stream flowing away from them. We wish we had brought our swim suits. JF decides to go in anyway with her clothes on, choosing the pool underneath the big waterfall. I finish a roll of film and load a new one. But problems with the winding mechanism cause the loss of several shots at the beginning of the new roll. We finally head back, hoping to catch a ride. We hear the volcano rumbling.

The walk is long, and as we near town a cab picks us up. We check out of the hotel, mail some postcards, and then discover that the quickest bus back toward SJ has already left. The cab driver from yesterday takes us to a nearby town (Tanque) to catch a different bus. Fortunately, just as we are arriving, the bus comes—apparently a little early. We get on and head back, planning to stop at the Alajuela airport. I buy a souvenir Coke key chain that I eventually give to my youngest daughter Sharon. At the airport, we rent a car (stick shift with a bumpy ride) after a fairly long process of shopping and waiting. We drive to a nearby Burger King for dinner, trying to decide whether to stay in Alajuela for the night or head toward Poás National Park. We decide to stay here, but have a hard time finding an affordable hotel. We finally do, and stay at the Mango Verde.

Aug. 14

We get up early and drive toward Poás. I would like some coffee, and we would both like breakfast, but we can’t find anything open. Finally, after driving into the mountains, we see a sign near the park entrance advertising a lodge down a side road. We decide to take a chance and try it. It is open, and we are the first and only customers. After a long wait, we get breakfast and the coffee. It is rather chilly with a piney scent in the air from pines and other evergreen type trees grow've been. There are some beautiful views down over the central plateau of Costa Rica. The owner tells JF that they are available to tow us if we need it. It doesn't take long to find out what they are talking about. On the way out, the car is not powerful enough to get past a steep part of the dirt road. Their truck pulls us past this spot, and we are then able to reach the main highway.

We drive up to the park. It is cold with a light drizzle. We go into the visitor center and look at the exhibits. They have done a good job with this—the exhibits are well done, in the style of U.S. national park visitor centers. We hiing nearby. It’s like being in the Rockies. The windows are open and there is no glass. Quite a contrast to other places weke to the crater rim, but we can't see anything because the crater is full of clouds (i.e., fog). We take some trails. They are interesting but not spectacular. We return to the visitor center for a snack. We decide to pay to see the insect room. This is well worth it. They have thousands of insects on display from all over the world. It is amazing that some of these creatures could exist.

We drive back to the Alajuela airport and turn in the car. We also try to buy tickets to Panama City for the afternoon flight. This is a close call as we almost don’t get everything done in time. But we fly to Panama. The flight takes about an hour. We take a cab into Panama City, and the ride lasts as long as the plane trip. Traffic is heavy, and then the cab runs out of gas. The driver calls for a backup which arrives fairly soon. We go the rest of the way and then check in at the Hotel Montreal. JF goes for a walk while I take a nap. We go out for dinner, choosing a restaurant by retracing JF’s steps. We pick an Italian place. There is almost no one else there except for the waiters. I tell the waiter this our first day ever in Panama and that I want to sample the beers of Panama. He thinks this is great fun. Panama has four local brands, and the restaurant carries three of them, plus Lowenbrau, which is brewed locally. Dinner is very good and so is the beer. The owner comes to our table to chat with us. She is quite a character. She talks about her lovers and friends in high places, plans for the restaurant, where she has lived, and numerous other things. She gives me a free beer and JF a free dessert. Dinner lasts for maybe three hours.

Aug. 15

1 am very tired when I wake up. Must be all the Panamanian beer from last night. But we have to get going if we are to see anything in Panama. We arrange for a hotel employee to take us on a tour, then drop us off at the airport. This turns out to be a great idea because we see a lot during our short visit. The only drawback is that the driver’s Spanish is hard to understand, and he doesn’t speak English. We first go to the Canal at the Miraflores locks. We are the only tourists at first. There is a visitor center-museum which is quite good and a pavilion with bleacher type seats to watch the boats go thru the locks. A guide explains what is happening. Then a horde of Japanese tourists arrive. We watch a big ship enter and then leave a lock. I buy some souvenirs. We then visit the French cemetery, some of the Canal facilities that are gradually being turned over to Panama, the bayfront, areas of old Panama City, and some ruins. We stop along the waterfront at the Statue of Balboa. By chance, a local television station is filming a stunt for the Panamanian “Candid Camera” TV program, and our driver is a victim. Traffic is very heavy, so we are afraid we won’t make the plane, but we do, just barely. We return to Alajuela and take the bus to SJ. We try a new hotel, the Ritz, which is Swiss run. It is small and definitely not ritzy, but is the kind of place we look for: basic and economical. We go to dinner at a French restaurant. The food is great, and we have a conversation with a family at the next table. She is a black woman from New York City; he is from Germany. They have two cute little daughters who are at the table with them. He says he was one the first to start the eco-tourism concept in CR. He has a ranch in the north central part of CR that still serves as an eco-tourism location. He also has a resort in the town of Puerto Viejo, just south of Cahuita.

Aug. 16

This is our shopping day. We take a bus to the campus of the University of CR to see if I can find an official looking tee-shirt. It takes quite awhile, but I finally find one, altho not so official looking. Then we take a cab to a suburb called Moravia. This place was recommended for its souvenirs. We spend hours going thru all the shops in a two block area. I finally find what I am looking for: a cute toucan figurine, plus as an added and unexpected bonus, an official looking, altho red, UCR tee-shirt. I also buy other souvenirs including replicas of traditional CR ox-carts (large and small), toucan earrings, a shirt for Brooke’s (my older daughter) baby, a jewel box. We return to SJ where I buy CR coffee, a can and bottle of CR coke (for Sharon, my younger daughter who collects Coke paraphernalia), and Lizano sauce. We have the souvenirs out of the way. We go to dinner at a Chinese place. I have beef in a ginger cream sauce—it is incredibly good. Then we return to the Hotel Ritz.

Aug. 17

We’re off to the Pacific after leaving a lot of our things in storage at the Ritz. We wanted to go to Ballena National Park, but the road is washed out, so we settled on Playa Herradura and the Carrara Biological Reserve. The trip to the Pacific by bus is shorter than to the Atlantic. We get off at Jacó and eat lunch. Then we take a cab to Playa Herradura. We check in at Casa Herradura. Then down to the beach (approx. 100 feet from the front door) for a swim. The scenery is gorgeous. I kill a giant cockroach in the room that was terrifying JF. We eat dinner at the restaurant attached to the hotel. I have a casado, a traditional CR dish that comes in several varieties. I have had several on this trip and each one was different.

Aug. 18

1 discover that my tape player is missing. I look everywhere in the room and in my things. We go back to Jacó, but it doesn’t turn up. We go by cab to Carrara. On the hike, we see two different coatimundis in the trees, a small one and then a big one. (Coatimundis are closely related to raccoons, although usually larger, and are found in tropical America.) We walk to the bus station a couple of miles away. On the way, we go back into Carrara, a short way along a muddy path and see a flock of macaws. We walk along the highway toward the bus stop. As we reach the bridge near the bus top, we can see some large crocodiles. We take the bus back to SJ and check back into the Hotel Ritz. We have dinner at Pizza Hut. By this time, our cash is almost gone, and we are mainly using credit cards.

Aug. 19

We get up very early and take the bus to Alajuela. We eat at the airport, but we don’t eat much because there is almost no cash left. We board the plane and fly to LA on United. Unfortunately, the plane is the same kind as before. The employees are real jerks. I decide that I hate United Airlines. From the airport, I call Sharon and leave a message for her to pick us up when we arrive in San Diego. She does.