Why I wanted to go to Costa Rica
I first became permanently fascinated with Costa Rica years ago when I learned that it was the only country in the world whose government had not only abolished its military but had also designated a full one-fourth of its territory as national parks. Also, I was intrigued by the fact that so many of my friends and acquaintances had already been to Costa Rica, and that they were unanimous in recommending a trip there.
Except for two past trips to Mexico (most recently in 2013), the trip last month to Costa Rica was my first foray into Latin America: I’ve always preferred European destinations for my overseas vacations (most recently, my trip with some friends last October to France and Italy).
Why I chose to go to Costa Rica this year
After my San Francisco friend Harvey told me about his trip to CR in 2014, his favorable report triggered my resolve to move Costa Rica slightly higher on my List. When my Atlanta-based travel buddy Randall realized he could patch together a two-week vacation in 2015 by combining his leave time at work with his employer’s Thanksgiving holidays, we decided to venture overseas together again during that time, I knew I’d want to head somewhere toward the equator (where it’s warm in November) rather than flying somewhere in Europe.
A few months ago while Randall and I were in Asheville, North Carolina conducting some oral history interviews for the Gay Spirit Visions archive at Georgia State University, we stayed at the house of a friend of Randall’s. When that friend, Greg, heard about the trip we’d planed to Costa Rica, he decided he’d liked to join us, so the three of us left Atlanta on November 13th and stayed until November 27th. (Which means that I missed my family’s annual Thanksgiving gathering – something I regret and probably won’t do again.)
The three traveling amigos, halfway through our vacation:
The places we visited, and how we got around
Although Costa Rica is a relatively small country – approximately the size of West Virginia – its terrain varies widely. Much of the country reminds me of a tropical version of Switzerland – only with beaches and jungles along with four ranges of mountains. Harvey had urged us to visit at least three of Costa Rica’s different eco-systems.
We decided to spend five days near Costa Rica’s Arenal volcano area, four days on the Pacific Coast, and five days at a surfing resort on the Osa Penninsula.
We chose those particular destinations because we wanted to avoid the highly-commercialized (and highly touristed) Necoya Penninsula and Caribbean coast (which I figured would too much resemble the topography of the Caribbean islands I’d visited on a cruise I’d made back in 2010).
Although Harvey and his Costa Rica traveling companion Kathy had opted to use small planes and hired vans to get around, Randall, Greg, and I decided to rent a car and drive to our three destinations; our only plane ride happened at the end of our trip, to get from the remote Osa to the capital city, San Jose, for our conncection back to Atlanta. Renting the car also made it possible for us to avoid spending any of our vacation in San Jose (other than at its airport), as Harve and the guidebooks I consulted had dire warnings about the traffic congestion there.
What we did with our time there
I deliberately spent the majority of my time relaxing – something I have a difficult time doing on overseas vacations. Determined to change this pattern, I spent many pleasant hours lolling around at each of the three places we based ourselves, either staring out at amazing foliage and ocean or lake views or happily reading the two excellent books I’d taken along for the trip (Edmund White’s memoir Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris and Jacques Barzun’s 900+ page From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Civilization),
I had to really focus on staying put, as Costa Rica’s well-developed tourism industry offers an incredible array of things for visitors to Do – especially if you’re a sportsperson, which I am not. There were so many things I didn’t do in Costa Rica. I didn’t surf, snorkel, scuba dive, fish, hike through any canyons or cloud forests, climb any volcanoes, rapell up any waterfalls or giant mangroves, raft down any rivers, take any jungle canopy tours, go birdwatching. And the butterfly farm the three of us drove to see was closed.
Among the things I did manage to Do in Costa Rica, listed here in roughly the order I did them:
- I subjected myself to – I mean, I availed myself of the grand opportunity of – lurching across a suitably terrifying series of zip lines high above the jungle. A few photos Randall made of that particular excursion:
- On another day while we were in the Arenal area, Greg and I spent a much more sedate afternoon kayaking on the beautiful lake the Arenal Volcano overlooks:
- On another afternoon I trekked up a slippery jungle trail to a nifty waterfall.
- The three of us spent a luxurious evening at Tabicon Hot Springs, a fancy resort in the Arenal volcano area.
- We visited a magnificent 500-year-old tree (in the third photo, that tiny person at the right is me):
- Toward the end of our trip, Greg and I went on a short night-time hike in the jungle, but our guide, though obviously knowledgeable, was not lucky in locating any nocturnal animals to show his little band of (sweaty) hikers.
- I sat (in the shade!) on several lovely deserted beaches. On one of them I waded out into the startlingly warm Pacific hoping to splash around for awhile, but found the undertow a bit too dangerous for swimming. Still, the beaches were gorgeous to behold.
It was during one of our forays to a beach that Randall and I saw the most amazing rainbow either of us had ever seen. It seemed to stretch completely across the gulf separating the Osa Penninsula from the mainland, and lasted a full half-hour.
Not only did Randall and Greg do more beach-sitting than I did, but they visited a waterfall that I (regrettably) didn’t join them to see:
Greg also visited a reptile sanctuary one day when Randall and I chose to stay put. On another day, Greg joined a birdwatching walk.
The guidebooks warned that meals in Costa Rica would be relatively unmemorable, but because we ate in highly-recommended tourist-catering restaurants, I thoroughly enjoyed every meal I ate throughout my the entire two week vacation. The restaurants in the Arenal volcano area are particularly exceptional. We ate twice at the deservedly world-famous Gingerbread, located less than a mile from where we were staying. Other memorable places we ate at in the Arenal area included the Lucky Bug, the Macadamia Café, and the Benedictus Steak House.) The grounds and/or views from each of those restaurants were as spectacular as the food was. Those views (respectively):
Fortunately, the dozen or so meals provided by the places we stayed for our first five days and for our final five days were also excellent.
The most memorable parts of my trip
- The absolutely stunning – and often bizarre (well, certainly unfamiliar to me) – tropical vegetation. I felt like I was spending my days and nights inside the world’s largest botanical garden:
Trees with leaves as big as picnic tables!
Massive stands of palm trees and bamboo!
All manner of other incredible flowers everywhere you looked!
Extremely colorful, exotic birds– and so many of them!
The occasional roaming herd of noisy monkeys!
Interesting lizards of all sizes!
As mentioned before, plenty of deserted beaches!
Fantastic ocean views!
…and mile upon mile – well, kilometer upon kilometer – of winding, hibiscus-edged mountain roads – most of them paved!
- I loved all three places we stayed. Villa Decary is located in the Arenal Volcano area; Pacific Edge is near Dominical, a tiny surfing village along the central part of the Pacific Coast; and Encanta La Vida is perched near the southern tip – and definitely in the wilds – of the Osa Penninsula. Each was imaginatively laid out and featured beautiful native woods, thatched roofs, spacious balconies and decks equipped with hammocks overlooking great views, wonderful common spaces (two of the three places we stayed had swimming pools), and each afforded plenty of privacy in their spacious, cabana-like rooms.
Each place we stayed was also surrounded by imaginative and wonderful landscaping: different kinds of palm trees, all manner of flowering trees and shrubs (crotons everywhere!), massive stands of bamboo, masses of gigantic elephant ears, etc.
Photos of some of our everyday surroundings:
- Another interesting aspect of our stays at the three inns were the interesting stories we heard from our ex-pat innkeepers or caretakers: how they’d decided to move to Costa Rica from the States, the advantages and disadvantages of living in Costa Rica, etc.
- We were also fortunate in terms of the fellow tourists we met, some of whom we spent quite a bit of time talking with – including a guy from Fayetteville, Georgia who works at the Atlanta airport; three (!) retired librarians (one of them half of a gay couple who live on an island near Vancouver); a really friendly gay guy from California (a fellow zip-liner whose good-natured support of my chronic fear of heights was very much appreciated); and a woman – yet another Californian – who’s earned her living for the past fifteen years providing hydrotherapy for injured dogs!
The only Ticos (native Costa Ricans) I interacted with were the employees of the shops we visited or the places we stayed, but every one of them was extraordinarily friendly and helpful.
A couple of misadventures
Apart from the first day’s long, harrowing drive – much of it in the dark and through pouring rain on unbelievably windy roads (thank goodness we rented that GPS!) – there were only two unpleasant incidents during our trip:
- On our second evening in the country we were accosted at a local restaurant by a gringo who’d moved to Costa Rica to create a self-sufficient outpost where he and his followers could survive the Obviously Imminent Global Apocalypse. He was very creepy in showing off his much-younger Tico wife and when we didn’t take him up on his aggressive invitation to visit his compound (he was obviously trying to recruit a few more likeminded survivalists), he suddenly lost interest and moved on …and we resumed our wonderful first meal in a Costa Rica restaurant.
- On our next-to-last night in the country, I accidentally stepped on a rather large snake that had wandered into my bedroom. (It was dark and I’d neglected to first turn on a light before walking into the room.) Luckily, the snake wasn’t poisonous, and after I got it off my foot it was rather wonderful to watch it slithering gracefully across my pillow, etc. before the innkeeping staff managed to snag it with a broom and return it to the jungle.
Would I consider returning to Costa Rica?
Possibly. Although if I do return there, I wouldn’t spend more time in the Osa, the most remote part of the country, simply because the roads there are so awful (plus you have to cross four unbridged streams): once you finally get there from wherever you’ve come from, you dread venturing out for any reason from where you’ve finally gotten!
When I planned this trip, I had wondered if I would sufficiently enjoy a thoroughly nature-oriented (vs. culture-oriented) vacation destination. After spending two weeks in the tropics (and a week-long camping trip earlier this year on Georgia’s semi-tropical Cumberland Island), I’ve decided that I definitely prefer vacations that include more modern conveniences – roads without potholes, reliable hot water for showers, air conditioned hotels, etc. It’s the sheer beauty of Costa Rica that recommends itself most to me.
If you haven’t been to Costa Rica yet and decide to go, I highly recommend you first obtain (as I did, on Harvey’s advice) a copy of Costa Rica: The Complete Guide: Eco-Adventures in Paradise by James Kaiser, as well as Kaiser’s website of recommended accommodations. Those resources (along with the reviews at TripAdvisor.com) are how we identified the three delightful places where we based ourselves for our two-week adventure.
Note on the photos: Randall took most of these photos with his fancy new camera. A few of the photos are mine, two of them were taken by Greg, one was taken by an employee at one of the places we stayed, and one was taken by our kayaking guide.