We set off from Monteverde determined to make the idyllic, palm-lined shores of the Caribbean by bedtime. After getting caught in a few long construction delays before we even reached the paved road and then fighting the crazy truckers on the Pan-American for a while we made a split decision at a road sign that pointed the way toward Puntarenas and the ferry to Nicoya Peninsula and we abandoned our Caribbean aspirations in favor of a slightly more tame stay on the Pacific.
Puntarenas lived up to its ramshackle reputation, but we only had to stay long enough to get on the ferry, or so we thought. We were immediately stopped by a group of men that blocked our way in the road. One of the men told us that he was the official ferry ticket salesman and he made it clear that we had missed the ferry and that we would have to wait a few hours for the next one. He also made it clear that he would not let us pass until we paid him a fee for all of his help, which to that point had amounted to a forced stop in the road and the info about having missed the ferry. I smiled and told him that I had no money, which was true, and that it wasn’t nice to force people to stop and then expect to get paid without performing a service. He remained friendly, but waived his arms a bit as we drove away. We eventually found the real ferry ticket office and it was closed until it was time for the next ferry. Instead of waiting, we decided to go and get some lunch. We found a nice little place that had secure parking and we ate a wonderful meal while a street performer sang us an amazing rendition of Guantanamera. We perused our guidebook looking for alternatives to waiting for the ferry and by the time we had finished our meal we had a new direction to go in and it didn’t involve the ferry.
We retraced our route out of Puntarenas and then continued southward along the Pacific Coast. We were looking for a place to stay with an ocean view. We passed through Jacó, Playa Hermosa, Parrita and several other ocean-side towns without finding what we were looking for. Eventually the road led us to Quepos, a small town near Manuel Antonio National Park. Quepos itself didn’t really have anything to inspire us, other than good ice cream, but we did find a few places on the road between the town and the park that sounded nice. One of those places, Hotel Costa Verde, had exactly what we were looking for and a lot more. After a bit of hard negotiating we settled on a cash-only price for one of their stunning ocean view rooms and we moved into what would be our home for the remainder of our stay in Costa Rica.
Hotel Costa Verde was amazing. Their sign said, “More monkeys than people”, which we took as a good sign, and the grounds were lush and green. There were several different buildings spread out on a forested hill, including a unique room built into an airplane fuselage that jutted out of the jungle and hung over the parking area to our building like a forgotten wreck. Our room was on the second floor of an adult-only building with sixteen rooms. The room was massive and nicely decorated with lots of natural light coming in from two walls of windows. Everywhere in the room had stunning views of the Pacific and the jungle. The balcony overlooked the pool and had an unobstructed view of the ocean in one direction and a close-up view of the jungle in the other – It was a perfect base to explore the surrounding coast from.
We started our exploration the following morning. We walked down the steep road toward the ocean. We found a nice breakfast in an ocean view restaurant and then we headed into Manuel Antonio National Park. The park was one of Costa Rica’s most famous places. It was known for its pristine shoreline and easily found wildlife and it didn’t disappoint. The park had only been open for half an hour when we walked through the gate. There were already several tour groups milling about near the entrance watching a pair of deer that were grazing beside the main trail. And a few more groups that had spotted a three-toed sloth up in a tree just a little further in. We walked past these groups hoping to get to the beach before the midday rush of tourists hit. We paused at the restrooms where we found a family of raccoons digging through the trash and then we walked on to the beach.
The forest leading to the beach was nice, but the beach itself was where the park’s fame was due. A sandy arc of forest-lined beach stretched between two rocky headlands that enclosed a small, turquoise bay. There were small rocky islands dotted across the bay and then the mighty Pacific beyond them. The jungle enclosed the whole area and flowed out to the edge of the high cliffs on either side. It was a stunning view that was made even better by the fact that the huge groups hadn’t arrived yet. We walked from one end of the beach to the other and then we climbed up a trail that led into the jungle on the northern headland. We spent the next hour walking along the forested trails looking for wildlife. We paused at several cliff-top overlooks and were continually amazed by the sweeping ocean views. We found a few giant rodents, called pacas, on the trail and a helpful hint from another traveler led us to a close encounter with another three-toed sloth. There were lizards and butterflies and ancient, buttressed trees. Occasionally there were noisy groups of people, but the trail was mostly silent, other than the constant pounding of the surf – It was an idyllic place.
The path eventually dropped us off on a sandy beach on the north side of the park. From there we could see the dramatic hillside that our hotel was built on and the island-studded bay that swept away from our balcony. There was a cruise ship ferrying people back and forth to the shore in zodiacs and the feel of the beach was less wild, so we continued a little further to the beach we had started at on the other side of the isthmus. We found a nice place in the shade to put our things and then we jumped into the ocean for the first time on our trip. The turquoise water and the gentle waves soothed my aching muscles and washed away the stickiness of the jungle. We floated out there peacefully for a while and then the marauding raccoons made their way down the beach to our stuff. They were bold and everyone that fought with them struggled to keep their things. When they started pulling my bag away I charged out of the ocean screaming, which didn’t faze them, and then I started swinging a palm frond at them. That had the desired effect and they dropped my bag and headed back into the forest. I think I scared the tour group that was eagerly photographing the encounter more than the raccoons, but our bags remained in peace for the rest of our time there.
When lunchtime arrived we said farewell to the beach and headed out of the park. We passed an endless line of beachgoers as we walked back to the gate. Along the way we passed a small group of monkeys and spotted a few interesting critters, including a colorful crab. We had one of the best tipicos of our vacation in a lovely restaurant near the gate. It had the usual gallo pinto, salad and fried plantains, but it also came with some delicious veggies and a big piece of freshly caught mahi mahi. While we sat eating we got an unexpected surprise when a strange looking lizard walked by on the sidewalk of the hotel grounds surrounding the café. A closer look revealed that it was a basilisk, which has a fin on its head and another that runs down its spine to the tip of its tail – This was a feature that earned it a place in the old dinosaur movies of yore. I had only encountered a few of them in the wild, so it was a treat!
We spent the rest of the day relaxing by the pool at the hotel. We had one of our best monkey encounters there as a troop of playful squirrel monkeys came out of the trees and started playing around the pool. I went to get my camera from the room and while I was there they invaded our balcony as well. It was a good thing that I had gone for the camera, because we had left the door open and would have had a room full of monkeys otherwise. The monkey show went on for half an hour. When we weren’t watching the monkeys we were entertained by the antics of a giant spiny lizard that was bent on mating with every female lizard in the vicinity. We had a nice dinner at El Avion, a well-situated place that had the actual plane used by Oliver North during the Iran Contra Affair forming a central feature of the restaurant. It was a kitschy place, but the food was amazing and the view, though obstructed by darkness, was amazing.
We were up with the sun the following morning and after a leisurely time on our balcony with a cup of coffee we headed back down to Manuel Antonio. We ate breakfast at our favorite seaside restaurant and then we made our way back into the park. We spent our morning exploring the park’s jungle trails. Our first stop was a small rocky beach at the edge of the jungle. There were a few other people there, but it still had a secluded feel. It was a beautiful beach. We continued deeper into the forest. The trail had been stabilized with the big concrete tiles shaped like tic-tac-toe boards that were common in Costa Rica, but we occasionally found ourselves slogging through some muddy sections. At one point the trail ascended a steep hillside that they had paved with concrete. A thick layer of slime on the concrete made that portion of the trail a bit treacherous. We constantly spotted wildlife along the path. There were more pacas and lots of lizards. The trees seemed bigger in that part of the forest and they were all connected in thick tangles of lianas. At one point we were treated to a close encounter with a troop of white-faced capuchin monkeys as they crossed the trail in front of us and then paused to eat less than ten feet away. The path ended at a mirador that overlooked a large section of beach that had been closed to the public. The jungle obstructed our view of the beach, but the water in front of it was visible and it was impressive. Tall jungle-lined cliffs hemmed in the large bay and there were a few big islands and countless tiny rocks jutting up out of its turquoise water. Beyond the cliffs, the Pacific stretched to the distant horizon. As we walked back down the path Maria took up her role as super animal spotter again when she spotted a motionless three-toed sloth above us in a tree. He was very close and easy to see, so we watched him for a while, pointing him out to everyone else that passed. After a while the group had gotten large so we continued back down the trail.
We headed all the way back to the beach we had visited the day before and took a quick dip in the water. Being Saturday, the crowds were huge and it felt more like a resort beach in Florida, so we only stayed long enough to cool off. As we were leaving a troop of capuchin monkeys joined us all on the beach and began their spirited pillaging, though they were late to the game – Further down the beach, the raccoons had been plundering for hours!
We spent the middle part of the day relaxing by the pool at our hotel. A few hours before sunset we set off on the day’s second adventure. We drove out of town and retraced our path up the coast until we reached a dirt road that turned off of the main road and headed through the palm groves toward the coastal mountains. We passed through several quaint roadside towns following a series of tiny signs that eventually led us the entrance of the Rainmaker Conservation Project. We parked, beneath a big tree and made our way to the registration hut. The proprietor showed up a few minutes later and gave us an orientation and explained the trail to us. We set off into the jungle wonderland a few minutes later. Rainmaker was a place out of my dreams. It seemed like they had reached into my imagination and seized some of my favorite scenes from my childhood and then built it. There were swinging bridges and steep, jungle-filled ravines and lots of roaring waterfalls and ruin-like structures hidden throughout the property.
We descended a steep path into the forest and then followed a hidden creek as we ascended the ravine it was in. The forest was beautiful. As the path got higher up the ravine we had unobstructed views of the canopy of the trees along the creek below. Occasionally a beam of sunlight broke through the leaves, but it was mostly dark and wet along the path. After a while we reached the first of the swinging bridges. We spent the next half hour bouncing our way along the swaying bridges. Some spanned big, forested ravines and gave us great views of the treetops and the surrounding mountains. Others were long and led to platforms high up in ancient trees. All of the bridges were exciting, but some of them bounced and swayed so much that I had to hold on to stay on my feet. I had a blast on the bridges, but we were not able to find any wildlife from them. When we crossed over the last of the high bridges the forest path started to descend back to the floor of the ravine via a series of steep switchbacks. As we got closer to the creek below we started seeing more wildlife. The first animal I spotted was very well camouflaged on a small tree trunk beside the trail. It was a chameleon that was hanging in a way that resembled a dead leaf! We watched him for a while and then continued our descent. After we passed a well-hidden frog we went down a side trail to an overlook with great views of a big waterfall and then we continued down a slimy staircase to the creek itself.
As amazing as the high bridges were, I loved the river section the most. We had descended into an amazing landscape where sheer fern-lined rock walls climbed up from the creek toward the canopy above and large waterfalls roared through the deep channels and boulders, filling the area with a cooling mist and the roar of thunder. There were stone ruins in a few places that spoke of another time and another use – possibly a mill, or a spa – for the creek. The path followed the cliff face in some places and descended more slippery switchbacks. Occasionally short swinging bridges spanned the creek and added an air of adventure to the already amazing landscape. One amazing span crossed high above the creek in a place where a side stream joined the main flow. The path then led to a tall waterfall and a small manmade pool on the other side – We wanted to pause and go for a swim, but it was getting dark and we still had a long way to go. Eventually the river trail rejoined the high bridges trail and we followed it out. We emerged from the forest in time to watch the sun set over the distant forest. The bridges and trails at Rainmaker were amazing! We stopped in Quepos to get some supplies for the following day and then we drove all the way back to the small town of Manuel Antonio for dinner at our favorite food place there. We headed back to the hotel and went straight to bed. The following day would be an early one.
We were up before the sun the next morning. We quickly got ready for the day’s adventure and then we loaded into the jeep and hit the road. We went out to the main coastal road and then headed south into unknown territory. A little over an hour later we pulled into the small coastal town of Uvita. We met our guide, Victor, in a roadside parking lot and then we followed him further down the coast road. He turned down a rough dirt road and, a short distance later, we came to a stop at the ranger station for the Parque Nacional Marino Ballena – A major, but little visited national park and marine sanctuary. Ballena means whale in Spanish and the park was one of the best places in Costa Rica to find whales, though not during our visit. In addition to the actual whales, the park had a few interesting whale-like features that made its name even more appropriate. The most obvious was the giant spit of land that protruded far out to sea, perpendicular to the coast, to a large island. From the air the formation looked like a giant whale tail. The other whale-like feature was Isla Ballena, or Whale Island, which had a series of caves and blowholes that send spouts of water high into the air during heavy seas. We were headed to the latter.
The only way to get to Isla Ballena was by boat, so we hired Victor to take us out in some kayaks. We were excited to finally get into the water. We helped Victor get all of the gear out to the shore and then we stood at the edge of the forest and looked out over the huge expanse of sand and sea to the distant island. Then we looked at the huge waves crashing on the shore that we would have to cross to get there. Victor gave us a safety talk and then explained how to get through the waves. We then dragged the kayaks to the water, put on our helmets and got in the kayak. Maria was sitting in front of our tandem kayak and I watched as the first big wave crashed over her and Victor, who was stabilizing the kayak. We waited for a few more big waves to pass over us and then Victor stepped back and shouted, “Paddle!” We worked hard and managed to steer the kayak forward through several large waves without getting flipped and then we paddled into the calm water on the other side. We headed out far enough that the waves were not an issue for us and then we turned to wait for Victor to join us.
Victor had some initial difficulties resulting from a jellyfish sting, but he effortlessly paddled through the heavy surf and joined us. We pointed our bows out to sea and started paddling towards the tiny island. Victor, who had lived in the area his whole life, told us about the island and the amazing whale and dolphin encounters he had had there. He gave us a quick history lesson about the Marino Ballena national park and how it had been saved in the knick of time from a major aluminum mining operation that was going to turn the area into a major mine port, which would have destroyed the giant whale tail formation and the area’s amazing biodiversity. He also pointed out some of the features of the coast to the south of us, including the wild Osa Peninsula and primordial jungles of Corcovado National Park.
Tandem kayaks have always given me problems. Maria and I tried our best to keep our paddling in sync, yet we still steered a circuitous path through the blue water. At times we would get so far from Victor that we couldn’t hear his instructions. Despite our sporadic course, Isla Ballena continued to get larger in front of us as we closed the distance. We rejoined Victor and paused to talk a bit more about the island and some of the currents that we would encounter. We were close enough to make out a large palm tree on the shore, one of two on the island. He told us that the palm tree we could see was planted by someone he used to work with that knew these waters better than anyone. He told us to paddle towards the lone palm and that a current around the island would start trying to pull us to the south. He told us to stay beside him for the rest of the paddle to the island and then we set off again.
We closed the remaining distance to the island quickly. We found a sheltered spot to drop a small anchor and then we tied the boats together and talked more about the place. The rocky island rose up to a jagged ridge that ran its full length from north to south. The caves entered from the ends of the island and the blowholes came out the top near the ridge – The waves were calm, so we didn’t get to see the blowholes in action. Frigate birds glided above the island, their long wings and forked tails cut a graceful course through the tropical setting. I have always loved watching frigate birds gliding through the sky and it had been a long time since I had seen them! Victor explained that we could not land on the island due to strict park rules. Instead we were going to snorkel. He put his mask on and stuck is face into the water. He said that the visibility was not great, but good enough to see some of the fish. He gave us our masks and then we jumped into the water. Visibility was only about ten feet, but we could easily make out the rocky formations close to shore. There were a lot of parrotfish and several other colorful tropical fish and we spent about half an hour exploring the coast. Victor pointed out several giant conchs and some black sea cucumbers. He popped up out of the water at one point and excitedly told us about a variety of parrotfish that he just spotted that he had been looking for all of his adult life. We had seen a lot, despite the low visibility, by the time we climbed back into the kayaks.
Once we had had some snacks and water, we pulled up the anchor and started paddling along the coast of the island. We passed through a rocky area at the south of the island. The swells coming in from the open Pacific were large and it was a wild feeling watching them approach and well up over the rocks around us. We paddled into a sheltered cove at the south end of the island. Victor pointed out a pair of brown boobies that were standing on a rock at the edge of the cliff and then he pointed out the entrance to the cave that ran through the island. We continued our circumnavigation of the island steering clear of the crashing waves on the seaward side of the island. The beautiful sunshine, the crashing waves, the frigate birds and the unbroken horizon all combined to form an exciting kaleidoscope of feelings – It was an amazing place! We turned and paddled around the north end of the island where we got a great view of the cave entrance and of the lone palm and then we said farewell to Isla Ballena and started paddling back to the mainland.
About half way across the deep water we decided to pause and jump into the ocean for a quick swim. The water was refreshing and cooled us off nicely. We floated for a few minutes and then got back into the kayak. We were headed to a secluded beach to the north of where the ranger station was. It was a sandy beach hemmed in by tall cliffs and jungle. The surf zone was huge, so we paused for a while to put on our helmets and to watch for a pattern in the waves. Victor gave us a quick introduction to kayak surfing and then told us to paddle. The first wave passed under us, but the second wave in the set caught us and sent us rocketing toward the sandy shore. Once the wave had us, the only paddling we had to do was to keep the boat straight. It was an exciting ride and we rode the wave in like pros. We dragged the kayak up onto the shore and then watched as Victor surfed in – The waves looked much larger from the beach!
The beach had two or three other couples on it, but it was long and wide, so we could barely see them. We pulled the kayaks way up the beach to keep them out of the rising tide and then we snacked on some fresh fruit that Victor had brought while we walked to the cliffs at the edge of the beach. We paused at the entrance to a massive cave that the waves were already flowing through. Victor told us that in an hour the cave would be impassible and then led us into the darkness. Tiny crabs scurried to their hiding places in the cave’s walls as we waded through the darkness. The cave opened up into the surf of the beach on the other side of the cliff. The waves were waste deep and getting deeper, so we didn’t linger long before we headed back into the cave and to our beach. It was an exciting walk. Victor paused to tell another group that was exploring the cave that it would become impassible and dangerous very quickly and then we continued to a shady spot near a waterfall and Victor headed into the forest to look for a coconut. He returned ten minutes later with a brown, weathered husk and spent the next ten minutes showing us the hard way to open a coconut (with a knife and lots of exertion). We drank the delicious coconut water and then we snacked on the coconut flesh, which was amazing!
The surf had reached our kayaks, so we hurried back, got everything ready and paddled back out through the giant waves into the sea – It was getting easier! We paddled south along the coast for another half an hour and then we pointed the bows back toward the beach. The wide sandy beach that had been such a dramatic feature of our launching beach was gone. All that remained was the rocky shoreline and giant crashing waves. We went through the same wave watching procedure and then we pointed our bow toward the shore and caught one of the big waves and surfed in. We remained entirely in control and glided to a gentle stop against the wave worn rocks. We carried our kayak up to the tree line and then we waited for Victor. We thanked Victor for the amazing tour and then we all parted ways. Thus ended our amazing kayak adventure to Isla Ballena. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend our last day in Costa Rica!
On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a roadside ceviche stand and for a few dollars we feasted on some amazing ceviche with a small group of locals! We made it back to the hotel in the early afternoon and we spent the remainder of the day beside the pool and on our balcony with a cup of strong coffee. As a final treat, we had a troop of howler monkeys stop by our balcony to talk to us. They were within fifteen feet of us. They made their lovely roar echo through our room and they paused to look at us and pose for pictures. There was even a playful baby to watch. They spent the rest of the day beside our balcony! Our best monkey sightings all took place from our balcony overlooking the sea. We had squirrel monkeys on our balcony and white-faced capuchins and howler monkeys in the trees all around it, occasionally within arms reach.
We returned to El Avion restaurant for a sunset dinner. They gave us the best table in the place. From our corner of the balcony the jungle stretched down to the rugged coastline and then the sea stretched out to the rocky islands and beyond to the distant horizon. We watched the sun set on our last day in Costa Rica as we enjoyed a feast of mahi mahi, vegetables, fruity drinks and a piece of heavenly tres leches cake.
We spent the evening packing up and getting everything ready for an early morning departure. Before bed I got my camera gear and set off for a quick night walk on the hotel grounds. I had still not found a snake on my own in Costa Rica and I really wanted to see some and it was my last chance. The path started from the bar area beside the pool. I entered the forest and climbed down a set of stairs. Within a minute of entering the forest I found my first snake – A lovely brown snake that was stalking a small frog. I watched him until he disappeared into the underbrush and then I continued along the trail. I found several large spiders and some lovely insects, but the forest was mostly silent. About half an hour into my walk a roar erupted in the trees above me – I had disturbed the howler monkeys! The forest came alive with their noise and I started spotting more. There were birds and lizards and frogs and countless insects. Near the end of the trail I found my second snake of the night. It was a lovely eyelash viper climbing a tree beside the trail. He was very active and I watched him for a long time and took a few pictures. The trail ended at the airplane fuselage room and then went down a hill to the parking area. I returned to the room, packed a few more things and then went to sleep.
Our last day started with breakfast at the Anaconda restaurant on the hotel grounds where we watched a turf battle play out in the open-air restaurant between rival troops of capuchin monkeys. They ran through the dining area and along the rails and tables as they screamed and barred their teeth at each other. The whole scene was comical and a fitting end to our stay at the Costa Verde Hotel. Their slogan, “More monkeys than people” was certainly fitting!
After breakfast we made the long drive back to the airport in San Jose. We made several wrong turns and got lost a few times, but we made it back to the rental car office with plenty of time to spare. We parked our little Jimny 4X4 and headed to the airport shuttle – We smiled when we noticed that our little jeep was the dirtiest of all of the vehicles returned that morning. We covered some amazing ground in that little car and it had done well! We got to the airport and through the check in process with little effort and then we spent the remainder of our time in Costa Rica eating lunch and looking through the souvenir shops. We boarded the plane and then our journey to Costa Rica came to an end. I had always thought of Costa Rica as too developed and touristy to justify a visit. I couldn’t have been more wrong. We loved Costa Rica. The food was amazing, the people were friendly, and the sights were unrivalled. I am certain that we will return again someday – There is so much more to see and do there!