We’re at the end of week three in a month or more long road trip, our last before returning to Canada from Costa Rica, where we’ve lived now for almost a year.
It’s hard to believe it’s almost over and as the clock ticks, there are moments where I feel nostalgic and others when I just want it to be over, so much that it has been difficult to enjoy the last few weeks of travel.
Although a year’s sabbatical is fantastic, it really isn’t long enough. We’ve discovered that when you move somewhere new, especially a foreign country, it takes at least a year just to begin to start to feel comfortable and like you belong.
Anyway, those insights are better saved for another post because already I have to cram in three weeks of travels in one go.
So, we left our Atenas house on May 9th and headed north. That’s all, just north. No hotels booked and a couple of destinations in mind. We decided to scrap an official itinerary so we wouldn’t be married to hotel reservations and free to stop if we saw something that looked fun and worth checking out.
We had originally hoped to spend our last month in Granada, Nicaragua because we loved the historical colonial town so much and wanted to do some volunteer work. That idea was scrapped for a variety of reasons, including our indecision about where to stay, how long to stay etc. Indecision, as it happens, became a recurring theme in our first two weeks as we stumbled along from place to place feeling a bit lost and uncertain about where to go next. That whole non-itinerary ended up backfiring in our face, but I digress.
Our first stop was the cloud forest, on the way to Arenal Volcano. On a previous trip to Arenal we had passed an unusual looking resort, just off the highway, called Lands in Love (www.landsinlove.com). The road signs for the place, while totally cheesy with hand-painted hearts and pastel colours, were intriguing.
Turns out the place is an ecological vegetarian resort owned by 18 friends who all hail from Israel. The group lives/works together and runs the “pet-friendly” eco-resort, which is set on 280 acres surrounded by pristine forest.
The grounds and setting are amazing but the place has a bit of an odd, cultish feeling to it. More importantly, none of the owners — who man/woman the front desk, wait tables, cut the grass and even clean the rooms — we encountered seemed enthused about having kids there. So, we moved on after spending just one night there.
The property does have some wonderful trails and its well-kept grounds are dotted with colourfully painted and hand-crafted creatures, such as those in the photo below.
Our next stop was El Casillo, a tiny village at the foot of the ominous active Arenal Volcano. We found a basic cabina with an incredible view of the volcano for $55, breakfast included, compared to the almost $100 we would have been charged near La Fortuna. Of course, I had to leave the bathroom light on that night after earlier seeing a gigantic cockroach climb out of the drain in the sink.
The next morning, we visited a nearby serpentarium, where the kids got to hold some snakes before we headed off to the Observatory Lodge , located in the middle of primary forest in a national park and the closest lodging to the volcano. We splurged here on accommodations simply due to the fact that this is the one place you can actually get up close and personal to the lava, if you are so lucky to have a clear night — which we didn’t. It poured all day and night, just like it did last time we visited and we didn’t even get to hear one explosion.
Still, the place is amazing and is full of beautiful birds and wildlife (my daughter and I nearly stepped on a huge black snake during a walk) and it was worthwhile visiting.
From there, we headed toward Monteverde, the famous cloud forest founded by American quakers who settled there to avoid the Vietnam war draft.
As the crow flies, Monteverde is practically a stone’s throw from Arenal but there is no direct route there. In fact, the approximately 60-kilometres trek takes about four-to-five hours because of the winding, bumpy gravel road so we decided to split up the drive and stay the night somewhere in between.
The highlight of this leg was a cute $29 cabina near Tilaran, at the south end of Lake Arenal, on a lovely property owned by a Swiss couple. They served us breakfast (included in that price) on their patio where the kids cooed over a box of newborn kittens and we oohed over the monkeys swinging through a grove of trees a few hundred metres away.
Monteverde itself was a bit of a disappointment. Though the drive there offered some spectacular scenery featuring rolling green pastures, the area itself is is not at all what I imagined. It is touted as an ecological heaven, a place off the beaten path because of its remote location and rough roads. Instead it was teeming with more tourists than we’ve seen all year and high prices to go along with it.
There are myriad outdoor activities, but each comes with a hefty pricetag. Entrance to the Monteverde biological reserve itself, where there are a plethora of natural hiking trails, is $17 US per person on its own. And that’s the cheapest of them.
We opted to cough up the $100 to the Disneyland park called Selvatura because it had a dozen or so hanging bridges strung through the rainforest canopy.
It was beautiful, but when you have two little kids whose main interest is to make as much noise as possible and run as fast as they can across the bridges there’s hardly an opportunity to appreciate nature and get your money worth. And when you’ve lived for almost a year amidst similarly beautiful scenery, watched toucans in the trees from the window of your home and nearly stepped on snakes walking down an ashphalt road during a routine walk, paying such a hefty amount to do what usually do for free has a certain sting.
It’s not that I think such attractions should be free. But when you you know the staff, local Costa Ricans, are earning only a couple of bucks and hour and that the costs of construction are dramatically lower here than in other developed countries, it’s hard not feel like you’re being gouged.
I’ve become rather cheap since living in Costa Rica, and think very hard about every dollar I spend on things other than basic neceessities. Partly, it’s because we’ve had to live on a tight budget due to a lack of income from work. But it’s also because my eyes have been opened to just how much money I used to throw away on everything from coffee to clothes to kids toys.
At the same time, it sucks.
Living like a pauper isn’t a serious hardship but I do find myself dreaming of reclining in a cushioned chair, sipping an umbrella drink at an oceanfront, luxury resort instead of staying in a stinky, rundown condo rental in Tamarindo.
We headed to that famed beach town after Monteverde and much angst about whether we ought to hike more rainforests and volcanos or sit in the sun. What a mistake. Not the sun-seeking decision, but the one to visit Tamarindo. It was dirty, stinky and so expensive we lasted two nights.
So, this brings us to our present location — Playa Carrillo, one of the first beaches we visited after arriving in Costa Rica and certainly one of the most beautiful. Protected by a reef, the cresent-shaped beach is devoid of huge surf and perfect for swimming. It is lined with towering palms, that offer shade over carefully placed picnic spots. It remains unspoiled and free of beachfront development and is kept impeccably clean by the municipality and regularly patrolled by police.
Here, we scored a fantastic room in a brand new lodging, Hotel Palmeras (www.hotelpalmerascarrillobeach.com) in the tiny village of 250, that overlooks a stunning salt-water pool. It’s a luxurious room with a kitchenette but at a budget rate — $55 per night. The owner cut us a good deal because the place is empty and business is suffering. We’ve been here a week now, soaking up the sun and enjoying our precious last weeks at a beach we may never see again, except in our photo albums.