We first considered a trip to Costa Rica for late 1997. Unfortunately Christmas week is the most popular time of the year to visit so besides the $750 price tag all flights were sold out by Labor Day. I recall that we also struggled a bit with the itinerary - being unsure whether to rent a car (with many stories of the perils of 2nd world roads) and whether to pamper ourselves at resorts or go native. Fast forward to this spring and I happened to check prices to Costa Rica ($320) when looking at prices to Greece ($1,000). Sold! (Multiplying by 4 has a way of simplifying some decisions.) This time the itinerary came together rather easily thanks to some advice from friends and family and more reading. With an appealing itinerary to dangle, I was able to woo my Dad as a welcome companion and a 3rd set of hands for the boys. We were also able to pass our plans in front of my cousins (Phil, Julia, 3 year old Ellie, and 1 year old Maggie) who had independently started musing about heading to the Rich Coast. We ended up with very similar itineraries and overlapped on dates for half the trip.
The trip was planned for the last week of April and the start of May. In the rainfall charts in the travel books show the average rainfall jumps in some areas from 100 mm in April (the last month of the dry season) to 600 mm in May (the start of the wet season a.k.a. the “green season” in the tourism trade). Yikes! I had visions of a Rain God with his hand poised on the spigot looking anxiously at his timepiece just waiting to let loose a torrent to purge the country of any straggling tourists. Living in perpetually foggy SF, I didn’t want to see any clouds on our trip. I liked the idea of being on vacation for my birthday so we departed on Thursday night 4/21. (The Reiffs followed on Friday night and Pop came early on Saturday.) Checking the weather report before departing it showed afternoon thunderstorms every day for the 5 day forecast. Oh well, growing up in CA the boys haven’t had the pleasure of regular summer thunderstorms.
The flight down went through LA. The boys pronounced it “ballet”. As usual Aidan dutifully and happily pulled his bag through all the airports and throughout the trip. I had announced that the boys needed to share 1 bag, which was not one of my most popular decisions, so Quincy was traveling light. The overnight segment from LA to San Jose (I kept having the nagging feeling we were going to be flying in circles) was just under 5 hours. The boys and I piled into 3 seats on one side of the aisle so we could raise the armrests and sleep in various contorted positions. Bev sat comfortably on the other side of the aisle but didn’t get much sleep as per usual. Arriving in SJO we climbed out of the plane into the warm humid morning air and down the stairs onto the tarmac - a good way to set the tone that you are not in the USA anymore. We hustled onto a bus for the ride to the terminal.
Going through immigration there were numerous signs admonishing that sex with children was illegal and would land you directly in jail. I wish they’d tell you these things before you fly all the way there!!! Fortunately as experienced travelers we didn’t let the change in plans throw us and proceeded onward. My assumed next stop was at the coffee stand to have our first big swig of the local brew but we had our bags and were out on the curb without my having noticed any tempting welcoming aromas. One of the few times I’ve been out of an airport too fast with bags in hand! Not possessing any local currency I decided that the ATM machine was probably a more logical first stop anyway.
After tracking down just such a wondrous money dispenser, my heart sank when the first screen did not prompt me for my language of choice. There is nothing like a financial transaction in a foreign language to clear your head better than even a cup of joe! When I reached the screen asking how many colones I wanted to withdraw I noticed for the first time the 000 key to conveniently skyrocket the amounts into the thousands. Hmm, maybe checking the exchange rate would be a prudent addition to the departure checklist. I decided to go big and typed in 500,000 colones. At that point my card was ejected and the door to the booth popped open. As I left empty handed I crashed into more tourists waiting in line. It was the same couple that I had been waiting on, who had left scratching their head. I quickly steered the pleasant strangers-in-a-strange-land chit-chat to my most pressing issue. After procuring the vital information I had previously lacked, I re-entered the booth and happily emerged with a respectable haul of 100,000 colones (just over $200 which was within my daily ATM limit).
Having originally thought we’d need time to grab breakfast, stretch our legs, dispose of internal toxic waste, etc. I had told the owner of the 4x4 rental agency I had found via a tip on Craigslist (http://www.4x4rentacar.com) that we wouldn’t need a pickup until 9 AM. However since the plane was early and I didn’t see any dining options, we were well ahead of schedule. Therefore I was glad to see the brightly painted 4x4 Rental Car truck sitting by the curb. (4x4’s are considered a must to visit Monteverde.) I trotted on over but the truck was already full. Raj noted that he had planned to meet us at 9 AM per my request but I assured him we were good to go. He said he’d be back in 15 minutes. Stories vary at this point with Raj saying he came back in an unmarked van and couldn’t find us after circling for 30 minutes. Our story was we sat down on the curb right were Raj had left us and didn’t see anyone until 9:05 (95 minutes later). Coming so soon after the scare at the ATM, I was starting to wonder this impulsive trip was going to go as smoothly as I imagined when looking at travel guide images of the white sand beaches of Manual Antonio.
When we arrived at the rental agency, our bags were transferred to the waiting Jeep Grand Cherokee. (Bev had researched which vehicle was widest so that we could all fit comfortably with the car seats and 3rd person in back.) It was a 1995 model which we were reassured would fit in better with what the locals drive. After reviewing a car sketch with X’s depicting scratches and dings that looked to me like a depiction of the inevitable collision of the Milky Way with the Andromeda galaxy (I truly appreciate my wife and her profession at times like this) we listened to Raj’s helpful travel tips. As expected we were admonished in emphatic terms not to leave anything of value in the car. This is all well and good until you consider the car seats. There is no way I’m going to spend the vacation affixing them to a mother’s safety standards just to take them out each night. (Besides wouldn’t we all enjoy the bumpy rides even more if you never knew where you’d land?) I decided to assume there would be a taboo of stealing items relating to El Ninos. Raj went on to warn us to park the car where we can see it when checking in to hotels or eating at restaurants. He droned on that if the car ever has a flat tire don’t let anyone stop to help as they’ll likely have one person taking things out the back while you’re working on the tire. Next he showed me how to turn off the alarm (although never how to set the alarm), how to apply an extra lock to the steering wheel, and how to take the faceplate off the radio so that I could take it inside. Having finished all the possible scenarios involving banditos, we moved on to the federals. Fines paid on the spot are the custom although not the official policy. Then we talked about the condition of the roads and the crazy driving habits of the locals. Through all of this, I kept thinking that the country really needed to reconsider their sex-with-minors stance if they wanted mass tourism. (Okay, I’ve overdone that joke and now I’m scaring people.) Lastly Raj gave me his cell phone number although lacking a cell phone myself (our US phones wouldn’t work) I didn’t see that it would do me too much good in most scenarios. (To be honest the travel advice was very familiar from pre-travel reading for Costa Rica, Spain, Mexico, and many other places we’ve traveled thankfully without incident. Although all of the above is true, the car rental was actually a pleasant and more personal experience then dealing with a big agency.)
At last we piled into the car. Since we hadn’t procured any vittles at l’aeropuerto, our parting question was where to get some good eats. We were helpfully(?) directed to a nearby Denny’s. (We have a rather appalling and totally unintentional habit of starting our international trips with a quintessential American restaurant. I guess American businesses heavily target the airports. Fortunately once out of sight of the airport we don’t ever encounter the problem again.) As it turned out we missed the off-ramp for Denny’s (an accident?) and were on our way.
Arenal Volcano (and the Fortunate City)
Tip #2 when traveling (for careful readers knowing the exchange rate was tip #1) is to determine the route to your destination sometime before you think you should be “getting close”. While we had asked for directions to La Fortuna, which is the area we were heading to, our hotel was 20 kilometers away and not on the approach road we had taken. With few roads available for corrective action, all of which were unmarked, we continued to relatively well marked La Fortuna (a signpost with the easily recognized symbol of a smoking volcano) even after the roundabout nature of our route was discovered. Keep in mind that the roads were twisty and slow (you needed to give the chickens time to scoot out of the way) so a 20 km overshoot was considered a more significant detour then 24 miles (12 each way) might seem. We got to pass by many scenic villages and school children in their uniforms (blue shirts for the upper grades, white for the lower).
At the outskirts of La Fortuna, we started seeing fabulous views of the volcano rising majestically in a perfectly conical shape just like your mind’s eye imagines a volcano. We dithered over where to pullover and bag our first attraction on film. The place I picked was pronounced inadequate due to interfering power lines. Being new to the area we didn’t fully appreciate our good fortune to catch Arenal unobstructed by clouds. In town we stopped at the Super Mercado to get some supplies and a finger pointing confirmation as to the way to head out of town. Aidan was sent in after Dad by Bev to point out the ice cream counter – hint hint. We settled on double scoops all around as our morning meal. Hey, were on vacation! I thought I selected vanilla for Aidan but it turned out to be rum raisin. Fortunately Aidan was happy to roll with the unexpected substitution (and I think he slept extra soundly that night as a result). In the warm air, the ice cream melted fast and Bev had to rotate the cones between her and the boys to avert a mess. I was dropped from the rotation after too many cones had gone “missing”. (Maybe I’m going into too much detail here.) The ice cream was a great pick-me-up for all and we headed to our hotel with renewed vigor.
Our first hotel, the Tilarjai (http://www.tilajari.com), had previously been a tennis club was a resort popular with the locals. (I really didn’t want an American resort plunked down in a central American country ala Cancun and we were pleased with all of our lodgings in that they had a satisfying mix of comfort, authenticity, location, and intimacy – albeit they all obviously catered to and were quite accustomed to gringos.) The resort had beautiful, well-cultivated and manicured grounds and was situated along the lovely Rio San Carlos. In particular we enjoyed all of the scarlet palms on the property. Our room was one of the ones further from the main facilities, which meant we were undisturbed by passerby’s and had a pleasant walk to go for meals or to the pool. Nearby was the impressively stocked and appealingly overgrown enclosed butterfly garden.
The rooms in the hotels were simple but pleasant with 2 double beds and a pullout couch. We had 2 Adirondack chairs on our porch that were perfect for sitting and surveying the view of the lawn leading down to the river. We were soon enticed away from our chairs by the sight of a large iguana in the grass. As we quietly approached our prey we had the classic moment of realizing a dozen other logs and mounds were now retreating to the river. While good at staying so still that you could almost stumble on them, once they decided to flee they were ridiculously loud as they sped away in a flying scamper and crashed into the weeds.