Costa Rica Trip (March 2008)



This trip was arranged through Adventure Life of Missoula, Montana. I'd found them on the Internet.


On the flight from Detroit to Houston, the guy sitting next to me turned out to be from Lansing, also. He was going to Costa Rica to work on a race team - car racing team. He works for Rocketsports Racing, which is owned by Paul Gentilozzi, who also owns a real estate company in Lansing. He and 3 or 4 other guys from Rocketsports were going there for a race somewhere outside of San Jose, Costa Rica's capital city. Their race car was being shipped from Miami. This guy was a mechanic, but he said he did anything and everything for the company. Lately, most of his time is spent hauling race cars all over North America.


Arrived in Costa Rica after dark, about 8:30. The San Jose airport is served by its own fleet of taxis, all red Toyota Corollas. I paid $20 at a window in the airport and a young man drove me the 10-15 miles into San Jose. In the city, there was lots of traffic, lots of people in the street. The ride was fast, in and out of traffic with only inches to spare. The driver knew no English, so I tried a bit of my Spanish.


The Hotel Le Bergerac is a small, 2-story hotel on a quiet side street several blocks from downtown. It has a good French restaurant, but I was there for breakfast only. The people at the desk spoke English and were very helpful. Although there were screens on the windows, I was bothered by mosquitoes in bed. My room was on the first floor, not far from the front desk, so I heard people talking during the night. A bird that sounded similar to a robin started in at about 3:00 a.m. I got up at 6:30 and had my complimentary breakfast: good, strong coffee; scrambled eggs;  a red bean and rice mixture that I later learned was called "pinto gallo" (red rooster); fresh fruit; toast and jam.

A van was outside at 8:00, where I met the only other member of the group: Tim Wills, a single, 42-year old software engineer from Boston. Carlos was our driver. (Except for the taxi ride to and from the airport, all transportation was part of the tour package.) We headed east, toward the Caribbean. Along the way, there was a spot where we looked down on 2 rivers at once, one a nice blue-green, the other gold. Carlos said the gold river is called "Rio Sucio" - dirty river. It is run-off from a volcano. (I didn't get a picture, but cousin Jim Buck, who was there with wife Jan a few weeks before me, did.) The road climbs out of the central valley and then down to Limon, the port city. It was a 4-hour trip. We saw a few houses; signs for "cabinas" (cabins); fruit stands; boulder-filled, mostly dry river beds; and banana plantations with bananas wrapped in blue plastic bags. I noticed that other drivers don't mind that you miss them only by inches. As we approached Limon, there were several places with dozens of shipping containers, some stacked as many as 5 high. Most of the houses had corrugated metal roofs and cement block walls.

Before we got to Limon, we turned off onto a road that was sometimes rough asphalt and other times gravel. We finally stopped outside a back roads tavern called Salon de Delia in what I think was Bananito Town, although there wasn't much of a business district. Here we waited for the 4-wheel drive vehicle that was to take us the rest of the way. I went in to use the bathroom and then bought beers for Tim and myself. The bartender was a black woman - Delia, I assume. There were 4 or 5 black men at the bar. Soccer was on the TV. Our next ride arrived, a Hyundai Galloper, driven by a black man named Roland (I think) whose English was pretty good. The rest of the trip - about 1/2 hour - was on a rough dirt and rock road. Two or 3 times we had to drive across shallow streams.


The Selva Bananito Lodge is on a 2000-acre farm owned by a German family. It has 11 cabins, an office, and the "rancho" - a dining room and bar. I had a cabin to myself. It was on the side of an incline, one side propped up on stilts. The back side was open, with a deck with 2 hammocks and a view of horse pasture, rain forest and mountain.

Inside, there was a room with 2 beds and a bathroom with a large, open shower. There was no electricity, but a gas lantern and a flashlight were provided. There was plenty of solar-heated running water for bathing and a keg of "purified" water for drinking. Below the deck in back was a leaf-cutter ant trail.

Tim and I had lunch at the rancho - beans and rice, a tamale, lemonade, carrot salad. There are no menus here - plates of food are delivered from the kitchen below by Costa Rica women that speak no English. After lunch, Carlos - who was to be our guide for the rest of our stay - taught Tim and I how to climb a tree on a rope. I'm a bit afraid of heights, so I learned how to use the equipment without going up more than 15 feet. Tim went much higher, up to the first big limb, and told me later that he was fine until he stood up on the limb and looked down.

Carlos, Tim and I had dinner by candlelight at 8:00, starting with rum and coconut juice sipped from the coconut with a straw. Then grilled chicken breast, broccoli, boiled potato and a slice of watermelon. Passion fruit juice to drink, flan for dessert. Carlos says they cook with propane and have a propane-powered refrigerator.


I was in bed by 9:00 and slept 'til 6:00. I never closed the doors to the patio/balcony and there were no screens on the windows. There was a mosquito net hanging knotted over the bed, but I didn't use it. There were no mosquitoes. I saw some bats off the deck, but they didn't come in. Slept with just a sheet until about 3:00, then pulled up a thin blanket.


While we were tree-climbing yesterday afternoon, we saw dozens of turkey vultures streaming over. Carlos said they were migrating north. This morning I see big birds soaring high up the mountain which I at first think are vultures, but then realize are hawks - about 50 of them. Carlos says they are broad-winged hawks.


After breakfast we go on a horseback tour of the farm, part of the way along the Bananito River. The horses poke along at first, but with a little prodding we get them up to a cantor. We see a line of cabins where the workers live who look after the cattle. The cattle are a mixed breed they are developing that are good producers of both meat and milk.

We saw more hawks and vultures, including king vultures, whose wings are white along the edge. Carlos says king vultures get their name because they are allowed to eat at a carcass before the other vultures - not out of respect, as the name would suggest, but because they are better able to rip the carcass open, making it easier for the others.


We saw some banana trees, one of the crops the owners had tried and finally abandoned when land closer to the coast became available for bananas as a result of failure of the cocoa crop there. Now they are trying palm oil. We also got a glimpse of some toucans; a relative of the oriole that has yard-long hanging nests; and a flycatcher with long, thin tail feathers. Carlos showed us a plant with broad leaves that had a pattern of rectangular holes cut in them. He said they were cut by nest-building bats. The bats cut the holes to make them curl for their nest. There are several varieties of these bats, and they can be identified by the shape and pattern of the holes they cut.


Lunch with Carlos and Tim - plantain with a hunk of cheese, a ground beef and noodle mix, sliced tomato and tamarind juice. The cheese - white, mild and dry - was made here on the farm, we were told. No activities planned for the afternoon. I wandered around, got pictures of a pair of trogons (slaty-tailed trogons, as best as I can determine from Internet research). I found out later that the reason I could get so close is that they were hanging around a termite nest in a tree. (One apparently hadn't wiped his face after lunch.)

Boring afternoon, since I was not comfortable wandering off by myself and I'd brought nothing to read. Tried out the hammock, but after a while the sun hit it and it got too hot.

The leaf-cutter ants were fascinating. Video. One of their trails crossed a footpath, and I noticed that around mid-day, they started dropping the leaves and letting them pile up in the path. The leaf pieces remained there for hours, but by sunset, every last one had been picked up again and carried off. My Internet research reveals that this "caching" behavior had been observed before, but apparently not understood.


New guests Kurt and Iris, a couple from Switzerland, joined us for dinner. He is a chemical engineer. Dinner was a very tender slice of pork, mashed potato, mixed vegetables and a chopped cucumber, lettuce and tomato salad. We sat and talked until 9:00, although Kurt's English was limited and Iris' not good at all. Walking back to my cabin, I met Jurgen, the son of the owner, who had driven up in his pickup. Since he speaks German, he planned to take Kurt and Iris on a nature hike the next day while Carlos took Tim and me on the waterfall hike.


Breakfast buffet style (as usual) at 7:00. I had meusli with fresh milk. By fresh milk, I mean taken from the cow that morning (according to Carlos, anyway). It had gobs of butterfat floating in it. Yum. Also scrambled eggs, pinto gallo and fresh fruit - banana, watermelon and pineapple.  From the dining deck, we saw a Jesus lizard in a tree, so-named because they run on their hind legs, even across water.


We headed up the Bananito River, a small stream in a wide, rocky riverbed. The water actually disappears before it passes the lodge, leaving a dry riverbed. Carlos says it just runs under the rocks and re-emerges farther downstream. After the hike, I went back and got a picture of exactly where the stream disappeared.

Carlos carried a rope and Minor, another staff member, carried our lunch in a backpack. On this and other hikes, we saw poison dart frogs, 3 different species in all, but I only got pictures of two of them. When they are grabbed by a predator, they secrete a poison that causes temporary paralysis. The poison of Costa Rican frogs is not as strong as South American frogs, where natives use it on their arrows.

After a while, we left the riverbed and climbed up through the rainforest to the top of a waterfall. The rope was secured at the top and Tim and I put on harnesses and helmets. The harness is hooked to a figure 8 ring on the rope. While we were getting ready, Minor walked back around to the bottom of the falls. Tim and I rappelled down one at a time, with Carlos at the top taking pictures.



A few minutes down river from the waterfall, we found a shady spot for lunch. From what seemed like a small backpack, Minor pulled out a propane camp stove, a pot, bowls and food. He heated up a pre-prepared mixture of rice, corn and peas, filled up our bowls, then added a hard boiled egg and tuna out of a can.


That evening, there were more guests. John and Lisa, their daughter Emily (age 13) and son Michael (age 5) joined us for dinner. They are from Santa Barbara, California. Much conversation, dominated by Lisa and Jurgen. (All of us were there again for breakfast the next morning, when this picture was taken.) At dinner, a burro went trotting by. We had seen him the day before on our horseback tour. Jurgen says he has a purpose. They need mules to harvest the palm oil, so they are making their own by mating the burro with their horse mares. Jurgen says the burro is shorter than the mares, so they built him a platform. I asked if he wasn't humiliated by that, and Jurgen said not at all. Four mules have been born so far.


After breakfast the next morning, Carlos took John, Tim and me on a nature hike across the horse pasture below the rancho and up into the rainforest on a looped trail. Parts of the trail had handrails and "cookies" - steps made of wood disks sliced from a tree trunk.  We saw lots of leaf-cutter ant trails, including a mound or two, and 3 species of poison dart frogs. We also saw a large spider whose strands of web are said to be  stronger than steel for its size. I didn't get a picture because my automatic focus couldn't seem to handle a spider on a web.

We got back around noon. I showered and packed up my stuff. After a lunch of spaghetti, Tim and I left with Roland for the Caribbean coast.

Our next lodging was the Shawanda Lodge, where we again each had our own cabin. They were comparable to those at Selva Bananito, but with electricity. Although we were only 50 yards from the coast road, we were surrounded by forest, so there were no great views like at the other place.


After we checked in and got settled, we headed for the beach. It was beautiful, but there was black, dead coral just off shore, and good spots for swimming were hard to find. We didn't have our suits anyway, so we walked up the beach about a mile, Tim - who is about 6 feet tall - taking one step to my two and making me work to keep up. I finally convinced him to turn around, and we walked back on the road.


Shawanda had a very upscale restaurant. Fortunately, meals were included in the package. I had a salad with heart of palm, garlic shrimp, undercooked green beans, zucchini and what looked like casaba melon, but was cooked. I asked our waitress what it was, but she didn't speak English, and I didn't get what she said, so she brought one out uncooked, and it looked like what we call merliton in the U.S. For dessert I had a cream or pudding-filled pastry with chocolate sauce.


After dinner I called Carol, who is staying with daughter Dawn in Grand Rapids. We have a new granddaughter named Josie (grandchild number 11, compliments of Doug and Becky).


We arranged a snorkeling trip for the next morning with the concierge, then went to bed. We were warned about the howler monkeys, but it was a rooster that first awoke me at about 2:30. I went back to sleep, but soon the howler monkeys started. They sometimes seemed to be howling in response to the roar of trucks on the coast road. They don't really howl; it is more like a loud growl.


We were picked up after breakfast and transported up the coast. Our small snorkeling boat was launched by rolling it on logs into the water. The Caribbean was calm and beautiful. Besides Tim and I, there was a young couple from Spain.

We snorkeled for about an hour and a half, then stopped for lunch at the tip of a peninsula that was part of Cahuita National Park. We had fresh cut mango, pineapple and watermelon. We were joined by other snorkelers and a couple of white-faced monkeys.

The second part of this trip was a guided nature hike back along the north shore of the peninsula. Our guide, who turned out to be the brother of Carlos of Selva Bananito Lodge, pointed out howler monkeys, sloths, a yellow snake in a tree, birds, hermit crabs and lizards. The beach along the peninsula was free of dead coral and beautiful.

When we got back to Shawanda, we talked about going to the beach, but decided to get a beer first. Tim thought he'd remembered seeing a bar not too far north of us on the coast road, so we set off walking. When we didn't find one after a march of a mile or two, the driver who had picked us up this morning came along, recognized us, and gave us a ride to Puerto Viejo, about 4 miles north of the hotel. Puerto Viejo is a scruffy little beach town that attracts surfers and tourists. It has a lot of shops and bars. We had a beer or two, wandered around a bit, then caught a taxi back to Shawanda. I had sea bass for dinner - very good, but I couldn't finish it. The restaurant is open on the sides, but covered with a high-peaked thatched roof. Tropical elegance.


The coast road, like many others in Costa Rica, was really bad. It had some smooth pavement here and there, but the rest was either bumpy gravel or pot-holed asphalt. Travel is difficult, because cars frequently have to stop and creep over holes, then race along a short stretch of smooth pavement to the next pothole. The drivers' mission is pothole avoidance, and they will drive all over and off the road to do it. As a pedestrian you may be startled to see a car deliberately veer toward you, only to realize that he is doing so to avoid a pothole. But over all, pedestrians and bicyclists and cars and trucks share the dusty roads quite peacefully.


We were picked up in a van the next morning for the last adventure of the tour. In the van in addition to the driver was Miguel, who was to be our rafting guide. We picked up a few more people on the way to Limon, Costa Rica's main port on the Caribbean. Miguel gave us a lot of information along the way. Tourism is Costa Rica's biggest industry. Pineapple has overtaken bananas as the biggest crop. Picking pineapples is hard and dangerous; it takes two men, one to hold (catch) the bunch of bananas, another to chop it off with a machete. The blue bag covering the banana bunch on the tree is impregnated with insecticide. They also serve to keep the bananas clean; if they get dirty, they spoil faster. Many years ago, a railroad was built along the river that runs roughly between San Jose and Limon, the river we would be rafting on. Immigrants from China, Italy and Caribbean islands were brought in to build the railroad, and more people died than in building the Panama Canal. The railroad operated for ? years, but with problems caused by being so close to the river. When much of it was destroyed in the earthquake of 1999(?), it was abandoned. By then, a road had been built between San Jose and Limon.


There is an expression in Costa Rica: "tico time". "Ticos" is what Costa Ricans call themselves. "Tico time" means that Costa Ricans don't follow strict time schedules. Miguel said that a few years ago, the government tried to institute daylight savings time. It was chaos. Most Ticos don't carry watches. When we tourists chuckled about that, he reminded us that Americans didn't seem to be capable of accepting the metric system.


Another thing I noticed about Costa Rica is that there doesn't seem to be street signs or house numbers. Makes you wonder how mail is delivered.


The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is the least developed. Limon also serves as a port for Nicaragua, which is landlocked. An average of one cruise ship a day comes to Limon during the "season", which is 188(?) days.


We turned inland at Limon, on the main highway to San Jose. Soon we turned of the highway onto a 2-track road that went by some shacks and pastures and finally to the rafting base station for Exploradores Outdoors. It had a big, open-sided dining area. In back of that were about 20 changing rooms.

Another warehouse-like building contained lockers for our clothes and valuables. On a long counter at the back of the dining area was set a breakfast buffet. There were 2 or 3 additional busloads of rafters. After breakfast, we stowed our luggage in the lockers and boarded the buses for another back road drive to the put-in spot on the river. There we put on life vests and helmets and picked out paddles. On the drive to the river, Miguel had told us about the commands we would get from our rafting guide, what to do if we fell out of the raft, etc. We launched the rafts - about 5 of them - and in the relatively calm early stretch of the river, Miguel had us practice everything we had been taught. He is a professional rafting guide, and has rafted in such exotic places as Nepal, and on the White Nile in Africa. He has also kayaked the Grand Canyon. Surprisingly, he says one of the best places for rafting is Washington, D.C., on the Potomac.


The name of the river was the Reventazon. It was big and beautiful, and the water was warm, which was a good thing because we got soaked going through the rapids. Miguel had told us that we would see rapids as big as any we'd find on the Colorado in the Grand Canyon. The rafts were accompanied by 2 guys in kayaks, one leading us and the other following. They were there to rescue people who fell out and to take pictures. All of the following pictures are from a CD I purchased after the trip.

I am on the right side of the raft, 4th back, in the pink helmet. Miguel is behind me in the white helmet. Tim is on the left side in front.

We went through what seemed like dozens of rapids with brief stretches of calm water in between. It was exhilarating.


After a while we stopped for lunch. In each raft was a plastic keg full of food and drink. One of the rafts was flipped over to serve as a table, and all the guides turned in to restaurant workers. They sliced watermelon and pineapple and set out trail mix, cold cuts, bread and cut vegetables (bell pepper, heart of palm, tomato) and cheese. One guy unwrapped little squares of guava paste, placed each on a cracker, and then squeezed a dollop of cream cheese on top of each one (below).

After we got off the river, the buses took us back to the base station, where we changed into dry clothes and relaxed with a beer. Then back on a bus that took us to San Jose and the Hotel Le Bergerac. We got some rain along the way, the first we'd seen all week.


After we checked in and got cleaned up, Tim and I walked downtown to get something to eat. We went to a restaurant Tim had eaten at his first night here. I had chicken breasts with curry sauce ("Hindu style"), French fries and a small salad. Lots of people in the streets and lots of traffic, coexisting smoothly as usual. There was a Wendy's, several KFCs with statues of Colonel Sanders sitting on a bench in front, McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell. It was pretty dark, and in general, things looked dirty and shabby.


We were back by 8:00. My room this last night was on the first floor again, but not near the lobby, so it was nice and quiet. Both rooms were very nice, but this one had its own tiny courtyard. No time to enjoy it, however, because my flight was at 6:45, and the people at the front desk insisted that I needed to be at the airport 3 hours before take off time. I was in bed by 9:00. Mosquitoes bothered me again, so I got up and put on mosquito repellant. The only mosquitoes I saw on the whole trip were at this hotel. I got up at 3:00 and my taxi - arranged by the hotel desk clerk - was there at 3:15. There was very little traffic at that time of the night, so it probably took less than a half hour to get to the airport. The taxi cost $23. The airport wasn't busy at that hour either. Actually, it seemed that it was just opening, because I had to wait for staff to show up at a couple of the stations. Either that or I got there at the time of a shift change. But even with these waits, I was ready to board at 4:15 and had nothing to do for 2 hours but write down what I remembered of the trip.