A short drive past the border from Nicaraugua found us turning off the main road onto rough gravel, winding through a small town with kids out playing, back through woods and small concrete bridges, eventually pulling into the driveway of an incredibly beautiful farm. Bethany and I were stunned as we came to a stop and got out. Seeing a woman nearby working, we said ‘Hello’ and realized there were wayworse places to spend the night. We learned Agi and Guido bought the farm 17 years ago and have been turning it into heaven ever since. After showing us around, Agi encouraged us to take a hike [literal] around the farm. We were amazed to see the variety in the landscape just on the farm. As their dog followed us, we walked down by a river (and saw a few crocs sunbathing), through dense forest, eventually making our way up a long incline above the tree line and into rolling hills of pasture with an amazing view of the surrounding countryside. We also got to mingle with the cows that called the pasture home. A long ‘moo’ from me had the opposite effect of enticing them to come say hello, instead causing two to turn and run away and a third to turn his thousand yard stare on me as we continued walking by. The dog didn’t appreciate it either. At one point our doggie companion stopped in his tracks and peered intently at a tree branch overhead. We both followed his gaze and within a second of looking up we saw a monkey make an epic leap from one branch to another. Needless to say, we gave the dog a good tip.
ants, oh god the ants
ouch ouch ouch
View along the hiking trail
We spent the evening sitting under the huge tree next to our campsite watching the spider monkeys make their way along the tree branches, eventually coming close to the ground to taunt the dogs.
We woke early the next morning and broke camp to ensure we made it to Tambor in time to pick up Mom and Pete. The drive was going well and was relatively uneventful, and we figured we’d be in early. And then we bumped [hah!] into the worst stretch of road we’d faced during the entire trip. 20 miles of washboard gravel, the rocks less gravel and more pieces that had been deemed unusable for building castle walls. We trundled along at less than 20 mph, trying not to talk lest we bite the ends of our tongues off. As we neared our destination, the road blessedly came back to pavement, and we zipped to Playa Pochote, the village we’d be spending the next two weeks in.
Pulling into town, we followed the directions we’d downloaded, but weren’t having any luck. We asked around, and got directions back along the small road and found the house. It was beautiful! And right along the beach! Pulling in, we met the manager of the place and began to quickly unload Sweetcakes before we had to go pick up the family. Halfway through unloading, a gringo came strolling across and introduced himself as the neighbor. Inquiring about the Wisconsin plates, we informed him we had indeed driven down from the great white north, but couldn’t chat because we had to go pick up some family. Seeing a plane fly by overhead, I told Bethany to high tail it as we promised them we wouldn’t be late. Zipping over, we were relived to not see them standing around, meaning it hadn’t been their plane. A few minutes later, they touched down and we were slated for 10 days of hanging out on the beach!
Family! Note Pete flashing the cash
As we settled into the water, Bethany and I were astounded at how comfortable it was: warm, soft swells of water, it was great! After being on surfing beaches for the last couple of beach stays, we had the wrong view of how ocean swimming should be. That evening we celebrated safe travel by having mojitos [cracking open one of the three 1.75L bottles of Flor de Cana rum] and teaching Mom and Pete how to play Hand and Foot (which requires 6 decks of cards, but yes it is fun and addicting!).
Tote pole on the beach
Cleaning up the tent; chore day!
Pete defending the house from the bat
Some of the seashells we’d collected
This is all that protected us from the crocs!
Every sunset was awesome
The smallest toad we saw; he liked to hang out and eat the termites
Carla, we called Chi Chi, was our best friend while we hung out.
Our first full day in Pochote, we took a trip on over to Cobano, the regional center of the southern bit of the Nicoya Penninsula. Mom came along and got an insight into what this dream vacation of ours was actually like: walking around town asking people how to get a SIM card in our phone and where the ‘E-say’ store was. [Real talk: it was ICE pronounced with a Spanish accent. Lolz] Entering the phone store, Mom’s eyes bugged a bit as she saw the holstered gun on the security guards hip. “Count yourself lucky he’s not holding a shotgun like most guys here do.” I quipped.
Croc tracks! The wavy line is where the tail was dragging.
Local dude who came by and chopped down some coconuts for us
“If you want some fish or lobster, there is a man up the street who sells them.” Regino, the caretaker for the house told us. We moseyed on up to Manuel’s place, and he asked us how much lobster we’d like. Given the price, mom said she’d take 5 kg’s. [11 lbs] Going back that afternoon, we picked it up and realized we’d just paid $50 for 8 lobsters, one of them the largest I’d ever seen.
The celebration continued then, as we spent the next two hours boiling lobster and trying to eat it all. We gave up with several tails to spare [thank god, but we still regretted it] and Bethany put together a lobster salad with the leftovers.
That afternoon we had visitors. Colin & Aurelie, who we met in Nicaragua, were passing through the area so we invited them to park near our bungalow for the evening. We feasted on pina coladas made from fresh pineapple and fresh coconut and talked them in to playing Guillatine with us. I mean, they are French, afterall…
Sitting on the porch, we saw two backpackers go walking by on the beach out ahead. They stopped to ask if we knew where the volunteer center was located, but unfortunately we didn’t know anything about it. Ten minutes later we saw them doubling back. Running over to the fence, I told them we had wifi and if they needed to use it to find the place they were going they were welcome to. Turns out Brice and Johanna were trying to track down a guy who lived on this little stretch of beach that Johanna met when she had volunteered in Pochote a few years back. We spent the afternoon and evening chatting, and when they came back that evening telling us they hadn’t had any luck tracking down the guy they were looking for, we told them they were more than welcome to set up their hammocks on the porch and sleep there. After setting up, the group of us went out to the ocean for a night swim. As we passed the break waters, a gasp escaped my mouth. Looking down at my arms as they went through the water, I saw blinks of lights rolling off my arm. I recognized this from our first trip out to Maine visiting my friend Jesse. Back then, as we’d roared through ocean waters in the boat on a similarly dark night, he’d explained the faint glow behind the boat that made it look like a highlighter parting the water as bio-luminescent plankton. Laughing as I explained it to everyone else, I was shocked at how bright the stuff was. We all spent the next half an hour giggling as a group as we splashed in the water watching the glowing sparkles all around us.
This is the closest approximation we could find; up close you could see the individual pinpricks of light
Flipping through the Nicoya Penninsula guidebook, we decided to take a trip on over to Montezuma to see some waterfalls. Mom was a real trooper and made the hike over the rocks back to the waterfall where we enjoyed swimming in fresh water and watching people trying to stand under the falls. One particularly intrepid local would climb halfway up the 100 ft. falls and jump off into the pool below.
Mom and Pete had brought down snorkeling gear for all of us, so another day we made our way over to the Curu Nature Reserve and spent the morning boating out to Islas Tortugas and snorkeling among the rock outcrops nearby. The snorkeling was decent, but Ike and I realized how spoiled we were by our snorkeling experiences in Belize in previous years, which were incredible!
A few pairs of scarlet macaws were living in the trees just down the beach from our bungalow. Some other species of bird kept trying to attack their nest, which would set off the macaws to flying in big, swooping circles around the beach. This usually happened during our nightly sunset swims, which meant the birds’ coloring really showed in the evening light, but that we never had our camera handy. I don’t think I will ever forget the sound of the birds screaming in flight as they fought off their attacker, CAWWWW BACAWWWWW! (Listen to the “Scarlet Macaw 1” and “Scarlet Macaw 2” clips hereif you want to experience it for yourself.)
As the time together came to an end, we tried our hardest to soak up the air conditioning and enjoyment of not having to break camp every day. Finishing up our errands of cleaning out the car and de-molding the tent, we felt good about heading out. We dropped Mom and Pete off at the airport a bit early so we would have time to zip over to the ferry that goes from the Nicoya Penninsula back to the mainland. We drove our way on over to make the 11 am departure, and as we arrived we saw the gate was shut, heard the ferry blow its horn and begin sliding away from the dock. At 10:45. The only time we’ve ever seen anything happen early in Central America. Asking the dock worker if there would be another boat before the 2 pm ferry [the next scheduled departure] we received a reply of, “Nope, nothing until 2:30.” Ah, good to see they’re going back to CA time. Ugh. That meant we got to hop back on the terrible road all the way up through the peninsula.
Celebratory pinas for the last night
“Hey, do you know who’s vehicle has the Ontario plates outside?” I asked Alex, the man working behind the check-in desk at the hostel we were staying at Monteverde, the little village nestled high in the mountains of the cloud forest. “Oh, that’s mine and my brother’s.” Andy replied in a slow, deep voice with accented German. The brothers [actually Romanian, but both had lived in Germany for over a decade] had most recently resided in Toronto and bought an early 90’s 4Runner! Which had gone kaput with a head gasket issue before they were outside of the city. So they’d swapped it for a beheamoth of a Chevy Caprice Classic station wagon. Bravo gentlemen. They’d spent just over a week volunteering at the hostel and were also making their way south. We spent the evening chatting about where we’d been, where we were going, and the joys of overlanding as clouds fleetingly tore by overhead. The drive up to Monteverde had been stunning, with lots of green rolling hills on top of the mountains, dirt roads that went up and down as they meandered their way back towards the nature reserve hidden behind Monteverde. Sweetcakes got to heat her brakes back up, and I got to pretend four wheel drive some more as we made our way into town.
Flipping through the pages of the local guides, we found an opportunity for a night hike at a nearby reserve [not Monteverde], and rushed over to catch the hike. A Swedish couple joined us and the four of us spent the next couple of hours with our guide, blown away by all the wildlife: sleeping birds, vipers in trees, bugs, and a giant tarantula!!! Check out our FB page for the video.
Hundreds of caterpillers
Oh hey guys
The next day, after enjoying speedy internet and posting another blog post, we struck camp and attempted to follow in some previous overlanders’ footsteps by taking the mountain trail back behind Monteverde, across the peak of the mountains, and over to a butterfly sanctuary near Laguna Arenal. The trip was only 10 miles as the bird flies, but it had taken the crew over at LifeRemotely 3 hours. It was legit offroading, with stream crossings thrown in for good measure. Other travelers informed us they’d asked about the road and locals told them with recent rains the stream was impassable by car. We figured we’d give it a shot. The gravel road was little more than a mud path without vegetation as we left town. We advanced through the fog and wind, periodically catching glimpses of the valley below and in general enjoying some true offroading. The road was still officially a road [on the map only] for about three quarters of the entire way, and we’d just reached the end of it when some ATV’s materialized out of the fog and waved us down. We told them how we hoped to make it over to the butterfly sanctuary, but they emphatically told us the continuing light rain we were experiencing in addition to the downpour they’d had a few days prior had put the path out of commission. “Even with 4WD you’ll get stuck and have to call a tractor to pull you out” they told us. Combined with the previous information we had about the stream being too deep to ford, we discussed turning back. “Where can we stay instead, since we now need to go 80% of the way around the lake to make it where we want to go?” I asked Bethany. “Well, there’s this brewery we can stay at,” she replied. By the time she’d finished the sentence I was halfway turned around and gunning it. [That is what Bethany would have you believe. The truth is that I didn’t want to risk getting stuck on top of a mountain in a place with no traffic to lend us a hand. We want to push the envelope of what feels comfortable but don’t want to put ourselves at real risk.] A sigh issued from Bethany as we made our way back to Monteverde. “When are we going to have a REAL adventure?” she asked, exasperated. “You do realize that we’re currently driving off road, through the wind and rain in a cloud forest situated on top of a mountain in rural Costa Rica, right?” I replied. “Whatever.” she said with an eye roll.
up in the clouds
Oh, there we go.
It all ended up being for the best, as the drive out of Monteverde and over towards Laguna Arenal was one of the most picturesque of the trip, at times feeling like Argentina [according to Bethany], Wisconsin, and Mexico. We loved it, and reached a lookout not far from the Brewery we were staying at.
The brewery was situated with a clear view of the lake. Inside we asked about staying there, as we’d heard that it was 5k colones each [$10]. “No, 1k each!” Juan Pablo, one of the bartenders told us. “Whew! We’d heard it was 10 thousand!” “It is.” said the other bartender, the son of the guy who owned the place. A glance from Juan Pablo came our way and a quick shake of the head. They went back and forth in Spanish [all we caught was Juan Pablo going to bat for us saying we weren’t in an RV and instead a tent]. I pulled him aside a bit later when the son was gone, and he told us we could sleep up by the skate park [yes, they had one] for 2k colones total. We went for it, as the holiday had lots of people down by the lake shore where we had initially planned to stay.
The next morning we woke up early and completed our circuit of the lake to get to the butterfly sanctuary.
Chrysalis of several different butterflies
Cow heart butterfly – because it has four dots like the four cow hearts
The big dot on the bottom looks like an owl eye; if you cover the bottom half, it looks like a snake head [nose facing up]
We followed that up by going to some hot springs. Playing it cool like the locals, we skipped the $50/head spa on the hot springs and instead walked 100 meters down from it and got into the water under the bridge. Plenty of rock pools to hang out in and relax. Reluctantly we pulled ourselves from the water and continued on to Zarcero, a mountain village with wild camping where we’d be spending the night.
Upon arrival, we walked into the church and began appreciating the view over the central plaza when a gasp issued from my mouth. “The ferry, it’s back on, Bethany! January 5th!” Reading the breaking news on Facebook, we learned the ferry was doing a one-time trip with cars, but it was in little over a week. Outside the church, we sat on a bench and crunched the numbers. We could do it, but it’d require us to skip the Osa penninsula, where we’d wanted to chill out for a few days. The temptation to save $1500 [compared to having to ship it in a cargo container] and have an easier import process was too great, and we figured out where we had to be to be successful. It was going to be a long haul, but we could do it! We settled into the open lot on a hill above Zarcero and soaked up the peace, tranquility, and last bit of calm we’d have for the next few days. The next morning we had a good omen for our decision: a rainbow landing on our little pot of gold:
Most of the day was driving through more beautiful mountains and down to Golfito, where a hotel had a large parking lot we could camp in. As we arrived, we asked about staying there but were told by the man working the counter that we would have to check with the boss. We burned a couple of hours and tried back after the shift change. The woman working called the boss, who pleasantly spoke English and let us know it was no problem. Whew! Luckily, there were tucans and monkeys hanging out to make it enjoyable. We got our rest so we could be at the border first thing in the morning. Being the 31st of December, we were worried that places could be closing early for the holiday.
As we entered the border zone, we kept our eyes peeled for the Costa Rica immigration building. Approaching a large central building, we pulled up but saw a large sign announcing Panama. “So, uh, it’s a joint building then? That makes it easy?” I ventured. A man came up and informed us that no, we’d actually blown by the Costa Rica section and were currently at the Panama immigration and customs. Oh Central America, your border crossings are so lulzy. We hopped in line with dozens of other people in line for immigration at Costa Rica, all of us early as it would be closed for the holiday tomorrow. Other overlanders had told us the border had taken four or five hours. Our worries escalated as we spent the next hour and a half in line just for the Costa Rica stamp [although we were able to pick up a SIM card for Panama while we waited. Highlight included watching the salesman whip out a pair of scissors to cut the SIM card down to the appropriate iphone size. “If it doesn’t work, you don’t pay!” he cheerily told us.] and noticing the bank was closed, preventing us from exchanging what was left of our colones. Happily, things picked up after we got our exit stamp, and we were out in three hours! We burned the rest of our colones on half a dozen empanadas, happily munching on them as we rolled down the four lane highway at 100 kph. Hello, Panama!
Costa Rica budget recap:
Expected days in country: 14
Actual days spent in country: 16
We would have spent a few more days if we didn’t have to rush off to catch the ferry. For those of you planning your own PanAm adventures, budget more time for Central America! Each country really is unique and worth exploring more than we had time for on this trip.
Daily budget: $66 USD (way too low in hindsight)
Actual expenses: $47 USD
Difference: -$19(-29%). Most of our time in CR was spent with family in a bungalow on the beach, generously paid for by Ike’s mom. This had a big impact on our expenses. Groceries were literally twice what they were across the border in Nicaragua. We had stocked up on booze and some food before crossing into CR, but wish we had stocked up on even more. The customs agents did not look in our car at all. The booze and food we did purchase in Nicaragua also helped keep our CR expenses down.
Average price for gas: $4.69/gallon (655 colones per liter).
Expected miles driven: 500
Actual miles driven: 809
And this number would have been even higher if we had done the Osa Peninsula. Way back when we were planning we didn’t know about the peninsulas and figured we would hug the pacific coast the entire time; thus our underestimating the miles.
Average gas mileage: 18.6 mpg, which is better than the 17 mpg we budgeted, but not as good as the 20 mpg we averaged through the US, Canada, and Mexico. We drove some rough roads in CR. Lots of gravel, lots of washboard. Also a lot of elevation change driving through the mountains.
Average miles driven per day: 51
Our lowest yet, excluding Belize when Sweetcakes was out of commission for a solid week.
Biggest daily expenses ($/day):
#1: Food- $22
#2: Gas – $16
Again, take these with a grain of salt. Since we were staying with family for most of our time in CR, our lodging expenses were very low. Our food expenditures would have been even higher had we not stocked up on booze and some non perishables in Nicaragua before crossing the border. We spent a lot of time lounging on the beach, but the few tourist things we did were expensive! So be sure to budget for things like National Park entrance fees and tour fees (white water rafting, ziplining, wildlife reserves, etc.