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Costa Rica – east to west — Junquillal, Costa Rica

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Junquillal, Costa Rica

LOS MALINCHES, JUNQUILLAL, COSTA RICA

N10° 10.489′ W85° 49.000’

19th December 2012

 

We stayed at Hostel Gaia in Boquete (N8 46.402 W82 25.948) and
a very nice place it was too with a couple of comfy dorms with just 4 beds
each, a great kitchen for us to use, nice bathroom and as usual, most
importantly, good off street parking for Jambo. It being the Independence Day
weekend just after we arrived it filled up rapidly with locals. In fact it got
overfilled with youngsters from nearby towns and villages, hellbent on coming
to little sleepy Boquete and having a rip roaring good time. In other words a
skinful of local booze, plenty of loud music et al. Later that night there were
around double the number of young bodies crammed into the remaining rooms that
they were designed for, they made an almighty racket including climbing out of
the upstairs windows onto the tin roof and also flooding the floor of one dorm
with booze etc. The outcome was Hilda, the charming manageress chucked half of
the them out without any refund of the money they had paid for the remaining
nights they had booked to stay. Their girlfriends who remained were full of
remorse and apologies for the behaviour of their guys, but the outcome was
correct and predictable. Hilda’s poor girl who did the cleaning spent hours
afterwards putting the place back in shape. Can’t say we were sorry to see the
young revellers go!

Chris & Janet arrived in Boquete after us and stayed
just around the corner from us at a backpackers place which offered space for
overland trucks but seemed in value terms not the equal to Gaia. But they
seemed happy enough parked next to a couple of other overlanders which is
always fun sharing info and stories about their travels.

Whilst in Boquete we met Syd and Jenny, a delightful and fun
couple, he originally from the UK and Jenny from the US but now resident in the
US permanently. They live full time when at home in their big 5th
wheel RV taking jobs on RV parks and generally having a fun, outdoors life.
They had decided to escape the worst of the northern winter and head south for
the sun and were in Boquete to find an apartment to rent for a while. They were
most kind in sitting with us around the table at the hostel where they also
stayed for a while passing on priceless info about the National Parks in the
States which we should visit and the best routes to take doing so. Thanks guys,
much appreciated. Syd also had a well developed nose for finding the best value
for money eating places in town and we ended up eating lunch at their favourite
not once but twice! A good choice it was too with several main courses to
select from and all for just $3 a head.

But the main event in town was the Independence Day
celebrations in which busloads of marching bands and drum majorettes had come
into town to play their music and put on a show. Sadly, the weather didn’t know
what day it was and throughout the day the rain fell in torrents. To their
great credit the participants although mainly soaked to the skin, especially
the girls in their skimpy outfits, didn’t allow this misfortune to ruin their
fun and kept up their music and marching. The drums reverberated throughout the
town as they all marched up and down the streets for hour upon hour. In fact it
was dark by the time the last bedraggled bandsman or majorette climbed tired
and wet into their busses to take them home. Well done, guys. It was a great
show and you sure know how to work up a beat, even the youngsters!

In nearby David I had found an auto spares shop that sold
sheets of heavy duty rubber which was ideal for cutting out a new mudflap for
the back of Jambo to replace the one we had lost in Colombia. Whilst being watched
by a local artist painting a mural onto the wall of the hostel I had the
mudflap cut and bolted on in 40 minutes with a new alloy bracket and STAINLESS
STEEL fastenings (NB, Land Rover, not your usual rubbish mild steel and highly
corrodible stuff). Grant, back in Cape Town at Priclo Motors, will know what
I’m on about….

We spent the first two nights in Hostel Gaia’s dorm room
then camped outside in the Land Rover for $8 pppn. Fair value indeed.

We spotted several other overlanders in town whilst we were
there, from Switzerland, from Canada, from Brazil and even one cycling
photographer from Argentina who had set off on his trip north just a couple of
months ahead of us AND HERE HE WAS ALREADY IN BOQUETE AT THE SAME TIME AS US!
Can’t help thinking he must have got some lifts along the way….

Meantime for 3 solid days it rained non stop!

Our stay in Boquete at an end we again found ourselves
saying goodbye to Chris & Janet. They seemed a little unsure about their
next move which was originally to cross into Costa Rica border at the more
popular but busy crossing at Paso de Canoa, not the one we planned to take at
Sixaola in the north near the Caribbean coast. They were headed eventually for
Jaco on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica where they had rented an apartment for
themselves and various members of their family over the Christmas period. We
were probably going to be bush camped somewhere whilst they lived it up in
relative luxury…..

We briefly stopped in David on the Panamericana to do some
food shopping and most importantly to fill the car with as much wine and rum as
we could carry before crossing into Costa Rica where it was known prices are
sky high compared with all the other countries we had visited except perhaps
for Argentina. They should rename the place Coster Richer… Amazing how many
boxes of Clos white and red wine one can find space for in all the nooks and
crannies in a Defender. And that Carmenere red that Clos do in a box is
outstanding stuff. Why don’t we have this varietal in SA?

Then it was a nice road over the mountains passing through a
part of the Parque Nacional La Amistad (or Friendship) whose territory runs
over into neighbouring Costa Rica. It was green and lush, and why? Because
there was plenty of rain along the way. Seems the official rainy season is yet
to end. But we noticed it was a great deal cooler on the Caribbean coast albeit
still seriously humid. We made a brief stop in the unappealing port town of Puerto
Amirante which acts as a marine terminal for coastal shipping in the region and
a ferry terminal for the nearby Bocas del Toro islands. We had we felt “done”
island lifestyle for a while (that does
sound very blasé doesn’t it?) and the place sounded on reading up on it a bit
too touristy for us. So we didn’t catch the ferry over from Puerto Amirante
even though we ran into an American couple there from Wyoming in an overland
vehicle at the ferry terminal who planned to go over. But they had a friend
over there who had offered free beds. Lucky guys.

We then spent several hours driving up and down dirt tracks
looking for a place to camp or stay without success. The locals gave us all
sorts of conflicting directions – some even pointing to locations across an
uncrossable river – so we kept going up the road to Changuinola, a biggish and
busy town less than 20 kms from the Costa Rican border. In Changuinola we found
a gem of a hotel (no, we don’t normally “do” hotels but when you are tired and
there’s nothing else you rapidly change your views on such things!). We found ourselves
at the Semiramis Hotel (N9 26.862 W82 31.193) where we could have a room with
our own bathroom with hot water (which round here is quite rare), air
conditioning, wi-fi, and most importantly as usual, really safe lock up, camera
monitored parking for Jambo. All this for $30. And then we had two bonuses on
top. A great restaurant where Diana had the best fish stew she has ever tasted,
and right next door a computer shop run by the charming, English speaking
Syrian owner of the hotel where we could buy a new mouse for the laptop. He
even offered a discount after chatting to him for a while about our travels in
his home country. Plus, plus, plus! The mouse I had originally bought for the
new laptop had decided to die and I have a pathological hate of laptop
touchpads, so a new one was needed. Problem solved.

Whilst talking to him and loading our stuff back into the
car afterwards we could hear the continuous buzz of crop spraying aircraft
spraying the millions of hectares of bananas, by far and away the biggest
agricultural business in the region.

Then it was the short hop to the border with Costa Rica at
Sixaola where the river of the same name marks the actual border between the
two countries. Formalities were quick and easy – just one and a half hours for
both sides including buying compulsory 3rd party insurance for the
car (our international policy doesn’t cover some of the less “stable” countries
such as Colombia and Costa Rica) which we purchased from two little old ladies
in the pharmacy right by the border post. The procedure included my having to
sit at their PC typing in my details onto the policy document (they said they
didn’t much understand computers!). After stopping for Costa Rican Colones spat
out of an ATM just beyond the border we were on our way again and still amongst millions of banana trees
with blue bags over their crop to keep the mosquitoes off. They say Costa Rica
has the highest literacy rate and one of the highest standards of living in
central America but to be honest, judging by the condition of the roads, the
vehicles the locals were driving and the houses they live in this just didn’t
seem to add up. Panama looked and felt much wealthier even if some of their
roads were none too brilliant either. But they sure have a lot of bananas both
sides of the border!

After an hour or so driving inland we finally hit the coast
again at Puerto Viejo, driving onto the edge of the beach just before the town
to make our usual picnic lunch with a nice cold Balboa beer from Panama to wash
it down. There is NO way we could travel overland without our Waeco
fridge/freezer…. It’s already done some 30,000 kms over 9 months on this trip
running almost continuously. Before that, it kept going for a year on our
50,000 kms Cape to Cape trip to Norway and did over 25,000 kms on other earlier
African trips. No, Waeco didn’t pay me to say that (having tempted fate it will
probably give up tomorrow….no, please no). Puerto Viejo was for us oldies at
least a bit thick with hippie places, kitchy eating places but thin on places
to camp. We drove up and down the road to and from neighbouring Manzanillo 4
times and nearly gave up after seeing several places where it was possible to camp
for between 5 & 7 dollars, but all were to say the least scruffy. Basic we
can handle, no problem, if the basics are clean and working. But filthy loos
and showers that look like they have been used as a refuse tip we walk away
from. So finally we ended up at was to be our 18th bush camp (N9
38.602 W82 41.122), a lovely spot on the beach looking out to sea with palms
all round (but NOT overhead in the firing line of a potentially lethal falling
coconut – some 2000 deaths occur annually from people being hit on the head by
falling coconuts!) We had no facilities but as usual had plenty of water for
drinking and washing and a discrete hole dug in the bush way back from the
beach and properly covered afterwards is acceptable for one or two nights for
the morning “constitutional”. It rained like hell to start with and
through the night, but the sun eventually came out by the middle of the next morning
so we could dry out a bit. The rain was that heavy that it caused leaks in both
of our canopies and to my great annoyance we found out a day or so later that
it had got into the rooflining of the car, just like our previous Defender.
Come on Land Rover, these sort of failings are just not acceptable and should
have been engineered out years ago. And no, it is NOT because we have an
overloaded roofrack on the car. It is bad seam sealing and rotten welding of
the rain gutters, plain and simple. Enough moaning – where would all of us
Defender owners be without having something on our vehicles to rabbit on
about…..

Had an interesting time re-sorting all of our GPS waypoints
on the laptop into their correct country folders which had somehow got
scrambled when the old uncooperative mouse had still been in use and had been
using the oversensitive touch pad on the laptop. Operator error: fix the
adjustable sensitivity etc on the touch pad and all is well!

There’s always something on the car or in the equipment we
need that needs fixing from time to time. As an example our MSR camping stove (which
in theory will run on most liquid fuels) needs regular maintenance unblocking
and cleaning the jet. Local fuel, even petrol, is full of rubbish and even
filtering it into the stove bottle with a paper coffee filter sometimes doesn’t
seem to help much.

Much of the coast in this region features dangerous rip
currents making it an often dodgy place to swim. Every year apparently people
drown because of this. The surf also is frequently of the “dumper” variety
which can knock the unsuspecting off their feet and drag them out into deep
water very quickly. What doesn’t seem to tally with this is the rate at which
land is being sold in this part of central America ON THE COAST exclusively for
holiday homes where presumably the owners and their families would like to go
to the beach and maybe have a swim occasionally….. Odd?

At the end of our two soaking days of rain and as we got
ready to leave some very tired looking runners started coming past our spot on
the beach. We found out from the organizers parked just up the road that the
runners, some 30 of them from 11 different countries, were competing in a 200
km cross country super marathon over 7 days, running from the Pacific to
Caribbean coasts including some serious climbing and descending. Amongst them
we were told were two South Africans so we had to drive the short distance
along the coast to where they were all due to finish their huge endeavour and
to congratulate the two from home. Sure enough, we met Wayne and Nolene as they
staggered in at different times, no doubt footsore judging by Wayne’s blisters,
but full of pride in their achievement. Well done guys, and so far from home!

Next we drove to Cuahita and found Cabinas Algebra (N9
44.978 W82 51.630) run by Alfred and Andrea, a lovely German couple who had
settled in Costa Rica and bought Algebra, once a cacao farm owned by an elderly
Jamaican. He had only agreed to sell to them provided they promised to keep the
name. Very lush and a rather dark garden but atmospheric cabins at 27 USD a
night. They had good wi-fi and hot “suicide” showers. We enjoyed the relaxed
and peaceful aura of Cuahita with its smattering of holiday homes tucked into
the forest vegetation behind the beach and spent some time walking its long
beaches. However, we avoided swimming there after being warned off by the ever
present “Beware Rip Current” warning signs everywhere.

An oddity in much of the budget accommodation in south and
central America is that they only offer cold water in which to wash dishes, no
sink plugs and expect us to clean cutlery with a sponge. So one washes up under
a running cold tap irrespective of the fact that one is frequently warned not
to waste the valuable water…..

We had been looking at our long term itinerary and found we
may be behind schedule by 4 weeks if we want to be in Alaska by the end of June.
We have to get moving.

Whilst at Cabinas Algebra we downloaded some more OSM maps
for free for central America up to and including. Mexico. Great! Well, as it
transpired later, not so great as although the OSM maps are supposed to be
routable on a Garmin GPS like our two this frequently proved to be untrue when
asking for a route between two points connected by proper roads. Pay nothing,
get less I suppose.

From Cuahita we wandered up the Caribbean coast to Puerto
Limon, a rather drab and commercial port town, and then inland to Paraiso on an
attractive and scenic mountain route aiming for a hostel just outside Paraiso
called Brewha (N9 50.083 W83 50.466). It turned into a navigational challenge
par excellence to get to Brewha; unbeknown to us (and of course to both GPSs)
there had earlier been a major landslide on the direct road to Brewha from
Paraiso. The authorities had in their wisdom decided that there wasn’t enough
traffic on this quiet byeway so had left it closed to vehicles permanently. We
therefore had to start all over from the middle of the town and find another
way to get to the hostel. Having found it, perched on the side of a steep slope
looking down into the Orosi Valley far below, we discovered that there was
another challenge to face – the incredibly steep driveway down to the hostel
itself way below the entrance gate. At a guess the descent angle was around 35
degrees making even walking up or down it tough. And we had to get Jambo down
it (and of course later up it) as there was no way we were leaving the car a
long way away from the actual hostel at night. So Diana got out of Jambo, not
wanting to be on board for the big dipper ride to the bottom, I selected 1st
gear low range and we sidled down the slope to the minute parking space at the
bottom by the hostel. Luckily, the driveway surface was mainly, but not all,
cement; looking back up it I did wonder if Jambo would climb it without drama.
As it happened Jambo ground up that slope the following day when we departed
without any problems except on the looser bits of gravel surface where the
traction control had to earn its keep a few times. That car never fails to
amaze me in terms of its go anywhere ability.

Brewha had only just got going as a hostel and was the dream
of three young Canadians plus 3 dogs. For $25 a night we got a pretty basic
room, no water to shower or in the loo for apparent reasons connected to the
building of the new road above the hostel, but which we doubted as genuine as
there was water elsewhere in the building. Included was a very simple breakfast
of a scone and coffee. Dinner (one course of a small helping of lasagne) was $5pp
extra with no offer of 2nd helpings which the staff wolfed down in
front of us! The hostel’s position offers a great view over the lake and valley
below, a waterfall tumbling down the precipitous cliffs to one side, but there
was lots of work to do to finish off the whole package and justify the price.
We also felt that the young and no doubt enthusiastic new owners had a bit to
learn about the hospitality business….

The afternoon we arrived we took a long walk down the road
into the valley to see what is one of the oldest churches in Costa Rica (or
what’s left of it) named Ujarras (N9 49.675 W83 50.171), but turned back before
we got there as there was insufficient light left in which to get back up that
steep hill. We returned to the hostel up the steepest bit of the road by bus
and next morning saw the old church on our way out to San Jose. Set in a
beautiful grove of ancient trees probably as old as the church they surround it
is a stunning and well looked after setting which must hold many secrets and
stories of past history. The church dates from 1575 and was finally abandoned
in the late 1800s when the poor town around it was relocated to what is now
Paraiso. The church was left to deteriorate until more recent attempts to shore
up its crumbling and now roofless structure. A rather sad and moving place.

After saying goodbye to Ujarras we took the lovely, winding
country back roads over the surrounding hills towards the capital San Jose. The
route was also very popular with gaggles of Sunday bikers and runners enjoying
the glorious scenery around Cachi reservoir which we noted was fast filling up
with hyacinth, that strangler of oxygen in the water that has so seriously
affected other large bodies of fresh water around the world.

We endured long delays getting through central San Jose, a
city of some 300,000 people, to get to Gaudy’s Hostel (N9 56.310 W84 05.712). What
a gem it was too providing us with excellent off street parking, wi-fi,
kitchen, hot showers and rooms at $32 pn including breakfast. Its greatest
asset though is its charming Argentinian owner Michael and his always smiling
and super friendly assistant Gustavo. They made us feel so at home and were always
ready to help with info and kindly allowed us to use their phone to call the
American embassy in the city. We needed to get an update on the visa
application process for entry to the States bearing in mind that we would be
entering the States at least twice on different occasions and at different
locations. The Americans now offer the citizens of those countries who issue so
called “machine readable” passports with a built in electronic chip embedded in
one page the ability to apply for a US visa on line via their Visa Waiver
Program. The UK is one of those countries and as UK passport holders we wanted
to make use of this method of acquiring our visas and getting boned up on the
whole procedure well ahead of the time we wanted to enter the States. We
assumed we would have to physically visit the embassy in San Jose to acquire
all the info but in fact we managed to get it on the phone whilst at Gaudy’s.
Unfortunately, the embassy could not help with the separate matter of acquiring
the exemptions and approvals from other US departments such as the EPA and the
National Highway Transportation Board we would need to get the car into the
States legally. But this aspect we had researched extensively even before
leaving South Africa and also since starting our trip and we were confident we
knew who to contact and how to set the wheels in motion. Most importantly, the
officials we had communicated with had intimated that we should have no
problems getting all our paperwork sorted and approved.

We had a hell of a time getting out of San Jose, up narrow
roads forever in seemingly stuck within the confines of the city, then onto a dirt
road seemingly the wrong way! We turned around to try another way out and ended
up on a crazily steep dirt road past a rubbish tip, only driveable in a serious
4×4 with lots of axle articulation and good traction. The one GPS was playing
up running OSM maps, the other one on which I had loaded GPS Travelmaps maps seemed
better. Again, you get what you pay for (or don’t pay for….). Ergo.

When we finally made it back onto a “proper” road (one that
had the makings of a tarred surface) even this was pretty rough as it wound up
into the hills towards San Isidro de le General. The surface was uneven, really
badly patched and often dangerously potholed. I wonder how the overland motor
bikers get on with these potentially dangerous and seemingly poorly maintained
road arteries. Costa Rican roads are definitely not top of the pops as compared
with other countries we have travelled through so far. But as usually and eventually
happens the surface improved as we headed back downhill from the highest point
on the road at 3300m. As a further bonus the road was bounded by many colourful
wild plants and shrubs with blue, yellow and pink flowers at every bend in the
road.

We eventually got down to the Pacific and arrived first at
the little beach town of Dominical. Very, very touristy, lots of surf shops;
kitchy was our term for the place as we drove slowly down its rutted gravel
main street well filled with bronzed young people looking healthy but bored. Not
for us. So it was Uvita next, a little further down the coast. We had a look at
a few places around there but nothing seemed to be quite our cup of tea. So as
has happened many times before we ended up at our favourite sort of spot –
camped on the beach under the palms at what was to be our 19th “bush
camp” (N9 09.098 W83 44.365). However, there’s always a “price” to pay, even
for the so called free sites. This time it was those dreaded sand flies again
that seem to think they are miniature vampires when it comes to ready and
willing human flesh. The humidity was also back up in the 90s again which isn’t
ideal even if you can run into the limpid warm waters of the Pacific just
metres away to cool the bod. Again, it was a nice shelving, sand beach although
we had earlier seen warnings about rip currents. That said, we never experienced
anything like a rip on that beach.But the elements decided we needed a bit of
excitement so dumped loads of rain on us, so much so that both awnings leaked a
bit, the EazyAwn down its central seam which I had tried to seal with tent
sealer. To really irritate me I found that some water had found its way into
the interior roof lining of the car just like our old tD5. Well done, Land
Rover. This is a long running and completely unnecessary issue which with some
minor attention to detail should have been rectified YEARS AGO. It’s sorely
tempting to start up a list of the infuriating niggles one experiences with
Defenders which are entirely due to lack of design forethought coupled to
sloppy engineering and quality control and which do so much to ruin the image
of the marque (and much to the amusement of the competition!). Just two
examples. Try unscrewing the cap off the clutch fluid master cylinder reservoir
without graunching your knuckles. Another one; why oh why is it not possible to
better isolate/insulate the fresh air intake trunking to the heater matrix from
the top of the left front fender so that it DOESN’T pick up excess heat from
the engine compartment when the system is set to cold? Or maybe LR do it on
purpose…..

After our soaking on the beach but otherwise a nice peaceful
interlude we headed up the coast to Quepos. Neighbouring and very commercial Manuel
Antonio got a look see but it was all too touristy looking we thought and we
guessed expensive. There was every conceivable activity on offer, pushy guides
exhorting us to park here, eat there, a nice looking but busy beach and the
national park of the same name with reportedly lots of monkeys, toucans etc
etc. We have done monkeys etc so we back tracked a bit and ended up at the Wide
Mouth Frog Hostel (N9 25.821 W84 09.695) in Quepos. Run by Crispy and Marie
with their two little girls it is a great place to stop, unwind and relax. They
make no bones about wanting their place to be attractive and inviting to the
slightly older age group who are not party animals waningt to rev it up all
night, come back to the hostel making an unholy racket and honking all over the
bedroom floor. We all did it once, sure, but some of us get our kicks other
ways now. We had parking outside but which was guarded at night. There was a
nice pool, wi-fi and a communal kitchen and a free breakfast thrown in. Great
place.

Whilst in Quepos we had a good if pricey meal in a beachfront
restaurant and ice cream later. But otherwise nothing special. We met Bob
Baumann from Oregon who runs sea fishing charters on his boat back home and generously
offered us a bed for the night if we passed through his town. Also a likeable
German couple on holiday and owners of a Defender tD5 back home so we had
plenty to talk about. Sadly, they don’t have much in the way of opportunities
in Germany for using their 4x4s off road for fun.

We found out later that our friends Chris & Janet were
holed up in a hotel just down the road in Manuel Antonio.

We also at last found out from VISA in the States that they
would not issue an emergency card against D’s debit card, only against a credit
card. Fat lot of good. And it took them 2 weeks to come up with that….

We drove up past the coastal town of Jaco where Chris and
Janet were going to be spending 6 weeks in an apartment along with some of
their family from the UK, but we didn’t see them or their camper. As it turned
out later they told us that they were a few kms out of town so finding them
would have been tricky. From there we headed away from the coast for a while stopping
to take pics of some seriously big crocs from the road bridge over the Tarcoles
river (N9 47.941 W84 36.285). One forgets that there are crocs here along with
caymans, some unfriendly snakes such as the feared Fer de Lance and of course
Jaguars and other members of the big cat family. We were aiming to get to
Volcan Poas to the north of San Jose and had thought of staying at a hotel
called the Las Flores in Heredia on the way, the only place we could find on
our route at our sort of price, but even with it “located” on the GPS never
found it! So we kept going up the increasingly badly maintained tar road
towards the volcano several thousand metres up in the hills above the capital.
We kept climbing and thumping on the awful road surface until we found a place
named Chalets Los Volcanes (N10 08.258 W84 11.467) about 12 kms south of Volcan
Poas. We were the only guests (where are all the Christmas tourists?) and paid $40
for a room. But the first room they put us in had a thoroughly uncomfortable bed
so we changed rooms for our second night which was a great improvement. An
otherwise nice spot in an area with surprisingly few places to stay and none to
camp. We drove up to the volcano car park the afternoon we arrived but they
were about to close the gates for the day so planned on a visit the next
morning. The evening was spent with just the rudimentary staff as company at
the only eating place for miles around where we had what can only be described
as a “rudimentary” dinner. The staff though were invariably happy and smiling
which takes the sting out of a disappointing meal somewhat. Costa Rica is a bit
like Colombia when it comes to food – long on quantity, short on quality and
taste. And like everything else here in Costa Rica it doesn’t come cheap, no
sir. About double what we would pay for the same thing back home. Fortunately,
we stocked the car with beer and wine before leaving Panama….

Next morning it was back up to the volcano car park, pay our
$23 entry for us and the car. The road there was just like the bit below. ****!
It was cloudy and cold up there at some 2500m ASL and we thought we had wasted
our money going in as the chances of getting to see the volcano’s huge crater
(the 2nd widest in the world apparently at 1.6 kms across) were
minimal with the low cloud scudding across the trees lining the approach path.
But surprise, surprise a few intermittent gaps appeared in the grey stuff
allowing us very brief glimpses of the big hole in the mountain far below the
mirador (viewpoint) where we waited patiently. We managed some hasty pics of
the crater, some steam and smoke issuing from a few fumiroles (the volcano is
considered still active), and the water in its green/blue crater lake. From
there it was a longish and frankly uninteresting hike back along a sort of
jungle trail to the car park. Uninteresting because there was nought to see
apart from dank, dripping gnarled tree trunks, not a bird, not an animal and
not even the neighbouring Lago Botos, an old crater now full of rain water
which was totally enshrouded in low cloud Oh well, it can’t all be sweet
smelling roses….

A big plus though was what should pull into the volcano car
park just as were preparing to leave was another white Defender, also right
hand drive, and bearing a number plate from Jersey of all places. Next to it
stood its solo occupant, David Priddis, with whom we had a chat about our
respective trips. His from the west coast of the US to where he had shipped his
Landy after travelling in much of eastern Asia. He was driving south into south
America, and as an obviously serious surfer was planning on attending, and
perhaps participating in, a big surfing event in Australia his next continental
destination. Quite a trip! He gave us some useful lowdown on cops and robbers
avoidance in Mexico. Thanks David.

One nice thing up there above 1500m is the much lower
humidity and more comfortable temperatures in the mid 20s. Strangely, there
weren’t too many tourists about except a handful of locals at weekends, now on
holiday. Maybe the rush will come later nearer to Christmas and New Year.

Costa Rica is much like Ecuador and Panama. Its official
currency is the Colon but most places quote prices and accept US dollars as
well. One can select local currency or dollars at almost all ATMs in Costa Rica
too. Seems that there is no restriction on how many dollars Costa Ricans can
hold. But one does wonder if this factor has a bearing on what we consider to
be a very high cost of living by central or south American standards. We were
told later that perhaps another factor is that Costa Ricans have a distaste for
paying their income tax…. It’s an expensive country indeed with an average meal
for two running well over R300 – close to $40, diesel at prices quite a bit
higher than its neighbours, a normal beer in a bar or hotel at R30 and more.
The supermarkets all seem to stock a big range of high quality foodstuffs,
fruit and veg, booze by the shelf full and a dazzling array of domestic
hardware. Much of it is imported which is hardly surprising. Everyone seems to
be driving a nice car, usually spotlessly clean and in good shape, often a
current model 4×4 double cab pickup or station wagon, and smart phones and
cable or satellite TV abound. Everyone pays 13% sales tax on most items, but
what about other taxes…. It doesn’t seem to add up when one looks at basic
infrastructure like the state of the roads in general. Others will tell you
this is mainly down to graft and corruption amongst those who should be on top
of such important aspects of everyday life. Value for money? Colombia has Costa
Rica beat, hands down in our view.

On the subject of cars and transport we have to smile
sometimes as the owners of even the more robust 4x4s on the roads here will
invariably come to a virtual halt to negotiate even a minor bump or pothole in
the road. Their nasty and usually unmarked speed bumps which one can encounter
almost anywhere DO demand respect however and are almost up there with the
shockers (excuse the pun) we remember on the Tanzam Highway in Tanzania.

How’s our Spanish? Still pretty pathetic but our vocabulary
is improving a bit I guess. Give us another 5 years and we might make ourselves
understood and take in a bit more of what people are telling us. Unfortunately
for us in a way, many Costa Ricans speak good English, much more so than in
Panama or the south American countries. Is this another spin off of the
increasing US influence in this country?

From Volcan Poas we thought we would try and get to see
Costa Rica’s other famous volcanic hotspot, Volcan Arenal which is more or less
continuously active spewing rocks, smoke and lava out of its cone making a
great sight especially at night. It’s not far by road from the one to the other
but the two GPSs conspired to get us lost several times on the way and the
weather was just hopeless when we were there. Lots of rain, low cloud and damp.
Not good volcano viewing conditions, and unlike Poas Arenal cannot be closely
approached by road. We finally got ourselves to La Fortuna, the nearest town to
Volcan Arenal, but could see absolutely nothing of it. After a brief stop at a
fancy and expensive hotel masquerading as a hostel in the town we headed on
around Lago Arenal which lies next to the volcano to find a place to sleep.
Another really appalling gravel (read rock) road led to the entrance gate to
the National Park at the foot of the volcano. We were told there was a campsite
there. If there was it did little to grab one’s attention or make itself look
in any way inviting so we headed back to the road around the lake and kept
going west eventually finding a spotless haven for the night at Jireh Cabinas (N10
32.772 W84 53.535) just outside Nuevo Arenal on the north shore of the lake for
just $30 a night for the immaculate room. No sooner had we retrieved our bags
for the night out of the car than the rain thundered down, hammering on the roof.
We were too tired to go out in that horrid weather looking for supper and there
being no restaurant at the Cabinas made some noodle soup with our faithful
Turkish electric kettle. Seems that self catering facilities like a kitchenette
or hostel style communal kitchen are rarities round these parts.

Whilst at Jireh we had an e-mail from Chris & Janet in
Jaco. We hope they survive the 6 weeks they are staying there and can catch up on
the route north to make Alaska before the cold stuff settles in.

An odd but nice feature of this region is that those places
with hot showers (usually the ones at higher, cooler altitudes away from the
coasts) have suicide showers that seem to be able to push out hotter water in
higher volumes than elsewhere. Maybe they have more volts up here… For those
that don’t know what a suicide shower is, it’s one of those electric things,
often originating from Italy, that hang precariously from the shower wall with
some interesting and frequently poorly protected high amperage cables leading
from the shower head to a knife switch on the wall. All the bits that carry
current (the switch is usually rated at 60 Amps!) are most often within reach
as one stands with a wet body and feet beneath the shower head. We’re told by
the owners of such devices that no one has ever succumbed under THEIR showers….

Next morning at Jireh we awoke to no rain , even some
sunshine, and after a quick cornflakes breakfast in our room checked out and
drove further around the huge Lago Arenal, some 40 odd kms long and about 4
wide. We took an “interesting” looking side track off the main road that the
GPS said to follow to get to our next destination and found ourselves once
again on the slippery stuff. Loose, wet gravel on a slope away and up from the
lake shore that had defeated one of the local 4×4 taxi busses trying to make it
up the hill. But yet again Jambo just took it all in stride and with a hint of
some Traction Control involvement we scrabbled our way to the top in normal 1st
gear. What WILL stop this vehicle? We have yet to find out. Our destination for
that day was the much publicised and apparently much loved Nicoya Peninsula
back on the Pacific coast. Yes, we have been dodging from coast to coast a bit
in Costa Rica but the country is only around 200 kms wide. Along the way we saw
our first snake crossing the road. Didn’t know what it was, venomous or not but
best avoided.

Once again we noticed small amounts of rain water inside the
interior roof lining of the car. I can drive with my wellies on but not with an
umbrella up for Pete’s sake, Land Rover!

Once over the steep climb away from Lago Arenal we came to a
pretty substantial wind farm with about 30 wind turbines spread along the ridge.
Costa Rica has joined the Green Brigade it seems. We hope they’ve done their
sums on the TOTAL cost of generating electricity from this source INCLUDING THE
APPARENTLY HIGH MAINTENANCE COSTS OF THE TURBINES. From here it was a nice drive to the coast
crossing the big Friendship Bridge to actually get onto the Nicoya Peninsula.
Friendship bridge over the estuary that separates Nicoya from the mainland.

First it was to the little beachside village of Carrillo
with its gorgeous beach lined by palms. But the guys at an alfresco surf school
under the palms told us the local police would almost certainly kick us out if
we tried to camp on the beach by the palm trees. They also regaled us with
alarming accounts of the recent 8.3 Richter Scale earthquake that hit the area
and which resulted in the height of the ENTIRE beach changing by almost a
metre!

The campsite up the road on our GPS wasn’t on the beach
either and looked a bit jaded so we kept going along the coast and wound up in
the slightly larger town of Samara where after a stop at the Info office we
were directed to Camping Aloa (N9 52.796 W85 31.833) right on the beach and
away from the central and potentially noisier part of town. It was one of our
better choices even if a bit basic in terms of facilities. The loos and showers
were of the ramshackle tin shed variety and when we first arrived a bit on the
grubby side. But the owner willingly set to and had them scrubbed out and
looking much better within minutes. Later we were even honoured with new loo
seats and shower curtains. The showers were of course cold but on the coast
that’s quite OK. We found the only patch of grass on which to park Jambo and
soon had ourselves set up looking out over the lovely bay on which Samara is
located, its dark yellow sand stretching to the headlands at each end.

A big plus was no rain and much reduced humidity as well as
it being noticeably cooler than other Pacific coast beaches further to the
south. We ended up staying 3 nights at Aloha for a grand price of just $5 pn
for the two of us. Great value. We got a wi-fi signal at the local health food
shop necessitating the purchase of some fierce jungle juice of an alarming
colour at an even more alarming price…. Samara was far from busy, just enough
visitors and locals to make it interesting and atmospheric. The campsite staff
at one point thought some good local beat music at max volume might bring in
more customers (till then we were the only ones) so cranked up the boom box.
But a quiet word in their ear resulted in it being turned down right away which
was kind of them. Meantime, we cooled off in the sea, walked the beach and
watched the orange hued squirrels that inhabit the coconut palms living off the
meat and milk of the coconuts. We could also hear but not see Howler Monkeys
not far away in the forest behind the village. As it happens we were to get to
see them close up later on. The bay at Samara is almost entirely encompassed by
an offshore reef of stubby rocks that appear at low tide thereby keeping the
big surf out of the bay itself and killing any possibility of the infamous rip
tides that seem to be present on many of the Pacific beaches in central
America.

We are sometimes asked if we have any big fears in
connection with this overland trip. We know Chris has one of their Toyota
breaking down. I guess we do too but I wouldn’t rate it at the top of the list.
A much greater one to my mind is having a major health problem hit one or worse
still both of us. A really scary scenario is one of us suffering for example a
serious burn or scald when far from outside help. I have some 1st
Aid training and we carry a pretty comprehensive medical kit which I have made
it my business to be fully au fait with, so in that situation we would have to
deal with such incidents at least initially on our own. Another nasty is losing
a passport, or as we have now found out a credit or debit card. A passport can
after big hassles and delays get replaced. Credit cards can be replaced, also
after a long wait for the card company to send us an emergency one. Debit cards
cannot be until one returns home – big problem. Losing the car keys is one I’m
particularly wary of. Sure we have spares hidden elsewhere but it’s quite a
mission getting at them (as I should be). Are we scared of being on the
receiving end of say some violent crime? Sure we are wary and awake to those
situations where such hostility might occur, but scared of it? No not really.
One takes obvious, common sense precautions but it’s a bad luck scenario really
– if one is in the wrong place at the wrong time…. We just hope we won’t be,
but we’re not about to get paranoid about it and have it prevent us from
enjoying our trip.

Whilst at Samara we met Juan, a very likeble young man, a
baker by trade from Uruguay, who had bought himself a second hand van big
enough to sleep in and was heading home from the west of Canada where he had
been working for a while. His big map stuck to the side of his van depicted his
route through north and central America over the last two and a half years. As
usual we swopped info and for an all too brief time enjoyed one another’s
company before we had to say goodbye and move on.

And finally we headed here to Los Malinches (N10 10.489 W85
49.000) in the little hamlet of Junquilla. It was a rough ride getting here on
a gravel back road and unlike almost anywhere we had been so far in central America
very dry and dusty. This was the time for the NE Trades to blow which means
offshore winds and thus prevents the damp Pacific air from coming ashore
causing humidity to rise and maybe rain to fall. Los Malinches is owned by
Manuel, a delightful elderly gentleman now retired and living in his quaint house
on the property looking out over the beach and Pacific coast. As is usually the
case close to the Pacific the sunsets here are always beautiful and mesmerising
to watch as the golden orb of the sun sinks below the sharply etched horizon
out to sea shortly afterwards painting the sky in an array of soft pastels.
Bliss! For just $5 pppn we tucked ourselves in a corner of Manuel’s extensive
camp ground just far enough away from the big coconuts hanging in the palm
trees.There were good showers and toilets, a nearby tap and sink for washing
dishes (the water here like most of Costa Rica is safe to drink), and closer to
Manuel’s house we could get an albeit tentative wi-fi signal. Manuel made us feel most welcome so much so
that we have been here 5 days and will find it hard to move on especially as
we’re not sure where to go next bearing in mind the upcoming holiday rush with
Christmas and New Year just around the corner. We probably will not stay here
over Christmas however as Manuel is expecting up to 80 people to descend on his
campsite which will rather spoil the solace and peace of this lovely spot.

The only other person we have met here was Federico, an
adventure tour guide camping here on holiday, just himself and his elderly dog
for company. Federico spoke near perfect English and was a mine of information
about Costa Rica and further afield. We met him at the supermarket in the
village when we first arrived and he directed us here to Los Malinches. He
later kindly shopped for us when he went back into the village to do the same
as once set up it is a longish process for us to take down the awnings and pack
stuff if we want to drive anywhere. He also very generously left us some
delicious Arabica Costa Rica roasted coffee along with some other food goodies
when he packed up to return to San Jose. Thanks, Federico – we salute you! We
also met Manuel’s nephew, Miguel with whom I chatted at length about the future
of the property. Manuel wanted to sell off more of his quite big holding but
was finding it difficult to find buyers at a fair price in the same recession
that is affecting much of the world at present.

We walk the beach most days, watch the glorious sunsets, Cuba
Libre in hand, and go to sleep each night here to the soft hiss of the Pacific
waves rolling onto the beach just below us. Oh, it’s grindingly hard….

And the howlers? Yes, we not only hear them every night, we
actually got to see them going about their business in the trees right behind
our ablution block. Dark and furry with long prehensile tails these interesting
primates live in small family groups. Every so often they utter a sound between
a deep growl and a howl, surprisingly deep in timbre for such a small animal.
It’s however rather a comforting sound.

From Los Malinches on the Costa Rican Pacific coast a very
Happy Christmas to one and all. We’ll check in again after the New Year.

 

About Panamericalandy

Starting with the original London-Sydney Marathon in 1968 driving 10,000 miles in 10 days the bug for overland travel (at a much slower pace!) bit hard. We've driven throughout much of southern and east Africa in a tD5 Defender, then changed to the recent Puma version and first drove Cape Agulhas in South Africa to North Cape, Norway in 2009/10. Now engaged on another long one from Ushuaia, Patagonia to Deadhorse, Alaska over 18 months. The two of us travel alone for much of the time but inevitably meet other overlanders along the way and much enjoy swopping stories, info, fun times and others.We live in Cape Town, South Africa. Is there a nicer city to call home?

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