Being in Vancouver often means for me not having a lot of money or vacations time to do bigger trips for now, and using my money and time on shorter trips in BC/West Coast. I saved up my cents for a bit and decided to treat myself with a long needed week surf trip, the first one since I did my first surf camp in Portugal (Peniche Surf Camp). Prices below are in US unless specified. Local currency is the Costa Rican colones, which is about 1US = 520 colones. They take US cash everywhere and give you back the change in colones or US, depending.
I flew out on January 1st from Vancouver, had a 5hrs layover in Houston, TX, and landed in San Jose, Costa Rica late in the evening. I had already booked a transfer shuttle from the airport with my hostel (24$), the Gaudy’s Backpackers in San Jose. As I walked out of the airport, the driver was waiting for me with a nice handwritten paper sign with my name. Roberto didn’t speak one word of English, so it was a rough start to practicing my Spanish. The shuttle was 24$ but really had nothing fancy, except the fact it was a private driver from door to door. Roberto parked his car outside of the airport, across the street, in the dark, in the small parking lot of a gas station. His car was, in my mind, falling apart. Tons of rust, with the interior side door handle loose, the car engine roaring in a noisy way but he was really nice and welcoming! Opening the doors, taking care of my bags, and chatting to me about my trip and where I would be during the week, showing me pictures and video on his phone of places I should go (yes, while driving on the highway). During the drive I have to admit I wasn’t quite relaxed – it has to be the sketchiest ride I’ve taken as a single female traveler going alone for the first time in Central America. When we started driving in the San Jose districts to get to the hostel, I saw quickly how San Jose doesn’t look very welcoming. All the houses and stores are completely fenced up and can’t be access from the street except through the gates. We made it to my hostel, where the reception is open 24h/7, and I was able to check-in, go to bed at midnight and get ready for my first day tour in the morning.
Gaudy’s Backpacker is a really nice hostel. It was only 13$ a night, including a pancake & fruits breakfast. The reception helped me book a day tour and they were also knowledgeable about the city and areas to go (or not to go). The guy at the reception totally laughed at me when I asked if by any chance they had some free walking tours of San Jose… “Nothing free in Costa Rica” he said. And he’s right. Costa Rica is actually really expensive and I wouldn’t necessary recommend it for travelers with a small budget. There is way around it, but a lot of the travelers I met at the hostel in San Jose where using it as a transit between Nicaragua and Panama. By the way, I’ve learned that Nicaragua is one of the cheapest place in Central America and has really nice hostels (5$/night) and surf spots for travelers… Note to self. I was staying in a dorm where you can definitely tell the windows are opened all the time (hello little ants and plants growing through the window into the room). The hostel was clean in general, except some of the bathrooms that I found to be really old and a bit doubtful (wouldn’t walk bare foot in there). The common areas were awesome though – kitchen small but convenient, large flat screen TV, lots of couches, hammocks, pool table, computers, free wi-fi (not working very well at some times…).
So on my first morning I booked a day tour to visit one of the volcano, do a canopy tour and a safari on a river. The tour was 135$ (I did say it wasn’t cheap), but definitely good value. Sunrise is at 5:30am and sunset at 5:30pm almost year round in Costa Rica, so get ready to get up early. You want to avoid driving in the dark as much as you can due to road conditions and low visibility, especially on the mountains roads. The tour bus with our guide, Oscar, picked me up at 6:45am (yes, I am totally sleep deprived at that point). The plan for the day : Visit a coffee plantation, visit the Poas Volcano National Park, do a canopy tour and a boat safari on the Sarapiqui river. Breakfast and lunch included. We first picked up some other folks at a close by hotel, and started heading up in the mountains. It was a small group (about 10) with people from the states, from Costa Rica, Mexico, Canada (that would be me!), Spain and Argentina. After about 30min drive, we stopped at the coffee plantation for breakfast. I was actually surprised by the food – gallo pinto, rice, beans, eggs, fresh fruits and coffee. I was honestly expecting a type of ‘american tour type included lunch box’ but there was a lot of food and it was a really nice setting in the mountains. We didn’t have a guided tour of the plantation itself, but our guide Oscar walked us through the main areas of the coffee beans processing where they dry them, etc. He also explained the difference with the with local peaberry coffee beans, which are plants in which the coffee beans only have one full bean instead of 2 half beans, making the bean more concentrated and more flavor for the coffee. This is their best kind of coffee. The harvest season is only 3-4 months in Costa Rica, and he was saying that the good coffee pickers can make up to 50$/day by filling their baskets with the coffee beans. Makes you rethink about your finances a bit. Average salary in Costa Rica is about 600$/month, and knowing how everything has gotten so expensive with the tourists around, it’s not an easy leaving. Most people grow their own food and have their own chickens in their backyard.
We then continued our drive up to the Poas Volcano. Due to a recent activity of the volcano, the visit in the park is now limited to only 30min per person/group. Basically, go in, walk to the view point and get out. They hope that this measure helps keep a certain level of safety in case of sudden activity of the volcano and make it easier to evacuate (always really reassuring). Unfortunately, as volcanoes tend to have their own little ecosystem and weather, we were welcomed with a thick fog and couldn’t see the crater during out allotted time. It was pretty cold and windy, which you wouldn’t expect for Costa Rica, but the temperature in the mountains is definitely chilly.
We stopped in a small ‘local store’ on the way down, which our guide took time to say it wasn’t one of those ‘ touristic shops ‘ and was instead own my locals and good people (sure!), so we stopped for quick shopping, buying coffee, etc. I ended up getting a big piece of fresh local cheese (French girl in me couldn’t resist it) and free local wine tasting. We then drove for about 2hrs on the East side of the country, following the Sarapiqui river up North. We stopped for some fresh water melon to pick up one of the canopy employee and drove on a dirt road to the small resort/restaurant, where a warm cafeteria-style lunch (chicken, pastas, rice, veggies and fruits) was waiting for us. Part of the group went for an 1h30 canopy tour near-by while the rest of the group chilled out in the hammocks. The canopy was a lot of fun! For those who have never done it, it is a zip-line where you basically wear a harness and zip down metal lines set up in the trees in the forest/jungle. We saw some monkeys, which was pretty nice and definitely adds to the experience!
From the little resort, we left by boat and went back on the river to the South. We saw some herons, crocodiles (omg!), bats (yikes), tons of monkeys up in the trees! It was about a 45min ride back to the bus, and then 2hrs bus drive back to San Jose. As the sun sets at 5:30pm, we had about 1h of driving time in the dark, mainly on foggy mountain roads. I have to admit I can say that driving in the dark on Costa Rican mountain roads is never something I would recommend to do. The fog was so intense we could barely see 2-3 feet away from the windshield of the bus, and I have no idea how the drivers do it. I basically took the fetal position trying to sleep until I got dropped off at Gaudy’s hostel.
One my second day in San Jose, I went out for a walk with another traveler and went to the city center. San Jose is really Americanized in my mind, with McDonalds every 2-3 corners and not much to do. We took some time to walk through the Market, which was my favorite part of the little visit. Fresh food, tourists products and local products all under a same roof. It took us about 15min to walk from the hostel to the city center.
As I was coming to Costa Rica for surfing, I left in the afternoon and used the InterBus company for my transfer. It is a semi-private shuttle (about 10 people) that does door to door transfers in Costa Rica. It was 40$ one way from San Jose to Jaco beach, where I stayed for the rest of my trip (see following posts).