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Tales of our two trips to Costa Rica in June 2005 and August-September 2006

Day 1 – Arrival in Alajuela

June 5th, 2005

Day 1 – Arrival in Alajuela

We woke up at 3am for 6:30am flight to Miami with a 4 hour lay over before catching our connecting flight to San Jose. Our layover in Miami was uneventful and we had some expensive crappy airport food in the only restaurant that was in our terminal. Once we got near San Jose the pilot told us that San Jose was having some really bad rain and that we would need to circle around for a bit and hope that the rain would let up so that we could land. After one aborted landing attempt where we were about 100’ off the ground before having to shoot back up into the air the pilot told us that we only had enough fuel to make one more landing attempt or we would need to divert to Panama to wait out the weather and refuel. Fortunately we were able to land at about 9:00pm, an hour late. The lines through immigration and customs moved fairly quickly and as we exited the airport we were greeted by a mob of people waiting just outside the doors to the airport. At first we thought that Madonna or some other VIP must have been arriving but we quickly realized that WE were the VIPs. There were people taking pictures, a swarm of people asking if we needed a taxi or a hotel room.
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Day 2 – Drive to Tamarindo

June 6th, 2005

We woke up early and had a wonderful buffet breakfast by the pool. Breakfast included gallo pinto, potatoes, fried yucca, sausage, orange juice, yams, plantains, coffee, as well as a made to order omelets and pancakes. There was a parrot climbing on the fence and there were also an aviary with three beautiful toucans nearby.
Tucan at Orquideas Inn, Alajuela

While we were eating breakfast, Christopher from Tricolor car rental arrived with our 4×4. He told us that he was in no hurry and for us to finish our breakfast while he started on the paperwork. Christopher was quite a character making lots of jokes and giving us some suggestions on where we should go and places to see along the way. We got a good deal on a tiny Daihatsu Terios 4×4 that cost $350 for 9 days with unlimited mileage. After breakfast we took a walk around the grounds of the old coffee plantation where there hotel is now located and then went back to our room to get ready for our drive to Tamarindo.
At Las Orquideas in Alajuela, Costa Rica

We left the hotel at about 10am with some directions to the highway but somehow we missed a turn and got lost in the streets of downtown Alajuela. The streets were a bit confusing with many intersections having 2 separate traffic lights for turning or going straight. Also many of the streets were one way and after almost going the wrong way a few times I was able to figure out what the “no hay paso” signs meant. The drivers in the city were not nearly as bad as I thought they were going to be. Everybody obeyed the stop signs and signal lights and traffic seemed to move pretty orderly. In fact in many ways it was easier than driving back home in San Francisco! In some of the intersections there were people trying to sell pens and what I thought might be lottery tickets but we kept the windows up and doors locked. I thought that I heard someone try the handle to the back door when we were stopped at a red light but otherwise felt pretty safe.

After about a half hour of trying in vain to find the highway, we pulled into a gas station to fill up the tank and practice my Spanish asking for directions. It turned out that the highway was just a few blocks away.

For the most part, the highway out of the central valley was well paved and a smooth drive with only some small sections that had the occasional pot hole. The highways mender through small towns where we say many schools, churches, and soccer fields (the required things to be considered a town in Costa Rica)We passed several police checkpoints where they were using radar to catch speeders and inspect trucks but we were always flagged on and didn’t need to stop. We made our way onto the highway that took us across the Friendship Bridge over the Tempisque River. We stopped on the opposite side to stretch our legs and take some pictures from the observation point located above the parking lot.

The Friendship Bridge over the Tempisque River in Costa Rica

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We then made our way north before turning onto the road to Tamarindo. The roads were all well marked and had directional signs with distances to the next town at every main intersection. We lsitened to the radio and the station played a mixture of american rock music hip hop, latin hip hop, reggae, and american R&B

We arrived in Tamarindo at about 3:00pm and made our way to were we were had a reservation at the Hotel Pasatiempo. The grounds at the hotel were lush and beautifully landscaped with tropical flowers, trees and plants. The rooms are all located, two to a building, in a U shape around the pool with the hotel’s restaurant/bar on the opposite side. Our room was simple and nicely painted in pastel colors with a comfortable bed and pillows along with good air conditioning. We made our way to the bar for some beers and guacamole with chips and met the extremely friendly Dan who was the manager of the restaurant and bar and was also acting as the general manager while the hotel owners were on vacation. It turns out that Dan was also originally from the San Francisco area so we had a lot to talk about. We then took a walk down to the main part of the town to check out the beach and shops as well as scoping out a place to eat dinner later on that evening.

We ended up having dinner at Bruno’s Pizza which was recommended in the Lonely Planet book. The pizza was inexpensive and delicious! We then went back to the bar at the hotel for a few more beers before retiring for the night.

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Day 3 – Tamarindo and day trip to Playa Flamingo

June 7th, 2005

After breakfast and going to the internet café to send emails back home to family and friends we had hoped to go to the beach but since it was raining we decided to go for a drive and explore the beaches to the north. We made our way north passing several large resorts before stopping for a delicious lunch at Marie’s in Playa Flamingo. We had a bit of a scare when we returned to the car and discovered that I had left the headlights on. Fortunately it started right up and we drove back to Tamarindo.

After we got back to Pasatiempo it was still raining so we retrieved our travel scrabble board and played a few games in the bar while we passed the time. We ended up meeting another couple from Texas who were on their honeymoon and ended up hanging out with them for the rest of the evening. That night at the bar, it was the weekly Tuesday open mike night and they featured local bands that played some really good covers of blues, rock, and reggae songs ranging from Santana to Aretha Franklin. The place was packed with several hundred people in attendance and a good sized line waiting out in the street to get in.

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At about 11:00pm we were hungry so we walked down the road into town looking for an open restaurant. The streets were pretty deserted (since everybody seemed to be at Pasatiempo) but we found that the Fiesta Del Mar café located at the circle in town was open where we had some tasty rice and chicken. The walk back to Pasatiempo was a bit tricky as the road was very muddy and slippery in places from the rain (we forgot to bring a flashlight) but we made it without getting too muddy and the party was still going on full swing but we decided that we had had enough fun for the night and retired to our room and went to sleep.

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Day 4 – Tamarindo

June 8th, 2005

It wasn’t raining but the sky was pretty overcast and it was very humid so we decided to spend some time at Tamarindo beach. We got some beers at the super mercado and did some swimming in the water which was very warm! After a few hours at the beach we went to a beachside café were we had some drinks and met a couple from Florida who offered us the rest of their tasty pizza that they couldn’t finish. A stray dog wandered in and I fed her some of the pizza crusts.
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We returned to Pasatiempo where we met the couple from Texas and all decided to all go out to Dinner at the Fish and Meat restaurant that was located across the street. The atmosphere at the restaurant was very nice but the food was expensive and left us hungry afterwards. We then made our way to the Mambo Bar located on the circle and just as we arrived, Dan from Pasatiempo pulled up with some other people in a golf cart! We all went into the Mambo bar which was packed full of a younger crowd dancing to American and Latin hip hop.

After a few hours at the Mambo bar we returned to our room and waiting on the porch to our room was one of the hotel cats, Perro (which means dog is Spanish) that we befriended earlier. We let him into our room and he immediately made himself comfortable on our bed so we let him stay the night sleeping on our bed with us. He was very well behaved in our room and we enjoyed his company.

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Day 5 – Drive from Tamarindo to Montezuma

June 9th, 2005

Another overcast day.
After eating breakfast and consulting our Lonely Planet book, we decided to drive to Montezuma and stay at least one night before deciding on where to go next. We took a different route out of Tamarindo that wasn’t paved but was in good condition without a lot of potholes. There were a few places where there were cattle blocking the road and we had to do some maneuvering around the stubborn ones who wouldn’t move after giving a few toots on the horn.
Road obsticles in Costa Rica

We made our way to Santa Cruz where we got back on the main highway and then down to the city of Nicoya where we stopped for gas. The gas station was like pulling into a pit stop at a race track. There were 2 guys who washed the front, side, and rear windows and another two guys who checked the tire pressure in all four wheels as well as filled up the tank. I tipped them 1000 colones (about $2) to split among themselves and then we made our way back out of the town onto the highway.

Heading south, we were stopped at a police check point. I was going a little fast and I thought for sure that I was going to get either a ticket or have to pay a bribe. The officer asked me in English for my driver’s license and passport, asked where I was coming from and where we were going and then told us to have a safe trip and enjoy our stay. After the main highway ended we ended up on more local roads that were a combination of paved and potholed dirt roads. The roads went through small towns and we saw lots of schools along the way. We always waved at the school children and they all would simile and wave back. There were lots of stray dogs on the roads as well.

After we passed Playa Narajno the road became REALLY BAD and in some places I wondered if we would even be able to make it through. There was mud and pot holes everywhere that limited our speed to a bit more than a crawl. There were also some very steep, muddy hills that required some white knuckle driving especially when it was pouring rain and driving down the muddy hills. I never had to use the 4×4 but definitely needed the higher clearance that the 4×4 offered. After getting to Paquera the road was paved fairly well with the occasional pot hole all the way to Tambor. From tambor to Cobano the road was mostly a combination of smooth dirt and pot holed road. From Cabano we turned onto the road to Montezuma and after driving down another very steep road we pulled into the small town of Montezuma. We parked the car and after consulting the Lonley Planet book we decided to see what the El Sano Banano Hotel had to offer.

When we arrived the hotel was pretty empty so they let us pick wichever room we wanted. Most of the rooms faced the back of the hotel and did not have a view. We chose one of the three rooms that looked out over the street and were surprisingly quiet even when music was blasting from Chico’s bar a half block away. The rooms had good air conditioning and satellite TV with some channels in English. They play movies on a projection screen in the downstairs restaurant every night and are free with dinner or if you buy a few drinks. They also have a sister hotel, the Ylang-Ylang resort, located up the beach where guests staying at El Sano Banano are able to use their beautiful pool.

Breakfast from the café downstairs was included with the room but some of the food was pretty average. The banana pancakes are good as well as the fruit with yogurt and granola. The mocha chiller drinks are awesome! There is also an internet cafe next door with a slow networked dial up connection. They can take your pictures from your digital camera and burn them onto a cd-rom so you can free up your memory card.

After settling into our room we took a walk around to explore Montezuma. The town is small and the main area is only about four blocks long with a super market, bar, library/book exchange, restaurants, a school, tour guides, and a few hotels around the main “downtown” area. Most of the other hotels are located on the other roads that branch out of town. We looked for a good place to get a late lunch and ended up at the El Parque café which is located right on the beach with a sand floor. We had some of the best guacamole with chips that I’ve ever had there followed with a meal of rice, beans, chicken, potatoes, and steamed vegetables all washed down with many cold cervezas all for about $14 for the two of us! At the restaurant we were approached by a stray skinny young cat that begged for some food. Naturally we couldn’t resist and gave him some chicken. Then another one came so we gave him some meat as well and before we knew it there were four of them all meowing and jockeying for position to get some hand outs.
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We then had some beers at the lively Chico’s Bar in the center of town. It is the only bar in town and has a section on the street and another bar in the rear by the water with tables right on the sand. There are a few pool tables and a foosball table as well as a dance floor. After hanging out there for a while and drinking many cervazas (we had to drink so many in order to stay hydrated in the heat!) we decided on Café Cocolores for dinner. I had some of the tastiest pineapple chicken all very reasonably priced. We then retired back to El Sano Banano where they were showing the movie Ocean’s 12 in the restaurant but we were too tired to watch so we went up to our room and hit the sack.

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Day 6 – Montezuma and day trip to Mal Pais

June 10th, 2005

I am an early riser so after a shower I headed downstairs to sit on the outside patio of the El Sano Banano cafe and have some coffee and read my book. The El Sano Banano is located on the main street when you drive into town and it was interesting watching all the various venders arrive to deliver fresh produce, eggs, meats, and other stuff to the restuarant. It was also a good place to people watch and meet other travelers to get information on other places to see and where to stay. After having breakfast on the patio downstairs we decided to take a drive to go check out the Mal Pais/Santa Teresa area and see if it was worth possibly staying a night or two after Montezuma. We drove back to Cobano and then on to Mal Pais. The road to Mal Pais was pretty bad in places but the last few kilometers was newly paved. We arrived to find a large construction project going on where they had a big crane building a condominium complex. Probably in a few years Mal Pais will turn into another Tamarindo. We drove down the Mal Pais side and then back up to Santa Teresa. The road that runs along the beachfront community is pretty bad.

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We found that Mal Pais/Santa Teresa is really spread apart and there is no real town center. The beaches there are beautiful! You would definitely need a bicycle or some form of transportation to get around, especially if you wanted to go out for dinner or drinks at night. Because of this, and the poor weather we decided against staying in Mal Pais the next nght. We then went back and parked the car at Frank’s place and since it had stopped raining we took a walk along the beach up to the Topico Latino hotel where we stopped for guacamole, chips and a few cervezas. We then walked back on the road to Frank’s Place where I checked my email at the fast internet café. I noticed that there was also an ATM machine locatyed next to the reception desk.

We then drove back to Montezuma and had dinner again at El Parque. Afterwards we walked to Chico’s Bar where we mat a family from Los Angeles who had bought a cabin south of Montezuma and were staying there for two months until they went back to the US (they rent it out when they are not there). They invited us to come over to their house for coffee or beers the next day. We also met some people from San Francisco who were in town for a wedding. One of the people lived just a few blocks from where we live – Small world!

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Day 7 – Montezuma

June 11th, 2005

We decided to stay in Montezuma an extra day. After breakfast, I dropped off some laundry to be done at the Soda Arrecife where they also have laundry service for 500 colonies ($1) per kilogram. Still overcast but not raining so we decided after breakfast to walk up to the Ylang-Ylang to check out the pool. It’s located about ½ mile up the beach and is not accessable by car. When we got there it was a little paradise! The pool was very nicely located in a jungle setting with a waterfall that flowed into the pool. After swimming a bit and lounging we walked back to town and had some of the best pizza I’ve ever had at Pizza Net next to Chico’s Bar.

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I then picked my fresh and nicely folded laundry and headed to the Super Montezuma grocery store for a few 6 packs of cerveza and then drove south towards Cabuya to hang out with our new friends from Los Angeles who had invited us to their cabin. Later that evening we all met at the La Playa de las Artistas restaurant in Montezuma. It is a nice little intimate restaurant located right on the beach. The food there was AMAZING! We had smoked cheese with shrimp, salad, a huge fish that fed four, chateau breong, salad, bread, and cocktails and it only came to $17/person! Probably one of the best meals I’ve ever had!

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Day 8 – Driving from Montezuma to Manuel Antonio

June 12th, 2005

This was the first day in a week that we were able to see blue skies and no rain!
After breakfast we checked out from El Sano Banano and made the drive to Paquera to catch the ferry to Puntarenas so we could drive to Manuel Antonio. The ferry dock was a bit confusing. There was a building that housed a café and a ticket booth however there was nobody selling tickets and none of the employees seemed to speak English. After wandering about with some other tourists trying to figure out where to buy tickets someone finally showed up at the ticket booth. There was a girl collecting money for the local school so I put a few hundred colonies in her collection box and then headed to the cafe to grab a few cervezas fpr the ferry ride. It took about 30 minutes to load the ferry with the cars and passengers and the boat ride to Puntarenas took about an hour and 15 minutes. The inside of the ferry was air-conditiooned but was still hot. It was cooler outside and there was a nice breeze.
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After we unloaded in Puntarenas we weren’t sure which way to go so we just followed all the other tourists in their cars. Puntarenas is on a long, skinny peninsula and had a combination of nice and run down neighborhoods. We then made our way onto the main highway going south towards out destination of Manuel Antonio.

We were traveling south in a caravan with about 5 other tourists vehicles from the ferry when were we all flagged over at a police checkpoint. They came to each car and asked for passport, license and paperwork and told us to drive slower and to be careful on the roads. The road to Manuel Antonio is for the most part in good shape although there were a few bad spots. There are several one lane bridges that required you or the cars going in the opposite direction to yield but it all seemed to be pretty orderly. South of Jaco the highway took us through long rows of what might have been banana or pineapple trees.

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We finally get to Quepos and then drive to Manuel Antonio. The road out of Quepos to MA is steep and pretty windy and you really need to watch out for the busses and trucks that come barreling down in the other direction. There is no shoulder on the road and I wouldn’t recommend walking. We had a few ideas on where we wanted to stay so we continued on the road to see what the town had to offer before deciding on a hotel. When we get into Manuel Antonio I was disappointed to find that the place was completely packed with tourists. We made our way through the traffic to the end of the road and turned around and ended up driving back to the Hotel La Colina which was recommended by someone we met in Montezuma.

At the reception they told us that they had one standard room left for $40/night but they were having trouble with the hot water heater so there might not be hot water at times.. After a long drive, we were tired and hungry so we decided to take the room figuring that it was a bargain and that we could live with the hot water problem but it turned out that there was no hot water in our room during our entire stay We dropped our bags off in the room and got back in the car to find a place to eat.

We drove back up the road and wanted have some lunch at El Avion (I’ll tell you more about it later) but they were not open until 4pm so we kept on going into the village at Manuel Antonio. It was still pretty crowded when we got there so we had to pay 1000 colonies (about $2) to park the car and we decided to eat at the Marlin Restaurant. The Marlin had a good crowd and large deck area that was right across from the beach and a good spot to do some people watching but the food turned out to be somewhat expensive and disappointing.

We then went back to the hotel to take a dip in the pool. The pool is divided into two small parts with a waterfall and a swim up bar. We had a few margaritas before going back to our room to clean up and head out for dinner.

We decided on going back to El Avion for dinner. El Avion is a cliff side restaurant that features a bar located inside an entire Fairchild C-123 cargo plane that was left over from the United States’ secret war against the communist Sandinista government in Nicaragua during the mid 1980’s. The food at EL Avion was good and more reasonably priced compared to the lunch we had earlier. After dinner we were pretty tired so we went back to the hotel and hit the sack.

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Day 9 – Manuel Antonio

June 13th, 2005

Breakfast was included with the hotel and the food was pretty average. I had eggs with gallo pinto both mornings and my wife had French toast.
Unfortunately we learned that Manuel Antonio Park was going to be closed today as it is every Monday so we decided to take full advantage of the sunny weather and hit the main beach in Manuel Antonio for some sun and swimming in the water. We rented a pair of beach chairs and an umbrella for 3000 colonies ($6) after talking the guy down from 5000. There were guys who would come along with coolers full of beer that you could buy for about a dollar. One of the guys had a San Francisco Giants Baseball hat on! He saw my hat and we quickly became amigos. It was nice talking to him entirely in Spanish since just about everybody we met so far was able to speak English. After sever hours in the sun and swimming in the water we decided that we had better head back to the hotel before we turned into lobsters as the sun tan lotion was wearing off from being in the water.

Back at the hotel we cooled off in the pool with some more drinks from the swim up bar. We originally wanted to go watch the sunset and have dinner back at El Avion but it started to rain pretty hard so we decided to eat at the hotel restaurant. My wife had the lasagna and I had the roasted chicken. The food was filling but average in quality and a bit on the expensive side.

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Day 10 – Manuel Antonio and drive back to Alajuela

June 14th, 2005

We decided to wake up early and go to Manuel Antonio Park for a few hours before having to make the drive back to Alajuela for our flight home the next morning. Coming into town we were flagged down by a kid who told us that the parking lots for the park were full and that we needed to park in his lot for $2. I told him that we were going to go look anyways and found that the other parking lots were quite empty! We still needed to pay to park in the official parking areas but you to look for the guys in either the official yellow or brown shirts to avoid getting scammed. After parking the car we were offered a tour by an official park guide for $20 each. I thought this was pretty expensive and declined. We were warned that we would mss out on seeing any wildlife but we decided that we would take our chances anyway.

In order to get into the park you need to either get wet by wading through a estuary or they had some guys with boats to ferry you across. They didn’t charge any money but accepted tips. Inside the park was very nice. They only allow 600 people/day to enter the park, so on busy days it is best to get there early. We followed the main trail and found that whenever we saw one of the guides leading a group stop we could just look at where they were pointing and see whatever wildlife was there. We saw iguanas, sloths, spider monkeys, and birds. We made our way to the second beach and I wish that we had more time to stay there because it was pure heaven! We did a bit more exploring through the park before heading back to the car to go pick up the luggage at the hotel and make the drive back to Alajuela. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at Si Como No and had lunch. I thought that Si Como No was very nice but the food was pretty average.

The drive back was uneventful. The road that takes you up into the central valley is pretty steep and twisty in places. We got stuck behind a long line of cars following a slow moving truck. Once we arrived in Alajuela we stops at a mega super mercado and purchased 10 bags of Costa Rican coffee as well as several bottles of Lizano hot sauce to bring back home.

We arrived at Las Orquideas at about 4pm after getting lost again in downtown Alajuela. Our room there this time was nicer with satellite TV and two beds but the lighting in the room could have used some improvement. There was a light bulb missing in the bathroom and the reading lamp had a florescent bulb.

We retired to the hotel bar where we met another couple from Texas who were also finishing their trip and we compared notes and got ideas on where to go for our next trip. Christopher from Tricolor rental arrived right on time to pick up the car with no hassles.
We then had drinks and dinner at the hotel bar where we found that the food at dinner wasn’t as good as the breakfast we had there on our previous stay. We also found that we were charged for $20 of wine that we didn’t order but the hotel manager took the charge off of our bill when we checked out the next day.

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