Costa Rica: Ridiculously Picturesque

Distance driven: 743 km
Traffic signals seen: about 5
Rainbows seen: about 10
Monkeys seen by us: 0
Monkeys seen by everyone else: like a million

Weather forecast: rainy with a chance of sun, or sunny with a chance of rain. Winds gusting to infinity.


Costa Rica is a tropical and mountainous little strip between the Caribbean and the Pacific. The country voluntarily abolished its military in 1948 — a move unprecedented by any nation, let alone one bordered by Nicaragua and Panama — and as any Tico would be proud to tell you, the money saved was spent on social services and ecological preservation. (They'll also remind you that Jurassic Park was filmed here.)

The whole country is a lush green paradise. At one point we honestly saw butterflies fluttering over a mountain spring with a rainbow in the background. Not in a national park, either — this was while driving one of the main roads! If there's an ugly part of Costa Rica, we didn't find it. On a perhaps related note, we can't remember seeing anyone at all who was in a bad mood.

How could anyone be grumpy when there are rainbows everywhere?

The food

We ate like the locals whenever we could — comida tipica generally consists of rice and beans, plantains, triangles of crumbly salty cheese, and terrific meats that taste like they went from the farm to your plate in less than a day: grass-fed beef, fatty pork, free-range chicken...

Our first hotel actually had chickens roaming the grounds; needless to say, we ordered a lot of chicken and a lot of eggs.

Arroz con pollo, which we tried just about everywhere, always came with french fries. The condiments were slightly different from what we were used to: the ketchup was much sweeter — Mike insisted it tasted like plums — and I'm sure there was lime juice in the mayonnaise. Naturally, there were native sauces as well. The two ubiquitous ones are both made by Linzano (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Unilever): Salsa, smooth and green and used by the locals like ketchup; and Tobasco, thicker than the American product of the same name... more like Sriracha chile sauce, but without the Asian spices.


Costa Rica has the full spectrum of hotel options (we even saw a Best Western), but the "collection of tiny cabins" variety seemed to be the most common, at least in our price range. This allows plenty of space for landscaping, and there were bright, healthy-looking flowers all over the place. One hotel even did some towel origami with fresh orchids.

I don't know why they even bother painting lines on the road.

Driving in Costa Rica is an adventure in itself. The best (and most mundane) conditions can be found on the Pan-American Highway, a 30,000-mile multicontinental route than runs all the way up to Alaska and, except for one impassable marsh, all the way down to Tierra del Fuego.

The secondary roads never have more than one lane in each direction — and sometimes less than that. A country this wet and hilly requires many bridges, and they're all the width of a single car. The side marked "CEDA" has to yield to oncoming traffic.

The rest of the roads, however, are unpaved. Wait, I don't think that really drives the point home; if you're envisioning a bucolic, dusty country road you're way off. You know how the health food store sells that really chunky peanut butter, where they basically just broke each peanut in half and put it in a jar? That's the texture I'm talking about. But wait, there's more.

Who needs guardrails?

You know those guardrails they have up in the mountains? Yeah, not in Costa Rica. You know what they have instead? Impenetrable fog. Also cows. And let's not forget the frequent bouts of torrential rain. But don't let all this discourage you; just as the Norwegians say there's no such thing as bad weather (only insufficient attire), the key to driving these parts is to have un coche fuerte.

We were in a Mitsubishi Nativa, the local version of the Montero. Not to sound like a car commercial, but such a beefy ride makes these roads downright fun — like riding a wild beast across the badlands. Just turn on the four-wheel drive, perhaps shift into a low gear, and Bob's your uncle. It was as rough as a wooden roller coaster, but I never doubted that we'd reach our destination safely. The catch is that you have to keep it around 30 kph (20 mph), but it's a small country so you'll get where you're going by dinnertime.

Speaking of which, don't expect your destination to have a street address. The streets have no names — or if they do, they're not marked and the people who live there don't know 'em. If you ask for an address, you'll get something like "50 meters southwest of the church." We asked for directions at one point and were told to make a left, then a right, then a down.

You might think all these problems would make Costa Rican drivers aggressive, but nothing could be further from the truth. There's a casual we're-all-in-this-togetherness that permeates their driving culture. If there's a family walking down the road, just wait for them to move over. If both sides of the road are covered in rocks, go right down the middle; when you eventually see an oncoming vehicle, he won't honk or get angry because he's almost certainly been doing the same thing.

There was one point where we thought they were taking this go-with-the-flow thing a bit too far. After a long stretch where we hadn't seen any cars for a while, we suddenly came upon a whole bunch of them all stopped for something in the road. What was going on? An accident? A fallen tree? No, it was a family of coatis crossing the street. Now, there's nothing wrong with that, we waited our turn... but just as we were reaching the front of the line, the fellow coming the other way got out of his car, chopped up a banana and fed them — IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD! I tell you, when you drop banana chunks in front of a few coatis, a dozen more come out of the woodwork and they swarm and fight and run underneath your car. We waited a full minute — nobody behind us honked — and then slowly pulled forward. Thankfully, the banana-crazed furballs got out of our way.

But enough about driving. Hilary's going to tell you about some of the sights.

Arenal Volcano and Baldi Hot Springs

We signed up for a guided hike up Arenal Volcano (known as Arenal Mountain until a big surprise in 1968) and the tour company picked us up in the afternoon. There were about 20 of us, but unlike the group at Antelope Canyon, nobody was annoying. The sun was shining when we reached Arenal National Park, but that was the last we'd see of it for the next 24 hours.

Secondary rainforest

Arenal is still an active volcano that throws out rocks and noxious gases on a regular basis. For this reason, visitors are only allowed partway up the mountain, and there are signs warning hikers to turn back quickly if there's an eruption.

Our guide explained the sights as we went. We first walked through the fields where the lava had flowed during the 1968 eruption, killing all the plants in its way. This ecosystem is known as the "secondary rainforest," because all the growth is recent. Plants grow fast in the tropics, though, so the trees were nonetheless tall and host to countless bromeliads.

The most unusual plant we saw was probably the "touch-me-not," a tiny flower with fernlike leaves that fold up at even the slightest touch, whether by human hands or cow tongues. This keeps the plants from getting eaten, because the folded leaves make it look dead. It also provided a good 10 minutes of entertainment to our group.


As for animals, we saw vultures, a toucan, and two interesting species of ant. The so-called leafcutters chomp off bits of leaf and march them back to the nest, where the leaves decompose and mushrooms grow in their place. Then the ants eat the mushrooms. They travel along a sort of ant highway stripped of anything green, the line of ants streaming from the nest to the plant and back again.

The other kind, the acacia ant, is named after a hollow, bamboo-like tree with which they have a symbiotic relationship. Whenever anything threatens their home, they pour out to defend it. Our guide knocked on a seemingly empty tree, and within seconds the exterior was swarming with hundreds of them.

Primary rainforest

As we made our way up the volcano we reached the surviving old-growth, "primary rainforest." It suddenly started to rain heavily, and never stopped. Despite our raingear, our clothes were soaked through. The guide offered the opportunity to turn back, but the group elected to continue on — even a man who was wearing a medical boot and a couple with a 9-month-old baby. Soon we were surrounded by tall mahogany trees draped with vines. It looked like Pitfall. We even saw a coffee plant, which is not indigenous to the region and must have been a remnant of a farm that predated the eruption.

The terrain grew steeper until topping off at a rocky black plain, the limit of where we could safely hike. We saw Lake Arenal in the distance, but the thick rainclouds completely obscured the volcano's cone. You'll have to go to Wikipedia for pictures.

The tour concluded with a visit to Baldi Hot Springs, where our soggy group warmed up in the naturally hot pools. It was there that we finally encountered annoying tourists, like the people who were too shy to change clothes in the changing area and instead used one of the few toilet stalls, ensuring long lines all night in both restrooms.

We still had a good time, jumping between adjacent frigid and piping-hot pools, standing under scalding waterfalls, and partaking of that most glorious of man's achievements, the swim-up bar.

After Arenal, we headed to Monteverde for a few days in the cloud forest, a high-altitude rainforest full of extremely tall trees. We were signed up to spend a morning with SkyTrek, which operates a series of trails and ziplines in a privately-owned section of the forest.

SkyTrek has set up 11 lines that crisscross over the treetops, some more than a half-mile long and 400 feet high. When we arrived, we were given helmets, harnesses, gloves, and pulleys, and marched through the forest to the base of a metal tower.

I was shaking in terror as we climbed the tight spiral staircase and crossed a narrow catwalk, both of which were swaying in the ever-present Costa Rican wind. This was the worst part, hiking to the first zipline and listening to the safety demonstration. Unlike the ziplines Batman uses, the SkyTrek cables are nearly horizontal, like a giant clothesline. You can twist the pulley to create friction and slow down, but since the lowest part is in the middle, you need to have enough speed to reach the end or else you'll start sliding backwards, buffeted by the crosswinds while you dangle and spin hundreds of feet above the ground. Yikes.

One of the towers
Looking down at the treetops

Luckily none of that actually happened to us, and after riding the first line, I was so hooked that I forget all about being scared. I absolutely couldn't get enough; I can't remember the last time I'd had so much fun. Some lines were fast (they claimed 45 mph), some were long ("Pleasepleaseplease let me make it to the other end"), some went over the trees, and some went through them — these were the most fun, as we zoomed through leafy tunnels with branches whizzing by just out of injury range.

Mike arrives (part 1)
Mike arrives (part 2)
Proof that we both made it out alive

You can see more pictures of ziplining fun (and Costa Rica in general) in our Flickr album, and we also uploaded three videos to YouTube. Click the pictures below to watch them:

Mike walking above the treetops
Taking off

The "Canadians"

At dinner one night, we overheard the chatty waiter asking the couple at the next table where they were from. "Canada," they replied. Now, I know Canada is a diverse place and all, but based on earlier eavesdropping we were pretty sure they were Americans. It's not that we were listening for "aboot" and "eh?" or the topics of hockey and maple syrup; we just think we have pretty good Canaydar.

Hil and I spent the rest of dinner coming up with questions we could challenge them with. Winners include:

  • Who's the president of Canada?
  • Oops, I mean who's the prime minister of Canada?
  • What's the capital of Nunavut?
  • What is Nunavut?
  • Who's not Canadian: William Shatner, Jason Priestly, Jane Curtin, or Pamela Anderson?

I wanted to actually try these on the impostors, but Hilary demanded I not cause an international incident.

Bull soccer

Later, we were flipping through the local channels and came upon a Costa Rican bullfight. As you might expect in such a peaceful and nature-loving country, this was not your normal bullfight. For starters, nobody seemed to be trying to hurt the bull. Also, instead of a solitary matador dressed in a fancy costume, there were dozens of apparent amateurs running around in street clothes. One even had a backpack.

After puzzling over this spectacle for 20 minutes, we surmised that a Costa Rican bullfight is like a soccer match, except the ball weighs hundreds of pounds and is alive and violent. The competitors seemed to be trying to lure the bull across the ring, presumably to their respective goals. Bulls, of course, are not really known for their tractability, so the process went something like this:

  1. Annoy bull
  2. Run for your life (ideally towards the goal)
  3. Jump into the stands
  4. Let some other idiot take over

Pepsi was a major sponsor. Oh, and there was no evidence that anyone was keeping score.

Note: after writing the above, we looked it up. You can compare our observations to this Frommer's article.

Credit hassles

Around this time we had a bit of trouble with our credit card and posted about it here. Everything eventually turned out okay, but while it was going on a bunch of social news sites picked up the story and for 24 hours we were kind of a big deal.

Happy New Year!

On the afternoon of December 31 we arrived in Tamarindo, a perfectly nice little beach community that was nonetheless not all that different from every other little beach community in the world. Still, what better place to ring in the new year?

Start of the night
End of the night
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