As someone with a love of theatre, art and country music, it was with trepidation that I learned my husband had booked our family into an AirBnB house in the province of Puntarena, Costa Rica’s most southern and isolated part, for a week over the Christmas holidays. However, he promised me that this particular part of the jungle was well known for opera and a favourite stopover for Pavarotti between London and L.A., so I was all in. OK, that’s a lie but all new experiences are good, so off we went. We had actually been to Costa Rica before (to Papagayo, on the upper northern Pacific Ocean side) when our now-seventeen-year-old firstborn was two, but since he (then) vomited in cars every time you turned a corner, we had almost entirely hung out at the oceanside hotel. Dealing with a two-year-old is some kind of extreme cultural experience in and of itself anyway, so I wasn’t really that bored.
So, we were off again, this time to the tiny town of Ojochal, landing at 7pm on a Saturday night, and bracing ourselves for a four-hour drive from San Jose airport to rental property. We stopped halfway, in the town of Jaco, at their fancy shopping centre, Jacowalk. Thus, we wisely avoided all the touristy souvenir shops, dying to sell us t-shirts with Costa Rica written fabulously in cursive across the front, carved wooden frogs and birds, keychains also with Costa Rica scrawled on them illegibly plus a bonus parrot or howler monkey, for both of which species this country is famous.
Dinner in Restaurante Graffiti was a great introduction to the updated Costa Rica. Fifteen years ago, English was spoken little; Papagayo was a tiny, empty place; and a good meal was a tamale with rice and beans. Now, we found English is ubiquitous; Papagayo has a Four Seasons Hotel and is so built-up with tourist properties, we were specifically choosing not to go there; and a good meal is still a tamale with rice and beans, though lots of other options exist. Salad in all eating establishments is fresh and delicious, with crunchy lettuce, sweet tomatoes and various combinations of tropical fruits (watermelon, papaya, mango, strawberries and guayava). Fish dishes come grilled or blackened, with mixed root vegetables and guacamole. Prices have gone up since 2002, but we were still able to eat most places for less than $200 for our family of five, including a few starters and desserts. You can even safely drink the tap water.
So, on with the road trip. Two hours past Jaco took us to our house, located in Ojochal, up a steep hill and right next to the luxury Hotel el Castillo, with a view as good as theirs – out over a large infinity pool to the sparkling ocean waters below – but without having to share it with any other guests. The area is surprisingly low on mosquitos as well (though not zero) and thus surprised us into not needing to use our carefully-packed mosquito sprays.
In Ojochal, there is not much going on bar the restaurant business. Two (Alma and The Bamboo Room) were up the same vertical incline as our house. Four-by-fours are not advisable in Costa Rica, rather, they are a necessity for driving literally any turning off the main coastal highway. (The driveway up to Alma was even steeper and narrower than that to our house so we would be surprised if they have any guests at all – or, if they do, they must be from the BMW Driving School teachers’ department, down the road from our house in South Carolina.)
Speaking of highways, the toll roads are excellent and cost just a few bucks. Even the toll-free coastal highway, built in 2012, is in tiptop condition.
Speaking of tolls, and thus money, you can get away with US dollars and an American Express card throughout C.R. We never changed money in a bank once. Tour operators give you a ten percent discount if you pay in cash, whether dollars or the local currency of colones, but in restaurants, you actually do better if you tell them you will pay in colones (not dollars) with Amex. It’s complicated to explain the different exchange rates used (anything from 500 colones per dollar up to 590, depending on where and in which direction you are converting), so just trust me on this one.
Speaking of restaurants (see earlier paragraph if you have forgotten), Ojochal has several good ones. We had booked Exotica (high recommendation on TripAdvisor) for Christmas Eve when we drove past it on arrival, looking mistakenly for our house, as we realised we ought to book something for the next night. However, the maître d’ had neglected to tell us when we booked that it was a required four-course prix-fixe meal for $95 per head, where one of the four courses was “a spoonful of sweet grapefruit sorbet” (cheaters!), so we left and went elsewhere.
Restaurante Citrus, just a few minutes away from our house, is terrific, and situated in the owner’s back yard since the previous location burned down some months earlier and has not yet been rebuilt. It was my husband’s favourite restaurant, but really I think that was just because of the name and appearance of the dessert, “Paris Brest”, which was two large profiterole-like pastry circles with vanilla ice cream on top and a blob of chocolate at the tip. I will abstain from further explanation. The tiramisu was also excellent. I was so overwhelmed by the desserts that I can no longer remember the main courses, but something about juicy filet mignon with mushrooms and artful steak and fries spring to mind. The starters of gazpacho, crispy calamari and biting ceviche were also top notch.
Dinner at the upscale Austrian-owned Hotel Cristal Ballena on Christmas Day was also a solid success. No prix-fixe menu meant we didn’t have to pay an arm and a leg for our daughter to have pasta with butter, but rather, she happily tucked into her usual gourmet favourite of chicken fingers and fries, while the typically-Austrian dish of Wienerschnitzel was declared very tasty by the gourmet foodie in our family (Dad). The boys were very happy with their ceviche and pork tenderloin. All for under $200, and that includes dessert and tip. In the daytime, as with most hillside restaurants, I believe you can see the ocean and, at the close of the day, one of the usual magnificent sunsets of the Costa Rican Pacific Coast.
Aracaria at La Cusinga Lodge likes to think of itself as a high-end restaurant, but it isn’t. Well, the price is, but the quality is missing. Hubby was not super-pleased with his grilled fish, nor the boys with their red meat selections. Even my fruit punch had lost its mojo and tasted only of fruit, despite the “Costa Rican rum” being clearly listed as a key ingredient.
We quickly found our favourite breakfast and lunch spots. For breakfast, SIBU cafe. It is visible from the main highway (as in the only tarmacked road in the area, with one lane each way), had fabulous coffee and fruity undiluted smoothies, sweet pancakes and French toast, as well as a delicious American Breakfast of two fried eggs with toast and a large fruit plate for ten bucks. Skip lunch there, though, as they skimp on the meat in the brisket sandwiches. Kaku, located literally next door, with the same woodsy set up of wicker chairs and glass tables, must surely have the same owners, though the menu is quite different. Here, we had chips with the freshest of fresh guacamole, juicy lumps of avocado poking through the limey mixture, spicy chicken wings for our daughter, and beef ribs or chicken parmesan for the boys. For me, a massive bowl of vegetable soup did as my entire meal on a few evenings.
Another, cheaper, dinner spot is Pizza Time, located in Ojochal and advertising itself as “real wood-fired pizza”. The restaurant is practically impossible to find (look for a small unlit banner on the oceanside of the road). This is a good thing as the pizza is terrible. The toppings are fresh, but the dough is only semi-cooked and missing any of the charcoal taste of a fire with wood in it and, in fact, missing any taste at all.
If you have a craving for TexMex in Costa Rica, eat at Toro Loco in Uvita, run by a couple from Corpus Christi, Texas. Tacos or burritos come stuffed with meat or chicken and rice and veggies – alas, no fish varieties. Chicken nuggets also available for picky ten-year-olds, hooray.
If on a budget, or simply not wanting to chill out and eat over two hours while on Costa Rican time, the large BM supermarket in Uvita (with other branches dotted around the province) has a variety of packaged sliced meat and cheese, fresh bread, fruit and imported cookies for a quick and easy lunchtime snack back at your pad.
But what is there to do in this isolated area aside from eat, you ask? Good question, and so I will answer it. Ecotourism is the buzz word for Costa Rica these days. That’s super-smart marketing when, in fact, you have no history of civilisation whatsoever. Actually, it could possibly be called negative history as the only museum within two hundred miles is Finca 6, showcasing large spherical stones from pre-Columbia history. Yup, that’s right, this counts for a museum down here. So I insisted we went. For six bucks a person (two bucks less for kids if you have brought their student IDs, including for your ten-year-old who doesn’t exactly look like she’s moonlighting as a bus driver in downtown Manhattan), you get a two-room museum that explains what you are about to see outside: the afore-mentioned large spherical stones in two locations. The first location is a group randomly put together by the United Fruit Company, who assiduously dumped them anywhere out of the way when they came across them as they were creating their massive plantations of palm trees and banana groves in the late 1800s, probably thinking, “Who put this bloody rock right in the way of my tractor!” The second location consists of three mostly-submerged stones in the grassy area behind the museum. We were assured they were perfectly-spherical too, though there was no information on how we -or even they – could possibly check for that. The museum poster boards explained that nobody has any idea whatsoever what the spheres were for or why they were in the locations they were in, but that incredibly, the three unmoved stones formed a perfect triangle. “Any three objects form a perfect triangle!,” I shrieked into the jungle as I looked for something to bash my head against. The half-hidden stone sphere beckoned, but I thought better of it, even as I questioned its perfect spherity. One day, this place could be as important and significant as Stonehenge. I won’t be back to see it happen. That’s it, folks, for the museum section of this Costa Rican advisory.
Much better to discuss air and water sports. We booked in for zip lining with OSA Canopy Tours ($59 per adult, $45 per under 17), as both guidebook (very old-fashioned, I know) and internet (reviewed most recently just last week) said they were the best zips in the area. We were off, flying through the overgrowth at speeds of up to 80km an hour, unable to see anything interesting on the ground below or in the tree canopy surrounding us. Don’t let stories of bird or animal sightings fool you. No sloth or white-faced monkey in their right mind would hang around, waiting for a bunch of yobby, shrieking tourists to whizz past them, kicking their fat legs into their beautiful trees and noise-polluting the jungle. The only sloth we ever saw was crossing the highway on a power line. That was pretty cool actually. But back to the zip lines: three hours of mindless linear fun, plus a Tarzan swing out over a canopy view (look for the black-and-green dart frogs in this bit, there’s a least one). Spectacular vistas out over the hills and down to the blue, blue, Pacific waters in the distance. No rain in December, and even kids as young as seven were perfectly happy lining the zips on their own. What a pointless activity, so beloved by tourists everywhere – thousands of new zips going up around you every day, so popular has this activity become worldwide. Why don’t you lazy arses just go for a quiet jungle hike instead and try and learn something about the flora and fauna of the region you’re in? I know that’s a radical idea, but give it a go. We did, and the forty-five minute hike from the parking to the Nauyaca Falls was worth the effort. (Buy your tickets in the roadside office before descending the mountainside to the riverbed parking level.) A double cascade, with easy swimming in the fresh, cool, crystal clear water of the lower level made the hot and sweaty hike even more satisfying. Don’t listen to the guidebooks that say “only accessible by horses”. We walked faster than the hour that the horses take, and spent only $8 per person entrance fee versus $70+ for the bestial tour. There was even a pick-up truck that took the laziest of all tourists right to the waterfall entrance – amazing those human sloths managed the five-minute walk down the railed section to the water. Accessible only by horse? My horse’s arse.
Costa Rica abounds with waterfalls, each one special for its own reason. We parked right by the free Cascades de Pavon and moments later were swimming in the mud-free water below the falls. Named “Turkey Falls” due to the enormous egg-shaped rock wedged right at the top of the water flow. It won’t be pretty if that thing gets dislodged, but it would take an earthquake or a thousand years, so all good on the day we went. You can drive a bit further and park in the aptly-named Restaurante de Pavon if roadside, hillside parking is further on the wildside than you like to go.
Cascades de Uvita is another oldie but a goodie. Located on private land and thus available only with an entrance fee of $2 per entrant, its kicker is that it has its own natural waterslide. The way up is scarier than down due to the rusty metal prongs slotted into the rock face to enable arrival at the higher level. Then, it’s just a matter of sliding over into the grooved ridge at the top, pushing yourself forward with your hands and letting go so you shoot forward and over the edge, propelled by the water spray, until you wump into the God-I-hope-it’s deep-enough pool below. Yes, I am speaking from experience – my boys’ experience. Some of us are just too old for these things and, anyway, it might be dangerous and I don’t want to get hurt. There’s only one of me but three kiddos, so I’ve got my priorities right. Don’t leave your bags unattended at any of these places, unless you don’t mind walking back to your car without anything that was in them. We didn’t suffer any theft, but there are multiple warnings about it at all unguarded car parking areas.
If freshwater is just too clean for you and, in the 85-degree winter heat, you are craving something saltier, there’s always surfing. Since I have always been certain to keep my head fullly above water for the last four decades (something about a babysitter trying to drown me in the bath when I was five according to my unreliable mother, yes you should see my one-of-a-kind breaststroke), I clearly was not going to give this water sport a go. Except I did. Husband refused to participate, citing his unwitnessed pre-existing expertise at this activity, learned when he was at Great Wolf Lodge for half-an-hour when he was eight, I think he said. So someone had to mind the kids. Plus the guarantee that every participant will be standing by the end of the lessons – and even standing on the surfboards – was enough for me to overcome a lifetime of phobia, so in I went. I must give a shout out to the gang at Uvita-360 here. It wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought. Axel was a kind and patient teacher, as was Diego and the other one – I lose names at the best of times, and rolling about in the ocean, hyperventilating under a wave and board, does not count as one of those. The little kids had a separate instructor and I was never worried for the safety of my youngest. The beach has gentle waves, but powerful enough to get you from wave to shore in a handful of seconds with no injuries on the soft sand of the ocean floor as you regularly fall in – often, in my case, without having managed to actually stand up on the board in the first place. Nevertheless, by the end of two hours, we could all surf unaided, no longer needing the steadying hand of the guide to hold the board and push us as the wave rolled up. I have amazed myself by ending the lesson willing to do this again on another beach holiday. I’ve further amazed myself by having a new-found respect for Kelly Slater, the moronic world-class surfer who has been on-and-off engaged to the bimbo of Baywatch, Pamela Anderson. It’s not that I look down on folks who know nothing about art / theatre / classical music / what’s going on in the world – I most definitely do do that – but rather that anyone with that kind of dedication to a tricky sport at least shows a high degree of grit, determination and focus. You go, Kelly, m’lad! I’m sorry I thought you were an idiot! He’s also quite good-looking, so extra credit there.
Given the natural environment surrounding us (Uvita, the nearest town, did not even get electricity until 2012), I feel I should talk a bit about the birds and bees. Red-feathered parrots hung out every morning in the barren tree by the water below our house. The flashes of their bright wings looked magnificent as they soared over the green greenness of the jungle canopy between our home and theirs. They would have looked even more magnificent, as would the toucans and kiskadees that nested right in our garden, if I had had the binoculars I so-carefully packed, listing them twice on my holiday checklist and packing them securely as the first item in our suitcase. I knew this country was famous for birds and I wanted to be sure to see them well in all their natural glory. Unfortunately, a last-minute inexplicable change in bag decisions by husband (yes everything is his fault; yes again I am perfectly rational on this topic) meant neither of the two pairs I’d laid out actually made it into our luggage. Bollocks as they say in Costa Rica when they arrive and find they’re missing. Pura Vida is the more-common local expression meaning anything from hello to goodbye and all other salutations in between. Since I’m not a surfing hippie, it did not wear well when I tried it out, so I stuck to Hola, Adios and Como Estas? Worked alright for me.
I didn’t even need binoculars to see the giant palm-sized flat, black crab-beetle things that were clinging to the edges of our pool. Having made a guest appearance on our first day, they decided they weren’t for show biz and retired to the overflow pool and then simply disappeared. Neither did I need the binocs to see the baby white-headed eagle that landed right in front of us on the rocky road up to our house from the highway. However, the continual fight on the correct pronunciation (bye-noculars from the American four, while I Britishly demanded the short i and tried to explain changes in stress – biNOCulars making it a short sound – even as the US team exclaimed the merits of bicycle and binary) made the bi- (say short i with me, please) nocular-free wildlife spotting a happy family activity every day.
To be certain of spotting animals, visit the Reptile Park right next to Nauyaca Falls entrance. This was our bargain of the trip as I only had $20 and a few more bucks in colones on me, thinking a few cages of snakes and lizards would surely not be more than that and, anyway, I had my credit card (they don’t take them). Also, we had just been to the Falls and if it had indeed been only $8 per car (wrong guidebook, so wrong), I’d have had $24 more – which would still not have been enough. Fifty bucks for all of us as the official foreign-tourist entrance price quickly made us Costa Ricans (citizens always pay only half or less at all attractions) and the friendly chap at the door allowed us in. I had expected dusty cages with half-dead snakes chewing on rotting mice, but no – this was an excellent reptilian display. First of all, a couple dozen snakes were on view, ranging in colour from bright red-yellow-black to chameleonic sandy brown-and-grey patched coiled springs. Ranging from non-venomous to totally like kill-you-to-death deadly and clearly labelled (cages not the actual slitherers) with origin and a few more interesting details, they were – with a bit of effort that just made it more fun – easy to spot in their glass cages. This was quickly followed by mini-pools of turtles and a variety of lizards, baby snakes and even a real Komodo dragon. The latter had peely skin and a foot-long skinny white tongue that darted out of its mouth every few seconds. Very dragonlike indeed. The highlight for my husband was the two-turtle display – one on top of the other, the male grunting every couple of seconds as the female below hid her eyes in her flippers and looked for a good show on the telly. “They’re just playing,” we explained to our curious youngest child, while the older boys, of course, found it hilarious. They are their father’s kids, after all. Even if we had paid the full price (sorry again, chappie at the front), it would have been worth it. Doubly so for our super-discount.
After your flesh has crept, you’ll need to swim. The curvy nature of the coast creates a different sandy beach in every nook. Like waterfalls, each beach has its own character. Playa Uvita has gentle waves and a long sandy stretch. Further north, the waves are rougher but better for post-beginner surfers. Playa Ventanas is very pretty with rock pools and caves where the water flows from the ocean through a tunnel in the rock and splashes onto the beach. At low tide, you can walk right through the tunnels, but it is not advisable at midday, when the water is pounding loudly through the rocky opening. Lovely place to jump in the waves and enjoy the mountain view behind you, or climb over a few rocky ledges to enter other small coves beyond the main sand stretch. A bit too popular though, crowded with locals with picnics and even making their own barbecues from twigs set alight between two horizontal tree logs on which is balanced the roast of the day. There are plenty of logs and twigs lying around with which to make your own cooker as the $10 entrance fee clearly does not go towards cleaning the debris from the beach.
Desperate for a non-biological education of some kind, I booked us into a coffee tour on our last afternoon as we had an early flight the next day and had reserved the Marriott San Jose, near the airport, for that evening. Cafe Britt coffee plantation is only fifteen minutes from the hotel and has a kitschy bilingual tour with corny jokes and minimal information on coffee production from seed to sip that lasts ninety minutes. The older kids enjoyed it, especially firstborn as he got to participate in the coffee tasting show at the end, though his ability to loudly slurp the coffee in order to taste it properly was pooh-poohed as completely inadequate by our host. The gift shop has lots of coffee beans to taste and buy, both for drinks and chocolate-covered, plus small bottles of coffee liqueurs which will make excellent gifts for the office gang back home.
I should add that the Marriott was a splendid location for our last night. A huge warm swimming pool, smaller cold pool and heated hot tub meant we could swim at night even in the cooler mountain air. The winds blowing through the hotel were refreshing after a week in 80+ degree coastal humidity. The dinner buffet in the Kitchen restaurant for $25 covered the tastes of the whole family (salad, grilled sliced meats, stir fry where you pick your own ingredients, roasted vegetables and salmon) and even came with a free glass of wine. The lobby-level bar has several board games along with its fruity cocktail choices and so I now know that I can beat my husband in Spanish-letter Scrabble (playing English words) as easily as I can in the American variety, booyah.
On the journey up the coast to the hotel, we realised how isolated we had been down south, as we didn’t get to our first traffic light for 100km until the busy town of Parrita. We even found Jaco overwhelming the second time around, when we stopped for lunch, though the Green Room with its burgers, egg sandwiches and humongous burritos was a welcome first-meal of the day after our two-hour drive up the coast. Jacowalk has Brittshop, which feels practically European with its fresh sandwiches, creamy eclairs and Godiva-beating chocolates and chocolate-dipped orange slices. Skip the watery smoothies at Buenazco, just around the corner, and hang out at Brittshop instead.
Normally, I consider all holidays without a jewellery purchase to be a complete waste of time and this trip was nearly a washout until, at the last moment in the airport, the week was saved. A local artist makes gold-plated chains with quartz pendants dangling from them in interesting rough-hewn shapes and so a new acquisition in deep purple quartz was completed, which I am wearing now even as I write this on our flight home. Not an expensive addition, and even cheaper as I promised to share it with daughter so that splits the cost, right? Just need to find a way to charge her – since she’s sadly not an income earner for our household, I requested that she pay her half in good behaviour. Time to cross my fingers and hope.