Seeing the Sights in San Jose

2017/02/19-24 and 2017/03/10-15:
Our posts about Costa Rica have focused on hiking and natural history. However, we spent time seeing more urban sights than we usually do – both before and after the car and hiking portion of our travels.

Before the car jaunt, our first foray was to Parque Nacional Simon Bolivar which is both a zoo and a botanical garden. We also saw the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, and took our time going through Museo Nacional de Costa Rica, located since 1950 in the former military headquarters. The building was available because Costa Rica sensibly disbanded its army in 1948, a redirected financial resources to education and culture. The history of Costa Rica from the 16th to 21st centuries was covered in a permanent exhibition.

For images see our Pre Columbian photo set.

Returning from the car jaunt, we went on a tour of the Teatro Nacional given by an enthusiastic young historian, and later to the Museo del Jade y de la Cultura Preclombina .


Inside the Teatro, built in the 1890s at the height of Costa Rica’s coffee production wealth.


Chandelier in the Teatro; San Jose was the third city in the world, after New York and Paris to have public electrical lighting. The ceiling painting was transported from Europe in four sections of canvas.

The Teatro Nacional is an important national cultural icon, and it only a stone’s throw from our hotel. Not having brought formal attire (Those who know us may laugh!) so as to attend an opera performance, on our final day in Costa Rica we went to a piano recital,  part of the Teatro al Medio Dia series.  Manuel Matarrita, a professor of the School of Musical Arts of the University of Costa Rica, presented “Piano Cinematográfico”- Piano Film –  a collection of melodies used as film soundtracks during the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

For more images see our Teatro Nacional photo set.


Our final days were also spent re-configuring ourselves for air travel. We located cardboard bike boxes at a bike shop nearby, and  carrier bags at the market.

The homeward flights were uneventful, and we have a few weeks of nesting in Vancouver before leaving for Portugal to hike the Via Algarviana.


Cloud Forest

The Osa Peninsula is tropical rain forest with huge biodiversity, but we felt we needed to get to higher elevations after months of cycling in tropical heat. We’ve spent the past two weeks in various locations in the Central Cordillera, walking in a variety of higher elevation tropical forests with eyes open and camera in hand. The colours and the variety of plants and animals is astounding.

We spent a few days at Talamanca Reserve which abuts Chirripo National Park about 100 km south of San Jose. Apart from the walks and the waterfalls, we had a quiet cabin and the food was excellent. Our stay at this place stands out as the most relaxing and enjoyable of this car trip. We’ve put together an album of photos from our stay.

We learned that you can climb Cerro Chirripo from here, but that it would require more substantial packs and boots than we are carrying in cycling mode.  We’d also need an advance booking at a high cabin, since the summit cannot be reached in a day by most mortals.  At 3820 m, Chirripo is the highest peak in Costa Rica. I think an alpine area in the tropics would be fascinating to see.


The car we’d rented was far smaller than we’d imagined from the photo. Our pannier bags barely fit into it, and there was no way of safely transporting the bikes. We’d hastily placed them into ad hoc storage at our friendly base camp hotel, but I’d been fretting about them sitting on the roof near a third floor service area. Since our route northward meant going through San Jose, we made a quick stop at to make certain they were OK, and to confirm when we’d return the car and pack up bikes for our flight homeward. Luis of the Orthodontics (to differentiate from Luis with Glasses) reassured me cheerfully with  “Es su garaje” – it’s your garage – in reference to ongoing bike storage.


We continued to a cabin near Poas Volcano. We’d visited the area thirteen years ago, after hiking in the Osa with our offspring.  We toured the coffee plantation that Chris had seen before but which I had not, and we spent a day strolling to the volcano viewpoint. Then we braved the winding mountain roads (thanking ourselves we weren’t cycling) to la Fortuna, near Arenal National Park. From La Fortuna we did several jaunts.  Natural history highlights included sighting a mother and baby sloth in a tree, as well as watching a hummingbird tend her tiny nest. We finally did something that was more like a hike than the gentle walks: we scrambled up a badly eroded and very muddy trail to Cerro Chato, and descended steeply – clinging to roots –  to the crater lake for a swim. Dormant rock-climbing skills came into play. We kept pace with two twenty-something lasses, American and German, which seemed to surprise them at first. At the lakeside and on the descent, we chatted with them and with an Israeli lass who appeared. (I was the only one who actually swam!) We drove them back to La Fortuna, and set about washing our very muddy selves and clothing.



At about 10:30 p.m., some young lads returned to the room next to ours; they turned the television on full blast, shouted,  laughed, and horsed around. I detected Quebec French as we waited in vain for them to settle down. When the rowdiness  had only increased at 11:00 p.m., I got dressed and knocked on their door. I faced some surprised looking sixteen year olds who I later ascertained to be grade 11 students from Collège de Montréal . I reminded them firmly yet civilly  that we were only a wall away, and asked if they would try not to disturb us. I mentioned that we’d set our alarm for 5:30 a.m., and would try not to disturb them when we got up. They looked shocked to hear reasonably fluent Anglo-Quebec French in Costa Rica, and to their credit there was an immediate settling down. If I’d seen their teachers at breakfast I would have commended their students’ behaviour.

We used the lowest four-wheel-drive option to approach Volcan Barva on a rough road the next day, and walked to the peak identifying tapir tracks along the way. This version of cloud forest was unique in that it contained oaks. We’ve created an album of our four volcanoes tour.

We found aesthetic mountain lodging for the last night of our car circuit, but were disgusted when we realized the Italian owner, about our age, happily served up an extreme right wing diatribe with our afternoon coffee. He went as far as to criticize Canada’s policy of accepting refugees, and expressed his profound Islamaphobia crudely and cruelly. (He himself had tried unsuccessfully to immigrate to Canada.) Chris and I sat in silent horror, and quickly bolted to our cabin. Though I proposed finding somewhere else for dinner, Chris insisted we return to the dining room “because we said we would.” As we walked in, Signor Mussolini started again with a distortion of the latest news from Europe. I turned to leave, and Chris followed. We found a pasta place just down the road, and decided to give the next morning’s included breakfast a miss. (The world will soon hear about Signor Mussolini on Trip Advisor)

We stopped for breakfast at a local soda – fast food place – on the way back to San Jose. The young lad who served us our gallo pinto and scrambled eggs was patient with my Spanish, and we chatted pleasantly about sloths and tapirs as we paid the bill. Then we set out to brave the San Jose morning traffic.


South from San Jose

We had planned for a while to visit our guide friend Mike Boston in the Osa Peninsula. We did a multi day hike in the Osa with Mike 13 years ago with our offspring, then ages 19 and 16. If you ever consider visiting the Osa, we recommend Mike at Osa Aventura. As cycling there would have been unpleasant and dangerous, we rented a small car. Our bikes did not fit in the car, and are sitting on the roof of the hotel in San Jose.

The first night out of San Jose, we stopped in the mountains at a hotel frequented by bird watchers. It was at about 3,000 m and there was a frost overnight. Outside the hotel were hummingbird feeders frequented by four species of hummers. My almost completely unedited selection of photos.



In the morning after hot chocolate at 6:00 a.m. we went for a walk with a group of binocular-carrying birders in search of the resplendent quetzal. On a seemingly random walk from a farm along a cow path, we spotted the very fancy male and the less resplendent female. Much to my surprise I was able to get a reasonable set of photographs using my hand held camera.


Male (note long tail feathers going off the bottom of the image)

After two more days of driving, we arrived in the Osa. It was hot and humid. The first night we stayed at a restaurant-hotel nestled between the beach and the mangrove swamp. Our hotel room overlooked the swamp, which was cute to begin with because there were a family of white-faced monkeys associated with the hotel outside.


But the humidity was extreme and the swamp smelly when the tide went out. The next night we stayed more inland, at a nice hotel, but even there the owner was complaining of the heat, saying at noon that she had changed her shirt three times. She also expressed surprise that anyone could hike in such a heat wave. It was at this point I realized that we were best just to have supper with Mike, skip his proposed hike, and head back to the mountains. Margo, whose stomach was having issues, had arrived at the same conclusion – probably a day earlier. That evening we had a pleasant time catching up with Mike over supper. The following morning at 6:00 a.m. we left the Osa for the relative coolness of the mountains and the cloud forest.


The Latest Plan

2017/02/20-23: Reorganization in San Jose
There may have been reasons beyond our grey hairs for the Costa Rican immigration officer to raise his eyebrows at our initial plan. We now understand that cycling is prohibited on any road in the country that allows speeds over 80 kmh. Although fully loaded long distance cyclists often get away with cycling on the highways, drivers are not expecting cyclists and the roads have very little shoulder. Getting on a bus from the border to the capital made more sense than we realized at the time, and it’s not going to be easy to get around legally, safely, or enjoyably on a bicycle.

After some consideration, we’ve decided to rent a car and explore Costa Rica by hiking, birdwatching, and snorkelling for about two weeks. We are crossing fingers that our bikes, front wheels removed, will fit into the back of the vehicle. We may even use them, unloaded, to get ourselves up any suitable mountain track we may find.

Chris’s dream was to reach his cousin’s in Brazil. Though the trip length was open-ended, I was never sure I wanted to be away that long and he agreed he’d be (reasonably) content to return to Vancouver from San Jose, having covered most of Central America. Getting home from here is relatively easy as there’s an Air Canada flight, and Chris’s “million miler” status usually helps things go smoothly. Our plan is to do this in mid-March.

One obvious reason for the plan change is our continued struggle with the heat, which would likely worsen through Panama.  We’re still planning an adventure with friends Suzanne and TT, who might have joined us in Colombia in April. We look forward to their company as we walk the Via Algarviana together instead. Although quite a different plan, it is currently a better fit all around.


Ometepe and south to Costa Rica

2017/02/16: Ometepe 90 km
It was time to get on with southward travel, so we left the hostel and Gerry, the amiable Irish host-owner, at 6:a.m., inadvertently leaving behind our granola, oranges, cheese, and my sun hat. We ate watermelon at the roadside and proceeded to the ferry from San Jorge to Moyogalpa on the island of Ometepe, which lies in lake Nicaragua and is dramatically formed by the two volcanoes: Concepcion and Madera. On the hour-long ferry crossing, we chatted with John, a fellow traveller with local contacts. On his advice, we rode about 15 km on the island to stay at a hotel at Charco Verde.


Us on the crossing with the two volcanoes of Ometepe behind

2017/02/17: Butterflies and Walks
Part of the appeal of Charco Verde (“green pond”) was a butterfly enclosure as well as a network of hiking trails through dry tropical forest. We dressed for cycling, planning to hit the road for a day trip after a quick visit to the butterflies. The displays of larvae and chrysalis and the fluttering mariposas in an enclosure kept us peacefully fascinated for far longer than we expected. The bike jaunt could wait a day. We strolled on trails instead, and decided an afternoon siesta was in order after the fairly long and very hot day.

2017/02/18: Island Day Tour 51 km


A petroglyph

Taking along little more than bathing suits and camera, we rode first to petroglyphs and then Ojo del Agua where a depression enhanced by stonework is filled by a natural spring. The water is clear and cool making a really fine swimming hole, and the rope swing was great fun! After our swim, we went to the on-site café where we ate the worst hamburgers we’ve ever eaten. Great location; awful food.

Trundling back past our hotel, we turned down a sandy track to the small museum recommended by our waiter. There a local lad gave us a structured tour of the 1,500 pieces of locally found Prehispanic pottery, describing the technical and artistic advances which define each era in mercilessly rapid-fire Spanish. I congratulated myself on translating about 80% of his spiel for Chris without having to ask the earnest lad for clarification. Phew!


Pottery items found recently in a nearby volcanic mudslide. Road signs would warn of areas where these often occur.


Sandy track to museum

We bought mandarins and passion fruit on the way “home”, chatting to two women (a Brit and a Kiwi at my guess) on rented bikes.

2017/02/19: to San Jose, Costa Rica, taking bus from border

Till recently, there was a ferry from Granada to Ometepe and on to San Carlos at the SE corner of the lake. Taking this might have put us onto a relatively quiet route in Costa Rica, but it’s no longer running. Instead, we got ourselves to the smaller port of San Jose del Sur well in time for a 7:30 a.m. ferry back to San Jorge, and pedalled southward on the Panamericana, a relatively quiet road in Nicaragua.

It was lunchtime as we neared the border. We had cordobas to spend, so we pulled into the last Nicaraguan comedor. I had already sat down while Chris was still looking around warily. We ordered chicken and rice, and ate most of our meal while two very drunk men sat precariously on a wall a few feet away. They swigged clear liquid from a bottle, wrapped their arms around each other to support their swaying selves, and gestured and grimaced at us as they clutched the back of Chris’s chair. He moved to the opposite side of the table.

We prepared to pay and leave, having left some rice and beans and chicken bones on the plates. A desperate-looking local man swept in as if to clear our plates, but sat down instead to gnaw the bones again and eat the leftover rice with our cutlery. We indicated to the concerned waitress that we didn’t mind him eating our leftovers, and she gave him a tortilla as she took the the basket away. As we were leaving, one of the two drunks fell backwards off the wall into an inebriated heap, knocking over several chairs. Things can be tense and strange near borders.

We changed our last 500 cordobas into colones, and pressed on through the various steps of the Nicaraguan exit procedure: two small payments at different locations, another place for an exit stamp that we missed on the first run through, a check point from which we were sent back for having missed the stamp, and then finally a successful pass through the checkpoint.

The Costa Rican side would have been a breeze if we hadn’t been crossing at the same time as a busload of tourists, mainly Ticos returning from Nicaragua. We leaned our bikes in a corner as we approached the immigration counter for our entry stamp. On our entry forms, there was a space for “ticket number”. I understood they wanted to know our means of transport, so here we had both entered “bicicleta”, having come almost 3,000 km from Cancun by that method. The immigration officer queried this, and I pointed to our bikes behind the pile of wheeled suitcases. He raised his eyebrows, and stamped our passports. We were waved past scanners by customs, and emerged into searing heat, loud hawkers of cold drinks, buses and booths selling bus tickets.

Hot and tired, and hard pressed to make the Osa Peninsula (SW Costa Rica) by a date when a naturalist-friend has offered to guide us in the rainforest, we investigated bus options to San Jose. The larger bus was full and departing, so we loaded our bikes and panniers carefully into the underbelly of what one might call an upmarket chicken bus for the six hour run to the capital. As we disembarked and reassembled in a central bus terminal well after nightfall, the cheerful driver asked us to pose for a photo. We stumbled as directed to the nearest hotel, and collapsed into a windowless basement room. We ate a pack of salty banana chips for supper and fell asleep.