Back and Forth through Costa Rica

As promised, here we are with our next report, this time from the Caribbean coast. We chose the long way to get here and traveled from the southern part of the Pacific coast northwards again through the inland. From sea level, we drove up steep mountains into the chilly and damp cloud forest, where we spent the first cold night in a long time near Cerro de los Muertos, the highest point along the Panamericana at about 1,830 feet (3300m). Of course, we drove up to the peak at 11,352 feet (3460m), where you can see both oceans on a clear day (which we didn’t have). Unfortunately, the new turbo charger was not able to save our battery, which meant that the voltage in the middle of the night wasn’t sufficient to turn on our auxiliary heating. But that morning, it wasn’t so bad that we had a temperature of only 10°C in our Bremach and that the children were awake shortly before 5:30 a.m. since we had signed up for a Quetzal Tour at 6 and had set our alarm (unnecessarily) for the first time in quite a long time. Unfortunately, since one tourist had overslept (he should consider having children instead of an alarm), we had to wait a bit until we were able to observe the Quetzal, which is revered as a divine bird, in its natural habitat.

We were very lucky and saw 5 or 6 of these beautiful green birds right away and were amazed at the more than 18-inch-long tail feathers of the males. Everyone in our group was utterly quiet in order not to frighten away the birds (our guide was also very taciturn, which didn’t make for a very informative tour); it was only Robert who chattered continuously at the top of his voice as he dug into the unripe berries along the pathway. The Quetzals didn’t let this disturb them or have just become used to the morning visit by the groups of tourists. On the way back to the main road, the road went upwards so steeply that the passengers in the all other cars had to get out and huff and puff up the hill. We stayed sitting comfortably in our Bremach, which transported not just the four of us up the track in low gear, but also all our household goods. Our offer to take along some of the others was declined with thanks by the proud rental car passengers.

The high entry fees for the national parks (US$ 10 per person and US$ 3 for the vehicle) had put us off a bit, but we didn’t want to miss the Irazu volcano. When we ended up in a traffic jam at the end of the road there, it was clear that, first of all, it was the weekend (we haven’t kept track of which day of the week it is for a long time now, so we rarely know it right away) and that, secondly, all the inhabitants of the nearby capital city of San Jose seem to want to spend their days off out in nature. Visiting the volcano is as easy as one, two, three since you can drive almost to the edge of the crater and – with a robust vehicle – even up to the highest point. The view down into the volcano was a disappointment, however, since the green lake shown in all the advertising is completely dried up. We spared ourselves the other national parks around the surrounding volcanoes because we had already seen similar areas in the other countries, without the high entry fees. Quite a few locals told us that prices have increased steadily in Costa Rica over the past few years and that now the limit has been reached for most tourists, making the number of visitors all over the country sink drastically. What will the future look like for this country which is so dependent on tourism and now has such a high price level, and how will this affect the inhabitants? The man running the butterfly farm El Cocora had resigned himself to the problem, and he let us spend the night on his parking lot free of charge. He didn’t even want to have anything for letting us visit the butterflies and hummingbirds.

Interestingly enough, we found more cost-free places for spending the night in Costa Rica than in any other country, but we were always careful never to leave our vehicle unattended and always stored everything inside because there are warnings about theft in so many areas. We actually did meet a German couple vacationing here and then met up with them again by chance two days later – the second time with two suitcases less. In the few minutes they were in a supermarket buying water, their rental car had been broken into. In contrast to the other countries in Latin America, the Ticos (as the Costa Ricans call themselves) seem to feel they are too good to keep watch. There are hardly any guarded parking areas, just countless warning signs.

It’s true, “the best things in life are free“. Near the volcano Arenal, we enjoyed swimming in a wonderfully warm river surrounded by rainforest and directly next to the street. Afterwards, nothing could hold us back – 30 km earlier, we had seen signs for the German backery in Nuevo Arenal, which also serves sauerkraut and bratwurst. After we had filled our tummies with excellent sausages and delicious apple strudel, Thomas, the owner, showed us a fantastic spot at the lake. That, along with the prospect of having a good German breakfast with fresh pretzel rolls the next morning, quickly convinced us to spend the night there. Well strengthened, we drove on to Rio Celeste in the Parque Nacional Tenorio, where we went hiking again for the first time in quite a while. The lovely blue river in the middle of the rainforest gets its color through a chemical reaction between the sulfur released through the volcanic activity and calcium carbonate.

Without any set goal for the day, we drove on, studying the travel guide along the way (which isn’t so easy along a gravel track). We still wanted to see something of the highly praised rainforest in Costa Rica and its fauna but also be off the beaten tourist track – how many tourists must have been here before the drop in the number of visitors when the amount now is already too much for us?! Hoping for the best, we drove to the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Mixto Maquenque, which is located on the border to Nicaragua. After driving around in circles for a while, we realized that it is only a protected forest area with no entrance gateway. By that time, we had already driven so far along the muddy track around the forest that going back the way we had come wasn’t worth it, so we spent the night next to the track, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. And then something happened that had already taken us by surprise in Mexico and further along the way: out of nowhere in a region so remote from civilization, a person on foot suddenly appeared, this time, a bare-chested man with a machete in his belt. He didn’t seem to be very amazed at seeing two European children cooking dirt soup along the track and who belonged to a pretty unusual expedition vehicle because he simply kept walking by. We even had to call after him to ask if the track continued on from there and if we would meet up with civilization on the other side of the refugio. He was familiar with the area and explained the way to us before he disappeared, who knows to where, in the evening light. The detour into the wilderness did, however, turn out to be worthwhile since we came upon a sign for another refugio the next day after a bit of bouncing around on the muddy and gravel tracks. We dared another detour away from the main track and finally found what we had been searching for: in the Refugio Tapiria, we were able to take a lovely little hike through the rainforest, as well as a boat tour on Laguna Jalapa. Our guide, William, was happy to have visitors since he normally has only groups which have reserved in advance. He told us a lot about the plants and animals we would see (tarantulas, Jesus Christ lizards, iguanas, bats, monkeys, frogs, and even a very poisonous baby snake – which Max was the one to discover).

Just as in other countries, the rainforest is rooted out industriously wherever it is unprotected in order to make way for endless pineapple and banana fields. It is a sad picture, especially when you see the disused fields from the previously cultivated seasons alongside them. You can read about this and watch films showing it, you only really understand the true extent when you see and hear about it in person, with your own eyes and ears. A little later, we saw a constant flow of trucks with refrigerated containers rolling along the street, taking all the exotic fruits to consumers in the countries on the other side of the ocean.

We had barely arrived back on tarred streets after our trip into the rain forest when fear struck: something was wrong with the Bremach, and Max quickly pulled off the road to the right. A walk around the vehicle showed the reason for the trouble: we had a flat, there was absolutely no more air in the right rear tire. Completely unexpectedly, in the middle of a village, directly next to a bank with a long line of people in front of it. It was the end of the month, and everyone wanted to get their pay at the same time (this is another oddity we have observed since Mexico). We certainly made their waiting time particularly entertaining since the spare tire had to be taken down off the roof, the flat tire removed, the new one put on, and the flat one put into the cabin. Max managed all of that competently without any problems within 20 minutes. The next day, we stopped for the first time at one of the many llanteras (tire patchers) we have seen so often along the edge of the road during our trip. While the tire was being patched and the Bremach washed and lubricated, I did two loads of wash by hand in the river (groan), surely a funny sight for all the rafting and zipline tourists passing by during that time. In Costa Rica, the number of lavandarias (laundries) and also food stands is quite limited. And it always turns out that we find what we have been looking for just when we don’t need it any more – never when we are desperately searching for it.

Here you can have a look at us celebrating Robert’s second birthday.

Now we are in the south, on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, and we are actually seeing blue, and not brown, water for a change in the Caribbean, as well as sunshine, instead of rain. After a few days for relaxation on the beach, we are going to set off for Panama.

Private pictures of us in Costa Rica are here.

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