3 August 2008

Costa Rica: Don’t drink the water…but the swimming’s fine

Posted by Jessica Ball

I’m back! Having survived Costa Rica’s rainy season, attacks by macaws and capuchins, cheesy coffee tour guides and every kind of biting insect in existence (and all without getting sunburned!), I have lots of great photos and stories to tell. As my masters research may be taking me to Guatemala, I was glad to have the chance to spend time in a Central American country, although I have to report that my Spanish is only slightly improved (meaning I know how to ask “What’s in this food” and several different ways to swear at kamikaze drivers). I am glad, however, to be back in a country where I can drink the water and don’t have to put up with whistles and suggestive leering just because I’m female and breathing. (Most people were very nice, actually, but I could have done without the whole “macho” culture experience.)

Costa Rica is an amazingly beautiful country, and topographically quite varied. The Costa Rican Cordillera make up the backbone of the country, stretching from the northwestern hills to the more central volcanoes (Arenal, Poas, Irazu, Turrialba), to the highest peaks near the southeastern border with Panama. Most people live in the Meseta Central, a huge central valley region centered on the capital city of San Jose. Costa Rica’s lowlands are scanty on the Pacific coast, where you don’t leave the mountains and hills until you’re pretty much on the beach (or in the water), but the less populated Caribbean coast has much larger lowland areas. Forests are nearly everywhere you go, from the lush jungles on the coasts and in the central valley to the clammy cloud forests on the high peaks and volcanoes.

The people in Costa Rica tend to cluster around San Jose and its suburbs (Alajuela, Cartago), or in small towns linked by winding two-lane (or one-lane) roads through the mountains. The tourist areas (Jaco, Quepos, Manuel Antonio, La Fortuna) are full of hotels and restaurants and souvenir shops, and have growing populations of ticos (Costa Ricans), but they’re isolated, and seem to have popped up more like shantytowns than fixed establishments. I spent the first few days of my trip at one of these, the town and national park of Manuel Antonio, one of the most popular ecotourism sites in the country.

To get to Manuel Antonio from Alajuela, it’s a two hour drive through the mountains. The mountains last pretty much until you hit the coast – in fact, Manuel Antonio’s hotels and restaurants are all built on steep hills. It’s impossible to get a beachfront hotel unless you’re really lucky – otherwise, you have to do some walking.

Some of the restaurants have slight aircraft problems. This one houses a pretty popular bar.

Dogs, sloths and monkeys are very common in Manuel Antonio. Apparently so are very short children in Darth Vader outfits.

The beaches, however, are often nearly deserted – and quite beautiful.

And when you can have views like this from your hotel room? Even Darth Vader couldn’t spoil the stay. This is the Hotel Costa Verde, which is listed as “Expensive” in guidebooks, but because of the good exchange rate for US dollars is actually quite reasonable.

This is the walk to the room, which is part of a complex of small buildings set into the hillside. I was in the “Adults Only” section, which was absolutely wonderful – instead of screaming children, all we heard were screaming howler monkeys. (On second thought, howler monkeys are louder and more disturbing than most small children. Let me tell you, hearing one of those things outside your window at 3AM is not relaxing.)

Down by the pool bar, you can meet the regulars…

…and have breakfast with some really laid-back folks.

Of course, you should always be on the lookout for pickpockets when you visit the beaches.

But what would a blog entry be without some geology? This geology happens to have a few crabs sitting on it…

…but nearby are some great conglomerates. There was quite a bit of green in these rocks, although I neglected to bring my hand lens along to investigate more thoroughly. (Terrible thing to forget, I know!)

Of course, I didn’t spend all my time on the beach staring at rocks. Some of it I spent sleeping, or defending my towel from roving bands of capuchin monkeys or hermit crabs.

Next on the menu: volcanoes (with some actual discussions of geology) and city life in San Jose.