Back to basics in Costa Rica
Date: 26th April – 3rd th May 2012
Where: Peñas Blancas – Liberia – Las Cañas – Arenal – Fortuna – San Ramon – Atenas – Jacό
Distance: 2095 to 2330 miles
Our first few days in Costa Rica, our 7th country so far, took a little more getting used to than all the others. The Costa Rica currency, the beautiful Colon, is surprisingly weak and so we found ourselves dealing in thousands for the first time this trip. This by no means meant everything was cheap. Prices more than doubled as soon as we crossed from Nicaragua and our mid-morning brunch was shockingly expensive. We knew at that point that our time in Costa Rica had to be different to all the other countries and that our cycle touring honeymoon (delicious cheap meals and cheap clean hotels) was temporarily on hold. It would be back to basics, camping every night, cooking/preparing all our own meals and generally limiting any activity that cost a penny, in order to stick to our daily budget of $30 for the two of us. Luckily it turns out Costa Ricans are the nicest most generous people we’ve encountered in Central America which made all money saving tactics a lot easier.
Arriving at the outskirts of Liberia on our first day we cheekily asked a nice looking hotel if we could camp in their back garden, and use their shower facilities and internet for $10. The man at the hotel called George agreed, pocketed the cash, and we were soon cooking spaghetti and enjoying the beautiful hot showers and fast internet. The next morning we went straight to the nearby supermarket to buy food for our lunches, dinners and snacks and ate our breakfast of cereal in the car park still in shock at the cost of individual items. Sarah finally persuaded Geoff to give Nutella a go (costing $6 a pot). Bread and Nutella soon became our favourite nourishment. (three pots and counting so far in Costa Rica…) The second evening we once again found ourselves hosted by a George, this time a Swiss/Costa Rican running a restaurant and rafting business. The country is blessed with thousands of rivers, many of which we cycled over (and down to and up from) so rafting is a popular activity. George offered us free camping and use of toilets/showers in return for purchasing a meal in their restaurant. This is our favourite combo since we’d rather pay for a nice cooked meal than to pay for accommodation (and cook a rather boring meal on the stove). Importantly we also found out that we could drink the tap water saving us yet more money.
Having decided that we were going to have enough of the Pan-American further down in Panama, we took a detour up into the hills around Volcan Arenal and didn’t regret it. Cycling along quiet, beautifully paved roads bordered with hibiscus hedges, through small villages and along cattle farms (complete with cowboys) we felt like we were on holiday somewhere in Europe (except for the cowboys). No one was shouting ‘gringo’ at us, as we cycled peacefully along, and there were no noisy, polluting chicken buses screeching to a halt in front of us. To our delight there were plenty of potential safe camp spots. In Nuevo Arenal we camped down by the lake in a park and got chatting to a German couple touring in their custom-modified Land Rover. They told us about the cheap tasty sandwiches at the ‘Muswani’ bakery which was a very good tip. The next morning we watched otters hunting fish and kingfishers getting in on the act too: Our own mini ‘sardine run’! We didn’t get far that day as we were enjoying the view of the lake so much and had to stop to see various birds along the way. We had our Muswani sandwiches across the road from a rather random Swiss village (chalets, Swiss mountain railway, panoramic rotating restaurant, Swiss cows and small chapel) and given it was a beautiful sunny afternoon and these would soon be rarities given the impending rainy season we asked to camp in the Swiss village and enjoy an afternoon of wildlife watching in the area. To our surprise we were offered a free room in the hotel for the night (worth $55), were helped to take our bags up and were then given a ride up the mountain on the railway to see the fantastic view across to Volcan Arenal. We spent the afternoon pretty gobsmacked at this generosity. That evening we enjoyed a schnitzel, rosti and a beer in their restaurant and helped out a little by offering our head torch to the staff during a black out. We took advantage of the hot shower and did a whole lot of our washing, hanging it to dry on our bikes and along fences during breaks the next day.
We meandered on to Fortuna, a town built for tourists to enjoy Volcan Arenal’s nightly lava flows and hot springs, unfortunately a few years ago the name of half the town’s establishments became redundant when the volcano fell asleep, and became dormant. We only passed through for a night, checked out the feasibility of our planned route the next day (given our terrible reputation of ending up on bad dirt roads up mountains in the rain) and headed further up into the Costa Rican mountains. The scenery was spectacular and once again we asked to camp in a family run restaurant in the midst of the cloud forest area. The family was hugely generous and offered us their ‘casita’ (room) for free at the back of their restaurant. We enjoyed Anna’s cooking and offered her daughter Julie an English lesson as a thank you. They saved us from a night of camping in the torrential rain. It was still raining as we set off the next morning further up the mountains, misty rainforest all around, with the guabas (delicious, long, green fruit with soft white fleshy bits inside) Anna and her family had given us tied to the back of our bikes. The road steeply descended and ascended river valley after river valley, both of us dripping in so much sweat we could wring our t-shirts out! Despite this, we were enjoying these days more than any on the trip so far. This trend continued, as we headed South towards Atenas and camped in a farm where Miguel and his family kindly offered us a shower in their house.
More mountains the next day before a steep descent back to sea level and the hot hot coastal heat once again. Our decision not to pay and go to a national park famous for its rare Scarlet Macaws was rewarded by spotting a number of them in the trees by the side of the main road. It’s at times like these we are glad to be on a bike as none of the cars rushing by had a clue they were there. Just round the corner over a bridge numerous monstrous crocodiles bathed in the sunlight. Costa Rica truly is a wildlife paradise.
It turns out this leg of Costa Rica cost us $20 a day, the question is can we keep it up?