Off we go

Costa Rica 2- Road Trippin’

Written from our very own jungle tree-house

  • Adventures on the Pacific coast
  • Toyota Yaris 1.5vvti tested (to destruction?)
  • We fall into, and escape, an eco-tourist trap


You left us last striking out from the American-dominated surf-town of Tamarindo to explore the whole northern Pacific coast (known as Guanacaste). While Tamarindo with its range of surf (from beginner to challenging), great beaches and multitude tasty eateries would be a pleasant enough stay we had some exploring to do.

We quickly evaluated tripping around by bus, but given the slightly out of the way places, the potentially ‘relaxed’ country-schedules and our ability to be on time we opted for a car. In my book there are two types of travellers; those whose limiting factor is money, and those which is time. If you’ve got £5,000 to see the world with and no work that you’re missing out on you count your time away in money. If you spend £10pd that’s a year and a half of work-free adventure (a-la Al and Laura on their, if you spend £100pd then that’s not even two months before it’s back to the grind. This is why long term travellers get almost insanely tight; it’s their freedom they’re spending. On the other hand they have the untold luxury of all the time in the world to hunt out cheap stays, work while away and so get into the culture properly, wait hours for busses which might not show. While Anna and I have got a luxury month in the time budget, and being away 30 days means we’ve got to watch our per day spend, time is still by far our limiting factor= rental car it is.

Roll on the wonderful which has always been my source of good deals. After jigging around a lot it seemed I had got the walk-in price of about $50pd down to £20 for the week. I knew that there would be a bit of a sting at the desk for insurance etc but how bad could that be? Try an extra £250pw for the insurance! I couldn’t believe they could do it with a straight face! ‘So, that will be £20 for the rental, and, ah, let’s just have a look. Yep, (tap, tap, tap) $350 for insurance.’ Hmm, forget that. A quick check of all the places seemed to yield pretty much the same answer, apparently it’s some government monopoly insurance policy or something. In the end we went with Thrifty as their rep was nice and straight up with their deal- $50pd all-in.

There was further trouble and soul-searching however when we told her where we were planning to go. Over half the roads in Costa Rica seem to be un-sealed stone with river crossings that vary from narrow bridges to fords of varying depth and quality. She said that with the standard Yaris we shouldn’t use these ‘roads’ or ford rivers- both knackering the underside of the car and floating away was specifically (and wisely) excluded in the expensive ‘full’ insurance. On the other hand the little 4×4 she offered would handle it all, for a mere $70pd. But then that’s suddenly a lot of tasty milkshakes we might have to forego to afford it, and a couple of years ago Nick and I did a massive South African road trip, largely on similarly poor ‘roads’,  in his VW Polo with no ill-effects, and the 4×4 would probably be crap on the roads. Nope- give me the Yaris and let’s go.

And so began…

The Trial of the Yaris


(Skip if you don’t care about cars/if you’re Pat)

Trial by Road

The 1.5 vvti engine needed a little thrashing, particularly with the AC on, but was lusty enough and more than adequate when stirred properly. With no electrics (windows/doors) to speak of it was nice and light and handled as well as you’d expect. The handbrake was good and tight which allowed for precise deployment when required.

Trial by Off-Road

It actually did brilliantly. Being light traction wasn’t much of an issue and the suspension soaked up the miles of bumps fine. The real issue was ground-clearance which called for sharp pot-hole spotting from both of us, and some very slow creeps over the really rough stuff to keep the ground and bodywork separate.


Trial by Fire

The AC worked brilliantly, which is not to be undervalued here when opening the window feels like opening an steam-room door.

Trial by Water


So, since this video I’ve learnt something about fording rivers!

We had seen nothing but 4x4s all the way down this stretch of road and now we found out why- the river. The car we were following went straight through in a curve downstream like he knew the drill. We pulled up sharply and I had a wade in to check the depth- about knee-height; certainly more than a puddle, and the curved route was the shallowest. We had little choice and another passing car said we should be fine in ours. There was a footbridge to the side so I gave Anna the camera- we may as well have something YouTube worthy! My only experience fording rivers is on mountain bikes- here the trick is to go as fast as possible, keep your speed up so that you roll over anything you don’t see on the bottom and get up the far bank without wobbling off and getting your feet wet (or in this case getting stuck in the middle of a river like an idiot tourist with an expensive bill). It seemed sound reasoning until the middle of the river where the weight of water pretty much stopped the car dead anyway, the bow wave swept up over the bonnet and the front tyres scrabbled desperately for grip. Fortunately the engine kept running, the tyres found the grip they needed and the mighty Yaris bounded up the far bank, pouring water from every orifice.

For future reference the trick to fording rivers in a car is to take it gently and steadily to avoid all the above, and as a rough rule of thumb don’t try to ford anything deeper than your wheels. It turns out getting water in the car isn’t much of a problem, but any water in the engine air-intake is instant doom. Luckily the Yaris’ was high up and shielded from my cack-handed crossing by the bonnet!

Anyway- trial by water passed, albeit with a wonky number plate.


Trial by Breaking and Entering(?!)

Okay, I’m an idiot. Without remote central locking and with only one key it seemed fairly obvious I was going to lock the key in the car at some point. At a lookout spot on the way to a cloud forest it happened. We got back to the car, my pockets were empty of keys, and there it was- in the ignition! The Costa Ricans tending the lookout spot (basically their garden) were wonderful. They got on the phone to a lock smith but seemed to draw a blank- he could be hours. Thrifty weren’t much more use, it would cost $150 and take 5 hours from them! Over the course of a couple of hours we, and other comers and goers, tried all the classic tricks from the 80s. Wire down the window to hook the innards? Doesn’t work- probably shielded. Jacking the locked door open a crack with a lever and wedges? Surprisingly it does a bit- but you can’t like your car very much, and it was only enough to get a wire in the cabin which was too flimsy to work the (anti-theft?) locks. But here’s one I hadn’t heard before which the chap was told by his locksmith friend- removing the rubber from the small rear window. And it worked! With a bit of cutting and a whole lot of pulling and digging with pliers and screwdriver we pulled all the rubber through and got the window out undamaged!

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So, trial failed; but in the best possible way!

We managed to replace the window with a bit of help at the next hostel, reattached the license plate and returned the car with no deductions after a pretty nervous inspection!


Beaches Beaches Beaches

Anyway, enough of the car! Where did we get to?

In short, beaches in different flavours. There was Junquillal- just a few off-season lodges/guest houses with a very chilled flavour but the standard gorgeous beach. We arrived in time for some world-class body surfing on some pretty serious waves- unfortunately there was no board to rent anywhere- and a beautiful sunset.

Further down we came to the Nosara region, another US outpost but far more spread-out, rustic and jungley than Tamarindo. There are plots for sale everywhere around here, priced in US$ of course, and there seemed to be a community of long term retreats from the states- and who’d blame them. We stayed a couple of nights on Guiones beach in a comfortable studio just off the beach ($50pn, ask Juan at the surf shop if you’re ever there). The classic beach was a long-board haven with its fairly large but mellow, crumbly and slightly choppy waves.

Anna’s not feeling the surfing at the moment and getting bored of watching so to get my fix I set the alarm for 5am and slipped out while it was still dark. As the light came up at 5.20 I was already in the water under the stars, past the break and lining up for a long, mellow, sunrise set- pure bliss. I had the waves to myself for an hour and by the time I returned the board at 8.30am (after a $15 24hr rent) and woke Anna gently I had banked a classic session.

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But that wasn’t the last of the morning- packing up and leaving swiftly we were on our way down the road to the Nosara Yoga Institute for one of their public classes ($10?). Unfortunately despite Google maps being a god-sent here (the land of no addresses!) it sent us astray this time- their fault, not Google’s or ours. By the time we found the spectacular place we had missed part of the intimate class, set in a jungle pagoda, but the rest more than made up for it. We stuck about for a mega juice by the pool, watching skinny yoga-devotees swapping tips between classes, and both thought that the £150pn might actually be worth it. For now though we’ve downloaded an excellent yoga app (Yoga Studio) for the iPhone (£2?) and will make do.

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We pulled into our last stop on the coast, Samara, for lunch an hour or so later but quickly realised we wouldn’t be leaving in a hurry. Another gorgeous beach, this time sheltered by an offshore reef, was backed by a loose collection of chilled bars and tasty organic eateries- the perfect smorgasbord of nature and smoothies. The waves were too small for much proper surfing, but big enough to be fun trying a SUP (Stand Up Paddleboard) for an hour.

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If we have one tip for the Guanacaste coast so far it’s head for Samara. It’s got a more European than American vibe going on, some of the best beaches about, some gentle surf for total beginners/swimmers but apparently some decent breaks nearby (which I didn’t check myself). From stopping for lunch we stayed a couple of days and could easily have stayed more.

Inspired by our yoga class we tried to emulate it on a nearby ‘deserted’ beach with my iPhone plugged into the brilliant Bose Sound Dock III I chucked into my already weighty backpack at the last minute. I’ve got to confess that despite the app/speaker set up giving a fine lesson, sarongs on the sand and picnicking local families about  didn’t lend itself well to the yoga feel. As if to confirm all was not right even nature had a crack at us, stinging Anna right in the neck with a big wasp! Maybe it’s because we looked like idiots? Maybe it’s because we were ‘stealing’ yoga by not paying for lessons? Maybe it was just a coincidence? Either way it wasn’t the swanky class of a couple of days before.

tropical sting wasp up close
Ouch- badass tropical wasp!
DIY yoga studio


Not So Good

The fact the beach was supposed to be deserted leads me on to my pet hate for the holiday- the Frommers Costa Rica guidebook. It’s crap for us and reads like a catalogue of places to drive to with a hire car and tours to go on when you get there. Even the ‘inexpensive’ room options run from $50 upwards and it seems short on things you might like to do for free. By far the worst aspect though is a lack of feeling or candid opinion- something which had made our Brandt Peloponnese guide book, and consequently trip, such a joy.

The Interior

This lead to a bit of a waste of time. Two ‘must do’ things in Costa Rica are the Cloud Forests of Monteverde and the volcano at Arenal. We figured the easiest way to see these was by car and so we extended the rental by a couple of days and struck out inland. The first stop was Monteverde, the original eco-tourist destination (apparently) high in the mountains. To be fair, the village was fairly charming, the hostel (Santa Elena) cosy and welcoming and the cloud forest (basically a cloudy forest) was interesting to see. The constant moisture meant everything grew everywhere, with tree trunks supporting vertical gardens teaming with vegetation. On the flip-side we paid $45 each for a 2.5 hr guided canopy tour along a variety of bridges, and after the first 30 minutes it seemed pretty certain the rest of the time was going to be the 30 mins repeated. To be fair the guide was good, it was handy to get above the trees and we did see some monkeys eventually- but $90 for a walk in the woods? The ‘free bonus’ humming bird garden was actually the highlight.

This would seem a bargain by the time we had rally-driven around the lake to Arenal volcano. The place is a charmless joke. It seems a hurried development had sprung up around the volcano from the 70s onwards, which is all well and good- who wouldn’t pay money to see a nightly display of lava spewing from a live volcano? Unfortunately, although it’s not spoken about in polite company, the volcano went dormant in 2010 and 9/10 days it’s shrouded in cloud anyway! When asked about this people trot out a standard line about it being amazing (when you can see it) and that it might re-erupt at any time, and that there’s plenty of other things to do there. Which is the point- they’ve got a whole tourist resort set up which they’re desperately trying to justify. Cue a multitude of expensive spa retreats, ‘adventure activities’ and volcano hikes (‘get closer to the cloud which contains the volcano’) spread out along the noisy main road through the place- lovely!

Arenal Volcando?!
Arenal Volcando?!

Since we were there we made the most of it and found a very friendly place to hire some excellent bikes for a purpose built mountain bike trail. I was excited and happy to pay the $65 for a change as they had one of my favourite bikes to rent- a full carbon fibre, full suspension Canondale ‘lefty’. So we did have a great day out cycling the pretty decent trail. Unfortunately Anna appropriated my bike, swapped for her hard-tail which was a bit firm for her liking! In addition to the ride we got the bonus of seeing a variety of aspects to the volcano cloud- what a treat!

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The next day brought a tough three hour hike through rainforest to the rim of another volcano, apparently! All we saw the whole way up the Cerro Chatto trail, and at the top, was trees in the foreground and cloud in the background- standard. At least we hadn’t shelled out $75 each for the guided tour this time, as suggested by the book.

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'View' from the top
‘View’ from the top

No, the absolute highlight of the whole inland adventure was totally neglected by the book- probably because it was free. A chance tip from a smoothie stop on the way round the lake had been to look out for a car park on the road past a bridge- it was a locals’ ‘spa’ where the river ran hot under the road. It took a bit of finding, and the initial approach to the concrete under-bridge was far from inviting, but sure enough; it was amazing! Picture any classic small river spilling over rocks, rushing shoots and swirling in pools, add a rainforest setting and now and then a wisp of steam lifting into the tropical air and turn the water temperature up to ‘perfect bath’ and you’ve got a fair idea. For those who love their leisurely soaks it was bliss to float about, and even better to wedge ourselves under falls and get massaged by the rush.

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Done with the interior it was beach time again! First to San Jose to drop the car, catch a bus and to experience another unexpected treat. A friend of ours from uni, Raina, had lived in Costa Rica for a while, and a great friend of hers lived in San Jose and had offered us her place for dinner and a stay- what a pleasure. It was so nice to be amongst friends of friends and hang out with some people from Costa Rica who aren’t taking our orders for a change! Lorena and her family literally couldn’t have been more welcoming and we felt straight at home, had a tasty home-cooked dinner and a restful night which gave us an easy job in the morning to drop the car and hop on a 5 hr bus to the Caribbean coast!


'No, the other left!!'
‘No, the other left!!’

Although we’re a few days in, I’ll leave the Caribbean for another post- this one’s more than long enough already! Suffice to say for now, the place is amazing and we might never leave!


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