Costa Rica is at its best during the dreaded rainy season
by Kaitlin McMichael
WE WERE GLAD we packed ponchos. Thunder had been rumbling in the distance while we traipsed through the muddy sludge in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest of Monteverde, deep in Costa Rica’s cloud forest. We had already been in Costa Rica for a week, in early September, known as the beginning of the rainy season. We had enjoyed great weather so far, but once we entered the cloudforest, a lush and dense tropical forest in the heart of the country, the sky would hold its breath every day, like a giant child testing his stamina, and then would burst every afternoon with an angry spray. But we kept plodding along, thinking that we had been lucky enough to fend off rain thus far, and that the vegetation was thick enough to keep us relatively dry should any rain head our way.
Two newlyweds on their honeymoon, my husband and I were traveling to Costa Rica in late August for two weeks. I was excited to speak Spanish again after working in Peru and then being back in the states again for nearly a year. My husband was excited to try the Costa Rican national drink, gua, and see a resplendent quetzal, the Costa Rica national bird. The quetzal boasts a turquoise coat that rivals a peacock’s, and a long tail that seems dipped in all the colors of the Amazon Rainforest.
The rain came swift and terrible. Within moments, absolutely everything was soaked. Still, we wanted to make our trip worth it, so we kept moving, hoping the rainfall would pass over us. We followed the stubby wooden signs for Bajo del Tigre, the Tiger’s Trail, and the rain poured even harder and the thunder rumbled in our ears.
We made it about a mile into the trek until I stopped under a tree. “I want to go back. I don’t remember what it feels like to be dry,” I said, complaining to Shaun. The water had slipped past our ponchos and had permeated all my layers.
He urged us to continue, saying that we were almost to the end of the trail and so we might as well finish it. I hunched over further in my poncho and thought, “This would never have happened if we had gone to Hawaii,” even though it very well could have, since Hawaii and Costa Rica have virtually the same climate.
Shaun was adamant about reaching the end of Bajo del Tigre, perhaps because there seemed to be a promise that we might see a real live tiger. But I couldn’t even see my feet since they were trudging through six inches of sludge. Finally, I pulled him aside and we ducked into each other’s ponchos for a conference.
“I can’t go any further,” I pleaded. “If you make me go further, you won’t be listening to your wife.” The word “wife” was still fresh for us honeymooners, holding a level of authority that had not yet been challenged. Shaun winced, and then acquiesced, not wanting to set a precedent for marital strife on Bajo del Tigre.
“Oh all right, we’ll go back,” he sighed. We hiked back to the entrance station to dry off and await our ride back into town. I pulled off my boots while sitting under the front awning, watching a miniature sapo, or frog, bounce his way under the awning.
“You want out of the rain, too, huh?” I muttered. The frog was no bigger than a grape, and his skin was bland as the dirt. The little frog and I commiserated while Shaun used his broken Spanish to call our taxi driver. When he dropped us off at the trailhead, he’d given us his number and told us he’d give us a ride back. Perhaps he knew we wouldn’t be gone long.
Once the cab arrived, the rain let up and the sun broke through the hazy clouds. I commented on the weather to the cab driver, and he said that every afternoon, rain was as certain as nightfall. But after a good rain, the sky would clear up, lightened of its load. Slowly, humidity would accumulate as tropical wind from the Caribbean and the dry wind of the Central Valley met, and then the next day, like two stubborn lovers, they would go at it again. I didn’t ask the driver why he hadn’t told us this before we went hiking in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest. The ticos don’t seem to offer more information than they’re asked.
* * *
ELSEWHERE IN COSTA RICA, the weather fared much better for us. Our first stop in Costa Rica was a the Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation & Inn. Set on an organic coffee farm just outside of the capital San Jose, Finca Rosa Blanca quickly became our favorite hotel . . . ever.
The farm’s sommelier of coffee, Leo, picked us up from the airport. Leo was friendly and unpretentious; at first, we thought we was only the driver, but the longer we talked with him, the more he revealed his expertise. He whisked us to our suite in the main house, a white adobe rotunda boasting no square corners. The curvaceous adobe walls, the cherry wood floors, exposed ceiling beams and hand painted murals marked the place as a dwelling of art and craftsmanship and a delightful berth for us on our first night in paradise. In the rooms and in the rotunda’s inner courtyard, we found miniature dolls, paintings, and carretas (painted wooden oxcarts, which are as prevalent in Costa Rica as Panama hats are in Ecuador) lining the shelves and alcoves.
We woke up to birdwatching, views of the hazy San Jose, fresh fruit smoothies, a delicious breakfast called casada with gallo pinto (rice, beans, fried plantains, and eggs) and, of course, aromatic, shade-grown coffee – all of what’s included in a fine Costa Rican welcome.
We headed over the hill from our inn to another coffee plantation called Cafe Britt, which is somewhat equivalent to the Starbucks of Latin America. This plantation grows and processes coffee from all over Costa Rica, and sells the rich-flavored beans in its gift shop, online, and to retailers around the world. We signed up for a tour of the plantation, which included coffee tastings, an explanation of the growing, drying, and processing of the beans, a quick walk through the farm and the factory, and a buffet lunch.
While waiting for the tour to start, I sat on a brightly-painted carreta in the quiet backyard behind the factory. The smell of coffee was thick and pungent, reminding me of my days as a barista in Seattle, when I would bring the coffee scent home with me even after long bike rides home. A young man in a Cafe Britt polo shirt was carrying a garden hose out to the lawn. When he saw me, he said, “Hello!” and then came over to me. “Have you seen my pets?” he asked.
“Well, no,” I said. “I don’t think so.”
“Let me show you,” he pointed to a planter a few feet away from me, where a bright green lizard with a blue tail as long as my hand was sunning himself on a rock. “It’s a male because of the blue tail. The females aren’t as colorful.”
Then he guided me over to another bush, where a large spider with a leg span about as wide as my palm was also sunning herself. “How you say? She is a thing of beauty,” he said, in his thick Costa Rican accent. He looked closely at the spider, his face only an inch or two away. “She is very shy but very affectionate,” he continued. I wondered if something had been lost in translation, but then he reached up and touched her abdomen lightly, brushing the swollen sack with his index finger, then kissed her, swiftly, so that the spider’s web oscillated in the wake of the kiss. “She is my pet.” He smiled. “Would you like to pet her?” I smiled and declined politely. I had come to taste exotic flavors, but this was perhaps too exotic for me.
* * *
EXCEPT FOR OUR BRIEF STINT in the torrent of Monteverde, we spent the rest of our vacation in tropical paradise. From the Finca Rosa Blanca, we headed to the Volcano Arenal, where we enjoyed three days of hiking through tropical rainforest and three nights looking up the nose of the most majestic volcano I had ever seen. The Arenal Volcano has been sputtering and smoldering since the 1960s, but has stopped giving fireworks in recent years. But with or without the fire and smoke, the stratovolcano juts up out of the verdant carpet and into the blue sky without hesitation.
We shared the view from our hotel with only the very bored hotel staff and a flurry of birds, including kingfishers, mot-mots (called bobos by the locals), and flycatchers. Having grown up in a land where one must litter one’s yard with Costco-sized bags of birdfeed and fend off squirrels in order to enjoy a bird or two, for us Costa Rica’s bird life was one of it’s greatest assets.
We spent a morning hiking along the old volcanic lava trails of the Arenal spill from 1968, but were unimpressed with this short hike. So we went back the next day to the Arenal Observatory Lodge, deeper in the national park this time, and walked along the property until we reached a dirt road where there stood a row of small homes, dirt bikes, and farms. Not a single person was to be found. We walked through the neighborhood, hearing a television buzzing in one of the homes, and a woman coughing. A motorbike buzzed off in the distance. We continued on, and soon found the entrance to the trail we had been hoping for: the El Chato Trail.
El Chato was Arenal’s volcanic sister many years past, but now was a crater with an intense green pool at it’s center. We hiked over slick mud, stepping on tree roots and pulling ourselves up by more tree roots We saw few sign posts, fewer people, and absolutely no wildlife. There was only trees, roots, and mud. Once at the top, we peered through the trees and haze to see a glimmer of the crater lake, but it was mostly obscured. We walked along the rim of the crater, following a footpath and hoping we wouldn’t get lost. The foliage was so thick that at times I could not see Shaun, although he was only a few feet ahead.
Finally, we reached a clearing where a few locals were resting on a park bench.
“Hello!” they said. “Have you been down to the crater?” they asked. The guys were tough, and few of them had shirts on. Their pants and sneakers were slick with the reddish-brown earth lining the crater.
“No, not yet,” we replied, still trying to catch our breath. I felt a little silly, with my REI mosquito-repellent pants, UVA and UVB protectant shirt, thick boots, pack full of birding books, maps, and binoculars.
“Why you not go see the crater? Come on, it’s beautiful!” they said in English, bounding off down to the lake.
In the late afternoon, as we descended to the other side of El Chato, the humidity picked up and we quickened our step. Green parrots squawked overhead as we entered a meadow, and then farmlands, and finally, a small hotel. We had hiked 12 miles.
I entered the hotel just as it was starting to rain, and talked to the receptionist. She asked me to sign out of the registry book, and when I said that we had never signed in, she seemed upset. We proceeded to argue in Spanish, and I explained that we had started our hike at the Arenal Observatory Lodge. She proceeded to tell me that no one hikes that far through the El Chato Trail. Because of insurance purposes, the hotels on each side of the crater require hikers to check in and check out of the same hotel’s hiker registry book. Somehow, we had missed that fact and had hiked further than anyone is allowed to on the El Chato.
We sat out on the curb, waiting for our cab to pick us up. The rain picked up before the cab did, so we pulled out our ponchos. The receptionist came outside and said, “Por favor, entrar, entrar, chicos!” We had been outside in the jungle far too long already.
* * *
FROM ARENAL, we took a Jeep-Boat-Jeep (pronounced Yeep-Boat-Yeep by our driver) combination across Lake Arenal and into Monteverde, then after a one night stay, we continued on to the dry Pacific northwest region of Guanacaste. We spent a week exploring the pristine beaches near Playa del Coco and the nearly deserted national parks of Palo Verde, Santa Rosa, and Rincon de la Vieja.
Playa del Coco is marketed as a fishing village in the guidebooks, although some books are honest enough to emphasize that the days of “fishing village” are long over. Upon arrival in this so-called quaint little seaside town, we passed more than one travel agency office, souvenir stand, and restaurants with names like Woody’s BBQ.
An expat named Ginny greeted us with a thick British accent. “Step inside, dears, and let’s get you checked in.” She asked what we thought of the town and then acted surprised when we said it looked like a tourist trap but the beach seemed nice. “Oh, is that what the tourist books are telling you these days?” she said. “Playa del Coco is a true fishing village. It’s an absolutely wonderful place to live.”
We had checked into a timeshare that was a wedding gift from a family member. A great little condo that suited our needs well, but came at the price of fending off aggressive expat real estate barons. The condo we rented had a rooftop deck that rubbed up against a forest full of green parrots and yellow flycatchers, and overlooked the real reason we were all there: the pristine Playa del Coco beach. Besides an older man who wore Hawaiian shirts and read paperback novels by the pool, we were the only tenants in the building.
The rainy season is the off season for Costa Rica, when most North Americans and Europeans stay far away from the tropics. It also meant that real estate barons were especially eager to fill up their timeshares and grow their margins.
We were treated to a breakfast by shrewd salespeople who made it seem that a free breakfast and tour of the development was a delightful perk. We sat down to a seaside breakfast one morning, and a young sales representative sat down across from us. The beach was blanketed in a quiet haze; the sand was cool under our feet. Shaun and I had gone for a walk along the beach earlier, and had seen a swarm of tiny crabs weaving in and out of their driftwood nest.
The lady wore a smart business suit, even though it was the beach and the majority of the clientele at the resort didn’t make it past polos and flip flops. We chatted about her upcoming beach wedding, and after the breakfast arrived, she set to business. Pulling out a portfolio and pen, she started asking us what our travel goals were for the next five years. Shaun and I looked at each other.
How could they expect us, 25-year-old honeymooners staying at a timeshare only because it was a wedding present, to purchase a timeshare? I thought. I had heard about timeshare sales sharks, but I had never experiences a blatant sales pitch like this.
She asked us how much we made per year, and I set down my fork and explained to the sales representative that although we appreciated the meal, we were simply in no way whatsoever interested in buying, renting, or otherwise throwing money at a condo in Costa Rica.
She caught on quickly, and just asked us to finish the tour to appease her boss. Whether by guilt of indulging in a free breakfast, or by shame that we had been so naïve as to fall into this trap, we played along. She took us on the obligatory “tour” to the head honcho, a man with broad shoulders and long sideburns who hailed from Texas and didn’t do well in the way of small talk. I felt a bit like Marlowe in Heart of Darkness going warily to see Curtz.
We entered a small living room of a luxury hilltop condo that had been converted into his makeshift office. Two ticas stood in the kitchen, looking bored. “Get me an orange juice,” the chief asked them as we entered.
He sat us down at the dining table, where he cut deals with people who had money to cut deals with – or didn’t even have the money, but were too polite or easily swayed to say no. At the time, I didn’t know that timeshares were a broken industry – that once you purchase one, you are buying something you can’t sell, you can’t get rid of, and you can’t make a profit on. But I did know that I was the closest I’ve ever felt to being interrogated and taken hostage.
“My kids have never had to stay in a hotel their whole lives,” he said to us proudly.
We nodded, as if to say, “That’s nice.”
“99% of the people who walk in the door of my office are ready to buy,” he continued.
At some point, I began to be impressed by this man’s ability to monologue, as if his sales strategy rested on the belief that the less chance that we had to talk, the less chance we had to back out of the sale.
At another point, I began to think that perhaps a timeshare would be a good idea. The thought had never occurred to me before, and I held it there in my mind but it was fleeting, as if it were a small crab on the beach that pinched when provoked.
We looked helplessly over at the sales lady, our ally in this over-the-top charade, who sat next the chief with her head lowered.
Finally, Shaun cut him off. “Look,” he said, “We’re not interested in buying or leasing a timeshare.”
“We’re not even in your target market,” I added.
“I work for a non-profit,” my husband said. “With poor people.”
There was a pause as we let that one sink in.
“You mean like with a church?” he asked. It didn’t seem to register with the man.
“The point is, we’re not interested. We just want out of here.” we said.
He looked at his sales representative, a little fluxed. “I’m not sure if I should keep going,” he said to her. “What do you think?” She shook her head no.
He let us go, but he seemed sad to do so, as if we were a painful outlier pulling down his perfect ratios.
* * *
WE WALKED AWAY from our timeshare tour fiasco a little keener about sales sharks, and a little keener to spend more time in nature and less time near people. We spent the next five days kayaking to secret beaches, watching sea turtles mating, snorkeling for sea shells, and baking our newlywed skins in the Costa Rican sun. In the evenings, we lathered up on aloe vera until the bottle ran out.
In preparation for the honeymoon, I had read about Santa Rosa National Park in the book Green Phoenix: Restoring the Tropical Forests of Guanacaste, Costa Rica, which tells the tale of an ecologist named Daniel Janzen, who has spent much of his life trying to preserve – even more, to resurrect – the dry tropical forests of the Guanacaste region.
Janzen was successful, and Green Phoenix is, in some ways, a metaphor for the broader story of Costa Rica’s recent developments in sustainable tourism. Costa Rica boasts 25% of its land dedicated to national parks and preserves, a percentage that’s higher than any other country on earth. Sustainable, environmentally-friendly practices are in vogue in Costa Rica, in part because of activists like Janzen who have worked hard to set aside and revive tropical forests.
But tourism is also a key force in Costa Rica’s modern day economy, bringing in more profit than coffee, bananas, and pineapples exports combined. The impact of tourism on Costa Rica was striking to us: unlike Peru, where I had spent many months getting to know the nuances of the Peruvian love-hate relationship with the United States, Costa Rica had embraced the American way much more readily. Here, ticos spoke nearly perfect English, even when we tried speaking Spanish first. And rental car agencies, which always seem to be named after a synonym for frugal – Dollar, Budget, Thrifty, Economy – dotted the highways near Liberia and made us feel a little closer to home.
While taking a taxi to a nearby beach, Playa Conchal, the driver took us through a deserted real estate development, a ghost town atop a hill that looked over the isthmus between Playa del Coco and Playa Conchal. “No hay nadie en el invierno,” he explained. No one is here in the winter, he said. This was the “winter” – a beautifully warm season with a touch of rain.
This was the explanation many gave us when we asked why no one else was around. Why were all the hotels nearly empty and giving us deep discounts? Why were the real estate barons eager to get us to buy? Why were the suburbs deserted, many up for sale, lease, rent – anything to get off season traffic?
Invierno, the dreaded “winter” was the answer. But other than our brief foray into the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, we hadn’t so much as seen a drop of mist. In fact, it was the sunshine that was eternal most days, and we were more than happy to be privy to this fact. Costa Rica – at least Guanacaste – is pristine during the invierno rainy season.
* * *
Santa Rosa National Park was not the green phoenix we had been hoping for, but it gave us a glimpse of a pristine Costa Rica that we would love to explore more someday.
The National Park, at least the part that is easily accessible by car, exists mostly to commemorate the battle fought here by the American filibuster William Walker, who tramped through Latin America in 1856, claiming he was in charge and shooting anyone in his way. His strange antics were only out-weirded by the acid western biopic by the name of Walker, which debuted in 1987. At the Santa Rosa La Casona ranch, a ragtag group of Costa Rican volunters ousted Walker and his crew. To this day, the La Casona hacienda is the national monument that inspires the most patriotic pride for the ticos.
Not at all like the USA’s Jefferson Memorial or Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer Statue, the La Casona ranch was a tranquil wooden fortress with a gravel parking lot, bats sleeping in the rafters, and a lone teenage girl keeping a watch out. The original hacienda had been burned by arsonists in 2001.
Perhaps because it was the wet season, we had the place to ourselves. We wandered about the hacienda and climbed the hill behind it to look out over the reserve and the distant ocean beyond, where surfers play at Witch’s Rock. All around us, capuchin monkeys danced in the trees, jumping from one to the next with little or no hesitation. Even the mother capuchins did not slow for their babies clinging to their backs. Two young researchers – perhaps Daniel Janzen fans – followed the monkeys into the forest, talking amongst themselves and scribbling furiously whenever the monkeys erupted in noise.
Santa Rosa National Park covers 122,354 acres of wild lands, including mangrove forests, savanna prairies, and oak forests. Here we saw white-tailed deer, coatimundis (like raccoons), and plenty of those white-faced monkeys. We walked along the Naked Indian loop trail, a brief 1 kilometer walk that took us past dry oaks and gumbo-limbo trees with its peeling red bark, for which the trail was named. “Sunburned gringo” trees have been suggested as a more appropriate name.
The alternative to this nature hike was a grueling 13-kilometer trek through thick forest to Playa Naranjo. This beach is accessible by 4WD vehicle, but if you get stuck, the park rangers charge you a fee to haul you out. We opted instead to finish the afternoon at another national park, Rincon de la Vieja, which we heard had some interesting fumaroles and bubbling brooks adjacent to the extinct volcano’s summit. We wished we could spend more time exploring this nature’s playground.
As we were heading back to our rental car, one capuchin emerged from some nearby treetops, bounding over to us as if to tell us we had forgotten something. We stopped under a tree as the monkey crawled along its branches until he was directly over my head. Then he leaned over and looked at me. He was about 3 yards above my head, and he seemed to be saying, “Yes, you forgot to look me in the eye.”
How to Get There:
Interbus for shared shuttle buses: San Jose – Arenal, Monteverde – Playa del Coco – San Jose
Jeep-Boat-Jeep: Arenal – Monteverde
Vamos Rental Car (4×4 with GPS) for 3 days in the Guanacaste region.
Where to Stay:
Finca Rosa Blanca, San Jose
Arenal Manoa or Arenal Observatory Lodge, La Fortuna
Si Como No, Monteverde
What to Pack:
Green Phoenix by Daniel Janzen
Costa Rica National Parks and Preserves by Joseph Franke
A good map of Costa Rica
Kaitlin McMichael owns Kate Ideas Marketing, a digital marketing consulting company. She specializes in SEO. Based in Seattle, Washington, Kaitlin is also a travel blogger and has spent time living in Peru and loves traveling around Latin America.