Costa Rica: on (and off) the beaten track

3rd – 8th July: Nicaragua was wonderful: so beautiful, so friendly, (so hot!) However, the time had come to move on towards country number eight: Costa Rica.

On the 6.30am ferry from Ometepe back to the mainland. Munching egg sandwiches, on a boat watching the volcano recede into the distance - bliss!

More revolting soup options. We were puzzled as to what 'sopa de viagra' could really be. However as 'huevos de toro' was also on the menu, which we could only assume to be bull's balls, we gave this particular eatery a wide berth.

There is a relatively large wind farm along the south-eastern edge of Lake Nicaragua. Winds across the lake are often pretty strong, due in part to the fact that it is only 25 metres deep on average. There was only a light breeze as we passed beneath the lazily swooshing blades.

And so, to Costa Rica

This scrubby sign was all that 'welcomed' us across the border into Costa Rica - home of luxury tourism and glamourous living...hmmm

Costa Rica was immediately a massive culture shock – much more traffic, much more expensive and much more like the States with big shopping malls and chain stores. Plus, everyone speaks English to us. It’s taking a bit of getting used to.

We made a beeline for the beach. It took us a few days to get there, but the ocean kept popping up over the mountains to spur us on.

Gratuitous sunset shot over the Pacific, La Cruz

Arrival at the beach just in time for sunset - Playa Panama

We camped at Playa Panama, a few hundred metres from a huge, tacky hotel/resort complex. Sunset over, we were settling down in the dark to our meal of pasta, tuna and carrots (gourmet cuisine!) when a loud thump on the ground behind made us jump. Whirling around we were just in time to see a large lizard running straight for us on hind legs, tail flailing wildly behind him.

Leaping out of the way to let him pass, we were startled to discover that the lizard was not all that had fallen out of the tree. Not five metres from where we stood enjoying supper, there in the sand, slowly writhing was a large snake.

This was just about enough to induce the onset of panic. Costa Rica is home to many types of snake, not least the highly venomous fer-de-lance, known for its propensity to attack. Wonderful.

As the snake nonchalantly began to coil its way back up the tree from whence it came it was cold comfort to us that a two metre long (potentially poisonous) reptile was hanging out in the canopy above our heads, rather than by our feet. Hurriedly packing away our things and struggling to finish the pasta, every so often we would check the whereabouts of the snake with our headtorches. Two bright, beady eyes reflected back at us from the branches. We considered moving the tent, but were fearful of disturbing more wildlife and so elected to stay put.

Initial shock over we discussed what the lizard and the snake were doing up there to fall so suddenly out of the tree. It seems certain that one was trying to finish off the other, but which way round? Whatever was going on up in the canopy, we thought ourselves very lucky that the couple hadn’t fallen a few metres to the right. We might have ended up with snake in our pasta. Eugh – the stuff of nightmares.

There was little sleep to be had that night, inside our sauna-like tent. What’s more the beach was crawling with very noisy orange crabs. Every time one came close I was convinced it was the snake slithering around…

After Playa Panama we decided to follow the coast. Here we had a choice – take the main, paved highway with the rest of the tourist traffic or get off the beaten track and take dirt roads for a bit. In an effort to flee from 4x4s and hotel mini-vans we plumped for the off-road option.

Now, dirt road cycle touring really isn’t my thing. My bike’s not really suited to it and bouncing along rutted, washboard terrain without suspension can be pretty uncomfortable. On a hard leather Brooks saddle without padded shorts I feel every bump jarring into my posterior. Not fun.

Apprehensively, then, I set off on the track to Potrero. By my reckoning it was a pretty gnarly stretch – steep, rutted and quite stony. But, to my surprise, it was a lot of fun. Being away from the angry screech of constant traffic was calming and relaxing. There was more shade as the jungle encroached on the road, and plenty of nice spots to stop and rest (difficult to find on a highway).

I even enjoyed walking up (and down) the very steep bits. It was more interesting, and more of a challenge, than on the tarmac. Although it took us an inordinately long time to cover around 12 miles it was a welcome break from slogging along meltingly hot asphalt. Maybe I’m having a seachange, and dirt road discovery will be on the menu a bit more often from now on.

Crossing one of many streams along the dirt road to Potrero

Hi-ho, hi-ho, up the hill we go...

And another one

Tranquility itself.

To resort central on Playa Flamingo. It's really sad how built up the coast is. Monstrous hotels (many of which stand empty and eerily deserted) cover the hillsides and rear their ugly heads at you around the headlands. After two hours of peace and quiet on the dirt track through a nature reserve we hit tourist world with a jolt.

Ignoring the hideous hotels, we stopped for a lunchtime frolic in the waves of Playa Flamingo. Here's Ned body boarding.

Ending the day on Tamarindo Beach (also known as Tama-gringo for the sheer volume of surfers and tourists here). It is pretty nice though, and where they are surfers there is reasonably priced accommodation - a welcome discovery after our snake experience.

Surf's up!

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