Archive for January, 2016
We left the Nicoya Peninsula on Sunday 24 January. The plan was to travel by ferry and bus to the town of Liberia, where we’d booked a hotel for two nights. This would enable us to do a day trip to the Rincón de Vieja national park on Monday.
However, on Saturday afternoon, while still at Playa Grande, we discovered that the national park was closed on Mondays!!! What to do? We could not postpone our visit, because of affecting subsequent arrangements. With the help of the kind hotel manager, who made several phone calls on our behalf, we investigated options. If we could get to Liberia by 7am, the hotel there would store our luggage and we could take a shuttle to the park. It meant going by taxi, so was not cheap, but there was no feasible alternative.
A fun journey
The journey from Playa Grande to Liberia takes only about an hour by taxi, but because of the driver’s other commitments, we had to leave at 4.40, which meant getting up at 4am!!! The driver had been told the previous evening where we needed to go, but seemed convinced we wanted the airport, and we had a struggle persuading him that was not the case. We explained several times what we wanted, and he then decided he was to drive us to the national park! Finally he understood, but did not know where our hotel was. He stopped and asked a local, who sent us in completely the wrong direction.
We were relieved therefore, to reach our hotel at about 6am, with time for a coffee before the shuttle arrived at 7. There were some people already on board, and we stopped to pick up another group, creating a problem – how do you fit 16 people into a 15-seater minibus? Finally we reached the park; we were given maps and a briefing, then we were free to explore. We were struck by a difference in the weather – much cooler than on the coast. And the wind was blowing a gale, which continued all day. We had never experienced anything quite like it.
Rincón de Vieja National Park
There is a hike up to the crater, but the path was closed (as often, apparently). We were not disappointed as we thought it would be too challenging for us anyway. The park also has bubbling mud pots, sulphurous vents etc, and our guidebook mentioned a 6km hike around these unusual geothermal features. We discovered that the walk is actually only 3km, and part of the path was closed, so we had to walk halfway round and then return.
The park is described as a ‘mini Yellowstone’, and ‘mini’ is certainly the operative word. There was no comparison with Yellowstone itself, or with Rotorua in New Zealand. There were only three small and not very exciting geothermal areas on our walk, which we had completed by 9.45. To fill in the rest of the day, we did a hike to a waterfall – picturesque but not spectacular. The hike took us through forest, so no views, although we did see some wildlife. On the way there we saw a group of capuchin monkeys and some large blue butterflies. On the way back Ian spotted a coral snake.
On arriving back at the entrance, we saw lots of people pointing their cameras at a tree, so we thought there must be something really exciting there. It turned out to be a white-throated magpie-jay, exactly like the ones we’d seen the previous day while having coffee!
Crossing the border
Because of our changed plans, we had a day free in Liberia. The town has no special tourist attractions, but after our very long day it was good to have time to relax. It was interesting to stroll around a ‘normal’ Costa Rican town, and we were glad to spend time by the hotel pool, and to catch up on our blog and other things.
Next day we were on the road again, continuing our journey into Nicaragua. We went by ‘international’ bus, i.e. one that travels across borders. The border crossing was nevertheless time-consuming and expensive ($8 each to leave Costa Rica, $14 each to enter Nicaragua!). We left the bus at Rivas, and went by bicycle taxi (another new experience!) to our hotel in neighbouring San Jorge. From there we could look across to the two volcanoes on Ometepe Island.
We were up early again, in order to catch the 7am ferry to Ometepe. We knew the lake could be rough, so we’d chosen the shortest crossing. But some travellers we met in Liberia told us even that could be bad, so on their advice we’d invested in sea-sickness tablets. When we boarded the ferry, we found we’d inadvertently broken another of the Schagen Laws of Travel: Do not go by boat if lifejackets are compulsory. That made us even more nervous! But maybe the tablets were effective, or maybe the lake was not as bad as usual, because although the boat tossed and turned quite a bit, we felt OK.
We landed around 8.15, and were met by a guide and driver we’d hired to take us on a day tour of the island. This started promisingly. We visited a nature reserve, where (after a belated breakfast) we walked through beautiful gardens to a lagoon and a small beach. From there we went to the El Porvenir farm, where we saw pre-Columbian petroglyphs and more gardens.
On to the Santo Domingo Beach, where we went for a walk along the sand, and had lunch. Then to the Ojo de Agua natural spring, but this was disappointing: just a swimming pool, albeit in beautiful surroundings; the water was cold and the floor was rough. We had a brief dip, but did not stay long. Our final stop was the Punta Jesus Maria, where you walk out on a narrow spit of sand and get great views of the volcanoes. We saw some fishermen returning with their catch.
We were back at Moyogalpa (the main town) just too late for 4pm ferry. So while waiting for the 5.30 we walked up the main street to the church at the top. From the boat we saw a beautiful sunset – and the water was amazingly calm!
We spent the first full week of our trip on the Nicoya Peninsula, which has (it is claimed) some of the best beaches in Costa Rica. We stayed four nights in the south and three in the north.
We stayed in Montezuma, which was partly but not entirely as we had imagined. We envisaged a small town, but Montezuma was barely a village: rather a cluster of restaurants, bars, accommodation and tour operators. It is a resort popular with hippies and backpackers: we were not the only ‘oldies’, but we certainly helped to increase the average age.
Our room was in a block, each with individual doors opening onto a garden with several multi-coloured hammocks. Beyond the garden was the Pacific. The location was good, and the room had some good points, including an unusually large fridge and (bizarrely) a very large safe. But one thing it did not have was anywhere to store clothes. Since we were going to be in the same place for four nights, Sandie was planning to unpack, but she was out of luck.
We’d chosen Montezuma for three reasons: beautiful beaches, walks to waterfalls and proximity to the Cabo Blanco natural reserve. The beaches certainly are stunning, backed by tropical forest, and we much enjoyed a walk that alternated between sandy coves and shaded tree-lined paths. The weather was very hot and the sea warm enough even for Sandie to swim. Frustratingly, however, we were strongly advised not to venture far into the water because of strong waves and dangerous riptides.
Miles of beaches, and the relatively small number of tourists meant plenty of space for all. Apart from a few surfers at the far end, we had one long beach to ourselves. Or so we thought, until Ian turned round and discovered we were being watched by a large iguana. Obligingly, it posed for photos before shambling off.
Just outside Montezuma is a series of three waterfalls. The walk to the first is easy, but the continuation path to the second is tricky, involving slippery rocks, crossing small streams and holding on to ropes. After a while, Sandie gave up, but Ian made it all the way. He did not however attempt to reach the third waterfall, which according to the guidebook is even worse!
One day we took the bus to the Cabo Blanco natural reserve. Only a small section of the park is open to the public. The main trail leads through tropical dry forest to a beach at the southern tip of the peninsula. It is graded difficult, so we were not sure we would make it, but we did, without any problems. We were disappointed, however, to see very little wildlife on our walk. We were also disappointed with the beach: the waves were so strong that Ian got knocked over twice, even though he did not venture far into the water.
The return hike was something of a struggle, due mainly to the excessive heat and humidity. We took an alternative path, and got to see (and hear) one howler monkey. We were back at the entrance station with time to spare for the 4pm bus, so relaxed for a bit – only to discover that the last bus was now at 3.20, and we could not get to the bus stop in time. Luckily we got back to Montezuma, thanks to a German family who managed to squeeze us into their car and take us to the next village, and an American couple who did a big detour in order to take us back to our accommodation.
After Montezuma, our next stop was Playa Tamarindo, further north on the Nicoya Peninsula. The direct route is not covered by public buses, as one part is a dirt road. To get there by public transport (bus and ferry) would have required an enormous detour, and the journey could not have been completed in a single day. We therefore gave in and paid for a ‘private transfer’ – on a small crowded bus. The difference between public buses and private transfers is not at all clear to us.
Playa Tamarindo is a popular holiday resort, with junk shops (sorry, souvenir shops) aplenty – a kind of Great Yarmouth with sun. It is not at all like Montezuma, and evidently attracts a more mixed clientele, families and people (not hippies) of all ages. We enjoyed strolling along the beach, and having sunset drinks, dinner and morning coffee at beach cafés. We found a convenient bank, laundry and second-hand bookstore – all very useful! But Playa Tamarindo was quite noisy, and we had decided to spend just one night there, before moving across to Playa Grande.
The contrast between Playa Tamarindo and Playa Grande – just across the estuary – could not be more marked. Playa Grande is just a scattering of small hotels, restaurants and villas, with no real centre or facilities. It does however have a long beautiful beach, good for strolling, sunbathing and dipping in the water. But not for swimming – if you went in deep enough to swim, the waves would be far too strong.
The main attractions (also accessible from Playa Tamarindo) concern wildlife. On our first night we went on a ‘turtle tour’, which involved driving over very rough roads to a remote beach, and then climbing over a headland (great fun in the dark!) to another beach. Many turtles, including the endangered leatherback turtles, come ashore at Playa Grande to lay their eggs. We did not get to see any leatherbacks, but we did see three other turtles: one returning to the sea, one moving up the beach, and one actually laying eggs. A government naturalist had set up a small red light, which enabled tourists – sitting in total silence and darkness – to watch the turtle digging her nest and then laying her eggs. It was a magical experience! Afterwards a brighter light was switched on, we were allowed to take photos and the eggs were removed for safekeeping.
Early the following morning we did an estuary tour by boat. We saw two small crocodiles, an iguana and several birds. Then we left the boat and did a short walk through the trees to see some howler monkeys. Later we went for a walk along the beach, and on our way back stopped at a hotel for coffee. We sat on an open balcony surrounded by trees; there we saw a large iguana and some beautiful birds which came very close to us. We have since identified them as white-throated magpie-jays.
It seems it is unnecessary to go on wildlife tours in Costa Rica – the wildlife will come to you!
After Claire & co left, we had a week before our next visitors arrived. We were out most evenings. There were two events at the clubhouse: a New Year barbecue and the AGM of the Condo Association. We went to our first meeting of the Dutch Society. We went to an NT-Live screening of the Beaux’ Stratagem at the beautiful Historic Asolo Theatre; the next night (for something completely different!) we saw the film The Martian at the Parkway Cinema.
Apart from some shopping trips, and a visit to the pool when the weather improved, we didn’t go out much during the day, as we had a lot of things to catch up on at home. As well as reorganising the condo, we spent a lot of time planning and making arrangements for future travel. First off in 2016 was the trip to Central America which we originally planned to do last year, before Ian’s work necessitated an unexpected return to England. We’d arranged that a Canadian couple, friends of friends, would stay in our condo while we were gone.
Ralph and Kitty from Toronto were due to arrive on January 12, and spend two days with us before our departure on the 14th. Their plane was due to land about 7pm, but there was a lengthy delay, and they did not land until midnight. It was nearly 1am when they reached the condo, and 2am when we went to bed!
The next day Ian took Kitty and Ralph to collect a rental car. They had to unpack and settle in; we had to do our packing, return books to the library and prepare for our departure. But it gave us a valuable opportunity to get to know our new friends.
On Thursday 14th we drove across to Fort Lauderdale, and stayed overnight in a motel near the airport. We headed downtown to find somewhere to eat, and by chance happened on a busy and very pleasant street with lots of restaurants, including a creperie where we had a very enjoyable dinner. Next morning we handed back our rental car and flew to San José, the capital of Costa Rica.
In San José
In San José it was delightfully warm and sunny – a contrast after the relatively cool recent weather in Florida, and the rain in Fort Lauderdale the morning we left. We stayed two nights in a cheap hotel near the city centre. It appeared from guidebooks we’d consulted that the main points of interest in San José were museums, and the Schagen Laws of Travel state that we visit museums only when it is raining – otherwise we prefer to be outdoors. Still, we thought it would be worth a couple of days to get our bearings, collect maps, get information about buses etc.
The guidebooks proved to be pretty accurate, but we broke Schagens’ Law by visiting the Museum of Pre-Colombian Gold, which was quite interesting. We also took a tour of the National Theatre – ditto. We paid brief visits to the cathedral and the Central Market, and filled in the rest of the time by strolling around the parks and shopping streets, and by sampling various restaurants, cafés and bars. (Well, it was hot, so we needed drinks, didn’t we?)
On the road again
After San José our next destination was Montezuma, on the Nicoya Peninsula. This involved our first long-distance bus journey in Central America – six hours in total, but including a ferry crossing of 70 minutes. This provided a useful opportunity to use the toilets (there were none on the bus!), get drinks and stretch our legs. The timing was perfect too: we were on the 5pm ferry, and that meant we were able to watch a glorious sunset over the Gulf of Nicoya.
We usually spend Christmas and the New Year in the UK, but this year Claire was able to have leave from work, so instead she joined us in Florida, along with Charlie, Oscar and Maggi (Ian’s sister). On Tuesday 22 December we drove to Tampa airport to meet them. While there we returned the small car that we’d been using since our arrival in Florida, and picked up a large 7-seater (known in the US as a minivan). It was almost new, very smart and had plenty of room for the six of us.
We enjoyed showing the family around the Sarasota area. December was unusually hot (high 20s C most of the time) so we spent quite a lot of time at one of the nearby beaches, or relaxing at the Central Park pool. Charlie improved his swimming skills, and Oscar became increasingly confident in the water.
One morning we went to the Ringling estate, where Ian and Maggi visited the art gallery. We all enjoyed the beautiful grounds and the boys had fun on the playground, and swinging through the trees. Another day we went to Myakka River State Park, where we did an airboat trip and saw several alligators, one quite close up.
Two evenings were particularly memorable. The day after Claire & co arrived, we went on a boat trip around Sarasota Bay; unfortunately the sunset was disappointing, but we had drinks, listened to Christmas music and admired the beautiful houses we passed. Another evening we went to the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, for their annual ‘Lights in Bloom’. The illuminations were stunning, and there was a really magical atmosphere as we strolled around the gardens or sat with a drink at the outdoor café.
Our major trips were to Disneyworld: the Magic Kingdom on Christmas Day and Epcot on New Year’s Eve. Christmas is a popular time at Disney, and the parks were not surprisingly crowded. Opening hours were 8am to 1am, and to ensure entry (and to make the most of our time there) we needed to arrive early. The drive from Sarasota takes about 1 hour 45 mins, so we left just after 5am on Christmas Day. We were parked at Disney by 7, so after taking the tram to the ticket center, buying our tickets and taking the ferry across the lake, we were ready to go in as soon as the park opened, and managed to sample a few rides before the queues became impossibly long. We arrived home at 3.30am on Boxing Day!
New Year’s Eve followed similar pattern. Although it is possible to park outside Epcot itself, we left only slightly later that morning (about 5.15). We were glad we did so, because entry to the park was allowed before 8am, and one of the most popular rides (Soarin’) had already begun operating by 7.30. We were able to go on almost straightaway, whereas later in the day the queue extended to 3-4 hours. We followed the ‘Schagen tradition’ of celebrating the new year at 7pm, with drinks at the British pub: not in the pub (no space at all) but sitting on a pavement outside. Of course, we celebrated again at midnight, while watching the fireworks with ‘champagne’ in hand. Getting out of the car park that night was complete chaos, and took over an hour. As a result, we arrived home at 4.30 am, almost 24 hours after leaving!
A cool new year
As December 2015 became January 2016, the weather in Florida became decidedly cooler, and there was some rain, which meant us spending more time indoors. On New Year’s Day, however, we managed to have dinner at the café on Manatee Beach, and Oscar joined in the drum circle which takes place at sunset.
We spent Saturday morning playing Monopoly, which Charlie now loves – the game lasted three hours! In the afternoon we left Claire and Maggi at a shopping mall, and took the boys to see The Peanuts Movie. Next day all of us went to a different cinema, to see the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens. Ian is a real fan, and had shown the earlier films (on DVD) to the boys, so they were all waiting for the opportunity to see the new one.
On Monday the weather was bright and sunny again, though still quite cool. At Charlie’s request we played crazy golf in the morning, then went down to Venice for lunch, shopping and afternoon drinks, and finally to St Armand’s Circle for dinner at an Italian restaurant. And that was the end of the family holiday: on Tuesday we drove them all back to Tampa for their flight to London. We also swapped the minivan for another small car!