Thursday, May 9, 2013

 Our First Journey into Costa Rica

It was finally here, our exciting trip to Costa Rica. There was a lot of planning that went into this trip; with so many horses, chickens, dogs, puppies, and even our bunny Graveller to look after we had to line up friends and family to make sure the farm and animals would still be happy at home while we were soaking in some sun.

With the puppies and dogs off to Grandma’s house, and the horses, chickens, and bunny taken care of at the farm by different helpers and friends, we packed our bags and headed into work for our Friday shift. The work day seemed to drag on forever as we waited for the clock to strike 4:30pm so we could head out on our vacation.

4:30pm arrived and we eagerly headed for the car to begin our vacation. Our first stop was The Keg – a relaxing and delicious meal to send us on our way. We checked in for 1 night at the Airport Comfort Inn in Mississauga, stayed the night, and left our car there while we went to Costa Rica. This was our first time using the Park, Stay, Fly option.

The shuttle was prompt and quick and took us to Terminal 3 for our early morning 6:30am flight with American Airlines to Miami. I haven’t flown from Toronto is a couple years – we’ve been sticking to Buffalo because of the cheaper air fare and parking, but the price for flying from Toronto didn’t add much so we opted for Pearson this go round. I was a bit surprised how they’ve changed things – you don’t check your bags in at the airline desk, we had to walk them through a check point before being able to load them onto the belt to take them away.

Our flight was comfortable and arrived on time – which was really important since we only had an hour to make our way to our next flight from Miami to Liberia. We hustled our way literally from one end of the airport to other – and wow is Miami a big airport! We could have taken the sky train, but we wanted the exercise after sitting our gluteus maximus already for too many hours.

We arrived in Liberia, Costa Rica safe and sound with sunshine gleaming through the windows. We shuffled out to the luggage turnstile and waited for our bags. The airport is quite small with only 2 luggage turnstiles – the building open partially at the sides allowing the outside heat to warm the building, with gigantic fans to help swirl the air and cool us down.

The turnstile stopped and the last of the luggage was picked up, and a small group of tourists including us were left standing looking for our bags. We were informed that our bags were still in Miami – apparently our flight transfer was a little too quick! One of the other couples whose bags were left in Miami  were smart – they had packed a spare change of clothes and bathing suit in their carry ons in case this happened – lucky.
I was thankfully in sandals, but not thankfully in jeans and a black polo with no change of clothes in my carry on – what was I thinking? We were told our luggage would arrive on the next flight from Miami to Liberia which would be the next day at the same time. Then we got some good news – American Airlines would reimburse us for ‘reasonable expenses’ to buy us replacement clothes for the day. Thank goodness!

We then went through the airport exit and found our taxi cab driver with a sign with our names on it very easily as promised by the resort. We loaded into the taxi with some other people and began our journey in Costa Rica.

The drive to the resort was interesting – a lot of the roads are fairly narrow with little to no shoulder, and either no lines or very faintly painted lines. Cars seem to drive in the middle of the road and then move over when they see another car. Some of the bridges and pathways seem impossible for a vehicle to pass, but somehow the taxi van squeezed through.

We drove through an area of flat lands –sugar cane, rice fields and hay crops, some farms, and Costa Rican homes. Then we came into the hills – beautiful scenery with rolling cliffs and hills, volcanoes in the distance and many different species of birds and wildlife. Amazing.

As we approached the coast we arrived at our resort, Villas Sol, after what was about a 30 minute drive. What a beautiful view. I could not have imagined the beauty of what unfolded in front of us. The beautiful blue ocean in front of us with two picturesque rock islands  in off centre view; a splattering of quaint villas and homes lining the hills in little pockets around the coastal line; trees filled with different birds – on one we could see a group of green & yellow parrots singing to each other, another with an interesting version of the blue jay but with an adorable cow licked feather atop their heads; fresh coconuts lining the base of palm trees leading up the hill; and the sound of gentle waves crashing into the sand only a short distance away.

We were driven up the incredibly steep hill up to the main reception where we checked in – we were early (about 12:30pm) and check in wasn’t until 3pm so we weren’t able to get room keys yet. James used their phone to talk with Visa and found out that they would also reimburse us for clothes/essentials purchased up to $500 each but only purchased after 6 hrs.

We asked about shopping and decided to walk to the local shops – but first we had lunch at the a la carte restaurant, bought swim suits, sunscreen, and a dress for myself from the resort shop – we desperately needed out of our ‘airplane clothes.’

The walk to the local shops took about 10 minutes. There was one clothing/souvenir shop and one supermarket type shop with food and other essentials. We picked up some essentials like razors, deodorant, and face sunscreen from the supermarket, and then shopped in the clothing store.

We got some much needed things like towels, hats, sunglasses, t-shirts, shorts, and for me a dress. We had to wait until 5:30pm before we could pay because wanted to make sure it was 6 hrs after our flight landed so Visa would reimburse if for whatever reason American Airlines wouldn’t. Then we headed back to the resort.

We arrived back at the resort, were able to check into our room. We also found out our planned Sunday tour was cancelled because there weren’t enough people signed up (we’re traveling in low season). Instead we rebooked the tour for Tuesday and then walked down to the beach and booked a scuba diving tour for Sunday instead. We enjoyed our dinner. The restaurant was lovely with a lot of choices and a stunning view of the coast. Trees surround the resort making it a nice place to sit and watch the different birds fly about. Looking over the edge of the restaurant rail we saw some wild kittens begging for scraps – they became our friends for the rest of trip as we constantly would toss them scraps throughout our meals.

Our room was lovely with a private balcony with the same stunning view of the coast. Our bed was comfortable and the bathroom very stylish with a stone wall shower and marble counter top. The room was equipped with coffee, flat screen tv, and a little fridge and safe.

We took an evening dip in the hotel side pool, and then enjoyed our first night and woke early in the morning – our Scuba diving tour would pick us up at 8am.

We ate breakfast and then went down to the place where we were told to wait. 8:20am came around and still no one was there to pick us up, and nobody was there at the booth where booked & paid cash for the scuba diving. James decided to be resourceful and go behind the counter and find the phone that that been unplugged and put into a drawer – he plug it in and then a local from the beach came over and helped us dial Rich Coast Diving.

The local talked with the tour company for us and found out they had gone to the wrong area of the resort to pick us up, but would pay for a taxi to bring us there since we had missed our drive. We trucked our way back up the really steep hill in the hotel shuttle and waited for the taxi which came and took us to Cocoa Beach to Rich Coast Diving, a short 10 min drive away.

Luckily James had our PADI diving certification cards in with our passports – but all of our money and scuba equipment in the luggage. It wasn’t a big deal though – we were able to rent gear from the dive shop… although I was looking forward to using my 3mm wetsuit I bought for such occasions.
It was a really nice experience – the dive shop packed up and loaded up all of our gear onto the boat for us. 

We just enjoyed the walk to the beach, the small boat ride out to the larger boat, and then we sat down while they brought everything over to us all ready to put on!

Our first dive was amazing, we went down about 80 ft (we’re both advanced diving certified) and we saw white tipped sharks, sea urchins, sea horses ( sea ponies?) and many other species of fish and ocean life. What I found truly spectacular was when we came across a very large school of fish which I swam right into. I was literally surrounded by thousands of fish. Everywhere I looked was fish – grey and silver with yellow tails and flecks of brown. I floated in place with them in awe of their beauty and grace. It was a surreal experience.

Our second dive started with a bit of a scare, as we descended to about 40 ft for a shallower dive, we went through a cloud of jelly fish. I was stung right on my lips as we went down. It was painful – a sharp sting. What was scarier was that I didn’t know what to expect. I scurried back to the surface. The dive master told me the stinging would pass and these aren’t ‘serious’ jellyfish. He also told me that they stay near the surface so once we are below them we’d be okay to enjoy the ocean floor.

I went back down and toured the ocean floor. This time there some more white tipped sharks, a sea horse, and many more types of fish and ocean life. I didn’t enjoy this dive as much – more jellyfish snuck up on me, and when they did I would hide behind whatever person was in front of me.

When it came time to come back up to the surface, I started up the mooring line but then there were thousands of jelly fish and I quickly went back down the ocean floor where I was safe from the jelly fish. I started to have a bit of a panic attack and was full on crying. Eventually the dive master came back down and realized what was scaring me – he was protected with gloves and hood so he brought me to the surface protecting me. I was stung another time on my ankle, and another 2 times on my face.

When we safely were back on the boat I put vinegar on my sting sites to soothe them. Poor James was stung many times, and in the days to come his face blistered and you could clearly see where the jelly fish tentacles lashed his face. All and all it was an amazing experience and I would do it again…. I’d just hope we could drive the boat away from the jelly fish! We were told that from August – October you can see whales and dolphins including the famous whale sharks and blue whales, so I think we’ll be planning our next trip to Costa Rica during that time.

We went back to the resort for the rest of the day and played on the beach, relaxed in the arm chairs, enjoyed the pools and the food. It was a relaxing day at the resort.

Our Monday tour picked us up at 7:30am to take us on a full day tour to the Arenal Volcano and Rainforest walking tour by Swiss Travel. We were picked up by the tour company bus at our resort. They brought us to a central location where we could use the washrooms and then get onto our bus for the tour we were doing. There were several tours going out.

It was easy to find our bus because the driver was holding the sign that said ‘Arenal Volcano & Rainforest tour’. We boarded the small bus and with about 6 other couples we took off on our tour. The tour guide was very knowledgeable and told us a lot about Costa Rica.

However, within a short distance of our drive, 2 woman on the bus realized they were on the wrong tour. Instead of being polite and asking if they could get switched on the bus they completely lost it and threatened the tour guide ‘you get us on the right bus or we’ll go Jersey on your ass’ – which was completely uncalled for because the tour guide, Denis, was really a pleasant fellow. Sure enough the bus pulled over a short distance ahead and the 2 woman got off (thankfully) and 2 tourists from the other bus got on ours… they had accidentally got on the wrong bus too.

The tour started with an informative bus ride to Arenal lake, where we stopped for lunch. We had a delicious meal – my favorite part was the citrus cream cheese dessert yum J Then we took an amazing boat ride towards Arenal Volcano. The views were spectacular – a calm sprawling lake with a blue back drop of mountains and magnificent volcano appearing in the distance with birds of different species appearing amongst the beauty.

The boat ride came to an end and we boarded our bus after picking up a fresh cut coconut to drink for $1. Now I hate the coconut water from drink boxes, I think it tastes kind of gross, but this fresh coconut was very refreshing and satisfying.

Next we finished our bus ride to private property for our rainforest walk. To start with there was an amazing view of the volcano where we took some pictures. Then we started on our walk. We walked mostly on a downhill path learning about the various plants and trees.

There was a Latex tree where our guide cut into the tree and we put latex on our fingers to let it dry and see the yellow rubbery substance – very neat. We saw some different species of plants, birds, insects, and tress – including a tree that was recently filmed as part of the upcoming moving ‘After Earth’. What was really unique about the walk was that a turkey joined us for the whole walk – it was like a dog happily following us along. James fed him Gatorade as a treat – the turkey stuck with us but wouldn’t let us pet him.

Next we headed to the hot springs. This place surprised me – I was expecting it to me more rustic. Instead it was a series of tastefully designed waterfalls and pools. The hottest water started at the top pool, and as the water fell to each pool below, the water became cooler. Even the coolest spring was very warm. It was beautiful place nestled beside the volcano with a picturesque view.

Lastly we enjoyed a dinner at one of the local resorts. The table was set in the large dining room with gigantic windows that gave way to the towering volcano above. The meal was delicious too – I had the sea bass J
On the way home, in the dark, the bus driver spotted a two toed sloth hanging from the power lines so we pulled over and had a peek. Throughout the drive they pulled over whenever there was something interesting to see – we pulled over 4 times throughout the tour; once for monkeys, once for a sloth and twice for unique birds. We didn’t get back until about 9 pm.

The next day we had another tour, this time the Mega Combo. We started our day the same way, and ended up with the same bus driver for our tour, Carlos, but had Andrais for our tour guide. We boarded our bus, this time staying in Guanacaste region.

First up was the canopy tour – zip lining from tree to tree, souring through the tropical forest with spectacular mountain and volcano views. The zip-lining was fun, but also very exciting was all of the nature we saw from above – monkeys in the tree tops and many different species of birds and other wildlife. I enjoyed the tree tops of the zip lining for watching wild life more than the nature walk the previous day.

Next was the water slide through the forest – a very long walk to the top of the hill. Girls had to wear a leather diaper or a pair of shorts – luckily I had mine! Then cushioned by a rubber tube we descended down over 1000ft of water slide, it was super fun – and because it was low season and not too many people there, James and I got to do it twice!

We then enjoyed a nice buffet style lunch – I really enjoyed the cream of squash dish which we also had at the resort, among other options. Their strawberry banana juice was super delicious too.
After refueling our bodies we headed out to the horses for a ride. This was unlike any other horseback riding experience I have ever done. At Partridge Horse Hill we make sure people have had lessons and can complete a few key safety tasks before we take them trail riding. When I worked at Pleasure Valley we gave people a little mini lesson before hitting the trails – and there were rules like no passing, keep in the order we give you, etc. I’ve even trail ridden in Arizona and England and those places were similar.

In Costa Rica the riding experience was very different – the guides didn’t even speak any English. They pulled out the horses and just toss you on a horse and let go. I felt privileged that I knew what I was doing. Many other tourists were timid and just sitting on the horse awkwardly holding their reins wondering what to do. I gave some of them a few pointers.

After our whole group was on their horses, about 20 of us, our tour guide got on his horse and came to the front of the group and gave a few quick little instructions of the reins – but basically said some horses are followers and some are leaders, so your horse may go to the front or back. We then headed out to the hills – our tour guide at the front making sure nobody passed him, and one staff member riding at the back with a stick making bird noises to keep the horses moving forward.

We rode in a giant herd down some wide paths, everybody all together as a group. One grey horse tried to kick mine and nearly clipped my leg. I held my horse back with James on his for the rest of the ride to be away from the hustle and bustle and the dust. It was a bit of a gong show.
The ride had some spectacular views, and by and large the horses behaved themselves as the tourists clung to their saddles. We came to some more narrow paths and descended down some pretty steep drops, through some water and streams, and over some rocky terrain that typically I wouldn’t think suitable for beginners.

We all arrived in one piece at the hot springs where we just hopped off our horses, and let them go. We didn’t even tie the reins up – just left the reins loose over the horse’s head and the horses all walked back on a different path to the stable where food and water would be waiting for them.
The horses all rode bitless, and were skinny and fit – but not super scary skinny like some people talk about when they go riding in the tropics – these were slim and fit horses, but they didn’t look really under nourished… and we were visiting in dry season when a lot of the grasses were dead.

Our day finished in the hot springs – these were much larger springs. The pools much larger, set more in a natural setting, and we rubbed ourselves with volcanic mud before showering and enjoying the springs. It was a really relaxing experience and a fantastic way to end the tour.

We arrived back at the resort around 5pm, so we still had time to swim and enjoy dinner back at the resort. For this dinner we enjoyed the restaurant with the served dinner – something you could do for free once during the vacation. It was a really romantic dinner, overlooking the pools, with delicious food – and we got to walk away afterward without paying a penny.

Our entire trip to Costa Rica was amazing. It could have been a disaster if we let any of the hiccups get to us – having delayed luggage, bed bugs, stinging jelly fish, and cancelled tours – but instead we were resilient, flexible, and ended up having one of the best vacations of our lives…. And we can’t wait to get back to Costa Rica to continue exploring all of the amazing things it has to offer. We’re thinking we’ll go in the rainy season to see the lush forests compared to that of dry season which we visited, as well as see the whales, dolphins, and waterfalls. 

See all our photos at:

1 comment:

  1. Wow! What a great trip! I love the positive spin & the realization & acceptance that any experience includes what we have been taught is negative. It's all experience & it's all good!

    So glad you had a wonderful time & overcame the challenges positively :):):).
    I really enjoyed reading about Costa Rica.....sounds beautiful! Thanks for sharing.