Gallo Pinto, a great way to start the day.

Gallo PintoIt is a typical morning in Costa Rica, and my lovely bride is craving a “Tipical” breakfast.

Costa Rica has always been an agricultural economy.  Even though tourism is now the #1 industry, many folks still work close to the land.  This hearty meal is just the ticket to “fuel the furnace” for another active day.  Tipical breakfasts include eggs, delicious local cheese, plantains, tortillas and Gallo Pinto.   Of course, a cup or two of excellent local coffee completes the equation.

Gallo Pinto is the national dish of Costa Rica.  The main ingredients are black beans and rice.  Recipes vary, but most cooks add onions, bell pepper, and cilantro, all fried together in a little oil.  During the cooking process, the rice takes on the color of the beans.  This gives the dish a speckled appearance, hence the name, Gallo Pinto.  Or “Speckled Rooster” in Spanish.

Gallo Pinto is omnipresent and served in virtually every restaurant in the country, from the fanciest hotel to the Burger King at the airport.  If breakfast is served, you can bet that Gallo Pinto is on the menu.

There are slight variants around the country, where local ingredients find their way into the dish.  In Guanacaste, it is not unusual to find hot peppers.  On the Caribbean side, we were surprised to find some shredded coconut.  There is always another local favorite on the table too.  No dining table in Costa Rica is complete without a bottle of Salsa Lizano.  This mildly spicy condiment adds extra zip to Gallo Pinto, and almost everything else consumed here!

Here kitty, kitty, kitty….

Okay.  I will admit it.  My wife and I are into cats.  Big ones or little ones, it doesn’t matter.  We have four in our house, and one in my office.  We have a small colony of ferals that we feed in the yard.  I have a cat in my lap as I write this.  We haven’t quite reached the level of “crazy cat people” yet.  But that is a line that we are well aware of, and we try our best not to step over to the other side. 

We like dogs too, but we don’t own any.  We have always had fun with our neighbor’s dog in Monteverde.  She is a bouncy golden short hair lab.  She comes to visit, and hang out in our kitchen.  When Melissa is cooking, “Lady” will beg for a taste.  Or she will keep me company while I handle minor repairs outside.  She has always been part of our Monteverde experience.  Just a big old sweet dog. 

During one trip, we didn’t see Lady at all.  We heard her barking a couple of times, but she never stopped by.  One night, we were coming in from dinner with friends.  We have some small lights along the walkway from the driveway.  When we flipped them on, we saw Lady lying in the shadows near the forest.  Melissa started to talk softly to her, and walked over to give her a little scratch.  She got about fifteen feet away when Lady raised her head and looked at her.  Then she got up, and walked into the woods. 

Melissa called to her, and then came back to where I was standing.  She was puzzled as to why Lady was being so standoffish.  After all, she was very friendly and usually glad to see us.  But we also noticed something.  Lady didn’t “bounce” away like a Lab.  She slunk away.  Like a big cat.  A really big cat.  I felt a chill, and we hurried inside. 

Our friend Holger stopped by for coffee the next morning.  He is also our sometime carpenter and a guide in one of the local reserves.  We told him our story, and together we walked over to the area of the yard where “Lady” had been.  Puma tracks were everywhere.  Holger had no doubt at all.  We went down to the road, and found more prints high in the soft earthen berm where it had crossed over.  Yep.  My bride had tried to pet a mountain lion! 

This is a very rare sighting in Monteverde.  The woods are dense enough to support some other big cats.  One night, we heard the sound of a large “something” that sounded like a child screaming in pain.  Friends said that this was probably a large cat.  We didn’t see it.  To be honest, we didn’t want to look for it.  It was a little spooky!  We have also encountered a Jaguarundi on the bridges at Selvatura.  This is a much smaller, kinda ugly cat that has an almost weasel like look.

But we had never seen something this big.  A large predator like this needs a lot of territory.  Over the last few years, the local conservation groups have been buying up land to protect existing “biological corridors” and create new ones.  They do this so that animals can move around, and keep the gene pools diverse.  If they are confined to a small area, in-breeding will eventually doom an isolated population.  Holger speculated that our visitor might have been a young male passing through, looking for love.  There had been a strong cat urine odor outside the evening before.  I had just assumed it was a local tom marking his territory.  Now, I am not so sure. 

We visited our neighbors.  We wanted to let them know what we had seen, and to make sure they kept Lady in for a day or two.  They were understandably a little skeptical.  Their daughter said that she wished she could have seen it.  She had never seen a big wild cat before.  We were very glad that our friend Holger stopped by, and was able to verify our sighting.  We were not just dumb gringos mistaking something else for a big cat.  This was the real deal.  And now Melissa has a great story to tell.  The night she tried to pet the lion!  

I think she is taking this whole cat thing to the extreme.

Get out if You Can! and other favorite Quepos restaurants

I had an office in Quepos / Manuel Antonio for almost two years.  I would visit at least once a month, usually for a week or so.  Sometimes with my missus, often without.  I ate everywhere.  The worst meal I ever had was at the “Mexican” restaurant downtown.  The most reasonable was excellent ceviche at the bus station / market for under three bucks.  This posting is devoted to three of my favorite restaurants, and the ones that I visit again and again. 

Michael&MarcelaSalsiOne of the most fun nights you can have here, is a visit to “Salsipuedes.”  This loosely translates as “get out if you can”.  I have to admit that there have been times when we were having so much fun that it was hard to get out!  

The people responsible for all these good times are the young couple who own and run the place.  Mike is Costa Rican, and from this area.  His dad had a commercial fishing concession in the area, and Mike grew up around fish.  This has served him well in his career as a restaurant owner.  His girlfriend and partner is a lovely Argentine gal named Marsala.  This is a happy and fun couple.  Their personalities and positive attitudes only adds to the welcoming atmosphere.  Their English is perfect (Mike went to school in the US), and they are hands on owners.  Mike runs the bar, and makes sure that everyone has a good time and meets the other patrons.  Marsala runs the dining room, and is usually the first person to greet you when you enter. 

The setting is unusual.  The building was Mike’s childhood home, and it commands a great view of the ocean sunsets.  To take full advantage of this fabulous view, Mike removed the entire front wall of the house.  The end result is a basically a huge covered deck.  This is the perfect setting to enjoy their “tapas”, or what we have been calling “small plates” in the US.  This place is a great value.  Nothing is over about three or four dollars, and three plates can usually more than satisfy a hungry adult. 

They make some terrific ceviche, and the tuna can’t be beat.  I usually over order, and get first four items on the menu.  These are the ceviche, the tuna sashimi with wasabi and ginger, the seared tuna, and the spicy tuna picante.  Can you tell I like tuna? 

Much more upscale and romantic is the restaurant at Hotel Makanda by the Sea, The Sunspot Grill.  This is where I go with my wife for a special meal.  It is a little pricey by local standards, but a very good value for tourists seeking great food in a beautiful setting.  The dining area is composed of colorful “tents” scattered around one end of the infinity pool.  These are actually metal forms stretched with brightly colored fabric.  

On a recent visit I feasted on a perfectly grilled tuna steak that was literally two inches thick.  It was complimented with prosciutto wrapped asparagus and a very interesting fresh salad.  Most items here are done on the grill.  Since we are on the coast, the menu is dominated by fresh seafood.  You will find fresh fish, lobster, huge shrimp, and of course my favorite, tuna!  There is also a respectable wine list, featuring a variety of Chiliean and Argentine wines that are popular in Costa Rica.  All is served up by a happy, professional staff.

Another favorite casual restaurant is at Hotel Plinio.  This is an old standard, and I have been coming here since my first visit to Costa Rica twenty years ago.  The original owner was a Tico.  This was before the big tourism boom.  This area was a little plantation backwater, and had a little bit of a wild west atmosphere.  The story goes that Plinio did not like tourists very much, and kept a gun behind the bar.  He would shoot it into the air when obvious tourists pulled up.  It usually did the trick.  He sold the bar and hotel to new owners, well before I ever even dreamed of visiting Costa Rica.

Hotel Plinio is much more welcoming now.  Like so many restaurants here, it is open air.  There is a very friendly bar with five or six seats.  There really isn’t much of a view.  So the owners have planted huge elephant ears, that reach all the way up to the second floor.  So the setting here is kind of like eating in a tree house.  They offer the most varied menu in the area.  Steaks, pasta, seafood, pizza, even Vietnamese dipping rolls!  The previous owner was German, as are the current ones.  So the kitchen staff can even turn out some pretty delicious German specialties.  All of the dishes are well prepared, and the prices are very reasonable.  They bake their own bread too. 

Because of the varied menu, I often recommend Plinio to families.  The kids can get a pizza fix, and mom and dad can get some more interesting food.  That is not saying that the pizza isn’t good, because it is!  There is something here for everyone, and I can honestly say that I have never been served a bad meal. 

I first visited Costa Rica almost two decades ago.  The food choices then seemed to be beans and rice with chicken, rice and beans with beef, or beans and rice with fish.  But the restaurant community has matured to the point, that even the most dedicated foodie will find something to love.  You will certainly find this to be true in the Quepos / Manuel Antonio area.  Buen Provecho!

Rincon de la Vieja: Geysers, Mud Pits, and Horses

We had always wanted to visit here. The Rincon de la Vieja is a compound volcano, kind of a small version of Yellowstone. There are nine craters, with some oddly shaped peaks, geysers, mud pits, hot springs, and cold waterfalls. It sounded like nothing I had ever seen in Costa Rica, and we found that to be true. 

This is an area that is not promoted very much in the US. This seems to be because the couple of hotels that have been there for awhile are European owned, and they have been promoting to their home markets. Also, until recently the road has not been very good. My wife and I made an attempt a few years ago in a Toyota Corolla. We had to give up, the road was too bad. But now ICE (the national power company) is building a geothermal power plant in the area, and has improved the road. 

We had the opportunity to inspect three hotels, all completely different. 

First up was the hotel we stayed at, the Rincon de La Vieja Lodge. This is a diamond in the rough. It is very rustic, and not without a couple of problems. But the staff is very sweet and the new manager is trying to put it into shape. If you are a serious hiker on a budget, and want to stay close to the entrance to the National Park, then this would be a good choice. 

The standard rooms were small, but looked comfortable. The log cabin bungalows are a legitimate bargain at only $80.00 per night, including tax and breakfast. Ours had a view of one of four ponds on the property, and you could hear the small river rushing behind our unit. There were small porches front and back. They are better than most rustic accommodations, but it would be easy to make a few improvements. The shower was serviceable, but not attractive. The bathroom needed a countertop and better light. Small complaints, I know. But easy to fix and would have made the unit much nicer. They also turn the electricity off after 10:30 PM, but I was told that this was being remedied soon. 

The restaurant serves typical food at a reasonable price. I had a steak that was pretty good, and my wife had a chicken and mushroom dish that she enjoyed as well. There are no menus and the staff speaks very little English. We speak enough Spanish that we were fine. But we could hear confusion around us as those less fluent tried to muddle through. 

The new manager is still working on implementing some new tours. So there was not a lot to choose from. We took a very nice horseback ride to the hotel’s own natural hot springs, and to a beautiful mirador (scenic overlook). We did not have enough time to take a whole day ride back to a beautiful waterfall and cold swimming hole in the national park that looked very inviting. There is also a good network of hiking trails within the national park. The hotel has its own canopy (zip line) tour. 

One intriguing activity was an overnight canopy tour. About halfway through, there is a platform with a tent. The guides leave the guest with coffee and chocolate for the morning. You then finish the canopy tour in the morning, and go to breakfast at the lodge. 

I forgot to ask what they offer for overnight bathroom facilities! But it sounded like it could be fun and romantic. 

So the short review on this property is that it is good for someone on a budget, and may be the best choice for the serious hiker. It is lacking attention to details, but my hope is that the new management is able to whip it into shape. The reasons to stay here are the price, access to the park, and the fact that it is located in an absolutely beautiful setting. 

borinquen hotelThe other end of the scale was the Hotel Borinquen. For those in the $300 per night range, this place will knock you out. The rooms are beautiful and fully appointed. Great for a getaway or honeymoon. They have bubbling mud pits on site. Their sauna is actually built over one. There is a wooden slatted floor, and the steam comes up through the floor. Their spa appeared to be first rate with beautiful views into the forest. This is also built over a rushing river, that I am sure would be great background white noise to listen to during a massage. They offer different treatments with the volcanic mud. There is a very nice pool, too. The hotel offers a full compliment of hikes and horseback tours into the park. They also offered “ATV safaris” and have a pretty decent canopy tour onsite. I was only able to glance at a menu (there are two restaurants), but it looked like the chef is creative, and there were some interesting options. 

Strangely enough, their hot springs were not anything special. There were just a couple of circular pools maybe 12 feet in diameter. I was surprised that such an upscale place that had done everything so right did so little with such an attractive asset. 

The short review on this property is that those with the higher budget will like this place. Great for honeymooners. Anyone that wants to see the hot springs and mud pits, but does not want to rough it, will be very comfortable. You will also have the opportunity to be one of a few North Americans that have even heard of this place! 

In between, there is the Hacienda Guachipelin. This was a pleasant surprise. It has zero curb appeal, we drove past it on the way to the Rincon de la Vieja Lodge. We were not impressed, and kept going. On the way back from the Lodge, we drove past the back of the hotel and glanced into the area where the rooms were located and saw a beautiful lawn surrounded by attractive low buildings. So we thought we would check it out. 

This was a genuine find. The rates are very reasonable with standards going for around $80.00 per night, plus tax. The superiors are larger and only about ten bucks more. No TV, no phones, no a/c, no problem! The rooms were very clean and nicely appointed. We happened to be here for lunch. We did not stick around to eat, but I did check out the buffet. It looked very good for the price ($12.00). Fresh salads and veggies, the usual choices of chicken, pork and “tipical” Costa Rica dishes. 

waterfall

The nature is the attraction here. They offer a full compliment of tours. One of the more interesting to me was the whitewater tubing. Helmet and life jacket while floating on a tube. It looked like big fun. Like the other properties in the area, they offer horseback rides (they have their own horses) and hiking into the park. They also have a canopy tour. Some of these can be combined, and they had a canopy / rappelling tour that looked pretty neat.  Funny thing was that after we returned home, we caught an episode of Samantha Brown’s show on the Travel Channel.  She was doing the white water tubing and rappelling tour.  She liked it! 

They do some things with horseback riding to the mud baths too. They have a spa, but it is located offsite. So we did not have a chance to inspect it, but the pictures looked good. 

We found that this hotel was a great mix of comfort and activities at a reasonable price. It will probably be the one I recommend the most to my clients. 

We only had time to fully inspect three hotels. I heard good things about the Buena Vista Lodge as well. I guess we just have to go back!

Italian Sophistication on a Costa Rican beach

Our first impression of Hotel Tropico Latino was a little misleading.  We arrived after dark, and all we could see was a small parking lot and a small guard hut.  The guard directed me down a dimly lit gravel pathway.  I really did not know what to expect, and have to admit that I was wondering what I was getting into.  I needn’t have worried.  As my eyes adjusted to the light, I realized that this was actually a very nice tropical garden.  Along one side, there were small bungalows with porches and hammocks.  I came to a clearing and there was the open air bar and restaurant.  I could hear the pounding surf and soft Latin jazz.  Reception was closed, but they were expecting us.  The very personable young Argentine woman behind the bar had our room key, and checked us in with no fuss or ceremony.  We dumped our bags, and returned to the bar for drinks and dinner. 

Hotel Tropico Latino restaurantOver the next couple of days, we grew to love this place.  The hotel is Italian owned, and the  bar/restaurant staff are almost all either Italian or from Argentina. Fun group, and amazing food. The chef is from Florence, and really knows his stuff. He had owned a restaurant in the area, and the owner persuaded him to move it to this hotel. Sure, it was a little pricey by Tico standards.  But it was a very good value by US standards, and we felt as if we had been transported to Italy. Fresh seafood was the specialty, and all was prepared in a very imaginative fashion.

We ate here that first night.  It had been a long travel day, and we were ready for a little spoiling.  We were totally blown away.  This was my bride’s birthday trip.  Before we left on our trip, she told me that all she wanted was a lobster while we were at the beach.  As good as the food was, I noted that there was no lobster on the menu.  My plan was to find a restaurant that would be able to satisfy her request.  But the next day, my wife told me that she loved the restaurant.  She didn’t care about the lobster anymore.  She wanted to eat there again! 

So I made a point to find the chef when she wasn’t around, and ask him about surprising her with a lobster. He was a very nice younger guy and obviously passionate about food.  It was Sunday, and early afternoon before I found him. He was excited about a surprise, and promised to do what he could.

When we arrived for dinner, I was informed that they were not able to find a lobster on such short notice. But I was told by the bartender that the chef had spent the better part of the afternoon calling fisherman, and trying to locate the owner of the (closed on Sunday) fish market. I was very appreciative for the effort, and his kindness left an impression. Dinner still rocked, and we were quite happy.

We stayed in a Garden Bungalow. Not right on the beach, but less than a hundred feet away. They offer beach front bungalows too, for a little more. These have nice little ocean view porches. But the Garden Bungalows were bigger, and we liked the extra space. All rooms have a fridge and a microwave. Our room had two huge king beds, and the best A/C I have ever had in Costa Rica. It was needed too, this area is hot!

The hotel also offers a two bedroom beach house, and a huge house that sleeps a large group (12?). It is big enough that it can be split into separate units.

The only knock on this hotel is the very expensive breakfast. It seems like a different crew is in the kitchen during breakfast. It was more expensive than what I paid in Manhattan! I am not kidding. I know that hotel breakfasts are sometimes expensive in Europe. Maybe that is what the owner is thinking here. But another guest clued us in, and told us about a cheap breakfast spot across the street. That seems to be the way to go. All in all, I didn’t let this one little bump in the road change my opinion of the hotel. I thought everything else was a great value, and we are counting the days to our next visit.

Monteverde restaurants

On a recent visit to Monteverde, we spent our last evening in Monteverde at Johnny’s Pizza.  This is one of our favorite spots, though the name is a little misleading. Sure, I have had some good pizzas there, and my wife tells me that they have the best vegetarian pizza that she has ever eaten. But they make some other very interesting dishes as well.

For starters, we shared a huge stuffed tomato with red sauce for an appetizer. I know that doesn’t sound that interesting, but you will just have to trust me on this. They also do a baked mushroom au gratin appetizer that is really good too. My favorite entree is the baked penne pasta. They have a wood fired oven. The pasta and sauce is baked in a metal bowl, the top is smothered with cheese that melts into the dish. It is already good, but the secret here is that if you ask, they will let you add some pizza ingredients. So I usually add fresh tomatoes, olives, some kind of meat, etc. Beats the heck out of rice and beans! 

We also found something totally unexpected for this area. There is a new restaurant in downtown Santa Elena, the small town that is the home to most of the local businesses in the Monteverde area.  “Trio” shares the same building with the supermarket. You have to look a little to find it. It is at the end of the parking lot, and not where you would expect an upscale restaurant to be. It was my wife’s birthday, and Susanna (the owner of Arco Iris Lodge) had made a passing reference to a delicious passion fruit mojito. It intrigued us, so we thought we would check it out. 

We walked in and were a little confused. This place looked like something you would find in a modern European city. Very urban and hip. Gray walls and lots of metal or black accents. There were free form lamps, and hardwood floors. The wait staff was wearing the obligatory black, and fusion jazz played softly. Not at all what I thought I would find in our little Quaker / Tico / farm town! 

But we figured we would take a shot. After all, there were passion fruit mojitos and we were not going to be denied! The food was actually very good, and they had some interesting twists on the usual fare. One was hamburgers with figs and sun dried tomatoes and some interesting toppings that escape me now. I love ceviche, and theirs was made with the usual sea bass, peppers, lime juice, and so on. But they included coconut milk, and some other surprises that really made it sing. They also offered a “tower” of tomato, avocado, and palmito. Everything was well presented. The prices were high by Costa Rica standards, but much cheaper than you would pay for similar fare in a similar setting in the US. 

While the appearance of this place was much hipper than I will ever be, in the end it was still a little slice of Costa Rica. Ticos and Ticas can’t hide behind a facade of sophistication for long. They will never be disinterested urbanites, no matter how trendy the setting. When the waitress heard that it was my bride’s birthday, she was excited and as sweet as could be. After dinner, she surprised us with a dessert and candles. The bartender was friendly and accommodating. He remembered us, and we were warmly welcomed when we stopped by a couple of days later for lunch. And yes, the mojitos were excellent!

Choosing a reputable rental car company

In all my years packaging Costa Rica, the single greatest challenge has always been rental cars. Companies come and go. Less reputable companies run damage scams. Some overbook. Others do not have replacement vehicles if there is a problem, or offer proper support.  Some just have old beat up cars. 

How new are these vehicles? The roads can be tough on rental cars to begin with, and customers tend to drive them harder than they would a vehicle they actually own. Rental cars have a short shelf life.  This is important.  The better rental car companies tend to buy brand new vehicles, and turn them over before they put too many miles on them.  Turnover like this is expensive. 

The cars are sold at auction, often to other rental car companies.  So a car that one company deemed to old for their customers becomes the newest car on the lot at another company.  This is something to consider if two companies are offering what appears to be the same model and the same year at vastly different prices. 

How many offices does the company have? If you break down in the boonies, is there support close by? What if you break down at night, will someone answer the phone? 

Are you going to have a problem with false damage claims? Other than the company’s own testimonials, what kind of references do they have? It is difficult to challenge a foreign credit card charge. What recourse do you have if there is a problem?  

Will they accept any credit card coverage that your credit card offers?  There is a government mandated liability insurance that you must buy.  But sometimes you can waive the comprehensive coverage if this is offered by your credit card company. 

A good rental car is essential for a positive travel experience. Look at it this way:  A family spends $2000.00 on airfare. Say you spend another $1500.00 on hotels and tours. This means you are paying well over $500.00 a day to be there. When you factor in what you pay for hotels and airfare, paying an extra $100 for a week of is not much in the whole scheme of things. 

It is something to think about when your rental car is broken down in Northern Guanacaste. A large national company will get you a replacement from Liberia in an hour or two.  It might be difficult to get anyone on the phone at a small company that only has a few cars. 

I have seen one of the companies that I deal with bring a replacement car on a flatbed truck up the mountain to Monteverde, AFTER DARK. That’s worth $100.00. Anyone who has driven that road in the daylight will agree! 

This is where postings in the travel forums or an experienced Costa Rica tour operator is important.  You cannot make this decision based on price alone.  A US badged company is also not a guarantee.  Many of these are smaller companies paying a franchise fee.  Educate yourself as much as possible.  This is one case of getting exactly what you pay for.

Driving and Bribing

The whole reason I host this blog is to share the country I love with others.  Most of the time, it is paradise found and one of my favorite places on the planet.  However, it does have a few problems.  While the government has stiffened penalties on corrupt cops, you will still need to be aware of what to expect if you run into one. 

Most importantly, you probably won’t have any problems if you obey the traffic laws.  So of course, that is the best policy. 

We have been stopped three times, when (I have to admit) I was violating the speed limit.  The first time, I feigned a complete lack of Spanish.  But I foolishly let the police officer see the contents of my wallet, and there were quite a few bills inside.  I hadn’t driven in Costa Rice much before this, and I was intimidated enough to give the guy $40.00.  I really regretted it. 

The next time was a little scary.  The road was a little remote.  The cop got me out of the car, away from my wife.  He spoke perfect English, and told me it would take hours to find a judge to pay the fine.  I paid the bribe, only because this guy was so smooth that he scared me.  I was afraid if I refused the bribe, he may suddenly “find” drugs in my car. 

But these two experiences hardened my resolve not to pay again.  So my third run-in actually turns out to be a fun story.  This happened recently when my wife and I were driving down the Pan Am highway, only a couple of hours after we arrived in the country. 

We rode right into a speed trap.  The stop was legitimate. I was speeding. I gave the cop my passport and license. He took them and asked me to walk back to his car with him. I had just stopped at an ATM, and had a huge wad of cash with me. I waited until he stepped away, and gave all my cash to my wife. I retained 10,000 colons (about $18.00) and joined the cop. 

He had a tattered traffic law book, like something issued to a student driver. It was in Spanish, and he had the fine for speeding underlined. He explained to me that he really did not want to give me a ticket that he (falsely) claimed would cost $200. He offered to give me a “warning” if I paid 20,000 colons on the spot. I was pretending not to speak much Spanish, and we chatted a little in “Spanglish” while discussing this. I was determined to talk my way out of this situation. We finally settled on the 10,000 colons that I had pulled out of my pocket, and he took it.   This is less than the fine would have been.

During our conversation, he saw the several CR stamps in my fairly new passport. He asked me what I was doing in Costa Rica. I gave him my business card. I explained that I was there working with ICT (the government tourism bureau) on promotions for Costa Rica. I noticed a look on his face when I mentioned ICT. I told him we were scouting locations. 

My Spanish was improving by the minute. I could see he was a little uncomfortable, as he processed this new information. I looked for an ID on his uniform, and saw that it was reversed and tucked under his vest. He noticed me looking. So I stepped to the side and looked at the number on his car. He definitely noticed this, and stepped with me to block my view. I stepped back to the other side and continued the conversation. I think I was asking about locations. I continued looking at the number on the vehicle. 

The guy suddenly gave me back my passport and license, and the 10,000 colons! He told me that since this was my “first time in Costa Rica”, he was letting me off without a warning. He told me to be careful because there were lots of police on the highway that weekend. Then he told me to go. Now. I quickly obeyed. 

To be fair, this is only the third time that this has happened to me in twenty years of travel in Costa Rica.  I guess that three times in twenty years is not a lot. But I have driven daily in the US for almost forty years and I have never been asked for a bribe by a cop here in all that time. 

I love Costa Rica, and never enjoy speaking negatively about it. But this kind of thing is more common than folks like to admit. 

If this happens to you my advice is to be polite.  It sometimes helps if you don’t speak (or pretend not to know) a lick of Spanish.  Keep any large amounts of cash out of sight.  Unless you are in an accident or driving drunk, the fines are usually pretty small.  You can just pay them to your rental car company.  Don’t pay a huge bribe.  The ticket will have the police officer’s information on it.  You can complain later.

Two Dozen Things to do in Monteverde

I spend a lot of time reading and sometimes responding to forum posts in the different travel web sites.  I know that a lot of the folks there enjoy the beaches and the volcanoes of Costa Rica.

But I also notice that many people have said that there is not a lot to do in Monteverde. My guess is that this is because the activities here are not as “in your face” as they are in other parts of the country, or on an organized tour.

I always bristle a little when I read this. As a (very) part time Monteverde resident, I have to disagree. Sometimes you just have to look a little harder.monteverde reserve

So here is my list of two dozen things to do in Monteverde:

  • Canopy (zipline) tours. Invented here, and still the best in CR. Maybe the world.
  • Hanging bridges. Ditto.
  • The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. World famous, for good reason.
  • Check out any of the other reserves. The different altitudes create different ecosystems. You will be amazed at the bio diversity up here.
  • Check out the numerous art galleries
  • Hike to the San Luis Waterfall
  • Take a horseback tour through the countryside around Canitas.
  • Tour the Rainaro (Frog zoo)
  • Tour the Serpentarium (Reptile zoo)
  • Tour the Insectarium (Insect zoo)
  • Have Kattya Corrales take you on a private local tour in her little three wheel and partially enclosed motorcycle. Very inexpensive, and she customizes each tour to your particular interest.
  • Take the “Trepiche” tour. A local family farm. They take you from the harvest to the farm’s own production of coffee and sugar. Sweet family, and much more interesting than I expected!
  • Check out the Bat Exhibit (with flight cage), more than you ever wanted to know about bats. But fascinating.
  • After you visit the bats, go upstairs to the little restaurant that makes their own chocolate. Great food here too, Argentine owned.
  • Tour the cheese factory, then enjoy the best milkshake you have ever had. 
  • Visit the Orchid Garden just outside Santa Elena.  The self taught horticulturist here has created an amazing garden, and even discovered a previously unknown species.  We were amazed by the tiny orchids that you need a jeweler’s loupe to see.  A perfectly formed orchid in miniature.
  • Take a guided night tour into the forest
  • Have a coffee and great fresh pastry at Stella’s bakery
  • After your visit to Stella’s, walk across the street to shop for handicrafts made by local women at the CASEM woman’s arts cooperative.  You can also buy local coffee from the roaster next door.
  • Hear live music at Moon Shiva. Jazz, folk, Latin, etc. Always entertaining.
  • Check out the Saturday farmer’s market. Definitely some local color. Sometimes there is music, and there is always local food to eat on site. Good Ceviche!
  • Ride the little tram through the woods
  • Go to the hummingbird gallery. Great photo ops of dozens of hummingbirds.
  • Eat at any of the “International” restaurants. We are getting some interesting food up here!

“Over the top” in Arenal

Costa Rica is known as the land of the reasonably priced boutique hotel.  But sometimes, it is fun to splurge at a top resort, too. “Over the top”, is exactly how I would describe the new “The Springs Resort and Spa” at Arenal. We did not stay here, but we were invited to use the springs one evening. We went back the next day to tour the grounds and see the suites. 

springsThis property is owned and was developed by Lee and Cindy Banks, the owners and creators of the La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Peace Lodge. I first met Lee about ten years ago at the yearly tourism convention. He owned the land that was to become La Paz, and had just installed the first paths and walkways. Here was this young guy in probably the worst location in the exhibition hall. But you could tell he was a very dynamic person, very bright, and full of energy. The videos he had of the waterfalls were very impressive, and you could see that he was on to something. Over the years, we have all seen what La Paz has become. 

Was it possible to improve on La Paz? I would not have thought so. But this is an amazing development. My first impression of the place was that a whole teak forest died to construct the main building. It IS beautiful. I didn’t say anything, but I was a little sad. I perked up when it was pointed out to me that the wood was not teak at all. It was laurel, a local renewable wood. It was just stained to a teak color. The huge planks that supported the stairs, roof, etc. were not wood at all. It was the expertly painted concrete and fiberglass. The color and grain were a perfect match. Seamless. I know that it sounds Disneyish, but they did a great job of it. At least it is sustainable, and keeps the natural feel to the place. 

They were in a “soft opening”. Many of the amenities were still under construction. Men and women currently share the same spa. But eventually one whole floor (14,000 square feet) of the main building will be dedicated to the health club and separate men and women’s spas. There will be a casino too. Not my favorite activity, but there is a market for that kind of thing. There is a formal restaurant, and a more casual one. 

But the Springs were amazing. Twelve pools in all, with more on the way. Yes, this place is open to the public for day trips. But I don’t see it becoming as crowded as the other springs in the area. The pools are split between some modern ones of different temperatures, including one with a swim up bar. There are several more natural appearing pools with waterfalls, in the woods. These were our favorites. 

springsresort3There are several different room classes. From beautiful standard doubles, to full blown villas. All high end, and very well done. This is not a cheap option by any means. Rates start at $375.00 per night in high season, and go all the way up to $1400.00 for two attached villas. 

The admission for a day package at the springs is $40.00 per person. Meals and beverages are extra.  

They are also opening a wild cat exhibit soon, and this will be included in the day package.  There was a shelter that was being closed near San Jose.  These were animals that for one reason or another could not be released in the wild.   There was a fear that the animals were going to be destroyed.  The owners here stepped in, and are putting the finishing touches on an exhibit of these beautiful creatures. 

In short, I think that the day package is definitely worth it. The rooms are worth the price, but not in everyone’s budget. Like the Peace Lodge, these will be great for honeymooners or just as a splurge. But even at this price point, I think they are a good value.