A toucan spotted on our hike near the Rio Piru
Of all our destinations, I'd say that Costa Rica was the most rewarding in terms of wildlife. We spent the majority of our time on the Osa Peninsula, near Corcovado National Park. Being the wet season, it was too hard to hike into Corcovado itself, but the hike we did do came close to the park boundaries and involved lots of wildlife sightings. Even in the wet season, Osa is a great place to see the birds, monkeys, insects and other animals of Central America.
Arriving in Costa Rica from David, Panama fairly early in the day (we made good time from Boquete and got to the border at around 11am), we got a bit lost at the lax border control, where it was clear how to exit Panama but absolutely not clear how to enter Costa Rica. We followed a crowd of people, only to find ourselves in the middle of a junior high school marching band competition. It was an international meet with teams from both countries, so it made the most sense to avoid border hassles on both sides and hold it in the border zone. Leaving that, I asked a security officer how to get into Costa Rica.
"You're in Costa Rica," he said.
Uh oh. How'd we do that? Was it really that easy to just not go through border control?
Sensing that it was a very bad idea indeed not to enter properly, I explained in broken Spanish that nos pasaportes no hay STAMP para entrar Costa Rica while making a stamping motion with my hand. He laughed and directed us to the border, where we found out that Brendan's passport had not been correctly stamped upon leaving Panama. He had to go back to the Panamanian office, get the stamp and return as I watched our bags and sucked on coconut juice from the shell, opened with a machete by a weathered old vendor.
We finally got through and boarded a bus to Golfito, stopping in a few towns along the way where I picked up some platanitos (fried plantain chips) and jugo de tamarindo (tamarind juice) to sate us. I'm a huge fan of both. It was great to be able to call out to vendors on and near the bus and get provisions handed over for a few coins - it reminded me of India and SE Asia (even Laos, where one enterprising bus stop vendor stuck an entire kebab stick of giant fried roaches in my face, thinking I might buy the ungodly thing).
In Golfito, we caught a tiny launch headed for Puerto Jimenez across the gulf. It was easily the most uncomfortable boat ride of my life, with the top and windows closed to keep out drizzly weather and wave splashes, making it unbearably stuffy inside. My insides roiling and legs nearly disfigured under the too-small seat, I was thankful mostly that it was a short ride. It was about a third as long and yet twice as uncomfortable as the dodgy ferry from Danao to the Camotes in the Philippines.
We stayed at Iguana Lodge, which I highly recommend (it's high-end/expensive, though, not for backpackers on a budget). Iguana Lodge is eco-friendly, with buildings that mesh with the oceanside jungle rather than cutting into it, and with eco-friendly policies about energy usage and waste. They hire locals and pay them a living wage to not only work at the resort but also as guides for the various activities on offer.
Iguana Lodge is an eco-friendly alternative if you want to enjoy a high-end vacation in Costa Rica.
What I loved about the place was that we could sit on the balcony of our cabin and watch squirrel monkeys playing in the trees (at one point while showering I looked out the window that opened onto the jungle canopy to see a tiny squirrel monkey peering in...errr...that was unsettling!). You can watch vultures, toucans and pairs of macaws flying overhead and see all manner of things while hiking and kayaking.
This is not the Peeping Tom monkey, but it gives you a good idea of what I saw when I looked over at him (you can see the monkey, right? He's rather small).
I also liked that as one walked between the main house, the cabin, the beach and the restaurant/bar that it really was in the jungle. There were tea lights set out at night and the paths were mostly clear (land crabs came out at night though, and threatened to pinch your toes), but surrounded by connected patches of uncut jungle. Because of this, we could see all sorts of insects, butterflies and tropical plants just walking to and from different parts of the resort.
Our first activity was a day of kayaking. Crocodiles (alligators? The guide told us and I forgot, and Wikipedia seems to think they both live in Central America) swam in the mangrove estuary, and we could occasionally see their eyes popping above the water before they made a hasty retreat. They're very dangerous if provoked, but generally shy otherwise and will give kayaks a wide berth.
We could see babies clamoring around the river edge (look on the log, halfway between land and water).
We then stopped at the shore for some pineapple, stuck on this piece of driftwood for cutting, as the afternoon rains began to drizzle their way in.
While boating we also learned about mangroves and how they are formed, and saw capuchin monkeys playing in the trees above:
The next day we took a hike around the Rio Piru (about 2 hours by car from Iguana Lodge) with the understanding that the river was quite high, so if it started to rain we'd have to head back before it became unfordable, even in the Jeep.
We saw howler monkeys:
As you can see, hiking, even on a hill above the river, does not provide a respite from mud. Surprisingly, these shoes are still (kind of) useable, though I now have much nicer LL Bean hiking boots. I *heart* LL Bean.
We also saw lots of bugs. Some evidence of leafcutter ant activity:
...and this little guy, who is quite poisonous. Don't pick him up; he can kill you.
The bus from Puerto Jimenez in Osa to San Jose leaves at 5am and takes 9 hours on horrendous roads, made worse in the rainy season.
We didn't linger in the bad-reputation city of San Jose, and instead boarded a bus for Liberia in the north, up around Guanacaste.
Liberia is not a beautiful town (I don't have any pictures), and there's little to see beyond a small town square and neglected, tiny historical corner. It did, however, boast some advantages. First was that everyone we met was friendly, hospitable and honest. No fighting with the taxi drivers, no bargaining down crazy prices, no attempted scams or feelings of danger. It was a quiet, relaxed town to spend an evening in, which is something of a rarity in tourist-overrun Costa Rica. Being more touristed and developed, Costa Rica is relatively safe for foreigners in terms of major crime (you probably won't get murdered or held for ransom, for example, or get your hand chopped off if you end up in the wrong place during a drug lord shootout), but scams, phony tours, price gouging, touts and pickpockets - some of the most masterful in the world - ply the tourist towns and bus routes, especially around San Jose, parts of the Caribbean coast, Arenal and Monteverde.
It was nice to be able to avoid that, and to be able to easily catch a bus to the Nicaraguan border (what happened once we reached Nicaragua and couldn't figure out how to get the bus to Rivas is another story).