1,646 Miles: Costa Rica, part I (Spring Break 2020)

Not gonna lie: it was hard to come up with a Spring Break destination after the unbelievable awesomeness of The Big Trip.

However, even after doing such ridiculous things as climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, snorkeling in Moorea, and hiking around Piha in New Zealand, the boys still wax poetic about our Spring Break trip to Costa Rica back in 2017. A quick search on SkyScanner (I can’t recommend this site enough!) back in October showed flights to San Jose coming in at a significantly lower price than flights pretty much anywhere else, domestic or otherwise.

So back to Costa Rica we go!

Little did we know (obviously) that the nasty virus brewing in China had begun to claw its way around the world, knocking out–or seriously putting a damper on–Spring Break plans of many of our friends. Luckily for us, as of March 3, Costa Rica is still Coronavirus free (though we did learn yesterday that 2 cases have been confirmed back in Atlanta).

[Actually, since first drafting the paragraph above, there are now 2 suspected cases here in Costa Rica. Oof.]

[And triple OOF: by the time I finally finished this post, Coronavirus has fully derailed our nation.]

Our flight down to San Jose left Friday, February 28. We sat on the runway for over an hour while TSA searched for a bag to remove from the plane. We were never told exactly what that was about, but we speculated it was someone who’d gotten cold feet due to rumors about the Coronavirus and about being cramped up inside an airplane with 150 other people for 4 hours.

Once on the ground in Costa Rica, we breezed through Customs only to be stalled by a rather inefficient system at the Hertz Rental Car agency. Russ checked in, signed all the paperwork, and was then told we needed to take a shuttle to get to the rental car lot. This being Latin America, things move slowly; we were told the shuttle was scheduled to arrive in “a little while”.

The shuttle finally pulled up 15 or so minutes later, we hopped in, and the driver immediately hopped out.

Five minutes later, we head off on what we thought was a quick jaunt over to the rental car lot. Twenty minutes later we were finally deposited at the lot, and Russ had to re-do the paperwork while enduring some haggling and confusion over insurance. All in all, procuring the rental car was close to an hour-long procedure which meant we were closing in on midnight (2 a.m. our time).

A Hertz worker finally whipped around with our car: a little white 5-speed compact number with no license plate. “No problemo!” said the Hertz worker when I pointed out the missing plates. “No problemo!”

Again, since it was midnight and the Hertz lot now had a line of people snaking out the door, we decided to let this issue go and headed to the hotel instead. Driving a car around Costa Rica is challenging at best, so having an unmarked car didn’t even register as an additional worry.

We were up and at ’em Saturday morning and began the 83 mile drive up to Monteverde, a bumpy, curvy journey that wound up taking over 3 hours.

behold, the iguana crossing sign…

As the name implies, Monteverde is up in the mountains…the steep, steep mountains. Our little unmarked car was not mentally (or physically) prepared for this drive. You know it’s steep when you have to drop down to first gear to grind up a hill; we inched up many steep, gravelly inclines that we likely could have walked up faster. We joked that the car had 2, not 4, cylinders and that our old gerbil, Digger, moved faster in his exercise ball that this car could…hence the nickname for our car was born: the DiggerMobile.

(FYI, Monteverde is the name of the region known for its cloud forest; Santa Elena is the name of the tiny town in the middle of it. Three narrow, sparsely paved roads form a triangle around the village of Santa Elena.)

We finally rolled in to Santa Elena tired, hungry, and predominantly carsick.

Our first priority was lunch. The Digger-Mobile struggled mightily with the steep hill up into Morpho’s Restaurant, and once we parked, we were happy to part ways for an hour or so. Our meals were great, and we hopped back in the Digger-Mobile for the short ride up to our hotel.

El Establo was a great call. The resort is basically carved into the side of a mountain and every room has an incredible view.

Jack checking out the view of the Peninsula Papagayo from the check-in area

We settled in to our rooms, tried to figure out how the A/C worked, and then decided to hike up to the pool for a bit before our first official Monteverde adventure began at 4 p.m.

a most interesting room lay-out

Roughly an hour later, we were at Sabine’s Smiling Horses, ready for a sunset horseback ride.

Our guides didn’t really speak much English, but the 2-hour ride was spectacular…

We watched the sun set over the Nicoya Peninsula which is about 80 miles away from Monteverde.

After our adventure with los caballos, it was dark and time for dinner. Rather than go to the Italian place I’d scouted out, we decided to eat at the first pizza place we came across that also had an easy-to-manage, flat parking lot (the struggle was real for the Digger-Mobile). The exterior of Pizza Natcha was quite charming; the interior was quite, um, simple.

The meal was nothing out of the ordinary–except for the incredible dipping sauces that came with our pizza. One was a bright yellow fiery pepper sauce that was surprisingly awesome (no one else in my family would even try it), and the garlic-olive-oil combo for the bread that came with Theo’s pasta was also great (and subsequently removed any concern about a vampire attack).

We were the lone guests until roughly 30 minutes into our visit when a group of about 10 twenty-somethings sauntered in, each carrying their own 2 liter bottle of soda which we obviously thought was a little odd. The waiter/bartender/owner started pouring shots of something out of a dusty violet colored, unlabeled decanter he’d pulled from the top of a refrigerator (that is, OFF the top of the refrigerator). He carried the tray full of them to the new clientele, and Russ stopped him to ask what they were.

The rest is history…in a flurry of Spanish, the waiter balanced his tray on one arm, pulled one of the shot glasses off, handed it to Russ, patted him on the shoulder, and then walked off.

the bottle looked like it was full of cigarette butts covered with some type of liquid
I actually cannot believe Russ took a shot of this stuff

We had no idea what it was, but thankfully, it did not taste like moldy cigarette butts. Before we could get the waiter’s attention again to ask what on earth Russ had just imbibed, the power went off.

thank goodness the iPhone has a flashlight

Only in Costa Rica, right? The power didn’t just flicker in the restaurant; there was full pitch-black-lights-out-darkness all over the town. We turned on a phone flashlight and hustled outside to see the most magnificently star-coated night sky. After a good and eerie 10 minutes, the power came back on and we were able to pay (cash only as the credit card machine was fried).

Before we left, we asked the waiter once again what crazy stuff was in the purple decanter. We learned that Russ had done a shot of the famous Costa Rican liquor, guaro, the production of which is supposed to be government controlled. We are 110% the guaro at Pizza Natcha was the furthest from government controlled you can get–a.k.a. it was some Tico moonshine–yet Russ lived to see another day, a statement which sounds cliche until one gets back to the internet and looks up guaro, only to find this disturbing article.

Back at El Establo, we learned that the earlier power issue was due to some absurdly strong winds. A wind warning had been issued (we weren’t told anything more than that), and the wind was shooting straight up the side of the mountain, rumbling over everything in its way. The winds were blowing so hard the doors of our rooms were shaking. It sounded like a hurricane, and all 5 of us slept terribly. (In fact, wind forecasting is a big deal in Monteverde; there’s even an app dedicated to forecasting wind speed, gusts, and direction.) We aren’t kidding when we say we spent a night listening to a constant howling, screeching, wall-rattling wind.

Needless to say, Team Herakovich was a little tired and irritable the following morning. After breakfast at the hotel, we headed over to SkyAdventures for a hanging bridges tour. We had previously done a hanging bridges tour in Arenal during our last trip to Costa Rica, and we still speak fondly of Donald, our incredible guide, who could hear the frantic scurry of an animal–and then identify said animal–from half a mile away.

Marlin Perkins ain’t got nothing on Donald…

Our guide for the hanging bridges hike in Monteverde was no Donald. Well, to be fair, he perhaps was the botanical equivalent of Donald. And while plants are cool, if they aren’t your thing then it’s really hard to get excited and stay excited about hearing intimate details about them for 3+ hours.

crossing the last hanging bridge which also was the longest and highest (there’s a reason why they save this one for last…)

After a wee debate over whether we should zip-line, we opted instead to head back into town for lunch. I had the honor of commandeering the Digger-Mobile, and, in a feat sure to go down in the annals of Herako-history under Impressive Moves by Mom, I was able to parallel park the Digs on a steep, one-way street, with absolute textbook precision. The boys in the backseat cheered and complimented me–something that rarely happens with a gaggle of teenagers.

I had read fantastic reviews about a little taqueria called Taco Taco, but when we first saw it as we pulled into town the day before, my crew shot it down. However, the next time we cruised by–after our dinner at Pizza Natcha–Taco Taco piqued a little more interest. Its patio was strung with lights, and we could hear music playing and people talking; in short, it was the most hopping place in town.

So after our jungle hike, I insisted we finally go there with the promise that if it was terrible, we would send someone around the corner to fetch crepes.

It was not terrible. In fact, it was the best meal I may have had in Costa Rica. If you’re in Santa Elena, it’s well worth the 3 or 4 trips around the Santa Elena triangle to find a parking space. You must eat there. Trust me. (In full disclosure, we did have one child who still wanted a crepe, but the crepe station was closed. They all settled on ice cream for dessert instead.)

We spent the afternoon packing up a bit and trying to rest up for our upcoming night hike. Tucker wanted to go back up to the pool, so he and I made the required hike straight up the mountain. On the way, we passed the very bizarre peacock coop.

One of my sons observed that this peacock was “literally flexing.” There certainly was a lot of prancing, shaking of tail feathers, and A-game level of flirting going on, but this guy got shot down over and over. Tucker and I found it hilarious.

I walked back down to my room and found Russ and Theo very excitedly flinging potato chips off the balcony. I peeked over the edge to see this:

…a pair of very cute coatis. We are 99% sure we shouldn’t have been feeding them garbage snack foods like potato chips. Sorry about that.

The one thing on Russ’s bucket list for the cloud forest region was a night hike. After cross referencing a million reviews, we settled on the night hike at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve.

Every review I read stressed the importance of being in a small group for the night tour (the more people you have, the louder they are; the louder the group is, the more skittish the animals are). As taxi after taxi kept pulling up the gravel drive to the Reserve and dumping out tourist after tourist, the more irritated I got. I thought I’d registered us for a small group tour with a maximum of 8 people in it, which would mean at most only 3 others would join us, but then I’d also thought I’d signed us up for the tour that started at 5:30pm and here it was almost 6:00, and we were still milling around outside the ranger’s office.

I’d forgotten one important thing: how Costa Rican time runs…very slowly.

Around 6:15, a van full of official looking tour guides pulled up, and the mass of tourists awaiting the night tour was divided up into smaller groups. We wound up being paired with a Canadian family of 3. We were all given flashlights and set off on a trail.

Our guide was fantastic, and like the aforementioned Donald, was a wizard at spotting critters in the dark. I was really good at pointing out clumps of moss hanging from tall trees. (They sort of look like a sloth.)

The trails at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve are incredible. If we had it to do over, we would have skipped SkyAdventures and would have come to the Reserve and hiked around by ourselves. Each trail is very well marked and well maintained. We wished we could have seen this place in the daytime.

We had a late dinner at Tramonti, an Italian roadside place halfway between the Reserve and our hotel. The parking lot was packed to the gills, and we were nearly 45 minutes late for our reservation which made us worry, but we walked in and were ushered right over to a table with our name on it. Costa Rican time was on our side.

The food was tasty, and afterwards you walked up to the register and paid without a ticket or proper check, somewhat on the honor system. Costa Ricans are some of the nicest, most trustworthy people on the planet.

We rolled back in to the El Establo with our fingers crossed for a less windy, more sleep filled night. The next morning we were headed back to one of our favorite beach towns: Tamarindo.