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Chan Cham Perou

Costa Rica  —    Costa Rica overflows with photographic challenges and excitement. Seeing the quetzal is almost like finding the Holy Grail!

Then, finding the two or three-toed sloths, a red-eyed tree frog and the blue jeans frog, the dangerous gold or pink eyelash viper, a howler monkey, the tarantula hawk, the white bat, the strange tapir, the giant ferns, which are sometimes blue, the micro orchids and the coffee flower called “hot lips”.

At last, to reach the clouds and hope to see them pushed back to admire the majesty of the volcanic craters before diving into one of their natural saunas and coating our body with hot, rejuvenating mud.

Luxuriance and abundance

In Costa Rica, the words abundance, extravagance, force and intelligence of nature are euphemisms. On the “Rich Coast,” 14 types of forest and hundreds of species of mammals, amphibians, reptiles, trees and orchids live in perfect harmony.

It is the ultimate paradise for trekkers and mountain bikers, beginners as well as experts. Tarzans and Supermen fly between trees tied to their zip lines or rafting, amateur wire walkers on suspended bridges and patient and acute observers of nature, all equipped with binoculars, laser pointers, flashlights and cameras with powerful zooms and wide angle lenses are a common sight in Costa Rica.

An exceptional climate year round, sustained and remarkable economic development for the last 30 years, public and private projects for the protection and safeguard of natural resources for 10 years all make this country an ideal refuge for Canadian snowbirds (60,000) and Americans as well (170,000). Not just happy to spend an all-inclusive vacation there, they choose to invest in a property often bought at an exceptionally reasonable price (between $60,000 and $150,000) or, at least, plan to spend the long winter months there.

More than 100 volcanoes in the mist or in the clouds

The amount of semi-active volcanoes exceeds the hundreds. The five most important ones, which are always active and aligned over 90 km, are Arenal, Irazu, Poas, Rincon de la Vieja and Turrialba. Eruptive, they throw stones and ashes, but no lava. Two others are “at sleep”: Barva and Orosi.

The ones we saw up close are a part of national parks. Walking paths have been set up to reach them, as well as rest and service areas. It is possible to walk the paths, but climbing elsewhere is not allowed for obvious safety reasons. Nevertheless, climbing is still possible in Monteverde and at Rincon de la Vieja.

Considering their respective high altitude, it is recommended to take precaution against altitude sickness. But the view is worth it: the landscape and vegetation change noticeably every 700 meters.

At the summit of the Irazu volcano under a clear sky, we can see the Pacific on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other. The black ash we walk on and are surrounded by, thanks to a strong wind, makes our blood run cold.

But the ultimate comes with the Poas volcano where we are confronted with the largest crater in Costa Rica and in the Ring of Fire. Walking towards the summit, we are surrounded by the rain forest for an hour or two, amazed at the phenomena of the horizontal rain, the red rock, the ferns, moss and mushrooms, the broadleaf trees, one 400- year old tree as well as countless spectacular flowers, one of them changing from white to fuchsia as we climb higher and the reservoir-plant that flourishes only once in its lifetime and never at the same period of time, etc.

A lodge-interpretation centre at the summit

The more adventurous and those in good physical shape will discover a watchtower at the Turrialba volcano and they can join others - the more contemplative visitors - for one or a few nights at Rancho Naturalista, a vast house that belonged to the owner of a former coffee plantation before it became a warm lodge.

Located at 900 meters, it can be reached by a rather steep winding path facing the Caribbean Coast between two volcanic mountains, which explains the hot air and the mild climate.

Its very comfortable large rooms and delicious cuisine are much appreciated. However, the real difference lays in the fact that it is a true interpretation center thanks to Harry, a naturalist guide. During walks in the day as well as at night, as well as at the table, the extent of his information and explanations equal only his contagious passion for the permanent concert of birds, the toucans, who make noises that imitate frogs, monkeys, insects and even the rain in the forest.

At dawn Harry is already busy preparing what you will discover later on during the expedition: different types of hummingbirds, among which is the famous snowcap, jay and woodpecker, the starry mushroom, the violet flower called “yesterday-today-tomorrow” turning white once it is pollinated, butterflies (some venomous ones), and mysterious spiders, etc.

A chance to observe up close

Costa Rica refused to put flora and fauna in a zoo. But since it is sometimes difficult to see some varieties of birds, mammals and reptiles up close in their natural habitat, they found a solution: the Waterfall Gardens in La Paz.

This immense natural space covered by nets keeps the animals inside without limiting their living space and access to food.
Well-planned and built, pathways and wood stairways provide strategic views at different levels of the natural waterfalls.

The Sanatorium in Lapas: mother love in action

It is worth making the detour to see the green and scarlet macaw parrots who are faithful to their companions for their entire life. In El Manantial, in the province of Puntarenas, a private sanatorium that has been managed by nature enthusiasts for 20 years houses toucans, tamaris monkeys and tapirs that have been abandoned by their owners who found them too cumbersome or noisy, or confiscated from smugglers trying to sell them out of the country.

In this sanatorium, the animals are fed, nursed and their reproduction is facilitated until they are ready to get back to nature where they belong.

Ecotourism at its best

Monteverde is the region that is most developed to welcome tourists who are fans of nature. It started in the 30s and 40s when the American Quakers, who refused the draft, bought land in the Costa Rican mountains and started to breed milk cows, an activity which developed the cheese and ice cream industries.

Since the beginning of the 90s, mountains and forests are sustainably used by the owners with the help of subsidies from the government in order to ensure their endurance. Visitors can access them with the help of zip lines and suspended bridges, thus limiting their impact on the environment. Small hotels also opened their doors, providing employment for local people, which means that the whole community benefits from this development in the short and long term.

Communion with earth

A wide selection of activities, all fun, is offered in the neighborhood of the Rincon de la Vieja volcano.
For example, we can spend the morning horseback riding in the mountains with well-trained horses. Of course, breaks are planned to enjoy the green and blue panoramas that spread as far as the eye can see.

In the afternoon, why not enjoy the virtues from the center of the earth: the volcanic heat? First, in a wet sauna that is entirely fed by the vapors of the hot water filtering through the wood boards of the floor, while being caressed by the sun coming in from the roof and dancing in the mounting vapor: they look like celestial signs of divine visions. Finally, we head for the volcanic mud tanks where we are coated from head to toe with the warm smoothness and let it dry to nourish our skin. At last, rinsed as best as we can, we can relax in one of the three pools that are heated at various degrees.

Sarchi: for a typical souvenir

It is not ethical and impossible to bring back a parrot or a small monkey… but we can buy a very lovely carretta, a miniature or grandeur nature carriage. The carretta is a beef carriage entirely decorated with colorful flowers and motifs copied by hand following a technique used for decades.

Before becoming an artisanal tradition, it was a quasi-religious practice: farmers covered their carriage with orchids before going to mass. One day, one of them decided it was a waste of flowers for an occasional event and decided to paint the flowers instead of cutting them.

The original factory for those carrettas is in Sarchi. It is easy to buy one, as well as tables and other wood decorated objects that are expertly made for the house.

Unavoidable San Jose

San Jose, Central Avenue. This is a wide pedestrian avenue, crossing 10 intersections, bordered by boutiques of all sorts and on which the historic and beautiful Central Post building sits imposingly.

A must: the indoor market, authentic and sweet. From food to electronics, medicinal herbs, statues representing kids taking a shard out of their feet - known to help keep them out of trouble.

Also not to be missed in the market is the popular soda shop and another shop offering a divine vanilla/cinnamon sherbet served natural or with a cherry jelly: only one flavor has ever been offered, and it has been prepared by passionate employees for ages.

San Jose is also a large, modern city with public and private services similar to what can be found in large cities of Central or South America. The dynamic municipal administration makes laudable efforts to ensure that the citizens appropriate the city centre as their own, walk it, bike it, live there, shop there, go to movies and shows… rather than coming there to work and go back to their suburbs at night.

The Costa Rican Art Museum is set up in the old Spanish colonial airport. It showcases works of art from all eras, including contemporary art. Its second floor hall walls are entirely covered with bas-reliefs, while monumental sculptures adorn its garden.

The National Theater proudly displays the best architecture in Costa Rica. Built in 1897, it has survived earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Close to downtown, three districts - Amon, Otoya and Aranjuez – are worth a few hours of walking to discover the lovely old wooden houses, which have found a second life as cafes, restaurants, B&B or boutique hotels, such as the Hemingway Inn.

Amazing! A school covered with a pink metal coating, first meant to teach secretaries, is now a regular school. A little further on, a building in the form of a huge yellow castle is an old prison transformed into a … museum for kids.

En route towards the volcanoes

Cartago claims to be the first Spanish colony, one of the main cities in the country and its religious capital, where millions of people come yearly in pilgrimage to the Basilica of the Virgin of the Angels. The city also has many other lovely churches built in gardens or on public places.

It is a suburb of San Jose with individual houses, some modest, some more luxurious, all colorful and with only a single floor to better fight frequent but light earthquakes. All of their windows and doors have metal bars since at times it has been seen as a sign of wealth, while playing a protective role as well.

Chic suburbs

With their luxurious houses, suburbs are coveted by local populations as well as visitors: Santa Eduviges and Escazu, which offer an awesome panoramic view of San Jose, and the chic embassy district, with the Vatican embassy.

A capricious climate

The temperature varies a lot depending on the time of the day and the altitude. It is mostly sunny, but the rain comes often quite suddenly and dense; we hardly have time to dig out a raincoat from the bottom of a backpack. Even in July, bring a sweater and warm pants if you plan to go to the mountain.

Finger-licking pleasure

Costa Rican cuisine is served copiously at all three meals: meat and beans in abundance, 130 kinds of avocados… strawberries, pineapples, bananas, watermelon and an hybrid fruit that is a mix of tangerine and lemon – sweet and sour, as they say.

Many “sodas”, a kind of bistro, offer breakfast and a menu du jour with homemade food. They open their doors from early in the morning until 5 p.m.

The delicious Lizano sauce, a mix of mustard, oregano, coriander, chili and cumin, accompanies almost everything: salad, rice and nachos.

At Dona Lela’s restaurant, we tasted a strawberry and guanabana juice (with or without milk), guacamole and a chifrijo: a pork stew with beans, fresh tomatoes, onions, avocado and coriander.

At Mi Tiera, we enjoyed a fish ceviche and “looked at” the cow tongue cooked with mushrooms and tomatoes.

At Mirador Tiquicia Restaurant (a Costa Rican surname), we appreciated the balls of yucca cheese, the spicy chayote and the cream of palm nut soup.

At Sofia, the enyucados are huge manioc and meat croquettes, chipotle and caramelized onions. Decadent: green mango shrimps in a curry coconut milk and a huge red pepper filled with palm heart, cream, broccoli, black been sauce and melted cheese.

At Tramonti, bresaola, a plate of thin layers of dried beef with Parmesan and arugula will remain a tasty memory.

And on the sweet side, the «tres leches» are found everywhere, which include three types of milk: condensed, evaporated and regular added to rum and nutmeg and poured on a soft white cake topped with whipped cream!

Rum, coffee and cacao…!

In Costa Rica, and everywhere in the world, Centenario brown rum is celebrated together with coffee and cacao. We visited coffee plantations just like others visit wineries.

With Trapiche Tours, we learned a few secrets: picking by hand, preparation with different traditional equipment such as mills, mechanic sorters and a water wheel, and we tasted different types.

Finally, we marveled at the traditional coffee maker made of wood and fabric, and even made our own hot toffee with sugar cane.

Hotels where space is never a problem

Hotel Balmoral, in San Jose: all contemporary comforts and modern facilities in the room, free Wi-Fi, free long-distance phones to the U.S., and a restaurant that is well liked by the local business community.

Fonda Vela, in Monteverde: a Canadian Quaker built this well-rated hotel and restaurant. Rooms are huge, with 12-feet ceilings, floor and furniture made out of precious wood, large windows overlooking a multi-level garden of sculptures. The pool and the Jacuzzi offer intimacy even outdoors. The gastronomic restaurant, with its fireplace and paintings from the owner, Paul Smith, on the walls provides an intimate ambiance. The guests can take advantage of a fabulous terrace to enjoy a panoramic view day or night: it is the perfect place for an aperitif or an after-dinner drink.

Hotel Borinquen, in Rincon de la Vieja: huge villas with panoramic views from the living room and the whirlpool in the bathroom; luxury furniture, lilac soft suede sofas and a complete kitchenette. This is where we enjoyed the famous natural sauna and the volcanic mud described earlier.

Hotel boutique Cala Luna, in Tamarindo: located on Playa Langosta on the Pacific where the waves promise exciting surfing. Beige and turquoise are predominant colors, all is organic, recycled and oriented on the wellbeing of the community without any sacrifice to the luxury of the place whose design reflects the good taste of the Italian owners. A nice covered outdoor space welcomes yoga fans and culinary lessons. Quite exceptional: the spa opens as early as 5:30 am for a massage at candlelight and to watch the sunrise and the monkeys and the giant orange iguanas waking up.

Sylvie Berthiaume

Translation: Christiane Théberge

Our thanks to Mother Nature and the people who know so well how to allow us to enjoy it in every respect. Thanks to Diego Vasquez, our guide who is specialized in natural sciences and also to the Tourism Office of Costa Rica.


A quetzal

How lazy!

A rare orchid

 Irazu volcano

At Rancho Naturalista

Cascade at Waterfals Garden, La Paz


Hand-painted carretta 

Proud carretta's pullers

Central Post Office

The National Theater

In a chic suburb

 Chez Sofia restaurant

At a "soda" 

Beautiful alley 

Traditional coffee maker

Lobby, Balmoral Hotel

Hotel boutique Cala Luna

Quiet beach at the Cala Luna

Garden at the Fonda Vela

Villa in the trees at the Borinquen













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