Costa Rica Travel Tips 101    

      “Just don’t drive around at night and you’ll be fine.” The friendly man sitting next to me on the plane advised. “It gets dark faster than you think and the roads are narrow, winding and full of people, some with machetes from working in the fields.”   

     “Thanks for the tip.” I semi-shouted…unsure of my voice volume.

     My body picked a terrible time for a sinus infection. Even with ‘Earplanes’ screwed into my ears and a squirt of nose spray, my ears were sore and un-cloggable. I was headachy and it sounded like we were having the conversation underwater. 

     When we landed, I was half deaf and off balance. I could barely breathe and was sporting a sizable smear of vapo rub under my nose. But I wasn’t going to let a little face pain and clogged ears stop me.

Good Morning…Welcome to the Adventure

     My friend Rosie and I were on a 5 day road trip through Costa Rica. We had spent the night in Alejuela and woke to an amazing view of flowers and tropical plants visible from our hotel balcony. 

View in Alajuela

     We had an 8 a.m. tour reservation at Poas Volcano. I’m not exactly a morning person due to my daily tooth grinding face headaches when I get up. The normal headache plus my newfound deafness and clogged face added a little extra to the morning. 

     However, a thick cloud cover rolls in every morning at Poás Volcano, starting around 9 a.m. and continues throughout the morning. By 11 am, most views of the volcano are obscured for the rest of the day. They don’t take walk-ins so I had reserved our spot online several weeks prior. 

Hardhat and a Hike

     It was about 45 minutes from our hotel to Poás. We parked and hiked towards the check in area where we signed waivers and were equipped with a green hardhat that matched the others in the 8 a.m. tour.
     When all of the group arrived, we began the solemn march up the steep gravel path. I began to fall behind and Rosie yelled back to me.
     “What is going on back there? What’s taking so long?”
     I was taking long exaggerated steps and panting for breaths.
     “Well if you haven’t noticed, I can’t breath and I’m out of shape.” I fished out a wad of tissue from my pocket.
Poas Volcano cloud forest
     I finally was able to drag myself to the top of the hill overlooking the cloud forest. The streaked rock of the bowl of the volcano sat in front of the tree covered hills. It was only 8:30, but we could see the low puffy clouds resting on the distant treetops and moving our way.

Cloud Forest and a Volcano

Poas Volcano
     There was a multi-tiered stairway with several vantage points of the steaming volcano. A pool of water sat at the bottom of the puffing caldera.
     We learned there were actually two craters, one active and volatile and one inert. The dormant side held the acidic grey blue rainwater lake 1050 feet below. The other puffed sulfuric steam. We were told that mud and debris could shoot up to 800 feet in the air and to wear our helmets at all times.
     There was a path leading around the rim but it was not open due to dangerous conditions that day so we enjoyed our views from the platform and headed back to the car, dropping off our fashionable headwear along the way.

Heading to the Hills

     The rented vehicle was a type of jeep 4×4 with bouncey shocks. We wound down the steep twisty hills, the car making a squ-squeek sa-squeek sound as we inched up the road.
     Once we were in higher elevations, my recently cleared ears began to hurt and clog as if I was taking off in a plane. I had to pull over and screw in the ‘Earplanes.’ I was mostly unable to hear and the pain inside my ears was piercing. I huffed a little vapo rub and reapplied as we arrived at our next stop, La Paz Waterfall Gardens.
     We paid the small fee and headed out to the paved trail.

Now I Want a Waterfall Garden

La Paz Waterfall Gardens
     When I stepped outside, the view was breathtaking. Huge lush tropical leaves grew everywhere and every color of flower surrounded us. Low rolling hills lined the horizon. The air was humid and warm. 
     The well marked paved trail led past several flower gardens and into the animal sanctuary area. Zoos are not permitted in Costa Rica. The animals in the sanctuary have been rescued or injured and are cared for in their wildlife education center. 
     There were exhibits of monkeys, sloths, frogs, tropical birds and wild jaguar. 
     We followed the trail down steep wet steps, noticing lizards darting around the paths and strange raccoon like mammals climbing nearby trees.

La Paz Waterfalls

     We could hear the water before we saw it and when we neared the bottom of the steps, we were face to face with the mist coming off a tall rainforest waterfall. There was a viewing point where three waterfalls were visible.
     At the end of the trail, we were routed through the gift shop where they had samples of Costa Rican coffee and souvenirs. A bus then brought us through the hills and back to the parking area. 

Twisty Roads and a Break

     We hopped in the jeep and bounced and squeaked through the steep hills towards Arenal, passing roadside waterfalls and sweeping valleys along the way. Riding and slowing around the narrow hairpin turns was making the brakes soft and at times I was practically standing on them. 
Costa Rica
     We were relieved to make it to flatter ground and stopped to rest the brakes and have a bite to eat. It looked like something I would have loved…but despite a generous addition of hot sauce to clear my face, I couldn’t taste anything.

Hot Springs Here We Come

     Our next stop which I was so looking forward to was the hot springs. There were a number of hot springs in the area but we chose Arenal Springs which has different pools of various sizes and temperatures. 
     We checked in and got our wristbands for 2 days of admission (yippee!) and were given a short speech about the property and a map.
     “Our 12 mineral springs are all natural and geothermally heated by the Arenal Volcano which is behind us.” The dark haired man pointed out over the seating area to the grey cloud covered peak in the distance.
Arenal Hot Springs view
     “The pools range in temperature from 93°-104°F and we offer a full bar. Take the elevator down to the changing area and the pools.”
     We grabbed our suits and headed down. There was a bar area with the chairs submerged in the warm water. 

Relaxing and Relaxing at Arenal Springs

     After changing, we rushed out and eased into the warm relaxing water.  We tiptoed, careful not to slip from pool to pool…spending a bit longer in our favorites. The pools were lined in limestone and there were pools with waterfalls, flowers, hydro jets and slides. 

On the Road to Hotel Mystica

     We had a drive ahead of us to our hotel, plus we would be back the next day, so we grudgingly dressed and piled back in the car. It was a little over an hour to Hotel Mystica and it was 5:30 p.m. at the end of December.
Roadside waterfall Costa RIca
     We drove in the direction of cloud forests and hills and the little 4×4 sa-squeeked and bounced around little hills and wound around tight turns. We looked at the hazy orange sunset over the hills for about a minute and a half and suddenly it was as if someone shut off the lights and it was darker than dark.

Who Shut off the Lights?

     “We’re not even here a day and I can’t help but do the only thing the plane guy said not to do…drive in the dark.” I laughed and squinted ahead, adjusting and readjusting the high beams, depending on whether we were going up a hill or down.
     It was hard to see more than 10 feet ahead. 
     “I’m glad I’m not driving.” Rosie peered out into the dark.
     “I wish I wasn’t driving either,” I glanced at the gps which wasn’t quite working. “We need a night-driving sherpa.”

Men With Machetes

     “Holy cow, check it out.” I pointed to a vague shape near the side of the road ahead. “It really is a guy with a machete.”
     “I’m glad we knew to expect it…that would have freaked me out.” Rosie laughed.
     After about 40 minutes of limited vision and winding hills and 2 surprise machete wielding field workers, we began to see lights shining in the distance. It felt like midnight but it was 7 p.m.
     We quickly checked in to Hotel Mystica and sat at the empty outdoor restaurant, which was closing soon,  before going to our room.

Two Happy Surprises

     I ordered a homemade ravioli…a little sad about the stuffy headed no tasting situation. As we waited for our food, a grey form waddled quickly out of the dark and towards the raised patio area.
     “Holy moly! What’s that?” I pointed crazily, grabbing my camera.
     “What is that thing?” Rosie stood quickly and turned, her chair slamming down backwards on the wooden deck as we wheeled around, staring at the bullet-like creature approaching us.
     “It’s an armadillo.” The young waitress laughed, picking up the chair.
      Having never seen an armadillo in real life before I was frantically snapping pictures until the ravioli arrived.
Armadillo at Hotel Mystica
     We sat back at the table, candle flickering in the night. I took a bite of the housemade ravioli and tears filled my eyes. I had not properly tasted food for 4 days and this hand rolled pasta felt like heaven. My taster was back!
I could taste it!!
     We enjoyed our dinner and I enjoyed some newfound breathing and tasting. The woman who had checked us in, spoke more rapid Spanish than I could keep up with to a man that was to show us to our little cabin. Each room at Hotel Mystica was it’s own building. There was a raised bedroom with glass doors overlooking the rainforest. It was connected to a bathroom with an outdoor shower, also facing the forest area.

A Guide in the Night

     “George is going to show you ladies to your cabin.” The man beside her nodded and waved. “It is dark and the paths to the different rooms can be hard to find at night.”
     The man with the flashlight led us quietly down the winding flowered path, night noises chirping out from the trees.
     He showed us into our secluded cabin and left. After exploring a little, we headed out to the car to get our luggage.
     “Was it left or straight?” I whispered in the dark.
     “I’m not sure, was it by the restaurant or on the other side.?” Rosie whispered up to me. We huddled together, moving up the winding path in the dark.
     We came around a corner and ran into George and his flashlight. He waved and I tried to explain in my broken Spanish which is mostly nouns and verbs that we were trying to get to the car. George nodded assuringly and motioned for us to follow.
     We wound back and forth through the dark paths and came out right at our cabin. He pointed to the door and we obliged and went inside.

A Nighttime Recon Mission

     “Well what now?” I laughed.
     “We have to get back out there, and hide from George so he doesn’t bring us back here again.” Rosie smiled, ducking out the door.
     We found our way to the car through a lot of hit or miss turns and were able to get our luggage and avoid being deposited back to the room a third time. 
Hotel Mystica Path

Hello – Flowers and a View

     We spent the night overlooking the rainforest and hearing the sounds of nature. In the morning, the scenery of the hotel was like something you see on a postcard. Flowers were everywhere and a distant lake was framed by mountains. I felt happy to be a part of this beautiful moment in the world. 
Hotel Mystica
     It was New Year’s Eve morning and we were heading for a hike at Arenal Hanging Bridges park and then back to the springs for a soak.

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Check back soon to read about our New Year’s Eve adventure…
 

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