From the Strawberry Capital of Costa Rica: Notes from five weeks travel.

Highlighting special places for anyone thinking of visiting Costa Rica.

We’re just north of the capital of San Jose near the Poas Volcan National Park and the nation’s central valley. This is Cathy and my second time to this Central American nation, which roughly equals Missouri in population, 5 million, but is one third smaller in area: roughly 20,000 vs. some 70,000 square miles.

            We’ve ended our trip here to visit a friend who has built his dream house up in the nearby mountains. He retired and left Louisville, Kentucky a decade ago and has no regrets. I can understand this with my body and soul.

            Average temperatures are 80+ during the day, and cool into the 60s evenings. More importantly people are friendly, many speak English, landscapes everywhere explode with color and abundance.

We found the old style Hortensia resort with a dozen cabin/chalets overlooking the Poas valley near the famous La Paz waterfalls, four cascades feeding into one another through a steep valley. Nearby scores of polyethylene-covered, connected hoop houses produce hydroponic strawberries year-round. They taste as good as berries I remember from the Bergerac region in France last May.

            This morning I met a man on the early picking crew. He reached into a crate and handed me three deep red strawberries filling my palm. “Pura vida,” he said. “Gracias mucho,” I replied, realizing this was one of the rarest pure gifts of life. I had to share this sweetness with Cath.

            Other highlights: studying Spanish at the Centro Panamericano de Idiomas School in Monteverde. This beautiful campus has been going for 30 years in Monteverde up near the famous Cloud Forest. You can study here for a few days, weeks or longer; also at their schools in Heredia or Flamingo Beach. Conserved in part by Quaker farmers, the Monteverde Reserva harbors the increasingly rare Resplendent Quetzal, two of whom we were lucky to see one afternoon. We spent three weeks studying here, the main goal of our trip, ending with a week’s home stay with a local family in their modest home. Cath had plenty of chances to improve her Spanish while I learned about ‘futbol’ on local TV from the couple’s teenaged son.

            Then, four days at a scientific research station in Palo Verde National Park, where we met Dr. Ann-Elizabeth Nash, founder of the Colorado Reptile Humane Society, conducting a multi-year project on behavior of male iguanas in their native habitat. This little-visited park was at the end of 30 miles of bumpy gravel road that reminded us of going to Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. Just as arid, spare and mind blowing.

            Finally a week the near Arenal Volcan National Park, near the similarly named huge impoundment at the center of the country, which provides 45% of the nation’s power. The rest comes from wind and geothermal, making the Ticos totally powered by renewables! That also they long ago gave up an armed force makes you feel good and politically correct…

            We ended up staying at a fancy lodge, the Arenal Manoa Resort, visiting with old college friends and finding fun outings: riparian wildlife tour, cooking class including salsa dancing lessons, and lake kayaking including merengue dancing lessons while eating fresh pineapple served via machete. A highlight was hiking around the Arenal Volcan Observatory Lodge and National Park, one of the most beautifully conserved places on the entire planet. Cath had to miss this outing due to a brief exposure to Covid, but she bounced back after a couple of days sleeping, reading romance novels on her cell and copious deliveries of fresh fruit.

            The strangest memorable event? Back at Palo Verde, we’d heard about boat trip up the river creating Nicoya Bay. Lots of wildlife. The only hitch, we had to walk a 3 kilometer dusty road to meet the skipper.

            Luckily it was still cool by the time we arrived. We ended up waiting an hour and a half for the craft to show up. The skipper hopped onto the dock, “I remembered!” he said with a big smile. Finally we climbed aboard an old fiberglass ship with seats for eight and fortunately a plywood roof to shade we two passengers. 

            Cathy’s Spanish came in handy as we negotiated price then slowly motored upstream. The skipper liked to practice his English and seemed to know where to find crocodiles sleeping up in sloughs. The highlight was a huge Guanacaste tree with a family of 13 Howler Monkeys who seemed to enjoy watching us too.

            High noon the skipper headed back for a siesta at the old port in his handy rope hammock. Luckily the lodge had fixed us lunch to go. But it was near 90 degrees Fahrenheit when we started hiking back. No shade. Nothing moving in the heat of the day but two sweaty hillbillies ambling down the deserted track.

            Half way back we came to some old ranch buildings and plopped onto the porch to cool down for our picnic. The park had been created from a +100,000 acre cattle operation. Too hot even for the iguanas to come out and eat wild mangoes fallen by the corral.  White-faced Capuchin Monkeys also in siesta mode. Luckily the last part of the road became shady and paralleled the marsh harboring thousands of exotic waterfowl, one of the park’s main attractions.

I could ramble on more about our trip and Costa Rica. It’s a fascinating nation, a pioneer in ecotourism, not yet totally overrun with gringos and Europeans. Be prepared for high food and travel costs; plan ahead to find savings.  Tourism is a major component of the economy, but as a market socialist and democratic state, the government sets all wages and runs fair elections. A fine place to escape our American political sideshow with monkeys in trees, not running for political office. Enjoy a truly laid back way of life and wait out winter

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