Nick Says: Bidding goodbye to our new found Panamanian family, we left Boquete at the crack of dawn (actually just before) on our way to Costa Rica. After waiting in the wrong place for the 5am bus, we were helpfully guided to the right place by a friendly local and were on our way. Well for a bit anyway. After months of breakneck speeding buses, the one time we had to get somewhere quickly to make a connection the bus decided to amble along at roughly walking pace. However, the speed demon finally made it to David where we able to buy our tickets from the Tracopa kiosk at the bus station and board. Being able to make it to a completely different country in around 8 hours is one of the best things about Central America – gone are the days of multi-day buses to the next town. A fact of life in South America I won’t be missing.
However, one difference I’m not so keen on is the more draconian border crossings. The heady days of breezing through with barely a backward glance (or any kind of search) are long gone. We went through the main Panama/Costa Rica border crossing, at Paso Canoas. If you’re entering the country via this route, be prepared for a loooooong wait. First we were herded into a little room where our names were ticked off and sniffer dogs smelt our slightly rotting underwear, before being herded back out again and into a massively long queue for an exit stamp. While the attentions of Dr Dru were slowly bearing fruit, stood around with my bag in the sweltering heat was not fun. And in fact incredibly painful. After a breezy hour or so, we were finally let out of Panama and allowed to queue up for Costa Rica entry/searches/waiting around for no real reason. Yay! For those of you thinking backpacking is all beers on the beach, try standing around a sweaty border crossing for a few hours while men with guns ask you questions.
Once back on the bus, we drove along the gorgeous Pacific coast of Costa Rica. One of the most amazing things about visiting multiple countries in one trip is how they magically change at the border. Costa Rica looked and felt different from Panama almost immediately. The same was true in South America. It’s almost as if geography knew where the modern day borders would be… Anyway, soon enough we were arriving into San Jose. For those who have never been, you are certainly not missing much. It really is a stop-over point for reaching the rest of Costa Rica, rather than a destination in itself. It feels like a mid-sized American city, and while it’s no secret that Costa Rica is increasingly an outpost of it’s northern neighbor, here is it explicitly in your face. There are streets bearing all the staples of American culture – McDonalds, KFC, Taco Bell… Dollars are as good as colons, if not better, and English is almost as well spoken as Spanish. But before we could relax in the warm embrace of Uncle Sam (and we did), we had a hostel to get too. Bee had booked us in with a place called Kabata (one thing we’ve been finding in Central America is the need to book ahead. So far we’d just been turning up at places, but increasingly in Central everywhere had been full. It seems like this is the year that Central America is turning into a fully fledged mainstream tourist destination) and we gave the address supplied to the taxi driver, who drove us there and found…nothing. So we gave him the phone number, called, and…no answer. At a bit of a loss, he suggested a hostel nearby called Gaudys. Which turned out to be really quite lovely. One of the odd things about this though was our taxi drivers desire to show us the number he was dialing was the one we had given us. Turns out there’s a super common scam in San Jose where taxis will claim that the hostel isn’t answering, is full etc. and take you to where they’re earning commission from. In fact the Kabata website rages at length on this very subject. Well guys, maybe give people your correct address and phone number…
Bee Says: I have a terrible-traveler confession to make. Usually we make an effort to make our first meal in a new country as authentic as possible. In both Panama AND Costa Rica we ate our first meal in… Wendys. You know, that traditional, artisan burger joint. In our defence, it was because both times we had just rocked up feeling sleepy and sticky in a seedy capital city and Wendys was the first place serving a hot meal we stumbled across. But, mmm after months of rice and… more rice, those burgers sure are tasty. We barely had time to digest the food or blink our eyes before we were awake at 5am for the second day running, and queuing for a bus ticket, this time to take us to Monteverde. Monteverde (also encompassing the small town and nature reserve of Santa Elena, but most commonly referred to as Monteverde) is a highland town in the north of Costa Rica, famous for its sloth, cloud forests, night hikes and muy tranquilo way of life. It is also famous for having the longest, most extreme and high zip-lines in all of Latin America, along with a stack of other ultra-adrenaline activities such as white water rafting, bungee jumping and generally chucking yourself off high stuff. Using Nick’s back as a great excuse to hide the fact that the cowardly lion makes me look wimpy, we decided to spend our time skipping around meadows and going to butterfly and orchid gardens, I called it the anti-adrenaline tour.
Our home in Monteverde was Pension Santa Elena, a longtime favourite with backpackers, run by a droll Texan lady and her brother. The staff are endless fountains of knowledge, our room was perfect, the communal shower was spick and span and the BEST PART? The hostel also runs a Mexican food kiosk next door. We noticed that everywhere we looked, at any time of day, people were eating the food from Taco Taco, so we decided to eat there on our first day and instantly understood why. As we moaned ecstatically through the bajo fish tacos and fried avocado fajitas, Nick announced it the best Mexican food he has ever eaten. And so, we ate there every day sampling everything on the menu. Yup. We got a 10% discount because we were staying in the hostel so it was for all for financial reasons… honest. We had 3 nights in Monteverde and knew that we wanted to spend one of them doing a night hike in the cloud forest. One pearl of wisdom the hostel gave us was to plan to do the night hike every day, as they are regularly cancelled due to weather or bad conditions. With this in mind we dutifully turned up on night one, woolly hats and torches in hand, and were whisked off in a minivan to the wilds. We had been planning an early night, but boy am I glad we took the advice, as the next two nights the night hikes were rained off!
I should probably mention here that when planning our itinerary, Nick & I knew that due to the fact Costa Rica is very expensive and out of our shoestring league, we could only visit one place before hightailing it out to cheap neighbour Nicaragua. We chose Monteverde with just one thing in mind and that thing was SLOTH. Looking back, we were incredibly naïve, basically expecting sloth to be there as a welcome committee as we stepped off the bus. We took it entirely for granted that duh, we would see sloth, of course we would. After all, that was the reason we were there…
Bearing this in mind, on arrival to the night hike forest we were introduced to our guide, Jesus. The first words out of his mouth sent our dreams crashing around our ears. It is very uncommon to see sloth, he informed us. Very rare. He hadn’t seen any all month. Add to this the fact we were hiking under a bulbous full moon, meant sloth would be even shyer and hiding from predators. He cheerily explained that instead of the cute furry friends, he would be focusing on finding us snakes and spiders. Of the deadly poisonous variety. Suddenly heading into the pitch-black undergrowth seemed to be very anti our anti-adrenaline tour! Armed with torches (I liked to pretend we were Mulder and Scully) our 3 hour hike took us deep into the forest. Sure enough, our first spot was a funnel web spider aka Shelob from Lord of the Rings. Our second spot was slightly terrifying; a side striped viper (deadly poisonous guys!) that was loitering exactly at head-height in a tree that we had been about to walk into. In the dark. The animal finds were great but actually I really enjoyed the times we were just hiking around in the night, listening out for noises and beasties. It was such a rare privilege to be in natures habitat in the dark, suddenly aware of different senses and primal instincts, and enjoying the cool air and starlight twinkles.
After an hour, there was a commotion in the distance. Our guide mumbled into his walkie talkie and suddenly we were on the move. I heard the word sloth amongst the static and nearly ripped Nick’s arm off dragging him front of the pack to where our guide was now stood shining a mega-torch up into the tree. Sure enough, we had hit the Costa Rica jackpot! High in the tree was not only a sloth, but a mummy sloth nursing her baby! It was really magical, and we stood for ages peering through binoculars and watching them reach their claw-y paws up to the moon.
The sloth spot was going to be hard to beat but… Jesus had something special up his sleeve. A bark covered flying stick insect! Anyone who knows me in real life will know stick insects are my most favourite of pet, and I’ve kept them in my house for most of my teen and adult life. Seeing some of their exotic relations was really exciting, and Jesus seemed stirred by my enthusiastic outpouring of stick insect emotion (the rest of our tour group… less so) and using his super-torch I even found myself a giant stick insect. After the sloth we seemed to be on a winning streak and saw a constant stream of amazing creatures; green toucanettes, white bibbed robin, a catlike raccoon called a Kinkajous which is so cute you need to look at this photo right now, a white fox and an orange-kneed tarantula. The night hike was a real trip highlight and one of our best experiences, if the next two nights hadn’t been cancelled we probably would have been tempted to go again!
Nick Says: All our wildlife hopes and dreams had come true, and once again it seemed we had been super lucky – we’ve since met several other backpackers who hiked around the Monteverde reserve for days and saw…nothing. So a tip for those going, go at night! Monteverde also houses a host of other attractions, and as Bee mentioned, with my back still bad we had to adapt to the less rough and tumble of them. First thing on the list was the Bat Jungle. A couple of km away from Santa Elena, the Bat Jungle is housed in a building topped by an amazing chocolate shop and café serving delicious food (in no way did we order two Death by Chocolate brownies and have to stay seated for half an hour as we were so stuffed). Bats and chocolate seemed an odd combo until our guide explained it was done entirely on purpose – bats aren’t everyone’s idea of a good time, and so they built the chocolate shop to lure people in. And dammit, it works. For us though, we love both, so it was a double treat.
Led by the most bat loving enthusiastic guide ever (well, maybe second in bat loving to Bee’s sister Jess, aka Queen of Bats), we were talked through all you could possibly want to know about the furry little things – such as their closest relative being apes, the destruction of their natural habitat, and the decimation in the East Coast of North America due to a deadly fungus. This last is apparently the largest mammal extinction happening in the world, and is leading to diseases such as malaria appearing near New York. Why you may ask? Well bats eat thousands of mosquitoes each night, keeping the diseases they spread at bay. Our guide implored us (and you) to buy a bat house for your garden or to give as gifts, so bats would have a safe place to stay. So go and do it! It wasn’t all informative talks though at the Bat Jungle. We then got to see their housed collection of fruit eaters (described as the stupid and lazy ones who let themselves get caught) as they flew around, fed, and generally got up to mischief. There are more bats then birds in Costa Rica, and vital to the eco-system. My favourite bat we saw was the humming-bat, which ate fruit much like a hummingbird. I didn’t even knew they existed!
Not content with one type of flying creature, we also took the time to visit the Butterfly Garden. Again, this was an amazing guided tour through the insect and butterfly world of Costa Rica, and we got to see several specimens close up in a beautiful setting. You couldn’t walk through the individual gardens without one of the flying fellows trying to hitch a ride, but the best bit of the tour was when we were entrusted with our very own newly hatched butterflies and allowed to set them free. Fly my friends! Except they were pretty lazy and had to be shaken out eventually…
But then like that our time was up, and so was our time in Costa Rica. We were truly blazing through the countries again! But we had also made a significant decision. One of the things I had most been looking forward too on the whole trip was visiting Isle de Ometepe in Nicargaua, a twin volcano island. I wanted to pit myself against one of the volcanoes in a tough 8 hour hike. But with the back injury this didn’t seem likely. So instead we decided to cut it out of the itinerary completely, and start the long journey to the Corn Islands, via the lakeside colonial city of Granada. Not wanting to spend too long getting there though, we set ourselves a mission. Could we reach Granada from Monteverde in one day of travel? The answer is yes. You can reach the border of Nicaragua via public bus from Monteverde in about 6 hours, then cross and catch some more buses to Granada. However, for those who don’t relish 5-6 bus changes, and don’t mind paying a bit more, the easiest way is thus.
Book yourself a Central Line bus ticket to Granada from one of the places in Monteverde. Wake up in time to catch the 4.20am bus the next day. Ask them to drop you off at a place called La Irma. This takes about two hours. Then stand around on the roadside for about an hour nervously looking at every bus that passes to see if it’s yours. Then get on board the Central Line bus as the smiling and waving driver/ticket man make sure you know it’s the right bus. Drive 3 hours to the border, spend ages there as a guy on your bus hasn’t bothered to bring his passport, then another hour or so until you hit Granada. Easy peasy.
Bee Says: As Nick mentioned, we have been used to arriving somewhere and sloping along to our preferred hostel with no reservation and being greeted with open arms. In Central America this is not the case, and during our stay at Monteverde I attempted to book five separate hostels in Granada only to be told they were ALL full. Agh! We took a punt on a hostel we found on tripadvisor which had a room available, and so on arrival in Granada we headed to the GM Granada. And it was.. weird. Here is an example of one of the rooms.
The hostel looked boutiquey on from the outside. After two nights there we think that perhaps the hostel had been taken over by new owners, as it definitely didn’t merit its tripadvisor accolades. We woke up on our second morning there and went down for breakfast (included in the price) only to be told they didn’t do breakfast anymore. Which was weird since in our room there was a poster giving the TIMES for breakfast?! Ok, fine, we’ll just have a fair trade coffee. Nope, they weren’t doing that anymore. Which was weird, since in our room there was a sheet of hostel info and number one was free coffee on tap. There was a lovely looking poolside bar, apparently open from 9am-sunset… but when we tried to order from the bar, no one actually worked there and eventually a surly receptionist lifted out a six pack of cans and chucked one to Nick! As we looked around the pool we also realized there was nowhere to sit except one lonely hammock. I let Nick take the hammock to help his back and sat around on the tiles. Our room was basically a cell, with a teeny tiny slit of window space. Anyway safe to say, if you find yourself in Granada, don’t check in here. The nice thing was that it was opposite the old hospital, a huge derelict building that we went and explored in inappropriate footwear.
Despite our bizarre lodgings, Granada itself was an instant heart-wrench. Beautiful colonial buildings, every house painted a different colours, horse & carts being more prevalent than cars, and cobbled streets all surrounded by cloud topped volcanoes. We really enjoyed spending a few days just roaming around the town, lazing in the main plaza and stumbling across hipster cafes that wouldn’t look out of place in Shoreditch. (Hmm I’ve been gone from London so long, maybe Shoreditch isn’t actually cool anymore. Insert new cool place here!) The real treat are the gorgeous churches, which glimmer in the magical sun set light and are an instagrammers dream. One in particular draws the eye, as its once beautiful façade is now scorched and black. William Walker (Google him, the Nicaraguan social and political history has been the most fascinating to learn about of anywhere we’ve been) petulantly set fire to it in a hissy fit.
We were looking forward to a few more days exploring Granada, but fate stepped in and before we could hike up to look into a bubbling lava filled volcano, we were getting on a bus to Managua. Our desire to get to the Corn Islands was at odds with the fact that getting ANY kind of information about getting there via boat is impossible. Every blog and website we read had conflicting times, dates and schedules. Oh and the only regular government run service from the mainland was helpfully cancelled in November! We were going to be reliant on hitching a ride in a freight ship, and for this we needed to have a definite time and date before getting the bus to El Rama, a seedy lawless town on the Caribbean coast and not one you would want to be stuck for days on end waiting for your captain to show up. So I scoured the internet and found a phone number for “Capitan D” and in flawless Spanish (I wish, more like playgroup level) managed to chat to the man himself and confirm that he would be leaving El Rama on Tuesday at 9pm. I had this conversation on Sunday. Quick! Pack the bags! We needed to cross Nicaragua quick sharp and find ourselves the cargo boat.