From Havana we flew into Costa Rica’s capital, San José. We were sad to leave Cuba but excited to begin our exploration of Central America. It was close to midnight when we arrived at the hostel I’d booked and after a few minutes it was obvious there was a problem with the reservation. Having vowed to ourselves we weren’t going to sleep in dormitories on this trip, it transpired that, for some reason, the hostel wasn’t expecting us until the following day and all they had available was space in the dormitory! It was too late to try to find anywhere else so we had little choice. It was ironic that after being shown to the dark dorm, we became the late-night bag-rustling zipping and unzipping whispering travellers we were trying to avoid by not sleeping in dorms! Luckily there were no snorers and no anti-social early risers and we slept well. Nevertheless, we were happy to move into our private room the following morning.
We spent the next couple of days looking around San José, drinking lots of coffee, buying new footwear and planning our next moves. Oh, and downloading three weeks of emails and getting our internet fix after being web-starved in Cuba.
Drinking posh coffee in San Jose
I don’t know why, but we were somehow expecting San José to be a more sophisticated and developed city. More accurately, we thought there would be international stores like GAP. After all, GAP shops are everywhere, right? I think it’s because when people talk about Costa Rica, one of the things most commonly said is “it’s very Americanised”. We didn’t particularly find that. Yes, there are a lot of American tourists there. Yes, there are clearly some American influences and the Costa Ricans generally speak English with an American accent. But on the whole, we didn’t find Costa Rica to be “American”.
Whilst we needed the time in San José to sort ourselves out, we didn’t find it a particularly exciting city, and there’s not a massive amount to do there. One of the most interesting buildings is the National Theatre with its grand exterior and rather ornate interior. The Central Market was also an interesting place to explore. I always find the local market a good place to start when discovering a new country. As well as the usual selection of familiar fruit and vegetables, there were a noticeable amount of religious artefacts for sale: a variety of statues of Jesus, Mary and the nativity, candles and crosses. This part of the world is historically Catholic and today approximately 75% of Costa Ricans are Catholic although less than 50% are said to be practising. In Costa Rica, as with other countries in Central America, the fastest growing religion is Evangelicalism.
It was also interesting to see the wide number of natural and herbal medicines on sale. Most of these were in the natural dried form, for example camomile flowers, valerian and passion flowers, and they claimed to cure all sorts of ailments from insomnia, impotence to gastric problems. We had none of these problems so we gave them a miss!
After a couple of days of catching up with ourselves and the rest of the world, we set off to Tortuguero National Park. To reach the park we travelled by road before switching to boat for the last hour of the journey. We’d booked an organised transfer because the cost was less than getting there independently and, better still, much less hassle. This meant that we had a guide who pointed out and informed us about any wildlife spotted en route. On the roadside we stopped to peer up at two- and three-toed sloths in the trees and from the boat, in addition to a variety of birdlife, we saw a lot of bright green lizards, known as the Jesus Christ lizard. When we saw one darting across the surface of the river – walking on water – it was immediately clear where the name came from!
Tortuguero Beach Tortuguero Costa Rica
Tortuguero is situated on a narrow spit of land with a black sand beach on one side and boat docks on the other. There are no cars and the dense national park separates the village from the rest of the country – it’s possible to walk around the town in ten minutes. The following day we spent time walking in the park and we also took a boat trip where we spotted more wildlife, albeit from a distance – spider monkeys, white-faced monkeys, huge iguanas, plenty of birdlife and more Jesus Christ lizards.
From Tortuguero, we took another boat along the mangrove canals that run parallel to the ocean to the port of Limon and then continued again by bus to Puerto Viejo on the coast near the border with Panama.
Tortuguero National Park
Along with Tortguero this part of Costa Rica sits on the Caribbean Sea and it was our first taste of the role that West Indian culture plays in many Central American countries. A chilled out, laid back vibe that we came to like very quickly!
Artsy stuff in Puerto Viejo
The beach at Manzanillo near Puerto Viejo
My attempts at photographing the wildlife in Costa Rica became a constant source of amusement for Mark. It’s difficult, I tell you! I think this is the only shot I took that I am reasonably proud of!
This wasn’t the end of our travels in Costa Rica but for now, the next stop was Panama …