Heading south from the Pura Vida Hotel . . . this week we asked our manager if she's cover while we played hooky in the jungle . . . heading south in "The Beast" we dropped quickly around the bottom of San Jose (recently rated #80 out of 81 municipalities in Costa Rica) and out to Cartago. At Cartago we got lost (always happens) but 15 minutes later are heading up into the cloud forests along the Cerro de la Muerte. The cathedral at Cartago is well worth a visit so when you get lost why not take a minute more to drop inside - this is the scene of a million "pilgrims" walking to Cartago on August 2nd each year - not to be missed if you are in country then.

A little bit of history on the "mountain of death" can be found on Wicki here: Cerro_de_la_Muerte

We dropped by Jorge Serrano's Quetzal Paradise to check it out for a tour of animal rescue people we will be hosting next year. Jorge was not in but 2 of his sons showed us their spotless and rustic jungle lodge: Quetzal Paradise .

It is best to be there early in the mornings for Quetzal sightings on jungle walks they have from the lodge. From there we continued south to visit with friends at the Borucan indigenous area. Boruca is a tiny artisanal village that is the center for delicious wood carvings of masks representing creatures from the jungle and past lives of the Borucans.

If you are following me on a map you'll now be about plumb center of Costa Rica heading south on the only road to Panama towards San Isidro . . . just before San Isidro is the delightful birding area centered on San Gerardo de Dota . . . good idea to take a break and drop off the clouded highway at San Gerardo and maybe visit one of the lodges run by the Chacon family. Continue south past San Isidro also known by the name of one of the founders, Perez Zeledon. To visit Boruca continue south on Route 2 (route numbers are only on maps not on the roads themselves so don't bother keeping an eye out for them on the road too often).

You can turn off at the tiny village of Terraba which is part of the Borucan reserve. Or you can continue on the 2 another 20 or 30km and turn at the sign that says "Boruca 8Km". Once in the village it is easiest to go to the "museum" - a small display area where villagers bring their masks to display and sell. You can ask to visit the homes of those who display and you'll maybe see some more stuff you'd like. There is no "gringo" accomodation in the village but there are some rustic cabinas behind the bar - no sign, just go to the bar and ask. If you visit in December there is a riotous festival that starts December 30th and drinks its way to Jan 2nd celebrating the attack of the conquistadors among other things.

Head out of Boruca now as you're not stopping overnight back down to Route 2. Oh, did I mention a 4WD is essential?

Go around the loop and back north up the coast for those following me on the map and stop and the "fancy tile fish bus stop" and turn inland to our friends Daryl y Donna at Shelter from the Storm . Probably nay certainly the best appointed villas in all of Costa Rica. And most pleasurable Innkeepers . . . stay a few days or if you want to keep on our nutty schedule "4 days and 3 nights" stay just 2 nights. Make sure you eat at Exotica - funky on the outside, wholesome and creative dishes on the inside - just a great way to end your first day!

The next day you maybe take off at one of the local beaches - ask Donna and Daryl which they like. Rested and relaxed on day 3, you have a mere 1 hour drive to the famous Manuel Antonio and stay with Rebecca at Mango Moon Hotel .

This road is nearing completion . . . for years the barrier to travel to the Zona Sur (everywhere past Manuel Antonio to the south) was this bone jarring 50km of gravel, dust and dirt punctuated by pot holes. Today - nearly a superhighway . . . if you blow through it quickly you can do it in 45 minutes but like us you might want to renew an acquaintance with Dominical - often called the surf capital of Costa Rica after its huge and impressive beach and surfer waves. But not being surfers you may want to skip it too - we dropped in and found a couple of nice bits for the hotel and a lovely Toucan painting that is now in our Orchid Restaurant.

Turn into Manuel Antonio (they forgot to put up a sign) but turn left a bit past the "airport" on the biggest road you can find. Drive into Quepos and up the manuel Antonio park road loaded with 50 or 100 smallish hotels and turn right at mango Moon 1/2 way up past Barba Roja.

Park up - if you left early from Uvita and Shelter from the Storm you'll have time for the nice little park. Don't leave anything in the car or it won't be there when you get back. And make sure you hook up with a real guide at the park entrance who can show you things you'll never see on your own. If you took a little picnic he or she could show you some tiny tiny beaches perfect for a couple on a romantic getaway. Of course you may have to share it with giant red grasshoppers or a family if Capuchin monkeys.

That night ask the hotel for their best dinner recommendation that night and retire with your room with a view of the Pacific. The next morning you're on the way back up north . . . we liked our Kayak trip in the Damas mangoves just north of Manuel Antonio a few years back but today we had no time for that. We did stop at the Rainmaker cloud forest reserve about 30km north of Damas and up about 10km of bumpy road but the gate was closed so maybe skip that idea. Particularly problematic was there was no way ti turn around so we had to drive backwards on a very bad dirt rutted potholed track till we could find enough space to make an 8 point turn with our "Beast" the 4WD 4Runner.

Head north and maybe stop at Bejuco - a lovely deserted beach - we brought our picnic lunch from M. Antonio and a nice balkery - proscuitto and french bread . . . mmmmm!

Keep going north to Jaco - stop for gee-gaws or keep on going . . . head inland near the crocodile bridge at Tarcoles and then on in the long slog up to the meseta centrale behind concrete trucks doing 10kph and often at least once stopping for an accident (everyone must stop on this road sometimes for an hour while they sort out which insurance company is to pay). I thought you might like to know that while sitting in line with endless other drivers waiting for the crunchy decisions to be made that there is ONLY 1 insurance company in Costa Rica - the government :-)

Continue on up the windy road past the gringo retirement haven of Atenas (very nice I might add) and on to Route1 towards San Jose . . . get off near the airport (200 meters after the airport exit to Alajuela) and you'll be back at the Pura Vida in 4 days. Your last day will take about 3 1/2 hours but depends how many digressions you make (it takes us a day).

Have a great trip - if you are tight on time you'll find this itinerary wont wear you out and you'll get to see quite a bit of the country. Thanks Daryl, Donna and Rebecca for your hospitality!

A nice couple from Barcelona showed up late last night "on the fly". They just landed on the Iberia flight from Madrid (the only jumbo that lands in Costa Rica), snagged a car at the airport, found us in the guide book and drove the 10 minutes to the hotel without getting lost. 2 or 3 accomplishments all in their first evening in Costa Rica! They headed for bed with the statement, "We'll need some ideas tomorrow morning! Buenas noches."

We get quite a few guests landing at the airport with little idea what to do . . . but this couple had two basic destinations in mind at the breakfast table the next morning. First the Caribbean and then the Southern Zone or south Pacific side of Costa Rica.

So we spent the next hour in the garden plotting out a route on a map. Two maps we recommend the National Geographic which has all the parks and indigenous areas marked nicely - this works well if you are visiting parks and such. The other, perhaps better map, is the Toucan map of Costa Rica - it has very good road markings as well as points of interest and some good town maps.

The route started from Alajuela heading across the top of San Jose (best to avoid San Jose on weekdays and definitely not a place to get lost in at night). The road goes through Heredia (a bit convoluted there) then up to San Rafael (caution: there are 47 San Rafaels in Costa Rica) and then over to a road that on maps says the number 32.

Just as a point of reference (or lack thereof), it should be noted that the number 32 or any numbers that show on Costa Rican maps are rarely to be found on Costa Rican roads. If you are expecting signs, numbers and such they are few and far between but that's part of the adventure. Personally I hate GPS (in Costa Rica as you miss a lot of good bits to get lost in) but do recommend a cheap compass when you get turned around in a barrio somewhere you don't know the name of.

If you are trying to follow this route on a map . . . look for San Jose heading north from Tibas and then "westish" towards the big road in the direction of Guapiles. This route (#32 :-) will lead you into a cloud forest, through a big tunnel (well actually a small tunnel but big for us) and you should be careful as visibility can drop down to nothing in a cloud forest.

This is the main highway to the Port of Limon so there are lots of fast big rigs on this 3 lane road coming at you though they are usually slowed to a crawl by slow big rigs overloaded with things like concrete blocks. There ARE times when such impediments to progress can be appreciated and driving in a cloud forest is exactly that circumstance. Slower is better.

After Guapiles you are now coming down the Caribbean slope and a complete climate change. Cold mountain air is being subsumed by very warm and very humid tropical goop. You'll gradually notice the transition but soon get used to it like you lived there all your life (maybe). You'll pass through Siguirres without even noticing it (but you should because you need this turn off for a very interesting and different route back).

The road now flattens past pineapple and bananas everywhere and eventually to the Port of Limon (this town is best avoided - this week it was voted 81st worst town in Costa Rica . . . it could have been better except there were only 81 towns in the survey).

The road south (assuming you are still following me on a map?) skirts around the bottom of Limon town and eventually cuts right towards Cahuita and Puerto Viejo (we have a few Puerto Viejos too, this one is known locally as Puerto Viejo de Talamanca). You will notice you are now very Caribbean as you pass through a bit of a dump south of Limon and in an hour or less you'll see the Cahuita signs on your left (take any one of them - its worth a brief visit even if your hotel is not to be there this night).

This blog item is not about the destinations - that you can find in tour books easily. It is about a route for 10 days so apologies if you wanted more (email me for that). The road then continues south and eventually dumps into Puerto Viejo and points south. There are a couple of things you could do going further south - one is to drop down to Panama for a few days to the Bocas del Toro (only about 3 hours south) but if you do that I'd leave the rentacar at your hotel and taxi to the border (and one heck of a bridge) at Sixaola. Be aware this area can experience devastating floods in the high rainy seasons.

Another trip we'd highly recommend is a day or two in the Bribri village of Yorkin - your hotel can tell you how to find this trip. You'll drive past the village of Bribri and then take a dug out canoe upriver to Yorkin. This is a delightful indigenous visit - they even have a little lodge now if you'd like to stay and experience a lovely people or you can return the same day.

Continuing our 10 day itinerary, I'm going to assume you made it to Puerto Viejo and maybe stayed with our friend Wendy at Cashew Hill Lodge and perhaps stayed day 2 and 3 there. You'll need a few more days to stay longer on the Caribbean and will kick yourself that you couldn't but come back next time.

Now head north back past Limon (there's a great canal route, not road to Tortuguero just north of Limon). Head to Siquirres again and cut across the mountains to Turrialba (Route 10 - hmmm like you'll find that number anywhere?). Here's an optional overnighter we'd not miss - the excellent Casa Turire would make a nice 1 or 2 day stopover to see the Irazu volcano, lake Cachi area, the Orosi valley, the precolombian ruins and such in the area. We'd suggest day 4 and 5 in the area.

Day 6 will find you heading west to Cartago (stop at the cathedral) and then south on the famous Cerro de la Muerte (sometimes known as the Pan American highway) and the scene of the 1948 escape of the wife of Don Pepe Figueres who was busy taking over the country with a small insurgency of 2000 folowers to right a bad election.

You might stop a few hours at San Gerardo de Dota (but you don't have time to birdwatch the amazing Resplendent Quetzal that inhabits this beautiful region). Keep going south to San Isidro and perhaps drop by the delightful indigenous region centered on the village of Boruca (needs a 4WD).

Keep on going south turning at Palmar and the strange perfectly round pre-colombian stone globes. Turn right at Chacarita and meander down the little road to the super nice one horse town of Puerto Jimenez. There's lots of places to stay but you'll be tired so try Nico's Black Turtle Lodge - rustic tree houses for the night of Day 6 and 7.

Day 6 will take you maybe 10 hours of traveling if you skip San Gerardo! You don't want to miss a sunset paddle in the Golfo Dulce . . . absolutely a treat for kayakers of all sorts of shapes and sizes.

For the adventurous you'll want to go to the end of the road at Carate (most people say that Pueto Jimenez is the end of the road but adventurous types say it is 2 hours further across some rivers and loads of dirt roads and tracks). You'll maybe stay at Lana's Luna Lodge where they'll REALLY take care of you . . . and let them show you the way into Cocovado - one of the most bio-diverse areas anywhere on the planet and still barely touched by humans (see above - 2 hours past the end of the road . . . plus when the dirt track ends drive another 20 minutes into the jungle.)

That gives you Day 8 and 9 in the jungle with pecaries, sloths, lovely ant eaters and a trillion species of bugs. Again not long enough but our visitors from Barcelona wanted to see both sides of the country in 10 days. Which you can't really do!

So day 10 is taken driving back from Carate - its a tough 10 hour adventure up the coast road through Palmar Sur, Uvita/Ojochal, straight through Quepos/Manuel Antonio (assume you are following this on a map of Costa Rica?).

Its then another grind into San Jose at least as far as the airport and your last night and a delicious gourmet dinner at the Pura Vida Hotel in Alajuela.

Thus we'd recommend a stopover at Uvita (well that will make it an 11 day journey except you gotta stay 2 nights at our friends Daryl and Donna and the amazing hospitality, ludicrous humor and 180 degree views of the south Pacific at Shelter from the Storm ). Or if you wanted to also visit the famous Manuel Antonio you'd want to spend another 2 nights there perhaps at Mango Moon .

OK, so to do this lot you can't easily stay 2 nights at every location and do this trip in 10 days. It's so hard to get a feel for a place in an overnight stay so you'll need to cut some corners somewhere or maybe just do the rest on the next trip.

If you have questions and need help with an itinerary idea, just email us at The Pura Vida Hotel - we'd be happy to give you some insights into what may work for you on your next tropical adventure.

Yesterday we were invited to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Escuela . . . and the unveiling of another donation from Fundacion Educar - but a little different one this time - an art piece called "Remembranzas de Tuetal Sur". The story of a remarkable influence on the children of our village is told on the foundation web site. But it would have to be a much bigger web site to tell the real story and it will be years before the real story plays out in the lives of children who were not held back by being poor.

The Educar Foundation (Maryland, USA) is the brain child of Jim Locke who decided to help some kids in Costa Rica - today 1000's of kids have been touched by the work of the foundation.

Our small school was built 20 years ago thanks to the vision of a small group of residents who ignored the local school officials who thought the village would never amount to much. They convinced a local farmer to part with some of his finca for a pittance so the kids of the village could go to a "local primary school". They scraped a few hundred dollars (in colones of course) to build a school house. The bathroom would have to wait.

By the time Jim Locke discovered the school it had a few classrooms, two bathrooms and about 250 kids in what most would agree a very poor neighborhood. Like most everybody in Costa Rica, this didn't mean their kids were hungry but it did mean some parents often had little work and there wasn't a computer or a book to be seen in the neighborhood.

There was however something interesting going on at the school . . . situated between the Caja clinic (EBAIS as it is known in every village of Costa Rica) and the church. 3km or a mile or so down the road some of the kids were coming out of the bad barrio (known as the Infernillo by all around it) and showing up at school every morning in uniform. There was and is a high rate of teen pregnancy and some families with big problems unable to provide supplies for their kids or an evening meal. The school, Jim observed, despite the poor neighborhood and some questionable parents from the Infernillo was well disciplined. The neighborhood was quite rural and yet somehow the school had managed to snag a full time psychologist (unheard of in rural schools) to help the troubled kids. The neighborhood was known for youth problems and yet the kids in the school were polite and very well disciplined. The neighborhood was dusty and unkempt but the school was spotless.

Today, the school is still spotless and orderly . . . there are over 350 kids, more bathrooms, a covered sports/assembly area, twice as many classrooms, a library well stocked with books, a computer room with 26 PC's and a trainer to maintain them and teach the kids. Much of this came through the foundation and organized into a teaching tool by another remarkable individual . . . the director, Senor Humberto Soto. Mr Soto leads an excellent team of teachers and assistants finding new ways every day to manage meager resources (such as a government allowance of 30 cents for lunch) into appetizing meals for the body and the brain.

The 20th Anniversary of the school had some unusual guests of honor - the business charge d'affaires, Peter Brennan, from the US Embassy who spoke about the strong connection between the US and Costa Rica. Also invited was the artist who designed the statue, Ruth Moreno who engaged us with her tale of how the village is intertwined in her art piece.

The village is named after the Tuete bush a rather weedy looking thing that is constantly under threat from neighborhood gardeners who mistake it for the weedy thing it looks like. Two Tuetes are known to be in protected captivity (as a result of these continued assaults on the village mascot) - one at the front of the school and the other in the Pura Vida gardens. Maybe the school officials who originally ignored the pleas for a new school 20 years ago knew something about Tuetes?

The next step in the evolution of the village may be the addition of a sports field and perhaps a small road around it to create a village center (and perhaps slow down traffic at the school). There is the beginnings of a plan . . . something that has made no progress in 10 years . . . and has no funding. The village and the school may bring this forward? A first step at "centering" the idea may have come at this 20th anniversary event - the arrival of the "Remembranzas" below (with "Mr Jim" as the staff and kids know him being interviewed at the ceremony):

On this day of the 20th anniversary there were a number of visitors who were surprised by what they found at this little primary school in a so called "poor village". Our guests who come visit the school most weeks of the year bringing a book or maybe a bag of books for the library are also surprised by what they find. Loud and clear the message goes out around the world that Costa Rica has achieved one of the highest literacy rates and then I explain . . . "they did it without books" (another tale on this subject is here: "what is literacy in Costa Rica?")

Well they are doing it without books in most schools here through the creativity of the teachers, the drive of some good directors, a pretty decent infrastructure and in a few cases the additional support of Fundacion Educar. As Jim Locke puts it when asked "Why Costa Rica?"

He replies simply, "Costa Rica will do something with my investment."

You'll be welcomed too on your next visit.

This one was triggered by some grumbles about the advanced state of the bureaucracies of Costa Rica.

As it was once explained to me, the reason there seem to be so many bureaucracies is that often when a problem becomes insurmountable or intractable (words that mean exactly the same to a bureaucracy) then it is time to do something different! The solution may be to form a new bureaucracy to study and solve the problem. Unfortunately the new bureaucracy may be formed under or reporting to the bureaucracy that couldn't solve it the first time with perhaps members of the original bureaucracy hired in for the purpose committed to a new solution to the problem they couldn't previously fix. Hey that's just how someone explained it to me :-)

The bureaucracy though can be a great deal of fun . . . I'd publish the complete tale of our last experience getting a permit renewal except we are not DONE yet . . . we are missing a "required document".

We are also now missing one more piece of paper that essentially is a permission not to have the "required document" because the agency responsible does not know where it is. I believe part of the problem is that the Municipality is in a temporary building after the January earthquake and keep records now in places that are not accessible or not well known at least. Weirdly enough the 4th floor (where the records used to live) was the most damaged in the quake.

Before we can have such permission we need a document that proves we can legally represent the entity that needs the document. When we started the process we had such a document drawn up by our lawyer with lots of nice stamps on it. BUT this document was given already to the original agency who is granting the permit. Copies are no good (heck, no stamps) so we need to go to San Jose to get another one with proper stampage.

Since we have only been working on this for 5 weeks, I can't be sure we are done but I'm pretty certain we will be OK with the permission not to have "the document" we needed once we have the document that proves who we are and are thus worthy of such permission.

We reached this condition a few days ago. We had all this explained by the people on the Third Floor but now have to explain it all again to the people on the First Floor of the new temporary Muni building. We decided to take a break from the process after showing up in a line that said in Spanish, "no more than 3 tramites in this line". I said to my wife, there's no way this is less than 3 tramites jejeje (Spanglish for "hehehe chuckl chuckl"). At that moment the clock struck 5pm and all the Muni workers scurried for the time clock.

When we finally got to the right line a few days later at the Muni to ask for the letter that says they don't have the document, the desk person politely informed us we'd need to write them a letter to request the letter saying the document could not be produced.

So we left guffawing all the way home and made an important decision. We'd go to the original agency and explain the story just recounted and try to get them to do without "the document". Well, to our surprise it worked!

And you could not invent such scenarios (well actually Terry Gilliam did in "Brazil") :-)and then this is Costa Rica and not to be taken all too seriously eh?

p.s. little known factoid: it seems the huge new BCR migracion computer may be nothing more than a front end for a filing clerk who still retrieves the same old green folder . . .

"I thought I made an appointment by computer?"

"Yes you did. Good morning."

"Is there a problem?"

"Well yes, we can't find your file. Can you come back tomorrow?"

p.p.s.

Full employment . . .

"Sir, you are missing a stamp on the document." (the one that proves who we are)

"Do you need a stamp?"

"NO, you do."

"How much is it?

"300 colones." (or 60 cents US)

"Could we get it from you?"

"NO, you walk across the street to the old guy with the umbrella up against the metal railing."

"Can you point him out to me?

"Of course."

p.p.p.s.

Meet your neighbors . . .

"Can we wait here?"

"No, please sit over there. I will call you when I am ready."

Official has a stack of maybe 700 pages he is routing through and looks like he may get to us around the second coming. He seats us among a large crowd of applicants.

"How does he know which of us is next?"

Shrugs and sighs then opens very large book "For the Love of Insects" by the marvelous and empirical Thomas Eisner.

Some time later.

"OK, you are ready. Please go in this door."

"Hola Carlos, how are you! I never knew you worked here!"

(Carlos is our next door neighbor)

Here begins an item which will endeavor to trap the very brief collected wisdom of an amateur plumber in Costa Rica. Let's start with the understanding that the very last thing on the planet that I want to know about is plumbing.

But whether you like it or not, usually late on a Friday evening the god of plumbing will take control of your weekend.

First a few actual quotes or situations to get the gist of the issue.

As my wife noted today, "the reason the houses in Costa Rica are all 1 story, is that it doesn't matter if something leaks."

A couple of years back we observed the following . . . it is better to have a pump man than a plumber! "30 minutes later it is pitch dark. Jose Andres shows up with a man who might be a plumber. I ask almost calmly, "Is this the plumber?". Jose Andres, without a hint of irony or sarcasm or any of those 1st world ways of dealing with weirdness replies, "No. He is my cousin. He knows about pumps."

Plumbing Lore Learned Last Week: before smashing a hole in the wall/floor/ceiling (or in the case of what happened last week all 3) . . . do try and discover which appliance is the source of the leak INSTEAD of listening to the guy with the hammer.

On any given day as you meander around the potholes on the way up to the hotel you will likely see one or two small fountain like events where a steady stream of water spouts into the air from the side of the road. On closer inspection, if you are not in a hurry, you might meander over to observe the event. You will notice that the 2 inch metal mains water pipe has sprung a leak. The usual solution in our neighborhood is to find a rock and lay it on the pipe so you no longer get sprayed as you go by.

One day, perhaps it was the first day of a new municipal water engineer (nobody knows who did it or nobody is talking) decided to fix the problem. Someone once observed that, maybe 1/2 the municipal water in Costa Rica is lost to such leaks. Of course nobody really knows that either, speculation and gossip are the order of the day in the local 'hood, never data.

Anyway, the local "engineer" started fixing the Big Pipe over a few days . . . shutting off the mains water periodically as they worked on a section. Apparently as more and more of the pipe got fixed the pressure in the neighborhood increased and one by one leaks started appearing in many houses squirting out of odd places. Complaints started pouring in and the work soon stopped.

Which is why to this day, if you walk outside the Pura Vida Hotel, you'll see a big rock sitting on top of a large metal pipe and a constant flow of water which drops into our drainage ditch at the side of the road, that runs under the fence down by the Katydid Casita, that fills up a small dam with perfect water and is pumped into the garden during the dry season for irrigation. And yet another reason why you don't really need plumbers in Costa Rica. In process entry . . .

The average CEO of a US company now earns 400 times that of the average worker (depending on the survey you read). The average US worker is paid $15 an hour.

A recent diatribe in our local English language rag (AM Costa Rica) has some gringo ranting about the price differences charged by a tour for gringos and local Costa Rican nationals.

Not sure if he is aware of this but the starting monthly teacher salary is about $365 or about $3 an hour and a street cop who has been around awhile will be paid a little over $600.

Yes there is discrimination here and you'll find it in every National Park - as a visitor you will pay $10 for the park and a local will pay less than $3. And in some places local kids will get in free. Costa Rica has managed to protect more than 27% of its country for national parks and reserves for future generations to enjoy. Gringo visitors can afford it (IMHO) and just remember you are indeed subsidizing the visit of some Costa Rican child who one day will try and protect the same park you are visiting today.

For more information on how the parks got started you should snag a copy of "The Quetzal and the Macaw" by David Rains Wallace.

The last 2 months new Golden Orb momas have appeared in many corners of the garden of the Pura Vida Hotel . . . the moma is quite large and makes impressively grand webs . . . one or two tiny tiny males are often found on a web near by waiting their turn. After sex, I am told though I have not observed this, the tiny male may sometimes leave a leg behind to distract moma while he makes his escape.

Snagged this pic this morning while searching for our lost plumber to discuss the finer points of a plumbing aberration he created a couple of years ago.

This one was sunning itself this morning by the Katydid Casita and here's a wicki link for more info . This spider has caught and devoured small birds in some countries but here is sits on very large webs collecting moths and wasps.