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!