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.