Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Reflections on my Journey - Travels in Costa Rica (Part 9)

All in all, I had a wonderful time in Costa Rica. I experienced a lot, and I learned a lot, too. If you are considering a vacation in Costa Rica, here are some things to think about:

- The main industry of Costa Rica is tourism. Therefore, many towns have the “feel” of a tourist location. On my other two trips to foreign countries, I visited European cities and towns. They certainly have their fair share of visitors, but it “feels” like a city where people live and work and have fun. That is a major difference I noticed. If I had stayed with a local, things might have been very different. So, just know that a trip to Costa Rica will not necessarily include a cultural immersion, at least in the spots I stayed. (And if you can provide any information to the contrary, I would love to hear it.)

- Costa Rica has two very distinct wet and dry seasons that differ slightly depending on which areas you visit. I found a good reference chart: http://www.govisitcostarica.com/travelInfo/climate.asp. The upside to traveling during the wet season is less crowds and lower prices. The downside is obviously the rain.

- Consider flying into Liberia. It might be more expensive, but it will also save you lots of travel time if you’re planning to spend most of your time in that region.

- The beaches are nice in Costa Rica, but they are certainly not the nicest in the world. For example, I thought Hawaii’s beach to be prettier. Although, I have never found so many nice shells like the ones I found on Costa Rica’s beaches. Also, I was only on the Pacific side, so I don’t know if the Carribean beaches are any better. You can swim and surf (by the way, Nick thought surfing Playa Guiones was better than Playa Grande), but there isn’t really any good snorkeling or diving. If you’re looking for snorkeling or diving, I hear Belize is a much better choice. (I’ve also heard that they don’t have the nicest beaches, either.)

- Costa Rica’s “crown jewel” is its jungle - specifically, the Oso region in the southern part of the country. Corcovado National Park is in this area. I didn’t go here, and I’m sad about that. I feel like I missed out (sort of like sitting through an okay dinner and then leaving just before they serve an amazing dessert). The reason we didn’t go here is because of time constraints. We just couldn’t fit in the cloudforest, a national park, beaches AND the jungle. My honest recommendation: Skip the beaches and go straight to the jungle. Costa Rica is not known for its beaches; its known for its wildlife.

- The bus system is very tricky, to say the least. Hotel staff was very helpful with times, connections, and stop locations. I also got into the habit of asking what a bus stop looked like, since there was never a sign to identify it by name. At the bus stations, there are usually a couple men hawking taxi rides, and they are good to ask for help because their English seems pretty good. Of course, if you speak Spanish, the whole experience will probably be a lot easier. We’d like to take an early bus because we never knew when the next (or last) connection would be. It’s also nice to arrive in a new location while there’s still daylight, giving you time to find your hotel and explore a little.

- Flip flops are NOT good travel shoes. As comfortable as they can be, they just don’t stand up to lots of walking or carrying extra weight. I think a sturdier and more supportive sandal would be a much better choice. The pair of Keens I own are a little too sturdy, so I am currently looking into getting Chacos for my next trip. (Anyone have any experience with this brand?)

Monday, April 16, 2012

Alajuela, where this journey reaches its end - Travels in Costa Rica (Part 8)

March 19, 2012
We are sitting at the bus stop, pondering the bus that just drove away. As it approached, we stood up and flagged it down. “Nicoya,” I called out to confirm. “No,” the bus driver responded, wagging a finger at us. He drove away. The sign on the front of the bus said “Nicoya.” It was near the scheduled time of 6:30. But it’s not our bus...Huh. We are wondering if maybe the bus drives to Nosara and then comes back this way when a car stops on the street. “Where are you going?” a middle aged man calls out. We tell him Nicoya, and he says that’s where he’s going, passing through on the way to Liberia. “Do you want a ride?” he asks. Our response is an immediate and grateful yes. It is so pleasant riding with Rick the Canadian. No frequent stops, no dust drifting in through the windows, no stuffy heat gradually building as the sun continues to rise. And it only takes us an hour to get to Nicoya, instead of three. Such an incredibly kind gesture from Rick; I’m happy for our good fortune.

We’re waiting in Nicoya for our next bus to arrive, which should be any moment because it’s supposed to depart in five minutes (assuming it’s actually on time). A tico randomly approaches us and asks where we’re going. I wonder if maybe we look lost or confused. San Jose, we tell him, and he points to a bus, telling us it’s that one. What?!?! The bus with “Santa Cruz” written across the top of the windshield that has been parked here forever??? Indeed, he is right. I touch his arm, look him straight in his eyes, smile warmly, tell him, “Muchas gracias.” I use every gesture possible to express my gratitude. Without him, without his little bit of thoughtfulness, we would have missed our bus and not even realized until it was too late. Good lord, we’re completely at the mercy of the kindness of strangers here.
It’s ironic that we were at the station an hour and a half early, yet we’re still left standing on the bus, but at least we’re on it. The bus jostles and sways, making my body jostle and sway, so my shins are banging into the stairs over and over. Thankfully, I only need to endure an hour of this before a man preparing to get off the bus gives me his seat.
It’s difficult being in a foreign country and not knowing the language (or how their crazy bus system works). There are many moments of confusion and feelings of helplessness. Lots of uncertainty, and situations that are normally easy become complicated or even impossible. It seems that now and again a person will be disgusted by my lack of comprehension or conversation skills, expressing disdain with a mutter, by the roll of the eyes, abruptly turning away. Maybe they could admire me instead, because I believe in the worth and beauty of their country. I visit their home despite my inadequacies, in spite of the vulnerable and ostracized position I place myself. Do they think I don’t care, that I don’t wish I spoke their language? How much easier it would all be! Not to mention just how nice it would be to have more conversations, meet more people, be included. But how can I do that? Learn them all? I try to learn words, bits and pieces, practice phrases, but an entire complex and sophisticated language for each new place? I will admit and apologize for my limitations here.
A four hour bus ride and a short taxi ride finally get us to Hotel Pacande in Alajuela. We are starving, but no sodas appeal to us - we never gained an appreciation for Costa Rican cuisine. (Maybe we just never found the right restaurant or ordered the right dish, or maybe truly good Costa Rican food is only found in the home, prepared by the matriarchs of the family.) Nick settles for a steakburger from Burger King, but I just can’t bring myself to eat at a fast food chain, especially an American one. I make a lunch out of an ice cream cone from a heladeria, a candy bar from a pinata shop, and an orejas from a panaderia. Mmm, dessert for lunch. We walk awhile more; I like the city. It’s big without being overwhelming, has a laid-back vibe, and there’s a panaderia on every block. :) We eat dinner in our room, a soft, sweet bread filled with bits of ham and pineapple that we picked up at one of the many bakeries we passed. Dessert is gummy candies covered in sugar, a sweet treat I discovered in Playa Guiones and found again at the pinata store.

March 20, 2012
We wake up an hour before the alarm, we’re so used to waking up at daybreak. With our time, I decide to take one last walk through the streets of Costa Rica. Not as nice as the beach, but it’ll do.
It’s a quick taxi ride to the airport (why we chose this hostel), where I discover Costa Rica charges you to leave! $26! You should be warned about things like this, I think. We spend our last five colones on coffee beans. It’s been a good trip. I’m sure not gonna miss the buses, though. A create a collage in my mind of the perfect place, a combination of places we’ve been: staying at the Las Tortugas hotel but with the KayaSol restaurant in the town of Santa Elena next to the Playa Guiones beach. And a horse to run like the wind.

Hotel Pacande
To get here, take the bus going to San Jose, but get off at the airport (this is one of the more obvious stops). Then, take a five-minute taxi to Hotel Pacande (there’s another hotel called Pacande Hotel, so make sure you ask for the right one or have the address handy). I think it’s a good idea to stay close to the airport the night before departure, so that’s why we stayed in Alajuela our last night.

Panaderia Santa Clara
This is one of the better bakeries I ran across in Costa Rica. The display cases were full of tempting breads and pastries. I really appreciated that it wasn’t only the typical drier baked goods.

Hotel Pacande serves a light breakfast that’s included in the cost of your stay - coffee, juice, fresh fruit, and airy crusty bread.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Playa Guiones Beach and Why I Hate Bikes - Travels in Costa Rica (Part 7)

March 15, 2012
The 7:30am bus to Santa Cruz arrives at the hotel bus stop at 7:20. Thank god we got to the stop early. The bus fills up quickly. One quirky passenger uses his cane to poke a man boarding the bus in his large belly. Then, he put his fingers down the back of the man’s pants and tugs on his belt. The man doesn’t seemed amused, but I sure am. We pass by houses, sitting on the edge of the road or further back, solitary or lined up with a few others. These rural homes are small, but tidy and inviting. Most have pretty gardens, many have fences or gates, and some have wrought iron designs over the windows. Some are charming, some elegant, some beautiful. They look like homes I would like to visit, have a conversation with their owners. I wish I could walk through neighborhoods of these homes, but they never seem to be in the places we visit, only the spaces inbetween. We pass a mare nursing her colt and cows with big flaps of skin dangling from their necks. 

At the Santa Cruz bus station, we learn that a bus to Nicoya doesn’t leave from this station. Of course not; that would be too easy. A friendly “taxi” man drives us to another station for $3, and we join the long line already forming. Our bus is late, and eventually those in charge call out to the crowd to get on another bus instead. The line disintegrates, and it’s a mad dash to get on. We’re left standing on the crammed bus (I guess we’re not very good at dashing). At least we’re on. It’s a short half-hour ride to Nicoya, so it’s not too horrible, but my feet get achy from bearing the weight of my backpack while wearing flip flops. 

We are heading to Playa Guiones, a  tiny beach town near Nosara, and the bus doesn’t leave Nicoya until 2:30, three and a half hours away. Nick and I walk down the street and find a lovely city park, where we relax on a bench shaded by a large tree. We watch the most enormous iguana I’ve even seen munch on mangoes. We munch on mini bananas and pastry.

The bus to Nosara is quickly crowded, and we’re forced to sit for two hours with our packs in our laps. We arrive in Playa Guiones hot, sweaty, and dusty (and lucky that we got off only one stop sooner than we should have). 

The beach is simply enchanting in the evening. It’s a long stretch, and both ends have rocky cliffs with mist trailing out to the ocean. Waves break and break and break. The sand squishing through my toes reminds me of Connecticut beaches, of my home, of my childhood. We sit and take in the beautiful sunset. Already I’ve decided this beach is nicer than Playa Grande.

We eat dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, in an outdoor dining room with a band playing. All the other tables are occupied by Americans (and maybe some Canadians; it’s hard to tell). Where do the ticos vacation? I wonder. Surely they must travel around their own country... After dinner, we take a walk on the beach. Venus, sitting low in the sky, is so bright that it casts a glow on the water. Venuslight.

March 16, 2012
This is a nice beach. The sun is bright in a cloudless blue sky. The breeze is refreshing, without being so strong that it blows sand all over you. The water is cool, but not cold. The waves are powerful, but not overwhelming. It’s pleasant. It’s easy to spend the day here.

In the late afternoon, we walk to the other street in Playa Guiones. There are a couple nice jewelry/art shops, but I especially enjoy Robin’s Cafe, which has homemade ice cream.

March 17, 2012
We go out for “dawn patrol” this morning, when surfers check the waves at daybreak. Nick surfs, and I walk. Then we roam the streets, looking for the farmer’s market. When we find it, there’s not much, and no pineapple, which is what I really wanted.

Nick thinks it’ll be fun to ride bikes to the town of Nosara, about six kilometers away. I’m not so sure. Bikes haven’t really been my thing since I was a kid. Probably since I had to switch over to adult bikes, and now they’re always too tall. It’s a funny little hopping, tilting dance I need to do whenever I stop or plan to get off. And the seats hurt my butt. And I think it’s misery riding a bike uphill. I’d much rather walk; that way, I only have to drag myself. So, maybe I wasn’t approaching this adventure with the best attitude... We rent our bikes from the shop across the street and begin pedaling down the dirt road. The bikes have no gears, but I feel like I’m stuck in tenth. Even just to make the bike move on flat ground, I feel like I’m exerting an enormous amount of effort. Forget the hill up to the main road; I walk. Sections of the road are dirt, and every time a truck or car or motorbike or ATV zooms by, I’m left with dirt in my eyes and another layer of dust over the rest of me. The entire road, even the paved portion, is bumpy, uneven, and riddled with potholes. Every time I reach another hill, I have to hop off my bike and walk, pushing the bike along. And it’s not just uphill; I walk down steep hills, too, because the brakes barely work and the tires skid over the sandy dirt. I grit my teeth. I have a strong urge to kick my bike and hitch a ride back to the hotel with the next pick-up truck that passes by. But I keep going, my grip tight on the plastic handles that keep sliding off the metal handlebars... at least until Nick’s bike gets a flat tire. A brief scenario plays through my head where I scream out, “See, I knew this was a bad idea!” and take off, leaving him eating my dust, but I refrain. We’re left walking the last couple kilometers back to Playa Guiones and arrive at the bike shop hot, sweaty, and grimy. I don’t know if “fun” is the word I’d use to describe our bike ride... Really, I just need to learn to laugh it off, instead of letting my frustration take over. What’s the point? It certainly doesn’t change anything, and actually makes the experience worse. Negative emotions poison the moment, taint the memory. And why ruin the single memory of riding a bike in Costa Rica? Really, it’s not worth it. I will remember this next time I grumble.

Despite all the frustration, it is actually nice riding through Nosara, which turns out to be the first (and only) truly authentic Costa Rican town we visit. Not a single tourist in sight. Homes, a few shops, the produce stand, a couple sodas. It looks like at some point Nosara tried to join the tourism industry, but a dilapidated hotel and boarded up disco makes me think it wasn’t successful. I guess people wanted to stay closer to the beach. A lady walks slowly down the street, a horse’s version of a leash in her hand, and a young girl rides in the saddle. I’m happy to at least get a brief glimpse of Costa Rican life in rural towns.

At the market, I pick up the BIGGEST, JUICIEST pineapple I’ve ever had in my entire life. After dinner, I cut it up, and pineapple juice flows everywhere, dripping off the counter and down my arms. Mmmm, it is sooooo good. I think I could eat pineapple everyday and never get tired of it. While I savor dessert, the sounds of Spanish classical music played by a young man on his acoustic guitar trickles through the screen windows, and I savor that, too.

March 18, 2012
It is my last sunrise walk. I walk far, watch the sky grow pink, feel the cool breeze. I can’t resist picking up more shells; never in my life have I been anywhere with so many pretty shells - The currents must carry them all to the shores of Costa Rica. 

It’s a very relaxing day. We spend some time on the beach, playing in the waves of high tide and soaking up the sun. For some relief from the intense heat of midday, we escape to the shadows cast by palm trees surrounding the pool area. Then it’s back to the beach for another long walk (Nick catches a baby iguana!) and another pretty sunset. 

In our warm room with a barely existent breeze, we pack up to leave in the morning. I don’t mind. Three days at a beach is enough for me, as much as I’ve enjoyed it. But I will miss my morning walks.

We stayed at this hotel based on a friend’s recommendation, and I’m happy we did. I almost made us reservations at The Guilded Iguana (practically across the street) based on TripAdvisor reviews. I don’t know about the rooms at Guilded Iguana, but I liked the set-up and restaurant at KayaSol better. KayaSol’s rooms are large yurt-like structures, or they have a couple buildings with two levels (two rooms on each floor). Our first night we stayed in a separate building because one of the cheaper rooms wasn’t available. It was huge. It had two large rooms, and there was a well-equipped kitchen area in one. Definitely more space than we needed, but great for a family or if you’re staying awhile and want to cook meals. Our remaining nights we stayed in a room in one of the buildings on the bottom level. We were happy that we still got a fridge! None of the rooms have air-conditioning here, so it’s pretty warm at night, even with a ceiling fan and all the windows open. We wondered if a room on the upper level would have a better breeze...
KayaSol also has a small pool area, which is a great place to escape the sun (the entire area is shaded by trees the entire day). There are a few lounge chairs that look very nice, but the hard wood makes them a little uncomfortable after awhile. I liked the pool area at Hotel Las Tortugas in Playa Grande much better, but it was okay because I’d rather spend time on the beach here, anyway.
KayaSol is in a good location. It’s a short walk to the beach, the surf shop is across the street, and the convenience store is practically across the street. There are a couple other restaurants and shops nearby, too.

KayaSol Restaurant
In my opinion, this is the best place to eat in Playa Guiones. Everything we ate here is good, and the prices are good, too (and if you stay here, you get 10% off the bill). Anytime we tried to eat somewhere else, either the menu didn’t interest us, it was too expensive/overpriced, or it was closed (many places are closed on Sunday). I had the house salad and quinoa salad - both were great. If you’re sharing, get a full order; otherwise, a half order should be plenty. The black bean burger is really good, and Nick really liked the buffalo chicken sandwich (he ate it twice). A yummy appetizer is the nachos (I devoured them for my lunch one day). The chicken chipotle, barbeque wings, and caesar salad are good, but not our favorite. I was excited when I received the largest pour of wine ever, and for only 2,000 colones ($4). Granted, it wasn’t the best wine, or even that good of wine, but whatever, I was happy. I tried the ice cream sandwich for dessert our first night, and it wasn’t that great, so I skipped dessert the rest of the time.

Robin’s Cafe
It’s a short walk (maybe ten minutes) from KayaSol to the cafe, located on a nearby street. It has a small menu, but what interested me was the homemade ice cream. It’s a little expensive (1,700 colones for a small), but it’s good and refreshing in the sticky afternoon heat. I enjoyed the caramel oatmeal cookie flavor.

http://www.nosarasurfshop.com/ (I think this is the place Nick rented his board from, but I’m not sure.)
Boards are available for rent at the surf shop across the street from KayaSol. They are $15 a day.

Ride Bikes
We rented our bikes from the surf shop for $10 a day per bike. I would suggest not renting their bikes. They suck. Also, when we returned with a flat tire, they couldn’t fix the tire or give us another bike. So, even if we wanted to, and even though we already paid, we couldn’t ride bikes for the rest of the day. There is another place down the street that also rents bikes (they didn’t have any bikes available when we wanted to rent), but hopefully they’re better.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Horseback riding in Brasilito - Travels in Costa Rica (Part 6)

March 14, 2012
Last night, I haggled for a taxi to Brasilito from Playa Grande - they wanted $30, and I only wanted to pay $20 for the twenty-minute ride. I think I was still sore from being ripped off in San Jose, so when they counter offered with $25 I refused and walked away. I really wanted to go to Brasilito, but I REALLY didn’t want to get ripped off. The woman at the front desk must have called someone else because she knocked on our door five minutes later and told us we had a ride for $20 at 8:00am this morning.
Our “taxi” turns out to be a man driving his beat up truck, so I’m pretty sure it is a friend willing to give us a ride for a little extra money. The reason we’re taking a day trip to Brasilito is to go horseback riding, and our horses are waiting for us near Hotel Brasilito. Jason, a young man - still a boy, really - is our guide. We climb onto our horses and mosey our way to the beach, the horses walking in a follow-the-leader line that is typical of trail rides. I’m not here to walk in a line, though; I’m here to run. I’m quick to share this with Jason, so once we’re on a wide stretch of beach, he starts kissing the air; the squeaky sound signals my horse to quicken its pace. My horse begins to trot, and then he goes faster, and I hold onto his mane with the hand not already holding the reign, lower my body to his neck, and he gets faster still. And we are running, and I am laughing out loud again and again, pure joy bursting out. His strides are long and smooth, and I am just there with him. As we approach the end of the stretch of beach, I ease up, raise my body and pull back on the reigns, reluctantly slow to a walk. Incredible!
In the forest, we see a black howler monkey, and a couple of iguanas speedily get out of our way, but I am yearning for the wide open beach. As soon as the horse’s hooves touch the sand, I am ready to go. And so is he. With little prompting he quickens his gait, lengthens his stride, begins to fly. We are soaring; exhilaration pumps through me. There are people on the beach, so I slow down to pass. But my horse doesn’t want to walk now; exhilaration is pumping through him, too. So before we are beyond the people, he starts running again and we zip behind a girl sitting in the sand, not a foot away. I wonder if she feels the wind against her back as we pass, if she quickly turns her head to see what is there, but I don’t look back. I let my horse have control, let him choose our path. We fly as one. At least until the beach ends; then we have to stop and walk on the path through a resort area. Until more beach! My horse has been waiting like me! But we have to be patient, wait for two cars to pass... and then we fly. He is smooth and strong; I can feel my butt bouncing in the saddle, but I don’t care. When we run, I am so in the moment I can barely recall it. Could I hear the waves? Did I feel the wind? I only clearly remember the feel of the horse, powerful and sleek, and the adrenaline rushing through my blood. When we finish riding, too soon, too soon, my smile is permanent. Over and over I relive the moments of rushing through space, flying like the wind. Already I am sad that this memory, like so many others, will fade. Sad that when I remember it, I won’t be able to capture it fully. I wish I could hold it tight, tuck it safely away, keep it forever. It is hard to hold onto the exact emotions, the specific physical reactions, that make an experience real. But at least I felt it at all. At least I flew at all.

We eat lunch at Soda del Coco, run by incredibly bright and friendly ticos. Their good natures only heighten my already good mood. Afterward, I call Manuel, our “taxi driver,” and we get a ride back to our hotel in Playa Grande.

Hotel Brasilito
I thought about staying here for one night, but decided to stay in Playa Grande for two reasons: It was easier to stay in one place, and I didn’t want to abandon my early morning turtle watch. It looks like a nice hotel, right on the beach with a large outdoor restaurant. Other than the horseback riding, I’m not sure why you’d want to stay in Brasilito, though. The beach doesn’t seem as nice as Playa Grande, but Playa Conchal, a very pretty beach, is within walking distance (and backed by a large resort).

Soda del Coco
One of two sodas on the small street leading to Hotel Brasilito, this is the cheerier-looking of the two. The food is great - I have a plate of fresh fruit, and Nick gets a really tasty burger. I enjoy the staff as much as the food - both are friendly and chat with us. One even poses for a picture.

Horseback Riding
Brasilito Excursions books rides through Hotel Brasilito, so call the hotel at 506.2654.4237 to make arrangements. A one-hour ride costs $25, and a two-hour ride costs $35. We went on the two-hour ride, which included some beach and forest areas. I’m guessing that the one-hour ride would only be on the beach, but I don’t know. We went at 9:00am, thinking to beat the heat, but I forgot how early the sun rises and the day heats up. I would suggest going really early, or else wait until 4:00ish, when it starts to cool off and you can watch the beginning of the sunset. I imagine it would be very pretty to time your ride with the sunset...

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Searching for Turtles in Playa Grande - Travels in Costa Rica (Part 5)

March 12, 2012
The 7:00am bus to Tamarindo pulls into the Liberia station at 8:03. Oh well, at least we didn’t miss it or get on the wrong bus. We get off when the bus stops near Witch’s Rock Surf Camp, mainly because I remember Matt and Jessica telling us about it. I have no idea where in Tamarindo I am, but at least I know I’m there. (I’m getting tired of these bus stop guessing games. In Liberia I learned, one stop too late, that the stop before the bus station would have been a much shorter walk to our hotel.) We decide to walk in the same direction that the bus drove away. Tamarindo has a strong tourist feel - the streets are lined with souvenir shops, hotels, restaurants, and foreigners. It’s not as crowded as I expected, though, so that’s good. We’re starving, so we grab lunch at a restaurant on the edge of the beach. And that’s about all the time we feel like spending in this town.

The quickest and cheapest way to reach Playa Grande is by water taxi, so of course this is how we travel. It’s a ten second ride in a tiny boat from one beach to another (they are separated by a narrow ribbon of water too deep to just walk across). 

Once on the other side of the estuary, it’s about a 1.5 kilometer walk along the beach to Las Tortugas Hotel. There are bunches of pretty shells strewn along the shore, and we’re constantly stooping down to pick one up (there nothing graceful about bending down with a heavy pack strapped to your back). I poke one of the shells I notice with my toe, ready to add it to my growing collection, only to find a snail attached! Of course, I leave the snail on the beach; there are plenty of other shells to find. Upon closer inspection, I notice many shells moving slowly through the sand, a snail hidden beneath each one. There are lots - LOTS - of spiral shells (I unofficially name them unicorn horns) scattered across the sand. Collecting shells is a nice way to pass the time and keep my mind off the increasingly heavier backpack I’m lugging. We eventually reach the hotel, and it’s amazing. It’s literally right on the beach, separated only by a thin line of trees.

We spend the remaining daylight on the beach. Walking along, we get to see our first wild monkey! It’s a black howler monkey hanging out in a tree growing in the yard of one of the vacation homes lining the beach. It, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to care much about us, barely even glancing in our direction. Still, I’m excited. 

Sitting on the sand, we watch a gorgeous sunset, see the sky turn pink across the horizon as the sun slowly dips lower and lower until it can’t be seen. In the dusky light, we walk into town, only to discover there isn’t much of a town: a few restaurants, a bar, a tiny convenience store, and a surf shop, that’s it. I’m told that the nearest grocery store is a thirty minute walk away. This is truly a sleepy beach town.

March 13, 2012
At 4:40am the alarm jolts me awake, and I wipe sleep from my bleary eyes. The Playa Grande beach is a nesting site for the giant leatherback sea turtles. It’s past the most active part of the season, but there’s a chance we’ll see a hatchling making the journey to its ocean home. We walk along in near darkness, the moon our only light. The air is warm and carries a sweet scent, almost like fresh hay. The sky is a faded blue, with just a hint of dawn on the eastern horizon. I scan the beach. Dark holes and rocks and driftwood take on the shape of a tiny turtle, but I know they’re not. Even though my mind wants to believe. The sky behind the brush grows lighter and whiter. The stars disappear, and only the moon remains. It is silent except for the collapsing of waves. We turn around and retrace our steps. We walk until the birds take wing and call out that it’s morning. No turtle, but a sunrise walk along an empty beach doesn’t need a turtle sighting to make it good. It’s more than good enough on its own. A turtle would only make it better. :)
We walk to the grocery store along a dirt road bordered on both sides by undeveloped land. This is much better, I think, than a sidewalk lined with shops, as it would be in Tamarindo. Some people like to travel to places that feel like home, I guess. Maybe they feel safe and comfortable surrounded by people and places they understand (and understand them, their language). Or maybe they just like home that much. To me, that lacks the essence, the reason, for being somewhere else. It’s missing the point. Yes, at times it’s confusing, and frustrating, and even to your disliking, but it’s worth it. It’s worth the struggle to experience a completely different reality, to be somewhere wholly new. To be a part of other’s lives, not just a bystander. Not a little bite - a whole mouthful. At least, that’s how I feel. Unfortunately, that’s proving to be a little tricky in Costa Rica, where the main industry is tourism. There are places I wanted to see in Costa Rica, like this beautiful coastline along the Nicoya Peninsula, where it’s difficult to completely escape home, the familiar, but I’m sure going to try. And Playa Grande is definitely more of an escape than Tamarindo, even though they’re only minutes apart.
The grocery store turns out to be a tiny convenience store in Palm Beach Estates, full of hotels and vacation homes. Where do these people buy food? I wonder. (I later learn that if you have a car, it’s not a far drive to another town with a grocery store.) Instead of taking the street, we walk back on the beach, barefoot and with a cool breeze. Snails are out and about, too, drawing squiggly lines in the sand. I can’t resist collecting more shells. 

Back at our hotel, we change into our swimsuits and lay on the beach, where we discover the cool breeze also blows sand into your ears and mouth. Not so relaxing. Chairs by the pool are better, and we bake in the intense, tropical sun (slathered in sunscreen, of course).
In the late afternoon, we return to the beach. I carry a towel and book; Nick carries a surfboard. Other than the sea turtles, we also came to Playa Grande for the surf. Travelers and locals alike descend upon the beach at dawn and dusk, when the waves are bigger here due to the tide. I watch Nick paddle out, watch him duck under the breaking waves, then ride the gentle swells further out. He is a little black dot, disappearing and reappearing as the water rises and falls. I keep a close eye on him, track his movement, his point of entry on the surf. Then I lose him. I don’t know which head bobbing in the distance is his. What if one of the head’s isn’t his? The question grips me suddenly. What if one of the strong rip tides I keep hearing about pulled him out to sea, what if he is gone? My questions are irrational, fears based in the unknown. But I wonder why I didn’t kiss him and tell him I love him before he left. Why I treated his leaving so casually, when life is so fragile and anything can happen, accidents happen all the time, moments change everything. I try to reason my way through panicky emotions, calm myself with logic, but the worry sits in me, and I stare intently, desperately, at the silhouetted surfers and try to find him. It’s not until I see his broad shoulders, recognize the line of his back, that I’m able to relax. He is safe, he is here. I watch Nick float on the waves, and a renewed appreciation for life, and the people in my life, floats in me.

March 14, 2012
We are on the beach even earlier this morning. The air is cool and smells like sea salt today. White crabs scuttle across the sand on their spindly legs. “Poco tortuga,” I call out in a sing-song voice, but no baby turtles emerge. The walk is so nice sometimes I even forget I’m supposed to be looking for turtles.Clouds the color of pink cotton candy announce the arrival of morning. 

Out at the pool, a howler monkey comes to play. Actually, I think he really comes to eat. He is friends with the man that sits in the parking lot; I assume this friendship is based solely on the fact that the man feeds him mangos. I know I shouldn’t reach out to a wild animal, but I do anyway. He grabs onto my hand with his two little black hands, long fingers wrapping around my fingers. It is a gentle but firm grip, and I’m careful not to let him tug my hand too close to the rows of sharp teeth he displays. I feed him pieces of mango and watch him tear away the flesh with his teeth, then daintily wipe his mouth and face when his is finished. He releases his tail’s grip on the branch and is on the ground, and we are looking at each other. Suddenly, he is coming toward me! With all four paws, he takes a couple steps toward me, then stops. Then another couple quick steps. I am not about to fully engage with a wild monkey. Shaking hands is one thing; grappling is another. He is making growling sounds now, and I am backing up more quickly. Abandoning any bond we may have shared, I don’t hesitate to tattle to his friend, who sternly tells him, “No,” and I make a hasty escape. I think I am done playing with monkeys for today.

We go to the beach and see another beautiful sunset, then clean up for dinner. Mmmm, it is our first really good meal in Costa Rica, enjoyed in a lovely outdoor dining area surrounded by twinkling lights. A very nice end to the day. In fact, today is my favorite day in Costa Rica so far (and quite possibly may be my favorite of all). On the walk back the sky is the blackest black, distant stars bright pricks in the night, even further stars a glowing smudge.

March 15, 2012
I’m up before dawn for my last turtle search. The beach is empty, calm, peaceful. Morning advances slowly, patiently. The sight of sea birds flying low over the water, with a hazy pink and purple sky behind them, is gorgeous. I find three little sand dollars today. I walk until the sun is fully above the horizon and the crabs have gone to wait for twilight in their murky little holes. No turtles. But it’s hard to be disappointed when the walk itself is otherwise perfect. I have a little time before catching the bus, and I spend it in the hammock, enjoying every last moment in this lovely place.

Las Tortugas Hotel
If traveling by water taxi from Tamarindo, walk about 1.5 km on Playa Grande beach to marker #7. There is a little pathway to a gate that is the entrance to the hotel property. The path is maybe ten feet; you are that close to the beach! You walk into the backyard, and it’s a tropical oasis. There’s a large shade structure with hammocks hanging from the edges and tables and chairs in the middle. A sunny pool is surrounded by lounge chairs, and it has a small, shallow area (probably intended for kids, but I thought it was great for sitting). Separate in its own corner, there is a jacuzzi. Everywhere is lush trees and hibiscus plants. It’s a gorgeous outdoor area; in fact, it’s my favorite of everywhere we stayed. Our room had a comfortable bed, warm showers, and air conditioning (a great amenity on the hot coast). I loved staying here, but a couple things would have made it even better: a hotel restaurant that had better food and prices, and a grocery store within walking distance. If you’re interested in surfing, the hotel has some surfboards for rent.

El Vaquero (Tamarindo)
The restaurant is right next to Witch’s Rock Surf Camp (it’s actually owned by the same expatriates). It’s all outdoor seating, at wooden tables with thatched umbrellas that are right at the beach’s edge (which is mainly why we chose to eat here). We share nachos (they forgot the cheese, but we didn’t bother asking for any), grilled sweet corn on the cob, and pork ribs that come with salad and mashed potatos. The food’s good and reasonably priced. The service is good, too. FYI: They don’t start serving their lunch menu until noon.

Las Tortugas Hotel Restaurant
We eat dinner at the hotel’s restaurant one night, on a deck overlooking the beach, a candle on our table. It’s rather romantic, actually. We get a salad with grilled chicken, a cheeseburger, and two margaritas each. The food is good - our plates are empty at the end of dinner - but nothing special. The cost of our meal is $42.00. Food is definitely not any cheaper in Costa Rica. (We did pay $18 for just the drinks. They have Happy Hour every night from 5:00 - 6:30, two margaritas for the price of one, but they are over $9 each.)

El Huerto Mediterranean Restaurante and Pizzeria
This restaurant is a short walk from the Las Tortugas Hotel, and it’s where we eat our first really good meal in Costa Rica. As a bonus, it’s also reasonably priced! We’re served a complimentary plate of potato omelet in a tasty sauce. We share a huge salad of lettuce wedges covered in fried garlic and shredded parmesan, with a balsamic reduction drizzled on top - it’s my favorite part of dinner. Then we have a Hawaiian pizza cooked in a wood oven; it was good, but I thought the cheese had a rubbery consistency. Not one to pass up homemade dessert, we share a delicious bread pudding with pistachio sauce. A complimentary shot of limoncello liqueur is also brought to our table. It is a good meal in a lovely outdoor dining area, with wooden tables and chairs and twinkling lights. 

The only place to buy food within walking distance of the hotel is a tiny convenience store that sells drinks and packaged snacks. So, pick up groceries in Tamarindo, unless you’re okay eating only at restaurants and/or snacks from the convenience store. If you have a car, I heard there’s a town with a grocery store not too far away.

Surfing & Lessons (Tamarindo)
I had no desire to take surf lessons, or to stay in Tamarindo, but I heard this is a great place to learn because of the small, consistent breaks. If you’re just looking to surf some good waves, they can take you by boat to the famous Witch’s Rock.

Go sightseeing for giant leatherback turtles laying eggs or the babies crawling to the ocean
The beach of Playa Grande forms part of the National Park Las Baulas which protects Costa Rica's most important nesting site of leatherback sea turtles. Nesting season for the leatherbacks is from October to March. For a chance to view the turtles at night, you must take a tour with a guide. The tours are offered October 20th - February 15th. Speak to the hotel staff for reservations. When I visited in March, there’s a possibility you might see a hatchling at dawn (you aren’t allowed on the beach until 5:00am), but I didn’t see one.

A water taxi is the quickest and cheapest way to travel between Tamarindo and Playa Grande. (There are no buses between the two places, so your only other option is a car taxi.) For $1 one way, you get a ten-second boat ride from one side of the estuary to the other. The water taxis run from about 8am to 4pm, and they wait at the river’s mouth (travel right from Witch’s Rock Surf Camp). You can’t see the boats from the top of the beach, but you’ll see them once you get closer to the water. If you don’t want to take the bus all the way to Tamarindo, another option is to get off in Huacas (coming from Liberia) and take a taxi to your hotel for about $14. From the Liberia airport, you also might be able to get shuttle service for a reasonable price.