Wednesday 1 Feb
Monte Verde, Costa Rica
Beautiful border crossings and the Pura Vida
We were sad to leave Dennis and his family, having spent a wonderful few days on the banks of the Rio San Juan, relaxing in rocking chairs and paddling up the river in dug out canoes. We took the early morning commuter boat, packed with locals going to work and school kids, sat back and enjoyed the spectacular river views and bird life for the last time.
At San Carlos we had our passports stamped and loaded our rucksacks in to a small border crossing boat bound for Los Chiles in Costa Rica. The crossing took us 1 1/2 hours up the stunning Rio Frio, smaller than the Rio San Juan but with olive green water and surrounded on both sides by trees and mangroves. We passed dozens of terrapins sunning themselves on logs, cayman casually slid down the banks in to the water and families of Howler monkeys dotted every tree. Flocks of huge white Egrets guided our boat down the river and we spotted the odd osprey perched high up in the tree tops. It was certainly the most beautiful and hassle free border crossing we'd ever experienced.
As we approached Los Chiles (Costa Rica) we past billboards advertising 'the pura vida' (Costa Rica's slogan) and boat loads of American tourists on day trips. The contrast with the Nicaraguan side couldn't have been greater.
I'd been looking forward to Costa Rica but on arriving I have to admit we found the experience slightly disappointing. Costa Rica prides itself on its democracy and likes to distance itself from its Central American neighbours. And we certainly enjoyed the hot showers, paved roads and varied cuisine. But at the same time its own culture seems to have been completely absorbed by North America. In La Fortuna (famous for its active volcano) power walkers in bright pink leotards line the streets and the roads are congested with over weight Americans driving 4x4s.
Every part of Costa Rica has a price attached; every volcano, every waterfall and every piece of rain forest has been bought up and sold off. Every inch of the country has been fully exploited for tourism, which on the one hand has been great for the economy, allowed precious natural habitats and rain forest to be preserved, and made usually inaccessible places accessible to everyone. The downside to all this is that the country has a distinct American theme park feel to it.
We only spent a couple of weeks in Costa Rica so it's hard to judge but we did travel the whole stretch of the Pacific coast by bus, and the roads were lined with advertisement after advertisement for real estate and retirement homes. I think every retired person in the state of California owns a hotel, hostel or tour company in Costa Rica, and spends at least 6 months of the year here. Certainly all the places we stayed were owned by Californians. I don't know, we found it frustrating, particularly having come from such culturally rich countries as Guatemala and Nicaragua.
All that said it is a beautiful country, very accessible and the people extremely friendly. Highlights for us were the beautiful beaches at Uvita and the stunning Monteverde rainforest reserve. Monteverde itself is a bit like Hawkshead in the Lake District, and a bustling tourist centre for hikers and day trippers alike, but the rainforest reserve is breathtaking. We walked across suspension bridges high up in the tree canopy and hiked trails into dense vegetation with ferns more than a thousand years old. The wildlife was also a treat and we saw toucans, hummingbirds, armadillo, coaties and monkeys. We were even fortunate enough to spot the elusive 'Resplendent Quetzal' with its bright red chest and long green tail feather. The sacred bird of Central America (see photo).