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Thursday 12 Dec 2013
San Jose, Costa Rica

Guns, hot springs and dinosaurs

Determined to get my bearings and see what San José had to offer, I asked the hostel about a walking tour or similar, but they said most of what there was to see was around the main pedestrian street.  A guy from my dorm was heading into town to catch a bus to Nicaragua, so I took the map and went with him.  The main street was full of Christmas shoppers, much like any other high street in any other town at this time of year.  It took me a while to spot the difference: Each corner had a metal gantry with at least two Policemen in stab vests, armed with semi-automatic rifles.  Ironically, this was probably the safest week for me to be out in San José, with so many police around, but it didn’t really make me feel any better.

I had lunch in the Central Market, an indoor market selling everything from fruit and veg to handicrafts and kitchen utensils. 

I stood a while and watched an all-female marching band getting ready.  At a guess, there must have been around 60 girls, all in their teens and dressed in bright green and white uniforms, complete with plumed hats and baton twirlers.  When they started playing carols, I was expecting them to just march along the street, but they surprised me with some nifty choreography in time with the music, including twirls, diagonal marches and shuffling places (regardless of the position of the onlookers, who occasionally had to jump out of the way).  I actually started feeling quite festive, until I remembered the armed police.

I tried to visit the National Museum, but found the gates chained and padlocked, so I gave up and headed back to the hostel and spent the rest of the afternoon sorting out photos and planning the rest of my Costa Rican visit.

I started with a day trip up to the Arenal Volcano and the town of La Fortuna.  Arenal is still an active volcano.  For years it has emitted plumes of gas and trickles of lava, visible almost every night as bright orange trails down the upper flanks of the giant cone.  Unfortunately, all this stopped only a couple of years ago, so I was unlikely to get such a display. 

My group was made up of two Venezuelans and two Puerto Ricans, none of whom spoke English, and a Yugoslavian professor named Boris, who has lived in Canada since the break up of his country in the early 1990s.  He was a very interesting travel companion, not least because his area of research overlapped with Coeliac Disease and other autoimmune conditions.

Our first stop was at an enormous red brick church.  On closer inspection, it turned out to be not brick, but sheets of red-painted metal riveted together.  The church was actually designed by Georges Eiffel in 1859 – he of the Parisian tower fame.  It was actually quite beautiful.  We also visited a small town famous for elaborately decorated ox carts.  Ox carts were once the main form of transport and farming vehicles and the town’s craftsmen have kept their traditions alive.  The centre of town displayed the world’s largest ox cart, brightly painted in beautiful intricate patters like an old gypsy caravan.  We stopped at a tourist shop full of over priced souvenirs, then had lunch at an otherwise deserted restaurant overlooking a small lake.  The food was delicious – a typical Costa Rican meal of beef, rice, plantain, mixed vegetables and salad.

After lunch, we followed a narrow, very bumpy road across the mountain ridge through the clouds.  We finally reached La Fortuna around 2pm and had several hours at a the Baldi Hot Springs, a luxury thermal springs resort.  The water is heated by the volcano and runs down through a number of different sized pools.  The hottest are at the top of the slope – I barely made it ankle deep into that one (43 degrees) – and they get cooler as the water moves further away from the heat source.  I tried to buy a drink at the pool bar and it took me several minutes to get myself into the waist-deep water and wade across to the bar stools.  I felt like a right twit!

Boris had gone off to try and get a photograph of the volcano, but the clouds had firmly set in and all we could see was the bottom third of the cone.  I wandered over to the sun loungers, intending to listen to my book for a bit, when I spotted a large lizard on the edge of the pool.  He had an interesting crest on the back of his head, something I hadn’t seen before, so I turned on my phone camera and crouched to take a picture.  He then scared the life out of me by dashing off on his hind legs like a dinosaur! It was apparently a basilisk, sometimes known as a Jesus lizard because it can run on water.  It left behind a disturbing puddle of blood on the edge of the pool.  I'm not sure if it was bleeding or had just eaten something, but I didn't investigate too closely.

Our visit included a buffet dinner in the evening, which was slightly awkward because Boris still hadn’t returned so I had nobody to talk to in English, but the others weren't especially talkative either.  Rather than head back to San José, I got dropped off by the Arenal Backpackers Resort and checked in for three nights.  It was more expensive than taking the public bus up here, but I had a few stops on the way, Hot Springs and two meals included, and a considerably more comfortable bus, so I was happy.  I spent the evening chatting with a group of Canadians and Americans in the hostel bar and arranged to go for a walk around the volcano with a few girls the next day.


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Zoe's Big World Adventure Part II - #2 Mexico, Belize and Costa Rica

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I met Christina in April. We travelled a bit of Australia together and both learned to dive. Now we're off to Mexico and Belize to see what the Caribbean and the Great Mesoamerican Reef have to offer, before I head down to Costa Rica for 10 days.

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