I normally don't plan my trips. I typically decide on a destination I want to go to, and a few landmarks I want to see, then just fly there and see how things work out. When I went to France I hadn't even read the tour/sightseeing book until I was on the plane! But for this trip, we decided to do a little more preplanning. And when I say 'we', I really mean 'Nam'. Nam planned out all of our activities, made reservations with the hotels, and even had a tour company plan out private drivers to take us from one place to another. This probably works out a lot better than the 'seat of my pants' approach that I tend to go for, as it was hard to get around without knowing your way, and there's always the chance you'll get to an area and not find any hotels available. The one downside is that the itinerary is rigid and if you find something you want to explore, or you want to stay in a particular place longer it's hard to do. But anyway, Nam had the whole trip planned out, and everything went nice and smoothly. Well, almost everything.
Our trip got off to a bit of a rocky start. After we boarded the plane in Miami, the pilot said that there might be a hydraulic fluid leak and we had to wait for them to check it out. After maintenance cleared the plane for take off, the pilot decided that maintenance crew didn't know what they were doing and got off the plane to check it out for himself. This lead to a 3 hour wait at the airport while the airline got a new plane. It was annoying, but I guess that was better than taking off without hydraulic fluid, since, the plane kinda needs that.
We had planned to get to San Jose (the capital of Costa Rica) at about 2 pm, but with the delay we didn't get there until after 5. I was a little worried about this since the tour company had planned to have a driver meet us at the airport at 2. Since I had never been to Costa Rica, had no idea what it was like, and didn't really speak Spanish, I was worried that we'd be abandoned at the airport without much way of finding this driver.
But my worries were unfounded, our driver was waiting at the airport exit with a sign and everything. I'm not sure if he called ahead, or just waited the three extra hours, but he seemed in good spirits. I felt much better about things once we found the driver.
We did not stay in San Jose very long. The La Paz Waterfalls are about an hour drive north of San Jose, in a place called Montana Azul. We basically drove straight through the city, which I liked because I always want to see what it is really like in a place, not just what they want to show the tourists. I enjoy seeing locals doing whatever it is locals do around that area. San Jose seemed fine, maybe not quite as built up as an American city, but definitely livable.
Click here to see some pictures of our trip to La Paz Waterfalls.
As an aside, I'd like to say that one thing about Costa Rica that really impressed me was the apparent lack of really poor people. I know, I only was in the tourist destinations, but I did spend a lot of time driving through the countryside, and we drove through a lot of towns and cities and rural areas. In the entire time I was there I didn't see one obviously homeless person, or people living in a shack, or raw sewage in the streets. The houses were modest, but they at least seemed liveable and that impressed me. I also (unlike some other places I've visited) did not see any children begging in the streets. Well, actually I did see one. While we were stopped at a traffic light in San Jose a kid wandered up to the car trying to sell posters with the multiplication table on them, which I thought was a very odd thing to be selling to people driving past. I wanted to take a picture of the kid because I liked his moxie, but I didn't get a chance.
I'd have to say that from a weather/terrain perspective, Costa Rica reminded me a lot of San Francisco. It had a moderate temperature and was pretty rainy. There were lots of hills and mountains and steep roads. I was also a bit surprised to see that there weren't a lot of isolated places in Costa Rica. Everywhere we went in the country the road was lined with houses or at least farms. There weren't really any places where I was worried that if we ran off the road we would never be found.
On the other hand, I worried about running off the road in general a lot. The roads in this part of Costa Rica seemed new and well paved, but no one seems to have informed the Costa Ricans about the concepts of shoulders and guardrails. There were a number of times where a small mistake on the driver's part could have plummeted us down a 1000 foot ravine. I guess that's another reason to have a driver. He didn't seem to have a problem with the roads at all.
It was dark by the time we reached our hotel. I was a little apprehensive of the place based on the name, the Peace Lodge. It sounded very hippie to me. But Nam assured me that this place was great. And boy was she right!
I've stayed in a lot of hotels over the years, both in the United States as well as a large number of other countries, and I'd have to say that Peace Lodge ranks as one of the best hotels I've ever stayed in (and I've stayed in the Plaza in NYC, the Bellagio in Las Vegas, and the Metropole in Brussels). It was amazing. It's sort of out in the middle of nowhere, but it's totally worth the trip. The rooms were gorgeous, the view was gorgeous, everything was first rate, and it's connected to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, which is where the waterfalls are. I can't say enough nice things about the place. Being at Peace Lodge totally took away any grumpiness I had from being stuck in Miami for three hours.
Click here to see some pictures of The Peace Lodge.
If you are staying at the Peace Lodge, you are pretty much eating at their restaurant. There isn't really any other place convenient to go to. The restaurant was on the pricey side but pretty decent. Nam says: I think the 3 course dinner was $29 each. With wine, tax, tip, it was close to $90 for the two of us for dinner. Like Europe, Costa Ricans are into the whole 3 course prix fixe thing. I had been worried that I wouldn't be able to find vegetarian dishes on the menu (that had been a bit of an issue in trips to other places), but that was not a problem at all at Peace Lodge.
After dinner we decided to get into our private hot tub on our private balcony overlooking the nature reserve. You couldn't really see anything at night, but it made one feel like you were really out in the jungle (yet with all the comforts of home!).
Costa Rica is 2 hours behind the East Coast of the US, which is nice because it makes it easy to get up early. Since there wasn't all that much to do at night after dinner, we made it a point to get to bed pretty early and wake up around dawn each morning to maximize our exotic animal viewing potential.
Peace Lodge, like all the hotels we stayed at in Costa Rica, has a complimentary breakfast. It was pretty decent selection with a fantastic view of the mountains from a giant balcony. They also put out some bananas to attract birds.
Click here to see some pictures of the Peace Lodge Breakfast (and other meals).
After breakfast we had our first tour. It was actually a combo tour. We boarded a tour bus (Costa Ricans like these little 8 person tour buses), with another couple and their kid and drove off to see both the Poas Volcano and the Doka Coffee Plantation.
It wasn't too long of a drive up the mountain to the Poas Volcano. What really amazed me though was the complete differences in weather we experienced as we drove up the mountain. It was hot then cold then rainy then sunny then cloudy then rainy again then foggy then clear, etc. I had no idea what to expect once we got to the top.
Of course, we experienced what most people experience at Poas Volcano, fog. I wasn't expecting to see anything great, and the tour guide warned us that it might be foggy, and it was. I saw a volcano in Hawaii a number of years ago and it was foggy there as well. There were a few breaks in the fog and I tried to take a few photos, but they didn't come out great. We stayed at the Poas crater for a while and then (after a trip to the gift shop), moved on. I wasn't too concerned, since it was an interesting trip up the mountain, and I was expecting to see a better volcano in a few days at Arenal.
Click here to see some pictures of the The Poas Volcano.
The tour bus then drove back down the mountain and we made a stop at the Doka Coffee Plantation. The Doka Plantation has a big sign in the front proclaiming that it's the best coffee plantation in the whole world. Since it's the only one I've been to, I can't say one way or another, but it seemed like a bit of an arrogant thing to say.
We stopped in the fields for a while and the guide showed us how the beans grow in the fields and how they pick them. He pointed out that Costa Ricans are relatively well off and don't have to pick beans, that's a job for Nicaraguans. Nicaraguans come to Costa Rica to pick coffee in the same way that Mexicans come to California to pick fruits and vegetables. I got the vibe from several Costa Ricans that they didn't like Nicaraguans. Coffee pickers get about $1 per basket of coffee beans that they pick, and according to the guide, that takes about an hour. He also said that coffee picking can't be done mechanically because you'd get the unripe beans as well as the ripe ones. So remember, every bean in that coffee you had at Starbucks today was hand picked.
Click here to see some pictures of the Doka Coffee Plantation.
We stopped in the gift shop on the way back and bought some coffee. The guide book said that if you bought one thing in Costa Rica, make it coffee. The Costa Ricans don't make a lot of handicrafts, but they do make cheap, tasty coffee.
We got back to the hotel in the early afternoon, just in time for the lunch (which we ate at the hotel restaurant). After lunch it was raining pretty hard, so we just stayed in the room for a little while and took a nap.
After the rain stopped we went out and explored the La Paz Waterfall Gardens a little bit. The owner (who also owns the hotel) has made the place into a bit of a natural theme park. They have exotic and interesting plants all over the place. We went and saw their exhibit of local orchids, and then looked at their snake exhibit. They also had a frog exhibit, but it was currently under renovation, which was a little disappointing since I'm much more into frogs than snakes. Oh well.
Click here to see some pictures of orchids, snakes, and other flowers at La Paz.
We also wandered down the path into the forest to take a peek at the waterfall. There are 5 waterfalls at La Paz, and we took a tiny look at the first one. Then we went to the giant butterfly exhibit.
They have this area the size of a football field that's completely netted off and used to house local species of butterfly. If you like butterflies, this is a must see. There were millions of them fluttering about. They also have a small laboratory where they grow butterflies.
Click here to see some pictures of butterflies.
We also had time to take a dip in the pool. The air temperature was warm, but not hot. However, the pool was heated. Nam figured out how to turn on the waterfall/fountain feature just as I was underneath it, drenching my head with water and making her laugh quite hard. Getting stuck under waterfalls became a bit of a running theme for me during the trip.
We got cleaned up and had another delicious dinner at the hotel restaurant. We didn't finish our wine and brought the bottle back to the hotel room to drink while we sat at the fire. I could only find red wine glasses and we had white wine. I mentioned this to Nam and she said, "That's ok, we're roughing it!" Which was funny because, like here we were in the middle of a rainforest, but living a gourmet lifestyle and our biggest problem seemed to be not having the right stemware. We shared a good laugh over that comment.
The next morning we got up at dawn again and headed down to the waterfalls. As I've said, this hotel and garden were built next to this river with 5 impressive waterfalls. They have a very nice trail that takes you to each waterfall. Unlike the highways in Costa Rica, this trail has guardrails and other safety features. It's a bit on the vertical side, but it's very safe. We spent about an hour looking at the falls. It was very exciting being deep in the rainforest like that.
Click here to see some pictures of The La Paz Waterfalls.
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at their hummingbird gardens. The La Paz area doesn't have any interesting exotic mammals like monkeys or sloths, but they do have lots of hummingbirds. I don't think I've ever seen a hummingbird before so it was very interesting to see them. Unfortunately, they are not the easiest thing to take photos of, but I gave it a try.
Click here to see some pictures of hummingbirds.
Amazingly, it was still only about 9 am! So we had plenty of time for breakfast. I'm not typically an early riser, so I was excited to get lots of stuff done so early in the morning.
We had enough time after breakfast to wander around the gardens a bit more and even wander down another, non-waterfall trail before we had to meet the driver to take us to the next location.
That afternoon the driver met us at the hotel and we said goodbye to the Peace Lodge and moved to our next destination. But I really hope I have the opportunity to go there again, it was an amazing place.
Ok, enough of waterfalls, let's go see a volcano!
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