El Salvador

Santa ana panorma web

El Salvador is a land of extremes, of opposites.  A country which may have shocking poverty on one street and massive, incredible wealth a few miles down the highway.  A place of incredible beauty and a place where the scars and still healing wounds of human progress exist side-by-side.  But it’s a country full of some of the friendliest, open people I’ve met.  El Salvador is a nation occupied by people who have dealt with civil war, mudslides, volcanoes, and extreme economic disparity all in a the span of the last three decades.  They have opened their arms to tourists of all kinds, doling out limited resources to ensuring the safety of hikers at Santa Ana volcano, and having a 500 strong Tourist Police force.

Everyone’s first assumption is that El Salvador is dangerous.  That it’s terrifying.  That MS-13 has taken a stranglehold on it; that as an American tourist you are sure to face kidnapping and theft.  I will open with saying that nothing happened to us.  We drove approximately 500 km throughout El Salvador without incident.  Our travels took us through La Libertad, Juayua, Sonsonate, Concepcion de Ataco, Chalchuapa, Santa Ana, and Costa Del Sol.  The fears instilled in us that we had were generated entirely by our imagination and the sheer number of things we had read regarding our safety (or our lack of safety) while traveling in El Salvador.  I think it is safe to say that it went beyond hysteria and managed to reach propaganda levels.

Are there dangerous places in El Salvador?  Sure.  Do you have any reason to go anywhere near any of them?  Not really.  We had heard some stories from other travelers about bad areas and heard no good reasons to travel to them whatsoever.  Our “scariest” point in the trip took place when we got desperately lost in Sonsonate.  Looking over the map again, I still do not see where we went wrong, and it looks like a hard place to get lost.  But there, on the ground, the only Americans in sight, in a rented gold minivan, lost and going around in circles, we all got pretty nervous.  At one point we found ourselves stuck on a dead end street in a fairly dicey looking part of town. We turned around, and two cars blocked our path and began talking to one another. Instantly flashes of the American Consulate travel advisories came up about carjackings and theft popped into my head.  You know what happened?  Nothing.  They realized that they were blocking the way, hopped in the car, and moved out of our way.  If we spoke better Spanish I’m sure they would have helped us on our way.  That was the only thing that happened.  No machine guns, no grenades, no carjacking.  We managed to turn ourselves around, drive in a few more circles, figure out where we were supposed to be (purely by luck and chance), and were on our way.

Streets of Juayua

Streets of Juayua

In stark contrast to Sonsonate and other larger towns, we always felt completely safe and at ease in the town of Juayua.  It was our first stop, but we felt welcome pretty much instantly.  We walked around by ourselves at night and never felt even remotely in danger. The people there were incredibly friendly, very helpful, wonderfully gracious and welcoming to our presence.  It was a great place to spend a few days, and it’s a stunning part of the country to see. We went to several restaurants and many small pupuserias.  At every place, in our broken Spanish, we managed to order wonderful food, and we always well catered to and always accommodated.

I am not trying to be dismissive of the real dangers that are present in El Salvador, and really, the dangers that might be present in any country you’re visiting.  The US has horrendous crimes that occur every day.  If you described every heinous act committed by an American citizen no one would ever come here.  Or if you judged the entire United States by a city such as South Compton or Camden as the only test of its violence and crime, again, who would take the risk?  But that isn’t how it works here, and it’s not how it works anywhere else. I think it’s important to remind yourself of that idea each and every time you travel; both in the United States, and outside of it.  Be aware of your surroundings and be careful, but be mindful that people live here, and that they live their lives, and in all likelihood won’t bother you in the slightest.

One thing to be mindful of is that you will see people with guns.  Just about everywhere we went, we would see shop owners and restaurant owners with rifles or shotguns in hand, or a pistol tucked into their belt. Initially, it was a little nerve racking, as this is not something we are used to in Albany. Seeing a guy waving at us to pull over and come eat at their restaurant while holding a shotgun on his shoulder got to the point of being common; so much to the point that we gave it little thought.

Bottom line, I think that standard international travel rules apply. Don’t carry around laptops and huge cameras.  Don’t flash money around. Don’t wear tons of jewelry and flashy clothes.  If you’re an American, don’t worry about or even try to blend in. You won’t. In many of the areas we found ourselves, we were the only Caucasian people to be seen.  People would watch us drive by and point us out to their friends.  Occasionally someone would yell out “blanco!.”  The rarity of our presence was illustrated most profoundly while hiking the Santa Ana volcano.  A large (huge) group of school aged children, maybe 12-16, were there for a hike.  And it had to be several hundred kids.  They were shocked to see us.  Asked us questions, pointed, giggled, and took cell phone pictures.  It’s clear that in many parts of El Salvador they are just now embracing tourism as a main stream economic idea, and it may take some time for them to acclimate themselves. But overwhelmingly, strangers went out of their way to give a nod, a wave, or a polite greeting.  Everywhere we went we found this to be the norm, and I think it’s one of the defining characteristics of people in El Salvador.

Our trip to El Salvador was essentially two separate vacations in the 13 days that we were there.  The first part was an intense and fairly exhaustive five days of backpacking and driving between various hostels in the northwest part of the country.  The day we flew in we arrived at about 8:00 AM, leaving JFK about five hours before.  After getting our rental car together (very exciting) we took a four hour drive to the small Colonial town of Juayua, in the mountains of El Salvador, about 20 miles from the border of Guatemala.  The drive was really exciting, and we got to drive up the coastline of El Salvador’s rugged northwestern coast.  The road winds its way alongside 100 foot cliffs that lead down to little coves and beaches along the ocean, and it was a really picturesque drive.

Once you enter the town of Sonsonate and find Ruta de las Flores (CA.8), you start climbing up into the mountains, where there are abundant coffee plantations. Eventually, after about an hour and a half drive or so, you’ll arrive at the small town of Juayua.

 The town of Juayua was really incredible, and one of my favorite parts of the trip.  It’s a small, colonial era town, with cobblestone streets, bluestone sidewalks, and many great little restaurants and pupuserias. It appeared that at the time of our arrival we were the only tourists visiting Juayua, until we noticed a motorcycle with plates from New Jersey.  How that bike managed to get its way to Juayua was a mystery I wish I could have solved.  It must have been an incredible journey.

We managed to find our way to our hostel which was Hotel Anahuac (hotelanahuac.com‎), which was owned by a wonderful El Salvadorian woman that spoke a little bit of English and got us into our room. As soon as we got settled we decided to take a waterfall tour with a guide who spoke the tiniest bit of English.  The tour was extremely cheap, something along the line of 50 cents or a dollar per person, and he brought us to three or four unbelievable waterfalls that you could swim in and stand under.  They were amazing.  That tour was about three hours, and then we returned to our hostel to figure out some dinner and relax a little bit.  At that point we had been travelling since we left New York about 18 hours earlier, and all of us could use some well earned respite from our hours of travel.

We took the owners recommendation and went to a small restaurant and had a fantastic dinner.  We didn’t know a lot of Spanish between the six of us, but enough to get by.  We each ordered a different meal and had a big smorgasbord of food going.  It was a blast, and the food was outstanding. At last we managed to crawl into our beds and get some well deserved rest.  At this point we had all gone to work the previous day, then driven to JFK airport, taken a 6 hour overnight flight, driven four hours, gone on a three hour hike, and walked to dinner.  Needless to say, we were all beat and slept like logs in our six person dorm.

    The next day we had planned to go see some Mayan ruins in a town called Chalchuapa, which was a few hours drive north to the of us.  We all piled into our minivan for another amazing drive through small towns and cities, massive coffee plantations, and 180 degree vistas of volcanoes and the ocean in the distance.  It was really amazing, and so were the ruins.  We had never seen anything like it, but it was a sprawling, massive ruin called Tazumel which dated to 1200 BC.  There was virtually no one there, and we had free reign of the place.  It was really quite awesome.

    On our way back to our hostel we stopped at a great little town to buy some pupusas for lunch.   Many people have likely experienced how good IMG_0182and satisfying a pupusa is, but I’m sure just as many (and likely more) have not had such an experience.  A pupusa is a little fried corn or rice flour pancake, a little bit like a thick tortilla.  They sometimes have fillings in them, like black beans, cheese, or chicken, and sometimes they’re plain.  They almost always come served with a little side of a dish called curtido which looks slightly like cole slaw or kimchi, and is slightly fermented dish which isIMG_0203 usually quite spicy and delicious all on its own. Pupusas are a traditional El Salvadorian dish, and we sampled them in nearly every town we traveled to.  Each one was slightly different, but we ate them all the time and man are they good.  Perfect for a quick little snack in between trips.

  IMG_0176a

    That same day we took about a two hour drive to the coastal town of La Libertad, and on our way we got horrendously lost in a fairly big city called Sonsonate, which to be honest was the most intimidating and somewhat frightening part of our trip.  There was nothing frightening happening to us, mind you, it just felt like we were trapped there, going around in circles. It was quite a poor, run down, and moderately dangerous city to begin with.  And we managed to find ourselves in the worst parts of it, going in circles, with very few people willing to help us find our way.  IMG_0175aI think we were probably stuck in the city for at least an hour or two, literally going in the same circle trying to find our way out.  It was pretty awful, and then all of a sudden, we were on the right road, and amazingly thankful.  The rest of our journey was completely uneventful after that, other than arriving at our next hostel a little later than we had wanted to.

    IMG_0316The next hostel was completely different from the first one.  It was a large, rambling compound, run by a British ex pat by the name of Darren, who decided that he wanted a change of pace.  The hostel was called El Roble Hostel (http://elrobleelsalvador. blogspot.com/), and it was an awesome place to stay.   Darren ended up in El Salvador, met an El Salvadorian woman, married her, and opened up a hostel.  He was great, and his wife cooked great food every night.  The place was amazing, and it felt just like home.  I could have stayed there the entire time.  And we actually met another person from the US there, a guy by the name of Hank, who was staying there while he was working with Habitat for Humanity.  He was really interesting, and had a lot of cool stories about El Salvador to tell us.

IMG_0317 El Roble had a great bar, with some of the coldest most delicious drinks and beers we had in El Salvador.  And it was cheap by any standards.  Our crew enjoys a few cocktails (probably a few too many) after a hard days travel, but we were never turned away.  One evening three of us drank jalepeno infused sambuca with Darren well into the early hours of the morning, telling stories of our respective travels and home countries.  It was a very memorable (in pieces) evening.

    Because it’s taken me so long to get my story down on paper, an unfortunate turn of events has transpired in El Salvador.  Darren’s wife, Seka, became ill sometime after our departure. She has been treated for lymphoma, and apparently is now doing well.  El Roble has since closed, and I’m not sure if they intend to open again.  My hopes and thoughts are with Darren and Seka, and I wish them the best.  I also hope that they manage to reopen El Roble.  It was an awesome spot, and I stick by my recommendation that anyone visiting El Salvador should go and check it out.

Santa ana panorma web

    Darren arranged a hike to Santa Ana volcano, and hired a van driver to transport us there, where we got to hike up to the top of it.  It was a pretty grueling, three or four hour hike, up a fairly steep volcano.  We had some amazing vistas, and took some great pictures.  You could see well into Guatemala, all the way to the ocean, and nearly all the way to Nicaragua.  After we took the volcano hike, Darren took us to Lago de Coatapeque, which is huge lake that formed in the collapsed dome of a volcano.  The water was warm, we had some great dinner, and it was a wonderful way to unwind after the difficult hike of the day.

    After checking out of our hostel the next day, we took the few hour drive to the house we had rented for the rest of the week.  The house was IMG_0810in an area of El Salvador called Costa del Sol, and it was little spit of land on a peninsula on the Pacific Ocean.  It’s an interesting juxtaposition between it and the rest of El Salvador, because the elite of San Salvador, the capital, own vacation homes there.  So there are massive and beautiful ocean front homes, with 60 foot power boats docked in front, but the town itself is extremely rural.  Goats and cows get herded through the streets, there’s very little vehicle traffic, and only one large store which clearly catered to out-of-towners and tourists. IMG_0805The house we rented was down near the end of Costa del Sol, passed an extremely large hotel that appeared to have no one staying there, as well as several abandoned resorts.  Our rental house was a huge place, with tons of exposed outdoor space, a huge kitchen for cooking, a swimming pool, a big outdoor deck and patio, and was about 100 feet from the ocean.  It was amazing, and was the perfect way to unwind after the busy five days we had so far in El Salvador.

  IMG_0731 Our days at the house consisted mostly of hanging out at the beach or pool, endless swimming, endless eating, and tons of relaxation.  It was amazing, and exactly what we all needed. Every morning (morning at this point would be around 11:30 AM, maybe 1:00)  a few of us would walk down the street in front of our house to the tiniest little local pupuseria, and bring back a bag full for everyone else. The woman who ran it was so gracious for our business, and everyday would send a kid of about ten years down the street for fresh ingredients when she saw us coming or ran out of something. She was in a long line of amazing individuals that we came across on our trip through El Salvador.

The rest of our journey was uneventful in a good way.  We took a tour through the mangrove swamp to the east of Costa del Sol, where we got to see an amazing IMG_0638slice of El Salvadoran IMG_0571life. There were several islands which were inhabited by groups of families, carving out a niche for themselves, fishing and farming the island and living, as told by our guide, their entire lives there.  Small buildings and huts lined the shore, their boats pulled up as they unloaded fish and other goods they brought from elsewhere.  A friendly wave from our guide prompted a IMG_0615similar returned wave from them. A group of men out fishing were having problems with their outboard engine which our guide recognized from afar.  We motored over to them, and in a few minutes they were secured to our boat as we towed them to shore.

I think its a fitting point to end here, with the friendliness and helpfulness of our tour boat guide and his friend.  They were an outstanding representation of everyone we met while in El Salvador.  A country that, despite everything it has been through, IMG_0569managed to impress us with its simple humility, graciousness, and welcomed us with open arms.

Costa Rica

I started this blog as a way to share my experience with friends and family and anyone else who happened to come along. But as I wrote it I found myself remembering details that had slipped my mind as the days, weeks, and months passed by.   A particular view as 20110520-111841.jpgwe climbed up the mountains of  Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo.  The striking color of the Caribbean Ocean the first time we saw it in Limon. The way the night cooled but the hot air of the city still circulated through the streets.  So I continued writing it as a way to solidify in my mind what a wonderful experience I had and shared with some of my friends and loved ones.

I’ve long wanted to travel internationally, and have had a great interest in Central America. Perhaps the most “accessible” yet still distinctly South American in nature, Costa Rica seemed like a natural starting off point. We were greeted by the sweltering heat as we exited the plane which was a welcome respite from the bitter cold of Albany, New York. Where for three weeks it had been snowing, and well below zero at night.

20110520-112022.jpg

-A little taste of what we were escaping.. It had been the worst winter we had experienced in a really, really long time –


Not having traveled internationally for quite some time I was moderately concerned about the trip. Plus I was going with some other folks who were either much less experienced than I, or about the same. It seemed like I had talked them into the trip, so a lot was riding on my decision.

But in the wave of that warmth it all seemed to not matter. We could have stood on the curb for a week and it would have been a fine getaway. Alas, that was not to be, and we were ushered into the line of people waiting for cabs. I was expecting chaos, something like you see in pictures of downtown Tokyo, or a bad day in Manhattan, with mobs of people in every direction as far as you could see. But it was shockingly organized, boring almost. We were offered a ride immediately by a young man in a slightly beat up Nissan versa, who knew of our hotel right away, which was good, since I had no way of telling him where it was or how to get there. Again, expecting chaos on the highway, we merged onto a road that if you ignored the occasional shanty on the left and right easily could

have been mistaken for a road in Southern California. My worries about it all continued to slip away. Driving in Mexico was far more terrifying than this, and I was merely a passenger there.


I had been worrying for days since I would be the one driving the four or five hours from San Jose to Puerto Viejo, and now it seemed like it would be a piece of cake. We continued on through towns with massive mansions surrounded by razor wire fences, McDonald’s, and shopping malls only to find what only could be described as shanties, packed to the gills with people. It was quite a juxtaposition.

Traffic worsened as we weaved our way into downtown San Jose. After reading travel books

20110520-111639.jpg

-Stepping off the plane in San Jose, it had been a long day, but we were so happy to arrive that it was forgotten very quickly –

and various websites which sternly warned to leave our windows rolled up and doors locked when we were in San Jose I had to smile somewhat to myself. Nothing here seemed remotely dangerous or any part of our trip ill advised. I felt right at home, arm out the window as we slowly rolled through the crowds. Again, San Jose was an odd union of wealth and poverty. Modern buildings and all the trappings of a wealthy city were right there along with things you wouldn’t expect to see.

We quickly shot down some side streets as our taxi tried to avoid the worst of the traff

ic. Small, brightly colored apartment buildings whirred by on either side of the car. Our driver deftly avoided stray dogs, potholes and small piles of garbage and we came out another large avenue.

“Only a few minutes away guys,” our driver said.

We’d picked a hotel based on reviews of other budget travelers, and again, like everything else, didn’t really know what to expect. We made one last turn onto a quiet side street and we saw the sign for Aranjuez Hotel.

The left side of the room.. Mind the mess.

It appeared to be just a line of regular houses on a quiet street, which I was happy to see. I had eschewed the usual mega hotel chain, which I was initially surprised to see in San Jose, for something a little more local, and was glad to see that it looked pretty unique. We paid our cabby in US since we had neglected to exchange for Colones at the airport (something which I deeply regret, more on that later though…). He took my off the top of the head currency exchange with aplomb, helped us with our bags and sped off down the street, only to then slam on the breaks and veer sharply to avoid a a stray dog. At least they try to swerve… I remember thinking to myself.

Aranjuez Hotel was not what I expected in any way. The inside was an amazing mix of antique wood, artwork and artifacts. Various gardens existed throughout as you maneuvered through the skinny hallways linking the buildings together. A sunny, half inside, half outside, pavilion and sitting area was immediately down the hall from our room, with tourists ranging from 18 year old backpackers to a group of 60 year olds speaking rapidly in French, poring closely over a map. A little bit of everything. Our room was small, but cozy, with plenty of sleeping space for the four of us. We opted for one of the single bedrooms with a private bath, and paid only $60.00 US! It was a great deal, and we couldn’t have been happier to have finally arrived at somewhere where we could relax. It had been nearly 24 hours since our departure and we were all pretty exhausted. We unpacked and everyone took a quick shower.

The other side. Again, mind the mess. And, for the observant, you’ll notice the bottle of Tanqueray Rangpur, bought at duty free for 15 dollars!

Not being able to help myself I turned the TV on and instantly found The Simpsons, I was highly amused at the Spanish version, which we all watched for a few minutes while we chatted about finding something to eat.

The hotel appears to sort of be on an edge of the city, so it wasn’t the hustle and bustle of downtown San

Jose, but there was no shortage of nearby restaurants. The helpful staff drew up a small map with some local places and we ventured off to find some eats.

We wandered a little in the unlit side streets, a little trepidation in each of us. But it was quite peaceful, the temperature had dropped dramatically but a markedly warm breeze blew around us as we walked down a gentle slope in the direction we hoped one of the restaurant would be.

Instantly it seemed we got turned around. I’m fairly confident that we walked in several circles, amongst only

The sitting area outside, where the staff graciously let us sit and figure out our rental car woes. Hats off to them.

the locals, who were pouring out of late night sodas, which if you had to compare them to something at home I guess I would call them bodegas. Except these places always seemed to have hot food and plenty of beer.

Always right out front were cases of hot food. Fried foods, what looked like empanadas, deep fried pork belly, and always a cooler fool of imperials, the beer managed by the costa rican government. We were looking for something with a little bit more sit down atmosphere. We were all beat and just wanted someone to serve us, lazy as that is. We found a hotel with a restaurant, looked at a menu and, as we were all starving, went right in. It was real fancy inside, but all the food on the menu was real cheap and delicious sounding. We got fish and chicken sandwiches which were absolutely delicious. A round of imperials followed by some fantastic margaritas finished the meal. We were all fat and happy. One nice thing about all the restaurants in costa rica is that tipping is included and makes a dinner out much cheaper. I think we paid less than 50 for the four of us with two or three drinks each. Not a bad deal at all.

On our way back we walked into the city a little bit more in search

The half outdoor hallway to our room. We were down there on the left. Peace and quiet.

of a store for some beers and snacks. The city was alive with people, and many many little restaurants. There didn’t seem to be much if a “bar scene” as we’d describe at home. All the little places had tables and food and loud, loud music. An they served beer, and you could buy it through the window right on the sidewalk. We bought a 12 pack for 8 bucks and moseyed on back to the hotel.

We’d read that San Jose wasn’t the safest place to wander around at night, and I’ll admit I was a tiny bit concerned. But it seemed just as safe as Albany late at night, and unlike Albany there were no people begging us for spare change. However, there were absolutely no tourists anywhere. It was pretty surprising.

We enjoyed our walk, but were all eager to get back to the hotel and relax so we headed back. It would be an early day, and a long one too. Maybe I’m a pessimist, but mostly I think of myself as a realist. But I was fully expecting the drive to viejo to take much longer than expected and not go as planned. My head hit that pillow harder and happier than it had in a long time. I was asleep in minutes, if not seconds.

Arajnuez was quiet and peaceful, and the only noise that woke me up was some exotic cawing bird outside, but it was time anyway. We repacked our stuff and ventured off to see what hotel Arajnuez’s free buffet breakfast was all about. We’d read rave reviews online, but how good could a free breakfast buffet be?

Just a tiny window of the buffet and outdoor sitting area. Not even scratching the surface.

Good. Real good. Shockingly good. The dining area was gorgeous, a deck overlooked a large outdoor patio, and it had tables simply stacked with fresh fruit, homemade breads, fresh squeezed juices, pancakes, eggs, rice and beans and more. The deck had several staircases going down to a beautiful patio that was part garden and part jungle, with tables and chairs strewn about. We picked a table in the back, surrounded by flowering trees and bushes and enjoyed the fantastic food. We all swore we’d have a light breakfast since it would be such a long drive. But with a make your own omelet station it was real tough. My plate full of papaya, mango, banana, star fruit and several other things I wasn’t even sure of would have been many dollars at home. We couldn’t believe how good it was and that it was included with the price of the already absurdly cheap hotel. This place was the place that just kept on giving.

We reluctantly handed our plates in and went to go check out and meet our car rental, who was going to drop the car off at the hotel.

Unfortunately the high mark that hotel Arajnuez ended on did not continue to Mapache car rental, who despite being reviewed amongst the best car rental places in San Jose, did not impress us. It was very nice that they dropped the car off for us, but as soon as the paperwork started the inevitable car rental games started.

One thing any potential travelers have to know about car rentals in Costa Rica is that the rates are similar or less than they are in the US, and they’ll quote you a nice low quote to get you in the door. But they’ll try to tell you you need this, or that, or try to rent you a GPS for 10 dollars a day. And then, after wading through all of this they hit you with the big one. The deposit.

Deposits are rare in the US. Usually a major credit car and a license is all you need and you’re on your way. But in costa rica all the companies require deposits. And depending on the company and car you’re renting it can be anywhere between 600.00 and 1,500.00.  It seemed that the cheaper the rental price, the higher the deposit.  It was an infuriating few weeks trying to locate a rental agency with reasonable rules.  And it all has to go on the same credit card, and no one takes debit cards or cash deposits.

I had meticulously researched, emailed and called dozens of rental places, trying to find the most reasonable price with deposit included. I explained to a gentleman at Mapache that we have a card with a $1,200.00 limit. And we needed to have the deposit and rental and insurance under that. I repeatedly told him this was the only way we could do the rental, and we agreed upon a price of $1,190.00. It was 700.00 and 390.00 for the rental and insurance. He assured me this was ok and that he would drop the car off.

Obviously that would have been too easy, and a different, but very friendly, Mapache employee met us outside Arajunuez hotel with our tiny Suzuki alto. We went inside to go over the details and he got on his radio and started rapidly speaking Spanish far beyond anything I could comprehend and immediately said that our card was declined and do we have another card? We explained that wasn’t possible, there was nothing on the card, can you run it again? He did, and again, same news. He asked if we notified our credit card we were out of the country. Of course. We told him that I agreed on a price of 1,190.00. He assured us that’s what he was charging. We asked him one more time to try, and once more he got on the radio and informed us it was denied. We didn’t understand it. We had to call our crept card company, and to add more kudos to Arajnuez hotel, they happily let us use their wifi despite the fact we checked out an hour before.

We spent an eternity on hold with the credit card company, and fortunately 800 numbers are free to call with skype, so we didn’t lose too many minutes. Unfortunately the mapache rental guy had to leave before we figured out what was going on. He said to call as soon as we had everything figured out and he would bring it back.

It turned out that they had been trying to charge 1,290 instead of 1,190. An honest mistake, we thought. We called, and Mapache came back, and bam, same story. Card declined. We were getting very, very frustrated and tried to calmly explain that they were charging more than we had agreed on, and more than what was on the card. They spoke at length on the radio, we had no idea what was going on, and we started to see him filling out forms and making rubbings of our card. He still hadn’t said if we were approved and wasn’t telling us anything. He put down his radio, said everything went through, gave us some forms to sign and he said lets go look at the car. We were somewhat baffled, but all that mattered was that we were getting our car. We discussed it later, and still never really understood what they were doing. We clearly would have found out eventually that we were overcharged. The only thing I could even imagine was that they had some high interest account to keep deposit funds in, and if they could get an extra hundred bucks for a few weeks they’d make a few more bucks. Who knows.

We got out to the car to inspect it and it honestly was hard not to laugh out loud. It was very small. I’m sure by European standards it would be far more common. But at home in the states there’s not a lot like this thing.  Three cylinder. Five doors. And the most beat up clutch I’ve ever driven. It was pretty hysterical. But we were so happy to have it that we didn’t even care. We packed all of our stuff in the teeny trunk, hopped in, and we were off.

-Nicole and Natalie by our Alto.. although small, it braved mountain passes, car swallowing pot holes and endless vistas –

Driving in San Jose was a trip. Very few road signs. The ones that were there no one paid attention to, the streets were unmarked and people drove around with reckless abandon. It was hysterical, and honestly a terrifying blast. You could drive like the biggest jerk without retribution. We only had a very short stint through San Jose to pick up the highway that would lead us through the mountains and over to the other side of Costa Rica.

Somehow, with little fanfare and without getting lost, at least too badly, we quickly found the main road and joined the highway.  We settled in for what would be a few hour drive.  The road was in decent shape, we were making good time, and were all thrilled with the scenery.  The drive to Viejo was honestly one of my favorite points.  Route 32, the main highway that connects San Jose with Limon, a coastal city on the East side of Costa Rica, cuts through and climbs up into the Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo.  It is truly an incredible drive.  

The route takes you up to nearly 10,000 feet as it climbs through cloud rainforests, with sheer cliff faces going up on one side, and dropping precipitously down right on the other side of the road. 

But it starts out inconspicuously enough.  Rolling hills extend to the north essentially as far as you can see.  Houses of all shapes and sizes litter the countryside, some densely packed together in little hovels, and some as massive as castle off in the distance.  The road got steeper and narrower, and all signs of humanity, other than all the vehicles on the densely packed road, started to disappear.  The jungle got more formidable.  Soon there was nothing but the highway and the mountainous terrain.  Massive trees, and dense undergrowth packed the side of the road, obscuring what would have been a terrifying view. 

A narrow band of asphalt was all that’s keeping you from plummeting some hundreds or thousand feet down to the valleys and gorges below.  Numerous crosses picket the side of the road where unfortunate drivers died.  It was quite unnerving, but shockingly beautiful.  

-The view as we started climbing up into the mountains-

The little Alto carried the four of us and all of our gear slowly up the mountain, with huge trucks and cars whizzing by in either direction.  Most of the road was four lanes, although they weren’t clearly divided.  The traffic speed ranged between 15 and 60 miles an hour, with massive logging trucks crawling up the mountain road in one lane, and Tico’s blasting up in 4×4’s and cars on the other side.  Our little car could do about 35, so we weaved in and out of traffic, trying not to get run off the road while endlessly mashing the gears through its ruined gearbox.  It was quite exhilarating.  The scenery was phenomenal though, and nothing could have ruined the things we saw. 

-Stuck in traffic as we weaved up Route 32 over the top of Parque Nacional Braulio Carrilo-

At certain points the ludicrous amounts of unidentifiable foliage would obscure the sky, allowing only pinpricks of light through. 

At one point, with little warning and zero fanfare, we rounded a bend to see the road quickly merge into two lanes and dive into a dark tunnel.  It was moderately claustrophobic, but quite a rush.  Over the last two hours of driving we had observed that people in Costa Rica slow down essentially only if it is absolutely and completely necessary.  Car going too slow?  Pass it on the shoulder.  Motorcycle in the middle of the road with traffic coming?  Tailgate mercilessly.  Stop sign?  What stop sign?  I had assumed that this would be the same for this absurd tunnel which sprang out of nowhere, but the car in front of us, an equally tiny car with a correspondingly nervous driver was in front of us and they simply jammed their brakes on and entered the tunnel.   I was glad that it wasn’t us slowing down the snaking line of traffic behind us, and was happy that we managed to slow a bit as we drove into the poorly lit tunnel.  It reeked, absolutely stank, of exhaust.  You’d think that with two gaping maws at either end it would have some reasonably fresh air in it.  But that was not the case, as countless tractor trailers drove through it, pumping it full of thick, grey diesel exhaust. 

It was an interesting thing, this tunnel.  For miles, and miles, as we wound and loped up these mountains we saw nothing but the road, other cars, and what appeared to be an impenetrable jungle on both sides of the road.  Occasionally a tiny store built entirely out of what appeared to be sticks would appear, but we passed nothing of substance for what seemed like miles and miles.   But here, essentially out of nowhere, was a massive tunnel hundreds of feet long, dug onto the side of an impossibly steep mountain.  It was quite a feat of engineering.

Almost immediately after we went through the tunnel we started descending down on our way into Limon.  The jungle slowly subsided, slowly to be replaced by small signs of humanity.  A farm with an impossibly small home, more children than you thought possible playing in the yard.  Small service stations were scattered everywhere, fixing the countless tractor trailers that ran like a constant ribbon of containers between Limon and San Jose.  We passed through numerous small little towns catering almost exclusively to the locals who drove the tractor trailers.  Honestly I had never seen as many trucks as we did in this 50 mile stretch of the highway.  Every bar, every restaurant and every service station had half a dozen or more trucks jammed onto the side of the road, haphazardly pulling out in front of you in massive clouds of dust. 

In between the towns would be acres and acres and miles and miles of bananas.  More bananas than you could every imagine.  It reminded me of a silly scene in the Simpsons when Chief Wiggum named all the banana companies names, because every brand you have ever heard of were all down there.  Except Gorilla’s Choice, which I’m fairly confident they made up for the Simpsons.  But anyway, it was quite eye opening.   You hear a lot of talk about industrial farming, and its impact on the world.  And you can certainly see why it’s such an issue, because as I’ve said, it was acres, and acres as far as any of us could see. 

The road fully leveled out and the banana plantations began to disappear.  Everything began to be increasingly more built up and developed, until we reached the outskirts of Limon.   

Limon is a bustling, busy, and fairly grimy port city on the Caribbean side Costa Rica.  Apparently it exists solely as a port for offloading millions of shipping containers.  Millions.  They are stacked everywhere, looking like bright, multicolored buildings all along the Route 32.  They are the reason for the traffic, trucks, and noise.  Apparently everything comes in through Limon.  As far as I could tell there was little in Limon that would be interesting to see, so we tried to skip it as much as we could, but Route 32 runs nearly all the way through Limon, until you can Route 36 to Cahuito and on to Puerto Viejo.  There isn’t really much to see, lots and lots of little markets and stores.  A surprising amount of American chain restaurants (they make it almost impossible to miss the fact that they have a Pizza Hut, which they advertise for miles and miles), but mostly it’s little bodegas, outdoor markets, mechanics and tightly packed homes.

 Probably the most interesting thing we saw while frantically searching for the road to Viejo were cemeteries, which was something we had yet to see anywhere in Costa Rica.  They were unlike any cemetery I had seen, although I have a feeling it would be the norm in Central America.  It appeared that all of it was largely above-ground, either in large elaborate mausoleums or in plainly decorated smaller above-ground structures.  Everything was painted white, with older monuments much more visibly weathered.  

It was quite striking.  There really wasn’t much to look at or enjoy.  Traffic was heavy, and backed up considerably.  And we were constantly on the lookout for road signs, expecting that in typical fashion there would either be a poorly placed or improperly positioned sign, or no sign at all, indicating the turn for Route 36.  But, to our honest surprise and delight, a large sign for Manzanillo and Puerto Viejo indicated where we were to turn.

Puerto Viejo!

 

It was probably the single best signage we’d seen yet in Costa Rica.  We were relieved because we had assumed it was going to be difficult to find the right road.  

  Pretty quickly the city of Limon recedes.  For a mile or so there is some pretty dense residential property, all of it surrounded by razor wire or barbed wire, so it looked like a pretty seedy neighborhood.  But before long the houses and development diminish and we were on a quiet road surrounded by fields of some golden looking plant which grew all the way to the Caribbean ocean.  The sun was shining down and it was our first real glimpse at the royal blue ocean.  It was beautiful, and so nice to be off of the hustle and bustle roads which we had just spent three hours on.  For the first time we were really able to relax and enjoy our surroundings and just drive. 

Which is probably why we completely missed the next turn.  Either that or I was too busy avoiding the massive potholes that had begun to develop.  In retrospect it was probably something that would not be easy to miss, but clearly I was distracted by something.   For a look at the turn we missed copy and paste the following latitude and longitude which you can enter into google maps:

9.917970, -83.018012

For some reason Google maps isn’t exact with their coordinates, but if you go back Route 36 maybe a mile from the coordinates you’ll see a fork in the road where Route 36 abruptly turns to the left.  We didn’t make the turn.  Missed it completely.  I don’t even think that it registered, to be honest.  But we continued on as if nothing had happened, happily bumbling along in the completely wrong direction.  Pretty quickly things started to not really look right.  The road rapidly deteriorated.  A few signs of civilization began to show up, the odd house here and there.  Soon the road became almost entirely unpaved; just a bevy of potholes, ditches, and sizeable rocks.  We had to assume that we were going the wrong way, but just couldn’t be sure, and kept deciding to go a little further, there must be something, some indication of where we were.  But there was nothing.  Eventually we came to a small little town, where a youth soccer game was taking place. 

There were a good amount of people, but not a single one of them we ran into spoke any English or were able to explain in our rudimentary Spanish how to get back to where we wanted to be.  And despite various young men blowing kisses and making gestures to Nicole and Natalie we kept on going, with the same blind faith that eventually we would get some indication of where we went wrong, or some definitive and specific signal that we were going the wrong way.  We got it.  Almost immediately.

The road narrowed, was completely dirt and sand, and was pretty rutted and banked.  There were a decent amount of people walking on the road, and they all looked at us like we were completely nuts.  And as we came around a bend we saw a single lane bridge, maybe about 200 feet long, crossing a river.  It looked like it was made out of Lincoln logs, and we had no idea if it would actually hold up a car.  As far as we could tell only people walked across it.  We decided that it was our sign from whoever was up there, and we turned around.  People were visibly amused by our loss of direction.  One guy was frantically waving for us to keep going in the direction we had come from; maybe he was already accustomed to lost gringos driving around in his little town.  We stopped at a little store and talked to a girl, who in a mix of broken English,  rudimentary Spanish, and hand gestures explained that we had to go back several kilometers and that we had missed our turn.

We bounced and trundled our way back, kicking up a trail of dirt as we made our way back to the point we got lost.  While we were a little nervous about our excursion, and mostly because we were worried about trying to find our house in Viejo in the dark, it was kind of an amusing little side trip.  A little glimpse of the actual area, off the beaten path a little, away from the tourists.  After we got back home to Albany I took a look at where we went wrong, and found that we had headed to Beverly, Nuevo Castle, and then almost to Bomba.  And it turned out had we just ventured across the bridge we would have actually reached Viejo.  So that was a lesson learned to just stick with it and keep going, because often your sense of direction is better than you might give it credit for.

Regardless, we resumed our trip south to Viejo, dodging potholes and dogs as we went, more and more excited for our destination.

As total newbies to the area, we weren’t sure what to expect, but had been told it’s similar to a Caribbean version of Woodstock, New York, our home town.  Definitely an apt comparison, although Viejo was surprisingly much larger than I had anticipated.  We came over a single lane bridge and Viejo came into view.  It was a packed little town, laid out in a pretty perfect grid like all of the other towns we’d driven through.  We immediately looked for the grocery store, as our hope was that we could stock up on some things and grab something for dinner.  I was expecting some tiny little thing, but the store right in the middle of town, Old Harbour Supermarket, was actually extremely well stocked, although it did take two trips to realize that all fresh meat and fish was kept up front, in a little separate store front, which also had an excellent selection.

The town has many little trinket stands and stores, some with some genuinely beautiful things in it, and some with some standard airport stuff.  Our favorite place to hang out was a little restaurant/ice cream shop/internet café called Carib Bean or something like that, which was on Avienda 73, right by the water, with a view of the beached barge.  They had great ice cream and shakes, good and inexpensive eats, and the cheapest internet we found.  It was a very handy spot, and by week’s they recognized us and were extremely friendly. 

We did not spend much time in Viejo proper, most of our time was at the beaches in Cocles.  We did venture out one night for a real sit down dinner at Stashus Con Fusion, which is a little ways out of town has you head south to Manzinillo. 

We didn’t really know what to expect when dining out in Puerto Viejo, but I can tell you that we didn’t really expect this place. We dined fairly late, and the only person there was the owner dining with a group of friends, and he couldn’t be a more gracious and amazing host. The food was outstanding, a large range of flavors to suit any palette. All three courses we received were excellent, the fish was incredibly fresh and delicious and the cocktails perfect. It was incredibly reasonable, a party of four dined with drinks and appetizers for well under $20.00 (US) per person. Definitely worth a visit. We drove by it many times and it does get very crowded, so if they do reservations it might be worth making one.   I wouldn’t say that it’s “authentic,” whatever that label gets you.  But the food is incredible, and everyone left fat and happy. 

The other restaurant we visited daily was Totem, which is right across the street from the beach at Cocles.  After a hot morning at the beach nothing hit the spot like their cold beer, and this place really did the trick. Real close to the beach, great and inexpensive food, and a friendly and attentive staff. Not a single complaint, we spent hours here during our stay.  If you are looking for some shade and some cold drinks, this place is worth a walk in to.  We had some of their food, which was always good, but nothing to fawn over.  

The house we rented was about a ten minute walk from Cocles main beach, up on a hill and set back in the jungle.  The lot itself is pretty isolated, but on the lot are three homes.  They are all very well separated, and we never heard a peep from our neighbors.  For anyone interested, the house we rented is on VRBO.com, and it is home #221252.

The house has a wonderful, open layout, and it’s great to just relax in the many hammocks and couches and listen to the jungle. We found ourselves spending more time in the house than we might have initially planned. Woke up every morning to howler monkeys and various birds, it was quite an experience.  When we first arrived the monkeys must have been agitated, and we had no idea what it was.  The French couple staying in the house next to us saw us standing in the drive way looking moderately concerned and confused and came out to tell us it was the Howler monkeys.  I have honestly never heard anything like it, and it was a great alarm clock every morning.

 The house is gorgeous, and came with a caretaker (Leo) who was helpful when needed, but we were mostly on our own.  Down the hill from a house was another little grocery store which was well stocked and just a few minute walk.  They had plenty of fresh fruits and veggies, as well as beer and liquor.

Puerto Viejo was close, about a five or ten minute drive with the pothole dodging, and in town there is a much larger grocery store, as well as every type of restaurant possible.  While we were at the house we never once felt that the house and property wasn’t secure, and for those that are worried there is a safe in the master bedroom that is reset for each new tenant.   

The beach and ocean in Puerto Viejo, and Cocles, where our house was, did not disappoint.  We had an incredible stretch of beach nearly all to ourselves, with only the occasional walker or visitor.  Although plenty of dogs came to say hello, and more than a few times members of the Costa Rican police would patrol the path behind our beach, which was at first a concern, but became a welcome site as the days progressed.  We spent hours and hours on the beach every day.  It was incredible.  

The beach at Cocles is a crescent shape, extending north and to the east, ensuring that you have a spectacular view at all times.  It is one of the most prettiest beaches I have had the pleasure of spending a day on.   

I could sit on a beach for hours, admiring the movement of the waves, the power of the water.  Each wave and its different aesthetics; the way the wind shifts the top of a wave and blows it back to sea, or the shimmering emerald color of a wave illuminated by a rising sun.  The way the sand feels as you dig your toes into a cooler level of sand, the moisture and chill a welcome respite from the hot sun.  I could sit on the beach endlessly, from dusk till dawn, and watch the world go by.  It is an incredibly wonderful way to spend a day, and something I wish I could do on a daily basis.  So many of my cares and worries and stress seem to simply wash away with the waves.

Speaking of waves, Puerto Viejo has become quite famous for its surfing, and as such, the waves can be quite powerful.  Sometimes the chop would be quite dramatic, with a fairly serious riptide, so a sense of awareness and safety is important during the changing tides.  We were often able to find areas where the surf was much calmer, and would choose to stick there for the day.  Swimming in the powerful surf regularly became difficult, so it was nice to find a place where it was easy to have a relaxing dip.

For those seeking an even more relaxing swim, a drive South down the coast to Manzanillo is in order.  On our second to last day we took a drive down there for some swimming, and the water is much, much calmer.  There is a small tienda with beer and snacks, and the locals were incredibly friendly.  Once again, we found ourselves almost entirely alone on the beach, which is just an incredible feeling.  It’s nothing like those big resorts in Florida or the Caribbean, with hundreds of beach chairs and the endless noise.  The only disturbance we ever got at Cocles was a gentleman who saw us from 500 feet away to come sell us a coconut with the top cut off.  Had to reward his vision and tenacity, so we got a few.  They did not let us down; real tasty. 

Most of our days were spent at the beach, with a break for a few beers at Totem, and then home to make dinner.  My favorite part of renting a home versus staying in a hotel or hostel is that you can cook and make your own meals.  It’s always fun to experiment with local ingredients and fresh fish, and meats.  Many fruit salads were made, and guacamole was a daily preparation.  I believe that avocados were around ten cents apiece, so you could make a massive bowl of it for a few dollars. Much better than paying two bucks apiece in Albany.  Plus, they were about a million times better in Viejo. 

The one excursion we planned was a snorkeling and hiking tour through Cahuita National Park with Gecko Trail Adventure. All in all the tour was outstanding, and encompassed everything we wanted to see and do. The tour bus met us at the grocery store down the hill and picked us up in a microbus.  Our drive from Cocles to Cahuita took about 20 minutes or so, and the ride there our two guides were very informative, amusing, and friendly.

 There were three other people with us, traveling from Canada, and they couldn’t have been nicer. We were all very friendly by the end of our trip. Both guides spoke perfectly fluent English, and couldn’t have been nicer. We reached Cahuita and made our way down to the boats, and loaded onto the boats. Unfortunately the weather the day we went wasn’t perfect, and the ride out was pretty wavy. We loved it, as we’re all used to the ocean, but some people might have found themselves uncomfortable.

The snorkeling began after about a 15 minute boat ride, and moved to several locations. Because it was cloudy, and relatively choppy, the clarity of the water wasn’t perfect, but we were still able to see a lot of amazing fish and coral. My only complaint about the snorkeling was that getting into and out of the boat was a bit difficult, especially for those uncomfortable with just jumping off the side of the boat. The ladder they had just wasn’t long enough. But that was the only negative in a long day of positives. After coming ashore and making our way to the trail we had a brief snack of perfectly fresh fruit, a small package of cookies, and water. We then started our walk through Cahuita, which was amazing, and our guide was able to spot so much more wildlife than we ever possibly could have. At first we didn’t see much, but midway through the walk it was sloths, monkeys, birds, reptiles and more every left and right. We probably would have seen about half of it if we didn’t have our guide with us, so it was more than worth the moderate price. With the drive, the snorkeling, the hike and the drive back we spent about five hours on the trip. It was well worth the price, and we saw toucans, something which I had been desperately seeking to see while in Costa Rica.

I highly recommend Gecko Trail Adventures, they were a little late picking us up, but I think that’s fairly standard, and it was not an issue at all. 

The guides were so friendly and helpful, it was like hanging out with someone we had known for a much longer amount of time.  And I honestly can’t describe how beautiful Cahuita was.  Never in my life had I been in a jungle quite like it.  The sights and sounds are simply indescribable, and anyone visiting Puerto Viejo must take a tour, or just go and do it by yourself.  The park is incredibly safe and secure, and we saw a few people who opted to just go it alone.  Although, like I said before, the guides are incredibly helpful at pointing out the wildlife.  Much of it is easily missed, so that’s absolutely worth the small price they ask.   

In retrospect, and after returning home, I wish that we spent some more time doing some tours, and some activities in Puerto Viejo itself.  I make no apologies for the way we spent our time there, it was one of the most relaxing and incredibly reinvigorating trips of my life.  But there is just so much to see and do in Costa Rica, and I do feel like I missed out on many opportunities.  The country is so incredibly beautiful, and it has so many amazing parks that I would like to check out and visit.  Many of the parks have activities such as boat tours, white water rafting, hiking, zip lining and the like.  It would be a blast to go do some of those things, which is why a return trip to Costa Rica is definitely in the works.  This time, I would like to spend some more time in the mountains, and I really want to see Tortuguero National Park.      

Puerto Viejo itself also has a lot to offer, such as clubs, pool halls, a pretty lively night life, tons of bars and restaurants and hostels, and a lot more off the main road.  All of it was worth checking out, and I do wish that we looked into a little more.  The place has a really cool, laid back Caribbean feel to it, and the few times we hung out in town it was something I really enjoyed. 

It would have also been very interesting to get to know some of the other tourists and travelers there.  Puerto Viejo seemed to attract a lot of Australians, as well as many, many French and Canadians.  I really would have liked to have a few beers with some of them, get to know them, swap stories and the like.  The area we were in was quite the travelers’ town, and I loved the feeling and that atmosphere.

All in all though, our trip to Costa Rica was incredibly memorable.  The country is amazingly pretty.  There is such a variety of people, places, food, and experiences you can have there.  In Puerto Viejo alone there are French, Thai and Asian fusion restaurants, sushi, chocolatiers, artisanal bread makers, fresh coffee roasters and way, way more.   It’s a place where you can back pack it and sleep in 15 dollar a night hostels, or rent a gorgeous house right near the ocean.  Anyone who is looking for a trip to somewhere that is a little off the beaten path, but wonderfully catered to an international crowd of travelers should take a look at Puerto Viejo.  

I have to assume that Puerto Viejo will keep progressing in the way it is, and before you know it, it will be like every other giant, expensive, tourist trap.  Even in the space of a few years I have heard that it’s changed dramatically, so anyone with even a passing interest should head on down there before it’s irreversibly changed forever. 

Coral at Cahuita National Park

Toucan!

Cocles at sunset looking North towards Puerto Viejo

Cocles beach looking towards the south to Manzanillo

Spent a lot of hours with our backs to the jungle right here at Cocles beach

Cocles beach, where we spent most of our time..