Leroy arrived back from an extended visit with his imaginary family in French Guiana, raring to go exploring again. I’d been away a lot recently — a real life trip to Portugal and Madrid, then travel for work, and finally a family visit of my own over the Christmas break — and was initially a little reluctant to pick up and leave again. Until Leroy came up with a virtual travel plan no one in their right mind would be able to resist.
Road trip! Costa Rica!
Coffee! Sea turtles! Monkeys! Mountains! Volcanoes!
Once I conceded that this was indeed a brilliant idea, we sat down to plan it. For this trip we decided to focus our attention on Puntarenas, the oddly-shaped province stretching along most of the country’s Pacific coast that is home to over 100,000 ticos. Leroy reluctantly agreed to leave the more adrenaline-fueled activities for next time since we couldn’t possibly fit everything into two short days. Packing our virtual sunscreen, insect repellent and the Panama hats we previously purchased in Ecuador, we were ready to explore. Central America, here we come again.
We spent most of our first morning in Costa Rica exploring some of the 682 hectares of rainforest, coral reefs and white sandy beaches that make up the beautiful Manuel Antonio National Park. The wildlife was incredible. I’d have to say the highlights were watching family of sloths doing absolutely nothing, two iguanas, a toucan, a tapir and some rare squirrel monkeys, most of which we’d never seen outside a zoo before. We heard the eerie barking roars of Howler monkeys but didn’t manage to see any. There were also lots of little crabs running around everywhere, almost underfoot. I’m just glad we didn’t bump into a boa constrictor. Or a croc. After a swim at the relatively secluded Playa Espadilla Sur, we hiked the Punta Catedral trail loop. It wasn’t long but was breathlessly steep in parts, with beautiful views of the sea and coastline below.
After some wheeling and dealing outside the entrance to the national park, Leroy managed to rent us a 1970s jeep on the proviso that we dropped it off to the owner’s brother-in-law in San José the following evening. Don’t ask me how he managed it. We bumped along the narrow, winding roads away from the hordes of international and local tourists and headed to La Cantina for a very late lunch. Sitting at wooden tables out on the deck overlooking the sea, we wolfed down enormous plates of traditional casado: grilled chicken (me) or fish (Leroy), black beans and rice, fried plantains, pickled vegetables and salad.
Almost too full to walk, we staggered across the road to our extraordinary hotel. The Hotel Costa Verde is famous for creating accommodation out of old planes and Leroy had managed to pull another rabbit out of the hat. Normally booked up for months in advance, we struck gold with someone else’s last minute cancellation. The 727 Fuselage Home was ours for one night. And if you’re tempted to skip over the link: don’t. You need to see it to believe it’s teak-encrusted quirkiness.
The next morning we were waylaid by a posse of capuchin monkeys who had come to see what we were having for breakfast. Fresh fruit, coffee and gallo pinto, in case you were wondering. Gallo pinto is rice mixed with black beans and served with scrambled eggs, natilla (sour cream) and fried plantain, and is fortifying to say the least. We were asked not to feed the monkeys, but it was difficult eating while they watched us so expectantly from the balustrade.
Back on the road, we drove for around 40 minutes to the Villa Vanilla Spice Plantation, a 26 acre organic and biodynamic farm producing vanilla, cacao, cinnamon, cardamon, pepper, ginger, allspice, cloves, turmeric and even ylang ylang. My call, of course, being the spice lover that I am. We arrived in time for the 9am tour with our guide Daniel and spent the next couple of hours wandering around the property and learning all about growing, harvesting and processing. I loved it all, but I suspect Leroy’s favourite part was taste testing at the end: cinnamon tea, cardamon ice cream and cheesecake with hibiscus flower marmalade.
From the plantation, we drove north west along the Pacific coast, stopping to browse street stalls and chat to the locals. The ticos were extraordinarily gracious. Leroy is always good engaging people in conversation and they were intrigued by his background. My Spanish is improving but, since Leroy’s is still threadbare, I had to jump in on occasion. We drank pipas frias, cold fresh coconuts that were opened with machetes and stuck with a straw. We met three self-confessed poets in deep conversation and started to wonder whether we should just move here. In other words, things were going swimmingly.
Leroy was driving at the time, I will say that, but I guess that means I should have been navigating a little better. Somehow we turned inland too soon and found ourselves on back roads. I suggested we turn around but Leroy, a little tense after an hour of winding around hills and thickly forested jungle, wasn’t so keen. We drove for another hour or so, scattering chickens foraging on the road.
Realising we were horribly lost, we pulled over to the edge of the road and waited for someone to pass. We ate the fresh piña (pineapple) we’d bought at the markets that morning, as well as all the zapotes, brown fruit that look a little like avocados but are filled with a sweet, brilliant red pulp. Our fingers were sticky with juice but we didn’t want delve too deeply into our precious water supply. It felt a lot warmer than 24 degrees. Eventually a man with a handsome moustache came rattling along in a brightly painted oxcart drawn by two oxen.
“Do you know the way to San José?” we asked, in Spanish*.
He grinned a wide grin and pointed in the direction he’d just come from. We thanked him and clambered back into the jeep. Around the corner we were mortified to see a road sign, in familiar green and white, announcing that we were only 42 kilometres from the capital.
* Yes, we now know the song is about the Californian San José, not the Costa Rican San José but it seemed hilariously funny to us at the time. Blame it on heatstroke.