Costa Rica, the Switzerland of Central America

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It was always a given that Costa Rica would be vastly different compared to the other central American countries but the shock factor was imminent.  Crossing the dustbowl border was straightforward enough but we were welcomed by the attitudes we were warned about.  I was forewarned that Costa Rican people can often be quite indirect when disagreeing with you, especially with business transactions. Within hours of arriving a man at the border refused to discuss currency exhange due to a minor language miscommunication, a taxi driver slammed the door and drove off after refusing to charge by the meter and another driver scammed us out of a walking distance fare. A nice rude awakening in a new country, but we weren’t going to let it affect our judgement of the rest of the country, everyone else has been phenomenal.
We arrived in Tilaran in the wind and rain only to discover that there is only one bus per day to Monteverde so it was necessary to stay the night. But it was a pleasure to stay somewhere with the luxuries of carpet and hot water. Luckily Seb’s sister spent a year living nearby so we spent the evening trying to track down her host family. We found some leads using a photograph and a list of names, sadly the village of Sabalito was too far to venture too without an address so we headed to Monteverde the very next day. The roads were terrible, a 40km journey took 2.5 hours thanks to a road block from a tractor on a single lane track, so we sat and waited for it to finish the road builing so we could continue. We found a place with a kitchen and cooked up a storm during a storm, turns out the weather can be quite the swine during rainy season. But we were up early enough in the morning to spot a sloth before a zipline adventure. It was a pricey treat of an activity but just think of it as Go Ape on crack, because this was a whole new ball game of tree top advenures. Some of the wires were up to a kilometer long across the valleys on rainforest canopy, and because they we so high the views were incredible. Weirdly I found the small height rappelling one of the most frightening because you had to jump off and defy your instincts of a lifetime. But it didn’t come close to the pure fear of a Tarzan swing, which is a mere few seconds of solid adrenaline as you swing 20m at full speed hoping that you’re not the heifer that becomes a tragic statistic. The final superman line is insane. You’re suspended by a harness secured on your back and feet this time, so you get more of a sense of truly flying, arms out face first, the photos won’t do it justice.
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We met up with our travel family one last time before we set off on different paths for Christmas, and before we met families of a different kind. We headed back to Tilaran and were picked up at the bus station by the host family of Seb’s sister. It was indescribable how good it felt to be in an immaculately clean and cosy home after so long. The tiny village of Sabalito is home to less than 200 people, so there were no tourists in sight, we had a few days of pure relaxation, learning how to salsa, getting a haircut with the aid of a translator, and playing football in the rain with the whole youth population of the village. The whole family were amazing hosts, we didn’t stop eating homemade food all day, which was wonderful but I was gaining weight at a rate of notts. We borrowed the car for the morning to drive to a yoga class at a retreat in the forest. The studio was a wooden platform suspended over the river below which made a nice setting with the pitter patter of water dropping all around. Driving on unpaved roads was worlds away from the comfort of the states, which must have been an initial shock to the expat masses in the area. I can’t believe how many Americans were living around the lake. Nicas had referred to it as ‘Costa Gringo’ on numerous ocassions but we thought that was an exaggeration and part of the general banter between the nations. We were obviously really sad to leave our new comfortable life but we had to make it on the road in time to visit families number two and three.
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We headed south towards San Jose and got off at the crossroads heading towards Grecia, where we were met by the lovely Gonzalo, the father of Seb’s exchange brother to head to our second cosy home in this green nation. We were treated with exactly the same exceptional hospitality, it was fast becoming all too tempting to cancel the newly rebooked flights and stay put for the duration of the trip. What’s more the house pets were amazing, Lolita the talking parrot was hilarious, and went bezerk every morning. Gatillo the world’s best cat was also becoming my favourite animal of the trip so far, I just couldn’t put him down. We had plenty of day trips from Grecia to entertain us, one was to spring clean the holiday house in the mountains, we explored our way down to the river macheteing our way through the dense greenery, really doing our bit for the rainforest. I normally swell like the incredible hulk after mosquito bites, but throughout the whole of central America I’d had no issues until now.  Costa Rica has some sort of mutant strain that destroy you in one bite, so I was back to looking like a diseased mess again. We also headed to the entertainment complex on the outskirts of the capital to see the second instalment of the Hobbit. Can’t believe mister Jackson and his cronies have dragged this out into a three parter. We then went to Hooters, it was a really surreal evening trying to convince ourselves that we were still in latin America rather than any generic US out of town development. The following day we headed to the beach via the infamous crocodile river. I’ve never seen reptiles quite like these before, they were enormous basking in the sun waiting to eat an unlucky person falling off the bridge above to take a photo. The pacific coast could’ve easily been Florida but the surf was brilliant.  We also ate delicious fresh grilled fish which reminded me of the sunny state too. Our Spanish developed more in two weeks by staying with families and practising all day, than it had in two whole months which was a lovely kick start before moving on to South America. So we will forever be grateful to the families for their patience and teaching. Once again the time came to leave our hosts but our sadness was subdued by the excitement of meeting more people at the airport.
We met Seb’s mum and sister at arrivals in San Jose, a really nice new experience being the collector for once. It feels amazing to see familiar faces after such a long time, particularly just before Christmas. It was well worth the hassle of changing the flights to spend a couple of days with them in the city. We even got presents and Swiss treats to make tropical islands feel a little more festive. I wish we could’ve stayed with them a bit longer but Panama was calling and we didn’t want to spend Christmas day on a bus or at a border crossing so we headed to Puerto Viejo to see the Caribbean side of things for Christmas Eve Eve. Our faith in human kindness was boosted before we got onthe bus. We were desperately trying to exchange our left over Nicaragua Cordobas but the massive queue at the bank would’ve made us miss the bus we bought tickets for. A man in the queue overheard my explanation of our lack of time to the security guard and swapped my note for a Costa Rican one, a coupleof dollars above the going exchange rate. Good guys exist and we made our bus to the beach.
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We only stayed the night at the beach, at Rocking J’s in the most expensive hammock in ‘a place where crazy paving went to die’. It was literally like a bunch of terrible artists with limited mosaic skills were let loose and paid only in acid tabs, something they used to fuel their decorating creativity. We weren’t too impressed by PV and were glad to be heading to paradise islands, but were now a little apprehensive that it wouldn’t be all it was cracked up to be.
So our time in Costa Rica was over, the biggest impression it made is that unlike many of its neighbouring countries, it seems to be nearly entirely devoid of its own culture. Not because it never had one to start with, but simply because its heavy influence from the US has eroded any evidence to be gleened from a fleeting visit. However despite all of the Americanisms, the traditional native cuisine is unbelievably good. We’d had gallo pinto before but nothing compares to a Costa Rican breakfast. Chifrio was also a nice intersting take on the same usual ingeredients that we’d become accustomed to but with tons of flavour. The tamales are also worlds apart from the rest of the region and especially eaten during December, whatsmore we discovered that they’re even better with salsa inglese, quite possibly the worlds most delicious sauce. So we stocked up on bottles whilst we could, along with packets of manzanilla tea. Now under usual circumstances I would turn my nose up the offer of camomile, but manzanilla is an entirely different cup of tea. Its nothing like the stuff your nan drinks before bedtime, its absolutely delicious and I’m now drinking it like its going out of fashion, which comforts me in my distinct lack of green tea.
The nicest thing about it besides the amazing people we stayed with, was its lush greeness. The nature really did live up to its reputation,  we were shocked to learn that this timy landmass boasts 5% of the world’s biodiversity, for that reason alone I’d be quite happy to go back and see even more of it.

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