Thursday, 19 June 2014

Manuel Antonio & San Jose

After the misbehaviour last night, I'm awake early far too early again, and tempted to turf the troublemakers out of bed as well. Instead I amuse myself by updating our blog (yay!), and looking up stuff to do in the next couple of days. One in particular on the long drive to San Jose that will definitely be worth a stop off later today...

When the troublesome trio emerge, all look suitably admonished, and all is forgiven - Matty is suffering from the effects of beer, as well as the knowledge that he had become (temporarily at least) the exact things he thought would spoil his first hostel dorm experience.

With the car loaded up, it's tempting to put all three of the naughty children in the backseat, but instead we punch Manuel Antonio into the GPS and head out of town. First stop is before we even hit the main road, a little panaderia which is famed locally for its coffees. It's not yet 10am so a new record is set for the earliest alcoholic coffee of the trip (Baileys is today's choice), but again it's still cheaper than CPs $7 iced coffee / chocolate ice cream / blended concoction - getting her to smile for this photo after seeing the bill was quite an effort.

The rest of the journey to Manuel Antonio National Park is uneventful, other than the ongoing challenge of beating the sat nav, and a stop at El Pollo Loco so that the Parrotts can fill up on a mountain of chicken. This turns out to be a wise choice, as I'll find out later.

Manuel Antonio is Costa Rica's smallest national park, but it's said to be one of the best, and it's location on the coast part way along our route to San Jose makes it a perfect stop off point for our final morning as a foursome.

As we speed up the steep hill towards what the sat nav believes to be the entrance, a barely official looking guy in a flouro jacket has stepped out into the road with his arm raised in the universal "STOP" signal. The extremely focused driver (me) barely registers this in the race against the sat nav, but we stop just in time, and the guy directs us in to the even less official looking car park, and presents us with our payment options for a guided tour.

We're still trying to establish if we've been done over but we're paying roughly what the LP says and our guide instantly proves his worth when as we walk up the rest of the route to the entrance he stops us and sets up his tripod and telescope to pick out a tiny bird way up in the trees that disguises itself almost perfectly as part of a small branch - our guide is either extremely pro, or he's planted a fake "twig bird" there in advance.

We continue along the trail, and see monkeys, a variety of colourful birds, a sloth waaaay up in the trees, any number of frogs, a little green snake, and finally the toucans that Matty had been so keen to see!

We reach the end of the path, and arrive at "Beach 2". Our guide will leave us here but explains the option of continuing to "Beach 3" (who came up with these names?) via a small trail where we may see raccoons and/or white faced capuchin monkeys. Obviously that's what we want so he sends us off on the trail with a final warning to keep all bags closed on the trail, don't feed or touch the animals, and be careful as the monkeys especially can get quite aggressive.

The raccoons are spotted instantly, scurrying around all over the trail, but at first the capuchin are harder to find. Then what seems like dozens of them appear, and of course, the group in front of us (Americans *rolls eyes*) have their bags on the floor, contents spilling out, with arms outstretched trying to feed them whatever snacks they have. Great news for us, as the photo ops are great.

Bad news for the Americans as when the snacks are finished, the capuchin are still hungry for more, so immediately go for their open backpacks. One of the group is heard to say "the only thing in there is my kindle and if he takes that I will cry!" - "OMG". We watch while the monkeys have their fun, and sadly no kindles were stolen, so we continue to Beach 3 for a much needed cool down swim in the Pacific Ocean and lounge around on the beautiful white sandy beach - easily the best we've seen in Costa Rica.

Fairly soon Matty and I are regretting not joining CP and Ryan earlier when they visited The Crazy Chicken earlier, as the baileys coffee has long since worn off, we're starving, and the closest food is a solid half hour march back to the park entrance. There's time for one last splash in the ocean before we start our trip back.

On the walk back, it's my turn to set the pace while playing at tour guide (although unlike another member of the Parrott family, there's no interview and I have not been doing this for 12 years...) - our fast pace is halted only for me to point out an array of monkeys, a sloth hanging down in plain view above us, and the now usual collection of iguanas.

Fearing exhaustion, I'm borderline delirious when the park entrance / exit comes into view, and collapse on to the seat at the first pizza place, which is offering a slice and a drink in exchange for a refreshingly small amount of colones. Invigorated, we're ready to finish the short walk back to the car, via the Coco Loco stall (that's a fresh coconut with the top macheted off, and a surprisingly large measure of rum poured in and mixed with the previously pure coconut water) - delicious, and added to the list of things to try when we're back home!

Back at the car, and with the surfboards secured to the roof once again, the "attendant" approaches and asks if we have paid for our parking. My Spanish is sufficient to give the impression that we are not gringo tourists and therefore have no fee to pay, and we're out of there, with the secret stop off point keyed into the sat nav - CP knows where we're going, but Ryan and Matty only know that there is a surprise en route, about halfway to San Jose.

The surprise is something I'd read about after waking up too early this morning...:

"You should really stop at Puente Río Tarcoles about halfway between San José and Manuel Antonio. This is a favorite spot for crocodiles that come here to warm up before hunting at night. You will normally be able to see at least 30 crocodiles here.

The 1/4 mile long bridge is about 50 feet off the ground. The bridge is missing some of higher guards rails so take care not to lean on them. The side walk is only 1 person wide. The bridge is long and straight so you will see the traffic and they will see you.

The crocs sun them selves on the various sand bars in the middle of the river. They are long and fat."

Time is ticking on, and we're concerned that by the time we get there at about 6pm the "surprise" crocs might have all had enough time sunning themselves and gone off hunting. As we approach the bridge it's clear that this area is well known, there's a small lay by area big enough for 3-4 cars, and a policeman is stationed there to ensure that cars go past slowly to avoid any overly distracted croc hunters who might stumble into the road.

As we walk up, Ryan is still in the dark - it's clearly something worth seeing, but there's no view, the river isn't that impressive to look at, the bridge is just normal... then Matty sees something down below and the surprise is revealed - about 18-20 crocodiles, some "regular" sized, some massive, and part in, part out of the water below. We spend a good 15-20 minutes watching, and they are incredible!

The policeman comes over to tell us that he's finishing up as darkness is falling and to warn us about passing cars, but we've seen enough and continue the drive to San Jose.

The road goes up, and up, and up some more, as we go from the coast to 1,000m above sea level, before driving through some fairly sketchy sections of San Jose before emerging at the Parque Nacional, right outside our hostel. Matty has opted to stay at a hotel for his final night of holiday, and we bid him farewell as we head into our hostel - which is set in a stunning colonial house, this place is huge, with chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, a TV room, an outdoor courtyard, and big roomy dorms.  Best hostel we have ever stayed in.

There's time for a quick freshen up, the 3 of us head out to dinner at a place nearby, and after another "heated debate" between the Parrotts, we move on to the casino which is most definitely in a sketchy part of town. After 2 hours of blackjack, I've turned my original $20 stake into... $20. CP managed to loose all of her $20, despite several almost successful attempts to get back in by borrowing my chips and Ryan managed to walk away $40 down, temporarily of course! 

Our first morning in San Jose begins in the usual way - with me waking up incredibly early as soon as the sun is high enough to stream in through the dorm window. CP is still fast asleep, so I get up and figure out a plan for the day over an epic breakfast from the local shop. Plan is... walking tour led by RD, oh yeah! When Ryan and CP emerge, I send them off to the same shop to get breakfast and continue planning our tour, while politely shutting down any attempts at conversation from other travellers. I might have been up for a couple of hours, but I'm obviously busy (sort of), and it's still too early for the standard zero-interest "where are you going, where have you been, I won't remember any of this information for more than 3 seconds" rubbish.

RDs walking tour is a great success, and we manage to see most of the key sights that San Jose has to offer. We discover a penchant for pizza (mainly because it's cheap and massive and what we fondly called pizza alley is right down the road from our place), a massive slice is enough for me and CP to share although Ryan is on a junk food mission for the day so he devours entire slices of pizza, ice cream and the like...and why not, he'll just surf it all off in a few days!

There's also finally an explanation to the "Pre-Columbian" term that we've seen a lot when reading or hearing about Costa Rica. Being uneducated in this regard, I'd half-assumed that at some point in the distant past, Colombia must have done something massively world changing which resulted in pre- and post-"Colombian" eras. Evidently, I'm an idiot, and what it actually means is pre- Christopher Columbus discovering this part of the world.

We also discovered that Costa Rica disbanded it's military in 1949, which seems a risky strategy given neighbouring Nicaragua's civil wars in the fairly recent past, as well as the extensive and occasionally violent power struggles that have occurred in various parts of Latin America, but it does go someway to explaining their "pura vida" philosophy, and generally easy going nature.

Another evening spent at the casino after a mildly successful visit to Chinatown for dinner (CP got a massive plate of noddles, Ryan picked something that looked tasty from the pictures in the menu and I picked a random dish taking pot luck in what I got, to get unboned chicken and rice...bad choice!). At the casino, we are playing enough blackjack to benefit from the "free" drinks on offer, and by the end of it, CP has again lost all of her $20, Ryan is $20 up and I am $10 down (most of which would be accounted for by the chips "borrowed" by CP... CP here, I always paid back my borrowed chips and if I had not got that blasted queen when I had bet big, then we would have been laughing!), but I am now confident that I've learnt enough strategy to turn semi-pro in the near future. Ryan seems pretty comfortable on the table and knows all the rules so his semi pro status is assured! It's not until we're walking past the following morning that we realise just how sketchy this area is at all hours of the day, and that Mattys plush $200 a night hotel had been next door to our casino, right in the middle of Dodge City.

Our final day is spent cruising the indoor markets, tracking down "La Gorda" (a bronze statue of "the fat woman", something we'd missed on yesterday's tour), a trip to the cinema (a real luxury for all if us!) and enjoying having time just to hang out with Ryan.

There's time for one last dinner together, before we pack up our bags, say our goodbyes, and aim for an early night ahead our big days of travel - Ryan to Mexico, and us to Colombia! CP will catch up with Ryan again in Australia in a few months time, but for me it could be a little while longer before we can reminisce over a shared dislike of other travellers bullshit.

We say our goodbyes before bed as Ryan was not so keen to be woken up at 3am to say goodbye then! Big hugs all round and particularly CP is grateful for having got to spend so much quality time with her bro. I got to spend more time with Ryan than I probably have before in total, and it was great getting to know one of the future brother-in-laws better, so it is with some sadness we all said goodbye and goodnight.

A special mention for whoever took my towel from the hostel. It's been used a lot in the last 8 weeks, and smelt horrific - at first I thought the friendly cleaner might have taken it to laundry out of sympathy, but evidently not. I hope you enjoy it very much, but it might need a wash.

Our taxi arrives right on time for our 3:30am pickup, and we cruise through the empty streets of San Jose, paying only a token regard to any traffic lights by briefly slowing before powering on through. Approaching the checkin queue at the airport, we're told we have to each pay the $29 departure tax, which no airline includes in their fares. Aside from being a superb piece of job creation (no less than 3 different people are required to collect the $29, the receipt, the form that goes with it), dealing with this before 4am after a $30 taxi ride is the final nail in Costa Rica's overpriced coffin. 

At times it's a beautiful place, but some parts have been tarnished by the abundance of the American tourist dollar, as it has built a reputation as the "safest" of the Central American countries to visit, and the US tourists flock here and are apparently so excited to be outside of the USA but still have access to all the shops, restaurant chains, and other stuff that they have at home. But it's not as beautiful as the other Central American countries, and everything costs twice or three times as much as it does elsewhere - the prices wouldn't raise an eyebrow at home but out here it's outlandish and in 10 days here it felt like we were haemorrhaging money all 3 of us were glad to be on our way out of Costa Rica, but a little sad to be heading in different directions...

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