Explore the natural beauty and culture of Costa Rica
Long winters in Summit County leaving you with a craving for a warmer climate? Or maybe you’re looking to put some of your Spanish to use.
Then think Costa Rica and take advantage of the remarkable wildlife, cultural diversity, stunning volcanoes and other natural beauty that Costa Rica – and its neighbors – have to offer.
Arriving in San Jose, Costa Rica, you’ll be surprised by the level of sophistication and American trends that prevail.
But once you go off the beaten path, you can get a taste of the local flair. This is particularly true of Costa Rica’s neighbor to the north, Nicaragua, and to a lesser degree, Panama to the south.
Although the ease of traveling in Costa Rica is reassuring, we were surprised to find our most rewarding experiences in the less visited locales. Not too unlike Colorado and Summit County, locals in Costa Rica can be a bit wary of visitors.
Our first stop in Costa Rica was Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean Coast. This town is unique in that the local crowd is a surprising mix of Bribri Indian and black Caribbean cultures.
The town is known for some of the best surfing on the Caribbean coast. Even if you don’t surf you’ll want to take a stroll along the sprawling and inviting coastline nestled next to a lively tropical forest.
English is sometimes spoken albeit with a Caribbean accent. It might be good to mention here that wherever you travel in Central America, the more Spanish you speak will serve you well in terms of making friends and the efficiency of your travel.
If you stick to the main hotspots in Costa Rica, you’ll be able to manage even with the smallest vocabulary.
Our next stop after a quick jaunt across the border was the island of Bocas del Toro (i.e. Mouth of the Bull) in Panama.
Although slightly more expensive than Puerto Viejo, the island boasts a more upbeat traveler-friendly feel to it. You might be surprised to learn that Panama uses the dollar as its currency (I was).
The downtown has a great Caribbean feel to it with quaint shops, restaurants and a community park in the center. We were lucky enough to arrive just in time for a parade and music festival kicking off in the park.
Bocas (as it is known to the locals) has a way of grabbing a hold of the visitor, in much the same way as a ski town, with its world-class surfing and quaint charm.
We actually witnessed a local dog in a heated standoff with a giant crab on a downtown main street. It was the general consensus that the giant crab got the better of the pooch.
Growth is steady in Bocas and highlighted by two large Victorian hotels perched over the water. The best place to party is the Wreck Deck, a great bar and dance club likewise nestled on the Caribbean.
There is also great biking around the island, which lends to side trips to great beaches, snorkeling and even exploring spiritual caves.
After Bocas the bar was set high. We didn’t think that we would be further impressed.
A stop in Quepos (back in Costa Rica) quickly assuaged these concerns though.
Quepos is the Aspen of Costa Rica with its real estate, highlighted with several impressive mansions uncommon to Costa Rica, considerably higher than most any other resort town in Costa Rica. Quepos is truly a destination resort with all the amenities and an enjoyable stop for any traveler.
The natural highlight of Quepos is Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. One of the most visited parks in Costa Rica, it boasts a natural beauty unrivaled nearly anywhere else in the country.
A stroll around the park will most certainly lead to encounters with monkeys, bright red crabs, large rodents, and if you’re lucky, you can even see a sloth slithering slowly down a tree.
After Quepos it was on to Montezuma, which is a peninsula of breathtaking natural beauty and has a great laid back local vibe.
You can take a hike to one of only a few freshwater waterfalls in the world that fall into the ocean.
Another waterfall closer by offers opportunity for adventure. To get to the highest tier of the waterfall is a somewhat arduous, 30-minute hike.
When you arrive you’ll be greeted with a rope swing that you can use to glide through the air and then plunge into a refreshing pool of water. For the more daring (I did it only after I saw a local do it successfully) there’s a 40-foot drop from one level of the waterfall to the next.
It helps to recite the theme song to Indian Jones before you take the plunge.
After Montezuma, we relaxed in the natural hot springs surrounding Volcan Arenal. It’s the most active volcano in Central America with dazzling eruptions of molten lava nearly every day.
The natural hot springs are a by-product of the heat generated by the lava. The hot springs are best enjoyed with friends and some Sam-Song or the local rum.
After Volcan Arenal we crossed the border to Nicaragua. Although not absolutely necessary, it’s best to have at least a basic Spanish speaker in your group if you’re heading to Nicaragua.
Don’t let the turbulent reputation of Nicaragua’s past scare you away. Nicaragua is now beginning to see the huge potential for growth, following the success of Costa Rica.
In the capital city, Managua, we were pleasantly surprised to find ATMs dispensing the local currency, which we used to visit one of the many new shopping malls with an impressive new movie theater and a food court that would beat most any you could find in Colorado.
To my utter surprise, the most rewarding experience of our journey took place at Isla de Ometepe on Lago Nicaragua.
Ometepe is a geological marvel considering the island was formed by the settling of molten lava from two volcanoes on either side of the island.
It is situated on Lago Nicaragua – the largest lake in Central America. The lake even boasts some of the only freshwater sharks in the world. They can grow to more than 6 feet long.
The cultural experience in Nicaragua is notably different. The locals, instead of feeling overwhelmed by your presence, are appreciative of it and curious to learn more about you.
We stayed on a working cooperative farm in Ometepe known as Finca Magdalena. It had been a cooperative farm for over half a century.
The feeling of pride that the families that lived on this remarkable land shared permeated our experience there. The farm was a little hike to get to though and offered primitive accommodation.
Resort accommodations were available elsewhere on the island.
The water of Lago Nicaragua was incredibly warm and a welcome change after all the salt water. The sand is brilliantly smooth with no rocks intruding on its presence.
We played Frisbee in the water as the locals looked at us like we were a little crazy. Evidently they don’t go as far out as we did because they are afraid of the sharks.
We were lucky enough to arrive at a time when the locals held an annual rodeo and beauty pageant festival. To say they were surprised at our presence would be an understatement.
The surprise was a pleasant one though, and we were greeted warmly. After a few local brews we were enjoying the band and the bull fighting (a much more gentle version than you would see in Spain). We were tempted to join the bull fighting. Luckily, though, the voice of reason prevailed.
Heading back to Costa Rica (in a cushy, air-conditioned bus), we wished we had more time to spend in Nicaragua – an inviting and friendly country.
It was these kind of unexpected cultural experiences that reminded us of how fascinating it is to get out and travel sometimes.
So if you’re ready to thaw out from the long Summit County winter, Central America offers the perfect opportunity for you.
Ryan Bennett is a freelance writer living in Summit County in between his travels.
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