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  • Total days on the road: 586
  • Currently in: USA
  • Miles Driven: 36821
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Costa Rica: Central America Lite or Overlanding Playground?

Written by Jared on May 18, 2012

Speak no evil, hear no evil, see no evil.Start: April 29, El Castillo
Finish: May 12, Atenas
River Crossings: One Big, Five Small
Consecutive Days Camping: 21
Nights Spent in Ridiculous Vacation House: 8
Birds Successfully Identified: About 30

The past two weeks have brought us through several extremes. First, we set a record for the number of consecutive days spent camping. Then we move into a vacation house with our visiting parents that may very well be the nicest place I've spent a night.

Our travels took us from the shores of Lake Arenal, along three hours of dirt road, through several rivers and eventually to the town of Santa Elena, situated high in the cloud forests of north-central Costa Rica. From there we dropped down to Atenas, a short hop east of the capital city San Jose, where we spent a very relaxing week with family; visiting, recharging and day-tripping our way around central Costa Rica.

Blue takes a bath in a river.

We had two options to get from the tiny lake-side town of El Castillo to the cloud forests of Santa Elena. Drive back the way we came, more than 100 miles and at least four hours, or drive a fifth of the distance in roughly half the time on roads less traveled. As the crow files, the two towns are only 10 miles apart. What's the big deal? See above.

Our maps and GPS were useless, these aren't the types of roads that are advertised. We asked around first and were told that the road was driveable with a 4x4 (check) provided we could cross the river just outside town. Challenge accepted.

Jared and Jessica walk across the river to check for ouchies.

Step one to crossing any water feature is to scout carefully. Jessica and I made two passes through the knee-high river and deemed it safe, provided Kobus dodge a few boulders. The crossing was no problem; Kobus drove like a champ, and Blue got to take a nice refreshing bath.

People pay several hundred dollars to take a 4x4 trip through this area. Our cost was a gallon of gas, roughly $5.50. This is why we overland.

A beautiful shot of Volcan Arenal behind the lake.

The dirt road, often invisible, and sometimes confused as a horse or leaf cutter ant trail, weaves along the southeastern edge of Lake Arenal. We passed through some serious jungle, and a few spectacular views of Volcan Arenal.

Blue crosses a sketchy wooden bridge.

Heading inland from the lake we crossed this rickety wooden bridge before joining up with the roads actually on our GPS. We had assurance from a local, on horseback I should add, that vehicles cross this bridge all the time. Slow and steady wins the race.

A shot of the green rolling hills of the Costa Rican countryside.

After leaving the lake and finding ourselves back on solid (albeit gravel) ground we headed higher and higher into the mountains of northern Costa Rica. Much of this land was originally rainforest, but was cleared for farmland many years ago.

Fortunately things have taken a turn for the better in Costa Rica, a quarter of the country's land is protected and efforts are being made to reforest large open areas such as this.

A road sign that informed us uncessarily that the road conditions were poor.

Getting closer to Santa Elena we actually start to see other cars on the road. A helpful sign warns us that the road is in bad shape, in case we hadn't noticed for the past hour and a half. It's another hour drive up gravel roads until we reach Santa Elena, a bit dustier than we started. There's cold beer waiting for us, and enough gringos gawking at our Washington plates that we quickly make a few friends.

We stayed at Pension Santa Elena for three nights which offered the best of both worlds. A hostel with a kitchen, hot showers and we could camp for $5 per person. A pretty sweet deal in Costa Rica. I think at that time we would have gladly paid double just for hot showers. It's been at least a month since we've seen a shower with more than one knob.

The trail we hiked in the Children's Rainforest near Santa Elena.

People come to Monteverde and Santa Elena for one attraction - the cloud forests. The birthplace of ziplines, eco-tourism and a fantastic place to go for a hike. Rather than pay $18 per person to hike in one of the two national parks, we opted to visit the Children's Eternal Rainforest our first day in Santa Elena, and hike the four miles of well-maintained trails in the park for half the price.

The "End of the Trail" sign.

The Children's Enternal Rainforest, the largest private reserve in Costa Rica, was created by a fundraising movement started in Sweden and the United States in 1987. At present more than 44 countries have contributed to the efforts to protect this 55,000 acre reserve.

I remember participating in "save the rainforest" fundraisers in school when I was 7 or 8 years old. It's awesome to see that my grade-school efforts have come to some practical use, albeit several thousand miles from home. We hiked most of the morning through the rainforest, covering every line on the map until we hit the "end of the trail" sign.

Our dad Jim and stepmother Ruthann.

Say hi to our parents! Our dad, Jim and step-mom Ruthann. They flew in to hang out with us for ten days in a super-nice house in the town of Atenas. Our plan was to rejuvenate, relax, catch up on the past six months and take a few day trips around central Costa Rica.

Our crazy-nice house on top of a hill.

Since Blue only seats three people comfortably, we rented a car for the week. As we drove to the owner's house to drop off Blue and pick up the rental, we saw a few insanely nice houses up on the hill overlooking the valley.

About ten minutes later Andrew, the realtor who helped us arrange a place to stay, informed us that the house we'd rented was in fact the most awesome-looking house on the hill. Sweeeeeet.

The "smaller" house where the three of us slept, plus the simming pool.

Complete with a pool, two actually, and a couple private casitas for the three of us to crash in. This place was spectacular, a perfect way to spend a week with visiting family. And a perfect base camp for exploring the area.

A shot of the big house, with wrap-around patio.

The main house, with living room down below and master bedroom up top, had a wrap-around patio which was I'm convinced was made for watching the afternoon thunderstorms roll by.

Not to mention a kitchen! It's hard to say how much I've missed an oven and a blender these past seven months. I spent the first three days cooking; pulled pork with papaya chutney, crepes and mango sauce, steak tacos, filet mignon shish kabobs...

Jared's hand-made pizza.

...And pizza! Oh how I've missed you. Hand-made dough with leftover steak, peppers, onions and to top it all off, the first fresh basil we've had in months. Six pizzas, five people, gone by 10am the next day. Mmmm breakfast pizza.

The biggest painted wagon in Costa Rica.

Our first day trip was to Sarchi, renowned for furniture factories and the largest painted wagon in Costa Rica. The 'rents wanted to check out the furniture scene, hoping to buy some collapsible Costa Rican rocking chairs.

That didn't work out, but we did have a great lunch at a local eatery. Our Spanish lessons paid off again when they were out of our first two choices. Just ask: What's the best? Cual es el mejor? And you're sure to have good eats.

My parents and I standing next to the world's largest species of bambo.

Field trip number two was to the bird zoo, where we saw roughly a hundred species of birds native to Costa Rica, and a few who aren't. The top of the list: a quetzal, tucans, parrots and macaws. We also spotted the last of four species of Central American monkeys we hadn't encountered yet, the tiny squirrel monkey.

The world's largest species of bamboo, easily six inches in diameter was also on display. Apparently I didn't get the memo that a picture was being taken. Not the first time.

A fiesty peacock at the bird zoo.

The star of the bird show were the roving peacocks. Not exactly native to Costa Rica, it was more an attraction for the locals than for us. They'd roam the trails, attack small children, and generally scare the crap out of anyone not paying attention.

Blue, with six passengers.

Turns out we had a few friends in Atenas, stranded while trying to have their vehicles repaired. One of our last nights in Casa Ridiculoso we invited the crew over for dinner a la Jared, which turned into an all-day affair.

Kobus drove out to pick the four of them up - James and Lauren from Home on the Highway and Brad and Sheena from Drive Nacho Drive - but the clutch on our rental blew up while trying to climb the hills outside town. And then there were three busted vehicles.

Luckily we still had Blue! Jessica and I drove off to the rescue, we picked up Kobus and drove up to Casa Nacho, made arrangements with the rental agency to have a replacement vehicle delivered, and picked up a few passengers. It turns out we can fit seven people in Blue, regardless of the fact that half of the back seat is missing.

Ruthann, Jessica and I preparing dinner.

Back at the casa, preparations for dinner were in full swing. On the menu: chips with Lauren's guac, mango margaritas, pulled pork sandwiches, fried squeaky cheese, Ruthann's special salad, gigantic six-hour-roasted pork ribs, garlic green beans, roasted potatoes and grilled pineapple. T'was a feast fit for kings.

Seven overlanders and my parents at dinner.

Here's the whole crew chowin' down. Thanks to Sheena for taking the time to snap a few photos before the onslaught began.

Jared, Jessica and or parents on top of Volcan Poas.

Our last day trip with the folks was to Volcan Poas. Above, the four of us pose for a photo in front of the crater of the still-active volcano. Luckily my dad and sister can't smell, they were spared the rotten egg aroma.

After checking out the crater we went for a short hike to the other now-dormant and water-filled crater, through a dwarf cloud forest, a new experience for all of us. We checked a few birds off the list and then headed straight to the cafeteria for an early lunch and a delicious cup o' Costa Rican joe.

My dad and Ruthann left a couple days later, fully recharged and ready to re-enter the real world. We all had a great time, hopefully we'll see them again in six months in Argentina!

P.S. Thanks for resupplying us and hauling all of our souveniers back home!

The trout pond at a farm southeast of San Jose.

After spending ten days in the same place, the three of us were itching to get back on the road south. Panama awaits and South America is just around the corner! Our first stop: a campground/trout farm way up in the mountains southeast of San Jose.

The promises of cool weather, all-you-can-catch fish, plus another reunion with our Pan-Am friends turns out to be an awesome way to get this show back on the road, and headed south.

Up Next: We wrap up our time in Costa Rica with a visit to an old friend and a journey to Osa Peninsula, the last true jungle in Central America and one of the most biologically diverse places on earth.


#3 James 2012-05-22 21:05
Thanks for the grub and the rescue pick-up my friends, Was nice meeting your folks.

Tell them we appreciate creeping through their bird book and we are currently shopping for birding vests of our own.

#2 Jessicam 2012-05-21 19:10
We love you too. And are so glad you could come visit. And Thanks for leaving the bird book an binos. I'm about to post some amazing photos we took out on the Osa Peninsula. Amazing!
Ruthann McCaffree
#1 Ruthann McCaffree 2012-05-20 18:43
Hi Jared, Jess & Kobus, thanks again for sharing your incredible adventure with us. We loved being with you, seeing a bit of beautiful Costa Rica, feasting on Jared's cooking, laughing and slowing down enough to see some incredible birds. You are amazing. Love you!!! Ruthann

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