Costa Rica – San Jose, Tortuguero, Sarapiqui

I had booked a Contiki tour of Costa Rica, since I wanted a stress-free vacation. At this time in my travel life, I am perfectly willing to pay extra to have someone else work out all the logistics and leave me free to simply enjoy myself. My two previous Contiki tours in Greece (September 2011) and Italy (March 2010) were wonderful. Actually, I have been incredibly lucky in that I have always had awesome groups and guides for my fully-structured or semi-structured tours.

When I stepped off the plane in San Jose at about 1:00 p.m. on October 30, I had two options. The first was to take a $40 (American) taxi directly to my hostel. The second was to take the city bus (which cost the equivalent of one dollar) to the city centre, and to take a $12 cab ride from there to my hostel. Since I did not have to be anywhere until about 7:00 p.m., I decided to be a proper budget backpacker for that day only and take the public transit option.

The bus stop was right outside the terminal, and I hopped on the first bus that said “San Jose.” I handed the bus driver an American dollar because I didn’t have any Costa Rican small change. The driver appeared to accept the money since he waved me onto the bus. I was feeling quite smug about my travel skills and I gave myself a few pats on the back.

I didn’t take long for my smug feeling to evaporate. Four hours later, we were still inching our way through Heredia, a city next to San Jose. I found out later that traffic is always bad on Fridays, and that traffic on the last Friday of the month is even worse because it’s payday. At one point, it took us over an hour to move less than 100 m. My self-pats-on-the-back turned into self-punches-in-the-face. What on earth had I been thinking? It was pouring rain, I was starving, I desperately needed to use the washroom, and I had no idea when I was supposed to get off the bus since none of the stops were being announced. To top if off, in the middle of this heinous journey, the bus driver suddenly came to the back of the bus and asked me for my fare. “I already gave you a dollar!” I told him pointlessly in English. “Don’t you remember??” I tried to give him another American dollar, but he wouldn’t take it. The kind Costa Rican man next to me ended up paying my fare, even though I tried to explain to him too that I had already given the bus driver money. I so wished that I could speak Spanish!

As we crawled toward the city, my new Costa Rican bus friend tried to calm me down, since he could see that my face was in panic mode. I showed him the printed address of my hostel, and he seemed to understand where I needed to go. When we arrived at the city centre, he helped me flag down a cab and he explained to the cab driver where to take me. I was so grateful! However, I was stuck in that cab for another hour in bumper-to-bumper traffic. By the time I arrived at the hostel, I was fed up with San Jose, fed up with Costa Rica, and most of all, fed up with my own horrible decision-making skills!

But as soon as I stepped inside the hostel, everything changed for the better. By a stroke of unbelievable luck, two wonderful girls from Texas who were also going to be on my tour had booked a night at the hostel. We split a cab to another hotel for our tour kick-off meeting, where we met up with the rest of our group. I knew immediately that I was in for an amazing 12 days. The eighteen of us on the tour hailed from Canada, the United States, Australia and Switzerland. Every single person was a pleasure to talk to, and there were many great characters who kept us all in stitches. Our tour manager and tour manager trainee were fabulous, and they genuinely cared about our happiness. My dream is that everyone who takes a Contiki tour ends up with a group as fantastic as this one.

After the meeting, the girls and I went back to our hostel, and I spent one final night in a dorm in backpacker-land before plunging into the world of fancy-pants hotel rooms. I slept like a baby (no snorers in the room! yay!), and the next day we returned to the hotel for the official start of our tour.

Our first stop was the Poas Volcano National Park in the forest above San Jose. We drove up into the hills and hiked to a lookout. It was very cloudy, but every so often the clouds would clear and we’d get a brief glimpse of the crater.

Poas Volcano (Laura’s photo)
Dinner the first night (Steve’s photo)

Next on our itinerary was two nights in Tortuguero National Park on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. We took the bus from San Jose to the eastern side of the country. At our lunch stop on the way to the park, we saw our first (of many!) sloths.

Tom took a picture of us taking a picture of a sloth. I’m in the front, laughing at Tom taking a picture of us taking a picture of a sloth.
Cute little sloth face!
Sloth hanging out

We travelled by boat through the forest to our rainforest lodge.

Canal in Tortuguero

Our beautiful lodge was right on the river. It had a fabulous pool, a wicked bar, and hundreds of howler monkeys to keep us entertained and to make sure that we were up bright and early in the morning.

For our first activity, we headed across the river to have a dip in the Caribbean Ocean. Since I am from the hopelessly landlocked part of Canada, the ocean is always a major treat for me when I am travelling.

Frolicking in the waves

That night, we all sat out on the porch behind our rooms and had a great time playing drinking games. In my case, it was games minus the drinks, since I have essentially given up on alcohol. My body simply doesn’t tolerate it. These days, a single glass of wine can give me a nasty stomachache. I think I had a grand total of one drink the entire tour (which may be a Contiki record!)

The next morning, we climbed back in the boat for some wildlife spotting in the canals. I was absolutely thrilled to see a basilisk, a “Jesus lizard,” run across the water. It looked so funny! I wasn’t able to grab a picture, but if you see me in person, I would be delighted to show you my best imitation of the creature.

Heading out to look at the animals in Tortugero (Steve’s photo)
Bird of some sort. Apparently it’s rare?
Howler monkey at the lodge. I caught this guy trying to scare a cat by shaking the branches.

After a hot morning looking for elusive creatures in the wild, it was pool time!

Chilling out in the appropriately turtle-shaped pool
Group shot under the waterfall (Steve’s photo)

For fun in the evening, the lodge organized a pontoon boat to take us up and down the river. We played games like limbo and musical chairs. I somehow ended up winning at musical chairs, though I believe I got some help from one of the lodge staff!

Relaxing on the pontoon boat (Jordan’s photo)
A rousing game of musical chairs (Uwen’s photo)

After leaving Tortuguero, we headed to a cocoa plantation where we learned how they make chocolate from scratch. I absolutely loved this part of the tour. In my travels, I have made spur-of-the moment decisions to visit countries and cities based on chocolate alone. When the guides had finished their demonstration, they poured us cups of fresh chocolate. I must have had at least six, if not more! It made me so ridiculously happy.

Breaking the cocoa bean (Jordan’s photo)
Mmmm chocolate

Our accommodation for the night was luxurious tent cabins in Sarapiqui. We had the place almost entirely to ourselves, which was good since that night we went a bit nuts.

costa rica wedding
Hanging out in Sarapiqui (Jordan’s photo)

In the morning we went down to the Sarapiqui River for some fabulous white water rafting. I got to ride on the front of the boat, which is always awesome. I also had the chance to do some cliff jumping.

Ready for the rapid
We have emerged!
So happy!
Cliff jump!

From Sarapiqui we drove to Arenal, home of the perfectly conical volcano!

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