9th January – Leaving the hot and humid lowlands of the Pacific coast, we are suddenly climbing to over 3000m amongst low cloud and misty rain. It’s a drop of 20 or more degrees for us when we finally arrive at Paraiso Quetzal Lodge amongst the cloud forests of Parque Nacional Tapanti-Macizo Cerro de la Muerte…… the wettest park in the country! It is dark, cold and yes….very wet here and too late in the day for a change of plan. Out come our winter jackets and we are very grateful for the log stove warming the restaurant, where we share a meal with German friends Bernd and Dagmar who are also here, hoping to see a Quetzal (one of Central America’s most beautiful and treasured birds) on their guided, early morning walk tomorrow through the cloud forest.
10th – 14th January – From our tent we have a beautiful sunrise, gradually illuminating distant hills as the sun slowly creeps over the trees. We move our Land Rover into a patch of sun as soon as it appears on our hill top but it’s still very cold. We are told that the morning is very often the best time of the day here, before cloud and rain descend again in the afternoon. We enjoy an excellent American breakfast but it would have been even more enjoyable had the log stove been burning again to warm us up. Bernd and Dagmar return from their walk disappointed that they have not been lucky in seeing the elusive Quetzal. This bird was worshipped by the Aztecs and Mayans who relished in having a headdress of quetzal feathers. The male quetzal is particularly splendid. The bird was named after an Aztec word ‘quetzalli’ meaning ‘precious’. If a quetzal was caught and placed in captivity, it died and so this treasured bird became a symbol of independence and freedom for the indigenous people of Central America.
From Paraiso we are heading to Orosi and warmer weather…..we hope! Located in a valley with coffee plantations, hot springs and mountain views, in fact we can see Volcan Turrialba (3340m), puffing out ash and steam on the horizon. At present, this park remains closed, whilst Turrialba remains so active. At 1000m Orosi has a mild climate and we have found what turns out to be an excellent camping place here and one certainly to be recommended.
Campground Orosi is owned by Fredy and Franzisca from Switzerland. They have a small area in their garden where they allow overland vehicles to park and provide a spotless bathroom with a hot shower. Not only are Fredy and Franzisca very welcoming, but also their dogs, some of them rescued from the streets. Franzisca also runs a Panaderia and little cafe in town so it will be a place to visit!
Iglesia de San Jose is Orosi’s little colonial church. Built in 1743 it has survived several earthquakes and is now Costa Rica’s oldest church of worship. Inside are paintings, woodcarvings and ancient, brick floors.
From Orosi we make an early morning visit to Parque Nacional Volcan Irazu and are the first people to arrive. We are asked to park facing the exit, in case it is necessary to make a quick escape! We arrive first at the smaller Diego de la Haya crater with a depth of only 250ft. but plunging on one side into the Main Crater which is far more impressive.
The bare, craggy walls of the Main Crater plunge steeply to a depth of 1000ft. with a crater diameter of 3200ft.
Irazu is Costa Rica’s highest active volcano at 3432m. The indigenous people have named it Istaru which means ‘Thunder and Earthquake Mountain’. Between 1963-65 Irazu experienced a period of intense activity which destroyed its surrounding peaks and seriously affected the cities of Cartago and San Jose. Another explosion occurred in December 1994 on the north wall of the main crater. Today, a paved road takes you to the summit and parking and then a long, cold and very windy trail leads to viewing points amongst a bare landscape of dust and ash.
Another road takes us to a higher lookout point, also a strategic point for the country’s telecommunications. On a clear day it is possible to observe more craters, parts of nearby national parks and the Caribbean coast. Today we have a view of the Main Crater with cloud beginning to drift through it but below a clear, deep blue sky, is a dense layer of cloud, with Orosi hidden somewhere underneath. Fredy had been right though when we woke this morning disappointed with the weather…….drive through this cloud and the sky clears to have an excellent view of the crater!
15th January – It’s hard to leave our comfortable camping place in Orosi. Fredy and Franzisca have always made sure we have everything we need to enjoy our stay and the dogs have always greeted us with waggy tails!
We are heading for the capital city San Jose, situated in the wide and fertile Central Valley. We know that there is a Land Rover dealer here – Motores Britanicos and we need some oil, fuel and air filters. They have a huge showroom which includes some of the old favourites, but their best sellers are the Discovery, followed by the Range Rover. Big posters everywhere, announce that Land Rover was voted car of the year by ‘Top Gear’ and ‘Which Car’ which is good to know!
Britanicos are very helpful but can only come up with an oil filter. They spend some time however, phoning around for us to find the others and a fuel filter is found not far away at a small L R spares shop which has a great painting of an old Land Rover on their outside wall.
We don’t linger in the city centre as we hope to camp at the Belen Trailer Park in the suburb of Heredia. Unfortunately, after much searching, we discover that this has closed down but some guys leaving work very kindly tell us to follow them and they take us to a Campestre. No camping allowed here however, but as we are are about to leave, to where we are not sure, a black Toyota pick-up pulls up along side us, the driver of which guesses we are looking for the Trailer Park and turns out to have been the owner of it! If we would like to follow him, we are invited to camp in the grounds of his home, a beautiful house built high on a hill behind security gates and with a view across to the city and mountains beyond. We are given a bathroom to use on the ground floor of the house and also meet Juan’s wife Laurie, who welcomes us as if she is expecting us! She points out the place down below where the trailer park used to be and where they lived for many years, welcoming travellers. We really appreciate their kindness and generosity, as we really had no idea where to go, except to try and find a hotel in the city. It’s a fairy world in front of us once it is dark, with lights twinkling all the way up the hillsides. It’s strange how things turn out sometimes!
16th January – At Palmares, traffic jams are building up due to a festival for gauchos and their horses. These handsome and proud horses resembling the famous Lusitano and Andalucian breeds, are arriving in open topped lorries…..no luxuries for them when it comes to travel! We squeeze into a parking space to go and have a closer look.
And another great way to travel!
Heading north for La Fortuna and the Volcan Arenal Nacional Parque, it’s not long before we are up amongst low cloud, thick mist and rain…..not good viewing for Volcan Arenal, the most active volcano in Costa Rica and amongst the 10 most active volcanoes in the world. Its last violent eruption was in 1968 when enormous rocks were flung more than a kilometre away, 3 villages were buried and a number of people killed.
We spend a day exploring La Fortuna in the dry, its growth of hotels, hostels, tour operators, restaurants, bars and artisan shops a result of the town becoming a popular tourist destination for the Parque Arenal and the nearby Laguna.
The rain returns once again by late afternoon and everything is shrouded in mist. Camping at Cerro Chato Lodge is full due to the arrival of some large, German trucks that carry a number of people but the owner of Rancho Margot further around the lake, kindly allows us to camp in a field on his organic farm. Juan Sostheim, the owner, has spent many years building up his farm that includes dairy cattle, pigs and chickens but which also has luxury cabins, hidden amongst the beautiful gardens to provide complete privacy. There is a very unusual swimming pool and areas for yoga overlooking a lake and primary rainforest. We have a buffet meal in the restaurant in the evening. Everything is grown organically on the farm and the meat comes from their animals. The salad is one of the freshest I have ever tasted with an amazing beetroot dish.
We decide to give up on seeing Volcan Arenal as the bad weather continues……a tropical storm we are told, from the Caribbean. Rivers have flooded the track (although it’s still passable) and the enormous Laguna Arenal is grey and still. Although we wouldn’t know it, Volcan Arenal is also lurking somewhere close by.
We decide to find the sun and head towards the Pacific toward Liberia, in the region of Guanacaste…..named after the gnarled, wide spreading tree of this area. At Curubande, a small village close to the Parque Nacional Rincon de la Vieja and only a short drive from Liberia, we have another quiet and peaceful camping place at The Sol Verde Lodge and Camping Ground run by Gerard and Ingrid from Holland. Another very clean ablution block with an outside kitchen area and 2 permanent tents for those without their own. Once again, Both Gerard and Ingrid are full of information and only too happy to share their knowledge of the local area, as well as making sure that you have a comfortable stay. They are obviously a couple that care for the nature and wildlife that surrounds their home.
19th January – This is a very hot and much drier area than we have come from and the lack of rain creates a dry and dusty brown landscape.
We visit Parque Nacional Rincon, a dry forest with the very active Volcan Rincon being the centre of attraction for visitors. The Las Pailas hiking trail leads to steaming, sulphurous fumaroles and bubbling, mud pools. Unfortunately however, the trail that climbs steeply to Volcan Rincon, is closed due to recent, high activity.
A very interesting park with many amazing and very old trees, bent and twisted with age or soaring toward the sky, their branches and leaves helping to create a shady canopy.
The nearby river that flows through this dry landscape and makes an interesting walk not far from El Sol Verde, is an incredible blue.
Our next visit will be to the Tenorio Nacional Parque famous for the Rio Celeste waterfall. The waters of two rivers meet here and are said to blend to form an amazing turquoise/blue colour.
22nd January – The fierce hot and dry wind returns today but by the time we reach Park Tenorio it is obvious by the puddles that they have had a lot of rain here and it is not long before it is pouring hard. Walkers emerge from the forest trail covered in mud and very wet. We decide to camp in the car park area and hope the weather clears for tomorrow.
There’s a thick mist in the morning and we can’t decide whether it is worth hiking to the Rio Celeste, as surely with such a grey sky the water is not going to be the beautiful blue that everyone raves about. However, the weather begins to clear slowly, so we hire wellington boots and buy a couple of thin plastic capes from near the entrance to the park.
The forest is beautiful but the paths a sea of mud and puddles….we are really glad we hired the wellies! The variety of trees, creepers, bromeliads and other plants are quite amazing, huge leaves shining from the rain, ferns and palms dripping raindrops and the sun trying hard to filter through the dense foliage.
Trails take us to the waterfall…..still very impressive, hot springs and to a mirador where low cloud is gradually lifting from the forest.
Having had such a relaxing stay at El Sol Verde, it is time to move on further north where we plan to visit Parque Nacional Santa Rosa, a wild area of tropical dry forests, savannah and long stretches of beach. From there we will be heading into Nicaragua.