Monday, December 22, 2014

Exploring Costa Rica, Part one - Before the trip preparation, books, money map and driving in Costa Rica

Before trip preparation

If you are a birder, you definitely know about the rich flora and fauna of Costa Rica. Non-birder tourists often travel to Costa Rica to enjoy some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. This tropical paradise has been always on my mind. With an estimate 1.5 million species- roughly 5% of all biodiversity on earth, 300,000 insects species, 240 mammal species over half of which are bats, 22 reptile species, 190 amphibian species and 130 species of fresh water fish, OVER 840 BIRD SPECIES.....over 9,000 vascular plant species, 1,200 orchid species, and 1,200 hardwood tree species ....the most impressive, each year dozens of new plant and animal species are discovered by scientists and thousands more likely await discovery! Often time, we give ourselves too many excuses not to explore a foreign land, such as language barrier, busy work schedule or negative opinion from friends and families. The questions I heard the most from others was like this " you live in a well developed country, why are you going to a 3rd world country?" "A third world country?" I replied and asked them "do you know according to the HPI, "Happy Planet Index", Costa Rica is ranking #1, the happiest country on earth?" Speechless them became. I work around my own schedule, I work for whomever I like and whenever I want.  840 species of birds really out weights other people's opinion. However, I have to admit I do have language barrier. I did not speak one word of Spanish! So naively, I thought English should be a common language worldwide :) The good news is that Costa Rica has the highest literacy (96.4%) among all Latin American countries. Most younger adults speak some English. My feet got itchy and my mind was flying higher and farther.

A country with a profound love of wildlife must be a fantastic country to live!

A huge world map hung on my living room wall and I always saw this tiny central American country and dreamed one day I would visit this country see one of the most amazing birds in the world, Resplendent Quetzal. 2011 past, I did not go. I bought a new 2012 Calendar, I marked "TO DO" in 2012 and I did not make my own goal. When I threw away my 2013 calendar, I consciously asked myself "Linda, are you a Freedombird? If you are,  your wings are strong and ready! Go and Fly High!" One morning in April, I received an international airline ticket alert. The first destination on that ticket chart was San Jose Costa Rica. It was a spring morning, too much pollen in Atlanta. My eyes were blurred a bit. I wide opened my eyes and just read the email again, wanted to make sure it was not San Jose California. It was actually San Jose Costa Rica!  Atlanta to SJO Costa Rica was on sale, indeed! In ten minute, I got a round trip ticket! "I am going to Costa Rica", overjoyed I was!

Next thing I did was to start learning Spanish. I tired to learn Spanish about ten years ago and I gave up after two weeks, so hard, I thought :(  But this time, I was determined. I bought a Spanish course with three courses from beginner to advanced levels. I spent my after work  hours learning Spanish religiously and I found out this program was so easy to learn. By the time I was about to go on my trip, I have finished beginner level and could have simple conversation, I hoped. I was exuberant.

Books, GPS and Money
In order to get acquainted with culture, people, food and traffic laws, I bought few books and also borrow some from library and the following are the books I found the most helpful:

The Birds of Costa Rica - this is an every birder's MUST HAVE bird bible. I studies it back home but I did not bring it with me in this trip, a big mistake. I downloaded an APP, it's called BirdsEye CA and it covers all the 1841 species of birds that you would see in the region of Central America. But the problem is most of national parks or preserves are located in rural area and there is not possible to get any data or cell phone signal. It's a great app but it will not work without a wifi.

Costa Rica-The complete guide by James Kaiser . I was so glad that I brought this book with me in this trip and it helped tremendously. James lived in CR for five years and he writes well and he gives enough information for many birding sites, turtle nesting beaches, surfing playas, national parks and coffee area which is the area if you love coffee, you definitely don't want to miss. If you are like me, love eco-tourism, this book gives you a lot of good information about where to go to see different wildlife and where to stay or to eat.

National Geographic Traveler-Costa Rica - the book starts with a detailed introduction to the country's history and culture. You are then guided thru each of the country's regions from the capital city San Jose, th elush Central Highlands, Guanacaste and its volcanoes, Nicoya Peninsula, the Central Pacific, Zona dur, the South Central and it's could forests, the Northern Lowlands and the Caribbean. This book also gives you detail information for snakes and butterflies.

A "water proof" map - I know I am going to a tropical country but I really did not appreciate this map until I arrived at my first destination, La Fortuna. Costa Rica does not have four seasons, instead, they have dry and wet seasons. Wet season is from June till November. I arrived at the end of  November and it rained on and off but it's so handy to have a map that it stays "dry" :)

Plant guide of Costa Rica  and The wildlife guide are two good books if you are into tropical plants and wildlife.

SpanishDict app - it is a wonderful MUST HAVE app if you travel to any Spanish speaking country. No wifi required to use this app. It will pronounce for you if you have a wifi connection. I literally learned new words constantly and you can save new words into "favorite"! I learned over 300 new words in this trip!

Cen Rut GPS for Garmin - I got this amazing GPS map from my brother! I really had doubt if it really works at all. I had an installation issue so I contacted the founder of this project, David Krause. He was amazingly knowledgeable and helpful and with his instruction, I installed this map on my Garmin GPS in less than 5 minutes. I did a test and it looked fine. I then put the GPS in my suitcase and did not want to think any more. OMG! Not only did it work as soon as I got my rental car, it worked so well! Rental car agent will rent you a GPS cost from $9.95 to $14.95 a day! This is a MUST HAVE GPS program if you decide to rent a car :)

Cell phone  - finding a telephone in any rural area of the country is nearly impossible. So you need to have a working cell phone with you. In the USA, most of phones are locked, that means the cell phone you have contract with does not allow you to use other company's (or other countries) service unless you unlock your phone. If you happen to be able to unlock your cell phone (do that before your trip and test out your phone with another sim card and make sure it will work). Then when you arrive at CR, you can just buy a pre-paid phone sim card  inserted into your unlocked phone. "Kolbi" is the most reliable cell phone company in Costa Rica and they have the strongest signal even in the woods. I did not get Kolbi .... :( Another lesson learned.  It's best to get your sim card at the airport Kolbi counter. There is no cell phone signal at any hotel I stayed during my trip. Because all eco hotels or hostels don't provide a phone or TV inside the bedrooms but you can use the phone from the reception desk. Local calls are always free. If your cell phone has wifi, you can install some apps, such as Skype, LINE or VIBER. That way you can keep in touch with your friends and families back home without paying huge international roaming charge.

Money exchange (click to see the rates) -  When you arrive at the Juan Santamaria International airport, you will see there have a money exchange area with many agents and they have a huge AD says " no exchange fee"! Don't be fooled by that because there is no exchange fee but the exchange rate is super low, like $1 USD = 438 Colones. It's best to use ATM machine. There  are two ATM machines in this airport. The first one is to the right hand side as soon as you pass the immigration, and is always broken or malfunctioned. Just go a little further, you will see another one. Line is long, so be patient :) Most shopping centers, gas stations and hotels will take credit cards,both US dollars and Colones (Costa Rica money). I noticed all the banks in Costa Rica has their flag outside the bank and they all have an ATM. Or you can ask around. Ticos are very friendly and they will tell you where to find ATM. Don't worry, they have two languages (English and Spanish) choices. It's a good idea to exchange money before heading out the city.

Driving around Costa Rica and high cost rental car insurance
It was a short four hour flight from Atlanta to San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica. San Jose is like any other major cities in the United States, heavy traffic during rush hours and air quality is very polluted. I read few travel guides, one book says in order to reduce the traffic coming into San Jose, Costa Rican government established a new law: if your license plate ends in 1 or 2, you cannot drive on Monday; if your license plate ends in 3 or 4, you can not drive on Tuesday; and so on. So I worried how am I going to drive in and out of San Jose on the day I am renting and returning the rental car? My anxiety and the last minute work related issues caused me some skin rashes ....I was not too happy the day I was boarding :(

Buses and taxi are very popular in big city like San Jose and Liberia. But if you are like me want to explore different national parks and wildlife preserves, the best way is to rent a car. Rental rates are much lower (reasonable) during the wet season and they can be double and triple in daily rate in dry season (from January to March). The high cost of car insurance drives most tourists away. Rental car companies will refuse your credit card's coverage because they told me they require you to have liability insurance coverage and none of my credit card companies offer liability coverage. Lesson learned. It cost me a fortune to sign that piece rental document but I understood that I will have zero responsibility if something does happen on the road. I am a good, safe driver but first time in a foreign land, I wanted to be extra cautious. After the end of my trip, I was glad I made a very good decision. Nothing bad happened, I returned home safe and sound. To me it's like paying a tuition to learn how "Ticos" drive. Because I did not have to worry things that could happen to me, to the rental car or to other drivers, I got to enjoy my vacation fully and the experience I gained, people and things I have encountered with during my expedition are wonderful and priceless! And I would never do any other way :)

One thing I learned about renting a car was that if you want to only tour cities and beaches, a regular, compact-sized car is good enough. But if you are like me, want to explore many national parks, wildlife reserves, stop by rural towns and roadside tiendas to taste fresh local food and fruit, a 4X4 will do you a great service. I have never driven a 4X4 truck in my whole life, but I decided to hire a 4X4 and I was so glad I did. As you guys can imagine tropical weather with non stopping rains, harsh wind and heavy fogs, many unpaved roads could become muddy and slippery My car got stuck twice when I miscalculated and mistakenly parked car at a grassy shoulder lane to photography toucans and roadside hawks. I would never be able to make back on the roads if it was not a 4X4 SUV. Another thing is that most roads leading to national parks or less-known playas (beaches) are very narrow and winding, it's nearly impossible to turn around in the middle of the road without going all the way to the end.  Just for you to know that, for a 37 km (about 30 miles) unpaved roads, it will take a good, skillful driver like me over 2 hours during the day with a good weather.  Being say that, an automatic car is definitely the best choice than a manual one unless you can convince yourself that you will enjoy changing transmission non-stopping for two, three hours.

Arriving at La Fortuna, Alajuela
One thing I miscalculated was the driving time. The condition of roads in Costa Rica was much worse than I expected. My flight arrived at 1:30 pm, after picking up my rental car, I gave myself enough time to arrive at my first destination La Fortuna, Aajuela before sunset, that is at 5:15 pm. The rental agent took almost an hour to pester me with his full coverage insurance (Be aware and also to be prepared to put an rental deposit from $500 to $2000). SoI did not start driving until around 3pm. With rains, fogs, unpaved gravel roads, by the time I checked in my hotel, it was about 6:30pm. I thought I can make to my hotel in less than two hours, but it took me 3 and half hour for a short 117 km. Another lesson learned. I was not a bit of upset at all. In my mind I was thinking "if Ticos (Costa Ricans call themselves, Ticos) visit our country, they might not get used to all the nice roads we have here in the US".

I booked my first four nights of hotel back in the States and decided to leave the rest of my trip open. I gave myself three to four days to get used to the locals  and figured out that what if I don't like the place I booked and I get stuck or if I like a place too much I might want to stay for more days....This is another great decision I made for this trip. Most people will book all the hotels before taking the trip because depending on the destinations, during high seasons, you might not be able to find vacancy easily. Costa Rican's busy travel time starts from Christmas, besides, I am all into adventure and this plan suits me well. So I can really take my time to explore this beautiful country.

My anxiety and tiredness dissipated as soon as I inserted my room key into the door lock, turned my key to the right and opened my room door....this was what I saw! "WOW!", was the first word came to my mind.

Spacious room with two large double beds

Towels are artistically folded into the shape of an Elephant and a butterfly (see below)

It was raining heavily when I checked in. I did not have my rain poncho but I wore a boro boro sun hat and looked tired. Carlos, the owner of this family owned and managed eco lodging, did not speak English, greeted me by saying "Bienvenida, bienvenida!", showed me my room and also showed me where the dinning area was. I followed him in the pouring rain walked another 300 feet from my room, then I found out they have an "outdoor" style dinning room. "Very cool", I thought, though I could barely see what it looked like in the dark.  He told me desayuno (breakfast) will be served at 8 in the morning. I replied back  to him with my embarrassing, newly learnt Spanish,  "Muchas gracias, Carlos!" to thank him for showing me my room. He smiled and waived at me then told me to stop by the "recepción", his living room, if I needed any thing. Carlo disappeared in dark with his flash light, then I started inspecting my room everywhere, in between the sheets and pillows, underneath both beds, closet, huge bath room and ceiling to make sure there was no other "wildlife" staying in my room :) I took some photos (see above) and was completely satisfied.

It was very dark outside and rained constantly...After settling down with my luggage, I stood by the door and wondered, "what does this place look like in the morning?, do they have a lot of flowers and trees? What kind of trees they have down here?, will I see toucans or any hummingbird?".... One question after another popped up in my head.  Tonight, I was the only guest at this lodge and for some reasons I was not afraid at all. In fact, I felt very peaceful despite the fact that the rain has been non stopping all night. Soon I noticed there was no wifi inside my room and I did not mind at all because I was so exhausted and drifted to sleep with the sound of million of raindrops bouncing off the metal roof like a rock concert .... Continue to my adventure :)

Exploring Costa Rica Part 2, Arenal Volcano, La Fortuna
Exploring Costa Rica, Part 3, Sustainability makes wildlife thrive

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