Caribbean Costa Rica: A Pura Vida Vibe All it’s Own

The beautiful lobby at Hotel Don Carlos

San Jose

Day 1

Our flight from Washington Dulles was uneventful and put us into Atlanta with plenty of time to grab dinner and board the plane for San Jose. When we got on the plane, there was a young couple, and another couple from Costa Rica with a young child, playing musical seats trying to sit together. My husband and I sat between them all and tried to help. The gentleman from CR was very appreciative and got to sit with his wife and daughter behind us. After we got into the San Jose airport and were waiting to get our bags, I struck up a conversation with him and asked how much we could expect to pay for a taxi into San Jose to the Hotel Don Carlos. (We had booked our first overnight there since our rental car would be delivered early the next morning, and we could easily get on Highway 32 for the Caribbean coast.

TIP: The Hotel Don Carlos is a good starting point for a trip to Costa Rica's Caribbean coast if you need an overnight in San Jose, and Highway 32 is easy to find. 

The gentleman from Costa Rica offered to give us a ride from the airport to downtown San Jose. Now, my first thought was "no way", but then he said he had two cars coming to pick him up and they had plenty of room. He is the Mayor of Limon, he said, and out front there were two government cars waiting for him. So we get in one SUV with him and his wife and driver, and his young daughter goes home with other family members. There's a Michael Jackson video playing on the DVD and we talk about his untimely death. His wife appears much younger than him, and she whispered something to her husband in Spanish - he then translated saying his wife doesn't remember MJ as a black man, only as a white woman!  What a way to start our trip.

They took us all the way into downtown at almost midnight, a good bit out of their way I'm sure, and didn't accept a dime from us. There generosity was inspiring. They even invited us to call them and come for dinner when we got to Puerto Viejo, but unfortunately we couldn't fit it into our plans. When we arrived at the Don Carlos, everything was dark - we could only check-in and go to bed. The rooms were very comfortable, and I think the beds were made of rope, because every time we turned over, the creaking was loud enough to wake up the entire hotel. Breakfast the next morning was very good - eggs, gallo pinto (‘Spotted Rooster”, a staple rice and beans dish you’ll find everywhere in CR), fresh juice, and toast.

 

Puerto Viejo

Day 2

Our rental car was delivered at 10:00am the next morning from Solid Car Rental (pronounced SO-lid). This company continues to be very good and reliable with their service on our trips to Costa Rica. 

Fresh fruit and water apples for sale at roadside stands everywhere

We set out on the highway, and soon the road begins to get steeper as we twist and turn up the mountains. As we enter the Baurilio Carillo National Park, the landscape becomes lush. Round ferns on the roadside are enormous and I try to take photos but it's all a big blur as my husband seems to be in a hurry to get there. I think he's just getting used to driving the car, and thankfully soon he starts to calm down and we settle into a groove.....we're finally here and on our way.

The scenery is cool as you get up into the mountains, and after an hour we see the sign for Casa Rio Blanco, where we'll be staying on our way back. We make a mental note and keep driving down into Limon. All along the road are little stands selling these red things that look like red peppers or red apples and we later find out they're known as ‘water apples’. The banana and pineapple industry is everywhere here and we drove past tons of freight yards, tractor trailer depots, and container yards. Everything is pretty industrial and not very scenic in this stretch. But the containers and tractor trailers are colorful, and there’s an interesting cemetery in the center of town.

We turn south and soon the ocean appears. As we come into Puerto Viejo, you begin to see the Caribbean influence - things look different here than our previous trip to Arenal and the west coast of the country. People of all ages cycle along the road, some wearing dreadlocks under colorful, crocheted Jamaican hats, and palm tree bases are painted in bright island colors. 

As we drove into Puerto Viejo, we missed the turn off for Banana Azul completely, so we drove all the way past town, past Playa Cocles, and kept driving for a few miles. When we stopped to ask directions at Miss Ellen Brown's cafe, it smelled so good we decided to stay awhile and have lunch. I highly recommend it here, plus Miss Ellen herself came out and talked with us. She told us to enjoy ourselves, but be smart about locking things up, especially in our car. Things didn't used to be this way, she said, but it is now. I wanted to say things have been like that all my life where I come from, but I didn't.

For the record, we didn't have one problem here after our stay, and I lugged my photography backpack packed with bulky camera equipment with me everywhere.

The Howler Suite, above, has some of the best views in the house 

I'd read that Puerto Viejo looks somewhat islandy, and it reminds me of the West End of Negril, Jamaica, with its cool little bars and restaurants lining the dirt road, bright colors everywhere, people on bikes, little boutique hotels and hostels behind gates with funky little handmade signs. Occasionally there was a fancier sign and you knew that place was more expensive. But in Puerto Viejo town, the feel was definitely cool and Caribbean. After lunch, we headed back up to Puerto Viejo and to Banana Azul. We arrive and the guy behind the desk says "you must be Lori" (I must look like a Lori) and I said "you must be David" and we felt right at home. You gotta love the casual vibe of a place like this - the customer service of the Ritz, in the tropics of Costa Rica.

All the rooms at Banana Azul are stylish and comfortable

What an awesome place. We chatted with the hotel guests and staff and then met Colin, one of the owners, and he gave us the Owner's Tour (no extra charge) of the grounds, then up to our room. We chose the Howler Suite, since it's closest to the beach and upstairs above the kitchen area. It's got a great wraparound porch with comfy chairs - the same porch runs the length of the hotel and is shared with other guests, but there are bamboo screens that divide each room’s porch, and they're very private and beautiful.

On the porch table was a beautiful welcome basket with a mini bottle of wine, fresh fruit, and two rolls of homemade chocolate from the area. Very nice touch!  The hotel was only steps to the beach, and had a new pool and jacuzzi. It's got a real laid-back vibe, and the gardens on the property are pretty amazing. I talked with Richard, the master gardener, a few times about his plantings. He's alot of fun to talk to if you enjoy gardening, and even if you don’t. The beach here is amazing as well - very secluded and great surf. The property and beach look across at the town of Puerto Viejo, but it's only a 5 minute drive if you want to go into town for dinner. The first night, since we were still full from our late lunch at Miss Ellen Browns, we had a few drinks and a piece of mango cheesecake and went to bed early. 

The extra special touch is everywhere at Banana Azul - their welcome basket contains a mini bottle of wine, fresh fruit, and hand-made CHOCOLATE!

Day 3

The friendly bartender at Maxi's

On our second day in Puerto Viejo we awoke to clouds and rain. This became pretty common during our stay this time, but I must say it didn't bother us a bit. Other than making it harder to dry our clothes and tame my 'Monica' hair, it didn't stop us from doing anything. We headed downstairs for breakfast - eggs to order with gallo pinto, fresh fruit and molla juice (blackberry). We stuck around for while after breakfast to see what the weather would do, but it rained, then the sun came out, then it rained, then the sun came out. I wandered the grounds taking so many photos of the beautiful plants and flowers. These little stingless honeybees were everywhere pollinating the flowers and I chased them down to get some clear shots of them hovering next to flowers. I wandered out to the beach, down the lane, and everywhere - there was so much to see. On the big ferns, the raindrops shimmered like diamonds. Later, we drove south to Manzanillo. By then it was POURING rain, but Maxi's restaurant was there at the end of the road and seemed to be the happening place. People out front were buying fresh produce from the back of a local grocery truck. Others played dominoes in the bar, so we settled in at the bar. We never even made it to the second floor which we later learned is full of tourists. The whole time we were there, we thought the little bar on the first floor was all of it, with just about 5 tables. It was like eating in the kitchen, which was fine with us. We ordered cold Imperials, Camarones del Diablo and fresh fried snapper (delicious) and enjoyed lunch with the friendly locals who willingly let me take their photo.


Christian, maker of the best Ginger teas and lover of old-school reggae

We hung around Maxi's for a couple of hours then headed back up the road, stopping at a little market in Playa Chiquita that sells textiles and items from around the world. I struck up a conversation with the owner who shared information about her yoga classes, and met a girl from Argentina who was chatting with her. She was an aspiring filmmaker, and traveling around the world trying to find out the “real truth of things" so she can bring authenticity to her films. We asked her about Puerto Viejo and she told us her thoughts on the 'melting pot' that it seemed to be. It's an interesting place to be sure. We gave her a lift back to her hotel and headed back to Puerto Viejo.

We stopped at the liquor store on the corner, and my husband bought a bottle of Flor de Cana rum for later on. From there we walked straight back off the road toward the beach and came across the coolest little Jamaican ‘soda’ where we stopped for photos. Out came this handsome young man named Christian - he’d been jammin’ inside to Bob Marley music - who told us he was "old school" when it came to music, though he seems young and maybe in his early 20s. Christian made me a Ginger Iced Tea, made from Jamaican rose and ginger, and it was great - so refreshing. There were so many things I saw that I wanted to photograph, and one of them was Christian himself. He was dressed in this cool blue dashiki kind of shirt with cowry beads around his neck, great dreadlocks, and the cutest smile. It's one of my favorite photos to this day, and one of my favorites from that trip. We stayed for a while then walked further down to the beach, where the street turned to sand. At the end were rows of brightly painted buildings with tin roofs, a scuba shop, and plenty of people hanging out and enjoying the day. 

Cool surf shacks and shops line the beach near Playa del Centro in Puerto Viejo town

 

The beach at Banana Azul was practically deserted except for about 6 other people the entire length of the beach. The sun came out and we dove into the surf, where the waves were easily 4-6 ft. When we got back to the room, we saw a bird flying in and out of the tree about 10 feet away from the edge of our porch. After a while, we saw three little mouths pop up as the mother bird flew back in to feed them. We spent the afternoon listening to Bob Marley and relaxing to a reggae vibe, and come home to find "three little birds, beside my doorstep”………I love these little gifts! We enjoyed dinner that night at Banana Azul. Chicken cordon bleu with squash and mashed potatoes was on the menu, and their chef cooked an exceptional meal. We slept well since it wasn’t too humid and the fan and mosquito netting kept critters from biting.

Lush and deserted Playa Negra, Banana Azul's beachfront 

Day 4

 

Angelina stole my heart

Howler monkeys play hard, and sleep hard

 

It's a bit overcast on our third day but homemade pancakes were on the breakfast menu and I smelled them cooking long before we woke up. Banana Azul puts out a fresh fruit bar each morning with fresh juice, coffee, and their breakfasts were great! We decided to drive to the animal rescue place in town. Richard, their Master Gardener Extraordinaire, was telling me about it the day before, and said it was worth checking out. I admit I was a bit skeptical of it being cheesy or touristy, but it was exceptional.

The Jaguar Rescue Center in Playa Chiquita was a highlight of our visit. Run by Sandro and Encar, a husband and wife from Italy and Barcelona respectively, they rescue abused, orphaned, and/or confiscated animals. The reptile cases were impressive and clean, and the owners and staff were obviously very knowledgable about the animals. At the time, they had a Margay cat who'd been confiscated from someone trying to domesticate it. They also had about 8 or 9 baby howler monkeys, some with horrible stories of where they came from. Encar, the owner, showed us everything and explained their purpose of caring for the animals and releasing them, if possible, when they're old enough to sustain themselves.

The howler monkeys were adorable and we were allowed to stay inside with them for a while while they climbed all over us like, well, monkeys! From head to toe they checked us out and played for a while before dozing. What an incredible experience to hold them, smell their warmth and muskyness, listen to their noises, and feel the soft pads on their feet. We spent approximately 2 hours with them and left them a donation for the important work they’re doing. After that, it was back to the pool for a swim, more photos and a little rum before dinner. Dinner tonight at Banana Azul was Beef tenderloin with potatoes, carrots and chiote squash, a perfect meal to end the day.

Colorful boats at Playa del Centro

 

Day 5 

The 4th day into our trip and our last night at Banana Azul was restful for me, but for some reason, my husband got eaten alive by mosquitos in the middle of the night. Though we were under netting and had a fan right on us set at full speed, he slathered up with DEET spray so strong I'm sure he has permanent DNA damage. We awoke early and went down for breakfast - scrambled egg burritos with warm homemade salsa. We packed up the rental car and said our difficult goodbyes to those who already felt like family. I really loved Puerto Viejo and the staff at Banana Azul - you know it’s a special experience when it feels like that. Puerto Viejo has a very different vibe than I've experienced in other parts of Costa Rica, a Pura Vida vibe all its own. Along with great food and a nice little bar, very nice accommodations and beautiful grounds, the staff at Banana Azul are genuinely warm, and excellent at what they do. Some people we met in Puerto Viejo town seemed a bit more reserved, but overall everyone was warm and friendly when we drew them out. We'll be back again to check out Cahuita National Park, head into the BriBri region, and visit our new friends again at Banana Azul and the Jaguar Rescue Center.

 

Where to Stay:  Hotel Banana Azul

Where to Play:  Jaguar Rescue Center

 

Guapiles

 

Our cozy cabin in the woods at Casa Rio Blanco

We took our time heading north to Limon then on to Guapiles. The roads here are better than we experienced on our first trip to Costa Rica down the Pacific coast, especially here where it's flat. We arrived in Guapiles around lunchtime and decided to eat at Los Lagos, just down the road from the gas station on the corner of Route 32 on your way into the town of Guapiles. Los Lagos is a funny lunch-by-day, disco-by-night kind of place, but the pond surrounding it is pretty cool, and we saw an amazing array of large and small birds on the water and nesting in the trees. Definitely worth a visit. We ordered the casada which was quite good. In a warm-up for the evening festivities we were treated to a montage of American 80's videos projected onto the giant movie screen overlooking the dance floor. We were the only gringos there, but everyone was nice and friendly and lunch was delicious. 

 

We turned off the main road for Casa Rio Blanco and drove uphill on a bumpy road. I knocked on the gate door when we arrived and then tried the handle - it was locked. I had emailed Annette to confirm we were coming - maybe they forgot! But then I noticed the pull handle to the side of the front door and I gave it a pull. The last thing I expected to hear were beautiful wind chimes, but they had rigged a rope through the trees and attached it to wind chimes. Beautiful. Annette shouted a welcome and we saw her smiling face behind the gate which she opened for us to drive in. This is a cool little place. She welcomed us and tacked her guest registration form to the wall for us to fill out. She apologized for the "noise" on the road - a church up the road was having a gathering. Noise? What noise? All I could hear was the creek flowing down the hill behind us and the chickens milling around in the back. She showed us to our cabin, which was very cool. There were four large wooden screened cabins among beautiful gardens, which reminded me of camp cabins. It was perfect. Clean with a comfy bed, and an on-demand hot water shower! We haven't had hot water since we arrived. Banana Azul's showers work off solar panels, and with the absence of sun, well let's just say our showers had been a little cool. These electric hot water shower heads come with instructions - something that wouldn't be allowed in the US. The shower heads leave you tingly on occasion since electricity and water shouldn't ever be that close together. But we've never had any problems with them.

There's a family from Denmark in the cabin next to us, and together we are the only guests here, though we had yet to see them. We changedclothes and headed out to hike the creek bed down to the river. Annette had given us directions to the trail - there's only one way down and up - and to watch for snakes. Turn left to get to the river, turn right to go to the swimming hole. We headed down and found the trail to be a little dicey. It was slippery and buggy. Apparently they hadn't gotten as much rain as usual, so the mosquitos were biting. We didn't see any critters or the resident boa constrictors, so we climbed back up after an hour or so. After a hot shower, we went to the common area and talked with Annette for a while before dinner. She had picked a bunch of anthurium flowers that made a beautiful arrangement and there were funky paper lanterns above the dining table. We had arranged dinner with Annette online before we arrived, since we weren't sure how far it would be to the town or eating places, and for $12, she made us curried chicken, grilled tortillas, steamed carrots and broccoli and rice and beans. Add a very nice bottle of red wine to that, and it was a great evening. It was starting to rain hard, and we enjoyed our dinner to the sounds all around us of the rain, the critters, and the creek. We we went back to our cabin and literally fell into bed. A little while later the family next door returned from their dinner in town and as we were drifting off to sleep, we heard soft guitar music on their front porch. I got up to peek out of the screen to hear what they were playing, and the father started playing this beautiful song. Wow, he was really good and the song sounded familiar. Then his wife started to sing, and the kids joined in - all of them harmonizing with her. It was absolutely beautiful. (I have to say, just writing this now gives me chills because it was definitely one of those great little moments in time). Then I recognized the song - "You'll Be In My Heart" by Phil Collins. Maybe it was the wine, maybe that time of the month, or maybe a combination of everything. My husband and I just stood there in the dark, looking out into the night with the rain falling, tucked into a tiny little corner of the jungle in Costa Rica, and listened to the most beautiful thing I think I've ever heard. And my husband looked at me and said "little gifts". Wow. 

Day 6

The next morning we got up early since we had to be on the road by 8am to make it to San Jose so we can return the rental car and make it to the airport on time. We finished packing and went to the kitchen for a quick bite.

There was only time for coffee and toast and Annette began to rush us because it had been raining hard all night and the road to San Jose might be closed due to mudslides. On top of that, a previous guest took Annette's only map showing directions to the airport, so she had to explain the route to us quickly. She told us if we have to detour it would only take us about 10 miles out of the way. It was still raining when we left and I realized I still had the cabin key in my hand so I got out of the car and ran back to give it to her. The Von Trapp family from last night was there and I thanked them profusely for their "gift" of singing, but I don't think they'll ever realize the true extent of it. Annette rushed out and almost frantically said "You're still here!" I returned the key and gave her a final hug goodbye.

As it turned out, when we hit the highway it was fine, though a little scary going back up over the mountain in the fog with the tractor trailers, buses and cars flying at you from all directions. The road wasn't closed and we made it all the way back to San Jose with no problem. Once there though, traffic was at a standstill as we approached the highway to the airport. It was when we were waiting in traffic that I started to panic. We were catching a flight from San Jose to the Osa Peninsula, the next leg of our trip, and were flying Nature Air. The map I had showed the airport in one direction on the map, yet the airport traffic seemed to be heading in another direction. It was then I realized that Juan Santamaria and Pavas are two different airports. Yikes, what a mistake to make! Why I never thought of this sooner or thought to ask about it, I'll never know.  After finally asking for directions, we got to Pavas airport just in time to board our flight to the Osa.  TIP: Juan Santamaria and Pavas are two different airports. Generally, when flying in to Costa Rica (SJO) in San Jose, you will arrive in Juan Sanataria. For some flights within Costa Rica itself on Nature Air, you may be flying from Pavas, also located in San Jose. Be sure and check ahead of time to allow extra time!

Where to Stay:  Casa Rio Blanco