Costa Rica: Finishing 2012 with a bang!

It’s been a few months since my last post, “After six months of traveling we’re back – for now! Colorado to Arizona, then California“.

When we arrived in the States in September, after traveling for six months through Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Costa Rica, I took a break from writing the blog to enjoy time with our friends and family.

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It was a special treat to see everyone, enjoy the warmth of the California summer, and a great opportunity for us to replenish our savings. Once back in Orange County, Brandon went back to back work at The Señor Barbers in San Clemente. He missed having a solid morning routine of working out or surfing and then being at the shop working (who would have thought?). He was excited to see his clients and be in the camaraderie of the barbershop. On the morning of his first day back to work, after I kissed him goodbye, he had a skip in his step as he walked to the car. Just like a boy on his first day of school.

As for me, at first, I needed more time to unwind. Realizing how overwhelmed I was, I decided it was more of a culture shock being in the States than the beginning of our trip after Brandon and I landed in Quito, Ecuador. I returned with a new perspective.

Now I see Orange County, the place I’ve called home for most of my life, very differently. I am stress free and can see beyond the greed or unpleasant spoiled realities that are clearly present. I’m not jaded anymore. I am happy. More than ever, I am more thankful for where I grew up. Southern California is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

After a couple of weeks went by though, I started feeling out-of-place; lost. My friends were getting promotions or making career changes. Their 9-5 lives were in full swing. Although I had a few freelance projects that kept me busy, I wasn’t working a lot and I wasn’t on top of what was happening in the business world or changes in my field of Communications and PR. I started thinking about my next steps and future after our year-long journey was over. Reflecting on the lessons I’ve learned along the way, I knew right away that I would not return to the corporate world, or sit behind a cubical, working 9-5.

For the following six weeks, before we returned to Costa Rica, I decided to get a part-time job to pass the time.

With the desire to learn something new and a passion for healthy living and eating, on a whim, I applied and was hired at the Nekter Juice Bar in Dana Point. For six weeks I made smoothies, fresh juices and aqui bowls. I learned many new tasty recipes and a lot about the juice industry. Plus, I was able to do what I like most – be social! It was a perfect part-time job.

After full two months in the States, we were ready for our next adventure. We packed only one 65 liter pack (not two like before), three surfboards and one carry-on backpack and jumped on a plane to Costa Rica. Even better, our friends Jen and John joined us!

I was excited to get back on the road. Knowing we were in good company, and that so many more friends and family were coming to visit, we were bound to finish the year with a bang. (And, I would have more time to ponder my future.)

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Costa Rica – where we feel comfortable driving the highways, love surfing and have many friends – is a second home to us now. Although it is a relatively small country (with a little more than four million people), we never traveled beyond the coastal cities that line the Pacific Coast.

During the last two months of 2012, when Brandon and I returned, we visited more of the country than ever. This blog posting will provide an overview of our travel, with our friends and family who visited, to some of the country’s notable towns including Puerto Viejo, Jaco (mainly Playa Hermosa), Nuevo Arenal and Manuel Antonio.

Rock games in Puerto Viejo and Thanksgiving in Playa Hermosa (November 16 – November 25)

John and Jen, the couple we stayed with while we were in the States, vacationed with us for the first nine days of our trip. We arrived in San Jose Airport around 10:30 at night and stayed at the Holiday Inn Express across the street. For $130 a night, this is the only hotel we stay at when we are in San Jose. We enjoy the free 24-hour shuttle service to and from the airport. The beds are comfy, the staff is wonderful and a very yummy breakfast buffet is included.

The next morning the boys picked up the Rav 4 we rented, and after breakfast we drove to Puerto Viejo. Puerto Viejo which is probably one of the largest tourist destinations on Costa Rica’s small Caribbean coast is about a five-hour drive south-east from San Jose and only four hours from the Panama border.

After sunset, we arrived at Casa Del Caribe (VRBO property #325653 at $90/night); a two-story house nestled in the lush coastal town of Cocles, which is about a five-minute drive from the main town of Puerto Viejo. The house, made of wood and ceramic tiles, was maybe 2,000 square feet. It had an open floor plan and the two bedrooms located upstairs were the only rooms enclosed by screens and doors. Overall it was a nice, cozy place to stay.

photoIt was the beginning of the rainy season on the Caribbean coast (the Caribbean side of the country’s weather is opposite than the pacific side), and it poured down rain the entire time we were there.  In the high-70s during the day, the air temperatures were much cooler than we expected.  Being so cool and wet, we had a lot of down time. While waiting for the rain to stop Jen, John and Brandon created rock throwing games, while I opted to watch, laugh and cook.

Salsa Brava, located up the coast from Puerto Viejo and Playa Cocles, is known as one of the heaviest breaks in Costa Rica.  It’s best when the swell pulls from the east, pushing the current up against the reef, which creates a very strong wave in a matter of seconds. Because of the storm, the currents were very strong and uneasy; Brandon decided it was best not to attempt Salsa Brava on this trip. Next time.  In the meantime, he did surf Cocles which is softer, especially before the mid-afternoon winds.

We did go to town couple times to eat.

The town of Puerto Viejo appeared to be a lazy but fairly charming town with rasta vibes, bright decorative colors, blasting reggaeton, and yummy selection of Caribbean style BBQ and spicy foods. And, unlike most of the pacific coast, the beaches here have white sand. I bet the waters would have been blue, and scenery would have been more picturesque if it wasn’t for the messy storm. The town was definitely different from anywhere we’d been in Costa Rica. We liked it here, a lot!

All animals at the center

Brandon and my favorite part was our visit to the Jaguar Rescue Center ($15 per person), a non-profit animal rescue center in Playa Chiquita, a town north of Cocles. The organization accepts animals brought to them from any of

Monkey and Katie

the local communities. It’s a rescue-and-release organization; they nurse and rehabilitate injured or separated animals and then release them back into the wild. Because of this, we didn’t get to see an actual jaguar, as there were none at the time.

The tour was outside (though partially covered by the jungle canopy) where we were able to interact with baby sloths, multicolored frogs, beautiful birds and several other types of wild cats.  Being inside the monkey

cages was by far our favorite part. A baby howler monkey curled up in my neck and slept. Precious.

By day three the rain was still down pouring. Our craving for sun and warmth swayed us to leave a day early to our next destination, and Brandon and my favorite place in Costa Rica – Playa Hermosa.

Playa Hermosa

Playa Hermosa (beautiful beach), a ten minute drive from Costa Rica’s second largest city, Jaco, is a well-known surfing community on the pacific coast, with black sandy beaches, epic surf and good vibes. It took us about six hours to drive from Puerto Viejo to Playa Hermosa in the rain with moderate traffic (not bad for Costa Rica).  

We rented a two-bedroom, one-bath bungalow at the Hermosa Beach Bungalows ($125 a night in the low season and $199 a night during the high season). Located steps from the beach with a good surf break and away from the night life of Playa Hermosa and Jaco, this was the first time we stayed somewhere as nice as the bungalows. Offering modern amenities such as air conditioning, a washer and dryer, comfy beds, a 42-inch flat screen TV, wifi, cable, and a fully equipped kitchen – we were stoked.

The day after we arrived to our bungalow Brandon turned 31. Being back in Hermosa, surfing epic, barreling waves in 85 degree waters – on his new Cole surf board, which we bought for his birthday before we left California, made his day perfect. He really enjoyed having Jen and John there to celebrate as well.

Thx giving dinner tableThe next day was Thanksgiving. Twinka, a full-time resident and expat from the States who owns one of the bungalows and manages several others, including the one we rented, organized a beautiful Thanksgiving dinner with other bungalow renters and owners. It was a potluck and the food, including a variety of green salads, vegetables, grilled fish and all of the traditional components (including turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and gravy) was such a delight for being so far from home.

For the remainder of Jen and John’s stay, we took them to some of our favorite places in the area, including Manuel Antonio National Park ($10 per person entry).

148506_10100249282133600_1983695091_nEstablished as a National Park in 1972 by the people of Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio is the smallest national park in Costa Rica as its area encompasses 4.9 acres and 135.9 acres of marine reserve.

Located about an hour south of Playa Hermosa along Highway 35, Manuel Antonio is mainly a tourist town with several hotels, hostels, restaurants and tour companies. The National Park, at the end of town, offers visitors a charming combination of animals (including monkeys, sloths, raccoons, deers and coatis), surrounded by a lush rain forest with several hiking trails, white sandy beaches and clear, blue, salty and unbelievable 90-degree waters. The Sendero Mirador, or main viewpoint trail, is one of our favorite within the park.  About a mile long, with a slow incline, it takes you to one of the highest viewpoints in the park with 120-degree aerial views of the beaches below.

Before exiting the park, we took a swim in the ocean. Looking back toward the foliage and steep cliffs surrounding us, it was easy to believe that were a thousand miles from anywhere.

Katin Surf Hotel

After Jen and John departed, we left the bungalows and settled in at the Katin Surf Hotel, in the town of Playa Hermosa.

Roger,the property manager at Katin, gave us a stellar deal on a studio apartment because we stayed for eight days. For $50 a night we enjoyed air conditioning, cable TV, a small kitchen nook with a refrigerator, stove top, microwave and sink. Plus, we were right on Hermosa Beach, in front of the best and most consistent waves in the country. (The huge cockroaches that appeared in the bathroom during the night didn’t bother us too much. Well, maybe it bothered me a bit.)

It was weird at first not having Jen and John around as their energy kept us very active for the days they were here. It was back to me and B – quiet and mellow. We did reconnect with our old friends at Las Olas (a hostel located next door to Katin Hotel which we’ve stayed in a few times since 2009). Of course, we made an effort to be social and make new friends. But mainly we relaxed, lounged and got into the routine of surfing, working out and going to bed early. Ah, it was so good.

Las Olas sunset with gang

Relaxing in Manuel Antonio (November 31 – December 12).

On Friday, November 31 my family including my brother, Case; his girlfriend, Bri; mom, Kathy; and step-father, Mike, and the rest of the ‘gang’ arrived (my good friend Erika and her mom Deb).

The original ‘gang’ members include Erika, Deb, me and my mom. It started in 2006 when Deb invited my mom and I to join her and Erika on a trip to London.  Erika and I actually met at the airport the day we left, and well, after London, we became very good friends and ended up traveling together with our moms for the last seven years. It didn’t take long to coin ourselves ‘the gang’ because we travel so well together.

Costa Rica would be the first time the ‘gang’ would be on an international – and for the first time tropical – vacation since 2009 (when we went to Paris and Amsterdam). And, it would be the first time the group involved more than just the four of us. I was just so excited we were going to be together again – and that it included the rest of my family.

Mike rented Casa Vista Azul, an incredibly beautiful home nestled high in the hills of Manuel Antonio (near the National Park). It was a four-story, seven-bedroom house with a pool, elevator and 180-degree views of Manuel Antonio beach. Epic house.

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View from our living roomAlthough my parents, Bri, Erika and Deb are well-traveled, it was the first time my brother traveled outside the US. This was really exciting for me and Brandon as we wanted to be sure he had a good time. Unfortunately my mom broke her food before she left the States and was wearing a temporary cast. This was a bummer and I felt bad for her because there wasn’t much she could do other than lounge around the house. But we didn’t let it get in the way of having a good time.

Since we rented a car for two weeks we were able to venture beyond our house to shop, tour the area and find surf breaks.

Unlike Hermosa where the breaks are consistently strong and waves are usually head-high on any given day, the break at Manuel Antonio, and Playitas (the break about half-a-mile north of Manuel) is softer and needs a larger swell to get big. It was very small the days we surfed here. Case was slightly bummed; but, he had a good time when we took him to Hermosa and Jaco bay.

One morning Brandon and I got up early and drove to Playa Dominical, which is about a 40-minute drive south of Manuel Antonio (Case was sick this day). Here the beach breaks are mild with lefts and rights. We had an epic morning surfing here.

Mike, with a serious love and hobby as a deep-sea fisherman, booked a couple of fishing trips out of Quepos, which is the town down the hill and about a ten minute drive north of Manuel Antonio. The days they went out, Brandon caught a 150 pound sail fish, Erika caught a 100 pound sail fish (which they both had to let go) and Case caught the jackpot of two-40 pound dorados (mahi mahi) and two-40 pound red snappers – all with the help of Mike. Whoo hoo! (Bri gets serious motion sickness, and I am not much of a fisherwoman, therefore, we opted out of the fishing excursions. We hung out at home with the mommas during these days.) But we did join in on the feast we made with the fish! YUM! It was some of the best fish I’ve ever had.

photo-1Other ventures included hiking Manuel Antonio, taking the family to Jaco, and Erika receiving surf lessons from our good buddy Cristian at Las Olas. Case, Erika and Bri really had a great time zip lining through the jungle too.

Overall the time spent with everyone was relaxing and our surroundings were beautiful. The best moments were when we hired a chef and crew (friends of ours from Hermosa) to cook a beautiful feast as an early Christmas dinner at the house, and the capuchin and howler monkeys that would come into the house during sunrise and sunset looking for food.photo-2

After my family and the ‘gang’ left Costa Rica, we headed back to Hermosa to stay at Katin for a few days before my dad, Ken, arrived.

Swinging bridges in Arenal and Christmas in Playa Hermosa (December 19 – December 26).

My dad, who lives in Arizona, had only traveled internationally to Mexico before coming to Costa Rica. He was already nervous about coming to visit us, and then, about a week before his trip he was taken to the emergency room because he was having trouble breathing. Two days and several tests later the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with him. (Phew!) Knowing he would need to consult other doctors and get additional opinions, he still decided to take the chance, leave the stress of work and come visit us.

My dad is an outdoorsy-jeeper-camper-hiker-man. We knew he would want to explore the country, learn its history and participate in as much adventure as possible. For this reason, we decided to take him northwest to see one of the county’s most visited and active volcanos (according to the books), Vocan Arenal. Brandon and I hadn’t been here before and were really looking forward to it.

After picking him up at the airport in San Jose, we took a very scenic, cool and drizzly drive into the sunset on winding roads and through dense green mountainous towns to Nuevo Arenal (New Arenal), which is located about 5,200 feet above sea level.

We arrived to our two-bedroom, two-bath, cabin (VRBO property #370690 at $99/night) around 8 pm. The house had panoramic views of the mountains and Arenal Lake. Because of the dense fog and rain during our stay, we were only able catch good views of the lake in the mornings and maybe at sunset.

During the three days we stayed in Nuevo Arenal, we became acquainted with the small town and visited the Arenal Volcano, Fortuna Waterfall and swinging bridges:

  • Nuevo Arenal is small, but has a tiny downtown area with a bank, grocery store, gas station and very yummy German Bakery (I highly recommend their coffee, apple fritters and cheesecake). We found it more cost efficient to stay here, versus other touristy towns closer to Arenal or Fortuna. You definitely need a car here though.
  • Arenal Volcano Park (40 minutes from our cabin) was formed some 7,000 years ago from the adjacent, and now extinct, Chato Volcano. In 1968 Arenal erupted with an explosion that buried three small villages and left 87 people dead. Until July 2010, eruptions were constant, but small—there was gushes of smoke and lava on an almost daily basis. Several locals told us it has been silent for the past three years though. Although we were unable to see any action, we had a fun time hiking around its base.
  • Fortuna Waterfall (35 minutes from our cabin in the town of Fortuna) is about a 20 minute walk down steep stairs. The falls are the biggest we’ve seen yet during our travels (although there are many more to see).
  • Swinging Bridges (20 minutes form our cabin in Nuevo Arenal near the lakes dam) is a private reserve with mapped out trails. The main trail takes visitors over 16 bridges in total, five of them swinging. The entire trail is about 1.9 miles, and falls in and out of the canyons within the jungle. There are very beautiful streams to see, and a waterfall viewing area. Despite the stormy weather and strong winds, we truly enjoyed our walk through the park.

Fortuna Waterfall

B and K at the Fortuna WaterfallSwinging BridgesArenal Vocano

15871_246626332135454_526616683_nAfter three rainy and cool days in Nuevo Arenal, and with dad’s health doing extremely well, we were ready to change the scenery. We were ready to be back in the sun and warmth of Playa Hermosa. Don’t get me wrong – we LOVED Arenal, but it was time to get back to the beach. Back to the Hermosa Beach Bungalows we went. This time we stayed in Twinka’s bungalow (remember, she is a full-time resident and bungalow owner, but also manages several of the bungalows). Her bungalow was the last one available to rent when I booked it back in September, and after staying here, I’ve decided it is the best too!

Christmas day we drove dad to hike Manuel Antonio National Park (yes, it was open on Christmas). He did very well on the hike too, not a sign of breathing troubles. When we returned home we went to another one of Twinka’s fabulous potluck celebrations – celebrating Christmas of course. The food was just as amazing as Thanksgiving.

Our last days at the bungalows were relaxing, warm and just what dad needed – the perfect holiday for all of us. Having my dad come see and experience the country that originally sparked our desire and drive to complete this year-long-journey meant a lot to us.

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Finishing the year in Playa Hermosa (December 26 – January 6)

After we dropped my dad off at the airport on December 26, Brandon and I hung out in San Jose for a few hours waiting for our friends Jackie and Brent to arrive. They flew in three days before the rest of our friends, Taylor, Brad, Jaime and Ryno, on December 29.

At this point, Brandon and I, although very happy our family had come to visit us, we felt like tour guides by day and hosts by night.  We were worn out.

We needed some good ole’ downtime. We were VERY excited to see our good friends Brent and Jackie at the airport. We knew they, and the rest of the gang, would make us feel like we were on vacation. And, they did.

During the next 12 days, we relaxed with our friends. On New Year’s we celebrated with Twinka and friends at the Bungalows. After midnight we took a New Year swim in the ocean. The rain poured down that night. We had a blast.

Most days included surfing and swimming in the pool at least once. We did sprinkle in a few tours. Some tours included all of us, others just a few of us. I’ve included a list of the activities we did and a good list of things to do while in Hermosa, other than surfing.

  • Zip lining: Using our connection at Vista Los Suenos, for $60 per person, you can enjoy 14 platforms with views of the jungle and ocean. They will pick you up from the hotel and bring you home. Brent, Jackie, Jaime and Brad really enjoyed this company and the service.
  • Crocodile Man Tour: This is one of the best tours Brandon and I had in Costa Rica! We took a safari up the Tarcoles River, where the Americas largest populations of wild crocodiles live.  The driver is out to find crocodiles. Once he would find some on the embankment, he would get out, with bare feet, and feed the crocs. HOLY MOLY! The landscapes and bird watching is also incredible. It was like something out of National Geographic.
  • Turtle Refuge: From the bungalows in Playa Hermosa head south about two miles. It’s a small organization with no website but does have reviews on Trip Advisor. When you get here before dawn you can watch the baby turtles being released into the ocean. Although viewing the release is free, Brent and Jackie recommend bringing flashlights and batteries to donate to the organization.
  • Manuel Antonio National Park: As mentioned earlier in this posting, this is a must see while on the Pacific side of Costa Rica.
  • Tres Picinas (three pools): Located about a 45 minute drive from Playa Hermosa are some of the best waterfalls, with pools to jump in to, that Brandon and I have ever been too. Unfortunately there is no map or directions to get here. Well, that’s a lie. Brandon and I could probably get you here, but it is really complicated. Most people in Hermosa know about the waterfalls and where they are.  Just hire someone from town to take you there. Don’t pay more than $100 for four hours – no matter how many people you are with. The falls are located down a long winding dirt road, on private property, nestled back into the hillsides. Once here, you will walk for another 20 minutes. We did this on our last day. It was the probably the best day ever! I think all of our friends really enjoyed it.

580479_10100249800589610_1046889771_n736622_10151316824498911_1432956873_o739711_10151316822203911_372740192_oTres picinasK and Tay at sunset

On January 6, 2013, Brandon and I departed home, back to Orange County, California.

It was an incredible year for us. We learned so much about the world, ourselves and each other. We don’t regret it. In fact, of the many lessons we learned, we learned that traveling will be part of our lives and our children’s lives forever. Although we do not know what the future holds, we are open, willing and excited for the possibilities. 

Until the next adventure, much love and pura vida, Katie

37097_4609925524949_2116311354_nKatie and Brandon

6 thoughts on “Costa Rica: Finishing 2012 with a bang!

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