We spent a beautiful six days on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica last week! We flew out of LAX on Thursday night and took an overnight flight to San Jose City, with a brief layover in Mexico City.
It was a pretty exhausting day of travel that was then extended when we got our rental car in San Jose and drove out to our AirBnb on the coast. With traffic, the drive took us almost seven hours. Unfortunately, our rental was a stick shift, so Jon had to do all the driving. We drove through city streets, then through Braulio Carillo National Park, where Jon had to pull over to rest his eyes a bit, then stopped at a roadside soda where we ordered whatever they would make that corresponded with our weak Spanish and the animal noises the owner used to communicate with us (we ordered two plates of pork and one of beef). Delicious coffee was served with our lunches and gave all of us a much-needed boost! However, we still had about five hours of narrow roads, rain, and traffic ahead of us. By the time we made it to our little jungle cottage in the Gandoca -Manzanillo Refuge, it was 10:30 at night and we had been traveling for a full 24 hours (and been mostly awake for about 36).
If we had been less tired, we might have been a little freaked out by our accommodations. After our looong drive, we got to the small, coastal town of Manzanillo. We drove through town to the end of the road and parked to admire the moonlight on the Caribbean Sea, and experience the warm water on our toes, while a rowdy crowd enjoyed music in the outdoor restaurant across the road. We then made our way, using Google Maps (without an actual street address) and the slightly vague directions from the owner of Casa Turquesa, along some gravel roads into the jungle. We got a bit lost, but eventually turned down what ended up being the long driveway to the house.
As soon as we turned off the engine, we were surrounded by darkness and the noises of the jungle. The owner had left the patio lights on and the key in the upstairs door, so we got into the house easily, but that is a loose use of the term “into.” There was little separating the downstairs kitchen and dining area from the jungle. A couple walls and a tile floor, and a small, unscreened fence around the rest made the area open to nature. We walked up the outdoor staircase to the enclosed area of the house, which consisted of a single bedroom and bathroom. It was simple and rustic, but comfortably lit and furnished. Despite the heat and humidity, we didn’t leave the windows open because there were no screens up there either! Instead, we put the two fans on full blast and pointed one toward the double bed and one toward the bunk bed. We barely took time to explore the house and unpack before crashing hard around midnight.
Around 5:00 a.m., I woke to the most frightening sound I’ve ever experienced in real life. Our little, isolated, exposed jungle house seemed to be surrounded by monsters. I had no idea that howler monkeys actually roar! And it echoes throughout the jungle. And there were several that seemed to be surrounding the house. No one else in my family woke up for this experience, so I lay there, confused and tired, trying to wrap my brain around what I was hearing. I groggily googled “howler monkeys” and was relieved to learn that this is, indeed what I was hearing, and that they are noisy but harmless.
A few hours later, we got a late start to our Saturday. We took stock of our surroundings, and got organized and unpacked. It was a relief to hear music coming from one of the neighboring properties. The house turned out to be very private, but not isolated. We decided to check out the town of Manzanillo in daylight, and found it to be lively, loud, and crowded! The surf was actually quite rough (and remained that way throughout the week), but plenty of people were out to enjoy a day at the beach.
After driving around Manzanillo, we decided to head into the nearest large town, Puerto Viejo, about 10 miles up the coast. The road between the two towns is lined with greenery and a variety of budget to high-end lodgings, cafes, and restaurants. There were also numerous roadside beach parks, bicyclists, motor bikes, pedestrians, narrow bridges, food carts, stray dogs, and garbage piles. The sights and sounds were, at times, overwhelming and, more than once, I admired Jon’s ability to navigate the crowded roads where few rules seemed to apply!
In Puerto Viejo, we got our bearings and then enjoyed a delicious lunch at De Gustibus Bakery. It was more of a tourist spot (and therefore pricier) than we normally would have wanted, but, with the exhaustion and sensory overload we were experiencing, the familiarity helped ease us into our day. The sandwiches were delicious and the iced mochas (and Daisy’s banana-Nutella smoothie) were amazing!
After lunch, we explored the town a bit. We stopped at an information center, waded in the warm water, and visited artists’ booths lining the road. After wandering the town for a while, we made our way back to the bakery, where we’d parked, and drove to the supermercado we’d passed on our way into town. There we stocked up on some groceries for the week and, back at the house, Jon made us a pasta dinner. It was a little odd eating “outside,” but I figured what we couldn’t see, in the dark jungle beyond our softly lit patio, couldn’t hurt us!
Up in our room, we shooed out some large moths and a ginormous palmetto bug (I refuse to call it a cockroach). We settled in for the evening, watched some Gilmore Girls, and fell asleep to the sound of rain pounding on the tin roof.
Sunday was another day of exploration. Again, we got a leisurely start to the day. We enjoyed a late breakfast of eggs, bread, and fruit in our outdoor kitchen, and then packed lunches and got in our swimsuits to head to the beach! We drove a short distance north of Manzanillo, down a ridiculously crowded and narrow road, to Playa Punta Uva. This seemed to be a popular local spot on a Sunday afternoon, and we were surrounded by families playing on the beach, which was packed with people, blankets, chairs, loud music, stray dogs, and food. The water was still very rough, but we did swim a bit and spent time just walking along the beach and relaxing at a less crowded end point. We decided to head home a bit before dark and, at the house, enjoyed a short walk in the nearby jungle and a delicious dinner of tacos and rice.
Early Monday morning, we woke to the horror of extreme illness; Mic was very, very sick. She spent the early hours of the morning and most of the day alternating between ejecting everything from her stomach and laying down. Fortunately, it rained all day long, so she wasn’t distressed about missing any activities. It was a good day to stay home and rest. By evening, she was finally able to keep a light dinner of bread and fruit down, and slept through the night. She woke up on Tuesday feeling much better, but we never did identify the culprit in her brief but intense bout with the mystery illness.
Tuesday, we had a bit of sun so, after a leisurely breakfast, we ventured down the road to walk along the coast in the Gandoca-Manzanillo reserve, which does not charge an admission fee, but requests a donation. Along the path, we spotted monkeys in the trees and paused at a few small beaches and coastal overlooks. We didn’t make it very far, as the rain from the previous day had created a dangerously slick and muddy trail about half a mile in. Instead, we turned around to stroll back towards town.
In town, we walked along the beach and then decided to enjoy a delicious meal at the two story restaurant, Mr. Maxie’s, at the end of the road. We ordered a few Caribbean dishes and thoroughly enjoyed them on the second story patio, while darkness fell on the crashing waves and rain beat on the roof overhead.
Back at the house, we prepared for our last full day in Costa Rica. We decided we would venture a bit further away from our home base and make the 45 minute drive north to Cahuita National Park. In the morning, Jon made a fabulous breakfast of fried potatoes, bacon, and fruit salad. We got a fairly early start, for us. On our way to the national park, we dropped off some laundry at Cafe Rico, a great coffee house-bookstore-laundry service- bike rental, owned by a British fellow, in Puerto Viejo.
When we finally arrived in the town of Cahuita, I fell in love! I think I would use this spot as my home base for future trips to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. The town has a relaxed feel but offers plenty of shops and services.
The trail through the national park was incredible! The beaches were beautiful and the walk through the jungle, along the coastline, offered opportunities to spot monkey families, sloths, raccoons, leaf cutter ants, bats, and more! We kept talking about how it felt like we’d been dropped into a nature documentary! Again, admission was donation based, but the experience was priceless.
Following our walk, which included some time swimming at one of the beaches in the national park, we got some gelato and strolled around town. We then drove back to Puerto Viejo to pick up our laundry, do a little shopping (the girls had really wanted to pick up some jewelry on our first walk through the town), and spend some time relaxing on the black sand beach in town. It was beautiful, and we admired a gorgeous sunset while eating sweet Argentinian churros bought from the basket of one of the vendors strolling the beach.
Our last night in the jungle cottage was spent eating what was left in the fridge, and packing up for our trip to Guatemala. We had a 1:45 p.m. flight scheduled out of San Jose and we wanted to leave ourselves plenty of time to get there. We set our alarms for 4:30 a.m. and, miraculously, we were able to make it out of the house by 5:45 the next morning.
It was tough to leave the awesome, colorful little cottage in the jungle, but we got a nice, loud send off at dawn from the howler monkeys. It was a smooth, scenic, five-hour drive back to the car rental agency and an easy check in at the airport. Our flight to Guatemala City was short and we’ve been having a great time here, in Guatemala, for several days now. We do look forward to our return to Costa Rica in a few weeks, where we’ll visit the Pacific side before flying home to California!