Saturday, November 08, 2008

Costa Rica Day 1: Poas Volcano, Uglier Driving and Gorgeous Gaia

On our first full day in Costa Rica (for Day Zero, see Costa Rica: Ugly Driving) we woke up a little late. The previous day was a long one, and we both had trouble sleeping.

When we did get up, we had a pleasant breakfast at our resort, Xandari Alajuela. There is a complimentary breakfast. It's like a Continental breakfast, but with a few more items than you get at most places, and it was all delicious. There was some kind of Costa Rican muffin/quiche thing that was extra good. We also got fried bananas (or was it plantains?) and they were excellent. One of the nice things about Xandari, by the way. Menu prices were very reasonable. The plantains were $2. One small-world moment. Started chatting with a woman at breakfast. She grew up in Glens Falls, and her husband in Corinth.

After breakfast we drove up to the Poas Volcano National Park. It was a reasonably short drive from Xandari, but driving in Costa Rica seems to take longer than it should. This opened up a new problem. You're going along and there's a sign: "Parque Nacional Volcan Poas - 27 km". For the non-metric inclined, 1 mile is 1.6 km, so 30 km is a bit less than 20 miles. Okay, so we're doing pretty good. Next sign says 25 km. Then the next sign says 30 km. Um ... shouldn't we be getting closer? I'll mention a couple more like this later, but in short, no one in Costa Rica seems to know how far away anything is. If you ask them, they'll guess, but they'll almost surely be wrong. If the guys putting the signs up on the highways can't get it right, why should anyone else?

So, driving up and down and all around, narrow roads, people walking extremely close to the roadway, odd traffic behavior, etc. We did eventually get to the park. It was quite nice. Here's where I should start to mention how beautiful Costa Rica is. If you read about Costa Rica, it's one of the first things you'll see. And it's pretty much true. Populated areas are generally less attractive as there are many unsightly structures and objects, but outside those areas there is an awful lot of green.

Driving and walking up to the volcano, we saw lush vegetation all over. The country is really just one big garden. What little we've seen so far anyway. After parking, we walked up a paved (and wheelchair accessible) path to see the crater. Very interesting. The bottom of the crater is filled with water. Apparently the water is hot, highly acidic, and you can see a plume of steam coming off of it. See the following picture:


We were lucky that we had good views while there. Not the best though. On a really good day you can see the Caribbean from there, which is a rather long distance. We could only see the crater and not much beyond it. We also walked up to the Laguna, which is another crater also filled with water.

The Laguna hike is tougher, with steeper hills and steps in a number of places. We walked about 2 miles in total, a workout. We appreciated the downhill return.

We drove back down to Xandari for lunch. I got us mostly lost on the way down, but fortunately found our way back. Xandari has done a good job of posting signs for itself in a number of places. And their distance markings are the most accurate we've seen here.

After lunch we headed out on the most adventurous part of the trip so far. We drove to Quepos on the Pacific coast. I got lost again trying to get us on our way to Quepos, but we eventually got on the right track. I kept stopping and asking people for directions. This is a key point. I speak Spanish fairly well. If you don't speak Spanish, getting directions will be a lot more difficult. Many Ticos (Costa Ricans) speak English, but they're better at Spanish and some struggle with English. Anyway, the best directions came from a gas station attendant. Then I had a sense that I was about at the turn and ran into a restaurant to ask a waiter. He gave me the clearest directions - he pointed to the road I thought we were supposed to turn onto and said to follow it all the way. I had guessed correctly, but you'd think they'd put a sign??

A little ways further we saw a sign saying that we had 155 km to go to Quepos. The longest 155 km I've ever driven, and not just because I've never thought about a trip in km before. Just now I checked a Costa Rica driving distance calculator and it says 175 km, so that explains a little of it (assuming the calculator is right).

The first part of the drive from Alajuela was unpleasant. The roads were narrow, winding, and crowded. We kept seeing signs to Jaco (on the way to Quepos) and to Quepos as well. The distances continued to vary. We also saw plenty of billboards in English about buying condos or other property. I suspect that business is slow these days. At a certain point as we were getting closer to Jaco, we took a ramp around onto a new road, and all of a sudden it was fairly straight and flat and empty. We were able to go 80 km/hr (50 mph) for some consistent stretches.

We had been driving for a while and passed through Jaco. We were looking for a couple of places to stop and take a break. We were cruising along and then traffic stopped ahead. There was a minor landslide and we could see some boulders in the road. A guy in uniform (probably a police officer) and some young men cleared things up, all while keeping watch to make sure nothing fell on them.

We drove on. Finally we saw Xandari Pacific. This is by the same people who run our first hotel. It was very beautiful, and the beach is right there. It seemed like there was no one staying there. They probably do better in high season. We had a drink and enjoyed the view, and then headed back out on the road. I asked the waiter how far to Quepos, and he said 30 km. As we were driving out to turn back onto the main road, a sign said 45 km. They're consistent though.

Traffic came to a stop at Parrita (very close to Quepos). They are apparently building a new bridge, and traffic was routed over a narrow one-lane bridge in place of whatever the old one was. Once we got past that it was smooth driving again. Then it got dark and started to rain. And rain. And then it started to pour. Finally, after what seemed like many hours (but was really less than four hours including our stop at Xandari Pacific), we arrived in Quepos and found our hotel, Gaia Hotel and Reserve.

Gaia seems to be built on a hill. The main facility and the rooms are on top. You park and they drive you up in the hill in golf carts. We got a quick tour, took a short break in our room, and then had a very nice dinner from the hotel's restaurant, but we got room service because of the downpour. The food was excellent. We also had our first good night of sleep.

More about Gaia in the next post, about Day 2.
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