Costa Rica–Days 1–4: Preparation, arrival, renting a car (ugh), LaCarolina Lodge (ahhhh), and Rio Celeste (wow)
We have been to Hawaii many times, loving it each time more than the last. In the past few years, though, our kids -- all of whom are more well-traveled than Tom or me -- have urged us to get out of our comfort zone and travel to a new, non-American tropical location. Somewhere like Belize or Costa Rica, they said.
So in June last year, Elisabeth, who had been to Costa Rica (and Columbia and Nicaragua) with Danny a few years ago, suggested that we give Tom a trip to Costa Rica for his 60th birthday -- presenting the gift to him on Father's Day. He would turn 60 on the shortest, darkest, S.A.D.est day of the year (December 20th), so looking forward to a trip to a warm, tropical climate would do him good, she suggested. Like our family trip to Europe in 2014, we would ask the kids to come with us, but unlike that trip, we would not pay their way.
Ultimately, only the girls chose to come, but here's a photo of all four kids with Tom on Father's Day, anyway... along with Kat imitating a Costa Rican sloth in the book we gave Tom, announcing the trip.
Fast-forward to a few weeks before the trip, my brother Michael (he's that crazy uncle) mentions that he and his wife Suzie would love to travel with us in Costa Rica. Adventure seems to follow Michael as much as he follows adventure, so this sounded like fun to us!
Then, just two days before our departure, Elisabeth called me in the middle of the night, saying that she'd been talking to her friend Ian, who had, over the years become a dear family friend as well, and that he was in need of an international get-away and what did we think of him joining us for the first few days of the trip? We think it'd be fantastic, is what we think!
So now we were seven -- seven most unlikely travel companions, who would all meet at the Liberia airport in Guanacosta, Costa Rica after a 5AM flight - for which we had to get up at 1:30. In other words, no one slept - some of us not even on the plane!
We had made the decision many months ago, upon hearing that most roads in Costa Rica are dirt roads, and many are trecherous, that we’d stay the first night at the Liberia Airport Hilton Garden Inn. It turned out to be a great decision, as we had comfortable (albeit completely American) rooms and dinner, and even a nice evening swim in the warm, tropical air – such a change from cold, damp, cloudy Seattle!
The next morning, we embarked upon what I fully expected to be our first adventure of the trip – renting a car. I’d read extensively about car rental scams in Costa Rica, so I came prepared with affidavits from our insurance company that stipulated that we could waive the Collision Damage Insurance (CDW) and be fully covered by our credit card. I knew that we had no choice but to pay the Costa Rican SLI insurance, which I had been told was $12 a day, but that we did NOT have to pay the collision insurance, which would have added hundreds of dollars to our $215 bill.
I should have known.
Upon arriving at the National counter, we were immediately told that unfortunately, the car we reserved wasn’t available. Oddly enough, Michael, who came equipped with the same CDW paperwork from his credit card company, was being told the exact same thing at the Budget counter right next to us. We were both told that, the 4x4 we’d reserved wasn’t available, but “fortunately” a “nice, big” Nissan truck was available.
Fine, we’ll take that the truck.
Oh, but you cannot waive the insurance on the truck, ma’am. It says right here, on the paperwork you supplied from your insurance company, that “certain trucks” aren’t covered.
Really? To say I scowled would be an understatement. To say Elisabeth called bullshit would also be an understatement. To say Tom asked if the whole country was like this would be…well, true. Suffice it to say that we were all pissed. Looking over to see Michael and Suzie having the same argument at the Budget counter would be funny – SOMEDAY. But it wasn’t funny yet.
“Look around this lot!” we told the employees who were so obviously trying to scam us. “The 4x4s we reserved are obviously here! You CAN rent them to us! And you could even rent us the truck and waive the insurance, allowing it to be a ‘certain truck’ that is covered by our CDW!”
And then I dropped the social media bomb: “Look, I can go to all National’s social media and write about this. It’s easy. And I will do it if you pull this on us!” And Michael, who has produced videos for some of the world’s most prominent tourist boards, dropped his bomb too, reminding the Budget employees of the power of tourism videos.
And then, guess what happened? That’s right: 4x4s immediately became available! The SLI was suddenly $24 a day, but at that point we just weren’t willing to fight anymore.
We noted every single ding and scratch and were finally on our way.
(Addendum: I DID make a stink on social media because we were charged a late fee, although we returned the car hours early, as well as a “license plate fee” -- HUH?! -- an additional airport fee, and a variety of other miscelllaneous charges, on top of the extra $12 a day for something called “zero deductible.” After two days of red tape, including National America “fighting” with National Central America on our behalf, I was told that National would be refunding us almost $200. Ah, the power of social media. But damn – none of this should have happened in the first place!)
After hours at the car rental agency, we were on our way.
First stop, a waterfall. Elisabeth read that there was a small sign on the highway, pointing the way down a dirt road (of course) to a waterfall.
I expected something like this:
But that small sign led us to this!
It was pretty spectacular!
After a short swim (for some of us), we headed to our first accomodations, the much-anticipated LaCarolina Lodge, a working farm deep (as in, at the end of a very long, bumpy dirt road) in the Costa Rican jungle.
Elisabeth and Danny had stayed at the lodge five years ago and had told us about the three homecooked meals a day (on a small wood stove!), about the horseback riding and the cow milking, the river-fed, fire-heated hot tub, and the no-electricity evenings. We knew that this would be no ordinary touristy accommodation, but we were not fully prepared for the amazingness of this place!
(Our cottage, the Porta Fina.)
The only word that does the LaCarolina Lodge justice is “magical.”
Don’t expect luxury accommodations. This is a working farm in the jungle, after all. But everything – absolutely everything – about this place is deep-down comfortable and peaceful, and I don’t mean in only a physical sense. This is a place where you can find spiritual and emotional comfort and peace as well, given enough time here. (Anything less than three days is just silly – especially given that long dirt road!)
This is Bill and Karien, owners of the lodge…
…and some of the amazing Costa Rican staff:
…who cooked us three meals a day, made 100% from farm-grown food (yes, including chickens), on that small wood stove. Even the milk for our delicious Costa Rican coffee was 100% fresh, from farm cows milked that morning!
It was Bill and Karien and staff who made this possible – a surprise birthday party for Tom!
Earlier that evening we also got the only photo of all seven of us – Kat, Ian, Suzie, Tom, Michael, Elisabeth, and me. It was a great group!
The morning after Tom’s birthday party, we headed down another long, bumpy dirt road to the Parque Nacional Volcan Tenorio, location of the Rio Celeste – THE most amazing site in nature I’ve ever seen! It was a rainy morning in the (duh) rainforest, and the hike was long and muddy, but oh, so WORTH IT!
(Tom’s GoPro, a Christmas present from the kids, was his constant companion!)
(Unfortunately, I can’t post videos for some reason - and I took some doozies - so photos will have to suffice for now – though I think I can find a way to create a few video-only posts after I finish these posts. Stay tuned!)
Discovering the waterfall and the azure blue water was amazing! First, we descended down this gorgeous long stairway…
And then, this:
And THEN. THIS!
Yes, the water is that blue! At least that blue!
Of course we had to get all touristy and take photos…
Just a ways up from the waterfall was an area of the river where the bright blue water converged with the other river water. It’s pretty cool!
And just up the river from there were bubbling hot waters!
These swinging (and by “swinging,” I mean crickety) bridges were a bit hairy to cross…
…but totally worth it!
A ways up the river there were more chemical reactions happening.
Where is a Harvard chemistry professor when you need one? Oh wait! Here one is!
I hate to use the word again in the same post, but this place was magical! Look at these rainforest plants!
And, while were at it, some beautiful Costa Rican flowers:
And by the way, what are THESE?! They seemed quite fond of each other…
After we got back to LaCarolina Lodge, we relaxed a bit in the amazing fire-heated, river-fed hot tub…
…and then, HORSES with Alajandro! These photos speak for themselves!
The relaxing, candle-lit evenings at LaCarolina Lodge are so welcome after such busy days!
The next morning, Ian had to head back to the airport because he had to get back in time to teach a class. We were all sad!
And then some of us got sick…
…and hoped Ian wasn’t suffering from the same malady as he sat on a plane. (Fortunately, he didn’t.)
While the girls slept, Tom and I hiked to the lake on the LaCarolina property…
…and Michael got some great shots for a new video.
On our last morning at LaCarolina, Kat and Elisabeth were feeling much better and we all milked some cows! (I really must upload some videos of this!)
(Bill and Karien’s sons are master milkers!)
Even though we were headed on to luxurious resorts, it was hard to leave LaCarolina because somehow we knew that we were leaving the purest Costa Rica, in a way, and would be back to being “just tourists” for the rest of the trip.
Not that that’s an entirely bad thing, as you’ll see in the next post!