Category: Places

Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

This may be the most visited area in Costa Rica. Tried to find a stat to prove that, but failed. Sure felt like it, however.

Leaky Hose

During the epic rainstorm and on the disastrous road to Playa Santa Teresa, the van flexed enough to cause a pin on a steering rod to slice our radiator hose. Because of the rain, and inertia at the AirBnB we rented, we didn’t notice the leak for several days.

It wasn’t until we attempted to visit Playa Mal Pais one afternoon that I heard what sounded like a fountain firework beneath the car. At first, I thought it was our transfer case, which made me panic. Then my more mechanically-inclined father-in-law informed me it was the hose. And thanks to good ol’ duct tape and stinky man sweat, we were able to temporarily repair the hose to get us to the nearest town with a radiator mechanic.

Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio

The world’s first national park. And one of it’s most beautiful. While it’s a miniature park, especially compared to ones in the US, its massive in biodiversity. Over a hundred species of mammals and nearly two hundred species of birds exist in less than three square miles. We saw a few brown-throated three-toed sloths just, you guessed it, hanging out. I hummed Everett’s sloth song (heard here) nearly the entire hike.

Beach Score: 8.5 out 10

Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio has four beaches within the park. The locals, and seemingly the park rangers, refer to the beaches as Playa 1, 2, 3, and 4. Wikipedia calls them Manuel Antonio, Espadilla Sur, Teloro, and Playita.

Playa Manuel Antonio, the most scenic and visited beach in the park, is throned Costa Rica’s best. It deserves its accolades. And crowds. It’s the most scenic beach we’ve seen in Central America. Picture postcard perfect. A cozy cove on a jungle peninsula, replete with silken, cream-colored sand.

This beach could easily be a 9, even a 9.5, if not for the fact that you have to pay ($15 USD for foreigners) to access it and then fight the crowds. (I’m reserving a 10 score for something that challenges my favorite beach, Maho Bay on St. John.)

Espalda Beach Score: 8.5 out of 10

We also spent two afternoons on the public beach just outside of el Parque, Playa Espadilla.

This beach has all the looks — gorgeous bay, whitish sand, lush rainforest, a few picturesque islands in the distance — for all the folks — surfers, loungers, partiers, and adventures. Andrea and her sister parasailed. Andrea’s dad surfed. The kids boogie-boarded. I lounged while testing the fortitude of my gut on beach vendor ceviche.

If this beach had Playa Manual Antonio’s visual quaintness — it’s much longer and wider — I’d rate it higher. Of course, if it was quaint, the crowds would be condensed and then much of its appeal would be lost, but let’s not bother with facts.

Playa Santa Teresa, Costa Rica

Playa Santa Teresa, Costa Rica

Whoa there Mother Nature.

The Road

The post-apocalyptic novel by Cormac McCarthy with the same title is one of my favorites. The road off the highway to Playa Santa Teresa could have been featured in — even inspired by — the novel. It was the worst road we traversed in Costa Rica. Topped by the worst weather. You’d have to change your shocks and suspension every other month if you drove this road often.

Beach Score: NA

I was beached-out when we arrived — that, and/or still recovering from the drive. Besides some errant glances, I didn’t actually visit the beach. Step foot in the sand. Andrea and the kids did one afternoon, however. They described it as: “Another surf beach. Not very calm.” It rained most of the time we were there anyway.

Habanero Mex-Grill

On one clear night, perhaps the only clear night, we splurged and hiked down to a local Mexican restaurant recommend by our AirBnb host. The Grill, nestled beneath palm trees on cozy sand and between a resort and an ocean, was the best Mexican food we’ve had outside of Mexico on this trip. Perhaps the best overall meal outside of Mexico. Also, perhaps, our most expensive. I’m still calculating the cost benefit analysis. But I think it was worth it. I think.

Playa Carrillo, Costa Rica

Playa Carrillo, Costa Rica

We stopped here with my parents in route from the cloud forests to Playa Ocotal.

Beach Score: 8.5 of out 10

This may be the perfect day beach. If you lived anywhere within a three-hour radius, you’d wanna make this your home beach. Just slap on your swimsuits and caper to the car. Park right on the beach under the palm trees. Concrete picnic tables and grills are provided. All you need to do is enjoy.

It may also be the perfect family beach. In addition to being easily accessible, easily accommodating, the beach is soft and splay and the waves are small and sweet. Your kids will most likely remain alive while you take a nap.

It may also also be the prefect sized and shaped beach (see the Google Map image below). Just big enough so everyone can spread out. Just intimate enough to feel private. And one of the most perfect crescent shapes we’ve seen.

Hostess With The Mostest

Carrillo doesn’t have much in terms of lodging, so we vanned to and crashed in the neighboring town/beach of Samara.

We shopped around a bit. Checked the rates and digs of a half dozen hotels. Eventually settled on Pension Playa Samara, not only because it’s (relatively) inexpensive and has a pristine pool and functional foosball table, but also because the German lady that runs and/or owns it is incredibly, magnetically friendly. Some of the best customer service we’ve experienced in Central America. While my parents stayed inside, she allowed us to camp outside. Even gave us coffee (one of the easiest ways to our hearts) and breakfast in the morning.

The Troop

We were drinking our fourth or fifth cup of coffee during the second half of the World Cup final when we heard the howlers. First in a few trees a few blocks away. Then in trees near the pool. Then above the restaurant! Eventually, they climbed across power lines to a mango tree across the street (see video below). It was the closest we’ve been to monkeys. We also got pretty close the iguana above.

Playa Guiones, Costa Rica

Playa Guiones, Costa Rica

We drove through five or six streams and one river to get here. One of the more adventurous roads we’ve taken. Of course, we could’ve taken a slightly longer route on a paved road…. But, well, we didn’t. Andrea and I broke up and got back together twice in route.

Beach Score: 7 out of 10

Much like Playa Grande, this is a surf beach. Big waves. Riptides. Strong currents. I was tackled by a couple waves. Nearly lost my shorts on one. We couldn’t let the kids swim past their knees.

The beach is, however, sightly. Like Playa Grande, most (if not all) the structures are a block or so off the beach. Thus, when relaxing, molding into that honey sand, you’re not distracted by commerce. You and surfers have the waves and views to yourself.

La Negra Surf Hotel

Every hotel in Guiones was a surf hotel. Seemingly. What separates a surf from a regular hotel? A bunch of surf boards in a cage. And a bunch of bros (and whatever the female word is for ‘bros’) talking about things that don’t make sense to us non-surfers. Seemingly.

La Negra was nice enough to let us camp in their parking lot (mostly because Andrea’s dad rented a room). La Negra’s design is simple and beautiful. Beautiful in its simplicity. Reminds one that you don’t need much — space, decor, amenities — to experience amazing locales. Just a roof. And preferably AC and wifi.

Golden Shower

Andrea’s dad bought and brought for us a superzoom camera, mainly to assuage my burgeoning birdie addiction. I was snapping some Rufous-napes Wrens with said camera when I felt rain. I glanced up at the cloudless sky. Then saw a howler money.

E Surf

Everett went to bed one night as motivated as I’ve ever seen him. Said he wanted to wake at the butt-crack of dawn (didn’t use that exact phrasing) to go surfing. I told him I’d take him, figuring his enthusiasm would wane by the morning. I was wrong. As soon as the sun rose, we hit the beach. Everett spent an hour practicing, without help or instruction (not that I’m capable of giving either). Caught a few waves. Then exited and told me he’s going to need a better surfboard.

Playa Grande, Costa Rica

Playa Grande, Costa Rica

We spent the last four weeks touring surf beaches with Andrea’s pop (excellent surfer) and sister (occasional surfer). We, The Lingles, aren’t surfers — though Everett is learning! — so we can’t comment much on the surf, but we can on the beach.

No Beer for You!

I’ve commented, ad nauseam, about the piss-quality beer in Central America. Hence when I saw the Delirium signs — one of my favorite Belgian breweries — outside the restaurant next to our hotel, I was excited. Darn near dumfounded.

I marched inside, flashing clumps of colones (Costa Rica’s currency). A scraggy, sweaty hombre sat behind the bar and a laptop. A joint sizzled from an ashtray next to him. Two kids played iPads on a nearby couch. I immediately asked, in Spanish, if I could procure the sweet sweet nectar. May have even claimed it was necessary for medical reasons. I was told, with the tone of a methed-up prostitute, that they don’t sell that beer. Then I asked him why they had the beer signs. Then I was showed the exit.

Beach Score: 7 out of 10

Can a beach be too big? Yes. In my opinion. I prefer bays. Coves. Bights even. More intimate beaches. Where I can see land — preferably verdant land — in my periphery.

Playa Grande is, well, grand. But not too big. Hills are just visible, on a clear day, on either end of the beach. The length lacks intimacy. However, since a strip of protected rainforest (to protect leatherback turtle procreation) gallops between the beach and civilization, the width feels intimate. You don’t see hotels, restaurants, houses, any permanent structures really. Just a few surf shacks, miles of mangroves and palms, and a smattering of sun-dyed surfers.

Dems Da Breaks

The beach drops precipitously a few meters into the ocean. Great for surfers — there’s a break, seemingly, for every skill of surfer — not so much for swimmers. But the golden, pillowy sand is excellent for relaxing and spectating. Andrea’s dad caught a few epic waves here.

(Photos courtesy of Isabella Ossiander, Andrea’s sister)

Playa Conchal, Costa Rica

Playa Conchal, Costa Rica

She sells seashells by the seashore, she sells seashells by the seashore, she sells….

She can find her supply here.

Jungle River

Before heading to Playa Conchal, the Lingles — my family, my parents, and my brother’s family — went on a two-hour boat tour on the Tempisque River in Palo Verde National Park. It was awesome. Like floating through The Jungle Book. We saw howler monkeys, white-faced monkeys, scarlet macaws, dozens of crocodiles, and more. Our guides were friendly and informative. And they even let our kids drive the boat!

Shells, Shells, and More Shells

An entire beach of pea-sized shells. From the jungle to the sea.

We’ve seen one other beach like this in Costa Rica, in Cahuita National Park on the Caribbean side. At the time, I didn’t think much of it. Just that it was, evidentially, a mass graveyard for mollusks. At Conchal, I pontificated mucho about it. Like why have so many mollusks been murdered near this beach? How many hermit crabs are around here scouting new homes? And why, just one beach over, are there no shells?

I ruminated on that last question the most. Mes dumb head thing couldn’t understand why, seemingly, no mollusks were squirming around the outcrop and depositing their shells on the neighboring Playa Brasilito, a wide, tan, and all-sand beach a mere hundred feet away.

I determined, the only logical explanation, really, is that Playa Conchal is in a mollusk vortex, where all Central America molluks’ spent shells drift to while being crushed and polished by the waves. That, or some dastardly tunas committed mollusk genocide several centuries ago.

Beach Score: 8.5 out of 10

The shells are, mostly, white. This white shines turquoise in the water. From a distance, from the hilltop one must ascend between Playas Brasilito and Conchal — unless you’re paying beaucoup bucks to stay at the all-inclusive Westin — the beach looks like sand and as picturesque, as idyllic as any screensaver shot you’ve ever seen.

And while the shells do have a massaging quality to them, like walking in those old-school Adidas slippers with all the black rubbery nubs, I wouldn’t classify the beach as comfortable. You’d want a chair or a towel if you are going to spend an entire day here. The shells also seem to be magnets for nether regions. I think Everett (see photo below) is still finding shells in various orifices.

Regardless, especially with a good pair of Chacos, this beach is increíble. The waves are slight. Lake-ish. But what makes them unique is not their stature but their sound. As they shuffle the shells, they whistle. It’s more melodic than sand. More soothing than sand.

There’s also excellent sights above and below the ocean. Rocks peek from the bay like wack-a-moles, just waiting to get slammed by errant waves. Jungle juts from surrounding cliffs. Islands pepper the horizon. And below the rocks, cliffs, and islands, sea life flourishes. Butterflyfish, pufferfish, starfish, and all kinds of other fish zigzag in and out and around the rock formations, as if they’re the ones creating the vortex for the mollusks — or eating them.

A must visit on the Nicoya Peninsula.

Playa Flamingo, Costa Rica

Playa Flamingo, Costa Rica

The road to the beach tells you much about the beach itself. Rough and potholed: probably an underdeveloped, lonesome beach. Smooth and paved: developed and crowded. Thus as our van purred closer the beach on perfect asphalt while high-end condos, villas, and resorts peekabooed through the jungle canopy, I figured we’d pay for it. Parking, food, drinks, our general comfort level, whatever. But I was wrong.

Theft

Theft is rampant, nearly omnipresent in Costa Rica. Everyone has warned us about it at every stop. Our paranoia has become palatable. We’ve also secondhand experienced it: our former traveling buddy Steve had cash and clothing stolen, a German couple we camped near on the Caribbean had their electronics and passports stolen, and we met a Swiss couple that had everything except their passports (thankfully!) stolen.

Thus, as we’ve learned and been instructed, you either need to pay for parking or park right on the beach (and keep vigilant eyes on your stuff). Some folks take everything out of the car and just leave the car open, to avoid having it broken into. Fortunately at Playa Flamingo, you can park right on the beach.

Beach Score: 7.5 out of 10

If your teacher asked you to draw a beach, it’d end up looking like Flamingo: crescent-shaped, verdant hills, and whitish sand. If your family asked you to pick kid-friendly beach, it’d end up being like Flamingo: wide, long, and flat with Tempurpedic-like sand, few rocks, and gentle waves. Perfect beach to kick a soccer ball. Toss a football. Or play that one paddle game that I see everywhere but can’t seem to buy anywhere.

Flamingo has most of what makes an awesome beach. Most. What it doesn’t have is funky, inexpensive lodgings and restaurants — what have become our preference on this trip — and snorkeling. Besides one hopped-up stingray, that kept hopping through the waves near us, the only unusual sea-life I saw was a plethora, a virtual sea forest, of sand worms jutting from the sea floor on the north end of the beach. They grossed me out enough to get out of the water.

Finally, despite the luxury looking down at us from the hills above, Flamingo never felt snooty. We never felt underdressed in other words — despite, quite literally, being underdressed; all our swimsuits are a thread or two away from being nude suits. It also never felt crowded. I suspect, most times of the year and days of the week, you’d have plenty of space to yourselves on this near perfect family beach. Just park your car nearby.

Pink Sand

Flamingo’s cream-colored sand has a pinkish hue. Or at least I think it does. I’d read that, certain times during the year, the sand gets pink. Hence the name. However, it’s quite possibly, quite probably actually, that after reading that before arriving, my feeble, easily-influenced mind projected pink into the sand. Preconceived notions and all that.

(Photos courtesy of my parents)

Playa Ocotal, Costa Rica

Playa Ocotal, Costa Rica

We’ve been traveling with family — my family first, now Andrea’s family — down Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, hitting most of the major beaches, and a few minor ones, as we inch toward Panama. Figured I’d write shortish posts on each stop. For our memoirs mostly. But hopefully also for your information (and enjoyment), if case you ever venture down here.

Beach Score: 7 of 10

Ocotal checks most boxes: More croissant- than crescent-shaped, but shapely nonetheless. A smattering of islands in the distance. Boats bobbing in the bay. Jungle sights and smells and sounds. The quintessential beach restaurant (Father Rooster, where the picture above was taken). Checks most…

Black Sand

I take back what I wrote about black sand beaches.

While I can’t verify this with any statistical certainty, given the scant samplings, but (I think) I like black sand more than tan. More than beige. Honey. Even cappuccino. While white — the less hue, the better — remains my favorite, black is nudging into second. If only for its rarity.

The Sands of Ocotal

Playa Ocotal, in spots, primarily toward the south end of the beach, has truly black sand. No hue. Absorbs all light. We’ve visited other black sand beaches — like Playa Negra, a beach on Costa Rica’s Caribbean side — but they’re more charcoal. Gray even.

You’d think, or at least I’d think, given its color and source (volcanic rock) that the Ocotal sand would be rough, raw, scrape-inducing. It’s anything but. It’s the softest sand I’ve ever felt. Like walking on black satin.

The satin is, however, limited to the beach. As it nears the water, it swirls with coarser tan sand. It doesn’t blend, like creamer eventually into coffee, but swirls. Coexists with the tan. Two different sands. Side by side. Then, toes into the water, rocks and shells join the sand, like marshmallows on hot chocolate. Only much harder.

Snorkeling & Secret Beach

The snorkeling was good. No coral reef, but a sufficing of tropical fish, sea fans, starfish, sea anemones, and fish fish — even saw a few spotted eagle rays — zigzagging between the rocks abutting the surrounding cliffs. It was just good enough to compel me to snorkel around the cliffs, revealing an uninhabited beach on the other side. Thought briefly about what’d it be like to Tom Hanks on that beach before plummeting back into the sea.

End with a Joke

Here’s a joke written by Everett: “Why do you throw the clock out the window? Because it’s alarming.”

The Cloud Forests of Costa Rica

The Cloud Forests of Costa Rica

Or at least two of them.

We’ve ventured near cloud forests thrice on this trip: camped near one in Mexico, hiked near one in Guatemala, and intended but got blockaded near one in Nicaragua. We’ve ventured into cloud forests twice (thus far) in Costa Rica.

Biodiversity

Despite occupying less than 1% of the world’s woodlands, cloud forest contain 15% of the world’s biodiversity. Or some remarkable stat like that. I can’t remember the exact numbers from the brochure I read — and Google isn’t helping at the moment — but, basically, lots of bio stuff happens in little space.

Monteverde

We went to Monteverde to witness this biodiversity. Or at least Andrea and the kids did. I went to see the Replendent Quetzal, a brilliant bird that eluded us in Guatemala, and to save you the drama, continues to elude us in Costa Rica…. We did see lots of clouds, however.

We arrived at dusk. The guards were chipper enough to let us camp just outside the gate. One even called me “dude”. They also encouraged us to check out the Colibrí (hummingbird) Cafe just outside the park. So we did. Hundreds of hummingbirds, from the cute and endemic Coppery-headed Emerald to the larger and aggressive Violet Sabrewing, buzzed our ears. It was awesome. It would, however, be the most birds we’d see.

We entered the park as soon as it opened. 7am. It was sunny. Briefly. Within meters of entering, the clouds, like an army of weary soldiers, began marching toward the forest. Then it began to drizzle. Then the wind began to whisper. We, like the guards from the previous night, who had remanned their posts that morning, remained chipper. We’ve fought weather before.

We spotted two Bananaquits and one Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush a few meters later. Except for one errant Azure-hooded Jay halfway into the hike, that’s all we’d spot. The entire hike. The allied forces of clouds, rain, and wind assaulted us for the next four hours. Visibility was reduced to a few meters. Yet the hike remained enjoyable. We even crossed a hanging bridge at one point.

As soon as we exited the park, the forces relented. A troop of howler monkeys appeared. A Green Hermit buzzed my ears. We retreated to the Colibrí Cafe for brownies, coffee, and hot chocolate.

Santa Elena

We took my parents — who left yesterday (sad face) after spending the last two weeks touring Costa Rica with us — to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest to see the Quetzal, err, biodiversity. Unfortunately, we saw much of the same: clouds, rain, and wind. Oh, and much more mud.

Santa Elena is an equally impressive forest in terms of terrain, though the trails aren’t as well-maintained. We hiked through mud the entire three hours — Everett and my father both had epic plummets into the mud. But, like in Monteverde, the hike was still beautiful. Otherworldly. Like venturing through a fantasy.

Here Comes The Sun, Doo Doo Doo Doo

If you visit the cloud forests of Costa Rica — and you certainly should! — stay nearby and wait for the weather to break before entering. You’ll see much more biodiversity if you do.

Costa Caribe, Costa Rica

Costa Caribe, Costa Rica

We spent almost two weeks — and I struggled / hated myself for typing this next word, but it just seemed like the right word — chillaxing on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. Despite raining nearly 75% of the time, it was epic.

Sloths, Sloths, Two Toed Sloths, Three Toed Sloths

Everett’s song about sloths, performed below, has been stuck in my mind since he penned it. We may have the next John Lennon on our hands.

We saw our first sloth within the first hours of arriving at the beach. I decided to stroll to the granite cliffs jutting from the north end of the beach, witnessed some folks oddly ogling a tree, and then saw the sloth. Sloths actually. The mom (actually, that’s sexist: it could’ve been the dad) was carrying a baby that, like the algae that gives the gray-brown sloth its green hue, seemed to be growing from the mom’s fur.

The baby and mom (or dad!) eventually — eventually — climbed, upside down remind you, over two palm trees to sniff and/or communicate with a third sloth that, unbeknownst to our eyes, was cuddled up in a crevice of a mango tree. Then they began climbing out of site. We never saw them again. Haven’t seen sloths since.

E’s Sloth Song

Winch

Two paths lead to the campsite. One on sand. One on mud. We chose mud. We chose unwisely. Our winch, which had remained complacently dormant in our front bumper, got its first workout.

Arrecife & Punta Uva

We camped on Playa Arrecife, named for the large reef (‘arrecife’ means ‘reef’ in Spanish) protecting the playa, ensuring only gentle waves coddle the shore. This was, using my perfect beach criteria discussed here, the second best beach area we’ve visited on this trip. Soft, like marshmallows beneath your feet, sand, lush jungle vegetation, and spectacular snorkeling. Only the beaches near La Paz have been better.

We also visited the neighboring playa, Punta Uva, a couple times. It’s considered one of Costa Rica’s best. And it deserves the accolades. A recessed cove encased by jungle cliffs. Felt very lost-on-a-deserted-island-esque.

Cahuita

We visited Cahuita Nacional Parque, just outside of the town of Cahuita, on our way back toward the Pacific Coast. The guard, after extracting the remaining colones from my wallet — parks are expensive here — showed us two venomous toxic yellow Eye Lash Vipers a few meters beyond the entrance. I was feeling pretty good about our hike.

The hike was cool, temperature- and sight-wise. It rained, on and off, mas or menos, most of the hike. Even when we took a break to swim in the ocean. From what we could see, as we winded along the windy path kissing the beach, the park is beautiful. Wild. Captivating. The type of beach and jungle that would claim your soul, prevent you from returning to reality if you stared too intensely into it eyes.

We hiked in our snorkel gear to check out two of the reefs beyond two of the more scenic beaches we’ve experienced in Costa Rica, Punta Vargas and Punta Cahuita. Unfortunately, once we got there, signs warned us that you can’t snorkel in the reefs without a local guide. Too bad they didn’t have the same signs near the entrance…. Oh well. Dems da breaks.

Playa Negra

The following day, we visited Playa Negra just north of Cahuita, named for it’s volcanic black sand, which was quite possibly the softest sand we’ve ever felt. The beach is also flat, wide, and long, making it the perfect beach to harness your inner negligent parent and let your kids roam free (as our kids did).

Between bouts of negligence and scouting sloths in the surrounding trees, Andrea and I did swim with the kids. During one swim, both Andrea and I got bit by something. Me in the buttocks. Andrea in the calf. Andrea’s bite drew blood. Later that night, we corned our hosts — an affable North Carolinian and Costa Rican (Tico, as the locals say) couple — and, likely dramatically, told them about our encounter with the nefarious sea beast. Our hosts were bewildered. They’ve been swimming in the same stretch of sand for twenty years and have never been bit. Dems da breaks.