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Destinations: Two Day Costa Rican Adventure Short Cuts

By: C. Andrew Zook - 12/2000

---Facts: Costa Rica-----------------------------------------------



Photo by Andrew Zook
Our rental Toyota Hilux.

My friend and I decided to head down to Costa Rica for two short days to get a feel for the country, and to hopefully find more information for a longer vacation sometime this winter.

We hopped a plane on a Wednesday night out of the Newark, NJ airport. The flight was nonstop and we arrived at San Jose, Costa Rica at around 9:00PM. We had no arrangements for a place to stay, nor did we plan for a rental vehicle. We were a little nervous about what to expect.

When we arrived in San Jose we soon realized that we would have no trouble finding a rental car. There were around 10 rental car companies, and they were all trying to get our business. The best part was that you could haggle with them to find a better deal! We ended up with a 1999 Toyota Hilux (4 door) pickup for $50 a day!

The First Glimpse of the Country

Photo by Andrew Zook
Leaving the first hotel.

While at the car rental place, we talked to the guy at the counter about finding a hotel room for the night. He pointed us in the direction of a decent hotel that was about 5 miles down the road, and even called ahead to reserve a room for us!

When we arrived at the hotel, we found it to be pretty nice, including the full perimeter fence and about 5 security guards on the grounds. The hotel was a steep $80/night and we were told that it included breakfast. We piled all of our stuff into the room and went out for a short drive to check the area out. We found little of interest in the city of San Jose, and actually got quite lost in a bad section of town. Getting lost in a large Costa Rican city is not too hard considering that there are no street signs! The roads do not appear to have names, and are usually labeled with a sign with an arrow on it stating "San Jose 70km" or something similar. While this makes navigation in the country very easy, it makes city driving difficult!

We found a 24 hour convenience store near the hotel on the way back and stocked up on supplies (bottled water, munchies). I have been told that most of the water in Costa Rica is okay to drink, but we didn't want to take any unnecessary chances!

This is a good time to mention that as long as you are in San Jose, or in a tourist area, you can use US dollars. The currency in Costa Rica is the colone. The exchange rate during our trip was somewhere around 312 colones per US dollar.

In the morning we headed down for the free breakfast. The waiter asked us if we would like the "American", or the "Continental" breakfast. Of course since the American breakfast was an omelette, and the Continental breakfast was fruit, we chose the American-style. This turned out to be a costly mistake. The Continental breakfast was the one that was free.... but the American breakfast cost about $12/person! This was the first time we got taken advantage of.... certainly not the last!

After we settled our bill in the hotel office (now well over $110, thanks to breakfast), we headed off. At this point there were actually three of us. One of my friends came down just for Thursday, and had to return home on Friday morning. This meant that we needed to be back in San Jose on Thursday night, or VERY early on Friday morning.

Day 1 - Volcan Arenal

Photo by Andrew Zook
Approaching the Volcano.
Photo by Andrew Zook
Lake Arenal.
Photo by Andrew Zook
A minor eruption.

With this in mind we decided that we would go to see the Volcan Arenal since it was only about a 2 hour drive from San Jose. We soon discovered how different the driving in Costa Rica is! They may drive on the same side of the road, and the steering wheel is on the same side of the vehicle, but that is where the similarities end! There are apparently not a whole lot of traffic laws - ones that are enforced anyhow. Drivers pretty much go as fast as they want, or can with all of the traffic on the highway. Large sections of road get washed away in the rainy season. Small signs are put up next to the washouts to warn drivers of the danger. There is no advance warning of these washouts, so the driver needs to be familiar with the road, or stay on his toes!

All morning we had been hearing a noise coming from the rear of the truck. Something was not right with either the rear axle or the rear brakes on our Toyota. We decided that it would probably not leave us sit, and continued on toward our destination for the day.

After a few hours on the road we began to catch glimpses of the volcano. We passed about 50 places offering "horseback tours" and other stuff that we were really not interested in. We kept on driving past everything trying to get ever closer to the volcano. Eventually we found a government run park that looked like it got closer to the volcano than any of the tourist places. The only problem was that they wanted $6/person to get in. I was about to turn around and leave, but my friend offered to pay. I thought that we got taken advantage of again at this place, but the Lonely Planet book lists the cost as $6 as well. I am sure, however, as with most things in Costa Rica that the price is less for Ticos (native Costa Ricans).

We arrived at the end of the road - as close to the volcano as we could drive. It was indeed massive, and beautiful. There is a man-made lake beside it which has a few resorts around it, and is supposed to be great for windsurfing (although if this is true, I am not sure why the entire lake was empty).

We soon noticed a lone person sitting in the small shelter nearby. We went over to say hi, and he turned out to be an Australian on a "walkabout". He was in Costa Rica for a month hiking and catching busses across the country. He introduced us to the "Lonely Planet" book on Costa Rica. I have since purchased this book, and I think it will make my next trip more enjoyable.

As we sat there chatting, we noticed a small eruption from the volcano. Apparently this is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and erupts a few times a day. Seeing the mountain and lava flow at night is supposed to be quite spectacular, but we did not have the time.

We headed back to San Jose and found a different - much nicer hotel with the same price tag as the other. This place did have a free breakfast which turned out to be a buffet! I wish I could remember the name, but I don't. It is quite noticable from Route 1 (the only road with a name?) up on the hill. It is complete with a Casino, nightclub, and full resturaunt.

Day 2 - Adventures Galore!

Photo by Andrew Zook
Travelling over the mountains to Jaco.
Photo by Andrew Zook
Can you picture a better place for the brakes to fail?
Photo by Andrew Zook
Crocs galore!

After we dropped Chris off at the airport, we chatted with one of the guys at the Continental ticket counter to get info on what to do and where to go. We then headed back to the rental car place to have them find out what the strange noise in the rear axle was. They decided to swap vehicles with us. At this point we were told that my Platunim Visa's insurance does not cover the Hilux because it is not a vehicle that is normally rented by tourists. If we had wrecked it, I would have had to pay a $900 deductable! I am still not sure if this was true, or just another way to take advantage of us because we are "stupid Americans", but I took her word for it!

She told me that the 4Runner was $15 more a day... which ended up being $25 more (taken advantage of again!). We headed off for the town of Jaco' (pronounced Haaco). Jaco' is a small beach town that is the starting point for most of the surfers travelling Costa Rica. It is easy to see why they go here. The place is beautiful, cheap, close to San Jose, and has some nice waves (but what do I know, I'm no surfer!).

To get to Jaco', you must travel over a LARGE mountain range. The mountains are huge, with the kind of road you would expect. It winds back and forth, there are no guard rails, numerous washouts in the road, reckless drivers, etc.

On the way down the backside of the mountain, the brakes on our rental 4Runner decided that they had enough and stopped working! Luckily, it could not have happened at a better place. There was a pull off at exactly the right spot, and we escaped unharmed! If this had happened just a half mile sooner we probably would have been dead (no kidding)!

As we sat there looking for fluid leaks, etc, a man pulled up. He did not speak a word of english, but somehow we came to the agreement that he would take one of us to town for $20 US. Although this seemed a little steep, we figured that it was probably pretty far, and we had no other choice! Well, we got taken advantage of again. It turned out that town was only about a 4 minute drive from where the 4Runner lost it's brakes.

When we got to town I called the rental company from a payphone. They told me to wait by the truck and they would send someone out. When I got back to the truck, my friend who had waited there to keep an eye on out stuff informed me that the brakes were working again! It turns out that he had been riding the brakes down the mountain and had heated them up so hot that the fluid had boiled - rendering the brakes useless!

In about 2 hours the guy from the rental company showed up with a rollback with another 4Runner on the back. We traded trucks and moved our stuff to the third rental vehicle in just 2 days.

We were soon back on our way to Jaco'. Within 30 minutes we came to a bridge with people stopped all around, out of their cars and looking over the sides. We got out to have a look. There were around 20 VERY LARGE crocodiles down in the water! After talking to one of the locals, we found out that often someone will bring a live chicken to throw over. It was not our lucky day however, and we only got to see them bathing in the sun.

Jaco' - A Beach Town

Photo by Andrew Zook
It doesn't get better than this - View from $10/night hotel patio.

When we arrived in Jaco', we began to look for a place to stay. We soon found that the prices range from $120 a night, to a meager $10 a night! You can guess which one we picked - constantly hunting the cheap vacation.

The choice in rooms turned out to be the best choice that we had made to date! The place (which of course shall remain un-named) had 4 rooms, and a small resturaunt right on the beach! We soon met all of the other patrons of the hotel. One of them was an English teacher from San Jose, Edgar. He was very helpful and friendly. We learned a lot of things about Costa Rica from him, and even a few Spanish words. There was a 22 year old guy from Canada who was travelling Central America for 3 months - by himself, and a Swissair flight attendant who was in Costa Rica for 20 days - also by himself.

We sat and ate dinner with the other hotel guests, and watched the sun set over the Pacific. This place was just perfect! Who could ask for a better place to stay - $10 a night (double occupancy), ON the beach, a bar and resturaunt 20 feet from the room, and great company.

This was the week that the World Series took place, so after dark we headed off to a local bar to watch baseball on TV. It turned out that the Series had ended the night before, so we sat around until all hours of the night talking and playing Foosball. We had a blast.

Finally we all decided that it was late enough and time to turn in. As we were walking back to our room at about 11:00, we were approached by two very beautiful Ticas. We soon discovered that they were prostitutes offering their wares. We kindly turned them down and headed back to the room for some much needed sleep.

The next morning came much too quickly. We got up at 5:00AM, packed up our stuff, picked up Edgar whom we had promised to give a ride to San Jose, and were off.

When we took the rental truck back, we found that we had again been duped. We had bargained with the rental guy the night that we rented the truck, but we had failed to get anything in writing. There was a 3 day minimum on the rental, so we had to pay up, even though we had only rented for two days! DOH! Needless to say, we were pretty fired up! Two bad rental vehicles, and they still wouldn't cut us a break!

We had next to no money in our pockets after paying for the gas to fill up the truck. Since we had taken our friend Chris to the airport the previous day, we knew that there is a $17 tax due of you have been in the country more than 48 hours. We missed the cut-off by about 12 hours.

In Conclusion

To sum it up, honestly, this was the greatest place that I have ever been! I was truly amazed at the beauty of the country and the friendliness of the people. We found out from Edgar that the bus ride from the airport to Jaco' is only $3 (no rental next time!), and we now know a great place to stay for $5/ea a night and about $15 a day in food. It was an amazingly successful scouting trip, and I look forward to going back for a longer period of time.

I am enlisting in a Spanish course at the local community college so that I can find my way around a little better, and help keep from getting taken ($$) again. I truly fell in love with Costa Rica and I know that I will return time and time again to this beautiful tropical paradise!

I feel that I learned a lot about what not to do on this trip. It was a little tough on the pocketbook, but I am positive that it was all a great lesson to be learned for the next trip!

Andy Zook is a Staff Writer for the Outdoor Recreation Network's Toyota 4x4 section.

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