Cappy got to us. We caved. Before heading cross country to Alajuela (with its fabulous cathedral) where we’d spend our last night in Costa Rica, we took him up on his offer. We had nearly three hours on the water. We caught a needle-nose but it got away. We went snorkelling but didn’t see any turtles, as the noise from the compressors on the nearby dive boats had driven them away. We got time on our white-sand beach and the crew did get us some scallops for lunch. And we saw lots of pelicans on weird looking islands. So all went to plan. Read more

Pacific coast beach in Costa Rica

The west coast fights back. Costa Rica has its say. Irish woman proven wrong. Pick your headline. I am suitably chastened.  I said I was singularly unimpressed with the beaches on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. And while I’d still take the Caribbean, given the choice, the west coast has proven me wrong. Read more

Blue Bottle and Blue Water

Mr Frommer (or whoever penned his guide to Costa Rica) describes the hike into the Rio Celeste as ‘an easy trail’ that could be jogged in 1 hour or ‘strolled’ in 3 or 4. We honed in on the words ‘easy’ and ‘strolled’  and adding these to the description of the Río Celeste as one of ‘Costa Rica’s best-kept secrets’, we were sold. We should have sought a second opinion. Read more

Earlier this week, I caught myself disparaging the Pacific Ocean and its beaches, saying in the same breath how much I preferred the waters and sands of the Caribbean. I had to slap myself silly to get my head back into reality. There’ll be a time I’ll be damn glad to be on a beach, any beach, regardless of its parent. But this week, I’m being choosy. I am singularly unimpressed with the beaches on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. And with the water. Give me the Caribbean side any day. Read more

I bought a piece of art today because it made me cry. Titled Grasses in the Night,  it’s a monotype by Costa Rican artist Lorena Villalobos. In it I see human frailty (the delicate grasses) and our inability to see the danger around us (the darkness). News of the Manchester terrorist attack has hit me hard. Never before, in my lifetime, has the value of human life been so low. When a young man can take the life of an 8-year-old child and believe he is on the side of righteousness, then we are all reduced to blades of grass in the night, grass that can be trampled on by unseen feet, when least expected.

Grasses in the Night – Lorena Villalobos

I came across this piece in the Hidden Garden Art Gallery, the largest of its kind in Costa Rica. Located about 3 miles from the Liberia International Airport on the road to the coast (between Payless Car Rental and the German Bakery), the gallery consists of 15 rooms (about 3500 square feet of wall space) with more than 400 pieces from over 60 national and international artists on display. Most are original pieces but there are some giclée prints, too. While some of the featured artists now live abroad, everything on show was created in country.

As I moved from room to room, I racked up quite a sizeable spend in my head. It was such a pleasant change from the sameness that pervades the tourist offer in Costa Rica and indeed many other countries, what I like to call the MTs (empties) – made for tourists. It’s an amazing space. Some of the rooms have wide open windows looking out on to the gardens. And despite the heat, there’s an airiness that lends itself to a leisurely browse.

Hernan Pérez

Sophie Aymon

Rebeca Alvarado Soto

David Villalobos

I was particularly taken with this wooden carving – Paso al Futuro (Step to the future) and wished I had an unlimited budget and a private plane to fly it, and everything else I’d picked out, home.

I got chatting with the owners, Chicagoans Greg and Charlene Golojuch. The pair had always planned to retire to Costa Rica but when redundancy forced their hand about six years ahead of schedule back in 2008, they took the plunge armed with little more than high-school Spanish and the determination to make good the change. Greg set up shop in a room at what is now their gallery. He was approached by Argentinian-born artist Carlos Hiller with a view to representing him. Hiller’s underwater work is on permanent exhibition in the gallery and the artist himself occasionally paints in public, using his art to create social change.

Hiller then introduced another artist to the Golojuchs, and, as luck would have it, another couple of rooms in the building became available. And then a few more. The recession had hit and businesses were downsizing or folding, freeing up space. Call it luck or happenstance, the Golojuchs recognised the gift of opportunity and took it. Introductions and approaches were made to other artists and now the variety of what’s on show speaks for itself.

I was impressed to see original work by Otto Apuy, the artist responsible for the mosaic church in Cañas. Exhibited both nationally and internationally in museums, Hidden Garden is the first gallery to carry his work permanently. Word has it that Apuy started painting when he was two years old. He’d put a chicken’s foot into a pot of paint and then make imprints on the wall. Some 60 years later, his body of work that embraces multimedia and has been exhibited nationally and internationally has earned him the moniker Renaissance Man.

Susan Adams is another artist I recognised from my time Stateside. Back in 1995, Adams received an unexpected invitation to a private showing of the Monet exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute. She was so inspired that she quit her job and moved to Costa Rica where she’s spent the last 20+ years painting. If more people did rather than simply think about doing, how much happier the world would be.

Perhaps what sets the Hidden Garden apart from other galleries I’ve visited around the world is its lack of pretentiousness. The Golojuchs speak fondly of the artists they show and talk animatedly about their work and the stories behind their creations. There’s no falsity, no self-promotion, no BS. Instead, there’s an aura of sincerity, an air of respect, and a genuine appreciation for the art in their care and the artists who have created it.

The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10am till 4pm. If you’re in the vicinity, it’s worth stopping by. And if you’re not, it’s worth a detour.

Featured image: Cocina Duty / oil on canvas by Russell Chauncey.

I have no meas on money. It’s there to facilitate day-to-day living. I don’t aspire to great riches or a six-figure bank account (they’re easy enough to come by in Hungary, given the high denominations of the bank notes). But I loathe waste and while I might spend hundreds of thousands (of forints) on a rug, I balk at spending 700 on a coffee. But the older I get, the wiser I get. I’m finally beginning to realise the value of money.

View from the balcony

Read more

I learned a valuable lesson a few years ago from my good friend GM. Cut your losses. If you’ve paid to see a movie that turns out to be complete shite, leave. Write off the money and save your time.

We woke to dark clouds and thunder. It had been a stormy night, knocking out the electricity and playing symphonies on the tin roof of the cabin. We had one more night to spend in Puerto Viejo, all paid for. But why waste a day when we had a mammoth cross-country journey facing us on Sunday. So we packed and left, hitting the road about 7.30am for what Google promised to be a 5 hr 25 min journey over to Lake Arenal. A quick check online and we’d booked a room at the fabulous Ceiba Tree Lodge. All sorted. Read more

Catch anyone looking treeward in this part of the world and you can almost be certain that they’ve spotted a sloth. And it’s exciting. The fact that they’re metres above you, high in the trees is neither here nor there. That’s what zoom lenses are made for.

They’re quite something. They live in trees and only come down once a week to do their business – and always in the same place (bringing their intelligence into question). They have four stomachs and sleep more than 10 hours a day. All have three toes but some only have two fingers. And the retain their grip even when dead. mmmm… how can you tell a sleeping sloth from a dead one then?

We visited the Jaguar Rescue Center in Puerto Viejo one morning between beach sittings. The name is a tad misleading as jaguars were thin on the ground – but there’s a story.

In 2007 a baby jaguar was given to Encar [a Barcelona native] and Sandro. Her mother had been murdered because local farmers suspected she had killed two goats. The baby jaguar was dehydrated and very sick. Encar and Sandro did everything they could to save it but in the end the endangered baby jaguar died. Encar and Sandro decided to name their animal rescue center in honor of her and the Jaguar Rescue Center was born.

Their goal is to rehabilitate animals and reintroduce them back into their native habitats This isn’t always possible and some of their rescues are now permanent residents. Crocodiles who associate humans with food or ocelots who’ve become too fond of chicken. In operation for nine years, the Centre has quickly become the go-to place when tourists find injured animals on the roads or the police find them in drug raids. Power lines play havoc with the monkeys. Machetes are the weapon of choice against the cats. And the poor sloths don’t do well on the ground. [The intrepid LB spotted one limping on the side of the road. She stopped, bundled him up and brought him back to a tree. He seemed well able to grip so was perhaps only stunned.]

The rehabilitation process is simple at times – take the cats for a walk in the jungle and each day they go farther and farther ahead till the day they don’t come back. Toucans and sloths are easy to rehabilitate as they’re solitary creatures, but parrots need to find a mate before they’ll go back and monkeys need to find a family to hang with. Orphaned monkeys quickly identify with their human carer so to assimilate them back into a group, a volunteer needs to stay with them in their enclosure all day. When they’re first born, they’re fed like a baby with regular 3-hourly feeds during the night.

There’s an interesting volunteer programme that attracts willing help from all over the world. The guides know what they’re talking about and gave plenty of useful information that I never thought I’d need. Like, shiny frogs are poisonous. And when it comes to snakes:

Red on black, you’re alright Jack; red on yellow, kill the fellow.

Not that they’re advocating mass serpenticide – their advice regarding snakes (143 kinds in the country) is to simply stay away.

The 90-minute tour costs $20. The proceeds from the tour go back into the Centre as do all proceeds from sales at the gift shop. This place really lives its ethos. Tours are daily at 9.30 and 11.30. Worth stopping by if you’re in the neighbourhood. Worth checking out if you fancy volunteering for a few weeks.

It’s been a mad week of late nights and early mornings. Costa Rica seems to have its self together when it comes to the environment, looking after animals, and living clean. It’s slogan – Pura Vida – the Tico equivalent of the Swahali hakuna matata. Translated, it means pure life and it’s the law of the land in CR. Bitch that I may about the humidity and the heat, and the mozzies and the ants, I’m grateful that I’m getting to see part of Central America and to experience a way of life that is so laid back it’s still in the middle of last week. It’s no wonder so many foreigners forget to go home. I can certainly see the attraction. Except for the humidity, the heat, the mozzies…

Save

Save

Google maps said it would take 4 hours 25 minutes to travel from San José to Puerto Viejo. They were just a tiny bit out – it actually took 7 hours 46 minutes. But hey. The jackknifed truck wasn’t holding up traffic. Neither were the two trucks and three cars we saw in ditches. But for some unknown reason, about 10km on the SJ side of Guapiles, it took us an hour to travel 2.5 km. Thankfully the food vendors were on the ball. Word had spread of the tailback and they were out with the plantain and pineapple chips, so we didn’t starve. It was teeming rain; the thunder and lightning added to the sound effects. But traffic was moving against us, which ruled out an accident or a mudslide or just about anything else we could think of. We never did see what caused the delay but in the drive to Limon, we rarely, if ever, had the chance to break the speed limit.

Driving into Limón, through the massive banana plantations and the mountains of shipping containers, there’s little doubt as to what Costa Rica’s main export is. But given that the country’s main port offloads and onloads from here, with Route 32 between the product and the end-user, I’d not be a trucker in Costa Rica for all the chocolate-covered coffee beans the country could produce. Driving that road on a regular basis would play havoc with my sanity.

We hung a right onto Route 36 just before Limón, heading to the coast, down past Puerto Viejo. We were heading for Punta Chiquita, one of several beaches that dot the coast on the Caribbean side of the country. Puerto Viejo was hopping as we drove through. Lots of tan-limbed twenty-somethings on vacation. Plenty of bars and cafés and restaurants and shops selling just about anything anyone might need for a beach holiday.

As we left the lights behind us and drove up the coast, the vibe muted somewhat and the laid-back Costa Rica emerged. This side of the country is predominately English-speaking, many of the locals originating from islanders who came years back to work the plantations. We’re staying in a cabin in the rain-forest – one of six that make up the Mar y Luz hotel. It’s never silent. The orchestra of sounds plays 24/7 with birds, howler monkeys, cicadas, and lots more in concert. It’s hot and humid. Nothing dries. The ants and the mosquitoes are delighting in fresh blood. But it’s all rather amazing. The plants, the shrubs, the trek through the jungle to get to the beach… all quite something. There was the mother of all storms last night – the tin roof and open walls really accentuated the whole effect. From the safety of my mosquito net, I got to see and hear it all.

On the drive to the end of the road at Punta Manzanillo, the southern-most tip of the Costa Rican coastline (next door is Panama), it was easy to see how development is slowly creeping in. By all accounts, the Caribbean side isn’t nearly as developed as the Pacific side, tourism-wise, so it will interesting to compare. There is a lot of land for sale – plenty of sites, one in particular that I’d rather like. Just 2.5 acres with beachfront. Am not sure I’d cope with the humidity though – did I mention that nothing dries? I’m up at 5.30 every morning to catch some cool. The heat starts to roll in about 7 and by 8 I’m dying. The rains come promptly at 5. One day I’ll live by the sea, but, unlike the multitude of foreigners who call this part of the country home, I doubt it’ll be this side of Costa Rica, no matter how much I enjoy looking for sloths. [A young Italian aeronautical engineer runs the local pizza shack; a Spanish lady runs the wildlife refuge; half the wait staff are North American.]

I just found a dead Irishman from Limerick, I said, quite pleased with myself. Well, he said, there are a few of us alive here, too. Conall French and his mum Aisling (from Bray, Co. Wicklow) own an art gallery in Costa Rica. Gallería Namu runs along Fair Trade principles rather than by consignment. Artists are paid up front for their work, which is then sold on to discerning tourists and collectors. Their mask collection is quite something. And if you’re simply interested in knowing more about the artwork of the various indigenous tribes, then this is the place to visit.

I’d stopped in on my way back from a visit to the Foreigners’ Cemetery where those unfit for burial in the nearby Catholic cemetery (i.e., foreigners) are housed. Located at the corner of Avenida 10 and Calle 20 , Cementario de Extranjeros is now home to the remains of people from Germany, Norway, Wales, Ireland, England, Scotland, the USA, Peru, Panama …. and many more. It’s quite fascinating. The closest I could find to Hungary was Salzburg. But it was hotter than Hades and the ants were feeding on me so I was quickly losing the will to search.

Up a block on the other side of the street is the Cementerio General de San José. There are over 5200 vaults on the hectare of land including the graves of 22 former presidents.  The statuary is quite spectacular – among the best of any I’ve seen. So much so that it’s knocked Zagreb off its No. 1 Cemetery pedestal – in my rankings at least.

I had thought I was visiting Cementerio de Obreros de la ciudad de San José, but it was actually the cemetery next door – the workers’ cemetery, far more utilitarian in its statuary. The box-shape crypts are quite different to anything else I’ve seen in the various cemeteries I’ve visited. And I’ve been to a few.