World traveler Clown Tom Bolton
Adventure stories & photos
Tom’s travels to Costa Rica – Central America
My trip to Costa Rica was in January 2005. I visited San Jose, San Isidro, San Gerardo, Cerro Chirripó, Longo Mai, Golfito,Corcovado National Park, Plama, Los Patos, Palmar Sur, Uvita, Marino Ballena National Park, Dominical, Quepos, Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio, Puntarenas, Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve & Monte Verde. Unfortunately I had misplaced my camera equipment and had yet to replace it so I did this trip without having to drag a camera along but also have no photos.
I landed in the capital of San Jose, Costa Rica after changing planes in the Miami, Florida Airport in transit from Stuttgart. My bags were checked through but one still has to pass customs. Was in a small section with few alternatives to eat and no books or magazines available. Would have had to go to other section of airport for that and pass the security check again which had long lines. Seems they were extra careful about possible terrorist threats as Bush was being inaugurated that day.
Central San Jose unimpressive
Arrived late enough in the evening that I though a taxi would be better than taking a bus and wandering the streets in the dark with a backpack on. I saw some other traveler types but nobody to share a taxi with as they were all headed elsewhere or to hotels in another part of town. I got to a simple place that was shabby but clean, cheap and seemed to have tight security. First impressions of San Jose were that it stank of sulfur and there was razor wire everywhere. This seemed a paradox since the country is often touted as being peaceful. It has no military and had avoided the major civil conflicts of many Central American countries.
The center of San Jose was not much to look at. There was a long pedestrian street. With the eye of a performer I conspired what the show options would be there. But the only place it opened to a good sized plaza was full of bird shit. People sold bird feed to feed the pigeons and the result was predictable. But I was not sticking around San Jose nor performing there. The next day I was already on a bus for San Isidro de El General 135 Km to the south.
San Isidro circus school project
Before booking my flight to Costa Rica I had researched in the internet if there were any circus schools. I had found a circus school project for street kids in San Isidro organized by an Austrian. I contacted them and they welcomed me to visit. Upon arrival I was met by Jullian, a young German who walked me back to the small house where he and the other volunteers stayed towards the edge of town. It was a happyish crash pad with a garden. The 6 volunteers were equally male and female and all from Germany or Austria. The males were ”civis” as they are known in Germany. As an alternative to military service one can elect to do an approved civil service stint. I knew of people who worked in homes for handicapped or elderly but had not known they could do something overseas.
I wasn’t sure if I should look for a hotel but they said I was welcome to find space on the floor with my sleeping bag. It seemed like there were always a few extra people staying there as well as including on German woman who was more or less camped out on their veranda. She was volunteering at a forestry project. The place was rather chaotic. The residents seemed more occupied with smoking joints all day rather than ever doing any house work. Nobody ever seemed to cook and one was lucky to find bread and maybe some fruit. Yet they claimed to nearly never eat in town either. My second day there I bought rice and veggies and cooked for everyone and even cleaned up the whole kitchen the following morning but didn’t feel like it was really appreciated. It was like eating was unimportant to them so why bother?
Project rather chaotic
I asked more about the project they were involved in and it turned out it was an after school thing for kids that were poor but not what one would label “street kids”. They did have a small unicycle and some basic juggling equipment but the volunteer that had organized that and instructed the kids was no longer there. The present members were beginner jugglers themselves so the equipment mostly sat on the shelves. I had brought along selection of clubs, balls and cigar boxes. I also had a small unicycle but later gave it to another circus school project from Nicaragua I later met. They seemed more serious like they would actually use it.
I accompanied them to the project the next day. They had use of a small building used for indoor soccer. The concrete floor was rather rough and although they had a few mats, the kids often scrapped themselves on the protruding stones while doing acrobatics. This was the extent of circus skills I saw them do. I showed them my range of juggling skills but only a few showed much interest. They were rehearsing a performance that was complete chaos. The next day I made some balloon animals for them but they got obnoxious about demanding more and more. I understood that the kids were there on a voluntary basis but the lack of discipline and feeling of entitlement that they could do anything they wanted for appalling. This was just glorified babysitting for ungrateful brats.
Looking for affordable destinations
While there I read in my Lonely Planet guidebook about possible places to visit. Seems like the popular beach spots were over crowed and expensive. But this was also a slant from the book that missed its purpose of giving advice to low budget travelers. The author often crowed about hotel options that were quaint and only cost 100 UDS a night. This was way beyond the budget of myself or any other backpackers I’ve ever known. I got advice that there were cheap options in the country but one had to search them out. I found some better information in a German guidebook.
On my third day there I got taken to what they called the comedor. It was a facility with an institutional sized kitchen where they prepared lunch for the kids. They would go there after school to eat and only a portion of them went to the circus training. Nothing wrong with seeing that kids get properly feed but I felt the whole project was a bit oversold. But again, one cannot judge something in light of its success. Maybe the reason one didn’t see actual street kids was due to such projects. I got to meet the head of the project there. He was aware of some of the criticisms I made but it seemed it was par for the course with a continual turnover of young volunteers. They usually came for a year and many spent the first half of it learning to get along in the language. This was an impressive rate to learn but not necessarily an effective way to get work done.
Costa Rican social & ecological projects
Anyway, my time in San Isidro was not unpleasant. I was enjoying the climate and one morning there were even 3 toucans on the veranda. It was not just warm but also very green in Costa Rica. On my trip it seemed like there was another biological farm or environmental project everywhere one looked. The country does have an abundance of bio-diversity but a lot of its protection efforts seemed to have fallen short of their ambitions. But the Costa Ricans were masters of appealing to alternative western values of saving nature. Many projects not only had volunteers from Europe and America but people who actually paid a lot of money for the privilege of working there. One should not have to be rich to help out on a worthy project of any kind.
Cerro Chirripó National Park
There was a festival coming up in some days that the whole San Isidro project crew was going to be involved with in another area. In the mean time I decided to try to climb Costa Rica’s highest mountain Cerro Chirripó. It is not a technical climb at all but a few thousand meters accent none the less. The National Park where it is located is not far from San Isidro to the east but one needs to get a permit to climb it. There is a refuge most of the way up and the 20 UDS permit allows one to spend the night there. Then one has the chance to reach the summit in the morning and descend the whole way down in one go. Although the lodge turned out to be fairly large they only gave out a dozen or so permits each day.
Getting a climbing permit
Permits were not attainable in San Isidro, one had to go to the park office in a small village called San Gerardo. And since one did not know if they would get it for the next day or sometime soon after, it was possible to go there with the intention of staying until one succeeded. I left about half of my stuff in San Isidro rather than lug it up and down the mountain. A bus got me to San Gerardo where I found a cheap but very basic room. I got up very early and was at the ranger station, a few kilometers walk, before 7 am but there were no permits left for the day. I would have to return in the afternoon to inquire about getting one for the next day. The other option would have been a day trip up as far as some nice waterfalls and back.
Costa Rican cuisine: beans & rice
In the meantime I walked around and hit up some hot springs. Ran into a guy involved in the San Isidro project. He no longer stayed there as he said things often disappeared and he didn’t like the constant joint smoking. This didn’t make me feel better about leaving things there but none of my stuff was particularly valuable. In the meantime I noticed that the food options for all meals if one didn’t eat meat were rice, beans and tortillas maybe an egg or some fruit if lucky. Turns out that Costa Ricans virtually live from beans and rice. Yet one Tico, as the inhabitants call themselves, swore that Costa Rica had the best cuisine in the world. It reminded me of Nepal where the people lived from rice and lentils even when offered other dishes. And I like beans and rice – just not for every meal.
Permit & provisions acquired
Around 4 pm I was back at Ranger Station and managed to get my permit for the next day. Back in town I met a few tourists who gave me more information about the situation in the park. There were supposed to be heaters and for another dollar and a half one should be able to get a blanket or sleeping bag. There were cooking facilities but no food available. I went looking for provisions but the small shops had little to offer beyond cookies, cracker, bread and fruit. In the evening I was in the Dura Roca (Hard Rock) café and got them to make me some spaghettis with veggies although it was not on the menu. By then it had started to rain pretty hard and keep up the whole evening.
Trek up Chirripó
Got up early and caught arranged taxi to the park entrance. Thought it worth saving my strength for the mountain and rather than walking the additional KM’s just to start. Luckily there was a place for a simple breakfast there so I started off on a full stomach. I had a rain jacket but my clothes were fairly wet from the night before. The walk up was tiring but not excessive. There was tropical rain forest but half of it had been burned. Towards the end of my walk it had started to drizzle. It got cool but my arms felt more numb from the lack of circulation due to my backpack straps. I made it to the refuge by early afternoon and relaxed. Turned out there was no heat at the refuge or at least it wasn’t turned on. A Basque guy had cooked a massive amount of spaghettis and I took him up on his offer to share.
The majority of the 20 to 25 people there were Costa Ricans who had brought a lot of provisions. They made lots of coffee and tea but they never offered and I felt too shy to ask. It never got really cold in the refuge but a warm drink would have been appreciated. The only thing one could actually buy there was Coca Cola. There were around 60 beds at the lodging so I was surprised that they gave out so few permits. Someone said it had to do with trying to limit the ecological impact on the park.
Sunrise at the summit
Everyone went to bed early and I kept waking up every hour or so but managed to fall back asleep. I got up at 2.30 am to be on the trail at 3. I was accompanied by a couple from Calgary that had headlamps. I at least had my Magalite but more importantly it was nearly a full moon. Much of the trail was not steep until the last kilometer which became hand and feet. More difficult was that the ground was marshy with patches of ice. Not so slippery as threatening to get wet cold feet. But we all managed to reach the summit in good condition. Felt a lot colder with the strong breeze there and no longer walking.
The point of being there so early was to see the sunrise but it was a wait and not spectacular as there were layers of clouds below us. But it was kind of magical with the dawn illumination and the moon overhead and what we assumed to be Venus in the sky. One could see distant peaks rising out of the cloud cover. The directions were clear because of the sun but one could not see the coast lines for perspective. I had trouble to zip up my jacket all of the way and was getting cold so I started back before most of the others. Had to stop at the refuge to retrieve my backpack that I had opted to leave behind despite having heard of theft there.
Descent & return to San Gerardo
I was alone for most of the trip down which was of course more tiring than the trip up. I really felt it in my knees and toes. I saw a few monkey but not much other wildlife other than lizards. A couple of American guys passed me on the trail near the end and fortunately gave me a ride back to San Gerardo. To do those few extra kilometers at that point would not have been enjoyable. The Americans said the Canadian couple decided to stay another night at the refuge. This was a disappointment because they had taken a picture of me at the summit and I assumed I would get the chance later to give them my email address to send me a copy. I spent the night at the Roca Dura lodging, tired but content.
I slept well although I had a mouse crawling around in my room. In the morning I had a good breakfast of pancakes with fruit and café con leché. I managed a bus that got me back up to San Isidro by 8.30 am. Took a good half an hour to change a traveler’s check at the bank and then I found a place to check my emails. I got back to the project house and got the rest of my stuff together. All but one of the volunteers had already left for the festival so I would have to find my way there on my own. Went back into the town to find the bus and splurged on a rather expensive but huge Chinese meal as an early lunch. Yeah, rice again but with lots of veggies rather than just beans.
Finca Longo Mai
I found a bus without problem. The destination was a ranch called Longo Mai about 35 KM south of S. Isidro. More problematic was finding the finca itself. The bus stop was just an intersection and one had to walk a kilometer or two in the hot sun. Was a bit of an effort as I was sore from my climb and now had a full backpack and wasn’t certain of the way. Longo Mai had a long history. A group of idealistic hippies from Europe banded together in the early 1970’s. In 1979 they purchased the land in Costa Rica with the purpose of having a farming commune. They gave refuge to Nicaraguans who had fled from the oppressive Somozas regime.
After the Sandinistas took power, most of the Nicaraguans returned home to be replaced with exiles from El Salvador. One of the grounders of this project was Roland, the one in charge of the San Isidro project. The goal of the finca was self-sufficiency through ecological farming and eco-tourism. Half of the land is protected rainforest and the community has its own schools and shops. The festival was a performer’s festival that had been started a couple of years before. It attracted groups from around Central America and this time a few from Argentina. There was a group from the Escuela de Mimo y Comidia from Granada, Nicaragua that I have since then both visited and met up with numerous times in Europe.
Workshops & entertaining at festival
At the festival I didn’t really make a show but did workshops and trained juggling the young attendees for some days. The most advanced pupils were the Nicaraguan kids. In the end I gave them the unicycle I had intended for the San Isidro group because I thought they would put it to better use. One afternoon I went with the Nicaraguans to an Indian village about an hour away. Unlike in Guatemala, the indigenous population is rather small in Costa Rica. The Nicaraguans had an old van that someone had damaged on this trip. Seems many Costa Rican consider all Nicaraguans to be thieves and would thus vandalize Nicaraguan vehicles.
The next day I trained again with the kids and afterwards went with them to a nearby river in the jungle. There was a rope hung from a tree so that they could swing off of a cliff and jump into the water. Only after I had been to Nicaragua did I understand their appeal for such an activity. Even though Granada is on a huge lake, its shores like most rivers are too full of garbage to enjoy swimming in. My last day at the festival I again juggled with the kids and then got a ride back up to S. Isidro with Diego & company.
Travel to Golfito
Rather than stay in San Isidro I caught a bus to Rio Claro where I changed for the city of Golfito. This is situated about 175 KM south of S. Isidro on the (Bay) Bahia Pavón. The guidebook recommended hotel there was closed for reconstruction. Found a ramshackle place belonging to an America expat married to a local. His place was large but he didn’t find the time or money to keep it in good repair and most of the rooms were not really in a rentable condition. I again found a Chinese restaurant that was rather lame but a relief after 3 straight days of beans and rice at Longo Mai. To top it off they had a nice dark beer. Golfito was on the coast and even attracted some tourist but seemed seedy and I got a number of come-ons by ugly prostitutes. Not sure if it had a reputation as a place for gringos to find cheap whores but that was the vibe I got.
Destination Corcovado National Park
In the morning I bought some provisions for my destination Corcovado National Park. This was on a peninsula reached by taking a ferry across the bay to Puerto Jiménez. From there I got a bus to the town of Palma. My destination was one of the ranger stations in the park called Los Patos. But although this was a major destination there turned out not to be any public transportation. I met some tourists coming from there that claimed to have hitch hiked. A taxi driver wanted 20 USD for the approximately 18 KM trip. I decided to walk while hoping I might also find a ride. One vehicle stopped but wanted 45 USD to take me. I continued to walk but wished I had found a place to leave some of my gear behind.
The road was dirt but easy to follow except that there was a small winding stream that kept cutting back across it. It was knee deep and at first I would take off my hiking boots and afterwards have to dry my feet and put them back on. After about the tenth time I gave up and put on my sport sandals and just walked through. This saved time but the same stream had to be crossed again and again and my feet started to get blisters. After about 6 or 7 kilometers there was a small Indian community where one could stay for the night. I had intended to go farther but had a good 8 KM or more to go and only an hour of daylight left.
The Indian family was friendly although the room not so cheap considering how basic it was. But I at least had a roof over my head and they gave me a meal – beans and rice. I showed off some juggling tricks and tried to teach the teenage son but he didn’t quite get the hang of it. There was no mosquito net but I had one of my own. Or sort of. It was like a mini-tent of netting set up with fiberglass poles rather than hung. It covered the upper body and one needed a sarong and socks to protect the feet and legs. It was far from perfect as the mesh was so fine that it was stifling at times. But rolled up, it took about half the size of a standard net.
Unioro or Los Patos?
I continued in the morning. The stream still winding back and forth across the road. Eventually I came to a fork in the road with signs left to Unioro or right to Los Patos. Diego had told me about Unioro which was another eco-farming project run by a guy he knew called Ricardo. He was sure I could get put up there do some entertaining to earn my keep. Los Patos on the other hand was the official ranger station where one supposedly could get a bed. Problem was that I was unannounced for either place. I opted for Unioro. It was marked as 2,5 KM but the road seemed unless. Then it started to rain hard. A woman told me that Ricardo lived in a house not far but the only dwellings I found seemed abandoned. Some side trails seemed to taper off into the jungle and I didn’t want to get lost their.
Eventually I arrived at Unioro. Was told Ricardo was off to Puntarena and with that the person turned around and walked off. Nobody there expected me or seemed interested in my situation. I turned back and retraced the kilometers to the fork in the road and took the way to Los Patos. The rangers there were friendly but somehow there was not accommodation available. In the end they said they had nothing against me sleeping on the covered porch. Again my mosquito tent was a life saver. But my pants that I slept in and socks were wet and the cement floor far from comfortable. In the morning I went on the park trail. The jungle was beautiful and I ran into just one local couple that had brought lots of food and offered to share some with me.
Then the guy started to tell me how much Jesus loved me and that I had to start reading the bible… I smiled and parted ways. I did the loop trail and was back at the ranger station by noon. I would have been willing to pay a taxi this time to get back to civilization but the rangers claimed they couldn’t call for me. And this was void of cell phone connections even if I had had one along. The only option was to walk but my feet were already bleeding by now. It finally occurred to me to wear the sandals but with socks and not care about them getting wet. This worked better than I had imagined. When I was just a kilometer or two from Palma, a cattle truck stopped and offered me a ride. I was very thankful for this but wondered why it had not come along sooner.
Los Patos to Palmar Sur
There were 2 other guys who had been picked up by the truck that also took the bus with me to Puerto Jiménez. They were staying at a real dive but for a bit more money I found a great room with fan, hot shower, towels and even toilet paper in the bathroom. Was happy to wash the mud from my clothes and myself. Hung around a bit the next day but although it is on the bay, there was no real beach. I was feeling like having a nice beach where I might also connect with other traveler. So I caught a bus at 1 pm to Palmar Sur. This town was just 70 kilometers up the coast but it took almost 4 hours to get there. Banks were closed so I couldn’t change a traveler’s check. My intention was to go on to Dominical, another 70 KMs to the north but the next bus was not until 8 am.
Also had a nice room in Palmar Sur although it cost even a couple of dollars more than the previous one. The town seemed fairly prosperous but no real attractions. I showed up 30 minutes early for the bus towards Dominical the next morning. In the meantime a group of elderly Swiss intending to take the same bus arrived. They then went off to buy food. The bus came 15 minute early, everyone jumped on and away it went without the Swiss group.
Small beach town of Uvita
I ended up getting off in Uvita 2/3 of the way to Dominical. Found affordable bungalow that had good meals and hammocks hung between the trees. Here was finally a nice beach. I walked its length which was about 4 KM. The problem was it was a little too quiet for my taste. Also, it was within the Marino Ballena National Park so one had to pay entrance to access it. Most of the tourists who were there seemed to congregate at an American owned restaurant/hotel. Seemed overpriced for its musty rooms and a ways from the beach to be convenient but I got chips and guacamole and a couple of beers in the evening. Plus the owner changed a 50 USD traveler’s check without taking commission.
Next day I got to Dominical. Was smaller place than I expected. Were mostly expensive bungalows and the backpacker hostel where I got my own room. Was musty, the double bed took up nearly all of the space and the door had no lock! Changed room for the second night. New one could at least be locked and the light worked. I had heard that many people stayed longer here but they seemed to either find cheaper long term rentals or had a tent. I juggled at the beach and met a couple of travelers who also juggled a bit. There were some bars and night life here but I was too tired in evening to do anything but go to bed early.
After 2 nights in Dominical I caught a morning bus for Quepos. Was just 45 KM. Road was not bad but unpaved. The attraction is the area is the Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio 7 KM to the south. I found a small but acceptable room and went to the beach north of the park. The advantage was that it was free. The road from Quepos to the park runs near this beach and the last few kilometers towards the park are very commercialized. I read that here was some of the most expensive property in Costa Rica. There was also accommodation there but all upscale and more expensive than in Quepos.
Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio
My room in Quepos turned out to be rather loud. Sounded like other guests were going off early in the morning for other destinations and not quiet about it. I actually gave in my laundry to the hotel personnel to get washed. Later another guest mentioned that she had done that and they seemed to have lost her clothes. I went to an internet café to check emails and a guy there recognized me from Stuttgart. Eventually got off to Manuel Antonio Park, this time paying to actually go inside. Walked along the trails beside the water. Saw moneys and some raccoon like animals. There were a number of beaches to hang out at; the main one said by some to be the most beautiful beach in the world. Met 2 French guys passing clubs on beach.
American & European expats
Hung out at bar in evening back in Quepos and met American girl who said she did pois on the shoulders of her juggler boyfriend. She naively thought that one could make a good living anywhere in the world by simply doing a bit of juggling with a hat out. As if it were that simple! Were a number of other Americans in place that were now living in Costa Rica. Seems that the immigration rules are lax and buying property many Americans and Europeans had relocated there.
One actually saw a lot of for sale signs in English rather than Spanish. Yet a number of conversations with expats in Costa Rica made me question the choice. What seems like a tropical paradise can easily turn out to be a house in the middle of nowhere. Property near nice beaches and touristy places is expensive. Then one has to contend with insects and lack of transportation, culture etc. when living in a remote setting. Not necessarily bad but certainly not for everyone.
After 3 days in Quepos I got a bus farther north up the coast to Puntarenas. I had thought to go farther, taking a ferry across to the bottom of another peninsula to Montezuma and Playa Santa Teresa that had been recommended by a number of people. But I missed the ferry and never made it there. I took the first hotel right by a major intersection by the ferry station feeling too lazy to look further. Room was big and had nice wood floors. There were some decent beaches and a lot of young vendors who seemed to be from Argentina. But there were 2 bars next door to my hotel, one of which turned out to have an all-night disco. The noise level was absolutely unbearable. I also went to the disco because there was no way to sleep but I wasn’t really into it. Next morning I found a cheaper, cleaner and much quieter place just out of the center.
Waterfalls, beach & juggling
Next day went to the beach in the morning and later went off to a park where I hiked for at least an hour or two before coming to high waterfalls. In was nice to swim in the pool below the falls and some tourists climbed up and jumped off. This was way too risky for my taste. Afterwards I made it back to beach where I trained some juggling. What I didn’t note down and can’t figure out is which park and waterfalls this was. Were a lot of such places around other cities I had visited by I don’t find any noteworthy ones near Puntarena by Googling. Anyway, a couple of girls who recognized me from street shows in Oslo showed up and got juggling lessons. One gave up but the other started to get the hang of it and had a breakthrough when we tried again the next day. That last day in Puntarena was mostly spent at beach doing reading, yoga, taekwondo and juggling.
Santa Elena Reserve – Monte Verde
My time was running short but the next day I caught a bus NE to the village of Santa Elena. Found a room and got off into the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. There were nice clearly marked trails but I felt a bit constricted by the signs warning not to leave the trail. The scenery was gorgeous. This is close to Monte Verde so it has some altitude and is quite cool humid and a bit dark because the foliage is so thick. The night was so chilly that I wished I had had another blanket or heating in the room. But next morning I was off to the capital of San Jose anyway. Once there I got a room and ran around getting some postcards and last minute gifts and managed to reconfirm my flight. I dropped my juggling equipment off at a small theater where Diego knew the people and it was arranged that the stuff would get taken to Nicaragua for the circus school.
San Jose and home again
Next morning I was off to the airport. Suddenly a 26 USD airport tax that they said was not included in my ticket price was demanded. They only took Visa and American Express credit card so my MasterCard was useless. I had to change a 50 USD traveler’s check, with a 3 USD commission just to pay the fee. Otherwise, I made my flights to Miami, Amsterdam and back to Stuttgart without trouble.
So, those were just a few tales from my many travels over the last thirty and something years. I hope you've enjoyed another side of a traveling clown! If you want, write me an email or better yet, book my show or set a link to this website or just state me as the beneficiary of your will!
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