Obnoxiously Cheap in the Rich Coast (Costa Rica)

After finally finding a place to refill our propane tank outside of Granada, Nicaragua, Jed and I decided to head back out to the coast to a well known surf destination named Popoyo.  We were at first discouraged by all the people in this area after primarily camping on empty beaches the past two weeks, however we decided to give it a chance.

Front porch of the Melting Elephant

We needed to use the internet and stopped at this neat little beachfront restaurant/hotel that drew our eye.  After talking with the owner for a bit he offered for us to camp out back for only $5 a night. This was a great deal as almost every other place we had asked about camping either didn’t allow it or wanted $15 each person.

Our swanky hotel, The Melting Elephant

From our first day in the country we had been continuously asked by almost every local if we were on our way to Playa Colorada.  Apparently there was a worldwide surf competition taking place that was drawing many visitors.  We never bothered to drive there and check it out but we were glad it was happening because it drew the crowd away from the popular break of Popoyo.

Sunset at Popoyo

We had a great 4 or 5 days of surfing and hanging out with the other travelers at our swanky hotel. Word had it though that the crowd would pick up on the weekend and so Jed and I made plans to travel inland for a few days and then return again after the weekend.  On the Friday night before we left we ventured down the beach to this party that a few locals had told us about.  It was the 10th Anniversary of one of the surf camps and they had issued an open invitation for folks to come and celebrate.  Jed and I were not expecting much of a party, just a few local ex-pats hanging out drinking some beer.  Man, were we wrong.  I don’t know where all these people came from but they must have crawled out of the wood work for this bash.  There were hundreds of people there, and with the 5 or more Flor de Cana stands scattered around serving free rum, I would say that nearly half of them could barely stand up.  Besides the rum, there was a live D.J., free food, free beer, a rather extravagant fireworks show, professional (and amateur) pole dancers, and several girls whom I am pretty sure were just paid to walk around in high heels and bikinis.  We were only a mile down the beach yet we had somehow transported ourselves to Cancun, Mexico.

It was entertaining enough though and we stayed for a few hours.  It was only after Jed took it upon himself to de-arm a drunk guy who had found a huge American flag and was obnoxiously waving it around hitting people in the head, that I decided it was time for us to leave.  Someone needed to do it, but I was still surprised by Jed’s abrupt actions of yanking the flag out of this guys hands and telling him that was ENOUGH.  When I expressed my surprise to Jed, I laughed that his reasoning was not that he was going to hurt someone with the long metal flag pole he was swinging around, but simply that he was making American’s look bad waving an American flag at the Nicaraguan party.
Come on Jed….Why shouldn’t we do that?  America…. F*** Yeah!!

We ventured off the next morning towards the island in the middle of Lago Nicaragua.  The island, made up of two volcanoes, protrudes up out of the middle of the lake to a height of 1610m (~4,800ft).   We put our car on the ferry to reach the island.

Within 45 minutes of arriving we spotted the Australians on the side of the road.  We decided to join them at their hostel, which was a neat old jungle farmhouse turned backpacker’s haven named Finca Magdalena, that let us camp for $3 a night.  Our sole plan for the island was to hike the volcanoes; however we woke the following morning to rain that persisted on and off throughout the day.  It wasn’t soo bad though.  It was a beautiful place to relax.  I got in a long yoga session and Jed tinkered with the car, which is what he refers to as his “yoga”.  That afternoon we did get in a hike up to a beautiful waterfall where we saw some exotic birds and the first monkeys of our trip.  It was nice to be out hiking around and we decided that rain or shine we would hike the big volcano the next day.

Our first howler monkey sightings

The trail up the volcano

Well it wasn’t quite raining, but it definitely wasn’t sunny either.  We climbed the very steep trail, gaining an elevation of 4,000+ ft in approximately 3hrs, enshrouded in thick jungle and clouds.  We couldn’t see anything below us or above.  We only knew we were getting close to the top when the vegetation ceased, the ground grew hot below us and the winds grew so strong we couldn’t stand in one place.  We crawled our way to the top of the cone, peered over in to the smoke filled center, took an amazing photo of what the center of a cloud looks like and decided to get the hell down off of there.

The big volcano in Lake Nicaragua

We were back to the car in 5hrs, half of the time the guide book said the hike takes.  It was an amazing experience, but after what Jed & I had been calling exercise over the last month; running rolling dirt roads along the ocean and paddling surfboards around, it was also slightly painful.

Since it was still early enough we decided to park our tired legs on the late ferry back across to the mainland and make our way back to Popoyo that evening.

We spent a few more days stumbling around the Melting Elephant and surfing, but the crowds had picked up from the week before and there were over 30 heads in the water so we didn’t stay long.  The Australians met back up with us (they just can’t get enough) in Popoyo  and we headed south together.  We thought we would slowly bump our way down the rest of the Nicaraguan coast and surf for a few more days before crossing in to Costa Rica, but the further south we went the less surf there was.  We ended up spending just one night camping on the only beach we could get free access to and heading to the border the next morning.

Jed & Ewan asking for directions from a military camp. Clearly, the appropriate place to ask.

At our camp spot we thought we were tucked away in the bushes and far enough down the beach from town that no one would even know we were there.  However, once the sun went down the flashlights came out.  It seemed half the town showed up to search around the beach where we were camped.   They didn’t seem to mind us being there at all as we awkwardly ate our dinner while they creeped around us, but out of curiosity we finally had to ask what they were doing?
“Looking for hermit crabs to sell to Americans” was the answer, of course.  Apparently the people in this little town collect the larger hermit crabs and sell them to someone who sells them to the pet stores in the US.  Hmmm, I thought I might find a new career path while on this trip.

The road to the Costa Rican border

And now on to the infamous and rightfully named COSTA RICA!  We have heard soo much talk from other travelers on this trip about how this country is overpriced and overrun with tourists.  We prepared ourselves as best we could and stocked up on food supplies before leaving Nica.  But we also thought it can’t be that bad.  We usually avoid the overpriced tourist areas anyway.

Point and case, we planned to head out to Witch’s Rock a secluded surf spot in a National Park just across the border and camp there for a few days.  We arrived to the park that evening and found no one at the front gate so we continued on through to the beach.  Arriving at the vacant beach, we initially thought we had hit the jackpot.  No other surfers around, a great wave, beautiful scenery and a nice little camping spot. However only after deciding to stay did we get approached by a park employee who told us it would cost us, per person, $10 to enter, $2 a night to camp and $15 to surf!  Seriously, $15 to SURF!   No thanks.

Since that night the four of us learned that you can in fact travel cheaply in Costa Rica as long as you:

  • avoid going to National parks, preserves or anything containing the word “eco”
  • only camp on deserted beaches
  • buy most of your food before you enter the country
  • cook all your meals and don’t go out to eat
  • steal wi-fi from unlocked connections while cooking your ramen lunch on the side of the road
  • Bathe in rivers undeterred by the perplexed stares of the locals and tourists in passing vehicles
  • fill up your water tank from the hoses outside surf shops
  • and siphon gas from the numerous “turismo” vans you see on the roads

Okay, Okay, we didn’t really siphon gas!  We actually paid for our $100 fill ups, but the rest of it made for a wonderful first 10 days spent in the Rich Coast.  I couldn’t think of a better way to do it!  There are tons of tourists in Costa Rica, but for the most part they stick to the tourist towns and resorts.  You can drive 5 minutes outside of them and you have a beautiful beach all to yourself.   And the beaches truly are beautiful!  The prettiest ones we have seen yet.  Not to mention, the Ticos (natives) are wonderful people, and the jungle, including the plants and animals, is ever present and well reserved.

The colorful rocks on the beach

We camped four nights next to a beach covered with the most beautiful colored rocks, where Jed and Ewan would collect fresh coconuts for us daily.  Knocking them down from the trees safely turned out to be an experiment in the procedures of trial and error.  Jed learned that when launching a giant log above his head in to a tree it is best to stand back and have a forward trajectory instead of directly underneath where the log will quickly return to after bouncing off the tree.

Jed with his soon to be black eye after collecting coconuts.

At another campsite I awoke and walked out to the beach to discover it scattered with red dots.  Upon closer inspection I realized it was thousands of crabs.  It was really neat and I really wanted to get a good picture of it, but I needed to get closer and every time I would move towards them, the crabs would separate in to different groups and run off in different directions.  I must have spent a good half hour running around like an idiot on the beach after these crabs with my camera.  It was fun to run right through the middle of them and watch them part for you.  …but, what is even more amazing is that this is a just a glimpse of all the fantastically stimulating activities I find to fill my days.

A bad picture of the thousands of crabs. The birds thought it was fun to chase them too.

Sunset at “Crab” beach

As always it was an adventure traveling with the Australians, especially now that they own a GPS and can find these wonderful short cuts for us to take.

Ewan’s wonderful short cut

Atleast, they went first.

We were feeling good about the country as we left the Australians and the coast of the Nicoya peninsula behind and headed towards the big city to pick up our first big guest, mi madre, for a two week vacation.

another picture perfect beach

This has nothing to do with what I am writing about, but Jed wanted to introduce everyone to his new surfboard. He has decided we are now good enough to graduate from our 8ft beast master to this small guy. Here’s hoping…

However, we made the mistake of trying to head towards the city, on the only highway in, on a Sunday evening around 5pm.  Hence we hit our first traffic jam and to top it off as we wound our way up the one lane mountain highway at 5mph our front left wheel started thunking and screeching.  How is it that car trouble always knows to happen at the most inopportune times?  There was nothing we could do and nowhere for us to pull off.  Jed knew what it was, as should have I, being the theme of the Toyota’s journey.  The front bearing on the front axle had blown.  It would be fine enough to drive it in to the city but we were left with just one day to get it fixed before we were supposed to pick my mom up from the airport.  Not able to do our usual scour of the city to find the cheapest, yet suitable, accommodations with the truck acting up, we had to choose one of the options closest to the airport with a suitable enough parking lot for Jed to crawl around on.

We splurged on our most expensive hotel yet at $59, but it was a great place that included a hookah lounge in the list of their top amenities.  It was within walking distance to the airport, if need be, and out of pure coincidence also within walking distance to a specialized bearing shop and mechanic with a press.  And as Jed was going to do the work himself he only needed the mechanic in order to borrow a specialized tool for removing the ball joint and then once he returned with the axle, the use of the press.  Simple enough.  Unless, of course, you are trying to explain this to a Tica mechanic in Spanglish.

So after wasting most of our day in translation madness, we were finally introduced to the owner who speaks fluent English.  He translated our request for borrowing the specialized tool to remove our axle to the mechanic who then continued to give us a befuddled look.

After a moment he went and picked up a crow bar and approached the closest truck to show Jed how he does it.
Jed replied,  “Ok… but won’t that ruin the rubber boot?”
Mechanic replies, “Yep”

It seems that maybe it wasn’t our bad Spanish speaking that was holding us up in the first place, but the fact that we assumed that a Central American mechanic would use or even own a “specialized”tool.

Jed decided to go with his own  rubber hammer approach in order to save the rubber boot in replace of the crow bar suggestion and fared well.  Another hour or so in the parking lot and the Yota was back together and ready to pick up my mom the next morning for our family adventure!

We were excited to see her and thinking maybe we would even splurge on things like showers while she was around.

About adventureamericas

Jed and I set out April 2012 to drive from Wyoming to the southern tip of Argentina! Join us along the way to read about our adventures as we attempt to surf the coasts, climb the mountains and speak the language of the 15 countries we plan to visit!
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7 Responses to Obnoxiously Cheap in the Rich Coast (Costa Rica)

  1. Natasha says:

    Miss you guys. Love reading all the updates and what new adventures you’re on!

  2. Mel Norton says:

    Hey Meg and Jed! I found your blog in search of info on a very similar upcoming trip I am doing with my boyfriend. Your trip has been one of the best paranoia deterrents that family and friends try to instill in our heads about the dangers down there. Your light-hearted and fun-loving tone I think lights a fire of excitment and envy for all who read. Thank you! PS–any advice (maybe about the danger paranoia)? Cheers!

    • Hi Mel! Yes, we too encountered a barrage of negative feedback about traveling south of the border. Of course none of these people had ever been here. Well maybe they went to Cancun, but i consider that an off shoot of Florida. So far we have met nothing but great people and beautiful countries. We have had one ticket {a parking ticket in the san jose air port] and one pair of flip flops stolen in our 5 months of travel. The states is over run with journalism about the dangers of Mexico and Central America. So far we have seen nothing of the sort and that seems to be the common theme of all the travelers we have run into so far on this trip. There are two main precautions that we stick to; Don’t drive at night and trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Also, these are poor countries, so you don’t want to flash money or valuable objects around.
      My best advice for the travel nay-sayer is to remind them how dangerous going to the movies can be in the states. These folks just put out a free online book http://liferemotely.com/download-the-ebook . Also drivetheamericas has a great sight full of useful info. and homeontheroad.com also has a great write-up called “why we did’nt die in mexico”, pretty funny stuff. Well i hope this helps out and I know its hard to not be nervous but you will be fine, really. jed

  3. Kristi says:

    Haha! Awesome! Watch out for those killer coconuts!

  4. Steven Proe says:

    Hi: Do you have any thoughts on the make of GPS that you have found to be better than a sand map drawing with a pointed stick in the rain??

    • we dont have a gps. we bought all of our maps off the internet before we left. we use our map and compas together and that has worked so far. we also had a atlas for mexico that was great, cant remember the name but it was like 30 pages of really detailed info. nat geo makes great maps for any country.
      As far as our camper it is perfect, strong light wieght and allows us to hang out in the back country for long periods of time. As far as camper companies phoenix campers is the best hands down. They can build you anything you want. if i had to do it again i would have no big windows on the side and no door window. we have had no trouble with break ins but it is definately a weak point for security. <my wife however loves the windows so it all is prefrence. there are curtians and the widows are tinted so privacy is never an issue. really in mexico your wheels are more likely to be stollen than your camper to get broken into. have a great trip, mexico is such an amazing country, enjoy.

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