18. HELICONIA RESTAURANT

GREAT LITTLE RESTAURANT

This great little restaurant has become a RE/MAX standard stop for celebrating staff birthdays or cheering to special occasions. Many reasons conspired to grant this distinction – the close location, the beautiful surroundings, the décor and atmosphere and of course the delicious and filling food.

Heliconia is located (literally) a 2-minute drive away from the RE/MAX office, making it a very convenient option for a celebratory lunch or after work dinner.  Located off Route 34, it is reached by turning off towards the west (ocean) and following a short gravel road straight to the front door – with plenty of parking along the front restaurant and on a small hill a short distance above.

THE SETTING, VIEW AND SURROUNDINGS

The first glimpse of the restaurant is caught through the surrounding jungle and sets the expectations of a nature-immersed, green, and lush location that perfectly blends into the surrounding wilderness and represents this corner of Costa Rica in all her beauty. The building is set on the banks of a small river that runs just in front of the seating area and can be clearly heard (at least in the wet season). The restaurant floor is surrounded by large trees (there are even trees growing INSIDE the patio) and the view looks towards the green lushness. On one occasion, Capuchin Monkeys sat just out of reach, a mother and baby, curiously observing the lunchtime crowd. Towards the front of the seating area, and in tune with the name, numerous Heliconias block the view of the road and the carpark.

The exterior of Heliconia Restaurant.
The exterior of Heliconia Restaurant.

THE DECOR

The restaurant is decorated with numerous paintings of Heliconias (as well as live Heliconias near the front), potted plants, and a few trees that randomly pierce the floor area. Little touches are everywhere, from the ‘Love Life’ placemats to the garden-like toilet area.

Several trees grow inside the restaurant, exiting through the roof.
Toilet area of Heliconia.

THE STAFF

The staff is knowledgeable and helpful, and any mention of someone having a ‘birthday’ will lead to a slice of dessert topped with a lit candle making their way towards the table – this restaurant has become a RE/MAX birthday favourite! Water glasses are refilled with regularity and the staff frequently checks in to make sure everything is well.

THE FOOD

The food is varied, from stuffed chicken to tuna to fish and chicken sandwiches. The meals are delicious, the portions are generous and we never spend a too-long of a time waiting for the food to arrive.

THE DRINKS

There is a variety of drinks on offer: beer, wine, cocktails and a decent collection of liquor. The cocktails could use some improvements as they tasted somewhat bland with excessive portions of sour mandarins (in place of limes) in drinks such as Mojito or Caparhina.

THE GREAT:

  • Food
  • Staff
  • View
  • Decor
  • Atmosphere

NEEDS IMPROVEMENT:

  • Cocktails

WILL WE COME BACK?

100% yes – we will be back to celebrate another staff birthday, a notable achievement, or the end of a very busy day.

17. THE FRUITFLY PROBLEM

THE FRUITFLY PROBLEM

I think we are all familiar with the pesky fruit flies – as soon as a bunch of bananas or a few spare oranges make their way into the kitchen basket clouds of fruit flies appear, seemingly out of nowhere, and make it their mission to lay their eggs inside the ripening fruit. They will prod and poke at the fruit before finding a way in. Here in the tropics the problem is compounded, the year-round heat and overabundance of fruit creating a perfect storm of tormenting flies. Shooing them away is not an option, and spraying dangerous insecticide chemicals around your kitchen is never a good idea.

Thankfully there is a way to humanly trap the flies and release them into the wilds, and if you have children they will delight in building and monitoring the simple fruit fly trap.

HOW TO MAKE THE TRAP

Making the trap is easy – all it requires is a glass, plastic food wrap, a knife and a small piece of fruit (I’ve found that a slice of citrus fruit works best, maybe due to the strong smell).

Place the fruit in the glass and stretch the plastic wrap over the top of the cup. Then use the tip of a sharp knife to puncture a very small hole in the middle of the plastic wrap – a tiny hole, not much bigger than the size of a fruit fly (about 3 millimetres across).  And that’s it – the flies, smelling the fruit, will make their way into the cup through the small hole. Once inside, it will be nearly impossible for them to exit. A day or two later take the cup outside, open it to let the flies go, throw the piece of fruit in the bush, and go back to the kitchen to re-set the trap. Trying to flash the flies down the sink does not work as they will quickly evacuate the trap as soon as the plastic film is removed.

The simple trap. The camera has focused on the plastic film, where you can see the entry hole right in the middle of the fil.
Top view of the trap including the entry hole.

A MINI DRUM

On bad days, I’ve caught 20-30 flies within the first hour or two after setting the trap. Sometimes there are dozens in the trap, the slightest disturbance sending them scurrying off towards the overhead plastic film. The flies create a drumming sound as they bang, repeatedly, into the film in their bid to escape. If the film is stretched tight, this can become reasonably loud and audible.

The trap was left overnight, trapping about 30 files – some are not visible in the photo as they were flying around or crawling along the glass.

THE BATTLE NEVER ENDS…

Unfortunately the flies never really go away – after a day or two they will be back. So you will need to reset the trap twice a week or so, which is no big deal as it takes around 30 seconds to set it up, while the small effort rewards you with days of peace and extends the lives of the fruit sitting in your fruit basket.

16. PHOTOS OF LOCAL FLOWERS

FLOWERS OF COSTA RICA

Everyone who has visited Costa Rica, especially the more ‘tropical’ southern parts, has been struck by the sheer lushness and colours of the local jungle, parks and gardens. And it is not only about the endless shades of green – most striking are the brilliant flowers, shining in all colours of the rainbow, in shapes and sizes that are unlike what most people have seen before.

While the tropics are drenched in flowers year-round, the best time to see orchids is February to April, and flowering trees is March to April. The explosion of form and colour is a sight to be beheld.

Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse places in the world, holding 5% of the world’s biodiversity while covering only 0.25% of the world’s land area. 9,000 species of flowering plants can be found here, including 1,300 species of orchids. I decided to pick up my camera and show you the variety of flowers that can be seen within a short walk from my house in the hills above Ojochal. The photos were taken in the wilds as well as gardens and private homes of the people who live in the immediate neighbourhood.

15. A WEEKEND TRIP TO PANAMA

WHY PANAMA?

Sometimes, if you’ve been staying around our beautiful South Pacific coast of Costa Rica for a while, you may get itchy feet for a bit of a weekend gateway. A great destination is Panama, especially if you need to pick up some groceries, alcohol, household items, or clothing – being a short hop away, Panama makes a perfect destination for your mini holiday.

Getting to Panama (via bus) and, especially, crossing the border is easy – but it is not simple. There are a lot of moving parts and things you need to know about departing, returning and crossing the frontier, especially since your bus driver will be of little help and signage/instructions are non-existent. However, after reading this blog entry, you will be ready for both an ‘easy’ and ‘simple’ weekend trip to a town of David, Panama, located just an hour away from the Costa Rican border.

REQUIRED DOCUMENTS FOR ENTRY INTO PANAMA

This list is indicative only and you should enquire with proper authorities about what you need to cross the border, especially since things are changing quickly. At the time of writing, all Covid related documentation has been dropped and is no longer required for entry into Panama. In general, be ready with the following:

  • Valid Passport (valid to at least 3 months after the date of entry)
  • Visa – Check with proper authorities, but most visitors will not need a visa – you will be issued with a stamp indicating how long you can stay in Panama, anywhere between 30 to 180 days, depending on the origin of your passport
  • Return ticket out of Panama (your bus ticket)
  • Proof of accommodation in Panama
  • $500 USD cash or proof that you have money, eg. bank statement

UVITA BUS STATION

My journey started in Uvita – the bus station is located smack in the middle of the town, right along Route 34. Your first stop is the ticket office – located on the left side of the bus station, inside a little convenience shop. The ticket TO David can only be purchased from the bus driver when you are boarding (cost 12,000 Colones), however you need to buy your RETURN ticket from the ticket office. Have your passport handy and make sure you keep BOTH printed tickets – they look the same but the bus driver will need to see two. Cost for the return ticket is 12,000 Colones, so it is a 24,000 Colones round trip. Note that the trip, as shown on the ticket, starts and end in San Jose – not Uvita. Don’t ask me why… The bus company is called TRACOPA (Transportes Costarricenses Panameños). Their multi-coloured buses are hard to miss!

Now the fun part – less than half the buses have functioning destination displays, and the station lacks departure/arrival screens and a PA system. So you are on your own! You need to ask one of the bus drivers for the NUMBER of the bus to David. The numbers are painted on the sides and rear ends of the buses and this is what you need to look out for. My bus was over an hour late and, while I waited, no one seemed to know when it will show up. When it finally did pull in, the passengers were let off and stood in a very long line terminating in the little cafeteria inside the bus station. By the time they were finished eating, nearly 45 minutes must have passed.

Uvita bus station. Pay attention to the numbers painted on the bus. They are visible on the sides and the rear end of the bus (circled).

ON THE WAY TO PASO CANOAS BORDER CROSSING

The bus pulled out at 13.00, a bit later than the 11.00 or 11.30 (depends on whom you ask) that was advertised. The Tracopa buses are modern and comfortable, but there are no toilets on board, and forget about wifi! My bus to David was hot as the AC was either absent or not working, while the return bus had a fully functioning AC. The windows do open so at least the breeze was refreshing… A Tip: sit near the front of the bus so that you are among the first to get off at the border, this will allow you to pass through immigration before the crowd and offer you free time to shop, use the toilet, grab a coffee etc. while everyone else is being processed.

The drive between Uvita and Paso Canoas border crossing took just over two hours. The road is scenic and meanders between the ocean and the coastal mountains. Passing lanes are sparse and on a few occasions the bus got stuck behind cyclists and large transport trucks, barely crawling along. There are no stops along the way so take care of everything in Uvita, before boarding the bus.

PASO CANOAS – CROSSING INTO PANAMA

This is where things get fun, hectic, and downright confusing! The bus randomly stopped on the shoulder of Route 34, alongside a building, the driver mentioning us to get off and get in line. This is the COSTA RICAN side of the border, where your passport is checked for not overstaying your visa, exit stamped, and where you pay the Costa Rican ‘exit tax’. I exited the bus and joined the queue, my passport and documents in hand. A short wait later I was speaking with the Customs officer who quickly checked and stamped my passport. Now what? The security guard was pointing at the opposite side of the road. I approached him and was told I need to cross the road to pay the ‘exit tax’.

The Costa Rican side of the border – you will need to get off the bus and wait in line (circled) to get your exit stamp from a Costa Rican customs officer.

The ‘exit tax’ booth is located directly across the highway. There are no pedestrian crossings so you need to carefully negotiate your way through the heavy traffic. The office (or more like booth) is tiny and attached to a restaurant. $9 USD is the required payment, and it appeared to me that Costa Rican nationals were not required to pay this. I was also told conflicting info – that you need to pay the tax first, before seeing the Costa Rican customs officer as you may be asked for a receipt. Well, I didn’t know any better but had no issues. I jogged across the street and quickly paid the exit tax – it seems that only cash is accepted. OK, now what?

The exit tax ‘office’ across the street (circled).

I jogged across the street and once again spoke to the security guard. He mentioned I need to walk down the highway to the Panamanian border crossing. It was a short 5 minute walk but quite confusing – the border building is not marked in any way, and neither are its entrances and exits. You will not find a fence or wall here either, or in fact any sign that you are on the border or any way of knowing where the border is actually located. The area is full of shops, vendors, taxis, pedestrians and heavy traffic, total chaos. I just happened to see a few of my fellow bus passengers lined up in the central building (big structure pained white, blue and red with a PANAMA sign – might have been a clue…) shortly joining them and sweating profusely as we were waiting inside what amounted to a non-air-conditioned greenhouse. The customs process was quick, I was not asked to show any of the documents other than my passport but I did see someone dig in her purse to find the $500 USD requested by the customs officer. A photo and fingerprints of both hands were taken via a digital scanner, and I was soon on my way to the bus.  Our bus was already waiting for us at the side of the building, and it did not seem the driver made sure that everyone was onboard before pulling out – so make sure you don’t wonder out too far!

As we pulled out, the bus went through a bio-security carwash and, a few minutes out of Paso Canoas, a Panamanian border checkpoint – an armed officer entered the bus, had a quick look around and waved us through. We are now on our way to David.

Walking down the highway to the Panamanian customs building (circled).
The Panamanian customs building. The customs area is circled and the entry is marked with an arrow. When exiting Panama, you need to go to the opposite side of the building. Our bus is waiting just behind the yellow arrow.
Our bus waiting besides the Panamanian customs building.
The biosecurity carwash, right behind the colourful Panamanian customs building.

ON THE WAY TO DAVID

After about an hour at the border, we were on our way to David. The scenery changed quickly – jungle, ocean and mountain views morphed into a flat terrain permeated by houses, businesses and strip malls. A welcome addition was a 4-lane highway which made for a fast ride to David – we were there in about an hour, hitting the end of the evening rush hour traffic as we approached the city. The bus pulled into the main bus station, minutes from town centre. I spent the next two nights and three days in David – although there was not much time for exploring, since the first day has just about ended and the third day starts with an 8:30 am bus departure back to Costa Rica.

DAVID

David is not a tourist town, in fact I can count on one hand the number of foreign tourists I saw during my stay. I spent my time walking around the city – the main square and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra Park (teeming with giant Iguanas) and the old colonial neighbourhood called Barrio Bolivar, where you will find the historic Catedral de San Jose de David. There are a few small casinos in the centre of the city and a beach is a short drive away. The local Panamanian currency is the Balboa, however the USD is used and accepted everywhere. I have not seen any Balboa notes, only been given small amounts of Balboa coins as change after paying with USD. Prices are low compared to what you would expect to pay in Costa Rica – a beer in an elevated patio bar, with a view of the main square, cost $1.25. Local food is very cheap as well. The centre of the city is surrounded by markets and countless clothing and electronics shops. Panama has one of the most advanced public water systems in central America and it is generally considered safe to drink the tap water here – though I did not want to risk it and bought a big jug of spring water at the local supermarket. Safety-wise, things felt secure in the immediate centre of the city but can get sketch quickly – I would not recommend venturing out into the historic Barrio Bolivar neighbourhood after dark, and would be cautious even during the day – as there are not many people around and it did not look like the safest area to explore.  Be cautious around the bus station as well. The central city around Miguel Park, however, had a very vibrant and safe vibe.

The city was still celebrating the ’12 Days Of Christmas’. The three photos below were taken at the Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra Park.
The colonial Bolivar neighbourhood with the Catedral de San Jose de David in the background.
A breakfast of meat and pancake in Barrio Bolivar.
A beer at the Iris Hotel.

DEPARTING DAVID

The bus was scheduled to depart at 08:30 from the main bus station in David. I set off early, grabbing a hot coffee on the way. The bus station is a very chaotic place with people, taxis, shops, food carts, vendors, travellers and locals crating a buzzing atmosphere. Most of the buses are mid-sized and white so a big green Tracopa bus was not hard to find. It parked off-side near a grassy knoll making it easy to load the bags and creating a little oasis away from the nearby chaos.

Outside view of the David bus station.
Inside view of the David bus station.
The bus bays.
My Tracopa bus, parked off-side to facilitate boarding.
My Tracopa bus, parked off-side to facilitate boarding.

I waited until everyone boarded to make my way on the bus – so that I could pick the unoccupied seat closest to the door, again to help me be one of the first passengers to get through customs (I had seat number 52 printed on the ticket…). I sat down in the 3rd row and, although the tickets showed a printed seat number this did not seem to be enforced until, at the last minute, a family boarded the bus and a young man had to go back from his 2nd row seat to make room for them, after his real seat number was confirmed by the bus driver. We set off right on schedule, this time in the comfort of air conditioning, and made our way to the border.

PASO CANOAS – BORDER CROSSING INTO COSTA RICA

There is not much to say here except the process is the same as before, except reversed. Now, your first stop is the colourful Panamanian customs building – you just go to the other side. Exact same procedure – show your passport, take a picture, scan fingerprints. And this time, there is no exit tax to pay. Then its on to the Costa Rican customs building, where I showed my passport and the ticket out of Costa Rica, and I’m done! 

REQUIRED DOCUMENTS FOR ENTRY INTO COSTA RICA

This list is indicative only and you should enquire with proper authorities about what you need to cross the border, especially since things are changing quickly. At the time of writing, all Covid related documentation has been dropped and is no longer required for entry. In general, be ready with the following:

  • Valid Passport (valid for at least 6 months after date of arrival)
  • Visa – Check with proper authorities, but most visitors will not need a visa – you will be issued with a stamp indicating how long you can stay in Costa Rica, usually 90 days.
  • Return ticket out of Costa Rica – should be a bus or airline ticket
  • Proof of accommodation in Costa Rica
  • Bank statement showing you have the funds to stay in Costa Rica
  • You need to stay in Panama for at least 72 hours before you are granted a new Costa Rica visa – although I stayed for two nights (around 45 hours), and some people claim one night is still being accepted. Gather your own information about this, but it is always better to be safe vs sorry.

A WORD OF ADVICE

  • Double check bus schedules and departure times – often these are conflicting. To be safe show up, with time to spare, for the earliest bus departure time especially since buses have been known to leave early.
  • Always read TripAdvisor reviews to be aware of all potential issues – for example pull up the Tracopa review page and read, especially, the 1 or 2 star reviews.
  • Always carry around spare change for the toilets – this is not as much an issue in Costa Rica, but is more common in Panama.
  • Conflicting information is everywhere – such as entry requirements into both Panama and Costa Rica, bus departure times, minimum length of stay in Panama – check with multiple sources and when it doubt be prepared for the most stringent option.
  • Make sure to be careful and aware of your safety and belongings at all times.

A GREAT WEEKEND

I thoroughly enjoyed my trip, it was nice to see another country and get a bit of a break from the jungle. I will definitely be going back, perhaps in another 90 days, give or take.

14. CONSTRUCTION INSPECTION

SOMETIMES WE NEED TO GET DOWN AND DIRTY

Being A RE/MAX franchise is not all about dressing up for catered open houses, fancy all-inclusive conventions in the most beautiful part of the globe or closing multi-million dollar deals in air conditioned offices. Sometimes we need to grab a cold drink and head out into the tropical heat and humidity to visit construction zones high up in the mountains overlooking the South Pacific coast.

A MORNING IN THE HILLS

It was shaping up to me a quiet morning of work in the office when a client dropped in and invited Ben and Heather to inspect two properties, under construction, located high over Tres Rios. After quickly gathering their camera gear and securing a cold drink to enjoy on the way up, we set off. Luckily the client offered to drive and her Land Cruiser, with space, comfort, and power was the perfect vehicle for the trek.

Ben and Heather on the way to the hills.

THE FIRST PROPERTY

The gravel road snaked her way through the hills, climbing slowly and then steeply – several river crossing were easily negotiated by the Land Cruiser and after about 30 minutes we stopped by the first property. The property was small and compact, with the house extending over most of the lot. However the view was amazing, straight down a valley that terminated at the blue ocean hundreds of metres below.

Ben snapped a few photos of the ocean view then joined Heather in inspecting the construction progress, chatting with the client and the workers who were busily scampering about.

Ben snapping the ocean view from the first property.
Ben amd Heather inspectiong the first property.
On the way to the second property.

THE SECOND PROPERTY

The second property was a few hills away. After a 10 minute drive, a river crossings, and climbing up and down a few steep and dusty hills we arrived on location. This was a much larger property with perhaps a dozen workers involved in all stages of work.

Ben and Heather inspected all areas of the house, chatted with the foreman and workers, looked over house plans, and took photos of the progress.

By now it was getting hot and the unrelenting sun was hanging high overhead. We made our way to the Land Cruiser, flipped the AC and headed down to the office.

Back to the office!

THE NEXT BIG THING?

The hills behind Tres Rios are an up-and-coming development area; beautiful ocean views, mountain rivers, and a lush jungle will make it a premier spot to live, retire, or visit during a holiday stay. I am sure holiday rentals will be very lucrative as well. There was considerable construction happening up and down the access roads, however many lots sat empty or were put up for sale.

Costa Rica is a true paradise – our beaches, wildlife, breath-taking landscapes and a beautiful life can be more than just a vacation fantasy – if you are ready to move here to retire, work remotely, start a business, or buy a vacation home, the easiest way for you to take the first step is an email or phone call to RE/MAX We Sell Paradise – visit them here https://www.we-sell-paradise.com/. The ocean views are waiting!

13. A TRIP TO GARZA ISLAND

SOMETHING DIFFERENT

While still incredibly scenic, clean, natural and safe, the numerous beaches lining the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica can, at times, get a little busy. Locals, expats and tourists flock to these natural wonders in increasing numbers as the area becomes more popular and beach access roads turn from ‘4WD Only’ to ‘Honda Civic Compatible’.  At times, parking can be an issue – this is especially true during weekends, holidays, and especially the tourist season.

But those of us who have lived here for a while can always suggest a few hidden gems, unknown to the masses and a bit off the beaten tourist path.  This is why I was somewhat reluctant to dedicate this blog to our recent trip to Garza Island, with her kilometres of beautiful, pristine, and empty Pacific beaches. A 10-minute boat ride brings you to the Costa Rica of 20 years ago.

Ben and Heather inspecting Garza Beach at low tide.

How to get there?

Getting there is easy, and a bit adventurous. Heading South along Route 34, the turn-off is to the right just after passing Playa Tortuga. The turn-off may be a bit hard to spot, so use your GPS and head for the Mica Linda Bar and Restaurant which sits right next to the boat launch. Once you turn off Route 34, a short dirt road will bring you to a little group of huts, bars and restaurants. You will be directed to park your car in a dirt field adjacent to the huts and buildings, for a small charge of 3000 Colones.

The map shows the general and close-up views of Garza Island and the boat launch area (circled). Credit: Google Maps.
Beach shacks / restaurants / pubs.
View of the shore area.
Parking area.

The next point of business was a quick drink to celebrate our upcoming adventure and loosen up before the boat trip to the island. A small open-aired bar shack /restaurant, right at the edge of the water (more about that towards the end of the blog) was the perfect pit stop. A few shots of chilli water and we were all happy, well-hydrated and ready for the beach.

A quick drink of chilli water before we set off.

Time to hit the open seas – or closed seas, as we just happened to get to the shore at the peak of the King Low Tide – and so a long walk towards the water was in order. The boat and our driver were waiting by the water’s edge, ready to help us hop inside. The boat itself was fairly small but stable, with no coverings overhead – our return boat was much better equipped. But all is well as the ride itself takes just a few minutes and the weather was perfect.

Ben and Heather walking across the mud flats towards the waiting boat.
Hopping into our ride.

As I mentioned, the tide was very low, one of the lowest of the year. This presented a few issues as the navigation was not as straight-forward as it was on our return trip when the tide was at its high peak. Numerous obstacles had to be carefully negated and a curved path and lower speed were necessary to safely get us across. Just 10 seconds into our journey the propeller became entangled in an anchor line which required a few minutes of work to be set free. The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful and we were left to enjoy the views of the cloud shrouded mountains and take turns being on ‘crocodile watch’, as the crocs are known to inhabit this area and especially like to hang out around brackish water and mangroves.

Our driver and some shore help working to untangle the propeller.
Approaching our landing location on Garza Island.

After a few minutes we approached the ’land facing’ banks of Garza Island. The low tide uncovered a big section of the muddy bank which made for an easy exit from the boat. We jumped onto dry land, grabbed our belongings, and set off for a quick walk across to the opposite, ‘ocean facing’ side of the island.

Ben and Heather preparing for the walk across Garza Island. Our boat departs in the background.

GARZA ISLAND

It took a few minutes to walk from the ‘land’ to the ‘ocean’ side of the island. When we arrived at our destination, it was nearly deserted; just a few other people could be seen walking the beach hundreds of meters away. We quickly set up camp under a grove of dwarf coconut trees that lined sections of the beach. The extra low tide uncovered a huge section of the beach and soon we were scampering around looking for cool shells and lost treasures, with a cold drink in hand of course. Sunny weather with a few fluffy clouds and a nice sea breeze made for the perfect atmosphere.

Ben and Heather setting up camp under a Coconut grove.
Relaxing on Garza Island.
Relaxing on Garza Island.

Many hours were spent in conversation, listening to music, walking along the beach, collecting coconuts and swimming in the waves. A thunderstorm stayed far offshore sending a stiff and refreshing breeze our way. We also pulled some fishing nets out of the water as they were drifting in the waves and could have spelled trouble for fish, turtles and seabirds. The nets were placed in one of the rubbish bins next to a beach shack that, in busier times, probably awakens as a tropical bar and restaurant. After packing up and saying goodbye to this amazing beach we made our way to the ‘land’ side of the island where our driver arrived shortly thereafter. This boat was bigger and included a canopy. And because we were now at the height of the King High Tide, the ride back was quick and direct.

On our way back to the mainland.

BACK ON THE MAINLAND

Now back to the bar shack where we downed a few chilli waters before our departure – the King High Tide made for a spectacle as the waves were now crashing into the floor and flowing across into the kitchen. Frolicking kids had a hell of a time playing in the waves; and other patrons were amused and taking plenty of photos. We joined in, stopping for a quick drink and taking part in the watery fun.

The King Tide creating a very unique atmosphere.

We soon decided a proper meal was in order, so a quick drive saw us inside the Terraba restaurant, finishing the day with a great meal of steak and shrimps. It was a great day that felt like a mini-vacation even though everything we did was right in our back yard – I highly recommend this trip to anyone who wants to have ‘day at the beach’ with a bit of extra fun and adventure.

Finishing the day with steak and shrimps at Terraba Restaurant.

12. COSTA RICA’S DARK BEACHES

Why are most Costa Rican beaches dark?

Most people who ask this question get the standard answer – the sand is ‘volcanic’. But there is so much more to this story and to the details and history behind our beautiful grey and black beaches!

Dark-sanded Playa Ventanas near Ojochal.
Another dark-sanded beach – Playa Jaco.

Our beaches are breath-taking and very diverse.

Costa Rican beaches are famous around the world – unspoiled, nature immersed, lined by lush jungles, coconut groves and majestic mountains, always warm and welcoming. The dark sand creates a spectacular, exotic contrast which holiday pictures are famous for: blue skies, white clouds, green mountains, foaming waves and, in between, dark and pristine stretches of sand. But we also have beaches of all shades and colours – including golden and pink! Add to that the constant mixing and rearranging of sand by ocean currents, and the sand colour options become endless!  Let’s get back to the volcanoes and our dark sand first.

Why are there so many volcanoes in Costa Rica?

Costa Rica’s story starts under the sea. Over the past 50 million years two submerged tectonic plates – Cocos and Caribbean – have pushed against each other, forcing underwater volcanos to form, rise to the surface of the ocean and reach for the skies as a string of volcanic islands (the Cocos plate sinks under the Caribbean Plate, over which Costa Rica sits, moving at about 8 cm per year). Only 3-4 million years ago the continued action of the plates, the material eroded from the volcanic islands and heaps of lava that flowed from their cones built up layers of land between the volcanic islands and ‘connected’ them, creating a land bridge that joined North and South America – this land bridge is Costa Rica (and many of our neighbouring countries). So Costa Rica is, fully and truly, a volcanic nation, with 5 active volcanoes and over 200 dormant and extinct volcanoes and volcanic formations.

Arenal Volcano, a source of some of Costa Rica’s dark sand. Credit: Wikipedia.

How do the volcanoes create sand?

As the volcanoes erode, the boulders, rocks and pebbles are washed down the rivers towards the coastlines of Costa Rica, where ocean waves slowly but constantly pound and grind them into the sand that adorns our beaches. Because most of the volcanic material is dark, this creates dark shades of sand.

But wait…what about our other, brighter beaches?

While usually dark, our volcanic rocks can come in many shades – for example, Rhyolite is lighter in colour (and can even come in pink), Andesite comes in all shades of grey, while Dacite can be grey, brown, or even pink or yellow when weathered. So the volcanic sand can give us a plethora of colours, shades and brightness, though the default seems to be darker grey. Playa Ventanas near Uvita is a beautiful and unique grey sanded beach. Playas Jaco and Hermosa are grey sanded beaches located near Jaco, both being world famous surfing destinations. Playa Carbon near Tamarindo is perhaps the darkest sanded beach in Costa Rica.

Our brighter and golden beaches have two main origins – brighter volcanic rocks or bright shells and coral. The rocks, shells and coral are smashed and broken into the lighter shaded sand by wave action. Playa Flamingo on the Nicoya Peninsula is a very popular golden sand beach, and one of Costa Rica’s favourites. Other golden beaches include Playa Blanca near Jaco and Playa Manuel Antonio near Quepos.

Pink sand beaches in Costa Rica? Yup, we have a few! Pink sand is usually made up of coral and seashells – think of the common white and pink conch shell being sold by beachside vendors. Waves smash and break the shells and coral into tiny pieces that give the pink beaches their surreal hues. Another culprit is a tiny single celled organism called foraminifera – their microscopic pink shells give a light pinkish colouring to the sand. While Costa Rica’s pink beaches are not as vibrant as those you can find in the Caribbean islands, Playa Conchal near Tamarindo is a beautiful destination with subtle pink hues in its sand.

A Queen Conch – when broken and ground up by wave actions, these types of shells can turn into white and pink sand. Credit: Wikipedia.

Costa Rica is a true paradise – our beaches, wildlife, breath-taking landscapes and a beautiful life can be more than just a vacation fantasy – if you are ready to move here to retire, work remotely, start a business, or buy a vacation home, the easiest way for you to take the first step is an email or phone call to RE/MAX We Sell Paradise – visit them here https://www.we-sell-paradise.com/. The beaches are waiting!

Playa Ventanas, a very unique dark-sanded beach.

11. CASCADA EL PAVON

PAVON WATERFALL

Just around the corner from Ojochal sits a hidden gem – a beautiful jungle waterfall (with a bonus swim hole), a perfect Instagram photo that captures the true essence and wilderness of Costa Rica.

Cascada El Pavon (Peacock Waterfall) is very mysterious – and not just due to its location or surroundings – as you will not find much information about this cascada on the internet. Maybe it is a good thing, as the crowds would definitely take away from its allure. When I visited the location in November, at times my group of friends were the only people there – so the views, the vibe and the swim hole were a truly unique and personal experience.

Cascada El Pavon during the wet season, with high waterflow and a large swim hole.

ABOUT THE WATERFALL

Cascada El Pavon is not a high waterfall, clocking in at just a few metres. But what it lacks in height it makes up for in its charm – the waterfall squeezes its way between two giant rocks which are crossed by a big round boulder (from now on called ‘the pebble’) which hangs over the swim hole. I have never seen a waterfall quite like this!

A lush jungle surrounds the waterfall on all sides, adding to the ‘nature immersion’ vibe. Tall trees, perched on the riverbanks, stretch out in every direction, their shade providing constant relief from the tropical sun.

HOW DO I GET TO CASCADA EL PAVON?

Getting there is easy, well, most of the time – a 3.8 km slog up a gravel road called Calle Vergel. The turn-off onto Calle Vergel is located on Highway 34 between the towns of Ojochal and Tres Rios and can be easy to miss so pay attention to the GPS map.

As you leave Highway 34, turn onto Calle Vergel (the turn is towards the East, or towards the mountain side of the road). Calle Vergel is usually passable for all vehicles. It is made of gravel adn packed earth but has some portions can be rocky, muddy or washed out. There are no big hills, but the ride is fairly up-and-down. As you approach the waterfall, you will usually see cars parked on the left side of the road. Park here and follow a short jungle path that will take you towards the waterfall and swim hole – the entrance to the jungle path is marked with signs. Take care as the path can be very slippery.

As you approach the waterfall, stone steps take you down to the edge of the swim hole. Depending on water level, the steps may be met by water or a small pebble beach. If the water is high, there may not be much room for you to store your belongings, so especially in the wet season consider minimising your load.

Now back to the start: at times, Calle Vergel can be impassable to non 4WD cars. This usually happens after heavy rains or if there has been a landslip. So if you are not driving an appropriate vehicle, an especially after a period of bad weather, it would pay to check if the road is damaged or blocked – placing the question on the local Facebook expat page would be useful for this.

Location of Cascada El Pavon. Credit: Google Maps.
This is the start of Calle Vergel, the access road to the waterfall. As you can see, it can be very easy to miss!

WET SEASON vs DRY SEASON

When is the best time to visit the waterfall?

During the dry season, generally January to April, due to the reduced water flow the ‘pebble’ in the middle of the waterfall is much more distinct. Also a little ‘beach’ emerges at the edge of the swim hole, giving additional space to sit, store your belongings, and enjoy a sandwich or a glass of wine. Due to the low waterflow you can also swim to the base of the waterfall for a quick shower and an unforgettable experience (and photos).  However the dry season is the ‘busy’ season, so you may encounter crowds, commotion, and a longer walk from your car.

The wet season, generally May to December, is very quiet so chances are the crowds will be small or non existent – you may in fact be the only one there! On the flip side, the high waterflow can somewhat obscure the ‘pebble’ making it not as distinct and noticeable (although the waterfall is still spectacular and worthy of a visit), and the little beach beside the swim hole disappears under the river. It is also very tough (or for me, impossible) to swim to the base of the waterfall as the water current is too strong and will soon carry you back to the edge of the swim hole. The access road may also be in a tougher shape, especially after prolonged rains.

A NOTE OF CAUTION

Like in all areas of Costa Rica, petty crime exists and thieves are always looking for opportunities. So ensure you secure your vehicle by locking all doors, closing the windows, and not leaving any valuables inside your car especially on the seats or any areas that can be visible from the outside (this is as valid for a jungle side-of-the-road location as it is for a busy, secure and patrolled carpark near a major supermarket).

Also, and especially important in the wet season when the water is high and fast – be cautious of the rapids below the waterfall. It is best to stay back and not attempt to climb down to the bubble pools downstream as the rocks are slippery and the current can be stronger than you think!

ENJOY!

While fairly obscure and not located on many tourist maps, this little gem of a waterfall gets top grades from the visitors to the Ojochal area, and the experience (and photos) are truly one of a kind. It would be a crime for you to visit our area and not make at least a quick trip to the Cascada El Pavon.

10. OUR GREAT GREEN MACAWS

GREEN MACAWS

My recent blog introduced the readers to the Scarlett Macaw. Today I will talk about Costa Rica’s other Macaw specie, much rarer and much more limited in range but equally magnificent – the aptly named Great Green Macaw, or Ara Ambiguus.

WHAT DO GREEN MACAWS LOOK LIKE?

As the name suggest, Great Green Macaws are predominantly green in plumage, except for a red forehead, blue wing tips, upper back and lower tail feathers, and a brownish-red tail tipped with blue feathers. These are large birds, about 90 cm in length, a bit longer and heavier than the Scarlett Macaw – the Great Green Macaw is, in fact, the second biggest parrot in the world.

A pair of Green Macaws. Credit: Wikipedia.

WHERE CAN I SEE GREEN MACAWS IN COSTA RICA?

Green Macaws can be found in a narrow belt running along the Caribbean shore and northern border areas of Costa Rica. They prefer the high canopies of humid and wet lowland tropical forests. The current range of these birds represent just 10% of its historical range in Costa Rica – a huge reduction. The best places for catching a glimpse of these birds are in the north-eastern corner of the country and along the border with Nicaragua, eg. Tortuguero National Park, Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Barra del Colorado, Barra del Colorado Wildlife Refuge, and Sarapiqui. A seasonal population also exists inland in Braulio Carrillo National Park, and in the south-eastern tip of Costa Rica, the Gandoca – Manzanillo National Refuge is a home of a Green Macaw breeding program release station called ‘Ara Manzanillo’ (https://aramanzanillo.org/about/background/)

Green Macaw range. SOurce: Wikipedia.

ARE GREEN MACAWS IN TROUBLE?

While Scarlett Macaws are not in danger of extinction and are widespread across their range, Green Macaws do not share this rosy fate. They are critically endangered and very rare in Cost Rica and across all of their current range, which is confined to isolated areas of Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador. It is estimated that fewer than 200 of these birds live in Costa Rica, with a total global population of perhaps 2500-3000 Green Macaws, but potentially as low as 500-1000 – there is obviously much uncertainty about these numbers, but any way you look at it – these birds are in trouble.

WHY ARE GREEN MACAWS FACING SUCH AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE?

Green Macaws have a special affinity for the Mountain Almond tree – not only utilizing its fruit seeds as a main source of food, but also choosing it as a favourite nesting location – over 90% of Costa Rica’s Green Macaw nests have been found high up in the safety of natural cavities inside Mountain Almonds. Unfortunately for the birds, this particular tree is prized for its lumber, being very hard (one of the hardest trees in the world) and thus durable and termite-resistant. Mountain Almonds have not been logged until the mid-1980s, when special carbon steel and diamond tipped chainsaw blades were developed to cope with their ultra-tough wood, the heavy lumber soon becoming a favourite for construction of hardy structures like railroad components and bridges as well as high impact sporting equipment. Thus, in a few short decades, the tree has been logged heavily, uncontrollably and relentlessly until 2008, when harvesting of the Mountain Almond was banned as both the tree and the Green Macaws were well on their way to extinction in Costa Rica.

It is interesting to note that the Beach Almond tree, introduced to Costa Rica around the turn of the last century and since then becoming widespread and common, has become a favourite food of the Scarlett Macaw helping these birds deal with the pressures of deforestation and pet trade. Green Macaws, however, never took to the Beach Almond (not a true almond, by the way) but to this day continue their daily trips into the hills in search of their favourite Mountain Almond trees – although recently reports indicate they have started to sample Beach Almond fruit, which is a very encouraging sign.

Another culprit in the crisis is deforestation – over the past few generations, huge swaths of Green Macaws’ favourite old growth coastal rainforests have been cleared to make way for pineapple and banana plantations – of course thus destroying the tall trees that provided them shelter and protection. This was a result of Costa Rica’s aggressive agriculture development policy which decimated the forests between the 19950s and 1990s – thankfully the picture has now reversed, with reforestation efforts being front of the agenda, and wide-ranging logging controls and bans being in place since 1996.

But the damage has been done, and now both the Mountain Almond tree and the parrot are endangered in Costa Rica.

SO WHAT HAPPENS NOW?

The Green Macaw has become a potent symbol of conservation and preservation across Costa Rica. People come from all over the world to catch a glimpse of these unique birds – which is great for the Macaws. The government of Costa Rica, together with private lodges and businesses, conservation associations and non-profit organisations are doing amazing work to reverse the decline of the Green Macaws. Breeding and repopulation programs together with efforts to plant Mountain Almond trees are beginning to make a big difference.

Green Macaws on the wing. Credit: Wikipedia.

HOW CAN I HELP?

The best way to help is to financially support efforts to replant and protect the Mountain Almonds and ongoing breeding and release programs. Many of the organisations working to help Green Macaws accept donations. If you are in Costa Rica, you can take part in the planting of Mountain Almond trees, or volunteer with a breeding program organization.  If you are not here you can send donations or ‘adopt’ a living Mountain Almond tree. Another way to help is to support businesses which ‘make their living’ from Green Macaws – lodges, tour companies, and the businesses located near Green Macaw habitats, for example the National Parks and Wildlife Refuges mentioned earlier in this article.

See the links below to help out and find more information – this list is not exhaustive, so have a google search form more organisations that help Green Macaws in Costa Rica.

https://macawconservation.org/

https://macawrecoverynetwork.org/

Green Macaw feeding. Credit: Wikipedia.

9. VACATION WITH BENEFITS

WHY COSTA RICA?

A simple tropical vacation just doesn’t cut it anymore. A rapidly increasing number of people visit Costa Rica not only for the wildlife, beaches, nature, or thrilling activities – although these would definitely warrant a great vacation on their own! After the thrill of experiencing Pura Vida, they may sneak in a little ‘nip and tuck’ before making their way home. Or they may visit a local dentist or day surgery clinic for some necessary work and adjustments. Medical and Cosmetic Tourism is an established and well-known global phenomenon, with Costa Rica turning into the perfect destination when considering proximity, safety, quality, timeliness and price.

WHY COSTA RICA?

Many factors conspire to make Costa Rica the perfect Medical and Cosmetic Tourism destination. The main one is the quality of care provided here – local health professionals often study abroad, receiving the highest quality of qualifications – these surgeons and doctors then return to practice in Costa Rica and happily take on foreign clients. Local private hospitals and health care facilities are comparable to those in western nations, with very high levels of quality and safety being expected and provided. The capital, San Jose, holds the densest and best-equipped health infrastructure in Central America, and is home to Central America’s best-rated private hospital – Hospital Clinica Biblica, and the 8th best-rates private hospital.

What makes the health services stand apart, however, is the price – while Costa Rica is not the cheapest destination for medical and cosmetic work, procedures here cost a fraction of what they would cost back home (discounts of 50%-80% are common), and often the waiting period is very short – so a procedure booking can easily be made to coincide with an upcoming vacation, with the money saved often being enough to pay for the rest of the trip!

Proximity is also a factor – Costa Rica is a short flight away from the main Medical and Cosmetic Tourism markets in Canada and the USA. Europe, although a bit further, is still within a day’s travel time away. Being a major vacation destination, flight into Costa Rica are frequent and economical.

And getting here is not complicated – Costa Rica has a ‘no visa’ arrangement with 96 countries allowing for a 90 day stay, facilitating the travel process and allowing for a wide time horizon for more serious procedures which may require a longer recovery time.

The CIMA medical centre in San Jose, one of the best hospitals in Central America and a popular medical tourism destination.

FIRST HAND EXPERIENCE

What  is it like to go under the knife (or dental drill) in Costa Rica? A local expat shares her recent experience:

TO ADD IN MATERIAL ABOUT HER DENTAL AND COSMETIC WORK

SERVICES AVAILABLE

There are no limits to the type of medical or cosmetic work that can be done in Costa Rica. However, these are the more popular procedures:

  • Dental Work, medical and cosmetic
  • Laser Eye Surgery
  • General Plastic Surgery
  • Breast Augmentation
  • IVF / Fertility Treatments
  • Hysterectomy
  • Heart Surgery
  • Orthopaedic Surgery
  • Joint Treatment / Replacement
  • Addiction Recovery
  • Alternative Treatments
Dental work, including medical and cosmetic surgery, is popular with medical tourists in Costa Rica. Credit: MS Word Stock Image.

BEFORE YOU GO

If you decide to consider visiting Costa Rica for medical or cosmetic work, ensure you thoroughly research the medical facility and the reputation of relevant doctors / surgeons / practitioners, including confirming qualifications, accreditations, licenses and seeking reviews of services. It is important to carry appropriate insurance in case there are complications, as this is a possibility anywhere in the world. You may also wish to speak with your home doctor and discuss your plans and follow up treatment at home, just to confirm that ‘all is good’. If your surgery is long, complicated, or requires a long recovery period, consider bringing a friend or family member to be there in case you need an extra hand. It can be a good idea to use a medical tourism services provider to help you adequately prepare and ensure you are aware of all risks and requirements – as I am only stating general information here and not giving advice.