General Notes on Costa Rica

– In general pedestrians do not have the right of way unless you have an actual green walking man symbol.

– The bus system in Costa Rica runs less frequently and is less reliable that the bus systems in other Central American countries AND the cost is higher. One would hope that if you were going to pay more you would actually get more out of the situation. Sadly, this is not the case in Costa Rica. If you’re traveling with multiple people or plan to visit several locations during your trip, especially if remote, consider a rental car as a transportation alternative just know that you will end up paying more than the advertised price (see my other blog entry regarding this issue). For a week’s rental from Nu Rental Cars, we ended up paying $231USD but were told that it would cost less than $50USD for the rental.

– Know that any transportation that you undertake will take longer than you were expecting. Plan accordingly and add about 50% to your travel time.

– Uber does operate in San Jose but under the radar of the government. Sit up front with the driver to avoid issues with police. Use caution when using Uber though as we had a 50% rate of the drivers trying to take us the long way to charge us more. This is the same complaint I have read about regarding the taxis that do not have or use a meter.

– Bring your own alcohol as it can get expensive. You can legally bring in up to 5 liters of alcohol per person if you are over 18 years old.

– There were a lot of vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free options in the towns I visited. Enjoy the alternative-diet friendly atmosphere.

– Most hotels and hostels that I stayed at during this trip did not have A/C so it’s prudent to consider reserving rooms that have fans.

– I visited at the tail end of the dry season, which made most of the access to trails, rivers, etc. very accessible and in some cases, even just possible. Conditions are likely much different during the wet season and in some cases we were told that some trails (and even roads) become impassable.

– If you speak Spanish and are on a budget, I would recommend going to Nicaragua instead. You will save a lot of money and can see a lot of the same natural wonders. If you do not speak Spanish, do your research and try and save yourself some money in Costa Rica.

 

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General Notes on Costa Rica

El Castillo, Costa Rica

We drove from San Jose to the small town of El Castillo near La Fortuna and stayed a few nights. It is definitely a lot easier to visit this area with a rental car. The town of La Fortuna is a good base for doing activities in the area but I am really happy we stayed further out in El Castillo; La Fortuna definitely felt very touristy and more like a little city. Where we stayed was much more comfortable and closer to nature. We stayed at a small hotel and farm called Essence Arenal. For the three of us, the cost came out to about $25USD per person per night. The hotel is part of a working farm so you can tour the land on your own or with someone from the hotel. Also, most of the food that is served at the hotel is from the farm. They offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner at $6USD, $7.50USD, and $12.50USD respectively and all meals are vegetarian. We really enjoyed the views and the hospitality.

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The view of Arenal from our hotel in El Castillo.

There’s also a small restaurant just up the road called Comidas rapidas la pequeña that was more affordable and very delicious; some of the best food we had while in the area. Definitely get the fried chicken and the patacones. We also drove down into the town of El Castillo for lunch one day and ate at Restaurante Amigos and Pizza John’s. At Restaurante Amigos, the food was very delicious, though the portions were small. Pizza John’s was surprisingly good. Three of us ordered two pizza’s and had more than enough to share. The owner makes the dough (and the mojitos!) from scratch every day. It’s a lovely place to sit upstairs and take in the view.

While in the area we, rented kayaks on Lake Arenal. Our hotel arranged it with someone in town and we drove down to one of the two boat launches. We paid $20USD per person for the day and were gone about 3 hours.

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We also hiked Cerro Chato from the El Castillo side. When doing research, some websites and blogs said that this hike to the volcano lake at the top had been closed, but we did not find that to be true. We drove towards the Volcano Arenal Observatory but right before the entrance to the observatory is another parking lot with a sign that says “Hike Cerro Chato.” We asked a lot of questions at the entrance as we had heard this could be the wrong trail, but, in fact, it was the correct trail. It cost about $10USD per person and we were given a map which was not very helpful. We were also told that the hike would take about 2 hours up and 2 hours down but it definitely took us closer to 3 each way. I am definitely a slow hiker and this was by far the most difficult hike I have ever done but it was very invigorating and getting to the lake in the crater was pretty amazing. There are definitely spots on the hike where you are climbing over large rocks. I am only 5’3″ and do not have a lot of upper body strength so this was definitely difficult for me and I would have had a very hard time if I would have been by myself. I would also note that when we hiked Cerro Chato, it was the end of the dry season (early April) and it had not rained in at least four or five days. This definitely made it easier as I cannot imagine being able to complete the hike if it had rained recently as everything would be so slick and muddy.

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Here we are scrabbling down of the many hills on our way up Cerro Chato.

We also drove down to the river that runs just east of El Castillo. This is technically a road crossing when the river is low and we watched a handful of SUVs cross the river, but we were just there to bask in its cold water to help out our sore muscles. We read that there are some free hot springs in one of the rivers nearby but due to sunburn we did not partake.

Overall I really enjoyed our time in El Castillo. It was very relaxing but there are lots of options of things to do nearby including hiking trails that you can do on your own or with a guide. This area was definitely much easier to visit with a rental car. The roads are very bumpy and it would be very strenuous to walk to and from the town of El Castillo from where we stayed, and the public transportation was spotty at best.

El Castillo, Costa Rica

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

We arrived in Puerto Viejo during Santa Semana so the town was definitely busier than normal but was still a great place to visit. We stayed at Casitas La Playa next door to Rocking J’s hostel. We enjoyed being a bit further from town, about 20 minutes walk as the center could get pretty crowded. Rocking J’s plays music late into the night but it was nothing earplugs couldn’t fix. The staff at Casitas La Playa were friendly and helpful and we really felt at home there.

There are multiple small beaches up and down the coast to choose from (including one just a few minutes walk south that has more sand then rocks though it is very shallow). In general, it’s a very rocky coast but there are areas where the water is calmer but does not get deep unless you go out past the rocks.

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We found some delicious food while we were in town though the prices were higher then we were expecting. One of our favorites was Soda Shekina for tasty home cooking. The average plate with a drink cost about $5,000CRC.

We also really liked Monli’s (not to be mistaken for Monti’s next door). We had a few of the fish specials and drinks so the bill definitely added up quickly. But the food and the service were lovely. The mahi mahi special was around $10,000CRC.

For a change of pace, we checked out Soul Surfer for burgers one night. The change was a nice one and we were all happy with our options. They even had two different vegetarian options.

We were also able to eat at the Colombian empanada and arepas place that is right next to Soul Surfer. We came by a few times and they’re weren’t open but we finally connected and it was worth the wait. One arepa is definitely big enough for a light meal as we found out the hard way when we also ordered empanadas and two arepas. We had a heavy lunch but it was very delicious and cost about $9,000CRC for 2 people.

While on the Caribbean coast, we visited the Jaguar Rescue Center in Cocles. For around $20USD per person, we were given a tour of the grounds and introduced to a wide array of animals. We really enjoyed our time there though had to walk there from Puerto Viejo due to the lack of buses and taxis.

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We got to meet this little guy. He was snuggled in a basket with his other sloth friends.

Once again, it’s the buses that really mess things up. This is the first time that I have been in a town in Central America that did not have frequent local bus service or use colectivos or combis to shuttle people from town to town or from one side of a bigger town to the other. The fact that the bus only ran every two hours was very frustrating. I’m not sure if this is a way to force tourists to rent bikes or pay for taxis (which were hard to find) but sadly that is what I would recommend. When the bus would come by, it was a great, cheap option (and the price is based on how far you travel on the bus) but it was so frustrating to try and time it right. Shockingly, the buses didn’t exactly run on time. There are buses that will take you south to Manzanillo and Punta Uva (as well as up north to Cahuita) but catching one was such a pain. So I would recommend renting bikes.  We rented bikes for $3,300CRC for the day.

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

San Jose, Costa Rica

We headed down to Costa Rica for our nephew’s Spring Break which also happened to be Holy Week. While we would not have chosen this time frame, it’s what we had to work with. Over the next few weeks, we bounced back to San Jose to say goodbye to family and say hello to a friend who was joining us for the second half of our trip. In total, we spent six nights in San Jose.

We spent our first two days wandering the city and getting a feel for the place. We ate in the central mercado which was pretty tasty. It’s not a huge market but was fun to wander through and find a crowded soda to eat in. We also wandered through the artists’ mercado a few blocks away which was worth a look.

We took the free walking tour that begins in front of the National Theater at 9am, rain or shine. It was not one of the best free walking tours we have been on, but we received some interesting history about Costa Rica and the capital.

For our first few nights in the city, we stayed at the Holiday Inn Aurola on reward points and while the hotel was incredibly nice and we really enjoyed our stay there, I cannot comment on its cost and value. Note to those who might stay at this Holiday Inn; there seem to be multiple hotels in San Jose called ‘Holiday Inn.’ When we typed the name into the Uber app, multiple locations popped up. I would recommend using the location of Park Morazan which is in front of Holiday Inn Aurola.

We we returned to the capital a week later and checked into a small hotel called Kekoldi Garden Hotel. It is located a few blocks north of the Holiday Inn. We had a lovely stay with a cost of $50USD for a double room. Our room was modest but comfortable. The real draw of the hotel is the enclosed garden which most of the rooms face.

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The garden is a small oasis in a bustling city.

I think the only draw back to staying in this area of the city is that most restaurants and shops closed around 8pm leaving very few options of things to do at night.

On our last visit to San Jose, we chose to stay in the upscale barrio of Escalante. While the bars and restaurants in the area are not budget friendly, it was a nice change to have somewhere to go in the evenings. We stayed at the Hotel Finca Escalante which is located just steps from some amazing bars and restaurants.

Of all of the options in the neighborhood, I definitely enjoyed Impar and Apotecario the most. While neither were what I would call cheap, they both had delicious options and were a nice change from standard Costa Rican food. At Apotecario, we had the chile con carne, a deliciously flavored soup, the Mediterranean plate, and a round of drinks for about $20,000CRC. We grabbed lunch at Impar and shared a few appetizers. And while the food totally hit the spot (octopus tostadas, mushroom lasagna, and meatballs with spinach), our meal cost about $17,000CRC.

We also decided to splurge a little more and check out some of the many beer bars around Escalante. I think our favorite was Casa Brew Garden as the setup was pretty interesting and the beer list was very extensive. We also visited Wilk Craft Beer and Lupulus Beer Shop. We stopped by the Costa Rica Beer Factory but left when we looked at the menu. The prices were just too astonishing for us to stay. We drew the line at an appetizer of bacon wrapped dates for $11USD.

We also checked out Mercado Escalante. It’s a collection of stalls serving different foods and drinks. I definitely recommend the pork sandwich stall in the back corner. Just pay attention and order under the Orden Aqui sign. There is another similar “mercado” down the street called El Jardin de Lolita. Both places are worth a visit.

While walking around during the day, we did notice that there were a lot of small restaurants with menu del dias on 9th Avenue right around a hospital. If I had more time, I would definitely check out some of these small coffee shops and restaurants as well.

Getting around San Jose is pretty easy on foot and Uber does operate in the capital. Now, if you want to leave San Jose, here’s where things get tricky. The bus system is incredibly decentralized. It seems like every bus line or destination has its own terminal which becomes very confusing. We took a bus out to the town of San Isidro and had a hard time finding the bus station because the bus that goes to San Isidro (in the province of Heredia) is not the same bus station for the buses that goes to Heredia.

map san isidro bus station

We wanted to visit the Toucan Rescue Ranch which is just outside of San Isidro. While the center itself was very interesting and the animals were well cared for, I’m not sure if the cost ($35USD per person) and the frustration of getting there were worth it. But I will pass on my knowledge so others can make their own choice.

Once we got off the bus in San Isidro, we grabbed a quick lunch at soda La Amistad. All the food was delicious but the server did not speak English. After lunch we asked a few people in town if there is a bus that goes down the main road, 112, so that we could take a bus closer to the rescue center as it is located about a 1.5 miles from town. Multiple people told us that no bus goes down the main road which seemed odd. We ended up taking a taxi which was about $2,000CRC. But of course once the tour was over and we started to leave, we realized that there are buses that go both ways down this major road. Here’s what I figured out: The route to and from San Jose to San Isidro is a loop. You enter town from one direction and the bus leaves going another direction. The buses that go toward the Toucan Rescue Center eventually make their way back to San Jose. So, when you take the bus to San Isidro, you can pay again and head down Route 112 in the direction of the rescue center and San Jose. If you are at the rescue center and want to head back to the city, just stand on the opposite side of the street and a bus will come get you.

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Note that the star in the top left corner is the actual location of the Toucan Rescue Ranch. The two stars on Route 112 are bus stops for the bus that will take you back to San Jose.

To get even more complicated, the bus terminal to get to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side of the country is the North Atlantic terminal. This should not be confused with the bus station that is called Gran Caribe. Because it was Holy Week we bought bus tickets a day in advance. I am not sure if this was necessary but the schedule posted showed there was a bus every two hours but when we arrived at the bus station 20 minutes early, there was a bus leaving for our destination.

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If you’ve done any other research on Costa Rica then you have already read that every bus trip will take longer than expected. This is exactly what we experienced. Our 4.5 hour bus ride ended up taking 6.5 hours from San Jose to Puerto Viejo with only one bathroom stop. On the way back, the bus broke down for two hours with no information from our driver. I secretly think Pura Vida acutally means have patience.

 

San Jose, Costa Rica

Guadalajara, Mexico

Guadalajara is not a pretty city in the conventional way but it has a lot to offer visitors. The city is large and sprawling. And in the four days that I was there with two friends, I did not get to see nearly as much of it as I would have hoped but that means I have lots of exploring to do when I return.

 

We stayed at an Airbnb near Parque Alcalde. The apartment was very nice and had a balcony which we took full advantage first thing in the mornings and then again in the afternoons when we needed a rest from wandering the city streets. I cannot recommend this Airbnb host enough. He was so accommodating, helpful, and gave us some great information on the city. And he has multiple properties in Guadalajara to choose from.
We had originally planned to stay near Avenida Chapultepec Norte and thus found bars and restaurants to check out in that neighborhood. We dined at El Sacromonte and I would highly recommend it. I had steak in a delicious sauce for around $250MXN.  We also wondered down the way and split a bottle of wine at Romea. It was very chic and a bit on the expensive side (our bottle of wine cost $730MXN) but a nice treat to sit outside on a nice evening and enjoy some delicious wine. Later during our long weekend, we went to Pigs Pearls in the same neighborhood. We needed a break from traditional Mexican food and grabbed burgers. Lunch (a burger and a glass of wine) was perfect change of pace and only cost $85MXN.
We definitely ate a lot of food while we were in Guadalajara and it seems as though the street food was easier to find at night than during the day. Much like anywhere else, I would recommend if you’re eating street food find vendors that are busy with locals, saddle up, and eat everything. We did eat in the mercado in the city center one day for lunch and it was delicious. Also, we are here during Lent in the Catholic faith and there were a lot more fish options than I would have thought we’d find. Hopefully this is not just during the Lenten season but is all year round.
Usually when I sit down at any sort of food vendor in which prices are not listed, I ask what the prices are. But I found in Guadalajara that when I didn’t ask first, all of the prices were perfectly acceptable and I never had any issues with people over charging me. This might be because I speak enough Spanish to order food and ask questions. Everyone was very friendly and helpful. And while a lot of people here do speak English, I think that it was easier for everyone when I used my small amounts of Spanish.
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This torta ahogada (the drowned torta) included pork, cabbage, onions, and a tart tomato sauce.
We also ate at a little place called Casa Mitote which serves Oaxacan dishes. It was so delicious and were so glad that we caught them on a night when they were actually opened.
We attended a performance by the Jalisco Philharmonic while we were in town. The music was just lovely and tickets were very affordable. We had wonderful seats in the center of the theater for $220MXN each.
We also visited Tlaquepaque on a Saturday which was a nice break from the city. It was also a great place to shop for locally-made crafts. Some of the items that we found here were very similar to other items we found in Oaxaca but at cheaper prices.
Few locals had amazing things to say about taxi drivers so we opted to use Uber when we needed to get around the city and could not walk the distance. We took one from our Airbnb to the city center and it cost about for $2USD one way. There are currently two train lines that serve parts of Guadalajara but since we were not here very long and we tend to walk a lot of places, we did not take advantage of the public transportation.
I also visited the Panteon de Mexquitan cemetery one afternoon. The architecture and stone work of the mausoleums was beautiful though some where in sad states of repair. I really enjoyed wandering the quiet paths and reflecting on this cities history and its people.

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Guadalajara, Mexico

Oaxaca City, Mexico

A few weeks ago, my husband and I flew down to Oaxaca, Mexico for vacation. We had read that the food was amazing, the people were friendly, and the town was beautiful. All of these things were exactly true.

We spent four days and four nights in the city of Oaxaca before heading to the coast for a few days and then returning for a few more days in the city.

From the airport, we took the colectivo (small van or bus) instead of a taxi. You need buy a ticket inside the airport after you leave baggage claim. You also wait in the same line if you want to get a taxi. The cost is $80MXN per person. We learned the hard way that you cannot buy tickets from the driver or other employees outside of the airport.

There are so many delicious options for food in Oaxaca, I didn’t know where to start. There are street food vendors, markets, and restaurants galore, all to fit any budget. Below, I have listed all of my favorite places to eat and drink. Also, I found a very helpful website explaining a handful of Oaxacan dishes everyone should try while visiting.
Mercado 20 de Noviembre
This mercado was more organized than those I have seen in other towns and cities in Mexico. It’s much more permanent and established than I was expecting. My advice is pick a food vendor that is busy with locals and grab a seat and a menu. We ate at one place and had a sopa amarillo con res (soup with beef) and a tamal (singular of tamales). Both were delicious and filing. For a total cost of $80MXN, it was a tasty light lunch.
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Lunch at Mercado de 20 Noviembre
Mercado Organico
This place is not so much a traditional mercado as a collection of small food vendors in which vegetarian and organic options are the norm versus the regular mercados in which meat is the main option in most dishes. The options here are more interesting than the other mercados and a little more expensive, but not out of control. On the day we went, we had an empanada (closer in size of a quesadilla in the U.S. than a traditional Argentinian empanada) and two memelas. Neither of the items were huge but they were tasty and a great first stop for our food crawl. Our bill came to $135MXN.
Drinks on the terrace at Gozobi
The view is lovely and drinks were reasonably priced at about $70-90MXN for a cocktail and $30-50MXN for a beer. For the location, we deemed this to be a pretty good and average priced.
Biznaga
The food was good but I thought it was expensive for Oaxaca. While the dishes we ordered were delicious (steak in a mole sauce with goat cheese and chicken in a poblano pepper sauce), I think there are other places to go if you’re willing to spend the money. Both entrees and two drinks cost about $500MXN.
Mezquite
This was definitely my favorite “nicer” restaurant in Oaxaca. They have a small terrace which has great views and the food is amazing. We went there once and had a round of drinks and the flor de calabaza empanada (squash blossom and cheese empanada) and spent about $200MXN. We returned a few nights later and ordered five starters and a round of drinks. Some of the starter dishes were larger than we expected. It was definitely too much food, but still delicious. Even with way too much food and a good cocktail or two, the bill came to around $500MXN after tip.
La Santisima Flor de Lupulo
Santisima is a nanobrewery but also serves cocktails and wine. We visited a handful of times to eat and drink because they also offer local cheeses, sausages that are made in house, and gazpacho that I still think about.
El Olivo Gastrobar
They have a nice open upstairs area and serve Spanish tapas. I went there twice for drinks and a snack. The patatas bravas were not amazing but the drinks were tasty and a nice change up from mezcal. A glass of Mexican wine costs about $60MXN.
Praha
It’s a great little bar and restaurant where drinks are slightly cheaper than the other terrace bars that we went to. The food menu is very much targeted towards tourists and is not local food. If you are in need of a hamburger or salad this might be the place to go though. The service was good and it seemed that they had live music most nights.
Boulenc
I had an amazing croissant sandwich (kale, spinach, and goat cheese) here one morning and am sad I couldn’t eat it again (and again and again). This sandwich was one of my favorite things I ate while in Oaxaca and was only $47MXN. The bakery is really small and only has about seven seats so if you can’t stay, take things to go (“para llevar” in Spanish).
Alhondiga Reforma
We stumbled across this little food court which is set up kind of like Latinicity in Chicago or Mercado San Anton in Madrid. When we went, we shared a delicious salad and fish tacos from one food stall, an Argentinian empanada, and a small Spanish tapa from another, and drinks from another. All were good but the salad (spinach, cranberries, goat cheese, and nuts) and the shrimp tacos were the best.
Tortas La Hormiga
I frequented the Tortas La Hormiga food truck in Jardin Conzati so many times that the guys knew me by name (I went there four times in three days). These were by far the best tortas I had while in Oaxaca. While there aren’t many vegetarian options, there is a large assortment of meat options. I say try them all and keep going back. At $25-45MXN per torta, it’s an amazing deal for an amazing sandwich. They have a handful of locations so find the one closest to you and eat there. You won’t be disappointed.
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These tortas were amazing. Even though I had four while I was there, I wish I would have had more.
Parque El Llano
We found great street food options in Parque El Llano on the northern side of town. Most of vendors seem to only be there during the day and close around 6 p.m. if not earlier. A few stuck around into the evening. Tortas, tacos, tlayudas, and memelas are the staples here, and they are delicious. This was the area in which we found the most street food on the north side of the city. I highly recommend going to this park especially Friday during the day when they have lots of food vendors and other vendors selling a little bit of everything. It’s also a very family-friendly and safe park, as lots of the parks in Oaxaca are. They even rent Power Wheels out to children to drive around the park. There was also a large bounce house that kids could pay to use.
Beyond eating, there’s lots to do in Oaxaca. We visited the Prehispanic Art Museum which was interesting but small. We also visited the Centro Fotográfico Manuel Álvarez Bravo which is free to the public.
We also wandered the quite streets from church to cathedral to basilica. There are an extraordinary number of churches in Oaxaca and many are worth a peak inside.
We also came across a handful of cultural events (parades, live concerts, etc.) that were not listed anywhere I could easily find as a tourist. This was very frustrating to me and is my only complaint about the city of Oaxaca. The longer I was in town, the more I began to notice bills posted around town noting upcoming events. The tourism booths were not much help, so I would recommend keeping an eye out for bills and posters while wandering the streets or hope to stumble upon a parade or concert like we did.
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On Friday and Saturday nights, there seem to be a lot of weddings at the Templo de Santo Domingo. I highly recommend hanging around this church in the late afternoon or early evening for some great people watching. This area comes alive in the evenings. Grab a drink with a view of the church and enjoy watching the Oaxacan wedding traditions unfold before you.

Oaxaca City, Mexico

Buses in Mexico

The bus systems in Mexico is a great way to get around the country with safe, affordable, and comfortable service. We found that in the states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo, the colectivos are more organized and better operated than what we have experienced in other Mexican states (namely Chiapas) and other Central American countries (namely, Guatemala and Nicaragua). For instance, the colectivo we took from Playa Del Carmen to the Cancun bus station cost $34 MXN per person, then an ADO bus from the Cancun bus station to the airport (which leaves every 15 minutes) for $64 MXN per person. There were group shuttles from Playa Del Carmen direct to the Cancun airport cost around $20 USD per person.

In Playa Del Carmen, the colectivos gather near the park at 20 Avenida Notre and 2 Calle Norte. They don’t leave until they are full but this happens quickly. Also, the drivers had uniforms which, in my opinion, makes them seem more legitimate. But with this legitimacy comes higher prices. For example, when in Bacalar, we went to the bus station to ask about times and prices for getting to Mahahual. The Mayab bus cost would have cost $74 MXN each way with only two buses leaving every day whereas a colectivo driver said that the ride on his bus (which comes about every hour) would cost $70 MXN.

We took buses from ADO stations in both states and were very happy with the service, the condition of the buses, and the prices. When we looked at the ADO schedule online, only ADO buses are shown. But there are actually four bus companies that work out of the ADO stations we visited; ADO, Caribe, Mayab, and Oriente. Sometimes, we found that there were more buses running than what was listed on ADO’s website, sometimes not. We made a habit of going to the station and asking to see the timetable on the ticket agent’s computer. While this does not help to plan ahead of time, it was helpful when planning our next move.

Buses in Mexico