Tag Archives: Hotels

A Busy End To Summer Break…

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I know for most of you North Americanos there’s alot of head scratching goin on with the title of this blog. The summer school break here in Costa Rica begins around the third week of November and ends next week. The time off of babysitting has flown by. I’ll be able to extend it, though, by connecting with friends who are visiting, and I’ll actually be acting as a tourist myself.

My first visit will be with friends from my last job in North America. They’re staying at the Los Suenos Marriot, located on the central pacific…

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As you can see, they won’t be suffering too much. It’s one of the premier 5 star resorts in the country.

Then, a couple of days later a friend arrives and we have a week of scheduled touristy delights to savor.. first stop: double decker bus tour of downtown San Jose…

San_Jose-Costa_Rica

I’m really looking forward to jumping on and off the bus during the day to see sights I haven’t gotten to yet, plus share those that I love… here’s one I haven’t been to: The Jade Museum, which is supposed to have the world’s largest collection of jade objects.

jade-museum-costa-rica

The next day is devoted to the LaPaz Waterfall Gardens, where we’ll see seven different large waterfalls, butterfly gardens, hold toucans and hummingbirds, and get alot of strenuous hill climbing back up the hill.

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Third day we’ll take a 4-hour bus trip to Manuel Antonio where the beaches in the park are supposed to be the most beautiful and clean in the country:

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The park is located at a particular geographic area called The Whales Tail:

Manuel-Antonio-Park

Fourth day we’ll begin our trek back home, stopping in Jaco for one night so my friend can go out and listen to live music and hang with the locals:

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I can hardly wait to finally begin my time as a tourist in this beautiful country. So much of these past (almost) three years have been spent settling in, really. Every three months until I get my residency I’ve been on Visa Runs (leaving the country for Panama or Nicaragua) in order to receive another 3 month stamp. So, these Runs have been my opportunity to see a little bit of the country up until now…. and to get acquainted a bit with those two other countries as well (my fave is Nica land). If it weren’t for my familia here

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and the opportunity to babysit my lovely granddaughters, I wouldn’t be as grounded as I’ve become… grounded enough to allow myself to be a tourist!

Tortuguera, Costa Rica…

My second trip this month was with family to the Atlantic side of the country, into Tortuguera country… where you would expect a dinosaur to jump out from the jungle or a snake to fall from a tree at any moment.

It's wild Jurassic Park territory!

It’s wild Jurassic Park territory!

The weather is humid and hot, beautiful and wild. The Lodge we stayed at – Mawamba Lodge – (grupomawamba.com) offers round-trip bus transport to and from San Jose barrios and hotels, the last leg of which is by boat through the canals to the Lodge which is only accessible by boat or plane.

Boat that transports passengers from bus dock to lodge and back again.

Boat that transports passengers from bus dock to lodge and back again.

But let me introduce you to our guide, Frank. He met us on the bus as it left downtown San Jose and stayed with us the entire trip which lasted three days and two nights.

Frank Simms, our tour guide in Tortuguera. Find him at frank-simms.com, or call 506.8826.3305. Fully fluent English/Spanish, Costa Rican, heckofa nice guy.

Frank Simms, our tour guide in Tortuguera. Find him at frank-simms.com, or call 506.8826.3305. Fully fluent English/Spanish, Costa Rican, heckofa nice guy.

Known by all the locals, positive and totally fluent in English. He’s a Costa Rican tico with exemplary English skills and knows the country of Costa Rica inside and out. Frank’s available for private tours of all types and can hook you up for a tremendously comfortable tour of all or parts of the beauty found throughout the country (frank-simms.com) … but back to our trip…

Places to stay in Tortuguera. The little town is at the bottom.

Places to stay in Tortuguera. The little town is at the bottom.

Here you can see all the lodges located on this wonderful bank of land located between the ocean and the main canals of Tortuguera. Here’s an aerial picture of the Lodge:

Between the canal and the ocean.

Between the canal and the ocean.

It’s a large place and extremely well kept. Our itinerary on the first day included stopping for breakfast after pickup in San Jose; a look at banana plantations along the way; arrival at the dock where our boat delivered us to the Lodge after a 20-minute or so trip on the water; a get-acquainted with the property chat from the Lodge General Manager, lunch (way yummy food!); swimming in the huge pool; a boat ride to the little burg of Tortuguera with a walk back to the Lodge; and dinner.

Our second day included an early morning (optional) 5:30am tour of the local canals where lots of nature was seen and experienced in an open boat; an afternoon tour of the gardens, the turtle enclosure, butterfly enclosure and frog enclosure; and another open boat tour in the afternoon (included) of the canals…. where sunburn instead of the cold air during the morning tour was heartily enjoyed by all participants! Swimming, breakfast, lunch and dinner were included as well. Along the way during all of these activities, even in the restaurant, Frank was very busy answering questions, taking photos (of which you’ll see some of his work on his website), spoofing with the locals and other guides, and generally making everyone feel very comfortable. Here’s a picture of the kids enjoying one of the boat tours:

5:30am tour Tortuguera canals - Kids trying to stay warm in front, Frank the tour guide in back.

5:30am tour Tortuguera canals – Kids trying to stay warm in front, Frank the tour guide in back.

Interestingly, there were only those in our group who were actually Costa Rican… the Lodge was full of Europeans, people from Denmark, Germany, the US to name a few. So… Very popular international destination.

The ocean is wild, fierce and strong on this side of the country and particularly along this stretch of coastline. There are four types of huge turtles who come here to lay their eggs, so there are ecological outposts here to protect the turtles predators (including humans) and hatchlings as they make their way to the water after leaving the nest. Females return every four years to lay eggs and the males never return. We were told not to swim in the ocean as the undertows were particularly strong here.

The little village of Tortuguera is about five blocks long and two, maybe three, wide. Teensy, caribbean-like in the colors of people and buildings. You can find all kinds of souvenirs here, including fine jewelry and art. There are sodas and a couple of restaurants and a local school that serves all ages.  It’s provincial and the poverty is evident, and I hoped in my heart that the money spent in the little town helped those who looked less fortunate.

Our last day included breakfast (If I could have bought the bread back home, believe me, I would have…. I seriously considered stuffing my purse with it!) As it was I had two pieces of toast and then two pieces of french toast for breakfast… my syanara (sp!) to bread for a while – with memories I’ll cherish… After breakfast we gathered our luggage, got back on the boat, arrived at the dock to meet our bus, then stopped for lunch before arriving back in San Jose.

What a trip. What an incredible geographic and biological education. It was all busy and interesting enough to keep all of us entertained. Not expensive at all for the value received. Highly recommended. I’ll leave you with this last happy picture:

Fantastic Fun at Tortuguera!

Fantastic Fun at Tortuguera!

Recent Granada Nicaragua Visa Run…

Well friends, time for the big update on my recent Visa Run to Grenada, Nicaragua. It was SO much easier than the Panama border because I took Tica Bus who pretty much manages most of the process.

Nice, comfortable bus for an 8 to 9 hour ride.... brutal...

Nice, comfortable bus for an 8 to 9 hour ride…. brutal…

I took the tourist bus leaving San Jose at 12:30 in the afternoon. We arrived at the Nicaragua border about 5 pm. We got off the bus and into a line that included only those of us on the bus. I was sent immediately to the front of the line because I was obviously an older woman… the elderly are respected here in Latin America, and while it’s not fun being reminded that you are old, it is very nice to be given that type of respect. At any rate, I was stamped out of Costa Rica and back in my seat on the bus within three minutes. Next we were taken to the Nicaraguan side. Before we disembarked from the bus, we all gave our Visas plus the entrance fee to the driver who took them into the Nicaraguan Migracion office for stamping. While we waited for him we took all of our luggage and put it on a long table to be gone through by Migracion officials. There were many men at the door to the bus as we left it asking if we wanted help with our luggage. These guys would move your luggage to the table and back to the bus for a fee. There were also money changers there to exchange different denominations for a price. This part was the longest time spent waiting for the driver to get back with our paperwork. We probably waited close to an hour. When he returned he called out the name on the paperwork and each person retrieved theirs and re-entered the bus. This process was wonderful because we didn’t have to walk the long way between these two areas and we were in good hands. Since I don’t have very operable Spanish at this time, it was easy to simply follow the leader and carry on. Next stop: Granada, which took another hour and a half.

I stayed at La Islita Boutique Hotel, laislita.com,  located 2.5 blocks from the main tourist avenue loaded with restaurants, hotels and various types of stores, adjacent to the Cathedral Main Square.

La Islita Reception

La Islita Reception

This is a beautiful colonial hotel, as are many in Granada, built around a huge Mango tree. There are only 8 beautiful and spacious rooms. The rate includes a fantastic and bountiful breakfast. There are many hostels as well as hotels and if you do your research you can find some real deals. My decision to stay at La Islita was totally positive as it totally made me feel safe and secure. All the people working there were helpful about where to go and which tour company to use and where to eat. They don’t use the term “Boutique” loosely either. The entire place was an exquisite treat. Exploring was easy since Granada is not that large a city. The first morning I went for a walk at 6am and had a few surprises …  one of which was the kids sleeping in the middle of the street. I’m not talking adolescents, either. These were kids of 8 to 10 years of age. I don’t know the story there, but I did know that there would be quite a bit of begging and assumed these children were part of that scene. There were guards stationed all around the parks and tourist areas so I didn’t worry too much about them and continued wandering.  The main surprise for me was the colonial nature of the city –  it’s breathtaking; really amazing to glance into open front doors and see lush interior gardens. And the sidewalks are tiled beautifully as well.  At night there were many people who moved their chairs outside onto the sidewalks to catch a breeze. The temperature was pretty similar to Heredia and sometimes Alajuela, Costa Rica – probably hovered around the mid-80’s with humidity that had you swimming in your clothes at 9am. But. There are breezes off Lake Nicaragua that lighten that load pretty regularly, plus La Islita had a/c in the rooms and that helped. I can tell you that that humidity was not at all helpful to me when shopping for underwear I had forgotten to pack for the trip…. it was torture, but there were stores like Ropa Americana (new or second hand clothing from the US) that can be found along the street adjacent to the Central Market.

I found most of the information I needed for this trip at wikitravel.org/en/Granada_(Nicaragua). 

Places I shopped that I can heartily recommend include:

Soy Nica for leather goods – facebook.com/soynica.dk

and, Ole’ Ole’ for unusual pieces of art, clothing, ceramics, and furniture. Other wonderful finds included La Calzada Centro de Arte, where an expat teaches one on one art classes of all levels in an open studio adjacent to a restaurant. You can find her at: nicaragua-art.com. She provides canvases at cost plus lets you use the paints and brushes. Nice place. She’s a very generous person who really believes everyone should discover their inner artist and invite them to come out to play!

I went to three eateries while there: El Zaguen which serves the most mouthwatering, tender steak you’ll ever have; El Camello which has tremendous art and really good food and is only a block from La Islita; and Don Carlos Pizza which I was very happy with, located on the main tourist plaza.

El Camello Mediterranean restaurant one and a half blocks from La Islita Hotel... my go to place for late lunch/early dinner. Good prices and the food is marvelous.

El Camello Mediterranean restaurant one and a half blocks from La Islita Hotel… my go to place for late lunch/early dinner. Good prices and the food is marvelous.

I went on one tour to Masaya Volcano through Tierra Tours tierratour.com. It was about a 4 hour tour that included going through the Interpretive Center, arriving at the edge of the crater, then traveling to the  city of Masaya where we walked around and shopped at the Old Central Market, then off to a community center in an adjacent village where ceramic pots are made. It’s a fantastic place and was the highlight of the tour for me. The government supports the center and kids from the very impoverished community are encouraged to learn how to build these ceramics – from helping to gather the clay(s) of various colors – no artificial substances whatsoever – to learning to throw and bake the pots in the same way their ancestors did hundreds of years ago.

One afternoon was spent lazing by the pool here:

$7 for a day pass to hang out around and in the pool at Hotel Granada.

$7 for a day pass to hang out around and in the pool at Hotel Granada.

A final plug for Seeing Hands Blind Massage, located on that main tourist thoroughfare across from the blue school in Euro Cafe. The cost is very inexpensive for the professionalism and incredible work they do. I had one guy give me a massage for three days in a row – no, not really – just one hour-long massage on three consecutive days. Wow, WHEW, now that’s a kind of therapy I hadn’t expected and the breakthroughs for me emotionally were really powerful. Highly recommended. Fantastic service for those folks who learn to be practitioners of the art and really understand the body. I’ll go back to Granada just for massage!

After three nights and four days it was time to go back to San Jose. This time I left on the early bus, and this is what we bussed into:

No kidding folks... it's a busy border and this pic doesn't show you the line of people who are surrounding a large block waiting to get to this point.

No kidding folks… it’s a busy border and this pic doesn’t show you the line of people who are surrounding a large block waiting to get to this point.

First, the bus driver gathered all of our Visas as before, along with the price of departure, and we waited for his return to call out our names and re-board the bus to the Costa Rican Migracion building. The picture above is very close to what was actually waiting for us there. So many people I was disheartened. Since I’m considered an elder, I was again placed in the line for pregnant women, children and their parents along with us old folks. The Agent at the Costa Rican window wanted to see a departure from Costa Rica ticket – he didn’t say what kind of ticket, whether it was bus or plane. I had a plane ticket (make sure there are dates on your copy) and that appeased him. I noticed on the paperwork that it was asked if you’d been out of Costa Rica for three days. I hadn’t noticed that on previous border crossings. After he gave me my 90-day stamp I was processed out into an airline-like area where a big machine xrayed everything I was carrying. There were five militia guys surrounding a table next to where the baggage came out of the machine but cuz of my age and guilelessness I guess, I wasn’t asked to give up my baggage for review, so that was the end of that process. I did get through the entry more quickly because I was older, but then had to wait more than a couple of hours for those others on our bus who had to go to the end of the line at least a block away.

The trip to Granada was about the same amount of time on the bus both ways, but the process at the border crossing was much smoother and well organized then what I’d experienced at the border with Panama. And I enjoyed Granada so incredibly much more than I did in David or Boquete, Panama. I’ll definitely be a regular on this trip with Tica Bus to Granada!

Visa Run to Panama… The Latest Info

pasocanoas3Just got back from a Visa Run and wanted to update the experience for those who are facing this experience in the near future… for, as you know, things change quickly here in Costa Rica and the border experience is a fine example of this core ingredient of living in a 3rd World Country…

The experience of getting your Visa stamped for you next set of 90 days while waiting for your Residency application to be accepted can be as chaotic as this photo!

I take a Tracopa bus out of San Jose at 7:30 am. It stops for five minutes for a potty break after about an hour, then continues on the new highway to Uvita where there’s a stop for half an hour for lunch. Uvita is the half way point of the trip – at about 4 hours. The country is astoundingly beautiful, the bus ride comfortable and usually quiet, and the weather increasingly warm to incredibly humid and warm the closer to Panama you get. Just saying… you might need a sweatshirt to start out in the morning, but by the time you hit the Frontera you’ll need a very light weight t-shirt or sleeveless shirt. Probably it will be raining or threatening to rain when you reach the border, so an umbrella is never a bad idea to carry during the rainy season, April through November.

The bus will drop you off at the Costa Rica border office where you will check out of the country – so look for the Costa Rica Departure window. If you have baggage being stored under the bus, it will be unloaded down the street a couple of blocks adjacent to the Panama Entry area. If you have taken your luggage with you on the bus, be sure and take it with you when you get off the bus.

The Costa Rica border office will want your Visa and the piece of paper the driver gives you to fill out. Behind this office there are bathrooms which cost 200 colones (be sure and get toilet paper when you pay!). Once you’ve been stamped on the Costa Rica side, you have to walk down a couple of blocks to the Panama Entry office for additional stamps. The place you are looking for is beyond this rounded welcome edifice. In the next photo you’ll see a bank of windows and when you enter Panama you use the right hand side windows.

pasocanoas4You’ll need your Visa again, plus an ATM statement from that morning before you left San Jose with your bank balance showing at least a $500 balance, PLUS proof of a flight out of Panama or Costa Rica to your home country. Make sure that your copy of the airline ticket has precise dates on it. I was lucky that the Panama agent accepted  my copy because as it turned out the printed email didn’t have the year on it anywhere…

pasocanoas1 This picture shows that bank of windows where you need to check into Panama – the ones on the right. The windows on the left are where you begin your re-entry into Costa Rica on the way back home.

Once you’ve gotten through these lines, you’ll be asked to fill out another form and proceed into the room in the rounded edifice as pictured above in order for officials to go through your luggage, and perhaps have a dog come in and sniff all the bags for drugs. As all of these steps are completed, the Tracopa bus will be waiting outside to restore your baggage to the undercarriage of the bus. Upon leaving the Frontera/Border your bus might be borded by more police with another check of your Visa. It seems they are looking for someone in particular at these times as their attention to your face is particularly important in their pass through with all the passengers.

granhotel1And, now for me, it was on to David, Panama – another hour south – to spend a couple of days at The Gran Hotel Nacional. My plan was to do some shopping as the prices there and at the border are infintesimal compared to Costa Rica. The hotel is beautiful, considered a 5-star there in David. It probably is one of two of the best hotels for amenities there. A huge pool that is hardly used, three restaurants, and elegant rooms. I was quite happy there and felt absolutely pampered.

granhotelroomThe first of the restaurants is the Cafeteria where breakfast and lunch are served. Be advised that their coffee is much like cream soup… you’ll need the condensed milk and sugar! Their food is fantastic; but I must say that I enjoyed the lunch the most. Meats are prepared by a chef and the rest of the choices are great. Breakfast is pretty much predictable but nice – and included in the price (which was $95 for a standard room).

granhotelcafeteriagranhotelpoolThe second of the restaurants is Italian. I was most interested in eating meat on this trip because the meat in Costa Rica is not what I was used to in the states… so here in the Italian place I ordered a filet mignon. My meal was delivered with gravy made from the drippings of the steak, which was wonderful. I enjoyed it, but can’t say I was ecstatic.  A pleasant enough meal. The third restaurant was BBQ and I ordered a t-bone steak which was cooked to my specifications and came with a baked potato and corn. Was delicious. But now let’s talk about the dessert… I ordered chocolate ice cream thinking that it would be like what I received in the Italian restaurant (fudge sauce and whipped cream)… but, lol, it was quite different. It turned out to be chocolate ice cream mixed with fresh pineapple chunks, topped with four soda crackers stuck in around the top and crunched up as a topping. Have to say I laughed out loud! Was surprised to discover that the combination wasn’t bad at all. The idea of soda crackers and chocolate ice cream was beyond me, I must say…

I want to mention that as we were arriving in David I asked a seat mate who lived there where the best place to shop was because there are a couple or three malls there. She pointed me to Conway, which is where I ended up shopping and I was incredibly blown away by the prices and happy to be shopping where the locals shopped. This was for clothing, so perhaps the other malls are better suited for small electronics.

On the return trip from David to San Jose it was already blisteringly hot upon departure at 8:30 am. The process at the Frontera was markedly different in that there was a preponderance of police and customs agents checking every darn thing… they checked the bus, they opened every bag and thoroughly unpacked every item that was still in it’s original container – like a blender of all things – and the dog came and we had to go into that room after getting our Visa stamped at the Panama side, and we had to have some type of ticket at the Costa Rica window that proved we had passage out of Costa Rica within 90 days. I used an open ended Tracopa bus ticket. Everyone got different days stamped. I was lucky to get a full 90 days as my paperwork indicated I lived in Costa Rica, but there were others who got only a few to a couple of days, so be sure to check the number of days given to you!

A couple more things to assure a smooth passage through both sides of the border – smile! be patient!! don’t lose your temper!!! And have some Spanish so you can understand what they are saying to you, or asking you… if you don’t have the language, go through the line with someone behind you that does that can help you out. Oh! And don’t travel on weekends – the lines in the heat can be terribly difficult in terms of holding your temper in check… lol…

I’m going to repeat this trip in January… anyone want to join me?

 

 

 

 

 

Visa Run to Grenada, Nicaragua…

Yes, it’s almost that time again… another Visa Run this coming October to extend my stay another 90 days.  This time I’m going to Grenada, which means the Penas Blancas border, hothothothot weather, and new adventures. I’ve not been through this border before. From what I’ve heard, I better be prepared with water on hand, a hat, and lots of patience.

I’m gofrontera-penas-blancas-460x270ing to take Tica Bus there and back. Since the earliest bus is at 3am, I’ll stay at their little hotel, located above the bus station, the night before. The cost is minimal, but you get a clean room with private bathroom for only about $20, so it’s worth it!  The trip has a couple of options – one of which is Executive Class and the other Tourist Class. I’m gonna take the Exec bus because it’s faster, they stop for breakfast, have a bathroom on board, and help you through Customs… well, at least they point you in the right direction.

photo of tica bus

As you can see, the bus is plenty plush and comfortable. Sometimes, though, they have the a/c cranked up to uncomfortable levels, so as hot as you know it’s going to be in Nicaragua – no matter where you go – it’s prudent to bring a sweatshirt, at least….. some people even travel with blankets!

I found an incredible site online as I was searching for potential places to stay in Grenada…. wikitravel.org/en/Grenada_(Nicaragua). It’s a thoughtful listing of lodgings, activities, eateries and asides regarding everything Granada broken down from budget to very comfortable options.

I’ve chosen Casa San Francisco Hotel which has a Visa Run special at 3 nights for $139/single and $159/double, which is an outstanding deal for this boutique hotel.

Casa San Francisco

hotelcasasanfrancisco.com. It looks like a great spot in a great location. With a pool, a/c, cable tv, wifi, and an ambiance that feels personal, I’m really looking forward to this vacation!