Part 1: San Diego, CA to Arenal, Costa Rica


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The Experience

We asked Jessica to drive us to the airport for our flight.  Our plan was to get to San Jose, Costa Rica through Phoenix.  The long leg of the flight is about 6 hours, but it should not be that bad.  Plus, we arrive earlier then any of the flights that went through Dallas or Houston.  Finally, those transit points are undergoing a large winter storm so we would most likely be delayed.  Once we get to San Jose, we'll get our rental vehicle and head for our lodging for the night.  We'll figure out the eating situation once we get there, but since we got first class seats on the way down, they will likely feed us at least once, maybe twice.

Each of the flights left on time as specified.  There was a huge ice storm that was hammering the east coast and causing flight cancellations, but we were luckily not affected.   We had only a short layover in Phoenix and then we were off to Costa Rica.  Things were flawlessly executed as the flight was smooth and arrived 30 minutes early, there were no hassles in immigration or customs and the rental 4x4 was available as stated.  The airport was new and nice, and as the "face" of the country to incoming tourists, it should be.  Things outside, however, were on a different level altogether.  My closest analogy is a low-budget portion of Tijuana, MX.  We were supposed to be met by a driver from our hotel on the first night, but failed to connect because of our early arrival.  We found our way to the hotel based on directions from the rental car fellow and our new GPS.  But, neither of us were willing to believe the GPS directions; we were sure that we had taken a wrong turn.  In reality, the GPS was spot-on.  It was late and we were tired and the owners were very accommodating so we rapidly came to the realization that we were not in Kansas anymore.

When we picked up the rental car, we got an extended briefing on safety - mostly road safety, but some information about the safety of our possessions.  For instance, in CR, if an accident happens, you have to leave the vehicle exactly where the accident occurs so the insurance investigators can determine the cause of the event; even if the cars are blocking the road.  And, we were informed that theft is a considerable issue.  Each car is equipped with a beefy extra lock that attaches to the shift lever and prevents the car from coming out of reverse.  The area around our "hotel" (a so-called bed and breakfast actually) looked like a prison.  Bars on every window even up to the second story, razor wire on roofs, all cars behind fences, etc.  Not exactly what I had pictured in my mind's eye, but given that this area is a working class neighborhood and close to the airport I guess it should not have been all that surprising.

Our suggestion for the B&B had come from a person manning the phone at the rental car company who was either the owner of the B&B or the brother of the owner since the night man at the counter clearly knew him.  The place was BASIC but clean and met our needs, a cold water shower notwithstanding.  The owner had his driver take us to dinner and back.  Not surprisingly, the restaurant was owned by a buddy of his.  Dinner was passable, but we really appreciated not having to navigate the confused area at night.

The Photos

The photos below are what we saw.

The room was basic and one of the things I noted was the television.  The Chinese are unashamed about stealing both brands and intellectual property, and this example is the most blatant I have seen.

Neither Kathleen nor I slept that well; the area was noisy and the breakfast kitchen crew reported to work around 0600 (which was 0400 our time) and began crashing around with pans and dishes.  Plus both the San Juan airport and the main highway were within earshot.  Since the area was dark when we arrived, we had no chance to view any of the surrounding areas.

The next morning we got a chance to see what the surrounding area looked like.  The roads in the area around the hotel in the Alajuela area were in miserable shape with lots of pot holes.  The local road crew, thinking that a 4" lip of the sewer cap was not sufficient punishment for your tires also added a 5 gallon bucket filled with rocks to complete the damage.

The patio outside our room is where breakfast was served and it was quite nice.

The owner was nice enough to park our car in his locked garage area.  The bars on the windows provide a sense of the theft threat.

This apartment building a few houses away looked like a prison.  Note the razor wire on the roof.

Next to the apartment was an open field that had horses.  After we departed the hotel, we went to the local Walmart for supplies -- bottled water, kleenex and snacks.  Then we hit the road toward La Fortuna and the Arenal Volcano.  Highway 1 had plenty of road hazards and was heavily traveled.  We were told of the automated speed traps and that the rental car company is billed $600 for a violation, which is passed on to the driver.  The speed limit was 80 kph and given the shape of the road, that was plenty fast enough.

Kathleen and I have long said that no trip is complete without seeing a Unimog.  Along highway 1 outside of San Ramon we saw this 411 at a truck dealership.

We owned a 411 for about 15 years, but rarely took it anywhere due to the very low highway speed and total lack of creature comforts.  That said, my 411 did the Moab Rim trail several times, Metal Masher at Moab, Sledgehammer and Jackhammer trails at Johnson Valley.  Despite being a tractor with a sheet metal body, it is a highly capable off road truck.  This one has some kind of custom wheels for larger tires.

Compare the robustness of the Unimog against the our rental 4x4, a Suzuki Jimmy.  The Jimmy has a shimmy at highway speeds which makes fast driving questionable.

This fellow is manually harvesting sugar cane.  Happily for him, it was not that hot.

The countryside was verdant green and despite the numerous pot holes in the highway, it was in generally passable shape and heavily traveled.  The fellows at the right are selling local honey.

And speaking of bees, we stopped at San Ramon for some food at the local mall and spotted this fellow suiting up.  When we first saw him, we thought it was due to the smoke in the distance toward the far hill, but when he put on the head protection we started to get curious.  The security guards at the mall spotted a bee swarm in the palm tree and called the fire department.  Assuming that these were the vicious Africanized bees, we took one photo, rolled up the window and then rolled out onto the highway.

We spotted many older Land Rovers on the local roads assuming it is a strong comment about the rural roads.

Our route from Alajuela to Arenal took us through rural areas with many narrow bridges.  These bridges are just wide enough for one vehicle and the first one to the bridge wins.

Some of the hillsides had large farming operations.

We did not pass or see many vehicles on the road until we came to this construction zone.  We waited here about 30 minutes until we could pass.

These vehicles are playing chicken, but the red Montero won.

The streams though the jungle were pretty.  This one was (currently) small, but some we crossed were huge.

This is a single-single Bailey Bridge.  Used my the allied forces during WWII, the bridge is assembled on site by a set of man-transportable panels.

Now here is a real bridge.

We pulled over on the far side to get a better look at the bridge.  It crossed a major canyon.

The river at the bottom was not flowing much and perhaps never does.  Note the house in the river valley that is not much above the river grade.  I would think the house would be in dire peril in the rainy season.

There was a road house on the far side of the river bank.  The Coke delivery truck dwarfs our little Jimmy.

Our destination for the next two nights was the Arenal Paraiaso Resort.  Much nicer than our place in Alajuela.

We had a little casita with twin beds and even air conditioning.

Our first view of the Arenal Volcano.  This is an active volcano and several years ago lava was running down the side of the mountain.  The volcanic cone is high enough to create its own weather.

Lava and boulders from the eruption cut paths through the jungle growth on the flanks of the volcanic cone.

The hotel in Alajuela was not what I imagined, but it was sufficient for our needs and inexpensive.  Our attempt to get a SIM card for my phone was ill-fated as we discovered during the process that my phone is locked to Verizon, even though the sales guy told me it was not.  Our MiFi turned out to be locked as well.  So, we were without communications relying on hotel wifi alone.

Next, we explore the Arenal area.

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Photos and Text Copyright Bill Caid 2014, all rights reserved.
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