Finally we found ourselves in Sydney on the eve of our departure, spending a very pleasant afternoon and evening enjoying the city before turning in early in preparation for our mammoth journey the following day. The flight from Sydney to LA aboard Virgin Australia took almost 13 hours following which, after clearing customs and immigration and changing terminal, we caught an Alaska Airlines flight to San Jose. Of course since we’d crossed the international dateline somewhere above the Pacific, the local time at LA was a few hours behind what it had been when we left Sydney, which was quite weird! It’s probably more a reflection on the state of the US domestic airline business than specifically of Alaska Airlines but it was like flying for 5 hours on Easyjet, absolutely no frills. We didn’t mind having to pay for our food – if only they’d had any! Also you’re
welcome to use your own tablet/smartphone to access their inflight entertainment system, otherwise you can rent one of their tablets for $10 and then you have to pay for each film you watch. Somehow we survived it though and touched down on time at San Jose where it was all a bit frenetic outside the terminal and we were glad that we’d booked the hostel’s taxi service – the driver was there dutifully waiting for us. As we’d arrived at the beginning of rush hour the traffic into the city was horrendous – as were the driving habits – so by the time we reached the safe haven of Hostel Urbano we didn’t quite know who we were or what time of day it was.
We’d initially planned to spend 3 nights here, recovering from the long haul from Sydney and also firming up our arrangements for our time in Costa Rica. One of the first things we realised when we started looking into transport options was that Bahia Drake – our first planned destination – is more difficult to get to from San Jose than we’d thought, mainly due to the state of the roads down that way. We also found it quite embarrassing and frustrating that we had almost no Spanish between us which made communicating something of a challenge. Whilst we were mulling this over on our first day we had a chance encounter with a lady from London who was working for a local language school – 3 minutes away from the hostel. So before we had time to think twice we cancelled Bahia Drake, enrolled on 5 days of Spanish classes and extended our stay in the hostel – just like that!
We did enjoy our few nights in the hostel Urbano where we had our own private room with ensuite bathroom – although the shower installation was a bit worrying and definitely wouldn’t meet Europan H&S standards. We weren’t quite the only older people staying among the student backpackers, we got chatting to a very nice lady from Boulder Colorado; she runs her own gardening business in the summer and takes off travelling all winter. There was also a brave Canadian lady with three children in tow who had come out here a week ahead of her husband. The beauty of staying here, apart from the fact that it was only $38 per night, was that we were able to find out loads of practical information from all of the other travellers who were coming and going, information which helped us enormously in planning the rest of our time here. We also met some interesting characters, with the award going to the young couple who were on a break from their jobs on a marijuana farm in northern California! At first we thought that they were having us on but the next day we googled it and there is indeed a marijuana-farming industry, operating in a very grey area, (legally speaking), around Mendocina.
The Spanish lessons we booked onto spanned the weekend so, rather than spend the whole weekend in the big, busy, noisy city, we decided to look for something to do out in the country. Jan got busy on the internet and pretty quickly had us booked on a homestay in a little village called St Gerardo, up in the foothills of Cirripo, Costa Rica’s highest mountain. To get there we had to take the public bus from San Jose to a town called San Isidro where we were met and taken the remaining 20km, up the valley, to our hosts place. The public bus service was quite amazing
really; for about £4 each we had designated seats, our bags were placed in the luggage compartment underneath and we were able to relax and enjoy the 3 hour journey. It wasn’t actually that far but the road out of San Jose twists and winds up over a mountain range, it’s single carriageway and there are lots of lorries clogging up the road.
Our homestay was amazing, we couldn’t believe what we’d stumbled across. Our host,
Bernard, is the gardener at “the Secret Garden”, a beautiful tropical garden right on the edge of town, and we were sharing his cottage for the weekend. Normally his wife would have been there too but she was in San Jose for a family event. Bernard couldn’t have been a better host, cooking our meals and being very patient as we attempted to communicate – he with no English and us with very little Spanish, (we’d only had 2 hours of classes by this time and hadn’t got past Hola, Buenas Dias, Come es usted, etc). On Saturday morning we were up very early as we’d arranged a lift up the valley to the Cloudbridge reserve, 4 km away. We’d briefly considered
walking it but were so glad we hadn’t as we sat in the 4WD It was uphill all the way and uphill there really is uphill, there wasn’t a gradient any less than 15% anywhere on the road. But the scenery was fantastic, although Chirripo itself was obscured by two high mountains in front of it.
Cloudbridge reserve was set up by a South African couple who, back in 2002, had been passing through the valley on their way to climb Chirripo. On the way back they were dismayed at all of the de-forestation that they saw so they bought the tract of land and set about re-planting the trees. Their efforts have been very successful as today you’d have to have a trained eye to realise that you were hiking in a restored area – except for the tell-tale information signs of course. Our Saturday morning hike had us on our feet for almost 5 hours and we got back to our homestay in time for a huge lunch which we followed up with the obligatory siesta. We’d planned to visit the nearby hot springs that afternoon but Ian’s exploratory walk revealed that they were 30 minutes away, up another steep hill and that they closed early. (Never mind we’ll be visiting more hot springs later on this trip.)
The other highlight of the weekend came on Sunday morning, just before we had to depart,
when Bernard gave us a personal tour of the garden proudly showing us the many and varied tropical plants which he carefully looks after. Jan was right at home here and, even with her lack of Spanish, was able to communicate her shared enthusiasm with Bernard. Jan has much more idea about what was growing in the garden and will no doubt be happy to show all the photos she took to anyone who’s interested when we get back.
So that was the weekend. We’re now back in San Jose, language classes all completed and are awaiting the imminent arrival of our friend Mary, prior to setting off to our next destination, Cahuita, tomorrow.