Chimp off the old Block

Last week, I entered Costa Rica, in the hope that the rainy season would abate for just long enough to spot a sloth anywhere other than the confines of a downtown nightclub. This week, I crawled my way around the country – from couch to couch – as I experienced the munificence and uniqueness of Central American hospitality. Chiliguaro anyone?

Day 22 – San José, Costa Rica

My current host Mariel is a photographer, but as she is quite possibly the only naturally blonde Costa Rican in existence, she often gets asked to model for various things (including, when she was fourteen, a Costa Rican health supplement with questionable benefits). I was invited to tag along to a Greek-goddess-themed shoot of hers at a university in San José – an extremely random but eye-opening experience.

Following that was an extremely hedonistic day, which included a brief tour around San José’s centre – not somewhere that commands a visit of longer than thirty-five seconds. It comprises a handful of reasonably attractive parks, a few run-down brothels and a central shopping area which reminded me of Coventry. Hence, it was back to Mariel’s rather plush shared apartment for copious beverages. We also watched all ninety-five glorious minutes of Pink Floyd: The Wall – a highly stupefying experience to say the least.

Day 23 – San José, Costa Rica to Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

Hedonism has its occasional drawbacks. In no condition to travel down a flight of stairs (let alone across a nation), I had little choice but to make the three-hour journey south to the Pacific-coast town of Manuel Antonio. Generally, it is a straightforward trip, one fairly comfortable bus all the way to the centre of the town, just not in the comatosed state I was in. I said my goodbyes to Mariel and boarded my bus to what was meant to be paradise – it will need to be to justify this trek.

I slept and snored “like a mating gorilla” (according to a fellow traveller), and if it wasn’t for the fact that my hostel was located at the last stop I would have ended up in Pablo Escobar’s backyard. I wasn’t in any mood to socialise at this particular juncture, so as soon as the previous backpacker was unceremoniously booted out of his bunk – I took his place and continued my respite (with Comfortably Numb on repeat in my conscious).

Day 24 – Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

It was high time I did something productive, and it just so happened that Manuel Antonio National Park was right on my doorstep. Listed by Forbes among the world’s twelve most beautiful national parks (although Forbes also classifies Kylie Jenner as a self-made billionaire), I needed to take a glance for myself.

Now it is a slight improvement on Northumberland National Park if I’m honest. Any place where simians and iguanas outnumber humans is my sort of location. Yes, the beaches were delightful, but I think I’m already at the stage where one impeccable coastline merges into another – I’d much rather see a common basilisk fight another for the remains of a masticated dragonfly.

The park appears a lot larger on a map than in reality, as I was able to hike every trail within its limits in less than three hours – that is not to say that it is inferior in any way. Quite the opposite, I was almost entirely alone to do my best Attenborough impression as I clambered from iguana-laden rock to capuchin-filled tree – camera in hand. This was Costa Rica at its stereotypical finest.

Day 25 – Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica to La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Another day spinning the wheel of fortune on the Costa Rican bus network, and I deemed it best to get up as early as possible and catch whatever method of transport I could in the general direction of La Fortuna: my destination in the north Costa Rican mountains. Boarding my first chicken bus (an out-of-service American school bus) at 6:00 am would surely afford me plenty of time to reach my lofty location?

However, as I have learnt to my chagrin, nationalised transport systems in this part of the world are non-existent, and each bus you require is always with a different company – most likely located at the other side of the city (which always appears to be in rush-hour and under a heavy storm). When eventually you arrive at the correct terminal, the bus you need has left five minutes before your arrival and you must wait another two hours for the next. And so it went for me, finally disembarking in La Fortuna twelve hours later, under the cover of darkness and during an end-of-the-world typhoon that Noah would have been more suited to. I arrived at my container (yes, my hostel is made entirely from metal shipping containers) in desperate need of a dry place to sit (as well as psychiatric help).

Day 26 – La Fortuna, Costa Rica

When dawn breaks in La Fortuna and you look outside your shipping container, it’s pretty darn easy to spot its major attraction (when it’s not concealed by cloud that is). The lumbering Arenal Volcano overlooks the town from almost every angle and has been a constant draw for foreigners for over fifty years – despite it becoming dormant in 2010. La Fortuna is also the most touristy town in the most touristy country in all of Central America – this means it’s expensive, very expensive (hence why I’m sleeping in a metal sarcophagus).

I also deemed it wise to get around under my own steam, by hiring a bike for the day and cycling the twenty-two kilometres to Arenal Volcano National Park – how hard could that be? Bloody difficult it turns out, given the ninety per cent humidity and almost constant uphill terrain. Upon my sweaty arrival, I was greeted by a quite spectacular view of Arenal, and its mist-shrouded cone. Well worth the calf-destroying effort.

Today also happened to be the last Saturday before All Hallows’ Eve and, despite being the grand age of twenty-eight, being invited to a Halloween-themed night at a local (well only) nightclub was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Along with two hostel friends, we joined the hundreds of spotty, hormone-charged, teenage Costa Ricans and ‘danced’ and drank until the sun started to rise and I had remembered that I’m more Julio Iglesias than Enrique, and can no longer cope with alcohol as I once could…

Day 27 – La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Today was a write-off from the second my adhesive eyelids attempted to open, and my parched tongue gasped for any form of fluid. Before last night’s outing, I had half contemplated making the trip to Nicaragua today – that was no longer an option. Instead, a trip to the local pizzeria was as far as I could manage, and an extra night required in the container (it was starting to grow on me).

It did, however, give me the opportunity to plan my route north in a far more organised manner than I had on previous legs – which will be required given the number of different methods of transport I will need tomorrow. As for Costa Rica, it has proved to be a very agreeable country – and delivered the beautiful scenery and jungle experiences it promised. However, with prices similar to that of Europe (but a minimum wage of less than £400 a month), the divide between the haves and the have-nots is stark – quite saddening. Where on earth is all the money going?

Day 28 – La Fortuna, Costa Rica to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Another early start and another convoluted bus trip north. From La Fortuna to Upala, Upala to La Cruz, La Cruz to Peñas Blancas and Peñas Blancas to San Juan del Sur. To make it all the more fun, another storm had decided to accompany me on my journey and by the time I had reached the Nicaraguan border, I was soaked through and it was nighttime once more (days do appear to be incredibly short here). With countless locals trying to exchange money with me/sell me into the drug trade, I made a hasty escape towards the gates.

Having fought my way past the crowds to border control, I was then entirely on my own to walk the dark mile through no-man’s-land (a quite forbidding experience I must say), before reaching my next nation: Nicaragua. Having got my stamp, I began the process of haggling my taxi fare to San Juan with several obstinate drivers through the railings. I’m not quite sure why when, at home, I have no problem paying £25 for a taxi home after a night out in town but will fight for my life for a cheaper ride when at the Nicaraguan border at midnight. But haggle for thirty minutes I did, and got a deal that didn’t make me want to throw up – and off Carlos took me into the night…


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