costa rica part i: bajos del toro, la fortuna, monteverde
I’ve always been in an independent person. I skipped out on my high school prom to go traveling Europe by myself at the age of 17. I volunteered at a wildlife reserve in the middle of the South African bush for 2 months when I was 19. I go hiking and camping overnight by myself more than I go with others. I hate being held back by someone else and if I want to do something, go somewhere, and experience somewhere, you can bet I’ll do it regardless of anyone else.
So I decided to rent a car and travel Costa Rica by myself for just over three weeks.
2,100 kilometers on some paved highways, countless rural dirt roads, through a dozen rivers, and one ferry
1 flat tire (on my first day)
23 days of solo travel, meeting new people, experiencing new places
10 different towns stayed in, including a biological research base in the jungle, a yoga commune, and a surf hostel on the beach
It was a crazy whirlwind trip full of new experiences and big adventures. I did a ton of research before I left and had a lot of places that I wanted to hit while I was there, but still left room for spontaneous new adventures. It was an awesome trip that I’ll remember forever.
I flew into San Jose, Costa Rica at about 8am. I grabbed my bag and headed straight for the rental car company to pick up my reservation. Within minutes, I had signed all the forms, hopped in a sweet new Rav4, and headed out of San Jose. I was a little nervous about driving in a new country - I’ve only been driving a car for 2 years and motorcycle for 2 years prior to that - but I found out that the highways in CR were not much different that highways back home.
Bajos del Toro was one of the places I badly wanted to visit and since it was just a 2 hour drive north of San Jose, I decided to start my trip there. I can say that despite all the amazing places I went to in CR, Bajos del Toro was probably my favourite. A tiny little town nestled in the cloud-wreathed jungle mountains with waterfalls around every corner. The drive to this mountain town was a little hairy, though - even with an all-wheel-drive SUV. The lovely asphalt highway turned into an old paved road twisting and turning through hilltop towns (thank God for Googlemaps, holy shit), then turned to dirt and patches of what may have once been pavement and massive potholes and wash outs. It was a bit of a scary introduction to Costa Rican roads, but this was just a taste of what some of the roads in this country are like.
After driving up and over a massive mountain, I arrived in the little valley and the few buildings that made up Bajos del Toro. It was around noon at this point, too early to check-in to my Airbnb, so I decided to drive around and find something fun to do. Before I had even left town, I saw a sign for a waterfall and turned in there.
I chatted to the old guy that was running the place and he said he would get his nephew to show me around, for an extra $10 of course. Whether he was fleecing the young Canadian white girl that didn’t know better, or he was genuinely hoping to give me a great experience, I didn’t know, but I went with it. And honestly, I was glad that I did!
David, the nephew, met me in the fields as I was walking up the trail. He also had about 5 dogs trailing him. I introduced him with my basic Spanish and he introduced himself with his basic English. We quickly figured out that neither of us knew much of the others’ language but we still managed to have a good “conversation” through the few words we did know and a bunch of hand gestures.
With the help of the dogs, he showed me the large main waterfall, then took me to see the incredible blue water and small falls. At one point, he gestured to one of the smaller falls and asked, “Jump?” I think he was joking. Maybe it was the excitement of being in Costa Rica for all of 5 hours, but I said, “Sure!” without hesitation. I think David was as surprised as I was that I agreed to jump.
The water was much colder than I expected but it was a beautiful blue colour and I was surrounded by lush jungle and a local guide that jumped in after me. What a way to start my trip.
After that, we saw some more little waterfalls and blue rivers that I would never have found on my own and pieced together English and Spanish and charades to make conversation. I had a fantastic home-cooked casado, a traditional Costa Rican dish that I basically subsided completely off of, and decided to make my way to my Airbnb.
The reviews of the Airbnb said the road was really darn rough, but I had been on some gnarly trails back home in Vancouver and assumed that with my Rav4, I’d just have to take it slow and I’d be great.
Oh, how wrong I was.
This was less of a road and more of a rock garden. I was constantly worried about scraping up the underside of the car and piercing an oil tank or something else important that I had no clue how to deal with. After 30 minutes of going maybe 2km/hr, I made it to a working dairy farm on the side of the mountain. The farmer didn’t speak any English but pointed me up just past the farm, literally, and low and behold, there was my Airbnb. The contrast of the small barn with cows and cow poop with the beautiful and rustic lodge was a bit striking. Nevertheless, I was happy to be out of the car.
The next morning, I woke up at 5am to see the sunrise and drive 2.5 hours to a waterfall. I packed up my backpack, snapped some photos of the surrounding area, and went to the car to start my journey.
I had a flat tire.
Not like a slightly deflated tire and just needed some air. No, this this was completely deflated. And it was Sunday, so every mechanic or garage would be closed.
Thankfully, the two other people staying at the Airbnb (thankfully) were getting up, so I asked for a bit of help changing the tire. I had only ever changed a tire once and it was definitely more of a supervising role than anything.
With the spare tire on, I didn’t really see any other option that to keep with my original plan - even though with a spare tire you shouldn’t drive over 60km/hr and definitely should drive for 5.5 hours on it.
But I went ahead and did that.
Thankfully, the tire held throughout the journey. I made it to La Fortuna and was blown away by the touristy-ness of it all, especially since I had just come from the sleepy town of Bajos del Toro that had about 15 buildings in total, whereas La Fortuna seemed to be crawling with thousands of tourists and shops hawking figurines of sloths and toucans and hammocks.
La Fortuna - the waterfall, not the town - was beautiful, although still overrun by what seemed like a million people. I decided to walk along a trail I spotted and see where it lead to. Within minutes, I was completely alone and away from the noise of the crowds and surrounded by jungle. I found a rusty hanging bridge with, once again, no one around. I climbed an insanely long stone staircase, hoping to get somewhere, only to find out I had to go back down the staircase and come out the way I came in. All in all, it was beautiful, sweaty, a little tiring, but nice once I got away from the crowds. Worth the $18 USD? Definitely not.
I drove back to Bajos del Toro and had a quiet night chatting to the couple back at the Airbnb. After all, after the sun sets at 6pm and with no internet at the Airbnb, what else what there to do? That’s another thing that I love about solo traveling, it’s so easy to just start chatting people up and finding out about their lives and travels.
The next morning was another early morning - not hard to do since the sun is up at 6am every day and I’ve always been a morning person. I decided to hit up Catarata del Toro and the Blue Falls, just a fifteen minute drive from Bajos del Toro. I knew I wanted to go super early to beat any crowds and hopefully grab some nice shots with soft morning light. Boy, was I glad for making that choice.
I was the first and only there for quite a while and the only two other people that ended up joining me were the two people from my Airbnb.
When I first saw Catarata del Toro, I thought that seeing it from the top of canyon was it and I was still blown away. But I kept following the path and soon came to a steep staircase. It ended up going all the way down to the base of the falls (and was a huge bitch to come back up). It was incredible experiencing a massive waterfall, higher than I had ever seen, right up close and without anyone else around. That in itself was better than La Fortuna.
I joined the couple from my Airbnb back at the main area and we set off to the other falls - the Blue Falls. We walked a little ways down the road and met a man that we were told would show us the way to the falls. He was dressed in a t-shirt, a sweater, jeans, a hat, and big wellington boots. We were in shorts, t-shirts, and running shoes and already sweating our asses off.
After 20 or so minutes of walking and a few brief encounters with more cows - probably our guides cows - we walked down a narrow set of metal stairs and onto a beautiful milky blue river. A quick walk up the river, trying not to biff it on the slippery rocks, we made it to the waterfall. Or should I say waterfalls. There were two, one right behind the other, both a brilliant blue colours, and the morning sun was streaming in behind them. I could barely believe what I was seeing. Trying to capture it accurately on my camera was frustrating because it simply wasn’t conveying the magic that I felt in that moment.
We swam in the cold water, took so many photos, and marvelled at where we were, what we were experiencing, and how incredible it all was. Our guide was sitting on a rock and texting. This was probably the 1,497th time he had been here.
We walked a little further down the river, back up to the trail, then back down into another riverbed where we came across a tiny little cascading stream that fed into a pool of stunning turquoise water. The sunlight was filtering through the trees, the ferns hung heavy and lush over the water, and the sound of birds echoed in the morning stillness. After taking a few photos, we all just stood there and stared for a few minutes. Even our guide took a few photos with his phone and stared along with us.
After that spectacular morning, I was in for a few hours of driving (basically the store of my trip). I headed west towards the drier mountains of Monteverde. I passed through dry fields with golden grass, little roadside stalls selling meat (I think) and so many fruit stands.
Oh, and I also got my tire fixed finally. For $4.
After driving for ages on a gravel road that seemed to just keep going up and up and up, I arrived in Monteverde. The first few things I noticed was that it was drier than I expected and was so. flipping. windy. I guess coming from the verdant mountains of Bajos del Toro where it rained every night and had waterfalls left, right, and centre, I kind of expected Monteverde to be the same, especially since it was supposed to be a “cloud forest”. But then again, this was down in the town.
I found a place to stay for the night and went out for some tacos and a drink while the sun went down. Early to bed because I had an early morning wakeup call to drive up to the Children’s Eternal Rain Forest, just a 15 minute drive from Monteverde, to hike to the San Gerardo Biological Research Station.
In that fifteen minute drive, the weather went from sunny and windy to completely socked in with clouds and condensation dripping from every leaf. The cloud forest was there all along, just a little higher up. I started my hike in my rain jacket on a dirt road that was more mud than dirt. I managed to stay on my feet for the whole time as I descended down through towering trees and clouds rushing by overhead. At one point, the low clouds around me parted and I had a spectacular view of Lake Arenal and the Arenal Volcano.
I arrived to the research station and was surprised to see that I was the only one there apart from the staff member. After a brief nap in one of the hammocks overlooking the jungle, lake, and volcano, I explored some of the trails around the station. A small waterfall, an inquisitive Curassow and a ton of other birds, so many bugs, and approximately a thousand butterflies.
When I arrived back at the station, I met the four American students that had arrived while I was gone. It was great to chat with them and hear about how they, a bunch of engineering/robotics students, found themselves here, in a research station in the middle of a Costa Rican jungle.
We watched the sun set from the balcony, saw the fireflies come out once it was dark, and gazed at the brilliantly bright stars.
A brief hike back out in the morning and I was back on the road again, headed for the town of Bijagua and the Tenorio Volcano National Park.