costa rica part ii: tenorio ntl park, nosara, san juanillo
The drive from Monteverde to Bijagua was filled with dry fields, dusty roads, and full of tiny little towns that could barely be called towns. I was beginning to get a little worried because Bijagua and Tenorio Volcano National Park was supposed to be this lush jungle and yet everything on the way looked like it hadn’t seen rain in a few months. Soon, the volcano came into view and slowly the landscape became a little more green.
Bijagua was another one of those tiny towns with one little main street and a handful of businesses. I found an inexpensive little room in a home a few blocks away, not expecting much. I turned in to the driveway into a lush garden filled with flowering plants as tall as me, a beautiful patio, brightly painted walls, and a friendly little kitty (I’m a crazy cat lady). The house was modest but beautiful and the room was much more than I was expecting for the price! I had my own bathroom, a big bed, and plenty of space.
After dumping my bag, I decided to go for a little walk around the area and find something to eat. I walked down the dirt road, passing a couple tractors and local kids hanging outside of the school, and found one of the few places to eat. I had learned pretty early on that “Soda” meant a little local cafe of sorts and I had been sticking to those, almost always getting a casado, the Costa Rican speciality of a plate of rice, beans, salad, and sometimes meat. This little soda, Soda Las Tinajitas, was open to the street and had a few locals sitting at the tables and chatting over a beer. I figured that was a good sign. One of the first things I learned in Spanish was how to politely order something and it was the most used phrase of my trip! I ordered my casado, the lovely woman served it up right in front of me from cafeteria style and even served me a fruity drink that came with the meal. As with most casados, this one was piled high with food and was dirt cheap. Gotta love the local places. It ended up being one of the best casados I had in my entire time in CR - tender braised pork, super flavourful and rich beans, and a tangy/savoury stewed something that I still don’t know what it was, just that it was tasty.
I had arrived in town too late to go to the park, so I decided to take a drive up the road to Tenorio and past it, just to see what was around. The road itself is worth a drive, just for the beautiful towering trees and small fields surrounded by jungle.
I passed the parking lot for Tenorio, still pretty full with cars, and pulled off right before a tiny bridge not even 5 minutes past the parking lot. A few other cars had pulled over too so I figured I see what there was to see. Right there under the bridge was an incredible turquoise-blue river for anyone to enjoy. I hopped along the rocks to get upstream and away from the few people there and soon found myself in relative peace and quiet, watching the evening sun filtering through the treetops and dipping my feet in the cold rushing water. All for free.
I spent the rest of the evening in town trying to get my mobile wifi device working and updating my parents that I was still alive.
The next morning, I woke up at 6am so I could get to Tenorio before the crowds. I had no idea that breakfast was included with the room, so I packed up the car and was about to drive off when Lena, a wonderful and warm old Costa Rican grandmother, waved me down and gestured to the table set for me! I was so surprised and delighted that I almost hugged her. Hot coffee, freshly juiced fruit juice, watermelon, pineapple, an egg, pepper, and ham tortilla, all made right then and there by Lena, who didn’t speak any English. I was joined by a French guy who was actually working in Bijagua on water management. He spoke some Spanish and ended up being the translator between Lena and I. After thanking Lena about a dozen times, I headed out to Tenorio.
Despite the small crowd already assembled at the ticket booth at the parking lot, once inside the park, I was quickly alone. The paved pathway soon turned to a dirt trail with crisscrossing roots and rocks and a good bit of up-and-down. The famous Rio Celeste waterfall really did look like it did in photos that I had seen - an almost unbelievable turquoise colour surrounded by thick dark green jungle.
The trail continues much farther past the falls and I was lucky enough to fall in behind a guided group. I tried not to eavesdrop, as I wasn’t paying for the guide, but it wasn’t easy to sneak past a group of 7 or 8 people on a narrow trail. Plus, the guide spotted some wildlife that I don’t think anyone would have seen even if we were looking right at it.
A little further on, I came across a small bridge over one of the impossibly blue streams that snaked through the park. A little rustle and movement in the treetops caught my eye and I patiently waited to see what it was making the noise. A troupe of white faced capuchins were making their way through the trees, one with a little baby on it’s back, and soon the trees were filled with almost a dozen of the little guys.
Just after I crossed the bridge, I found a little trail off to the side that gave a good shot of the river - the first photo above. I snapped three photos of that scene and then heard a rustle just up from the bridge, to my left. Once again, I sat quietly and watched, camera at the ready. I was rewarded a few seconds later as a large tapir walked out from the bushes and had a drink at the river, right across from me and not even 20 feet away. I had the perfect view from my little spot and took a few shots, then turned to the other tourists walking around and whispered, “Tapir, other side of the river”. I got out of the way and let others enjoy the view from my vantage point while the tapir lazily munched on some flowers, drank a bit of water, and walked back into the bushes where he came from.
It was only on the way back that I ran into a guide with his group and casually mentioned the tapir sighting - I assumed it was a fairly regular occurrence in the park. The guide immediately asked me where exactly I saw the tapir and exactly how long ago. I showed him the photos I had taken and he shook his head, saying,
“You’re so lucky. I’ve been here 10 years and I’ve never had a sighting like that.”
I walked back through the park and ended up seeing that guide again as I was chatting to a tourist outside the entrance. He grabbed his other guide buddies and asked me to show them the photos I had taken of the tapir.
”Ayyyy dios mio!”
One of them exclaimed as I turned the DSLR screen towards them and went through my shots. I’m not sure if they were just humouring me, but dang, did I feel pretty lucky.
After glowing in the momentary fame that the tapir photos had given me, a girl that I was chatting to bought me half a pineapple and I hopped back in the car to move on to the next bit of my trip - the beach.
Every other place on my trip so far, I had only spent one or two nights at most. Since I was deciding where to go and booking most of my accommodation the day before I actually went there, I decided I wanted a bit of chill time after a week of adventure and activities in the jungle. So I booked 4 nights at a little surf hostel and the only plan I had was to go surfing.
I had been told by a friend to visit Nosara because it was a super relaxing little surf town. What I didn’t realize that between when my friend visited several years ago and when I visited, Nosara boomed into an ex-pat haven. Trendy cafes, juice bars, designer bathing suit shops, expensive food, and nothing resembling the local feel that I had come from. It was a bit of a shock to me, but not as big of a shock as spending more on one meal in Nosara that I had spent in 3 days in other places. But there was a cat at the beach cafe that chilled with me while I dined alone, so that was great.
I spent the evening walking along the beautiful long (and somewhat busy) beach, unsure of my decision to spend 4 days here. I was restless just sitting on the beach watching the sunset. How was I going to do nothing for the next days? How was I going to relax?
To make matters worse, in my one-room hostel, the other people were up until 1am making noise and drinking with all the lights on. I’m a pretty introverted person so this was basically my nightmare. With no hope of sleeping, I spent my night researching other places to stay in Nosara and even another town I could go to the next day. I was 100% sure I wasn’t going to enjoy 4 days here.
Wakeup was at 6am for surfing and with surprisingly little sleep, I was feeling alright. The owner of the hostel was a local surfer so he had a bunch of boards for us all to rent out, plus drove us to the beach.
I’ve never been great at surfing, but I sure as hell enjoy it. Despite the early hour, it was still a hot day and the water was refreshing, so getting tumbled by the waves wasn’t that bad at all. It just felt good to be on a board again.
After a morning of surfing, we were all sunburned and tired and hoofed it back to the hostel with our boards. There was a small locals favourite beach not far from our hostel that I decided to head to for lunch and to chill for the rest of the afternoon. It was much smaller, less busy, and best of all - had a beachfront bar and cafe, something that was nowhere else in Nosara because the shoreline was a protected area. This bar pre-dated the creation of the protected area and was allowed to stay. Drink in hand and belly full of tacos, I watched an couple slow dance in the sand as the sun set and surfers rode the waves behind them. That’s one memory that will stay with me for a while.
One of the surfers was actually a paddleboarder that surfed the waves with his dog. I ended up chatting to him on the beach and found out that he owned the bar, which is how I found out that this was the only beachfront bar in Nosara, as well as a fishing excursion company. We ended up talking for hours!
Travelling solo always seems to create these connections more so than travelling with someone else. A big part of why I love travelling is meeting new people, hearing their stories, learning how they ended up at this place at this time, and what they’re after in life. I could listen to people’s stories for hours.
After an awesome day where I didn’t even take my camera out once, I felt a lot better about Nosara than I did the previous night. I decided that 3 more days here would be awesome and that I just had to go with the flow a little more.
The next few days, I made friends with my hostel mates, chilled with them on the locals beach and got shave ice from a cart, drove to the tiny little part of town just outside the touristy spot to find a proper Soda, had many naps in the hammock, and went surfing. I didn’t really bring my camera out for most of those days for the sole reason that I was relaxing and enjoying my downtime. Not everything needs to be photographed all the time and it was a nice little break from worrying about getting a good shot or the right light.
My four days in Nosara was up but my next destination was only a 45 minute drive away - San Juanillo. This was probably the smallest town of my trip. I would hesitate to even call it a town. But this was more my style - almost all locals, tiny, maybe a little run-down, but authentic and real.
I had a beautiful cabin to myself in a yoga retreat with a few workaways, who welcomed me immediately like I was an old friend. A little cabin to myself, complete with a porch open to the dry jungle outside, was a welcome relief after 4 nights of hostel life.
As always, I spent the evening at the beach, watching the waves and taking photos. The beach was almost empty and I had a hard time believing that this quiet little gem was so close to the polar opposite Nosara.
I’m hesitant to include this next part into the blog post because I don’t want it to stain the lovely place I stayed at, the wonderful town of San Juanillo, or Costa Rica in general. This was 100% my fault and I don’t think anyone should be dissuaded from coming to Costa Rica because of this.
Everything I had read about Costa Rica had told me to never leave anything in the car, ever. I followed that advice and always brought my two bags into the place I was staying, ever time. Except once. The yoga retreat was about a 15 minute drive up a dirt road with barely any houses along that road and to my knowledge, hardly anything further up the road. I didn’t see one car go by while I was there. I parked my rental SUV within the fence of the retreat center, right next to the dining area and barely 30 feet from the owners house. Another guests car was parked behind me. There were two super friendly large dogs that barked anytime someone came near the fence. I thought that maybe this one time I didn’t need to bring my extra bag in if I didn’t need it.
The next morning, I found that my car had been broken in to and my backpack stolen. Someone had slipped a piece of wire down the drivers side window, pressed the power unlock buttons, opened the back door, put down the seat, and taken out the backpack from the back. And left the bag of dried beans behind. Thankfully, nothing absolutely major was stolen - a sleeping pad, my favourite sweater (kinda choked about that), a mask and snorkel, two pair of sandals, binoculars, etc.
It still hurt. I felt stupid, embarrassed, and just overall shitty. The workaways immediately helped me out by combing the grounds and up and down the road, just in case someone had found that there wasn’t anything important in the pack and ditched it. No luck. There wasn’t much I could do, so I just went to the beach and tried to enjoy my day regardless of my slip-up.
As soon as I lay my towel down under a big beautiful tree, a shaggy black and brown dog walked up and flopped down right in front of me, belly up and wanting some lovin’. He wasn’t a stray - he was in great condition- and it’s typical of Costa Ricans to let their dogs roam freely, especially in small towns - so I knew he belonged to somebody. I spent probably the next half an hour petting this pup, who was just loving it. He would roll around in the sand on his back, paws in the air and tongue lolling out of his mouth. A few people even asked me if it was my dog! At one point, I stopped petting him and got my book out to read, fully expecting him to move on in search of someone else who would continue the belly rubs. To my surprise, he stayed by my side - literally laying right against my leg - for the next hour. I’m gonna be honest, I needed that bit of affection and companionship after the rough morning I had.
After an afternoon of swimming and napping, I got some tacos at the local soda and went back to the retreat to hang with the workaways. We ended up driving back to the beach to watch the sunset and what a sunset it was.
The next morning, I had breakfast with the workaways while howling monkeys made a racket in the trees above us and hopped in the car to start the long drive to my next destination - Santa Teresa.