Sail Gemini -- Costa Rica
Updated May 12, 2004
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Bahia Santa Elena Playa Flamingo Monte Verde/Colon St. Gang Gulf of Nicoya Lightning! San Jose/Golfito/Manuel Antonio Los Suenos Marina
Note: Click on any small "thumbnail" photos to see the large photo.
Peninsula of Nicoya
Gemini at anchor near Playa del Cocos (Photo courtesy of Joe Music)
Bahia Santa Elena
At anchor in Santa Elena during May of 2003, Gemini enjoyed the isolation of a very remote anchorage. Although a few other cruisers were anchored in this northernmost bay of Costa Rica, the area was expansive and the sky seemed never to end. We enjoyed hiking on shore, snorkeling around the rocks just outside the bay, and listening to birds in the distance. Every evening about 5 o'clock, pairs of green macaws would fly overhead squawking at each other like an old married couple. It sounded like one was saying: "See, I told you we should have left an hour ago! Now the wind is up and we'll have to flap twice as hard to get home and the kids will be starving and the neighbors will be wondering where we are! " To which the reply was: "SQUAWK!"
Sharing a hike with friends from Maverick and Serafin, we saw the flash of a cougar disappearing behind the branches as we crashed our way through the forest and heard a few other ominous sounds, but nothing to dampen our enthusiasm. The rumor of snakes, evidently, is way over-rated. A jump from the waterfall for a swim in the cool pond refreshed our spirits and energized us for the return walk.
The Costa Rica Coast Guard proved to be an amiable bunch. On May 3, just as everyone was preparing to come over to Gemini for Les' birthday dinner, the Santa Maria hailed us on the VHF radio and announced they would like to board all the boats and inspect their papers. They readily agreed to allow everyone to bring their paperwork to Gemini and do the "inspections" en masse. They briefly looked around Gemini and browsed through everyone's documents, all in order. But, as they were leaving, they asked timidly if we had any good action videos they could borrow! Seems that they've had the same 3 videos on board for six months and were desperate for something new. After we all put together a collection of Stallone, Van Damm and Jackie Chan, Les pulled a coup de gras by trading hats with the captain. Leaving Santa Helena, he was a happy puppy!
Some experiences could not be captured on film but are worth describing. During one 10-mile hike into the northern shore, Les and I saw beautiful birds, an ocelot, butterflies and blossoms of every imaginable color. The highlight of the day was spotting a family of three black-faced spider monkeys. The largest, obviously Dad, glared at us while mom & baby watched from a hidden branch. He challenged us to match him by shaking a branch with one arm (which we did), then shaking two branches with two arms (which we also did), then letting go with everything and hanging by his tail (which we were unable to do). This experience left us laughing and acknowledging his superiority in all matters gymnastic.
Santa Elena was a tough place to leave, but the rainy season had begun and the afternoon hikes, snorkeling and dinghy rides were replaced by reading, needlework and gin rummy while Gemini protected us from the raindrops. You can see the effects just one month later at Playa del Cocos, as a soggy Becky and Curt from Journey stopped by to say "Hello". We quickly discovered that the Sunbrella awnings that worked so well in the deserts of Mexico were starting to reveal their shortcomings in torrential downpours. The list of projects grows again!
After our 2-week stay in Santa Elena, the anchorages in Flamingo and Playa del Coco seemed like civilization gone wild--grocery stores, diving services, hotels--all within an airplane hop from the capital of San Jose. Still, we were lucky to be doing this on our own time, in our own way, and sleeping in our own beds every night. We stayed at Bahia Culebra, then went into Playa del Coco to officially check into the country. (If we had to do it again, we'd wait until the last possible minute to check in, because Costa Rica has a strict six-month limit for cruising boats and the boat must leave the country unless a bond is secured or a one-year marina contract is signed.) That process gave us a fairly complete tour of the town within an hour, during which time we discovered a mercado with fresh mint, basil, mozzarella and numerous other treats like gnocchi from Italy! We enjoyed a delicious lunch at the Portobelo restaurant with German bread and gourmet sandwiches--Rye, flax seed, multigrain breads and assorted pastries were made by a German baker in Liberia (506/668-1081 or email firstname.lastname@example.org) and, as we gleefully discovered, delivered to locations along the Gulf of Nicoya. The northeasterlies were starting to blow, so we headed back to the more protected anchorage in Bahia Culebra: Playa Hermosa. A secure anchorage is somewhat reassuring, but we've learned that, in addition to keeping an eye on the anchorage through the night, setting the GPS to a 0.1-mile scale with the track enabled gives us an excellent picture of our holding pattern.
Gulf of Nicoya
Moving along to Ballena Bay, we enjoyed the sounds of howler monkeys at night and took leisurely strolls through the small towns along this western peninsula. A bus trip to Montezuma introduced us to a classic waterfall hike and tropical birds like this magpie jay who seemed quite at home in the center of town picking up pieces of discarded hamburger buns.
Putting down the anchor in Playa Naranjo at 3 pm on July 5, Gemini joined friends we'd been missing during extensive land tours described below. As the rain began to fall, everyone headed home to close their hatches and we did the same, cleaning up the cockpit and straightening out the boat in preparation for a downpour. And we got more than we bargained for. Lightning struck nearby, giving Gemini a lesson in electrical energy we'll never forget! Link to our Lightning page to get the gory details.
Friends from Maverick, Music and Run Free come aboard for cocktails in Playa Naranjo. Here's a photo of Les as he tries to check in with 11 pieces of baggage--electronics repaired or replaced after the lightning strike. Notice the suspicious agent at the check-in counter!
The Colon St. Gang Visits Monte Verde & other Costa Rica Hotspots
We had a typical drive to Monte Verde--long, steamy, bumpy and turny--but the effort paid off with once-in-a-lifetime experiences of tropical forests, hanging bridges, canopy rides, the Monte Verde dairy tour and, of course, buckets of rain. Our first clue should have been when the hotel handed us all umbrellas as soon as we checked in. The second clue should have been the rubber boots we were issued before we visited the cow and pig pens at the dairy.
Again, there were unsuspected rewards for our efforts, like the best smoked bacon we've ever tasted and a glimpse of mot mots, quetzals, three-wattled bellbirds, snakes and tarantulas plus plants whose beauty no one could have imagined. The birds were so spell-binding and fleeting that camera shots weren't even attempted, but the other spectacles were a little slower moving. Also, the girls were very patient with my new-found hobby: bird-watching.
Having been in Central America (obviously) too long, we tried to help reserve rooms for the family. Apparently, our recommendation (left) fell a little short of their expectations (right). The Vista del Valle Plantation Inn was only one of several enchanting hotels in Costa Rica that Sydney managed to discover from her extensive research at home.
Just 30 minutes from the airport, the exclusive del Valle resort had individual "cabins" that forced us to re-define the term. Iguanas, hummingbirds and numerous other creatures surprised us at every path, while the restaurant was another gourmet treat. In San Jose, the family stayed at the historic Don Carlos while we stayed at the nearby Hotel Aranjuez ($38), where the included breakfast was a sumptuous meal. Hotels in Costa Rica vary in price and quality, but you can get a nice room for under $50, especially during the "green" season, when discounts are readily agreed upon. The rainy season also has scant traffic, tourist-free parks and the most luscious greenery you can imagine--not all bad!
Another highpoint was a visit to the La Paz waterfalls, where seemingly endless stairways guide you over, around, under and through some of the most fantastic falls we'd ever seen. Luckily, there is a van at the bottom of the journey to take you back to the parking lot--a feature that Mark and Katie neglected to notice, so they walked all the way back up the stairways!
The family had a terrific visit, rounding up the experience in a beautiful condo at Club del Mar near Jaco, where we rented horses, saw crocodiles, feasted on seafood and bought butter dishes galore for Nonni!
San Jose, Manuel Antonio Park, Quepos and Golfito
After bidding the family adieu and discovering another beautiful hotel in Alajuela called the Buena Vista, we took a drive from San Jose southbound to Golfito to visit friends and inspect the marinas. Then we continued northbound along the coast through Quepos and on to Jaco/Los Suenos marina. To us, this trip was more enjoyable by far than the grueling drive to Monte Verde. Cerro del Muerte highway, a scenic route over lush mountains and crisp brooks, was about a 4 hour drive to Golfito, a not-very-pleasant town with three very nice marinas. Continuing north from Golfito, there was always a unique and charming (if somewhat tentative) bridge crossing each creek, and the flowers and palm orchards kept us "oohing" and "aahing" every mile along the way. Although we were sorely disappointed by the lack of wildlife in the park itself, hotels like Tres Banderas in the hills of Manuel Antonio made this a luxurious experience at "off-peak" prices and we got our wildlife fix on a river rafting trip with numerous birds, including toucans, along the shoreline.
The Buena Vista Hotel, a beautiful facility overlooking the valley of San Jose.
Roadside treats between Golfito and Jaco.
We enjoyed meeting local residents like travel agent Antonella and husband Vincenzo with his lovable Parrot. Also, pets at Raya Vida in San Jose gave us our "Cami" fix.
We enjoyed visiting Sarchi, where the majority of wood products are made and precious lumber like this pile of purple heart wood lie in stacks on the street. Les discovered a woodshop where they made a new cockpit table for us out of a teak-like hardwood called Guanacaste.
Los Suenos Marina
Los Suenos Marina--catching up with El Regalo and Music.
Affiliated with the Marriott Hotel and Condominium complex, this five-star marina had the finest construction and management we could have hoped for, though they definitely catered more to the high-end sportfishing crowd. After three very rolly nights anchored in Herradura, even Joe joined the crowd in the protected marina. We were delighted to discover that the German baker brought his truck here weekly in the afternoon and to Jaco in the evenings. Located in the province of Puntarenas, we could easily take day tours to places like the magnificent Hotel Villa Caletas, where cocktails, toucans and a stunning sunset form a magical combination. Another highlight of our entire Costa Rican experience was the Rio Tarcoles Crocodile Safari, where we not only saw the real thing in action, but were also introduced to numerous birds and a sloth. The nearby town of Jaco was great fun, too--low-key surfer's town and easy to get hooked there. But we forgot our camera, so you'll have to check these out for yourself.
Other Thrills at Marina Los Suenos: Tamales, Tree Carvings and Tuna
In between lightning work, we enjoyed making tamales with Theresa, seeing an iguana carved out of a fallen tree and inheiriting giant slabs of fresh yellowfin tuna from wealthy fishermen who couldn't digest the 300-pound fish all by themselves.
In spite of all the fun, we eventually had to leave Costa Rica for Panama. We thought this rainbow at our last anchorage was an appropriate sendoff.
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