Monday, January 30, 2012

Playa de Coco and Playa Conchal

Our second full day in Costa Rica dawned just like the previous one, with a bright sun and a strong breeze. Well, to be honest, our first day dawned with more of a gale force, but according to the locals it can get really windy during the dry season and thankfully the second morning was much more manageable.

Rather than laze around ALL day, we decided to only laze around MOST of the day, and after making my way through most of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (I can't imagine a better way to spend a vacation), we headed down the road to Playa de Coco, a larger town and beach than the closer Playa Hermosa.

I was pleasantly surprised by how developed the town was; there were several shopping centers and a huge grocery store that we managed to visit every day. As we got closer to the beach, the street became lined with souvenir shops and run-down dive bars. There were tons more locals than tourists, in fact, during our entire visit I was surprised by the low number of tourists. It was nice to just mingle among the Ticos (Costa Ricans) and pretend to fit in. As much as a pasty white ginger can fit in around Costa Rica.

Self-portrait at Playa de Coco

The main square of all Costa Rican towns is comprised of a soccer field across from the Catholic Church. In Playa de Coco the church was a bright green and there was a make-shift parking lot next to the soccer field. A local man told us he would "watch our car" for a small fee, so we gave him some dollars and crossed our fingers. It seemed safer than NOT paying him, after all. 

We wandered along the main drag ducking into various shops and comparing prices. All the prices were in dollars and all the shop-owners spoke passable English, so shopping was as easy as falling off a log. And for me that is very easy indeed.

Playa de Coco's main street

 The green church!

After about an hour of walking around the town and on the beach, we headed down a side road that paralleled the beach to our dinner spot, Cafe de Playa. It was attached to small but nice hotel, and after a short walk through some lush tropical plants, we emerged to an open restaurant and bar. We had appetizers and drinks on some couches right next to the beach, and watched the sun set behind the hills sheltering the beach. Then we moved "indoors" for our meal which I am happy to report was delicious.


 Appetizers on the lawn/beach!

 Sunset at Playa de Coco

The next day is when the real adventure began--we took our first day trip to the slightly hidden beach of Playa Conchal. I say hidden because you can't actually reach it by a real road. You have drive to another beach town (Playa Brasilito) and then find a narrow road (i.e. path) that takes you across the Brasilito Beach and over a steep rocky incline. And then BAM! You have arrived at Playa Conchal--a beautiful white beach that is made of a mix of sand and soft crushed shells.

Set back from the beach under the trees were locals providing all kinds of touristy activities; water sports, horseback riding, ATV tours, etc. My friend Mac and his father, Paul, got some horses and took off for a tour of the beach and surrounding area while Mac's mom, Peggy, and I relaxed on the beach.

After the boys got back, we went back over the hill and went swimming at Playa Brasilito. The water there was much calmer than at Playa Conchal, and the guidebook warned that Conchal can have a bit of a rip-tide. I'm almost as afraid of rip-tides as I am of jellyfish*. For the most part, Brasilito was very nice to swim in; the water wasn't very cold, though not exactly warm, and the bottom of the ocean was smooth and sandy. Except for the ONE patch of jagged rocks that a wave managed to knock me onto cutting my toe. Thanks, ocean.

The boys on their horses.

  Playa Conchal: the South end

 Playa Conchal: the north end

And thus ended our first real adventure! We felt like trail-blazers having found a semi-hidden beach, although I can't really describe it as secluded since the Westin resort backs right into it and there were lots of people about. But still! We were adventurers!

Coming up next time: Maggie vs. the Sea Monster


Thursday, January 26, 2012

Pura Vida, Baby!

Greetings from Costa Rica!

Well, technically I should say "greetings from an airplane quickly carrying me away from Costa Rica."

As with most of my well-laid plans, my intention to blog during my vacation to Costa Rica quickly got lost in the ether of too much relaxation and pure laziness. So you're going to have to make due with my days later recollections. But I have my handy guidebook to help me with all the details and I promise to show you lots of fun pictures to make up for any lapse in memory.

This trip kind of occurred by accident--as much as a week-long vacation to Costa Rica can be said to take place by "accident." Basically what I mean is the trip wasn't a result of months of planning by me as per usual, but instead I was invited along with a friend and his parents. Turns out some friends of theirs had built a house in Costa Rice by Playa Hermosa ("beautiful beach") and they were able to rent the home at a great price. Since there were only three of them planning to go, they were kind enough to extend the invite to include me.

We set out on a freezing Wednesday morning from DC and after two three hour flights (with a connection in Miama) we arrived in Liberia, Costa Rica around noon. I spent most of those flights reminding myself of all the reasons why taking a flight at 6 in the morning had been a good idea. It was hardest at 3:45 in the morning when the alarm clock went off. But in any event, we arrived safe and sound, and the weather was a sunny and balmy 85 degrees. A strong breeze kept it from getting too hot and I liked this place already.

Before I get into details of where we stayed, how about some basic info on Costa Rica? The unofficial national motto is "Pura vida" which means pure life. It refers to taking enjoyment in every aspect of life, especially simple and relaxing things like a cold beer on a hot day or a goal scored by your favorite sports team.

Costa Rica is the most stable of all Latin American countries; it has no standing army (exxxxcellent) and has had a stable democratic government for over 100 years. It has a high standard of living compared to most Latin American countries. The people here are all friendly and really helpful, and at least in the areas we travelled, everyone spoke English. In fact, most of the restaurants and shops had prices listed in dollars and accepted American money. Basically, it's really easy to be an American tourist.

The area we stayed in is called the Guanacaste region (or Gold Coast) and gets its name from the large indigenous tree, the Guanacaste (duh). It's located in the north west part of the country, across the border from Nicaragua and has beautiful beaches on the Pacific Ocean. It also has a lot of volcanoes, and next time I visit (trust me, there will be a next time) I want to do some hiking in the volcanic national parks.

We traveled here during the dry season (November-April) and had no rain. In fact each day was pretty much the same; bright sun, little clouds, and temperatures getting up to 90--but with a strong breeze that kept you from getting too hot. It was perfect beach weather, and we took advantage of it by visiting five separate beaches.

Alrighty, now that you know some of the basics, let's talk about our house. It was called Casa de Viento (House of the Winds) and was built on a large hill-top overlooking Playa Hermosa, the Pacific, and Nicaragua. You could even see the chain of volcanoes in the distance, although their tops were shrouded in clouds.

The view from the front of the house

Casa de Viento!

The house was part of a gated community of similar vacation homes. It was about 30 minutes from the airport and only 5 minutes from the small town of Playa Hermosa. About 10 minutes down the road was the larger town and beach of Playa de Coco where we made almost daily trips to the large supermarket (auto merkado). Hey, you almost always need another bottle of wine or another box of Kraft mac and cheese, right?

The house was thoroughly modern, with AC, nice bathrooms, a two story back deck, and a nice little pool that was cold but felt amazing after being in the sun all day. Our first and last day we spent being completely lazy; laying around the pool, soaking in the sun, and reading. There was a nice tv and DVD hook-up, but to be honest we spent most of the time reading rather than watching tv. There were only about 4 english stations--but never fear, I managed to find Law and Order.

It was almost surprising how little time it took us to get acclimated to the laid-back lifestyle. Coming from DC where everything is go go go, you would think that we might need some time to learn how to slow down, but nope. As soon as we walked into the house it was like we all let out a collective sigh and immediately relaxed. When in Rome, er Costa Rica...Pura Vida!

Side view of the pool with some really neat cactus.

Sunset at Playa de Coco.

Coming up next: Playa de Conchal and Playa de Coco!

Monday, January 09, 2012

New Year, Clean Slate

And here we are! 2012, baby. A new year, a clean slate, and 12 months spread before of us devoid of mistakes, embarrassments, and drama.

Not that it will last, but hey, we should enjoy it while it's here, right?

But before I focus too much on the future, there's still a lot of the past to cover. Lots of things happened in December, but as usual there didn't seem to be time enough to post about it.

Ok, so that's a lie. I had some time, I just didn't feel like it. Writing is like a lot of things; practice makes perfect and you need to make it part of the routine. Once you let it fall by the wayside it's harder to pick it up again. But like I said, it's a new year so time to get back on the horse!

So let's see, what happened in December? There was the holidays of course.

I would say that they went well. It was a quiet holiday since Bill and Amanda stayed out in California (totally understandable since JP was less than 4 weeks old). But it made for a smaller number of people at the Christmas dinner table. Thanks to modern technology, we were able to Skype with them on Christmas Eve and Christmas Morning, and I got to see JP in the flesh (well, the video). It was also a quiet New Years; Selvi had a party over at her place where we played lots of Rock Band, drank lots of Rum Punch and generally enjoyed the good company. It was quite different from last year's hotel gala, but just as fun (if not more so).

Earlier in the month, I had hosted my first of what I hope will be an annual Cookie Swap. Over 20 people participated and we swapped over two dozen types of cookies and recipes. The tables were overflowing with cookies, and frankly, that's what the holidays are all about, right? SUGAR.

And of course, I had my first trip to an all-inclusive resort when I traveled with six others to Jamaica! We stayed at a Breeze's resort in Montego Bay and let me just say. It was FABULOUS. The all-inclusive thing is wonderful; all you can eat, all you can drink, water sports, pools, the beach blah blah blah. But the best part is you don't have to worry about carrying an entire day's worth of stuff with you or any money. All you need is your room key, and if you need something else you can always pop back up to the room for it.

I only left the resort once (to go for a carriage ride ooh la la) and I didn't feel any loss from it all. What else do you need other than sunshine and a wide open beach? It was quite nice to have a relaxing vacation--not that the other ones I've had aren't amazing, but just lying around all day certainly has its perks.

Another day in paradise....

On the boat, headed to snorkeling!
Group dinner at the Japanese steakhouse.

Coming up next: what does January hold?