As February neared an end, and my ski trip back home in the Upper Peninsula in Michigan concluded, I returned to Costa Rica, flying back into San Jose. On the long drive from the airport, I conversed with my cab driver entirely in Spanish, which felt great after not having touched the language in about a week. Goodbye white snow, ski slopes, and IPAs. Hello heavy traffic, palm trees, and Imperial.
At around the same time on this day, Ramona’s parents Donna and Troy, flew into the same San Jose airport, ready to begin an incredible three week vacation, immaculately planned for them by their daughter to celebrate Donna’s well-earned retirement.
Situated on opposite sides of the capital city, both couples recuperated from travel, packed, and prepared to rise early, and properly begin the long awaited excursion to the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. We met up in an early morning shuttle, and headed west to Tamarindo, a place Ramona and I were already quite familiar with. After a brief overnight stopover there, which included dinner at Dragonfly, one of our favorites, our rental car was painstakingly obtained, after Ramona navigated some scheduling issues. A delicious breakfast with great iced coffee and Dragonfruit juice was consumed, and the first proper leg in this adventure began.
Costa Rica is not a large country in the way Americans (or estadounidenses, meaning literally, “United States-ians”) think, and when plotting out travel by car on a map, the distance between two places seems nearby and surmountable within a couple of hours. This however does not take into account the narrowness of its winding highway roads, the numerous gradual hills, and the abundance of slow moving motorbikes, carts, and livestock that can clog up the highways, combining to make vehicular travel in the country a longer event than in the states. This also excludes the inevitable mixups due to poor GPS directions, or limited/non-existent signage. With Ramona at the wheel, and myself riding shotgun to help with navigation (and get some coding complete when the conditions allowed), we started off toward Sámara, rolling past cows, carts, and bikers transporting chainsaws.
Eventually, we arrived at the outskirts of Sámara.
Knowing our residence for the next week was outside of town and took some effort to get to, we decided to stop for groceries before going there to settle in. This was quite an adventure, with our GPS directing us all over the small town but never within site of the desired tienda. Alas, we stopped at our second choice, Palí, before heading in the direction of Playa Sámara. Following some incomplete directions (a very typical experience in Latin America) toward a house with no proper address (also very typical), our Subaru 4×4 found itself at a narrow dirt road at the base of a massive hill. The long ascent began, with four worried humans in the car as we navigated the bumpy, steep road, frequently unable to see what lied ahead due to the sharp angle at which we climbed. Though I was not driving, for me this felt comparable to driving up the vertical, looping byway up to Mount Evans in Colorado, the highest paved road in the United States. Verily, this will get ones heart pumping.
Our Amazing House on the Hill
After ten minutes of driving up the precipitous hill, we reached Casa Vela. Well, we initially drove past it, and realized once we the road began to go downhill that we probably ought to figure out how to turn around.
Upon entering the front door and inspecting the house, it struck me how privileged Ramona and I were to be able to travel, that we’d found our way here to this space. This was without a doubt the most perfectly crafted house we’ve stayed in, and unless we become millionaires, this will probably remain at the top of the list. The four of us were in awe as we unpacked and settled in. Owned by an American woman who travels Costa Rica competing in big-game fishing competitions, the inner decor was an eclectic mix of beach house and fishing cabin. The bedrooms were luxurious, the bathrooms were spacious and functional, and the kitchen had all the necessary tools and appliances (definitely not a given based on all of the apartments or domiciles we’ve stayed at, which often lack spatulas, pans, or other essentials needed to actually cook). The comfortable desk in the home office allowed me to get in the flow and have privacy for work calls.
But enough about the interior. Let’s take a look out back.
Casa Vela featured a large infinity pool, hot tub, and great patio area. Here’s a great zoomed out look from the Airbnb listing of the back. Regrettably, I don’t think we snapped a single photo of the front of the house.
One of my favorite phrases to describe the emotional awe that can be found when experiencing natural outdoor beauty is when it feels as though one is at “the edge of the earth.” Perched in a pool on a cliff overlooking the ocean, surrounded only by sounds of the wind and wildlife, these days and nights at Casa Vela represented that for me completely. At night time, we fired up the hot tub with its miniature fountain. Though the fountain took several hours of running to approach even a lukewarm temperature, it did provide a relaxing setting for watching some epic full moons, of which the pictures below do no justice.
Several days into the stay, our foursome had to make our way into town for supplies to grill out, which meant our first experience driving down the steep hill that we scaled a couple days previous. Our nerves had long settled, and being supremely relaxed, we navigated our way down to the bottom with more ease. It’s really a much more relaxing experience heading down.
Later in our stay I also spent lunch breaks or early evenings after work going for short runs up and down this hill until I was drenched in sweat in the muggy climate. Alone, surrounded by silence but for the roar of a distant troop of howler monkeys, the waves of the ocean, and my rapidly beating heart. Simply outstanding.
Ultimately, we never saw any howler monkeys while at the house, though the calls of the mono congos were frequent. I spotted only a single one swinging on some tree branches above the road while driving to Sámara. While their vocalizations always give the appearance they are nearby, howler monkeys can be heard from up to several miles away, and are considered the loudest land animal. I consider them one of the more impressive animals to see or hear in-country.
One creature that first dropped by several days into our visit is known as the Giant Costa Rican grasshopper. The name kind of says it all. The size of these grasshoppers make them seem more like birds; their “flying” ability however, makes them seem drunk, as they inadvertently dive bombed at a great rate into the outside of the house or straight into the pool, performing their “final flight.” At about 5 or 6 inches long, you’re basically looking at a flying smartphone. Normally, they would only surface in the darkness, but I was able to catch this one clearly, as it hoped to make its way into the house.
Casa Vela also had this huge toad stop by one evening to view the premise and entertain us. Our elevated perch on the cliff meant that throughout the day vultures and condors circled near the house, which made us feel like we were hanging up near the clouds. Oh, fire ants and flying ants too…they’re all here!
On another of our excursions down from the top of the hill, our outfit stopped at Playa Carillo, which is seen immediately upon reaching the base of our hill. Most visitors just park along the road that passes by the beach, setting up shop at small concrete tables where there is a bit of palm tree coverage from the sun, which of course feels lava-hot without coverage. Many beachgoers from the nearby town Carillo clearly come here regularly. Speaking of the town, there are several small beach-side restaurants that seemed rather popular, plus a convenience store or two in the town proper if food and drink are needed for the playa.
This was one of the more picturesque beaches I’ve seen, with pristine sand and clear water, and numerous shells and sand dollars strewn about the ground. Aside from almost being attached by a dog that showed a great dislike for my sandals, this was a wonderful experience, and frankly, I would rate Playa Carillo as one of my favorite beaches in Costa Rica, if not the top beach, as far as cleanliness, beauty, and serenity.
Accessible from town, we took in Playa Sámara on another day, stopping in for a tasty seafood lunch on the water.
Here we were also treated to several wild horses running along the beach, unaccompanied. Well, maybe they weren’t that wild; I suppose I should not be so judgmental.
Like Carillo, this also for me ranks as one of the better beach spots I’ve experienced in Costa Rica. The water was crystal clear, and while it was a bit more crowded than Sámara, it was still quiet and clean. These two beachfronts made this area of the country feel much more like a hidden gem then some of the more conventional Tico beach settings.
All Good Things…
Our seven days on the cliff in Casa Vela passed by in a flash, though in a way, it felt like our stay was a month long. I will miss the easy, peaceful daily routine of a productive day at work in the office, a morning or lunch swim in the pool overlooking the ocean, an evening grill out and drink, and dodging giant grasshoppers while sitting in the hot tub. It was emotional for our group to leave, knowing this might be the closest to “paradise” that we’d ever get to.
Playa Potrero and Playa Flamingo
The second locale that Donna, Troy, Ramona, and I would congregate to on the Nicoya Peninsula was the Playa Flamingo area, specifically in the adjacent town of Potrero. A condominium just off of Playa Potrero was to be our home base for 8 days or so, allowing yours truly to do some work, while also providing easy access for the family to relax on the patio near the beach and enjoy some great seafood. The location also supported simple access for the group to spin off on some weekend excursions. If it was technically possible for us to “chill” even more than in Sámara, this was going to be it. I’ll step back and let some photos do the talking.
Our rented condo in Potrero
Playa Potrero itself, a wonderful place for a walk or a run
The Beach House, one of our favorite joints
Our location was perfect to catch several unreal Potrero sunsets, and watch local fishermen bring in their catches at the end of the day.
Coco Loco beach restaurant in Playa Flamingo
Pretty amazing! And then there were the side journeys…
Our first weekend journey had us heading south to Montezuma, near the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, for a brief one day, one night stay.
Earlier in this post I referenced some of the challenges of driving in Costa Rica, but these challenges were encountered on nice paved roads. Ramona and I have experienced nothing like the rough roads on Route 21 toward Montezuma. A 4×4 vehicle is absolutely required, as the road frequently shifts from 50 yard sections of pavement to tracks of pure dust, or rough, bumpy gravel surfaces. Potholes and stumps are numerous…fortunately we were traveling during the dry season.
Montezuma is a bohemian Tico beach town in the mold of Tamarindo or Jaco, but more compressed and more cramped feeling to us. Trying to drive into the town even just to park near our hotel was a chore due to the large amount of foot traffic. Unfortunately in our brief stay we did not end up taking any photos of the town itself, so for that I’ll pass you off to the excellent site Two Weeks in Costa Rica, which covers the town in general in a much deeper way than we were able to. I would just note, that the first impressions of our group was that this was not necessarily our favorite place in Costa Rica.
With that being said, after lunch right on Playa Montezuma, our crew walked along the beach toward Ylang Ylang, one of the top beach resorts in Montezuma. Their beautiful pool nestled amongst the trees cooled us down, and gave Ramona’s folks their first semi-up close view of some Capuchin monkeys swinging in the trees, along with plenty of lizards and iguanas perched near the pool.
After heading back to our hotel to clean up, we returned to Ylang Ylang for dinner, and were treated to a memorable Italian feast, as well as some Tiramisu for desert that Troy graciously offered to share.
The night was capped by returning to the main part of town on the dark beach trail. Halfway between the resort and the edge of Montezuma and with no light pollution, we gazed upward and were afforded a legendary view of the stars, our lasting memory of Montezuma. While I mentioned our first impressions of Montezuma were not great, the day was quickly turned around, and this single day here lives fondly in our memories.
That crazy road we came in on? Welp, that’s our exit.
This really just means “car wash”, but it makes me chuckle
Playas del Coco
Another excursion was a so-called “booze cruise” catamaran tour, embarking from Playas del Coco. We were picked up by the tour company with and driven the 45 minutes or so to Playas del Coco, taking the backroads due to some accidents blocking the highway. This bumpy road provided what our driver referred to (numerous times) as “a traditional Costa Rican massage.” A Costa Rican dad joke for sure.
Shuffling through the wake on the beach, we boarded the boat, and were off. The catamaran took us past Monkey Island, before halting at a small secluded beach, which I think is called Playa Huevo (Egg Beach). Most of the boat emptied out onto the beach with Ramon and I to snorkel or explore, while Ramona’s parents stayed aboard and were treated to a private boat ride around the small peninsula.
Capping off the catamaran trip was a viewing of another terrific sunset.
A Break from the Beach
All good things must come to an end, and the family arose early to say goodbye to our beachside condo, to Playa Flamingo, to the Guanacaste province, and to the Nicoya Peninsula, for now at least. Four hours later, after a easy drive through Liberia, and a relaxing turn through the now familiar rolling hills around Lake Arenal, our rental vehicle pulled into a typical Tico family home in the La Fortuna countryside.
Ramona and I would commence our next chapter here, soon receiving more friends to Costa Rica, while after a few more days of exploration and relaxation, Donna and Troy would cap off their marvelous vacation, with memories and experiences that will last a lifetime.
Re-entry into “volcano mode” – complete.