Saturday, October 3, 2015

Reconnaissance Trip Day 4 - North Towards the Volcanos

Our Day 4 begins early as we plan to cover more area today.  Our travels plans are to head slightly Northwest and then cover some of the northern regions. 

We leave San Jose and head out on Route 27 to Route 136 North which leads into La Garita.  A short jaunt west down Route 3 brings us into Atenas.   A quick drive through the city shows a nice area with a population of about 5,000.  Atenas is a popular area for ex-pat Americans to live but for us it isn't in the elevation that we are looking for as it is only 698 meters (2300 ft) above sea level. 

From Atenas, we begin our route North on Route 135.   Our next stop is in Palmares, which is the capital city of the Canton of Palmares.  It is located at 1017 meters (3336 ft) above sea level.  This is at the bottom side of where we are thinking we want to be.  The population is about 4,400 people with many of the basic amenities.  We begin our venturing off the path up into the hills and find there are many house just a little higher that are what we might be looking to rent.  This puts this as one of the first possible areas.

We now head the 38 kilometers Northwest on Route 1 into one of the larger cities, San Ramon.  It is located at 1,057  meters (almost 3500 ft).  The climate here is almost perfect at 70-80 degrees year round.  With a population of almost 11,000 it is very similar in size to city we live in currently in the US.  Not to small, not to large.  San Ramon is located nicely in the Central Valley.  It is 47 km from San Jose, 55 km from Puntarenas on the Pacific Coast, 44 km from the Gulf of Nicoya and 140 km from Limon on the Caribbean Coast.  It is an area rich in culture and all of the necessary amenities.  All of these things lead us to spend about a hour or more driving up into the hills surrounding the town.  One of these adventures leads us up what starts out as a paved road but eventually turns into a semi intense 4X4 road that is 1 car width wide.  The houses up this direction have AMAZING views and provided we have a 4x4 they could be perfect.  Since the maps don't show these roads well we eventually back down a little bit and turn around.  I'm guessing we were almost to a major road (or at least that is what my husband kept saying) but we have many areas to see and can't spend the day playing 4x4.  San Ramon absolutely is on the short list for possible retirement areas.  We make our way back to Route 1 and head east to where it meets Route 144. 

Route 144 takes us North to the city of Naranjo which is a small local town.  Continuing on we travel through a series of many switchback roads as we climb in elevation.  Passing through exits to several smaller cities in the Canton Alfaro Ruiz we finally reach the City of Zarcero.  Zarcero is located at 1736 meters (5695 ft).  This elevation is reaching towards the upper end of what we think is the prime.  As we drive into town we are greeted by a quaint community that is centered around the Parque Francisco Alvarado and the Iglesia de San Rafael church.  The Parque has a plethora of topiary trees in the garden shaped like animals and other unique characters.  An archway of topiary's leads up to the steps of the church which is gorgeous on the outside but the inside is even more amazing with stunning pinks and blues.  The artwork on the ceilings leaves you breathless.  The population of this area is on the small size at about 4,300.   We chose to stop here for lunch and to stroll through the park and the church.  We enjoyed a truly authentic Costa Rican meal and found the people of the town very friendly.  I fell in love with this community and we found housing to be an option just outside of city in both directions.  Mark this with a possible Yes on the future home list.

Continuing on up Route 141 for about 27 km we rapidly descend in elevation and enter Ciudad Quesada (or Quesadilla if you are pronouncing it like my husband.)  It is the capital city of the Canton of San Carlos.  Although Quesada is the official name it is commonly called San Carlos.  Quesada is one of the most highly populated areas in the region with a population of  43,000 and is the major economic hub.  The city is located at 656 meters (2152 ft) and is marked by its amazingly beautiful pasture land.  The horizons are defined by green ranch and dairy land which is the economic driver for the area.  It is also known for budding agritourism and tourism to the local hot springs.  While this area is below our prime elevation the beautify and the amenities make it one that we need to keep in our back pocket.   Just a couple large peaks away.

From Quesada we make the decision to head northeast on Route 140 rather than stay on Route 141  and head towards the Volcan Arenal.  This is a strategic decisions as we have been told that while the area around La Fortuna is beautiful that the climate is much like that of Seattle, WA as it relates to rainfall and humidity, two factors on our NO list for future homes but may be perfect for someone else.  Route 141 leads us heading towards Aguas Zarcas with a population of 13,651 and is at 458 meters (1500 ft).  You could definitely feel the difference in temperature here and although beautiful in it's own right it was well outside the bottom elevation for us.

We continued on 140 and passed through Buenos Aires.   As we continue driving we begin a discussion on which way to go next.  One of the maps we had told us that Route 126 south was under construction which lead us to think we might need to go north on Route 126.  This didn't seem like a great idea because the afternoon was wearing on and that path was going to be many many kilometers the wrong direction and driving way into the evening.  Not a good plan in a foreign country in our opinion so we opted to take our chances and headed South through San Miguel.

The trip down Route 126 took us once again back up in elevation, passing through mountain ranges and beautiful rainforest scenery but not much in terms of towns and houses.  An amazing site we weren't aware of awaited us between Cinchona and Vara Blanca.  As you descend down you pass several small little series of waterfalls that illicit oohs and aahs but then you round a corner and at the bottom of the hill is La Paz Waterfall, located just off the road.  It is breathtaking and shocking at the powerful stream of water that is coming off the mountainside formed from the River La Paz after it has travelled across volcanic terrain from the Poas Volcano.   A must stop along the roadside for photos.  Besides the waterfall we were amazed at the actual size of some of the rainforest leaves that must have been 6 foot around.  Something that you don't quite realize until you get out of the car and up close. 

We continued south on Route 126 until it met up with Route 120 heading toward San Pedro de Poas.  This route took us through a very commercial tourist area just outside of the entrance to Poas Volcano.  Reminded us of exiting from one of many National Parks in the US.  We passed through Sabana Redonda and San Juan Sur which were small communities made up of most churches and escuelas (schools), finally dropping us into San Pedro de Poas.  San Pedro is located at 1148 meters (3766 ft) and has a population of 7500.  It appears to be a working community with a major bus hub located in town.  As darkness falls, from San Pedro we head south on Route 107 until it meets up with Route 118 and take that south until we reach Route 3.  Heading east on Route 3 takes us back to Route 136 and Route 27 returning us back to Escazu after a long but very fruitful and informative day.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Reconnaissance Trip Day 3 - Our First Excursion

For our first outing the plan was to go to a Chocolate Tour in La Garita de Alajuela and eventually head up toward the town of Grecia.   This took us West on Route 27 out of Escazu.   We headed North on Radial El Coyol until we reached Route 3.   We headed East on Route 3.  All along the way we kept seeing signs advertising something called Viveros.  A new word for us so we continued on our path and endedup stopping at Vivero Central La Garita which was a HUGE plant nursery.  We enjoyed looking at all of the AMAZING plants available for growing in the area.  We asked for directions to the tour and actual did well communication with the nice gentleman.  We continued East on Route 3 and even though we had 'directions" we still missed our turnoff for the Chocolate Tour and continue on until we reached Route 118.  At this point we knew we had missed our stop but since we were early we took several side roads off of Route 118 that lead up into the hills to look at views and looking for signs that said "se alquilar (for rent)" or "se vende (for sale).  Beautiful views but not quite what we were wanting. 
CHOCOLATE TOUR:  We headed back down Route 3  to the Chocolate Tour which was a fenced off area with a very small sign.  We were met by a great guide who took us through learning the history of natures most sacred plant and the world´s most beloved food: CHOCOLATE,  She showed chocolate making, we had the chance to try the ancient Xoko Alt, a drink made some 4000 years ago by the original inventors of Chocolate.  She explained the medicinal value of Cacao.  The tour ended with trying MOLE and sampling high quality Cacao Dark Chocolate.  A very interesting tour. 
GRECIA;  We made our way back to Route 118 and headed North toward Grecia.   This route took us through several small towns including Carrillos, Tacares,

Reconnaissance Trip Day 3 - Our First "Day" Basic Housekeeping Tasks

Up early to get started on our adventure.  Up first on the agenda for the day is some basic housekeeping items that need to be handled.
  1. Coffee Based Drinks
  2. Local Cell Phone
  3. Exchange to Local Currency
  4. Snacks and Drinks
  5. Daily Excursion Plan
Coffee Based Drinks
This would seem like a simple easy task but that proved to be more complicated.  The Coffee Shop located in the plaza surprisingly didn't open until 10 a.m.  Must move on to new tasks. 

Local Cell Phone
We had been told to find a local Kolbi Cell Phone store.  We determined the closest store was in the HUGE Multiplaza Escazu which was located just down the road from the hotel so we set out on foot to walk the 6 blocks to the Mall.  Everything at the mall is "open air" entry so we proceed to enter the mall and are stopped by a guard and told in very fast Spanish that they do not open until 11:00.  It took a little work to determine this but were able to find out that in the mall there was a Super Mercado (grocery store) and no less than 3 banks so we walked back to the hotel plaza.

We hunker down at the hotel and decide to drive back to the mall after we plot out or daily excursion.  This adventure in the car would prove interesting.

We return to the mall at 11:00 to find it nearly impossible to find a parking spot after we obtain our parking ticket.  We make our way to the Kolbi store and are greeted by many workers who give us a number and none of them speak any English.  I gather in my limited Spanish that I am to sit down and wait until my number (numero ocho) is called.  It is important to know this is about 11:10 and we were already on number 8.  When my number is called I approach the counter and begin to explain in English/Spanish mix that I want to put cell service on the unlocked phone I have brought with me.  After using common words like Sim Card, vaccaiones, my sales person gives up and yells across the store to what I would find is the only person out of 10 that speaks any English.  He steps away from his customer long enough to tell her what I am needing.  I pay my very small amount of money ($25-$30) for enough minutes and data for two weeks.  This task completed, I go in search of my husband who has headed over towards the Bank across the hall.   Task COMPLETE!

Fortunately through our research before we came down, we were slightly prepared for the bank experience.   I missed the first part but according to my husband when the Armored Truck came there were seriously armed guards with large weapons who stood guard. During this time there is a queue lining up outside the bank.  Only a small amount of people are allowed in the bank at one time (5 at most) and the door is locked behind them by the bank guard.   Hats are NOT Allowed.  You are to take your number and sit down until your number displays on the display next to a cajero (cashier) number.  You proceed individually (only one person is allowed at the counter).  My husbands limited Spanish meant that he went to the cashier and hand her x US dollars, she smiled and gave him a nice selection of colones.  Task COMPLETE!

Confident in our abilities (ha ha) we proceed through the mall to the Super Mercado.  This becomes our first adventure in colones to $ conversions.  We figured out from others that the easiest way to convert is to move the decimal 3 places to the right and then multiply times two which gets you close to US dollars.  For example:  a bag of rice (arroz) is 1570 colons so that would be 1.570 x 2 or approximately $3.00.   We gathered our items and successfully used paper colons to complete the purchase and received yet "more" coins in return.   Task COMPLETE!

With the mall trip successfully complete we make our way back to the car and head to the exit armed with our parking ticket (el boleto).   We insert it into the gate machine and nothing happens.  Traffic is behind us because as I mentioned the mall is packed.  Eventually a voice comes over the speaker in very quick Spanish saying something we have no idea of what it means.  We respond with some version of the machine won't take our ticket.  Another series of fast Spanish and eventually they give up and raise the bar.  We are FREE!  Apparently there is a couple of validation machines in the Mall where you have to pay a parking fee before exiting the lot.  Good information for later. 

With all our tasks completed we are ready for to start on our next agenda item.  Today's Excursion! 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Reconnaissance Trip Day 2 - Finally in Costa Rica

After a leisurely spent morning that included a tasty warm continental breakfast, we head early back to the airport in Dallas.  We have taken the time to schedule appointments with TSA Pre-Check which will come in handy on future trips by being able to go through the shorter lines, not have to take your shoes off or unpack laptops and other electronics.  The appointments were incredibly fast and after answering a few questions and paying our fee we are on done with that step and now we wait the 2-3 weeks while the government decides if we meet the criteria.  A quick late lunch at the Gas Monkey Restaurant on the concourse and it is time to board for San Jose.  The trip is approximately 3 hours in length.  Once again it is an uneventful trip.  We are unable to see the scenery because we arrived after dark.

We follow the herd to baggage claim at the San Jose Airport.  I stop along the way at an exchange station to convert US $'s to Colones.  This is "highway robbery" and the exchange rate is terrible to the tune of 100 colones less than the exchange rate.  With a small amount of colones in hand we make our way through customs.  This is a well oiled process and we are quickly processed and on our way.  The key is having your paperwork filled out while you are on the plane and be ready to follow the line.

At this point we are truly in country and on our own to find the desk for Dollar Rent A Car with our confirmation number ready.  At this point reality begins to set in as we have our first hiccup.  Our friendly employee who speaks pretty good English proceeds to inform us that he doesn't have a record of our reservation.  He makes a call and tells us that his supervisor will take care of it, herds us through the throngs of cab drivers ready to launch on us as we leave the airport, loads us up on a unmarked shuttle bus and off we go to the off-site car site.  Upon arriving at the rental office we learn our first lesson in "patience" in Costa Rica.  We had heard through all of our reading that people are in no hurry but didn't quite realize how accurate that statement would be.  After a minimum of 45 minutes, several times being told that our confirmation number didn't match anything they had but they would get us a vehicle.  We were prepared that in CR unlike in the US that you have to take the insurance.  We upgraded to the full coverage after watching the driving from the airport which we will go into greater detail.  Finally we were handed over the keys with reminders of what to do if we got a flat - do not stop and allow anyone else to assist but rather drive to a safe location and call for roadside service.  That is all well and good but at this point we do not have a cell phone to use in CR.  Car loaded up, keys provided, and our map in hand along with sketchy directions on how to get to our hotel we head out of the parking lot.

At this point it is very dark with no moon because it is overcast.  Armed with confidence and our basic instructions to go down the block and loop around to get on the 1 which is the Pan American Highway or Autopista Gral Canas we are off.   The directions tell us to "just go straight until you get to the first stoplight in San Jose" and turn right at the huge park and then take the first right after the huge park.   We drive for much longer then I would have expected in "crazy traffic" with motorcycles zipping in and out of traffic.  People walking on the side of the major highway and busses that stop in in the far right lane on a dime to pick up passengers.  We make our turns and find ourselves on Highway 27 which is the Autopista Prospero Fernandez / Autopista Jose Maria Castro Madriz, headed west towards Esaczu where our hotel is located.  We are to make the "first" right we can even though it appears way to early for our hotel which is on the south side of the Highway.  We come up over the slight rise to find a line of probably 15 toll booths.  At this point I'm really glad I converted some money as the request for 330 colones (aaack, I don't know what coins that is) so I grab a 1,000 colones paper bill and we make our way through the via Manual booth.  We are greeted with Buenas Noches to which we respond in kind and are handed numerous coins and a receipt the gate lifts and we are through quickly because even though it is 9:30 p.m. there is still much traffic.  We are expecting the turn to be a mile or so but it is about 1000 yards away, so risking life and limb we make our way across numerous lanes of traffic and whip off the highway onto what will become a very familiar "frontage" type road.  We make our way down the road past a "very busy nightclub" and many people in the road to a road that leads under the highway and back the other direction to our hotel. 

We pull into the lot where the Holiday Inn San Jose Esaczu is located which is a plaza with restaurants, banks and other business offices.  It is a beautiful lobby and we are greeted in pretty good English.  We are quickly checked in, upgraded once again to the top floor and  a larger room.  We are directed to the underground garage to park and within about 15 minutes we are happily in our home for the next two weeks.  A side story exists about the "alleged monkey" that Don saw in the parking garage to which I scoffed and told him he clearly needed sleep because there were no "monkeys" in the middle of town.  Stay tuned if you want to find out what he saw.  That answer will come on the Day 14 post.

Hallelujah we have made it "safely" to Costa Rica.  Can't wait until morning to see where we really are and what it looks like.  To say we are tired would be an understatement  but we are way more excited.    We quickly unpack and flip on the television and for whatever reason I am surprised to find 50+ channels but only 2-3 stations in English (CBS, CNN, FOX).  As the weeks went along, it became less and less important and actually there was limited TV watching.   

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