Today’s post is 1500 words, 24 photos, a 7 minute read. Enjoy!
Last week, I took you to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. I clearly remember the warm, gentle breezes coming off the water and the lush vegetation in the fields and forests. I enjoyed the Caribbean vibe along the east coast; bright, sensual, and warm. I miss it and yearn to return. Click here to read that post.
This week, I’ll focus on the center part of the country, at least the part I know. On each of our trips to Costa Rica, we landed at Juan Santamaria Airport located in on the northwest edge of San Jose, the capital. If we arrived late in the day or had an early departure, we booked a room at the Hampton Inn a few blocks from the main terminal. Nearby the Hampton were all the car rental agencies.
San Jose, population about 340,000, is the largest city in Costa Rica. Like a lot of cities, the surrounding greater metropolitan area (suburbs) contains an additional 1.5 million people in a country with a population of just over five million. About the same population as Wisconsin. In land mass, Costa Rica is about the same size as West Virginia, the 41st largest state in the U.S.
San Jose is considered a safe city, with a good quality of life. The city is spread out with few high-rise buildings due to the occasional earthquakes. To be honest with you, I haven’t spent much time in the city. But I can attest that traffic is heavy during the working hours and the system of roads confusing to an outsider. Good maps are hard to find. It took me until our third trip to find a map that I could follow. I’m guessing now with the prevalence of maps on our phones or GPS in cars, it is easier to find your way.
About twenty miles east of San Jose is the city of Cartago. It’s a place we’ve stopped every time we passed nearby. They have an excellent market where fresh fruit is abundant and reasonable. We stock up on pineapple, papaya, mangos, and lichee (also spelled lychee), the small, sweet fruit with a “warty” looking skin. We even encountered a couple of fun-loving fruit vendors doing their hardest to entice us to buy from them.
Cartago is also home to Costa Rica’s principal church, the Basilica de Nuestra de los Angeles (Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels). The church dates to 1639 and has survived a few earthquakes with the current version renovated in 1939.
We’ve been there in early August when pilgrims converge on the city on August 2, the feast day of the Virgin of the Angels. The church has a statute of the Black Madonna, La Negrita who is said to have strong healing powers. As we drive towards Cartago, the roads are filled with pilgrims, some pushing strollers and wheelchairs while others walk. We pass busses overflowing with passengers. They come from all over Central America, some travel hundreds of miles to ask for their own healing or that of a loved one. Here are a few photos of people making their way to the Basilica.
When we reach the Basilica Square, there are thousands of pilgrims along with food and souvenir vendors. People wait in long lines to shuffle down the center aisle of the church on their knees stopping to pray every few feet until they reach the alter where they are blessed by a priest. It’s quite a sight to behold.
A thirty minute drive south and east of Cartago is the mountain town of Orosi with an area population of about 9,000 people.
We stayed in Orosi a couple of times. The first time we stayed at the Orosi Lodge, a nicely appointed hotel with an excellent restaurant. The second time we stayed five days after signing up to attend a Spanish language school. We stayed at the Montaña Linda; a guest house and a great breakfast for $25 per night and a well-regarded Spanish school. Every morning after breakfast, my Traveling Partner and I would meet our individual teacher for three hours of Spanish lessons. In the afternoon, we would travel around the area to practice. If grades were given, we get an A for effort and C- for performance. A couple of months of lessons might have made a difference!
We did enjoy our time walking to the fruit market and bakery where we became everyday regulars. Once we went to the local supermarket for a few necessities but preferred to interact with local shopkeepers. There were a few restaurants in town that we frequented. Orosi doesn’t get a lot of tourists so we tried to act like locals. We even went to the village church for Sunday services. People were nice to the two light skinned Gringos that spoke only a few words of Spanish.
We enjoyed the wild parrots that lived around the church.
Near Orosi is the Tapanti National Park known for its rugged beauty and abundant wildlife. We did some hikes in the park and enjoyed these waterfalls.
As we were walking along we came upon this scene, a two-hole outdoor biffy with an actual toilet seat. More modern than the outdoor toilet we had back on the farm!
The area is home to numerous coffee plantations. Costa Rica produces the best coffee beans, at least in my opinion. The resulting coffee is so flavorful and a treat to drink.
The countryside was so scenic with small farms mixed in with larger landholders.
While on one of our afternoon efforts to practice our Spanish, we came across an artisan that just finished a huge carving of Jesus. As we were watching, he called for some help to “raise Jesus” to a standing position. It was quite the work of art, much too large for us to take home. He gave us a sermon in Spanish of which we understood about 10%. We thanked him and admired his work then moved on down the road.
Sarchi is located northwest of San Jose and known as center for wood crafts. The most popular being the elaborately decorated traditional ox carts (carretas) that once carried coffee from the mountains to the coast. The photo below is a full sized cart, miniatures are sold to tourists that arrive on buses nearly every day.
The area around Sarchi and nearby Grecia are popular with American expats who have moved to Costa Rica for the pleasant weather and easy way of living.
Volcan Arenal is one of the most popular tourist sites in Costa Rica. The nearby town of La Fortuna is populated with numerous lodging options as well as restaurants and bars that cater to tourists. We spent a couple of days in the area, too many tourists for our tastes. Currently dormant, we saw the peak once during a fleeting moment when the clouds cleared away only to be replaced by more clouds a couple of minutes later.
About thirty miles north of San Jose lies the still active Poás Volcano. It last erupted in 2017 with the surrounding area closed for nearly eighteen months. We were told there wasn’t much to look at for the effort it takes to see the crater. We disagree with that advice and were glad we took the time to see the main crater. In the photo below, you might notice some walking trails near the crater, we didn’t go there. The view from the lookout was good enough for us. They did have a nice picnic area where we enjoyed the fresh fruit we purchased before our drive to the overlook.
A Visit to Grandma’s House
During one of our visits to The Eldest’s host family, we were asked to take her host mother and a friend to visit Grandma. Grandma lived off the grid up in the mountains among the coffee trees. With five of us in a small SUV, we headed for Grandma’s. I wondered about the wisdom of this adventure when we turned off the main road and drove several miles on a rocky, rut filled road. I don’t know how long it took us but I do know we traveled in first gear at about ten miles an hour. I wanted to return the rental car in one piece! In the photo below, an older couple walks down the road. Many families don’t own cars, they are expensive and wages are low but they are some of the happiest people on this earth.
I don’t know how they knew we were coming for a visit but they were waiting for us. The nearest pay phone was about a mile from Grandma’s. It’s very common for Costa Rican’s to not smile for the camera. You can tell the gringos from the natives, we have a smile on our face. Grandma is in the front with the apron. She was 85 at the time this photo was taken.
That’s enough for this week. Join me next week for a peek at the Pacific side of Costa Rica.
Until then, happy travels!