Day 1: From Green Mountains to Blue Shining Sea
As I prepared for our trip to Northern Guanacaste, foremost in my mind was the transportation quandary: without a car, how easily would we maneuver between our destinations? My worries were quickly alleviated by research that uncovered several reliable and inexpensive ground transportation options including taxis, public buses, and private door-to-door shuttle services.
For the first leg of the trip, from San Jose to the Gulf of Papagayo, we chose to ride with Gray Line Tours, one of Costa Rica's private transport companies. I met Cesar, photographer extraordinaire and my travel companion, at a downtown hotel where we quietly waited for our bus to arrive. The morning was crisp and clear, typical for San Jose during the rainy season. As I mentally reviewed the 10-day trip that awaited us, excitement brewed in my stomach.
We were headed for Guanacaste, home to fabulous beaches, bubbling volcanoes, adrenaline-pumping adventure tourism, and some of the most beautiful sunsets on the planet. The Gulf of Papagayo, our first stop, is a beautiful arc of sand snuggled into a protected cove. In addition to gentle waters, golden sun and fine sand, the Gulf's location, almost perfectly centered between the Gulf of Nicoya and the Nicaraguan border, makes it ideal for Pacific Coast exploration and excursions.
Our bus pulled in just a few minutes after our 7:30 a.m. scheduled pickup, and the friendly driver helped us load our bags and equipment into the van. Weaving our way through morning rush-hour traffic, we stopped at several area hotels, collecting other travelers headed west. After our last pickup in western San Jose's Cariari, we hit the main highway full throttle, determined to reach our destination as soon as possible.
Staring out my window, I was pleasantly surprised by a well-maintained highway which, in sharp contrast to stories I had heard from road-weary travelers, offered a smooth ride out to Papagayo. Our six-hour journey was an excellent introduction to the country's incredible microclimates, and in our travelers' excitement, we eagerly watched as the scenery changed around us. San Jose's high-altitude roads quickly wove their way into Alajuela's warmer, mountainous paths, which lead into even hotter, drier Guanacastecan streets. Though it was the end of August, when daily rains are the norm, warm temperatures and cloudless skies highlighted our approach to Liberia.
We stopped at a small restaurant, just north of the road that leads to Nicoya, for a much-needed pit stop and to switch buses. The restaurant served typical Costa Rican food, but its exterior decoration was anything but typical -- huge scarlet and green macaws sat in the trees and swooped over our heads, hoping for handouts from wide-eyed travelers. As we rushed to board our second bus, I threw a backward glance at the graceful birds, frustrated that my camera was hidden at the bottom of my suitcase. Another day, I promised myself.
Our road trip continued peacefully, and we passed through Bagaces and Liberia, turning north in pursuit of the coast's sparkling sands. Flat fields surrounded us and lead up to towering mountains and volcanoes. The deep blue sky seemed to continue on for hours. When we pulled up to our hotel, we felt tired and hungry, but thoroughly excited to have finally arrived.
My first impression of Papagayo was utter awe -- the views that stretched out before us were magnificent, the sky bluer than blue, and the gleaming ocean a vivid reflection of the sky above. I hadn't known what to expect from Costa Rica's Pacific Coast, but this was far more than anything I had imagined. As we walked toward the hotel's restaurant, Cesar, whose ability to spot animals would be of great use throughout the trip, stopped me with a whispered, "monkeys!"
Perched in the trees just in front of us, three howler monkeys were taking an afternoon nap. I had never seen a monkey in the wild before, and giddiness took hold as I took several photos of dangling limbs and sleepy eyes. In a stroke of good luck, the often-active howlers were completely disinterested in my antics, and allowed us endless minutes to snap at will. Finally sated, we turned away from the monkeys to head for dinner, when Cesar spotted a ctenosaur napping in a tree. Though ctenosaurs, also known as spiny-tailed iguanas, are common in Costa Rica, I had never seen one before. Another round of photos commenced.
Finally, we sat down for an early dinner at the hotel's restaurant. The views over the Gulf were so breathtaking that I paid little attention to the menu. After ordering, Cesar and I looked out over sapphire waters, watched the sun journey across the sky, and adjusted to the afternoon's peaceful rhythm. Just a few moments into our private meditations, a shy coati poked his head out of the trees searching for leftover food scraps. His flexible black nose sniffed around, and his curious eyes politely asked for food. As if hearing his plea, the kitchen cook hurried out with bread and coati food in hand, and we watched the adorable animal gobble up his dinner.
After a relaxing meal, Cesar and I headed out on a small adventure, walking though our resort and catching glimpses of the gulf from every possible vantage point. At around 5:30 p.m., we walked down to the beach for another nature-centered photo shoot. The sun had already begun to dip in the sky, and incredible pinks and purples stretched out over the rolling waves, quickly upgrading to brilliant oranges and reds. The heavens, as if torn open by the unbelievable sunset, seemed to bleed out into the ocean, and we watched the hues change and grow, each shade more dazzling than the last. The waves crashing at our feet were a kaleidoscope of colors, and sailboats floated by, painted by the sun's glowing embers. Finally, as the sun disappeared behind the horizon and the sky above us faded into lighter pastels, we headed back to our suite. The day was done.