After having such a great time with Andy and Ana it was time to hit the road and we found ourselves on the Pan-American highway again just a few months after we'd stood at the very end of it in Tierra Del Fuego. It was a lot busier this time around!
Our intention was to visit some parts of Northern Costa Rica that we haven't managed to get to in our previous 4 visits but first of all we had to pass through some familiar territory driving north up to Canas and then taking a right heading for Fortuna and Arenal. When we'd first done this trip several decades ago it had been by public bus but we're older now and less able to take the discomfort of bus travel so it was down to the 4x4 for our 'adventure' this time around.
The weather up to Fortuna was clear and sunny but as soon as we arrived in this hill town it started to drizzle - and didn't stop for the next four hours or so. Our route took us down to the shores of Lake Arenal and by Arenal volcano. Only it was so misty and murky we couldn't even see the huecos (potholes) in the road, let alone Arenal or its lake. We did stop in Arenal town itself for a break and a sandwich at the (world famous, so they would have you believe) German Bakery. To be fair our enormous sandwich was delicious and we took a lovely loaf of bread away with us which, in the end, lasted us several days of lunches.)
It was a long drive around Lake Arenal. We could have taken a short cut over the shoulder of the volcano but the road was very bad and, at this stage, we didn't feel confident enough to take our rather new 4x4 down it. Eventually we reached the turn off for Cano Negro and at least the weather had cleared by then. We bumped along for 25 klms down an unmade road but eventually reached our destination, tired and hungry and in need of a rest.
Cano Negro is a national park protecting an important wetland area. The village itself is very small and set beside the Rio Frio, which translates as cold river. When I later dipped a hand in it there was a noticable cooling of the digits but with the air temperature in the 30's C it was hardly what you would call cold.
Our reason for visiting Cano Negro was to go bridwatching so the next morning saw us up and about and taking a boat trip with Antonio who owned our cabina and Karen, our English speaking guide. We spent a very happy three hours cruising the river and the lagoons which are very extensive. Heron abound here as do Anhinga and Cormorant, Kingfishers by the bucket load, Wood Storks, Jabiru Stork, Caymen and plenty of other birds. All told, over the couple of days that we were there we saw about 45 species of birds including a few new ones so it was a great trip.
Leaving Cano Negro we passed acres and acres of pineapple fields. If you've ever bought a pineaple from the supermarket with a little lable on it saying 'product of Costa Rica' there's every chance it came from one of these fields.
Our route now took us across the top of Costa Rica very close to the Nicaraguan border. The road is for the most part sealed except for an odd 15 klms section in the middle which is gravel and dirt and is very rutted and worn. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason why this section of route 4 should be unsealed other than to make your progress slow and tiring. We were very glad to reach Santa Cecilia and stop for a well earned Coke (which we only ever drink on holiday, I hasten to add).
Suitably refreshed we headed to La Cruz to rejoin our old friend, Route 1, the Pan-American Highway. We had hoped to stay at a lodge near La Cruz but hadn't been able to book due to lack of internet. Unfortunately, there was no room for us so, on the recommendation of the owner, we journeyed south to Cuanjiniquil. I still don't know how to pronounce the place, especially after a few beers! And what the name translates as I don't care to have a guess at.
Cuanjiniquil is a tiny little place within the Santa Rosa National Park. Our hotel here was once a large family home but has been made into a charming rustic lodge by the family who still run it. It's not salubrious but it's got plenty of character and the family are a wonderful, friendly bunch who would do anything for you. There's little tourism here so the place is very quiet and laid back but situated in glorious scenery.
When we first came to CR thirty odd years ago we visited Santa Rosa National Park and so wanted to revisit it. Last time we got there by bus from Liberia and then by walking the 5 klms from where the bus dropped us just to get to the park. Leaving, we had to reverse the journey, of course and driving in this time we wondered how we had managed to walk both ways in the heat. We were younger then, of course.
Santa Rosa is covered in tropical dry forest and at this time of year it is very, very hot - 35 celcius or so. As a result, there aren't that many birds to view so, as we had a car this time, we chose to make the 12 klms drive down to Playa Naranjo. There are signs suggesting that you walk there (in this heat?) but if you drive you must have a 4x4. Well we had one of those so off we set down the dirt road.
The first klm was ok'ish but thereafter the 'road' degenerated into nothing more than a rocky, slippery, dangerous track through the trees. Back home you can pay good money to go on a 4x4 'experience' through testing countryside. Well, believe you me, that can have absolutely nothing on the trail to Naranjo which just has to be one of the worst roads in Costa Rica and quite possibly the world! For the most part we were crawling along in either ist or 2nd gear and little more than walking pace. Trying to pick the path with the least boulders and holes was exhausting and it was over an hour before we finally arrived at the end of the road.
Amazingly, there is a campsite at the end of this road from hell but when you get onto the beach you can just about see why. Miles of virtually empty sand with just a few brave, or foolhardy souls about. The waves were crashing onto the shore and it was an incredibly beautiful place. Just a shame there was no ice-cream van!
We met a local who actually makes this journey regularly to surf the waves. That's dedication for you. He said that he liked the fact that it was such a tough trek because it stops development at the beach and I suppose he is right there. It was certainly very tranquil with just Pelicans and Monkeys for company. The only problem was that there was only one way out - up that dreaded track again. At one point I thought of trying to photograph the road but I just didn't want to stop the car for fear of not being able to get going again. By the time we got back to Cuanjiniquil again we were on our knees and the first thing we did was go the the supermarket next door and buy a few beers. We'd earned them!
So, how do you follow a 12 klms trip down a truly dreadful dirt road to a near deserted beach set in a stunning location? Well, you drive 21 klms down another dirt road along Peninsula Santa Elena to Playa Blanca - a totally deserted beach which even fewer people ever visit. And, if anything this is set in an even more stunning location. Thankfully the road, though bad, is nowhere near the Naranjo one (which even locals wince at) so it was a much more pleasant trip with plenty of great birdwatching on the way.
The bay here is superb and the waves nowhere near as challenging as the Santa Rosa ones so we just had to don swimming gear and get in. Now, whenever we've been swimming elsewhere in CR the sea temperature is very pleasant, even warm. Not here. It was on the bracing side so we didn't exactly linger in the water. But we soon warmed up when we got out and wandered along the beach.
There are three beaches you can visit on the peninsula; the stunning Playa Blanca, the windswept Santa Elena and the small but captivating El Hachel. In the waters off Elena we watched a large flock of Pelicans diving into the water for fish. Just above them flew an equally large number of Frigate Birds looking out for the fish the Pelicans dropped. It was like a scene in a wildlife documentary.
The Santa Elena peninsula is geologically the oldest region in meso-America. Here the mountains are rounded rather than sharply pointed showing that they have been around for a very long time. The forest here is excellent and alongside visiting the playas we were able to do a fair amount of bird-watching. It was an excellent, if tiring day out.
We had intended to leave Cuanjiniquil for the Nicoya peninsula the next day but the booking we made via Flipkey for a cottage somehow got messed up so we ended up staying an extra night at the excellent Santa Elena Lodge. We spent the day visiting Rincon de la Vieja National Park. Rincon is an active volcano and the park is full of boiling lakes, mudpots and fumeroles. It was another place we'd been to decades ago and there are now geothermal power stations tapping into the limitless source of free energy. It was a good way to round off our time in Guanacaste province.