Monday, May 30, 2011

Rio Balsa Costa Rica Whitewater Rafting

If you are looking for a great Costa Rica whitewater rafting adventure that is exciting, yet good for beginners, then I would recommend the class 2-3 rapids rafting tour offered on Costa Rica's Rio Balsa (there is a more advanced section of this river offering class 3-4 rapids as well).  My sister Lisa and I actually wanted to have our Costa Rica whitewater rafting adventure on one of the more well known rivers, such as the Sarapiqui or the Pacuare.  However, these tours departed around 8:30a.m.  For people like us, who are not about waking up early in the morning, these were just not an option.  Fortunately, I found that the tour outfitters known as Desafio was offering a Costa Rica whitewater rafting trip down the Rio Balsa that started at 11a.m.  This sounded perfect for us since we were about 3 hours away from the town of La Fortuna where they were located.

This was my sister's first rafting trip, so as you can imagine, she was somewhat nervous.  This was my third rafting trip, but ever since my mishap on a Quebec river, I must admit I myself was also somewhat afraid, despite the fact that the Rio Balsa section we would be completing was only class 2-3 rapids. During the safety briefing the bilingual guides explained what to do if we fell out of the raft, or worse yet, if we found ourselves stuck under the raft.  This information sent my heart beating about 100 miles a minute.  Still, I knew I had to get "back on the raft" so to speak, and overcome my Quebec river phobia once and for all.

As you can see from me and my sister's smiles in the pictures below (we are in the second row of the raft), we had a GREAT time on our Costa Rica whitewater rafting trip down the Rio Balsa.  The guides were friendly, spoke good English, and kept us safely in our rafts. This doesn't mean that it was boring, as the rolling rapids, large rocks and other obstacles made it fun enough all the way through.  And at one point we were all allowed to jump into the river and enjoy a little swim as well.  There were also many opporunities for wildlife viewing as we entered calmer areas and had a chance to look around to the river's banks. The 2 hour rafting trip cost $65 per person, and included fresh fruit half-way through, and a DELICIOUS lunch at the end (after changing out of our wet clothes).  We also were able to purchase a souvenier CD with all our pictures (some of which are shown below), which also included additional pictures of the Arenal Volcano and surrounding area, for $25 more.

Our rafting team and guide

All rafters on this trip, suited up and ready to go!

Paddling through the Rio Balsa rapids

La Fortuna Costa Rica

The small town of La Fortuna Costa Rica is the main gateway for visiting Volcan Arenal, Lake Arenal and the Arenal hot springs.  The picture perfect Arenal Volcano looms over the town towards the southwest direction (see last picture below).  Ten years ago, La Fortuna Costa Rica was nothing more than a dusty little agricultural town with potholed dirt streets.  Today, it's a whole different story, as the town is overrun with tourist traffic and tour outfitters.  My sister Lisa and I spent some time walking around the center of La Fortuna Costa Rica since it was the location of the tour company known as Desafio, the outfitter we used for our Costa Rica whitewater rafting trip (I'll talk about this adventure in my next post).

The center of La Fortuna Costa Rica offers a quaint landscaped plaza filled with locals and tourists alike.  To the west side of the plaza sits the town's main church.  As you look beyond the church you will see Arenal Volcano looming just to the left of it in the background (see all pictures below).

La Fortuna Costa Rica is a great town to stay in if you want quick and easy access to tour outfitters and prefer to be close to basic amenities and shopping.  However, in my opinion, if you are exploring the Arenal Volcano and Lake Arenal areas, I would recommend staying in one of the various resorts or lodges surrounding Arenal Lake.  The scenic views of the lake and volcano from these outlying resorts and lodges are simply unforgettable.  Plus it's much more quiet around the lake than it would be if you are staying right in La Fortuna's downtown area.  Still, La Fortuna Costa Rica is worth a short stroll through the town center after or before you visit your tour outfitter (since most of the outfitters are bound to be based out of this little town).  It's also the better choice if you are looking for more budget accomodations than what you'll find around the Lake Arenal area.

La Fortuna's Landscaped Central Plaza

Another View of La Fortuna's Central Plaza

Church bordering the Central Plaza

Some of the shopping and hotels surrouding La Fortuna's Central Plaza

My sister (Lisa) in La Fortuna's Central Plaza with the view of Arenal Volcano behind her

Sunday, May 29, 2011

La Paz Waterfall Gardens

My sister Lisa spent a few days with me here in Costa Rica just recently.  While she was here, we enjoyed a week full of adventures in this small, yet beautiful country.  On the top of both of our lists of favorites was our visit to La Paz Waterfall Gardens.  It was a rainy and foggy day, but the weather actually added to the ambience of it, as La Paz Waterfall Gardens is in a rainforest after all.  On a side note, we also caught a glimpse of Miley Cyrus' mother and father on this day, since they happened to be visiting the park while their daughter was playing in concert at the National Stadium in downtown San Jose.

La Paz Waterfall Gardens is a splendid nature and wildlife park situated on the property of the Peace Lodge Resort.  If you are a guest at the resort, you can enjoy the park as part of your stay. However, non-guests like ourselves had access to the park from 8am-5:30pm (last entry at 4pm) for a cost of $35 per person, a price that was well worth it in our opinion!

La Paz Waterfall Gardens includes several animal and plant exhibits areas accessed via an easy to follow pathway.  The exhibits include a hangar-sized aviary, a butterfly observatory, monkey cages, a hummingbird garden, a serpentarium (snakes), a walk-in ranarium (frogs), a trout lake, orchid houses, jungle cat exhibits, and five glorious and exhilirating waterfalls.  The descent by foot to the waterfalls is a little steep, but well worth the trek.  A resort bus picks you up at the bottom of the waterfall walk to take you back up to the starting area (at the resort lobby) where your car is parked.  Alternatively, you can make the steep walk back up hill yourself if you prefer.  Below are a few pictures from our visit to La Paz Waterfall Gardens this week.  To see all of our favorite pictures from our visit to this park you can visit my Yahoo slideshow HERE.

Macaws inside Walk-In Aviary

White-faced monkey in Monkey Exhibit area.

At the entrance of the Hummingbird Garden.

Trout Lake (trout visible through glass walls below).

A Sloth couple inside the Butterfly Observatory area.

Posing with a Jaguar in Jungle Cats exhibit.

One of 5 majestic waterfalls inside La Paz Waterfall Gardens Park.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Apartotel El Sesteo Costa Rica (San Jose)

My brother, Johnny, and his friend Connie were in Costa Rica this past week, spending a little time with her dad (who retired here a few years ago).  My boyfriend and I met up with them at the hotel they were staying at - Apartotel El Sesteo Costa Rica.  I had promised them a full day of sightseeing, after which we agreed to spend the night with them in their hotel room (since it had two full beds).  Since I was pleased with the hotel, I thought I'd add a  review of it here on my blog.

The Apartotel El Sesteo Costa Rica is located off a quiet street in west San Jose, two blocks from the famous park known as La Sabana, and about the same distance from the recently built National Stadium.  There a shuttles available to and from the San Jose airport, and you can book a variety of sightseeing tours once you're at the hotel.

The room we stayed in was clean, and the beds were comfortable.  We did not have air conditioner (which is pretty common for San Jose hotels), but the night air was cool, and with the ceiling fan we were fine.  The TV was quite small, but really, who's comes to Costa Rica to stay in a hotel room watching TV anyhow?  The bathroom, on the other hand, was comfortably large and there was hot water (a bit of a luxury in many parts of Costa Rica).  The Apartotel El Sesteo Costa Rica was in walking distance to a strip containing restaurants, bars, and other attractions.  You can also easily catch a cab if you want to explore the actual center of San Jose (where you'll see its most famous sites including the Metropolitan Cathedral, Central Park, National Museum, National Theater, Museum of Gold, and Mercado Central).

The rooms at the Apartotel El Sesteo Costa Rica are situated around an inner courtyard with a pool and dining area where breakfast is served (see photo below).  The breakfast is included in the price of your stay and is available from 7:00a.m.-9:00a.m.  They offered the traditional gallo pinto dish, eggs, sausage, fresh fruit, toast, juice,coffee and tea.  The hotel also provided gated parking at no extra charge, so we could feel secure about our car overnight.

After a little bargaining, my brother and his friend were able to get the room at Apartotel El Sesteo Costa Rica for $50 a night.  I'd definitely recommend this small hotel. It's not luxurious by any means - but it's clean, felt safe, the price was right,  and it was pretty centrally located.

Johnny and Connie Lounging on One of the Beds Inside the Hotel Room

Inner Courtyard area (view from our room towards the pool)

Large Colorful Oxcart in Inner Courtyard Area

Dining Area in Courtyard (where free breakfast is served)

Discoteque Castro's (Latin Dance Club & Bar)

If you are looking for a great place to take in Costa Rica nightlife, and you want to do it in true Latin-style, you'll want to check out Discoteque Castro's in Barrio Mexico of downtown San Jose.  My boyfriend and I, along with my brother Johnathan and his best friend Connie, were looking for a way to experience local Costa Rica nightlife, and we received various recommendations for Discoteque Castro's.  After dinner, we hailed a cab outside our restaurant, and we were on our way.

The exterior of Discoteque Castro's is an unassuming beige brick 2-story building.  A couple large bouncers stood outside of the entrance.  After they looked in our bags and scanned us over, we entered and were escorted by a waiter to our table.  Castro's has full meal service, in case you want to eat there, but since we had already eaten we concentrated on their extensive drink menu instead.

There is a large dance floor in the middle of the venue, with dining and seating areas all around the bottom and top floors.  The interior decor of Discoteque Castro's is supposed to look kind of "tropical", I believe.  There are tons of fake palm trees all around, and something akin to a rainforest scene right in the middle of the dance floor. The venue itself was very dark inside (which I liked), and had a real casual vibe to it.  Our group was all wearing jeans, while other guests were noticeably more dressed up.  Still, we didn't feel out of place because of this.

It was fun watching people at Discoteque Castro's strut their stuff on the dance floor.  Besides your regular disco ball lighting, there was another type of lighting that I've never seen before, which made the people on the dance floor look like moving Christmas trees (you can somewhat appreciate it in the video below).  The venue mainly plays Latin music such as salsa, merengue, cumbia and bachata.  Every once in a while the DJ threw in a popular English dance song as well.  You can see us trying to do our thing at Discoteque Castro's in the pictures below.  Then there is a a short video of others on the dance floor who actually seemed to know what they were doing:)

My brother Johnathan & His Best Friend Connie

My Boyfriend & I dancing salsa

The Outside of Discoteque Castro's

Video of Other People Having Fun on Discoteque Castro's Dance Floor
(it's Cumbia music I believe?....and notice the way they are all lit up)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Costa Rica Culture Shock

I hate to admit it, but now that I've lived here almost 3 months, Costa Rica culture shock has definitely set in.  I actually didn't know that my feelings were defined as "culture shock", until I stumbled across the topic on some other "living in Costa Rica" blog.  But all the signs are here - disillusionment, depression, idealizing life the way it was back home in the States, not agreeing with the way things are done here, believing that the bugs and mosquitoes here have a special affinity for my skin and blood as compared to that of the locals, and on and on it goes.

Ok, so I'm currently in what some experts would refer to as the 2nd stage of my Costa Rica culture shock phenomena.  Wikipedia defines the four stages of culture shock as:

Stage 1:  The Honeymoon Period.  This is when you first get off the plane and you're all excited about your new adventure in Costa Rica.  Posting pictures of your new life on Facebook is super fun!

Stage 2:  The Negotiation Period.  Cultural differences between your old and new cultures are becoming evident and starting to cause anxiety, loneliness and depression.  This is currently where I'm finding myself in my own Costa Rica culture shock process.

Stage 3:  The Adjustment Period.  At about 6 to 12 months, I'm supposed to begin to adjust to my new life abroad. The Costa Rican culture will begin to make sense to me and my negative reactions to it will be reduced.

Stage 4:  The Mastery Period.  During this final stage, I should be able to participate fully and comfortably in the Costa Rican culture and really begin enjoying my new life here.

Still, since I am still in the 2nd stage of my Costa Rica culture shock, please allow me to gripe a little.  I know that some of these complaints may sound a little ridiculous but this is how I'm currently feeling, so bear with me.
  1. I hate the fact that I live so far away from shopping, movie theatres and other conveniences
  2. I hate the fact that the Miramar municipality (the town in which I currently live) turns off my water every single day at the most inconvenient times!
  3. I hate the fact that most "major" highways are only 2 lanes for their entire length. 
  4. I hate the fact that even after getting married, getting a permit to work here may take as long as 4 to 6 months. 
  5. I hate the mounds and mounds of bureaucracy anyone must go through to get anything important done in Costa Rica.
Seriously,  I love my Costa Rican boyfriend and really want to adjust to life here in his country.   So I patiently await getting to Stages 3  and 4 of my Costa Rica culture shock syndrome.  But in the meantime, I actually feel better getting these feelings off of my chest;)

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Monday, May 2, 2011

Avenida Escazu and Imax Costa Rica

So I finally got a chance to visit the famous Avenida Escazu to see what all the buzz was about.  Our main reason for going to this venue was to catch "Thor" at the IMAX Costa Rica - which is part of the attractions offered at Avenida Escazu.  BTW I really enjoyed watching "Thor" in IMAX 3D and Chris' Hemsworth, who played the leading role, has an absolutely amazing body (even my boyfriend had to admit it)!!  Ok back to the topic.

The official website for Avenida Escazu  touts the newly built area as the "First Lifestyle Center" in Costa Rica.  The idea for this project was to combine housing, work, entertainment and shopping into one place.  I really enjoyed walking around the Avenida Escazu area. There was plenty of parking, it was well-lit, and for a few moments there, I felt like I was walking around a trendy area in Miami or Fort Lauderdale (where I formerly lived).  Avenida Escazú currently has:
  • Various designer and specialty shops (my favorite being the Apple iOne store)
  • An Art Gallery (very well stocked and houses some interesting art pieces)
  • Offices
  • A Residence Inn by Marriott hotel on the premises
  • Lofts for sales if you'd like to live here.  These units include a fitness center, swimming pool and 24/7 professional security.
  • Cinema Nova with the IMAX Costa Rica.  They also show regular movies in this cinema.
  • Stylish restaurants, cafes, and a food court area.
Entry to Avenida Escazu area
The Apple iOne Store at Avenida Escazu

Standing Outside the Adolfo Dominguez Store

The Roundabout area at Avenida Escazu

Food Court Area Avenida Escazu

Nova Cinemas (where the IMAX Costa Rica is located)
The IMAX Costa Rica at Avenida Escazu is very popular and seats for these 3D viewings fill up fast.  So buy your ticket before going, and I recommend sitting in Row H or farther back if possible.  Otherwise, you may find yourself suffering from neck pain and eye strain.  Here's the IMAX Costa Rica official website:  Nova Cinemas (in case you'd like to get showtimes or purchase advance tickets).  Avenida Escazu and the IMAX Costa Rica are located off Autopista Prospero Fernandez, on the eastern side of the Hospital CIMA in Escazú, San José, Costa Rica.  I think it's a good little change of pace for when you want to get back to a little more modern and State-side feeling while you are living or vacationing in Costa Rica.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Jazz Cafe Escazu Costa Rica

Last night my boyfriend and I visited the Jazz Cafe Escazu for the first time on the recommendation of his socialite cousin.  The venue is almost right next to the Multiplaza Escazu mall, on the same marginal road off Highway 27.  Jazz Cafe Escazu is actually one of two Jazz Cafe locations in Costa Rica, the other is in San Pedro.  Jazz Cafe Escazu was a dimly lit, clean and inviting restaurant and music venue. There was a gargantuan TV screen above the stage that was show-casing last night's local soccer match before the musical performance took the stage.  There were plenty of seating options, including dining tables and bar stools, but I was surprised that there wasn't a dance floor of any sort.  Of course, that didn't stop some bolder folks from standing up next to their tables and dancing when the mood struck them.  Jazz Cafe Escazu has maintained their popularity by bringing renowned local and international music acts to Costa Rica. Their musical genres include Jazz, R&B, Latin Rock and occasionally American Rock, Salsa and Reggae.  You can see some of our pictures from last night's show below.

Entrance to Jazz Cafe Escazu's Two Story Building

Inside Jazz Cafe Escazu before Performance Started

Tamela Hedstrom Performing

My Boyfriend and I Soaking Up the Atmosphere at Jazz Cafe Escazu
Last night's performer was Jazz and Latin singer Tamela Hedström.  She is the daughter of a Swedish father and Ecuadorian mother who was raised in Costa Rica.  Her diverse cultural mix was evident in her musical style and song choices.  Tamela had a sultry and strong voice and will no doubt make it far in her musical career.

I think the Jazz Cafe Escazu is a great little find, and my boyfriend and I plan on attending many more of their upcoming performances.  The entry fee for last night was about $8 U.S. per person, and drinks were about $5 to $7 each.  To access the Jazz Cafe Escazu and Jazz Cafe San Pedro event calendars click HERE.