Central America #5: San Jose – don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it + white-water rafting and volcano-watching

One’s purse strings most certainly loosen when one is on holiday. After all, you can’t sit around all day counting your coins and if you don’t do something for budgetary reasons, then you’re sure to regret it later. The above considered, I splashed out 100 USD on a white-water rafting trip to the Pacuare River, an activity recommended to me by fellow travellers and also ranked by National Geographic as the fourth best place to do it in the world.

I was first to be picked up at 6.00am from my hostel in Puerto Viejo, and after everyone was on board we set off towards the Outdoor Adventures headquarters to grab some breakfast, which unsurprisingly consisted of eggs, gallo pinto (rice and beans), an array of fruit and coffee. As it was a free-for-all buffet, I made sure I filled up adequately. On the next leg of the journey, which took about three hours from Puerto Viejo to the starting point, I got chatting to a group of Germans who were equally as enamoured with my Artesanas biscuits as I had been since I discovered them a week earlier in Panama. Now a fixture in my excursion packed lunch.

The guide then proceeded to go through safety regulations and what to do in the event of accidents and emergencies in a rather comical way, and in fact there were only 2 out of about the 16 on board who had done rafting before, a couple who kept asking complex questions to him just to reinforce the fact that they’d been and done it before. The guide told them to forget what they thought they knew about rafting in Canada as it would just complicate things for everyone else should we listen to them. I secretly wished they’d later fall out of the boat and have a spin in a sinkhole.

We were put into groups of six and instructed to put on our helmets and lifejackets. I had naively thought that white-water rafting entailed going down the river on a classical wooden raft like that of Robinson Crusoe, hence why everyone said the activity was something of a dangerous one. I clearly hadn’t watched enough Nat Geo, as the vessels were in fact quite sizeable, made of reinforced rubber and had places to sit and to tuck your feet under.

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White-water Rafting

Naturally, our guide, Javier, contradicted everything the other guide on the bus had said but rather than debate, the four Germans, a Spanish guy and I just looked at each other confusedly and silently figured that we were best off following the instructions of our current leader. To be fair, it wasn’t that difficult, as the only commands barked out were those of forward, backwards, hard and stop, though our poor Spanish friend wasn’t quite catching what was being said and often ended up doing the opposite. I felt for him, what with coming to Costa Rica, a Spanish-speaking country, and being told off for not understanding English instructions.

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Rafting on Pacuare River

The rowing action is quite demanding of whatever side your inner shoulder happened to be on, in my case left, and you’ve got a little more responsibility when at the front, where I happened to be. Angel and I eventually managed to coordinate our rowing, allowing for a smooth ride. For the first half of the descent, we bumped around a little and went through a few rough bits of water, but nothing that was really harrowing. In addition, the water was refreshingly warm and the views to both sides superb, which probably made it more comfortable than doing the activity in Alaska. There was a point where we were able to jump out of the boats and float around in the river at a calmer bit, and the feeling of giving yourself away to the current might best be described as liberating. After being dragged back into the boat as instructed (bearhugging the person in the water and pulling them flat onto you) we stopped for lunch, which consisted of tortillas and a variety of fillings. I helped myself to three servings as I’d need the fuel for an action-packed night out in San Jose later on.

During the interval I casually put forward the question: Is it better if it’s raining? Barely had Javier started to utter his response when the heavens opened. I guessed we were going to find out.

Having experienced white-water rafting in both dry and placid weather and something of a nasty storm, I’d definitely recommend the latter if you’re an adrenaline junkie, which I’m starting to become. With the rain lashing down and the wind swirling, it made for much different conditions to previously and the boat veered all over the place and was difficult to control. A lot more whirlpools opened up and the drops steepened, which at one point led to two German police officers being tossed out of the raft. The girl surfaced a few seconds later a few dozen metres down the river, but the guy was submerged for a good ten seconds before we spotted him and dragged him back in. He said that he’d felt the swirling force of the water, saw only blackness and had been totally disorientated during his plunge, and the look on his face certainly suggested that he’d been a little shaken up by the incident.

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Rather him than me. Or would I have preferred to feel full-on some exhilaration?

Anyway, Javier, whose guidance had been uneventful until that point, apologised for not noticing the big whirlpool that we’d rowed into. The remainder of the ride passed drama-free and upon disembarking, we all high-fived and hugged each other as if we’d survived a natural disaster, but in all honesty, I must admit that although the fearsome reputation that white-water rafting has wasn’t quite lived up to, as I didn’t at any real point fear for my life, I definitely enjoyed myself and would recommend this trip. I’ll just have to look for more danger next time.

All in all, the descent took three hours and covers a distance of around 30km.

The tour I had booked involved onward travel to your next destination, to your hotel or hostel in fact. Now, many people often dismiss Central American capital cities as holes and recommend that you skip them, but I’m one for giving them a shot, as often they are a better portrayal of how local life is lived, and it allows you to escape sharing the beaten track with your fellow foreign travelers. With this in mind, I asked to be deposited in San Jose, more specifically at Costa Rica Backpackers (11 USD per night), a hostel located within walking distance of downtown and which offered a swimming pool. It took about two and a half hours to get there from where we finished the rafting, not helped by a massive traffic jam approaching the capital.

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Downtown San Jose

I quickly learned that San Jose weather operates in very routine cycles, at least in November: glorious sunshine in the morning and early afternoon, torrential rain and thunderstorms from about 3pm until 7pm, and rain-free yet humid nights. I arrived at about 5.30pm, just as the sun goes down in Costa Rica, and quickly got chatting to an English girl and American guy, who I convinced to come and check out the local nightlife. I must admit I’d been looking forward to this weekend since the start of my trip, and was anxious to discover what the night had to offer. Soon after, we bunched together with another set of tourists, including two guys who knew the area well and had arranged to meet up with Ticas (Costa Rican girls) in a club nearby.

We ended up at a bar called X-Scape, which was full to the brim and pumping out a mix of mostly Latin music, particularly reggaeton, which I have a shameless liking for, interspersed with a few recent pop or electro tunes. A Japanese girl in our party had to go back and get her ID before being allowed entry to the bar, as the bouncers were pretty strict on everyone being documented. For 2 USD you could get a large beer or three shots at the bar. I duly indulged in this offer, as did one of the American guys who seemed to throw tequilas at me every couple of minutes. After not so long, my dancing shoes came to life and I laboured through some Merengue with the Ticas, who for a while were convinced I was Mexican. Quite the pattern. The night went on and on and I woke up in the morning with a heavy head but extremely beaming smile.

It’s amazing how when traveling you totally refuse to get up any later than around 8.30am, and generally a lot earlier, often due to it being too hot to stay under cover, but mostly because you don’t want to waste the day in bed. Some of the people I’d been out with the night before accompanied me to the bank to change some money and then to the market to get a local typical breakfast of eggs, rice and beans once again, to which I added Cas juice, a tangy affair made from a small green fruit.

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A non-descript church in San Jose

Walking around San Jose downtown on a Saturday afternoon allowed me to get a real feel of the place. It was awash with people shopping and selling and an interesting array of street performers, which included a band called Los Reciclables, who played instruments made completely out of recycled materials like cans and bottles, such as a didgeridoo that produced a really cool sound. I then got into market mood and weirdly bought six avocadoes, a kilo of grapes and loads of pork chops in a mad five-minute spending spree that cost me about 5 USD. Later that evening I made an edible concoction out of the above ingredients, but had quite a lot left over, so gave it to a Guatemalan, Cuban and some Canadians, for which they were very grateful. For the world to give, you need to give too.

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San Jose centre

Before that, I chilled on a sun lounger by the pool and withstood about half an hour of vicious sky rumbles until it went from clear to bucketing it down in a matter of seconds. That’s tropical weather for you.

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Swimming pool in Costa Rica Backpackers

After a brief nap, I wandered down to the bar and partook in a few beers with an Argentine girl who shared the exact same birthday with me. If that’s not an excuse to roll into a chat, then I don’t know what is.

The night passed by and I got up early so as to head off to Poas volcano, which I’d seen very impressive videos of. As was by now habit, I did it by public bus for a return-journey total of about 7 dollars instead of paying an agency 30 to take me there, though it wasn’t the simplest of trips to make. Basically, you have to go the Tuasa bus terminal, which is one of dozens in the city often determined by which companies leave from there. To get to the volcano on time, you need to arrive at a place called Alajuela by 9am to catch the only bus of the day that goes to the volcano. In order to get to Alajuela on time, you should depart from San Jose at around 815 at the latest and jump on any bus going to Alajuela, and a queue of people lining up should indicate which vehicle it is. Nevertheless, I asked a young couple just to make sure, and they assured me I was on the correct bus.

It takes about 20 minutes to get to Alajuela, a not-so-big town, but once again home to various bus terminals. Via asking about four or five people and going round in a few circles, I left the terminal I arrived to by going straight ahead, turning right at the first road, and heading down the street for a couple of blocks before coming across another set of buses on the left hand side. At this point the bus for Volcan Poas is clearly marked. But just to make sure, ask at every street corner on the way down.

I’d mentioned before that the San Jose rain usually started at about 2pm, but as on this day I’d decided to go volcano-watching, the water started lashing down at about 10.30am, just as we passed the signpost for the national park. The bus dropped us at the entrance, where foreigners pay 15 USD (Costa Rica charges a hefty fee for its national parks), and then left us at the visitors’ centre, from which point it is a mere 10-minute walk up to the crater. I acquired a green poncho which resembled a bin-liner with a drawstring for 2 USD and would turn out to be invaluable, even if it rapidly took on a sweaty odour.

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My trusty green poncho and I at Volcan Poas

People who’d previously visited the crater had told me that you often have to wait for the sky to clear before getting a good look, so I wasn’t too optimistic due to the black skies and heavy rain. Yet Lady Luck was in town and the clouds parted just as I came over the rise to the top of the mountain and I was thus able to see the bubbling green crater lagoon in all its glory. It derives its colour from the sulphur content in the water and allegedly has a temperature of 50 C. There was also a waterfall flowing in from the far side. I stood observing the spectacle for a while, got some fellow tourists (of which most were either Costa Rican or Colombian) to take photos for me, and proceeded to take rather poor photos of them, though they politely didn’t acknowledge my lack of photography skills.

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Poas Volcano

After looking at the natural wonder for a while I walked around the trail which passed by another lagoon, and covered it quite hastily due to the inclement weather. Information placards on the trail promised an abundance of wildlife to be seen, but once again I saw nothing. If there’s one thing I’ve learned on this trip, it’s that animals don’t like national parks where human beings go to spy on them, instead preferring to loiter in open public spaces, like rundown streets, rubbish tips and carparks.

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Lagoon near Poas volcano

I was done with walking around after half an hour or so, which left with me a few hours to burn before the one and only return bus to Alajuela, which leaves at 2.30pm. I took it, powerwalked back to the hostel where I’d left my luggage in storage and set off on my way to La Fortuna at about 4.30pm.

The white-water rafting had been exhilarating, if not as life-threatening as I’d hoped, and San Jose hadn’t been as bad as others had made out. Most of its bad reputation probably stems from foreigners’ fear of large numbers of locals in saturated spaces, disdain for miserable city smog and an overwhelming preference for seeing the abundance of natural green beauty that Costa Rica has to offer outside of its capital. However, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, because combining a bit of urban grind with rural adventure makes for a better overall understanding of how a country really is, and if you happen to be around over the weekend, then even better!

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