More and more often, ads are showing up in unlikely places. Soon, grocery store shoppers will find a tiny ad promoting tourism to Ecuador in a curious place: on each of the 24 million tons of bananas that are exported from the country each year.
Skift first broke the news about the new campaign, what the Ministry of Tourism in Ecuador is calling the “Banana Ambassador” program. Workers in Ecuador will affix tiny stickers with the colorful tourism logo and an accompanying QR code on bananas, just the same as other stickers that are placed on the front of the fruit in the past. The idea is that, hopefully, curious breakfast eaters will scan the code and be connected to a promotional video and tourism site, eventually increasing the numbers of tourists to the tiny country.
Although, as Rafat Ali of Skift points out, QR usage in general is low and the program might have little effect on intent to travel, at least now people will be more aware of where their food comes from. Ecuador is the largest exporter of bananas in the world, sending just as many bananas as the next three largest exporters – Costa Rica, Colombia and the Philippines – combined, accounting for 29 percent of the world’s total exported bananas. And in case you’re curious about those pre-export prices, bananas cost about 10 cents each in Ecuador.
When you’re lying in the shade of a towering palm tree on Playa Espadilla Sur, a glorious, often empty beach backed by thick forest in Costa Rica’s Manuel Antonio National Park, the temptation to remain inert can be irresistible. But it would be a shame to travel all the way to this fascinating corner of Central America and do nothing but lie on the beach. Costa Rica has a whopping 26 national parks, so travelers can find adventure in every corner of the country. But Manuel Antonio, the country’s smallest most popular park, is probably the most accessible adventure hub for active travelers who are looking for more than just great beaches.
Manuel Antonio is an easy 2.5-hour drive from San Jose on a recently built highway. The park itself is a 15-minute drive from the town of Quepos, which also has a small airport. A huge variety of hotels and adventure tour companies line the main road between the town and the national park. It isn’t a pedestrian friendly place but thankfully you’ll have plenty of opportunities for exercise in and around the park.
The national park ($10 entry fee, closed on Mondays) is a great place to hike, especially early in the morning before the heat and humidity become unbearable. There’s a terrific circular loop trail (about 1.5 km) in the park you can take from Playa Espadilla Sur, my favorite beach, or Playa Manuel Antonio, the park’s most popular beach, to Punta Catedral, where there’s an amazing view.
If you’ve never tried zip-lining through the jungle, this is a great place to take the plunge without breaking the bank. A company called Rainforest Adventures offers a combo zip-line and tram tour combo where you can zip line over the trees and also take a 30-minute tram ride for spectacular views of the rainforest for $60. Canopy Safari offers zip-lining along with a combo package that includes open bar, if you want to glide above the trees and then get plastered down below, and Titi Canopy Tours, which offers day and night zip-lining, claims they are the closest to Manuel Antonio park.
Kayaking/White Water Rafting
Through companies like Iguana Tours or Jade Tours you can hire a kayak and guide who will lead you through the mangrove forests to nearby Damas Island, where you can snorkel and swim. Or if you’d rather go white water rafting, Adventure Manuel Antonio offers a half-day tour on the Savegre River, including breakfast and a picnic lunch for $89.
Take a Walking Tour of the National Park
The park itself is just 3 square miles but it has rain forest, white sand beaches and an abundance of wildlife, including howler and white-faced capuchin monkeys that will come within steps of you, sloths, iguanas, agoutis and at least 350 types of birds. Arrive early and hire a guide right outside the entrance to the park. The guides typically charge about $20 for a two-hour guided hike and, with their local knowledge and telescopes, they will help you see wildlife that you’d never see on your own. If you need a guide, you’ll see plenty of available guides standing outside the entrance to the park. We hired Flander Sanchez (email@example.com) and I thought he was terrific.
Playa Espadilla Sur
Most tourists flock to Playa Manuel Antonio (PMA), but keep walking along the trail and you’ll come across this huge, spectacular beach. Both beaches are lovely but while PMA is often jam-packed, Espadilla Sur is blissfully quiet. Unlike PMA, it’s also easy to find a nice spot in the shade. Our guide told us not to swim on the day we were there in mid-February because a crocodile had been spotted in the water that morning, but from what I understand, that is a rare occurrence. If you’re up for a long walk on an empty beach, this is the place to do it.
Fincas Naturales Wildlife Refuge
This is a private, 25-acre wildlife refuge near Manuel Antonio, across from the Si, Como No Hotel, that was once a teak plantation. They offer five different tours of the refuge, ranging from $15-$45, and on any given day you might see snakes, lizards, frogs, sloths, monkeys, porcupines, armadillos and dozens of varieties of birds. They also have a butterfly garden that features dozens of types of butterflies.
Where to Stay
This is a luxury hotel with spacious and stylish rooms comparable to a Westin or Hyatt. There are extensive hiking trails on the grounds and if you’re out early in the morning and late in the afternoon, you’ll come across howler monkeys and plenty of birds. The food is also quite good and the pools have amazing views of the Pacific. From $199.http://www.hotelparador.com/
Arenas del Mar
Also in the high-end category, super deluxe Arenas del Mar is right on a private beach and within walking distance of Manuel Antonio. The rooms have 400 thread count linens, high-end furnishings and decks with stunning views of the national park. The American owners of Arenas del Mar also own Finca Rosa Blanca, a gorgeous coffee plantation and inn near San Jose. From $165. http://www.arenasdelmar.com/index.html
Hotel Plaza Yara
This is a small, all-suites hotel that features custom made furniture and rooms with kitchenettes just a five-minute drive from Manuel Antonio. With rates starting at $75 per night, it’s one of the best options in this price category. From $75. http://www.hotelplazayara.com/index.php
Getting Around: Manuel Antonio is an easy 2.5-hour drive from San Jose on a recently built highway. Manuel Antonio isn’t a pedestrian friendly area but I got around using the cheap local bus and the free shuttle provided for guests at the Hotel Parador. Taxis charge about $5-10 for rides up to about 15 minutes away. We hired a private cab driver to drive us from Heredia, near San Jose, to Manuel Antonio and it cost $150 for a family of four. Buses are much cheaper but the 2.5 hour drive will be more like 3.5 hours on an express bus (slower still on a local bus) that you can catch at the Coca-Cola bus terminal at Calle 16 between Avenidas 1 and 3.
Seasonality: The high season is December-April. You might save a little bit of money and still enjoy dry weather if you go May-August, but September and October are very rainy. Be prepared for temperatures in the upper 80s or low 90s with humidity year round.
Safety: Manuel Antonio is generally a safe area but you’ll notice that many of the restaurants and hotels have signs warning guests not to leave valuables in cars. Safety standards aren’t quite the same as they are in the U.S. but if you choose a tour company that has a good reputation and listen carefully when they give you tips, you shouldn’t have a problem on any of the adventure-related tours.
Note: You won’t find traditional street names and addresses around Manuel Antonio. On our scouting trip this didn’t prove to be a problem as cab drivers know how to find just about any beach, hotel, restaurant, store or attraction you might want to visit. If you’re driving and rent a GPS, it will recognize the names of my most hotels.
You can learn a lot about a country by walking into it across a land border. VIP’s enter at the airport or zoom through in a car, but when you walk across the frontier, especially in a developing country, you get a window into how ordinary people and traders travel.
Before leaving on a recent trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua, I tried to research the logistics of how we would get from the Liberia airport, where we were supposed to drop our rental car, to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, but found no definitive take on how much it costs or what the transportation options are. So when a cab driver I talked to at a gas station in Liberia offered to take us from the airport to the border the next day for $80, I wasn’t certain if it was a good deal but agreed to it nonetheless for lack of any better ideas (with my wife and children in tow, we weren’t up for taking a chicken bus).
Francisco, our courtly silver-haired driver turned up on time, but we soon realized that his A/C was broken.
“Too expensive to fix it,” he explained. “Sorry.”
Not a good sign on a sweltering hot afternoon, but he said the ride took only an hour, so I had no problem sweating it out. We puttered along in Francisco’s old pickup truck as swarms of cars passed us on the Pan-American Highway. I knew we were going slow but had no idea how slow because Francisco’s speedometer was also broken.
As we neared the border, we passed a few security checkpoints where police officers checked for illegal immigrants, guns and drugs. The homes on the side of the road were smaller and more improvised the closer we got to the border and even before we arrived in Nicaragua it seemed as though we’d left the middle-class comforts of Costa Rica behind.
Our hotel in San Juan del Sur, the terrific Villas de Palermo, hooked us up with a company called Iskra Travel that was supposed to transport us from the border to San Juan del Sur for $45. But the driver was supposed to meet us at the border at 1 p.m. and Francisco was sputtering along so slowly that we didn’t reach it until 1:30, and we hadn’t even cleared customs yet, so I had no idea if the driver would wait for us on the other side.
There was a long line of travelers waiting to get into Costa Rica but when we asked where to enter Nicaragua, people in line pointed off in the distance. There’s a no man’s land that must be a good mile long between the two countries with very little shade. It was sweltering – easily 90 degrees (probably more) – and we were transporting two small kids, a stroller and a few pieces of luggage.
By the time we reached a uniformed Nicaraguan border guard, my shirt was completely soaked through in sweat. Costa Rica abolished its army in 1949, so the border area isn’t the kind of tense frontier where photography is a problem. I took advantage of the loose atmosphere by snapping a photo of my wife as the Nicaraguan border control officer examined her passport.
I assumed we were going to be waved into the country in a matter of moments but the guard had a problem with our passports. My wife and I both have very mediocre high school Spanish and it took us a few minutes to realize that he wanted us to go back to Costa Rica to get an exit stamp.
He said we all had to go back, not just me, and I wasn’t about to walk the mile in the hot sun with all the baggage again, so I hired a rickshaw driver to cycle us back to Costa Rica (see photo below).
At first, I was annoyed by the hassle, but within just a few seconds of being on the rickshaw my mood brightened considerably. There was a light breeze and being carted around felt like a beautiful little luxury that was well worth the $8 (round trip) our driver asked for.
Back in Costa Rica, we were directed around to the back of the immigration building to a room that was empty save a few officers at their desks. Lots of people were waiting to get into Costa Rica but we were the only ones leaving.
“They sent you back for exit stamps?” asked the Costa Rican officer, watching the beads of sweat pore off my chin onto my T-shirt.
“Yep,” I said, and the officer and a colleague sitting next to him laughed, as if our exertion was the most amusing thing they’d experienced in years.
On the way back to Nicaragua, our rickshaw driver asked me how much I paid for my camera. Given the situation, I wasn’t eager to admit that it cost $1,200, so I lied and said, “$100″ (see video).
“I’ll give you a hundred for it,” he said.
“No thanks,” I said. “I need my camera.”
“OK, $150,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said. “But my camera is not for sale.”
“But I need a camera,” he pleaded.
I just ignored him and soon enough we were back talking to the same Nicaraguan official and this time he stamped us in. But our brush with Nicaraguan officialdom wasn’t quite over. We walked another few hundred meters and then stood around in the hot sun wondering where to meet our driver from Iskra Travel. We were 90 minutes late and I assumed he’d given up on us.
A trio of young men came by to hector us about buying forms from them. I was sure it was a scam and ignored them, but my wife, who is from a small town in the Midwest and can’t help but be nice to everyone – even annoying pests and con-men – entertained their sales pitches.
“They have badges,” she said, “they seem official.”
I examined the peskiest guy’s badge and confirmed that he worked for some travel agency, not the government. He wanted us to pay $1 for immigration forms that were supposed to be free. We headed off to the east of the road toward a cluster of buildings and noticed two car rental companies: Alamo and National – good choices if you want to use a company that has offices at the border.
We gravitated to a line where we paid about $4 to a bored looking clerk who then pointed us to another line right across from his booth. As we stood in that line, my older son made a card with his birthday and half-birthday on it to give to the Nicaraguans (see photo above) and a mentally-disabled person began to emit piercing calls, followed by maniacal laughter and ear-to-ear smiles. My older son covered his ears and everyone else smiled nervously or gave him some coins. It was a welcome to Nicaragua I’ll never forget.
A man carrying a sign with my name on it emerged and I was thrilled and amazed that he had waited for us. We made it to the front of the next line and the clerk asked us for $48 U.S. to enter the country. I handed him three $20 bills and then struggled to understand why he wasn’t handing us back our passports.
Clearly there was a problem with our poor Spanish; we couldn’t for the life of us understand what it was. I confirmed once more that he wanted $48 and pointed to the pile of bills I’d given him totaling $60. After a few minutes of mutual incomprehension, someone behind us in line came forward to interpret.
“He says one of your $20 bills is no good,” the man said, before handing what looked like a perfectly good 20 back to me.
“What’s wrong with it?” I asked, totally confused.
“He says there is a crease in the bill.”
The bill looked fine to me but luckily I had another one in my wallet that he found acceptable. After much ado, we were finally, officially allowed to enter Nicaragua.
Within a matter of minutes, we could see the twin volcano peaks of Ometepe Island rising like pyramids across Lake Cocibolca and we were bathed in the lovely artificial frost of fully functioning A/C. It felt great to be in Nicaragua.
The reed thin drunk was just barely sober enough to avoid being flattened by a rampaging bull. The crowd roared when he broke into a nifty little dance, complete with somersaults and a crash but many were also hoping that he’d be trampled (see video). I was rooting for the harassed bulls to teach the dozens of insane men in the ring a lesson, but I dared not admit that to anyone. Costa Rican law mandates that a cowboy should be sober while riding a bull, but there is no such requirement for the spectators, even though many of them choose to be part of the action, right in the ring.
I’m not much of a rodeo guy but they are an integral part of the culture in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica, so when we heard about Expo Liberia, a rodeo and carnival that was supposed to be one of the biggest and best in the area, we decided to check it out.
As we entered the fairgrounds just off the Pan-American Highway in Liberia, a regional hub in Guanacaste, a police officer approached us with a warning.
“Be very, very careful here,” he said. “There are a lot of criminals and drug addicts around.”
Not exactly what you want to hear any time, but particularly not with your wife and two small children in tow. Nonetheless, we appreciated the warning and the fact that there were police officers everywhere. We walked past a row of bars that were competing to see who could play the loudest music from the most distorted speakers (see video). I’m not sure who won but the fact that there were so few customers at most of the bars seemed to amplify the noise and absurdity of the situation.
One of the bars had a guy singing what sounded like Costa Rican show tunes and it was completely empty. We felt horrible for him but not bad enough to subject ourselves to the music for more than a few seconds.
My kids had fun squandering a large chunk of our hard earned money on rides, inflatable jumpy houses and cotton candy and I was dismayed but also impressed to see freelance port-o-potty entrepreneurs charging the equivalent of a dollar to use their facilities. A host of small children hassled us to buy them tickets for rides and we almost succumbed until one of the Costa Rican carnies intervened.
“Their parents are here,” he warned. “You don’t have to buy them anything.”
“Where are they?” I asked.
“Probably at the bars,” he said, gesturing toward where the distorted, pulsating music was coming from.
After my kids had exhausted their tickets, we gravitated toward the rodeo ring, where my sons watched in fascination as a group of jeering men and boys poked, prodded and harassed a pair of confined bulls. They were obviously getting them in an agitated state for the evening’s show but I decided that I didn’t want to support their endeavor by buying tickets, even at just $4 a pop. (Though apparently the bulls aren’t actually harmed in Costa Rican rodeos).
But as we were wandering around the side of the ring, we noticed that there were just as many people, it not more, watching the show for free under the stands. Curiosity got the best of us, so we stood alongside other cheapskates and vendors, who flogged little bags of fruity drinks, nuts and other treats, and settled in for the show.
“All these people standing underneath the stands, this doesn’t seem safe,” said Jen, my wife. “What if this thing collapses on us- we’ll all be dead.”
I pondered this prospect and considered what a small news item it would be in the U.S. Dozens perish as Costa Rican rodeo stands collapse. But as soon as the first bucking bull came charging out of the gate, our attention shifted from the rickety stands to the action unfolding in front of us.
There were scores of men- and not a single woman- standing around in the ring, but I had (wrongly) assumed that they would take their seats once the action started. After the sabanero (cowboy) was thrown off of the bull, attention shifted to all the men in the ring. Some of them appeared to be trying to taunt and smack the bull, while more prudent guys hopped up on the side of the wooden stands to steer clear of the beast.
For the first few seconds, the bull was angry and he actively charged a few men. But then he kind of just pulled up and stopped dead in his tracks, as if to say, fuck this, I am not going to take the bait and chase you macho assholes around this ring. A few of the men tried to bait him but he just stood his ground and glared at them. Eventually, as the men became more aggressive, he took the bait and started charging, sending all but the most clinically insane scurrying up onto the lower wooden rungs of the stands.
I asked a woman standing next to us why there were no women in the ring and she chuckled.
“We’re too smart,” she said.
The scene repeated itself time and time again. The men wanted action and needed to harass the bulls to galvanize them to play along. I don’t care for the idea of proving one’s masculinity by tormenting animals and it was hard to reconcile why so many guys wanted to be in the ring.
I didn’t stay long enough to witness any injuries but apparently it’s common for at least a few people to get trampled each night. Brian Wedge, a photographer from Maine who blogged about an evening he spent at a Costa Rican rodeo, actually photographed people lying injured in ambulances at the rodeo he attended in 2011.
But while I didn’t get a kick out of the tormenting of the bulls, I loved the dancing, strutting drunk guy who commanded our attention. As you can see from the video above, he was, when he could remain upright, a very good dancer.
After nearly an hour of watching the spectacle from underneath the stands, we’d had more than enough. I was happy to escape before the stands collapsed or a bull came smashing through the flimsy wooden beams that separated us from him. But I wished I could have taken the bulls with me to spare them the indignity of sticking around to provide amusement to the locals.
Take a look at a road map of Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula and you’ll see a jumble of squiggly lines that seem to meander in circles with no clear pattern. Before setting off in a rental car from Santa Teresa, at the foot of Nicoya, heading towards Rincon de la Vieja National Park near the Nicaraguan border, I was a bit intimidated by the navigational task at hand. And I’d heard that the roads in this part of the country were a disaster.
But when local cab drivers told me it would cost at least $300 to take a cab to Rincon, I decided to take the plunge on my own in a rental car. I found three rental car companies in Santa Teresa and Budget had the “cheapest” price: $280 to rent an automatic transmission Toyota Rav-4 for two days, including a GPS, a child seat and a surcharge to drop it off at the airport in Liberia. It was more than double the highest price I’d ever paid for a car rental in my life, but after spending our first six days in country carless and at the mercy of taxi drivers, it felt great to have some wheels and a bit of freedom.
We spent much of the first two hours of our trip on Route 160, which is mostly unpaved and ranges in quality from not-too-bad to thank-God-I’m barreling-down-this-cratered- track-in-a-rental-car-rather-than-my-own-vehicle bad. The thought occurred to me that the high cost or rental cars in Costa Rica must be due at least in part to the poor quality of the roads. I was driving carefully but the road was beating the hell out of our Rav-4.
I’m generally an impatient traveler who would rather take the fastest route between two points – no slow-going, scenic routes for me – but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed barnstorming through the decrepit, neglected byways of Guanacaste. The poor quality of the road forced us to take it slow, allowing us to digest the beauty and serenity of slumbering villages where we saw clusters of teens gather to check out someone’s new moped, men in colorful T-shirts and baseball caps selling watermelons and coconut water on the side of the road, and plenty of farm animals roaming free in the streets. In these timeless places, no one had air conditioning – life was lived in the streets and people had their doors open, so we could see right inside people’s homes.
The twisting, dipping and soaring back roads of Guanacaste are filled with buena vistas. Costa Rica literally means “rich coast” and nowhere in the country is that moniker better earned than in Guanacaste. Car travel in the U.S. can be mind numbingly boring. The physical terrain changes but the retail landscape is always familiar and there are no farm animals or people to look at on our highways. Here, there was someone or something to look at everywhere.
In one sleepy village, I hopped out to photograph a pair of teenage girls on a motorcycle and they acted like they’d been chosen to grace the cover of Vogue. In another, a collection of men made a futile attempt to explain what goes on at a lavacar. (Someone help me out here – is this a place to bring animals for a bath?)
On the road leading to a place called Playa Gigante, I stopped to take a photo of a handsome old man tidying his yard with a machete and was surprised when he greeted me in English.
“Hello, my friend,” he said. “What brings you here?”
“Actually, I just wanted to take your photo,” I admitted. “Do you mind?”
“I’m never too busy to make a new friend,” he said, extending his hand to introduce himself.
His name was Christian and he learned English while living in Glendale, California, in the 1980s. I asked him why he came back to Costa Rica and he said that his parents were old and he needed to come back to take care of them.
“Do you like it here?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said, looking around at the collection of tidy, modest homes. “We have everything here and it’s nice and quiet.”
Eventually we merged onto the paved Pan-American Highway, which was faster but less interesting and we made the trip to Rincon in about five leisurely hours with plenty of stops for random conversations and photo opps. If you find yourself in this part of the world, I highly recommend taking the time to get lost on the back roads of Guanacaste. You won’t get anywhere fast but you won’t soon forget the experience.