Saturday, 11 March 2017

Costa Rica summary

Costa Rican Trial/Costa Rica Motorcycle Tours

I approached Costa Rican Trial (CRT) last fall with some requests after had googled "Motorcycle trip Costa Rica". It is a big tourist agency that I think are the owner of  the company Costa Rica Motorcycle Tours. Lorena Amador became my contact person and I did all my reservations trough her regarding the motorcycle ride. I sent her some general questions as well that she answered willingly. She is Costa Rican (I hope) and I trusted her knowlage about her own country.

I  arrived in CR 17th of December and I wanted to relax some days and get rid of the jet-lag before heading along on a motorcycle tour. Because of the Holiday season I decided to start the trip 27th of December and celebrate Christmas on my first stop. I had to find a place to stay for these 10 days with a nice beach where I could relax, do some snorkeling and scuba diving.
I looked at Google map and found Limon on the Caribbean side and asked Lorena the following question:
"My initial plan is to go to the Caribbean coast first for about 10 days to relax and scuba dive and celebrate Christmas. I think the area around Limon can be good – do you agree?"
She replayed promptly:
"Definitely Limon will be a good option for you to relax, check hotels in Puerto Viejo or Cahuita nicest places to stay."
The beaches in Puerto Viejo was NOT for scuba diving, snorkeling, swimming or anything else you like to do in the sea, except for surfing. I don't surf. The waves were hammering the beaches 24/7 and even wading in the seashore was for strong people only. If anybody had brought small children to the beach they would have lost them forever after 5 seconds. The nearest beach for swimming is nearly one hour away by car. How is it that a local Travel Agency don't know that?
I had two (2!) days with sun during these ten days. The rest of the time it poured down. Not some light drizzle, but serious cloudbursts that made you wet to the skin within 10 seconds. I thought I was just unlucky with the weather until I met an European girl who happened to be half Costa Rican and had been to Costa Rica several times. She told me that the dry season only applies to the Pacific west side - not the Caribbean east side. On the east coast the wet season last for 12 month a year. Could Lorena have mentioned this? Since I asked for her advice? I think so.
This winter it turned out to be more wet than usual all over CR, but normally you will find most of the days to be sunny during Christmas on the Pacific coast. There you also have the possibility to swim, snorkeling and scuba dive. If you bring small children you will also be able to see them again if they approach the sea.
Puerto Viejo is... how shall I describe it... a dump. In an extremely expensive country, Puerto Viejo beats them all. I have never payed more for less anywhere, including in one of the most expensive countries in the world: my home country Norway. The average standard of the hotels, bars and restaurants varied from low minus to terrible. The town consists mainly of sheds with roofs. As in the rest of the country, the service was poor. I think I have mentioned in earlier blog posts that CR is not a particularly friendly country...
You can read my blog-spot about Puerto Viejo here:

Below is a map of Costa Rica where my motorcycle tour for 6 days (blue) and my car trip to Puerto Viejo (green) is included. 

It could have been a nice motorcycle trip if Lorena had been wise enough to find a hotel near Uvita the second day (red ring on the east coast on the map) instead of sending me on a pointless trip to Esquinas Rainforest Lodge. That decision completely ruined 2 of my 6 days (here is a link to my previous blog about that). The lack of an USB charger as promised and her failure to correct it when I told her, also led to a reduced experience due to alternative routing and navigation error. The routing was poor, points of interests along the route was nonexistent and the service the same. But the most shocking was the total price when I was able to sit down after and have a thorough cost analysis. Costa Rica is extremely expensive and I could never figure out why. The price level is nearly twice as high as in their neighboring countries Panama and Nicaragua, but even for Costa Rican standard the rental price for motorcycles (self guided tour) are over the top. When I returned the bike they gave me a receipt for the rental that I shouldn't have had because I had payed to CRT and had a voucher for the rental. Then I realized I had been screwed - hard! 
Comparing Costa Rican Trails (CRT) with the benchmark within motorcycle rental, Bike Round Oz (BRO) in Australia, they seems to be from two different planets. 

Let's look at two comparing alternatives from these two countries; one country is developed with high standards that is expected to have high costs, and one country is not (it just thinks it is):
6 days/5 nights from San Jose in CR or Sydney in Australia with pickup and return of the bike at the same place. BMW R1200 is the preferred bike both places. Included are unlimited mileage, insurance, accommodation with breakfast and routing. 

Price in Costa Rica: USD 2625,-
Price in Australia: USD 1700,-

Let's break down the cost and look at the details. If you want to rent only a bike the cost are:

Australia: USD 1150,-
Costa Rica: USD 300,-

Already here you can tell that something is seriously wrong. That leaves USD 550,- in Australia for accommodation, insurance, routing and profit. I don't know the exact prise for accommodation in Australia, but I did the Sydney/Sydney tour 5 years ago and the hotel standard was great. 
In Costa Rica there is, in comparison, USD 2325,- for the same. Searching and for the hotels I used I get a total of USD 929,-. CRT probably have a discount on these prices, but let's keep it. The transport to/from the airport was included and I know the hotel has a pickup charge of USD 70,- both ways so let us say USD 100,- including the ride to the rental shop the first day. So the profit for CRT is USD 1296,- and probably more. That represents a margin close to 100%! 

So maybe the total tour package was so much better in CR that one could defend the high margin? Nope..I have rented motorbikes in Australia, Burma, Laos and South Africa and all these places I've also rented riding gears like helmet, jacket and gloves. The helmet just take up too much space in the baggage and my northern jacket is too thick and warm for tropical countries. I asked Lorena if it was possible to rent riding gear in Costa Rica. Nope...
When I asked for the gear rental, Lorena came back and told me that is was mandatory to use a reflective vest in CR. It is of cause a huge fee if you don't use it. In bright daylight... The first week in Puerto Viejo I noticed that nobody used vests, only a reflective band, worn bandolier style like the guy on the picture on the left. I would guesstimate the value of this band to be about 5 dollars. I think it would be a natural thing for CRT to support their motorcycle riding customers with a band like this, especially since this is something riders from other countries don't have. After 3 weeks in CR it is still a mystery to me where these bands can be bought.

Other things? Yes...
Could I rent a GPS? No. In Australia? Yes.
Could I rent a transparent map-holder to attach to the tank for the map and reading instructions? No. In Australia? Yes. 

Was the bike equipped with an USB charger? No. In Australia? Yes. 

And then we come to the riding instructions. As I wrote in this blog, it led me into trouble. And in good Costa Rican tradition Lorena blamed me for the fault without any self-criticism. Just to recap:
The instruction was in short: "Drive to Cot and than find the way to Turrialba". I didn't know where Cot was and probably neither do 99% of the other tourists in the country. So what I did was to look for a sign with the name Cot on it. The sign told me to take to the left at the next crossroad, so I did. I shouldn't have done that... Cot are situated along the mainroad so Lorena ment I should NOT turn to Cot, but pass it and then found the road to Turrialba at the next crossroad. But I didn't know that Cot was along the road so I turned where the sign told me to go. And when I told her so in an email, I got the following response: "I check the itinerary with driving directions and it doesn’t mention you need to go thru Cot." Charming... Yes, Lorena, it tells me to go to Cot and the only way further is thru the town since I can't fly above it. 
In the same email she attached pictures of the two parts I needed to get an USB charger on the motorbike and told me to buy it somewhere. The USB charger that she already had confirmed to be on the bike. Charming... 

In Australia 5 years ago I received in good time before I left Norway, a detailed description of the route for every day. I also got a link to where I could print every days itinerary marked on a file from Google map. A detailed point to point guidance with distance to every crossroad where to turn, was attached. I could print that in list-form and put it in the transparent map holder on the tank top that I was able to rent together with the map, and I could easily follow it without stopping the bike. Or, use my navigation app on my phone and charge it with the USB charger on the bike just like I had planned to do in Costa Rica. And because all the distances was from point to point I knew when I could relax and just enjoy the ride because I could follow the distances on the trip counter on the dashboard. In addition I received a detailed "what to see-list" with every point of interest highlighted, including pictures. Here (link) is an example of such a list from BRO in Australia. 

And what did I get in Costa Rica? 
I received an email when I booked the tour with information about every days route. Here is an example of one of the days:

Jan. 01  Monteverde (B)
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is one of the most diverse and rich tropical cloud forests in the New World and home to the resplendent Quetzal and the rare bell bird.  Monteverde is not only interesting for the Cloud Forest Reserve’s inhabitants, but also for its founders, the Quakers.  After check-in, feel free to explore your new surroundings. 
Overnight at the Monteverde country Lodge, classic room.  Breakfast included.

Not much driving instructions here...
When I arrived in Costa Rica I received driving instructions on paper. Written instructions that was in a style like this (the example are the trip from Poas Volcano to Arenal Volcano (link here) and my comments are in red):

From the Poas Volcano Loge drive back to the center of Alajuela. How far is that in km? There follow the signs to the international airport. Once you get to the airport, do not enter the airport, but take the exit on your right hand side to San Ramon, Palmeres and Naranjo. Do the sign state all these places or just the first, San Ramon? Like this you will get to the Panamerican Highway #1. 

Continue driving straight on the highway until you reach the sign to San Ramon to your right. Will it take me 5 minutes before I see the sign or one hour? How far is it? Take the exit and continue driving through downtown San Ramon, until you reach a dead end. 

Turn left and drive 2 blocks towards the San Ramon Hospital, then turn right onto the road to La Fortuna. You will see tow signs for La Fortuna: La Tigra and some resort (Tabacon, Villablanca), Follow the signs to La Fortuna and Arenal. It will take you through a number of small towns including Los Angeles, Balsa and Bajo Rodriguez, where there is voluntary toll. 

At the tollbooth, you will see a 45 km sign to Tabacaon and La Fortuna. A hint of distance!! Keep driving through the town of La Tigra, San Isidro and Chachagua until you finally reach La Fortuna. 

When you reach La Fortuna , follow the signs to Arenal Volcano (7 km) until you see the hotel on the right hand side. 

Here is a lot of names. And for the first time there are some hints of distances. My brain don't remember names very well and especially not Spanish names. They are unfamiliar to me and 10 seconds after I looked at the instruction, I had forgotten the name of the next sign to look for. If there had been some hint of distances I would at least have known how far to drive before I had to look for some sign or exit in a crossroad. I am good at remembering numbers and if I hadn't been, it would have been easy to reset the trip-counter every time. This type of driving instructions actually just works in a car with two persons; one driving and one reading the instructions. Especially when the rain is pouring down. This is bad! It is worse; it is useless for a single motorcycle rider. It is even bad driving a car due to the lack of information about distances. 

As my blog post about this days trip shows, I didn't drive this route at all. I used the Waze App guidance from Poas to Arenal that took me a total different rout and direction. Checking out Google Map it did not find Lorenas route either. It is a longer route and more difficult to follow. So why did she want me to drive that way? I don't know. It could have been because of the scenery or other things to do or see along the route, but none such things are mentioned. Points of interests along the route are totally absent. The contrast to the Australian BRO's detailed description of what to see when driving, couldn't have been any bigger. 
On the first day of driving, there was some information in the email I had received: Following this visit (Irazu Volcano) you can tour around the Orosi Valley, where creation overflows in unparalleled beauty. You will be able to visit one of the few remaining colonial churches and can stop for lunch in one of the local restaurants. 
Where? When? This is a two hour trip. Is all the driving in the Orosi valley? If not, when do I reach Orosi? Where is the colonial church? Somewhere between Irazu and Turrialba I suppose. Stop at one of the local restaurants where? In Cot maybe? Or in Turrialba? Or somewhere in between? 

Maybe there just ain't anything to see or do at all in Costa Rica, except for the places I stopped for the night, but I don't think so. I got more information about where to stop and what to see when driving from Cape Town to Cape of Good Hope in South Africa (one day trip) then I got from CRT for my whole six days trip. And COT only charged me USD 1296,- for the itinerary. What a bargain!

The rest of Costa Rica. 

Except for Costa Rican Trial and Costa Rica Motorcycle Tours, is Costa Rica a good country to visit? Yes and no. When visiting a country I evaluate the country's scenery, beaches, food and drinks, things to do, service and their people. With so many counties in the world worth visiting, both the country itself and the people have to be nice if I want to visit it again. Or, if one of these things are so extremely good that it rules out the impact of the other. In Costa Rica the people failed dramatically. All what people do for you like serving you, cooking food, building hotels and other buildings, driving along with you on the roads or giving you information and advice, failed. There are some exceptions like Poas Volcano Lodge where the staff was just beautiful and friendly, and all of Monteverde (link to blog post) that just is an amazing place. 
Some examples: If you visit a shop and ask if they have a product and they don't, they just say no. In other parts of the world, people are helpful and maybe suggest where you can go to find what you are looking for. The driving is, as mentioned before, extremely aggressive. 
On the last leg from Monteverde to San Jose I wish I had a camera on my helmet, pointing backwards. In my rear-view mirror I could follow an unbelievable behavior from two drivers. A Toyota from further back in the queue, drove past and when traffic in the other line came closer he wanted to come back into the line, just behind me. The Landrover behind me closed the gap so the Toyota couldn't come in. He was nearly hitting me and with half the car in the other lane he nearly crashed. I speeded up a little to make room for him. Next time there was a gap in the traffic in the opposite lane, the Landrover drove past the Toyota and tried to squeeze himself in between me and the Toyota. The Toyota closed the gap off cause and I found out that my health probably would stay better if I started to speed away from the situation.
Just a couple of minutes later I only had 3-4 cars in front of me, and when the road was clear for 3-400 meters I drove past them all and returned into my lane. The car in the opposite lane probably disliked my driving, so he changed lanes and started to drive straight towards me in my lane! What he disliked, I don't know because it was more then 200 meter left when I was finishing passing cars and there was never any dangerous situation that could occur to that other car.
When he came closer, he startet to honk the horn and flash his headlights towards me, and just when I considered to drive off the road, he drove back into his own lane. 
I had been in Costa Rica for 3 weeks and I wasn't that surprised anymore. I started to get fed up of the whole country with all it's inhabitants. 

It is probably a region problem, not a particular Costa Rican problem. As written in an earlier blog post, I told Lorena at CRT about an error in the routing, but she came back and told me it was fine and nothing wrong was done by CRT. When the USB charger, promised to be on my bike was missing, no attempt was made to correct it.
When I came to Nicaragua after Costa Rica I returned to the airport in Managua after a week on the Nicaraguan Little Corn Island in the Caribbean. I had booked a room at Hotel Camina Real near the airport because I would just stay over one night and fly back home the next day. I had written an email to the hotel a couple of days earlier because they claimed to have free airport shuttle. The answer came back as follows:

Mr. Christensen,
We confirm the free shuttle service. Our driver would be by the domestic flights terminal waiting for you with a sign with the name of the hotel. 

I waited half an hour before I took a taxi to the hotel. I told the receptionist what had happened and showed her the email. She told me that it was not like that. The shuttle bus would stay outside the international terminal every half an hour and I had to look for it. There would be no shuttle bus just for me. I tried to argue that I couldn't have known that because what the hotel had written to me, but they hadn't done anything wrong off cause. I just gave up. It's probably just the mentality in the region. 

What was nice then? The scenery was beautiful. The weather was terrible and Lorena's guide to what cloth to bring was a disaster, but the country is just fantastic diverse. From the coast on both the Pacific and the Caribbean side, to the mountains and volcanoes and to the rain and cloud forests. A lot of wildlife to see and winding, twisty roads to drive. 
Do not take to long stretches for the traffic will slow you down and you will use more time than expected. If you take a long stretch one day to reach a place, take an extra day to experience the surroundings the day after.
And vist Monteverde. If you like adventure will just love this place! 

If you plan to ride a motorcycle, go directly to the rental shop. It is cheap. USD 300 for six days is very nice for a 1200 cc BMW. Use Google and Lonely Planet to plan your trip and and for your accommodation. You will save at least USD 1000,- compared to use Costa Rican Trial for the same. Visit only half the country for one week; you need at least two weeks to visit it all. 
Remember that everything is very expensive. If you don't have a lot of money to spend, go and visit Panama and Nicaragua instead. I can't promise good service and nice people there either, but you definitely don't find them in Costa Rica. 

As I told you further up, I left Costa Rica for 10 days on the Little Corn Island in Nicaragua. That was a magical place! I will come back with details from that trip. And a lot of pictures!

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