During our two-month-long Central American trip we visited three countries — Costa Rica, Nicaragua, with a brief stop in Panama.
There were no scheduled itineraries, no guides, no packaged tours.
From the time we flew out of Las Vegas on Nov. 10, we traveled by foot — hiking, backpacking, and trekking; by bicycle; we hitched a ride in the back of an ancient Toyota pickup; we rode with new friends from Canada in their converted ambulance motor home; and we had hair-raising adventures on Central America’s public transportation bus system. We also surfed in the Pacific Ocean and bungee jumped from a very high bridge.
Along the way we saw a beautiful countryside, met wonderful people, and ate some great food.
At one point I crossed paths with an accomplished pickpocket; I was caught in a freezing rainstorm atop Central America’s highest point on Christmas Day; and I was called on to make emergency repairs to a broken down bus that had stranded me and several dozen others.
I think I will remember most the warm and gracious town folk in San Gerardo de Rivas where I spent the last two weeks. They threw a farewell fiesta on the eve of my departure from their idyllic little home in the jungle lowlands.
Starting from San Jose First, we headed for Jaco on the Pacific Coast planning to meet with friends from Fruita who, coincidentally, had independently planned their own Costa Rica trip at the same time. We stayed in Jaco and surfed four days while making some plans for the rest of the trip.
On the way south by bus to Quepos, a missing wallet dictated a detour at Playa Hermosa where I cancelled the wallet’s only content — a debit card. Playa Hermosa with its striking dark sand beach turned out to be one of the nicest parts of the trip. We surfed there for a day and then went on to Quepos for more surfing. Afterward we spent a day in Manuel Antonio where we hiked through the national park there.
After another day of hiking mountain trails at Quepos we went back north and surfed for two days in Esterillos.
We continued back north and took a ferry across Golfo de Nicoya and spent two days in Montezuma, on the Península de Nicoya and one of the most beautiful places we visited. We then went back to Puntarenas and inland to Monte Verde and Santa Elena where we spent a week, including Thanksgiving Day.
We did lots and lots of hiking in the cloud forest jungle of the Cordillera de Tilarán (4,000 foot elevation), in the national park near Nuevo Arenal, and around active Volcán Arenal. We rented mountain bikes and travelled dirt roads and single track trails. We were there at the start of dry season and got in lots and lots of mountain biking. We saw tons of wildlife — monkeys, tree sloth, giant iguana, birds, huge insects, everything you’d expect to see. We camped out on the shore of Laguna de Arenal.
Nicaragua and Ometepe Around Tilarán we saw the heart of the Costa Rica’s coffee producing area. Then we met up with two Canadians driving a converted ambulance who gave us a ride to Nicaragua.
We made our way to Las Peñitas where we planned to spend a couple of days, but ended up staying for 10. It was an awesome, beautiful, white sand beach town at the end of a dirt road. There was great surfing and no one around except surfers and fishermen. Our motel was right on the beach and probably the least expensive place we stayed — $4 a night. I ate three meals a day at the restaurant for about $5 total including tips. We ate fresh fish you watched them catch and prepare.
On the way from Las Peñitas back to Rivas, Darcy and I had to repair a broken air brake line on our bus. With a bit of spare rubber, some zip ties, a Leatherman tool, a buck knife, and duct tape we were back on the road. Our Canadian friends had dropped us off at Rivas where the ferry goes to Isle Ometepe. That island, in the middle of Lago de Nicaragua, is the main reason I wanted to go to Nicaragua in the first place.
We rendezvoused at Ometepe with friends who came up from Costa Rica.
In a torrential downpour, we hiked the summit of Maderas, the dormant of Ometepe’s two volcanoes. That evening at sundown as we relaxed, the skies cleared and Concepción, the island’s active volcano, rewarded us with an awe inspiring eruption, which the locals said it does a couple of a times a year.
The next day we rented mountain bikes and took a three-day ride all around the island visiting every town. We hiked through water falls and saw lots of great tropical scenery.
After leaving Ometepe we stayed for 10 days at San Juan Del Sur. We found a fun group of people to hang out with there and did lots of surfing.
Cerro Chirripó We then returned to Costa Rica. We bungee jumped from the 225-foot-high bridge spanning the Río Colorado outside of Grecia. For several days we could not stop talking about that experience.
Our next bus ride traversed the highest point of the Pan American Highway at over 10,000 feet. We passed by huge exposed cliff faces with the bus careening along the road just unbelievably fast.
We made our way south to San Gerardo de Rivas because we wanted to climb Cerro Chirripó, the highest point in Central America
It’s a two-day hike to the summit. We wanted to summit Christmas morning, but the park officials denied us permits for the climb two days in a row.
It was a shady operation there — the locals were getting permits but we couldn’t. So we decided at that point to do the hike, permits or not. On Christmas Eve morning we tried one more time to get permits, and this time they gave them to us. Three in our party bought one-night permits. I got a three-night permit. They undercharged us, and that seemed fair.
We got to the base lodge around sunset the first night. Then we awoke Christmas morning to a windy, freezing cold, torrential downpour. A winter storm had blown in from the Caribbean and no kind of rain gear was going to keep that rain out. We started the climb trying to keep a fast pace for the 2,000-foot final ascent — a five-mile-long round trip hike.
We got close to what we thought was the summit, but you couldn’t tell for sure in the storm. Two girls from the lodge who wanted to try the summit along with us decided to turn back. I was walking fast and jogging to try and keep warm. In another 200 yards we were at the top. We took each other’s picture and then left immediately. Down at the base lodge we spent the rest of the day in sleeping bags getting our core temperatures back up to normal levels.
My three companions left next morning and I spent another night in the lodge. The next morning was beautiful so I summitted Chirripó a second time the day after Christmas. I also made an ascent of the second highest point in Central America located nearby.
By that time, some six weeks into the trip, I decided I was done with surfing, beaches, and big cities. I found a small motel in San Gerrado de Rivas that had a room with a kitchen. It was owned by a nice couple from the Carolinas who asked me to look after the place while they were gone a few days.
It had a stream running through the back yard, banana trees, and an orange grove across the street. I ate lots of fresh trout and tilapia.
The last day I was in San Gerardo de Rivas I woke up two hours before sunrise and started up Chirripó again. I made the summit and returned the same day — a round trip spanning over 20 linear miles and 16,000 vertical feet elevation. It was a great day, but I really couldn’t move much for a while after completing that trek.
There were dozens of pristine hiking trails with waterfalls in the jungles near San Gerardo to enjoy.
The people were great and gave me a going away party the night before I left their village.