I don’t even know exactly how this trip came to be – an idea, a suggestion, a half joking
offer, some emails, texts…Somehow everything worked out to combine a
race in Phoenix with Aly and a trip to Costa Rica with my brother, Joel. Never mind the fact that Aly and Joel had never met or the logistical details of planning and packing for both, everyone was on board, so we committed and figured we would iron out the details later. Luckily Joel is a trip planning guru complete with excel spreadsheets, downloaded maps, apps for splitting costs,
and research on everything from the best things to do, to the local plants and wildlife. Aly and I are game for anything so we gave him freedom to map it all out.
My running has been focused primarily on trail for months and I have been doing big weeks
with long long runs and lots of vert in the cold, wet, windy PNW since Christmas. Just a week
out from Phoenix I did 21 miles in cold pouring rain on swampy trails, so I had no idea what to
expect for a road 1/2 in the desert. Because of that I went into the race relaxed with no plans
and no pressure. Friday an early morning flight from Seattle got me to Phoenix by 10 am. Aly
and I did a shake out to the expo and soaked in the sun and enjoyed the first time sweating in
months. We picked up our packets, figured out the logistics for race morning, and picked up
food to eat in our room so we could head to bed early.
3 am alarms sound – breakfast, coffee, race gear. We took a bus to the start and we both changed in and out of long sleeve shirts multiple times pre-race. We stood under the heaters at the start until it was time to warm up and waited for the fireworks to start the race. Based on my training I had no idea if I would run 1:35 or a 1:25 so I decided to cover my watch and just go by feel. Sometimes too much feedback is a bad thing. A 6 am start meant it was totally dark; there were early miles where I had to just follow the shapes of runners in front of me but I found a couple women to work with and just went for it. I felt like I was going too fast and kept waiting to hit the wall or fall apart but mile after mile went by and it never happened. At mile 8 I tried to take my gel but I dropped it and didn’t want to go back, I’m not even sure if I ever took water…
Coming in to the finish I could see the big clock and was completely
shocked. Going in I had little hope of breaking my previous PR of 1:26, so
1:24:17 was better than I had ever dreamed of. I grabbed my gear and found Aly
and she PR’d too. A great way to start the trip, both excited, happy, and tired. I
somehow missed getting my finishers medal so I wandered my way back to get it
before jogging back to the hotel to shower and make our 12:00 pm flight. (This
ended up being a mistake because a pointy medal object in my bag flagged
every security scan the rest of the trip and we would have to pull out the medal
Long flights, crampy legs, some “need food now” episodes, and we eventually make it to San Jose. My overly tired brain couldn’t understand colones to dollars conversions and I got scammed into paying 60$ for a 10$ cab ride. Finally at Hostel Trutumundos we met up with Joel, talked briefly and climbed the 2×4 stairs to our mattress on the floor ready for bed and not really caring what kind of bed it was. Up early to beat traffic out of the city, hostel breakfast, rental car check out and we were off. We got stuck behind what must have been 300 motorcycles so the driving was slow but the scenery and conversation were good. First stop: La Fortuna waterfall. Within minutes of arriving both Joel and Aly were in the water trying to swim under the falls and I knew they would get along just fine. We hiked the surrounding trails, Aly’s post race quads literally shaking while descending the 600 stairs, crossed the river with its brisk current, saw some monkeys and jumped back in the car. We found a roadside “soda” (Costa Rica cafe) for lunch and Joel introduced us to Casado – the local standard meal: rice, beans, plantains, veggies, salad, your choice of protein. Each one is unique but the basic components are the same. We ended up having Casado for almost every breakfast, lunch, and dinner until we got back to San Jose. While at lunch there was a complete downpour of rain, the only real rain of the whole trip, but it ended just as we finished lunch and it felt like a good sign of more luck to come.
Next we found the Arenal 1968 bosque trail and power hiked around the loop for views of the volcano. The 3.5 mile loop was a strava segment and I was tempted to run it for a better time but we decided to head to the hotel instead. Volcano Hot Springs was our nicest hotel of the trip and we wanted to take advantage of the different hot springs and pools hoping they would help accelerate our recovery for all the adventure ahead.
Monday morning I ran some loops of the hotel’s 1k running trail before breakfast. It felt like a cross country course with a mix of grass, trail, and switchbacks. We hit the road by 7:30 am and made good time to the Rio Celeste waterfall. We declined the suggested rubber rain boots and made our way down the clay mud trail. The water was a gorgeous turquoise blue because of the mixing of sulfur and aluminum but you aren’t allowed to swim in it and that’s just not our style so we
completed the “3.5 hour hike” in more like 90 mins. A slightly sketch roadside
soda, Cafe Naranja, was the only option for lunch but ended up being some of
the best Casado of the trip. More driving, more bumpy dirt roads that left us
questioning, “is this really where we’re supposed to go?” but eventually we arrived at
the Llanas de Cortez waterfall. Again seconds after getting there Joel and
Aly were getting in trouble for swimming under the falls. A local gave us a tip
that there was another waterfall through the woods so we ventured off to find it. 2
overweight white guys told us that it was totally safe to jump off but Joel and Aly both
hit rocks in the not-so-deep-enough-water below.
Back in the car again, we made it to the beach town of Tamarindo just in time for
some body surfing before sunset. We surfed til it was dark, listening to live music from the nearby
restaurants, then changed quick and headed back to Volcano Brewing for
dinner and the bands last set. The Blue trailz surf hostel dorm rooms were $15 a
night and we got what we paid for, but the young surf bums were friendly and
we shared stories before heading to bed. Tuesday we had this great plan to go snorkeling
so again we were up early to catch the boat.
We waited around at a lux resort pool waiting for the boat for about an hour. Just before we were set to leave other divers in our group warned us that the water was cold, 60 ft deep and the visibility was about 5 ft. Chances were we would be swimming in cold water with nothing to look at but our own feet. Literally on the dock about to step into the boat we made the call to cancel. Plan B? Drive towards our next accommodations and try to find surfing. Tamarindo had great waves, big crowds, and a very touristy vibe but across the river in Playa Grande we found a perfect beach with minimal people and the best bogey boarding I’ve ever experienced. Joel and Aly surfed while I attempted a short run on the beach before giving up and bogey boarding instead. After a few hours we wandered the dusty dirt roads to find the only open restaurant for more Casado before heading back to surf until we were too tired and cold to surf anymore. Wet and sandy we drove to Playa Hermosa for dinner, more live music, ice cream, and bed at Hotel M & M Beach House.
Wednesday morning Aly and I ran together along the beach and long jumped a river to run what we could find for local streets. Breakfast Casado, great coffee, and we were on our way to Rio Tenario for white water rafting. Our guide Samuel and his 6 brothers represented Costa Rica at International rafting competitions and it was clear he could have navigated the river without any help from us. But we didn’t come for an easy ride so Joel showed he was experienced and Aly teased and joked, and it didn’t take Sam long to figure out we were more fun than his usual boat of tourists. So he let Joel guide the boat, pulled pranks, intentionally
tipped us and got us stuck, and dumped us all out of the boat twice on the big 12 ft drop at the
end. He was super talented and hilarious and I don’t think the experience would have been the
same with someone else. Throughout the trip the interactions with the guides, locals, and each
other made it what it was – a good reminder that relationships are what it’s really all about.
The drive to Monte Verde was probably more dangerous than the rafting. After starting the day at the ocean we ended at nearly 5000 ft and the drive up held steep, windy, dirt roads. This is why they recommend a rental car with high clearance. The bumps were so intense Aly’s garmin watch counted a few 1000 extra steps and we were convinced we must be lost. Finally we arrived at the top
of the hill at Cabinas al Gulfo with views of the valley below and howling wind that made the hotel shake. We met up with Aly’s friends from work, Ryan and Jonathon, who had moved to San Jose a few months ago, everyone grabbed puffy jackets and we had more Casado for dinner before our night wildlife hike. Our guide Herbert admitted he loved nature more than his wife and it showed. He was passionate about his craft and gave us animated and detailed description of every sloth, possum, bird, tarantula, poisonous viper, bug and tree we came across. His favorite had to be the Rufus eyed stream frog but he had stories for each most somehow involving mating or canabalism, turns out in most species females are smart and mean. All his tips and facts kept us entertained on our next days hikes as well.
Thursday I had planned to wake up and run but at
elevation with only windy, narrow, dirt roads available it
didn’t seem worth the effort. We decided to get the full
Monte Verde experience and do the zip line, Tarzan
swing, Superman, canopy bridges, and hummingbird
garden tour. Flying across the tree tops on cables up to
1 km long was a great way to see the cloud forest; the
Tarzan swing wouldn’t have passed safety inspection in the
US, but was lots of fun, and the Superman was the
closest to flying I have ever felt. We couldn’t convince
Ryan to brave the canopy bridges (he’s afraid of heights) and it’s probably good he turned around because we took great pleasure in making the bridges sway and shake as much as possible. Aly obsessed over the hummingbirds and chasing a big blue butterfly’s for the perfect picture. Joel even got a hummingbird to land on his finger.
Next we headed to Santa Elena reserve. Again the hike was supposed to take hours but we didn’t have much time before it closed so we jogged/power hiked our way around the loop and up the tower for views of Arenal volcano. Another strava segment, again wished I had ran the whole thing, but reminded myself the point was to see nature, not to win. We hurried back to the hotel to grab more layers and hiked the road up to the highest point to take in the Sunset before walking into town for dinner. First appetizers and live music at the Treehouse restaurant which has a giant tree growing in the center of it. Then Amigos for local bar favorites chiofrio and chiliguaro. Couldn’t convince anyone to salsa dance with me so we headed back for bed.
Friday we had planned to stay in Monte Verde again but we felt like we saw it all Thursday and after a cold winter in the PNW we preferred the sun and the beach to the wind and cold of the cloud forest. For the first time we were without Joel’s meticulous planning and it showed. The nearest beach was Puntarenas but when we got there we found an eerie ghost town with no waves, no swimming, and lots of boarded up buildings. Decided quickly not to stay and tried to find Boca de Branca instead. Again, beach and nice views but no waves, no people, and signs for rip currents. The next nearest beach was Jaco which would add a ton of driving, after striking out twice we weren’t sure it was worth it but committed anyway to try to make the most of our
It was worth it. Jaco was a true surf town, similar to
Tamarindo but more upscale. We quickly found the beach,
boards, and a 6pack of fish tacos to go in a free lunch
bag. The beach was a little rocky and the waves were
much stronger than playa Grande so it was work to get
out into them. Aly and i bogey boarded and 1/2 way
through the afternoon met Guiermo who didn’t speak
much English but really wanted to teach us how to catch
the good waves. With a combo of Sign language,
motions, his weak English and our weak Spanish we were
able to pick up some good tips and catch some great
waves. He brought us water, tried to tell us about his work and his house and never asked for anything except to be Facebook friends.
Again the local generosity and interaction made a fun day even better. We paid for showers to try to rinse the sand before heading into San Jose. Along the way we stopped at Pops the local ice cream shop for coconut ice cream, and stood along the highway in our wet suits eating ice cream and watching scarlet macaws and the crocodiles under the bridge. The sun set in gorgeous pink clouds as we made our way in to San Jose.
Ryan and Jonathan offered to let us stay at their condo Friday night and to be our tour guides in San Jose. We
couldn’t have asked for better hosts. Their condo was a high
end high rise with views of the city and by far the nicest
accommodation of the trip. They lived near a big park and I
had hoped to run when we got to town but they didn’t think it
would be safe after dark. For dinner they took us to Barrio Escalante – the hip neighborhood where wealthier young locals dine on a food scene that would rival any big city, we tried their favorites at the Mercado and Neon ice and made plans for our last day.
We had thought our last day would be a waste, stuck in the city waiting for our flight, but instead Ryan and Jonathon planned the perfect morning. We uber’d to the fancy local farmers market where we bought coconut water and mini bananas to eat while we wandered and sampled lots of chocolates, granolas, pastries, fruit, and natural energy bites. For breakfast we had tres leches French toast with berries and sourdough toast with beans, eggs, and salsa and Costa Rican coffee from one of the stands. Then we walked the 5 miles back to their condo wandering past landmarks, the graffiti street, central market, and the park, Ryan gave history lessons and pointed out all the items of interest along the way. We dropped off our market purchases and headed back to the Sabana which is basically San Jose’s version of Central Park. A giant sprawl of park in the middle of the city with various ponds, trails, and ball fields. It’s a happening place! Bike races, race walkers, a giant Zumba class, and lots of joggers and rollerbladers. It felt good to finally get a good run in and soak up a little more sunshine before heading home.
Overall the trip was amazing. Great weather, jam packed adventure, awesome locals, perfect hosts, and the best travel partners. Sad it’s over and definitely wondering where we are off to next 🙂