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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Playa Samara, Costa Rica

Costa Rica

Costa Rica is now my first repeat-visit destination, although this trip was quite different than our first. We flew into Liberia and drove to Samara to stay at Laz Divas Bed & Breakfast, where we basically just hung around, played in the surf and went on some nature hikes. I think it was our first relaxing vacation, and I really enjoyed it. I'd like to do it again. I highly recommend lazdivaz.com.

Rental car from Alamo at Liberia Airport. Compact automatic Toyota. It requires super gasoline. Seven days plus collision plus 3rd party plus accident equals $452.30 USD. They are 1.5 km from the airport and run a shuttle.

We didn't buy the zero deductible. That was the right choice. We also didn't buy the gas-tank-fill-up. That was the wrong choice. The last town before Liberia had its station closed so we had to return a non-full tank and pay for the expensive refill. When we picked up the car they took a blank visa impression and signature giving them the ability to charge an unspecified amount. Upon return I paid $509 USD. I'm not sure why that was more then I expected, but we were in a hurry so I didn't argue.

Regarding driving: don't pay police. Ask for a written ticket. You can ask them for their name and badge number. Don't give them your passport. Here's the complete warning that Laz Divaz gave us.

The airport is a model of chaos--keep an eye on your luggage, keep passports and money on your person, and try to collect your rental car right away. If you find that you have a flat tire shortly after picking up the car, do not accept assistance from an apparently friendly passer-by. Rental cars are easily spotted by hoodlums, who cause damage to the tires and then rob you when they stop to offer you assistance. Just limp to the next service station if you find yourself with a flat. Do not, ever, leave anything in your unattended car, not even if it is locked and you think you have an eye on it. And beware of the latest scam: Someone stops you to chat, and while you are distracted, their partner steals whatever is accessible from your car. We don't want to scare you--it is just to advise you of possible hazards that have actually happened to tourists. And although this warning was written specifically for the airport in San José, it doesn't hurt to be aware and alert in the more provincial airport in Liberia.

Should you be stopped by the Transit Police (keep an eye on the speed limits, and obey them!), they will offer you the option to give them cash on the spot rather than issue a ticket, plus court fees. Do not give them cash, but tell them to write the ticket and ask for their names and badge numbers. The transit police are not allowed to ask you for your passport, but only your driver's license. Just be polite and cooperative, but firm. We just had a guest who was stopped by the cops, who asked for her license and passport. She quite calmly and assertively handed over only her CA driver's license, smiled pleasantly, and was allowed to carry on.

And the directions.

From the airport take a right on the highway, number 21. (or from the rental car office, head south on 21) Follow signs for Nicoya/Santa Cruz. Go through Santa Cruz, and then follow the signs for Nicoya. There is a minor fork just past Santa Cruz: stay to the right. Carry on another 25 kilometers (plus or minus). Bear right at the sign for Nicoya, just before the flashing yellow light (there is, sad to say, a sign for Burger King directing you to that turn). Drive through Nicoya, down the main drag. Take the only road south to Sámara, highway 150 (36 kilometers). Be careful on this road—, as there are many one-lane bridges, and you should slow at every one, and yield according to the signs (ceda el paso). There is a stop sign 10 kilometers past Nicoya; turn right through the village of Caimital (don't blink). The road to Sámara winds away another 20 kilometers, past the gas station (the "bomba"), and then past the turnoff for Nosara. Stay to the left, another 5 kilometers, and just after a bridge with yellow railings (the first to allow 2 cars through) followed by a big hill, you'll be at the entrance to Sámara. At the first junction, you will see signs to Puerto Carrillo and Hotel Las Brisas, directing you to the left. Follow this road for about 600 meters and you will see a sign on the right for Koss Art Gallery, Casitas Laz Dívaz, and Cabinas Bahia. This is the 4th right. Take a sharp right, down a very raggedy gravel road, about 100 meters, where you hit the beach. Turn left, and you will find us, third house on the left, with a blue gate and a rancho out front.

Our Trip

The directions were easy to follow right up to the last bit. I wasn't sure we had the correct ""very raggedy gravel road" or that the car would traverse it. The "sharp right" is also down a ridiculously steep grade, and the beach road really is just sand. But we made it without bottoming out and the place was obvious once we reached it.

We paid $600 USD cash on arrival. With the car and the cash out of the way, we had nothing on the agenda but to relax. I really loved it there. I hope to go back.

We spent a lot of time in hammocks out front of Laz Dívaz just past the beach road. It's public property there so it's possible someone from a nearby hotel without beachfront might squish in, but we had the spot pretty much to ourselves. Our hosts would hang the hammocks for use each morning before breakfast and remove them again at dusk. The trees provided just the right amount of shade and we spent a lot of time in the hammocks reading Eragon (Inheritance) to each other aloud.

Laz Dívaz is exactly our speed. It's run by two friendly middle-aged lesbians, Sara and Berit. There are three little cabins on a big lot, so it's never crowded. They've kept the native trees instead of clear-cutting for lawn and palms, so you'll see lots of native wildlife just on their lot. Our cabin was named Marlene Dietrich.

This has its down side as the howler monkeys may keep you awake at night and the relatively dense fauna keeps out some of the sea breeze so their are many mosquitoes at night. You have to sleep under a bug net as the cabins are open to the outdoors. There's also no air-conditioning (although I count that as a good thing) which is to say the cabins are built to be open and thus regulate their own temperature. The cabins were designed by Berit who worked as an architect in Germany. The bug net works fine so long as you don't sleep with your elbow against it.

At Laz Dívaz you sleep in as late as you want. You amble over to the open part of their home and ring the bell anytime between 7am-10am (I think) and order breakfast from a list of four or five dishes. Sometime later when your breakfast is ready, Sara rings the bell again and serves your breakfast in the little rancho out front. All her breakfasts were delicious.

We liked Laz Dívaz so much that we spent most of the week on or nearby their lot. They have three rescued dogs and Berit is active in the community promoting canine responsibility and organizing neuter/spay clinics. But I did adventure about the local area on my own a few times and we enjoyed hiking up and down the beach together.

We also signed up for surf lessons at C&C Surf, just down the beach. That was lots of fun but also lots of work. I think in the end we preferred just playing in the surf out front Laz Dívaz with the boogie boards they provided.

We ate breakfast each day Laz Dívaz and ate either lunch or dinner at a restaurant in town. For the other meal we just snacked on groceries we picked up at the Soda Sol y Mar from the other side of town. Some of the Laz Dívaz cabins have kitchens, but ours didn't. It did have a little table and chairs and Sara loaned us a cooler so that the wildlife wouldn't bother our groceries.

I was very happy with our little picnic meals and the restaurants in town. Our favourite was the Kaibella Thai Restaurant with is a little spot tucked inside a town building that's a bit like a mall. The restaurant is only open for a short time each day and consists of one cook and on server. If I remember correctly, the cook is from Toronto and lives for part of the year in Samara. She may not arrive at the scheduled opening time and prepares each meal in sequence so you could be in for a long wait, but the result is absolutely spectacular.

On the other end of the spectrum I really liked the Soda Sheriff Rustic which is a non-tourist place right on the beach. The food with quick, simple, tasty and very affordable.

I liked all the restaurants we visited. We chose them from a map Sara and Berit, and they were able to tell us what each was like, so there were no unfortunate surprises. I think the shrimp photo is from dinner at the Bar/restaurants Vela Latina/El Ancla just next to Laz Dívaz on the first night. Sandwiches for lunch picked up from the El Mana Bakery were also quite good.

If I recall correctly everyone wanted cash. I remember we went to the bank in town one day, but I feel like that was more for the purpose of paying an airport tax. All the restaurants were quite affordable.

Later in the week, Sara arranged a nature hike for us in the nearby hills. Our guide was the grandson of the owner and had been at university in the USA so have very good English. He was working on converting the land into and tourism destination. He picked us up early in the morning from Laz Dívaz and drove us up some steep terrain into the nearby hills.

Sara joined us on the hike as she's an avid birder. I was mostly interested in the monkeys and flowers, of which there were plenty. We hiked up the hillside to a big tree where we had lunch provided by our guide. I had a great time and ate a wild flower that our guide said was safe and that tasted somewhat like lemons.

There were plenty of monkeys, both at Laz Dívaz and on the hike, but most were high up in trees, so I didn't get any good photos until near the end of the hike in what seemed to be a mango orchard.

Twice, near the end of our vacation we built some sand castles and and watched the tide wash them away. The first one washed out quickly so we built the second on thick and strong, but it didn't last much longer.

Overall we had a great trip with a good mix of adventure, relaxation and comfort. On the last day we walked to the northwest end of the beach because I wanted to snorkel in the reef, but just as I was getting past ankle deep, and before I'd put on my flippers, I got a very painful cut in my foot. I had thought I'd stepped on some glass and was worried about infection but Sara said it was just a sting-ray and made a foot-bath that took most of the pain away. I was fine to walk again by dinner time.

On the drive back we stopped at Guaitil, which is a pretty little town mentioned in our guide book for hand made pottery. It has many shops that all sell a certain kind of pottery style. We bought two big plates from the shop of Jesus and Susan.