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Grand Circle of Costa Rica
By Carol DeLockroy
My friend Carol.

Grand Circle Travel caters to older travelers. The eligibility age is 50, although younger family members may accompany elders on tours. GC conducts many escorted tours all over the world annually at very competitive rates. The trip described here was about $2100, including transportation, lodging, and most meals. If you want to receive about a dozen beautiful brochures a month, contact them at 347 Congress Street, Boston, MA 02210.

I am a retired educator, as is my friend Mel Zimmerman, who asked me to take this tour. We have both enjoyed traveling since retiring a few years ago. Mel had been on two previous GC trips. This was my first, but hopefully not my last. Two of my Denver bridge buddies, Jeanne Hayes and Ann Dowler, joined us.

We arrive in San Jose, Costa Rica late Wednesday evening after traveling all day. The airport is small, crowded and a little intimidating, since few people speak English and it is difficult to know where to go and what to do. Several young men try to take our luggage away from us, and we aren’t quite sure if we should let them have it. Adrian, the Grand Circle guide who meets us outside the airport, tells us it is okay, and sure enough, our bags arrive at our hotel safe and sound. The night is rainy, which we should have taken as an omen for the remainder of our stay, but the air is warm and pleasant.

We check into the Best Western Irazu for our four-night stay and soon adjourn to the lounge for our first Costa Rican cervezas and some chips and salsa. The World Series is on the television so we feel quite at home. We go to our rooms about 9, the same time zone as Denver, though it certainly feels later.

On Thursday, Mel and I are awake early. We take advantage of the included breakfast, helping ourselves to juice and coffee from the buffet and ordering the "typical" breakfast, of eggs, rice and beans with sour cream and tortillas. After breakfast, we meet Jamie, our guide, for the briefing.

Mel and I opt for a tour of Lankester Gardens and Jeanne and Ann, our more adventurous friends, sign up to go whitewater rafting. At ten we meet our driver, Oscar, and depart for our city tour of San Jose. Jaime proudly shows us the National Theatre and National Museum and tells us some facts about his country, which was discovered by Christopher Columbus, is 19,000 square miles (about the size of West Virginia), has a population of about 3.5 million and an average elevation of 3,000 feet.

That evening Grand Circle hosts a welcome party, with a tropical punch cocktail. Jaime asks us to introduce ourselves, and we discover that we are a very diverse group; ages from early 50’s to late 70’s; several married couples; some who, like me, have left spouses at home; and a few singles. By the time Jeanne and I arrive in the bar, Mel and Ann are seated with Gary and John, the two single guys from California in our group. We join them and have a delightful time, going on to dinner at a nearby seafood restaurant. After dinner, several of us stop in the hotel’s casino to play blackjack.

Friday is another early day as we depart at 8:30 a.m. for a visit to Poas Volcano. It's still raining. We drive up the Pan American Highway, past the Juan Santa Maria Airport, and learn that the major industries are tourism and after that comes banana and coffee growing.

We pass through the second largest city, Alejuela, and see a monument to Juan Santa Maria, who fought William Walker, and nine hundred other Americans who tried to overtake Costa Rica in 1856. Jaime points out trees, coffee groves, and flowers, which include impatiens growing wild along the roadways. It's a riot of color and the air is fragrant with their perfume.

When we arrive at the national park it's cloudy and pouring rain.  We take a short walk along a rocky, barren trail above the volcano.  As we reach the viewpoint, the sun breaks through the clouds and we are rewarded with a spectacular panorama of the crater's moonscape.

Steamy Poas Volcano
Poas Volcano.

After lunch of more rice and beans, we stop at Sarchi, which is famous for the production of the ox carts common in Costa Rica. We watch the painting of the wheels and yokes in bright, beautiful patterns. From there we travel to Grecia for a brief visit to a Catholic church built all of sheet metal. The legend says the metal was to have been delivered to Grecia, Chili, a shipbuilding port, but was directed to this town in Costa Rica in error. Rather than return it, the townspeople decided to use the metal to build their church.

We're up early on Saturday for our trip to Lankester Gardens. Jaime gives us more interesting information about the economy and geography of his country. It surprises me to learn that Panama, Costa Rica’s closest neighbor to the south is considered part of South America, since it once belonged to Columbia. The cemetery also intrigues me; a family buys a plot and members are buried one on top of the other above ground. Some of the "tombs" are several "stories" high.

We pass through Cartago, the old capitol city, and see the ruins of a 16th century church, never completed, and finally abandoned after the 1910 earthquake.

Lankester Gardens is lovely, and, although the blooming season has ended, we still see orchids and other flowers as well as many plants, trees, and birds. We are disappointed not to seee the macaws for which Costa Rica is so famous.  The birds we do see are all rather common ones. As we go down into the valley, Oscar stops alongside a coffee field and we pick and taste some ripe beans.

Coffee beans!
Coffee beans for tasting!

In the village, a wedding is taking place in the small adobe church and we are able to see the bride walking down the aisle. The drive back to the Irazu Hotel is very quiet—everyone must be tired—and when we return the rafters are back and recovered from their cold wet experience. Gary and John have found a restaurant in their guidebook and we all take cabs to the Grano de Oro, a small hotel and elegant dining room. The dinner is magnificent and Gary celebrates his birthday in style. Upon return to the hotel, some of us try our luck in the casino again.

Sunday morning we awake before our 6:30 alarm and have our bags outside our rooms before going to breakfast. Mel and I have time for a quick run to the market to buy coffee for a friend ack home before we board the bus for our move to El Tucano Resort.  The route takes us on a visit to the University for Peace.  Alone the way, group members call for an Alto! for pictures of the volcano in the distance.

Monday is another early morning, as we are all off on a boat trip through the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge. Along the way we photograph egrets and iguanas in the trees. On the boat we take lots of pictures—mostly of trees and bushes—hoping to capture birds and other wildlife we see glimpses of: monkeys, a sloth, a caiman, and bats.

Tuesday we have a free morning after a late breakfast. Ann and I walk the "health trail" on the hotel grounds. We leave the resort about noon and drive to the Ugaldi family ranch for lunch and then on to Tobacon Hot Springs, at the foot of Arenal Volcano for an afternoon in the pools, and viewing of the eruptions during dinner.

Wednesday is a travel day so our bags are out by 7 a.m., when we go to breakfast. We leave at eight in the pouring ran. Jaime stops at a florist and buys a bunch of roses, which we passes out to all the ladies. We stop in Zarcero to buy snacks, and I walk to the park to photograph the topiary, made very eerie in the rain.

Strange-shaped trees
A topiary park in Liberia.

We get to Tamarindo at about three and check into the Diria, a typical beach hotel. We have a view, through the palms and shrubs, of the Pacific. We enjoy happy hour, a dinner in the hotel dining room, and visiting with a security person who speaks no English, but is a great pantomime artist.

Friday morning we check out and board our coach for our departure to Villa Lapas. Jaime tells us some interesting information about politics, taxes and economics, including the statistic that teachers average about $650 a month.

We arrive at the restaurant where we are scheduled to take a river float at about 10:30. There is considerable discussion and indecision about the safety of rafts because the river is very high and fast due to Hurricane Mitch. Finally, the raft owner and Jaime agree that it would not be safe to take the trip, so we drive a short distance to visit a private zoo. An elderly Swiss couple who came to Costa Rica 38 years earlier runs the animal refuge. They provide shelter for many confiscated animals, particularly large cats, and birds. Lily takes the group on tour and we are touched by her devotion to her "babies." Ann and I are tearful before we leave, and we promote large donations from our group members.

Caged cat
Here's one of the large cats, confined to quarters, at the animal refuge.

Saturday morning the group departs for the Carrara Biological Reserve, where we walk through the rainforest for about an hour, seeing a few birds and many insects. It is incredibly hot and humid, so we are sticky. A drive to a nearby bridge allows us a view of some sleepy crocodiles along the bank.

We return to Villa Lapas and head straight for the pool to relieve our stickiness. After our swim, we go to the restaurant for lunch, but find it doesn’t open for about an hour. Our usual bridge foursome sits out on the deck over the river and plays while Gary reads nearby and Mel kibitzes. Soon we all move to the dining room and order lunch.

Since our crocodile viewing river trip has been cancelled, many members of the group prepare to go to another resort for an afternoon of swimming. Ann and I stay behind and take an excursion to the butterfly garden on the resort grounds, which is fascinating. Ann is wearing a bright purple t-shirt, which attracts the butterflies.   They flitter around her and light on her clothing to our delighted amusement.

Sunday is the final travel day, so our bags are out early. We travel in our coach back to the Irazu—a detour so we can hear the ex-president speak. We arrive early so Jeanne and I decide to try to lose our colones at the blackjack table. I buy in with 5,000 and leave with 12,500! (A dollar buys about 265 colones.) President Carazo is charismatic and a good speaker.

Our final stop is a Hampton Inn near the airport. It is delightfully American, with plenty of towels, hairdryer, etc. The Bronco game is on and our foursome plays bridge and watches in the lobby lounge area. After the game we go to our rooms to prepare for the farewell party. We put our leftover colones in envelopes for Jaime and Oscar. The bus takes us to Los Adobes Restaurant where we have a very nice party, welcome cocktails and a good dinner. The best part is a cute young "one-man band," who provides great dancing music. There are many goodbye hugs, and we all hate to leave. We sing on the way back to the Hampton, where a few of us gather for a last drink together.

Our memories will include the best parts: people, especially our very compatible tour group; beautiful scenery; and unusual animals and birds. We will try to forget the worst parts: weather, bugs, and some of the food. All in all, it was a Grand Circle of Costa Rica.

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