Costa Rica: Welcome to the Villa

Uvita, Costa Rica: December, 2021

I wasn’t planning on my first time driving in Costa Rica to be after dark but it was. We landed in San Jose at 1pm, looking forward to an early dinner at our Villa, which was about a three to four hour drive south, but a long line at customs set that time frame back considerably. This was followed by a situation at the car rental place that relieved Lauren and I of our last four hours of daylight. 

I presented myself at the rental desk at the airport, and in my worst Spanish said hello and gave my name and the info on our reservation.

‘Sorry, sir. We do not have a reservation for you’ he responded in perfect English.

I showed him the confirmation number on my phone.

‘That is odd’ he said. ‘This is an eight digit number, our confirmation numbers are five digits.’

He scrolled up and saw that the pickup was in fact San Jose Airport and then called someone on the phone who agreed that this was strange.

‘I’m very sorry, you’ll have to go to the main rental facility. There is a van through there.’ He pointed to a door behind the desk that led to a parking garage. This seemed somewhat shady but we had no choice and sat down in the back row behind two women also from Ohio who also had no car. The driver took a roundabout way from the airport because some dignitary was flying in and traffic was snarled. Out of the bus windows, we could see crowds of onlookers watching for the plane carrying whomever to land. Lauren and I sat in the back, me on my phone trying to figure out why the car reservation didn’t work. I had gotten it from the Costa Rican tourism website, the .cr version, so the confirmation number should have been legitimate. I clicked on the pickup location to open up Maps and see how far away this place was compared to where we were. 

As the map slowly loaded, I watched as we drove on uneven back roads past small, brightly colored cement homes with red-tile roofs, interspersed with bars and stalls selling fruit.

‘Where are you headed?’ asked one of the other carless Ohioans.

‘Uvita, in Puntarenas’ I said, and then added ‘hopefully.’

Lauren and I had rented one of a half-dozen private villas at a mountaintop resort overlooking the Pacific Ocean, with its own pool and chef and trails through the rainforest. Not our usual mode of travel but the occasion was special.

‘Good luck to you!’ said the woman, and began telling us of their forthcoming adventure. 

I looked back at my phone and almost dropped it. The location for our car pickup was several thousand miles away, in San Jose, California.

Dammit, among other words, I thought but didn’t say. Lauren was not to know about this. Besides, why in the hell would the Costa Rican tourism website default to California when choosing ‘San Jose’ for a pickup. Of course this was mostly my fault, but near dusk in a foreign country with no car or place to stay was not the time to be pedantic.  When we arrived at the main rental facility after several dozen turns through a meandering city called Alajuela, I played the fool.

‘It says San Jose, Costa Rica right there’ I pointed out to the clerk, an eminently friendly man whom I could tell was earnestly trying to help us. The receipt indeed said this, so to speak – it said the pickup was ‘San Jose’ and the header said ‘Costa Rica.’ it only mentioned California if you clicked on the link to the map. ‘But they told me my confirmation number is no good.’

He couldn’t understand why, and I wasn’t going to offer any clues. Lauren was sitting semi-patiently in a chair with our luggage, looking out the window at the stillness of the palm trees and the waning of the sun. It took nearly an hour, but eventually the clerk came out of a back room and said ‘Sir, your car is ready!’

I sighed in relief and signed what I needed to.

‘I don’t know what happened’ he continued. ‘The computers are always are doing something troublesome.’

A rainbow shot landward from the sky over a mountain beyond the parking lot, a good omen for the rest of the trip, and there appeared to be enough daylight to at least figure our way onto the highway. I was given a free upgrade to a full size SUV ‘for my trouble’ and we hurried off for Uvita before minds could change.

The Toyota Fortuner, a 4×4 model I had no idea existed, zigzagged through the chaotic streets of Alajuela as the last rays of tropical sunlight retreated behind the Cordillera Central. Fortunately, we did make it onto the highway before the night fell, as it does between five and six year-round at this latitude, and I didn’t have to worry about accidentally running over pedestrians or the innumerate cyclists who crossed the streets in town with abandon. The road dropped down as we slithered our way south from the elevated population center around the capitol toward the Pacific Coast. By the time we met Route 34 and driven through the beach town of Jaco, with its Imperial-soaked backpackers stumbling along the nonexistent shoulder in the general direction of their hostel, I had become comfortable with both the vehicle and the road. It was slow going, often getting stuck on winding roads behind trucks who inconceivably drove much slower on the downhills, but at least we were going to make it that evening.

The advice I received on the subject before making the trip ranged from recommending against driving in the country at all to suggesting that during the day it would be fine and that only nighttime driving would end our lives by one misfortune or another. This all struck me as pervasive overcautiousness – Costa Rica is a safe country, and its main roads are relatively well maintained – but that didn’t mean it was an ideal start to the trip. I decided not to mention the San Jose/San Jose incident to Lauren until we had a good night’s sleep or several.

Along the Pacific Coast route, little towns periodically manifested, still crowded from the day, with strings of lights dangled over roadside tiendas and small open-air markets. Between these areas, cyclists pedaled along the dizzyingly dark road without reflectors or concern for the shoulder. This was easily the most difficult part of the otherwise straightforward drive along the Puntarenas coast

I was sure the scenery was breathtaking, from the lush mountains to our left or the tropical Pacific lapping onto volcano-darkened beaches to the right, but all I could see was the section of the road illuminated by high beams. I can, however, report on the most common signs along the journey: The manically shifting Velocidad Maxima, the yellow Imperial beer logo with its open-winged aguilita representing the Budweiser of paradise, or the not-quickly-enough dwindling of kilometers to the next town. A nighttime soccer match took place beneath flood lights in one village, the brightest thing for hundreds of kilometers. As I drove, Lauren called the villas to let them know we would barely make the 9pm check in, and that would be only if nothing else went awry. We hadn’t eaten since a 5am breakfast save for plane pretzels, and Marlon generously told Lauren that he would keep the kitchen open for us.

The only indication of the time of year in this land of no seasons were the strands of Christmas lights that reached across the road in the town centers. Manger scenes and holly wreaths glowed over empty streets and Feliz Navidad banners sagged in the silent night. The small village of Parrita was the most festive, and I was watching the decorations go by overhead like brightly colored arches when a man stepped from a group and out into the road in front of us.

I slowed down as he put up his hand and I realized he was a policeman and that this was an official roadblock. Costa Rica is not known for police shakedowns unlike many of its neighbors, but since it was pitch black out and I was the only car for miles, I was a bit nervous as he approached my open window. He said something in Spanish, of which I understood little, and and this was soon obvious to all parties involved.

‘No Español?’ he said.

I held my thumb and index finger out and replied with ‘un poco’ which was probably grammatically incorrect but got the point across. He then said the same thing slower and Lauren picked up that he wanted to know if anything was in the glove compartment.

‘No armas, no drogas?’

‘No’ we both said and Lauren opened it up when he indicated with his flashlight he wanted to see for himself.

‘Otro compartimento’ he said and pointed to the one in between our seats. This was also empty, and, satisfied, we were waved along into the night.

‘They didn’t realize you were tourists until they pulled you over’ laughed a local we talked to a few days later when we mentioned this tale. ‘In that car, that color, he definitely thought you were a drug runner. Until he saw your faces that is! Tourists don’t usually drive at night.’

After this excitement and a little more than three hours on the road, we reached Uvita and made a turn up a gravel and dirt road to begin climbing up to the villas. When booking, they couldn’t have been more insistent that we rent a 4×4 vehicle, even going so far as to say that many guests still choose to park in Uvita, regardless of car, and get a ride up the mountain. To start, the road was the grade and quality of an campground driveway, but soon after crossing a river on a log bridge it launched skyward as if we were driving up a jungle-covered ski slope. The Fortuner handled it with only a slide or two, and, thankful for the headlights, only one stop to figure out where it was we were going. Soon we were several switchbacks and a couple thousand feet above the town at the entrance to the main building of the villa.

Marlon, a slender Costa Rican of thirty some, was waiting for us out front, inviting us to have dinner before we checked in. 

He led us to the covered outdoor dining room, a beautifully lit space with a wrap-around bar, several tables facing outward, and a few hammock chairs, hemmed in on three sides by the rainforest and the other by a cliff down to the ocean. An infinity pool shimmered over the edge, its floor dotted with lights that matched the brilliance of Orian’s Belt above. I don’t even remember what we ordered, we were so ravenous, but Marlon made us each a pineapple mimosa while it was being prepared. As it was just the three of us out there, we chatted about the requisites, where we were from, how long he’s been in Costa Rica, how our drive from the airport went. I lied to him while answering the latter.

Knowing Marlon was staying past closing time for us, and having not had anything for twelve hours, we ate quickly, splitting a couple of excellent entrees and then made our way over to our villa to complete check in. Marlon didn’t hurry us at all, and though it was nearly an hour past closing time he still took the time to give the full tour. As we walked around the property in the dark, he pointed out the office and the hiking trails, and over the edge of the cliff where, come daylight, we could see the Whale’s Tail, a long tidal beach shaped like what it’s called. In the central courtyard the stone paths that lead from each villa to the main area meet beneath a garden of palms and other tropical flora. Marlon pointed to a palm that looked like a giant green umbrella and said ‘Don’t walk under that one if you’re afraid of flapping things.’ He waved his arms up and down.

‘Bird or bat?’ I asked.

‘Bat’ he said and rattled the tree’s massive leaves with an outstretched hand.

The bat swooped out and dove around our faces, screeching at the unwelcome intrusion, coming within inches of Lauren’s blonde hair. ‘What is it with you and bats?’ I said to her as we crept past. A similar situation had happened in the past.

‘That’s his villa’ said Marlon, and pointed at the tree. ’And this is yours.’

He opened the door to villa numero dos and let us look around. The entire back wall was windowed, the bed facing what in the morning would be an unimaginable view. Beyond it was the lit up private pool into which a waterfall tumbled from a white stone wall. Two chez longues faced the tops of the trees and out to sea. The bath and shower were outside also, open to the warm rainforest air. I had to blink a few times to make sure my dry traveling eyes weren’t playing tricks but they were not. Even with the view shrouded by the deep tropical night, it was the most idyllic location of any I had ever put head to pillow. I hardly remember Marlon leaving and getting ready for bed before Lauren and I both fell catatonically to sleep.

I woke before she did as the sun quickly shone through the south-facing glass. Gradually coming to, I looked out, past the granite balcony and the pool, and over the lush jade canopy to the Pacific, about a mile away and a couple thousand feet below. The sun bounced off of the waves causing a glittering ripple as the water gently swirled its way from somewhere out there. The Whale Tail was beginning to take shape as the tide receded, and was an outstretched isthmus of a sandbar originating from a crescent shaped beach. I noticed it was six in the morning despite looking bright as noon so I let Lauren sleep a bit and read the book I had brought. She was awake not much later thanks to the even rays of the equatorial alarm clock.

Eventually it was breakfast time and we made our way through the canopied courtyard and past our friend the bat to the common area, which also somehow appeared even more dashing by day. Like our own villa, the restaurant deck was surrounded on three sides by jungle and on the fourth by a view of the ocean and the Whale’s Tail, growing more rounded as the hours went by. The pool glistened in the morning sun and the air smelled like hibiscus and strong coffee.

Ana, the day manager, set down a bowl of fresh pineapple, mango, and papaya, and then returned with a menu.

‘The coffee is grown just over the mountain, he just brought it over this morning.’ She indicated a tall bald man sitting at the bar who looked like a Costa Rican Mr. Clean. It poured dark and bold, with khaki colored bubbles like those floating atop a high octane stout. One sip and I knew it was a multi-cup day.

Cesar the server took our food order. I had the tico breakfast, which would become a near-daily occurrence for me on this trip. It was a plate of eggs, rice, beans, fried plantains, and something that looked and felt like a white pencil eraser.

Cesar said this was queso blanco, a savory Central American cheese that squeaks when you eat it. It did and it was very good. He then inquired as to whether we wanted to try his new  salsa recipes with our eggs and of course we did so.

He set down a small bowl of green salsa which was ‘Verde, medium spicy’ and then an even smaller bowl of yellow-orange that he described as “Danger! Nine-eleven.”

After finishing the meal and the coffee, Lauren and I went back to the villa to relax a bit and eventually decided on a day full of this. After the chaotic drive in, we needed an easy day to walk around and swim in the pool. 

First, we went to the hiking trail that descends the hill from the common area. The trail starts as a gently sloping single track through the rainforest but quickly turns steep. The ground was covered with dead palm fronds and was permanently moist, so the going became slow. Also, the dense underbrush of the area looked kind of snakey, and we didn’t want to stumble into a lurking fer-de-lance, so the hike became an exercise in falling assiduously downward. After a series of switchbacks, we reached a cascading stream that was wide open at surface level but covered by a canopy of high verdant branches that intersected each other like interlocked fingers.

We stepped around rocks beneath the miniature falls looking for nature of the non-slithery sort. The wet season had more or less just ended a few weeks prior, so the river was tumbling fairly quickly and the stones were slick near the center. I nearly grabbed a dangling vine that hung from the dense natural roof of the valley but decided that if I were going to hurt myself on this trip it would be best to wait until after the first day. We heard a sound above, not from yanking the vine, easily distinguishable as the only one in the last half hour that wasn’t made by water and gravity. Attempting to see what animal was joining us on the bank, I peered through the tall old trees at the path that led back toward the villa. First there was a glimpse of a white tee shirt and a backpack, and then a young couple who looked like they just woke up joined us near the river. The guy was wearing a Dwayne Wade Jersey and the girl was wearing crocs.

Lauren wasn’t looking at them, though, but instead was pointing up at the canopy. A family of howler monkeys were leaping through the knotted branches about twenty feet above while another larger monkey clung to the trunk of a tree on the far side of the stream. They bounded across the valley, using the natural suspension bridge and shaking the limbs like a windstorm. The leaves were so thick that mostly we could just see a tail or foot flipping about but we could make out at least a half dozen of them moving from one side of the river to the other directly above our heads. We watched them for a while and helped the sleepy-eyed honeymooners spot them before high-stepping back up the steep trail.

That night, it sounded as if a smoke alarm was going off in the villa. A chirp every five seconds had me looking in every corner for something to pop the batteries out of, but I had no luck. 



‘It must be coming from the neighbors’ I said, assuming some other guest had mistook Celsius for Fahrenheit on their oven and smoked out the place, but when I opened up the door and walked toward the other villas the noise gradually faded away.


‘Don’t worry about it’ Lauren said, seeing a storm brewing, and not the one outside that typically followed the sunset even during the dry season.

‘It’s going to drive me nuts’ I replied, and the chirping continued.

‘What if it’s an animal?’ She said.

I googled Costa Rica animal that sounds like a smoke detector, and sure enough, a video popped up of the onomatopoeiacally named Tink Frog. It lives in palm trees and makes a sound almost indistinguishable from a dying smoke detector. Once I knew what it was, the noise was only annoying for a few moments before I once again had an excellent night’s sleep. The frog was with us every night for the rest of the trip and probably was the first night also, we were just too exhausted to notice. One morning there were hundreds of little eggs in the shallowest part of the pool, so I’m sure future guests will fall to sleep to the same rhythmic chirping. It was a small price for paradise.




This post continued here: Costa Rica: Swimming with Sea Turtles

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