Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Cabinas El Castillo - part 2

There are several areas in Costa Rica we have enjoyed and continue to enjoy. So why did we choose San Ramon in particular? Location, location, location. Weather was a prime factor. At sea level it’s warm but too humid. High elevations can be cold and cloudy. The elevation of the cabin seemed about right at 3600 feet with a climate listed as mild all year (averaging 70-80 degrees). In our experience, the Pacific Coast side of the mountain ranges tended to have fairer weather in the winter months than on the Caribbean side.

one of the cloud-shrouded days
Costa Rica is a popular destination for expats and there are several expat communities spread through the country. Since we were investigating what it would be like to live in Costa Rica, either year round or for part of a year, it made sense to be situated near other Americans in order to hear directly from them about their reasons for going the expat route and their experiences. But, we also didn’t want to completely insulate ourselves by being surrounded by expats. We were there to dig deeper into the local culture and get a better sense of what it might be like for in the day-to-day lives of ordinary Ticos. We wanted something more than than just a passing glance which we'd already experienced on our bird tours.
Our decision to settle in the San Ramon area was made much simpler by the fact that Cesar, the property manager was, extremely responsive to our questions and that the rate of $750/month was within our budget. He was also very flexible when it came to the exact time we would be able to rent. We had the sense that Cesar was someone we could trust completely. At the end of our stay, we can say without a doubt, that we were absolutely spot on correct in our assessment. He's a man of high character, honesty, and filled with a genuine love for his Costa Rica.

green in the center is the one-block square park central
San Ramon, nicknamed the “City of Presidents” (five of Costa Rica’s presidents and several poets hail from San Ramon), is in what’s referred to as the San Jose Highlands located on the western edge of the Central Valley. It’s the governmental center of Alajuela Province with a city center population of 11,000 residents (population jumps to about 60,000 when counting the outlying districts). It has one of the six regional University of Costa Rica campuses (most students commute from home). Like most cities, the city central is defined by a one-block square park. On the outskirts of town there is a mall with a movie theater, supermarket, upscale shops, banks and yes, even a McDonald’s. We learned there was a WalMart in the area although we don’t recall ever seeing it (nor did we want to).
We never stepped foot in the mall. Instead we opted to spend our time in the 11-block square city center jammed with shops, cafes, food markets, and mercantile businesses. Early on, one of our cabin neighbors lent us a map of the city which helped a great deal. Streets were numbered (on the map) but as with most towns and cities in Costa Rica, there was a distinct absence of street signs. People just knew where they were. Show someone a map? They didn’t know what they were looking at.

San Ramon Nonato Church
Across one side of the square is the massive San Ramon Nonato Church. Relatively new, construction began in 1925. It was consecrated in 1954. The church’s metal frame was fabricated in Germany by Hernan Guiterrez Braun and transported to San Ramon in 1928. That must have been something to witness! The iconic “Rancho Tipico” Statue dominates one corner of the church property and is the focus of an annual celebration, Fiesta Patronales de San Ramon.

Rancho Tipico Statue
Across from another side of the town square is the Jose Figueres Historic and Cultural Center Museum. Monthly art exhibits and workshops initiate community projects highlighting music, painting, literature, and folk traditions. The museum is also a venue for recitals, plays, concerts, and conferences. There was a small cafe and courtyard where there always seemed to be hordes of school children.

San Ramon's park central
The central park served not only as a hub for our San Ramon walkabouts, it offered an often quiet place to sit, relax, and observe. We were fascinated to discover that there are several wire baskets attached to trees in the park which were filled daily with fresh fruits that attracted birds…and of course squirrels. Nothing would start a conversation faster than setting up our spotting scope to observe and film resident wild parrots that roosted in park trees.
A six block hike from the park brought us to a favorite expat hangout, Cafe Delicias (although we've since heard it's moving to a new location closer to the square). Popular because of good mid-priced food, fast internet speed, and a regular gathering every Thursday morning of local expats...and whoever else dropped in. We often stopped for breakfast (they had killer sticky buns) but only once were we there for an 'official' expat get-together. 

expat gathering at Cafe Delicias
Pizza? A favorite place was a hole in the wall pizza shop with barely room for six people to sit at a narrow seating area along a wall. Whenever we had a hankering for pizza, this was the spot. Another favorite spot was a small market (consistently the best place in town for fresh veggies). It was on the very north edge of the 11-block square shopping area and quite a hike to be lugging groceries - but well worth the effort.

best pizza joint and the vegetable market in town
As for the “mild weather”? That turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag. There are two seasons in Costa Rica (as there are in many Central and South American countries). A dry season and a rainy season. November through June is considered the dry season but by no means does that guarantee there will be no rain - just that there will be more days without rain than with rain. However, no one really mentioned the “windy” season. We soon learned that January is dubbed the “windy month”. It wasn’t unusual to have several days with high winds gusting up to 60mph. Some of those windy days were accompanied by rain. Lots of rain. The combination of wind and rain on our cabin’s tin roof sounded like there was a troop of monkeys beating the roof with sticks (Carol actually made me go out one night to check - there were none).

decisions, decisions...nope, we don't need any more stuff!
Tom and Rob in total agreement - no more stuff!
There were days when clouds descended and would hang over our cabin for hours. Shrouded in clouds made it cool and damp and made us long for our RV's electric fireplace. On cloudy damp days, we learned to take the bus into town. With a drop of just a few hundred feet elevation, we would find ourselves bathed in sunshine. Again…location, location, location.
Speaking of location, our location was ideal for family and friends wanting to escape much colder climates in the U.S.. Once we had become accustomed to our surroundings, we were ready to share it with others.

at the beach and the aerial tram ride
The first to visit were long time friends Dave and Betty Dunsmore. They had signed up for one of our bird tours a few years before but owing to Dave’s failing health at the time, they backed out. Dave’s health was still an issue and he wouldn't withstand the rigors of a full blown bird tour, but, we offered a much less stressful and scaled back experience using our cabin as a central point for short day trips.

hoofing it up to see Poas Volcano but it was too overcast - thank goodness for the picture
In late January we took the local “Rio Jesus” bus to San Ramon, boarded a larger express bus, and and hour later, were dropped at the airport in San Jose to meet Dave and Betty's flight. The cost of the express bus? For our one hour ride it cost about $6 total. And the bus was far nicer than most airlines we’ve flown! While waiting for the Dunsmores plane, we had time to take a taxi to a local car rental. Given our plans for the week, a car would be a must.

the deck at Arenal and photo ops at a cafe along the way
Unfortunately, Dave’s health was not as good as we had anticipated which greatly altered our plans for the week. Still, we were able to spend an evening and a day at Arenal Volcano Observatory Lodge, a rainy day walking up, unable to view the Poas Volcano caldera, a drive to the Pacific coast for some beach time, coffee at a coffee plantation, and experience a gondola tram through jungle canopy ride near Jaco, Costa Rica. Truth be told, though, we think Dave’s greatest enjoyment of their trip was sitting on our cabin veranda, camera in hand, waiting for the birds to venture close.
At the end of the week they had gotten a pretty good dose of Costa Rica and couldn't wait to get back to a frigid Wisconsin winter (hardly!). Reluctantly, we drove them back to the airport. After dropping the rental car off, we taxied into nearby Alajuela where we caught an express bus back to San Ramon. Back in San Ramon we stocked up on more groceries then took a taxi back to the cabin feeling pretty good about relying on public transportation.

Robyn and Cindy
Barely a day after Dave and Betty departed, our daughter-in-law Robyn Luetkens (from Colorado), and her mom, Cindy Fahs (from St. Louis) arrived for a week-long mother-daughter Costa Rica adventure. No need for us to rent a car. They bravely picked up their rental in San Jose which they would use for day trips from the cabin. Adventurous souls to be sure, it took them longer than expected to find the cabin. They quickly learned that most major roads don’t have clear signage, that locals don’t read maps, and one has to have a lot of patience driving in Costa Rica. It was well after dark when they arrived having spent over an hour driving around San Ramon looking for Hwy 1. Fortunately we didn’t have to call out the cavalry.

fashion shoot at the beach
They had plans to visit various attractions and over the course of the week, venturing forth to the town of Monteverde, a coffee plantation tour, and some Pacific coast beaches. We accompanied them to the coast to show them some of the beach locations (and correct roads). Having a car made it easy for us to scoot into town for sightseeing and shopping. In no time at all, Cindy became fascinated with all the bird activity around the cabin. Not surprising at all! How could one not become excited after seeing Blue-crowned Motmots eye-to-eye through our spotting scope? Cindy began keeping detailed notes and a journal about the birds she saw, learned how to sort through the field guide, and is now on the list for one our future Costa Rica bird tours (after she buys some better binoculars!). Alas, as was the case with Dave and Betty’s visit, the week passed quickly and Robyn and Cindy departed.

not all things with colorful wings were birds
Along with birds there was always an interesting array of butterflies, flowering plants, and insects. Specially the insects. We'd already observed Army ants on the move as they marched from one temporary nest site to another, or, as they moved from one overnight resting spot (a bivouac) to another. As a wide swath moves across the ground, the ants will attack and consume anything in their path (humans are pretty safe but best get out of their way because they will bite). Fascinating to watch, from a birder's point of view. As the ants move, they flush any and all insects in their path. Antbird species, typically frustrating to see jungle skulkers, will come out in plain view, totally obsessed with capturing fleeing insects...and totally oblivious to our presence.
Our neighbors reported that Army ants (known to the locals as "cleaner ants") will enter a cabin that happens to be in their path. A handy and inexpensive (and non-toxic) way to rid the house of insect pests.

a selfie with Julia and Tali...and conversing about lawn care
Our non-ant "cleaning" day was Wednesday mornings. Our housekeeper, Julia, spoke very little English but was never without a smile or a cheery, "hola!". Starting at 9:00 a.m., we always made sure to be out of the cabin to make her job easier. The same would happen if  ants invaded - just get out of the way and in no time at all, they would depart leaving behind a clean cabin. That didn't happen while we were there although a swarm came pretty close on our next to the last day.
Our neighbors, Jeni and Rob, Norman and Frankie, had by now gotten used to seeing us walk around the property with our ever present binoculars and spotting scope. The more they saw of us, the more questions they had about what we were seeing...and experienced  an epiphany we’ve witnessed in people so many times before - a sudden awareness of that which they had been looking at and not seeing - until they were made aware. A wonderfully fulfilling moment for all concerned.

farewell bash with Carol, Rob, Jeni, Frankie, Norman
A few days before we departed our cabin, Rob and Jeni hosted a combination getting their legal residence status/going away party for us. Tom presented a short program of the photos and videos he’d captured of all the bird life. We also shared bird feeding tips on how to attract birds to their yards. We still stay in touch via Facebook following their continuing adventures as well as answering bird ID questions. We’ve offered to act as consultants for the small fee of covering our airfare to Costa Rica…but perhaps their purchase of a copy of Richard’s Costa Rica bird field guide would be less costly (as much as we’d love to see our neighbors again).

our six week experiment - relaxing?
So how did our six week experiment living in Costa Rica fare? Quite well, actually. We have a much better sense of local culture and how we would fit. We have a list of the pros and cons of becoming legalized residents. Would we move and spend all our time in Costa Rica? Probably not…but we could easily spend three to six months at a time. Rent or buy in Costa Rica? Definitely rent. Become Pensionados? Maybe. The cost to do so is about $2000/person and takes between 8-12 months to finalize. If we were to spend six months a year, then yes, the cost would be worth it. Three months out of the year? Most likely not worth the expense. Would we choose San Ramon again? We definitely liked the cabins, the property manager and most definitely the neighbors, who like us, had a decided against owning property while enthusiastically embracing public transportation. We’d also would most definitely, have to improve our Spanish language skills!

two bird tours around the corner - best get to studying
While Carol initially fretted that six weeks seems like a very long time, the time passed rapidly. The morning of our last day at the cabin, we hugged and bid our neighborhood friends goodbye, loaded our bags into Cesar’s car, and headed to the San Jose airport where we would meet some of our guests arriving for the first of two back-to-back bird tours. Once again we would be eco lodge hopscotching, having our meals prepared for us, and chauffeured around the country. The race clock was about to be reset.

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