First, a little thought on day tours. While I enjoy being an independent traveler and exploring at my own pace, there is something to be said for a guided day tour, particularly when visiting a place to which you’ve never traveled. There are two basic types of day tours – group tours, which take place on a bus or minibus and can include anywhere from 8 – 50 people, and private tours which are, you guessed it, private and catered only to your group. The latter can be a more expensive option, although if your group is more than 4 people, not necessarily on a per person basis. Group tours certainly have their place: less pricy, typically including all of the well researched highlights of a region, meeting fellow travelers, well trained guides with a microphone or headset. Reviews abound. They are simply … predictable. Private tours, on the other hand, offer the traveler the ability to design a “bespoke” day (I hate that word, btw, followed closely by “curated”) – seeing and doing exactly what you want to do. Stop to take a picture of that cute cow. Stop for water or the toilet. Grab lunch when you’re hungry, or skip it entirely. But of course, that flexibility comes at a cost – not only a financial one, but the risk of a little less predictability. The quality and knowledge of the guide makes a huge difference here.
With that said, Husband and I were very pleased we chose to take a private tour, arranged by Tico Tours Guanacaste (which offers both types of tours), called the Palo Verde tour. If you click on the “rates” section of the tour page, you will see the choice between group or private touring. This tour included a visit to its namesake National Park, Palo Verde, full of local wildlife, a boat ride down the Tempisque river, cultural stops and information, and lunch at a hacienda once owned by a former President of Costa Rica.
And so, we’re off!
Our guide, Mario, actually majored in becoming a tour guide. His knowledge was evident as he told us a little about Costa Rica’s history: first, a reminder that the Americas weren’t discovered by Christopher Columbus, but by the Chinese, as evident on maps made well before 1492. Then, the interesting note that unlike much of Central and South America, Costa Rica was not initially populated by the Spanish. Why? Because there wasn’t any gold.
While Costa Rica’s abundant farmland produces cantaloupe, pineapple, palm oil, bananas, coffee, watermelon, and citrus fruits, an important crop is sugar cane. Did you know that sugar cane can be used to make a wide variety of products, including molasses, fuel, and paper? We didn’t! We stopped to watch migrants from Nicaragua harvest the sugar cane by hand, using machetes. Apologies for the distance of the photo, but I didn’t want to get that close…
The Nicaraguan workers toiling under the hot sun are paid by the square meter harvested, and as a result they move surprisingly fast given the heat. Mario explained that the majority of the workers are migrants, because the native Costa Ricans are financially well off and don’t need to do this type of hard labor. He credits the excellent public education, government provided healthcare, and the tourism industry for giving Costa Rica such a strong economy for the area. The 9.16% income tax covers not only healthcare, but retirement pensions, for residents of Costa Rica. No wonder that many foreigners, especially Americans, are making Costa Rica home.
Our next stop was a visit along the Tempisque river, where oxen assist in dredging the riverbed for dirt and sand that will be used in making concrete:
Concrete is an essential product in Costa Rica, where most homes are built of concrete – wood is too quickly rotted by termites here. Mario explained that using oxen to mine the cement base is more environmentally friendly, maintains tradition, and keeps the profit in the pocket of local families rather than large corporations.
On our way to the hacienda lunch, Mario had a quiz for us. He picked what appeared to be a fruit off a tree, and asked us what we thought it was:
A pepper? No.
A tomato of some sort? No.
A sweet fruit like a mango or papaya? No.
We didn’t guess correctly until we were offered a number of clues: It starts with a C. It’s sold at almost any grocery. It contains protein. It often comes in a can. Finally….. it’s a nut. What? That “fruit” above is the casing for one, single cashew nut! And by the way, the rind has a nasty taste. Amazing – Every day I realize how much I don’t know, and even more so when I travel.
Our next stop was a hacienda where we were led, along with other Tico Tours guests, on a cultural experience led by Ramon and Juanita, a couple dressed in traditional clothing who run this small tourist attraction. First, we watched the traditional process of extracting sugar cane, using oxen:
Ramon and Juanita also treated us to “puntalita”, little corn-based snacks, and taught me how to make a tortilla in preparation for a delicious, authentic lunch.
After lunch, we continued our journey, deeper in to Palo Verde National Park, where we embarked on our jungle river cruise. Thanks to Mario’s eagle eyes, on the way we were treated to a very special sight in the adjacent wetlands: the Jabiru. Less than 100 of these stork-like birds remain in the wild in Costa Rica. Wow!
Mario made note that Costa Rica has a very environmentally conscious wetlands law: wetlands are not taxed, and if kept wild, owners actually receive a stipend from the government.
We embarked on a small boat for our eco-tour of the river, where our captain helped us spot various wildlife:
On this highly informative tour, we learned is that despite growing wealth through tourism and real estate development, Costa Ricans desire to preserve the many natural wonders that surround them. Moreover, Costa Ricans have a sense that their country is special. And we agree!