Just Back From... a Beach House in Costa Rica

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Reader Thomas Buqo and his wife drive south from San José through cloud forests and banana fields to their rental house on the Caribbean coast.

Great local meal… Restaurant Elena Brown in Puerto Viejo. [PHOTO] Ms. Brown serves fresh fish, seafood, and chicken, including her special pollo à la Elena (chicken in a curry, gin, curcuma, and coconut-milk sauce). The meals give a real taste of the Caribbean and are served typically with salad, rice, beans, and patacones (fried plantains). When Elena visits your table (she came to mine!), it's to let you know that all of her dishes are prepared with love. Complete dinners are a very reasonable $7 to $10.

Our favorite part… The beach house we rented on Playa Negra, just north of Puerto Viejo. [PHOTO] The lure of the beach in our backyard, with us having no daily schedule and no worries, made the place utterly perfect. Cahuita National Park is just to the north of the house, and the Gandoca-Manzanillo wildlife refuge was just to the east—so there were miles and miles of undisturbed beaches a short drive (or long walk) away. [PHOTO] And stocking up on food proved to be easy. We purchased everything we needed to prepare our own meals in two brief trips to Puerto Viejo's supermarket. We also shopped closer to home at the Mopri fish market, which offers a mondo serving of some of the best ceviche I've ever had.

Wish we'd known thatArmas de fuego doesn't mean "passport." An officer manning a road checkpoint inquired, "¿Armas de fuego?" I explained I had a poor grasp of Spanish and handed him my passport. "No, no, no. ¿Armas de fuego?" he insisted again. So I handed him the rental-car papers. "No! Armas de fuego!", he said emphatically, motioning me out of the vehicle. My wife finally figured it out: "Arms of fire, arms of fire. I think he wants to know if we have any guns." I assured him we had no armas de fuego and opened the back hatch for him to look inside. As we drove on, I thought how stupid I must have seemed to him—and how you would never encounter a firearm checkpoint on a highway back home in Nevada.

Fun surprise… While eating lunch one afternoon, it was a real treat for me to see a long line of green leaves marching down a tree trunk atop leaf-cutter ants. The diversity of the animals in general was fantastic. I had a run-in with a scorpion at the Turrialba Tico Lodge in San José (he hid under my computer bag), and I managed to be patient enough to snap a great shot of a butterfly landing on a flower. [PHOTO]

What we should have packedOur GPS. We found it hardest to navigate the towns and cities. There were lots of one-way streets, and the main routes tended to be very congested, which made navigation tricky. Next time we'll pack a GPS unit first thing, with extra batteries.

Worth every penny… The vehicle we rented (a Toyota RAV4). It was our second-largest expense, but it was worth it. Costa Rica is beautiful, and the drive from San José to the Caribbean coast takes you through the cloud forests of the mountain highlands [PHOTO], past seas of bananas in the lowlands, and then along the incomparable coastal highway—with the extra-blue Caribbean on your left and the rain forest on your right. [PHOTO] Having our own transportation gave us the freedom to stop anytime we wanted, to take pictures (a hobby of mine), or just to have fresh-brewed Costa Rican coffee served with fruit at restaurants along the route.

Hotel we liked… We spent our last night at the Clarion Amón Plaza Hotel in northern San José and had dinner at the historic Cafetal de la Luz, the restaurant on the first floor. The dinner was fantastic and only set us back $68, which wasn't bad since it included martinis, appetizers, entrées, and desserts. I've read old reviews of the hotel that were pretty critical, but we had a very nice room and free Wi-Fi, and there is a cool little casino on the main floor. There is also a superb breakfast buffet that comes with the room charge; you can even order pancakes. If you stay on a weekend night you might want to get a room that doesn't face the front, though. The nightclub across the street is pretty loud into the wee hours of the morning. We thought of it as Latin ambience, but others might think it's just plain noisy.

>>See more of myBudgetTravel member Buqo's photos from Costa Rica and other trips

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