Wind Star in Costa Rica
Monkeys are not nice people. I had heard about monkeys breaking off sticks and using them as weapons. But I wasn’t expecting the monkey above us in the trees to hurl down a shaft a good 3 feet long and more than an inch in diameter. It’s time to leave, said our naturalist guide.
We were viewing birds and monkeys and deer on a shore excursion in the tropical forests of some of the least visited areas of Costa Rica on the Pacific Coast, part of a wildlife-oriented cruise on the 148-passenger sailing vessel Wind Star.
It was my third visit to Costa Rica, and it was as friendly as ever. We came in a day early as we usually do, to wind down, get to know the local area, and make sure to not miss the boat. The Hotel Barcelo San Jose Palacio where we stayed filled the bill, with a peaceful garden path, a beautiful pool, and a salsa band if you could stay up late enough. Like most of Costa Rica they had an environmental program including an organic garden.
The next day was more chaotic. We took the hotel shuttle to the airport to meet the bus that was to take us to the cruise ship and after an hour wait was told the bus was not running from the airport, but we needed to take a taxi to another hotel, then wait three more hours to take the two hour bus ride to Puerto Caldera where the ship was docked. We declined and asked the friendly taxi driver who had been trying to help us how much he would charge to drive us to the port right now. $90 he said, “a very good price”. We took it, and for an extra $30 had Vladimir take us to the artisans’ village of Sarchi, where we had time to see oxcarts and buy a hammock, a large wooden bowl, and other Costa Rican handicraft items. And we got to the ship way before the bus.
Wind Star’s Costa Rica cruises start at Puerto Caldera on the Pacific Coast, sail to one port in Nicaragua, then sail to Playa del Coco, Quepos, Bahia Drake, Curu, and Tortuga Island. In between it sails on two week cruises between Puerto Caldera and St. Martin through the Panama Canal, so by booking back-to-back cruises you can arrange for three whole wonderful weeks. Several passengers on our cruise had done just that and we all wished we had done it.
Here is a day-to-day report on our one-week trip.
The cruise began sailing at sunset from Puerto Caldera, with a brilliant crimson sky, everyone on deck watching the sun go down and the sails go up, with dramatic music adding to the emotions.
We sailed at sea for a day and night, with our first port of call at San Juan del Sur, our Nicaragua stop, with tenders running into the port every half hour. Most people took the all-day shore excursion bus to the old city of Granada (founded in 1524 and a step back in time with old Spanish churches and convents), some stopping along the way to see the Masaya Volcano. Others explored the laid-back fishing village of San Juan del Sur with its varied-colored buildings and equally colorful people.
Others stayed on board the nearly empty ship and pretended the ship was their private yacht, taking advantage of the spa or fitness room or lounging around the pool.
In addition to usual spa treatments, passengers have the services of an acupuncturist and an MD. There are also books, iPods, internet, DVDs and flat screen TV. Back on board before dinner a Nicaraguan folkloric group, ages 8 to 23, gave a show of folkloric dance.
That night we turned south and started sailing down the coast of Costa Rica. We looked forward to seeing how Costa Rica was a melting pot for wildlife and cultures because of its location between North and South America.
At Playa del Coco, most passengers were up for an early breakfast on the pool deck, departing the ship on shore excursions by 8. People who cruise on small ships tend to enjoy adventure and seeing wildlife rather than experiencing night wild life. Example: I never saw anyone in the casino the entire week of the cruise. Today’s offerings were a float trip on the Corobici River or a zip line experience through the rainforest canopy. Or you could take a zodiac in for a landing at a beach with a village a 5-minute walk away, or snorkel at the Playa Ocotal black sand beach with its many coves and clear water. Others swam or kayaked off the sports platform at the back of the ship.
Also here we found an internet café for about $2 per hour and good shopping for Costa Rican coffee (buy it in a grocery store for best selection and best price), Costa Rica liquors, wooden crafts, pottery and hammocks. (We found hammocks cheaper on the Pacific Coast than elsewhere in the country. Lugging them through the airport was a major chore however. Perhaps I should have only bought one instead of two!)
The next day we were at the port of Quepos for the whole day and evening. This was formerly a busy banana-export port-town. It now grows and exports palm oil and is host to sport fishermen seriously looking for sailfish, marlin, tuna and mahi-mahi. Most passengers went with a naturalist guide to Manuel Antonia National Park on a nature walk. Manuel Antonio is a popular national park with a tropical rainforest ecosystem with many monkeys, tropical birds, and with luck a sloth, opossum, paca or anteater, perhaps a snake. Snorkeling was good there also. Others took a boat through the mangroves to see wildlife. Or you could go by horseback along the beach and into the forest to a waterfall.
That night was a Costa Rican folkloric dance group at cocktail hour, followed by a dinner on deck under the stars with a yard-wide bowl of shrimp, a whole roasted pig, grilled lobster, line dancing by the crew and whoever wanted to join them (they thanked me later for my joining on the mambo), and a spectacular local band.
Despite the feasting and frivolity of the deck barbecue we were up early the next morning as the ship sailed into Bahia Drake (Drake Bay) and anchored. We were at the Osa Peninsula, the most isolated area of Costa Rica, at this time without usable roads and reachable only by air or boat. This is where Sir Francis Drake is said to have landed in 1579. Now with its dense rainforest, heavy rainfall and plentiful wildlife, biologists come here from all over the world to study the mammals, lizards, birds, and plants of the region. More than 100,000 acres of the tropical forest have been set aside to form the country’s second largest national park, Corcovado National Park. Much gold was found here in pre-Columbian days. Drake was indeed said to have buried a large treasure in the Salsipedes region down the coast a way, and today illegal miners are still sometimes found trying to mine here. Most passengers went on the Corcovado shore excursion which included a boat ride into Drake Bay and a 3-hour hike with a naturalist through the rainforest on the lookout for monkeys, coatis, sloths, anteaters, scarlet macaws, toucans and other wildlife, topped off with a swim under a waterfall, refreshing after hiking during the humid 85 degree day. Those who did not hike could go by a 40-minute boat ride to Isla de Cano for snorkeling and to see two of the mysterious spheres from the pre-Columbian period seen around Costa Rica, purpose unknown.
That night the ship sailed north again, stopping at Curu Wildlife Refuge. This ecosystem is a tropical dry forest in contrast to the wet tropical rainforest of Drake Bay. Instructions were not to swim here because of strong tidal currents and oh yes, crocodiles. A few of us got up for a quick breakfast to go ashore by zodiac and take the 7 a.m. wildlife hike, the early hours being best for sightings and for photos. Our naturalist guide pointed out termites that could be used as insect repellant, mimosa used locally as a tea from roots to treat insomnia and alcoholism and the thorny alligator tree that could be used as an anesthetic and to treat toothache. We saw many birds, deer, an iguana, and troops of monkeys, including the ones who broke off sticks and threw them at us, and we made it back to the ship for departure to Tortuga Island where the crew had prepared a sumptuous beach barbecue as a great last lunch.
The cabins on Wind Star are all alike except for one bigger suite and they are on decks 1 and 2, while restaurants, lounges and pool are on decks 3 and 4. Some have a fold-down third berth. There is no elevator, so if stairs are a problem, it would be better to book a cabin on deck 2 even though it is slightly more expensive.
Breakfast and lunch are on the pool deck, either outside on deck or inside. Dinner is in the dining room, or you can opt for a candlelit dinner for two on deck under the stars.
There were a lot of nice extras on Wind Star: waiters and bar staff called you by name, there were refreshing damp towels waiting when you returned on board from a shore excursion, smiles and cheerfulness from everyone always. Master of the vessel was Captain Alan MacAry, who keeps the bridge open for passengers to visit at any time, talking sailing, explaining the computerized sail system, and the ballast that is pumped automatically to the high side so that ship never leans at more than 1 or 2 degrees. He tells the story of when he was in school and the teacher scolded him for always gazing out the window. “You’ll never find a job where people pay you for gazing out a window!” Guess he showed her, he says, as he strikes a captainly pose of peering out the bridge window to the sea and wide horizon.
Hotel manager was Holly Weberg, whom we love because she thinks smallshipcruises.com is “fantastic” and says she got her first cruise job after finding out about small ships at our website. There are many repeat passengers on Windstar, Weberg said, especially on the April and November transatlantic cruises. And on the transatlantic cruises those who go eastward almost always go eastward, and those who go westward almost always go westward, and there is great rivalry between the two. Most of Windstar cruisers are from the US or Canada. The great thing about the ship, and other small ships, she said, is that passengers do not have to wait to get on and off the ship for shore excursions or to disembark.
Windstar ships are also environmentally good. By using the sails to the maximum, the ships consume less fuel. They also reduce environmental impact by generating 300 tons of water per week.
Windstar Cruises operates three sailing yachts. The Wind Spirit and Wind Star each carry 148 passengers; the Wind Surf carries 312 passengers. The ships cruise in Europe, the Baltic and Scandinavia, the Caribbean and the Americas. For further cruise information go to www.windstarcruises.com or www.smallshipcruises.com.
Report by Shirley Linde,
Photos by Carlos Piacedo , Nancy Reeser and Shirley Linde