Welcome to the New Normal
Traveling and Visiting National Parks and Hotels in the Post-COVID-19 World
Ten weeks. And we were lucky. Living on a 35-acre farm in Costa Rica, we could at least get outside and walk and see nature. Our remote location means we do not go to town often for supplies and groceries anyway. But 10 weeks of “Quédate en casa” (stay at home), strict driving restrictions and daily briefings on COVID-19 cases and body counts wear you down. It was a huge relief when Costa Rica’s ministry of health began lifting restrictions, especially for those of us who live in this country to be close to nature and wildlife.
On May 15 the government started reopening a limited number of national parks, and allowing hotels and lodges with 20 rooms or less to open. We did not delay. Our immediate plans to head out were driven by two major reasons. First, as full-time residents of Costa Rica, we understand and feel the pain of pandemic lockdown on local businesses, especially those in tourism. One of the few ways we can help is by patronizing them until some time — hopefully in the near future — when international tourism restarts. Our second motivation was that we had not been out looking for birds in two months!
There were also new rules for birding with a guide. Masks were required for the guide and suggested for us.
Domestic tourism specials
Many of the smaller, but well-known, nature lodges that reopened are advertising specials targeted at Costa Rican nationals and residents. So it is a great opportunity to go and stay at lodges you may not otherwise stay, perhaps because normal international tourist rates are out of your price range.
We chose to head back to our favorite place in Costa Rica: the high elevation parks and nature of the Dota region. We picked Paraíso Quetzal Lodge, famous for its birding and also as a getaway weekend destination for those living in San José. Its elevated location is at 2,800 meters on Cerro de la Muerte. We also planned to visit the nearby Los Quetzales National Park, one of the first dozen parks in the country to reopen.
The drive out was accomplished in record time due to significantly less traffic. Driving restrictions, along with the number of non-operating businesses, and especially school closures, have made the roads far less crowded. We arrived so early we decided to visit Los Quetzales National Park just six kilometers down the road.
The park headquarters was open, with the entire parking lot taped off into “socially distanced” parking spaces. Arriving in the first vehicle there gave us the pick of the lot. It seemed like we actually surprised the park officials, who scrambled to serve us. We gave them our cedulas, which they did not touch but enabled them to register us as two resident visitors. They did not check our ages, despite there being, in theory, a restriction preventing entry to visitors over 65 (which we are not, yet), and no questions were asked. No money can change hands as no touching is allowed. You must pay with your credit card by waving or inserting into the chip reader. We wondered how much money the park can actually make from the 1,000 colones per person entrance price, when credit card fees are factored in. But these are the new “normal” processes. After leaving, we noticed the park officials putting up a sign allowing only one family member in the building at a time to purchase tickets.
No better time
If there is ever a right time to go visit Costa Rica’s national parks, now is the time!
Our park visit was incredible. We were the only ones there at first, and later on we only encountered two young Tico couples, at different times, who were just there for a day visit walking and hiking.
As an outcome of the two-month closure, the birds were close and active. We picked a new “accessible” trail that the park just opened shortly before all the pandemic closures were enacted.
We passed on lunch at the famous Chisparitos restaurant and truck stop, located across the InterAmerican Highway from the park headquarters. We were not up for discovering what buffet service has become, and frankly, a bit leery of truck stops in general, considering all the virus cases being discovered in truck drivers. So instead, we drove to the Paraíso Quetzal Lodge.
Before heading out for this trip, we had read the new rules for hotels and lodges, published by the health ministry. Armed with our personal “alcohol en gel” and protective masks, we had selected a day where we could drive without the license restrictions. Although the rules say you can drive any day with proof of a hotel reservation, we did not want to be the first ones to test that rule.
We were greeted at the entrance by lodge personnel, all wearing PPE face shields. Before they allowed us to go into the hotel, they gave us a briefing on what to expect and what we needed to do. Upon entry to the lodge, we first had to have our temperature taken. Access is forbidden for anyone showing signs of fever. We then had to wash our hands and step into a food wash with disinfectant. These procedures were to be followed every time we re-entered the lodge
Inside we were greeted by the PPE-wearing person behind the reception desk, which had been roped off to a “social distance”. Check-in was accomplished at arm’s length, and the room key was sprayed and disinfected before our eyes. During the process of our room needing to be “prepared” for us (a set of disinfectant steps), we sat and marveled at the wildly colorful hummingbirds on the viewing platform outside the restaurant. We were eventually escorted to our room, but with no bellhop-type service; you must carry your own luggage.
Meals at the lodge are ordered ahead of time for each entire day. You have basically an assigned table, with every other table taped off. Interaction with wait staff is minimal, although the servers can still bring your glasses of wine as you warm yourself in front of the wood stove (it gets cold at almost 10,000 feet elevation).
We were one of two couples staying at the lodge on its first reopened Tuesday, making for a rather special feel. We walked the splendidly landscaped trails full of flowering plants, and climbed the lodge’s birding tower totally alone. There was just the two of us and all the unique birds there. The quetzals hovered and postured to one another above the trees below, a rare treat.
We enjoyed wine by the fire, a leisurely dinner and dessert. I, in particular, relished this, being the first meal in 10 weeks prepared by someone other than myself.
We inquired about a guide to take us out birding, and thus became the first bonafide “birding” tourists to return to the lodge. They even took record photos of us!
There were also new rules for birding with a guide. Masks were required for the guide and suggested for us. Use of a spotting scope was not allowed. When we traveled to spots off the property, we had to use separate cars so no guide could ride with us.
Checkout from the lodge was done, once again, at a social distance. And our stay there ended the same way it began, with our temperature being taken one more time upon exit. I guess that was to prove we did not get sick there. Who knows?
Clunky, a tad intrusive and strange sums up our first emergence from pandemic lockdown. But was it worth it? In my opinion, YES! We had a totally wonderful time.
With the health protocols in place, we never once felt in danger or exposed to potential risk. We got to head out into parks and birding locations that are usually crowded with other people and birders. We could stay at a delightful lodge that seemed like our private getaway. Most importantly, we provided work for people that are struggling right now.
So, if you can, and you feel safe, get back out there and see the country! Do your part to help the tourism sector in Costa Rica.
Click for information about Paraiso Quetzal Lodge
Read more Howler articles by the same author about this magnificent region of Costa Rica:
Los Quetzales National Park — Costa Rica’s Shangri-La
On the Road to Shambhala — Providencia and San Geraldo de Dota
Photo Credit: Tom Schultz