All the articles under the TRAVEL category were originally published by both the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News, online. Each article was written by Deborah Charnes based on her personal travels. In almost all cases, the photos are hers.
Wimberley, Texas is less than an hour from Austin, and just a tad farther from San Antonio. But it doesn’t share many similarities with either of the two metropolises. The booming state capital boasts a thriving music scene and has been dubbed a vibrant, newer, and hipper Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, they say “every day is Fiesta in San Antonio” with mariachi music and colorful Tex-Mex food and drink everywhere. Both Austin and San Antonio are among the ten largest cities in the country.
Meanwhile, Wimberley has only 3,000 residents and is separated from the urban worlds by huge expanses of rolling forested green hills. This is Hill Country. Arguably the region in the lone star state with the most natural beauty, Wimberley is built atop and between limestone bluff formations, verdant cypress and cedar trees, and many natural waterways.
Off the Beaten Path
“It’s like going back to nature and Southern hospitality,” said Carina, a Rio Grande Valley resident, about the feeling she got in this laid-back Hill Country town. “It gives a cool and hip vibe of Austin, but with the tranquility of the old small towns of yesteryear. The scenery felt like from a movie,” she added.
Old Baldy Park was one of the highlights for Carina and her husband, George. This is a lovely but somewhat hidden mountain in the middle of town. There’s no live stream to cool off. There’s no restroom or water fountain. But it’s a gem of a place for those wanting a short hike, and incredible views.
Getting here is through winding roads that rise through a sparsely populated residential area. GPS will guide you to Old Baldy, but don’t be expecting any large signs, parking lots, ticket booths, or park rangers. You can easily miss the entrance, so drive slowly and be on the lookout for a few steps that seem to rise out of nowhere on the left-hand side of the road.
Also known as Prayer Mountain, Old Baldy is a four-acre park with a 360-degree view of Wimberley. Although not wheelchair accessible, it’s an easy climb up 218 limestone steps to get to the plateau. Along the way, you can take in the views, or read stones painted with inspirational messages.
The mountain formation and the steps to the peak resembled an ancient pyramid, according to George.
“Sorry, but pyramids in Texas?” However, they didn’t climb up the steps. “Dare to get to the top by walking around the winding spiral,” suggested George. Once at the flat top, they were the only visitors there to appreciate nature’s surround-sound and views.
Prayer Mountain is a perfect place to pray or meditate, enjoy a snack, snap photos, or just chill out. Although the peak is a rough surface, there is plenty of room for multiple people to sit directly on the grass- and dirt-free crest, or on one of the big rocks surrounding the big flat top.
Other Things to Do
Texans flock to Wimberley year-round to relish the small town country — but contemporary — charm. They escape the city to relax and get closer to nature. Many cool off from the hot Texas days in the rivers and creeks that flow through or surround Wimberley, or seek refreshment in the form of food and drink.
The most popular destinations, which require online reservations well in advance, are Jacob’s Well and The Blue Hole. Those two spots seem to be on most visitors’ itineraries. Cypress Falls is a private-run bathing spot with a small restaurant, and 7A Ranch is a longtime favorite with access to the Blanco River.
The shops at Wimberley Square are all tiny, unique, and owned by local residents. There’s a mix of farmhouse antiques, contemporary art, western wear, and boho chic.
Before your trip, check out the Wimberley website, or, drop by the Wimberley Valley Visitor Center on Ranch Road 12 during your stay.
Low Budget = More Travel + More Experiences
For nearly 50 years I’ve been a budget solo traveler. It doesn’t matter that I’m eligible for AARP benefits. I enjoy community-style hostels and Airbnbs. I don’t need a bathroom or coffee maker in my bedroom. Sharing with others is a positive in my book.
Rarely do I spend on taxis. I love walking everywhere or posing as a local, even on crowded buses or trains. In India, many tourists buy first-class train tickets in air-conditioned cars. I ride second-class. The air comes through the open windows. Free.
As a result, I’ve seen a lot of the world. My reasons to travel are to learn about the world and its diverse cultures.
Eating on the Cheap
By choosing the low-cost route, money doesn’t hamper my dreams or plans. In Paris, I dined al fresco. I picked up a whole-grain roll, fresh fruit, and cheese at corner stores. In Istanbul and Jerusalem, dates, figs, and nuts from the incredible shuk markets or grand bazaars were nutritious inexpensive grab-and-go meals. When I was a student in Ecuador, hominy from street vendors was my mainstay. In Nicaragua, my best dinners were freshly made plantain chips topped with a cabbage slaw that I picked up from the nighttime street stands.
Spend on Guides
But there is one thing I don’t hesitate to spend on. From Poland to Peru, I’ve found hiring a guide, or joining a local tour, is worth every penny.
In Peru, given the favorable exchange rate, low cost of living, and my fluency in Spanish, I hired drivers. They were not tour guides, nor chauffeurs. Just local guys with unofficial taxi service. But they told about the sites, politics, crime, food, and even pop culture.
An audio tour or guidebook doesn’t do it for me. I need a real person who can gauge everyone’s energy and interests, and answer questions. At the Vatican (Rome), Yad Vashem (Jerusalem), and Auschwitz (Poland) the tour guides were so knowledgeable. It seemed they had masters’ degrees in their respective subjects.
At Yad Vashem, the holocaust memorial, our guide incorporated intentional interaction during the short walk-through. As a result, we heard the personal account of one of the men in our group. He survived the atrocities thanks to one of the righteous honored at the museum. His testimony made the images of the six million come to life.
In Paris, I took several inexpensive bike tours led by college students. The coup during one evening ride was at the Eiffel Tour. Our guide posed us, lying down on our backs, for reflective quiet time savoring the greatest view in the night sky.
In Costa Rica, some of my best experiences have been when I shelled out the extra dollars for a guided tour. From 45-minutes to two days, I didn’t regret one. Even the free tour of the National Theatre was spectacular.
Guided Nature Hikes in Costa Rica
On my last trip to San José, I took the $6, five-hour bus ride to the cloud forests in Monteverde/Santa Elena. Once there, I asked my Airbnb hosts to inquire about one particular tour. Since I was solo, the price of the guide, admission, and round-trip taxi (there was no public transportation) would have set me back almost $150. My hosts suggested visiting a different site for $35, total.
I’m a nature buff. I walk around national parks and reserves for six hours at a stretch. But going with a pro you see so much more. Safely. There’s no chance you’ll get lost within several hundred acres of unmarked forests. Guides keep you clear from snakes and other poisonous creatures. Roy also warned us about “psychotic” toxic coffee beans.
Costa Rican guides (most of whom speak excellent English) have keen eyes and ears to detect wildlife. Plus, they tote a telescope or binoculars and are filled with knowledge.
For example, when I trek solo, my eyes focus on flora. Most anyone can appreciate the beauty of the caña agria (crepe-ginger). But Roy told us that the underside of the large thick leaves are so velvety that they were used as toilet paper. One incredible flower, “hot lips,” is alluring to the hummingbird while another smells like blood to attract mosquitos, Roy said.
There was one animal, the wide-nosed coati, a diurnal mammal, that was so high in a tree, that I could barely see it in the telescope. Yet our guide found it immediately. With bare eyes. And we learned the coatis have very poor vision but rely on an excellent sense of smell. The omnivores assign a babysitter to watch over the young ones while they hunt for food.
There are 920 species of birds in Costa Rica and 540 species in Monteverde. Some migrate here in the winters from North America. Guides also know where they tend to perch.
Among the many birds Roy located was the monogamous blue-crowned motmot. During the day, they are always together. When it’s time to sleep, they rest in different branches for safety reasons. The intelligent birds build nests up to 2.5 meters inside walls with an emergency exit in case of attack.
There are two species of toucans, related to the quetzal, in Monteverde. Also monogamous, these birds use their hollow beak to fan themselves with air.
Monteverde is also home to 25 species of hummingbirds that move their wings as many as 2,000 times per minute.
Finally, one of the many reasons why I chose to head to Monteverde was its history. According to Roy, during the Second World War, Quakers in the United States were conscientious objectors. However, the United States did not honor their religious freedom and some were jailed. Upon their release, a group of 40 headed to Monteverde, since Costa Rica was the only country in the Americas without a military force.
Historical reports on Quaker websites, confirm that during WW2, although the Quakers are a peace-keeping religion, some were imprisoned for refusing to serve. According to the Selective Service archives, there were 37,000 WW2 conscientious objectors. Many chose Civilian Public Service work camps but 6,000 went to jail for up to ten years. Upon release, they were once again at risk of being drafted.
A group of Quakers from Alabama, with jailed church members, was the first to leave the U.S. for Costa Rica. Others followed. Today, the Friends School and Meeting House is just 500 meters from the Monteverde Cheese Factory and the Curi-cancha Reserve. The cheese factory, now owned by a multinational, was founded by ex-pat Quakers in 1954.
My treasure trove is being surrounded by nature’s living glories: the incredible colorful jewels of plant and animal life. That’s why I return to Costa Rica again and again. No matter what town or region I’m in, Mother Nature’s masterpieces surround me.
Costa Rica is just the size of West Virginia. Yet, in addition to the many privately run eco-centers and businesses that protect or showcase the biodiversity, there are 28 national parks, 58 wildlife refuges, 32 protected zones, 15 wetland areas/mangroves, 11 forest reserves, and eight biological reserves.
Sometimes, the sheer sizes of the national parks can be overwhelming. Some of my favorite places in Central America are smaller butterfly gardens. Now, I found something equally enjoyable. The tiny Monteverde Orchid Garden is packed with 500 specimens. In a lapse of just one 45-minute tour, you can learn and view so much.
Before we took a look at the gems in the gardens, our bilingual guide pointed to a large framed poster. It was time for Orchidaceae 101. I admit. I knew almost nothing about flowers. Or, most everything I knew was incorrect.
Here are just a few highlights gleaned from a quick stroll through the property that is just a five-minute walk from the Monteverde bus terminal in Santa Elena.
- There are more than 30,000 orchid species in the world.
- The prized plants do not just grow in tropical climates. They can thrive in Alaska and deserts.
- These shoots and sprouts are hermaphrodites.
- One fruit can have 5 million seeds, but few survive.
- 80 percent of orchids grow symbiotically on trees. One in Monteverde has 40 different orchid species.
- Some of the plants only blossom for 24 hours.
- Greener species, like the tiny lady slipper pictured above, tend to be night-time pollinators, often attracting the insects with their sweet smell.
- Other orchids release perfume only when there is rain.
- Most of what people recognize as orchids are hybrids.
- Authentic species tend to have a very long stem and a small flower such as the yellow dancing lady seen below. Hybrids have less green and larger coloring buds and petals.
- Native orchids can live up to 100 years, but commercial hybrids have a lifespan of just five years, on average.
- Ecuador and Colombia have the greatest variety of these precious plants, while Monteverde, Costa Rica is home to 600 species.
- The national flower of Costa Rica is the purple guaria which blooms for two months.
- Vanilla is an orchid originally from the Americas. The French exported the valued flavorful bean to Madagascar.
The jardín de orquídeas is open 365 days a year from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. In addition to the walking tours, there are virtual visits available. To book, or for more information, view their website.
Monteverde is about a three-hour drive from San José, and two-and-a-half from Liberia. Although it is in the province of Puntarenas, it is about a one-hour 45-minute drive from the Pacific coastal city of Puntarenas. It’s in the middle of the country, set high among the cloud forests. If you head to Monteverde, don’t miss adventure activities.
People head to Monteverde/Santa Elena, Costa Rica for a walk in the clouds. But there’s far more you can do there beyond walking around. Monteverde sits at an elevation of 4,300 feet while the neighboring Santa Elena reserve is at 5,200 feet. The billowy cloud formations in the cordillera account for the area being considered a cloud versus a rain forest.
Adventure in the Clouds
For the adventurous, there are many companies that provide adrenaline-boosting activities. Monteverde Adventure has been in business for more than 15 years. The tour operator offers free pick up and drop off in “100% Aventura” decorated shuttles. The company runs two excellent moderately-priced tours which can be combined into a great full-day experience. Each adventure takes place just a five-minute drive from the other via van service. Both outposts are just ten minutes away from the center of Santa Elena.
The Hanging Bridges (Puentes Colgantes) is a fairly tame two-mile, two-hour guided tour where you pass through eight large, long, swinging, but sturdy, bridges that form unforgettable walkways through the jungle-like setting.
While the paths are not flat, they are well defined and the guide keeps a slow pace to point out the flora and fauna. The tour is apt for people of all ages that are comfortable walking a few hours amid possible heavy rains, sometimes muddy paths, and where creepy crawlies and snakes may roam. Toward the end of the excursion, there are two not fun challenges that participants can take advantage of, or skip, as they choose.
Beyond the less desirable insects and reptiles, you may catch a glimpse of an agouti (guatusa), the second-largest rodent in Costa Rica. These vegetarian diurnal animals bury their food but usually forget about their stash. As a result, trees sprout from the animals’ buried treasures. If you’re lucky, you will hear or see the monkeys in the trees. And you can’t miss the incredible ficus trees that are everywhere. The enormous trees grow around other trees, essentially strangulating them so that the center, where the original tree once stood, hollows out. Many of the forest animals, like porcupines, retreat to the darkness and shelter of nature’s tent within the ficus.
For those seeking a greater thrill, don’t miss the Canopy Tour where you will be flying through the forest via sturdy and safe cables. There are hand controls to allow you to slow down or speed up your flights, and for those unsure about flying solo through the forest, most guides will happily go in tandem with their less extreme-minded guests. The thrill-seekers fly through the forest on ten zip lines, a hammock bridge, a Tarzan swing, and one rappel. The three-hour extreme tour is appropriate for kids age eight and older.
Both these options are very well run with excellent guides. You may want to bring a change of clothes, a rain jacket or poncho, visors, and water bottles. Don’t forget your cameras.
Getting Here and Getting Around
What once was difficult to reach is now a pretty simple bus or car trip from both international airports and most of the central and southern parts of the country. In a private car, the cloud forest region is just a bit only two and a half hours from either San José (SJO) or Liberia (LIR) airports.
If you take the bus ride from the city of San José, there are two departures a day. The six-dollar ride departs from the rather new terminal located about four blocks west of San José’s central market. Called the 7-11, it’s a large facility on the corner of Avenida 7 and Calle 10*. Depending on traffic and the number of passenger stops along the way, allow for about four hours, maybe more. All buses make rest and snack stop about 90 minutes away from Monteverde.
The bus drops you off at a modern Centro Comercial in Santa Elena. Here, you can pick up anything you want at the grocery store, a natural foods store, several eateries including one with good keto and vegan options, and shops with pretty much anything else you may need or want during your stay.
Most all the accommodations, even if they say Monteverde is really in Santa Elena. However, there are a few guest options closer to the Monteverde Cloud Forest. But the majority of sites are near or in the tiny town of Santa Elena. While taxis are fairly inexpensive, many prefer to have their own car here. None of the reserves are easily accessible on foot from the center of Santa Elena. Beyond the distances, there are a lot of ups and downs in the roads or walkways. Plus, there is the rain. Not necessarily heavy downpours, but rain nonetheless.
If walking in the rain doesn’t bother you, and if you’re used to a lot of hiking, walking from one attraction to another can be very peaceful. But, once you get to your destination there will likely be plenty more hiking. So pace yourself.
For recommendations on tamer hikes and tours, read my next articles. For general information on the area, visit mv.com
* Newcomers to San José can get confused with the city’s grid quadrants. Even-numbered streets are on one side of the city center, and odd numbers are on the other. So Calle 10 is rather far from Calle 11. Avenidas run east and west while Calles run north and south.
A great place to visit while in San José, Costa Rica is the MAC. The Museo de Arte Costarricense’s building and grounds are reason enough for a visit. But, there are always excellent traveling, temporary, and permanent exhibits worth viewing throughout the facility. Canto a México: Homenaje a Ernesto Cardenal and Disifredo Garita: Traspasando el Umbral are two brilliant shows on display until the end of June 2021.
Homenaje a Ernesto Cardenal (Homage to Ernesto Cardenal)
Although the name of the museum infers it is a repository for Costa Rican art, and it is, displays at the MAC are not solely reserved for Costa Rican artists or themes. Canto a México is one example of the breadth and depth of work presented here.
Canto a México, which opened in March, is a visual serenade to Ernesto Cardenal (1925-2020). Cardenal (whose image appears in both prints on the left) was a Nicaraguan activist, Roman Catholic priest, and poet. After receiving his undergraduate degree in philosophy and literature from The National Autonomous University in Mexico City, he moved to New York City to pursue a Masters in Literary Arts at Columbia University. Additionally, he spent time in Kentucky with the well-known Trappist monk, Thomas Merton.
The highly respected renaissance man served as Nicaragua’s Minister of Culture for close to ten years. He received worldwide recognition for his literary accomplishments including the Queen Sofia Ibero-American Poetry Prize and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. Among the prolific author’s books was a collection of poems titled Canto a México (I Sing to Mexico) which gave name to the MAC exhibit.
Carlos-Blas Galindo is a Mexican visual artist, art critic, and professor who curated the collection. He selected 23 Mexican artists to create a homage to Cardenal’s life via linoleum prints, serigraphs, and xylographs. The images are diverse, post-colonial, de-colonial, post-Western, militant, yet unifying.
Many of the pieces on display are social commentaries that reflect Cardenal’s views about Nicaragua and the revolution, the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN), and even the United States.
It’s worth asking the docents about Cardenal’s work, or read up on him before your visit.
A linoleum print of Marilyn Monroe (image above) may seem out of place ay a collection of Mexican art honoring a Nicaraguan poet. But Cardenal wrote a “Prayer for Marilyn Monroe” that blasted the world, “contaminated by sin and radioactivity,” that she chose to leave when she was just 36 years old.
Most of the etchings in the exhibit are printed entirely in black ink. A few have a touch of red or yellow. Each print is 8″ X 10″ within a thin neutral-colored frame.
To complement the simple but message-invoking black and white prints from the Mexican artists is an exhibit comprised of large bold-colored contemporary art. Some are as large as 40” X 60”. Traspasado el Umbral (Beyond the Threshold), is the largest showing of Disifredo Garita’s work, ever, in one place, according to one of the docents. Nearly 100 of Garita’s paintings are arranged in chronological order.
Most of the paintings are on loan from private collections, but a few of Garita’s works on exhibit are property of Costa Rica’s Central Bank museum. Two, are from the permanent collection of the Museo de Arte Costarricense. While the majority are oil on canvas, there are a few watercolors, tempera, pastel, graphite, oil on wood, collage, and mixed media.
Many of his images are of females who resemble flowers with long stalk-like necks and hair as decorative petals.
“Art is to be a witness of our time, and feel love and honesty with oneself” Garita once said. The Costa Rican self-taught artist and writer studied art restoration in Mexico City in 1968. That was the year of the massacre of university students at Tlatelolco. His time in Mexico changed his painting techniques, and as he once said, the messages relayed in an artist’s work often arise from the subconscious.
Garita passed away in 1997 at the age of 53.
The Museo de Arte Costarricense, located at the eastern edge of La Sabana Metropolitan Park, is free of charge and open Tuesdays through Sundays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Guided tours are available upon advance request.
La Sabana airfield opened in 1940 in San José, Costa Rica. Its lifespan was short. Only 15 years after La Sabana welcomed its first flights, it was replaced by a larger facility 12 miles away in Alajuela, now home to the Juan Santamaria International airport (SJO). In 2019, more than five million passengers arrived at or departed from SJO. In April 2019, 464,390 travelers passed through the airport. That next April, at the height of quarantine, only 4,766 people flew in or out of the second busiest airport in Central America.
It’s hard to imagine that La Sabana, smack dab in the center of the nation’s capital, was once a landing strip. At the same time, back in the 1940s, the number of propeller planes headed in and out of the country must have been few.
Today, the structure that once served as the terminal has another use. Artfully remodeled to retain its original 1940s grandeur, the building is home to the Museum of Costa Rican Art which always has outstanding exhibits.
The expanse where runways once stood is a fitness fan’s haven. Instead of landing strips, there are ample tennis, basketball, and beach volleyball courts, a baseball field, a velodrome, multiple jogging paths, two ponds, and a national stadium that seats 35,000.
The stadium doubles as the country’s premier sports arena and music venue. Prior to the pandemic, the roster of top international artists performing at La Sabana’s stadium included Aerosmith, Foo Fighters, Marc Anthony, Ricardo Montaner, Alejandro Sanz, Romeo Santos, Yuri, Natalia Jimenez, and Chayanne.
Even if the stadium is closed, there’s plenty of reason to visit the 178-acre oasis. Sometimes referred to as the lungs of the city, La Sabana Metropolitan Park is the largest green space in San José.
A Breath of Fresh Air
Most Costa Rican tourists are attracted by the country’s natural beauty. The oceans. The volcanos. The rain and cloud forests. The biodiversity. The flora and fauna. But San José is your typical congested city.
Back in 1955 when La Sabana airport closed only 180,000 people called San José home. Now, the capital is a metropolis filled with tall buildings and 1.5 million residents. There is congestion. Heavy traffic. Buses, trucks, and cars emit irritating screeches, squeaks, squawks, and honks from as early as 4 a.m. Every day. But if you head to the middle of La Sabana, you can disengage from the city. This is an island of quiet and peacefulness. You can appreciate the sound of the birds, watch the butterflies flutter by, and breathe in and enjoy the aroma of the flowers, fresh air, and green grass and pine, eucalyptus, and cypress trees all around you.
For the sports-minded tourist, you can get your workout here. (To reserve court spaces, contact the Costa Rican Sports and Recreation Institute, ICODER). Children can enjoy play areas. Families, friends, or lovers can unwind and share food and drink on the many benches or picnic tables.
Budget-conscious travelers take note. La Sabana is a great place to hang out, free. Even the museum has no admission fee, and there is a lovely small sculpture garden behind the exhibit spaces.
Two of San José’s most colorful events (canceled in 2020) originate at La Sabana. The Festival de la Luz is a long colorful parade filled with bands, dancers, and illuminated holiday-themed floats in December. A one-of-a-kind traditional oxcart parade takes place in November. The Boyero festival begins in the park where hundreds of oxen and their drivers line up before traveling down the Paseo Colon toward downtown.
Prior to Coronavirus, 38,000 people visited the park each week. Normally open daily, it is temporarily closed on weekends due to the pandemic.
Travel in 2021
If 2020 was a year to stay at home, or close to it, 2021 is a year for breaking out of the cocoon.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 89 million people in the United States are fully vaccinated against the Coronavirus as of April 22. That equates to 27 percent of the population. And, a high 41 percent of the population has received at least one dose. With the impressive vaccination rates, more people are traveling despite warnings.
The U.S. State Department and the CDC discourage travel. Just this week, the State Department expanded its “Do Not Travel list” to 115 countries.
Yet, airplanes are still filling up. In keeping with recommended protocol, airlines require masks on all flights and limit food and beverage services. However, those middle seats are not remaining empty making social distancing impossible.
Travelers seem fine masked up for many hours inside an airport and airplane. But outside of those and other highly regulated public areas, many Americans are less rigid about (or eschew) donning their face covering and maintaining six feet of social distancing.
This is the land of freedom. Americans relish independence and do not always appreciate strict rules, even if they are in the best interest of public health and society at large. The younger, stronger, it-can’t-harm-me, bar-hopping, and beach-partying generation is not a priority for vaccines. And yet, they often ignore the CDC guidelines. Not surprisingly, in Michigan where a fourth wave is plaguing the state, it is the under 50 crowd that is filling the ICUs and ERs.
Covid Culture in Costa Rica
A recent visit to San José, Costa Rica, and the cloud forests several hours away confirmed Covid culture is different here from stateside. Vaccination procedures are not widespread. Shots are not available at pharmacies or grocery stores as in the States. People under age 58 are still ineligible unless they are front-line health care workers.
While all Costa Ricans I spoke to wanted to get vaccinated, less than nine percent of the population has received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.
However, the country is not at a standstill. Far from being in lockdown, it appears as if life is the same as always — with a few exceptions.
S@n José Inteligente
Safeguards are part of everyday life. Public health and private enterprise signage about Covid precautions are prominently visible, including digital billboards under the slogan: S@n José Inteligente.
Outdoor hand washes are commonplace, oftentimes with foot-operated controls. Most taxi or shuttle drivers squeeze gel or alcohol spray onto passengers’ hands as soon as they enter the vehicle.
Shoe sterilization areas are set up in random places from medical offices to tennis courts. Non-contact temperature checks are routine before entering museums and other establishments.
Bars and casinos restrict business to 50 percent capacity. Similar to the States, some businesses do not accept cash, preferring contactless credit card payments. Every other seat is blocked off. Some restaurant menus are limited to QR code viewing and ordering.
To curb large gatherings, the popular Sabana park is closed on Saturdays and Sundays, and driving restrictions are in place on weekends.
But the most jarring of all signs of the Covid culture is the fact that Costa Ricans wear their masks without complaint, everywhere. From inside their cars to out in the streets. The face-covering is just as much a part of attire as is a shirt and shoes. During one walk, I saw three GenX girls leave their house. Two were masked while the third put hers on as soon as she shut the door to her home.
At one business, I was the only person in a room with windows open wide. I asked the manager if I could remove my mask. “No. It’s a municipal requirement,” he responded. Outside of private homes, masks are mandatory indoors, except for when you are eating.
On four different tours in national parks, reserves, and outdoor gardens, although social distancing was easily maintained, everyone was told to don masks. “To be safer.”
While things may appear to be back to normal, last year, one in four Costa Ricans was unemployed during the height of the quarantine. Many businesses permanently shut down as a result of the pandemic. Empty storefronts are more common. Underemployment or unemployment is high forcing people to seek new avenues for income. With a large percentage of the population still struggling economically from the pandemic, and no unemployment insurance or significant stimulus funds handed out, masks may be the least of Costa Ricans’ concerns.
Wimberley, Texas is a popular weekend getaway for Texans. With its small-town feel, it seems much farther than just an hour from Austin or San Antonio. It is set back far from the Interstate, away from the hubbub, nestled between the Blanco River and Cypress Creek in the beautiful Texas Hill Country.
Aside from Ace Hardware and the HEB grocer, there are no chain stores or big boxes. No large hotels or motels, just a handful of quiet retreat centers, bungalow rentals, and Airbnbs. There are several wineries on beautiful land in Wimberley and the surrounding areas.
The downtown area is called Wimberley Square, but there’s no four-sided square. No park or municipal building surrounding by buildings. The “Square” is an ad-hoc set up of cute one-of-a-kind shops. Antiques, relics, and handcrafted items. And a cafe and ice cream parlor.
During the summertime, the main attraction is two watering holes: The Blue Hole and Jacob’s Well. Both are so popular that you need to reserve your swim time at least a month in advance, online.
The off-season is a great time to roam the scenic areas without the throngs of visitors. If you’re not cooling off in the water, you may even gain a better appreciation for the natural beauty of the parks. And perfect for social distancing getaways.
Jacob’s Well Natural Area
Jacob’s Well Natural Area is open year-round from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. No camping, hunting, fishing, biking, pets, alcohol, glass, or smoking allowed. Although the water is 68 degrees year-round, swimming is prohibited from October 1 to April 30, to protect and restore the habitat.
The 81-acre Natural Area includes easy and short hiking trails, a labyrinth, picnic areas, children’s play spaces, and plenty of birdwatching opportunities. The grounds are quiet and peaceful year-round, and the Well area is pristine when it isn’t used as a summer playground.
While Wimberley is known for being quiet, the park sits seven miles from Wimberley Square. The only sounds you will hear at this Hays Country preserve are nature. Water flowing. Leaves rustling. Birds chirping. Your footsteps against the stone or grassy pathways. And occasionally the voices of park staff or visitors.
What is called Jacob’s Well is actually an artesian spring. It is one of the most mysterious and breathtaking geological features in all of Texas. While it appears to be a very small area, it is the second-largest fully submerged cave in Texas. There are several caverns that extend for a full mile. The Well is also one of the most dangerous diving spots on earth, which is why diving is not allowed here.
Looks are deceiving. Glancing at the barely moving water, it could pass for a tiny dipping pool. The opening of the well is only 12 feet in diameter. But it descends 140 feet.
Thousands of gallons of water course through the fossil-rich limestone well daily. Groundwaters leaking through fractures in the Trinity Aquifer spring up in these caverns to become the source of the Cypress Creek and feed into the Blanco River and the Blue Hole.
Blue Hole Regional Park
Just a ten-minute drive from Jacob’s Well Natural Area is another famous destination. “USA Today” praised the Blue Hole as one of the best swim spots in the country. The three-acre swimming space on Cypress Creek (fed by Jacob’s Well) is fairly shallow, and kids love the Tarzan-like rope swing to drop into the water. Given its size, guest capacity is much greater than at Jacob’s Well. Morning or afternoon swimming slots are available Memorial Day through Labor Day, and weekends in September.
But the park is worth a visit even if you have no plans to get your feet wet. The natural and architectural layout and landscaping are outstanding. In the year 2018, the Austin Green Awards named Blue Hole “Project of the Year.”
The park, open daily from 8 a.m. to sunset, is a great place to relax, enjoy nature, hang out with friends or family, be active, or all the above. Spread out among its 126 acres are 4.5 miles of trails, a pavilion, restrooms, water fountains, an amphitheater, volleyball and basketball courts, soccer field, playscape. There are dedicated picnic areas, but most people bring their own ground covers, umbrella shades, folding chairs, and food and drink to set up in open areas.
Dogs are allowed, on leashes, just not near or in the water. For the hearty hiker, you can also walk along a trail all the way to Wimberley Square and back.
Periodically the Blue Hole has special events like star gazing or movie nights, so be sure to check the website before your visit.
Wimberley is a beautiful place to drive down back roads, hike, or bike by any of the waterways or woodsy public places. Even Wimberley Square has beautiful lounging areas behind the storefronts to enjoy the graceful water rolling over the rocks and enormous octopus-like tree branches.
Many flock to Austin, Texas to enjoy the music scene. Others head to the state capital to see why the locals say, “Keep Austin Weird.” The indie vibes in Austin also include enjoying the great outdoors, whether it be kayaking, biking, rollerblading, swimming, or picnicking.
Super Spots for Social Distancing
Austin is a great spot for nature lovers. The river is a main attraction. It runs right through downtown, and there are lakes in all directions. Both Lady Bird Lake and Lake Travis are actually reservoirs. And then there is Lake Austin which is even narrower, more like a river. Lesser-known bodies of water are Mueller Lake, Lake Georgetown (north of Travis County). San Marcos (southwest of Austin) is a great place for river rafting. Wimberley, between Austin and San Marcos, boasts two ever-popular watering holes: Jacob’s Well and the Blue Hole.
All the above are great spots to enjoy with friends or family and maintain social distancing. Another place with ample space is McKinney Falls State Park. This is a natural wonderland just ten minutes from the airport.
600 Acres for Nature Lovers
So close to Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) yet you don’t hear or see a single plane fly by. While the burgeoning real estate market is starting to spread to the state park, once inside the gates, it still feels as if you are far from the city. Carrie
There are more than 600 acres here. Thanks to the thick woods environment, most of the park is shaded. There are 80 campsites for RV hookups, tents, or cabin rentals, and loads of picnic areas. The park offers a few designated campfires areas too. Restrooms and water fountains are sprinkled throughout the area although visitors are encouraged to have plenty of water with them when they are on the trails.
Carrie is a San Antonio resident and avid camper. She went camping six times in the last four months of the Covid pandemic. Sometimes she takes her kids. Other times she goes just with her partner. “Nature is the perfect doorway into presence. Everything becomes a meditation: Boiling water, pitching a tent, starting a fire … It’s very simple yet very profound,” she says. She enjoys the outings as it provides ample quality time with loved ones, and is a way to shut out the stressors of city life. “Camping is teaching us to move slower, allow more patience in, and not take things so seriously.”
McKinney Falls State Park features nine miles of trails for hiking, biking, or jogging. Several of the trails run alongside 1.7 miles of Onion Creek. Most are fairly easy, and range between 15 to 90 minutes to complete. Others have pathways that can be muddy or filled with a bit of water. For those up for the moderate courses, consider wearing boots or waterproof shoes. Three of the trails require creek crossing, and May is the wettest month of the year. For those that want to cool off in the water, there are two beautiful areas to swim or wade: The Upper Falls and The Lower Falls. Bring a bathing suit and towel, and keep your dogs out of the water.
The Upper Falls has impressive limestone ledges and cliffs. The Lower Falls has larger waterfalls surrounded by a patio of limestone and volcanic ash that seems to extend forever.
While trails are marked in spots, you can get lost. Pin the location of your vehicle with GPS and note the GPS coordinates listed for several points of interest on the Trails Map. Unlike some state parks, phone and internet signals work well throughout McKinney Falls.
History of McKinney Falls State Park
In 1850, Thomas Freeman McKinney was traveling the Camino Real that winds up from Mexico City through Texas and across to Louisiana. McKinney chose to settle nearly 1,000 miles north of the former Tenochtitlán (Mexico City) in an area that had been inhabited by Native Americans for 10,000 years. His second wife and adopted daughter joined him later. The man who funded ten percent of the Texas Revolution was a wealthy slave owner. McKinney brought 14 of his slaves to build two houses, a grist-mill, and miles of livestock walls.
Around 1940, a fire burned down most of the original structures, but a portion of the walls remain.
McKinney died in 1873. His widow sold the land and that family donated the acreage to the state of Texas in 1973.
Open to the public since 1976, Texas Parks and Wildlife manages the reserve. Day passes are just six dollars per adult. Kids enter free. Pets are allowed for day trips, on a leash. The park is open to visitors from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Book online in advance.