Amy and I were looking for another bit of international adventure. We contemplated an Italy/Switzerland trip in the summer to see cultural sites and climb alps. However we were stymied by the fact that a) airfare to Europe in the summer is very expensive, b) we couldn't get all that worked up about climbing alps when Colorado has plenty of nice mountains of its own, and c) July in Colorado is gorgeous; why leave? Costa Rica, on the other hand, has lots of things we don't have at home (monkeys, jungles, volcanoes, palm-fringed beaches), is comparatively cheap to get to, and prime tourist season is November through March.
After having spent a significant fraction of our time in both Chile and New Zealand doing logistics rather than tourism, we resolved to go with a more structured vacation. Luis at Costa Rican Connection in Boulder set up for us an eight-night tour spending time in three different locations in country. Hotel reservations, all transportation, and some activities were taken care of leaving us with a few free days to fill as we saw fit.
The Short Version...
Volcan Arenal - Two more nights at the nice Arenal Observatory Lodge on the south side of one of the most active volcanoes on Earth. Our first night, we went to the famous Tabacon hot springs which turned out to be entirely too touristy for our tastes. Amy also sprained her ankle pretty badly which caused all kinds of angst and pain. Fortunately, everything turned out (mostly) well.
Jaco and the Pacific - Three nights in Jaco, a surf town on the Pacific Coast. Jaco was nice in that it wasn't a resort and we got to see the "real" Costa Rica, but that came with both good and bad as well as a three day, all night surf competition and window-rattling disco next door. We escaped for a day on a wonderful cruise to Isla Tortuga, had great food, met great people, and got to swim and kayak in a bone-fide tropical paradise.
The reception area, dining hall, and pool at Lands in Love
In temperate forests, this would turn into a fern. In the jungle... I have no idea.
Being a cloud forest, it was often raining and usually cloudy. We spent quite a while playing billiards, listening to the rain and birds, and getting to know both the Costa Rican and Israeli staff. Our first day we did a "canopy tour" which involved cables, bridges and trails between 18 different platforms in trees and towers. You wear a harness, helmet, and thick leather gloves (used for braking on the cables), and ride along on a triply-redundant pulley system. The 857 meters of cables took us zipping through the upper reaches of incredibly lush forest at high speeds; freaky at first, even for seasoned alpinists, but quickly quite comfortable and fun. We were the only tourists on our tour and our guides Pedro and Rugby (?) spent a bit longer explaining the different flora along the way than they might normally have.
Amy zips through the trees during the Canopy Tour.
Amy and I with Pedro high in the giant female Ceiba tree.
A huge tree in the cloud forest with enormous root fins.
On Monday, we had a guided hike with Pedro to see wildlife. Pedro seemed impressed at how spry we were and, after a little bit on easy trail, lead us down unsigned, rougher trails deeper and deeper into the forest. At one point we were thrashing our way through dense, wet foliage off-trail, to get around a fallen tree. It's amazing how much life can cram itself into every cubic meter! We never saw monkeys or anything larger than an occasional bird, but Pedro introduced us to all sorts of fascinating plants including giant Cieba trees (male and female) and a whole family of "walking trees" that move latterally at a rate of a foot per year. Crazy! We did hear howler monkeys, though never saw any. At least we knew now which plants we shouldn't touch and how to not step on snakes.
After lunch, Amy and I struck out again for the waterfall and spent a while taking pictures. Then a swim in the pool and hot tub (well, warm tub) and another evening spent playing pool while it rained outside. Enforced relaxation can be a nice thing, it turns out.
A pair of butterflies. The one on the right is an Owl Butterfly and was about 6" across. We also saw two Blue Morphos which are equally large and neon blue (also somewhat rare).
Tuesday morning, I got up at 5:30 to try to find howlers (they are most active in the morning). Armed with my newfound knowledge of the cloud forest and general topology of the trails, I set off toward where we'd heard monkeys yesterday. It was raining and I was quickly soaked through, but I was moving fast and well along the trails. Howlers were doing their thing in the distance, but nothing nearby. As I'd given up hope, I heard a nearby monkey start up. I hooted back and he answered me! Hiking in the general direction of the sound, hooting periodically, I zeroed in on his tree. The hooting was coming from a hundred feet off the ground and I could see branches thrashing around up there more than could be accounted for by the light wind. I climbed a rough trail to one of the canopy tour platforms and finally caught a sight of my monkey. We hooted back and forth at each other for a while and I climbed to a higher and then higher still platform. There were actually at least two monkeys up there and I caught glimpses of their prehensile tails and long limbs and they scrambled around the branches with an agility I can never aspire to. Primate to primate, we howled at each other for a while seeking dominance or common ground. It was a pretty powerful experience and I hiked back for breakfast contemplative and moved.
The small waterfall on Sendero Catarata.
Howler Monkeys: easy to hear, but hard to see.
Our driver was the same fellow who brought us to San Lorenzo and it was definitely and interesting time. On our first transfer, we'd figured out that he spoke no English at all and that our Spanish was quite lacking. This time we discovered that he was also fully illiterate. I could read him something in Spanish (which I couldn't understand but he could), but he couldn't communicate back with us. Between our being able to read road signs and maps and his driving skills, we made it down the 11 km of rough dirt road to the surprisingly posh resort.
The view of Lake Arenal from our first room.
Another waterfall, in the rain.
Arenal is somewhat different from the cloud forest; tall groves of pine trees replace the huge hardwoods, though the understory is similarly choked with vines and huge leaves. While we waited for our room to be made ready, we took a short hike to another waterfall and a long return on an extremely muddy and rough trail. We also met Phil Slosberg, a very genial American ex-pat now living in Costa Rica doing wildlife photography, and talked to him for quite a while. After lunch in the cafeteria it began to rain in earnest again and we lounged in our nice little room with a view of Lake Arenal. The volcano was wreathed in clouds. Despairing of it ever clearing, we finally donned rain gear and hiked a very nice paved path through the grounds and forest.
Our scheduled evening activity was a trip to the famous Tabacon Hot Springs. We had a great time at the wild hot spring we visited in Chile and the one in Rotorua, NZ, was touristy, but still pleasant enough.
The less said about Tabacon, the better. My first hint should have been the wall-sized advertisement for Tabacon in the airport on the way in. The reality was a whole lot of tourist trap full of $8 pina coladas at the swim-up bar and far too many elderly men in Speedos. The water was nice enough, but we spent entirely too long getting lost on brick paths through carefully-manicured jungle, barefoot and in the dark before our appointed time for the buffet came along. All in all, I spent only about 20 minutes actually soaking and never managed to really relax. In my own personal Inferno, this rates about the fourth circle. Feh! The only bright moment was that we met Chris and Leslie, Floridians in CR for their honeymoon, and shared a nice cab ride and dinner with them.
Most of the time, the volcano looks like this...
...but sometimes it looks like this!
The fun was not over when we left the hot springs, however. Here on the north side of the volcano, you can see lava pouring down the slopes at night. Amy and I were trying to get around the bright lights and steam plume of Tabacon to see the lava when she fell into the deep gutter on the side of the parking lot. Her ankle was swollen and painful and she had all the signs of a break or pretty bad sprain. Chris and Leslie, our driver Tony and several bystanders came swiftly to our aid.
What to do? Do we go back to the Lodge where all our stuff is (but is very isolated) or do we try to stay at Tabacon (and the adjacent mega-resort) with unknown but presumably better access to medical facillities? I chose to go back to our room, but agonized over the decision the whole way. Eleven kilometers of bumpy road took their toll on everyone and Amy was not happy by the time I carried her into our room.
For one of only a very few times in my life, I felt completely and totally out of my depth. Here I was with a wife who couldn't walk and was in a great deal of pain, in the middle of the night in a foriegn country where I don't have any useful command of the language, no phone, no transportation, and no way to change our already-paid-for plans. Our neighbors turned out to be EMTs from Seattle, but they could offer little help besides saying, "Yeah, that looks broken. You should get it X-rayed." Would we need to cut our trip short and fly home immediately? Should I call the embassy? Summon a helicopter? Call my mother? Help!
First thing in the morning, I walked grimly up to the main office to do whatever needed to be done. On the way, I ran in to Phil the bird photographer. "Phil," I pleaded, "You're an American. What do I do?"
"Well," he replied, beatifically tranquil, "You know I'm an E.R. doc, right?"
As they say, luck comes in both good and bad. Phil agreed that yes, it looked broken and it should be X-rayed. He contacted a doctor in La Fortuna (about 40 minutes away) who spoke excellant English and had his own ambulance. The nearest X-ray was in Cuidad Quesada, however, another hour past Fortuna but he could help us get there and translate as needed.
Within the hour we were whisked to Sanar Consultores to see Dr. Sergio Arias Bonilla in a spare but very clean office. He poked and prodded Amy's foot culminating in some gentle whacks in different places with a reflex hammer. "Does this hurt, or does this really hurt?" he asked. Since there were no shooting pains up her leg, he diagnosed it as a sprain and gave us a prescription for various meds at the pharmacy one block down. He also sold us a pair of crutches and sent us on our way. Total cost: $80 and about 30 minutes in the office. In the US, this would have cost at least that much in insurrance co-pays alone, and taken many hours of waiting in the emergency room. Another plus was that I finally got access to a bank and was able to obtain some colones and got a little glimpse of a more "real" Costa Rican town.
Clouds, forest, it's a cloud forest!
One of several tame coatimundis at the Lodge.
Back to the Lodge where we transfered to a closer room to the dining hall and main office. They put us in a nice, handicapped accessible room with a great view of the volcano and let us borrow one of the several wheelchairs on the premise. Overall, this wasn't how I'd pictured spending my vacation, but it could certainly have been much worse.
After a couple hours of napping, Amy relaxed at the pool for a while, while I tried to burn off some demons in a hike. Of course, the minute I set foot on dirt, it started to rain again and didn't stop until I was back at the pool; demons still in residence. A nice candle-lit dinner at the dining hall, much transformed from it's burgers-and-coke lunch menu, did a great deal to sooth our spirits and we looked forward to our next destination with a renewed, if subdued enthusiasm.
Tiki tiki tiki!
Adventure Tub is not handicapped accessible!
Jaco alternates between posh and squalid with very little middle ground. This area is a center for Canadian and American retirees to purchase luxury condos ("pre-construction pricing starting in the low $300,000s!") as well as one of a string of major surf beaches in the area and the town is thus schitzophrenic in the worst way. A major surf competition was going on for three days next door and mini-van sized speaker racks blasted latino pop music and/or excited, high-speed surf commentary at a window-rattling level from 7 am until after midnight for three straight days.
Thanksfully, we were picked up early on Friday morning for what would become the real highlight of the trip; a one-day cruise to Isla Tortuga in the Golfo Nicoya. Our taxi held eight people including a two friends from Seattle, a married couple from Texas, and Nuno and Theresa, a charming Portuguese couple on their honeymoon. We drove north to Punta Arenas, the major port town on the west coast, stopping for a nice breakfast along the way.
Amy installed in the deck pool.
Isla Tortuga the the Manta Raya
The Manta Raya is a space-aged catamaran with two deck pools and nets strung between the bows. I was a bit dismayed when I saw the crowd of people lined up to board, but the ship accomodated them all without feeling crowded. Amy was installed at the edge of one of the pools and white-coated crew members circulated with trays of drinks and fresh fruit. It was very classy. The weather for the first half of the trip was gorgeously sunny, but it clouded up and started to rain pretty hard on the second half. We debarked in a light rain (Amy crutched valiantly up the beach) and everyone sought shelter amongst the palm trees.
Enjoying a really fabulous lunch.
Kayaking with Theresa and Nuno.
Two animals you wouldn't expect on a tropical island. This javelina (wild pig) walked right up to me and rolled over to have its belly scratched.
Nuno and Theresa came by after freshening up and we went out to dinner in Jaco. It was a really long but very rewarding day. I'm glad we didn't pack up and go home after the accident, but this does feel like a nice way to finish our trip.
We had various ideas for our last day in CR--a boat tour to see crocodiles and other wildlife, maybe surf lessons, or some shopping--but we ended up lounging by the beach and pool and having a relaxing time. We met three genial fire fighters from LA and talked to them for quite a while. I wandered down the beach and through town. Amy has always complained that I don't know how to relax (which is true), but I might have gotten half-way there today. It was surprisingly nice (despite the continued pounding surf commentary from next door). For dinner, we hailed a cab and had a really nice, casual dinner at a resturant on the main drag. Amy demonstrated her gumption by crutching the whole way back to the hotel (maybe half a mile).
When we went, we'd been told about how cheap Costa Rica is. From what I've seen, this is largely a myth. It is perhaps a little bit cheaper than the US, but definitely not T-bone steaks for under $1 cheap. Our vacation was not cheap.
I'd also been under the impression that it was a country dripping in wildlife. We'd hoped to see toucans, sloths, parrots, snakes, colorful frogs, and monkey's galore. We saw some wildlife (mostly birds), but it wasn't nearly as rife as we'd hoped. On the one hand, this made my one howler monkey encounter all the more powerful, but on the other, Amy never saw any monkeys besides one crossing the road. Plant life, on the other hand, was incredibly rife.
The people often make the trip. Costa Rica is crammed with Americans, many of them on their honeymoon. Still, we met a good number of interesting folks from America and elsewhere: Mauricio, Pedro, Naama, Assaf, and the rest of the crew at Lands in Love; Phil, Chris, Leslie, Scott, Layla, and the staff at Arenal; Nuno and Theresa, Larry and the firemen at Jaco, and a host of others who's names I never learned.
The packaged tour through Luis at Costa Rican Connection was nice, but I would have preferred to have a bit more freedom once we arrived in-country (this is hardly his fault, we should have known more of what we wanted). Were I to do it again, I would book my hotels and some activities ahead of time, but rent a car and have a bit more flexibility. I'd also spend a lot more time researching things beforehand; Tabacon was not our cup of tea and Jaco isn't the beach town I probably would have picked, in retrospect. I'd also spend a lot more time brushing up on my Spanish vocabulary. We could get by with about 50 words, but it would have been a whole lot more rewarding to have more.
For me, part of the fun of international travel is interacting with people in a different country. I've done full-on third-world travel and I've travelled in the more developed world. This was a nice mix of the two; foriegn enough to be exotic and interesting, but not so much that I can't function. I love going to foriegn grocery stores, and trying to do "every day" tasks in a new culture. This trip provided a number of good "mini-adventures": going out to Subway to get Amy a sandwich, shopping for granola bars and water at the Super Frutastica, discussing the language, customs, and wildlife with taxi drivers entirely in what Spanish I could muster.
But for now, it's good to be home.
The Wilderness Journal