January 20 - January 28
Sorry, photos aren't incorporated but can be found by clicking PHOTOS.
A couple months ago I found myself in a downtown Boulder dive bar in a physical state that some might call inebriated. I ran into a friend from my CU engineering program, Antonio Belmar, who was quite arguably more inebriated than I was. In this altered state, he invited me to travel to Costa Rica with him to visit his father who lives there and owns a hotel/restaurant. In a soberized and serious voice, I told him not to joke about such things because I would really go. He convinced me I was welcome, so on the morning of January 20th we met up in the Atlanta airport on our way to San Jose, Costa Rica.
Upon finishing a thorough molestation by the customs officials, we ventured outside the airport to find his dad, little brother, and their driver waiting for us. They had driven over 4 hours from Monteverde to the airport to pick us up. The trip back took a bit longer as we stopped several times for beers. The final 32 kilometers to Monteverde is on a steep and bumpy gravel/boulder road, yet the town is a major tourist attraction. You sure wouldn’t think it by the access road, but sure enough, at the end of this turbulent road through the middle of the jungle you arrive at the aptly named town of Monteverde (Green Mountain).
The first place we went was the bar at the De Lucia Inn, the name of the restaurant that Antonio’s dad, Jose, owns, named after his wife, Lucia. Jose treated us to an open bar upon our arrival. We also had a traditionally Bolivian/Peruvian dish called Ceviche – which consists of uncooked fish and other seafood, soaked in lime juice. The acidity of the lime marinade “cooks” the fish, making it much unlike sushi.
After drinking at the DeLucia Restaurant, we went to a local Monteverde bar, drank some more, then returned to the DeLucia Inn and had some more drinks. If you’re beginning to sense a trend, I was too – this is the Belmar way.
I woke up at about 9:00 and read for a couple hours while waiting for Antonio and Otto to wake up. Otto is one of Antonio’s friends he grew up with in New York, who apparently also found himself in the right place at the right time to receive the same invite I did. Breakfast, once again on the house, was the traditional Gallo Pinto (Beans and Rice). Typically spiced with garlic, cilantro, onions and peppers, Gallo Pinto is the Costa Rican breakfast of choice, often served with toast, eggs, and fresh fruit. As a side, I liked this so much I bought a recipe book on my way home and have made it several times since returning.
Jose made a few phone calls and scored us some free tickets to Selvatura Park. In this context, “Park” means a combination butterfly garden, hummingbird garden, serpentarium, canopy tour, and suspension bridge hiking trails. Our primary purpose for going there was the canopy tour, which entails riding ziplines through the canopy of the rainforest while dodging Howler Monkeys. On the bus ride to the park, the bus stopped and we all got out to view a clump of moss in the tree. Now, in Colorado, this would be quite a site as moss is a bit scarce, but Costa Rica has plenty of moss of all different species, so I was quite confused until I found out that the moss clump was actually a sloth (often referred to as a slow monkey by the locals). It didn’t move much, except for the time it moved its arm to scratch it’s face. The process of raising its arm, scratching momentarily, and lowering it’s arm back to the original position took a full 45 seconds – a slow monkey indeed!
The zipline tour was better than I expected. The longest one spanned 600 meters (almost 2000 feet for you non-metric folks) across a rather large valley. However, the adrenaline highlight came from the Tarzan swing at the end of the tour. The swing began with a 20 foot freefall before the long pendulum of a rope gradually took on your weight and proceeded to swing you way out over the jungle and back . . . and forth and back and forth and back, etc.
We never actually saw howler monkeys, but we heard them everywhere we went. They sound similar to a big dog barking even through they are relatively small monkeys.
I convinced my two roommates to get up early to take part in the 7:30 am guided tour of the Monteverde Reserve. Getting up early was crucial for getting to see and hear many of the thousands of bird species residing in the reserve. The Monteverde Reserve is called a reserve because nearly the entire area is old-growth rainforest, set aside, never to be cut down. Despite the efforts of many Costa Ricans to preserve these areas (there are many reserves throughout the country, totaling something like 25% of their land area) the forests are still being radically altered by human behavior via climate change. The effects of climate change are evidenced while driving to the reserve entrance on a dusty dirt road, which had never seen a dusty day prior to 10 years ago. Unfortunately, many animal species are not as resilient at roads.
While walking on our guided tour, we saw many different birds, including the coveted Quetzal. I’m not much into bird watching, but apparently seeing this bird is a bird watcher’s dream come true – and quite possibly the reason they chose to travel to Costa Rica. At any rate, the guide did an amazing job of finding this avocado-eating bird and training his spotting scope on it. Since the bird was digesting an avocado it had just eaten (this takes about 30 minutes) we were able to watch the Quetzal for some time. When finished digesting the fruit of the avocado, the Quetzal will gracefully puke up the seed and fly away.
After the hike we visited the hummingbird area near the entrance, where dozens of hummingbird feeders were attracting hundreds of hummingbirds of a seemingly infinite variety. Jose picked us up afterwards and we stopped at the Monteverde Cheese Factory on the way back to the hotel.
Later on that day, we went back to the reserve and went for a non-guided hike up to the continental divide and back. By this time it was misting/raining and the jungle took on the vibrant greens that are commonly associated with rainforests. It was too late in the day to see many animals, but the vegetation was all I had hoped for and more. We walked from the trailhead back towards town after the hike and stopped at Antonio’s aunt’s hotel on the edge of the reserve. We talked with her for a while, had some beers, and met Kat, who we would end up spending much of the next few days with. Kat was a friend of Antonio’s cousin, Karin, visiting from Connecticut, who grew up in Bolivia. I think I made that as confusing as possible. Antonio’s family is Chilean, by the way.
That night we made plans to take the Jeep-Boat-Jeep tour to the town of La Fortuna at the base of the Arenal Volcano.
The Jeep-Boat-Jeep tour ended up being a Van-Boat-Bus tour. It was interesting nonetheless and the boat trip across Lake Arenal was beautiful. We saw wild pigs and many white egrets on the trip. It took the entire morning to get there. Upon arriving, the hotel Jose had arranged for us to stay at was full, so we ended up at some other place where the bus driver dropped us off. It was only $8.00/night, so we didn’t complain. We bought tickets to go on a guided night hike up to the flanks of the volcano where, on a clear night, you can see lava spurting from the top and flowing down the sides. We were well aware that these clear nights come along about twice every moon cycle, so we weren’t too optimistic about seeing the mountain all aglow with fiery, red lava.
The trip we booked ended up being a bus ride to the other side of the mountain followed by a nature hike through the jungle at dusk into the clouds, followed by a 2.5 hour layover at the most spectacular developed hot springs I’ve ever seen. This was typical of most organized tours we participated in. For some reason, Costa Ricans like to keep things a bit of a mystery. Sign up, hope for the best, and you’ll usually get it.
We stopped on the way to the hike to look at another moss clump/sloth high up in a tree, coincidentally the same type of tree we saw the other one in (more on this later). We went on a beautiful hike in the rain to a part of the mountain ideal for viewing the lava, but never got to see the mountain because of the clouds. As a consolation I got to see the only monkeys of my trip. We also saw a wild turkey and several toucans (the bird with the huge schnoz that says “Follow my nose!” in the Fruit Loops commercial). The hot springs were amazing with the highlight being the swim-up bar in the center of the lowest of 8 pools.
With every high must come a low, or so it is often the case. We returned to our hotel to find that we were robbed, along with two of the three other hotel rooms at our four-room hotel. I managed to only lose my cell phone, which was actually a blessing in disguise because the phone was a total piece of s*$!. Luckily, I had my camera with me. Post robbery, there were no electronics, cash, or jewelry left in any of the three robbed rooms. Luckily, we had a mostly full bottle of vodka to help us move on.
We woke up to a blinding sun, which meant the clouds had gone and we could see the mountain. Although on the wrong side to see the lava, the steep, volcanic cone itself was spectacular to see. The hotel owner felt really bad about what had happened to us the night before, so he made us Gallo Pinto for breakfast. As Antonio, Otto, and Kat were getting ready to “Jeep-Boat-Jeep” it back to Monteverde, we saw an Iguana in a nearby tree – the only one we saw the whole trip.
After they left, I found a bus going to San Jose via San Ramon – wherever that was. The bus was beyond full, and I was one of three tourists on it. I had multiple opportunities to practice my Spanish with the lady sitting next to me who didn’t know a single word of English. We did manage to communicate some things, possibly even successfully. After transferring busses in San Ramon and ending up in San Jose, I hopped in a taxi and asked the driver to take me to Hotel Colonial, the place recommended to me by the travel agency I booked a rafting trip through. He had no idea where it was, and neither did the first dozen people he asked. I was able to get him reasonably close with the name of the district and a rough cross street. Eventually, we got close enough that somebody knew were it was and pointed him in the right direction. All this running around cost me about $3.00 in taxi fair – roughly the same amount as the 5-hour bus ride from La Fortuna to San Jose.
The hotel was really nice, but the neighborhood was quite sketchy. Sketchy enough, in fact, that I didn’t find it necessary to leave the confines of the hotel from the time I arrived at 2:00 pm until I was picked up by the rafting company at 6:00 am. It was at this hotel I took my first shower of the trip.
I was the first of a busload of people to be picked up for our raft trip on the Pacuare River. Next were Dan and Denise from Colorado Springs. They had gotten married a week earlier in Tamarindo, a Costa Rican beach town on the Pacific side. The proceeding month was their honeymoon. After them were Buck and Monica from Canada. Both of these couples were roughly my age and fun to hang out with. This was the end of the fun people. Half way to the put in (2 hours away) we stopped to pick up some more people. We waited nearly a half hour for them to get ready after we arrived at their hotel. Finally, seven French people (hereafter collectively referred to as “The Frogs”) showed up with their Costa Rican interpreter. Once at the river, The Frogs got their own boat, so we didn’t have to deal with them much after that.
This meant that Dan, Denise, Buck, Monica and I piled in the second boat. The first day of rafting was short, so we took our time getting to the lodge where we would all stay at least one night. We slowed things down by surfing the raft in various waves, playing in the waterfalls flowing into the river, and trying to flip the raft in eddy lines, which we managed to do successfully.
We arrived at the Pacuare Lodge for a late lunch. The lodge facilities were exquisite with really nice rooms and what I would consider a Five-Star restaurant. Dan and Denise paid extra for the honeymoon suite, which was up in the forest and had its own suspension bridge leading to a crow’s nest in the rainforest canopy. After lunch we went for a hike to a waterfall, which we had to leave shortly after arriving because the guide wanted to get back before the snakes came out. I later found out that this was not a joke.
We returned to the lodge for a fine dinner and hammock relaxation in the bar above the restaurant. The bar tender was Max, who was also our rafting guide and our hiking guide. Max had rafted the Pacuare approximately 3600 times over the past 12 years – no, that is not a typo.
Dan and I got up at 6:00 to go on a nature hike with Max. We never left the vicinity of the lodge, but managed to see a variety of birds and insects. He also went into detail about the habits of sloths, which I must now share. Sloths spend most of their time in a species of tree known as the Cicopia. They will typically spend seven days in one of these trees before climbing down and finding a new one. Being the lazy creatures that they are, they eat the leaves of the same tree they live in. This is arguably more smart than lazy, but the simple fact remains that the Cicopia leaves make the sloth high. The native Cabecar Indians have known of the leaves hallucinogenic powers for thousands of years. So there you have it – the sloth is lazy because he is constantly stoned out of his gourd because his primary source of food makes him this way.
After breakfast, one of the guides asked if we wanted to see a big frog. Even I knew the answer to this question. Moments later several of us were gathered around a frog larger than my fist. As I moved around the frog, maintaining about 4 feet of separation while taking pictures, I noticed some blood at the corner of his mouth. My first thought was that he had just eaten something. I zoomed in to get a close up of the blood, took another step around the frog, and watched a Fer-de-lance snake slither away, originating from where I was just standing. Turns out the frog hadn’t just eaten something; something was in the process of eating the frog. My immediate thought was “Cool! A snake!” but Max grabbed me and began to panic. The Fer-de-lance is a member of the viper family, happens to be highly venomous, and is known for its unusually aggressive behavior. I had read about these snakes as Costa Rica in general has an overabundance of them. I’m glad I got to see one moving away from me rather than towards me.
After the frog/snake incident, The Frogs and the Canadians left the lodge to finish their rafting trip. Dan, Denise and I were scheduled to stay two nights at the lodge, so we proceeded to go on a hike to see some more waterfalls. The first one we came to doubled as a natural slide. Max, Dan, and I took advantage of this fact while Denise took pictures and videos. I had initially planned to hike a couple miles into the mountains to visit the home of a tribe of Cabecar Indians. Due to the unusual amount of rain the previous night, Max said the steep trail would be too muddy and there would be too many snakes out. I didn’t argue.
We returned from our waterfall hike for lunch at the lodge. I took a nap in one of the bar hammocks while Dan, Denise, and two new arrivals went on the zip line canopy tour. The two new people were Todd and Vanessa from Scottsdale, AZ – more fun people to hang out with. The day was capped with another exquisite dinner followed by the candlelight bar. There is a generator at the lodge to power the refrigerator, but other than that here is no electricity.
The morning of the 27th was unusually nice, which prompted breakfast to be served outside on the lawn at the river’s edge. Once I looked under the table for snakes, I was fine with the idea and it was one of the most beautiful settings imaginable. We began rafting shortly after breakfast with Max as our guide once again – only this time we had replaced two Canadians with two Arizonans. We left before the 1-day trip participants reached the lodge, but planned for them to catch us further down the river.
We stopped at a stream coming into the Pacuare and hiked up it past several waterfalls to a spot where Max said there were good jumping rocks. Good jumping rocks there were, but the best part was when I followed Max as he swam towards a waterfall, climbed up the rocks next to it, and disappeared behind it only to reemerge on the other side. From my vantage point this appeared to be some sort of magic trick, but Max convinced me to follow him and I soon found out that there was just enough room to lie down on your belly and inch across a small ledge: raise up an extra inch or two and you’ll be pummeled by the waterfall and knocked off the ledge. The fun didn’t stop here. Once on the other side of the fall we skirted the slightly overhung wall above the pool we had been jumping into until we peeled off and fell.
We were caught by the day trippers shortly after we resumed rafting. There were four boats of 13 year old kids from the states. They would have been as bad as The Frogs, but we didn’t have to wait for them. There were several class 4 rapids after this point and a whole slew of wildlife including tiger cranes, egrets, toucans, a sloth, and a poison dart frog. The toucans were obnoxious as they flew over the river: flapping wildly one moment, and going into a nose dive the next as their noses are way too heavy for their bodies. That whole “follow my nose” saying really isn’t that funny, the poor creatures really don’t have much of a choice in the matter. Max knew I hadn’t seen a poison dart frog on my trip, which was about to end, and he knew I really wanted to. A half mile before the take out, he stopped us on the side of the river, got out and rummaged around back in the forest. All of us in the boat thought he had to go to the bathroom, but really he was looking for a frog to show me. Sure enough, he came back with a “Blue Jean” poison dart frog and set it in the raft. About the size of my thumbnail, the bright red frog with blue legs was smaller than I had expected, but an amazing creature nonetheless. I guess when you’ve rafted the same river 3600 times you learn where the different critters reside.
At the end of the trip, we found out that support kayakers with our guiding outfit, Aventuras Naturales, were taking pictures of us as we went down some of the swifter rapids. Todd and Vanessa bought one of the CD’s with all the pictures on them and later sent me a copy. The pictures definitely make it look crazier than it seemed at the time. We filled up our beers and got on the bus back to San Jose.
I arrived at the Hotel Colonial around 6:00 to find Antonio and Otto waiting for me. They had managed to make contact with one of Antonio’s cousins, Karin, who owned a hotel near the San Jose Airport. I canceled my Hotel Colonial reservations and jumped in their SUV taxi. After stopping at the liquor store, we found the hotel owned and operated by Karin and her husband Nuvel. They were busy with guests when we arrived, so we drank beer and ordered Papa John’s Pizza. Kat had decided to prolong her trip an extra day, so she was there as well. The rest of the evening involved a lot of wine.
I managed to enjoy yet one more gratuitous typical Costa Rican breakfast before returning to the states, courtesy of Karin and Nuvel. Then it was off to the airport and back to the daily grind.
Overall the trip was a great combination of spending time with friends, hanging out with locals, and traveling solo. Two weeks was not nearly enough to see the country. I never even made it to either coast, so I’ll have to go back at some point. It’s looking like the next international trip will be Peru.