On Thursday, November 19th, I flew to Costa Rica for a week of vacation with my parents. I got a call from them before I left for my afternoon flight that there were airport delays because of a computer problem or something, but my flights were still listed as on-time. I had a short layover in Dallas and then a four hour flight arriving in San Jose around 9. While waiting to go through immigration, I picked up some free wi-fi and found a email from my dad saying that they had missed their connection in Miami and had to spend the night there and would arrive in Costa Rica the next day. Fortunately we had planned for this possibility, so I had the hotel information. It was soon apparent that, as promised, a lot of people spoke English fairly well and that US dollars are an accepted currency (in addition to the native colones). I paid $3 to a taxi dispatcher, and got in a cab. The hotel was only about a mile from the airport, so we got there quickly and that's all the fare was. It took a few minutes for the driver and security guy to negotiate that I was in fact a guest for the evening and let me in. The guard showed me to my room and tried to ask what time I wanted to have breakfast, but we couldn't understand each other, so another employee who speaks English called to ask. I had trouble getting to sleep since it was kind of warm and pretty humid, and no air conditioning. I couldn't quite figure out the overhead fan to get it to go fast or at least not hum so much, either.
Friday morning, in what would be a recurrent theme, I woke up with the sun and the many birds around 5:30. I tried to go back to sleep, but couldn't, and read my book until around 7. The hotel served a traditional breakfast- delicious fresh fruit, eggs, and rice and black beans. I would have gone for a walk or something, but the neighborhood didn't look very good when I got in, so I just went back and read in the room. By the time I thought that maybe I should take a taxi to see the downtown area, it was too close to when my parents were due in. I wound up finishing my book, Jon Krakauer's new one, Where Men Win Glory, by noon. I checked out and waited on the porch reading a magazine until my parents arrived at 1. After saying hello, we threw my stuff in the car and headed toward our destination for the next two nights near Arenal Volcano. Initially we were driving on what passes for a major highway in Costa Rica- four narrow lanes, the outer ones looking more like a shoulder in the states- we got off on a smaller road that seemed more typical of the roads in the country. It was paved, but there were numerous one-lane bridges and spots where the road had washed out and the road department just put up warning signs. In some cases, the road surface was torn up and there wasn't even a warning. Also there were lots of tight turns as the roads wound along the steep water-formed valleys in the lush hills. It was kind of sad to see how much of the land near the road had been cleared for farming, which couldn't be easy with the steep slopes. Fortunately the deforestation hasn't been anywhere near as extensive in Costa Rica as in many other tropical countries. Costa Rica seems to have realized that the rainforests are its chief asset, and tourism (especially "eco-tourism") is its major industry. When we got to our hotel and our room we found it was very nice and that it would have an excellent view of the volcano, if only the clouds would clear up. After getting settled a bit, my mom and I soaked in the hot tub for a little while. Later we had a pretty good dinner in the hotel's restaurant.
Saturday morning, the volcano was still hiding behind the clouds. After breakfast we went to Arenal Volcano National Park. We weren't far when it started to rain. We all had rain jackets, but my mom's was old and worn out and didn't really offer any protection. She decided to turn back toward the car, and my dad went with her. They let me go on hiking while they kept themselves busy. On my own, I went at my pace, which is of course much faster. I left the hard-packed main trail for a muddy side trail through dense forest. It was my first taste of a real tropical rainforest. The rain came down in varying levels- never too heavy, but never quite letting up. At one point I thought I must have been near a river, but realized it was just that the rain on the leaves was particularly loud at that point. By the time I got back to the main trail, I was pretty muddy from the waist down. I was thinking I'd just head back, but realized I was pretty much at the end of the trail, so I climbed up onto field of large volcanic rocks. If it hadn't been for the clouds, it probably would have been an excellent view of the volcano. In the other direction I could just see Lake Arenal through the clouds. On the way back to the car it was quite evident that a lot more people had shown up since we arrived, and there were a few tour buses as further evidence in the parking lot. From the park, we drove on to what was supposed to be one of the finest craft shops in the country, except that it was closed. At a shop further down the road run by American expats, we found out that it had recently closed, and another place my mom was interested in had closed several years ago- proof that our supposedly recent guide book was out of date. When we got back to the hotel the rain had stopped and it looked like the sky might actually clear. I wanted to go for a hike or something in the afternoon, but there was nowhere I could walk to from the hotel, and driving around it didn't seem like there was much of any place else to go hiking, at least not without some charge. I wandered around the property and found they had something of a nature walk, although it seemed to not have been completed. I sat on the porch of our room for a while, watching for the clouds to clear from the volcano while my dad was painting. The clouds started to lift and seemed like we might actually see the volcano, then another cloud came along and obscured it again. It went on like that a few times until the sun started to set, and more of a layer of clouds rolled in. We went into the small nearby town to look around and ostensibly to have dinner. We went into a couple of shops that had some interesting wood stuff, and that was about the only thing that seemed all that interesting. We were going to have dinner at a place there, but it didn't have anything we were particularly interested in eating and seemed a little expensive, so we just went back to the hotel and shared a pizza.
Sunday we got up, had breakfast, checked out and headed on to our destination for the next two nights- the town of Monteverde at a higher elevation in the "cloud forest." Monteverde is not very far, as the crow flies, from Arenal, but it takes a while to get there over narrow winding dirt roads. Along the road we stopped at a place with waterfalls we had picked up a brochure for. The place was called Viento Fresco Waterfalls, and it lived up to its windy moniker. The poorly translated brochure might have been a warning, but the guy selling tickets only spoke a little more English than any of us spoke Spanish. After his pidgin description my mom correctly surmised that it would be more walking than she cared for. The dirt road we had already come across from Arenal was enough to convince us that we had made the right choice in upgrading the rental car to a 4x4, but the tiny single-lane "road" down to the parking area for the waterfalls really required it. Either my dad and I or the people in charge of the place (or both) are not the best judges of distance in meters, and it seemed as though we should have already come to the trail when we saw a trail heading up. We thought it must be a trail to the first waterfall, even though it wasn't marked. We hiked up and found that it only led back to the narrow road we had been coming down. We did get a close-up view of a few vultures taking off, so it wasn't a total waste of energy. We got back to the car and drove just a little further to the actual parking area, where there were signs pointing to the waterfalls. The trail wasn't great- fairly steep concrete steps that were a little slippery and a "railing" that was more like irrigation tubing. The first of the four falls of one small stream was the most accessible, and the others descended from there probably about 500 vertical feet to the lowest one. The first one was nice and they had added a small dam for people to be able to swim. The second was nice, with the water dropping from around a big boulder, and with miniature caverns behind the falls. The third one, however, was the most dramatic at over 200 feet. It looked as though it was set up to allow people to get into the water or even stand under the falls, but it seemed to me like it would not be fun to have water falling that far and pounding on a person. It seemed as though the place was set up to have plenty of visitors, but we didn't see anybody else while we were there, and in fact according to the visitors book we were the first since Thursday. We decided not to go down to the fourth falls, which was more like a slide than a straight shot like the others. I had some water and a snack before we started making our way back up to the parking area. The drive back up to the "main road" was challenging, but fortunately our car was up to it, and it didn't prove to be a problem. We continued along the dirt road through the beautiful lush green valleys through the small tourist town of Santa Elena (ah, paved roads) to the even smaller "town" of Monteverde and to our hotel. Before we got to the hotel, though, we toured a butterfly garden with four enclosures meant to represent different areas of Costa Rica. Also on that tour was a colony of leaf cutter ants in a glass enclosure to see their fascinating lives. It turns out they don't actually eat the leaves, they bring them in to feed a fungus, and the ants eat the fungus (or a byproduct of it, I'm not certain which). Right near our hotel we stopped at a cheese factory. It wasn't in operation, but we did buy some cheese, which turned out to be quite tasty. Once we got settled in our room we made arrangements for a guided tour of the nearby National Park in the morning, then headed into town. We wound up having a delicious dinner at a small tapas restaurant owned by an American expat.
Monday morning we had breakfast early, then met up with our guide and another couple staying at the hotel for a tour of Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve, a short distance up a muddy road from where we were staying. The reason we decided to hire a guide rather than just find our own way was in hopes of seeing the famous but hard to find quetzal, a colorful bird with a long tail. Our guide was from the area and spoke excellent English, and knew the flora and fauna of Costa Rica in general and specifically in this park. It was also nice to have the guide because none of us had thought to bring binoculars and the guide had a spotting scope on a tripod so we could see things we'd never be able to see with our naked eyes. There were a number of birds flying around, but most of them jumped around too quickly to get a real good look at. We walked to one area where the quetzal had been seen, I believe it was near a nest. The guide pointed out lots of the plants along the way, including numerous orchids, most of them very tiny. Most of the trees were alive with epiphytes that live off of nutrients and water in the clouds that pass through pretty much every day of the year. We waited around in that first spot for a little while, all of us with our eyes peeled for any possible sighting. After not seeing anything there, we moved on to see if maybe we would spot it elsewhere. Whenever we passed other groups, the guides would confer as to whether they had seen a quetzal or if they had heard anything, which was nice to see the cooperation. After coming up empty in that area of the park, we went back to the entrance for a quick break and then went into another area. We went pretty much straight to a large tree bearing small avocados, a favorite food of the quetzal. In all likelihood a bird would be at that tree sometime in that next day or two, but since we didn't have that kind of time, we headed back having seen a lot of and learned a lot about the cloud forest. In addition to all the stuff about plants and wildlife, he said he had climbed Cerro Chirripó, the highest mountain in Costa Rica three times, which is something I would have liked to be able to do but didn't have time for this trip. We ended the tour at a shop near the entrance with several hummingbird feeders and lots of hummingbirds, in at least six or eight species, but probably a lot more than that visit them. We went back to the hotel and had a simple lunch. Later my dad dropped my off back at the entrance to the park, where I got a trail map and the woman gave me some information about the trails. I started out on the trail up to the continental divide. The first stretch of trail was pretty nice and hard packed, but then it connected to a muddy dirt road. It was pretty cloudy up at the continental divide. I could see maybe 100 yards or so toward the Atlantic, and could just make out the Gulf of Nicoya, but not the Pacific proper. Nonetheless, it was a really nice view. From there, I would have taken this other trail, but it was closed off. I headed back down the 'Camino' (road) trail until I got to another trail that led upwards. I took that until it intersected another trail that went even further uphill. When I was near the crest of that trail, I came to another trail. The woman at the entrance had marked on my map that this trail was closed, but there wasn't any barricade or anything on the trail itself marking it as closed. Figuring that it led to some overlook or something of interest, or perhaps that it was some other trail entirely, I headed up it. Not far from that intersection, the trail turned from easy-going concrete blocks to slippery tree slices. The slices had, at some time, had wire mesh on them to provide traction, but almost all of it was gone. I hadn't seen anything particularly interesting when the trail started downhill. At that point I was sure that I was on the trail that I had been told was closed, but I figured that I had come this far and there were no warnings or anything, I would continue on. The trail heading downhill looked more like a dry stream bed than a proper trail. It was slippery and had big steps. Most of the way down I was just hoping that I wouldn't have to turn around and go back that way. When I came to the end of that trail at a 'T' junction with another trail, it was blocked off to the left. I started to the right, which I was pretty sure was the same trail that was blocked off near the divide. I soon saw why it had been blocked- a boardwalk through a swampy section had been heaved up when a tree that had been standing next to it fell. The boardwalk ahead was up about waist high and canted precariously to the right. It seemed far too dangerous to proceed, and I headed back to the rough trail I had taken down. I certainly didn't mind the hiking itself, and in fact I felt much better than I had when I woke up congested that morning, but I was a little ticked off. I cut a piece of the caution tape blocking the trail that our guide said was closed because of a landslide, and made my way back up. At the top I tied the tape around some vegetation across the path, hoping at least to warn the next person who might come along. When I got back almost to within sight of the entrance station, I took another trail heading away to go to a "sky bridge." The bridge across a narrow valley was metal with a grate for a deck and shook noticeably when anyone walked on it, but it gave an incredible up-close view of the canopy of the trees. The bromeliads, orchids and other stuff that normally lives way up high was almost literally within reach. After taking some photos and enjoying the view, I hiked back to the entrance station. I was pleasantly surprised to see my parents were sitting there. After cleaning myself off a little bit, we went back to the hotel and I more fully cleaned up. We went to town and had dinner at the sister restaurant of the the place we had eaten the night before, with "nuevo latino" cuisine. It was also delicious.
We had breakfast early again Tuesday, and the around 7 I was picked up for the "canopy tour," really just a series of zip lines (not meant to be educational), that I had signed up for, but my parents had no interest in. Apparently the Monteverde area is the origin of the canopy tour, and it has several choices. The woman at the hotel had suggested this one, eXtremo, since it's newer and has longer runs than some of the other places. Since I was the farthest from the place, I was the first picked up by their van. We picked up more people in Santa Elena at a few different places. First was a couple who I never quite figured out where they were from, possible Spain or Italy. Also in town were two guys from Israel and two guys from Montreal. At our last stop we picked up a couple from Colorado that had actually been at the restaurant we were at the night before, and an Indian couple from San Francisco. We all payed up and got outfitted with the safety gear- a climbing harness, helmet, and a pair of gloves with a thick patch of leather. We got a quick lesson in what we needed to know and do, and learned that the leather on the gloves is to steady and slow oneself on the line. With that, we climbed up a staircase to the first line. The first two lines were pretty short and since they went quickly required quite a few guides, more than I realized at first, in order to have one at each end of each line. Those two were pretty quick and easy, after the initial instruction to sit down, hold rope with one hand and put the other on the line. When we got to that third line, however, it was a lot longer and more unnerving. The woman from Colorado balked at first when she looked out, but calmed enough pretty quickly and went across. I don't remember the exact sequence of the, I believe, 14 different lines we did, but the longer ones crossed a picturesque valley that might have been some sort of farm. We crossed this valley four times in total, with other shorter lines on each side. One of the short ones was the fastest, with a simple arresting system at the end. The second fastest, however, didn't have the arrester and they told us we had to start braking ourselves in the middle of the line, and to stop using both hands. I was pretty unsure of changing up anything about the traverses and moving my left hand from the safety lines to the zip line. I managed to do it, well enough that I didn't have enough momentum at the end and had to "crawl" along the wire, running over my glove with the pulley a couple of times. The last thing we did before the final wire was the "Tarzan swing," jumping from a high platform, swinging out into the trees and being caught on a lower platform. I say jump, but really the guides pushed everybody off the platform. It's one thing to intellectually know that everything should be fine, but it's not easy to take that step off of a fairly secure platform into nothing. For me the scariest part of it, other than the first step, was the initial couple of feet of freefall before the ropes tighten and take the weight. The swinging part was pretty cool, and it almost seemed like we would hit a big tree at the far side. Not everybody opted to do the swing. The two Israeli guys were first, and the second one balked after his friend went and he saw what it was like. That made me second, and I got to watch the other people from the lower platform. Only one of the three women opted to jump, and all the other guys did. There was a fair bit of hiking involved, seeing as how gravity only works in one direction, and we wound up exactly where we started. Of course I don't mind, but for most of the time I was following the much younger Canadians and it definitely got my heart going keeping on their heels. Possibly the longest hike was from the Tarzan swing to the last cable, which is nearly 1km long. Most of the clients made it to the launch point before the last people and guides arrived, so we had a good chance to stare it down. The last line was where the "Superman option" kicked in. I hadn't chosen to pay the extra $5 for the privilege of going down head first, and with a second single pulley to hold up my legs behind me. The six people who had chosen to go Superman style went first, then the rest were sent as couples to have enough weight to get a good speed. Since I didn't have a partner, I went with one of the guides, who was in charge of any braking. We had some time after we turned in our gear before the van got back with the 10:30 patrons and to take us back. We mostly talked about our respective Costa Rica trips, most of which were a lot longer than mine. I was dropped off at my hotel at 11:30, as promised, showered, then we checked out and headed for the Pacific. As seems to be the Costa Rican way, we weren't going very far but it still was going to take several hours. We arrived in Manuel Antonio mid-afternoon and checked in to our hotel. Our bungalow didn't have a view of much of anything other than vegetation, but the nearby pavilion had an excellent view of the Pacific. The place we stayed was spread out over quite a bit of ground, and had a variety of rooms, the most unusual being one converted from an actual passenger plane. The hotel also owns a restaurant across the street with a military plane inside of it.
On Wednesday morning, after waking up to the sound of howler monkeys, we went down the street just a short ways from our hotel to Manuel Antonio National Park. The main draw of the park is its beaches and relatively pristine jungle. Because it was a little unclear where the official entrance was, we first went to the "new" entrance station (still under construction), which is farther from the beaches than the "old" entrance. We got our tickets, and my parents drove to the old entrance while I made my way from the new entrance. It started out as a sturdy trail, really more of a primitive road, through the jungle. Since it was early and there was nobody else, I did see some wildlife- several Morpho butterflies, birds, and possibly a sloth or two, but it was hard to tell since they didn't move and they were kind of high up in a tree. A little later, on the narrow foot path to a viewpoint, I passed under several howler monkeys who seemed to be sharing the morning gossip. The viewpoint itself wasn't really all that impressive, just looking over a small bay. I hiked back down to the trail leading to the more secluded beaches of the park. I went past the "fourth beach" toward the fifth. The trail pretty steep and slippery as I got closer to sea level, and it was a good thing there were ropes to keep from slipping since I was just wearing my sneakers. When I got to the "beach," I first found a family of raccoons, then saw that the concrete stairs that used to lead to the water were destroyed, and finally that the beach itself was pretty much gone too, there was more of a patch of debris. I made my way back up the slope and back toward the beaches, sweating in the sultry jungle. I met a couple going toward the end of the trail and kind of tried to tell them there was nothing there, but they weren't native English speakers and probably, like me, felt like they had come too far not to at least see what's there. At beach four I sat down on a log to take my shoes off and get my feet wet. The beach was pretty small, but there were only two people there. I wandered around a bit, but not too far since I hadn't bothered to put on my sandals and the rocks were pretty sharp. I foolishly was lulled by the placid waves to get closer to the water, just as a bigger wave came along and half soaked my shorts. While I was there hanging out for about a half hour, I saw this cool iguana hanging out on the rocks. I knocked off a layer of sand and put my shoes back on to go find my parents on one of the larger more accessible beaches. When I met up with them around 9, the beach was sparsely populated. It started filling up pretty steadily, and by the time we left around 11 there more people than any of us really cared for. While we were there, I went walking on some rocks, the surf splashing over me with every wave. I also went for a little swim, figuring that being in the lee of a small peninsula it would be the calmest ocean water I'd likely ever find. I could definitely feel the rip tide, but overcame it easily enough to go out a fair ways from shore. I'm really not that great of a swimmer, and I headed back when I started to feel the slightest bit tired. My dad painted most of the time, but he and I did the little hike around the peninsula. As we packed ourselves up to head out, a "gang" of white-faced monkeys had moved in looking for unsecured food. They managed to get some cookies or something from some people's stuff near ours. The one thing I hadn't contended with by going through the new entrance was that the old entrance requires fording a small tidal stream. The tide had gone out since my parents had crossed earlier, but it still required getting wet (or crossing the land sharks' boats). I just plowed straight through the waist-deep, kind of icky, water. We went back to the hotel and cleaned up, then went for a bit of a drive and lunch. We ate a Tex-Mex place with an amazing view overlooking the Pacific. I had been thinking of walking back to the beach after lunch, but I was so full and it it was already almost 2 when we got back to the hotel, I just laid down for a little while. I went in search of something I had seen earlier for the first time since arriving in Costa Rica- Dr Pepper. When I got to where I had seen it chained against its will, I was horrified to find its entire environs had been spirited away. I asked at the desk, and the guy told me they had moved the fridge (which had been sitting outside their closed cafe below), but assured me that Dr Pepper was available in the local grocery store. I had looked when we had been earlier and certainly I would have found one had it been there. I actually didn't have much caffeine while I was in Costa Rica, Dr Pepper being my main delivery system. I naively thought maybe this was actually what I needed to kick the habit and I would lose some weight (from the lessened sugar intake), but it wasn't long after returning home that I was back to my 2-a-day habit. Later I walked down to the pool and sat drinking a beer and enjoying another magnificent view until it started to rain a little. I went back to the room and my mom and I went to the pavilion to watch the sunset. We had a simple dinner in our room, which had a kitchenette.
We packed up and headed out Thursday morning, taking the same road along the coast we had come in on. We stopped at Carara National Park, known for its macaws. We paid the entrance fee and the guy gave us the locations of a couple of known nests. The first section of trail was wide and hard packed, with informational signs along the way. As we got to connecting trails, they got smaller and more primitive. In one section, about as far from the entrance as we went, the trail was almost obliterated by a fallen tree. Midway we crossed a bridge over a stream and came to a small hut. It was somewhere in this area that the guide told us there was a macaw nest, but not quite following his explanation, it took us quite a few minutes to finally see it, way up in a big tall tree. It was far enough away that I could barely get a decent photo (as is evident here). We just stood watching as another one came out of the nest. They're magnificently beautiful and it would have been really nice to see them closer, but that's probably not possible outside of a zoo or something. We went for another loop of trail, and as we were getting back to the hut my dad spotted another macaw overhead. When we were almost back to the entrance, some people told us there was a toucan spotted near there. Luckily it was still hanging around when we got there, but again it was hard to get a good look or photo of it. Another thing we saw a few places along the trail were "highways" of leaf-cutter ants with a constant back-and forth between the nest and the tree whose leaves they were harvesting. From the coast we headed back toward San Jose, with enough time to do something else for the afternoon, but not really enough to see any of the other National Parks. My mom wanted to go to one of the numerous botanic gardens in the area, but left it up to me as to which one. I made what would turn out to be a fairly unfortunate choice of one east of San Jose, Lankester Botanic Garden in Cartago, mainly because the guide book showed a nice church in that town. The gardens were actually really nice and diverse. They even had a Japanese style garden and a cactus area. One of the things my mother really liked, and even I thought was pretty neat, was their orchid house. They had more of the large style of orchids that most people are used to seeing than the tiny ones we had seen in the forests, but they had those as well. We drove back into the town and parked to have a look around the church. There was some kind of service going on, so we quietly checked out the interior. It would certainly not make it very high on my list of the most spectacular churches I've been in (if I even had such a list), but it was still a nice place and more impressive of a building than anything else we'd seen. It didn't take that long after leaving the town that the unfortunate side of its location kicked in. Since we were east of town and we were staying by the airport (on the west side of town), we had to cross through San Jose, and it was around 5 o'clock. Traffic was horrendous, and if there was anything akin to an American superhighway around the city, the GPS didn't guide us that way. At one roundabout, the GPS gave misleading information which led us the wrong direction, and getting back took several minutes. There was one place that was under construction where traffic barely moved. Throughout all of this traffic were tons of small motorcycles and scooters that, to me, seemed like they had to be crazy zipping in and out of all the cars and trucks with barely inches to spare in some cases. We finally made it to the hotel, the same place I had spent the first night, around 6:30. We had dinner there, which wasn't bad, but hardly in keeping with a traditional Thanksgiving. I did have a pork chop that was more like ham, which is something we usually have around the holidays, so there is that at least.
My flight Friday was about an hour and half before my parents', but around 9 we just checked out and all went to turn in the car, then just hang out at the airport. My carry on bag was flagged going through security. It turns out that the small first aid kit I usually carry in it includes a pair of scissors, something I don't think I'd ever even realized. I'm fairly sure I'd brought it with me on a plane in the past (not to mention flying to Costa Rica), and never had an issue. For some reason the security person insisted on taking a roll of bandage tape from the kit as well. Curiously, I later realized there was another roll of bandage tape in my bag that I had bought in Seattle. I bought myself a tshirt with the logo for Imperial, the Costa Rican beer I had enjoyed. I was going to buy a bottle of Costa Rican rum as well, but by the time I decided on it, they said it was too late to get it to me on the plane (I couldn't just take it with me). While I was milling around one of the shops, I sampled a chocolate covered coffee bean. I didn't love it at first, not surprising considering I like the smell of coffee but not the drink itself, but it had a sort of addictive property to it. I almost bought a bag, but didn't think I'd really like that much of it. However, it stuck in my mind and I picked up a small bag of them at my local market (origin of the beans unknown). My flight back to Dallas was problem-free, I cleared immigration and customs quickly, so I had a little time to kill. I sat a bar for some beer and college football. The woman sitting next to me works at Taos Ski Valley, which re-ignited my desire to finally go skiing again, and also brought back memories of climbing Wheeler Peak, New Mexico's highest point. Depending on everything else, I'm hoping to make a trip out there this season (or somewhere else, for that matter).
Saturday, after participating in the Chuy's Parade with the HOG chapter, I went to Threadgill's and had myself a nice turkey dinner with dressing and cranberries, and took home a slice of pumpkin pie for later.