Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Costa Rica - The Tale of the Beach Town and the Suitcase

We had over packed for the trip. Or, more accurately, my husband had over packed for the trip. Upon our departure we were informed by the desk agent that our main suitcase was 8 pounds over the limit allowed by the airline. Although the agent said she would overlook it she made it clear that we could not expect to be so lucky on our return trip. So this meant it would be necessary for us to pick up an unexpected memento of our Costa Rican adventure, a new suitcase. At the beginning of the tour we asked our guide where the best place would be to find one. She suggested the small beachfront town of Tamarindo near our Pacific resort. She also let us know about a shuttle operated by the hotel which would, for a small fee, take us to and pick us up from the town. There was a free day with no activities scheduled, other than a open bar happy hour, which we would be loathe to miss, So the plan seemed perfect....seemed perfect.

We, along with several others from the tour, got on the shuttle and ventured into the nearby hamlet. It was a typical beach town, although it did seem to contain more that the typical amount of smoking paraphernalia for sale in the various shops there. There were a number of kids who looked as if they might have an occasional need for such wares, which could explain the plethora of items vended. There were also a number of surf shops, surfboards and surf bums, which could explain the plethora of items. There were also what seemed to be a number of ex hippie expats, which might also help explain the plethora.

We soon discovered that the words "suitcase" and "luggage" seem to have no direct Spanish translation. We then discovered that, once we made them understand what we were looking for, noone seemed to know where we could find such a thing. We were beginning to get desperate. Each shop owners suggestion led to another dead luggage end. Passing by a surf rental store we heard a young blonde girl speaking in a vernacular that was unmistakeably American. Asking her if she was from the States she replied "Yes, from Chicago". We said "So are we!" She then said "O.K., actually I'm from Rockford." Rockford is a small, somewhat provincial, speck of a city in Illinois. It is not Chicago. We explained our problem. She had no idea where we could find a suitcase but she might, using the neighborhood merchants communication online site, be able to come up with a duffel bag. At this point we were ready to settle. She said to come back in 15 minutes and she would tell us what she was able to come up with.

We decided to kill time in the local souvenir shops. Entering the first one I looked down and saw a large size roller board suitcase. Hot pink with flowers, bigger than what we needed, but in my glass half full manner, I thought "At least we'll be able to spot it on the baggage carousel." I called my husband over. The shop owner, with some but not total command of English, understood our problem. Laying the suitcase on it's side he unzipped it to reveal a medium size suitcase inside. Unzipping that he revealed the perfect size carry on bag we needed, only downside was it was covered in a motif of hot pink flowers. My husband informed me "You're rolling that thing through the airport". He took over and got across to the shop owner that we would prefer something that size but less festive. He ran upstairs and returned with a dark blue version, slightly more expensive than the pink flowery one but we didn't care to argue. There was only one other issue at hand. Would the suitcase adhere to the stringent size standards of the airline. This is when we discovered that the term "tape measure", like suitcase and luggage, seems to have no Spanish equivalent,.My husband then remembered that a one dollar bill is 6 inches long. I found myself on the floor of the shop laying a U.S. greenback end over end measuring the dimensions of our purchase. As we left the store the shop owner pulled two painted wooden key chains from a bowl and gave them to us as a thank you.

Our hard won treasure in hand we shopped for more asetheticly interesting mementos and walked along a driftwood strewn beach. We took the picture of another couple on the tour posing in front of a full sized tree, lying on it's side in the sand, heavily weathered from exposure to the salt and sea. Judging from the number of surfboards and surfers this beach was a place of great waves. We found it to be a spot of great  natural beauty as we walked along it listening to the pounding surf.

Costa Rica - Native Customs

I always try to remember that when I travel I am essentially, whether invited or not, a guest in someone else's home. I always make an attempt to respect the customs and traditions of my host. For instance, in Mexico City I wore long pants despite the mild climate. Mexican men, for the most part, do not wear shorts. When entering a church I make sure my arms are not bare. Tank tops or sleeveless shirts are covered by a shirt with sleeves I carry with me on such occasions and I try to maintain a quiet and reverent tone of voice and manner when in sacred structures. I sample local foods and learn to say at least hello, goodbye and thank you in the local tongue.

In Costa Rica however there was on custom I could not bring myself to adhere to. Apparently the standard of Central American plumbing is not quite as high as that of plumbing in the U.S. With this in mind Costa Ricans, along with a number of other Central American cultures, discard their used "toilet tissue" not in the toilet but in a bucket which sits alongside it. Each time it was necessary for me to use a public facility I would look at the bucket and a single thought would go through my head. "I should respect their culture....I should.....but I just can't...." Then I would flush.

Costa Rica - We're Going to be on the Bus for How Many Hours?

We were heading from the center of the country to the Pacific coast. From the windows of the bus we got a closer look at the vegetation which crawls up the side of the volcano. We climbed winding mountain roads looking down at Arenal Lake. Formed by a dam built for hydroelectric power the cross atop the submerged town of Old Arenal can occasionally be seen rising above the water. The residents were given homes and jobs in a new town built by the government to replace the old one. Brooks and rivers tumbled through thick green growth over rocks worn smooth by their ancient dance with the water. Wind turbines rotated on the top of a hill while cows grazed on the slope below.

Lunch that day was at a restaurant known for it's population of White Tail Deer. The deer, the national mammal of Costa Rica, is endangered in that country. Most of the people on the bus agreed that they were free to take some of ours.

As we drew near to the coast the landscape changed from a uniform dark to more varied shades of green. The growth, still thick became noticeably less dense and more multi-layered. As we passed through small towns their relaxed, languid nature is manifested by the sight of a man in a car pulled off to the side of the road, napping, all the doors open to let in the breeze.Three young teens stood by the side of the road trying to hitch a ride. A group of chickens and a single goose clucked and squawked around a sagging weathered wood porch.

The main activity that day was an educational tour of a protected nesting site for the critically endangered Leatherback Turtle. It was our first sight of and our first walk along the Pacific. I must say that the turtles have picked a beautiful spot to lay their eggs. Green hills tumble into the sea on either side of a sandy stretch of oceanside beach. The sound of waves tumbling in and cooling breezes coming off the sea added to the tranquility of the site. In recent years the turtles have moved from this beach after decades of poaching. Remarkably intelligent and intuitive animals, they have moved to areas with smaller human populations and less risk to their offspring. Outside the visitors center enterprising young boys, for two dollars, hacked off the tops of coconuts giving me my first taste of the mildly sweet water inside.

As we neared the resort where we would be spending the next 2 nights the foliage became sparser. Now thick forests mix with green meadows dotted with large trees. We sat on the beach on plush chaise lounges that evening and watched the red sun set over the horizon of the Pacific. The clouds glowed pink above the blue water and white foam of the wave caps. After dinner we walked through the hotel grounds among spotlit palms while birds circled in the night sky over our heads.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Costa Rica - What a Way to Finish a Day

On our return we stopped at hot springs. The well manicured and landscaped pools are spread over several levels and offer a range of temperatures. The water, naturally heated by the nearby volcano, provided a relaxing and soothing finish to the day. A rejuvenated group returned to the hotel for our final night in our floral paradise.

Early in the morning I heard my husband leave the room through the sliding glass doors leading out to the terrace. I got up and followed him outside to check and see if there was anything wrong. I found him on the lawn looking up. I followed his gaze. The stars above us shone brilliantly in a crystal clear sky. We lingered barefoot on the dewy grass staring at the heavens.

As we laid in bed the next morning, prior to our departure, watching through the glass doors as dozens of birds flew and swooped over the lawn in front of our bungalow, I once again realized what a lucky traveler I sometimes am!

Costa Rica - A River Cruise and Illegal Entry

We were off to a wildlife viewing cruise. Along the way we stopped to see a large number of outsized iguanas sunning themselves in the brush by a roadside restaurant and gift shop. As the story goes the man who owned the business discovered an iguana one day rustling through the garbage. The next day there were two, later and entire iguana clan. A car of tourists, seeing the lizards stopped to take photos. A light bulb went off over the proprietors head and the cultivation of the reptiles turned into a thematic profit producing concern.

We continued on our way to a tiny, sleepy town and walked the few short blocks to the dock where the wildlife cruises depart from. We were told the river was high which would cut into the number of birds, mammals and reptiles that we might have seen on one of the better days. My husband and I opted to sit out in the open air on the bow of the boat instead of under the canvas awning covered area housing the rest of our group. Even though viewing was less than optimal we were treated to egrets, cormorants and brightly colored songbirds. Colonies of bats created black lines as they slept in neat rows up the trunks of trees. Vivid green water walking lizards with crests on their heads and backs sat on branches hanging over the river's edge.

Our hot young boat captain with the powerful looking, deeply tanned arms and pierced eyebrow piloted us further downriver towards Nicaragua. We were told to bring the photo copies of our passports with us on the cruise that day as a safety precaution as we would be coming quite close to the border of Costa Rica's sometime disagreeable neighbor.

All during the cruise we had heard the distinctive call of howling monkeys. Our guide had learned to imitate the monkey's bark and used it to try to lure them into the open. Suddenly, in a tree along the shore we got our "money shot". A mother howling monkey carrying her tiny baby appeared. One by one the other members of the troop appeared among the branches. We pulled directly under the tree. Our guide once again made the sound of the animal's call. The alpha male answered him. Our troop of humans gaped, pointed fingers and shot picture after picture as the small primates moved through the foliage searching for food.

Eventually we left the monkey show and continued towards Nicaragua. Our guide, using sign language, signaled the pilot of a boat ferrying day trippers from the neighboring country to Costa Rica asking if he had seen any monkey troops further downstream. He shook his head no and shrugged his shoulders. A fence of barbed wire and branches running through a field came into view. A sign on the river's bank announced the border of the Nicaraguan Nature Preserve. The boat crept by the sign until we were two feet inside the country. Our guide asked "Ever been in a country illegally before"? He explained that a checkpoint was another mile downriver. This stretch was a sort of "no man's land" where citizens of both countries could move freely.

We cruised back upstream returning to the dock. Lunch included fried cassava which resembled french fries in look, taste and texture. At the restaurant an artisan that works in wood reclaimed from fallen trees had set up shop. We purchased a letter opener, one of several collections we own, carved from red wood from trees that are found only in Costa Rica. I love indigenous momentos!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Costa Rica - Hotel Arenal Manoa

As we neared the town of Fortuna we were given welcome news. The peak of the volcano, which has  only a 30% chance of being seen due to cloud cover on any given day, was unobscured. It loomed majestically over the surrounding landscape. Small roads led us to our home for the next 2 nights. Hotel Arenal Manoa is a collection of semi detached bungalows set among beautifully landscaped grounds. Scores of birds flitted across the lawns adding thier brilliant colors to the hues of the multitute of flowers and tropical plants. The massive volcanic mountain kept an ever prevelant presense over the resort. Each room contained a small terrace with a view of the geological wonder. As we neared the walkway to our room two small black birds, their breasts bright red, flew out of the bushes as if welcoming us to this lovely spot.

Each commodius bathroom contained a skylight with a planter beneath, which, in our case, showcased two large philadendrons. The dining room was an open air pavilion allowing the sounds of the surrounding forest, birdcalls, frogs, the occasional bark of howling monkeys and the gentle gurgle of the small river which runs along one side of the resort, flow through.

The next morning the view of the volcano was crystal clear. Steam escaped from it's peak. Perfectly centered in the open side of the pavillion we watched it as we ate breakfast knowing that this was, almost assuredly, a once in a lifetime experience.

As we returned to the room a pair of parrots flew overhead. Two tiny blue birds landed on a bush, one finding a small springy branch where he bounced happily up and down before the pair flew off.

Costa Rica - It's Called a Rain Forest For a Reason Dummy

Due to a large breast cancer walk Sunday morning we were to miss our San Jose city tour and headed directly to the day's main activity, a gondola ride through a primary rainforest. Modest homes, some gothic in nature reminiscent of New Orleans trademark shotgun houses lined the back streets we took out of the city. As we moved further out the landscape became more industrial.  Auto workshops and dealerships became prevalent, razor wire ubiquitous. Further still we passed a hillside tangle of shacks pieced together by the poorest and most desperate of the nation's citizens from salvaged scraps of corrugated sheet metal. The scene outside the bus window changed to farms utilizing the rich soil and the heavy precipitation, mixed with almost impossibly lush natural vegetation. Huge fern fronds protruded from walls of green punctuated by bright splashes of tropical flowers. The rich green flowed down mountainsides into deep valleys. The tallest of the trees soared above the mountains crests. Going through the only tunnel in Costa Rica we enter Braulio Carrillo National Park. We cross a bridge over the "Muddy River". Named for it's dark brown color it is actually a rich stew of minerals gathered from the nearby volcanoes.

We entered the private reserve where the gondolas that would take us through the rain forest are located. As we near the loading platforms it begins to rain, and rain, and rain, after all it's called a rain forest for a reason. Despite the sodden conditions the ride is extraordinary. The forest contains layer upon layer of growth. Vines climb up the towering trees. Aerial plants send roots to the green forest floor beneath. Orchids and bromeliads fill the branches. We, and everything we had with us got soaked despite our rain pouches purchased specifically for this trip. Our camera is ruined. Thankfully my husband had the foresight to buy insurance when he purchased it. Our phones would suffice for the remainder of the trip.

Back on the ground we slogged along a trail in the unrelenting rain. We saw tiny pit vipers curled in the underbrush. Diminutive bats napped under broad leaves they chew in a particular way to form a protective tent as shelter against the soggy elements. A poison frog the size of a dime displayed it bright red body with what seemed like a self assured sense of pride. A pair of parrots flew overhead announcing their presence with their loud call. Our guide is remarkably knowledgeable, almost childlike in his joy of the interlocking intricacies of nature. You could tell he was one who loved his work.

A group of very wet people boarded the bus for the ride to our next hotel. Enroute our guide announces that we are ahead of schedule and will have 30 minutes in the town of Fortuna located near the foot of Arenal, Costa Rica's iconic volcano. My husband and I realize, as we roamed through the shops that surrounded the main square, that our rooms at the hotel are probably not ready so the guide had to come up with a way to kill time. It is a most pleasant act of murder. We purchased Christmas ornaments that will serve as seasonal mementos each year of our adventure.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Costa Rica - Fractured Translations

On several occasions I found unintentional humor in the Spanish to English translations on the signs in Costa Rica. Two of my favorites were by the pool at our first hotel.

Number one instructed us to not "introduce" glass items to the pool area. Glass item, meet pool area, pool area, meet glass item. Be kind, she just got out of a bad relationship and is very fragile.

Number two, "no swimming in clothes allowed". Nowhere in the pretour guidebook did it mention that this was a nudist resort. Believe me, I would have noticed if it had. Maybe we wouldn't have brought so much stuff with us.

Costa Rica - A Cloud Forest, A Lagoon & Then Coffee

In the same area as the volcano there is a trail which leads back to a secluded lagoon. The trail wove through a dense tropical cloud forest. Along the way the sun's rays cut through the thick foliage resembling gauze curtains. The trail was quite steep and coupled with the high elevation our breathing became heavy. My husband described it as "football breath". Orchids and bromeliads clung to the trees.

The path was somewhat crowded that day. Not only several people from our tour but a loud group of young adults speaking a mixture of English and Spanish shared the trail with us. Our efforts were rewarded by the sight of the beautiful lagoon surrounded buy the thick forest laid out below us. Birds could be heard but not seen. An occasional butterfly flitted by as we hiked along.

Returning to the bus we continued on to that day's lunch. The restaurant clung to a ridge, it's open air dining room sporting an expansive view of what seemed to be half the country. It was accessed by a drive requiring a tight turn off the main road. Our bus drivers expertise was evidenced by his managing to make the turn without striking the handsome, hunky, tattooed, barechested boy standing along the edge of the drive texting. Roosters crowed and more butterflies fluttered from bush to bush in the garden below us.

Our last stop of the day was a miniature coffee plantation. We were first given an adequate amount of time to sample several coffees before deciding which of the tasty brews to purchase. This was followed by a wildly humorous description of the process of coffee production from seedling to cup. Two men, one of whom redefined the term silly, provided us with more information than I ever thought existed about my morning beverage of choice.

Enroute to the plantation we met with a fierce storm. Lightening flashed in the afternoon sky followed by the boom of thunder. The deluge made all of us grateful that we were in the dry confines of the bus. Water spewed from drainspouts and poured down the gutters of the streets. It was the first of many storms we were to encounter on this trip. Costa Rica receives over 100, in some areas 200, inches of rain a year. Excellent for coffee growing, inconvenient for tourists. A large tree was blown over by the storm necessitating a snaking crawl through small side streets by our rather large bus.   

The first of several early morning luggage pickup and departure times meant my repacking us prior to dinner. I was a model of efficiency making a detailed list of what I had packed where. The only challenge was remembering where I had packed the list. We dined as soon as the restaurant opened then retired to our room falling asleep to the sounds of college football, dreaming of our 5:30 wake up call the next morning.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Costa Rica - Our First Volcano

We set out in our tour bus for Poas volcano. Along the way, traveling through lush tropical foliage, our guide treated us to a multitude of facts and figures about Costa Rica. A country of 5 million people, 65% of them live in a single valley in and around the nation's capitol. They are a very eco- conscious nation. Everything possible is recycled, even cattle waste, which is converted into an energy source. The volcano formed mountain ranges are protected zones to help keep the air and water of the entire country as pure as possible. Residents that leave portions of their property in it's natural state are compensated by the government for doing so.

A special, unexpected moment was provided by a man driving his oxcart along the road we were using. The hand painted, one of a kind, painted wood yoke around the beasts necks was a beautiful example of the nations folk art.

At an elevation of close to 9000 feet there is only a 30% chance of the volcano's crater being visible due to constant fog and could cover. An eruption 2 weeks before had closed the volcano to visitors all together. It had reopened only 2 days prior to our arrival.

The day was clear, the sky a beautiful blue. Our guide instructed us that if the current conditions held when we arrived at the site we should get to the crater's edge as quickly as possible to take advantage of the rare chance to see into the volcano. We raced the short distance from the parking lot to the crater. The crater was presented to us in stunning clarity. The jagged rock walls surrounding the pool of gray magma were a kaleidoscope of colors created by the chemicals emitted by the volcano. It reminded me of the sights I had experienced in Yellowstone. A column of steam arose from the seemingly impossibly hot pool. A gentleman next to me told me that the clouds had cleared just 10 minutes before we had arrived. Along one wall of the pool a section of rock looked as if it had been stained a bright red. He explained to me that that was not the color of the rock, rather it was superheated by the hot liquid it helped contained and glowed red hot.The sight lasted no more than 20 minutes before clouds moved in once again obscuring this marvel of nature.

We left the crater felling incredibly fortunate to have experienced the seldom seen sight. Somedays I am a Lucky Traveler indeed! 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Costa Rica - A Few Words on Voyuerism and Getting Busted

Due to the early hour of our flight a short, slight snooze became a necessity by late afternoon that first day. My husband bursts into the room mid nap to announce that there is a formal affair taking place at the hotel that evening. He had just had to, through gestures, inform a young girl wearing, as he put it, "A green sequined mermaid dress" that her tag was hanging out. We shortly discovered that we had a perfect bird's eye view of the guests arriving for what we later learned, through piecing together information from several different sources, was a college graduation celebration ball. It became a large part of our evenings entertainment. We pointed an giggled, making snarky comments about the formally attired celebrants.

What we failed to take into account was that the lights in our hotel room left us plainly visible to the people below. This fact was brought home to us when three cute latino boys, dressed in suits and ties, looked up at us, smiled and gave us a thumbs up.

Costa Rica - Our First Look

The wide arcing descent of the plane treats us to an expansive view of the countryside below. Mud brown rivers rafted through a lush landscape of forest green. In the distance the faint outline of the shore of the ocean can be seen. There were small patches of farms, their fields forming orderly lines which contrast with the disorder of the natural vegetation.

Small towns gave way to more developed areas as we get closer to the capitol of San Jose. The plane nears the ground and neighborhoods of tin roof houses appear which seemed to surround the airport. There were green mountains nearby, others farther off.

An uneventful trip through immigration was followed by an equally uneventful trip through customs. Then we entered the pandemonium outside the airport. A mob of taxi drivers shouted and jostled for fares. Whistles blow, scores of people carry signs bearing the names of arriving passengers. It reminded me of the train boarding sequence in "Murder on the Orient Express". We somehow managed through the mayhem to locate the Caravan representative who directed us to  holding area to await the arrival of the rest of our group. We than sat, cooling our heels in the heat as singly and in groups our fellows of the next several days assembled. A roar arose from the taxi drivers as two, apparently spurious types, were led away by the police. The sky grew increasingly overcast, as it did every afternoon thereafter, cooling things down considerably.

The bus which was to take us to the hotel pulled up and we were driven through an area which might be most kindly referred to as industrial, to the hotel where we would be spending our first two nights. The portion of the city we could see from the windows of the hotel seemed dominated by nondescript poured concrete highrises. The one structure of note is a solid yet somehow playful and whimsical stadium. It's design seemed to be influenced by the work of Frank Ghery, architect of Los Angeles Symphony Hall and Chicago's Millennium Park bandshell. We later learn that it was a gift to the city from China. With this in mind my Christmas wish this year is to get on China's gift list.

Costa Rica or Bust - 3 a.m. Chicago Time

I was headed away from my home in a cab at 3 a.m.  Being in a cab at that hour wasn't new to me. I had been in a taxi at 3 a.m. scores of times over the course of my life. However, these trips were generally heading to my home, or someone elses, not headed away from it. It just didn't seem right somehow.

Costa Rica, my husband had been pestering me about it for some years. I would play on the Internet, poking, around, looking at this and that, yet never really focus. I would read Smithsonian magazine and peruse the caravan.com ads in the back, yet never really focus. Then our tax returns came in, our financial situation, by our standards, was fairly stable and one day we decided "Let's just do this damn thing before the price goes up". So tours were booked, flight plans made and we were headed to the airport to catch a 5:15 flight to Fort Lauderdale then on to a connecting flight which would take us on to San Jose, Costa Rica.