Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Costa Rica, Part 2

So unfortunately those people never sent me the picture they took of me diving from the cliff. Oh well. I'll have to figure out how to extract an image from the mpeg video. Any suggestions anyone? Well, back to the trip.

So, back to the same hotel I stayed at the first night. Very mellow night, then leisurely morning before checking out and heading out to the airport to pick up my traveling companion. We had rented an SUV and of course they tried to upgrade us, we said no, then they said they would give it to us for the same price. Nice. The nice thing is that the woman asked us our itinerary, and we gave her the first two destinations, Arenal Volcano and Monteverde, and she totally hooked us up with a map and step by step directions to get to Arenal. And let me tell you, the map I had wouldn't have gotten us anywhere near. Signs are nonexistent in Costa Rica once you get off the main highways. Oh, and the SUV was manual transmission, which is always a little exciting on vehicles that large. I offered to drive even though it was her rental. Once we got off the main drag into the mountains, I let her rip. Barely any lane dividers, and we got stuck behind a truck once for about 15 minutes. Otherwise, we made fantastic time, getting to our hotel (Hotel Campo Verde) in Arenal in maybe 1.5 hours instead of the recommended 2.5-3. Our hotel had a fantastic view of the volcano, as can be seen below.


That is actually smoke from the volcano pouring out of the top.
After a dinner across the road at some lame steakhouse which was WAY too expensive for the quality (even for Costa Rica), we headed out to the other side of the volcano to try and see the lava at night. After off roading for about a half hour (SO happy we had an SUV), we reached a spot where a bunch of people were hanging out. And while we drove over, at one point we got a great profile shot of lava splattering out of the mountain. Unfortunately, we only saw the lava 3 or 4 times, and it was really far away.

The next morning we woke up real early and got picked up to go canyoneering. Basically, we were going to hike into the woods and then do 5 rappels, 4 of them down waterfalls. I had never done real rappelling before, so I was looking forward to it.

The first rappel was the longest, unfortunately. I went down somewhat tentatively, only getting to about 6 yards at a stretch. I wish we had save the big one for last, as I was ready to do some long descents by the end, but it was still a blast.

They provided us a basic lunch and then brought us back to the hotel. That afternoon we had signed up for the 1 to 5PM stint at the Eco Termales hot springs, a very 'exclusive' (limited to 100 people) set of 4 successfully hotter springs that were fed by the volcano. The setting was gorgeous and when we got there around 1:30, we were the 3rd and 4th people there. We had the place to ourselves for another hour before a large group of high schoolers from North Carolina showed up. While it was no longer quite as exclusive, at least it was good eye candy.

We eschewed going back to catch another lava viewing, which was really surprising because usually I'm the first one to do whatever is necessary to maximize viewing opportunities, vacation opportunities, picture stuff, etc.

The next morning we went to do the final Arenal excursion to see the Fortuna waterfall. This required a rather long descent of maybe 1 mile to the base of the waterfall, with numerous views of the waterfall along the way. When we got to the bottom, the waterfall pool was pretty much empty. We set up various photo ops, and then I had to do my usual diving thing. The first dive was very minor, and while I was in the water, I researched the second dive, which was off a much smaller rock. There were some rocks underwater, so I had to feel them with my feet to make sure they weren't doing the optical illusion thing and were really close to the surface. After confirming my landing spot, I climbed the rock, had to take off my tevas because the rocks were so narrow and slippery, then climbed the rock to get set. I was on a very narrow perch, and then once the video was running, went to do the dive. As I pushed off, my foot slipped and I landed very short of my intended spot. I quickly put my hands in front of me to protect my body, and fortunately I was still able to push off the sand/rocks without a potentially nasty injury.

Long climb back up the mountain, then back to the hotel to shower and check out by noon before heading off to Monteverde Cloud Forest National Park. This was going to involve driving around Lake Arenal and was supposed to take around 4 hours. I drove again, and we made the park in record time, just over 2 hours (or something like that). Basically well more than an hour under the recommended time. This was an interesting trip. After rounding the lake, we veered southward away from the lake. At one point the road forked to the left and we went straight. A hundred yards later, some guy stopped us in the street and basically explained how the way to Monteverde was back the other way at the fork. He had a turn by turn map that he wanted to sell us for 4 bucks. Well, always ready to support the locals, we purchased the map. It ended up being useful if only to monitor our progress. But 20 yards after we went back and took the other fork, the road disappeared and we went offroading. At times, the road was TERRIBLE and I had to drop to around 5 miles per hour. But for the most part I was able to continue to be pretty aggressive, passing lamer drivers at will. Fortunately Christine didn't have a problem with my driving. It would have sucked having to slow down or be less aggressive, because we had a long road to go.

After finally getting there and settling into our hotel (Hotel Arco Iris), we signed up for a night tour. We spent the rest of the afternoon reading, sunning, I went for a walk around the town triangle (really, the town was a single paved triangle surrounded by dirt roads). Finally, we got picked up for the night tour, got equipped with lanterns, and went walking. We saw a lot of sleeping birds, bugs, a sloth, and at one point, he enticed a tarantula out of its burrow. Boy, was that thing HUGE.

Next morning we had signed up for a zipline tour with Selvatura. I had also done the zipline tour at Tortuguero. Fortunately I did it in this order, because I would have
been VERY disappointed in the Tortuguero one after this one. There were twice as many ziplines, and the views were spectacular. At one point, we had to do a 700 yard line. It was so long that we had to go in pairs to have enough wait to reach the other end. This was great as it allowed me to take video and still footage of the traverse, because the guys wouldn't let me take a hand off the lines for doing video. Christine took anchor and did all the braking. This shot shows another pair about halfway across the traverse.

The highlight of the zipline tour was actually the Tarzan swing. I had done a tiny Tarzan swing at Tortuguero, basically swinging between two platforms like 10 yards apart. Whoopee. I was the first one to, which ended up being great because I had no expectations. They hooked me up from the platform, and there was no platform on the other end. He tells me to grab the rope, and then says jump. I look at him a little dumbfounded, then jump off. I process to drop maybe 30 yards and swing out into open space and REALLY high. I definitely shouted in surprise. TOTALLY cool. Swung back and forth a bunch of times before I shed enough speed that they could wrangle me in. Then sat and watched while everyone else did it before moving on.

After finishing the tour, back to the hotel to shower and check out. We were off to Manual Antonio national Park, down on the Pacific coast. 10 minutes into the trip out of Monteverde, we could see the Pacific beckoning to us. I drove again and made excellent time. They had projected between 4 and 5 hours to get there. We made in just under 2.5 hours. It was a solid hour of 4 wheeling again before we finally got to a paved road. I was fortunate to not get stuck behind any cars for any length of time. That was probably the benefit of such a crappy conditioned road, in that cars were going so slowly it was easy to quickly pass them even though the sightlines wouldn't have allowed it on a paved road. It was a pleasure to finally get out to the main highway and not have my teeth continually shaking. This main highway included two one lane bridges where traffic stacked up on either side while the other side went across. We waited less than 10 minutes at each bridge, although we found out later at the hotel that depending on the time of day, you can wait for more than an hour at each bridge. I guess that was one of the reasons the estimate for the transit time was so large. We ended up getting in around 2:30PM. We had saved quite a bit at the earlier hotels, so we splurged on this one (La Mansion Inn). This was the view from the hotel.

It ended up being this awesome place in the ass end of nowhere. After we settled in for a bit, we walked down to a private beach and went swimming. On the way back from the hotel, we got our first monkeys (white faced).

Then back to the hotel for pool time before showering up and trying to catch the sunset somewhere (yeah Pacific coast). Well, we found a nice outdoor restaurant with a great view, unfortunately it didn't actually capture the sun going into the ocean, but it was a spectacular sunset nonetheless.

The hotel had a tiny little bar called the bat cave. The comments on were amusing, so we checked it out for a drink. It was scorching hot, they had a steam machine going, and you could tell the bartender was miserable also. But we had to do it to get some pictures. We definitely did NOT do the bat cave the following night though.

The next morning we took the car down to the entrance of Manuel Antonio and parked at the official lot. We walked into the park, which basically consisted of a number of spectacular beaches with trails between them and into the woods. The guides recommended hiring tour guides to maximize wildlife viewing, but Christine had had enough and was going to do the beach thing. I figured I would be able to crib off of others peoples discoveries, so I traipsed off into the park. I ended up walking every trail except for one that went to a waterfall which I was told was totally dried up as it was the end of the dry season. Manuel Antonio is reknowned for its monkeys. I had seen few monkeys since I got to Costa Rica, and for the first few hours, the trails were cold. I was starting to get a little annoyed, when I reached the end of the main trail (which was a solid 2 miles in). I had not taken any water, and I was walking pretty aggressively as I was impatient. I was paying very close attention to make sure that I didn't get dehydrated. All of a sudden the trail ended at this little concrete slab with a gorgeous overlook of yet another inlet, and there was a couple there that spoke a language I didn't recognize. More importantly, there was a little tribe of at least 6 white faced monkeys that were no further than 20 yards from us. We watched them play for the next half hour.

One monkey that I had heard (and heard of) a number of times during the trip was the Howler monkey. Let me tell you, they are aptly named. Their howl is incredibly loud. We heard it from the hotel in Manuel Antonio from at least a few miles away. Well, after 'feasting' on the white faced monkeys, literally a hundred yards away on my trip back down the same path I ran into a group of 3 people that were watching a group of howler monkeys. So, another half hour spent there watching the howlers. Unfortunately, I was never videoing when they howled, but it was AMAZINGLY loud from that close.

Finally I made it back to the car and then the drive to the hotel. Spent some time at the pool 'bar' reading and drinking foofroo(sp?) drinks before showering up for the final night. This time we asked at the desk for the best sunset place. Duly informed, we were off in the car, and they were right. Another outdoor deck overlooking the forest, and it had a great view of the ocean. A whole bunch of people were there to catch the same view. Had some snacks and drinks, then off to another restaurant for dinner before turning in. Next morning had to catch another puddle jumper flight at 9AM in order to make our 12:30PM return flight from San Jose. We did, and thus ends my adventure.

After looking in blogger some more, it looks like you can upload videos, so I will try and edit the dive video to make it smaller, and then upload it to the other entry (or maybe just a new entry all by its lonesome).

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Costa Rica, Part 1

Greetings from Costa Rica

Why here? Long story. Basically I had 35,000 United miles expiring by July 31st. I found that could get me to Hawaii or Central America. Having been to Hawaii enough, and Central America never (Tijuana doesn't count), it was an easy choice. After doing some research, I settled on Costa Rica over Belize/Guatemala. Then I found out that tickets to Vancouver actually cost over $600 (and Seattle not much less). For a lark, I checked on fare prices to Costa Rica, and found that I could get there for $400. So I used the frequent flyer miles to go to Seattle instead. And since I had spent a couple of weeks looking at Costa Rica by now, I HAD to go there anyway...

Unfortunately, my flight was at 6:45 AM. I get to the airport at 5:50, it is dead, through security in 2 minutes. I bought the Stellar Black Hole bag regular after checking out the Patagonia website. Jimmy mentioned later that Hh had written a whole blog article on it. I vaguely remembered, but at this point in my trip, I agree with him. The bag is great. Probably a little big for your standard frisbee weekend (and it needs to be checked), but otherwise perfect for a trip like the one I'm on right now. Flight through Miami to San Jose, and I arrive at around 1PM. There is a little confusion trying to get a taxi to the hotel (Adventure Inn in Ciudad Cariari) before I finally figure out how to get one of the recommended, official airport taxis.

I arrive at the hotel and quickly realize I don't feel like trying to get into San Jose proper to do touristing. I do some errands locally, use the hotels internet to catch up on email, hot tub, beers in the bar, ya know, the usual vacation thing. Next morning I have to wake up at 5AM to be picked up at 5:30 by a bus to take me to Tortugueru National Park. The whole journey will get us there around 2:30PM. We went to a few other hotels to pick up the rest of the passengers and the guide, then off we went. Picking up the passengers in San Jose hotels confirmed the rightness of my decision the previous day not to visit San Jose. It was pretty dungy. Our travelling group ends up being family of four from NYC, including a biology teacher who had taken his class here for the past two years, and was researching a subsequent trip, a french couple, a spanish couple, and two older ladies, I was never able to determine whether they were a couple...

We finally left San Jose and made our way up through Braulio Carrillo National Park, which was a gorgeous mountainous and green park. We didn't make any stops, just passing through. The road eventually devolved down to a dirt road with a bunch of pebbles. At one point we were passing banana plantations on both sides. Our guide gave us the entire lowdown on the planting and harvesting process. Let me tell you, I will never look at a banana the same way again. The reason that bananas are so cheap is NOT because it is a mechanized process. That is what things like Nafta and Cafta get us. Not that I necessarily agree with it, but based on everything we saw, there won't be a mechanized process for a LONG time, at least not at this stage of robotic development. Each banana bunch hanging from a plant had a blue plastic bag around it to protect it from the elements AND bugs. And the plants, while in 'rows', had canals going through them for waste water, basically totally uneven ground. Bunches would get picked, attached to a wire harness, and once 25 bunches were picked, a hauler would drag them along the wire to the processing plant. There, smaller bunches would be cut off each main bunch which had between 60 and a 100 bananas. They would dump them in water which would get sprayed/cleaned and passed down to the next set of people, who would cut them into smaller bunches. The whole spraying/cleaning process also sealed up the cut end of the banana bunch so that the bananas wouldn't dehydrate through the opening. Then another group would take the individual bunches and bag them, Another conveyor then brought it to a final stage where the bagged bunches were put into boxes. And the boxes had the Del Monte label on them. Our guide said that all of the plants were the same size, there were no economies of scale to be had, and from what I saw, they were right. Picture below.

We come to the end of the road and now we have to wait for our boat. That eventually arrives while it has started raining. Fortunately the boat has a roof, but with open sides. We head off down the canals towards the town of Tortuguero. That takes about an hour+. We pull up in Tortuguero and have our first 'tour'. Tortuguero has a population of maybe 2-300 people. At one point I walk by a little B&B that I had emailed about vacancies. They hadn't had any, and in retrospect I was very happy about that. Back to the boat, and then off to Turtle Beach Lodge, which was another 35 minutes away, including a turnoff off the main canal into a tiny canal which couldn't have had more than 1-3 feet of clearance on each side of the boat for the ENTIRE trip. Talk about resupply fun. When the tide was low, they actually had to lift the motor most of the way out of the water otherwise it would drag the bottom. Pretty wild. We finally arrive at the lodge around 2:30 and head off straight to lunch, which is buffet-style. Our table is identified by the name of our guide, Eloy. We are there for the duration. I neglected to mention that we had picked up another guide in Sarapiqui, a friend of the guy from NYC who had done trips with him before. He was part of the research team, and ended up being very useful as a counterpoint to Eloy. And his English was a little better, but no knock on Eloy. After lunch, we finally check into our rooms. I have a room at the end of a series of bungalows with screens on 3 sides. Very cute, and surprisingly isolated. In the meantime, I had befriended the French couple, and got a chance to refresh my French. It did get confusing after awhile, switching from French with the couple to English with the family, and then speaking French to the help before realizing I had to switch back to English, or my pidgen Spanish every now and then (3 years in high school). After checking out my room, I headed out to the grounds, and 100 yards later, I was on the beach facing the Caribbean. They had strenuously suggested that we NOT swim, which was too bad considering the good body surfing opportunities. Although there was some yellow foam/smegma on a lot of the waves, and I never asked what it was. I walked along the beach quite a ways down, did the whole photo thing, and then rested up in a hammock for awhile and thought of Lost... :)

Then a swim in the turtle-shaped pool, at which point it started raining again (I have always loved swimming in the rain). Finally, drinks, dinner, drinks, a little pool with the NYC dad and his 8 year old son Tomio, who actually got the ball in 3 times while his dad and I looked on in amazement (never where they were supposed to go in, naturally). There was another large group of French people, a few Americans and a large young Spanish-speaking contingent, but nothing to really glom on. And then off to bed for a little reading because we were going to have another early morning to do a boat tour. Up at 5:30, on the boat at 6:10. This trip was guided by Erich, the friend of the NYC guy. We slowly went along the canal, seeing lots of cool birds, lizards, basilisk types, and finally towards the end, we finally saw some spider monkeys. We sat and watched them for about 20 minutes before heading back. On the way back, 5 minutes before we pulled in, the French woman looked in the trees behind us and spotted another pair of spider monkeys, mother and child, and we ended up watching them for another 15 minutes. VERY cool. I got some good film and ok pictures.

Back to the lodge for breakfast and an hour off before going out to the jungle tour. I forgot to mention that there was not a cloud in the sky during the boat tour. Of course, for the 10:30AM jungle walk, it started pouring. I was well equipped with my Patagonia Rain Shadow jacket and a tiny portable umbrella that I had brought, so that I could take footage without having to worry about the cameras getting wet. We saw cool stuff like a strangler fig that had destroyed and replaced one large tree, red poisonous frogs, some spider monkeys in the distance, a bunch of birds and cool plants. It rained the ENTIRE time, and pretty hard also. It definitely made it feel truly like the 'rain' forest in which we were walking. The added benefit was that it kept away the mosquitos. Just before we started, the Spanish group came out and had mentioned that they had been bludgeoned with mosquitos. I saw maybe one the entire walk. Considering that I was already waffling on whether to continue my anti-malarial treatment, the lack of mosquitos during this portion of the trip sealed the deal. Towards the end of the walk (I was bringing up the rear) all of a sudden I heard a buzzing sound around my umbrella. I shook it and it was still there. I shook it some more, walked faster to catch up to the group, and it didn't stop. Finally I look at the top of the umbrella and don't notice anything but still hear the buzzing, and then it begins. I started getting bitten, and I look down at my shirt and I am COVERED with what looks like large flies. The french couple is just ahead of me, and I call out to them and start giving them my umbrella and camera bag as I am frantically taking my rain coat off. I am starting to panic as I continue to get bitten/stung (I don't know which yet), and we call out to Eloy, who is well ahead. Now I'm down to my shirt, and I look down and it is festooned with bugs. The french couple sees the back of my shirt and it is similarly accoutred. I frantically take the shirt off and start shaking it to get them off. Eloy has gotten to us by then and he picks a couple of them off to show to everyone, identifying them as a stingless wasp. He shows the over-large mandibles and says that they were only biting me, and that there was nothing to worry about. I put the shirt back on, and a couple of minutes later get 'stung' on my right arm, think it is psychosomatic, then get stung again, have to take off rain coat, camera bag, and shirt again. Pull the arm inside out, and sure enough, there is a goddam wasp on the inside of the shirt sitting there laughing at me. Flick him off, and I finally finish the tour pest free. But it was exciting/memorable, let me tell you. We also took a fallen coconut and watched as Eloy opened it up to get to the big hairy seed inside, and then crack open the seed so that we could try the shell and drink some coconut juice. I am normally not fond of coconut, but when I tried the shell, it basically tasted mostly like a nut, with VERY little coconut. Makes me cringe to think of what they do to it to concentrate the coconut taste. The juice was pretty cool also.

Nothing else particularly glam. A drink, dinner, a couple more drinks, and then played pool against this one guide and smoked him 5 games to 2. The most satisfying one was the first one where I couldn't sink a ball until he had only one left to my 7, and then I finally went on a run and beat him in two turns. Not that I'm competitive...

Of course, the next morning I had to wake up at the crack of ass yet again, as I had a 7:05 flight out of Tortuguero to get back to San Jose. This involved the 40 or so minute boat ride to the airport. When I say airport, we're talking an one floor open sided building maybe the footprint of my living room, with two guys outside with a sheet of paper checking off names as we show up. And when they weighed my bag to see if I was under the 27 pound limit, they used a handheld spring scale! When I arrive, there is one plane there, Paradise Air, which takes off 5 minutes later. I walk to the end of the runway (maybe 40 yards away) to get some footage of the runway and our plane landing. The runway isn't exactly paved, but nor is it dirt. More like craggy pavement that hasn't really been touched up in a few years. I see our plane coming in finally, and take some footage of the landing and a picture as it approaches. It turns off 50 yards before it reaches us. Imagine doing this in the US.

I walk back to get my bags and get in line to get on the plane. It seats maybe 15 people total. Shockingly, I'm the first guy in line after we provide our bags, and as I'm getting on, I ask the guy what is the best side to sit on, and he says the left. I sit in front just behind the pilot (knees in the back of his seat) and get my gear ready. I take footage of the takeoff and random pictures of the journey.

25 minutes later, we are in San Jose at 7:30 instead of 2:30. Well worth the $90. I grab a taxi to my hotel, fortunately they have a room ready for me, and I settle in while I figure out what to do with my day. After discussion with the front desk and the realization that any tours I want to do have already left, we settle on my renting a taxi for the day for $80. I tell Jorje that I will be ready to go in about 40 minutes, once I am done settling in. I go to my room, settle in, catch up on email, and then grab my backpack, bathing suit (ends up being an essential thing to bring as we'll see later), camera gear, and money of course. To this point, I have still not used my credit/debit cards for anything besides an initial withdrawal at the airport of colones. EVERYTHING can be paid for in US dollars or colones, which I wasn't completely aware of, so at this point I'm trying to divest myself of the roughly $600 in colones that I took out. I had also neglected to inform my two credit cards that I was going to be travelling abroad, so the later I have to charge something, the better, so that they won't have a chance to freeze them until it is too late (fraud protection).

So I get into the taxi with Jorje and we are off to Volcan Poas (Poas volcano). Naturally, Jorje speaks only a little english, and no french, so I have to dig deep into my 3 years of high school spanish. It ends up being great, as I get a crash course in vocabulary and other as we try and communicate. There was a lot of 'como se dice'. There were only a few concepts that took a long time to figure out, like 'verb', etc. We never actually got the generic word for verb, but didn't end up needing it. By the end of the trip, we were conversing reasonably well, if in very short sentences. As we were driving, I asked where the volcano was, and when he pointed it out, with nary a cloud near it, I asked if that was normal, and he said no way. Maybe 3/4 of the time it was covered in clouds. I was thrilled that I was going to be able to see it sans clouds. Sure enough, we got to the volcano and still no clouds. He walked with me to the actual overlook, took a few pictures of me with the volcano, and then as we walked back, and I was going to take the loop trail to Botos Lagoon, I told him that if he wanted, he was more than welcome to wait for me back at the car.

I think he was happy about that, and after taking the loop, I understood why. It was pretty long, and had a number of steeps to it. But it was well worth it, as the lagoon was gorgeous.

45 minutes later, back at the visitors center, lame tourist goods, I grab a large bottle of water, and then back to the parking lot to catch up with Jorje. Next stop, La Paz Waterfall Garden. Takes about 45 minutes to get there, and then he brings me to the gate, and we arrange to meet after I'm done, maybe 1.5-2 hours later. The garden is pretty cool, with the initial walk taking you through a huge bird cage with a bunch of tropical birds, a hummingbird cage, frog cage, snake cage, etc., before getting to the second part of the trek which involves walking along a narrow path to walk down a river and see 5 reasonably gorgeous waterfalls. Naturally, I'm doing all the little side trips to get footage.

The tour ends at the top of the final waterfall, named La Paz. I can see at the bottom that there is a road crossing it, so once the shuttle brings us back to the lodge, and I catch up with Jorje, on the way out I tell him I want to go to the bottom of the falls. He says sure, and we drive on down and park. I take some footage, he takes some pictures of me near the falls, and while we are there, some guy randomly climbs down to a ledge and jumps into the pool at the bottom. It is higher than the diving board that John Bar may remember from Jonjoping at Worlds in '96. Naturally, intrigued, as I'm walking back to the car I make up my mind and tell Jorje that I want to go in also. Jorje had said that it was the first time he had ever seen someone do that, and he was there all the time. I put on my bathing suit, walk Jorje through how to take a video using my camera, and then as I'm walking to the ledge, I see the guy (who had since jumped with his son), walk up to him and ask him if he had touched bottom. Once he said no, I made up my mind. I climbed down to the ledge, and as I was standing there overlooking the pool, I realized it was even higher than I had originally thought. Nonetheless, I looked over to the bridge, gave Jorje the thumbs up, and then proceed to set up and do a perfect swan dive into the pool. Well, it felt like it at the time. Boy, the water was COLD. But the crowd was suitable impressed, and Jorje actually got almost all of it on the camera. After we got back to the car, we had parked right behind the other guy, and his kid showed me a picture of the dive, so I gave them my email address and asked them to email me the picture. If they send it, I will add it to the blog below.

And that's it for part 1.

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