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Eressea Nov 5th, 2008 01:57 PM

Eressea's CR trip report
Week 1

Red eye flight from SFO to MIA. Veeery looong flight. Screaming toddler two rows ahead. Wailed for at least 4 hours of the 5.5 hour flight. Landed in MIA bleary eyed and exhausted around near 8 am local time. Stumbled around looking for breakfast but was too wrecked from flight to eat. Skipped breakfast instead. Very first one to check in for MIA to SJO flight and had the entire waiting area for four separate gates to myself. Got my boarding pass when someone opened up the gate's counter.

Only a few more hours until I land. The SFO to MIA and back again is always the hardest but the MIA to SJO leg isn't so bad. I think the SJO to MIA leg is the worst. ;-)

Landed nearly half an hour ahead of schedule but had to wait on the runway for another plane to leave our arrival gate. Ended up offboarding nearly an hour late. Walk to and get in line for customs. Not too bad but I was starving and had the beginnings of a headache. My turn. The first thing the customs officer asked me, "Habla espagnol?" and I had to say "Only a little." And she rolled her eyes and shook her head! She wasn't cross with me, but I guess she saw the stamp from the last time I was in town (May) and figured I should have learned more Spanish in four months than I already had. I had to laugh and assured her that I was studying it in school (I was too, except that I had to drop my class this semester because I was going to miss 5 weeks of it to travel here so you see the irony) and would keep at it until I was fluent.

And then I was done and I rolled my wheelie and tired self outside to meet the gaggle of drivers both legitimate and pirate, public and private. Someone asked me my name and at that same time I saw another guy holding a card with my name on it - the first guy nudged the second guy who was looking down to let the former know his charge was here. My guide from Aventuras Naturales was very informed and personable and he described the buildings we saw on the way to the hotel, what I could expect with the weather, gave me a brief rundown on the Costa Rican economy, a short history of the Pan American Highway, local current events and answered any questions I had. I really enjoyed talking to him and the driver.

It was bumper to bumper and cheek by jowl traffic (it was around lunchtime when we left the airport) and raining to boot but everything felt so familiar and I was so glad to be back that I just sat back and enjoyed the ride.

First stop: Hotel Don Carlos

HDC has become a home base for me of sorts. I stayed for I think 3 nights the first time I was here (1 night here, then off somewhere, 1 night back, then off again, and last night before flight back to US, etc.) and I absolutely adore the staff. (I stayed a total of 4 nights this trip.) Between Steve at the hotel desk and Juan Carlos at the tour desk, I wanted for nothing. Even when I was staying at another hotel or lodging and was only at the hotel waiting for a shuttle or tour pick up, they treated me as if I were a guest throughout.

I checked in early so my room wasn't ready but they gave me another room on the spot rather than have me wait. I washed my face and dumped my gear and headed to the hotel's restaurant to have lunch, my first meal since the early dinner the night before. Then back to the room to pick up my camera and trotted over across the street to the Jade Museum. I didn't get a chance to visit it last time despite the fact that it was only across the street because I was leaving the hotel at 6 am and returning after 5 pm after it closed. There were beads and necklaces, mortars and pestles, figurines, walking sticks, staffs, bowls, etc. made of jade and clay. They also had this special display of a burial scene complete with life-sized figures dressed in indigenous clothing and featured how a lot of the items on display around the museum were used for burial. It's a cozy and intimate space and on that rainy Monday afternoon, I had it all to myself. I took a very leisurely stroll through the rooms and snapped pictures of just about everything.

Have I mentioned I bought a new camera specifically for this trip? It's the Panasonic FZ28 that I heard about from the lovely folks on this forum and bought on the strength of their advice. And I love this camera. I would probably love it more had I read through the manual before the trip and learned all the fancy tricks it can do, but there will be time enough for that later. I took nearly 1200 pictures and would have taken more had I a waterproof case for the camera as I spent half my time in, under or near the water. Any tips on buying a waterproof case anyone? ;-)

I booked the 2 days/1 night package with Aventuras Naturales. I love rafting and love the Pacuare river so this was a must do for me. My guide picked me up around 6:30 the next morning and off we went. We stopped at Bocadito del Cielo just outside of Cartago for a typical Costa Rican breakfast. I took pictures of the surroundings as the restaurant has a large balcony with outdoor seating and was a prime spot to take photos. Another drive through more stunning countryside, through the Tres Equis farm (where I was told they raised prize-winning horses) and then a quick stop to meet the gear truck. We walked to the 1 km to the put in last time but this time there were a lot of cows grazing right on the trail and our guide decided it would be safer to drive down with the gear rather than walk amongst the animals. We were only too happy to ride down. These cows had sharp, pointy horns...

There were only 3 of us (it was a couple on their honeymoon and me) rafting to the lodge that morning and with our guide a total of four people. One of the best things about Aventuras Naturales (they own and run the Pacuare Lodge) is that they do work with small groups and solo travelers and the staff at the lodge and the river guides put many other lodge staff and guides to shame. Yes, they're that good. (I've gone with another outfit and was disappointed.) At any rate, the water level this time was significantly better than it was last time. Not enough rain had fallen when I was here in May and I felt like I missed out but October more than made up for it. I was so excited. We stopped for a hike to a waterfall and while the honeymooners swam in the pool I chatted with the guide Cholo and laughed a great deal. Took pictures with my Kodak waterproof camera but longed for my "real" camera in my backpack which was in transit to the Lodge.

Back to the water and on to the Lodge. At the Lodge, we hiked to another waterfall while we waited for our luggage to catch up to us. Cholo is really well-informed and so entertaining that I had a hard time keeping up because I had to stop to laugh so often and didn't want to risk laughing and falling down the steep path. He showed us the real chocolate fruit, a whole slew of flowers and trees, told us about the ants and the other critters we encountered on the hike, etc. Then another beautiful waterfall. Cholo painted my face with some colorful mud? that lined the area around the falls and took a picture. I felt rather foolish but let him do it anyway - I was on vacation and I felt at ease enough to let my hair down. Still, I won't be sharing that photo with anyone.

When we arrived back at the Lodge, we were met by the staff with drinks and then shown to our bungalows. When I can afford it, I think I will have to build my house like one of these bungalows. Simple and plush all at the same time. Impeccably clean and wonderfully designed and furnished. I took pictures of my bungalow (I take pictures of all the hotel rooms and lodgings I stay in) and the bathroom and changed into some dry clothing. Back to the main reception house for lunch where I met another honeymooning couple and learned that there were exactly five of us staying at the Lodge that evening. It was fantastic to have a place like the Lodge all to ourselves. Lunch for me (a pescatarian) was penne pasta with shaved parmesan and mushrooms but I don't remember what the other folks had. We all agreed we enjoyed our meals immensely however. I haven't had the same meal twice here as the "Veggie Surprise" changes but the portions are huge and the food is wonderful.

After lunch, we opted to do the canopy tour and since there were only three of us, we were able to take our time and take pictures (I brought the Panasonic this time) and just go at our own pace. It was then that I saw my first bullet ant, a big, black and aggressive creature an inch long and a mean bite that can give you flu-like symptoms for over 24 hours. Cholo had mentioned them casually earlier but I thought they only lived in the topmost parts of the trees and that we wouldn't encounter any "down" here on the zipline platforms until I nearly leaned on one and suppressed a yelp of alarm. En route back to the Lodge, Cholo pointed out a nest of bullet ants - on the ground! - and a steel cable along which they were crawling to and fro. He put his finger right over one to give it scale and so that I could take a picture, but then a second ant came along and together the two ants raised themselves on their hind legs and tried to bite his finger, so he yelped and ran off a few feet away. Ruining my shot. Sigh...

Back to our bungalows to shower. The bungalow and bathroom has screens for windows all around but you can see right out and be seen from the path in turn if you don't draw the curtains. The shower area itself doesn't have curtains you can draw but is adequately screened from view by thick rows of plants. The first time I was here, and being paranoid, I had asked one of my friends to stand outside the shower window and peer in and to tell me what she saw while I stood (fully clothed) in the shower. She had told me that you had to step right up to the window to see anything and from the path you couldn't really see anything. Comforted somewhat, I was able to take a shower at 4 in the afternoon with the sun still out. But every noise I heard made me jump. This time around, however, I was an old pro and showered without a care in the world.

Dinner was wonderful. I had the Veggie Surprise which this time consisted of a plateful of vegetables, some in a salad to one side of the plate and two stacks of roundcut egglant, zucchini, tomato, cheese etc. stacked on the other. I took a picture of my plate. I'm not very good at describing food so please let me know and I can email you this picture ([email protected]). Appetizers were delicious mushroom springrolls. The others had either pork medallions or seared ahi tuna for their main course. For dessert, there was fried banana flambee with chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream or a manicotti in raspberry sauce.

The second day of rafting was one of the best days of rafting I've had. The water level was perfect - high but not too high - the sun was out and I was looking forward to the next 14 miles. (We rafted about 4 miles the first day.) Cholo and the other guides went out of their way to make sure I had fun on the water that day and I laughed all the way to take out. We stopped for lunch at some huts either borrowed or leased from an indigenous family who lived near the river and then we were back on the water for more whitewater fun. Brilliant day. Slept very well that night.

Back to the HDC for one night and then off to Tortuguero the next morning.

I really should have paid attention to where the bus was going but I didn't. I know we drove on the highway and past Braulio Carrillo NP and through the longest tunnel they have in Costa Rica (it was also their only tunnel, I was told) but beyond that I don't know. I did take pictures of the scenery as we drove past though. We drove to the docks for the boat ride to Pachira Lodge (boat ride about an hour) and had lunch at another property owned by the owners of Pachira Lodge. The boat ride was a lot of fun but as you no doubt know by now, I really enjoy being on the water. We saw a really large crocodile sunning itself on the bank and it was a lot of fun seeing and hearing twenty cameras going off all at once. We had to be careful not to rush to one side of the boat as well or else we stood the chance of swimming with our subject...

It was amazingly muggy and sticky that afternoon but as I was prepared for it, didn't suffer too much. That was the weather though. The mosquitoes welcomed me with open fangs and sent the word out to distant relatives in neighboring swamps to come and greet me. And I had an entourage throughout my stay at the lodge who stayed with me even when I went to tour the canals or visit the village. A few of them managed to slip into my room and have a buffet while I slept.

After stashing my gear in my room, I went out to meet the rest of the group for our first tour of the canals. We saw the whitefaced monkeys, the howler monkeys, tiger herons, snowy egrets, boatbills, kingfishers, basilisks and iguanas, jacanas, gar (really big fish), vultures, hawks, and flora of all shapes and sizes. Our boat captain really knew his stuff and thanks to him, the three of us Americans learned quite a bit. Our official guide had his hands full with a large group from Spain and more often than not forgot to translate what he had told the large group into English; I was fortunate in that I could still get the gist of what he said and was able to "translate" for the other two people.

Dinner was buffet style and a set menu in the restaurant off to the side of the reception desk. I didn't take pictures of the food though but there was chicken and fish, some rice, some mashed potatoes, soup and dessert. Dinner the next night was pasta with chicken or with mushroom sauce, more soup, more rice, and dessert. Breakfasts weren't typically Costa Rican as we had pancakes and toast and cereal.

We toured more canals the next morning and saw much of the same wildlife except for the addition of the caimans. We were able to get really, really close to one hunting shrimp in the shallows and the poor creature endured the paparazzi treatment for a good 15 minutes or more. We also caught a glimpse of a nutria or river otter. We then visited Tortuguero village which Shillmac described here on another post with amazing clarity. It's hard to put into words what walking through someone's village and to a certain extent, life, feels like, but the village throbbed with an energy I can't even now describe. The large Spanish group we were with returned later that evening to experience the nightlife in the village but I opted to stay in and nurse my mosquito bites. Plus it was time to do laundry.

The other two Americans did go on the turtle tour but only saw one green turtle. It was pouring rain and they were drenched when they got back, but it was well worth the trip. I didn't regret not going as I knew I wanted to see a genuine arribada with hundreds of turtles laying their eggs but I would have to wait until my next trip to see that sight. We were told right when we arrived that the arribada here had pretty much ended last week (last week of September). You're not allowed to take pictures or film the turtles which makes sense but then you have to rely on your memory to store that information. We had gone to check out the Caribbean Conservation Corps offices at the end of the village, watched the introductory video with footage of Archie Carr and the beginnings of the Corps. The Corps consisted of the main tourist information building, possible the main administrative building behind it and then lodgings for the staff and volunteers. It was just me and the other woman who went so we had to wait for our guide and boat to pick us up at another dock as he had stayed with the main group. It got darker and darker while we sat outside waiting for our ride, and the mozzies came but this time bats were out and I wasn't devoured. I love bats.

The gardens at Pachira Lodge teemed with spiders and I had a field day photographing them. There were red ones, yellow ones, white ones, red and black ones, etc. I even was lucky enough to see one spider nab a fly and then a bee with its web, attack each one and cocoon them for later snacking. I must have touched the web or something because then the spider headed towards me and just waited. It was more than a little amusing to be stalked by a creature no bigger than my thumb but I was glad that unlike the mozzies, this creature couldn't fly and follow me back to my room.

Back to San Jose and HDC...

More to follow...

tully Nov 5th, 2008 05:59 PM

enjoying your report! It's okay, I take pics of my hotel rooms all the time. I hope you post them here. Ouch, a bullet ant bite, that really had to hurt. Looking forward to the rest....

shillmac Nov 6th, 2008 09:09 AM

I'm a room photographer as well and try to do it first thing. Thanks for the amazing description of your Pacuare adventure. Gotta do that sometime! I've looked at the website of those bungalows before--gorgeous!

Anxious to hear more--so glad you had a great time! As one who flies occasionally with a toddler, your experience gave me cold chills! And sometimes, no matter how hard you try to keep them entertained, they get out of sorts and there's no reasoning with them!

cmerrell Nov 6th, 2008 10:11 AM

Wonderful, detailed report, Eressea!

Thanks for sharing. I hope you'll post a link to some of your photos once you've had time to get them all organized.

Looking forward to reading the rest. :-)

Eressea Nov 6th, 2008 02:15 PM

I felt sorry for the toddler and his parents actually, despite being cranky myself - he sounded sooo miserable and I knew he couldn't sleep either and both of us wanted off that plane asap.

As for Pacuare, I think I will have to return there every year so long as the changes I heard they were planning don't change the atmosphere completely.

On to Week 2...

I had originally planned to rent an apartment for a month and just take extended day trips; I wanted to get a feel for everyday life and its rhythm, to live like a local in as much as it was possible and slow way down. I really enjoyed my whirlwind tour last May hopping around from locations and hotels like a rock star but this time I wanted to see more. As it turns out, I still got the best of both worlds.

I was originally scheduled to stay at a guest house run by a Costa Rican family this week but when I got there discovered that there were no rooms available, so I opted for Plan B: Aranjuez Apartments. The apartamentos are owned and run by the same owners of Hotel Aranjuez and I checked myself into one of their studios for the week until a room opened up at the house.

I learned how to take the bus around town and how much taxis cost to and from here and there. I learned that different taxi drivers charged different fares for the same routes, that even the legitimate ones who used the maria still had a way of making it go faster. I learned a slew of different routes to and from my apartment, the guest house, to various restaurants, Coca Cola station, etc. I went shopping for groceries and sundries every few days and ate at different sodas in different neighborhoods. I went to the San Pedro Mall for some shopping and a movie.

I went out to dinner with people from the guest house. I walked and walked to visit various parks and also to find places I knew would be useful like the central post office and which ATMs charged the least amount of fees and were more reliable. I visited the Central Market and walked the twisty halls filled with butcher shops and produce shops and souvenir shops and a ton of small eateries. Bought some mamon de chino from a fruit seller for the house. I learned where MusManni's were (local bakery chain) where I could always duck into for a snack and directions. I learned how to ask for directions several times and then triangulate. I sat in the central square across the National Theater and people-watched.

I checked out different bookstores (a favorite pastime). I bought some ice cream from Pop's and watched a street performer hold the crowd in thrall as he made music with a boombox and a didgeridoo. I bought a painting from a street artist whose picture I recognized from La Nacion a few days ago (it was a story on people who worked long and irregular hours) and whose bright canvases caught my eye as I walked past. I found Manolo's on Avda. Central where they sold churros and were open 24 hours. Found an Automercado that had a take away counter and solved all my cooking problems for the week.

I also visited Irazu volcano and found the first "Don't drink the water" sign. We drove up and through Cartago, I believe, and I experienced that same wonder I had from my first trip as every time we rounded a bend we would be treated to another spectacular vista. I have a lot of pictures of scenes taken from the shuttle as we wound our way up to the volcano. We parked a few meters from the crater and filed out into a very foggy and quite drizzly day. And to think it was sunny in the city and I hadn't wanted to take a sweater so that I wouldn't have to carry anything extra...It was cold up there.

Our guide said that on a clear day we would have been able to see the Pacific ocean and the Caribbean sea. Today, we could see the crater and that was it. Still, an active volcano is still a sight to see so off we went. The guide said that depending on the color of the water you could somewhat gauge its temperature; today it was a dull, muddy brown and I think quite hot. The fencing kept us from getting a proper shot of the crater with our cameras though, and unlike Poas, there was no elevated viewing platform from which you could take pictures. There was some rock monument close by and our guide hopped onto that and took our pictures with the crater. We then walked the length of the protective fencing and snapped what pictures we could but I think there was a consensus that we were all really too far to get any postcard-worthy shots. But there wasn't much else around the crater and we soon headed back up to the parking lot.

Also visited Lankester Botanical Gardens and saw a lot of orchids, palms, bamboos, heliconias, bromeliads (including the most famous one, the pineapple!) and cacti. There was a moment where our guide was explaining the circle of life around one of the heliconias, the bright red one that we've all seen, about how when its fruit drops to the ground the lizards swarm in to eat it and then the wily snakes pounce on the lizards. As a group, we looked at the plant, then at the ground beneath the plant and then the ground around our feet and then we walked quickly and silently back to the safety of the stone path. And then we all laughed.

Bring mosquito repellent when you visit the gardens: there were a few bamboo covered walkways and still ponds and the mozzies were ready for us. Okay, mostly me but someone else was bitten too.

Went to the Basilica de Los Angeles to check out the site where a miracle happend about four hundred years ago and the church itself of course. The original rock upon which Mary appeared to the little girl is now encased in concrete? and protected by a small metal fence. They've also painted a mural behind it to simulate what the surroundings looked like way back when. The miracle site is now beneath street level a little behind the church itself and we reached it by walking down a winding stone path. There were also display cases of other artifacts but none to do with the miracle. The church itself was gray and white on the outside but had a very warm and bright interior. I didn't get to explore as much as I would have liked as there was a service going on while we were there and I didn't feel like disturbing the devotees en route to the altar on their knees.

I spent an afternoon reading and writing in the Biblioteca Nacional. I would have wandered upstairs to explore the building and what I thought were other floors of books but was told my the security guard to stay on the street level as there were only administrative offices up there. Oops. Plus, I think they run the library a little differently than from what I'm used to. I think you're meant to find the call number or at least title of the book, go up to the front desk and they find the book for you while you wait in the waiting area. As there were only two library technicians at the counter that day, there were quite a few people sitting listlessly in the waiting area. Fortunately for me, I had brought my own book.

A quick jaunt to the Parque Nacional directly in front of the library to see the monument of Central American nations defeating the invader William Walker. Had to avoid the very loud and very curious roving bands of what appeared to be ravens except that they were brown. I didn't take any photos though as it was nearing dark and it had begun to rain again and I was told to avoid the park after a certain hour. I think I will go back there but much earlier in the day.

I finally made it to the Gold and Numismatic museums this time around. Pardon the pun but there was a wealth of artifacts - some easily recognizable and some not - jewelry, obviously, little figurines, clasps, neck plates, head gear, etc. and other pieces whose purpose I couldn't figure out. I found all that gold a little overwhelming and was grateful for the dim lighting. Most of my pictures came out well but some came out oddly due to the lighting and the slant of the display cases. There were dioramas of traditional village life and a replica of a medicine cart with bits of plants and their medicinal uses written out in chalk. There was a glass case with a life-sized model of an indigenous warrior with his full gold regalia on as well as a small display of the inside of a hut with native tools and hammocks. There were also quite a few art students sketching away.

The Numismatic museum was much smaller than the Gold museum although there was a special exhibit to the right of the security scanning station when you first enter the museum. Costa Rican history and its relationships with its neighbors and to a lesser extent their neighbors' histories are easily seen in the bills and coins from throughout the periods. I really enjoyed seeing all the colorful currency and the varying sizes of bills and coins. One of the museum guards had to show me how to work the lights for each display as they were kept off to preserve the currencies' colors and I thought that that was a really smart way to do it. Each light automatically shut off after five minutes but you can of course shut it off once you're ready to move on to the next display case.

I then walked over to the Simon Bolivar Zoological Park which I discovered was only one winding block away from HDC. The zoo is pretty large - I think 14 acres - and has crocodiles, turtles, macaws, porcupines, fox, parrots, toucans, margays, ocelots, a lion and lioness, a jaguar, a jaguarundi, koatis, whitefaced monkeys, spider monkeys etc. not all the animals were out and they had a fair section of the park closed off for repairs or renovation the day I went. I actually walked right past the lions' cage and it didn't notice it as I was so engrossed with the koatis and then I heard them roar. I had to doubleback the way I came to see them and there they were: a male and a female. I think the den is much too small especially for two lions but last I heard there were major plans to renovate the entire park. I would have liked to have seen the big cats out in the wild (from a safe but photographically convenient location) rather than fenced in but I suppose I will have to wait until I can go on a proper safari.

I'm working on getting my photos organized. I haven't posted them online before so I'll have to figure that out still - I'm afraid I'm a bit of a Luddite when it comes to the Internet - so any suggestions will be welcome.

More to follow...

shillmac Nov 6th, 2008 03:37 PM

Eressea, you visited some of my favorite places, south of Cartago. . .Irazu, Lankester.

I've seen 2 "Water not Potable" signs: Irazu and Almonds & Corals Tent Camp near Manzanillo.

Still enjoying! Take your time, but keep it coming! :)

Eressea Nov 6th, 2008 08:56 PM

A quick correction: the preceding post encapsulates weeks 2 and 3 - sorry! I warned you guys my notes started to get hazy once I hit full vacation mode...

ShellD Nov 7th, 2008 05:11 AM

I'm really enjoying your report Eressea! You've had a fascinating journey so far...keep it coming! I hope to see your pictures...and I am one to take pics of the hotel rooms too. :)

sean420 Nov 7th, 2008 05:53 AM

Great trip report!

I've had the unfortunate experience of doing the SJO to MIA flight twice now on my way to Costa Rica. Both times we had a 5 hour lay over in MIA - NEVER AGAIN! Now we fly through Houston or Dallas which are much better airports.

glover Nov 7th, 2008 06:38 AM

Thanks for this great report, Eressea! It's not often we get such a detailed and interesting tour of the sights in and around San Jose.

Eressea Nov 7th, 2008 01:30 PM

Week 4

Back to full tourist mode.

Along with two of my housemates, I rafted the Pacuare again only this time I went with Rios Tropicales, the largest rafting company in CR I believe. (One of my many, many favorite things about CR is that I can go rafting YEAR ROUND unlike most places here in the US.) I wanted to try a different outfit so that I could compare rafting and guiding styles.

There were anywhere between 40 to 50 people rafting with us that day. I don't remember our guide's name and none of the other guides learned our names either. The perfunctory safety talk was given from the front of the very large tour bus. We were first driven to the company's cafeteria for breakfast which included some typical Costa Rican fare along with cereal and toast. Then we were herded back onto the bus.

We were driven to another put in point on the riverbank than what I had known before and then hitched a ride on a tractor and were pulled to the actual put in point. I enjoyed the tractor ride as I have never been anywhere near large, farm machinery before and it was a novel experience. I imagine we could have driven down that rocky and serpentine road but I think we had more leverage in that tractor.

We were then divided up and got into the rafts. The water was pretty good although it wasn't as high as it had been three weeks ago when I went with AV. Our guide was okay but seemed distracted and looked as though they weren't excited about rafting that day. We practiced pulling each other out of the water before we set out and then off we went. It was an uneventful ride for the most part until one of our party fell in. He fell in during one of the Class IV rapids but he kept his cool and one of the safety kayakers towed him back to our boat fairly quickly.

We paused at the company lodge to drop off one of the guides. It was then that our guide tapped one of my housemates on the shoulder and told them that they had to paddle and help with actually moving the boat as the guide saw them stop paddling and take their paddle out of the water whenever we hit a rapid. Now I can't in all honesty find fault with the content of that talk although I did mind the manner in which it was given, that rather than telling the boat as a whole so that no one felt singled out as a more seasoned guide would have done, our guide hadn't stopped to consider that they might embarrass someone.

We rafted to take out without further incident. Then we boarded the bus and rode back to the cafeteria to change into dry clothing and have lunch. The changing rooms had showers and private stalls and I'll grant that it was roomier than what I'm used to so that was fine. The food consisted of chicken and beef, spaghetti, potato salad, rice, fried bananas and cajetas (I don't know what they're called in English but they're made with condensed milk and shreds of coconut rolled into small balls and dusted with sugar.). Okay fare but the cajetas were the best part of the meal, I thought.

Back on the bus for the ride back to San Jose.

I headed off to Liberia and then onward to Rincon de la Vieja. It took about four hours from San Jose to Liberia and then a quick transfer to another Interbus van for the last stretch to the hotel. I stayed at the Hacienda Guachipelin which was about a 45 minute drive from downtown Liberia. I'd read that I could buy the One Day Adventure Pass and in one day I would be able to go tubing, rappel waterfalls, do a canopy tour, go horseback riding and then visit the spa for a steam bath, a mud bath and hot tub soak. The Hacienda is a real working ranch and I definitely felt like I was in cowboy country now. It was also warmer here and although it was already afternoon when I arrived and overcast, it hadn't rained at all.

The reception house used to be either a barn or stable as far as I could tell, unless they built it to look aged and rugged with exposed beams and half doors you would normally associate with horse pens. I had about an hour before check in time so I went to the restaurant for a late lunch.

The restaurant has a roof but is for the most part an open air establishment and sitting at any of the tables you had a view of the surrounding land. Meals were good but definitely more expensive than what I was used to at other places, no doubt due to the convenience factor and the fact that it was at least a 45 minute drive to downtown if you wanted another option.

I could have rushed over to the activity/tour house and hiked in the park (Rincon de la Vieja NP) right after lunch but as I had 3 nights here I thought I'd take it easy and hike the day after tomorrow. It turned out that I couldn't have hiked to the volcano that day - or any other day that week - because the rains had washed out the trail and I would have had to ford a small but either waist or chest deep river to get anywhere. Of the three main trails, only the one to the fumaroles was still viable and even that trail required wading into thigh-high water.

I was really excited about the next morning as I had come to the Hacienda specifically to go tubing and rappel down waterfalls. I bought the pass and went off to do the canopy tour. The Hacienda's canopy tour is different from other canopy tours in that theirs includes rock wall climbing, Tarzan swings, cable drops and upside down ziplines. It was definitely one of the better canopy tours I've been on and I especially enjoyed doing a zipline upside down. It was funny because the guide told me to bring my legs up and hook my ankles around the cables and then he told me to "open your hands." I looked at him, blinking my incomprehension, so he repeated, "Open your hands." "What do you mean, open my hands?" I said as I hung upside down. And then it dawned on me that he meant to let go of the cables. And I did. And I ziplined upside down over the Rio Blanco. (Unfortunately, the photographer was nowhere in sight when I went upside down so I don't have a picture of that feat.) Not too fast, mind you, and the cable line was very short which was great as the longer the line, the more chances you had of speeding up and spinning, precipitating an embarrassing rescue/taxi ride.

But I was bitten everywhere - arms, legs and back - and I still have those bite marks. I met this lovely Dutch couple who took turns smacking me to kill all the mosquitoes feeding on me.

After we got back from the canopy tour, we were told that the river and the waterfalls were too swollen because of the rains so there would be no tubing or waterfall rappeling that day. I was more than a little disappointed and while I understood that the rain was beyond anybody's control, I would have appreciated it if they had told us ahead of time that the river/waterfalls were too high BEFORE I shelled out the money for the adventure pass. There was nothing to be done.

We were instead brought to the corrals and matched with horses. I was given a medium-sized brown horse. He seemed older than the ones the other rides got but he turned out to be feistier than most. He ran really closely to a couple of trees, smashing my left knee into each one. He enjoyed leaving the trail and then cutting back in line, irking the other horses in front and behind him: at least four different horses kicked my horse throughout the ride. It didn't concern me until I realized I could get kicked myself and then I started to actively rein him in. One girl in our party got kicked in the knee by another rider's horse but fortunately she wasn't seriously hurt.

We "parked" the horses and then hiked down to the Oropendula Waterfall. It was a fairly easy hike until we got to the river proper and then we had to hopscotch onto wet, slippery rocks to get to the waterfall itself. It was an impressive waterfall, as most of the ones I've seen thus far were, although if you were a strong enough swimmer you could actually swim right up to it without being immediately swept away. The path goes up onto a vantage point built along a rock shelf to the left (facing the falls) and from there you can take some really great pictures. I took pictures and then decided to go for a swim. It's funny how I always forgot how cold river water can be and how I went from hot to freezing in a matter of seconds. I stayed in the water regardless because I enjoyed swimming and had ridden and hiked all this way. Still, I was cold and we still had to go to the spa.

We rode to the spa. We were all wet so by that time a steam bath sounded really good. Except that I hadn't planned on going to the spa (there was no massage included) and had planned instead on going back to the hotel, so I didn't have a swimsuit with me. I asked if I could be taken back to the hotel and was told yes but it would take time for the bus to come and pick me up and then it would have to drive back to the spa to pick up the rest of the people...I ended up waiting in the reception area while everyone else got their steam/mud/hot tub grooves on. I did have a koati for company who loitered in the reception area with me, knocking over trash bins and eating the little votive candles on the tables, metal casings and all. At one point, it got up onto the table I was sitting at and just sat there looking at me. He knew I had left my camera back at the hotel and knew, too, I think, that I was kicking myself for it now.

I had decided to cut my stay at the Hacienda a day short as the two main activities I had wanted to do were no longer available. From the spa, the bus ride back to the Hacienda was at least another half hour and it was around 3 pm by the time we got back to have lunch and I still had to call and make the changes to my itinerary. We were seated for lunch at the restaurant when we arrived and after I ordered, I ran back to my room to get my itinerary notes and back to the main reception house to call. (There are no phones in the rooms at the hotel.) I managed to get a hold of the brilliant tour director Juan Carlos at HDC who helped me make arrangements for the week before he left for the day, but it had started to rain and thunder and we couldn't hear each other over the phone. So I had to call him back after a few minutes during a "lull" in the storm. (The rain came down really hard and even people in the reception area had to raise their voices to hear each other speak over the thunder and water.)

It was nearly 4 pm by the time I made it back to my lunch with the Dutch couple I'd met on the tour that morning. We had to move from our table next to the balcony as the rain had started to slant down and into the restaurant. We had good food and a great view of the sky and the rain and lightning show. Because we were pretty far out in the countryside, we had an unobstructed view of the land and sky all around us. When I learn more about the different kinds of flora, I'll be better able to describe that landscape. All I can say about it now is that there was green for miles around and blue/gray for miles above. And then we were treated to the sight of the ranch's horses heading out to pasture en masse and I wondered if I had time to play cowgirl for a spell...

The hotel arranged for a private transfer for me from the hotel to Liberia to catch my Interbus to Arenal at the Best Western El Sitio Hotel. The driver didn't speak English and I didn't speak Spanish beyond the tourist variety so for a long time we were silent. While I wasn't uncomfortable - I was content to watch the rain and think of nothing in particular - I felt that I was missing out on an opportunity to talk to someone and practice my Spanish. So I took out my CR Spanish phrasebook and started talking to the driver. It was awkward for me and I got flustered again but I kept at it and we chatted for about twenty to thirty minutes. I think I may have invented a few new verb tenses because I saw him suppress a smile a few times.

At any rate, I got to Liberia about an hour and fifteen minutes before my Interbus was due to arrive (I'm one of those really early to arrive people), so I checked in with the hotel desk to make sure it was all right for me to wait in their lobby and sat down to read. About a half hour passed and I was just about to head to the washroom when I saw an Interbus driver at the hotel desk. It was my transfer and they had arrive early - the pickup time was 3:15 pm and it was only about 2:45 pm - so I was really glad I had opted to be at the El Sitio an hour early. We were soon on the road and I was once again the only passenger.

The drive from Liberia to Arenal took nearly 3 hours with a fifteen minute rest stop. We drove through some beautiful countryside and although we got to the outskirts of Arenal pretty late in the day, it was still light enough to see the lake and off in the distance, the volcano. It felt like it took twice as long as it did to get to my hotel that night for some odd reason but the rain had come along with nightfall and I was a tad anxious about my driver's abilities
- my driver was a bit of a speed freak and we had to screech to a halt more than once to avoid hitting an oncoming vehicle or skidding off the road and into the bushes so you'd think time would have flown by but my anxiety made it feel like ages. I finally gave in and asked how long before we arrived and he told me about twenty minutes. It was a long twenty minutes...

I was so relieved to make it my hotel that evening. I was staying at the Sierra Arenal hotel just outside of town (it took about 7 minutes to walk to the main plaza), a hotel Juan Carlos (HDC tour director) had recommended and run by a Costa Rican family (who also lived on the premises). It was a budget option as I had wanted to spend more money on activities than lodging but I was pleasantly surprised with all the amenities included as I've stayed in more expensive places that had less. All the rooms face the volcano but obviously the best rooms are on the second floor. It was a sweet little place and the family were very nice. I had discovered a puddle of water in my room when I arrived and had gone back downstairs to report it and by the time I got back to my room, the puddle had been dried. I had a double room again - yay - so I slept on the full bed and used the spare single bed as a packing/unpacking station. I had a private bath with hot water - double yay - a fridge, air conditioning, a wall safe, cable TV, a wine rack (handy for drying laundry) and a balcony with two rocking chairs. I would sit out on the balcony very early in the mornings before my pick up and take pictures of the volcano and then again on afternoons after I got back; unfortunately, it was very foggy at night so I have no night pictures.

I booked a rafting trip with Desafio on the Rio Toro for my first activity. We had much smaller rafts than what I've been accustomed to being in thus far, but that meant that I was much closer to the water and could really feel every bump. It was also much easier to move the raft with a stroke forward or backward. There were five of us and our guide, so we were a little shorthanded. And we never quite got it together to row as a team. I tried to follow the lead of the guy in the right first position but he tended to close his eyes and paddle erratically when he did so and the guy behind me in left second position had never been rafting before so he crossed my paddle more than once. Our guide spent a lot of time talking to one of the girls sitting in right third position and consequently was distracted. He would then try to make it up to the rest of the boat by livening things up: he flipped the raft without telling all of us thinking that we'd enjoy it. I'd have enjoyed it had I been given warning. Plus, the current was pretty strong and fast and our guide was in no hurry to pull us out of the drink for some odd reason. I didn't mind swimming but I didn't want to swim a Class IV rapid either. We made it back onto the boat and continued down the river.

And then it happened. We hit a rock right after a rapid and perched. The right side of the raft swung up and the left side (my side) flooded with water and I was soon under water. The guide should have called a high side right command but I didn't hear him say anything. The guy in right first position hurtled towards me again but managed to stay in the boat. So I swam for a spell. Ordinarily, you were supposed to face downstream, legs and feet up and wait for rescue but the guide told me to swim and I couldn't swim on my back so I paddled forward. We were at a very shallow part of the river by this time and the current dragged my knees over rocks. Moving my legs to swim meant hitting the rocks even harder so I stopped and just used my arms. One of the safety kayakers came and towed me back to my boat but he did drag me over the rocks again. I would have stood up but that was one of the commandments in rafting that you don't try to do that in swiftly running water. My knees are still bruised and a little tender today as I write this and that rafting trip was over two weeks ago. I guess I underestimated how badly I had hit those rocks as my legs were so tanned that I didn't see the bruises appear until three or four days after. (I'm about three shades darker than when I got there right now and I was happy since for the first time I tanned instead of burned - brown good, red bad - but of course I'm only tanned on my legs, arms and face and you can tell I wore my shades throughout due to the paler patch of skin across my eyes and nose.)

Next day I took a tour with Canoa Aventuras to Cano Negro. I hadn't heard of the company but they were recommended to me by Juan Carlos and as I've mentioned earlier I wanted to try as many touring companies for comparison. My pickup that morning was scheduled for 7:25 am but the shuttle didn't show up until 8:15 am. I had my hotel desk call the company to find out the status and was told that the shuttle was running late. Okay. I was mildly irritated but knew that there was no point in making a fuss. When the shuttle finally arrived, the guide hopped out and the first thing she said was, "Lo siento. Lo siento pero la familia..." She was so apologetic and so afraid I'd be upset that I didn't have the heart to even say anything about the late pickup. Plus, I wasn't even upset and I figured if a late pickup was the worst thing I had happen to me on this trip that I was fine with that. So I was mellow like a Tico and I said it was fine. The first pickup was a family with 2 kids (a 5 year old and a 2 year old) along with the parents and grandparents and they had run very, very late. They were a really nice family apart from their tardiness though and chatted me up throughout the day and made every effort to include me in everything.

We drove an hour and a half from Arenal to Los Chiles, which I understood to be right on the border with Nicaragua as evidenced by the presence of border patrols. There were what appeared to be vast rice fields although I'm sure they weren't and we saw a lot of birds. Our guide and the grandparents were keen-sighted and even spotted baby starlings meters away amidst the "rice fields." We arrived at the dock and took a short bathroom and juice break. I walked a short distance from the restaurant to the edge of the river and saw a caiman. One guide from another company had tied some fresh meat to the end of a long wire and was dipping it in and out of the water. The caiman obligingly came over to check it out but didn't lunge at the food - I think there were too many of us by the river and it was wary. Then the grandmother handed me some mosquito repellent and when I looked at her blankly, she pointed to my cheek and said, "You've been bitten already." And a big bite it was. So while everyone else took photos of the caiman, I coated myself in insect repellent. For the record, I was the only one of our party who was bitten that day. Hmmm...

For those of you who have been to Cano Negro, you know what I saw. For those of you who have yet to go, please go on your next trip as you will not regret it. With our guide and captain, there were only 7 of us on a 20 person boat so rushing from one side to the other to get that action shot of that animal was never an issue as it would have been had there been more of us. The weather was perfect, bright but not too bright, warm but not too warm, and there were few boats on the river with us that day so it was quiet. Our biggest concern were the kids who liked to lean out beyond the railings to peer down into the water trying to spot crocodiles and there was more than one frantic moment when each of us would yell out, lunge forward and pull one of them away from the railing. The kids were never left alone but they did manage to squirm out from the arms of whoever was holding them now and then.

We saw white faced monkeys, howler monkeys, osprey eagles, iguanas, basilisks, gar, tarpon, egrets, herons, cows (;-D), kingfishers, anhingas, sloths, and a line of one of my favorite animals: bats! There were perhaps nine or ten of them hanging in a line on a tree right in the water, so we were able to get really close to photograph them. I could not shoot enough pictures of the critters. And our guide told us that although we did see a lot of animals that day, we would have been able to see more if the river was lower because then more animals would be feeding. It was such a relaxing and at the same time entertaining float down the river and I look forward to going back.

On the drive back to Arenal, we stopped at a place called Iguana Restaurant. The owner had brought in a small population of iguanas years ago when he started the place, and now there were - I was told - a few hundred iguanas living in the trees and area surrounding his restaurant. The family I was with treated everyone to ice cream cones and then we spent a good half hour happily eating and photographing iguanas all around us. Then back aboard the shuttle towards home. I said my goodbyes to the family who made me all but swear to come and visit Sri Lanka (where they were originally from) and that they would take me around their country. Then I said goodbye to our guide who looked as though she was ready to apologize again for being late that day but I stopped her short and told her I had a blast. If any of you decide to book with Canoa, ask for Noellia as she was fantastic, really knowledgeable and attentive and friendly.

Week 4 draws to a close. All too quickly.

One more week left...

sandy_b Nov 7th, 2008 03:07 PM

I am love, love, loving your report! Please continue, don't leave out anything . . . I'm making my 3rd trip to CR (in Mar)and this info is invaluable.

My 1st trip was 11 yrs ago & I went to Heredia to study Spanish so didn't see much . . . 2nd trip was a year later, turned out to be the trip from hell . . . rained non stop, travel companion hated everything, almost got killed . . . so, I have great hopes for this trip.

Do you have any contact info for the Hotel Sierra in La Fortuna? I've emailed & faxed but have received no reply. We're going in Mar & would like to stay there.

Please keep posting!

Sandy (in Denton)

hipvirgochick Nov 7th, 2008 05:11 PM

Hi Eressea -- Really terrific report. I'm enjoying all the details...much excitement! It's weird how at the beginning of a long trip it seems like it will last forever and then in those last few you start to panic it's almost over!

Eressea Nov 10th, 2008 12:28 PM

Sandy: I kept my Sierra Arenal Hotel brochure so here's the contact info - T 506.2479.9751 F 506.2479.9889 M 506.8370.2684 E [email protected] W

I hope your next trip over more than makes up for your last one!

Week 5 - last week

One of the places I'd been trying to get to on a day trip from San Jose was Las Pumas, a private wildlife reserve that had all the big cats. My friends and I had asked our tour operator from May to get us there but she had never heard of the place and we ran out of time. At any rate, I made sure it was on my list this time around. Las Pumas is located 5 km outside the town of Canas, which in turn is somewhere between Liberia and Arenal. I had driven past it on my way to Arenal from Liberia and had considered taking a day trip from Arenal instead of San Jose but ran out of time again. I finally made it to the reserve and I took the bus from San Jose.

Las Pumas is about a 3.5 hour ride one way and then you have to take a cab from the center of Canas to the reserve, which in turn is located behind Safari Corobici. Make sure you agree on the cab fare ahead of time as even the red, legitimate cabs do not use their marias here. On the way back, unless you can flag an empty passing cab from the side of the road, you'll have to ask the friendly and helpful folks from Safari Corobici to call for a cab. We met George, the owner of Safari Corobici who gave us a short but concise history of the area - including how many international flights and which airlines flew in and out of Liberia - while we waited for our cab.

We were the only visitors to the park that day. The attendant at the gate seemed a little surprised to see us even. (It cost each of us $5 US to get in, price is half for locals and even less for kids.) He lifted the barrier and we walked inside. We visited the information center first which had some interactive displays and seats for kids. (The bathrooms are around the corner and behind the building.) An enclosure to the right of the bathrooms contained a single, solitary deer and I wondered why it was out there all by itself. Then it dawned on me that that was a good idea as nearly everything else in the park was a predator.

To the left of the information center was the small but surprisingly well-stocked gift shop. We bought some bottles of water and then headed out to the main section of the park where the cats were. And we saw them all. There was a three-legged jaguarundi in the first cage we came to and I was happy to finally see its face. (There had been at least two at the Simon Bolivar Zoo but they stayed in their hutches and I hadn't been able to see more than their outlines.) I wondered about its missing leg but there was no one about to ask and apart from that he looked quite healthy. I saw pumas - I think they're the variety we see in Florida rather than California - and I snapped as many pictures as I could. Of course, they rarely stopped long enough for me to get a really good shot, but I was lucky enough to get a few clear ones. (If anyone knows how to photograph animals through fences, please do post some tips.)

There were margays and ocelots. I got there before feeding time so they were all up on their little platforms either asleep or lounging about but out of camera range. I have quite a few photos of paws dangling over the edge, small, pink noses with whiskers, spotted/streaked coats, etc. Then we came to a large enclosure with scarlet macaws and other parrots. They greeted us with a series of squawks and twitters. We moved on and found another bird enclosure. This was much smaller than the one we'd just left and the green parrots inside couldn't get enough of my housemate. They literally crawled from all corners of the cage - along the "walls" of the cage - to get to her. They seemed eager to peer at her and twisted and turned their necks craning to get a good look at her. I told her I should have had her on all my wildlife excursions as the animals seemed drawn to her. I got quite a few good pictures of the birds as she spoke to them.

The nutria and gray fox had the same reaction to her. They only had eyes for her. Especially the nutria who only surface when she leaned over its water enclosure. It would come right out of the water and up the short ladder and make this raucous and excited series of squawks and squeals and then disappear whenever I tried to take its picture. And then my housemate would come over and it would appear again.

But it was the whitefaced monkeys who really took to her. There were two females in a cage and we ran into one of the male keepers who told us that they only liked him and no other men. And we saw proof of that soon enough. He walked away for a bit to attend to something and three teenaged boys walked past the enclosure. The monkeys went berserk, hissing, shrieking, jumping up and around and rattling the cage. We stepped back to watch in horrified fascination. Then the kids walked away and the monkeys settled down. The keeper came back and we told him what happened and he only smiled and nodded. Then another male keeper walked past and the monkeys hissed again. The monkeys were fine with us but they really liked my housemate. They made cute little faces and imitated her when she turned her head or leaned her head to her shoulder and came right up to the cage as she cooed and talked to them. She stayed with those monkeys while I made my way to the jaguars.

I got a few good shots and I was so happy that here there were no deep trenches or miles of distance between you and the cats like they do at other places: it was basically the cage, a thin, yellow handrail which extended about a foot from the cage and the path. You could, in theory, if you were so inclined to lose a finger or hand, stick one or all into the cages and the temptation is great but do not. The keeper told us the pumas did not bite but the jaguars did. The jaguar I was photographing at that moment moved from the far side of the cage to the corner where I stood. There was very little distance between us and we were separated only by the cage and the handrail. I made this motion with my hand, you know the one where you "extend" your hand palm up to a strange dog so that it knows you mean it no harm, just to see what it would do. Mind you, I had no intention of petting it and I was still two feet away but it roared and lunged simultaneously when it saw my hand and I let out a squeak and jumped back. I looked around to see if there were any surveillance cameras and saw none, so there is no evidence of me jumping in fright. There were a couple of keepers a short distance away who looked over and then went right back to talking amongst themselves. I was thankful they didn't come over and even more so that there had been no occasion for them to rush over. Those jaguars were smaller than what I expected but they were well-muscled and they looked strong. And they were quick. And, at least on that day, cranky.

We walked back up the path and to Safari Corobici who kindly called a cab for us. The cab driver asked us what we paid the cab who dropped us off and my housemate asked him why he wanted to know. After some back and forth and an attempt on his part to "charm" us into paying him more, we settled on 1500 colones and he dropped us off right in front of the bus we were supposed to catch back to San Jose. Which was just as well as it was pulling away when we got back to town and the next one was an hour and a half later. We got back to San Jose around 4 pm and walked from the Coca Cola station down the Paseo Colon (there's construction on the Paseo Colon at the moment as I think they extending it) to our bus on Avda. Central. It was during that walk that I finally saw the pickpockets standing around watching people. (My other housemate had spotted them a week ago when we visited the Central Market but I hadn't noticed them at all then.)

Sunday morning began as all Sunday morning should: slowly and lazily. My housemate made me an omelette and we sat down to watch yoga on the television. We were inspired enough to watch the entire program but not to roll out our mats and join in the fun. Then one of my other housemates came and reminded me that I had mentioned I would make french toast for breakfast this morning so off we went to the store to get ingredients. It took a long time to make french toast for five people (three of whom were big, tall guys) but we had a pretty good breakfast of french toast with vanilla and cinammon, strawberries and bananas and powdered sugar and maple syrup.

Since we had access to a car, we decided to drive to the beach. We drove about an hour and a half (or maybe more) to Puntarenas, parked the car and walked across the road to the beach. It was a locals beach and I was glad we'd found it as we hadn't any real idea or specific beach in mind when we set out. I liked being able to go where locals go and since there were only four of us, we didn't stick out as much as we would have had we been part of the groups pouring in from either of the two Celebrity cruise ships docked a short way down the beach. There were restaurants and stalls set up alll along the beach to cater to tourists and locals alike.

My housemates played in the water and bodysurfed while I decided to stay with our gear. I spread my towel on the sand, applied repellent, and debated on whether to go into the water or not. (I didn't.) I was content to sit there and watch people play volleyball or bodysurf or chase their dogs around. My housemates came back shortly thereafter and said they wanted to find another less crowded beach.

After driving around for what must have been an hour, asking directions from at least eight different people who all gave us contradictory directions, we stumbled upon a policeman who told us the beach we were looking for, Playa El Roble, didn't exist despite what our shoddy tourist map told us. We ended up driving to the same beach we visited earlier only this time we were on the other side of the cruise ships; there were no shops or restaurants here, no tourists, just locals playing a game of football or jogging. We watched the sun set, then watched as the clouds came in and the sky turn black. The lightning started shortly after that we stayed until the only lights were those of the cruise ships sailing off and the dim glow of the street lamps a few meters up and away from where we stood. I kept looking around as it was properly dark and we were the only four people left on the beach and you know, your mind wanders to all sorts of unpleasant possibilities...Plus it was after six or seven pm and we had skipped lunch and hadn't had dinner yet so no doubt my paranoia was due - to a large extend - hunger.

Having spent the day at the beach, we all wanted sushi. But we didn't know of any sushi places in town and so we drove up the highway looking for a restaurant we could all agree on. "How about here?" "No, too dark." "Here?" "No." "Here?" "That's not a restaurant." "How about this one?" "No." Why not?" "Don't like it." "That one?" "That's the place we stopped for directions and they don't sell food." After about half an hour or more, we found a large and well-lit place with a handful of cars parked out front and we pulled in and stopped. Another local place so I knew the food would be good. And it was. Three of us ordered the casado con pescado and the other ordered the casado con pollo. Dessert (caramel flan) was included in the price. We were all stuffed when we climbed back into the car. And since the car's CD player/radio was broken, the guys took turns singing snippets of songs all the way home. Another fun day.

Monday morning I was off to HDC again. From there, an airport shuttle to Juan Santamaria to catch my Sansa flight to Palmar Sur in the Osa Peninsula. They told me it would only take half an hour to get to the airport but I wanted to make sure that the traffic wouldn't be an issue and that I would be there early. I was very early. My flight didn't leave until 9:30 am and I was sitting in the waiting area by 8 am. I know, I know; I know better for next time.

Sansa doesn't store luggage so while they let me bring all my luggage with me, I did end up having to pay $20 US for the extra weight. (A dollar per pound.) The crazy thing was that I had repacked my gear so that I would only need my big backpack with me and I had planned to leave my rolling suitcase at HDC where I was staying my last night. But in rushing to the airport, I forgot to ask HDC to store my suitcase and I only remembered when we were halfway to tha airport.They weigh your luggage and you! at the counter and I leaned over to one of the attendants and asked her to make sure no one else read the scale while I was on it. She laughed.

The flight itself was quick and very scenic; I took a lot of photos but they sort of came out fuzzy as the plane's windows needed a good wash. There were only two passengers aboard that morning myself included. We arrived at the Palmar Sur airstrip without incident and ahead of schedule. I found the driver the lodge had sent was already waiting for me. His name was Johnny and he was studying English to teach it in a year or so; he spoke to me in English and I had to respond in Spanish and we had an entertaining and educational conversation during the drive to Sierpe. Once at the dock, Johnny and I took our leave of each other and he said he'd see me in a few days when I returned to Palmar Sur.

It was a rather long, hot wait for the boat. The boat was there but loading it seemed to be going very slowly. Fortunately, the dock itself was attached to a restaurant and gift shop and I was able to wait in the shade. The other passengers and I must have waited close to an hour before we were finally allowed to board. And then of course the seat they told me to sit in had been in the sun so I slyly edged to a seat that hadn't been in the sun but was caught anyway and told to move. I didn't protest but I did mention in halting Spanish that the seat was too hot. The captain grinned and said something I didn't understand. I moved into the hot seat and winced. And then I had a moment of panic. I couldn't actually remember what the word for "hot" was in Spanish and might have said instead, "My seat is spicy," which would have explained the grin. Oh gosh...

The boat ride to the lodge was wonderful. We road leisurely along and even took a turn among the mangroves where we were told - the boat's sides brushed lightly against the roots themselves - that yes, crocodiles were plentiful in the area and could often be found sunning themselves on yonder stretch of sand. I moved my hand from the edge of the boat to my lap. And then it was open ocean after that and that was a lot of fun. The air had cooled down significantly once we left the river's mouth and the ocean's breeze was a welcome boost as we skimmed along the surface of the water. It took about an hour or so to get to the lodge and then we offboarded onto a pretty little beach. We thought the lodge would be right there but there was another ten minute hike up to it on some very wet and slippery rocks. There was a path and a cement staircase and walkway towards the latter end of the hike, but with the moss and the rains the handrails provided very little protection.

Punta Marenco lodge is situated on the slopes overlooking the ocean and all the bungalows have ocean views. I found myself instantly relaxing (after what for me was a tiring hike uphill) after I saw that view, and was happy to find I had two rocking chairs on my balcony as one of my favorite pastimes now was rocking and staring out at my view. I could easily while away an afternoon just sitting in a rocking chair in Costa Rica. I took pictures of my bungalow before all my gear exploded all over the room and then headed up to the restaurant for lunch. I met my fellow travelers and activity buddies over lunch, a Dutch couple and a Spanish couple who have been touring around the country for roughly the same amount of time as I have. We traded quick stories to orient where we all have been over lunch. Then it was back to the bungalows for a quick change and then we were off to hike the Rio Claro trail right on the property.

This was a great hike if strenuous; the trail was covered with mud and slippery rocks and it was steep going up and even steeper going down. One of my travel buddies crafted a walking stick for me as it would have been difficult to keep up for me without one. Bring hardcore hiking shoes which you're willing to get wet and muddy and bring an extra pair of hiking shoes which you can keep dry. Water shoes did not work on the trail but were great for the beach. The trail itself wound through some very thick vegetation although there are some handrails at some sections. We saw birds and sloths and whitefaced monkeys and a lot of army ants. A LOT. They took over sections of the trail and handrails and I would run past every single one when I could. (I was bitten while at Pacuare Lodge and the bites sting for hours.) We had to pause for a while because the birds and monkeys were vocalizing, signalling to each other that a snake was nearby. Although we never saw the snake, we did feel more than a little anxious as we were on a very narrow section of the trail and there was little room to run or leap back from a snake. Eventually the uproar subsided and we continued down to the beach.

That beach was worth the walk. We wound in and out of the jungle onto the beach and found more animals in the trees and near the water. More tiger herons, blue herons, brown pelicans, whitefaced monkeys, sloths, a formidable wasp net with sentries flying about. The beach was clean and lush and deserted so we had it all to ourselves and enjoyed our walk on it very much. It had started to rain while we were in the jungle so if you visit during the rainy season, make sure you bring a waterproof case or bag for your camera. Then it was back to lodge for a quick shower and then dinner at the restaurant.

Day 2 in the Osa Peninsula was slated for two hikes: one in Corcovado National Park and a second one to a waterfall within the park as well. It was about a half hour to forty-five minute boat ride from our lodge to the park. I took a lot of random pictures in the park as I couldn't quite believe I was there. Roots and strangler figs fascinated me as well as plants that had grown up and through coconuts. More time, patience and skill would have yielded a treasure trove of pictures but there is always next time. The hike through the park was much more level than the previous day's had been and we saw more animals as we didn't have to watch our step as much. We saw whitefaced monkeys, squirrel monkeys, (heard the howlers but didn't see them) saw a large, black unidentified mammal run from the top of a tree all the way down to the ground in front of us, but were too surprised to snap any pictures, saw another brown, spotted mammal dart by us which we couldn't identify for certain either but it might have been an agouti, saw fresh tapir tracks but no tapirs, lizards, birds, sloths, tiger herons (a wooing pair), and a tamandua. Back at the lunch area, we saw a parrot snake (venomous) and a wandering spider along with bats.

The hike to the waterfall was more rugged than the morning's hike had been but well worth the exertion. You wouldn't know it looking at the falls, but apparently they were about a hundred feet tall. En route to the fall, the guide showed us a sub-adult crocodile fishing in the water. The same water that was connected to the waterfall we were hiking to. So when we went swimming, I stayed close to shore just in case. Happily, no encounter with the croc in the water. We filed back onto the boat for the ride back to our lodge and another well-earned dinner.

Day 3 was a trip to Cano Island for snorkeling. The island was about a forty-five minute ride away but we took much longer because...we saw dolphins and whales!!! We saw the spotted dolphin and the humpback whale!!! We were so excited we had to be reminded not to all rush to one side of the boat. Of course, it was difficult to get these creatures to stay on one side so we all of us were constantly scanning the horizon in all directions trying to find them. The dolphins got pretty close to the boat we I don't think any of us got a good shot - or any shot for that matter as it was only ever their backs that we saw. The whales circled around a bit and we were able to snap very distant photos of a tail here and a humpback there. That was very exciting for all of us. One of my travel buddies spotted a huge turtle in the water as well.

We "parked" the boat a short distance from the island and dove in. The Dutch couple in our party were experienced divers so they would periodically leave their PFDs and dive down to get pictures. We saw a lot of fish - only one or two of which I can name and only because I bought the wildlife guide which I don't have with me - and a stingray! We saw a huge, undulating school of fish which moved one way and then another as we got closer but didn't scatter. I didn't have an underwater camera with me so I'm waiting on my travel buddies to provide pictures. I must remember to bring my own mask and snorkel next time because water kept flooding my mask while I snorkeled and I would get left behind as I struggled to dump the water out. Snorkeling is normally very, very relaxing for me because really, all I have to do is float and look down but with the saltwater filling my mask all throughout, I wasn't as relaxed as I could have been. Then I thought maybe next time we could go in a glass-bottomed boat but I wouldn't have been in the water and I love being in the water...

Lunch on the beach at the island. A quick shower to rinse off the saltwater. While my travel buddies went off to sunbathe or crack open a few coconuts with his bare hands (we had them for dessert along with pineapple), I sat and played with hermit crabs. We were all nearing our respective holidays - the Dutch couple and I were leaving Friday and the Spanish couple and the Japanese traveler we'd met over dinner the night before were leaving Saturday - so there was some mild grumbling about having to go back to work. And then the food was ready and we all forgot our worries and had a very leisurely and satisfying lunch on the beach. It's hard to describe that sense of calm and contentment but you all know what that feels like so I don't have to.

More snorkeling after lunch. And then the boat ride home. The rains came early and we were caught out in the open. Cold, freezing rain. Slanty and sharp. We had to huddle down in the boat as the drops of water hitting our faces couple with the speed with which we were traveling made the water sting. We were laughing and giggling like crazy as there was something absurd suddenly about our situation. We were told to stash our bags and cameras below deck (or rather, in the luggage compartment) as they would have been soaked otherwise.

And so of course that's when it happened.

Two humpback whales came and cavorted not five or six meters from us. And they cavorted for a while. One surfaced and we were able to watch it as it took a breath and then dove back down again. We all looked at each other helplessly as one thought crossed all our minds: no cameras. And then we had to laugh because there was nothing else to do. We stopped the boat and just watched the whales for the two or three minutes they were next to us and counted ourselves lucky for having seen them at all. And then we rode home.

Ironically, we found that the water when we stepped off the boat and onto the beach was warmer than the rain. We could all have used a hot shower but hot water wasn't available at the lodge. And the showers were as cold as the rain water had been. We had a few hours to ourselves before dinner so I photographed all the birds outside my bungalow. There were toucans and vultures and at least four other kinds I couldn't identify. Found more lizards and a millipede, the latter in the shirt I meant to wear after my shower. I brought it outside and shook it off and wore the shirt. I am really amazed at the almost blase attitude I seem to have developed ever since I came to CR. (On my first trip back in May, I had walked into our hotel room one night (it had been raining out) and one of my friends said, "Okay, don't freak out but there's something in your hair." I looked in the mirror and sure enough, there was a four-inch grasshopper on my hair. It looked like a really nice barrette actually. So I shrugged, went back outside, shook my hair, set it free and went back inside.)

We lingered over dinner that evening as it was our last night together. We took pictures and exchanged contact information. Then someone spotted a large green flying something overhead. It looked like two leaves joined together at first glance but then we saw the legs and the head and realized it was preying mantis. The mantis looked like it was dressed for an evening at the theater as the "leaves" which covered its top and bottom dorsal areas looked like an evening coat complete with high collar and tails. Since it was dark, we all took turns holding our headlamps up to illuminate the creature while one took pictures. We had gotten into the rhythm of helping each other get the best shots and it was one of the many great things about traveling with those guys during the week. We had laughed a lot and teased each other a lot and shared a wonderful time and wonderful place together.

Breakfast the next morning was more subdued. The Dutch couple and I and the Japanese traveler were headed back to Sierpe and then Palmar Sur for our flight back to San Jose. The Spanish couple were staying one more night. We said our goodbyes and then headed down to the docks to catch the 7:30 am ride back to Sierpe. We ran into the server from the restaurant who was off to town and he told us to make sure we sat on the right side of the plane as it would bank right on the way back and we would be able to get some great photos. And that's exactly what we did. I have a lot of photos of clouds (I like clouds) and the shoreline. So much greenery and it was all so lovely. I sighed quietly to myself.

Back in Alajuela, we said goodbye to our Japanese friend who was headed off to Arenal. The Dutch couple and I shared a cab ride back into San Jose where at their hotel, we too said our goodbyes. And then off to HDC for my last night. I checked in and repacked my gear. I was headed back to the guesthouse to do my laundry as nearly everything I owned - including my hiking shoes - were wet and muddy and I had a concert to go to that evening and I didn't want to wear my flip flops or have to buy a new pair of shoes that I wouldn't have room for in my luggage anyway. I caught the bus to San Pedro from Avda. Central and met one of my housemates for lunch. We rented movies from the Perimercados and sat down for a lazy Thursday afternoon.

The concert we had been planning to see for a couple of weeks was Malpais, a well-known Costa Rican band. My housemate likened them to the Costa Rican equivalent of Dave Matthews Band and they were playing that evening at the Jazz Cafe in San Pedro. I could have easily just stayed in and packed my luggage, but I was of course rebelling against having to leave CR the next morning, so I decided to go to the concert. The band took to the stage a little after 10 pm and it was about half-past midnight when the show ended. It was a great show and I enjoyed myself quite a bit. I wasn't used to actually being able to see the band play whenever I went to a concert because most concerts I attend the audience rushes up to the front and obscures everyone else's view, but folks at the club stayed in their seats, applauded enthusiastically and sat right back down after they snapped their pictures. The band even mingled with some of the audience and happily posed for pictures.

I said goodbye to my housemates outside and took the cab back to HDC. The driver did his magic and what should have been a 1000 colones ride cost me 2150 colones instead but I didn't feel like getting out and hailing another cab. I got back to my hotel around 1 am and repacked a few items and then went to bed.

Friday morning went by very quickly. An early breakfast at the hotel's restaurant. Responded to a few emails from my housemates. Made the reservation for my airport shuttle. A quick check to see if my flights were still on schedule - darn - they were and then back to my room to pack the rest of my gear. I said my goodbyes to the staff and the tour director and then got into my shuttle. Made it to the airport early. My flight was at 11:55 am so the smart thing to do was to have lunch at the airport but I had no appetite, only the beginnings of a headache. Yes, I feel it keenly when I have to leave a place I love. I skipped lunch.

I had to repack again when I got to MIA because one of the airport attendants felt my little purse was in violation of the two piece carry on rule, so I did although I was more than a little cranky about it. (I get progressively crankier the farther away I got from CR.) So in the rush of having to move along the lines again and locking my suitcase locks on the fly, I discovered to my chagrin that I had somehow inadvertently changed my lock's combination and now couldn't get into my suitcase. Which was fine except that since I had to pack my purse into my suitcase, my house keys were now in the suitcase and I either had to cut my suitcase apart at the zippers (assuming someone had scissors to lend me as the folks at Juan Santamaria had confiscated my small pair of first aid scissors and waterproof first aid tape earlier) or have someone cut my locks. No one at MIA could help me so I had to wait until I got back to SFO where a couple of TSA employees kindly pried my locks apart for me so that I could get my keys.

I made it home around half-past midnight.

Five weeks gone. Just like that. But I had the time of my life and am already saving up to go back.

cmerrell Nov 10th, 2008 06:29 PM

What a wonderful report, Eressea! You sound like a very adventurous and inquisitive person who really enjoys getting the most out of your travel experience. :-)

You packed a lot into your trip, but still had some time to relax and savor.

Very cool that you got to see humpbacks in CR! I haven't read many reports of people actually seeing them there, although they do migrate through those waters. I've seen them up in Alaska and Estern Canada and it's always such a thrill!

It was a pleasure to read your report. Thanks for all the great attention to detail. I'm glad you had such a wonderful time (but it seems hard not to in a place like Costa Rica).

volcanogirl Nov 11th, 2008 04:02 AM

E, I loved reading your report - particularly about rafting as that's still on our "to do" list. You had such a great adventure. We saw whales on our trip to Boston - wow, that was amazing wasn't it?! I think all of us start planning our next trip the second we get back from CR.

colibri Nov 11th, 2008 10:20 AM

Your report has been great reading and wishing I was already back there! I had hoped to go to the Las Pumas when we were in Liberia in March, but didn't make - had also wanted to see the church in Canas which is supposed to have a cool mosiac or something - oh well, another time...Your details are amazing, very entertaining to read about your trip. Thanks for taking the time to write it - we can live vicariously through it all!

Eressea Nov 11th, 2008 11:13 AM

Thanks everyone for your kind words about the trip report!

cmerrell, volcanogirl and colibri:

The whales and dolphins were definitely a surprise for me as well - it just never occurred to me that I would see them especially since I'm not yet a certified diver or hadn't made a special trip just to see them.

I'm hoping to dive at Cocos shortly after I get certified to see the hammerheads and I think I read somewhere that whale sharks pass by on their migration so that would be something amazing to see. I was hoping to see manatees in Tortuguero or at Gandoca-Manzanillo but I didn't see any at the former and I didn't make it to the latter during this trip.

Getting to Las Pumas became a sort of quest since I had made three separate attempts in one week and something always came up, but I'm really glad I got to go as I was able to get really close to the big cats and I love big cats.

Rafting is my ultimate treat for myself and when combined with travel, I am in heaven. I loved the Pacuare the first time I rafted it and I will continue to raft it for as long as it's runnable. (Not sure where the proposed dam project stands currently...) But you get the gist: go rafting!

volcanogirl Nov 11th, 2008 11:33 AM

E, are there any limits on the luggage you can take to Tortuguero? Any size or weight restrictions like you see on the planes?

colibri Nov 11th, 2008 11:41 AM

VG - We are going with Fran & Modesto Watson out to Tortuguero in February. I don't have my file here at the office (where I'm not getting much done!!), but I'm pretty sure we are limited to 25 lbs. for the boat - or maybe it is just a small bag/backpack. You definitely can't take larger bags on the boats. We are storing our larger bag at the Don Carlos in San Jose since we have to return there.

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