Where I've Been

Friday, December 21, 2007

Costa Rica
Parte Dos: Monteverde & Arenal Volcano

If you’re just joining my Costa Rican adventure, you should check out the first part first: Costa Rica, Parte Uno: Arrival and Corcovado National Park.

With Corcovado in our rearview mirror, we set our sights for the beaches on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. We luckily had found a charming lady to wash most of our clothes the night before. Those were clean, but we still had 4 pairs of putrid boots and a few articles of unwashed clothing in the back of the RAV4. Therefore we enlisted the help of one Tommy Hilfiger.

Yes, this Tommy air freshener so overpoweringly covered up the stench of days of trekking that finally its tricolored scent, coupled with the winding roads, became so nauseating that we buried it in the glove box.

We first stopped in a little surfer town, Dominical, to grab some lunch. I feasted on a perfectly amiable piece of snapper. Here I am after my feast. Note, once again, women’s clothing courtesy of Marvelous Mexicana Airlines.

A couple hours later I felt a bit queasy. Thus began my epic, two day losing battle with diarrhea. There aren’t many pictures of Quepos, nor the fabled town of Jaco where we spent a full hour. We had to be sure to factor in enough time between my bathroom sprints to make it to the airport before Marvelous Mexicana closed for the night and I was out of a bag.

At long last, I was reunited with my bag. I stroked the handle and teased the zipper lovingly. Bag was shy and didn’t respond much. That’s okay, luggage love is tough love.

The Marvelous Mexicana rep was unapologetic at best. Maybe he would have shown more sympathy if he wasn’t busy texting on his cell phone the whole time he was finding my bag. He encouraged me to contact his manager for compensation which I did several times. She was, if possible, less helpful than my original Marvelous Mexicana friend. Finally, I followed up the situation via email back here in the US. After steadfast denials of wrongdoing and several emails from me, Marvelous Mexicana Airlines finally compensated me $100 for 5 days of delayed luggage and a total of 11 hours spent driving to get my bag. Clearly then, marvelous cannot be used too frequently to describe them.

That evening we spent the night in San Juan, just north of San Jose at a charming little hotel. Here we are being charmed during breakfast.

Lovely Interior as well.

You'll notice that it's sometimes difficult to arrange the text beside the pictures I want. Especially considering the fact that people view this blog on various monitor resolutions. Please bear with charity the large tracts of blank space or captions to pictures the aren't nearby. Thanks.

We continued on the next day to Zarcero with its fantastic gardens. Please view:

By early afternoon we reached our destination: La Fortuna, which sits at the base of the Arenal Volcano. Arenal Volcano is an active volcano which regularly gives an amazing show of smoke, lava, shooting rocks, and smoldering glows—when it’s not hiding behind clouds. Luckily it wasn’t when we were there. Here is our view from our cabina:

The other main draw of this area is the hot springs. Our intention was the hit up the grand daddy: Tabacon. Our 3 trusty guide books gave the price as $29 per person, an amount I could barely scrape together from my meager engineering salary. When we arrived, what to our wondering eyes should appear but a $52 per person fee to enter Tabacon. Incensed, we checked a few others and finally decided on the next best thing: Baldi Hot Springs. Certainly the most Disneyesque of the others we checked out, with a swim up bar and something like 12 pools of varying temperature, along with bountiful waterfalls, music, gardens and European nonagenarians.

I dipped my leg in one Baldi pool only to have my skin bubble and melt off in chunks. Gazing in sorrow as my flesh floated away, I overheard a German man dunking himself in the same pool while laughing to his friend, “Ze Americans cannot handle ze hot!!!”

Unable to see anything of the volcano other than the red outline I drew on the cloud wall in that picture above, we left La Fortuna and headed around picturesque Lake Arenal.

After a few hours of kidney rattling roads we arrived in Monteverde/Santa Elena. Monteverde was founded by World War I era Quakers who left the US as conscientious objectors and started a new life here in the mountains of Costa Rica. The Quakers introduced new methods of cattle grazing and conservationism that allowed more natural forest to remain unscathed. The forests here are commonly referred to as cloud forests because of the altitude and the, uh, clouds. Here I am, chilling above the cloudline.

Once I die, I would like someone to posthumously post this as my primary facebook photo. Then everyone would say: “Oh look, Brian’s in heaven!” That would be funny.

Monteverde means “green mountain”. It is. Check it out.

Immediately upon arrival in Monteverde we hit up the ziplines, or canopy tours as they are called here. We had researched the various canopy tour companies and made some preliminary decisions before we learned of the newest addition: Monteverde Extremo Canopy with longer lines, a rappel, and a tarzan swing. Well we went for it. Here’s Andrew the Canadian geared up for Extremo battle:

Extremo has something like 18 lines, one of which is 750m; yes, a half mile long zip line. It was pretty incredible. Here is a shot:

If you’re not affected by heights, the rappel was tame at best. We did, however, hear one elongated scream as a frightened girl was lowered to the ground. The tarzan swing was the most thrilling. Shuffle up to the edge of an 80 ft high platform, bend your knees, and get pushed off. You freefall for a bit before the harness roughly catches you and sends you swinging out into the treetops. It was interesting watching the 15 or so people in our group go over the edge. It typically sounds something like this: “wooohooooo---UGH, *grunt, gasp, slight strangled moan*, YEEEAAAA!! “

After swinging like a spider on silk strand a few times you’re caught by a couple of the workers with a rubber inner tube standing on a nearby platform.

Natasa had the incredible foresight to ask what happens if you’re not caught. She really didn’t need to ask because she was able to find out firsthand! After being uncaught by the inner tube, she swung and dangled a few more times until the workers threw her a rope with a carabiner attached to the end. Even as the rope was sailing through the air toward her I could tell that this technique would yield undesired consequences. After catching the rope some 6 feet below the carabiner, the remaining rope spun about her like a tetherball around a pole with the end result being that the carabiner whipped about and kissed her smack on the lip.

Here she is after that passionate encounter.

It saddens me to think that something this cool probably just couldn’t exist in the good ol’ USA. The risk of injury, trauma, or suppressed carabiner fetish development would prove far too much fodder for our beloved trial lawyers (John Edwards for President!). It doesn’t matter how many waivers and disclaimers you sign, stupid greedy people will still sue. And any company that wants to protect themselves will have to hire lawyers and pay court costs. That’s far too much overhead for any company that presents risk to their consumers, no matter how well it’s spelled out. Thank you, once again, trial lawyers for making it worse for everyone else except you.

The next day we headed to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. The warm, humid, incoming winds from the Caribbean side of Costa Rica blow up the green mountains here, condensing and cooling. The forests sport different types of ecosystems, complete with a whole new set of trees and animals. However, as I said before, the wildlife was nowhere near the level of Corcovado. A few coatis (Central American version of raccoons) and several birds and insects showed their face during the day.

Upon the recommendation of our Reserve guide, we headed to Sky Walk in Monteverde (run by Costa Rica Sky Adventures) to view the canopy. From the ground, there’s only so much you can see, but the Sky Walk bridges take you right into the canopy where most of the life exists. A steady, misty drizzle was falling half the time and so we were done up in our slickers.

We were desperately seeking the resplendent quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala. The fantastic plumage of the quetzal (especially the male) makes it akin to a large, flying emerald, especially in the mating season when it turns iridescent. Alas, however, our jewel spotting skills suck and we were left quetzal-less. However, we did take some pictures of our reaction to spotting a resplendent quetzal, if we ever were to see one. So please don’t read the preceding paragraph and simply share in our quetzal-spotting joy through these pictures at Sky Walk. Sorry, no pictures of the actual quetzal.

That evening we hit up a twilight hike in Bosque Nuboso Eterno de Los Ninos (Children’s Eternal Cloud Forest). Twilight is when all those nocturnals come out to play, being very hungry. One of the feistiest guys we saw was this two-toed sloth

We stood about five minutes underneath him, enough time to see him move his arm about a foot and reposition in the tree. Two-toed sloths are reportedly shier than their three-toed relatives and so this one never showed its face.

Having visited with the black tarantula in Corcavado, we now were pleased to see his cousin, the orange tarantula in Monteverde.

And tons of sleeping birds, puffed into fluffy balls to keep out the chill.

A living leaf

And frogs.

So we’re cheaters and fakers, the frogs were actually seen at the frog pond or Rainarium there in Monteverde/Santa Elena.

We finished out our Monteverde/Santa Elena experience Sunday morning with a hike up to the local waterfall. Waterfalls are ubiquitous here, they seriously flow like water. Here we are enjoying the flow.

After 10 marvelous days in the Venice of Central America, we hopped aboard Marvelous Mexicana and flew home. Impressions of Costa Rica? Well I had a lot of time to think of it, standing and waiting for my bag in Dallas.




Yes, amazingly, Marvelous Mexicana Airlines managed to lose my bag again before customs in Dallas. In fact, I was the only person forlornly staring at an empty baggage carrousel in Dallas. Thank you again, Marvelous Mexicana Airlines, for the astonishing precision with which you were able to lose the one bag capable of fomenting the most irrational rage to your most dissatisfied customer.

So, impressions of Costa Rica? There’s more to do there than we could have done in 2-3 months. We left so much out that it pains me to write it now. We never touched the Caribbean coast with its laid back vibe and amazing food. Tortuguero, on the northern Caribbean, from all accounts is amazing. Manuel Antonio, the Nicoya Peninsula, Guanacaste, Puerto Viejo: all places that I would have loved to visit if we had the time. Needless to say, I will be back.

The Costa Ricans have a saying: pura vida, or pure life. They use it as a greeting, a farewell, a statement of affirmation, and especially to describe something cool or outstanding. In a country where over a third of their land is preserved, enjoying the highest standard of living in Central America, needing no standing army, and welcoming about 2 million tourists every year, there’s a lot of occasion to use it.

Pura Vida.

Stay tuned for India, Nepal, and Bahrain, heading there tomorrow!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Costa Rica

Parte uno: Arrival and Corcovado National Park

And now on to the main event. Costa Rica had been on my mind since my buddy Jordo’s weekend plans fell through one September morn and he caught a flight down to San Jose to pick up a spare condo. His tales of the brilliant town of Jaco, with its strip malls, condominium developments, bars of white Americans, and characteristics so much like any beach town in the US but so much further away, filled me with awe and wanderlust.

My good friend, Andrew the Canadian, famous from such blog posts as Labo(u)r Day in Toronto joined me once again, bringing with him his exquisite lady-attracting skills. Also in the crew was Paula the Canadienne and Natasa the Macedonian. However, for simplicity’s sake, only Andrew will maintain the descriptive descriptor: “the Canadian”.

We landed in San Jose and immediately left the airport. I was travelling light. I find it fairly easy to do so when the airline loses your bag. Mexicana, or Marvelous Mexicana as I prefer to refer to them, told me my bag would be in the next morning and to drive the hour back to the airport to fetch it the next day. After a restless sleep in the heart of San Jose, we acquired our vehicle the next morning: a hearty Toyota RAV4. After an hour ducking, weaving, dodging, and swearing at San Jose traffic we arrived back at the airport. Marvelous Mexicana told me that the bag had, unfortunately, not arrived on the 11AM flight and should be on the 11PM flight. Then helpfully recommended we spend one of our 9 days in Costa Rica waiting around for it. Full of appreciation for their expert advice, we tactfully declined and asked that the bag be shipped down to Puerto Jimenez, an 8-10 hour drive from San Jose on the southwest corner of Costa Rica. They agreed, and we were off.

Our scenic drive took us over the central mountain range in San Jose, where Andrew the Canadian found he could determine our altitude by checking the RAV4’s external thermometer. We dropped about 15°C in an hour on our steady climb to the top Costa Rica, then warmed up as we descended and followed the rivers out to the sea.

Stopping in San Isidro, we picked up some lunch and I picked up a new pair of underwear that I washed in the sink of the restaurant. Here I am showing off my new undies.

And here I am hanging those same undies up to dry in the hotel that night as they, remarkably, didn’t dry in the 95% humidity…and inside a car.

Costa Rica enjoys fantastic sunsets. Here’s one we experienced on our first day.

By around 7 that night we had reached the rough, potholed road leading around the north end of the Osa Peninsula. Andrew the Canadian was driving and we were swaying violently in our seats. Here’s a picture of the roads in the daylight hours.

Merrily swaying along, we soon heard a flapping sound and found that we had sprung a flat. “No problemo!” we exclaimed in Spanish (so as to be sure to be understood). After emptying out the hatchback, we were delighted to find the jack securely bolted to the RAV4 with no method of extracting it, and no tire iron even if we did remove it. Luckily, the ever gracious Costa Ricans were there to save us. An elderly taxi driver stopped and attempted to help us. He pulled two of his jacks out, which were slightly small, not to mention the ground was hopelessly soft and wet. After about half an hour of MacGyvering, we had yet to raise the RAV4 up to tire changing height. However, we didn’t need to worry any more about that, as we were pleasantly surprised to find that our back tire had also gone flat. Our Costa Rican friend was nice enough to give a ride into Puerto Jimenez where we called our guide for the next day’s trek and then spent half the night running with him out to the RAV4, changing one of the tires, bringing it back for repairs only to find all repair joints closed (at 1AM, imagine that), and finally giving up and going to sleep around 2AM. Early the next morning, after another couple of hours of repair attempts, we gave our keys to a friend of our guide and asked him to repair the wheel and drive it back into town. One might call it jungle valet.

So began the most exciting portion of our trip. We spent the next 8 hours hiking into the heart of Corcovado National Park, the most biologically intense place on earth according to National Geographic. Here are some hauntingly beautiful shots of us walking along the deserted beaches.

As you can see, the jungle grows right up to the beach and, in some places, the trail is impassable at high tide.

Corcovado is a huge park, spanning 425 square kilometers (yes fellow Americans, I don’t know what that means either, I just copied it out of Wikipedia). There are no roads to the central station, Sirena. One can either fly in, take a boat, or do it the true way: hike. Most of the trail from Leona station to Sirena is along the sandy beach but a considerable amount goes inland for a bit. Beautiful though the beach walk was, it quickly became our least favorite part. The shifting sand is a poor trail medium and one spends tremendous energy each step. Luckily, we had the opportunity to compare the difficulty of sand hiking with deep mud hiking on the final day. Turns out, both suck.

Here’s a rare shot of Natasa smiling while hiking.

Simply stunning shots of palm tree lined beaches.

I’m ecstatically marching in this one.

This is just nice.

Punk rock.

Being in Corcovado means seeing animals. It wasn’t until we went to some of the other Costa Rican parks and heard people asking if we’d seen any monkeys yet that we realized the panoply of wildlife that surrounded us in Corcovado. Monkeys? Oh yea. We saw tons of white faced, capuchin monkeys (like in the movie Outbreak),


several spider monkeys, howler monkeys, and quite a few spottings of the endangered squirrel monkey.

Here’s a cute little anteater fella.

The toucan has a big nose, here he is.

The beach, energy-sucking though it was, was crawling (yes literally) with countless hermit crab. I stood still several times and just watched the sand crawl. Here’s a little video.

Scarlet macaw anyone? Yup, got em.

Family picture:

Oh, we went in a cave too. Lots of bats.

Around 3PM we realized, due to our shifted schedule on account of the car, that we would not have the good fortune to eat lunch. Luckily Felix, our ever industrious guide, hacked open a coconut that was lying on the beach for us to munch on.

Have you ever wondered what the days before Survivor were like? I imagine they were something like this, but who wants to remember back to those dark days? Not I.

Oftentimes the raw sexual energy of a picture can say more than any preceding sentence ever could.

After about 7.5 hours of hiking I was sick of my boots, which were technically Andrew the Canadian’s boots, as mine were still safe, dry, clean and sweet smelling as the scented rose in Marvelous Mexicana’s baggage department. We all felt the same way, so we decided to get new ones. Here we are switching boots with each other for new ones.

In actuality we were fording a wide river. This same river fills with crocodiles and bull sharks when high tide rolls in. Naturally, we returned the next day at that time and chased crocodiles, here’s one.

As dusk rolled in, we strolled in to Sirena ranger station. Hot, dirty, smelling like poo, and hungry well beyond necessity. We had just missed dinner but the kitchen staff was obliging enough to whip us up some mad grub. Utter silence fell as we buried our face in our plates. Within an hour, we were passed out in our bunks.

Around 5 in the eerie morning twilight we heard the guttural wailing all around us of the howler monkeys. These guys can be heard for long distances throughout the treetops. One group's male will howl to the next, which then howls back, this is echoed in the distance again and again. Territorial, these chaps.

After breakfast (beans and rice again!) we sat down to get our morning briefing. Since we were going to be forging through deep jungle with insects, snakes, and all manner of stinging beasts, I wore my most appropriate apparel.

Some have questioned my fashion sense and called it faux pas, I prefer to consider it dépêche mode. In actuality, my clothes were in my bag in Marvelous Mexicana’s care. Andrew the Canadian, ever the frugal packer, had only 3 outfits that he planned on washing with camp soap. Luckily, the ladies on our trip had an impressively superfluous amount of clothing. Thus, what you see are some coveted shots of me in women’s clothes. The paparazzi are going to have a field day with this one.

We then set out on a few hikes around the ranger station.

Here's one of those hikes.

In the afternoon we were lucky enough to track down some Baird’s tapirs. I think they ran from my outfit more than anything else.

The end of the tapir trail:

We were also fortunate enough to not get killed by this chap.

Felix the guide explained that death comes about 10 minutes after a strike from this viper. Luckily there was some antivenom at the ranger station, about 20 minutes away.

Leaf cutter ants are amazing, they form lines everywhere, shuttling slices of green leaves to their mounds where the grow fungi on them which they feed off of. You can follow the trail in between the mound and the current leaf they are slicing up, bit by bit. Here’s a trail.

Getting around the jungle requires agility, leaps, bounds, scrambling up slopes, and sliding down mud bogs. It's always nice to have a firm handhold. Luckily, this tree was always intelligent enough to be found whenever I blindly reached for support...and that was often.

Thanks buddy, I still have the splinters.

That evening we went on a night hike, which is the best time to spot the nocturnal animals like frogs. We saw a few of note and then this hombre sitting on a tree. A black tarantula.

Unfortunately, 3 of our 4 lights went out and we had difficulty navigating the deep mud. Paula was also eaten by a nest of ants. Luckily, Andrew the Canadian lightened the mood by walking face first into a large branch. Ah, that helped.

The next morning we started our 30 km trek out of Corcovado. Natasa’s leg had locked up entirely the day before and so she was planning on trying to boat out. That proved to be impossible so she popped a few Tylenol and limped along for 11 hours.

The trail ascended steeply and dropped precipitously for the latter half of the morning, all in claylike mud which we were able to cling surprisingly well to, much like a former girlfriend of mine. Ah, clingy girlfriend jokes are such low hanging fruit, yet still so very delicious.

Our lunch stopping point was at Los Patos ranger station after 17 km. We look disgusting. I'm bandanging blisters.

We stopped for 20 minutes, enough time for Paula to break the soccer goal the rangers had set up to while away the hours of solitude. She’s clearly pleased with herself.

The last 13 km was composed of crossing the same river 34 times (no really, 34 times).

Here are some pictures showing Natasa in various stages of agony.


Eleven hours of hiking chafes various body parts. Luckily, Natasa had some cold cream that I liberally applied to my own creamy white inner thighs. Here’s a great shot of me doing that while simultaneously modeling Andrew the Canadian’s sweaty underwear.

Mmm, baby got back.

At long last, after 11 hours of hiking and breaks totaling 45 minutes, we finished and were taken back to Puerto Jimenez. I was so excited to get my bag and change out of women’s clothes, I was a chubby kid coming back from fat camp. Well this fat kid had to continue the fast. My bag still hadn’t arrived. I called Marvelous Mexicana and talked to the same rep I spoke to on Saturday night.

Me: “Where’s my bag?”

Marvelous Mexicana rep: “We have it right here for you sir, in San Jose.”

Me: “Why didn’t you ship it to me in Puerto Jimenez like I asked you to on Saturday night?”

Marvelous Mexicana rep: (after long awkward silence) “Umm, somebody told me that you said to not ship it down there…”

Me: “I haven’t spoken to anybody else but you.”

The Marvelous Mexicana rep offered to ship it down the next day, necessitating our cancellation of plans to leave Puerto Jimenez the next morning. I reminded him, in the politest of tones that I was currently wearing women’s clothes and dirty underwear that was too small for me and I couldn’t rely on them to deliver a bag in a timely manner given my experiences. And so it was that we drove 10 hours back up to San Jose the next day.

Before leaving sunny Puerto Jimenez, however, we went out one last time with Felix. It was nice to be in clean, albeit women’s clothes, again.

After some in our party had a few drinks, we decided it would be a great idea to fish for caimans in a nearby pond. Caimans are little crocodiles about 4 or 5 feet long. So we tied fish to a line and threw it to the caimans and pulled it back just before they snapped. What fun. Here we are jeopardizing our future usage of healthy limbs and bones.

I have to put a plug in for Felix and his guidesmanship. We had an incredible experience, saw tons of wildlife, and had a great time with him. He went above and beyond the job for which he was hired and pooled his resources to fix our vehicle and still ensure we experienced all we came to see. If you need a Corcovado guide look him up at Osa Travel Expeditions.

This ends the first portion of our trip. The next section will detail our beach excursions in Domincal and Jaco, hot springs bathing in Arenal, and adventuring in Monteverde.

Pura Vida.