Published: January 1st 2012December 31st 2011
Costa Rica proved to be yet another fantastic adventure to round out the travels of 2011! We Foxes felt very fortunate as we dragged our feet onto the red-eye flight down to San José. I was ready for another chance to practice my burgeoning Spanish skills, but mostly I was hoping to see some really impressive new ecosystems! On both accounts, I was not disappointed, and we experienced more than I could have dreamed!
Our day began early in San José as we made our way on foot from our hotel along the central avenue of Paseo Colon. While we enjoyed watching the city wake up and seeing people enjoying their Sunday morning routines, the city itself did little to capture us. The architecture mainly dates from the mid-twentieth century, and did little to inspire us. But, the lovely parks and plazas, strolling families, and doves painted by artists as part of the "peace parade" were certainly a great introduction to Costa Rica. We learned a good deal about the nation's history, spanning from pre-Columbus until the abolition of their army in 1948, from a visit to the National Museum housed in the former army barracks. We also enjoyed
our first of many meals composed of rice and beans!! Remarkably, I did not even tire of them after having black beans and rice at every meal, especially with their special smokey sauce called Lizano. With that and some fresh fruit, I was set! Owing to our lack of sleep on the plane, we crashed early with little idea of what was to come in the following 8 days we had to explore the country!
In the morning, we joined a hodgepodge group of tourists from various continents for a bumpy bus ride to Tortuguero, a city on the Caribbean coast. The name might have you thinking that we saw sea turtles make their graceful way up the beach to lay eggs, but now is not the season for such wonders, but there was no shortage of spectacular sights to drink in! Our guide for our trip and time in Tortuguero shared a lot about Costa Rican history and culture with us over our time together. He was the first of many people who we met who had a lightness about him that was a joy to be around. After two hours on a paved road, one hour
(Photo by Mary Anna Fox)
on a rocky unpaved road, and an hour boat ride on a canal, we were all delighted to find ourselves in a dense and spectacular forest well worth the commute! The hotel is located between the canals of Tortuguero National Park and the Caribbean. In the canals there are crocodiles and caimans, and in the Caribbean a serious undertow and many sharks- so swimmers enjoyed the hotel pool! We took a stroll from our hotel over to enjoy the small town of Tortuguero which is quite prone to flooding. I felt a little ridiculous for the thought, but as we wandered around on the main "street," it struck me that there was Caribbean feel to the town. Of course, it is on the Caribbean, so that feeling was explained! As we made our way back to our hotel by walking on the beach, we were able to enjoy seeing the remnants of turtle nests and appreciate the scale of them.
Our only full day in Torutguero was packed with the flora and fauna! As we were in the rainforest, our earlymorning boat ride through the park, was indeed in the rain for the first hour. Thankfully, many animals
were still out and about, and the rain did not persist for long! We saw innumerable types of birds, three types of monkeys, many caimans- one WAY too close for my comfort!!, a boa constrictor!!!, many iguanas, river turtles, and more. We could only marvel at the skill of our guide as he picked out camouflaged lizards, coiled snakes, and so on from the dense and tangled green of the forest! On land, we hunted down sleeping tree frogs on the underside of leaves and enjoyed butterflies flitting around us. Our afternoon boat ride through the national park was in full sun, and so we saw some new animals sunning themselves. The main event of the afternoon though was seeing white-faced capuchin monkeys. Our guide spotted them feasting away and running around branches of a tree on the river bank. So, we made our way over to them and were stopped right under them, oooing and awing away as they went on with their activities. It seems our presence irked them though, and one in particular took exception to our being there and pooped on Mary Anna! We think that it is like the Italian tradition of good luck coming
from being pooped on by a bird, because the rest of the trip remained a dream!
In the interest of time, we took a flight from Tortuguero back to San José. It was a rather unusual commute to the airstrip- note, not airport, for starters. We motored over the canal as the sun rose, spotting some heron and ibis and then stopped at an airstrip that cuts through the forest. We waited for our plane to arrive from San José by walking on the beach! The short flight, 20 minutes, was actually quite educational in its own way, as we could see the land use for different crops, appreciate the size and location of the mountains, and visualize the contrast of the central valley cities- where San José is, compared with rural Costa Rica.
From San José we roared up the Panamerican Highway until we had to turn off and bounce our way up the windy dirt road to Monteverde. The hills and valleys we wove through were beautiful, and much of the land was productive. The Monteverde Cloud Forest certainly captured our hearts as we learned about the rich variety of life that thrives there. I
could not help but think about all the Planet Earth episodes I have seen about such areas, and delight that we were actually able to be there in person to appreciate the wonders of nature!
We lucked out with a superior guide on our morning hike through the Monteverde Reserve. His passion and excitement for his work was contagious! I was unprepared to be so entranced by the habits of ficus trees! Mary Anna soaked up new information to share with her second grade class, as they will soon be studying tropical forests. We added tarantulas, multiple species of hummingbirds, a new frog, and our first hanging bridge to our list of wonders in Costa Rica, that morning! Due to Monteverde's altitude, it was a bit chillier than we anticipated! Layers proved essential, as did our rain gear, as we took another hike in the forest with another awesome guide. Here we walked on a series of hanging bridges overlooking the forest's canopy. Moments after we stepped onto the first bridge, a troop, is that the right term?, of howler monkeys made their way from one side of the bridge to the other using the treetops below us like
a highway. It was incredible being up in their habitat and experiencing first-hand how they earned their name! After exploring the forest more and learning about vines vs. roots, and epiphites vs. hemiphites, we all took a gondola ride up up up even more to the top of a rather high peak. Mary Anna and Mama sensibly took the gondola back down, while Papa and I climbed a tower disappearing into a cloud and then took nine zip lines back down the mountain. For our first few runs, the wind howled and all we could see was the cable and the cloud- no trees below or even the other side of the zip line! This was pure fun, certainly not as educational as our hikes!
Between Tortuguero and Monteverde, it was clear that the Costa Rican people had won us over. Everyone we met welcomed us warmly, and was patient and excited by our desire to speak Spanish. Their Spanish is beautiful and very clear, so I think it would be a great place to learn, and the people are so fun and welcoming, there would be many places to practice! A few differences between Mexican and Costa
Rican Spanish struck our ears, such as their response to "gracias" which is "mucho gusto" and not the Mexican "de nada." They also love to use the term "pura vida," which we found to be a catch-all phrase translating directly as "pure life." If they wanted to let the person on the other end of the telephone know that they were listening, they would say it, if you ask them how they are, it is a standard reply, as a parting it is even used. "Mae" meaning basically "dude" was also thrown around by the younger Costa Ricans. And finally, on the last day, I learned why my breakfast of gallo pinto- rice and beans with special spices, was called "Tico" on many menus. Where Mexicans often at "tito" to words- "momentito," Costa Ricans us(e) "tico," so they refer to themselves as Ticos. I wish I had picked up on this sooner so I could have been listening for it!
Enough about language, on with our journey! We left Monteverde early in the morning, to bounce along to a rather substantial, man-made, Arenal Lake. Driving in Costa Rica deserves a few lines. The roads are rather terrible owing
to the amount of rain. Drivers therefore seek out the best part of the road- sometimes taking their half out of the middle or the other side entirely. Progress is slow and we heard that accidents are frequent. But, as Costa Ricans generally seem to be upbeat, it was more a joke than a problem- a few drivers referred to it as a "car massage," which is certainly looking on the bright side of the event! To reach Arenal, we transferred to a boat and enjoyed a smooth commute across it, happy to have relief from the rough roads. Had the day been clear, we would have relished in an extraordinary view of the Arenal Voclano, but it was not. Our guide happily put up a post card on the glass at the front of the boat to let us know what we were missing! It was back to bouncing as we made our way to the Arenal Observatory Lodge, complete with volcano views from your bed! One little problem the man at the front desk said, there is a cloud between your bed and volcano! Clouds persisted for our visit, so we never did see the top 20% of
the volcano, but Arenal had other wonders to offer. We enjoyed the hiking trails from the lodge and their jacuzzi with volcano, I mean cloud, view was lovely!
Another hike on the hanging bridges at Arenal gave us insight into the wonders of leaf-cutter ants and a close encounter with an eye-lashed viper! Unfortunately, we were not enamored with our guide or location as we had been in Monteverde- perhaps we are cloudforest, not rainforest people! In fact, I think that Arenal was more touristy and we were a little saturated on nature walks. The afternoon made up for our not so exceptional morning as we took a hike up to the lava field from the eruption of the Arenal Volcano in the 90's. Our guide for this hike was a treat and exploring the lava field was a highlight. From here, we soaked up the evening in the hot springs, a great Christmas evening! I wonder if we would have felt better about Arenal had we seen the whole volcano, only visible 70 days of the year, or if we were just so taken by Monteverde and Tortugero that Arenal did not stand a chance?
(Photo by Mary Anna Fox)
Our last day was spent making slow, but steady, progress on paved roads back to San José. We explored the La Paz waterfalls and their animal refuge. Over the course of the day, we had our ear talked off and all of our questions answered by our super excited guide, which was great since we had accumulated many questions over our time.
Costa Rica was a real treat. The people were a very nice surprise for me and their warmth will stay with me!
There are more photos below