Just returned from a six-day trip to Costa Rica, my new favorite country. It has the two things that I love the most: animals and adventure! Plus, the Costa Rican people that we met were all extremely pleasant and low-key. Usually when we go on vacation we're watching our wallets (like in Italy) or running away from women who want to braid my hair (like in the Caribbean). In Costa Rica, they just want you to have a good time.
While researching the trip, I'd determined that Paul and I needed to hit three places in Costa Rica: Manuel Antonio, Monteverde, and Arenal. We flew Taca (pretty good airplane food) into the capital city of San Jose, and then took a tiny plane (more like a bus with wings) to the city of Quepos, near Manuel Antonio. I chose Manuel Antonio because it's located in the heart of the rainforest and I wanted to see some monkeys!
We stayed at a place called Byblos Resort, which was sort of overpriced but had really cute bungalows right in the rainforest. The accommodations looked nice but were definitely more rustic than we're used to. After taking a shower in our room, I reached for a towel and discovered that there was a giant centipede on it! Thank God I spotted it before rubbing it all over my body!
Then there was the morning we awoke to the sound of someone hammering nails into our roof. "Why are they doing repairs at 5:30 in the morning?" I grumbled to Paul. He got up to check outside, and it turned out that the sound was being made by a woodpecker. Paul said it was brown and plain, not even close to resembling Woody Woodpecker, which was slightly disappointing.
We also had a run-in with a troop of squirrel monkeys near the hotel's reception area. They were foraging for an afternoon snack and didn't mind having their picture taken.
We'd been scheduled to go white water rafting near Manuel Antonio, but the river that we were supposed to be rafting on, the Savegre, had apparently dried up earlier than usual this year. Global warming strikes again. Instead, we visited Manuel Antonio's most famous attraction, their national park. This park is so popular that it costs $7 to get in, and there's a maximum capacity of 600 people, so if it's a crowded day, you have to stand on a line and wait for people to come out before you can go in. Paul and I waited for about half an hour. Once inside, Paul started causing trouble (for himself) right away:
I'd read that this park is just teeming with animals, so I kind of expected animals to just jump out at us, but that didn't happen. The park is basically the rainforest along the coastline of a beautiful beach, so half the people inside are just there to go to the beach. The other half are hiking the trails of the forest. We decided to start with the hike. The trail was very distinct, but sometimes overgrown vines got in the way.
During the hike, we came across a group of excited tourists that had stopped on the trail. Apparently, a bunch of capuchin monkeys had stolen their bag of chips and retreated to a tree to eat it.
While we were looking at the monkeys, a couple of raccoons came out of the forest and started pestering people for food. Paul was reminded of the rabid, garbage-eating kind we have at home, so he wasn't impressed. But I thought they were so cute! That is, until one of them bit a woman on the ankle. It seemed like a gentle, "feed me" sort of bite, not unlike the kind that my cat will occasionally give me, but still... . When I saw that, I began to slowly back away.
We spent half an hour in the ocean and on the beach (which wasn't as nice as the Caribbean beaches, but much nicer than Jones Beach) before resuming our hike. We saw what we thought was a sloth on a tree branch from a distance. (Could've been a very fatigued monkey.) On the way out of the park, we encountered two deer that trotted right by us.
They didn't look like the Bambi sort of deer that we have in North America--Paul and I agreed that they looked a sort of like zombie deer, with their paler bodies and pinkish eyes.
Upon exiting the park, we came upon a soda, or roadside stand selling food, and decided to have lunch. The total cost per person for a plate of pork chops, rice, beans, plantains, salad, and a soft drink: $5. And it was delicious! (Paul pointed out that this was the Costa Rican equivalent of getting the lunch special at a Chinese take-out place in New York.) I proceeded to eat the same meal (known as the "typical plate") for the rest of the vacation.
The next day, we were picked up by a shuttle bus and driven to Monteverde, Costa Rica's cloud forest. It's basically a rainforest located so high up in the mountains that it's literally in the clouds. The drive to Monteverde was no joke. The roads leading into the town aren't paved at all, so it takes like an hour to travel 20 miles. Sometimes it felt like being in a massage chair. Sometimes it felt like being in a boat in the middle of a raging storm. You find out that cars are really very sturdy and can handle a lot, and that the cars in the U.S. have it good.
Monteverde is the most atmospheric place I've ever been to, literally and figuratively. You can actually see the air around you. The clouds descend all around, and the landscape is gorgeous. I think the people of Monteverde keep their roads unpaved so as to keep the place from being overrun by tourists. This place would definitely attract everyone in the world if it were more accessible. The temperature is cooler than in Manuel Antonio, maybe 65 degrees or so.
Our main reason for coming to Monteverde was to go zip-lining through the rainforest. Paul and I had done zip-lining twice before, in Belize and in Puerto Rico (plus I'd done it in Nicaragua), but Costa Rica is the country that invented zip-lining, so we figured we'd better try it here. The experience turned out to be insane! All those other zip-lines are child's play compared to the ones here! We went with a company called Aventura, and some of the lines were so long that at times I was unable to see where I had come from or where I was going. The longest was 1,960 feet long and 260 feet above the ground. We flew over canyons and treetops. On one zip-line, we saw a whole, fully-formed rainbow that stretched across the entire forest.
The zip-lining excursion included a walk across a really scary rope bridge, a rappel (in which the guide basically pushed you over the edge of a platform without telling you what's going on), and a "Tarzan swing," which is like bungee jumping, but you swing forward instead of bouncing up and down. It was sort of like the Daredevil Dive at Great Adventure--only instead of being made from steel, the contraption is a rope tied to a tree branch. Crazy! It's easier to understand if you see it. I didn't videotape it, but here's footage of another woman doing the same swing (you've got to see it to truly understand the insanity).
That night we stayed at De Lucia Inn, which wasn't the nicest place--lots of wood paneling and the room smelled of insect spray. But it was cheap, and I think its raison d'être is its restaurant. Paul and I both had excellent grilled steak. I wish we got to stay one more day in Monteverde; I would pay a visit to the town's cheese factory.
Instead, we went on with our journey, taking a boat to Arenal, which turned out to be the cushiest location of the three. There was a pit stop where a parrot took an interest in Paul, and, as it turns out, in his glasses.
In Arenal, we stayed at the Volcano Lodge, an absolutely gorgeous resort. We'd been so used to rusticity that it caught us by surprise. Our room was four-star quality (no centipedes on the towels here!), the grounds were immaculately manicured, and there were exotic plants and flowers (and the birds and butterflies they attracted) everywhere. I saw tons of blue morpho butterflies, which are like the mascots of Costa Rica, and hummingbirds, which are my new favorite birds.
Arenal is the name of an active volcano in the area, and if you're lucky, you get to see and hear it exploding, and see lava running down the side. We were not lucky. The volcano was decidedly inactive while we were there, and to top it off, it rained for half the time so clouds were covering up the top of the cone. We never got a good shot of the entire volcano.
The rain was something else. We went horseback riding through the countryside in a torrential downpour. I suppose those happen a lot, because our guide had packed thick ponchos for each of us. Our horses didn't get ponchos and they didn't seem very happy about it. In fact, just before it started raining, we passed a group of wild horses hanging out in a field, and when the first drops fell, those horses all gathered under a tree for cover. So I know for a fact that horses dislike being rained on.
I've decided that I will no longer go horseback riding anywhere. Horses aren't like dogs and cats; they never seem happy to be with humans. Even when they're being treated well, they look either scared or annoyed. I'm sure I'd look that way too if I was always carrying tourists on my back and being ordered around.
It was a nice ride otherwise. Our guide, Eduardo, didn't speak a lick of English, and we don't speak any Spanish, so most of our communication was done through miming. He pointed out the wildlife as we went along. The best thing we spotted was a toucan in a tree just a few feet away. At first, I wasn't sure what Eduardo wanted us to look at; he was pointing and flapping like crazy, but the rainforest is so visually busy that I wasn't seeing anything. When I did finally pick out the toucan, I was heartened to see that this guy looked just like Toucan Sam, making up for the woodpecker that didn't look anything like Woody. We also rode right through a pasture of grazing cows. Some of them had to move out of the way to let us through. I suppose that's the closest I'll ever come to being a cattle rancher.
That night, we visited the natural hot springs at a fancy resort called Tabacón. What a treat, especially for our sore, horse-riding butts. The water was so hot and soothing, heated by the volcano, and you could have your shoulders massaged by sitting under the falls. I actually couldn't handle the pressure and kept worrying about losing my suit, but Paul loved it.
After the soak, we ate at the resort's buffet. Tabacón is such a fancy place, rivaling the best that Cancun has to offer. It's also one of the most expensive. A stay there is like $400 a night during peak season, compared with the Volcano Lodge's $100 a night. Here's a picture of the hot springs in the daytime.
The next day was our last full one in Costa Rica. We spent the morning on a guided tour of the hanging bridges of Arenal. On the way to the area, our guide spotted a family of coatis on the road, and we stopped to take pictures. Coatis are raccoon cousins.
The hike around the bridges was really cool. Some of the bridges swayed as we walked across, much to my delight, but some people on our tour definitely didn't enjoy that part.
We saw a well-camouflaged toad and a long line of leafcutter ants that were carrying leaf bits back to their home, but that was about it for the wildlife. We also saw a fichus tree that was the size of old redwood or oak trees. I wondered: If I were to transplant my houseplants to the Costa Rican rainforest, would they all eventually grow to be thousands of times their size? Cool thought. Here's the awesome view from one of the bridges.
And here's the view from within the forest.
The best part of the trip came at the end. We went with DeSafio Adventures on a canyoneering/waterfall rappelling adventure. You basically wade along a river, sometimes ankle-deep, sometimes waist-deep, until you come to a waterfall. Then you rappel down the cliff with the falling water!
At times I found myself dangling from a rope, hundreds of feet in the air with a waterfall pounding on my helmet. Some of the drops were so steep that the tour guides who were waiting at the bottom for us looked like ants (with red helmets on). The largest waterfall was 210 feet tall. We did this for about two hours, getting completely soaked in the process. At one point, it started raining again. I can't tell you how cool it was to be waist-deep in a river in the middle of the rainforest, with rain falling all around you. I wonder if I'll ever get the chance to do something like that ever again in my life.
We flew home the next day, New Year's Eve. Taca was nice enough to put us on an earlier connection (and they didn't even charge a fee) that got us back home just shy of midnight. As I write this from New York a few days later, it is literally 12 degrees outside. It's hard to imagine that in the not-so-distant past, I was in a T-shirt and shorts and soaked to the bone, but still feeling warm and happy. Pura vida!