|Our Costa Rica Anniversary
2006 by Jessica Coleman
At the very crack of dawn (literally, we watched the sun rise), we arrived at JFK for our flight to San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica - with a layover in Miami. After five hours of flying and two plus hours of sitting in airports, we arrive in San Jose, and miracle of miracles, our luggage also arrived there at the same time we did!
We were met by our pre-arranged driver and taken to our hotel in downtown San Jose. We stayed at a very cute place - Hotel Grano de Oro. It has only 35 rooms, and they are arranged in a rambling order around a fountain and lots of flowery plants.
The weather in Costa Rica is very interesting. The temperatures are basically the same all year; it's just the amount of rain from month to month which varies. So something always seems to be in bloom.
We traveled there during the rainy season, which the tour books call the Green Season. It does seem to add a certain lushness to the landscape, and we never had a day that the rain didn't let up for a few hours for us to be able to get out and do stuff. It did rain EVERY DAY, mostly in the afternoon or evening, sometimes both. And, we had a few days (well mornings really) of actual sunshine - I even have a sliver of sunburn to prove it.
Anyway, upon arriving to San Jose, we checked into our hotel and went exploring downtown. We were very bad tourists and did not visit the Museum on Costa Rica history nor the Jade museum nor the central market where we were supposed to go to buy souvenirs. We just walked around, had a it of lunch, and got back to the hotel before the evening rains.
We ate at our hotel that night, which is renowned for its cuisine. It was OK, and we were too full to try dessert, which was their specialty. (Yes, that's right, I said that the food was only OK - maybe better than OK, but not really good - and we got full eating it.) Then, we went to bed. (Two hour time difference, and we had to get up early.)
The next morning, we awoke early - again, it seems that it was dark when the alarm went off. We had an exciting day ahead of us - white water rafting on the Pacuare River, ranked one of the top 5 rivers in the world! We lucked out as the Pacaure is best run during the green season, and we were there in the height!
Waiting for the shuttle to pick us up, we ran into another US couple in the lobby who would be on our trip. (This is not unusual, as (a) no one else was up at the hour unless they were going on our trip, and (b) 60% of all tourism in Costa Rica is from the US, so most tourists are Americans.) John and Debbie are more adventurous than Jordan and I. They had arrived in Costa Rica with only one-day's worth of plans. After that, they were renting a car (driving in a foreign country!) and going where the wind took them.
Finally, we were off. After driving two hours and picking up an assortment of others - including some people who were doing an overnight trip and two days of rafting - we were there. Well, sort of. After unloading us from the bus, we were herded onto a trailer with seats down the middle facing out. A tractor then dragged us downhill at a steep angle of 40 degrees or so (if I'm exaggerating, it's slight) while the guide tried to convince us that the lump he pointed to in this tree or that tree (see the right branch that goes up and then curves left, well not that one) was a sloth. Or wren. Or two-headed ice-breathing squirrel. Whatever. Fortunately, this was all in English, as Jordan and I have a very limited grasp of Spanish (sorry, we'd both love to speak more, but it doesn't look likely to happen soon...).
We finally reached the bottom of the cliff (I'm not kidding; it was really steep), and there was the river before us. We (the group) were divided up into teams of six and assigned a guide, provided with the lovely attire of slightly mildewed lifejackets and never-quite-dried-out helmets (safety first), and launched into the river.
Honestly, the Pacuare is one of the best rivers I've ever rafted. It's not that the rapids were particularly exciting - no mini-waterfalls to fear for my life; in fact, we didn't even flip our boat or get stuck on a rock or anything like that. However, the rapids are almost non-stop - you do a rapid, break for a minute or so, and almost immediately go into another rapid again. Jordan and I were in front, so we caught all the good waves!
After four hours and twenty miles, after waterfalls and neon-blue butterflies, after ice-cold raindrops and tropical sun, after birds of all shapes and sizes, we finally pulled up to the end of our run. We had a typical Costa Rican lunch of rice and beans, tomatoey chicken, and fresh fruit (always watermelon and pineapple, sometimes more). Then we traveled back to town in weekend traffic - almost four hours, including the detour around an accident that closed the road and stops at three other hotels.
The next morning, we were up early again, this time to catch a plane - we had to arrive earlier than planned as the runway was closing down for construction.... We took a tiny 18-seater (we had to bend over to walk through - walk through, ha! - the plane, and my backpack barely fit between the seats). It was really cool to watch the pilots, as we were sitting right behind them. There wasn't much to watch outside the windows as we were high enough to be flying over all the clouds.
The flight was only 20 minutes, and we flew in to Quepos over diagonal stripes of what turned out to be palm trees used for oil in facial products and the like. Quepos is a tiny town on the southwest coast, by the Pacific. The town seems to be just for tourism, surfing, fishing, scuba diving, etc. It's right near the Manuel Antonio National Park as well - a very cute park with a lot of coastline and wildlife (more on that later).
We drove from the airport to our hotel - El Parador, which was up in the mountains above town. The hotel was set into the mountain and was reachable only down a thin, curvy, pothole-riddled road. We had a room in one of the highest locations, with a view of a bay and the jungle. On our arrival, there was a sloth sleeping (as they often do) in a tree outside our window - very cute. The hotel was very tropical - all tile floors, stucco walls, and open-air hallways, even the dining areas were open-air. Gardens around the hotel were filled with iguanas, geckos, and all kinds of flowers and birds. I even saw monkeys one night in the forest below our room.
On our first full day, Jordan and I had a private tour of the Manuel Antonia National Park. Our guide brought a telescope binocular thing that allowed us to get a good look at animals way up in the trees. The best part of a guided walk was that the guides knew what to look for - we saw bats, birds, iguanas, Jesus Christ lizards (because they run across the water), white-tailed deer (just like ours but smaller; we even saw a fawn), sloths, coatis (coatimundis - kind of like skilling raccoons with long tails), white-faced monkeys, and an agote (not sure of the spelling on that one, but its name means "the planter" and it's basically a big rodent that lives near water). The sloths are really rather cute when you get to look at their faces, and we even saw two sloths fighting! They basically pull on each other and try to make the other fall out of the tree. (According to the guide, even if they do fall out of the tree, they have so much fur, it's like landing on a pillow, so they usually just get up and walk away.)
My favorite part was definitely the white-faced monkeys. We have tons of pictures because they are just so darn cute. People used to feed them, so they're very used to people and don't mind us being around. They just go about their business in the trees, eating bugs and berries, playing with each other, and sometimes stopping to watch the people. We even saw a baby monkey clinging to its mother's (I assume) back.
The second day we went on a Canopy Safari. This was not quite what I had in mind when I thought of a canopy safari. In my mind, there was a series of walkways in the trees, and we would walk on them, viewing wildlife. From time to time, we would need to get across a wide area with no walkway, and there would be a zipline. However, this was not the case! In fact, it was more of a thrill ride - a series of ziplines, from tree to tree, with a few rappels. We were up pretty high in the trees - about 50-75 feet I would guess most of the time. And we were rushed through pretty quickly. It was fun, don't get me wrong - they even let me hang upside down (and were impressed that I actually did it! I guess I can thank camp for the courage to do that)! We came out pretty wet though as it did rain all day (and did I mention yet that we were in the rainforest).
The rainforest wasn't anything like I expected. I had thought it would be wetter and that there would be sudden showers at anytime. It's really not like that though. The weather in the forests seemed to be the same as it was anywhere else; if it was sunny at the beach, it was sunny in the forest; if it was raining at the coast, it was raining in the forest. On the other hand, the humidity everywhere was at least 100% - sometimes, I think the air was super-saturated! I've never been so sticky in all my life.
On the other hand, other than the weather, I guess the rainforest was exactly like I had thought it would be - there were all kinds of crazy vines hanging from the trees (very Tarzan), lots of ferns, and hundreds of little creeks and mini-waterfalls. We even saw tree frogs, including the green and black poison dart frog (you can actually touch them, but if you have a cut on your hand, that would be bad) and the blue jeans frog (red with blue legs - you can touch that one with a wet hand); we didn't touch any of them! And there were giant spiders (and little ones too) - not like garden spiders, which are big but not too scary, and not like tarantulas, though those do live in Costa Rica, but kind of icky scary-looking spiders (like spiders from home under a microscope!).
On our last day in Quepos, we took a boat ride through the Isla Damas Estuary. We just lucked out that no one else signed up for the tour that day, so we had the boat all to ourselves, with a boat driver, tour guide, and the car driver - that's a good ratio!
(Interesting side bar - Wherever we went on tours or on transfers from the airport to the hotel, etc, we almost always had a tour guide and a driver, even if it was just Jordan and me. I'm astonished by the high ratio of workers to tourists in the industry, though it may be because of the bilingual needs - but then why wouldn't the tour guide just also drive us- I don't know....)
In the estuary, we saw tons of mangroves - white (really tall) and red (like what's in the Everglades in Florida) as well as pineapple (skinnier at the bottom - not so spread out with the roots). The mangrove trees were really interesting, and it was fascinating to look deep into the woods of mangroves and see that the ground was just intertwined mangrove roots rising and falling. We did see a couple of baby crocodiles (a good size) up close and a couple of grown-ups from far away (they disappeared into the water when we approached, and, apparently, they can stay under water for close to an hour, so we didn't wait for them to come up for air). We also saw a couple of monkeys in the trees and hundreds of brightly-colored crabs - mostly red with blue or red with one dots or red and white striped.
Other than our day trips, we spent time in the hotel just relaxing. We went swimming one day at the adult pool (where kids were allowed because they were doing construction on the everybody pool - remember we were there in the lowest season), which was a little cool but very nice. We even had some sun that day. We also walked the grounds some, read (that was mostly me), and worked on the computer (all for play - but that was still mostly Jordan).
And that was Quepos, Manuel Antonio, and El Parador. From there, we drove (were driven) to La Paz, north of San Jose, in the cloud forest (also not what I had pictured in my mind - just a forest that often has low-lying clouds), to Peace Lodge.
Peace Lodge was amazing. Upon arrival, we checked in and were immediately shown to our room - Appias Drusilla, named after a light yellow butterfly. All the rooms were named after butterflies. Our room was gorgeous - a high king bed with a mosquito net canopy (purely for show), a gas fireplace, a private balcony overlooking the cloud forest complete with hammock, pair of rocking chairs, and two-person jacuzzi. That, however, was just the start. Then, there was the bathroom! The bathroom was just as big as the spacious bedroom, with a lot of natural woods and false rock on the walls. In the rock, bromeliads grew, lending a bit of the rainforest to the indoors. There was also a two-person jacuzzi, an indoor-outdoor shower that turned into a waterfall (so you could shower in the waterfall), a large regular shower in a "rock" room complete with stained glass window, and a waterfall you can turn on or off for ambiance. Awesome!
In addition, Peace Lodge is located at the Waterfall Gardens. They have a butterfly atrium, hummingbird garden, and waterfalls.
The butterflies were nice, very colorful, but there was one kind that was just amazing - ultramarine blue on top of its wings and spotted brown camouflage on the bottom; they looked surreal when you saw them flying, and the blue was so vivid.
The hummingbirds were also pretty incredible. I've never seen hummingbirds so big! There were so many kinds - lots of different colors - bright green, deep purple, blue with white. Jordan and I even fed them from our hands; we held small feeders, and they came down right next to our hands - it was so neat - the wind from their wings was really strong!
We also hiked through the gardens to the waterfalls. We started on the Fern trail, which, true to its name, took us through a very ferny section of rainforest down to the river. From there, we followed the river (past some beautiful, rippling and flowing areas of river over rock piles) to the waterfalls - several actual, really big, quite picturesque waterfalls. You'll just have to see the pictures to understand to understand how nice everything was, and I'm afraid the pictures won't even do it justice.
After a day of hiking and relaxing, we took off the next day for Arenal. We were taking a much-recommended trip to Tabacon Springs (hot springs) and the volcano Arenal. Tabacon was nice, though the water was much warmer than I like it. It's actually very interesting that the water is MUCH hotter than comfortable, almost 200 degrees Fahrenheit, but the proprietors of the resort diverted a nearby cool river to flow into the hot springs to make it bearable.
Afterward, we were driven to a nearby viewing area for the volcano, the most active volcano in Costa Rica. On most days, it's too cloudy to see anything of the volcano, but we lucked out completely that the clouds moved away, AND the volcano was very active for us (the guide told us it was one of the best 5 times he's seen it in the past two year). We were pretty far away (for safety), but there were giant boulders (the guide said they were the size of houses) flying out of the volcano and bounding down the mountain breaking into fiery bits. From a distance, it really did look like lava flowing, but the guide says it wasn't. We tried to take pictures, but it was very difficult, even with long exposures. Still, it was pretty cool - very good for my first real-life active volcano viewing. I would definitely be interested in seeing more.
On our last full day in Costa Rica, we did another canopy safari. This one was also more of a thrill ride, though we were able to go at a slower speed and so saw a little more and got to know our fellow travelers a little more. We also went horseback riding that morning. Jordan is a very confident rider and went galloping (well, cantering, but still it's a run) through the fields. I held my horse to a trot, which is probably just as well since I think it had an injured leg. We mostly stayed in the fields, but we also did a little walking through the forest and on roads.
Overall, it was a very enjoyable vacation, and I'm glad we went. I have a couple of places I would add if we went back - Tamarindo (beachy) and Monteverde (cloud forest) for sure. Plus, some people said the northeastern part of the country, just south of Nicaragua, was really nice as well - the most original indigenous plant-life still around. Always something else to see.
Hope you enjoyed! We did!
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