Pura Vida 2: June 18, 2005

This “Pura Vida” series is a set of e-mails I sent around to my friends and family when I was traveling and living in Costa Rica in 2005.  I made no edits, just simply wanted to post them here to get my little travel blog started…

This is from June 18, 2005.

I thought I`d write you about the trip my brother and I took here in Costa Rica before I started my program.  It was a long trip so this is going to be a long e-mail.  Stop reading now and come back to it if you don`t have the time.  If you don`t want to read about this stuff, just ignore it.  No problem!  Also, I wasn´t able to run a spell check here so excuse me.

My brother and I met up in Dallas and got into San Jose, Costa Rica close to 9 at night.  We were getting picked up to go to Tortuguero at 7:30 AM the next morning so we went straight to bed and we were up bright and early.  We didn`t get to see much of the hotel (Hotel Grano de Oro) as a result but we had read that it was the best hotel in San Jose, so we planned on returning after our trip around the country.  No one we had met during our travels planned on spending any time in San Jose, and with good reason.  There is really nothing at all to see but since all the roads in the country lead to the main city and all the flights connect through there, many travelers tend to use it as a pit stop.  We did the same.


Exactly at 7:30 AM the next morning, we were met by our guide, Manuel, from Costa Rica Expeditions.  He spoke English fluently and told us what we can expect from our trip.  Our driver Bernie and Manuel were going to drive us to the Atlantic lowlands near Limon, as far as cars can go towards Tortuguero.  We drove on the highway for about 2 hours and then we entered a dusty, rocky road that cut across acres and acres of banana plantations.  Manuel is a biology student and was a wonderful guide throughout our 4+ hour journey and stopped to point out a three toed sloth on the way, as well as stopping at a banana processing plant to show us how they are picked, sorted, washed, and processed.  Did you know that there are 4 different grades of bananas?  First, the ¨runners¨pick huge bundles of bananas, bring them to the processing plant.  Because each bundle weighs as much as 30 pounds and they are scattered all over the plantation (not to mention the boiling sun and oppressive humidity) they can only pick about 20 to 25 bundles a day.  Once the bundles arrive at the processing plant (by the way, I took picture of them so you`ll see them later), they are sorted by hand!  They look for the right shape, color, blemishes, etc and grade them.  Those graded 1 or 2 are sent through the washing bin and then packaged for export.  Those graded as 4 (the worst) are sent to Nicaragua to make ¨banana soup¨or fed to livestock.  Grade 3 bananas are sold in Costa Rica.  We passed through Dole, Chiquita, and Delmonte banana plantations, and around the plantations there were numerous villages complete with small schools for the local children.

After about 2 more hours on the dirt road, we reached a river.  There we met our guide for the next few days, Roberto.  He traveled close to 2 hours by boat to come and take us to Tortuguero, to Tortuga Lodge. Kevin and I said goodbye to Manuel and Bernie, and got into the boat for our next leg of the trip.  After about 30 minutes, we reached a ranger station where Roberto set out a picnic lunch for us.  While we ate, we heard a loud roar coming from across the river.  At first I thought it was a large menacing beast but it turned out to be the first of many many calls we would hear from the resident howler monkeys during our stay in Tortuguero…

Tortuga Lodge

Another hour and a half later, we finally reached our destination.  The village of Tortuguero (population less than 1,000) is in the Tortuguero National Park, originally intended to protect a major nesting beach of the Atlantic green sea turtle.  We were told that the national park now protects close to 50k acres and is one of the largest tropical rain forests in Central America.  The Tortuga lodge is situated away from the village, near the tip of where the river meets the Caribbean, and has a large garden/ trail surrounding the lodge (our guide Roberto, showed us a small eye lash snake caught in the garden the next day).  All meals were served family style and Kevin and I met some really nice people during our meals there.

Because it was the low/rainy season, there were just 6 other people at the lodge our first day which was great but because we went in May, it also meant that we weren´t going to see any turtles laying their eggs on the beach.  It got so dark and quiet after sunset that we felt extremely isolated.  We couldn’t´t believe that just the day before, we were in New York or in California surrounded by people, cars, buildings, and noises.  Since we had no phones, TV´s (or A/C for that matter), we went straight to bed after dinner.

We woke up to a beautiful day with the howler monkeys screaming the next morning.   After breakfast, we set out on a small boat into the canals to look for them.  We were treated to not only howler monkeys but white faced monkeys and spider monkeys as well.  We got a glimpse of a toucan and numerous other birds and small crocodiles called caimans.  And we did get to see a large fresh water river turtle.  It was unbelievable how close to nature we felt in the river canals and the thick forestation.  We were able to go for a walk through the rain forest in the afternoon, all the way to the Caribbean Ocean and see a family of spider monkeys in action right above our heads.  It was a great day.

Our little plane

From Tortuguero, we flew on a 4 seater back to San Jose.  I got to sit next to the pilot for the short 30 minute flight and wondered how something that resembles a small Volkswagen was flying us over the mountain ranges of Costa Rica.  From San Jose, we were picked up by our next guide, Andrew and we took off for Monteverde.  Miranda, Larry- you won´t believe where we went!  to Xandari, of course!  On the way to Monteverde, we stopped in Alajuela to pick up a couple who were also headed our way and we got to check out the Xandari hotel ourselves.  It looked beautiful and the couple said that they had a wonderful stay.  I don´t know what happened to your villa and the insects there…!!??

OK.  Monteverde is way, way, way up in the mountains and clouds, and was extremely difficult to get to.  If you are planning on going to Monteverde in the future, we highly recommend a driver and/or a 4X4. Even with having an experienced driver, good weather, and a guide take us there, I thought it was a rough 5 hour ride.  Once we got there though, it was great.  Monteverde is a peaceful community made up of dairy farmers and naturalists.  It was first settled by a handful of Quakers from America who were searching for a peaceful place to live.  We stayed at the Monteverde lodge which was very clean and modern.  Our guide had told us that the chef there was trained in the U.S. and that we could expect great meals.  He wasn´t wrong- the meals were very creative and fun but every dish had just a tad bit more salt than all of us would like.  It was again, exceptionally quite there as the lodge´s backyard garden overlooked the valleys below.  You could hear the river flowing under it..  very peaceful.

Feeling very small next to giant trees

We went into the Monteverde national reserve in the morning in search of quetzals.  And our guide found a pair right away.  They were unbelievably beautiful birds with feathers so green and their chests so blood red.  We were also treated to some large orange knee tarantulas, lines of leaf cutter ants, and more monkeys.  We were extremely lucky to see a few other pairs quetzals towards the end of our walk and hang out with a dozen or so of humming birds.  Also in Monteverde, Kevin and I went on a night walk into a forest.  We got to see two very large, very furry two toed sloths.  The first one, a female, even stretched out fully right in front of us and moved around quite a bit.  It was an unbelievable site.  We got to see a lot more insects at night and my favorite was a tiny little frog that was about an inch big and extremely poisonous (please, no comparisons with me).  With all the insects so active at night, we felt as if we were getting eaten alive out there.  Even with a lot of bug spray, those pesky bugs always got us somehow.  I guess it was silly of me to think that we weren´t going to be part of their world when we were venturing right into their homes.

We said goodbye to Monteverde and headed to the most active volcano in Costa Rica- Volcan Arenal.  To get there, we were picked up by a nice local Tico with a 4X4.  He asked whether his wife could come on the ride over so well, the 4 of us drove from Monteverde to the Arenal Lake.  The drive over to the lake too beautiful for words.  As I looked out the car window, I couldn’t´t help but think that I was looking at a postcard.  Our driver and his wife were constantly looking at birds and animals on the way, stopping the car to explain or show us their nests.  They were incredibly generous.   We traveled across the mammoth lake Arenal via a large motorized boat.  It took us over 30 minutes to cross the lake and we reached our next destination, the Arenal Lodge.  From the gate of the the lodge, we drove up 2km above the lake through winding roads.  We even saw a few howler monkeys on the way up.  Our lodge was very simple but the view from it was spectacular and they had two really nice hiking trails, which we had fun exploring.  From the front window of the lodge we had the perfect view of the giant volcano and from one of the trails, we could see both the lake and the volcano.

View from Arenal Lodge

About 4 in the afternoon, exactly when she said she’d arrive, Peggy drove up to our lodge.  It was really strange seeing Peggy so far away from New York.  Kevin wanted stayed back and read so Peggy and I went off to her hotel, Tabacon, not too far away.  Tabacon Hotel and the hot springs were extremely modern and sophisticated by Costa Rican standards.  It looked like a nice hotel in the U.S.  When we talked into the hot springs resort, Peggy said it was like going to Disney World.  It was gi-normous (to use Janice´s term) and full of people.  They had diverted streams of hot springs water to create a large resort of small lagoons and pools.  The water was so hot in some of the streams that we could only dip a toe in them.  When we did find a pool of hot water that we could stand soaking in, we could only stay in for about 20 or 30 minutes.  We were so light-headed and tired from the hot water, we couldn’t´t understand how some people could spend a whole day there…  After having a nice dinner together at Tabacon, I said goodbye to Peggy who were returning back to NYC the next day.  For her adventure driving from Arenal to San Jose for her flight, please ask Peggy herself.  🙂

Deadly frog

Kevin and my hike through the hanging bridges the next morning was amazing.  These bridges were built not too long ago through a thick primary rainforest.  There were 14 bridges in total that crossed one gorge to another, covering little over 3 km.  Some were extremely long (close to 100 meters) and dangerously high.  We encountered numerous poison dart frogs (also called blue jeans frogs because their torsos are bright red and their 4 legs are dark blue) and a very large snake!!!  right on our trail in front of us.  Our photos of the snake didn´t turn out very well but you can clearly see the slimy creature getting on a tree branch.

The highlight of our morning hike was the the volcano itself.  We heard it erupt a few times the day before and earlier in the morning when we were on the trail.  But because it was cloudy and rainy in the morning, we had no hopes of seeing the famous volcano.  BUT, as we were nearing the last two of the bridges, it had stopped raining.  And as we were crossing them, it cleared up completely for us to actually see the smoke and the lava flowing out of the volcano!  We were incredibly lucky.  When we finished our hike about 10 minutes later, the volcano was covered with clouds again.

Volcan Arenal

That night, we visited a small hot springs resort called Ecotermales Fortuna, the Hidalgo Family Farm and Hot Springs.  It was such a huge contrast to the Tabacon experience in that it was much smaller and there were only 4 other people there with us.  The water seemed a bit cooler than Tabacon but we still only spent less than 40 minutes soaking in it (we constantly jumped out to take cold showers in between).   We also had dinner there which was described as typically Costa Rican.  Rice, beans, salad, tortillas, chicken, steak.. it was a feast.  Kevin and I decided that it was the best meal we had so far in Costa Rica.  To Kevin´s dismay, I, of course, took pictures of the food.  🙂

Playa Tamarindo

The last leg of our trip took us to the other coast of Costa Rica, to the Pacific.  To get to Tamarindo, we flew back to San Jose and got on a connecting flight.  Tamarindo is one of the most developed beaches in Costa Rica but compared to Ko Samui or Phuket in Thailand, it´s a sleepy, tiny, muddy, beach town.  And because we were there during the rainy season, it was almost deserted.  We were really lucky in that we had fantastic weather during our trip and the weather was fabulous while we visited Tamarindo.  Kevin and I ended up staying far away from the hustle and bustle of the village (where we saw an outdoor hut like Burger King) and stayed at the lovely hotel Cala Luna in Playa Langosta.  It was a beautiful resort for our last days of traveling.  We walked for hours on the beach, saw pelicans diving into the ocean for breakfast, got a lot of sun (even with SPF 45 the entire time), enjoyed A/C for the first time in Costa Rica, and had great meals.  We tried to eat a lot of fish and fresh fruit everyday- Kevin had his favorite meal at a hotel called Capitan Suizo in Tamarindo.  I have to agree that the tilapia there was heavenly.  We would highly recommend the restaurant and the hotel, if you ever find yourself in Tamarindo.  Aside from eating, thinking about our next meal, reading, and relaxing, we did very little there.  Just my idea of a good beach experience.

We ended our journey in San Jose, back at Hotel Grano de Oro.  It is a beautiful place (I thought a bit dark) and we also enjoyed wonderful dinners at the hotel.  I think it has the best restaurant in San Jose.  San Jose itself, as I mentioned in the beginning, doesn’t´t have much to look at.  We walked to the central market, visited the national theater, took a stroll around the largest park in the city (Parque Sabana).  Very uninspired.  I did a bit more of walking around and exploring the city the next weekend, which I´ll write about later.

Well, that takes me to the end of our journey around Costa Rica.  My adventure in the country continued on after Kevin left, of course.  The next e-mail won´t be as long as this one.  I know it was a lot to read–  it was a lot for me to write.  Costa Rica truly is rich with an abundance of natural beauty.  Think of Costa Rica as your next vacation spot.  It is wonderful!

Hope all is well with you.

As they say here in Costa Rica, Pura Vida!

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