Travel Blog 10/27-10/27 – Arenal

I am aboard the flight to Bocas del Toro, it’s 6am, and I’ve had two Smirnoffs. Brandon has had tres. It’s one of the more terrifying experiences we’ve both had: tiny propeller plane filled with literally 8 people total. I guess this is how the celebrities travel. I’m not sure whether it’s the extra alcohol or the unbridled heroism, but Brandon has been comforting me. Pequeno aeroplane, he says jokingly, offering me the camera. No bueno. There’s safety information in the seatback pocket that none of the passengers have read. I think there’s a silent understanding that if this thing goes down, we all go with it. Ah, perfect: over the mountains we go.

The last few days have been harried but incredible. We visited Sergio uno mas time before we departed Monteverde (the night prior we went to Sabor Tico, the most authentic restaurant we could find, and then stopped by a bar for tequila on the way back–I was asked to dance by a local and declined, something I actually regret). Sergio recommended that we travel to Arenal, where he not only drew us three detailed maps of places to try, he checked availiability at a hotel where he had connections and ensured we’d be taken care of.

The journey to Arenal took about 4 hours, although if we’d been able to drive through the Cloud Forest, it would have been about 15km. Arenal was breathtaking: an active but not erupting volcano towering over the town of La Fortuna. We arrived at Luigi’s Hotel at about 2pm and checked in at a rate of only $30 for the evening – a great price for a place with such a beautiful view, a pool, and moderately comfortable accommodations. We took a quick nap and before the rain and dark hit, we decided to hit up one of Sergio’s recommended spots: a local Hot Springs.

We followed the cars to park near the Springs and clambored down rough terrain in flip flops until we hit the Springs. We were “greeted” by about 20 Ticos who were open to us being there, but slightly suspicious. I’d asked Sergio earlier, jokingly, if I could pass for a local to get better rates on attractions, and he said that of the two of us, I’d have the best chance… until I opened my mouth.

The Springs were breathtaking – there’s not even a better word for it, but if there was one, that’s what they’d be. Naturally warm, of course, but set in the middle of the jungle under a beautiful canopy. We enjoyed the Springs for a good half hour before the rain started, which made the experience even more magical. The rain lightly christened us while we rested in nature’s hot tub – the trees providing a gentle protectant from the worst of it, but the Spring keeping us warm. As the locals did, we enjoyed the rain droplets and the experience that much more, given the inclement weather. Sure beats napping at the hotel.

We got pizza that night (it seems to be everywhere, oddly, so we thought we’d give it a shot and take a break from arroz y frijoles), which was decent. The next morning, on the way to Sergio’s recommended lava trail, we stopped by the Springs again for some pictures (we didn’t feel right taking them while the locals were there), which was fun. It was only us, clamboring up and down the rocks for photos – Brandon and I both agreed, “It’s like rock climbing without the harness: don’t look down!”

We hit the 1968 lava flow trail by 8:30am and paid $20 total to enter – a total bargain. We saw a Coati wandering up as we paid, something we’d seen on the drive over and assumed, stupidly, was a rare occurrence.

“What the hell is that thing?” Brandon had asked.

“It looks like a cross between a monkey and a raccoon,” I said.

All of the coatis we saw were people-friendly, at least for wild animals. One even stood up and begged for food from passing cars. The guy who greeted us at the entrance of the trail wandered a couple of feet away from us, gave us a stare, and decided we didn’t have any lunch to steal.

The trail was challenging, at least for us Atlanta folk. It began on grass and quickly transitioned into rocky terrain that would be deadly if we fell in any given direction. I stupidly wore a sweater attached to a tank top, as I knew I couldn’t wear it in Panama. After about 2 miles of hiking and 4 buckets of sweat, I stripped it clean and stood on the trail in my bra.

“Not the best idea in the jungle,” Brandon said. “But I’m okay with it.”

I re-positioned my clothes so the sleeves were tied around my back and we continued our journey another mile or so to the summit. Totally worth it: Arenal was closer than ever, and an unbelievable view of the lake was waiting to greet us. We desceneded the mountain in record time, keeping an eye out for the snakes Sergio had warned us about. On the ascent, we had seen another tribe of monkeys, this time howlers (last time white-faced capuchins), which was a fun treat as well. We were glad we’d taken the longer trail, as hot as it was.

We headed back to San Jose after checking out of the hotel and, forgetting to fuel up before leaving town, had a long trek through jungle-y mountains hoping we wouldn’t run out of gasoilina.

“8.5km, 8.4km, 8.3km,” I recited, watching the GPS for the next time we’d reach civilization. Brandon would be putting the car in neutral many times before we reached the gas station, but we somehow made it by the skin of our teeth.

We dropped the rental car off and were deposited at the Courtyard near Juan Santamaria airport, which was a nice refresher from the norm of hotels. We felt for a moment like we were back in America: comfy beds, air conditioning, and $12 sandwiches. We also discovered they had free laundry facilities: HURRAY!!!

We were hungry but tired, so we walked to the Wal Mart next door, bought a couple t-shirts, and ate at the cafe there. Clearly, no English was spoken, so there was a lot of miming happening, but it was relatively tasty food, and about an $8 lunch for both of us. No complaints. The Wal Mart was spectaular…ly similar to American Wal Marts: it’s like we’d hit the epicenter of Americana near San Jose. Appropriate, being near the airport.

I fell asleep at about 6:30pm and awoke at 3am for our 6:30 flight. Not a bad night’s sleep for such an early flight, so we had a nice chance to rest up before this terrifying experience. More to come, hopefully, in Bocas. Buenos dias!


Travel Blog 10/23-10/27 – Zip Lining Crossed Off the List!

I like to keep blogs while I travel, if only for my own amusement. Some people might find it annoying to keep up with, but I like reminiscing down the road, and writing is relaxing.

This all loosely relates to my bucket list in that, on my vacation to Costa Rica and Panama, I’ve zip lined! With no further ado, I offer my first blog entry of the trip, covering Brandon’s and my time in San Jose and Monteverde, Costa Rica. By the way, WordPress seems to have some sort of ethical issue with allowing me to post images WITHIN my blog, so deal with it.

It’s been a whirlwind few days. Brandon and I arrived in San Jose on Wednesday mid-day, after a journey that started at about 4am. It was worth the early start, though, because we had time to navigate the car rental situation and get to our hotel before the heavy rain hit. The weather in Costa Rica this season begins with a beautiful morning and tends to end in a bit of a rainy afternoon, so we’ve been trying to plan accordingly.

We ended up driving all around the San Jose suburbs (mainly Heredia) for a good hour before we found our hotel for the night, but once we got there, it was in a nice enclave of town, on a quiet street. We planned that evening solely to get some rest for the big treks ahead. We ate dinner at a coffee shop (note to self: Costa Rica isn’t that much cheaper for food than the U.S. Is) and hit the hay early. We awoke to a delicious breakfast of fresh papaya and pineapple, followed by homemade English muffins from our French host. A nice way to kick off a drive to Monteverde.

The drive to Monteverde was arduous and terrifying, to say the least. We’ve never been on such a rocky, hole-filled road up a mountain, with no guardrails and barely enough room for one vehicle, much less two. At one point, a small semi truck passed us just as we were coming across a washed out area of road – Brandon, the braver of us in such situations, told me later he thought there was a 10% chance we would go right off the mountain. Add the afternoon rain to the equation and we got to the Monteverde Villa Lodge pretty worn out and white-knuckled.

The Lodge is quaint and the hosts are incredibly sweet people. They’ve made tour arrangements for us and offered us welcome drinks – to make no small mention of the bountiful breakfasts we’ve had full of eggs, rice and beans, cheese, fruit, and plantains. The first day, we were determined to use the afternoon to our advantage, and we took a short walk into town for lunch. More rice and beans, this time with shrimp, and a heaping dose of cilantro. Not my preferred spice; in fact, I think it has a soap-ish flavor, and it’s impossible to pick out or eat around, yet it appears to be in literally everything here. I love a good plantain, though, so I make do. I should have considered these things beforehand.

After lunch, we walked down to the local Frog Pond, where we met a nice dude named Sergio. Sergio immediately whipped out a tarantula the size of my hand and offered it to Brandon to hold. Brandon claimed his camera was so large that he couldn’t support the weight of the spider, so I braved it instead. As it crawled around, Sergio said, “Tarantulas do bite, but this one’s very nice.” Well, great.

Sergio’s English was impeccable; better than many Americans (although that’s not always saying much). When I mentioned we were interested in zip lining but were nervous to try it, he took us out onto his zip lining platform and perched himself atop the guardrail like a bird.

“I used to be afraid of heights, too,” he said. “But I work in trees, literally, so I got over that a while ago.”

We followed Sergio back inside and before he handed us off to our frog guide, he added, “I used to be petrified of sharks as well, but I research those, too, and I once dove with three thousand hammerhead sharks. Ah, Marvin will show you around the frog pond now.”

Marvin spoke very little English and, while sweet and knowledgable, demanded, “Come here now” at every habitat. Periodically, he would ask, “How do you say xyz in English?” and then look at us expectantly, assuming we knew what he was referring to. We liked him. Partway through the tour, Sergio reappeared to show off a lizard he’d caught. He opened its flap beneath the chin as the lizard tried to bite him, and he told us about how males and females react to different stimuli.

After the weird afternoon at the frog pond, we booked a night tour with a local place that picked us up and dropped us off. The tour was amazing – we saw a viper wrapped around a tree (PETRIFYING), more tarantulas, sloths in a few different places, various insects, and some beautiful butterflies. Our guide took us on one of the most breathless tours I’ve ever experienced: he regularly almost lost people in his group because he was running so quickly through the jungle. Don’t worry, though: he told us in the beginning that we’d better keep up because nobody was coming to look for us.

After that feat of endurance, we had dinner at a nice local place. Afraid of cilantro, I was a lame American and ordered pasta, determined that this would be the only time I’d stray from local flavors while I was here.

Yesterday, we decided that if we were going to zip line, we were going to do it all the way. We booked a trip out to Selvatura, which is a major zip line and hanging bridge reserve area in Monteverde. The bus picked us up in the morning and off we went, again, white-knuckling it in a van up a steep mountain. Before Brandon and I had time for second thoughts, we were in zip lining gear and trekking up more mountain to board the first platform. Balanced on the stairs leading up to the guardrail-less platform, I noticed Brandon’s hand shaking. I was frankly surprised he’d made it that far: a man once afraid of boarding a flight to Dallas had not only flown to Costa Rica (sober), he was now about to sail through the jungle attached to a thin cord. But I wasn’t going to say anything.

Soon enough, Brandon was first at bat, and off he went like a harnessed bullet, soaring through the trees and arriving on the next platform in one piece. I awaited my turn, dangling my feet over the edge as the guide held me back. Just before he let me go, he asked, “Is this your first time?” I nodded. He replied, “Mine too.” ZOOM! The first three platforms were a blur.

We boarded one, then another, then another in rapid succession, ending on the fourth platform while the guides repositioned themselves for what appeared to be a 600-mile long zipline over roughly seven million feet in the air. (It was actually, truly, 1km long.) Brandon looked nervous. “Are you okay?” I asked, patting his shoulder. He glared at me like I’d just thrown his baby off the platform. Message received.

We continued onto another 4 lines or so until we hit the Tarzan Swing, which was not happening for either of us.

“I’ll see how terrified the other people are before I decide if I’ll do it,” I told someone else.

The first guy dropped off the edge of the platform, dangling only from a rope, and swung into the forest over a cliff, back and forth, screaming like a child.

“Yep, not doing that,” the other person and I agreed.

Four more ziplines followed, and Brandon asked the guides each time how many were left. On the last one, he arrived victorious but stoic, unwilling to take video, angry at me, but proud of himself. I resent the combo, but he got over it. Note that I’ve put it in writing that I didn’t force anything!

Brandon had had enough of heights for the day, so I took a journey through the hanging bridges and forest by myself. Those were terrifying in and of themselves, swinging from side to side, creaking, hundreds of feet in the air. The views, however, were breathtaking, and I even saw a couple of monkeys high in the trees. So worth the shock to the nervous system.

We boarded the van back to Monteverde and scheduled a night tour with Sergio, curious to see if his tour was more of a learning experience than the last one. What followed was one of the more harrowing, but thrilling, experiences we’ve had to date. Sergio led us out onto the reserve property armed with only flashlights, just as a drizzle had started. We found some tarantulas and various insects, as well as a few birds, but nothing much more exciting.The real action-packed part of the tour was how close we were to danger at every turn.

“I saw a wildcat here the other day,” Sergio said. “Just remember, you don’t have to be faster than a wildcat, Alexis. You just have to be faster than me and Brandon.”

As we walked along a progressively slippery mud path, about 2 feet wide: “If you fall, fall to the left. It’s about a half-mile drop before you reach anything down to the right.”

As he led us out onto a metal bridge with no guardrail at the end: “If you’re afraid of heights, don’t look down. Look in the trees, there are often snakes there.”

In addition to an Encyclopedic knowledge of animals and plantlife (truly amazing), Sergio was full of interesting stories. Married and divorced four times, five children, moved to every continent by the time he was 10 years old, bitten by everything from vipers to caterpillars (“I almost blacked out immediately”) and everything in between. The man was in a BBC documentary about army ants. He spent months walking 30km each night saving thousands of sea turtles. He bought a pound of weed for Depeche Mode. Sergio was the most fascinating creature we saw in the jungle, by leaps and bounds.

Back at the Lodge, Brandon asked me a very sobering question. “Do you think Sergio is a pathological liar?”

It was a valid question. I, too, had been wondering if Sergio was the true incarnation of The Most Interesting Man in the World or we were simply The Most Gullible. He seemed so knowledgable, though, and he was much more informed than our tour guide the night before. He knew everything from biology to astronomy, and thrived like Tarzan in the jungle (“I would rather be barefoot and shirtless; that’s typical of my tribe”). Frankly, I didn’t care if he was lying to me, but I honestly doubted he was.

Sergio offered to show us around the next day on a tour, trying to help me see my ultimate goal: monkeys. We liked him a lot and he knew his stuff, so we were eager to take him up on it. We picked Sergio up on the side of the road this morning, and as we pulled over so he could grab a snack at the grocery store before our trip, I said to Brandon, “You know, this is TEXTBOOK ‘Things you’re not supposed to do in a foreign country.'” Brandon said, “I know, but he’s like a park ranger guy.” Plus, I figured if he was going to take us somewhere and kill us, he could have done it a lot more easily on the cliff the night before.

Sergio took us to four different places, where we saw lots of bird and plantlife, he explained which plants were edible and had medicinal qualities, and told us all about the local culture. Apparently, for instance, some Quakers escaped the Korean War draft in 1950 by fleeing to Monteverde, since the army in Costa Rica was disbanded in 1948. The Quakers opened up the local cheese factory. A certain kind of anise plant grows near where they settled, and for decades, they drank it as tea, but this anise is only good if boiled and inhaled – otherwise, it could give you gastric cancer, so tens of them died this way after years of drinking the tea.

Sergio also told us stories about his life as well, from living on a remote beach in Nicaragua (where he met one of his wives, who basically washed up onshore in a boat that had gotten lost), to the week and a half he spent with Robin Williams saving sea turtles. (Apparently Robin Williams wanted a rustic type of vacation that was remote and away from gawkers. Success on that one.) Sergio also worked with Will and Jaden Smith on a movie recently, where he came out to clear the set of snakes before any filming happened. The stories were outlandish and seemingly unbelievable, but they all jived and nothing seemed out of character, and Brandon and I, against our better judgment, believe it all. He just knew too much to be lying to us.

We went to a hummingbird garden with Sergio, where Brandon got some great pictures, and we finished off the morning at what Sergio called his “Ace in the hole”: a place in the Children’s Rainforest that had A MILLION MONKEYS! If loving Sergio is wrong, I don’t want to be right, because as soon as we saw those monkeys, he high-fived me and took us to where they were all climbing around. Great footage there as well – of course.

We ended today with a coffee tour that included an illegal still and liquor tasting. SCORE! Tons of fun and more sloths involved. It’s been a packed adventure so far and I only hope it continues as well moving forward. It’s rainy here, but I question if I’ve ever been somewhere so beautiful, peaceful, and yet full of life. PURA VIDA!