Archive for the 'Costa Rica' Category

Volcanoes, birds, and zip lines: Costa Rica

Kilometers this post: 480 biking, 9 hiking, and 211 on the bus

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So what does it mean to be the most developed country in Central America? Well, we began to figure it out pretty quickly when we got off the boat in Los Chiles, and especially when we took the road south out of town. In place of wooden and corrugated metal shacks with trash fires out back, there are stuccoed buildings, nicely painted houses with landscaping, and public garbage collection. Where lots of folks in countries to the north do their shopping in poorly stocked stores run out of people’s houses, Costa Rica has American style grocery stores in every town where you can buy anything your heart desires: artesanal cheese, capers, fresh meat to name a few. Instead of the rolling hills full of cows, horses, and cowboys that we’d gotten used to seeing in Nicaragua, we rolled by enormous plantations of pineapple, sugarcane, and papaya worked by big, industrial tractors, and headed directly for export. The country smells of prosperity and piña. On our first day, dazed after entering an impossibly well-stocked store, a couple of kids offered an entirely new spin on a word we’d heard screamed from hillsides since Mexico. A group of students came to check out our bikes while we were resting at a grocery store, and one of them asked in the politest of ways, “Entonces, son gringos?” (So, you’re gringos then?). Of course, there’s a price to pay for luxury: rather than spending $6 to $15 for a hotel, we paid $14 to $32, although most had internet, and some had air conditioning. Rather than wandering unmarked trails in a National Park, you have to pay someone $10 to go look at a waterfall. In spite of the cost, we decided to do some touristing while we were in the area. Here’s what happened.

After a few more glasses of the most wonderful passionfruit drink at the kiosk in San Carlos, Nicaragua, we changed our Córdobas for a few thousand Colones and got on the boat down the Rio Frio to Los Chiles. On the way, we saw lots of water birds, our first monkeys of the trip, and an Italian bike tourist. Two days of rolling south over short, steep climbs, we arrived at La Fortuna, at the base of the famously active Arenal Volcano. Which had stopped erupting 8 months before. And here we thought it was Aran’s best chance to see lava in Central America, since she never had in her life. We did our best to shrug off the disappointment, and took a “day off” in La Fortuna anyway. We biked a few kilometers out of town to see the La Fortuna Waterfall, and hiked up Cerro Chato (sneaking stealthily past the hotel where we supposedly had to pay $10 to use a portion of their trail) to see the crater lake, leaving our legs very sore for several days. Apparently climbing volcanoes will do that, even to hearty bike tourists.

From La Fortuna, we made our way through resort land and around Lake Arenal to the little town of Nuevo Arenal (the old Arenal went underwater when they built the new dam), where there are no bars on the windows. It’s quite a striking thing to notice. After months of seeing ironwork in front of ever pane of glass, to be looking out of the hotel through a huge clear window is an interesting luxury. The tourist traps were closed when we arrived, so we ate “casados” at the local joint across the street. Casados (meaning married) is a plate of rice and beans married with some sort of meat, accompanied by some kind of salad, cheese, and fried plantains, sometimes with other additions. Delicious. The next day we rolled along the rest of the shore of Lake Arenal to Tilarán with hopes of seeing their anual rodeo. On the way we stopped for some coffee and internet at Casa del Agua, and hung out there while a shower came and went. It was the first time we had the pleasure of spotting some new and strikingly colorful birds (including a Collared Aracari), and we began to see why visiting Costa Rica might be worth the overpriced coffee. Aran traded a book and we sat on the beautiful wooden porch, enjoying not riding in the rain. On our way out, we stopped to watch some howler monkeys munching berries in the trees beside the road.

Unfortunately, the bull riding segment of the Tilarán rodeo wasn’t until Sunday evening, and we arrived in town Friday. We did watch the totally bizarre horse trotting competition Friday night, but sadly, we forgot the camera. High-stepping horses, looking very uncomfortable, prancing around the ring and then being forced to walk in place for 2 minutes. Apparently, it’s called Piaffe, and you can see an example of it on YouTube. Instead of sticking around for the rodeo on Sunday, we hopped a bus to Monteverde, tourist town extraordinaire, in hopes of finally seeing a cloud forest. However, in order to avoid paying the $18 entry fee to the Cloud Forest Reserve for an unguided trail hike, we spent our money on guided activities outside the reserve in the lower altitude dry forest. This was fail #2 at seeing a cloud forest, but the activities we chose were very worthwhile. In the morning, we went birding with Freddy and saw 27 species, including three types of Toucan, a Long-tailed Manakin with a striking call, a supremely beautiful Nightingale-Thrush, and some Euphonias with appropriately tropical coloring. In the evening, we went for a night tour and saw a kinkajou,an agouti, a green pit viper, enormous cockroaches, a tarantula, caterpillars, lizards, a tiny frog, and other wonderful creatures. Then the next day, we talked ourselves into a “canopy tour”. For those of you unfamiliar with this euphemism, “canopy tour” means 10-20 zip-lines through the jungle, and Monteverde is where the trend started in Central America. When in Rome… We went to 100% Aventura, and it was super fun flying through the treetops, going head first over a kilometer of forest, and jumping off a hanging bridge on the Tarzan swing (for which they don’t prepare you at all. They just said “Hold these ropes in front of you. Bend your knees. Now I’m going to open the gate. OK, bye” Nothing about experiencing the heart-in-your-throat-shit-I-can’t-even-scream free-fall for 50 ft. before the rope tightens.) During the zipping, we hung out with Hilton and Ingrid, a designer and a lawyer from NYC. We all got along so well that we decided to go to lunch, and so they took us to the restaurant at their lodge, where we ate the nicest meal of our trip so far.

Things that are cheap in Costa Rica: fruit and busses. So rather than spend three days riding down the Panamerican Highway into San José (already unappealing) spending money on food and lodging, we opted for a $6, 4.5 hour bus ride. $32 HOSTEL in San José. Then we rode toward the Caribbean coast through some beautiful mountains. The rainy season has arrived, so we are in the process making some physical and mental adjustments for wet weather. Sometimes we stop for shelter, and sometimes we ride on through. One day, after we thought we’d waited out the rain and headed on down the road, it started pouring, and looked like it would continue all night. As there were no hotels that we could see reachable that afternoon, we asked a logging/trucking company if we could sleep in their shed. The dude started to send us on our way to an hasped he knew, but then changed his mind, realizing we were much happier stopping right then for something dry and dusty than riding some more in the pouring rain in search of a pricey hotel room. He asked us all about our trip, brought us a tarp to lay on the floor, and explained that he used to drive trucks all over the province without knowing where he’d sleep, and he’d spent many a night sleeping in corrals with the animals. In the morning, his mom (who, it turned out, lived in the beautiful wooden house on the property) invited us to have tea and cheesy tortillas on her patio.

Very well fed and ready for some more beach, we climbed up and over a few more mountains and rolled down, down, down to the coast along with all the banana trucks. Spending the night in Puerto Limón brought us back in touch with the Caribbean islander culture that you find in so many Atlantic-side cities and towns in Central America. There isn’t a whole lot of diversity in Costa Rica. The population is almost entirely Ladino. But a little less than 2% of folks are black islanders, and they all live in Limón province. As we biked the entirely flat road down to Puerto Viejo, we heard a lot more lilting calls of “Ok, ah-right mon” than the usual “Adios” or “Buenas.” Puerto Viejo was our final stop in Costa Rica, where we took a dip in the Caribe Azul and ate our last delicious casados, with an island twist of course, before riding on down to the Panamanian border for the physically sketchiest crossing to date, involving an 80-year-old railroad bridge with loose planks. Here we are, on the other side, ready to take on some more of the Caribbean, a trip up and over the continental divide, and a big ol’ canal.