Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Notes from Costa Rica

So I’m back from Costa Rica, with very few pictures worth sharing (so I ain’t sharing—couldn’t anyway, since I don’t have a digital camera) but great mental snapshots and a raft of stories. How best to condense these? I’ll go with a day by day summary, and I’ll try not to blather on too long—though as you all know, brevity is not one of this blog’s virtues. I went as part of a 9-day group trip, arranged by GAP (Great Adventure People) Adventures. My friend Rebecca and I were two of a group of 12, plus the guide. We were to start and end in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica.

My trip started off extremely inauspiciously as I arrived less than 2 hours before my flight time, and between my own stupidity and poor direction by the folks at American Airlines, ended up checking in less than 40 minutes before departure...which meant I wasn’t allowed to get onto the flight at all. Cue panic attack - only temporarily alleviated by the AA employee very efficiently rerouting me on another, later flight with a connection in Dallas/Ft. Worth rather than Miami (as originally scheduled). Ok, I thought, breathing a little, I can still make it.

Then the plane to Dallas had engine problems, and we were grounded at LAX for two hours. It became very clear that I was going to miss my connection to San Jose, and there were no more Dallas-San Jose flights until the afternoon of the next day. Renewed panic attack, only slightly tempered by the realization that there were several other Costa Rican-bound travelers in the same boat. (None of them, however, had a group to meet that was moving out of San Jose the next day!) In the end, AA put us on a flight to Miami, so we could catch an earlier flight to San Jose the next day. So I ended up in Miami after all, but still more than 12 hours behind schedule, and I knew I was going to have to play catch-up with my tour group. AA put all the Costa Rica travelers up in hotels near the Miami airport. Some of us had dinner and drinks at the hotel and told our various stories, which was mildly pleasant. However, I hardly slept that night, because I knew the next day bid fair to be even more stressful than this one.

The flight from Miami to San Jose is about 3 hours long, and it left on schedule. I sat next to a retired gentleman who went through 2 gin & tonics before noon and told me he was going to try to smuggle saws and other tools past customs to help fix up his place in Costa Rica. He also told me how beautiful the country was, and not to drink the water.

I spent less than 2 hours in San Jose—just long enough to get to the hotel where my group had stayed and to pick up written instructions left by my tour guide, telling me to take a bus to one town, and change buses to get to another, La Fortuna, near the base of the volcano Arenal, which was where the group would be for the next couple of days. Total projected bus time: about 4 1/2 hours. This was all very daunting, especially since I don’t speak a lick of Spanish. Luckily, the people in Costa Rica (“Ticos,” as they’re called) are uniformly friendly and genuinely helpful, even when they don’t speak English. Perhaps they took pity on the stricken deer-in-headlights look in which my face was frozen for the better part of the day. Anyway, they directed me on to the right buses and off at the right stops, and no one (as far as I know) picked my pocket or ripped me off. I was more worried about the driving, which was pretty fast and furious up twisty mountainous roads, even when a thunderstorm cropped up and kept on raining. (It was the rainy season in Costa Rica.) However, the other passengers (all locals) seemed pretty blasé about it, so eventually I relaxed (slightly) and even dozed off a couple of times. I arrived in La Fortuna in the blinding rain, triple-checked with the driver that this was in fact where I should get off, and thereafter found my hotel and my guide, Nancy, without too much further difficulty. Nancy’s a pretty remarkable woman, in her late 40’s, who looks like the adventurer she is—weathered and tanned, and could easily whup my ass.

Shortly thereafter I met the rest of the group, which ranged in age from 20 to 30ish, and included a couple of bronzed babes backpacking from UC-Davis, a friendly but acerbic-tongued, chain-smoking New York lawyer, a Canadian urologist about to relocate to Seattle, a horny Canadian geologist, a Canadian accountant, a South African I.T. worker who moonlighted as an opera singer, a slender German psychologist carrying a backpack bigger than herself, and an endearingly funny young Irish couple on their honeymoon. Rebecca was glad to see me, though she had been betting that I would not brave the buses but would instead cough up a hundred bucks to take a taxi directly to La Fortuna. Oh ye of little faith...

I signed up to do whitewater rafting, which in retrospect may not have been the wisest choice for someone who’d never rafted, canoed, or kayaked before and possesses a retard-level of athletic I.Q. It was a class 3/4 river, which is not exactly beginner-friendly. It didn’t help that I got put in a boat with 3 other first-timers, though at least one of them (Rebecca) proved to be pretty good, and the other two eventually got the hang of it, after some major chewing out from our exasperated guide. I, however, never really quite got it, though towards the end I seemed to be getting a little (a very little) better. Part of the problem was I fell out of the boat about 30 seconds in: the guide fished me out immediately, but not surprisingly I became even more tentative in my rowing, and kept creeping away from the edge where I was supposed to be sitting. Still, when I wasn’t worried that my incompetence was going to capsize the boat, I found the rapids quite thrilling. I can totally see why people love to do it. I just wouldn’t wish myself on anyone’s boat. That night, some of us went to some volcanic hot springs that had been made into a resort with swim-up bars. Very relaxing.

The next day it was time to leave La Fortuna. We took a boat across Lake Arenal to a place where a trail picked up, and rode horseback for three hours up a mountain trail towards Monteverde. I was a little nervous at first since the last time I’d been on a horse was when I was about ten, but the horses were super-docile and the guides very competent. They matched the horses with riders according to previous experience, so it worked out that I got put on a relatively small, somewhat lazy horse, though one with a mind of his own: one minute he was urging along the other horses, the next he was lagging at the end of the pack, until the guides whistled and spurred him on. The scenery was lovely along the way—but it became even lovelier once the trail ended and we went the rest of the way by van. The roads were dirt roads and even windier than those from San Jose to La Fortuna, but there was something indescribably beautiful about those hills of shamrock-green, dotted with the darker green of windswept trees. It was much cooler and mistier up in the mountains. Monteverde itself is a tiny, quiet town that bears the obvious marks of tourism without being overwhelmed by it. We stayed in a cute bed & breakfast just outside town.

Monteverde is famous for its cloud forest, which differs from a rain forest in that the moisture is produced by condensation from clouds rather than actual rain. (I think.) In the morning we took a nature walk/tour through the forest and saw birds (including the famously elusive resplendent quetzal), beetles, and beautiful sapphire-blue morphos butterflies, as well as howler monkeys and a raccoon-like creature whose name escapes me. Our guide, a local who spoke excellent English, was absolutely first-rate, and the forest itself was gorgeous. Lush and green in a different way from the forests of the U.S., very quiet and peaceful, yet simply teeming with life.

That afternoon, we did the Sky Trek zip line over the cloud forest canopy, which I highly recommend to anyone without a severe fear of heights. It’s not one long cable, but a series of fairly short cables that gradually ascend in height: though you hold on to the bar with your hands, you’re also harnessed securely to the line, and started and stopped at both ends by guides. In between the cables you hike short trails. The scariest part was climbing the winding staircase to the first line. Or when one of the girls in our group somehow accidentally cut her hand on the cable. Otherwise, I didn’t think “Man, I’m high up” so much as “Man, how fucking beautiful is this forest?”

This was easily my favorite day. Monteverde generally was the highlight of the trip for me.

Long drive by bus and van down to the Pacific coast of Quepos, near the Manuel Antonio Nat’l Park. Would have enjoyed this segment of the trip more if it hadn’t been so warm and humid (and rainy). We stayed in the appropriately-named Villa Romantica, with rooms off a lovely verandah and a kick-ass pool. Quepos itself is a bit of a dump, but the park is great. Not quite as beautiful as the cloud forest, but it has lovely beaches, where the forest runs right down to the (very warm) water, and much more animal activity. White-faced monkeys and iguanas abound, emerging from the forest onto the beaches in search of food dropped by careless humans. And they are not shy. One iguana literally *jumped* at a woman holding a piece of bread (talk about leaping lizards). And one monkey ran up to a knapsack that had been left unattended, scrabbled through with its hands (paws), and removed a package of Kleenex. Disappointed, it rubbed itself with the Kleenex and then tossed all the contents to the winds before running off. It was the funniest damn thing I’d seen on the whole trip.

When not catching some elusive rays or sheltering ourselves from the torrential rain), we hit a couple of beach-side bars which served good piña coladas and daiquiris but also attracted a somewhat sketchier cross-section of locals at night than we’d previously encountered. Our second night there, one girl in our group got her purse stolen, and a prostitute stamped viciously on one guy’s foot after he told her to get lost. That was when I took my cue to leave early with a couple of other people from my group, though the others tripped the light fantastic until close to daybreak.

Nothing of note, except for (1) a very good lunch in (I kid you not) an Irish pub-like place in Quepos, and (2) our driver’s extraordinary mix tape, which included everything from Coolio’s “Gangsta Paradise” to KC & Jojo’s “All My Life,” and which we finally replaced with U2’s greatest hits. I never thought of U2 as being a sing-along band, but that’s what they were for us—and it was rather fun. Our last night in Costa Rica was otherwise relatively unmemorable, mainly, I think, because everyone was tired.

DAY 9: Return to the U.S. Bad luck seems to dog me on American Airlines: thunderstorms in Miami grounded my plane for a couple of hours. Luckily this time there was no connection to miss.

All in all, a great trip. But next time I go international, I’m making sure I get to the airport 3 hours early.


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