Thursday, November 07, 2013

Costa Rica 2013

when my new boything told me he would be going to his native Costa Rica for almost a month, my first response was, “great. i’ll come visit.” i’m not sure that i let him reply before i reserved the days off from work and bought my ticket. i wanted to go not only for the obvious romantical nature of such a trip, but for the nature itself. i had a few friends go to Costa Rica and rave about it and, of course, the photos of the place looked beautiful, so i packed up my most jungle-friendly attire and spent the first week of september there, taking my own photos of this beautiful place so i can rave about it here.

me in the nature
me with the nature

to summarize, i had an amazing time. like super-duper epically amazing. i know i sound like a shameless braggart, but whatever. the truth is the truth. and the truth is that this trip exceeded my expectations, delivering on its promise of nature and romance in memorable ways. that’s not to suggest it came and went without a single issue, as the lost ATM card, dented rental car, 40 mosquito bites, worst blister of my life and mystery rash will attest to, but none of that deterred from the awesomeness that comes with traveling through rain forests and playing with monkeys alongside a new sweetie. among the awesomeness was the fact that i managed to swim in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans just days apart without the use of an airplane. this must be one of those only-in-Central-America-type things.

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hey, paradise!

the adventure began just moments after i stepped off the plane at 6am in the capital city of San Jose. Tico (new blog name for the boything formerly known as the Costa Rican Cutie and self-appointed slang of what Costa Ricans call themselves) and i grabbed a rental car and headed northeast toward our first destination: Puerto Viejo by way of Limon. but first we stopped to caffeine-load at Dennys, known to be one of the more expensive restaurants in the country. (i don’t get it either.) i’m happy to report that Dennys coffee tastes disgusting in Costa Rica as well.

first stop: Limon
streetside in Limon, Costa Rica 

time in Limon was limited, as we stayed only for lunch and to meet up with a friend of Tico’s. to me, Limon appeared like a typical working-class Central American neighborhood, with its streets crowded and storefronts bustling with commerce. it felt very much the community where everyone knew everyone — and their business. but what struck me most was how many baby bumps i saw. it seemed as though half of the fertile female population was carrying a child either inside or outside of their bodies. it seems there is something about tropical heat and humidity that makes people want to bone, and i’ll confess the sentiment appealed to me as well, more than it usually does. when one is already hot and sweaty, getting hotter and sweatier sounds like a good idea.

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streetside in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

we spent two nights in Puerto Viejo, making it the place we stayed the longest, as the rest of the trip found us sleeping in a different city every night. Puerto Viejo is a lazy seaside town with perfect weather and a very Caribbean flair, given its location on Costa Rica’s northern coast. i saw plenty of dreadlocks and Rastafarians here, smelled weed everywhere, heard dancehall in the bars, and ate a lot of rice, beans and plantains. of all the coastal cities visited during this trip, Puerto Viejo was easily my favorite, probably because of this diversity, which made it feel as though i were visiting multiple places at once.

hey, hammerhead shark.
though it’s illegal, hammerhead sharks are still caught in Costa Rica, mostly to make sharkfin soup for the wealthy ones who can commission the catching. i managed to snap only a couple photos of this one before it was scuttled away.

the highlight of Puerto Viejo was Jaguar Rescue Center in Playa Chiquita, which had no jaguars but plenty of other animals that needed nursing before being released into the wild. and the highlight of the highlight was playing with baby howler and spider monkeys. i must admit that Tico and i were the most obnoxious people in our tour group in the way that we pandered to the monkeys and begged for their attention with food. he had more success than i did, unfortunately, but i still managed to touch them and one even climbed on me. ok, maybe climbed over me in an effort to get away is more accurate, but i’m sure our connection in that moment was genuine.

i had a harder time getting their attention.
take my fruit, you damn monkey! this little spider monkey was such a jerk, not only for ignoring me when i tried to feed him, but also in the way that he crossed the room to slam into any other monkey that was getting attention.

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this baby howler monkey was usually the one getting slammed out of the way. he was much sweeter (and more fearful) than the spider monkey, having just lost his mother in the wild. 

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this was the baby howler monkey’s surrogate mother, one of the owners of the rescue. as soon as she walked in, the baby jumped into her arms and began cupping and kissing her face, while we all stood around taking photos like the dumb tourists we were.

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this is, without question, the best selfie of my life (even though it’s grainy). all other selfies will now be judged against this standard.

i’ve long considered sloths to be one of my spirit animals (though Tico says i’m more sea otter mixed with pterodactyl, but those are stories for another time), so imagine my thrill of getting to witness one up close. just as i’d seen in countless Youtube videos, sloths really are that cute and lazy in person. they were also, i hate to admit, really boring. spending five minutes with them was more than enough time to get my fill. afterwards, Tico and i headed back toward the monkeys and begged the handlers to let us play with them some more but, alas, we were denied additional monkey love and left town soon after for our next destination: Tortuguero.

i just can't. the cuteness overwhelms.
if there is anything more zen-making than a sloth sleeping among leaves, please bring it to my attention. until then, this image will win every cuteness contest worldwide.

animal magnetism the beast master makes it look effortless.
this is Tico, by the way, also very cute and winning every animal magnetism contest worldwide. it’s no exaggeration to say that he has a way with animals, who seem to flock to him just to say hi. this has earned him the name of Beastmaster.  

hey, toucan sam.
shoutout to this toucan, who shadowed our group as we visited the other animals at Jaguar Rescue Center, making sure we wouldn’t forget him by dropping flowers, branches and leaves on our heads periodically. he was clearly messing with us while also posing perfectly for pictures as though he had watched every episode of America’s Next Top Model to make sure he knew his angles. hats off to you, cool bird. i named him Sam, since, Fruit Loops. 

approaching our hotel, Tortuga Lodge    
“streetside” in Tortuguero, Costa Rica

when Tico first told me there were no roads in Tortuguero and the only way to get around was by boat, i imagined it looking something like Venice, Italy. then i remembered i was in Costa Rica, which meant there would be no canals or gondolas on this trip, only a vast rainforest separated by deltas and navigable by motorboat, which meant i’d have to save my rendition of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” for another trip. we spent one night in town at the Tortuga Lodge, a gorgeous hotel way out of our budget despite Tico getting the local rate, but we allowed this one splurge since all our other hotel rooms cost far less. worth it? absolutely.

taken at the end of the hike. note the back sweat and mud boots.
me with the nature at the end of a jungle hike. note the mud boots and obscene amount of back sweat.

there are two standouts from the Tortuguero trip, neither of which was caught on camera, making them slightly more special since i could be fully present while something super-cool happened instead of preoccupied with taking a picture. the first standout happened in the middle of the night when i awoke for a bathroom break. the room was pitch black, and the open windows brought in a cool breeze and the hum of cicadas, which i will now forever associate with Costa Rica (they are the country’s soundtrack). then a howler monkey howled, followed by another and another until every troop awoke and performed a call-and-response symphony that reverberated through the entire rain forest — with the cicadas handling the harmony. it was raw, discordant and melodic all at once, the music of nature. i lay there listening to it in total darkness for several minutes while Tico snored gently beside me. it was a perfect moment.

nicest hotel of the trip because Tico misheard the price on the phone.
where all the magic happened

hasta luego, Tortuguero. Arenal Volcano awaits.
“bus” in Tortuguero

the other perfect moment involved green sea turtles that weighed around 400 lbs. each year, these turtles make their way onto the beaches of Tortuguero to lay their eggs. of the several hundred eggs laid, only a handful will turn into adults, with the rest eaten by predators. fortunately for us, the egg-laying was a nightly event in september.

i didn’t think much when Tico made the suggestion to see it, but it turned out to be quite compelling to watch these giant ladies wash onto shore, dig a hole with their flippers, lay their eggs, pack sand over them and lumber back into the sea. we watched four turtles in various stages of this process, which lasts hours. cameras were not allowed, as the flash could disturb them, so we had to move around the beach in extremely low light.

a group of us was standing near our guide, watching one turtle head back after finishing up. something about them seemed so majestic, even dignified, to me. huge yet gentle and most likely older than i am, these turtles took their time going about their business, doing what they needed to and disturbing no one in the process.

at one point, i threw my head back to see a sky unlike any i had ever seen before. no roads in Tortuguero means no streetlights, so the sky appeared overrun by stars, more than i thought could be possible. i stood and stared at it, awestruck. a moment later, Tico walked up behind me and wrapped his arms around my waist while i rested my head against his shoulder, my eyes filled with happy tears. we stood there, looking up in silence while listening to the waves crash against the shore. 

vacations are awesome.
vacations are awesome.

Arenal
streetside in La Fortuna, approaching Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

from one national park, we headed toward another, this one in the center of the country. admittedly, Costa Rica feels like an endless national park, as most of the land is occupied by wildlife reserves and refuges, peppered with the occasional, densely populated city. Arenal National Park, home of the same-named and famed volcano that’s known to spit up dust and smoke for gawking tourists, makes most travelers’ must-see lists. this is the part where i should say that’s for good reason, but i really wasn’t feeling it. i’m sure my perception is clouded, pun intended, by the fact that the cloud cover and eventual rain made the dust and smoke virtually indiscernible.

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finally a sport i can excel at: drunk swimming.

the highlight of Arenal, and another favorite on must-see lists, is Tabacon Hot Springs, which is part of a fancy hotel that sits at the base of the volcano and features about a half-dozen thermal pools. from the pools, one can look up and see the volcano sputtering, though we were treated to a thunder-and-lightning show the night we visited (see aforementioned complaint). still, sitting in a pool during a thunderstorm has its moments, such as anxiety about getting struck by lightning.

the grand spa
easily my favorite pool at Tabacon for reasons that should be obvious. i spent an hour here letting the waterfall give me a much-needed massage.

how to stand in a waterfall and have a zen moment.
having a zen moment at Tabacon.

hey, tourists. let's zipline.
hey, tourists. let’s zipline.

i’m not going to lie. i was scared shitless to zipline and had a few moments when i felt a fever about to overtake me while on our way to the first lookout, a short drive from Arenal. i could feel my heart pounding through my head while climbing the wobbly stairs of the tower and almost choked when the guide announced that one of the six lines we would be “zipping” was half a mile long. but i refused to look like a baby in front of Tico, who had ziplined before and assured me i would feel calmer after the first line and likely bored by the fourth (while also inventing a few stories about faulty cables and dismemberment by tree branches).

wheeeee! though after the fourth line, novelty wore off.
as predicted, i was pretty much over it after a few lines. still a reasonably good time, but not one that requires repeating. (that sums up all of my internet dates as well.)

after ziplining, Tico and i began the lengthy drive toward the Pacific, battling rain while searching for the phantom roads noted in Google maps, our (un)trusty navigator during this trip. we headed south to the coastal town of Puntareanas, where we drove the car onto a massive ferry that took us across Nicoya Bay and closer to our next destination: the coastal town of Montezuma.

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the rain pounded the bay throughout the ferry ride and even flooded the floor of the boat several times. in response, we decided to take dramatic selfies while singing that theme song from “The Titanic.”

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typical tico breakfast of gallo pinto (rice and beans), plantains, fruit and an omelet.

one downside to this particular paradise is that the food sucked major monkey poop, save for the always-delicious plantains, and the coffee tasted ridiculously weak, which is odd considering the place is known for its coffee. (i learned later that the best beans are saved for export.) the fact that Anthony Bourdain never visited Costa Rica for “No Reservations” should have tipped me off to this fact, but i remained hopeful prior to every meal, only to declare it unremarkable when the check arrived. one brightish side was my discovery of Salsa Lizano, a ridiculously salty condiment that i drowned most of my meals in. i even smuggled out a bottle of the stuff before promptly ODing on it at home. nowadays, i am barely able to stand it. (i have half a bottle left if anyone wants it.)

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hey, monsoon. let’s party.

i never really understood the expression “sheets of rain” until Costa Rica, having rarely experienced much beyond the standard drizzle and occasional storm that falls on Los Angeles. but this rain seemed almost violent in its ferocity, like it had something to prove. and when combined with nighttime driving on poorly lit, winding, pockmarked roads, let’s just say i almost found religion on this trip.

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olé, olé, olé, olé.

the rainstorm knocked out the power in Montezuma on the same night as the Costa Rica-USA soccer match. (imagine the horror!) this must be a common occurrence since we readily found a bar with a generator and big-screen TV where we watched the game by candlelight among ticos who hollered whenever Costa Rica scored a goal. i sat quiet, the lone gringa in the bar, drinking the local brew and watching my team lose to these rowdy Latinos (3-1), while my Tico joined the revelry and gloated beside his tribe all night.

hiking into Montezuma waterfall over a rocky trail.
rapids at Montezuma, made muddy by the rain runoff.

at this point in the trip, i understood that visiting Costa Rica during the rainy season (May-November) meant that we needed to maximize the first half of the day, when one could expect decent weather, before the monsoon started rolling in at 2pm. with this in mind, we had one objective in Montezuma: wake early, hike to the waterfall and hike out before 2. in short, we accomplished this.

the longer story is that i hated every second. the hike involved crossing slippery rocks and occasionally sinking into waist-high water. i prepared for this by wearing flip-flops. expletive-laden words may have been spoken. plus, the strong current made swimming impossible, so we ended up half holding onto/half sitting on mossy rocks near the waterfall while algae worked its way into our butt cracks.

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worth it for the photo opp? maybe.

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Tico making kayaking look glamorous.

another of the many sporty firsts i attempted on this trip was kayaking. i think i did a lousy job at it, but Tico said i did OK. no capsizing is a win, i suppose, though we had a few close calls. beyond the physical difficulty of all that paddling, i kept hitting my oar against the kayak and my brain had trouble processing how to move in reverse and make turns. but unlike ziplining (and internet dating), i would totally go kayaking again.  

ran into some white faced capuchin monkeys. they weren't as friendly as the baby howler monkeys.
we ran into a troop of white-faced capuchins after kayaking because Costa Rica. these guys did not seem as friendly as the howler and spider monkeys from earlier in the trip, though one did take a banana from me. still, Tico cautioned me not to get too close, as “these are the poop slingers.”

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sunrise in Heredia, Costa Rica, taken after a sleepless night, thanks to a rooster’s incessant crows. (seriously, we slept near jungles and beaches almost every night and never once heard a rooster, but the moment we sleep in a city, we meet Foghorn Leghorn.)

after Montezuma, we made our way back toward the capital as my trip was nearing its end and we hadn’t yet spent time with Tico’s family. to clarify, he was born and raised in Los Angeles, but spent his summers in Costa Rica and lived there for 10 years as an adult, five of which he spent running his family’s wildlife refuge, Cerro Dantas. i had heard so many stories about this place and his adventures there that i insisted we see it. so on my last full day in the country, Tico’s 35th birthday, we made our visit.  

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these boots are made for... sliding into mud.

Cerro Dantas is a short drive from Heredia, a major city outside of San Jose, the capital city. the 1.25-mile hike into the refuge involved muddy trails and suspension bridges. sometimes the mud acted like quicksand, sinking my entire boot unexpectedly until i was knee-deep in mud and needed a walking stick to extract myself. all the while, Tico told me excited stories about his time building out the refuge, which was in its infancy when he took over, adding a few tales about jaguar attacks that he timed with each rustling in the trees. i replied with my standard refrain, “si, mi amor,” which he asked me to say whenever locals abounded and he needed to haggle for a better price.

appreciating the nature while sweating profusely.
appreciating the nature while sweating profusely (again)

and it was beautiful.
40 minutes later, Cerro Dantas greeted us with beautiful weather.

kitchen at Cerro Dantas
kitchen at Cerro Dantas, with art featuring pretty much every animal i saw on this trip.

we spent half a day at Cerro Dantas, where i met Tico’s awesome father, who still runs the place (and has quite a thing for Jennifer Lopez), in addition to french biologists, an australian volcano hunter and a steady stream of local tourists. i also played with the resident dogs, explored the grounds, hiked into a waterfall, hunted for tapir trails, helped make food for the visitors, ate food with the visitors, tasted the most delicious water, and witnessed the worst blister of my life forming on my heel. all the while, Tico told me more excited stories and expounded on a few i had already heard before. “si, mi amor,” i smiled.

San Jose at dusk
streetside in San Jose, Costa Rica

that evening held a small birthday celebration for Tico, where i met his awesome mother and a few aunts, and finally ate some decent Costa Rican food (homemade). we ate cake and sang a rousing rendition of “cumpleaños feliz to Tico, who seemed embarrassed by the whole spectacle (though i suspect he was also secretly pleased). the night ended calmly and early, so i could indulge in some much-needed sleep before waking at 4 a.m. to catch my flight home with tired and sad eyes, leaving Tico and my new favorite country behind.

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can someone photoshop cheesy little hearts around us? kthx.

is it the most amazing country i’ve ever visited? probably not, but i enjoyed my visit tremendously and would gladly go again. (if the cuisine showed a dramatic improvement, it may move higher on my Love List.) what i did appreciate about Costa Rica is its national attitude of pura vida (“pure life”), which i most often heard used as a greeting and in response to “how’s it going?”

along with the cicadas,  pura vida will forever define Costa Rica for me. i saw it in the people, the decor, the animals (the sloths especially and maybe even the turtles at Tortuguero), and heard it in the music. it’s an attitude of tranquility that appreciates simplicity above everything else. life seems mellow in Costa Rica. the country never goes to war or bothers its neighbors. in general, the people appeared relaxed and generous, always willing to help and ready to laugh. i guess that’s the upside to living in paradise.

of course, i realize this is a very romanticized conclusion made by a tourist who only spent a week in the country — and Tico is quick to point out that it’s more like that South Park episode where the kids go to Costa Rica expecting to see natural beauty and instead witness drug trafficking, prostitution and their tour guide being eaten by a snake in the rain forest — but whatever, i’m still rolling with my theory.

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pretty sure this guy said “pura vida” as i took the photo. (and if not, im still rolling with it.) 

jungle man
jungle man with an oar, or maybe a machete. 


unlike last year’s trip to the Amalfi Coast in Italy, when i spent hours sitting on a chaise lounge while watching the horizon, this vacation afforded me no such downtime. sure, there were plenty of beaches visited and horizons available to stare at, but the early wakeup calls, overscheduled days and daily commutes to a new city colored this trip with a frenetic energy that rivals the pace of my visits to New York. in the end, i had never slept so little or sweat so much during any vacation.

not that i’m complaining. i wanted to see as much of Costa Rica as possible, and Tico and i agreed to make the theme of this trip “adventure.” i’m pretty sure we delivered on this objective. i don’t remember the last time i had so many firsts jampacked into a week. from ziplining to kayaking to playing with monkeys and even just wearing mud boots, the week in Costa Rica did much to turn this urban snob into an adventure-loving nature girl.

i learned so much during my week there, especially from Tico, whose longstanding interest in biology and former life conducting nature hikes at Cerro Dantas, made me subject to lectures about frogs, snakes, insects, birds, primates and plants. given that i know very little about these things, i listened attentively and asked lots of questions. and, of course, the trip provided plenty of kissy-face romance, which we wanted to avoid at all costs, but given the pristine settings we found ourselves in, it just couldn’t be helped. so we went with it and allowed ourselves to laugh and eat and enjoy some tropical loving, once even in the rain forest. happy to cross that off my bucket list.

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gracias por todo, Costa Rica! espero volver muy pronto. 

1 comment:

Limon Costa Rica said...

You visited one of the paradise in Costa Rica, Limon is a really nice place, its culture , beaches , mountain, biology and infrastructure is wonderful. I feel really happy you were in Sloth sanctuary. Gandoca Manzanillo is beautiful. Thanks for share your experience in Limon.

Bless