Sunday, June 03, 2007

Pura Vida! Stories from the Costa Rica Trip


Wow, last week was a blast... Costa Rica was easily the most adventure-packed vacation I've ever taken, and thanks to some some crafty bribery of Costa Rican police by Melissa and Joey, I even made it to the Ratatouille Wrap Party on time!

Melissa, Karen, Joey, Mahyar and I flew into Costa Rica overnight last Friday, surprisingly well-rested thanks to a combination of earplugs and Tylenol PM. It wasn't long before Melissa's bilingual superpowers came into play, as United Airlines left our group's checked luggage behind in LA. Crisis mitigated, we soon filled our wallets with Colones and set off for the Cloud Forests of Monte Verde in an inconspicuous new 2008 Toyota Rav4.

A few things were obvious off the bat: The roads in Costa Rica are an adventure in themselves: credit Joey for not blowing a tire or axle like so many cars and Turismo buses pulled aside along the way. There are no highways or sidewalks in Costa Rica, so the roads are shared with people, chickens, dogs, horses, and anything else that cares to roam free. A portable GPS navigation system is well worth packing to alleviate route guesswork, though we managed to get by without one. I'm now very thankful that we have at least some emissions standards on vehicles in the US. The expression "Pura Vida" can apparently never be used too often in Costa Rica. Costa Ricans call themselves "Ticos", and they are for the most part extraordinarily friendly. Ticos are very fond of rice, beans, and Christina Aguilera. A handful of Spanish nouns and verbs learned in high school came to mind soon after landing, and were dutifully fumbled while ordering value meal #4 from a fast food counter at a mall.



Monte Verde was well worth the prerequisite off-roading experience. Late May falling well within the wet/off season, we arrived just after a major storm system cleared and settled into the sounds of the cloud forest over a few card games in our fortuitously upgraded cabin. The next morning we found ourselves zip-lining along suspended cables through the canopy, an experience which was surprisingly serene once you got used to landing on tiny treehouse-styled platforms precariously bolted to trees 100 feet above the ground.





The cloud forest was teeming with life, so Mahyar and I followed up the flying bit with a short hike out into the zip line area trails at sunset. This was something I would recommend, as the sounds of the transition (birds yielding to insects) were very intense: just remember that swinging on vines can be very abrasive to the hands, and that you'll need those flashlights sooner than you'd think! At one point on the hike, we heard a low-pitched, fluttering purrrrrrr coming from just off the trail but out of sight - was it just a large-winged bird settling in for the night, or a rare encounter with a Jaguar? We chose to believe the latter over a sampling of Imperial, the omnipresent, mediocre beer of the country.


On Monday morning, we toured a nature reserve featuring a suspended walking bridge over the forest canopy. We weren't particularly adept at spotting tropical birds outside of one that repeatedly sang the first few notes of Star Wars' "Imperial March", but we were amazed to find how lizards and exotic insects could literally be hiding under any leaf.





After Melissa earned her second guava cookie for asking for directions when we found ourselves lost in the unmarked roads around Tilaran, we spotted our first Toucan just outside of Arenal, at the base of the continuously active Arenal Volcano. The experience played out during an ordinary stop at the side of the road with much similarity to that scene from Jurassic Park where that 'Newman' guy from Sienfeld is attacked by a poinson-spitting dinosaur; in fact I wouldn't be surprised if the filmmakers borrowed the sound the Toucan seemed to make before we managed to spot it. Tropical bird sighting requirement satisfied, we checked into the Arenal Paraiso Hotel and soon found ourselves sipping Pina Coladas at its otherwise nearly deserted bar, conveniently located in the center of one of its hot spring pools.

But enough with the rest! At 7am on Tuesday, we found ourselves stepping over a 165-foot cliff edge on a canyoning outing, rappelling alongside and through waterfalls as we found our way down a deep ravine. At lunchtime we indulged our now well-versed appreciation for Salsa Lizano, the standout among otherwise somewhat nondescript Costa Rican meals alongside their tasty fresh fruit drinks. ("Guanabana"!)

Putting all other guava cookie hopefuls to shame, Melissa once again called upon her superpowers, hiring one of our half-dozen rappel guides, Eric, to lead our group on an evening excursion to the Volcano in what would become one of my favorite parts of the trip. Having had a few hours too many to think the outing over, it had become slightly unnerving for all of us to trust an impromptu guide who spoke little English to lead us into such an unknown, dangerous environment. The atmosphere that night was literally electric with tension - a storm was rolling in and the sky was overcast as we notified the hotel of our outing, packed ourselves, Eric and Stephanie (a fellow Savannahian from the rappel tour) into the Rav4 with flashlights and rain jackets in hand, and crossed our fingers for the lluevo to hold off.

Eric directed us to a more active side of the volcano from our hotel around 7pm, and deep into a park where a handful of people were struggling to get glimpses of the mountain's peak through the clouds that now flirted with it. Starting on a trailhead to an observation point, we had to hike about 20 minutes in the dark through a tunnel of young but very dense vegetation. About halfway in, we suddenly heard a series of deep, extended rumbling - much lower in tone than the thunder - coming from the direction of the mountain. We couldn't see a thing through the walls of jungle at either side of the path, but it sounded so close! A shot of adrenaline took hold as we realized we were hearing the crumbling rocks of active lava flows nearby, and with a quickened pace we cleared the tree line at the trail's end for a better look.

We were standing on the uneven, crumbled igneous rock debris left by the volcano's last major eruption in 1992. That event had destroyed an entire town in its wake, the ruins of which now sat below Lake Arenal below us. Eric informed Melissa that we were about a kilometer from the flows, and we took a seat in front of the dark, monochrome shape of the volcano, which reached up into the clouds but was, for the moment, disappointingly silent of activity.

For about 15 minutes we squinted in near silence at the shape where it met the clouds, some glancing incredulously over to others who claimed to see tiny flickers of red. Finally, that familiar rumbling sound gave a hint of life, and our wait was rewarded by a clean line of red stretching down out of the clouds, bringing up a little applause from us before it slowed and faded into the black. For about an hour we sat in the dark and listened to the volcano with the thunder behind us, squinting at flickers in between sporadic shows of bright red lava traces and occasionally glancing back to make sure Eric hadn't left us for dead in his search for a better vantage point.

Convinced that the storm clouds were intensifying at the top of the volcano, we eventually decided we'd seen a good show, and set up for a group picture just as the sound of rain started to creep up on us. It was exactly then - probably by the force of the cool rain hitting the hot rocks we were watching moments before it got to us - that a huge patch of the mountain suddenly sliced open in bright flows of red, sending us off with an incredible finale and the strongest rumbling we heard all evening just before the edge of the downpour eclipsed our perch and sent us scrambling back down the trail.

Eric seemed happy with the tip we gave him :)




Of course there was still plenty to do: We spent the next day on a three-hour excursion on horseback, including an hour rest at the middle to cross a delicate canyon bridge (evoking memories of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom - I'm just going to believe that I saw crocodiles in the stream below between the gaps in the floor boards!) and swim around the base of one of those lush, 100-foot waterfalls you might see in tour brochures.

The Hotel Las Tortugas at Playa Grande was the last stop on my trip, and came a sharp change in attitude. About 80% of coastal Costa Rican land is now owned by foreigners, and while this surfer's choice hotel seemed to maintain a respect for the local population and nature, it was more than obvious that the coast is being quickly developed and Americanized. Put it this way: My American neighbors on the flight home were returning from a real estate scouting vacation, spoke very little to no Spanish and hadn't a clue when I asked them about Salsa Lizano. For a country that never had a rich cultural history like Peru or a stable economic center (a non-native coffee business gave way to American Fruit Company-run bananas, giving way to heavily foreign-owned eco-tourism in just the past 100 years), this exemplified a feeling of identity crisis which might have been the one low point to such a broad visit.

Not to be deterred, the sun managed to peek out just enough for me to sneak in my first ever attempt at surfing, an inexpensive lesson through the hotel by a genuine American surfer dude. I managed to stand up on my first three tries and had a great time. Can't wait to do it again.



Tamarindo served up our final overpriced souvenier needs, and we were soon rushing back across the country to San Jose International Airport on its main (one-lane) road... and cutting it close. Sure enough, we got caught in some sort of speed trap and were pulled over by a Costa Rican police officer.

Yet again, Melissa came to the rescue as translator. The officer seemed to take on a tone of intimidation - trying to tell us that we were speeding so egregiously that we really should be put in a judge or fined so many tens of thousands of colones - but he curiously never motioned to write a ticket, arrest anyone, or even read Joey's driver's license. Sure enough, it was only a matter of time before he let out something along the lines of "Well, I suppose we could just forget about this if you give me something now...". The guy even coached us on how to properly fold the money before discretely slipping it to him.


Mahyar and I made it back to the Bay Area with plenty of time to rest up for our wrap party, which would be a huge culture shock and adventure in itself. Melissa, Karen and Joey continued on to Manuel Antonio, where they saw many monos locos. Thanks so much to all of them for handling the bulk of planning this trip; as it was put in the car: "You were the wind beneath my... feet."

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