Saturday, January 16, 2010

Costa Rica Part I: Tortuguero

Our flight left DC slightly after 6 AM on Elizabeth's birthday (aka New Year's Eve), in freezing rain. We arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica around 3 in the afternoon to a warm, sunny day. From San Jose, we hopped a bus and headed northeast through mountains and rainforest to Guapiles, home of...well, not much that we could tell, except a decent bed and a hot shower for $14 at Hotel Wilson. Elizabeth managed to sleep right through the New Year's Eve festivities, which included the town's emergency siren. Matt got up and watched the fireworks that people were setting off all over town.

In the morning, we caught a bus to Cariari, which was an even smaller town, then another bus to La Pavona, which didn't even seem to be a town, and then a boat to the town of Tortuguero. Other than a few bikes on dirt paths in this little village, this area has no land transportation -- people get around on a network of canals, rivers, and lagoons -- and many of these waterways go through land that is protected as part of Tortuguero National Park. And that is why we came. We spent a total of about 16 hours in canoes (4 with a guide) and saw many spider and howler monkeys, a sloth, a coati, beautiful butterflies, a bazillion humminbirds, and lots and lots of other birds.

Since we've got so many pictures, we're consolidating them into slideshows. Here's one with highlights from the canals of Tortuguero National Park:

When we weren't in a canoe, we were out on the beach. It's not a great swimming beach (apparently it's so much of a shark hot spot that no one goes out more than a couple feet into the water). But 22 miles of beach are protected as part of Tortugero National Park, because leatherback, loggerhead, hawksbill, and green sea turtles (in Spanish, tortugas) all nest on the beach. We were there in the off-season, when not a lot of turtles were expected. And yet, one morning when we were walking along the beach, we found a baby turtle, trapped in a big pile of driftwood. We gave her a lift over to the water's edge. The other thrill of our beach walks was following a set of large cat tracks for a couple of miles along the beach -- possibly jaguar.

Several people have asked us to keep track of where we stayed. Our home in Tortuguero was Miss Miriam's 2 ($20/night in the off-season). The bed was ok (not great), and the hot water didn't work, but there was a shared balcony from which you could see the ocean, free laundry and internet, and lots of hummingbird-attracting plants in a little courtyard.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Costa Rica Part II: Chirripó

From Tortuguero we retraced our steps back to San Jose, then headed south, up and over the mountains, to the town of San Isidro, a nice mid-sized market town in an agricultural valley. Then it was back up into the mountains on an old school bus to a tiny town called San Gerardo de Rivas (pop. 800 or so).

San Gerardo's claim to fame is that it is near the trailhead for Cerro Chirripó, the highest peak in Costa Rica (12,228 ft) and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The hike to the summit involves 7,000 ft elevation gain over 12 miles (one-way). We were not that ambitious, but we did spend a few days hiking around in the general vicinity. In addition to a bit of Chirripó National Park, we explored a non-profit reforestation project called Cloudbridge. We were rewarded with beautiful views of the mountains, huge waterfalls, lots more birds, and the opportunity to watch a troupe of 8 white-faced monkeys for over an hour. We also got to experience the concept of "cloud forest" first hand, as the clouds rolled in each day and got stuck in the mountains right around our elevation.

Our hotel in San Gerardo was El Uran. A good bed, with a view of the mountains out our window, a truly hot shower, and a good restaurant. We thought it was quiet, too, until we realized we just hadn't had neighbors for our first two nights -- on our third night, we were awoken at 3:00 AM when a herd of elephants next door headed out to climb Chirripó.

Before heading out of San Gerardo, we took a hike over to the local hot springs, where Matt started a new fad among the local kids by showing them how to squirt water out of their clasped hands. Along the road to the springs were more fantastic birds and waterfalls. It's really a lovely area.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Costa Rica Part III: Uvita

From San Gerardo we headed back through San Isidro and over to the Pacific Coast, to the little town of Uvita, home of Marina Ballena National Park. We did not see any of the humpback whales that the area is known for (we didn't try very hard), but it is a gorgeous beach nonetheless, with soft, fine sand lined by coconut palms and mountains in the background. The water is as warm as bathwater, and protected by a spit of land known as the "whale's tail", making for a very relaxing swim.

We had a great hike to swim in a waterfall in Uvita, but forgot to take a spare set of camera batteries there with us. So you'll just have to take our word for it that it was big and beautiful, and that we saw a nest with baby hummingbirds in it on our way there.

Our hotel in Uvita was Los Laureles. The folks running it lived in Frederick, MD for 9 years -- it gave us quite a chuckle to meet a guy in Costa Rica who went to high school down the road from our friends in Frederick. This was perhaps the nicest place we stayed -- with a real bed, A/C, a hot shower, and even a little fridge, which was really nice, because Uvita is really hot. Plus they had a bit of land, on which we saw toucans, trogons, morpho butterflies, and a sloth. They're 2 km from the beach, but closer to the waterfalls. I think I'll take that trade.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Costa Rica IV: Cerro de la Muerte

Mat had caught a glimpse of a quetzal at Cloudbridge, with its long tail trailing behind it as it flew. The Resplendent Quetzal is one of the most sought-after birds in Costa Rica, with a brilliant green back and wings, ruby-red breast, and a tail on the males that can be as long as 25 inches -- almost twice as long as his body. To even the score (Elizabeth had never seen a quetzal), we decided to spend a night in the mountains at the aptly-named Mirador de Quetzales. Stay here, the guidebooks proclaim, and you are "virtually guaranteed" to see a quetzal on the early-morning guided hike that comes included with the price of your lodging.

What's more, Mirador de Quetzales is on the way from Uvita to San Jose, which would be a slog of about 7 hours if we did it all in one day. But there aren't a lot of buses out of Uvita -- we didn't leave until 2:00, which got us to the 4:30 bus leaving San Isidro for San Jose. We wanted to get off at kilometer 70, we explained to the bus driver. At Los Quetzales? He asked. This seemed like a good sign.

As the bus climbed up into the mountains, it started raining and getting dark. We'd been watching the km markers on the side of the road, but soon couldn't see them anymore. After a while I got up and made my way to the front of the bus to ask, quanto falta a los Quetzales - how much further?

The bus driver slapped his forehead and started apologizing. We had just passed it a kilometer ago, and he had forgotten to stop. Did we want to get off here and walk back? This was a dubious prospect on the shoulderless Interamericana highway, in the cold, rain, and dark, I thought. A nice lady in the front seat said the same thing out loud, and in much better Spanish. Soon, she and the bus driver hatched a plot, which I half-understood: somehow we were going to meet up with a bus headed from San Jose to San Isidro, transfer over, and be dropped off. We didn't really understand how the driver expected to flag down the other bus. But it wouldn't be a disaster to just go all the way to San Jose a day early, so we just settled back into our seats to see what would happen.

Soon all became clear -- the buses make a pit stop at a restaurant around the halfway point on the San Isidro-San Jose route. And sure enough, when our bus pulled in, the bus going in the opposite direction was also stopped. Our driver explained to the other what was going on, and we moved our stuff. And we made a call to the hotel from the restaurant, asking them to come pick us up at the highway and give us a lift the rest of the way to the hotel (about a km). We also put on several more layers of clothing -- it was cold up there at 8500 ft!

When the bus stopped, we got off in the dark, huddling in the cold rain long enough to find a headlamp, not even positive we were in the right place until we were able to light up the hotel's small sign. There was no one there to meet us. We started hiking up the road and they came soon enough, taking us up to the lodge, where we sat in front of a little fire in a woodstove and ate a couple of big bowls of soup.

Also hanging out by the fire were a couple of guys trying to tune a guitar. When we finished dinner Matt let on that he knew how to tune it, and made instant friends. We learned that the owner of the guitar was a teenager who was part of the family running the hotel, while the other guy was a heart-broken Czech who had sold most of his belongings and proceeded to bike from New York, to San Francisco, to Costa Rica, and was continuing south. (At some point we put it together that he had camped in Greenbelt Park and along the C&O Canal during his journeys, two spots we visit fairly regularly around DC). We played some bluegrass and some Czech songs before discovering Matt and the guitar owner had a shared repertoire of Metallica and Black Sabbath songs. You haven't heard Atomic Funeral until you've heard it sung by a 15-year old Tico playing a nylon-string acoustic.

That night, we snuggled tight under many blankets. Lonely Planet says the rooms have heat. Ours consisted of a hot water bottle provided by the hotel.

In the morning, we woke to more cold and rain.

But the tours go on, rain or shine, so our guide met us at 6:15 to go quetzal hunting. After about 20 minutes he was clearly starting to get frustrated -- they really must find quetzals pretty easily in these woods. But after a while longer, sure enough, he spotted a female quetzal, and a little while later, the male who was taking an interest in her.  We spent a while watching them, moving  around just enough to keep watching as they flew from tree to tree.

Finally, the birds flew and we couldn't find them anymore. So we headed back for a hot breakfast, and said our goodbyes to Peter the crazy Czech cyclist. It was still raining, off and on, but a rainbow in the near distance seemed like a good omen for his journey.

There was time for one more hike, to one more waterfall, before we got back on the bus to San Jose for our flight out the next morning. Even in the cold and rain Costa Rica is beautiful.