Friday, March 20, 2009

Costa Rican Thanksgiving


Ok, we've been really remiss about posting from our last vacation, over Thanksgiving. 4 months isn't too long is it? Anyways, here you go...

We left for San Jose a few days before Thanksgiving with the goal of enjoying not being at home for a whole nine days. Costa Rica was kind of a last minute decision, a place we wanted to visit, but wasn't on the top of the destination list. Based on our available time we decided to visit only three locations, Corcovado, Monteverde, and Arenal.

Our first stop was Corcovado via Drake Bay. We took a 10 person plane to the Oso Peninsula where we landed on what seemed like the only patch of asphalt on the peninsula. From here we took a 20 minute 4WD taxi ride over a very rough road to the beach where we were met by a boat that took us to our ultimate destination, the Corcovado Tent Lodge. That's right, only easily accesible by boat! Our accomodation at the lodge was for 3 all inclusive nights in an A-frame tent about 20 feet from the sand, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. No air conditioning (or electricity in the tent), but that's exactly what we were looking for. To welcome us, a pair of scarlet macaws soared overhead as we walked up to check in.

Our first day at the lodge, we went to Cano Island for a day long snorkel/hike adventure. Highlights included an encounter with a mother and baby whale, lots of colorful fish, and a host of unseen, but painful jellyfish. The afternoon was spent hiking around the island in a torrential downpour without shoes. It was a true tropical storm, with the most captivating part, listening to the warm rain pelt the rain forest canopy.

After returning to the lodge, we decided to go explore further down the coast along the local foot path. We passed a number of local houses and beaches before coming across a troop of white faced monkeys foraging at the edge of the forest. It was amazing to see the monkeys moving through the trees, behaving exactly like a human family. The Ma and Pa monkeys herded the kids along, turning over big leaves and tasting whatever fit in their mouthes. We watched them for about an hour, sometimes within a few feet, until they turned deeper into the forest and we could continue on. Later on, we came upon another set of white faced monkeys in the path. This time they were not quite as good natured as the first set. As we turned to head back, we apparently got too close cause the monkeys immediately showed their wild side.

Our second day in Corcovado was what I was really looking forward to, a guided tour through a portion of Corcovado National Park. Corcovado National Park was our main draw to this part of Costa Rica, as National Geographic named it one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet. After a 30 minute boat ride further down the coast, we stepped into the forest with visions of jaguars, tapirs, and scarlet macaws in our heads. Very excited, Corcovado did not disappoint, as we had encounters with a coatimundi and a large kingfisher within the first ten minutes of our walk. Further on in the forest, we came upon bats, leaf cutter ants, some howler monkeys (a long way off), a large group of coatimundi, and several beautiful birds (like a yellow juvenile trogon).

When we got back to the beach for our lunch, we found a group of folks looking further down the beach at a crocodile that was lounging on the sand. Closer examination showed that the croc had a sea turtle in his mouth that he was desparately trying to crack open. I have to give him kudos for effort, but by the time we left, he was still carrying around an intact, but dead, sea turtle. Other fun sights/activities in the National Park include a pair of scarlet macaws foraging in the trees overhead and a short hike to a nice waterfall where Karen and I stopped for a quick dip. Later that afternoon we went on a nice mud walk up a local mule trail that ended up providing some entertainment.

Day 3 at Drake Bay was one of confusion and embarassment (at least for me). We began by packing up and heading to the airport. Here's where the embarassment comes in. We weren't supposed to leave until the next day. Two hours, two boat rides, and two 4WD taxi rides later, we were back to the lodge where I was wondering what happened while Karen was just mad. To salvage the day, we ended up booking a half day zip line tour. The company came to pick us up and we rambled off deeper into the forest to our destination. Once there, we strapped in for 14 zip line rides through the majestic trees. To help make it up to Karen we were shown a sleepy looking three toed sloth about 15 feet into the first ride (unfortunately no picture since we were dangling from a cable 50 feet up).

The next day we treked back to the airport (correct day this time) and made our way to Santa Elena for our visit to Monteverde National Park. The trip included another small plane, taxi, and mini-bus ride. We stayed in the beautiful Monteverde Cloud Forest Lodge. Similar to our visit to Ecuador, this lodge was situated in a cloud forest reserve, where the hummingbirds like to flock. Lucky for us, other animals liked to visit this area as well. For instance, we woke up to find an armadillo nosing around the grass outside our door the first day.

Our main event for the first day was a big walk through the local countryside to the Skywalk. Along the way we spotted a small group of toucanettes as well as a couple of guans and some more white faced monkeys. The Skywalk was a park with a collection of elevated trails and suspension bridges that allowed a self tour of the canopy at near tree top elevation. For us this was absolutely fantastic as we could take our time and look to our hearts content. As an added bonus, it seemed like we were the only visitors there as we only came across one group of three walking the opposite direction. The cloud forest revealed lots of epiphites and stunning views, but surprisingly few birds and animals. All told, we managed to find a few coatimundi, a hooded jay, and some howler monkeys after a few hours of searching.

Day two was set to be a guided walk through the Monteverde National Park. After breakfast, we made our way to the park when the weather decided not to cooperate. As we joined our tour, the rain really started to come down, to the point where we were dripping wet. As one can imagine, the animals/birds do not like to make themselves seen during bad weather. I kept imaging them all nice and toasty in the trees wondering why all the silly humans were walking around getting wet. After the decidedly dissatisfying tour, Karen and I took the rest of the afternoon to walk around the park on our own. In a way, this hike was better than the morning, in that we got to see the forest in it's natural state (rainy and misty) without the crowds. We pushed our way through a neglected trail and ended up content to walk in the rain by ourselves.

Once we made our way back to town, we decided to visit a local ranaria (frog sanctuary). Here we were shown all manor of local amphibians, some tiny, some large, some poisonous, some really hard to see. It was very interesting to see the frogs since one rarely finds them when out in the wild (even if you can hear them and diligently look).

I should note that here in Monteverde, we made our best effort at speaking spanish with the locals. They were generally receptive to our attemps and I like to think that we were able to get what we needed without undue difficulty. I'm sure we were just gringos to them, but we did try.

Our last stop on the trip was to visit a volcanic zone near the town of Arenal. Our transit was very fun as we took another 4WD taxi to meet a boat to cross a lake to reach the town (it beat the 6 hour mini-bus alternive). Along the route, we drove through beautful mountains with local homes and ranches. Lucky for us, the weather had cleared so we were able to enjoy the vistas.

After arriving at Arenal, we found another guided tour of the active volcano and it's surrounding forest. What was unique to this tour was that it began in the late afternoon. The tour started at a near overlook of the volcano where we found a group of howler monkeys and a set of gorgeous toucans sitting in the trees nearby. From the overlook, we tramped back down through the forest, looking at the birds and sunset, and listening to our guide tell amusing stories about the local people and wildlife, arriving back after dark. Once back on the bus, we drove to a different overlook to watch the fury of the volcano in the twilight. The Arenal volcano has been continuously errupting since the 1960's, similar to the big island of Hawaii. The lava flow was clearly visible, collapsing into showers of sparks that illuminated the night. It was an awesome display of natural fury. To cap off the night, we were dropped off at one of the nearby thermal hot springs resorts for a nice meal and a soak in the warm water.

All in all, Costa Rica was an enjoyable place to visit, with well established ammenities and plenty to do and see. Our wildlife encounters were very accessible, yet still wild enough to suit most tourists. The local people were very nice and the food was good. Overall, the trip was a good way to escape for a few days and recharge the batteries. Costa Rica has solidified our opinion that South and Central America are wonderful places to spend your spare time.

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At 3:25 PM, Blogger David said...

Ahhhhhhh.... the motherland. How I miss it so. Hopefully I get to go for the summer with the family. Did you see Mayela? Did you get my suggestions before you went? Anyhoooo, hope it was enjoyable.


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