Saturday, January 9, 2010

Costa Rica Trip Report Sept 2009

Without a doubt, one of the most memorable aspects of the NoVA Travelers Costa Rica Trip was the level of vulnerability of the organizer. Having just returned recently from a more-adventurous-than-originally-planned trip in Switzerland, I found myself racing to pack my carry-on bag for the Costa Rica excursion .Financially I was in a bind in that I had no cash nor debit/credit cards of my own (only my husband's credit card which I was borrowing to take with me since mine had been stolen a few days before in Switzerland and who knew if I could get by using his cards when they had his name on them). Also I realized I would not be authorized to drive the rental car we had reserved in advance from the Hertz in San Jose, Costa Rica. Add to the mix a current of underlying generalized anxiety over the theft and a jet lag and it wasn't pretty. Still, I'm the organizer and I have a responsibility to my group so I marched onward. Penny (a member accompanying me on the trip) volunteered to fill in as the rental car driver which put the problem of my stolen license aside.

 
 

We left on our flight that afternoon once I finished work, arriving into San Jose a little after nine in the evening. First crisis appeared to be that the rental car agency- a franchise and not corporate Hertz location- seemed very surprised to see us as they were closing up shop and heading home for the day despite the fact we had a confirmed reservation for 9:30pm. They ran us through the typical motions of a car rental pickup. I had planned for the group to drive to our hotel in San Jose as it's not safe to take the PanAm Highway leading into the rainforest at night. Partly because one might encounter locals sleeping in the road and partly because of other hazards such as washed out portions of highway that can't be seen before it's too late, etc.

 
 

Although I had done a lot of research on CR to prep for the trip, somehow I overlooked a very important detail: there are no street signs in Costa Rica typically. There are not even zip codes! People provide addresses like so : "we are the house next to the big tree on the 3rd street after you round the first bend…". Not the best addressing system for a late night drive into an unfamiliar town. And of course did I mention that none of our attendees (incl me) spoke much Spanish? Yes, I am sure you can see where this is going - we quickly got lost. Making it into San Jose was not overly complicated as we followed the directions from Hertz which entailed taking the major highway "that-a-way". Once into the thick of downtown however we were at a loss in orientation entirely. Our method to get to the hotel consisted of stopping every so often to ask a local in broken Spanish which way to our hotel. Since we couldn't understand their response, we simply waited for them to point and then drove our car in the direction of their pointing until we came across another pedestrian. Once we got sidetracked on a road that led away from town but when we saw the sign advertising the km distance to Mexico we had sense enough to turn around and go the other direction. Finally, FINALLY we saw a hotel that was an American brand and in desperation did the most impolite thing one could do in the circumstance- asked the front desk clerk for the directions to our hotel- one of his competitors. That was embarrassing. As it turned out we were just a few blocks from our hotel- we had to make a turn at a big tree in the road, then a few lefts, then past the hookers (don't panic over my hotel choice- seems the hookers are smart enough to visit the nicer parts of town where the American men stay on business and avoid the seedy areas as much as we'd want to).

 
 

Having arrived at out final destination for the night (a very lovely hotel) we checked in and walked upstairs to our room to crash. I can't speak for the other trip participants but I was exhausted. My brain was confused- the day before I was in Switzerland and now I was in Costa Rica. Of course being in Denver the weekend before that and Boston, Maine and NYC the prior weekends my head was all topsy turvy. Had I finally reached a point where I needed a vacation from vacationing?

 
 

In the morning I woke to sights and sounds of sunny urban Central America and felt better. Still dragging a bit but overall ready to face the day and what lay ahead. After enjoying a delicious breakfast at the hotel we paid a local cab driver $5 to lead us back to the highway as once we got there I'd be able to use the directions provided by our rainforest hotel to carry us the rest of the way.

 
 

In a small way I was grateful for the upside of my lost license - I had a free pass to get out of the driving conditions in rural Costa Rica which can only be described as you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me-what-are-you-crazy. Penny was a brave trooper as she had to watch for obstacles that bordered on comedic: vehicles (incl giant buses) approaching from the opposite direction in our lane as they were passing cars around narrow curves, people walking 3 or 4 abreast in the road, sections of road slippery and/or washed out due to the rain, the rain itself obscuring our view out the window, and a few morethings that scared us at the time but are now too distant in the past to remember clearly. Adventure indeed! To me the best part was that Penny was swearing at the other drivers in English, depriving them of the ability to truly understand her angst in their mother tongue.

 
 

We made it to the Tree Houses Hotel by early afternoon and met up with the property managers who we found to be very welcoming. They are Americans who loved visiting the Tree Houses hotel so much that when the owner offered them the job of managing the property they jumped at the chance. Our little treehouse was amazing! Monkeys perched in the nearby trees, all sorts of birds and other small wildlife frittering about and the most beautiful rainforest flowers. Right about the time we unpacked the car and climbed (well how else did you expect to get into a treehouse?) up the zig-zag staircase to our room the rain began to fall harder. We made a group decision to vegetate in the cabin (which was laid out to include a small bedroom, a bathroom on one side, a shower on the other and a ladder leading up to the loft with another bed upstairs) until the rain stopped. It was the first true moment of deep relaxation I'd experienced since before the theft in Switzerland. We read, we slept, we passed away the afternoon in the rainforest listening to the falling rain, birds and monkeys. It was a peaceful afternoon and I was grateful for it.

  
 

We had a lovely dinner just down the road later that evening (it was a bit of a surprise in terms of what we ate since the menu was only in Spanish and the waiter did not speak much English so we had to wing it when ordering) and the made arrangements for a full day rainforest activity tour the next morning before we sunk into our bed for the night.

 
 

The next morning I was really gaining steam again, having refueled my energy tanks with the rest period the day before. We were up and in the car by 6am on the road to La Fortuna where the tour group pick up point could be found. We had signed up for the full day combo day tour offered by one of the local outfitters that would keep us occupied from 7:30am until just before midnight. We were blessed with a fantastic guide in his 20s who spoke English fluently and had a superb knowledge of the local natural attractions.

 
 

The first event on the tour agenda was a hike through the rainforest trails that included several river crossings over long suspension foot bridges (think Jurassic Park in the bird cage scene). While it was of course very humid and warm, it was not unbearably so. We saw all varieties of rainforest plants, a pit viper, leafcutter ants and other animals. The scenery was beautiful and also of course such a contrast to the cold snowy Swiss Alps. (I suspect the rapid temperature changes also confused my brain. I had done the same thing to my poor body last year when I went to Belize (tropical) then traveled to icy Quebec City (hovering near zero) very soon afterward. Probably the most unique thing we did in the rainforest was nibble on live termites for a snack. They're actually quite tasty- a bit peppery - and would be good on a salad in lieu of fresh ground pepper. I am dead serious.

 
 

 
 

Once we left the rainforest we were driven to the famously photographed waterfall outside La Fortuna. It was a hike that took us down, down, down, and then we were confronted with a beautiful sight as the water rushed over the falls. We were given time to swim at the base of the falls and relax before we began the rough climb back up to the parking lot. Once the entire group was ready we rode back to town for lunch at a nearby eatery. The food was good and I got to indulge in my central American culinary favorites such as plantains and stewed chicken.

 
 

After lunch a new guide took over and we packed into the van again for the rest of our adventure. We spent the afternoon hiking trails at the base of the Arenal Volcano and learning of its history of eruptions over the years. We were able to get within 2km of the volcano, stopping at the spot where a village was once buried under the lava flow.

  
 

By the time we got back down to the trailhead it was dusk and our guide took us a short distance in the van to an amazing viewpoint of the volcano erupting. It was absolutely breathtaking. I reflected in the moment how extraordinary it was that on this day the week prior I had been standing in the Swiss Alps and now I stood before a vibrant volcano in Central America. Life is good!

 
 

After all the hiking we'd subjected ourselves to during the day (worth every footstep!) it was spa time, Costa Rican style. We were escorted to Tabicon resort just outside La Fortuna and given ample time to explore the grounds and use the mineral pools before dinner. Because Arenal has so much heat and energy, it warms the rivers and other water sources in the valley naturally to a relaxing jacuzzi temperature. Enterprising capitalists have bought property on the water, built resorts, and guided the water into many different manmade pools surrounded by lush tropical landscaping and mood lighting. The particular resort we visited had more than 10 different river pools - some complete with waterfalls - to choose from. There was also one very large pool with a waterslide on one end and a swim up bar on the other. The hot water soaked away any remaining stress or tension in our bodies and we felt great. Fantastic even I dare say.

 
 

We used our tour vouchers for the dinner buffet at the resort (a rather mediocre offering that I can't recommend - if you go to the resort, enjoy the pools and then go elsewhere for dinner) and then our tour guide took the group back to the pick up point in La Fortuna. We said our goodbyes and headed back to the tree house.

 
 

The next morning we rose with the sun, packed up the rental car, ate breakfast with the hotel managers and set off for San Jose airport to return the car and catch our plane back to the States.

 
 

The small part of Costa Rica we experienced was truly memorable and I hope to return to explore more of the country's beaches and the other volcanoes situated within as well. I'm really grateful to be in a position to visit so many great places around the world each year as the organizer of the NoVA Travelers.

 
 

Full picture library is here on Facebook:

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=177298&id=603259739&l=4ea76d11ee

 
 

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