Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Calling in sick.

Looking at the date on this post you may be thinking that you’ve missed a day here. Well actually four days to be exact. But you’re not – I am. I didn’t expect to miss those days. In fact when we woke up Saturday morning, we started to plan what to do. Another day trip to a indigenous chocolate farm or perhaps to the other beach. But almost as soon as those words came out of my mouth, I was rushing to the washroom where I was holed up off and on for the next four days (I’ll spare you details). At first I thought it was food poisoning and blamed the shrimp dish I’d had the night before. But after 12 hours, I still couldn’t hold water down. I was worried. Adrian was worried. And the owner of the little hotel was worried. So worried that he sent Adrian off to the pharmacy to get me some medication. The rehydration salts, keg of gaterade and horse pills he brought back stayed down for a bit. But that night was still rather unpleasant.

I’ve been struck suddenly before by these lovely stomach upsets on the road. Once in Tunisia and the other time in Gambia. And as violent and horrible as they are, I remember them clearing up in 24 hours. So the next morning, I assumed I was better. I had some bananas and crackers while Adrian went out for breakfast and to check out the music festival going on the park. When he returned I told him I felt well enough to go out. So we headed to the other beach. We had to walk quite a way down it to get to the green flags. Within 5 minutes of being out there, I realized perhaps I wasn’t well. While Adrian played in and got pummeled by the huge waves, I dug a small whole in the sand and promptly deposited those bananas and crackers in it. (ew gross, but it was a loooooooong walk back to the entrance of the national park so please forgive me). I tried to signal to Adrian it was time for me to leave, but he had lost his sunglasses in the last wave and was blind and too busy looking for them. Finally I got his attention and we went back to the hotel.

I wasn’t sure if my stomach was now off because I’d basically eaten nothing in three days or the bug. I thought I’d try some soup. But there was none on the menus nearby but the nicest man in the world (at the restaurant next to the hotel) let Adrian warm up a tin of soup for me. I tried to eat it but just the smell turned me off. So I went to bed at 6pm and slept for 12 hours.

The next day, I was still nauseous but able to hold down a banana milkshake and some toast. I was so optimistic I began making plans for us to get the heck out of lovely Cahuita. Of course that night it was back to abnormal. Very abnormal. I knew I was really sick but the kind people of Cahuita soon came to my rescue.

That morning the hotel owner told Adrian to take me to the clinic in the next town and even arranged a cab to come pick us up. The driver didn’t speak English and realized that we didn’t speak much Spanish. So when we got to the clinic (essentially a tiny hospital), he stood in line, talked to the admitting desk and nurse, and filled out the forms for us. He waited for an hour until I told him it was okay to leave. He said he’d come back in three hours to pick us up. After puking a few more times, I finally saw the doctor who thankfully spoke perfect English. She immediately sent me to get hooked up to an IV because I was badly dehydrated. But the good news is that it was just a really bad stomach bug made worse by the drugs the pharmacy gave Adrian.

When I looked around the hospital ward, I noticed that everyone else was in the same state and recognized the wife of the owner of the internet café in an adjacent bed. Apparently, this bad bug was going around the area. The IV also contained a heavy duty anti-nausea drug that knocks me out for the next four hours. When I woke up I felt better but a bit dead to the world. The super nice taxi driver had come back and Adrian paid him for his time and told him we’d call him when we were done. I had to get another IV and then it was time to settle the bill. As we paid the $40 for 6 hours of hospital care, I was also handed a baggie full of free drugs (photo above) to take for the next 8 days. I have to say that was the best $40 we’ve spent on the trip.

Once back in Cahuita both the hotel owner, the internet café guy and the restaurant owner asked how I was doing. They were all concerned and are relieved to hear that I feel like a new person. And it was true, I was still nauseous but I wasn’t throwing up, so we went out for the first meal I’ve had and held down in the last 4 days. I couldn’t eat much but I felt like my health had finally turned. Now I was looking forward to moving out. Cahuita was the best place I could have possibly gotten sick in but I thought a change of scenery and country would help as much as the drugs had.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Sloth – the cutest of the seven deadly sins.

Cahuita was cheap (for Costa Rica) so we were in no hurry to do or see everything. So we took a day off. Well it was a day off from enjoying the beach and doing fun things like laundry and getting Adrian a haircut. The barber was a teenager named Blin Blin, not to be confused with Bling Bing, he told us. At $8 it wasn’t much of deal but it was needed. Blin Blin tried to improve his profit margin by trying to sell us some dope. He didn’t make any money off us but that appeared to be his main source of income. More people stopped by for dope than they did for a haircut. Back at the hostel, I worked on the blog and looked into some stuff about Panama while Adrian spent the day hanging in the café next door watching the soccer. It was a beautiful day so there was some guilt associated with doing nothing but it was worth it. And the perfect day ended with good food at an Argentinian restaurant (run by a couple from Quebec) and a phone call home with even better news.

Of course, the next morning the sun was replaced by grey clouds and pouring rain. Oops perhaps we should have done something yesterday. But a quick look at the weather satellite showed the clouds clearing in the next couple of hours. So we had a lazy breakfast and let the guy at the desk know that we were staying a few more days. In keeping with our sloth theme we decided to head to the sloth sanctuary. Plus my sister is obsessed with sloths and I figured some pictures of them would make her happy. There were tours advertised around town at $40 per person . But we decided to go on our own and save ourselves some cash – you know me, always looking for a better price.

The rain stopped at noon and we headed to the bus station to catch a bus back out on the highway. We had seen the sanctuary on our way into Cahuita from Limon however not knowing the word for sloth made it nearly impossible to buy our tickets. Refugio? Sanctuario? Animales? I went through my list of words. Finally the ticket guy got the gist of what I was asking, said something I didn’t quite catch and sold us two tickets for less than a dollar – a much better price. Soon the bus arrived and I repeated my list of words to the ayudante trying to indicate where we wanted to get off. He immediately knew what I meant and told the driver where we were going.

The bus ride would have taken about 20 minutes but the police stopped the bus at a checkpoint. An officer boarded the bus and began checking the id, and baggage of everyone on board. It was the most thorough checkpoint we’d been through until the guy apparently got bored and stopped after checking Adrian’s passport. Once we got going again, it wasn’t too long until the bus driver called out Aviaros del Caribe a few times. It wasn’t until he motioned to us that I realized that’s what the sanctuary was called.

Now it was time to arrange a tour. The woman at the desk seemed a bit confused where we had come from. I guess most people come on a tour or by car and not by the public bus. She offered us a guided tour for $25 each. Ouch, but it did include a canoe trip through the canals, video as well as a visit with the sloths. The canoe tour was a mini version of our time in Tortuguero so Adrian and I had to feign interest as the boatman pointed out birds, lizards, crabs and monkeys. He stopped for a moment and asked if could have a minute. Adrian and I thought he was taking a bathroom break but he came back with a big bunch of tropical flowers for me. How sweet.

Back to shore we were met by a young American guy who took us on the sloth part of our guided tour. I wasn’t sure if he was annoyed or trying to be funny and sarcastic - probably a combination of both. But all that was forgotten when he first took us to see the baby sloths. There were 10+ and it was feeding time. A couple of volunteers were feeding the little ones by hand – formula for the youngest and fruits, veg and dog food for the slightly older ones. Some could barely lift there heads up off the table as they shoveled the food into their mouths. It was sickenly adorable.

The sanctuary had both two and three fingered sloths which are completely different animals but they’re both super cute. Most of the sloths were orphaned when their mothers were run over by a car trying to cross the highway. Or abandoned when the mother gave birth to more than one at a time. At the sanctuary, they did their best to try to teach the sloths how to live in the wild but it was almost impossible to reintroduce them into the wild. So their future was a spoiled sloth filled one (sorry more puns) here at the Aviaros del Caribe.

Then we were introduced to Buttercup (photo above). At 17 years old she was the oldest sloth in the facility and it’s with her that the sanctuary started. When she was just a baby, local kids brought her to the family who were known for taking in and rehabilitating other local animals. As the family researched how to take care of sloths, they became taken up with their plight. And of course they began adopting more and more. But Buttercup was their baby and equally attached to the owners. Our guide was the grandson of the owners and had grown up with Buttercup who kept reaching out to him to be picked up. More super cuteness.

Next we watched the video on the sloth and the centre. It was super cheesy involving a guy with a British accent singing a song about the sloth ballet. No it was worse than I’ve made it sound. But it also had lots of information on sloths and the mission of the sanctuary which was a good primer for our visit to the adult enclosure. There were another 6 adult sloths here which meant 6 times more cuteness. Adrian distracted our guide by talking about the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. He was convinced that it was sloths not dolphins that were the real intellects of the planet. And considering they’d convinced this family to house and feed them for the last two decades, maybe he was right.

We said goodbye to the staff and the sloths and got to the highway just in time to catch the bus back. Good thing since it only comes every hour. And back in Cahuita, we applied all our newfound sloth techniques to do nothing for the rest of the day before heading to a nearby restaurant for their 2-4-1 cocktails. Margaritas were followed by piña coladas, by monkey madness by another unnecessary round of pinã coladas. Tomorrow, we promised, we’d get out and explore a bit more.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Getting paradise all to ourselves.

Cahuita. Be still my beating heart. Within seconds of getting off the bus, I felt comfortable for the first time since arriving in Costa Rica. Although, our bed the night before hadn’t been incredibly comfortable. Taunted by our first choice, Cabinas Safari, across the street, we decided to splurge and move – provided they had room. The guy at the desk was cleaning the rooms so he told us to come back after breakfast. We went next door to get something to eat from the nicest man ever. We shoveled it down, anxious to get settled into new and comfier digs before everyone else filled up the rooms. The guy laughed at our quick return but had just finished cleaning our room. We checked it out and it was great. They had hot water and real mattresses. For $20 Cabinas Palmer was fine but Cabinas Safari was twice as nice for the same price. Now I was really in love with Cahuita. It felt a bit weird moving our stuff just across the street especially with the owner watching us. But Palmer didn’t seem to mind. I think he was now making his money from the internet business and that’s why he hadn’t upgraded his cabinas.

Once settled into our new room, we decided to head out to the beach. It was sunny and hot but we knew that by the afternoon that would change so we had to take advantage of the sun while we could. Luckily the beach was just a short walk east or west. We opted to go west to the black sand beach of Playa Negra, stopping along the way for refreshments and snacks. After a 15 minute walk we arrived at the beach. Unlike Tamarindo, we had the entire 2km beach all to ourselves, oh except for the workman catching some zzz’s in the shade. We found a palm tree to sit under and set up our towels. Then we spent the next three hours hopping in and out of the crystal clear water and under the blue sky, until the clouds rolled in and the sand flies came out in swarms. It was time to leave our little bit of paradise .

As we walked back to town, it began to spit and by the time we got to the hotel it was pouring. It hadn’t let up by the evening. But with a restaurant next door we got something to eat without getting wet. And it gave us a chance to talk to the nice man who ran it. He filled Adrian in on the latest Costa Rican soccer news and they made a date to watch the Brazil vs. USA game tomorrow. Despite the rain and the soccer talk, Cahuita was still paradise.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Early mornings are for the birds.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure, ahem, of trying to deal with me before 11am, you know I’m not a morning person. So you can imagine how I was on this the second day in a row of getting up at 5am. My ‘super’ mood was compounded by the shampoo explosion I discovered in my bag. Thankfully Adrian came to the rescue and washed everything and packed up. Probably out of fear more than anything (no, really, I am that miserable in the morning). After our breakfast of eggs, rice and beans, we headed off with our bags to meet Fran, Eddie and the boat. We were off for another birdwatching tour. Oh yay (yes that was sarcasm). Actually, the tour was better than the first one. Not only was the boat trip an hour shorter. But we also had binoculars and a bird chart this time so we could actually see what was being pointed out to us. And the route was more picturesque as we passed by the misty peak of an old volcano. This time we managed to see caymens, as well as sloths and birds and a troupe of capuchin monkeys jumping through the trees chasing a howler monkey or two. That was pretty cool, although impossible to photograph so you’ll just have to trust me. The closest we came to an animal was a bunch of river turtles (photo above) who swam right up to me in the boat. I felt like the turtle whisperer but made sure to keep my fingers far from the top of the water in case they liked to bite.

Once we were back in Moin, it was time to settle up our bill. We had to pay with a combination of cash and travelers cheques, reminding me just how over budget the tour was. Because we weren’t going back to San Jose, Fran did knock $40 off the total but it still hurt. We’d have to scrimp at our next stop to try and make up the huge deficit. But first we had to catch a taxi to Limon. I asked the driver how much and for a refreshing change, he put on the metre. He dropped us off at the bus station – wait bus station is a strong word – the cab driver dropped us off at the bus office. And once again we had a pleasant surprise, as the bus fare was only $3 for both of us. Maybe we will recoup our costs after all.

The bus was comfy and the ride along the Caribbean coast was quick. The sea wasn’t the azure colour of Mexico or Cuba due to the grey, almost black, sand but the sky was blue and there was a nice breeze. And soon we were in Cahuita, a small town 2 hours from the Panamanian border. It was another pleasant surprise. Unlike the rest of Costa Rica, it was chilled and laid back and for the first time we saw more locals than tourists. We walked to the middle of town and began our search for a room. Our first choice was booked so we started walking around town before coming full circle and ending up across the street from the first place. The room was basic with a cold shower and a bed with foam mattress but they had wifi and it was only $20.

With all that out of the way, my priority was calling home. With the wifi and no phone offices in view, I decided to finally join the modern era and download Skype. Then of course I felt stupid for not doing it earlier. It was easy and cheap. And it worked. I finally talked to my mom and found out the news was a bit better, not great, but better. At least we had talked which made us both feel good. I started out as grumpy guts but ended up a happy camper.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Birdwatching is for the birds.

The alarm went off at 5am. It was surprisingly easy to get out of bed probably because sleep had been fleeting thanks to a lot of worry. But we had little time to worry about that as a van was coming to pick us up just after 6am. And it was right on time. We were met by Fran and Modesto, an American and Nicaraguan wife and husband team, who had been running tours to Tortuguero for the last 21 years. They were highly recommended but that came at a price - $175US each for two days and one night in the small town. Looking back that was way too much money, but at the time Costa Rica had tainted our sense of affordability.

Already in the van was a young couple Anthony and Sarah from LA, they were quiet and shy or just as tired as the rest of us at the early hour. And we stopped to pick up two more Americans, Lisa and Brenda, niece and aunt from Oregon. Brief introductions were made and was able to figure the reason for the high tour price – it was aimed more at the holiday maker than the backpacker. And in fact Anthony and Sarah were just beginning their 10 day trip and Lisa and Brenda were just wrapping up theirs. I just reminded myself that it was recommend and hoped it was worth it. Thankfully, that price included a stop at a breakfast buffet where we had a Nicaraguan breakfast, I mean Costa Rican breakfast of rice and beans, eggs, plantains and fruit. Then it was back on the road. We crossed over the continental divide while I was asleep, arriving in Moin at about 8:30.

Moin is essentially a port – I’m sure there was a town somewhere but all we saw was a giant shipping port. We passed by ships loaded up with Dole pineapples, Chiquita bananas, and dozens of others without brand names all headed to parts unknown. The van pulled up at a little hotel and restaurant on a canal behind the port. We were loaded onto a small lancha and began the next phase of the trip on route to Tortuguero. Our boat captain Eddie took us through the canals built by the fruit and logging companies to expedite the exports to North America. Now they were used instead of roads to get to the remote towns on the Caribbean shore. Fran and Eddie were awesome at finding and pointing out birds, bats, monkeys, crocodiles and sloths hanging out in the jungle that still lined the canals and rivers. Although most were too far away to get a good shot of. It was great – for the first hour but by the fourth hour we were all getting a little anxious to get to Tortuguero in our sleep deprived state. Plus, without an interest in birds it was a little much.

Finally we pulled up to Tortuguero. It was not so much a town as it was a jumble of houses and shops on thin strip of land between the canal and the sea. There wasn’t even a road just a dusty path that we followed to get to our room for the night. For the money we were paying, I expected our accommodations to be among the best we’d experienced. But our room was no different than any other room we’d had. It was clean with a private coldwater shower but no fancier than any other room we’d stayed in during our trip. Although looking out over the beach was nice.

Anxious to freshen up, we took a cool dip in the small swimming pool. We felt almost human and then headed out to the conservation area to learn about the sea turtles – that was, afterall, the reason we were up here. Tortuguero was named for the sea turtles that nest on the beach for 6 months of the year. Leatherback nesting season had just ended last month and the green turtle had yet to begin officially for another couple of weeks. But we were here so we crossed our fingers that turtles couldn’t read calendars and would start early this year. The conservation area was a small hut chock full of information on the history of the turtle program. It was begun in the 50s by an American named Archie something who noted the dangerous overfishing of turtles in the area and warned the government of potential extinction. It took a few years but they finally listened and let him set up the Caribbean Conservation Centre, to educate the locals about turtles and convinced them to stop the slaughter. Now it was run by his grandson and a bunch of other scientists.

Back at the hotel, we signed up for a night hike to search for nesting turtles but were warned that there was less than a 50/50 chance of seeing them. Oh well, I felt like gambling today. It was still a few hours before dark so Adrian and I set off in search of a phone to call home. The best tiny Tortuguero could offer was $2 phone cards that would only provide 5 minutes of talk time which wasn’t much help. We passed and found the only internet café in town to send an email home explaining the predicament.

For dinner we went to Miss Junnie’s, a restaurant known as much for its role in the history of the town as it was for its food. It was started as a café to feed the fruit and logging company employees. Then when the loggers and fruit pickers left, Miss Junnie adapted her business to serve the scientists and conservationists. And the town grew around the restaurant. Now 60 years later her granddaughter serves the same delicious home cooked food to hungry tourists. The food was good but we had to wait 1.5 hours for it. We quickly gobbled it down and rushed off to start our turtle trek.

Back at the hotel, we met up with Lisa, Brenda, Anthony and Sarah and our local guide and began our 2 hour trek along the beach. Despite the heavy duty lightening show over the sea, it was pitch dark. It was also very windy but still incredibly hot and humid. In the dark we didn’t find any signs of turtles but I did manage to find a coconut, a stone, a large tree branch and a couple of holes left behind by kids digging sand castles by tripping over them. The branch sent me flying and thanks to the layer of sweat on my skin I got up covered in sand. We passed another 20 people also searching for signs of the turtles before turning back. Oh well, we tried.

Once in the light of our hotel room I got a shock looking in the mirror. Despite shaken and wiping off what seemed like buckets of sand, I was covered in a thick layer of black sand. A long shower helped to get rid of most of it but I knew I’d be finding sand in my scalp and ears for the next week or so. It had been an exhausting day so we collapsed on the bed. No turtles. No phone call home. We were feeling very unaccomplished

Sunday, June 21, 2009

No news always feels like bad news.

After our awesome fun day yesterday, we woke up to an email from home with some very bad news. My father was in the hospital and in very bad shape*. We tried to call my mom but only got her voice mail. Unable to connect with anyone back in Toronto, all we could do was worry, wonder if we should end our trip early and what we were going to do. Although it was hard we decided to go out and try to enjoy our last day in San Jose and maybe our last stop on our big trip.

It was the best thing we could have done. Within a half hour of our time at the National Museum (photo above) we had managed to relax a bit. The museum was undergoing renovations and when I bought the tickets the woman first pointed out all the exhibits that were closed. I was worried that we were flushing money down the toilet but there was still plenty to make it worthwhile. There was a pre-columbian gold exhibit, a special display on endemic orchids, as well as an extensive history of Costa Rica, which included a display on the history of the building itself. The building had formerly been the headquarters of the army but when peace finally came to Costa Rica in the 1940s, the first thing the new government did was disband the army, the lack of which Costa Rica is still really proud of. While the Costa Rican revolution was a far cry from those in the rest of Central America, there was still plenty of political graffiti in the old cells. And it was curious that originally the museum had put the religious artifacts on display in the old latrines. Or maybe that was just me looking into it too much. Despite half the museum being closed, there was enough to satisfy our hunger for history and we decided to skip any of the others in town.

We walked around the rest of the downtown, past the cathedral, their radio station and the central park. We had tickets for a show at the teatro so we went for an early dinner nearby then headed to the show. Unlike our experience in Tegucigalpa, the theatre was packed but mostly with American tourists when I looked at the program I saw why. The New England Youth Orchestra was playing with the National Youth Orchestra of Costa Rica, so most of the audience were the relatives of the American kids. Our $6 tickets were for one of the boxes but when we got there it was obvious that there were more seats than the box was originally built for. That was fine at first but when the rest of the box ticket holders came we were soon out of leg room – literally. The seat of our chairs touched the back of the ones in front. Luckily the usher saw our plight and found new seats for us.

The lights went down on the full house (except for the presidential box which remained empty) and the American kids began. Considering their average age was about 14, they were quite good. However they had their butts kicked by the older Costa Rican youth orchestra who played afterwards. It was a full 2.5 hour program and well worth it.

We walked back to the guesthouse. It was try to call home. However, the phone line at the guesthouse was out of order and they weren’t sure when it would be back up. We still had no news from home. Not knowing if we needed to go back to Toronto, we decided to continue with our trip to Tortuguero. No news was supposed to be good news but it always feels like bad news. Anxious, we sent an email home and promised to try from the next town. For now the best we could do was try to get some sleep.

(*Since this is about stuff that happened about a month ago, i just wanted to add that everything is okay back home, touch wood. But it was a bit scary for about a week.)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

WTF are you doing here?

Things we have learned on the road – when you arrive in a city on the weekend, always check the opening hours of places you want to see. What you plan to see on Sunday or Monday may not be open on those days. We learned this the hard way. So before we went exploring we cracked open the guidebook and made a list of things that were only open today. Connecting the dots on the map, we ended up with a nice little walking tour.

The hostel was located near the government buildings which were closed and empty of the weekend. At night this made the area seem a little dodgy. But during the day it was fine. We headed to the main shopping area for breakfast and then back to the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design. It was housed in an old distillery which had recently been turned into an art centre. It reminded me of the distillery district in Toronto – go figure. Besides the museum, the complex was also home to the national theatre and dance companies as well as some small art galleries. But we were there to see the Art Museum.

Despite being in a national arts complex, the current exhibit had nothing to do with Costa Rica. Instead it was called 300% Espana which was their clever way of saying that there were 100 chairs, 100 lamps and 100 posters from Spain on display. And not a single piece of Costa Rican or even Central American art. Kinda odd but the display was really interesting. I was particularly fond of the old travel posters while Adrian was particularly fond of the least practical chairs on display. When it comes time to replace all the furniture we sold, I have a feeling there’s going to be a lot of arguing, I mean, negotiating.

When we were done, we had to wait before we could leave as it was pouring rain again. This is definitely the rainy season, although the tourist industry prefers to call it the green season. Whatever you called it, it was wet. Finally the rain let up enough so we could walk around the corner to a small gallery recommended by Lonely Planet. Amazingly it was still there and it was quite good. It was owned and operated by a man named Alfonso Peña who was very eager to show us all the work by local Costa Rican artists. So this is where all the local art was. Alfonso was an artist as well and very enthusiastic about all the pieces on display. They were mostly prints but at $300-3000 each they were a bit out of our price range. When we told him that, he showed us a special package that he had for sale: a book written and illustrated by a local author with a small print for $30. And maybe if we weren’t living out of backpacks we would have been tempted. But we had to decline again and headed out to continue our little tour.

We headed back towards the main square fighting our way through the throngs of people. We could hear cheesey hair metal coming from the square. It was coming from a band playing in front of the money museum beside the teatro. We stopped and listened as the covered Sweet Child of Mine, Back in Black and Smells like Teen Spirit. For some reason Central Americans love hair metal and the crowd was going wild, as did Adrian until I told him to put his devil horns away.

Our next stop was a complete 180 from hair metal and devil horns – el teatro. We walked up to the entrance to sign up for a guided tour when I was stopped by a familiar voice. It took me a moment to place it and it wasn’t until the scanned the crowd did I find the source. No it wasn’t anyone we’d met traveling but rather a voice from back home. Andrea (hi Andrea), a woman I used to work with, although she was in the Montreal office and I was in the Toronto office. I totally interrupted her conversation by standing in her personal space until she noticed me.

“WTF are you doing here?” she screamed in disbelief.
“Me? I’m been traveling around for the last three months. What are you doing here?”
“I just arrived yesterday to start a ten day tour tomorrow.”
“We just got here yesterday as well.”
Cool. We continued to catch up on old times in the lobby of the beautiful old theatre while waiting for the English tour to begin. We weren’t exactly quiet and people on the Spanish tour tried to shush our excited conversation.

Eventually, there were enough people assembled for the English tour. So we did our best to behave and take it in. Although the pointy breasts on some of the decorations were a little distracting. The theatre (photo above) however was beautiful and had some interesting history. It was used as an official receiving room by the government and back in the 60s when JFK visited Costa Rica was the location of the first assassination attempt on the president. I wonder if Oliver Stone knows about this. Of course it was thwarted and the details weren’t revealed until recently when someone got access to some files under the freedom of information act. As the tour wrapped up, the guide came up to the three of us, to remind us that we hadn’t paid for the tour. Instead he asked for a tip, which he pocketed. No worries for us as it saved us about $10. Maybe Costa Rica won’t backrupt us afterall.

“I don’t know about you but I could use a drink,” Andrea said as we were standing outside.

So could we. We had seen everything on our “only open on Saturday” list and catching up with a friendly face sounded awesome. We found a cheap bar unpstairs over looking the pedestrian mall and spent the next 6 hours chatting and drinking and laughing and fighting off the pirate dvd sellers.

Andrea had just arrived to start a 9-day Gap tour. Tonight she was supposed to go out for dinner with the rest of her tour mates. But she skipped it to hang out with us. So we ordered dinner at the bar. It was a locals place (we were 3 of only 5 gringos in the place) so the prices were good. Eating however was a little difficult. Rather than clear the beer bottles from the table, the waiter left them which after a few hours meant limited table space. I thought it was for easy bill calculation but the waiter told us it was so the servers could keep an eye on how much everyone had to drink. By 8pm our table was no where to be found. But a good time was had. And we took some shots to commemorate the moment. Then it was time to head back to our hotels. We made sure Andrea got safely into a cab then sped walk through the empty streets back to our guesthouse. After 3 months on the road it was awesome to have a little taste of home.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Do you know the way to San Jose?

“So how do you feel about french toast and caremalized apples for breakfast?” When that’s how you’re greeted in the morning, it’s kinda hard to leave. But it was time to move on from Essence Arenal. And it was time to get the answer to that age old question "Do you know the way to San Jose?". I managed to ask Kelly without breaking into song and likewise he was able to give us the answer sans musique. The bus wasn’t until 2:45 so we had time to enjoy another of Kelly’s tasty breakfast and hang out with Georgia and Josh and swipe some of the movies and tv shows they had on their harddrive. Unfortunately we weren’t able to reciprocate due to those annoying Mac and PC compatibility issues. Thanks guys and sorry about that.

Since Nico was still out of town with the van, Kelly arranged a local guy to take us into Fortuna for $20 at 1pm. We settled up our bill and discovered we were short about $20. No worries though. Kelly told us we could just give the money to the driver after we hit the bank machine in town. Phew. But when 1pm came and went, and the driver still wasn’t there, Kelly called the guy again. He said he’d be there in five minutes which true to Central American timekeeping actually meant more like 45 minutes. Considering it took us almost an hour to get out here, and we still had to hit that bank machine, I was doing my best not to be antsy. But the driver was an expert on the roads. And we got to Fortuna with 10 minutes to spare.

Now we had to find that bank machine. If you’re familiar with Murphy’s law you’ll have an idea of how this worked. We were in a hurry therefore it was going to be difficult. Sure enough, the first one denied Adrian any money. I asked the driver to take us to another machine. He replied that if that one didn’t work the next one probably wouldn’t. He obviously wasn’t familiar with the vagaries of international banking and unfortunately my Spanish wasn’t good enough to try to explain it to him. The best I could do was just ask him to let us try another machine. He shrugged and drove to the next bank.

Luckily the second time was the charm. We were able to pay the driver and give him the money we still owed Kelly. Now I thought we’d zoom off to the bus station. But no, the driver decided now was the perfect time to stop for gas. Rather than get upset I told myself that we’d just catch the next bus. Much better than getting cranky. However, when we finally got to the bus station, the bus was still there. So I went to load our luggage and tell the driver to wait while Adrian bought our tickets. And once we were on the bus it zoomed off. Yay that was close.

On the bus, it was nice to exhale and relax after the last couple of tense hours. It poured rain for most of the 4-hour ride. Other than that the ride was quick until we hit San Jose. We arrived just in time for rush hour traffic and now that we were in a big city again, rush hour traffic really was an issue. It took another hour to get to the dodgy Coca-Cola terminal we’d read about. We found a taxi driver – or rather he found us, of course. As instructed to do by the guidebook, I asked him to put on the maria. He told me it didn’t work because it was peak time and gave me a flat rate instead. Because the amount was fairly reasonable I didn’t fight him too much. Of course as we sat at traffic lights I had a chance to see the meters at work in other cabs. Gee, another taxi driver who lied to me, what a surprise. But the driver knew exactly where we were going, which was worth the lie in such a big city.

The guest house was just a few blocks away from downtown and quite nice. It was by far the biggest room we’d staying in (photo above, well that's half of the room) and even the giant king bed in the middle of it did little to fill it. It was also the most expensive room so far at $40/night with a shared bath. But it was super clean and modern and close to everything. And across the street was the affiliated hostel with swimming pool, computers, big screen tvs, restaurant and bar. We popped in for a delicious thai curry that we ate while watching Pirates of the Caribbean 97 (I have no idea what number the franchise is up to). We’d made it to San Jose. But we’d have to wait until tomorrow to explore it.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

You meet the most interesting people in the middle of the jungle.

When the biggest attraction in the area is free, it’s hard to justify spending money on any of the lesser tours. The hostel offered plenty to do – horseback riding, trips to the hot springs, Thought about doing a walk or a horseback ride but with awesome internet access decided to just hang out at the hostel instead – good thing because it was a rather rainy day. Georgia and Josh were also not up to forking out for tours when the location was so awesome. Fortunately, the hostel grounds included a (free) jungle trail so once the weather cleared up, we headed down the marked path.

The owners of the hostel had dug a long path down the side of a hill and had even managed to spread gravel on the first half. It made the trip down the hill easy but once we hit the forest, erm jungle, the gravel stopped and the mud began. It was slippery and crossing a river or two (photo above) didn’t help our traction. We could hear howler monkeys somewhere in the trees but never managed to spot them. Adrian however, did run almost smack dab into a bird that was just as surprised by us as we were by it. The poor thing tried to fly away but being deep inside a bush, its escape attempt was thwarted.

By the time we crossed the valley floor and got to the other side of the hill, it was beginning to feel more like a mountain. Luckily it was still overcast so it wasn’t too hot although in the trees the humidity was quite thick. As we got to the top of the other side, the trees cleared and we found ourselves in a field. Adrian went off to chase the horses on the horizon it started to spit. The memory of the recent downpour was enough to get us moving so we didn’t get stuck trying to climb an even muddier path. Getting back was slightly easier than going down but when arrived back at the hostel we were still sweating buckets. We were greeted by Kelly.
“So how was it?”
“Just long enough,” I replied. Any longer and I would have been cursing Adrian for his bright idea. But any shorter and I would have felt like we’d done nothing but the 1.5 hour hike was just enough to feel accomplished and outdoorsy so I could sit back down at the computer to try and catch up on the blog.

After the delicious and huge breakfast, we’d skipped lunch but by 6pm we were beginning to feel cranky with hunger. Kelly had told us that we could get pizza down in the village. So Georgia, Josh. Adrian and I decided to go for it. We could walk but after the hike none of us felt like it. Kelly made a phone call and 30 minutes later a guy in a pick up truck arrived. Good thing too because we needed his 4 wheel drive to the horrible roads and steep inclines. It was also a good thing we hadn’t walked because this pizza place way on the other side of the small town. And by other side I mean in the middle of nowhere.

The driver pulled up in front of a small two story house. Out walked a guy with long blonde-grey hair followed by a younger blonde guy who greeted us
“How y’all doing on this here fine night?” That was definitely not a Tico accent, “I’m Ted”
“And I’m John,” said the older man, “Welcome to Casa Escondito’

John was from Californian and Ted was from North Carolina but now running a pizza shop in the middle of nowhere Costa Rica, far, far away from the tourist crowds. Well actually it turned out that Ted was just down here for the summer because it was the best summer job he could find. As for John, when we asked him why here, he pulled up a chair and began to tell us his story.

“Well, I’m a surfer. So I came to Costa Rica to surf two years ago. But when I got to Tamarindo, I hated it. It was just like home. I realized what I wanted to do more than surf was to get away from it all. So I arrived here in the middle of nowhere and built myself a house. Of course then I had to figure out how to keep myself busy and make some money. My plan was to make proper barbeque and sell it. So I bought a big smoker and grill and decided to roast a pig and invite all the local villagers over to try it for free and hopefully get them hooked. At the last minute I made some ice cream too – for the kids. For a week afterwards, I waited for people to ask me when I was going to barbeque again so I could hit them with the marketing pitch. But no one said anything about the pig. Not a word. But I was getting asked when I was going to make more ice cream. So I made more ice cream and began selling it while I waited for someone to ask for barbeque. One day I made pizza to go with the ice cream and that was an instant hit. So I got myself a pizza oven and here I am. In the meantime the smoker and grill sit outside rusting.”

Yes, here he was a surfer from LA selling pizza and ice cream under the shadow of an erupting volcano. And for the record the pizza was delicious. In fact, we ordered more to take back in a doggie bag. And so was the homemade ice cream and brownie. But the best part was the company.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Let the fireworks begin.

By now I think you all know how I feel about travel days. But I was actually looking forward to today. Hina and Terri were infectiously fun so I was relieved when they got up in time to join us. We quickly ate breakfast and said goodbye to Ronnie and his super cute family.
“When I come to Canada, I’ll visit you,” Ronnie said.
“Well I hope it’s not in the next year because we’ll still be traveling.”
When I explained our trip Ronnie surprised. “I guess I’ll have to wait until you come back then.”
He was a super guy – although the hostel was basic and the internet sucked, he and his family made it a lovely place to stay.

Marie had just woken up too and we quickly exchanged contact info to share tips as we followed each others footsteps. Then it was time for the four of us to trek to the bus stop. I say trek because although it was just 10 minutes away it was mostly uphill, like most of Monteverde. But we got there with enough time to wipe the sweat off our brows before boarding.

The ride back to Tilaran was a beautiful one and despite all the rain in the last few days the roads were clear and we made it there in just over 2 hours. Normally that would have been a good thing but we were in no hurry – the next bus to La Fortuna wasn’t until 1:30. That was a lot of time to kill and although Tilaran was cute it wasn’t that big. As we were standing there lamenting our good/bad luck a taxi driver approached us and offered to take us $100 (or $25 each). We just laughed at him. Another driver approached and said he’d take us for $10 each. The price was double what we’d pay for the bus but still quite cheap and we’d get to our destination a whole 6 hours earlier than expected. I explained to the driver that we were going to two different destinations – we were going to El Castillo and the girls were going to La Fortuna and asked if the price was still the same. The man nodded and repeated $10 each or $40 total. I repeated the two different destinations again and repeated the price; he still nodded. So we agreed and Hina in her friendly and charming way told the driver “Now don’t you go changing your mind and asking for more money when we get there. Okay”

The ride was quick over paved highway that ringed the lake. We passed monkeys hanging out in trees, coatamundi’s scrounging in the leaves, and lots of pretty scenery. Soon we hit rows of hotels and resorts – marking that we were getting closer to La Fortuna. At the turn off to El Castillo. I reminded the driver that we were going there. He said yes but he wanted to drop the girls off in La Fortuna because the roads were very bad and he had to come back this way anyways. That sounded reasonable. So I shook it off.

As we got closer to La Fortuna we could see Arenal looming over the city. The weather was noticeably hotter and sunnier than Monteverde and we all took off a couple of layers. We pulled up to the cabins the girls were staying at. It wasn’t too good to be true – the rooms were clean and cute. The family running it spoke no English but were very nice and patient as the girls stumbled through the check in using Spanglish.

Satisfied that they were in good hands, we took their money and went back to the cab for our trip. Rather than start the car the driver begins a new song and dance – the roads are bad he’ll need more money to take us out. I told him no and reminded him about our agreement. His memory went blank and he said no that’s not what we agreed only La Fortuna. I let out a string of explosive explicatives and told Adrian to get out of the cab. The man tried to talk to me but I actually gave him the hand.

Hina and Terry came out and asked what was wrong. I explained the bait and switch to them and they were furious too but also felt bad. I handed over the $40 for the ride and told the driver to Adios. I asked the owner of the other hotel about buses to El Castillo and the driver interrupted to say there were no buses. I told him adios and gave him the hand once again (I know, I know but I was mad). The lady agreed that there were no buses so I decided to call the hostel to see if they’d pick us up. Just then an English speaking tour rep for the hotel arrived and he offered to call Essence Arenal for me. Hina and Terry told him what happened. For some reason the tour guide apologized for the drivers dishonesty but confirmed that there were no buses and that taxi drivers usually charge $20 to go out to El Castillo. I told him I was just angry about being lied to again. Scammer jammers.

The guide spoke to the hostel and yes they were coming to pick us up – and for free! Crisis averted. It gave us a chance to hang out with Terry and Hina once again and play with the cute little puppies that Adrian had discovered at the hotel and check out the giant iguanas hanging out in a tree. El Buho was definitely a good choice. I hoped our place was just as good.

When the van arrived from Essence Arenal, the owner Nico was another super nice guy. Although German, he was raised in Spain and now living in Costa Rica. As we chatted and drove out to the hostel, we discovered just how bad the roads were. It was an hour long drive through the national park to the active side of the volcano on a road as bad as Ometepe. I now understood the extra charge but was still angry about being lied to. Nico pointed out the spot where tour groups usually come to see the volcano. That’s right Volcan Arenal is a very active volcano. It has been continuously erupting since 1968. People pay $25 for a chance of catching the volcanic fireworks; often clouds pass by the cone blocking the view but with only an hour tour they’re often disappointed. At the hostel we’d have a 24/7 view of the volcano (weather permitting). So we continued up through the tiny little town of El Castillo and then up and up and up and up to Essence Arenal. The hostel was a tiny but cute place on a big chunk of land with an absolutely priceless view of the lake and the volcano. It wasn’t quite as lux as my impressions of the pictures but it was still great.

There was one other couple staying there. Georgia and Josh were from Australia and had just made there way from Chile. We chatted and enjoyed a dip in the small pool which helped dissolve the tension from the taxi scam. The peace and quiet was absolutely lovely except when we realized how hungry we were. The nearest restaurant was halfway down the hill. So down we went for lunch that we easily worked off on the walk back up. It was quite the workout but we were lucky that the clouds that rolled in didn’t have any rain in them. We hoped they would disappear by dusk so we could get a clear view of the eruptions.

As the sun began to set, the clouds cleared a bit. Josh and I grabbed our cameras and began fiddling with them to try and figure out how to take a clear picture of the lava about 9km away. The darker it got the brighter the lava became we could clearly see the continuous explosions that reviled my explosion in the cab. But it became harder became to take pictures. I just pressed the button and hoped they were in focus. Nico and his business partner Kelly invited us to join their weekly poker game but we declined – the real entertainment were the fireworks on the mountain.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Frogs, butterflies and card games, oh my.

We had a lot of question marks when we woke up this morning. Where were we going to stay in Arenal? What were we going to do our last day in Monteverde? How much money was everything going to cost? I had no luck with my email enquiries so I kept looking. And when that got boring Adrian made the executive decision that we were going to visit the Ranario, or Frog Pond. Not only was it just up the hill and around the corner, it was one of the cheaper things to do that Ronnie highly recommended.

The Ranario was a mini zoo that had both a frog exhibit as well as a butterfly garden. We opted to see both starting with the butterfly garden. Our own personal tour guide led us through the 5 different butterfly enclosures. He was super knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the butterflies which made it very interesting. The enclosures were set in beautiful gardens and woods which the guide explained were only there to provide a steady stream of plants for the enclosures. Apparently, the caterpillars are such voracious eaters that all the plants have to be replaced every three months. And we saw some of that destruction in action as the guide pointed out hundreds of caterpillars munching on banana leaves, as well as multiple pupae, and of course butterflies of many different species. My favourites were the vivid big blue morphos (photo above).

The guide took us back to the main building and introduced us to another guide who took us through the frog exhibits. His English wasn’t as good as the butterfly guide’s so the information was limited. But he was great at finding the tiny frogs amongst the vegetation. Considering most were miniscule and very good at hiding that made him worthwhile. However, we were there during the day and most of the frogs were nocturnal so we didn’t see many. Good thing the entry price allowed us to come back in the evening to search again.

We headed back to the hostel just before it started to pour rain. Safely inside we set to work trying to find that elusive reasonably priced place to stay in La Fortuna/Arenal. Ronnie tried to convince us to take the tourist shuttle called the jeep boat jeep for $25 each but if our room was going to cost $50 that didn’t leave much money for sightseeing. Two American girls, Terri and Hina were similarly struggling. As I was searching I found one place that seemed almost too good to be true – it was only $20 a night for a room with a private bath. I told them about it and they immeditately booked it. I kept searching and discovered a super nice place near town on the lava side of the volcano, El Castillo. It would take a bit longer to get there but it looks awesome. There’s a fireplace, small pool and hot tub and all that for only $30 a night. It called itself a backpackers spa. Sold. Using the super slow internet, it took an hour to get the booking completed. But I finally got an email confirmation. I told Hina and Terri and they joked that I had been holding out on them. Well, after three days of searching I was just happy to have found something.

Now we had to figure out how to get to El Castillo. It was closer to Monteverde but we’d still have to go the long way around to La Fortuna, then take another hour bus to El Castillo. Tomorrow was going to be a long travel day regardless so we decided to just stick with the public bus even when Ronnie dropped the shuttle price to $20. Hina and Terri said they’d join us at 6am on the public bus. They were two high school science teachers and incredibly friendly that having them with us would definitely help pass the time. Unless, of course, the rain washed out the roads. As it continued to pour this seemed like a possibility, especially when the hillside across from Sleepers came tumbling down into the road.

When the rain let up slightly we headed into town for dinner and then back to Ranario to see the frogs in action at night. This time we were each handed a torch and told to go searching. Adrian and I surprisingly remembered all the different places each species preferred to hang out in and were able to find even more than our day trip. We felt like kids on a school trip but it was surprisingly fun. Who doesn’t like to runaround in a dark zoo with flashlights? Unfortunately, the dark meant it was very hard to take any photos but I gave it a good try.

Back at the hostel, Hina and Terri had managed to organize a bunch of folks from nearby hostels to come over and play cards. The plan was to meet at another hostel but apparently Ronnie was the only owner that allowed guests. So crowded around the kitchen tables were 5 Swedes, 2 guys from Northern Ireland, Hina and Terri, English Marie and I (Adrian was playing his PSP in the room). We played a round of Sh*thead otherwise known as A*shole, and something called Horseracing before it was lights out at the hostel. It was only 10pm but since Hina, Terri, Adrian and I had to catch the 7am bus to Tilaran, and the Irish guys were catching the 4:30 bus to San Jose, 10pm lights out was probably a very good thing indeed.

Monday, June 15, 2009

When in the 51st state, you have to visit Eco Disney.

When your daily budget is only $100 CN and tours are $25 US per person, one activity can eat up have your budget before you’re eaten or slept. The big thing that people do in Monteverde is ziplining through the cloud forest. Not exactly our thing and with a $35-$40 US price tag (each) it was less appealing. Plus how much can you see when you’re traveling that fast? So after a delicious and ample breakfast (granola, fruit, egg, toast and coffee) served by Ronnie’s wife, we booked the old fart option of a sky walk for $25 each. Breakfast wasn’t the only great thing about Sleepers. The shower was absolutely the best we’ve had in three months on the road. There was plenty of really hot water with matching water pressure. Maybe they didn’t have wifi our a lively crowd but it the shower and hospitality more than made up for it.

At 10:30 sharp the minivan arrived for us. We headed up and around and down the bumpy roads to the Selvatour canopy adventure park. The ticket office looked like a version of Eco Disney World. Absolutely pristine and western and everyone spoke perfect English. Actually Eco Disney is exactly what all of Costa Rica reminded me of. I knew that it was an actual country and people lived here but it seemed like the tourist industry did everything to separate us tourists from them. Gringos didn’t take regular public buses. Tipico Tico restaurants were tucked out of sight on back streets. Attractions had lineups, information booklets, handrails and safety warnings. After 3 months of relative roughing it, it made us wrinkle our noses just a bit. I guess that stuff is great if you’re only here for a week (in fact we saw a school group from Canyon View High pull up in their tour bus). You can seamlessly travel without having to deal with culture shock. But we’d been traveling for three months, eating traveling and sightseeing locally. Costa Rica was beautiful but it was feeling a bit sterile and made us feel like we were using the country rather than experiencing it.

But I digress. Where was I? Oh yeah, the canopy walk. The canopy walk was a series of 8 suspension bridges and a 4 km paved trail through the cloud forest. It was pretty but we saw very little wildlife. That wasn’t surprising since every five minutes someone came ziplining overhead screaming and yelling and generally scaring anything within a 1km radius. Still it was a lovely walk that took us through clouds, the rain, the cold, some sunshine, and finally the heat during the hour and a half circuit. But it also wasn’t something I’d pay $25 US for ($15 tops). It made us reconsider what other sights we were going to see.

On the way back, we got off in town to find a bank machine. The first one we found wouldn’t let us take money out. So we had a tipico lunch of fried chicken (no really, it’s the national dish here) but the portions were so big we had to split one order. We walked back to the hostel through town which was mostly a collection of tour offices and souvenir shops. We tried to find a second bank, following a sign that pointed down a road but after a 20 minute hike uphill along a foggy deserted road, we realized the sign probably assumed we were driving and wherever the bank was it was too far away to walk. On the way back so, I spotted a different bank on the horizon but that could wait. Our feet were tired and it had begun to rain.

We made it back to the hostel just before it began to pour. I found an intermittent wifi signal and began the search for our next place to stay. We were headed to La Fortuna to see the Arenal volcano. Or not. I couldn’t find a place for less than $50/night. Yikes and Ouch. Hoping that the quotes were incorrect I sent out some email inquiries just before losing the wifi signal. Adrian wanted to do the night tour so we signed up for that and then chatted to some new guests a gay couple from Australia and an English girl. We swapped stories and travel tips until the van pulled up for Adrian and I’s night tour. She invited us all out for drinks when we got back. Sounds like fun but we’ll have to see how our legs hold up after the night hike.

The minivan pulled up and drove to the outskirts of the town to a big fancy hotel. At first I thought we were picking up more people but the driver opened the door and told us this was it. From the lobby of the hotel we could see all the way across to the Gulf of Nicoya. We have enough time to snap some pictures before the guide appears and takes us into the forest on the grounds of the hotel as the sun begins to set.

I don’t know how he did it but the guide is amazing at spotting minute bugs, birds and frogs in the pitch black night. Supposedly we even see a sloth with a baby but even through the binoculars it looks just like a dirty beige blob in a tree. I began to suspect that the guide or hotel has just placed stuffed animals up in the trees before we headed out. Until of course the animals move and run away. We also saw a bunch of agoutis, and a tarantula but we all missed the fox that ran through our puny flashlight beams and then remained hidden. The walk was much more interesting than the canopy walk and at $17 it was cheaper too. But I was also glad when it was over. The 5:30 start time meant we hadn’t eaten dinner and were absolutely starving by the time we got back to the hostel just before 8. Costa Rica may feel like Eco Disney but it was still lacking the Disney concessions. So as soon as we got back we gobbled down dinner and decided to pass on the drinks with Marie from London. There was always tomorrow.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Monteverde?

It seemed that few travelers to Costa Rica ever stepped foot on the local buses. Sure this kept the prices low, but it also meant that info on how to get to points a through z was hard to come by. So we got up at 4am had some breakfast and set off to catch the 5:30-ish bus to Liberia, the only bus for which we had information on. But finding out where to catch this bus was a little tricky. Without a queue of backpackers to mark it’s departure point, we just looked for locals hanging out on street corners and asked them. Eventually, the third one nodded that we were in the right spot for the bus so we joined him as he waited.

At exactly 5:30 a bus pulled up but rather than the normal public transit bus it was a fancy coach but the sign says Liberia so we got on. But we didn’t pay which was odd for Costa Rica. Also odd was the number of gringos on the coach. However, the bus was taking the same route we took to get here so we didn’t think anything of it. As the bus continued down the highway, it stopped to let people on who immediately had tickets for San Jose. Now I was confused. I approached the ayudante and told him we didn’t have tickets. He asked us where we were going and I told him (I hoped – my Spanish is still questionable) Liberia to get Tilaran to get to Monteverde just as some websites had suggested. He shook his head. We were on the San Jose express bus that passes through Liberia. But he told me that we could get off at Cañas instead and take a bus to Tilaran to get to Monteverde. That was one bus less than my route so I thanked him and asked him how much. $10 each to Cañas. A bit more than I had hoped but the cost of clear directions on how to get to where we wanted was worth it. Plus it was still too early to care.

The bus was super comfy and we got to Cañas just after 8, or rather we got to the highway just outside Cañas. As the ayudante helped us get our bags he told us that the Tilaran bus would come at 9:30 and pointed down the road to where we could catch it. I thought he pointed to the gas station so we dropped our bags in front and both used the washrooms but when we came out one of the employees told us the bus stop was on the other side of the highway. Indeed there was a bus shelter and lots of people waiting and a line up of taxis next to it.

As we sat there waiting for 9:30 to come, an endless stream of buses passed by. San Jose, Liberia, Nicaragua, even San Salvadore. I occasionally asked the drivers if they were going to Tilaran just to make sure. As 9:30 comes and goes, the wait began to feel really long. Adrian bought some oranges off a lady at the bus stop and we ate those. But we’re both beginning to feel a little anxious. Our Lonely Planet mentions that the bus is supposed to come every hour and a half and we’ve now been waiting longer than that. I then began asking every bus if they were going to Tilaran as well as the passengers standing in line. As if sensing our fear, the taxi drivers who had previously ignored us came over and offered their services. We were quoted $40 to get to Tilaran which made it easy to shake them off. But when one of the waiting passengers tells us that we should be at another bus stop on the other side of town, Adrian and I begin to consider the taxi option. There was only one bus from Tilaran to Monteverde at 12:30 and it was now after 10am. One taxi driver approached us again and began to bargain hard with us. His price was now $20. As Adrian began to pull out his wallet, the gas station attendant waves at us from down the highway. He pointed to a bus on the horizon. It was the bus to Tilaran and the taxi driver just lost a fare. Phew.

Once we were on the bus, I was relieved not just because it had arrived but because the ride was less than an hour and definitely not worth $20 (let alone $40). We arrived with plenty of time to buy our tickets to Monteverde and have a coffee but without seeing much of the pretty little town in the hills. We would have to come back this way to get to our next destination so I made a note of the bus times and discovered we’d have a couple of hours between buses to check it out next time.

Although Monteverde is only 30km away the ride took 3 hours. The road was unpaved and quite treacherous. At one point the bus had to inch down a steep hill so it wouldn’t end up in a ditch, then backed up so it could turn with the road (photo above). The temperature got cooler as we went higher and we were soon in the clouds. I can tell we’re getting close to Monteverde because the road signs were now almost exclusively in English and advertised hotels, zip lines and other touristy adventures. I was now worried that Monteverde was going to be another built up resort town. But when the bus pulled in, I was happy to find a small town with more locals than tourists.

As the only gringos on the bus, the waiting hotel reps pounced on us when we got off the bus. They left us alone (?!) when I told them we already had a reservation and even gave us directions to the hostel. Thanks to them we easily found the Sleepers Sleep Cheaper Hostel (yup that’s the real name of it) and were greeted by the super friendly and helpful owner, Ronnie. As we checked in he almost overwhelmed us with info on activities and prices. We were still getting used to the sticker shock of Costa Rica so we just took the information pamphlet away to think on it. Luckily the room was only $20 US and includes a big breakfast. And it had a kitchen. Maybe we will be able to afford some of the activities. But that will have to wait until tomorrow.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

How to treat shock.

According to my St. John’s Ambulance training, when a person goes into shock you’re supposed to keep them warm, have them lie down and make them comfortable. Considering I was in deep reverse culture shock, I decided to put my training to test by doing nothing on our first full day in Tamarindo. It didn’t help (or rather it did help) that it rained all day. So I didn’t have to try and enjoy the pool or the beach. Instead I embraced the blog and caught up on emails. By dinner time, however it was time to go out. But rather than fight the location, we decided to embrace it by heading to a Pan-Asian restaurant so I could get sushi and Adrian could get a thai curry. It was more expensive than Toshi back home (but only half as good) but it felt good to eat something other than eggs, beans and rice, or chicken.

While we were eating, we got a chance to scope out the town. Despite Costa Rica having its own currency, the majority of prices in Tamarindo were quoted in US dollars. All signs were written in English. Most of the stores and fast food places were American and very mall like. And most of the tourists were American. We may have been in Central America but it felt more like the 51st state. My feelings were confirmed by an email from Cindi (diving pep talk Cindi) who noted that it was called Tamagringo because of all the Americans although she called it Tamashito because of the raw sewage pumped from the resorts on the coast straight into the ocean. Lovely. In fact an article she sent me revealed that fecal matter was 1,000,000 times higher than acceptable levels. Yet here we were in a beach town. We had to go to the beach.

The next morning the weather looked a bit better so we grabbed our suits and towels and picked up some snacks from the grocery store. It was grey but the drizzle stopped by the time we got to the sand. Tamarindo did have an awesome beach. The water appeared clear although with the big waves coming in on the dark sand it was hard to tell. We walked to a clearer stretch and rented umbrellas and lounge chairs for $2 and settled in for the day.

We didn’t really need to worry about bringing stuff with us to the beach as an endless stream of sellers made their way up and down the sand. Most were selling jewelry and ceramics but there were also those selling beer, pop and snacks. At an appropriate hour we called over a lady selling beer. She insists we only buy from her. Not a problem. I assumed she was just trying to get some loyal customers. But she continued to tell me that most of the people selling things are Nicaraguan and they sell cheap things at very expensive prices. At first I wasn’t sure if she was disapproving of their markups but she proceeded to tell me that Nicaraguans were not good people because they only want money. I laughed and told her that the Nicas had told us that Ticos were lazy. Luckily she laughed too. Familiarity breeds contempt.

But Costa Rica had one thing that Nicaragua didn’t. The influx of all those Americans brought with it lots of US cash but also American size drug problems. We’re not talking a little pot for the surfers. But crack, cocaine and heroin. It wasn’t visible like in Vancouver for example, but it was definitely there. While we were lounging on the beach a couple of young American girls were talking to a couple of local guys. They seemed like harmless hustlers until they started (loudly) talking about how great heroin and crack were. Costa Rica was not making a good first impression on me.

We tuned out the hustlers and watched the surfers instead. Tamarindo was a surfing hot spot and there were all levels of surfers out on the waves. From absolute beginners who made it look like the hardest sport in the world to pros who made it look like a cake walk. It looked like fun but today was about doing nothing. The waves that made surfing fun made it hard to actually enjoy the water (well that and the fear of getting e. coli). So we decided to escape back to the hotel pool. We were paying for it after all.

The pool was lovely and the proximity to my computer made it easy to combine our lounging with research for our next leg. I easily found a place to stay in Monteverde but how to get there was proving a little more difficult. So I asked the woman at the front desk. She thought I was asking for driving instructions and quickly whipped out a map and started drawing a route. When I explained that we didn’t have a rental car she was momentarily confused. I repeated that we wanted the bus and she pulled out a pamphlet for a $35 tourist shuttle. No I mean the public bus. This seems to have stymied her. Her only suggestion is to take the 5:45 am bus to Liberia where we’re sure to find some connection to Monteverde which was my plan before I asked her. I checked out in advance and then we hurried off to dinner.

Adrian had found a place that advertised nachos as big as your ass so we set off to find it. It was on the beach road and was a huge surfing hangout, complete with board shop and surfing videos on all the big screen tvs. True to their word they had not just nachos as big as your ass but ass sized burritos and tacos as well. We eat as much as we possibly can before packing it in half way through. A couple of guys were playing jazzy guitar music and despite being quite good the college-aged crowd really wasn’t into it. We threw some money into their hat and then headed back to the hotel in the rain. We packed set the alarms and went to bed. It took us eleven and a half hours to get to the 51st state. I wonder how long it will take us to get out?

Thursday, June 11, 2009


The distinct writing style of this post title is an homage to my friend Cheryl. She has a distinct way of speaking that I affectionately call Cherylese. I hadn’t really had an occasion to speak Cherylese until this day. Today was without a doubt – the.longest.travel.day.ever. And as a result (warning) this may be the longest.most.boring.post.ever.

Getting up we knew we had a full day ahead of us. But rather than leave at 5am we decided to take the 8:30 bus although we weren’t sure if we were going to make that. Check out took forever at the hacienda – speed is not an aspect of Nicaraguan service. But luckily the bus stop was just 10 feet from the entrance to the hostel and there were another 8 recently checked out guests also getting on. Today was going to be a quiet day at the Hacienda.

The trip started off smoothly except for the fact that the bus was soon packed. Yet the driver stopped to pick up more people and all their luggage, livestock, and lumber. However, about 20 minutes later the driver stopped and couldn’t get the bus started again. He tried about 5 times but stalled each time. Instead we were all treated to the smell of burning rubber as something broke under the hood. The driver, ayudante and a couple of other passengers grabbed a tool box and set to work under the hood. Apparently, getting your driver’s license also requires a course in basic mechanics. They change some belt and decide to give it another go. But the driver still can’t get the bus to start.

Oh well, it looks like we won’t be making the 11:30 ferry. Rather than be annoyed, Adrian and I took it in stride. Afterall we’d been traveling for almost 3 months and this was our first bus breakdown which is a pretty impressive statistic. Half of the people on the bus decided to start walking to their destinations and the rest got off to get some fresh air (as well as photos of the mechanics in action). However, it wasn’t too long before a man pulled up on a bicycle. He took a quick look under the hood and without doing anything closed it and got on board. Then with his magical touch he started the bus in one shot. Everyone piled and was relieved when this guy took over the driver’s role because not only did he have the magical touch to starting the bus, he had the magical touch with driving it. He managed to make good speed (anything over 10km/hr was good) on the horrendous roads. This made the passengers, who were mostly backpackers trying to catch the 11:30 ferry very happy. And by the time we hit the paved road on the other side of the island it looked like we all might make the ferry after all, despite the 25-minute delay. In fact we get to Moyogalpa just after 11.

But before getting on, I have to use the loo which meant the seats on the ferry are full. However, there’s room up top in the sun and we even manage to find a place to sit. At first the journey is rather nice but once the clouds parted and the sun shone down on us it became a bit uncomfortable. I slathered on the sunscreen and Adrian let me wear his baseball cap (my own floppy hat had been lost somewhere in Guatemala) to keep the sun off my head. The effort manages to keep me burn free when we get to the dock in San Jorge.

Rather than submit to another taxi ride, we shook off the cloud of taxi drivers and attempted to follow the locals to the bus. There was one sitting on the dock that says Rivas to Managua. Well we needed to get to Rivas so it looked good until we tried to board, the driver turned us away and told us we had to take a taxi. What? Yet none of the locals had to take a taxi. Something was definitely not right but since we weren’t allowed on the bus, into the throng of taxi drivers it was.

I finally found one that wasn’t trying to charge us double what we paid to get in. he’s a young guy and once we’re on the road he immediately starts the hard sell on taking the taxi all the way to the border. Everything he tells us is, I don’t want to say lie, but it wasn’t exactly truthful. We’ll never make the bus. And that’s the last bus to the border. As we got closer to Rivas, he dropped his price from 500C to 240c, or 10 dollars for a 45 minute taxi ride. Adrian and I agree not because of his constant prattle but because after a few minutes of sitting in the back of a quick and comfy car, we decided to enjoy it for just a while longer. The driver was a nice guy and when I asked him about the exchange rate at the border he warned me it would be crap. Good thing we only had about $100 on us. He also warned us about Costa Ricans.

“They’re lazy. They don’t even work everyday. And they just want your money. Be careful” I took his warning with a grain of salt. In every country people had warned us about their neighbours. I think it’s the whole familiarity breeds contempt.

When we get to the border I was suddenly very happy we hadn’t taken the bus. It was pure chaos. But the taxi driver pointed us in the right direction through the rows of trucks and what seemed like an endless stream of deluxe express buses going to or coming from Managua, San Salvadore and San Jose. There was even one heading to Mexico – now that’s a long trip. The one thing we didn’t see was other foot traffic or signs directing those of us walking across the border. As we were searching for the Nicaraguan immigration office a young money changer said he’d help us out. He walked with us and waited while Adrian made a stop at the duty free. Then waited with us as we stood in line at to pay our exit fees and get our exit stamps. For his effort, we changed our last Nicaraguan cordobas into Costa Rican colones. And only lost about $10 in the exchange. Our friend then points us in the direction of the Costa Rican office which is a further 1 km down the road.

Our packs got heavier and the sun seemed to get hotter the longer we walked. But eventually we got to the Costa Rican office which is thankfully air-conditioned. We waited in one line with all the truck drivers until the woman at the front told us we were in the wrong line and to stand at the next window. We moved over but there was no one manning it and were the only people in line. 15 minutes passed and there was no sign that anyone was coming to help us. A tour bus pulled up and we were joined by about 20 others. I was about to tell them that we had been waiting a while when an immigration office waddled out – I guess he only comes out when there’s a crowd. But we’re now in Costa Rica although the process has taken over an hour.

Starving we popped into the café attached to the immigration office and grab a sandwich and cold drink. Then we followed the locals to the bus stop. The bus pulled up and it was a shiny new coach. But that’s not the only difference between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. In Costa Rica you pay before you get on the bus and they give you a ticket! This was something we’re going to have to get used to. But best of all it was still cheap about $2.

The bus journey was pretty straight forward except for the national police who stopped and boarded the bus a few times. They checked every passenger’s identity papers and our passports, even making sure we had a valid entry stamp. This happened about 3 times in the first 20 km from the border. I guess they were trying to prevent people from sneaking into the country. Interesting. But other than that the ride got us safely and uneventfully to Liberia by 4pm.

The city is smaller than I expected and full of familiar brand names on every street corner. There was even a stop light. Costa Rica sure is different if not a bit overwhelming. And to journey from remote Ometepe to flashy Liberia (well flashy relatively speaking) exacerbated the feeling. The bus station was small and when I asked about a bus to Tamarindo, I was directed to a ticket booth. There was one leaving from this station in 45 minutes so I bought our tickets (another $2) which not only list the departure time and cost but also the length of the journey, 117.8 km. How official.

The bus that pulled up was a lot like a TTC (public transit bus). And as we get on the driver told us to keep an eye on our bags. It was enough to make us a little paranoid. Although our bags are so heavy it would be hard to run off with them inconspicuously. The ride was nice but as we navigated the twisty country roads it was obvious that we weren’t going to get into Tamarindo by 6. I cross my fingers and hope we would get there by 7. But Murphy’s law kicked in and just after dark the bus broke down. Well not really broke down but the doors wouldn’t open or close. In Nicaragua, the bus would have driven away with them open. But apparently they’re sticklers for safety here in Costa Rica. He eventually gave up, leaving the back doors shut and the front doors open. Now I hoped we would make it to Tamarindo by 8.

Just before 8 we pulled into Tamarindo. It looked nothing like what I expected and it was obvious that our 5-year old Lonely Planet is hopelessly out of date about this town. Instead of a small lazy surf town, Tamarindo was a full blown resort town. There were ten times the number of hotels, restaurants and streets listed in the lonely planet. And it all looked like Cancun or Florida rather than Central America. We were the last people on the bus when the driver tells us we’re at the last stop. He asked us what we were looking for. Villa Macondo I replied. He pointed across the street and told us it was around the corner. We walked by sushi places and wine bars with the taxi drivers pointing us in the right direction without trying to give us a ride. Now I really was going into shock – culture shock.

At the hotel it only continued. It was almost luxurious for us. We can flush toilet paper. There’s hot water on demand. There are extra pillows and a clock radio. There’s even safe. We decided to escape and find some dinner. All the places look like they had been transplanted from downtown big cities and the prices matched the look. Just then down a dark alley I saw a sign advertising comida tipica. And for $2 we got fried chicken and chips the local favourite. Tamarindo was giving us heart palpitations. Not from the hot sauce or the prices but from the overwhelming Americanization of it. And okay, Adrian seemed to be enjoying all the amenities. Hopefully a good night’s sleep will make me feel better after the longest.travel.day.ever. And the flashiness of this town won’t seem as scary in the daylight.