A Travellerspoint blog

Monteverde

The cloud forest

semi-overcast 29 °C
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Took the bus-boat-bus route across the lake over to Monteverde. Glad we didn't opt for the 6 hour bus option, since one and a half hours on the last bus over dirt roads was plenty. I had a vision of Monteverde being this tiny eco town surrounded by towering trees and lush vegetation. Not quite. We stayed at Cabinas Eddy, ina private room for $8 per person, which had a surprisingly comfortable mattress.
We signed up for a night tour of the flora and fauna, and opted to take a hike ourselves during the day at the St. Helena Reserve. Entrance to the reserve was a whopping $14 dollars each. Since we had most of the day, we took the longest trail, 4.5 km, which took us about 3 hours to complete. Aside from several centipedes, we did not see much of the promised wildlife of Costa Rica.
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The night tour was substantially more successful, starting with three Agoutis, large rodents that were romping and foraging about, completely indifferent to our proximity. I guess they are the equivalent of squirrels around here, although substantially larger, about the size of a cat, and they have no tail. We were also fortunate enough to spot a two toed sloth going about his business in a tree high above us. This is the second time I have regretted not bringing either of our 2 pairs of binoculars with us on this trip.
Eager to get to the ocean, we booked a bus to Nicaragua for the next day. Unfortunately, the only available itinerary required us to take a public bus to a dusty intersection called Cruce de Barranca where we would have to wait for the TransNica bus to pick us up some four hours later.
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During our extended stay, we met a German couple who were also travelling around the world, but had been at it for 5 months now. I was glad to see they still looked fairly healthy, clean and in good spirits. We also met a surfer named Joshua who moved to Costa Rica from Florida and married a local three days before Nelly and I got married.

Posted by olin 11:12 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (0)

Second chance

A waterfall and some lava

semi-overcast
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Because we were unsuccessful in seeing any lava the previous day, we decided to extend our stay and try again. Our host, Tadeu, arranged for another attempt for us at 5pm. In the interim we decided to walk to the waterfall, about 5 or 6 km away. Today was clear, and we were enjoying a spectacular view of the east side of the volcano. This is the side that has been inactive for (40?) years. The deep trenches dug by the lava are still visible as contoured ravines, but are covered with lush greenery.
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About 2 km into our walk, we were picked up by three young ladies, two from Vancouver and one from California. We welcomed the lift since the majority of the road was not paved and the passing cars were kicking up a good amount of dust. We were surprised at the somewhat high cost of admission, $9 per person, since there is no accompanying tour to speak of. The waterfall was quite beautiful, and the water was refreshing, substantially colder than the swim hole we were at the previous day, located 4km further down the river from the waterfall.
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We were fortunate enough to be picked up by the same young ladies shortly into our walk back and invited them to join us for a dip at the swim hole, but they claimed they were all watered out. Later I realised I had failed to mention that the water was substantially warmer there, but if the rope swing wasn't enough to convince them, their loss. A couple more turns on the rope swing and we headed back for our second chance to see some lava.
The drive to the volcano came to an abrupt stop with what seemed to be severe traffic. We waited for about 20 minutes without moving, and then suddenly we were going again. Apparently some knuckleheads had parked on both sides of the road, creating a bottle neck that only one direction of traffic could pass at a time. The police were woefully absent, so the situation continued long after we passed through. Combined with what seemed to be a once again cloud obscured volcano (after what had been a beautiful clear day), I was not in good spirits. Nelly mentioned that I was making my frustration abundantly clear, and I believe her.
Well, when we finally arrived at the viewing spot, we were not disappointed. Although there were some clouds covering the peak, we were treated to some impressive lava flows coursing down the volcano's side. The lava moves incredibly quickly, and the volcano makes some powerful belching sounds as it produces it. Suffice to say, this was a unique and impressive experience we will not soon forget. Witnessing this raw destructive power has kindled a fascination with volcanos in both of us. Tomorrow we take the jeep-boat-jeep method across Arenal's man-made lake and on to Monteverde's cloud forest. Maybe this time we can taste some Ewok.

Posted by olin 08:48 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (4)

What we learned in Costa Rica

La Fortuna and Arenal volcano

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Fortuna, at the base of Arenal volcano. Named for its fortuitous location on the east side of the mountain, which spared it form annihilation when the west side exploded in (1968?) in a violent eruption half way up the volcano, wiping out the 2 villages to the west. Apparently, Arenal translates to "hill of sand", which is what the combination of ash and lava that the volcano constantly spews eventually become.
We took a guided tour of Arenal and the surrounding jungle with Eagle tours. Stopped along the road on the way to look at 3 howlers that were sitting high up in a tree. Did not manage to coax them to howl for us. Saw a toucan, somewhat far away but still breathtakingly beautiful. Our guide, Elmer, mentioned something about it having bad habits, not having a proper purpose in nature, but I missed the crucial details. He was frequently interrupted by another bird with a very unique call. He described the female's habit of making the male build her an elaborate hanging nest which takes about a week to complete. She then enters and inspects it. If she feels it is too cramped or otherwise unsatisfactory, she then proceeds to snip the fastening with her beak, dropping the nest to the ground, at which point the male resumes his labor anew. I'll let you draw your own parallels. We were shown a small plant on te ground that he referred to as a "sensitive plant". Tapping one of its leaves with your finger makes the leaves instantly curl up tightly and wilt (temporarily). This is a defense mechanism against caterpillars, of which there are more than 16000 species in Costa Rica. He also described to us how certain trees have a life cycle that is limited by epiphytes (various plants that grow on the tree) whose weight eventually topple the tree. He described one variety of tree that had an interesting survival strategy against this. Apparently, the inside of the tree is hollow, and inhabited by a certain species of ant. The tree provides them an excellent sheltered home as well as sweet nectar from its sap. In return, the ants voraciously defend the tree, marching out against any other would be symbiot like the countless epiphytes that cover everything else in sight. It is remarkable how these trees stand out, clean and unmolested among all their encrusted neighbors.
We stopped at a "bleeding tree" (named for the sap that turns red as it makes contact with oxygen) and were given the opportunity to sample one of the jungle's most popular and nutritious delicacies, termites. They are quite tasty, and when you pop them between your teeth you get a distinct carrot flavor. I also detected a hint of white mushroom.

We passed over a thick line of army ants crossing the trail, which are carnivores and hunt by swarming their prey, creating pandemonium through overwhelming numbers. They are not particularly large ants, maybe 2-3mm long on average, but can take down most insects found on the jungle floor, and even small mice. Flying insects can escape them, but the ants are usually followed by a variety of birds who know that as soon as the ants scare the fliers off the ground, they can swoop in and grab and easy snack. Further along we saw a significantly larger ant, a leaf-cutter soldier. This guy was about 2cm (3/4 inch) and apparently one of the strongest denizens of this jungle, proportionately. Elmer had him by the back, and proceeded to show us how it could hold a branch easily 100 times its size and weight in its rather large clenched mandibles. This was the type of ant the native Indians used as stitches by holding the cut closed, placing the ants mandibles across it, then squeezing off its head between their thumb and forefinger. The mandibles would clamp shut, holding the wound closed, as depicted in Apocalypto.
Unfortunately for us, there were rather low hanging clouds that were obscuring the volcano at our first viewpoint. Although it had cleared briefly during the bus ride between the first viewpoint and the second, further towards the western, active side of Arenal, they promptly returned as we arrived to the prime lava viewing area. We waited for some time in the hopes they would clear, but it was not be. We were treated with a small consolation as evening set in. Fireflies, which neither Nelly and I hadn't seen since our childhood days in Montreal.
The tour concluded with a visit to Baldi hot springs. We had been indecisive as to whether or not to go since it added $12 dollars per person to the tour cost, bringing it to $37 each. In the end we decided to check it out since the brochure seemed to indicate some stunning views of the volcano while relaxing in one of twenty hot pools of varying sizes, each with a slightly different temperature, guaranteeing that like Goldilocks, you would be sure to find one that was "just right". Needless to say, the experience fell somewhat short of our expectations, perhaps the biggest letdown being the $6.50 for a beer, which we had been craving all day, and continued to do so. We did get to see a Hercules beetle that the staff had found in the nearby bushes. Letting it crawl up my arm, I got to appreciate first hand where it gets it's name. They are remarkably strong. Luckily, they are also totally benign, and really quite relaxed considering the number of people that were crowding around, some eager to grab it.

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Although these hot springs seem to be quite popular with the tourists, I much preferred our experience earlier in the day at the local swim hole. It's about a 20 minute walk from our hostel, La Posada Inn. It's under a bridge that passes over the river, and we were probably the only tourists there. We were definitely not the only people there. The place was swarming with locals, probably attributable to the fact that it's "Semana Santa", a holy week, which almost everybody has as a holiday. I'm still not clear whether you get the entire week off, but bus service is sporadic, you can't buy beer (sacrilege!), only wine (?) and stores, banks, etc. are generally closed.
The water was a perfect temperature, and the locals were quite accommodating, offering me a turn on the rope swing almost as soon as I got the courage to present myself in line. I had never tried a rope swing before, and I found this one somewhat intimidating since it seemed to be about a 12 to 15 foot drop into the water. Of course, as has been the case countless times before, my fear was completely unfounded. After my first shaky swing and splash, I couldn't wait to run back up and go at it again. Nelly seemed like she was going to try it, but her fear of heights, as well as fear of bathing suit tops sliding up and off seemed to win out, and she was content to take in the scenery.

Posted by olin 08:33 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (1)

Too much blogging


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Up at 6am since we'd passed out around 8pm the previous night. Alonso prepared us a nice breakfast; egg, rice, beans and some tomato slices. His hospitality has been remarkable. Spent the morning going to the airport and back to try to take care of some ticket issues. Unsuccessful. Turned out Rob and Eva were headed off to the coast so we hitched a ride in Alonso's car to drop them off at the bus. Alonso drives a Volkswagen "thing", dresses mostly in khakis (as naturalists are wont to do) and seeing him standing on the freeway sighting for the oncoming bus with his binoculars really completed the urban safari image. After bidding Rob and Eva a good trip, Alonso took us by a small fish shop for some delicious tilapia ceviche, and then delivered us to the main bus terminal in Alajuela.
Again, I feel compelled to mention how accomodating and helpful he has been. He definitely went above and beyond what I would expect of any host, much less one we didn't know personally. We bid him farewell knowing that we would probably not be made to feel so at home any time soon.
After hopping on the bus for a 4.5 hour ride, we arrived in Fortuna, near the base of Arenal volcano. Checked in to La Posada Inn. Decided to splurge and get the room with a private bathroom. We're looking forward to seeing some lava for the first time, while we relax in some hot springs.
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Posted by olin 08:48 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (0)

Alajuela

Touring the town


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Met 2 fellow travellers, Rob and Eva, who had come down from Vancouver with snowboards in tow. We explored Alajuela's downtown together and it was nice to have some amicable comanions along while we acclimate to being strangers in a strange land. Not that Costa Rica is especially strange, but anyway...We walked through the central park, which had a dry fountain that some kids were running around in. Well, it wasn't completely dry. There was a festering puddle that was shooting overwhelming wafts of feces at us. Interestingly, the kids seemed entirely oblivious, or at least indifferent, to the stench as they happily scaled the walls of the fountain, inches away from this rank sludge. Past the park, we popped into a corner bar for a beer and some food. Tried out the local Pilsen beer served in a glass with ice. A little watery for my taste, but as Rob said, it was refreshing.
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Posted by olin 08:45 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (1)

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