March 9 – 16, 2009
I can’t believe it’s over. Of course, I could hardly believe that we were there even while it was happening. It all seemed just a bit unbelievable, just a bit dream-like. Then again, maybe that was just the sleep deprivation.
Our flight left the Denver airport at midnight (12:30am, actually) and arrived in San Jose at 5:30am. I was too wound up to sleep in the airport, but managed to get some sleep on the plane. Jonathan hardly slept at all, and was running almost entirely on adrenaline that first day. Mapache Car Rental, it turns out, does not have a counter in the airport, and since the currency exchange counter wasn’t open yet, we did not have any colones to use to call them. After waiting and looking for a while, Jonathan found a taxi that would drive us over to their office for $2.00 US. When we arrived, there was no one to open the office, because the rental guy was still at the airport looking for us. Being sleep deprived, we were a bit frustrated, but when he arrived, he was so informative and helpful that he dispelled all our misgivings. He even gave us his cell phone number in case we had any issues. He gave us excellent directions to help us get out of the capital and on our way, and pretty soon we were on the road, headed up to La Fortuna and Arenal. It’s about a 3 hour drive to the small town of La Fortuna, but it seemed like it went quickly and the scenery was gorgeous. We stopped at a couple of stands on the way and picked up some fruit and snacks for breakfast/lunch (rather than taking up the Mapache guy’s recommendation of where we could find a Denny’s in San Jose!). When we arrived in La Fortuna, we had our first taste of Costa Rica mountain roads when we turned off on the side road leading to the La Fortuna waterfall. We changed into swimsuits and had a lovely hike down, but found the water a bit too cold to actually want to swim in it. The current was also extremely strong, and one of the locals said that they’d had an unusual amount of rain and the waterfall was much stronger than it normally was. True to his word, about the time we were headed back up the trail, it began pouring rain. We were completely soaked! We drove on to our hotel, hoping we could check in early, but they said the room wasn’t ready yet. We hung around for a while, watched the hummingbirds in their gardens, and rested in their hot tub for a bit. We were waiting partly because I had been really interested in doing their guided hike at 3pm. It was supposedly the best view of the volcano and one of their volcanologists would tell us about it. Afterwards, around 6:30pm, we’d planned to head over to one of the local hot springs and spend the evening relaxing. However, while we were in the hot tub, it started pouring rain again, and besides, we were very tired from the trip, so we skipped the 3 hour hike and drove on over to Baldi Hot Springs. It was amazing – so many pools! Two swim-up bars, stunningly gorgeous landscaping, waterfalls of volcano-heated water… and when we wandered up to the pools at the top of the hill, there were even three waterslides – quite the little paradise! We wished we’d brought the disposable waterproof camera that we’d purchased for our upcoming time by the ocean, so that we could have taken pictures. I actually fell asleep while floating in the hot springs for a while. Afterwards, we drove back to the Arenal Observatory Lodge and had dinner, carried our things to our room and collapsed for the night.
The next morning, they offered a free nature hike around their property. It was led by a local who had been 3 years old when the volcano had suddenly become active and erupted in 1968. It was very interesting to hear a firsthand account! The town of Arenal was destroyed by the volcano and was rebuilt farther away from the mountain, and then just a couple of years later the government bought up that land and the town was moved even farther away to make way for the Lake Arenal Dam project, which now supplies 70% of Costa Rica’s electricity. Our guide also told a story about one of the cowboys that had ranched on the slopes of Arenal, and had noticed all of the animals fleeing prior to the 1968 eruption. He left town, telling the townspeople that the mountain was actually a volcano, but they didn’t believe him. “A cowboy, that was the Costa Rican version of a volcanologist back then,” our guide said. The story sounds like an urban legend to me, but I’d be very curious to know if it’s true. It was cloudy the entire time we were there, so even though our hotel room had a great view of the volcano, we never saw the top of it or saw the lava flow, but on the nature hike, the guide told all of us to be very quiet at one point. We could hear the huge boulders that the mountain was kicking out as they tumbled down the mountainside. The impacts sounded almost like short, distant thunder.
After the morning’s hike, we checked out of the Lodge and headed over to the El Silencio park, where the afternoon hike on the previous day would have taken place. Even without a guide, it was a beautiful hike, and a beautiful view of the volcano, although again, the clouds never fully cleared, so we were never able to see the top. And it rained again on our way back to the car (we had our ponchos with us this time!). We then began our four hour drive around Lake Arenal to the Monteverde area, stopping at Toad Hall for lunch, where I had a wonderful potato and papaya soft taco, while sitting on a terrace with a beautiful view overlooking the lake. The drive around the lake was beautiful, although we were impressed that places where the road had washed out were simply left as-is. When we got to the town of Tilaran, we knew that the road would become a dirt road for the remainder of our trip through the mountains. Sure enough, after driving through the town, the road became dirt. We continued, and it became narrower. We continued, and it forked into what looked like two narrow residential roads. We paused, not sure what to do, and immediately two little Tica girls came running from a nearby house waving their arms in a “no!” gesture. I rolled down my window, and one brightly said, “Monteverde?” “Monteverde,” I nodded back. My Spanish is not that good, but I did catch in her happy chatter “Gire… derecha… la iglesia!” “Turn right at the church,” I quickly translated to Jonathan, and called “Thank you!” out the window to the girls who were already skipping back to their yard. (Jonathan more intelligently called out “Gracias!”) So we turned around and drove back through town, and I wondered if all of the men lounging in front of buildings were amused at watching us drive through one way and then back the other. We did see a sign from this direction, but half of it was rusted away so the direction to turn was missing. After getting on the right road, we had no more difficulty making our way to Monteverde and to our hotel for that night (well, finding the hotel in the dark was a little bit challenging). The hotel, the Monteverde Rustic Lodge, is run by Jose, and I absolutely have to say that I have never had a more gracious, welcoming, hospitable host at any hotel. He said he had three rooms available, and showed each of them to us and let us choose which one we wanted. Breakfast was included in the stay, and it was a sit down affair where they waited on us and offered coffee, juice, eggs, pancakes, bowls of cut-up fruit… we were spoiled, and Jose was always calling us “my friends” and telling us that this was our home and making us feel as though it were completely true. He recommended tours, let us use the internet in the lobby, and gave us a restaurant recommendation for dinner that Jonathan and I agreed was our best meal of the entire time we were in Costa Rica. The day we left for San Jose to catch a flight, we would be leaving too early for breakfast, so he insisted on packing us a lunch that we could take with us. It was a wonderful place to stay!
For our one full day in Monteverde, we went to Selvatura to explore the cloud forest. If we’d had more time, I might have wanted to go to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, maybe then done the Original Canopy Tour, some of the older, more authentic stuff. But for one day, Selvatura was great since it had lots of things all in one location. We bought combination tickets and walked on their hanging bridges path through the rain forest, then did the Canopy Zip Line tour. We had a little bit of lunch at their restaurant (soup & salad) and then toured their butterfly pavilion and their reptile exhibit. Then we headed down to town where I wanted to see the CASEM store before they closed for the day. It’s a co-op of local artisans (“Cooperative de Artesania Santa Elena Monteverde” – CASEM). We only bought a T-shirt and one little decorative thing, but I really enjoyed looking at all of their things. Afterwards, we went to the restaurant that Jose had recommended, Flor de Vida, where I had the best polenta dish I’ve ever had, and Jonathan had an excellent version of a traditional Costa Rican beans & rice dish. They also had one of the best fruit smoothies that either of us has ever had – it positively tasted like ice cream!
The next morning, we were on the road at 5:30am. We made such good time back to the Pan American Highway, that we thought we’d be in San Jose long before our flight at 11:30am. So we made a detour out to the shore at Puntarenas, and ate some fruit for breakfast while resting in the early morning at the shore there. When we got back on the highway, though, we discovered that the main highway is mostly just two lanes, and the trucks going into San Jose would back up traffic for miles while they slowly made their way over the Mountain of Death (Cerro de la Muerte) on the continental divide. We thought we would enjoy this drive, since the mountain goes up to almost 11,000 feet, but we became very stressed, wondering if we would miss our flight! If we did, there would be no other way to get to the Osa Peninsula that day. We did finally make it into San Jose around 10am and found the small Pavas airport, but we never were able to find a gas station to fill up the rental car before turning it in (they’re much scarcer in Costa Rica!). Well, we figured paying the gas charge was minor compared to missing our flight, and we were just very happy to be on our way again. The plane went first to Puerto Jimenez, then to Drake Bay, which has to be the absolute smallest airport that I’ve ever been to and probably ever will go to! After that, we were well taken care of by Jinetes de Osa hotel, since we’d bought a three night package from them. They had a taxi there to pick us up and take us to the hotel, and provided all of our meals for the time we were in Drake Bay (there are no restaurants in this very remote part of the country, so that’s pretty much required!). They took excellent care of us, arranging our tours, making sure we knew when and where we needed to be somewhere, and caring for our dietary needs and requests absolutely perfectly – not necessarily an easy thing to do for a vegan with a wheat allergy, but they were fabulous! The first afternoon, we walked about 25 minutes down a trail to a lovely beach to swim and just relax. After we got back and showered, all of the guests slowly gathered in the open air restaurant/bar area overlooking the ocean for the family-style dinner that is served at 6:30. We kicked back, had a drink, checked our emails on their laptop there, and just enjoyed the sunset. The next two days passed quickly, the first one with a “Discover Scuba” excursion to Caño Island, and the next with an even longer boat trip to the Sirena Station in Corcovado National Park, where we had a guided hike to view all of the many different species of animals there (as well as a rare spotting of a National Geographic photographer creeping up on a caiman crocodile for a close-up shot), and then a picnic lunch. We got to know many of our fellow guests, a couple from Boston and another couple from Denver, as well as several from the Netherlands and a couple from Andrews AFB that arrived at the end of our first day and went on the Corcovado excursion with us. Jonathan went back to the nearby beach to swim some more after our Corcovado hike, since it was our last day, but I opted to stay at the hotel and read and nap – I’d had more than enough sun in the last two days! (I told him that the next time we do a tropical excursion, I was going to dress like a Bedouin.) I found myself telling Jonathan that I finally felt satiated – I no longer hungered for adventure. That will change, I’m sure, but it felt strange to me. That evening, we also did the Night Hike to see all of the rainforest bugs – one of Jonathan’s favorites of all of our tours! (I absolutely loved seeing the trap-door spider, too.) It seemed like this portion of our trip went really fast, and soon it was time to catch our morning flight back to San Jose.
Sunday morning, the only thing we really had to do was enjoy our short flight back to San Jose, get our rental car, and drive about 45 minutes up to Grecia to visit Bob and Claudia Bennewate, a couple that had studied the Bible with Jonathan when he was a teenager, and who had been serving in Costa Rica for the past six years. We got a little bit lost trying to get out of San Jose, but soon found our way and arrived in Grecia at about 11:45am. We attended the Sunday English meeting with them at 1:30pm, and afterwards they had us, the speaker and his wife, and another couple up to their home outside of Grecia for a wonderful dinner. We all stayed and talked and watched the sunset, and after the others had left we still stayed up talking until after 10pm – remarkable mainly because Jonathan and I needed to get up at 3am in order to drive back to San Jose to catch our 6:30am flight back to the States! I thoroughly enjoyed meeting them and relaxing and talking with everyone. It was beginning to feel as though, during the past week, we had actually had three separate vacations – one in the mountains, one in the Osa Peninsula, and one here for a day. In the morning, Bob Bennewate got up with us at 3am and led us down the anonymous winding roads back to the town of Grecia, where we could find our way back to San Jose and the airport. On the flight home, we sat next to a German man who has been living in Costa Rica for years, and who was traveling to the States on business. He had a 9 hour layover in Denver, and was asking us where he should go, to see some of Denver while he was there. We talked for a while, and ended up offering to give him a ride to downtown Denver on our way home (he planned to catch a bus back to the airport that evening). It was really cool to see our airport and city through a newcomer’s eyes – he was bouncing back and forth in the back seat of the car, taking pictures out of the windows on each side and asking lots of questions. We dropped him off at the 16th Street Mall, an open-air pedestrian street in the center of downtown, and exchanged email addresses. And then we made our way home, tired and happy.