Journey to Costa Rica, July, 1995


Part I

Saturday, 22 July

Anne, my wife, Katey, my daughter, and I left Atlanta about noon by station wagon. We had several pieces of luggage, cameras, binoculars and other assorted gear, including nearly an entire pharmacy and enough hiking gear for several days! We barely managed to get it in the wagon. Katey had brought along sufficient nutri-bars to last for the entire 10 days, assuming we were without food! We arrived at the Chamblee MARTA station and lugged all our gear onto to the train. From Atlanta we took the 3:30 flight to Miami. Arriving in Miami we took a bus to the inn that Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) had reserved for us -- the Days Inn West. Checking in we found out that several others on the trip were also staying at the inn. So , that evening we dined at the inn's restaurant and met Bill, Ben & family, and Debbie. The food was great at the inn - I had fajitas -- this was a real treat as Katey will not eat Mexican food and I don't get it often except at lunch.

Sunday, 23 July

Next morning we had a 10:00 flight to San Jose via Lacsa Air so we needed to leave early. We had planned on eating breakfast at the inn but for some reason the dining room never opened, so we took a 7:30 bus to the airport and had breakfast there. After breakfast we went to the Lacsa counter about 9:00 to check our considerable mountain of luggage and noted that some passengers were checking in even larger quantities of gear! One woman had to repack her luggage so that they could get it on the conveyer! We took off just a few minutes late on the old 737 Lacsa airplane, curiously, it had Scandinavian markings on the exit signs! We flew south over Cuba but did not see any sign of Fidel or the Cuban air force! Later we landed at a dilapidated looking airport with a bumpy runway and many abandoned airplanes in view, this was Managua, Nicaragua. We stayed there for about 30 minutes while luggage was unloaded -- no one going to San Jose got off the plane!

We arrived in San Jose about noon, it was quite warm at about 85 degrees. Like other Latin airports (Iquitos, for example) the San Jose airport had large murals depicting people with different occupations. We retrieved our luggage and boarded a small white Toyota bus that was to be our transportation with 13 other people for the next week. Everyone on the trip was from the US -- California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, etc. We met our guide Adrian, who was 24 and spoke excellent English; he had spent some time in California. We waited on one passenger arriving from another airline for about 45 minutes but she was late and we began the drive out of San Jose. San Jose is lush with deep green foliage from all the rain and very hilly. We went over roads that were nearly washed out from rain. The city is small, only ~300,000 people. Street signs and road signs are difficult to find in Costa Rica but the city seemed to be fairly easy to negotiate. We passed several auto dealerships but later learned of the 100% tax on imported autos - this certainly puts a damper on Mercedes and BMWs! Many natives that can't afford a car must ride buses. Also, because of poor roads - with huge numbers of potholes - most vehicles are of the 4-wheel variety. Colones Ave, named for Christopher Columbus, is the main street of San Jose. Its very crowded with lots of restaurants and shops. We passed several parks and monuments, including a large dome donated by Somoza, the Nicaraguan dictator. We also passed the best hospital there, the Mexico hospital, named for its chief donor.

Leaving San Jose, we began climbing to ~5,000 feet into the luxurious, dark green cloud forest The vegetation was extremely dense here and giant leaves were growing everywhere, these enormous leaves were about 3 to 4 feet in length and perhaps 2.5 feet wide. As we were driving through the rainforest a speeding van passed us with our other passenger who disembarked and joined us. We continued through the forest and then descended to a flat plain cleared for pastureland . Crops such as bananas and hearts of palm grew here. There were no small villages, just fruit stands and bars scattered along the highway. Houses that resembled picturesque Swiss chalets were on the hillsides.

Finally, we turned onto a dirt road cut through light forest and cleared pastures. This road was composed of whole rocks and was extremely bumpy. We continued for perhaps 3-5 miles and came to a concrete bridge over the raging Rio Sarapiqui. The bridge had no sides so our driver Coco had to be very careful. This bridge led to the La Quinta Inn, our first two night's lodging. The La Quinta has beautifully landscaped gardens with vegetation of many different colors: red, yellow, orange, and green. It had a small main dining room, a bar, and a game room but not much else. It has a nice paved path down to the river where one can swim but the water was much too fast for us. The rooms, like most in Costa Rica, are not air conditioned but it was not hot so we really didn't need it. About 3:00 p.m. we had a traditional Costa Rican lunch with red beans and rice and broiled chicken. A large pasture was not more than 100 feet from the main buildings! Thus, we expected to be waked up next morning by mooing and we were not incorrect! We had a nice dinner of sea bass and then went to bed anticipating the next day's river rafting on the Rio Sarapiqui!

Monday

A tasty breakfast of ham and eggs prepared us for the rafting trip. We endured the bone - shaking ride back to the main paved road from the La Quinta inn. Then after a 30 minute drive we reached our put - in place on the Rio Sarapiqui We formed three teams and went through safety lectures about how to float feet first and not to swim if you fell out of the raft -- later this information proved to be very useful! Everyone wore a life jacket and helmet. We went through backpaddling, forward peddling, right high-side, left high-side, etc. So a command might be right side forward, left side back to turn the raft. High-side commends are used when the raft has run against a rock and the weight needs shifting. If you don't get this command right, then the raft can turn over quickly, throwing everyone into the river. In our particular raft everyone on the starboard side [Anne, Katey, and I] was from Georgia, while everyone on the port side was from California -- so a typical command was Georgia forward, California back! After some test maneuvers, we set off for the first big rapid. I was up front and was the first to get thrown out of the raft in a Class III rapid! But I was only in the water for a few seconds before the guide pulled me back in. Actually I was glad to get dunked because it cooled me off. The rapids on the river were not large but the water was agitated most of the way, so this kept things interesting as we had to steer the raft continuously . Along the way we passed huge trees with vines hanging down many feet into the water The river banks consisted mostly of large rocks with black soil, a sign of the volcanic origin of the terrain. Tree roots were interspersed with these rocks making interesting confused patterns. We passed farms with white, long-earred cattle [like Bassett hounds!] but saw no wildlife other than birds such as kingfishers. Our three rafts stayed together and we sometimes fought each other with water battles. Once, in calmer waters we jumped out of the rafts to cool down in the river. No one's raft flipped over but one did get badly wrapped around a large rock in the river. But a high-side got it off the rock as planned. After about 2.5 hours, we passed under a tall, metal, rust-colored bridge and reached our take-out point. Then the guides put out ham and bread for sandwiches, peeled fruit, and cookies. This spread was laid out on a raft turned upside down and it proved to be a great lunch after all of the morning's exercise!

After rafting, we boarded our bus and headed back to the La Quinta for a quick change, then we departed for the Aerial Tram through the rainforest. More bone-shaking rides - -we were going to have to get used to these roads or else! The Aerial Tram is like a ski lift through hilly jungle. It is about one mile long and its height ranges from about 10 to 150 feet above the ground due to the hills it traverses. It was built with a partial grant from Rolex and opened in 1994. The path was chosen carefully so that few trees were cut, those in its path were pulled back to the side with wires that you can see. Each of about 10 cars is painted green and can hold up to 5 people; the top has a cover to protect against rain and sun. The cars move very slowly and has a guide with a radio, if he/she sees something interesting, they radio the other cars as to the location and you can look for it as you pass. Sometimes they stop all cars when a sloth is found, for example. Entering the jungle, one is amazed by the amount of noise from birds and circadias that abound there. We saw one sloth at tower 5. The other interesting thing is the large vines that snake their way vertically and horizontally through the forest. These vines are actually older than the trees to which they are attached, when the tree dies, the vine just grows up another tree. An interesting point is the great height of the trees, they are all competing for sunlight and grow as tall as possible. The lack of wind means that they can be relatively thin for their height. Every tree was covered with numbers of bromeliads (air plants). After the tram ride we boarded the small trucks for a very bumpy ride back to the main road. Then back to the La Quinta for a hot roast beef dinner!

Tuesday

Next morning we were up early at 6 a.m. for a pancake breakfast and our next stop. We boarded the bus and took our last ride over the dangerous bridge and down that road of rocks that we had seen far too many times! We drove through hilly farmland with hearts of palm, bananas, oranges, etc. for about two hours. The roads had more than their share of potholes but somehow our driver Coco managed to avoid most of them. Finally, we approached large hills and drove into the La Valle Escondido ranch. This ranch borders a large protected rainforest. This lodge overlooks a picturesque valley with clouds moving through below the tops of the hills. The lodge has roomy, modern, and well-built cabins with beautiful woodwork. Katey's room had a direct overlook of the forest and a polished wooden floor that was really pretty. We took a two-hour hike through the forest and encountered white-faced monkeys and huge Kapok trees. One was so large that you could walk under its buttresses. Anne fell and got quite muddy under the tree. Then Katey was standing next to a huge buttress and fell right down onto it, I remarked, "Katey, you just fell on your buttress!" This drew a lot of laughter from the hikers. After the hike we had a delicious lunch of Costa Rican steak with onions and other vegetables.

In the afternoon we went horseback riding. We were riding up beautiful hills overlooking the gorgeous valley, when my horse Diablo decided that he had enough of this and started back toward the stable. I could not stop him at all. Katey's horse joined in and soon we were back at the stable entrance which had barbed wide across the gate. I really jerked his bridle back very hard to keep him from going through the barbed wire. Fortunately a woman opened the gate and my horse and Katey's horse went through and into the stable. We waited and after a while the guide came and asked us to come out. But my horse refused! So I took his horse and we galloped and caught up with everyone else. Finally we rode up a high ridge overlooking the lodge and had a fantastic view of the cloud draped valley below. We had excellent sea bass again for dinner.

Wednesday

Next morning we had a 7:00 a.m. breakfast and set off in a northerly direction towards the Rio Frio. This river is famous for a lot of bird wildlife and it runs into Nicaragua. We drove over dirt, gravel, and paved roads with many potholes that really slowed our trip. We navigated several small bridges and drove through a few small towns. Reaching the Rio Frio we boarded a covered boat with a large outboard motor. On the Rio Frio we saw many types of birds including egrets and kingfishers; we also spotted iguanas, sloths, and many monkeys. Upon finding the monkeys, our guide would start to make monkey-like sounds so as not to scare the troop. Some troops seemed to have perhaps 20 monkeys. We had a nice lunch of rice and beans on the boat -- if you don't like beans and rice, don't go to Costa Rica!. After about an hour we turned around and retraced our path towards the dock and then went on to the Nicaraguan border. The boundary between Costa Rica and Nicaragua was marked only by a short white obelisk - about 5 feet high with the flags of both countries. Everyone jumped out of the boat and we took pictures of the border scene. Barbed wire was placed at the marker and some people got cut, providing an authentic remembrance of the border! Striding the border over the barbed wire fence made great pictures!

Our drive back to Valle Escondido was made during an intense rainstorm with water covering the road completely in a few spots. We had fried steak and red beans for dinner.

Thursday

The next day we started towards one of the highlights of the trip -- a live volcano! The Arenal Volcano is quite active and produces lava flows and considerable smoke. The tourist town of La Fortuna is at the foot of the volcano -- perhaps 5 miles away. We stopped there in mid-morning to visit the tourist shops and to purchase post cards and stamps. We mailed several cards back to the states but figured that we would beat them back -- and we did! La Fortuna has a nice outdoor restaurant, bank, apartments, and several stores including a pharmacy, veterinarian, and grocery store. But the neatest thing about this town is that you could look up and see the volcano erupting! From minute to minute giant plumes of smoke and steam spout from the top. Sometimes you can hear the gases escape with a loud pop resembling thunder in a storm. We sat in an outdoor restaurant and had cokes while watching the volcano, I forgot and put ice in mine , but I did not get sick. [We had very good luck in Costa Rica and no one got diarrhea.]

In the afternoon we drove to Tabacon Hot Springs Resort near the Arenal Volcano. This natural hot springs takes advantage of steams that flow past hot volcanic rock and get heated to about 100 degrees. The springs are beautifully landscaped with paths along the streams of hot water. You can sit in the hot water or you can climb under the waterfalls and relax! They have a large swimming pool -- hot of course -- and a slide to provide some excitement. I had not been able to run on the trip so I tried running on the grass here in my Tevas. Later we stayed in the pool for a couple of hours while it rained. That night we stayed at a lodge in La Fortuna because the Smithsonian had preempted our group, we were originally scheduled to stay at a lodge much nearer the volcano. Unfortunately, I came down with fever that night and missed dinner. I took cold showers and Tylenol and my fever abated sufficiently so as not to miss our night excursion to the Arenal Volcano. At 8:30 we drove past the hot springs again toward a really poor unpaved road leading to the other side of the volcano. We approached it as dark fell. After a while the bus stopped and we got out to watch and listen to the volcano. You could clearly see nearly continuous eruptions in red and yellow hues against the black sky. Every minute or so you could see rivulets of lava flow down the sides of the volcano. These looked like strings of red pearls. Also, you could hear the popping and hissing of the eruptions periodically. It was a truly spectacular site!

Friday

This morning we left La Fortuna and drove towards Lake Arenal that borders the volcano. We were headed northwest towards Guanacaste Province and the Pacific Ocean. This province is named for the Guanacaste tree, the national tree of Costa Rica. It is similar in shape and size to a big live oak tree. Our destination was the Buena Vista Lodge, which the trip brochures indicated had spectacular views of mountains and the Pacific Ocean. After driving a couple of hours on fairly good paved roads we stopped for lunch at a restaurant by a river. It had a giant gnarled tree by it. Its small souvenir shop was mobbed by the shopping-starved members of our group. After two more hours of driving through country that varied from plains to low hills, we turned north onto a dirt road. This road began to climb through very rough hilly country. The hills were so steep that we wondered if the bus would make it. We came upon a bridge with small logs and could feel it shaking under the bus. We vowed to get off the bus on the way back! After a few miles we approached two cowboys standing by a barn and a four wheel drive jeep. Strangely, a large white statue of Christ was leaning against the barn -- this seemed appropriate as we felt lucky to have made it this far! The jeep preceded us and we soon found out why. The road deteriorated even further and became even more steep. On the steepest inclines they had spread concrete on the road. Finally we began to pass through rolling hills and pasture land with cows, horses, and cowboys. It felt like we were traveling back to the old west one hundred years ago!

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