Thursday, July 21, 2011

Costa Rica - Part One

Last week, Cara and I went on a tour of Costa Rica for our honeymoon. We had a wonderful time, and I think we'd both say that we'd like to be back there. It would be a nice respite from the heat.

In Cleveland, Ohio, at 11 pm, the temperature is about 90 degrees Fahrenheit with a heat index of 100. During a week in the tropics, we didn't have to endure anything like this. In fact, I can't remember the last time I experienced weather like today. Hopefully the next such occurence will be a long time from now. But I digress; this is a post about Costa Rica.

Cara and I both agreed that our honeymoon was the best experience of our lives. We will definitely take a lot of life-long memories with us from the trip. Yet memories, even the strongest ones, inevitably fade and become distorted with the passage of time. Thus, I felt it would be useful to write down these memories while they are still relatively fresh in mind. I also figure that there are at least a few people out there who'd be interested in a detailed recounting of the trip. So, let's start from the beginning.

On Saturday, July 9, we got up bright and early and took the RTA Red Line to the airport to catch our flight, first to Houston and then to San Jose, Costa Rica. It was the first time Cara had ever flown, and she was a little nervous about it. Our flight to Houston went very smoothly. The second leg of the trip began worryingly, as we were assigned to seats on the plane far apart from each other. I was seated next to a nice man from a mission group who noticed my "Just Married" shirt. We struck up a conversation, and I mentioned that my wife was seated elsewhere on the plane, and asked if he would be willing to switch seats with her when the opportunity arose. He kindly obliged. It was a good thing he did, especially because the descent into San Jose was the most intense experience I've encountered in all my time flying.

As we were making our approach to Costa Rica's capital and flying through some clouds, there was a great deal of turbulence. Then, suddenly, the plane seemed to be dropping from the sky. This lasted several seconds, and repeated several times. It was a little freaky for me, and much more so for Cara, whose strong grip I felt on my leg. Finally we emerged from the clouds, and the actual landing was fine. We were later told that San Jose, because it is surrounded by mountains, is one of the most difficult major airports to fly into in the world. Our next stop on the trip involved a journey of several hours that could also be accomplished with a half-hour trip on a small plane going out of San Jose (in the same general direction we came in) - but that plane trip caused most people who took it to lose their lunches.

We went through customs, where I was asked (in Spanish) how much Spanish I spoke. I replied, "un poco" (a little). The customs agent said something like, "How much is a little?" She proceeded to ask where I was going and how long I would be in the country in Spanish. Although it was slow-going, I did manage to respond accurately in Spanish, which seemed to surprise her. I felt somewhat proud, although as the ensuing week would reveal, Cara's skills at conversational Spanish are much, much better than mine.

We were picked up by one of our tour guides with several other members of the group to take a shuttle to our hotel. It's funny now to think about how all those people were complete strangers to us at the time, and by the end of the trip we considered many of them friends. We were quite tired from a day of travel when we arrived at our hotel, the posh Intercontinental San Jose. We needed to eat dinner, and decided to check out a mall across the street. When we headed outside, we were greeted by one of the first of many amazing experiences with animals on the trip. We heard birds - lots of them. Looking up revealed that the trees were absolutely packed with green parrots. We both got smiles, kind of like, "Yeah, we're really in Costa Rica."

The mall, on the other hand, was not so different from what one might find in the states, except that most things were written in Spanish. The food court mostly contained American fast food joints. We settled on tacos from a place not familiar to us - we didn't want to eat McDonald's or Taco Bell in Costa Rica! They were pretty good. The most interesting part of the food court was a place that served rice pudding - about twenty different flavors of rice pudding. Cara got caramel and I got coconut, and we both thought it was quite good.

We headed back to the hotel, and after relaxing in the room, went down to the large outdoor pool. However, after the sun went down the temperature had become rather cool, and it was too cold for swimming. We did enjoy the hot tub for a little while, before heading back to the room and basically collapsing. The next day would be another early rise.

You see, in Costa Rica, all year round the sun comes up at around 5:30 am and goes down by around 6:00 pm. It seems obvious when you think about it, as it's so close to the equator, but before traveling there, it might not be something you'd consider. Costa Rica is currently two hours behind Ohio, but geographically, San Jose is just two degrees longitude west of Columbus. In fact, with frequent 5:30 wakeups - which is 7:30 here - if anything, our bodies had to adjust slightly in the opposite direction for the time change. In any case, with how exhausted we were at the end of most days, getting on a regular sleep schedule was no trouble at all.

We did not stay long in San Jose - it's, let's just say, not the nice part of the country. We did, though, get to enjoy a fabulous breakfast buffet at the hotel before we departed. It was our first exposure to gallo pinto, rice and beans, the national dish of Costa Rica. Next to the rice and beans was a container of a green sauce, which I added to the gallo pinto, and found the combination to be delightful. The green sauce is called Lizano sauce, and it's the most popular condiment in Costa Rica. I fell in love with this sauce, and we bought some to take home; I'm sure it's something I'll continue to enjoy for years to come. The buffet contained far more than gallo pinto; there was a fabulous assortment of breads, meats, cheeses, eggs, tortillas, fresh fruits and fruit juices . . . this was just the beginning of a week of fabulous food experiences. More on that to come, certainly!

After eating, we loaded up on our tour buses. The tour group had 51 members, and we took two 50-seat coaches, so there was plenty of room to spread out when we felt like it. Each bus had a tour guide. Bus Two's was Fabian, who had picked us up at the airport. Cara and I were on Bus One, with Daniel, who turned out to be a remarkable guide. You will certainly hear some more about him in posts to come.

Our destination for the day was Tortuguero National Park, a remote location in the northeast of the country, on the shore of the Caribbean Sea. On the way there, we stopped for a "second breakfast" (as hobbits might put it) at a restaurant on the side of the road. It was scrumptious (including more gallo pinto, which I'm sure most people tired of by the end of the week, but I didn't - thanks to Lizano sauce!). In the back of the restaurant was a wonderful butterfly garden.

I took a lot of pictures on the trip. I'll include a few in these posts, but many more can be found on my Flickr.

Then it was more driving, much of it on a very bumpy road - the "free massage road," as Daniel put it. However, Tortuguero can not be reached by driving. We had to get off the buses and transfer to boats for an hour-plus ride through both natural and man-made waterways, during which we reached the national park. Already, on both the drive and the boat ride, the scenery on the trip was spectacular. There's just so much green.

And so we reached Tortuguero, where we stayed at the Laguna Lodge. This was just the start of our Costa Rica adventures, but I think I will leave it at here for now. The next entry will describe some awe-inspiring wildlife encounters.

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