Saturday, August 6, 2011

Costa Rica Part 5: The Cloud Forest

After one night each in Sarapiqui and Arenal, our next stop was for another two-night stay, this one in Monteverde. Now, if you were taking a tropical vacation, would you expect to be staying somewhere with high temperatures that just reached 70, if that? I would guess not, but Monteverde is at over a mile elevation, and let me tell you, the weather there felt wonderful! (Especially when contrasted to the weather in Cleveland after we got home!)

Monteverde is in what's known as a cloud forest, which, according to Wikipedia, is "a generally tropical or subtropical evergreen montane moist forest characterized by a persistent, frequent or seasonal low-level cloud cover." So, it rained a good deal, but more often than actual rain we experienced mist. And, as the name Monteverde suggests, it's very green there. (This could be said of almost everywhere we went, but perhaps the cloud forest most of all.)

The drive to Monteverde was an adventure, in more ways than one. We had an unexpected delay when, in between Arenal and Monteverde, we came to a narrow bridge that was having construction work done on it. Next to the bridge, a dirt path descended to the shallow stream that the bridge passed over, then went back up on the other side of the stream to rejoin the road. Apparently that path was the detour for the bridge, although there was no way a full-size bus could go that way, right?

Wait, we aren't actually going into the stream, are we? What?? Oh, yes, we were. I think everyone on the bus was at least slightly terrified at that moment. The bus went all the way into the stream and started up the other side - but got stuck; it couldn't make it up the opposite shore. We rolled back into the stream, and stopped for a minute. What now? The only option was to retreat back up to the road, in reverse. This was something I certainly never expected to experience in my life. We made it without incident, and then stopped to assess our options. After some discussion, we decided that all the passengers would disembark from the bus and walk across the bridge.

The major obstacle to the bus crossing the bridge was that there was a large hole in the road in front of the bridge, directly in the path of the buses' left-side wheels. At first, the bus drivers considered just putting a wooden plank over the hole. This did not seem like a good idea. Eventually, it was decided that the hole should be filled with rocks, and then the plank placed over the rocks. So our tour guides collected rocks from the stream to fill the hole.

The name of our tour was the "Costa Rica Eco-Adventure," and as all this was going on, there was plenty of bemused commentary among the tour group about how we were certainly having an adventure. Several SUVs drove through the stream as we waited, and we cheered them on as they accelerated up out of the water. Finally, the hole was filled, and the buses passed safely over the bridge to more applause. We loaded back up, and continued on our way.

Before we even arrived in Monteverde, we experienced a spectacular drive into town. The road was unpaved, narrow, and windy, so in the tour bus, it made for an interesting - and potentially nerve-wracking - experience. At times one could look out the window of the bus and see only clouds. I always felt safe, though - surviving going into a stream and reversing back out of it in a bus probably helped!

Our hotel in Monteverde was El Establo, and it was quite an impressive place. We were situated on the 500 level. That doesn't mean the fifth floor of a building, though - that means the fifth level of buildings that were located all the way up a steep hillside. To get to our room from the entrance of the hotel, we had to take a shuttle. Another interesting feature of the hotel was that the electricity in the rooms was activated by placing your room card in a slot, so that when you weren't in the room the electricity was automatically off. I thought this was pretty neat; they definitely seem to be more eco-conscious in Costa Rica than in the United States.

Another nice thing about our accommodations was the great view from our room. Cara and I both felt that this was probably our favorite place we stayed (well, if we put aside the food - we only had breakfasts at the hotel, but they were the low points food-wise in a tour full of excellent meals).

That evening, Cara and I went on the night walk, an optional excursion. It was a guided walk that promised the opportunity to experience the cloud forest in the dark and see various wildlife. We didn't see that many animals - a few insects, a tarantula (that was definitely cool!), and a couple of snakes that were barely discernible way up in the trees. Still, just being out there in the lush forest with darkness and a light rain falling around us was so neat. Sean, the little boy, was in the same group as Cara and me, and at one point he commented that he thought this was where Jurassic Park was filmed - specifically, the scene with the raptors in the tall grass. (The scene in question was actually in the second Jurassic Park movie, a far inferior film to its predecessor, but that particular scene always stuck with me as being really outstanding.)

We had dinner at an Italian restaurant. Oddly enough, the next night, we had dinner at another Italian restaurant. The restaurants were both good, but I still found this somewhat strange; it was one of the very few things I would have changed about the tour.

On our second day in Monteverde, we got to experience the cloud forest from three different perspectives, and all three were amazing. We started out with a guided hike on a trail - experiencing the forest from ground level. I know I've said things like this many times in this series of blog posts, but the scenery was just so spectacular!

It was a great hike. Cara and I both wished we would have had the opportunity to go on a longer hike in the cloud forest - perhaps on another trip to Costa Rica. After the hike, we got to visit a hummingbird garden in the park. It was hard to believe how many hummingbirds there were and how close we could get to them.

After the hummingbird garden, the next item on the agenda was the canopy tour. This was a walk along a series of huge, rickety suspension bridges. So after first seeing the cloud forest from ground level, we now got to see it from way up among the treetops. It was quite astonishing.

Finally, after walking among the ground level vegetation, and then among the tree tops, came the third way of experiencing the cloud forest - hurtling at up to forty miles per hour, hundreds of feet off the ground.

Ziplining was one of my most anticipated activities on the tour, and it easily lived up to expectations. I've been a thrill ride enthusiast since a young age, so this was right up my alley. If you're reading this, it's possible you've been ziplining before, but unless you've been to Costa Rica, it's unlikely you've been ziplining like this. We first ascended up a tram to the top of a mountain, and then went down a series of nine ziplines that crisscrossed a valley, meaning that each line placed the rider way out in the open with jaw-dropping views of the forest. The mist made it even better - as we departed, the platform would quickly disappear behind us, and then we would accelerate into a white shroud - the trees below were visible, but straight ahead there was only a vast nothingness. Finally, the next platform would come into view. It was very exhilarating!

For many members of the tour group, this was their last night. The next two days at the beach, which Cara and I went to, were optional. So dinner that night was the "farewell dinner." Cara and I both got Hawaiian style pizza, taking advantage of the opportunity to enjoy fresh pineapple. After dinner, we drove back to our rooms in the buses. Before we left the bus, Daniel, our tour guide, spoke to the whole group. It was, in some sense, a final sendoff, and I found myself getting emotional. Daniel was really a remarkable guide, hilarious, informative, and so full of life. Cara and I felt very lucky to have him as our tour guide. There on the bus, he gave each person or group a map of Costa Rica with all the places we'd stayed marked on it, and on the back, a list of all the animals we had seen. But he didn't just hand out the maps - he said a short piece about each person, and I found myself reflecting on how amazing it was that we had all gone from complete strangers to a group of friends over the course of the week, and also how Daniel had gotten to really know each person so well. The words he said to each person were usually very funny and at times very touching. When it was our turn, he began (in a sing-song voice) "Love is in the air...", then said, "Seeing the way that Cara and Jeff see each other, it makes me want to get married too . . . in ten years."

After Daniel finished giving out all the maps, everyone just sat there. It felt like we didn't want to leave; we wanted to keep listening to his side-splitting monologues and his great stories about Costa Rica and life and everything. He had to say something like, "Well, you can go now." And so we returned to our rooms.

That night, Cara and I and most of the younger (teenage and twenty-something) members of the tour group went down to the swimming pool (it was nice that we could still fit in with the younger set!). Amusingly, the lights were off, and because they were on a timer, we could not turn them on, but this did not stop us from enjoying the pool. Unlike the others, I only dangled my feet in the water, and I returned to the room before Cara; I was totally exhausted.

We didn't want to leave Monteverde, but we were grateful that we still had two more days to enjoy before we had to leave the country. Our last stop - the beach - will be covered next.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Costa Rica Part 4: A hot time in Arenal

We spent just one night in Sarapiqui. The following morning, it rained. A lot. We were supposed to visit an archaeological dig site before departing Sarapiqui, but this plan was scratched due to the weather. It rained almost every day we were in Costa Rica - it is the rainy season, and we knew to expect this - but thankfully, this was the only time the rain actually caused a significant disruption to our planned activities. Instead of the dig site, we went to a museum, which was interesting, but definitely one of the less exciting activities for the week. Fortunately, the day had plenty of excitement in store.

Our destination for the day was Arenal, home of the famous Arenal Volcano, an active volcano. We had another lengthy bus ride to get there, with a couple of stops along the way. Before the first stop, a food and gift shop by the side of the road, Daniel said that we would get to see an "iguana tree" there. He asked if we had any ideas about what an iguana tree was. I didn't really know. Daniel also said that the shop had very good ice cream, so we could get ice cream if we wanted.

It was still raining, although not too heavily, when we came to the stop. Daniel said that if we wanted to see the iguana tree, we should follow him in a single file line out onto a bridge that went by the shop. I was the first in line after him. We walked out toward the middle of the bridge, some thirty feet above a rushing river, and Daniel stopped. I looked to the left, at the large tree there.

A tree that was absolutely full of iguanas.

It was an amazing sight. Glancing back up the line, I could see the others' faces light up one by one as they realized what we were looking at. The size of the iguanas, the quantity of iguanas, and the fact that they were sitting on these branches dozens of feet off the ground added up to make it probably one of the more bizarre yet wonderful things I've witnessed.

We went back to the shop, where most of the group seemed to be getting ice cream, so Cara and I joined in. The ice cream, sadly, was not very good, at all. I guess when it comes to ice cream, we are spoiled back home. I wonder what Daniel would think of Jeni's?

Our next stop before reaching our hotel in Arenal was a local homestead for what was dubbed the "Be My Guest Lunch." We were served a tasty meal, including some chicken and rice and homemade tortillas, and then a group of local schoolchildren put on a performance for our entertainment. The kids, dressed in traditional garb, did three dance numbers. In the first dance, the boys pretended to be bulls and the girls, holding their flowing dresses out to their sides like capes, pretended to bullfighters. The whole performance was a joy to watch; the kids were very charming and enthusiastic.

We continued to Arenal under very cloudy skies. Apparently, getting to actually see the volcano can be a hit-or-miss affair. Daniel told us a story about how one family on a tour of Costa Rica had been unable to see the volcano during their day in Arenal, and had decided to come again and stay in Arenal for five whole days - and again, they didn't get to see the volcano at all. So it was with definite excitement that Daniel pointed out the mountain peak as it appeared through the clouds on our drive into town. We actually stopped the bus for a photo op before continuing to our hotel.

We stayed at the Hotel Arenal Manoa, where each room had a view of the volcano (which was still visible through the clouds when we arrived to our rooms). Like all the hotels, this was quite a nice place, but we didn't spend a whole lot of time there. That night, we had a visit to the Tabacon Hot Springs waiting for us.

Cara and I had never been to natural hot springs before, and this was definitely one of the things we were most looking forward to on the trip. (I mean, just think about it - "natural hot springs" - that sounds pretty awesome, doesn't it?) I can gladly report that it lived up to our expectations and then some. Sitting in a pool of naturally heated water, surrounded by lush jungle, your feet sinking into the volcanic sand at the bottom of the pool, is incredibly relaxing. Tabacon has a huge array of these pools with water flowing down in series of waterfalls from the more secluded locations to the more heavily trafficked central pools. There's one pool with a bench beneath a large waterfall, and wow, did it feel good to sit there! There's even a waterslide (this going into an artificial swimming pool), which I went down a few times. After getting to enjoy the hot springs for two hours, but before leaving the premises, we also got to enjoy an incredibly huge - and delicious - Mexican buffet for dinner. It was actually rather ridiculous. There were about eight different selections for dessert alone. (One of the funniest sights of the tour was a little boy in the group named Sean returning from the dessert table with a plate containing four crème brûlées, then repeating this twice more.)

We returned to the hotel very full, and very satisfied. That night, there was no sign of the volcano. The next morning, however . . .

Yeah, we were pretty lucky. We ate breakfast in an open-aired room with a spectacular view of the volcano, and then headed to the buses for our departure. As we drove away, more clouds began to drift in, and soon the volcano was once more gone from view. And speaking of clouds, we were off to Monteverde, and the Cloud Forest. To be continued!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Costa Rica Part 3: Going bananas and going rafting

We departed the from Tortuguero the same way we arrived, by boat. Our next destination was Sarapiqui, and much of the trip there was a back-track along the same route from two days prior. The weather was sunny, in stark contrast to the overcast, rainy skies we had experienced on the journey to Tortuguero. This made the boat trip much more scenic; the vivid greens of the jungle surrounded us, and we also saw an additional assortment of spectacular birds.

We then re-traversed the "free massage" road. Now, a portion of this road is surrounded by banana fields. The journey to Tortuguero had occurred on a Sunday, so there had been no one working at that time. On the way out, we made a stop at a Del Monte banana packing plant for a brief educational interlude.

Pictured here is a field of banana trees. The first thing you might be wondering is, what are all the blue plastic bags for? The bags are to protect the bunches of bananas growing on the trees, and our tour guide Daniel informed us that the bags are blue because birds cannot see the color blue.

You might also notice a man running through the field. He's actually pulling a lot of banana bunches which are hanging from a track that runs through the field. It's a grueling job, pulling a heavy load and running many miles a day in a hot, humid climate. The men who perform this task earn $12 a day, which is a one dollar bonus compared to the workers in the plant (their $11 daily wage, or $300 a month, is the minimum wage in Costa Rica).

A lot of the people in our tour group were very shocked when they learned about these minuscule wages. I guess I'm jaded, because I didn't find it particularly surprising. I know that there are lots of people all over the world (some even in this country) who have it even worse. It did, though, help me appreciate how lucky we are to have the relatively comfortable lives we enjoy, let alone that we are able to do things like go on a tour of Costa Rica and stay in fancy hotels there. The image of the banana workers (who are, of course, picking bananas that we buy in our supermarkets) is a stark reminder that anyone who has a comfortable standard of living in a first-world nation could not have all the things they take for granted without benefiting from the exploitation and suffering of less fortunate people. It's an inescapable fact of life; even if you do everything you can to be socially conscious, by simply participating in modern society you are taking advantage of the less fortunate. But just because this can't be escaped doesn't mean it should be ignored.

There are some lessons, I think, to take from this. Well, a lot of lessons, but in particular, today, a few that relate to current events in the U.S.

There are some people here who have far more than anyone could ever need (and could only have these things, I'd remind you again, via the exploitation of others), and who believe that it would be some great injustice if their taxes were raised. Such a belief is certainly erroneous, to put it mildly.

Secondly, giant corporations generally don't care much about the well-being of their employees. They'll do what they can to maximize their profits. If there weren't laws stipulating a 48-hour work week and $300/month minimum wage, the workers would undoubtedly have to work more for even less. It's often suggested that if we just give corporations less restrictions on how they do business, it will lead to better lives for all. I can't help but feel this is very naive.

Surprisingly, though, there is an upside to working in a banana field in Costa Rica compared to living in the United States. All those workers at the banana plant have guaranteed health care. I would consider a country that easily has enough resources to ensure that all its citizens are able to have their basic needs met, and yet does not even come close to accomplishing this, to be a fundamentally broken country. The U.S. has a per capita GDP four times that of Costa Rica, yet Costa Rica has universal health care, and we don't; Costa Rica even manages a higher life expectancy than the U.S.

It's pretty sad.

I didn't think so much about these issues while in Costa Rica. I was, after all, enjoying my honeymoon. The debacle now going on back here at home makes it hard not to think about such things.

However, I don't want this blog entry to be entirely a downer. So, moving on...!

We continued our backtrack by stopping for another delicious meal at the same restaurant with the butterfly garden that we had eaten at two days before. We then continued on to Sarapiqui, where we stayed at the Sarapiqui Rainforest Lodge. When Cara and I got to our room, there was a little surprise waiting for us.

We later asked a few others in the tour group whether they'd had anything similar waiting for them, and they hadn't, so this towel sculpture must have been prepared just for us. I had told our travel agent before the trip that it was our honeymoon. This was the only piece of honeymoon-related special treatment we actually received on the trip, but then, touring Costa Rica was very special in and of itself, more than we could have imagined before the start of the vacation!

That afternoon, we went whitewater rafting. I had gone on one previous whitewater rafting trip, a fairly mild one many years ago with my family in New York. Cara had had no such experience, and was feeling a certain amount of trepidation before we set off. It probably helped her courage that one member of the tour group who joined us in our raft was an 80-ish-year-old woman. There were six of us plus a guide in the raft. I took one of the two front positions, and Cara was in the middle. The guide gave us some instructions on safety and paddling commands, and then, almost before we knew it, we were off into the first rapid.

It was quite an introduction to the river! The first rapid was one of the most intense on the whole trip. I loved it - and so did Cara. The rapids hardly let up after that first one. This rafting trip definitely outclassed my previous one in every way. It was much more thrilling, with significantly less "downtime" between rapids. It was also much more scenic (and we did have some time to enjoy the scenery in between rapids). We got to see some more interesting birds, and the rainforest was gorgeous. There were moments when we barely passed under low-hanging tree canopies that were just awe-inspiring.

And I shouldn't leave out the snack break halfway through the rafting journey. Our snack? Fresh, local pineapple. It was probably the best pineapple we've ever eaten.

After the wildlife cruise the previous day, whitewater rafting was the next thing that stood out to me as a definite highlight of the trip - a "best of the best." If you want a good idea of how much fun we had, just look at the picture!