Day 1: LA to San Jose…with a detour to Mexico
Prior to Costa Rica, I took a short trip with some old friends to Mexico and enjoyed some R&R thanks to the hospitality of our high school debate coach’s friend. Outside the gated community and private beach, the poverty and tourist infrastructure reminded me a bit of Vietnam (except for the toll booth military checkpoints where soldiers had their automatic rifles pointed at you as you passed). We went to the local Wal-mart where I could have bought fresh chicharones and a 42″ LCD TV. Food was great. Lobster, ceviche, and cow head. Everything was made perfect with a cold cerveza and the company of old friends. I rode a horse named Burro and flew in a power glider that was probably as old as my motorcycle (’74). The weather so perfect that I slept under the stars on a lounger right in front of the beach. Got in a good three hours of sleep until my friend woke me up thinking we were going to get dive-bombed by birds at 6 in the morning.
On my way to San Jose, I got in one last American meal (Popeye’s chicken and biscuit) before indulging in 13 days of local cuisines.
Day 2-3: Getting to Corcovado
On our second day, we flew into Puerto Jimenez at 7:45 on a small Cessna. I sat right behind the pilot and it felt more like being in a big van than a small plane. Since the pilots can only land visually, I was hoping not to experience Costa Rica’s rainy season in the air.
We landed smoothly on the small airstrip and only had to walk 50 meters from the plane to get to the park office (to give you a sense of how small and close everything was). We reserved our spots to camp at the Sirena station and took note of the tide times. I had the second of many casados for breakfast and we took a siesta before walking around town a bit. The plan: Catch the 6 am collectivo to Carate. Hike 14.5 miles past La Leona station to Sirena station. Avoid getting eaten by a bull shark or crocodiles. Make camp. Hike some more. Avoid the poisonous snakes, poison dart frogs, cantakerous peccaries and avoid the shark and crocodiles on the hike back out. Catch the 4 pm collectivo back into Carate (it only comes twice a day at 8:30 am and 4 pm). Have a beer.
When we arrived at 5:45 am the next morning, the collectivo was almost already filled up. Picture an old truck that’s used to smuggle people across borders or to transport soldiers back in WWII and you’ve got the collectivo down. 2 bone-jarring hours later, we arrived at Carate, a literal one-horse town and began the hike into Corcovado. 8 hours later, I had crossed countless streams and rivers weaved on and off the beach into and out of the rainforest and finally arrived at the station with my shirt and socks soaked in water, sand, sweat, mud and the remains of whatever bugs decided to pay with it’s life for a taste of my blood. We forded the biggest of the rivers 3 hours after low tide but found a route that only went up to my knee and without any sightings of the aforementioned dangers.
A group that came the night before wasn’t so lucky and arrived at the river mouth just in time to see a bull shark come in for feeding. They had to make camp for six hours and only arrived at the station in the dark at 11 pm. More importantly, they missed dinner. The animal sightings and the pristine primary rainforest were stunning, but the long march along the wet sand completely exposed to the sun and the humidity was rough. I can only try to describe the feeling of euphoria I experienced when we saw the light of the clearing that was the airstrip in front of the station. We arrived about 15 minutes before the dinner horn, a sound I will associate over the next two days with a Pavlovian reaction of pleasure. After dinner, I took advantage of the electricity that was available from 6 to 7:30 pm to avoid showering in the dark in the outdoor stalls.
The humid night air, ravenous mosquitoes, howling monkeys and deafening buzz of the wasps didn’t make for the best sleeping conditions but I fell deep to sleep within a few minutes past 8 with my headlamp and “Love in the Time of Cholera” in hand.
Day 4-5: Enough monkeys, I want to see a tapir
The guide hired by some other people recommended that we wake hike to the Sirena River before breakfast to see some tapirs feeding. This meant we had to wake up before 5 am again. It’s not really so bad if lights are out and you’re asleep by 8 pm. Halfway down the hike, we realized we’d be missed breakfast if we kept going and Peter decided to turn back. I agreed only because I had to poo. After breakfast, we sat on the deck with our books and just relaxed for a few hours. I could not recall the last time I found a place I could have sat still at for hours on end. Eventually, we hiked out to the river, had our lunch during and took an afternoon siesta for a few hours. Pete stayed behind so I hike back to the station alone just as the storm was starting hover overhead. Walking through the rainforest alone while howler monkeys yell in sync with the booming thunder was a little offputting and I’d be lying if I said I walked at the same strolling pace as I did coming in. I found my same spot on the deck, book in hand again just as it started to rain. And it rained hard. And it rained some more into the night.
The next morning, I found myself taking a morning poo at 4:45 am in the dark, with a headlamp surrounded by over 30 spiders (I counted). Needless to say, I turned off my headlamp and finished. Having made our toughest decision so far (skipping breakfast), we left the station at 5:15 am so that we could cross the river before high tide, which peaked at 8:25 am. Why chance it now? We crossed the river with the water at knee height and saw more spider monkeys swinging from tree to tree. It was the 4th pack I’ve spotted along with the squirrel monkeys, the white-faced capuchins, a large pack of coatimundis, and an anteater in a tree, but still no tapir. When we got to the beach section, we found big fresh tapir tracks, the closest we would come to seeing one of these creatures in the wild. Back at La Leona station, we inquired about the frequency of Asian visitors to the park. The ranger had to look through many sign-in logs before finding one Japanese girl that entered a while back, adding to my friend Pete’s theory that Asian people don’t go backpacking in the wild. It started to pour again just before the collectivo arrived, which made for a wet, long and bumpy ride back to Puerto Jimenez.
Day 6: At this point in the tour, we will have some fresh pineapples
Sometimes it’s good to just wing it when you travel, sometimes it’s good to plan ahead. Sometimes it doesn’t matter which way you go about it, because the guy at the tour office will ride his bike up to you as you cross the soccer field in front of the beach to tell you that there is a small problem with your kayaking tour. The small problem being you can’t go kayaking.
We checked out some of the activities you could do in Puerto Jimenez and thought it’d be cool to go either go night kayaking with the option to swim with phosphorescent algae or kayaking through the mangroves and snorkeling around the coral reefs.
Me: We would like to go kayaking?
Tour Office: One moment please. [saying something in Spanish on the phone] 3 pm.
Me: Can we go at night?
TO: One moment please. [more Spanish on the phone] No.
Me: Por Que? (I can speak Spanish too).
TO: [blah blah blah in Spanish on the phone]. It’s dangerous.
Me: Ok. Can we go snorkeling?
Me: Por Que?
TO: The guy said no snorkeling.
TO: Great. That’s $35 per person. Just go to the beach at 3 pm.
Me: No receipt or voucher?
TO: No. It’s fine.
At 3 pm, we cross the soccer field to get to the beach and the guy at the tour office slams the brakes on his bike to a stop in front of us and tells us that there is a problem with our kayaking tour and that we should talk to the guide, his house is just over there (points 30 meters to our left).
Guide: Hi guys, we have a small problem with the kayaking tour. It’s small. No problem. We don’t have any paddles or lifejackets.
Me: So we can’t go kayaking?
Me: Can we go kayaking later?
Guide: Sure. Maybe. I will knock on your room.
We get back to our room (a 3 minute walk) and the kid tells us to go back to the beach.
Guide: I have paddles and lifejackets for you now. Let’s go. Do you mind if I bring my girlfriend?
Us: No, it’s cool.
Guide: It’s her first time, I want to kill her.
(I can only guess that in his limited English, he meant to say scare her, but that wasn’t my business)
Joking aside, it turned out to be one of the coolest thing I’ve done. The guide told us that the tide was too low to go through the mangroves and the storm clouds made it a little dangerous to do the night kayak. Instead we’d try to go look for turtles and dolphins. That we did and succeeded. We got pretty close to the dolphins and they jumped out of the water pretty close to our kayaks. The thunder and lightning started to come with greater frequency, so we started to paddle back to the shore. There was something beautiful in the calm of the sea as we watched the dark clouds move closer and closer to where we were. Just as we made it to shore, the wind and rain came on hard. We were soaked within 10 seconds. I see the guide pull out a small machete and start cutting at a pineapple. He tells us that at this point in the tour, we will stop on the beach “to have some refreshing pineapples and swim for a little”. THAT is what I call following protocol. We were wet already, so we just stood in the rain and did what the situation called for. Had some pineapples. And they were damn good pineapples. I took refuge under an almond tree for a bit, but we all ending up jumping into the water, which was much warmer than standing and just swam out there for 20 minutes until the rain stopped. So much for not swimming after you eat and not swimming when there’s thunder and lightening above. The paddle back with the drizzle was very serene. We thanked our guide and he asked if we wanted to go feed some crocodiles. He only charges $8. We told him we were in as long as he brought his girlfriend along again.
Day 7 (Part 1): Don’t show fear and don’t move fast
Our guide came to meet us at 7 pm to take us to the crocodiles, but he suggested we postpone it until the morning because of the rain. We suspected it was because his girlfriend wanted to go dancing.
At 7:30 this morning, the guide came and picked us up in his 4WD. We stopped by a small market to buy some chicken scraps and drove about 10 minutes out of town to a small river. He told us there were about 50-100 crocodiles and caimans in the water and then started chumming the water with some chicken hanging from a long thin tree branch. Immediately, we see about 5 pair of eyes descend towards solid ground. He told us to not be nervous and to not move fast and warned us that despite what the fact that “it is safe, but it is very dangerous” (makes sense) and we need to “respect the aggressive nature of the crocodiles”. That wasn’t hard when we saw them move with incredible speed as two crocodiles faced off and attacked each other. He started to throw bits of chicken at the crocodiles and they moved even closer. Then he took a piece of chicken attached to the skin, cut it up so it was about 8 inches long, crouched down and started chumming the water with this dangling piece of meat. The biggest of the crocs (about 10 feet long) moved in very slowly and just snapped at the meat, but surprisingly did not look like it was going to go for his entire hand. Your turn now Kien. Guess I was up. No need to describe it much here, I got it in on video. It’s pretty damn cool. I imitate our guide and crouch down by the water, not really thinking about how dangerous this was, and surely enough the crocodile eventually came up and took the piece of meat from my fingers.
I wondered whether they were domesticated, and to a certain extent, I’m sure they are probably used to people coming by once in a while, like our guide, to feed them, but when you see how fast and ferocious they were lunging and snapping at each other, it’s hard to deny that they are still one of the most deadly predators in the water and on land.
This blog post would have taken a little longer to type out if anything had gone wrong, so be assured that I, as of now, still have 10 fingers and 2 hands.
Day 7 (Part 2): Lava, lava…
After having breakfast with the crocs, I took another flight to get to La Fortuna with Nature Air. A slightly larger plane this time, but the same practice of having to weigh me before boarding. 14 and 16 seconds. The amount of time it took to get off the runway and the amount of time before we hit two scarlet macaws upon takeoff, respectively. End of the line here for Peter, leaving to go back to the States from San Jose. Only 20 minutes after takeoff from San Jose, we land on a little grassy airstrip in La Fortuna. Quick flight. However, it took another 1.5 hours to drive 7 km because the annual Truck Festival, where truckers from all over make their way into La Fortuna, happened to coincide with my arrival. All in all, still better than the 13 hours it would have taken to bus it from Puerto Jimenez to San Jose (with a overnight stay) and then to La Fortuna.
I arrive at the Arenal Backpackers Resort and immediately booked myself onto the Lava Tour, which consisted of a guided hike through a secondary rainforest near the Volcano, a night viewing of the Volcano (and with luck, some fiery lava), and a trip to the Baldi Hot Springs.
At 3:15, our guide, Pedro, picked us up. Myself, two beautiful Swiss Germans girls, an American girl studying Spanish in Costa Rica and a couple from Barcelona.
What we saw on the hike was very similar to Corcovado. Beautiful, expansive, mossy and oh-so-green rainforest buzzing with cicadas, monkeys, frogs, and all other sorts of things that would make noise in a rainforest.
It started to rain as we finished the hike (this will be a trend for every excursion I partake in), but stopped just as we arrive at the volcano viewing point. They say you have to be a little lucky to see the lava because with this weather, clouds often block half if not all of the volcano. In our case, half of it was blocked off, but we all prayed to our own weather gods in hopes that the clouds would move on, or the volcano would erupt to the point where we’d see it through the clouds. But we’d be probably be dead. Neither happened, but every so often, someone would yell out “Lava lava!!!” while we all strained to look for that bright red glow. And surely enough we’d see some of the red hot rocks tumbling down the side of the crater creating bright trails of lava. Still, we all left a little disappointed.
Next stop: Baldi Hot Springs. This would be the highlight of the evening. Picture Raging Waters with hot springs in a rainforest. Now picture it with me shirtless. Perfect right? After stuffing ourselves at the buffet, we went from pool to pool to try out as many of the thermal pools as possible, some small and private, others with its own waterfall or swim up bar and stools. The consensus favorites: the one with the ridiculously crazy waterslides that threw you around the tubes (yes, literally threw you around off the slide before spitting you out of the tube), which I think must have its fair share of injuries, the one with the built in beds so you can half submerge your body in the water, and the one with its own god damn volcano. Not the same as a natural hot spring, but this place was damn cool.
When they dropped us off, we noticed that the clouds had cleared around the Arenal, and hitched a ride with the Spanish couple back to the viewing point. Fingers crossed, we drove the 14 km to get there only to see the clouds completely engulf the volcano once more just as we were a few kilometers away. Arenal 2, Backpackers 0.
Day 8: Time to rappel down a 200 foot waterfall
I slept in this morning until 7:30 am and then went to do a canyoneering trip at 10 am. What is canyoneering? In this case, it’s making your way through a canyon in the rainforest by whatever means necessary. Ok, that’s exaggerating it a bit since the route was already planned for us by the adventure company, but it pretty much still meant hiking along a river, shimmying down wet boulders, jumping off of rocks into a deep pool of water, and rappelling down waterfalls and getting to the end of the trail.
The only thing the guides required was for the participants to not have a fear of height or getting wet. So I immediately took off my shirt. Picture the rainforest and me shirtless again. You get the point. Anyway. Right as we entered the trail, it began to rain again, which in this case, along with the thunderous booms overhead, made for the perfect ambience. I could not have imagined it any better than hiking through the rainforest in the rain and rappelling 150 feet and then over 200 feet down waterfalls into the flowing river bed. They had a number of things in store for us that took advantage of the canyon landscapes. At one point, to move on, we had to climb down a few steep steps off the rocks and then jump with blind fate into a pool of water that we were told was deep enough. It was. At another junction, we descended down some rocks, while one of the guides built a human dam at the top and unleash a flash flood of water overtop our heads. As an aside, one thing that I’ve enjoyed about La Fortuna is how perfect the temperature is. All the time. Whether you’re being rained on, swimming in a river, or lying on a hammock, it all feels the same. And it’s damn refreshing. I’ve yet to feel cold here except when they automatically turn on the air-conditioning in the hostel at night.
When we finished the hike out, they fed us some casados. A perfect way to win over my stomach and end the trip. I came back to the hostel and just passed out on of the couches in the outdoor lounging areas before it was time to wake up and eat dinner.
Day 9: It’s 10 am. What do I do next?
Started the early to start thing again and went zip-lining at 7:30 this morning. By 7:50, I was clipped on with a tight harness firmly caressing my lower cheeks with about 100 feet of steel wire separately my this tree to the next.
I don’t know what people expect, but you’re not going to see monkeys or sloths zooming by the trees. I didn’t. I was zipping as fast as I’d like so tried not to not apply any brakes until the very end, most of the time misjudging how much distance I had left and jolting to a stop into the guides. By the way, you brake by wearing these leather gloves and pulling down on the wire. Throw some rain in there with the grease on the wire and it’s pretty damn hard to stop. Another thing they didn’t tell you was that the grease would come flying into your face and your clothes. I had hundreds of tiny grease drops all over my shirt and shorts and my face was covered in so much of this soot, it looked like I had been bruised from a fight. The highlight was the Tarzan Swing, which was a rope tied to your harness and then two of the guides pushing you off the platform as you swing down and up hundreds of feet of the rainforest floor. At the end of this, they brought out the beers and had me back at the hostel by 10:00 am.
Not wanting to let the day go to waste, I signed up for some white water rafting. The forecast was for more rain, so it seemed like the perfect activity. Drove about 45 minutes to a river, took off my shirt (seeing a pattern here yet?), donned my lifejacket, helmet and jumped into a raft with our guide, Carlos, and 3 other fellow rafters. It was actually my first time rafting, so it was pretty cool. Got completely soaked by a bunch of rapids, jumped into the river for a swim during the calm sections, and ended the run with some more beers and pineapples. Our truck didn’t show up to pick us up, so I killed some time by doing what one of the guide was doing, and body-surfing the rapids and then swimming as hard as I could to get out of the way of the waterfall and across the river before the current took me too far downstream. Forget the rafting, that swim was my exercise for the day.
Another lunch of casados (tilapia this time) and I was back at the hostel by 4 pm.
Day 10: The rope was too short. No, you are too short.
Every so often, that ol’ saying “the best things in life are free” is the best way to sum up my feelings. I had until 2:30 pm to kill today before taking the Jeep-Boat-Jeep transport to Monteverde, so I opted to check out a local swimming hole I had heard about with its own waterfall and rope swing. Heuvos and toast in stomach, I headed out with a Canadian girl from the hostel (first one of them I’ve actually heard say aboot) and found the place pretty easily. And how beautiful it was. Since it was only about 8:30, we had the entire place to ourselves. I was really tempted to just jump right off the rocks into the water, but how stupid would I have felt if I jumped down into something shallow and busted up my legs. Instead, we found a small trail down and headed back upstream to the waterfall. The water again, like it always is here, was perfect and though the noise of the cicada and the rushing waterfall was loud, it was a calming ambient kind of noise.
All around, green moss wet with morning dew that made it seem to glow when light passed through the water droplets, stranger figs already firmly rooted to the ground, bromeliads and white orchids so bright in color you wonder whether they might be poisonous somehow and draping vines that tempt you to grab on and swing with your loudest primal yell. The main pool of water was pretty deep, so I eyed the rope, but did not know how I was supposed to reach it. It looked like it was a good 5 feet out from the edge of the rocks and about 6 feet off the ground. Disappointed, I was resigned to just jumping off the rocks I could climb up to on the other side. I spent the next hour just floating on my back, kicking ever so slightly to counter the push of the waterfall flow and watched the clouds move slowly across the perfect blue sky that peaked through the canopies of the tall trees. I had to think to myself how amazing it would be to be able to do this everyday. Eventually, we walked back so I could grab my equipment and do some of the photography that I’ve been neglecting on this trip. The receptionist at the front desk (and also the person responsible for helping me figure out what to do with my day everyday here) asked how I enjoyed the swimming hole. I said, it was beautiful, but I was disappointed I could swing off the rope. She asked why not?
Me: The rope was too far away. I think it was too short.
Her: No, it was not too short. You are too short to reach it. A Dios Mios.
Day 11: No mas rainforest, yo quiero salsa
I got to Monteverde yesterday around 5:30 pm, sleeping most of the way up the bumpy mountain after we took a boat across Lake Arenal. The weather here was markedly different and for the first time, I actually had to put on something with sleeves. The hostel here had a pretty artsy and mellow vibe complete with a little table made out of a tree trunks outside, a few resident dogs (Gordo, Macho y Manchita), and a taco stand next door. I chilled with a few people until the hostel closed at 10 and headed to the only bar in town, Bar Amigos. 3 words. Mad dancing.
Woke up the next morning at 5:30 am, with 4 hours of sleep and headed down to the Monteverde Biological Reserve. The place was expansive and magnificient, but by this time, I was rainforested out. And also really tired from last night. I took the bus back to town and joined up with a group of people doing the ziplining here. Why not? This one was better than the one in La Fortuna. Faster, longer and an even better view as you zoom by, through and above the rainforest. I got the Tarzan Swing this time on video so check it out below:
We got back from that and headed out with a Canadian guy, who’s been staying here for a week and has become the de facto local backpacker, to the Tree. He didn’t tell us much more, but we were sold. A little hike past town and we were in the rainforest again. What we tried to picture of this tree from the little details he gave us was quickly exceeded. It was this giant stranger fit that had long since killed the tree inside leaving its center completely hollow and its wrapping vines serving as a twisted ladder for us to climb to the top. Again, the best things in life are free. And also again, incredibly fun, but probably really stupid. The tree ran up about least 75 feet and slipping on any of the vines meant slipping through or down the tree with some serious injuries to follow. I’m still here typing with 10 fingers and 4 good limbs. We came down from the tree, fueled up with casados and headed to a little cafe for some Salsa lessons in lieu of a night hike the rainforest. Ladies, watch out.
Day 12: So I shouldn’t go to San Jose?
Sadly, every trip eventually comes to an end. After spending the morning wandering around Santa Elena, I was forced to take the 2:30 bus back down to San Jose. At this point, I was still deciding on just staying in Alajuela, which would be closer to the airport and skip San Jose altogether. I had a few compelling reasons based on my research.
Me: So I shouldn’t go to San Jose?
Hostel Girl: No.
Me: Really? Nothing to see there?
Hostel Girl: Prostitutes. You like prostitutes?
Me: Not really.
Hostel Girl: Then No.
Me: Anything to do in San Jose?
Hostel Guy: Get robbed.
Me: I was wondering if I should spend the night in San Jose before flying out?
Bartender: Why you want go San Jose? What’s in San Jose? Nothing in San Jose. Why you want go?
Still, I went to check it out for myself and I could see why no one seemed to recommend going to San Jose other than if it was a necessary overnight stay in order to travel on to your next destination. It was just like any big city in a small country. Crowded, dirty and noisy. While it didn’t look like the worst place in the world, I didn’t want to risk it on my last night in the country, especially before the big Costa Rica – Mexico World Cup Qualifiers game. Needless to say, I ended up staying in that night at the hostel, safely behind its barricaded doors, barbed wires and rent-a-cop door guard. Stark contrast to how safe I felt everywhere else so far in the country.