Saturday, January 28, 2012

It's A Jungle Out There

We left the cloud forest mid afternoon and headed to the jungles surrounding the Arenal Volcano. Even though Costa Rica is tiny it is a mess of mountains, volcanoes and in this case a big ole man made lake turning the relatively short 85 mile distance into a  4+ hour drive. Instead of one long car trip we chose a multi- transportation excursion that I so mysteriously love.

First we were picked up in a 4 wheel drive vehicle and for 1 1/2 hours drove past coffee plantations, up and over crazy steep mud roads, made a quick stop at the drivers' house (so he could grab a snack), and finally were deposited lakeside, the only thing we could see in either direction was a small coffee shack.

We watched the hummingbirds dart around while we waited and once a few more vans arrived with more passengers we boarded a boat and took off across the lake. It was cloudy and a tad stormy so we were not rewarded with views of the volcano as we had hoped, but it was still a pretty 40 minute ride.
Once we landed on the opposite shore we were picked up in a van and taken to the Arenal Observation Lodge. It was about a 20 minute ride on a very bumpy dirt road and we ended up arriving after dark, always a surprise for the next morning! The other surprise, as we checked in, was that we were told that our rooms in the Casona was 500 meters downhill from the main lodge. Did I mention that it was dark? And that we were in a jungle? Luckily one of their crew members had just dropped some guests off from a day trip and offered us and our luggage a ride down. He even waited for Dayne to grab a bucket of ice, it was past happy hour after all!
The Casona was a large building with 5 rooms and 2 shared bathrooms. It also had a great big outdoor porch which was perfect for relaxing. We did have quite a hike up to the restaurant for dinner that night (and each morning for breakfast) but the views of the volcano and the grounds were lovely.

The next morning after breakfast we were picked up for a full day of excursions. We scored by having just one other couple with us and also with our super knowledgeable and passionate guide Marcos! For our first adventure of the day we headed to Arenal Hanging Bridges. But before we even got into the reserve Marcos spotted Howler Monkeys so we stopped on the road and watched this momma and her baby hang around!
Shortly after that we were queuing up to pass over the first bridge that led into the park. There were huge parrots right by the parking lot!

This was the beginning of 3 hours of Marcos spotting an incredible amount of wildlife, birds and flowers. The jungle was amazing, it was hot and steamy just like you think of. The bridges were all lengths and heights and even though there was quite a line up when we first entered we soon were on our own for much of the morning.
Eyelash Viper, only about 3" long
We spotted Helmet Iguanas, an Eyelash Viper, a Tarantula, lots of birds like Macaws, Parrots, Hummingbirds, Motmots, Vultures, Woodcreepers, Warblers, other various snakes and lizards. And these crazy Leafcutter Ants which are quite amazing to watch!

The variety of plants, trees and flowers was stunning! The hike covered paths and 16 hanging bridges including this one that was over 70 feet up!
We finished our hike and piled into the van to head to our next destination- La Fortuna Waterfall. Again, beautiful lush surroundings and as we started down the 500 steps to the bottom we immediately spotted a tree with about 5 Toucans in it!
We hiked down to the gorgeous falls and relaxed by the banks, being misted with water for a while before heading back up... 500 steps!
After a wonderful lunch at Don Rufino in La Fortuna we set out again, this time with an additional 4 adults and 2 kids (groan). We headed to the slopes of Arenal Volcano to walk along the lava flows. Marcos is studying to be a vulcanologist so along the way we learned about the eruption of Arenal and witnessed the regrowth of sugar cane and other plants. We spotted a very rare orchid that only blooms once a year for 24 hours and another huge crazy spider!
Our final treat of the day (now evening) was a trip to The Springs (fans of the show The Bachelor might recognize this as the hotel/hot springs featured on the show). With all that volcanic activity hot springs are a big thing and it was just the thing we needed after a day trekking through jungles and volcanoes.

With over 35 various sized hot pools we had no problem finding one all to ourselves. We relaxed in the hot water, full of healing minerals, with guara sours! We only saw The Springs at night but it looked really nice and was on a huge estate. After an hour or so of soaking we had dinner at their buffet (this was all included in our full day booking) outside on a pretty terrace. When Marcos came to pick us up we invited him to share a bottle of wine with us and got a chance to hear more of his amazing knowledge of wildlife and the area. He knows 150 bird calls and can spot over 500 birds. Throughout the day he recorded everything we saw in his guides, next to their photo with notes about the area we were in. There is no way we would have seen everything that we did without him and I can't emphasize enough the need to hire a guide while hiking in Costa Rica. People would come up on us and see us looking at something but without a trained eye telling you exactly where to look and what to look for everything is camouflaged!

Our long day was finished up with nightcaps on our porch (after we finagled a ride to get ice at the bar and then a drop off back at the Casona from Marcos)!

All photos of the Monteverde and the Arenal areas can be seen here

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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Up Up in the Cloud(forest)

Our first trip to Costa Rica, I've wanted to come here for years now! We flew Seattle to Miami on a red eye & then Miami to San Jose on American. when we arrived in San Jose we had arranged a car service to take us to our first destination - Monteverde. We'd been told it was a 3 hour drive on a dusty twisty road so we figured we'd hire a car & relax. We used Anywhere Costa Rica to book almost all our transfers and tours and couldn't have been happier with their service.

Our driver stopped so we could grab beers and bags of chicharrones for the car trip. We were heading towards the high altitude cloud forest but started our drive right next to the sea. The country is so small you can practically see side to side and tip to tip. The roads varied from 2 lane highways to 1 lane steep dirt roads, we were happy to let someone else do the driving!

Driving higher and higher up into the mountains we spotted an Emerald Toucan, our first wildlife spotting! here the roads were also a bit hairy, full of potholes and lined with steep drops.

We arrived in Santa Elena, the tiny subset town of Monteverde, and we're immediately in love with our lodgings, the Hotel Acor Iris. We had a cute cabin with a porch, living room and two bedrooms each with their own bathroom. The grounds were gorgeous and the whole thing was tucked off the main roads.

Not that that would matter much as we found, walking into the tiny town, it was literally only a 3 block circle. We checked out the grocery store, made a mental note of some bars to check out later and concluded the walk back to our front porch where we enjoyed a few martinis and the amazing weather.

Since we were only going to be in this area for 1 night I had booked us a night hike in Hidden Valley (also thru ACR). We were picked up just before sunset & by the time we got to the ridge of the valley the sky was crazy beautiful.

We set out in small groups each led by a guide and outfitted with flashlights. Almost immediately we came across some Agouti. Continuing on in the dark jungle (which was a bit unnerving) we came across a huge spider web which was home to the crab spider. Our guide demonstrated the strength of this massive web and also told us that by morning the spider will have taken the whole thing down.

Next we came across coati which are raccoons with long snouts that they poke in the ground and in trees and bushes looking for bugs and such. They run in small pacts and we'd come across this group again before the night was over. Our guide also spotted different birds sleeping in the trees- toucans, parrots and the such. The wind was quite strong and it was funny to see them all tucked in and swaying precariously on the branches.

At a small rise of earth our guide asked us to step extremely quietly and as we crouched around the opening he tempted its house mate out for us to see... A tarantula!

Ok then! They are blind which is why they are so tuned in to the vibrations of the ground. It was big and a bit unreal which was good as I didn't run screaming!

Also on the creepy meter was a fruit bat we passed under, hanging upside down from a tree branch sucking on a guava. Cute (not)! We crossed paths with the coati again and then we were back on the ridge. A successful first hike in Costa Rica I'd say!

That night we had dinner at Morpho's, named after the amazing blue butterflies of the country. The food was good (CR isn't really a foodie destination) and well priced. Kate, Dayne & I headed out after for some Guaro sours, the national drink, at The Treehouse.

In the morning we headed to breakfast (included) at the hotel & got quite a show from the White Faced Monkeys who were also at breakfast!

Then we were picked up and driven higher into the mountains to the Sky Trek Park where we started the day with a hike in the cloud forest. The park has a series of 5 hanging bridges suspended just above the forest floor, at mid level and high above the canopy. The longest is 984 feet across. It was very cool and a bit scary for this acrophobic!

The morning was quite cool and when our guide spotted (smelled their fresh poo actually) a few howler monkeys high up in the treetops they were very still and huddled together. Exciting for us non the less!

This was my first time in a actual jungle and I was in awe of the variety of trees and plants; the size of the leaves and fronds; the sounds of exotic birds and animals. We spotted quite a few beautiful birds (no quetzals for those of you in the know) and even the world's smallest orchid.

We finished our 2 hour hike and Dayne, Forest & Kate got suited up for some zip lining. I'd already checked this off my bucket list in Puerto Vallarta and once was enough for me. We all took the Sky Tram up the mountain together, I just didn't have on as much gear.

The views on the way up were amazing, you get to a point where you are straddling the continental divide and the winds from either coast are battling each other. As Team Zip Line made their way down via dizzyingly heights and breakneck speeds on 10 zip lines, I rode back down in the tram and went on a little hike through the hummingbird garden.

And so ended our 24 hours with our head in the clouds...

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Sunday, January 8, 2012

¡Feliz año nuevo!

Happy new year! We're on our way home after about 2 weeks in Costa Rica with our friends Forest and Kate which was fabulous. Warm sun, sand, jungles, animals, birds, surfers & hikers. It was a completely relaxing vacation and more physically active than most we take. We drove ourselves to our New Years Eve destination of Tamarindo from the volcano area of Arenal (more on that in an upcoming post). It was a winding & sometimes tense drive but the scenery was stunning.

Beautiful Tamarindo is a tiny surfer/party town on the Pacific Coast. We rented a condo called Gran Mirador from Vacation Rentals of Tamarindo. The property was great, a huge 2 bedroom, 3 bathroom condo on the 4th floor of a relatively new building slightly up a small hill from the craziness of the beach front. The building had a pool, gated underground parking garage and an elevator that opened up right into the condo. One entire side was balcony looking out on the ocean.

We spent the majority of our time on the patio, including the afternoon of NYE when shortly after noon as we were finishing our brunch of Cuban sandwiches and tacos from a few stands in town, Kate went to open the slider (kept closed as we had the ac on inside) and found it locked. The security bar had fallen into the track inside and it was doing its job perfectly.

After checking the slider to our bedroom and also finding it locked we realized we were trapped on our luxurious balcony! 1st world problems. Luckily Dayne's phone was outside (the only one as the rest of us just had our laptops and iPads) & he called Jonathan our property manager to come rescue us. We were dying laughing and Jonathan told us later he thought for sure we were playing a joke on him! Oh we'd do well at Survivor for sure ;)

During the afternoon beers switched to white wine which switched to delicious rum daiquiris made by Dayne. We grilled sausages, Forest made a lovely salad and black beans and we ate watching the sunset.

Later we drank champagne while playing round after round of trivia before finally setting out with every other person in Tamarindo to watch the fireworks on the beach. On our stroll down the hill we first came upon a crazy big scary spider that Forest almost stepped on. Luckily that thing moved fast and we all ran away from it. Come to find out it seems to have been a Wandering Spider- highly venomous. Next on our road we came across a large snake with a full belly, a Boa Constrictor! Holy Hell this was some nature walk alright.

After surviving our trek we found a spot on the beach to sit, watch the fireworks, drink more champagne and enjoy the incredibly warm evening. There were bon fires and floating lit lanterns lighting up the sky, it was quite pretty and very fun.

Afterwards we took a cab home, we'd seen our share of wildlife for the night! Wishing you all a wonderful 2012 and hope that you were able to spend your holidays with those you love. More on Costa Rica (& still more on last years trips) soon.

Photos here

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