Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Costa Rica - Day 6

After a great sleep in our ocean view room we had a leisurely morning lounging on the deck before heading up to breakfast at the open-air restaurant associated with the lodge that had an even better view than our room did:

Here we are kicking our feet up as we enjoy some delicious pancakes and tropical fruit for breakfast and soak in the view:

We had been told that visiting Malpais and not surfing was like visiting the Sistine Chapel and not looking up, so in order to avoid making that flagrant error I booked a surf lesson for that morning before setting off in the BeGo to work our way further north along the peninsula. I have done a few surfing trips in North Carolina, B.C., and Washington mostly at the prompting of my brothers who are much more into it than I am, so I am halfway competent at the basics and even own a board (which my brother made for me, thanks Trev!), but I decided that it would still be worthwhile to take a lesson as I had never benefited from any formal instruction.

The lesson was arranged through the Nalu Surf Shop with an Aussie guy named Ben as the instructor, who despite being a reasonably nice guy was quite underwhelming as an instructor. It was still fun though, and he did offer a few insights, and Playa Carmen where we did the lesson was a great place to get back into the swing of things a bit as the waves broke pretty far out and there was lots of space to practice standing by catching the whitewater or small re-formed waves. Here we are standing in the surf as Ben imparts nuggets of wisdom on what went wrong on a wave that I didn't catch ("Ah, yeah, there were lots of factors"... perfect, I'll just work on all those unnamed factors for next time):

And here I am triumphantly catching a small wave:

After the 1.5 hour lesson finished I stayed out in the surf for another hour since I was having a lot of fun. In the meantime Roanne was finally getting her relaxing beach time, reading People magazine since she hates the thought of being eaten by sharks. The beach was really nice, totally undeveloped and a great spot to spend the morning:

By the mid afternoon we decided that it was time to load up the BeGo and set out up the peninsula toward our next destination of Playa Avellanas, just south of Tamarindo. We had planned on driving up the coast, but having been warned of how bad that road was, coupled with our 4WD adventure the prior day, we decided that wisdom was the better part of valour and took the longer but faster route of driving inland on the peninsula to a more established road. We arrived in Playa Avellanas just after dark, and after a bit of searching we located our new digs at Los Villas Avellanas and checked in for a good nights sleep.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Costa Rica - Day 5

While the pool and views at Hotel Vista de Olas had been great, a few other aspects of our stay there had not, so on Tuesday morning we decided to pull up stakes and change to another hotel for our second night in Malpais. Our chosen hotel was the Moana Lodge, an African-themed establishment about a km south down the coast. We were soon checked into our room which was amazing and completely solved all of the problems that we had experienced at our previous residence. If anyone finds themselves around Malpais in Costa Rica you should definitely stay here, it was amazing. Here is a shot of the view out our front window:

One of our bed in the super bright bedroom:

And one of Roanne relaxing in the adjoining room as we ready ourselves to set off on the day's adventures:

The place was amazing and we had a notably great experience with one of the owners named Aidan, who was incredibly kind and helpful. After getting settled we loaded up the BeGo and headed for the beach. Nevermind that we had miles of pristine coastline directly in front of our hotel, I had set our sights on a much more remote beach in the Cabo de Blanco national park (the first national park in Costa Rica) which required a 4km hike to access it, and to make things even better I had selected a short cut that we could take on the drive there. All the makings of a good adventure! We set off in the BeGo, but found that despite appearing as a legitimate road on our GPS, after 2 river crossings, lots of steep and rutted sections, and after our 10th time bottoming out the BeGo we decided to give up and reverse our tracks to drive to the National Park the "long" way. We had (barely) been able to make it about halfway across the shortcut, but we were worried that if we kept going we might get stuck (I think the 4WD commnity would use the term "highsided") in ruts, or come to an impasse and then not be able to turn around. Here is Roanne out of the car trying to guide me down a particularly rutted section:

And here I am trying to negotiate a crossing on some rocks that someone had helpfully stacked into the ruts:

Here is one of the river crossings, sans bridge:

And finally, just because it looks like something out of a car commercial, here is the BeGo emerging triumphantly on the other side:

So, while we wasted an hour driving slowly on really bad roads in the jungle, this was my first legitimate 4WD experience, and we took solace in the thought that some people do this kind of thing for fun, so it wasn't a complete waste of time. It was also a remarkable performance by the BeGo, which had been brand new when we picked it up back in San Jose but was now considerably more "experienced" with the undercarriage having the scars to prove it. Good thing they don't check that when you return rental cars!

Back on track, we drove to the Cabo de Blanco National Park and enjoyed our picnic before setting out on the trail instead of on the beach as planned, since our 4WD adventure had put us a little behind schedule. As we were having lunch a weird looking animal came to check things out, I think this is a Costa Rican variant on the raccoon (though they do have standard raccoons also, and are apparently quite fond of them as we even saw them on postcards):

After the picnic wrapped up we set out along the trail, taking in some interesting trees along the way. Here is a large one with the big fin-like buttresses extending out to the sides:

Here is one that was a few feet in diameter and had a trunk that was entirely covered with giant thorns, like the stems on a rosebush:

And here is one with a giant root that formed a natural bridge across a creek, with Roanne posing mid-crossing:

We also heard a lot of noisy howler monkeys as we made our way through the forest, but despite continued attempts to catch sight of one we could never make them out in the dense canopy above us. Finally, just after 3:00pm we reached the beach:

As expected it was completely deserted in both directions:

We didn't have as much time to spend there as we had hoped since it got dark around 5:30pm and we still had the 4km hike back out, but there was certainly enough time for a short game of "Driftwood". This is a terrific game invented by my brother Trev, in which you lie as straight as you can near the shore in the pounding surf and get rolled around like a log. The only downside that I can think of is that your shorts get completely filled with sand, other than that it is just pure fun. Here I am enjoying myself:

After wrapping up my game of driftwood we headed back to the car, reaching it just as darkness was falling. The drive back to the Moana Lodge took about an hour, and on the way back we had the novel experience of seeing a large (about 6 feet long) boa constrictor making has way leisurely across the road. Here he is caught in our headlights:

And then illuminated by the camera flash as he exited the roadway and headed for the forest:

After a delicious dinner at a place called "Mary's" (also highly recommended if you find yourself in Malpais) we called it a night and drifted off to sleep with the sound of the waves hitting the beach.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Costa Rica - Day 4

We awoke on day 4 intent on escaping the rain and heading for the beach, but given that it wasn't raining that morning for the first time on our trip, we decided to hang around the cloud forest that morning for one more experience before driving to the coast: the zip line. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, zip lines are everywhere in Costa Rica, which made it seem like a uniquely Costa Rican experience that we should indulge in. We settled on one of the more established operators called Sky Adventures, which touted three experiences: the Sky Walk (a hike through the forest with a series of suspension bridges that passed through the forest canopy, much like we had already been on the previous day), the Sky Trek (a series of 10 zip lines that zig zagged back and forth between two ridge lines as they descended a hill side), and the Sky Tram which is used to reach the top of the zip lines (also known as a chair lift).

We wanted to get after it early so that we could catch a 2:00pm ferry across to the Nicoyan Peninsula, so we got up early (we had been getting up around 7:00am most days to take advantage of the daylight, with it getting dark around 5:30pm) and arrived at Sky Adventures to catch the 9:30am tour. This worked out really well, as everyone else had signed up for tours later in the day, so it was a personal tour with the two of us escorted by three friendly Sky Adventures employees. After a short practice zip line to get the hang of it (there isn't really much to get the hang out, you just sit there and slide along the line) it was onto the Sky Tram and up to the top of the longer zip lines. Here is Roanne enjoying the first rainless day (so far) of our vacation:

And here is the Sky Tram disappearing up the hill side as we ride on up:

And here is a view of the countryside that was revealing itself to us for the first time:

The Sky Tram had only been installed 3 years earlier at an expense of 2.5 million dollars, so we were happy that we had made a good choice. Upon reaching the top of the lift we stepped off and climbed up some stairs to the top of the first zip line where we clipped in and were sent zooming off above the rain forest. I have always been a bit skeptical of zip lines but it was actually pretty fun, being so far above the ground and going for so long (the longest one was almost 800 meters). Before long some clouds settled in and it started to rain lightly, but the fog added to the novelty of the experience (and sped up the line a bit by lubricating it). Here is Roanne setting off into the fog:

And here I am setting off on one of the subsequent lines:

Good fun! Before long we were back down at the base area removing our harnesses and helmets. We didn't have too long before we needed to depart for our ferry, but a really kind employee where we bought our tickets had told us we could sprint around the Sky Trek (the suspension bridge hike) for free if we wanted to (normally you buy a combo ticket), so we took her up on that. Here is Roanne ambling across one of the bridges:

And me working my way through the forest to the next bridge:

The suspension bridges were nice also, but by this time I was starting to feel a bit of rain forest suspension bridge overdose, much like the feeling when you have seen one too many old churches in a European city. This could mean only one thing: it was time to escape the rain forest for the sandy beaches of the Pacific coast. We hopped in the BeGo and set off, wending our way through the hillsides on dirt roads as we dropped toward the coast and Puntarenes where we could catch a ferry across to the Nicoyan Peninsula. Here is a shot of the countryside in the ever-increasing weather as we approached the coast:

We could have also driven around to reach the peninsula, but the most remote parts were at the bottom and the easiest way to get there seemed to be by taking the ferry. Being Seattleites it also seemed appropriate the compare the ferries to Washington ferries. We reached the ferry terminal with 45 minutes to spare, and after purchasing our very reasonable tickets ($15 for the hour long ride, with our car) we drove on board and waited for the grand depart. Before long we set sail, and we reveled in the sunshine and wind on our faces as we moved out onto the water:

There were some great views as we moved across the water, and plenty of space to take them in as the boat was not very full:

Soon we were approaching the relatively undeveloped ferry terminal in Paquera, a single dock and building jutting out of the dense forest:

We rolled off on the BeGo and start the drive west to our destination of Malpais on the Pacific side at the bottom of the peninsula. We reached our hotel without any problems (Hotel Vista de Olas), and after a few issues we were finally checked into our one-room villa with an ocean view:

The view from their infinity pool was even better, where we headed for a quick swim before taking in the sunset:

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Costa Rica - Day 3

Sunday morning was our last chance for a clear glimpse at the Arenal Volcano, but unfortunately we once again woke up to the sound of rain drops bouncing off the metal rook on our room, so after a quick breakfast we packed and headed out. Our next destination was the Monteverde Cloud Forest, another rain forest as you might guess from the name. We were initially intent on taking what appeared to be a short cut on the map, but after consulting the front desk staff at the Arenal Observatory Lodge we were swayed toward going the long way around Lake Arenal as it sounded like the short cut involved several bridge-less river crossings that may have proved difficult given the recent weather.

So we set out on the paved but winding road around Lake Arenal, and before long Roanne was feeling too sick to navigate so we switched off and she drove the rest of the way. The trip was probably about half paved and half dirt road, and after about 3.5 hours we were pulling into the outskirts of Monteverde. We were aware that they grow a lot of coffee in Costa Rica, and given that Monteverde was in prime coffee growing territory we decided to take a tour at one of the local farms. We chose one called Don Juan, which we had heard good things about, and as we happened to arrive in between tourist buses we managed to score a private tour with a young employee named Hido Marco. Here is the start of the tour, where Hido is explaining the different stages of life for a coffee plant:

It takes about 3 years from when a coffee bean is planted to when the berries can be harvested. From here we moved on to the fields where Roanne and I picked berries under Hido's supervision. Most of the workers in the coffee fields are from the poorer countries that neighbour Costa Rica, such as Panama and Niceragua. After we had finished picking berries in the rain we moved on the to next step in producing a cup of coffee, which involved running the ripe berries through a grinder (like a big pasta press) that removed the red outer pulp. Here is Roanne processing our harvest:

The machine pictured is no longer in use, the modern version is in the background in the next photo where Roanne and Hido are floating the pulp-less beans in water and picking out any last remnants of pulp.

The beans soak in water for a few days to dissolve the sugar-based mucilage, and are then transfered to an area where they can be spread and dried:

Obviously nothing would dry very effectively on another wet and rainy day in our vacation, so in these situations the beans are taken to screen in a green house like the one in which Roanne is demonstrating the next step of using a giant mortar and pestle to remove the parchment from the dried beans:

This is again an antiquated method, the current technique uses another motorized grinder-like machine for this. The beans are then taken to a screen where they can sorted and filtered, with the smaller and broken beans falling through while the high quality whole beans remain on top:

The beans are green in colour by this point, and are stored inside ready for roasting:

Here is the roaster, it takes 25-30 minutes to roast the beans depending on how dark you want them:

After the tour had wrapped up we sat down to chat more with Hido and sample some coffee that had been grown, processed, roasted, and brewed onsite.

With the tour complete we went and checked in at our hotel in the nearby town of Santa Elena, and then made a beeline over to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve to do some afternoon hiking in the rain. By this point we were started to long for the sunny beach that was next on our itinerary, but it was still amazing to see how green and lush the jungle was here. We set out on a 2 hour loop hike recommended by the park staff, with some of the highlights being really big moss-covered trees:

And lots more really green scenes:

At the far end of our loop we came to a viewpoint which was about the same as the other viewpoints we had seen thus far, a sea of white fog. Here we are braving the rain to pose for a group shot at the viewpoint:

From the viewpoint we headed back into the wet forest, look how well I blend in with my green rain jacket!

The next point of interest on our hike was a suspended bridge that crossed between two ridges, so that we were able to walk along side the canopy of the trees that were growing up from the valley:

This was pretty amazing to see, mostly for the sheer volume of other plants that each tree supports. Each tree supports about 70 species of epiphytes ("air plants", their roots do not reach the ground so they gain their moisture and nutrients from the clouds which are almost always present in the forest), it was pretty amazing to see that much diverse life supported by a single tree:

Moving on, we came to another really big tree that was comprised of many seemingly seperate columns:

Here is Roanne beside it, to give a sense of how large it was:

Another interesting thing about this tree was that it turned out to be hollow, here is a shot looking from the far side through the tree:

The final attraction on the hike was a waterfall which was nice to look at, even though we felt like we had been in a waterfall all day long: