Friday, November 25, 2011

Costa Rica - Day 1

In recent years (meaning last year for the first time) Roanne and I have made a habit of planning  a vacation at the end of November, coinciding with American Thanksgiving. This timing has the dual benefits of requiring fewer vacation days, and of international flights from the US being cheap since most residents are flying domestically to visit their families. Last year we had picked the far flung destination of Madagascar; this year we had slightly less time to work with so we chose the closer destination of Costa Rica. Neither of us had ever been to Central or South America, so while Costa Rica is pretty standard fare as tourist destinations go, we were pretty excited for the trip. Another factor was that neither of us spoke any Spanish beyond "gracias" (and even that one we botched half of the time by saying "merci" instead), so this would be a good intro to travel in Spanish-speaking countries.

We flew out of Seattle on Thanksgiving morning, connecting through Houston and landing in San Jose, Costa Rica just before 10pm. In retrospect we probably should have flown into Liberia since we spent most of our time in the north, but Costa Rica is a small country so it didn't work out too badly. We picked up our rental car near the airport (a 1.8L, 4WD mini-SUV called a "BeGo") and headed into San Jose. This one we did get right: if you are renting a car in San Jose and plan to go anywhere off the main highways you should get a 4WD, and the recommendation is even more heartfelt if you happen to have a penchant for taking shortcuts like I do.

The hotel I had booked was on the east side of San Jose which proved to be a mistake, it would have been much better to have picked a hotel on the west side of the city (closer to the airport) since we headed west out of the city the next morning and had to deal with a lot of traffic in the city core. We found the hotel with the help of the GPS maps that I had purchased and downloaded in advance for our Garmin eTrex, this is another big recommendation if you are driving in Costa Rica, I think we could count on one finger the number of street signs that we saw during our stay so the GPS proved very useful every time we got in the car.

The hotel itself wasn't too bad, and the next morning we enjoyed our first of many "Tipico" Costa Rican breakfasts: pinto beans with rice, scrambled eggs, fried plantains, and fresh tropical fruit. After our relaxing morning and leisturely breakfast we finally climbed into the BeGo and set out for our first destination of Mount Arenal just before noon.

Mount Arenal is to the northwest of San Jose, and is the countries most active Volcano so in going there we were hoping to hear and see it belching and billowing smoke during the day, and to see glowing red magma flowing down its flanks by night. Unfortunately it happens to be located in a rain forest and we were traveling on the threshold between the "green" and dry seasons, so we had our fingers crossed that we would luck out with some clear weather. As we drove west out of San Jose and the main highway the horizon in front of us didin't look too promising:

By the time we had turned off of the main highway onto the sineous, winding road that twisted its way through the steep hillsides toward Arenal our fears had been realized and the BeGo was being pounded with rain as we struggled to see the next curve 100 feet ahead:

Stinker! Oh well, it was still an interesting drive, with lots of narrow bridges and daring manoevers to pass the slower traffic that we encountered on the short straight sections between the incessent corners:

The drive from San Jose to Arenal was only about 180km, but because of the type of roads (paved with lots of corners, and finishing on a 15km dirt road with muchos potholes) we had to drive on it took about 4 hours to reach our destination of the Arenal Observatory Lodge where we would be spending the next two nights. As you might expect, the volcano was shrouded in mist and the only view from the observatory deck was that of the railing that we grasped as we struggled to make out anything in the white fog. No matter though, it seemed like a great place and we were happy to relax in our room for a bit with the knowledge that the next day would certianly bring clear and sunny weather. Here is Roanne happily settling into our room:

The Lodge was really nice, being set far from civilization inside a national park with easy access to hiking trails and a range of other activities. With a bit of time before darkness fell and a lull in the rain, I decided to head out for a run while Roanne took a snoozer in the room. Soon after I set out on my explorations it started to rain again, and by the time I returned an hour later in complete darkness both I and my moustache were feeling invigorated but pretty wet:

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