Monday, January 5, 2009

Costa Rica Vacation

Kathy and I went to Costa Rica from December 21st, 2008, until January 4th, 2009.
We were happy to get away from Seattle, where snow storms were hammering the city.

12/20/08: Alajuela: Kathy and I went from the airport to Alajuela, a suburb of San Jose, as Alajuela is only 3 km from the airport. Taxi between the airport and the central park in Alajuela is $3, or 1600 to 1700 colones. We walked down to the Alajuela bus stations to figure out how the buses worked here, but we could not find any ticket offices. I think that only the local buses came here. There is a new Multicentro bus station somewhere between the airport and the central park in Alajuela where intercity buses stop, but we did not know about this until later. We stayed at Eco-Inn(?), which had small, poor rooms that seemed expensive ($40). I would recommend Hotel Guaria instead, which is much nicer. There are ATMs all over Alajuela, as well as most towns in Costa Rica (except Montezuma, see below), so you can expect to use your ATM card along the way. Having the Plus network will work slightly better than Cirrus, although both work at most ATMs.

12/21/08: We decided to take a taxi to the San Carlos bus terminal in San Jose to catch the bus to La Fortuna. I noticed that there are no street signs in San Jose, and finding our way around by ourselves would have been somewhat of a challenge, even though we knew the address. At the San Carlos bus terminal, we bought tickets to La Fortuna and caught a “direct” bus there, although it still seemed to stop at every street corner along the way. Five hours later, we arrive in La Fortuna and walk over to Hotel Dorotea, which is just a couple blocks south of town. This hotel has simple rooms with so-so bathrooms, but it is mostly quiet and clean, and costs only $10/person. Nancy runs the place and is very nice.

We immediately set up a night hike to Arenal through the hotel ($35/pp, including hot springs visit afterwards). Everyone in town has tours on which you can go, but I found that it was very easy and convenient to do it through Nancy. We might have paid a few extra dollars more per tour, but we were quite satisfied with all the tours which we went on, so she seemed to have chosen well among the tour operators. A tour bus came to our hotel to pick us up for all the tours we went on.

The night tour started with a walk along a road looking at birds and animals. Then we went up to some more trails near Arenal Observatory Lodge and hiked to a viewpoint near the volcano and waited for the sun to set. After the sun set, we watched for lava. The volcano is mostly obscured by clouds in December, but during a few clear sections, we saw glowing rocks of lava tumbling down the sides of the volcano. There is another viewing spot that is a bit further away where most of the tours go, which was very crowded. I would advise going with our guide, as we were the only ones at the upper viewing station and there were few other people there. The only disadvantage is that we had to pay a slightly higher price, as it included an entrance fee to use the Observatory Lodge’s private trail system, hence more solitude. After this, we went to Baldi hot springs for three hours to soak in the pools. I would have paid them more to have only stayed for two hours, as it was a bit of a high-priced tourist trap with sculptured rock pools in a man-made tropical setting. There were three swim-up bars where we could by beers for three times the regular price. I’d advise skipping the hot springs. There is an area out near Tabacon where you can go soak in the hot water river that is flowing off the volcano for free; Tabacon itself is a very high-priced resort area, however.

12/22/08: Lost Canyon Rappel with Desafio Adventures - $95/pp. We caught a 4WD vehicle up to Desafio’s lodge and geared up with harnesses, rappel devices and helmets. After a short drive up the road from there, we hiked down into Lost Canyon which has a small stream running down it. We did four rappels. Two of them were extremely small so as not to count much, but the other two were 45 to 65 meter free-hanging rappels off of platforms next to waterfalls. We also got to splash around and jump into some pools.
I thought there were too many people on this tour and we had to wait a lot, which made me a bit cold. The two long rappels were really nice, however. You are going to be wet on this trip so think to dress in something that will be warm when you are soaked.

The Rainforest coffee shop in La Fortuna, by the way, has the best coffee/ice cream milkshake concoctions. While the coffee here is good, I strongly advise getting icecream, milk and chocolate in your drink as well. Yum! They also have a book exchange, where I picked up a couple new (to me) paperbacks.

12/23/08: Cano Negro boat trip ($45/pp). Our mini-bus drove 1.5 hours to Los Chiles, which is near the border of Nicaragua. From there, you could take a boat a couple hours down the river to Nicaragua if you have your papers in order, which might have been fun in hindsight; however, we were there to take a couple hour tour up the river to look for wildlife. We saw monkeys (howler, capuchin _and_ spider monkeys), caiman, many types of birds, long-nosed bats, and lizards (such as the emerald basilisk). I really enjoyed the boat trip, and it was a beautiful day. The spider monkeys were amazing and they glided through the trees. After the boat trip, we headed back home. It helps to be interested in bird watching, and our guide knew all the birds by sight. I really recommend this trip. On the way there, we stopped at some restaurant with the word “Iguana” in its name near which we could go look at dozens of iguanas lounging in the trees by the river. I found that interesting as well.

12/24/08: Kathy and I moved to Arenal Country Inn down the road a short ways, where we had reservations for a couple nights for an expensive little cottage. It was more of a hotel on a larger piece of land than a country inn. They advertised having Free Internet, but it was “broken” (or non-existent). Hotel Dorotea had advertised free internet as well, but it was the computer behind the reception desk. This was par for the course in Costa Rica, it seemed. Here we had cable TV, outdoor pool, nice showers, but we paid for it.
The restaurant down the street, El Establo, was the best restaurant at which we ate in La Fortuna. It is 800 meters down the road that goes from La Fortuna to Arenal Country Inn (which was 1 km from downtown).
Kathy and I hiked to Ecocentro Danaus. Their pamphlet had directions, but the distances were too short. The sign to the waterfall south of town has distances that are too short as well. Maybe Ticos are just overly optimistic.

12/25/08: Christmas! Kathy and I relaxed. We ate at El Establo again and had steak, fish and wine.

12/26/08: Today we went on a river rafting tour to the Pacuare with Exploradores Outdoors, which is supposedly one of the ten best river rafting spots in the world. It is a 2.5 hour drive from La Fortuna, so it is a long day, but was definitely worth it. The rapids were class 3 to 4 along an 18 mile stretch of the Lower Pacuare. In one word – sweet! We discovered afterwards that we could have arranged to be picked up in one location and dropped off in another, e.g. leaving from San Jose, then going back to La Fortuna, thus getting a "free" travel day.

12/27/08: Kathy and I headed to Monteverde via “Jeep/Boat/Horseback” trip. The jeep was a taxi to Lake Arenal, and the boat trip is fairly humdrum. I have never been horseback riding, so we went for the option horseback ride for a couple hours along Lake Arenal, and then connected with the second “Jeep” section of the trip, which was a little more scenic along gravel roads to Monteverde.
We found a nice budget hotel called Tina’s Casitas that was fairly quiet and private. We went on a night tour which was mildly disappointing. The guide took us on trails in their private 50 acre forest and looked for sleeping birds with their flashlight. We did see a few sleeping bats as well, and made an obligatory stop at a log that contained a tarantula burrow, which the guide teased out so that we could see it. I was mildly disappointed.

12/28/08: We caught the bus to Santa Elena Reserve (our hotel arranged us to be picked up at our hotel), and we walked around for a few hours without a tour guide. We did a large loop following a muddy trail through the forest. We did not see much wildlife.

In the afternoon, we walked a short ways down to Selvatura Park and did the Hanging Bridges walk. We could hear/see other people doing the zipline Canopy tour through the same area. Many “parks” are set up in the area that create their own hanging bridges and zipline tours, so you have many to choose from. I don’t know how to figure out which is best. Kathy and I didn’t want to do the zipline, but after seeing it, I imagined that it was quite fun. From the hanging bridges, we could look out and down at the treetop canopy. We did not see a lot of wildlife, though. In order to really enjoy the tour, you have to be interested in epiphytes; I’ll bet if we knew more about orchids, we might have seen some of them as well.

12/29/08: We caught the early public bus from downtown out to Monteverde Reserve. This time we paid for a guide, and really enjoyed it. We did not get very far in the park as we came across a few resplendent quetzals off in the trees that we tried for a long time to get a good look at. We saw a sloth as well (all sloths look like a pile of wet shaggy carpet stuck unmoving in a tree), and a hummingbird sitting on its nest (the guides know where to look for these things). Also, just outside the park, there is a free hummingbird garden that is really nice. Spend some time there watching the variety of hummingbirds.
Kathy and I stopped at the Frog Pond in town in the afternoon, which was a small zoo for frogs. It was mildly entertaining.

12/30/08: We caught a private shuttle to Montezuma. I would have preferred to catch the public bus to Puntarenas slightly earlier in the day, but Kathy wanted someone to tell us what to do, have us get driven directly to the ferry, and have someone holding a sign for us with our names on it when we got off the ferry. As it was, it was a little less professional than that, but we got to where we were going with little difficulty.
When we got to Montezuma, however, every hotel was booked, although we luckily found the last room in town at Hotel Cascada (which I recommend - $40). However, they only allowed us to stay one night, as they had reservations for the next day. We spent the afternoon wandering around fruitlessly looking for where we were going to stay the next night before relaxing at a beachside restaurant for ceviche and beer. Later we went to the fanciest restaurant in town – Play de las Artistas. Kathy had lobster and I had a local fish. The food was reasonably good and the atmosphere was excellent (candlelight dinner on a quiet beach), but very spendy. As the only ATM in town was broken and noone accepts credit cards in this town, we burned through our previously plentiful supply of cash quiet quickly.

12/31/08: New Year’s Eve! When we got up, I went to the budget hotels to see who had left, and found us a room at one of the worst hotels in town. We had a glorified locker with to small falling down beds, and iron bars on the windows. Oh, and it was right next to the rowdiest bar in town, which was also throwing an all-night rave that night. The music was loud, but it wasn’t as distracting to our sleep as the fireworks that set off the car alarms in the parking lot just outside our window. We woke up before midnight, wandered around for half an hour until it was 2009, then went back to a fitful sleep in our locker.
Also during the day, we caught the public bus up to Cobano where they had an ATM. Several other people did the same. The ATM at the bank only allowed you to withdraw 50,000 colones at a time (about $90), and only gave out 2,000 colon notes (about $3.50 each). So we came back with a huge wad of cash and a lot of transaction fees.

1/1/09: We scouted out another room in Montezuma and swapped hotels again. Pension Jenny was quieter, but also had somewhat poor, shared bathrooms, and we got the room right in front. People knocked on our door in the evening a few times thinking it was the office. When we turned out our light, the front light (that stayed on all night) shone right into our room. At least it was better than a disco, and the bed didn’t fall apart.
We took a taxi down to Cabo Blanco reserve and walked around a bit. This park was one of the first reserves set aside in Costa Rica. The tip of the Nicoya Pennisula gets a lot of rain, but it has more of a temperate forest feel than the cloud forests of the mountains.

1/2/09: We caught the 6:30am bus back to Alajuela. It was a direct bus that actually crossed on the ferry. We felt good to get back to Alajuela and just relax at a nice hotel, La Guaria Inn.
1/3/09: We decided to catch a taxi up to Volcan Poas, and ride the bus back. It turns out, there is so little to see, it is better to have the taxi wait for an hour to and hour and a half, and then take it back, as you can walk all the trails in that time if you are reasonably fit. It was nice to look into the crater of an active volcano, and the day was clear and beautiful. If the day is not nice, then this trip will not be worth it. There is a public bus that goes from San Jose through Alajuela up to Volcan Poas and then back at 2:30, which is a good alternative, especially if you are coming from San Jose. However, we didn’t know which of the three or four terminals in Alajuela to wait for the bus, and we wanted to get up there early before clouds set in, so we took the taxi. Then we sat around for five hours, reading books and drooling at the picnics that all the locals brought with them. There is only a coffee shop at the park, so pack your own lunch.

1/4/09: Caught a taxi to the airport to head home. You need to pay $26/person in departure tax. This is your chance to get rid of your colones as well, but beware. I gave them 10,000 colones and they only knocked $14 off of my departure tax, so either they made a mistake of some kind, or they gave me a rate of 700 colones / dollar instead of 560. Save US dollars for this. Also, get there at least a couple hours ahead of time. We had two and a half hours, but the line to get our boarding passes took us over an hour and we were starting to get worried at that. Security checkpoint went quick, however.

2008 Training Log

Here is my training log from Attackpoint for 2008:

Training Archive: nnmiles
In the 356 days ending 2008-12-31:
Activity # Time Miles Kms + ft
Running190 265:43:48 1395.96

Kayaking42 177:31:37 645.9

Cycling191 136:23:46 1748.56

Hiking18 123:35:00 255.8(28:59) 411.67(18:00) 66320

Mtn Biking42 103:18:13 694.74

Orienteering14 90:38:05 163.75

Climbing68 84:18:00

Skiing4 14:25:00 52.2(16:34) 84.0(10:17) 6562

Riverboarding3 5:45:00 32.0(10:46) 51.5(6:41)

Swimming9 4:25:00 4.95(53:31) 7.97(33:15)

Core28 4:09:03


Horseback Riding1 2:00:00 8.0(14:59) 12.88(9:19) 500

Total610 1012:12:32 5001.85
Total 610 1012:12:32 5001.85 8049.7 455,713

Not bad. 1000 hours of training, 5000 miles, and 455,000 vertical feet of gain.
That's a big year.