Friday, January 21, 2005

Costa Rican Adventures...Milestones & memories

Buenas noches (or whatever time of day it is wherever you are)!
This round of updates includes a few very important milestones. First of all, I made my first joke in spanish!! That's a sign of true mastery of the language, right? I was talking to (well, sort of trying to talk to) some guys I'd met while out hiking, and they explained to me that one of them works in computers. I said something about him having 'mucho dinero' and one of his friends asked me if I knew the word "esposo" (spouse), so I replied "oh, his wife has all the money" in spanish. His friends found this quite amusing. Second, I got on the wrong bus and realized it was taking me somewhere i hadn't been before. I got off, asked someone how to get back to where I was trying to get to, and understood enough of the reply to find my way back on track. Full recovery without having to just get a taxi and show the driver the spanish directions to where I was staying...ok, it's not exactly having a baby, but I was still pretty proud. Now for what I've been up to since last time...

For a brief, shining moment, I thought mother nature was going to let up and allow me to do the rafting I came here to do. I actually got out on the river and we started down the Pacuare at just barely below flood stage. Unfortunately, once we were on it started dumping and we had to pull out at a midway point--before it got really challenging and fun--and hike out to the road. News flash: roads aren't as easy to come by here in Costa Rica. The hike out, with customers, was about a 3 mile slog up a steep hill (occasionally becoming a creekbed/waterfall) in mud that was ankle-deep at times. (Regardless of my feelings on his other actions, I do appreciate Donald Rumsfeld for reintroducing the word "slog" into the english language.) So after a couple hours we arrived at a road (and I use the term 'road' loosely) where ATVs were able to get some of the slower customers out to the main road (and I use the term 'main road' loosely) where a bus and cattle-truck were waiting to take us out to the highway (and I use the term 'highway' loosely) where the big busses that are normally used for customers. What's with the cattle-truck? you ask. Well, since the bus that was able to get down the road was only big enough for the customers, all of us guides got a 30-45 minute ride down nasty roads in the back of the open-air cattle truck. I've gotta say I was disappointed I didn't get to do the entire Pacuare that day, but I definitely had a class V jungle adventure at the river take-out.

Anyway, I headed back to San Jose to pick up the cash I'd had wired to me, and was planning to hang out there for a couple days until my credit card arrived. But since the river was back at flood stage and unrunnable, I wasn't about to just hang around with nothing to do in San Jose. So the next morning I was on a bus to La Fortuna to see Vulcan Arenal--the most active volcano in Costa Rica.

*Observation: OK, everyone knows the stereo-type about how aggressive & amorous latin men are, right? Well apparently the same is also true of latin women, at least the middle-aged and older ones. I found this out on the four hour bus ride to La Fortuna. As the ride went on, the 50-something woman next to me kept inching closer and closer to me. At first I thought she was just making room for all the people--the bus was packed and there were people in the aisle. But after awhile I realized she just kept squeezing into me more and more and the space between her and the people in the aisle got wider and wider. By the end of the trip, if I'd known enough spanish, I would have asked her if she had purchased a ticket, or just told the driver she'd be sharing my seat. Anyway, my theory on middle-aged latin women was later corroborated at a hostel, but at least there I was able to get up and leave :-)

So after arriving in La Fortuna, I got a bed at Gringo Pete's for a whopping $3. If ever in La Fortuna, stay at Gringo Pete's. Not only is it dirt cheap and relatively clean & nice conosidering the price, but they arrange tours for about half-price compared to what everyone else in town is asking. I did a tour that night with just two other people that included a guided two hour hike (we actually got some great, but brief, views of Vulcan Arenal when the clouds momentarily broke) and a visit to this incredible hot springs that charges an entrance fee nearly as high as what I paid for the entire tour. The place had about 10 pools of every temperature from tepid to scalding, countless waterfalls, and two swim-up bars. Unfortunately Arenal was shrouded in clouds all night because it also has amazing views of the lava flows at the peak. I was amazed they even let the hostel crowd into a place like this, let alone at whatever ridiculous discount they give Gringo Pete's.

The next day I started off on a jeep-boat-jeep adventure over to Monteverde--arranged through the hostel at about half price, of course. However, when we arrived at the lake we would have to boat across to get to Monteverde, I again ran into Backroads people. This time there was a trip going on, but the leaders told me there was plenty of space if I wanted to hop on the charter boat we had for our guests and do a little birding on the way across rather than just zoom across the fastest way possible. Hmmm...crowded public boat vs. relatively empty chartered boat...decisions, decisions. As fate would have it I hopped on the charter and joined the group in a hike on the other side of the lake. The hike was beautiful and really least until the monsoon hit. Ever seen those National Geographic expeditions where you can't hear anything but howling wind and fabric being snapped in the wind? After a few kilometers of that we all eventually wound in the van for a drive into the town of Monteverde and an amazing lunch prepared by a famous local chef exclusively for Backroads groups...and stowaways :-) Well after lunch I checked into my hostel, and after looking at my options for evening activities, I decided to hike the peak nearby that the guy at the information center said was way too difficult to do, especially in conditions like this...but hey, it was free! Ever seen those National Geographic expeditions where you can't hear anything but howling wind and fabric being snapped in the wind? After a couple hours of '3 steps forward, 2 steps back' in the mud, and seeing absolutely nothing but clouds, I decided my ego really wasn't worth attempting to come back down from the peak in the dark with these weather conditions. I arrived back in town to some hot (but not nearly hot enough) chocolate and hot (but not nearly hot enough) soup and presto! A mere 3 hours later I had feeling restored in my fingers!

*Observation: anyone who's concerned about the whole world going to one common currency, don't worry! It's already happened. Apparently even the most remote little towns of Costa Rica would rather have dollars than colones. Just about everywhere I've been quotes prices in dollars, and gives you an unfavorable exchange rate if you pay in colones.

The next morning I embraced my tourist-hood and went on one of the over-priced, over-hyped, and oh-so-much-fun canopy tours. I went on a bunch of zip-lines through the forest, which was alright and had some nice views, but not quite worth the price tag. But I really got my money's worth on the giant 'Tarzan Swing' where you start off with what looks like a 50 ft straight drop before the rope finally starts to take you in an arc away from the ground. Absolute rush! If ever in Costa Rica, Aventuras is the place to go for an exciting canopy tour. After that I had a few hours before my bus so I decided to take a little hike the 'bosque eterno de los ninos', or eternal children's rainforest. You know all that money kids collect to 'save the rainforest'? Some of us may have actually collected money ourselves. Anyway, believe it or not, that wasn't just some silly 'forward this to all your friends and microsoft will send you a fat check' scam. That money actually went All the money collected has been used to buy up land here in Costa Rica. It's actually one of the largest reserves in Costa Rica...and the most pristine. There's only about 4km of trails; the remaining 99% is left completely natural. So I hiked the trails and made my donation to 'save the rainforest'. But I felt the urge to do a little more...well, maybe it wasn't an urge to do a little more, but it was definitely an urge to do something. Specifically, whatever I'd eaten for lunch was not sitting well with my American stomach. So there I was, with no idea how far to the nearest bathroom, but I knew it wasn't close, and I was about to crap my pants. Now in forest as I've always known it, I'd just hike off into the woods a little way, dig a hole, and problem solved. OK, rainforest is not like forest in North America. I found myself essentially burroing through 'pristine, virgin rainforest', which was not exactly easy to do given that my bowels were about to explode. I think I made it all of ten feet off the trail, which was more than enough to conceal me from anyone passing by (not that I had anything to worry about, I only wound up seeing one other person all day) and took care of business. Being the smart traveler I am, I even had an emergency stash of toilet paper in my bag. Of course, I neglected to bring the shovel for digging a little hole or a plastic bags to pack out my TP, so I guess I've now deflowered formerly 'virgin' rainforest.

So after my encounter with the rainforest, I waited at the bus stop for the bus back to San Jose...only to find out too late that the bus stop had changed locations a few days before. Spent another night in Monteverde and made my way this morning back to San Jose. Unfortunately, the river's are still way above flood stage, and don't look like they're coming down anytime soon, so I think next week I'm going to do a week of spanish school in Orosi Valley. Looks like a pretty cool, out of the way place where I'm gonna stand out like a sore thumb. But it's supposed to have several cheap & free hot springs, great hiking, and of course a really cheap spanish school. Hope everyone's doing great wherever you are. One final...

*Observation: playing connect the dots with insect bites is a great way to pass the time when you miss a bus and you're stuck in a town for an extra night without enough money to do anything...but it doesn't make them itch any less.

Hasta une otro vez, D

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Costa Rican Adventures...Travel Karma

Lest anyone be too rash in ditching their jobs to follow in my globe-trotting footsteps, I feel it necessary to send another update since my latest update. Don't worry, I won't normally send these out so often, but under the circumstances...well, I've got time and $0.70/hr internet access.

It seems the travel gods frowned upon my excessive boasting in my last update and have exacted their vengeance upon me. Yesterday I left San Jose for Turrialba, Costa Rica's whitewater capital. Just before getting on the bus, I loaded up on colones (no, not colonies, I have no plans to extend my vast empire at the moment...colones are the local currency) since I knew out here in the bush ATMs might be a little harder to come by. Leaving the ATM I quickly stuffed the equivalent of about $250 into my wallet rather than putting it in my hidden pants pocket in broad daylight. So, naturally, travel karma seized its opportunity and I was pickpocketed while I was unloading my luggage from the bus in Turrialba. I even remember the guy who distracted me by "helping" me with my luggage. I'm 99% sure as he bumped into me to grab one of my bags someone he was working with grabbed my wallet from my front pocket on the other side. As Turrialba is a very small town and I remember his face, I've already prepared myself for if I happen to run into him again ("Donde esta mi billetera, punta?" = "Where's my wallet, b*tch?") :-)

Anyway, I've been working on figuring out how to get cash, canceling my credit cards, all that fun stuff. I've made an important discovery that everybody should remember when travelling. American Express ROCKS! I was able to call them collect from CR to cancel my Amex and they offered to ship another one to CR free of charge. I then spent a long time trying to get hold of my other cards (that don't have toll-free numbers) and trying to find out what I need to do to have money wired here. I eventually called Amex back to see if they could help with any of that and they wired money to the San Jose Western Union office for pickup later today, then transferred me to US Bank (all this at international collect rates, of course) and waited on the line for at least 20 minutes to make sure everything got cleared up there and then made sure there was nothing else I needed. Unfortunately, they weren't able to arrange a massage or deliver a beer to Turrialba. Other than those minor shortcomings, I was very impressed.

Lessons I hope you've learned: 1) carry Amex 2) never travel with me. Last time I went abroad I also found myself without cash or access to it. From now on, I'm only travelling with large quantities of cash duct-taped to my inner thigh. Not the most comfortable travel arrangement, but at this point I think the rash will be well worth it.

-no matter what state of disrepair the car is in, the horn is ALWAYS working. Ticos (Costa Ricans) apparently like to test their horns every couple of seconds. After awhile on the bus it starts to sound like a soothing lullaby.
-American addresses are so boringly uniform. Addresses like "faded brick building 200 meters south and 150 meters west of the Banco popular, across from the Public Garden and next to the yellow hotel" are so much more interesting and descriptive. Maybe someday I'll have the address "friggin' HUGE white mansion, on hillside overlooking Pacuare River, next to helicopter pad, 2 kilometers west of the beach"
-there is a tax on speaking english here. Not a direct tax of course, but there is a direct relationship between the cost of anything (hotels, restaurants, tours, etc.) and the amount of english spoken by the person providing service. I sort of expected this one and I'm working on my spanish to overcome that. For instance, I just filed a police report with someone who knew absolutely no english at all--it was free, of course.

More observations to come of course. But for now I'll close with one more way the travel gods have exacted their vengeance. I should be rafting the Pacuare River right now (my primary reason for coming to Costa Rica), but in the middle of dry season it's absolutely dumping rain here and the rivers are at flood stage and too high to run. It let up for a few days and the rivers were navigable yesterday. But, of course, when I arrived last night the rain started falling again :-)

Hasta la huega! Devin

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Costa Rican Adventures...Volume 1

Pura vida, mi amigos!!
Greetings family, friends, and people whose email addresses I've gathered from commercial mass-mailing sources. Welcome to the second volume of updates from abroad. (Is Central America considered "abroad"? Do you have to cross an ocean to be considered abroad?) I recently arrived in Costa Rica for about a six week stay here, and as with my European travels a few years ago, I'll be sending out an update every so often to let everyone know I'm not starving in a jungle prison for attempting to smuggle arms. In fact, this time I'll only be smuggling internal organs, and maybe a few legs, but absolutely no arms.

So I arrived in Costa Rica late Sunday night and was immediately treated to classic Tico hospitality (well, after getting taken for a ride by the currency exchange counter in the airport). In my typical fashion, I hadn't bothered to make any reservations for a place to stay even though I was arriving at 10:30 pm. So as midnight approached I found myself in a cab driving around the streets of Alajuela as the friendly driver woke up the owners of small hotels and explaining my situation to see if they had one more bed. It all worked out in the end and the next day I made my way to San Jose, which is the capital and transportation hub of Costa Rica. It also happens to be where Backroads, my employer, rents a house for leaders to stay in while working here. I'm not exactly working here, but they made room for me. And coincidentally one of the Backroads leaders was heading to the same destination as me the next day. So with great disappointment, I passed up the chance to ride a bumpy, overcrowded bus for four hours and instead was stuck in a roomy rental car for a leisurely drive to Quepos, with stops along the way at a nice little restaurant overlooking a gorgeous valley. On the way into Quepos, I was forced to stop with my co-worker and hike through a private reserve with the largest canopy bridge system in Costa Rica. Though I really wanted to pay $60 for a tour with a bunch of strangers, I had to go for free with just a guide & my co-worker at whatever pace we felt like going. The next day I took a wrong turn or something and wound up rafting through a Class IV/V section of the upper Naranjo River through an amazing jungle valley. And after an afternoon siesta I headed up to the Rafiki Safari Lodge ( for a going away party for one of the family members of the owners who's going off to school for several years. OK, I can't even pretend to sound like I'm not having a great time anymore. Rafiki is gorgeous, and to anyone with the time & money, or time & connections as in my case, I highly recommend a visit. So we partied all night in a secluded lodge in the middle of the jungle and woke up to a hot breakfast prepared for us by the staff of the lodge. After a couple of vehicles broke down on the way out, I finally made my way back to Quepos and caught the bus back here to San Jose. Tomorrow I head to Turrialba, rafting capital of Costa Rica and one of the premier spots in the world for whitewater. Provided the Pacuare River comes down out of flood stage, I even have work lined up as a river guide.

Anyway, I wish I'd had time to make this update more entertaining. If I can stop having such a good time here, then next time I'll put a little more effort into making my updates entertaining. Hope everybody's well. Pura vida! Devin