Costa Rican Adventures...Did somebody say adventure?
First I must apologize to those of you with slow connections for the overwhelming size of this message. It’s been awhile since the last update and in the last couple weeks I’ve been to the depths of the ocean and the peaks of the highest mountains just to bring you all fun and exciting stories to read and enjoy. Well, it might have been a little fun for me, too. Might want to grab a cup of coffee for this one…
The adventure begins pretty mildly…on top of a bubbling and fuming volcano. A one-hour taxi ride with 4 other backpackers down a gravel path brought us to Rincon de la Vieja, one of the most active volcanoes in Costa Rica. Unfortunately, January-February is the windy season for this particular park, so any trip to the top would’ve been…well, pretty typical of what I’ve experienced up to this point…but also not very inspiring as the visibility at the top was pretty much nil. So I hiked around with my fellow backpackers and enjoyed a gorgeous pool at the base of a waterfall (where of course the warm sun was shining, unlike at the top) and a lot of different volcanic features like boiling mud-pits, steaming pools, and a couple "volcancitos"—mini-volcanoes that are constantly "erupting" mud and water no more than a few meters in the air. Not exactly the stuff blockbuster movies are made of, but a nice day nonetheless, capped off with pizza and ice cream with my new friends.
The next day I was off to the Pacific Ocean and Playas del Coco, where I would be embarking into a whole new world…the underwater world of Scuba. Enough people have asked why on earth I’ve come all the way to Costa Rica and hardly spent any time at the beaches that I decided to find a good reason to spend some quality time at the ocean. And once I found a company that offered pretty cheap scuba certification, I now had a reason. The first day was just some boring classroom stuff with a couple hours in the pool to practice some techniques. The other person in the class was an older woman who was just doing this because her friends all were certified and were pushing her to do it to. She was worried about absolutely everything ("What if I come up too fast?" "What if I forget to breathe?" "What if the fish start attacking me?" All actual questions.) and had me about ready to start asking my own round of stupid questions. "Couldn’t my dive watch catch on fire while I’m down there?" "What if someone replaces my air tank with a tank of arsenic?" "What if the sea floor erupts while I’m down there?" Anyway, she came down with a very unfortunate non-specific illness that kept her from continuing after the first day, which I think worked out just as well for everybody.
Day 2 was my first dive! Now I’ve jumped out of airplanes and off of bridges, I’ve slithered through 50-meter long cave passages barely wider than me, I’ve paddled down rapids that could break every bone in your body before spitting you out, and I’ve climbed and rappelled on cliffs hundreds of feet tall…I did not expect to be bothered by a little swimming with a glorified backpack. But as we descended along the rope, and the boat and surface started to fade above us, I’ve gotta admit it was pretty freaky. Something about only being able to breathe through your mouth, and having to work just a little bit harder to get that air to come, and knowing I was in a completely foreign environment in which I was completely helpless without the gear. Anyway, we got to the floor and started swimming around a bit and my nervousness started to fade. Then it was very rapidly forgotten as we started seeing all the creatures that inhabit the ocean. I’d read in a brochure, and again in the textbook we used in class, that you see more wildlife in a few minutes on the ocean floor than in an entire day hiking in the most pristine forest. I chalked it up to marketing hype myself. Turns out it was no exaggeration. All kinds of brightly colored fish were everywhere the moment we got to the floor. Within minutes we had spotted our first ray. A few minutes later we spotted another type of ray (the first was black and white, this one was brown). And then, about 15 minutes into the dive…a SHARK!! A white-tipped reef shark about 5 feet long. At first it was barely visible…visibility was kind of poor that day at only about 30 feet. But as it swam around it came closer a few times. I noticed David, my instructor, looked really happy, and then he pumped his fist. I would learn later that shark-spottings are fairly rare. In this area they were seen on maybe 10-20% of dives. It seemed to be circling us after awhile, a somewhat ominous sign. And then it started swimming towards me…like, right towards me. At about 15 feet it angled off a little bit, but it still got well within 10 feet of me before it finally turned and swam away. Up that point, I’d been pretty comfortable down there, the initial nervousness had faded. But as the shark got closer, I started wondering just how "perfectly safe & normal" these shark encounters really were. I talked to David afterward to see if my perception of distance was accurate, or if the goggles and the fact I was in an unfamiliar environment made my judgment a little off. He confirmed the shark was definitely within 10 feet of me (in fact he pointed to someone on the boat standing only 6-7 feet away and said it was about that distance) and then said he was about to grab me and make sure I wasn’t panicking, as encounters that close, particularly with the shark swimming toward a person, ARE quite rare! Eventually the shark swam away for good, and in the final minutes of the dive we spotted a couple more rays (one was pretty large) swimming together. I also entertained the following thoughts…"Damn, now I’ve got yet another expensive hobby." As well as, "So far I’ve been able to turn most of my expensive hobbies into professions, so maybe…" Turns out being a scuba Divemaster is a lot like being a raft guide…you can travel to lots of great places, show up at a place unannounced, get paid in cash, and move on to the next great location.
Anyway, the next couple days involved some more class and pool time and a total of three more dives. Now I’m an open-water certified diver and have a whole new round of questions to ask people when they talk about great travel destinations.
After Playas del Coco, I decided to get even more adventurous and join my new friends from Rincon de la Vieja in…Nicaragua! Quick history lesson: In the 1980’s the people of Nicaragua were finally emerging from decades of oppressive rule by the Sandoza family and were enjoying a rapidly rising standard of living under a democratically elected government. Only one problem…the Sandoza’s had some powerful friends in the US and eventually the US, through the CIA, began funding the Contras who eventually overthrew the government chosen by the people. Perhaps you’ve heard the term Iran-Contra Affair? This was the Contra part.
Now at this point, perhaps you’re thinking—I know I was—that maybe traveling to a nation that has been wrecked by the actions of representatives of your own nation is…a bit…what’s the word…foolish? Wreckless? Completely void of common sense? Imagine, for instance, that the French were to fund and participate in a coup that overthrew our president. I’m sure you can imagine that the French (in addition to becoming the most loved nation in the world overnight) would be less than welcome in the States. But hey, I’m here to tell the story so it couldn’t have been too bad, right? Crossing the border was an experience in itself.
[*Observation: An interesting thing about crossing the border this time was it was the first time in nearly a month that I’d been in a country with an army. Costa Rica doesn’t have one. Interestingly, two of my favorite countries in the world, CR and Switzerland, don’t have armies. Both have the highest standards of living in their regions and very desirable locations. Yet they manage to defend the homeland just fine without a single full-time soldier. Costa Rica traces its high standard of living to the decision in 1948 to abolish the army and instead spend that money on health care and education…sure makes me wonder just what the States could do with that $500,000,000,000 we spend on the military every year…]
First I was accosted by the mobs of money-changers and, being the savvy traveler that I am, chose to basically ignore them because I knew their rates would be ridiculous. (I checked online later and found out they were basically offering the current international bank exchange rate…in fact they offered a better rate than what I got from my own bank when I used the ATM. Maybe I shouldn’t be so suspicious…) While waiting in line at the first of…let me think…four checkpoints, I encountered a couple other gringos taking the plunge and we decided on safety in numbers and stuck together until we reached a hostel in Granada. The border itself was arranged along a nearly 1 km-long stretch of highway with checkpoints and vendors interwoven along the way. Every time we were asked for our passports, we’d get a little stressed. What if this person wasn’t legitimate? What happens if you lose your passport in between countries? Then you can’t get into either one. There’s no embassy you can go to. Is that why there are so many money-changers? Did they all get stuck in between the borders and have to resort to that as their only means of survival?!? Fortunately none of us had to find out the answer to those questions and we made it through with no problems. The border town was crazy like all border towns are. The ride to Granada was made interesting by the fact it was on the exact same type of school bus I rode to school as a little kid…except now my legs no longer fit in the seat. I really wish I’d engaged in more seat-graffiti as a kid, I very well might have ridden the same exact school bus at some point while I was in Nicaragua as I rode to school as a kid.
Just before reaching Granada, we had to change to a local bus, which proved another interesting bus experience. Remember how I said the Costa Rican bus drivers are friendly? Well in Nicaragua there’s a second guy whose entire job is to lean out the door shouting the destination of the bus (apparently with daily labor routes around $3 this is cheaper than a sign) and asking people if they need rides. Once the bus stops, though, or in some cases just slows down, he’s hopping off the bus to grab their luggage and usher them onto the bus as quickly as possible. Hey, even at $3/day, time is still money, you know. We reached Granada and found our way to our hostel…appropriately named Oasis. In the midst of crowded, dirty streets jam-packed with people and vendors, the hostel had a gorgeous central courtyard with quiet hammocks all over the place and even a swimming pool! There was free Internet, a free DVD library to use on one of several TVs, and even free calls to North America. And all this for $6/night. Ahh…it’s good to be a backpacker :-) I spent a couple hours that afternoon walking around town and the lakefront. Granada is located on Lago de Nicaragua (Lake Nicaragua) that I’m estimating is about the size of the Great Salt Lake…it’s enormous. Makes Tahoe look like a pond. One thing that was interesting was seeing inside the houses as I would pass them. All of the buildings in the city looked pretty basic, and usually downright ugly, on the outside. But inside, many homes had beautiful courtyards and were nicely decorated. Another interesting thing was almost all homes had a nice sitting area in the front, and in the early evening, all the people were out front, kids playing in the street, very much like what you’d think of as old-fashioned, main-street, small-town America. It was during this walk that I was finally able to relax a bit about where I was. Given the history of the place, and the fact that border crossings are just mad places where you’ve always gotta be on-guard, I was pretty suspect of everyone I’d see. Finally, as I was walking, this little girl who was playing on the sidewalk just looked up at me and smiled and waved as I walked by. It caught me off-guard and I realized I was in another community with normal people and families and everyone wasn’t out to take advantage of the gringo. It was a good feeling. Regardless, as the sun went down, I still made sure I was with a couple other people from hostel, one of whom was a rather large weight-lifter :-) We went out for a nice dinner, treating ourselves to fairly American fare before enjoying a pretty American night watching movies. We’d all been traveling for awhile and welcomed the chance to enjoy some "at home" comforts.
The next day I had to find my way to Isla de Ometepe, the island on Lake Nicaragua where I was planning to meet up with the backpackers from Rincon. This involved a bus ride from Granada, a taxi ride to the boat dock, a ferry ride across the lake, and two more bus-rides once on the island. I knew it would be about four hours to the island…what I hadn’t counted on was three more hours on gravel roads (and I use the term "gravel road" loosely) once I reached the island before I finally got to the hostel. The boat ride itself was a little more than I bargained for. When I got on, I noticed a great seat up front near the door that had plenty of legroom since there was an aisle in front of it. Thinking myself in luck, I grabbed the seat and got ready for a nice ride on a boat to the island. Turns out there was a reason the seat was empty. Once we got out of the harbor, the lake was very choppy, and the "ferry" was basically just a glorified fishing boat. We started pitching and rolling every which way, and every time the boat would pitch left, water that rushed through the openings in the doors would blast me. Fortunately, the opening was low and I just covered it with my leg so only my pant leg and shoes got soaked. Gore-tex shoes are wonderful…they were dry later that same day. Toward the end of the hour-long crossing, all of us gringos had made our way to the front deck, where some were about to hurl over the side. At least it was better than being down in the cabin. At least the last few minutes were calm and offered beautiful views of the two volcanoes that were responsible for forming the island.
After getting off the boat, and enduring three hours on school buses over rocky paths that I probably could have walked just as quickly, I finally arrived at the hostel. It should have also been named Oasis. Right on the beach with a dock. Hammocks everywhere. Three bucks a night. Another three bucks for an amazing all-you-can-eat dinner buffet (the only buffet I’ve seen in Central America). Mountain bikes. Kayaks. Trails heading literally right out the front door. Even some local kids playing baseball right down the street. I’d planned on spending one day, and wound up staying two. If I ever find myself in Nicaragua again, I’m spending at least a week.
[*Observation: Nicaragua was like the Midwest of Central America. Like the Midwest, people here don’t travel very far or very often (they don’t have the means to) and so they often are completely unaware of some of the difficulties travelers encounter. A classic example is the language barrier, and how so often people think simply saying something louder makes it easier to understand. For instance, on the bus ride to the hostel, which was in Merida, the person taking money on the bus had asked me, "May-dee-dah?" When I said I didn’t understand, he just repeated it several times. This sounded very close to a word I’d heard earlier when a person didn’t have change to give me and was asking if I had smaller bills or coins, so I assumed that was what this person was asking me. I explained that was the only bill I had, to which he simply said No, and repeated what he’d been saying, only louder. Finally, he gave me change and walked away. Only later did I realize he was asking if I was going to "Merida", but when the R is pronounced in Spanish, it often comes across more like a D sound. (Say Merida, but put the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth when you make the R sound and you’ll see what I mean.) All he had to do was ask where I was going, ask if I was going to Merida, or any number of similar questions that I could have understood. But I guess if you’ve never tried to learn another language, you’re not familiar with the idea that a person can know some parts of a language but not other…so the natural assumption I guess is that a person is nearly deaf.]
With limited time in Ometepe, I had to choose the best adventure, which in this case was definitely to climb the big (5000 ft) volcano behind the hostel. Because a couple of gringos went unprepared up the mountain last year, got lost, and died, there’s now a rule that nobody can climb the mountain without a local guide…I’m sure the fact it generates lots of extra revenue for locals doesn’t hurt either. Fortunately, guides are only $10/day (about triple the average daily wage, remember) and I was able to find someone else from the hostel who wanted to go, too, so it was only $5. We met our guide the night before and he told us we needed to leave at 6am. From my mountaineering experience this sounded pretty reasonable, so we made plans with the kitchen for an early breakfast, and in the morning we set off from the hostel at just after 6.
Now I wasn’t expecting an English speaking guide by any means, but I was surprised that this guy knew absolutely none whatsoever. Up to this point, anybody who dealt with tourists has at least known a few basic phrases to cover the essentials. For instance, this guy was trying to explain something about payment when we started out and we couldn’t understand it. He used the tactic of repeating the same thing louder to no avail. Eventually, we thought we understood him to be saying we pay at the hostel when we get back, said yes, we understood, and got on our way. I would think if someone dealt with a lot of tourists (most of whom speak English) he would at least want to learn how to say in English when and where to pay :-) It quickly became apparent, however, that this probably wasn’t something this guy did often.
Dan and I moved up the mountain at a fairly swift pace, but nothing near a racing pace or anything like that. Our guide had fallen far behind within the first hour. We found ourselves doing a lot of waiting on the way up…wondering why we had to hire a guide when we were finding the trail just fine on our own. We reached the rim around 8am, where we found ourselves buried in clouds. I remembered reading something about the clouds usually lifting in the early afternoon at this volcano, so I asked our guide, once he finally caught up, "Is it normally cloudy in the morning?" He said yes, so I followed that up with, "Is it normally clear later in the day?" Again he said yes. So then I asked, "When does it normally clear off?" And he replied, "about noon or one." At this point I wanted to say, "So why the %*#$ did you want us to start at 6am?!?" but I didn’t know how to say %*#$ in Spanish so I just walked away.
Inside the crater is a lake that we started walking down to. I’ve been told it’s really nice, but I never saw more than about 10 feet of it while standing on the shore so I can’t say for sure. At one point, our guide turned off the main trail and started leading us down without following a trail. For awhile, I thought our guide was actually going to be worth having…until we finally came out on a perfectly good trail that I assumed to be the same one we’d just been on. When I asked our guide if it was the same trail, he confirmed it was, but explained we had taken a short-cut. Which of course made me think, "Big freakin’ deal, we’re gonna have to be here for 4 stinkin’ hours before we’ll see anything. I’m sure we could have spent another 5 minutes getting here."
Anyway, we ate lunch at the lake, and managed to wait around until about 10:30 until finally our guide was being pretty adamant we needed to go. We kept explaining we really want to see it clear, but he insisted that would take 2 or 3 more hours (and again I’m thinking, "yeah, and whose fault is it we started so early…") so we should get going. We hiked down the other side of the volcano to a nice little organic farm & restaurant. As we enjoyed our drinks, we were treated to lovely views of the volcano that had just cleared off. The owners of the farm also offered to fill our water bottles, because by filling our water bottles at their spring rather than buying commercially bottled water we would cut down on waste and "be supporting the non-privatization of water." Of course, they did charge a fee for filling the water bottles…I guess privately controlled water is fine so long as it’s not privately controlled by a big corporation :-) This was also the point where I decided our guide was going to be the first guide I’ve ever had who didn’t get tipped.
We were already irritated with the guy, and then as we’re enjoying our drinks, and Dan is waiting for some food, he tells us we need to go. I said in a minute, and explained Dan was waiting on food. He again became adamant, saying a bus was coming at 2:00 that would take us back around the island, and the next one wasn’t until 5:00. We told him that was fine, he could go ahead, he had done his job and we were off the mountain now. He said he couldn’t do that, and at this point I was very happy to have just encountered a bilingual guy who I’d met earlier on the boat-crossing, because otherwise I wouldn’t have believed what I was hearing. I pulled the "translator" into the conversation and explained what we were trying to do and that the guide wasn’t cooperating, and maybe he could explain what we were trying to say better. So he explained the situation, and the guide gave a lengthy reply, and the translator told us the guide was required to show up back at the hostel with both of us or else he’d be in trouble. So we told our guide (through the translator) that we would be happy to send a note, with both our signatures, saying the guide had done his job, we were safely off the mountain, and we would walk back to the hostel at our leisure. The guide still refused. We explained we wanted to walk back, stopping along the beaches, taking our time, and because our guide’s knee was hurting him we didn’t want to make him do all this extra walking. Still no. Eventually the translator gave up and said he had to go, so we were stuck with this guide who wouldn’t leave and was just growing more and more irritated. So after Dan’s food had arrived and he’d eaten it, we started walking back, and met up with a bus about half way. Of course the bus ride was literally slower than walking during this stretch of road, and a lot more uncomfortable. And in the end, we felt like little children on a field trip who had to stay with the group.
But at least it was a fun field trip. I certainly don't want you to think the guide totally spoiled our time, he just provided a good story :-) The trail itself was through a lot of beautiful forest, and the clouds even gave it an extra eerie feeling that made it more fun. Toward the top everything was soaked and we found ourselves sloshing through several inches of mud and water at many points. In some area, the trail became an actual climb, where we were going straight up tangles of roots and sometimes rock using our hands as much as our feet. So even though we didn’t get the views we were hoping for, we still had a great time. That night I relaxed in a hammock as I enjoyed a cerveza and gave my body a break. And it wound up being so comfortable I just slept in the hammock all night. Perfect way to end my solid week of beach time.
The next day it was back to Costa Rica and San Jose. Of course, this meant a three-hour bus ride back to the boat dock and another bumpy boat ride. Today, however, was a very different boat ride. The cabin was very crowded, so all of us backpackers just stayed on top with the luggage. This turned out to be perfect! The day was gorgeous and sunny, the lake was quite a bit calmer than the last time, and we all made cozy lounge-chairs out of the assorted luggage and we spent the hour basking in the sun. When the ticket-taker came around, I turned to Dan, who was with me until we got safely to Costa Rica, and asked if the guy was taking drink orders. It’s moments like these, where you’re having a millionaire’s experience on a backpacker’s budget, that make trips absolutely priceless.
We caught a taxi to the border, where I ate ice cream for lunch (you’ve got to spoil yourself once in awhile, right?). Then we crossed the border and caught a motor coach for the six-hour ride to San Jose…and this thing was NICE. Not only was it air-conditioned (an absolute godsend at this point) it even had a movie! I got to watch Bruce Almighty with Spanish subtitles for the last couple hours of the journey. Finally caught a city bus to where I was staying in San Jose. For those of you scoring at home, that’s five legs of the journey and four different modes of transportation for the day…bus, ferry, taxi, motor coach (yes, that’s absolutely a different form of transportation from the bus). And six/five if you count the 1 km walk you have to do at the border crossing. Between the luxury cruise and on-board movie, though, it wasn’t nearly as rough as I’d feared.
Now I was down to my final week (or just under) and had to cram in a few more must-do activities to complete the trip. The first of these activities took me all the way to the southern end of Costa Rica on the Osa Peninsula. Getting to Osa required an absolutely miserable bus trip that didn’t even involve a good story to redeem it. The first full day there, I caught another bus at 6am to Matapalo, where I was hoping I’d find Everyday Adventures for a day of nature hiking and tree climbing. I found Matapolo easily enough, but after wandering around for a half hour or so and not seeing anything but a bunch of fancy beach houses (pretty much all owned by gringos…) I finally went up to someone on the beach and asked if he knew where the place was. He said he hadn’t heard of it, but if I just wanted to take a cool tour through the forest, go down the beach to a red swing set, and ask at that house for Andy. Andy was the same guy I’d emailed about the tour already…guess they’re just not very big on signage down there. I found the place…at about 7:30 for a tour that was supposed to start at 9:00 (only one bus runs to Matapalo every morning) and found Andy playing chess with one of his guides. He told me make myself at home, there was a big group coming around 9:00, and so I found a hammock (I’ve fallen in love with hammocks…why aren’t they more popular in the States?) and chatted with Andy & Mike for a while.
[*Observation: What passes for "shelter" is very much determined by the climate and even culture. In the States, we call four walls & a roof shelter. In Central America, a roof is all you need. Andy has this beautiful home by the beach. But other than the bug screens that enclose the part of the house with the bedroom and bathroom, it’s completely open-air…kitchen, living room, dining room, everything. Most places I’ve stayed have four walls for privacy around the rooms, but they’re completely open on top until you get to the roof set well above everything else. I even ate at one fancy restaurant that appeared totally enclosed at first, but then we noticed there was about a three-foot opening above the windows…birds were actually sitting on the edge. It’s such a perfect climate here that it doesn’t make sense to fully enclose the rooms. It’ll probably be weird to be in a fully enclosed space back in the States.]
Well 9am came and went. And then 10am. Around 11am Andy sent me off with some binoculars to see if I could spot a sloth. No luck. Finally around noon, Andy got hold of the hotel that was sending the big group we were waiting on and found out they were on there way, but it would still be a while before they got there. The problem was Mike had to teach a surf lesson that afternoon, and by time this group finished their tour, the tide would be all wrong for a surf lesson. ("Tico time" can’t change the tides unfortunately.) Well since we’d been chatting all morning, Andy knew I was a climber with plenty of group-leading experience, so he asked if I’d be comfortable being his assistant for the day…just doing some rope-work, basically. So I took Mike’s place and wound up helping "lead" a nature hike, roped tree climb, and waterfall rappel in the rainforest. It was awesome! Andy really knew his stuff during the naturalist part of the hike and had lots of cool things to point out. The tree climb was amazing. There’s a type of tree here that begins as vines growing down from a host tree. Eventually, the vines reach the ground and start to solidify and thicken. Over time, all these vines form a completely new tree with dozens or even hundreds of "trunks" that completely overwhelm the host tree. So we climbed one of these vine-trees that was about 200 feet tall. We were roped in the whole time, so near the top you had the option to just jump off and do a nice, big swing before being lowered to the ground. There were a few "main" routes up the tree, with several alternatives that more adventurous people had pioneered. Well I kept looking at routes and asking Andy if they’d been done until finally I found a route that looked doable, but hadn’t been done yet. So I climbed a new route, which joined up with an existing route called Whale’s Ribs about halfway up. As the first to climb that route, I got to name it. Belly of the Whale seemed appropriate, as it was a straight shot ("straight into the belly of the whale…") located right beneath the Ribs. So if you’re ever in Osa, take a tour with Andy at Everyday Adventures (www.everydaycostarica.com) and ask him to show you Belly of the Whale. Anyway, after that we rappelled down a "waterfall" (it was dry at the time) and started heading back.
The monkeys in this forest were absolutely everywhere. And there seemed to be more and more of them as the day went on. Howler monkey, spider monkeys, and white-faced monkeys were all easily spotted all throughout the day. Several times as people were climbing the tree, spider monkeys would go flying through just overhead, almost like they were showing off. It was amazing! And the people on the tour had no idea I’d just showed up that day; they actually thought I was Andy’s assistant. I even got tipped. I just gave Andy the tip money and we called it square, so I basically got a $100+ tour for free. Not bad for a day’s work ;-)
Finally, I headed off for my final Costa Rican adventure, and probably the most ambitious of all. I took the bus to San Gerardo, a town that serves as base for the hardy souls planning to climb Costa Rica’s highest peak, Mount Chirripo. The summit of Chirripo stands a little over 12,500’ above sea level, over 7500 vertical feet above the trailhead. The hike to the top is 20 km from the trailhead. The recommended plan is to hike to base camp (around 10,500’) on day one, summit on day 2, and return on day 3. The slightly more ambitious plan is to summit and descend all the way on day 2. Well I didn’t have two days. Nor did I have the required reservation for a bed at base camp. I just had a lot of stubbornness.
I woke up at 3:45, to the sounds of a climbing party just outside my hostel getting ready to depart. I’d made arrangements already with the super-friendly owner of the hostel to have breakfast at 4:00 instead of the customary 5:00. So he serves me this enormous breakfast that would lead to a very sluggish start at 4:30. The first hour or so was pretty slow as I was definitely feeling the effects of a very hardy breakfast. By about 5:30 or 6:00 it was starting to wear off and by 6:30 I’d hit Lamo Bonita, a shelter with bathrooms and water about halfway to base camp. I took a few minutes here, and felt really good setting off with plenty of water and still no sun out to start heating things up. I hit base camp a little after 8:00, feeling good, ready to top off my water and bag the peak. And here is where I hit a bit of a snag.
I went into base camp and asked where the water was located. The ranger behind the desk asked to see my ticket. I explained I wasn’t staying the night there, I was only going to the summit and I would return the same day. But he still needed a ticket. Uh-oh. Things were going to get interesting. I had heard rumor that they wouldn’t let you proceed past base camp without a reservation, but everything I’d read indicated reservations were needed to secure beds at the hostel. I never saw anything that said reservations were needed just to get in the park. But that’s what this ranger was saying. Of course I asked to just buy a ticket there, and that was no good. He told me I could get water, but then I needed to go back. I would have to buy a ticket at the ranger station in town, 2 km from the park, (as opposed to putting a ranger station at, say, the park entrance…) and return the next day. I walked outside, dazed. I was wondering if I just bolted for the summit, without going back for water, what would happen. Did I have enough water to make it? How stiff would the fine be when I returned? What were Costa Rican prisons like? As I stood outside, I noticed the ranger had come out to watch me. I walked back up to him to try again to plead my case, but before I said anything he said something I didn’t entirely catch, but it involved him calling the police and me being taken off the mountain. Not good. I’d always heard that when you’re in a place that speaks a foreign language, you can remember a lot more than you ever thought you could if you really need to use it to get by. Well I knew I’d better start talking or things were gonna get real bad, real fast. And all of a sudden every excuse and plea I could say in Spanish started flowing (well, tumbling clumsily is probably more accurate, but I was getting my point across) out of my mouth. I spent a good 10-15 minutes having a pretty sophisticated conversation covering the justice of not providing adequate signage for hikers at the trailhead, the necessity of limiting the number of hikers each day to conserve the region, the distances I had covered only to climb this mountain, the importance of following park policy for its preservation. Honestly, if we’d been two lawyers arguing a case before a Spanish-speaking jury, I think I held my own. Finally, I seized my opportunity when he said they only allow 40 people in the park each day, and unless you check at the park office for cancellations you can’t get in without a reservation. Aha! What if there was a cancellation today? I asked him if it was possible to check that from the base camp, and after hesitating a moment, he finally said to follow him. We went inside to the desk where he told me to wait a moment. He got on the phone and after a few minutes he came out and asked me if I was sure I could be out of the park by 5:00pm. (That’s when the park closes and everyone needs to be either at base camp or out of the park.) I said no problem, and I could be out earlier if I needed to get to the ranger station earlier to pay for my entry fee. He said 5:00 was fine. There was a cancellation in a group that arrived yesterday and leaves today. As long as I finish today, I can go ahead and summit. YES!!!
I thank him profusely, fill up my water bottle, and head on my way. I’ve lost some time so I’m hoping I can reach the summit before the clouds that typically start arriving after 10:00. With about a kilometer to go, I was starting to feel the altitude. I had just finished a steep section that led to a saddle, and from there I could see the rest of the trail…down for about a half kilometer, then a little rise, and finally the last 100-200 vertical meters ascended really fast at about a 45 degree angle. Yikes. By the end I was grabbing hold of anything I could and pulling myself as much as I could. I was really close to just dropping to my hands and knees and crawling on several occasions. But finally, at 10:15, I reach the summit. And the clouds haven’t rolled in yet. Around me is a blanket of clouds with massive peaks rising above them. In spots I can see gorgeous alpine lakes, and in a few spots the clouds give way to views all the way down to the valley floor. The views of the Pacific and Caribbean are blocked, but I think the tops of the clouds are far more impressive than the ocean would have been at that distance. I take some pictures, snack a little bit, and start heading down as I can feel the altitude headache setting in. I make pretty quick time back to base camp, hoping a rapid descent will alleviate the symptoms of high altitude sickness I’m starting to feel. At base camp, I stop in and volunteer to do my part to help the park.
Chirripo has a program where they ask visitors who have the ability to volunteer to take down some of the trash generated by the base camp (and picked up from the trails). So I offered to do my part and then they asked me how much I could carry. Well I knew the porters routinely carried 30-40 pounds in supplies…and I didn’t want to look like a total wimp…but I had just been to the summit and was carrying 10-15 pounds of my own gear…so I finally said, 15 pounds. They gave me kind of a funny look, which I presumed to mean, what a wimp. They brought me a bag of trash and said good luck. Now I was picturing something like a grocery sack of trash, maybe two—one for each hand. No, they brought me a big potato sack full of garbage. I realized why they’d given me a funny look. They were wondering what this gringo was thinking! The weight wasn’t so bad; it probably wasn’t much more than 15 pounds. But man, was it awkward to carry! I carried it in front of me, under my arms, over my shoulders, every which way I could think of. Nothing worked for more than a few hundred meters at a time. So many times I just wanted to chuck it down a steep hill and be on my way. After 25 miles roundtrip, and a total of over 9000 feet of climbing, my legs would have been absolutely spent even without this huge bag. Now my arms, shoulders, and back were all completely done as well. I reached the hotel at about 3:45, giving me 45 minutes to pack up the rest of my stuff (I wasn’t going to hike all the way to the ranger station and then turn around and come back…I’d just stay at the hotel next to the ranger station) and hike the final 3km to the ranger station. I didn’t think I was going to make it, but fortunately I was able to catch a ride in a passing pick-up truck for most of the way. When I finally reached the ranger station, they had already closed for the day (guess they closed early) but fortunately there was still someone there. I told him I had the trash from base camp, and he let me in. When he saw the bag of trash, he asked me again where it came from. I told him base camp again. Finally, he asked me in English. And again I told him, this time in English, that it was from base camp. And I told him I hadn’t paid my park entrance fee yet because I didn’t know I had to pay here, and I couldn’t pay at the top. He looked at the bag, looked at me, and said, "No worries. You don’t need to pay. Have a nice day!" I just laughed, said thanks, and stumbled next door to the hotel. I got my room, showered, ate dinner, and was in bed and asleep by 6:30. Slept for 12 hours solid.
The next couple days were pretty uneventful days of travel and packing up to leave. I'm sitting at an internet cafe near the airport, where I'll be flying out bright and early in the morning to get back to the States. Hopefully tomorrow will be smooth and not generate any more stories to tell :-) Tonight I was given a nice farewell by the sunset. No kidding, the clouds actually appeared to form a smiling face as breaks in the cloud allowed two bright patches of light (eyes) and a crease of light (mouth) to light up the sky as the sun set. It only lasted for a moment, and by time I got my camera out the eyes had started to disappear, but it was a very, very cool phenomenon for my last night here.
So there it is. From the depths of the ocean to the highest mountain (you thought I was just using a figure of speech?), from bubbling volcanoes to forests teeming with wildlife, from an impoverished country whose democratically elected government was overthrown by a wealthy foreign power to, well, that same wealthy foreign power if all goes well tomorrow…it’s been an exciting couple of weeks. And a great trip overall, despite not getting to do much of the rafting that was my motivation in coming here. Oh well, there’s plenty of good rivers in the States, and the spring river running season will be here before long. Hope you had the bandwidth for my latest adventures, and if you got this far apparently you did. See you on another journey! Devin