Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Costa Rican Adventures...Floods, plagues, & other tropical fantasies

Hola una otra vez mis amigos (spanish speaking friends, is there a simpler way to say 'again'?), Let's see, now where were we? I think I'd just returned from some high-flying adventures in the cloud forest of Monteverde. So having spent a couple weeks in Costa Rica already, I figured why not learn a little spanish...hey maybe I can get fluent just in time to head home. Of course, as much time as I spend in California the spanish will probably do me more good back in the States than here. So I hopped on the bus to Orosi to pitch my tent for the week and enjoy one of the more off-the-beaten path destinations in Costa Rica.

*Observation: Bus drivers in Costa Rica have to be the friendliest bus drivers in the world. Or maybe they just have to meet a quota of passengers. Whatever it is, they stop for anyone, anywhere. You don't have to be at a bus station, you don't even have to be hailing the bus...they'll just slow up and ask people if they need a ride. I wouldn't be surprised to see a driver stop and go knocking on doors to see if anyone needs a ride...I'm picturing a conversation like this: "Hey, just heading into town and thought I'd see if you need a ride...No? OK, but I'm headed that way, it's really no trouble...Alright, well, can I get you anything while I'm there. I mean, I'm going there anyway...Some bananas and milk, sure. No problem, I'll just drop those off next time around."

So I arrived in Orosi Valley and I've got to say it's one of the hidden gems in Costa Rica. Beautiful valley, only about an hour's drive from San Jose, with only the town of Orosi and a few tiny towns scattered through the valley, and a population of less than 10,000. There's a river that looks perfect for rafting that runs through the middle of town (yet nobody runs it...clearly an undiscovered area...anybody want to invest in a new rafting company in Costa Rica?) and a national park way out at the end of the valley that must see almost no traffic. My first full day there I did an awesome mountain bike ride all the way out to the park, then through the park out to a dam at the very end of the road. About 60km round trip from town, stopped for three different hikes w/in the park, overall a very epic day. While I was technically on roads the entire time on my bike (remember how roads is a very loose term here?) it was still a great ride, basically dirt and rock the entire time. In fact, I would have to put it as one of my top 5 funnest rides ever...with the other 4 being in Tahoe, Colorado, West Virginia, and Austria...pretty broad sampling I think. Anyway, after all the great riding, hiking, and salivating over the river (looks like an epic class V further upstream where it runs through the park), I treated myself to a great steak in town at a bar where I was able to watch the NFL playoffs while listening to Guns N Roses and having a beer. What country am I in, again?

Anyway, the rest of the week I had classes at night, and all day to do some amazing hikes in Orosi Valley. I did a couple big loops, one on either side of the valley and both with absolutely amazing views, and took a day-trip to Vulcan Irazu, one of the highest volcanos in Costa Rica. At night I learned how to say essential phrases like "the grey cat is under the wooden table" and "no, i'm quite sure that's actually my pocket in which you have your hand" with all the proper conjugations and adjective placements. Maybe the coolest part was playing sports with the locals. Several of us from the hostel went to the park one day to toss the frisbee around. There were 5-10 local kids (probably all teenagers) playing basketball who came over and joined in. We wound up playing basketball with them...cue the harlem globetrotters music, these kids were good. I kept thinking of the scene in "Airplane" when the guy talks about joining the Peace Corps and teaching African kids how to play basketball. Fortunately, for once I actually had a size advantage in basketball and was able to use it to avoid too much embarassment. The next day we talked them into playing ultimate frisbee. Luckily there was one local guy who was fluent in english as well, so we were able to explain the rules. Now it was my turn to show off :-) Figured I´d better take advantage of it, ´cause I knew a soccer game would be coming soon. Sure enough, that embarassment came the next day. (Though I did manage, pretty much by pure luck, to get an assist!) Overall, it was an absolutely great week in Orosi. The people were totally friendly and everything felt very authentic Costa Rican, not like just another tourist destination. If you´re ever in Costa Rica, don´t miss the Orosi Valley. Montana Linda was an awesome hostel, and they also run a nice bed & breakfast for those of you with slightly more refined taste than me.

And now for the reason I came to Costa Rica...RAFTING!! And this time, I got to do the whole Pacuare River without a Class V hike just before we got to the good rapids. And I´ve gotta say, it didn´t disappoint. Between the raging river and local guides of questionable competence (I was definitely wondering why I was considered the "trainee" a few times...) I definitely had some exciting rides through the rapids. Of course, the first ride was the 5am bus ride out of San Jose just to get to the river. Ugh...I was really questioning why on earth I wanted to raft so bad when I was waking up at 4:45 in the morning. But after 3 hours in the van, an hour eating a delicious (and free!) breakfast, followed by another hour in the van, I was more than ready to go. I wound up in a boat with a spanish speaking crew, so Gato, the guide, spoke pretty much all spanish during the trip. Seemed wierd since I was supposed to be learning the river that I wasn´t even in a boat where I could learn the names of the rapids, let alone anything about the scenery we were passing through. But whatever, the scenery is secondary on the Pacuare, and there´s no time to give interpretive talks between rapids. I had my first exposure to Tico safety standards in our second class IV rapid. We were a little off-line when we entered, causing us to nearly wrap our boat, and lose a guest out of the boat as a result. Now, at this point, we´re just beginning a class IV rapid, and while it´s important to watch out for the safety of the swimmer, a guide´s first priority should be on getting the BOAT to safety, ´cause without that the guests are pretty much up the creek no matter what. Gato didn´t quite see it that way...so while he ran around in circles, throwing ropes in the water (creating another safety hazard), I tried to guide the boat through the rapid. Of course I couldn´t use the crew because they were following the guide´s lead and watching the swimmer as their boat drifted into more trouble. This inevitably resulted in us hitting a huge hole, and dumping three more people out of the boat. One of the people was me, but fortunately I was able to grab hold of the boat on the way out and climb back in in a few seconds. Not surprisingly, Gato was trying to help me in (of course, I´m the only person in the boat who doesn´t NEED help getting in) as the boat continued to drift through the rapid. The other boat on the trip wound up collecting all our swimmers at the bottom of the rapid, and soon we were on our way...as I wondered what on earth I was in for if this was how rivers are guided down here. I´ll spare you the details, but that wasn´t the last time I swam that day :-) When all was said and done, it was a great trip, and I can see why the Pacuare is regularly named one of the 5 best raft trips in the world. And the next day I ran it again, with a little less chaos. If you´re heading to Costa Rica, bring me along to guide you, ´cause I´m not recommending the Ticos until I see they know what they´re doing better than the guide I was with :-)

After two days of involuntarily drinking river water, I wound up taking a day off yesterday to deal with the pretty much inevitable stomach virus, or whatever it was I had yesterday that made eating a pretty useless exercise as my stomach wasn´t digesting anything. I tried to get hold of a raft today to take some friends from Backroads down the river (and finally guide it myself!), but didn´t have much luck getting arrangements made, and since I didn´t know if I´d still be sick or not, didn´t try real hard. Since that fell through, I headed north today to Liberia to see Rincon de la Vieja tomorrow. It sounds sort of like a Yellowstone of Costa Rica, with a lot of volcanic activity going on in the form of geysers, mud pits, hot springs, etc. But I´ll let you know. Just before getting on the bus to take a 5 hour ride up here though, I decided to eat a lunch of rice & beans. Now you´re probably thinking, if his stomach couldn´t digest anything the day before...why on earth would he eat a bunch of beans before getting on a bus for 5 hours. And as I ate it, I thought the same thing. And I was sweating bullets as I got on the bus thinking about the possibilities. Unfortunately (for you, but fortunately for me) there were no ill affects from my risky endeavor. Just thought I´d let you all know that the worst case scenario isn´t ALWAYS what happens while traveling. However, as I´ve laid the foundation for a good travel story, feel free to dream up your own ending. And on the subject of food, I´ll leave you with a final...

*Observation: Often a big part of the fun of traveling is sampling tasty cuisine that you´ve never experienced before. Though Costa Rica has a lot of things going for it, this isn´t one of them. Pretty much, Ticos just eat like college students. Which I guess is just as well for a budget traveler like myself. Basically the Tico diet is beans & rice, mixed together for breakfast, or served separately for lunch and dinner. Mmmm...variety. When you want a fancy meal, you add vegetables and/or a meat item. The best restaurants in Costa Rica serve food from other parts of the world...Italian seems popular. Of course, it´s pretty much the same in the States when you think about it. What food can we really claim as our own? Hamburgers and hotdogs is pretty much it...mmmm...let´s take all the leftover pieces of the animal, squish them together and put it on bread. How creative. Fortunately, we also have plenty of Italian restaurants.

Ciao for now, Devin



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