Of Mud and Muck

A smattering of clockwork stars filtered through a lens of clean, desolate air and a mineral laden wind, the gears of a lonely night time sky. I am visiting my Aunt and Uncle on their acres of wild property up in Northern Maine, in a little town contiguous to Bar Harbor. They have a small, efficient house set close to jagged shoreline bordering a tidal, estuarine influx.

I throw on a pair of Blue Lugz I’ve had since college. They’re like the boot that will outlive a nuclear holocaust, they look the same as they did when I first started wearing them… And, I have not one but TWO pairs kicking around (Make a mental note, a good friend with  practical footwear in post-apocalyptic times would not be bad to have).

You can walk through the muck of the salt marshes along the shore all the way to the edge of the quiet road their property borders. We’re tottering at the edge of winter here, and at first glance the landscapes muted tones – grey, beige, tan – speak to an impression of dying.  The shore line is littered with the skeletal ghosts of downed trees.

The littering of the small, pitiful empty carapaces of crabs feel like a pirate’s warning. This is not unlike a morose marker of another sort I spotted here last summer. I saw these small snotty circles caught in the marsh grasses at irregular intervals.  It took me a few minutes to realize these were the dismal remains of moon jellies, a cosmopolitan species that experience a population burst (what marine scientists typically call a “bloom”) in the late summer months. The dried whispers of jellyfish that once were, sat withering under the sun while their clueless, unsuspecting brethren bobbed along in small tidal pools entrained nearby in the masses of mud.

Currently, the signs of life here are slight, but appear in unexpected places. I’ve had the ability watch salt marshes turn with the seasons, and the markers of change can be fascinating – the types of color that glitter through your purview, the sounds, and the glimpses of the creatures that slip through. I’ve scared foxes, deer, purple herons – you name, I’ve probably startled it. But even the annual dying of a salt marsh has a certain biological delicacy and beauty to it.

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Day 8 – Oh The Places We Will Go

This is an especially early morning for the Schuman clan as we need to get to La Mansion Inn for a mysterious 7 am pickup. As luck would have it, we caught Charlie’s call yesterday – the phone started ringing as soon as we stepped foot in the room. We confirmed horseback riding with his friend Claudia, but he was told another couple is interested in coming along and he asks if they can bum a ride with us to Matapalo.

We have no idea what to expect but the relaxed air of Costa Rica has given us open minds and we are channeling “pura vida.” We sit and wait in the lobby until connecting with Darren and Nicole, a couple from LA, the same place Charlie originally hails from. Darren works in law (to be honest, at one point as the day wore on, Darren gave me a much more elegant description of the way his firm works and the exciting things they do for businesses, but I’m not sure I can recount what he told me without screwing it up), and Nicole is a nurse practitioner at a pediatric office. She knows español due to the patient population she works with, and has been surprising the locals most places with her ability keep up with the language. We instantly take a liking to one another and fill the car with chatter as we drive down to Matapalo for an 8 am rendezvous with Charlie.

Horseback Riding with Claudia - Playa Matapalo (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Matapalo is a little Costa Rican town, more rural and removed from the noise and bustle of the Manuel Antonio/Quepos area. We see kids playing soccer outside a school as we pass over a narrow little bridge, and a man who has precariously piled his whole family on one bicycle. Charlie will later tell us that the population of this area has been unlucky enough to be touched by the ill effects of illegal drugs. It’s not a common problem in the country, but too many playboy tourists have left their mark here. Still, there are lots of smiles and positive people in the community. Matapalo is also not as blemished from the tourism industry and we hold our breath a little when we first see Playa Matapalo.

Charlie meets us at a little soda on a road parallel to the beach and walks us back to Claudia’s house where she and her family are getting horses ready for the morning. She has a quick conversation to determine which horses will suit which rider. Nicole gets Amigo, a very easy horse to ride but who has a bit of a wink in his eye and a propensity for trouble making. Rob gets Caiman, a feisty Tico pony with selective hearing. I ride Shakira, a sassy pony who is a little round in the middle from spending a few months at pasture from a false pregnancy, and who will prompt me to jokingly say during the morning ride – “Hey, I think mine is overheating.” Due to my poor memory, Darren rides a “horse with no name”. Claudia gives a tutorial about riding, instructing us how to comfortably sit in the saddle, not to rely heavily on grasping the horn, to hold the reins with a light touch, and how to motion the horse to turn to the right or left.

My Trusty Steed, Shakira (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Claudia - a Horse's View (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We set out to the playa (beach) and begin walking along the longest stretch of uninterrupted white sand I’ve ever laid eyes on, the tidal pools of still water are a rugged mirror reflecting cloud after cloud. I keep pace with Claudia, often leaving everyone else behind and when we wait for our friends to catch up, she lets me practice making circles with Shakira. She reminds us that horses sense intention, and our body language will help us while we ride. There are a handful of dogs running around the horses’ feet, with sabotage on their minds. Rob sidles up with Caiman and we begin asking Claudia about her story.

She tells us she has been in Costa Rica fifteen years, just five shy of Charlie. Her home country is (or was?) Switzerland. She originally was studying big cats and came to CR just for that reason, but somehow fell into working with horses and over time began her own stable. As we talk, the dogs spot little sand crabs along the length of the beach. Most manage to pop back into their holes right before being reached by canine teeth, but one unfortunate crab has become their play thing.

Horse and Mangroves (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We stop to look at the wild knotted roots of the mangroves. Claudia warns us not to get too close as the other day, one of her horses was up to his belly in the soft, unstable sand. After taking the view in for a few minutes, we head back and the horses become sassier with the notion that they are closer to home. “No, Amigo. No!” echos out a few times as Nicole tries to keep him from extracurricular snacking along the path. Amigo is also the horse to greedily lap up all the coconut milk after Rob shimmies up a tree to get some with Claudia’s help. Mangroves have turned into palms, and fruit trees, including sweet lemon.

Matapalo Palms (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

When the horses are free again to roam riderless, we walk through Claudia’s property. She explains that they built the house themselves. There are many different types of plants,  including fruit trees, herbs and spices, and those with medicinal value.  There is also a host of wild things and happenings right behind her house where some estuarine flow seeps in. A Caiman slithers in to grab a dead chicken thrown to the earth for predators like him. Basilisk lizards with strange crests tug at the other scraps in the yard.  We see a variety of strange birds, including the Northern Jacana, pick through the tree roots for things to eat.

Un ID'ed bird behind Claudia's House (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We meet Claudia’s gangly little girl Lisa when we sit down to eat guava and star fruit. Nicole is instantly popular when she pulls out a bag of Chips A-Hoy cookies and passes a couple of them to Lisa and her friend that is staying over. Claudia sends us up the street to visit with Charlie. Charlie’s house is  a stone’s throw from the surf and seems to be populated with teenagers. We find out he has family ties with some, and provides mentoring for others.

Northern Jacana (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We opt to forgo possible excursions to see more waterfalls, or eat at restaurants, all in favor of swimming in salty, sun-kissed waves. They are big here,but more manageable than the ones we encountered at Playa Manuel Antonio. Rob and Darren even spot manta rays riding the crest of the waves towards shore.

Before leaving to spend a full and fun evening with Darren and Nicole including a phenomenal dinner at Kapi Kapi, we promise Charlie we’ll be back the next day for a surf lesson on our final morning before heading to San Jose. The rest of the night is a mix and match of experiences, the quirkiest being our late night trip to the local “super-mercado” where Nicole hones in on this box of Choco (chocolate) Zucaritas. Mind you, just about other sugar cereal you can think of lines the shelves with the original names still in English. Choco Zucaritas however, features a buff Tony the Tiger on his knees in a muddy soccer field, dark skies overhead, in the pouring rain looking like he is channeling some mad emotion. These Tico’s take their frosted flakes seriously here, man! Nicole buys a little one-serving size, and Tony the Tiger soon becomes the Daihatsu mascot. “Tony is my co-pilot”…

Day 7 – Wild Nights Are Calling

View of Casitas Eclipse (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We sleep in for the first time since setting foot in Costa Rica. We soon discover two things. First of all, anything hand-washed in the name of being practical will never dry… ever. Secondly, our next three breakfasts will be to the strangest soundtrack of US music ever compiled. The newest Red Hot Chili Pepper’s track will be followed with Simon and Garfunkel, and then most distressingly by Kenny G.

The Manuel Antonio National Park is a short drive down the road from where we are staying. We park our little mud-streaked Daihatsu near a bus-stop populated with opportunistic tour guides (who will try to maintain the official air of being associated with park,which they are not). This is what kicks off our fateful encounter with Mauricio, who promises that the amount of wildlife we will see in the park will be negligible with what he can show us for $20 a head, money back guarantee if we don’t agree with his conjecture after half an hour into the tour. This will set off a whirlwind of the wildest stories I have perhaps ever heard from one man. Just a seed of truth would delight me.

Costa Rican stink bug (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Mauricio has a rugged Swarovski-brand telescope and tripod slung over his shoulder as he leads us into the park after paying his entrance fee (another clue he is not an officially park-sanctioned guide). Right near the entrance, he alerts us to the presence of a species of land crab that dwells in the rainforest. We soon discover, while overly confident and willing to sing his own praises, he is absolutely spot on about his abilities to point out the seemingly elusive wild-life. He has learned the ranges of animals living within the park and once something of note is spotted within the park, it appears a sort of altruistic exchange of information takes places among the guides.

He points out plants along our route – ones used to weave textiles for clothing or other useful purposes, but mostly he focuses on those plants with medicinal value – anti-inflammatory, cholesterol-lowering – the problems a rainforest can solve with more completeness than modern medicine. Mauricio tells us he was raised in the jungle by his mama before the area was turned into a national park, that his uncle was responsible for the now wide-spread availability of anti-venin for snakes such as the Fer-de-Lance and his visage graces an old version of the 2000 colones bill. He explains all this while we munch on the sweet flowers he hands us from a Heliconia plant.

Golden Orb Spider (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

He begins to tell us about his son who is currently studying in the States (Los Estados Unidos) and about his wife that died from cancer when his son was just two years old. But he also tempers the situation with a tale about monkeys who once dragged his baby part-way down the beach while he and his wife swam unknowingly near-by.

In the midst of his recanting, he sets his scope to focus on a baby three-toed sloth all the while relating the somewhat fantastic story of this animal’s relationship with the Cecropia tree it spends the majority of its time in. The Cecropia tree provides the sloth with lots of alkaloids (a diverse group of chemicals, some having medicinal or even toxic effects. This same group of compounds makes poison arrow frogs harmful.) – a good energy source for the sloth. If a sloth has young baby and has to wander from its tree, which happens rarely, it can leave the young sloth nestled among the Cecropia’s dead leaves, where it is well-camouflaged.

Dead cecropia leaves

However, once the baby is old enough to start eating (at around 6 months), Mauricio tells us the mom will leave her offspring in some other type of tree as it is thought the alkaloid content of the Cecropia tree is too strong for the sloth until he has amassed a more significant body weight. (Read more about both the two-toed and three-toed sloth’s ecology here).

Cecropia trees are also known to harbor stinging Azteca ants that have formed a symbiosis with the tree, often living within its core and pouring out of the tree’s trunk to ward off invading insects or other herbivores, and on occasion, an unlucky human or two. However, the sloth can live and eat in the trees un-vexed, primarily due to another partnership formed with the sloth (Sloths also have an untold number of additional relationships with species of insects and algae that can be found living in their coats.). This one may have to do with the habit of the sloth to defecate once a week or less, by carefully creeping to the bottom of the tree, doing its business, then burying its feces. For lack of a better descriptor, the sloth poo is likely an excellent source of nutrients for the ants.

Manuel Antonio - lizard (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Mauricio describes the emerging problem of Columbian drug runners approaching guides and other lookouts to start serving out as lookouts for them on beaches. Mauricio claims skills as a pilot at a nearby airstrip and says he works for the police in the evenings after his days serving as a park guide. He continues his tales while pulling down a cluster of maroon fruit from a nearby tree. Eating them is a similar process to eating the mamon chin I mentioned in an earlier post. You must bite into the outer skin to get at the tangy fruit inside and suck on it to avoid swallowing the pit. He only knows it by the name “uva”, spanish for “grape.” He hands us small slices of lemon from trees growing right near the sand and explains the salt content of the fruit changes during the dry and rainy seasons. He tells us he and his mama used to leave little dishes of lemon juice out to evaporate and would use the sea salt left behind.

He continues to point out more wildlife, including lesser white-lines bats, golden orb and arrow-shaped spiders, and smooth-billed anis. He carefully pulls down a leaf to show us a tarantula with her spiderlings menacingly nestled in the base of a leaf. Even while leading us out of the park at the end of the tour he is advocating for more local experiences, including trying ceviche from a trusted vendor on the beach – a mix of fresh shellfish, onions, and a local version of cilantro, all marinated in citrus juice which helps to mimic cooking the raw seafood. Costa Ricans often eat the mixture with hot sauce, ketchup, and mayonnaise added to the broth.  There are also men walking the beach with machetes and coconuts, ready to hack off the top and hand you a straw so you can enjoy the milk inside. One of these men is a very tall and skinny man who has the lowest voice I may have ever heard. Mauricio tells us this man once worked in television in has native country of Mexico due to this very trait.

Tarantula and spiderlings (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We will come back later to swim at a beach bearing the park’s name – Playa Manuel Antonio. It’s a stunning white sand beach. When we ask a local if there are any shells around, he points us to the hollowed-stump of a tree likely downed during some previous storm and crawling with a colony of rather large hermit crabs. My objective of snorkeling around the near-by rocks is quickly left by the wayside as I lose my snorkel not 5 minutes after wading out into the waves. I have never swam in the Pacific and the water is bath-tub warm and very saline.  I also however, have never experienced the sheer engine of energy behind these kind of waves. It is high tide and with just our feet in the surf, there are several occasions when a large wave will pull us under, scrape us along the bottom, and hold us there, never letting us go until it once again ebbs back out to sea. My pockets quickly fill with sand and it becomes evident that if I wish to snorkel or dive in Costa Rica, I will have to book a boat trip or two during my next visit.

We are exhausted. We just manage to take advantage of the hotel’s 50% off Sundays at their restaurant, the gato negro (the black cat) and fall into a dead sleep for the next four or five hours rousing only enough energy afterwards to stumble back into the gato negro for dessert. As we head back to our little villa, we hear the strangest cries emanating from a little owl perched on a nearby tree and are reminded just how wild everything here really is…

Day 6 – With Many Stops Along the Journey

At 5 am, our feline friend “Alejandro” (see previous post) decides to start wailing outside our door in the hope we will let him to roam indiscriminately for a few minutes until he is ready to leave and harass his new found friends next door. Yep folks, cats are the same no matter where you go.

It’s hard to go back to sleep but we get a couple more hours of shut-eye before stumbling off to breakfast. A few different species of hummingbirds amass around feeders hung around the lodge’s porch, including a very large variety known as the violet saberwing. We talk to an older couple who have been to the country 7 or 8 times and are currently in a Spanish immersion school.

Monteverde Orchid Garden (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Before heading southward to Manual Antonio, we make a stop at the Monteverde Orchid Garden in Santa Elena. At best guess the bubbly girl who shows us through the garden is no more than 19. She reveals that before this job, she worked at the local butterfly garden but was skeeved out by the caterpillars. She appears happy to be surrounded by the scent of flowers. Before starting the walk, she quickly describes the structure all orchids have varying around the theme of petals, sepals, and labellum. While it is counter intuitive, it appears many orchids are actually very minuscule and often epiphytic (they take up real estate on the surface of other, larger plants). She points out flowers that emit delicate odors, and other that have a savory aroma – one in particular smells faintly like chicken soup. Some are exotically strange in their appearance, almost alien. A visual highlight is an orchid whose flowers resemble tiny little people.

Orchids with faces - Monteverde Orchid Garden (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

The beautiful detail of it all, is each orchid has its own unique pollinator – in most cases varieties of insects,  but research has discovered at least one species whose successful pollination hinges on its relationship with a species of mouse. And most of these delicate flowers are fast in an evolutionary battle of seduction, honing their colors, their aromas, their shapes and whatever wiles may be at their disposal all in the name of reproduction. In addition, the success of an orchid is intimately intertwined with fungi that nutrify the orchid through it’s root system, forming a symbiotic complex called a mycorrhiza.

If all those details are not fantastic enough, your last stop at the orchid garden has you on hands and knees,magnifying glass in hand, peering at Platystele jungermannioides, the smallest known flowering orchid in the world (though it looks like it’s record might soon be challenged). Rob has me hold a pencil tip close to the flower for purposes of scale, while he snaps a few photos.

Platystele jungermannioides - Smallest Flowering Orchid (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We leave Santa Elena to its thoughts and start to wind down towards Manuel Antonio, our last scheduled stop for the trip. Roads slowly turned into paved throughways. We stop at a roadside stand and pick out three or four snacks with a great deal of excited expectation and are sorely disappointed when we find out we have inadvertently purchased some bitter sugared grapefruit along with several other things that look a whole helluva lot better than they taste. Rob also adeptly negotiates with a gas station attendant who tries to overcharge us by $30.

We pass over the Tárcoles River, apparently one of the most sewage-polluted rivers in the country, and park near the police check point, a recent step in discouraging the tourist-targeted mugging incidents the bridge is reputed for. We follow lines of people milling about the sides peering down at the considerably sized specimens of American Crocodile below.

American Crocodile - Tárcoles River (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Once on the road again, rolling hills soon give way to miles and miles of palm trees planted in long parallel lines. These are African palms, harvested for their oil, a major export of the region. Quepos, the little town above Manual Antonio has a long intimate history with the practice. Manual Antonio hosts the most visited national park in the country.

We check into our hotel, the Casitas Eclipse, and minutes after putting our things down in the top level of the Mediterranean-style villa we will stay in for the next three nights, a Toucan alights on the adjacent tree and starts picking at some berries of the top-most branches.  An afternoon storm that is responsible for knocking out internet access to the region for the next three days passes through throwing out haphazard bolts of lightning. We take a quick and dark walk behind the hotel grounds and find the mother-lode of red-eyed tree frogs on some tarps covering a water trough of some kind.

Red-Eyed Tree Frog (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We receive sub-par service at El Avion, a restuarant/bar across the street. The bar is constructed in the gutted interior of a cold war era plane. The back of the wine list recounts the history of the airplane,taking great panes to emphasize the United States’ rather large part in shady dealings within Nicaragua during the 80’s. We are seated in the back, and though dinner left something to be desired, I don’t think there exists enough words in the world to convey the view. The combination of murky hillsides set with the small glowing lights of domestic life, the small thin wavering line of the surf, the rolling soundscape of tropical life, the air hung heavy with the dew of the storm, the errant, brilliant effulgence of the dying lightning – all burned a surreal moment into my mind’s memory that I cannot share with anyone who will not see the exact same dream themselves.

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Casitas Eclipse Gecko (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Our evening will next take us to a little bar called “The Bat Cave”, part of an up-scale hotel called “La Mansion Inn.”  Entrance to the bar is granted only via a tiny little door meant to give the place an exotic feel furthered by the simulated cave wall running the length of the bar stools. We watch the hipster Costa Rican bartender mix our drinks (mine a virgin daquiri) with Dexter-like precision, measuring every amount of alcohol being mixed and even donning gloves for some strange reason. It was a spectacle which produced unremarkable drinks. Our whole trip took a more remarkable turn when a man named Charlie walked in to take over bartending for the night. As we soon found out, his style of pouring little swigs of this and that into the blender with a significantly lower dose of precision and some haphazard, all the while producing tasty concoctions, was telling of his personality and take on life as a whole.

After a few minutes of casual conversation, Charlie reveals he is originally from Los Angeles but has lived in Costa Rica for the past twenty years of his life. On a whim, I ask Charlie for some suggestions about things to do in the area, most specifically regarding wildlife. I tell him we are planning on taking Sunday to visit Manuel Antonio National Park as it will be closed on Monday and he promises to get a hold of us and has suggested we meet his friend Claudia, and go horseback riding along the beach in Matapalo, the town where he lives. This will prove to be a fantastic choice but we will not know this for at least another day. For now, we drive back to sleep sated dreams.

Day 5 – With My Head In The Clouds

Monteverde Cloud Forest (http://www.monteverdecostarica.com/)

Monteverde is an interesting place but in some ways represents the lull in our trip. The region is home to a rare type of ecohabitat called cloud forest which is characterized by low-level clouds that sit at canopy-level among the trees. The constant presence of the clouds means the forest is always wet and mossy. The composition of flora and fauna tends to be very different here than elsewhere in Costa Rica. However, wildlife is harder to see here, thus a tricky endeavor during shorter visits like our own. Most people are better served here by an interest in plants. There are hundreds of epiphytic species that use stronger, hardier plants for structural support, but typically derive nutrients from the air that surrounds them (“All I need is the air that I breath…”) and from detritus that accumulates around their roots.

Leaf edges serrated by a bat (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

There are two reserves to visit, the Monteverde Reserve, and the Santa Elana Reserve, named for a nearby town. We choose to visit the Santa Elena Reserve as it’s close to some other interesting local attractions, including the Selvatura Park.

Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011

As we are about to start out for a relaxed hike, we meet a group of graduate students including a PhD canidate from UConn researching ants, who tell us they are headed to biological research station somewhere nearby.  After searching online, their description most likely fits the Monteverde Conservation League, a non-profit dedicated to research, outreach, education, and the preservation of the cloud forest. This work seems even more timely as cloud forests are extremely sensitive to the effects of climate change. Though they have been resilient in response to historical temperature fluctuations, too much warming could affect the characteristic cloud cover here and completely change the hydrological regime.

We start our walk through the forest and start to appreciate most of the diversity we see on a more micro scale. Tiny dew drops that refract the incoming bursts of light. The forest is abuzz with texture, smells, and sounds. Just like every location we will visit during our stay, we hear the constant throb of cicadas in the background, a sort of gregorian chant celebrating the sheer grandiosity of the life force surrounding us.

Small epiphytic plants are abundant in the Costa Rican cloud forest (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Cloud Forest epiphyte (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Monteverde Cloud Forest Canopy - light from above (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

There are a few errant clips of bird song and we do manage to spy a collared red start hopping along the path – one of the happiest looking birds I’ve ever seen. Though we’re never lucky enough to see one, Monteverde is also home to a renowned bird called the quetzal.

The last thing we do before heading back to the lodge, is visit the Insect exhibit, “Jewels of the Rainforest.” in Selvatura Park. Both my Lonely Planet and Moon guide list this as a not-to-miss stop. The collection, one of the largest in the world, is the culmination of years of collecting by entomologist Richard Whitten , who moved with his wife to Costa Rica to begin collecting and studying metallic beetles, most likely in the Buprestidae family. The exhibit covers all manner of creepy crawlies however, with wall after wall of them encased in glass.

The highlight of the collection are most certainly the iridescent butterflies positioned ornately in spirals and geometric arrangements, or against other beautiful objects, like peacock feathers, that serve to enhance their natural elegance (Roger Whitten’s wife was said to be responsible). The morpho, a very large shimmering blue butterfly we’ve already seen around the country, is featured heavily in the exhibit. I also love the many delicate examples of glass butterflies, with their barely-there transparent wings on display.

Morpho butterfly - Jewels of the Rainforest Exhibit (http://www.flickr.com/photos/12928926@N06/sets/72157621807255630/)

There are many other examples of insects with less friendly personas. Viewing bird tarantulas, whip spiders, millipedes, parasitic wasps, and Giant Goliath beetles make my skin alight with a crawling sensation. There are walls dedicated to insects vectoring disease in Costa Rica and another showing the great variety of species in Monteverde alone including several ridiculously large spiders and more bullet ants. Though we saw sparse wildlife on our earlier hike, it’s a little unsettling to know what’s going on off trail.

We stop for a little while in the town of Santa Elana and have lunch at a local soda called the traveling man. Rice with pollo (chicken), crispy yucca, plantains, and some variety of local orange soda. The town is small, essentially a triangle of streets loaded with tourist traps, and a few interesting places we make a mental note to visit the next day. We work our way back to the Cloud Forest Lodge for a quiet night. There is yet another cat who seems to target the foreigners for love and affection. He (we’ll just call him “Alejandro”) makes no qualms about following us into our room, curiously checking out our luggage, and making sure to lounge on every inch of free shelf space we have to put our things.  We will later hear him pulling the same con on new arrivals, and meowing with loud intent the next morning at the door of everyone who just might listen…

Day 4 – Transition is Key (Or “The Way to Monteverde”)

Saying goodbye to Arenal (photo credit: Carrie Schuman)

As we are checking out of the hotel, we chat with Victor at the front desk. He is one of the staff members here who has been impossibly cordial and very welcoming. He has explained to us that Costa Rica is the perfect place to learn Spanish as they are essentially unaccented, sort of like what we might think of as Standard American English, or broadcaster speak (I tread lightly here). He also suggests a stop in a little town called Tilarán on our way to Monteverde where we can ride horses and take in more cataratas (waterfalls). Apparently, swimming in waterfalls is just something you do here. I’d like to think it’s as commonplace as eating breakfast.

We go into town to try and acquire a SIM card for our cell phones from ICE (pronounced ee-say), the phone service company that appears to service the majority of the country. The attempt proves futile, as the line of 6 0r 7 people doesn’t visibly budge for at least an hour. We will ultimately choose to embrace “Pura Vida!” and decide we can make it on our own, technology be damned (this luckily pans out for us, we have access to the hotel phone for cheap, in-country calls). But while Rob is waiting, I wander around the lobby of the little strip mall which has the bizarre mixture of cheap goods and a gym on the upper floor. This boy at a pet supply kiosk in front watches me pet a bunny sitting in a little cage. He suddenly pulls out a plastic bag of the weirdest looking items I’ve ever seen and seems to be trying to communicate with me while emphatically pointing to the bag. Luckily, a man standing nearby steps in to translate and explains that the strange little fuzzy wares the boy is pointing at are in fact, a type of fruit. Ever the adventurer, I get Rob to haggle for some, all the while mentally recounting warnings I’ve read about eating fruit in foreign countries. I later find out they are called mamón chino, a local name for fruit from the Rambutan tree. They are typically red, but we were sold a smaller, yellow wild variety. To eat one, you need to break open the shell with your teeth and suck on the fruit inside (they have large pits) which tastes like a tangy grape. They are fantastic.

We drive away from Arenal with fondness and apprehension soaking into our brains. The wildness of the rainforest quickly turns into peak after peak and valley after valley. The green of the vegetation here is vibrant, brighter than anything I recall seeing before. the drop-offs here are steeper than anywhere else we’ve visited – with hundreds of feet of open air enveloping either side of the car at times while we work our way down mountain roads. I soon learn that the signs reading “peligroso” are warning us about road hazards, and the admonishment of “despacio” is requesting us to proceed with caution. We pass through several small Costa Rican towns with churches and schools, and the sounds of everyday rural life. We hear music pouring out of one of the schools carrying a chorus of voices with it. I manage to wrangle Rob’s camera (a beautiful digital SLR) for a few minutes and indiscriminately take pictures out of the car window, with the false hope of producing nat geo quality masterpieces. While this doesn’t happen, there are a few interesting pictures of the clay hill sides and buildings.

Clay hillsides, drive to Monteverde (copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Guanacaste Province - roadside view (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We find signs for Viento Fresco once we reach Tilarán. We pull in and start chatting with a man named Orlando who will soon become our tour guide. We choose to hike down to the water falls and take horses back up. Orlando is quick to smile and has a great sense of humor. As they drive us down to the start of the path in a battered truck, a skinny golden dog starts chasing after, keeping pace with us. Cue the introduction of Paloma, who may in fact be our real guide for the next few hours. A battered old dog, with clouded vision in one eye, the battle scars of past bot-fly bites, Paloma is along with us along literally every step of our way, scrambling over flowing water and barking at the capuchin monkeys with great fervor.

Our trusty steed, Paloma (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Capuchin or "White-faced" monkey (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

A toucanet, the smaller emerald hued cousin of the toucan, hops overhead while we start down towards the cataratas.  Orlando points out subtle signs of living things as we walk – the bright spots of the tiger beetle, the small earthen holes of mot mot nests, a few errant porcupine quills in the earth, trails of leaf cutter ants crossing overhead vines. At one point, he shows me a miniscule, unassuming plant with small compound leaves growing along the path. He lightly brushes the tips and they instantly fold into themselves which I am delighted by. I will end up seeing the same plant, Mimosa pudica, or “the sensitive plant,” several places again before journey’s end.

Costa Rica Tiger Beetle (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

 We travel to all the waterfalls in succession and then slip in to swim for the second time on our vacation. I have heard and read complaints about the water being cold here but for someone who grew up swimming in the Gulf of Maine, it is warm enough.

Rainbow Falls - Viento Fresco Cataratas (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Viento Fresco Waterfalls (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

The skies have been darkening overhead and when we start to change into dry clothes,  it starts raining torentially. Orlando decides the ferocity of the lightning that has hitchhiked in with the rain warrants waiting a few minutes before starting back.  With the horses tied up restlessly nearby, we seek cover in a little corregated tin-roofed shelter at the top of the hill. As the tormenta (spanish for storm) quietly rages on, I sit back and listen to Robert and Orlando practice the art of communicating with language barriers – hand gestures, and quizzical looks abound. We do find out however more about Orlando’s family – the fact that the waterfalls sit on his family’s farm land (across the valley, we can see the sheets of plastic tarping overlaying the rows and rows of tomatoes to protect them from the massive amount of moisture during the wet season), and that his wife is a Nicaraugan immigrant who has been living in Costa Rica since the age of four or five when her father brought her here. After a level of comfort sets in, he also sheepishly admits Victor, the desk clerk at Arenal Parasio who suggested we visit this series of cataratas, is, in fact, his son. He seems wary of casually divulging the fact lest tourists suspect the recommendation is a nepotistic one.  We find it amusing, and ardently assure him we are having the time of our life.

Robert and I on Tico ponies (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

The lightning takes some time to die down and almost 45 minutes pass before we are able to mount the little Tico ponies waiting for us (“Tico” is a casual term describing Costa Rican natives – people and horse alike). Orlando gives me the best raincoat and we set off back towards the stables and his family’s restaurant. We know nothing about riding, so Orlando follows carefully behind and keeps the ponies treading ahead with a practiced hand. The rain is still coming down, and I can barely see ahead of me. When the ponies sense they’re getting closer to home, they quicken the pace until we are trotting (or galloping? ), and my teeth feel like their being shaken out of my head. I have a long way to go before I become an adept horsewoman.

As Rob and I are changing into dry clothes, we hear Orlando and his wife having a slightly heated argument, a reminder that family life is about the same everywhere. However, things seem to abate quickly  and we sit with beer and hot chocolate to have a final chat with Orlando and sign the guest book after browsing entries from all over the world.

We head out on pitch black, unpaved roads towards Monteverde. The roads have been kept in rough shape intentionally as a supposed deterrent of excessive tourism and development. We arrive at our next stop, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Lodge where we will stay for two nights, and quickly settle in.

Day 3 – Welcome to the Jungle (Or “We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat”)

Volcán Arenal - a clear view (photo credit: Carrie Schuman)

This is an early day for us. The volcano is in full breathtaking view, in contrast to most of  the day before. The volcano had been shrouded with mist a good portion of the time, sometimes confusing the casual viewer into believing there really was no volcano at all.

We catch breakfast at 6:30. We are slated to go out on a “Safari Float Tour” – we have a voucher from the company we booked with, and are expecting a very tourist-centric experience which hardly turns out to be the case. Our shuttle stops at another local hotel to pick up Dustin and Emily, two newlyweds from Colorado on their honeymoon in Costa Rica. We all chat on the ride over to the  Peñas Blancas River where our experience will begin. We find out more about our guide Jamie (pronounced Hi-may). He has a family in a nearby town and has two little girls – one three-year old, and one kindergartener-aged. He has worked for various touring companies in the area (as most of the guides will allude to over the rest of our trip as well. It seems there is fidelity to an industry, but not always to a specific company), but likes this particular job as he has more opportunity to interact and chat with the people he’s guiding as compared to more intense activities like white water rafting. He often times works six days a week, and can at times be slated for a 10 hour day. Tourism is considered quite the opportunity in the region, but is only a realistic option for those that are bilingual in the country, a percentage he estimates at around 50%.

"Gallery" forest on either side of the Peñas Blancas River (photo credit: Carrie Schuman)

We reach the banks of the river and pour out of the van into the early morning stickiness. Jamie and Antonio, the driver, pull a thick rubber raft from the backseat and begin inflating it. We don life jackets and push off moments after arriving. I grin at Antonio who is looking on from the shore, and the corners of his mouth respond in kind, confirming a smile is indeed a universal language. Jamie is able to control the raft with little assistance and begins to explain why the area is of interest. He points out the large trees whose root systems hold the banks of the river stable. The forest along the sides of the river are known as “gallery forests” due to the abundance of wildlife along them. The trees that meet over the river serve as biological corridors of sorts, allowing living creatures to cross from one side to the other and ensuring we have plenty to look at.

We see several birds flitting about including the scarlet-rumped tanager, a sharp-looking little bird with a iridescent red back. The strange, reptilian movements of the snake bird, or anhinga capture our attention. Sand pipers run along the river’s edge. We start to see the small specimens of crocodile that frequent the river along muddy banks. The locals still choose to swim in the river and are apparently unconcerned about their presence. Basilisks, also commonly referred to as Jesus Christ lizards apparently due to their propensity for running across the water’s surface, are spotted along branches of trees at various junctures along the river.

Jaime, who seems to know a wealth of information about most of Costa Rica’s 800 species of birds, bats, and many of its other flora and fauna, points out howler monkeys lounging in some nearby trees and seems to be communing with them as he lets out a string of sounds that sound suspiciously just like the ones coming from the monkey’s tree.

Halfway along our river journey, we stop at a local farm to snack on mild cheese, plantains, and a special sweet bread made from a starchy vegetable of some kind . Chickens and roosters run haphazardly along the length of the property, popping out in amusing and hilarious places. There is a little orange and white cat with a crooked tail looking for attention. The Costa Rican attitude towards dogs and cats are very different from our own. They find our propensity for letting our pets sleep on the bed very strange. All the farm’s inhabitants have recently been amused by a tourist who picked up the feline and started kissing it.

The first cat in our story, but certainly not the last (photo credit: Carrie Schuman)

We get to meet Don Pedro, the 99 year old owner of the farm and the surrounding land. He loves to pose for photos with visitors, uttering the countdown “1,2,3 – whiskey!” before the shutter clicks. Two of his daughters care for him. They also seem intensely interested in the fact that Rob and I are twins (gemelos in Spanish), and recount additional anecdotes concerning the subject.

We continue our journey with more crocodiles slipping by the raft and some definite mis-identifications. Jamie has coined terms like “log-o-dile” and “branch-o-dile” for our blunders. We get to chatting about alcohol, technology, and politics, so it feels like we could be sitting at anyone’s kitchen table, shooting the breeze. It’s nice.

We drag ourselves out of the raft at the end and into a blessedly air-conditioned van. The tour company has one more stop for us however, at the Las Iguanas Restaurante, where piles of vegetables lie in wait for the masses of fat, lazy iguanas on the premises.

We go into town later to eat at a local soda (basically small, local Costa Rican eateries) and watch the afternoon storm come in. I failed to mention in earlier posts that we are here during the rainy season. The country gets up to a yearly average of 180 + inches of rainfall in some regions. We see the skies darken and the locals run for cover. I’ve made the mistake of ordering a hamburger in a place that does not specialize in hamburgers, and as I munch on the strangely crispy, wafer-thin version of comfort food from home,  I hear the whirr of the generator kicking on behind us.

We have another voucher that came with our booking for a night hike around the Volcano but I am exhausted once back at the hotel and can barely move. While I go off for my first massage ever, Robert decides to partake in the second adventure of the day, and comes back with a far-away picture of a toucan, more breath-taking visuals of the volcano, and a sighting of a mot mot which is a fascinating local bird. They are lovely, with two prominent tail feathers naked except for small circular tufts at the ends. Folk lore attributes the missing feathers to an origin story of the world.  The gods asked all the animals to help build the earth, but the mot mot shirked its duty and hid in a hole with his  tail feathers exposed. The other animals grew angry and pulled the feathers from his posterior. When the gods came to see the animal’s final work, the mot mot strutted about as if he had assisted. The gods, seeing his tail feathers, knew of the deceit and the mom mot was banished to live in a hole in the ground. Consequently, they do nest in depressions in the earth as we found out later in our trip.

We both lay down for a few minutes intending to drag ourselves off to a 24 hour soda in town but fast fall asleep early, which is a trend we will repeat at least a couple more times before our trek is done.