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”…

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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 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 2 – When Night Falls

In the evening, I am excited to go on an ecology-focused hike with the Arenal Oasis company touting interaction with frogs, snakes, and other local wildlife. Apparently, not everyone gets as excited as I do, as I’m the only one waiting in the lobby a few minutes before 5:30. Gerald, the guide, picks me up at the hotel and we chat about the area. He informs me that people call the combination of much older, adjacent volcano called Cerro Chato and Arenal the sleeping Indian. In profile, the two volcanos appear to form a sleeping Indian with a sloping forehead, two lips and a chin, a bulbous belly, and Arenal forms the feet. I also find out that Gerald speaks excellent English because he had the opportunity to live with his aunt for two years in New York. The lack of a language barrier sets a precedent for the evening with a multitude of nerdy exchanges (I wish I could use the word “cerebral” here, but I think I need to call it what it is) on the local biota.

Arenal Oasis is an interesting project with an ecological conservation and sustainability bent. There are a series of cabins built over time that comprise their “eco-lodge” where guests can stay at their location in La Fortuna. The gardens are maintained organically. The night hike explores the nature reserve they’ve created on their property out of what was once a cattle field.

The night is thrilling. The sound scape sharpens in the rainforest as most of the wildlife is nocturnally active. We chat about the issue of invasive species (not as intense an issue as there is so much diversity, it’s hard for any one species to overtake an entire area) and Costa Rica’s attitude towards conservation (from what I gather, it’s much like a facebook status – “it’s complicated” but it appears there is some infrastructure for it ).

We start by exploring some of the local flora. There are local species of impatients which are similar to ones we have in the states. With a light touch, their seed pods burst open. It turns out, there is a small coil that is responsible for the pods breaking apart – a sort of naturally produced spring. Many of the plants here have broad leaves exhibiting countershading – green on the surface, deep maroon on the undersides, allowing them to absorb sunlight reflected off the ground. Others, like the plant locals commonly call “maracas”, have modified leaves meant to capture water opportunistically (Part of a Genus of plants called “Heliconias” that share similar characteristics). People have been known to shake the slightly ginger-smelling water from these plants and use the mixture as shampoo or as a natural insect repellent. Another similar, flattened version of the same adaptation is sported by a plant commonly called the “rattlesnake plant”. These plants also flower in stages from the base upward, allowing them to flower for upwards to a month, and making their resources last longer.

"Maracas" - a plant in the Heliconia Genus (http://www.heliconias.net/)

We also see some of the large flat leaves with careful incisions along their lateral lengths. Portions of them are now bowed into a tent of sorts, apparently due to the action of  local species of bats that use them as shelter. We see a toad hop by on the path. He hops away until he is certain we cannot see him, then freezes in a sense of mock security. Gerald explains the difference between toads and frogs – some of them obvious – scaly, drier skin, less aquatic – other less so – the presence of paratoid (poison) glands behind their eye sockets. (Apparently the distinction between these two groups on a scientific level is not always so straight-forward) Arenal Oasis has also set up a slew of terrarium exhibits along the pathway to showcase species from the area as well as other parts of Costa Rica.

Bats use many of the local species of plants for a place to sleep (http://www.thenighttour.com/alien2/tent_making_bats.htm)

We start peaking at the tanks containing a series of frog species. Costa Rica has several types of poison arrow frogs, but they are hardly as toxic as those from other countries. They can cause numbness, tingling, mild sickness. They are delicate and beautiful, and quite minuscule – significantly smaller than expected. Several species are good examples of the effect of natural barriers on phenological features. There are several species on the opposite coast of the country that are visually very similar except for a different stripe of color or proportion of colors to one another.

We also discuss the different reproductive strategies of varied families of frogs – those that lay eggs in the water, on top of the water, in trees, or spread among varied locations in order to increase their progeny’s chance for survival. Some even go as far as carrying newly hatched tadpoles on their backs to more suitable habitat.  A Cane Toad looks menacingly from behind glass of one tank (see my previous post on Cane Toads) . There is another frog known as the chicken-eating frog who is known to on occasion eat itself to death due to what has been suggested to be a poor memory about the dinner it just consumed.

While we are looking at the first exhibit, it begins to rain – thunder and lightning bursting in the sky above. It’s the first time I begin to notice how nervous people in the region are when it comes to lightning. Rain phases few, but the lightning causes some worried looks to fleet across many of our guides’ faces. However, the storm allows the evening to take a strong biological turn. The level of sound rolls up a notch and animals start to come out in droves. We pass by the frog pond and see examples of many local species, including the red-eyed tree frog, one of the most photographed rainforest fauna – in essence becoming a sort of rainforest mascot.

Red-eyed Tree Frog (photo credit: Carrie Schuman)

Other forms of life are enjoying the rainfall which is apparently essential to the flow of nutrients from the tree canopy to the forest floor. Snakes are delicately coiled among overhead branches, one of the reasons it is a poor choice to indiscriminately pull at branches without first glancing at what you are touching. We see an eyelash viper, one of Costa Rica’s poisonous species overhead. They are present in multiple color variations and utilize differing habitat space within their ecosystem. We see a lovely little black and white snake overhead elegantly coiling in and out of itself (I later determine this was most likely a coral snake).

The insects are fully active as well. A female katydid with an ovipositor the length of its body quietly sits under a branch while a nearby terrifyingly large spider launches itself, swinging back and forth in its attempt to capture the nearby bug. A bullet ant crawls along the length of a stem. They are called bullet ants not because of their size but because of the pain of their sting.

We quickly lose track of time as we both chat about the biology and fascinating things about the area. On the ride back home, I ask about the tourism in the area and what things have been like since the volcano has gone dormant. La Fortuna has only become a player in the country’s tourist game somewhere in the space of the last 30 years or so, but it’s interesting their future is based upon an ecological phenomenon with such an unstable and unpredictable nature. I hope they are able to continue sharing the awe-inspiring beauty of the rainforest there for some time to come.

Day 2 – It’s a Beautiful Day

I slip out of bed into the view of daylight. It’s the first time I will get to set eyes on the landscape and I am thrilled. The sliding glass door in our room faces the volcano and it’s the first thing I see, impossible to miss (… when graced with clear skies. However, the region often experiences some low hanging clouds that can oddly enough make you question if you saw something there in the first place). The volcano has been dormant for almost a year, but there is a sense of unsteadiness laced about it.

Arenal Volcano (photo credit: Carrie Schuman)

Even though exhausted, we don’t sleep in very much, which essentially sets a precedent for the entire trip. Breakfast at the hotel is exciting. The proper staples of a Costa Rican breakfast often include rice and beans (gallo pinto), eggs, and a slice of farm-made cheese, all of which prove to be my favorite choices. (Signs all over the country tout this as a “Tipico” breakfast) There is plenty of fruit, and sweet plantains which are also popular in just about every location we visit.

We decide to strike it on our own in the morning and head towards the La Fortuna Catarata – a local waterfall. We snake back down towards town and take a right past a local grocery and young school-aged children playing soccer, until we reach dirt and rock roads. Rob is thrilled to see what our little underpowered car will do with the new terrain and we slip and slide our way to the waterfall’s entry point. After paying the entrance fee, we stand at a look-out point where we see an aerial view of the fall before starting down to the waters below.

Arial view of the La Fortuna Catarata (photo credit: Carrie Schuman)

There are steps made from grids of concrete, and concrete posts with lengths of chain running between them. There is too much to take in, and everything has the green glow of life around it. We already start to see species of Ficus trees which are common throughout Costa Rica. Some species are sinister and will strangle its host tree, sometimes to death, all the while encasing its victims body with its own tangle of growth. In same cases, you can see the hollow core where the original tree once was.

Ficus Tree - La Fortuna Waterfall (photo credit: Carrie Schuman)

We finally reach the base of the waterfall, and everything is hued in a breathtaking blue green. There are little pockets of flowing water downstream, where fish weave in and out of our legs. We make our way to the central pool and slip in as we’ve just watched other visitors do. The water churns with the massive energy – we can only get 20 feet or so from our starting point before we are unable to fight the energy of the water any further. A quick and careful trek (the rocks are slippery with scums of algea) behind the waterfall reveals a mural of hanging vines and trickles of moisture. The pressure is noticeably lower behind the fall and you can sometimes feel your eardrums pop.

Base of La Fortuna Catarata (Photo credit: Carrie Schuman)

Behind the La Fortuna waterfall (photo credit: Carrie Schuman)

Looking up from the waterfall (Photo credit: Carrie Schuman)

Later in the afternoon, I convince Robert to drive us towards Arenal National Park and ask if he’d be willing to scope out Skytrek – a tour featuring a sky tram and a series of zip lines that criss-cross above forest floor. Zip lines are a typical part of canopy tours and other tourist traps around the area. We find out there are no less than 250 versions of this in the region. However, thanks to Moon’s guide to Costa Rica, my interest has been piqued in this particular experience, as they proclaim these are the tallest in the country.

I am terrified of heights and one experience comes back to me – once, I had a panic attack as a teenager when faced with a 60 foot high platform/zip line, an impossibly tame version of what we are now contemplating. The highest of these platforms is 200 m, or more than 600 ft above the forest floor.  However, I was instructed by multiple  friends before leaving on this momentous trip not to say no, so I agree with nervous apprehension.

In the sky tram, which will first bring us to the top before starting the zip lines, we chat with Mariano and Tatiana from Brazil and talk politics and culture. The apex yields a stunning view of the Arenal Volcano and Lake Arenal which sits at it’s western side. We run through two practice zip lines with our overly-personable instructors, Jose and Carlos, who teach us to cross our ankles and bend our knees towards our chest while straightening our elbows, and what to do should the pully stop on the cable hundreds of feet above the bottom. The way they show us to flip around and pull ourselves along the remaining length of steel rope hand-over-hand, makes me think of scenes from “Cliffhanger”. The thought of it makes me a little woozy, maybe not as much from the heights as from recalling Stallone’s stunning cinematic performance.

After two practice lines, I am somehow chosen to go first. Momentum launches me, screaming,  off the first platform. (I will be made fun of mercilessly as we traverse the rest of the zip lines. I do not entirely commit to the screaming thing and they come in these bizarre fits and bursts, that apparently left everyone else doubled over in laughter while they were waiting for their turn). I do manage to cowboy-up and turn my head side-to-side to take in the view and appreciate how high up I really am. Carlos slows down the pulley at the end of the line and I almost fall over from the adrenaline coursing through my system, making my legs wobbly and weak. There are a total of five of us completing the pathway of zip lines down to the bottom including a  man with a thick Georgia Southern accent who raises Chickens for Tyson and grows peanuts for distribution to several candy companies. We are not action-movie material.  Rob and I learn a couple new phrases: “muy divertido” – very fun, and the Costa Rican mantra, “Pura vida”, or pure life. This phrase opens doors for the Costa Rican traveler, their version of “it’s all good!”

Day 1 – You Can’t Get There From Here (Or “The Road to La Fortuna”)

I have been waiting for this moment. We set off for the airport courtesy of Robert’s friend Jason, who will be house-sitting while we’re gone. It’s the uncivilized hour of 3 am – Rob has not slept at all, and I have had 3 or 4 hours of agitated sleep. Our flight is slated for Miami and then another into Costa Rica. Waiting in line to check baggage, we hear a murmer from another traveler that the 5:25 flight to Miami has been canceled. Set back number 1. However, Rob and I are both roll with the punches sort of people so we kindly chat with the airline representative about how we will manage to actually set foot in Costa Rica. She puts us on a slightly later flight into Miami and we end up with a five hour layover waiting for our final flight. We sit in an exit row which, besides the altruistic goal of agreeing to help people should the plane engage in any blackbox sort of behavior, allows us some blessed leg room on a crowded 757.

We touch down in San Jose at around 5:30 pm, except in Costa Rica, it is 3:30 pm. We drag our belongings into the lines waiting for security and customs. The customs official places the first stamp in my passport and nods positively in response to my nervous energy and excitement.

We leave the airport to find a raucous mess of tour companies all trying to find their patrons. Destination Costa Rica, the middle-middle man, who has handled most of our bookings, will shuffle us to our rental car, but not before a sly unaffiliated, slightly ratty-looking man tries to direct us into a competitor’s van. Europcar robs us blind when charging for their full-coverage insurance option. This is not entirely to be unexpected as Costa Rican driving involves a little dose of crazy and a larger one of chutzpah, and some kind of insurance is mandatory in the country. They have “upgraded” us to a Daihatsu – a little Japanese SUV whose names means “beautiful small”. Dark is already setting in due to our later arrival time and the sky is overcast – it is the rainy season after all.

Our little Diahatsu. It got progressively dirtier as the trip went on.

San Jose is a crazy, busy kind of place. There are very few lights at intersections. In the style of many busy metropolises world-wide, there are lots of motorcycles and mopeds zipping in and out of the flow of traffic. Rob takes over driving not 15 minutes after we leave the rental place as it’s obvious he’s better suited to the activity. I drove in the Boston area off and on during the few years I lived down that way, but the aggressiveness and the defensive skills needed never really entered my blood stream they way they did Robert’s.

The drive to Arenal Paraiso, the resort we are staying at outside of the Arenal Volcano is predicted at three hours. Not 20 minutes after we start our trip, the skies open up and we’re bathed in torrential sheets of rain. We are exceedingly glad to have a GPS for our trip as just like the guides say, the roads are confusing and poorly marked. The drivers here are daredevils, reckless in many cases, and will ride in two lanes, pass without notice, and pay little heed to speed limits. However, the fines for speeding here are a $600 ticket, so we are conservative. We already start to notice the steep drop offs of 2-5 ft present at the shoulder of most roads here. My guess is the usual suspect responsible for no shoulders on the roads is the massive amounts of rain the country receives during the rainy season.

After passing through some hubs of suburban activity, we reach the mountain route that will lead us to La Fortuna, the little town nestled beneath the volcano. The roads are impossibly sharp and winding here. The night is dark, the rain is intense, much of the drive brings us through patches of thick haze and fog. Combined with the many people – often wearing black – haphazardly walking home on the side of the road, the steep drop-offs, and the animals we occasionally see darting across, the drive is one of the most intense I’ve ever experienced, requiring us both to stare ahead of us with rapt attention and constant communication. There are also a multitude of bridges and our GPS chimes each time with a warning indicating “dangerous bridge ahead”. We soon figure out the yielding system as only one car can generally drive across at a time. There is one particular bridge that is bigger than the rest and although I can’t see the surrounding landscape, I get the sense of the cavernous space beneath us and in some sense am slightly grateful to be traversing at night when I can’t fully appreciate the looming space underneath.

We reach Arenal Paraiso only 10 – 20 minutes later than expected even with the intensity of the travel. We are ushered to a lovely little suite where we begin to relax. There are two rocking chairs on a little back veranda that we sit to take in our first interaction with the volcano. We hear the whirs, clicks, and biological thrum of the area and see a few haphazard lightning bugs blink off and on in the corner. It’s decidedly funny to experience this at night and feels oddly surreal, like we’ve traveled to a glorified version of the rainforest cafe, because we can only hear a soundscape, taste a foreign air. We’ve yet to actually lay eyes on most of what waits for us.