Monday, April 13, 2009

You Haved Arrived in Paradise

I passed a sign that said this on the way to our first destination last week.  Costa Ricans definitely know they live in a great place.
  The entire city of San Jose shuts down for the week before Easter (Semana Santa, or Holy Week), and everyone there goes away to prettier places, packing the beaches here, the volcano towns there, and roads between.  Por eso (because of this), my program offered, for a fee, of course, a week's worth of travelling around together in private buses, to see some of the main sites in the northwest cuadrant of Costa Rica.  It was our first weekend together, new students and us, and it was a great opportunity for them to see new sights and for us all to get to know one another.  (I saw new sights, too.)
The first destination was Arenal.  This is the place where my friend Anna Novakowski and I went when she came to visit, which had the volcano and the hotsprings.  The hotsprings were the same, touristy, expensive, hot, and spring-y, but the volcano was even BETTER this time.  The first time we saw it, as I wrote, the top of the cone was covered in clouds.  Eluin had told us this was the norm for afternoons, so I was expecting a half cone again on Saturday.  Insteeeead we could see the enTIRE thing, up to the peak, smoke billowing out and everything!  It unfortunately clouded up at night before we could glimpse the orange lava fire-worky display it's famous for, but seeing actual volcanic activity of any sort was amazing!! I took about a thousand pictures and 3 videos.  
Also different from my trip with Anna, Sunday morning the group of 13 of us went hiking on a nearby hill.  Well, we were scheeeeduled to go hiking, anyway, but when our driver let us out of the van at the base of a hill, he didn't tell us exactly where we were to go, so that we walked down the road back and forth for an hour before we even saw a trail head.  For this we had to pay money, which most of us weren't prepared for, but when it became clear it was our only option, that or sit in the sun on the side of the road for the second hour before the driver returned, we all chipped in and got payed for.  I'm SO glad we did, too, because there were some cool flowers, we saw three big fowl type birds, and we heard two toucans!!! I got a blurry  picture of one of their heineys, but I can still remember his yellow beak and black body waaay above and to the right, which was just amazingly cool.  The hike also offered more vistas of the volcano, from another angle, so more pictures ensued, of course, of the tracts from the lava and the oh-so-different other side of the volcán.
As when Anna and I travelled, the next thing done was a trip to Monteverde cloud forest.  We took the boat again, though this time I bought a coconut to drink with my friend Justin, and we did the horribly bumpy road to a slightly more upscale hotel, waaaaay up a steep hill from downtown Santa Elena.  That afternoon was freetime so we joined a fellow tourist who had a soccerball in playing an extremely fun game of dust soccer until it was too dark to see anything.  The field was literally JUST dirt, so even in the daylight the ball was rarely visible through the clouds we kicked up.  But, with skills ranging from never-having-played to the best-non-professional-I-think-I've-ever-seen, it was waaaay more fun than I'd expected.
In the morning we did the canopy zipline tour of the cloud forest again.  I only have the one long sleeved shirt for the temperature of the forest, so I wore it again, and several guides recognized me.  They couldn't understand why I was scared of the Tarzan Swing having already partaken.  It was BECAUSE I had done it before, guys!    No matter, this time was a different kind of fun.  Things weren't new for me, but we were with a group of 50 other tourists this time (contrast to the 6 when Anna and I went), and sometimes the guides pretended to fall, and scary, goofy stuff like that.  Everyone in my group had a really good time, and on the last stretch of canopy, about a kilometer long, it is rumored, we got to go in pairs, so Danimal (Dan, an independent student here who's a lot of fun) and I cruised it next to one another.  Chalk it up to my previous practice or my aerodynamicity, no importa, I definitely beat him to the platform.  It was a gorgeous day, and I'm glad I got to go again.
The rest of the day was again free time in Santa Elena, the small town outside of Monteverde.  Two friends and I went shopping and got ice cream while another small group of us sat at the hotel, sunbathing, and experiencing first hand the strength of a tropical sun.  Most were well burned in the one hour they spent, one completing his red hue, for he'd developed a nice lobster claw on the way to Arenal, just by having his forearm out the window of the van.  Now they all wear sunscreen and are fine, so no great loss.
That evening we had some good Mexican food as a large group and then went to the only discotech in Santa Elena--The Unicorn Bar.  That wasn't much fun.  We played some pool upstairs and danced reasonably good salsa and merengue with the three Ticos who showed up, but I'm not sure it was worth the steep steep steep walk down then back up the dirt road from our hotel.  Everywhere we went in that town it was a workout!
We rose pretty late the next day, I guess it was Tuesday, but to whom does that really matter?  And we staked out our seats in the van (van-bus, I'm going to use those interchangeably, sorry) for the 4 hours to Tamarindo, a beach town halfway down the Pacific coast.  
This was the first Costa Rican beach for everyone but Rebecca Dos, Sharifa, and me, and the instant I saw it I was ashamed.  It was the most touristy thing I'd seen my entire time in the country.  Why'd they take us here!?  I wondered.  It had UMBRELLAS and BEACH CHAIRS to rent, for crying out loud!  But the rest of the gringos (again, NOT an offensive word in Costa Rica) were impressed.  I guess even the most touristy of Costa Rican beaches are on the less-developed end of most U.S. destinations.  
We put our stuff in our stark-white hotel as fast as possible, but were too late to really catch the sunset that first night.  No matter, for there were 2 more to be spent here, and much restaurant-cruising to be done.  Having walked the main strip of town and found nothing under 4.5 mil colones (about $8.75), we decided to go to Subway for something cheap and save our money for the next days.  The cookies at Costa Rican Subways are not up to par.
That night we went to what from the outside looked like a super cool dance club.  It was called Aqua something and was in a modern building, with cool blue lighting and a huge balcony over the beach.  Furthermore it was offering free margaritas (margarita martes) after ten, so we donned our best and went in.  There was hardly anyone there!  And the music was unrecognizable!  Justin and I requested a song at the beginning of the night, receiving ascent from the DJ, but an hour later he still hadn't played it.  When he also didn't play it after we reminded him, and the place had gotten only slightly more full of people, we decided to go ahead out on the beach and walk back to the hotel that way.
It was beautiful on the beach at night.  As we walked to the right (the opposite direction of our hotel), we noticed bright fuzzy orange light over the hill across town.  Geoff, who had gone down to the beach for a glimpse of the sunset earlier, told us in fact that WAS fire and that the whole hill had been in flames earlier.  I didn't believe him, but when I looked the next day, yes, all the trees there had been burned.  ¡Qué lástima!  What a shame!
Not much of note happened the next day in tourist-ville. We spent a long time riding great waves in the warm water and averting our eyes from the sand blowing all over as we tried to read, too.  We looked for seashells with holes in them for neckalces.  We lathered ourselves in sandy sunscreen.  We even splurged and rented a few chairs to avoid the boiling hot sand.  For lunch there could have been NOTHING better than the orange-mango-passionfruit smoothie I got.  Afterwards we shopped around town, bought a dress or two (okay, three), and went back to the hotel...just in time to see our first gang of monkeys!!! They were little black guys with black faces, and they were pretty noisy and brave.  They swung around and were perfectly content to allow pictures as they munched rather visciously, actually, on unripe mangoes.  They hung from their tails and fought and some were babies and EVERYTHING!  It was super cool!  Pluuuusss! When we turned around there was an enormous blue-jay type thing sitting by the pool--seriously about 3 or four times the size of a normal bluejay and with a crest like a quail.  Add that to the nasty, huge lizard that fell with a SPLAT out of the tree in front of Sharifa in the morning, and to the cool leaf-bug we found on the marble walk way outside our door (this hotel was reeeeeeeally fancy!), and you can see the place was teeming with cool wildlife!!  Not such a horrible tourist destination after all!
That night, after watching and taking pictures of a GORGEOUS sunset, Luís, our travel agent who served as our driver for part of the trip, cooked us a nice barbecue, and a few of us went down to the beach again.  We all turned in pretty early, though, tired from the sun. 
The day was another day of nothing, with the only thing of real note being that it was the Thursday before Easter.  Costa Rican alcohol sales are prohibitted from this day until Saturday (I don't understand why it can start back up again Saturday, but it does).  For this, there is said to be a large number of people just drinking in the streets, selling beers on the black market, etc. etc.  I was just curious to see it.  So, we ate a panini dinner (deliciosa) and went outside.  Yes, the liquor marts were closed, and yes, in front of the bars of restaurants (that were still open), there was yellow cautionary tape.  But when we sat down at a little place with umbrellas outside and nice reggae music in the background, the waiter surprised us.  "In Costa Rica we are not allowed to serve alcohol tonight," he told us, and we nodded.  "All we have are margaritas and daiquiris, and we can put beer in a glass for you, but no bottles."  So it was all a rouse!!  Police sat their motorbikes RIGHT outside the restaurant and did nothing, thoguh they could clearly see Imperial (the local King of Beers) cans on the bar, I'd imagine.  We ordered some guanábana daiqiris and even some sangría and just laughed at the strange custom.
Next morning we piled once again into the crowded and hot van-bus to go to...dun dun dunnnh! Manuel Antonio National Park, which is said to be "still more monkeys than man."  It was the destination of the trip I was most excited for. 
Buuuut, get this!  On the way, we crossed a large bridge over a semi-dry (because of the season) river.  Our driver noticed something and stopped the van.  We all got out.  Standing on the edge of the bridge and looking over the railing we could see a crocodile!! He was gray with dust, sitting partially submerged, with just his huge spikey back above the water.  And as we looked around we saw six more.  It was really cool to see them, some swimming, most just sunning themselves IN THE WILD.  And so enormous.  I watched with fear as one of the cute, big-eared, hump-backed Costa Rica cows ambled over to drink from the river, but nothing bad happened to him while I was there.   That was good, and what's more, while we stood on the bridge, Luís shouted--two macaws, my first! were flying in a red and blue pair swiftly across the valley from the forest on one side of the river to the other!  I tried to take a picture, but my camera was on its video setting, so I couldn't do as well as I'd hoped.   I do have a short film of two dots flying through the sky.  Pura vida, I still saw macaws in the wild, right??  And still had Manuel Antonio to go!!
We didn't get there, though, until late, that night, too late to explore much.  Still, as we drove in we did see a cool restaurant made out of an old plane, with the wings as the roofs to outside dining terraces and the body as the actual bar/kitchen area.  We also noticed the signs telling the crazy Costa Rican drivers to go slowly, please.  There were pictures of children, monkeys, and, slowest of all, sloths, provided as reasons for the warning.  
The next day, when we diiiid go to the park, it was incredibly hot.  Luís took us (in the "Exit only" end, I might add) and along the way told two friends and me an interesting tidbit Justin, who is gay, had pointed out the day before.  It was interesting to hear coming from a man with a heavy accent, imperfect English grammar in general, and a Jesus bumper sticker on both his tourism vans.  "Manuel Antonio is the place with the most gays in Costa Rica," he said.  "I don't know why.  But they are, you can see them!  In every corner!  Three or four!"  Tristen, Sebastién, and I just laughed.  We've been unnecessarily warned not to talk about this or abortion with anyone from this Catholic country, and here he was bringing it up!  We kept walking, eyes on the prize.  The park right ahead.
Wellll this park was huuuuuuu-mid!  No breeze could get in the forest, so the air was stagnant except when disturbed by the drips of sweat falling constantly off us.  At first, too, all we saw was a basilisk lizard (the kind with the frill), who was too far away to take a good picture, and a raccoon ransacking the bathrooms.  We kind of grumbled and stepped off the path for a swim instead of hiking it all right away.  When Dan was done swimming, though, (the ocean water was too warm for him), he went for a shower and came back with the news that they were not working...because the monkeys were fiddling with the faucetts!!!  Aha!  
That got us all moving.  We dressed, grabbed our cameras, and set out on the path to one of the highest viewpoints in the park.  In this order we were able to see...a troup of black monkeys that had white manes and peach faces, a sloth waaaaay up in the tree, a giaGANtic, celestial blue butterfly, smaller blue, yellow, and orange butterflies, and another huge, gross iguana.  I was quite content with this.  The monkeys were super brave, coming less than 2 meters from us, so I'd gotten some good pictures.  Furthermore Luís had told us there was only one more type of monkey--the tiny, pretty elusive squirrel monkey--in Manuel Antonio, so we'd a pretty good checklist.  Yet as we walked further up the path we started to hear some strange squeaking.  We looked around and the itty bitty, adorable orange squirrel monkeys were everywhere!!  They stayed pretty far away and moved far too quickly for me to get a good picture, but they were SO cute!! I feel very lucky to have gotten to see them.   
The view, too, from the top, of course, was gorgeous, but all the animals were what made my day.  Certainly this had been the best leg of the trip.  We went back to the hotel to cool off, and then shopped and had delicious barbecue for a few hours of the afternoon.
At four Dan, Tristen, Sebastién, and I returned to the beach outside of the park.  There we found a stand renting banana boats and jumped at the chance!  These are long, yellow, banana-looking floaty rafts that you straddle in a line, as though on a sled, and then get pulled by a jetski in straight lines or the rougher hairpin turns.  The goal is just to stay on, and it definitely had the potential to be tons of fun.  Unfortunately the guide didn't tell us at first that the heaviest person, because of momentum, por supuesto, should go in front so as not to fly foward when we fell and hurt the lighter people.  For this, Dan sat in back and the first two times we fell, landed on my head, which was rather painful.  We asked the guide/man on the jetski "mas despacio, por favor," and rearranged, so that it was not only longer before we fell off again, but much less painful.  It was a really good time once that happened!  My headache was gone by morning.
There we have the entire Semana Santa trip, at least the important/interesting parts.  I had a great time meeting everyone and of course seeing Costa Rica, so it was WELL worth the $400 we spent for the week.  I've realized that I'd love to go back to Manuel Antonio if there's time, and that, touristy as Tamarindo was, I'm glad we went there as a group, too, for I'd never had gone otherwise.  So many new experiences all the time in Costa Rica.  You should come!!

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