Landing in San Jose, we budgeted 1 day to acclimate ourselves to the different currency (it's never easy to get used to spending thousands on a couple of apples and bananas). Being forewarned that San Jose was the kind of place you want to leave from rather than go to, we headed east to Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean for our first adventure into the countryside. This is a remote former logging town that takes several hours by bus from San Jose, then two more hours by speedboat through protected tropical jungles. Our tour operator likes to impress upon us the resourcefulness of the Costa Ricans; in this case, dealing with a failed logging operation (apparently the logs were so saturated with water that they sank rather than float), they built up the tourist industry that now supports a community of about 2,000. There is a small window of opportunity when one can observe a certain type of turtle nesting on the Tortuguero beaches at night but, alas, we are out of season for this migration. Instead, for the rest of the year, the tourist industry here seems to be based primarily upon vacationers being able to see a tiny green frog with big bulging orange eyes in the middle of the night.
Adjusting to the temperatures down here has been our biggest challenge followed by trying to maintain a zen attitude about living with many more insects, spiders and crawly critter things, and it seems that no bug escapes Ellen's notice. Bill has been a big help with search and surveillance in our hotel rooms. While we have come to terms with bugs and spiders outside, inside the hotel room is another matter...as of this writing, the score is about 386 insect casualty, 0 human casualty (unless screaming counts). The only uninvited guests we happily welcome are the chirpy little geckos who are bug-eating commandos! Seriously, all else is pretty wonderful here and the Costa Ricans we have met are incredibly welcoming, helpful, and frequently English-speaking. But we are baffled as to why they do not sweat. At the registration desk, Bill is pulling out his stash of breakfast napkins saved specifically for the purpose of mopping up the pools of sweat that would otherwise be left behind in a puddle and looking like the kind of person most likely to have plastic explosives strapped to his torso. With temperatures in the 90s and humidity near 100%, we don't get many steps out the door before Ellen is heading back to the room for yet another shower.
With our creaky 4-wheel drive SUV rented, we head south to Corcovado, with our first adventure being a snorkeling cruise to Cano Island Preserve. Along the way out to the island, we see crocodiles, then dolphins, monkeys, sloths, a macaw as well as a seemingly endless number of other birds, whose names we will quickly forget. In the water, we swim with colorful fish, two turtles and a white tip shark. But, the most incredible part of our day has nothing whatsoever to do with snorkeling. Now back aboard the boat, our guides suddenly become extremely excited when they spot a pod of Orcas (about a dozen in all) in the distance, something that even the park ranger in his 7 years on Cano Island has never seen in these waters. We race out to see the pod and the captain maneuvers the boat to follow them for about an hour. They are often swimming no more than 20 feet from us. We are all awestruck.
In San Jose, we had been admiring the masks of the Boruca indigenous tribe (aka Boruca Indians for the un-PC), which are arguably the most interesting and expensive souvenir for tourists to purchase. To call them masks is somewhat misleading, because in the hands of a skilled craftsperson, they become a voyage into a multidisciplinary art form. The carvings can become quite intricate, working in several dimensions and incorporating many images from nature. Many are not even masks so much as small totem poles. Afterwards, the painting, often done by another artist, can be as elaborate as the carving. We decide early on that we want to visit their village when we are in the southwestern part of the country near the Pacific coast.
The drive up to Boruca takes us through densely forested mountains in a very remote part of the country. We miss the road to the village due to no GPS signal and a lack of signage so we stop at a banana stand for directions. In appreciation, we give the Spanish-only speaking vendor a few dollars and he hands us a stalk from which hang about 40 bananas. Ellen thanks the man for his kindness at the same time surveying the stalk for spiders and ants before placing it on the back seat. The road, which would otherwise be impossible to navigate, gives us a chance to use the 4-wheel drive as we head steeply up to the village where we find many carvers, in one case, five of them, sitting around together whittling away.
We are the rare tourists who make the journey to Boruca. The only other outsider we meet along the dirt road is a tall, blond-haired young European man with an elaborate waxed mustache, not quite to Salvador Dali extremes, but getting there. He has been living with a mask maker for a few weeks to learn how to carve the balsa wood. Ellen uses her Spanish to interact with the artists since no one here speaks much English. We have to pull ourselves away before we buy too many.
Poas Volcano gives us a refreshing change. We arrive in the alpine town under dark skies with wind, drizzle, and fog. The girl outside looks appropriately dressed, wearing jeans, a long-sleeved sweater, and a stocking cap, until we open the windows of our air-conditioned car and realize it is about 75 degrees and steamy outside. Still, it seems downright brisk compared to where we have been. Our lodge, built by an Englishman in the 1970s, is a wonderful change of pace, with expansive rooms, country English furnishings and oriental carpets, wood burning stoves, high thread-count sheets, and an excellent chef. This gives us a great opportunity to relax before heading off to some more basic accommodations. Our leisure time is taken up with tours of a dairy farm, known for its artisanal cheese, and a coffee plantation, a visit to some gorgeous waterfalls, and of course, the volcano, which tries our patience by playing hide-and-seek with the clouds. This area is known for cheese and strawberries. All along the roads are strawberry stands with vendors waving their baskets of fresh berries before a backdrop of grassy, bovine-filled pastures.
Unfortunately, we do not have any photos from our 4-hour white water rafting trip down the Pacuare River since our guide advised us not to bring anything along that shouldn't get wet. He omitted that all things, including us, might also get crushed, pounded, pulverized, and tossed overboard (as we did when we went over some Category 4 rapids). Despite our bruised and pummeled bodies, it was an awesome and exhilarating 19 kilometer trip, gazing up at steep hills full of jungle foliage, passing by tropical waterfalls and pausing to jump in the water in between the thunderous rapids to lazily float downstream on our backs for awhile looking up at this magical environment.
To really enjoy Costa Rica, however, means never giving your body a break. Or your rental car. The drive to Rio Celeste takes us up and down "roads" which are more like God's rock and rut collection. For about 8 kilometers of deserted "road", we rarely make it out of first gear, again with no GPS signal and no signage. Finally, we spot a crude, tiny handmade sign directing us to Tenorio Volcano National Park wherein lies the magnificent Rio Celeste and her waterfall. We find the trailhead and a small oasis of civilization, no doubt built expressly for the purpose of collecting the $12 per person entrance fee along with the $2 per car parking fee. The 4 mile hike takes about 3 hours round trip and includes lots of steps and mud when it has been raining. Fortunately, we hit it at a dry spell, and after only minor stubbed toes and strained muscles, we are able to experience the vivid milky blueberry iridescence of the river's pools and lagoons, an effect caused by the transformation of minerals from one stream when its waters combine with another's. Once again in Costa Rica, we are awestruck; this time by the magical Rio Celeste.
Costa Rica is said to be 98% energy independent and soon to have an energy surplus, which they hope to export. Back now in the tropical zone, we feel a bit depressed returning to our fluorescent-lit room whose anemic air conditioner barely gets us down to 75 degrees. All of our time here gives us an appreciation of the ecological awareness of this country and their resourcefulness, but must we have fluorescent lights as the consequence for saving the little green frogs? And, why don't the hotels without air conditioners have screened windows?! Shouldn't it be a no brainer to either offer air conditioning or screened-in windows with a good fan? At almost every hotel, Ellen now asks for a portable fan when we check in. We are now staying in the Monteverde cloud forest. But even up here at altitude, the bugs abound (a cloud forest being a tropical jungle rainforest but at altitude). Our overly warm room has no fan, no air conditioning and no screens on the big picture windows. Ellen explains the problem to the front desk and the friendly receptionist excitedly exclaims, "Exacto!" (Exactly!), as if the notion of providing a fan in a room with no screens on the windows is an innovative and novel concept. She wanders off in search of a portable ventilador.
We have been relying on Waze to get around Costa Rica and have been astounded at how well that has worked out, but yesterday we were both cursing the app. We had reached a point in the road where the signs told us to go left for Monteverde, but Waze told us to turn right, which we did. The road started out great, taking us on a winding excursion with dramatic views of steep green canyons with no other cars or trucks in sight. But then the road ran out and became a dirt road, which became a rocky road with deep ruts and potholes, which became a cow trail, sometimes a very, very steep cow trail. With no signs of civilization anywhere in sight and the sun setting, we were mentally preparing for a night of sleeping in the car. Eventually, after too many hours on the "road", we did get to our hotel, and, despite the scary drive, we got to see a magnificent sunset. This part of Costa Rica is like no other place on earth we have visited--a rainforest high up in the mountains with spectacular views around every corner ("I can see for miles and miles..."); just the perfect place for a day of zip-lining and observing the forest canopy while walking along 2 miles of suspension ("hanging") bridges.
Now we are headed to the Pacific Guanacaste Coast to hit the beaches and slow down (a bit) for our final week here, ending our journey with 4 nights indulgence at The Four Seasons Papagayo where Ellen has assured Bill that there will be excellent air conditioning...and maybe even a bug valet at our service!