Saturday, February 23, 2013

Costa Rica Journal...Day 8…Tuesday, February 19, 2013

I see a small sliver of light between the curtains of the window in my room…time to get up. Peter and his wife have pots of hot coffee ready and a full breakfast on the way. While I eat, Peter goes over the map of Parque Nacional de la Rincon Vieja. He’s pointing out the best rails and marking some interesting little “side hikes”.
A little after 9:00, I’m on my way to the Park. Along the way, I stop again to pay the $1.50 “toll” to travel the several feet of the road that are privately owned. By 9:30, I’m on the trail. It’s only supposed to be a three kilometer hike but, with all of the “side hikes”, it turns out to be more than double that. The first third or so is pretty easy…level and clear. But the last two thirds is tough…mostly uphill and lots of rocks and tree roots to step over. I had hoped to see some cool birds and animals on the hike, but I don’t see much of anything. A couple times, people (with a guide) are stopped looking up in the trees…monkeys. I see movement up there, but nothing that I can identify as a monkey .
Three hours later, I’m back at the Park entrance…in my car…and on the road. Peter has told me that the entrance to Parque Santa Rosa is only forty kilometers away. There’s a campground near the entrance, but the “better” campground is another eleven kilometers down a very rough road. “You will need to go very slow, and it will take a long time”, he says.
Peter is right because that eleven kilometer stretch is absolutely, positively the worst road that I have ever driven. A rock and boulder strewn, deeply rutted, narrow, twisting snarling beast of a road. I have to maintain concentration…I can’t take my eyes off the road for a second. It takes me over two hours to travel just eleven kilometers. Ah…but the drive is worth it because I am at one of the most “perfect” campgrounds ever.
As I drive into the campground, a Costa Rican man, Manuel by name, waves me over to talk. He’s been camping here since he was a boy, and he will show me the best spot to camp. And the spot that he picks for me is, indeed, the “best”. I’m only twenty feet from the beach…on the Pacific Ocean…beautiful.
While I’m pitching my tent and setting up camp, a couple from North Carolina, Chris and Emily, stop by for a beer. They are surfers, and they’re in Costa Rica for a month in search of the best waves.
In addition to Chris, Emily, Manuel and his son, I’ve also got a couple of striped Iguanas as my campmates.
I stopped in the town of Liberia along the way, and I picked up some ice. So…I mix myself a nice Manhattan and sit on a little bluff above the beach to watch the sunset…magnificent.
It is after sunset that I begin to suffer a few “mishaps” (nothing major). First, I unpack my UM tailgating chair and find that it did not survive the flight (or, maybe, the roads). It’s irreparably damaged and has to be abandoned. For dinner, I’m going to have one of my “backpack” meals…”Big Easy Gumbo” from Packit Gourmet. You just pour boiling water in the “pouch”, stir it up, wait ten minutes and eat. But, as I’m unloading the pouch, I find that it has tiny holes and tears. A week before I left, Jonesie and Mr. Lucky got into the box where I keep the backpack meals…and now I find myself the victim of…cat sabotage! No problem…I just cook it in a pan instead of the pouch.
But when my meal is ready, I can’t find my trusty “spork”. I look high and low for a good half hour with no luck. This gets me to thinking about relationships. When a couple first meet, the early times are always new and exciting. But, as time goes on, some couples they lose that excitement, that “spork” that ignited their passions. And some, like me, they never get it back.
After dinner, I’ve got my Black Diamond “Titan” lantern set up on my picnic table…it’s small and lightweight, but it only throws out a ten-foot circle of light. So…I’m sitting there enjoying a cold beer when I hear a sound…like someone walking up to my table. I think that it’s Chris and Emily or Manuel…come to join me for a beer. But it’s not…all that I see in the dim light is a flash of a tail, a furry paw…and then…a loaf of bread disappears from my picnic table. A monkey?...maybe. A raccoon?...maybe. But, most likely it’s a Costa Rican “Lomg-tailed Bread Ganker” (latin: “panaderia gankerus”). After that, I get my headlamp and make a “sweep” of my area every few minutes…vigilant for predators.
By 8:00, the campground is dark…everyone has turned in for the night. So…I have one more beer and climb into my tent to sleep. As I lay there, the sounds of the night are fascinating. When I’m on my summer camping trips, I’m used to hearing crickets, the odd bird, maybe a coyote howling at night. But here…there’s all kinds of sounds…grunting, squealing, chirping…something that sounds like screaming. And two unidentified “somethings” get into a wild fight…no doubt a fight over some newly-acquired baked goods.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Costa Rica Journal...Day 7...Monday, February 18, 2013...Tenorio NP to Rincon de la Vieja NP

After posting yesterday, I enjoyed a wonderful dinner at the Celeste Mountain Lodge. A cheese-filled empanada, a rolled pork roast stuffed with spinach and herbs, potatoes…all washed down with a pretty good Chilean Cabernet.
After dinner, I struck up a conversation with a nice guy from Germany…Markus. He lives about 100 kilometers north of Munich. We drank a lot of beers and talked about German soccer, German beer, U.S. Parks, camping…you name it.
At 10:00, everything pretty much shut down, so I was off to sleep in another nice and comfy bed.

Now…as for today…

Today was one of those days that could not have started out worse…or ended better.
When I wake up around 6:30AM, the sound of rain is loud…very loud. It’s not just raining, it’s pouring down in buckets. And the wind is so strong that the rain is blowing in sideways.
I head down the hall to the restaurant area for some coffee…and start thinking about “alternate plans”. First off, I won’t be hiking Tenorio Volcano National Park this morning…not in this downpour. And, if it continues to rain like this, I won’t be camping much either. So I start thinking that I might just scrap the camping plans for a few days and, instead, head over to the beach and hole up in some nice little hotel.
Just as I’m starting to check my guidebooks, Robert (the owner of the lodge) stops by to have a coffee with me. When I tell him that I’m thinking about skipping the camping, he immediately tells me no. Ten miles from here, he says, the weather will completely change. Where we are now there’s a gap in the mountains, and the weather blows in from the Caribbean side…that’s where the rain is coming from. But, ten miles away, the weather blows in from the Pacific side, and it will be warm and sunny.
Robert knows some people that have a nice little lodge near today’s destination…Rincon de la Vieja National Park. He calls them, and it turns out that they have both camping and rooms.
When I leave the lodge around 10:00, it’s still pouring. And now, I have to go back down the same terrible road that I came in on yesterday…only this morning, I get to do it in the mud.
It’s tough going even with four-wheel drive. Along the way, I have to slow down because some guy is running a small herd of cattle down the middle of the road. But, once I hit Route 6, it’s paved highway all the way.
Soon I’m on the Pan American Highway heading to the town of Liberia. Along the way, I stop twice for “agua de pipa” (coconut water) ice cold right out of the shell. Here, the people use something like a small pick ax to make the hole…instead of hacking off the end with a machete.
Around noon, I stop in Liberia to get cash from a bank ATM and some groceries (ice and milk) at the supermarket.
Just north of Liberia, I turn off on a dirt road for a fifteen kilometer drive to the small village of Curubande…and El Sol Verde Lodge. The owner, Peter is from Holland and very welcoming. He shows me the campsites but suggests a room at just $15.00 more since I’m only spending one night. I take Peter’s advice and get the room.
I’m planning on doing my hike of the Park in the afternoon but, just my luck, the park is closed. Peter suggests a morning hike in the Park tomorrow morning…and an afternoon at the local hot springs this afternoon…an excellent idea!
So I head up toward the Park. About five kilometers along, I come to a “toll stop”…some guy owns the property on which about fifty feet of the road sits. He makes his money by charging a $1.50 toll…the free market at work!
After a short drive, I’m at Rio Negro Hot Springs…I pay $5.00, get a towel and head down a trail in the forest to the springs.
At one point, I have to cross a swaying suspension bridge high over a river. Great…this combines my fear of bridges with my fear of falling and fear of heights…add the fact that it’s over water (fear of drowning), and it’s the “Perfect Storm” of phobias.
The hot springs are wonderful…a half hour in the springs, paint yourself with mud, let it dry, shower off…back in the springs. An hour and a half of that, and I am totally relaxed…which is good because I have to go back over that suspension bridge.
On the way back to the Lodge, I stop at this tiny little place for a beer…and run into my friend, Markus, who I stayed up late with drinking beers and talking about Germany. They are heading to the Santa Rosa Park next, like me, so I have no doubt that I will run into them again tomorrow.
Around 6:00PM, I walk a half a mile or so from the lodge to a small “Soda”…here the term soda does not refer to coke/pepsi, but a small family restaurant that serves very simple food. I had “meat in sauce” with rice, beans and salad…very good and all for less than $5.00.
So now I’m back at the Lodge where they power up the Wi-Fi between 7:00 and 9:00PM.
I’ll get this post up, enjoy a few beers and get a good night’s sleep. I’ve got a four-hour hike tomorrow morning.
After hiking, I'm off to Santa Rosa NP for three days of beach camping. No Internet, so the next post will be in four days from the "party town" of Jaco!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Costa Rica Journal...Day 6...Sunday, February 17, 2013...Arenel Volcano to Tenorio Volcano National Park

Well...every day is an adventure, and this one certainly qualifies.
I set out at 10:00AM this morning from the Arenel Volcano Observatory Lodge to Tenorio Volcano National Park...a 54 mile drive. The trip took over six hours on some of the absolute worst "roads" imaginable...these roads made the Labrador Highway look like a sheet of glass.
The weather this morning was overcast and rainy...and I gave some thought to staying an extra day at Arenel. But, after much thought, I decided to move on.
Due to a programming error on my Garmin GPS, I ended up going about twelve miles in the opposite direction to start out. This was OK, however, because I was able to get gas before proceeding on to Tenorio.
Now heading in the opposite direction, the Garmin had me turning on a tiny dirt road to the "campsites" at Tenorio. After five miles or so,m the road was so bad, I had to turn back. So...I rerouted and ended up on a road only slightly better. It took me alomost an hour to cover one stretch of eight miles.
Finally. around 3:30PM, I reached the Park entrance.

ATTENTION: Frommer's, Fodor's, Moon and Lonely Planet Travel Guides. There is NO, I repeat NO, camping at the north entrance of Tenorio Volcano National Park. I know this because after about ten miles on another unbelievably bad stretch of road, I reached the Park entrance , and the Ranger informed me that there was no camping.

After a few minutes of skimming my Travel Guides (now proven to be unreliable), I ended up going back a few miles to the Celeste Mountain Lodge...very nice, beautiful view, meals included, French owner...all good. But "good" carries a heavy price. So, today, I am exceeding my daily travel budget by 50%.

It's all OK...I actually enjoyed the driving. And, while I am disappointed that I will not be able to camp tonight, I will be eating a French meal at dinner and sleeping in another big and comfy bed.

Costa Rica Journal...Day 5...Saturday, February 16, 2013...Arenel Volcano

I was up this morning at 6:30AM after a wonderful night of sleep in a comfy bed.
I had lots of plans for the day...starting with breakfast. I sat with my new friends, Gretchen and Ernie (from San Diego) for a nice breakfast...scrambled eggs, sausages, hash browns, and some delicious tropical fruit.
After breakfast, I spent a few hours online...Facebook, emails, post to the blog, check UM 2014 football recruiting...the usual. I had planned to spend the day at a local hot spring...soak, have lunch...then return to the lodge to go on a volcano tour. But I was feeling pretty wandered around the grounds of the lodge with my camera. I got some good shots of a few interesting birds as well as a small animal in the raccoon family.
In the afternoon, I did some maintenance work...drain an re-ice the cooler, charge the camera batteries, charge the headlamp, check my maps for the routes of the next couple of days. There was a potential disaster involving the Garmin GPS. I've got a "system" called "iGo"'s a wall plug and a lighter plug that uses interchangeable tips to charge different things...instead of carrying along a whole bunch of charging cords, you just take the iGo cords and a bunch of different tips. But, today, the tip for the Garmin GPS broke...beyond repair. Fortunately, I was able to use the tip for cell phone charging as a substitute. So far, so good.
Around 5:30PM, I mixed myself a nice big Manhattan and relaxed on the patio of the Casona with a cigar. The beautiful views of the lake and volcano, the sounds and sights of many different kinds of tropical birds, and the odd sighting of some small animals...all very interesting.
At 6:30, I'm up at the restaurant for dinner with Gretchen and Ernie. Ernie has been coming to Costa Rica for over ten years, and he has a home on the Pacific Coast. He has some really good advice on places to visit down here as well as some very practical tips on general security..."no beach camping!").
After dinner...down on the porch of the Casona...I was joined by my New Hampshire friends, Andrea and Steve, and my San Diego friends, Gretchen and Ernie, for a great night of cocktails (I made Manhattans) and conversation. But, by 9:30, we're all tired and ready for bed.
I get that last night of sleep in a comfortable bed...starting tomorrow, it's about a week of tent camping before another hotel stay.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Costa Rica Journal...Day 4...Friday, February 15, 2013...Monteverde to Arenel Volcano

So...about that "night hike" last night. After a pretty long hike in the morning, I was not really "pumped" for another hike at night. But my friend, Allison, did a pretty good job of convincing me that it would be fun. She was right.
We left by shuttle from the Pension Santa Elena around 5:30PM and started the hike shortly after 6:00. Our guide, Marcos, was very knowledgeable, and he took us on a very vigorous hike (mostly uphill) to see as many "creatures" as possible. And so...we saw a tarantula, two side-striped vipers, a possum, a grey fox, and a number of cool insects. Towards the end, we trudged uphill for what seemed like an see a salamander.
By the time that we returned to Santa Elena, it was after 8:30PM, and the little taco place next to the Pension was closed. I did not have the strength to walk (uphill) into the main part of town to find a restaurant. So...I made do with some nut, potato chips and several cold beers.
My reward for a strenuous day of hiking was to sleep in my tent on my puny "backpacking mattress". Starting from the bottom feet hurt, my ankles are sore, my calves ache, my knees are buckling, and my back is hurting.

Well, a bad night turns into a better tomorrow. This morning I was up at 6:00AM...fresh coffee on the deck with a cigar. I'm really hungry, so I'm thinking about cooking myself a huge breakfast. But...I find that I get a free breakfast at the little taco place...a pile of fresh fruit and a great breakfast taco with crispy fried potatoes, beans, vegetables and a little meat. It really hits the spot.
Allison is off by bus at 8:30 to the Pacific Coast for her friend's wedding. I spend an hour or so breaking camp...pack up the sleeping bag and mattress...take down and pack the tent. The house kitty cat helps with my packing!
At about 9:30, I start my drive from here in Santa Elena to the Arenel Volcano area.
It turns out to be an absolutely splendid day!
I've hooked my iPod into the radio of my faithful Daihatsu Terios...and today I'm listening to a "Chill" playlist that I put together...along with some Deadmaus, a little Skrillex and Gotye...and my favorite Kruder & Dorfmeister CD.
The first thirty miles are dirt and gravel...with lots of sharp turns and steep grades as I come down out of the mountains. Around 10:30 or so, I'm feeling thirsty, so I start looking for someplace to buy a bottle of water. But...this is Costa Rica...why drink water when you can have icy-cold sugar cane juice! I'm driving along, and I see a sign that says..."Jus de Cana". So...I stop and meet the owner, Jose, of a small artisanal sugar cane farm and processing facility. He takes a few stalks of cane from an ice-packed cooler and puts them in a crusher...built in Hillsboro, Ohio in the 1880's. He and his partner turn the wheel and produce a large pitcher of juice. It's delicious and refreshing...not too sweet with a slight vegetal flavor. I also taste a tiny sample of Jose's homemade cane liquor...very potent!
I ask Jose how much for the tour and the juice...nothing, he says. Still...I want to pay something, so I buy a map that I don't need for $5.00.
Now I'm back on the road...and...thirty miles into the trip, I start to see some real I'm traveling a little faster. Around 11:30, I'm feeling thirsty again. I'm looking for a place to stop for water...when I stumble upon a of only two in all of Costa Rica. Naturally, all they have is ale, but the Gato Malo dark ale isn't bad. And...the first glass is free!
Back on the road, I start seeing signs for some place called "Toad Hollow"...they have signs every 50 feet for at least 20 miles. When I finally get to the place, I stop for tacos that are pretty good given the remoteness of the location.
After lunch, I'm back on the road...and I start to get a few glimpses in the distance of Arenel Volcano...then, later, I spot Lake Arenel for the first time. Both volcano and lake are pretty spectacular. I have to drive all the way around the lake to get to my hotel, so I get to see it all.
I cross the Lake Arenel Dam around 2:00. On the other side of the dam, I see a welcome sight...a man and his wife selling fresh coconut water. They've got a big cooler with small young coconuts on ice. The man hacks off the end of the coconut with a machete and...voila...I've got a great drink. It's only 50 cents, so I have two...very refreshing!
At 2:30, I arrive at the Arenel Observatory Lodge. I've booked a room in the "Casona"...a small cluster of buildings set off from the main lodge. It's a nice room with a really great view of the lake from one window and a view of the volcano from another. First off, I take a much-needed hot shower...shave. Then I'm off on a short walk to the jacuzzi...this does wonders for all of my aching joints and muscles. At the pool area, I meet some very nice people...a couple from Colorado on their honeymoon, a nice couple from New Hampshire, and a group of people from Long Island. When someone mentions that I must be the husband of one of the women from Long Island, I say that I'm not, but I sure wish that I was. I mean this as a compliment, but the woman and her friends do not view it the same way...and I feel that I have offended her...quite unintentionally.
Psst...keep this "under your hat". I've been working on a "top secret" project known only to me, the President and a handful of his closest aides. It's called "The Manhattan Project". It started in Duty-Free at Miami Airport where I acquired some highly-enriched Woodford Reserve Bourbon. San Jose at the Walmart where I picked up some fissible Cinzano Sweet Vermouth and Angostura Bitters. All I needed was the "trigger" and, yesterday in Santa Elena at a small Tienda, I found it...there, on the shelf, was a jar of Maraschino Cherries...the last piece of the puzzle.
So, tonight before dinner, I am constructing not a crude device, but a highly sophisticated Manhattan...three shots of Bourbon, one shot of Vermouth, two dashes of Bitters, a half teaspoon of cherry juice...and a cherry. An absolutely perfect Manhattan on the rocks before dinner.
Up at the main lodge, I head to the dining room for dinner...where the nice couple from New Hampshire invites me to join them. It's a very pleasant dinner...nice conversation, a few glasses of wine and a decent "Churrasco-cut" filet.
After dinner, I head back to my "Casona" and enjoy a few cold beers before bed. There are fireflies...and the sounds are amazing...all types of insects, some birds (owls, maybe)..and a few unidentifiable "animal sounds". It's all quite relaxing.
At 9:30PM, I climb into bed...a real bed...a comfortable bed. I'm asleep within a few minutes...bringing to an end a wonderful day.