Friday, October 22, 2010

Costa Rican Caribbean - a reunion, joyous sea swimming and monkey cuddles.

Megan and Darren appeared bedraggled but in remakably good spirits for having nearly spent 2 days in transit at the prearanged hostel in San Jose. Megan and I settled into our twin-ness like feet settling into their favourite pair of comfy slippers. The next morning we hopped a bus heading for Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, a small town on the southern Caribbean coast universally described as chilled out and beautiful. Megan had booked us into Cabinas Jacaranda where we had two delightful cabinas next door to each other tucked into a corner of the beautiful gardens. It felt like a place that tropical fairies hung out with Heliconia crabs claw flowers and bouganvillea surrounding us. The town itself is a cheerful mish mash of cafes, bars, tourist services and craft stands that line the beach. You'll be pleased to know that Manu Chao's "Clandestino" is still hella popular down here and whilst Bob Marley is often heard it's more often than not tracks that you won´t find on "Legend", thank Jah. There was even one spot where we had dinner that played lady reggae all night. Yay!
Our first day was a mellow day that consisted entirely of walking to Playa Cocles to have a swim and of drinking beer. That's all I remember us doing. The next day we hopped the bus to Cahuita to hike round Parque Nacional Cahuita.
First things first we had a swim because it was damn hot and as we dried off an excited bunch of turistas began pointing into the trees. Envisioning a sloth or toucans I was only a little disappointed to see a couple iguanas lounging in the tree tops. A little while later my dreams were answered when we came across another excited bunch of people enthralled by the three-toed sloth not 20 metres above us. I whistled at it and it craned it's crazy head all the way around at me with the speed of a, well, sloth! As we rounded the point and seemed to have the path to ourselves we came across a little family of howler monkeys, then another, then another, and another until it got to the point that we'd spy a sudden movement in the trees or a sporadic howl and we'd just keep on walking. Feeling high on monkey sightings and oropendola song we ambled down the entrance road towards the highway to catch the bus back.
The next day we awoke to torrential rain. Both Megan and I sighed within moments of each other, in separate rooms "It always rains on our birthday". The rain did subside but the clouds did not and the sun never really came back again. This did not dampen our spirits and we set off to the Jaguar Rescue Centre. Now all I've been waiting for is to see toucans so I was stoked that the first thing we saw upon entering was three toucans cruising about. They're a lot smaller than I thought they'd be but no less awesome. We had a tour of caged snakes about which I was all "Meh, seen it" as the Serpentarium in El Castillo was way superior. At the frog pond a frisky red squirrel ran up (not inside) Darren M's shorts and all over him. He was thrilled. Then it was time for "monkey therapy". We got to go into an enclosure with seven or so howler monkeys who leap all over you with wild abandon. Two of them made for Megan immediately with one settling in on the top of her head. After a few minutes it shut it eyes and napped. Best. Birthday. Ever.
One of the bigger ones settled into Darren's lap and another clung to his nape. Another big one came for a cuddle in my lap too. It was so freaking amazing to have these little creatures feeling comfortable enough to sit affectionately with us. The next enclosure was the three-toed sloths. Darren B was in raptures. Our guide explained that they are the symbol of Costa Rica, always smiling. We couldn't hod the sloths but we did get to pat them and, man, they're so soft! There were two-toed sloths in the next enclosure who, according to D-Bot, are not as cool "They don't have smily face".

Still pretty darn cute in my books. A really annoying American lady got bitten by the baby one after doing exactly what the guide told us not to do (i.e. put your fingers near its mouth) and we all had a good chuckle later with another couple at a restaurant. Direct quote: "She deserved it. She was an idiot". After a siesta we cracked a bottle of (perfectly servicable) champagne at dusk to toast our 34th. On rather tipsy feet a couple hours later we had a lovely dinner at a beachside restaurant. I ate steak and drank red wine. Megan had soup she described as deep and delicious. D-Bot had the best salmon he's ever had. Darren M had fish. It was real good.
The next day was Darren Bot's. He decreed that we shall hire bikes and ride to Punta Uva for a swim. It was a 45 minute chillin' ride along the road dotted with eco resorts and lush jungle. The sea at Punta Uva was the perfect sea for rollicking fun. We four rode the waves, giggling as we narrowly missed being slammed into the shore, groaning as we did. Off in the distance the deep purple blue (with the occasional roll of thuneder) of the skyline threatened a mighty storm and we left the beach as the first big drops hit the beach. At the beach restaurant we watched as the sky opened up and erupted water. An hour passed and it still hadn't let up. We had to get the bikes back so we had no choice but to get on and go for it. F""k it was fun. We had all donned rain ponchos but they were useless against the onslaught. My face hurt from grinning so much. Pura vida to the max! Later on we ventured out in the rain to the restaurant Darren had had his eye on all week, a Thai fusion place that served sushi. Our meals weren't all that but the sushi, oh the sushi. It was delectable and reminded us both of how much we miss Van-city sushi.
The next day was one of chilling and chores. Whilst Darren and Megan went on a tour of a permaculture farm in Punta Mona we attended to laundry, bus tickets and sitting on the beach. We were leaving the next day back to San Jose. Our original plan was to head to the Drake Bay and Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula (south west coast) but the forecast was dreary with rain and cloud. After checking on the forecast for Granada, Nicaragua we decided to head north instead.
So get this, not all beaches on the Caribbean are white sand. I mean, I don't know about you but I was utterly convinced that this was fact. Probably wishful thinking more than anything. We walked on golden, grey, and black sand beaches. Not one white one. Bummer. Oh well, I've walked on the most pristine white sand beaches that squeak when you walk on them and not another soul in sight in South Western Australia and those I did not expect! Life, I tell ya, fulla chocolate box surprises.

pics to come...

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A volcano and a cloud forest

Red-eyed tree frog. So beautiful I almost cried.
Costa Rica! Pura vida! San Jose is nothing to write home about so I won't.
The bus ride to La Fortuna was beautiful, winding through the mountains with coffee plantations and tropical fruit orchards abounding. We got to La Fortuna in the early evening and we were picked up by Kelly, the manager of Essence Arenal, the hostel we would be staying at. Essence turned out to be as far out of town as you could get, up in the hills of the little town of El Castillo on the other side of the volcano. Volcan Arenal is an acive volcano that dominates the landscape and has birthed an active tourist trade around it's many side affects - hot pools, great views, and lots of volcanic activity.

Sunset at Essence
But back to Essence. When finally we arrived (the roads are terrible which keeps the less adventurous tourists away thank goodness) we were greeted by dusk and the resident trail dog, an Alsatian called Abu. Our room afforded us a peeking view of the volcano and the back yard had a pool and looked down onto Lake Arenal. As night fell the fireflies came out and we knew we were in a special place. What makes Essence a cut above the rest is the concept of "demo cuisine". Dinner is a participatory affair with guests invited to help in a part of the making of the meal, which is always vegetarian, always with a theme. Our first night it was Morrocan and we helped make stuffed naan. The next night we rolled sushi, the next we made falafel. Exqusite!
On our first full day we woke with the birds (Essence sits on 100 acres, mostly secondary forest) and after a hearty omelette we set off with a couple of other guests, Gabriella and Victor from Nosara, to climb Cerro Chato, the mountain next to Arenal that has a crater lake at the top. We sauntered beside pine plantations which reminded us fiercely of Canada and eucalyptus plantings and began the climb up. It is fair to say that Darren and I have graduated to a whole other class of hiking, that which a lot of people call "difficult". It was steep the whole 2 hours up but, man, it was worth it.

 The cloud forest revealed itself and birds began to sing. At one point we stopped to catch our breath and the song of the Three Wattled Bellbird started up. It was out of this world, sometimes like a creaky gate opening, sometimes like the purest two toned flute. At the top, Victor and Darren made the kinda precipitous trek down to the crater lake whilst myself and Gabriella (both leery of steep descents) stayed at the top and ate roadside collected guavas. It was a faster trip down and once at the bottom we took the waterfall route back to the car. The waterfall was gorgeous and Darren could not resist the siren call of the water and so he stripped off and jumped right in. Then we saw a coati! Fauna!

Back at Essence we all jumped in the pool and drank in the view. At dusk, Darren, myself, and Abu took a walk on the circuit around the property. We came across green parrots, Montezuma's oropendola's, and horses. We had heard howler monkeys at the top and Darren started imitating them. No shit, they called right back and we swear they were right on top of us. Couldn´t see 'em though.
The next day was decreed a lazy day and we lounged in the hammocks all morning. This turned out to be a fortuitous decision as it gave us our first view of volcanic activity from Volcan Arenal. We watched as an ash plume mushroomed out of the top, over and over. It was awesome!

 Once we managed to rip our eyes away from our binoculars we strolled down the hill to the Serpentatrium. Brave of Darren as snakes give him the creeps big time.

And I was like, yeah, whatever.

Not leery of a bloody great spider though

The guide was so informative and I was stoked to cuddle a couple of spaghetti snakes and Kelly's rainbow constrictor Anastasia. I balked at holding the tarantula but Darren was a champ.

Back at Essence we decided to hit up the free hot pools with a lovely couple from England, Tim and Jill. So half an hour around the volcano, directly across from a resort where you pay $60 to sit in an artificial environment we were frolicing in the natural hot river. Bliss. Pura vida indeed!
The next day we were up early to take the jeep-boat-jeep across Lake Arenal to get to Santa Elena, the town that services Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. One thing that the guide books don't tell you is that it's crazy windy up there! On our first day we hit up the Monteverde Cheese Factory where predictably Darren was in paradise. A bunch of Quakers who were dodging compulsory conscription decided to move to Costa Rica (they passed on Canada as being too cold. Preach!) and decided that making cheese would be a good way of making a living. I don't know too much about Quakers but I dig their passive resistance ways though one thing nagged at me - the guide enthused in her telling of  the history of the factory that "Quakers are all about equal rights" yet all 8 of the founders of the cheese factory are listed as men but the photos are full of women as well...? Anyway, they make good cheese.
The next morning we got up early (though Darren and I are getting up at 6am these days regularly) to catch the bus up to the Monteverde cloud forest.

 Living up to it's name the clouds were low and misty and rolling across the forest. The flora was diverse and colourful, some trees dripping with vines, epiphytes and flowers, the air smelt fresh and rich with abundance. The trails were really well maintained and we managed to hike most of  the trails spending about 5 hours in total there. We even got to straddle the continental divide at one point. Fauna was heard more than seen, though I did see a monkey's arse, a snake as it lept with fright in the wake of Darren's footsteps and a coati ambling through the parking lot. This was not a big deal especially in light of t he special treat we unexpectedly came across after our hike. There is a free hummingbird gallery outside the reserve where we were expecting some pretty specimens in an aviary. As we walked up the path we could hear the vibrant hum of wings beating and came into a courtyard with feeders hung all over the place. At this point we were engulfed into a cloud of hummingbirds as they flew from feeder to feeder fighting for prime positions. Literally hundreds, of all kinds, all colours. We spent an hour there in awe.

On our last day we decided to do some zip lines through the forest. Now in general I think this is an obnoxious thing to do in such a pristine setting but we were at a loose end and the town wasn't interesting enough to distract us for a day (though I would have been happy with the Butterfly Farm and Orchid Garden!). I had vetoed the hanging bridges canopy tour thinking that as we'd be in a harness I would feel more safe. What a joke. Needless to say, Darren had a great time and I did too for the middle 7 lines once I had gotten used to it. The combination of being high up and spinning around on a fast speeding piece of metal was fear sensory overload!

Don't believe the smile. I am terrified.
 The last and 13th line was ONE KILOMETRE LONG. Darren and I got to do that one together and my eyes stayed tightly squeezed shut admist Darren's whoops of joy. I was shaking once we got off. The Tarzan swing at the end was optional so I exercised my right to decline, especially as we had to cross two hanging bloody bridges to get to it. Darren went for it and watching him I was happy with my decision - it looked like upright bungee jumping. After all that Darren is now indebted to me for the rest of the trip. No more mad adventurey, adrenaline junkie business. Time to chill-ax. Perfect timing really as our next destination is the Caribbean coast with Megan and Darren. Beachy time!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Desert Dessert.

The desert oasis of Huacachina
 We didn't originally plan on travelling down this way but we cut our time short in Iquitos so we were at a loose end. Not wanting to spend 6 days in Lima and having heard good things about Ica and Huacachina we decided to hop a bus down there for some rest and relaxation before heading to Costa Rica. I mean, shit, we were in dire need of some chill time after all the hardcore chilling we'd done thus far. In actual fact it was rather nice to just sit by a pool, slugging back some brewskies, eating some ceviche after the mad paced jungle adventuring we'd done last week. So nice in fact that we forgot about how sun gives you sunburn - me after 5 minutes of un-sunscreened exposure, Darren after 15 minutes. I had managed to apply my SPF 50 to most of my body but if you're in a bikini and you´re ghostly white like me, any missed speck will show up shocking red later on. I had sustained a burn all down my left arm  from earlier the first morning when we climbed the sand dune above our hotel rather too keenly. Darren was not immune either and his usual tactic of safe guarding his tattoos and nothing else whilst sunbathing failed when later that evening a red hot burn surfaced all over his thighs and most of his chest - even his thick fuzz didn't protect him.Whatevs, starter burn right?
Ready to rumble
The second afternoon we partook in a dune buggy and sand boarding tour. One and half hours of ripping up and down the dunes. Amazing. Every now and then our driver, with the stealth of a sadist would pull right up to the precipice of a dune cliff, inch his body out to look down, then turn off the buggy to motion that it was sand boarding time.
As above
The first hill was pretty tame and Darren gave a gallant try of boarding down. It was, how can I put it, stoppy and starty, not very smooth. I've never snowboarded in my life so I threw myself with gusto down the slope on the board on my tummy. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuun! More ripping round, more sand boarding. Each slope got progressively steeper. By the last two slopes all 6 of us were boarding down on our tummies and letting out crazy "ithinki'mgonnaeatshit" yelps. 

At the end of the tour we were driven to watch the sunset. It was glorious. As you can see from the photos below it is a beautiful eerie landscape. I felt like a character out of Dune.

Where is Kyle McLachlan?

 On our last day in Huacachina we took a wine tour. The area has primo grape growing condtions for wine as we all know it and Pisco, Peru´s national booze. The first winery we hit up was a typical industrial winery. We tasted the so-so wines and moved on. The second windery was a traditional Peruvian winery. We were given a tour around all the traditional methods of making Pisco from the grape stomping basin to the ingenious old school distillery. Pisco is always 44% alcohol so yeah, pretty stiff. It reminds me of Korean soju but not as raunchy. The tasting was a jovial affair, I can't think why, and at the end we all bought a bottle of something. The guy that was taxi-ing us around was, by this time, seriously cracking us up. From his honking at pretty girls to blaring Bryan Adams (we all sang along and I´m not even kidding, Darren was all "Who is this?"). The third winery was the most traditional and our taxi driver himself gave us the tour which consisted of walking around the cellar (bizzarely adorned with treasures and artifacts from ancient Peruvian cultures including Nazcan skulls, 1,400 year old linens, and stuffed baby seals. Shit was crazy) and imbibing straight from the pottery gourds. Many shots later I was buying a little bottle of god know's what reddish Peruvian sweet wine ("Peruvians like their wine sweet"). Might crack into it tonight as we've returned to a Lima that has shut down all it's avenues of selling alcohol for 4 days because there is a municipal election. We're off to Costa Rica tommorrow so it's adios to Peru. Here are our final reflections:
1. Peruvians are really fricking nice. There's none of that machismo or aggressiveness you get in, for example, Mexico (don't be mad, love you Mexico!). Peru has a gentleness about it that I just wasn't expecting. A girl I briefly worked with over the summer said the total opposite was true. I had a hunch she was going to be wrong. Travelling is largely what YOU make of it!
2. By far our favourite part was trekking the Inca trail. It was just monumental.
3. Peruvian drivers should be Grand Prix drivers. They'd wipe the floor with everyone else. Organised chaos at it's finest.
4. One day we want to come back to visit the Amazon in the wet season with parrots and caiman abounding! Bonus - sunshine in Lima, that'd be nice.