Monday, July 16, 2007

Day 7: Driving to Monteverde

What can I say about our drive to the lovely town of Monteverde? Let's start off with SLOW.  It took FOREVER to get there. We drove on our favorite dirt road, the ones with all those bumps and no pavement. The car was rattling more than a cheap motel vibrating bed.

When we got to the Ferry, we ended up waiting in a line of cars for about 40 minutes. The locals were getting restless, with people trying to cut in front of others. After a little jockeying, we were able to secure our place in line.

The ferry ride back was a pretty one. It was bright and sunny. Once we docked and got our car back on the road, we decided that we'd drive non-stop until we got to our hotel. That was probably a bad idea in hindsight. It took us 5 hours to get to Monteverde. Not because it was far – which it was, but not that bad. The roads up to the mountain town weren't paved. As if the roads to Montezuma weren't bad enough, the road to Monteverde an exercise in offroading. 

We made it to our hotel at about 4:30PM. We quickly checked in, dropped off our bags, and made our way to the hotel restaurant. We sat down, ordered a couple of beers and burgers. It's strange that so many places serve American cuisine. At that exact moment, we didn't really mind it. We just needed ... something.

As we started to make our way back to our rooms, we saw something that we had never seen before... You know how moths are attracted to light, right? Well, that's true in Costa Rica too, except the moths there are the size of birds. I had never seen anything quite like it. It was humungous. Almost frightening in fact.

When we finally got back to our room, the only thing we wanted to do was lay in bed and watch TV, and so we did.


Day 6: LOST

After breakfast, Alin and I decided that we'd explore the resort a little. We found our way to the beach and stumbled across some hammocks. Since we had never shared one before, we decided that it would be appropriate to try.

After some careful maneuvering, we managed to both get into one without hurting anyone and relaxed. Alin napped while I read my book until my arms could no longer stay above my head. 

Having sufficiently sun bathed, Alin and I decided to make it back to our room for a short nap before we made our way to the infamous Montezuma waterfalls.

When we finally decided to make our way to the waterfalls, we had no idea what kind of an adventure awaited us. The next 5 hours were some of the most memorable of our lives, but not in a good way.

There are plenty of signs on how to get to the waterfalls. You just follow the road through town, then follow a small stream to a giant open pool of water. This was the third of a series of three cascading waterfalls. This third pool was filled by a  giant waterfall which starts at about 50 feet above us. 

We could have just swam there and relaxed, but we decided to make our way up to the second and first pools. Getting up to the other pools is no easy feat. There were no steps or a guided path. Just trampled vegetation and a smoothed path created by the dozens of visitors who frequent these waterfalls every day. 

Getting up to the top required some careful and deliberate scaling up a side of a hillside, in flip flops no less. After about 30 minutes of hiking and climbing, we finally arrived at the first pool.

The first pool, the smallest of the three, was probably about 15o feet above where we originally started. At this pool, there were other tourists and locals sunbathing, a swing rope where visitors could jump into the water from, and a few flat areas to sit and relax.

The first thing I wanted to do after that hike was to cool off. As soon as I got settled, I took off my shirt, without removing my sun glasses first, and watched as my sun glasses sank to the bottom of the first pool. I tried diving below to find them, but I could never quite reach the bottom. Alin was pretty upset with me for losing those shades. She had recently bought the pair for me and I haven't exactly been very responsible with the other sunglasses I owned. 

We hung out at that first pool for some time before deciding to check out the second waterfall and pool. After gently climbing down, I convinced Alin that we needed to jump down into the pool. The point I chose to jump from was probably about 20-30 feet above the pool. 

After a few minutes of pondering whether or not this was really a good idea, I decided to take the plunge. That last step, when you know there's no turning back was one of the most frightening moments of my life. It was high enough that I was able to curse a few words before hitting the water. Even though I had closed my eyes, the water rushing over my body hit me with such force that the water literally forced itself through my eye lids.

When I finally surfaced, I was thrilled. Alin was cheering for me and I felt great. The focus quickly turned to Alin. It was now her turn to make the leap of faith. This was an ordeal all onto it's own. Alin must have stood there, debating her fate for what felt like 20 minutes, but in actuality was no more than 5. 

Her competitive streak finally took over and she forced herself to jump in. She too was thrilled. It's quite nerve racking when you're up there, looking down, but once you do it – it ain't no thing. 

After some more time swimming, laughing, and playing – we decided it was time to go back. We spoke to some locals about alternate ways of getting back. They told us if we climbed back up to the trail and continued on, that we would arrive at a road which we could follow back to town.

We decided to take them up on their advice and made our way back up to the trail. From there, we continued on, looking for our road. We hiked along that trail, parallel to the river for some time – until finally we arrived at a fence.  We couldn't go left, so we decided to follow the fence to the right.

After a few minutes of hiking, the trail became thinner and thinner until it disappeared. We realized we were going the wrong direction so we thought it best to head back to the trail. Along the way, I stupidly stumbled onto a wasps nest while trying avoid stepping in the mud. Sure enough, the wasps weren't really very happy to see us and made their anger crystal clear. Alin made a run for it, but I was stung several times. 

I was furious, in pain, and we were lost. We followed the trail back for some time, and noticed a fork in the trail. We decided to follow it down to the river. We figured, if there was a road, it would be to the left of the river, so we decided to follow the river north. 

We hiked for some time. The clouds began rolling in, the weather was getting colder, and the sky was getting darker. I figured, after some time, that the road wasn't in this direction so I turned around so we could follow the river back to the waterfalls. 

After about 30 minutes of hiking, Alin started to break down. She was scared. She thought we were going to be lost out here and no one was going to ever find us. I wasn't quite as worried as she was, but that didn't matter. Alin started to cry, very worried that we were going to have to spend the night outside. I tried to comfort her and reassure her that everything would be fine.

After she collected herself some, we continued on down the river. We finally arrived at the first pool. There were still some locals there. We were thrilled to see other people. A huge sense of relief came over the both of us as we realized we had arrived back at a familiar place.

At this point, we decided, no risks, no more adventures. Let's just get home. We hiked back down the way we originally came. It was more dangerous, but it was known to get us where we needed to be.

When we finally got back to our hotel, it was sunset. The sky was getting darker by the minute and we couldn't have arrived a minute too late.

We decided that the best thing we could do is take a nice hot shower, relax, and try and let go of a rather emotionally challenging day.


Saturday, July 14, 2007

Day 5: The beach we never found...

After making it through the night without being eaten alive, we made our way back to the resort restaurant for a little breakfast. 

Breakfast was delicious, but that's not what was really worth talking about. We quickly became acquainted with a parrot that hung out in the resort. Quite the clever scavenger, it would hang out and wait till people left the table before swooping in and stealing what was left on their plate. It would have all been well and good if it wasn't for the fact that it kept eat scrambled eggs. There's just something really wrong about that.

After breakfast, we decided to go on a hike. We walked out to the beach and headed south. We walked and talked for hours. One of the locals mentioned that there's a beautiful stretch of beach with white sands, which we were motivated to find. 

Along the way, we came across the balanced rock sculptures, cute little crabs, beaches and rocky shores. After having walked for 2 hours, we decided it was time to turn back. The rain clouds were coming in and we became concerned about getting struck by lightning. We never made it to the beach in our minds eye, but there were certainly lots of beach to see.

Once we got back to the Resort, we decided that the safest bet was to hit the pool. Alin and I had a great time at the pool. I took a bunch of pictures of her posing along the artificial water fall. She's such a ham. 

After a nice dip, we stopped for lunch at about 3:30. We went to this restaurant in town called Cocolores. It was a cute little place in the heart of town that poured out onto the beach.

The food was delicious but the scenery was better. After lunch, we decided to check out what local activities we might do. We walked from agent to agent, finding out what they had available and when. In the end, we decided to skip it and save our money.

For dinner we dined at the resort, but on this evening we made friends with another couple, J.D. and Elisha. They were good people. We ended up staying up quite late just talking the night away. Alin and I both enjoyed it.  Sometime after midnight, we stumbled back to our room and went to bed.

Day 4: Journey to Montezuma

On day 4, we bid farewell to Manuel Antonio and Quepos. We hardly knew ya. Today, we headed to our next destination, Montezuma. The drive to Montezuma is not a direct shot by any means. It requires a 2 hour drive to the industrial port city of Puntarenas, from there a 1 and a half hour ferry to Paquera or Playa Najarango, followed by a 1-2 hour drive to Montezuma.

This morning, we drove to Puntarenas shortly after breakfast. About 20 minutes outside of Quepos, one of the several 1 lane bridges crossing the many rivers in the area was damaged. It caused a backup of cars for at least a mile in both directions. Alin and I sat, sweltering in the heat as we're biding our time, hoping to make our ferry to Montezuma.

After about an hour wait, the bridge was finally reopened and, of course, the cars from the other side of the bridge began making their slow crawl across the bridge. It took another ten minutes before we could continue our drive to Puntarenas.

About halfway through the drive, we were convinced that getting to Puntarenas on time for our ferry was going to be impossible. We stopped off at a gas station near Jaco and debated our next steps while we filled up. As we hit the road again, I glanced at my reciept and found that the time stamp was a full hour behind what our GPS was stating. Curiously, I decided to check my iPod and it also had the same time as the reciept. To our relief, we realized that the GPS had the wrong timezone set and we had magically regained an hour!

About an hour later, we arrived in Puntarenas, our stay here wasn't short enough. The town is a bit like the Tenderloin in San Francisco. You would probably never want to be walking around there at night alone, out of fear of being stabbed, mugged, or beaten.

When we finally got to the port, I hopped out of the car and began to orient myself. We were under a time crunch, considering we had about 20 minutes before the Ferry was due to leave. A young local who spoke English fairly well approached me and asked me where I was going. I foolishly told him I was looking for the Ferry to Montezuma.

He immediately asked me to follow him, which I did. He took me to the ticket office and put me in line. He then said, this line looks long, I'm not sure you're going to make it. If you want, I can get you to the front of the line to talk to the lady. I of course, said yes. Moments later, we were standing at the door immediately to the right of the booth.

A little old lady wearing a badge came out, he asked me to give her $20 US, which I did. Moments later, the lady came back with my ferry pass and my change. He then told me that he works and tips and the she should be tipped for helping me out. I gave her all the loose change, which was a little less than $2 US. He than escorted me back to my car and reiterated he worked on tips. I handed him $5 US and thanked him.

Moments later, we were driving onto the ferry and Alin and I were on our way. We bought the tickets to the Playa Narjango ferry because it left a full hour before the Paquera ferry and the distance only varied by a few KM, or so we were told.

What our little guide forgot to mention was that the road to Montezuma from our port was completely unpaved and poorly maintained. The poor conditions required us travel under 20 KMPH, which made our drive to Montezuma much more intense than we were prepared for.

After a drive that felt like forever, we finally pulled into Montezuma. It's a small town, with an open space in the middle, and small restaurants and Internet cafés all around. 

We wanted to immediately check into our room at the Ylang Ylang resort. By the time we checked in and got our keys, it was nightfall. Alin and I were kindly escorted to our room, which was really just a plastered igloo by the beach. 

What they forgot to mention when we researched the room we picked is that there are no real doors or windows on the dome. On one hand, it's quite pleasant because you get a nice warm breeze floating by throughout the night. On the other hand, you're not alone in your room - you have the company of bugs, geckos, and frogs and god knows what else.

Fortunately there was a net over the bed, which meant Alin didn't have a complete melt down. 

After cleaning up, debugging our bed, and a change of clothes, we made our way over to the resort's restaurant. In the distance, you could see a thunderstorm rolling in. By this time it was night. Periodically, the night's sky was lit up with flashes of lightning. We even caught a few of them with our digital camera.

After dinner, we went back to our room and debugged our bed – again. Alin was delirious with the thought of sleeping in a bed with bugs crawling all over her. She couldn't stand it. I was partly amused and party sad for her. She was having a rough time in Montezuma so far.

Day 3: Rafting and Hiking in Manuel Antonio

Today, we had the most amazing time on our rafting trip with Iguana Tours. This rafting trip started out like previous rafting trips, they come to your hotel early in the morning to pick you up, then drive you out into the middle of nowhere, throw some boats in the water and you´re on your way.

Except, today was more fun than previous rafting trips because it was in one word, exciting. Today´s rapids were a little larger and faster moving than normal due to all the rain in the area. As a result, two of our fellow rafters were thrown from the boat within the first two minutes.

Within the first ten minutes, another boat within our party, filled with a Dutch family capsized, throwing everyone including the guide overboard. Within seconds the guide had reoriented his boat and was back aboard. It was amazing to watch him pull each passenger back aboard.

Minutes later, another raft from our party managed to throw two more rafters overboard, we were fortunate enough to be near her and I was the hero who pulled one of the two girls out onto our boat.

Alin and I were having a blast with all this mayhem. Our guides spent a great deal of time in the beginning telling us what to do in various scenarios and tried to temper fears by explaining that going overboard was unlikely. Apparently the Gods didn't agree on this day.

By the end of our trip, another boat had been glued to a giant boulder from the heavy current with it's remaining passengers hanging on to dear life from the very same rock. There were likely countless others who went swimming with the fish further upstream that we weren't a party to.

Fortunately, Alin and I survived the rafting excursion with a head full of exciting memories and only some minor scrapes and bruises. It was a great trip.

After the trip, we had a second tour lined up which left shortly after. Unfortunately, it appeared that no one told our bus and our guides were halfway back to our hotel before we asked them how we'd get to our second tour.

Fortunately, our tour bus was near behind us and was able to pick us up from the side of the road without delay. This second tour, a hike through Manuel Antonio's national reserve was a touch less heart pounding but gifted us with some amazing photographs.

Our guide, Micheal, brought a small telescope for spying on birds, monkeys and other critters hiding in the trees above. This telescope, when coupled with our digital camera led to some of the best pictures Alin and I have ever been able to take. I'm talking National Geographic material here.

The hike took us through the mangrove forests and passed three gorgeous, pristine beaches. When we arrived at the last beach, our guide gave us all 10 minutes for ciesta. I decided to head near the shore and got pounded by a wave when I wasn't paying attention. The rest of my ciesta was spent washing the sand and beach water from my shorts so I didn't end up at home with chaffed legs.

In the reserve, we were able to catch photos and glimpses of lizards, howler and white-faced monkeys, birds, and cousins of the raccoon. The monkeys were of course the most interesting due to their intelligence and courage in interacting with the human visitors.

After our two hour tour of the reserve, we ended up back in Manuel Antonio for some quick refreshments. Shortly after, the tour dropped us off at home and Alin and I decided that it was time for dinner.

We changed into some more comfortable clothes and hopped in the car to head back to Manuel Antonio. On our way, we noticed that the restaurant we tried to visit the day before, Agua Azul, was now open. So naturally, we decided that this is the best place we could have our dinner.

Alin and I, both starving from our hike, decided that it'd be best if we both ordered what they called the "Big Ass Burger." When it finally arrived, we indeed were blessed with one such burger.

I barely finished it and poor Alin made it through about half of the thing. With food in our bellies and a tired body, we made our way home. That wraps up another night.



Day 2: The day we did absolutely nothing.

Boy, was it a great day 2. Alin and I woke up at noon on day 2 in our soft and warm bed. We had mosquito netting over our bed which made it feel like the tents you made as a kid on your parents bed. 

We managed to crawl out of bed and started our day. First order of business was to check out this "private beach" that our hotel claimed they had. It was down the drive way and roughly 500 steps down the hill side to a small cove. The shoreline was rocky with patches of smooth sand. Locals appeared to be enjoying a dip in the ocean, their kids playing and splashing as we arrived.

Alin and I quickly secured our belongings to a nearby tree and hopped in for a dip. We swam around for probably 30 minutes, playing and taking pictures all the way. After the thunder and lightning started in the distance, we thought it best to return to higher ground.

About this time, we decided to head down to Quepos and take care of a few loose ends. We made our way to the local bank to exchange some money, then walked over to Iguana Tours to make a reservation for rafting and a hike on the next day. We met up with Jorge, my guide from a previous trip, unfortunately he didn't remember who I was :/ I guess I can't blame him, he sees thousands of faces a year in that business. Nevertheless, he was incredibly nice to both Alin and I and when he found out that we were newlyweds, he felt compelled to give us a gift. Alin is now the proud owner of a size M Iguana Tours "Specialist" employee T-shirt, awesome.

Jorge also recommended a nearby eatery called Agua Azul for lunch, on our drive back to our hotel we stopped in but it was closed so instead, Alin and I whipped our Lonely Planet and found another place called "El Mono Loco" in Manuel Antonio a few miles down the road.

The food at El Mono Loco was delicious and the wait staff very friendly. After we squared away the bill, they even offered a parking spot for today and tomorrow free of charge, which we really appreciated. 

After lunch, Alin and I toured the local vendors and then made our way out onto the beach. The beaches in Manuel Antonio are quite beautiful. The sand is soft and smooth, the shoreline long, and the waves large and playful. It was low tide at the time and Alin and I just lazily walked along the shore, dipping our feet in the water as we passed the time. Very relaxing.

After our little excursion, we decided to head back to the hotel to catch some pictures of the sunset. We went to a viewpoint that we stumbled across and took a dozen photos, with nothing looking very striking. Sweating from the heat, we decided to make our way out to the pool. We were extremely lucky to see the last moments of an even more amazing sunset. We decided to jump in the infinity pool and take some silhouette shots of us against the sun. The photos came out amazing.

After some play time in the pool, we hopped out and grabbed a small bite to eat at the poolside restaurant. Within an hour we had finished our appetizer dinner and decided to retire for the night. It was a wonderful day of just lounging around. I wish I could do this every day.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Alive and Well in Costa Rica

That's right. We made it. We got hitched on Friday in the Fresno heat. We were grateful to be in such wonderful company. To see our friends & family surround us, and share one of our most important moments with us.  It was very heartwarming.

In hindsight, both Alin and I wish it had all lasted longer. It all seemed to happen so fast. We both remember the ceremony, with every detail committed to memory. However, once the ceremony was over, it seemed that the reception zoomed by with us hardly having time to relish in it. Nevertheless, it was a wonderful night and we were both happy with the results.

On Monday night, Alin and I made our way to the airport after a calm day of preparing for our trip, running last minute errands, and the like. Our flight left from San Francisco at 10:40PM to fly all the way to Charlotte, North Carolina. From there, we had a connecting flight to San José, Costa Rica with a four hour layover. It seemed that the hours moved at a snails pace. Alin and I had a chance to eat a small breakfast and even nap before the flight.

Our flight was long and not as comfortable as we would have both liked. We decided to use miles to fly on "first class" which ended up being more like business class on US Airways. Alin tries to console me on the fact that the plane was of a smaller type and so the accommodations aren't as great. I'm still annoyed that the seats didn't recline while providing foot rests. I'll get over it, some day. :)

When we landed in Costa Rica, the weather that we'd been reading so much about lived up to expectations. By this, I don't mean beautiful sunny weather, I mean lightning that blinds and thunder that reverberates through your body. We were both kind of caught off guard by the first strike. Clueless on how to get to our rental car, we waited outside the airport for a shuttle, waiting nearly 30 minutes and fumbling through a little Spanish to figure out what to do next.

Once our shuttle showed up, this couple, seemingly a son and her mom, showed up late to the shuttle, after it was filled with other eager passengers. The mother made a huge fit and kept our shuttle waiting while the poor staff tried to figure out how to please her. She held up the shuttle until a SECOND shuttle could arrive from the rental place to take her. Of course, it pulled in front of us and she was able to zoom to the rental place well before we all got there. It was frustrating to have to stand behind her in line after all that. I really wanted to give her a piece of something, mind, foot in her ass, anything.

Alin and I decided that, given the time of day, by this time about 4:30, it would be safest to get a GPS with our rental. What a life saver. With it there to guide us, we were able to get to our first destination, Manuel Antonio within 4 hours. It was nightfall by the time we arrived at the hotel and while I vaguely remembered Quepos, we would have certainly been lost without it.

Our hotel, called Makanda by the Sea, was a small private resort consisting of 10 or so cabinas, featuring their own kitchens, bathroom and walk in shower. Ours had an amazing view of the ocean from our huge folding glass French doors. It lacked privacy but made up for it in seclusion.

Poor Alin was caught a little off guard by the whole bug situation in Costa Rica. If you haven't been, you'll learn that much of Costa Rica is jungle, and with jungles come BIG bugs. Even the ants are like 3x the size of regular ants. She's been a great sport so far and making the best of things. 

With that, that's the end of day 1.