Day 0 -
Go to work. Leave work early, at 3:00pm. Go home and actually pack everything that was laid out. Leave for the airport around 8pm, for an 11:30pm flight. (Please note that the photographs are presented in chronological order in the galleries, and this text, while mostly chronological, has a tendency to skip around a little bit during the course of each day. The picture captions tell a story too, and for the full experience, you should read this page then go through the photos one by one. But I doubt anyone would do that, except my mom. Hi mom!)
Day 1 -
Fly into Dallas, wait four hours for next flight. Spent much of that sleeping on the terminal floor near the gate behind some chairs. Ended up buying "Personal Stuff" earplugs to $6.39. They barely even work, but they helped me sleep. Woke up around 8:40, found out that our flight had changed gates. Relocated without a problem and boarded plane. The second flight into Costa Rica was nice, they had a movie and a hot lunch. Unfortunately during lunch they caught me showing Sarah our location on the GPS, and made me turn it off. We were just about smack-dab in the middle of the gulf of Mexico. So I turned it off, but I turned it back on every now and then. We landed in San Jose at 1:12 or so. Immigration had long lines, but we were able to get into the shortest one, marked handicapped. Everyone waiting for that line was either older or flight crew. There were a bunch of blue-shirted churchy people, probably coming to do some good here somewhere. I found it ironic that there were Christian missionaries in a country that's more than 90% Catholic. Anyway, the immigration lady didn't seem happy to hear we didn't have a place to stay, but we told her we were going to La Fortuna and she put that down on the forms. Then we got our luggage, and pushed it on a cart, had it x-rayed, and turned in our customs form. That was customs. Our car rental place was waiting for us with Sarah's name on a card, and they drove us away really quickly. Got the car and on the road by 2:30, and got to La Fortuna at 5:30. Costa Rican drivers are no different than Polish. Had some trouble finding a hotel -- went to 5 places or so, and when we went back they were all full. Finally found one, for $40/night. It has a fan but no hot water or a/c. Its a standalone cabina that is huge with a king size bed and is very nicely decorated and clean. There are five in a row here, and three are still being built. Had an expensive dinner, totaling around $20 US, in Luigi's casino and hotel, in a pizza place. Huge calzones, quite good. Had some water, and it didn't kill us. Exchanged $100 into colones at the hotel at a rate of 434 colones to a dollar.
Day 2 -
Free breakfast in the hotel, then asked for horseback rides to La Cataratas waterfall, and the hotel arranged to have someone meet us at the hotel at 1:30, $25/person. We woke up around 7, but didn't make it to breakfast until 9:30, so after booking the horses we still had some time to kill. Drove into La Fortuna, then out to the entrance to Arenal National Park on a gravel road. Saw some real Tican road construction going on. Went horse-riding up to the falls, which took about 2 hours to get there. We saw the falls from an overlook since it was too steep to go down. Got back to the hotel at 5, hopped in the pool, hopped out, and it started to POUR. The rain lasted about 50 minutes, then we went to dinner in the Soda Ria. There I discovered the sandia drink (watermelon), and the tortes con carne, a delightful burger type thing. Had some fried chicken, fries, another sandia, another drink, empanadas, and something con queso. and a delicious cookie -- bread thing stuffed with sweet jam, sort of like a fig Newton. Total came to 3450 colones. That's like $8. After dinner we went to the Baldi hot springs. Tabacon is just too expensive, at $29/person. We paid 14 each. That was around 7:30, and we ended up going home just before 9. You can only soak so long. Refilled our gas tank at the Shell station in La Fortuna, drove to see if we could see lava flows on Volcan Arenal (negative), and bought some Fanta in a soda that was still open. On the way back to the hotel we saw another soda that had tons of people in it. We'll have to find out how late they're open some day. Night falls very promptly at 6pm here, with almost no twilight. Getting up at 7am tomorrow, getting breakfast at the hotel and dipping in the pool, and going to Monteverde.
Day 3 -
Got up and had breakfast in our hotel in La Fortuna. Headed out around 9 to Monteverde. We arrived at around 2:30pm, taking a little bit longer than we had expected. We stopped for a 50 minute lunch in Soda La Catedral in (somecity) along the way. The road was alright until a tiny city where it turned into a really ugly paved road. We almost couldn't decide if it was paved or not. Apparently cartographers had the same problem -- one of our maps said it was paved, the other said it wasn't. Of course, the "pavement" lasted only a short while, giving way to a gravel-type road, with embedded rocks. Fewer potholes, but a rougher, louder, and slower drive. Driving around Laguna Arenal we saw a real estate agency. I went in to check on prices ($6/m^2 along the road -- 50-75k for 3/4-1 acre; $50,000 for 70 acres further away from the main road) and I met an American from Maine. Upon arriving in Santa Elena we found a hotel for $25, including "breffast" as the non-English speaking tican running the place called it. The room was smaller than in La Fortuna, and part of a more traditional hotel type place. It had "private" parking, meaning in back, and the guy directed us to a specific spot. When we left and came back a short time later, he directed us to a different one, as he had placed someone else in our old spot. Then when I tried to leave again, he took down some laundry so I could have room to turn around and directed me in a hopeless effort until I just ignored him and backed out. He followed me, and seemed amazed that either an American could back up and not hit anything, or that it was even possible to back out at all. We had dinner in a soda across from the soccer field in Santa Elena. It had prices in dollars and was not as cheap as we had hoped, but it had a very cute puppy who tore up a napkin. Costa Rica has lots of dogs and cats ("ocelots") just running around. After dinner we asked at a tour info center for an easy night tour, and were pointed to the Eco Farm's 5:30-7:30 tour. We ended up with our own private guide and saw all sorts of awesome animals. We saw walking sticks, leaf insects, inchworms, crickets, and best of all, two sloths. One was running around in fairly clear view and eating and scratching and we watched it for a while. Our guide, Daniello, was awesome. He even knew words in English that we didn't.
Day 4 -
Woke up at 6am to go to a tour of the actual Monteverde Cloud Forest. We read last night that we were supposed to book the tour one day in advance, but we hadn't. We got breffast at the hotel, and it had worms in the melon and the watermelon, and we ended up being displeased with the hotel in the end. We had them watch our bags while we went to the Monteverde tour. Our guide was Rafael, and he did a fine job, but it just didn't compare to Daniello's tour, whom we met on the trail today. He was wearing a different uniform than our guide, so we think he had a private booking. Rafael kept running around with a huge telescope and setting it up to view birds, and they kept moving before all 8 of us got to see. There was chaos with other groups doing the same thing in the same area at first, since we were all trying to see the quetzals, which had a box nest near the trail. We later saw some other birds and millipedes capable of squirting cyanide up to 1 foot, but it wasn't as great as the night tour. Too many groups in the same general area, and too many people in a group, not to mention we had a young kid not interested in standing around listening to a lecture at all. After the tour, we switched hotels to a new one, for $20/night including breakfast, and went to check out the zip trek, which are zip lines through the canopy. Rafael had said that he'd once worked as a guide for them and a guy with crutches and a cast did the tour, and that there weren't any steps, which is the important part. But once we got there we realized the harness cut across the wrong places, and decided not to risk it. Back into town, we ate lunch and tried to go to the cheese factory tour. We got there at 2:15 and they only had tours at 9am and 2pm. We tried to go to the coffee factory tour, but ended up in their gift shop and were basically summarily ignored for 15 minutes. We didn't know that was the place for sure, so we left, but later found out on the map that it was. Next stop was the orchid garden, with all 400 of Monteverde's orchid species on display, and 90 were blooming, including the world's smallest flower. After the orchids, we went to find an ATM, and discovered only Sarah's bank would spit out money in colones. Stupid Wells Fargo, you suck. We almost went on the suspended tram "aerial adventure" but chose not to at $15/person. It was raining anyway and there wouldn't have been a guide. Instead we went to the hotel for a little bit. When we came out, they had dumped new gravel to pave the road in the morning. The piles were huge, and we were stuck. I insisted, and two Ticos and I ended up leveling it enough for the 4x4 to drive out. We went to the Frog Pond, a recommendation we overhead Rafael give some other people on our tour (where we bumped into the mom and her ADHD kid from the morning). Its basically a zoo devoted exclusively to frogs, and "pond" is just part of the name. Afterwards we had dinner at D'Pepe's (truly excellent pizza, on the level of Paggliacci's) and called it a day.
Day 5 -
Woke up around 7:00am; had breakfast and talked to Edward, who told us we should go to the Nicoya peninsula, and stay in Montezuma and eat in Malpais. He also told us all sorts of cool stuff, like that he was from Philadelphia, and moved here 11 years ago when his niece was a scuba diving instructor in the Cayman Islands. He was living there for 10 years when his niece took a vacation to Costa Rica and told him he should move there. He was very proud of not having spent a day in the US in the past 21 years, and told us he heard we had some sort of problems with a Bush back there. He also showed us a golden beetle, and explained to us why a meowing cat had woken us up (along with about a thousand people all happy and cheery at breakfast -- our room was close to the kitchen). Apparently one of his employees had seen a mouse in the lobby yesterday, and they borrowed a cat (a tiny white one that wanted nothing more than to go home) from the supermarket, and he was going to stay a prisoner until he caught a mouse. The cat looked very unhappy, but ironically the main entrance was open the whole time. He wanted to get out the back way, which was closer to town and to the supermarket. On the way out of town, we stopped by Monday's hotel to pick up the pillow I forgot. They had washed its cover, which sort of made me feel bad about forgetting to leave a tip, but not really. (We left a huge, by our standards, tip for Edward's maid -- 500 colones). On the unpaved road out of town, we passed a Tico driver who honked at us. When we stopped at an intersection to figure out which way to go, he caught up to us, and it turned out to be the inn keeper from Monday night. He pointed us in the right direction, and we looked at the map for a little while longer, and then followed him, catching up and passing in no time. It was exhilarating -- beating the Ticos at their own roads. We drove to Puntarenas in about 3 hours, and found the ferry terminal easily -- Edward had advised us that Spanish for Ferry was Ferry. Just as we pulled up a bunch of men were gesturing for me to drive onto the ferry. I rolled down my window, and they simply said "Paquera" several times. I was confused, and said "Puntarenas?". They said yes, so we got on. The ferry set sail before I could even turn off the car's engine. Only later did we realize that Paquera was the town that we wanted to ferry to, and that Puntarenas actually has two ferries leaving from it (the other would have been alright, dropping us off a bit further north than Paquera. I managed to get a sunburn sitting in the shade on the ferry, but was rewarded with seeing a sea turtle swimming, a lot of floating coconuts, and schools of fish jumping in a straight line for some weird reason. Once in Paquera, we took some time to find a bank, as we were running low on cash, and then headed for Montezuma, which took about another hour. We got in around 2:30pm. Once in Montezuma, which is really a very small town, we had lunch and looked at a whole bunch of hotels. We found beachfront hotels for as little as 3000 colones ($6.91!), but we ultimately settled for the Hotel Motezuma Pacific, which ended up being on the lower side of the cost, didn't include breakfast, but came with air conditioning, which we really wanted since this was going to be the hottest place we visited (being the lowest in elevation, at sea level). After we dropped the bags off in the room, we drove over to Malpais, which is where Edward said we should eat. We tried to go the short (15 minute) route through Cabuya, but a farmer waved us over and told us there was no way we would make it, even with four wheel drive, due to the bad road and river crossing. So we went back and went through Cobano, which took an hour. We got to Malpais at sunset and took a bunch of gorgeous pictures, but we didn't find the great eating that Edward had promised. Another 50 minute bumpy ride back to Montezuma, and we got food in the El Sano Banano, where they were showing a DVD which started at 7:30 (it was 8 by the time we got there). After dinner a guy we had booked a kayak/snorkeling trip for the morning came up to us and asked if we could switch to 1pm instead, claiming the tides would be better at that time. Sounded fishy, but we didn't really care. After that, when I hopped into bed I went through the mattress and hit something hard. Sarah said it was just like foam on concrete, and I thought she had the right analogy, but she pointed out that our beds were really just about 6 inches of foam on concrete. However, they were the most comfortable beds we'd slept in yet. Oh, and our room had a bunch of fire ants running around inside, so after testing some deet on one (very successful), we sprayed a layer of deet around the bed, and a layer of Skin so Soft just above it.
Day 6 -
Woke up around 8 with no new bug bites, and went into town on foot to find breakfast. Apparently most things around here start late, as we had trouble finding anything that was open. We settled on having breakfast at the same place we ate dinner before. It was hot already, but we sat in the shade with ceiling fans and I enjoyed my banana-nutella pancakes. Walking back to the hotel we got so hot we just laid back down in bed and nodded off until 12:35 or so. We hurried over to the tour office to meet the shuttle at 12:45, but the driver was late. He finally picked us up at 1:15, but then we had to drive out and pick up some people from the Montezuma canopy tour and drive them back to town first, then we picked up some of the driver's friends and gave them rides to various places (at least they were along our way, though the driver was hitting on all the women, so obviously that we could tell not speaking Spanish) and finally got dropped off at 1:40 for our 1pm kayaking. I was rather displeased by this point, but we set off right away and made it to Isla Cabuya in about 35 minutes, seeing a sea turtle along the way. Our guides (two 20-somethings from the 3000 colones/night oceanfront hotel) took us around the cemetery on the island (which can, apparently, be reached on foot during low tide, though I refuse to believe that). Then we put on the snorkeling gear at swam around the rocks. The water wasn't impressively clear to me, but Sarah said that it was clearer than Florida, except that where she snorkeled in Florida, the water was shallower. Here, the depth ranged from 3 feet to maybe 12 or 15. We snorkeled for maybe an hour or so, far too short, then had a fruit snack on shore. We fed the extra cantaloupe to the iguanas, which were smart enough to not eat the rinds, but wait until we threw the good stuff. They came within a foot of me, and I got some really good pictures. We then paddled back to shore, and tried to go some kayak surfing (we were promised a half hour of it, but only got two tries), and failed to do anything that impressive. We waited 10 minutes for our driver once we got back. Afterwards we had dinner at Coco-Lores, which had awesome ambiance and great food. It was good enough that we took the leftovers with us. Then we went for a walk on the beach at night.
Day 7 -
We woke up intending to snorkel again since it had been so much fun the day before, but we didn't want to pay $25 each to do it again, so instead we went back to one of the hotels we found on Wednesday that rented snorkel gear for $5 for a half day. It also had a white sand beach across the street, and the owner told us it was better than Tortuaga island for snorkeling, but it was too close for all the big tour companies, so they took people to tortuaga instead. Unfortunately the surf was too strong for us to safely get in with only 3 legs, and we almost lost a face mask trying. We gave back the gear about an hour after we rented it, but still had to paid the half-day rent. The owner, a very nice lady, must have felt sorry for us, since she gave us an avocado from her tree as we were leaving. I wanted to check out the sea shells on Playa Santa Teresa, just north of Malpais, and to see the famed surfing area there. I wasn't impressed with either, but at least I did find some decent sea shells. We left at 1:15 trying to make the 2:30 ferry from Paquera back to Puntarenas. Sarah drove this portion so I could get as feel for being a passenger on the dirt roads. Let's just say Sarah makes a great passenger, and I, not so much. We made it to the ferry with minutes to spare, but the ticketing confusion was chaos. I ran inside for tickets, while someone told Sarah to drive on, and in the end she refused and waited for me to get back. We snuck up into the air conditioned first class cabin, not present on our ferry from Puntarenas. For all I know though, we might have purchased first class tickets by mistake. I bought a slushie (mixed with some powder in the middle, and liquid cheesecake tasting stuff on top) to get some spoons to eat Thursday's dinner leftovers on the ride over. From Puntarenas, we made our way back onto the main highway and made it decently close to San Jose before much slow traffic happened. Interestingly, we noticed in Costa Rica the police seem to always have their lights on (the flashing blue ones, not their headlights), but they wait in traffic jams with everyone else and no one pulls over for them. We stopped at one or two souvenir shops on the side of the road to take a break from the traffic, and finally made it to the airport around 8. We drove towards San Jose, but got lost and ended up wandering back towards Alajuela and Heredia. We drove back and forth and tried to find hotels, but couldn't for some reason. We didn't even know where we were in town because there are no street signs. Eventually we got a fix on our position since we were driving around using the GPS to keep track of where we were, and the pattern on the GPS started to look like the map. Thank god for the GPS. We passed a carwash and set a waypoint so we could find it again in the morning. We kept seeing hotel road signs with arrows, but we could never find a hotel. We finally followed four such signs to a Hotel Roma in Heredia, and asked for a room. They showed us their last one, the "master suite" with two bedrooms and two bathrooms and it was really nice, and only $60. We decided to splurge and go for it, but after they got my passport info and I'd filled out all the forms, they said it was $60 plus taxes, plus $10 if we were paying with a credit card. I said hell no, and they said if I paid with cash we could "perhaps avoid some of the taxes." I went back out to talk with Sarah, and we left, since no other hotel had ever quoted us a price without taxes included. Maybe this was an artifact of the big city, but the next hotel we found wanted $40 if we paid in cash, taxes and breakfast included, so we got that instead. It was a nice room, a bit smaller than our $40 cabina in La Fortuna, but it had hot (not just heated!) water. It also provided discounted parking, 1000 colones, at a nearby secured parking garage, which was a good thing since we were nervous being in the city that something might happen to the car our last day. It also turned out that we'd passed the hotel at least twice while looking for hotels. We must have been really tired.
Day 8 -
Breakfast at our hotel was the worst provided breakfast yet, though by no means bad. Just toast, fruit and tea. No scrambled eggs or anything like that. We went out and walked around, stopping into shops to buy souvenirs. One of the souvenirs I bought was a baby orchid plant in a little vial, which (as we found out later, after smuggling it) contained certificates for export. Later we found a post office (the post office?) and bought stamps to go with our post cards and newly acquired hallmark cards in Spanish. They print the stamps out on the coolest labels in Costa Rica with a scuba diver surrounded by tropical fish. We then drove to the car wash, where they convinced us we needed "special number 4", which was apparently the number of people who would work on our car simultaneously. Meanwhile I went across the street and bought a pineapple and a single banana for 260 colones (about 50 cents), since the pineapple is so good here. We then went back to the car rental place around 11:30, and I quickly cut up the pineapple so we could eat it in the airport. The rental agency (Avanti) was very impressed that we had the car washed, and dropped us off at the airport in it. We paid our departure tax ($26 each) and got on the plane, where they told us Dallas had thunderstorms which delayed everything, and that we'd need to sit on the runway for an hour. I got out my carry-on, and the brightest flight attendant in the world told me that I need to put it away, since it needs to be stowed for takeoff and landing. I simply asked if we weren't sitting for an hour, and clearly the loser, she simply snorted "Well, at the moment we are" and left. If anyone from American Airlines is reading this, you need to fire her. You also need to make a lot of other changes, so keep reading. After the 3.5 hour flight, on arriving in Dallas we also sat on the runway for an hour, since there was no international gate for us. Once off the plane, after 6.5 hours on board (with the fasten seat belts light on the ENTIRE time, mind you -- fire the pilot too), immigration did the natural thing and sent Sarah on her merry way but had to scan my passport solely because it said I was born in Poland. Like it would hurt to just scan everyone's passport? The guy's name was Berry, and I'd say fire him too, but I know that our supper-intelligent immigration department sets this stupid policy. After all, no terrorist would bother to lie on a faked passport and say he was born in Texas, would he? Next at customs they asked if we had any food. The correct answer is always no, and they sent us to "line 3", which was simply the exit. No x-ray or anything. Customs in the US is worse than in Costa Rica. There they at least x-ray everything, and there's no line. Here they don't x-ray anything, since we don't care if you're bringing in 50 AK-47's, but we want to make sure that by god you don't have any Cheetos. Then we got out of customs, which also takes us out of security, so we had to go through the metal detectors again. We made it to our gate about 10 minutes before the new delayed scheduled departure time of 10pm (rather than 8:30), but the gate was changed. Fortunately it was only one over, and the plane had just arrived anyway, so we finally made it to Seattle at 1am. Our bags, of course, didn't, and it was 2am before we got through the line to report them missing. We finally made it home at 3am, and passed out. I received both bags on Monday morning: the delivery company wanted to just leave them without my permission, and they did. Of course, Sarah's bag was supposed to go to her, and now as I write this on Tuesday, AA is frantically calling her and me and trying to find out if they accidentally delivered the bag to me. Of course they did, but I'm busy, and they'll have to wait to get in touch with me. I think at this point they've authorized $200 worth of stuff for Sarah, and if we can keep the bag from getting to her within 7 days, under the Warsaw convention they have to pay for the loss (I actually called a lawyer on this). AA couldn't get in touch with the delivery company at all over the weekend (fire them), and they need to fire the person handling our bags. What an adventure -- Costa Rica rocks, AA sucks. (Update: We got authorization to spend $200 as a result of this ordeal, of which we managed to rack up $175 at REI).