31.01.2004 - 14.02.2004
Costa Rica is a country of approximately 3.8 million people in the Southern part of Central America, bordered by Nicaragua in the North and Panama in the South. Costa Rica is about 51,000 square kilometers (about the size of West Virginia, according to the CIA fact book, if that helps) and has 1290 kilometers of coast line on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Lonely Planet (the bible for travelers) states “Costa Rica is Central America's jewel. It's an oasis of calm among its turbulent neighbors and an ecotourism heaven, making it one of the best places to experience the tropics with minimal impact. It's also mostly coastline, which means great surfing, beaches galore and a climate built for laziness.”
Myself, John Lee (my roommate) and Dennis Kim (an old college friend) flew out of Toronto on January 31st, meeting up with Trish Anderson (who we met down in Cuba a few years ago) in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. For our first three days, we stayed at the Marriott Costa Rica, a Spanish style hotel on a coffee plantation about 20 kilometers outside of downtown San Jose. The Marriott was unfailingly American and expensive, however they had a bitchin’ pool and an excellent $US 15 shrimp cocktail. But at $US 5 a beer, we couldn’t sit around the pool and drink all day and night.
So, on February 1st we headed into San Jose for a little local afternoon culture, and then a little American culture as we caught the Super Bowl in San Jose. An interesting note is that I have watched the past 4 Super Bowls in 4 different countries (Denver, U.S.A.; Toronto, Canada; Puerto Natales, Chile; San Jose, Costa Rica). While this might not seem like something impressive to you, it did make the Costa Rican national newspaper “La Nacion.” Next year, I am thinking of either Tokyo or Hong Kong for Super Bowl. Anybody in?
After killing a couple more days in San Jose, we headed North into the mountains of Costa Rica in search of monkeys. He headed to Monteverde, a 3 hour bumpy and dusty bus ride from San Jose. While Costa Rica is a very small country, the roads are horrific, and while the buses are dirt cheap, they tend to stop every 30 seconds to pick someone up. So what seems on the map as a short, short trip ends up taking a long, long time. Later in the trip we wised up and started hiring cabs to drive us everywhere, but I am jumping ahead of myself.
Monteverde, at approximately 4500 feet above sea level is surrounded by “cloud forest,” which is basically rain forest that is high enough up that the clouds tend to roll right in on top of you. Just outside Monteverde are two national parks and a number of private operations protecting the cloud forest. Many of the private operations provide suspension bridge walks and/or zip lines through the canopy of the forest. We chose to do a half day walk on the suspension bridges and a half-day in the St. Elena national reserve. I was sure that spending a full day in the jungles of Central America would yield a monkey sighting. I could not have been more wrong. While the forest was very lush and green, it was also eerily silent. I believe that I saw a total of 4 birds and 2 bugs in my day of walking. And while green forest with clouds rolling over the hills is impressive, I was pretty bummed at not seeing any monkeys. The canopy tour place was nice enough to have set up some hummingbird feeders to attract the fast little fliers, but frankly I could sit at home and watch hummingbirds at a feeder.
On the plus side, the beer was significantly less expensive than the $US 5 we paid at the Marriott, and I am told that the coffee was quite good, though not being a coffee drinker I can’t say first hand.
The other attraction the mountains offer is active volcanoes, specifically the Arenal Volcano. The Volcano is constantly spewing lava and steam, and can on a clear day be seen from the St. Elena reserve. Unfortunately, they don’t call it a cloud forest for nothing, and our view of the volcano was obscured by mist. However, I bought a nice photo of what the volcano would look like had I been able to see it, and have scanned it in for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy.
After busting out on the Monkey hunt in Monteverde (and frankly getting a little sick of the constant cloud and cold of the mountains), we headed via bus, boat and bus to the coastal town of Montezuma. Montezuma is on the Nicoya peninsula on the Pacific coast, a small town with miles of beach (somewhat rocky) and lots of potheads. We were about the only people in the whole place that didn’t have dreadlocks.
We settled into our hotel and promptly met a couple of guys from the Netherlands. They worked for Heineken, and upset us all by admitting that they had 40 and 50 days of vacation a year. While Europe may not be the super power that it was back in earlier centuries, dude, that much vacation?!? I’d gladly kowtow to all the U.S.A.’s requests for that kind of time off. Hell, Canada does that already – why not get some damn vacation for it?
The people you meet always make travel more interesting. In addition to the Netherlands boys we met some real characters in Montezuma. There was a kid from Portland who was planning on spending a month fishing the waters of Costa Rica and trying to survive on $20 a day. He was pretty happy that he had found a campsite that only charged him $1/day to pitch a tent, and even happier when he shared one of his catches with the operators of the site and they gave him five free days in return. There was Ira, a pretty seasoned traveler who also happened to be a storyboard artist for the Simpsons. If I worked on The Simpsons, I am not sure I would need to take vacation. And then there was “$50,000 a year Frank.”
I met Frank during an 8.5 kilometer hike through the Cabo Blanco national park. Prepared for a rough hike, I brought along a backpack with 3 liters of water, granola bars and nuts to eat for energy and a lot of sunscreen. Frank brought a 600ml bottle of Coke. The terrain was rough, up and down all day long in a hot and humid jungle. Frank was a 40-something asthmatic without his inhaler. All that being said though, Frank was a trooper and managed to walk the 8.5 kilometer round trip, though Ira and I did supplement his supplies with some water and half a sandwich.
Frank lived in New York City, and had a bit of a chip on his shoulder when it came to the fairer sex. It seems that Frank hadn’t had much luck with the ladies, and he was chalking it up to his lack of income – “The first question they ask you is what do you do? Lawyer, they’ll talk to you. Doctor, they’ll talk to you. You make $50,000 a year, they won’t even look your way.” It never occurred to Frank, I suppose, that part of his problem may have been his 1982 out of date wardrobe, his $7.50 Supercuts hair cut, his unfortunate choice of “Construction Worker from the Village People” moustache or his general attitude. Ah well, if nothing else, he provided entertainment on the hike in.
Cabo Blanco, besides being the place where I met Frank, was also my first monkey sighting. I saw two different types of Monkeys – the Howlers and the Capuchin monkey.
A Howler Monkey is the loudest land animal in the world (The only animal that is louder than the Howler Monkey is the Blue Whale). The Howler's call can be heard up to three miles (4.8 km) away. Howlers grow to be about 2 to 4 feet (0.6 to 1.2 m) tall and weigh from 8 to 22 pounds (3.5 to 10 kg), which isn’t all that big, but their cry sounds like something out of a horror film. I can’t even do justice in describing what it sounds like – you need to hear it for yourself. So, book a trip to Costa Rica.
I also saw the white-faced Capuchin monkey. I saw both of the monkeys up in the canopy of the forest, probably 40 or 50 feet away from me. I tried taking pictures, but to no avail – dark monkeys on a dark background do not show up very well on film.
While Dennis and I (and $50,000 a year Frank) hiked Cabo Blanco, John and Trish did some snorkeling. The next morning, while the four of us were sitting around at breakfast and comparing stories of the previous day, Trish saw the captain of the snorkeling boat wander by. “Not going out today?” she asked. He confirmed that he wasn’t because there weren’t enough people who wanted to go. “Jeez,” said Trish, “any chance on us getting the boat for the day and doing on snorkeling and hanging on a deserted beach.” The captain agreed, and for $20 each, we got a day of sitting around on a quiet beach with a cooler full of beer and sandwiches. The snorkeling was great, no coral but a whole lot of colorful fish. And the beach was fantastic – we settled in beside a wrecked boat in the shade, and spent the afternoon drinking and relaxing.
After another day in Montezuma, we headed off to Manuel Antonio further south down the Pacific coast. We ended the trip in Manuel Antonio, and it turned out to be an excellent choice for our final days in Costa Rica. Firstly, Manuel Antonio has excellent beaches – white sand above water and sandy bottom once you got into the water. The restaurants were excellent, the beer was cold and the bill was inexpensive. And, after being impressed with seeing monkeys from 40 feet away in Montezuma, I was absolutely blown away by the wild-life in Manuel Antonio.
Waking at 6 am the first morning at Cabinas Piscis (highly recommended hotel in Manuel Antonio), I walked outside to the sound branches raining down on the roof of our cabin. Looking up, I saw a group of 20 or 30 Capuchin (White Faced) monkeys. I spent the next hour watching the monkeys as they explored the trees surrounding our hotel. After thinking I was pretty lucky seeing the monkeys from far away in Montezuma, I was able to see them up close – as close as 5 to 6 feet above me in the palms. The capuchin's body is nimble and slender, the limbs thin. Length of head and body 12.8-22.4 inches (32-56 cm), tail about the same; weight 3.3-8.8 pounds (1.5-4 kg).
I saw a lot more of the Capuchin monkeys in Manuel Antonio. They are very curious, unafraid of humans and always looking for a hand-out. They would approach us at restaurants, run along the beach, steal food off picnic tables in the national park. They were everywhere in Manuel Antonio.
Even more impressive was the visitors we got at 8 am that same day. After the white faced monkeys cleared out, a group of 30 or so squirrel monkeys appeared. Squirrel monkeys are smaller than the capuchins, around 26-36 cm long. They are also quite endangered. There are only 4,800 of them left in existence. The group of squirrel monkeys spent about half an hour visiting with us. I was able to get very close to one of the monkeys, probably about 4 feet from me as he climbed over a flowered archway looking for bugs and fruit to eat. Even more “aaah” inspiring was the mothers who were carrying their babies on their backs. The babies cling to their mother’s fur as they leap from branch to branch. The squirrel monkeys came and visited the next day as well, which was a double treat given their rarity.
Trish saw a sloth. I wanted to see a sloth, but I didn’t get to see one. Enough said about that, because, frankly, I am still bitter about the thing.
Beer is very cheap – did I mention that? One night in San Jose we showed up for happy hour. The special was 3 beers for $US 2.40. That’s a deal.
Anyway, hope you enjoyed the travelogue. I would highly recommend Costa Rica as a destination. The beaches are excellent, and not at all crowded like some of the more popular destinations in the Caribbean, plus the opportunities to see wild life and nature are spectacular. There isn’t much in the way of history, architecture or culture to see, but there are MONKEYS! (and, apparently, sloths, though I didn’t see them).
So, Costa Rica goes on my list of recommended places to go. I for sure want to go back – I would like to actually get to see the Arenal Volcano next time, as well as heading further down south to the Corcovado National Park before ending my trip (just like this time) amongst the trees and monkeys of Manuel Antonio.
So, to wrap this all up, the week before we went away to Costa Rica, I got a cold. "Great," thought I, "I am getting sick just before my vacation. I will probably go away on vacation and end up being sick." However, thanks to a regimen early bed-times and Nyquil, I was better by the time Saturday rolled around and ready for 2 weeks of sun and fun in the South.
After my two weeks in Costa Rica, we returned to Toronto. On Sunday, I woke up with a sore throat, which soon developed into a full-on head-cold with runny nose, achy muscles and sore throat.
Obviously my body is trying to tell me something - more vacation and less work. There’s only one thing to do – move to the Netherlands and find work at Heineken. 50 days a year, I could handle that for sure.