Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Costa Rica part 4: Manuel Antonio

It was the rainforest, after all. We had burned through the boys clean clothes faster than I had projected, with the mud and rain putting their cold weather gear out of commission as it was too damp for anything to dry. The pants I had hand-washed in the sink the first evening still hung sopping wet on a towel rack and had to be packed into the car like wet swimsuits. Despite the morning arriving rather clear and sunny we were in a hurry to leave the cloud forest behind and explore another region of Costa Rica – the coast.

When planning our trip we had considered the possibilities; the Caribbean coast and Guanacaste (northwest) were out due to distance, so we turned our attention to the shore south of Puntarenas. The resort town of Jacó was the first popular area we would reach driving south, but from friends’ descriptions seemed like more of a surfers’ paradise and party town than a family destination. The area north of Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio was the next stretch that caught our eye, but due to the late hour all the appealing accommodations had been booked. And this is how we ended up between Dominical and Uvita, 45 minutes south of Manuel Antonio National Park on the slopes of the Escaleras Mountains overlooking the Pacific. 

As Manuel Antonio has gained international fame due to its biodiversity and magnificent beaches, it was high on our wish-list of places to see. The next day we loaded up the cars and retraced our steps north to Quepos, the gateway to the park. Traditionally a game fishing base and center for production of palm oil (Highway 34 was flanked by palm plantations almost the whole way north), the town now caters primarily to tourists and provided some serious traffic. The road descends from town down to the ocean with Playa Espadilla Norte beach visible on the right, but our destination was the park, whose official entrance is off a small spur road to the left. As we approached the gates there were what looked to be uniformed locals trying to wave us into parking areas and bumper to bumper traffic. I’m still unsure as to whether these were in fact employees of the park, but we finally pulled into one of the lots and paid a parking/security fee. Next we stood in line at a kiosk a short distance from the entrance to buy tickets to the park, and finally we queued at the park entrance for a backpack check by park officials. Once in the park it was a decent hike of over 1 km following either a paved road or a boardwalk, and then paths split off in all directions to various beaches and viewpoints. (Click here for brochure and map)

We opted to start at Playas Gemelas, one of the smaller beaches with shade trees and rocks providing a spot to relax while the boys dug in the sand. We had been warned about the pickpocket monkeys and the poisonous manchineel tree, but nobody had mentioned the giant iguanas that were browsing the branches seemingly just above our heads!

As the afternoon passed we visited Playa Manuel Antonio, from which Playa Espadilla Sur was a short walk across the peninsula. The white sand beach descended into jade colored waters, calm enough for Lauris and Mikus to get out into the water. A coral reef is located in the bay, with peninsulas extending on either end; Punta Catedral to the west is a former island now connected to mainland, and has tidal pools at the base of its rocky cliffs.

Although Manuel Antonio National Park is Costa Rica's smallest national park, the diversity of wildlife in its 3 square miles is unequaled: 107 species of mammals and 335 species of birds. Both three-toed and two-toed sloths can often be seen, along with three of Costa Rica's four monkey species — the mantled howler monkey, the Central American squirrel monkey, and the white-headed capuchin monkeys we saw. In addition to the iguanas we met at the beach, the park is also home to the common basilisk, the white-nosed coati, snakes, toucans, woodpeckers, potoos, motmots, tanagers, parakeets and hawks. We were told dolphins can be seen from shore, and during whale migrations it is not uncommon to see a humpback – fascinating sights for such a little park.

An important thing to know when visiting the park, is that there are strictly enforced hours. The park closes around 4pm, and at this point the marine patrol chases everyone out from each beach. It is a decent walk from the gate to the various beaches so bring a backpack. Bathrooms with showers for rinsing off after swimming are centrally located in the park, but the lines are long. Beware the toxic manchineel tree, the monkeys who will steal your food if allowed, and the riptides.

There is a limit to the number of visitors allowed per day (600), but the park is still threatened by overuse, pollution and hotel expansion. The Quepos/Manuel Antonio stretch was thick with businesses, hotels and restaurants, and it is easy to imagine the stress on the park from such intense visitation. However I am thankful for the opportunity to experience the park, if only for an afternoon; to meet the resident monkeys and iguanas, and to witness the stunning beauty of the beaches firsthand.

On our way back to Quepos we stopped at El Avión  to feed the boys and watch the sun set. A Fairchild C-123 transport plane used by the CIA in the 70s to run arms to the Nicaraguan Contras was abandoned at the San Jose International Airport  during the Iran-Contra Affair after its sister plane was shot down over Nicaragua. Purchased for $3,000 in 2000, it was disassembled and moved to its present location in pieces via rail, car and boat. Now a restaurant, we had a fun time exploring the plane and had a great view of the sunset while enjoying drinks and an appetizer, but soon it was time to move on as we still had a good 45 minute drive back to the villas.

The boys fell asleep not long after getting back on the road, and it was about halfway home that we pulled over at a roadside eatery for dinner. “Rest Club Roncador” – an open-air, no-fuss, pull-up-a-couch for the boys to sleep on kind of place. Sitting around the enormous table we had a delicious dinner, my favorite from all the evenings in Costa Rica. The menus were completely in Spanish, the other tables were occupied by locals, the kitchen was visible and also outdoors, and the food took forever. I had shrimp quesadillas (the shrimp as fresh as it gets and still cooked), and washed it down with Imperial beer, the #1 beer of Costa Rica. It was truly a memorable Costa Rican experience, and as we carried the boys back to the car one-by-one, I wondered what similar adventures we might have in the days to come.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Costa Rica part 3: Monteverde at night

There must be some sort of waterfall etiquette guide that will clearly explain what to do in the situation that you are attempting to reach a waterfall in the jungle and make it back out during daylight, but there is a pile of clothes on the trail signifying that someone is taking a swim. To justify advancing beyond an obvious “do not disturb” sign, it was a 20 minute downhill trek and this was our last chance of getting a glimpse of what was supposed to be a gorgeous sight, plus we were talking loudly in order to give advance warning - but didn’t have much time to spare as the final light was fading fast. Our last adventure of the year wasn’t the hanging bridges trek after all, it was a rapidly disappearing view of a waterfall and the scenic vista of a full moon – it would have been two full moons but we made it out before total darkness. Who wanders through the jungle at twilight in their birthday suit?

We made it back to the lodge before anyone sent out a search party: Krista, myself and the now-clothed Brit. The climb back up had been a muddy scramble, so it was a shower and a breather later that everyone started gathering in the lodge for dinner. We almost had the place to ourselves as the only other guests dining were the aforementioned waterfall enthusiast and his significant other, and the next three hours were spent enjoying good food and company while the rain and wind resumed its chorus outside.

Although we couldn’t partake of the more traditional Latvian New Year’s traditions, we availed ourselves of the modernized laimes liešana, the app that lets you predict your new year by interpreting the shape of molten lead which has been poured into water. We discussed lessons learned, celebrated a birthday, and offered well-wishes and advice to the new couple in advance of their wedding next July. The boys drifted off to sleep, one by one, until three little babes were snuggled in blankets on the couch. And we sang, as Latvians tend to do, a little louder with another wine bottle opened, until the New Year had arrived on the wings of the howling wind.

That first morning of 2015 we said a temporary adieu  to the rest of our party who were headed south in search of warmer and drier temperatures, and I took to flying through the canopy of the cloud forest courtesy of Selvatura’s ziplines. It seemed rather ironic that the rain had somewhat ceased and the views had opened up –  Lago Arenal, the lake at the foot of Volcán Arenal, was visible even though the volcano itself sat shrouded in fog. Ziplining was a much drier endeavor as well, and the views from the top were much better than the previous day.

Afterwards we ventured into Santa Elena, the gateway to the Monteverde reserve and the area’s main village. Monteverde is actually the name of the Quaker community originally from Alabama, whose members live in scattered homes in the forests below the reserve. It is the cloudforest, however, that has brought the region worldwide fame, partly in its role promoting ecotourism in Costa Rica, and partly due to the unique ecosystem sporting birds such as the rare resplendent quetzal. At an elevation of 4,600 ft, Monteverde’s rolling hills are pastures for the cattle that are the source of the area’s famous cheeses. The increased tourist traffic to the region has brought all manner of tours and attractions, from zipline canopy adventures to orchid gardens, frog ponds and sloth sanctuaries, but the town of Santa Elena remains a small village with plenty of charm. Our visit included a lunch stop at Tree House Restaurante & Café, an open air eatery built entirely around a giant ficus tree. The food was good, but the view grand.

Right across the street is a tourist boutique filled with local-made souvenirs for sale, and we paused to watch the glass artist at work before buying one of his tiny sloths, in hopes that we would still see one before leaving for the coast. And the last half an hour we had in town was spent sipping a quality cup of locally grown and roasted coffee at Beso Espresso & Roasters.

Artist forming glass sculptures

In hopes of seeing a few of the many animals that call the cloud forest their home we had signed up for a night tour. As a majority of the rainforest inhabitants are nocturnal and the rest elusive for a family with three young children, wandering around someone’s jungle backyard with flashlights was actually a good bet. Roberts insists the animals had been brought in, but I’m a little less skeptical, as snakes and spiders might be harder to corral than a few sloths. As we trailed our fearless guide in search of wildlife I was relieved how noisy the forest was, in that the boys weren’t scaring the animals away with their chatter and night vision-destroying flashlight use. We saw three sloths hanging out high in the trees, looking more like reflective furballs than the animals I had imagined. A colony of leafcutter ants was trailing back to its mound with pieces of leaves to cultivate the fungus used to feed the ant larvae. We saw a migrating Canada warbler, a giant stick insect, plenty of bats, a leech of sorts(?), frogs, beetles and spiders. By poking a stick into a hole in the ground our guide triggered an orange-kneed tarantula’s early warning system and we were treated to a good long look at this colorful species. And although the sloths may have been our favorite, it was thrilling to see a poisonous pit viper - of course we gave the bright green snake a wide berth.

From left: two-toed sloth, orange-kneed tarantula, pit viper

If we had an extra day in the region we might have visited the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, in hopes of seeing a resplendent quetzal and howler monkeys. However with our departure to the coast set for the following day we were quite happy with the tally, and easily convinced to cut our night tour short. We slowly made the now-familiar trip back up for one last night in the Monteverde cloud forest, and all three boys were soon fast asleep. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Costa Rica part 2: the cloud forest

We awoke to a steady rain and the wind whistling as it came over the ridge. In hopes of seeing “the best view of Lake Arenal” that our lodge had advertised I pulled back the curtains, resulting in a fantastic view of the mist and fog stretching 10 feet out, and the giant arachnid that had taken shelter between the glass and the screen (Luckily for it and for me, on the outside). Not our first wildlife encounter on the trip, as we had seen the large spiders in the headlights of the car on the way up the mountain the previous evening.

We traversed the field of mud to the lodge for breakfast, but immediately relaxed as steaming cups of coffee were placed in front of us along with a plate of fresh fruit. Pineapple, mango, watermelon, cantaloupe and banana, fresh and bursting with flavor! There was a range of breakfast choices cooked to order, but one option consistently offered during our time in Costa Rica was gallo pinto, fried rice and black beans. Served with eggs and ham or bacon, we would drink fruit juice freshly squeezed that morning while the boys experimented with different choices each day. As our party slowly filtered through, we planned out the day and arranged for a shuttle to take us to Selvatura, in our search for one last adventure of 2014.  

Known for adrenaline-inducing ziplining tours, Selvatura is similar to many of the other adventure parks in the region, differing mainly with its location within the Cloud Forest Reserve and its seclusion from artificial sights (I don’t think I saw one man-made structure other than the butterfly house from any of the bridges). Our group split up upon arrival, Krišs and Mīla joining us for the tamer hanging bridges tour while the rest set off to get suited up for ziplining. We first ate lunch at the lodge before setting off on the series of eight hanging bridges which criss-crossed the canopy of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (Reserva Biologica Bosque Nuboso de Monteverde). Named for the ephemeral mists that envelop them, Costa Rica's cloud forests (actually montane tropical rainforests) are found at elevations above 3,500 feet. The lush canopies rarely reach 100 ft, and it is within the upper reaches that the bridges stretched, ranging in length between 150 and 510 feet at altitudes from 36 to 180 feet. The trail was 1.9 miles, taking about two hours at our pace.

Our expectations of seeing animals were pretty low as we had four noise-making machines in our party and we were setting off in the middle of the day, so we were pleasantly surprised with the birds and animals we did see. The highlight was a coati nosing its way across the gardens in search of a meal, much like the one that resides at the Greenville Zoo. However the plant life was unbelievable, every available inch of space alive, draped with flowers and ferns. The weather was not very cooperative, and the rain meant views were not as magnificent as we could have hoped for, but the experience was extraordinary, a glimpse into a life usually high above our heads and inaccessible.

As far as what a visitor to an adventure park in the Monteverde area needs to know, it pays to come prepared. Literally, for rain ponchos cost $10 a piece (rain jackets more) and aren’t very well-made. Check out the website for the various packages offered, as several of the activities can be combined for a lower cost, and if you are planning on eating at the lodge be sure to include the meal in your package as ordering off the menu will be more expensive. In addition to the canopy tour (ziplining) and treetop walkways (hanging bridges), other attractions include a butterfly garden, insect house, hummingbird garden and reptile and amphibian exhibits.

The five of us returned the following day as Roberts had offered to occupy the boys while I took a turn at ziplining the canopy. I highly recommend doing both, as the hanging bridges gave a tour of the canopy that ziplining did not allow, but zipping through the cloud forest was an adventure I can liken only to operating the ping-pong machine from a helicopter during my stint as a wildland firefighter.

After being fitted with a harness and helmet, the group was ushered into a van for a short trip to the starting point. A short safety demonstration later (it is expected that you can manually brake if given the symbol) you climb up to the first of 18 platforms and fly off on one of 15 cables. After some flights you land only to be hooked into another zipline, while in other spots there are short hikes connecting the lines, but there is no question, this was a heck of a way to kick off 2015!

In addition to an optional “Tarzan swing” that lets you take the free fall of a pendulum, there is the option to pay extra to fly the Superman. This does mean you will be carrying your own gear (a 10 lb pack) the entire time, but in my opinion it was well worth the last zipline. Instead of making the 1 km long trip with a buddy, I was strapped into a sling and made the journey headfirst facing down with the freedom of a bird. With the wind in my ears it was the closest I will ever come to flying, and the exhilarating flight left me with a loss for words other than pura vida, the unofficial slogan of Costa Rica meaning “pure life.”

The Tarzan!

Thank you Robert, for the chance to take the canopy tour – it would not have been possible without your time solo with the boys! Simply a soaring start to the New Year!!!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Costa Rican Adventure: Part 1

The rainforests and beaches of Costa Rica are already a dream; the sunsets, warm waters and animal life we experienced on our recent trip only lingering in our thoughts and on our hard drives.

The trip was a result of a combination of factors: the New Year and a big birthday to celebrate, co-travelers  from Latvia, the US and Canada, the longing for warmer temperatures and a lifelong wish to visit this eco-tourism capital of the world. Shortly after our tour of Michigan, Chicago and Ohio where we had passed the holidays and celebrated our son’s christening with family, we were on a flight to Houston. (And by shortly, I mean just over twenty-four hours to unpack and repack… I don’t suggest this and have put a note in the file. One tends to forget important things, for example raincoats for the rainforest.) A brief layover, then another tiny seat with no leg room with yet another passenger choosing to recline into the lap of mother with baby. (Another note for the file… don’t fly United, for a dozen reasons that I don't care to review.) Four and a half hours to San José, plenty of time for me to question the wisdom of traveling to Central America with three small children, and calling it a ‘vacation.’

But we arrived in Costa Rica, emerging in warm temperatures and a dusty chaos to find Roberts’s brother Matīss and friend Krišs waiting for us. A windfall, really, as the rental car company had not sent anyone to greet us, and navigating the bedlam outside the airport might have proved rather expensive. The shuttle to pick up the van was located and we were quickly ferried to a gated compound where Līga, Krista and the baby Mīla awaited us.

Eventually the last members of our party arrived, and we were off! not really knowing what lay ahead. Navigating the complicated rental car arrangements proved just as difficult as finding our way out of the city, and multiple stops for food, directions and pictures meant that darkness overtook us while not even halfway to our destination. As we headed north each road was sequentially smaller and zigzagged more, the darkness masking the magnificent views (and steep drop-offs) as we progressed north into the mountains.

Costa Rica has an interesting system of addresses, indicating location in relation to another place; for example the address of our lodge is  ‘2 km north of’ an adventure park, whose address is ‘on the road to Monteverde Reserve,’ which actually encompasses over 40 square miles. Not helping the situation was one carsick little boy, a dense rain, and the two-vehicle caravan which had no means of communicating with one another. Add to this our unfamiliarity with Costa Rican road rules, the lack of signage for roads and towns, the condition of some of those roads, and it is remarkable we made it to the lodge before midnight, despite having arrived in the early afternoon.

Total distance – about 140 kilometers, or 87 miles. The first 100 km took about 2 ½ hours, the google maps estimate for the entire trip. The last 40 kilometers took something like three hours. Is it possible we averaged only 8 mph those 25 miles?

But as we (or rather Roberts) unpacked and battled with the mud in the cold rain, it sunk in – we were in Costa Rica! In a rainforest next to a volcano, furthermore! Despite the hectic events of the past two days, it was clear our adventure had only just begun. On that first night in Costa Rica, we snuggled under the layers of comforters and blankets and immediately fell asleep, the sound of the rain whipping and howling around the mountain a strange lullaby to our tired selves.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Mazbērni - then and now

The picture on the left was taken ten years ago in Chicago, an “on” year of Christmas with the extended family: my grandmother, her four children + spouses and her 12 grandchildren. Although often two or more families celebrate the holidays at my grandmother’s house, every other year everyone makes the trip – all the way from Toronto, Ontario and Seattle, Washington, and in more recent years from New York, DC, Quebec, France and now South Carolina. This Christmas we recreated the ten year old picture, the result being on the right.

This year was the first in many that everyone - every single child, grandchild and now great grandchild – was able to attend, bringing the total to 17 mazbērni, a term that in our case loosely includes vecmammas grandchildren, their spouses and children. A nice looking bunch, if I can say so myself! We only neglected to take the mazbērnu piramīds picture… a shame, really, as we have the perfect number for a pyramid for the first time since there were only twelve of us!

The best thing about being the oldest daughter of an eldest daughter is that my children are close in age to my youngest cousins – providing instant friends despite uncle & aunt status. Christmas passed in a blur, however, and I can only wish for a few extra weeks for them all to get to know one another. And hope that it’s before the next “on” year that we see them all again.

* Thanks to tante Zinta for the pictures from 2014! The one from 2004 was possibly taken by my father.
** It was probably not 2004, but 2005 judging by the age of the younger cousins. However this does not fit with my theory of it being an "on" year (even years) and I don't wish to wait until next year for this post (so I can say 'ten years ago') so 2004 it is!
*** Did that couch shrink!?!?
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