Thursday, July 3, 2014

Livin' La Pura Vida

Arenal Volcano
The North American and South American continents are connected by the Central American isthmus consisting of countries stretching from Guatemala on the northern end to Columbia in the south but it was not always so.  This relatively narrow strip of land is thought to be the result of volcanic activity as the western edge of the Caribbean tectonic plate pushes down on the Cocos plate beneath the Pacific Ocean.  Volcanic activity below the waves slowly built land masses that emerged along the fault as islands perhaps as recently as three million years ago.  The continuing eruptions added landmass that connected the islands into an isthmus.  Animal species that had not encountered one another now had a land bridge over which they could travel.  Add a varying topography and a range of climate conditions and you have a recipe for extraordinary biodiversity.  Costa Rica, located south of Nicaragua, north of Panama and just ten degrees of latitude north of the equator is ground zero for this incredible display of geological, biological and botanical diversity.  The lava show is not over yet.  Costa Rica consists of a mere .1 percent of the earth's surface yet it hosts more than 110 volcanoes, five of which are still described as active.

On his fourth and final voyage, Columbus sailed off of the Caribbean coast of the isthmus in 1502.  Encountering natives wearing some decorative items, he called the region Costa Rica or "Rich Coast" and evidently concluded that the area might yield more than a little gold.  Additional European exploration was quickly followed by exploitation which, along with disease, decimated native populations.  By the early 1800's, the region had become the Central American Federation and in 1838 the independent nation of Costa Rica was born.  Today it is one of the most stable and economically successful Latin American countries.

In a 1956 Mexican film called Pura Vida directed by Gilberto Martínez Solares, a comic actor named Antonio Espino uses the expression "pura vida" ("pure life") to express his unbounded optimism, despite his inability to do anything right.  The use of the phrase caught on in Costa Rica and by the 1970's it was used throughout the nation and has practically become the country's catchphrase.  It is used in a manner similar to that of "aloha" in Hawaii.

In March of last year we headed down there to experience pura vida for ourselves.  On this trip, I did something relatively new for me, I elected to drive for a part of our trip to a foreign land.  I was emboldened by the fact that I had purchased a computer chip for my handheld GPS (a Garmin e-Trex Vista CX) unit when we took our trip to Argentina and Chile last year.  The chip holds maps for most of South America and a quick check confirmed that it also held Costa Rica maps and that in addition to being compatible with the e-Trex, it was also compatible with the Garmin nuvi 2455LMT GPS that we use in our cars.  Additionally, the guidebooks I read indicated that driving in Costa Rica was no big deal.  The rate National quoted me wasn't too bad.

After landing in the capital of San José and clearing customs, we located the National counter and were promptly escorted a short distance to a waiting van for the quick ride to the office located off of airport property.  It took the counter attendant a moment or two to locate my reservation but once he did, all went smoothly.  We drove to highway 1 which is the Pan American Highway.  The original Pan American stretched from Laredo, Texas to Buenos Aires, Argentina, except for the break at the Darién Gap.  This was a busy urban highway with its share of quirks.  In places, large concrete-lined drainage ditches lined the side of the road so pulling over was not an option.  We went through one set of tollbooths where traffic officers were simply waiving everyone through.  I later learned from a cab driver that when traffic is heavy, tollbooths are opened up to speed traffic flow and when traffic subsides, the gates come back down and tolls are once again charged.  We exited the highway and ascended into the hills north of San José and through the town of Alajuela.

Thankfully, signs began appearing to guide us to our hotel because I had discovered one of the unique aspects of driving in Costa Rica: While a few streets do carry names, none of them actually feature signs telling you the name and address numbers are not used at all.  In making the reservation for our second hotel of the trip I had noticed that even on Marriott's website, the address of the Costa Rica Marriott Hotel San José is "700 metres west from the Bridgestone/Firestone".  No street.  No address.  Based on location estimates and on searches I could do on the GPS for specific hotels, I had saved a few locations into the memory of the GPS but other than that we were dependent on our own eyes and a few maps with the GPS offering some help.

To get out of the hustle and bustle of San José we had booked a room at Xandari Resort and Spa just north of the town of Alajuela which is itself just north of San José and a few hundred feet higher in elevation.  After some initial fiddling with the GPS, it lead us just about to the doors of the hotel itself.  Xandari consists of more than 20 small single story buildings scattered over 40 acres of hillside.  The hotel touts its eco-friendly practices.  We were greeted at the entrance by Andrea who quickly got us settled into room #3 which was in a secluded part of the grounds and featured a large patio with a westward view.  The buildings are of cast concrete which are painted in various hues of blue, green and coral.  Ours included a large window wall.  The upper course of windows consisted of glass louvers with screens to you could let in the breeze.  The rooms are not air conditioned but after a cold winter in the Chicago area we were ready for some tropical warmth.
The westernmost of the three pools at Xandari offered the best view...

... and at sunset the view was even more amazing

Our room at Xandari offered seclusion among the greenery

After getting settled we explored the orchard and plantings on the extensive grounds.  Pam had already returned to the room and I was just returning to the room myself.  As I knocked on the door since she had the key, I heard her exclaim, "That's the biggest spider I have ever seen!"  Having been married just over 20 years, I can say that I have heard her make that comment a few times but when I got in the room and looked at the foot of the small step down into the room I saw...   ... the biggest spider I have ever seen!  It was a tarantula and easily measured more than four inches in length.  I give Pam lots of credit for not making more of a ruckus and for being willing to walk within a few feet of this critter in order to let me into the room.  I think Pam thought I was heading for the phone to call the front desk but I promptly got my camera and recorded the moment for history.
This 4 inch-long tarantula was an uninvited guest in our room on the first night

We did call the front desk and a guy came with a couple of small banana leaves, picked up the spider and took it back outside.  Maybe it came in when the maid cleaned the room or maybe there was a crack somewhere it got through.  We searched the room pretty thoroughly and did not find any others but we knew we were not going to sleep too deeply that night.

The Owl butterfly is Costa Rica's largest with a wingspan that can reach 8 inches

Dinner in the hotel dining room was pretty good but the open air view of Alajuela and San José in the valley below was really great.

The view from Xandari's open-air dining room
The view during breakfast was equally beautiful
The main purpose for the trip was to take another Backroads biking journey but we wanted to experience more than one area of Costa Rica so we had arranged for a few nights at a hotel on the Pacific coast.  After breakfast at Xandari, we checked out and jumped in the car for our drive of about 100 miles to the hotel just outside of Quepos.  Of course, there was no "address" for the hotel but I had an approximate location and figured that signs or some friendly Costa Ricans would show us the way.  Driving in Costa Rica was as easy as I had imagined.  We took our time and enjoyed the journey of about three hours.  We passed through Quepos and, after a few wrong turns, did indeed find a sign for the hotel and arrived in fine shape.

Hotel Makanda By The Sea is a wonderful property and we knew we would enjoy our stay there from the moment we passed through the entrance gate.  The hotel is perched on steep hillside about 300 feet above the Pacific.  The weather was hot and humid but the sound of the Pacific waves pounding on the shore below and the shady jungle foliage let us know we were in another world.  We had reserved unit 11 and were quickly shown to our room which is on the edge of the property and feels wonderfully secluded.  A terrace stretching the full length of the room gave us a jaw-dropping view through the flower-draped jungle foliage to the sea.  The surrounding foliage echoed with strange bird calls and insect noises.  Hummingbirds flitted from flower-to-flower.

We explored the hotel property and soon came upon their pool and discovered a view that rivaled the one from our room.  The infinity-edge pool features a westward orientation and we knew the views of the sunset from there would be great.  Beside the pool is Makanda's small outdoor restaurant.  We spent the late afternoon by the pool and spotted toucans in the trees as well as a sloth.  The air was alive with strange sounds and just before sunset we heard the strangest sound yet.  The pool attendant said they were howler monkeys somewhere up in the canopy and they had plenty of company.  We spotted toucans and sloths.  The sunset was absolutely incredible and ranks right up there with the all-time great views!

The sunsets from Makanda's infinity-edge pool were incredible!
A howler monkey (photo by Andy P.)

What happened next almost ruined our trip.  I wanted a lower angle shot of the sunset and slid off of the edge of the pool, thinking that I would be in maybe four feet of water.  As I raised the camera to take a shot, I realized that I was going deeper and deeper.  Hoping that I was in perhaps six feet of water, I raised the camera over my head and was horrified to see it dip below the water as I found my feet touching the bottom of the pool in eight feet of water.  Clearly the camera was ruined.  I dabbed it dry and removed the battery and the chip on which the pictures were stored.  We needed a new camera pronto.  The desk clerk gave me the name of an electronics store in Quepos but they did not have cameras so we knew we had to get one on our return to San José.  In the meanwhile, we picked up a disposable film camera for use over the next two days.

We enjoyed dinner at the hotel restaurant that evening on the terrace next to the pool.  Before returning to our room, we ordered our breakfast for delivery to our room at 7:30 the next morning.  Breakfast is included in the room price.  Promptly at 7:30 breakfast arrived and we decided to enjoy it on our terrace.  Pam had an omelet but I had ordered the Costa Rican breakfast consisting of scrambled eggs, gallo pinto (white rice, black beans, onions, red peppers and cilantro) along with fresh fruit and fruit juice.  I was hooked.  The gallo pinto was delicious and each morning I got a different fresh juice (papaya, tamarind, starfruit).  As we enjoyed breakfast on the terrace, we heard rustling in the canopy and found ourselves amid a troop white headed Capuchin monkeys.  They were interested in finding their own breakfast in the jungle, not in mooching our meals.  We sat there in awe of this natural encounter and it dawned on me that perhaps the magic of Costa Rican wildlife is that to a North American it is the type of wildlife one sees in a zoo but in Costa Rica it is all around you and very close.  I was reminded of a movie quote:
"I own an island.  Off the coast of Costa Rica."  John Hammond (played by Richard Attenborough) in "Jurassic Park", Universal Pictures (1993)
One of the white-headed Capuchin monkeys that joined us for breakfast
We found this pair of crimson-crested woodpeckers on the hotel grounds

On our second day near Quepos, we arranged for a private tour of Manuel Antonio National Park.  Our guide George brought a spotting scope that brought wildlife in close.  We hiked for a few miles in the park and at one point found ourselves again accompanied by Capuchins as they foraged in the forest.  We spent part of that afternoon hiking down to the sea from Makanda.  The steep 300 foot descent to the beach brought on a sweat and we knew that the ascent would be even harder but were motivated by thoughts of spending more pool time.  The beach below Makanda is of dark gray sand.  Few guests venture down there due to the long, steep walk.  We got back to the hotel in plenty of time to watch another spectacular sunset from the pool.  On our final day at Makanda we took a boat tour along the Paquita River.

We found this python in the branches of a tree above the Paquita River

Before we knew it, it was time to get back to San José to begin the next phase of the trip.  It was tough to leave Makanda.  Some places you leave thinking that you may return.  I would be happy to return but its a big ol' world out there and I did not think it likely that we would return to this part of Costa Rica and I was sorry to think that I very well might have spent my last night at Hotel Makanda By The Sea.

Our return route to San José was on highway 27 which was evidently constructed recently since it was not on the GPS.  Still, we felt confident that the signs were directing us back to San José and pretty soon we were back in urban traffic.  I was following a public transportation bus on the Pan American Highway when it slowed down and pulled partway off of the highway.  I was shocked to realize that this was a bus stop (on the highway!).  Tollbooths that were open sporadically, bus stops on the highway, what's next?  Our Backroads trip was set to depart the following morning from the Marriott so we had booked a night there.  My advance work on estimating where the hotel might be and marking the location in the GPS paid off and we found it with no problem.  National had a rental car counter at the hotel so I dropped the car there.  Had I done more homework, I would have realized that we were probably less than a quarter mile from the main National office so I could have avoided the drop fee.  Live and learn.

The concierge at the Marriott confirmed that there was indeed a good electronics store in the Mega Plaza in San José.  He introduced me to taxi driver Pedro and we were off to replace the camera I had ruined.  As we pulled up to the mall, I told Pedro I would be back in a few minutes.  "Oh no, senior," he said, "I will go with you."  We looked over the camera selection and agreed on one that would fit the bill.  I reached for my wallet and Pedro gave me an imperceptible shake of the head and a warning glance.  He called the manager over and the negotiating began in rapid Spanish.  About midway through the conversation he turned to me and said, "You have cash, right?"  I did and the negotiations continued.  Before I knew it, I was walking out of there with a Panasonic point and shoot digital camera at a very low price.  The manager even threw in a free camera case.  Needless to say, the money I saved went for a handsome tip to Pedro.

As we arrive at a hotel the night before a Backroads trip begins, we play a game with ourselves and try to guess which guests we see in the hotel will be on our tour.  Often Backroads guests are easy to spot (biking or hiking attire).  At 8:30 the next morning we met Ally and Zach our guides for the trip as well as Scooby and Winnie, Costa Ricans who would be driving the support vans.  We met the other 12 trip participants and before we knew it we were in the vans and on the road.

Our drivers Winnie and Scooby made the trip easy

A one hour ride in the van took us north of San José to the Espiritu Santo Coffee Estate.  We receive an informative private tour of the estate and their coffee processing facilities and, of course, all the coffee we could drink.  A short shuttle ride later brought us to Candelaria, the starting point for our first ride of the trip.  Backroads guides work together to make the arrangements necessary for an efficient trip as seamless as possible.  Zach had left Espiritu early and had set up all of our bikes and the snack table.  When we arrived everything was ready.  I attached my GPS to the handlebars of the bike I was to use and stocked up on snacks and water.  As they do at the beginning of each trip, leaders then presented a short program describing the bikes and riding safety.  Each day riders are presented with detailed descriptions of the ride routes for the day, including turn-by-turn directions.  Riders can pedal for as long as they like and if they don't elect to do the full mileage for that day, they can quit at one of the pre-set break points or anywhere along the route.  Because this trip featured two van drivers, both Zach and Ally would be biking with us for the whole day.

Zach and Ally outlined our route before as every riding day began

Pam and I had elected to do the full route for the day and, according to the directions, that meant 21.5 miles (34.6 kilometers) and total climbing of 2,490 feet (760 meters).  The hills are definitely the most challenging aspect of these rides.  The directions feature detailed route information along with the distance (in kilometers) between points.  The most dreaded phrase on the directions as far as I am concerned is "Steep uphill begins".  Whenever I see that, my eyes dart to the left of the phrase to see just how long the hill is.  Riders quickly spread out as the route unwinds and it was customary to find ones self alone on a beautiful country road.  Understand that this is no Alpe d'Huez, the Alpine section of the Tour de France east of Grenoble where riders ascend 21 switchbacks in a little under nine miles, climbing 3,687 feet.  On this coming July 18 the riders in the centennial Tour will ascend this summit twice in one day.  Being a couple of flatlanders from Illinois, the most significant hill we face when riding around home is a highway overpass that ascends a total of perhaps 30 feet. 

After 15.5 kilometers, we stopped at Restaurant y Bar Mi Choza where we found the rest of the group gathering for lunch.  Small lunch spots like this in Costa Rica are known as "sodas".  The food is always good on Backroads trips and on this trip we found that the lunches were every bit as good as the dinners.  All meals were included in the price of this trip so when we were all done we stepped back out to our bikes and continued on our way.  Our afternoon route took us up into the Villa Blanca Cloud Forest.  By the time mid afternoon rolled around, we found ourselves enshrouded in the clouds for the last few miles.  We arrived at the Hotel Villa Blanca where Ally and Zach welcomed us.  It was as easy as taking the small pack that was strapped to the rear of our bikes off, turning the bikes over to Ally and Zach and heading to our private cabin on the hotel grounds.  We had time for a sauna before showering and heading to the lobby for cocktails before dinner.  On a trip like this, hours spent biking together as well as cocktail gatherings and meals give you plenty of time to meet others on the trip.  Dinner was delicious, particularly the roasted tomato and basil soup that started the meal.

On the morning of day two we met the local naturalist and he took us on a 2-mile walk through the cloud forest.  Afterward we had a shuttle ride to the starting point for our ride.  The previous day's ride had taken a lot out of us and we were not in shape to make the full 55+ mile ride that included ascending 4,704 feet and a ride along Costa Rica's continental divide.  We elected a shorter route that featured a net descent.  The route featured more traffic than we are accustomed to dealing with on a Backroads trip but it was some of the steep descents that really tested us.  A typical pattern was some flat riding followed by a steep ascent and then a descent into a valley where you crossed a river via a bridge and then ascended up the other side.  In the town of Bajos del Toro we had lunch at El Silencio and it was another winner.  There were a few raindrops as we started our afternoon ride but the sun soon reappeared.  Our hotel for the evening was Tilajari Hotel.  This Backroads trip was one of their "casual inns" trips that typically feature hotels that meet most expectations but are not five-star.  Tilajari was not fancy but the grounds were nice and the birdwatching along the river there was great.  That evening we gathered to celebrate the birthdays of two of our bikers and Ally and Zach prepared a selection of the fruits of Costa Rica before we all sat down to an outdoor dinner.

The next morning we gathered at the hotel restaurant for breakfast and noticed that the staff had placed slices of fruit on sugarcane stalks that were attracting some of the most colorful birds we've ever seen.  I'd noticed that the birds tended to nibble at the fruit slices higher up on the stalks.  I finished my meal and left but missed the most exciting event of the morning when one of the birds went for a piece of fruit on a lower branch and was seized by a small boa constrictor.

Wise birds go after the fruit placed higher on the stalk
Those birds who feed from the lower fruits often become breakfast for a boa

For our riding for the day, we elected to be shuttled to Santa Clara to begin our ride.  The hills of Costa Rica were definitely getting to us.  The riding on this day seemed to be the most scenic of the trip.  We passed countless fields and pastures on our way to the town of La Fortuna.  The landscape of this part of the country is dominated by the Arenal volcano.  Before July 29, 1968, Arenal had been dormant for at least 400 years.  The locals had even begun to refer to it as Cerro Arenal (Arenal Mountain).  On that fateful day, however, Arenal violently re awoke.  The ensuing eruptions killed 87 people and buried three villages.   We paused at one lonely road crossing to take a picture of the Arenal volcano in the distance.  A Costa Rican field worker was walking up the road in his straw hat with a machete tucked in his belt.  He gave us a hearty, "Pura vida!" and we responded in kind.  Our lunch spot for the day was the Lava Lounge and it was the best lunch yet: A slice of sweet Costa Rican pineapple, lightly grilled, placed atop a grilled chicken breast and smothered in a spicy sweet sauce.  In typical Backroads fashion, our hotel for the last two nights of the trip was the topper.  Nyara Hotel, Spa and Gardens in La Fortuna was a wonderful place to stay.  Our accommodations were private huts that featured outdoor showers and Jacuzzis, beautiful woodwork and two decks that put us right in the rain forest.

With views like this, it was hard to keep our eyes on the road
A typical rural road

While the hilly volcanic landscape provided plenty of biking challenges, the geothermal activity of the area brings one benefit to those with sore biking muscles (and backsides): Natural bubbling hot springs.  Eco Terminales hot springs.  We enjoyed a dip in the hot springs and a refreshing drink, followed by dinner.

Day four began with a quick shuttle to the Lake Arenal Dam and a boat ride across the lake.  Our drivers Winnie and Scooby were to meet us at the dock after our ride when we would begin our ride around the lake.  Low water conditions made the use of our planned arrival site impossible so the boat driver told us he would drop us at another spot on the shore.  We wondered how far we would have to walk to get to the road but there was no need for concern.  As our boat neared the shore, along came the vans with Winnie and Scooby happily doing some off-road navigating.  As we drove to the spot where we would begin biking, we spotted toucans and howler monkeys in the trees and a family of coatimundi.  The lakeside road supplied lots of scenery and a couple of challenging hills.  As I rounded a corner and finished the ascent of one hill, I was relieved to find the van parked by the side of the road.  Winnie was refilling water bottles and pointing out a sloth he had located in one of the trees.  I was out of breath after climbing the hill as I rode up to him.  He asked me in Spanish whether I wanted water.  I said that I had plenty, thanks.  Did I want fruit?  No, thanks, I said.  A smile crept onto his face: "¿Tanque de oxígeno?"  He knew just how to poke fun at an out-of-shape gringo.

A troop of coatimundi (photo by Andy P.)

After a boat crossing of Lake Arenal, we climbed on our bikes for a ride and enjoyed great views

Many of our fellow travelers elected to go ziplining that afternoon while a few of us elected to go on a hike through the jungle on a trail that featured hanging bridges through the canopy.  We met for cocktails at Nyara's wine bar that evening and then walked to the hotel's restaurant for dinner.  After four days of biking together, we felt like a group of old friends.

The hanging bridges  made it easy to walk right up in the rain forest canopy


On the final day of the trip our 21.4 mile biking route took us along the scenic roads surrounding the volcano.  We stopped at a roadside stand for a refreshing drink from a coconut.  Lunch was at Proyecto Asis, an ecological reserve and animal rescue center.  We were then driven back to the Marriott in San José where we said our good byes.  As with every Backroads trip we've taken, the guides were great and our fellow guests made the whole trip a pleasure.  We headed back to Xandari for one more night's stay before returning home the next day.

Roadside stands provide great fruit snacks

Costa Rica is an ecological gem.  We saw a lot of this beautiful country but there is much more to see and I hope we can return.

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