We’re back!

27 Nov

We returned yesterday from our trip to Costa Rica, a beautiful country with very nice people, a lot of really cool animals, and varied landscape. It was amazing!

We took a red eye flight from San Diego to LAX to San Jose, the capitol. Got in around 7 a.m., picked up our rental car, and began our adventure. Mike did all the driving throughout the trip (he rented a stick shift, which I can’t drive), for which I am terribly grateful. We didn’t have any colones, so stopped at a small store where we could use our credit card to buy drinks and chips for the road. That didn’t quite tide us over enough so we went to a restaurant and had out first gallo pinto, a typical Costa Rican beans and rice dish, before driving to La Fortuna.

La Fortuna is a town at the base of the Arenal volcano. We stayed at a pretty resort called Montana de Fuego (Mountain of Fire) in a “superior bungalow” that faced the mountain and backed onto the jungle. After putting our stuff down and taking a quick nap (we’d been awake FOREVER), we wandered around the hotel and hit the property’s thermal pools before changing into hiking clothes and setting off into the jungle.

We hadn’t gone very far when we came to a split on the trail. One way was the Sendero Perezoso, or Sloth Trail, so naturally we took that. We walked along a little more and I spotted something moving in the trees. IT WAS A SLOTH! I SPOTTED A SLOTH! Within only a couple of hours of being in the country! The funny part is, I didn’t have my glasses on so I couldn’t see it very clearly. I zoomed in with my phone and took a picture and sure enough, it was a sloth. We were all thrilled, and I was bestowed the nickname “Animal Spotter.”

The next morning we went for a horseback ride through the jungle. We’d planned on riding to the volcano, but it was super foggy, and frankly, I’m so glad it worked out that way! Our guide, Alex, got us all on horses. Mike was on Canelo, Michaela was on Gina, and I was on Maya. Alex rode Payaso, which funnily enough was the name of the first horse Michaela ever rode– a sad, skinny horse on the beach in San Felipe, Mexico. Alex gave us a brief lesson and then we were off. It was my first time ever on a horse, and Michaela’s first time doing a real ride. Midwestern/Coloradan Mike had ridden before.

Even though we were riding and nominally controlling our horses, Alex was really the one in control. He would make a certain noise and the horses would go into a trot, and another noise and off we’d gallop. My butt was so sore!

We rode to the river — and into the river! — and saw howler and capuchin monkeys on our ride. It was a really cool way to see the countryside, and a great adventure for all of us. Definitely one of the highlights of our trip.

The next day, we drove up to Arenal, the volcano. We hiked through the primary and secondary forests to a spot where you could see all the lava rock from previous explosions (the volcano hasn’t been active since 2010). We hiked back down on a different route, passing a 400-year-old tree and seeing an acuti, which is basically a ROUS. Seriously, it’s 6 pounds! We also saw a coati, which is an adorable anteater-like mammal, and a number of capuchin monkeys that were hanging out and playing over our heads. Capuchins are cute but apparently they’re very dangerous. They’re smart and mean, and Alex warned us that they can kill you by wrapping their tail around your neck while trying to steal your food. He wasn’t kidding. So when we saw the monkeys and it looked like they were coming down from the trees, we hauled booty out of there.

Michaela enjoyed the hike up until the point she slipped in a mud puddle and got her favorite skirt tremendously dirty. I tried telling her it would be a funny story someday, but she wasn’t having it.

When we got to the parking lot, we found that we were the only car and that everyone had gone home. Turns out the park closed at 4, not 5 as we thought. The gate was locked with a chain, so our options were busting through it, leaving the car and hiking out, or… something else. Fortunately, a car drove by and stopped. I explained our situation and he told me he’d go find a national park employee, but we’d need to be patient. Surprisingly, it was only a few minutes later that a parks employee came to open the gate and we were on our way. Disaster narrowly avoided!

I am convinced I jinxed us, though, because someone had asked me “how are the roads in Costa Rica,” and I said there were much nicer than I was expecting and that driving had been pretty easy. So of course on our next long drive, we drove for 90 minutes on rutted, bumpy, unpaved roads. Our Rav 4 did a good job, though, as did our driver.

The next morning we left La Fortuna and headed to Monteverde, a town home to a famous cloud forest. Mike had booked us into a hostel, which he and Michaela were really excited about. I was a little less excited, though I was happy he’d gotten us a room with a private bath. The place was nice, though, with very friendly staff and right in the middle of town. While we were settling in, Mike spotted a girl who looked around Michaela’s age and encouraged Michaela to talk to her. The girl, Soli, was an 11-year-old French Canadian traveling around Costa Rice with her mom for a month. They hit it off in spite of a language barrier and played card games in the lobby that night before we all went together on a night tour of the rainforest.

The idea behind the night tour is you can see creatures that are active at night. This particular night was very rainy, so we didn’t see much, but not for lack of trying from our guide, Ronald: a couple of tiny frogs, a lot of bugs, some birds, and a green viper.

The next morning we went to the national park and did a guided tour of the cloud forest. It’s at a high elevation, so there are lots of clouds (as you’d expect from the name), which makes it cool temperature-wise and leads to a lot of biodiversity. Our guide was very knowledgeable and took all of Michaela’s questions seriously. We saw orange-kneed tarantulas, bats, lots of birds, and beautiful plant life. At the end of the tour, we went to a coffee shop across the street from the park entrance where they’d set up hummingbird feeders that attracted several different kinds. We got drinks and were watching the birds when an acuti went strolling by, chill as can be. We also stopped by the gift shop, where we met a woman with impeccable English who was an amateur sloth fanatic. She told us all about sloths and about where to find them near our hostel. As it turned out, that night when we were driving back to town, we saw her walking home. Michaela and I hopped out of the car and she walked us around to help us see more sloths. While we didn’t see any, meeting Dulce was another highlight of our trip for me because she 100% lived up to her name (“Sweet” in English).

The next day, we gave Soli and her mom (Line, pronounced “Lean”) a ride to Puntareans, a town on the Pacific coast. We actually had been there before; that’s where our Panama Canal cruise stopped when we did that trip a few years ago. I had been a bit apprehensive about sharing the car with random strangers but it was really fun. Especially when we shared the little bit of French we know, which includes the chorus of the French language version of “Frosty the Snowman.” Gotta love un bonhomme de neige!

From there, we continued south along the coast. We made a stop at Crocodile Bridge, which goes over the Tarcoles River. As the name suggests, there are crocodiles that live near the bridge. We’d visited it on our previous trip, so we knew there were clean, free bathrooms in addition to crocodiles.

There was a definite change in the climate as we drove down from the mountains to the coast. When we arrived in Manuel Antonio, our next stop, it was hot and humid. Mike had gotten us a two-bedroom unit at a place in Quepos, a town outside the Manuel Antonio National Park. It had a pool and a big kitchen, so we stopped at a store to get breakfast foods. We headed to the beach for sunset and holy cow, was it gorgeous!

By that time, though, we were all tired and hungry and over restaurants. We went to the store again and grabbed fixings for dinner. The grilled cheese (American cheese product and Bimbo white bread), soup from a packet, and steamed broccoli was one of my favorite meals of the trip. We ate on the patio of our house and then Michaela took a dip in the pool. It was lovely.

We woke up the next morning to howler monkeys in the trees outside our house, and then to six giant macaws squawking and flying around. We had a leisurely breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, bacon, and orange-carrot juice before heading to the national park.

Manual Antonio National Park is home to several beaches as well as forest, and since we (well, Michaela) were tired of rain forest, we packed for a beach day. A big bottle of water, some fruit (including the most delicious pineapple I’ve ever eaten) and cookies, towels, and sunscreen, plus a souvenir towel we bought that looks like a Costa Rican bill (currency).

Playa Espadilla Sur was a relatively empty beach with a lot of shade trees, so we set up camp there. While we did, we saw a giant iguana lumber by. Mike and Michaela headed into the water, and I joined them, too, for only for a bit (long enough to get hit by a giant wave!). I mostly sat on the sand and read my Kindle, which is my idea of a great vacation activity. After several hours of that, we were all hungry for lunch so walked through the park, where we saw some tremendously aggressive capuchin monkeys (I swear one looked like he was going to kill us) and another sloth!

After we left the park, we had a quick bite on the beach. Literally. We sat at a table on the beach and drank smoothies and shared ceviche and chips and guac. Another great vacation activity in my book.

We hung out at the house more, Michaela went in the pool, and we went out to a nice dinner. Then it was off to bed and, after another delicious homemade breakfast, off to San Jose.

We stayed about 30 minutes away from the airport at a small hotel called the Trapp Family County Inn. There were no singing siblings or Nazis, but it was a cute property. When Mike punched it into the map, the address was something like “400 meters west of the soccer field.” Costa Rica is still working on actual addresses.

We dropped off our stuff and then took an Uber to the Mercado Central. A hallmark of any Watson international vacation is a trip to the market. It’s always fascinating to see what is sold there, how it’s organized, what the locals eat/buy/do there, etc. We had lunch at a 126-year-old soda, or Costa Rican diner, before going through the market. Then we took a walking tour of downtown San Jose, which isn’t my favorite city but grew on me over time. We visited several parks, walked past the legislative building (called the Blue Castle) and through a great street art exhibit, and then made our way back to the market so we could get Michaela some souvenirs. She’s very choosy and she wanted something specific from a stall we’d visited. The problem was, it was nearly closing time and some stalls were already closed and the place was pretty bug and we weren’t 100% sure where the stall she wanted was. It was very tense, but we found the stall and they were still open; then we needed to pick the perfect matching keychains for Michaela and her bestie Claudia. There was a big basket full of wooden keychains with animals painted on them, but we couldn’t find matching ones that had animals we’d actually seen. Because it would have been lame to get dolphin keychains for the girls when we hadn’t seen them in real life on our trip, you know? Fortunately, Mike came through with two sloth keychains and we were all able to breathe a sigh of relief.

We went back into downtown to wait for traffic to die down a bit before going back to our hotel. It was our last full day in Costa Rica, so we splurged a little bit. Mike stopped into a bakery and bought a pastry, Michaela popped into a frozen yogurt place and got a fro yo with toppings, and I… Well, I went to Starbucks and got a full-fat milk chai tea latte. I can’t help it! I don’t drink coffee but I love those, and it was the first Starbucks we’d seen in the entire country. I remember thinking to myself, “Why would I never go to a McDonald’s in a different country, but I’m happy to hit up Starbucks?” I don’t have an answer for that, but as I contemplated the question, we soaked up the WiFi and used the clean, free bathrooms.

After we Uber-ed back, Mike wanted to go get something to eat. It was dinner time and we had to wake up at the crack of dawn the next day to return the rental car and get to the airport, and none of us wanted to eat in the hotel restaurant. He found a highly rated soda near the hotel so we headed there.

This place was in the front yard of a lady’s house. It was on a neighborhood street and when we got there, there were a couple of people waiting for a to-go order. As Mike, Michaela, and I tried to decide what to order, I noticed a giant cockroach crawling along the ceiling near our table. Michaela saw it and freaked out and Mike grumped at her to ignore it and not make a big deal out of it. It was at that point when the roach decided just being there wasn’t the most gross thing it would do. No. The most gross thing would be to FLY DIRECTLY AT US. This giant insect made a beeline first for Mike, then for Michaela, then for me. Michaela was crying, I was trying not to scream, and Mike was, well, not terribly surprised as Michaela and I hopped up and got the eff out of there.

We’d passed several McDonald’s while we were downtown and I made an executive decision that we were going there for dinner. Yes, we did the lame thing that we never do. The prospect of going to another restaurant in someone’s front yard was just too much.

We hit up Mickey Dees, where Michaela got a Cajita Feliz (Happy Meal). She was fascinated because there was a birthday party happening in the sala de fiestas (party room). “Who has a party at McDonald’s? It’s 8:30 on a weeknight!” So Mike and I got to explain to her that 1) when we were kids, people had parties at McDonald’s and 2) McDonald’s is a classic American food that is kind of special for people in other countries.

The next morning, we were up and at ’em. Dropped the car off, took the shuttle to the terminal, got on our first flight (San Jose to LAX), hit the lounge at LAX for some free food and drinks, flew from LAX to San Diego, and took a Lyft home in terrible traffic. It was a long day, but the trip was totally worth it.

Pura vida!

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