Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Costa Rica - Day 7 and End of Trip

Rain!  We didn't let that stop us.  We got in the car and drove to another beach a little south, called Avellenos.  It was a little muddy off-roading adventure.  There was a small "lot" and this dude just sitting in a beach chair and collecting something like $2 to park.  He promised to watch the car and told us not to leave our bags by the mango trees because robbers hide and take your things when you go into the water.  I was pissed about having to pay this random dude who just decided this was his job, but there was really no choice in the matter.  David convinced me to just let it go and park the car.  There is a restaurant called Lola's right next to the lot and it came highly recommended but it was too early so we skipped it.  Looked like a pretty chill place to spend the afternoon though.

Petting a dog with my purse on the beach. 

It got a little nicer out and all we wanted to do was go surfing so we headed back to Mato's and rented a board.  We surfed until a beautiful sunset ended the day.  Almost five hours.  We met locals, travelers, tons of dogs, saw people surf upside down, kids surfing... Blissful would be a word that comes to mind.








We tried to go to a nicer place for dinner, via recommendation from our concierge but after a failed attempt at finding it and then finding out via some locals that it had closed for the season yesterday, we ended up back at Naugi's.  This was really the only hiccup we had due to "green season".  We went all out, ordering civeche and macadamia crusted talapia and surf & turf.  Whoaness.  We were almost sad to say goodbye to our waiter, he was just so nice.  We stopped at one of the shops to get some gifts and then walked back to the hotel in the pitch black one last time.  

The next morning we had our breakfast at the hotel and headed to the airport.  When we returned our car to Avis, the guy guessed exactly where we were based on the color of the mud!  Travel tip for Costa Rica: you have to pay a departure tax.  It takes about 10 minutes and is $28 per person.  If you have extra Calones, it's a good way to use them up.

Once inside, the airport has one generic gift shop (coffee and t-shirts) and an overpriced, busy sports bar with free wi-fi.  I'd recommend stocking up on the snacks before the airport if possible.

Hasta la vista Costa Rica!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Costa Rica - Day 6

Another morning without the alarm because this time, at 7AM, it sounded like someone was being an obnoxious juicehead at the outdoor gym but after about 15 minutes of grunting, I heard some people talking outside and then from our porch I saw it.  HOWLER MONKEYS!

My selling point for this hotel was that monkeys are often spotted here and it was the truth.  I watched them for about an hour and then it started to rain so they went to sleep in the trees and we had breakfast at the hotel.

These hybrid birds would sneak onto the tables at the hotel and steal the sugar packets and occasionally, whatever else was up for grabs.  


We wanted to hit up some of the other beaches so despite the rain, we got in the jeep and headed to Playa Conchal.  I had fun offroading.  You would never know our car was blue because it was covered in so much mud.  The lay of the land is a bit inconvenient for the beach hopper.  You have to drive back inland to go to the beach next door because each shorelines are crescent shaped.  Considering how much we heard about this beach in particular, I was shocked by how secluded it was.  It was gorgeous and the sun was strong.


Next we headed to Playa Grande.  Well, we think it was Playa Grande.  The waves were a bit more intense so we watched a couple of surfers for a bit and then we knew we had to go back to Tamarindo and get our boards.  We grabbed a bite at Koi/That's Amore.  I'm not really clear on the name but it was the best meal I had in Tamarindo.  It was just a fried shrimp panini with these sweet red peppers and avocado.  I wish I got the name of the peppers because they were that good!

David rented a long board from Mato's for $5 while I grabbed a $19 bottle of Aleve to get rid of my migraine.  Fun times.  David surfed for about an hour and a half and just as my headache was subsiding and I was about to get in the water, this major thunder storm rolled in.  We weren't sure if it would last so we packed up and went back to the hotel for a few.
When I heard thunder I turned around and saw this!  

That night was the Costa Rica versus USA soccer game in San Jose, Costa Rica.  There is a sports bar called Sharkeys so we went there and had some bar food.  The bar was filled with Ticos and the random Americans.  It was fun.    

Monday, October 28, 2013

Costa Rica - Day 5

Surfing Day!  We didn't even need to set an alarm because we were woken up by AN EARTHQUAKE.  Well, at least I was.  All our windows were open and when the bed started to shake for about 20 seconds, at first I thought it was just a really strong wind gust.  But then it happened again and I grabbed David and yelled "EARTHQUAKE!" and he told me to go back to bed.  But then we both woke up and went to breakfast at the hotel and I asked the waiter who confirmed it was indeed a kind od large shakefest.  It was super weird because it was exactly a year ago that they had their last major quake.   

I realized that the tide was low so I had a feeling our lesson was going to be pushed back.  Sure enough, when we got to the surf shop, we were told that around 2 would be a better time so we decided to come back later.  

We took advantage of the nice weather but didn't want exhaust ourselves so we relaxed by our beach & pool.  I made a dog friend who followed me around for a couple hours and then we had a light lunch at the hotel and saw the guy from the night before (who was surfing on the restaurant floor) hopping out of the ocean because he got stung by a stingray. I've never seen a grown man in so much visible pain.  They put his foot in a bucket of ice until he decided to go to the hospital.  
Playa Grande from Captain Suizo


My new buddy.
For our surf lesson at Tamarindo Beach, it was $45/person and lasted about 2 hours.  There was another couple from Switzerland who joined us. The guy was a writer and they just spent time in the Canary Islands and are now renting a house in Tamarindo for three months.  Can you imagine?!  But back to the surfing, the beach had a lot of surfers and everyone talks to each other while waiting for the waves.  I was nervous because in Hawaii, on the North Shore where we surfed, you couldn't really get off your board because the ocean floor was so rough so you were constantly paddling.  That killed my body but this beach was amazing.  You could walk out far enough so paddling was limited and we were able to sustain ourselves much better.  

We didn't want to stop surfing but also didn't want to push it so we went for a walk on the other side of the beach and watched the sun set.  We went out to "Nibbana, as seen on HGTV" for dinner.  Seriously, they didn't have a formal sign, just one promoting their future show appearance. As soon as i sat down, i felt sick so David hurried through dinner and i went to sleep. It wouldn't be a vacation if i didn't get proper sick at least once.


Monday, October 21, 2013

Costa Rica - Day 4

Travel time!  The plan - to go from Tabacon/Arenal (kind of the center of the country) to Tamarindo, on the west coast.  About a three and a half hour drive.  We weren't really looking forward to the road around the lake but it turned out to not be so bad.

We stopped at the German Bakery for breakfast and this part is a little blurry to me, as I was severely suffering from a sinus infection.  But there were pastries and coffee and I remember some cats roaming around.





















Our final destination was Captain Suizo.  A beautiful beachside getaway at the far edge of town.  I felt like when we told people we were staying there, they seemed impressed and I couldn't have imagined a better place to stay.  I'm grateful for the recomendations from everyone who suggested it.  The rooms are airy, split-level, clean and sans TV.  The owners are Swedish and have a big ol' philosphy on why things are they way they are at the place.  Everyone was friendly and I am so happy we decided to stay here.

We headed to the beach and I was not expecting to water to be hot.  I got right in!  It was low tide so we got out pretty far too.  The beach is so big during low tide!   The sky got grey pretty fast and it was about dinner time so we walked over to where the restaurants in town were.  The road wasn't paved so it was a muddy, slippery walk and I kinda wish I had brought rain boots. We cut across to the beach and walked along there until we came closer to town.

A beachside restaurant was the first place we saw and there were a lot of people there.   Since we really didnt plan where we were going and the rain wasnt letting up, we settled into a patio seat at Naugi's and enjoyed watching our neighboring table get wasted and teach each other how to surf, on the floor of the restaurant.  (They had just met that day.)  After fish tacos and pork chops, we walked into town and these two dogs were kinda like, "Oh hey, follow us!" so we did and ended up in front of Mato's Surf Shop.  This surfer dude was out there and introduced himself as Eric.  Turns out Bon Ton the dog is Eric's.  The universe could not have been any more obvious to an animal lover looking for a surf lesson!  :)  We talked for a bit and Eric told us to come by at 9AM tomorrow for our lesson. We headed back on the beach in the pitch black and used my phone's flashlight app to guide the way.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Arenal - Day 3

We really wanted to head to the top of a volcano but Arenal is off-limits because it is still active (to a degree.  No eruptions or lava flow since 2010.)  Apparently, there were some hikers who travelled up at their own risk and a gas pocket exploded and they were killed by the fumes.  So we debated heading over to a different volcano but decided against the last minute road trip plans.

I'm a sucker for waterfalls and most people mention La Fortuna Waterfall in the Arenal area, so we went over there.  I found that it's a crapshoot what will be what people say things will be as far as the expected "adventure" to get to your intended location.  Some said it was a rough road, some said the hike was hard.  Well the road was no big deal (not paved but definitely driveable) and the hike wasn't a breeze but certainly not advanced.  For $8/person (I think), we took the 490 stone stairs down (which also meant 490 steps back up) and arrived at a sensational waterfall.
The steps.
Optical illusion.   















There was no one there when we arrived around 10 but by the time we left, there were about 20 people.  David went for a swim in the pool and we explored the area and riverbed a bit before heading out.  I felt like with this site, you could make as much or as little of it as you'd like.  In and out in an hour or pack a picnic and spend a few.  It was really a peaceful place worth stopping by.

Couldn't resist a yogi moment.  
We still had many daylight hours and decided to check out 1968 lava flow at the Arenal Volcano National Park.  It was super hot and I think I was just adventured out but I was underwhelmed with the hike.  I thought there would be more lava fields and interesting things along the way.  However, I did have the epiphany that volacnos are just the Earth's butt holes.




Heading back the way we came, we went into town for some casado/tipical plates; the traditional Costa Rican lunch plate. La Choza was recommended by the concierge and it's this huge open outdoor (but covered) space.  A common thing about being in Costa Rica during green season is that the places you go are generally empty.  This has its pros and cons during travel.  At first it makes you kind of skeptical but then its kind of awesome because you can always get a table and you get a lot of attention from your waiter. 

"Volcano Rice" from La Choza.
We spent the rest of the evening relaxing for one last time at the springs.  We found a great little spot, our very own lounge chairs, and for about 20 minutes it was perfect...until the torrential downpour.  Every day at around 5PM it rained but this time, it was different.  It was intense and for almost two hours.  We tried to wait it out under a little towel hut but after about 30 minutes, we ran for cover.  The Springs were overflowing and the towel lady told us she hasnt seen it overflow like this in about a year.  We went and got some banana smoothies at the bar and once it got back to a drizzle, we went back for more!  For round two, I found my favorite pool yet!  We were blissed out, read in the lobby, had a light dinner.  Since it gets dark so early, plus the time difference and not that much to do at night, I was happy to hit the hay a little on the early side.  

Monday, October 14, 2013

Arenal - Day 2

We woke up early again and headed to La Fortuna, the main town in the Arenal area.  It's about a 10 minute drive around the volcano from Tabacon.  I thought it was a small town but actually compared to the other "towns", it's fairly large.
Arenal from the main road in La Fortuna.  

After a small panic attack about how and where to park (and realizing we drove through town the wrong way), we went over to the Rainforest Cafe for a traditional Costa Rican breakfast with the best cup of coffee/latte of the entire trip.  The food was good; rice and beans and tortillas with two eggs over easy and the place overall was kind of super cute.  The guy next to us special ordered plantain pancakes.  That made me smile.

It was still fairly early so we walked around town to check it out and the sun was already beaming.  We were warned about it's strength but seriously, I have never felt anything so strong in my life.  It was almost unbearable and hindered our walk a bit.  We walked into the church (iglesia), around the town center, decided we saw enough and got in the car to road trip a bit.

We drove the countryside, through the towns.  They are all the same.  Church, school, run down "soda", stray dogs.  Then it was time for the thing I was most excited for...monkeys!  We arrived at Proyecto Asis a little early and chilled in the front area with the best greeting committee ever, three super friendly, domestic dogs.  I knew I was in the right place.  :)

I had read about Proyecto Asis on tripadvisor.com, and with some further research, I knew I had to go.  It is a rehab facility for Costa Rican wildlife that opened in 1994.  They have a couple of options for their place when you visit.  You can go for a regular visit to tour the place, go for a volunteer program for a few hours where you interact with the animals more, or go for weeks at a time as an educational program to learn Spanish and work with the animals.  We did the volunteer option.

It was just us and this other couple.  Our guide, Carlos, was so great; just a really good energy, very happy and passionate about what he was doing.  Being in a rescue world, I could tell this was a good place.  Yes, dogs and cats are different to jungle animals but I just knew, these people were the real deal.  The facilities were well maintained and the employees there knew their stuff.  It was an extremely impressive experience for me.  I said if I were to move here, this is where I would work.
Carlos and his girlfriend, Daniela.  

We got the tour first. Ideally, they hope to vet the injured animals and then get them back in the wild.  But sometimes that just isn't an option so they are a sanctuary as well, which means the pets that can't be released back into the wild will stay there and be cared for for the remainder of their lives.

We saw some hogs, a baby boa, an aggressive Huron (like a ferret), lots of birds like parrots, a rainbow toucan, a sloth mommy and her baby (who actually just lives free and happened to decide to swing from the electrical wires that morning and needed rescue, we saw the video!) and of coarse the monkeys.  Costa Rica only has four native species of monkeys. Howler, Spider, Capuchin and Squirrel.
He kept doing this to make me laugh.  It worked. 

What happens when birds are kept as pets and get too stressed.  


                                                               






















































After our tour, we got some fruit and coffee and then cut up the rest of the fruit for the animals.  I was all prepared to clean up poop and stuff but we threw the fruit in some baskets and began feeding which was our "job".  It was so fun!  We came at a time that there happened to be four male, Capuchin baby monkeys.  They were all about four months old and orphaned for one reason or another.  We got to go inside their cage to pet them and feed them and I seriously had to make an effort not to lose my shit because I was so excited about this moment.  It was my dream come true.  (Side note for the ladies, wear your hair UP.  Monkeys LOVE yanking hair, as the other lady on our tour can attest to.)
This is one of the most exciting moments of my life. 
When we were done, David basically dragged me out of there and when we got to sit in the car I realized how badly my legs were bit up.  Despite literally bathing in bug spray, I counted a total of 47 bug bites.  Every single one was worth it.  But if I return, I'll be wearing pants.  And if you go, wear pants.

We continued our evening with a little R & R at the thermal pools, got caught in a crazy rain storm, and then headed to dinner at Benedictus, our first night venturing out of the hotel.  David looked on tripadvisor (Tabacon has free wifi by the way and as you can see, tripadvisor was a huge help) and did not tell me anything about it but had me drive.  I'm the better driver so I should have known something was up.

Benedictus is on the way to La Fortuna from Tabacon so we pulled in and then I realized why I was driving.  I laughed the entire winding, very uphill, pitch black, cow blocked, dirt road way up.  We got to this house at the top of the hill and I can only imagine what the view would have been in the daytime.  You could spend a while there on their porch and playing pool in the living room.  There were only a couple of tables at this converted cabin and the one waiter there was so nice and the food was AMAZING.  Best meal of the trip.  I had talapia with avocado sauce (aka guac).  I wish I could cook fish like this!  I was told the avocados were literally picked from their tree that day.  Everything is from their land which I theoretically loved yet actually struggled with when it came to the meat.  When I actually saw the cows/chickens, I just couldnt get myself to order any it.  I ended up avoiding it the entire trip.  Despite the fact, Benedictus really cares about their establishment and the quality of their food which is the point I was trying to make.

The couple we randomly were on the hiking trip with the day before happened to be there and we chatted with them to give us some ideas for what to do the next day because we had nothing planned.  Side Note: The only problem I had about the dinner was that the entire time I had heard this puppy crying and on our way out, the CUTEST puppy was chillin with our waiter.  It was his new little pup and whenever he was in the dining room, he cried.  Once again, David had to drag me away from an animal.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Arenal - Day 1

Our actual One Year Anniversary!  We both said we had no interest in going ziplining so naturally the very first day and the very first thing we did was that.  Our room clock read 8AM so we got up and went to the concierge to see if any spots were available but no one was there.  We asked the front desk what time they open and he said 8 and we asked what time it was and he said 6!  There's a two hour time difference but we were clearly all mixed up.  So we had some coffee, fixed our clock, and then arranged the tour.

Sky Trek picked us up in a shuttle and drove about 20 minutes to their home base.  It was an unpaved road so we were glad we didn't drive.  Plus the tour guide throws in some interesting and important information on the way.  We geared up and headed up the Sky Tram with a group of 15.  (They said it was better to go at this time of year because with the bigger groups, you zip and then wait like a half hour each time for everyone to go.)  The view was incredible, clear skies and all.
View from the Sky Tram of Lake Arenal. 

I'm not quite sure what I was expecting but the height didn't bother me so much as the length.  These runs are long!  The heavier you are the better and the very first one we zipped, I did not make it the entire way, despite getting up to about 40mph, so I had to turn around and pull myself up.  The rest went OK and I got to ride with one of the workers on one of the wires so I could take a video.  They were cool like that, a fun (and safe) company.
The first zip line is on the bottom right.  

When we finished, because it was still so nice out, we joined a tour through the jungle for the hanging bridges.  The same owner runs the Monteverde hanging bridges, which is a popular cloud forest destination but was a little too far for us.  These bridges were built only a couple of years ago.  We learned a lot about the flora and fauna from our guide and 4 hours later, we were exhausted.


Timing couldnt have been more perfect because we changed and went straight to our massages.
This spa was amazing.  You relax in the main area, they serve you fresh juices and cucumbers and then they bring you to your treatments.  We were lead to this private hut in the middle of the rainforest, right next to the river from the hot springs.  It was raining out and a little cold but I think that only added to the relaxation factor.

The massage was the best massage of my life.  Afterwards, you take a private outdoor shower right next to your hut, just in the open of the rainforest, which was good considering we were covered in honey (it was the spa special, honey & orange - sounds odd but actually worked).  Then we wrapped up in our plush robes, hung out by the lounge again (open air but covered which was great because it was pouring at this point), got some fresh fruit and tea and then showered again in the best shower of the entire trip in the ladies room.  If I didn't love monkeys and surfing so much, this would have been my favorite part of the vacation.    
Tabacon Spa Resting Area photo from the website.
Photo of the treatment bungalows from the Tabacon Website.

 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Getting To Costa Rica

For our one-year wedding anniversary, we promised that we would travel again.  We also knew we had to surf again.  Then I decided I needed to be with the monkeys.  So it seemed only natural that we head to Costa Rica. They have world class surfing spots and monkeys running around like whoa.  It also happened to be green season so there were good deals to be dealt.

I had a couple of concerns.  Like for one, neither of us speak even the slightest amount of Spanish.  Also, the green season thing made me a little weary.  I read conflicting things about the weather at this time of year (Labor Day time).  Some hotels and restaurants even close down for the season right at the week we wanted to go.  If Costa Rican's didn't want to be in Costa Rica then, did we?  But then I thought, we were going to a RAIN forest and surfing so we would be getting wet most of the time anyway! We're going!

I didn't know how I was going to narrow it down because I like to see everything.  I researched the heck out of the place and based on several other opinions of friends and family that had been there, we opted to go to the jungle/volcano area for half the time and then the beach. David said the only thing he requested was that there was air conditioning at our hotels because he thought it was going to be very hot.  That helped narrow it down quite a bit because Costa Rica is known for their eco-friendly approach and unless you are staying in newer, and I'd say more than a 3-star spot, you are not going to find that.  C'est la vie for a budget-friendly trip!  (That said, this is a very easy place to travel on a budget if you wanted.)

We found direct flights from Newark to Liberia on United at a very reasonable price.  The flight was only 4 1/2 hours and it flew by!  (Haha, get it?!)  We took the Supershuttle and it took an hour and a half from the Upper East Side.  Travel Tip: Don't forget to factor in time for possibly picking up about 12 other people!  Luckily, we still had left early enough that it was alright but I was starting to freak out a bit.  Also a tip, just because you have two travelers does not mean if you share a suitcase, you can go over 50 pounds.  Logically this makes NO sense but there is no getting around this.  Either pack separate bags or make sure you pack a foldable bag so you have extra room to stuff as much as possible into it when you go over the limit.

We landed in the new and small Liberia airport and a short line at customs and a passport stamp later, we were off to Avis in their shuttle. We had been warned about the extra insurance they make you add on so we were expecting it but the woman next to us was furious and making such a scene.  The cars are cheap to rent but then they make you get these insurance packages that jack up the price and there is not too much you can do about it.  Just expect it and it doesn't sting so much.  (The employee had the best response to the lady screaming that she used her American Express.  He said, "Ma'am, there are many credit cards in this world and I do not know all of their policies but if you want to drive away with this car, you will need to pay for insurance.")  We also opted to get a 4x4 which we were grateful for and the navigation which was somewhat helpful.  I think we could have been OK with just our maps.  Our Avis guy was the first real (limited) conversation we had with a local and he was so nice, a trait we consistently found in people we met there.

Begin road trip #1.  Tamarindo -> Arenal.  Let me start by saying we knew this trip was going to have some surprises.  We prepared for this but at the same time, its hard to truly prepare for unknown.  I packed extra snacks and made sure we had water.  Little things like that which I normally wouldn't have been too concerned with made a world of a difference.

The infrastructure is minimal in general and they are expanding the highway we were on but at least this road was paved to get us started.  Otherwise its a dirt road here and there.  There are not really shortcuts in this country.  So to get to our hotel, Tabacon, you have to drive AROUND Lake Arenal.  It doesn't seem that large, until you have to drive around it!  It was reminiscent of the Road to Hana in Maui.  You weave in and out of the shoreline through this mountainside on a tiny road.  We had no idea it would be like this and we just laughed at how absurd this three hour portion of the trip was.
Map from Arenal.net, a great resource.  

It was bright and sunny and we turned one of the hundred bends and saw this.  

At some point, these signs started to appear for Toad Hall.  They were really funny and I'd estimate they started about an hour before you actually reach the place.  I found a very small sentence about it in an older Fodor's guidebook and when we reached it, it was like the greatest feeling ever after that ride.
One of the hundreds of signs from Toad Hall.  

We got some food (nachos were yummy!) and took in the amazing view; a green jungle valley is literally the backdrop.  We found out they are also a hotel, huge gift shop AND a bird sanctuary!  There was a five month old toucan named Sam, and a couple of parrots that spoke Spanish.  The owner was sweet and from Long Island.  I knew something felt familiar!  I was going to get my good camera (excuse for the shotty photos that dont do this place justice) but thunder was rolling in the distance and it started to drizzle and get dark so we had to go but I could have stayed there the rest of the trip!  Oh also when we were leaving a giant cow decided to escort us to our car.  That was nice.
Our lunch seats. 

The view from the seats above. 

About a half hour down the road was Tabacon.  I don't know what exactly I was expecting but it was not what it was.  It was way better.  We were greeted with the full treatment: towelettes, welcome drinks and a golf carted escort to our room that had a lovely welcome note and a chocolate "happy anniversary" cake.
Welcome to Tabacon! 

The layout of the hotel is very spread out.  I still cant decide if I liked it or not.  The main area (front desk, bar, computers, etc.) is at the entrance area and then there are separate buildings with other rooms, like condo style.  The main restaurant is up a small hill to the back and the spa and thermal pools (included when you stay there and a big reason we did) are actually down the road.  It's a five minute walk across the street and they have a shuttle van.  The buffet dinner is over there too.

We took one look at our suitcases, one look at ourselves, and put on bathing suits as fast as we could to head to the hot springs.  It was pretty much dark at about 5PM when we got to the most magical place in the world.  It was raining a bit, as it does in the evenings in the rain forest, but it didn't matter. The steam was rising from all the natural springs and it was just a gorgeous maze of hot pools awaiting people to dip in them.  I've never seen anything like it.
Tabacon: steam rising from the pools.  The volcano naturally heats the water to about 100 degrees. 

We didn't want to leave but we were starving and exhausted so we went to dinner at the hotel restaurant because it was easy.  Also an unexpected and therefore funny experience because the place is kinda fancy (like amuse bouche style) but it was nice because it was quiet, except for the frogs.