God sometimes gives us unexpected gifts. Our gift has been a grandson who enlivens our lives and makes retirement very different than the one we anticipated. He is a special joy. And that's "Casey." In 2006 we fulfilled our dream of living in Italy for a year. It was every bit as wonderful as anticipated. This blog begins in 2005 as we prepared for that experience. Since then we have explored many places together. That's the "Travel." And finally, I am a person of opinions--spiritually, politically, on just about anything and that's the "Other Stuff." Welcome to my blog.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Costa Rica Episode 3--Monteverde Cloud Forest

After a leisurely breakfast and preparations to leave Arenal and the beautiful Lost Iguana, we were picked up and taken to Lake Arenal which was just a couple minutes away--we had passed it numerous times on our excursions. A private boat and boat captain took us across the lake to the very muddy, very wet, very rustic landing place where a driver and van awaited us for the drive to Monteverde. Up until this point, we really had wondered why friends and family warned us of the mind and body numbing roads in Costa Rica. Yes, some had been a little rough but nothing to write home about. Within 30 seconds of this ride, we knew. This ride was to make the white-roads of Italy pale by comparison. There were ruts, holes-big holes, rocks, boulders and more for the next 2 hours or maybe it was 3--at the time I would have said 24. Additionally, as we went up the drop became steeper and steeper. We were thankful for a driver who clearly had made this trip many, many times and knew each boulder and hole. This was clearly more rugged territory than the more developed Arenal area. The reality is this just gave us one more colorful memory and experience; after all, we have enough freeways at home.

Finally we arrived in the town of Monteverde which is composed of restaurants, souvenir shops, excursions/tour/activity businesses, a couple banks (which was good as we needed an ATM to replenish our colónes which were about 500 to a dollar) and a very good ice cream place. Monteverde developed as a tourist area much later than Arenal and so lacks some of the rush and bustle which, truthfully, is really quite nice. It is still pretty rustic, simple  and laid back with wooden sidewalks and sometimes dusty window displays. Certainly not the nightlife that Arenal has, in which we did not participate.

We were immediately taken to our lodging the Monteverde Lodge and Gardens which architecturally is really at one with the surrounding foliage and forest. It is a mountain lodge not a glitzy hotel. At first we found ourselves comparing it with the beauty of the Lost Iguana and the lovely, large, well-appointed room we had there but we soon reminded ourselves of the difference between a resort and a lodge. The room here was rather cramped quarters for 3 people. Perhaps there were larger rooms which would have been nice. Since Casey is now man-size, we three trip over each other easily.

With that said, we did enjoy it here. The staff was helpful and accommodating--doing such things as drying our rather wet outer garments when we returned from the rather wet cloud forest. The restaurant was good and the wait staff was professional, warm and very nice.

The first night we went for a twilight, read dark, wildlife hike in the adjoining forest. Our guide was totally outstanding who, like safari guides, saw things we would never have spotted. At first I was a little concerned because Casey does not call me "queen of klutz" for nothing. There were up and down stairs and paths--some steep, reminding me that I should have listened to Ken when he told me I should exercise to get ready for this trip. Paths were slippery with wet leaves. But, in spite of these conditions, we were told not to grab any tree or foliage to steady ourselves as there might well be snakes entwined on them. This wasn't the most welcome of warnings! I did use a walking stick for the first time in my life and found that it worked wonderfully well and provided a refreshing degree of confidence and stability. The rest of the trip I used one on our hikes.

We saw several animals, sleeping birds, tarantulas, spiders, puma tracks and, I am sure, things I have forgotten. I had not known that birds perch on a limb and go to sleep for the night until dawn. We saw several doing this. It was a good walk. Dinner was in the lodge that night.

And...here is one. In bed for the night. Cute, isn't he or she?

The next day was a trip to the cloud forest in the morning. Cloud forests are higher in elevation than rain forest; however, just as wet. We actually did not see very much on this outing. Everything was in hiding. There was a tarantula or two, some birds and a millipede but that was about it--no animal life.

All and all, it was rather a dud except the forest is lush and gorgeous--sort of like nature's temple. 

That afternoon we went to a hummingbird gallery which basically was a place that had many feeders with sugar water to which humming birds flock. They were beautiful and there were a lot of them but it just seemed contrived with all the feeders.

And, this was December 31--New Year's Eve. Not much was happening in town--in fact, I think nothing. The Lodge did have a special menu but it was turkey which didn't appeal to us. So, we went to Sofia which was recommended by the lodge. This was a very nice restaurant with an upscale menu which surprised us. It turns out that Sofia and Trio, where we ate the next night, are owned by a woman from the US who has restaurants here. The menus reflect some creative sophistication along with an acceptable wine list. We enjoyed both places.

Our last day in Monteverde, Ken and I toured the Don Juan Coffee and Chocolate Plantation while Casey had much more fun horsebacking riding. Somehow learning the ins and outs of all you ever wanted to know about coffee growing did not seem what a 14 year old would enjoy. The truth is that Ken and I didn't find it all that interesting either. I think we should have joined Casey even though I am quite certain my anatomy would feel the pain afterwards. Looking at this picture, it seems as if Casey could have used a larger animal but we weren't there so maybe they were all this size. All I know is that he had a great time, didn't fall off and said they went at a pretty good clip. He was happy.

In the afternoon we did go somewhere that we all found interesting--The Bat Jungle--which I know sounds creepy. But, it actually was very interesting in that the guy that took us around really likes bats, has studied them extensively and shares a wealth of knowledge about bats world wide. I was a little worried when they took us into the cave that bats would be flying around and into us but, happily, there was a glass wall between us and them which suited me just fine. The bat guy did go in and feed them and made himself at home and seemed to be pretty much left alone. Actually, contrary to my feelings about the coffee planation and the hummingbird garden, I would recommend going here.

The next morning we were picked up early for a three hour ride back to San Jose where we went to a small airfield and boarded our private chariot plane which took us to Tortuguero--which we all loved. Think of Fantasy Island and "zee plane, zee plane" if you are old enough to know.

This was actually bigger than the plane we had in Kenya and not held together with duct tape as was the plane in the Amazon rain forest--which was larger. Forgetting to pray is not an option on these adventures.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Costa Rica, Episode 2--Arenal

About this whole episode thing....blame it on Downton Abbey, of which I was not even aware for its first two years. Soap operas in any form, even sophisticated PBS imports from the BBC, always seemed that they would be a little tawdry and appealing to our baser natures (not that I ever watched one to see how wrong I could be)--besides, waiting from one week to another for the next "episode" seemed much too suspenseful. Of course, I did do Mad Men for a while which definitely was tawdry. Anyway, it seems that Downton Abbey has become a craze in many sectors, not least of all among my friends. So....firing up Netflix, I watched Season 1, Episode 1 as it was clear that season 3 could not begin in a vacuum. That happened last week and now I am on episode 6 of season 2, with the VCR recording season 3; tawdry has been replaced by high intellectual value.

So, in keeping with my new addiction, this is Episode 2 of the Grand Costa Rica Christmas adventure, taking place in Arenal, home of the elusive Arenal volcano. This is what we saw of the volcano as we arrived at our lodging. Shortly there after, it disappeared into the mist and rain for the next 4 days. I believe it reappeared shortly after we left.

Beginning shortly after our arrival, the rains began--torrential, deafening, wet rains, night and day. In between the heavens emptying, there were light rains and misting--but keeping the motif of wet. We  never were reduced to lowly sprinkles. But..never fear, we did not travel all this way to be intimidated or have our plans derailed. We carried on in true Downton Abbey fashion.  Fortunately, it was not cold and beauty surrounded us, lifting our souls.

About our accommodations, suffice it to say they were lovely. A very large room--very large--with a balcony spa and a straight-on view of the volcano--or what should have been a view. The grounds were tropical with birds, monkeys and other scurrying wildlife. Because the Lost Iguana is quite a distance from the town of La Fortuna, we had our meals there (except for lunch when we were almost always away). Glad to say the food was quite good. The rooms are scattered through out the property and so golf card pick up service was available when needed--like when the skies opened up and it was dinner time.

OK--what did we do? Well, adventure #1 was white water rafting. When we first began working with Costa Rica Expeditions, Gustavo our agent, scheduled us for level 5 rapids which did not seem like such a good idea to me, a total novice. He seemed to agree once I explained this so we settled on level 2 and 3 rapids on a different river--the Sarapiqui.  I can tell you that it was amazing fun even when the rain came down so hard that it was truly impossible to see. The best part of this was that it made the rapids even more exciting and we certainly could not get any wetter.   

Above is our raft group. The guy in blue is Enzo our guide. See if you can spot us in the other two pictures? The paddles are lifted in the air as we shout Pura Vida after successfully conquering each rapid, and, I am pleased to report, I did not fall into the river, needing to be rescued by the kayak guy. Although, my body of ancient years did know it had had a workout which gave cause for a leisurely, wonderful massage in the late afternoon.

Oh yeah, you may wonder how we took such wonderful pictures of our adventure; well, clearly we didn't. I am not sure how they happened but it seems that there is this magician man who jumps from location to location along the river taking photos--quite difficult to picture. As we were all having lunch with our guide after the rafting, this guy sat down, opened his computer and showed us 35 amazing pictures of our trip down the rapids. Of course, we bought the cd just to have some pictures to show you.

The next day came the activity which had caused me the most apprehension--zip lining. However, as friends had assured me, this is really super easy and an incredibly memorable experience. Check this link to get a pretty good idea of what it was Sky Trek. The first line (well, the first real line as there are 2 baby ones so you can make sure you want to continue) started in the rain forest but within a couple seconds I was sailing through the air, looking down into a deep, really deep, chasm--quite an adrenalin rush. One line was 700 meters, allowing a fantastic view of the surrounding forest and Lake Arenal. I was so ready to start over when finished--except it is not a cheap activity. And...to prove that I am not a vain woman always needing to be beautiful...here I am fearlessly jumping into the unknown. See, I did do it.

Our third major activity (there were smaller ones), was Caño Negro Wild Life Refuge, a 2 1/2 hour drive but well, well worth it--beginning with it being warm and sunny, rather than wet and rainy. This tour is on the river right along the Nicaraguan border. Here we had a leisurely boat trip down the river, spotting all kinds of wild life along the way---birds, colorful male iguanas and their dull, brown females, caiman, birds, monkeys, birds, lizards, horses, cows, sloths and birds--and, I am undoubtedly forgetting something. We liked this excursion a lot and highly recommend it. It was one of the best wildlife viewing places we were as when in the rain and cloud forests, it is actually difficult to see many things other than frogs, spiders and some birds--at least that was our experience.

After lunch, we took a quick 5 minutes detour to the Nicaraguan border but, with security guards ever busy eye, we thought it probably wise not to pass by the barbed wire. Zendar, our very good guide, quite agreed.

So, these are the highlights of Arenal. We loved everything here--even the rain. If you decide to go,  be sure to consider The Lost Iguana Lodge. It's only drawback is its distance to the town of La Fortuna if you are wanting nightlife, shopping, etc We were quite content to stick to nature.

Next up: Episode 3--Monteverde, bats, cloud forest (as opposed to rain forest,) and coffee.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Another Christmas Adventure--Costa Rica

It seems that Christmas has become a time for us to explore unknown places--that is, unknown to us. Last year it was historical, tumultuous, mysterious, revolution prone Egypt and Jordan--camel riding, pyramid climbing, temples and tombs. This year we chose beautiful, lush, nature at its best Costa Rica--rain forests, cloud forests, rivers, canals, rafting and ziplining. Very different places but both quite wonderful. The greatest joy of these trips, though, is the fun we have together and the memories that are forged and created for all of us but most particularly for Casey to carry with him through life. We are lucky that a 14 year old enjoys doing these things with his parents, so often this is not the case with teenagers. God blesses us.

Zip Lining

At one time, I would blog in real time as we experienced things; however, I find myself now choosing to use down time differently--reading a book, contemplating, lounging and watching life, maybe being ambitious enough to organize pictures from 3 cameras. I choose not to find time has disappeared in front of an iPad screen. With the journal that photos create, it is not too difficult to reconstruct when we get home. Plus, there is the added benefit of reliving the experience when writing and gazing into 600 visual records. Of course, it does take longer to write this way as pictures such as the one above cause me to reflect, remember and appreciate that moment we had. Such good memories.

As always, living on the west coast entails longer travel times than our east coast friends have..unless we are going to places like Hawaii, China and Japan. This time it was San Diego, Houston, San Jose (Costa Rica, that is.) We left Christmas morning as we wanted to have Christmas Eve with son Jeff, who then graciously took us to the airport as we abandoned him on Christmas day. We did make sure he had a few thousand piece Lego to keep him busy that day. No Christmas is complete for him without a Lego even though he is quite a grown man. 

We arrived in Costa Rica at 9:30 pm where we were met by a representative from Costa Rica Expeditions, whom I highly recommend when you decide to cross this country off your bucket list. After a short night of sleep, we were retrieved at 7:30 am to begin our acquaintance with sloths, toucans, monkeys, iguanas, crocodiles, caiman and at least 500,000 different birds. Casey was in his glory and now can give you the name of each of these birds. He and wildlife click.

Our first stop was La Paz Waterfall Gardens which had been recommended to me by friend Liz, an even more intrepid traveler than I. She is the one who gurued us re. Egypt and Jordan.  I knew if she approved of La Paz it was an OK side excursion before the real adventure began. La Paz is an animal sanctuary for rescued wild life which have been illegal pets or hurt in the wild. And, although the animals are penned, it is a way to see some of the elusive wildlife up close and personal. There are also wonderful butterfly and frog exhibits, ocelots, pumas, sloths and birds, of course. As in all of Costa Rica the foliage is lush, green and junglesque. There is a hike to and from the exquisite waterfalls but the trek is well worth the effort and, fortunately for me who is rather non-agile (read clumsy) at times, a wooden handrail to grasp.


We spent 3 or so hours here, including having a typical Costa Rican lunch of meats, rice and beans and wonderful fresh fruit, before heading off to our first destination, Arenal.

Our driver Doña Irma and our guide Gustavo were delightful. Driving in Costa Rica is not like driving in San Diego-which may or may not be a blessing; however, we were glad for Doña Irma's skills as some of the roads are a little challenging. It took three or so hours through coffee fields, mango groves and countryside to get to our lodge in Arenal, The Lost Iguana which was all that the website promised--beautiful, relaxing, wonderful service and a full view of the volcano...except we only saw part of it the first day and from them on it disappeared into the rain and mist. Although this was the "dry" season, as with much of the world these days, the climate is turned upside down. We had torrential rains almost our entire 4 day stay in Arenal. But...never fear....we didn't let water stop us and so we did all we planned...zip lining, white water rafting (after all rain couldn't make us any wetter than the rapids), hiking and more. All of this will be dutifully reported in episode 2 of the Costa Rica Adventure.

Our one and only view of the volcano  

More to come