Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Visa Run Day 4: Wild Wild West

DISCLAIMER: Alison here . . .  I’m writing a series of guest blogs covering 9/30-10/7 – the dates where Nick, Minh and I joined Vic on his visa run to Nicaragua and the journey through Costa Rica back to Costa de Oro.
Date: Wednesday 10/3/12

Location: Costa Rica: San Jose, Tenorio, various Guanacaste provincial areas and Playa de Costa de Oro (Vic’s beach - finally!)

Word of the day: llevar (sounds like “ee a var”) – “to go” as in “I will take that café con leche to go. This was particularly helpful on the long drives where we wanted to stop for coffee. Minh and Nick were barely awake in the back seat when Vic and I wanted to give this one a try the first time – but Nick was gracious enough to open an eye and give us the verb that led to a super caffeinated drive!

Costa Rica Fact:  The Guanacaste province of Costa Rica is where we spent a good portion of our day traveling (this includes Tenorio Parque Nationale). It is on the Western side of the Northern half of the country and is the mostly sparsely populated province and has earned a reputation as a “cowboy area” nearly synonymous with the wild wild west days in America. Driving through the area after reading about this reputation was entertaining. The “dusty plains” are surrounding with lush rolling hills and green, dormant volcanoes popping up all around – a bit different from our views of the Western plains of America. Here’s a look at our drive through the Guanacaste province on this day:  

5AM wake up call to hit the road from San Jose toward Tenorio, Costa Rica where we will meet Vic’s friend Ever and see the rainforest in the Tenorio Parque Nationale! Very exciting – but very early. We pack up the room quite quickly and head out to load up the car.

Once we are all piled in and pulled out onto the main roads – we are immediately surprised by the traffic in San Jose at 5:30AM. It’s only slightly less crazy then when we got into town the night before. People are walking all around; cars are turning every which way . . . all in disregard for who’s in the way or what color the traffic lights are.

We drive past a bakery and all decide on breakfast. It was quite the snap judgment and I have my wallet in hand and I’m out the door under 20 seconds.

Since there’s nowhere to park, I run into a bakery and pick out two things I don’t fully understand but look good (one empanada-like and one roll-like) and some pan con sucre – all for everyone to share. Even though I just pointed and held up a number of fingers,  the woman in the shop was extremely friendly, bagged my breakfast items up and I was back out the door and into the car.

We divvy up the pastries in the car and eat them up too quickly for pictures to be taken. They are delicious! The empanadas have a slightly spicy pork sauté with sliced vegetables and the warm bread rolls were filled with spiced ground beef. The sweet bread was obviously delicious as well but we were much less surprised about that, having tried it before on Ometepe. The whole car smelled greasy and delicious and our bellies were full as we scooted our way out of town and onto the open road.

The drive to Tenorio is about four hours, most of which is on paved roads. It’s gorgeous and slowly winds up into the high plains of Costa Rica – the Guanacaste province. This affords amazing views from the car as we top hills and sink back into lush green valleys. As we are about to round the top portion of the Nicoyo Gulf – we decide we want some café con leche illevar and look for a place to stop. We pass a perfect cafeteria on the side of the road just past Puntarenas, park and walk inside and to our delight – there is a breakfast buffet!

Having eating the empandas and mystery rolls a couple hours ago – we all agree splitting the plantains con queso and each load up on some café con leche as well. The plantains are massive and roasted. Their sweetness is a delicious contrast to the saltiness of the Tico cheese – we dig in and are happy customers. 

After sampling this desayunos – we had over to the mercado attached to the cafeteria and load up on snacks.  Plantains (this time in chip format), chips and pistachios give us confidence we will survive the upcoming drives.

A couple hours later, our GPS alerts us to the turn off to head up the hill toward the rain forest in Tenorio where we will meet up with Ever and go for our rainforest hike! We turn off onto the dirt road and prepare for some bumps.

After climbing what feels like several hundred kilometers up the hill – we arrive! We get out of the car and Ever is right there to greet Vic! We all meet and he tells us he will take us on a hike in a few moments. Just enough time to see the place, dump our luggage in a dorm-style room and get ready for the hike.

The building is beautiful – all wood with dorm-style rooms lining the hall way and a couple community bathrooms all woven around a center courtyard with beautiful plants. The whole space is open and airy to the outdoors. We bug spray ourselves, prep our water bottles and head out for the hike.
Ever is very knowledgeable about the area so our hike feels much like a guided tour with fun facts about the land and plants all around us as we go. As we enter the forest, Ever explains that this section is “younger,” having been cut down a couple hundred years ago to make pasture for cattle. This is noticeable in the less dense foliage and the abundance of light coming through the canopy. He assures us we will see the more mature forest later in the hike.

This path leads us to a beautiful cement staircase designed and maintained by friends of Ever’s who are working and say hi as we pass by.

The stair case creates an easy walkway to the steep path down into the basin of the Rio Celeste waterfall – which we see as we round the corner. The sight is literally breathtaking. 

The water is this turquoise color because it is filled with minerals it has picked up along it’s course which is what gives it that surreal tinge. Ever explains that it is not actually the water that is blue, but that the water contains minerals that reflect light so that it appears the color. This is evident when you look around the water’s edge at the spaces that have less density. In those areas, the water looks more clear. But where the water collects in large quantities – like the base of the waterfall – it looks dramatically blue. We take about a million photographs of the phenomenon before climbing back up the stairs to continue on the hike. 

We hike up a bit and eventually find ourselves above the waterfall where the Rio Celeste winds around the mountain/volcano before tumbling down the cascadas we previously saw. The river from this vantage is just as blue as the pool beneath the waterfall and even more striking. The juxtaposition against the green foliage makes the it seem dyed or is fake – but Ever assures us again that it is a trick of the light and minerals. A million more photographs are taken. 

We can smell sulfur as we walk further along beside the Rio Celeste. Ever explains this is the gas escaping from the volcano beneath us – much like the steam vent we saw on Mombacho. He explains that in areas where the gas comes out en masse people have reported getting headaches if they sit too long for a break. This is because the gas is so thick and dense, it actually limits the oxygen available to breath. Ever shows us a large hole along the side of the path where some sulphur gas excapes. He explains that he has found many a dead animal who crawled inside to take a nap in the warmth and ran out of oxygen. We peeked in with the camera flash – but no finds. 

We also look to the river to see where the gas bubbles up from this section of ground under the water. 

As we continue on the hike from here, we traverse some rickety bridges - but our balance prevails.

We continue hiking to view another section of the Rio Celeste – where the normal river encounters the minerals that bubble up and give it the bluish/tealish color. You can literally see the divide where the phenomenon begins. 

We admire this about before continuing on our hike. As we begin descending down from the upper part of the volcano, we can see the rain forest morph into the “more mature” section that Ever had promised we would see. The dramatic increase in foliage density and the lack of light penetrating the canopy makes the change apparent. It’s gorgeous. The path along the ground is pretty clear and we can see all around and between trees. Ever explains that 80% of the life in the rain forest is at the canopy level high above us – so that explains the space we have on the ground below.

At this point in the hike – it starts to rain a bit, but feels cool and nice. And though none of us say it – there’s something quite poetic about hiking through a rain forest in this light rain. We all hike quietly in the rain for a bit, cognizant of the fact that we are now descending the volcano through the older, denser sections of forest. The rain continues and makes a beautiful and quiet back drop of noise as we hike.

Eventually, the forest opens up into a path lined with purple flowered bushes that are flecked with hummingbirds darting in and out and hovering about the purple flowers. There are tons of them and they have no regard for us – just zipping all around and making little light buzzy sound as they pass. 

The rain has brought a cloud with it up the volcano and we are clearly walking through it as we continue down the path. The effect is eerie as we walk between rows of beautiful plants into a fog of nothingness. The path eventually opens up onto a dirt road where we begin our hike upwards back toward Ever’s place for lunch.

We arrive, settle in and Ever arranges for us to enjoy a lunch of pork fried rice with black beans and tomato salad. 

He brews us warm coffee which tastes delicious after the cold, rain soaked end of our hike. We sit on an outside porch area and chat over comida about what we all do, where we are from and other things going on in Costa Rica, America and the world. Again, I feel very worldly and enjoy the conversation.

After lunch, Ever explains his neighbor has a coffee plantation and would love to give us a tour. We are excited at the invitation and decide to change into dry clothes and head over.

Thirty minutes later, we are refreshed and hit the road for the five minute drive. We arrive at the house and Ever’s neighbor, Juan, comes out to greet us. Juan is 82 and looks at least 20 years less his age. 

He will be giving us the tour around his plantation in Spanish and Ever offers to make the effort to translate for those of us who understand none of it (ahem, me).

The plantation is gorgeous. It faces the peak of the Carmella volcano – named for Juan’s mother. She and her husband were the first people to settle the whole area back when the land there was free and the volcano was named after her. Today, Juan cultivates there couple hundred acres with cows, horses, other livestock and of course - coffee plants. 

There are several acres of these coffee plants, which Ever explains many local families with come through and pay to harvest and keep the beans which they will roast and serve at home. It reminded me of apple picking in the US.

The coffee plants are surprising. They are kept trimmed at shrub level for easy harvesting and produced little green berries that turn bright red when ripe. Juan invites us to try some but warns us to only eat the fruity skin and meat and spit out the beans which are not for eating. The fruit is very sweet! 

We walk around and weave in and out of the bushes checking everything out. Juan has us dig up a couple yuccas plants as well. They are just sticks poking out of the ground – but when we pulled on them, a whole root system of yuccas comes up! Pretty amazing. 

After that portion – we walk back over to Juan’s house where he shows us el pilon that are used to mash up the beans. They were heavy, but that doesn’t stop us all from getting a few photos. 

We mill around there for a bit and then Juan invites us in for a cup of coffee brewed fresh in his kitchen! We get to try our hand at grinding up the beans which are then put into a filter hanging from the wall. 

We sit around Juan’s beautiful hand painted kitchen table while Maria, his daughter, finishes up and serves the coffee. It is obviously delicious. Conversation is a bit limited with the language barrier, but we all manage and talk and laugh a bit over our coffees. 

After finishing up, we say our goodbyes to Juan and Maria and head back to Ever’s place. At this point, it is about 3PM and still raining so we decid that, instead of staying in the dorm-style room at Ever’s place, we will hit the road and begin the four hour journey to Playa de Costa de Oro – Vic’s beach!

We are eager to get to the beach since Nick and Minh would only have one day there and figured driving in the rain was a good use of our time. We say our goodbyes to Ever, thank him for the hospitality and beautiful hike and hit the windy dirt road back toward the Pan American Highway that will take us further across the Nicoya Penninsula.

At Ever’s recommendation, we stop for dinner at Tres Hermanas in the last major town before we hit the country roads towards Vic’s beach. We are all exhausted from they day and the hike so dinner is pretty quiet – but delicious. I have arroz con camarones event though shrimp are a little controversial around here (they shrimpers to not use TEDs – Turtle Exclusion Devices – even though it’s the law and many shrimp boats harm full grown turtles). I make my peace with the controversial order when I realize how delicious it is. 

After dinner, we pile back into the car and Vic takes the wheel. I try super hard not to fall asleep since I know we are all tired and should make an attempt to stay awake with Vic as he drives – but I immediately fail. When I wake up – we are on the windiest, steepest, rockiest, dustiest road I have ever seen. I wish I had pictures to demonstrate because the writing will seem dramatic – but it is so dramatic!

The drama and severity of the roads keeps me up for the remainder of the drive while I DJ on the iPod and Vic weaves around the steep turns, climbing and descending mountains in the SUV. At one point we round a corner and he has to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting a loose cow just standing there in the middle of the road. The cow scrapes his hoof against the ground aggressively and Vic immediately honks the horn to scare him off. “Gotta look bigger,” he has since said in reflection. It worked and the cow runs off – avoiding what would have certainly been a deposit-losing injury to the car.

When the road starts to level off – we know we are close! Driving along the final stretch – we see our first turtle! He’s not a sea turtle, but serves as a cute little foresight into what there is to be seen when we arrive at the beach.

We pull up to the Pretoma house at 11PM exhausted. We load our bags out and walk inside where some of Vic’s house mates are sleeping. They kindly accommodate us so that we can have a room with four bunk beds and we all immediately hit the hay. Sleep before turtle patrol number one in the morning!

  • Snacks snacks snacks – essential to good car rides and hikes
  • Coffee “to go” is a thing everywhere
  • Hiking in the rain is not something to avoid – it’s something to seek out
  • Always say yes to the tour!
  • Sometimes the drive is the best part

  • Empanadas
  • Mystery spiced beef rolls
  • Plantains con questo
  • Café con leche
  • Arroz con (controversial) camarones

Animals: lizards and a land-turtle – still no monkeys, but the amazing plants and turquoise river really made up for that

Something I am thankful for: New friends! Vic met Ever the previous week while he was visiting Pretoma and he offered to show us around Tenorio while Vic was on his Visa run trip with friends. Not only was Ever’s offer generous – but he came through and showed us the most beautiful hike to the most beautiful waterfall I could imagine. His hospitality and willingness to translate all his scientific explanations and findings to us was touching. His friendship, though brief, made our trip and will not soon be forgotten!

Something I don't want to admit: this day wore me out. The point at which I was trying to stay awake in the car – it seemed nearly impossible. We went from major city to rain forest with a hike and coffee plantation tour to the costal beach – lots of traveling and doing. I didn’t mind though since we saw so much and really made effective use of the evening time after the sun went down

Total Nest I have saved: still zero . . . just wait until tomorrow!
Total Nests Poached on my Patrol:  NA
Total Turtle Eggs I saved: NA
Total Baby Turtles I Released: NA
Days of Rain: 1 – but only a brief, light rain while we hiked
Miles traveled: 365km (227 miles): San Jose – Tenorio – Costa de Oro


  1. I want to add to "Lessons of the day". "You gotta look bigger" should be in there. So confusing with grizzly bears (play dead, fight back). It's nice to know what works with bull!

    1. Yes it does- which I didn't know at the time. All I could think about was how Alison was going to explain the horn dents in the side if the car when she was going to return it