We’re sitting on a beach in Tamarindo, Costa Rica, enjoying the warm weather and not doing much else until we fly back to NYC on Sunday, one year exactly since we drove off to Niagara Falls on a snowy day last April.
After thirty-three countries and seven continents it’s time to come home.
Its been a great journey, made far more memorable by the people we’ve met along the way.
And thanks to everyone who’s been following our blog – we hope you enjoyed reading it as much as we did putting it together.
It’s amazing how much there was to see and do in Costa Rica.
Its lush climate, mountains, and Caribbean and Pacific coasts create a varied terrain that support one of the highest number of animal species per area in the world. Between wildlife watching and myriad outdoor activities, there were not two days that were the same during our two weeks spent exploring a small country a third the size of New York State.
Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, was not the most interesting of cities, but by reaching it via a grueling fifteen hour bus ride from Panama City, Sarah and I needed a few days there to recuperate. Walking through the center of town that was closed to vehicles, we were pleasantly surprised with the city’s parks, squares, and architecture. Our visit coincided with opening night for the San Jose national orchestra, so we were fortunate to see them perform at the city’s most famous building, the Teatro Nacional.
After two nights in San Jose we made the trip four hours north to the Arenal Volcano. Thought to be extinct for four hundred years, Arenal erupted violently in 1968, burying three local villages and killing 87 people. Survivors three miles away renamed their town La Fortuna – being fortunate to be alive – but were even more fortunate when tourists began streaming in to see the the lava that continued to flow.
A year ago the lava stopped flowing.
While it could start again tomorrow, it could also be another four hundred years. Nonetheless, pictures of red hot magma glowing in the night remain displayed all over La Fortuna and hotels charge more for rooms with volcano views.
The volcano was still an impressive sight.
Near the volcano were hiking trails and an observatory where at least ten different scientific metrics are used to forewarn another eruption, from monitoring of seismic activity to the use of “tiltmeters” that precisely measure the angle of the ground.
Near La Fortuna are several naturally heated hot springs. Sarah and I visited the nicest one called Tabacon featuring pools of 100 degree water surrounded by waterfalls, gardens, and vines. They were very relaxing, especially after a day of hiking, and we returned for a second visit the following day.
We reached Cano Negro, a refuge close to the Nicaraguan border and one of the best places to spot Costa Rican wildlife, by a day tour from La Fortuna.
On our way our eagle-eyed driver thought he saw a three toed sloth on the side of the road. He pulled over, and sure enough we found the world’s slowest mammal lazing in the tree. Slowest animal or not, we didn’t see another one during our time in the country.
At Cano Negro, a boat took us on a two hour cruise on Rio Frio where our guide pointed out birds and animals hiding in plain sight.
The caiman is technically not a crocodile, being smaller and less aggressive. But he was still intimidating in scuttling quickly across land and floating in the water with only his eyes exposed.
Jesus Christ lizards, named for their ability to run across water without sinking, were common, but none were startled by monkeys and had a chance to demonstrate their skill.
Four different species of monkeys are found in Costa Rica – we found the three that were endemic to Cano Negro.
Howler monkeys, the world’s loudest land animals, sat on the high branches of trees in the hot sun. We thought they were too tired to yell, but as we cruised away we heard their low pitched rumble call after us.
Spider monkeys put on a show.
Capuchin monkeys were very skittish and hard to find. But after seeing a rumbling of branches in a tree, our guide hushed us and one eventually peeked out.
From La Fortuna we headed to Santa Elena, a tiny town in the high elevation Monteverde region. Roads to Monteverde are in very bad condition, but we cut the journey in half by crossing Laguna de Arenal, the largest lake in the country and major source of drinking water and electricity. We had one last glimpse of the Arenal Volcano, and saw the lava still hadn’t appeared.
Costa Rica’s cloud forests are aptly named, being at such a high elevation that the clouds lie below the top of the trees. The Santa Elena Cloud Forest was only a twenty minute drive from the town of the same name, but the weather so much colder that we needed our jackets.
Our guide Jorge walked us through the trails describing birds, insects, trees, and plants that grew on trees. We didn’t have the best of luck seeing birds even with Jorge’s tripod mounted telescope, but we heard several. Jorge knew over a hundred bird calls and was able to communicate with them – they would chirp, he would call out, and they would chirp back. Sarah and I were very impressed, often not being able to tell the difference between the two.
We had more luck spotting wildlife during a night walk through the lower elevation Refugio de Vida Silvestre. Animals were camouflaged, yet our guide Jesus constantly surprised us by shining a light into the middle of nowhere to show a tiny creature.
He had us all gather tightly around him before prodding a hole in tree bark. Out scurried an angry orange kneed tarantula.
On the bark of tree was a dime sized tree frog.
Right next to our path Jesus spotted an extremely dangerous side striped palm pit-viper.
Several birds were sleeping in trees with their heads tucked under their wings. They were hard to recognize, looking just like a clump of feathers, but they were at least still.
Jesus picked up different insects, showing us ways to make them glow, jump a foot into the air, or curl up into a ball or into a stick. He spotted a few more mammals that were barely visible, including a skunk and a pair of two toed sloths.
Monteverde not only had an abundance of wildlife, but was the original place where zip lining was introduced to Costa Rica. Sarah and I signed up at Extremo, one of many operations in town, which supposedly had the fastest and longest lines.
After being fitted for harnesses and helmets and signing our lives away, we climbed a platform, were strapped onto the line, and took off down the steel cable. It was exhilarating although each line lasted only a few seconds before we had to brake by pulling on the cable with our gloved hands.
After a dozen lines we followed signs directing us to the “Tarzan Swing”. At the front of the line I didn’t know what to expect – not even when I was being strapped in. I was given a small nudge and well, the video speaks for itself.
I watched from below as each person swung down one by one – screaming more like little girls than Tarzan – while waiting for Sarah to join us. She eventually did, but by taking the stairs.
Sarah didn’t have any problems doing the Superman zip line at the end, where our backs and feet were strapped to the cable and we zoomed down like the Man of Steel. With views of the canopies six hundred feet below, we felt like we were flying.
Needing something more low-key we visited a coffee farm in the valleys near Monteverde. The three acre farm was run by a lone farmer; our guide was his half-American daughter. He completed the entire farming cycle himself: planting the trees, picking the fruit, peeling, and then drying the seeds for export. His coffee was pooled with neighboring farmers’ and sold to a distributer in Montana who marketed them under the Monteverde Fair Trade label.
Although we had seen the gamut of Costa Rican wildlife, we were a bit disappointed not having encountered any colorful frogs. At the Ranario frog pond in Santa Elena, we were able to see many of the country’s species, albeit behind glass. Frogs are mostly nocturnal, so we showed up at night and shone flashlights into each tank to see them hopping about. Most turned their backs after we blinded them, but a few remained for pictures, including the poison dart frog…
…and the rufous eyed stream frog.
Barro Honda is a little visited national park near the town of Nicoya that features a large network of underground caves. Sarah and I rented an SUV and drove to the park along with a couple we had met on our coffee tour.
Descending into the cave required a climb down a sixty foot ladder while the park ranger held a safety rope above.
Inside were typical stuff found in caves: stalactite, stalagmite, and limestone that resembled the Virgin Mary or various animals if you squinted correctly. We squeezed through tight passages and into small rooms, made all the more difficult having spent the last year eating our way across seven continents.
After climbing back into the sunlight we both agreed that we’d had our fill of physical activities. It was time to head towards the Pacific Ocean to take in the country’s biggest attraction that we had so far missed: the beach.