Environmental Sustainability in Costa Rica – Day 2

We got up for breakfast this morning around 6am, loaded our bags on the bus, and were on the road by about 7am. And they really did have rice, beans, and even fajitas for breakfast. No soy milk, however, so I’ve had to adjust to drinking my coffee black. The next four hours or so were spent on the tour bus, getting out of San Jose and into Braulio Carillo National Park. The traffic reminds me a lot of Los Angeles, with motorcyclists weaving in and out of traffic and the level of assertiveness that people drive with. Even so, the difference in what our concept of a city is compared to here is quite apparent. Columbus is probably bigger than San Jose, and that’s just our state capital compared to their country’s capital.

Braulio Carillo National Park reminded me of driving through the Appalachian Mountains on the Blue Ridge Parkway – winding roads through steep, thickly wooded mountains. We just drove through it, so we didn’t see much beyond the road.

Once we got to the other side of the mountains the terrain was much more open and flat, occupied by rangeland for cattle or household farms. At one point we stopped to look at a banana plantation. As if on cue, a Chiquita truck pulled out from the driveway, most likely full of the very bananas we were looking with new perspective. The heat and humidity were stifling – just standing there by the side of the road felt miserable – I can’t imagine picking bananas all day in it.

Another hour or two and we made it to our next mode of transit – a boat through the canals to Rana Roja, our hotel near Tortuguero. Along the way we saw a wild iguana and a caiman. The ride was about an hour until we arrived at our hotel on the waterfront. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much, but I was very wrong.

Once we docked at the waterfront bar, we walked along a path lined with tropical flowers, past a pool with a waterfall, and along a raised boardwalk through the jungle to our rooms. Someone pointed, “Look!” I did a double take. Monkeys. Wild monkeys, just clambering all over the roofs and through the tree tops. And later, a tree-frog, glued to the side of the railway, fast asleep, but vibrant all the same. Bright green and red-eyed.

After dinner we went on a frog walk with our tour guide, Mario, around the paths of the hotel. The little tree frog near our rooms was still there, and Mario picked himĀ  up for us to see – a white belly, bright blue ribs, and little yellow feet. Over the next hour or so we were tracking down dink frogs in the trees with our flash lights, and found a massive bull frog. On our way back to our rooms, I spotted another frog on the boardwalk rail – a yellow frog with red webbing between the toes. I kept trying to get a closer picture, until it actually jumped onto my phone. And then onto my neck. I could feel it’s sticky little feet on my skin, crawling into my hair. It sprung onto a nearby leaf eventually. I guess that was my initiation into nature.

Environmental Sustainability in Costa Rica – Day 9

After our long bus ride early this morning we made our way to Jaco for a crocodile boat tour. I’ve never seen wild crocodiles before, so that was a new experience for everyone.

We’re spending the night here in Jaco and heading to Manuel Antonio National Park tomorrow. Everyone walked to the beach nearby to watch the sunset before dinner – it made for some great photos. I can’t wait to try running here tomorrow morning when the sun comes up, and for our final day at the beach.

Environmental Sustainability in Costa Rica – Day 10

(Written one day after, during my flight home)

Twenty four hours ago I was enjoying vegan pizza at a luxury hotel outside Manuel Antonio National Park after swimming in the green-blue waters on the beach. Looking underwater at the tropical fish in the reefs, looking into tide pools, taking care to avoid stepping on the tiny scuttling hermit crabs, and watching squirrel monkeys race through the trees. I never thought I’d get to see the places in calendars and travel pamphlets, but I finally did.

I started my last day with a 5am run on the beach in Jaco before we left for Manuel Antonio. Everyone was tired from the sun later in the day (and the sunburns) and wanted to get to bed early for our flight the next morning. We had our last dinner at the same place we had our first, the hotel in San Jose. I gave Mario a drawing I did of the first frog we found, with everyone’s signatures – he absolutely loved it, just as I’d hoped. Of all the aspects of Costa Rica I’m going to miss, I’m going to miss him the most.

Hasta proxima vez, Costa Rica.

 

Environmental Sustainability in Costa Rica – Day 7

It’s hard to believe I’ve already been here for one week. Seven days. Only seven, and already so much has happened.

Yesterday morning we left La Fortuna for the Monteverde region, high in the clouds. Without a doubt, this is my favorite area so far, but I’ll get to that in a bit. We stopped along the way at Mariposa Cafe for coffee and empanadas, and puppies. The owner showed us the puppies in the back of the restaurant, next to the bathrooms outside. Ten of them, only fifteen days old. Little squirmy, furry blobs, eyes barely open. She handed me an all white one to hold – it eagerly nudged into my chest, seeking warmth or food, or both, which came soon enough – the mother returned to answer their cries. I gently put the pup back with the others.

For at least an hour, we kept ascending the dirt and gravel road through the hills of Monteverde, passing pastures, forests, and homes. Napping wasn’t an option – the road was so rough my neck ached, but at least Henry, our driver for the trip, took care to avoid the worst of the pot holes. At one point, an old man in a cowboy hat waved our bus down. His horse had run away and he’d been walking along the road, looking for it, all morning. Mom was his name, 75 years old. We gave him a ride all the way back to where he started, thanking us.

Once we arrived in the main town (with a paved road, thankfully), we got lunch at one of the nearby restaurants before going on the orchid tour in a nearby mini conservatory. Afterwards, we got to our next hotel, Cala Lodge, nestled back in the woods a little out of town. The rooms were like cabins, with hardwood floors, a set of bunk beds, a kitchenette, and a full bath tub. Definitely my favorite stay so far, including the town itself. But before getting to explore the area, we went to the zip line canopy tour. I haven’t felt that free in a long time – flying through the trees, through passing clouds, the way I’ve always thought a bird must feel like. I didn’t even care that it was raining, I just felt so alive.

The town of Monteverde reminds me of Colorado somewhat – eclectic shops, local artists, cafes, even a restaurant built around an old, massive tree – all while surrounded by passing clouds and thick forest. And finally, coffee shops with almond and soy milk. We spent around 2.5hrs exploring the area before meeting back up for dinner at a local restaurant. There was live music, and at one point Mario even sang for us and played the guitar. His voice is beautiful, smooth like velvet, like the foam on top of a cup of coffee.

 

Environmental Sustainability in Costa Rica – Day 8

It doesn’t matter what time you set your alarm to – the forest wakes up at 5.

The majority of today was dedicated to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest, located above the main town at about 5-6 thousand feet in elevation. We followed Mario along one of the trails as he pointed out the huge array of plants and animals – his depth of knowledge is incredible, given the biodiversity of such an area.

The rest of the day was spent in town for about an hour of free time, and then we headed back to the hotel to relax until dinner. I took the opportunity to go for a run along the main road and stretch my legs after spending so much time on the bus the past few days. We had a night hike around 5:30 before dinner, since it starts to get dark around then. We looked for animals along a trail with our flash lights, finding a few tarantulas, many other bugs, one frog, and a short glimpse of an olingo – a mammal that lives in the canopy. Tomorrow we head for Jaco.

Environmental Sustainability in Costa Rica – Day 6

Today’s agenda was the Rio Celeste hike and the Baldi Hot Springs, both of which were amazingly exotic in contrasting ways. The hike to the river was a steep one, up muddy trails surrounded by ferns and lush foliage. The way up was, I’m guessing, 2mi, but took us nearly an hour because of the terrain and elevation. You could smell it before you could see it – not of some earthy, fresh, floral scent that you’d expect from something so brilliantly, beautifully blue, but of rotten eggs. Of sulfur. The chemical reaction between the two joining rivers, combined with the effect of the light and our eyes’ perception, is what gives the Rio Celeste its famous color (and smell). Aside from the odor, it was stunning. So vivid, like something you’d see in a fantasy movie. Actually, most things here have reminded me of Avatar so far – the brilliantly colored and diverse plants, the strange animals, the way the people make an effort to coexist sustainably with nature.

On the hike back the way we came, it started to rain. We were already fairly sweaty, so it actually felt pretty nice, especially after climbing the steps back up from the waterfall we stopped to see. At the top of the waterfall steps, a few people were gathering and pointing to something moving off the side of the trail. A coati. Basically a tropical raccoon-type animal, or something like a cross between a red panda and a lemur. Or a possum. It came surprisingly close before trotting away back into the brush. The wild mammals we’ve come across so far now include the three-toed sloth we saw yesterday, and now the coati. Of all the places we thought we’d find a sloth, this one was just hanging from a telephone line along the road.

After lunch at some casual restaurant by the trailhead, we all stopped at the hotel to grab our bathing suits and headed to the hot springs, which is kind of a misleading name because it’s not like a natural spring at all. This place is basically a resort – bars in the pools, waterfalls coming out of rocks into pools surrounded by foliage, caves you can walk into to find hidden saunas. Each pool was increasingly hot the farther up the hill you went, and despite the daily heat and humidity, it actually felt really good after our hike. I think the only “natural” aspect of Baldi is that it uses the heat from the nearby geothermal activity to heat the water. Everything else is man-made. Not like Rio Celeste, but still beautiful.

Environmental Sustainability in Costa Rica – Day 5

The morning was spent driving from Sarapiqui to La Fortuna for a short hike (more like stairmaster) to the famous waterfall. I think Mario said there were something like 500 steps? My calves were trembling, but it was definitely worth it and it felt good to have some form of exercise after sitting on the bus. The stairs were fairly steep on the way down, but that didn’t deter anyone – most people were swimming in the basin of the waterfall or the second pool or scrambling among the rocks, slippery with moss. Blue water surrounded by bright green foliage, like something you’d see as a computer background. The cold mountain water was so refreshing with the humidity everywhere else. You could see the fish, meandering in the water around people’s legs.

After hiking back up the 500 steps and getting onto the bus, we stopped at a coffee plantation on the way back to the hotel. Down to Earth Coffee, “the best coffee in Costa Rica.” Mathias, the owner, was amazingly charismatic. His family has been growing coffee since the late 1800s, and after taking a detour with marketing, he inherited the business. He talked a lot about how he uses the fruit of the coffee bean, cascara, as a sweetener and to make tea, sweet coffee, and eve to eat it as a dried snack. He could relate coffee to nearly any subject – biofuel, fertilizer, business and the economy. We would return later in the day to buy our own coffee from him and to enjoy chocolate banana coffee shakes.

We dropped our stuff off at the hotel before heading to kayak on Lake Arenal, which was it’s own adventure altogether. Besides the fact that it was on a volcanic crater lake, and that we got to swim init, it just so happened that once we started to paddle, the afternoon storms rolled in. But not just rain. Thunder, streaks of lightning, and winds gusting so hard the rain stung your face. Not to mention you couldn’t really see where you were paddling. We all managed to make it back alright, and at that point, just looked forward to those coffee shakes and getting dry.

Environmental Sustainability in Costa Rica – Day 3

Woke up this morning at 5am to the sounds of howler monkeys in the trees. Leah, my roommate while we’re at this hotel, and I got dressed and met everyone in the restaurant area for coffee before heading out on the boat for a canal tour. The hotel owner’s dog, Sasha, a 7 month old Rottweiler, happily greeted us all once we saw her. What a life she must live, a pup in a tropical hotel.

During the 2hr boat ride we saw a great variety of animals and plants. Some were essentially a tropical version of birds I’d recognize back in Ohio, like herons and kingfishers, while others were completely exotic, like toucans and macaws. We even saw howler monkeys, spider monkeys, basilisks, an iguana, and another caiman. As a zoology major, the animals interested me more than the plants, but they were beautiful and diverse all the same.

We have some free time until 1:30 or so, when we’ll have lunch before heading into town for a lecture and talking with local people about sustainability. Until then, most of us are taking naps, catching up on our journaling, or relaxing by the pool.

After lunch, shortly before leaving for town, I went to walk on the paths around the hotels, and found that the monkeys had come back. A whole troop of them, children and all. White-faced capuchins and one lone spider monkey, swinging through the trees.

Despite seeing wild monkeys for the first time, my favorite part of the day was actually getting to walk through the town. I know it was oriented towards tourists, but it was amazing anyways. Dogs, everywhere. Just roaming the streets, in and out of shops, between legs, through crowds. So many trinkets made out of coconut – necklaces, bracelets, bowls. Men chopping coconuts with machetes, or carving turtles out of wood. One woman was carving designs into the side of natural wooden bowls. She enthusiastically welcomed us in her shop, showing us all the masks, bowls, lamp shades, candle holders, and scrapbooks she made. She shared her favorite songs with us, helped us with our limited Spanish, and got to know us a little bit too. I ended up buying a bowl, and she carved my name into it in Spanish – Margarita. I also ended up getting a shirt and some gifts for friends. I can tell my biggest problem when I fly back is fitting all my extra stuff into my carry on.

I actually enjoyed the town more so than theĀ  beach – the waves were very rough, the sand black, and palm trees swaying in time with the surf. We made our way to the turtle conservation center to learn about Tortuguero’s work for Hawksbill, Green, Leatherback, and Loggerhead sea turtles (although we didn’t see any).

Environmental Sustainability in Costa Rica – Day 1

Everything is in Spanish and I love it.

I successfully ordered my food in Spanish and navigated my way through customs. On the flight, I actually sat next to a girl from Atlanta who was coming home after a two year bible school program in Charleston SC. She lives just north of San Jose with her family, who was greeting her here at the airport.

It was such an interesting comparison in perspectives – both of us were so excited to be going to Costa Rica, but for nearly opposite reasons. Her, because she was returning home, to something familiar. And I, because I was leaving America behind for an experience completely new.

Already we’ve had a few lessons in flexibility – our professor’s flight has been delayed and won’t arrive until 6:30pm, and our bus bumped another tourist van when it came to pick us up at the airport. We’re only waiting on one other girl to arrive, and until then we’re just staying at the hotel where we’ll have dinner later tonight.