My wife, Ildiko, and I have just arrived back from a short holiday in Costa Rica, and, inevitably, I took a stack of pictures. It is a crazy, amazing, beautiful country, and I highly recommend you to visit if you're interested in something slightly more adventurous.
Before we left, I picked up a copy of Tetris for the DS, which managed to pass most of the flight just fine. The rest of the time I was reading Ben Elton's High Society, which was about the only thing I had time to read the entire holiday! Marrea: the Bose Noise-Cancelling headphones rocked. With them on, I could barely hear the roar of the plane around me. I enjoyed the movies (and the retro Tetris music) in peace, and even managed to sleep with them on. No more will I use the flimsy airplane headphones cranked up to volume 11 just to hear anything.
San José airport was predictably chaotic, but we were whisked away to our first hotel pretty quickly. That was when the first problems began: we waved our American Express travellers' cheques at the concierge, who said that a) travellers' cheques were very rarely accepted in Costa Rica, and b) even if he did take them, he certainly didn't have enough money to give us. After some "discussion" the next morning, we managed to get $50 changed into the local currency, colones, giving us 25,000 in coins and notes. As for the rest of our travellers' cheques, they were essentially nice pieces of shiny paper. That's the last time we trust a travel guide!
Before you think I'm more adventurous than I really am, our Costa Rica tour was accompanied by a local guide. José - our guide - stayed with us the entire time, translating between us and the locals and making sure we were in the right places at the right times to see the best of the country.
Ignoring the seven hours of jet lag, we were up at 8am the next day to hike up the 2700 metres of El Poás, an active volcano near San José. When I say it's breath-taking, I mean that literally: it's an incredible sight, and the altitude does indeed leave you breathless if you walk too quickly!
After a lunch of chicken and rice (this is as close to a national dish as the Costa Ricans get), we were off to the small town of La Fortuna, near the Arenal volcano. On the way, we went past the El Paz waterfall, one of dozens in the country.
In La Fortuna we visited a bank that agreed to exchange our travellers' cheques into US dollars, although this took some time to explain as they spoke no English at all and my Spanish is appalling. We chose dollars rather than colones because a) most places seem to accept dollars, and b) colones are useless outside of Costa Rica and we weren't sure we'd spend all our money. In La Fortuna we found a frozen yoghurt parlour that sold "the Churchill" - a peculiar mix of strawberry and vanilla frozen yoghurt, with orange flavour ice cream on top. No, I've no idea why it's called the Churchill, but with a name like that I couldn't resist buying one. In the local shops, you could use dollars and colones interchangeably - we'd pay with both sometimes, and often receive change in both.
Our hotel for the night had a selection of outdoor hot spas, with the water heated by the Arenal Volcano. We were just over a mile away from the volcano, and thus safe from any major eruptions, but other tourists - presumably loving the feeling of adventure - were staying in places that were covered in lava during the last major eruption in 1968, when 87 people died. From our position in the hot springs, you could hear the boom of eruptions like the sound of a very large thunderstorm, and it was great to watch the volcano erupt at night time, as we ate dinner - you could see the bright-hot orange lava spurting out the crater and rushing down the mountainside.
The next day we visited a local farmhouse where the only way to get some food was to make it yourself. After a quick demonstration of how to make tortillas, I gave it a try. I now know that I can't make tortillas, so that's another thing to add to the list of Things At Which I Suck.
Outside of the farmhouse we wandered around some of the fields. It's pretty astounding how much grows in this country - mangos, guava, bananas, pineapples and, of course, coffee all grow in abundance. There's also a tremendous collection of wildlife - in his fields we saw some two-toed sloths, toucans and iguanas, all just roaming around wild because they aren't considered pests.
Some local schoolchildren had prepared some dances for the tourists, so we went along to see that. At first I felt a bit guilty about disrupting their schoolwork, but then found out that a) their village is too small to have all the kids at school at the same time so they have two "shifts", so the kids weren't actually supposed to be studying, b) they had spent a long time practising and wanted to show off their skills, and c) it gave the school extra spending money.
We drove on to our next hotel, this time placed near a small patch (about 1000 acres) of primary rainforest (original trees) and secondary growth (rainforest that is still recovering from the logging industry). We got our first sight of poison arrow frogs - they live here by the thousand, and make a heck of a noise. Honestly, these beasties are tiny little things and yet somehow make emit sounds load enough for toads!
Our room in the hotel was in the middle of the forest, so there was a general roar of noise during the night. With the door and all the shutters closed, the rainforest noise was just as loud, and we spent most of the evening scratching at imaginary mosquitoes. Rainforest noise isn't what I expected. First, you have the constant hum of bugs - there's usually at least two droning pitches (presumably from two different types of critter), plus the intermittent sound of other beetles. Add to that the sound of the 850 or so different bird species and the other animals that live here, and it just makes for a constant, varying and somewhat dizzying noise.
For breakfast we had Gallo Pinto, which is rice with black beans. I had this at least once a day (normally twice) every day on the trip, and actually grew to like it.
We then trekked over into the rainforest for a two-hour walk. This was the first time I started to feel a bit out of my depth: seeing the forest from outside it looks nice and pretty, but from the inside it's suddenly a pretty sinister place. Every twig snap, every leaf rustle and every bird whistle makes you jump as you turn to see what made the sound. We came across a troop of howler monkeys in the trees above us, watching us walk by. These big guys eat the fruit they find, and generally stay away from the ground to avoid constrictors and other predators. They also have a haunting sound that makes you shiver when you hear it echoing around the forest.
With so much rain and so much sun all mixed together, it's no surprise that crazy things grow in Costa Rica. We saw butterflies the size of my hand, weird, furry plants, five-inch spiders that big large, tangled webs, iguanas about my size and some really insane trees. Everything grows on everything else. Vines grow on trees, plants grow on the vines, more plants grow on those plants, and it all comes together in one stunning mash up of life.
Often you walk past animals simply because they fade into the background so well. Sometimes they look like grass, other times they look like dead leaves and sometimes they are even transparent so you can only make out their fringes. Suffice to say, it helps when they are sitting in the wrong place and their camoflage sticks out!
Ildiko braved it all very well, which made my life a lot easier! Both of us used a lot of mosquito repellant and emerged relatively unscathed.
Thursday morning we woke to the sound of howler monkeys calling to each other across the forest. It's impossible to describe the sound accurately, so imagine the sound of a large dog barking, then imagine then being played in reverse - that's close enough!
We left our driver at this point, as we had to switch to boat to get to our final hotel. It took some time to get a tip sorted out for him, simply because the immense wetness of the place had left all the envelopes stuck together. On the way to the boat we passed by fields and fields of pineapple (yes, fields; unlike what most people think, pineapples grow underground, like potatoes, rather than like on trees) plus banana plantations, until we finally got on the boat.
Our hotel was on the coast of the Caribbean Sea, in the middle of Tortuguero National Park. This is seriously the middle of nowhere: it took two hours by boat following natural waterways to get to the hotel, and it is pretty much by itself, surrounded by miles and miles of forest. The only reason the hotel is there in the first place is because of the logging industry that used to exist here: Tortuguero village is still there, and has about 1000 people living there. We wandered over there, and encountered two small, machete-carrying boys on the beach who offered to cut open coconuts for the milk. We couldn't refuse...
In Tortuguero we encountered one of the more famous frogs of this region, the red-eyed tree frog. With bright green skin, glowing red eyes, blue legs and orange feet, these guys weren't exactly built for camoflage, but they're surprisingly cute little things and are quite happy to walk on your hand.
Of course, they also like to jump off your hand onto the nearest other thing...
On Friday we were up by 4:30am to watch the sun rise over the sea, and by 6am were on a boat for a water tour to catch the wildlife early in the day. And catch it we did: howler monkeys were everywhere. Some were sleeping:
...some were getting food...
...some of the older ones were sitting watching...
...and I swear this one is a human wearing a monkey suit:
We also saw Basilisk lizards (nicknamed Jesus Christ lizards because they run so fast on their two legs that they can actually walk on water). The water was peaceful, and our boat was quiet enough that the animals didn't mind us coming as close as we wanted, and just carried on with their daily business.
At lunch (rice and black beans, natch), the animals were all around us. Gigantic beetles, oversized insects and even not-so-subtle lizards soaking up some sun - everything seems to just grow big here.
At 10am we were back out on the boat again, this time heading north towards Nicaragua. We were fortunate enough to come across the other two primates native to Costa Rica: white-faced monkeys (affectionately known as "cappucino" monkeys) and spider monkeys. It started raining lightly, which is probably why the white-faced monkey looks a little peeved!
Our guide, José, was constantly on the lookout for animals, so we got to see everything that was around.
By the time we got back to the lodge, the heavens were just about to open. From our balcony (all the rooms were raised off the ground to avoid the floods and termites) we kept dry from the downpour. For about 25 minutes there was almost a solid wall of rain, then, as if someone just turned the tap off, it had finished, and we were back to blue skies again.
We spent some of the afternoon dozing in the nearest hammocks, but I had my camera to hand because hummingbirds were a common sight and I wanted a good shot of one. Well, here you go:
At night time, Ildiko and I walked along the beachfront for a couple of hours. With no one living within miles of us, the night was completely black - I've never seen so many stars in my entire life. And with the water on one side and trees on the other, we could see almost 180 degrees of sky above us - shooting stars came at least once a minute, and the only sound was the waves lapping against the sand.
The trip home was fairly quiet, although we chose to leave the airport at Miami (it is the dullest airport I've ever come across) and head to the nearest mall. I found some new DS games, Ildiko found a Cinnebon outlet, so we were both happy. Back in the UK we had a 90-minute wait at Paddington station for our train, so we sat and waited in Caffe Ritazza. Surprisingly, we sat opposite Bill Oddie, who was busy scribbling on a pad. He chatted to Ildiko about Costa Rica, then after thirty minutes or so said "Welcome back to the cold" and went off to catch his train. After he left, here's how the conversation went:
[Me] That was Bill Oddie.
[Me] That guy you were talking to. That was Bill Oddie.
[Ildiko] Oh. I thought it was some homeless guy...
[Ildiko] Who's Bill Oddie?
That took the edge off it a little. Still, we're home safe, and I can get back to work finishing LXF81...