So it turns out that you can go all the way to Monteverde without ever setting foot inside the actual forest. You also don’t need to know any Spanish, or even have any Costa Rican currency.
I knew something was up when I was at the soda by the bus station and there was a guy in there who was attempting to buy coffee using only English and paying with US dollars, Then I walked over to the bus station, and it was Trustafarian central in there. I don’t think that there were any Ticos waiting to get on the bus at all. I’ve been talking to people around here about my plans to go to Monteverde, and while everyone agrees it’s a great place to go, nobody I’ve talked to who is from here has ever been there themselves.
So I was standing there feeling all superior to all of these rich backpacker kids from the US who didn’t seem to know or want to know about Costa Rica, they were just here to party. But then I realized that it’s probably pretty hypocritical of me. I mean, I am a tourist, too. Just because I have a job to do when I’m here doesn’t make what I’m up to fundamentally different. I mean, it shouldn’t be my place to judge, and they are bringing tourism dollars to the economy here, right? But still, they were getting on my nerves. How much of that was because the very act of going to Monteverde sort of lumped me in with them, at least for the next few days?
We got on the bus, and I dozed off for a bit. When I woke up, we were at the same rest stop that we had stopped at on the way to Santa Cruz! The bus driver announced that everyone needed to get off, and that we’d be stopped for 15 minutes. One of the girls who doesn’t speak any Spanish is trying to ask the driver in English how long we’ll be stopped for. He says, “quince minutos.” She is asking in English if that means five minutes, and telling the driver all about needing to pee. He just kept repeating “quince minutos.”
OK, I get that learning a language takes a long time, and that there are a lot of ways to get by when you’re traveling even if you don’t speak the language, but seriously, how much effort would it have taken to learn to count to 15 in Spanish before coming to a Spanish-speaking country? That’s the attitude that was getting to me- the girl was acting like it was everybody else’s job to cater to HER, without her making any effort to figure things out for herself.
Also, it’s not like you’re going to be able to set your clock by a bus driver’s announcement of how many minutes we’d be there anyway. It’s not like he was setting his stopwatch. It’s good to keep an eye on the bus and on the driver, just in case. Plus, you can figure out a lot by just watching the group and seeing what people do. If they’re going through the line to get a full meal, chances are good that you’re not going to need to rush. I know I said that there’s weren’t many Ticos on the bus, but that did start to change gradually, as we had picked up quite a few passengers at random stops along the way.
I had booked a package deal at a hostel that included two nights in a private room (with private bathroom), and two tours- a night walk through the forest, and a morning canopy tour, for $99 total. The hostel turned out to be exactly what I was hoping for. It was laid back and friendly, with some shared cooking, eating, and lounging space. Wouldn’t you know it- the “quince” girl and her friend walked in a little bit after I had checked in. But in this case, the private room saved me. Most of the upstairs rooms had older couples and was a bit mellower. For example, there was a couple from Italy staying next door to me. And, unlike the US party kids, they were of course fluent in Italian, English, and one of them was also fluent in Spanish, the other had some conversational Spanish.
I spent the afternoon walking around trying to orient myself to town. It was clear that I was in a tourist town. Just walking around, I heard more English than Spanish spoken, and everything was priced in US dollars. For example, the $99 hotel really was the price in dollars. Since I only have Costa Rican colones at the moment, they had to convert their price from US dollars into Costa Rican colones to charge me. It was like that all over town, except at the supermarkets. Dollars seemed to be the “standard” currency.
In the evening, I had my night tour of the forest. A lot of the “Monteverde” activities turn out to be run by private companies, and aren’t actually in the Monteverde forest reserve itself. The companies have deals with all of the hotels so that you can book your tour (with pick up and drop off at your hotel) right at the hotel. It sure is easier than walking around trying to figure out bus schedules and everything else, I must admit. It also means you can get pretty good package deals when you combine your room with one or more tours. But, I’m sure it also means that the hotels are getting kickbacks of some sort from the companies if they funnel more of their guests to one company or another. And there are signs up all over the place warning you that you’ll get ripped off if you try to go anywhere else to book your tours. Book here! (so we get the commission!)
But whatever. I only have a couple of days, so I am going with the flow here. The night walk and canopy tour that came with the hotel were both mentioned in my guidebook at had good ratings on trip advisor. I felt like those were the two “main” things to do in Monteverde, and with the limited time I had, that it was a good choice.
So I wasn’t too surprised that the night walk took place at a privately owned facility that wasn’t in the official forest reserve. And, after having walked around all day, I also wasn’t surprised that the guide was giving the tour in English. Of the maybe 4 groups that were out at the same time we were, I think one of the groups had a Spanish tour, the rest were English. But our guide knew many of the animal names in German, too, so he threw those in for the German couple in our group. And at least I knew enough Spanish to be able to eavesdrop on what the guides were saying to each other on their walkie talkies.
My camera is just not able to take good photos in the forest after dark, but I will say that we got to see a ton of animals. Most importantly- I saw a sloth! Not up close, of course, but definitely a sloth, hanging on a branch, eating some leaves. So that was really exciting for me, because I do think that they are really fascinating creatures.
The next morning was my canopy tour. And here is where my naivety really showed. I had thought that a “canopy tour” with ziplines would be a really good way to see the forest. After all, most of the life in a cloud forest isn’t on the ground floor, it’s up in the treetops. So naturally, in a canopy tour you’d use ziplines to travel from treetop to treetop, checking out all the cool things to be found in a forest, right?
Hah! Apparently ziplining is all about the adrenaline rush and the thrill seeking. The forest didn’t have a lot to do with it. I’ll probably do a separate post to talk more about it, because it was fun, but also maybe something that I don’t need to do again now that I’ve tried it once.
So I was in the van on the way back from the canopy tour, and I realize that I have nothing else scheduled, only a half day left in town, and I still haven’t been inside the actual “Monteverde” forest! I had fallen into the tourist trap instead! I don’t know if I’ll ever have a chance to get back up this way, so I wanted to fix that! The problem was, I didn’t know anything about the bus schedules or how to get up to the “real” forest. My guidebook also mentioned that you DO want a tour guide, because otherwise you may just end up clomping through the forest without even knowing what you’re looking for or how to find it.
As much as I didn’t trust them, with time being limited, I decided to get the hotel desk to help me get to the forest. I asked them about getting to the Monteverde reserve, and was told that I could get a bus at 1:00, return at 4:00, and would be able to hike around the forest on my own during that time, because there were no guides available.
Or, I could go to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest reserve. For that one, there was a bus leaving in 5 minutes (at 10:30), and I could stay all day and come back at 4:00. Plus, there was a 2.5 hour guided tour available.
Given that those were my only two options, I chose to go for the Santa Elena Cloud Forest. It was still a forest reserve, not some fancy “OMG Awesome Extreme Adventurezzz!!!1” company, and the ecosystem would be the same. Maybe I fell for a line at the hotel desk, but I did get to go out and into the forest.
My tour ended up being a private tour with the guide, because nobody else had signed up for it. This also meant that even though it was supposed to be a group tour of the forest in English, that the guide was more than happy to do the tour in Spanish since I was the only person. It also meant that we could cover more ground than the “usual” 2.5 hour tour, because we weren’t waiting for people who were unused to hiking up and down switchbacks or dealing with roots and mud.
But, it did sort of put me on the spot. Usually in those sorts of situations, I will fade into the background and let other people from the group take the lead and do most of the talking. But here it was just me, so I had to keep coming up with interesting stuff to say. When really, it wasn’t like I was dead set on seeing any one particular thing. I just wanted to enjoy the forest. So, I alternated between asking questions about the forest and the things we saw, and sort of chit chatting with the guide. He was from Liberia, Guanacaste, but after growing up in that more arid environment, was enthralled with the idea of a forest that could be “eternally green”. He also was more interested in animals, particularly the mammals, rather than plants, although as a guide he did know what could be found in the area pretty well.
And it was gorgeous. The air was one big white cloud, but it was cool enough that it felt soft and friendly, rather than muggy. It was raining a sort of misty rain the whole time, but that’s what raincoats are for, right? We did not see a lot of animals. Daytime really isn’t the best time for most of the forest critters, anyway. We did see several birds, although I don’t know birds well enough to even remember which ones!
Mostly, I was just impressed by the different kinds of plants and flowers that grew around there, compared to the forests in Oregon. The one similarity is that both forests have a lot of ferns. But in the cloud forest, there are giant ficus trees. Moss grows all around the trees in all directions, because the sun’s rays don’t change with the seasons here. There were long vines hanging from the trees, too. Leaves are giant, and bright green. There were also quite a few orchids, although not many of them are in bloom at this time of year.
By the entrance, they had an orchid garden where I did get to see a few orchids in bloom.
And that was it! Time to head back to my hotel and get a little bit of downtime before getting up to catch that 6:30 AM bus back to town!
The bus ride back was mostly uneventful, BUT, the funny thing is that we were at the rest stop this time along with a “Tralapa” bus (which you might remember from an earlier post). That bus left before us, but we passed them on the road a little while later!
Coming back into San Jose felt really good. I’m getting familiar enough with the city that I do feel sort of grounded here. I just feel like I have a better sense of the “flow” of downtown, of how to move through the crows, the cars, and the streets. I’m also getting a sense of what routes I prefer when walking from one side of downtown to the other. So, overall, the feeling is much more relaxed and comfortable than it had been in my first few days in the city. Hooray!
This week was my first time venturing out of the city, and it was a great adventure! There is one student in the province of Guanacaste, in a city that’s about a 5 hour bus ride from San Jose. I wanted to get out to visit her, especially because it sounded like her host brother had been away in San Jose for part of the time, and I wanted to make sure that she was doing well out where she was.
We have an account that we can use for travel, but need to be fairly frugal to stretch it as far as we can. I didn’t want to invite myself to stay in the family’s house, so I planned to head out there on Tuesday, have one overnight in an inexpensive hotel, and come back the following day.
So on Tuesday morning, I caught the bus out there. There are two bus lines with service to that city. One was listed as “4-5 hours”, the other as “4 hours”. I couldn’t find much information about either company online, so I assumed that, everything else being equal, the 4-5 hour one was likely the better bet. That bus line was “Tralapa”, which reminded me of “Trololo”. That should have been a warning!
Anyway, I got on the bus, headed to my assigned seat, and all was going well until we stopped to pick up a few people. A guy sat down in the seat in front of mine, which instantly fell into me. It turned out that the seat was broken and that there was no way to hold it up! I used my bag to sort of wedge a little bit of space for my knee. It was a full bus, so there was nothing to be done. Luck of the draw.
Then it started heating up. Guanacaste is known for being very warm. I don’t know if it’s cooler in San Jose because of the elevation, or just the mountains holding the clouds in, or something else, but it was getting hot now that we were out in the country!
Without AC and a full bus, hemmed in by people and my bag, I really felt like I was in the tropics. There was a window that I could open, but then I got the full blast of wind in my face. At first, I was opening the window when the bus was stopped (cars, construction, people getting on/off, or WTF why are we stopping again), and closing it when we got going. Finally I figured out the trick of leaving the window open but the curtain closed. This let the air in, but it didn’t blast you in the face. I did still spent quite a bit of time looking out the window to see the scenery, even with the wind.
We had one stop by a little cafe, which was a nice chance to stand up and cool off a bit. I got some plantain chips and a soda, and got to catch just a little bit of that day’s world cup match before heading back to the sardine tin. (It turns out later that the locals call this bus line “Tralata” because you are packed in like you’re in a can, or “lata” in Spanish).
When I arrived, the family called just as I was getting off the bus to ask where I was. It turned out that the bus line I had taken was so bad, they didn’t even think to ask if I had been on that one, they just assumed I’d taken the good bus and would be there (an hour earlier) in the other station. Oops! Live and learn, I guess. The other bus line is faster (though their itenerary is more honest, which is why it looked like the longer line on paper. I think it’s even cheaper, too. I suspect that it costs more to run old, broken down, less fuel efficient buses.
After getting a quick tour of the town, I got the the family’s house. I instantly felt more relaxed after a couple of weeks in the city! They live just a few minutes out of town, but on a farm where they grow watermelons, cantaloupe, and corn. The cantaloupe and corn were just ready for harvest.
The family offered to let me stay there, which was so kind of them. They wanted to take me to the beach the next day, and since I wouldn’t have the hotel expense, it made sense for me to stay 2 nights so that I wouldn’t have to rush back. I did want to be back in San Jose by Thursday, because I wanted to connect with some of the more local kids before they headed back in to school next week (the past two weeks are the mid-year vacation for students here in Costa Rica). Getting in at night isn’t a good idea, because getting from the bus terminal to my house is either expensive (by cab), or sketchy (a combination of walking and city bus).
The next day, we took the bus to Playa Conchal, which was about an hour and a half away. It was hot, but there was a breeze, so it didn’t feel too bad! And Conchal was gorgeous! The sand is made up of small bits of white shells, which are lovely, and the water is very clear and light blue.
I am not usually much of a swimmer at the beach, but the other really nice thing about this spot is that the waves are hardly there at all. I knew that the water would be warm, but after getting used to Oregon and California beaches, I didn’t realize that the ocean could be so calm! You could go out into the water and float if you wanted. It was so relaxing!
Of course I hadn’t packed a bathing suit since I had only been planning on staying for the one evening, but again the family was so hospitable and I had borrowed one from the mom. Their warmth and generosity was just so wonderful!
We got back in that evening, had a final dinner together, and we went our for granizados. Those are sort of like a milkshake combined with a snow cone- crushed ice, fruit flavor, evaporated milk, and powdered milk (we got the “dos leches” variety, I don’t know what other kinds there are). Yum!
The next day, I got up in time to catch the 3:15 AM bus. That had been the family’s suggestion since I wanted to be back in San Jose by Thursday. They only live 5 minutes from the bus station, so the suggestion was to pack the night before, get up and head straight for the bus, get on, and go back to sleep. By morning, I would be in San Jose and have gotten at least a reasonable amount of sleep.
I’m happy to say that it worked! The Alfaro bus was much more comfortable and friendly. Sleeping on a bus isn’t the easiest thing to do, but that combined with the sleep I had gotten before getting to the bus was enough for me to be ready for a full day back in the city. The nice thing is, I only had to do it once. Some of the people on the bus were clearly commuting to work that way. They got on and went to sleep, and as we got closer to the city they woke up, put makeup on, and were clearly preparing themselves for work or some other busy day. For me, it was just travel, not day to day life.
All in all, I am very happy that I had this opportunity to get out into the country!
There was a party in the next town over for a relative who was visiting home (she is studying physics at a US university). This is the fun part about a homestay- it’s an opportunity that I never would have had if I had just been here as a “regular” tourist.
The party was a “turno” party. Everybody brought a small wrapped present, and participated in various games throughout the afternoon and evening. There was a ton of food, some music and dancing, but actually no alcohol at all. I’m not sure if that part is typical or just the preference of this family (which is what I suspect).
One important feature of any get-together is the tradition of greetings and good-byes here. In Costa Rica, when you arrive, you need to say hello to every person who is there. When you leave, you do the same thing in reverse. The hellos are also the time for introductions if somebody is new, and both greetings and goodbyes are usually accompanied by an “air kiss” on the right cheek. Occasionally men offer handshakes instead of the kiss.
This makes the beginning and ending of a party something of a production. As somebody who didn’t know anybody, though, it meant that I did get a chance to get introduced to everybody right off the bat, sometimes with enough information to break the ice. So that was really helpful.
One of the family members was really good at “calling” bingo and getting the games going. He kept everybody’s attention, and kept everyone smiling and laughing. And so what might have been a ho-hum sort of family affair, especially for somebody who didn’t know a single person outside of two members of my host family, instead had me and a lot of other people laughing and having a good time.
People had brought small wrapped presents which were handed out at the various games to the winners. Most were free games, but there was a “special” bingo card that you paid about $1 to play, and the winner (blackout) took home the pot. That was played simultaneously with the free bingo cards so that everybody could participate.
The bingo caller not only kept people going, but also knew all the traditional rhymes for the numbers as they came up. For example, I think 44 was “cuara-cua-cua” (probably because of the number “cuatro” sounding like what a frog says in Spanish), and 13 is “docena del diablo”. He kept things light hearted, for example, when I won, he made me say “Bingo” with a US accent. I ended up winning two kitchen towels, a bar or soap, and a Bible. There was even a prize for the person there with the most “típico” outfit.
In between games, there was some dancing, and a lot of food. My host mom had prepared a traditional dish for the party (I forget what it was called, but it was some sort of picadillo with a lot of garlic), and had made a small plate without the sausage in it so that I could try it. There was also arroz con leche and a couple of tasty salads (one featuring beets and the other plantains). And, of course, coffee! They finished the evening with a piñata and some cotton candy.
At the end of the party, of course, there was the big lineup so that everybody could say goodbye to everyone else. I find at these events that I’m always accidentally trying to say goodbye to the person I’m about to get in a car with and to get a ride home. Oops! But I do my best.
Overall, it was a great experience! Much more fun than a bingo party back home would have been.