Central park in Palmares, Alajuela

Central park in Palmares, Alajuela

After finishing my half marathon.

After finishing my half marathon.

Monteverde, day 1

Monteverde, day 1

Monteverde, day 2

Monteverde, day 2

One cool thing is that even the littlest urban park has some sort of play structure.  This is in the corner of the park where I catch my bus downtown.

One cool thing is that even the littlest urban park has some sort of play structure. This is in the corner of the park where I catch my bus downtown.

Lots and lots of statues are all over the city.  I do like how the public art features people of a variety of shapes and sizes.

Lots and lots of statues are all over the city. I do like how the public art features people of a variety of shapes and sizes.

This would have been a fun place to play skee-ball, except that it's not possible to play left handed, and games cost close to $1!

This would have been a fun place to play skee-ball, except that it’s not possible to play left handed, and games cost close to $1!

I got to see Cypress and her host sister!

I got to see Cypress and her host sister!

My room in Sabalito.  We got in really late, so I barely remembered to get a photo for the day at all.  I tried to take one on the bus, but it didn't really turn out.

My room in Sabalito. We got in really late, so I barely remembered to get a photo for the day at all. I tried to take one on the bus, but it didn’t really turn out.

Panama!

Panama!

Coffee beans

Coffee beans

Seana at the roller rink.

Seana at the roller rink.

A flower from the rim of Volcano Irazú.

A flower from the rim of Volcano Irazú.

Life-sized lego guy at Avenidas Escazu.

Life-sized lego guy at Avenidas Escazu.

I forgot my camera when we went out today, so you will have to make do with a picture that somebody took of me.

I forgot my camera when we went out today, so you will have to make do with a picture that somebody took of me.

The Chicago Bulls are a great baseball team.

The Chicago Bulls are a great baseball team.

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Roller Skating

This post isn’t really specific to Costa Rica other than some of the reflecting I’ve been doing while I’m down here, so if you’re looking for more travel-related stuff, you’ll have to wait for the next post.

But recently I have been reflecting on the journey that I’ve been on.  I knew that coming down here would be a challenge and would take me out of my comfort zone.  It would have been much easier, of course, to stay home.  But this opportunity was a chance for me to grow personally, to challenge myself, and to learn and experience new things.

In 2011, I was 100 pounds overweight.  I had carried the extra weight for almost all of my adult life, and for most of that time, I accepted it as just a part of who I was.  I was obese, I was sedentary, and that was that.

Thankfully, I got scared enough by my lack of energy and some potential health problems that were coming up to do something about it.  I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to take off the weight, but I was going to give it an honest effort.  And it worked!  August will mark 2 years of successful maintenance since I got to my goal.

One of the things that this accomplishment has given me is the chance to re-evaluate assumptions that I had made about myself over the years.  Since I was able to reach my weight loss goal by finding a plan and sticking to it, other things suddenly seemed within reach, too.  If there was something I really wanted, and I was willing to work for it, then suddenly everything seemed attainable.

I had never thought of myself as athletic before.  My sister was always the athletic one.  I was the good student.  But as I was losing the weight, I started to exercise, and eventually started running.  Now, that’s pretty much my primary hobby.  So I had to redefine my assumptions about myself to include somebody who would actually go out and exercise, for fun even.

So this week, my guide and I got invited to go roller skating.  It was actually a work party put on by one of the Costa Rican program coordinators.  Normally, I would think, no way, I don’t really know how to roller skate, and I am not very coordinated.

But then I started to ask myself, was that just an old-fashioned assumption that I made about myself?  Was it time to maybe put that one aside, and see if maybe roller skating was something that I could learn how to do?

If this were the movies, you might cut to the scene of triumph as I glided effortlessly around the rink.  Unfortunately, real life doesn’t always turn out like the movies.  I may be at a healthy weight, but that does not mean that I have developed any coordination.

What really happened was like this.  I put on my skates and did manage to make it from the bench to the rink.  Then, instead of heading to the rail to get the hang of things, I just sort of tried to go.  I might have made it a total of five whole feet before I fell- hard- onto my tailbone.  It instantly started hurting, and I had to sort of gather myself before I felt like getting back up again.  And it hurt badly enough that as soon as I felt a little bit better, I changed right back into my shoes and did not make another attempt at roller skating.

Now, because of what I have been through with my weight loss, I am sure that I could learn how to roller skate if that was something I really wanted to do.  But, honestly, I don’t think it is.  Instead, I am accepting the fact that even though some things have changed about me and about my life, I still do not have any more coordination or balance than I had before.  And, it’s OK to not be perfect, and to accept the fact that some things come more easily than others.

I watched the roller skating from the bench, which at least was always full of at least a couple of people resting or other benchwarmers.  Luckily, my tailbone seems to be feeling better, although it is still a tad stiff on one side.

Heading South

I got to travel to the rural southeastern part of the country this week, which is why I haven’t updated in a while.  Several of our students are staying with families down there, so I took the bus down with them, stayed a few days to make sure everybody was settled, and then took the bus back up by myself.  At the end of the month, I’ll repeat the process in reverse to get everyone back up to catch their flight home.

The bus ride itself was pretty uneventful.  This was my third multi-hour bus trip since I’ve been here, so I feel like I’ve gotten the hang of the little things, like how the tickets, bag checks, boarding, rest stops, etc. work.  It is a really nice feeling knowing what to expect, for the most part, even though I’ve never been to the area and haven’t ridden this bus line before.  This was my longest ride so far, at 6.5 hours, plus this time I was responsible for 6 exchange students.  In addition, we had two more Tico teens traveling with us.  I do have to admit that the kids did just great and didn’t need a lot of help from me.

We took the 4 PM bus, so it was pretty late by the time we got in.   Most of the students were picked up right at the stop by their families, but two of them would be staying in the next town over, so they stayed the night with the same family that was hosting me.

The next morning, we packed into the truck and headed up and over the mountain to bring the students to their new home for the month.  And by packed, I mean that there were 7 of us in the pickup truck, but luckily one was a little kid, and the truck did have a back seat!

This part of the country was so close to the border with Panama that we stopped by along the way.  Around here, the border is quiet enough that you might not even know that you were at a border if somebody didn’t point it out.  It was along a gravel road, and there was a gas station, a grocery store, and some construction that is supposedly going to have a few stores.   The road itself just sort of veers into Panama for a few meters.  If you want to actually go into Panama, there is a road that heads off in that direction, which is notable because it’s paved and looks well-maintained.

We got out to take pictures, and ended up walking around a bit.  That was neat because I spotted a post with the plaque that marked the border.  Compared to Costa Rica, Panama is known for having cheaper gasoline.  In addition, they use the US Dollar for currency, and apparently the exchange rate is currently favorable enough that you can save some money shopping and paying for your groceries with dollars.  Seafood in particular is cheaper in Panama, so the grocery store had quite a bit of that for sale.  The exchange rate isn’t as good as it was a few years ago, but it’s good enough to warrant some business growth in the area.

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I ended up being in the area from Sunday night until early Wednesday.  I was able to visit quite a few families and a couple of schools while I was down there, and I have to say that everybody was so kind and welcoming.  I know I say that about all of the places I’ve been in Costa Rica, but it’s the honest truth!  Especially down here, it’s a part of the world where they haven’t lost the ability to just casually drop in on friends, relatives, or neighbors if you’re in the area.  In Costa Rica, you go to the gate and call out, “¡Upe!”, and maybe the person’s name, to let them know you’re there.  If you do drop by to visit somebody, you might even be invited in for a meal, or at the very least a refresco (which down here is a juice of some kind, not soda), before heading on your way.  Because I was visiting several families in the same day, I had to be careful to not end up eating two breakfasts and several extra refrescos at every stop!

On my first full day there, my family asked me if I wanted to go for a walk.  I said sure, but really had no idea what I was getting myself into!  I noticed that they were packing a backpack to bring with them, and then they headed off at a brisk pace while checking their watch, and both of those should have been clues.  Anyway, they basically took off heading straight up a mountainous road!  Luckily I’m in pretty good shape from running, because it was all I could do to keep up!

We walked for an hour and 45 minutes before we reached the turnaround point, a little town that was nearby (uphill and about 8 kilometers from where we had started).  We stopped by a local pulpería (corner market) to get some snacks to recharge.  I got a little package of coconut cajeta, which is a sweet made from milk and sugar.  Then, we headed back down the mountain, this time in the rain.  We did stop by to visit a student on our way back, and were offered dinner as well.

The next day, I should have known better, but honestly these mystery walks to parts unknown were fun.  That day, we walked for “only” about three and a half hours total, and I think the direction we headed might have been a tad less hilly.  Plus, this pulpería had coke zero and yemitas, which are guava-filled sandwich cookies.

Unfortunately, both days I wore my Chacos, because I didn’t pack any good walking shoes, and I’m weird about wearing my running shoes for anything other than running.  By the time we made it back home the second day, I had blisters on the tops of both feet from the straps!  Ouch!  Hopefully they heal up soon!  Not just for the sake of my feet, but because I need to be able to wear those sandals again!

The reason my hosts were walking so much is that they are preparing for a 250+ kilometer walk from their home to the Basilica in Cartago.  The walk is a yearly pilgrimage.  Over 2 million people are expected to walk to Cartago, arriving around August 2.  My hosts were planning about 9 days for their trip, which means that the walks we did were short compared to what they had ahead of them!  But these were sort of a trial run, which meant they were trying out all of their gear and supplies to make sure they had what they needed.

And what was needed turned out to be Crocs with maxi pads for insoles.  Apparently the pads are soft enough to provide some cushion, and absorbent enough to take care of sweat, plus you can change them out if they get nasty.  It’s not how I would do a long walk, but I was the one who ended up with blisters, so clearly I should not be the one to talk!  There was also some experimenting with gel heel pads, which I tried myself earlier this year when I was fighting plantar fasciitis, but those just wouldn’t stay put in the crocs-n-socks walking setup, so I don’t think they will be taking those.

One interesting thing to me was how “rural” means something a little bit different in Costa Rica than it does in the US.  In this area in Costa Rica, coffee production is the main source of revenue, and there is almost no tourism.  In addition to coffee, quite a few other crops grow well down there.  At the house where I stayed, they had 1-2 trees of a whole variety of fruits, not for sale, but just for their own consumption.

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Here is downtown.  The taxis down here are pickup trucks with covered beds, so that they can handle some of the rougher roads.

Here is downtown. The taxis down here are pickup trucks with covered beds, so that they can handle some of the rougher roads.

DSCN0497

Cacao.  The white part is edible, but tastes nothing like chocolate.

Cacao. The white part is edible, but tastes nothing like chocolate.

Cacao seeds, dried and ready to be toasted.

Cacao seeds, dried and ready to be toasted.

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Coffee

This is anona, I think.  Very tasty when ripe!

This is anona, I think. Very tasty when ripe!

So, that’s definitely what you would call rural.  But when I think of a rural area in the US, I think of everything as being really spread out.  Here, the houses were still pretty close together.  Not right up against each other with one portón touching the next, like it is in the city, but pretty close.  And the town I was in had a very definite downtown, even if it was only 2 blocks long.  But what really makes the difference is that between the clusters of houses and businesses, that’s where the space is.  It was noticeable on our walks.  Even the small area we were in was composed of several different little mini-towns, (San Bosco, San Antonio, etc) but then it was all fields, or mountains with undeveloped land, in between. 

The town where the other two kids were staying was even more remote, but still, the houses were clustered together into neighborhoods.  It’s just that I didn’t really see a downtown at all in that town.  If I had to guess, I’d say that there was probably at least a minisuper and a soda (small restaurant serving traditional food) somewhere, but maybe not much else.  But I wasn’t really taking a running tally when I was out there, so I might very well have missed some stuff.

It’s also interesting to see which things from US culture have and have not found their way down there.  There was definitely a lot less English spoken in the area, mostly because there’s just not a need for it since there aren’t really any tourists.  Kids do study English at school, though, especially if they want to go into the tourist industry when they graduate.

Cable TV and US TV shows dubbed into Spanish were really common.  The teen in the house also liked to watch music videos, so I got to see a Franz Ferdinand video for the first time while I was down there.  It definitely felt like a juxtaposition!  The next few songs that came on were in Spanish, followed by a heavy metal show.

Out of all the families I visited, I don’t know that anybody owned a computer.  But just about everybody had smartphones with data plans.  So web sites that can be accessed on a mobile device were pretty well used and common.  We could be in the middle of nowhere on our walk, and the family would still be keeping track of an important Facebook post and the replies!  On the other hand, I was pretty much off the grid with my not-smart-phone, especially since coverage from my cell carrier was spotty.

I definitely had an opportunity to feel how lucky I was, not just for the kindness and hospitality of everybody that I met, but also for the little window into everyday life in rural Costa Rica.  My work here as a chaperone gives me the opportunity to go to some of these places that are far from the tried-and-true tourist areas, but it also gives me the chance to get to know some people and a little bit about their day to day lives.  What a wonderful experience this has been!

Various Notes

Here are a few things I’ve noticed that are probably not worthy of their own topic.

Striped Polo Shirts– Costa Ricans LOVE striped polo shirts.  Seriously.  If you are outside and there are more than 1-2 people around, all you have to do is think “striped polo”, look up, and I guarantee you that you will see at least one person wearing one!  Bonus points if it’s red, white, and blue!

Red, White, and Blue– Those are also the colors of the Costa Rican flag, and around here it is very common to see people wearing their nation’s colors with pride!  Even if they don’t have all of their colors on one item of clothing, you will see a lot of outfits put together to feature all of the colors.  For example, a guy out running today had on a blue cap, white shirt, and red shorts.  Part of this, I’m sure, is due to pride in La Sele’s world cup success, but I don’t think that’s all of it.

 

Statue in Parque Central

Statue in Parque Central

Clean floors/streets– This is another thing that seems very important to people down here.  I have never been at the gym and NOT had somebody mop around my treadmill while I was running.  When I did a long run at the gym, they mopped twice!  It’s not uncommon to see them mopping out the parking garage there, either.  I am wondering if part of it is the rain mixed with tile floors means that there is probably a lot of mud getting tracked in.  Also, clean streets seems to be a big priority for people.  Now, I’ve heard quite a few complaints about the littering, but honestly for a city this size, the streets are pretty clean.  There are crews out working to clean very regularly.  At the vegetable market, you do just throw your fruit rinds from the samples on the ground, which feels very weird.  But apparently somebody does come through and clean up afterwards.

Parks and vegetation are a slightly different story.  Because of the climate, things grow very quickly.  When I first got here, for example, Parque el Bosque (close to my house) was very overgrown, but I heard that it had been mowed recently.  They came about a week later, and it took weedwhackers to tackle the grass.  It was several days worth of work, and then I guess they had the day off or something, because the piles of what they cut just stuck around for a few more days.  But since then, they’ve been back to mow and prune a second time, and it’s looking nice.  Seeing municipal workers out pruning the vegetation or mowing/weedwhacking in parks is a very common sight.

Signs in parks asking people not to litter ask nicely and try to appeal to people’s sense of shared ownership and pride in their community and the environment.

Guachimán (pronounced almost like “watchy-man”)- Almost every business, and many neighborhoods, hire private security guards.  Sometimes they just stand near the entrance or “la caja” (cash register) and keep an eye out.  Sometimes they are near the door, and you need to talk to them and let them know what you want before you can come in.  Sometimes, the door is locked or closed behind a gate, and you need their permission just to get in.  In my neighborhood, the guard goes by several times a day on a bicycle with a whistle and a billy club.  I hear a rumor that he’s actually only the guard for the other side of the street, though!  

Street vendors– It’s very common, I think, in all parts of Latin America for people to go block to block selling various items.  They go by in car or on foot, either calling out or with a bullhorn saying what’s for sale, and sometimes talking about it’s high quality and/or low price.  Occasionally, it’s a recording on repeat.  It actually seems less common here than what I remember from Mexico.  In some neighborhoods where more people drive, I don’t think they come around at all.  But if you need to get around on foot or by bus, sometimes it’s worth the convenience of having the items come to you.

Our most regular vendor is the egg guy.  He comes by every morning in this car, playing a recording of his sales pitch.  There are other egg guys that sometimes come by later in the day.  We don’t buy eggs from him because he only sells cartons of 30, and we don’t use that many.

The veggie truck comes every Thursday afternoon.  The prices apparently aren’t the best, but if you buy your produce at the market over the weekend, you are likely to be out of stuff by Thursday and need a few things to get you through to the weekend.  You also just have to take your chances that he will have what you want.

I have also seen guys selling wooden furniture and blenders go by the house, and people coming door to door to ask for food and/or money.

Out and about, there are of course street vendors that have a specific spot where they sell.  Sometimes, they sell the same thing, for example the mango sellers by my bus stop.  Sometimes, though, they change with whatever is happening.  During a downpour, for example, all of the street vendors put away whatever else they had and started selling umbrellas.  During the world cup, there were lots of flags, posters, and jerseys for sale.  When I had to catch an early bus, I noticed that in the morning, it was mostly newspapers and empanadas for sale.

Lottery tickets are HUGE down here, and there are vendors out all over the place selling lottery tickets.  They seem to do a lot of business.  Many people join a group and buy together instead of buying individual tickets from the vendors.

The most common items that I see for sale, other than produce and lotería, are cell phone cards, fried chicharrones, plantains, and yuca, DVDs, socks, leggings, hair ties, bracelets (and supplies for making those loop band bracelets), arm warmers (?), and purses/wallets.

Toothbrushing– Costa Ricans also love clean teeth.  They brush after every single meal, and there are toothbrushing stations at schools.

Suicide shower head

“Suicide” shower head.

Hot water– Apparently, hot water is on the “sort of nice to have, but not essential” list.  Most houses that I have been in do not have hot water anywhere but the shower.  Water for the shower is heated by an electric shower head that often combines running water and bare wires right above your head.  Some houses don’t have hot water for the shower, either.  Even if they do, if the water heater breaks, don’t expect anybody to be in a hurry about getting it fixed.

Toilet paper– Most of the time, you do NOT flush toilet paper down here.  There will be a small garbage can by the toilet to put it in.  Again, that’s not uncommon for Latin America.  What does seem different is the way that it’s referred to here.  In other places, it’s said that you don’t flush your TP because the sewer infrastructure can’t handle it and you’ll clog the toilet.  Here, at least according to the signs that are up in every single bathroom, not flushing your TP seems to be a matter of respecting your environment and the waterways, and that it’s cleaner for TP to go in the garbage.  Same practice, different way of looking at it, I guess.  Maybe it’s just that clogging the toilet isn’t a good way to respect the environment. 😉

Flax and Chia seeds– You’ll be happy to know that chia seeds are just as trendy here as they are in the US.  Maybe more so, because of the tradition of having fruit smoothies and taking the healthful properties of foods very seriously.  However, nobody is nearly as crazy for chia as they are for linaza, or flax seeds.  They put them in everything.

I guess that’s it, for now.  I will probably be busy over the next few days, and will catch back up next week.

Ziplining

I had never gone ziplining before.  It has sort of been on my bucket list just because I was too heavy to be able to go for many years.  So if there was something that I couldn’t do because of my weight, I try to make sure to do it now as a sort of celebration.  It meant that I noticed the scale near the entrance where they put on your harness.  I reveled in the fact that nobody was going to ask me to step on it to make sure I wasn’t too heavy for the cable.

All of the pictures of ziplining that I have noticed are of smiling, happy people in gorgeous surroundings.  So I always sort of assumed that the point was a chance to get out into nature and see interesting things from a new angle (above), and that the cable was more of a means of transport from one area to another.

Boy, was I wrong!  The point of ziplining appears to be the adrenaline rush of being on the cable itself!  And, at least for me, I spent a whole lot of time concentrating on what I was doing, which didn’t leave a lot of room for pondering my surroundings.

The basic idea is this: you wear a harness that suspends you from a cable in a sitting position.  You wear gloves, and your dominant hand goes around the cable behind where you’re attached.  That keeps you from spinning while you’re moving, and you use it to brake at the end.  Your other hand holds the rope you’re suspended from, maybe for stability?

Then you GO!  It felt like I was moving way too fast along the cable, but clearly they have the angle set so that you’ll go the right speed most of the time.  The guy at the other end waves you on and signals when it’s time to brake.  I spent most of my time on the cable feeling like my hand was about to slide off, but did get the hang of it over time.  Luckily they start you with some shorter ones that are sort of “practice” before you hit the longer ones.

The place where I went also had two “superman” cables, where you are suspended from your back in a flying position.  This was nice- since you didn’t have to use your hands on the cable, I didn’t have to worry that I would screw something up, and could look around a bit more.  I did get a few videos from those, although I kept spazzing and assuming the camera wasn’t recording and turning it off.  The first superman line was about a mile long, and took almost two minutes to complete!  The second one was about half that length.  

Then, it was time for the “tarzan swing”.  For that one, you walk across a bridge to a platform, get attached to a rope, and then jump (or are pushed) off.  After a bit of freefall, the cable catches you, and you swing back and forth and eventually down to the ground.  A few members of our group didn’t do the Tarzan swing.  I reasoned that I had come this far, I might as well try it.  But at the end of the bridge, you do have second thoughts!  They opened the door, and I was falling through the air!  It was such a terrifying feeling.  Then the rope catches you, and that is a big thrill.  From there to the bottom, it’s a lot of fun, and you land very gently.

In the end, I’m glad I did it, but I don’t think I’ll do it again.  It’s just not my sort of thing.  The tarzan swing, on the other hand, was a ton of fun, and I would do something like that again if I get the chance.  But the ziplines, in the end, were about as nerve-racking as they were fun, at least for me.  Give me a roller coaster any day.

The platform for the Tarzan swing.  They said it was about 40 meters high.

The platform for the Tarzan swing. They said it was about 40 meters high.

Here are the videos that I took:

Superman cable 1

Superman cable 2

Superman cable 3

Tarzan swing.  I couldn’t videotape myself (obviously), so this is a video of somebody who went after I did.

Monteverde

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!

The road to Monteverde

The road to Monteverde

The road to Monteverde

The road to Monteverde

The road to Monteverde

The road to Monteverde

My room at the hostel

My room at the hostel

View from the hostel window looking down on to Santa Elena

View from the hostel window looking down on to Santa Elena

The upstairs kitchen

The upstairs kitchen

My first try at cooking green plantains. Success!

Nice common areas!

Nice common areas!

More hostel view

More hostel view

Some kind of deadly viper

Here is the platform that I jumped off of. They said it was something like 40 meters high.

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

This lead sort of reminded me of a giant Totoro leaf.

This leaf sort of reminded me of a giant Totoro leaf.

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

This little berry is apparently some kind of tomato relative.

What the postcards don’t show you is how tiny the frogs actually are.

And the orchids are tinier.

And the orchids are tinier.

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

DSCN0386

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

DSCN0380

This is called a “school millipede” because it looks like a school bus.

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

The insects had chewed enough of the leaves to make a cool lattice effect.

The insects had chewed enough of the leaves to make a cool lattice effect.

Santa Elena

Santa Elena

Of course I couldn't pass up the chance to get a dulce de lehe crepe!

 

Food

Ticos seem to eat 4 times a day- breakfast, lunch, afternoon coffee, and dinner.

Breakfast– Costa Rica’s most well known dish, gallo pinto, is a traditional breakfast food.  The way “pinto” is made in my house is that some of the leftover beans from the previous day’s food are mashed slightly and cooked with oil, onion, and salsa Lizano (a local sauce similar to Worcestershire sauce).  Then, you add some of yesterday’s rice, and when it’s heated through, you have gallo pinto.  I hear there are regional differences.  For example, when I was in Guanacaste, they talked about how their pinto isn’t usually made with peppers or onions, that it’s mostly rice and beans.

Along with your gallo pinto, you might have some corn tortillas, an egg, some toast, or a slice of queso Turrialba (a local white squeaky cheese).  If you’re really lucky, you might have some fried maduros (ripe plantains) too.  

From what I hear, ticos like to eat a full meal for breakfast because it can be too hot to eat in the middle of the day.  So on really hot days, a good breakfast can get them through their day until it cools off a bit in the evening.

Lunch– This seems to vary a lot depending on people’s schedule.  Traditionally, I think lunch is a lighter meal because you are busy or it’s hot out.  However, it seems like my host mom tends to eat a fuller lunch and then a lighter dinner that might just be leftovers from lunch.  But I think that’s because she’s generally home during the day and has time to cook a full meal.  In the evening, there is often stuff going on, or people around, so there’s not as much time to cook.

The “traditional” Costa Rican lunch is the “casado” plate- the meal that a wife would pack up for her husband to take to work with him (the name means “married”).  It has rice and beans, a cabbage salad, your choice of meat, and fried plantains.  I hadn’t ordered one before because of the focus on the meat (you usually just ask for a casado at a “soda” (traditional food place) and name your meat, but at today’s soda, they had a vegetarian casado that came with some cooked squash instead of the meat.

Another traditional food that Costa Ricans might have for lunch and dinner would be a picadillo.  Basically, it’s whatever vegetables or meats you have cut up into really small pieces and sauteed.

It seems to me that foods are also traditionally served separately, except for when they are mixed into a salad or picadillo.  For example, when it’s not in gallo pinto, rice and beans are usually served separately, sometimes with the beans in “caldo”, a separate bowl, maybe with a hard boiled egg or boiled plantain.

Cafecito– If you’ve had lunch, and it’s any time before maybe 6:00, and a Costa Rican asks you if you want coffee, they aren’t actually asking if you want coffee.  They are asking you to sit with them and have something to eat.  It’s traditional to have a  cup or coffee, or maybe tea, but that’s optional.  My family seemed really confused the first afternoon when I turned down the coffee offer in the afternoon.  I didn’t realize that I was skipping a meal.  Also, if you’re not hungry, but you’re home, it’s a time to sit down together and catch up for a few minutes before going back to whatever you had been doing.

At my house, the food with the cafecito is generally something small, maybe some bread with hummus or cheese, or some crackers.  I will admit that I’ve been meeting my co-chaperone at a cafe in the afternoons quite often, so in that case we will enjoy something from the pastry counter. 🙂

Dinner: This tends to be later at night, and can even be right before bedtime.  Out in Guanacaste, the family ate dinner at 9 and was generally in bed by 10.  For those who eat a bigger lunch, dinner will be lighter.  Maybe a sandwich or some leftovers from lunch.  If you have a ligher lunch, or skipped it, then you’d have something more.  Pinto comes back, of course, along with meat of some kind or chicharrones, or a picadillo.

Snacks: There’s not a lot of snacking that I see, at least in my house.  People seem to eat at those scheduled times of the day, but not at other times, and there’s just not a lot of snack food around.  I have noticed that there are a lot of street vendors that sell fried chicharrones, plantains, yuca, or potatoes at the after-work bus stops, so that’s where the snacking seems to be done.  Another thing is that a lot of people get soft serve or something from a fast food place.  I will go into more details about that in a future post.

So far I have been really enjoying the food!  I do feel like eating more at scheduled mealtimes, especially if it’s whole foods, and not processed foods, and doing less mindless snacking has been good for me.  And luckily, I like rice and beans a whole lot.