Sunday, February 20, 2011

Library Bag

My mom's library system recently switched to selling reusable bags instead of giving away plastic bags to patrons. The slogan for the library is "Explore the Possibilities" so she thought it would be a good idea to have patrons take photos with the bag in various locations. She gave us a bag to take with us and these are the photos we took featuring what came to be known as "The Blue Bag" throughout the trip.

We used the bag throughout the trip and it was actually the bag that we accidentally left at the ranger station in Playa Grande and had to drive back for.

We used it as a grocery bag for most of the trip, and it actually ended up being one of Mac's carry-on bags on the way home.

Piper thought it was a pretty cool toy:

And last but not least, we had to get a couple shots with Bush Senior and the bag:

If you're lucky, maybe I'll come to a town near you with my library bag in tow and we can take some fun photos! Thanks, Mom for giving us an excuse to be a little goofy. I hope we did a good job!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Costa Rica, part 5: Houston and heading home

After we landed in Houston, we were picked up by Mac's sister Val and her boyfriend Will. It was definitely cooler outside than in Costa Rica, but Houston acted as a good intermediate climate. I think I would have cried if we went straight from the 80s of San Jose to the 30s of Newark. The sun had already set when we landed and the temp in Houston was in the low 60s or high 50s.

On the way to Mac's parent's house I got a quick tour of the neighborhood where he grew up. Once we got there, we almost immediately headed out for dinner. The next day was Valerie's birthday, so she got to pick the restaurant. We went to a great Italian place and all enjoyed some really good food. After dinner we headed back to Mac's parent's to give Valerie some presents. We had picked up a pretty bracelet for her in Sarchi and a little wooden cat carving.

Unfortunately, Mac's brother was out of town for work while we were there, but Val was watching his cats. So we actually stayed at the guest room in his house. I have to admit, his cats were really cute and Mac enjoyed having some quality cat time. We had a fairly early flight, but Mac squeezed in some early morning cat lovin' with Piper:

Piper and Remy, the darker cat, were both excited about our shoelaces as we were getting our boots on. Here's Mac attempting to tie his shoes:

Valerie drove us to the airport, which was really nice of her to do early on a Sunday morning that also happened to be her birthday! Here's the view of downtown Houston from the highway:

We had just a few extra minutes at the airport and we thought this statue of George H.W. Bush was pretty amusing. The airport is named after him and he and I share a birthday, so I thought it was worth getting a photo together:

Our flight was quick and easy and we were both kind of sad to see snow on the ground as we flew over New Jersey. We flew right over Princeton and we able to pinpoint some landmarks. That was pretty cool, but the snow, not so cool:

We took NJ Transit back to Princeton Junction and our friend Mike picked us up there. We all went out to lunch and then it was back home for us. After a nap the reality set in that we were back in Princeton and shortly had to be back to "real life".

We had an amazing trip. Worth every penny, and truly an experience that I'll treasure forever. I wonder where we'll go next...

Friday, February 18, 2011

Costa Rica, part 4: San Ramón & Playa Grande

We made it through San Ramón with just one little accidental detour into the barrio, but soon found our destination: Casa Amanecer. It's just outside of San Ramón, but offered a perfect stop over point on our way to the beach. We got in a little earlier than expected and with the help of one of our hosts, Alberto, went back into San Ramón to grab some lunch and pick up some postcard stamps.

During lunch we decided to take the afternoon and check out a nearby town called Sarchí, which is known for its artisan crafts. We took the long way there, back on the PanAmerican Highway and ended up having to drive through Grecia. The most notable thing about Grecia is that there are cars for sale all over the place! New cars, used cars, you name it. If you want to buy a car in Costa Rica, Grecia is the place for you. We especially got a kick out of all the signs for Autos Houston. When we finally passed it, this was the best shot I could get from the passenger's side out the driver's side window:

We finally got to Sarchí and stopped at one group of stores and picked up quite a few souvenirs. The prices were very reasonable and in fact, I wish I had picked up more while I was there. I got myself a great sarong that came in handy at the beach and Mac and I both had some birthdays to shop for, so we got quite a bit accomplished in a short time. The area around Sarchí is known for handpainted oxcarts, some of which were on display in the courtyard of the building where we did our shopping. Apparently this used to be a popular mode of transportation all across the country, now it kind of seems like a tourist attraction, like how you might see covered wagons at touristy spots across the American West.

On our way back to San Ramón, we tried to stop at a place in the guidebook for dinner, but we later found out that it had changed its name, so we stopped instead at Cafe Delicious, which was, indeed, Delicious. I had a Grecia Salad, which we assumed would be a greek salad, but it was so much better! We realized later that it must be a kind of salad made in Grecia, the town we had just driven through. It was served in a crispy tortilla shell and had warm black beans at the bottom with lettuce, cheese and sweet corn piled on top. I also got it with a side of guacamole, which made it even better. After dinner we headed back to Casa Amanecer and I wrote out some postcards before heading to bed.

Good thing we were in the habit of going to bed early! Our lovely room with windows on three sides was very bright the minute the sun came up! Here's the view through the blinds at around 6am:

And here is the view out of our door into the adorable little yard. Hello Sunshine!

The yard also featured these amazingly beautiful flowers growing along the fence. The blooms were few and far between, but different than anything I'd ever seen:

The yard also had an amusing group of bunnies. This one hopped right up while we were packing up to leave.

We had another great breakfast and enjoyed the company of Alberto, one of our hosts. We got to ask him a few questions about life in Costa Rica and he was happy to chat with us in English. We were curious about when the schoolyear started because we had seen a lot of "back to school" things in the stores in San Jose. Turns out that school starts in mid-February, so we were there for their last week of summer vacation.

We left shortly after breakfast because we knew we had at least a 4 hour drive ahead of us. Mac was a great navigator and I was, apparently, a speedy driver. The top speed limit in all of Costa Rica is 80 kilometers per hour (kph). That's just under 50 miles per hour. Yes, even on the PanAmerican Highway, this is the top speed limit. We were cruising along, listening to Costa Rican radio, chatting away and all of a sudden this guy walks into the middle of the lane ahead of us. My first thought was "No way am I going to stop for some crazy guy in the middle of the road". Then Mac pointed out that it was a cop, and I slammed on the brakes. Uh-oh. He came up to the window and asked for my license and passport (yeah, he knew we were tourists because of the rental car). He said he clocked me going 95 kph (59mph) and went into this whole spiel about how a speeding ticket is hundreds of dollars, insurance will go through the roof, and because it's a rental car it's 30% additional, blah blah blah... Then he basically told us we could bribe him. So Mac pulls out his stock of dollar coins and hands him a few rolls while letting him know that "We're doing all the Presidents! These are James Madison!". He seemed pleased enough and gave us back our documents and sent us on our way. Dollar Coins to the Rescue!!

The rest of the drive went smoothly and we arrived at Hotel Las Tortugas looking forward to our beach time. And the beach was amazing! Playa Grande is a huge span of beach on the Pacific Ocean. It's part of the Las Baulas National Park and is protected because it is an important nesting place for leatherback turtles. More on that in a second...

The hotel, on the other hand, was less than what I expected. We opted for a "budget" room that was half the price of the regular hotel rooms and if it was anywhere but right on the beach (location, location, location) would have been worth about a quarter of what we paid for it. It felt like we were in a cinderblock bunker with a terrible bed, private bath with a mostly warm shower, dingy curtains and the real bonus was a surf board rack! For one of the first times in my life I thought "I'm too old for this". Mac convinced me that it was going to be fine and that we weren't going to spend too much time in the hotel room. This was very true and in the end, the room didn't matter that much anyway...

After checking in, we headed out for a bite to eat at Kike's Place, which was also less than appealing. If every vacation has to have "one of those days", this was certainly shaping up to be that day. After eating we headed back to our room, changed into our swimsuits and took a nice, long walk along the beach. Mac actually went in swimming, but I just enjoyed walking along the beach through the rising tide. There is nothing that relaxes me and soothes my soul quite like walking along the beach.

So after that we got ready for our evening activity: Waiting and hoping to see a female leatherback turtle come up on the beach to lay her eggs. We met at the ranger station for the Las Baulas National Park at 6pm with a bunch of other people, probably 40 or so. We got all bug-sprayed up and then saw a very informative presentation about the turtles and the area. The beach is closed from 6pm to 5am every day during the turtle egg-laying season, which runs from November to mid-February. The turtle population that visits this beach has dropped from about 1500 turtles per season in the 1980s to currently less than 100 turtles per season. This is due to egg poachers, environmental changes and fishing practices that can kill both baby and adult leatherbacks. It takes 20 years for the leatherback to grow to maturity when it can start mating, so efforts that were started 10-15 years ago to save the leatherback won't be seen in the breeding population for another 5-10 years. The hope is that this current time is the low-point and that more turtles will start arriving to the breeding grounds in 5-10 years. The female turtles travel from the Galapagos Islands. Each turtle will make the trip every 3-4 years and during their time in Costa Rica they will lay 6-8 times, laying 60-100 eggs each time. The survival rate for the baby turtles is staggering: Only 1 in 1,000 will make it from being an egg laid on Playa Grande to a living baby turtle in the Galapagos. There are efforts being made to help the baby turtles have a better chance of survival. Most importantly, there is an egg hatchery on the beach. Scientists work every night of the egg-laying season to track each turtle that comes to shore to lay eggs. If they consider the eggs to be in any danger, they are removed from the hole that the mother dug and brought to the hatchery. Here's a shot of the hatchery that we took the next morning. The marked squares in the dirt are where different batches of eggs are buried. When the turtles start to hatch, they are brought to a holding area and released into the Ocean at night, which increases their chances of survival:

There are also efforts being made to control the amount of light that hits the beach, because both the female and the baby turtles are attracted to white and yellow light and can get confused about where to go if there is unnatural light present. Each year there is a leatherback turtle (Las Baulas in spanish) festival to help raise awareness of and money for the efforts being made to keep Playa Grande as an important nesting area for the turtles.

We were disappointed that a turtle didn't arrive for us to see before the volunteers closed up shop at 10:30pm. What would have happened is this: the ranger station is in walkie-talkie contact with the folks on the beach who are watching for leatherbacks to come out of the water. When one comes out, the ranger station is notified and groups of 15 people are led to the beach by trained volunteer guides to watch the turtle in the egg-laying process.

We headed back to the hotel a little disappointed and hot and hungry. The last thing we ate was our crappy late lunch at Kike's Place and we split a granola bar while we were waiting. So we got back to the hotel, hoping that the restaurant would be open, but instead found that it was closed and there was just a guy sitting in there watching a soccer match. We convinced him that he could give us a cold beer and a cold club soda and charge it to our room. So we went back to the room and had our cold drinks with some cheetos and a banana for dinner. Not the best meal of the trip, but it strangely hit the spot. We then unpacked our sleep sacks to slept on top of the most uncomfortable bed in Costa Rica.

Even though we weren't lucky enough to see a turtle in action, on our early-morning beach walk the next morning, we did find a track in the sand indicating that a turtle had come ashore. If you look hard you can see it to the right of me in this photo:

The width of the track gives you an idea of how big these animals are, and this one was actually on the smaller side. The tracks are sometimes up to a meter wide! Here's a shot of the whole that she dug at the end of the track. This is where she would have laid her eggs and then covered them up to hide them. Apparently, these eggs were dug up by the scientists and brought to the hatchery, leaving just the hole where they used to be.

We walked all the way to one end of the beach, just enjoying the sound of the water and the sun coming up. It was a really beautiful morning:

The seashells on this beach were so beautiful, and plentiful:

We also saw lots of birds on our walk. Here is a snowy egret looking for food among the waves and the tidepools:

And a pelican in a nearby tree doing the same:

The water was ridiculously clear and we could stand in the tidepools up to our knees and see everything that was going on. We also saw little scuttle crabs and even hermit crabs along the beach:

On the way back to the beach, we noticed that the surfers were out in full force. Here's one shot of a guy catching a wave:

The best part about our hotel was the restaurant. We walked straight from the beach into the restaurant and order the typical Costa Rican breakfast. It was quite tasty and gave us the energy for our next adventure! We rented a canoe and paddled through the estuary that exists behind Playa Grande. We had to drive to Hotel BulaBula which faces the estuary (and looked really nice, by the way), and then the canoes were waiting for us there. They had an easy put-in spot, which we found out was also the pick-up for water taxis and other estuary tours. We decided not to have a guide with us and instead went out on our own. We ran into a guide who was taking some other hotel guests out on a canoe tour and he told us all the good stuff was to the right. So...we went to the left.

For a while it seemed like we had the whole estuary to ourselves. We had open water, clear views and saw tons and tons of amazing birds. It's a saltwater, tidal estuary that empties into the ocean and we were there pretty much at low tide. Again, the water was amazingly clear and we could see to the bottom, which was only a few feet down in most spots.

After our quiet tour of the left side of the estuary, we headed to the right side to where all of the bigger tourist boats were. They were mostly motor boats, so they made bit of noise, but there weren't too many of them and they actually helped us figure out where the Howler monkeys were! We came around a corner and saw a boat pulled up to a path. We had heard that you had to get out of the boat to see the monkeys, so we figured this must have been what this empty boat was up to. Sure enough, as we were paddling up to the shore, a group of about 10 people came out of the woods saying that they had seen the Howlers. So we tied up the canoe and headed in that general direction.

Mac is amazing at spotting wildlife. About 5 minutes in he said in a whisper, "Shh...there's a male monkey looking for a place to nap." And then we looked over at the next tree and there were about 15 monkeys just lazing around in the mid-day heat.

The adults were especially lazy. There were a few younger monkeys who were happy playing around and finding some stuff to eat:

We were very quiet and still and enjoyed just watching them move around. The monkeys are most active in the mornings and later afternoons when it's a little cooler, so we just let them enjoy their quiet, lazy time of day.

And here's a little video of one finding a good place to rest:

They seemed to really like just finding a good branch and letting all of their limbs hang loose:

After about 10-15 minutes we quietly walked away and left them in peace. While we were walking back to the canoe, though, we heard them start to howl. What a noise! We aren't sure what set them off, but I'm glad it wasn't us. This distinct noise that they make can be heard for up to a mile and a half. I'm kind of glad we got to experience that, but I would have felt bad if we had made them do it. We also passed another group of tourists heading in that direction. I'm glad Mac and I got to see them quietly and with just the two of us.

Here's Mac in the little fiberglass canoe that we rented, getting ready to set off from where we stopped to see the monkeys. I'm holding the rope and about to hop in:

The other big sight to see in the estuary is the American Saltwater Crocodiles. We saw one scoot into the water quite a bit ahead of us, so we knew we were in the right place. And there were lots of little sunny beaches where you might imagine a crocodile would enjoy sunning himself. And then we turned a corner in an area that was too shallow for the tourist boats and were treated to the sight of this guy:

He was probably 7-8 feet long and just hanging out in the sun. We let the canoe just glide and that offered us a chance to get a good look at him. What teeth!

Here's a shot including the end of the canoe so you can see how close we were:

And after a minute or so he crawled into the water:

I have to say, we were quite proud of ourselves for having taken a much quieter, smaller canoe and no guide and seeing everything we hoped to see, probably in a more intimate setting than what the bigger tours would have offered.

We spent a total of about 4 hours on the water and after we brought the canoe up, we treated ourselves to lunch and a huge mango margarita at Hotel BulaBula:

It was a particularly hot day that day, so the food and especially the cold drinks tasted great! We then headed back to our hotel and immediately hopped in the ocean. We were a little dirty from the canoe trip and it felt good to rinse off in the perfectly warm water. My guess is that the ocean water was at about 75-80 degrees, which felt great compared to the 90-95 degree day! With the low tide, the beach was especially wide and even far out, you could still stand and have the water be just above your knees. It was perfect. We then hopped in the hotel pool for another version of rinsing off and then finally got back to our room for actual showers.

Once we were cleaned up, we headed to the hotel restaurant, which is where the free wi-fi was, and did a little research about what to do the next day. We also eventually ordered dinner and this amazing dessert. I'll mention it yet again, but the fruit in Costa Rica is just outstanding! This was just a dish of but up fruit and vanilla ice cream, but it was outstanding and probably tasted even more amazing at the end of a hot day!

In fact, we were so distracted by dessert that we missed sunset over the ocean. We could kind of see it from the restaurant, but this was what it looked like by the time I got to the beach:

We spent another evening waiting for turtles, again with no luck. This time though, we came a little more prepared with books and a little snack. We sat through the presentation again, this time with a different guide who was quite nervous about her English (I'm glad we saw the one the night before, it was much more informative). And then waited and read and journaled and chatted with other folks who were waiting and then finally, hours later, the volunteer came in and said "So sorry, no turtles" and made a sad face and that pretty much summed up our leatherback turtle experience.

The next morning Mac slept in a bit and I took a solo walk along the beach. No turtle tracks this time, but still lots of shells:

And lots of surfers:

I think there was a surf lesson going on because there were lots of people just bobbing around in the water for a while and then one guy caught a wave, apparently to show them how it's done. There was also a small group on the beach, including this photographer. Hey, if all else fails I can move to Costa Rica and photograph the surfers, right?

Just outside our hotel was a little taco stand that also advertised surf lessons:

And here's the entrance to the beach known for turtles and surfers. They seem to co-exist quite well:

When I got back, we packed up our bags but didn't check out quite yet. We decided to take a water taxi to Tamarindo, a beach town nearby, to have breakfast. We drove back to Hotel Bula Bula and got picked up by Enrique, a local estuary guide and water taxi driver. He said he's been working on the estuary for more than 20 years. Right before we docked in Tamarindo we saw a troop of howler monkeys in the nearby trees. Enrique tried to make them howl by imitating their sound, but it didn't work. He said he rarely sees monkeys in the trees there and that we were really lucky:

We ate breakfast at Olga's Coffeeshop and it was pretty good. We split a bagel with cream cheese and tomato and an order of Huevos Rancheros which was great. Mac had a good coffee and I had a refreshing iced tea and then a pineapple smoothie. When I ordered the smoothie, the woman walked over and grabbed a whole pineapple and started cutting it up. Now that's fresh!

We also stopped at the grocery store in Tamarindo and then walked back to where the taxis come. On our walk along the main road, we noticed this netted bridge across the highway and when we asked Enrique about it, he confirmed our suspicion that it was a monkey bridge. The electrical wires can be a hazard to the monkeys, so they've tried to give them a better path to get across the street.

During our taxi ride back to Bula Bula, Enrique pointed out some wildlife, like this tri-colored heron:

When we got back to the car after our trip to Tamarindo, we both looked at each other and realized that something was smelling pretty funky in the car. We nailed it down to our Keens, which had been in the estuary the day before and apparently didn't get cleaned off too well. We rinsed them again, and then dipped them in the overly chlorinated hotel pool and then let them dry on top of the car while we checked out:

Before we headed out we stopped to take some photos around the hotel. The parking lot was full of these beautiful hibiscus plants:

We saw this mutant blue jay (about twice as big as a blue jay) hanging out around the hotel quite a bit, and right as we were leaving it landed in a nearby tree and seemed to pose for this photo:

We also stopped at the ranger station for Las Baulas National Park and took some photos in front of this cool mural. The map on the right is of Costa Rica and there is a little square of the left side of the country showing where we were:

Mac wins for most hilarious photo of the trip (this made me laugh while I was taking it, and it still makes me laugh):

After taking these photos, we headed out toward Monkey Park, a monkey and animal rehabilitation center that was about a 1/2 hour drive away. About 15 minutes away from Las Baulas we realized that we left one of our tote bags back at the mural, so we drove all the way back, thankfully it was still sitting on the table where we left it and then we set off again!

We finally got to Monkey Park and enjoyed looking at all of the animals. They attempt to rehabilitate any of the animals that are brought to them, but some have been domesticated and can not be released into the wild. For instance, they had a beautiful ocelot that someone had tried to keep as a pet. She will never be released into the wild because she never learned to hunt for fend for herself, but they are trying to introduce her to the idea of hunting by incorporating a small pond into her cage and putting fish in there that she can hunt if she wants to. It seemed like they were doing really good work for these animals.

There were iguana all over the place, not in cages, but just roaming around.

This one was especially fat, and we eventually figured out why. The animals in cages are fed by leaving food just outside their cages so that they have to reach for it and after the monkeys were fed, we saw and iguana come up and steal some of the monkey food. So these iguanas have a pretty easy life.

The Monkey Park also has a butterfly garden that was small, but nice. This one was my favorite:

We were quite impressed by all of the colors on this toucans beak! Even though they were in a cages, it was neat to see so many animals that were native to the area, right up close.

We especially loved these capuchin monkeys. There were having a pretty good time and getting really excited because they were soon going to be fed. There are lots of places in Costa Rica where you can see capuchins in the wild, but we didn't see any this trip. Maybe next time...

And this video gets the prize for funniest video of the trip:

We stopped at the gift shop and picked up a t-shirt (clean clothes for Mac!) and gave them a small donation. We also had lunch at the snack bar at the park, and the funniest part was that they had Michael Jackson music videos playing the whole time. It was another hot day and we both had wonderfully refreshing fresh fruit smoothies along with our lunch. We got in the car and headed back to Casa Amanecer and San Ramon. We were treated to a glimpse of more howler monkeys over the highway on our trip home - our third time seeing them in the wild. We got in just after dark, around 6pm and checked in and then headed back into San Ramon for dinner. This time we found the restaurant we were looking for the first time. It's a lot easier to find a restaurant when you have the name right. It's called Rincon Poetica and we got a few bocas (small plates, like tapas) and an order of Arroz con Palmito. I had had this dish at one other point during the trip and it's SO good. It's basically rice with hearts of palm and some cream and it's delicious. This one was served with a salad and french fries. If there's one dish I want to try to reenact at home, it's this dish.

After we went home and enjoyed another relaxing evening. This was our last night in Costa Rica and we had some reorganizing to do before packing up. We had a good nights sleep, and it felt especially good after two nights in the most uncomfortable bed in the country. The next morning we slept in, enjoyed our last Costa Rican breakfast, packed up all our stuff headed out of San Ramon.

On the way out of town we saw this great little school. Yes, that's our first president, Jorge Washington:

And one last view of those beautiful orange trees:

We returned the rental car and got a shuttle back to the airport. Here's one of our last views of the mountains of the central valley before we flew out to Houston:

We flew from San Jose, Costa Rica to Mac's hometown of Houston for a scheduled overnight lay-over. So even though this is the end of our trip to Costa Rica, there's one more stop before we actually get home. Stay tuned for a blog about that...