The thoughts that were thunk and the goings on of my life.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Costa Rica - Trip Report

I got the chance to come to Costa Rica on a business trip (I know, hard times at work for me).

Drake Bay - 
Very muddy. Not polluted, just muddy, so don't ever come here with some dream of white-sand beaches, because that's not going to happen. But all that mud makes for something pretty amazing, which I'll talk about later.

Agujitas - Main town of Drake Bay (map)
Has only a few hundred residents, and they all seem to be good and chill folks. One thing that's really nice is it's a small enough town that they aren't constantly saying, "Hey friend! You need a..."

Hotel (Cabinas Manolo)
Nothing to worry about here...
...just electric wires running into the shower head

Activity List:
  1. Walking the bay
  2. Horseback Ride
  3. Night Bug Tour
  4. Corcovado (at Sirena)
  5. Sea Kayaking (aka sit-down surfing)
  6. Gringo Curt's
  7. Magic in the ocean

Walking the bay
Walk along the beach, very wide while tide is out. Sand gives way to rocks, and then comes a muddy sand concoction. Sticks to the top of your toenails. Little holes in sand that absorb then glug after waves, must be a little creature; try to dig quickly to find what it was, but no luck. See rocks with barnacles, toss rock onto one to see what they look like...feel guilt for killing a barnacle. Stand still, realize rock is teeming with life. Small tadpole-looking fish in the puddle. Crevice of rock is its own ecosystem. Thousands of crabs smaller than flies. Move and they all hide, hold still and they slowly emerge. Crabs, snails, fish, hermits, flies, glugging oysters, barnacles wiggling in their castles. Then one hand wave and silence again.

If you stay still, life is all around you.

Horseback Riding
First time riding anything of significance, going along some roads to see a waterfall in the jungle (I think it's here). Total time of about 2.5 hours. Unfortunately guide speaks as much English as I do Spanish. While it makes for a quiet trip, he's a pleasant guy.

Couple notes though. As a 2m, 100kg guy these horses were pretty tiny. I felt really bad hopping aboard, but mine (Marlboro), didn't seem to mind. We get moving and I find out that the horse isn't the only thing that's too is the saddle, and by a LOT. But I make due, and within a mile or so things start feeling pretty normal.

Moving along, the speedy bits are rough, and it's hard to put weight on bones because the legs on the saddle are so short, and I'm so far up the buckles are really digging into my shins. Oh well, it's like a rental bike, they will work, but they certainly aren't what you'd ride everyday. Things go well along the road, then we get into some sections that are about as sketchy as any dirt road you'd ever see back home. Then it gets steeper and more downhill and I realize...Cowboy pants are really just Under Armor for the 1800s. Keep it high, keep it tight, or it'll keep you from moving. Also know now why a bicycle seat is not called a seat, but a 'saddle' They feel very similar and everything is actually pretty comfy when the weight is on the hard leather and via my sit-bones. Want to use this as an example from now on when people are like, "Your seat is too hard." And I'll be like, "Cowboys don't say that they want comfy memory foam saddles, and neither to I; because if you're working you need the firmness.

So we're pacing down this road and then it crosses a river, no big deal. Except instead of crossing we go up the river. This river is more rapid-filled than anything a Texan would go tubing on, but despite my questioning the guide indicates that's where we need to go. Not bad for a ways, but then it gets deeper and faster, and eventually the water is up to my knees and the poor pony is tripping on the very rocky surface underneath. Basically I make his life suck. He could be playing in a field nibbling greens, but instead a jerk is on him making him walk along. 

But then a weird things happens. I realize that he knows exactly where he's going. I'm not guiding him he's just doing his thing. So instead of working to keep everything in order I just let go and he does his thing. Finds the path, hits a shore, finds a new path, all the while trudging forward. Then I start to realize that for real hose people that these animals are more like a pet than a transit method. They're much like my dog, they just want to be outside and moving along...but unlike him in that they're worried that they might be somebody's dinner, instead of the one feasting. It's probably the only prey-animal that humans have this type of relationship with, which I find interesting. I end up having lots of other thoughts about horses during the ride, some profound in the moment; others realizing I'll never know the answer to because I don't know the words in Spanish and can't ask my guide. Ultimately though I'm really impressed by the abilities of horses to just auto-pilot, handle terrain that no other vehicle possibly could, and with how nimble they are even when loaded down. Mr. Horse, you're awesome.

Get to the waterfall and it's nice. Not like anything in Oregon, but beats anything in Texas by a long-shot. Looks like there's a mini-power-station built into it...they gotta figure out how to cover that up. I pulled out the fancy camera(which I instantly regretted bringing the moment the 'small road' ride turned out to actually be a 'spend the whole time in river which could instantly destroy your really fancy camera' ride), and boom. Instant fog. Can't see a thing. Fortunately my much worse little camera phone worked just fine and I got this shot.

Sup waterfall! Bet you like getting down.
The ride back was much more pleasant and the ponies seemed to like it more as they didn't have to fight the water. And since we were flowing with the stream we were quieter and saw more animals. Basilisks were everywhere and I even saw one of them running on water. There were also lots of other little skinks and iguana-like critters. Saw a few king-fisher looking birds, and the best find was some black and yellow and red toucans. What's funny about them is that their beaks are so big they have a hard time flying. I'm sure there's some evolutionary razor where they need a big beak to impress the ladies, but every now and then one gets a beak so big that they can't fly properly and take themselves out of the gene pool.

One thing really cool about the river (Rio Agujitas), is that it is is glacial-blue color. Really cool looking, I wish I could have taken a picture of it, but it was clean and clear when shallow, but really cool looking when more than a few feet deep. Unfortunately I don't know if I'll ever find out why.

Climbing out of the river and back to the hotel was really smooth and better than expected. Started to get the hang of the motion in the saddle, and I'll count it as the ab workout for the day. Got back to the hotel, expected to pay the guy, but he was like 'No you pay at the hotel.' So I was a little confused, but confirmed with my hotel and bid the guide farewell. He kept hanging around for awhile, wasn't quite sure why, but eventually he took off. Then I realized...

...he wanted a tip. But surely I pay the tip when I pay for the ride? Well, after talking with the hotel, no, that's not the case. Crap. Didn't pick up on the social cues until it was too late. That's one thing about this country that's really hard. A lot of things tip is included, some it's not expected, and others you're a big jerk for not giving one. What's hard though is that there doesn't seem to be any consistency on which activity falls in which category. Sorry horse-dude, I suck and if I see you later I'll try to make up the disappointment for you.

A little downtime and some dinner for now. Here's hoping that bug lady is just like our neighbor across the street.

Night Bug Tour
Got a recommendation from Curt over at Gringo Curt's for a night-hike with Esteban. Evidently he has a much bigger property to work with than most people, which means you have more walking options and therefore the animals aren't overrun with tourists. (Night Time Jungle Hike)

Instead of seeing some bugs (many of which are variants of things back home, or we would have seen on our last trip to Monteverde), we got to see a huge diversity of wildlife. Roosting song birds, tiny frogs, huge frogs, fresh-water shrimp, glass frogs, opossum, armadillo, egg sacs for tree frogs, moths, kinkajou, and poison dart frogs.

Words aren't really the best descriptors on these things, so check out this album: 

The one thing I couldn't capture in photos was when in the middle of a trail Esteban told me, "Turn off your light." Once I had done that he said, "Now wait a few moments." After waiting a few moments it looked like my eyes were playing tricks on me and I saw something glowing moving towards me. Then Esteban said, "You see this? This is glowing fungus. Now look around you." I looked around and there were little trails of glowing light heading off in every direction. It was magical; seemingly straight out of Avatar where she tells him to put away his torch and suddenly the forest comes alive with light...although with way less movie-magic and sexy blue natives. 

Corcovado National Park - Sirena (map)
The beauty of Costa Rica is in it's life. It's people, it's plants, it's myriad of animals. There's a really unique place in the Osa Peninsula called Sirena. It's only accessible by small plane or boat (or hiking); and the beauty of that place is that it's at the intersection of multiple geographical and climate regions. Basically there's a bunch of mountains over there, a fast-cool river on one side, a slow mangrove river on the other side, and a forest in between that's fairly new growth so it really supports life like nothing else. Because of that you end up having the chance to see more animals than you would almost anywhere else in the world in that amount of time. 

The trick to anything with animals though is that unlike humans they don't have to work. So they wake up with the sun, busy themselves about finding breakfast and then just hang out and digest and relax until about later-afternoon when it's time to start worrying about dinner. That means if you want to see anything you need to be around as close to (or even before) dawn as possible. Therefore we get in our boat about 6am, and make the surprisingly long-feeling 1:15 boat ride from Agujitas to Sidena. We got there around 7:30, which is decent, but a tad late if you really want to see everything in action. Fortunately even arriving late at this place is not too big of a deal. We only walked 3.7mi in the 6 hours we were there and managed to see SO many's some of the highlights off the top of my head:
  • Wild boar

    Reek of boar-pee, see us and saunter nearby. But when one person stands up (huge wildlife no-no if you want things to stick around...always get smaller), they take off running banging their teeth against one another as they glad those teeth weren't aimed near us.
  • Toucans

    They're big, beautiful, and Toucan Sam does an incredible job of perfectly capturing what they look like. Downside is they're kinda like blue jays, while they might be pretty they are pretty much jerks to all other creatures around them
  • Spiny-tail iguana

    Had one of these growing up, but they're something much better in the wild. Really impressive how healthy and stout this guy was.
  • Osprey
    Hanging out by the sea after having just eaten dinner
  • Myriad of birds
    Most small and brown/black tones, the occasional one with bright markings, fun to watch, but hard to get in a picture
  • Spider Monkeys
    Love their prehensile tails, makes for a really neat way of being able to relax while eating. Basically they look more like mountain climbers in harnesses in their movements than any other type of monkey I've seen.
  • Other Animals with fewer notes
    Agouti, Red Deer, Army Ants, Leaf-cutter ants, iguana, scary spiders, harmless spiders, crocodile, gajillions of hermit crabs, half a gajillion other crabs
  • Tapir

    We got really lucky to see one of these. There's only about 2000 left in the whole world, and they are the only American relative of rhinoceri. They look like a combo between a rhinocerous and a big pig. We found ours chilling in the mud, eyes closed, but ears alert to every sound
  • Boar Family

    It started raining really hard, and all the animals sought shelter. We happened upon a family of boar who were trying to find a dry spot, but the cool thing is that because it was raining they basically were like, "Hey rain sucks, you can hang out near us, but this is our place and we've got our eyes on you." After that moment we were able to get just a few feet away from them and picture it up. The rest of my group left, but I liked the moment so stuck around. And the reward was worth it. Turns out amongst the adults was a little bitty piglet nose poking out between two of the bigger ones and wiggling around in the air. I saw their baby and it was adorable!
One of the things guidebooks say to do is to avoid the wet season (or even go for the more BBB-type term: Green Season) because you'll probably experience rain and won't have blue skies the whole time. For me personally this is kinda crazy. The reason the rain forest has life is because of the rain. Water is life. So why would you not want to experience the forest in that moment too? We got to experience a pretty torrential downpour, every inch and crevice of my body was soaked through, but you know what? It didn't matter. It's so warm there it's not like you'll get cold, and it puts a different spin on the whole ecosystem to see what all the creatures do during the rain. I guarantee that I wouldn't have seen a cute little piglet nose if they hadn't been sheltering from the rain and knowing that we were likely doing the same. Plus without the rain you don't have as much fruit, as many flowers, or as many of the things that can migrate. Point being: The wet season (aka Green Season or summer) is not a thing to be avoided, it's what gives this place life.

After about 11am there stopped being much of interest going on. We found a thing here or there, but we were also a bit weary of being on full alert looking for stuff.

Conclusion of Sirena:
Sirena is basically a zoo, but with actual wild animals in their real habitat  It's an experience that would be hard to duplicate anywhere else in the world. However...

You need to get their earlier than most of the tours that are leaving from Drake Bay (or any other city), I would really recommend staying there via tent-camping, or staying at the ranger station, so that you can wake up right at dawn and see the forest coming to life all by yourself. Once the rest of the tourist start showing up on the boats around 8am, you'll have had 2-3 hours of animal watching, and can do a little eating and relaxing for yourself.

Another option I learned about is a tour guide that will take you extra-early to Sirena (from Drake Bay), and after most people start showing up (only like 20-30, but still no people is better when looking for animals) he'll take you to some Primary Rain Forest that's never been disturbed by man (San Pedrillo). It costs a few dollars more, isn't offered by the tour-groups, but Gringo Curt can point you to the right person if you have a group of 6 or so.

Sea Kayaking
I was too tired (and had a massive no-caffeine and too-little-water headache) to go kayaking. I guess it's just something I'll have to save for later. I really like the idea of getting to know the waves better in a manner that's easier to do than surfing. Oh well, it's always good to leave yourself wanting more.

Gringo Curt's (website)
This was definitely one of the highlights of the town. While having locals is always a good thing, sometimes it's best to have a catalyst between the native people and your inexperience so that you can really enjoy the place without getting either swindled or a canned experience. Gringo Curt (or just Curt) is that catalyst. He knows everybody, uses his free time to take in the whole area, and can hook you up with all the right people for whatever it is that you're hoping to do. He owns a little restaurant called Gringo Curt's (Trip Advisor) and makes only 3 items, fish tacos, fish fillet and something else...I don't really know what the 3rd one is because the 2nd one was so good that's all I ever ordered and likely that would stay the case even if I stayed there for a week. In a world of places like Cheesecake Factory where they try to be a master of all things for all people, it's really refreshing to have a place that simply says, "I do this well, so why do more." And he's totally right.

Gringo Curts ended up being a lively hub with a full cast of characters. From local ex-pats that have been there for decades, to people that came months ago and just haven't left, and the locals popping in and out to chat and borrow things. Good times all around, but keep a relaxed attitude and don't kill the positive vibe by being overly picky or complaining about this or that(like humidity or bugs...they're there, they're part of the experience, deal with it).

Magical Ocean
Per Gringo Curt's recommendation I made it a goal to see something that's really unique in the world: Bioluminescent Dinoflagellates

Or in layman's terms: Cool glowing plankton

It's really hard to put into words how amazing these things are. You can't really go to Google and search for images of these things as camera's just can't capture it, but if I had to describe it in one sentence:
Seeing these was the most other-worldly and one of the most delightful experiences I've ever had in my life. 

It has to be pitch-dark out. New moon, ideally clear, no major cities for miles and miles, and even then you might not find them as they aren't everywhere. They typically float from place to place, but in a few rare bays in the world they 

This is the best picture I've found for the color:

But the general glow captured here is NOTHING like the experience of being in it. Of stiring your hands and watching the water glow around them. Of paddling and seeing remnants of where you've been. Of gently wiggling your fingers and seeing them outlined in glowing pixels. Of lifting your hands into the air and watching a cascade of light pouring down you. It's like the movie Avatar is real, and all you have to do is walk into the ocean.

Other things happened on the trip, got home safely and whatnot, but the piece that will be most deeply etched on my mind is on these mesmerizing little blue dots that only light up when you make them.

Despite only having 46 hours to soak in Drake Bay, I felt like I had the best experience I could possibly have imagined. No, it was even better than that. Sure not everything was perfect, but this was the Costa Rica that I had hoped to find, and leaving was oh so hard, but it was nice to know that I had just scratched the surface of all there was to do here and I hope to be back one day to take in even more.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tour, I'd love to see the whole slide show... but, other things are about to take precedence... This was much better reading than the usual mathematics stuff you post (goes way over my head or under my chin)... enjoyed it! Doesn't God create some wonderful stuff?! Can't wait to see Heaven where it's even better!! I'm happy that you've been blessed to be able to visit such places... Again - Appreciate your sharing this and your fine written descriptions... ;>)