Costa Rica postscript

Can it possibly be over a month since we returned from Costa Rica? Granted, even with its extra day, February was the shortest month of the year but still, where did it go?

Back in November when we booked our vacation, I noticed an optional $10 per person “help fix our school” charge on the invoice. Considering the amount that we were spending for a fairly luxurious holiday, that seemed little enough to give back to the people of our host country so I paid the amount in full. I couldn’t help wondering about that school though. I emailed our travel agent and asked her if it was located in or near one of the communities that we’d be visiting and if so, whether it would be possible or appropriate for us to take some school supplies with us that we could donate.

“It is absolutely possible and appropriate — and so refreshing, you’d be surprised by the number of people who complain about that $10 and don’t want to donate even that,” she told us. She went on to tell us that the school is located just a few minutes off the main road in La Fortuna and that if we wanted, someone from the tour company that would be providing our zipline and waterfall tours would take us there. We decided that that would be a good idea since we don’t speak Spanish and might have a difficult time explaining why we were there if we went on our own.

We always travel light. In fact, we didn’t even take the full allowable amount of baggage when we flew to Japan to teach for a year. Taking an extra backpack on this trip would be no problem at all. I found a bright red almost new one at our local thrift store. I think it cost me a dollar!

Then began the fun of filling it. I didn’t keep track of how much we spent but most of our purchases were made at bargain stores like Dollarama so it really wasn’t a lot. First we bought the basics: pens, pencils, rulers, erasers, pencil crayons and glue sticks. Schools always need paper so in went a package of plain white photocopier paper and a couple of packages of multi-coloured construction paper. There was still space so we started to think of some of the fun things that teachers and children might use. A big bag of colourful balloons didn’t take up much room. Neither did a couple of packages of brightly coloured pipe cleaners. Little nooks and crannies were filled with packages of paper clips, elastic bands and post it notes. Last but not least, in went a small foam ball painted to look like a world globe. I even checked to make sure that Costa Rica and Canada were both clearly marked!

The red backpack flew as one of our carry-ons and travelled around the country with us until we reached La Fortuna. That’s when we learned that we wouldn’t be able to visit the school after all! We had arrived at vacation time. The children wouldn’t be back in school until late February but Ericka from Sunset Tours met us at our hotel, took custody of the backpack and promised to deliver it for us. Today an email arrived with these pictures!

   

Education is valued in Costa Rica and the literacy rate is high but like much of the infrastructure, the school system has been in a slow and steady state of decay for decades. Poverty isn’t as rampant as it is in many parts of the world but the gap between the rich and the poor has been widening for years. Tourism has become one of the country’s major sources of income and we were more than happy to be able to share with the school children of La Fortuna just a bit of what we’ve been blessed with.

Photos by Ericka Chavarria
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We’ve been to Houston!

If you’ve only been to a city’s airport, can you really say that you’ve been to that city? I don’t think so but if you’ve stayed overnight, then I think you can. Though it was unexpected, we can now legitimately say that we’ve been to Houston, Texas!

On our recent trip to Costa Rica we were reminded of yet another advantage to being retired. When our homeward journey took 24 hours longer than planned, there was no reason to panic, no boss to call, and no substitute teacher plans to make and email or dictate over the telephone! An unexpected night in a Houston hotel wasn’t the big deal that it might have been if we’d still been working.

The delay was also a reminder of how dependant we are on computers to do the things that were once done manually. Our problems began at the Liberia airport where the entire system was down and every passenger had to be processed the old-fashioned way with boarding passes and luggage tags all being written out by hand. They were only able to process us as far as Houston where we’d all have to check in again before boarding our next flight. We were still standing in line when the plane was supposed take off and once we were all onboard, we sat on the tarmac for another hour. No idea what that was about!

Since we had a quick connection to make in Houston, we were pretty sure before we left the ground that we wouldn’t make it. Almost everyone onboard was in the same predicament but the stewardesses told us not to worry. Apparently, there’d been a major storm in Houston that morning with downed trees and power lines all over the place. Numerous flights had been delayed or rerouted. Though the storm had passed by, your planes might still be there when you arrive, they told us.

By this time, we were very hungry. We’d eaten breakfast at 6:30 a.m. before driving three hours to get to the airport. We’d left ourselves plenty of time to buy lunch before boarding the plane but that time had been eaten up standing in line. By now, it was well past lunch time. Gone are the days when airlines actually served meals at no additional cost but we can buy lunch on the plane, we thought. Not so! There were no meals onboard! We had to make do with a snack box. Trail mix and chocolate covered pretzels weren’t quite what we had in mind but they were better than nothing.

Sure enough, when we arrived in Houston, though it was already over an hour past it’s departure time, our flight to Edmonton was still on the ground. We had 25 minutes to catch it! 25 minutes to go through US immigration, claim our luggage, check in, go through security and make our way through the enormous airport to the right gate! Could it be done? We tried! We spoke up and were ushered to the head of the check-in line but there was no way to get through security quickly. When we finally reached the gate, the plane had just pulled away!

That led to another long slow line up as we waited to find out what the airline was going to do with us. Due to the storm, the airport was full of disgruntled, delayed passengers and many of them were in line with us! Though we were hungry, tired and disgruntled ourselves, we were determined to be pleasant. After all, the poor women behind the counter facing angry traveller after angry traveller weren’t at fault. When our turn finally came, Belinda treated us very well. We soon had vouchers for a hotel room and three meals each in hand. She even called to find out when the hotel shuttle would pick us up.

Park Inn on the northern outskirts of Houston was a lovely place to spend the night. Though it was almost 10:00 p.m. by the time we finally checked in, we were soon sitting down to a delicious and much appreciated buffet dinner in the hotel dining room.

In spite of the delay, the trip might have ended quite happily had it not been for baggage problems. Our suitcase spent the night at the airport as it would have taken 3 or 4 hours to get it back and, having had a premonition that such a delay might occur, I’d packed all we’d need for an overnight stay in our carry-on. The next day, when we boarded the plane, I sat down in my window seat, looked out and saw our suitcase sitting on the tarmac waiting to be loaded. Nice! Imagine my dismay, however, when I watched the baggage handlers reject it, load it onto a baggage cart and drive away with it! Alerting the stewardess and the captain did no good and we never did receive an explanation.

The suitcase arrived home three days after we did and somewhere along the line, it must have been used as a punching bag. My toiletries bag was a mess! The handle was broken off my hairbrush and a tube of lotion had been squished all over everything! I always pack a tiny container of powdered laundry soap so that I can wash things out by hand if necessary and that too had been broken open. Fortunately, it had been packed in one of the suitcase’s smallest compartments so the mess was somewhat contained.

Oh well, when I think of our trip to Costa Rica, these aren’t the things I’ll remember. No, I’ll remember beautiful beaches, zip-lining over the rainforest and swimming below a waterfall! And I’ll remember that we’ve been to Houston!

          

Driving in Costa Rica

After reading our guidebook and talking with others who’d travelled to Costa Rica, we were a little nervous about picking up our cute little Hyundai Accent and setting off on our own.

“Renting a car in Costa Rica is no idle proposition. The roads are riddled with potholes, most rural intersections are unmarked, and for some reason, sitting behind the wheel of a car seems to turn peaceful Ticos into homicidal maniacs.” and “The awful road conditions throughout Costa Rica are legendary and deservedly so.” left us wondering what we might be up against but we decided to take our chances.

As it turns out, we had nothing to worry about. Granted, we chose well travelled routes. There are probably back roads that would have swallowed up our little sedan but all of the pavement that we travelled was in excellent condition and for the most part, well marked. It’s not quite like driving at home though. The roads are very narrow and lack the shoulders that we’re used to here in Alberta. For example, this is a typical section of the Interamerican or Pan-American highway that runs the entire length of Central America from Mexico to Panama.

Travel was slow compared to what we’re accustomed to with the maximum speed limit in Costa Rica being 80 km/hour. Whenever we reached a populated area which happened quite frequently, we had to slow to 60 or even 40 km/hour. Though the locals seemed to ignore these limits, we’d been warned that fines are steep and since tourists and rental cars are easy to spot, Richard was cautious and stayed within the legal limits.

Travel was even slower as we skirted the northern shore of Lake Arenal on our way to the volcano. Here the narrow road dipped and wound though the rainforest. Every once in awhile we came upon a little one lane bridge. Fortunately, right of way was always very clearly indicated and drivers were good about waiting their turn. It was on this highway that we saw what the guidebook meant when it talked about the Ticos’ homicidal tendencies. They seemed to think nothing of pulling out to pass on a blind curve! David, our guide on the La Fortuna waterfall hike, explained that until recently very few Costa Ricans owned a vehicle. There are lots of new, young drivers on the roads and in David’s words, many of them think that they’re Superman! Education is the key, he told us. In his opinion, present driver education is extremely lacking.

Coming from Alberta where highway signs clearly identify every little town, we found it odd to drive through many little communities that had no signs telling us where we were. Finding our way wasn’t particularly difficult, though. The kinds of places that we were looking for were fairly well marked and we only missed a turn and had to backtrack a couple of times.

Driving was definitely a good way to see the countryside and having the car made it easy to leave our hotels in search of interesting things to see and places to eat. We certainly wouldn’t hesitate to rent a car if we were to visit again nor would we, like the guidebook, discourage anyone else from doing so.

  

Rainforest!

We explored the Costa Rican rainforest from every angle! The views from the back balcony of our little cabin were spectacular.

  

By far the most fun, however, was flying through the treetops on our zip-line canopy tour! I can now say with absolute certainty that I have overcome my fear of heights! It was an absolute blast and there wasn’t a moment of fear!  Securely fastened into our harnesses and attached to the cable by pulley, we wore thickly padded leather gloves on one hand to use as a brake as we approached each platform. Eleven cables ranging in length from 50 to 500 metres in length took us from platform to platform high in the treetops. Totally exhilarating! The only negative thing I can say is that it was over way too soon! If you haven’t tried zip-lining, I definitely suggest adding it to your bucket list! I’d do it again in a heartbeat!

We did our zip-lining at Hotel Los Lagos which was just down the road from where we were staying. Though the views from the cable were spectacular there really wasn’t time to pick out any wildlife hiding in the canopy. After the tour, however, we had full use of the Los Lagos grounds for the rest of the afternoon. That included soaking in their many hillside hotspring pools and exploring their gardens complete with a few rainforest animals. I wouldn’t have minded meeting this one in the wild

but I’m glad we didn’t come across this one on our next adventure!

The hike to La Fortuna waterfall was an easy one, one that we could have done on our own with no difficulty but a guided hike was part of our package. It was supposed to be a group hike but as it turned out, Richard and I were the group! No one else had signed up for that particular excursion so we had David all to ourselves and what a delight that was! Not only was he a very pleasant hiking companion but he was incredibly knowledgeable about the flora and fauna of the rainforest as well as his country in general. With the aid of his sharp eye and ear, we saw all sorts of things that we might have walked right past without noticing… howler monkeys resting on a branch high above us, a mother sloth with her baby moving ever so slowly through the canopy, and a wide variety of birds including a brightly coloured toucan. All of these were too far away for me to capture them with my point and shoot camera but we enjoyed close-up views through David’s binoculars and though they’re not be recorded on film they’re definitely etched in memory.

  

   

The waterfall itself is a 70 metre ribbon of water plunging into an emerald pool below. We expected the water to be icy cold and while it was a bit chilly getting in, it really wasn’t unpleasant at all. Many swimmers have lost their lives by venturing too close to the cascading water and being pulled under by its force. I can certainly see why. Once we were in the water, the sheer magnitude and power of the falling water seemed to beckon us to draw closer but we wisely chose not to! Instead, after a short swim below the falls, we moved downstream to a quieter pool for a more leisurely swim.

Volcano!

When we left the gorgeous beach of Playa Flamingo, our destination was Montana de Fuego resort at the foot of Costa Rica’s most active volcano. After laying dormant for hundreds of years, Mount Arenal suddenly erupted in July of 1968 wiping out the nearby village of Tabacon and killing nearly all of it’s 80 inhabitants. Since that time, frequent powerful explosions have continued to send cascades of red-hot lava down the volcano’s steep slopes.

Our guidebook warned us that Arenal borders a region of cloud forests and rainforests and that the volcano’s cone is often socked in by clouds and fog. We were prepared for the fact that we, like many visitors, might not actually get to see it. Imagine our delight when we spotted it from afar long before we actually reached our destination!

We continued to enjoy amazing views of the mountain as we rounded Lake Arenal, Costa Rica’s largest lake and the second largest in Central America. Though it may not be clear in the photo, from this viewpoint we could actually see smoke rising from the lava flows.

  

When we reached our destination, we settled into our cute little cabin where we enjoyed views of the volcano from our glass enclosed front porch. Every morning when we got up, it was shrouded in cloud but as the morning wore on, the mist rose and left most of the cone exposed. Unfortunately, cloud settled over it again each evening so we didn’t see it at night when it would have been most spectacular. Apparently on a clear night, the sky over Arenal turns red as glowing lava spews from the crater and red-hot rocks tumble down it’s flanks.

Arenal stands like a sentry over the small town of La Fortuna. Once only a tiny farming community, it has become a magnet for volcano watchers, adventure tourists and travellers from around the world. We enjoyed trying out a few of the town’s many restaurants and relaxing in it’s central plaza, a wonderful spot for people watching as well as volcano viewing!

  

 

 

It would take more than a broken toe to stop me!

Our time by the ocean was over way too soon! I took the second photo just before my final plunge into the surf. Unfortunately, my left foot hasn’t looked the same since. Instead, it’s been an ever-changing kaleidoscope of black, blue and purple!

The tide was out further than it had been during our previous swims and unbeknownst to us, there were rocky outcroppings lurking beneath the water’s surface. While battling the waves on my way into the water, I jammed the toes of my left foot on one of them injuring again the same toe that I’d broken many years earlier. Thankfully, I’d packed some extra strength Ibuprofen gel caps in case I ended up with a migraine while we were away. I took one of those, prayed over my foot and determined that it wasn’t going to stop me from enjoying the more strenuous activities of hiking and zip lining that we had planned for the next few days. After all, I’d hiked to Delicate Arch in Utah’s Arches National Park on the same toe the last time I’d broken it!

Sometimes God must look down on my foolishness and decide to bless me anyway! In spite of the nasty colours that my foot was turning, I did indeed have three active days with nothing more than minor discomfort and I accomplished all that we had planned. It wasn’t until the trip home that the foot started to swell and became much more painful. I’m sure that the many hours we spent standing in line ups at airports and sitting on airplanes didn’t help. As I’ve mentioned before, the trip home was a long and grueling one including a 24 hour delay at Houston. By the time we returned to the enormous airport the second day, I’d had all the walking I could handle. We borrowed a wheelchair and Richard wheeled me around. When it was time to board the plane, an agent wheeled me down the ramp and we were the first onboard!

I spent our first morning home at the hospital waiting to see my doctor and having x-rays taken. He’s pretty sure that there’s a hairline crack in one of the tiny bones but we’re waiting for the radiologist’s report to confirm that. In any case, there’s not a lot to be done except to wait for healing to take place. In the meantime, I’m supposed to wear hard soled shoes all the time (I hate wearing shoes in the house!) and I’ll have to adapt my exercise program to accommodate. I guess there won’t be any long walks or time spent on the treadmill for awhile!

Sun, sea, surf and sand

After a very long day of waiting in airports and sitting on planes followed by an hour’s drive through the dark Costa Rican countryside, we checked into beautiful Flamingo Beach Resort at exactly midnight. As we drifted off to sleep in our giant king size bed, we could hear the pounding of the surf. It brought back memories of my childhood on the BC coast. Imagine my delight when morning came and I discovered that these were the views from our balcony!

To a girl from the Alberta prairie, there’s something very decadent about spending most of a January day in a swimsuit! Our mornings began with coffee on the balcony followed by a leisurely buffet breakfast and then it was time to soak up some sun on the beach or laze around the pool reading and relaxing.

  

 

 

The surf was heavy the first morning and we survived being pummelled by some pretty big breakers. They rolled us around and we came up spluttering a few times but it was great fun! Later, we learned a few salsa dance steps by the pool.

The next day after I took part in an aquasize class in the pool, we ventured a little further afield to Playa Conchal to try a little snorkelling. To see a lot of fish, we would have had to hire a boat to take us out to the coral some distance offshore but we managed to spot a few colourful ones amongst the rocks close to the beach.

Sunsets over the ocean were spectacular. The first evening, we sat on the beach and watched the sun sink below the horizon but the next day, I decided to recreate another childhood memory… swimming in the gold, the band of light reflecting on the water as the sun kisses the horizon and then slips away. All around us, the water looked like molten silver but we stayed in the gold until the sun was fully down and it began to fade.