Wednesday, January 28, 2015

La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Zip Lining, Waterfalls, & Volcanoes :)

Day 3 - December 22, 2014

In the morning, when the sun resurfaced, Samara and I looked out our treehouse windows, and were delighted to find rainforest plants everywhere.  The whole treehouse was surrounded by a balcony so we could see the rainforest from all angles.  Interestingly, I was able to call my family on FaceTime from there.  Our treehouse came equipped with WiFi and air conditioning.  Seriously, WiFi in the middle of the rainforest in a treehouse.  This is the future.  The treehouse (below, left) also had more cable channels than my apartment in Chicago, and a mini-fridge.

Before breakfast, I wandered over to the pool, smiled up at the sun, and plopped my feet into the water.  The feeling of wearing shorts and going outside without a down coat, gloves, a scarf, and boots was nothing short of ecstatic.  I would've plopped my entire self into the pool, except that I was dressed.  For the duration of our stay at Hotel Heliconias, I started each morning at the pool in this glorious manner.  Eventually, I tore myself away from the pool and sat down for breakfast, which was specially prepared for us.

The Morning Routine :)
The hotel is a family business that has been open for about six months.  Omar, the owner, explained to us that he built all the treehouses himself out of cedar.  He speaks mostly Spanish, and I relished the opportunity to chat in Spanish.  Omar explained that he prefers to keep his hotel small so that he can really get to know all of his guests and make sure their stay is excellent.  During our stay, he and I chatted a lot about different dialects of Spanish, and different words and phrases used around the world.  He noticed right away that I used mostly Spain Spanish phrasing and vocabulary, and I, in turn, asked about some words and phrases that turned out to be purely Costa Rican.  He said they speak "pacheco" there, and that "han ensuciado el idioma", but really I think, the language has just evolved in a specific area as languages continually do.  Even English changes in different English-speaking places.

Omar and Me
We started out talking about how "juice" in Spain is zumo, but in Central America, it's jugo.  After asking about little word differences, I had to ask about the verb coger.  In Spain, you can pretty much coger anything, from an autobús to a piece of paper, to anything you want to "get".  Previously I had heard that this verb has quite a different, sort of offensive, meaning in Central America, so once we had been chatting for a while, I had to ask.  As it turns out, it's ok to use coger the same way in Costa Rica, and it only takes on its other meaning when you use the reflexive form of the verb.  Noted!  That clears a lot up.

Back to breakfast.  Omar's daughter cooks for the hotel, and her food is amazing!  After we left the hotel and continued on to Jacó, we really missed her cooking.  For our first breakfast, she made pinto for us, which is a traditional Costa Rican mix of rice and beans.  Normally, I don't eat a lot of beans (only at Chipotle), but these were too good to pass up.  As a side dish, we ate toast with guava jelly, something you probably can't find easily in the US.
Breakfast at Hotel Heliconias
After breakfast, we decided to go zip lining!!  I think zip lining was the activity I was most looking forward to about this trip.  This was my first zip lining experience, and understandably, I felt pretty nervous.  As we got our harnesses and helmets, the guy assured me I would not plummet into the rainforest valley far below.  Our zip lining course had eight lines, which they told us could each support about 160,000 lbs.  I obviously weigh a lot less than that.

Zip Lining!!
Stepping up to the platform, I felt nervous and excited.  Adrenaline rushed everywhere, as is normal for stuff like this.  Finally, it was my turn, and the staff attached me to the line, and sent me gliding.  It was like being in a helicopter, but without the helicopter.  Amazing! Awesome! Exhilarating!

Looking ahead, I watched the line, and looking to the sides, I saw the gorgeous valley between the mountains far below.  On one of the lines, there was a tunnel cut away through very tall trees.  From a distance, I wasn't sure I would fit through it without hitting branches, but from close up, I realized I had more than enough room.  I sort of felt like Tarzan speeding down a vine through a tunnel of leaves and trees.  Around the fourth or fifth run, I realized that holding onto the handle bars didn't really do much and that I could completely let go of them.  I wasn't quite brave enough to completely let go, but I loosened my grip as I gazed out over the rainforest.

At the end of each line, you're supposed to stick your feet out to slow down.  The photographer on one of the platforms got a photo of me somehow in this completely horizontal pose, while hanging by my hands.  That's a serious abdominal work out, and something I could probably not normally do.  Apparently, this sort of activity comes with large amounts of adrenaline.  Zip lining is incredible, and I hope to do it again somewhere, someday!!
Chillin' Post-Zip Lining with an Orange Fanta
After zip lining, we returned to La Fortuna to meet up with the other half of our group.  Not everyone in the group went because zip lining is not a good activity at all for those who are afraid of heights.  Anyways, on the way to the town, we drove over what felt like a crater-ridden-moon-surface-type place.  The main highway is paved (the Pan-American Highway #1), and a few other large roads are paved, but many roads in Costa Rica are still dirt paths with lots of large potholes.  Actually, I think the ride on the way to and from zip lining may have been rougher than the actual zip lining because of all the potholes.

Also of note - There must be a lot of dangerous bridges in Costa Rica because every time we came near a bridge, our GPS would ring and alert us with a message that read "dangerous bridge!"  We also got alerts for school zones, dangerous curves (every two seconds in the mountains), and falling rocks.    We sort of figured that there's not much you can do about a falling boulder.  You either get squished, or not.  As we continued to drive around, we noticed that there were frequently people walking on the sides of every road, completely oblivious to the fact that cars were coming toward them at high speeds.  We also spotted many people hitch-hiking with babies, which seemed unusual to us.  One of our guides mentioned that driving and road etiquette is largely absent in Costa Rica because nearly all the drivers there now are first-generation drivers.  Their parents mainly rode horses for transportation, so this is all new.  Costa Rica very recently instituted a driving exam that you have to pass to get a drivers license.  Before, everyone was just given eligibility for a license at the age of eighteen.  Road lines have recently started to appear for lanes and passing rules, but most people don't know what they mean, so they ignore them.  It's a work in progress.  They've certainly come a long way since my last visit nine years ago.

Also, it seems that Costa Rican money looks a bit different than it did when I last visited.  It's still very beautiful and colorful compared to the American dollar.
Top: 20,000 colones = approx. 40 USD
Bottom: 5,000 colones = approx. 10 USD

Day 4 - December 23, 2014

Susie, Wayne, and the Arenal Volcano
Today, on this lovely, sunny day in my charmed life, I hiked my third volcano.  The first was the Poas Volcano with my grandparents in Costa Rica, the second was the Volcán de Agua in Guatemala, and this third one was the Volcán Arenal, also in Costa Rica.  I used to collect rocks and minerals, and have always had an interest in igneous rocks.  Igneous rocks are rocks of hardened, cooled lava that has erupted from a volcano.  These rocks have a very low density because they trap air bubbles when they form and dry in the air while erupting.

I like igneous rocks.  I like very hot places.  I like volcanoes.

Me, sitting in a pile of semi-reclaimed volcanic ash on the Arenal Volcano.
One really cool part about my experiences with volcano hiking is that each of the three volcanoes was in a different stage of "life".  The first volcano, the Poas Volcano, was dormant.  In fact it was so dormant, that the entire area around it is now a Costa Rican national park with paved trails to walk on.  You can even look into the sulphur-emitting crater.  The second volcano, the one in Guatemala, was very active.  I'm reasonably sure that hiking on this volcano was highly perilous.  On this "hike", I clawed my way up the volcano through piles of recently erupted volcanic ash, and I could feel the heat of the lava through the soles of my shoes.  At the top, freshly erupted lava - still warm - was hardening all around.  At the very top, my eyes nearly popped out of my head when I looked up and literally saw a river of lava - glowing orange, liquid rock - slowly flowing down the other side of the volcano.  On this third volcano (pictured here), back in Costa Rica, we hiked on an unpaved trail, through a forest that had some volcanic ash.  We followed a trail from the 1968 eruption.  Since 1968, the land had already started to reclaim the ground after the eruption by turning the ash into soil, and growing lichens and small plants, including pioneer species that frequently show up first to transform landscapes from harsh to habitable.  In some areas, trees and sugarcane plants had already started to grow back in.  If you don't have a chance to visit volcanoes, another place you can observe the life-cycle of land, with reference to the reclamation process, is at sand dunes, such as the ones in Indiana/Michigan.
Plants begin to grow again after the 1968 eruption of the Arenal Volcano.  (above & below)

Back at the hotel, for the last night of Hanukkah, we brought out our menorah and made a toast.  Our hosts, Omar's family, brought out a celebratory drink that is made in Costa Rica.  The drink is called contrabando, which literally translates to "contraband" in English.  The drink is made from juice from the sugarcane plant and some kind of strong alcohol.  From what I understand, the mix is something like moonshine.  We don't usually think about drinking sugarcane, so we inquired about the process of getting juice from the plant.  To our delight, we found out that the hotel grows its own sugarcane.  Graciously, they agreed to show us how to extract sugarcane juice the next morning.

Day 5 - December 24, 2014

On the morning of our fifth day in Costa Rica, we got sugarcane lessons, which were more fascinating than any of us could have imagined.  We followed our crew into the sugarcane field, and first learned how to take this giant knife and chop down pieces of the large sugarcane plant.  Sugarcane is about 2 inches in diameter, and six ish feet tall.  A sugarcane knife is about one foot long and looks like a dramatic movie prop.  It took me a few tries to get the knife through the sugarcane.  As I hacked away at it, I realized I wasn't using enough force...mostly because I was nervous about accidentally cutting off my foot or something.  When I managed to disconnect the plant, they showed me to bring the sugarcane over to this large sink and scrub off the dirt.  The clean sugarcane then goes through a pressing machine, which we hand-cranked.  As the stalk is pressed, juice drips out.  Thus, sugarcane juice.
That's me, chopping some sugarcane in my stylish, Costa Rican hat.
Omar let all of us try chopping, washing, and pressing the sugarcane.  Then, we all tasted a glass of the very sweet, sugary, yellow-ish juice.  We decided not to add alcohol because we had a full day ahead, with lots of driving and climbing around waterfalls.  He explained to us that you get more sugar from the plant in summer, during the dry season, and more water in the plant during the winter (rainy season).  In industry, they mainly harvest sugarcane during the summer to maximize the sugar content.  They also boil the sugarcane instead of washing it.  Thoroughly satisfied with our authentic sugarcane experience, we thanked Omar and continued on to our next visit of the day.
The sugarcane stalk gets smashed in this crank, and the sugar juice falls into a pitcher below.
Here's a photo a sugarcane forest we walked through while descending the Arenal Volcano (left).  Sugarcane can get really tall.  On the right, you can see Omar pouring the sugar juice that we squeezed for us to try.

Our next visit of the day was to la catarata (waterfall) at the Reserva Ecológica Catarata Río Fortuna.  At this particular waterfall, you climb down 650 steps (and back up later), and then swim at the bottom of the waterfall.  The water is actually not that cold, and Costa Rica is warm, so even cool water feels refreshing.  While wandering around in the river, I noticed many vines hanging toward the water.  It was exactly what I picture when I think of a jungle.
La Catarata
We walked down 650 steps to the waterfall.  And back up.

Somehow, in one short day, we managed to go from chopping sugarcane in the fields, to pampering ourselves in the luxurious 5-star resort that is the Baldi Hot Springs, aka paradise.  The Baldi Hot Springs are at the base of the Arenal Volcano, and I think they are naturally heated by the volcano.  The resort features many temperature-controlled pools that are either hot or cool.  Everywhere you look, everything looks like paradise, from the tropical plants, to the mosaic-covered pools, to the luxurious bars in many of the pools.  While at one of these pool bars, we made the comment that if for some reason we were to die, right there, and end up in heaven, we would probably find ourselves exactly where we already were.  At 4:30 pm, we met for a drink at the Baldi Premium pool bar.  Drinking in a nice, warm pool is something you do when the opportunity presents itself just because you can.  It's really too fun to pass up.  (I hadn't quite figured that out back in 2012 when I found a pool bar at the Sofitel in Siem Reap.)  The pools at Baldi range from 93, 100, 102, 104, 109, 110, 113, 116, and 152 ºF.  It's really a glorious paradise.  Sort of like a giant bath.  The 152 ºF pool is very shallow - I think it's only for your feet, so you don't overheat your entire self in it.

I think the idea with hot springs is to start at the coldest of the hot temperatures and then work your way up.  In between steps, there are also cooler pools that you are supposed to dip yourself into.  I heard it opens and cleanses your pores or something.  Interestingly, even I found that I needed to hop into a cooler pool from time to time.  I really didn't expect to feel like that since I'm all about warm weather and warm water.  But the colder pools actually did feel refreshing after sitting in the 116 ºF for a while.  As a group, we went from pool to pool until we found these waterfalls that you can stand under.  We took turns standing under the water - it was like a really warm shower with intense water pressure.  Really, really nice for tense shoulders.  Near the end of the evening, we hung around the hottest pool on these mosaic tile lounge bed things that stuck halfway out of the water (photo above, left).  Baldi is the greatest.  I'm surprised the group ever got out of that last pool to continue on with the trip.  To top it all off, the restaurant at Baldi had a chocolate fountain for dessert.

Baldi had great plants!
Wrapping up our time in La Fortuna, we marveled at all the wonderful experiences we had, from volcano hiking to chillin' in the hot springs, to chopping sugarcane and zip lining.  We said goodbye to Omar and his family, thanked them for a wonderful stay in their WiFi-enabled treehouses, and began the drive to Jacó, a surfing town on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.

A few more photos:


Sugarcane Chopper in Training
Treehouse Buddies
Selfie at Baldi, Paradise on Earth

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