Monday, June 4, 2018

Pura Vida - the adventure begins...

Waking up early in the morning on Valentine's Day our host kindly greeted us with an early breakfast before we were picked up by our bus to our next destination. Having only organised this section of our trip two days ago, after seeing a leaflet on the counter of our accommodation, we were full of apprehension and excitement for the real start of our Costa Rican adventure. After several hours we stopped for breakfast (our lunch) at a stop which brought in people from all directions. Pura Vida was the greeting of the day and we were to find out that this is the national greeting in Costa Rica, meaning Pure Life. After everybody was fed we were all sorted onto different coaches depending on our next destination. After about another hour, change to a boat, another stop and then another boat, we finally arrived at our destination Tortuguero.

The Recycling Plant
The awesome little one street town contains no cars (you can only come here by boat) and mainly contains eating places and accommodation except for a recycling plant which takes recyclables, especially plastics, and creates useable items out of them such as furniture. We were taken to the tourist office running our tour and given a rundown of what was going to happen for the couple of days we were here. A sign on their desk said “Cuanto mas amamos el mundo, mas hermoso nos parece”, which roughly translates to “The more we love the world, the more beautiful it seems to us.” I am certainly loving Costa Rica and it is getting more beautiful every day :-)

Tortuguero means land of turtles and is a turtle breeding site, but it was the wrong time of year for observing breeding. It is also a rainforest and despite several years of drought, was in catch up mode the next day. We got up bright and early for our canoe trip on the river and with four other people and a guide we explored the Tortuguero River using arm power. We had some dry moments and many wet moments as we traversed a totally clean and crisp river system surrounded by lovely lush jungle and saw a large range of wildlife including numerous birds (herons, ibis, hummingbirds etc), monkeys, crocodiles and turtles.

The river trip was followed by a hike in the jungle. We took up the offer of the included knee high rubber wellies and large waterproof coats as we began trekking looking for wildlife. This was in contrast to the fairly stubborn Polish couple who hit the jungle in shorts and sandals, despite numerous requests from our guide for them to dress more appropriately. We were comfortable in our decision as we trudged along paths with large, deep, muddy puddles and withstood numerous showers. Our wildlife experience included howler & white faced Capucin monkeys, more birds, lizards and Costa Rica's national bird the clay coloured robin. Thanks to our keen eyed guide we even came across the elusive sloth, which to us just looked like a termite mound. Though considering that sloths live their whole lives in the one tree and only come down once every ten days to do their business at the base of the same tree, s/he and the guide probably see each other every day. The only time we came across rubbish was plastic on the beach, but the guide explained this was not the town's rubbish but gets washed in from the oceans. Another reminder how we need to stop plastic ASAP!
Glorious Nature

The brown mound is a sloth

When we reached the beach the weather took a turn for the worse

We spent a very wet night enjoying dinner at our very cheap resort and the next morning enjoying its facilities including swimming in the pool in the rain. By lunch time it was back on the boat to continue on to the next leg of our eco adventure.

The meal area of our wonderful accommodation
located in the middle of the rainforest

and wide verandahs

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Eco Bliss, Welcome to Costa Rica

National Museum
I was needing an environmental recharge with the lack of global action on climate change and the problems with pollution in our air and oceans. So with such good news over its renewable credentials and reputation as an eco tourist spot we decided to test out the hype over Costa Rica. Costa Rica hosts more than 5 percent of the world's biodiversity on its 25% of protected areas and 52% of forest cover. With a mix of hydro, wind, geothermal, biomass and solar power, it generates around 100% of the energy it needs using renewables.

We arrived in the city of San Jose and first impression was that it was clean but still a fairly standard South/Central American capital city. Long way to go yet though and will spend the next month exploring the four corners of this eco powerhouse. We didn't intend to spend a lot of time in cities so after checking out our options we found there was a volcano close enough for an easy day trip.

Pre-Columbian Stone Sphere

Music Festival

The scene when we first arrived
Volcano Irazu was an easy public bus ride that only left twice a day and came back twice a day. We caught the morning bus which took two hours on a fairly miserable wet foggy day. We arrived at the ticket booth in cloudy rainy weather and were given the option of staying there for two hours and save the $15 entrance fee. We were told it would be unlikely we would see anything. That option was very unappealing as the area didn't even have cover and we would be sitting out in the cold for two hours doing nothing, so we paid our money and went in.

Next choice was whether to go to the lookout at the volcano's highest point or have a close up look at the caldera. We decided on the caldera and started walking. Covered in cloud we were unable to make out anything significant but consoled ourselves that at least we were out and stretching our legs after the 36 hours on planes getting here. We continued following the track when over the course of about 15 minutes the fog almost completely lifted, the sun came out and we were delighted to find there was an actual volcano just below us, complete with lake in the caldera. It was an amazing view. We were gobsmacked at our good luck. 

Inside the crater once the fog lifted

The Lookout
We then took the lookout track to the high point at around 3,500m. It was a hard uphill slog, especially as my altitude issues started to kick in. Well worth the headache I had for the rest of the day with wide sweeping views over the volcano and the surrounding countryside. We also made it down and caught the public bus on time to make it back to San Jose. Well done Costa Rica, this is a good start. Well organised cheap public transport, clean air with amazing views, accessible volcano and virtually no rubbish. I am feeling pretty confident about the next month...

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Bays of descending dragons

Ha Long Bay

On the deck at night
We decided to take a two day cruise on a junk with Rosa Cruises to explore the magnificent Bay of Descending Dragons (commonly known as Ha Long Bay). This was a beautiful small but luxurious boat with cosy bedrooms with double bed and tiny ensuite bathroom, dining/living room for about 12 people and an upstairs open area for viewing the scenery and doing the morning Tai Chi class.

The bay consists of nearly 2,000 limestone islands topped with lush trees and greenery, looking like huge boulders dropped in the ocean by a marauding giant. The story in Vietnam more runs along the line of a family of dragons deciding to stay around after protecting the local population from marauders. Some of the islands are hollow with caves.

We visited the Hang Sung Sot cave. The cave was humungous, which was good considering the stream of people moving through it in single file. Large stalagtites and stalagmites and rock formations were lit with different coloured lights to give an expansive romantic feel to the whole experience, which included a panoramic view of the surrounding bay. It took almost an hour to get through the cave.

The days were filled with activities which included kayaking around one of the islands. We were also treated to a cooking class making the fabulous fried spring rolls with rice paper that we made vegetarian and were naturally gluten free. As it approached evening we went swimming off the side of the boat, but after a jellyfish scare swimming didn't last much longer, and we were contented with a huge dinner of Vietnamese dishes followed by sunset and moonlit views of the bay. As the evening drew to a close a crew member treated us to a song while playing his guitar. A magical time and I would thoroughly recommend at least one night on the bay. I doubt a day trip would have been as satisfying.

Free entertainment
Cooking class

Sunset from the boat
View from the cave

Tam Coc

Tam Coc in the Ninh Binh Province is well known as the Bay of Descending Dragons on Land (or the more common title Ha Long Bay on land). This is predictably because it has the same feature of green topped rock formations sprouting out of the ground everywhere. The best way to see them is on a boat ride on the river that goes through three natural tunnels. The boat ride itself is part of the adventure as they are rowed by women who mostly use their bare feet. They are incredibly adept and fast and it is quite a unique spectacle. While pondering this feat your senses are assaulted by amazing scenery and the rocks jutting out all around you when suddenly she rows you right into a cave. Dark and low you are ducking the rocks that seem inches from your head and then you come out into the sunlight on the other side. There are two more caves before you turn around and come back again. It's worth coming to this area for that boat trip alone.

We then went by bicycle for about 3km on roads with more stunning scenery to the Bich Dong Pagoda. This 15th century pagoda is built into the side of a mountain on three levels and is a fascinating amalgamation of ancient monuments with the natural environment.

And so ends our trip to Vietnam. Well, technically it did not end there. It ended in Hanoi, which featured in the last post, but I hope you can see why I wanted to put these two unique but intertwined places together in the one post. That was the end of this travel experience and we put Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam behind us and headed home, that is until our next travel experience in Central America...