Friday, July 26, 2019

The little Island that Packs a Wallop

After the cloud forest we decided to go up to the North West corner of Costa Rica where another active volcano lay. But since we were so close to Nicaragua we thought we should first pop in to have a look. Imagine our pleasant surprise to find that not far from the border was the largest lake in Central America and in the middle of this lake was an island and on this island were TWO VOLCANOES!

So no need to ask us twice and we skipped the touristy beach and made our way straight to the island of volcanoes! We took a variety of transport to Ometepe, including taxis, shuttle buses and a ferry. Once arrived at the hotel we enquired about the possibility of climbing one of the volcanoes and were put on a tour for the next day.

Volcan Concepcion is an active pristine volcano at 1,610m. It was heavy going, straight up with fairly dense bush for four hours got us to 1,000m and the main lookout spot. We stopped for lunch and discussed going further. Even though the young-uns had left us behind we decided to keep going until we met them coming back down and see how far we could get. The second section was steeper and sparser and there was a third section that you need to do on your hands and knees. We got to 1,250m before the clouds started coming in and we decided it was getting too dodgy and we would not have enough time to get to the top. So we went back down to the lookout and had a lunch of chips and nuts. The young-uns soon rejoined us and we headed back down. A relaxing dinner at the hotel was what the doctor ordered and we took it easy playing with the hotel’s supposedly stray kitten and taking a pleasant walk through the town.

The Lookout

The next day required some recovery time so we settled on a private tour of the island with Oscar the taxi driver, starting with the Chaco Verde nature park. This place was a nature paradise and we saw many water birds, wandering horses, howling monkeys, vibrant colourful flowers and the fantastic enclosure with the brilliant blue Morpheus butterflies. Next to the natural mineral springs of Ojos de Agua to soothe those tired legs, lunch and then finish the day at the famous sunset spot of Puenta Jesus Mana beach.

About where Elizabeth bonked her head
This was a stretch of beach that protruded out from the mainland coming to a point. This also concentrated the people into a tiny area that had a surprisingly large number of bars along the sandy outcrop. We got there a bit early for the sunset so Elizabeth decided to use her time picking up the ample amounts of rubbish dropped by the mostly bar patrons. Me? I decided just to watch the sun come down, not being as altruistic as Elizabeth. Soon I heard a commotion behind and turned around to see a group of men frantic around Elizabeth. Rushing back I discovered that Elizabeth had bonked her head on a tree branch while bending to pick up rubbish. No good deed goes unpunished. We struggled with trying to remember the word for ice (hielo) and were directed to a bartender who generously provided a few handfuls. After that ordeal I was able to convince Elizabeth to keep still for 10 minutes and enjoy the sunset with me.

The Hostel Restaurant
The next day was a complete rest day lounging around the hotel pool and talking to other tourists about their experiences, and discovering a surprisingly cheap and colourful hostel restaurant to eat dinner in, complete with begging ginger cat.

Finally the day of my birthday arrived, and there is only one true way to celebrate my birthday while travelling, hike up another volcano! The trek up the Maderas volcano was not as challenging as Concepcion but was still a decent two hour trip up degenerating to walking on boulders on a dry river bed to the La Cascada San Ramon waterfall. Well worth the effort as this was an impressively long waterfall and we stripped down to our bathers and got into the pool to feel the splashing waterfall on our backs. Many other people arrived doing the same and there was a fabulous atmosphere and feeling of camaraderie. A perfect birthday and a perfect end to our side trip to Nicaragua.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Living life in the clouds

The trip to the Monteverde Cloud forest allowed me additional time to recover from the Arenal Volcano. The trip by bus, then boat and then bus again was full of rejuvenating green, hilly, farmland and pristine blue water with impressive views back to the volcano behind.  We stayed at the small alpine feel town of Santa Elena (1,400m) at the Rainy Days B&B Hostel run by Ernesto, his sister and his mum.  We checked a few brochures and decided to book for the Selvatura Nature and Adventure Park the next day where you are able to zipline over the cloud forest, something we have not done before.

Santa Elena
After that it was time to settle in and wander down to the town for dinner. We ate at the fabulous Morphos Restaurant, a work of art on its own and with fabulous food, sitting down to a scrumptious meal of Casado. Basically the familiar black beans and rice from breakfast plus a salad, plus fried plantains, plus a meat of your choice (or vegetables if you are vegetarian like us). Morpho is a beautiful blue butterfly found in this area of Central America.
A Casado Meal

Morphos Restaurant
Ziplining in Selvatura Park

Ziplining in Selvatura Park was an amazing experience. High above the trees they had 13 legs in all with some exceedingly long, including number 5 at 650m and the last one being over a km long. Plenty of time to marvel at the beauty of the cloud forest (even though it was a clear blue day). The two long ones were done tandem so that you had enough weight to make the distance. We did tend to struggle on those a bit because, even combined, we are not that heavy. The rest of the time was spent walking through the forest atop a myriad of hanging bridges and visiting the hummingbird garden.

The hummingbird is an awesome bird. Zipping in and out at amazing speeds they are hard to photograph. Their wings can flap at 80 flaps per minute, their heart rate is up around 1,200 beats per minute and they can take 250 breaths per minute. That is one hard working bird that you can (try to) watch for hours. We also did a Night Walk through the forest at Valle Escondido Preserve

The next day was rainy and miserable so we decided to stay in and make it a planning day. Where to next, book accommodation, how do we get there, that kind of thing. With our kind of 'unplanned' travelling we need planning days or we don't end up going anywhere. It was a good decision because the next day was glorious and we spent it hiking in the Monteverde Cloud Forest.

Getting there was easy, a public bus came right past the B & B and only cost $1.50. We were a bit slow getting up so the park was full when we got there. They only allow 200 in at a time so that the animals have breathing space and you have to stay on the paths. Luckily, not long after a tour group came out and we were able to go in. You are given a barcode wrist band so that they can scan you going in and coming out and that is how they can track numbers.

The park was very well sign posted with 'you are here' signs at every fork and coupled with the map and a suggested route from the friendly ranger going in, based on the time we wanted to hike, the day went like clockwork. We saw many beautiful birds, amazing landscapes and scenery, a continental divide, a cascading waterfall, a very old hollow gnarled tree, and a huge number of epiphytes and general flowers and plants. We spent the whole day here and were very sad to leave. What a wonderful place, so peaceful and well managed with the focus being on the health of the forest.

A public bus ride back to town, the last one for the day, and dinner at our favourite restaurant (you know the one) ended a perfect trip and lasting memories of the Monteverde Cloud Forest. For a better feeling of the cloud forest I will let the pictures do the talking...

Keep Calm and Eat Gallo Pinto

A Gallo Pinto breakfast
Ahh, the breakfast of champions. The Gallo Pinto is Costa Rica's standard breakfast. Consisting of rice and black beans with scrambled eggs on the side and, if you are lucky, fried banana. It is a hearty way to start the day, and we did indeed start most days with this gluten free staple. 

After breakfast, still in Tortuguera, we swam in the pool in the rain and then headed off at lunchtime for our next destination, La Fortuna, and its main attraction the Arenal Volcano. After arriving at the Sunset Inn we checked out the tour options and came across a 9hr, 11km hike around the volcano base, over muddy rainforest canyons, alongside several waterfalls and finishing at a hot springs dip in the evening. Sounded just like our cup of tea and we immediately put ourselves on the list for the next day.

Daniel Ryan from Red Lava Tours was our tour guide for the day and along with a great bunch of travellers from around the globe we set off the next morning for a day full of adventure. Daniel was a true environmentalist, refusing to use insect repellent because it is bad for the forest soil and the wildlife. In response he had contracted Dengue fever twice and Zika once. He was full of great stories and crazy ideas and would climb trees at will like he was half monkey.

The day was typical rainforest weather, dark, wet and muddy, but that just added to the atmosphere of the day. It was indeed a very challenging hike with most of the views obstructed by the bad weather. It even had a set of seven canyons called the Devil's Comb with difficult climbs and descents that challenged everybody. Nobody complained though with everybody chipping in and helping everybody else. Whenever you slipped into a slimy mud hole there would be a hand to help you up, or helping you balance down the path or yelling encouragement while climbing a rope. Such a great bunch and such a sense of accomplishment finishing the main hike.

Brave swimmers at the Danta Waterfall
At the Danta river and waterfall some of the group decided to go for a swim and then it was on to the tropical gardens at the Arenal Observatory. It was getting dark by this point, but there was enough light to see the fabulous Red Eyed Tree Frog that captivated us all.

Onto the bus we went, only to stop by the side of the road at some free natural hot springs. It was a bit of a trek down and pitch black and we literally fell into the running water that was wonderful and warm, especially on our very tired muscles. Very strong rum cocktails came out of nowhere and Daniel went around and gave us all mud facials. A perfect end for a perfect day, if slogging through mud, climbing up and sliding down steep slippery jungle canyons on a wet miserable cold day is your idea of fun. Hell yeah

We did very little the next day because I could barely walk, every step was agony, recovery was going to take a few days…The day after that we headed off to explore the Monteverde Cloud Forest, leaving the Arenal Volcano behind us. 

The Arenal Volcano