Saturday, April 30, 2016

Costa Rica

Remember that time I was gushing about Taiwan?  Well, I sort of feel the same way about Costa Rica.  Not quite as much as Taiwan, but I love Costa Rica.  Especially after coming from Cuba, Costa Rica was a breath of fresh air.  Literally.  All those old cars really polluted up the place.

Costa Rica was not what I was expecting from Central America.  The museums were good with proper curation and English signage.  It was relatively safe.  The food was delicious.  And the water was drinkable from the tap.  Holy crap!  There were a lot of American expats living there – finding it to be a better quality of life than staying in the USA.  I don’t blame them.  The only downside of Costa Rica:  the price tag.  It’s definitely more expensive than I was expecting for Central America.  Food cost more.  Accommodation cost more.  Museums, park entrance fees, and tours all cost more.  The only cheap thing:  bus travel.  The buses were so fucking cheap.  I don’t know how they do it.

A few highlights of my time in Costa Rica:

San Jose:
Most other tourists that I spoke to seemed to be skipping San Jose.  Sure, Costa Rica is known for its natural beauty, biodiversity, and adventure sports, but the country’s capital city has a lot to offer too.  The Jade Museum, National Museum of Costa Rica, and Museum of Contemporary Art and Design all were way better than anything I had seen in a while (and way way better than I was expecting).  The National Theatre is the most famous building in the city and has some neat artwork.  The best part of San Jose:  eating.  Yen and I stayed in the San Pedro area near the university.  The area is known for its plethora of delicious restaurants.  More about the food below.

Poas Volcano:
An easy day trip from San Jose is the Poas Volcano National Park.  We took the bus as far as we could go up the volcano and walked a bit further to the rim of the crater.  We got lucky as it was a (mostly) clear day when we arrived.  Looking down from the rim was a view of the active crater spewing out gases and steam.  It wasn’t erupting or anything at the moment – we weren’t in any danger of being killed by lava or pyroclastics – but it was doing something volcanic and that is a rare sight for most people.  Super cool.

La Fortuna:
La Fortuna is the little town as the base of the Arenal Volcano.  The volcano had been erupting for over four decades but finally petered out in 2010.  It was a major tourist draw back in the day, and tourists still come to the area despite the volcano’s now dormant state.  The volcano is the backdrop for the whole town and its perfect volcano shape looks like something out of a movie.  Next to the volcano and in the same national park lies Cerro Chato – an extinct volcano open for hiking.  We made it to the rim only to find the clouds and mist obscured the entire view.  Bah!  We did get to see one exciting thing though:  a coati!  It’s a super cute member of the racoon family and it was sniffing out us tourists at the top in hopes of scoring some snacks.

No, coati.  You get nothing.

After our hike, we took a dip in the water at La Catarata de La Fortuna (La Fortuna Waterfall).  The following day, we started out with a breakfast of champions:  a tour of a chocolate plantation!  Aside from the usual explanation of the cacao-growing and chocolate-making process, we were treated to various tropical fruits, sugarcane juice, and – of course – hot chocolate.  The chocolate plantation was also a good place for a bit of wildlife viewing – with woodpeckers, lizards, and a big ass iguana up in a tree.  After an afternoon massage (because we’re fancy bitches), we headed to the Baldi Hot Springs – one of the many thermal springs in the area – to take a dip in the hot waters.

Taking a van, a boat across Lake Arenal, and another van, we ended up a few hours later in Santa Elena and Monteverde – neighbouring towns/areas that are home to the famous Monteverde Cloud Forest.  Zip-lining through this particular cloud forest was on my list of 103 Things and I was thrilled to check it out.

Thrilled aside, let me be honest for a second:  I don’t do adventure sports.  I work in insurance.  I’m risk averse.  Yen can vouch that I was a bit nervous (or maybe more than a bit nervous), but I ended up pulling my shit together.  The first zip-line or two were scary but I quickly got used to it and began to enjoy the experience of whizzing over the cloud forest canopy.  The ticket also included a “Tarzan swing” – where you strap in and some kid employee yells at you to bend your knees… “BEND YOUR KNEES”… and then he pushes you off a platform and you go swinging through the air on a rope while letting out a series of yelps that are not at all embarrassing.

Not in the least.

Finally, Yen made me purchase the upsell for $10 and we did a “Superman” zip for the final one kilometre-long cable.  The “Superman” is basically where they strap you in extra good and you’re in sort of a plank position looking at the ground and then you go flying through the air like… well, like Superman.  Sounds fun, right?

I swear I was going to vomit for the first few seconds but it actually ended up being good fun.  Terrifying for those of us afraid of heights, but good fun nonetheless.

Back on the ground, the zip-line place had a series of tree top walkways where we got to see a monkey!  We also did two guided tours through the cloud forests:  one in the morning and one at night.  The night walk was a wildlife goldmine:  an eyelash viper, tarantula, armadillos, scorpion, toucan, green viper in the shape of a penis, and a motherfucking two-toed sloth.  SLOTH!  The morning walk was more bird focused and we saw various species of hummingbirds and the most famous bird in the region:  the gorgeous quetzal.

Food food food:
Ok, Costa Rican food isn’t all that different from other typical foods in the region.  For breakfast, we had gallo pinto.  It translates literally into “painted cock” – like a rooster, not a penis – but I don’t know why it’s called that.  It’s basically eggs, rice mixed with black beans, cooked plantains, a tortilla or two, and some sauce.  For lunch, the typical set plate is called a casado and it’s not too different from the gallo pinto.  You order your casado at a soda (a small local restaurant) and it includes some sort of meat with rice, beans, cooked plantains, maybe a tortilla, and various salads (such as pasta salad, cole slaw, potato salad, beetroot salad, whatever).

But the real gems were the western style restaurants.  The San Pedro neighbourhood of San Jose and the Santa Elena/Monteverde area have a ton of delicious restaurants that cater to the yuppy university crowd and/or tourists.  There are bakeries, Middle Eastern restaurants, Asian food, Mexican (duh!), tons of vegetarian options, crepes, and more.  The food was fresh.  It was delicious.  And I swear many of the restaurants could easily survive in Australia.  Crazy.  It’s also worth mentioning coffee.  While 99% of the country’s coffee production is exported, 1% now remains onshore and cute little cafes are buying it up and serving coffee that wouldn’t be out of place in Sydney.  Delicious.

After 10 days in Costa Rica, Yen headed back down under and I made my way to the country’s northern border to meet up with two friends from university.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in Costa Rica, follow this link:

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