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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Grano de Oro Hotel in San José

Okay.  The Grano de Oro is an upscale hotel in San Jose, the capitol.  It's got all the characteristics and flavor of other big cities in Latin America.  Noisy buses, crowded sidewalks that are like concrete obstacle courses.  It's imperative to watch where you walk--it would be easy to take a spill in such rugged terrain.  The hotel is a block and a half off the main drag of Paseo de Colon.  So it's quiet and pretty luxurious for $155 a night.  Staying here is like being more than half way back to America.  I even watched the NBC Nightly News last night via satellite TV in the room.

I left the real Costa Rica a little after 9 AM and arrived in San Jose about 12 noon. It's not that difficult getting back here from Platanar though I had a close call with a semi truck taking more than half of his side of the road on a hairpin curve.  Once here I followed the hotel's directions and immediately got lost.  I wandered around a bit, gassed up the rental car, then tried to head back where I thought I'd missed the turn just past the Pizza Hut.  Stopped for directions and got back on the main street, found the Pizza Hut and the hotel in fairly short order.

I checked in and made arrangements for a taxi to pick me up and take me to the airport Sunday at 11:30 for my 2 PM flight to Miami.  The desk clerk drew on a map of downtown the location of the Gold Museum and after I got settled in the room I started off on foot.  Paseo de Colon turned into Avenida Central, a pedestrian mall.  Half of the Costa Rican population was shopping diligently.
I think the guy above was selling Spiderman masks--I guess there's a market here for them.  A number of stores along the way had clowns and hawkers trying to pull in the shoppers.  I only had to ask for directions twice because I was using my map to find the museum.  When I found it I was disappointed to learn that it was closed for renovations.  Oh, well, that's the way it goes.

I had another mission on my walk and that one was more successful--to buy a CD of typical Costa Rican folk music.  That also helped me use up my supply of colones.  You can't exchange them back in the States.  I found a Lebanese restaurant that the hotel clerk told me about and came back there for dinner--spending another good chunk of colones on a dinner platter that was pretty tasty compared to typical fare here--not as good as the "authentic" Lebanese food you can get in Jacksonville.

After an uneventful Saturday night in the room and a good sleep I got up and had a Tico breakfast in the restaurant in the hotel.  It's fancy but the prices aren't too steep--especially for a hotel catering mostly to tourists.  Here's the view from my breakfast table:

I can sum up my two weeks in Costa Rica with two words:  Pura Vida!

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Fruits and Vegetables Store

Signs aren't perfect here--it's supposed to say "Frutas y Verduras".  I discovered this little roadside store on the way back from the supermarket in La Florencia.  The woman who runs the stand is very nice and the quality of the produce beats whats on sale at Flosanco.  It's a good idea when in Latin American countries to be very careful when consuming uncooked produce.  I figured that wouldn't be a problem if I bought, washed and prepared things myself.

I've had a couple of excellent avocado sandwiches and yesterday I went so far as to include a fresh tomato.  I bought some sliced turkey at the supermarket and that's been serving me well, along with tortilla chips and an interesting sauce that is called salsa picante but is like nothing we have in the States.  The papayas and mangos are amazing here, just take a look at these:
The woman running the store had a crockpot on the counter and had boiled some fruit that I didn't recognize. When I asked her what it was the name didn't ring a bell.  She peeled one and cut me a chunk, telling me that locals really liked them (boiled and peeled both = safe to eat).  I wish I could say it was an incredible taste of the tropics but it turned out to be as bland as cassava--another staple here.  The Costa Rican diet is long on starches and short on other vegetables.

When you order a typical meal you will always get boiled vegetables on the side.  Guaranteed to be a mixture of carrots, cauliflower and broccoli.  You're also likely to get black beans, rice, plantain and even fried cassava if you're eating dinner. This picture shows the owner of the stand, said crockpot and an appealing display of hanging wares.  
I only went yesterday morning to take a few pictures but of course I ended up with a few purchases.  The photo below shows what I bought for $5.  She threw in the tomato gratis because it had a spot on it.  Pura vida!
Clockwise from left: papaya, avocado, banana, mango, limón, apple, tomato  

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sky Tram Near the Arenal Volcano

Sky Tram is a way to ascend through the forest to get a great view of Lake Arenal and the Arenal volcano, weather permitting.  Sky Trek is a set of zip lines that facilitate a very fast descent from the top tram station.  The people in this picture paid for the combo Tram/Trek, unlike me--I only planned to ride the tram up and back.  I already checked the zip line check box at Eco-Glide with Briana last week.  Thus the gear on the people in the tram car pictured above.  It was interesting to see the trepidation people had about zip-lining while we were waiting for our appointed tram time.  I could definitely relate so I refrained from making any comments like, "I hope you have your will updated because there's a good chance you will die."

The Sky Trek version of zip lining is different from what we did at Eco-Glide.  It's easier in methodology but scarier in that you watch the previous group take off down a verrrrrry long zip line.  One guy decided to pass after seeing others take off and the guides took his gear off.  Can't say that I blame him.  Zip-lining is not the most natural way to get down the side of a mountain.  But it's definitely an adrenaline rush and something you wouldn't do every day, so why the heck not do it in a beautiful country like Costa Rica while on vacation?
Anyway, the volcano wasn't in a cooperative mood on this morning; it remained covered in clouds.  I did get a fantastic view of Lake Arenal from way up high:
It's not that far to drive from the villa all the way to the Arenal Observatory Lodge.  I left here at 7 AM and arrived at 8:45. Sky Tram and Sky Trek are about one kilometer's drive on a rocky road from the Lodge.  I went early and even with having to wait a half hour for a group that I could join up with I was still home by lunch.

And I saw a couple of toucans in a tree near where I parked my car!  I couldn't get close enough to them to take their picture before they flew away. One bird can fly and certainly "toucan"!

Pura vida!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Boating on the Rio Frio in Caño Negro Wildlife Preserve

This is the boat I took on the Rio Frio to cruise with a group of gringos in the Caño Negro wildlife refuge.  It was a guided trip and the van picked me up at the gas station about 5 km from the villa.  Esteban arranged the trip for me.

We made a short stop in Muelle, a little town not far from here where we found the aptly-named:
The restaurant must have these guys under contract because we saw a bunch of them sunning themselves in the top branches of trees along the river.
Then it was onward to the boat ramp, a special pavilion owned by the tour company.  We had plenty of room on the boat to stretch out and there was a canopy so we didn't get baked while we cruised.  The Caño Negro is a very important bit of land because many migratory birds use it as a place to hang out and recharge their batteries before returning to the US.  The guides were great at spotting monkeys, birds, and caimans then the boat driver would maneuver the boat so those who wanted to could shoot pictures.  We had to get really close to this guy to enable me to shoot this picture using my simple camera with 4X zoom.
Here's one more shot of the river; a beautiful and serene location--also one of the most important ecological sites in the Americas.
And a final one of me, living the Pura Vida in Costa Rica at the pavilion.  Gringo tourists are very handy for shooting pictures of each other!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Aguas Termales Del Bosque

Briana and I had this one on our list the day we went shopping at Sarchi.  But finding the right rocking chairs at the right price took its toll so we headed back to the villa instead.  I went yesterday afternoon and the closer I got to Aguas Termales Del Bosque (Hot Springs of the Forest) the harder it rained.

Costa Ricans go to this hotel and hot springs--it's way off the beaten tourist track.  And the springs aren't just a few steps into the forest/jungle (think Jurassic Park) they are about a quarter mile via patented concrete block walkway.  It offers great traction even in the pouring rain.

I went but I didn't stay long.  Toy folding umbrella enabled strategic dry spots on my clothes and day bag.  Still... a beautiful location.  The sound of the river flowing over the rocks is one of Nature's sweetest and most soothing sounds.  I dressed and had a quick cerveza Imperial before making my way back out of the forest to the parking lot.  As I reached the top of the stairs out came the sun.

Pura vida!

Monday, June 20, 2011

La Fortuna Waterfall

We're having sunny weather one day, cloudy and rainy the next.  Not bad I adjust my plans accordingly.  And I always take a ZipLoc baggie for the cameras.

Yesterday I took a short trip to the Catarata La Fortuna.  It's 30-40 minutes away on mostly good roads.  It was one of the sunny days so the short hike down steep stairs and back up after spending some time viewing the bottom of the falls was challenging.  Lots of tourists in evidence, but not too crowded.  A few people braved the climb over the rocks to swim in the pool but I didn't do that.  Rocks were slippery--I saw one woman take a fall trying to get down into the pool.

Here's a shot of me at the viewing point for the falls:

After climbing up the stairs to the parking lot the AC in the car felt really good.  I was sweaty and it was really hot so I decided to return to the villa without spending any time in La Fortuna, the jumping-off spot for lots of activities near the Arenal volcano.  

Took a swim, made some lunch (avocado sandwich and chips) and tuned in the last of the US Open on the satellite TV.  Saturday was the first time in the time I've been here that I turned on the TV.

I'm taking a low-key approach to activities this week since Briana and I were so active last week. I have a boat trip planned to the Caño Negro wildlife refuge for tomorrow, probably just a trip to the grocery store in La Florencia today, reading books on the Kindle, swimming in the pool, checking the jacuzzi for temp (so far it's been too hot or not hot enough).

Without a doubt, though, everything here is Pura Vida!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

On Horseback Through the Fields and Across Rio Platanar

Here are two intrepid riders on tour near our villa.  We have a guide, Michael, leading us through fields of pineapple and sugar cane in the beautiful Costa Rican countryside.  Our ride lasted about 3 1/2 hours and for us that was more than enough.

We crossed several creeks and a river during the ride.  We used bridges for most of these crossings but we had to cross the Rio Platanar on horseback.  Here's a short video of the crossing.  Scary!  Rivers here don't have smooth flat bottoms; the riverbed is made of rocks.  I had asked the guide if the crossing was dangerous (thinking I'd put away the cameras in a ZipLoc bag if so) but he assured me it wasn't.  It got the old adrenaline flowing, for sure.

We took a break for lunch at a nearby restaurant, La Hacienda, where we have eaten before.  We had been there in the evening but not for lunch.  At lunchtime there's a great view of Arenal volcano on a clear day like yesterday.  Here's a view of Arenal I took on the trail:

After horseback riding in the hot sun we had to go back to The Springs Resort to use the second day of our 2-day pass.  It's much closer to the volcano than is the villa where I'm staying--it's past La Fortuna.  Briana had read about a restaurant, Las Brisetas, in a guidebook so that's where we ate dinner.  Lots of tourists but the food and service were good.  Then we drove back, passing Platanar and going along to La Florencia to pick up a few things at the supermarket Flosanco.

I have an open agenda now that Briana has returned to the States; I've discussed a couple of options with Esteban.  We'll have to see what develops.  Stay tuned for more adventures!

Pura vida!