Saturday, 14 June 2014

Adventures in Costa Rica

We've done our research so as we're rolling out of Los Chiles we know we'll have to change buses when we reach Ciudad Quesada (the end of the line). After a while the bus clears out a bit and we actually get seats. We had been chatting to a Dutch couple (I think - refreshingly not the ones from Ometepe tho!) in the sweatbox passport office when we first arrived in Costa Rica, who had told us they were heading the same way as us but planned to change buses before Quesada for a bit of short cut. At the time I thought "good luck with that" but as we slowed down through a town and saw them looking out the window and getting their stuff together we took the snap decision to bail out with them, and Ted followed suit.

This turned out to be a great decision by the Dutchies (and us, if you count the decision to follow them...) as we barely had time to chuck our bags on the floor before the next bus came past with LA FORTUNA plastered across the front. We pile on, and we're on our way.

Arriving in La Fortuna, we've got a few possible hostels we might stay in based on the Lonely Planet recommendations, but before we get to the first one we stop at a tour office to see what antics we can get up to while we're here. The guy here is ridiculously helpful, gives us a big map, marks out a different hostel that should have rooms for $10 a night, and dishes put his best deals on a variety of tour options. Most of the stuff here revolves around trekking to (thankfully not up) volcanos, the natural hot springs, and canopy adventures in the cloud forest. Armed with this information, we abandon the LP recommendations and set off for this new hostel in the sprinkling rain.

We don't even make it halfway there, before we spot a place called Gringo Pete's Too, recognised because the Dutchies had said that's where they were aiming to stay. As we pause outside, an old American guy (why does every hostel have one of these? You don't work here but you've been living in the hostel for 7 years? That sounds a little weird...) starts "hollering" out the door to us about the $7 rooms and various other cool stuff this place has to offer, and that's good enough for us, so in we go. Luckily the real owner, Juan Carlos, appears at this point and takes over the negotiations and tour of the facilities. Teddy's mate is joining us later on, so we bag a 4 bed dorm which will be ours for the next couple of nights.

A quick look round reveals that the Dutchies were right, this place is nice. Decent kitchen, private bathrooms (!), balcony area with hammocks, lots of tour options available... another great decision by them, although I'll take credit for this one because I was actually listening when they were chatting to us. CP clearly was switched off, but she was immediately attracted by the great tour prices and options on the chalk board before we signed up. Although I'd guess they were a bit surprised to see that having said we planned to stay elsewhere we were already bundling our stuff into a room when they arrived to check in.

Carly heads back to abuse our tour offices knowledge on how best to go to our next destination (the pacific coast beaches to meet up with her bro), and they are happy to oblige as we're obviously about to give them some big bucks for all these tours, right? Meanwhile CP is also planning to negotiate tours with our hostel, and having got the best price there, sends me back to the tour place to see what they can do. He drops his prices again in a bid to secure our business, and I go back to report this good news to CP... who by now is set on the tour options from the hostel as they will throw in a "free" unknown bike tour around the area. For the rest of our time in La Fortuna we avoid walking past the tour office, but we would recommend the extremely helpful guy from Red Lava Tours to anyone passing through this area...

Teddy's mate is delayed, and then delayed some more, until it's 9pm and we are all starving, so we head off for a dinner at a place recommended by the American guy as being "an incredible buffet". The disappointment is clear when we each grab our plates and discover that we are entitled to only one item from the "buffet", so in this case buffet just means "shit that was cooks this morning and has been kept warm since then" rather "you're travelling and should eat as much as you possibly can", but despite our concerns the food was actually pretty good. Except for Teddy's chicken which he complained tasted a bit fishy... er, is that because it is fish, Ted??

With Teddy's mate still not back, we retire to bed leaving him alone with a big bottle of rum to wait for his buddy. Having previously stated my desire to avoid a 4th or 5th (who's counting?) 4:30am wakeup in a row, We are both woken up at my favourite time by the noise of a man falling 6 feet from his bunk to the floor - nice one Teddy! Luckily the effects of the rum (the whole bottle, shared with his mate when he eventually arrived around midnight) seems to have saved him any lasting injury.

CP has told me that the bike tour is a tour of the city, so I'm a little surprised when after getting our bikes and comedy helmets, JC asks of we have our swimming gear. Little laugh, is he joking? Off we go... almost immediately passing the "you are now leaving La Fortuna" sign... where is this city tour taking us CP?

First stop is a bridge, and although our guide doesn't speak English, I can translate. Yes that is a nice river... swim? Wait... jumping?! What about the bike tour?? Clearly I haven't learnt my lesson about not leaving CP alone to discuss things, and we're hoisting our bikes overhead to clamber down a very off road path to the river. And then we're swimming (in our underwear as obviously we didn't listen to JC before we left the hostel), and then we're climbing out, up some rocks, to a rope swing. CP manages to follow our guide through treacherous waters to get behind a waterfall and takes some coaxing to get out - in fact, it's not until the guide sits on top of her waterfall and creating a cessation in the water falling over her that she got out.

The rest of the ride takes place far outside the city, rolling through farms and plantations, with our guide collecting a whole variety of fruits and other stuff for us to try - mangos, chillies, almonds in their original form (a lot of work to get to one tiny nut!), and then stopping off to see and help some of his mates working hard in a field picking our what looks like a cross between onions and beer root, which we later find out are called... something we´ve both forgotten but sounds like "nyami".

We pose for pics, but in reality this is seriously hard work for these guys, it's 10am and already unbelievably warm, we're sweating just rolling along on the bikes and these guys are putting in some serious effort in the fields. If this was in Europe or the US there would be a couple of machines rolling through this field, but in Central America it's just long hard hours of manual work.

We turn and head back towards the hostel (actually just back towards the town) and there's a crack from CPs bike, and the saddle falls off. Our guide has a couple of tools but nothing that will help here, so he swaps bikes with CP and begins what will be an uncomfortable 20 minute cruise back to the hostel - ouch! Our 1 hour city tour turned out to be a 3 hour guided tour of he surrounding area, which was great but I'm ready for a lie down. Cp reckons it is awesome and loved her "free" tour, considering her decision to use our hostel's tours a sound one as a result.

There is, however no time for a sleep or even a rest for us, as we fashion a quick snack from the fruit that we've collected along the way, grab a more substantial lunch, and then head off on our afternoon tour - something about a volcano, a lookout point, a trek through the rainforest, finishing with rum and bantz in the hot springs.

JC has turned from hostel owner to tour guide for the afternoon, and he turns out to be pretty good, explaining lots about the volcanoes in the local area and Costa Rica as a while, spotting the usual collection of animals in trees as we walk around the lookout points, visit a waterfall, in the rain, and then bundle back in the van onwards towards our rainforest trek.

When we reach the start point, we pick up a couple of American kids who look like they are on the run from a school trip. JC then turns to us and says "you have flashlights?" - er no, We did not think to bring a torch on a tour that starts just after lunch. JC: "is ok... would be good but it's ok!". We are staying in his hostel and he didn't mention it until now? He probably told CP... (CP denies any knowledge but I am still suspicious)...

We begin trekking though rain forest with JC leading the way upfront, pointing out little snakes, and the occasional frog as we go. Quickly the need for flashlights is clear - the tree canopy is so dense that hardly any sunlight reaches the paths that we're walking along. Then it starts raining, hard - which by contrast is not blocked out by the previously mentioned dense tree canopy.

Continuing on, and I'm slightly wondering why we are doing this? It's not the "best" rainforest, there's not that much to see, and we can't see it anyway because between the group of 6 there's only one dismal torch, which is mostly pointed at the floor so we don't trip over everything and we are getting soaking wet in the process.

After a while (too long) we pop out at an area of black rocks - this is apparently what we have come to see, a demonstration that every time the volcano erupts and wipes out the surrounding greenery, it regrows incredibly quickly, and that's what we can see here, where the rainforest is growing through the old lava trails. We were both rather unimpressed to be fair, but we may have high volcano standards by now...

By now I'm not massively interested in trekking, and I'm writing a strongly worded email in my head to Saucony as both of our should-be-epic waterproof trail shoes are now flooded, the epic waterproofing serving only to keep the water in. We're trekking a loop to return to our van pickup, and suddenly my mental email writing is abandoned as it's raining so much that we're splashing through water that goes up to my shins - and I'm having a sense of humour failure, not so much dropping the occasional c-bomb as liberally throwing them in all directions. CP on the other hand is loving it, thinking it's a great adventure and shutting me down every time the c-bomb comes out.

We're walking alongside a small river and can hear thunder rumbling in the distance... and its pretty close by! JC had warned us to listen out for a thunder sound and to feel any vibrations In the ground, but he'd said it with a smile so we thought he was only winding us up. Then a different kind of rumbling and JC gets us all to stop and move back from the little river - then tells us very seriously that "this will be the most dangerous 20 minutes of your lives!". Well not really, but it is pretty impressive, as the new rumbling reveals itself to be a torrential flow of water, mud, and rocks, cascading down where the river used to be. We are caught in a mudslide and CP is loving it!

The flow of water and rocks gets bigger, and for the first time JC looks concerned... it seems that maybe we won't be able to continue in this direction as the river could keep getting bigger, with sides of the bank falling away, and we need to be able to wade across it which we can't do if there are hefty rocks being launched along by the water.

After getting closer than we should to take photos of the mudslide (as demonstrated by JC when he kicks the suitcase sized rock next to where CP had been standing, and the rock falls in, taking a hefty chuck of muddy riverbank with it where she has just moved from), the decision is made to turn back and return the way that we came. 

All is going well as we squelch along, with CP falling into quick sand on the way but getting out unscathed except for a few bruises, but then we reach a collection of trees that JC knows contains a frog. We stand in the rain for 15 minutes getting eaten alive by giant horseflies while he searches for one using the flashlight, and there's a group consensus that we're really not that bothered about seeing a frog at this stage. JC concedes defeat, then as he's walking out of the trees a frog appears right in front of him. Clever little thing is well camouflaged, and as soon as JC moves the branch that it's on, the frog completely flattens his body so that he looks just like another leaf.

Enough of that, and we now set a roaring pace towards the van - which has had to move to avoid being washed away. We pile in, and a soggy JC suggests postponing the next stop (natural hot springs) until later in the evening, allowing us all the chance to get warm, dry, and well fed.

Teddy and his mate join us for the rescheduled trip to the hot springs at 8pm that night. This is a natural area, free to enter, and lots of hotels have sprung up in the area to take advantage. We're doing it properly though, with a bottle of rum, mud face and body masks, and the same local guide that was previously our bike tour specialist, and is now diligently filling up our rum cups, pasting mud all over us and taking us underneath the springs to a thermal sauna and then through a tunnel to accidentally interrupt various couples who inexplicably thought this free public area would be perfect for their very private activities. Great two hours spent relaxing in the spring and a lovely end to our time in Arenal.

We have a 7:30am pick up for our next grand day out, which is preceded by the usual rush to pack, further complicated by a need make sandwiches for breakfast and lunch and wake Teddy up to say goodbye, followed by yet another failed attempt at the standard "el dude" fistbump handshake which sees me shake JCs outstretched fist.

One hour of dodging oncoming traffic in a pick up truck later and we're headed towards our next destination, San Lorenzo's "Lands in Love". We arrive at the adventure park just in time to stash our backpacks and jump into the truck with 4 other couples... all of whom insisted on performing ridiculous amounts of public displays of affection, to the point that CP thought they were actually on some sort of candid camera to catch how many times they could make out in one canyoning session...argh!

We kitted up (CP: some girl in a green shirt, one of the main PDA perpetrators who was a late arrival, stole her gloves while we observed an ant singlehandedly shifting half a tree, resulting in CP getting well holed replacements, which of course she whinged about at length but turned out just fine...).  We then spent the next 2-3 hours getting traversing, rappelling, zip-lining and Tarzan swinging our way through the forest.

The best bit was when we traversed along a loooong wooden bridge, just wide enough for one skinny person, then it opened up in the middle and you rappelled Splinter Cell style through a hole in the bridge straight down about 50m, into and then down through a waterfall. Pretty epic!

The second best bit was the Tarzan swing where we got to swing out over the canopy... the guides "accidentally" didn't catch CP on the way back, so she ended up swinging and swinging and swinging until she almost stopped! They thought they were being funny but CP was loving it!

The worst bit was the waiting,.. waiting for 8 other people to rappel down a waterfall or swing into the trees... often watching them make out every 5 seconds and standing waist deep in water, or if not, we were being splashed by the guides to keep things interesting!

We then returned back to base via a pretty cool tractor that came and collected us in the very organised way that Lands in Love runs its operations, and were treated to a massive buffet lunch, all part of the $75 package that included transport, the canyoning in the morning and the canopy adventure course in the afternoon.  A bit of an extravagance for this trip, but we we are in Costa Rica, so really, it would be rude not to (CPs words).

The afternoon was epic!  We all got into a massive cattle truck and we're transported to the base to get kitted out in all our harnesses.  We had to check numerous times to make sure we we doing "everything", which included most relevantly, the superman we were not initially being kitted out in the superman jumpsuit and didn't want to miss out....but we didn't miss out, oh no...!

Part one of our adventure afternoon was in the canopy, zipping through increasingly longer and faster zip lines...the last one being about 300m and went straight past trees full of massive howler monkeys who we're going nuts at the sound of the zipline and howling away.  Both of us saw massive eagle like birds coasting in the air just beneath us and felt like we were flying,

Part two involved the BEST part of the day... the competition zip lines and the superman....oh yeah! See pics of us in our sexy squirrel suits just before the rides (as CP broke the camera in her sandboarding incident we have no action shots, but we thought these captured the essence...)

We raced each other down two 400m long competition zip lines, after climbing far too many stairs up towers to jump off the edge. We each won one each, which was prob a good thing as CP was threatening not to hit the brakes at all if she was losing on the basis that I would have to and then she would win...

However, the creme de la creme was the superman zip line. 125 steps up a slightly rusty metal tower, 749m long, and almost a full minute of superman style flying time.  We had to lay down flat on our stomachs and were harnessed up. We then slithered onto a platform and pushed ourselves face first off the side of the tower into the air. Then we were flying, FLYING!! Oh what a feeling...! It was the most amazing feeling being horizontal and flying head first through the air, with birds flying below you, the views breathtaking beneath you. And finally flying through a little hole in the trees to rest in the canopy. Massive high fives after that, and one hour later, we were still buzzing.

The plan now is to catch a couple of buses (just as the rain starts....again as is seemingly customary in a Costa Rican afternoon) to San Ramon and then into Puntarenas for the evening before we finally get to meet up with Ryan tomorrow for our last week in Central America. Let's hope we make our bus connections...

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