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Welcome to the Jungle

sunny 75 °F

“The only question in life is whether or not you are going to answer a hearty ‘YES!’ to your adventure.”
— Joseph Campbell

Passport: check.
40% DEET spray: check.
Hiking boots: check.
Wanderlust: heck yes.

In a nutshell, I'm a writer. However, even though I've always been interested in travel writing, I've been very limited in this respect due to... well, my lack of traveling. Let's just say that I'm 25 and this is the first time I'll be using my passport. I fill my DVR with Samantha Brown and my bookshelf with travelogues from Australia and Europe, but I've simply never had the opportunity to experience the great wide world. I'm ready to cross some oceans and traverse mountains, maybe doing a little blogging along the way.

Which brings us to today, the first day of our trip to Costa Rica--the Rich Coast--which was named after the golden jewelry that the native inhabitants wore in their ears and noses. This trip was long overdue; both Matt and I needed a break from work and from the cold Midwestern weather. My husband is a software developer, which I suppose qualifies him as a different sort of "writer" (according to him). Basically, both he and I spend 8 to 10 hours a day squinting at a computer screen, straining our eyes, killing our posture and fast-tracking carpal tunnel. After a particularly grueling (but rewarding) election season that saw me working about 70 hours a week, we decided that we needed to finally take our much-delayed honeymoon and escape to paradise together. After looking into distressingly pricey beachfront cabanas in the Caribbean, I realized that we couldn't possibly travel modestly and have a comfortable ocean view anywhere in those salty turquoise islands.

So we hop on a plane and, after a quick layover in Atlanta, find ourselves flying over the Florida Keys and watching the Seven Mile Bridge stretch across the island archipelago. We pass over Cuba, which despite Jimmy Buffett’s daydreaming about Havana looked to be underdeveloped and dry. But the craggy Pacific coastline and green tree lines of the Costa Rican coast give us a sneak peak of what sort of landscape we'll be exploring during our 12-day excursion through this small Central American country.

But first, we need to spend 4 hours driving into the heart of the country to La Fortuna, a popular travel spot near the base of Volcan Arenal.

We touch down in the Liberia airport and are shuffled through customs, immigration, baggage claim and the tourist bureau—which is all located in one room the size of an airplane hangar. For being one of the largest airports in Costa Rica, it is certainly small and basic. And, despite having an open-air design, it is extremely hot, especially for someone who had just gotten acclimated to an Ohio autumn. The flight attendant on the plane said it was only in the upper 70s, but with the humidity it feels like the mid-80s.

Almost immediately after checking into customs, I run into the tiny bathroom, peel my damp jeans (careful not to drop them into the water--or what I hope is only water--splashed across the floor), and pull on my lightweight North Face hiking pants. With a 4 hour drive ahead of us, we decide to grab a quick meal so we can get on the road as quickly as possible and so we won't have to leave our bags in the car for too long. I'm a little ashamed to admit that our first meal in Costa Rica ends up being at a McDonald's, but we are in a rush so I think we have an excuse.

Our drive inland into the country brings us many different sights. We gradually transition from the crowded streets of Liberia to acres of horse and cattle farms, to the dense green rainforests that have made Costa Rica so popular with travelers. As we climb into higher elevations, we feel the air chill a bit and our clothes turn clammy. The sunshine of the coast surrenders to the haze and clouds of the rainforest, but remembering the oppressive heat of just a few hours before, I certainly am not going to complain.

The mountains of the Central Highlands smell of burgeoning humidity and wet leaves. On our 3-and-a half hour drive from Liberia around Lake Arenal to La Fortuna we stop by the side of the road multiple times just to take in the views or to snap a few photographs of animals, like a howler monkey in a tree just above the road and a strange raccoon/anteater-like creature known as a white-nosed coati.

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One thing I learn today: visit Costa Rica and you’ll get lost a hundred times. Sparse roads stretch like cobwebs across the landscape, visceral and primitive. There is no easy way to get anywhere, no direct routes. There are more potholes—huecos—than street signs. We get mildly lost a few times on the confusing labyrinth of poorly marked roads, and the road map is of little help. The streets on the map and on the roads themselves are not marked, so I find myself trying to navigate just based on the curves of the road or where we MIGHT be.

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But the drive is intensely beautiful. We often cross bridges over rushing mountain streams or twist along steep slopes. We see many alluring shops, galleries or restaurants that I am dying to take a peek into, but we need to reach our hotel before nightfall. So we press on, with the thought of a warm bed and a 7-hour sleep encouraging us.

When we finally arrived near the base of Arenal Volcano and drove through La Fortuna, a heavy downpour makes our travels even more arduous. Luckily, we only have to drive for about 15 minutes in the rain before we find our hotel just before darkness falls.

Hotel Kokoro is a sleepy oasis in the middle of the jungle, with a row of bucolic wooden cabins hidden among beautiful landscaping and charming tropical touches. We are immediately impressed by the grounds, which have clearly been lovingly cared for by the owners. The reception area doubles as an outdoor lounge/breakfast area, covered with a thatched roof that keeps us dry in the rain. Despite the fact that we feel half a world away from home, this place was extremely homey. A few guests sit at a table, one quietly playing guitar. At another table, a father and his two young daughters are focused on their laptop. When one young girl starts to get fussy, the guitar player invites her over to sing Christmas songs with him—in this case, “Frosty the Rain Man," appropriate for the soggy night. And, of course, just beyond the thatched roof and open walls we can see the jungle foliage, molten and lacquered by the rain.

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The manager, who is also the young son of the owners of the hotel, walks us out to our cabin under an umbrella. He introduces himself as Felico. He's 27 and his family is from Taiwan; however, he himself grew up in Costa Rica. He is very warm and friendly, as are all the other employees of Hotel Kokoro.

In addition to the superb hospitality, our cabin is yet another surprise. High vaulted ceilings make the room feel spacious and airy, and there's hot water in the shower. Hot water is not always a guarantee in Costa Rica. Because of all the heavy rain, our ceiling is leaking and leaving puddles on the tile floor, but it’s not leaking in places that matter (like the bed, for example!), just in the corners of the room. It’s a small price to pay. The hospitality and the ambiance make it worth it. Plus, what do you expect when you're in the middle of the rainforest?

Outside, the night is alive with the sounds of insect songs. The rain on the roof of our cabin sounds like soft water on river rocks. I know that this is the best sleep I will have in a long time.

Posted by GoWander 19:20 Archived in Costa Rica

A Walk in the Canopy

rain 73 °F

After a deep, satisfying sleep, we wake up at about 6 a.m. and slip out onto our private patio to listen to the rain and the trills of insects. We inhale the freshest air we’ve breathed in months..or years. I can’t imagine there being fresher, purer air anywhere else on earth than in the damp, green mountains of Costa Rica.

We enjoy a fresh hot breakfast at the reception area. Matt has a beef tamale wrapped in plantain leaves, and I have pintos and rice with eggs, grilled beet root and grilled bananas. There is also a spread of local fruits (pineapples, watermelon and papaya) and delicious Costa Rican coffee. A great meal to start the day! We also are greeted by Mrs. Li, Felico's mother. She is a little sweet Taiwanese lady who reminds me of my mother and aunts, especially in the way that she keeps bringing us food even when we didn't ask for it!

While eating breakfast, Matt (who is wearing a Buckeyes shirt) gets an “O-H!” from a couple at a nearby table, both of whom had graduated from Ohio State's Medical School. It’s interesting how little slices of home can follow you to the most faraway places.

The rainforest is just as I expected: very humid and wet. The morning brings warm showers that we expect to continue throughout the day, but with a good rain jacket and waterproof hiking boots, we aren't deterred by the weather. In fact, under the canopy of the thick tropical trees, the rain is largely blocked to the point where you might not even notice it is raining.

We start our day with a trip to La Fortuna Waterfall, which is a surprisingly strenuous hike down a long series of nearly 500 uneven steps. By the time we reach the bottom of the falls, my legs are so tired that I am already dreading the climb back up! We first came to a waterfall that is right next to La Fortuna Waterfall and is only present during the rainy season as the rainwater drains down the mountainside. La Fortuna Waterfall, right next to it, empties into a large pool with so much force that it creates its own wind and throws mist on all the visitors. We gaze up at the waterfall as if it is the eighth wonder of the world, because never before have either of us seen such a tall, magnificent waterfall. It rises like a 200-foot pillar into the canopy high above us.

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Just around the bend is a swimming area, with waters much calmer and more inviting than the water under the falls. There is even a wooden plank with a series of clothing hooks for people to hang their clothes on as they take a dip. Unfortunately, we had packed our swimsuits in our day pack instead of wearing them under our clothes, and there really isn’t a good place to step back into the foliage and change, so we just sit near the calm water for awhile to rest.

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The hike back up all those steps is exhausting and, at times, excruciating. For someone who works out, I thought that I would be more in shape than I actually am. I stop to rest twice on the way up while women twice my age fly by me. I vow to, next time, train by strengthening my quads more, instead of just level running. By the time we make it back up to level ground, I am dripping with sweat and panting so heavily that I can’t talk.

The rainforest lives up to its name. Even when it is not raining, the air is thick and oppressive. Humidity drips from the trees.

We decide to head into downtown La Fortuna for lunch and to explore some of the shops. There are a lot of souvenir shops that cater to tourists as well as small sodas that smell wonderful. A few times while in town, we are forced to seek refuge in stores because of heavy downpours. We settle in for lunch at a soda that, at first glance, looks rundown. Rather than walls, it has a sort of iron lattice with a sliding gate that locks when the soda closed for the night. However, the tables are filled with locals--a good sign. The food ends up being quite delicious. I order a local dish, chicken rice, which has tender chicken combined with a flavorful mix of rice, cilantro and seasonings; there are fries and a small salad on the side. Matt has grilled sirloin with a side of potatoes, cinnamon-fried plantains, rice and black beans.

While we eat, we notice something that we would rarely see in the states: a meat truck unloading headless, gutted, butchered pigs. I think most Americans would not eat pork for awhile if they had to see where their meat was coming from, but maybe it's normal in Central America.

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After gorging ourselves on the local cuisine, we decide to explore the Arenal Hanging Bridges, which is a two-mile loop through the rainforest canopy that includes 15 bridges over deep valleys and streams. The longest bridges are suspension bridges that sway and jolt with every step. It is a great experience, despite the occasional twinges of fear while walking across the highest, shakiest bridges. I do wish that the skies were clearer so we could see the jungle off in the distance and the volcano, but the sky is so misty and hazy today that the treetops gradually fade from sight.

The volcano, which is such a visual staple of Costa Rica and La Fortuna in particular, is shrouded in creamy mist so thick you could almost chew it. Though you can often see the base, the cone at the top is hidden. However, its elusiveness is beautiful. Like many things in Costa Rica, it is not easily visible or accessible. Just like hidden wildlife or landmarks, you may not even realize it is there unless you are looking for it.

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We do not see any primates while on the hanging bridges, but we do see an eyelash viper, which is a very poisonous snake and can kill a man in a few hours.

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By the time we arrive back at Kokoro, we are exhausted from our long day of hiking. When we return to our room we see that the kind staff left us a bottle of wine, chocolates, and a rose to welcome us for our honeymoon. We take the chocolates and wine up to reception to enjoy while we wait for our dinner delivery to arrive from town. I order nachos with shredded beef, beans, rice and avocados, and Matt has something called “volcano rice,” which he informs me was not at all spicy. Perhaps the name is derived from the location, not the spiciness of the food.

As we eat, we engage in a nice conversation with Felico, who is the same age as Matt but is very well-travelled and has an interest in American culture. And most importantly, he understands how lucky he is to live in paradise; he doesn't take it for granted like many other locals might.

After filling up on food, drinking the bottle of wine, and taking hot showers, we finally relax and just listen to the rain on our roof. A couple times I watch small green geckos scurry up our wall or under our door, but that's just fine.

Posted by GoWander 19:21 Archived in Costa Rica

The Rain on Hiatus

semi-overcast 82 °F

Today we are awoken at dawn by bird songs--the cheery chirps and trills of birds enjoying a rainless sunrise. This morning is clear and warm. We sit side-by-side on our porch, listening to the cacophony of birds and smelling the distinct smell of the rainforest: a clean scent of wet foliage. It smells like life.

After a quick breakfast (tamales for both of us), we drive south of the volcano to the Sky Trek ziplines, which Felico claims are the highest and the most exciting. We join a group of about 5 other couples, many of whom are Americans but there are a few others mixed in. There is an Asian American couple, a couple of native Costa Ricans who speak only Spanish, an Englishman whose wife/girlfriend who is so terrified of heights that she ends up riding tandem with the guide most of the way down, and a New York couple--with the husband who is not outdoorsy and is clearly not thrilled to be flying hundreds of feet across deep valleys.

We ride the tram up to the top of the mountain, which is an experience by itself. The guides are very sensitive to the fact that tourists get excited about exotic animals and make a point to stop the tram’s ascent whenever they spot an interesting bird or, far in the distance, a howler monkey hunched into a black ball of fur at the top of a tree.

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Once at the first zipline platform, we are given some quick instructions (lean back and cross legs up into your chest; spread legs out to slow down; don’t slow down too early or you’ll slide right back to the middle of the line and get stuck; etc) and, after a couple smaller practice lines, come to a more than one-thousand-foot long line suspended 600 feet above the ground. The feeling of flying so high above the treetops at such a fast speed is exhilarating, truly unparalleled. We are pretty close to Lake Arenal and have a great birds eye view of it, and we would have had a fabulous view of the volcano if the cone wasn’t covered in some haze. But we could not have picked a more perfect day to do this activity. The sun is shining almost the entire time, and except for a few stray sprinkles, the entire morning is clear and gorgeous!

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Ziplining is terrifying and exhilarating and the biggest adrenaline rush I’ve experienced. Matt and I jokingly say that we should do the other two Arenal zipline courses as well since we loved Sky Trek so much, and I know that I am at least half serious.

On the drive back from the ziplines, we come across a bunch of tourists stopped to take pictures of a group of coati that were standing in the road begging for food. These animals must be used to people because they come right up us and, when they see food, will sometimes climb on someone’s legs to get to it. Up close, these coati look like a cross between raccoons and anteaters, but they seem to be really gentle and meek. Apparently, I'm told, they make good pets and are easily domesticated.

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We come back to Kokoro to munch on our leftovers from last night’s dinner (which we eat at a cute table with a thatched umbrella outside our cabin) and relax before our next tour. Once we come down a little ways from the mountains, we realize how hot and humid the rainforest is when the sun makes its rare appearances. We spend a little time at the hotel’s pool, cooling off in the water and relaxing in the chaise loungers.

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At 2:30 we head back toward La Fortuna for an ATV tour. While I thought an ATV tour would take us through intense terrain to get to a particular destination, this tour takes us around a huge privately owned ranch with a series of mud pits, streams, small jumps and other little obstacles that, as a passenger on Matt’s vehicle, scare the crap out of me. We go airborne a couple times, speed down steep slopes and climb back up some hills that almost seemed like we might backflip. One time is definitely a close call; we barely avoid falling backwards on ourselves while climbing up one particularly steep riverbank.

Part of the tour takes us through cattle grazing pasture, so we zoom within 15 feet of cows that look at us as if we are disturbing their grass dinner. Of course, I wave and apologize to a lot of them for confusing them or interrupting their peace and quiet. We also explore to a section of stream where there are large camen lounging on the riverbank or watching us from the river. They don’t seem to care that much that we were there, though.

We also drive through some streams that soak our shoes or skid through mud that kicks dirt all over our clothes. At one point I get chunks of mud all over the side of my face, in my hair and even in my ear! (But it's more likely that, since the tour is on a cattle farm, that isn't JUST mud.) At the end of the 2 hours I am splattered in mud, my hiking boots even covered in mud and soaked to my socks. Somehow, Matt isn't quite as muddy as I am, even though he was up in the front.

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Once back at Kokoro, I make an attempt to wash our muddy clothes in the sink, rinse off the shoes and blow dry my hiking socks (since now both pairs of socks are soaking wet…which in the rainforest means it will take days to dry). After hot showers we order dinner from a place called Lava Lounge in La Fortuna. I get a Santa Fe wrap, which is a delicious mixture of chicken, avocado, cheese, onion, rice and beans. Matt orders a steak salad with balsamic vinaigrette dressing and also gets garlic-friend yucca for us to share. It takes all our strength to save some of the food for tomorrow’s lunch.

Today was a great day, largely due to the unexpected beautiful weather. After yesterday’s all-day, on-and-off rainstorms, I did not expect to see sun or to be hot enough to use the hotel pool. The only way this day could have been perfect was if the last bit of mist from the cone of the volcano cleared so we could see the tip.

Posted by GoWander 19:21 Archived in Costa Rica

La Casona is Where the Heart Is

rain 84 °F

This morning is misty and warm, and since we don’t have anything in particular we need to rush off for, we relax in bed until breakfast at about 7:30 a.m. (which I suppose is still pretty early, but when you are used to waking up before dawn, 7:30 is quite a luxury). After a beautiful fruit spread and hot meal, we decide to explore a hiking area near Arenal Observatory Lodge and the Hanging Bridges. It doesn’t matter that it is pouring down rain when we leave; we just don our rain jackets and boots and go on our way.

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The hike takes us up near the base of the Arenal volcano, but because of the misty weather we can’t see much more than the bottom of it. The rest disappears into the clouds. However, the hike itself is both exciting and good exercise. It starts out on flat (and very muddy) paths that wind through the forest, but these paths eventually go up steep inclines, with natural “steps” made out of tree roots. The climb up to the lookout is somewhat exhausting and very hot. I end up just stuffing my rain jacket into my daypack so that the heat can escape my body.

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Along the way we pass a few lava fields where the lava is swept down the mountain during hard rains. These look similar to dried creek beds, but the difference is that the roots lining the bottom of the trails are worn down from being burnt by the molten lava, and rounded bits of lava rock are scattered about.

After our strenuous hike, we are pretty tired and hungry. We were going to eat lunch with Felico, but he ends up needing to stay at Kokoro for a meeting. He does hop in his car and guide us to the old farm/house that was converted into a restaurant, La Casona, which is about half an hour outside of town. It's a good thing we can follow him because the twists and turns through farmlands and small villages would have been difficult to navigate on our own--not to mention the insanity of Costa Rican drivers. It amazes me that the locals are always in such a hurry that they speed around cars and narrowly miss oncoming traffic, even passing while going around mountain curves or over hills.

La Casona is the perfect place to relax after yet another fast, dangerous drive. It is by reservation only and is one of the only places in Costa Rica that still uses a wood stove to cook food. Matt orders pork and I order a chicken fajita-type mixture, both of which are served with rice, black beans, yucca, and a grilled banana. We also have fresh lemonade made with fresh sugar cane syrup that was extracted right on site, and for dessert we were given caramelized bananas in a sauce of cinnamon molasses and a shot of coffee moonshine (60 percent alcohol). We eat at a table overlooking a valley with a rushing stream at the bottom, with the volcano just beyond it (though the cone is still hidden). With this view, I feel like one of the old-fashioned Costa Rican privileged class. There is also a variety of tropical birds picking at a few pieces of fruit that strategically hang on a tree nearby. While we eat, a young man plays guitar for us and sings romantic songs in Spanish—a beautiful backdrop to a beautiful scenery.

Included as part of the lunch is a demonstration of the traditional method of extracting the sugar syrup from sugar cane using an ox-powered press. From just two short stalks of sugarcane, he extracts almost a full pitcher of syrup, which he pours into small glasses for us to try. He also shows us the rest of the process, from heating the sugar water to remove impurities to creating a hardened block of molasses, which can be shaved into a glass with warm sugar water and milk for a traditional Costa Rican drink.

On the way back to the hotel we stop at a wooden sculpture shop (Original Grand Gallery) located just outside La Fortuna, which has abstract wood sculptures of all shapes and sizes, from women's breasts to alligators. We relax at Kokoro for a couple hours, trying to digest our enormous meal at La Casona. At about 5:15 we visit to Eco-Termales, one of the local hot springs that is known for being the most intimate and least crowded of the three (compared with Tabacon and Baldi). Eco-Termales has about 4 main pools of different temperatures, set among beautiful rainforest gardens. Because visitors must have a reservation, the springs never become crowded or loud. We relax for about an hour and a half, either soaking our tired muscles in the water or people-watching by the pool, sipping large daiquiris (mine mango, Matt’s passion fruit).

The experience of soaking in the soothing pools, mist rising like ghosts into the night, is truly magical and serene. For what seemed like the first time since we arrived at this new latitude, we are finally able to just sit still. At 7:15 we have a large dinner on site: chicken and beef, rice, beans, vegetables, salad, fresh pineapple passion fruit juice, and rice pudding. The outdoor dining area at Eco-Termales is very charming and set back in the gardens, much like the pools. Hanging lanterns cast a soft glow over the candlelit tables and the hum of quiet conversations.

There is nothing like spending an evening at a hot springs, something I've always loved even as a child. It's especially wonderful when you've been busy from dawn until dusk for several days straight. I could go back to Eco-Termales every evening and never grow tired of it.

Posted by GoWander 19:22 Archived in Costa Rica

Follow the water

rain 73 °F

Today is our last full day in La Fortuna. We spend a couple hours in the morning browsing the shops in town, buying Christmas gifts. We accumulate quite an entourage of local canines, which trot along behind us as we peruse the stores. I think they aren't used to being acknowledged by people, so after we greet them with some baby talk, they fall into step with the rest of the dogs and wait patiently for us to emerge from each shop. At one point, we have about 4 dogs with us and then after reemerging from a store realize that our entourage has moved on to more interesting pursuits.

Just after lunch we schedule a canyoneering tour, which consists of following a mountain stream by jumping through the water and rappelling down waterfalls. Lucky for us, it ends up being just Matt and me on the entire tour (which was great since we don’t have to wait for a big group). We have two guides (Ronnie and Carlos) and a photographer who all work for Desafio tour company. We ride up a winding, bumpy road in the back of a pickup truck that was converted to hold about 7 or 8 people in the bed, and by the time we reach our location we are up in the clouds and mist.

The “rescue dog," Chinga (very funny, whoever named that cute dog a curse word), also rides up the mountain with us. He is some sort of Chihuahua or beagle mix that had been abandoned near Desafio’s canyon house by his owners, so the canyoneering guides started bringing him food and eventually adopted him as a “member of the staff.” He doesn’t seem to mind the rough ride up the mountain and even trots along with the five of us as far as he can go, until he eventually has to turn back and wait by the truck. Carlos tells me that sometimes in the morning, when they are setting up the rappelling courses before the first tour of the day, they take him with them in their backpacks so he can go with them through the waterfalls.

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The canyoneering tour takes us down four waterfalls, some of them more than 200 feet high, and on most of them we need to rappel directly in the cascading water. In between rappelling points we follow through the stream, which at times drops down to waist-deep holes or has rocks to climb over. At one deep hole, where the water is almost over my head, we are instructed to jump a few feet from a rock ledge and cannonball right into it (which is obviously more for fun than necessity). I am nervous about doing this because I still hate putting my head underwater and am especially nervous about losing my contacts, but I manage to keep them in my eyes for the time being.

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There is also a point where, at a small narrow waterfall that cuts through the rocks like a waterslide, Ronnie lays down at the top to block the water flow. Matt is instructed to sit down near the bottom, with me behind him as if we are sliding down a slide in tandem. We are given two instructions: 1.) brace yourselves for dear life, and 2.) do NOT, for any reason, stand up. When Ronnie releases the water, a huge powerful mass of water rushes down the pseudo-slide, crashing into my back and flowing over our heads, making it seem like we were behind a rushing waterfall. Matt finds it exhilarating, but I think it feels a lot like drowning! It takes a couple minutes for the water to clear from my eyes and for my contacts to reset.

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The canyoneering tour is certainly the most “extreme” thing I’ve done, and I mean that it is a different sort of extreme than the zipline was. While the zipline was a huge adrenaline rush, the canyoneering is more of an extreme sport that the most athletic of people might enjoy during their free time. So I feel like G.I. Jane while I am hopping backwards down the rock faces, trying to figure out the right rhythm for jumping and using my brake hand. I am not as good at it as I thought I would be, so I can only imagine how clumsy and awkward some of the less athletic people who take the tour might be.

The tour is immediately followed by a dinner at the canyon house: rice and beans (of course), salad, a potato stew, pasta salad, and yucca. Matt also drinks a beer to unwind after an adrenaline-filled (and sometimes chilly) afternoon while we watch our 160+ photos on a laptop slideshow.

During the ride back down the mountain, I notice how modest (and that’s putting it nicely) many of the mountain homes are. Many don’t have windows (though I think they have wooden shutters that they shut if they aren’t home) and a few don’t even have walls; one of the homes we pass is more like a treehouse, with the first floor having just a gate around it and the top floor with some rudimentary boards forming an incomplete, hastily constructed wall around the outside. Obviously, these people are not worried about mosquitoes, bats or any other creatures that might end up in their beds.

Matt and I take a hot shower when we arrive back at Kokoro and relax while watching some TV… until we see a bat fly in front of our TV screen. Now, it is obviously a very small bat, but it was startling nonetheless. I notice how afraid of bats Matt is when I see him looking for the critter with a small flashlight, creeping toward the bathroom, eyes wide and walking slowly, like he might turn and run at any minute. Of course, I just rush into the bathroom and turn on the light because I’m not afraid of bats, but I still decide to ask Felico if such a bat might decide to munch on us tonight. I’m not interested in getting rabies shots on my vacation! But since Felico says that bats may just come and go, and they won’t bother us, we resigned to sharing the room with our new little friend. I try to make Matt more comfortable with the bat by using an old trick that my dad used to do--name the bat to make it less scary. So I talk to Batman and tell him that he's welcome to sleep in our cabin as long as he doesn't try to crawl onto the bed with us.

In about 12 hours we’ll be on our way to Playa Samara on the Pacific Coast. This cabin in Kokoro has come to feel like home, and I’ll be sad to leave it. I’ll also be sad to leave Felico and the Li family. As we were sitting up at reception waiting for our food delivery, Mrs. Li kept bringing out little morsels of food for us to eat, which reminded me of Thanksgiving with my Asian side of the family or even just being home with my mom. I’ve had a great time here in the rainforest, but I’m also excited to get some sun at the ocean.

Posted by GoWander 10:56 Archived in Costa Rica

Aguacero

rain 70 °F

We wake up to a very rainy morning… rainy even by rainforest standards. Felico calls it “aguacero,” meaning "downpour" or "very heavy rains" in Spanish. The rain is so aggressive that we take our time packing our belongings and blow drying our damp clothes because we don’t feel safe driving down those twisting mountain roads in a torrential downpour. So after breakfast (Mrs. Li made Matt a special omelet with ham, peppers and onions, and I had cereal) and packing, I work on some writing and Matt finishes drying his hiking boots while watching Lost.

At about 11 we say our goodbyes to the Li family and Felico and head back down the winding road that circles Lake Arenal on our way to Playa Samara. But because of the heavy rains, the ground must have been SO waterlogged that we see remnants of numerous downed tree branches that slid down the steep mountainside into the street. At one point, there is a pile of rocks that slid into the road and blocked one entire lane. Then, we hit a major roadblock, literally. A huge mudslide has completely blocked the entire road about 15 minutes from Kokoro—a big mound of dirt and tree branches several feet high!

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We sit for a few minutes in our car, stunned and staring at this wall of mud that is blocking our only road out of town. We eventually turn around and head back to Kokoro to ask the Li’s if there is a better route to take to get out of the mountains. Mrs. Li is the only one at the desk, and she tells us to drive into La Fortuna to meet up with Felico and his dad. Bless their hearts. Felico jumps into the car with us as we follow Mr. Li for an entire two hours down a back road south into the heart of the country, which I guess would equal a four-hour total drive for them. Along the way, we discuss with Felico everything from Costa Rican customs to American politics, which makes the long drive seem quick and enjoyable.

The landscape changes drastically as we leave the rainforest and enter what Felico calls the “Scottish countryside": grassy hills with sparse trees, a stark contrast from the dense brush and tall trees we’ve grown accustomed to the past five days. We travel to a town called San Ramon (where we part ways with Felico and promise to keep in touch via email), then drive back up Highway 1 to cross the bridge across the Nicoya Gulf into Nicoya Peninsula. The entire detour takes us an extra three hours total, which with our late start forces us to drive for about an hour in the dark.

Driving in the dark in Costa Rica (especially in a place you’ve never been before) is definitely terrifying. The roads twist and turn, rise and fall, while cars stop in the middle of the road, motorbikes without headlights or taillights zip past you, and people (and dogs) sometimes walk or stand in the road, unfazed by the traffic. Cars come careening around corners without bothering to stay in their lanes, and the street signs that actually do exist are impossible to read. It is a miracle that we arrive in Playa Samara in one piece without getting lost, or worse.

We find Samara Treehouse Inn fairly easily and are once again pleased with my amazing find. The Inn is located right on the beach, with four natural wood bungalows sitting on stilts and each with two hammocks, an eating area, a grill, and two beach chairs directly below. Toward the street is a small dipping pool (which no doubt will feel heavenly when the tropical heat and sun take their toll on me tomorrow) near reception, and on the other side of the tree houses is the beach, literally just steps from our hammocks.

The inside of our bungalow is just as impressive. With a comfortable sitting area and huge window that opens completely to allow the fresh Pacific breeze and the sound of the surf to saturate the living space, the bungalow is more like an apartment. It has a small kitchen with various appliances and cooking utensils, a cute bathroom and a separate bedroom.

Immediately, we open our window and sink onto our two love seats to listen to the ocean and watch the waves rolling in with the high tide. How is it possible that we are this close to the surf at this amazingly affordable price?

Tomorrow I’m excited to explore Samara and maybe paddle out to Isla Chora. I can’t wait to see my first sunset here in the tropics. It’s hard to believe that back home, the Midwest is being punished with blustery winds and snow showers. I don’t ever want to leave paradise.

Posted by GoWander 19:24 Archived in Costa Rica

Desconectarse

semi-overcast 85 °F

All night we could clearly hear the waves pounding the shore from inside our tree house. It was the best soundtrack for a good night’s sleep... definitely as soothing as the sounds of the rain and insects at Kokoro. I had been a bit nervous that Guanacaste would be oppressively hot and impossible for sleep, but luckily, even though our treehouse does not have air conditioning, the night cooled down nicely.

We wake up a little before dawn and sit by our opened windows, chins resting placidly on our arms folded on the wood sill, amazed by the beautiful view. Just past the few palm trees outside of our tree house, the ocean stretches out into a crisp horizon, with just one island—Isla Chora—rising like a tortoise shell from the waves. After about fifteen minutes of gazing out at the sea, we each lay down on one of the futons in our living room and go back to sleep.

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We finally get up at about 6 and have breakfast (fruit and omelets) at our table underneath our tree house. We are still very sore from our canyoneering tour so we decide to have an easy day of just relaxing and exploring the town.

Playa Samara is a sublime surf haven next to large mountains and an even larger sea. Cabinas, restaurants and surf schools dot the beach, but the waterfront appears to be largely unspoiled. You can’t go anywhere along this beach without hearing the sound of palm fronds pushing against each other in the breeze.

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Downtown Samara is really just a couple blocks of small souvenir shops and several restaurants ranging from Italian to Thai. Actually, what surprises me is that of the handful of restaurants, about 4 are Italian or pizzarias. There’s probably more pasta in this tiny town than rice and beans. There are also street vendors (many of whom appear to be of Caribbean/Jamaican descent) selling small trinkets like jewelry, colorful sarongs and beach gear. Matt and I both buy wooden necklaces, Matt's a surfboard and mine a Maori symbol signifying safe passage across water.

Exploring the town really doesn’t take as long as I expected it to take, so we spend some time lounging in our shaded hammocks, sipping tropical drinks from our on-site bar and watching the ticos play in the surf. We also take a walk down the beach to watch the surfers riding the waves and try to coax hermit crabs out of their sandy burrows.

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I love the informality of this beach town. Playa Samara—and Costa Rica in general—is beautiful because it is not the whimsical tropical paradise of the Caribbean islands. This paradise, by contrast, is oftentimes gritty and raw. There are many elements of the Utopian paradise here—the seaside sodas, the frozen drinks, the gossamer gleam of water. But Samara has a different pulse. The visitors here do not seem like tourists. They seem like they would mold to fit whichever country they travel in. I bet some have hitchhiked to get here or slept on the beach to save money.

There is an interesting mix of people who pass by Samara Treehouse, from tourists to locals, tours on horseback to dogs chasing each other through the waves. The noon sun is pretty hot so after walking the beach and checking out the prices for the surf lessons, we use the hotel’s complimentary boogie boards during high tide. While we are spending time on the beach we see a large iguana that had walked right in front of the tree houses and climbed up a nearby tree; before today, I had only seen iguanas in pet stores, not out in the wild.

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After eating almost nothing except tipical food and rice and beans, we are craving something Italian so we have a late lunch at a pizza and pasta restaurant in town. (It is also one of the only restaurants that is actually open. Most apparently only open for dinner). We order a pizza with ham, peppers, onions and capers, and it is SO delicious, especially after eating rice and beans for the past week!

We walk the beach again during the low tide, which had left about 60 feet of sparkling wet sand and exposed calcified coral . I gather up a few good pieces of coral and shells; we plan to look for skimboard rentals over the next several days so we can take advantage of the smooth sands of low tide.

Just after sunset, the dusk brings a barrage of bats that swoop and dive right near the treehouses and a few times come pretty close to us in our hammocks. Matt seems nervous that one would land on his face or take residence in our room, so when he goes upstairs to close our windows, he says that one had flown in and out right as he was closing the window, narrowly missing his face. These are small zippy bats, much smaller than the Midwestern bats I am used to.

We eat a late dinner at La Brasas, which has a mix of international food. Since I am still craving something different than the usual rice and beans, I order spicy garlic spaghetti, while Matt has barbeque shrimp. We discuss where along the coast Matt can buy a rash guard before our first surf lesson, so I think we might take a day trip to nearby tourist towns that might have surf shops. There is one here in Playa Samara, but Matt doesn’t like the rash guards that they have. Maybe we'll drive up to Tamarindo to see what sorts of stores are there.

Posted by GoWander 10:29 Archived in Costa Rica

Paddle to the Sea

sunny 84 °F

We wake up just after sunrise to a beautiful Costa Rica morning and immediately run out onto the beach. Overnight, the low tide had exposed many shells, stones and coral for the early morning beach combers to collect. We pick up several pieces then head back to our tree house for breakfast. Today’s breakfast is local fruit, fried egg, and rice and beans, which we enjoy while watching the sun climb higher above the waves.

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We go in search of a surf shop to get Matt a rash guard and hope to explore some of the beaches to the north (specifically Playa Barrigona and Playa Buenavista). At about 8:30 or so, we take a rough dirt road along the coast for a little ways, noticing several beautiful homes that are apparently owned by people who don’t mind a ride through Hades to get there. As we approach a cattle ranch we notice that two ranch hands had started walking their herd out into the street, so we stop the car as a large herd of cattle walks past our car. A couple of the young calves are confused by our car and don’t know if they should walk around us, staring into our windshield in confusion.

Once we make it past the wave of cattle, we discover that the road to Playa Buenavista is intersected by a shallow river that probably is fed by mountain runoff during the wet season. We aren’t confident that our car can make it across without getting the engine wet, so we turn around and take the main roads through the middle of the peninsula to Nicoya and on to Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz definitely is not a beach town and instead is filled with a mess of cars, crowds, and Laundromats. Needless to say, we don’t stay long in Santa Cruz and end up coming back to Samara (3 hours later) empty handed.

Famished, we go to a bar/restaurant right on the beach, walking barefoot through the surf from our hotel. We order tropical drinks as we watch the surfers riding the waves and dogs chasing each other down the beach. I order something called “cheese fingers” (which were essentially just two cheese roll-ups, almost like a quesadilla), which came with guacamole and a delicious salad. Matt orders Mahi-Mahi with “latina sauce” (spicy red pepper sauce), fries and a salad.

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After lunch, Matt goes into town to buy a rash guard from the surf shop just up the street while I cool off in the hotel pool. We decide to rent kayaks to paddle out to Isla Chora, so we scour the beach in search of 1.) single kayaks, and 2.) sea kayaks. Unfortunately, we find neither—only two-person surf kayaks that paddle more like floating bathtubs. However, I quickly realize why they don’t have the sea kayaks available that time of season. The breakers we have to paddle through to escape the beach are intense, even for seasoned kayakers such as ourselves.

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Once away from shore, we face about half an hour of ocean rollers that weren’t noticeable from shore but once out in the kayak make for difficult paddling. Not to mention the reef a little ways off shore that we need to paddle around (and by reef, I mean jagged rocks puncturing through the surface of the water like a shipwreck and creating enormous deep-water breakers) and the difficult wave pattern once we actually do reach the shore of Isla Chora. The waves come in from both directions around the island and collide right at the beach, so as we try to paddle in to shore, our back end is pushed around sideways and I basically jump/fall off the kayak into the sand. I’m convinced that if Matt and I had problems getting ashore gracefully, then it simply cannot be done in those sorts of waves. There is another couple on shore who say that when they paddled ashore, a wave capsized them completely. So I don’t feel quite as embarrassed.

Isla Chora has a small curve of sand beach with a smattering of rocks here and there. As we walk away from the beach to jump along the rocks, we notice lots of snails and crabs everywhere; it actually looks like all the rocks themselves are moving. The crabs in particular scurry across the rocks (sometimes leaping from rock to rock, which I didn’t know was even possible) before belly-flopping into the water.

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The very nature of the inaccessibility of this island—accessible only by kayak or other small boats—as well as the rocks stuck like enormous barnacles to the side of a whale, call to the adventurer within us. Despite the kayak tours that frequent this small island during the high season, it is primal and feels unexplored.

From the island we have a beautiful view of Playa Samara and the entire cove, but the moment is somewhat overshadowed by the understanding that we will eventually have to make that long, arduous paddle back to the mainland. So after a little while, we say our goodbyes to the crabs and shove off again.

By the time we near the shore, the waves have calmed down a bit, but I don't want to underestimate the breakers because from our angle, we can’t see how tall they are. Just before we reach where the waves were breaking, I jump off the kayak and walk/swim the rest of the way to shore, dragging my paddle along with me. I know from experience that kayaks surf to shore much easier with just one person instead of two.

We are exhausted after our excursion and spend some time relaxing at our tree house. Matt takes a nap upstairs and I read a book in the hammock and, near sundown, walk back out into the waves and sit down in the shallows. It’s not very often that I can enjoy the simple, carefree pleasures that the ocean has to offer. I know that when I fly back up north, the ground will be covered in snow. So I savor this quiet sunset, alone in the surf, while I still can.

When Matt comes back outside, we both lie in a hammock together and watch the bats fly in and out of our room again. It is pretty frequently, too; at least every 5 seconds, one would dart into our living room and swoop back out again a couple seconds later. I think we’re lucky to have bats clean the bugs out of our room. I’d certainly rather have bats in my treehouse than mosquitoes.

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After taking a few photos from the beach of the treehouses after dark, I make a couple of canine friends that run up to me and sit down by my feet, constantly nuzzling my hand or rubbing up against my legs. One is a chubby Weimeraner and one is some sort of German shepherd mix. After about 10 minutes of bonding time, my two new friends follow me up to the treehouse gate and lie down just outside, watching me and wagging their tails. Even after I go upstairs to take a shower, they are still lying by the gate waiting for me when I emerged 20 minutes later. If those dogs weren’t wearing collars and if it was easy to bring doggies back into the States, I would have two new pets right now.

At about 7:00 we walk into town to a pizzeria and then relax at our treehouse. We haven’t used our TV once since we got to Samara, mostly because it would probably drown out the sound of the ocean. I still can’t believe how lucky we are to be this close to the ocean. The sunsets here are incredible; the smears of watercolor tangerine and blood orange give us a beautiful display to end our day in the sun.

Posted by GoWander 11:48 Archived in Costa Rica

Making Waves

sunny 84 °F

I wake up just as the sun is rising above the treeline and race down to the beach to snap a photo. What a great feature this panoramic camera setting is!

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We enjoy a delicious breakfast of banana pancakes on our patio and relax until our surf lesson at 11 am. C + C Surf School is located right next to the treehouses so it is a quick walk for our class. After about some quick instructions about how to properly carry the surfboard, techniques for standing up, and safety rules, we head out into the water about an hour before high tide (when the waves would be the biggest), me dragging my padded "baby board" along next to me.

I am surprised by how physically strenuous surfing is and how many different things you need to always keep in mind (footwork and balance especially). After a couple wipe outs, I stand up on my board and ride my first wave nearly into shore. At first, I have an easier time getting up on my board and keeping my balance than Matt does, but after awhile he is able to paddle himself into a wave by himself, while I still need our instructor to push me in to the wave.

We are out on the waves for about an hour and fifteen minutes, during which time I swallow a heck of a lot of sea water, but miraculously my contacts stay in my eyes pretty easily. By the end of our lesson, I am completely exhausted and perfectly fine with never surfing again—I end up being able to stand up about half the time, and that’s good enough for me.

At the end of our lesson we're famished, so we go into town for lunch at a Thai restaurant. I order chicken Pad Thai with a mango-strawberry smoothie in milk, and Matt orders beef green curry with a pineapple-banana-passionfruit smoothie in yogurt. Shortly after lunch, Matt goes back out surfing until low tide, which amazes me that he even has the energy to get back on his board and catch some more waves.

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We relax in our hammocks for a little while, but I start to feel nauseated and have to go upstairs to lie down. It only gets worse though and, long story short, I spent the next 12 hours—long into the night—vomiting up everything in my stomach. I suspect that it was food poisoning of some sort… perhaps undercooked chicken or contaminated milk or vegetables. I don’t think it was the water since Matt also drank the water and felt fine. Needless to say, I am completely miserable right now.

This is, I believe, the worst of the illness and I will be back to my normal self soon.

Posted by GoWander 11:50 Archived in Costa Rica

Blue Water, White Sand

sunny 85 °F

We sleep in this morning because we were both up so late. Since my stomach is still tender, I just eat a slice of watermelon for breakfast before we both go back upstairs to take naps.

A little while later, we drive to Playa Carrillo, an undeveloped stretch of beach in a cove just south of Samara. Compared with the beach bars and surf schools that line Samara’s shore, Carrillo is unspoiled by any buildings whatsoever—just sand, surf and palms. I am still feeling very weak from my illness so we walk a short ways until I am too fatigued to walk anymore. However, even though I'm recovering from an illness I am still amazed by the beauty of this stretch of beach. Maybe it is just my imagination, but I swear that the water looks bluer and the sand whiter than that of Samara. If you ever have the fortune of visiting Playa Carrillo, be sure to take a picture. I hope I'm wrong, but I envision the development of the coastline within the next decade as the visitors from Samara grab onto the outlying beaches as well.

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When lunchtime comes, we eat at a beach bar (La Veja Latina? I can't quite remember the name)—I order an avocado salad and Matt had chicken fajitas. Then we just relax at our tree house, laying in our hammocks, napping, and swimming in the pool. We eventually go into town to look for ice cream but don’t really find anything.

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I’m just glad that I didn’t get a foodborne illness earlier in the trip, or I would have been unable to do a lot of the tours and activities that we did. Luckily, by the time I actually did get sick, we had done everything we wanted to do and were ready to just relax anyway. So we don’t feel too bad when we spend our last evening in Samara exhausted and immobile. We go out for a late dinner (at Pizza and Pasta A Go Go, where we ate our first day in Samara) but after a long, fun and exhausting vacation, I am ready to just remain still and listen to the waves.

Posted by GoWander 12:17 Archived in Costa Rica

Going North

sunny 82 °F

"I have always loved both the freshness of arriving and the relief of leaving. With/two homes every move would be a homecoming./I am not even considering the weather, hot/or cold, dry or wet: I am talking about hope."
-Gerald Locklin, "Where We Are"

On our last morning in Playa Samara, we eat one final breakfast overlooking the beach and the ocean, knowing that soon we will be back in a cold Midwestern winter. Even though my nausea is long gone and my appetite somewhat back to normal, I still feel a little uncomfortable and lacking energy. I wouldn't have minded spending another day lounging in the shade under our treehouse while I finished recovering, but the long road to the north is calling to us.

We end up getting a significant discount at Samara Treehouse for paying in cash, making our seaside getaway even more sweet. With one last longing look at the waves just beyond the treehouse gate, we drive inland to Nicoya and then headed north up to Santa Cruz and on to Liberia. The drive only takes a couple of hours, which is nothing at all compared to our drive from La Fortuna to the beach. The closer we get to Liberia and the airport, the less we notice the lush green vegetation that we've become used to and the hilly dips that made many of our drives so treacherous. We eventually arrive at the Hilton Garden Inn near the airport, which looks like any other airport hotel in the States.

After checking in and dumping our luggage in our room, we immediately hit the road again and drive west toward the coast, which is only half an hour from our hotel. We stop a little ways inland at a Texas barbeque restaurant where I order a chicken sandwich and Matt orders pulled pork. We drive into Playa del Coco and Playa Hermosa, wondering how these hillsides and coves full of luxury hotels, whitewashed condos and seaside retreats could possibly be part of the same country we have been exploring for the past two weeks. These are the towns of all-inclusive resorts and golf courses, where tourists wear kitten heels and cologne, not hiking boots and DEET. I'm guessing that these coves are filled with the tourists who did not want to make the trek into the heart of the country and did not want to venture outside of the luxuries and conveniences of home. I'd like to ask them what the point of traveling is if they aren't willing to take a risk.

The beaches here are full of exactly what I expected: women in floppy hats, men with fanny packs. Would these people cannonball into a mountain stream or suck in sea water after wiping out during surfing? Would they welcome bats into their hotel rooms to clean out the mosquitoes?

I realize after our brief excursion to the tourist coast that I made all the right decisions in planning our trip to Costa Rica. Our destinations, our hotels, and our activities could not have been more perfect for us. While we enjoyed quaint rustic cabins that in a lot of ways felt luxurious, we also embraced what it meant to spend two weeks in the rainforest--opening ourselves up to leaky roofs, lizards scurrying across the tile floors, bats diving in and out of our windows, and mudslides that lead to obscene detours. It was all worth it.

That said, when we return to the Hilton Garden, we immerse ourselves in luxuries that we hadn't had during the entire trip. I take a total of three baths in five hours--just because I can. We order room service for the first time in either of our lives; I order ricotta-filled cannelloni and Matt orders risotto with scallops. We lay in bed for hours watching a movie on TBS and enjoying our king-sized bed with smooth sheets. Although it was nice to live simply for awhile, it also made us both appreciate our everyday conveniences.

Tomorrow we will fly back north to snow and bitter wind, but we are also returning to our kitty and Christmas. I'm excited to drive on abundant, well-laid-out roads and be able to put the DEET down in the basement for a season or two.

But I know that in just another week or so, I'll be dreaming of Costa Rica again, the clean rain and the sound of palm fronds whispering in the wind. It'll be hard to leave this place behind, and although I am generally against visiting the same country twice, I would love to return someday to drink some more local fragrant coffee, catch some waves at high tide, visit Felico and the Li's, and taste the pura vida once again.

Posted by GoWander 16:43 Archived in Costa Rica

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