Posts Tagged ‘Costa Rica’

Visiting Tortuguero on Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast

October 24th, 2008 at 2:11 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

I have been promising some more travelogues from prior trips. Below is one from my and Krystyana’s trip to Costa Rica last month.

For our second weekend in Costa Rica, on September 13th, Krystyana and I decided to take a two-night, three-day trip to the Tortuguero area of the country. Our tour provider was, once again, Costa Rica Expeditions.

Tortuguero is the location of a national park, and is situated on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, in the north easterly part of the country. The park is a protected area for all sorts of animals, fish, plants, and especially for sea turtles. Thousands of turtles use the beaches of the Tortuguero area for nesting every year. And inland are magnificent jungles.

Bright and early, at 6:30pm, a Costa Rica Expeditions mini-van was waiting to pick us up at our hotel. The folks who picked this up were kind enough to offer actually take all of our baggage and store it in a secure facility for the three days that we were going to be away but I had prepaid the hotel, so we just left every thing in our rooms.

Travel to Tortuguero via the tour typically involved ground and boat transport in one direction, and a charter plane flight in the other.

Our plane to Tortuguero - a Gippsland Aeronautics GA8 Airvan - smooth ride, but tight quarters for a big guy like Jake

One of the interesting things that we discovered when we originally booked this trip was that there was a 25 pound per person limit on baggage for the flight segment, and that the flight typically occurred on the return from Tortuguero, but Douglas, our great agent at Costa Rica Expeditions was able to rearrange the flight schedule for us in a way that guaranteed we could have more luggage with us by flying on the outbound on an empty plane. That was very helpful as my camera bag alone was about 25 pounds, and of course we had our clothing and shoes as well.

Tortuguero's canals and rivers and jungles start getting closer as we prepare to land

We were brought to a small private airport on the north side of the San Jose near the high-rent district where the president of Costa Rica lives. From there we boarded the small eight-seat plane for Tortuguero. The flight was about 35 minutes and took us to the small hamlet of Barro del Colorado on the northeast coast of Costa Rica, above the Tortuguero National Park.

The sign welcoming us to the airfield at Barra del Colorado - no problems with livestock on the runway, this time

Upon arriving in Barro del Colorado we were met by one of the people from Tortuga Lodge – our home for the next three days. His name was Riccardo, and as it would turn out, we would be spending a lot of our time with him. In a ride which took almost an hour, Riccardo took us by riverboat to Tortuga Lodge, which is just outside of Tortuguero Town. Tortuga Lodge is owned by Costa Rica Expeditions, incidentally.

As aside, it is interesting to note that there actually are no real roads and therefore no cars or other large four-wheeled vehicles in the Tortuguero Town area. Instead, all traffic – including all shipping of goods and transportation of people – is handled by very long and narrow river barges on the Tortuguero River and the surrounding canals and inlets.

We had a full reception committee waiting for us at Tortuga Lodge - made us feel very special

As we arrived at Tortuga Lodge we found a number of the members of the staff waiting for us on their pier, including the manager of the property, Duane. We felt quite honored by the turnout. They gave us welcome drinks, took our bags from us, and guided us to breakfast, as it was only about 9am. Breakfast was wonderful. We sat next to the swimming pool, overlooking the water of the nearby river, and had great granola and fresh fruit.

By the way, I should mention that pineapples are the number one export of Costa Rica, and everywhere we ate, fresh pineapple was readily available, and it was incredibly delicious – a nice golden color, juicy, and sweet.

We were also offered our choice of eggs and breakfast meats and as much extra food as we wanted. It turned out that all the meals at Tortuga Lodge were a fixed set of courses, different for every meal and from day to day. And all were excellently prepared. The service was very good too. The only things not included in our package were beverages other than water and juice, and those were inexpensive.

After breakfast we were taken to our room, which was at the very end of the property, on the north side near some tall trees. In those trees were some howler monkeys. We were warned not to go close to them because they were rather spiteful and were known to throw feces at people that came too close to their trees.

Fisheye view of our spacious two-bed room at Tortuga Lodge - no air conditioning, but fans and screen windows took care of that

Our room had two large beds in it, a nice bathroom, but the only air conditioning we had was in the form of heavy-duty screens on the all windows so there be a constant airflow through the room. There were also a couple of ceiling fans – one above each bed. We were concerned about the lack of cooling equipment, as it was quite hot and muggy (the humidity in Tortuguero is quite high during much of the year, we’ve been told), but it turned out to be a non-issue, because we actually managed to sleep quite well due both to exhaustion as well as cooler temperatures at night.

After unpacking and settling in, we headed out and explored the lands and vegetation of the Tortuga Lodge with a couple of our cameras. We came across iguanas, spiders – there were lot of spiders… big spiders… colorful spiders… lots of spiders – and all beautiful in a macabre sort of way. They are kind of frightening but very cool looking all at the same time.

Another shot of the big grasshopper

We also encountered our first basilisk lizards, which are a rather prehistoric looking type of lizard which runs on its rear legs. I think Ray Harryhausen used them in the movie The Lost World back in the 1920s. When they are young and smaller (and thus weigh less), basilisk lizards can actually run across water.

Another basilisk lizard at Tortuga Lodge

We also found some very large grasshoppers, a couple of strawberry poison-dart frogs and we were also shown a “ting” frog. It is a little brown frog, and its name “ting” is derived from the noise it makes at night, which is kind of sounds like someone clinking nice wine glasses together.

Our first local creature was a Ting Frog, so called because of the sound they make at night

We also took the exploration as an opportunity to go to the reception area and sign up for an afternoon guided walk through the protected Tortuguero National Park.

And strawberry poison dart frogs were not uncommon as long as you didn't mind going into the shrubs to find them

Lunch featured marinated grilled veal pierced with skewers of sugarcane and finished with a chocolate torte drizzled with a natural fruit syrup.

Veal skewered with sugar cane - it was delicious - great food at Tortuga Lodge

In preparation for our walk in the jungle of the Tortuguero National Park, we were advised to wear rubber boots because of the mud we would like find in the rainforest. There was quite an assortment of boots behind the reception building, and I even found a pair that almost fit my rather large feet.

We were then taken by Riccardo, our boat driver from earlier that day, to the national park and spent about an hour and hour and a half with him, wandering along a lush jungle trail through the park to look at the variety of plant and animal life that existed there.

A bird related to the cormorant, drying its wings in Tortuguero

Among the things that we saw along the trail were several species of monkeys – spider monkeys, what they call white faced monkeys or capuchins, and also howler monkeys.

A clearer shot of a different species of toucan in Tortuguero

We also saw a variety of birds, but the most special find was a toucan, as we were not aware that toucans existed in this part of Costa Rica. We thought they were only on the Pacific side of the country. We also found numerous leaf cutter ants and yet more spiders and even some beetles too.

A small eye-lash viper our guide Riccardo found for us - quite poisonous, but very pretty

But by far the coolest find was the eyelash viper, a rather poisonous but very small snake. The eyelash viper we found was bright yellow and all curled up and tucked in under a fallen piece of old timber. It was the size of a small tea plate, but we were told stretched out it would be about two feet long. If the snake had not been bright yellow we would never noticed that it was there, and even then we only found it because Riccardo spent quite some time trying to find a snake for us.

Back at the Tortuga Lodge we had ourselves a wonderful dinner and set forth with another guide, Fernando, to see turtles nesting on the protected beach in Tortuguero National Park. We encountered a light drizzle, and ending up wearing ponchos that the staff at Tortuga Lodge had thoughtfully provided us with.

There are actually two viewing times each night that have been set up by the park rangers – 8pm and 10pm – and each resort is put in a lottery every night to see during which of two those slots their guests can go to observe the turtle nesting. In our case we were lucky enough to get the 8pm slot.

I should note that one disappointment that we faced before going on the turtle nesting trip was learning that we could not take cameras with us – even those that basically only shot in infrared, such as Krystyana’s Sony Cybershot, as there were concerns that any sort of unnatural lights could upset the nesting turtles and prevent them from making a nesting attempt.

Fernando took us by boat to Tortuguero Town, and from there we walked about a mile to our appointed meeting spot a few hundred meters inland from the beach. We did not wait on the beach itself because the rangers did not want us frightening the turtles away while they were trying to nest just by our mere presence.

We waited at the meeting spot for about half hour with a growing group of other people from other hotels and tours. Ultimately we had about 40 people in our section. We finally got a call from rangers indicating that they found nesting turtles at a particular place on the beach. Fernando led us there and in the light of the full moon we could actually see a couple of turtles coming up on the shore from the ocean, the moonlight reflecting off their damp shells.

We had to be careful to stay a fair distance away in order to avoid spooking the turtles, but as we found out during the course of the two hours that we were on the beach, a couple of turtles did indeed abort their nesting attempts because they came out of the water in spots near our group and were too unnerved to crawl much further onto the beach. They turned back into the ocean to try to make their nesting attempt later.

The way the rangers and our guides managed to avoid spooking the turtles too much while observing them was by using flashlights that had red filters on the lenses because turtles, as with many marine organisms, don’t actually see light in the red color spectrum. I use the same type of red light when night diving in order to not frighten fish and other creatures and thus be able to observe them in a more natural state.

The turtle nesting beach on which groups are guided and shepherded at night in the Tortuguero National Park are about five kilometers long. During the peak season, which occurs during July and August, there were as many as 700 people a night participating in watching the turtles nest.

The turtle species spotted nesting are primarily green turtles, although occasionally leatherback and loggerhead turtles are seen too.

Throughout our two hours together, Fernando explained a variety of aspects of turtle behavior, including how turtles mate and nest, how the temperature of an egg in the nest will determine the sex of the newborn turtle, the low survival rates of baby turtles, and much more. He also told us that on some busy nights during the peak of the nesting season there have been as many as 2000 nesting attempts recorded during a single night on the 30 kilometers of beach in and surrounding Tortuguero. That is just phenomenal. Back on Bonaire it’s noteworthy if we get even a few recorded nesting attempts a night, but 2000 in one night? Wow. Then again Bonaire does not have the same sorts of beach length or composition that Tortuguero has.

Another interesting thing Fernando explained is that each turtle makes numerous attempts over the course of couple of months period to nest and to lay eggs – typically laying a handful of nests over a two month period. The female turtles crawl all the way into the bushes at the top of the beach to dig their nest, as that is likely to be the most protected area for the two months it takes for the eggs to mature and hatch. However, with some many turtles nesting multiple times, a turtle may in fact dig into another turtle’s preexisting nest and destroy some of the turtle eggs that are in there. And, in fact, we witnessed just that situation occur the night that we were on the beach. The turtle we watched laying eggs had actually exposed another turtle’s nest and ejected a number of those older eggs onto the beach with her forceful digging attempts, using her flippers.

We actually found egg fragments, and even a couple of whole eggs, sitting on top of the sand near the new nest. We had an opportunity to actually hold one of the ejected eggs and found it to be quite heavy. It probably weighed about two thirds of a pound, which surprised us – it looked like a ping pong ball, and we therefore expected it to weigh less. We gently placed the egg back on the beach but Fernando told us that there was no chance that the egg would survive without being in a nest, protected from the sun and predators, and that just by having been flung out of the nest would have killed the baby turtle forming inside. That was rather sad and unfortunate, but that is also a normal product of nature.

Krystyana and I spent many minutes actually watching a large green turtle lay her eggs and then cover her nest. It should be noted that once turtles actually start laying eggs, they go into a trance of sort and kind of ignore the outside world, which is why it was safe for us to observe the egg laying and not disrupt the process merely by being nearby. All in all it was a pretty fascinating experience.

Ultimately we saw about 10 turtles come ashore and most of those continue to actually make making their nesting attempts in or near the bushes. Turtle nesting is a time consuming process because it takes the turtles in order about 15-20 minutes to make it 150-200 feet from the water’s edge into the bushes at the top of the beach and then probably another half hour to dig the nest where she is going to lay her eggs.

It’s a lot of work and we felt kind of sorry for these turtles, watching them struggle along on land, a place where they really were never designed to exist for very long. Their bodies are designed to be sleek and elegant in the water, but natural history dictates that nesting must occur above the water line, as that’s where the eggs have to hatch, in the sand. The cycle starts afresh with the next generation when the baby turtles have to crawl out of their nest, across a huge stretch of sand (relative to their tiny size) and finally end up in the ocean to continue a mostly aquatic life, until it’s time for mature female turtles to nest, on the same beach on which they were born.

One other lesson we learned that night was “bring bug spray”. There were a fair number of mosquitoes and biting insects on the beach, and without bug repellant we would have been very itchy and covered in bites. In fact, bug repellant is kind of a must when venturing anywhere near large growth in the Tortuguero area, since mosquitoes are very common. We did find, however, that while traveling on the bigger rivers, as well as while near the buildings and at meals at Tortuga Lodge, we did not have any mosquito problems.

We slept well that night and the following morning, after another very nice breakfast, we headed out again with Riccardo. This time it was to go and do a canal tour by boat in the Tortuguero National Park. This involved us being on a boat that could hold probably about 10 people. However, because we were there during low season, the tour consisted of just two of us, Krystyana and myself, along with Riccardo as our guide. That was perfect as it allowed us to stop for prolonged periods in places with good photo opportunities.

A crocodile lurks, waiting for prey, in the waters near Tortuga Lodge in Tortuguero

We spent probably around three hours in the canals looking at and looking for all sorts of interesting creatures. We saw several species of herons, a number of other bird species, some bats, a couple of green basilisk lizards, and several caiman (which are a species of crocodile. We also saw a crocodile too. We also observed all three local species of monkeys in the jungles along the canals – spider monkeys, white faced capuchins and howler monkeys. And, of course, there was the lush green jungle itself, which was simply beautiful.

A very cute capuchin monkey ignored us while foraging in the trees above the canal-6

Another set of unusual creatures that we saw on our canal tour were other tourists who were taking similar canal tours with various other tour companies. Amusingly one of the people on the other boats was Laura, a fellow student from the ELISA Language School back in San Jose who had told us that she was going to be out in Tortuguero the same weekend we were.

We headed back to Tortuga Lodge and had another wonderful lunch, took a little bit of rest and then headed off in the afternoon with Riccardo again, this time to go kayaking in the canals. Krystyana and I each had our own kayak, and Riccardo had his and guided us through the canals – a different set of canals from those we had explored earlier that day by boat.

A heron species we don't know found along the canals of Tortuguero-2

We saw even more different kinds of birds during our kayaking, and being by ourselves with no other people around, I decided to try and “speak” howler monkey, ultimately establishing a sort of bellowing rapport with a couple of male howler monkeys. They sound a bit like sea lions. My conversation caused Krystyana much consternation because she was afraid that they might actually come down and try to attack us. I was more concerned about having things whipped at us, so I tried to ensure we were outside feces hurling range.

Another cool thing we saw were juvenile basilisk lizards actually running across the water on their rear legs – another thing we had not expected to see during our time in Tortuguero.

A spider monkey eats while suspended upside down in Tortuguero

One of the nice things about kayaking is that is very serene and peaceful (other than the howler monkey conversation, of course), in part becaue we did not have to deal with the sound of a boat’s motor. We were out for over two hours and then returned back to Tortuga Lodge to enjoy their wonderful warm swimming pool. We stayed in the pool until after sunset and then had another great dinner.

After dinner we opted for a tour of our own – exploring the Tortuga Lodge grounds at night, in the dark, using our flashlights for navigation, with the intent of taking pictures of whatever interesting things we could find with our cameras and strobes.

As we shined our flashlights around on the grass and trees we noticed these little tiny spots of white light reflecting back at us. When we went closer to these reflecting spots, we found they were the eyes of spiders. Fortunately there were not huge spiders, but we just had never realized that spider eyes reflect light, might in the same way that the eyes of shrimp and other crustaceans reflect light underwater at night.

This whole glowing spider eye thing freaked Krystyana out a bit, so we ended up staying out of the more densely vegetated areas in the back of Tortuga Lodge that night. After the initial discovery, I didn’t disclose to her all the additional glittering eyes I ended up seeing as I was looking through the bushes and through the grass for good camera subjects. I will say that there were a lot of spiders in sizes ranging from just an inch centimeters across (leg end to leg end) to as big as five or six inches. None of these was particularly threatening, and some were downright beautiful, but it was a bit creepy nonetheless – I was very glad to have long pants, hiking shoes, and a long sleeved shirt on, just in case.

Another big spider waiting to pounce at night

Among our non-arachnid finds were a sleeping basilisk lizard, some poison dart frogs, many big frogs and toads, as well as a number of interesting bugs and plants. We did not find any ting frogs, although we could definitely hear them all around.

Upon retiring to our room, exhaustion from the day’s activities brought deep slumber that night – fortunately with no spider dreams. The following morning after breakfast we joined another nine departing guests for an hour-long river boat ride to our bus pickup point at Cano Blanco. That was the closest point where the road actually kind of got to Tortuguero.

Along the way to Cano Blanco we actually almost got stuck in the canal because at one point the water level was so low relative to the muddy bottom in the canal that we had only about one or two inches of clearance. Fernando (our boat captain that morning) got us through, but only with a lot of churning through the mud. We observed some other boats coming the other way that actually did get stuck, and the crew had to get out and push the 50 foot long boat through the shallowest part.

As we neared Cano Blanco we also ended up seeing a flock of black headed vultures, as well as roseate spoonbills, another bird species which we found to be a real treat. On Bonaire we have large flocks of Caribbean flamingos, which are just as pink as the roseate spoonbills, but seeing wild spoonbills was cool.

The real bonus was seeing roseate spoonbills in the water

During our three and a half hour bus ride back to San Jose we saw some interesting sights, including banana fields, the relative poverty of some of the smaller villages along the dirt road we were on for the first hour, and truck pulling a horse behind it (instead of the other way around).

A man rides his motorcycle home, laden with groceries such as bananas, in Costa Rica
We arrived at our hotel late on Monday afternoon, tired but happy. Our trip to Tortuguero was more than we had hoped for, both in terms of experiencing the jungles of Caribbean Costa Rica, and with respect to the service we received all along the way. Extra kudos go to all the folks at Costa Rica Expeditions and Tortuga Lodge. We were pleasantly surprised to find a small property in the middle of the jungle which provided such excellent service, facilities, activities, and not at all least, great dining. And the wildlife we had a chance to observe close up and even interact with (in case of the howler monkeys) was incredible.

Definitely put a multi-day visit to Tortuguero on your expedition list if you visit Costa Rica, and don’t let the fact that September is rainy season scare you away from visiting. Just minimize your time in the bigger cities and spend your time out near the wilds.

 

Costa Rica – Day 1

October 3rd, 2008 at 3:46 pm (AST) by Krystyana Richter

My dad’s and my first whole day in Costa Rica started with waking up at 6:00am; thirty minutes after my alarm went off. And the person who woke me up was my dad, who would later use this as an annoying nag. We walked down to the hotel’s restaurant and ate from the breakfast buffet that was included with our room package. The buffet included Gallo Pinto (traditional beans and rice in Costa Rica) and cheese platter that had a cheese like the Mexican Queso Blanco (translation: white cheese). The buffet had all the other regular continental breakfast components, but the tea, coffee, and water had to be ordered through a waiter.

After breakfast, my dad and I hurried to our room to pack our day bags and cameras. We rushed to the lobby in haste due to being five minutes late! The Costa Rica Expeditions mini-van (the tour company we used in the entire trip in Costa Rica) was waiting for us and my dad was quick to use the Yana-waking-up-late-by-30-minutes nag as our “excuse” for being late. Our guide’s name was Jonathan and our driver’s name was Mauricio.

Nice vistas at 11,000 feet atop Cerro de la MuerteWe started our drive to our high altitude destination atop Cerro de la Muerte while Jonathan talked about the history and the area that we were passing through. I slowly started nodding off and finally sleep came.

When we reached our destination, Jonathan got out of the minivan and walked to the back of the vehicle to get a large telescope on a tripod. There appeared to be a few buildings of the government on top of the mountain we were on.

Jonathan pointed out a bird after dad and I put on sweatshirts and got out of the van. There were several birds, and many flowers and plants. After having some birds come up close and taking many photos of our new feathered friends, Jonathan led us across a dirt road to the side of the mountain we were on. I was the first to see an emerald colored skink skitter through the bushes. We followed the little skink for photos for as long as it kept our interest and then headed to higher grounds to look for more creatures. We found more than just animals. The view of the mountains against the morning sun was breathtaking but my dad had his eyes on the weird fungi, lichen, and mold.

Well camouflaged spiny lizard atop Cerro de la MuerteA really cool lizard type creature that took a few moments for us to see it, due to its amazing camouflage, was pointed out to us by Jonathan. Many other skinks and lizards were also pointed out to us – some of them had a rocky look while others blended well into the green grass and plants. We saw a very few animals and the only mammals I saw were humans (my dad, the guide, and driver). And so, came the time to leave for a lower altitude destination known as “the cloud forest”.

Birds could easily be heard as we zigzagged down through the cloud forest into a valley, we could occasionally see a lizard trying to avoid the van. The minivan passed small lodges that all seemed to be in this one valley. Our search was for the rare quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala (not Costa Rica), and in order to find a quetzal, you usually had look for their food source, a fruit tree.

The rare quetzal - found in a tree hundreds of meters away in the valley of San Gerardo de Dota-3Our driver spotted one, but it was at least a kilometer away and behind a few trees. It took me a good fifteen minutes to even see the back of the bird without the help of the telescope. It was hard to take photos of the quetzal from where we were and so I wandered off to look at the other animals and trees nearby. My dad was trying to take a picture of the quetzal through the telescope but we had to leave with a photo that was not quite what we wanted, and so Jonathan was nice enough to give us photo of a quetzal he saw last time. The front of the quetzal was red and green, while the back was a few different shades of green, including emerald. The tail was two to three time his body length. We were told that the quetzal we saw and the quetzal in the photo were both males.

Hummingbirds enjoy the feeder at the Savegre Mountain Hotel in the valley of San Gerardo de Dota-4It was lunch time and that was just down the road at a lodge that grew their own fruit and had a trout farm. The restaurant had many choices but I ordered the steamed trout, which my dad and I both agreed was pretty good. After lunch we went out onto the porch of the restaurant to see hummingbirds of every shape and color fighting their way to a hummingbird feeder. Many photos were taken but Jonathan thought we might like to see the smallest hummingbird in the area and so we walked up hill to where the grounds were the lodge grew its fruit. We passed a few birds of interest but they flew off and so we continued up the hill to see a view of the part of the valley we were in.

A very chubby but pretty bird in the valley of San Gerardo de Dota-2We passed a few trees with epiphytes (plants that attach themselves to trees in the high branches and even the trunks). The apples grown in the area were a species not native to Costa Rica and had been an attempt at growing them. The people of Costa Rica that we had talked to about this, called them slightly sour but my dad and I did not think they were that sour. There were a few guavas on the ground, which gave “fruit” to the idea of buying some fruit for our hotel room.

After looking through the apple trees, we walked back down and came across the smallest hummingbird near the minivan. The bird claimed our attention for a while until rain started coming down on us. Even though it was raining cats and dogs we walked on to see more birds and squirrels.

Jonathan and Krystyana use umbrellas to keep the rain off them in the valley of San Gerardo de Dota

Jonathan was going to take us on a trail which had a terrifying bridge that looked as if could collapse any second and additionally, mud had already started forming from only thirty minutes of rain! After crossing the bridge we found our way blocked by construction of some sort. We soon had to leave to get back to our hotel and so we took a few more photos of the hummingbirds at the feeder and returned to the minivan.

My dad asked for a possible stop at a grocery store for fruit when we came close to San Jose. We stopped at a store where we bought a papaya that was cut in half but still quite big and some limes to go with it. The store had a reasonable selection of items but it felt a little unclean and uncomfortable, though nothing like the grocery stores of Tahiti or Fiji.

Back at the hotel, my dad and I thanked Jonathan and Mauricio for our day of exploration of the wild life of Costa Rica, and hoped that our remaining tours with Costa Rica Expeditions would be as pleasant and educational as the one we just went on.


 

Costa Rica Impressions

September 28th, 2008 at 5:36 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

With everything we had heard about Costa Rica, and the nature-oriented excursions we had booked in advance of our trip, our expectations as to the beauty and tranquility of Costa Rica were quite high.

Caught another basilisk lizard, this one perched on a red flowerHowever, expectations and reality rarely match, as we discovered upon arriving in San Jose late on a Friday night. Don’t get me wrong – the countryside of Costa Rica is breathtakingly beautiful and lush and filled with fascinating flora and fauna. We thoroughly enjoyed just about every moment we spent outside population centers.

And yes, it rains a lot (and we were there during rainy season, so that was not unexpected).

Graffiti adorns the outside of this closed down building in San Jose, Costa RicaBut where our expectations were seriously at odds with reality was in the cities and towns of Costa Rica, and especially the capitol city of San Jose, where our hotel and most of our day-to-day existence were situated.

Let me preface the following by saying that we’ve been to many cities, towns, and villages all over the world over the last several years including ones in Morocco, Fiji, several European countries, as well as Taiwan and Mexico, but none felt as unsafe or intimidating as San Jose.

The materials we had read about San Jose had indicated that thievery and pick pocketing were common, but we had seem similarly phrased warnings about Seville, Prague, Marrakesh, and countless other places, so we assumed the conditions in San Jose wouldn’t be that different. We had our PacSafe backpacks and camera straps, and planned on exercising common sense with our belongings as we always do when we travel. But San Jose, as it turned out, felt and was very different from everywhere else we had been.

All the houses in San Jose (including San Pedro) had bars, making them look like jails, and many had razor wire tooIt’s not easy to enumerate exactly what caused the inner disquiet and discomfort we instinctually experienced in San Jose’s streets, but there’s no doubt in our mind that a number of visual factors contributed to our unease. First and foremost was that virtually every building, home, and store was enmeshed in steel bars – to the point that even driveways and carports were caged in. And in places were bars were not deemed to be sufficient by the owners and occupants, we also saw copious amounts of razor wire lining the tops of walls, roofs, and even the steel bars themselves.

Added to this was the wariness and furtiveness we perceived in the people walking along the streets, especially after night had fallen as we observed from the relative safety of our taxi or tour bus. All while praying that our vehicle would not suddenly break down.

The observed behavior of the people out and about, combined with the obvious acceptance that living in a cage was part of normality was very disconcerting, but we didn’t realize how right our perceptions were until we started talking to locals – a number of which regaled us with stories about how many times they had their belonging snatched as they walked around, and in some cases, were held up with a knife or gun wielded by the thieves. And in one case, even pistol-whipped. While I admired the bravery of folks who can return back to the streets after being mugged, repeatedly, my inner voice was screaming “get out of there!” But, this acceptance of the status quo that our acquaintances exhibited seemed to be part of the whole malaise as well.

It brought to mind the story of the boiling frog, which, whether true or not, refers to the concept that if change is gradual enough, those within the sphere of change just accept it instead of getting out and trying to make changes.

Sadly, this is the impression that San Jose left us with - razor wire and cloudy skiesSeveral people, from markedly different socio-economic backgrounds, told us the problems with crime in San Jose started getting noticeably worse about eight years ago, and that was when razor wire started appearing everywhere. Of course, that had the effect of forcing those people who didn’t have razor wire yet to also get some or implement other draconian security measures as otherwise they would be easier targets.

And many local neighborhoods have guards sitting in booths on the corners to keep an eye on neighborhood activities, while people with big homes have permanent guards themselves (including, in some cases, body guards they travel about with or who provide chauffeur services) or they live in condominium compounds with a sizable security force shared by and paid for all of the compound inhabitants.

The causes of the crime in San Jose and other Costa Rican cities is attributed to a number of causes, including drug addicts in search of quick cash to feed their habits, organized crime, an influx of criminals from other countries due to lax immigration policies, people too poor to support themselves, a lack of stringent sentencing guidelines for criminals that are caught, and corrupt police, among others. But whatever the actual causes, universally everyone we spoke to agreed that something needed to be done, as things just keep getting worse and worse.

We were personally told a number of times to not wear expensive looking clothing or watches (not that we brought any with us), not wear jewelry of any sort (I only wear a plain wedding band anyhow), and not visibly carry cameras with us in the cities. We even had a taxi driver admonish us for using a camera to take photos from inside the taxi through an open window, as he was concerned someone might try and reach in and steal it from us.

And most stores and all the hotels we visited had security guards. And security guards in banks kept the doors locked, only letting people in after they had been scanned with a metal detector wand, apparently in an effort to prevent armed robberies at banks.

And security in parking lots was heavy too, with entrants receiving a parking chit which had to be returned in order to exit, and with police guard towers overlooking the parking lot at the local Hiper Mas super store (Wal-Mart in all but name, for now – it will be changed to Wal-Mart in 2010, we were told, as it was already owned by them).

So, overall, San Jose felt like something of a war zone threatening to erupt into open combat at any moment. Day time was better than night time, but that’s not saying much. We count ourselves fortunate that we were not victims of any crime ourselves, but we also severely restricted our movements and our use of cameras in urban areas, which was disappointing to have to do, but no doubt safer.

That was the downside to Costa Rica, and I will add that our visit to Tortuguero had none of the safety issues we found in San Jose, and we understand that the Pacific coast’s towns are not quite as disquieting as San Jose and the surrounding urban and sub-urban areas we visited.

The “good” about Costa Rica was very good. First and foremost, the people we met and spoke with were generally warm, friendly, and welcoming, even with our minimal Spanish-language skills (which did improve significantly during our two weeks of intensive immersion training). And the countryside… Oh my.

A very cute capuchin monkey ignored us while foraging in the trees above the canal - the tongue sticking out is preciousComing from a Caribbean island which looks remarkably like the deserts of Arizona, we were stunned by how incredibly lush and fertile Costa Rica was once we got outside of urban realms. The frequent and heavy rains intermixed with brilliant sunshine and volcanic soils have produced incredible beauty, and created great habitats for a plethora of wild life, including monkeys, birds, arachnids, and much much more. I will get into some of that in a future post.

Suffice to say that all the negative things about San Jose aside, Costa Rica is a place that is well worth visiting, but limit your in-city stays to the absolute minimum necessary, and stay in a nice, comfortable hotel and don’t plan on walking around after dark.

At long last, the Hotel Casa Conde is in sight, or at least the sign to the hotel

We stayed at the Apartotel & Suites Casa Conde, and had a very nice stay. Decent sized rooms (ours had two bedrooms, a bathroom, a living area, and a kitchen which included a washer and dryer, all for about US$105/night. It was a US$6 or more taxi ride to get to anywhere of interest. This hotel was chosen for us by our language school, and it was a good choice.

There are a fair number of other small but nice hotels all over the place, including Jade Hotel in San Pedro (to the east of downtown San Jose), Grano de Oro in San Jose, Hotel Le Bergerac in San Pedro, and the Alta Hotel high atop Escazu (south of downtown San Jose) – we saw each of these four hotels while dining at their respective restaurants (more on that later too), and would recommend them all. There are also a bevy of name-brand chains, such as Marriott, Inter-Continental, and Choice/Clarion, among others, to choose from.

Beautiful jungle along the Rio PacuareHowever, the real highlights of Costa Rica are the relatively unpopulated areas, and these are best seen using expert tour operators. We used Costa Rica Expeditions, as I had previously mentioned, and couldn’t be happier with their services. And, because it was technically low season (because it was rainy season), tours that might otherwise have other people on them were limited to just the two of us, in effect granting us a private guide for just us – simply perfect.

 

Photos from our Costa Rica Trip

September 26th, 2008 at 12:58 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

It took a while, but I have tagged, cropped, and titled 492 photos from the over 2000 that we took during the 15 or so days Krystyana and I were in Costa Rica.

You can see them here on Flickr or here in The Traveling Richters Gallery.

Now that the photos are up, we’ll work on some posts about our experiences.

 

Back from Costa Rica, Heading Home to Bonaire

September 23rd, 2008 at 12:45 am (AST) by Jake Richter

Our 18 days in Costa Rica flew by, and we have some great experiences, as well as some observations about life in Costa Rica to share. And our Spanish classes were also very worthwhile, but at the same time they taught us that there was an awful lot to learning Spanish we had not quite anticipated.

We are presently ending a couple of days of rest and relaxation in Miami in order to sync up with the now abbreviated, three day a week flight schedule on American Airlines to Bonaire via San Juan. We should be home tomorrow night assuming the weather system hovering over Puerto Rico doesn’t get in the way of our travels.

The next task I have is to finish tagging and making ready the 550 or so pictures of our trip that are worth sharing (out of the 2000+ pictures we took while in Costa Rica). Once I have them ready I will post them, and then start sharing some stories and commentary. I still have a few stories about our New York City trip to post too, and those will come along in the next week and a half, hopefully before we take off to see the Canadian Maritimes in early October.

Hasta luego!

P.S. Krystyana has promised me that she will soon start contributing to The Traveling Richters blog, so stay tuned for that to happen.

 

Rafting and Exploring in Costa Rica

September 8th, 2008 at 1:07 am (AST) by Jake Richter

Krystyana and I made it safely to Costa Rica a couple of nights ago, dodging two hurricanes along the way, and arriving only about an hour late. Saturday was spent exploring the highlands south of Costa Rica, as well as an incredibly fertile valley where we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the rare Quetzal (pictures later), as well as a large number of hummingbird species and a number of other avians.

We followed that with a great sushi dinner in Escazu with our friends Eric and Isabella, whom we caught just a few days before they head off on a whirlwind tour of Europe.

And on Sunday we had a most excellent time white water rafting on the Pacuare River, navigating Class III and IV rapids for around three hours, getting soaked and sunburned in the process, but loving it all. I may have video from that as well as photos, but it’s too late tonight to edit them for posting. Later, hopefully.

Both of the above expeditions were booked with Costa Rica Expeditions, and so far we couldn’t be happier with their services – our guides were incredibly knowledgeable about both their fields of specialty as well as about Costa Rican history, culture, trends, and much much more. Looking forward to exploring the Tortuguero area of Costa Rica with their associates next weekend.

Unless I can miraculously learn to write in Spanish in the next few days, this will probably be my last post to The Traveling Richters blog for the next two weeks. That’s because our Spanish language immersion course starts tomorrow morning, bright and early, and we intend to stay true to the immersion aspect of the program we’re enrolled in.

Hasta la vista!