Saturday, May 31, 2014

San Jose - Poas Volcano

I have come to realize that everyone's trip to Costa Rica is different -- primarily because there are so many different things to see, even though the distance between them is not that far. Add to that incredible traffic, which I had not expected, and one is grateful to see as much as one does in a short time. 
We awakened to gorgeous sunshine at 5:30 am, a stark contrast to yesterday's rain. I shot another photo of the stadium because it is much clearer today. The facility, which seats 35,000, was a "gift" from the Peoples' Republic of China, in exchange for signing a free trade agreement with them 6 years ago.
The highlight this morning was a trip to Poas Volcano National Park, the most visited one, which was designated in 1971. The volcano is 895 ft. deep and a mile wide, making it one of the largest volcano spanses in the world. Still active, it is the type which has a geyser-like eruption resulting from the rainwater that collects in its basin. When it is blue, it is clear and reflects the sky, but if it is grayish, it means there is some activity going on and tourist beware. There were signs throughout the park with info about what to do in an emergency. Basically, it was stay calm and head for the nearest exit.
We were incredibly lucky today. We were warned that, at nearly 9,000 ft. above sea level, the volcano is often in the clouds. However, we were blessed with changing views of the caldera while the fog and clouds floated in, out of and over the opening. We also learned that the lines around the interior represent individual eruptions, much like a tree with its trunk rings representing years.
Some of us chose to hike part of the Botos Trail, which led to Botos Lake. Although the trail was paved, we got a close-up look at the dense foliage common in the area, which includes stunted myrtle, ferns, mosses, bromeliads and a leggy but wiry tree called "Azar del Monte", which is resistant to the products of volcanic activity. A photo of me with a giant plant was most unusual. The Lake  is actually a dormant crater, and from the air, sits side by side to Poas.
Then we headed to lunch at a restaurant in the hills with a seating area overlooking the Central Valley. We could even see the stadium in the distance. Lunch was mahi mahi and was awesome. Can't keep eating like this. While there we toured their little garden where they grew  some coffee plants that were shaded by Mango trees and banana plants. They also had a replica of a hand painted ox cart that was used in the early days by the coffee farmers. 
From there we went to Cafe Brit, one of the country's most visited tourist attractions. It is basically a processing mill where numerous coffee and chocolate products are sold. We were treated to an informative presentation about coffee. Basically, coffee was first discovered in Ethiopa and made its way through Europe, arriving in Costa Rica around 1750. After the country gained its independence from Spain in 1821, it was considered a good product for economic development. The Central Valley has an ideal climate, soil and topography for growing, which makes it produce some of the best coffee in the world. Drinking it for 2 days, I would agree.
Coffee plants spend a year developing in a green house before they are transplanted to the fields, and then another 2 years before they produce beans. But after that, they produce yearly for 25 years. Unfortunately, the beans on an individual plant do not mature (turn red) at the same time and have to be hand picked several times during the harvest season, which is Dec- March. Pickers make $3 a basket and can fill 20/day. Over 100,000 acres of land in Costa Rica is dedicated to growing coffee and it is the 5th major industry in the country. The others are 1) tourism, 2) computer chips (who knew, but it soon is leaving), 3) bananas, and 4) pineapple.
While at Brit, the afternoon storms came in again and we headed back to the hotel for rest, dinner, etc. I hear there is salsa dancing in the bar after 9 but I will never make it, not with a 5 am awake time tomorrow. On to another city then.

San Jose, Costa Rica

Friday, May 30
Ever since I went to Guatemala in 1974, I have wanted to go to Costa Rica. For someone who loves nature and being outdoors, this seems like a natural destination. So finally I signed up for a trip with Caravan tours, an idea that had been on the back burner for years, and now was a good time to go. Never mind that it is the rainy season. I have come to learn that it is always the rainy season somewhere in CR -- in a country that measures rainfall by feet not inches.
Getting here was pretty easy - first to Atlanta and then to San Juan, flying over Cuba on the way - 3 hours on that flight. Coming into San Jose, one is struck by how green it is. (Photo 1)
Caravan met me and many others at the airport and escorted us to the Barcelo San Jose Palacio, our home for the next two nights. Sitting on a small knoll, the hotel has a view of the city and soccer stadium (photo 2) and a lovely garden, even in the rain (photo 3).
We were settled in by 2, with nothing planned until dinner. Not wanting to miss a thing, I found a delightful cab driver named Juan at the hotel who chauffeured me round trip to the nearby Museum of Costa Rican Art. Inaugurated in 1978, it is situated in beautiful La Sabana Metropolitan Park, in the building of the former control tower of the old San Jose Airport. The exhibits included work from the 19th century to some very intriguing modern pieces. One highlight was a garden of sculptures designed by Jorge Jimenez de Heredia (photo 4) Another was the Salon Dorado (Gold Room), exhibiting a mural by French sculptor Louis Feron, which depicts the history of CR up to 1940 when the building was dedicated. The room was the Diplomat's lounge for the airport. (Photo 5)
Back to the hotel for a much needed nap and then to dinner. I sat with a lovely couple from Sacramento, CA, whom I had met earlier and we exchanged travel stories. The buffet was extensive and delicious, with multiple choices of salads, vegetables and meats and fish. Much better than expected and it might be hard to keep from gaining weight. 
At 8 we had a group meeting and met our fellow travelers. Then our tour director, Aaron Salazar gave an informative presentation about Costa Rica. 
About the size of West Virginia, it has one of the richest diversity of plant and animal life in the world. It is considered the #1 country in conservation and nearly 30% of the country is designated as wildlife parks and refuges. It has 12 different life zones, from coastal wetlands to subalpine grassland.  It also has multiple micro climates -- I hope one of them is dry or it could be a soggy week.
Although CR represents only 0.03% of the land mass on earth, it has 5% of the total biodiversity in the world. It has 12,000 species of plants -- but only 8,000 have names, which means they are still studying the other 4,000 to see where they fit in. There are 239 different mammals and 900 species of birds.
From 1973-1989 CR had one of the worst deforestation rates in the world and they worked to correct it. By 2005 the rate was 0 and today it is illegal to cut down a tree unless you plant it. In 2012 they also banned hunting of any species.
What a lovely decision. But what do you expect of a country that abolished its army in 1949, making it the first and one of the few without a standing army. And they put the money into saving the land. This tiny country has much to teach us. A nice note on which to end.