Saturday, June 7, 2014

Manuel Antonio Park to San Jose

Day  8, June 6
We got up very early this morning to visit Manuel Antonio National Park. We met Aaron at 7 am  when the park opened, hoping to avoid some of the crowds and heat.
While we walked along the main road in the park with him, we spotted a two-toed sloth asleep high in a tree. They apparently sleep 18 hours a day. He had himself wrapped securely in the fork of two branches, looking like a big lump in the tree.  We also saw Howler monkeys and a variety of ubiquitous lizards, all sizes.
Aaron walked with us to the beach in the park. Then some of our group decided to swim in the waves, which were much safer than the beach at the Mariott. Several of us decided to hike the trails in the park. They were quite beautiful, with stairs to accommodate the elevation gains and the occasional deck to watch for wildlife. At one of these, we were watching two white-faced (capuchin) monkeys cavorting in the trees. Then they started coming closer while we enthusiastically snapped photos of them. Suddenly one jumped onto the deck, and then up to the deck's railing where I was eyeball to eyeball with him. Suddenly his companion had arrived on the deck and he was none too happy. He started jumping up and down, barring his teeth (with fangs ) and claws. The other one took his cues from him and followed suit. They literally started chasing us and ran us off the deck. And they move really fast. We figured they expected to be fed and got very mad when they weren't.
Along the way we saw some beautiful  sandy beaches and lots of lush vegetation. After about a mile, the group split off and I continued on some trail spurs. This part of the park is actually a tiny peninsula and there were beaches on both sides of the trail. 
When I returned to the beach to rejoin the others, I discovered more capuchin monkeys. They apparently had wreaked havoc on the bathers -- getting into their backpacks and stealing things. One woman had her cell phone stolen by a monkey and the ranger was able to retrieve it. She even had a bite mark on the phone to prove the encounter.
About 10 am we returned to the hotel. On the way out, we saw a fawn, which even allowed us to touch him. I was surprised to learn they have white-tail deer here, just like us, but the big cats keep the population under control. Remember, hunting is illegal in all of Costa Rica.
Afterwards, I took a walk to the hotel beach, which was actually a public beach. The path was lined with some very small huts selling simple string jewelry and other handcrafts. I bought two necklaces which have been carved from from a tagua nut, a palm tree nut, which were among the most authentic souvenirs I could find.
We were still able to go back to our rooms to clean up before boarding the bus. It was a good thing because when I got to my room, I realized I was soaking wet. Every sweat gland I own must have been working overtime. Even my entire pair of LONG pants was wet, not just the waist. I had worn long pants as protection against bugs and mosquitos, but fortunately, we encountered very few everywhere on this trip.
We left about 11:30 and had a 1-1/2 hour bus ride to a park-like area near Jaco.  It was a tourist park with a restaurant, zip line and tram ride.  We ate lunch there and then took a tram ride through and above a tropical transitional rainforest. There were 8 of us in a little tram car and we had great views of the vegetation as well as the forest floor. We saw another sloth, this one beige, just curled up around a branch in a tree. We also saw (in order of photos) a cashew tree, which we learned is part of the avocado family; large leaf begonias, which they use to make tea to control high blood pressure; and epiphytes, which are plants that receive their nourishment from the air and rain, but are attached to the tall trees. Many of the animals that live in the trees drink their water from the leaves of these plants instead of going down to the streams where they might be eaten by one of the big cats, like jaquars, that populate the forest. We also saw leaf cutter ants up close, as they carried large pieces of leaves to nourish the mushrooms that they eat. (They are real farmers!)
Then back on the bus for another 1-1/2 hour bus ride to San Jose. We stayed at a Quality Inn near the airport - nice but nothing like the luxury we have experienced.
Our farewell dinner was bittersweet, with lots of hugs and goodbyes. Amazing how we all bonded. We even had a group photo taken. Mine is not the best but it gives you some idea of the diversity of our group and our connections.
Home after breakfast tomorrow. A good time had by all.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Guanacaste to Manuel Antonio National Park

Day 7, June 5
It was hard to leave the Marriott this morning. I took a last minute walk around the grounds and had this final shot taken by the infinity pool that is right on the beach.
We boarded the bus at 8 and drove 2-1/2 hours through the only tropical dry rain forest in CR before a pit stop. Around noon we stopped at Tarcoles for lunch at a spacious open air restaurant.  I spotted a large lizard on a telephone pole. They seem to be everywhere and you start to get used to them. Of course, it started to rain, but we have become accustomed to that, too.
Then we were just a few miles away from our "Jungle African Safari" on the Tarcoles River.  Amazingly, the rain stopped before we boarded. Our hour long cruise was adjacent to the Carara Biological Reserve. We managed to see some wonderful creatures. There were several crocodiles, or parts of them that were above water. A big one, named by the park rangers as Osama Bin Laden, is about 17 ft long, which we were lucky to see. Even had my picture taken with him.
We also saw a Roseate Spoonbill picking its way along the beach, and two scarlet macaws, for whom this is a nesting sight. (Exquisite!) Unfortunately, they were too far away to snap a photo, as were the howler monkeys we spotted. 
We arrived at the San Bada at 4:30 pm and quickly attended a complimentary happy hour sponsored by Caravan.  This is another amazing hotel that is situated right on the beach. The rooms are well appointed with great views. Dinner was in the main dining room and then several of us took a walk through a small grouping of homes, bars and restaurants.
We have an early morning and a packed day tomorrow so it's off to bed.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Day 6, June 4
After several early mornings and a long day on the bus yesterday, it was nice to have a free day to sleep in. Breakfast was amazing with made-to-order omlets and an array of breakfast breads. A walk around the hotel was impressive. We are right on the Pacific Ocean. This Marriott reminds me of the one in Palm Desert, CA, including the extensive pool area and villas and time shares. It even has an 18 hole golf course.  But we are way out in the middle of nowhere, with the nearest town, a beach resort, about 20 minutes away.  The vegetation is very different than what we have experienced before - drier and more brush-like, even though it still rains every afternoon.
My room is extremely spacious and well appointed with a view of the grounds and pools. This hotel is known for having the largest infinity pool in Central America and it goes to where the beach begins. However, the beach is somewhat rocky and the hotel advises not to swim in it. It is also small, closed in by the rocks, and it is not possible to walk to any other hotels along the beach (and I think they are far away anyway).
Some of my friends decided to go zip lining this morning, but I passed.  I read about several walks around the complex and decided to explore. Once again I was joined by 6 other people looking for an activity. I ended up with the map and off we went. We passed the villas, time shares and golf course, went to the horse stables and walked through quite a bit of wide open terrain that must be for future development.  There's a lot of it! Along the way we were treated to the occasional wildlife including several interesting birds and beautiful butterflies. I've included some here -- a couple of iguanas and a colorful crab. Also some beautiful plants including the Flamboyant tree with its orange flowers. At the end of our journey, we were surprised to discover we had walked over 6-1/2 miles. I was very hot and wet, as were my friends, and we snapped this photo to show how hot and happy we were . That's Don and Diane from Sacramento on the left and Donna and Steve from Murfreesboro, TN.
Everyone on this trip has been so nice and so mellow, which is impressive with a group of about 40. Our guide has had to make several adjustments due to circumstances beyond his control, and no one has whined or complained. They are all very considerate of each other. We have a very mixed group of ages, which is fun. A set of 13-yr old boy and girl twins with their grandparents and a 12 yr old girl with her mom. There are 5 women in their early 20's, some of whom just met on the trip. Several couples are in their 30s or 40s and left the kids at home. And then there are the young retirees or the almost retired. Three couples are traveling together and prefer their time together, but they are friendly to all. 
We had a chance to bond some more with an open poolside bar in the afternoon sponsored by Caravan. We all hung around the pool for several hours. About 18 of us ended up playing several games of volleyball in the pool. I surprised myself to be doing this and it was a lot of fun. No one took it seriously and we were very loose on the score.
We ate our evening meal outside on the patio and it was beautiful. It will be hard to leave this place tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Arenal Volcano to Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Day 5, June 3
Today was a travel day, in which we would ride the bus from the northern zone with its lush rain forests to Guanacaste, which is noted for its dry forests and coastal wetlands that support a unique list of animals.
I awakened at 5 to try to catch the top of the cone of Arenal Volcano, but, alas, it was always in the clouds. But one of the best shots was this one taken of me later with the volcano in the background.
We did not leave until 8:30 am, which gave us time to enjoy the natural setting of our luxurious hotel. As I mentioned two days ago, we each have a little cabin, as below. Then, as I previously wrote, our shower has a waterfall in it when it rains, so I had to snap that. And the open air dining room was spectacular as was the hot springs pool area.
For the first hour, we drove around Lake Arenal, a 48 square mile lake at 1800 ft elevation. It was created in 1973 when the electric company dammed the eastern end of the valley. Everyone who was flooded out was moved to Nuevo Arenal, on the lake's north shore. It is said that when the water level is down, you can see the steeple of the old church.
We were on the bus two hours when we reached Tilaran, which is very close to the Continental Divide, and had our lunch. Then back on the bus for about a 3 hour ride, driving through Canas, Bagaces and Liberia, with a short break at a shopping plaza. Today we passed through many cattle farms and watched the terrain change from the very tall, dense jungle vegetation to flat, dry savannas with more cattle, horses and watermelon farms. Our guide told us that when Chistopher Columbus discovered this country, it was sparsely inhabited and 100% covered by forests. The Spanish cleared vast areas to raise cattle, which is still the case today. There are efforts going on now to restore some of these areas to their original states.
Prior to arriving at our destination, we stopped at the Leatherback Marine Turtle National Park and learned about conservation efforts with these creatures.   Five of the world's seven marine turtle species nest on Costa Rica beaches. They begin life as hatchlings when they emerge from their nests and crawl to the sea, but only a tiny fraction will survive to adulthood, about 1 in 10,000. The nest's temperature determines the sex of the turtle - warmer than 86 degrees and they're female, below, male. With climate change, fewer males are being produced.
The Leatherback, so called because of its soft, rubbery back, is on the verge of extinction. The largest of the sea turtles, it can weigh 800 - 1900 pounds and swim at speeds of 35 mph. They nest at night, primarily Oct. - March. The female lays around 80 eggs, which are the size and shape of a large ping pong ball. The turtle matures in 9 months and can live to be 40. The numbers have declined immensely to less than 2,000 and are on the verge of extinction due to Ocean pollution, loss of habitat, poaching (by animals and humans), getting caught in drift nets, and climate change. I was struck by the fact that these creatures have been around for 100 million years, outliving the dinosaurs, and now because of man may become extinct.
We left there and were a short distance from the JW Marriott Guanacaste Resort, our home for the next two nights. It is amazing and I'll save the description and photos for tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Rio Frio, Costa Rica

Day 4, June 2 
I was awakened at 5 am by a cacaphony of bird sounds, but by 6 they had quieted down. Apparently, when the temperature rises, they cease their calls.  Arenal Volcano, which I can see from my front window, was still shrouded in fog, so I will wait another day for a photo.
This morning was clear and we headed north towards the Nicaraguan border to take a cruise on the River Frio. On the 1-1/2 hour bus ride, we passed through sugar cane, pineapple, and teak plantations.  "Plantations" might be using the word loosely. We saw numerous fields with plants, but the surrounding areas were nothing like "Tara." Most of the houses along the road, which probably are the homes of many of the workers, were extremely small.  All of them, including most commercial buildings, have corrugated metal roofs, which must be useful for dealing with so much rain. I wonder if you can hear the rain on these roofs inside the houses.
The River Frio runs through the famous Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge. Early on the water, we spotted a cluster of white faced monkeys cavorting in the trees. They are also known as "capuchin" for their black cloak and cap and white chest, neck, and shoulders, which resemble Franciscan friars. 
They swung from the top branches, venturing down to take a look at us and then returning to the upper limbs. Along the way, one of them grabbed an egg from a nearby bird's nest, causing a lot of excitement, and he ended up on the ground to suck out his prize, even tilting the broken shell to get the last little bit. I understand they are very clever and considered the most intelligent of New World monkeys. Later we saw (and heard) a group of black howler monkeys, named for the male's loud and drawn-out  throaty roar. 
As our modest one-level boat continued downstream, we also saw an adult caiman, which is similar to a crocodile, along the shoreline, and later, two small ones basking on a log. We saw a number of birds, including herons, egrets, kingfishers, anhingas, and snake birds.
While we were on the boat, it started to pour down rain, but it didn't really bother us. Our guide took us all the way to the Nicaraguan border and crossed over it so we could say we were in that country. I am photographed here with my two new friends- Mollie from California and Shereen from Singapore - on the border.
Afterwards we ate lunch in the city of Los Chiles, a short walk from the river.
Then back on the bus, returning to our hotel at 2:30. On our own, a group of 16 of us (we've bonded nicely) hirrd two taxi vans and headed to the Arenal Hanging Bridges. We followed a self guided trail of about 2.5 miles through 620 pristine acres of lush rain forest, punctuated by a series of 14 bridges suspended over ravines. The trail is composed of bricks with holes in them that seem to prevent slipping. Shortly after we arrived, it started to pour down rain, but hey, we're in a rain forest. We all got soaked, including those of us who brought rain gear. But seeing and experiencing the bridges was worth any discomfort -- they were awesome. The larger ones really do bounce and sway, but they are very secure with their thick metal ropes and fencing on the sides. They cross ravines that must be 20-30 feet deep and provide a sense of being totally immersed in the jungle. We could reach out and touch the mosses and ferns on the trees. It started to get dark while we were there and we were the last to leave.
We had another lovely dinner in the covered but open air hotel restaurant and turned in early.