Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Summer Travels Part 3: The Rich Coast

Saying hi to mom
Drowsy and discombobulated, I awoke in an air conditioned hotel room.

Where was I again?

Then the previous day’s travel hell entered my mind and I remembered—Costa Rica.

Sleeping in the same room were my two brothers; my parents slept in the next room over. With my brothers still asleep, I headed to the bathroom to take a shower. Turning on the light, I was immediately taken aback by its niceness—this was certainly no grungy hostel bathroom.

By the time I was done with the bathroom, my brothers were stirring and I borrowed some of their clothes, as mine were conveniently lost somewhere back at the Bogotá airport.

A while later, my parents came to our room and the whole family reunited for the first time since my January departure.

At the Sarapiqui hotel
After a posh breakfast, a van came to take us to our first destination; Sarapiquí. We left San José and over the next few hours, passed through the beautiful Costa Rican countryside. At one point we stopped at small tourist tienda, which was surrounded by a band of lizards. Most of the lizards just stood there, motionless, although some were apparently in the middle of mating season.

Finally, we arrived at our rural hotel, deep in the heart of the Sarapiquí jungle. The hotel consisted of a main lodge with several surrounding “huts” containing the bedrooms. Once we settled in, we went to the pool area to have a few drinks.

When I went to the bar to order a beer, the bartender tried to speak to me in broken English and I responded in Spanish. She looked at me with pleased amazement.

A gringo speaking Spanish… was it even possible?

One of the things I would learn about Costa Rica is that its economy is completely dependent on foreign (mostly eco) tourism and as such, everyone speaks English, or at least tries to. But I was in Latin America and I wanted to speak Spanish, so I stubbornly refused to let people speak to me in my native tongue.

Later that day, a van came to take us down the road to spend a few hours doing canopy, or zip-lining. Although I had done canopy early that year in Manizales, this canopy course was way larger, having sixteen zip-lines as opposed to Manizales’ one. The zip-lines passed over rivers and passed tall jungle trees—it felt like being on the Forest Moon of Endor.

Didn’t see any Ewoks, though.

The rapids
The next day we took to the rapids, doing some pretty hardcore river rafting and battled aggressive alligators and man-eating piranhas as we flowed down the current.

…okay maybe that was a slight exaggeration. But we did get to eat watermelon.

When we got back to the hotel, I was delighted to hear that my long-lost luggage had finally arrived along with my clean clothes. No more bumming clothes off my brothers for me.

Done with Sarapiqí, we headed west to the Arenal Volcano, where we stayed at a nice hotel that had pool with a bar in it.

I will repeat that; a pool with a bar in it.

God is indeed great.

On our first day in Arenal, we went on an ATV tour. Back in California, my family owns ATVs and I have been driving them longer than I have been driving cars. Every summer, we take them out on the trails in the Lake Tahoe National Forrest, roaming freely wherever the paths may lead. Although it was slightly annoying to be treated like an inept tourist and having to follow a guide, we still got to drive through some breathtaking countryside. I waved at the locals as we passed.

About an hour into the ride, we stopped at a tourist-looking area and dismounted the ATVs. Crossing a bridge, we passed through a forest of gift shops and arrived at a platform overlooking a bowl-shaped valley with a powerful waterfall… falling at the valley’s opposite edge.

The rope swing
Continuing on the trail, we eventually came to another stop—a river that created a small swimming lagoon. By this point, I was covered with dust and dirt from riding at the back of the pack and I welcomed a chance to get fresh.

Heading down a rocky embankment, we soon arrived at the swimming hole, which was marked with a small waterfalls created by the river and a rope swing. Although I wasn’t sure if the rope would hold the weight of a tall gringo, I said to hell with it and swung away, nearly belly flopping into the lukewarm water below. My dad and brothers followed suit while my mom gave us moral support from the embankment.

Hanging out with the family
That night, the whole family hung out in the sports bar attached to the hotel. It was a bona fide gringotopia, complete with banners from American sports teams and a pool table. Although the bar tender was kind of a sourpuss, we had a good time hanging out.

The following day, we went on a nature hike next to the Arenal volcano. The guide told us some pretty terrifying stories about people who had died hiking near Arenal—a very active volcano. Except rather than spitting up molten hot magma, the volcano shot car-sized balls of superheated volcanic rock. In other words; a wonderful way to die.

And by wonderful, I mean excruciatingly painful.

Regardless, the jungle near the volcano was lush and beautiful. Although the area had been completely destroyed during Arenal’s last major eruption, in only a few decades the jungle had made an impressive comeback; there was a wide array of plant and animal life. At one point, the guide threw ants at a spider web so that we could watch a Shelob-sized spider devour its prey.

In front of the Arenal Volcano
After the hike, we headed to a hot springs resort to enjoy the thermal waters. The springs were located at a fancy hotel that made the place we were staying at look like a Motel 6. We had a good time relaxing in the waters and I was particularly delighted when we stumbled across a water slide. Good times.

Most of the next day was spent driving to the distant coastal town of Manuel Antonio. Along the way, we stopped at a cloud forest for yet another nature hike. We looked at trees and ants and hummingbirds then continued on our merry way.

The next day—our last full day in Costa Rica—we went on another hike, this time near the coast. Although most of us were sick of walking around humid forests and looking at the same wildlife, this time we got to see some cool animals, including sloths, toucans and spider monkeys. The path passed by the ocean and we spent some time dunking in the ocean.

Spider monkeys on da roof!
Later that day, we headed back to San José and our final hotel. Tomorrow, my family would be heading back to California and I, back to Bogotá.

The following morning when we arrived at the airport, I wondered if the aviation gods had changed their minds and would finally bestow their favor upon me.

As it turned out, they hadn’t.

After waiting in a long line to check in, the airline attendant told me that I had been kicked off my flight due to overbooking. He put me on a later flight—that would depart seven hours after my scheduled flight—and gave me a $150 USD voucher for a future flight and $14 to buy lunch in the airport.

Seriously, aviation gods… wtf.

After passing through security, I waited with my family at their gate and soon it was time for them to depart. Saying our goodbyes, I reassured them that the next five months would fly by and that I would be home before they knew it.

I watched them board and minutes later, the plane left the terminal and took off.

Waiting at the airport with my dad
Passing the next seven hours alone in the San José airport, I contemplated my return to Bogotá. The last three weeks had been incredible—the life of a backpacker is indeed a lot different than that of a foreign language teacher in Colombia.

But I still had work to do in Bogotá.

And so I went back.

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