Costa Rica is Pura Vida

We began our Road Scholar adventure “Taste of Costa Rica”, February 4.  After our flight and a slow taxi crawl in rush hour traffic to the hotel, we finally reached Hotel Balmoral, centrally located in San Jose.  Being veteran travelers, Hotel Balmoral seemed quite comfortable with firm beds and clean spacious rooms where we could relax and enjoy our stay in San Jose.  There was an interesting building across the street with a large painted mural that caught Clare’s and my attention.

Some things we learned about San Jose, aside from being the capital, is that it is 3,300 feet above sea level and that it originated in the 1730s.  Cartago was the original capital after independence from Spain, San Jose’s rapid growth and the capital was moved to San Jose shortly after independence in 1821.  San Jose’s original name was Villa Nueva de la Boca del Monte (New Village in the Mouth of the Forest).

We popped out to pick up some dinner at the Restaurante Chelles that I had found on Google as serving “authentic” Costa Rican food.  Clare’s meal was good but mine was not so good.  Clare tried her Spanish when we entered, saying, “Un mesa para dos peronas, por favor”, which promoted the waitress to explode into a Spanish response that left us startled.  The woman gestured to sit anywhere so I gestured to another doorway, the woman said “mucho frigo”, cool evening, so we moved to an inside table.

Clare and I got up the next morning and after breakfast, started a walking tour of the center of San Jose.  We began with the plaza next to the “Teatro Nacional” or National Theater.  Of course, the first thing that caught my eye were the two calaca or La Catrina figures in front of the plaza.  The Teatro Nacional , considered a national treasure,  was constructed beginning in 1891. The first theatrical presentation took place in October of 1897, when Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Faust” debuted.  The Teatro Nacional is considered the most historic structure in San Jose.  Not to be missed are the various statues in and around the theater.  In the front of the theater is a statue of Calderon de la Barca and Ludwig van Beethoven.  If we’d have had more time, we would have gone into the Theater to see the inside.  Of course seeing a head on a plate was hard for me to resist.

Across from the theater was the Grand Hotel of Costa Rica which is the best hotel in San Jose. It was built in 1928, and was the first, first class hotel in the capital city. President Abel Pacheco declared the hotel to be a national landmark of the country in 2004. The architecture of the hotel is in the Victorian style of architecture.   In front of the Grand Hotel is a statue of Juan Mora who was elected as the first head of state in 1825.  Next on our walking tour we found the “clock tower” which we both remarked was not much of a tower.  We moved on to find the blue domed Catedral Metropolitana built in 1871 in a simple Greek Orthodox style that featured an elaborate altar.  The cathedral also had statues of John Paul II and off to the side of the cathedral, a statue of Ann Frank.   Across the street from the Cathedral is the Parque Central which boasts a large bandstand supported by arches.  Don’t miss the bronze Street Cleaner statue along Avenida 2 and the Melico Salazar Theatre located across the street. Due to its very heavy schedule of concerts, plays, and performances each year some people have called it the Madison Square Garden of the country.

We decided, since it was close, to go over to the Mercado Central to see what that shopping area was like.  We’d been to a number of markets in Europe so we had an idea as to what to expect.  Mercado Central did not disappoint on that account.  It was a vast shopping area with almost anything you could want in food and clothing.

Clare and I had a very good lunch at a suggested restaurant, Tenedor Argentina, recommended by the guidebook and the desk clerk at the hotel.  I had a Chorizo sandwich and Clare ordered grilled chicken, both were very good.  From there we went to Chinatown, that’s right, Chinatown.  I wanted to be inspired by John Lennon of “Give Peace a Chance – Plastic Ono Band”.  I found John, across the street from a church, Iglesia La Soledad, contemplating the afternoon.  I sat an communed for awhile before giving the old peace sign and peacing out.

We walked to the Parque Morazan, a nice and inviting small park that we saw on the taxi ride in.  Across the street was another small park, Jardin de Paz, with a statue of Daniel Oduber Quiros who was President of Costa Rica from 1974-78 and was credited with the creation of  the Sistema Nacional de Radio y Televisión and the Universidad Estatal a Distancia.  Further along, we found the Casa Amarilla, the Yellow House, an 18th century Neo-baroque edifice donated to Costa Rica by Andrew Carnegie for the Pan-American Court of Justice.  It now is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and has a large section of the Berlin Wall.  The best shot I could get was through a fence pictured between a lamp post and a conifer.  We moved on to locate the Hotel Don Carlos next to Casa Amon.  Hotel Don Carlos is an exemplary wooden home, blending art deco and neoclassical elements with colonial style grillwork.  It’s worth stopping into to see the pre-Columbian treasures within.  Diagonally across the street from the restaurant is the Hemingway Inn.  As we went down Avenida 7 to see the La Casa Verde, we saw the wall with the hand painted tiles depicting coffee pickers and daily life in Costa Rica.  La Casa Verde de Amon received a UNESCO award in 1994.  We then doubled back to go to the Parque Nacional with its granite-bronze Monumento Nacional.  On the way, we passed the Mexican Embassy which was impressive.  I found a sculpture of men crawling out of the earth that I found interesting.  At the corner of Avenida 3 and Calle 15 is Plaza de la Libertad Electoral in front of the Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones.  We in the USA could certainly use such an agency.  It’s my understanding that the agency is walled off from political parties and also reviews all political published and transmitted materials for accuracy.  What a breath of fresh air that would be.

We went back to the hotel to rest for a bit before meeting up with the Road Scholar group.  I received a call from Gilberth Molino “Chito” to make sure we had arrived and to tell us where to meet the group that evening.  After the meeting and a nice dinner with our fellow travelers, we adjourned for the evening.  The next morning, we had a lecture by Paulo Valerio who was outstanding.  Paulo imparted a great deal of information on the history of Costa Rica and how their history was shaped by events in Europe and other central American countries.  Normally this sounds very dry, however, Paulo was extremely amusing and added a great deal of color to the talk.  Paulo also led the discussion at the Gold Museum “Museo del Oro Precolombino”.   In the Pre-Colombian period (500 BC to 1600 AD), the indigenous cultures viewed gold as more of a ceremonial and magical commodity rather then a value based item of Europeans.  Paulo also gave an interesting lecture on the indigenous peoples view of the Upper World, World and Under World.  I found it very fascinating.

After visiting the Gold Museum, we departed for Sarapiqui.  The canton (municipality) includes the major portion of the Province of Heredia, and is named for its major waterway, the Sarapiquí River. We did stop along the way at a previous Road Scholar guide’s home for a wonderful lunch.   We had a carrot, pumpkin and potato soup that was excellent, arroz con pollo and beans, and a sweet potato with cinnamon dessert.  The hostess daughter made coffee for us by hand grinding the coffee and pouring water through the Costa Rican most vaunted drip coffee maker.  We arrived at the Selva Verde Lodge and the Sarapiqui Conservation Learning Center in the afternoon.  The lodge was rustic but was properly cared for so it was comfortable and clean.  Although there was no air conditioning and it was hot and humid, with the fans overhead, we were able to sleep comfortably, except for the 5AM howler monkey alarm clocks.  I was absolutely thrilled to have gotten a shot of a humming bird which took about an hour.  Clare and I looked at the river that we’d be rafting on and tried the hanging bridge.  Although I have problems with heights, I was able to walk across the bridge with little difficulty because it had sides and handrails.  The plants and flowers make the lodge feel like a paradise.

I got up early, thanks to the howler monkeys, and met Chito at the dining facilities where they put out fresh fruit in a feeding area to attract birds.  I must say, it’s fascinating watching birds in the early morning clustering together to get their first meals of the day.  Chito took us around the lodge pointing out various birds, animals and reptiles.  He proved that he has a good eye for spotting so many of the residences of the area.  Aside from birds, he spotted the green poison dart frog, an iguana lazing in a tree, and howler monkeys.  Later in the day,  I spotted the red poison dart frog along the path, a green iguana hiding, and some butterflies in the area.

After the morning bird feeding and breakfast for ourselves, we were all off to the Sarapiqui River for rafting.  There was some trepidation by a few who had not rafted in rivers before but the group came together and with a lot of smiles while listening to instructions, eagerly forged ahead to tackle the unknown.

I usually only post my own pictures, however, on this trip there were other very good photographers so I have made an exception for this post.  I am including shots by the rafting team because I found the shots so exceptional and in such a short stay that we on the trip had in Costa Rica, there is no way we could capture the amazing wildlife present.  Please enjoy these pictures and think about what an amazing treasure Costa Rica is and think about visiting this wonderful country.  The birds, reptiles and animals are in order: Sun Biterm; Amazon Male Kingfisher; Amazon Female Kingfisher; Anginga; Baltimore Oriole; Black Woodpecker; Black Cowled Oriole; Black Throated Trogon; Blue Crowned Motmot; Tanager; Toucan; Cara Cara; Crested Owls; Crimson Collared; Tiger Heron; Great Kiskadee Fly Catcher; Green Honey Creeper; Iguana Verde; Poison Frog; Toucans; Howler Monkey; Nutrias; Osprey; Pale Billed Woodpecker; Pasarines Tanager; Poison Dart Frog; Red Eyed Tree Frog; Red Legged Honey Creeper; Red Throated Ant Tanager; Trogon; Snake; Summer Tanager; Sun Biterm; Tamandua; Two Toed Sloth; Two Toed Sloth; Violacios Trogon; Yellow Crown Euphonia; Yellow Crown Heron.

Later in the day, we went to a local home where we were given a short history by Hazel of how her family settled in the area and their hardships in developing their home and businesses in an undeveloped area.  Hazel’s daughter, Evelyn, translated for her mother and assisted in the demonstration of making the local cheese, sweet tortillas (flour, butter, sugar, sour cream, egg), coffee and mango/papaya juice which was very good.  Her son showed us the pepper plant the family has and answered questions about how they derived pepper from the plants fruit.

After a good nights sleep, we were off the next morning for a river boat journey down the Sarapiquí River to see the wildlife along the banks.  Before we departed, we got to see a two-toed sloth in a tree.  The tree that the sloth was in has an amazingly large fruit.  The boat captain and Chito spotted a great deal of wildlife, a few of which, I was about to take some shots of, however, not my best of the trip.  We saw a caiman, iguanas, bats, monkeys, a kingfisher, a turkey vulture and an anhingas (picture thanks to Tom Mitchell).  The bats were so small and so well camouflaged that I put in a picture where Chito used a green lazer pointer so that we could focus on where they were, underneath the green dot.

Before going to Arenal, we stopped at a pineapple plantation, organic of course.  We had a lecture on how the ecology of the area is being impacted by global warming, pineapple propagation, work force issues and how to pick out a pineapple at the store.  It takes a year and 4 months to begin harvesting and the plantation produces 50,000 pineapples per week,  year round.  We were given a demonstration on picking a pineapple, unfortunately, I doubt that grocery stores will allow us to bring in a machete to test pineapples. It was pretty cool to see a bird sitting on her nest in the pineapple field and to see a pair of red macaws flying over the field.  The last picture is thanks to Kay Gaskill when I was caught with the wrong lens on my camera.

We arrived at our hotel in Arenal, Arenal Manoa, after a delicious lunch in the town of La Fortuna.  Arenal was the most active volcano in Costa Rica until 2010.  On July 29, 1968, the Arenal Volcano violently erupted. The eruptions continued unabated for several days, burying over 15 square kilometers (5.8 sq mi) under rocks, lava and ash.  The eruptions killed 87 people and buried 3 small villages – Tabacón, Pueblo Nuevo and San Luís.  Eruptions continued until 2009.  The Arenal Manoa Hotel had a natural thermal heated swimming pool so most of the group took full advantage of the pool.  The view from our hotel room was quite nice.  Chito said that often he has not seen the volcano due to cloud cover but as the day went on, we fortunately saw the cloud cover vanish.

The next day, we were off to the Arenal Hanging Bridges.  Chito was again, spotting plants, birds and insects and providing so much information about what we were seeing.  He explained how the viper snakes wrap themselves around the furry red flowers that attract humming birds and wait to strike humming birds and consume them.  Chito spotted leaf cutter ants and explained that they cut plant leaves to bring back to their underground nest for fungal cultivation.  Sometimes, birds were so well hidden or difficult to capture a shot that Chito would use our cell phones to capture images through his monocular.  Back at the Arenal Manoa Hotel, Alison and Shannon pointed out an armadillo to us and we enjoyed the egrets perched in the tree in the pond across from the restaurant.

After lunch, our next stop was a local elementary school.  The children came out and took our hands to walk us to a pavilion where they performed several dances for us.  The kids were marvelous and we truly enjoyed their antics and playfulness while learning about their educational system and seeing their school.

We then went to a local farm to learn the history of the property and some of the agricultural traditions.   We were shown how to squeeze out juice from sugar cane, starting by using a wooden mallet.  We got to sample the fruit of our work and sample some fermented rum (my favorite part).  We also were shown how to make tortillas and cook them on a traditional wood stove.  Afterwards, dinner was served, YUM.

The next day we found ourselves crossing the Arenal Lake in a pontoon boat on our way to a bus ride to Monteverde.   Interestingly, no sail boating is allowed on the lake but windsurfing is.  The lake provides 25% of the electricity for Costa Rica.  The lake also is used as a fishery for tilapia so we now know why so many meals offered tilapia.  Along the boating trip, we saw herons, egrets, kingfishers and turkey vultures.   We took some final looks at the awesome Arenal volcano before departing Arenal Lake.

We visited a coffee plantation and learned about harvesting and processing coffee.  Coffee plants are hermaphrodites and must grow three years before the first harvest with a 30 year reproductive life.  They plant two plants together so that they will compete to grow faster.  The baskets the pickers use hold 30 kilos and the picker receives $1.75 per basket at this plantation.  Several of the women boarded an oxcart for a short ride.  Thanks to Alan Hillard for a great shot of the oxen and oxen cart driver.

That evening, we watched the sunset while enjoying libations at the bar and the company of our fellow travelers.  Thanks to Alan Hillard for this shot.Hilliard (22)-min

On day 7, we went to the Cloud Forest Reserve in Monteverde in the morning.  Unfortunately we did not see the Quetzal but there were many other sightings.  I think the large bird with the red underside of it’s neck is a Crested Guan but I’m sure someone will let me know if that isn’t correct.  I found it fortunate to see so many hummingbirds, not just at the feeding stations but on flowers as well.  It was hard, but I was able to get a shot of a toucanet hiding in the undergrowth.

After visiting the Reserve, the group was taken on an educational tour to a Bat Jungle that explained bat biology and diversity and their role as pollinators.  That evening we were taken to the Monteverde’s Quaker community to hear their story from Marvin Rockwell.  Rockwell was among the 44 Quakers from 11 families from Fairhope, Alabama who left the United States as part of an exodus to Costa Rica since they disagreed with the draft and having to register for compulsory military service.

Before leaving Monteverde the following day, we visited the Monteverde Butterfly Garden and Arthropod Education Center.  The staff person gave a very interesting lecture on a number of arthropods and had some live samples such as scorpions, roaches dung beetles, and tarantulas. We then went on a tour of the Butterfly Garden which was a great deal of fun.

We then traveled back to San Jose for our final evening together.  It was an enjoyable adventure with many new friends made.  At the Wyndham, Chito did a debrief on our likes and dislikes of the tour and in the end, Ann Melrose led us in song.  One of the best groups and fun Road Scholar tours that Clare and I have been on.

TUNE: Jamaica Farewell. (Harry Belafonte)

Down the way where the nights are gay
And the sun shines daily on volcano tops
I took a trip with a Road Scholar
And when I reached Costa Rica I made a stop!

Well I’m sad to say, I’m on my way
Won’t be back for many a day
My heart is down, my head is turning around
I have to leave amigo Chito in Parapaqui town.

If you really listen, you can hear
Chito whistle to the birds he knows are there
He can spot them anywhere
In Costa Rica, his country he loves so dear.

Well I’m sad to say, I’m on my way
Won’t be back for many a day
My heart is down, my head is turning around
I have to leave amigo Chito in Parapaqui town.

CHANGE TUNE to Banana Boat Song/Harry Belafonte

Come mi amigo Chito, count the Road Scholars
Uno dos tres, estan todos aqui.

Come mi amigo Chito, count the Road Scholars
Uno dos tres, estan todos aqui!

Chito and Omar
Best tour guides in the Road Scholar
Chito and Omar
Best tour guides in the Road Scholar
Best tour guides in the Road Scholar

Costa Rica by Jakob Dylan
Lay your worries
Down at your door
Now my loves
Like an open shore
Throw your suitcase
Sweetheart overboard
Now tired eyes
In winter clothes
You ain’t got nothing
You can’t let go
Now tell your mother
You love her
She already knows
Now Costa Rica
We got nothing to do
When the nights
Hang dark
And the sun
Won’t burn
You may or may not
Ever return
Going under with you
Now thumb nail moon
Hanging high
So quiet up
There shining bright
Now dance a little
And share
This bottle of wine
No more ups
No more downs
Now love of someday
Has just come around
Watching the clouds
Flowing by while
Our skins
Turning brown
Now Costa Rica
We got
Nothing to do
When the nights
Hang dark
And the sun
Won’t burn
We may or may not
Ever return
Going under
With you
Now every moments