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May 15, 2008

View from our house balcony

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First view of Costa Rica

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May 17, 2008

Arriving and settling in

I had big intentions of updating this quickly but we have been staying busy! We had a great trip over to Costa Rica. Easy flight despite the 10 checked bags, 8 carry-on pieces, and the shoes-off, stroller folded, two laptops and various cameras unpacked, and various other clothing removals at the airport! We had to laugh at the airport in San Jose because it was filled with every familiar restaurant from the US. On the drive to Atlanta we had looked for one of our favorite fast food places – Schlotsky’s but couldn’t remember the exit. But low and behold there in San Jose airport was a Schlotsky’s along with Papa John’s and the other familiar places. But we staggered out of there with two hugely piled carts and found a van-taxi that took us into the city to pick up our rental car.

We had just signed one of the forms to say we understood there is a rise in crime in San Jose and that if we get a flat tire we should drive slowly to a gas station and NOT change it on the road because there have been robberies by people offering assistance when in came two big American guys looking a little stunned. They had just picked up their car at the airport and sure enough a few minutes later had a flat, got out to change it and were robbed (they lost two laptops). I asked if they had been given the information sheet and they said yes they’d signed it. I did have to wonder why they had stopped given the warning!

Our rental car guy was very comforting and assured us that once we left San Jose the area was very safe. He gave us an escorted trip out of the city where we met our the owner of the house we are renting. We met him in the parking lot of a Denny’s! From there it was a hair-raising trip winding up the mountain to Santa Barbara and our home for the next three months.

I always find it a little nerve wracking to rent a house from an individual in another country where I am taking my children. There is that fear that the house may not pan out or may not be what was promised. But so far I have never been unhappy (fingers crossed) and this place is no exception. In fact the pictures and description did not do it justice. We are in a new place, 3 bed, 3 bath in a small gated area with about 10 other homes. The balcony is great and overlooks the valley below. Charlotte (2) has her toys out there and hates to come in.
The first night we heard loud booms and when we looked out there was a big fireworks show with our balcony perfectly situated to see it. Max (5) thought it was really nice of the Costa Ricans to shoot off fireworks for our arrival!

Driving is a little rough here. The roads are very precarious with really big ditches to the sides and in many places only wide enough for one vehicle. I do lots of shrieks and “look out for the dog/old lady/motorbike/bus” kind of thing so Mark has started calling me Hyacinth (from Keeping up Appearances). But hey these roads demand about 4 sets of eyes.

Given that there are no road signs here we were a bit worried about finding our way around. We were told to rent a GPS and cell phone and so yesterday took off to the other Dollar Rental car office to pick these up. It was actually kind of funny how lost we got (it took three different stops to ask for directions) trying to find the place to get our GPS. But we have it now and love it. Jacob programmed in “home” and it’s very comforting hitting that button and hearing clear directions as to how to find our way back. We named it ET as in ET find home!

Barva

Yesterday we headed out to go to Barva (founded in 1613) which is about 5km away. There is a lovely old church there built in 1867 and we wandered around the park and inside the church. Very pretty.
But our best find was the Museo de Cultura Popular just on the outside of town. This is run by the university and has educational programs about traditional house manufacturing, cooking, mask making, and life in the 1800s and early 1900s. We were invited to join a group of adults who were having a tour but then one of the people working there realized we weren’t understanding much as it was all in rapid Spanish and we had a private tour (in English).

The people in the big group started introducing themselves and it turns out they were teachers/directors from one school. I said I was also a teacher and suddenly we were all great friends.

As we were finishing the tour and getting ready to leave, one of the teachers ran over and asked if we could stay a little while as they were putting on a surprise party for the director of the school and would be using puppets. Until it started they brought out traditional games for us to try including stilts and hoops to roll. Then the music started and a group of people dressed up in big masks and huge puppet-types of things that they wore but were about 10 feet tall came out. Everyone was dancing and clapping and the puppets bobbed and swayed and did silly things to make viewers laugh. They even got Mark to dance with them and he did a nice job!

The little ones were a bit nervous as the puppets have rather dramatic faces (one of them was of a past president we were told but it was unclear if this was because he was revered or disliked!).
I chatted with one of the teachers and it turns out she is the director of a special education school here and so I shared that my mother is a special education director as well and would be visiting next month. Soon numbers and names were being exchanged and we have plans to visit with each other. It will be great to perhaps see and talk to teachers here and find out more about the educational system from an inside perspective.

We have seen many schools both state-run and private. They are very visible and active and seem to be a much more central and vibrant part of the towns with parents and children coming and going constantly. Certainly a huge part of the community from what we can tell so far.

Mark is cooking up a pasta dish of fresh squid and mushrooms and we have a delicious loaf of French bread. There are lots of small bakeries here and baguettes are very popular. The amazing aroma drew us in and we have not been disappointed. Just as good as a French boulangerie and heck the coffee is grown right around us so certainly fresh!


Barva church outside

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Barva church inside

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Puppets at the Culture Museum

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Traditional Foods

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May 20, 2008

Coffee and Walmart!

Yesterday we went to Café Britt which is one of the largest coffee farms here in Costa Rica. It’s actually close to us (5 km but about 20 minutes) and we enjoyed the feeling of knowing where we were going.

We were lead through the coffee growing process and a history of coffee growing by three incredibly talented tour guides/actors. They kept up this cheesy but funny banter switching from Spanish to English so easily you barely knew they were doing it. We ended up in the theater where they showed an interactive video during which they dressed up in costumes and again had everyone laughing (and learning). It really was funny and they had Max (2) and Jacob (18) both cracking up – hitting such wide age groups takes talent.

After the tour we were given a buffet lunch in a lovely open-plan restaurant. The kids (and parents) all tucked into pumpkin-ginger soup, hearts of palm and beetroot salad, and salmon with mango chutney. Had I given them similar fare at home I don’t think they would have been as excited. We finished it up with tropical fruits and of course wonderful cappuccinos and iced coffees (for the younger ones). I have to say we did eat one tropical fruit that made all of us, except Mark, gag. A tiny, apple shaped fruit called a nance that was slightly mushy with a big seed inside and tasted exactly like moldy cheese. Mark actually ate about 5 saying they grew on you and he quite liked them but then he also was the only one who liked durian while we were in Malaysia. Given that smells so bad it is illegal to take into public areas or airports you get the idea of his taste buds.

The little ones discovered two goats in a pen and Charlotte howled in distress at having to leave her new “fwends.” But we had to beat a hasty retreat as the skies were opening. We found out why the ditches are so deep and wide here – the crazy amount of water that can come down in such a rapid time makes the ditches look like white water surf spots. Waterfalls pour out of walls and careen down roads. It’s very impressive but I am glad we made it home before the bulk of it started.

Today we went out on a quest to find a phone card since the skype phone I bought in the US worked just fine for two days and now cannot connect for some reason. It’s very annoying and an expensive test phone! Skype is working OK on the computer and it is fun to chat with my mom and oldest son who is home dog sitting. In fact we managed to completely confuse the poor dogs with my calling their names and telling them to “sit” while connected to my home computer and video cam. I’m also keeping an eye on how much house work oldest son keeps up with!

Anyway we did track down a phone card at the Hyper Mass in Heredia. Boy was that exciting -- we were in Walmart! Yep they have made it here too. I will say not all the products were marked Equate and (shhh) it was quite nice to find some toiletries that are familiar. The store actually reminded me of Carrefour stores in the Middle East and Asia more than a US Walmart but I still had to try and ignore the idea of traveling so far to be in such a familiar place.

We are planning a few days away so hopefully will have more exciting travel news than the shopping of today.

May 31, 2008

Charlotte enjoying her coconut drink in Heredia market

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June 1, 2008

Arco Iris Lodge in Monteverde

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What Was I Thinking -- Part 1?

We headed off to Monteverde a few days ago. This is a neat area founded by Quakers who left the US in 1951 as they wanted to leave behind the constant fear of war and the need to pay taxes to support militarism. They chose Costa Rica because it had no army and a big focus on peace. They came to farm but saw the need to create a preserved area focused on education and conservation of the cloud forest and thus the Monteverde Biological Cloud Forest Reserve was formed. Nearby the little town of Santa Elena is a funky/hippy/research scientist kind of place and where most hang out when not in the preserve.

Anyway our drive as to be about 4 hours and we knew the last two were over an unpaved road and heading up mountains. To get to that point it was supposed to be a 2 hour drive on Highway 1 -- the Interamerican Highway that runs through much of these countries. We were going happily along (not that fast as much of it is only 2 lane) and were happy to see that we only had 15 kilometers to our turnoff when suddenly we ground to a halt. And there we sat and sat and sat. In fact we sat there for 5 hours – OK we did creep along about 4 kilometers or so and finally reached the problem which was a collapsed bridge that was being filled in with dirt. Each side had about 10 vehicles creeping across this packed dirt and the backups were hours long on either side. There were industrious folks around all this who walked up and down the traffic jam selling chips and frozen ices. And people got out of their cars and the buses and wandered around picking mangoes off trees and chatting to each other. Quite a relaxed group.

So after keeping children happy and content (we were not so relaxed as many) crammed in the car for that long we finally hit the dirt road and began our climb upwards. That was when I started saying to myself “what the heck was I thinking here?” The dirt road wound upwards with steep drop-offs down huge mountain sides and not a barrier or metal post in sight to stop anyone plunging over. In many places the road was only wide enough for one car despite the fact we would suddenly encounter a truck or even a big bus!
Halfway up our joy increased as it started to rain. The good part of this was that you couldn’t see how far down those drop-offs were. The bad part was we missed some of the incredible scenery. The road passed huuge sloping vistas of valleys and mountains in brilliant shades of green (hence the rain). Cows were all over the places; many of them wandering alongside the road.
We passed quite a few “cowboys” on horses and of course the ubiquitous dogs that are in every driveway and road here. We also saw goats and quite a few horses but mostly skinny cows that were often clinging to steep hillsides in positions that left you clueless as to why they didn’t fall off. Mountain cows!

Well we got to the top and found our hotel despite pouring rain. We stayed in great lodge/hotel called Arco Iris Lodge and since there were six of us we had the “Old House” which used to be the owner’s house and was a two story, three bed, two bath, kitchen beautiful wooden house. The bathrooms were granite tiles and open showers – very cool and the whole place was wood and airy. It was set in a neat little group of cabins and grounds. But the best thing for the children were the bounding dogs and friendly cats that they all bonded with. These were the friendliest folks running the place and helped with anything. We ate breakfast there and it was delicious.

The additional 5 plus hours of the drive meant Mark and older boys missed their canopy tour that day but since it was pouring with rain that was OK. It was quite good as they rescheduled for the next morning and it was clear and almost sunny. They had a wonderful time doing the Original Canopy Tour that had 11 platforms and two big rappels that were 45 and then 120 feet! The tour started inside a huge hollow strangler fig that you climb up. They were impressed but all three said “that was pretty scary!” What a shame I had to stay with the two little ones!

We wandered around the area but did not see a great deal of wildlife – well except for the big tarantula on our doorstep! Monteverde Serpentarium was a hit with the kids especially as we went at night and they gave us flashlights to shine inside the cages.

This is a neat area but gosh seems hard living. Last year it rained for so many days that we were told the buses and trucks couldn’t run for a couple of months. Sometimes it rains solidly for weeks at a time. Almost as bad as England (my home So recommendations are to go during the dry season and since we were right at the beginning of the wet I can see why. Still the Arco Iris Lodge and surrounding beauty was worth the drive (although I did better leaving after taking Valerian).

The road out of Monteverde heading towards Lake Arenal was again unpaved and took about two hours but thankfully did not have quite the same drop-offs.

Ben in Monteverde Canopy tour

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Mark in Monteverde Canopy Tour

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Treehouse restaurant in Monteverde

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What Was I Thinking -- Part 2?

As I stated before the road out of Monteverde across the other side of the mountains was not too bad – just tiringly bumpy. After we hit the paved road it wasn’t long before we came around a corner and saw the beautiful Lake Arenal. It really is lovely despite our view being cloudy and rainy. It’s supposed to be very windy at times and one area had huge windmills similar to those in California areas. It reminded me a little of Swiss Alps in places (without snow) because of the rolling green hills and cows leading down to the lake. Others must have thought so as there seemed to be a profusion of German restaurants and chalet-style houses around. There were also lots of gated communities with huge mansions garnering the lake vistas. Very few Tico (traditional Costa Rican houses) were seen in the main road area.
We stopped at a neat little café and gift shop which turned out to be run by an American family. The young lady who served us shared that her family had move there 11 years ago when she and her two sisters (triplets) were 9 years old. They had all settled there and owned bed and breakfast/restaurant/handicrafts store etc. Really nice people and good food.
Onwards we went and around another bend we spotted our destination – Arenal Volcano. We had a lovely view of it and the “clouds” hovering around the top. As we drew nearer to our lodge I realized however that those were not clouds but rather smoke pouring out of the top of this cone shaped active volcano. You can read all you want in guide books about visiting active volcanoes but it isn’t until you are chugging down the road with 4 out of 5 of your children who are yelling “look at that lava flying out” that you want to slap your forehead saying “what the heck was I thinking (again)!”

We were staying in the Arenal Observatory Lodge which was originally built for volcanologists from the Smithsonian but is now a hotel (it still has a seismology machine that you can watch the needle jumping around) located four kilometers (2.5 miles) from the volcano. Those miles seem way closer I can tell you and the restaurant and many of the rooms (including ours) are built with huge windows and balconies to just sit and stare at this big mountain shooting rocks out of the top.

After swimming and hanging out in the Jacuzzi we went to dinner and had a great meal while watching the sunset to one side of us over the lack and then got to see this incredible lava show. Glowing spurts of red lava would appear at the top and cascade down the volcano seemingly many miles. It was absolutely amazing to see and even to hear! The booming and crashing noises that these huge hot rocks make as they careen down was disconcerting to hear – especially at 2 am when you wake up and can hear it as you try to sleep. I could see the volcano from the bed and wasn’t sure if it was better to close the curtains or to keep an eye on it (hah like we could actually do anything should it go crazy).

Mark (geologist) was obviously quite excited to see it and told us many, many facts about volcanoes and rocks – much of it unintelligible to nongeologists (his lips were moving but I couldn’t understand him He did not give me a definitive answer when I asked if the fact it was shooting off so much lava was a good thing (kind of diffusing the big blow so to speak) but I kept holding on to that ideas.

The volcano was lying dormant for hundreds of years until 1968 when it suddenly and violently erupted and destroyed the town of Tabacon (killing 80). Since then it has been Costa Rica’s most active volcano and is known to put on good shows. We were lucky though that we hit it on an active and clear night.

Sitting on a deck, sipping a nice glass of wine while watching lava flowing was not something to be missed – would not want to live there though!

Lake Arenal

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Jacob with Arenal Volcano

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Arenal Volcano

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Arenal Volcano -- from our hotel balcony

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Arenal Lodge

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It seemed a little bizarre to be hanging out in a jacuzzi with a volcano exploding behind us but here we are! The grounds around the lodge were just beautiful (rain forest area). I guess all the good volcanic soil helps things grow well. Mark saw monkeys but we missed them. We did see tons of hummingbirds and other colorful birds and butterflies. I was bitten by some type of nasty fly-thing. Mark claims it was a horse fly but the blood dripping out of my arm make me skeptical on that! Ants are in abundance everywhere and the leaf cutters are fascinating to watch -- very industrious.

Arenal Volcano at night

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OK last picture of the volcano (can you tell we were impressed). It was really hard to capture the night time lava flow but Jacob got some small movies of it so if we can get those organized I'll share.

Leaving the Volcano

When we left Arenal we decided to spend a few hours at the much talked about hot springs in the area. So we went to the Baldi Hot Springs which has something like 25 pools and water slides etc. all at different temperatures. Beautiful place and the small pools surrounded by tropical plants and trees area lovely. Sadly, not a place to go to during the day when it is hot out because the pools are HOT. The coolest pool we found was about 95 degrees and some were about 116 to 120 degrees. We dipped our feet in and yelled at how hot! The water slides were in the “cool” pool and they were big slides. Ben (13) and Jacob (18) and their dad were game to try both of the open ones (a 3rd and bigger one is being built) and they did crash down them. All three tried each slide once and shuddered saying “no more.” It was very bone jarring ride down and they flipped over at the end shooting into the water in great pain. They were kind of stunned staggering and limping out of the pool. Mark said it was way worse than the old and rickety water park in Malaysia that was on top of a multi-story mall!

The swim up bars were kind of nice until I realized that a coke or bottle of water was $5 a piece (we had forgotten sunscreen and bought a bottle there for $22.00). So we rounded up the children and headed for home. It was another lovely drive through rolling mountain sides and small towns – a bit tricky when it rains but still lovely.

We arrived home to Santa Barbara with great happiness. It’s funny how quickly this is now “home” and thus when we travel away for a few days it feels so nice to get back to our familiar and comfortable house here.

Work of course backed up which is why much of this blog is only now being filled in – sorry!


Clouds

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The clouds here are amazing. As you come into valleys surrounded by mountains the clouds group at different levels which makes them look very 3-D kind of thing. I don't think I have seen such impressive ones anywhere else. Sometimes it feels as if you could almost touch the low, wispy ones and then there are layers of other types at varying levels. These pictures don't do them justice I'm afraid but perhaps give a small sense of the environment.

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June 7, 2008

On the road to the beach

Back from a trip to Manuel Antonio National Park which is located on the western Pacific side of Costa Rica and is purported to be one of the most beautiful spots in the country and most visited park. We were lucky as it was not crowded at all. Perhaps the poor weather put folks off!

We actually had a good and dry drive down. It is about 4.5 hours on a lovely but windy and harrowing road through the mountains to get to the beach. Lots of orchards and plantation style houses plus roadside fruit stands offering wonderful mangos, pineapples and more. We caught a first glimpse of the ocean at Tarcoles and continued onwards along the coast road with occasional brief views of water. There are many large villas tucked away on the hill areas all focused on the views but there seems little to do in the area other than enjoy watching the ocean to one side and mountains to the other.

The road was quite well maintained until we got past Jaco and hit some scary bridges. There were three of them but one has been replaced with the other two being currently built (thank goodness). The bridges looked like old railroad ones and were one lane only with traffic creeping across what looked like metal bars with pieces of metal plate and wood across. Huge trucks and a barrage of buses and cars were crossing and the bits of metal flapped and looked loose. To add to the interesting crossing, below were strong flowing rivers that probably contained crocodiles (I had my eyes shut so couldn’t see those). This is a picture of one bridge!

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We stopped at one river (with a good bridge) and were able to see about 15 huge crocs just basking in the sun below us. Another couple of pictures may show how many there were. They looked to be about 12-14 feet long – not sure if that comes through in these pictures though.

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The coastal road took about two hours and we finally arrived in Quepos and then our hotel (on the road between Quepos and the national park) early afternoon. We stayed at the Hotel Mono Azul or Blue Monkey which we discovered is owned by a really nice American family. They have a nice restaurant and the kids were happy to discover great pizzas.

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Storm damage

Before describing the beach I want to mention some sad things we saw on the coastal road. Last week we were planning to go down there but awoke to heavy rain so thankfully we postponed our trip. At the time we didn’t know the heavy rain was from Tropical Storm (some have said hurricane) Alma as the local news didn’t report anything. We have been told the US news was describing it quite well – not sure if ignorance was bliss here!

Anyway we later read that about 900 homes were damaged or destroyed on the Pacific side. This was the first storm in about 120 years that formed in the Pacific rather than the Caribbean side so perhaps it took people by surprise.


A week later on the drive we noticed heavy mud on the sides of the road and then saw a few of the small towns had badly damaged and muddy houses along the main road. Many had water damaged furnishings in trash piles outside and one of the schools had a pile of damaged desks in front. The water must have been pretty high if the marks on the side of some of the houses came from this storm and the deep mud looked for unpleasant living. Look on this first picture at the water mark on the house.

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Despite it all the people were as always smiling and carrying on pleasantly. Costa Ricans are the nicest folks as a group – well except behind the wheel of a car!

El Avion

The first night in Manuel Antonio we had a pretty heavy storm and the radio station announced we had another tropical storm heading our way. We were quite upset about this but headed out and found a neat restaurant that had been created on the hills overlooking the water. El Avion restaurant was built around a converted C-123 plane used by the CIA in the 1970s to run arms to the Contras in Nicaragua. Usually the views are spectacular but we had to be content with quick glimpses of the water reflected in huge lightening flashes! The food was good and some of the better we have had in Costa Rica but quite pricey for what it was. We spent $75 on one appetizer, three juices, two glasses of wine, and four entrees. Here is Max at the bar entrance.

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We headed back to our hotel where we actually had a house with three levels. The place had great views of the surrounding jungle and gardens from the big picture windows and balconies, lots of beds, television, and two bathrooms plus kitchen. No phone and no hot water except for the separate water heater in the shower that gave off a nasty electrical burning smell and only slightly warmed the water. However the most unpleasant was the incredible amount of wildlife that also “rented” the place. We arrived back at night to find the kitchen area overrun with huge ants (a good centimeter long) and various other beetles and crawlie/flying things. There must have been 300 plus ants heading around the place and these suckers were not things you could squash with a paper towel – these required at least 3 whacks with a shoe to drop. The next day I quietly mentioned it to the hotel clerk and she just smiled and said it was normal here and handed me a can of bug spray. We later sprayed the doorway but these ants just looked at us, laughed and ran faster! We gave up.

I know, I know it’s the rainforest and we are in their home – all that blarney. But when I rent a hotel room I really do not want to share it with local critters. I know I’m being squeamish and not getting into the jungle spirit but so be it. I HATE bugs! I actually quite welcomed the orange gecko that seemed to live above my bed as I hoped it would eat anything close to me. And after a few glasses of wine each night I managed to fall asleep without imaging things crawling on me.

June 9, 2008

Manuel Antonio Park

Well we had good news because the next day we awoke early to brilliant sunshine and no rain. We quickly threw on swimsuits and headed to Manuel Antonio National Park. After turning down multiple offers of private tour guides we had a lovely breakfast overlooking the beach of strawberry pancakes, passion fruit smoothies, and incredibly fresh omelets (the eggs here are free-range and deliciously dark yoked).

To get into the park you have to cross a polluted little river but it was low tide and so we were able to get across by scrambling over some rocks and a little hill. Leaving at high tide we paid a small boat operator to shuttle us across – we had heard it was polluted plus snake infested so we didn’t want to cross the then waist high water. Here is our Knoxville girl as she first hits the beach.

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The park is not cheap for tourists and we paid $10 a person (12 years and over) to get in but that is for the whole day. It is not a large park and there are three main beaches and quite a few trails. Based on local advice we did not have a guide (they wanted about $80 for 1 to 1.5 hours) and just hung out on the beach. We saw quite a few small groups of intrepid hikers clad in sturdy boots and khakis and armed with cameras and camcorders following their trusty guides. They sure looked hot and sweaty from my view lying under a palm tree on a beach towel!

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From our readings and locals’ description we thought we would see lots of monkeys and sloths and so when we could see none we were disappointed and thought it was because of the lack of guide. But I spoke to two separate people who said they had only seen one sloth from a great distance and no monkeys. We did see two toucans flying, various lizards and big iguanas plus tons of crabs scuttling around which made the children happy. The beach was lovely and the water comfortably warm. There were lots of rock pools with little fish and crabs so Charlotte and Max enjoyed paddling in those and discovering new things. Ben swam happily as he loves the water, especially oceans and waves. The riptides were not as strong in this area which was good as Costa Rican beaches are notorious for these and there are many drawings each year.

The sun was strong though and we really needed heavy sunscreen. By noon Mark was a little burnt despite the lotions and Ben’s nose and cheeks took a toll. I had the younger ones looking like little greased pigs so they were fine and since I have a tendency to enjoy my beach time lying in the shade with a good book, I didn’t see a reason to deviate from this except for occasional dips to cool off. Here's Mark and Ben cooling off happily.

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After another alfresco late lunch of pizza back in the hotel, Mark and Ben went fishing with one of the hotel gardeners. He took them to a pier area and they only caught two fish but had a good time. When they got back we went to the hotel pool at about 5 pm. There are three small pools at this hotel and on our side of the area there was only one other place rented so we had our pool to ourselves. Ben was the first there and yelled at us to hurry as the place was surrounded by monkeys! The pool was tucked away among big tropical trees and bushes and there must have been 30 small white faced squirrel monkeys (I think although if the pictures are of another type please let me know). They careened around, leaping from tree to tree and feasting on mangos and these long bean shaped fruit things. The hotel room next to us had a metal roof and they raced across this making a tremendous racket while leaping and pouncing on each other. They played in a similar fashion to cats I thought. Young cats do that silly pouncing and then bouncing sideways kind of teasing play and these monkeys had similar actions. They did get into a couple of fights especially when one came up and hit a baby. The mother went for the aggressor and pinned it down, hitting it in nasty fashion. I wondered whether there was sibling rivalry perhaps – not sure of this type of monkey’s social roles. Perhaps there will be a Monkey Manor show on Animal Planet someday!

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Hunger pulled us away from the pool by about 7:30 and we said goodnight to the monkeys (still going strong despite it being dark) and went off to dinner at the Black Cat restaurant. This is another nice alfresco place but with Italian food. Good but similarly pricey. The ants and wildlife returned to the hotel but a couple of nice glasses of wine again and I slept well.

Mono Azul Pool:

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Home again

The next morning it was drizzly rain but we had a delicious breakfast (all the restaurants are covered but open plan so they can be a bit warm as it is much hotter and stickier in that region) of mango pancakes and omelets this time.

Max in Mono Azul Hotel restaurant.

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Then we loaded up and headed home, stopping in Jaco to see what that beach was like. We had heard this is the “Myrtle Beach on spring break” town of Costa Rica. There were lots of half built condos and a road full of ice cream shops and bars. The beach though was not impressive as the sand is black silt and rocky from local rivers that pour into it. A local American woman we met said the area was nice except for the profusion of bars and prostitutes. We ended up not sticking around and drove home – happily arriving back before the heavy rainstorms that hit again last night. A good trip but financially heavy. At $170 a night for the hotel plus expensive places to eat, these short trips take a toll on the budget. And we certainly are not staying in the expensive resorts or eating at the priciest restaurants. Certainly not as reasonable to be here as we had hoped – oh well still lovely and we shall keep on exploring.

Max wanted this photo in -- he is holding a beautiful piece of coral but sadly the colours didn't come through.

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And Charlotte insisted on this one of more monkeys at the hotel. This one had a baby on its back and Charlotte kept begging to be able to hold it. She said "I would kiss it wots and wots."

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June 12, 2008

Local customs

Our rental house is in a complex of 10 new houses inside a small and beautifully manicured complex. Disconcertingly in some respects we have an armed guard at the gatehouse and none of the houses have ever been robbed. Still the idea we need to be protected with a gun is not comforting to those of us with pacifist leanings. Considering the country is renowned for peace and not having a military, we have seen more people carrying guns than Texas!
It's the same at restaurants. We just ate at a Chinese restaurant at the bottom of the "hill" (namely Barva Volcano) and it was delicious with lots of fresh vegetables in rich sauces but not a fancy or overly expensive place. Our car was parked right in front of the restaurant but even there they had a guard with a huge night stick (some have guns as well) who patrols the small parking lot and then helps people back out into the road. I am not sure if the guards are always necessary (my Pollyana attitude hopes not) or if the presence of a guard notches up the restaurant status as well. We have not experienced car break-ins but our rental SUV doors look as if they have been pried upon previously as one is bent slightly and the other badly scratched around the door lock. From what we hear it is a common thing to happen.

We also discovered from watching other diners that they tip the security guards as leaving. One of the things in travel is having to watch and take notes of local customs -- hopefully we are getting the amounts right! No one has glared at us yet.

Even non-compound houses here are well protected with tons of metal bars on windows and around patios, barbed wire, broken glass glued to wall tops, and padlocked everything! Add the dogs on just about every patio and it must be tough to be a burglar. I'll post some pictures of regular houses but we think this one is particularly interesting. It's near our favorite grocery store and as you can see is a castle! The pointy roof parts are actually metal so it's built with normal local materials but just in different form. The kids think it is very cool.

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June 13, 2008

Zoo Ave

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Just before Jacob left we had a fun visit to Zoo Ave which is just south or so of Alajuela. This is a neat little zoo that focuses on rehabilitation and education about conservation etc. Jacob as always managed some neat pictures – the signs were interesting. The second one states “my eggs are not the solution” and the turtle is holding a Viagra pill. Interesting for a zoo.

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We had a nice time and it was enjoyable walking around the beautiful grounds in perfect temperatures – mid 70s. There was a nasty incident with mangoes. The squirrels were eating them in the huge trees and then after a few bites throwing them down to the ground. Mark had one narrowly miss his head and Charlotte’s stroller was hit (but not her). Kind of funny afterwards but those are some BIG mangoes! Here is one of the squirrels:

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I hadn't realized there were deer in Costa Rica but we've seen them at a few nature park places.

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Here is the Fodor review of the zoo:

Fodor's Review:
Spread over the lush grounds of Zoo Ave is a collection of large cages holding toucans, hawks, parrots, and even two quetzals (the macaws range free), not to mention crocodiles, turtles, monkeys, wild cats, and other interesting critters. The zoo, the best in Costa Rica, runs a breeding project for rare and endangered birds, all of which are destined for eventual release. It has a total of 120 bird species, including such rare ones as the quetzal, fiery-billed aracari, several types of eagles, and even ostriches. An impressive mural at the back of the facility shows Costa Rica's 850 bird species painted to scale.


We did see many large iguanas running around freely. Again this is common. We were told the green ones are kept as pets by many people here but not the brown ones as those are more aggressive. My oldest son Sam had a green one that was about 3 foot long about 10 years ago (Lizzie) and that thing was so evil I cannot imagine anything more aggressive. Sam used to suit up with a snow jacket and snowboarding gloves and goggles just to try and lift her out of the cage! We lived in fear of her for a couple of years! Sam we think of you every time we see these.


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And of course toucans. We have only seen two flying at the beach but we do see lots of parrots around. There were about five of them squabbling and fighting for a spot on a power line right above the grocery store in Santa Barbara the other day. We were the only ones looking at them and taking photos. Geeze tourists!

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June 15, 2008

Poaz Volcano

By Ben Green (age 13).

This is me in front of Crater Lake.

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Poaz Volcano is a wildlife park full of birds, Costa Rican squirrels (they are very tame), lizards and larger than life vegetation. The main path up to the crater is actually very short and easy to walk on. We just accidentally took the long route. But in that route we saw many a bird and squirrel and plant-life. The plants are huge up on the slopes of the crater. One leaf was bigger than I was!

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On the trail we ran into a very long staircase and by the time we were up it we all had to rest. The crater itself was probably the best part of it. Inside the crater there was an acid lake that was magnificently turquoise, and you could see the steam coming off the surface of it. But surrounding there were giant cliff-side’s that were so high that when we stood on top of it we could see for miles! We could see some houses and farms and the old lava flows were black and burnt but you could still see the ripples. I took this cool picture of a rock formation.

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More info: Poaz Volcano is somewhere around 2550 meters high; at least that’s what the car’s altimeter said. The old crater is filled up with rain water making a natural crater lake. The only thing that lives in the Crater Lake is algae because it is so acidic. The crater itself is 45 celcius hot! And again obviously the only thing that lives in it is algae. The Crater Lake is named after the Indian tribe of Pothos. They lived on the shores of it. I do not know why because they probably could not drink it because of the acidic waters, and there were no fish thanks to the acid.

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When I first saw the actual crater I was overwhelmed…..by heat that is! It was quite warm on the observation deck and we could see birds sweeping back and forth over the steam and lake.


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More Poaz Pictures

A few more pictures of Poaz Volcano. Ben took this of a neat rock formation down in the crater.

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Crater Lake

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June 21, 2008

It's a rough life!

Another week, another beach – life is hard here in Costa Rica!

Hotel Pool:

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We just spent a few days in Puntarenas which is about 2 hours drive from Heredia and our house and is really the closest beach to San Jose. It was an easy drive despite being near the horrific road works we were trapped in for 5.5 hours on the way to Monteverde. Thankfully that bridge seems fully repaired.

Puntarenas actually is not renowned for its beaches but is more of an overnight stop when you catch the ferries to Guanacaste (we are doing that in about 2 weeks). We drove into the main town and were not overly impressed. It is a long, thin town with beach to one side and inlet/mangrove swamps to the other. Sadly, very impoverished looking and not at all as well kept or cared for as most of the other towns we have seen here. The long beach road had park-type areas along the beach and small hotels/restaurants on the other and was described in a travel book as looking like a 1950s town in Florida. Being beach lovers we parked and jumped out to run on the near-deserted beach. Hmm. The sand was quite dark and dirty looking and the whole beach was full of debris – some natural and some not. But more unpleasant was the vast amount of broken glass from beer bottles over the walkways and dune areas. We opted not to stay on that part of the beach.

There was a long pier for the cruise ships (none of which were around when we were there) and a handful of small beachside restaurants complete with plastic covers and chairs and the ubiquitous old video games and toddler rides. I remember Italy from years ago having almost the exact same little restaurants but in my memory the food was better. We managed juices and cheese sandwiches – an interesting white cheese that is fried and then slabs of mayonnaise placed on the bread. We have discovered this is the sandwich you get if you order queso blanco. If you order queso amarillo (yellow) you get unheated squares of yellow cheese and mayonnaise. It’s fairly limited fair for vegetarians!

Anyway we had a relaxing lunch and then drove a few blocks down to the excitement for the afternoon; the aquarium. The Parque Marino del Pacifico is apparently the only aquarium in Costa Rica. It has 28 tanks and on quite a large area across from the ocean. We seemed to be the only visitors but it was cheap at $12.00 for the family. While not exactly riveting and thrilling it was sweet and OK entertainment for 30 minutes or so – not worth a drive to but if you are in the area a good stop. They did have this amazing mosaic wall.

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So then it was on to our hotel. Here’s the confession time. I had seen a big ad for the Hilton Doubletree Resort which is all inclusive with food and drink plus four big pools and kid’s club etc. I checked out the price and it was the same darn amount to stay there (with food and drinks included) as it is to stay in locally owned hotels here (no food included). So we decided to fund Paris’s next wild parties by adding our dollars to that fortune. Not the most locally minded but for the same price we got HOT water, no ants or wild bugs, soft downy pillows and duvets, and more.

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Happy Days

Hilton Hotel

Never having stayed at an inclusive resort before we were quite amazed at the level of organization required to check in. We were all stamped and branded with non-removable arm tags that designated we were official and which of us could drink etc. We had maps and lists of activities and little cards to check out towels (do not lose these or you pay dearly), and times and restaurants we were to eat at. All very mind boggling but we quickly settled in, changed and hit the pools.

Ben was funny as after we had been swimming for awhile we went to an island bar area and got drinks etc. The snack bar had nachos, hot dogs, pizza, and all kinds of teen/kid food. He sat with a big plate of it and a frozen pina colada (non alcoholic) and said “You mean I can really get anything I want, when I want it, and it’s free?” When I responded yes, he just grinned hugely and said “Now this is what I call a vacation!”
So for the next three days we did nothing but lounge around the pool, stand and look at the beach, walk along the peer, and eat. No driving, no trying to find places to park or shop; just sheer indulgence.

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The pools were lovely with lots of shallow areas for little ones, big palm trees for some shade, little waterfalls and huge iguanas to keep things interesting. There were lots of families and children around. Hard to say where everyone was from but 90% Spanish speaking and about 10% American.

It was often easy to spot the Americans as they were the ones NOT wearing string bikinis and Speedos. Being European I remember skimpy swimwear but usually that was on very tiny French folks. Central Americans seem to have a good sense of self and are comfortable with much larger bodies being exposed in much larger ways. In fact larger, rounder bodies are supposed to be more attractive. Personally though I feel that when a Speedo or sting bikini bottom actually disappears from sight upon wrestling it onto a body, it is perhaps time to rethink that fashion style.

But the comfort with body was really good when it came to babies. I saw lots of little ones being openly breastfed right around the pool and even while walking into dinner. Swimsuits are easy to accommodate little one’s lunch. That is lovely to see after so many repressed and uptight countries we have lived (and nursed) in!

OK so the pools were lovely and thank goodness. The beach was even worse in this area of Puntarenas. The hotel bills it as black volcanic sand but having been on similar beaches before I am skeptical that this black muddy stuff was simply volcanic sand. Two rivers empty into this part of the ocean and the water is filled with churning black silt and huge pieces of trees and logs that kept rolling and crashing onto the beach. The waves were pretty big and that plus the log pieces made for no swimming. You didn’t really want to sit on the sand as it just seemed to turn to muddy yuck. But there was a long wooden pier and do we walked that a few times listening to crashing waves underneath us.

There was a Kid’s Club with some very hyperactive young men blowing whistles and shouting and leaping everywhere. My kids took one look and said no thanks. They did end up going on the huge inflatable water slide a few times and enjoyed that. Max (5) went the first time and since he is a bit tentative about wild rides or thrills I was stunned that he just climbed right up. I watched his face as he shot down the 15 foot drop on the other side, went airborne and then hit a pool of water. It was a riot as all you could see were these huge eyes and look of horror as his little skinny body shot down this slide. He scrambled out of the pool, shaking with adrenalin. The camp counselor raced and gave him high five and leaped around Max saying how great he did. Max stunned me by heading right back on two more times and even took his brother Ben on the next day!

Accomplishing that was very empowering for him, so much so, that he decided he was going to learn how to jump off the side of the pool and even get his face under water. And learn it he did! He’s so proud of himself it’s wonderful to see. The first thing he did when we got home was Skype his big brothers to tell them all about it.

Now the down side of making friends with the camp counselor was he told Max about the big kid’s show in the theater that night. We’d been briefed that each night there was a big show with varying themes but hadn’t opted to attend. Still that night Max made us as he’d promised his buddy he would go. And then Max made us sit through the whole hour of song singing and dancing – none of which he understood as it was all in Spanish. The guys had all the children up on stage dancing and playing games. It was noisy but fun. Max claimed he didn’t know there would be a disco and so hadn’t practiced his dancing therefore he couldn’t go up on stage (yeah like if he practiced he’d really go!) and Charlotte just clutched us in horror. But they enjoyed watching and being rather interested in child development I found watching the parent/child interactions fascinating.

I mentioned the food already and yes there were quite a few restaurants and bars. Drinking seemed to be high on the list for quite a few folks but we didn’t see anything negative. The food was OK. Not thrilling but for buffets and feeding lots of people it was alright but nothing to draw you back. One night we ate in the Italian restaurant that had menus and waiters etc. That was more relaxing than buffet but the food again was just OK. I had shrimp over fettucine but the shrimp were overcooked and a bit rubbery. The calamari we all looked forward to was rubbery and the batter fell off in your hands. I would say better “Italian” food at an Olive Garden (sorry Hilton). But you couldn’t be upset as the waiters tried so hard and were so nice and friendly. Everyone here is but there the staff seemed especially nice (and not obsequious just friendly).

We did have an unpleasant run-in with a “local” when we were walking along near the beach about 8pm one evening (black dark here by 6pm as we are near the equator). A dark animal shape ran towards us and kind of circled. Mark thought it was another coatimundi as we’d seen in other places but as it got closer he realized it was a huge rat and he had to reach his foot out and try and kick it away. The thing leaped up a nearby palm tree and we raced off. I am still a bit stunned that rats are that big! Think they must like the Hilton food a little more than we did!

One of the iguanas we discovered were hanging out in most of the trees around us:

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Anyway it was a lovely break and fun to swim in the pools and just relax doing nothing. I assumed my normal position on a deck chair with a book and this time I added drinks with lovely chunks of fruit in them. Total bliss!

June 25, 2008

Bosque del Nino

We spent a lovely half day at the Bosque del Nino or Child’s Forest which is a 40-hectare park just outside of Grecia in the central valley area. It has a grassy picnic area and small play ground plus these neat little elevated children’s picnic platforms. There are trails around the park with the main one about three kilometers. We went on the “easy” path that was about 800 meters uphill to a look out point. From there it was another 650 meters to a waterfall. Setting off 800 meters didn’t seem far but when a 35 pound two-year-old conks out and demands (through shrieking and sobbing) to be carried up the hill which was quite steep in places and slightly slippery with wet leaves, it feels more like climbing to base camp on Everest! We made it to the look out point and then the little ones and I collapsed on the bench while dad jogged to the water fall.

Here’s the view from the look out point:

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And here is the waterfall:

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Going down was much more fun as Charlotte decided she would walk! The trails were easy and safe enough for children and similar (little harder) to our loved Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville. We spotted a couple of brightly colored and spiky caterpillars, lovely butterflies, and the tail end of a squirrel but that was all. That could have been due to my heavy gasping carrying Charlotte uphill or the non-stop chatter of children as apparently there is a wide range of animals often spotted in the area.

Caterpillar:

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There were quite a few Tico families picnicking in the grounds and even barbecuing which looked fun – but our cheese sandwiches were tasty too!

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The trip up to the Children’s Forest passes through intense coffee growing country. Our GPS route tends to put us on the most direct path rather than the biggest and widest roads which means we have seen some interesting and narrow country roads (dirt tracks in places). The hillsides in that area are densely planted with coffee plants dotted with large palm and banana trees. We also drove past a huge farm with fields covered in netting under which were growing hundreds of Boston ferns – now we know where all those hanging on Southern US porches come from.


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June 26, 2008

Cheers

Socializing is a big part of life here in Costa Rica and there seems to be more local bars than restaurants. Here is one that makes me smile as the horses are tethered outside. We've seen this in a few of the more rural places. Not sure of the drunk riding laws!

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And speaking of road hazards, we have frequently had to slow down because horses, cows, and even a goat or two were wandering across the road. This calf was tethered outside a restaurant we stopped at near Poaz Volcano. It craved attention from the children and made the loudest, wailing noise every time we walked away! Amazingly we have only seen one animal, a dog, that had been hit on the road.


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June 29, 2008

Sarchi

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Charlotte and Max on one of the famed Sarchi oxcarts.


Lovely day today as we got to show Grandma around a little. She arrived Thursday evening (well Friday morning at 1 a.m.) more than four hours late due to bad weather in Houston. Yesterday we let her relax a little and only hit the grocery store but today we went into tourist mode. We went up to a neat little town located in the middle of coffee fields and, when following the GPS, accessed by dirt and winding roads. There was an outside market with various stalls of plastic (made in China) toys and jewelry, leather goods, and interesting sweaters and hats which we discovered were made in Ecuador. Charlotte got some lovely little leather sandals which will hopefully stop smelling like wet dog soon! We also bought her an adorable zip up sweater that has little animals appliquéd over it. These are hand knit sweaters and even include little romping llamas – very cute. Prices were OK ($13) for the sweater but once some of the stall owners saw we were open to purchasing then items seemed to increase. Adult sweaters (factory and not hand made) became $30 even though original quote was $10.

Dad and Charlotte on the restaurant playground. Note the swings on concrete -- a normal thing here.

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We were at the tail end of the vegetables but by the debris and number of empty stalls there must have been a good number.

So from there we went on to Sarchi which is the furniture and craft capital of Costa Rica. Lots of artisans work from there and the shops were full of heavy wood furnishings – dark and heavy look to most items but very pretty. We had lunch at a riverside restaurant that we had discovered a few weeks ago when Jacob was still here. El Rio restaurant is next door to a big souvenir shop which is convenient. The restaurant has the same fare as the majority of other places here; corvina (sea bass) in various forms, expensive shrimp in the same forms, salads, soups, and ceviche (something all of us love here). Good food but not great for $55.00 lunch.

We picked up a few bits and pieces in the souvenir shop. There are limited items made in Costa Rica and most of the souvenirs are actually made elsewhere, printed with “Costa Rica” on the front and shipped in. But of course magnets and T-shirts are available and given the low baggage amounts on airlines it’s a good thing to limit shopping now.

The river next to the restaurant has lots of lizards around it.

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Our exit was marked with a thunderstorm that unleashed a huge volume of water on the roads. Quite stunning to see how full the drainage ditches become and how rivers of water suddenly spill out of fields making the roads brown streams.


July 7, 2008

Butterfly Farm

Butterfly Farm

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My step-father used to spend a few months at a time in Costa Rica and loved the country. Sadly he died last year on July 3rd and so we have been remembering his various antics recently. I have a large batch of emails he sent to me a couple of years ago describing his favorite places to go in Costa Rica and rentals etc. One of his recommendations was The Butterfly Farm, and so a couple of days after Grandma arrived we visited. It is just west of San Jose in a town called Guacima.

http://www.butterflyfarm.co.cr/cres/index.htm

The people running it are very friendly and helpful and our tour guide was really knowledgeable and sweet. We watched a movie about the farm and then wandered around an enclosed butterfly garden that was filled with hundreds of different butterflies. My favorite were the brilliant blue morphos that glitter almost an iridescent blue as they fly. It’s hard to capture pictures of them because when they land their wings are folded with only a rather dull brown side showing. The guide showed us all kinds of tiny eggs and newly hatched caterpillars on plants; most of which we would never have noticed or realized they were eggs.

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Then it was on to look at the caterpillars and all the types of chrysalises for varying butterflies. The range is amazing and beautiful to look at. Many look like jewels hanging. We saw quite a few in mid-hatch or waiting for their wings to dry before flying off.

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The last stop is the packing room where we watched women counting and checking (with a bright light) all kinds of chrysalises and then packing them into foam filled boxes ready to be shipped around the world. The butterflies take 10-15 days to hatch and so they can ship them quickly to exhibits in Europe and the US. They even said some were shipped to Tennessee and we remember seeing some identified as being from Costa Rica in the Chattanooga Aquarium butterfly garden.

We did think it a little sad that the butterflies won’t lay eggs unless they have the correct plants on which to do so and thus they simply die and are replaced by new ones in the worldwide exhibits. I guess it’s job and financial security for the Butterfly Farm.
Anyway it is a neat place with wonderful butterflies and a good chance to learn more about the whole cycle. The children really enjoyed this place so thanks Gramps!

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Britt Coffee trip

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Grandma and Charlotte

We had another trip back to the Britt Coffee Tour with Grandma today. It’s somewhat slapstick but the people running the tour are very pleasant and comfortable cracking jokes in both English and Spanish. It’s neat seeing and learning so much about coffee after years of drinking it rather ignorantly. The coffee pickers use pannier/baskets attached to their waists so they can pick the coffee with both hands. A large basket ends up holding 25 pounds of beans which eventually equates to 200 cups of coffee. A fast and skilled picker can harvest 10 – 15 baskets a day (they only pick in the morning so the beans can start being processed in the afternoon). The beans are washed and then patio dried and roasted for various times. Beans destined for decaf coffee are sent to Germany from here as the equipment to take out the caffeine costs millions and Costa Rica does not have the resources for it. After the caffeine is removed, the beans are sent back for roasting and packaging. The caffeine ends up as a white powder and put into soft drinks and medicines etc. We also discovered that using fully boiling water in a coffee press makes the wax on the bean dissolve and leads to headaches and stomach aches – the water should be just under boiling for best results.

Coffee Plant:

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This time the tour was quite full with people from all over Europe, US and South America. It was interesting to see the wide mix. The tour also includes lunch in a really good onsite restaurant. It’s some of the better food we have had here with fresh salads and soups plus salmon and vegetables. The soup was roasted pumpkin and green tomato which turned out to be delicious.
We all had cappuccinos and iced coffees for the children afterwards. Charlotte (2) loved hers and by 4 pm still wouldn’t take a nap and was overly animated and bouncy – obviously they didn’t use the beans that had vacationed in Germany!

Post Trip Tea Party on the balcony of our house:


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Guanacaste Beach Trip

Well it was off to another beach for four days this last week. This time we went to the Guanacaste area, specifically Panama Beach in the Papagayo Gulf which is up on the northwest/Pacific Ocean side of Costa Rica. The drive took about five hours from our northwest of San Jose starting point (Santa Barbara). Most of it is on Highway 1 which I have mentioned before and not exactly what you would envision as the major highway through Central America. But happily further north it actually flattens out and is wider and much more pleasant to drive. It goes through fields and dry forests with volcanoes and mountains further off in the distance. A really pleasant drive actually.

Tame Deer at restaurant
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We stopped on the way at a restaurant just past the town of Canas called Hacienda de Pacifica and what a neat little jewel in the middle of the forest. It was an old farm owned by a prior president of Costa Rica and now a restaurant. The food was good but the open dining room and lovely old furnishings and outdoor decks were just lovely. Plus there were tame deer wandering around as well as chickens, ducks and geese. The children fed the deer by hand and fought off the rather aggressive chickens – Charlotte was very scared of them! A children’s playground and various cages of iguanas and parrots also entertained the little ones. It really makes a nice stop.

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The main town in the area is Liberia which our brief excursions to found it a nice place with all the basic necessities. One day we went for supplies and ended up eating at a Peruvian restaurant. The food was excellent and really flavorful. I think this is our favorite in the whole trip! I had octopus on a bed of mashed potatoes covered in tons of crispy garlic – delicious. Potatoes figured heavily in the menu as did corn and garlic. Everything was excellent and I am going to have to find a Peruvian cookbook to try out some recipes at home.


Anyway Panama Beach is about 20 minutes further on from Liberia and past the airport. We found a lovely hotel (not part of a large chain) which was about the same price as big or small ones; $100 a night per room or so.

http://www.grupocasaconde.com/en/ccm/tarifas.aspx

The hotel was right on the beach and had lovely pools. Little clusters of four rooms were around the grounds and each room had huge vaulted ceilings with teak beams and wooden chandeliers. They also had televisions, coffee makers and hot water in each room. Sadly they also had the requisite ant problems that seem to plague every place we have stayed here. But very clean rooms and helpful staff.

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Hotel grounds looking toward the beach.

The grounds were lovely and we saw howler monkeys next to our building and more types of geckoes and lizards than I have ever seen in one location. Brilliant greens, browns, striped, spotted – incredible. There were also lots of big iguanas, one of which hung out often on the swim up bar and could really make you jump if you did actually swim up to it!

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Hotel pool jacuzzi cave and waterfalls (the children are inside)

There was a restaurant on site and a nice breakfast is included. We had dinner there and found it OK but very over priced for the quality. And do NOT order the house white wine as we were stunned to discover this was $10 a glass – and tiny glasses they were of very poor plonk. But it was nice to not have to leave the hotel at night and to be able to sit overlooking the ocean and palm trees to eat. The downside of the open plan was again the presence of unwelcome guests – a few flying cockroachy things and crabs scuttling around and of course many geckos.

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Panama Beach

The hotel had a private entrance to the beach complete with armed guard. The bay is beautiful with sweeping beaches and hills dotted with small villas. Again though the sand is not wonderful as it’s black and kind of muddy/silt that sticks unpleasantly to your feet. The water had a lot of small pieces of sticks and debris in it the first day but cleared up later. Another big river ran into the ocean in the bay and of course fills it with all the run off. The beaches were pretty empty but it was during the week and in the green (rainy) season and we hear they get pretty full at weekends.

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Ben on Panama Beach

The weather was somewhat rainy but only for two evenings and since we had spent all of the days in the pool and wandering the beach we really didn’t mind. The hotel provides large umbrellas in stands to help get you from building to building and each block of rooms has lovely outside patio areas to sit out in. This was the first place we really had to use insect repellant though as the mosquitoes were pretty heavy. It’s nice not to be bothered with them in the Central Valley region and we shall miss sitting outside and not being eaten by bugs as we do in Tennessee!


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Max in ocean.

So lovely pools and hotel grounds, beautiful beach to look at, monkeys and lizards and jungle look, average food, and pleasant drive made this a nice break.

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July 11, 2008

Birds up on Poaz Volcano

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Ben shot some nice bird pictures yesterday when we were up at La Paz Waterfalls on the side of Poaz Volcano.

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This toucan was a little crazy. It sat on the ground and attacked our feet when we were trying to get past. It really went after Mark and bit him on the leg!

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La Paz Waterfall gardens

We spent the day yesterday at the Waterfall Gardens and we all thought it one of the best days out we have had here. The waterfalls are about one hour from Santa Barbara on the upper slopes of Poaz Volcano.

http://www.waterfallgardens.com/lapaz-waterfallgardenspark.html

We spent some time wandering around the grounds looking at hummingbirds, butterflies, monkeys, and in the aviary. These huge exhibits you walked around in were really lovely and filled with wildlife and beautiful trees and flowers. The butterfly exhibit currently “only” had about 2000 butterflies in it and sometimes they have up to 5000 (honestly 2000 was enough to keep you wanting to swat them away from your face – smile).

Beautiful Grounds

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The morphos were really docile and landed on us easily. Plus the exhibits of caterpillars and cocoons were amazing and very well marked. We saw loads of them in various stages of forming cocoons or coming out. Neat and I have to say they had more exhibits than did the actual Butterfly Farm.

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The birds were neat and Ben even had parrots land on his head as he was wearing a bright red baseball hat and they seemed interested in it. There were quite a few toucans and one of them decided the path was off limits to people. It pecked nastily at feet (not mine as I have to say I’m no bird lover and thus waved my umbrella at him before he got a run at me). Mark got bitten on the leg so let us hope they don’t carry some kind of nasty avian flu or rabies.

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Max on the way down to a waterfall.

Snakes, frogs, monkeys, and tons of hummingbirds were all easily seen and we even got to ride in an ox-cart. The driver said the children and I should stand in it for pictures and suddenly decided we should also have a ride and took off. Tricky holding on as it tilted backwards and there was no back to the cart. Then both oxen of course had to produce copious amounts of dung just a foot or so from our line of vision to the front. But despite that it was quite fun and the children enjoyed it despite the smell.

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So after all that we hit the falls. There are steep steps and paths that lead down into the valley and you walk down and along the river and falls. It’s very narrow and wet and slippery but there is a good handrail the whole way. Charlotte did pretty well but Mark carried her down most of it. Grandma and I did alright but were very tired at the end. It didn’t help that we were trying to hold the huge umbrellas over our heads as we walked. I thought at first it was raining but we realized that it was actually a cloud that we were walking into. The falls are at about 4200 to 5200 feet and it gets a little chilly there; more so when you are wet. Of course we didn’t have all the snazzy hiking gear and fancy rain jackets that lots of the numerous American visitors there did. We actually looked more like the Costa Ricans who seemed dressed as casually as we were. And it was just fine. Little damp but we dried quickly and the samples of hot coffee at the ending gift shop were very welcome.

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We also ate lunch there at the buffet and it was pretty good (but then we were very hungry and tired so may have had jaded taste buds). They had a nice fireplace in the restaurant and it was lovely to sit looking at that and then over the valley at the rolling clouds/fog that had the place socked in.
Oh and at the end of the trail we were sitting waiting for the shuttle bus to take us back to our car and there were lots of coatimundis and a lone racoon wandering around the hillside and eating bananas. The mothers had a few babies each and they were really sweet. Our children were delighted.


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Parque Diversiones

Today we headed off again and took the children to Parque Diversions which is on the way to San Jose and just off the highway. It is a big amusement park we accidentally heard about last week and really wish it had been more widely published or even in one of the many guidebooks we read! Not a word in any of the books that I can see. Oh well.

Unfortunately it is the local school’s mid-term holiday and so the place was packed – no tourists here (probably as it isn’t in the darn books). There were quite a lot of large rides as well as the smaller, kid ones that Charlotte and Max enjoyed. Ben and his dad took off to ride roller coasters but given the crowds only managed two rides in 2.5 hours so were a bit discouraged. The rains came as they do everyday and we waited out under umbrellas and thick trees so were fine. It was too crowded to go inside the food areas with wall-to-wall people so we made do with popcorn, ice cream and the wonderful unripe mango strips that are sold here. We love these. It’s like a big cup of shaved pieces of green mango and then you choose toppings which usually include lemon/lime, salt and pepper, vinegar and hot chillis. Given how much we all love normal, sweet mangos (and those are delicious here too) it’s funny how we have also developed a taste for these too. Even the kids happily chomp thru cups of pickly mango. Yum.

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Within the park there is an older, traditional town square with buildings that were dated from mid 1800s. There were dancing exhibitions and Charlotte was mesmerized by the swirling outfits of the Costa Rican dancers.


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So it was a nice day but if we had a chance to do it again I would certainly NOT go when schools are not in session if possible. Crowds and the extreme noise and wait times on rides were not pleasant.

A beautiful tiled mural in the traditional town square at the park:

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July 14, 2008

Heredia

One of the largest cities in Costa Rica, after San Jose, is Heredia. Actually it is hard to determine where one leaves off and the other starts as the towns run into each other in this area.

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Heredia has a big university and is a busy place. It has a lovely square complete with church, fountains and pigeons. One of the children's favorite things is to buy bags of corn and feed the pigeons and to eat the shave ice from the carts there. We have learned to limit the leche on the shave ice as they liberally pour powdered milk, condensed milk and syrup over ice. It's delicious for the first few bites but the sugar rush leaves you shaking for hours!

Pictures here of Heredia church:

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July 16, 2008

INBioparque

Had another fun outing the other day to the National Biodiversity Institute – INBioparque.

http://www.inbio.ac.cr/inbioparque/es/index_eng.html

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This was our second trip as we had enjoyed it the first time and wanted to take Grandma back. The park is a research institute that has opened sections up to the public as a “theme” park. It actually is comprised of a lake with fish and alligators, butterfly garden, small aquarium, maze, snakes, spiders, children’s playground (two of them that had grass underneath instead of the usual concrete), and a great farm area. In the farm this time they had a big petting zoo area with a very exuberant man running it. He leaped around dressing us up in Costa Rican hats and aprons for Charlotte and I and then kept pushing animals into our arms and even chicks onto shoulders; parrot style.

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He gave the little ones a bottle of milk to feed the baby kids and lambs and the animals went at it with gusto. Ben enjoyed holding the rabbits and keeps saying he thinks we should get a couple of them (he has forgotten the damage our previous bunnies did around our house to curtains, electrical cords and even chewing all the buttons off a remote control!).

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Max and Charlotte rode a horse and enjoyed that. And the cow there is a big softy and moans loudly to be petted and have its ears rubbed. So the children had a lovely time and we enjoyed the good weather and wandering around a nice park. Oh and we also found this one area that we hadn’t been in last time that was an exhibit about all the medicines the institute has produced from rain forest herbs and “granny” folk remedies. They actually have created medication in pill form for all kinds of illnesses and these are available in the pharmacies here.


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Charlotte's Web:

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First trip to INBioparque

Some pictures from our first trip to the INBioparque. Here is a lurking crocodile in the lagoon:

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Petting the very friendly farm animals:

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July 18, 2008

Finally good food

After all these weeks we actually found two really good restaurants within about three days of each other and I have a new type of food I love. I'm sorry to say that Costa Rica is not a foodie vacation spot as the food here is, well, bad - sorry CR!

There is basically one main "typical" dish that is on every menu and this consists of black beans, rice, fried plantains, sometimes a fried egg, and may include fried white cheese or chicken. Some versions of this are quite nice but after our 10th restaurant where this is the primary food we have become somewhat disillusioned with black beans! There is fish available -- one type -- corvina (sea bass) and this is done in about 5 different ways at just about every restaurant and served with fries and if lucky, a slice of tomato and lettuce leaf. But on to better things.

When leaving Irazu Volcano the other day (will post about that soon) we saw a sign marked Volcano Museum and Restaurant so pulled in. The place was empty except for three gamboling Labradors and a sweet youngish couple. We sat in a covered patio outside (it is chilly up there but warm with the sun hitting the patio roof) and there was a large children's play area and swings etc. The little ones loved it and the dogs turned out to be big softies who mooched politely with huge brown eyes gazing at our food. We were forced to share tidbits and the dogs rolled, leaned against us, and allowed children's hugs and loves. And the food was really good. Excellent soups and salads and a fried cornmeal pancake thing with locally made soft cheese that was very rich but delicious. The vegetables were all supposed to be locally grown which was nice and believable given the surrounding mountain sides are all fields of various crops.

Max with one of the restaurant labs:

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So then the next discovery actually came from two restaurants, both having Peruvian food. I am searching for a cook book with these recipes as we had the most delicious food. Potatoes figure prominently and are often paired with seafood, which given I'm British and love my fish and chips, seems like a natural connection!

A couple of dishes: sauteed baby octopus in various spices over mashed potatoes with loads of crunchy fried garlic pieces; mixed shellfish with a roasted red pepper sauce over garlic mashed potatoes, flash fried (like a fajita pan) potatoes, peppers and squid; slightly spice seafood soups with different (and delicious) spices that I'm going to have to look up, steak with cheese and mushrooms (actually much nicer than it sounds), and ceviche with mixed seafood and sweet potatoes, corn and red onions.

Usually I can identify ingredients and spices in the types of food I eat often such as Indian/Thai/Italian... but this had new things that were really good and have me wanting to explore recipes. So if anyone knows a good cook book for Peruvian food or a restaurant in the US please let me know!

Slopes of Irazu that are filled with fields of crops:

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January 10, 2009

Earthquake

I just wanted to post this about the earthquake that hit Costa Rica two days ago. This was very close to where we were staying and we hope everyone is doing OK. We heard from the person we rented from that his house and friends are fine. It is the very poor who suffer as their houses are usually much more susceptible to damage.


http://www.amcostarica.com/

Continue reading "Earthquake" »

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