Sunday, April 28, 2013

Vamos a la Playa

Last weekend was our last weekend away. Being the last one of three, I think that everyone was a bit torn about where to go. For those of us going home right after the program, this was our last chance to see Costa Rica on our own and for everyone it was a last fling before Directed Research began. My group of friends decided to go to Manuel Antonio for my friend Lauren’s birthday. For most students, a requirement for destination was that it had to have a beach. Ours fit the bill, and had a national park with lots of monkey spottings to boot.

We set out for Manuel Antonio early on Saturday morning, arriving at the bus stop before 7 (although  I was sweating it, sometimes it is hard to get everyone out the door at such an early hour). I was a admittedly dragging because I had stayed up watching Lord of the Rings the night before as a part of our three movies, one day LOTR marathon (this isn’t a regular thing for us, but it was pretty epic). But, I was able to sleep away an hour of the bus ride and read or look at scenery for most of the rest. When we got there we literally didn’t have a game plan which made me nervous. But, we figured out the connecting bus to get Manuel Antonio and then wandered upon a very pretty, inexpensive hotel that had vacancy. I have definitely learned to be more relaxed about traveling while here. Also, the hotel offered Wifi, hot water, clean towels, and air conditioning which is about all that a student traveling in Costa Rica could want.


Hotel Almendros: left, the blue tiled pool; right, the rows of rooms

We went to the beach for the afternoon. The stretch of beach near where we stayed was very unique, it had nice sand but also lots of pebbles and small shells right along the shore. It started to rain around 2; afternoon rains are a regular occurrence during the wet season. We still stayed on the beach for a while though. I went back and took a shower and then napped in the cool room. Later, we went to a restaurant for warm beverages and birthday cake. The drinks were good but the cake was amazing! It was vanilla cake with a dulce de leche filling and lots of sugary colored icing. Lauren was not surprised (because we hauled the cake around for much of the day) but loved the cake nonetheless.


Lauren and Cynthia as we sang “Happy Birthday” to Lauren

That night, we went to dinner and then went out on the town because the birthday girl wanted to find a place to dance. We went to nearby Quepos, where there was much more nightlife than Manuel Antonio, and found a place called Republik, a Cuban disco-lounge. We danced for several hours; I will readily admit I am not a great dancer but it was fun to dance with my friends and the Costa Rican music was fun to listen to regardless. I crawled into bed around 2 or 2:30 which is very unusual for me. But, my old soul needs to branch out every once in a while.


The next day, my friend Elizabeth and I were eager to go to Manuel Antonio National Park. On the way to the park, we stopped a hostel with a sign out front advertising a big breakfast for $4. We figured it would be fast and cheap so decided to go for it. It surpassed my expectations! I had black tea, a pancake, watermelon, pineapple, a banana, gallo pinto, and eggs. All of it was actually good quality and the two plate breakfast was very filling.


We bought some snacks, including aloe water (a new favorite of mine), at the grocery store and then kept walking to the park. We paid the entrance fee and then started to walk to the main trails. We scanned all along the trail for animals; the park is known for sloth and monkey sightings. Some cool animals that we saw included a treeful of playful squirrel monkeys, a well-disguised green vine snake, clever white-faced capuchin monkeys, crab-eating raccoons, and some crabs. After we first saw the squirrel monkeys and watched them for fifteen minutes, I already knew that my ten dollars was money well spent. Squirrel monkeys are officially my favorite kind of monkeys.

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Left: a squirrel monkey in a tree that was full of about ten monkeys; right: a capuchin monkey laying on a limb

We followed cool, shady trails down to beaches that surrounded the park. We hiked to Playa Gamelas, Playa Manuel Antonio, and Playa Espadilla Sur. The beaches were beautiful and all unique; Playa Gamelas was rocky and hidden in a cove, Playa Manuel Antonio was sandy and the most crowded, and Playa Espadilla Sur had beautiful views of islands right off the coast. We spent our last hour in the park playing in the water and building a sandcastle.


Playa Gamelas


Elizabeth and I at Playa Gamelas in the national park


A map of the park

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Left: a view of the beach from the trail; right: snails on rocks lining the shore of the beach


A brightly colored crab on a tree

I just got back yesterday from a directed research trip to study hummingbirds in the Monteverde area, more on this soon!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Getting Some Culture in San Jose

San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica. It is the historical and cultural center of Costa Rica. Therefore, when I was thinking about what I wanted from this day trip on the bus I wasn’t exactly sure but I knew I wanted to see the cultural and historical side of Costa Rica that I frankly hadn’t seen much of yet. I had seen no real Costa Rican art or music; only three movies have ever been produced in Costa Rica and I had been fortunate enough to watch one of those in Spanish class; the architecture didn’t really stand out in places I had visited; the food was good but didn’t seem embedded with history and tradition or even tons of flavor. Although I had been living here for over two months, I wanted to make sure that in my last month, I had gotten a true taste of what Costa Rica is.


The Artesans’ Market


La Avenida Central

Fast forward a few hours and I was sitting in the classiest Pizza Hut I have ever visited, in San Jose. It was about the last place I had imagined myself; but, I cannot say that begrudged the cheese personal pan pizza that I ordered. Also, I was with five of my closest friends here and we were simply sticking to our theme for the day, “Everyone gets what they want.” Lliterally everyone got to pick something that they really wanted to do and we did it. My request was to “get some culture” by visiting the Teatro Nacional and getting warm beverages/dessert there. My friend Lauren’s was to go to Pizza Hut; thus, we ended up at Pizza Hut and not having eaten pizza in two months, I have to say that enjoyed the reliably good pizza(certainly not spectacular, I will have to wait for Mellow Mushroom for my favorite).One of my other friends, Sarah D., had a burning desire to go to Subway for her lunch (Sarah S. shared this wish too). It was interesting to see how a Costa Rican Subway varied from a United States Subway; it looked basically the same but there were more exciting options like a seafood sub or gallo pinto for breakfast. Tori wanted to get her second holes and cartilage pierced. By the time we found the least sketchy piercing place, everyone else had decided they wanted piercings too, except for me and Lauren (she was scared of getting an infectious disease while I just didn’t have a desire to get another piercing). Unfortunately, Tori had to have one of her holes pierced twice to get it in the right place, but eventually everyone was happy with their new piercings. Sarah S. wanted to go shopping and we did lots of that; she even ended up with a leopard print romper. We strolled down the Avenida Central which was a pedestrian street (we didn’t have to worry about crazy Tico drivers thankfully) and stopped at clothing stores, shoe stores, and markets. I only got some last souvenirs (a patch for my backpack) and gummies from a store called Bee Sweet. The British candy store had every kind of gummy you could imagine; I bought frog, dolphin, egg, pepper (it actually had a hint of spice), and a slice of pizza gummies. All were delicious but I especially enjoyed the dolphin and frog. Louisa is very chill and didn’t really have a burning desire, although she jokingly said that it was for us all to get our tongues pierced.


Correo Central- the old Post Office Building

For what my wish, we walked to the Plaza de Cultura and were amazed by the regal Teatro Nacional. It is considered the most historical building in San Jose; its construction was finished in 1897 and there are still performances held there regularly. It starkly stood out from the stores in the vicinity and the plaza full of people. I was so excited to be there. The theater is a symbol of wealth from the time when the “coffee oligarchy”informally ruled Costa Rica’s political and social spheres. Going inside, it was very ornate; there were frescoes on the ceiling with angels and clouds. Beautiful marble statues of famous composers like Beethoven lined the lobby. Rather than paying to enter, we explored the lobby and spent just as much on dessert and drinks in the fancy café instead.


Left: the entrance to lobby of the theater; right: the fresco on the ceiling in the café featuring the Costa Rican flag


Left: queque zanahoria (carrot cake, with cream cheese frosting and slivered almonds); right: agua dulce con especias (sugar cane tea with spices)


Left: the café; right: Tori and Lauren sampling each other’s desserts


Sarah D. and Sarah S., it seems like the three Sarah’s always sit beside each other

I ordered the carrot cake and agua dulce  with spices (sugar cane tea). The carrot cake was really good, it was slightly less sweet but more spiced than the American version (I had already found this out though so my expectations were adjusted) and more like a quick bread than a cake. It also didn’t have as much icing because it was baked like a bundt cake. But, regardless, it was still very delicious with the cream cheese frosting and large shreds of carrot and lots of raisins. I definitely would order it again (although they also had some caramel mousse and tiramisu that I had my eye on); I also sampled a friend’s apple pie which was surprisingly good and served warm with ice cream. The agua dulce was less sweet than the last time I tried it (and I opted for the version without milk) but tasted akin to spiced cider. It was a nice complement to the cake. I think it has become obvious why we joked that we ate every hour (we also went to a café before lunch but I just can’t eat/drink tea all the time).


Gummies: dolphin, frog, pizza, egg, and chile pepper

We got back to the Center by 8 at night and it was nice to make a relaxing dinner and just hang out. Overall, it was a great girls’ day in San Jose. I couldn’t have asked for a better Saturday; it is always nice to be independent and just explore.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Santa Rosa: A Visit to the Dry Forest

Santa Rosa National Park was the first national park established in Costa Rica. The park is located in Guanacaste, in the very Northwest of Costa Rica. As we embarked on our trip there, one thing in the back of all of mine and my friends’ minds the whole time was that this was our last field trip all together. Although saddened by this remembrance, we were all very excited to actually camp out. Most of us had camped and had some wilderness experiences; we had expected to do more camping this semester so we were extra ready to be out in the wilderness. I personally was ready to use the sleeping pad and sleeping bag that I had yet to use but that had taken up half of one of my suitcases.


A view from the lookout that we hiked to on the way to our second campsite

When we arrived at Santa Rosa National Park, we rode through a forest unlike what we had seen so far in Costa Rica. Most people imagine Costa Rica as a country covered in rain forest with brightly colored flora and fauna, full of life. However, this was not at all like that typical view of Costa Rica.


Our campsite

When we first got to our campsite, it hit us just how hot it was here in the dry forest. We set up our tents and had lunch. Then, the lethargy set in as the heat escalated after lunch; some of us slept and others read (I was obsessed with Divergent at the time). We hiked through the dry forest. It was so different from anything else I have seen here, most of the trees drop their leaves as an adaptation to the six-month dry season so the trees were bare. There were also cacti and the vegetation was not lush or particularly beautiful. But, the highlight of the hike was seeing a tree full of white-faced capuchin monkeys! They were so cute; there were lots of babies too.


Hiking through the dry forest




Students that act like monkeys

We hiked to La Casona, a museum that is a replica of the original house (it burned to the ground by arsonists in 2001). William Walker fought against the Costa Rican army here in 1856 and was quickly defeated. The museum takes visitors back to 1856 and a day in the life of a cook or a cowboy of the time that would have been at La Casona. It also detailed the battle and William Walker’s manifest destiny-driven campaign across Central America, mainly Nicaragua and Costa Rica. We had a Natural Resources Management class outside of La Casona and then hiked back. There was spaghetti for dinner; seriously, always having spaghetti is the main thing I don’t like about camping. An after dinner lecture and then a night hike. My professor, Edgardo who is a bird expert, caught a Night Jar (a kind of bird found in Costa Rica that nest on the ground) with his bare hands. His agility and ability to handle the bird was amazing. They have a really large mouth and interesting coloration. We also saw a spectacled owl; the way that it could move without  sound was slightly unsettling but also fascinating. No tapir though; I was really holding out hope for seeing one of these unique mammals but alas it didn’t happen.


La Casona

The next day we hiked 13 kilometers to our campsite by Playa Naranja. It was a really easy but nice hike. When we got there, the beach was our first priority; I walked out onto the beach and then down to La Piedra Bruja (The Witch’s Rock). The waves were huge and the ocean (Pacific Ocean) ranged in color from aquamarine to emerald green. It was mesmerizing to just watch the braves break in this place with renowned surfing and infamous rip tides (we were not allowed to swim for safety reasons but were allowed to wade in to our knees). After the nice long walk on the beach, with sore legs I settled into reading for a bit before lunch. Then, I collected tamarind from a nearby tree with some other students. This is a fruit that comes in a pod; you eat the flesh around the seeds by sucking on the sour fruit. It is delicious and some people even add it to water to give it flavor. Class and then another lazy afternoon. I played hearts with some friends, helped prepare dinner, and took a short walk on the beach. Most of us went on the beach to see the sun set. It was breathtaking; I don’t think I had ever seen the sun set over the Pacific Ocean. I was struck by a fierce dragon and unfortunately the only bathroom was an outhouse. We had to carry our own toilet paper and then use our own hand sanitizer. I think it might be a long time before I can venture into an outhouse or port-a-john again.


Rip tide warning sign by the beach


Tori and me in the ocean

Another early morning (“breakfast” or whatever food was left was at 5) so that we could pack up and hike back before it got too hot. Another nice walk and interesting conversation. When we got to the main park building, I joined everyone else in eating ice cream. I had some of the best I have had here. It was a prepackaged Cero Grados (Zero Degrees). This is dulce de leche ice cream in a ring shape, covered in chocolate, and mounted on a stick. It was amazing after being so hot and tired. We played cards and read until lunch. The trip back to the Center was quiet, as most people sleep on the bus, and I was able to reflect on my time abroad. I thought about how fortunate I was to be there and although it was our last field trip together and with the professors, we have so much to look forward to. Long weekends away, directed research (I am studying hummingbirds at Monteverde), making pizza in the pizza oven, and just bonding with my friends, learning from each other.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Spring Break Part 2: Adventures in La Fortuna

By the time we got to La Fortuna, we were tired from traveling and it had started to rain. We went to a random hostel and inquired about staying there because our reservations for La Fortuna Backpackers Hostel did not start until the next night. Unfortunately, the first hostel we tried was full. We were very fortunate though to meet a nice lady working there who called almost every hostel in La Fortuna trying to find a room for six soaking wet girls with a mountain of luggage standing desperately in front of her. She eventually found us a room at Chill Out Backpackers’ Hostel. We had our own private room with three bunks and a bathroom in the room. We were most excited about the lukewarm water in the shower and fresh towels (ours smelled like a a mixture between stinky feet and must from not drying in Puerto Viejo). I was very tired and not feeling well so stayed in the room with Hannah to watch Quantum of Solace and eat snacks in our pajamas. It was exactly what I needed.

The next morning, we woke up and had a free breakfast of eggs and toast at the hostel. But, what was more exciting than the free breakfast was the puppies that belonged to the owners. I was just eating breakfast when I spotted three adorable chow mix puppies clumsily walking through the grass. We played with them for at least an hour while discussing spirit animals; my friends said I was a dolphin (I was very flattered!). After breakfast, the kind owners of the hostel personally drove us to the clinic so that Hannah could get her toe checked out (she had stubbed it badly and didn’t want it to get infected).  We went to a coffee shop called My Coffee Lounge to use the Internet and indulge in smoothies and hot beverages. I had wonderful hot chocolate that was definitely homemade but not too rich. It was served very hot in a glass mug. My other friend Tori wasn’t feeling well so we checked into the next hostel, La Fortuna Backpackers, so she could rest. We were not a very healthy group, but I consider myself fortunate that I only had small bouts of stomach troubles. The healthy ones of us went to La Choza de Laurel; it ended up being a huge authentic meal, although it was one of the most delicious I ate the whole trip. I split an order of patacones (fried unripe plantains, mashed and fried again) and a typical chicken plate with two friends. Both were great choices and I was very full after eating all of my food. I also really enjoyed the costumes of the waitresses which I assume were traditional Costa Rican dresses. Everything there seemed rustic but very Costa Rican including the drip coffee on tables; this was a spectacle in which waitresses brought huge kettles of hot water to tables and poured it the drip coffee makers to make steaming hot Costa Rican coffee. Also, the small touches like hot pickled vegetables and homemade hot sauce really elevated the meal. We figured out our activities for the next few days in the afternoon and then ended up shopping and going to a chocolate shop (the Bailey’s truffle was decadent!). I think you can tell that I fit right in with my group of friends!


Sarai, Sarah S., and Hannah with the puppies


The tan one was my favorite, it was so fluffy!


Ready to go outside our hostel


Hot Chocolate  at My Coffee Place; it was a deliciously creamy and scalding hot


Lunch at La Choza de Laurel; clockwise from top left, patacones with guacamole, pico de gallo, and refried beans (it came with three huge patacones but Cynthia and I couldn’t keep our hands off of them before I took the picture), La Choza Typical Plate (I split it so it was twice this much food- rice, beans, grilled sweet plantain, mixed chayote and corn, salad, corn, hardboiled egg, and chicken), the huge dining area in the restaurant, hot pickled vegetables (I liked the onions and carrots the best)

On Friday, we tried a new restaurant for breakfast called Rainforest Café (not in at all like the one at Disney World). I tried the Agua Dulce con leche caliente (Sugar Cane Tea with hot milk), a specialty drink that I had wanted to try ever since we helped use the trapiche to extract sugar cane juice at El Sur. Although it was very sweet, I did enjoy the distinct flavor of the sugar cane as opposed to regular processed sugar. That afternoon, I went horseback riding. My horse’s name was Palomo, which means pigeon in English (still trying to figure out the reasoning behind that one). He was a heather gray color and made a nice ride although he always wanted to be near the front of the pack. Under the instruction of two local guides, we rode about 30 or 45 minutes to a place where we dismounted and changed into our swimsuits. We hiked about 20 minutes to the La Fortuna Waterfall. It was beautiful and more awe-inspiring than other waterfalls I had seen so far this semester. We waded a little ways and then climbed some rocks to get to the pool with the waterfall. The water was crystal clear but took my breath away when I stepped in it was so cold. The rush of the waterfall created a strong outward current in the water and made for fun swimming as long as you didn’t get too close. On the way back, we stopped at a Maleku village; Maleku is the only indigenous tribe in the North of Costa Rica (there are 23 in the South, mainly on the Caribbean side). We learned a little bit about their culture (“capi, capi” and holding up your fist means, “Hello, I hope you are doing well”). During the trip, I was able to have some surprisingly good Spanish conversations with one of my guides, Alonzo, and my shuttle driver. I think that much of my improvement in Spanish is just being more confident and not worrying too much about the correct tenses, etc. but just trying to speak without reserve. Later, all of us went to Restaurant Los Nenes for a nice dinner (it was Sarai’s last night with us). We ended up seeing a friend there with her parents; it’s a small world. The restaurant itself was very nice; the waiter was very attentive (unlike most other restaurants in Costa Rica, but tips are included in the bill so that could explain it) and even set in front of each of us the exact pieces of silverware we would need for our meal. Also, some dishes were brought out on fire and they would dim the lights as the whole restaurant focused on the table and excited patron the dish was destined for. I ordered a heart of palm salad, which was very fresh and beautifully presented, and the fish ceviche, one of the house specialties for a reason. Although already full, we got ice cream afterwards. I had a scoop of dulce de leche and a scoop of passion cake ice cream. I especially loved the latter, I want to try to make that cake!


Agua dulce, a good start to the morning


Left, a view of the mountains (Arenal Volcano is to the right out of the frame); right, La Fortuna Waterfall, where we went to swim


Left, the horses; right, me and Palomo


Left, masks hand-painted by members of the Maleku tribe; right, huts at the village


Left, heart of palm salad with balsamic vinegar and olive oil; right, fish ceviche with tortilla chips and a creamy sauce


Arenal Volcano with a halo effect created by afternoon clouds


Spring break group


All three “Sarah”s

Sunday morning was Easter. As I was eating breakfast (typically guayaba, trail mix, and tropical fruit yogurt), I heard singing coming from a nearby church; it was really beautiful and made me feel connected to the holiday and my faith. I had never spent Easter with people that don’t celebrate but that moment and my own personal time that morning were really important for remembering the importance of the day. We said goodbye to Adopted Sarai early in the morning. Around 11, we went to Baldi Hot Springs for the day. Our passes were for 10 am to 10 pm and included a meal; we were determined to make the most of the much anticipated hot springs and spend all day there. There are 25 pools that were heated by hot springs and had varying temperatures; also, in case the hot pools were not enough, there was a huge jacuzzi, several cold pools, water falls, three slides, a sauna, and several swim-up bars. We explored everything there and I absolutely cannot pick a favorite part. I could literally sit in hot water until I am about to faint but tried to pace myself and took some time to lay out on the chairs and explore the gardens. I treated myself to reading a Costa Rican food magazine, Sabores, I bought at the MegaSuper and we all had a ridiculously expensive but delicious cocktail at the swim-up bar. The buffet dinner was also wonderful; I enjoyed the plethora of options, especially the salad, fruit, hummus, and tea.


Baldi Hot Springs (it still eludes me why the fat lady is placed at the entrance)

Monday was April Fools’ Day. Unfortunately, no pranks or practical jokes were played. We did have a delicious brunch at Soda Ara. Sodas are small restaurants that serve cheap, authentic food and usually have quick service. I ordered an omelet with the fruit plate. I did not realize how much food I ordered until my plates came out. The fruit was some of the best I have had in Costa Rica; it was all cold and arranged beautifully on the plate, including banana, mango (which I think I might actually like now), pineapple, and watermelon. The omelet was a classic combination of ham and cheese; it was also far bigger than I had guessed. But, I managed to clean my plate and be full the rest of the day. Two buses, two taxi rides, and six hours later we were back at the Center. All of us were very tired but excited to see our friends and hear about their spring breaks. Like all good things, spring break had to come to end but it is definitely a week that I will always remember and cherish.