Friday, November 23, 2001
Hola Amigos y Familia,
Although we were sad to leave Villa Decary and our new friends, by 11:30 on November 13 we were packed and ready to go. Bill and Jeff were due back by noon, and we wanted to hit the road soon after they returned so that we could make it to Monteverde before dark. At 11:45 we got a call from Jeff saying the van they hired to bring them home had broken down on the other side of Fortuna and they were still waiting for the replacement van to arrive.
When Jeff and Bill finally arrived at 2:00, we had a quick lunch, talked briefly about our experiences at Villa Decary and their travels through Peru and Brazil, and reviewed the bookkeeping. After saying heartfelt goodbyes to Bill and Jeff and the staff, Jim, Mark, Paula and I hit the road about 3:30 for the nearly four-hour drive to Monteverde.
It gets dark between 5:30 and 6:00, and the road to Monteverde is legendary for its poor condition. We hurried through Tilaran, the last real city before Monteverde and the best chance for buying diesel fuel. A couple hours into the drive we started wondering if we had enough diesel to make it to Monteverde.
We came to a wide spot in the road that had a store and a few houses. Mark, the guy among us with the fewest Spanish words in his vocabulary, went in the store to ask if we could buy diesel in town anywhere. Several men came out of the store with him and pointed down the street.
Mark found a shop that did automobile repairs, but there were no gas pumps in sight. I would have driven on by, muttering under my breath that those men could have just admitted there was no gas to be had in this one-horse town, but fortunately, Mark did not. Mark and Jim got out of the car and negotiated the purchase of some diesel. The mechanic poured diesel out of a ten-gallon container through a makeshift funnel, a paper Coca Cola cup with the bottom removed.
With the diesel fuel situation under control, Mark could give his full attention to navigating through the Volkswagen-sized potholes and the ankle-deep mud. (Jim, my censor, pointed out that the mud wasn't ankle deep every where, but he didn't debate the size of some of those potholes.) Given the popularity of Monteverde as a tourist site, it's not surprising that there has been talk of paving the roads. The locals don't want this to happen, fearing that paving the roads to bring even more tourists would change the area for the worse. Our theory was that the rental car companies also oppose paving the roads since there is no way to get to Monteverde without renting an expensive four-wheel-drive vehicle.
Monteverde is a cloud forest, different from a rainforest because of the higher elevation. Monteverde sits at 5000 feet. It's cooler than other parts of Costa Rica, but still pleasant most of the time. The vegetation is similar to what's found in the rainforests around Arenal.
The highlight of our trip to Monteverde was the Skytrek, a tour of the cloud forest canopy on nine zip lines. We put on harnesses and rain jackets, and then hiked through the cloud forest to the first zip line. The guides attached our harnesses to the cables that carried us through or over the tops trees. One at a time, we sat in our harnesses, allowed ourselves to be pushed off the platform, and gave our best Tarzan yell.
The first zip line was the easiest, just 100 feet long and 72 feet high. Each one would get a little longer, a little higher, and a little faster. Midway through the tour we crossed an "Indian Jones" suspension bridge that gave us a great view of the forest. One of the last zip lines was accessed from an exposed and windy observation tower high above the forest. This line was 1400 feet long and 416 feet high. When the people before me stepped off the tower, they totally disappeared into the clouds in a second or two. That was a thrilling ride for me, being alone in a field of white until I dropped below the cloud level enough to see the forest hundreds of feet below me.
In Monteverde we met up with Scott's cousin, Michael, and his wife, Janet. They live in the last house before the Monteverde Reserve. This place is a bird watcher's paradise. In the spring, a family of resplendent quetzals lived nearby. These colorful birds have green tail feathers that are up to 60 centimeters long. We didn't see any quetzals or three-wattled bellbirds while we were there, which is a good enough reason to go back.
We saw a trail of army ants as were leaving Michael and Janet's house. They said sometimes these ants would overrun a house. When that happens, people just move out for a day or so. These ants will eat every insect in the place, so there is an odd advantage to an army ant invasion. When the ants have finished eating all the insects, they move on to the next food source. I wonder if they like scorpions.
Michael and Janet joined us for pizza and beer at Tramonti's. By the end of the meal, we felt like we were saying goodbye to old friends.
I wanted to spend some time in the Reserve, but Mark and Paula told me I had been in charge long enough and we were going to the beach. I accused them of mutiny, but just between you and me, I will admit that no one actually put me in charge. (Unless someone blabs, my secret should be safe since they are email resistant.)
We drove to Playa Flamingo on the Nicoya Peninsula on the Pacific Ocean. Steve, one of our guests at Villa Decary, had invited us to share his 3-bedroom condo on a golf course in Flamingo. Steve is an interesting man with a quick wit and comic view of life. He tells stories and delivers clever one-liners with a Southern drawl. He was concerned that Paula, who is beautiful and fashionably thin, might not survive the next famine. He thought she would make a good summer wife, but she didn't have enough meat on her bones to be a winter wife. I, on the other hand, have enough padding to make a good winter wife.
Mark and Paula opted to stay on the beach and do some scuba diving. They were intrigued by the story a Villa Decary guest had told of diving in the middle of a thousand manta rays just a week before. While the poor visibility and relatively few fish disappointed them, they were still happy to be diving.
Jim and I were quite content with the golf course location. Steve drove us around the golf course in a cart. Steve is what you might call a golf fanatic. He had played this course a couple of times even though the course is still a few weeks from being opened after the rainy season. The rough has some knee-deep grass and the holes haven't been cut in the greens yet. We teed off on the 18th hole, lost several of Steve's balls each, and then shot for Steve's wallet on the green. That one hole was the only golf I've played in over three months, although some of my shots would have suggested I had never held a club before in my life.
We signed up with the Park Service to watch the leatherback turtles lay their eggs on Playa Grande. We were told to arrive at 10 p.m., but that the turtles could come anytime between 10 and 4 a.m., if they come at all. An adult leatherback weighs between 500 to 1000 pounds. The females will lay an average of 82 eggs at a time, building a nest for them on the beach during low tide. The temperature of the nest will determine the sex of every turtle in that nest. The mortality rate for leatherbacks is extremely high, with only a handful out of a thousand ever reaching maturity. Jim, Mark and Steve found out all these cool facts from the guide while Paula and I dozed in the car. We waited until 11:30, but no turtles came. We went home knowing a little bit more about these fascinating creatures, but without seeing one.
Our next stop was at the lovely Sueno del Mar on a private beach in Tamarindo. The owners, Greg and Susan, are friends of Jeff and Bill's. We were looking forward to meeting them. Greg is an outgoing and friendly man, but we didn't get to meet Susan. She was overseeing the work at their new upscale, all-inclusive resort in Malpais they plan to open in February or March. It sounds like a fabulous place, and we plan to include that in our next visit.
We snorkeled and explored the tide pools in the lava beds during low tide. Jim turned over a rock to expose 20 or 25 hairy, black starfishes, and we watched them scurry to a new hiding place. He also spotted a fish that would use its fins to jump up on rocks, enjoy the sun for a few minutes, and then jump back in the water. Jim was fascinated by the sea slugs, sea urchins, colorful fish, limpets, barnacles, oysters, centipedes that live in the water, a couple of different creatures that looked like very large roly poly bugs that walked around on the bottom on or rocks and glued themselves in placed if they were in any way alarmed. I watched the hundreds of hermit crabs head for the water at sunset.
Leaving Sueno del Mar was hard for several reasons. We all enjoyed the beach and didn't feel that we had enough. It also meant that we were at the beginning of the end of our vacation. More than anything, we were leaving new friends we were just getting to know. We lingered as long as we could talking to Linda and Roger, a delightful couple from New York City with a zest for life in spite of their horrifying tales of September 11. Linda said she enjoys keeping in touch via email, so I may have found a life-long friend.
On our drive from Tamarindo to Alajuela, we were stopped at a checkpoint where a policeman asked for our "pasaportes." I handed him Jim's and my passports, which he studied very carefully. The policeman then began talking rather quickly in Spanish, throwing in a few English words like "donation" and "Christmas." It was clear to me what he wanted, but I feigned ignorance anyway, hoping he would give up trying to communicate with us gringos and let us go. Paula blew my cover and said, "He wants a donation for the Christmas party."
Paula and I dug into our wallets and come up with about 800 colones (less than $3) between us. Since we were leaving the country soon, we didn't have much of the foreign currency. The policeman looked at the money and said in perfect English, "Oh, that's cheap!"
Mark threw in another 1000 colones. The policeman waived us on through without even looking at Mark and Paula's passports. Feliz Navidad!
We spent our last night at Vista del Valle, a place that Jim and I fell in love with on our first trip to Costa Rica. It's just about 20 minutes from the airport, but it's in a private, quiet location. Vista del Valle sits on the edge of a valley. Nowhere in the world can you get such a fabulous view while washing your hair as you can in the outdoor shower in their Mona Lisa casita.
The ten days we spent with Mark and Paula were filled with laughter, good food, good times, sunshine and rain. It was the perfect ending to our Costa Rica adventure.
Un abrazo y un beso (A hug and a kiss),
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