As spring and warmer weather is starting to return up north, I thought I would post this beachside sunset throw back from the beginning of our trip. This was in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica. Enjoy!
As spring and warmer weather is starting to return up north, I thought I would post this beachside sunset throw back from the beginning of our trip. This was in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica. Enjoy!
The people we’ve met on the road have amazed and invigorated us by how open and friendly they are. Is it because staying at hostels or volunteer programs are inherently filled with other people looking to experience new things and meet new people? Is it because we ourselves are more open as we take this adventure around the world? Or is it just that in our previous home of Boston we just didn’t have the time or impetus to be meeting new people all the time? Whatever the reason, we feel so lucky to continue meeting top quality new friends everywhere we go.
A few folks that left a particular impression on us were three artists from Costa Rica. We met them while volunteering at the turtle camp with the Corcovado Foundation. They volunteered their time and performances to entertain the kids and other guests during the event. Having watched their performances we were excited to meet these creative people. That night, before we even exchanged any real words, one of the artists approached us with an incense stick and offered it to us ‘para protecion.’ We agreed and were treated to a cathartic treatment in which he captured a billow of smoke and directed it to our hearts and our heads with a confident and creative flair. It was one of those unexpected experiences that in the moment, you just don’t question. The incense ritual, which was routine for him but new for us, relaxed our bodies instantly. The act felt very intimate and from there we felt welcomed and comfortable to communicate with these interesting people. We spoke little Spanish, they spoke little English, but by virtue of their overly animated demeanors we were able to communicate, make jokes and enjoy the amazing Central and South American music they had queued up on their phones. Their dedication to their craft and general passion for life was always apparent as we talked. They were serious about being clowns because they lived their art. We saw them wake up and juggle, they played with the children between performances and afterwards retreated to critique the show. They were offered a hotel room but opted to stay with us at the turtle camp because they would rather sleep in hammocks and get to know the volunteers. Their skill and desire to connect with people left us with a newfound respect for clowns. They were an impressive bunch and we are glad to have met them!
Two of the artists were unable to finish their performance at the festival due to the weather so those of us at the turtle camp were able to enjoy a private performance of fire and light juggling. Here are some pictures from their performances:
Our stint as volunteers with the Corcovado Foundation also included four nights as volunteers inside Corcovado National Park. Volunteering inside the park is a relatively new and untested opportunity offered by the foundation and Rob, the director, warned us that our duties might be mainly cleaning the ranger station as opposed to helping with any trail work. We figured we would give it a go anyway since we both wanted to get inside the park and we weren’t afraid of a little cleaning. We woke up very early on Tuesday morning so that one of the research assistants could drive us to the neighboring town of Agujitas where we would be catching a ride on a boat that the hotels use to send tourists over to the park. Other than the boat option, the only other ways to get into the Sirena Ranger Station are to walk or take a tiny 6 passenger plane.
Our boat ride that morning was beautiful. The boats pull right up to the shore line on the beach where you walk into the water and onto the boat. No docks in sight! We motored past Isla del Caño and saw dolphins swimming nearby the boat. When we arrived at the park entry (aka a break in the trees at an unmarked stretch of beach), we waded onto shore, put our shoes on and were told by the hotel employee that the Sirena Ranger station (our arranged destination) was just straight ahead. Not knowing where we were going or who we were supposed to find when we got there, we headed off into the woods. Multiple turns, and a few stream crossings later we arrived at a clearing that led to the ranger station. This 800 meter grassy clearing functioned as the landing strip for the small planes bringing people in and out of the park as well as a welcome mat for the brave hikers who make the 8 hour hike into the park from the Carate. We were pleased to see that the Sirena station was a simple, clean and well kept campsite. We pitched out tent in one of the camping areas which consisted of a raised wooden platform covered by a roof. With some difficulty we figured out who the ranger was, checked in and were told to never leave the campsite after 6PM, never be late for a meal and always tell him when we were leaving, where we were going and when we came back. After that drill sergeant-like introduction we figured we would have a schedule of tasks laid out for us to do each day, but this was absolutely not the case. We gathered that sweeping the station was to be a daily activity and other than that we basically hung around the kitchen trying to make ourselves useful. We basically created our own schedule of sweeping in the morning and cleaning the dishes after breakfast, lunch and dinner. In exchange for this work, and the $25 a day we paid to be a volunteer, we got free transport in and out of the park, three hot meals a day prepared by the station cook (which normally costs campers $70 a day) and plenty of time to get in two great hikes a day! We felt that it was a great deal.
We ended up exploring all the trails that lead out of the Sirena station except for one which the ranger told us was lacking all trail markers, had lots of downed trees blocking the trail and on which two hikers recently got lost on and had to spend the night in the forest alone. We were confused as to why we seemed to be the only ones he told about this hazardous trail but figured we wouldn’t push our luck so we avoided it. The trails are all generally safe during the day as long as you stay on them and watch where you are stepping as to not disturb any poisonous snakes. We never encountered any snakes but many groups walking with guides saw several poisonous varieties just steps from the trails. We were also bummed to not see any poison dart frogs but we really can’t complain. Over the few days we saw all types of huge iguanas and lizards, bull sharks, a gigantic Tapir, agouti, toucans, macaws, squirrel monkeys (titis), spider monkeys, howler monkeys, wild pigs, white tailed deer, crocodiles, caimans and some epically large and old trees. Instructions at the ranger station advise you to carry a walking stick which can double as a defensive device should you encounter a jaguar or a cougar on the trails. Normally these creatures don’t come out during the day, but if they do you are instructed to stand you ground, look as big as possible, and stare the cat down in the eye. If you run from one of the big cats, their instincts tell them that you are weaker than them and they should attack you because you are probably dinner. On our first hike I have to admit I was pretty nervous. Not only watching out for snakes and trying to avoid getting bitten by leaf cutter ants, but also for a potential large animal encounter. After about 5 minutes into the first hike two branches snapped and fell to the ground near us, rustling the dense forest around us. Two monkeys had a little tussle and broke a few branches, a common occurrence as we discovered. However, I immediately was convinced that the noise was the sound of a jaguar charging us and what did I do? I started running away down the trail without a walking stick. Perfect. Jordan scolded me and I tried to keep my jitters on lock from then on.
Our first hike took us to what turned out to be our favorite spot. The Rio Claro trail leads hikers to a beautiful fresh water swimming hole. No alligators or snakes were in sight and we tried to go there every afternoon to cool off in the water for a while. Often monkeys would come to the trees at the edge of the water and one day we even saw a pigmy kingfisher bird skirting across the water. Each trail offered the hiker a different experience, from dense forest to skirting the sandy coastline. I was fascinated by the variety of fungi and mushrooms growing on the rotting logs all around the trails. Many of the fungi were delicate, tiny and a vibrant white, kind of like tropical snowflakes. The density of the tree tops and the intricacies of the gargantuan tree trunks marked the trails of primary forest and provided a shady calm environment in which you could hear all sorts of mysterious sounds. We tried to stay as quiet as possible on our hikes and several times found ourselves only feet away from monkeys and other wildlife. Other than the Jurassic sized mosquito bites we suffered, we experienced some incredible nature, met several wonderful people, and had a great time. We even walked down to the end of the landing strip a couple nights to take in the sunset. It was amazing to sit there, in the middle of the wilderness, watching the gold and amber light glistening off the sheets of volcanic rock which stretch from the sand into the water.
Feeling in touch with nature and at peace, we packed up our backpacks and made our way back to the section of beach where we would be catching our boat back to the turtle camp. When we arrived i noticed that the water was much choppier than it had been on our way in. No one else seemed to notice and the boats arrived just as before, pulling n close to the shoreline. Only this time the 2 man crew had to hold the boat steady as the waves crashed and the passengers ran and hopped into the boat before the next wave crashed and jolted the tiny boat. We all made it in and stuffed our bags in the front and off we went crashing into the waves. My nature induced calmness and serenity were immediately knocked out of me as we embarked on the most turbulent, white knuckledboat rides i’ve ever had. Jordan and I were sitting in the front row and were jolted up and down by 2-3 feet ever other second. I sat there, trying not to see the waves swelling on our left side, or the 30 foot spray from the waves crashing into the jagged rocks on our right side. After the longest hour and a half ever, I wondered where I could get either a shot of whiskey or perhaps a fresh pair of underwear as quickly as possible.
When we finally made it back to turtle camp, we enjoyed the program’s farewell barbecue and said goodbye to our new friends. We started making preparations for our next stop on the journey, the archipelago Bocas del Toro in Panama!
Has anyone else been to Corcovado or explored the other ranger stations? We would love to hear about your experience! Or, has anyone out there ever encountered a potentially dangerous creature while hiking? How did you react?
As we prepared to say goodbye to Beth and Travis, Jordan and I also prepared to make our first solo trip of our backpacking adventure. We were about to volunteer with the Corcovado Foundation for about 10 days. We left Cabo by taxi and caught a school bus turned public bus to La Palma. From there, we caught a collectivo (basically a mini bus or big taxi) to El Progresso, a town in Drakes Bay, Costa Rica. We noticed people on the bus buying clear plastic bags of what looked like cream which they were drinking during the ride. We hesitated buying one thinking that sucking down a bag of cream would not make us feel good on such a hot day. We later discovered that the bags contain a delicious Tico style ice cream and we were kicking ourselves for not buying it at every chance. While sweltering on the black leather seats of the last car, we enjoyed the view of the lush landscapes and wondered what our next adventure would be like.
We finally arrived at a small structure, typical of many in Costa Rica, concrete/wood walls with a tin roof. The director of the turtle program met us out front. Rob is a friendly British expat who started off as a volunteer in the program several years back and now lives in Costa Rica full time directing the conservation project. In addition to Rob, the ‘turtle camp’ housed the other research assistants and some volunteers, though most of the volunteers live with home-stay families in the neighborhood. The camp was where everyone hung out in the evenings or during down time. For the first 5 nights we stayed in the ‘VIP suite’ which was a private shed consisting of 4 wooden walls and a bunk bed. While in our VIP shed, we could hear the rustling of chickens and a rooster as they scavenged for grubs and bugs to eat. We now know that it is a myth that roosters will crow at the sunrise. Interesting fact, roosters actually crow all the time, particularly at 3AM and curiously, their crows can resemble the sound of Eeyore crying like an old lady. Other than the dorm area, the turtle camp was pretty much an open air structure with a bunch of hammocks available.
In addition to the smattering of scarlet macaws, toucans, monkeys and the assemblage of poultry, the camp was also the hangout spot of many of the local dogs. The dogs were not strays, but no one fences in their pups so they would all congregate on the concrete floor of the camp. Many of them were cute, all of them could have used a bath and probably some frontline plus. There was one particularly mangy mutt named Kaiser. Kaiser was so ugly and pathetic looking that you couldn’t help but loving him instantly. His musk warned you of his presence long before his actual arrival. He was born with a serious underbite which meant that his lower fangs were always sticking up, like an extreme bulldog grin. As a puppy, he suffered from a machete accident and thus now walks with a mangled frankenstein limp. All he wanted was a little love and a few stolen bites from the compost bin. Despite his injured leg he was able to run around with the other dogs and even followed us all the way to the beach one day!
The staff and the other volunteers we met were wonderful people. Two people we met had actually been living in Boston! Others were from Spain, Germany, Canada, France and other parts of the US. We had worried that arriving for the last 10 days of the project might make it hard to get involved and connect with everyone, but that was not the case at all. We arrived right before the annual turtle festival, sort of a grand finale of the program. With such a large undertaking to prepare for, there was plenty of work to do. Jordan and I helped build a bathroom, hung signs and at one point even harvested coconuts for the water when the coolers were empty. One big project involved jerry rigging 6 hoses together so that fresh water could trickle out at the beach. A family who lived closest agreed to provide the water from their spigot. The hose line snaked through the forest and even over a drawstring bridge. Not to mention that everything used for the festival had to be hauled over said drawstring bridge which dangled a bit too shakily over the crocodile infested river below. It was fun walking over that bridge at night while holding a box so that you only had one hand to hold onto the ropes, yeah that was the best! We learned that almost anything is possible at the beach when you have a machete and some bamboo. Need a table? Want to build a stage on an isolated beach? need a tool to knock coconuts off a coconut tree? with a machete, bamboo and a ‘pura vida,’ no problem. There were a million and one jobs to do, but everything came together for a wonderful festival. The festival enabled local people to sell food and other goods to tourists and community members, it allowed the kids from the education program to present their skits on sustainability, and the timing worked out that the eggs in the last protected nest hatched and could be released to the sea in front of all the festival goers. It was amazing enjoying the two day festival and watching the sunset on the beach each night. We felt lucky to be part of something special in such a beautiful and remote place.
During the afternoon of the first day of the festival we went over to the hatchery with one of the research assistants to perform a nest exhumation. Throughout the turtle breeding season, the staff and volunteers walk the beaches at night to find new turtle nests. Then the team moves the nest into the protected hatchery. People in the Drakes Bay Area have traditionally eaten turtle eggs for generations and we’ve heard that they are quite delicious! Lately, the efficiency at which the community can find and harvest the turtle eggs has outpaced the rate that the turtles are nesting, hence the need for conservation efforts to help the turtle population in the area bounce back. The protected hatchery is simply a fenced in section of beach which the volunteers and locals take turns guarding from poachers. When the eggs of a nest hatch, the team will bring them out of the protected area to the top of the beach, release them and watch them waddle into the sea. After the turtles are released they perform an exhumation to determine if there were any eggs that didn’t hatch and if so, why. During our first and only exhumation we actually discovered one more little turtle that was still alive, just buried a little too deep to get out. We hung out with that little turtle for a while until the sun started to go down and then escorted him on his trek into the ocean. I felt a little like Rafiki from The Lion King, introducing the little turtle to the world as the sun set in the distance. Pretty magical stuff! We tried not to think too much about the fact that baby turtles have a 1 in 1,000 chance of making it to adulthood… Here is a short film of the story of one little guy, the 1 in 1,000, at the beginning.
The beauty of Bahia Drake, the great people we met and the turtles we helped into the sea made our time at the turtle camp truly unforgettable. We hope to go back one day!
Has anyone ever been to El Progresso or one of the other towns in Drake’s Bay? What did you do there and how was your experience? Also, anyone else keep chickens and roosters at home? How do you sleep through the night? Share your secrets!
****Thank you to Meryl Ayres, videographer, for creating the breathtaking film shown in this post!****
Victor catches us a fish in morning, I share with him the Ceviche I made from it for lunch, and later in the day he comes by with an amazing homemade ball of cocao. He told us his father had made it from his own trees in a nearby town.
Indigenous tribes used the cacao beans as a form of currency in Pre-Colombian times, and it continued to be a form of currency through the 1930’s. The Spanish sweetened it by adding sugar cane or honey. Fast forward to 1979 when a fungus wiped out 95% of the crops. These days, you can find the bean making a resurgence in the form of small batch farms and Cacao tours throughout the country. Health wise, it has more antioxidants than red wine, blueberries and green tea. The taste is quite bitter, so if you get your hands on some of the good raw stuff, here’s one suggestion of what to do with it.
Spiced Latin Hot Chocolate
T Grated Raw Cacao
T Brown Sugar
t Agave Nectar
Scant of Cayenne to taste
Garnish with Strawberry
Grate cacao into a sauce pot. Turn the heat on med-low and add a small amount of water so that you can whisk it together and make a slurry. Once smooth, begin adding milk and all other ingredients. Keep it moving so that the milk doesn’t scald, If you’re really feeling froggy, throw some bailey’s in it!
What would you do with a ball of raw cacao from Costa Rica??!
***UPDATE: Casa Tres Peces is no longer available for rent as of October 2014 as indicated by the new owner***
It was hard to imagine how anything could compare to the epic grandeur of the Bali house. Luckily for Jordan and I our adventure was going to continue with his sister Beth and her husband Travis. Beth had planned an amazing stay for us at Casa Tres Peces in Cabo Matapalo, which is in the Osa Penninsula of Costa Rica.
Unfortunately, our house wasn’t going to be ready for us for another night so we spent a night in Puerto Jimenez. We stayed ay the Jimenez Cabinas which were right on the water with pretty nice accommodations for backpacker standards. We had a surprisingly great dinner at a pizza place called PizzaMail.it! Strange name but good quality food! PJ was really nothing to rave about. The highlight for me was when we found an incredible fruit and veggie stand. We bought all our produce for Matapalo for a very low price, and we were able to taste some interesting new fruits such as fresh lychees and granadillos (a strange pod filled with a nasty looking but sweet tasting sack of seeds). Veggies in hand we were ready for our jungle house!
We took a taxi from PJ to Matapalo on a road that went from bad to worse. Although the roads make it difficult to get around deeper in the Osa, the inaccessibility helps to preserve the natural beauty. The house itself was beautiful, built mainly with large tree trunks for the frame. It was an open air two story building with no real rooms, just a few partitions around the bathrooms. We instituted a warning system in which we all told the group, “i’m peeing” or the more vague yet suggestive, “I’m using the bathroom” to ensure no one rounded a corner at an inopportune time. The ocean was right out the front door behind a lush, green rocky coast. The ocean breeze and dense tree cover kept the place extremely cool during the day. We indulged in some serious hammock swinging time, reading, and watching the animals come and go. We saw howler monkeys, spider monkeys, capuchins, and tons of scarlet macaws! At night, the place did get a bit buggy, with enormous grasshoppers, flying termites and god knows what else, but we did have quality bug nets around our beds. With so many bugs at night, and the wildlife being so loud right before sunrise, we found ourselves waking up very early and going to bed early too. It was great to take advantage of the full day of sun and also see the sunrise and sunset everyday! If you were thinking that you might be getting sick of looking at pictures of sunsets and sunrises, feel free to scroll down now!
Although our house was right on the water, the rocky coast meant that we had to walk a few minutes down the road to enter the beach on a big sandy stretch. The beaches were gorgeous and almost completely empty! We saw a couple people on the beach over the few days but it felt like our own private beach. Jordan explored more of the rocky terrain along the ocean because he went fishing with one of the caretakers, Victor, almost everyday. Although he didn’t catch anything, Jordan enjoyed practicing his Spanish with Victor and seeing some incredible views from the rocks. One morning, Jordan decided to skip the pre-sunrise fishing session with Victor and we woke up to find him walking back from the water holding a huge red snapper on his line. He insisted that we take the fish, so Jordan made a beautiful ceviche out of it for us all to share. It was a great way to start the day.
Victor’s wife, Gabriella, had recently moved to Costa Rica from Austria. She was working towards becoming a nature guide and we were extremely lucky when she offered to take us on a hike to a nearby waterfall one morning. We would have absolutely gotten lost without her guidance and she was also able to find a few tiny frogs we would have missed along the way. The hike turned out to be longer than we thought but was well worth the beauty at the end. We are now able to cross “swim in and around a waterfall” off our bucket lists. The water was incredibly clear, and felt amazing after our hike.
The hammocks, waterfalls and beaches were great, but the best park was spending time with Beth and Travis. We cooked, we laughed, we heard each other using the bathroom and truly bonded. Cabo Matapalo truly did not disappoint!
We’ve been in Costa Rica for two weeks and it feels like months with all the different experiences we’ve had! Costa Rica is lush and green, with mountains and ocean framing every view. The locals are called Ticos and the expression on everyone’s lips is “Pura vida.” More than an expression with endless meanings and uses, it also describes a lifestyle, which on the surface seems to be slow paced, friendly and resourceful. We arrived in San Jose to kick off our two week pre-backpacking vacation with Jordan’s family. We were able to stay for two nights at a beautiful hotel and adjust to the heat and humidity in luxurious conditions. The hotel was really a resort, but we did pry ourselves away for one afternoon to explore downtown San Jose and the central mercado. The central mercado was an enclosed square block filled with vendors storefronts and stalls that wound around narrow alleys. Spices, fried food and pungent leather footwear wafted through the enclosed market as we explored the wares. It was fun to see Christmas decorations going up but also strange since christmas in the heat and humidity is anathema to the New England experience.
From San Jose, we drove to Manuel Antonio to spend 8 days at an incredible house on the beach. We were on full alert for wildlife, particularly for Toucans as this was the creature Jordan’s two nieces wanted to see the most. Sipping on roadside coconut water, we made our way southwest. We stopped in Quepos to buy food for the week and discovered how expensive food and other groceries are here, at least in the formal supermarkets.
‘Casa de Bali,’ is a home that was constructed in Bali and then moved here to Costa Rica. It is made of Balinese wood that had been cured for 50 years and designed to be enjoyed with the open air as opposed to AC. The house was perched on a hill in the middle of the jungle trees which sloped down towards the ocean, which you could see clearly from the infinity pool out back. I’m talking about some MTV cribs quality digs here. Each couple had their own quarters, replete with marble surfaces and copper bathtubs. Jordan and I knew that we had better enjoy this as the quality and luxuriousness of our housing after the family vacation ended would be miles away from this. The first day at Casa Bali we all went for a guided tour of Manuel Antonio National Park. The park is beautiful and we saw a sloth, capuchin and howler monkeys as well as several interested plants and colorful iguanas. We were all elated by these wildlife sightings. Little did we know, however, that everyday right through our backyard we would see a three toed sloth, toucans, iguanas, white face capuchin monkeys and squirrel monkeys. Both types of monkey travel in groups and one morning both groups arrived together. There were upwards of 20-25 monkeys on our back deck, some of which actually stole bananas from the kitchen, if only those monkeys knew what a cliche they were! how sad. Additionally, we all learned what sound a sloth makes (insert link). Bet you wouldn’t have guessed that, huh? The Pacific Ocean right out our door was warm and inviting. Shocking Jordan and myself, i not only went swimming, but i boogie boarded almost everyday. My lifelong fear of the ocean seemed to be slipping away faster than the tide. Not even the occasional sting of sea lice (think mosquito of the sea) deterred me. It was wonderful to spend time with Jordan’s family. From the beach to the pool and back, we really lived it up.
Despite everyone’s reluctance to leave our home paradise, we did venture out on two excursions. First, we spent one day zip-lining through the forest. Not knowing quite what to expect, we strapped on our harnesses, donned some seasoned smelling helmets and hiked up a mountain. On the way back down, we zipped 10 lines, rappelled twice and did one Tarzan swing. The birds eye view of the forest and the adrenaline rush were fantastic. The guides were all very experienced and liked to play jokes on us by pretending to fall out of the tree platforms. They definitely kept the mood jovial, right at the edge of terrifying. We also spent a day off shore on a boat fishing for mahi mahi and sail fish. By ‘we’ I mean Jordan and his family caught two sail fish and a beautiful mahi mahi which we ate for dinner that night. Meanwhile I was lying down beneath the captains chair, hurling into a bucket. 30 minutes into the trip i realized that I had made a huge mistake and prayed that the next 6 1/2 hours didn’t drag on too slowly… I have to say however, that my spew fest was worth it because at one point we came across a herd (pack? school?) of 2,000 dolphins!!!! I pulled myself up long enough to witness their playful spins and flips, and even saw a few babies swimming alongside their mamas. Jordan reeled in a 110 pound sailfish as well. Beautiful creatures! Apparently you always throw back a sail fish as opposed to bringing it home for dinner.
Our days were so full of fun and sun that by the time we witnessed the beautiful sunset and ate dinner we were all ready for bed! Not to mention that the animals wake up at about 5:30 am, and it is pretty impossible to sleep through a howler monkey screaming outside your window.