Costa Rica 2019


Now that the 8 day Costa Rica adventure has come to an end and Lue and I are back at home, it feels like we traveled through a time warp.  It’s almost hard to process that we were rafting through primary jungle just last week. Lue and I are hardly world travelers. Despite a wealth of knowledge about the World’s plants and animals, this had all been acquired by bringing the wildlife to our Florida home and replicating habitat ex-situ. We both had passports issued in 2011 that had been stamped exactly zero times. So the February weekend we read through the vacation packages available on The Clymb and selected something called A Week of Adventures in Costa Rica was pretty exciting.

Fast forward to July.  Getting ready for any type of excursion when you have about 125 animals in your care is no small undertaking.  After 2 weeks killing ourselves trying to get everything in order, coordinating schedules for multiple pet sitters,  pre-ordering live feeders, and figuring out what you pack for a trip that involves everything from white water rafting to mountain biking (pack dri-fit clothes), our day to embark had arrived. Our flights in and out of San Jose were sandwiched by stays at an airport Holiday Inn Express, but these travel days were uneventful as you can stay at a Holiday Inn Express with a Denny’s in the parking lot literally anywhere in the US.  The trip really got started when our tour group, Costa Rica Rios, picked us up in a bus to start the 2 hour drive out of the capital to the volcano town of Turrialba.  

As we got on the bus, a couple from New York and 2 gentlemen–one from DC and one from Ft. Lauderdale–had already been picked up from the airport. The social dimension of the trip started to set in.  Lue and I weren’t traveling alone: 14 other individuals would be with us every step of the way, literally. After picking up a family from California whose two children looked checked out, heads buried in their devices, and another young lady from Seattle, Lue and I managed to break the ice by bringing up the wildlife we keep and the wildlife we were hoping to see while on the trip.  This got everyone talking, even the two kids, who quickly became our best buds as the trip went on.

Now I believe everyone thought they would see wildlife , but I think only Lue and I saw it as a primary driver for the trip.  I am not sure why this surprised me at first, it probably has something to do with 80% of my particular Facebook bubble being current or past dart frog breeders and keepers.  This percentage drops to roughly zero outside my echo chamber. No worries though, we all need to get outside of our own echo chambers from time to time and it gave Lue and I a chance to point out every single bug, frog, bird, and plant we came across to the group. 

As our bus trip winds down, we arrive at our base hotel, Villa Florencia.  It’s a sleepy hotel set among sugar cane fields on the outskirts of Turrialba.  After settling into our hotel room, it was time to get into the new routine, group dinner followed by the next day’s schedule.  We meet the rest of the group, our main tour guide Chamo. He’s the best.  The trip just happened to start on the day of the largest UFC card of the year, and during this first group dinner Lue had managed to get just enough WiFi on his phone to stream the fights.  This led to a new social dichotomy within the group, those who watch UFC and those who don’t. Lue’s choppy fight stream became a hot topic for the rest of the evening as we walked the hotel grounds looking for the strongest WiFi connection with interested parties peering over our shoulders trying to get a glimpse of Jon Jones’s form.

Adventure 1: Kayaking 

After a horrible night of sleep and a choppy start to the morning, no hot water and a broken toilet, we are on the bus to the river for some kayaking.  In terms of the week’s activities this was probably the most chill. Lue and I have a fair amount of kayaking experience and generally I like the activity because it’s just enough water. On the water without having to be in the water.  After 2 laps down the river, we are welcomed to a lunch spread of tuna salad, beans, freshly chopped veggies for romaine lettuce wraps and an assortment of tropical fruits, all prepared by our tour’s support staff right at the river’s shore. Though the spread looks delightful and an afternoon of kayaking does get the appetite primed, I couldn’t help but think of the signs that littered the travel doctor’s office where Lue and I got our pre-trip hepatitis shots. 

“Only eat cooked food or fruit that you washed yourself”

“Don’t eat salads or fruit that was handled by someone else”

Well, you still have to eat, so I used a bit of hand sanitizer, piled up my lettuce wraps and took a seat on a stump under a banana tree to eat lunch hoping that the toilet in my bathroom would be working when I got back in case things went south.

Lue and I kayaking the river.

After lunch we stopped at a local bar: A small open air affair with a tin roof overlooking some banana trees.  Since leaving the capital this seemed to be the case for most structures in the area.  Air conditioning was nonexistent after checking out of the Holiday Inn, but the weather was nowhere near what I would consider “hot” having just come from the triple digit Florida heat, so the constant exposure to the elements was pleasant and charming.  As our group of 8 “green-go’s” piled into the bar, our guide Chamo starts to fire up the karaoke microphone.  He sings “Como Mario” by Akapellah, a Spanish song about Mario Brothers and it is a laugh riot.  The song would end up being Lue and I’s Costa Rican theme by the end of the trip. Some of the group starts squirming when they realize no one is getting out of here without taking a turn.  The night before we had to jot down what lunch we wanted for a future dining excursion along with our favorite song. In our naïveté, most of us thought they would make some sort of playlist with the songs at a later point in the trip.  Not the case. As a few in the group struggle through pop songs I am completely unfamiliar with, I remember that I picked “Lucky You” by Eminem and Joyner Lucas because it was the most current song I could think of that I had actually listened to more than once.  This was going to be no easy feat. I can barely read as quickly as Eminem raps and I only know about a quarter of the lyrics from memory. No getting out of it now. About four songs in, “Lucky You” is queued up and the mic is passed to me. I must say, it was a valiant effort for being put on the spot and everyone seemed to appreciate it.  Lue, being the smart one, picked a simple Frank Turner song that he could have played on blindfolded guitar and sang in his sleep if he had too. Regardless it was a good time had by all.

Lue and I passed on the afternoon’s queso festival so that we could unwind at the hotel a bit.  We had not slept well the night before and being the introverts that we are, we needed to recharge before another group dinner.  The next day we would be heading into the jungle proper.

Adventure 2: White Water Rafting to the Pacuare Outdoor Center

Day 2 required sorting through everything and repacking only what we would need for the next 3 days in the jungle.  We would be accessing the jungle lodge by way of raft, while a 4×4 would be driving in all the supplies we needed for our stay at the Pacuare Outdoor Center.  By everything, I mean EVERYTHING. All the food, the groups’ luggage, even the bedding had to be brought in from outside.  

During a charming morning tour of an organic coffee farm, Lue developed a raging migraine and we couldn’t find ibuprofen at a local bodega so he had to settle for Aleve.  Aleve seems to sponsor most of the farmacias in Costa Rica, so it is way easier to find than Advil though slightly less effective on his migraine. He powered through the brain pain not wanting it to ruin the day.

After the coffee tour we had a long hike down to the river.  The hike was good, but the Teva sandals I brought for rafting were not doing me any favors and I developed some fairly uncomfortable blisters on the bottoms of my feet that had to be nursed for about 2 days afterwards.  On the hike down to the river we started to see a lot of Oophaga pumilio aka Blue Jeans. Those dart frogs would be a regular fixture throughout the jungle.  

This first day of rafting was clear, the water was blue, and the rapids were mostly class II and III. Rapids are classified I through V with I being the most gentle and V being the most aggressive. Our group was split between 3 rafts and though no one in our group was thrown overboard at any point, we did manage to get stuck on some rocks that took a good amount of force to get going again.  The water was a bit cold for my taste, but the huge sloping canyons of primary forests were amazing and seeing begonias growing wild was exciting. We stopped at a waterfall and had another full spread of fruit and lettuce wraps for lunch prepared by our guides. This time we ate lunch right off the back of a turned over raft.  No more worrying about what we were eating–that was literally not an option at this point. 

As we continue down the Pacuare after lunch, our guide Pablo talks about the area, points out some of the zip lines the indigenous people use to get to town, and we see a few people fishing by the river in one spot. Those are the only signs of human life outside of our group’s three rafts.  We are getting truly remote and it’s wonderful. The rafting ends at a small beach where we pull the rafts out of the water and cover them with a tarp. Then there is about 500 meters of climbing up a slippery stone staircase to get to the lodge.

Paddling the rapids.

The lodge is tucked into a mountain side and barely noticeable from the river.  There is no electricity, cell, or WiFi. Just a large open air common area with a kitchen and a sprinkling of small bungalows for sleeping.  Not to brag, but our bungalow may have had the best view. Waking up to a cloud forest with the river at the base of the mountain was going to be spectacular, even if that night’s pouring rain meant everything would be wet in the morning.  It’s a cloud forest: nothing was going to stay dry.

After a full day of rafting, all of our guides went right back to work preparing a huge spaghetti dinner for the group.  I can’t say enough good things about the guides, they were working hard the whole time. They were really outstanding. After dinner, Lue and I went out with the kids and looked for some animals around the lodge.  Lots of red eyed tree frogs, cane toads, a lone hourglass frog, a few lizards, and a huge variety of different grasshopper/locusts. Lue and I had wanted to see some snakes too, though the guides weren’t thrilled with the idea as there are some venomous ones in the area.  We only found one blunt headed tree snake high up in the palms near the common area and he took off pretty quickly.

View from the Pacuare Outdoor Center

Adventure 3: Canopy Zipline and Tarzan Swing

After a morning of watching the clouds roll through the river valley it was time to hike up another slippery staircase for zip lining.  I had been zip lining in Florida before, but trees in Florida are not that tall and it’s not nearly as awe inspiring. We all zip lined from platform to platform down the side of a mountain through the tops of the trees and it was a blast. 

The final platform was something called a Tarzan swing, and this was a whole different monster.  As you approach a small platform looking over an abyss of trees the guides attach your harness to the safety line. You are then informed to stand with your toes right at the edge of the platform and lean forward a bit. The guides give you a five count, release the safety, and you drop.  Lue, who won’t even go on a rollercoaster at home, was right at the front of the line.  I, after much trepidation, reluctantly walked out to the edge of the platform, cussed out all the guides, and almost threw up all over myself as I was dropped from the platform and swung through the trees. This is the closest thing to bungee jumping I have ever done or will ever do. Not sure why that was so much scarier than the zip lining, but it was. I had a huge adrenaline dump after that and was basically toast for the rest of the day. It was back to the lodge for me. I needed to nurse my drained adrenal system and my feet blisters from the day before that had my big toes burning.

The face of trepidation getting ready for the Tarzan Swing.
Lue has the Tarzan Swing under control.

Adventure 4: White Water Rafting out of the Pacuare

As Lue and I woke up to another cloud filled morning and assessed which wet clothes we were going to put on for the day, it dawned on us that we had not really done a lot of hiking in the jungle.  After scouring the itinerary for the umpteenth time it finally occurred to us that hiking wasn’t really part of any of the days’ activities. We made a mental note to pick a trip with some hiking if we ever did this again.

This morning it was back on the raft for class III and IV rapids and it was not a very warm nor sunny day.  The river moved quickly on the torrential downpours from the night before. It changed the color of the water from blue to sediment brown as well.  The first portion of the rafting was gorgeous. Untouched primary forest stretching up both sides of the river canyon peppered with waterfalls.  There were a few other eco lodges hidden in the trees and a few other rafters on the river, but otherwise the area was free from human habitation. 

Paddle high five under a waterfall.

We took a short break by a river tributary and while everyone kicked it in the water, I looked for some warm rocks to lay out on.  Without the sun, it was cold and it started to catch up with me on the next leg of the river. I couldn’t warm up and started shivering uncontrollably.  As we plowed through the rapids and our guide Pablo yelled “2 strokes” I had to keep paddling just to stay warm. I kept thinking of being in Vegas in July in the triple digit heat while terrified of getting thrown from the raft and ending up in the water.  This went on for miles till we stopped for another flipped over raft lunch spread on a beach. One of the guides found a rain jacket that I could pull over my life vest. I didn’t warm up to a comfortable temperature but did manage to stop the shivering.  As everyone played in the water, Lue and I found some dart frogs in the moss covered tree roots and we discussed how we could replicate the environment in a vivarium.

Oophaga pumilio in their natural environment by the river.

On the last leg of the river, the rapids slowed and civilization started trickling upon us in the form of railway bridges and overpasses.  We reached the end of the rafting portion of our trip and were officially out of the jungle. At a small outpost we were able to change into dry clothes and hopped back on the tour bus for a 2 hour ride to the Caribbean coast and the beach town of Puerto Viejo.

At the Cariblue resort in Puerto Viejo we had a small window A/C unit that dehumidified the room just enough to start drying our wet clothes a little bit.  We also had about 90 minutes before group dinner. While everyone else showered and napped, Lue and I, along with two other couples, rented some rusty beach cruisers and cycled into town.  This gave us a chance to buy some souvenir t-shirts with sloth graphics and eat flan from a street vendor. The town had a very chill surf vibe and lots of Rastafarian themed bars, but after seeing police with AK’s talking to some people on the beach we all decided it would be best to get back to the hotel before dark.  Without daylight savings, it was dark well before 7pm.

After group dinner, Lue and I passed on going to the club with the group because we were way behind on showering and my hair was still wet with river water.  It was a good choice, as I was asleep in minutes after my shower. 

Adventure 5: The Rescue, The Beach, and the Long Road Back to Turrialba 

The sun starts rising before 6 and Lue and I were getting up with it.  The hotel we were at was set up like a botanical garden and there were sloths on the property.  We found a baby sloth hanging on a palm over a walk way while it’s mother was high up in a close by tree.  Though we were probably supposed to let natural selection take its course, Lue and I cut the palm the sloth was on and moved it under the tree it’s mother was hanging from.  As the baby sloth started climbing up the right tree, we did feel better that it would at least not get stepped on in the walking path. The groundskeeper informed us that the baby had fallen from the tree the night before and that they were surprised he survived.  He didn’t catch us in the action of moving him but told us we aren’t supposed to move them, obviously. What can I say, Lue has always been fairly hands on when it comes to wildlife.

Baby sloth just hanging in the walk way.

After breakfast we headed to The Jaguar Rescue Center for a tour.  We didn’t see any jaguars but there were a wide variety of rescued and rehabbing wildlife.  Everything from baby sloths to howler monkeys, caimans and crocodiles, snakes, birds, deer and frogs.  Basically all the wildlife Lue and I wanted to see while in Costa Rica. The woman from the Basque Country, Naria (sp?) was incredibly passionate and gave an excellent tour.  Well worth the visit. 

After the rescue center we had an excellent lunch at a place called Bread & Chocolate followed by a failed attempt at using a Costa Rican ATM.  I thought maybe I used the wrong pin number, but I think the ATM was just out of US dollars because no one else seemed to be able to get money out of the machine either. Now it was time for the beach. Even though our hotel was across from one, we were bussed into a beach that clearly wasn’t meant to accommodate large vehicles.  The water was clear and warm and as I swam some laps in the water, Lue hung out on the sand, not wanting to get his last pair of underwear wet before the long bus ride back to Turrialba.  

If you asked Lue what the hardest part of the trip was, he would say it was this bus ride.  The seats on the bus were cramped and the cool AC vent blowing in his face agitated his old neck injuries.  Though Costa Rica is not a very large country and areas are not that far apart, the driving is slow. Most of their roads are only two-lanes and were built in the 70’s when there were way fewer cars on the road.  It was about a hundred miles from Puerto Viejo to the hotel in Turrialba, but the drive took almost 4 hours. Transit times should start improving in the next 10 years though, as there is a fleet of Chinese road workers increasing the number of lanes on many of the main highways.

Once getting to the hotel after the long drive, we were pleasantly surprised at how much nicer this second room was compared to our first room. Working toilet, working hot water, much newer mattress, just better all the way around. Our group gathered for the penultimate dinner and we were given instructions about our last adventure. For Lue and I that meant mountain biking and we were excited. Finally a dry activity…or so we thought.

Adventure: Mountain Biking down the Irazu Volcano

After an excellent night of sleep and a gorgeous sunrise, Lue and I are geared up for mountain bike day.  Only six of us were on this excursion, guided by Pablo, who had already guided us through the Pacuare rafting earlier in the week.  He informs us that we have about an hour and a half drive ahead of us as we are starting about 11,000 feet up, just short of the Irazu Volcano crater.  The drive up was pleasant and we passed the time asking Pablo about his time as an elite cyclist and adventure racer. The day looks gorgeous right until we get to our destination when thick fog clouds start rolling in and the rains start.  We had planned to walk the Irazu crater before setting off on the bikes, but the visibility was so bad on account of the fog that Pablo said it wasn’t even worth it. We wouldn’t be able to see anything.

We start getting the bikes off the bus as the rain pours and before we even set off I am already soaked.  So much for not getting wet today. It’s pretty cold too, but unlike the rafting where I was dressed in a dri-fit tank and some work out shorts, I am wearing multiple rain jackets and have long pants over my bike shorts.  Also, we have a bit of uphill riding before we start descending the 10,000 feet into Turrialba and this was hard enough work to keep my body temperature up. As someone who lives at sea level in a place where the highest point measures about 312 feet, it was startling how hard riding uphill at altitude was.  As soon as I started peddling my heart rate shot through the roof. I get off the bike briefly to catch my breath and quickly realize that breathing is not nearly as efficient at altitude as it is at sea level. Despite the struggle, I get back on the bike make it to the top second in the group. Only the 17 year old is in front of me.  Lue and the other 3 are slowly pushing their bikes to the top huffing and puffing. Pablo is going up and down the hill checking on everyone like it’s nothing. Luckily there are only two other small sections going up, everything else is downhill.

Volcano ahead.

What we are riding on is not single track mountain bike paths, they are gravelly farm roads.  We descended through the thick fog past cabbage fields, we descended past the rain, we weaved through cows walking in the road, we passed tractors and the adjacent Turrialba Volcano.  We descended until the gravel roads started to become paved again and our hands started cramping from being cold, wet, and hugging the brakes. At this point we stop for lunch. Everyone is cold and wet and Lue asks me if I am ok because my lips are distinctly purple.  I could have been drier, but was feeling okay and lunch was delicious. After lunch we coffee up and learn that we are only about halfway to our destination. Some of the group starts having second thoughts and considers just getting on the bus following us for the rest of the descent.  I don’t even consider it. I get my raincoats and gloves back on and get back on the bike.

Cow in the road.

As the second half of the descent begins the weather starts looking more like the morning sunshine we drove away from.  The surrounding area has changed from farm houses and cows, to small village houses and dogs. We avoid cars and wave at the locals all while being propelled down the mountain road on bikes that are just barely good enough for riding.  I can’t speak for anyone else’s bike, but mine could have used some better brakes. We descended all the way down into Turrialba proper right up to the Costa Rica Rios headquarters where the rest of our tour group was waiting. It’s a beautiful, sunny day at the bottom of the mountain, so much so that my soaking wet clothes were almost dry by the time we reached our destination.  All I could think of was wanting to drive to the top of the mountain and do it again and again and again!

Made it to the bottom!

The rest of the day was spent looking for an ATM that spit US dollars and being sort of bummed that our trip was coming to an end.  After getting back to the hotel, we showered and hung out with the group before our final group dinner. Everyone exchanged emails, laughed about kayak fails, and revelled in how great the whole experience had been.  Lue and I turned in earlier than most, as had been our style the whole trip. There was a lot of packing to do and another early bus ride back to San Jose.

All in all, I can’t say enough good things about the tour company, Costa Rica Rios. They did an excellent job coordinating everything and the guides were fantastic.  All the people on the tour with us jelled too, which really helped the experience. Generally there seems to be a complaint that Costa Rica is not that cheap to travel to and I think it was one of the pricier vacation packages on The Clymb, but I had assumed that was because of the amount of activities packed into the trip. It’s hard to gauge things like cost because I don’t have much to compare it to, at least from an international stand point.  We didn’t even exchange money while we were there because most places took US dollars and all the time spent with the tour was inclusive (meals, gear, hotel stays, etc). Outside of a $35.00 laundry bill (wet clothes become an issue after a week in) and $100 at an Argentinian restaurant in San Jose we didn’t really buy much.  Regardless of price, it was certainly worth it and now I am sort of wondering why it took us so long to do something like this in the first place.