Category Archives: Traveling

Bocas del Toro

Amazing beaches, unbelievable diving, air conditioned hotel, fried chicken… life is good! My 6 month border run was to Bocas del Toro, Panama. Since Charlie had that same week off in Bocas we had a great little vacation!

At some point I should do a post on border crossings. For now all you need to know is I walked across this bridge:
I HATE bridges. I think I held my breath the entire walk.

The trek to Bocas included a: 3:30am alarm, car ride (thanks Michelle!), bus ride, taxi ride, bus ride, border crossing, van ride, and water taxi. But I made some wonderful South African friends who are traveling from Canada all the way south.

Bocas town is a small Caribbean town, but the area is absolutely beautiful! Since it’s an archipelago, the ocean is calm and the waves are small. It truly feels like a huge lake instead of the ocean.

Photo from Melodey :)

Photo from Melodey

Day 1: Playa Estrella (Star beach)
We took a “bus” with slightly too small seats out across the island to Bocas del Drago. After a short (and stunning) walk along the beach we came to Playa Estrella. As its name implies, there are bunch of star fish that live on the sandy bottom. This was my first introduction to the beaches here and I was way more amazed by the fact that I could walk into the water and still see my feet than the sea stars.
EstrellaBeach
We got attacked by fish. (Mainly Charlie got attacked by fish.) When we returned to the hotel we found out they were venomous. That’s cool.

And there were little baby barracuda! Actually, there were a million little fish in general! Some will come up and eat your toes! (Yes, I was completely giddy about the ocean and the fish the entire trip.)
EstrellaBoat

Day 2: Diving!
While planning our trip, we decided to dive off of kayaks. I was a little skeptical about this. You see, I’m not the most graceful person in the word nor am I particularly skilled at getting into kayaks. All I kept seeing was me flipping my kayak and my weight belt heading straight for the bottom. But Charlie reassured me that it would be fine.

It was AMAZING! The morning was perfect, warm but slightly overcast. The water was perfect, warm, clear, and no current. The sea life was incredible! (Videos and photos to come.) I won’t waste too much of your time on this because I’m going to do a massive picture/video post from Charlie’s GoPro once he’s back in CR.

Photo from Melodey

Photo from Melodey

Slight brag: I will say though that my “fish” skills in Northern California translate exponentially to tropical waters. It was unbelievable. We did two 30+ minute dives on one tank, and after doing the math I realized I could easily do a 2+ hour dive on one tank. I should rephrase: I could do it without running out of air. I’m sure I’d be exhausted way before that though.

Aaaand… I got in and out of my kayak successfully every time!

Day 3: More beach. More diving.
In the AM we headed back out to Playa Estrella but stopped about half way and had our own private beach. Palm trees… blue ocean… white sand… the whole nine yards. The waves here can be measured in inches instead of feet so we just waded out in the sun and warm water.
BocasBeach

On the way back we decided to fit in one more dive around 4pm. We dove “The Playground” which is a huge reef with tons of fish. The dives are very shallow so you just cruise around and check everything out. It was a great dive. And bonus points, I did my first dive off a small boat… backwards roll and flopping back into the boat like Shamu and all!

Final Day
I ended the trip by waking up in Panama with no cash and no ride home! (Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it sounds. The van that was taking me home broke down and I had spent all my money already. After much freaking out and some generosity from work I made it home. I was unbelievably happy when I got on that bus in CR.)

Photo from Melodey

Photo from Melodey

P.S. If you’re wondering where all of these awesome pictures came from, you should check out Melodey’s blog, True Life: I Live in a Rainforest. She’s much better at taking pictures than I am. ūüôā

Volcan Arenal

Travel back in time (a few months, eek!) to when my parents were here. Our first stop (after base/SJ/Cartago) was Volcan Arenal.

Until 2010, it was the most active volcano in Costa Rica. This also makes it one of the most famous volcanoes in CR. While it is no longer actively erupting, it’s definitely a sight to see!

We spent most of our 3 days at Arenal lounging by the pool getting a tan. We were very successful and did not turn into the bright red tourists most commonly found throughout the country. The views from anywhere on the property were incredible. For the first day the weather was a little cloudy and we were concerned we wouldn’t get a full view of the volcano. It is known to be a “shy volcano” and hide behind the clouds. The weather ended up being beautiful as our trip went on!

View from one of the pools.

View from one of the pools.

We took a flat water rafting trip on the Penas Blancas river. Our guide was great and very funny! He gave me a hard time for my lack of Spanish skills, but I’ll forgive him for that. (Surprisingly, my dad is actually quite the Spanish-speaker. Go figure!) As we were driving through the towns to reach the river, I mentioned “there’s a sloth on that fence.” They didn’t believe me (said it’s probably a chicken) but turned around the van and headed back. Sure enough… there was a sloth climbing along the fence of a house. We got within just a foot or two of it! From then on we had a contest about who could spot the most sloths. I think we tied in the end.

We saw 4 (at least) sloths, a red-eared slider that was very brave, many monkeys, and tons of tropical birds. We then ended at a local farm for some tico cheese and plantains. It was a really nice and peaceful way to see a ton of wildlife.

Sunset. I wish I could capture how beautiful it really was.

Sunset. I wish I could capture how beautiful it really was.

One night we headed down to local hot springs. There are several big and famous ones (all fed by underground streams heated by the volcano), but we chose a less known one. It was perfect! There were maybe 20 other people there the whole time. We lounged in the different pools of various temperatures and got a massage from their waterfalls. It was very relaxing and is supposed to be very healing.

Finally we headed into La Fortuna (the local town) for a nice walk around. Then all that was left was to prepare for our transfer to Monteverde. That was an adventure in itself…

View from our hotel room.

View from our hotel room.

Mis padres estaban aqu√≠!

Several weeks (a month) ago… but they visited!

It was a lot of fun! They spent 4 days on base then we took off for a vacation. We spent 3 nights at Arenal and 3 nights in Monteverde. After that I returned home (work always gets in the way) while they continued on for 4 nights in Uvita on the Pacific. On their final night I met them in Alajuela (by the airport) for a last dinner before they headed back to the States.

I’m hoping my parents will write a blog post about their version of the trip, because I’m sure they have a different take on it. (Especially life on base!) First the important stuff: The Easter Bunny came! See’s candy is always great, but when you live in a country that doesn’t believe in sweets, it might become the best gift ever! It’s being hoarded and slowly savored for as long as possible. They also brought with them a whole goodie-bag of requested items. We’re needy here in CR so when someone comes to visit, we ask for things. My parents were kind enough to oblige.

Our puppies enjoying a foggy afternoon on base.

Our puppies enjoying a foggy afternoon on base.

Their nights on base worked out very well and they got to stay in their own little apartment. The first two days they were basically on their own while I worked. Before they arrived I warned them that there was not much to do here. I’m not sure that they really understood what that meant. That’s ok though because they got the “real CR experience” here.

On Saturday we headed into San Jose to see the city. We were on a search for the Feria Verde and Central Market. I had not been to either of these places so Michelle came along as our guide. After criss-crossing the entire city, we finally found the Feria. It’s basically one big hippie market and something straight out of the Bay Area. There were lots of organic and specialty food items and beautiful handmade crafts and jewelery. We also made our way to the Central Market which is like any large city market with many different vendors and enough pathways to get lost in.

It was then time to go home. (And this is where it really gets good.) My mom cooked for us! She made two chickens and vegetables for our house! We don’t starve here, but we definitely don’t eat like that. It was delicious and we were so happy to get such a great home cooked meal. (You may not understand why we were so excited about chicken and veggies, but that’s ok.)

There were approximately... 9 or 10 horses on this truck driving through the city.

There were approximately 10 horses on this truck driving through the city.

Sunday we headed to Cartago, a nearby city I had not been to. We visited the Santiago Ap√≥stol Parish Ruins, a local landmark. Several churches have been built on this site but were continually destroyed by earthquakes (due to being in close proximity to the Iraz√ļ Volcano), and they finally stopped rebuilding it in 1910. There is a whole folklore about it as well.

We walked several blocks to the Bas√≠lica de Nuestra Se√Īora de los √Āngeles. This Basilica is considered to be one of the holiest places in Costa Rica. It is home to La Negrita, a small black statue of the Virgin Mary that has healing powers. Every August there is a pilgrimage to the Basilica, and people walk (and sometimes crawl) from all over to visit the statue and drink water from her fountain. It is a gorgeous and ornate church. There was a service going on when we arrived, but we were able to walk along the back half and enjoy its beauty.

OrchidOur final stop was at the Lankester Gardens. The garden has over 3,000 species of plants and was granted to the University of Costa Rica for research. They’re most known for their orchids,¬† but not many were in bloom while they were there. Still, it was a great way to spend a couple hours. The gardens are huge and they break it up into different areas. Interestingly, we recognized many of the native/tropical plants form home in Southern California. I guess a hot dessert + artificial water = tropical growling climate!

Then we came home and mom made us chicken soup. Have I mentioned how great a real home-cooked meal is?

Bamboo
More to come about Arenal and Monteverde. (And hopefully a post and more photos form my parents.)

San Juan del Sur- The People

A little more about the people I met on my border run. As I said before, traveling alone was a blast! I met so many wonderful people. I showed up having no plans but ended up with new friends at every turn.

Within an hour of arriving I stopped to check out a menu at a restaurant and 2 gentlemen immediately told me this is the place to eat and invited me sit down with them. They were both expats from the States who moved to San Juan to enjoy the sun and inexpensive living. Before I knew it, I had a map on a napkin laying out every place I should eat before I leave. It then turned into a personal tour of the town where I was introduced to all the restaurant owners. They were so nice and inviting and it was a great start to my weekend! I even got invited to water aerobics the next morning.

I think I ate 2 meals alone the entire the weekend. And that almost turned into 1 meal, but I got uninvited to dinner one night. Again, I was looking for dinner and checking out a menu when 2 men told me (again) that the food is great and this is definitely where I should eat. One politely said “you can take a seat and eat with us if you’d like.” But the friend quickly piped in with, “no, actually you can’t.” I just laughed but he added, “really, I’m a politician in DC and I can’t be seen having dinner with other people.” :-/ ¬†Ok…

On my city tour, I was introduced to a super nice Nica who also showed me around Friday and Saturday. (He was my guide to the statue.) I really enjoyed talking with him and learning about his family and plans for the future. It was also interesting to hear about his take on Costa Rica. Ticos have their opinions on Nicas, so I guess it makes sense to have it the other way around. Not surprisingly, their views are very different.

One of the guys staying at my hostel had an interesting story… he runs his own online magazine and does it from various hostels throughout the world. It made me wish I had the technical skills to do something like that. He was also very inviting and introduced me to other people he had met here. Two of which were German girls traveling all through CA. We had a very interesting discussion about the education (or lack there of) of Americans. In case you haven’t heard, our reputation isn’t great among the Europeans.

I had breakfast with a Canadian who works for an oil company. His work schedule is 1 month on and 1 month off. So he goes to work in some pretty unique (and sometimes¬†awful¬† places) for a month, and then he gets a plane flight “home” or to some new destination where he hangs out for a month before going back. I thought that was a really great schedule!

It was also interesting to see how some people viewed me traveling alone. For the backpackers it was no big deal, but for other people it is. I had one guy compliment me for several minutes on how “amazing” and “brave” and whatever else I was because I was traveling alone.

Then it was time to head home, but of course I still made 3 new friends on my way back. The lady I sat next to was super nice. She was in a Spanish school in¬†Guatemala and was now meeting her husband in CR for 3 weeks before¬†returning¬† to Europe. Another guy (about my age, maybe a little younger) was on an indefinite trip through CA after attending a¬†language¬†school. The third guy was especially interesting. He’s probably in his late 30s (rough guess), retired and now just travels all the time. He was finishing up his time in CA, headed to SA for a while, then meeting someone in Spain and heading to Thailand near the end of the year where he’ll probably spend the next 3 years or so. What?!?!?! Very cool!

I have also learned that I must visit Guatemala and Thailand. Everyone who had been to either country raves about it. I’ll add it to the list. ūüôā

(Details on my parents’ visit to come shortly.)

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua- The Place

It was time for my “forced vacation” and I was able to take off an extra day so I had 4 days to visit another country. The original plan was to go to Bocas del Torro because Panama is easier for us non-Spanish speakers. However, since I will be there this summer to dive, I chose the more adventurous option: Nicaragua.

Nicaragua is north of Costa Rica and San Juan del Sur is on the south Pacific side of Nicaragua, just over the border. I decided to splurge and take the TicaBus (a long distance travel bus that travels all over CA) because they’re more comfortable and help you with the border crossing. I’m glad I did that this time, but I’ll probably chicken bus it next time. ūüôā

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

FYI, border crossings are rough. They’re confusing, have no shade (it was about 95 degrees and no breeze), and take forever (over 2 hours).

San Juan del Sur is a beautiful horseshoe bay and a small playa town. There are a lot of travelers there, but most are expats visiting from Costa Rica, surfer bums or backpackers. Since money has not saturated the town yet, it’s still very casual, laid back and inexpensive. It’s also beautiful. All the small fishing boats in the bay hint to its other function as a local fishing port.

This quiet little town was also invaded by the United States Marines in 1898. I must admit, it’s challenging to imagine an invasion on this sleepy little fishing town. Luckily Americans are know better for something much more important: Survivor!

Survivor: Nicaragua and a following All-Stars season were filmed here and on nearby beaches. It’s a fun claim to fame for the area and you can see Survivor flags in various places around town. There are some shuttles that run up and down the coast to the different beaches. If I make it up there again, I’ll definitely explore some of the other beaches.

San Juan also has a large expat population. They decided to move down to CA but wanted somewhere less expensive than CR or Panama. I¬†immediately¬†met two retired gentlemen who invited me to lunch and gave me all the ins and outs of town. They even showed me around town and introduced me to the owners of all the best restaurants and bars. Because of this, I don’t even know the names of most the places I ate, rather I know them as “Mary’s place.” (I’ll talk more about the people I met in another post. They were all so wonderful, that they definitely deserve a little more¬†explanation.)

During this tour I was introduced to Marlon, a Nica who also gave me a few suggestions and offered to take me up to the statue if I was interested. I was! There’s this large statue of Christ up on the mountain overlooking the bay. So the next day, up to the statue we hiked (in flip flops), and the view was incredible!

View from the statue

The rest of the weekend was fairly uneventful. I loved traveling on my own. There were some lonely times, but I met tons of new people! Everyone was so kind and welcoming. (I only ate 2 meals alone the entire weekend.) I still went out every night and just met people there who took me in and introduced me to their friends… it was great. The only downside is dealing with groups of latinos. While everyone I meet here is always nice, it’s impossible to walk down the street without being whistled at and hearing many “que guapa!” comments. (If you ignore that, they just start saying it in English.) The worst part about it is how young it starts! I’ll have 7 and 8 year olds making these comments! Crazy. I should note that this also happens in CR, I’m just not around alone as much here.

Other than that and the 12 hour return trip, I loved my mini-vacation. I also realized how much I missed sunsets and watched the sun set every day. (I live in a valley so the sun just disappears behind the trees.) So I apologize for the number of sunset pictures I have.

View from my room. You can see the statue on the mountain on the right.

View from my room. You can see the statue on the mountain on the right.

Una Caminata en la Montana (Part 3)

Congratulations, you have made it to the final stage of my epic hike!

Don’t worry, this one is much shorter.

On Sunday we woke up and headed back to PB for breakfast before heading out to hike up the mountain. This hike was rough. Spending three days on my messed up toe (I had no idea a toe could be so important) was finally catching up to me. Add that to my knee that I hyper-extended coming into PB on Friday, and I was a wreck!

Our hike out started out nice enough: through the rainforest, by another homestay, and across a cable car set-up over a river. But then it was just up-hill in no shade forever.
Cable car across the river

We finally made it to the top with a huge thanks to my wonderful roommate Meag who helped carry some things in an attempt to help me hurt less. I’m not sure if it helped or not, but it was INCREDIBLY kind of her.

At the top we were met by our driver who drove us out of the mountains. (I will do a whole post on driving at some point… these people are CRAZY!) We headed into Manuel Antonio to catch our bus home. After 3 1/2 hours to San Jose then another hour to our bus stop, ¬†we were finally home!
"Blood of Jesus Christ" plant

It was an exhausting weekend but so much fun! The experience will definitely help me do my job better when speaking to students about courses, but it is also an adventure I will never forget.

Una Caminata en la Montana (Part 2)

On Saturday we woke up to warm coffee and breakfast. After realizing that I don’t drink coffee, Do√Īa Flor made me hot chocolate. From then on, every time there was a pot of coffee to drink, there was some hot chocolate waiting for me. Her¬†hospitality¬†was incredible!

Orlando’s house where we stopped for “lunch” the first day.

We walked around the homestay and took a small hike. We learned about what the students do during their stay here: make trapiche (a candy made from sugar cane), milk a cow, make tortillas, and do a waterfall rappel. We also saw their electricity set up: a generator run by hydro that powers lights and outlets in the house.

We decided to make the short walk to the festival. (Remember all those people who came in late last night? They slept at the Lopez house because they are the nearest house to “PB City”.) The festival is only held once a year, and was a fundraiser for the town. From my understanding, some of the money goes to the school (where 1 student is currently enrolled) and some goes towards paving a road closer to town.

PB City

PB City

The “city” is a house, a one room school house, a building with a kitchen and eating area, a covered bar area, and a soccer field. Each building is a traditional wooden building with half walls. The soccer field is pretty hilly and the goals are three sticks/tree trunks. However, each team was decked out in proper jerseys!

We ate a lot of yummy food, watched a couple soccer matches, then went home for a few minutes. When we got back, they were having a riding contest where you gallop your horse down and try to catch this little ring on a pen-like stick you’re holding. (The ring is the size of a nickle.) Before I really understood what was going on, I was being shoved toward a horse. There was a very drunk guy standing way to close to me “helping” me get on. I asked Allison to translate what he was telling me (thinking it may be important). I understood her response to him, “Can we just focus on the horse now? We can talk about that after.” She later explained that we has asking if we can talk in the future. Oh geez.

My "competitor" and I

My “competitor” and I

I may or may not have gotten on a horse in shorts, chacos, and without a helmet. But when in Costa Rica…. right? My poor pony was so tired, but very kind to me. He knew his job well, but I was terrible! After multiple passes, I never got a ring. ūüė¶¬† It was fun anyways, and the guy I was “competing against” seemed to be a good sport about my lack of skill. It was really nice just to be in the saddle again.

I later found out that there was a whole “behind the scenes” story to getting me on the horse. The men were not going to let me ride at first. They told Orlando that it is too dangerous for a gringa. They see the sport, think it’s fun, and then get hurt trying it. Orlando basically had to promise them that if I die, it’s on him. (Gotta love liability releases around here!) On the hike home, Orlando was telling me this story. He said after my first pass, several of the ticos told him that he was right and I could ride. It was really neat to hear that they gave approval of my riding.

The other half of getting me on occurred with one of my roommates and a man we named “Senior Blue Eyes.” (Since you don’t exactly meet a lot of blue eyed ticos, it fits him.) I guess the gentleman who owned the horse was only going to let me ride if a paid a large amount of money. Bethany negotiated him down to a little less, and then Senior Blue Eyes walked over and convinced him to let me ride for free. Again, I had no idea any of this happened!

Making sure you didn't take off your own head on the rope is an added challenge in this game.

Making sure you didn’t take off your own head on the rope is an added challenge in this game.

We had some amazing food that night. I had one of the best tamales I’ve ever had (and it had rice in it). These tamales had a ton of masa, but it was so delicious that you could almost eat it alone! We were also introduced to tamal asado which is half way between corn bread and cake. It’s amazing!

Overall, our festival was successful as a fun and entertaining day.