INBioparque & Farewell to Costa Rica Tuesday, Nov 17 2009 

Our return to the Casa Conde Apartotel & Suites in San Jose came with an appreciation for the two bedrooms, living room, dining room, bathroom, and kitchen with washer and dryer.  Especially the dryer!  The rainy, humid conditions left most of our clothes wet and musty so it was great to experience air conditioning and clean clothes.

Gran Totem

Gran Totem

On our last full day in Costa Rica we visited INBioparque, a private, non-profit dedicated to biodiversity by reclaiming land previously used to grow coffee.  Our guide, Fabricio, shared his sense of wonder at the inter-relatedness of all life forms.  A leaf in the tropical rain forest must be large in order to capture as much sunlight as possible.  Yet it might have holes in order to deceive an insect that might otherwise lay eggs on it or to disperse water that might otherwise saturate it.  The endangered white-tailed deer are not afraid to be near guests.  A special treat was the butterfly garden with numerous colorful butterflies  willing to pose for photographs.  The bio-prospecting labs were quiet on Saturday but it would be interesting to learn more about their efforts to discover chemical substances and genes present in plants, insects, marine organisms and micro-organisms, which may be used by the pharmaceutical, medical, biotechnology and cosmetic industries, and also in nutritional and agricultural applications.

On our return to Casa Conde between 1:30-2:00 p.m., we observed the sale of large Costa Rican flags on several street corners surrounding the soccer stadium.  A match with Uruguay at 8::00 p.m. would determine which country participates in the World Cup.  In many towns a soccer field is centrally located next to the Catholic Church.  The organic pineapple plantation even has a soccer field for its workers.  Young boys and girls were also observed kicking a soccer ball around during recess.  Soccer is an important part of Costa Rican life.  Unfortunately for the home team, Uruguay was victorious in this contest.

A festive baby shower located around the Casa Conde swimming pool lasted several hours.  It was interesting to observe the formal, public nature of this event and to hear some of the genuine merriment of the participants.  Costa Ricans, Ticos, know how to have fun.  Our time in Costa Rica was too short, but it was a terrific introduction to a unique land and its people.

El Tucano & Surrounding Region Saturday, Nov 14 2009 

El Tucano Pool

El Tucano Pool

The Occidental El Tucano Hotel fills a very large swimming pool and several pools using the volcanic hot spring water from the adjacent San Rafael River.  The sound emanating from this gushing stream, like the ocean surf, has a calming effect.  For those who don’t want to use a man-made pool, there is a walkway to an area where one can walk directly into the warm water.  It was energizing to swim laps in the long pool followed by sitting in the warm water of one of the smaller pools.

The hotel features a spa where various treatments are available.  After receiving a pedicure, I experienced a full body wrap with warm volcanic mud.  The attendant, Oscar, first coated a sheet with green mud. He had me lay on my back in the mud and coated my front.  He then tightly wrapped me and left me for twenty-five minutes.  Initially feeling confined as in a straight jacket, I calmed my mind by shutting my eyes, listening to the soothing music, and focusing on my breathing.  Cleaning off the mud off was a difficult process.  I stepped into a shower where Oscar used strong pressure from a hose to clean off the mud.  This was called a hydromassage.  A full body massage with a special body cream completed my treatment.

The hotel’s reception area and restaurant are decorated with prints depicting Egyptian themes.  The modern spa is descended from the ancient practice of bathing in hot springs and mineral waters.  The Greeks built baths and introduced massage.  The Romans continued such practices.  Other peoples have similar water treatments.  The hotel also offers chess sets, both indoor and outdoor.  It was fun to play a few games of chess with our Costa Rican guide, Nacho.

Dinosauer

Dinosauer

A stop in Zarcero allowed us to see a Catholic Church and the adjacent unusual park with topiary, including a long archway and depictions of various creatures.

After visiting an artisan’s market in Sarchi, we toured an oxcart manufacturing site, Taller Eloy Alfaro, which traces its history back to 1923.  The machinery continues to be powered entirely by water.  The artists draw and paint a unique design on their work.  The colorful geometric patterns are works of art.  Sarchi also features the world’s largest oxcart.  However, we didn’t see the oxen required to move such a vehicle.  Before the construction of the railroad, Costa Rica’s coffee crop was transported to the Pacific Coast by oxcart.  Sarchi became known for the quality of the wood, the craftsmanship, and the hand-made decorations.  This tradition continues.

Sarapiqua Thursday, Nov 12 2009 

The Sarapiqua refers to a magnificent river and the surrounding region.  We were introduced to the area with a rain forest canopy zip line tour.  We flew through the air and over the Sarapiqua River 2.8 kilometers using 14 cables.  In the afternoon and the next morning we experienced river rafting on the Sarapiqua River.  Both the canopy tour and the rafting trips were through Aventuras del Sarapiqui.  Early on the first river rafting trip, while strenuously back paddling before we hit a large rock, I experienced a full immersion baptism.  Our guide on both trips, Jose, extended his paddle and helped me return to the front of the six person raft.  We became pleasantly drenched on the second rafting trip with the continuous rain.  The lush green river banks contrasted with the muddy water on this 12 kilometer journey.  We were told an earthquake caused the river to be muddy.  Only last year the river was a clear blue.  Apparently, it will be several years before the river returns to its previous state.

Selva Verde Lodge

Selva Verde

We stayed  in the Selva Verde Lodge, founded by the Hollbrook family in 1985 and composed of 500 acres of old growth rainforest and 70 acres of new growth rainforest.  Mrs. Hollbrook joined us for dinner one night.  What a wonderful gift to learn more about her vision to provide visitors with a place to discover and develop a love for the natural world and all it has to offer.  According to their guest information, the Lodge has more than 300 species of birds, 330 species of trees, and 120 species of mammals.  David Attenborough filmed portions of “The Private Life of Plants” and “Amber: Nature’s Time Machine” in the Selve Verde.

Pineapple Field

Pineapple Field

We visited the Collin Street Bakery’s organic pineapple plantation.  A John Deere tractor pulled our covered wagon around the grounds.  We saw fields, including some with ornamental pineapples, at various stages of production.  At a stop adjacent to a field that will be picked in a week, our guide, Rodibert, explained how to select a ripe pineapple.  Look for one that is firm and with green at the top, gold on the bottom which is where the sweetest part of the fruit is located.  Be aware that monoculture pineapples are sprayed gold the week before being harvested.  Organic pineapple acreage produces one-fifth the number of pineapples as a monoculture field.  Intense labor is involved beginning with workers, primarily from Nicaragua, who plant 10,000 plants per day by punching a hole in plastic every eight inches.  Three workers plant an acre in a 9.5 hour day.  Each pineapple is picked individually and carefully placed on a conveyor belt leading to a truck.  At the processing plant on the grounds, the pineapples are washed and then sorted by size and packed six to a box.  Each acre produces two crops before the plastic is picked up for recycling and the process begins again.  Pineapples need the right kind of soil, temperature, humidity, and lots of rain with drainage so the water does not sit in the field.  The pineapples are cooled to a temperature of 45 degrees Fahrenheit and must remain at that temperature.

At the Sarapiqui Conservation Learning Center we were exposed to Costa Rican dance including the marimba, salsa and free form.  After learning some basic moves and trying to perform them, my appreciation increased when I watched experienced dancers move in these fast and sensuous dance forms.

Cacao

Cacao

We also visited La Tirimbina chocolate plantation.  Although cacao plants grew in several places in Central and South America, only the Aztecs and Mayans in Mexico discovered how to make chocolate.  The drink was used in religious ceremonies and by royalty.  The Spanish did not like the name, taste, or color.  During the colonization period four of five species of cacao became extinct.  A fungus is attacking the remaining species in Central America.  Consequently, production is now centered in Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and Nigeria which is not yet troubled by the fungus.  We tasted the outside of the cacao seed and learned about the fermenting, drying, roasting, and shelling process. Cocoa butter is the essential ingredient of high quality chocolate.  It is removed less costly chocolate bars and used for cosmetics and other products.

Arenal Thursday, Nov 12 2009 

Arenal Volcano

Arenal Volcano

As we headed north, the countryside was somewhat flatter, dotted with small plots of fruit trees and larger areas with sugar cane in full bloom.  The people in the small towns appear to be enjoying life at a slow pace.  Shops, especially grocery stores, cafes, and bars are open.  While the variety of merchandise is wide, selection within most products is limited.  Homes are modest, painted in bright colors with rusted corrugated metal roofs.  The drive to Arenal took longer than anticipated because of one crash and several very slow drivers.  Some drivers are fearless in passing with no visibility.  Fortunately, our driver, Alberto, is not in this category.  At our lunch spot we got our first view of Arenal, an active volcano with a classic cone shape.  We also watched several colorful birds dine on bananas and an iguana displayed his beautiful throat for us.

Our room at the Arenal Paraiso had two large windows with a view of Arenal!  This amazing volcano, which has had four cones, erupted July 29, 1968 and has continued to be active ever since.  We hiked about two kilometers on the Coladas trail in the Arenal National Park.  This relatively flat hike over sand expelled by the 1968 eruption ended in basalt lava beds from the 1992 eruption and a view of Arenal.  Along the way we saw many types of plants including tree ferns.  In a couple of places we saw leaf cutter ants transporting their leaves across the trail. Occasionally we could hear the rumble from the mountain spewing rocks.

Crested Guan Bridge

Crested Guan Bridge

Arenal Hanging Bridges consists of a system of trails covering about two miles within a rainforest.  There are eight fixed bridges ranging in length from 24 to 70 feet.  The hanging bridges are between 158 and 321 feet long.  This unique arrangement allows for the exploration of the rain forest’s canopy.  We saw a marmar swoop up an insect.  A side trip to a gushing waterfall was beautiful to look at and hear but difficult to photograph because of the mist that blew to the lens.  As we neared the end of the trail, a deluge of rain gave meaning to the “rain” in the tropical rain forest.

The Arenal Paraiso has a series of ten spas fed by hot springs. Each spa has a different temperature, getting cooler as you descend the hill.  It was refreshing to soak in one of the medium warm pools after hiking in the Arenal National Park.  One of the last pools includes a “wet” bar with a view of Arenal.  Truly, Costa Rica and its people have the good life, pura vida!

Punta Leona Thursday, Nov 12 2009 

Punta Leona

Punta Leona

Traversing from the Central Valley to the central Pacific coast involved going over a mountainous region.  The road’s treacherous switchbacks wove up the mountain and then down.  Coffee plantations visible on the steep green mountainsides hinted at the difficult work conditions for low paid workers.  Punta Leona Hotel, where we stayed two nights, is on the Pacific.  Sea kayaking on the coast in the Gulf of Nicoya was a memorable experience.  We traveled from one sandy beach to another with jagged volcanic rock formations in between.  At our stop a cooling waterfall greeted us a few feet inland.  Costa Rica’s central Pacific region features the intersection of the northwestern tropical dry forest with the humid rain forests of the south Pacific region.

A morning walk and a boat trip on the Tarcoles River allowed us to see a wide variety of birds including anhinga, crested caracaras, neotropical cormorants, cattle egrets, great egrets, snowy egrets, magnificent frigatebirds, great-tailed grackles, mangrove black hawks, bare-throated tiger herons, boat-billed heron, great herons, great blue herons, green herons, little blue herons, tricolored herons, yellow-crowned night herons, white ibis, great kickadees, tropical kingbird, scarlet macaws, turquoise-browed motmot, osprey, brown pelicans, spotted sandpipers, roseate spoonbills, black-necked stilts, mangrove swallow, chestnut-mandible toucan, violacemus trogan, black vultures, wood storks, whimbrel, and greater yellowings.  In addition to all the birds, a goodly number of crocodiles were submerged in the water or sunning on the sandy beaches.

Roy Arroyo, representing LAPPA, the Association for the Protection of Pssitacides on the Central Pacific Area, discussed the importance of conservation to protect the scarlet macaw.  There are only 450 in the Carara region and a little more than 1,000 in the rest of the country.  Scarlet macaws mate for life, only adding twelve to their population each year.  Sadly, many chicks are poached and end up for sale in the U.S., Europe, or Japan.  It is wonderful to observe the scarlet macaw in its natural habitat; it is tragic that too many people want to possess this bird.

San Jose, Costa Rica Thursday, Nov 5 2009 

Oxcart

Oxcart

The University of Costa Rica, organized around individual buildings housing each major area of study, has a nature preserve at its heart.  Covered walkways are prevalent which is practical given the frequent rains.

The Jade Museum, located on the first floor of the headquarters of the National Insurance Institute, has several rooms exploring historical-archaeological themes.  Objects made from jade, ceramics, stone, gold and other materials are shown.  The importance of jade is demonstrated by the variety of objects and in their use by religious leaders and high-ranking families.  The fertility cult exhibit displayed a realistic portrayal of human sexuality.  Interestingly, all of the jade comes from Guatemala as there is none in Costa Rica.

The Gold Museum, sponsored by the Central Bank of Costa Rica, has thousands of examples of pre-Columbian gold artifacts.  The building is situated under the Plaza de la Cultura and extends three stories down in an upside down pyramid shape.  Our tour guide, Wendy, shared her love of country and the amazing techniques of artisans to create such detailed, unique pieces.  Many pieces were intricate representations of local animals.  Some pieces use a combination of copper.

The National Theater, completed in 1897 and declared a national monument in 1965, was designed in the neo-classical style with lots of Italian marble.  Costa Ricans take pride in this cultural symbol for good reason.

Razor wire protects homes and businesses throughout San Jose.  The bars across windows and garages lead to the conclusion: this area is not safe.  Contrasted with this image is contact with citizens who convey support for tourists, and their dollars.   The reason for razor wire may be more complicated.  We learned that for some citizens this is an addition to show that the inhabitants have arrived at a more comfortable lifestyle.  It is similar to “keeping up with Joneses.”  Casa Conde Apartotel is an interesting enclave in a less desirable neighborhood.  [Please note that my perception of the neighborhood changed by the end of our stay.]  The nearby Peace Park, Parque de La Paz, has a police station with horseback patrols.  The food at the hotel and at Nuestra Tierra was excellent.