Sunday, October 20, 2013

Comfortable (very comfortable) Costa Rica

Water feature at the bottom of the garden
A wraith of a rainbow hangs precariously in the spray over the torrent of water that crashes over the rocks below as the late morning sun slants down from the forested mountain ridge above.  I’m sitting by a very lively little stream that has tumbled over a thousand meters from the Parque Nacional Los Quetzales which encompasses the ranges that tower above. The steep gradients ensure that the water has no time to linger and I suspect that within a day or so, the water that is claimed by the locals to be the cleanest in Costa Rica will be happily accepting its burden of salt (and it’s first serious load of contaminants) as it reaches the Pacific Ocean.  While the waterfall that is creating the rainbow may not quite make the popular tourist feature list, it is a wonderful feature nonetheless to have in one’s front garden, which is how I am seeing it at the moment. 

By fortuitous accident (or perhaps due to my inclination to poke down interesting looking side roads)I have found myself in a pueblo pequeño se llama Providencia. It’s just a couple of hours south of the capital, San Jose, and I first found it when I went exploring whilst waiting a couple of days for a doctor's appointment in town (more about that later).  After climbing and climbing into the cloud-shrouded mountains I found a place to pull off the road that looked like a good place for a late lunch. Slightly off to the side was a very underwhelming and almost inconspicuous little building that had a sign for Administración de Parque. After chatting with the ranger I decided that this would be a good place to spend the night and he was happy for me to  camp in the clearing behind their office. 

As it was still early afternoon, and the clouds were beginning to break up I decided to explore the little side road that was invitingly signed "Providencia". As I descended steeply, the fragmenting clouds opened inviting little windows onto the forests across the valleys, with shafts of sunlight stabbing through wherever they could find the chance. Bit by bit, these tantalising glimpses came together like a jig-saw puzzle to reveal an idyllic cloud forest that cascaded to the valleys below. After losing about a thousand of the meters that I had previously climbed, the forest gave way to scattered clearings for agriculture with the occasional farmhouse nestled on the side of a sparkling stream that cascaded out of the forest. After several more kilometers I emerged into the delightful little town of Providencia where the local football pitch had both the Costa Rican and Australian flags painted on the change rooms - this was feeling very good! After chatting to a local, also called Robert, I drove a little further to a restaurant that he recommended and dined in cosy comfort as the afternoon rains set in once again. For some reason, everything about this place felt very enticing, a seemingly idyllic mix of relatively unobtrusive human activity and a stunning environment.
Setting out from the sunny ridges at the top of Parque Nacional Los Quetzales

...descending into the clouds,  meeting the daily rain delivery that ascends the valley from the Pacific ...

... to emerge into the delightful pueblo of Providencia.
With occasional stops for some bird watching, I climbed back to the top of the mountain to spend a cosy night under sleeping bag plus blankets!! Up early for a hike back down the road - a lot to see that can’t be fully appreciated from behind the wheel on a precipitous track. After several hours of hiking I was examining my bird book trying to identify the umpteenth new bird for the day when a car that was ascending from the valley below came to a halt and I was greeted by a young Tico (Costa Rican) who introduced himself as Andrés. After a brief chat, he suggested that I jump into the car and join him for lunch at a restaurant at the top of the hill, an offer happily accepted. It turns out the he is building an adventure tourism business out of Providencia, and seems to have all the right aspirations of creating opportunity without destroying the environment. 

We agreed that I would swing by his house the following morning to chat more, and the subsequent discussions revealed that he was heading for the US the following day and was a bit anxious about leaving the house unoccupied for a month. I jokingly suggested that I would look after it and next thing we had agreed that this would be a good idea. Consequently his very comfortable house and deck, with vistas up to the mountains and down the valley, a cascading waterfall literally a stones throw (if you exerted a fair bit of effort) below, the frolicking of blue-face Emerald Toucanets and the thrumming of hummingbird wings as company, this is now my new home at least for a little while. 
Home for a couple of weeks - thanks heaps Andrés!!!

And this comes after almost a month in Costa Rica - a month comprising the torture of customs bureaucracy, exploring the very impressive medical system and delightful stays in stunning locations around north and central Costa Rica. 

Rescued baby sloth
... the negligent mum???
So, rewinding a little.....after the now-standard tortuous border crossing from Nicaragua I pulled into a little finca  (plantation) called Cañas Castilla  owned by a Swiss couple, Agi and Guido,  just a few kilometers into Costa Rica that others had recommended to me (stop by if you're passing through: 

The location is delightful - nestled in among mixed forest and farmland alongside a small lake with at least one crocodile in the water and two perizosos (sloths) and troupes of howler and spider monkeys in the trees above, not to mention the baby sloth that the owners had rescued after it had fallen to the ground. The huge iguana that reposed on the branches overhanging the lake would probably be a fair match for the crocodile if push came to shove! A hummingbird was putting the finishing touches on its nest on one side of the balcony, and a squabbling family of Rufous-naped wrens had a nest on the other. The chimney over the pizza oven provided shelter to a colony of little bats. Conveniently they are out and about when there is a need for pizzas! With lots of birds and plenty of opportunity to hike and bike, this seemed like a perfect base to try to arrange for my replacement kayak parts to be retrieved from customs. I won’t even try to describe how complicated it was, but suffice to say that it took another three weeks and lots of payments before I finally got it.  Muchas gracias Agi y Guido por su hospitalidad y su ayuda!!

Now that's ambitious..

Fortunately, with no time commitments, this meant that I could just relax and enjoy the delightful company and the surrounding landscape, including a boat trip on the Pacific coast with Agi, her daughter and another Swiss girl, Marian, who was staying at the finca. We piled into a small boat and set out around a shoreline clad with forest and interspersed with idyllic beaches, exploring islands and passing turtles and dolphins as well as an uncooperative whale that, after showing itself briefly, seemingly evaporated as 20 minutes of searching failed to find it again. Pulled into a sheltered bay where we snorkeled for an hour - while not spectacular, a reasonable array of small fish, three different types of moray eel and a beautiful spotted stingray made for an interesting dive. 

Another adventure with Agi and Marian took us to a small community nearby where the women were developing all sorts of organic produce in a sumptuous landscape of forests and mixed agriculture, including vanilla beans among many other things. With the addition of a few pigs, cows and chickens they had pretty much everything that they needed for a simple but very comfortable lifestyle. Their enthusiasm and pride in their enterprise was inspiring and sharing lunch of hot-off-the-stove maize tortillas with cheese and beans made while we sat in the kitchen was a special treat. Again, you can’t help but think that we are making life way too complicated in our so-called “advanced” countries and I can’t say that any of the people that I know back home, for all of the stuff that they own,  are any happier than the people that I am meeting here.

Setting off into the integral part of their very productive farm.

The very valuable vanilla bean

Learning about growing vanilla

Sunday best...including machete!

Fresh sweet corn tortillas...yumm!

The Guanacaste coast. You could pay a fortune for a view like this or ... you could just park for the night!

If you have to put up with noisy neighbors, its better if they look like this.
Eventually I bade farewell to Agi and Guido and made my way into the capital, San Jose, with a brief overnight stop along the way at a very impressive parrot breeding centre - again, found as a result of another impulsive detour down a side road. After asking if there was somewhere that I could camp for the night I was put up in the garden of the adjoining house and awoke the next morning to flocks of screeching scarlet macaws as they painted the morning sky with their outrageous color schemes.

My notion that I could simply arrive in San Jose on Friday morning to pick up my kayak parts was quickly shown to be a fantasy, so rather than spend the weekend in town, I decided to head for the nearby, very impressive, hills. On my way out, however, I stopped at a very pleasant little roadside restaurant for lunch and a chat with the head waiter led to the suggestion that I was welcome to camp in their back garden if I needed to, an offer that I later took up, spending several nights there, with internet access, for the price of a meal or two.

But first I made my way to Parque Nacional Braulio Carillo where I convinced the rangers that I should be able to stay the night in their parking lot. Clearly this was a bit unconventional for them, but I had met a couple of young guys from the Uni of Costa Rica who emerged from the forest carrying snake tongs (only an ex-herpetologist would have known what these implements were!) After a brief chat, I had organised to go out with them that night, hence creating a legitimate need to stay overnight.  And a very productive night it was, with over 10 snakes of 6 or 7 different species, not to mention an assortment of bizarre lizards insects and monster tarantulas. 

School excursion - Snake appreciation 101!
From there, I made my way to La Selva, an extraordinary biological research station on the interface of primary and secondary lowland forests and agricultural landscapes. The facilities here are exceptional, with researchers coming from all over the world (sometimes over 100 at a time) and for the cost of my accommodation I had a guided hike in the forest each morning with guides who really new their stuff and conversations with the researchers over meals. Needless to say, I learnt a lot and my bird list took a very impressive leap forward over the few days that I stayed there. 

La Selva locals....

Keel-billed (what an exraordinarily unimaginative name) Toucan with Chestnut-mandibled in the background

Pájero carpentero...or Pale-billed Woodpecker

Rufous-tailed jacamar

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan

Broad-billed Motmot...I think???

Sorry frog - no idea who you are...
Assistant on a research project????
So, after a dose of both montane and lowland forest I felt that a visit to a volcano was required for variety and made my way by more backroads to Volcán Poas. Arriving in the afternoon, my attempts to convince the rangers that I should be able to stay here overnight failed - the first time in many attempts, probably because this is one of the most visited tourist locations in Costa Rica, but just outside the gates I found a very elegant restaurant with spectacular views over the central valley to San Jose and they happily agreed that, if I ate in their restaurant, I could sleep in their garden - and I definitely got the best end of the deal - the best steak that I have eaten (ever??) and a prime bedtime vista overlooking the sparkling lights in the valley below plus four new bird species to add to my list in the morning without even getting out of bed!

The steaming cauldron of Volcán Poas

Turn off the heat and fumes, and this is what you get...literally 500m from the previous photo
After spending the next few nights camped in the back garden of the San Jose restaurant where I had previously eaten, it was apparent that I still was not going to get my kayak - lots of documents being exchanged between costa rica and the US shippers who had stuffed everything up - so with another weekend bringing things to a halt I headed out of town again, this time towards Limon where I had read about a little place with cabins in the forest called 10 Degrees Above (http://10degreesabove.comwhich sounded like a perfect place to spend a few days. The owners, Kimberly and Barry where fantastic. They have built this place themselves - a couple of very pleasant cabins one of which they are living in as their own house nears completion. Several days were easily spent here exploring the property with Barry including a night foray down their stream in search of snakes - yep, Barry is a keen herpetologist as well (try a dictionary if you think this has something to do with herpes!) but the lack of rain meant that, whilst we had a fun time splashing around in the creek we didn’t find any snakes - although the blue-legged and the green and black mottled frogs were very cool! On meeting a tarantula that poked its front legs out of a hole by the trail, I decided to copy a trick that the snake guys at Braulio Carillo had shown me - tickle the entrance to the hole with a stick to lure the spider out. The first coupe of attempts were unfruitful until, just as my nervousness subsided, a hairy black and white striped monster leapt from the entrance and grabbed my stick! For an instant there was a tug-of-war but I quickly decided that  winning this one was not a good idea (what would you do with a tarantula on a stick??) and dropped my weapon!

I think this guy is one of the poison-arrow frogs

And then, suddenly everything was OK with my kayak, so I rushed back to San Jose before they could change their minds, paid more money, took delivery and then decided, for my next challenge, to take on the Costa Rican medical system!

My self-diagnoses of swollen lymph nodes and a google search of its causes suggested that there were not likely to be any simple causes for this condition and, after blood tests and ultrasounds that ruled out many of the potential causes I was off to visit an oncologist. I have to say, the medical system here is amazing. While not cheap (by Australian standards, altho I suspect is is by US standards), I was in and out of appointments without any waits. The doctors are all incredibly competent and professional, and the facilities extremely modern (maybe customs should learn something from them!). My oncologist decided that the symptoms were more consistent with inflammation than cancer and a second opinion from a surgeon supported this, so we’ve opted for a course of antibiotics and a watching brief - so let’s hope they are right!

So, with customs and hospitals behind me, and a repaired kayak on the roof, I farewelled San Jose once again, firstly to visit Volcán Irazu (again the rangers happily let me camp by the ranger station) and then took to the mountains to the south of San Jose where, as described at the outset, I accidentally found myself on the road to Providencia where I've kept myself amused hiking and bird-watching with a wonderful local guy called Adrián and taking Spanish lessons from a delightful local girl called Deily  who, with her parents, are developing an impressive, completely organic finca.  You can't help but be impressed by the passion and commitment of these guys - truly inspirational.
Volcán Irazu

Now this is what agriculture should look like!

Smoke meets cloud - Volcán Turialba

35-a-side fútbol in Providencia: gringos contra locals (Ausie flag in the background)

My birding mate, Adrián
View from the deck - time to read a book methinks...E.O Wilson: Diversity of Life. I like your bookshelf Andrés!

Oops - bogged in the driveway. Neighbors and a winch... no problems!
Vistas on my 20 minute walk to school....

My maestra (teacher), Deily with parents and younger brother