Manuel Antonio

150km of road separate the national park Monteverde from the national park Manuel Antonio. We left in the late morning, after the zip-lining, assuming to reach Manuel Antonio in the early afternoon after several stops on the way. Things ended up going differently. The first part slowed us down as it turned out to not be paved. When we finally reached the tarred road, we rejoiced for about 15seconds before realising that someone had removed the bridge on said road and there was no crossing the river. So we had to turn around and stick to another unmarred road for a while, before finally reaching the “Interamericana Norte”, the biggest street in Northern Costa Rica. We totally expected things to get better from there, but unfortunately they only got worse. We were stuck behind truck after truck for the next two hours, averaging some 30km/h. After 3 hours driving we’d barely covered 50km.p2017_12_01_13h47_07 In addition it had started raining again. All desire for detours had stopped and we even had to force ourselves to stop at the famous crocodile bridge to have a look at the huge crocodiles. They didn’t look happy about the rain either.
We arrived in Manuel Antonio with the sunset. Standing on the public beach, with the little islands black against the setting sun, made it all worth wile though. Exhausted but satisified we decided to forgo cooking and treat ourselves to a nice burger from a local joint. An absolutely great decision.

The next morning we had a tour trough the national park, which showed us all the larger mammals. While having the guide definitely did help, we probably would’ve seen many of the animals also without his helping eyes. The binocular he was carrying was very useful though. In just 90min we saw seven sloths (including two babies), squirrel monkeys, howler monkeys, capucin monkeys, racoons, agouti, coati, fresh water crabs and lots of insects.

One of the highlights was the squirrel eating feasting on a foot long grashopper. The details of which would’ve been invisible without our guides binoculars. The end of the tour conveniently dropped us off right at the beach, were we spent the rest of the day chilling, bathing, reading and chasing away monkeys in regular intervals. In particular the capucin monkeys have learned how to open zippers to retrieve whatever tempts them from your backpack.. Much care is needed.


In the evening we set off for another night tour, just as the rain set in. After waiting it out for a bit, the rain got less and we started looking for more frogs. Fascinatingly enough (or possibly not, if you’re familiar with biology) the frogs at the beach are quite different from the frogs in the higher mountains of Monteverde. We did see a red-eyed tree frog, which had only a little resemblance with the ones we’d seen before. We also got to see a baby red-eyed tree frog, which is completely yellow and doesn’t have the red eyes yet. We saw the bull frog and its impressive size several times and a large amount of curious insects creeping through the night. But we also saw larger animals, such as a bunch of deer and some more kinkanjous, even though we saw those only briefly.


Again, neither the tarantula nor the poisonous snakes made an appearance and even though our guide seemed disappointed, we weren’t all that sad to not have been attacked. When we asked our guide what the most impressive thing was that he had seen in the park, he mentioned that he’d been attacked by a boa constrictor falling from a tree once. Luckily this was shortly before the night tour ended and we were already leaving the forest.. without having been attacked.

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Monteverde

From Arenal we drove to Monteverde, once more surrounding lake Arenal.Once more leaving a reasonably sunny place to arrive at our destination in pour down rain. The little village of Santa Elena, next to Monteverde has a lot of charm and plenty of food and sleeping options. It also offers all kinds of adventure activities. We’d heard that this was the best place to do the zip lines and most of the other activities. So we ended up doing them all here, in light to moderate rain. For the first day I had picked to do tree-climbing and canyoning. While the canyoning did not quite live up to my expectations, the tree climbing was absolutely amazing. The tree to climb was a 40m high strangler fig who had long since killed the original tree it climbed up upon. Since I was the only person doing the activity that day, the guide let me try all three possible climbing options: By rope, by an external via ferrata or inside the tree. I picked the most exciting one first: Climbing up inside the tree. It was truly beautiful (and also rather easy) being surrounded by the tree, seeing how the different branches of the strangler fig intertwined to build one solid hollow tree. The light shone through the remaining openings and bathed everything in a very soft light. The second option I chose was the external via ferrata. It was a lot harder than expected, so much so, that I ended up failing at roughly the middle of the tree, my arms shaking. I’m going to blame this on the fact that garden gloves and hiking boots are not the perfect climbing equipment. It couldn’t possibly have to do with the fact that I had neither the strength nor the technique necessary.


I ended up surprising myself by making it up the tree by use of the rope and I’m happy I did, as it allowed me to see the tree up close, but far enough away to see it entirely. Actually the via ferrata is probably the one with the least amount of view while you climb.

After climbing the tree and a short rest, we set out for the canyoning, or rather the rappeling down waterfalls. The waterfalls turned out to be slighly afected by the amount of rain falling in the previous days. They were quite strong and had a lot of water. Making it hard to see where to put your feet. Always the optimist, my guide suggested I jump down the waterfall, to get a bit of distance between me and the water… This ended quite badly, as I did not land flat on my feet.. Some bruises were created that day. Nevertheless I made it down safe and sound and the little gorge they’d picked for the canyoning was really picturesque.

When the rain finally stopped, we decided to give the hanging bridges a go. The hanging bridges is a path, including multiple bridges, that will lead you through the upper levels of the forests, giving you a chance to look at the treetops or look down onto the forest. It is an interesting experience because you get to see the amount of orchids and other plants living on the trees at incredible heights. The weather, while almost dry, did try to remind us that this is a cloud forest after all. There was a lot of humidity, clouds and occasionally rain. But, by now, we’ve all bought ourselves some ponchos to keep us (mostly) dry. We’re prepared, nothing can stop us!

 

The next day, the weather announced itself slightly better in Santa Elena with sunshine and almost no clouds. So we set out for our final adventure: The fastest, longest and (obviously) bestest zip line in central america. Unfortunately, once we got into the bus, it turned away from the sun and steered straight into the deepest clouds and rain available. The best poncho won’t protect you, if you don’t bring it and so we did our zip-lining in the rain and in shorts and a shirt. Luckily it wasn’t very cold. The zip-lining was fun, but it wasn’t amazing. I’m glad that I did it, but it has definitely confirmed that the zip line is not my type of adventure.. I might just be too safe.. Although several of the employees saw my (admittedly impressive) bruise from the canyoning and asked if I’d slipped on the bridge and whether I needed help. Apparently the part where you’re on the ground is the dangerous part when you zip-line.

Arenal region

 

Our weather forecast had predicted semi-decent weather for the Arenal area the coming days, so we decided to give the area a second chance. After all, we hadn’t seen the Arenal volcano yet.. and it turns out we wouldn’t see it either. The volcano remained covered in clouds throughout our entire day. But we did get some dry periods here and there. Since we had mediocre weather and no desire to hike, we went for THE other activity in Arenal: The hot springs. There’s a multitude of hot springs in that area to cater to any need. The entrance fees usually reflect this, though.. ranging anywhere from 35USD to 150USD for a day pass. In the end we decided to do what the locals do and soak in the river just below the road. These ‘local’ hotsprings are nice and warm, although I could’ve enjoyed them a tiny bit hotter as well.

It was a good choice as the rain almost didn’t stop during that entire time.
Our plan for the afternoon had been to enjoy “Coffee and birds” once more in the Bogarin garden. But since it simply would not stop raining, we spent our time in a small café in town instead. The original idea of a combined afternoon + evening tour with coffee break, fell through. However, shortly after sunset the rain stopped. We waited another 20min for good measure and when the rain didn’t set in again, we drove up to the Bogarin garden and got lucky.

We caught the brothers just as they were about to close up for the day.. and they professed themselves happy to give us a night tour. First we stopped in their backyard to find the red-eyed tree frog. When we saw the first one, we felt very lucky.. After the next two we realised they might not be as rare as expected.. Then we saw three sitting in the same plant and realised they’re probably pretty common. It doesn’t matter though because they’re really pretty and it’s nice to see them each times.

After leaving their backyard, we set out to find frogs ‘in the wilderness’ and we got to see almost all of them, the masqueraded frog, the blue jeans frog, the campesana, the mezical and many more whose names I can’t quite remember. They were green, yellow, brown, whitish, blue and red and ranged from finger-nail to almost hand-sized. With the exception of the bull frog, which apparently gets larger and which we didn’t see. We also saw some supersized really beautiful bugs and sleeping birds. Even though our guide did go looking for the most poisoneous snake of Costa Rica, we weren’t particular sad that he couldn’t find it.


We returned home much later than expected, after having been carried away by our enthusiasm for frogs.

The next morning we stopped by to say a quick good bye to the brothers and were inevitably invited to some coffee and bird watching on their porch. We ended up seeing so many different birds again, including green parrots, toucans, local turkeys, blue and green bee-eaters, yellow fly catchers and a bird we, ceremoniously named the ‘red-ass-bird’. There were also many more types of birds, that we can no longer name, as we didn’t retain all the names.

 

Rio Celeste

On our treasure hunt for the sun, we also rescheduled the hike to Rio Celeste. After having had a lot of success with our sun-chasing in Rincon de la Vieja, we were still semi-lucky in Rio Celeste. We picked up a friend we got to know in Honduras and the four of us went off to search for yet another supposedly amazingly blue river. The morning didn’t start so great. It was raining heavily, but after a prolonged breakfast it started to clear up a bit, so we decided to try our luck. Still worried about the drive – the road had been described in quite horrific ways – we were pleasantly suprised to find a newly made dirt road with almost no potholes in it. Our next big problem was the supposedly very very VERY muddy trail. Should we opt for rain boots or not? We hoped for the best and went on without rain boots. If you have hiking boots, it should be fine, but you might have more fun with rain boots. We were told, it’s best to walk the longer trail first and do the main attraction, the waterfall, at the end. So that is what we did. On the way you get to smell sulfur gases (yay…) and see bubbling blue water.

You hike along the blue river with really nice view points. For me, the highlight of the longer trail was „El Teñidor“, which means „the dyer“ in English. At this junction, the water from two rivers turns from amazingly clear to a milky blue. There were a lot of theories about one river carrying a certain amount of certain minerals (copper, sulfur and/or calcium carbonate) which would make a lot of sense, since the rivers run through a volcanic area. But researchers couldn’t find any of those minerals in either of the rivers’ water to support this theory. In fact, the water is not actually turning blue. It will look clear, as soon as you take it out of its environment. The colour changing is not due to a chemical process but rather an optical illusion caused by an unusual reflection of light. The rocks in the river bed of Rio Celeste are covered in a layer of aluminum, silicon and oxygen which changes the way the sunlight is reflected/scattered

. If you look closely, you can see a whitish substance on the rocks, shortly before the river turns from clear to blue. After clearing our muddy shoes, miraculously turning a clear little river into an amazing brown colour, we slowly made our way down to the waterfall. Every turn in the staircase offered another view, so it took a while to go down and up again. Happy with our little hike, the amount of sun, water and mud, we were really looking forward to our fancy picnic lunch when we realized something horrible. We had left the most yummy ingredients back at the hostel. Who could cope with a burrito without tuna and/or eggs?

So, we went back to the hostel and it was a good thing, too, since we left back some more valuable things like prescription sunglasses. And this way, we actually had the opportunity to go to the frog garden which is small family-run piece of land near a river, where loads of different animals feel very much at home. We were greeted by a cute four year old girl and an even cuter little hedgehog. We were basically at risk of fainting due to over-cuteness since the next stop was a baby sloth which had been adopted by the family. Its smile can be quite mesmerizing, but those claws hurt like hell.

And off we went to search for more animals, mainly frogs. What was the most amazing thing for me on this little tour, were the forest bees with their unique bee hive. They don’t sting and produce a more liquid, but apparently yummy honey. Apparently, some animals think, the bees are also quite yummy. This lizard has found the most perfect spot for retirement and a bunch of spiders were hanging out near the nest waiting for lunch to fly by.

The bees were followed by a mot-mot, which is a very colourful bird with a pendular tail (which actually also swings like a pendular). We saw an eagle, waiting to pick out the nearest sloth’s eyes, more sloth fur balls and before we knew it, we were back at the entrance and off to Monteverde, trying to flee the rain clouds once more.

 

Rincon de la vieja

On the road from Arenal to Rincon de la Vieja you lounge lake Arenal, the biggest lake in Costa Rica for almost an hour and, when the clouds allow it, you can admire the view of the lake with its small islands and hilly mountains in the background. Once you leave the lake, the vegetation gets a bit drier and more sparse. However there is still plenty of water and we did stop for more waterfalls along the way.

In particular the Llano de Cortés had been recommended to us and rightfully so. It’s about a 1.5km walk to the waterfall, which also offers good swimming opportunities. The river drops over a huge cliff and creates a deep pool with a sandbank towards its end. Enterprising Costa Ricans have set up shop there and at the path entrance to sell you grilled meat, cold coconuts and much more. They will also happily charge you to protect your car from being broken into.


From the waterfall it’s just a short ride to Rincon de la Vieja and since it was only early afternoon we decided to keep on driving for a bit and enjoy the sunset at the beach, on playa hermosa, only 30min away from Rincon de la Vieja. We had time for a short swim and then sat and watched as the sun disappeared. The drive back in the dark, took a little longer than before as the Costa Ricans seem to enjoy lighting up their cars like christmas trees, making it very hard to see anything with oncoming traffic.

The next morning we drove to Rincon de La Vieja national park. While the crater itself is closed, there are still a few smaller hikes one can do there. In particular we did the short round to see the mudpools and the fumaroles.. If you’ve never seen these before Rincon de la Vieja is an interesting place to see. If you’ve seen fumaroles before, there’s going to be little excitement.

I did however do a second, slightly longer, hike to the Cangreja waterfall, which was absolutely beautiful. The hike itself was also an experience in itself. It first started out in forest, then led through small bushes before opening up into fields. I almost got attacked by a snake there. She definitely wasn’t afraid of me and I very definitely was scared of her, as we’d previously been told that this was one of the most poisonous snakes in Costa Rica. Finally the path rejoined the forest and led downwards towards the waterfall for the last couple of minutes before revealing the deep blue waterfall in its abundantly green surrounding.

Catarata del Toro

After settling in a bit in Costa Rica we decided to do something we hadn’t done before on our trip: Rent a car. This should allow us to see many more things and do simple spontaneous stops along the way. The first of these stops was the Catarata del Toro, the highest waterfall in Costa Rica. A, supposedly, dark blue waterfall whose smell and color tells you that you’re standing in an old crater right now. The waterfall is privately owned and the owner has set up a small hotel around it, with a great terrace from which you can watch never ending amount of colibris and squirrels feeding on fruit laid out on the fence. If it wasn’t for the trees the terrace would also allow you to look down on the waterfall. As it is a little bit of exercise is needed.

You can either choose to just walk to the viewpoint or down to the bottom of the waterfall, which we did. We ended up getting seriously wet..For once not because of the rain.The water falls some 60m into the crater and then has carved its way in a canyon down and away. As you look at that canyon you can see that there are different minerals in different area, giving the different waterholes different colors.


We had a longer hike scheduled for the next morning, but unfortunately the rain kept us from going through. The hike was supposed to go past several milky blue waterfalls.. But the color only shows in sun shine and not in rain. The green, however, shines more when it’s wet!

So we set off to Arenal, where we had to realise that the weather was just as bad. We tried to organise a night tour, but after spending some, admittedly very lovely hours on their porch, the guides finally gave up and told us it wasn’t worth it and we should try again later. So we only stayed that one night.. Long enough to check that the weather wasn’t improving in Arenal, and where the weather might be better. Then we set of to Rincon de La Vieja.

Rafting – Rio Pacuare

Since we enjoyed the rafting in Honduras so much, we were looking into rafting again in Costa Rica.. We knew it would be a lot more expensive (it was more than twice as expensive), but I must say they also had a lot more security gear and personnel on the trip. It was also a group of six boats (about 30 people) rather than us two going solo. So it was a very different experience.
However the scenery was absolute amazing and our guide, not only had an awesome name, but also a very fun personality. He did try to make the trip as exciting for us as possible, even if some of his attempts were thwarted by his colleagues. We had booked the tour from San José and, silly me, I had assumed it would be in a river close to San José. It was actually on the Caribbean coast towards the border to Panama. On the river Pacuare. Luckily Costa Rica is not a very large country, so we didn’t spent more than 90min in the car driving to the Rafting location.
The rafting took up a good four hours with a generous lunch in between, consisting almost entirely of fresh vegetables and fruit (and a wheat tortilla to hold it all together). The weather was great (it seemed even better when we learned that it had been raining the entire day in San José) and the group in our boat was really nice. It made me want to definitely go rafting again.. Unfortunately Costa Rica had different plans for us, as unbeknown to us a bad weather front was heading towards Costa Rica from all directions and the next two weeks would see almost nothing but rain.

Braulio Carrillo

One rainy afternoon we set out to visit the Braulio Carrillo national park. Just an hour away from San José. We took the bus to the park entrance (make it clear that you want to go hiking and not visit the attraction park next to it) and paid our entrance fee. The guard asked us if we liked sloths and when we confirmed, led us to our first Costa Rican sloth sleeping just above the guard’s housing. From there we set out to do short trails accessible in the park.

Unfortunately the viewpoint where one can see the grey and clear rivers merging is no longer open. Too many snakes, is what we were told, try having a look from the bridge. The remaining paths lead through dense cloud forests with big leaves, weird slimy roots, walking trees and many more crazy plants. We didn’t see much more animals, but I can only guess that there were plenty, we wouldn’t have noticed the sloth either if it hadn’t been pointed out to us.

Unfortunately for us shortly after we started the second path it started raining again and while we did soldier on initially, we realised we don’t particularly enjoy getting soaked and turned around shortly thereafter. We also skipped the lookout point from the bridge for the same reason.
Once back at the road we luckily only waited some 5-10min before a bus stopped to pick us up and drive us back to the bus station.

San José and Irazu

San José is a city that has little to offer for tourists. When we arrived, we didn’t know yet that we would be stuck here for almost 10 days. So the first day we enjoyed being in a city, th comfort of food, wifi and anything you might need in reach. Expecting to leave the day one or two days later. However a serious of unfortunate events lead to my brother arriving a week later than planned. It became very clear very quickly that there isn’t much to visit in San José. We did the tourist market, we did the city center, the central market, the farmer’s market and the highly recommended, but actually quite ugly theater in the first couple of days. After that, we chilled at the hostel. But even that soon got boring. So we started looking for alternatives.

As it turns out, Costa Rica is no longer the awesome volcano destination it once was. The Arenal volcano no longer erupts. However, it is still too active to actually visit the crater. The Poas volcano, next to San José, started being active this year and is currently throwing 2m-diameter rocks around the park trails, which lead to those being closed for the public. The same is true for Rincon de la vieja and a few more. It became apparent that a lot of the volcano must do’s in Costa Rica are now no longer doable unfortunately. Nature is volatile like that. We did however find a few smaller excursions to do.

One of these actually was to one of the few remaining non-active volcanos in Costa Rica: Irazu. The visit unfortunately was a bit mediocre, as was the weather.. which surely didn’t help. The drive up (by bus again) was really beautiful and a bit hillarious when the bus driver pulled the bus over, blocking both lanes to point out the turrialba volcano, another of the recently active volcano, completely free of clouds. The on coming traffic was surprisingly understanding. Once at the top, some 3500m above sea level, we got out our thick jackets to counter-act the cold and walked up to the viewpoint. Another recommendation of the bus driver who said we should go to the viewpoint while the clouds where still low and visit the crater later. On the walk up we could enjoy the gigantic gunnaras growing left and right, as well as the view over the clouds. It’s when we went back to actually see the crater that the disappointment set in. For security reasons the national park has built a large fence some three meters from the edge. This, however, leads to the fact that you can basically not see the crater at all. A car driving around is trying to make sure that you adhere to those rules. If you don’t, however, you will have a chance to see an absolutely pretty turquoise lake at the bottom. I had to climb onto the top rail of the fence to see it. Something that really felt a lot more unsafe than just walking a bit clos

r to the edge.
All in all we felt that if you charge 12USD admission, you could at least have the decency to let people see the crater they paid for, instead of fencing it off in a way that makes it pretty invisible. We would not recommend to go there, unless you’re definitely willing to break the rules.

Los Guatuzos

We ended our visit to the beautiful country of Nicaragua by going off-grid. After 6 hours of chicken bus and 4 hours of chicken boat (if there is such a thing?) even the best internet connection wasn’t able to reach us… although I’m quite sure, the neighbours had internet. We went to Los Guatuzos, a „little“ wildlife refuge of roughly 500km² at the southern tip of Lago Nicaragua and mostly consisting of tropical wetland. The boat ride to and from Papaturro was an adventure in itself. On our way there, we stopped half way through our journey just to start a major picnic on one of the many little islands of Solentiname. You could buy fresh fish for later consumption or already prepared fish soup and grilled fish for lunch. The little break turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Shortly after we were on the road again – I mean lake – one of the two motors died. With only one motor moving the whole boat, the gas was sure to run out at some point. To make it as far as possible, we moved veeeeery slowly towards the Papaturro river. Once we were in the river, we hit a sandbank and were stranded for quite some time, because the second motor died too trying to move the boat off of the sandbank. And that is when the waiting game started. Someone called someone to go get some gas, but the shop was closed. So that someone had to run to one neighbour after another to finally get some gas and make his way to our boat. And that is how we arrived 2 hours later than planned in Papaturro. We didn’t have anything else planned and the hostel was in walking distance of the dock, so no harm done.

We immediately arranged the famous night tour of our hostel and after only a few hours of downtime we were on a boat again… this time with enough gas. The guide brought his teenage daughter. Everytime we saw something, he whispered from the back: Tell them about the plants, show them the bird in the book, tell them about the daily routine, don’t shine the torch directly at the animal and so on. And she did a great job! Since it is night time, a lot of the birds sleep and you see more of the nocturnal animals, especially mammals. You can approach sleeping birds pretty easily if the motor is turned off. They just stay put and don’t seem to care about us two tourists staring at them in awe.

We saw some sloths, a lot of kingfisher and herons, owls, opossums, kaimans and so on. But for me, the highlight were the kinkajous and the basilisks. I never knew that basilisks existed outside of myths and Harry Potter. It is also called Jesus-Christ-lizard and looks like a mix between a chamaeleon and an iguana. Actually it looks more like someone grabbed a green chamaeleons’ tail and its snout and startet pulling until it stretched out. Its second name is pretty accurate, since it can walk above water, if it moves fast enough… not really a typical chamaeleon characteristic… so maybe it is more related to an iguana after all. And the kinkajous are weasel-like mammals with red-brown fur and a big fluffy tail. They are nocturnal, at least that is what we were told. They looked quite sleepy to me though. Apparently it is rather rare to see them, since there was a loud „WOW“ coming from the back of the boat, when the guide realized what he just found.

The night tour ended around 9 o’clock. And we were in bed sound asleep 15min later. The morning tour was very different. It was more of a nature walk, where the guide described the uses of different plants. After a short boat ride we were off into the jungle, together with a gazillion mosquitoes… not my favourite form of local wildlife. After a jungle swing,

nonpermanent nature tattoos and a lot of tree-hugging and frog-chasing we were back at our place, just in time for breakfast. The afternoon we rented kayaks and „sadly“ the guy we rented them from didn’t have time to do a tour, so we were off on our own and could enjoy the still waters of the river (except for the occasional caiman disturbing them) and the jungly feeling all by ourselves. It was a bit surreal. You felt like explorers kayaking down the Amazon, until you were greeted by a cow around the corner or a motorcycle on the shore.

The next morning it was time to go back to San Carlos to catch the bus to Costa Rica. Our boat was a lot smaller and almost half of it was filled up with plantains which made for a very colourful view… you didn’t really want to look outside, since the rain somehow caught up to us again.