Wednesday, 19 November 2008

The jungle, train roofs and balancing eggs on nails

No rest for the exhausted, as when we got down from from Cotopaxi we headed straight for Baños. Flagged a bus down on the Panamericana. We put our bags in the storage area under the bus and got on, but at no point did the bus stop! Having climbed a mountain, the thing I needed most was to spend two hours standing up on a bus. The one time I did get a seat a woman carrying a baby got on so stood up again. Couldn´t stand up straight either not surprisingly!

We´d heard that the FCO were advising against travel to Baños because the volcano might erupt, which we actually thought might make the trip more interesting! Apparently though there is always some risk of an eruption so the web site is just being cautious. The FCO said this:

"We advise against all but essential travel within six miles of the volcano in all directions, including Baños, due to the current possibility of further eruptions. If you are travelling through Baños, we would advise you to do this as quickly as possible in order to minimise the risk"

Baños - the Ecuadorean equivalent of Bath - was nice, and next day we hired bikes to see how far we could get of the 61km to Puyo. It was a really nice ride as it was almost all downhill through a valley, and there were a load of waterfalls en route. At one point we had to go through a tunnel and there were no lights. The only thing we had to be visible was the red light on my head torch attached to the back of my cycle helmet. You couldn´t see the road either but by following the light at the end of tunnel (literally) we made it out in one piece. There were plenty of other tunnels that were not lit which would have been certain death because you couldn't see the other side but fortunately there were cycle routes round the side instead of through the mountain.

We made it as far as Rio Negro before having a beer and turning back. Its uphill all the way back so the guide book says put your bikes on the roof or a bus. We saw very few buses on the way with roof racks and one we tried to flag down just ignored us, so we eventually hitched back in the back of some dude´s pick up truck. Half way up another family jumped in with us so was a bit of a squeeze. This was good fun though and definitely felt like an authentic way to travel!

Next day we headed on a three day jungle trip. On the way we stopped at a sanctuary for rescued animals. There were lots of very tame monkeys running around who spent all their time either fighting each other or trying to climb up the tourists. They weren´t climbing up me though, because, thats right, I ran away! I was surrounded at one point, but managed to escape. Just not a fan of animals climbing up me. I blame my parents as I never had a pet as a kid. Probably a good thing though as it means I am quite willing to eat family pets as evidenced by the guinea pig in Peru last year. Must also find out where they serve dog if I´m ever in Hanoi again!

Over the three days we did various hikes to waterfalls or lookout points. Leonardo, our guide for the trip, knew the jungle like the back of his hand...unfortunately he didn´t know the back of his hand too well, as on several occasions I´m sure he was lost. Actually thats not fair, he was only lost once, it just lasted three days. We got to everywhere in the end though and the waterfalls were pretty good, and we got to swim in the pools which was nice.
All these treks were done in wellies because we had to negotiate streams and lots of mud, but top tip is don´t hike in wellies if you can avoid it. They offer no grip, support, or stability; just not comfortable.

During the first night we got woken up by a cockerel and a parrot having a shouting competition at 4am. My first words when we got up were "has anyone got a gun, there´s a cockerel that needs to die." From speaking to the other people on the tour, it would be form an orderly queue.

After the first night we transferred to a different village in wooden canoes made from tree trunks. The guys driving didn´t fill you with confidence that they knew what they were doing or that they had done it before, as we seemed to be going backwards through rapids and getting stuck on rocks. We even almost tipped once, but we made it to the next village in one piece and not too wet.

Leonardo wasn´t the most enthusiastic guide but was friendly. But we were sitting around waiting for further instruction and he wasn´t around, but we found him in a hut which was a bar! Three Brits, two Germans and a Canadian and he doesn´t tell us about a bar. (Obviously despite being in the jungle we weren´t too far from civilization if the indigenous villages have bars!)

There was a bar game on offer far better than Jenga, Connect 4 and anything else you find in the UK – fire arrows through a blowpipe at a wooden monkey! This was good fun. I´d love to see that in Wetherspoons.

We tried to go see some Caimans that night but we got attacked my ants which were climbing up our shoes and legs. So ants join the ever growing list of animals that have got the better of me this holiday!

Next day we went to see a Shaman in a nearby village. We waited patiently for him to arrive in the shop selling all the local handicrafts – there is a credit crunch going you know, even Shaman have to make a living – but he just shook our hands when he showed up. No spiritual enlightenment, no fancy rituals, nothing, not even a rendition of Ebenezer Goode (apologies to those who are too old or young for that one). No suggestion of any money changing hands either even though we were told when we booked the trip that meeting the Shaman was an extra $10. He was actually the same bloke we´d seen with our guide when we entered the village, but he had to go put on a necklace and a feathery headdress to get that authentic Shaman look. We did give him a lift to town though. Perhaps there was a Shaman conference going on and he was in a rush.

Back from the jungle we went to the hot springs in Baños but soon turned round when we saw the pools were rammed and were standing room only. I can stand in people´s armpits at home on the Northern Line. So we went back first thing next morning and it was far more civilized.

Instead we went on a night volcano tour. It was clear it was going to be lame when the person we booked it through couldn´t keep a straight face! But we were bored and for $3 why not! And lame it was…but it was also comedy. We got driven to some hill overlooking Baños which you could also just see the top of the volcano from. We then got served some local moonshine by some 12 year olds; the booze was pretty potent at 60% and not that nice. I think if you drink too much you'd probably lose the power of sight for a while. Then said 12 year olds lit a fire using mostly petrol, adding more petrol when it looked to be going out. So night volcano tours are mildly entertaining but for all the wrong reasons.

After the hot springs we hiked up some hills overlooking Baños. The hike was either 12km or 16km depending on which distance signed you choose to believe. Have noticed this a few times and in Costa Rica also, you get distance signs a few metres away from each other that differ by up to 5km. Anyway, after that it was a bus to Riobamba.

The main attraction in Riobamba is the Devils Nose train ride, El Nariz del Diablo. This basically entails turning up at 6am, paying a bloke a dollar to hire a cushion and spending the next x number of hours on the roof of the train admiring the scenery as the train eventually negotiates the very steep rock known as the Devils Nose. How long it actually takes is in part dependent on how many times you derail; we derailed twice! Completely normal though apparently.

It was really good fun though, the views were good, and its really impressive how a train around 100 years old can still be running like this. Its impressive too how they can get it down such a steep mountain, and get the thing back on the rails when it falls off, although its normally only a couple of wheels of one carriage rather than the whole train that come off. Never ones to miss a money making opportunity, there are also a couple pf food and drink sellers who walk up and down the roof the whole way! Something of a monopoly going on there.

Would definitely recommend it but some tips
- don´t stand up because there are low powerlines in places and getting decapitated spoils everyones fun
- hire two cushions as its gets pretty uncomfortable up there especially for the nine hours we were up there for!

Back to Riobamba on the bus after the train. Went to some of the local markets, craft and food next day. The craft market wasn´t massive but it did give me chance to practice my Spanish as I tried to explain to a little old lady that I´d been instructed by my ex-flatmates to get them alpaca wool fingerless gloves with a flap over the top. I will confess to some hand gestures too though! The food market was manic, but did have some nice fresh pork and a drink which involved cutting a hole out the skin and drinking the juice through a straw directly from the fruit.

My Spanish then got put to the test when I had to book accommodation for that night back in Quito. But we got to Quito and it was exactly what I had booked! He shoots, he scores! Was pleased with that. We stayed in Quito New Town that night, and had drinks in various bars and it was ok, but it could have been anywhere in the world as it was all very modern and swish.

On Sunday we visited Ecuador´s busiest attraction, El Mitad del Mundo, the city in the middle of the world - the equator. Its basically a load of cafes and gift shops with a painted line running through it. Cheesy but fun. Its not actually the real equator though as the calculations were done many years ago by a Frenchman (I dunno, you give them one thing to do) and GPS has since shown it to be 240m down the road. You should see all the losers having the photo taken playing on the wrong equator. And yep, I was one of them!

Luckily someone put together an exhibition on the real equator, which is much better. You can see water draining down different ways different sides of the equator, balance an egg on a nail (no centrifugal forces apparently), and other fun experiments. Its all a scam but it is fun. I managed to balance an egg on a nail, for which I got a certificate. Its probably my greatest achievement!

Went to the Basilica in Quito old town in the afternoon. Climbed all the way to the top of one of the towers up some fairly rickety steps and walkways. This definitely wouldn't be open to the public in the UK, but it did offer some good views over the city.

On Monday Guy went home. Was really good having him out here for two weeks, so cheers mate. I just tried to sort stuff out the rest of the day, including laundry - rock and indeed roll. I also got a haircut, very exciting. Found a barbers near the hostel and ran my hand over my head while making a "zzzzzz" noise to ask if they had clippers. The answer was "si" so there was little else for me to say but "numero dos por favor!" I assumed clippers use a universal numbering system and they do. Was worried about a power cut here half way through as I had a ridiculous mohican for a while! Was a touch concerned when the cut throat razor appeared but he did a fine job, at least as fine as anyone can with me hair. And at $1.50 its trumped Mr Toppers on price too!

Otovalo is famous for its Saturday crafts market, so what better day to go than Tuesday! Well I´m not around on a Saturday am I. I had failed to secure a trip mountain biking down Cotopaxi as nobody else in Quito wanted to do it apparently and there is a minimum group size. So rather than bumming around in Quito again I spent two and half hours each way travelling to spend two hours in Otavalo.

The journey there passed quickly though because there was a TV and they were showing a Steven Seagal movie. As suspected you lose nothing in plot through a Spanish translation! Unfortunately although Steven Seagal is one of the finest actors of our generation and it is criminal he has been overlooked at the Oscars, Half Past Dead isn´t his finest hour and a half. I don´t know what film they played on the way back but it was deafeningly loud.

Otavalo was nice and the market is seven days, other days just aren´t as busy and lack the atmosphere of Saturdays. It also means that because there are less tourists you are targeted by the sellers, so there was plenty of "no gracias." Not sure I can fit a 10 foot alapaca rug in my bag. I also met an American called Randy who had a massive moustache and beer belly. Honestly, you couldn't script it. Nice chap though.

And so today, my blog is pretty much up to date for the first time! Went up the TeleferiQo, which is a cable car in Quito. It just takes you up a mountain where you´ve got city views, and there is a hike too which we did. Went up there with Yvonne, and Irish expat now living in Oz who was also staying in the hostel.

Off to Galapagos tomorrow for 8 days and 7 nights on a boat checking out some wildlife. In keeping with the rest of my trip, no doubt I'll be bullied by various animals. I also fully expect to spend most of the time hanging over the side being sick. But have stocked up on seasickness tablets, so hopefully be ok. I managed to order them in Spanish so didn´t need to draw a picture of a boat and make a being sick gesture. The pharmacist doesn´t realise how lucky she was.

Charles Darwin came up with his theory of evolution while on Galapagos, and so I have been asked to report back on why I haven´t evolved. This coming from Jamie is a bit cheeky given evolution hasn´t exactly treated him kindly, but nevertheless watch this space and I´ll report when I´m back on the mainland.

Its gripped, its sorted, lets climb Cotopaxi!

So into South America. Met a fellow Brit Emily in San Jose airport. She was travelling onto Lima to work on a volunteer project with street kids. We met in a big queue to check in but there were no staff to check anyone in. But made it through eventually. Had a coffee and some food etc and parted ways. I´ve got a mention in her blog though which is a proud moment for me, first of the trip that I know of!

Got through Quito airport (thats in Ecuador for the geographically challenged amongst me) in record time. I could see my bag going round the conveyor while I waited in line at customs. The guide book said that you get a 30, 60 or 90 day stamp depending what mood the customs person is in. Couldn´t seem to tell what mine said but lets hope I´m allowed out when the time comes.

Taxi to the hostel was interesting. Almost crashed twice, I think crossing 4 lanes in one manoeuvre was the record, and almost killed a pedestrian, who for their trouble got shouted at by the driver. But made it to the Secret Garden Hostel. Really good place, very sociable. Instantly got invited to cram onto one single bed with 3 Aussies to watch a DVD (it was raining outside) but 3 was a big enough crush so politely declined. The hostel had good views of Quito from the roof terrace. Everyone sits up there and has dinner together so you meet loads of people.

Ended up drinking and chatting with Chris from Australia and three Irish girls, Jill, Renee and Emey. Turned out Emey worked for Ernst & Young too as a tax accountant. Between me being a Microsoft Excel geek and her tax knowledge we could have had some wild conversations, but as we were amongst polite civilised company - and an Aussie - we managed to stop ourselves. By 1.30am , and not under the influence of as much alcohol as you might think, myself and Chris agreed to go to a Salsa dancing lesson with the Irish girls at 10 the next morning.

At 9.30am this was seeming less clever, but I still went along. Chris had pulled out though, something about having to get a bus to Colombia. I dunno, some people will come up with any excuse. But I went along and it was quite fun. It did provide chilling confirmation of what I already knew - I have no co-ordination. My feet just weren´t meant to move that quick. I ´danced´ with the Ecuadorian instructor, and managed not to break any of her toes with my size 11´s but only because my moves were so out of sync I barely got near her! As you would expect there was a reasonable height difference and when I had to spin her round (she kind of spins under your outstretched arm), I practically lifted her up off the floor. But it was fun and I definitely got better, but had to concentrate so hard, one lapse and I´d mess up.
After the exertions of one hours dancing I was knackered so just had a wander round Quito old town in the afternoon. That evening Guy, a mate from home arrived for a two week holiday.

Next day we just tried to organise a few things and we decided we´d have a shot at climbing Cotopaxi a few days later, a volcano 5,897m high a couple of hours out of Quito. So we got fitted up for climbing boots, and various warm gear. Not having planned my trip properly I hadn´t brought a warm, wind proof coat - I was just planning on wearing layers, all my clothes at once if necessary. I was anticipating buying a decent jacket when I get to Patagonia, as I will be going to the far south of the continent. But having spoken to a few people it became apparent that I would freeze to death long before Patagonia, i.e. in Bolivia, and layering up wasn´t going to cut it. And now climbing a mountain was another reason to get one. Its Ecuador´s finest mountaineering brand apparently.

Next day we set off for Cotopaxi to spend a couple of nights in the Secret Garden hostel there to acclimatise (about 3,800m) before the big climb. It was a great view of the volcano and there would have been some good walking but it was raining so hard we couldn't go anywhere. The rain did abate late in the afternoon and we had a go at walking to a nearby waterfall. We had a to walk along the edge of a stream, and naturally I made a clean sweep of the muppet awards as my foot slipped off the bank and I got a welly full of water. The idea was that you cross the stream, but the water was so high from the rain we had to turn back.

The hostel was nice though. It was very eco-friendly - there was no electric so there was a big fire and we ate by candlelight. The rooms had fires in too. There was even an eco toilet, which was definitely the nicest toilet that was just a hole in a piece of wood I´ve ever seen! It even had a padded seat!

We tried to acclimatize further the next day, so we along with Felicity, an Aussie, and Natalie, a German, who were also doing the climb got a taxi to take us along with some mountain bikes to another nearby peak. We left the bikes at about 4,500m and hiked to about 5000m. It was a beautiful clear day and the views were amazing. It was just so peaceful up there. Was a good lunch spot too. We then headed back to the bikes and cycled downhill to the hostel.

The cycling was, err, interesting. The bike was too small for me, had about 5 working gears out of 21 and had limited braking. Holding both brakes on fully the whole way down was enough to just about control my descent most of the time, but it did get hairy a couple of times. Guy did manage to fall off but no damage done. It was over pretty rough terrain and then cobbles for ages, so was even more uncomfortable, but was fun, and having no brakes did give it a certain edge!

The following day we headed up to the Cotopaxi refuge (4,800m) armed with our climbing gear. Today was about conserving energy, so they just took us up a bit to practice walking with our crampons and ice picks. You actually use it like a walking stick rather than a pick axe, holding the blade end and sticking the handle in the ground. I think using it as a pick is for more technical climbs. Cotopaxi is not a technical climb and you don´t need experience to do it, hence why clowns like me were doing it! We also practiced how to use the pick to stop ourselves if we happen to be sliding face first down a mountain. So we slid down and stopped ourselves!

Dinner at 6pm that night then off to bed at 7.30pm because we had to be up at midnight to start the climb. It is expected to take between 5 and 7 hours to reach the summit so the hope is you can get up and down before the sun melts the snow too much which makes it pretty treacherous. So after a midnight breakfast we set off about 1.30am lit up only by the stars and our head torches. I felt fine at 5,000m the previous day so was optimistic but you never know how altitude will affect you, and 5,900m is certainly a long way up.
We were a group of 7, and you get one guide per two people. I initially had a guide to myself (Guy had unfortunately decided not to do it), but when one girl had to go down another chap, Fabian, joined me. When anyone can´t make it and has to go down a guide goes with them. Fabian ended up having to go down too so I joined another group of two. So there was the Ecuadorian guide, an Englishman, an Irishman and a Slovenian - sure there must be a joke in there somewhere.

The climbing wasn´t too bad mostly. It was steep in places - up to 60 degrees - but was do-able. You had to jam your crampons in forward to get make sure you didn`t slip but this was fine. We were roped to each other but we weren´t attached to the mountain so if one person slips you all do. It was nice climbing in the dark, and the views of the lights stretching for miles was good, and I really enjoyed the first few hours. It then started to get harder as the air thinned and it seemed to stay pretty steep too. It kind of looked a few times like you were at the top but then another hill would appear. Being the sad loser that I am, at some points on the climb I did actually start doing random times tables to see if my brain was still working and whether altitude was affecting me!

Just after 7 we did reach the summit. The feeling was more relief than euphoria in the end. It is so hard climbing at that height. At times we´d take just a few steps and have to rest, completely out of breath. Took some photos when I got to the top, the kind of collapsed in a heap for a few minutes.

It is difficult to describe what it is like doing it because you´re struggling for breath so much and its such hard work. It was similar to the last few km of the marathon I did, where it does become a bit of a mental battle, but I knew I had the energy and my legs felt ok and I felt well enough with the altitude so you just take it steady and push on. At the top I did have a bit of a headache, and a slight urge to be sick or pass out or both, but this it wasn't that bad and I felt largely ok.

The views were pretty amazing across the valleys and into the crater so just about worth the effort in the end!
Getting down wasn´t fun though. The Irish guy was in a bad way with altitude sickness, and he was going off-piste both literally and metaphorically. He could barely put one foot in front of the other and was all over the shop to start with, which is a bit scary when you´re all roped together. Sliding down on our bums didn´t work either - you all have to be going at the same speed because you´re attached to each other, otherwise the harness just crushes your balls. Ouch. Made it down in three hours in the end. We were all getting tired and falling over a lot too. The guide said "going up....good, going down....terrible."

Overall it was good and very glad I did it, and would definitely recommend it. There aren´t many mountains where you can get that high with no technical expertise or experience. And if muppets like your humble narrator can do it, anyone can, although it is a bit pot luck if you can cope with the altitude. Have to say though that I don´t have any great desire to do another any time soon. Not exactly emotionally scarred from the experience but feel quite contented with just having been up Cotopaxi for now.

Chased by monkeys and ambushed by a racoon

Seeing the turtles was one of the highlights of my trip so far, but after that it was back to La Fortuna for a night before transferring to Monteverde the next morning. I was now travelling for a bit with a Danish girl called Mette who was on the turtle tour who was going in the same direction. Rather than spend five hours catching two buses to get to Monteverde, we did the Jeep-Boat-Jeep option. This unfortunately wasn't jeep in the strictest sense of the word, it was in fact jeep in the minibus sense of the word, so not quite what it said on the tin. But nevertheless the boat ride across Laguna Arenal was pleasant, and it did save some time for not a massive amount of extra expense.

Did some more zip lining again that afternoon - Monetverde was where this craze all began apparently. It was quite a good one as it included a rappel and a tarzan swing as well as some pretty long zip lines. There was one that if you went on your own you'd probably get stuck in the middle about 300m from either end, so Mette had the dubious pleasure of having my legs wrapped round her for the duration of the zip. I'm sure she was honoured. I was also responsible for braking, something she probably would have been less happy about had she ever seen me drive.
Can't help thinking that health and safety on this one wasn't as good as in La Fortuna. Rather than getting a custom made leather mit to brake with using your right hand, we got a gardening glove with a piece of leather glued to it. We weren't clipped onto anything when transferring between platforms either, but I somehow managed not to do anything stupid and everything was fine. That evening met up with Martin from Preston again for some drinks as he was in the same hostel.

Next day did some wildlife viewing. Started by doing a tour round the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. This was interesting. Saw monkeys, tarantulas, a hummingbird and loads of different types of plant. We could only see the hummingbird through the guides telescope type thing and he took pictures through it. Unfortunately he changed all the settings on my camera to be able to take them and being a technological idiot, it took me ages to work out what he'd changed.

Interesting facts from the trip were
- hummingbirds use spiders webs in their nests so the nest expands as their young grow
- wasps kill tarantulas and lay their eggs inside, which later burst out Alien style
- epiphyte trees grow from top to bottom, i.e. roots grow down the host tree and then into the ground, only killing the host tree when it has laid its own roots

Anyway David Bellamy routine over. On the way back walked down a pretty steep hill to go look at the San Luis waterfall, but not for the first time with my navigation we didn't find it. It was definitely signposted down there but think the proper good view was the next turn.

Went on some hanging bridges in the afternoon, which are rope bridges over the tops of the trees (the sort of bridges that keep breaking in Indiana Jones films). The bridges held though, nor did they really wobble much which was disappointing (unlike the one over the Thames), and as it was raining we didn't see much wildlife either. But it was ok.

Did a night tour too, and saw more tarantulas and funnelweb spiders amongst other things. It started raining half way through so put my hood up, but when it stopped I took it down. It then rained again but I was less keen to put it up because I wasn't sure what spiders etc might have landed in there in the meantime.

Mette departed next morning as she was off home. I hiked round the Santa Elena Reserve which was a decent few km. It chucked it down with rain the whole time, and the bus that takes you back down every 3 hours helpfully failed to turn up. The waiting time was passed though by watching some pig that was just hanging around - perhaps it was waiting for the bus too. But soaking wet with no dry clothes I was getting pretty cold so started walking the 6km back to the hostel as it was the only way to get warm, but managed to hitch two different lifts to the bottom which was pretty handy. They're friendly these Costa Rican folks.

All wildlifed out it was time to head to the beach, so up at the crack of dawn to get a bus to Puntarenas to then connect to a bus to Quepos. Had lost all circulation in my legs on this bus as there really was no leg room. As usual apparently with Central America, it would be too sensible to have a bus station, so we were dropped in a different part of town to where the next bus went from. Have to own up to a bit of following everyone else as didn't fully understand the directions from the bus driver.

Quepos is the town where lots of people to stay to go to the beaches and national park at Manuel Antonio half an hour down the road. Went down there when I arrived but the afternoon rains came so cut it short.
Next day though set off early to beat the rain and hike round the national park and check out the beaches there. Were some really nice walks there. Was walking a bit behind some couple when we saw some monkeys jumping through the trees. They obviously got spooked by something though because a load of them jumped down onto the path and started snarling at us. Perhaps they didn't like my deodorant. Then a couple of them came for us, so we started running. Fortunately this other couple were between me and the monkeys acting as a kind of human shield. Obviously the monkeys would have caught us had they wanted to! After a brief discussion about the film Outbreak - these were the same white faced monkeys as the film - we decided to backtrack and take an alternative trail. Monkeys 1 Humans 0.

There were some nice beaches there though. Some white faced monkeys did appear on one of the beaches I was on, but I kept a safe distance and naturally made sure I was hiding behind other tourists. The guide book said the monkeys are notorious for stealing food from peoples stuff, and at one point it looked like they were performing a classic flanking manoeuvre on a couple of people: two monkeys play around and pose for photos while a couple more sneak round the back and raid the picnic basket, but I don't think the monkeys had seen enough Yogi bear cartoons and the sandwiches were safe.

Later on I was lying on another beach using my bag as a headrest just chilling reading my book minding my own business when I heard a noise and turned round to find a racoon about a foot from my face. I'd made the mistake of leaving my bag open a couple of inches and it was having a rummage. Being scared of pretty much all animals I was on my feet in a flash, but the racoon just carried on. When I pulled my bag away it even held on for a second or two with its teeth. Realising that it wasn't getting its lunch off me, it casually wandered off to ambush other unsuspecting tourists (most of whom had been watching this little episode with great amusement, seeing the tall guy get bullied by a racoon). Racoon 1 Pete 0. Was pretty funny 'interacting' with the animals though!

Next day I headed back to San Jose and decided I wanted to see a volcano after my failed effort in Fortuna. Would definitely recommend Directo buses if they're available as they don't stop every 100m to pick people up like every other bus I'd taken in Costa Rica so far. Just wondered around San Jose that afternoon. Went to the Museum of Pre-Colombian Gold and went inside the very plush Teatro Nacional. Was going to go to the Museo Nacional to learn about how Costa Rica was colonized but it was closed so the most cultural thing I found to do instead was do a price and menu comparison between the UK and Costa Rica for McDonalds, KFC and Burger King. Brief conclusions are as follows
- its slightly cheaper but not massively
- there don't appear to be any Costa Rica specific burgers (unlike in Oz where you get the imaginatively titled Aussie Burger)
- Costa Ricans don't like spicy food that much as they didn't do the Zinger Tower burger. Disgraceful

For those wondering, I didn't do the triple crown, i.e. have a meal from all three in a single day. Chilled in the hostel in the evening and chatted to an American biologist called Katharine who now lives in Ecuador.

Last day in Costa Rica I did the 4-in-1 tour. Started with a tour of a coffee plantation, then onto Volcan Poas. My record of not seeing volcanoes almost continued but we were lucky enough to see into the crater for about 30 seconds before the clouds rolled in and that was it. You have to get there before 10 or you'll never see it because of the clouds. Also quite lucky because if the wind was blowing in the other direction, you pretty much have to run to the viewpoint, take a quick few photos and run back again as the smell of sulphur is too overpowering.

After Poas we stopped off at a shop where we got plied with numerous samples of alcohol in the hope we'd buy something, all at 10.30am. Somewhat out of character, I bought some nice fresh strawberries instead of booze. It was then onto La Paz waterfall gardens where we saw toucans, parrots, hummingbirds and monkeys amongst other things.

The waterfalls were pretty picturesque. Next time you go to a waterfall, stare at the same spot for 20 seconds, then look at your hand as it looks like your fingers are growing, or look to the side of the waterfall as it appears to be climbing too.

The 4th attraction was a boat trip to spot wildlife. This was much like the trips in Tortuguero, so didn't see much I hadn't seen already....except for an osprey carrying a big fish under its wing.

An observation on Costa Rica: They get hot showers by attaching some contraption to the showers which heats the water as it goes through. It does involve a lot of electric wires in very close proximity to water; can´t help thinking that it might raise a few health and safety eyebrows back in Blighty.

In terms of my Spanish, I have been making an effort, in that I have been using it to buy bus tickets and food etc where I can. I have once or twice slipped into the Steve McClaren method of talking English in a Spanish accent with Spanish mannerisms, but am not yet ready to fully adopt that approach as I think I´m progressing ok albeit pretty slowly with the actual language.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Costa Rica, land of liability waivers...and turtles

Pura Vida!

So it was onwards and downwards to Costa Rica. Was originally planning to go straight to South America but had to change planes in Costa Rica or Panama, so with flawless logic, I decided to stop in Costa Rica for a couple of weeks. By the way why do we call Costa Rica Costa Rica and not translate it to Rich Coast yet we translate Cote D´Ivoire to Ivory Coast? The mind boggles.

Anyway, after a few nights where I probably overdid the Mojitos, Crystals and Bocaneros in Cuba, I needed some R&R, so what better place to do it than San Jose...well actually lots of better places because San Jose isn´t that nice. Its mostly just ugly modern concrete buildings on narrow streets choked with traffic and pedestrians. Very claustrophobic and not a great deal in the way of tourist attractions either. The link below probably doesn´t describe San Jose but is quite funny. Had a wander round nonetheless but mostly chilled in the hostel.
Next day got the bus to La Fortuna. It took four and a half hours and the leg room was less than generous, in fact it was actually quite painful, as buses here aren´t designed for those of us who are 6´6". But got there in tact and checked into the hostel, where I bumped into someone I know from home - small world!

Volcan Arenal is the main attraction in La Fortuna, and on a clear night you can see the lava coming down it, so booked myself onto a tour to go see it. Booked it at 2.30pm in glorious sunshine, but by 3.30 the clouds had rolled in and by 4 it was pouring with rain. Did a walk through some forest first to see some wildlife but most of it had the good sense to stay dry so all we saw was an eyelash viper. Very poisonous apparently.

The rain hadn´t abated by the time we got to the volcano, and we sat staring at a gap between two trees hoping we might catch a glimpse of some lava. Having seen nothing for half an hour, for all we knew the tour guide could have been stringing us on and the volcano could have been behind us and we were looking at nothing, but eventually we did see some specs of orange. Disappointing but apparently lots of people don´t see it. Its not the first time I´ve turned up a spectacular view and seen nothing - Blue Mountains springs to mind.

After the volcano went to the hot springs with Emily from Canada and Emilie from Sweden, two girls from the hostel who were also on the bus from San Jose. The springs were really good. They were kind of set in a river which is naturally warmed by the volcano.

Next day having had a rare moment of bravery/stupidity the previous day when I booked it, I went canyoning, which basically involved rapelling (lowering yourself down a rope) down five waterfalls and one cliff. Was fun and got pretty wet but was slightly underwhelmed as I (surprisingly) wasn´t scared standing at the top looking down, nor was I any good at it, so I didn´t get the rush of whizzing down really fast. But glad I did it.

Did some zip lining in the afternoon, which is sliding down ropes between trees. I think the longest was about 600m, although there are some in Costa Rica that are over 1km. The best bit was the tarzan swing where you are attached to a rope and you step off a platform and just swing. Cool. So that was two liability waiver forms signed in one day!

In the spirit of continuing with dangerous activities, went white water rafting the next day (and another disclaimer form). It was grade 3/4 and I had only done grade 2´s before. Was really good fun. As it had been raining most of the night, the river was much quicker and it was rough enough not to be boring but not so rough as to be scary, so it suited me fine. I know Kris once had a near death experience on some rapids and I wasn´t planning on doing the same.

Not sure I´m the right shape for rafting though, because I never ever really felt balanced. I started at the front of the raft, but over balanced into the boat on the first rapid almost! Oops. I was (somewhat harshly I think) relegated towards the back of the boat but this suited me fine. Was a good ride from there. I had to take all instructions in Spanish though - there were 4 Americans, 2 Spaniards and me in the group so I was in the boat with the Spaniards. Got the hang of the calls for paddle forward, paddle backwards, and stop, but never got the hang of "we´re in trouble, everyone get in the boat and get down" but by copying the Spaniards I got by ok!

Went out for some food that evening with Martin from Preston who was also staying in the hostel. When we got back to the hostel it was dark and it felt like it was time for bed, but it was only we had some Imperials - la cerveza de Costa Rica - with some English girls who were travelling through Central America. Costa Rica is more or less directly below Cuba but is two hours different and it gets light at 4.30am and dark at 5pm. Maybe its to take advantage of the sun before the afternoon rain rolls in, but despite being on holiday, you do find yourself getting up and going to bed really early.

Some of the girls in the hostel had spent a month or so volunteering at a Turtle conservation place and some other people had been and said it was good, so I managed to organise a trip out to Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast to see the Green Sea Turtles nesting as it was still nesting season just. Up at 5am and it took two buses and two boats to get there. Had a Spanish lesson from Ivan, the driver of the first bus on the way! Saw plenty of wildlife en route - numerous birds, monkeys, iguanas and a crocodile, although the fact that the croc was just sitting on the bank in plain view almost posing for tourist photos did lead me to suspect it may have been plastic.
That evening at dinner there was almost a major diplomatic incident when an American stole my pudding. I don't care whether the UK and the US have a special relationship or not, you don't mess with my pudding. The ever diplomatic Scandinavians came to the rescue though as Mette, a Danish girl, didn't want her pudding so let me have it.

The main event though was going onto the beach late at night and watching the turtles lay their eggs. These turtles are huge and weigh between 200 and 400 pounds, and in the pitch dark lit only by a tiny light the ranger had we watched one lay its eggs, fill the hole in to protect them, then drag itself back down the beach to the sea. This is all done with its flippers which are designed for nothing more than swimming so its a massive effort for the turtles. They lay 120ish eggs in one go and only 2-3 will survive because of predators. Watching this was really amazing.

Walking to the beach almost in complete darkness I casually remarked to an American girl who was walking at the back that "in horror films, its usually the person at the back who gets it first." She wasn´t impressed - this sort of thing is clearly taken quite seriously stateside!

Next day was further wildlife spotting around the natural canals of Tortuguero, followed by a jungle walk. We saw Caymans, poisonous frogs and toads, leaf cutter ants, and spider and white faced monkeys. The jungle walk culminated on the beach, and our guide spotted a turtles next that had been dug up by dogs, and there were some turtles only a few hours old having probably hatched that morning in distress, so we all had to carry a turtle to the water. They were only little, about the size of the palm of my hand. Mine kept kicking its back flipper - I was scared I was going to break it! Someone suggested seeing how far we could skim them, but decided it was best just to put them down near the water. They took a few tentative steps and waves came and they swam away. Hopefully we gave them a slightly better chance of survival.