Sunday, August 25, 2013

Monteverde and San Luis (Costa Rica)

The Monteverde cloud forest is one of Costa Rica's most popular tourist destinations, and our digs were distinctly off the beaten path. The University of Georgia has a campus-turned-ecolodge outside the village of nearby San Luis. Populated with mostly study abroad students and professors teaching special summer sessions, visitors can also pay to stay, space permitting. Our visit began with a brief orientation with one of the resident naturalists asking about our interests and outlining a personalized schedule for us. We started off on one of the night hikes in the area, where our guide catered to my interest in creepy crawlies and shined her flashlight into the den of a particularly burly tarantula. Lest we missed out on any specimens, they also were kind enough to arrange a viewing of their insect collections back in the lab. Our natural history day hike in the transitional forest was also very informative, and we lost track of time discussing biodiversity, conservation, and agriculture with our guide. The campus also maintains an on-site farm focused on sustainability and providing a substantial proportion of the food for the 3 square meals included daily in the lodge stay. We tried our hands at milking the campus cows, a first for Rich, despite growing up on dairy farms. It's a lot harder than it looks... especially aiming into the bucket.

Off campus, we did make it into the official Monteverde Reserve, but after our one-on-one time with UGA guides, the tour was a bit of a letdown. Most visitors are rabid to spot the iconic quetzal bird ("Beautiful plummage!"). After a couple of 15 minute stops spent peering forlornly into the misty canopies, our reserve guide clearly felt the whole trip was a wash and high-tailed us back in the dismal rain to the entrance. 

A far superior experience was ziplining. Costa Rica was one of the places that popularized it, and even if it is a tourist trap, we do have a weakness for adrenaline sports. There were 15 proper cables: fast enough to need to brake hard at the end, without much of a delay between rides, and the longest was a whopping 1 kilometer ride! The best part was the giddy drop-off (maybe 50 feet?) as a human pendulum in the Tarzan Swing. Stopping was a bit tricky as two of the guides had to either grab for your feet (I nearly lost a shoe) or quickly loop a giant rubber band around your midsection to catch you like some Wile E. Coyote move.

The last Monteverde mention must be a shout out to the cheese factory. We didn't end up taking the tour, but we finally understood the fuss about the best milkshakes ever. They make the ice cream on-site with local flavors like cas (a type of guava), soursop, and some fantastic combination involving sweetened condensed milk and fig... AND they use whole cow's milk (i.e. with floating cream) for these concoctions. Mmm, mmm, good!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Las Brisas? and Monteverde (Costa Rica)

In the 1950s, pacifist Quakers left Alabama in protest against the American draft during the Korean War. They chose to move to a country with no standing army: Costa Rica. They settled in what is now Monteverde, got busy dairy farming, and oh yeah, set aside land for conservation which National Geographic has called, "the jewel in the crown of cloud forest reserves."

This was our destination. Getting there was an adventure. Everyone warns you about the roads in Costa Rica. "Four-wheel drive," insisted our most bad-ass friend who leaps man-high dirt jumps with his mountain bike in a single bound. The guidebooks have a section on what to do when - not if - you have to ford a river. We came in the rainy season expecting deep ruts and sinking mire. Instead we got bone-rattling, teeth-chattering, hard-packed dirt roads embedded with sharp stones. Akin to riding a rickety wooden roller coaster... for 4 hours!

Sure, it was raining. The scenic drive around Lake Arenal was somewhat marred by the highway getting completely washed out. The resultant detour passed scowling neighbors and seemed to climb everlastingly up the mountainside. "Go, Jimny, go, you can do it!" we shouted encouragingly over the din to our beleaguered 4WD. Mostly though, the rainwater did less to soften the impact and instead just exposed more pointy surfaces and render existent potholes to mysterious and dangerous depths. After one such encounter, Rich had to lay down on the side of the road to investigate a disturbing scraping sound. Thankfully, only the plastic bumper needed to be shoved back into place.

The second time we weren't so lucky. Coasting downhill, we hit an unusually straight stretch whose potholes made it look like a giant Whac-a-Mole game. Jimny's engine stalled, and he didn't start again. Most of the tiny village (of Las Brisas?) seemed to turn out to inquire and offer opinions once we propped up the hood. Our Spanish was a little rusty (why would we have needed to learn "sparkplugs" when we didn't have a car back then?), but we managed the basics. An old man offered to telephone the mechanic for us, the local store owner let us use their facilities, and a delivery van driver insisted we call the rental company. They said they'd send a car out immediately... from Alajuela, 5 hours away. At that, an American-Costa Rican family, back home in the village for a vacation, fair demanded we wait at their place.

Beth and her in-laws truly laid out the welcome mat for us. They invited us to share their "humble" (their words) lunch: rice, potatoes, cheese, and some giant variety of chayote squash in a black bean-based broth. The cheese was homemade, as the family still milks 30 head a day as part of the dairy business. Hearing I work in agriculture, Beth got her father-in-law to give us a tour of their farm. He showed us the small greenhouse he was starting, the massive vegetable garden in the back, and the worm composting operation. Rich felt right at home in the sweet smell of cowpies, and sucking on the sticks of sugarcane the farmer cut with his mean-looking machete brought back my own memories. The rest of our wait passed by pleasantly in rocking chairs on the front porch chatting and eating the best arroz con leche (rice pudding) I've ever had in my life. Full fat dairy style!

We bid them adeiu and met up with the rental guy who brought us Jimny 2 with the intention of getting Jimny 1 back up and running to take him back to Alajuela. Only later did we discover Jimny 1 never rose again, and the poor sot had to call a tow truck in the end to get him home. We, on the other hand, made it to Monteverde without further incident.