Pura Vida! Our Costa Rican Odyssey (and Tales from the Tour Bus) – December, 2016

Warning: With the exception of my husband and our tour guide, all names have been fictionalized to protect both the innocent and the stupid. If you are reading this and suspect I might be referring to you, congratulations. Good luck proving it.

SUNDAY:

Let’s get this party started! Hopping a southbound plane, we escape the cold rain at home and land about 10° north of the equator…where it’s still raining, only warmer.  Welcome to Costa Rica, baby! Pura Vida!

Undaunted by the downpour, we ditch our bags in Room 242 of the lovely Barcelo – San José and scamper down to the pool bar. Clinking together a couple bottles of Imperial (a Costa Rican lager), we smile. There will be no whining about the weather today, mis amigos. We are here to celebrate our 20th anniversary!

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For this momentous occasion, we’ve chosen to take a guided tour through the Costa Rican countryside on a big green bus with forty-one complete strangers, most of whom are 20+ years older than us. Why, you might ask, would we choose to spend our anniversary like this? Here are the top five reasons, in random order:

  • I remember just enough Spanish to be dangerous (please, thank you, bathrooms, and a few swear words), while Jeff’s mastery is, well, let’s just say it’s a good thing he likes tacos (¡Sí, tacos!).
  • We’d both rather lose a limb than drive in a foreign country.
  • Most of our friends are older anyway. They’ve traveled more, experienced more, read more, and have generally outgrown the pretentious, petty bullshit so many of our fellow Gen-Xers have turned into a national pastime.
  • We wanted to see as much of the country as possible, but were too busy to plan out each leg of the trip. (Sure, we could have gone down there and flown by the seat of our pants. We could have also set ourselves on fire, but elected not to.)
  • The nice glossy brochure said it was a tour for nature lovers. A little pampering for our special occasion and a whole lot of nature. Perfect.

Our tour guide is Juan Diego. “Call me Diego,” he says. A lady standing in front of me turns around and whispers, “Ohh, like in that cartoon!” She snaps her fingers trying to recall the name of it. “My grandkids used to watch it.”

“Dora the Explorer?” I offer.

Her eyes light up. “That’s it!”

And there it is. A couple hours into the trip and I’ve already bridged the generational divide!

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Dinner is buffet style in one of the hotel’s restaurants. We are instructed to sit in the area designated for the two tour groups staying here. Romantic, sí?

As awkward conversations start up around us, I smile at a woman sitting at the next table. She smiles back. Before I can say anything, her husband sits down with his plate and she immediately hisses out a litany of complaints. The food, the weather, the room…everything is horrible (pronounced harr-ibble). Everything.

I decide I’m not up for the challenge of conversing with someone so adept at tucking the word “harr-ible” into a single sentence a minimum of five times. Jeff and I exchange a knowing look. There’s a possibility Miss Harr-ibble won’t be on our tour. We can hope.

After dinner, Diego regales our group with interesting facts about Costa Rica.

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Nestled between Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica is roughly the size of West Virginia. They haven’t had an army since 1948, when then President José Figueres Ferrer took a sledgehammer to a wall at Cuartel Bellavista, the nation’s military headquarters, and declared an end to Costa Rica’s military spirit. The money spent on the military was redesignated for education. Thanks to that philosophy, Costa Rica currently boasts a 97.8% literacy rate.

A few inquiring minds wonder aloud what Costa Rica does when threatened by overbearing neighbors (cough-cough… Nicaragua). Turns out they call their friends in the United Nations. (Here’s looking at you, U.S., Canada, Spain, and Panama!)

But before I step in a pile of politics, here are some other interesting facts about the Rich Coast:

  • There are only two seasons: rainy (May-November) and dry (December-April).
  • The weather is very unpredictable. The country is essentially split down the middle by a mountain range. Winds from both the Pacific coast and the Caribbean side slam into the mountains, causing low pressure areas, which explains the near-constant fog over the mountains.
  • 57% of the land in Costa Rica is protected, either by the government or privately.
  • Their goal is to be carbon neutral by 2021.
  • “Pura vida!” is the unofficial national slogan. It means pure life.

Before we leave, Diego also warns us to steer clear of eating a lot of papaya. Too bad I didn’t know that before dinner.

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Jeff, Diego, and Yours Truly!

By the way, it turns out Miss Harr-ibble is in our group. Estupendo. (Great.)

MONDAY:

First stop: Poas Volcano. At nearly one mile across, it is the largest active crater in the world.

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Poas Volcano on one of its calmer days

Poas is active, but not in a lava-spewing kind of way. More of a sling-water-and-mud-900 feet-in-the-air kind of way, with a side of noxious sulfur fumes. I think #1 on this warning sign is a nice touch…

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Gotta love #1

From the crater, we take the “long trail” to Botos Lake, where the mist is just beginning to obscure the view. The lake is simply a collection of rain water in an inactive crater.

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Botos Lake as the mist rolls in

Back on the bus, we head to the Doka Estate Coffee Plantation for lunch and a tour. Not a bad view, eh?

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Before the coffee ends up in your mug, it starts here…

And check out these basketball-size hydrangeas! Hundreds of them!

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But back to the coffee, let’s follow a coffee bean from plant to cup: First, the beans are picked by hand by pickers (80% of whom are from Nicaragua) who get the equivalent of $2 per basket. Note: The “good” pickers can fill a basket in 45-minutes.

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Coffee beans!

The beans then go through a washing process. Incidentally the “floaters” are considered the poorest quality beans. Makes sense, I guess.

Afterwards, the beans are sorted by size via a machine that extracts the actual beans from the chaff. Thirty-six hours of fermenting time later, they are dried. The highest quality beans (the non-floaters, one would assume) are dried the old-fashioned way: outside, in the sun, for about seven days. Some poor dude has to keep an eye on the weather at all times, raking the beans into piles and covering them when in rains, then raking them back out when the sun reappears. Is there an easier way? Sure. They have a dryer, but apparently it’s inferior to the good ole rake ‘em up and rake ‘em out method.

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Drying coffee beans the old-fashioned way
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Costa Rica exports 97% of its coffee. The beans are roasted “to taste” in the countries that buy it.

Cool stuff I learned about a cup of joe:

  • The lighter the roast, the stronger the coffee! Light is roasted for 15 minutes, medium for 17 minutes, and dark for 20 minutes. So if you need a swift kick in the arse to get you going in the morning, put down that espresso and go for the “light stuff.”
  • Decaf coffee is made by “sweating”the caffeine out of the beans. This involves steaming them at high temperatures. Not ones to let perfectly good caffeine go to waste, the coffee plantations sell it to energy drink makers.
  • Forget the hot stuff. Chocolate-covered coffee beans are the friggin’ bomb! (They also have all their caffeine, so consider yourself warned.)

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Before we climb back on the bus, we stop at the butterfly garden where we find both the familiar (Monarchs) and the beautifully bizarre.

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Because it’s on the itinerary to tour the capital city, we take the “scenic route” back to the hotel. More accurately, we find ourselves planted directly in the middle of rush hour in downtown San José. Traffic, grid-lock, people everywhere…a cheerful sort of hell that only a true city person could love.

So yeah, I’ll be filing this little experience under Things That Suck…

TUESDAY:

Now that the group has had some shared experiences, we are getting to know each other better.  There are lots of smiles and nods as we board the Big Green Machine (a.k.a. the bus) for ZooAve in Alajuela.

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This organization is doing amazing things in Costa Rica. Perhaps you saw the story about Grecia the toucan, who had her upper beak hacked off by a teenaged shit stack that is apparently still roaming free. The fine folks at ZooAve, in partnership with a 3-D printing company from the U.S., fitted Grecia with a prosthetic beak. Check it out:

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Before
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After

To learn more about Grecia and her plight, check out Toucan Nation, which first aired on Animal Planet back in August.

Some of the other “regulars” at ZooAve:

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Scarlet Macaw

 

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Iguana
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Crowned Crane

 

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Black-bellied Whistling Duck & Brown Pelican
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Agouti
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Yellow-naped Parrot
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Spectacled Owl
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An ocelot’s butt
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Keel-billed Toucan
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Gray Fox
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Ostriches
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Golden Silk Orb-Weaver

 

Incidentally, I pass Miss Harr-ibble and her husband on one of the footpaths. “I feel all itchy,” she whines. I glance at her husband out of both curiosity and pity, but our eyes don’t meet. He’s too busy scratching her elbow for her. Oy vey.

All too soon we have to climb back on the Big Green Machine to get to our next destination: Sarchi, Home of the world-famous oxcarts.

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World’s Largest Oxcart

Oxcarts were once used to haul coffee beans to market. Now they’re mostly decorative, but they still make them by hand, just as they did 120 years ago…sans electricity. A huge water wheel powers the tools needed to cut the wood.

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The water wheel powers all the tools used to build the oxcarts

Each wheel consists of sixteen pieces; fifteen are the exact same size,with the sixteenth being the “catch up” piece that completes the circle.

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A wheel in progress

Each oxcart is then hand-painted by skilled artisans who begin training at a very early age. (And I thought my kid’s finger paintings were cool!)

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On our way to Arenal Volcano, we stop in Zarcero with these amazing walk-through topiaries. (Well, they’re amazing unless you’ve read The Shining, in which case they’re kind of creepy):

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The topiary gardens in Zarcero

Also in Zarcero is St. Raphael Church. Believe it or not, those are not bricks on the church. They’re metal slabs welded together! Look closely and you can see them:

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St. Raphael Church

Next stop: Arenal Manoa & Hot Springs Resort at the base of Arenal Volcano, where Jeff and I quickly slip on our bathing suits and into the hot springs to enjoy a couple of little somethin’-somethin’s at the swim-up bar.

Funny, Miss Harr-ibble is nowhere to be seen. Maybe she’s taking an oatmeal bath.

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Arenal Volcano

WEDNESDAY:

December 7th. The “date which will live in infamy” also happens to be our 20 anniversario. So, if you’ll humor me un momento, I just want to say that this husband of mine is my everything and I still love him more than life itself. Not only do we finish each other’s sentences, we often think each other’s thoughts. It’s a beautiful thing. Pura vida!

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Inscribed in Jeff’s ring: Love, Hope, Trust, Friendship – For Life 12-7-96

This is also the tenth anniversary of my dad’s passing. There’s not a day that goes by I don’t think of him. I hope somewhere, somehow he knows I’m okay and happy…and that he was loved.

I guess you could say today is bittersweet.

Anyhoo…back on the Big Green Machine, we pass through fields of pineapple, oranges, sugar cane, coconut trees, banana trees, and teak to get to our river cruise on the Rio Frio.

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Rio Frio (Cold River)

In a word, the cruise is excelente! Check out some of our finds:

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Howler Monkey and baby
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Basilisk (a.k.a. Jesus Christ Lizard because of its ability to run across the surface of the water over short distances)
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Three-Toed Sloth
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Mangrove Swallows mate for life. It’s rare to see one without the other, and when one dies, the other usually dies within a week.
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Neotropical Cormorant

 

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Anhinga
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Amazon Kingfisher

We may or may not have crossed into Nicaraguan waters. What happens on the Rio Frio stays on the Rio Frio.

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Oops…

 

Hot, sweaty, and happy, we board the bus again for the two-hour ride to Baldi Hot Springs. Twenty-five thermal pools, ranging from uncomfortably hot in the highest springs, to unbearably cold in the lower springs, await our arrival. After partaking of the extremes, we park ourselves at a swim-up bar somewhere in the middle. The day is still young and there is much Imperial lager to be consumed yet.

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After a quick ride back to the resort, Jeff and I make a beeline for their thermal pool, where I discover a new drink at the swim-up bar: B.B.C. (Baileys, Banana, Chocolate).

It’s gotten kind of late. Late enough that we debate joining our fellow travelers in the dinner line. Ultimately, we decide to sneak in (unshowered, gross from the day’s activities, and slightly inebriated), eat fast, and steal away before anyone notices how “harr-ibble” we look.

Imagine our horror when the lights dim and Diego announces to the whole restaurant the occasion of our anniversary! But horror quickly turns to amazement as a huge cake is wheeled to our table, complete with two trick candles that refuse to go out until a waiter comes to our rescue.

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Surprise! We were a little caught off guard (as you can surmise by our appearance) by this lovely cake prepared for us by the resort staff. And for the record, it was fantástico!

Neither of us have our phones, so the absolutely coolest 84-year-old lady on the entire planet (for our purposes, I will hereafter refer to her as Miss Congeniality) whips out her iPhone 6 and snaps a picture of our nappy heads with the cake.

So much for being inconspicuous! Honestly though, we wouldn’t change a thing. Mucho gracias, Miss Congeniality!

But the real gift comes a few minutes later. The waiter who is helping us cut the cake says, “I am 22-years-old and have my first real girlfriend. Seeing you here tonight – how happy you are – makes me believe that this kind of love is real.”

Wow. We weren’t expecting tears on our 20th

THURSDAY:

“Vámonos!” says Diego. Let’s go!

The group climbs on to the Big Green Machine. People are still congratulating us as we shuffle down the aisle to our seats, making me blush like a new bride all over again.

Today we are heading to the Mistico Hanging Bridges for a tour through the rain forest. Jeff and I choose the “long” hike, which will last about an hour and a half and take us across six suspension bridges. Today is also the day I realize we might have had a little too much “together time” with some of our fellow travelers.

For example, a lady we shall ever after refer to as Loud Mouth, has already been setting my teeth on edge because of the volume (90+ decibels) and quality (nails down a chalk board) of her voice, but I’ve been able to shrug it off.

Apparently she plans to go on the same hike as us. I know this because she is emptying a can of Raid on herself just a couple yards away. Estupendo. We sidle away to escape the fumes.

The local guide begins the tour by asking us to keep talking to a minimum. Turns out, animals are harder to spot when there is a lot of noise. Imagine that.

I steal a glance at Loud Mouth, but she’s talking to someone and doesn’t hear a thing. Imagine that.

Soon into the hike, our guide spots a tarantula (Theraphosidae) in a hole on the side of a hill. He passes a pocket flashlight back so that we can all take a turn at peering in at her (I’m sure she is thrilled.). Loud Mouth, bringing up the rear, screeches over all thirty heads, “Whose flashlight is this?” At least five of us whip around to shush her. She rolls her eyes and jams the flashlight into her pocket.

A few minutes later, we come across a bright yellow eyelash viper (Bothriechis schlegelii), a small, venomous pit viper known for the protective superciliary scales over its eyes. The guide explains that this particular viper gives live birth to babies of many different colors.

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Eyelash Viper (Bothriechis schlegelii)

We hike from the forest floor to the understory to the canopy. The beauty here is wild, mysterious, and fierce. I get the sense we are being watched by hundreds, if not thousands, of unseen eyes. Like standing next to the ocean, it’s a reminder of how small we really are.

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From the canopy of the rainforest
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Soaking in the splendor of the rainforest

Only fifteen people are allowed on the hanging bridges at one time, so we count off and wait our turn. Crossing these bridges is quite challenging and I have to keep my hands on the cables as I go bouncing along.

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Toward the end of our hike, we are lucky to happen upon a long line of leaf cutter ants (Atta cephalotes). Each ant is carrying a piece of leaf 2-3 times its body weight, its personal contribution to the upkeep of the fungal garden that feeds it and about 5 million of its siblings. I wish we had time to follow their trail because I understand their nests can be up to 30 feet wide and 20 feet deep.

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Leaf Cutter Ants (Atta cephalotes)

There is a woman in front of us as we approach the ant highway. She stops, looks down at it, then steps right in the middle of them, crushing a handful of ants. I recognize her immediately…

Loud Mouth (Assis hattis).

“Why’d you step on them?” I wail, as she keeps walking down the path. Stunned, grieved, and enraged, I follow the stench of Raid.

My blood is still roiling as we climb back on the bus. Jeff and I agree to change her name from Loud Mouth to something less wholesome. Not that it makes me feel any better.

After a nice lunch in what happens to be Diego’s hometown, I cool down a bit. But it’s short-lived.

Our next stop is the Leatherback Turtle Conservancy. We watch a video about the catastrophic effects of litter, fishing nets, development, and poachers on these amazing warm-blooded animals and I’m angry all over again. It’s official: people suck. (Hypocrite alert: We are staying in some of those developments.)

Before we trail Diego down to the beach to see the leatherback nesting sites, Jeff makes a donation to the Conservancy. We do what we can to counteract the suckage of humankind on the world, even though our efforts seem like a mouse fart in a windstorm sometimes.

We also approach Diego about taking a taxi back down here either tonight or tomorrow night to help the researchers tag females coming up to nest. He promises to make some phone calls once we get to the hotel.

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Waiting for the Leatherbacks…

Hacienda Pinilla (J.W. Marriott) is absolutely gorgeous, especially when the sun is setting over the Pacific behind its sprawling pool. After getting our keys, we check back in with Diego about returning to the Leatherback Turtle Conservancy. He pulls some strings, but it’s still going to cost us about $150. The idea of being on the road again for the 90-minute round trip is even more of a wet blanket. We decide to forego it. There was only a 20% chance we’d see a leatherback anyway.

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Hacienda Pinilla (J.W. Marriott)

Dinner was eventful tonight. A tiny skunk decided to join us on the dining patio, eventually making its way to Miss Congeniality’s plate to share her dessert. While the staff seemed horrified by the situation, most of us thought it was great fun.

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Surprise dinner guest!

FRIDAY:

After nearly a week of having to have our bags ready and outside our doors by 6:30 a.m., we sleep in on this, our “free” day. I imagine a day filled with beach combing, swimming, reading, and little umbrella drinks.

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The Pacific Ocean

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Cheers!

By the afternoon, however, a steady rain settles in and we retire to our beautiful room and balcony where we look out over the palm trees and let the rain lull us to sleep.

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Time for a little siesta

Later, we catch up with our friends from Florida over a couple mojitos. At dinner, Miss Congeniality is presented with a birthday cake. Turns out it’s her 85th birthday today, and she brought her own candles – the number 85 in Roman numerals!

SATURDAY:

We begin the day trapped at the breakfast table with Miss Harr-ibble and spouse. Escaping to the buffet, I return with a plate of tropical and exotic fruit. I’ve never seen a lychee before (the red spike ball), much less eaten one. And then there’s the passion fruit. Everybody loves passion fruit, right?

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I can’t remember if I took this pic before or after I spit out the passion fruit…

I scoop out a spoonful of passion fruit pulp and drop it in my mouth. ACK! Sweet Mary, mother of God! IT’S HARR-IBBLE! Discreetly, I spit it in the spoon and dump it back into the fruit, where it rejoins the seeded goo from whence it came. It’s like I never touched it.

“You gonna eat that?”

I freeze. Remember Richard “Cheech” Marin of Cheech and Chong fame? I am now looking at a very gray version of his early style – complete with mustache − and this version is pointing at the passion fruit on my plate.

I gulp. “No.”

“Can I have it?” he asks.

“Um, no,” I whimper, offering no explanation. Cheech looks at me like he thinks I’ve smoked a little too much weed. Oh, the irony…

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“You gonna eat that?”

 After that little incident, I am quite eager to get back on the Pan American Highway and get on with our day.  Later in the morning we stop at the Monteverde Co-op for ice cream (make that chocolate milkshakes for us, thanks!), and a pic with a life-size T. rex. Because, well, who wouldn’t want their pic made with a T. rex.?

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This photo has no relevance whatsoever to the history or culture of Costa Rica. Enjoy!

After lunch, we drive another twenty minutes to the banks of the Tárcoles River for our crocodile “safari.” Jeff’s camera shutter sounds like frantic Morse code. Here are some of the locals!

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Wassup?
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So, this just happened…
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Yellow-crowned Night Heron (juvenile)
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Osprey (with lunch)

 

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Black Necked Stilt
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Roseate Spoonbill
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Iguana
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Little Blue Heron
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Great Egret

Home tonight is Hotel San Bada, located just outside the gates to Manuel Antonio National Park. Traffic delays our arrival, but our amazing bus driver navigates the Big Green Machine through the narrow streets to get us there just in the nick of time for the sunset happy hour. It is one of the most magical sunsets I’ve ever seen. No alcohol necessary.

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Sunset from the top of Hotel San Bada

SUNDAY:

We are at the gates to Manuel Antonio National Park first thing this morning and with great expectations! Walking en masse to the beach area by the bay, Jeff and I then set off on the Cathedral Point trail with our Florida friends.

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Playa Manuel Antonio Beach

A National Geographic group happens to be hiking the same trail and we are all caught in an ambush of Capuchin monkeys (Cebinae). The guide warns us not to smile at them, as it’s considered a sign of aggression. Good to know. (And here I was, worried one of them might pee on me à la Dexter in Night at the Museum.)

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Capuchin Monkey (Cebinae)

Their guide is excited to see the emergence of several red-backed squirrel monkeys (Saimiri oerstedii). We are lucky to see them, as apparently they’re quite rare to spot.

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Red-Backed Squirrel Monkey

Also along the way, we find several giant owl butterflies (Caligo eurilochus) that seem to stare at us with an enormous golden eye.

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Giant Owl Butterfly (Caligo eurilochus)

We arrive back to the beach area just in time to witness a three-toed sloth (Bradypus variegatus) give birth. It was hard to photograph, but amazing to watch.

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The birth of a three-toed sloth
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Mom and baby are doing just fine

Apparently no day at the beach is complete in Manuel Antonio without a visit from these guys:

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The Three Amigos

Soaked to the skin in our own sweat, we make our way back to the hotel for a quick shower and lunch, but not before spotting a masked tree frog (Smilisca phaeota) and a Band-tailed Barbthroat Hummingbird (Threnetis ruckeri). Pura vida!

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Masked Tree Frog (Smilisca phaeota)
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Band-tailed Barbthroat Hummingbird (Threnetis ruckeri)

Our last outing of the trip is a rainforest aerial tram. Each tram holds eight passengers and one interpretive guide. Guess who’s on our tram?

Yep. The Assis hattis herself…Loud Mouth. My blood curdles ever so slightly.

While waiting for our tram, the tram guide asks that if we prefer to use insect repellant to please apply it in the parking lot or near the bathrooms so as not to harm the plants or animals. I notice she is looking past me with an uncomfortable smile plastered on her face. Turning to follow her gaze, I find Loud Mouth, Raid can in hand, giving herself a thorough dousing.

“Oh my God! Did you not just hear what she said?” I bark at her.

Loud Mouth calmly replaces the cap on her can and slips it into her bag. I size her up, wondering if I have the upper body strength to heave her over the side of the tram. I know Jeff does, but the thought of either of us ending up in a Costa Rican prison gives me pause.

Finally, the tram arrives. I’m sitting right behind her. It would be so easy…

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Aboard the Aerial Tram

But I digress. The tram ride is a botanist’s dream, as it turns out. The guide uses a laser pointer to point out poisonous trees, bromeliads, epiphytes, orchids (not in bloom), and strangler figs (a type of Ficus tree). There’s not much in the way of birds or animals, although we spot a hawk of some kind near the top. Loud Mouth asks if there are any big, scary animals she should be concerned about. No, I’m not kidding. Yes, we do in fact laugh our asses off. Raucously.

Exiting the tram, I hope I never have to be in that close proximity to Loud Mouth again. The odds are in my favor since our plane departs at 8:05 tomorrow morning.

The farewell dinner is wonderful. We’ve shared so many good memories together. (Well, most of us, anyway.) But alas, all good trips must come to an end, and so it goes with our Costa Rican odyssey…

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Spiral Crepe Ginger

MONDAY:

Guess who’s on our plane?

scream

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