Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Costa Rica Adventure August 2014


Arenal Volcano
This summer I took a group eco tour of amazing Costa Rica in Central America. Enthusiastic and experienced environmentalist Ami Greener and his travel company Greener Travel organized the ten-day adventure. The tiny nation the size of West Virginia is one percent of the world's land mass and yet contains five percent of the world's biodiversity. The flora and fauna, the pristine beaches, the happy people, the many cultures, the rainforest, the volcanoes, the cities. When you visit Costa Rica you understand why their most famous saying and national greeting is "Pura Vida," or "Pure Life!"

My trip started in Washington, D.C. as I boarded a flight to Atlanta and then from Atlanta to the capital San Jose. We stayed at a hotel near La Sabana Metropolitan Park downtown -- the country's largest urban park that is enjoyed by the residents of San Jose. Costa Rica's main international airport was located at the park for 44 years until the opening of Juan Santamaría International Airport.

Also located at La Sabana is the National Stadium of Costa Rica (Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica), which was completed in 2011 and is the first modern sport and event arena built in Central America. The 35,175-seat capacity stadium serves as the home of the Costa Rican national football team. The Ticos shocked the soccer world at this summer's Brazilian World Cup by becoming the Cinderella team. They posted their best performance ever at a World Cup by finishing first in their group that consisted of powerhouses Uruguay, Italy and England. They then went on to beat Greece in penalty kicks to reach the quarterfinals for the first time in the nation's history where they lost to The Netherlands also in a penalty shootout.

Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica
We were on a Jewish tour so we celebrated Shabbat in San Jose at a warm and welcoming congregation called Congregation B’nei Israel that is a liberal synagogue affiliated with both the Reform and Conservative movements. The rabbi gave a powerful sermon on the new anti-Semitism that has even made its way to Latin America and it was somber because another rabbi had lost her mother that same day. There was also a joyous farewell to a congregation member who was moving her family to North Carolina.

The next day we visited the heavily fortified Shaarei Zion synagogue and Jewish museum. Shaarei Zion is orthodox and the museum documents the rich history of Jews in Costa Rica. The place was a compound with lots security that was likely increased because at that time the conflict was raging between Israel and Hamas. It is a beautiful synagogue and museum and I highly recommend it if you are Jewish and decide to visit San Jose.

We also took a trip just outside of San Jose to Poas Volcano National Park, which climbs to 2,300 meters above sea level. The clouds had rolled in and it was rainy and misty so we couldn't see the Poas Volcano Crater Lake. Our wonderful guide Gustavo then took us to an authentic Costa Rican family style restaurant for some delicious food.

After a night out dancing at a San Jose area nightclub, we boarded the bus for the trip to the Caribbean lowlands, lunch in Guapiles and then the rocky and muddy jungle roads to the small dock called Pavona where we boarded a boat for the the trip down the canals to our destination of Tortuguero in the middle of the jungle. Our eco lodge Rana Roja (Red Frog) is only accessible by boat.

Tortuguero
We were woken up early in the morning by the sound of howler monkeys as we were surrounded by all the jungle animal and plant life. We took an early morning jungle boat ride and saw crocodiles, birds, monkeys and other flora and fauna. We also visited the funky main town of Tortuguero and the Sea Turtle Conservancy where we learned about the international efforts to save the turtles and preserve the egg nests from poachers. There was an optional late night tour to see the female green or Leatherback turtles lay their eggs, but I got sick and stayed in my cabin to recover. We called it the man flu because only the guys were getting sick. While it was awful getting sick in the middle of the jungle, it eventually passed after a couple of days and I fully recovered. 

Next was a more than three hour boat ride on the inter-coastal canal to the port of Moin. The water was very shallow and the boat got stuck a few times and had to be manually pushed. One time the water was too shallow to pass so our captain ventured out into the open waters of the Caribbean and we nearly made it before a huge wave came crashing into our exposed boat and got everyone soaking wet including our luggage. Part of the adventure! Right!? Right? Uh. Yeah?

At Moin we boarded another bus for the short trip to the historic port city of Limon, the largest city on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast. Our guide David Carnegie told us about the Afro-Caribbean heritage of Limon and we had a wonderful lunch at an Afro-Caribbean restaurant in the heart of Limon.

We then headed to the bohemian village of Puerto Viejo where many Europeans take holiday (most Americans stay on the more luxurious Pacific side). In the late afternoon/early evening we headed to beautiful Punta Uva Beach.

The next day we visited the KèköLdi Indigenous Territory to learn about the indigenous BriBrí and Cabécar cultures and their efforts to preserve and rehabilitate iguanas. We then went to a traditional indigenous village where we witnessed a family make chocolate from the Cacao trees growing beside their house. The organic hot chocolate was the best I have ever tasted in my life. It was a spiritual experience.

KèköLdi Indigenous Territory
We also visited Volio waterfall. We had to hike down to reach the powerful waterfall and then swam against the powerful currents to reach underneath the waterfall and feel the power of the falling water.

At the Jaguar Rescue Center in Puerto Viejo we saw sloths, snakes, owls, birds, horses and other species representing the diversity of animal life in Costa Rica. We even got to handle an adorable baby monkey. 

There is an excellent Israeli restaurant in Puerto Viejo where we had some hummus and other Middle Eastern food which was a welcome break from the constant rice and black beans (gallo pinto) that is served with every dish in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The next night we took a Caribbean cooking class with Junior Palmer. We ate delicious food, drank to warm our bellies and listened to soothing Jamaican reggae music to warm our souls. 

The next day our guide Tino took us on an amazing hike through the Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge where I ate termites, had a spider weave its web on our heads, ate the healing Noni pear, had a piece of the biggest fruit in the world, saw the walking tree, tree frogs, the bullet ant that should be avoided at all costs, thousands of leaf cutter ants constructing their intricate city in the middle of the forest, lizards, monkeys, sloths and other species of flora and fauna that are only found in the rainforest. After the intense hike, we relaxed in the warm Caribbean waters and had a wonderful laid back lunch in this place that time forgot.

The next day was white water rafting the spectacular Pacuare River, which National Geographic rated as one of the top ten rafting rivers in the world. We started in the Caribbean highlands and made our way down the river, encountering class three and four rapids and enjoying the pristine nature and gorgeous natural scenery of one of the most breathtaking areas in the world. We even took a dip in the clean, pristine water between the challenging rapids. The run was 18 miles long and took about three-and-a-half hours thanks to expert leadership from our guide Monkey.

Pacuare River
Our final destination before heading to San Jose and our flights home was Arenal Volcano, a region in the northwest of Costa Rica. We went zip lining, went on a hike for panoramic vistas of Arenal Volcano and Lake Arenal and visited the therapeutic hot springs resort. 

Costa Rica is simply amazing. The natural beauty is only matched by the warmth and generosity of their people. Pura Vida. Pure Life. It is not just a greeting but a way of life. You will have to experience it yourself to truly understand what it means. 

Here are more pictures from Costa Rica:



And here is a video playlist: