Tuesday, September 28, 2010

3 Weeks in Costa Rica - Day 2 and 3

The next morning we drove to the Wilson Botanical Gardens. These beautiful gardens have acres of manicured walks through thousands of tropical plants. We saw an Agouti with two babies on the grounds, and dozens of new birds, banana forests, and lots of
epiphytes.
This is definitely a worthwhile stop for anyone interested in ecology.




When we left the gardens we decided to try "check out" La Amistad Park, where we planned to go for new years. This is where we actually got off of the bold red line road, and onto local roads. This is also where we found out that road maps of this area are sort of the map makers best guess at the time, and that every map and guidebook we had was slightly different in really key areas (like the existence of roads and towns). Also, many of these roads aren't paved, and are very slow going. Individuals driveways are often much better upkept than the main road itself, and there are no signs at most intersections (or driveways), so it is kind of your best guess on which direction you think the road goes.
Also, many of the towns in one area are named the same thing. There are multiple San Francisco's within a few dozen kilometers of each other, and a few San Isidro's around the country. Needless to say, we got a bit turned around. We didn't realize how far off we'd gotten until we passed the Wilson Botanical gardens again, and which was supposed to be well behind us, we were supposed to be headed in directly the opposite direction. We figured out where we made the wrong turn, and tried again. This time we made it much farther, we actually saw a sign for the park! We then missed one turn, and there are no further signs which would give us a clue we were headed in the wrong direction. The landscape was getting increasingly rural. Along the road there were many indigenous families walking along, they were dressed in colorful traditional clothing, many of the young girls were visibly pregnant, and there were lots of young children. There were lots of coffee farms in this region, and simple shacks built along the outskirts of the agriculture. Eventually we reached a building with a label "Policia de Panama", it was an agricultural inspection, and we realized we had taken a wrong turn and driven into Panama - so we headed back to San Vito again. Note for next time: Bring a compass/GPS.

The next day we went back to Wilson Botanical Gardens early, and hooked up with a bird tour of the property. We saw tons of birds, lots of wildlife, and learned about a lot of the research going on at the concurrent Las Cruces Biological Station.





We also got a map to La Amistad Lodge, which included rough directions!!! With our newly acquired set of instructions, we decided to try and find La Amistad again. This time we were successful! We found the lodge!! To get to it, we had to drive over our first in a series of Costa Rican automobile bridges which I wasn't convinced could support a person very well, two very old looking logs with some very old looking planks nailed across the top. He got out and jumped on them a bit, decided it was sound and just drove over really fast…
We pulled up to a beautiful lodge amid a coffee plantation. Tried to inquire about our reservations the following day, and realized again that our Spanish was pitiful. We gave up after the woman we were trying to speak with gave us the number of the main office in San Jose.

On the drive out, we passed a large black snake on the road, a few feet long, when we paused the car, it lifted it's head straight up off the ground about a foot. We were feeling confident after finding the lodge, and decided to try and find a park headquarters that was mentioned as a place to camp in the guide book. After heading way off into the middle of nowhere, and asking directions at a few points, we were able to find the park headquarters (did you catch that - asking directions!!! - my Spanish was starting to catch on). These consisted of an empty building with a few wildlife stickers on the windows, and a radio tower in the back - it appeared to be undergoing repairs. There was some scaffolding and salsa music blaring loudly from the inside, but there was no one around. Back to San Vito.
About this time we decided to try and make a phone call using the calling card we had purchased. About his time we realized that despite there prevalence of payphones along the roads, the majority were out of service - and none of the functioning ones accepted the type of calling card we had. Costa Rica is in the process of switching payphone card technologies (as of 2005), so you have to get one of each type of card - then hope you can find a working phone for either!

There were schools everywhere in Costa Rica, even in the most rural communities we went - there was always an Escuela sign on the road. Many of the schools were just simple buildings, some with dirt soccer fields adjacent - but there were everywhere.
We were told Costa Rica has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, and that this is what happens when a nation can put it's money into it's children instead of into military.

3 Weeks In Costa Rica - Part 1

First, there are some random things that we noticed about Costa Rica during our brief visit.

1. Fence posts are living trees. The branches used as posts sprout, then grow - and never need to be replaced.

2. All the dogs we saw there look like they are a cross with dachshunds or Chihuahuas.

3. For new year's, there are three things that you need to do at midnight for luck. 1) Wear yellow underwear 2) eat 12 grapes at once for good luck each month 3) run around with a piece of luggage for good luck in your travels the next year.

4. They put in speed bumps, but don't fix the pot holes. The pot holes are more effective at slowing down traffic.

5. Iguana's can be fast, it makes up for them not being to car savvy

We arrived in San Jose at 7 am, we got a rental car, then headed south through the city for San Vito. The rental car agency was the last place anyone could speak any English for days (contrary to what we'd been told by people we now know headed straight for a resort). We made it through the crazy hectic madness that is San Jose, with it's one way streets that make San Francisco look like a cake walk, and onto the Interamericana heading south. The Interamericana is the main vein connecting central america, and it is the largest road in Costa Rica. This means it is two distinct lanes, one in each direction, with occasional passing lanes and major potholes. These aren't just any pot holes, these pot holes are deep and wide enough to swallow a tire (and sometimes the whole car) without it ever hitting ground.
The road wound it's way up through the mountains called Cerre de Muerte (mountains of death). This is a beautiful but very steep, windy, and misty section of road known for frequent accidents. Compared to other countries, we found the local driving style to be relatively reasonable, willing to pass when there isn't quite enough time to do so - but basically fairly safe from our point of view - no heart in throat moments. Then we descended from the clouds to a section overlooking the farming valleys of San Isidro. Lots of crops grow in this fertile valley, but primarily pineapple from what I could tell.

Getting to San Vito required getting off of the Interamericana, and onto the next step down in major roadways. This is when we found out what the bold red line on the road map meant…just because it is a main road does not exclude it from pot holes more frequent than pavement. He learned quickly from the local drivers, and used both sides of the road to drive on - which ever side had no potholes at that particular moment was the correct side of the road. This road travels along a ridge, with various agriculture and grazing down large valleys on both sides. Horses are tied up at the entrance to houses, parked there while their riders visit. Other horses graze freely on the ample grass on the side of the road. This was a practice that we saw throughout southern Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Many of the horses had their manes shaved off, and their tails cropped short, with the top part shaved. Apparently this is the traditional fashion (or maybe a way to deal with parasites?). You can see the living fenceposts in the background.

We finally arrived at San Vito after 7 hours of driving, much longer than we had anticipated given the short distance…on a map. Then we tried to get a hotel, and the illusion that we knew enough Spanish, from listening to that one set of "learn Spanish quickly" tapes, quickly dissolved. After many clumsy hand signs and grunts, we were able to get a room. San Vito was founded by Italian Immigrants in the 50's, and has the best Pizza place on this continent called Liliana's. In our second attempt at using Spanish we ended up accidentally ordering double beers - ce la vie, but I'm glad we pulled off actually getting dinner.
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