Friday, June 19, 2009

Pura Vida! Our trip to Costa Rica

After a long year of full-time grad school and working 40+ hours/week, I needed a vacation! Gonzalo and I discovered a cheap flight to San Jose, Costa Rica and decided to go for 6 days, 5 nights. We stayed in San Jose the first two nights, near the Arenal Volcano the next two nights, and again in San Jose the last night.

We are very fortunate that we speak Spanish, because I think that made our trip a lot more smooth and we got a lot of great advice from local people. Our fitst night, we walked to the closest grocery store to our hostel and saw a few things we hadn't seen before, especially in the produce section. We asked a fellow customer what some things were and she showed us a bunch of yummy fruits. We also saw a pastry in the bakery with a filling we had never heard of, and the baker walked us over to the produce section and showed us what it was! Additionally, whenever we asked for directions, recommendations for restaurants or routes to take, we got more information than we were even asking for. Pura Vida indeed! (pura vida = pure life, or something like 'pure living')

We ended up renting a car for two days, which was totally worth it. It was a Daihatsu, a brand we'd never heard of, but after the trip and the crazy roads we sometimes found ourselves on, we were wondering how to buy stock in it! There was plenty of room for two and it was a manual transmission and 4-wheel drive, which was absolutely necessary more than once.

The highlights of our trip were ziplining, visiting the Arenal Volcano, and driving around Laguna Arenal. We didn't get a chance to visit either coast this trip, but we've already made up our minds to return to Costa Rica. The Caribbean/Gulf coast is supposed to be great for ecotourism, with the Tortuguero national park (tortuga=turtle). The Pacific coast is the more touristy coast with the nicest beaches and surfing. That's where my sister and her fiancee are staying on their honeymoon in September - we're so jealous!!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Las Palmas Restaurant in San Jose, Costa Rica

We ate at a second Peruvian restaurant in San Jose on our last night there. It was far worse quality-wise than Machu Picchu. It was more expensive (it cost $40 US!) and the food just wasn't as good.

I had a large vegetable soup that was way too salty and a fresh limeade. The limeade was really delicious, but so were all the fresh juices we had had in Costa Rica to that point. Gonzalo had some fish and it was ok. When we asked how they made their ceviche, they said they made it with vinegar (not fresh lime juice). EW! Obviously we did not order it.

If you're looking for Peruvian food in San Jose, Machu Picchu, despite the super-dorky name, is your best bet. Read my review of it here.

Impressions from San Jose, Costa Rica

We flew from Ft. Lauderdale to San Jose. When we arrived, we went through immigration and customs with no problems, and we noticed that the airport was pretty small. It was pretty easy to get a taxi to San Jose from the airport, but we chose to get on one of the local city busses. It was scorching hot outside while we waited, but paying $1 was obviously cheaper than $15! We did get a few looks from local people in work uniforms, but we expected that.

For the three nights total we were in San Jose, we didn't end up doing much in the city. We were only there for two half-days and one full day, in which we went to our ziplining tour. We ate at two Peruvian restaurants and one Costa Rican restaurant, and made our own food in the hostel kitchen twice, one time accompanied by a very annoying guy who was still drunk from the night before...

We ended up walking around the city center a bit at night (which started aroun 6pm when it started to get dark). We visited a cute curio market where I bought some earrings. Instead of a cab back to the hostel one night, we decided to take the city bus, which ended up taking forever to even come! We got a lot of quality people-watching time in though :-)

It says "change the world"

Our last night in San Jose, we stayed in a hostel in the red-light district. We learned more about the area from a guy that drove us back from the car rental place to the city. You can read more about that here. Gonzalo was nervous to walk seven blocks from our hostel to Las Palmas, a Peruvian restaurant. It ended up being ok, but it was definitely a part of town where tourists weren't out bustling around after dark.

Overall, San Jose was not our favorite part of the trip, especially due to the rush-hour traffic we got stuck in more than once (one time while Gonzalo was driving). San Jose is probably worth at least a day, especially to check out the museums, which I heard were nice. We'll have to confirm that on our next trip to Costa Rica!

San Jose's Red Light District

In Costa Rica, sex work has been legalized. This has been a draw for biological and trans women from all over Latin America to find work and be able to send money home to their families. We first noticed that we were in such an area when we walked from our hostel to a restaurant seven blocks away and saw a lot of scantily-clad women (some who were VERY tall) on corners and waving at passing cars. It was confirmed when we talked to a guy who drove us back from the car rental place near the airport.

We had to turn our rental car back in at the airport on our last night, and when we were asking how to get to the bus stop, our agent told us that if we could wait a few minutes, we could ride back to San Jose with his buddy who was parked nearby and heading back to the city. What luck! In the car on the way back, we told him where were staying and he informed us that that was that 'zona roja'. Gonzalo said 'I thought so - there were a lot of women on the streets' and the guy said 'uh, those aren't women'. Naturally this interested me as someone who works in the field of HIV prevention. He told us that sex work is legal in Costa Rica and that there are a ton of immigrants trying to make a living.

My next questions were about how the industry works - do the sex workers have to register with someone? do they have regular health screenings? are they protected under the law? are their earnings taxed? are there alternatives to this industry - enough other kinds of jobs for women? He didn't know any more details, but now I want to go learn more about this. Does anybody know where I can get reliable info in English or Spanish? Thanks.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Hydroelectric Dams, Wind Farms, and Volcanoes - oh my!

Only two of the over one hundred wind turbines

The Laguna Arenal was originaly made because the Costa Rican government made a dam to produce electricity for the country. We drove over the dam on our Sunday drive around the lake. There's also a wind farm near the lake, on one of the highest sets of hills off the lake. It's apparently one of the windiest places in the world! When we were there, almost all of the over 100 turbines were all going strong. We could see some turbines from across the lake, but we decided to drive off the main highway and up into the mountains to check out the turbines.

The bridge that went over the dam

This road was not as bad as the road to Venado - it was a dirt road, not a rocky road. Once we started ascending, we noticed that there were at least four areas where there were turbines, not just the one or two we could see from across the lake. It was so pretty up there! And of course windy :-) I got out of the car and climbed up a dirt cliff (yes, in a dress...) to get a better view for a video and I was almost blown over! Guess that's why they put the turbines there, eh? We could hear them humming while they rotated. When I was on that cliff, I could turn 360 degrees and see wind turbines all around. It was crazy to think about how much electricity was being generated within this few miles - the turbines, the dam - I was surprised they didn't have some way to harness the volcano's power too! Or at least solar panels, but it's a rugged terrain, so it might not be as efficeint as the turbines.

The whole time we were up there, we kept thinking how great this was and how we wish that Michigan could get with it and start manufacturing these turbines - and perhaps using them if possible. At one point, I was also thinking about the four natural elements and how this area has all of them. Fire = volcano, water = lake, wind = turbines, eart = mountains. It seems like this place would be sacred to some people if it existed as such for a longer time. The volcano hasn't been active very long, and the dam and turbines are relatively new compared to how long people have been living in the area!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Driving around Laguna Arenal, Costa Rica

We drove our car around the lake the entire day on Sunday. We took the main highway (one lane each direction, so more of a country road) almost all the way around. We couldn't finish because the road was destroyed by the last eruption (1968) and still hadn't been fixed! Our original plan was to drive toward a couple touristy areas the guidebook suggested, try to check out the caves at Venado, then finish driving around the lake. Almost none of this happened, but we ended up having a great day anyway!

We headed to Venado, which was up in the mountains surrounding the lake, to check out the caves. Venado was 17 km away from the main highway, up the craziest road I have ever been on in my life. We took 1.5 hrs to go about 3 km toward Venado and 3 km back - I couldn't believe it! The road was not paved and had huge holes and rocks on the entire thing. The trip was super bouncy and all Gonzalo and I could do was laugh about how crazy it was! We stayed in mostly first gear the entrie time, only going into second a couple times and once into third gear on the plateau of the hill (but the road was still rocky and holey). We ended up giving up and not visiting the caves. The drive back down was easier, and super beautiful with great panoramic vistas of the lake and volcano. It seemed really a lot like Alpine lakes from pictures, just with tropical foliage.

We stopped at an art gallery with lots of cute things, and the owner was a German woman who had lived there for years. Gonzalo slyly mentioned that I spoke German, so I ended up talking to the lady a bit about our trip in German. I kept getting things confused with Spanish, though, because I had been speaking Spanish for four days by then! At least she said I have a good accent (though I'm sure I pronounced a few things with a Spanish accent which was weird when I thought about it).

One of the coolest things about our ring-around-the-lake was the wind farm. You can read more about that here. When we were about 2/3 around the lake, we stopped to chat with a street vendor selling curios (I got a blue, sparkly wrap around skirt!). He was the one that informed us that we couldn't go the entire way around, but suggested we go down to a hotel right on the lake and go swimming. We ended up going there and I took a quick dip in the bay, but the water wasn't as clear as I'm used to, so I got a little unsure and got out after a few minutes (how embarrassing!) We ended up eating at that hotel too, fresh fish from the lake! Yum!

La Choza de Laurel Restaurant in La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Gonzalo and I ate in this restaurant TWICE while we were visiting the Arenal Volcano because it was that good. They serve traditional Costa Rican food, but you can also find foods from other places if you're sick of Costa Rican food.

Gonzalo ordered the squid both nights, and it was very tasty. I ordered the typical plate of Choza de Laurel one night and fish the other night. The meals were served on a plank of wood that was covered with a fresh banana tree leaf. We both ordered fresh juices both times and they were amazing, just like every juice we had in Costa Rica. We had mango, papaya, and pineapple mixed various ways in our four total drinks. We were so full after our dinner each day that we couldn't even order dessert!

Please visit their website to see their full menu. If you're going to La Fortuna or to visit the Arenal Volcano, you must eat here at least once. It's awesome! (there's an English option, look for it)

Arenal Observatory Lodge near La Fortuna, Costa Rica

View from the lodge's balcony

We spent two days near the Arenal Volcano and Laguna Arenal at the Arenal Observatory Lodge, near La Fortuna. We had originally planned on taking a long-distance bus from San Jose for 3.5 hours to La Fortuna, then taking a taxi from the city to the Lodge. Fortunately, we met the French family while ziplining and they were also heading to La Fortuna the same day as us and offered us a ride! We couldn't believe our luck! It turns out that it is about $20 to take a cab one-way from the Lodge to the city, so when we arrived and checked in, we found a car rental place that offered to drive the car out to us at no extra cost. It was absolutely worth it, especially since our second day in the area was spent driving around the lake and we obviously couldn't have done that without a vehicle!

The Lodge is a hotel that was formerly the Smithsonian research site to study the volcano. It's on the other side of a river from the volcano, so if there were a sudden eruption, it would take a while for flowing lava to get there (flying debris and poison gasses, on the other hand, would be immediately dangerous). We took the recommendation of a friend who had stayed there a few days for her honeymoon, and we were SO glad we did! We got the cheapest room in the whole place, in a small building removed from the main lodge with 5 rooms and a shared bathroom w/2 baths and 3 sinks. We couldn't believe our luck - we were the only ones there the first night and our room was in the most beautiful location! When sitting on our bed, we could look out one windown and see the volcano and turn our heads and see almost the entire lake. We could hear the rocks falling down the volcano, and we could view them better at night, when they were orange balls rolling down in the dark. There was also a ton of great birds around our room, and we spent our first afternoon birdwatching from the porch since it was raining.

Dinner was a buffet and was $18, so we decided to eat in La Fortuna both nights. We found a great restaurant and we loved it! Breakfast was included though, and it was also buffet style. Fresh tropical fruit, queso fresco (mmm... the kind that makes your teeth squeak), fresh juices, fried plantains... mmm! Another great thing about the lodge is all the walking paths on site that are free. The restaurant overlooked the volcano and lake as well, and the balcony/deck outside was a nice place to just watch the lava rocks fall down the mountain.

Breakfast at the lodge - yum!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

The Arenal Volcano is an active volcano after erupting the last time in 1968. We stayed almost two miles away, and we had great views of the volcano from our room and the restaurant in the lodge. The first time we heard lava rocks falling down the side of the volcano, we were sitting on the porch in the rain and we thought it might be thunder! It sounded a bit like thunder, but definitely like large rocks rolling down a rocky hill.

When we were driving up to the volcano, we came from La Fortuna and had to drive around the volcano to get to the Arenal Observatory Lodge, where we were staying. We saw some places where the vegetation had been burned away by lava and some areas where there were still trees growing.

Some of the best viewing was at night, because the lava rocks that were falling down were burning orange and sparks would fly off when they crashed into the ground on each bounce. It was pretty cool to see. During the day, we could see smoke puffs each time the rocks bounced, and it looked a little like stair steps sometimes. It was very difficult to get pictures, but it was so cool to just sit there and watch it.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Ziplining Outside San Jose, Costa Rica

On our second day in Costa Rica, we took a tour with La Carpintera outside the city to go ziplining. It was more expensive that we would have liked at $75 US per person, but we did end up having fun and meeting a great French family that took us with them the following day to La Fortuna to see the Arenal Volcano.

A big, air-conditioned van picked us up right from our hostel and drove us to the Carpintera lodge. The only people on the trip were us and the French family (father Boris, mother Isabel and daughter Ilona). When we arrived, we got in a mammoth of a suburban-style 4-wheel drive vehicle to drive up the mountain so we could zipline down. The road was mostly gravel but smooth, and we only had to stop once to remove a huge fallen branch from the road!

When we got to the top, Dani and Alex helped us all gear up with harnesses similar to those I've used for rock climbing. Ilona, who was only 6, wouldn't be going on her own, but would take turns going with Dani and Alex. We also had a right-hand glove with a thick leather hand brake on it so we could slow down at the end of each cable before hitting the trees.

We did maybe 7 cables and one really long one - maybe 500 meters? It was starting to rain by the time we got to that one, so they told us to start braking 1/4 of the way into the ride! You can imagine how much faster you'd go if it's wet and slippery :-) We had a lot of great views of the capitol, San Jose, on our rides.

Afterward, we got to eat a traditional Costa Rican lunch with the French family, of whom only Boris spoke any English or Spanish. The lunch at the restaurant there was good, especially the fried plantains and fresh pineapple juice!

Machu Picchu Restaurant in San Jose, Costa Rica

On our first night in San Jose, we asked at our hostel where we could get some good food nearby. The owner asked us a few things about ourselves and discovered that Gonzalo is from Peru, so he suggested a great Peruvian restaurant a few blocks away. Machu Picchu gets its name from Peru's most well-known tourist destination, the centuries-old Incan ruins of Machu Picchu. Gonzalo and I went there when we visited Cuzco in 2004.

The food at Machu Picchu was excellent! Gonzalo ordered Lomo Saltado (or Salteado), a beef tenderloin stir-fry with marinated beef, red onions, tomatoes, fresh cilantro and fried yellow potatoes, served with white rice. Almost all Peruvian dishes are served with plain white rice and potatoes - potatoes have different flavors in Peru and are used for their flavor, not as a main starch. The beef had a great flavor and the vegetables were cooked perfectly. It also came with a spicy sauce - so spicy that we started coughing if we tasted too much!

I ordered ceviche and a seafood soup. The soup came with scallops, shrimp, crab (a WHOLE small crab!), fish, and oysters. It had a great tomato-vinegar flavor and the seafood tasted great. The ceviche tasted old, not like it was freshly marinated. We both ordered fresh juices and they were amazing. I hadn't had guanabana before, so I decided to try it. It was a creamy white drink that tasted tropical and slightly like banana.

The total bill was more expensive than we were expecting (around $30 US) but worth it.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Why I'm glad I learned English as my 1st language...

Um, so English is difficult! We have all these freakin' idioms (metaphorical phrases), homonyms (words that sound the same but mean different things or are spelled differently), acronyms (abbreviations that create words spelled by using the first letter from each word in it) and more. Almost daily I see the improper use of these common words:
to, two, too
their, they're, there
our, are
its, it's
a part, apart

But there are more difficult ones (and words that sound really similar):
accept, except
mete, meet, meat
flout, flaunt
appraise, apprise

and this is just the beginning... sheesh!