Thursday, August 30, 2012

Costa Rica: Hiking to the Volcano

Oy, it's been crazy around here.  Or maybe it's just me.  We got our orders and can now start the moving process, so things have been scarce on the blogs.

Anyway, the day after the waterfall, Mike and I chose to hike in the National Park on the opposing south side of the Arenal Volcano, which is also the lave flow side.  Adding to the experience, it was a steamy morning on the higher peak.

The hiking trails weren't long, so we allotted ourselves just a couple hours to walk to the end and back.  The head of the trail had this to announce:

This is a crappy-quality picture of a really neat tree near the beginning.

The first kilometer or so was through wild sugarcane fields.  Every once in a while we came upon a volcanic contribution to the landscape.

Soon enough we entered an area of true jungle.  Here is was dark and cooler and full of sound.  We saw many kinds of birds, but the light made them hard to capture.  Also saw some howler monkeys, but they were too far away for a good shot.  Senor Toucan here was chattering with some friends.

These guys were chasing moths or butterflies.

The map we had our hands on had a giant tree marked on it, and we were wondering if we had missed it until we came upon this:

After another kilometer, we climbed out of the jungle and into a field of huge boulders crawling with lizards who preferred to live where they could actually get some sunlight.

This was about as close as we could get.  You can see how partway up the green stuff stops and the slopes turned into what what reminded us of Mount Doom.

The path was littered with flowers growing from down in the cracks of rocks.  So sweet looking.

Then it was back down into the jungle and the cane field to the parking lot.  One more decent shot of some of the animals we saw.  Head to butt he was about as big as my hand.

Waiting for our ride back to the hotel, we watched a hummingbird make continuous rounds of his flowery territory.  Occasionally he would stop to rest just enough for me to snap a pic.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Costa Rica: La Fortuna Catarata

After all that fun stuff, Mike and I had a couple free days, so we scoured local maps and asked around for where we should go.  We settled on the local waterfall.

A few bucks got us into the park and from the viewing platform we could see the falls.

Arenal Volcano stood watch nearby.

The gift shop was also home to an enormous spider.

As we made our way down the trail, which wasn't bad as we don't mind rugged hikes, we got several peeks at the falls as we got closer.

Found a really cool tree along the way.

Finally we made it to the bottom...

and the falls...

We were brave enough to get in the water for a shot, but it was pretty cold, and as you can see, the falls are heavy enough that you don't want to get much closer.  The day was warm, but in the shelter of the falls, the shade made it much cooler.

We hung for an hour around the bottom where it flowed out into a small river.  Unlike many similar American sites, there were no real restrictions- you went at your own risk and could go just about anywhere.  I collected a few unusual volcanic stones.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Wayside Wednesday: Mounds State Park, Indiana

Heading back from a day-trip to Muncie while visiting grandparents, I stopped to have the kids expend some energy at Mounds State Park, which is home to one of neatest Native Indian mound sites.

The main site is a large ring with smaller mounds that line up with the equinox and solstices.  You can access the center of it, but you have to stay on the path to help preserve the site.

 You can also hike along the river on several trails that even younger kids can handle.  Looks like a nice little place to go camping, too.

I'd been to Mounds SP as a kid, but I don't remember this nature center.  It's either new or improved or my memory is shoddy.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Costa Rica: Zip-lining!

The last thing set up by Desafio was zip-linings.  After they dropped us off from canyoneering, we barely had time to get back to our room, change clothes and get back to the hotel lobby.  For every other event, we had been with other people from our hotel and others, but for some reason we were alone on this one.  That meant we didn't have to spend any time waiting on other people, but it also went very quickly and there was less standing around and soaking in the experience.

They took us to another hotel only a few minutes up the road, suited us up, then we walked up a bit of a hill and climbed up to a platform.  This time we used our own camera and didn't bother with the pics they took.

Here we are all suited up.

We took turns holding the camera and shooting pics of each other.

We saw and heard some howler monkeys along the way.  I wanted to see a sloth, but we never did the whole trip.

Some of the lines were about a kilometer long.

You have to jump/pull yourself up you they can hook you to the wire (while standing at the edge of the platform), which is what I'm preparing to do here.  On my right hand you can see my "brake."

And off I go!

Mike took this shot mid-flight on one of the longer lines.  Costa Rica is beautiful.

And here I come in for a landing.

This tiny viper sitting in one of the trees was pointed out by our guides.  Mike and I kind of doubted he was real, though we didn't test it.

Towards the end we got low enough in the valley that we were right above the river.

On the last line, you had the option of flipping over and going upside down, which we both did.  It put painful pressure on me in personal places, so I didn't last more than a few yards before I grabbed the harness with my hands to ease the weight.  So no pictures of that I want to share....

They pulled us back up the valley to our starting point in a trolley pulled by a tractor.  Very bumpy, but better than walking!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Costa Rica: Canyoneering

Bright and early the next day we loaded into Desafio's van for canyoneering, which is hiking and rappelling.  Mike and I had done some rappelling before with navy stuff, so we weren't complete novices, but no experience was necessary.  Several girls in our group were terrified at the idea, but the guides talked them through it and no one is ever forced to go through with it if they change their minds.

Safety was always the primary concern, so you wear a helmet, harness, and have 2 safety lines when you descend.  If you've never been rappelling, you'd be amazed at how easy it is.  After looping everything through D-rings and creating a pulley effect, it's takes almost no effort to hold yourself up.  It's like holding a gallon of milk against the small of your back.  Maybe even easier.

I'd go as far to say the actual scariest part is turning your back to the edge of the platform and then leaning backwards, but if you focus on the rock wall in front of you rather than what's behind (nothing), it helps.

Yes, Mike and I are aware we are blindingly pale people.  It comes from that whole Swiss, Irish, and Scottish gene combination.

It turned out there was no way not to get totally soaked on this excursion as well.  First there was a place where the only way down was to cannonball into a deep pool.  Then you had to walk in knee or waist deep water in several places.  Then there was the "Costa Rican Shower:"

After all that down stuff following waterfalls, we had to hike back up, but we had the promise of lunch to motivate us.  We had a chance to dry off and change into dry clothes we had brought with us and then have another "typical" lunch with our choice of beans and rice or rice and beans.  Meanwhile the camera team with us downloaded the photos they had taken into folders we could buy on CD- ours had 275 pictures.  They often shot them paparazzi style, so if one had you blinking or at an unflattering angle, another in the same location probably provided a better take.  Again, there was also a folder of natures shots, these were different from the ones on the rafting disk.

On the way back down to the vans (via 4 wheel drive trucks) we got a chance to chat with some of the guides about their jobs.  As tourists, sometimes we felt weird coming into a country like this, as if we were some rich, foreign invaders that were just tolerated for the money we brought.  But they all said they loved what they were doing as they got to meet new people and the money was good plus rappelling is always a good time.  Most of them were taking a couple years to earn money for themselves or a sibling to go to school.  They generally felt lucky to have the opportunity to make a better-than-average living through all the tourism.  Maybe they were playing it up a little as employees of the company- it's not unlikely they were told to answer those questions that way, but the sentiment seemed pretty genuine.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Costa Rica: White Water Rafting

(I meant to be on this a couple days ago, but it's the Olympics, man!)

Our first morning began bright and early with an hour ride to a place on the Rio Toro north of the volcano.  Every day the hydroelectric dam systems release extra water into one of two rivers for a few hours, and the tourist companies are in contact with them to catch the ride.  Desafio offers two levels of rafting options, 2-3 and 3-4, and we opted for the latter, which was rougher.  No experience was necessary for either, though.  In our weekend package deal, if you weren't a rafting type, you could go on a riverboat nature cruise.

Our guides met us as we unloaded from several vans and gave us safety and command instructions, then issues us paddles, life jackets, and helmets.  We loaded onto boats in groups of 5-6, but due to numbers and groups that had come together, we ended up with 4 plus our guide, Luis.  The other couple was a little older than us, so he placed Mike and me in front.  The whole trip he cracked me up because whenever he would tell us to stop paddling, he would say "Stop, guys!" but his Spanish accent made his enunciation come across like he was frustrated or annoyed.  He wasn't, though it took me about 30 minutes to realize it.  He always looked like he was having a blast.  I would, too, if I got paid to to this.

We got really wet really fast.  Fortunately, Luis had splashed us up pretty well right before we pushed off.  He said he was getting it over with so we wouldn't be afraid to get wet.  The water was cool, but the heat made it feel mostly refreshing.

Overall, we were pretty comfortable.  At least in a thermal sense.

Twice we went through an area where it was safe to "ride the bull," which is to sit on the very front and hold on to a strap looped though an eye.   Luis offered first choice of the experience to the women because with such a small crew, he needed more power on the paddles available.  I got to go first.

After a few of these plunges, I slipped and bounced backwards and into the footwell.  I'm not going to post the pictures of  the boat with my legs sticking straight up.  You'll have to imagine that.

We paused in a "calm" area of the river and everyone who wanted could take a couple jumps or dives off a boulder.  The current was still pretty fast and below were some rocks, so you had to jump out pretty hard and then swim fast back to the rock for another go or across to a beachy area.

Here our guides flipped a boat, emptied some stowed bags, whipped out some machetes, and created a yummy snack for our group.  Everyone got as much as they wanted.

Then it was back on the water for more fun.  We passed several small homes and farms.  By American living standards, the people we saw were pretty poor, but they didn't seem to feel that way about themselves, and that was also our general experience in Costa Rica.  Many smiled and waved as we went by, especially the kids.  I chose this last picture with the other lady "bullriding" because in the corner you can see two wires, which are part a of the pulleys and baskets we frequently saw stretched across the river.  Luis told us the primitive system was used by the local people to cross the rivers to get to their fields or herds or for the kids to get to school.  Sometimes, he said, you'd see people moving small herds of sheep or cattle across this way, one at a time.  It was much cheaper than building a bridge, and much easier to replace or repair in a washout.

 At the end of the trip, all we had to do was take off the safety gear and put the paddles all together in a pile. Then they drove us to a tiny inn with a restaurant to change into dry clothes (we left our bags with the drivers) and have some lunch.  The buffet style meal was described as the "typical" food the locals eat- beans and rice, chicken, seasoned fried potatoes, fruit, and fried plantain.  The cafe had a bar as well, but you had to pay for the beers, which most the group's guys thought was a worthy sacrifice.

Meanwhile, the extra safety guides who had come along in kayaks put together CD-ROMs of photos they had been taking.  Since rafting doesn't really lend itself to taking your own photos, almost everyone bought one.  The tech-whiz divided the shots into separate folders named after your guide, so you only got pictures of your raft.  Even with that limit, our disk had 133 pictures plus a folder of some 100+ nature shots (not from our trip).  The price was based on your traveling group.  For couples or families, it was $20; for the group of 5 college kids, it was $40, but they were allowed to share it how they wished once they had it.