Thursday, March 17, 2011

Jugando por el oído (Part Four)

We got up early, hopped in the Jimny and rode through town. It took about 5 minutes. The Nicoya Penenisula is known for its many great surf spots. Malpais is one of them. As such, the area attracts people from all over the world. Many of the hotels and businesses in the area are operated by ex-pats that came to ride the waves...and never left. There is a t-shirt shop run by a guy from Newport Beach, a hotel run by a group of Israeli guys, and a bunch of restaurants and hostels owned by French, Australian, and Italians. We found a little french bistro to grab some breakfast and check emails. Finding internet access was never really a problem in Costa Rica. There seemed to be free WiFi everywhere. Once again, the food was delicious and cheap. The weather was awesome, so we went down to the beach for a jog and a swim. The waves were pretty good but we didn't bring surfboards and didn't feel like renting. Neither one of us are big surfers, so instead we asked about other things to do in the area. The guy at our hotel recommended going over to Montezuma and checking out the waterfall there.

It took less than an hour to get from MalPais to Montezuma. We paid a dude $2 to watch our car, and hiked up the short trail to the waterfall. It was pretty spectacular. The water was crisp and refreshing. we swam for a bit, jumped off the rocks, and took some pictures. Afterwards we had lunch in the town of Montezuma. Yep, it was good. We stopped at a little tourist stand to ask about a tour to Isla Tortuga. It seemed like a great deal... speedboat ride out there, whale watching, snorkleing, beer, lunch, kayaking... all for $50 bucks. We put down our money and were told to meet them the next morning on the beach at 9 am.

We headed back to Malpais in time to see the sun go down at Playa Del Carmen. On the way back down the street we saw a sign that caught our attention. "Texas Hold-em, tonight! Dinner included." Seriously? Tim and I both like to play poker. We were understandably hesitant not knowing anything about the town or the legitimacy of the whole thing... but we were definitely gonna check that out. We went back to the Ritmo, lounged at the pool for a bit, got cleaned up and walked back over to "Las Olas" where the game was being played. It was the bar at the Hotel Playa del Carmen. It turns out this was the place owned by the Israeli surf guys. There were two legit looking tables set up, but when we arrived it was mostly empty. Oh right... we forgot about Tico Time. See, part of the laid back paradise lifestyle is sort of showing up within an hour or two of the suggested time...not unlike southern California. At home we call it "rude", here they call it "Tico Time." We made friends with a Costa Rican named Jorge that was chilling at the bar. We traded off speaking Spanish and English and managed to understand one another fairly well. He worked for Taca airlines and lives in San Jose. He was out in Malpais on vacation as well. With not much else to do except talk to Jorge, I ordered a few drinks and was pretty smashed by the time the game started. I was having a great time. The people seemed mostly nice. It was fun to play in Spanish. "Como se dice 'El Perro' en engleis?" I asked at one point. "The Dog," they replied. I shook my head no and slowly said "Gregoooooorio....." while pointing two thumbs at myself. That got a lot of laughs... mostly from me.

So there I was, drunk and gambling in a tiny town in the middle of Central America. The game played pretty tight, but I was doing fine until a spazzy kid from New York sat down directly to my left and started jamming every pot with any two cards. I called him down repeatedly with the best hand only to end up losing. When I was out of money, and inquired as to the location of the nearest ATM, I was disappointed to learn that all the cash machines close after 10 PM. "Yeah its the law... they don't want people getting robbed." Bummer. I was stuck and drunk. It's just as well though. We had to be up early the next morning for the Isla Tortuga trip.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Jugando por el oído (Part Three)

The road out of Monteverde might have been even more sketchy than the way in. It's only 33 km down to the Pan-American Highway, but its a pretty narrow and bumpy dirt road. It's a fairly steep decent also. On this day we would be going from about 5000 ft. all the way down to sea level. Our destination was the town of Mal Pais on the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. To get there we would have to catch a ferry from Puntarenas to Paquera.

Once on the Pan-American Highway, we made pretty good time and got into Puntarenas a little bit ahead of schedule. We were a bit concerned about our chances of actually making it on board the ferry given the amount of vehicles already queued up, including a number of large tour buses. I waited in the car while Tim walked down to the bakery on the corner to buy the ferry tickets. Yes, the ferry tickets were sold inside a bakery. Why? I have no idea. Our fears of not making it aboard were allayed when we saw the ferry pull up to the dock. It was massive. Once all the cars from Paquera had driven off, the line began moving forward. Tim got out and walked on while I drove the Jimny below deck. If you look closely that's him leaning on the railing just above the "T" on the middle deck. The ferry ride itself was relaxing. We were treated to yet another perfect sunset over the Gulf of Nicoya. There was music and drinks and just that same general sense of peace and serenity that seemed to persist everywhere we went..."Pura Vida" as they say down here. Not that I ever had reason to think it would be any other way... but I did take a moment to reflect on just how much I was enjoying myself here.

I had some reservations about driving the road from Paquera to Mal Pais after sundown. This was based on some things that I had read and advice from a friend. As we approached the Peninsula it was getting very dark and there was no noticeable evidence of civilization. I began to discuss with Tim the possibility of finding a cheap place to stay for the night in Paquera, and making ti over to Mal Pais early the next morning. We decided there was no reason to not just feel it out and "play it by ear" as we had been doing for most of the trip already. After we offloaded and began driving away from the dock, we quickly decided to "be bold" and just drive all the way to Mal Pais. Despite our Garmin telling us otherwise, the road was mostly paved all the way to Montezuma, albeit riddled with potholes that drivers would often swerve into oncoming lanes to avoid. After that, it was bumpy and dusty. Some fellow travelers on an ATV flagged us down at one point. The headlight on their Quad had burnt out and they were scared of getting into a collision. We offered to let them follow directly behind us all they way to Santa Teresa.

On the way we had pulled out our Fodor's guide, and decided to check out a place called the Ritmo Tropical. A young local surfer greeted us at the front desk/bar and showed us an available bungalow, which were all just steps from the pool. We took the room, dropped our bags, and had dinner in the restaurant, where the same guy that checked us in was also our waiter. Woodfired pizza seemed to be the specialty. Once again, the food was fantastic. "Yeah," I said to Tim. "I think I want to stay here."

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Jugando por el oído (Part Two)

The distance from La Fortuna to Monteverde is only about 130km... or about 80 miles. But you can't get straight there unless you fly in a small airplane, which would take about 30 minutes. But we were driving, and because of the mountainous terrain and having to circumvent Lake Arenal, it takes about 3-4 hours. The road from La Fortuna to Tilaran is paved and in good condition, offering awesome views of the Lake and surrounding countryside. We stopped in Nuevo Arenal at a German Bakery for lunch and a rest and then hit the road again. After Tilaran, the road started to get pretty gnarly. We were certainly glad that 1) we had a 4x4 and 2) it wasn't raining. I wouldn't want to try some of the steeper dirt roads in the wet season. We had to navigate around potholes, streams, and at one point an entire herd of cows that had broken through their fence and were wandering down the road. Oh right... and the suicidal dogs that seem to be all over the place in Costa Rica. Be careful, they don't seem to understand that cars are dangerous. They will run directly at you. We had to swerve out of the way of more than a few exuberant canines throughout the trip.

After an hour or two of offroading we made it into the town of Santa Elena, home of the Monteverde Cloud Forest. We checked out a couple of hotels that seemed pretty nice, but for some reason we decided to go backpacker style for this stop and checked into the "La Colina", a very dusty and creaky log cabin style place run by an American ex-pat from Los Angeles. There were beds and running water...and we decided that was all we needed. We still had time before dinner to do a "night tour" of some of the forest area nearby. We saw some Kinkajous, Tarantulas, Raccoons, ground nesting birds, tree nesting birds, and some unique trees. The majority of the animals we saw were right outside the office of the tour, no doubt attracted by the food that had certainly been placed out there for them. After the tour we got cleaned up and had dinner at the Treehouse Cafe in Santa Elena. We ordered a similar meal to the one that we had in La Fortuna, and was excellent. It looked like a local girl was having her Quinceañera there while we were having dinner. Cool. After dinner we headed off to have a few drinks at a local bar. It seemed to be populated mostly by gringos...including the owner/operator. We met and chatted up a few students that were traveling abroad. We also looked on amusedly as the local Samba expert, dressed in what appeared to be a spandex bicyclist uniform, made it a point to rub his crotch on every woman in the bar whilst educating them in the ways of the local dance. His slicked back pony-tail completed the ensemble. It was great. We headed back to our hotel/hostel/log cabin/dustbowl accomodations. The slotted glass windows turned out to not do a great job keeping the insects out of the rooms. I decided to sleep with a towel over my head in hopes that I wouldn't get bitten by some Dengue infected mosquito or any of his buddies. I couldn't really complain at $10 a night.

The towel seemed to work fine. I woke up relatively well rested and bite-free. We packed up our stuff, got permission to leave our gear in the front lobby...and headed of to Selvatura Adventure Park for the much anticipated canopy tour. What an awesome experience. For those not familiar, these "ziplines" are thick braided metal wires strung out over and through the treetops, anchored on either end by a tree and its accompanying metal platform. Each guest is fitted with a harness not unlike one you would wear for mountain climbing. The guides took care of attaching a large pulley on the front of the harness to the wire. After a quick "Listo?" to make sure you're ready...away you go. Your back hand acts as a stabilizer and a brake in the event you get going to fast. The guides use hand signals to let you know if you're going to fast or too slow. They were constantly signaling and yelling for me to not brake.(I wasn't braking) All told, there were 15 cables, the last of which was nearly a kilometer long and required guests to go tandem to ensure there was enough mass to get across the entire wire. After the canopy tour we were treated to their "Tarzan swing". It's basically a foot-first bungee jump from a platform about 60 feet up. Watch out for your junk on this one. The first jolt after the free-fall can pinch you pretty tight.

The whole experience out there lasted about 4 hours. It was well worth the $45 plus the tip we gave to the guides. I definitely recommend it if you go to Monteverde. We finished up around noon and headed back to La Colina to pick up our bags. On the way out of town, we stopped for another delicious meal at a place called Trio. Next destination: the Nicoya Peninsula.