But you know what? It did work out. I had a marvelous time. Robin and I discovered that we have very different travel styles, but we also discovered that we can stay friends despite our differences. Collin and the kids did fine in my absence, even though we all missed each other fiercely. So with that out of the way, let's talk about all the FUN I had in a week!
Our first day of travel was just that: travel, travel, and more travel. We boarded our 8AM flight out of SLC on Friday morning, flew to Las Vegas and Houston on the same plane, had a long layover in Houston where we ate overpriced airport Tex Mex for lunch/dinner, then flew to San Jose, Costa Rica. Once there our pre-arranged private transfer took us to Manuel Antonio. Most unfortunately, the friendly man holding the sign with my name on it walked us to a sidewalk just outside the airport and called up the plain white van (which we would later discover is the standard transfer vehicle in the tourism industry) piloted by two large men who spoke very little English and didn't seem keen on communicating with my very weak Spanish. Two women traveling alone in an unmarked van with two much larger strange men did nothing to calm our travel nerves - and this isn't even counting some of the hairpin turns and breakneck speeds with barely any distance between us and oncoming traffic! I relaxed after the first half hour, figuring that our hotel was the one booking this transfer and wouldn't book anything that would jeopardize their business. It all worked out and we were not kidnapped and sold into slavery at all. In fact, we arrived at our hotel, The Falls Resort at Manuel Antonio without a hitch and in just about 3 hours. We arrived at about 11:00 pm, seriously ready for some shut-eye.
I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of rain on the tin roof, and then again at 6:30 am to the cacophony of birdsong. That would be a theme for most of the rest of our trip: alarms set but not needed. We got dressed and headed to the hotel's free breakfast, a lovely mix of buffet-style offerings and a hot made-to-order main. This was my first taste of Costa Rican coffee, and it was phenomenal. I usually add a ton of sugar and milk to my coffee at home, but this stuff went down smoothly black with no hint of bitterness!
After a little rest and lunch we grabbed our swimsuits and took a cab to a local beach, Playa Biesanz. This one, while not quite as gorgeous as the beach inside the national park, was still stunningly beautiful. Bonus: it was populated by locals (I'm pretty sure we were the only tourists there). It required a hike down an uneven path, but the reward was great. The water was mostly calm and generally warm with alternating hotter and colder currents. It made floating in the water very entertaining. We spent a few hours here soaking up the delicious scenery and atmosphere before heading back to the hotel to get cleaned up in time for our night tour at Rainmaker Park.
Our night tour was with Jeremias again. We drove about half an hour past acres and acres of African palm plantations, palm oil being one of the country's largest agricultural exports, until we reached this private reserve at dusk. Stepping out of the van with the other couple that had signed up for this tour, we were immediately surrounded by blinking fireflies and the sound of hundreds of frogs all singing their unique songs. One species in particular, the snouted tree frog, was especially prevalent and sounded like weird babies crying "wehhhg!" in the trees all around us! We saw many different species of frogs and toads, including the gorgeous red-eyed tree frog and the cane toad, before moving into the actual forest. It started raining a little so a lot of animals were in hiding, but we still managed to see some lizards, a very thin snake, a few bugs, and a giant owl butterfly that kept trying to hang out with us. It was a fun tour that finished with a traditional Costa Rican dinner in an open air pavilion by the frog lagoon. Truth be told, I was a little disappointed that we didn't see more but realized it was raining and that's nature for you. That being said, it was still a fantastic way to spend an evening.
We started the next day bright and early (again, without the aid of our alarm clock) for a 6:00 am pick-up to go kayaking in the mangroves at Damas Island. We were in a large group that consisted primarily of biologists from Spain. Robin was the only one who didn't speak a lick of Spanish, so our guide Francisco had to do the tour mostly in Spanish with a little English thrown in for our sakes (because, let's be honest, half my comprehension involves guessing). It was my first time on a kayak and I felt a little unsteady at first but quickly got the hang of it. I thoroughly enjoyed gliding silently through the mangrove estuary, taking note that we were paddling in with the high tide and realizing that we would be paddling against the tide on the way out. Francisco gave us a briefing of the different types of mangrove trees that grew there, as well as other plants and animals we saw along the way. Honestly, I was just there for the experience of paddling through the natural canals. At one point the biologists (gently) gave poor Francisco a little botany lesson when he gave slightly incorrect information about the way certain secondary growth trees reproduce (through tiny seeds, not spores, btw). He was a good sport about it and we all had a nice time learning. We also passed under a troop of capuchin monkeys both on the way in and on the way out. My favorite moment of this tour was quietly gliding along and watching one of the monkeys on the branch just about 10 feet directly above me. No cameras, no distractions, just being in the moment and enjoying nature. Our way back out proved to be more of a workout, of course. Most of the way back was fine, but as we got closer to our docking point the current became much stronger and the water shallower until even the guide just hopped out of his kayak and started walking it upstream. Most of us followed suit, and then most of us (including the guide) got back into our kayaks when the water got deeper to paddle the final stretch. I expected to be rather sore the next day, but I guess all the push-ups and running I've been doing to get ready for this trip really paid off! We wrapped up the tour with breakfast at a local soda (typical Costa Rican restaurant). I had gallo pinto (beans and rice) with fried eggs (all smothered in Salsa Lizano, the deliciously zippy national condiment) and my first taste of tamarind juice. It was tropically zippy, but I didn't like it enough to order it again the rest of the trip.
We spent the early afternoon hanging out at the hotel while Robin tried to convince me to do the night tour again that evening. I told her that I'd already booked another night tour for the following night in Monteverde, but she really wanted to do this one again because she loved it so much. I had wanted to have dinner at a restaurant overlooking the Pacific Ocean to watch the famed stunning sunset, but I finally agreed to go on the night tour again. As a compromise, we walked over to nearby Cafe Agua Azul to have late afternoon drinks (guaro sour!) and snacks (tuna "margarita!") while enjoying the cool ocean breeze and savoring the gorgeous view.
I'll probably always regret just a little not getting to watch the sunset, but I'm also SO glad we ended up going on this second night tour because it turned out to be completely amazing and 100% better than the previous night's. Juan was our guide this time, and the other couple that had signed up for the tour didn't show up, so we had a private tour! We told him we had gone on this same tour the night before, so he custom-tailored this tour to our tastes. We spent only a little time at the lagoon, though Juan was able to find us two separate pairs of frogs in amplexus (male riding piggyback on female so she can take him to where she's decided to lay her eggs), a glass frog (so cool!), and other species we didn't see the previous night. Juan has been guiding for 11 years, and it really showed. It felt like we were tagging along on his own personal nature scavenger hunt and what a privilege that was! He knew so much about everything and found so much more than the night before. It started to rain more this evening than the night before so Juan left his spotting scope in the van, but he still found way more. We also ventured much deeper into the forest than the previous night to a bridge over the rushing river where he had us turn off our flashlights and just stand there there in pitch darkness listening to the sounds of nature all around us. It was incredible, and I was sincerely freaked out for the first few seconds because I was in back and thought they had moved on and left me alone in the dark! Then I reached out and Robin was 2 inches away from me. We saw the incredibly venomous fer-de-lance snake (you can see his white-ish head peeking out in the middle of his coiled body), the even more venomous wandering spider, and a host of other creatures that I didn't necessarily take pictures of. This was one of the best tours of our trip.
Monday morning had us up early (again!) for a 6:30 am transfer to Monteverde. Our driver was friendly and spoke a little English, so we conversed lightly in both languages throughout our 4.5-hr trip north. We did make a couple stops along the way: once at Jaco to stretch our legs and take in the lovely ocean view and once at the Tarcoles bridge where we walked across from one end and he met us at the other end. The primary attraction here is the large population of American crocodiles that hang out in the river directly under the bridge. They were huge! But the real thrill was walking on the barely-existent sidewalk while cars and large trucks zoomed by so close to us. Good times! We stopped for breakfast at a soda on the other side of the bridge, and our guide joined us for a nice traditional breakfast where I tried the revelation that is soursop (guanábana) juice for the first time. The final leg of our journey was on winding bumpy dirt mountain roads (fondly referred to by some as "Costa Rican massages") with incredible views of the landscape all the way to the Gulf of Nicoya. We arrived at Casa Batsu where Carlos our host greeted us with such genuine kindness, giving us a tour of the property and introducing us to the resident pet Violeta. We had booked the Mariposa Room in this residence-turned-B&B. Everything about this B&B was charming and clean and beautiful. I relaxed for a while in a hammock in the garden before we jetted off to our first adventure in Monteverde: Ziplining with The Original Canopy Tour.
Our canopy zipline tour was interesting. And by interesting, I mean I won't be too sad if someday I can't remember it. Our group included me, Robin, another woman about our age, and a family with three children, the youngest of whom was only 5. I'll just say that those kids were far braver than the three ladies in the back. All three of us clung desperately to the trees before each zip, and the guides tended to not give us very specific instructions until after we had made the mistakes (i.e., in order to keep yourself from spinning, you have to place your braking hand far behind you on the line because simply placing it a little behind you doesn't do a dang thing to stop you from spinning). On roughly the 6th of our 15 total zips I finally got used to the process enough to not feel nervous on take-off (hanging out on the tree platforms, however, remained terrifying the entire time). I might have even enjoyed a few of them. Robin never got used to it and hated the entire experience, but she soldiered on rather bravely and never once complained. There was a Tarzan swing that we all did out of social pressure and I accidentally kicked one of the guides in the head upon landing. I don't mean to be a spaz, I just am. The final zip was about a half mile long and took place high above the canopy, and that one was very cool to see. Overall, I'm glad I did it, but it was definitely a once and done sort of experience for me. No chance of me becoming some sort of ziplining junkie. At least the guides were kind enough to take pictures and videos on our phones for us.
Tuesday morning dawned bright and early (again), and I made the most of my unplanned 5:00 am wake-up time by sneaking out with my binoculars and doing a little amateur birding around the property. I spent some time watching and listening to the lovely song of the country's national bird, the yigüirro before walking part of the trail behind the property where I watched a few leafcutter ant highways in action, watched a hummingbird do its thing for a while, and passed by something that made a low growl before seeing a fairly large rustle in the nearby bushes/trees that I'm pretty sure was some sort of hunting cat. Maybe a jaguarundi? My imagination is very exciting! It was a nice way to start the day. Unfortunately, all my wandering made me a little late for breakfast, so I just gulped down a little fruit before we zipped off to our morning nature walk at the Curi Cancha Nature Preserve. All our tours in Monteverde were booked through the hotel, so I was a little disappointed that we weren't going to one of the primary cloud forest reserves. I needn't have been. Curi Cancha was beautiful, and our guide Rosie was awesome. What was normally a 3-hour tour turned into about a 5-hour tour because she was super into it and so was our group (just me and Robin and an older couple from Seattle). Robin, who had chosen not to gulp down any fruit or other food, was feeling very lightheaded and faint, but she again soldiered on without complaint. Thankfully, I had an energy bar in my pack so that helped a bit. We started in the lower elevation secondary growth forest that was pasture land only 70 years ago but now had fairly large trees. We saw many strangler fig (ficus) trees and got to walk inside a hollow one where the original host tree had died and completely decomposed, leaving just the hollowed out ficus - super cool! We saw tons of giant blue morpho butterflies, hummingbirds, a blue-crowned mot mot (bird), tons of wild orchids, epiphytes, mossy trees, palms, flowering banana trees, an agouti (otherwise known as R.O.U.S.s), a coati that passed within a few feet of Robin, a toucan that Rosie called out of his nest, and a three-wattled bellbird that had the most interesting calls. We went steadily onward and upward in elevation until we were in the dense virgin primary cloud forest, only today was a (apparently rare) stunningly clear and sunny day with nary a cloud in sight. Our group stopped to rest at La Ventana, the always-windy lookout over the continental divide, before heading back. It was such an amazing place, and the upper cloud forest elevations were the same you'd see at any of the other reserves. The mountain air was so refreshing and clean, and it was a nice break from the heat and humidity of Manuel Antonio. Back at the hotel, we all did a quick change before heading out to lunch at Soda Sabor Tico with our new friends from Seattle who wished they had more grandkids and are obsessed with rare cat breeds. I ordered two appetizers: patacones (fried smashed green plantains) with guacamole/refried beans/meat stew and ceviche with plantain chips. They were both so delicious and the perfect thing to eat after such an active morning that I was too busy stuffing my face to bother with pictures.
Once again, we arrived back at the hotel just in time to head out on our next tour with our new friends from the hotel. This time we were going to the coffee/chocolate/sugar tour at El Trapiche. I wasn't sure what to expect, since I already know a fair deal about the growing process for chocolate and sugarcane, but I was surprised at just how much more information our guide (and son of the owner) Diego gave us. He was so engaging and goofy, and I found the entire tour to be so FUN! We saw firsthand all the processes for coffee production, we tasted fresh cacao fruit (tastes like a slimy lychee) and nibs, he made some chocolate right in front of us using the indigenous method with a giant flat mortar and pestle, we drank a chocolate drink, we had fresh sugarcane, sampled guaro (distilled liquor from sugarcane juice that packs the ethanolic kick of moonshine - one sip could fuel a car!), and finally, made our own sugar syrup candy. At the very end we had a traditional snack made with some starchy native plant, and, of course, coffee! We sampled so many coffees! And sugarcane juice! What a fun tour! One of my highlights this week!
We arrived back at Casa Batsu just as the sun was beginning to set and it looked like it would be a stunner, so the husband from Seattle and I went chasing the sunset on the trail behind the property (the same one I took earlier this morning). As soon as we got onto the trail we heard something running up behind us. It was Violeta, our friendly tour guide come to take advantage of the free walk! She bounded around bringing us large sticks to throw for her. Sadly, the clouds moved in just before the sun set, so that was a wash, but we kept going on the trail to see the neighboring coffee plantation Carlos had promised us. With Violeta leading the way, we meandered through dense forest and out into open pasture, found the coffee farms, and kept following Violeta and the trail markers until suddenly there were no more trail markers and we found ourselves in this wide open field. Where have you taken us, Violeta?? We kept going toward a large barn and eventually made our way toward the sound of cars and back out onto the main road that leads back to the hotel, only we had gone about half a mile or more up the road. Oops! I'm just glad I wasn't alone on this adventure and have now learned that golden retrievers are not Lassie.
Wednesday morning we finally had a proper breakfast cooked by the owner - fresh fruit, fresh baked bread, papaya juice, and a delicious vegetable panini that was a lovely departure from gallo pinto. We then said our goodbyes and embarked on a 5-hour transfer to Arenal.
Our bus wound down the mountain past lovely farmland and coffee plantations until we reached the bottom and Robin and I got off for a horseback ride to Lake Arenal with our guide Dehily. Here was a man who was clearly passionate about his horses. He constantly whistled and spoke to the horses throughout the ride and made some lovely conversation with us as well. Baguito was my horse, not-so-affectionately nicknamed by me and Robin as Little Napoleon, because he had a big 'ol issue with Robin's larger horse Reggaetón. Any time Reggaetón would get close to Baguito (which he did constantly because he really liked Baguito or something) or start to pull ahead, Baguito would instantly break into a trot and cut him off. It was funny at first, but I had to keep pulling his reins to steer him away from Reggaetón. One time he refused to listen to me and got too close to Reggaetón while they were trotting and ended up kicking Robin in the foot. Thankfully, she was wearing hiking boots which saved her from any broken bones. I felt horrible and spazzy and made sure to be firmer with Baguito for the rest of the ride. Those awkward moments aside, the ride was lovely with beautiful scenery and a rest stop at a colorful local farmer's home. The man was jovial and crass and all kinds of fun to chat with. We finally arrived at the lake shore, bid our noble steeds adios, and walked the short distance to the dock where a boat awaited us to take us to the other side of the lake where yet another van awaited with our luggage to take us to our destination. The view of Arenal volcano from the lake was stunning. We could see the old lava flows down one side of the volcano and the lush green tropical rainforest on the other side. It's not active anymore, but the perfect conical shape and sheer imposing size of it still make for a magnificent backdrop to all your activities.
We were dropped off at the Adobe car rental office in the town of La Fortuna. We rented a car and drove to our hotel (Tabacon), only getting lost once in the process. I was the designated driver and it was a little scary driving the winding roads knowing how crazy Costa Ricans drive, but we managed to survive. Our room wasn't ready upon arrival since we were early, but they were kind enough to hold our luggage for us and give us our hot springs passes early so we could hang out in the hot springs until check-in time. Done! The Tabacon hot springs are a short shuttle ride or walk down the road, and the hot springs property is an immense network of naturally flowing rivers and cascades, starting hot at the top and getting cooler as you work your way down. There were so many pools and waterfalls and nooks and crannies to explore, one could easily spend a day here relaxing and exploring the different pools. It was so much fun! We found one that had a carved stone bench with the river cascading over it, so half our bodies were in hot water and the other half was exposed in the warm air, all while surrounded by lush tropical trees and foliage. It was incredible and the perfect way to soak off some of the soreness of our horseback ride! Once we were fully relaxed we headed back, checked in, got ready, and drove back to town for dinner at well-reviewed Soda Viquez, where I had a casado (beans, rice, fried sweet plantain, salad/slaw) with fish. The fish was a mistake, as it was some sort of oil-soaked tilapia that tasted unnatural. Everything else was good though. And a mixed fruit smoothie, because I couldn't get enough of them! The rest of the night was spent in our room watching cheesy telenovelas and the end of The Proposal dubbed in Spanish. Perfecto!
Thursday morning was miraculous: we slept in until 8:00 thanks to the blackout curtains! It felt so good to wake up not tired! Robin wanted a slower paced morning, so I headed out solo to the breakfast buffet and got myself a lovely spread that included peijibaya (peach palm fruit) that tasted... unique... and a yogurt parfait that I ended up being allergic to (I forgot that granola isn't something I should eat without asking - doh!). Thankfully, it wasn't bad and I only felt itchy and sick for about an hour before it went away completely. I did keep my epipen nearby though, just in case. Back at the room, we decided to go to La Fortuna Waterfall. Driving there was such fun, as we passed by local schools and homes and saw a slice of real life outside the tourist bubble. The hike down to the waterfall consisted of 500 paved steps each way. Going down wasn't bad, and they thoughtfully placed benches and rest stops all along the way for the return journey. Again, super glad I had started training a bit. At the top of the stairs you could see the waterfall cascading into a bowl of dense tropical foliage. Once at the bottom, the falls were much more powerful and surrounded by dripping vines and sheer rock faces. The rocks surrounding the pool were covered in slippery moss so you had to tread carefully once in the water, but it was such an incredible experience! The water was so cold, but I sucked it up and plopped myself awkwardly in and allowed the waves from the waterfall's strong current to sweep me into the rocks a bit. Being in the water, surrounding by towering rocks overgrown with greenery and a powerful waterfall directly in front, I couldn't help but feel a little like I was living a dream at that moment. I am so lucky to be here, at the stage in life, having all these incredible experiences while my husband selflessly takes care of our kids. Instead of the wave of guilt that would have normally washed over me at that thought, I felt a wave of gratitude and pure joy.
Back at the top, I changed and we ate lunch at the restaurant where this time Robin had the misfortune of ordering the grease-laden quesadillas. I lucked out with my tropical ceviche and ate every last bit. We got some souvenirs for the kids at their shop, which turned out to be a great idea because their prices were much better than the ones in town. It was almost time to return our car, so we headed back into town to check out a few more souvenir shops and buy guaba (ice cream bean) and a pipa fría from a roadside. The guaba was similar to lychee in that each bean had a large smooth nut surrounded by smooth, velvety pulp that slipped right off once you got the hang of it. Flavor-wise I'd call it a cross between a lychee and persimmon. I liked it, though it's not something I'd imagine ever craving, but it was fun sitting down at the central park and eating our exciting tropical fruits while the world passed us by. We returned the car after finishing our treat and had a surprisingly expensive and crappy buffet dinner at Tabacon's hot springs. I stayed for the springs after dinner while Robin retired early. It was uncrowded and so serene and a perfect way to end my day.
Friday was to be the climax of our week, and it really didn't disappoint. We went down to the lobby at 5:00 am for our rafting transfer to pick us up. There was another couple already there going on the same rafting trip and they were from - of all places - Lehi, UT! Our van from Exploradores Outdoors picked us up and we drove for a few hours (time no longer has meaning at this point and I slept through half of it anyway) to their operations center on the Caribbean side where we met up with vans coming from other parts of the country. We ate a simple breakfast of - you guessed it - gallo pinto, fruit, and eggs before hopping back into the vans to go to the Pacuare River (Class III-IV, ranked #4 best rafting rivers in the world by National Geographic). On the 40-minute drive down one of the guides gave us paddling instructions and a safety briefing that covered every possible scenario and scared the bananas out of me. "If you fall out and get trapped underneath the raft... If the raft capsizes... If the guide falls out..." My nerves were steadily building up and I wanted nothing to do with the front of the raft (the captain seats, as those in front were in charge to paddling in unison and the rest would follow their lead), so our very fit friends from Lehi took the front and we sat in the middle behind them. Noel our guide was so fantastic. He spent the first calmer section whipping us into shape and making sure we could follow all his commands and paddle in unison. It turns out our new friends might have been fit but they couldn't paddle in unison to save any of our lives. Nevertheless, we made it through the rapids just fine and had a blast doing it. All my nerves went away as soon as we went through the first rapid - we were too focused on paddling and following Noel's directions to worry about being scared. And the rapids were just plain fun! We were an adventurous group, so Noel steered us through one of the rapids backwards and we corkscrewed (spun 360 degrees) through another rapid. It was awesome! He steered us under small waterfalls and had us laughing throughout the trip, but he always prepared us before any serious or technical rapids so we would know what to expect and what to do. During the calm sections Noel gave us a little naturalist tour of the area, the surrounding mountain regions, and pointed out a sloth and some toucans. We stopped halfway through and had lunch (prepared by the guides) along the riverbank. Back on the raft, Robin and another girl ended up taking the captain seats up front (I was late to get back because I went potty), and that's when we really got some good paddling done because they were really good at following directions and paddling in unison. That when all the wacky antics happened through the rapids. We floated through two gorgeous canyons during the trip, but the second narrower one was something unforgettable. We were able to get out and float through these sections in the warmish waters. The sheer rock cliffs on either side and the tropical landscape all around us made me feel like a kid on Christmas morning. I actually giggled at one point because of how magical it all felt! Another wave of gratitude and awe swept over me. It was such an incredible way to end an already amazing trip. I'm glad we saved this for last, because it was the clear highlight of our week. (Non-raft pictures courtesy of a Google search because I was too chicken to bring my phone on this one.)
When the rafting was over, we got cleaned up and hopped in the van bound for San Jose. I slept through much of this 3.5-hr drive from sheer exhaustion. I also think I swallowed a tiny bit of the river water, which most definitely was not the cleanest, and was feeling very queasy for much of the bus ride. We finally got to the Hampton Inn right by the airport and ate a sad meal at the Denny's next door before hauling our tired, possibly-river-parasited bodies (okay, that was just me) back to shower and to bed. Another early morning for our return flight and another full uneventful day of travel, and we were home by 8pm.
This was the trip of a lifetime. I was so thankful to be able to go, and especially glad that I knew I could go without worrying about Collin or the kids or Collin with the kids. I'm glad I have a husband that can handle the kids just fine when I'm not around. Fewer vegetables might have been eaten in my absence, but teeth were brushed and extra-curricular activities were attended. It was awesome being able to check in with them daily via video chat, and they loved being able to see all my pictures each night because Google automatically syncs and backs up the photos on my phone. I got to come home to my family fully refreshed (even if I brought a gnarly bug home with me that unleashed its full force the following day on Mother's Day and kept me in bed or in the bathroom for most of the day) and thankful for the life I have that allowed me to take such an extended, fun, and adventurous self-care break.