2002.04.01, san francisco

cute little carin early 1999, my ex-girlfriend and I were invited to spend the 'turn of the millenium' new year in costa rica with some friends who have a house in nosara. it sounded like fun, and we made plans to join them and some other couples. by autumn, stephanie and I had broken up. our wonderful friends decided to also invite her new boyfriend. I had a great new years--in san francisco. I converted the ticket to travel credit and managed to renew the credit a couple of times because I was living in singapore and the company (grupo taca) doesn't service asia. the voucher was set to expire this past christmas, so I finally converted it into a ticket to visit costa rica and peru. I expected to maybe travel with a friend or two, but in the end I set out alone.

on landing in san jose, I decided to look into renting a car. my hatred of SUVs and my pocketbook dictated my choice: the tiny little daihatsu corea. the guy at the rental agency was skeptical that I was going to be able to drive up into the mountains. "be careful," he said. sure, sure, ok. I set out with a macro-level map of the country and nothing else; but this seemed reasonable given that it is probably possible to drive across costa rica within 3-4 hours. the main problem that I faced was that the roads don't actually go straight through towns, but usually require that you drive into the town center and then find the right road to take out of town. the roads are not very well marked, but with a decent sense of direction it was fairly easy to find my way around.

my first few days were spent on and around vulcan arenal, a beautiful cone shaped mountain which only occasionally spews fire and death. unfortunately, I was only able to see the top of the mountain once, and then peeking above the everpresent clouds. I spent a morning hiking up the side of the mountain onto the lava beds, which cut through some dense but fairly arid forest.

vulcan arenal


I spent only one night in la fortuna, and then decided to drive around the mountain and lake to the cloud forest on the western slope. I occasionally came upon coati, single or in groups. like their raccoon cousins, they like most of the same foods that humans like. they have come to view tourists as a source of food.

butterfly, coati

I also came across a botanical garden/butterfly nursery. several of the plant species were imported from other tropical areas in the world. this butterfly had just emerged and was drying its wings.

fully half of the five hour trip around to monteverde town on the other side of the mountain was spent on the last 50 km of dirt roads up into the mountains. at one point I came to an unmarked Y in the road, and decided to get out and ask some guys who I'd seen about 100 meters back... when I opened my door and looked up, one of those guys was standing with a rifle. "uh, monteverde?" I stammered. he pointed me in the right direction. I am completely unfamiliar with guns, but I suppose to some people they are just a part of everyday life.

monteverde may be isolated by its bad roads, but still draws a lot of people. its economy has shifted from coffee and dairy farms to eco-tourism, and I met some foreigners who'd been living there for a couple of years. I went on a horseback ride through the forest, visiting some of the farms which are carved out. ripe coffee berries are very sweet, though there is little flesh to them. I did get to gallop along for a nice stretch, but mostly the horse trotted, which killed my unaccustomed legs and back. I was grateful for the slow patches through deeper forest

  big tree

my other main activity in the moteverde reserve area was a 'sky trek' or zipline tour. this is where you climb scaffolding and steep paths, and then ride from slope to slope on a tackle attached to a high-tension steel cable.

zipline middle

not at all for the acrophobic, but one of the most exciting things I've ever done. at one point I was in the middle of a 700 meter cable, at least 140 meters above the forest floor, travelling fast.

zipline perspective

given that you are securely strapped to the cable with a harness, it is possible to take photos from this point. they tend to be a bit blurry, though, and it is difficult to resist the temptation to hold on for dear life. from the topmost platform, the other bridges and platforms were barely discernable against the forest background.

distant bridge

often when I travel, I get 'itchy feet' and feel like I must constantly be moving from one activity to the next. it is not very relaxing, but I get to see a lot. after a few days in monteverde, I decided I needed to get in some beach time. I stopped and picked up some local hitchhikers for the ride down the bumpy road, and the extra weight was just enough to get me stuck in mud. I learned that my little car was still too heavy to be lifted by three men, and had to wait for someone to come along in a pickup truck with a chain to pull me out. the delay was not quite worth the excellent mountain sunset.


I ended up in quepos, a small seaside town on the southwest coast. there are other resort towns along the same road, but this is very close to another forest reserve I wanted to visit. it had a slightly a 'south of the border' feel that I think played more to tourist expectations than any sense of costa rican culture. I met up with some other travellers in the same hotel--neeld, rob, and duncan-- and together we drove out to a small eco-tour area where neeld had lived several years before, "rainmaker."

quepos beach

we arrived after the morning tours had already passed through, but one of the guides, saul, agreed to take the three of us on a separate tour. the forest was very different from the cloud forest, more arid, fed by a stream which ran through the valley. saul was an excellent source of information about the area, and had sharp eyes and quick reflexes: he caught lizards and spotted birds in deep brush that we couldn't see until he'd set up his monocular tripod.


after a swim in river pools, we climbed up to the rope bridges which crisscross the valley. the platforms at either end are supported by large trees, to which they are attached by braces and tension: no nails. the bridges are not nearly as high as the ziplines had been, but have the advantage that you can stop and gaze out from the centre.


when we returned to the start of the tour, saul showed us some of the local wildlife that we had not seen along the tour. they collect the animals along the tour or near the guesthouse, and keep them for only a few days. the green and black frog is a poison arrow frog, but the fruit flies he'd been eating had made him non-toxic and safe to handle. we had to wake the tree frog to get him to open his eyes. the snake had been caught several days before, and saul decided to let him go while we were there. I would have loved to get a closer shot of him, but he was angry and poisonous.


on my last full day in costa rica, I offered neeld, duncan, and rob a ride back to san jose. with the time they saved not having to take the bus, we were able to make a morning trip to parqué nacional manuel antonio. it is a fairly nice area, with forest running along several beaches, and monkeys and iguanas in the trees; but it was also full of people. I think I preferred our more private hike the day before, though as we sat in the shade and drank beer I became more aware of other natural beauty passing by.

after a late evening trip over the mountains, we parted company in san jose. the others were headed back to the US and canada; and I turned south to visit a new continent.

manuel antonio beach