Costa Rica Family Adventure

This morning Sheridan shook me out of my slumber as she spotted a creature outside our window. However there was no rush as it was a three toed sloth and he wasn't going anywhere in a hurry. Amazing creature, just happy lazing in a tree posing for photos; his movements were calculated and painstakingly slow. We have heard that sloths come down the tree once a week for a poo, otherwise they do nothing but hang around and eat. A bit like American tourists I guess! I really shouldn't say that as the ones who come to this part of the world are up for an active holiday – well at least they dress the part, raiding the specials bins from the outdoors section at Wal-Mart just before they fly down for an all inclusive adventure holiday clad in their freshly pressed khakis in "Coaster Reeker"…well that’s how they say it anyway!


Actually it was only in Quepos where we came across the herds, a cruise ship is in town, it is Semana Santa (Easter week) and we are next to the most popular National Park in the country (Manuel Antonio) . A tiny park with a few crescent shaped beaches, rainforest, monkeys, iguanas and only 700 tourists a day. We got there at 8am to avoid they queues but by 10am it was already crowded on the beach. Looked like more than 700 on our beach alone…then again some of these Tico’s (locals) are pretty big units, so the numbers can be deceptive. They call this part of Costa Rica, Costa Verde (Green Coast). There is a fair bit of development spread along about 20km of coastline, which has thick jungle running to the cliff edges, the occasional grey sand beach and hotels dotted all along the road. Ours is a basic 3 star place called Mono Azul (Blue Monkey) and sits on the edge of the road but feels like you are in the rainforest. It is home to a great charity called "Kids saving the rainforest" started by a 9 year old girl a few years back. Having met the mother, I figure that the daughter couldn't play tennis or sing so she had to push her into something. Anyway it is a good cause and in this part of the country, which risks over-development, anything to raise awareness is good. Actually 30% of Costa Rica is National Park so they take their conservation seriously, they need to as tourism is now the number one earner and without the natural wonders nobody is going to come here. Thankfully the government recognised this over 40 years ago and although huge chunks of the country were carved up for coffee and banana plantations there are still large areas of primary rainforest that remain untouched.


Our journey started off in the capital city of San Jose, an unremarkable typical Central American city surrounded by mountains, with open squares, parks, a few attractive colonial buildings but mostly ugly structures put up in the 50's and 60's. Our 3 star Swiss style hotel called Hotel Rincon de San Jose was on the edge of the city and didn’t have a restaurant but across the road was a fantastic place called Café Mundo, they had brilliant food and the maitre di was able to tell us exactly what was in every sauce. Michelle had a beautiful chicken with mushroom and honey sauce with carrots and potatoes – a real surprise on day one of the trip!

San Jose reminded me of a tropical Adelaide, great reason to get out and head for the coast. Pretty special coast too! We were going to the Caribbean, just over the horizon the likes of Ponting and Gilchrist would be slogging it out in the cricket World Cup! There are no roads in this region in the far north east of the country, so the last part of the journey was in an open boat that took us along the natural canals that link this part of Costa Rica to the outside world. By the time we reached our lodge the waterways were only a few metres wide and you could reach out and touch Caymans (small crocodiles) that were sunning themselves on the banks, howler monkeys echoed in the trees and cormorants perched on the protruding branches of fallen trees. There are a few basic lodges built on the canals, backing on to the ocean, a couple of small villages but other than that the region of Tortuguero is pretty much uninhabited by humans anyway! Michelle was ready to start on her stash of Gluten Free products that took up half the suitcase but we were pleasantly surprised. The meals at the lodge were basically the same every day. Rice, fish, black beans, salad and lots of fruit. We discovered that they hardly use flour in their cooking and breakfast wasn’t an issue either …just more rice and beans. A nice addition to every meal was plantains that again were not cooked in flour; you could even buy plantain crisps that were lemon and salt flavoured. I loved them, shame Michelle didn’t, as they were Gluten Free!


Luckily the Spanish word for Gluten is …you guessed it GLUTEN!! Sounds a bit different, you sort of swallow the G and sing the second half but they get the message. Flour is HARINA DE TRIGO which is a bit tricky to pronounce cause you drop the H and swallow the G and even though I speak a bit of Spanish most people think you are trying to say something else coz seriously why would a Gringo be wanting to talk about flour?? 


We spent our time at the lodge taking guided walks through the jungle, knee deep in mud, often only 100m from the lodge but totally immersed in the thick foliage. Alone, totally lost, you would not last many days – poisonous trees, poisonous frogs, poisonous snakes, yeah it was pretty toxic. However our guide who I named Jesus (For his hairstyle not his guidance) pointed out the plants you could eat, the ones to stop you getting malaria, the animals to avoid etc.., I figured with his help you could survive forever and there certainly weren’t any gluten bearing plants to worry about! We saw lots of rare species, including the tiny blue jean frog – he was only about 1cm long, bright red with blue legs! He told us lots of interesting facts about this unique rainforest and a story about the time he spotted a jaguar but I missed most of it as I was always at the back dragging Sheridan out of the mud, she had a knack of putting her feet in the deep holes and slowly getting sucked down, ok so I’m exaggerating but what is it with kids and mud – you couldn't wipe the smile off her face!


One thing that did wipe the smile off my face was the beach! 27km of pristine Caribbean coastline covered in rubbish. One day I went for a run north of the resort and ran 2 or 3km through piles and piles of it. On closer inspection I set myself the task of identifying its source – there was shampoo from Brazil, bleach from China and bottles from The Netherlands, mystified I asked one of the locals and he pointed out to sea and said "Cruise Ships". Yep, all the rubbish thrown overboard from those giant ships way off to the west gets blown on to the Costa Rican shoreline, there is a rumour that a few miles offshore where the currents meet is a giant floating island over a mile long – made up entirely of rubbish! As depressing as it was it was a real life reminder of the damage we are doing to the planet – the next day I spent an hour on the beach taking photos. Look out for my work at a gallery near you, "Orange Bucket", "Head and Shoulders" and "Toy Mercedes Truck" and the rare one titled "Happy Crab". I annoyed everyone for the next two days with my obsession with rubbish, however next time you get sucked in by the L’Oreal ads and reach for that bright green Garnier Fructus shampoo on the supermarket shelf think of how it will look on a beach near you. I counted 12 of them at Tortuguero; time to change brands I guess!  


Leaving the coast behind it was time to move inland and up into the hills, past the endless banana plantations. At one stage having to stop at a boom gate as stems of bananas crossed the road, half an hour of "Why did the banana cross the road" jokes and many miles of coffee plantations later we were finally at La Fortuna, the adventure capital of Costa Rica sitting at the base of the perfectly shaped active volcano of Arenal. There was quite a few up market Western style restaurants here where many people spoke English, however Michelle mostly stuck with the local dishes where there was no concern about the ingredients. Costa Rica is one of the places in this part of the world where tap water isn’t a problem so it was also pretty safe to eat salads as well! The highlight of our stay in La Fortuna was a walk through the forest at the base of the volcano in the path of the massive eruption of 1968, which wiped out a village and killed 24,000 cows! It was amazing how quick the forest had grown back, yet there were some giant trees that remained standing but were completely black. It is funny how fast you can walk with the occasional rumble of an active volcano at your back.

Later in the day we actually saw a small eruption with fiery red boulders coming down the mountain…way off in the distance. One evening was spent in hot springs that got cooler as you moved down the slope, kicking back drinking mocktails, every now and then there would be a rumble and you didn't know whether to look across at the giant Tico woman in the g-string bikini, paws wrapped around a large keg of Bavaria or up at the volcano. Either way it was time to get out and head to Monteverde, the land of the Quakers!


Getting anywhere in Costa Rica aint easy, the roads are shocking! My theory has to do with the fact that Costa Rica disbanded its army in 1949 and countries with armies build the roads well so they can get their troops and tanks to the borders efficiently. Anyway nobody in my group has questioned my theory; actually they don't say a great deal to me coz they are worried I might bring up the rubbish conversation. Getting to Monteverde was a blast; you could catch a boat and drive for 5 hours or ride most of the way. Whilst Michelle and Sheridan chose the long way, a few of us jumped on horseback and rode along the lake and through the hills. It was magic country, small farms; lush rolling hills, forest and the lake surrounded by volcanoes was off on the right hand side throughout the ride. My horse was a bit lame and never did much more than a fast trot but eventually I found the rhythm and by the time we got to our destination I looked like a right royal gymkhana rider. I had a sore arse for a few days but not too worry, we didn't come to Monteverde to sit down.


Monteverde Cloud Forest is an amazing place chock full of thousands of species of birds, insects and wildlife. We had a brilliant guide who knew all the birdcalls and we spent hours tracking birds throughout the park. The guides could impersonate the birds so well that at one stage she was making the sounds, the bird would respond and slowly we got closer and closer, finally a few feet away she realised it was one of the other guides – not a bird at all!! Much to her chagrin, I spotted a Resplendent Quetzal – a magnificent blue bird with a long tail, quite rare in these parts. However, she won the day and scared the kids with her discovery of a black and orange tarantula about as big as my hand!! This was all before lunch  ....the afternoon was what we were all looking forward to! Yes, we were going to do the canopy tour – Sheridan and I had been looking forward to this for the past 12 months!


The Canopy Tour is the ultimate adventure activity in Costa Rica. Within a vast tract of jungle they have strung out 15 wires or "zip lines" varying from 100m long to the longest at 672m. These zip lines start in the tops of the trees and traverse gullies and a very wide canyon. You get into a harness like mountain climbers wear, are given a helmet and special gloves then go off for a quick lesson. Cross your legs, lean back, one hand on the wire behind the pulley, head to the side and don't squeeze the wire or let go! Sounds easy, then you climb up this tower; they clip you on and whoosh at 60km per hour you fly through the trees. By the third one your heart has settled back to 5 x its normal rate and you get into the rhythm. Problem is that number four is the longest and biggest mother you have ever seen. Imagine climbing up one of the MCG light towers stepping out onto a platform, attaching yourself to a wire and whizzing above the crowd to the opposite tower. Ok you can picture it? Now double the distance and the height and you are on the mark. Oh, those dots you can see below are not Collingwood supporters, they are real monkeys and yes they think it is really funny! Finally when you think it can't get any worse there is the Tarzan swing. Yeah too easy, climb up a tower, jump off, swing back just miss the tower, swing forward just miss a tree, then when finally released collapse to the ground coz your legs have turned to jelly. Next….I hear the tour of the cheese factory is a lot of fun!! Did I tell you that whilst Sheridan and I were risking our lives for the sake of a good story, Michelle was hanging around a nearby bakery looking at loaves of bread…but not touching? Ok, not true but she chickened out and my nine year old mate with the big heart and I are not going to let her forget it.


Actually the food in Monteverde was brilliant, the restaurants were very helpful – whilst not identifying anything Gluten Free on their menu’s they were very understanding! Even the bakery, run by Quakers offered a salad Michelle could eat!  


I guess that brings us back to Quepos, quite funny in the last 3 hours of typing this it has rained non-stop, virtually the only rain we have had for 10 days! Again, we ate well here as many restaurants are run by expats who could easily explain the ingredients to us!


In the next day or so we are off to Boquete in Panama, still need to organise a bus for the 12 hour journey, which might be an issue as Semana Santa is a really busy time of the year in this part of the world and the locals are all on the road. Maybe this will be an opportunity for Michelle to start eating some of her Gluten Free stash so I don’t have to carry it everywhere!

The flights:-

Qantas Melbourne/Los Angeles
Michelle stocked up on Leda Bars, Corn Chips, Snakatas and some SPC 2 fruits..just in case. Her Sanitarium Up n Go’s were confiscated due to the new liquid laws. In the end none of the precautions were necessary as the meals on Qantas were pretty good.

Dinner – Salad with separate dressing, runner beans, rice and chicken, four tasteless corn thins with margarine and jam.

Snack bag – Apple and Gluten Free Muesli bar

Breakfast - Baked beans, boiled potatoes, mushrooms, tomatoes, fruit salad and more of those corn thins.

American Airlines Los Angeles/Dallas/San Jose
Nothing, she ate her own Muesli Bars and Sheridan and I paid $5 for a bag of trail mix!

The lounges:-

Qantas Club (Melbourne) – Juice, pears or fruit salad was all she could eat.

Admirals Club (Los Angeles) – Plain chips…which you had to pay for.