The bull always wins

On my last morning in Brussels, my friend Anouk’s mum asked me what my plans were for the upcoming months.  I said that I was planning on going to Costa Rica and Colombia on my way back to Brussels, and Anouk—henceforth ‘the Dutchie’—said she’d like to go to Costa Rica.  I asked her why didn’t she come with?—and now, we’re in Costa Rica.  Specifically, I’m sitting on the bed watching the tropical rain on the jungle, out of our full-width window in Monteverde.  But we’ll get to that.

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July 26 lasted far longer than it really had any right to.  It began when my alarm went off at 04:30am, in Melbourne, Australia.  It then continued as I boarded my flight to LA at 9am, and continued continuing on as I crossed the international date line at around midnight Australia time.  Somebody else can do the math, but I’m calling the 26th a 48-hour day.

I landed in LA at around 6am local time, then going through customs (ugh), and boarding another flight, to Houston Texas.  Anouk, flying from the opposite direction, had already landed—and so naturally we headed straight for cocktails in the airport while awaiting the last leg of flights.

Finally, we flew into Liberia, in the north of Costa Rica, where my jeans—suitable for the early hours of a Melbourne winter—were massive overkill for the humid, sticky evening.  And then I got to use my (read: mangle my) Spanish!  First in customs, and then with the driver, who was waiting to take us to our hostel (Hostel Dodero, ~$13USD a night for a private room).  Jose, as just about every guy we’ve met so far is called, told us that we’d come to Liberia at the right time, as there was a festival going on that celebrated its independence.  To be fair, though, after 30ish hours of travel, bed was looking far more likely…!

At long last, a day that wasn’t July 26 dawned, and it was time to start exploring.  After wandering around and applying some apparently ineffective map-reading skills for a while, we found ourselves at a hacienda-style and very fancy lodge, traipsing into its central courtyard.  Our coffee spot (well, my coffee spot) for the morning had been discovered.

This particular place also had a brilliant map of Liberia and Costa Rica, so we grabbed a copy and started drawing all over it, marking on the places that people had recommended we visit.  That was about enough work for the morning, though, so we found a beauty parlour, because after that much flying, who doesn’t deserve a massage?!?  While Anouk was getting hers, I went in search of water, and I had the most ridiculous Costa Rican pick-up to date (as after all, it’s a constant barrage).  This guy as I was crossing the courtyard yells out “Hola!  Baby!  BABY!!!!!”.  It reminded me as nothing so much as this scene from Hot Rod:

Next up we headed for the place where the festival was being held, traipsing down the street.  We passed a gentleman selling hats and things at one point, and after he noticed us, announced on his megaphone in Spanish “LOOK AT THE TOURISTS!!!”.  Monkey at a zoo, much?

On the way to the fairground, I happened to see something I’d previously only encountered in pop culture: a Walmart.  My very first Walmart!!  It turns out, they’re real.

Finally we made it to the fair ground, only to find that it was essentially empty but for us—it turns out that the middle of the afternoon on a work-day isn’t that great for attendance.  But by this stage we were fairly ravenous, so wandered around looking for something vegetarian for me to eat, finally winding up at a tent which served traditional Costa Rican casados.  I had basically a big plate of rice, beans, fruit, salad, and plantain, and this delicious green concoction of some kind (I literally said to the lady that I’d have what the person what the person was having, minus the meat, and “a cup of green, please”.)  Anouk had pretty much the same, but significantly meatier (which in no way contrasted with the way she’d just been fawning over some calves at the fair), and with a lot less green.

After taking a look at all the animals, including some big white cows with saggy pug necks and huge floppy rabbit ears, we decided it was time to make homage to global capitalist forces, and visit our exploitative overlords at Walmart.  Also, we had time to kill, as there would be a bull-riding event—but not til the evening.

In Walmart, I saw some jelly with fruit in it that I just had to have, which led in turn to an extended mission trying to find and buy a single spoon.  I mean, I guess it’s not the most epic travel adventure I’ve ever been part of…!

We got back to the fair at around 18:25, with the bull riding due to start at 19:00.  Of course, what we hadn’t taken into account (and probably wouldn’t have in either event, given how tired we were) was that we were operating with Costa Rican units of time, here.  So while we sat and waited in the arena pretty much immediately, 19:00 came and went, with the stadium still mostly empty, and no bulls to speak of.  At around 19:45, some horse riders came out and started prancing around; at around 20:30 they started competing by trying to go as quickly around barrels as they could.  I kept asking Anouk questions, like “why are the horses’ tails so short”, which I felt was fair—and after a few of these, she turned to me and asked with a tone of complete astonishment, “have you never been to a rodeo before?!?!”—as if going to a rodeo was a perfectly normal thing to do.

The horses were pretty cool, though I must say, there was one stage in the competition when an 8yo fell off his horse going around a barrel and got a bit trampled.  It was awful.  He was okay, but my god, totally horrendous thing to see.  (The Dutchie would like me to add that the sport in question is called barrel racing.  How literal.  Did an Australian name it, or something?!)

At perhaps 20:45—yes, some serious sunk cost fallacy had kicked in—the bull riders appeared, and underwent a lengthy rider-by-rider introduction.  Just ride the damn bulls already!  Meanwhile, videos of previous bull riding events were showing on-screen, and I was feeling less and less convinced by the idea.  Anouk pointed out that even if the bulls are…bullied…in the end, the rider gets thrown off: the bull always wins.

Finally, the big video screens above the ground showed a bull rider getting ready on the bull, for maybe 10-15 minutes.  Then he decided to get up, and get off the bull, and another one replaced him, and then warmed up the bull again.  Again.

Finally (part dos), the first bull was ridden.  I’d never seen it before, and couldn’t help but think of what the taxi driver had said the previous evening—that in Costa Rica, they just ride the bulls, not fight them like in Spain, as the latter was inhumane.  To be honest, I wasn’t at all impressed.  While I’ll grant that seeing the second bull-rider (we stayed for three) stay on rendered him about 1000x more attractive, It was ghastly watching them ‘warm up’ the bull by taunting it, making it feel trapped and controlled, and then seeing the bull being forced back into the gate against its will after it had all happened.  I don’t see how anybody could call it humane.  Primal, maybe—but not anything I could possibly condone.

By this point, it was definitely bedtime, and so we headed to the front of the fairground to try to grab a bus.  I asked a girl who was waiting at the stop if she knew when the next bus would be, and she said an hour, mas o menos.  Dios mio, I don’t think so.  One of the ever-present taxi drivers came over, though, and quoted us 3000 colones (around $5.5USD).  3000 colones standing between me and bed stood not a snowball’s chance in Costa Rica.  Day one was officially complete: and day two would see even more adventures.

Tamarindo and the Pacific coast

After another night at Hostel Dodero in Liberia, it was time to get our butts into gear. We decided to start the day off by heading to Llanos del Cortes, around 20 minutes by public bus east of the city (with the word ‘city’ used reasonably loosely). After being dropped more or less in the middle of nowhere, we traipsed into a park, following a rocky then muddy path, and found ourselves at a beautiful waterfall surrounded by rainforest. The water was absolutely divine, and what’s more, you could climb out just near the base of the waterfall and go behind it. I love going behind waterfalls, it makes me feel like i’m in an Enid Blighton ‘adventure’ novel. No pirates or dead smugglers on this occasion, however. Prior to leaving the hostel, the manager had asked whether we’d taken a photo of the map to the ‘hidden’ waterfall in the park, which on reflection, wasn’t that hidden—but we’d not have found it. Basically we crossed a stream and went around the western side of the main fall, shortly finding ourselves at a secluded pool full of fish, and avowedly with a bat cave nearby. It was tranquil; divine. We then continued the trail around and over the top of the waterfall, for some not entirely bad views.

We next headed back to Liberia, because it was time to get our butts on the road. I had a brief nap on a hammock (okay, so getting-our-butts-on-the-road was fairly lax), then we went to catch the bus for our next destination: Tamarindo, on the Pacific Coast. My friend Guillermo had recommended it and the beaches near it, and the ocean is always a win–though it’s a bit funny to be looking back across the Pacific.

The bus ride itself was supposed to take 1.5 hours, so let’s call it 1.5 hours of Costa Rican time. It was hot, sweaty, absolutely packed, and we spent the first half an hour in a traffic jam (Liberia’s population is only something like 60k according to the taxi driver from the first night, but with the festival, there were lots of horses being ridden around the streets). In total, it took ~3 hours to reach the coast–so more like 1.5 units of Costa Rican time, rather than 1.5 hours. Either way, despite the heat and grossness, I quite enjoyed the trip–I kept half nodding off, but then every time I opened my eyes again, I’d see something awesome: beautiful vistas, hills, stunning skies, and a freaking monkey walking along a tree. Yay for monkeys!!!

Arriving in Tamarindo, we walked to our (super) hostel Blue Trailz, just by the beach. It had friendly staff, air con, and hot water in the showers (which the Dutchie is particularly keen on…!). On the way, there was a lot of hassling. I think my favourite hassle-age in Tamarindo was a guy who goes, “verrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr-rrrrrr-rrrrrrrrrrrrrr-yyyyyyyyy beautiful,” then poking himself aggressively in the chest and stressing, “BOYFRIEND!”. Then again, there was another time that some guys were going past in their car, say “hola ladies, how are you?”. Anouk replied with “great, thanks,” while I went for “eat a dick”. I guess people handle things differently. Having people hit on your (and/or offer a taxi) every few metres down the length of the street is somewhat annoying, at times…

The following morning, we went on an estuary tour, which was fine. Overpriced tbh. We saw some herons, some mangroves (but I mean, i’ve done mangroves, in NZ, Darwin, Brunei…), some tiny crocodiles (by Australian standards), some sleepy howler monkeys, and termites. All the same, it was nice to be on the water, at least. By this point the Dutchie had a headache, so we went to get her curative sushi before heading to the beach for a quick dip. That night we went out for dinner (it was my bday), and I was crashing sooooooooooooooooooo haaaaaaaaard. Given it was ladies’ night at a couple of the bars, we forced ourselves to at least go out for one drink, incidentally ending up at a bar where we were literally the only girls. Then again, it is a surf town, and at least we had a swing by the beach.

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend Tamarindo. It’s a bit of an American enclave, with the predators that match that, the prices that match that, and not that much to do affordably. If you had a car so could visit the nearby beaches, or if you’re a keen surfer, then maybe. Or, I guess, if you want to go party to Western music with in a veritable cock-fest of American guys. But pass.

On that note, when we were asking the lady in the hostel for help with directions, she looks at us and goes, “oh you two look like you want to meet people, I mean maybe,”—seems she’d mistaken us for trashpackers. Once we assured her that we were more on the anti-gross trashiness and pro-nature as it’s probably possible to be, there was a bit of backtracking!

Our Tamarindo adventure was done, and the next day we would be heading west to Monteverde.

Santa Elena

Our second morning in Tamarindo saw us getting up ridiculously early (though, spoilers, earlier mornings were quickly to come). The lady at the desk had shown us a timetable which suggested that there was a direct local bus from Tamarindo to Barranca, to change and go up to Monteverde, at seven am. It would cost around 6000 colones (~11USD) and take 7.5 hours (in Costa Rican time). The only other option was an actually direct shuttle, which would still take 5.45 hours and cost 44USD. What even is that.

So, here we were, waiting for the local bus. It didn’t seem to be arriving, and given we were at a terminal stop, this was somewhat alarming. At around ten or a quarter past 7, a bus pulled up, and so I jumped on and asked if they stopped at Barranca. The guy said no. I then asked if there even was a direct bus to Barranca from Tamarindo, and he said no—but he could take us to Santa Cruz, and we would be able to catch another bus from there. Good enough.

An hour later, we were at Santa Cruz, and we were lucky to have a bus headed for San Jose right next to us, which would be stopping at Barranca. After some confusion and quite a bit of changing-of-seats, we found ourselves at the back, in front of a very friendly Costa Rican guy (Tico) who lives in Tamarindo. He and I had a good old chat, and he told us a bit about the country—how Tamarindo had changed, partly because of the massive influx of refugees from other states: Venezuela, Argentina, Colombia. He described the local situation as being somewhat like the crisis of Syrian refugees in a way: people from those countries are flying to Ecuador, and walking the whole way north to the US. That is a long freaking way—and moreover, Nicaragua has closed its borders. Between it currently being the low season, and the number of desperate people, apparently some of the hassle-iness can be explained. He said that Ticos are quickly becoming a minority, and also that he’s worried that the country is becoming more materialistic, which is in turn changing its nature. Either way, he suggested some places for us to visit, and told us to get off the bus early—at somewhere whose name reminded me of sardines—and make our way up to Monteverde from there.

We did just that, and started spreading out our wet washing to dry while we waited…then I went, wait, why are we doing this?, stuck out my thumb, and three seconds later we had a ride.

The couple who picked us up were a lovely pair from San Jose, and the guy had all kinds of useful suggestions of places we could go, which wouldn’t be as ‘tourist enclave’ as Tamarindo, for example. In fact, he stopped in the middle of the road on the way up the mountain to draw on our map for us, so that will be our agenda for the next few days.

With the absolute refusal to accept petrol money, they dropped us off at the door to our hostel (Mountain View), where we had managed to score a private room for USD$12. I was pretty keen on the idea, as after the long flights and a couple of days of bad mattresses, I needed a lying-on-the-floor night: and that would look completely insane in a dorm room. As a bonus, we had our own bathroom, and a full-width window which overlooked the jungle. Also, we had managed to arrive in just 4 hours, rather than 7.5, and for only 3000 colones (~USD5.5). Costa Rican time worked in our favour!

The hostel’s apparent proprietor was a 17yo Costa Rican guy from the Caribbean coast, who spoke with a slow susurrus and who was named after Boris Yeltsin. Needless to say, I did a bit of a double-take at that. I don’t exactly understand how he look Costa Rican but have Russian parents, but whatever—he wants to do a language exchange to recover his Russian, so I’m putting him in contact with some of my former Russian students who are now learning Spanish. He was super nice to us during our stay, letting us do things for free etc, and helping me with my Spanish, so that definitely deserves some good karma.

Our time in Monteverde—or, more accurately, Santa Elena town—was action-packed. Since we’d arrived so much earlier than anticipated, and hadn’t lost a day to travel, we were able to get straight amongst it that afternoon, and we immediately booked a shuttle up to Santa Elena Reserve. I’d read that we didn’t need a guide for this national park, though we still had to pay through the nose for entry, and we had two or so hours to explore before the last shuttle bus back down for the day.

We did a first trail, ‘Encantado’, which was supposed to take 2.5 hours—but took us around 35 minutes. So we took a look at the map, as we still had around an hour and ten minutes left until the shuttle. There was one trail, Caño Negro (black canyon—how foreboding and awesome is that name), which was supposed to take 4.5 hours. So we quartered it, and figured we just about had time.

I infinitely preferred Cãno Negro. Rather than having a proper path as per Encantado, Caño Negro was a hiking trail. As we walked, there were the sounds of a million types of birds, cicadas, some kind of chattering animal, and frequent approaching thunder. It became cloudier as we walked—being a cloud forest—and started to get much, much darker. Suddenly the skies broke open, and it started absolutely throwing it down—it was fantastic!! I didn’t have a rain jacket, because my normal one was no longer water-proof, which kind of defies the purpose. So instead I had a slightly broken umbrella, which I used to protect my bag—the rest of me became very soggy indeed. I loved it! It was so loud and encompassing. What beats tropical rain?

Significantly damper, we made it back to the entrance at three minutes to four—just enough time for Anouk to buy some postcards, then charge onto the bus.

That evening we pretty much made it back to the hostel, ordered dinner, failed at eating most of the dinner due to exhaustion, and crashed—we were to have a 5:30am start the next day.

Monteverde

Waking up fiendishly early, we made ourselves ready to catch a bus up to Monteverde at 06:15. It’s possible to get a tour which picks you up from in town and takes you up, but they’re $100+. No, thank you! As it was, we ended up on the same bus as the local guides and national park staff, who were making their way up to work. The park itself didn’t open until 7am, so we were kicking around for bit, in the process missing seeing a jaguar by about 3 seconds (we were standing in exactly the wrong spot to see it). Grrrgh (as the jaguar would say).

We paid our park entry ($14) and for a guide ($17), which was very firmly recommended by the internet. In the end, it was only the Dutchie and I waiting, so at 7:30 we set off with our guide—and, in fact, a second guide, who was in training. They were both avid ‘birders’, which was quietly hilarious. At one point we saw what is apparently a very rare bird in Monteverde, and the main guide was overcome with emotion—he was tearing up, goosebumped, and had to take a few minutes to collect himself after seeing it. We mainly learned about a few trees, e.g. fig trees, which create some dramatic exoskeletons, and birds, and we saw a female quetzal (though sadly not one of the bright blue males). Anouk wasn’t a huge fan because she’s not into birds, and I’m not especially into them either, but it was very touching to see the guy completely lose it over a little brown feathery thing.

Post-tour, we hitched back down to our hostel, ready for the next trip: we were to be picked up to go to the Selvatura hanging bridges, which is another of the ‘must-dos’ in Monteverde. A lot of people go there to do the zip-lining through the forest canopy, but they may or may not be the worst. As you’re walking through the jungle, you just hear the squeal of the zipline and the yells of idiotic tourists, scaring away all the animals. Needless to say, we didn’t want to contribute to that. The hanging bridges, however, were lovely: they’re built very high up, so that you’re amongst the jungle’s canopy, rather than down on the ground. They give some brilliant views of the trees and the flowers in them, and I had a lovely time taking photo of what probably felt to the Dutchie like every single flower or interesting plant I saw… 🙂

We were again on a tight time-line, so we jumped on the 1pm bus back down from the hanging bridges, making it to our hostel in time to catch the jeep-boat-jeep to La Fortuna. To get there, you have two options: head to San José and then north again, meaning a full day of travel; or pay $25 to make it around 3 hours, with a jeep bus to Lake Arenal, a boat across the lake, and then another bus to your accommodation. I was nodding off for a lot of the first ride, but it seemed like nice scenery, and we were surrounded by another dramatic storm, which essentially rendered the muddy roads into small rivers. Driving in Costa Rica must get exciting, at times…!

After what was a looooooong, strangely successful in defeating-Costa-Rican-units-of-time kind of day, we made it to La Fortuna, where we stayed at Arenal Backpackers’ Resort. We were planning on having a rest day the following day, so wanted somewhere we could chill (though, unsurprisingly, we saw yet another change of plans…!). We ate at the hostel and played a game of cards, the rules for which Anouk tried to explain to me, but I was so tired that I was incoherent. She said it’s lucky she knows that normally I have a brain…!

La Fortuna

Our initial plan for La Fortuna was to take a rest day, before checking out Arenal volcano the following day then heading to San José. However, that didn’t take into account that it was in no way possible: the last bus to San José leaves at 4pm, which we wouldn’t be able to make. Instead, I decided to book a trip up Arenal for day 1 in La Fortuna, and the Dutchie decided to join in.

Despite what the posts of the past few days may indicate, i’m not actually a big fan of tours.  Particularly tours with lots of people, and PARTICULARLY where those people are loud, inconsiderate trashpackers.  However, the ‘two volcano tour’, at USD55 per head, was going to be far cheaper than trying to get to and from the volcanoes and hot springs ourselves.

Our first night in La Fortuna was exceptionally unpleasant.  We were in a 6-bed room with four Frenchies, who were col-oss-al douchebags.  I’m personally most pissed about one of the girls turning off the air-con: it must have been around 40 degrees and 80% humidity in the room, which was absolutely impossible.  The Dutchie is most pissed that one of the other girls decided to unplug Anouk’s phone and things so that the French girl could use Anouk’s adaptor plug without asking. Also, their shit was absolutely everywhere.  (As I’m writing this, we’re on a bus from San José to Puerto Viejo, and the Dutchie repeated the joke that “no wonder Brexit happened–they just wanted to get away from the French!”).  The hostel guy who checked on our air con was just as confused as I was, and they were super-nice about moving us into a better room that evening.

Anyway, the volcano tour didn’t start until 9am, which was a thoroughly leisurely start to the day: it even enabled coffee!  We along with around 25 others were picked up in a small bus and taken to the foot of the eastern flank of Arenal volcano.  After being briefed a good five times on the plan for the day, we set off with our two guides, Augosto and ?Salezir?.  Anouk and I carried along at the front, until the second quick stop.  At this point Salezir (he had a really long very Spanish name, so he’s going to have to forgive me for getting it entirely wrong) asked the rest of the group to wait, but they carried on instead, so we got a bit of a private chat about banana spiders and the ‘piano bird’ we could see (pajaro de piano, so named because its wings look like the keys of a piano.).  He took his sweet time giving us as much information as he could, obviously upset that the others hadn’t listened to him, and so we learned that the lake we were presently looking at had been formed via lava flow, when the molten rock cut off the flow of an existing river.

We carried on and Augosto joined us, as he’d gone off to collect two late-comers.  He then took the lead in taking us up towards Arenal’s volcanic scree fields, with alot of clambering and slipping on mud on the way.  We were lucky to see and be followed by a big group of spider monkeys (monos arañas), one of the three kinds of monkey in the area.  We also saw some jaguar scratchings, and those of another big (albeit smaller) cat.

Once we reached the scree field, the view was spectacular, encompassing the volcano itself (which, it has to be said, is super-volcano-y), and down through the valley.  When Arenal last exploded, in 1968, the resultant toxic cloud took out the town sitting on one of its flanks, while La Fortuna, on the other side, survived.  Hence its name, as the fortunate survivor.

At this point a volcano selfie seemed appropriate, so Anouk and I were making our way to a suitable rock, when I suddenly forgot how walking works.  I instead threw myself at the ground, in some kind of slow motion, ending up losing maybe a quarter of the skin on the side of my thigh, grazing my ankle, elbow, and rib cage, and getting a colossal bruise on my ass in the process.  Saved my phone, though, so that’s a win. Plus, it looked like I’d fought off a jaguar: totally badass.

I actually didn’t realise I was bleeding until Anouk told me to hold still, as she was picking bits of dirt out of me; she then quickly stopped, with an “oh, GROSS”, realising she was also navigating bits of skin that were hanging off me.  I gave it a wash, though, and it was fine.  I assured everyone that I was okay–and a few days later, I still am, albeit with some nice bruises developing–and I heard someone mutter about the ridiculousness of Australians.

We next made it back down the hill to have lunch, whereupon one of the guys decided to break out a portable speaker and blast some music–because who’d rather enjoy the sounds of the jungle, right?!  Another guy was preening himself prior to swinging using a rope into the lake.  Apparently he’s a Dutch TV actor who spent all of ten seconds as a backup dancer on Magic Mike, oh and would you like to hear about his exercise regime?

Post-lunch we saw a cool little frog, which a local picked up to show us–and then naturally, the trashpackers all started grabbing and holding him.  I mean, show some respect for the little creature–and the fact that they all had sunscreen and bug spray on the skin with which they were handling the creature is very dangerous for it.  Come to think of it, the previous day a bunch of Germans (and I mention the nationality because German tourists are often some of the most respectful) on the hanging bridge walk had been pulling branches and lianas out of trees, damaging the rainforest.  Who ARE these people?!

Once more at our starting point, we piled into the bus and were driven to another flank of the volcano, which unlike the first, was covered in verdure.  Our first stop on the new walk was a waterfall, Catarata del Dantas, which was astonishingly beautiful.  It was around 12 metres, overflowing, surrounded by moss, and air of the basin itself was laden with rainbows.  Augosto told us it was possible to go behind this waterfall, too, so we got straight in the water and started feeling our way around the wall.  I made it okay but Anouk was struggling a bit, and the guys kept clambering around her, which wasn’t very impressive.  At least it gave her the chance to tie on her bikini more tightly, I suppose!  Luckily, as I was first in, I had plenty of time to quickly fix things up before anyone else arrived.

Once I’d gone back to get Anouk and she’d been behind the fall as well, we scampered out to go and get dressed, so that we would be ready to leave for our next stop.  This was a hanging bridge, much more tempestuous than those of the day before.  We then wended along a road surrounded by rainbow eucalypts, stopping for an amazing view of Arenal and then a brief talk about its sister volcano, Chato.  It was then time to catch the sunset, seeing some FREAKING TOUCANS on the way, before heading to the hot springs for some mud masks, drinks, and relaxation.  I was being careful of my leg so didn’t want to move much, and ended up talking to a nice Chilean guy who will shortly be moving to Australia.  Anouk, meanwhile, found a pool with some other Dutchies (including our actor friend)  Accompanying dickheads aside, it was a great day.

When we got back to the hostel at around 19:30, I have to confess that I had the same dinner as the previous evening: chips slathered with fresh vegies, beans, and so many types of cheese.  Then again, I feel like I deserved it.