Monday, January 17, 2011

Costa Rica/Panama, Part I


No. We did not go zip-lining. Curiously, that was the first question everyone asked when they heard that we were going to Costa Rica. I had never heard of zip-lining, but it sounded like fun—sailing through the rain forest canopy on a wire strung from pillar to pole. But no, this was not included on our National Geographic/Smithsonian tour. We did, though, many other things, all of which added up to a wonderful, often thrilling week-long trip. As I mentioned on The Buddha Diaries, online access was both intermittent and expensive, so I chose instead to make notes along the way and write down as much as I could recall on our return. This, then, for anyone who might be interested, is the travel log for our Costa Rica/Panama adventure.

Friday, January 7, 2011 was Ellie’s birthday. A big one. I won’t mention the number, but it was noteworthy—and it was for this reason we had planned this special trip. We had considered other options, some too costly, others too time-consuming, others unappealing for the weather factor; we did want to be warm. We stumbled upon the Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic site, were happy, later, to have done so. The organization did an excellent job throughout.

We chose to arrive a day early for the trip, and spend the night in San Jose, Costa Rica. Up at 4:30 AM, Pacific time, in order to get to the airport for an early flight to Miami. (Emily, our trusty assistant, had crept into the guest room late the night before, so that we would not have to leave poor George bewildered by this early morning abandonment.) An easy flight, with ample time to make our Costa Rica-bound connection, bringing us into San Jose late afternoon—too late for the trek from our airport hotel into the city, but early enough to check in and rest up a bit before heading out to the hotel restaurant for a birthday celebration dinner.


Saturday, January 8

With enough time on our hands, we took a taxi ride into the city Saturday morning. Our driver dropped us off outside the Gran Hotel...

... with a promise to return to pick us up shortly after noon. Breakfast on the fifth floor of the Gran Hotel was a desultory affair, with cold coffee, tasteless fruit, awful, dried-out eggs and—was it?—toast. All for a mere $34. Not to be recommended. We would have done much better to be patient enough to find a local coffee shop, but we were hungry and a bit disoriented. We took what seemed to be the easy course.

We spent a while, after breakfast, orienting ourselves in the downtown area. It seemed a bit cheerless, somehow, for a Saturday morning; the weather was remarkably drab, but it did warm up later in the morning—and, with the sun, the crowds arrived to fill the main plaza with the buzz of life. We did a bit of necessary shopping and stopped by the cathedral for a visit. A fine, open space, surprisingly plain but for an elaborate painting up behind the altar...

Then on to the “Gold Museum,” the Museo de Oro, which we had been told should not be missed. Indeed it should not. The Museum houses an incredible collection of Pre-Columbian gold artifacts, magnificently displayed, with useful information about their history and the process of their creation.



The sometimes intricate design and the immaculate fabrication of these objects is all the more impressive when you keep in mind that they were created centuries ago by people who lacked the kind of technology we have today. These are the kind of art works that bedazzle the mind and make the heart soar with wonder at the human capacity to create such beauty with such small means at their disposal.

Good for his word, our taxi driver was waiting for us at the appointed time and place, and we drove back to the hotel to pick up our bags and thence on to the airport where our tour was due to start. Our guide on the two-hour bus drive to the coast was Margrit Ulrich...

... a Costa Rica-born naturalist overflowing with both energy and knowledge of the ecology of her country. With a brief stop at a roadside coffee- and souvenir-stand...

... (excellent Costa Rican coffee; and I bought a nicely-carved wooden frog, whose back you can stroke with a small stick to produce a startlingly life-like croak!) we drove through the gorgeous, lushly foliated green hillsides (the climate here. Margrit informed us, is “wet” and “wetter,”) past villages whose houses, I noted, were uniformly roofed—and sometimes sided—with corrugated iron; a hardy, inexpensive material which provides good and lasting protection against the constant battering of both sun and rain...

If you look closely here, you'll find a couple of well-camouflaged crocodiles basking in the sun. Picture taken from the bus, at slow speed:

What a contrast with the generic, country club architecture and manicured lawns we found in the expatriate enclave...

... by the shoreline where our ship, the Sea Lion, awaited us dockside!

We were welcomed warmly aboard by the crew and escorted to our cabins, where our bags were shortly delivered to our doorstep. Our abode for the week was tiny, as was to be expected, with two narrow cots, a sink, a single closet, and a combination toilet and shower. We were perfectly comfortable, but soon found that the organization of one’s belongings is infinitely harder—and more important!—in a confined space than in a larger one. We were constantly losing things and searching for them…

A greeting from our captain, before dinner, with a champagne reception, and introductions to the several people who were to be our guides and teachers—an attractive group of young people, all of whom shared a passion for the natural environment, as well as for its conservation at a time when it is much needed. Such people would give heart, surely, to those with growing pessimism for the future of our planet. I’d be happy leaving it in their hands.

An excellent dinner at a table shared with the doctor who was to watch out for us during our cruise, and with his brother—both practicing Mormons who have put in missionary time throughout the world. Readers of The Buddha Diaries will know that I have my doubts about religions of all kinds, including—despite my ignorance!—of this particular branch of Christianity. I would learn, in the course of our trip, that there is much we share in common.

To bed in good time after an excellent dinner. (Our chef did an wonderful job all week.) We had set sail in the course of the evening, and the pitching back and forth and side to side provided a challenging, eventually rather pleasant sensation of weightlessness. Or perhaps, to use a more Buddhist term, of “groundlessness.” Over the next several nights, it was to prove a good teaching about those assumptions we make about the solidity of our physical presence in the world. To be in constant motion in the grip of forces beyond our power to control is to be reminded, constantly, of the impermanence that characterizes our existence. Everything shifts, everything changes. Even the solid ground we think we stand on can disappear from under us and leave us… well, at sea.


Sunday, January 9

Yoga at six-thirty on the sun deck—the third story of our three-story floating condo. Our yoga teacher and “Wellness Specialist” was Becky Timbers. (I’ll succumb here to the irresistible: Shiver mine! Or is that old pirate saying too esoteric a British reference here?) Breakfast at seven—an ample buffet of breakfast foods of all kinds, and a change into water transit gear (life jackets, rubber wet shoes for wet landings) ready for an eight o’clock departure on board our Zodiaks.


The Zodiak is a sturdy rubber raft equipped with a powerful outboard motor, of the kind pioneered by the French marine explorer, Jacques Cousteau. We soon got used to the boarding procedures, we well as to the wet landings which involved perching on the side of the craft, swinging the feet over into the shallows by the beach, and wading ashore. We all grew rather fond, I think, of these handy and highly maneuverable little craft.

We landed that Sunday morning at the Manuel Antonio National Park...

... for our first foray into the rain forest. Offered a choice between two hikes, Ellie and I chose what was billed as the harder of the two, the Punta Catedral walk...

It was steep in places, muddy, and booby-trapped with tree roots, but it proved altogether manageable and a delightful introduction to the flora and fauna of this part of the world. The lush green flora reaches everywhere, from undergrowth to the canopy high above. Birds call and sing, butterflies and moths flit by, leaf-cutter and other species of ants scurry in unending lines across the path. And imagine the thrill of looking up and spotting a two-toed sloth...

... lodged on the branch of a tall tree, sleeping peacefully through the exclamations of his earth-bound admirers. Our well-informed guide...

... told us all about the eating habits and the behaviors of the sloth, including the distinction between the two-toed and the three-toed varieties. It was on this walk, I think, that Ellie got bitten by an ant...

... or some other creature falling from a tree. We were thankful it was not a scorpion or a deadly spider!

I’m an occasional, awed browser of the pages of National Geographic and other magazines, na├»ve enough to expect to see a pair of macaws and a troop of monkeys in every tree. Not so. The wildlife in the rain forest is hard to spot, well-camouflaged, not eager to provide a spectacle for human eyes, and I soon came to respect the remarkable ability of our guides to see, and point out, what I myself would have entirely missed along the way. Our second hike of the day, the Sloth Valley walk, produced, along with many beautiful trees...

... a single toucan, rather distant toucan sighting...

...a three-toed sloth...

... the glimpse of a howler monkey and, toward the end, a veritable troop of Capuchin, or white-faced monkeys near the beach....

This particular gang...

... seemed undismayed by the humans who had turned out in surprisingly large numbers for a Sunday at the beach in this beautiful national park.

We were back on board at noon, in time for a shower before lunch. We needed it. Walking in the rain forest, we had by now discovered, is a sweaty business. It’s not the heat so much (in the 80s) as the humidity. It’s a climate in which everything feels sticky most of the time.

After lunch, passengers and crew assembled in the lounge for an abandon ship drill. Quite a chuckle, to watch all us landlubbers struggling with our cumbersome orange rescue gear...

Later in the afternoon, after showing up dutifully on the sundeck to pick up our snorkeling equipment for use a little later in the week, we were treated to a fine slide show and lecture about sloths and their relatives by Patricia Hostiuck, the Smithsonian Journeys lecturer who was accompanying us. The passion, the knowledge—and the pleasant humor—of our guiding staff are a greatly pleasurable addition to our tropical experience.

Ellie added a massage from Becky to her birthday treat, sacrificing not only a part of Patty’s lecture but also, a bit later, the magnificent display of a huge school of dolphins...

in the setting sun...

She joined me on deck in time, though, for a visit to the bridge, where we were impressed not only with the remarkable assemblage of computer equipment used to navigate the Sea Lion, but also with the spectacular view from this vantage point out over the ocean ahead of us.


1 comment:

mandt said...

...Always enjoy your adventures! Hope Ellie had a substantial and happy Birthday, that you are both well.