Central America is the most ALIVE place I have ever set foot in. The jungles and cloud forests of Costa Rica were teeming with all kinds of green things, insects that sang us to sleep at night, wildlife galore, and plants that grow on plants that grow on plants – so many different species covered every tree all the way up to the top of the canopy. It’s just amazing. And needless to say I’ve taken LOTS of great photos.
After Envision, we went with a friend from Mendo, Miken, to his dad’s organic farm, Earth Rose Farm, in the hills outside of San Isidro. We took a couple bus rides out to the farm, climbing up up up narrow and steep roads that don’t seem fit for any car, much less huge buses, then met Miken’s dad Maji and he took our bags up the steepest road I have ever seen while we walked. The views from the farm are simply breathtaking, including a peek at Chirripo, Costa Rica’s highest mountain, in the mornings before the clouds rose to hide it. We stayed at Earth Rose for several days in their volunteer house, helped on the farm and house, met other volunteers and hung out with our amazing host family. We got to see where chocolate comes from! We harvested cacao pods and peeled the dry beans and got to try raw cacao, yum! We harvested oranges and sour mandarins and juiced them each day, harvested fresh bananas and made banana bread, helped clear an old garden area for use, carried big sticks up the hill for the greenhouse (and Ruben helped the Tico workers build a greenhouse frame), and hiked around the property and up to a viewpoint for the sunset and sunrise. We even got to visit a gorgeous waterfall and swimming hole in the jungle to cool off after work. The farm was beautiful and it was fun to be a part of the magic of the land and the generous souls who tended it. Here’s an old video I found on YouTube that partially captures the character of Maji and the farm:
We left the farm after a few days of helping out and being a part of the family and got on a bus to San Isidro, then another to San Jose, then another to Atenas for the night, because we couldn’t go directly to Monteverde without going through the chaos of San Jose. We stayed with James’s dad’s friend Jackie in Atenas and headed out for San Jose and then Monteverde the next morning.
Monteverde is a beautiful cloud forest reserve in northern Costa Rica. I had been reading about it in my guidebook and it is the place I was most excited to see in Costa Rica. The bus ride was once again scenic and beautiful as we climbed higher and higher into the cloud forest on increasingly sketchy and steep dirt roads. We finally got into the town of Santa Elena, near the reserve, and checked into the hostel we’d reserved the night before from Atenas. It was a cute mountain town and the hostel was lively and friendly. We were exhausted and had lots to see in the next few days so we went out to eat at a delicious local restaurant and had casados (set meals of typical local food like gallo pinto) and went to bed.
In Santa Elena we first visited the cloud forest reserve by the same name as the town. Reserva Santa Elena was a remote and uncrowded forested preserve with well-maintained trails, beautiful views, and so many plants! It’s amazing how much life is packed into the cloud forests: bromeliads, ferns, lichens, moss, vines, and orchids grow all over every nook & cranny of the trees. Beautiful strangler figs that look like a cord of tangled vines tower over prehistoric looking trees, shrubs, vines, and plants of all kinds. Fog and clouds cling to the canopy and along ridges. We hiked a nice loop through the park, taking in the cloud forest beauty and spotting all kinds of interesting plants and insects. We got to climb up a lookout tower along the trail and see the canopy close up. At the very top, we caught a glimpse of the beautiful towering Volcan Arenal. Wow. Just wow. We found a tree with long vines to Tarzan swing on and had a blast exploring the reserve, we felt like we had it almost to ourselves.
After Reserva Santa Elena, we went back into town and went to an orchid garden, where we were handed magnifying glasses so we could inspect the orchids up close, most of which were TINY and tucked into all kinds of crevices of the trees in the garden. We got to see the smallest orchid species in the world – so small it was almost microscopic, and SO CUTE! I had no idea orchids came in such variety. We went out to a fancy meal and visited a frog pond that evening, where we checked out nocturnal frogs and toads with flashlights.
The next morning we were up early to catch the shuttle to Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. It ended up being my favorite place of the trip so far: so alive and green and gorgeous! We hiked all through the park for 4 or 5 hours, hiking up to a lookout point where we could barely see the view because of the clouds hugging the ridge tops and down to a beautiful little waterfall. We got to cross a huge suspension bridge over the canopy, spotting orchids, birds, and wildlife the entire time. We saw a coati, toucan, several small birds, butterflies, hummingbirds, and even a large rodent of some kind. It was slightly more crowded than Santa Elena, but simply magical. We met the most amazing strangler fig and stopped to hug and climb it for a while – it was a massive tree that towered like a redwood with branches covered in plants and hanging long vines. It was one of the most amazing trees I’ve ever had the pleasure of hugging!
With sore feet, we headed back to town but weren’t done with our explorations yet. We went to a butterfly garden where we got to see Costa Rican butterflies in all their life stages – from adorable caterpillars to delicate chrysalis to colorful butterfly. We saw see-through glass butterflies, green malachite butterflies, monarchs, swallowtails, owl butterflies, and the famous Blue Morphos in several big greenhouses. They were beautiful! We even got to see a little butterfly action – the mating dance and act. 🙂 Next door was the frog pond, where we returned during the daylight and with a tour guide this time, so we got to see the frogs active during the day and get a closer look at many of them. Frogs are so cute! And there are so many colorful kinds here!
We were quite beat after two full days of exploring, and had one last traditional Costa Rican meal (complete with horchata and a drink made from something called cas, which was delicious) and prepared to head to Managua the next day. To get there, we’d have to play public bus hopscotch for about 6 or 7 hours to reach the border, and then take another bus to Managua. The entire trip took over 12 hours, including a really long stop at the border and 4 different buses.
When we finally arrived in Managua, we were exhausted and hadn’t even had time to eat much of anything in between jumping buses. We hadn’t been able to get a hold of James’s dad all day either, so we weren’t really sure what to do when we got into Managua. The bus ride went by several beautiful volcanoes, the lake, and several villages. It was immediately apparent how much poorer Nicaragua is than Costa Rica. It is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere (after Haiti) and that fact became very obvious as soon as we crossed the border.
When we got in, we borrowed a phone to leave James Sr. a message and then went across the street to an internet cafe to try to contact him via Skype to let him know we had arrived. After a few minutes, James’s dad showed up and surprised us after getting the message, and we were on our way. Except that once we arrived at his house, I realized I’d left my iPhone on the desk in the internet cafe in my haste to get out of there and get to some food. Shit. James and I jumped in a taxi and raced back, only to find the internet cafe closed. He went back the next day and the people working didn’t know anything about the phone, and when we returned again today with James Sr. and his superior Spanish skills, we still didn’t get any leads but left the owner with a number and a note mentioning a reward. I turned my phone on “lost mode” via FindMyiPhone and locked it, but that can’t even go into effect until it gets a network or wifi connection (it was on Airplane mode). The lady we talked to today seemed a little shady and defensive and we didn’t get the best feeling about the conversation. It was very hard to tell if she was being honest but I have pretty much given up hope of finding my phone. It really sucks mostly because all my trip planning info was on it, as well as a very handy currency converter, camera, and Spanish dictionary… but at least it’s insured and I can replace it when I get home. No trip would be complete without some sort of snafu… it could be worse!
Other than losing my phone, Managua has been great so far. We have had some delicious food (went out to Korean food tonight!), met some really nice people, made epic mojitos with Nicaraguan rum, and showed a few people the joys of pod poi, glow hoops, and flow wands. We’ve mostly just been relaxing after a long day of traveling, but we’ve also visited some local markets, found Coleman white gas to spin fire (!!!!!!!!!) and today we volunteered at a bio-intensive farm called Centro Biotensivo en Nicaragua. Today reminded me just how small the world is. The farm we worked on bases its methods on John Jeavons, who is from Willits, in Mendocino county, and whose beyond organic farming methods are used by my favorite local organization back home, Noyo Food Forest. We prepped beds, planted beans, mulched, watered, and toured the garden project, which had just started last year and was already growing an impressive variety of organic crops. Michael, one of the organizers, taught us a lot about biointensive farming and now I can’t wait to get home and work in my garden!
Tonight we went to a yoga class and one of James’s dad’s breathing classes. It was really cool to get to take some classes in mostly Spanish, for one, and I needed that stretch after all the hiking we’ve been doing.
We’re planning on exploring the area and local swimming holes, going to the beach, and exploring the beautiful volcanic islands of Ometepe. Our last couple weeks here will surely fly by quickly!