It’s hard to be amazed as a jungle connoisseur…

What’s about half the size of a hippo, but not aggressive?

Tapir looking for food
A hippo-anteater hybrid: The tapir!

That would be a tapir, and some people might want to punch me in the face if I said I went to the Corcovado rainforest and this was the only thing I thought worth mentioning.

Corcovado National Park is isolated in the southwest corner of Costa Rica and is one of the most biodiverse places in the world. I had read a lot about the park and finally decided it was time to see it for myself.

To get there, you boat through canals on what could pass for the set of Jurassic Park, then hit the open ocean to make a beach landing on one of the few primary rainforests left in the world.

For most any visitor, this would be the trip of a lifetime and I was hoping for a great experience.  But honestly, I’d be pressed to remember much of this visit because I’d done and seen most of it before.

Our visit started out traversing the ocean, which could be an experience in itself. Though I had never been in that much open water in such a small watercraft, I wanted to avoid seasickness, so I daydreamed, studying the coastline for jagged rock formations, to take my mind off the rolling waves. I’d seen many similar coastlines up and down the pacific side of Costa Rica before and this was nothing special.

There was no dock at the beach, so we had to jump in the water barefoot to get to shore. It was an exotic beach with the rainforest right at the edge, but it was familiar to me as it reminded me of the beaches in Manuel Antonio and Samara.

coati running
This is a coati!

Even when we saw a coati looking for food as we approached the ranger station, I didn’t bother taking my camera out. I’d seen these in La Fortuna many times before.

We started hiking and encountered a beautiful group of red scarlet macaws, each with a mate and a few with children. They were having a lively conversation while eating their lunch in the trees and gave us many photo opportunities.

Of course, these things fly all around Jaco and the Carara National Park, all places I’ve been.  This would be the equivalent of taking a picture of a squirrel.

That’s when it hit me. In a way, I’d seen it all. That’s why this trip been so ho-hum despite all the adventure it had taken to get to this point.

I recalled going to other national parks and being intrigued by everything, but Corcovado just couldn’t turn the switch for me. We’d go on to see a spider monkey, sloth, herron and some capuchin monkeys, but it was so “been there, done that” for me.

howler monkey hanging out
No big deal, it’s just a monkey..

I was actually disappointed we didn’t see all four types of monkeys that are in the park. It felt no different from Tortuguero, a national park in northeast Costa Rica I visited two years ago.

The most drama on the trip was me forgetting things and Mother Nature making me pay, like getting sunburned and drenched (only in Costa Rica can you get that combo that quickly) on a 1.5hr hike without a change of clothes.

I’ve been dumb before, and I’ll be dumb again so thank goodness I saw the tapir to have more than just a funny story to laugh about in the future. But even at that, the reality is watching the tapir was as about as exciting as watching a cow graze.

All this is not to say Corcovado isn’t a great place to visit. I just have higher expectations for my forests now that I’ve been living in Costa Rica since 2013.  I can’t believe the non-effect it had on me. A first-time rainforest visitor would fill an entire scrapbook.

I’ve really been spoiled by rainforests though, and they really have to work hard to amaze me. I still have a few parks on my list left to visit, and I hope one of them will spark some excitement.

I now know what guides and rangers must feel like. Our guide spent over an hour tracking the tapir and was noticeably excited when he spotted it.  At least now, he’ll have something to want to talk about at dinner.

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Benefits of Being an Early Riser in Costa Rica

If there is one thing I could do in my sleep, it would probably be driving to the airport.  I don’t do much driving, but when I do it’s usually the 45min trip into the airport to drop someone off or pick them up.  I’ll do it anytime, but in particular I prefer to go early in the morning, the 5am or even 4am departures. I never imagined I’d willing type those words and stand by them, but a lot of things in Costa Rica actually facilitate and benefit the early riser.

One of things I dreaded most about growing up in Wisconsin was waking up in sub zero temperatures in the pitch dark.  I’ll never forget working construction over winter break in college, wearing four layers of clothes and working the first hour of the day in darkness before the sun would even rise.  How could someone will themselves out of their toasty bed at that time? That just goes against human nature. I don’t think any amount of coffee should convince scientists that early rising helps your health under those conditions.

Based on that trauma growing up, I never imagined I would embrace it in Costa Rica.  However, if you remove the temperature variable and give me a little bit of dawn to work with, I’ll make it the most productive moments of my day.  

Honestly, to really get anything done in Costa Rica efficiently, you should really complete it before 8am.  I learned this one day going to solicit internet service. I arrived at 11am and was directed to take a number and waited almost 45 minutes just to talk to someone.  Unfortunately, I was missing a document and was instructed to return the next day. The agent, seeing the look on my face as I glanced over to the line that would surely await me the next day, said the following: “If you can get here before 8am, there is almost no line and we can help you right away.”  Sure enough, the next day I was in and out in less than 10 minutes. I was hooked.

Speedy service was one thing, but there are other enhanced features rising early in Costa Rica.  For one, we can get some amazing sunrises over the mountains and the birds are so pleasant. Even in the city where I live, if you’re up early before the transit soundtrack starts, you’ll hear sweet melodies from a variety of birds in the area.  I have this beautiful yellow breasted bird that arrives every morning on the power line outside my office window just a chirpin’ away. If you live in the country or forest you’re in for a real experience with exposure to crickets, frogs, and infinite birds.  My favorite bird sighting was that of a red scarlet macaw that I saw at 6am.

Daylight is a precious commodity in Costa Rica.  Situated near the equator we only get about 12 hours of daylight and sunrise happens usually by 5:30am.  Even if you sleep in till 8am you feel like you’ve wasted an important part of your day. Especially in the raining season where it might start raining at 2pm and be dreary and cloudy the rest of the day.  Visitors are a little shocked to find out schools start at 7am, but it’s really a good idea to not waste daylight.

Crab in forest
                         Another early riser

I think the best part about getting up early though are the adventures you can have.  When I go on vacation, the best part is being in the habit of getting up early. Just recently I had the opportunity to sleep in a hammock just steps from the beach.  Every morning I had a chance to explore the beach and the nearby forest at its calmest. I paid attention to the crabs scouring the rocks for food. I spotted a squirrel high up in a tree that normally I wouldn’t have been able to spot and I heard the howls from the monkeys off in the distance.  It’s also a huge benefit as the weather is cool and fresh. By 8am you can feel the sun bearing down on you and the humidity begins to suck the energy out of you.

Early rising is much more enhanced in Costa Rica.  I could early rise in other countries, but I wouldn’t be very happy about it.  Here though I can’t seem to lose setting an early alarm. I’ve always wondered why Costa Rica wouldn’t just shift their clocks one hour ahead.  Wouldn’t it be amazing to have daylight till 7pm? When I take Costa Ricans to the United States during the summer, they have all kinds of problems where they don’t eat dinner till 10pm because they are accustomed to eating dinner after the sun sets.  

Needless to say, I don’t drive to the airport in my sleep, despite the early trips.  Our guests are often embarrassed to have us drive them at odd hours, but it’s really preferred.  Whether avoiding traffic, lines, weather or taking advantage of the calmness, wildlife, and sunrises the early riser always wins.  This doesn’t even include the coffee and gallo pinto that are also best enjoyed in the early morning.

turtles coming onshore
                     Rarely seen after 7am

Taking the Scenic Route to Tortuguero

tortuguero boat dock

I swung myself up over the side of the narrow ten passenger boat, that would take me into the unknown or at least to “the lesser known.”  The boat wobbled unevenly as I made my way to my seat and I immediately noted the absence of life jackets and paddles, as well as the beer in the hand of our “captain” as he fired up the engine.  It was 9AM and this was already shaping up to be a ‘Captain Ron’ experience.  He had all his eyes but less teeth than Grampa Simpson. 

It's not that difficult to get there.....
It’s not that difficult to get there…..

In all my time in Costa Rica, I have stuck to visiting places that can be reached by car and maintain some resemblance of civilization.  This time, however, I wanted a little more adventure.  I had always heard about Tortuguero, a small community on the northern Caribbean coast. It was in the middle of nowhere or as the locals say, “the anus of the world”. Therein lies Tortuguero’s appeal: its proximity to the ocean and the surrounding rainforest, and the fact that it is only accessible by plane or boat.  I would soon

realize that just the journey to Tortuguero alone would highlight the trip.

The journey to get to the boat had started in the capital city of San José on paved roads and then continued through a side-winding, hair-raising mountain pass. The route forms a part of a majestic national park, but the scenery is difficult to enjoy when you have to be prepared for landslides, rain, fog, or a broken down vehicle at every turn.

After a couple near misses, we came down the mountain pass and hit the hot and sticky  Caribbean lowlands.  From there the towns became fewer and fewer, the paved road eventually dissipated into gravel, then dirt, and finally, we were at a small boat landing in the middle of a banana plantation.

We pushed off from the boat dock and made our way down a narrow waterway with the rainforest

See the croc?
                                    See the croc?

teeming on all sides, muddy waters, and crocodiles sunning themselves on the shore. The waterway was littered with rocks, trunks, and submerged tree branches. Some of the trunks that had been brought to shore had tribal faces carved into them, almost as if to warn the boaters of their trespassing.  From the incessant Cicada bugs to parakeet canopy chatter, the sounds were amazing…  The only thing not Jurassic about this experience were the missing dinosaurs.

Everything was going well until we had to make a tight pass between two tree trunks.  Our boat was about halfway through when there was a big clunk and the motor killed.  An eerie, dead silence shuddered through the boat. The casual chatter came to an abrupt halt.  We were stopped dead in our tracks, no paddles/lifejackets, and muddy waters with who knows how many predators.   I was recalling the tribal carvings and wondering if this was a trap when I heard a splash.  Our “captain” had just abandoned ship.  Maybe he knew something we didn’t know? 

Instinctively, I was waiting for an ensuing crocodile attack, however, the captain emerged the splash, standing in water that was barely knee deep.  How could this be?  We had just seen Jesus Christ lizards that could run on the surface of the water, but this was unprecedented. Was he an X-men living in exile? He must be on a tree branch or something, I thought, but then he walked right up along side the boat and began washing the place where the clunk had happened.  “I don’t like it when they critique me.” he chuckled, as he passed by on his way to the front of the boat, whereas as if were the routine, he grabbed the front of the boat and pulled us through the rest of the pass.

What could possibly be in that water??
         What could possibly be in that water??

After a while it turned into a guessing game as to how he would navigate the hazards.  I began to notice how he instinctively stayed away from the sandy side of the canal and kept us close to the rocky edge.  You could tell he had some experience, or at least instincts when it came to this waterway.  I’d find out later that the water level was at a record low, and that only suffering one engine killing clunk was actually pretty impressive. 

Shortly after that, we exited the narrow waterway and entered a more traditional river way.  We began to notice scant signs of civilization along the banks which were mostly boat landings surrounded by a few homes on stilts.  We pulled into one of the landings to drop off some passengers and the silence was deafening.  There were no noisy motorcycles, or loud busses that I had grown accustomed to in my town.  There was peace and quiet.  This would continue as we made our

Tiny towns...
                                       Tiny towns…

way to Tortuguero, with the exception of a few single engine fishing boats, we were the only ones making a wake.  The fisherman all used canoes and the most sophisticated ones had small electric motors to drift in and out of the river inlets and marsh areas.

When the captain docked us in Tortuguero, we could all let out a sigh of relief, this officially concluded our adventure for the day.  I cherished that sigh as I knew it would only last a few days until we got back on the boat to journey out of Tortuguero and back to the paved land. 

Tortuguero itself was rather boring in comparison to the arrival.  Here are some pictures from the stay:

IMG_2637
           Like I said, a relatively boring town
IMG_2643
                               Tortuguero beach
IMG_2645
         Night critter in downtown Tortuguero
IMG_2663
                        Main Street
IMG_2686
                  Getting gas for the boat
IMG_2692
        Power lines over the river, only source of                                      electricity for town
IMG_2696
                             Welcome man?
IMG_2665
       When you reach the end of the                                 trail….

Rebel Cattle Herding in Costa Rica

(Note: I really wish I had some pictures to go along with this post.  You’ll have to use your imagination to get an idea as to what was really going on.  Most days I go for a casual walk/run and don’t end up on wild goose chases.)

One of the great things about San Ramon being a fringe town (‘fringe’ being that it is far enough away from the big city to not be plagued by crime and safety issues but close enough to not get bored ex. has a food court, a shopping (s)mall and a movie theater) is that the countryside is not far and a 5 minute walk outside my front door puts me into the rolling foothills amongst sprawling coffee and sugarcane plantations.

It was a lazy Saturday morning and I needed some air so my wife and I decided to journey into the plantations and do a little exploring.  My wife’s uncle had just purchased 2 cows that he had planned to raise as beef cattle.  He had purchased an expensive breed and had proudly brought them to the family farm, nestled in amongst other family farms, forests and some residential homes.  What he hadn’t anticipated was how rebellious they could be.  After locking them into their corral Thursday evening he returned Friday morning to find one missing.

He immediately called my mother in law worried as there was no noticeable damage done to the corral to indicate the cow had forced itself out.  Maybe it had jumped the fence?  Maybe a crime ring looking to satisfy the prime rib black market had come by?  It was all so strange because in either scenario why would there still be one cow left?

With that on our mind our walk through the plantations took on a new objective.  At every clearing we combed the landscape for a lonely cow and every piece of excrement we encountered required in depth examination.  We even had to keep our dog from getting to far ahead of us in order not to disturb any possible footprints.  Despite our efforts we saw no trace of the renegade cow and dejectedly headed to the corral to complete our walk.  As we were approaching there was a neighbor’s sugarcane plantation to our right.  March is prime harvest time for the sugarcane and this field had just been cleared giving us excellent visibility.  I was half-heartedly scanning the field when I saw a head bob right at the edge of the plantation where it meets the forest.  It was almost as if the cow was actually trying to hide itself as the second I paused and focused on her, she froze instantly.

We were still a good 60 yards away and had no way of corralling her so we decided to short way back to the corral and deliver the good news to my wife’s uncle.  When we arrived though we were greeted by a different scenario.  The uncle wasn’t there, the gate to the corral was badly damaged and worst of all there were now no cows in the corral at all.  Turns out we were only saving our uncle from a second major headache as we had found the second cow which everyone to this point had assumed had not escaped.

Just then the uncle came out from the nearby forest cussing up a storm and not even our news seemed to calm him one bit.  He just seemed to snarl and say “Well come on, what are you waiting for, let’s go get the cow!”  If that didn’t tell me I was family now, I don’t know what will.  So off we went the three of us, with two of us having absolutely no experience herding any type of farm animal much less one that was predisposed to run from us.

So the plan seemed pretty simple, we would separate around the cow and then attempt to converge on it and funnel it back towards the corral.  Our first attempt failed as I apparently failed to maintain edge containment.  I thought I was doing a pretty good job but I guess needed to be faster on the edge, and he let me know “CORRA! CORRA!” (Run! Run! explicative, explicative….).  It reminded me of working with my father when I was younger and him getting frustrated with me when I just couldn’t visualize the objective he was after even though it was second nature for him.  I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing at the predicament we were in as I honestly didn’t know what I could have been doing better.  Eventually the cow tired and we were able to get a lasso on her and lead her back to the corral.  Unfortunately we still had the missing cow and a damaged gate.

This is where a picture is worth a thousand words.  Not knowing what to do about the gate but having rope and some wood planks at our disposal we put together the most makeshift gate together you’ll ever see.  I thought I would be in for a treat observing how a Costa Rican cowboy gets by in the wild but we ended up putting up and taking down the temporary gate three times before we found a design that would keep the cow from getting out.  It wasn’t pretty but did the job.  I guess not everything is second nature when it comes to farming.

A few days later the other missing cow magically showed up back at the corral on her own.  I’m not sure if she planned to do this or maybe she just got bored wandering around the farms.  The next day my wife’s uncle took them back to the auction and sold them.  If I had to guess I’d say he’s learned his lesson about this breed and that there might be a very good reason as to why they are more expensive than your average cow.  Luckily, neither cow got injured or stolen while they were out on the town.

Thanks to living in a fringe town my walks are able to cover not just urban areas but also nearby rural zones which can be quite diverse.  I’ll have to be on lookout the next time I go out as you don’t always find the things you are looking for but rather find/discover things when you’re not looking for them.

Exploring (by chance) the Community Center

When I first moved to San Ramon I was an explorer.  I went everywhere walking, running or by bus.  There was a lot to see and do and every neighborhood had its charm.  Nowadays I like to pretend I’ve seen it all which unfortunately means I have fewer experiences like these: 

One day during my first few weeks I lived in San Ramon, I was out jogging around when I made an innocent right turn and proceeded down a deep ravine road to see where my next adventure would take me.  Bystanders on the street gazed at me as I hustled along down the road, like a dog retrieving a stick, and a few of them yelled some words of encouragement.  Feeling more upbeat than a kid on the last day of school I picked up speed on the decent and nearly crashed head on into a big yellow wall just before regathering my footing.  What was with all the barbed wire around the top?  Was this a jail? The immensity of the site puzzled me as it stuck out raw in a neighborhood of residential makeshift homes.

I took note of it and continued my journey a few more blocks when I realized I wasn’t in the San Ramon I knew anymore.  Every house had barbed wire, walls and barking dogs.  Children were in the street, shirtless with no shoes, and old beater cars with souped up stereo systems were taking turns rattling their chassis across the street from one another with pounding reggaeton beats.  The subwoofers had to be worth more than the cars.

This was all fine and dandy except for the way they were looking at me.  It didn’t take too long but I realized I may have made a wrong turn back up the road, that maybe those kind words weren’t encouragement but rather words of warning.  I was alone, in a new neighborhood and I doubt I would have been able to walk past them and come out on the other side without incident.  I quickly faked a side ache and turned to head back up the hill, palms sweaty not knowing if I was being pursued but too scared to look back.  At that moment the big yellow jail doors began to open.  This is only going from bad to worse, I thought. 

Well there was no stopping for me and at the moment the doors opened I caught a glimpse of a playground as I sped by the entrance.  A playground?  Inmates don’t have playgrounds, what could this be?  In a split second I decided my options were better heading towards the playground then trying to outrun whoever might be pursuing me from down the hill.

I entered and saw that in addition to that playground there were soccer fields, basketball courts, reading P1040658rooms, computer rooms and classrooms.  The big barb wired yellow complex was just a cover for a safe haven for the children of the roughest neighborhood San Ramon has to offer. Founded in 2008 and run by a Christian ministry, this community center provides education and spiritual guidance for those in need.

Since then I have volunteered on and off at the center, mostly on playground duty without really poking my nose around too much.  I know that just my presence at the center is a big lift for the kids, even if I don’t always feel so special pushing kids on swings for hours or jumping rope.  Any hours you can keep the kids off the street are hours well spent no matter what you are doing.

That had been my role until I bumped in the center’s coordinator in the street last week and she invited me to come to an open house they were having for the community.  Even though I thought I knew what was happening at the center this would be a good opportunity to go for a visit.  It became clear to me that what you see as a volunteer is quite different from what you see as a parent of a child that uses the center.  This is not just a daycare for when children aren’t at school, this place requires work before you ccmake it to the jungle gym.

The center’s focus is reading and math so therefore everyday when children arrive they must first go to the reading room and read for a certain number of minutes depending on their grade in school.  Those who are too young to read are read to by volunteers.  After that they go to work on math.  It was very interesting to hear that learning the multiplication tables are what they work on the most.  Once they have completed that they are able to go to the playground or stay and work on other homework.  Students enrolled in the center are required to come at least 3 times a week to qualify for year end

parties and activities which is the best thing about their program.  Everything is earned whether a pair of shoes or a pencil eraser.  In a community as rough as this one with a lot of government subsidies it is important for children to earn their keep in order to break the cycle of poverty and value the things they’ve earned. 

It’s amazing how many things I think I know just from the surface but when taking the time and digging deeper there is actually a whole lot more going on then what meets the eye.  Makes me wonder if I should dust off the cross trainers and return to my old trailblazing routes.  I’ve probably missed some things along the way.