Costa Rica

Costa Rica.  A country of lush rainforests and unspoiled beaches, of thundering waterfalls and miles of coffee plants.  A place where you come face to face with nature, where you can get up close to wild animals and colorful flowers you’ve only read about in the pages of travel and nature magazines.  The boundless beauty makes it the ideal place for an escape from everyday life.

One may think.

My trip to Costa Rica left me bruised, sunburned, sweaty and sore.  And I learned an important lesson — I am a wimp.  I’m not so good at roughing it.  Big bugs scare me.  I don’t like sharing my room with lizards (especially ones that choose to perch right by the head of the bed).  Bridges that look like they could crumble into the water below right as we’re driving over them are a bit unnerving.  Waves crashing on me while I’m attempting to surf – not so much fun.  And you know what?  I really like air conditioning.

Now that I’m back in my city apartment (with the air conditioning set to a comfortable temperature), I can look back on a trip I really did enjoy.  Here are some of the more memorable moments.

Our first destination was Manuel Antonio.  We spent one morning exploring the national park.  Our guide pointed out all sorts of wildlife you would never be able to see on your own.  We saw bats, birds, frogs, lizards, sloths, leaf cutter ants and crocodiles.

We hiked a short while through the woods and came to one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve seen.  With sparkling blue water and bright white sand, I was ready to jump in with all my clothes on.

One thing that’s pretty neat is the monkeys that roam around. All of a sudden, you’ll hear a rustling in the trees, and a group of monkeys will pass through.

We saw howler monkeys the most frequently.  And if we didn’t see them, we heard them.  They sound like a snarling dog mixed with a growling boar.  It sounds kind of frightening the first time you hear it.

One morning while having breakfast outside at our hotel, a group of capuchin monkeys came through.  They jumped from the roofs to the trees, and had the most expressive faces.  It was so neat being able to get so close to them.

Squirrel monkeys were the most elusive of the three monkeys we saw.  We only saw them once, and it was unfortunately when I didn’t have my camera.  They’re smaller than capuchin monkeys and really cute, with light orange-brown fur.  Google them and you’ll want to get one as a pet, just like I do (though I’m not sure how well they’d do in Miami).

Of course one of my favorite parts of any trip is the food.  By far my favorite meal in Costa Rica was breakfast.  Every day I ordered gallo pinto.  It’s basically day old rice tossed in a pan with black beans, a little cilantro, and a lot of this sauce called “salsa.”  It’s a brown sauce with a tangy and slightly spicy taste — not like the stuff you get at Mexican restaurants.  Gallo pinto comes with scrambled eggs and tortillas.  Add some hot sauce and it’s perfect.  My choice – a hot sauce called “Mean Green Iguana,” which is strangely enough manufactured by a company in north Florida, and can be purchased at Whole Foods.  During my trip I tried a bunch of Iguana hot sauces and they were great.  My taste buds were numb by the end of the trip.

Adventures in Manuel Antonio

If you visit Costa Rica there’s apparently an unwritten rule you’re not allowed to simply enjoy nature by basking in the sun on the beach or by sitting on your covered balcony while a fierce rain storm passes through, listening to the sound of howler monkeys.  No, instead you have to get right in nature’s face, throw yourself fully into the wild and hope you come out unscathed.

I threw myself in, and I came out a bit bruised.

My first adventure: zip lining

This was an activity I really wanted to try before I came to Costa Rica.  I’d heard stories from other people about flying through the canopy for an amazing view of the dense Costa Rican forests.  It wasn’t until I pulled on my gloves, fastened my helmet, and was fitted into the harness that my nerves started getting to me.

We hiked up into the jungle and with each step I tried harder to keep myself from panicking.  Once we got up to the first platform and I saw the wire leading off into the forest, it was no use.

A bit shaky, I stepped onto the platform and pulled myself up on the wire as one of the guides hooked my harness on the wire.  “Listo?” he asked.  “Espero que si!” I responded.  With a deep breath I leaned back, lifted up my feet, and released my extra tight grip on the wire above me.  I couldn’t hear anything above the sound of my heart pounding in my ears.  After about 10 seconds of whizzing by trees I landed safely on the next platform.

With the first trip under my belt, I tried to relax so I could enjoy the second one.  Each ride got easier, and much more fun.  One of the best rides came towards the end.  The platform was way up high above the canopy, and the wire stretched so far you couldn’t see where it came to an end.  By this time I was a pro – I leaned back and let go, sailing above the trees.  During the extra long ride I had plenty of time to take in the amazing view.  At the end of all the rides I felt full of energy and thrilled I had conquered my initial fears.

My second adventure: surfing

I’d like to say I felt as invigorated and alive after surfing as I did after zip lining, but that was not the case.

Just a little background – for the past four years I’ve lived in south Florida, with at most, a 20 minute drive to the ocean.  Yet somehow I’ve never picked up a surfboard.  So it seems only natural I’d travel hundreds of miles away to try surfing.

We started with a lesson on the beach.  The instructor demonstrated paddling on the board, then grabbed the sides of the board and jumped up on both feet.  We were then told to try it.  I should have known surfing wasn’t for me when I hesitated to get down on the board because it was covered in sand (maybe I should have rethought wearing my cute bikini).  After I mastered the jumping up maneuver we headed for the water.

Between the time of us arriving at the beach to actually going in the water, I swear the waves got ten times bigger.

Once we got out towards the waves I started thinking this was a very bad idea. I tried to wait out some of the bigger waves to get a less scary one. When that first big wave came I tried to jump it rather than just duck under – bad idea. I got knocked over and flipped upside down. Once I regained my footing I shot up to the surface. Why did I decide to try surfing again? After getting the water out of my nose, the instructor held the board as I hopped on. After waiting for some less desirable waves to pass (including a couple that crashed on us), the instructor gave me a push and shouted, “stand up!” I tried standing up, and slipped right off the board. I swam back out to him and tried it again. This time, I stood up and stayed up, all the way to the beach. With this newfound confidence I ran back into the water. That confidence started slipping as I got thrown around by more waves. You know what? I really don’t like it when waves crash on me. So a sport where waves crash on you is probably not the best match for me.

I did manage to stand up several more times. One of those times I slipped as I was nearing the beach – I went one way, the board went the other, and somehow hit my inner thigh. Hours later that injury turned into a bruise the size of a melon. Over the next few weeks it went from a lovely shade of deep purple, to black, to blue, to brown, then finally to yellow. And that cute bikini I was wearing? It had a wooden ring in the middle of the top, and one on each side of the bottom. Every time I jumped onto the surfboard . . . well, you get the idea. So I came away from surfing with bruises all over. Not such a great first (and most likely my last), attempt at surfing.

My third (and final) adventure: a snorkeling cruise

Ok, so this is hardly roughing it. We were picked up at our hotel and driven to a dock where we boarded a sailboat with a few other couples, and spent the morning on the water, exploring some of Costa Rica’s beaches and reefs. We sailed alongside a family of whales and got close to birds. We went snorkeling and saw some of the most brightly colored fish and coral I’ve ever seen. Then when we returned to the sailboat we were served freshly grilled fish with rice and beans, which I covered with a hefty sprinkling of Lizano salsa. Now this is definitely my idea of exploring nature!

Think all you want about my lack of a sense of adventure – there was some danger involved.  I decided I didn’t need sunscreen, and came back onshore with probably the worst sunburn I’ve ever had.  My face was peeling and covered in blisters, it was pretty gross – I spent the rest of the trip walking around awkwardly with my hands covering my face.