Saturday, 31 January 2009

City Culture & Cool Creatures

On the Thursday and Friday of Zoë's parents holiday here we visited San Jose and INBIOParque.

We followed (more or less) the walking tour of San Jose that was suggested in one of our guide books, this allowed us to see the main features of the capital city, including it's numerous parks and plazas, and also to visit a couple of museums.

The National Museum of Costa Rica is a good place to find out about the history of the country, Pre-Colombian and after Spanish colonisation. Entry was relatively inexpensive too ($5). It is housed in an old fortress, still pitted by bullet holes from the civil war, and there are many exhibition rooms, one section with photographs explaining the building's past life, and a very disappointing butterfly garden. Perhaps the beautiful butterflies don't like living in a fort.

The Jade Museum houses the largest collection of jade in the Americas and there are also displays of pre-Colombian pottery and sculpture all of which gives an insight into the lives of the indigenous people of Costa Rica. There is also a gold museum in San Jose which we have visited on a previous occasion. To be honest we preferred the gold museum as there was a bit more to see. The jade museum entry cost $7 per person.

Our own private walking tour ended at the grand Teatro Nacional which was built thanks to a coffee tax in the 19th century when the country's social elite decided the country was lacking a theatre suitable to attract world class performances. We didn't see any world class performances whilst we were there but we did stop in the theatre's lavish cafe for some top class (but pricey) ice-cream and coffee.

On Friday we visited INBIOParque. This is a large park and educational area where you can experience various types of Costa Rican ecosystems, see lots of different plants and a few animals, insects and birds too. We were unsure whether we were going to come here with Zoë's parents, but the unfortunate closure of the La Paz Waterfall Gardens due to the earthquake made up our minds for us. We have been here before and enjoyed the feel of the place, so we were quite happy to revisit. We had a lovely few hours strolling around and as a bonus saw a sloth with its baby moving slowing through the trees. Delightful!

INBIO also has a man-made lake which is inhabited by various wildlife including iguanas, a real favourite of Zoë's.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Flower Power

On the second day that Zoë’s parents were visiting, we went to Sarchí. On a previous visit to Costa Rica, we went to Sarchí on the bus – first taking a bus from Heredia to Alajuela, and then from Alajuela to Sarchí. This time we were afforded the air-conditioned luxury of our hire car.

Sarchí lies 29 km North West of Alajuela, which meant the journey there (along the highway and then through the town of Grecia) took just over an hour (we think … we can’t quite remember). It would probably have taken just under an hour had we not gone round Grecia, with its one way system, twice looking for the signs to Sarchí. Fortunately this gave Zoë’s mum ample opportunity to admire Grecia’s famous metal church.

Sarchí is famous for its hand-painted oxcarts, which are in themselves a symbol of Costa Rica. On arriving in Sarchí we headed for Sarchí Norte and the giant oxcart that is the monumento a carretas (monument to the carts). This is located right in the centre of the town in the square next to the church. The church of Sarchí Norte is, according to one guide book, “one of the most beautiful in the nation and has a vaulted hardwood ceiling and carvings”, and we have to admit that the carvings were quite impressive. However, it is not lime green and it probably does not glow at sunset as one of the other guide books suggested.

After the humungous oxcart, we headed back along the road to Sarchí Sur where we visited the Fábrica de Carretas Joaquín Chaverrí. This has a souvenir store which is appropriately sized in relation to the giant oxcart which was made and painted by one of the former apprentices here. Out the back of the souvenir shop are the workshops where you can see the guys at work during the week.

Lunch was eaten at the restaurant next door, Restaurante Las Carretas. This restaurant really caters for the tour bus crowds, and had most of its tables and the buffet laid out to cater for these. However, near the front of the restaurant are some tables which are not laid out for the tour buses. You get the option of the buffet, or choosing something from their menu. We went for selections from the menu (Zoë was given the menu in Spanish, while everyone else got a copy in English!) and just as we recalled from our previous visit, it was freshly cooked and delicious. Zoë’s parents tried a Guanábana fresco – the fruit was something they had never heard of. It is one of Colin’s favourite drinks here. While we were eating a group of French people came in, and the waiter came to tell us that things were a little complicated … he kept forgetting which language he had to speak to whom!

After lunch and souvenir shopping (we also visited the Plaza de la Artesanía and a couple of other stores in the area) we decided to head for the Else Kientzler Botanical Garden in Sarchí Norte. As we had been on public transport previously we had not made it here before, and as we drove around Sarchí Norte looking for the right road it appeared we might not make it there this time!

Eventually, when we did find it, the front gate was closed so we drove on looking for an alternative entrance. Unable to find one we returned to the closed gate and waited. After a short wait a man appeared and Zoë queried (in her best Spanish of course) whether the garden was open. The man confirmed that it was, opened the gate and pointed us in the right direction. The garden is part of a business that exports ornamental plants and is situated behind all the hubbub of the business itself.

Entrance to the garden cost us $14 each, and we were informed that 11 years previously the seven hectares which it covers were a coffee plantation. Since then they have created a garden with a great diversity of tropical plants.

There were many different sections along the various trails you could walk in the garden including a hibiscus garden, palm garden, heliconia garden, bromeliads, orchids and a succulents garden. Colin especially liked the succulents garden, with all its different cacti, because it reminded him of the Winter Gardens in Aberdeen except that it was all outside! The gardens were bordered by a river on one side, and a water canal on the other, and also included a lake. About 40% of the area has been designed with ramps and paths suitable for wheelchair access, though there are some steep bits as there is a large overall change in height of the garden. There was also a central picnic area and a large children’s play area which looked very adventurous – unfortunately with no child available we didn’t have an excuse to investigate further.

It was a peaceful place, and at the time we visited we were the only visitors! We don’t know whether this was to do with the closed gate or the time of year (not the most flowering of months).

After the gardens it was time to head back to Alajuela, this time via a more scenic route than the highway, where we dropped off Zoë’s parents and went to drop off the hire car. Zoë’s parents had an hour and a half to explore Alajuela by themselves before we met them for dinner at Jalapeños and caught the bus back to Heredia.

Driving in Costa Rica wasn’t as bad as Colin feared. We didn’t come across any crazy drivers, there wasn’t frequent honking of horns, and the only problems we really encountered were with the multitude of one-way systems that exist in the centres of towns here. This was a particular problem in Grecia, where Colin briefly went the wrong way up a one way street and found a policeman on a motorbike heading towards him. The policeman didn’t bat an eyelid. So maybe this is not a rare occurrence here.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Coffee Time

This week we have had the opportunity to be tourists whilst on our Costa Rican adventure. Zoë's parents arrived on Monday (or at least they were supposed to arrive on Monday, but it turned out to be about 1.30am on Tuesday morning, delayed due to snow at Newark Airport) which means that we've had a busy week visiting various tourist attractions. And Colin has had to drive on Costa Rican roads for the first time.

On Tuesday, we visited the Doka Estate, a coffee plantation and wet mill about 10 km north of Alajuela. On a previous visit to Costa Rica we went on the tour at Cafe Britt, which is very local to us (about a 45 minute walk), so we thought we'd see what a different coffee place was like. Coffee has been grown on the Doka Estate since 1919, and run by the Vargas family since 1940. This give the coffee it's name: Tres Generaciones/Three Generations.

As we arrived about midday we decided to have lunch before the tour; tour and lunch combined cost $26 each. This gave Zoë's parents an early opportunity to sample a traditional casado and fresco. The tour was due to start at 1.30pm, but our guide (Carlos) came to get us about 12.45 to tell us that he would start the tour early (at 1pm) and that we could spend the next 15 minutes, if we wished, in their new (not yet open to the public) butterfly garden. This was still in the process of getting its finishing touches, but looks like it will be really nice once completed. Already there were many butterflies to watch around the new plantings.

The coffee tour itself was very interesting and informative, and very different to that of Cafe Britt. Where Cafe Britt use actors to bring the history of coffee production in Costa Rica to life, this tour is more focused on providing us with information. And lots of it. There were also a lot less people than when we did the Cafe Britt tour - the tour started with just the 4 of us, and two other people joined us later. This made it feel much more personal. We were shown plants at different stages of growth, the structure of the coffee fruit (which we learned belongs to the cherry family), we went into the plantation and looked at ripe, underripe and overripe fruits and visited the wet mill where the beans are sorted, peeled and then dried.
Finally we visited the roasting area and shown the different types of Coffee that the estate produces. We then, of course, had the opportunity to sample and purchase the different roasts. All the way through the tour Carlos shared his enthusiasm and knowledge about the Doka estate and its processes, and answered every question posed to him.

Despite the wonderful tour, all the tasting, and two months in Costa Rica, Zoë still doesn't like coffee!

Monday, 19 January 2009

Col's (& Zoë's) Creature Watch #5

This week’s creature watch comes from both Colin & Zoë, because Zoë has a particular fondness of these creatures and she also happened to take most of the photos.

We encounter these little fellows almost every day in the garden, and sometimes they accidentally wander indoors, which results in Zoë persuading them to take a trip in a glass so they can be transported to their home outside.

The first little lizards are those that we find in the front garden, and it is these that occasionally make their way indoors. These fellows look somewhat like little mini crocs – very scaly. Several of them have now had a trip in an alien glass spaceship…perhaps the first one enjoyed it so much he went back to tell his friends?

The second one is not very scaly at all … a bit of a problem given that the definition of a lizard is "a four-legged reptile with a long body and tail, movable eyelids, and a rough, scaly, or spiny skin" (according to the Oxford English Dictionary). He looks bald and smooth and the wrinkles around his neck make him look like an “old guy”, though he probably isn't. He scurries away from us when we water the back garden.

This third type we encountered on our hike up Barva. He stopped in the middle of the road when he saw us walking in his direction … and posed beautifully for photos. Perhaps he was showing off his beautiful T stripes.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Not Rice and Beans

Since the terremoto last Thursday things have, thankfully, been a lot quieter here. We have still experienced the odd temblor but nothing too bad. This last week has seen us consume some good food which has proven to be a nice change from the rice & beans, or omelettes that we seem to have been living on a lot (but not all) of the time.

On Friday we took the bus down to the neighbouring city of Alajuela, primarily to check out that the bus went past the airport and the location of where we are hiring a car for next week's visit of Zoë's parents. We took advantage of our trip to Alajuela to have lunch in a fine Tex-Mex eatery that we discovered on our previous trip here. It is called Jalapeños and although it is small and looks more like a fast-food location than a restaurant, the quality of the food is excellent. Zoë had a Quesadilla (to help satisfy the withdrawal symptoms of lack of cheese she has been having since arriving in Costa Rica - cheese here is VERY expensive compared to the UK) and Colin tried a Chalupa for the first time.

On Sunday we went down to the centre of Heredia to see if we could find a bar/restaurant that might show the Steelers playoff game (to help satisfy the withdrawal symptoms of the lack of American football Colin has been having since arriving in Costa Rica). We ended up in a nice place near the Palacio de los Deportes which did have a TV showing sports, but unfortunately at this time it was showing the Man Utd Chelsea game and not NFL (one of the few times Colin was sad to see football on the telly). The bar/restaurant was called "El Cholo" and the owner is obviously a big FC Barcelona fan as there were flags and pictures of players and "El Camp Nou" stadium all over the walls. Despite the lack of any American football we stayed to have something to eat and drink. We went for a Plato Especial which was a fine mixture of different Spanish style tapas and they were delicious (and a lot cheaper than you would pay in La Tasca in the UK).

On Monday we met with our two Spanish teachers, Wes and Rafa, to have dinner with them and their friend Fred. Fred is originally from Oregon in the U.S. but had studied at the University of Aberdeen for a year in the 1980s. Fred had (mostly) fond memories of his time in Aberdeen and remembered various drinking establishments, some of which are still in existence. Less fondly remembered was the biting wind and freezing cold days of winter. He still has a penchant for the group Runrig developed in his time at Aberdeen. Wes cooked a delicious two course meal for us - Pad Thai with Pork (originally it was to be with chicken, but the chicken was deemed off :-) ) followed by arroz con leche (yummm).

On Tuesday we had.... omelette.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

That's not an earthquake...

THAT's an earthquake!

Apparently there are different words that Costa Ricans use to describe the severity of earthquakes or tremors, from sacudidos (small shakes), through temblores (tremblings) to terremotos (serious quakes). It just so happened that Zoë was reading this very information at about 1:20pm today when the whole house started to shake. This was not the same small rumble that I experienced for a few seconds yesterday, this was "the walls are moving and things are falling off shelves" experience. It lasted about 20 seconds and there have been smaller tremors occurring all afternoon since. After my post yesterday Peter warned me to be careful with what I write (i.e. my slight exaggeration seems to have now come true), so I will just report that the Costa Rican news (lanacion & teletica) are calling it a terremoto de 6.2 grados - which I translate as an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.2.

It looks like the epicentre was near Volcan Poas and unfortunately there have been at least two casualties and many are still trapped in buildings and rubble. It is apparently the strongest quake here for 20 years and I see that it has even made the world (BBC) and even our local news in Scotland (STV)!

This YouTube footage shows the strength of the tremor (especially at time 0:50).

From the U.S. Geological Survey website:

Life can often be quiet and slow here in Costa Rica, but it is rarely boring.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009


At around 10am this morning, I was sitting looking through e-mails on the computer. I had literally just clicked send on an e-mail when the room starting shaking. Had the e-mail been too much for the telephone system in Costa Rica? Or had the content angered the gods? It would seem that neither was true, but rather I had just experienced my first earthquake (or tremor, but quake sounds more impressive).

It only lasted about 3 seconds, but it was an unusual experience to feel the room move about without having first drunk 5 pints of Stella Artois.

Here's a seismic graph showing that I didn't just imagine it (from the Heredia seismic monitor section of the web site of El Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Costa Rica):

Zoë, who was upstairs in the bathroom at the time, felt nothing.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Col's Creature Watch #4

Here's a strange insect that I found sitting on the patio doors this afternoon. In fact there were two of them. Not sure what it is, I thought it looked kind of stick insect like but with horns - you gotta love any insect with horns! However, subsequent research (by Zoë) seems to suggest it may be a plume moth with it's wings rolled up. I'm not sure. Answers on a postcard please (or via a comment).

Oh and no Dave, I did not squash it. :-)

Monday, 5 January 2009

Zo & Co versus the Volcano

Whilst we have been here in Costa Rica we have done a lot of walking – walking to Heredia, walking to San Rafael, walking to markets and supermarkets, etc. But on Sunday we undertook our biggest walking challenge yet – to walk up a volcano!

View of Volcán Barva from Heredia
Costa Rica has 7 active volcanoes plus 60 dormant or extinct ones. Two of these volcanoes are within relatively close proximity to where we live and we can see both of them from our back garden. Volcán Poás (active, about 15 miles away as the crow flies) is a very popular tourist destination and is within easy reach if you have a car as you can drive almost to the top, with only a short walk required. Poás is quite active and had its last major eruption in the 1950s, with more recent explosions in 1989 and 1994. Closer to us – in fact we live on its lower slopes - is Volcán Barva (dormant, about 8 miles away as the crow flies), however this is less visited as if you wish to drive up it, possible in dry season if you have a 4x4, you still have close to a one hour walk to get to the top. For the more adventurous, or fit, or carless (please choose which group you think we fit into best) you need to catch a bus to a very small village which lies about halfway up the Volcano and then walk the rest of the way up. So this is the challenge that we took on yesterday. The good news is that Volcán Barva has not erupted for about 500 years, so we didn’t think there was much chance of us needing to start running back down again.

There are only three buses a day from Heredia to the very small village of Porrosatí (but known as Paso Llano, especially to the bus drivers) and in order to give yourself time to climb the volcano and rest a bit you really need to catch the first bus in the morning (on Sunday this was 6:45am) and then catch the last bus back to Heredia at the end of the afternoon (on Sunday this was 5:20pm). The bus takes about 45 minutes from Heredia. Don’t believe the guide books that say you can get up and down in time to catch the 1pm bus back from Paso Llano – only possible if a) you are superfit and don’t want to rest or b) you hitch a ride on the way up or down or both.

After arriving at Paso Llano, we could see that there were four other brave souls embarking on the same adventure as ourselves – a couple of Costa Rican hombres who were probably in their early forties and looked well prepared for the hike, and a couple of muchachos in their early twenties who looked less prepared and we think were not Costa Rican, but visiting from another Latin American country. Throughout the day we would continue to bump into these fellow walkers at different points up and down the volcano.

The bus stops in Paso Llano in front of Chago’s (a bar restaurant). From Paso Llano you follow the road signposted to Sacramento, on the way you pass a couple of restaurants (at one we availed ourselves of the facilities on the way up, and had a meal on the way down), and get glorious views of the Central Valley. To Sacramento it was a walking distance of 2.5 miles and an increase in altitude of around 1100 feet. With the short “comfort stop” this took us about 1 hour and 20 minutes. In Sacramento there is also a nice looking bar/restaurant but we just kept on walking. A couple of minutes later we encountered the hombres having a rest on a shady bank, where they had been joined by a black dog who they had nicknamed Negro.

A view of the Central Valley taken on the way up Barva.

As we walked past, the dog got up and followed us. We could not shake Negro off. From Sacramento it is about another 2 miles with an increase in altitude of about 1350 feet to the ranger station at the entrance to Parque Nacional Baulio Carrillio (Barva Section). This took us about another 1 hour and 20 minutes – with no comfort break this time, just the necessary breaks to get our (read that as “mostly Zoë”) breath back. We enjoyed the company of Negro on the way from Sacramento; he acted like a cheerleader with boundless enthusiasm and energy. He hardly ever barked even when other smaller dogs were yapping at him, although he did seem to having something against cows at which time he would start barking. Perhaps he was just trying to move them off the road for us so that we had a clear path.

Colin with our new friend, Negro, on the way up the volcano.

While we were walking up the road we saw lots of people coming past in their 4x4s (and some in rather decrepit non-4x4s). We also saw an open lorry full of people. It probably would have been quite easy to hitch a lift if we had wanted to. As we neared the ranger station a bunch of well-dressed folk (shirts and ties for the men, pretty dresses for the women), who didn’t look like they’d gone up the mountain for a walk in the park, were walking down the hill. Some of them stopped to talk to us, at which point we realised they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. We had seen a small private bus making its way up earlier, and then coming down empty. We think that the driver had dropped the Jehovah’s Witnesses at the top and they were now making their way down, talking to people and giving out magazines as they went. Interestingly, although they were in a group, they were still walking in pairs!

The lorry, the hombres and Negro.

To enter the park, as non-residents, we paid $8 each. If you are a resident it costs 1000 colones (about $2). This ensures that Costa Ricans are able to take advantage of their national parks, while ensuring that the tourists who can (generally) afford more make up the money to maintain them. At the ranger station we once again encountered the hombres and muchachos who were having a short rest before making the walk through the park to the lagoon. The hombres set off before us, and Negro decided to go with them once more. The ranger station itself has toilets and drinkable water, very useful after you have hiked from Paso Llano.

There are four paths available to walk in the park. The main path leads to the Barva lagoon. The Cacho Venado runs off and adjacent to this main path, but is narrower and runs deeper through the forest, before returning to join it before the lagoon. There is also the Copey Path which runs to a second lagoon. Finally there is another path which leads to the Mirador (viewpoint) Vara Blanca.

We took the Cacho Venado path on our way to the Barva lagoon. Whilst walking this route you really feel that you are deep in the cloud forest as the tree cover is mostly dense, the path very narrow and at times you had to climb under or over fallen trees. Perhaps because of this it was also very quiet compared to the main path (which at times was very busy with families who had obviously driven up, perhaps this was because it was a Sunday), with very few encounters with other walkers.

Cacho Venado path

Main path

The final part of main path to Barva lagoon is quite short but also quite steep (about a 300 feet ascent over 0.2 miles) with numerous steps to climb if you want to go to the main observation point overlooking the lagoon. However it was worth it as you get a very good view over the lagoon that has developed in the main crater of this volcano. We also took this opportunity to rest and have our lunch, as did a few others (including the muchachos).

Barva lagoon - taken from the two viewpoints:
above at the highest point and then at the lagoon level

After lunch we walked back along the main path before walking along to the Mirador Vara Blanca. This was a very pleasant walk, at times with grass underfoot and we could have been walking in Scotland. This path was also quite quiet and there were not too many people at the lookout. It says in the guidebooks that on a clear day you can see all the way to the Carribean. It wasn’t clear enough on this day, but we did still get a very good view across Vara Blanca to Volcán Poás. Here at the lookout we encountered Negro with the hombres and as we set off back to the ranger station Negro decided to join us again.

Volcán Poás across the Vara Blanca from the viewpoint.

After a brief stop at the ranger station we started our journey back down the hill (without Negro, who after meeting them at the ranger station headed off with the hombres). Going down was much easier than coming up but had its own hazards (including slipping on the scree on the unmade road between the ranger station and Sacramento and developing sore toes from your feet continually pointing downhill). We even got offered a lift on the open lorry going back down, but declined as we were determined to walk the whole way down considering we had already done the hard work on the way up. On the way to Sacramento we passed the hombres who had stopped to admire something geological and after a moment of hesitation Negro joined us for the rest of the way down.

Striding along on the way back down.

We stopped for something to eat - a casado with a nice chuleta (pork chop) - at the Bar Restaurant La Campesina halfway between Sacramento and Paso Llano. Even after this 45 minute stop Negro was still outside waiting for us when we recommenced our journey.

We eventually arrived back at the bus stop in Paso Llano just before 5pm where the hombres and muchachos were already waiting (unlike us, the muchachos had taken up an offer of a lift down the hill in the back of a truck, and came sailing past us while we still had about 20 minutes left to walk). There were many smiles and much laughter when Negro followed us round the corner too. The bus left at 5:20pm and we left Negro at the bus stop, presumably waiting to accompany and encourage a new group of hikers the next day.

Exhausted but happy, waiting for the bus home.

We had walked for almost 15 miles, climbed and descended over 3000 feet to a maximum of around 9500 feet, and it had taken about 9 hours including stops ... but we had done it and we felt good (albeit tired and with sore feet).

Graph of the altitude during the walk;
data exported from Colin's fancy GPS doodad.