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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Signs of Recovery in the Cloud Forest

Santa Elena and its surrounding forested hills

Some good news. We have spent a day in Santa Elena recuperating from the runs and our financial blowouts, and this morning successfully organizing our debilitating 4.30 am departure tomorrow to connect to the Pan American where we have two reserved seats on the through bus from San Jose to Managua Nicaragua. This area, besides being an eco-tourist hotspot, has one amazing trump card - it is at an almost perfect temperature - just a fraction too cool if you lie real still - magnificent for Christine.

Camino Verde looks unassuming from the front, but runs deep and has nice quiet rooms at the back.

Camino Verde Hostel looks both unassuming from the front and at night more like an illuminated bar than a hostel, but is a family run establishment that runs deep back from the road and has some good quiet rooms. The proprietor speaks excellent English and made a flurry of the fact that he and his family also cook in the communal kitchen, sometimes having shared banquets with the guests.

From the back of Camino you wouldn't know the town was there!

He then went into a detailed explanation why it is always raining late afternoon this time of the year, but at other times always rains in the morning and is fine in the afternoon. We are just on the Pacific side of the Continental Divide, which we crossed coming from la Fortuna. As the year goes by, there is endless competition between the tropical winds of the Pacific and Atlantic with their differing moistures and some times of the year one or other dominates, leading at the end of the day to the effects of the sun-driven sea breezes becoming concentrated.

The main street

He told us that in between these seasons there are times the winds are so strong they blow pieces off the rooves and tourists want to leave in panic thinking a hurricane is about to strike, but the school children and residents just know to keep walking even when it can be difficult because of the buffering gale, but to keep an eye out to duck out of the way of flying debris.

More kitch tourist architecture over the road!

Christine was still nauseous and wasted last night but doggedly made a meal of broccoli, carrots potatoes and tuna despite near retching by the time she was 3/4 through it just to make sure she was feeding some nutrients in the front end to try to undo the effects of the alkaloids we have used to stop everything coming out the other end mid journey.

Santa Elena from across the valley

We spent yesterday and this morning feeding ourselves bacteria we brought from the farmacia and other pro-biotic yoghurts from the supermecado calculated to flood our poisoned intestines with good bacteria that can hold down the yeasts or other pernicious organisms causing our distress, either from bad restaurant food in el Valle or the bacteriostatic effects of our doxycycline antimalarial. By this morning it was obvious I was recovering and Christine is now slowly following suit. A quiet accolade for live bacteria!

Looking back from Monteverde towards Santa Elena

Another whoop for joy! We had done a complex financial manoeuvre, firstly moving $10,000 NZ from the HSBC to the BNZ and then using it to pay off the VISA debt of hospital bills and the $1100 NZ COPA had charged us for a useless onward ticket out of Panama.

The cloud rolling into the lowlands mid-afternoon

But lo and behold, when we went to pay, COPA had already held to their promise and refunded this hideous charge (less $50 US service fee) so we have covered our debts and have no outstanding financial issues except waiting for the insurance claim to eventually refund the medical expenses.

The Quaker Meeting House and school (sign inset right)

This morning I wandered round the TICA (Costa Rican) town of Santa Elena and after struggling to make sure we were feeding ourselves towards full recovery, we set off in a local bus for Monteverde and the Cloud Forest Reserve, both of which sit a little higher up on the other side of the same valley.

The Cheese Factory

While Santa Elena has a town centre a supermercado and lots of budget accommodation, Monteverde is a strung out mix of expensive hotels, adventure tours, butterfly and frog farms and a couple of founding features, a quaker school and meeting house and an accompanying cheese factory and dairy farms, penetrated by a shingle road fully as rough as the four wheel drive track we came over from la Fortuna.

The terminus at the cloud forest reserve

The Quakers moved here in 1951 after protests against the Korean way led to some of them being arrested in the US and began dairy farming and then took a lead in conservation, eventually leading to the region becoming a tourist Mecca when National Geographic described it as the best place to view the fabled Quetzal.

A touch of the cloud forest

The old school bus eventually stopped at the entrance to the cloud forest park and we just had time to take a few pictures of the forest and the incredible numbers of humming birds drinking at the copious nectar feeders. On the way back, despite the bus lurching like a harpooned whale, I managed to take a few shots of the surrounding landscape.

Two varieties of humming bird at the feeder. The blue is the largest in Costa Rica

We are now settling in to cook a meal and pack for the trip to Nicaragua.

Rough Riding the Continental Divide

The green south-east side of Volcan Arenal

Today at 2.30 we set out on the afternoon 2.5-3 hour 'Jeep-Boat-Jeep' connection across the Continental divide between la Fortuna and Monteverde / Santa Elena. This has become a very popular trip between two key tourist destinations, particularly because the alternative bus trip by road is 8 hours of rocky roads.

The odd living fences and the low-lying plains of Fortuna

We had bought the trips for $18 each (instead of the Lonely Planet $30) from a couple of tourist touts before they took us to el Choza, which proved to be the actual agency (Eagle Tours) doing the overland connection, so we had a couple of finger biting moments while they confirmed that our receipts did correspond to a seat on the trip which had an absolutely packed consignment of 11 people on board.

The road passes through a conservation reserve

Jeep-Boat-Jeep is a bit of a misnomer because it starts out as a suave ride in air-conditioned comfort of a mini-bus from one's hostel along a sealed road around Volcan Arenal to Lago Arenal on the other side.

We both get the front seat view because of my crutches

Eventually the road crosses an earth dam and we stop at a precipitous little path down to the lake, where there is a small ferry boat waiting. We very slowly drove out across the lake, taking an hour and a half to cross to the connection point to the next land section.

The 'other side' of Volcan Arenal is all grey ash and scoria.

Two panoramas of Lago Arenal, including the volcano in the background (click to enlarge)

Looking to the other side

Another volcano on the far side of the lake

About 200 meters from the shore the boat pilot suddenly floors it to planing speed and we realize we have been left nearly adrift for an hour to save fuel.We all get off and transfer to gritty 4WD Toyota vans

Last view of Volcan Arenal

The next phase of the trip was truer to its name. We all piled into battered Toyota four-wheel-drive vans and took off up the incredibly steep road which was a mix of muddy potholes, coarse stones, one incredibly steep incline that had been rough patched with concrete, all at very steep grades requiring 4WD vehicles, particularly because it rains torrential virtually every day.

The road has to climb roughly 4000 feet in the space of some 25 kms to reach Monteverde from the low height of the lake, so the road simply wound up and up like a mountain goat trail.

There were increasingly altitudinous views as the road wound higher and higher above the lake surrounds

At each point where you thought you might have reached a plateau ....

the road simply wound around another turn and higher still ...

it then began to pass into the cloud forest layer ...

and there was torrential rain and some oceanic potholes ...

we wound in an out of the clouds through tiny farming hamlets with a little church and three or four houses ...

in and out of the cloud layers ...

passing through coffee plantations ... you can see the beans on this plant beside the road ...

till in the half dark we finally reached Santa Elena and crawled into the back of the Camino Verde Hostel to recuperate from a hideous case of the runs.

More on Santa Elena and Monteverde in the next posting!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Probiotics, an Escape Route, an Eruption

Volcan Arenal has been erupting continuously all morning

We are lying in our very comfortable room at la Choza, a high class backpackers ($28 a night) a couple of blocks and one very rough final section for crutches from the centre of la Fortuna a enjoyable if hot town with a lot of diverse adventure tourism overlooked by the active Volcan Arenal.

More funky San Jose architecture and street scenes

We came up yesterday from San Jose having first, thorough a bit of (hopefully) inspired lateral thinking, secured a promotional return flight from Managua to Guatemala at $357 dollars, less than half the one way price of $780. The aim of this is to have an outward ticket from Guatemala which we won't use to avoid being told they wont let us on the forward flight without a ticket out again, when we have a round the world ticket leaving from Mexico City which they won't acknowledge as valid after being told this very bluntly by the COPA phone representative.

We then had to make our way via an ATM that refused to work with my HSBC bank card to the Coca Cola bus station, so called because the district was first defined by its Coca Cola factory. And got two tickets on the 11.30 bus for la Fortuna.

Both the bus station and the bus are renowned for artful thieves, but the bus gave receipts for our stored luggage and we were given one of the disabled seats at the front, where there was room to hold our day packs securely.

A flying panorama of the hills above San Jose as we left leading to the Mountain of Death

The bus was an extended local that will pick up and drop off at any bus stop along the route which means time stands still and we were lucky that what was supposed to be 4.5 hours turned only into 5. After driving in and out of Alajuella it finally hit the road an hour later and went through a bewildering number of unmarked intersection before heading steadily up hill through small towns Naranja, Zocaro (with an odd topiary garden) finally hitting fog and torrential rain near the summit, before descending in gray oblivion into the valley on the other side.

These hills continue to dominate the skyline heading north

The road winds up into rolling hill country

Coming into the town of Naranjo

A snack shop en-route

Costa Rican coffee and bananas

Successive towns appear as we wind higher

The weird topiary garden at Zocaro

We were a bit dismayed that we might be heading to a town whose famed volcano we couldn't even see and sure enough when we finally arrived in the rain and fog at 5 pm after untold mysterious stops where the driver just sat there with no one getting on or off, but the couple of English speaking touts reassured us that it always rains late afternoon and pointed out that indeed the volcano was coming back into view as they spoke.

They were tour operators who immediately persuaded us into a deal for the jeep-boat-jeep connection to Monteverde for $18 each instead of $30 which we feared was a scam but seems to be holding good, after the proprietor at la Choza phoned up and double checked its validity.

Sure enough in the morning, Arenal was standing tall and green with wisps of steam coming from the side of the crater. We had a difficult night with the runs after we both had to take alkaloids to enable us to take the bus ride yesterday. This could be due to the antibiotic doxycycline we have been taking as an antimararial, so we set off for th farmacia to try to get chloroquine which is fine in Central America.

Eruption on cue!

Panorama of Arenal erupting over the central park of la Fortuna (click to enlarge)

But as we were walking through the little central park Arenal sent up a little eruption with a tall mushroom cloud and then another double eruption as we returned to the hotel.

The main street

Anyway just about expiring for heat and dehydration, we made it to the farmacia, and got our antimalarial and the pharmacist came up with probiotics - bacteria you take to correct the effects of prolonged anti-biotic use and we backed this up with live cultures from the supermercado.

La Choza a great place down a rough block

Now we are lying in till 12 checkout before taking the jeep-boat-jeep to Monteverde at 2.30.