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On the last day of the trip, we stayed in the city of Alajuela near the airport. We chose Alajuela because it was a substantial city close to the airport with relatively few tourists. It was our chance to experience a self-sufficient Costa Rican city as opposed to one dependent on tourism.

This whole adventure was more or less completely unplanned -- we picked Alajuela while making our way back to San Jose and decided to stay there. We spent the day wandering the streets, getting to know various shop owners and exploring the goods on offer at the numerous markets. After an surprisingly expensive lunch at Ceviche del Rey, described by LP as the "best ceviche in town", we went down to the local market and (despite bring full) reordered the exact same dishes at an unpretentious local eatery. The food was almost as good, and the price was about 1/4 what we paid in the other place. There wasn't much to hold a tourist's attention in Alajuela, but it offered an interesting sense of everyday life.

I didn't take out the camera much but there were a couple of memorable scenes. First, do you get the sense that there's a lot of rain here? Or perhaps this is just the low-cost alternative to a system of storm drains. In any case, it makes parallel parking a rather harrowing experience.

Second, I liked this convergence between traditional handmade sign painting and modern technology:
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After Santa Elena, we entered the totally unstructured plan-as-you-go portion of the trip. We decided to make a very trnasportation-intensive trip out to Paquera, the Curu Reserve, and Tortuga Island.

Tortuga Island (not to be confused with Tortugero, the gathering place of the sea turtles) is a small island with an idyllic sandy beach. On the weekends it's apparently overrun with day-trippers from San Jose, but during the week it's very sparsely populated. The water there was welcomingly warm, at least for the first couple of meters, and the surrounding landscape was beautiful. However, I made the shocking discovery here that unless I hold my lungs very full, I no longer float in water... not even seawater. Apparently I have very little body fat now.

We got the chance to do some snorkeling there as well. The variety of fish life was stunning but the water was too murky to make viewing conditions ideal. The water's murkiness also made diving while snorkeling a bit disorienting because it was impossible to see the surface of the water as I was coming back up.

On land, we extensively explored a mangrove swamp and rainforest. The adaptation of the mangrove is fantastic -- it can grow in shallow salt water, enabling an ecological process that turns shallow tide pools into land. They also make for some nice abstract art. The Curu reserve also contains several colonies of monkeys and the pet monkey mentioned in an earlier entry.

Curu reserve mangrove swamps Curu reserve mangrove swamps
Curu reserve mangrove swamps Curu reserve Cuddly pet monkey

On the afternoon ferry ride back, we were treated to a glorious sunset.
Sunset on the Gulf of Nicoya Sunset on the Gulf of Nicoya
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In the Arenal rainforest in Costa Rica I captured a rather unusual sight. Leafcutter ants are amazingly cool -- it was impressive to watch as a long line of them marched back to their colony, each carrying along a large piece of leaf or flower. As I zoomed in on one, I noticed that the leaf it was carrying had another ant (of some smaller species, it appeared) confusedly walking around on the bit of leaf carried by the leafcutter ant.

The leaves are not used directly as food but instead are used to "farm" a fungus eaten by the ants.
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For the second portion of our trip, we hit up Santa Elena, a small town whose present thriving state is owed almost entirely to ecotourism and the hundreds of square miles of rainforest that bring the ecotourists in. In a rare turn of events, many of the locals are pushing the government to *not* pave the roads to ensure that the town remains difficult to access. Even so, it's clear the town has grown substantially over the last 20 years. It was nice to be in a town with real local residents, supermarkets, and restaurants, instead of in an isolated resort. Our Spanish skills started getting a serious workout.

We went from the cheapest room at a nice hotel to the nicest room at a cheap hotel. It was a lovely bi-level loft with four mattresses and gleaming wood paneling. Over the next couple of days we squeezed in a trip out to a coffee plantation, a walk in the Santa Elena cloudforest, a night rainforest tour in which our guide spotted an astounding number of insects, a zip line tour of the jungle canopy, and the most ridiculously complete and beautiful insect collection I've ever seen.

The cloudforest and insect sightings, both outdoors and in the museum, are already photo-documented in my earlier entries, so I'll focus on the zip lines and the coffee tour.

What I find amusingly ironic about a zipline enterprise is that even though it doesn't really get you close to nature at all, it does a great job of preserving large swaths of rainforest. The whole point of the zipline setup is to get you flying through the treetops in an adrenaline-oriented way. However, given that the zipline operators have over 2 miles of ziplines in a single park, they end up needing a lot of land. Since the experience is meant to deliver *nature*, they end up not developing that land, as well as any other land within a mile or two. Thus, you end up with a profitable enterprise with an incentive to keep the rainforest pristine. The local environmental impact of the ziplining is extremely low... it's just a few metal towers and some maintenance trails, and the whizzing tourists might scare a few birds from time to time, but that's about it.

As for the experience itself, it was quite fun. It gave us some really nice visual perspectives on the rainforest and different canopy levels.

SkyTrek zip lines SkyTrek zip lines
SkyTrek zip lines SkyTrek zip lines


The coffee plantation tour was an exercise in Spanish skills. All four of us on the tour had some level of SPanish proficiency, so the guide opted to relinquish the role of translator and just let the coffee farmer speak for himself. Getting an induction into the esoteric world of coffee production (it gets as complicated as it does with wine) was interesting, though I was so busy trying to understand all the Spanish that I ended up not being able to think much about the implications of it all. The plantation was small and hit all the eco-buzzwords. In addition to being organic, locally owned etc, it used large fruit trees for shade for the coffee plants, providing a second crop and apparently some other benefits having to do with soil, fertilization, and supporting local wildlife populations.

Apparently light coffee is better than dark coffee because dark coffee comes as a result of roasting at a higher temperature, which obliterates a lot of the variability you get from different species and growing conditions. Light coffee allows you to taste more of the variety in taste that different species and sources of coffee have to offer.

We got to eat coffee beans directly off the plant. They had a sweet flavor on the outside, with a slight hint of coffee. Unroasted beans still had a caffeine kick but a bland and mildly bitter taste.

Coffee Plantation tour Coffee Plantation tour

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In the third world, liquids are often sold in plastic bags. This is not done out of a sense of environmental responsibility (even though the packaging is likely "greener" than almost anything you'll find in Whole Foods) but because it's the cheapest way of containing the liquid.

In the first world, there is a broad awareness of lactose intolerance and a significant interest in veganism. This has resulted in a proliferation of rice, soy, and nut milk products.

Apparently these two trends, coming from opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, have finally met in the middle.

(Taken in La Fortuna, Costa Rica)
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Tabacon was the ridiculously nice (and expensive) hot springs we checked out in Costa Rica. It's supposed to be beautiful, but we were so busy during the day that we only got around to seeing it at night. It was lit dramatically, and the steam rising from the springs sliced the spotlights into beautiful rays and gave the thin foliage a translucent glow.

Tabacon Hot Springs at night Tabacon Hot Springs at night
Tabacon Hot Springs at night Tabacon Hot Springs at night
Tabacon Hot Springs at night Tabacon Hot Springs at night
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There was this one tree in the rainforest in Costa Rica that bore a rather strong resemblance to part of the male anatomy (but in a really unhealthy sort of way)

Hanging Bridges, Arenal Rainforest Bizarre cock-tree in rainforest

I think the "cocks" are the beginnings of new roots.

I debated putting the pictures behind a cut for all you sensitive readers out there, but you know, it's just a tree. Well, it's a tree and your malfunctioning neural object-recognition system.
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It was challenging to get much of a sense of Costa Rica in only seven days. Looking at the map, we only visited a tiny triangle of locations in a grand swath of country. However, we made sure to try to have a variety of experiences. As I talked about in Sociocultural Bingo a while back, it's fun to make sure to hit a mix of rich and poor, touristy and not-touristy, and urban and rural.

The first part of the trip was fairly pre-planned and involved staying at a nice resort near the Arenal volcano. The resort was home to some beautifully constructed (and shockingly expensive) hot springs. Ironiccally, it was cheaper to stay at the hotel for a night and get free access to the hot springs than it was to get two tickets to enter the hot springs.

I had never stayed in a five-star resort before. The service perks were impressive. For example, my traveling companion Laura forgot her contact lenses, and the hotel staff quickly got her perscription, bought some, and brought them to her. Room service was presented beautifully even though it was just a pile of $6 nachos. Overall it was interesting though I wasn't used to the experience of being so thoroughly waited on. And we got to do it all for the price of a low-end business hotel in the US.

We spent most of our days running around between various ecotourism adventures. We kept day-to-day activities flexible in order to accommodate the changing weather, but we managed to do some stunning things, most notably a very safety-third cave tour that involved (among other things) belly-surfing on an underground river with the ceiling just a foot above our heads. Other activities included a treetop walk through the rainforest and a hike near an active volcano.

From the cave: (full set on flickr)
Caving near Arenal Caving near Arenal
Caving near Arenal Caving near Arenal Caving near Arenal

Hiking near the active volcano Arenal:
Arenal volcano area Arenal volcano area
Arenal volcano area Arenal volcano area
more... )
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Lonely Planet advises you against lots of things.

- Don't rent a motorcycle. Check. Did it in Vietnam. Was amazing.
- Don't eat from 3rd world street vendors. Check. That's where I got some of my best meals around the world.
- Don't hitch-hike. Finally got to check that one off.

We caught a ride on the back of a truck from the Curu reserve to Paquera. We ducked as the truck passed under various tree branches. It was a simple but rather intense video game. As we went along, we picked up various fieldworkers. Each of them had a large machete, which they tossed in the truck before climbing in. By the end, we were surrounded by men with machetes. What could possibly go wrong? Lots of things, of course. But nothing did.
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The rainforest (and everywhere else, including the floors of very nice hotels) in Costa Rica was crawling with insects. They were of a size and range of variety that you just don't get in my part of the US. Here's some sense for what I saw:

(For scale, the insects shown below were all at least four inches long)
Monteverde night tour. Monteverde night tour.
Monteverde night tour. GIant insects on sidewalk

We also went to an insect exhibit called "Jewels of the rainforest". Despite being widely lauded as one of the most impressive sights in the Monteverde area, we were the only two people on the tour for the exhibit. There was a giant crowd of churchgoing elderly folk that we thought were on the tour with us, but it turned out they were waiting for the butterfly exhibit.

The creator of this exhibit is a lifetime collector of insects, and he has the world's largest collection.
Insect Museum Insect Museum
Insect Museum Insect Museum Insect Museum
Insect Museum Insect Museum
How to catch insects the lazy way.

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I'm not a botanist but I find the jungle fascinating. The jungle seems to be the Manhattan of the plant world – abundant resources in the form of rain and sunlight have led to the creation of an ecosystem that's among the densest on Earth. Plants are growing on top of other plants and squeezed into every conceivable place. Plants and animals develop highly specialized strategies to exploit some very specific niche such as growing on sand, growing in salt water, or nourishing a colony of ants that defend the plant from predators. The biodiversity is also visibly much higher than it is in more temperate ecosystems. The extent of this dense growth, variety, and specialization reminds me of what I see in very urban areas around the world. It makes walking around in nature a lot more interesting, as there is just so much ingenuity on display.

I can see the jungle as a brutally competitive place in which every individual of every species, plant or animal, is using whatever means necessary to claw its way to the top, pushing aside, devouring, poisoning, or strangling all others that stand in its way. Or, I can see it as an ingenious and highly optimized system for extracting as much performance as possible from the available resources. It's really both, and the side I see depends on my mood.

Unfortunately, aside from insects, there wasn't much wildlife on display. We tended to spot exotic birds, reptiles, and mammals in more open areas such as parking lots and public parks. I saw more tropical birds in 5 minutes at Telegraph Hill in San Francisco than I did in my entire week in Costa Rica.

Some evocative pictures:

Santa Elena cloudforest walk Hanging Bridges, Arenal Rainforest Hanging Bridges, Arenal Rainforest

Hanging Bridges, Arenal Rainforest Hanging Bridges, Arenal Rainforest

Arenal volcano area Arenal volcano area
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I could have filmed a million-dollar viral Coke commercial for YouTube with my handheld camera. At the Curu reserve there was a domesticated monkey that liked to cuddle up with people and displayed lots of human habits such as drinking from a cup. At one point the monkey fished a half-empty Coca-Cola out of the trash and started drinking it. As a nearby girl tried to get the can of Coke back, the monkey danced backwards, staying out of reach. His tail was comically wrapped around a banana. As he took occasional sips from the can, his face displayed an easily anthropomorphizable "oh no you don't" expression. The whole thing was totally hilarious, but my camera was hidden away.

This moment, however, was well-documented. Dogs will beg from whoever appears to be in command of the food supply.

Dog begs for food from monkey

The monkey's extensive use of tools was very impressive given its small brain size. Given how few other animals, including ones with larger brains, have extensive tool use, it seems that some of the foundations of human intelligence may be a matter of improved software, not just brain size.
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When I was road tripping through Missouri earlier this year, I saw a hand-painted sign near the Mississippi river that read "It is called a flood plain because it is a plain that floods." This sign was apparently painted in response to some people nearby who were complaining aboout FEMA not bailing them out after they built their store outside the town's levee and then suffered catastrophic losses when the river flooded.

We heard some other tourists complain that it was raining during their rainforest hike. Umm.... it's called a rainforest because it's a forest that rains. They get four meters of rain per year, in fact.

Santa Elena cloudforest walk Santa Elena cloudforest walk
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I took a couple of years of Spanish in middle school and a year of Spanish at the beginning of high school. Other than a couple of weeks in Spain at the end of high school, I really haven't used my Spanish knowledge at all since then. Given 14 years of almost total nonuse, it's amazing how quickly my brain was able to refresh all the necessary neural connections. My vocabulary seemed remarkably intact, though at first I could only access most of it via recognition rather than recall. This allowed me to understand what other people were saying but made answering them more difficult. I could listen to a local coffee farmer talk about the bean growing and roasting process but I had some trouble asking questions. My sentence construction (especially verb tense) was totally messy at frst, but got much better as time went on.

Trying to communicate with other people often felt like the real-time verbal version of the sort of engineering challenge where you have to build a working machine out of rubber bands and foamboard. I had to communicate complex concepts using a very small verbal toolkit, which led me to say things like "paper for cleaning hands" because I couldn't remember how to say "napkin".

In the beginning my brain did a lot of translating to and from English as I was conversing with people in Spanish. However, as common concepts and relations became reinforced, my brain started directly thinking and responding in Spanish without ever bothering to translate. This also caused me to have thoughts in Spanish even when I was'9t conversing with others. In a way, words in one language or anotther are just simply more vocabulary, like learning the items on a menu at a foreign restaurant or learning the medical names instead of the colloquial names for body parts. Of course their contextual uses are different, and thus you have to remember how they must be structured in sentences. I had a moment in which I was talking with a restaurant employee in a mixture of English and Spanish where I stopped even thinking about what language I was using... it was just words and concepts flowing back and forth.

One of the strangest language experiences was watching a movie that had a mixture of languages, all of which were subtitled in Spanish. When they were speaking English I listened but when it was another language I read the subtitles. It took a few seconds to switch back and forth. If I was reading the subtitles I wouldn't start processing the audio stream until I noticed it had switched back to English. This gives me the sense that there's only one language processing center, and trying to ram two continuous streams of information through it does not work well. In retrospect this is kind of obvious given that it is difficult for me to listen to an extended audio broadcast while reading, even when it's all in English.

Overall, I was really impressed by my brain's ability to quickly refresh and become facile with very old information. It also let me connect with locals in a way that just isn't possible otherwise.
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Current rough itinerary

Nov 11 Arrive San Jose, transportation to Arenal Volcano area

Nov 11-13 Explore Arenal area -- Tabacon hot springs, continuously erupting volcano, jungle sky walks, lake Arenal, caves

Nov 14 Take jeep-boat-jeep transfer to Monteverde

Nov 14-15 Explore Monteverde -- cloud rainforest, night jungle walk, guided tours of areas dense with wildlife, museums

Nov 16 Go down to Puntarenas, take boat to Paquera

Nov 16-17 Explore Curu (lowland jungle, monkeys, mangrove swamp), sea kayaking, Tortuga island, beach, snorkeling etc

Nov 17 Return to San Jose

Nov 18 Fly out.
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I'm thinking of going to Costa Rica in about three weeks. If you've been recently, I'd love some advice.


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February 2011

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