rio-cap part one

Eep, it’s been a while between posts… Did you think I’d been mauled by another muddy-pawed puppy? Or mayhaps that my tummy exploded after eating too much mango (or mebbe drinking too much cerveza)? Or that our ‘friend’ at the airline-that-shall-not-be-named tracked us down to our abode in Rio to send us back to Miami to spend just a little bit more time in the airport, standing at her check-in counter, while she did the thing with the eyebrows?

Relax, it’s all good. Except that I slipped into a bit of a laze when we got to Rio and had a little bit of trouble firing up and being a normal human being. In the city of colour and no rules and G-string bikinis and music and food, I spent a fair bit of time indoors reading books. What a bore! But you see what I mean? Trouble firing up…

That said, adventures were had. Even if I didn’t quite realise it at the time.

Last Tuesday, after a lazy start to the day, Rich and I decided to take a short stroll around Santa Teresa, our Rio DJ hood. Santa Teresa (not to be confused with the Santa Teresa we bunked down in in Costa Rica just a few days prior) is a luvverly, rambling ‘burb, perched high on a hill, with winding, steep cobble-stoned streets, and dilapidated (yet STUNNING) paint-peeling mansions with sprawling gardens, and high, vine-covered fences. Lots of little restaurants and outdoor drinking holes and a bookshop and a cinema. Twas a nice place to base ourselves…

Anyhoo, we wandered around the main street and looked in shops and had a coffee and then decided to go a little further afield and follow the trolley-car tracks up the hill, towards Corcovado. AKA the national park that’s home to that O so prolific statue, Christ the Redeemer (note: every time I see “Christ the Redeemer” in writing, or write it myself, I always think it says “Christ the Reindeer” and I imagine the big Jesus with antlers and a well-lit red nose….).

No antlers here...

So off we went, up the hill from Santa Teresa, following the trolley-car tracks. It was a warm day. It was cloudy. It was pretty muggy. It was a perfect day to build up a sweat in a matter of minutes and develop a bad mood. Yes. As with previous bad moods described in this here blog, and pretty much every BM of the past few years, it’s something I’m not proud of, but this particular BM is actually pretty laughable in hindsight.

Due to the mugginess of the day, and the fact that, although we could see Christ the Reindeer, we didn’t really know how far away it was, the BM flailed wildly out of control in a matter of minutes. As Rich strolled ahead, calm and happy, I kicked and huffed my way along the road like a petulant child.

You know what you would think might get Wembolina out of a BM? Maybe seeing a cow curled up on the side of the road might do it? A road that is well traversed by cars and buses and is set in the middle of the jungle (with steep hills on either side), as if the cow had inadvertently entered Dr Who’s TARDIS and ended up here, in a place with, seemingly, no other cows in sight?

No, not even the random placement of a docile (yet kind of terrifying) bovine could do it. Rich laughed when we saw it. I huffed a little more.

Finally, after an hour or so of the twisting, turning trolley-car route, we made it to the entrance to Corcovado.

“We’re nearly there!!” Rich happily declared. I felt my spirits lift (marginally) but they were instantly deflated when we passed a sign announcing it was another 2.5kms to the top. ARGH!

And THEN (and this was the worst/funniest moment of the ‘adventure’) when we were halfway up a particularly steep stretch of road leading up to the carpark, I was struck with a searing, stabbing pain in my ankle, caused by a mother-flipping-GIGANTIC ant that had attached itself to my Achilles and was joyously jabbing its monstrous pincers in and out of my soft and squodgy flesh.

“AARRRGGGHHHH!!!!” I screamed, “GET IT OFF ME!!!!!”

Rich, a few metres away, instantly thought I was being attacked by a rabid monkey (or another orange puppy), or was perhaps being squeezed to death by an enormous boa constrictor. He raced over, eyes frantic, “What is it? What’s wrong??” I pointed down at the big black ant on my foot and cried (with actual tears) “THAT!!!! THAT ANT!!!! GEDDITOFFMEEEEEEE!!!!!”

My knight-in-sweaty-t-shirt-material bravely swiped the beast off my leg with the swiftness of an American football player making a winning kick at the Superbowl.

I cried a bit more (even though it was just an ant, it reeeeeeeally hurt) and then we continued our way up the hill.

You’ll be pleased to know that once we made it to the top and actually saw the majesty of the statue up close (and the view – aye yae yae!), the BM dissipated into nothingness and I was transcended to a state of absolute awe. And I had a big drink of water, so replenished all my lost minerals (read: sweat) in a matter of minutes. And then we saw a weird cat/monkey/tapir looking animal foraging for scraps near a bin and THAT cheered me up to no end too.

Wowsers...

In the bus on the way back down the hill, I put my head on Rich’s shoulder, apologised for my torturous mood, and thanked him for getting the gross ant off my ankle. He is one good egg.

When we got back to Santa Teresa later that evening, and after we’d rewarded ourselves with several beers and a big delicious dinner, I did a quick search on Google Maps to see how far we’d walked. I guessed around 6kms. Rich guessed 8.4. We had, in fact, just ‘strolled’ 10.5kms. Good training for the Inca Trail, methinks!!

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crocodiles, continued

Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would ever trudge through a marshy jungle in Costa Rica wearing thongs (that’s Flip Flops to you, Northern Hemisphere). Nor did I ever imagine I would stomp defiantly through knee-high grass, weeds and prickle bushes in only a pair of shorts (again, with aforementioned thongs on my feet). And finally, I never ever expected to find myself pulling my bare feet (thongs had been removed by this point – too hard to walk in) out of ankle-deep mud while batting away bird-sized mosquitos, trying to maintain my balance/keep an eye out for snakes/not walk into a giant cobweb.

The day after we almost eaten by a pack of hungry crocodiles at the beach, Rich and I did the obvious. We went on a crocodile tour and jungle hike.

Calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean

Collected from our hotel bright and early on Saturday morning, we were introduced to Big Tortuga (I thought “Wow, this guy really knows his stuff, if his name is Big Tortuga – that means Big Turtle, right?”), which I later discovered was actually Victor Hugo. Not Big Tortuga. But Victor Hugo is still a pretty great name for a bona fide crocodile tour guide!! I imagine in his spare time he writes poems about crocodiles on the streets of Paris in the 1800s, selling their teeth for 10 francs… singing on street corners…. getting hustled into a life of crime and/or prostitution… “Don’t you fret, Monsieur Crocodile….”

Hush, brain!!

We tumbled out of his early 90s aqua Suzuki Vitara (yes, my Grade 5 dream car) on the banks of the estuary, scrambled down a leafy hill, padded across the sand, and climbed aboard his 8-seater covered boat. Twas just me n Rich on the Crocodile & Estuary Tour, so we got prime position at the front of the boat. The narrow boat. The “my elbows are very very close to the crocodile-infested estuary” boat. The “this seems light has a crocodile ever leapt out of the water and tipped it over” boat.

Victor Hugo started up the engine and, as they say in the classics, we were off!

First we putt-putted along the shore for a while, as Victor Hugo pointed out various birds. One quite striking yellow-eyed, grey bird was immediately shunned as “bad bird – very bad bird”. Victor Hugo explained that this “very bad bird” arrives in Tamarindo in late-October and sticks around for a few months, with this sole purpose of eating BABY TURTLES AS THEY HATCH FROM THEIR EGGS!!! I agree with Victor Hugo that these guys were bad birds indeed.

Further along, and after moseying to the other side of the river, we saw it: our first crocodile! Quite a biggun, but apparently still pretty young, Madame Chomp-Chomp was sunning herself on the sandy banks. Victor Hugo brought the boat quite close to the bank, and as I scrambled to get my camera, said Croco opened one pre-historic eyeball and appeared to give me stink eye. Her teeth were very big. I was glad when the boat reversed and we were putt-putting away.

Hola bishes!!

Until… Oh Em Gee!! We found ourselves NOT continuing up the wide and seemingly safe river, but into a thin corridor of mangroves. The trees hung low over the water, their snake-like roots pointing down to the water and scraping along the roof of the boat, like an upside-down Medusa on a bad hair day (“Who forgot to get the conditioner??? Sssssssss!!!!”)….

Victor Hugo explained that we were in the mangroves (not mangos). The wind rustled gently through their leaves, the birds tweeted, and a strange snapping sound surrounded us.

“What’s that noise?” I asked Victor Hugo, obviously thinking that the snapping sound was one hundred crocodiles, hidden amongst the roots of the trees, limbering up their jaws for a good ol-fashioned tourist eating fest.

All the wrongs of all the Steve Irwin Crocodile Hunters the world over will be made right by this delicious feast of Australian flesh, I was sure the crocs were thinking…

But no. The snapping was actually clams, who hang out deep in the mud for a few hours a day, and snap their shell together when they’ve had enough. Apparently clam gathering is a very dangerous pastime for the locals, because to get them, you need to plunge your hands into the mud, feel around for the clam, and avoid getting your finger pinched by their snapping shell-jaws. Victor Hugo explained that many a clam-hunter has lost the top of their fingers in such ventures…

Open....

SNAP!!

Victor Hugo was keen to introduce us to a family of howler monkeys, so we moored the boat in the mangroves and disembarked on the sandy bank. He said “We will hike for five or ten minutes until we find the monkeys”.

45 minutes later, we emerged from the jungle, having seen two monkeys high in the trees. For the entire duration of our monkey hike, Victor Hugo frenetically shook an old Coke bottle (filled with rocks and sand that he had craftily hidden inside the trunk of a dead tree – I imagine there’s a lot of sand-filled, bottle theft in these here parts), and shouted and howled and yelled like a monkey to attract the simian beings. In between howls he gave us helpful tips like “don’t touch this plant or it will sting you with its prickles and it feels like you’re on fire” and “it’s much easier to walk barefoot in the mud” and “I hope you brought some insect repellent because there are a LOT of mosquitos in here” (there were… bajillions, actually).

I had one of those great moments of making an observation, and then being instantly crippled by said observation: in this instance “Hey Rich, look at that funny tree covered in ginormous prickles” and then, literally one second later, stepping on one of the ginormous prickles IN BARE FEET – it got me right in the heel. I cursed like a sailor, but like the intrepid traveller I am, I pulled that prickle right outta my foot and kept on walking. In bare feet. In the mud. With the snapping clams and the boa constrictors (yes, really) and various other terrifying creatures.

Thank heavens for pre-travel tetanus shots…

Anyhoo, after espying our little family of howling monkey friends, we were back in the boat, in search of MORE CROCODILES. Around a corner, literally metres from where our boat had been moored, we spied two toothy beasts, nestled in the grass on the bank. These fellas were bigger than the first lady we saw, and we were ALL reluctant to get any closer…

Around a bend and into a covered grove, we were greeted by a big splash and the sight of a crocodile tail disappearing into the water. I gasped and Victor Hugo said “O, THAT was a big one!” which, of course, meant that he stopped the boat and decided that this would be the perfect spot for a mid-morning snack. In a narrow, shallow estuary with a monster crocodile under the boat. Victor Hugo sliced up a pineapple (which I stupidly thought was for the crocodile and was about to throw overboard) and we ate the sweet fruit with muddy fingers and fear-filled bellehs.

To make matters even more comforting, Victor Hugo thought this would be a great spot to rinse off his muddy feet, so sat with his legs dangling in the water above Mister Sharp-Tooth’s very sharp teeth (and, no doubt, watching beady eyes…) as we motored the boat back to the beach.

Post-pineapple escape

So in all, we saw five crocodiles. Along with the three bigguns, we also spotted two babies in the mangroves (mums not in sight – very reassuring) and we both felt that it was money well spent and an interesting lesson in biodiversity and prehistoric monster-toothed beasties.

Back in the clear blue salt water of our starting place, other tour boats bobbing around, and a bunch of fellas doing some washing in the shallows, I saw something strange floating in the water. It’s unusual to see brown, spiky buoys – all the other ones are bright blue and bright red and smooth. And… wait… is it a log? Or a cluster of coconut husks floating on the surface?

No. It’s a mother-flipping crocodile. Just bobbing along. Smiling at us as we pass within inches of its scaly, spiky, avocado-skinned body….

“Very good luck, very good luck” Victor Hugo said, pointing to the croc.

Very good luck not to get eaten by him, I say.

welcome to the jungle

On Sunday night, Rich and I took a walk in the jungle. Yes. At night. With torches. And a guide. And some Frenchies and a English woman (Axl Rose was not present. Something about being in the jungle makes me wonder if he has ever actually literally been in one himself. And don’t even get me started on Slash – imagine how many mosquitoes and worms and spiders would find themselves entangled in his hair??!). We were picked up from Monteverde at 5pm and arrived at the park just as night was falling… As our taxi pulled into the grounds, a small mammal darted in front of the car, illuminated by the headlights.

“What was that? Coati? Monkey? Capybara???”

No… It was the resident dog. But still. Wildlife!!!

We met our group and, armed with torches and dousing ourselves with insect repellent, off we went into the night.

Our first observation was a line of leafcutter ants, strolling along in twos, fours, and sixes across the path, each carrying huge triangles of leaf on their heads. There were thousands of them, trailing through the night in the thousands. Their purpose? No idea, but they work and work and work and work and only stop when it rains (and then they only stop because the scent of their destination has been washed away).

As we admired the ants and their diligence, the cracking of twigs underfoot drew our attention away. Shining our torches over yonder, we espied not one, but around 25 coatis, scurrying around in the bushes. Coatis are weird cat-possum-monkey-ish mammals (they look a little bit like lemurs, only not as friendly) – I, unfortunately, was so overcome with seeing such a large group of animals (that weren’t ants) that I was too slow to get my camera out. They milled around looking at us for a few moments, then disappeared into the night. We heard them for the rest of the evening, in the trees, squealing and fighting and making sweet, sweet lurve.

Our next stop was at a huge strangler fig. Huge. And strangly. When other trees are wee behbehs and just shooting their little sapling stems out of the ground, a monkey or a sloth might stroll along, happily munching on a fig and then do a little poo on the brand new tree. As the tree grows, the figs grows around it, and when the tree finally gets tall enough, the strangler fig grows down and twists its strangly roots all around it, killing the tree and standing in its place. They’re pretty beautiful and incredible trees (the English lady kept saying “Oooo, it’s very Middle Earth, isn’t it?” and the Frenchies kept muttering “Non, non, tis more, owyousay, Avatar” and our Costa Rican guide had no idea what anyone was talking about, proclaiming that he “hated movies and books and only read about botany”) – but that’s a bit mean, don’t you think? Such is life, I guess…

Anyhoo, when the host tree dies, it disintegrates inside the fig, leaving a big enormous tree with a hollow centre. We got to go inside the tree – a little bit scary but quite incredible…

Down the path a little further, we stopped at a burrow in the ground. A torch was shone into the hole, and we were told to stand back about a metre, in a semi-circle around the guide. He picked a small twig and prodded it around inside the hole (sounds rude – sorry). One of the Frenchies said “Ooo, I can see it!” and I said “What? What? What is it? A bunny? A mole? A…” and the English woman said “A TARANTULA!!!”.

I nearly vommed and then nearly collapsed with shock. Out toddled a massive, MASSIVE black furry spider, with orange knees. She bumbled over the twig and up the side of the path and over the guides hand.

Rich said “Quick quick, take a picture” so I took a photo of the top of the guide’s head as he leant over the beast. I was sure that merely pointing a camera in the direction of the spider would cause it to leap up at me.

Pulling myself together, I got a little closer, zoomed in a bit, and got this:

O gosh...

It was hideous. But also, well, kind of pretty amazing. Although they have eight eyes, they’re pretty much blind, and rely on vibrations to catch food, or get the hell outta dodge and back into their burrows. We stood looking at her for a good few minutes, before she ambled back into her hole.

Everything after that kind of paled in comparison to the monster arachnid. We saw a much smaller (but still massive – the size of a huntsman?) spider making a web between two trees. Saw a few birds that were startled from sleep by our torches. Saw a teeny tiny frog, half the size of my little fingernail, sitting atop a leaf in the rain. And then, like that, two hours were up and we were back in the carpark.

I’d had all my fingers and toes crossed for a monkey or a sloth, but I’m kinda glad we didn’t. Seeing that big huge spider was thrilling enough, even if it WAS in a total ‘Arachnophobia’ kinda way. I think a monkey or sloth sighting would have detracted from that, like a cherry on the top. We have another week and a half in Costa Rica – plenty of time for monkeys and sloths!! And (gulp) more tarantulas…..

jeep boat jeep

We spent three relaxing days on the farm in La Fortuna. After the hustle and bustle and excessive amounts of pavement-pounding in New York, it was hella nice to just lie around for a few days. I spent most of my time in the hammock outside our room reading books (namely, finishing The Happiness Project and mentally preparing my own Happiness Project), strolling about the farm, feeding the pigs, and eating plates upon plates of amazing food…

Cacao tree, spotted on our farm walk

Rambutan trees... holy yumness...

The teenager pigs

Buffalo stance...

On our last morning at Finca Luna Nueva, Rich and I were up early for an unaccompanied jungle trek. I admit, when we got started, I was mildly terrified – I was yet to see a snake/tarantula, and I had the sneaking suspicion that this morning, alone in the jungle, would be the obvious time for either/both of us to receive a venomous snake bite or be knocked unconscious by a pouncing tarantula.

After 45 minutes of gingerly stepping over fallen logs, combined with loud gumboot stamps onto the leafy forest floor (with no sign of any snakes or spiders) we made it out of the jungle alive. Sweaty and bug-bitten, but alive.

Muchos phewfness!!!

That afternoon, we were collected for our jeep-boat-jeep journey to Monteverde, aka The Cloud Forest. We drove for an hour, through the town of La Fortuna, around the Arenal Volcano (even though it’s ‘sleeping’ at the moment, it was pretty exhilarating being so close to a real life actual volcano) to a jetty on a wide lake, where we boarded a boat to zoom us across the crocodile-infested waters.

O yikes....

On the other side of the lake, we disembarked our faithful vessel, with nary a crocodile in sight (although I was sure I felt 100 beady eyes on us as we ambled past grassy marshes and silty banks… and I’m sure that one or two of those ‘log-odiles’ were not so wooden…) and got into jeep number two.

The drive from the jetty to Monteverde was…. hella bumpy. It was so bumpy, my head hit the roof of the jeep a number of times, and the chica in the front seat, no doubt au fait with the roads in these parts, spilt rice all over her pants. There were several parts of the journey where all I could do was laugh my head off. Weeeeeeee!

Other parts of the journey that caused me to LOL were:

  • Passing a GIANT pink pig on the side of the road. The road was very narrow, and she was very large, and I could have put my arm out the window and patted her big pink head, had I been so inclined. I wasn’t though. She looked a little unpredictable. And hungry. For a human haaaaaand.
  • Passing a not-giant-horse on the side of the road. That ol’ grey mare, chowing down on bits of tree. She was completely disinterested in our passing. (note: this actually didn’t make me LOL – twas just interesting to see 5 minutes after seeing the pig)
  • Passing a herd of cows, udder-deep in grass, munching away, looking up at us with their big cow eyes as we bumped by… (see above)
  • Passing two bunnies, also eating. This was getting weird. What’s with all the chilled out animals on the side of the road here??

After an hour of precarious, up-n-down, hit-the-roof, nearly-get-stuck-in-several-bogs, grateful-that-I-didn’t-eat-a-huge-meal-before-we-left driving, we were there! Monteverde!!

san jose to la fortuna

It may surprise you to know that I have ‘Do you know the way to San Jose?’ stuck in my head. For three days now. And I only know that first line. So it’s quite an annoying earworm…

But I’m not surprised that that song was written. Do you know why? Because there are hardly any street signs in San Jose. There are signs pointing you in the general direction of where you want to go (San Ramon, Volcano, Aeropuerto), but no ‘Main Street’ or ‘San Jose Way’ or anything like that. Apparently peeps get around based on the location of an old tree, or a supermarket, or a big rock.

Anyhoo. We arrived in San Jose on Monday afternoon after a loooooong day of waiting, flying, waiting again, wandering around the airport, eating, flying again, our second flight actually flying 45 minutes longer to avoid weirdy weather patterns, then finally, landing in San Jose to grey clouds and drizzly rain and a cool breeze. Our driver, Frankie, sped us away from the airport in his rickety ol’ hatchback, cursed a traffic jam, shook his fist and yelled sarcastically ‘Gracias, GRACIAS!!!’ at an equally rickety hatchback that cut us off, and (this was the best part of the drive) stopped the car on train tracks. Yes, train tracks. Isn’t the first thing you learn in driving school NOT to come to a halt on train tracks?

I could see a train approaching, but fortunately, the traffic was soon moving again and we were off before we had our own ‘Super 8’ moment.

After about an hour of speed, squealing wheelies, and honking horns (not to mention the tunes spewing forth from an AMAZING local radio station, which featured – in this order – ‘Turn back time’ by Cher, ‘I should be so lucky’, by Kylie, and ‘Crazy’ by Icehouse – brilliant!!) we arrived at our destination: a small guesthouse on the outskirts of town.

Ken, the keeper of the inn and dad of the family, welcomed us with two beers, and a muy bueno dinner of garden rice, salad and fried plantains. Nom!

Happy pooch

When kittehs attack

The next day, after an equally nommable breakfast, we packed our bags, patted the family pooch, wrestled off a coupla kittens, and we were off, on the road to La Fortuna with our driver, Leo. Leo spoke little English, and we speak little Spanish, so it was an interesting drive and a good opportunity for me to brush up on my Spanish language skills (even though, when he was asking me if I was feeling sick, I thought he was asking about the weather, and replied enthusiastically ‘Si, si, bonita!!’. Aye yae yae!

After three hours of highway, winding mountain roads, steep gravel tracks, and a stop to buy lychees from a boy on the street (a HUGE bag for $2!!), we arrived at our destination: Finca Luna Nueva Lodge. On the road in, Leo stopped the car, opened the window and whistled. I looked out, and there, right in front of my eyes, was a SLOTH!!! CUDDLING A TREE!!!! Tres amazement….

And then – equally amazing – when we walked into our room, THIS INCREDIBLE TOWEL SCULPTURE WAS ON OUR BED:

Towel art, ala Dog (note the leaves used for the eyes and nose, and the petal tongue)

But of course, there are dangers that come with being in the middle of the jungle. Since we arrived, all I can think about is:

a) seeing a snake

b) seeing a tarantula

Each of these thoughts is then met with the more horrific thought of:

c) what if said snake/tarantula bites me/lands on me when I’m strolling about the place in a humidity-induced stupor???

So for every tarantula/snake thought I have, I think immediately of sloths, and their funny smily sleepy faces and their stupidly long limbs, and that’s usually enough to put the slithery, poisonous, hairy-legged fears to bed. Not in MY bed though – ew!