Thursday, April 26, 2012

-- The "Two Oceans" Challenge (Part 2) --

Woke up this morning with the sound of dogs barking and a lovely freshly squeezed orange juice. Then took some minutes to wander around my friend's house, a typical Costa Rican bungalow-style house boasting with character.
Wooden details combined with plain floors giving way to very spacious and well-lit rooms whilst extremely ample windows kept the whole environment fresh and bright.

Time to hit the road on the "Bosterito Merenguito" (her car) again, this time heading downhill and Southwest, rocketing down the very modern dual carriageway leading to the Puntarenas region in the Pacific Coast.
Flora changed dramatically in a matter of minutes and again , I found myself surrounded by palm trees, leaving behind the hills of San Jose with its eucaliptus trees.
As we were approaching our destination, a sight of dozens of cars parked on a bridge over a river which features two very important things: said to be the most contaminated river in Costa Rica and strangely, a group of several hundreds of massive crocodiles live just under the bridge making it a very odd stop for whoever is heading down south.

Jaco Beach made its appearance in between holiday homes, palm trees and a carnival of souvenir shops and cafes, conveniently lined up parallel to the beach which was crowded with people from early hours in the morning. Couldn't be any other way as the strong sunshine dyed the sky of an absolute blue tone with no sights of clouds in the horizon and the crystal-clear waters of the Pacific were breaking against the warm volcanic gray sand.

This is what I would call a "Surfing Day". Rented a surfboard from the one of the local shops for a very convenient price, wore a bit of sunscreen and there I was facing the warm and clean waters of the Pacific while my friend and her cousin decided to do a heavy session of catching up with their lives and tans.

As the mercury rose, the day went by quickly in between snacks, fresh fruit, some chats and catching a good amount of solid waves (dodging the surfing manta rays) while the water refreshed what it already appeared to be sunburned skin all over my body.
Souvenirs were bought and a feeling self-accomplishment was felt. I had indeed reached both oceans in less than 22 hours.

Tired, collapsed on the car a few minutes later while returning to San Jose and woke up with the sounds of planes approaching the International Airport and the sunset colouring the sky in dramatic tones of orange behind us. Quick unpacking, shower and off for my last tour of the exclusive hills of Escazu, accompanied by my two lovely hostesses, my friend and her mom.

Last order of "Casado" for dinner and a good glass of "guanabana" juice, while the conversation took place under a very informal and warm Central American night. Back at home, Skype later, can barely remember it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

-- The "Two Oceans" Challenge --

One of my main challenges when I decided to go to Costa Rica was the ability to reach both Pacific and Atlantic Ocean in less than 24 hours.
In order to do this, I woke up very early in the morning and on a taxi, rocketed down the hills of Escazu to the motorway and had my first glimpse of a messy San Jose, boiling with people commuting to work on local buses and a very old fashioned train coming from the suburb of Heredia.

The heat could be felt as early as this time of the day and a very strong sunshine was making its appearance through the mixture of old-fashioned colonial buildings and new box-like apartment blocks while we rushed through the bendy and hilly streets downtown and to the busy "Estacion del Caribe" (Caribbean Bus Station) from where I would take my bus to Puerto Limon.

Buses depart each hour so they are not very hard to catch. Bought my ticket for the first one available and rushed to the bus which was already departing. Managed to get in and the drive begun with a climb up the surrounding green hills and continuing through a very green valley full of rain forest thick vegetation which extended downhill for several kilometers until endless banana plantations welcomed us to the lowlands and little villages blended with massive banana processing plants and our bus made its way to the beehive-like town of Puerto Limon, Costa Rica's main port and gateway to the Caribbean and Atlantic markets.

The journey had already taken three hours so far with an incredible (and apparently normal) delay of 45 minutes, so I had to run to the local bus terminal just down the road to get my connecting bus to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, some 70 kilometers south of Puerto Limon and only a few kilometers away from the border with Panama.

This time a very old-fashioned noisy and hard bus was used for the 1 hour journey. No available seats either so had to stand up for most of the trip.
My attention was caught by the fact that most passengers were actually locals and were carrying pretty interesting things in their luggage, at some point I think I saw some hen heads trying to come out of a bag looking for some fresh air.
Landscape had changed dramatically by now and the Caribbean Sea was at our sight at all times, gracing the experience with a warm breeze and palm trees, little wooden shacks, fishermen boats and white sand were combined with more banana plantations and light blue fresh water rivers dodged by narrow bridges.
A "Welcome to Puerto Viejo" sign gave me the rush I needed after a long journey and as the bus entered the village, lots of signs in different languages appeared scattered everywhere along with colourful hammocks, palm trees, surf schools, wooden houses, restaurants and hostels.

Got off the bus feeling like a kid in a candy store. Where to start? Probably by heading down the road to take a look at the beach and look for the best spot to relax, enjoy the sunshine and swim in those inviting warm, clean waters, blessed by a fresh Caribbean breeze and a hazy sunshine.
As I walked down the road and away from the busy small town, I followed a trail just by the Ocean and sheltered under massive mango trees. A series of natural and unspoiled small sand strands framed by lazy palm trees would create the illusion of having a private beach for each one of the tourists in town.
The main beaches south of town was appealing enough and that was where I had decided to set my day. The sand was so clean and the water was just at the perfect temperature, while a choppy sea made me struggle a bit and played with my swimming skills.
An American and a German girl traveling together , became my friends for a few hours and a very enjoyable conversation was held under palm trees and a light sunshine. They were volunteering in Costa Rica and were traveling around the country. Could I imagine a more perfect place to do so?
Local kids were playing with a trio of beautiful puppies just besides us, so entertainment was guaranteed until our stomachs were growling for food.


I had only a few hours left in Puerto Viejo, so we headed back into town through the main road, dodging "gringos" in mopeds and bicycles as squirrels and monkeys kept jumping off trees as we walked near them.
Back in town, we went for a quick lunch and a quick good-bye/contact details exchange. Bus was already about to depart and it was time for the long return journey to San Jose.
Sun set by the hills on the left hand side of the bus and my head got heavy and sleepy. The Caribbean just faded into a roaring sound and a rain of neon lights invaded our bus windows a few minutes later and woke me up for our change of buses in Puerto Limon.
Missed my connection for two minutes. So an extra hour waiting was necessary and succesfully killed with some free wi-fi and a partly charged iPhone.

Memories of the Caribbean were distracting my mind as the packed long distance bus climbed up the hills and entered the capital some three hours later.
"Terminal del Caribe" was dead as it was late at night. I took a taxi back to Escazu where my friend had just had a family meeting, as one of her family members had died a few days prior to my arrival, and I was presented with an assorted buffet of Costa Rican delicacies and "picadillos", each one kindly explained by his uncle and featuring delicious local ingredients such as chorizo, papaya, cornbread, beans and a superb "budin".
Still a few hours to make it to the Pacific. My friend will be taking me there tomorrow morning. Will I be able to make it to both Oceans?

Monday, April 16, 2012

-- Rio Celeste (Turquoise heaven) --

Our previous day had been long so we had a rest proportional to our body needs and woke up a bit later than we had planned. It wouldn't stop us from having a massive buffet breakfast with warm omelettes, sausages, fruit, freshly squeezed juices and the typical Costa Rican breakfast: "Gallo Pinto", a mix of black beans and rice, widely eaten in the morning. Could definitely see the nutritional potential in this very complete meal mixed with some fresh fruit.

One of my friend's family had a Gas business down in Costa Rica so our first stop for the day was a quick drive to Florencia, just north of La Fortuna where we went to visit a gas processing plant for a few minutes, meet with the staff and laze under robust "star fruit" trees, picked carefully and delightfully enjoyed with a bit of salt and sugar to calm the hazy heat of the rainforest morning.

Then we drove through banana and pineapple crops as the Arenal volcano was left behind and we headed northwest near the border with Nicaragua. The GPS "spanish lady" was telling us to turn into this dirt road bound for Rio Celeste.
Road was very steep and rustic but my friend's driving skills were up for the challenge and we got there with no hassle (hoping for the car to think the same thing).

We had reached the visitors centre a bit later than expected so we were presented with the challenge of making it to the waterfall, a mile walk through hills and dense rainforest, in about an hour and a half turnaround time, giving us enough time to head back to the main road and avoiding driving the dirt road at night time.

So we wore our (rented) wellies and started hiking uphill, leaving the visitors centre behind us and entering a steep trail in between tall trees and a very humid forest while crossing wooden bridges and crystalline water streams.
As we headed downhill for the final leg of the trail, the noise of powerful rapids invaded the air and a light blue water river was shown at its best as we approached our mirage for the day, a light blue pool of water with a magnificent waterfall.

Rio Celeste (light-blue River) gets its colour as a combination of minerals up the stream, called "El Tenidero" where cristal clear waters are combined with local minerals, giving the water a rather turquoise tone, even with a cloudy day. It definitely looks like being on a swimming pool but it's just another of the nature's hidden treasures in Costa Rica.
Time for some pictures and a quick dip, while around us, tourists from all over the world were discussing about the beauty of the place in many languages.

Time to head back to the car and face a long drive to San Jose while the sun was setting in between hills and tropical fruit crops as we drove down south and up the mountains to the capital.
3h30m later the lights of San Jose and Escazu were shinning over our car windows. My friend lives in Escazu, a very posh area up the hills featuring amazing views of the valley , as far as the airport, Heredia, Alajuela and San Jose, just showing how the metropolitan area managed to conquer the hills providing a tri-dimensional show of lights as if the houses were taking off bound for the dark clear skies.

Time for some dinner at Hooligans Escazu while the Costa Rican football league was being played on some flat-screen TV's, "Ticos" were mingling and socializing and some nice burgers and chicken wings were devoured.
Also time to say good-bye to our friends, with the promise of meeting again somewhere else in the world and some basic Facebook exchange.

Back to my friend's house. Charming place. Will be talking about it on my next post. Time to hit the hay for me.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

-- Pura Vida! (Pure Life) --

With the smell of strawberry pancakes, I was awakened by these lovely tanned stewardesses in red uniforms and as our small Airbus A320 crossed the Caribbean leaving the cold weather behind us, the morning sunshine was making its way over the horizon revealing a blue sea underneath us which was replaced by many shades of green a few hours later. We were now flying over Central America and just a few minutes off Juan Santamaria International Airport in San Jose.

With a very windy approach, we dodged green mountains and active volcanoes while little houses sprinkled over the hills were welcoming us into a warm, sunny day, just offering me a small glimpse of the experiences to be had in this new country in my list.
San Jose International Airport lies in the suburb of Alajuela, some half an hour away from the city centre. It has a very modern International Terminal and probably the friendliest Immigration control I have seen in my whole life.
New stamp on my passport and I was free to explore this amazing country, in company of a friend I hadn't seen in about TEN YEARS!

Pause for a second: I met this friend of mine back in 2002 when we were both competing in a swimming championship in Guayaquil, Equador. We hadn't seen each other since then but we kept in touch through MSN Messenger and then Facebook. When I told her I was going to Costa Rica, she kindly offered me to stay at hers and show me around. How could I say no to that amazing warm offer?

Back to our trip, the weather was amazing offering me my first contact with warm humidity in almost two years (as Ireland never really gets warm).
The Costa Rican flag was waving over me as a horde of tourists made their way through the busy Arrivals hall and tour operators were holding several name plates in an interesting mix of surnames.
My friend came along a few minutes later in her "Bosterito Merenguito" (her car), gave me a very warm hug, introduced me to two of her friends and gave me the details of the day they had planned ahead of us.
So without even reaching the city, we took the motorway to the North of the country while little towns were getting busier with festivities, typical food and beverages stands were inviting us for a quick pit stop and my head and skin were being blessed by a warm breeze coming from the car windows. A sudden feeling of happiness invaded my body and a rush of wellness calmed my muscles as beautiful green mountains were being conquered by the now-narrow road and our car was making its way to the overwhelming rainforest down the valleys.

We crossed suspension bridges defying cristal-clear rapids, had the first taste of typical Costa Rican "refrescos" (juices) and we reached the small, busy town of La Fortuna, quietly surveyed by the majestic cone-shaped Arenal Volcano which is still active!

We were going to spend the night at this Resort down the National Park but as we had had an early start, lunch was our first priority.
In the very Costa Rican way of being, we all decided to order "Casado". The national dish consisting in a very complete mix of ingredients, including black beans, rice, salad, plantains and topped up by fried eggs and a nice piece of grilled fish. My eyes shined when the massive dish was brought in front of me and a festival of flavors was set in my mouth while I tried to finish it with a good glass of fresh strawberry juice.

Bellies full, time to hit the road again for a short drive to the Resort where we checked into this comfortable wooden cabin overlooking the imponent volcano in front of us.
Time for a walk-around, ignoring warning signs and following a trail that led us down a steep hill, through thick and humid rainforest with the sound of tucanos in the background and monkeys playing around the trees.
A mirage a few minutes later: Crystal clear rivers making its way through the untouched woods, ideal for a quick dip to calm the heat (and wash down the sweat) and then time for more walking uphill and to the main road where we were lucky enough to catch a lift straight back to the Resort.

As volcanic activity in the area is strong, we headed to the thermal baths available at the Resort. 14 different thermal pools featuring different temperatures. Took us a while to find the ideal one for us. The sensation was superb and the mineral warm waters relaxed our tired muscles and some nice local beers were enjoyed under the Central American summer night light (until a little sneaky snake made its way into our pool and sent us running to the main swimming pool).

Time for some daiquiris, mojitos, caipirinhas and cocktails by the pool at the best holiday maker style until our stomachs were craving for yet another dose of energy, while some heavy catching up on our lives took place and our local bartender explained us the benefits and many happenings of living in this area.
Dinner time and a second "casado" dish for me, this time topped with a nice piece of grilled beef while my brain started roaming on automatic pilot and my memory failed to remember what the conversation was about a few minutes later. That was it for me, at least for the day.

Monday, April 9, 2012

-- New England turnaround --

I was extremely tired from the last day in New York running around, so the four hour ride to Boston was hardly felt and before I knew it, highways and high-rising buildings were welcoming our bus into the city.

We arrived into South Station when it was still very dark. It was also snowing outside so going for a walk was not very tempting, specially with the feeling of not having showered and morning breath. Everything inside the bus station was closed as well so just managed to lay on my backpack and get some sleep until conditions were a bit more bearable outside.
With the morning weak sunrise, I managed to dodge the slippery snow and ice combo in the pathways and went into Starbucks just across the road to use the free wi-fi and get a super strong coffee to wake up and get some energy for the day.
No place to leave the backpack while wandering, so had to carry it for the entire day.

First impressions of Boston while walking through its beautiful city centre: Colonial and traditional. City Centre is very modern and massive glass and steel buildings rise in contrast with Victorian clock-towers, red-bricked street markets and cobblestone streets.
Waterfront was my first stop where my feet got completely soaked with the heavy snow (noticing I was wearing plain Vans flat shoes) and where you could get a stunning overview of the skyline I just mentioned. On the other side of the river, a vibrant suburban area and the international Airport with a busy performance of aircraft activity while the city was waking up for another busy day.

A long walk ahead (this is when maps can cheat you distance-wise), crossing the main water stream to get to the Charlestown and the USS Constitution which was closed until later in the morning. I had decided to see it as it was highly recommended by people in general so in order to kill some hours until opening hour, wandered around the neighborhood in between colorful wooden cottages, narrow streets, hills, little kids going to school and bumped into Bunker Hill, a massive obelisk fitted just in the middle of the area and on top of a hill, providing a nice overview of the region and the City Centre in the backdrop.
Went back to the USS Constitution down the road to find out the ship was actually closed and could only see the museum which i admit, was a bit of a let down.

Time was short and backpack was heavy so just walked across this area again, over a massive train depot and some warehouses, under a weak sunshine and a vanilla-colored sky to the famous Cambridge suburb. What's famous about this? a top University has its campus here: Harvard.

Straight-lined streets and little shops kept me distracted on my walk, while students were cycling around or just walking into a massive square surrounded by Victorian style buildings and halls. It felt like being in England to be honest (hence the New England name) while some tourists were taking pictures of the surroundings and what looked like, a normal student life.
I wandered around campus for a bit until the cold weather and hunger invaded by body and it was time to head to this food hall across the road to have a little sandwich , change into new dry socks and rest for the long walk back into town.

Next stop in the walk was MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) where the best 'nerds' in the world go to do research in the most random stuff and create new technologies. Nothing against them!. A solid building with a massive portico welcomes you while students run around carrying heavy backpacks and books.

As soon as I crossed the frozen river to get back into town, walked through Newbury Street. A line up of red-bricked buildings scattered with lovely coffee shops, restaurants and famous retail brands. A nice half an hour walk while enjoying a coffee and a warm donut heading into the park where ice-skaters were dodging the rain to make the best of their experience in the frozen Frog Pond, friendly squirrels would approach for food (and make the day of some Spanish tourists) and finally into town again.

Legs were absolutely wrecked and I could already feel the effects of two days without sleeping. Amtrak just besides the coach station was extremely handy for free wi-fi , a long Skype session and some rest before taking the bus back to New York in the late afternoon.
Some four hours later and Manhattan could be seen from our windows as we entered Harlem and then downtown.

Flight to Costa Rica scheduled for early morning, time to catch the subway along with a mix of drunk people, latinos heading home after a long day of work and some random characters while the carriage made its way through the noisy tunnels to Jamaica Bay.
Airport was dead at this time of the night, except for the long queue of TACA Airlines with two flights departing at the same time: San Salvador and San Jose de Costa Rica, which I was taking.

Quick check-in, relaxed security checks at this time of the day and just went to the boarding gate to wait for my flight while trying to fit myself into those uncomfortable airport seats to catch some sleep. Next stop: Central America!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

-- Lady Liberty, UN and prawns --

Today was my last day in "The City that Never Sleeps", even though I had finally slept very well after burning a massive amount of calories yesterday by walking around Manhattan battling the freezing wind and after a heavy dose of Vaseline/Moisturizer over my burned legs and some cold-wet towel therapy to ease the redness of my skin.

Was also time to leave thehostel and take the heavy backpackfor a stroll in the city and, as the Upper West Side was left behind and a crisp Central Park welcomed me into the city for the last time, I managed to take a few snaps of the gorgeous ice rink perfectly settled in between trees, hills and a stunning view of the skyscrapersthat create such a dramatic border between the concrete jungle and the greenery.

Communication was not my best friend again and I got delayed for an hour in the attempt of meeting my friend for lunch , not before leaving my heavy cargo/life at her office on some seventeenth floor with stunning views of the Chrysler building, Brooklyn and the UN headquarters which I will be talking about later.

We went to this gorgeous place a few blocks away, it is called the Amish Market and as the name says, based on a traditional culture,all food is actually fresh and good-to-go (cheap too!). Some succulent sea bass dishes with fresh wheat sprouts and tomato salad made my light yet complete lunch while diplomats shared tables loudly talking on their iPhones in different languages. Yes, we were in the Diplomatic area of Manhattan and my friend works for one of the many diplomatic missions around the magnificent UN building, designed by brazilian architect Oscar Niemayer who also designed some other significant buildings around the world I have been lucky to see such as the MAC in Niteroi, Brazil and the Brazilian capital, Brasilia.

As a friend of someone with access to this building, we started our little quick "tour" with a few airport-style security checks, at this point getting used to take off my shoes and empty my pockets, and then on to the main lobby where a very dramatic 70's architecture is shown at its best. Sinuous lines combined with straight elements and materials leading to different rooms covered in dark oak and golden details. A main curvy staircase/ramp leads me to a statue of Ban Ki-Moon welcoming me to the main General Assembly hall where main leaders gather to discuss matters that influence all of us atsome point.
The importance of the building struckme a bit and, as I gained special access to the desks and actually sat on them, I could imagine for a second the feeling of being a big leader dealing with very important matters and even trying to use the buttons to vote. Quick snap to prove the visit to such an iconic place in the world (and to cross out ofmy list) and then quickly passed through some exhibitions about the UN Peace keeping force and time to get my ID back ,say good-bye as my friend had to go back to work and head to my next stop. Now, what kind of trip to New York would be complete without saying "Hi" to Lady Liberty in style?

Quickly took the bus rocketing down Second Avenue to South Ferry where a free boat take commuters and tourist to Staten Island.
The boat departs very regularly and I ran through the terminal to get mine as the gates were closed just as soon as I set a foot on it.
Sailed off and a chilly wind was hitting my and many other tourists faces while Manhattan was left behind and Lady Liberty (Statue of Liberty to be clearer) was saying "Hi" to all of us petrified by the cold breeze and the view while our hands timidly left our warm pockets to shoot non-stop for pictures and the sky was already turning into dramatic shades of orange.
As soon as we touched port in Staten Island, a sea of commuters emptied the ferry and a wave of tourists turned around the terminal and boarded it back to Manhattan, this time to provide us to an again, rather melancholic sunset while dodging a few cargo ships and the approaching buildings in the Financial District were shinning with a mix of yellow and white neon lights.

Just a few minutes to get back to my friend's office, say good-bye and schedule a meeting a few weeks later on my way back to Dublin and ran across the island to Times Square where one of my mom's friends was already waiting for me.
As soon as I met her, I knew we would get along well (got a gift too!) and some steps down the streets we decided to have something very American to finish the day. A meal in the world-famous "Red Lobster" restaurant where very cheerful waiters would welcome you in probably the cheesiest way possible, adding a special touch to your already over-sized portion of all the prawns you could possibly eat in one single meal.
I did my best try and managed to eat half of my ship-shaped plate full of buttery king prawns while an interesting conversation about immigration, traveling, new adventures and sacrifices sometimes made to get where you want to be took me by surprise, making every minute of it very pleasant and also making me feel a bit identified with the stories being told.

Time to head to the bus station to catch my "Megabus" to Boston. Did I say bus station? No such thing really, just a bus stop on the street by the darkest and edgiest part the East Side.
Using my brain I managed to dodge the waiting under the light falling snow by sneaking my way into Penn Station a block away where I effortfully managed to lay on the floor by my backpack, rest a bit, charge both my iPhone and the extra battery, get online with the free wi-fi kindly provided by Amtrak , Skype with the folks and wait around for a few hours before my bus to my next destination.
Special mention to the guys from "The Motherly Heaven" who tried hard in brainwashing me for a few minutes and some other junkie asking for spare change.

Boarded my luxurious double-decker bus in the middle of the night along with a very multi-cultural queue of people with the sound of a strong Cuban accent spoken by the drivers. Collapsed a few minutes later. Boston just a few hours away now.