Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Playa Brasilito to Monteverde

A short drive down the beach from Playa Brasilito is Playa Conchal, considered one of the prettiest beaches in Costa Rica. There’s only one large resort on the beach, but since all beaches in Costa Rica are public, trucks full of plastic chairs and ATV’s and jet skis had been passing our campsite at the Brasilito Lodge all morning to set up a makeshift market and tour center on the beach. We took a drive along the beach road, dodging iguanas as we went, to see for ourselves.






We couldn’t resist a “yeah, we drove here” picture.


Or this follow-up.


A fully “victorious” strangler tree, having killed its host and assumed its shape.


Of course it was incredibly beautiful, but the Tulum beaches are gonna be pretty hard to beat. We’ve got high hopes for the Osa Peninsula, though.

We continued deeper into the Nicoya Peninsula towards Tamarindo, a more developed beach area, just to check it out. One of the most established tourist areas in Costa Rica, mentions of Tamarindo usually have the term “gringofied” in the same breath. While there were several beach front hotels, shopping areas and lots of private houses, it still had a very mellow beach vibe on our quick drive through. Perhaps after 4 months of some degree of struggle for every meal and place to stay, the idea of things like healthy food and clean rooms being “gringofied” didn’t have the same pejorative meaning to us. We’d come to realize that Costa Rica was going to be a more established tourist destination than some of the places we’d come through, and if we were going to enjoy it, we’d better embrace it.



Besides, most of what we saw was miles and miles of dirt backroads through coastal ranch land.






After a wandering tour, we connected with the recently built Puente La Amistad near the center of the peninsula to turn north towards the Pan Am. The goal for the day was to go from the beach to the cloud forest at Monteverde, and as we took the junction towards Las Juntas, the mountains rose above us to the north. After 10 or 15 km, the road turned to rough dirt and climbed a winding ridge for another thirty. While nothing that required four wheel drive, there were some steep sections and the rest made the truck feel like it would rattle apart.





Behind us, views opened up back to the Golfo de Nicoya and the Pacific Ocean.



And in front, the landscape was starting to change. Trade winds blowing hot, humid air from the Caribbean stalled over the mountains of the Continental Divide forming an almost permanent bank of clouds.



The Quakers who settled in Monteverde in the 1950’s, fleeing military service much like the Mennonites we’d seen in Belize, had preserved the rainforests on the mountaintops to protect the watershed for their dairy and cattle operations below. Since then, they’d fought improvement of the roads leading to the area as a way to slow the pace of tourist encroachment. So after 50km of dirt road, it was a little disappointing to see the town of Santa Elena lined with tour companies and tourist attractions. The streets are filled with couples driving the ubiquitous rental Suzuki Jimmys we’d been seeing all day and active retirees kitted out with full safari gear and telescoping walking sticks. But after settling into a small lodge, chosen solely based on the quality of its sign – we figured artsy but professional would put us in the middle price and quality range – and hearing good things about many of those attractions from the young couple who owned it, we resolved to keep an open mind.


The rainbow off our balcony may have helped…



That night, we checked out the Ranarium, “rana” meaning “frog” and “arium” of course meaning “glass enclosure you promise your mom you’ll clean but never do.” Why is it that it’s mentally easier to pay 5,000 Colones for a block of cheddar cheese than it is to dust off the credit card and charge $20 a piece to see some frogs? But we’d come to accept that in Costa Rica, this was going to be an everyday thing. See the frogs? $20. Enter the cloud forest reserve? $20. Sloths? $20. Pizza? $20. Now we know how they got so “rica.” ‘Cause everything “costa” lot.

Our group this evening was us, a young couple from Minnesota and, ironically, enough, three French tourists. As soon as we would approach a display, the couple from Minnesota would stand shoulder to shoulder in front of it, completely blocking the view. They came to be know as “the hogs.” The French? Well, “the frogs,” obviously. So at the first display, our guide asked our group, the hogs, the frogs and us, what we knew about these little amphibians. The girl hog started reciting an exhaustive list, “These frogs are nocturnal, they can absorb nutrients through their fingers, they have four stomachs…” Sensing that his mate was coming off a little overenthusiastic, the boy hog defused the situation with a well-timed “They taste like chicken.” Without missing a beat, she continued “I have a white tree frog at home and he eats crickets and caterpillars and…”

For the rest of the tour, the pattern continued. The hogs would block the entire display while the girl hog listed everything she knew about this and any other known frog while talking baby talk to them. “Oh well there he is, Mr. Blue Jeans! He’s a widdle fwoggy woggy in’t he?!” The boy frog would then awkwardly move her to the side so that all three French frogs could each take 7 blurry pictures. Finally, we’d get up to the glass, searching around for the tiny frog as the guide started eying the next display.




Girl Hog: “Ooooh, he’s sooooo pretty!!! Toads have dry skin and warts while frogs have wet skin.”



Girl Hog: “Widdle man is soooooo very shy!”



I call this next one “Frogs in Space.”


“I cannot tell you the answer you seek.”




The little guy below is on the cover of the Lonely Planet book. In this picture, I wanted to emphasize that our “focus” needs to be sharpened on habitat conservation if we are to save this wonderful creature.


While I actually got some good shots in the end, the girl hog would often stand so close to the glass that any picture I took had her reflection in it. In the picture above, the ONE people come there to get, the camera kept autofocusing on her reflection and the frog ended up blurred. Then the short French frog liked to duck underneath the camera I was carefully bracing to get a crisp shot of the tiny frogs in the low light and bump it with her head as she popped in front. I think the worst part about being in a touristy area is not the tourist attractions, it’s the tourists.

I deleted about a hundred of this shot.


The next morning, we looked out the window at breakfast to see a little pink face. With a white collar and black fur, a spider monkey was sitting on a branch outside looking in. Behind him, three or four others moved between the trees. A mother with a baby clinging to the fur on her back ventured out onto a branch, rocked back once and launched herself and passenger 15 feet, 50 feet in the air, crashing into the foliage of another tree. She must have known what she was doing because mommy and baby climbed out of the leaves and onto a solid branch.


Another guest at the lodge went outside with a piece of fruit. The monkey who had been peering in climbed down his tree and grabbed the fruit with an outstretched hand. Our feeling was that this probably wasn’t the best practice for the monkey’s survival in the wild. Plus, unlike the monkey that bit Ann in Tulum, we doubted this monkey was carrying his vaccination papers.

Though a tourist infrastructure is definitely in place in Santa Elena, we came to like the small town with interesting looking bars, coffee houses and hostels along side the obvious tourist trap restaurants. With a full list of things to see from the owners of the lodge, we knew we had at least one more full day ahead of us.