Pulpology: Mark & Sonia's Intercontinental Absurdities!

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07 September 2007
Spelunk, Part 2!
Dem bones and more in the ATM cave
I'd heard lots of good things about the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave tour, so I was pretty psyched for this one. And I was not disappointed! This was one of my favorite parts of the trip. It combined the cool spelunking activities of the Costa Rican cave expedition with an excellent hike through the jungle, and inside the cave itself is a section of pottery and other archaeological remains, including several human skeletons from human sacrifice rituals. Kickass!

Our small group consisted of Patrick, our spirited guide of Mayan and African heritage who is also a shaman; and Bill & Katie, a friendly couple from Arizona with a real zest for life. It was great fun hanging out with these folks for the day. We started off with a 45-minute hike through the thick jungle, during which Patrick pointed out tidbits of local history, and various uses for the local flora and fauna. And he taught us how to use materials on the jungle floor to make a blowpipe and nail someone from 50 yards. Nice. Occasionally he'd swipe his huge machete at the overhanging vines in order to clear the trail a bit. The jungle seemed much denser than anything I'd been through in Costa Rica or Guatemala, and we had to cross a small river three times to get to the cave site. Patrick, ever the flirt, took the opportunity to hold my hand because the rocks were slippery. Have to give him a few points for creativity, I guess!

We reached the cave entrance and went for a brief swim and had lunch while we waited for another group to pass. The water was really chilly, and there were small fish nibbling at our skin, but it felt great after the sweaty walk through the jungle. We tossed our cameras and clothing into a dry bag, strapped on our helmets and lights (dead sexy!), and swam into the cave entrance. Patrick prompted us to dive to the sandy bottom and pick up a handful of gravel in a particular area that was supposed to contain special energy. Not sure if it was the frigid water or the power of suggestion, but I certainly did feel more awake when I emerged! Just inside the cave entrance was a rock formation that, when viewed with a bit of a squint, looked like the profile of a man. That was Chac, the river god, standing guard over the cave. Cooooool.

We swam and climbed and waded our way through the cave, turning off our lights at various points to appreciate the symphony of sounds the water was making. It was truly fabulous. At one spot we climbed up to a terrace where ceremonial remains stood, marking the bloodletting rituals the rich and powerful would perform on an annual basis. It was important to give something back, Patrick explained. Creepy-cool! A bit later we reached the dry area where the majority of the archaeological remains were found: huge cavernous rooms with pottery shards as far as the eye could see... some left in place and some washed around by water over time... lots of tripod stones, and examples of various styles of pottery, including one very sacred pot with a funny little character carved into it, the only one of its kind found at this site. And, the coup-de-grace, human bones! One skull in particular showed the various types of body modification fashionable at the time: flattened skull and ridged teeth, to give the appearance of youth. Makes about as much sense as breast implants. Further along was the female skeleton for whom the cave was named, almost completely covered in calcite deposits to give her a furry appearance. The whole thing was totally kickass.

We made our way back to the cave entrance, sometimes swimming and sometimes climbing. Patrick was careful to point out all protruding or dangerous rocks, but I missed one and gouged my knee. It is important to give something back, after all. Ouch! Back in the picnic area, we observed a long leaf-cutter ant highway and Patrick bashed open a nut he'd asked us to collect earlier in the day. It turned out to be a relative of the coconut, and the white fibrous meat inside was similar to coconut. Yum! Along the path back to the van Patrick spotted the tiniest little turtle I have ever seen, and collected it to place it in a safer spot later. The entire day was incredibly fun, tiring, but excellent.

When we got back to San Ignacio the four of us had drinks at Faya Wata, the bar next door to the tour office, and reminisced about the day. Patrick, it turns out, also makes jewelry, and I wound up getting a small carved ring made out of the same nut we'd snacked on earlier. It was a delightful end to a fabulous day.
Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments

06 September 2007
Lots and lots of Mayan ruins
OK, back in business after a few days of waiting for Hurricane Felix, which turned out to be something of a non-event. It did dump several inches of rain out here in western Belize, which had an impact on some of the cave tubing trips but was otherwise no big deal.

Today I did a tour to Caracol, largest Mayan ruin site in Belize. Led by guide Jorge and driven by a funny little guy named Everald, both of whom work for Mayawalk Tours, we were a fairly small group of two British couples and myself. The drive out to Caracol started off along some nice paved roads that took us past several Mennonite farms. (Can I just say how bizarre it is to see Amish-looking people in middle-of-nowhere Belize??? Yet another piece of Pennsylvania here in Central America.) But then we veered off the main road onto one of the bumpiest paths I've encountered since the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Part of it was due to the recent rains, but I got the sense that these dirt roads are never in particularly good shape. We did pass through two distinct ecosystems -- pine forests on one side of the river, and rain forests on the other -- which was pretty cool. Unfortunately some nasty beetles brought in by Hurricane Mitch had destroyed most of the pine trees several years back, but it looked like they were starting to make a comeback.

After about an hour of frog-in-a-blender jouncing and bumping, we finally arrived at the park. Thank god! Jorge led us through a lush forest trail and gave us a history lesson along the way. He used rocks and stumps on the trail to illustrate the complex interdependencies, alliances, and wars between the largest Mayan civilizations of the region: Caracol in Belize, Tikal and Naranjo in Guatemala, and Calakmul in Mexico. Belizeans are quite proud of the fact that Caracol defeated Tikal, twice. After Jorge finished, we were all a bit dizzy with information overload. If you care to know the gory details, you can read more about Caracol here.

We spent the next two hours clambering over various structures: temples, a ballcourt, and some spooky dank tombs. There's a lot to see at this site, but it's still only a fraction of the entire city. As with Tikal and most other sites, the jungle has encroached over time and still covers most of the temples and residences. They have done a pretty good job of reconstructing some of the jaguar masks on the sides of the temples, which illustrate scenes from the various levels of Mayan heaven and underworld (Xibalba). And some of the stelae show representations of the most powerful rulers in great detail, including the dwarves which were considered sacred attendants to the king.

We had some lunch at the visitor center -- standard chicken-with-rice fare, which is pretty frickin tasty when you're ravenous -- and continued on to the Rio Frio cave and Rio On Pools. The cave was OK. No bats or anything, and we saw the entire thing in about ten minutes. We were hoping to get to swim in the pools, but with the recent flooding the river was dangerously high and all we could do was stand at the overlook and look forlornly at the lovely cool water below. Oh well.

All in all, it was a nice day, and felt good to be getting out and about in the world after several days of waiting around.
Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments

22 August 2007
Jungle Tour and blackouts
downtown LivingstonThe Iguana offers two local tours, one a beachy/boozy kinda day ending at Siete Altares waterfalls, and the other a tour of town and Garífuna culture also ending at Siete Altares. After my veg day, I decided it was time for a little cul-cha, and chose the second tour. We had a pretty good crew: Matt & Helen, Evan, two Israeli girls named Mor and Tair, and two crazy dentists named Al and Philip who'd spent some time volunteering at a dental clinic elsewhere in Guatemala. Along the way we were joined by an odd French couple -- she was bubbly and chatty, and he said no more than three words the entire day -- and a woman named Marisa from San Francisco. Led by local Garífuna guide Francis, we had a good group.

The term Garífuna refers to both the language and the culture of the local people, who are of African descent. They're found throughout the Caribbean Coast of Central America. I'm not going to give the full history lesson here, but if you want to learn more there's a good site called Garifuna.com (of course!) that explains all about their tumultuous history, culture, and society.

Francis, our, um, like, tour guideWe started the day strolling through the town of Livingston, while Francis gave us some stilted history and cultural notes. He'd lived there all his life and was clearly interested in sharing his knowledge with travelers from all over the world, but he wasn't the most articulate fellow. So it was a little tricky to parse out his, um, you know, like, information about the, like, um, local people, you know? As with the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica, the accents here are more Jamaican-sounding. So even when they're speaking English, you have to listen closely to understand what's being said.

creepy saints inside the hybrid churchBut Francis was a fun guy and eventually we became accustomed to his delivery. He showed us the local church, where they have three types of services: standard Catholic, traditional Mayan, and a Garifuna version with a lot of Afro-Caribbean practices that must be really interesting to witness. The church was decorated with the usual creepy-eyed saints along the walls, dressed in local fabrics. This time they took it a step further and even put wigs on some of the statues. Freaky deaky.

festive wreath on a colorful tombNext stop was the cemetery, which looked like a funky blend of Pere Lachaise, New Orleans, and clown college. Each grave was painted a different bright color, and many were festooned with huge plastic leis or flowers. Francis explained that they celebrated Dia de los Muertos here, similar to Mexico, and the belief was that a person's life should be celebrated with a riotous party. Gotta love that. So they basically have a huge block party once a year, right in the graveyard, and relatives bring items that their loved ones would have appreciated during their mortal time on earth. Bottle of rum for Uncle Junior, big plate of tamales for Aunt Maria. Lots of music and food and drinks for the living, as well. Sounds like quite a time.

backyard jacuzzi, Livingston-styleWe trooped through the village, stopping to wave at cute indigenous waifs with big brown eyes who would occasionally pose for pictures. It was getting really hot and incredibly humid, so when we hiked up a small hill to see a mirador that afforded views of Belize and Honduras, it felt as though we'd just climbed a huge mountain. That beachy boozy thing was starting to sound better and better. We walked, and walked, and walked, all the while Francis keeping up a friendly banter with whomever was at the front of the group. Finally we hit the river, where a man in a small canoe was waiting to take us to the next spot. We went in two groups, and although there was little breeze along the river, it was a tranquil trip to skim across the water's surface, passing  mangroves and other lush vegetation.

beauty and the beachWe regrouped at a small restaurant for a quick beverage and to feed bananas to the local spider monkey, tethered to a huge tree by a long rope. A bit cheesy and canned, yes, but still fun! From there we walked over a huge suspension bridge and to a small beach. Finally! We all rushed into the water, only to find it to be the approximate temperature of bathwater. Ehm, refreshing, not! Plus there was some highly nasty slurm on the bottom that squished ickily underfoot. Bleccccch. Still, it was fun for a quick dip and a brief swim without touching the bottom at all. And the breeze on the beach was lovely indeed.

Marisa takes the plungeAfter a brief lunch of ubiquitous ham & cheese sandwiches coated with the requisite mayonnaise (hey, there's a reason they're not known for their cuisine around here!) it was time for the highpoint of the day: Siete Altares waterfalls. We had to sign into the park -- I always wonder what the heck they do with all this "sign in" information -- and then head up a short series of steps. The pools were shallow like at Semuc Champey, with rock formations throughout that made it easy to walk across, and small waterfalls trickling between them. The very last pool had a really cool waterfall that people jumped off. And the water was actually refreshing! It was also fun to hang out behind the waterfall and watch people go plummeting over the side.

The trek back to town was made more interesting when only two taxis showed up instead of the requested three. Two cars for a dozen people? How are we supposed to do that? Why, the Guatemalan way! Stuff a few folks in the open trunk and have them hang on for dear lives over the bumpy roads! Unfortunately I was laughing too hard to get any pics of this adventure, but it was hilarious. Until one of the taxis ran out of gas. Apparently this is a pretty common thing, since gas is so expensive and they can only afford to put in a few eyedroppers of gas at a time. We left that group behind and our driver sent another person to go pick them up, so once again all's well that ends well.

That evening a huge storm ripped through Livingston. Remnants of Hurricane Dean, coming to say hello? Who knows. It knocked out power right in the middle of my shower, which isn't as big a deal when the shower wasn't hot to begin with, but it did make it challenging to finish up in the dark. We spent the rest of the night hanging out at the Iguana by candlelight. I wasn't in the mood for drinking games and hit the sack early, in anticipation of a long and tiring travel day to Honduras.
Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments

19 August 2007
Temples in the mist
Sunrise in Tikal

Getting up at 3am wasn't as bad as I'd thought. Guess it helps when you go to bed at 9pm! However, getting to Tikal was a bit of a CF. The Guatemaltecos could take some tourism lessons from the Ticos... they don't quite have it down yet...

So a bunch of us were waiting in the street outside the hotel at the appointed time of 3:20am. And we waited. And we waited. At about 3:45, a shuttle pulled up. Woo-hoo, our ride to Tikal! Nope, it was full. And everyone in the street had a voucher from a different tour company, so I had to wait for three or four more shuttles to come by before I finally got on one. And then the driver circled a few more loops while he figured out who else he needed top pick. Guess who it was? That's right, the ducks were back! Fortunately they were all a bit more subdued at that hour, and there was no chatter on the way to the park.

The ride was about an hour long, just enough time for everyone who had been awake enough to get in the shuttle to fall asleep and get really groggy by the time we arrived. They hustled us out, in the dark, and instructed us to follow a guide to the sunrise point. Again, for some reason the man found it necessary to sprint through the park, on a very uneven path, with only a small flashlight. I am amazed nobody broke an ankle or anything.

When we got to Temple VI, the highest temple in the park, it was time to climb a series of steep rickety wooden stairs. More of a ladder, really. Whew! This is hard work! At the top were probably about 100 other tourists, trying to find the best spot, rustling through their bags to find cameras and water, and just generally fidgeting like tourists do. Two girls were actually trying to meditate. The scene before us was shrouded in mist, with howler monkeys and other creatures starting to warm up with a chorus of screeches, chirps, and growls. Very mystical and mysterious, and mostly tranquil if you could ignore all the fidgeting people around you.

Eventually the sun started to come up, and the air was filled with the familiar beep-crunch of a hundred digital cameras firing off. Very gradually the sun started burning off the haze, and temple sillhouettes began to appear in the distance across a great valley. It was spectacular. And for once, the weather was on our side! The past few days had been disastrously rainy. Can you imagine all that work just to get up there and sit in the rain? Nope, we definitely lucked out. It was a wonderful sunrise.

We got re-organized into groups according to our tour company and preferred language. Louis, our guide, spoke pretty good English (although his accent did sound a bit like Father Guido Sarducci) and was incredibly knowledgable about Mayan culture as well as the various flora and fauna in the park. We spent the next few hours climbing temples, watching trees full of toucans and monkeys, and learning about the many species of plants in the park. It was the most wildlife I'd seen since Costa Rica! And in an amazing setting. The civilization of Tikal was abandoned eons ago, and the forest grew in and over and around it. They're still unearthing huge temples from under mountains of dirt and foliage. It's a fascinating place.

The best part of getting there so early was finishing up by about 10am. (I felt a bit like I'd been drafted into the army... We get more done before 9am than most people do all day!) This was perfect, because it was starting to get ridiculously hot, and crowded. Apparently that day was Guatemalans Get In For Free day, and huge buses full of schoolkids and other locals began pouring into the park as we were leaving. Timing is everything!

Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments
17 August 2007
Semuc Champey and Lanquin Caves
And more frickin' stairs!

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

I decided to take a daytrip tour to the Semuc Champey waterfalls and Lanquín Caves. Originally I'd been planning to stay there overnight at a cool hostel I'd heard about, but the fact that I had a nice hotel in Coban, which also offered a shuttle straight to my next destination of Flores, won out in the end. Plus the tour came with breakfast and lunch, so it sounded perfect.

Rene, tourguide extraordinaireThe drive out to Semuc Champey was long, hot, and very bumpy, especially towards the end. Fortunately we had a really funny tourguide named Rene, who kept us all amused. Not that it was a particularly friendly crowd... the group consisted of eight Israelis (two families of four), a German family of four, a Spanish couple, and me. So everyone else had a pre-defined group to chat with in their own language, leaving me to sit and stare out the window. This was one of those times when it would've been nice to have a travel companion, or even my own posse!

where the Rio Cahabon exits the underground caveAt any rate, we arrived at the Semuc Champey park grounds after about two and a half hours of bumping and jostling in the van. It's become quite a popular spot to visit in recent years, as it's a pretty unusual natural wonder. The Río Cahabón flows down through a huge cavern into a series of shallow limestone pools that cascade down in a tranquil flow. The bulk of the river goes underground and cuts back out from a hole in the canyon a few miles downstream. It's pretty spectacular.

oktapodi checks out Semuc Champey from aboveThe walk out to the pools was mellow enough. And then Rene asked us if we'd like to go to the mirador, or viewpoint. Silly me, forgetting that everything in Guatemala involves some grueling uphill race to the death that usually results in me feeling like the Weakest Link, Goodbye! Yes, I forgot all that in the excitement of seeing the pools from up above, and I agreed to go. Not only was it the steepest, slipperiest climb yet, but for some reason everyone else seemed hellbent on getting to the top as fast as possible, with no stopping at all. Am I really the only one who thinks it's reasonable to stop and smell the jungle from time to time? Guess I am. Anyway, the view from the top was, of course, splendid. Almost worth the humiliating climb up there. It was interesting to see the pools from above... the turquoise colors were magnificent and the rushing river downstream was amazing. Not sure why we had to climb vertically to the absolute top of the stupid gorge to see it, but, hey, it made for some nice pics. Which you'll see eventually, I promise.

Fortunately we went down the other side (ah, see, there *is* an easy way!) and for some reason everyone else wanted to take it nice and slow, so I got totally ahead of the group. But, y'know, why be like everyone else? When we got back to the main area there was plenty of time to float in the water and explore the small series of waterfalls. It was reeeeeeeally relaxing.

On the way back, we stopped at the Lanquín Caves, which were OK but not as cool as the spelunking caves we went through in La Fortuna. It was just a series of slippery walkways and a few steps, with lights strung inside and a sign here or there calling out interesting formations. Not that many bats, either. But not a bad way to end the day's excursion.


Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments
11 August 2007
So much for haggling
Apparently I am as stupid as I look

Another travel day, and also an uprooting from the Black Cat Xela, my home away from home for nearly the past week. Surprisingly, I will miss this offbeat place... my odd chats with Joanne, the bizarre Claire (whom I have forgiven for her past transgressions), and most especially the breakfasts! Mmmmm, desayuno típico, with your eggs, beans, friend plantains, tomato, avocado, toast, and weird crumbly tasteless cheese, I shall miss you the most!

Anyway, I grabbed the now-familiar micro/camioneta combo and headed to Chichicastenango, which on Thursdays and Sundays hosts the most famous market in all of Guatemala. Found a nice room with a spectacular view of the town and the church, and set off to see about getting a guided tour to the Pascual Abaj shrine, a Mayan altar perched high in the hills above town.

Pascual Abaj Mayan shrine, main altarI wandered down the street, and sure enough one of the "licensed" guides approached me. Not learning from my Santiago Atitlán experience, I failed to pre-negotiate a price, but decided that 20Q should be adequate. We headed up a really steep hill -- curse this frickin country where everything is up-frickin-hill -- and had a pleasant enough conversation in Spanish. And when we reached the top of the hill he had lots of good information about the various Mayan altars and rituals. We´d obviously just missed seeing an actual ceremony, though. But he went through a litany of info about what each altar is for (requests for a good marriage, healthy pregnancy, end to vices, peace in the country, good harvests, etc) and some information about Mayan shamans (there are equal numberes of men and women in each village, as guys have to go to a male shaman and women to a female. And then he offered to take me to the local weaving cooperative where I could buy a mask or a hand-made blanket, and everything was authentic, and he´d make sure I got a good price, yada yada yada. I tried getting him to tell me what a decent price might be, as it´s hard to haggle when you´re not sure what your goal is, but he deflected with the old "don´t worry, I´m your guide, I´m here to guide you!" Right.

the ripoff crew (and she looks so innocent!)Long story short, I wound up spending more than I´d intended, albeit on a very nice piece of tapestry that may make a lovely wedding present for a certain brother and future sister-in-law. Once again I felt somewhat used and abused, but I guess that´s what we gringo tourists are here for. To make matters worse, I had trouble finding the right change, and had to stop at like three stores before I found a shopkeeper who would break a 100Q bill. (It started to feel ridiculously like that South Park episode where zombies wander around asking for chaaaaaaaaange, doesn´t anybody have any chaaaaaaange?) And then the coup-de-grace, when I offered the guide his 20Q he was incredbily offended and demanded 50. No way, man, not after you just helped fleece me outta my hard-earned cash for that weaving! I reminded him that it was supposed to be a voluntary thing, and he snarled and wished me Bad Luck and stalked off. Great, that was a stellar start to my Chichi visit.

After cooling down a bit (literally and figuratively) I wandered around the plaza area and watched the vendors set up for the next day´s event. I also took a look at the church, which is on one side of the plaza, and the smaller Calvario Chapel, which is on the other side. The chapel was pretty interesting, with Mayan copal offerings out front, and dark spooky saints on the inside. The attendant suggested I contribute some "alms" and then seemed disappointed when I only tossed in a few coins. Cram it, sister, I´m not in the mood.

crafty and persistent urchinsOutside, I sat on the steps and watched as the setup continued. I was relentlessly pestered by some persistent urchins trying to sell fridge magnets. A foreshadowing of Sunday´s activities! The second one actually gave me some rap about Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes, waggling his dirty sandals in my face. And when I declined he was like "How ´bout you just give me a Quetzal, then?" How ´bout you give me a frickin break?? I know I look like a walking dollar sign to you, but for just five minutes can I sit here in peace? Clearly not.

I did manage to get a good deal on dinner at a local comedor, and was amused at the WWF entertainment on TV. They love the fake wrestling in this country! Wandered back to my hotel, and decided to get a good night´s sleep in preparation for the assault tomorrow.


Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments
07 August 2007
Fuentes Georginas and Zunil
And a risky spinach salad

I decided to go for the tour option today, since it was only $10 to see the Fuentes Georginas hot springs and the town of Zunil, and the pickups alone to/from the hot springs would cost that. Turned out to be just me and a couple from Spain. We left the Black Cat around 8am, sadly missing out on the fabulous free breakfast, and headed to the Fuentes in a minibus.

oktapodi enjoys the Fuentes from a distanceGot there around 9am, and it was COLD!!! Nobody else there, either, except for a French family having breakfast. You can stay in the cute cabinas on the grounds, and there is a bar/restaurant there as well. The hot springs themselves had more character than the ones we went to in La Fortuna, with steamy water trickling directly from the side of the mountain into a natural rock pool. Unfortunately the water was only tepid, and the ambient temperature was frigid, so I only dipped my lil toes in the water. It was still nice and relaxing, though. And the gorgeous mountain scenery made it nice to sit and contemplate absolutely nothing for an hour or so.

another version of Maximon, with offertory candlesNext stop (after leaving the facility and then coming back in a huge hurry because I'd left my camera behind while contemplating) was Zunil, a short way down the mountain. The town is known for its textile cooperative, beautiful white colonial church, and another spot to see Maximón! OK, let's see how it compares with the last time... Long walk up a steep hill, check. Duck into a random house in a narrow alley, check. Pay to get in, gringo tax, check. Many multicolored candles around, check. In this case there were actually people going up and making "requests" of the deity, who looked a little more like an escapee from Reno 911 with a big cheesy moustache and sunglasses. There was an extra charge to take photos, and when they tried charging me for *each* photo, I knew  it was time to leave. Alrighty then, I think I've satisfied my Maximón needs for this trip! At least I didn't get ripped off by a grubby little guide this time.

Back in time for lunch, which I spent with a German girl named Valeri at a neighborhood restaurant called Casa Babylon. Feeling lucky (punk), I even ordered a spinach salad, something you're not supposed to do in these parts, but I was in such desperate need of green leafies that I threw caution to the wind. I doused it with lime juice, something that's supposed to help kill any residual creepy crawlies, and apparently that worked because I suffered no ill effects. Rock on!

Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments
22 July 2007
Resbaloso Cuando Está Mojado
An expensive but splendid day at La Paz Waterfall Gardens

Yes, I think today has been my most expensive travel day yet, but it was totally worth it.

After a leisurely and thoroughly delicious breakfast, and a chat with one of Margarita´s other denizens, David the socially awkward former law enforcement guy who has relocated to Costa Rica and seems to have taken up permanent residence at Casita Margarita, I set off for the La Paz Waterfall Gardens. My guidebook informed me that there was a bus there from downtown Alajuela, but I neglected to see the important detail that the bus only ran Tuesday-Saturday. Today being Sunday, I was SOL.

Margarita to the rescue! She found me a ride with a trusted cabbie. The trip would cost $35 round trip, but she insisted that that was a reasonable price. He would also take me to the Poas volcano for another $25, but since (a) that seemed a bit much for one day and (b) I´d already had my fill of viewing cloudy volcanoes, I demurred.

La Paz Waterfall Gardens visitor centerThe 60-minute ride there was incredibly scenic, passing through beautiful mountain scenery and small towns. And, true enough, I didn´t see a single public bus along the way. I did, however, encounter the first speed bumps I´d seen since arriving in Costa Rica. Didn´t even know they believed in those things down here! We arrived at the La Paz visitor center, which was jam-packed full of gringo tourists, just as it was starting to pour. My helpful driver offered me his umbrella, since I´d stupidly forgot my jacket, and we agreed to meet back at the center in an hour and a half.

don´t stick your tongue out at me, mister!And what a stellar hour and a half it was! Entrance to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens is about $30, and worth every penny. The first part of the park is a self-guided tour through the various "garden" exhibits: birds, frogs, butterflies, orchids. Had the potential to be really boring, but it was put together in a really fantastic way. They have these huge open-air (but enclosed) structures where the critters wander around in something resembling their natural habitat, and you can get right up next to them. The bird exhibit was cool -- parrots and macaws and toucans, even a few monkeys. But the butterfly exhibit was the Bomb Diggety. Tons and tons of butterflies, all over the place. Huge morpho butterflies that are spotted brown on one side and an incredible otherworldly blue on the other. Orange ones, red & black ones, brown-striped ones, all over everywhere. Just hangin out, like ya do. It was possibly the most tranquil place I´ve ever been. I didn´t want to leave.

But wait, there´s more! The frogs were OK. Not as copious, and split into nocturnal and diurnal species. They cleverly tagged the spots where the nocturnal ones were snoozing with little informational cards. The wide-awake ones were a bit harder to spot. The orchid garden next to the frog hut was beautiful as well.

oktapodi digs the fallsAnd, of course, the waterfalls truly rocked the house. There are five all together: El Templo, Magia Blanca, Encantada, Escondida, and La Paz. You follow a downward path (mostly stairs) past each one, and they´re all clearly marked. (Another Costa Rican first!) I think Encantada and Escondida were my faves, because they sorta join together for a two-fer. But they were all totally amazing. A goooooood day.

Back at the Casita, I decided to stroll into Alajuela to find an internet cafe. Margarita had warned me that about the road, which had gotten a bit damaged during recent storms, but I was completely taken aback by the giant gaping caved-in portion of road with fresh sewage running by. Lovely! The nearest internet cafe was running Windows 98, maddeningly. And it started to pour on the walk back. Never mind, when I got back to the house, my laundry was all clean and dry, and there was a fantastic dinner awaiting. All is right with the world again!

Oh, and for those of you who couldn´t take the time to visit Babelfish and translate "Resbaloso Cuando Está Mojado," it means "Slippery When Wet." Take that, Bon Jovi!

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19 July 2007
tales from the Venado caves

Woo-hoo! The blog is up and running! It´s going to take me a while to backfill the entries from Tamarindo, Manuel Antonio, Monteverde, and La Fortuna. And I´m still figuring out how this all works, so bear with me while I get everything in order. In the meantime, I´ll entertain you with tales of spelunking.

For starters, the word "spelunk" is just about the funnest word ever. Use it three times in a sentence today! It´s fun for the whole family! So when my travelbuddy Julia suggested we take a spelunking trip through some rainforest caves, I was all over it. Our guide Guillermo ("Memo" to his friends) picked us up and drove us out to the cave site, stopping briefly at his house to pick up boots and towels. On the 45-minute journey out there, he showed us a promo video depicting people slogging through cave tunnels and sloshing through water, which was meant to serve several purposes. First, here´s a taste of what you´ll be doing. Anyone with bad knees or fear or bats need not continue. Second, check out these great pics you can get from our photographer! Third, seriously, we really don´t want you to schelp your camera around in the muck, you´re much better off letting us handle the pics. OK, point taken. Julia and I agreed to split the $20 fee and share the CD between the two of us.

Sliding on our boots (mmmmm, like slippery bowling shoes!) and helmets with attached flashlight (I´m sure there´s some ridiculously technical term for this device) and feeling ever-so-sexy, we splashed off through the rain to the cave entrance. After double-checking that none of us had any bat phobias, Memo led us into the cavern. The next two hours were filled with scrambling over slippery rocks, wading waist-high through a rushing underwater river, checking out the bats and spiders and other creepy critters, and having an absolutely marvelously muddy time.

Julia got the photo CD, so you´ll have to wait till she gets back to Miami and sends me the pics for the evidence, but trust me when I say that this was one of the most fun tours we´ve done so far. The "Totally ´80s" videos on the ride home brought out some hilarious commentary from our spelunk-mates... my favorite being "Yeah, they´re the one-hit wonder band without the one hit." Good times, good times.

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18 July 2007
Waterfalls and Volcanoes and Hot Springs, oh my!
A busy turista day
I am getting more exercise on this trip than I ever thought possible. Definitely better than sitting in a beige cubicle staring at a computer, no doubt.

First stop was a trip out to the Reserva Ecológica Catarata Rio Fortuna. We´d been warned that the walk out there was mostly uphill and not-so-nice, so we grabbed a cab ride from a funny little guy who jabbered at us in Spanish the entire time. He insisted on picking us up at 11:30 after we´d hiked the falls, and wouldn´t take no for an answer so we gave up trying.

oktapodi digs the Catarata Rio Fortuna We did get plenty of exercise from the hike down to (and course back up from) the enormous waterfall. It started out as a leisurely stroll over a bridge or two, but rapidly devolved into a downward spiral of a million crumbly stairs. It was totally worth it, though. The waterfall was AWESOME in every sense of the word. Powerful spray, strong current under the falls, beautiful river flowing over huge rocks and down to a more tranquil watering hole with fish. (And of course the obligatory dog... how the heck did he get down here???) Of course we jumped in for a swim under the falls -- after all, the prohibition against it was merely a "recommendation" -- and the water was FREEZING! There was a pretty good-sized crowd there, and it was funny to watch everyone´s shocked reactions as they jumped in.

another "life doesn´t suck" momentBetween the strong current and nipplicious temperature, it wasn´t possible to stay in the water for very long, so we got out and tried to dry ourselves, which was tough to do in the wicked spray. But it *was* tremendously relaxing, or rather not so much relaxing as tremendously invigorating and cleansing and energizing to be in the presence of such a force of nature.

William knows 10 uses for a heliconia plantBack to Gringo Pete´s (which wasn´t such a bad walk, downhill) and just barely enough time for a quick change of clothes before our 3:15 volcano/hot springs tour. They picked us up right outside our door, and our guide William was incredible. He was a native of the area who´d been around for the 1968 eruption and hikes the "dangerous" side of the active Volcán Arenál  regularly. He had some cool stories and pics from various rescue missions as well as anecdotes about tribal uses for various plants found in the forest on the slopes of the volcano. He decided his life would be a lot easier if he learned English and joined the tourist trade, which was almost nonexistent 20 years ago when the first backpackers strolled down the streets of La Fortuna and the locals opened up their doors and windows to gawk.

The view of the lava flows was mostly impeded by torrential rains and low clouds, but we were still able to see a few red chunks rolling down the side of the mountain. Even standing
in the pouring rain, shoulder-to-shoulder with tourists from every country around the world, it was still pretty dope.

Baldi Hot Springs And so it was a welcome relief to get to the hot springs! A bit smaller and less crowded than the nearby Tabacón, Baldi Hot Springs is a series of mineral pools lined with natural stone, heated by the nearby volcano. Each is a different temperature, and some have waterfalls or swim-up bars. Julia and I decided it looked a lot like something out of "The Flintstones," like someplace Wilma and Betty might go for their spa treatments. Sadly, we couldn´t persuade the cheesy Tom Cruise-wannabe waiter flipping liquor bottles to give us any free drinks. But e
very once in a while when the clouds cleared, you could get a quick glimpse of the glowing red cone of the volcano right next door. Sweeeeeet.

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16 July 2007
Another walk in the clouds
Since the SkyTrek package we purchased granted us free entry into the Monteverde Cloud Forest, Julia and I decided to do a bit of hiking this morning. After saying goodbye about four times to our buddy Nathan, who, sadly, was heading back to the States (we´ll miss ya, you Supreme Master S**tf**k, you!) we shared a cab with some other travelers and headed to the park. We wound up chatting with some teachers from Texas who had just come from La Fortuna and were happy to share their experiences. One thing about travelers, you can *always* count on them to share an opinion or story or two. Sometimes this is helpful, sometimes not, but it´s always entertaining!

Monteverde Cloud Forest visitor center Upon arrival at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, we were presented with a map and two suggested trails. We opted first to take the Sendero Bosque Nuboso (it being a Cloud Forest and all) and headed off in the direction the signs pointed. The trail was really poorly marked, and split off in a few places, so we just took an educated guess (with some help from my trusty lil´ compass, thanks Mark!) and figured we couldn´t really get too far off track since all the trails went in a big circle. We continued to follow our little waffle path friends, and eventually we did get back to the Visitors´ Center. Not at all along the suggested trail, because we hadn´t hit a few key bridges or other items on the map, but still not bad for two city girls.

go ask Alice, I think she´ll know... The second, much shorter trail took us to a lovely waterfall. And along the way I saw both the funkiest orange caterpillar ever (totally shoulda been sitting on a giant mushroom smoking a hookah) and the tiniest worm ever that landed on my pinky finger and twitched around in a confused daze. Costa Rican wildlife totally rocks!

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Cloud Forest
A night hike in Bosque Eterno de los Niños
OK, so this tour had nothing to do with the Jim Carey movie, but it was a very cool chance to see the nocturnal critters of the Bosque Eterno de los Niños (Children´s Eternal Rain Forest), in the Bosque del Tigre reserves. The park is run by the Monteverde Conservation League and was established with money donated by schoolchildren around the world. (Any grade school teachers out there who are interested in getting involved in this program, drop me a line! A grabbed a pamphlet with more info.)

our guide works his flashlightWe wound up with a group of 8 people, including a family with two pesty little boys who insisted on stopping to examine every spiderweb in the forest. Nevertheless, our guide (who had a strange name that sounded something like "Gray Beans") was chock-fulla information, although his impish smirk made it hard to believe him when he told us things like male spiders masturbate a lot, or that one particular ginger plant´s leaves were referred to as "natural toilet paper."

creeeeeepy tarantulaWe saw some cool stuff, including a sloth with baby, funky spitting beetles, and a huuuuuuuuge tarantula. Gray Beans tried using a stick to Smoke Him Outta His Hole... but we all know how well that works. We also spent some time chasing through the dark, totally off the trail, attempting to track down some elusive mammal known as an "olindo." Never did see it, but it was fun dashing around the forest in the dark. Very Blair Witch.

French dancingAfterwards we went back to PSE to reprise our spectacular pasta dish, despite the kitchen being crammed with a bunch of French dudes who were putting on a cooking show. After dinner Julia and I hung out with these three amigos (plus their Israeli friend) on the porch for a while and they amused us by doing some impromptu Fred Astaire dance. Julia had more patience than I and actually went out with them to the only bar in town, where apparently they bought tequila shots for everyone in attendance.

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15 July 2007
Hurtling through the clouds at 400 feet
Ziplining in the Cloud Forest kicks major ass
a common sceneToday Julia and I got to see some of the best that Monteverde has to offer. We started off with a canopy tour along the Cloud Forest´s hanging bridges. Very fun. And fortunately we both have the same photographic obsession, so neither of us minded when we stopped every few minutes to snap a picture of something cool. And there was LOTS of cool stuff to see... the forest is dense and lush, with layers of things growing on other things, towering trees, and more green than you can possibly imagine. And being a Cloud Forest means the clouds actually roll in over the treetops, so that you feel as though you´re on top of the world. Many pics -- which don´t even do it justice -- begin here.

ziplining platformsRight, so that was in the morning. And just as the aforementioned clouds began to look a bit ominous, it was time for part two, the zipline tour! What a wacky experience. You strap yourself into this harness that hooks onto a little pulley, which, along with your two tour guides, soon becomes your best friend in the world. You trek uphill and across a few hanging bridges into the high canopy, and end up on a high platform. And by now, in our case, it was pouring rain. Sweet. They start you off on a fairly short line, just to get the feel for it. Guide number one (Freddie, who kept making Freddie Krueger jokes) clips you into the line and shoves you across the canyon. Guide number two is waiting at the other end to catch you, and they always do catch you, even though you´re convinced you´re going to hurtle straight through the platform and straight into a large tree. Good times!

Sure, it would have been more fun if we´d had a sunny day... supposedly you can see Volcán Arenál from the higher platforms. But there was something totally cool about whizzing through the rain and the clouds, over 400 feet from the ground, at almost 40mph.

We finished up the day by cooking an exceptional pasta dish back at the hostel, and learning a new card game with our bunkmates. A good day, indeed.
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