Sonntag, 13. Dezember 2015

Pura Vida Part I

For years I had one Travel destination on my "To see list" that I desperately wanted to visit but due to different reasons I never managed to get there, but this autumn I finally managed to fulfil this dream of mine and I managed to visit Costa Rica.
This beautiful Country, which often is mistaken for an Island as I have found out, is maybe one of the most amazing countries you can visit. It's Mixture of amazing Nature and Wildlife on one side and on the other side its relaxing way of living called Pura Vida makes it to an incredible travel destination. Something I really wanted to check out, after I have seen so many pictures of it in Magazines over the years.
And now that I am back I have to say I am not disappointed. Costa Rica is what you expect it to be, a tropical paradise, and still it is so much more. The landscapes are breathtaking, the wildlife is more than impressive and diverse beyond believe.  The people are very friendly and welcoming, the weather over there was a nice change to  the wet autumn in Germany of course there are the amazing beaches, the nice food, the great cocktails and fruit punches, you name it.

 I was lucky enough to stay in that amazing country for almost three weeks and managed to see a fair part of the country. As this would be too much for one Blog I gonna split my travel experiences in three or more parts. To make it easier to read. :)

Actually I had something totally different planned for this year. I actually wanted to go to Eastern Europe in the summer and I already had everything planned and booked. I wanted to visit cities like Prague, Bratislava, Budapest and for a nice finish Vienna. But then due to some health issues and some stressful times at work I had to skip my plans and had to delay my vacations.

So I was standing before the "Problem" to find a new destination for my vacation this year. I did a short trip to Rome, but as it was only for a few days I felt that I need to do something else as well. So I started to look up some possible travel destinations. On top of my list back then was Mexico, I have a penpal friend who invited me to visit here and so I checked out the flight prices and connections. But unfortunately it was just too expensive at that time. As my plan was to visit both the North and  the south part of Mexico, and with all the connections I would have needed it just got too much.
So I had to look for a different destination instead. But while I was looking for round trips in Mexico by chance I found a Round trip in Costa Rica which really sounded nice and was surprisingly affordable. So I checked out the flight prices and to my surprise the flights to Costa Rica were way cheaper than to Mexico. Maybe because I was planning to fly in October and it would be the rainy season in Costa Rica then. But I didn't care about that, I really loved the idea of finally going to Costa Rica. So without thinking twice I booked everything.
And a few months later I finally was on my way after some very stressful weeks at work. And it was nice to get away for a while and it is always very exciting to be able to discover a new place. So I was more than thrilled to be on my way to San Jose.

But it would be a long way for me to ge there. The flight connection i booked went first from Duesseldorf very early in the morning to Amsterdam, where I arrived after a very short flight in an even shorter Plane. As I dont enjoy flying too much, especially in small planes, I was a bit nervous before, but thankfully it was a really calm and pleasant flight.
In Amsterdam I had some hours to spend before I would be flying to my next stop, which would be Panama City.
I have only been to Schiphol once before, and to be honest my memories are not that pleasant. It was on my way back from Australia some years ago, I was booked from Sydney via Hong Kong to Frankfurt, but when I arrived at the airport, that was before you got the flight information on your mobile phone, and checked in, I was asked if I wanted to check in my bags till Amsterdam and was then informed that my flight to Frankfurt was cancelled and I was now booked to Amsterdam, from there I would be flying with a different Airline to Frankfurt. They told me that everything was set and that I just needed to pick up my boarding pass there. Of course it wasnt that easy. I arrived in Amsterdam after more than 20 Hours of Travelling on Planes and was feeling kind of exhausted. When I tried to get my boarding pass, the lady behind the counter asked me several times for my ticket, which of course I didnt had. I think she must have asked me twelve times that she needs my ticket, and every time I answered that I dont have one, and with every answer my patience was wearing thinner. Eventually I got my boarding pass, but it took a long time and I was shocked how unfriendly people in customer service can be.
So I have to confess I was a bit biased when I arrived at Schiphol. But this time everything went smooth. Everyone was friendly and helpful and I had a wonderful hearty breakfast with at least 10000000 Calories.
Around Midday I was then on my way to Central America, this time in a much bigger plane. And after a very quiet and calm flight we arrived in Panama, which made a quiet nice impression from the air. A wonderful coastline and also Panama City looked interesting. At least the part I was able to see.
Unfortunately I had too little time to leave the Airport, so I was just waiting for my next plane. In the meantime a huge rain front crossed the airport and suddenly it was pitch black and you got an impression of how a rainy season can be. The outlook of being up in that weather very shortly wasnt too comforting.
But again the flight was very calm and nice, despite that the captain warned us of turbulences on the way. Which is something you dont want to hear when you are sitting in the plane. But after about an hour we finally arrived in San Jose, almost 24 hours after I have left Duesseldorf.
Before I left home I booked a transport to the Hotel which looked like a good idea as I found out when I left the Airport. Several taxi drivers were fighting for their customers and were hard to get rid of. I was warned to be careful about the type of taxi you pick as there are several frauds out there. And in  that mess it would have been hard to pick the right one.
Thankfully I found my driver without problem and was on the way to my final destination of that night.
As it was already evening and dark, I was unfortunately not able to see much of the city. On the first view it looked like a city you could find everywhere in the USA with the same types of stores and Fast Food chains. Only the Spanish signs gave you a hint that you were actually not in the States.

 When I arrived at the Hotel, a beautiful old colonial house in the centre of the city, I just fell onto my bed and fell asleep a few seconds later. I felt so exhausted.
On the next morning I was awoken by a mixture of different and foreign sounds. I could hear the traffic outside, I heard some conversations in Spanish, but I could also hear some Parrots singing very close to the hotel. The first hint that I was actually in a tropical country.
So I didnt wasted much time and got out of bed and got ready for my first day in Central America.

And of course you start your day with a decent breakfast. And I got my first taste of the national Dish. The ever present Gallo Pinto. Which is a dish made out of beans and rice with varying spices, sauces and other ingredients. Always depending where you are.
I think it is not possible to escape this dish in Costa Rica. Wherever you decide to eat, no matter which time of the day, and no matter what you are ordering, the chances are very high that you will get it as an side dish. It wouldnt surprise me if you would get it as an dessert as well.
But depending on how it is prepared it can be really tasty, but to be honest after 17 days I was looking forward to get something different.
But what I really enjoyed eating in Costa Rica was the fruits. The Pineapples on my first morning there, were amazing. They tasted so much fresher and juicier then everything I had in Germany before. And it was the same with the bananas.

Right after breakfast I left the Hotel as I was eager to see the city. It is always a great feeling to explore a city you have just arrived in.
If I could believe the reports I have read on the internet right before I left home I could expected to get killed and mugged right at the moment I would leave my hotel, as San Jose was described as a violent and dangerous cities by many travellers. But to be honest I never really felt unsafe during my time there.
Of course it is safer not to walk around some areas during the night time and keep an eye on your belongings. But I wouldnt say that San Jose was exceptionally dangerous. Or maybe I was just lucky. But on that first day I felt safe enough to walk around the area I was in. I was mostly walking around the central Area around Avenida Central, but I was also walking around some corners here and there, but to be honest, San Jose is not the most exciting place in the world. You got some nice spots here and there, some nice Parks and a nice central shopping area with some nice Plazas. But I didnt felt that there was that much to do. So I just walked around without a real plan and just had a good look around.
By chance I ended up at the National Museum and decided to go in, as it was recommended in my Guide Book. And it was a really nice and interesting place.
I especially liked the entrance area which was a big tropical garden under a roof. It got a higher temperature with a very high air humidity. And all around where huge colourful butterflies flying through the huge room. And I also saw some Hummingbirds. It was incredible. The Museum itself was really nice. It is housed in a former fortress and got a long and moving History. A lot of important events in the Costa Rican History took place here. Unfortunately the exhibition about the Costa Rican History, which was highly praised in my guidebook was nowhere to be found in the building. But the rest of the exhibition, about the Pre Colombian history and some art exhibitions were also worth the money.

As the first meeting of the Group I was travelling with was planned for the evening I still had some time to spend and so I spontaneously met up with a penpal of mine who lives close to San Jose. She got some time  that day and so we met up for a chat in the city centre. It is always nice when you arrive at a foreign place and there is someone you know. So far we only knew each other from writing mails, but as we got some things in common, especially a good taste in Music, I wasnt really worried that we wouldnt find a topic to talk about. And we really had a nice afternoon. I think we got along really well and it is nice to have someone who can tell you a bit about the place you are staying in.

I almost missed the right time to leave for the group meet up in the evening, but i managed to get  there in time.
And one by one everyone of our group arrived in the Hotel Lobby. We were only ten people in our group which is a great size for such a group I think. It is not too small and not too big. I have travelled in groups with more than twenty people and it can get stressful then.

But i have to say that I was really lucky with the group I was travelling in. With no exception everyone was really nice and friendly and I think we got along extremely well during the whole time. I really liked it that it was an international group. We had people from the UK, from Australia and from Spain in our group. I was a bit surprised to be the only German in the group, as you normally cant escape meeting other Germans when you are travelling. But at least that gave me good chance to use my rusty English and also my very limited Spanish a bit.

The first meeting was kind of short as everyone was still exhausted from the long flights. Some people just arrived that afternoon. But after we met our Tour Guide and introduced ourselves to the group and got some first information, we split up. Some people went to bed and the rest of us got out for an first dinner at a Restaurant close by.
And it was nice to have a first chance to talk to the people and to get to know each other. But we called it a night very shortly after we finished Dinner, as we had to get up early the next morning and everyone was feeling tired. But I had a good feeling about the tour.

And so early the next morning after a hearty breakfast, again with Gallo Pinto of course we left our hotel and drove to the nearby Bus Station. We were not staying longer in San Jose but were leaving right away.
Our first stop would be the National Park Tortuguero. Which is not the biggest National Park, but one of the most beautiful you will ever find. Nested betweem the Caribbean Sea and the Caribbean Flatland, lies this wildlife paradise which you can only reach by plane or by boat, as there are no Roads in the national Park. The Park is dominated by several canals which are crossing it from all sides. And all sides of these canals you can find more or less dense Forest with an amazing amount of Wildlife in it.
But the animals for which this place is most famous for are not living in the forest but in the Caribbean Sea. The beaches around Tortuguero are a nesting site for four different species of Turtles. Every year several turtles follow their inner instincts to return to their birthplace to lay down their eggs there. And to see these amazingly huge animals on land is an incredible sight to behold.

But first we had to get there. At the Bus Station we had to wait for the right bus to arrive and made our way to Cariari, a small town on the way to the National Park where we would change Buses. The first one we had was a regular travel bus which was comfortable enough to relax and to enjoy the ride. And I really enjoyed it, as once we passed the outskirts of San Jose the scenery dramatically changed. San Jose itself is not a really pretty town, you see the Hills rising up in the distance, but until then it is flat and not much to behold. But once you reach these hills it is amazingly beautiful. All of a sudden we were driving through a lush green landscapes made out of valleys and Hills and a lot of forest in between. Just how you picture this country to be.
And it was really enjoyable to sit back, listen to some music and watch the landscapes passing by. It was a brilliant start for the tour.
Once we reached Cariari we had to change buses but had some time in between, in which me and some other in the group decided to get a smoothie in a shop close by which was recommended by our Tour Guide. But before we got our smoothies we first got an impression of Pura Vida.

Pura Vida meaning Pure Life, is the attitude towards life in Costa Rica. It is used as a greeting, as an exclamation and as an way of life. And I think it is a great way to see and live your life. People just try to enjoy their life as much as possible and you really got the impression that they do so. Something we really could learn from here in Europe, where sometimes even a small problem, like when you dont get the cereals you want feels like the end of the world to some people. Here are people who compared to European Standard are leading a rougher life, but still they seem to be more content. I really hope that I can keep some of that Pura Vida Magic now that i am back in Germany.

But to be honest, when you get in touch with it the first time as an European it can be wearing down your patience as people tend to be more relaxed and rarely are in a hurry. Something you have to get used to first.
So when we entered the shop and ordered our smoothies it took ages until we got our Smoothies, and there were only three people in front of us. But the Ladies behind the counter took their time and finished one smoothie after another. In the meantime our bus arrived and Brian our Tour Guide came to us to see what was the matter, he said we should hurry up and he would take care of your luggage.
I told the lady behind the counter that our bus arrived and that we would need to leave soon, but that doesnt seem to impress her very much, she just moved on in the same speed as before. Pura Vida!!

In the end we got our Smoothies and went back to the Bus and got there in time. And the Smoothie, to be fair, was really worth the wait. It tasted splendid.

This bus we were on now was much smaller then the one before. It was a so called Chicken Bus, a regional bus where people are hopping on and off at every corner and sometimes take their chicken with them as well. We didnt had any chicken on bus, but a very, very huge old tv. The ride now was much more bumpier then the one before as we were driving mainly on dirt tracks and also the landscape was very different to the one before. No more hills and forests. But mostly open fields and Banana Plantations. And you wouldnt believe how many Banana Plantations they have  there. But of course when you are going to a Supermarket here, the chances are very high that you will find Bananas from Costa Rica there. So there must be a huge Plantations. But to see it for the first time is incredible.
After 1 1/2 hours of a bumpy ride, or a free Costa Rican Massage as our Guide called it, we arrived at the final stop of the bus where we got out and got into a small boat which would take us to the National Park. And on the way into the Park we got our first glimpse of the Wildlife. As we were driving on a small canal which went right through the dense forests there we were able to spot a lot of animals on our way. We saw some Ibis and several other to me unknown birds, we spotted several green Lizards which were an amazing sight to behold and even spotted some Monkeys really far away. It was a very promising start.

 After a very enjoyable 90  Minute ride we finally got to the Main Canal of the National Park and also to our final destination. The small village of Tortuguero.
We stayed at a beautiful Inn which one side was looking on the Canal and the other side towards the open Sea. A really beautiful place.
After a Welcome Drink, a really nice Non Alcoholic Cocktail we set out to explore the village, as it is really small, there was not much to see, but our Guide told us where we could find everything we would need. He showed us the entrance into the National Park, the Super Markets and some nice places to eat and to drink. They even had an open Air disco on the side of the Canal there. But unfortunately not with my kind of music.

As it was already late afternoon we decided to stop at a promising looking Restaurant which our Guide could recommend. There we had some amazingly good Pizza, some really chilled beer with Lime juice and a wonderful view out towards the Canal where we could watch the Sunset. It was so beautiful.

But this was not the highlight of the day. That was yet still to come, as the weather was really fine that night we went out on the Night hike to watch the turtles on the beach.
As they are trying to protect the turtles as good as they can you are only allowed to go to the beaches during the evening with some registered guides and there is a limit of ten people per group. Which I  think is a good decision. Of course it was amazing to have a chance to see the turtles, but these are endangered species which come to this place to lay their eggs and are easily scarred away, which would mean that they wont lay their eggs then. so you really have to be careful and try to be silent and the use of any lights, even watch lights and Mobile phones or cameras is prohibited. The only light allowed was a red light, which seem to not disturb the turtles.
And even when  the turtle is able to lay her eggs the chances of survival of the turtle babies are very slim,  a lot of predators, especially birds are waiting for them to come out as they are an easy prey then. Our guide said  that only 1 out of 1000 makes it out to the safety of the sea alive. a really slim number. And a good reason to stick to the rules of the guides and the National Park.

And the Night Hike was one of my Highlight of the whole vacation. It was a really clear night with no clouds above us, and as there were no disturbing lights at all once we left the village it was pitch black and we had the most amazing starry sky you can imagine. We could see a big part of  the Milky Way, it looked incredible. Just a perfect setting for such a night.
We found our way towards the beaches with the help of some torches, which we had to switch off once we were there, and then we had to wait and pray that we were lucky enough that there would be some turtles around that night. And we were lucky. Our guide got the information from a park Ranger that there was a turtle really close by. So we immediately went down the beach and could already see some other groups standing on the beach around a bigger hole.
Now we only had to wait until it was our turn. When it was, our tour guide ushered us towards the hole and lighten it up with his red light. And right in front of us we saw a really huge turtle in the middle of a hole where it had laid its eggs. He explained us the different stages of this burial ritual. The eggs were already in the hole and now the turtle was laying sand on top of it to camouflage it again. Once that was done, the turtle made it's way back to the sea, with a lot of fascinated tourists watching this from all sides. It was incredible. So far I have only seen the small turtles you can see in some Aquariums. But seeing such a huge one from so close was amazing. We were extremely lucky to see another one this night. And this one even closer as it went down  towards the water when no one expected it, and was just inches away from us.
I think there was no one in our group that was not fascinated or moved by this.
And combined with the brilliant Night Sky it was an amazing experience. And you can just hope that the turtles will be able to survive and raise their numbers again, so that hopefully that is a sight which generations to come will be able to behold.

After that we made our way back towards the Hotel and you could hear from the talks going on that everyone was really moved and fascinated by this experience. And very happily I laid down to sleep and waited for the next day which looked very promising as well as our plan was to explore the wildlife some more.

But it was a very short night, as we met up at six o'clock in the morning. We were planing to explore the canals and  the surrounding forests by canoe. And so early in the morning we set out on a very huge Canoe with the fitting name Titanic onto the canals.

Costa Rica is geologically speaking a very young country, only about 6 Million years old. Before there was a gap between the Northern Part of America and the Southern Part of America. Now due to the huge amount of Volcanic Activity, a land bridge was formed which allowed the wildlife, and also the plants from both side to spread out towards the former unreachable parts. And as Costa Rica is that connecting piece, until this day it got a huge variety in its wildlife. And we got our fair share of it that morning.
From the moment we set out in our canoe we spotted animals almost every minute. We saw several bird species that morning, from huge Turkey like birds, over Parrots to sea birds. We saw our first sloth there, well maybe not really seeing it, we could guess where it was, as it was so far away. We saw some more monkeys, a huge sea otter, a cayman, very huge lizards and so much more. It was amazing. I think there is no better way to start a day. I took so many photos that morning, I really was in heaven.

Once we got back everyone was really happy and satisfied with how  the day had started. Now it was time to have a decent breakfast, this time without Pinto Gallo, and then everyone had some different plans for the rest of  the day. Some went for the bath in the Caribbean, I walked around the beaches a bit and spotted some more wildlife before I went back to the hotel and sat down on a chair in front of my room from where I could suddenly hear a huge green Macaw screaming in the trees nearby. So you didnt even had to move much to see some incredible wild life.

In the afternoon we decided to go to the Entrance of the National Park at the other side of the Village from where there was a hiking trail leading down into the forests. And again we were rewarded by some amazing wildlife spotting. We observed some monkeys in the trees near by, spotted some parrots, some lizards and lot of birds again. When you love Wildlife. This is just the place to be.

And as I was in nice company I really enjoyed the walk we were doing. Instead of going back down the Forest again, we walked back along the beach, which was a bit harder as the sand was really soft, but it is just amazing to watch the sun going down while you are walking along the Caribbean. So beautiful.
We then ended  the day with a really, really good Caribbean styled dinner at the Restaurant of our Hotel, of course with a fitting cocktail.

These were only the first few days in Costa Rica, but already I felt like I have seen more and done more then on other vacations all together. It really looked like it gonna be an incredible vacation indeed.
But I was a bit sad that we were about to leave this paradise on the next morning. I wouldnt have mind staying a bit longer at Tortuguero. One of the most amazing places you can ever visit.

To be continued.

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