Monday, March 5, 2012

Costa Rica, February 2012 - Day 1

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This swimming hole is at the end of a rocky tributary of Rio Picuare.

By the time I reached the pool I was sweaty so taking a quick dip was in order. Some people did quite a bit more. Too bad the walk back along the stoney creek brought sweat forth again. If you question your balance take a paddle along to use a walking staff.

The sun is setting behind the dense foliage of the jungle that surrounds Pacuare Jungle Lodge. While the day started out a bit slowly it has turned out to be a truly splendid day with a great deal to experience and enjoy. If the rest of the trip holds to this level of quality then it will go down as one of the best trips we have ever taken. From the outskirts of San Jose (we actually were staying in the town of Escazu) we wound our way a little after 06:15 (Latin time as we thought we were getting picked up at 05:45 but perhaps that was for the first hotel) through town to fetch a few other people who were also going to be rafting on the Rio Picuare and overnighting (or more) at the lodge. Soon we were climbing up into cloud shrouded mountains past farms growing ferns amongst other things. We soon found ourselves inside the clouds and the views vanished as we approached the restaurant where we would have what was called a traditional Costa Rican breakfast (we had had a "traditional" Costa Rican dinner the night before at a restaurant that was on top of a great hill overlooking San Jose. I believe the name of the place was Tiquicia Mirador)). The breakfast, served buffet style, in a rather large eatery that when it is clear surely sports a grand view of the valleys below, included scrambled eggs, a mild cheese, rice and beans (quite flavorful), tortilla, and fruit. Actually quite a hearty breakfast and I reckon the couple of cyclists who pedaled up the mountain to the place probably enjoyed having a filling meal. We had been on the road for about 90 minutes to get to the place and still had a good 90 minutes to go before reaching our put-in point on the Pacuare River. We began to slowly wind our way down out of the clouds passing very active coffee plantations and sugar cane farms. This whole area is big on agriculture. As we dropped in elevation the clouds broke up and the sun began to really shine through. It was clear well before we neared the river that we were going to not have to deal with a misty damp day but would instead be paddling under brightly lit partly cloudy skies. When we finally disembarked I am sure the temperature was easily 80 degrees. We found quite a few other groups getting their rafts ready for the river but nowhere near all of the people we saw were stopping at the lodge. We have no clue where they all were going perhaps there are take-out points other than the one we'll use tomorrow 28km downriver of our put-in point. Juan Carlos is our river guide. He is a young, athletic, exceedingly knowledgable fellow who I think is also part of the national team for whitewater sports (something like that anyway). After a brief but detailed safety lecture and instructions on the commands we would follow as Juan Carlos guided our 6 person raft through the rapids was done, we pushed off into the warm green rushing waters of the river. It wouldn't be long before we hit our first rapid, really not too much more than a big riffle but it got us in the groove and soon larger rapids including a Class III with a nice raft drenching hole would come up to greet us. We met them with style and grace and no one was flipped out of our boat (which could not be said of all the boats). You hit that first big bit of water and you can't help but feel excited and swallow a bit of the river as you take a deep breath whether in excitement or terror (excitement I think is probably more common). We were having a very fine time and I think we quickly gelled as a group executing Juan's commands deftly. We stopped to take a bit of time to walk what seemed like many hundreds of meters but was surely considerably less up along a rocky creek that opened up into a deep swimming hole. By the time you reach the swimming hole you, or at least I, are drenched in sweat and the dip feels good. The only problem is you have to walk back the way you came so the sweat returns as the rocks all conspire to screw up your footing. Granted most people will not find the going that challenging but some normal-sighted people also elected to use a paddle as a walking staff and probably didn't go much faster than I.
The pathsat the Picuare Jungle Lodge are extensive.
P1000462 - Version 2This waterfall is just a few hundred meters away from the lodge. You take a nice path that near the waterfall does get a bit narrow on its dirt track. Along the way if you are fortunate to have someone like Juan Carlos around you will learn a lot about the local flora that is so abundant.
We still had a bit of a ways to go before reaching the lodge, a journey of about 8km we were told, but it probably wasn't long after noon when we pulled our rafts up on shore and were greeted by the lodge manager. This place is remarkable. I am not sure how large the property is but it is certainly not small. Many buildings ,each housing a handful of rooms, that have either river, jungle, or garden views (to say nothing of the Honeymoon suite which is reached by a sky bridge and is off in a secluded spot) plus the main office, kitchen, dining, and no doubt other buildings make up the lodge complex. If the other rooms are anything like the room I have which is itself quite well appointed then this must rank as one of the more posh places I have stayed. It's all is made more special when you realize that most everything has to come in by river (I learned later that a rough road exists so supplies could be trucked in but it sounds as though it is a pretty nasty road requiring a few hours to negotiate even in a tough vehicle). I am in a room with two good sized (doubles I think) four-poster beds with a huge bathroom with wonderful shower. Sure you have to dispose of toilet paper in a waste basket instead of flushing it but that makes sense from an ecological point of view (and seems to be common practice). The vast majority of the buildings do not have electricity but I don't see that as a real big liability either. The paths have lighting and the rooms are equipped with candles (and some of the rooms do have electricity including our two though it is really just powering a couple dim overhead lights). After being fed a tasty cucumber soup, pasta, and nice desert with coffee for lunch people were able to go about the afternoon as they saw best. Some went out to do a zipline, others a canyoneering style hike, we went with Juan Carols to a nearby waterfall. Along the way he pointed out many of the native plants in the area and we had a thoroughly enjoyable short walk to a nice waterfall. Walking the grounds afterwards was just as much fun especially when we were able, with the help of a spotting scope being used by another guide named Jonathan, to get an exceptional view of a toucan in a tree. Although a lot of the birds remained invisible to me I could enjoy the sounds of the jungle. For example, the oropendolas (not sure of the precise name) were quite noticeable as they seem to be everywhere have large hanging teardrop-shaped nests, and have bird calls that are loud and distinctive. The soundscape is varied and distinctive and does, in fact, sound rather like you would expect if your only prior contact is soundtracks from movies and television. It can be loud but I don't think I'll be kept awake by the jungle sounds.
P1000471 - Version 2P1000467 - Version 2While walking the paths of the Picuare Jungle Lodge observing all sorts of things from the wonderfully vocal oropendolas with their hanging nests to hearing howler monkeys in the distance we were lucky to catch guide Jonathan with his spotting scope. He had it trained on a tree with this toucan and with some careful jiggling was able to capture these shots on my camera.
It is now just a bit after 17:00 and I've heard some wild sounds already including some rather loud repeating birds, cicadas, the rush of the river, and maybe even a barking sound that I suppose could have been a howler monkey though I do not know if they're around here. As the sun nears the horizon the biting bugs are also becoming noticeable and it will soon definitely be time to put on pants and a longsleeve shirt. Soon it will be time for dinner and what I hope will be a good night's sleep. Tomorrow we will raft the remaining 20km and my understanding is that section will include quite a few more Class III and even IV rapids than today did. It should be an exciting day.
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