Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Santa Elena and the Cloud Forest - Travels in Costa Rica (Part 3)

March 9, 2012
The alarm wakes us up at 5:30 am, and I’m happy to discover that the sun’s already up - it just feels better and more natural than rising in the dark. We take a quick taxi ride through the sleepy streets of San Jose to the bus station. My mind is still sluggish, and I foolishly pay ten mil colones ($20.00) when the fare should have only been $5.00. Grrrrr, I’m agitated that it’s my first morning, and I’ve already been ripped off. Naively, I thought that if I was sweet and friendly, put a big smile on my face, the locals would like me and not have it in their hearts to rip me off. That is apparently not the case. :(  I will definitely have to be more careful (and get the currency exchange straight in my head). The five-hour bus ride costs only 2400 colones (what my taxi ride should have cost!), and I doze off an on. In some small town we switch buses. As the sun rises in the sky, the air grows increasingly hot and stuffy, so I’m happy the driver decides to keep the door open, providing more breeze. The bus trudges along, grinding up and screeching down the narrow dirt roads, winding through and over the ridges.
Santa Elena is a tiny town. It’s windy, and short spurts of a light, light rain intermittently fall. After lunch at Bar Amigos, we take a long walk down the road leading to the cheese factory. It feels good to move after sitting on the bus for so long. We see fighting birds, pretty green ones that are related to the tucan. One actually has the other in a chokehold, the unfortunate victim dangling limply from its beak. Fortunately, both birds survive the ordeal. We see two dogs doing it in the middle of the street. Huh, I guess it’s as good a place as any... There are actually plenty of dogs roaming around; I have no idea if they have owners or are strays, but they seem healthy and are uninterested in any attention.

Back at the hostel, I quickly rinse off in my maybe-warm-but-mostly-cold shower. Then we go check out Common Cup, a local coffee shop that roasts its own beans. It’s great coffee, and they have really nice outdoor seating. For dinner, we pick up a pineapple (one of my absolute favorite foods) and some beer at the supermarket. The pineapple is incredibly delicious - it rivals the pineapple I ate in Hawaii. And it was crazy cheap, too, somewhere around 480 colones (less than a dollar). We eat the whole thing.
Oh wow, the wind. It’s unwavering throughout the night, whirling and swirling in a crazed frenzy, a tumultuous cascade of sound and force. Howling through the hallway (the doors to the patio are left open), banging around the corners, and slamming against the shutters. “Don’t reckon with me,” it seems to say. And I don’t want to. I stay safely tucked in the warmth of my bed.

March 10, 2012
Mystical. That is my first and last impression of the cloud forest. It is so alive. Life grows on life grows on life. Trees, fronds, vines, and moss tangle and entwine each other. The forest is shrouded in white and sunlight struggles to reach through. Cloud particles cling to you, wrap you up, claim you as part of this land. It becomes a fantasy, as I find my fairy throne and imagine mythical creatures hiding in the shadows. Here, you really can believe. This is one of the best hikes I’ve ever experienced. We travel the outermost loop, hook onto another loop, make it last as long as possible. There’s not much for wildlife - one type of caterpillar that we see again and again, the song of a bird that we hear but never see.

That night, it is cold and windy outside, so we head back to our hostel after dinner at Inka Verde. We stop at the grocery store, and I pick up a pack of Butter Rum Lifesavers. They remind me of being a kid.

Cabinas Eddy
It’s a very short walk to the hostel from the bus stop, which is especially convenient when you’re lugging a heavy pack. I instantly like this hostel better than the one in San Jose - I can’t explain it, it just feels better. Our room feels cozier, too, with wood paneling, a large window, and a decent bed. And a towel, yay! The last place didn’t have one. I also learn the trick to a hot shower - turn it on slowly and just until the water has decent flow. Actually, I didn’t learn the trick - I made Nick come start my shower for me because I couldn’t figure it out. Breakfast is included, and it’s delicious. Coffee and a plate of fresh fruit are served first. Then I enjoyed a pineapple banana pancake with marmalade syrup, and Nick had eggs with toast. On the morning we had to leave super early to catch the bus, Freddy got up early, too, and had coffee and fruit waiting for us.
For outdoor space, there is an upper deck patio with a few chairs and a hammock. Inside, there is a kitchen space for your use, a lounge area with couches and a television, a couple computers with Internet access, and some tables and benches for meals. It was a great place, and everyone working there was extremely friendly and helpful. If coming by bus, there is only one stop in town, and it’s a short walk to Cabinas Eddy. Walk to the grocery store and then take a right down the hill. You’ll see the hostel on your right, set back from the road.

Bar Amigos (In Spanish)
The girl at Cabinas Eddy suggests this restaurant for lunch, describing it as cheap and good. I have the casada, a typical Costa Rican dish with meat, beans, rice, veggies, and plantains. Nick orders french fries and sausage, which sounds good, but we burst out laughing when it’s set down in front of him (actually, we smirk and wait for the waiter to leave so as not to appear rude). It’s actually crinkle-cut fries (the kind that comes from the frozen foods section of a grocery store) and chunks of hot dog. It looks like a kid’s meal. I don’t think I’ll be ordering anything labeled “sausage” for the remainder of my time in Costa Rica. We also share a plate of yucca fries, which are tasty, but they sit in your stomach like a load of bricks.

Stella’s Bakery
The bakery is on the road that leads to the cheese factory. It has a small display of tempting treats. I choose a piece of coconut cake that is delicious.

Common Cup
We enjoyed a nice cup of coffee on the outdoor patio of this charming shop. They have a small menu, but I didn’t eat anything. There is another coffee shop near this one that looked good, too, but we didn’t get around to checking it out.

Inka Verde
Dining options (especially ones that aren’t overpriced) are limited in Santa Elena. Our second night, we ended up eating dinner at Inka Verde, a Peruvian restaurant, even though I really don’t like the idea of eating an entirely different country’s cuisine while traveling in another. I expanded my horizon and ordered the cold sea bass ceviche. It was okay, but I wouldn’t eat it again if I had a choice (although if you like that type of dish you probably would really enjoy it). The orange-pineapple ice cream at the local heladeria, on the other hand, was really good (the ice cream shop is on the way back to Cabinas Eddy, and it’s cheap).

The large grocery store is conveniently located right around the corner from Cabinas Eddy. We stop here often for drinks and snacks. I particularly like their bakery case, full of empanadas, strudels, and other tempting pastries. One afternoon, I watch a woman place a pan of warm orejas in the case, so I get one of these large, flat, sugar-covered pastries. It’s cheap (280 colones) and yummy - that’s how all pastry should be!

Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve
The cloud forest has a Santa Elena Reserve and a Monteverde Reserve (the area where Santa Elena is located). From what I read, both sections are similar, except the Santa Elena Reserve is less visited. That is why I chose the Santa Elena Reserve, for more seclusion on the trails. I don’t know if the hiking trails are more extensive, or if there are better views, at the Monteverde Reserve (but I would be curious to find out if anyone knows). The Santa Elena Reserve has 12.5 kilometers of trails that are very well maintained and marked. We arranged for a shuttle to pick us up at 8:00 am at our hostel (a staff member at the hostel or the tourism building will call for you). It cost 2000 colones each way, so about $8 USD total.

There are plenty of other activities to keep you busy in the Monteverde area, such as zip lines, an insect museum, and a cheese factory tour.

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