Saturday, July 30, 2011

Bungee Jumping, Tropical Forests, and Finding a Home in Panama

The past two weeks have been packed with a wide variety of activities and experiences.  Despite the fact that San José has little to offer for tourists, I had a great time there and managed to limit my contact with English speakers, allowing for a full four days of Spanish practice.  Just what I wanted.  While an American tourist (I should say US tourist since we're ALL Americans down here) may feel very stand-outish in the sea of Ticos that flood the streets of San Jose, without the human prescence he or she would feel very at home.  Let me explain with the following picture:

In case you didn't notice, there's also a KFC to the left and outside of the picture a McDonalds down the block to the right.  So if you've always wanted to venture abroad but can't stand the thought of eating rice and beans instead of burgers and pizza, have no fear for the golden arches are here!  But be sure to bring enough cash because you'll be paying the same prices you do in the States, if not more.  Lucky for me, I'd have no problem eating eat rice, beans, and chicken 3 meals a day for a year! (as long as you throw in some pasta and veggies every now and then).

During my time in San José, I managed to visit some of the city's museums including El Museo Nacional, part of which was originally a barrack for the Costa Rican military until it was dissolved in 1948.  The museum houses exhibitions relating to the history and wildlife of Costa Rica.  One of the exhibitions was devoted entirely to the Blue Morpho Butterfly, which are found all over the country.  After chasing butterflies for 20 minutes I finally managed to get a few good pictures.

One side of the wing is colored brown with a pattern of dark blue circles, and the other side is a light blue with a black rim.  You can't tell by the pictures but these things are really big, about the size of your fist.  Anyway, I thought they were pretty cool.

There's not much else worthy of mention about my time in San Jose.  I managed to get to a decent gym for a few days, catch some of the soccer matches in the Copa América, and experience some of the nightlife with some Ticos I met.  It was a great way to get off the beaten trail for a few days and recharge my batteries.
After San Jose I was ready for some more adventure so I took a bus to Jacó, a small, touristy beach town on the Pacific.  The main purpose of my visit there was to go bungee jumping, and that is the first thing I did once I arrived (well maybe the second, I stuffed my face with a giant burger, fries, and a beer just before - after all, why go bungee jumping on an empty stomach?).  Bungee jumping is something I had always wanted to do since I first started skydiving but never got around to it, so I told myself I would defintely make it happen in Costa Rica.  The bungee jumping facility was great for beginners - it was essentially a 40 meter high crane with a platform at the top and an in-ground pool directly below the platform.  Before jumping, you specify your body weight so they can select the appropriate level of resistance such that your hands baretly dip into the pool before your body is lanched back upward.  Possibly because of the giant meal I ate right before the jump, I must have had some excess body weight because rather than gently and gracefully touching the water as my Israeli friend Dima had done, I experienced more of a dunking in the pool such that my head became completely submerged before beginning my ascent.  It made the jump all the more refreshing!  In addition to the standard bungee jump, I attempted their "tarzan swing" and "rocket launcher".  The tarzan swing was exactly as it sounds - they attach an elastic cord to your harness, raise your body upward as well as horizontally, and release you at the top such that you swing down like a big rope swing.  That was fun, but not nearly as exciting as the rocket launcher, in which they strech two elastic cords from the top of the crane and attach them to your harness at the lower end, and then release you such that you are shot upward like a giant slingshot at a force between 2 and 3 Gs.  That was maybe even more intense and excited that the bungee jump.  Unfortunately, due to my mastery in digital camera technology, I managed to delete all the pictures and videos of all these activities when I was messing with some of the camera settings a few days later.  But I swear I really did do it!  If you think I'm making the whole thing up so be it.  When the technology for displaying digital images from human memory becomes available I'll be able to prove it to all you non-believers!  Just to give you an idea though, here's some pictures from the website (     

I met a bunch of cool people in Jacó and spent the next couple days there hanging out, attempting to surf (but mainly getting crushed by giant waves definitely not meant for beginners) and partying with all the other gringos and tourists.  It was a blast, but a bit pricey since it was quite touristy so I limited my time there to 3 days.

From Jacó, I began the 20 hour bus ride to Puerto Jimenez, a small port town on the Peninsula de Osa in the very southern Pacific part of Costa Rica.  The main attraction there is Parque Corcovado, a giant natural reserve that apparently has some of the most diverse and amazing wildlife in all of Central America.  I had met several girls from Boston and New York in La Fortuna who had visited Parque Corcovado, had an amazing time there and highly recommended it to me so I took their advice!  It definitely lived up to expectations.  The first day I walked along some of the beach trails just outside of the town with some Europeans I had met on the bus, where we witnessed a multitude of brightly colored macaws, screeching monkeys, iguanas and a million little lizards, and best of all, about 6 or 7 caimans, which are basically a type of crocodile.  Luckily for us, we arrived at the caiman viewing area at the same time as a Dutch couple who had bought several pounds of beef which they planned to throw into the marsh in hopes to coax out the prehistoric creatures.  As you can guess, their strategy worked quite well.  At first just a couple caimans were present to devour the meat slabs being tossed to them, but within a couple minutes I think their entire family and many friends had wandered over to take part in the feast.  At one point a clueless puppy ventured dangerously close to snapping jaws of the caimans but it managed to sense the danger and edge back in enough time to spare us a scene that would have been a hit on National Geographic.  Of course, it was right after this that I managed to delete my camera memory so unfortuantely I can't share any of those pictures.  It's too bad because I had some really awesome shots!

The following day my European hostelmates and I woke up at 4:30 to catch a 5am taxi to the Leona Ranger station in the southern part of Parque Corcovado where we began an 8 hour hike through the natural reserve.  The taxi ride took about an hour and a half and dropped us off where the road ended about an hour from the Leona Ranger station.  We then walked for an hour along the beach to arrive at the station where we entered the forest trail.

The hike totally lived up to expectations.  We had beautiful weather and saw an abundance of wildlife, including several of the trees such as the one in the picture below.  I had never seen such a big tree trunk in my life; one definitely could have made a comfortable one bedroom home inside. 

I think they're called strangler trees or something like that, which would make sense based on the way the roots slither outward at the base of the trunk.  We also saw a million of these brightly colored land crabs, and were careful not to step on any of them as we trekked through the forest.

Lizards, including iguanas, were plentiful as well.

We managed to see all four types of monkeys that exist in the area: the spider monkey, howler monkey, squirrel monkey, and white face monkey such as this lazy guy.

We also saw some brightly colored frogs, small snakes, and unusual mammals whos names I've already forgotten.  I was really hoping to see a giant boa constrictor, but unfortunately they were all hiding that day.

The following day, I took a ferry across the Golfo Dulce to the town of Golfito, where I met a Swiss girl and together caught a bus to the border with Panama.  I remember the border crossing from Costa Rica to Panama being somewhat chaotic when I went last year, but this was a nightmare.  The whole border area was dirty and chaotic with no signs clearly signaling where to go for passport inspection.  We managed to find the Costa Rica immigration office and got into the line, which was more of a funnel of about 50 people trying to make their way to one of 2 opens windows.  As we were standing in the mob, I noticed there was a suggestion box located next to one of the windows and I was very tempted to draw up a schematic with a new system of lines showing directions of traffic flow.  Honestly it would not have been that complicated, but I deduced that the suggestion box was present more as a decorative and had most likely not been opened in several decades so I decided against sharing my ideas.  After about an hour of waiting we got our stamps and headed to the Panama immigration office where there was a brand new line waiting for us.  Once we made it to the window, we were informed we needed to have proof of exit out of the country (because of course all backpackers and other tourists are planning on staying in the country and stealing all of the precious jobs from the Panamanian citizens) so we had to walk all the way back to the Costa Rica side, find the bus company, and buy a $15 open-ended bus ticket from Panama back to San Jose, Costa Rica.  Most backpackers that don't have any travel booked out of the country have to do the same.  Do you think that there may exist some collaboration between the "bus company" and the immigration office?  That sure is a lot of profit coming from sales of bus tickets that are never redeemed!

After finally getting our Panama stamps and escaping the chaos of the border area, we got on a bus to David, the second biggest city in Panama behind the capital.  It's not far from Costa Rica, only about an hour and a half from the border.  After spending two weeks in Costa Rica paying prices similar to those in the States, it felt great to be back in a cheap country!  And to make life even easier, the Panamanian currency (called the Balboa) is exactly equivalent to the US dollar so both are accepted everywhere.  After I checking into a hotel, I had a giant lunch for which I payed about $3, got my first haircut since May which cost me another $3, found a local gym for which I payed $1 to use for the day, and bought a variety of other snacks for less than $2.  There's not a whole lot to do in David, so I wandered around and explored a bit at night and then went to bed early.     

The next day I called Gabi and Kobi Klaf, an Israeli couple I had met in La Fortuna, Costa Rica a couple weeks before, as they had told me they were planning spending a couple months in Boquete, a town about an hours drive from David, and welcomed me to visit them when I arrived.  Gabi and Kobi have been travelling for over 5 months now with their three children ages 6, 8, and 10, and plan to continue their adventure for at least another year.  They started their trip in Colorado and have moved south through the States and all through Central America by public transport or hitch hiking, stopping in various places for weeks or months at a time to search for volunteer activities.  I still don't know how they're managing this trip because Dahnya, Orazi, and Solai are some of the most wired kids I've ever met.  They keep a really amazing blog, so feel free to check it out if your're interested in learning more abour their adventures! (  Anyway, Kobi was nice enough to pick me up in David in the 4x4 Mitsubishi SUV he had just purchased in Panama to give them a bit more flexibility and freedom in their traveling (thank God, I don't know how they lived without it).  We drove back to their new temporary home in Alto Boquete, just outside of Boquete, which is a basic but nice and well made cottage consisting of a single room (kind of a mix between a living room and kitchen), a separate bathroom, and a large outdoor patio where, of course, they spend most of their time.

The cottage belongs to and was built by Gabi's father, Yosi (sorry if misspelled!) who has lived just outside of David the last 12 years with his Panamanian wife and their daughter, Ilana, so the arrangement worked out quite nicely for the Klafs!  Gabi and Kobi were nice enough to offer me to stay with them for as long as I liked as they had a nice big tent set up outside the house and no one using it.

I took them up on their offer, thinking I'd stay with them for a night and then find a hostel in Boquete, but I ended up spending the next 5 days with them!  It was a very unique and wonderful experience staying with the Klafs for those 5 days because for the first time since I had started travelling (not counting my homestay in Nicaragua with Ileana and Ninoska, which was just as amazing but in a different way), I felt like I was living, rather than simply passing through, in a home as part of a family.  And after those 5 days with the Klafs I really did feel like part of their family!  It was great spending time with the kids, and I think they enjoyed having an older playmate.  I know for sure that Kobi and Gabi were happy to have a new diversion for their kids to give them a bit of a respite from their usual parenting routine.

We did a bunch of activities in those 5 days, including hiking on the Sendero Los Quetzales, having a BBQ, picking oranges, practicing gymnastics skills, reading Greek mythology stories, having meditation/relaxation sessions,and stargazing. 

In the car on the way to the Sendero Los Quetzales 
Left to right: Ilana, Dahnya, Orazi, Gabi in back (Solai hiding behind Ilana)

Random bridge we found on the way to Sendero Los Quetzales
Kobi on top, Ilana, Orazi, Dahnya, Solai underneath
Grillmaster Kobi

 Practicing gymnastics skills after the BBQ

BBQ attendees: Yosi, Kobi, me, Patrick and wife, Gabi, Solai, Ilana, Patrick's daughter, Dahnya 
(Orazi taking photo)

One of the best parts about Boquete was the sky.  I have never seen such an amazing sunset anywhere else in the world in my entire life.  Something about the way the sun sets behind Volcán Barú and shines up on the clouds makes the sky look like it's on fire, and it's almost the same every single night as long as it's not raining.  I tried to capture it with these pictures, but they really don't do it justice.    

The night sky is just as impressive.  I don't think I had ever seen a sky with so many stars as I did in Boquete, and definitely never so many shooting stars.  We must have seen 20 within a half hour!  Another thing I enjoyed about Boquete was the cool climate, as it sits at an elevation of about 3,200 feet.  In fact, it got so cold at night that I had to sleep in long pants and a jacket!  But after spending so many nights sweating in hostels, the cold was definitely welcome.  

I really enjoyed the town of Boquete as well.  It's quite touristy, but at least you can still find cheap food!  One of the days when I went into town on my own I spent the morning rock climbing on a natural rock face, formed by the last eruption of Volcán Barú, which was a first for me.  It's definitely different than climbing on the artificial rock walls, and I think in manys I enjoyed it better.  

It was hard saying goodbye to the Klafs, and I really wish I could have stayed with them longer if I had the time.  Ironically, the kids were the most quiet they had been the whole week my last morning with them as they were busily working on their very artistic going away gifts for me.

We spent our last afternoon together in town eating lunch, playing soccer, and eating cake and ice cream, which I should mention were paid for out-of-pocket by Orazi and Solai with their own money.  They did, however, talk it over with their parents to make sure it was within their budgets.  We said our goodbyes that evening and I hopped on a bus back to David, where I actually ended up spending the night with Gabi's dad, Yosi, his wife Korina and daughter Ilana in their beautiful home.  They even had a whole guest room with a double bed for me, and a shower with hot water!  Talk about luxury.  I was originally planning on just spending the night and moving on the following morning, but ended up waking up early with everyone else, taking Ilana to school with her parents, going grocery shopping, and then to Yosi's favorite bookstore which he had been raving about the entire time and telling me that I needed to check it out and buy at least two books.  So we went to the bookstore, I bought my two books, and of course by that time there was no sense in leaving so I ended up staying an extra night, bringing my stretch of free accommodation to a week!  Thanks again Klafs and Yosi!

I went back to the usual backpacking routine the following day as I caught a bus to Playa Las Lajas, supposedly one of the most beautiful beaches in Panama, where I hung out all day under a little beach hut and finished the book I had started the day before.  Rough life, I know.

The next day I woke up early and got one of the coldest buses I have ever experienced, heading to my current location, Panama city.  I had been warned about the excessive level of air conditioning on the long distance Panama buses, but wasn't expecting temperatures I like to freeze meat at.  The bus ride took about 6 hours, so when we finally made it to Panama City I had to sit in the sun for a bit to let my toes thaw.  For once I was happy to be walking around with my big backpack in excessive heat!  Of course that happiness lasted only about 5 minutes until it was back to sweating profusely as I wandered around searching for cheap accommodation.  It started raining soon after I arrived so I haven't seen much of the city yet, but as soon as it stops raining I'll begin exploring one of Central America's largest cities! 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

One Month Down and Still in Costa Rica!

Well I'm now about halfway through my trip and have maybe made it 2/3 of the way through Central America.  I guess my original travel itinerary was a bit unrealistic.  In the beginning I thought 3 months would be plenty of time to see all of Central and a good portion of South America, but it turns out it's really easy to stay in one place for a matter of weeks.  The maps below show my progress in the first 6 weeks.

As you can see I still have a long way to go before getting to South America.  What this means is that I won't be able to get to as many places as I had oringinally hoped.  It's simply impossible to see everything, but it just means you save what you missed on one trip for the next!  At this point I think my Latin American adventure will be turning into a Central American adventure plus Brazil.  I'll continue playing it by ear and see how much time I have left by the time I'm ready to leave Panama.

Anyway, it's easily been more than 3 weeks since my last posting so I have a lot to report on!  After my mishap at the Honduran-Nicaraguan border I went to the beatiful city of León, which used to be the Nicaraguan capital in the 19th century until it was moved to the rival city of Granada.  There was so much tension between liberal León and conservative Granada that the capital was finally moved to Managua in order to end the dispute.  Both León and Granada were key cities in the war between the liberal Sandanistas and the conservative nationalists during the years of the US occupation in the 20th century, as well as the four decades of the Somoza dictatorship.  While Nicaragua was one of the friendlies countries I've visited, there is definitely still an anti-US sentiment present as a result of the history between the two countries.  Considering what happened, I'd say it's understandable!  It is a very interesting history.

As I mentioned before, the first thing that grabbed my attention when I got to León was an activity called volcano boarding, which is exactly what it sounds like - sledding down a volcano.  The day following my arrival I hopped on a bus with 10 or 12 other kids and rode to Volcano Cerro Negro, the youngest volcano in Central America and still very active (last eruption was in 1999).   

The volcano is not high, only about 730 meters (2400 ft), and since we started our hike a few hundred meters above sea level it only took about 45 minutes to reach the top.  We hung out and caught our breath at the top for 20 mintues or so while our guide, Hugh, gave us an orientation on volcano boarding safety and techniques.  While it's not a totally dangerous sport, cuts and bruises are not uncommon, especially when going fast.  The current record for fastest speed is 52 mph (actually set by a female, although I heard she didn't intend to attempt to set a record speed, rather she forgot to brake with her legs and was wildly out of control but managed not to crash until after her speed was clocked).  No one set any new records in my group, but a few kids got close.  

Yes, we are wearing convict jumpsuits.  I'm not sure why that degree of protection would be necessary in a prison, but it sure works well for volcano boarding.  Anyway, it was definitely a very fun activity, and unique to say the least.  And to make it even better, included in the package were two ice cold mojitos waiting for us at the hostel bar when we got back to help us cool off and relax after a long afternoon on the volcano.  Not a bad deal!

I decided to hold off on volcano-related activities the following day and head to the beach for some surfing.  I went with 5 or 6 other kids and we had an entire section of the beach to ourselves for the whole day, perfect for beginners such as myself who aren't capable of manuvering through a cluster of surfers all trying to catch the same waves.  We had great weather for most of the day and the waves were really good!

Having surfed only 5 or 6 times, I'm definitely still a beginner, which explains the 8 foot board in the picture.  The better you get, the smaller a board you can use which allows you to catch more waves and maneuver the board better.  Maybe in 40 years when I retire to a small beach town in Costa Rica or somewhere similar where I can go surfing every day I'll be able to consider downsizing.  Since the day trip package was through the same hostel, included again were the two mojitos waiting for us at the bar when we got back.  A perfect way to end the evening.

By the following day, I decided I liked León enough to stick around another week and take a Spanish class.  After spending two full days with Americans, Ozzies, Kiwis, and Brits, I was in need of a way to go back to speaking Spanish.  I thought it was interesting that I found myself signing up for classes on my so called post-graduation vacation, right when I thought I wouldn't have to set foot in another classroom for at least another year or two.  At least the classes were held outside, so I didn't totally feel like I was back in a calculus lecture.  The classes were organized as 1 on 1 instruction, so it ended up being a great way to practice my Spanish for the week.  Additionally, the school provided the option of living at a homestay, so I lived with a local Nicaraguan family for the rest of my time in León, which gave me even more of an opportunity to practive my Spanish.  The family consisted of my host mom, Ileana, and her daughter, Ninoska, who were two of the nicest people I've ever met.  Oh and I can't forget to mention their dog, Scooby, who was of course just as much a part of the family!  There was also another American guy named Austin staying in the house who was part of a group of medical school students doing an exchange program.

Ileana, me, Ninoska

Scooby (pronounced Ehskoobie)

Overall I had a great experience living with Ileana and Ninoska.  Ninoska was nice enough to take me out for some typical Nicaraguan activities, such as singing karaoke and going to the movie theater to see Cars 2.  It was nice being able to settle down in a single place for more than just a few days.  To make the experience even better, I was able to find a local gym and pay for a week-long membership.  The week cost me 65 cordobas, or about 3 US dollars, so the bank was definitely hurting after that one.  Well not exactly, but the Spanish course did set me back a bit.  I think God was watching out for me though, because I wandered into the León casino with a friend I had met in the hostel I stayed at when I first got to the city, threw some chips down on the Roulette table, and won $62 on the first shot.  I collected my chips, cashed out, and walked out happy (Kuhn not so happy, as he had lost all his money almost as fast as I won mine).      

Lyon Gym in León

With the way I've been eating, it was definitely a good thing I managed to get a few workouts in during the week.  So with classes and the gym, I was able to get into a nice routine for a week, which was actually quite welcoming!  Generally I woke up at 7:15, at breakfast prepared for me by Ileana, went to class from 8 until noon, came back, at a typical Nicaraguan lunch (usually rice and beans with some kind of meat), went to the gym, then came back and showered and relaxed before enjoying any of the nighttime activities.  

Rice, beans, and eggs with chorizo

One night I went out with Ninoska, two of her Nica (short for Nicaraguan) friends, and the American med students to a bar to watch the US vs. Mexico soccer game (US got pummeled 4-2).  Later in the evening, a TV crew from one of the local stations came in to interview people for what I believe was a promotional activity for the bar.  They first went to a table of locals then decided they wanted to interview the gringos, so the next thing we knew we had a camera and microphone in our faces.  Since we had all had one or two (but of course no more) Toñas (local Nicaraguan beer), I believe we provided solid responses to all their questions in fluent Spanish.  Unfortunately we didn't get to see ourselves on TV, although maybe it's a good thing so I can continue believing that I spoke like a local that night.

While it was a really fun night, unfortunately it had to end with the first negative incident of my trip.  It happened as I was walking home with Ninoska and her two friends.  Before I knew what had happened, Nino's friend had her cell phone snatched out of her hand and I felt a solid blow to the face which took me down, and I managed to fall on something sharp enough to take a good chunk of my shin out.  By the time I got up the two guys had already dissappeared.  I won't post the before picture (it's in my Facebook album if you want to see it), but here's a good shot of my leg after I cleaned myself up:

It was an unfortunate experience, but it could have been worse!  And luckily I had nothing stolen from me.  I managed to get to sleep after bandaging myself up, then made a trip to the hospital the next morning.  The best way I can describe the León hospital is very different.  It definitely made me feel fortunate to have the kind of care we do at home.  The nurse cleaned up the wound with some sort of liquid in an unmarked container, stopping at one point to send a text message, then gave me a tetanus shot, and I was on my way.  I really wish they had given me stitches because it still has a good deal of healing to do even after 3 weeks.  At least I'll have a nice scar to show for it once it finally does heal!  Anyway, I suppose the lesson here is don't party until 4am in foreign cities (we'll see how well I retain the lesson).

The following Monday was my last day of class.  Thanks to my arduous studying during the week, I passed the course and was awarded a diploma!  Two diplomas within 2 months, not bad right?  This one's definitely going on the résumé. 

Receiving diploma from my "professor", Fátima

For the next couple days I hung around León to do some more exploring, but mostly because I wasn't ready to leave.  Plus, I was invited out to dinner for Ninoska's brother's birthday with the whole family, and it would have been rude to turn down the invitation.

Here's some pictures of the city I took on my last day there:

 Central Park

 Cathedral - largest in Central America

This last picture is a famous mural outside of fire station; both are portraits of Agusto Sandino.  On the left, Sandino is stepping on the head of Anastasio Somoza, the leader of the natinonalist forces (Contras) and Nicaraguan dictator during 4 decades following the assasination of Sandino.  On the right, Sandino is stepping on Uncle Sam with the words "Sandino Vive" painted across his waist.  It's definitely true that the the spirit of Sandino does still live in the hearts of many Nicaraguans!

On Wednesday I managed to pull myself from León and hop on a bus to Granada.  It was a beautiful city, but I felt much more like a tourist there than I did in León. 

 Central Park

View from belltower of Iglesia La Merced

I split a hostel room with a guy named Matt from Seattle who I had met on the bus for $5 each.  We did some exploring, ate a typical dish of chancho con yuca (pork with yuca), and made it an early night.  The next day I made some museum visits then met up with Matt in the afternoon for a boat tour of Las Isletas, which are a cluster of tiny islands off the coast of Granada in Lago de Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America.  After some bargaining, we arrived at a reasonable price of $10 for an hour long tour and we were assured we'd be able to see the tourist favorite, la Isla de los Monos (Island of the Monkeys).  However, upon boarding the boat and setting sail, el capitán informed us that an hour long tour would not be sufficient to make it as far as the Isla de los Monos, but that if we payed another $5 each for an additional half hour we'd have plenty of time to see the monkeys.  I was unable to persuade el capitán that if he drove slightly faster than 1.5 knots we'd be able to reach the island in less than a half hour (simple d = v*t).  Apparently he had never studied physics, so we ended up paying the extra $5 each.  Despite being set up entirely for tourists, it was worth it to see the 7 monkeys in their tiny island habitat.  When we approached the island, one of the monkeys dropped in from a branch and plopped into the boat, a quite unexpected maneuver.

I'd have to say that la Isla de los Monos was the highlight of Granada (I won't admit that to any locals).  On Friday I hopped on a ferry to Isla Ometepe, an island in the middle of the Lago de Nicaragua formed by two volcanos: Volcán Maderas and Volcán Concepción, located on opposite ends of the island.  The main activities offered by the island are hiking, volcano climbing, and relaxing, all of which were the things I was looking forward to doing.  On Saturday I did some hiking along the beach with 3 French tourists I had met on the ferry.  We saw several bird species and tons of lizards (but no monkeys unfortunately). 

Paul, one of the French guys, and I decided we wanted to climb Volcán Concepción the following day.  Concepción is the taller of the two volcanos at 1610 meters (almost exactly one mile).  However, we had been told all day long that there was going to be a huge party in Altagracia, one of the two main towns and that end of the island, and that we couldn't miss it.  We decided that maybe we could check out the party for a few hours and then get back at a reasonable hour to be ready for our 5:30am wake up time on Sunday morning.  There was a large group from the hotel planning to go so we didn't want to miss out.  However, it started raining just before we got in the cab, and by the time we got to the so called party, there were no more than 3 people there.  Trying not to think about the reality that I should have been in bed already, we ended up going to another local bar where we were quickly put in the spotlight as we were the only tourists there.  We all ended up having such a great time speaking with many of the locals that Paul and I forgot (or more tried not to think) about how quickly 5:30am would roll around.  I'm glad Paul and I were in the same dorm room because without each other's motivation there's no way we could have made it out of bed, especially considering the 7 hour hike that awaited.  We somehow managed, and were on the mountain hiking by 7am.  We both felt like zombies in the beginning and were wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.  No more than 10 minutes into the hike it started pouring rain.  Great, just what we needed.  Fortunately we had both brought rain jackets, but for an hour we trekked upwards in a downpour in soaking wet socks and shoes. 

We made the best of it, keeping in mind the end goal of reaching the top.  The trail quickly became much more rugged until we found ourselves climbing over rocks and boulders with both hands and feet.  Luckily, the rain let up, and by the time we reached the halfway point  the sky eventually cleared up enough to give us a good few of the landscape below.  After a total of 3 hours, we finally made it to the top where we had a fantastic view of the whole island and were able to stare down into the foggy abyss of the volcano's crater.  It was definitely the most intense climb I had ever experienced, but was totally worth it.

We took a 20 minute break at the top to eat lunch, than began the climb back down.  The climb down ended up being even harder than the climb up, as the rocks kept coming loose beneath our feet.  It took us four hours to get down, making a total of a 7 hour hike.  It was an amazing feeling to set foot on flat ground again, and to make it better, we were greated by several monkeys in the treetops at the base of the mountain!  I passed out soon after getting back to the hotel, woke up to eat a massive dinner, then went right back to sleep again.

The following morning I caught the ferry back to the mainland, and from there took an hour long bus to San Juan del Sur, located just north of the Costa Rican border and famous for its culture of surfing and partying.  After a quiet few days on the island, I was ready for a little more action!  It turned out I was in luck, because without even realizing it I had arrived on the 4th of July, and the hostel I checked into had a full day's Independence Day celebration lined up (can you get an idea of the demographics of the town?  I think the locals are outnumbered...)  I mean, why not celebrate the American Independence Day in Nicarauga?  It was definitely a fun day and I felt like I was back on campus at U of I.  The following two days consisted of surfing, eating, partying, and surfing, so by the third day I thought I should take a break and actually explore the town.  It's definitely a gorgeous place, well worth a visit even if you're not into surfing or partying.

The following day I was ready to escape the craziness of San Juan, so I caught a bus to the border and ventured on to La Fortuna, Costa Rica (again, triple checking to make sure I had gotten two stamps in my passport).  La Fortuna is famous for the nearby Volcano Arenal and the surrounding hotsprings, basically several rivers delivering steaming hot water from the volcanos to the surrounding areas.  I checked into Gringo Pete's Hostel, went to the local supermarket to purchase groceries to make the backpackers special of chicken pasta and vegetables, and crashed early.  The next morning I got up early and went on a hiking tour around Volcán Arenal.  Until a year or so ago, lava could be seen flowing down the mountainside most days, but it has been dormant since then so unfortunately I wasn't able to see such a sight.  The lack of lava, however, was compensated for by an incredible variety of plant and animal species and we had a great tour guide to identify them for us.  We ended the tour by taking a dip in one of the hot springs near the volcano.  Now I understand why they're called hot springs and not warm springs; the water literally feels like a hot tub!  Since it was so humid, I was able to enjoy the water for 15 mintues until I became overheated and had to escape quickly.  If we could move these rivers to Chicago in the winter that would be fantastic.

The next day I was up for some more adventure so I signed up for a white water rafting trip on Río Balsa.  We were told not to bring cameras so unfortunately I don't have any pictures, but it's definitely a trip I won't forget!  We maneuvered through a continuous series of class 2, 3 and 4 rapids for three and a half hours, stopping once for a lunch consisting of delicious Costa Rican watermelon and pineapple (seriously I could move here just for how good the fruit is).  Some of the rapids were pretty intense, but we only had one man overboard incident the whole trip.  Not too bad I'd say.  Additionally, we were able to enjoy some of the wildlife around the quiet sections of the river.  We saw a ton a bird species and even a few three-toed sloths hanging in the trees.  At the end of the trip, I had what I'd say was the most amazing meal of the entire trip so far, half because of how good the food was and half because it was buffet style and I was able to eat until I couldn't take another bite.  The meal was served with delicious Costa Rican coffee and a shot of a traditional Costa Rican liqueor, which I believe is made from sugar cane and is very similar in taste to Bailey's Irish Cream.  I can't remember the name of it, so if anyone knows please remind me!  Following the meal, we sat in on a demonstration of juice extraction from sugar cane using a manual mill powered by two bulls.  The bulls walk in a circle, spinning a large beam connected to a system of gears that are in turn connected to two cylindrical metal presses.  The sugar cane is inserted in between the cylinders and gets squeezed through while its juices are deposited into a jar, ready to serve!  As you can imagine, it was very sweet, delicious, and refreshing.  So not only did I get in my adrenaline fix, but also a bit of culture which made for an excellent, well rounded day.  

I woke up early the next day to catch a bus to Playa Jaco to go bungee jumping, but decided at the last minute I wanted to get off the beaten backpackers trail for a few days to get some more opportunity to practice speaking Spanish, so I got on a bus to the capital city of San Jose instead.  While all the places I've visited have been amazing, they have also been enjoyed by many other tourists such as myself, so I generally find myself speaking more English than Spanish.  Since San Jose is such a big city, it's pretty easy to blend in and not be in constant contact with other tourists.  Anyway, it has worked out because I've been here for two days now and haven't spoken more than 10 words of English!  I think I'll stay another day then re-merge onto the beaten trail and do some bungee jumping!