Monthly Archives: August 2013

Shhhh…Don’t Tell Anyone: Ecuador is Great!

(Quito, Ecuador – 25 August 2013) I could see it in Jessica’s eyes, she was apprehensive and full of nervous energy as we flew from Costa Rica to Ecuador. Traveling to Costa Rica was a snap- it seems like everyone goes to Costa Rica -but Ecuador? Who goes to Ecuador?

First Impressions

It was late afternoon when our plane lowered itself into the large valley that holds Quito in its palm. From one end of the valley to the other, Quito sprawled like Houston. Buildings crept part-way up the valley walls and even dropped inside a deep ravine that snakes right through the middle of Quito. Humanity was intent on occupying every nook and cranny of this spectacular landscape.

We spotted snow-capped peaks in the distance as the flight crew announced Quito’s local time and temperature during our approach. It was 23 degrees in Quito! Relax, people….that’s Celsius. I did my best to remember the conversion formula to Fahrenheit and came pretty close (double the number in Celsius and add 32); it was about 74 F. Hmmm, but shouldn’t it be hot near the equator? It sure can be, but not at an altitude of 9,350 feet. Turns out that Quito has the second highest elevation of any capital city in the entire world (only La Paz, Boliva sits higher).

Quito’s cool air felt phenomenal to us. So much of our time in Costa Rica was spent covered in sweat. We were loving Quito already and we hadn’t even left the airport.

Every time we arrive into a new country, we know there is going to be that inescapable struggle getting from the airport to our hostel. At least at the Quito airport we were smart enough to stop at their information kiosk. And fortunate enough to talk to someone that gave us super clear directions. We were also handed a couple of little touristy booklets and a map of Quito that we have found very helpful. So far Quito, Ecuador was doing everything right.

It took us about 1 1/2 hours to get to our hostel from the airport. While it was dusk when we started our transport, it was thoroughly nighttime as our cab driver dropped us off near the hostel. Unsure of our surroundings, we were the strangers in a strange land. Our large and awkward backpacks told everyone, “we’re foreigners,” though this worked to our advantage as a nice man from the neighborhood pointed us in the direction of our hostel, which wasn’t easily visible from the street.

A staff person at the hostel checked us in and showed us to our room on the 3rd floor. The high altitude had us huffing and puffing up those stairs. It was just two flights, but OMG…we were all drama by those last few steps. At least the reward for our efforts was a beautiful room. Hostel rooms are like a box of chocolates, you never know… Here we’d stumbled upon the best room of our trip so far. And the view from our tiny balcony was postcard perfect, too– Quito’s Catholic Basilica was beautifully lit up at night and the rest of the city sparkled all around it. Jessica’s apprehension was giving way to excitement.


Once we were settled into the room, our attentions turned towards food. The day had nearly passed and all we had eaten were the box-lunches served on the planes. (Yes, non-US airlines still serve you meals at no charge). We were now ready for something more substantial. It was suggested we walk to a small cafe just a couple of blocks away. Small cafe was right; we accidentally hit someone inside when opening the door to enter. All of the 5 or so tables were full as were the 3 spots at the counter. We only had to pause a beat, however; a two-top cleared quickly and Jessica and I saddled right up.

The restaurant’s owner, a matronly dark-haired woman named Alexandria, was also our server. Her husband appeared to be serving some of the other tables and I’m guessing some of the kitchen staff were family, too. Jessica ordered a glass of red wine and I asked Alexandria if Ecuador had a “signature” drink I might try. She poured me a tall shot glass of clear liquid she called “pajaro azul” (blue bird). It had a slight licorice taste and warmed my soul by a couple of degrees. We shared a delicious pizza too big to finish and capped the meal off with a chocolate shake. Our bill was $12! Go Ecuador!!!

By the time we settled into bed for the night, all of Jessica’s apprehension about Ecuador had melted away.

Exploring Quito

Our trusty new best friends (the guidebooks), suggested a few places to visit that would get us acquainted with Quito. Thankfully, they were all within walking distance from our hostel. The skies were blue and the air crisp and cool. The Plaza de Independencia was our first stop, a small square surrounded by the four ruling powers of Ecuador’s colonial period– the government palace, the municipal palace, the archbishop’s palace, and (of course) the Catholic Cathedral. We walked around aimlessly for a time, just enjoying being in this great new place.


From the plaza we strolled slowly down the narrow streets towards the Basilica, the same proud site we had admired from our room the night before. The classically built stone “mega-church,” with its tall spire and two towering belfries, was built on the highest ground in the area, no doubt to maximize its omnipresence.

It cost us each a dollar to enter the church, but that wasn’t the amazing part. For $2 each, visitors had access to explore internal and external parts of the church normally off-limits to anyone but the maintenance crew. Due to the exaggerated size of the mammoth structure we had to ascend 8 flights of stairs just to reach the 3rd level. From there we were able to step through the crawl-space above the nave and scramble up a ladder to the base of the spire. We were crawling all over the church as if it were a child’s playscape. So up the spire we went!


Crossing above the nave of the Basilica. [I love this photo!]20130827-200228.jpg

Each belfry housed three giant clocks, presumably so that no one would be late for mass. Though, not all of the clocks were working. (Great! There’s my excuse!) Inside each belfry was a gift shop and in one, a trendy little coffee shop. Flights of stairs inside the belfry transcended into spiral staircases, and then ladders the higher we climbed. We passed through the room of the clocks and nearly reached the bells before a pad-locked grate stopped us. Another view of the city showed us we were actually higher in the sky than when we’d climbed the spire.


Llamas, Sacagawea and The Beatles

Our visit to the Basilica had us flying high, but our plans for the next day put us in the clouds. Pichincha volcano is the closest of several semi-active volcanos that surround Quito. A taxi ride from our hostel took us to its base where we paid $8.50 each to ride the teleferico to the top.


Okay, not literally to the top. Turns out it takes 2 1/2 hours of additional hiking/climbing to reach the mountain’s true tippy-top. We hiked a small piece of it and found two handsome llamas, but we were not up to the challenge of making the longer climb. We were now at 13,000 feet. Our bodies were still trying to adapt to climbing the stairs to our room at the hostel down around 9,300. A hike of 5 hours (round trip) was out of the question.

From our chilly perch on Pichincha we surveyed Quito much like we had from the airplane two days earlier. We spotted the Basilica, the plaza, monuments, parks and other landmarks. Quito is a beautiful city.


Whenever I mention how much something cost here in Ecuador, I’m telling you in US dollars. No currency conversion is needed either because the local money is oddly….the familiar US 20130827-202808.jpggreenback. As it was explained to us, Ecuador experienced a colossal economic crisis in 1999. It was Ecuador’s “Great Depression.” In March of 2000 the Ecuadorian government made the bold and controversial decision to adopt the US Dollar as a means of stabilizing the country. Apparently, it worked! We just like that it makes it easy on our heads whenever we buy something. Of further curiosity, we figured out where all the Sacagawea dollar coins went.

Later that day we met up with the sister of a friend of mine from Austin, Katie Stone (sister of Jamie Stone). She has been living and working (as a teacher) in Quito since last November. We were meeting her for the first time face-to-face, though we had been corresponding over email with her for 6 months. The day was Katie’s birthday and she invited us to hang out with her and her friends (some Ecuadorians and some from the states) that evening. We gladly accepted the invite and ended up having a great time at a place called BBQ; clearly styled after Buffalo Wild Wings. It was 2-for-1 prices on pitchers of Mojito Tea and we drank our share, not wanting to be rude, of course. Chicken wings and onion rings filled our plates and silliness filled the conversation.

We taught a couple of Katie’s Ecuadorian friends the meaning of the wonderful smack-talk line, “In your face!” Both of these friends (Gaby and Lorena) spoke English very well, but were somehow unfamiliar with this endearing phrase. Of great curiously to us was Gaby’s distinct British accent when she spoke English. She explained this was due to the influence of her first English teacher. (A real English teacher.)

Later into the evening, Gaby and Lorena invited us to come with them to see a Beatles cover band. WHAT!?! This was too good to pass up. There would even be a John Lennon – George Harrison theme to the setlist. We were all in!

What is your guess on how well they did?

Frankly, they were quite good indeed. They played Imagine, Revolution, I Am The Walrus, Strawberry Fields to name a few of John’s. Something, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Here Comes the Sun and even Handle Me with Care (from the Traveling Wilburys) represented George’s talents. They played for two hours so obviously there were many more songs than those I just listed. Impressive also was their choice of playing several of the Beatles more obscure songs, thus demonstrating the band’s true passion for the music.


The wings and rings were good, but not exactly authentic Ecuadorian cuisine. For this, we ventured out to Parque La Carolina on Sunday. It’s one of Quito’s major city parks and apparently the place to be on a Sunday. Ecuadorian families swarmed through every inch of that park providing us with plenty of local flavor. Some lines leading away from the food stands stretched 100 people deep. The longest lines weren’t for the funnel cakes, though that’s a good guess. They were for the Cevichochos. That’s a shortened term for Ceviche de Chochos. Ceviche roughly means “salad” and Chochos are a type of bean. Eureka! Solient Green is people and Cevichochos is bean salad. Yes, Ecuadorians will stand in really long lines for bean salad. Apparently, I will, too.

We found two types of beans in the cevichochos, neither of which am I able to name for you. One was about the size and shape of an M&M, but all white. The other was similar in size, but brownish and tasting roughly like a corn-nut. We learned the true secret of the cevichochos is all in the sauces. Once you wait and wait for your plate of cevichochos, you must wait again for your turn at the garnish table. There you’ll spoon-on some red sauce, some yellow sauce, and some oniony sauce that looks kind of like soup. Squeeze half a lime on top of everything, too. Don’t worry about your cevichochos getting cold while you are standing in the garnish line; it’s served cold from the start. You do get some heat from the pieces of pork and fried plantain they throw on top of your cevichochos… and from some of the sauces.


We were originally planning to stay just 2 days in Quito, but we loved it so much from the start we shuffled our schedule to gain an additional day. Why don’t more people visit Ecuador? They really should. Or, maybe it’s best to keep Ecuador a special little secret a little while longer, so Shhhh.

From here we’ll travel by bus to Tena, a smaller town right on the edge of the Amazon. Stay tuned…

The Amazing Pace

Our last two stops in Costa Rica were both beach towns, surfer towns to be specific. Santa Teresa on the eastern edge of the Nicoya Penisula was the first. Jacó, on the mainland to the west, followed a few days later.

Got Surf?

Walk anywhere in Santa Teresa and you see shaggy-headed, bronzed-skinned dudes and dudettes with surfboards. On foot, on bicycles, on motorcycles, and especially on quadrunners, everyone had a surfboard. The “quads” as they are known were a primary mode of everyday transportation. Streets were not paved and it rained at least a little bit each day creating quad-perfect conditions- light mud on the rocks. Miraculously, the streets were not full of potholes and seemed well-suited to the conditions. 20130822-215206.jpg

I keep saying streets…. the singular would be more appropriate. Santa Teresa was one street running parallel to the beach but set-back from the surf a healthy block. Smaller streets ran from the principle artery perpendicularly, but these graveled and wavy offshoots were more driveway than street. Don’t bother looking for any street signs either… they don’t exist. Everything you might want or need was located somewhere along that 2 mile stretch of Santa Teresa’s main drag. More than once Jessica and I enjoyed walking the length of it in one direction, then taking a trail down to the beach for a sandy walk back.

So straightforward and unpretentious was Santa Teresa; a true beach town. But I never figured out how it took on such a saintly name. The adjoining town, Mal Pais (bad country), was smaller and less alive, but clearly had the cooler name.

Not being big surfers ourselves, Jessica and I did a whole lot of taking it easy. Reading, napping, and going to the beach. It was an amazing pace.


Moments Like These

One lazy morning, Jessica and I strolled down the beach and found a nice little spot to watch the waves. It’s a surfer town precisely because the waves are big and fat and roll in with a predictability that surfers must dearly appreciate. For us, the waves were simply splendid to behold; the mesmerizing cadence and elegant power were beauty for our eyes and their thunderous crashing roars were a thrill ride for our ears. It was a bright and clear late-morning. The panoramic view before us showed the curvature of the earth as plainly as could ever be seen from sea level. Raising our eyes from the horizon, clouds of every variety were scattered across the sky. A rain shower draped over a small section of the ocean. From time to time pelicans and sandpipers flew across our stage, always in formation.

The last laps of surf were just able to reach us causing our heels to sink deeper into the beach. Jessica made mounds in the sand at her sides only to see them disappear when the next little wave with ambition reached up and around us. We sat there for some time, wishing to hold onto the scene for as long as possible. That’s when a cool gust of wind puffed over us suddenly. The rain shower we had seen offshore was moving our way. The cool rush of air was so refreshing, but we knew the rains would soon follow. Without hurrying, we gathered our things and began moving inland down a trail that would take us back to the main road.

Only a sprinkle pursued us so we continued taking our time. A quaint coffee/pastry shop called Almendras caught our attention so we dropped in to see what they offered. Their selection of creative pastries surely came straight from France! I landed upon a blackberry muffin and Jessica ordered a cup of coffee that was served with two little lemon cookies. The place was so tiny there was just one table for two inside and only a bench and a chair for two (or perhaps three) on the porch. We smartly chose porch. The rain began falling in earnest now and we had front row seats. 1940’s era night-club music played through the speakers to complete the seen. It could hardly have been more perfect.


Water Taxi to Jacó

To get from Santa Teresa to Jacó you can take the long way or the short way. The glaring reason to take the long way was to save money. Feeling like our budget could handle it, we chose the short way– water taxi from Montezuma. Montezuma is yet another one of the many hundreds of beach-side towns in Costa Rica. It’s about an hour from Santa Teresa by bus and the launch site for our water taxi to Jacó. Our original itinerary had us staying a night in Montezuma but we abandoned that plan in favor of an extra night in Santa Teresa. We’d save some money that way (since Montezuma is a good deal pricier) and go through one fewer round of unpacking and repacking.

We’ve been lucky to have great weather since arriving in Costa Rica and that luck continued as we boarded the 24 ft speed boat that would shoot us across the Gulf of Nicoya to Jacó. The journey took about an hour and turned out to be a true highlight of our trip. As the boat aimed away from shore it appeared to be directed straight out into open ocean. This wasn’t literally true, it was simply that our destination on the other side of the gulf was too far away to be seen despite the crystal clear day we had.


Winds were light and the grand ocean possibly as calm as it ever gets. Large and gentle rolling swells passed underneath our boat causing us to rise and fall softly. Tiny ripples tickled the surface in spots but mostly the waters were shiny like glass. We counted passing four large sea turtles along the way as they surfaced to enjoy the beautiful weather just as we were. At 1 hour in length, the ride gave us time to reflect on this moment in time. It was Monday morning… and we were not going to work. The feeling of indulgence was strong, but it didn’t keep us from smiling wide and long.

Surfer Town on a Different Wavelength

Jacó was far more developed than Santa Teresa. All of the streets were paved for starters. There were name-brand hotels (like Best Western, whoa!) and luxury condos lining the beachfront. Their main drag was wide and full of colorful shops, restaurants, supermarkets, banks, hotels and hostels. Again, lots of people carrying surfboards, but also many locals and American ex-pats going about their daily lives.

The waves in Jacó were even more regimented than in Santa Teresa. They often formed in one long perfect line stretching nearly the entire breadth of the beach. Surfers dotted the waves all along their length. We rented a boogie board our first day in Jacó and rode some waves ourselves.

Our hostel, Beds on Bohio, was among the nicer that we’ve stayed in. The staff was super friendly and helpful which always makes a difference in the general impression you have of a place. We enjoyed our own private bathroom, too. But there’s always a catch, right? This was the first hostel in which we’ve stayed that did not have hot water. Probably a good thing, really; we didn’t have a/c and a thorough cool down in the shower before bed surely helped us sleep better.

Our only genuine excursion from Jacó was to Carara National Park. Well known as a forest sanctuary for macaws and other colorful squawkers, we self-toured our way through the two-plus hours of trails with eyes and ears wide open. We heard some tree-top squabblings, but never saw a single macaw. Our lack of success in the aviation department was more than made up for in other ways. Somewhere in the middle of our hike, a 5 inch piece of husk almost tapped Jessica on the head as it fell from the trees. She said, “That thing almost hit me!” Things fall from the trees all the time, but Jessica nailed it when a moment later she added, “There must be something up there.” I looked straight up and sure enough…a monkey was snacking in the tree just overhead. Our first monkey sighting! Later on in the hike we would spot 3 or 4 more monkeys, too.


We also saw a trail side guinea, a psychedelic frog, an agouti and some hard-working cutter ants.


I am completing this post in the Costa Rican airport. The first stop in our amazing pace around the world has concluded. I think again about how remarkably strange it is to be doing what we’re doing. So grateful everyday.

Ecuador is next.

Travel Days and Hostel Challenges

We’ve discovered the hardest part of traveling. Turns out it’s the part where you actually travel.

Travel Day- Punta Uva to Monteverde (12 hrs)

I don’t remember which day it was last week that we left Punta Uva (on the east coast) to head towards the rain forests of Moneteverde, but I do remember us standing on the side of the road at 7 am and flagging down a bus headed for San Jose. The trip to San Jose was 4 1/2 hours on an exceptionally warm and rickety bus. Once back at the San Jose bus terminal we waited 2 1/2 hours for the next golden chariot that would take us another 4-5 hours to Monteverde.

“How is it possible for a bus to go any slower than this?” is what I was thinking as our bus ached up the mountain. Sure the bus was packed to capacity, but I thought those big diesel engines had a little more umph. We started this day’s travel shortly after sun-up. The sun was now setting and we were still inching up this beautiful, but painful hill.

I understand that bus drivers are not eager to race around on these unpaved and rocky streets. Charging through the streets too aggressively would surely take precious years off of the life of their mealtickets. As it is, these buses seem to last for decades. One bus we took had a Ghostbusters II sticker on it right next to the Gracias Por No Fumar sign.

Here in Costa Rica, we have yet to travel on a bus with a/c. Okay, I’ll admit it’s not truly needed, but I still thought we might find a chilled bus every now and then. Leg room has been similarly hard to find. Bus seats range from forever-worn fabric to hard-plastic school-bus style. Some buses have been standing room only while others almost vacant. Any of these combinations of discomforts makes traveling by bus arduous at best.

Travel Day- Monteverde to Santa Teresa (9 hrs)

Getting from Monteverde to Santa Teresa made for an even more entertaining travel day than the last. We came down the green mountain slowly, but slowly, starting this time at 6 am. We boarded a “public bus” which meant frequent stops as locals commuted to and from their jobs. Our stops and starts ended 3 hours later when we arrived into Puntarenas and were dropped off near the ferry that would take us across the Gulf of Nicoya. I said the bus left us “near” the ferry. We still had to grab a taxi from the bus stop to the ferry port. It was only about a mile, but it was also humid-hot and we were loaded down with 25 lbs (each) of our worldly possessions.

The hour and 45 minute wait for the next ferry was a sweaty and gritty affair. Thankfully, once on board we enjoyed some cool-blowing a/c. The ride across the bay was about 1 hour and 10 minutes long and very enjoyable. (Ferry rides are always awesome!) 20130819-194558.jpg

Waiting for us on the other side was….wait for it….ANOTHER BUS! Two hours later we exited that bus only to board our third bus for the day. This last was a 30 minute rib cage rattler for sure.

Here’s the recap: bus, taxi, ferry, bus, bus. Oh the joys of traveling the world (on a budget).

By the way, not all travel days are created equal. Our most recent travel day was close to glorious. The highlight was a 1 hour water-taxi ride from Montezuma to Jaco. It was a perfectly beautiful day and we couldn’t resist smiling the entire time.

It’s a Hostel Life

As Jessica and I laze around our present hostel, we see a sparsely appointed row of single-level little rooms. The motif is country-Spaniard (I just made that up); mustard-colored walls with white trim are accented by barred windows. There is a garden area in front of the rooms that is pleasant enough- trees and bushes with 5 or 6 hammocks strung between them and big reddish-black squirrels occasionally scampering about.


Our room has two beds in it. There is nothing on the walls except for two crudely assembled wooden shelves. Our original room (the one we had reserved online) did not have a/c, but we decided to splurge an extra $5/night and upgrade to a room with a/c. Best decision we ever made, btw.

One of the least attractive aspects of this hostel is the short walk from the main road to the hostel’s entrance. It feels like you are walking down a back-alley. There is trash littered about. Once you enter the hostel compound, you’ve made it.

It’s the Little Things

Almost every hostel we’ve been in has been lacking in some key way. At the Walaba hostal in Punta Uva we were thankful to have two electric fans in our room. However, one of the two (the one I nicknamed The Red Baron) was so loud (like an airplane) that it drowned out virtually any other sound in the environment…including the howler monkeys.

In our most recent hostel, I was using the stove to warm dinner when the propane gas went out. I notified the staff and he promptly ran down to the corner store to buy another tank. I saw him return with the good-sized white canister hoisted onto his back. Within 15 minutes I was back in business. The below picture is from a previous hostel, but the kitchens look roughly the same in all of them.


With the exception of the water in Monteverde, we have not been drinking it from the tap. This means we’re spending at least $3/day on water alone. We ARE assuming the tab water is fit for brushing our teeth, but not always. At the Walaba Hostel, we were at least provided bottles for that purpose.

I wanted to divulge these travel challenges not as a matter of complaint, but because if you only see the romance and glamour of the photos, the total picture is incomplete. We are enjoying ourselves. We know that every bus ride, every annoying delay, and even every lumpy hostel bed is all part of the greater experience. Believe me, we are grateful every single day that we are able to do this.

Exploring the Cloud Forest of Monteverde

Note: Some of you may have trouble viewing the embedded videos. You may need to Right-Click on them and Download the file to your computer in order to watch it via another media player.

(Monteverde, Costa Rica – 14 August) “Want to see a sloth?” our guide asked in a whisper as our small group ambled through the dense rainforest. We turned our heads in the direction he was looking and saw only trees, leaves, vines, ferns, and countless epiphytes (all variety of parasitic plants that grow in and on trees). Our amateur eyes saw no sloth. Javier had been a nature guide for 11 years at the Monteverde Cloudforest Preserve and fortunately for us he knew what to look for. He carried with him a loaf-of-bread-sized scope attached to a tripod which he quickly set up and aimed at the hidden hairball. I put my iPhone to the scope’s eyepiece and took the video below. You cannot see much, but it was nonetheless very cool to be voyeurs of nature in that moment.

The sloth-sighting story doesn’t actually end there. After the hike was over and we returned to the hostel, I was chatting with one of the staff about how we saw a sloth. He motioned for me to follow him outside the hostel’s front door and about 20 steps to the left. His head and eyebrows nodded towards a tree growing next to the road. There sat a sloth resting not a frisbee-toss away from our room.20130816-084518.jpg

Green Mountain, Indeed

Monteverde is a very interesting and lively destination in Costa Rica. Its primary draw is, of course, the rainforest, but they have developed so many add-on attractions that one is left with hundreds of options for what to do. Zip-lining, bungee-jumping, and sky-walking (on a series of suspension bridges) are all available for a price. There were also butterfly, frog, snake, bat and hummingbird sanctuaries to visit; often multiples of each. We decided on two activities. Jessica chose the Original Canopy Tour, which bills itself as the first zip-lining tour company in Costa Rica. I chose the more sedate (and “educational”) guided tour of the Monteverde Cloudforest Preserve.

The zip-lining took place first. A van picked us up from the hostel at 7:15 in the morning and we drove about 15 minutes (all uphill) until we reached the tour starting point. They outfitted us with gear and our small group of 7 followed local guides, Davíd, Dany and José, by foot higher and further up the mountain. The two of us were accompanied by another couple from Spain, and a father, son & daughter trio from Holland.

Our first little bit of fun was a “Tarzan” swing. I went first, stepping up onto the 25 foot high platform and jumping while Jessica did an excellent job of capturing the video. Once back on terra firma it was her turn and I was handed the camera. That’s when all hell broke loose. Not with regard to Jessica and her perfectly executed Tarzan swing, complete with screams of fright and delight. The problem was my inability to manipulate her simple point ‘n shoot camera. I tried to take a photo of her, but the camera was set to video. Changing the settings was challenging because I had to remove the big stinky gloves they give you for zip-lining in order to manipulate the small settings. Plus, without my readers on I couldn’t make out the tiny labels on the camera to know what buttons to push anyway. It was a bonafide disaster and I whatever pics and vids I managed to catch of Jessica’s brave and glorious moment are honestly unworthy of showing. You’ll see.

Zip-lining is a lot of fun all by itself, but to think you’re doing it in the middle of a Costa Rican rain forest is the shiz! Altogether, there were 15 different zip-lines that had us moving through the trees faster than a pack of monkeys on their way to a banana market. Some were short, some were long. Some sent you swooping amid the trees and others sent you soaring over them. The longest zip was 800m, which means you’re flying like a bird for around half a minute.

Included in our tour 20130817-110828.jpgwas an encounter with the elusive and endangered quetzal bird, a large, red-breasted, green-feathered bird with a disproportionately long tail. I snatched a pic of it on the assumption nobody would believe we saw one without proof. This one was a female and identifiable as such because its tail is far shorter than the male’s.

We also did some repelling followed by a super-cool scramble back up the tree through the inside. Turns out we had been high up in a strangler fig (or ficus) tree. This unique tree is created when a specific type of epiphyte sends its roots down the side of the host tree all the way to the ground. It takes centuries, but these roots eventually feed off the host tree until there is literally nothing left of it. What remains looks like a tree, but is actually a shell-of-a-tree; great for a multitude of animals who will end up using it for their home. The photo below was taken from inside the base of the tree looking upwards. See the rope ladder to help us climb.20130817-105220.jpg

Cheese Please

On the day we went to the Monteverde Cloudforest Preserve (and spied on the sloth through the scope), we did huge amount of walking. We started on foot from the hostel and trekked slowly and leisurely the 8 kilometers (about 5 miles) to the preserve. The route took us passed the frog sanctuary, the bat exhibit, several Casa de Artes, restaurants, coffee shops, and a cheese factory. The cheese factory is significant because it was Monteverde’s first major business and responsible for shaping the entire region into what it is today.

The cheese factory (no relation to The Cheesecake Factory restaurant) was founded by a group of Quakers from the US in the 1920’s. Supposedly, at the start they knew nothing about how to make cheese and taught themselves the entire process. They also created schools for their children and generously opened them up to any child from the community. Thanks to the Quakers it seems everyone from this area speaks English…and quite well, too.

Given all this backdrop, Jessica and I absolutely had to stop and sample some cheese. The “factory” was inside a medium-sized metal building and looked altogether unremarkable. From the small store at the entrance we bought a small, 7-slice package (odd number, I know) of one of their white cheeses. It was nicknamed by the company as their “King of cheeses.” It was good cheese, to be sure. But neither of us saw any reason to crown it King.

Nature’s Extreme

The hike to the preserve was long and 90% uphill, but we enjoyed it very much. The weather, the views, the sparkling blue butterflies flittering about along the way. All good. Jessica has this fantasy that one of those spectacular blue butterflies 20130817-114430.jpg will land on her shoulder and stay there long enough for me to take a photo. Yeah, good luck with that! I was able to manage catching her pose with this giant moth.20130817-103725.jpg

Javier, our guide at the preserve, was no less than phenomenal. In near-perfect English, he led our group of four on a 3 hour tour (a 3 hour tour) through one of the most magnificent rain forests on the planet. (The other two in our group were a couple of friends from Germany and Austria.) Javier’s knowledge of the flora and fauna surrounding us was incredible and his ability to spot wildlife, simply uncanny. Even while talking to us, his eyes were busy scanning the surroundings for anything that moved. His ears were keenly aware of each bird and beast that stirred the air.

When he found the sloth shown in the video above, it was not directly with the naked eye, but rather with his binoculars. I grilled him, “…but how did you know to look at that spot in the trees with your binoculars?” With his arm and index finger extended, he tried to lead my eyes to a place he’d noticed high in the trees where two limbs of a single tree branched-together without any bromeliads growing along them. This struck him as unusual so he looked there more closely with the binoculars. That’s when he saw the sloth. He’s telling me this and in my mind I’m thinking, “Are you freaking kidding me?! There’s 18 billion branches in this forest and you thought those two looked peculiar?!” [I think he planted that sloth there in advance.]

Also seen on our guided tour was a hungry caterpillar and a massive long-horned beetle Jessica spotted hiding behind a leaf. (In your face, Javier!)

After the guided tour, we had a little more time and hiked out to the preserve’s only suspension walk. It was off-the-charts awesome. The cloud-mist washing over us was so cool.


We really enjoyed our time in Monteverde and anticipated missing it even before we had left. We especially enjoyed the cooler mountain air. But Costa Rica is known for its great beaches and our plans had us heading westward to the Pacific Ocean. A little beach town called Santa Teresa was calling our names. Until then, here is one last zip for you…

From San Jose to the Beach

Costa Rica (12 August)– We left our underwhelming San Jose hostel for the bus station at 5:30 in the morning. There was supposed to be a cab ready to take us, but I guess it was too early for our driver. No worries, we were just one block off a main artery and grabbed a cab to the bus terminal easily after hoofing it a bit.

To The Beach!

Feeling good physically and mentally, we began the 4 1/2 hour bus ride to Puerto Viejo, a beach town on the east coast- the Caribbean side -of Costa Rica. Truthfully, we only stayed a day in San Jose, CR’s capital and home to the international airport, because we arrived so incredibly late on our first travel day. Now that we were headed for the beach, the feeling was that the real trip was just now beginning.

It simply is not possible for any 4 1/2 hour bus ride to be wholly enjoyable, but this one was pretty good. We got our first look at the lush tropical mountainous regions of CR. Vegetation of an immense scale lined both sides of the highway. We saw single plant leaves larger than a table for four and flowers not even Dr Seuss could have imagined. Roadside waterfalls and soaring bridges likewise kept us entertained. Once descended from the mountains, we got our first glimpse of sand and surf. The highway then bent south as we followed the coastline for another hour or so.


Our second hostel (Walaba Hostel in Puna Uva) was a welcome improvement over the first. It was Swiss Family Robinson accommodations, sans the cool Disney touches. (Although, we were impressed by their habit of daisy-chaining household extension cords throughout the compound.) There were two main multi-decked structures (coconuts within reach) and a couple more single-level buildings scattered about. Our room had hinged window coverings that swung open to the wild. Who needs glass on windows anyway, (or even screens), right? The tropical air was free to come and go… and so were the mosquitos. Fortunately for us, the pests were less aggressive and somewhat more dim-witted than their Texas cousins we are accustomed to, so they weren’t really a problem. We did use the mosquito netting over the bed at night which was kind of fun.


The closest beach to our hostel was just a 3 minute walk away. Backpacks dropped into the room and swimsuits on, it was our first sight to see. We took along our mask and snorkels just in case the water was clear enough to glimpse some life underwater. Turns out the first area we swam in was better for waves than snorkeling. In fact, these waves did not like snorkels and masks at all. One particularly large wave tackled Jessica to the sea floor and stripped her mask straight off her head. We looked and looked for them, but the sea was giving nothing back. It was quite a bummer to lose that (somewhat pricey) mask on the first day, but not so bad that I couldn’t get a pretty pic of Jessica after a swim.


Life in Punta Uva

Back at the hostel we were informed that the wifi had not worked since a storm disrupted it 5 days prior. The hostel’s staff was apologetic and made every effort to get it back up, but for our entire stay there…no wifi. And no more rain fell either. We were told it had been raining pools up until two days before we arrived. But when the seasons change from wet to dry it must happen at once. Even the ants know this. We heard a local rancher saying that when a certain type of ant can be seen traipsing about, the rainy season is over. These weather-savvy gardeners must have been the leaf-cutter ants for we saw their tiny parades everywhere; large chunks of leaves waving on their backs like sails.

Much of the next day was spent by me lazying around in the hammock with a book (A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson). I also tried my best to snag a photo of a certain species of iridescent green fly that zoomed and hovered near by. They flew like hummingbirds in the way that they would park themselves in a spot of air for a few moments (to look you over) before darting off. But darn them for never posing for a picture. Below is the best I could do.


The most notable wildlife in the area was there to be heard, not seen. Howler monkeys abound. Jessica and I were hearing these well-named creatures for the first time and it was downright unnerving. (For a moment, I thought we’d landed on Pandora.) I won’t even attempt to describe their incredible roar. Listen here for a sampling.

The morning of our last day in Punta Uva I decided to go for a jog. From the hostel I ran down the road to the right exactly 21 minutes, then turned around and slogged it back at a slightly faster 20-minute clip. Sounds like a normal Gary-thing to do….but OMG, running in the tropical environment was tougher than I was ready for. I ran it strong, but upon finishing I was thoroughly wiped out. My face was brave, but I was weak sauce for the rest of the day. Plans after my run had us renting bikes and riding 7 km to the next town down the highway, Manzanillas. We were eager to go their because of the good snorkeling to be had right along the beach. Afterwards, we planned to visit the world’s only sloth sanctuary, located not far from where we were staying.

We did bike ride to Manzanillas and enjoyed the beach very much. It was Saturday and the sands were alive with local families… with their kids subbing underwear for a swimsuit. Down to one mask and snorkel, Jessica and I had to take turns seeing some colorful fish in the small reefs scarcely 40 feet from the sand’s edge. The beach was unique in how close the palm and coconut trees came down to the mellow surf…providing natural shade for picnicking or just hanging out as we did. A couple of European women set up near us and one of them thought nothing of going topless. This was NOT the norm in Manzanillas and seemed to cause quite a stir of giggles among the locals that happened by.


Man Down

I was still feeling worn out from that silly morning run as we peddled back to the hostel from Manzanillas, but something else was going on….my intestines were sending me a few strange signals too. Uh oh! Nah, it wasn’t much, but I do know that once we were back at the hostel I collapsed onto the bed and wafted in and out of sleep for the next four hours! While I never felt really bad (like being sick), it was clear that something had hit me.

Our plans to travel the world for a year certainly included an expectation that we might get sick from time to time. But it’s been less than a week! Fortunately, I was not truly sick-sick, probably mostly dehydrated. We were told very directly not to drink the tap water at our hostel…and then told we’d have to pay for filling up our canisters with their bottled water. I am sure knowing this kept me from chugging water like I would have otherwise. Though true, Jessica says I was running a slight fever for a time which would indicate something more going on than just a lack of water. Regardless, whatever bug my system was processing, it was relatively minor.

Jessica went through it, too… the following day. It was our travel day from Punta Uva to Monteverde. Her sleep-craving came mercifully on the bus ride (rides) to Monteverde– a 9 hour, 2-part trip that included a 2 1/2 hour stopover at the sketchy San Jose bus terminal.

We had no significant rain in Punta Uva, which I found slightly disappointing. As we looked at the forecast before coming to CR, chances of rain were 100%. Once I saw our open-air treehouse of a hostel room, I craved that a dose of fresh rain would delight us for a while. Yet, we scarcely saw a drop. Those ants of Punta Uva were right.

Perhaps in Monteverde, located in the middle of CR’s main rainforest, the rains would be found.

And They’re Off!

Costa Rica (7 August). One year plus a few months ago, I had a pretty crazy idea; what if Jessica and I quit our jobs, leased out our house, and traveled the world for a year? With our arrival to Costa Rica at 11:30 PM last night, that crazy idea became our insane reality.

Surreal Space

As the August 6th launch date for our trip approached, many people asked us, “Are you getting excited?” I hope somewhere buried in my response was a yes, but truthfully with so many stressful preparations to be made, getting excited about the trip was far down on the list. I’d like to double-down on the theme of my previous post, (Is It Romantical?), that attempted to impart just what a complicated and costly endeavor this trip has been so far.

Saying good-bye (for a full year) to the friends and family we care about has extracted an emotional toll on us. Add to that walking away from the wonderful house we’ve lived in for the past 4 years, leaving jobs and coworkers that had become part of our work-families, selling my scooter after six years of zipping around Austin on it, having to give my sweet cat one last hug, and toughest of all for Jessica, saying farewell to her daughter Mallorie. All of these things were difficult in their own way. We voluntarily left behind a perfectly good life for such a huge unknown. Who does that?

The thoughts and feelings we’ve been left with are uncharted territory for us. We have no frame of reference for them. The whole thing is so surreal. It will take us some time to shift gears into whatever new set of sensations await us as our journey now begins in earnest.

Keeping It Real

I wanted to get all of that on the record because if our handful of faithful readers were expecting us to hit the ground running with all kinds of awesome adventures, you are just going to have to be patient. It is my hope that keeping it real for you will be valued more highly than simply a list of places we went and things we did.

Here’s real for you. Our first hostel choice was a bust. Choosing to stay mostly in hostels during our trip was all about living cheaply. [We’ve got to manage our money carefully or we’ll never make it all the way around the world, yo!] It was expected that we’d find varying degrees of quality and cleanliness. It was still disappointing, however, that our first stay was so lacking. Our room was right next to the kitchen and a steady trickle of people could be heard rustling just outside our door all through the night. There were both bunk beds in the room and a ratty old full-size mattress lying on the floor. Okay, it wasn’t actually on the floor, but rather on top of two wooden pallets.

Where’s the water? By morning, it wasn’t running. Jessica found this out the hard way when she washed her hands with soap but then couldn’t rinse them off. The slimy soap had to be wiped off with a towel…which simply isn’t the same. We brushed our teeth camping style and rinsed our mouths with a few drops of water we had leftover from the previous day’s water bottle.

Better Already

The water was off all day and only started flowing again about 5 in the afternoon. Shower time! We changed rooms so that the kitchen noise should no longer be an issue. And, we got to know the Hostel’s resident rabbit, “Tranquis,” named so for his extremely chill (and tranquil) nature.


Around mid-day, we walked through the center of San Jose until we reached the bus terminal. Once there we purchased our $11 each tickets for tomorrow’s 5 hour ride to Puerto Viejo, the second destination (a beach town) of our trip. The walk through town was pretty cool. A good 10-block stretch of it was pure pedestrian traffic (closed off to vehicles) and full of hustle, bustle and crazy people watching.

For lunch we stopped at a small, one-woman, “restaurant” and had fish soup. It was so authentic we were picking scales out of our teeth all afternoon. It was a little scary to eat, but actually quite good.


Stopover in Mexico City

I mentioned earlier that we arrived into San Jose, Costa Rica at 11:30 PM. Would you believe we boarded our flight from Houston at 6:10 in the morning!? That’s about a 17 hour travel day. Okay, that’s a little misleading; we had a 10 hour stopover in Mexico City. Plenty of time to leave the airport and enjoy the company of some of my very good friends in Mexico City.

Huge thanks to Ivan for picking Jessica and me up at the airport. It is so awesome to come out of the terminal and see a friendly face. Ivan also chose the place for lunch, El Bajio del Polanco. The food was excellent and seeing the table of friends even better.


We’ve only just begun. Once we get our travel legs under us and hit our stride, you will get much more than awkward rantings. Perhaps once we wiggle our toes in sandy beaches of Puerto Viejo tomorrow our shift from old-life to new-life will begin to take hold. There is so much ahead of us, a few hours without running water will be all but forgotten soon