Friday, November 28, 2014

Costa Rica Part II: La Fortuna and the 2 Volcano Hike

Hello happy travelers!

So even in our first few days of traveling, we made a point of learning each others' traveling style and learning from our experiences. 

Tips we picked up:
  • Book the first night in the hotel, but if you're staying for a few days, don't be afraid to search for a better option if you're not happy!
  • Double check your reservations and scheduled pickups, and especially check in a day or two in advance just to make sure. 

We flew Spirit Air- it's billed as the "leading Ultra Low Cost Carrier in the United States, the Caribbean, the Bahamas and Latin America." It was lost cost, and that's about it. In fact, unlike any other airline, the price was higher with a carry-on! (But yes, the price was still lower than other flights at the time.) 

Next year we will start investing in frequent flyer miles, per advice from a trusted blogger, Chris Guillebeau, and his Upgrade Unlocked, Unconventional Guide to travel hacking. But that's another story. 

How we felt when we finally arrived!
The flight took a LOT longer than expected, due to a fuel spill after boarding that required de-boarding and re-boarding another plane.  Then once we were in the air, the plane hit a bird, and had to land again. Before we could land, we had to circle around a few times because we had too much fuel to land... So we de-boarded again, and re-boarding the initial plane... OMG. At least we weren't delayed to our connecting flight, because we would have had a 5 hour layover in Fort Lauderdale. The layover was only 1 hour, woo hoo! But it's funny how time passes differently when your expectations are... managed... differently...! 

La Fortuna

Welcome to La Fortuna!
Getting there: We took a local bus from the San Jose airport to the bus terminal in Alajuela, just a 10 minute drive, and from there took another local bus to San Carlos (aka Quesada) and transferred there to another bus to La Fortuna. It took about 5 hours. Not the most time efficient way, but pretty economical. It was around $10 per person. Another option would have been to take a shuttle for $50 per person. The reason we had to transfer so many times was because we arrived just slightly too late for the direct bus to La Fortuna which would have been faster, with no changing buses and no stopping every 100m for passengers. 

Arriving: We had a hotel reserved called La Fortuna Hostel Resort. I used to book, which was easy to use. We did not like the place. The people running it were not nice, except for one guy, and there was a general depressed feeling about it. We paid for the rest of our stay, 4 nights, when we got there, so we stayed, but the lesson I think is just to stay the first night and see if we like it. I should also mention that we were traveling on a budget, so we were looking for guesthouse/hostel type accommodations that had a kitchen, and we were willing to sacrifice some comfort for price. Our budget was initially $20-25 per night, but over the trip slowly rose to $35-40, with inclusion of a kitchen or continental breakfast. We paid about $25/night for this place and it had a kitchen. Note: The time period that we are describing, Oct-Nov is the end of rainy season, and considered low season for traveling. This meant that we had our pick of rooms and hotels were willing to bargain with us, since there weren't many other travelers during this time. Prices will be higher and options will be less for those traveling during high season.

Activities: We did not do zip lining, canyoneering, horseback riding, or the suspension bridges. We had already done these things before, and agreed that we would be better off investing our resources in our list of "must-do" activities and not just randomly do stuff because it's the advertised thing to do. Must-do activities for Costa Rica included whitewater rafting (Akemi), and relaxing on the beach (Oz). And hot springs! (Both of us!)

Wybe and Sonya at Red Lava helped us with our itinerary
Oz, Sonya, and me

So what we did do was the Two Volcano Hike with Lagoon Swimming and Hot River! This was AWESOME! Wybe and Sonya helped us choose our other activities too, which included this hike, the Baldi Hot Springs the following day, the Jeep-Boat-Jeep "tour" that was our transportation to Monteverde, and our accommodations in Monteverde.

The hike goes up the side of the dormant Cerro Chato volcano and down into the crater, which is now filled with water and is a beautiful blue, that you can swim in! Then you hike around and up the other side, and down, and across to the Arenal Observatory for views of Volcan Arenal. (FYI, it is not necessary to go with a guide or tour group, but it was really nice having that group experience, meeting people, and having a guide who knows the area. In this case, I found it totally worth it!)

The hike started out sunny and beautiful, with Andres, our guide, two other couples (from Canada and France) and a guy from Slovenia. Andres was studying to be a biologist and told us he gets school credit for leading these hikes. He told us lots about the local flora and fauna.

Then it started to rain. The rain was awesome. It was pouring, thundering, and powerful. The trail became a river. We kept going, up and up. The gnarled roots of the rainforest trees were like little secret passageways to hobbit holes. Our shoes were soaked. We loved it! What more adventure than rain in the rainforest! And best of all, NO LEECHES!

We had lunch at the side of the lagoon, still in the pouring rain.  The packed lunch that was provided by Red Lava Tours was delicious- choose the chicken.

Note: Bring a poncho!

As for shoes, we noticed a lot of people with fancy waterproof hiking shoes. I suppose they would be perfect if it were not for the river of pouring rain we hiked through on the way up- maybe gaiters would have helped? We brought old tennis shoes that we then abandoned when we saw that due to the constant humidity they were not drying out and just getting smellier and nastier. We used Keens for the rest of the trip, which were perfect, since we didn't do any more hiking like this- all other hikes were relatively mellow, even in Manuel Antonio. 

We loved this EPIC hiking adventure!
The crew at the side of the lagoon, after slogging through the pouring rain/river down into the crater. We did swim after all, despite the rain! (Bonus: It helped wash the mud off!)

Foggy waterfall

Cute Coati
We drove from the Arenal Observatory (which was quite anticlimactic since it was almost dark by the time we got there and too cloudy to see anything, plus we were WORN OUT from the hike!) to the hot river. It was dark, raining again, and cold! So it was with some trepidation that we parked by the side of the road, stripped down to our bikinis and swimming trunks, and walked down to the river. Once there, we immediately hunkered down to warm up in this amazing hot (well, warm, not burning hot) river. Other tour groups joined us and the guides made a few batches of jungle juice, and applied volcanic mud masks to those of us who wanted... Too bad my camera isn't waterproof! All in all, it was an exhausting, adventurous, epic, memorable day.
Rad Rana Frog

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Costa Rica! Part I: Packing

This was our first international trip together! Dun dun dun! To make a long story short, everything went well, we had a great time, and we are happy to be back, safe and sound! :-)

And now for the longer version...

I will divide our adventure into several parts, due to multiple interesting things happening!

The first part is our packing style. Then I'll talk about what we actually packed and how that went.

Packing: We chose to use carry-on size backpacks. This was because we knew we'd be moving around a lot, and there was no guarantee of smooth sidewalks for a rolly bag. We also wanted to prepare for our round-the-world trip in 2016, so this trip would serve as a "warm up." This post is for those of you who are like me, researching bags and luggage and looking for the the best in modern world conveniences for use while hiking and adventuring in remote parts of the world where the newest technologies for comfort and durability really shine!

Brand spanking new!
Our bags arrived the week before we left. Oz got the Osprey Porter 46L. I got the Osprey Farpoint 40L. His is the newer version, and is available in stores like REI. Mine is an older version and is being phased out, for some reason.

And we're off!
We chose these bags based on several criteria. We wanted carry-on size and full access to the main compartment, not just an opening in the top, like a stuff sack. I especially wanted nice adjustable backpack straps and hip belt.

Both bags fit the bill! In addition, they have convenient methods of stowing the backpack straps if you'd like to carry it like a duffel.

Oz liked the various compartments that came with his, and the sturdy padded side panels. I loved the smaller size of mine, and the super sturdy hip belt. The hip belt on the Porter 46 wasn't as padded, which got uncomfortable for Oz when walking longer distances- like 400m from one bus station to another. (We didn't get these bags to do any real long distance hiking, so Oz was ok with the lack of padding.) That hip belt, along with the size, was the reason I preferred the Farpoint 40. I'm 5'2" and having the hip supports saves my shoulders.

In addition to the larger bags, we both brought smaller bags to use for hiking and general walking about town with. Mine is an REI Stroke 19 with camel pack capability. I've had it for years and it hasn't worn out yet! Oz has the Osprey Viper 13, in green. He manages to stow it inside the Porter. Overall, the bags worked out great. Bonus: we didn't really choose the matching colors, but it happened to work out!

Waiting for our ride on a rainy morning in La Fortuna


It rained a lot while we were there. We traveled October 30 to November 19, catching the last month or so of rainy season. I had a rain cover that was for my bigger bag, but it worked just fine for my Farpoint. Oz wrapped a poncho over his bag. I have a Mountain Hardware rain jacket that is several years old, and due to it's lack of keeping me dry I think I've washed out the waterproof properties. (Here's a link to how to properly care for your rain jacket.) Oz was prepared with a $30 rain jacket from Target- we didn't need to go all out for a 3 week trip, and being that Los Angeles is in the middle of a drought, he probably won't get much use out of it the rest of the year. We were surprised at how dry he stayed while I was totally damp inside my jacket! 

 What's in the bag?

  • Three Eagle Creek packing cubes: two large, one medium. I love these cubes. I've had them for literally over 20 years. In them I squish:
    • 2 each of these: bikini, socks, tank tops, sports bras, t-shirts, shorts, sleeping clothes, lightweight pants (one is zip off, one is more like a pajamas). Quickdry EVERYTHING! We found that humid weather combined with frequent rains or swims in the ocean or volcano lagoons caused our clothes to be constantly damp.
    • 5 underwears. (Going commando is also an option!)
    • warm socks to sleep in (I find it really hard to relax if my feet are cold!)
    • sarong for the beach
    • quickdry towel
    • The medium cube holds excess toiletries that don't fit in the Muji bag: like razor, sunscreen, earplugs, toothbrush, ibuprofen, etc.
  • One small toiletry kit from Muji. I put my daily morning/evening routine in here. Contact lens case and solution, toothpast, deodorant, q-tips, eye liner, earrings/necklace (durable and well-securable so I don't loose them!), floss, etc. 
  • A money belt, which I use when I'm traveling and carrying large amounts of cash or other important documents and I don't want to take chances on losing it. I keep smaller amounts in my wallet, and the bag goes around my waist. I've slept with this around my waist in hostels, and leave it in a safe deposit box if possible. 
  • Rain poncho. A must in Costa Rica. 
  • A book. 
  • There's also my souvenir bikini and my charger for the netbook.
These are my only souvenirs!
  • Two sew-on patches for our bags
  • Cute locally made bikini
  • Frog sarong
  • CHOCOLATE! (This chocolate will get it's own separate blog later!)
SHOES: We both brought Keens. I got the Whisper and he got the Newport. They were both optimal for most everything Costa Rica, even 5+ hours hiking around Manuel Antonio National Park. We also brought dirty old tennis shoes to use specifically for the two volcano/jungle hike in La Fortuna/Arenal. Most people had proper hiking shoes but as it was rainy season, I didn't want to lug wet heavy shoes around with us, so I figured old sneakers- well if they didn't dry fast enough we could leave them in a trash bin! Which we did- they were nasty by next day! One hike in sneakers wasn't going to kill our feet, and it beat carrying around heavy hikers when the Keens were perfect for the rest of the trip. Those and flip flops for lounging!

Finally, here's the contents of my other bag, the REI Stroke 19.
In here I put another book and a journal- I think I overpacked the books! My baseball cap kept the sun off my face, and my netbook kept us connected. They had high-speed wifi everywhere, restaurants, cafes, and hotels. Better connection that in the US! My wallet is there too, which has a cross body strap, and my Keens. And my jacket, which I now badly needs a waterproofing treatment!

So that's it! This way of packing will guide us for our round the world trip, and it worked great for Costa Rica! I can forsee adding warmer clothing and sturdier shoes instead of the Keens.

Thanks for reading to the end, and please post any comments or questions down below. 
Happy travels!