Friday, November 30, 2012

Costa Rica - Part 3 - Monkeys on the Beach & Strange Mangrove Tour

Everyone agreed that we should dedicate today to relaxing and what better way than a trip to the beach. There are three main beaches around Manuel Antonio – the Quepos public beach (which is dirty and looks scary), the public beach near the entrance of the park and the private beach (there are actually three small ones) inside the park. Since we were going to the park the following day, we decided to try the public beach called Playa Espadrilla.

Playa Espadrilla is a huge beach with dark (almost black) soft sand and at low tide (before 2-3pm) the sand strip is very wide and there is a large section of super shallow water (ankle-deep) that goes for at least 50 feet in and is perfect for children to play.

The beach seemed deserted and there were only a few other small groups of people besides us. We were offered an umbrella and two chairs for $10. The offer also came with “a personal butler” in the form of the nearby restaurant owner who was happy to deliver whatever we wanted to our chairs throughout the day.

So we indulged in lots of cerveza (the local brew is called Imperial), pina coladas, ceviche (surprisingly good and inexpensive at about $5 a plate), tacos and even whole coconuts filled with coconut milk (not my thing to be honest). The weather was overcast for most of the day but the water was warm and the kids played at water’s edge for hours. You have to be careful though because only a few feet further, the water becomes deeper and the waves stronger so someone should always supervise kids if they are in the water, even if it seems shallow.

Around lunch time we saw a ton of titi monkeys (the cute little orange ones) hanging in the trees at the entrance of the beach looking for food. We were told this is their “feeding route” and you can always see them around that time of the day. A few iguanas were also lounging on the sand and the local guys showed us a cute three-toes sloth sleeping on the tree above. 

Soon the titi monkeys were gone and the white-faced monkeys came in swinging in the vines above us. Apparently, there two kinds of monkeys do not get along (and the white-faced ones are sometimes known to eat the titi monkey babies) and they are never at the same place together. I have to saw that we saw a lot more monkeys at the beach and at our house (and I don’t mean our kids) than we saw at Manual Antonio park but more on that later.

In the afternoon we took a walk to the end of the beach and saw two local guys painting a rickety old boat on the beach. They offered to take us into the mangroves of the park for $100 and we thought it was a fair deal. Hmmm…we should have known better. So we boarded two similarly rickety old boats and took off. The mangroves are basically shallow swampy waters surrounded by thick shrubbery. They are supposed to harbor lots of interesting wildlife so armed with our cameras we were on the lookout. We saw a bunch of pretty orange crabs…and then more crabs…and more crabs…and a raccoon. 

And then after about 20 minutes on the water we got stuck. And then I knew that there was a reason why the tour company I had contacted about a mangrove tour said we need to start at 8 am or we can’t go – because at low tide the water is super shallow and you get stuck. 

The two local guys jumped in the swampy water (thank God there were no crocodiles) and literally pushed the boats for a bit but then it became clear that we can go no further so they just took us back. And we now have hundreds of pictures of oranges crabs to show for the $100 we paid.

On a positive note, as we were getting off the boats we saw two white-faced monkeys raiding a large trash can and we were able to get very close to them and take lots of pictures before they suspected we may want to steal their prized trash and took off.

Disappointed by the high prices in the Manuel Antonio area we had heard there is a local produce market in Quepos where we could get cheap fruit and ceviche so we drove off in search of fresh local food. Considering none of us knew where the market was, we kept asking strangers on the street and getting the typical Costa Rican directions (past the yellow house, you will see a sign, go left, go right) so after about 30 minutes you had three American families, carrying walkie-talkies and running around the small downtown area like headless chickens. We finally found the market, which was not the pretty open-air market that we had imagined but rather an old building with no windows and several stalls inside. Most of them were already closed… So we went back and ordered take-out chicken…not our first choice but hey, they delivered and we were tired.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Costa Rica with Kids - Part 2 - Manuel Antonio, Rainmaker & So Como No Jungle Walk

Boy, were we glad that we had decided to take it easy on this first day in Manuel Antonio as we were sure exhausted by our late night adventures. We slept for a few hours and then woke up to a gorgeous view of the rainforest from our living room. The house we were renting was called Itza’s Enchanted House and was located in a local neighborhood just a few blocks from the main road between Quepos and Manuel Antonio. It is owned by the nicest local woman who designed the house herself and it was truly an oasis of tranquility.

The airy living room backed into the rainforest and the huge verrandah was our favorite spot for coffee and late night drinks. There was a supermarket a few blocks from the house that delivered groceries so after a few phone calls our breakfast supplies were delivered and we finally felt like we were on vacation.

A sign of warning on prices – Costa Rica is very expensive and most prices were on par with big cities in the US. Our breakfast and some beers and fruit from the supermarket cost almost $100 and we regularly paid about $50 per family for lunches and dinners in local restaurants. As a side note – the local currency is the colon and 500 colons are $1. Dollars are widely accepted and there are plenty of ATM machines in the tourist area that dispense US dollars.

After lounging around the house for a bit and enjoying the sounds and sights of the rainforest we were ready to set off on our first activity for the day – a trip to the hanging bridges of Rainmaker. Rainmaker is a biological reserve set in the rainforest about 30 min drive from Manuel Antonio. The last part of the drive is a dirt road but it was in a fairly good condition.

We were supposed to meet a local guide at the reserve but he was a no-show so the very nice manager sent one of his workers to accompany us. The guy spoke almost no English but was so friendly and was great with the kids so language was not a problem. We found out that in Costa Rica many people did not speak English but still were happy to communicate with us and somehow we made it work.

We walked through the rainforest for about 2 hours stopping to see some interesting insects (including the green and black tiny frogs which are poisonous but our guide knew how to handle them so the kids were actually able to “pet” one) and flowers.

We also saw the fascinating leaf cutter ants - if you look closely on the picture below you will see many small pieces from a green leaf. Each piece is carried by an ant and they all walk in a perfect formation back and forth from their house. Apparently, if you drop your leaf you have to continue walking empty-handed because you can't leave the line or you'll mess up everyone in front of you.

There were several hanging bridges which at first glance appeared a bit rickety but were actually OK and very fun to walk on. The kids loved the shaking of the bridges and even I, despite my fear of heights, managed to walk the entire loop. 

The guide told us that a few weeks ago there were a lot of snakes in the park and one woman got bitten (that was my one fear about this trip) but luckily the week we were there the snakes had not been an issue. Later in the trip we learned a lot about snake anti-venom and how it works but I have to admit I did have my panicky thought on occasion about how fast I can run back to the entrance of the park and drive to a hospital if anything like that happens. We also saw some gorgeous waterfalls and the kids were able to splash around in them which was the highlight of the day for them.

After the Rainmaker tour, we were back in Manuel Antonio for a lunch/dinner at Mar Luna – a very pretty outdoor restaurant part of the Si Como No complex. The views were great (we saw a few toucans on the nearby trees) but the food was just so-so. I have to say I was quite disappointed by the food in Costa Rica. Having been to Mexico several times before I was dreaming of guacamole, rice and beans and fresh fish. But most of the food we ate, even in some small local restaurants, was bland (white rice and pinto beans), lacked variety and even the stuff I usually love (ceviche) was totally unimpressive.

For the evening I had made reservations for the Night Jungle Tour that Si Como No does as it came highly recommended on Trip Adviser. When we arrived at the meeting point at 5:30 we were split into two groups of only 6 people and each of us was given a flashlight.

Our guide was super lively and experienced and quickly led us into the reserve where narrow paved walkways run right through the rainforest. He was quick to spot a variety of lizards and insects including a large poisonous toad and the super cute red-eye frog (symbol of Costa Rica). We also walked through a crocodile habitat (of course, we walked on raised platforms) and a turtle habitat where the guide was able to pick some turtles (not the snapping kind) and bring them to us. Considering I had been super scared of the night creatures before we started, the tour was a huge success and Victor was beaming with delight when the guide let him touch a poisonous frog.

It was a long day but we saw a lot of exciting stuff and the best ending was sitting on our verandah and chatting with our friends long after the kids went to bed.