Monday, August 25, 2008

I *heart* Jack!!

A week ago today I went to the Jack Johnson concert with my coworker and friend, Kristen. We had really great seats--the first row just beyond the mosh pit. Although Jack really isn't the kind of music you would normally mosh to. Guess somebody should have told "crazy dancer guy" that...he was either drunk or high or maybe both. He looked like he was doing some weird pow-wow dance pretty much the whole concert. Good times. But nothing could take away the wonderfulness that is Jack. His music is just so relaxing and fun and chill. Oh yeah, did I mention he's hot and he's from Hawaii and he surfs?! Bring it on! Anyway, it was a great concert and I wish every Monday could be a day spent with Jack. Here are some images from the night:

It was waaaayyyy too hot before the sun set.

Jack introducing the band.

Sing to me baby!

So much cooler when the sun went down!

My favorite pic of the night!

Yet another reason why Utahns should stop bringing their small children to concerts--use the $50 for a babysitter so your kid can sleep in a bed not on the ground!

The worst part of every concert--the parking lot traffic jam.

One thing I can say is that Jack is one of the few artists I have seen that sounds as good as or better than the recording! I could have listened to him for many more hours, but alas, every good thing must come to an end. I got to hear all of my favorites, but perhaps the best part was his encore as he came out alone...just a man and his guitar...and sang 6 or 7 more songs for us. So yes, now and forever, I *heart* Jack!


p.s. I tried to upload one of my favorite songs of the night but I think Blogger didn't like the size of it or something cuz it was a no go. Maybe I'll try later.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Costa Rica--PURA VIDA!!

I'm sad to say that it's already been a week since I left the beautiful land of Costa Rica. I wish I could go back tomorrow. I certainly do plan to return in the future and would seriously consider owning property there at some point. I found it to be a very forward thinking, socially responsible, peaceful, animal loving, friendly, organized, wonderful country and would highly recommend it to any traveler. Anyway, here's a bit of a day-by-day of my adventures there.

After a red-eye flight from Denver we arrived into San Jose about 5:30 a.m. Passing through immigration and customs there was a very easy process. We found our man with the CARAVAN sign with no trouble and were soon whisked away to our hotel, the Barcelo San Jose Palacio. We were met by our tour guide Patricia who made every effort to get us into our room earlier than the 3:00 p.m. check-in time. We were very fortunate to only have to wait until about 10:45 given that check-out for other guests wasn't until noon. We wandered around the hotel grounds a bit but then fatigue took over and we passed out on a couch in the lobby area. I'm sure we looked like scraggly vagabonds but we just couldn't help it!

I was pleasantly surprised to find that San Jose is not very humid. It was really overcast and actually quite cool. Apparently its location makes for a very temperate climate, ranging from about 60-80 degrees year round. Yeah, I could definitely handle a place like that! Anyway, we got into our room and did some heavy duty napping and lounging for a while. Our accommodations were fantastic!

We finally roused ourselves in time to go to our Caravan orientation at 6:00 p.m. We did brief introductions of our group--46 in total--and some general overviews of the tour. Our meals at this hotel were provided in a high end buffet area so we headed there and then went out by the pool area to sit and chat for a while. We were too tuckered out to do much else so we watched a little TV back in the room and hit the hay.

We all piled onto the bus for our first day of sightseeing. We had a brand new black Mercedes Benz bus...very nice...and one heck of a driver, Luis. We drove through some of the cities of the central plateau en route to Poas Volcano...a dormant volcano with a large crater with a lake. We visited Costa Rica in the rainy season so I should have paid attention to that little nudge I felt to pack my real rain jacket instead of just my emergency poncho. Oops!

We arrived at the visitors center in pouring rain and crazy wind. It was actually quite cold as we were almost at 9,000 feet. I donned my emergency poncho and started hiking up to the overlook area. It was a disappoinment as the whole crater was covered by clouds and we couldn't see a blessed thing. My emergency poncho held up quite well under the circumstances. We decided to take the loop trail back to the visitors center (which thing I will never do again)...I finally realized this was the "death hike" I overheard some girl talking about in the bathroom. At least it was pretty scenery, right?

We left and hit the road again, stopping at a little restaurant for lunch. The food was quite good...the typical Costa Rican meal is called "casado" which means "marriage" and consists of rice and black beans with either chicken, beef or fish accompanied by some sort of salad and fried sweet plantains. It is amazing and I was in heaven most of our trip. I'm actually surprised that I didn't gain any weight as I am not used to having 3 solid meals a day. I also ate more beef on this trip than I have probably in the past 6 months or more. But the food was just so dang good!

The restaurant was situated overlooking the central plateau and afforded wonderful views of the hills and valleys. I just wish it hadn't been so overcast. We finished off the day returning back to San Jose and visiting the National Museum. Quite interesting. We took some time to relax once we got back to the hotel and then Heidi and I took off to play racquetball. Yes, I said racquetball!! What luck is it that our hotel had 3 racquetball courts? I could hardly believe my eyes. It was fun to play...a perfect end to the day. We took a quick dip in the pool, which was actually quite cold and then tried to warm up a bit in the sauna. We finished with dinner and went to bed as we had an early departure the next day.

Today we departed San Jose to begin our way to the Caribbean coast. We drove through Braulio Carrillo National Park (although seriously, the whole country could just be one huge national's that pretty!) We made a stop at a supposed top-rated tourist attraction--the aerial tram through the jungle canopy. It was nice but definitely overrated.

We started out on a walk through the forest with our guide. As luck would have it, the three of us who HATE snakes are the ones who ran into a nasty brown one on the side of the trail. The guide later confirmed it was a poisonous snake. Perfect! I spent the rest of the walk on edge with my eyes darting every which way hoping to not see any more yucky creepy crawlies.

We then spent about an hour and a half on the aerial tram part. It is a two-cable tram where your gondola glides through the upper level of the rain forest and you return via the other cable to see the lower level. It was very peaceful and beautiful. Perhaps a bit too peaceful though as I kept dozing off! The only wildlife we saw was some birds. I did purchase a ring and a Costa Rica patch from the gift shop though so the visit was worthwhile. Hehehe.

We continued on towards the Atlatnic coast and stopped for a wonderful lunch at a place that had a butterfly garden in the back. Costa Rica has many beautiful butterflies but if you have never seen a Blue Morpho you are missing out! Back on the bus and we eventually made it to Cano Blanco where we boarded a motorboat for a 1 & 1/2 hour ride through the rivers and canals of Tortuguero National Park. You can only get to this area via boat or plane as there are no roads. Tortuguero is sandwiched between the river/canals and the ocean.

It was really awesome to boat through the gorgeous! It reminded me of the Amazon on a smaller scale. We arrived at the Laguna Lodge and had a wonderful passion fruit welcome drink. The lodge consists of a number of small buildings that are divided into simple cabin type rooms. When we arrived at our room we found our triple accommodations consisted of two twin beds pushed together. Yeah right!! We went back to the reception area and were soon provided with third bed and linens.

It was definitely more warm and humid in this part of the country. We decided to take a dip in the swimming pool, hoping that no rainforest creatures had made their way into the pool to join us. The main meat at dinner was fish so Heidi and I were out of luck. Randomly there was some shredded turkey meat on the salad bar and they were also serving mashed potatoes so we had our own mini Thanksgiving meal. There really wasn't much else to do as it got dark pretty early and we didn't have a TV so we called it a night.

We were finally greeted by our first full sunny day! And what a day to have the weather cooperate. We took a morning cruise through the park's canals and saw iguanas, various birds, a troop of howler monkeys and caymans (similar to a crocodile but smaller.) After the cruise we went to the Caribbean Conservation & Sea Turtle Research Station to watch a short video about the nesting of the sea turtles. This was also known as Alyssa's nap time--I couldn't help it--put me under a fan and turn out the lights and I'm a goner. Yet another sign of old age! We then walked along the beach for about 10 minutes until we arrived at the town of Tortuguero where I had about the best tasting ice cream of my life. It was so hot there in the midday sun but I actually wish we would have had more time there to explore and shop.

Instead we had to head back to the lodge for lunch and then we attempted to takea very hot sticky uncomfortable nap. It reminded me of being on my mission and trying to sleep when there was no electricity to run my fan! Then it was time for our afternoon boat tour. We had such an excellent guide and driver and were able to see more birds, including toucans, spiders, spider monkeys (one with a baby on its back) and a cayman that came too close for comfort!

We had signed up for the night tour to watch the sea turtles nest on the beach. There were two groups--an early and late--to be determined by drawing. As luck had it, we got the late shift from 10 to midnight so we had dinner and tried to take another quick nap. We met up with our group of 9, which included the Baltimore crew from our two and an unknown couple. The organization of this tour was impressive. The conservation society divides the beach into sectors and send out two scouts on the beach who then radio back to the guides when it is time for us to come out. Apparently the turtles are very sensitive to disruptions until they actually start laying the eggs...then natural instinct kicks in and they literally can't stop the process until it is complete. We were not allowed to take cameras or any lights onto the beach. Only the guides and scouts can use red night lights so as to not disturb the turtles.

We awaited our turn and let me tell you, it was pitch dark on that beach. I thought I was going to stumble to my death a number of times. Our first time around we didn't see the turtle lay any eggs but we did see her use her huge flippers to send sand flying to cover up her nest. We had to rotate with other groups every couple of minutes so that everyone could have a chance. We were then able to follow one of the turtles on her journey back toward the water. We were this horseshoe of people walking behind her as she made her way back. It was one of the most moving and amazing things I have seen. We were able to see another turtle nesting and in our rotations got to watch as these perfect white eggs dropped into the whole she had dug. What an experience! As we waited for our boat to come back and pick us up it started to pour down rain. I was grateful we were transported back in a covered boat.

It seriously poured rain all throughthe night. I expected to wake up and have to swim to breakfast! We got back on the boat for the 1 1/2 hour journey back to Cano Blanco. At one point the water was so shallow that our boat got stuck and we were asked to move to the front of the boat to off-set the weight. The guide was pushing with stick while the driver gunned the engine but eventually our guide actually had to get out of the boat and push it from behind. It was pretty hilarious! We loaded back on the bus and along the way stopped to see the workings of a Del Monte banana factory. Quite the process I must say...and I will not take the beautiful bananas in the store for granted any more. We made another quick stop at a rain forest lodge and were able to walk about across a 300 foot suspension bridge. Kind of cool. We spent a lot of time driving today...our destination being La Fortuna near the active volcano Arenal.

We first got a glimpse of the volcano from a distance. It was so cool looking. Little did I know how close to it we would be staying! The town of Fortuna is quite a cute little town. I wouldn't mind living there if it wasn't so humid. As we drove up to our hotel, Lomas del Volcan, I could hardly believe our good fortune. We were right next to the volcano...and we each had our own little cabin with a view of the volcano off our back porch. If you go to Fortuna I would highly recommend staying here. They also had free internet access...non-existent at other hotels we stayed at. We unloaded and checked in and quickly piled back on to the bus to drive around the backside of the volcano where it is the most active. We were able to see some lava flow and a mini explosion from the top. UNBELIEVABLE! I really love this place!

Today we decided to stay back from the offered tour (another jungle cruise recommended for bird lovers). It was kind of nice to sleep in a bit and have a leisurely breakfast. Against my better judgment and fear of heights I agreed to attempt a zip line tour through the forest. We ended up with about 10 or 11 others from our group that went with us. We got suited up and my blood pressure was rising. The nice thing about this zip line is that they have a little training line for you to start out on. Leave it to me to be the special ed student that had to repeat the line twice. Somehow my hand slipped out of the brake glove the first time around...oops! Ok, so the zip line was actually really fun! I loved it and was not scared of heights at all. It was breathtaking to zip through the trees on the side of the volcano and look out at the valley below. And then we came to the Tarzan Swing. Um yeah, the only reason I didn't back out of this was that I didn't want to be the only chicken in our group who skipped it. I was soooo scared. They basically attach your harness to cable and rope hanging from a very high tree, open the gate and you step off a platform that is at least 30 feet up and then swing like a pendulum Tarzan style until they start slapping your legs at the bottom to slow you down. You can see my video here. I screamed on the first drop and felt my heart leap out of my body. Needless to say, I will never be doing that again but I am glad I didn't chicken out.

We were transported back to the hotel and had lunch. We then decided to hop a taxi into town with some other folks to do some shopping. Again, I really liked the town of Fortuna...I mean, c'mon, they actually have a Burger King! :) I was able to find a few cool souvenirs including a long tribal mask that you'll just have to come see at my house to appreciate. We then met up with the rest of our tour group who had gone on the boat tour and proceeded to the next adventure...volcanic hot springs. I was hoping it would be much more rustic but it was actually like this huge resort. They had different pools with different temperatures of geothermally heated water. The hottest we got into was about 118 degrees. Yikes! The most comfortable temp was around 93 degrees. This pool also had 3 waterslides (which they called waterfalls). We got some peer pressure from a kid in our group to go down, which I mistakenly did and got a huge wedgie on impact. We later witnessed some older lady knock herself unconscious going down. Needless to say we didn't brave it again.

We went back to the lodge and attempted a quick swim in the pool (as we were already in swimsuits) but the water was pretty cold. We had a great dinner (amazing spaghetti for me!) and then I wanted to take advantage of the free internet. Because there were only 2 computers I had to wait for a while. In the meanwhile this insane thunderstorm rolled. I have never felt, yes-felt, lightning like I did then. We were right in the middle of it all because this massive lightning would zap through the air and was almost immediately followed by absolutely deafening thunder. It was quite scary. And it didn't let up. It went on for hours. I thought I was going to be struck dead running back to my cabin from the reception lobby.

I was really sad to leave our fabulous hotel and Fortuna today. I'm sure I'll be back some other time. Today we spent a lot of time on the road as we made our way to the Pacific coast. We drove through a lot of windy curvy roads which left me with a bad headache and upset stomach due to motion sickness. We stopped in a cloud forest area and my first order of business was to buy a Coke to try to help my stomach. It was the best tasting Coke in the different than ours here. Anyway, we then hiked with our naturalist guide and I really enjoyed the experience. We were given bamboo poles for a hiking stick and I wish I could have taken mine with me. Then back on the road with a stop at a "cloud forest" restaurant. They also had the best souvenir shop in all of Costa Rica and I did my part to sustain the economy by purchasing nearly the whole store!

After a very long day on the bus we finally arrived at our posh hotel, the Doubletree Punarenas. We had the all-inclusive package which certainly made the drinkers on our tour happy but we were pretty pleased to get as many virgin pina coladas as we could down! Our room was nice and had the strongest air conditioning unit I've ever experienced. We watched TV for a little while and then wandered about the resort grounds checking things out. I didn't really like the dinner buffet but I guess you shouldn't complain about free food, right? We attempted going to the night show put on by the resort but found it to be even more ridiculous than a cruise ship show so we soon ditched out on that. Candice went off on her own with some of the tour folks and we opted to spend some time relaxing.

We again opted out of the offered tour today partly because of the 6:30 a.m. departure but more because it involved a 2 1/2 to 3 hour bus ride (one way) to then hike 45 minutes (one way) to a beach before reversing the process to get back. It seemed like a lot of commitment with little return. Besides, who can resist a day in the sun at a posh resort? We had a nice breakfast and then decided to take advantage of the included non-motorized water sports. We took out some sea kayaks with the Durgin brothers from Pennsylvania. Getting the kayaks out over the waves near shore was a feat and we got a little beat up. It was nice to be out in the ocean though. After a while we decided to head back in and Heidi and I would have had an awesome ride on a wave had Candice and her Durgin not decided to ride in backwards, crash into us and just about kill everyone. I was bashed in by paddles, kayaks and some human bodies at various points while also being dragged underwater. Not fun! We all came out with bruises and cuts as proof.

We then checked out some boogie boards...the waves were really strong and I was getting frustrated because I was having a hard time catching a wave. Then on two separate occasions I thought I was near drowning so I took a breather on the beach before heading back in. My luck was better the second time around and I caught some awesome waves. Somehow, don't ask me how, a wave actually pulled off my over shirt at one point. Had my arm not been attached to the boogie board strap I would have lost my shirt. Then at another point a wave pulled my shorts off too. The ocean was not playing my friends! We all climbed out very waterlogged and made our way to the snack bar for lunch. Taking advantage of the beautiful day we spent another few hours in one of the pools. I don't know that I've spent that much time in water any one day! We enjoyed virgin pina coladas and strawberry daquiris from the swim up bar. Does life get any better?

We were lucky to have only gotten a little bit sunburned based on the amount of time we spent in the sun. We probably should have reapplied sunscreen more frequently but all in all it wasn't too bad. We went back and showered and relaxed for a bit. As dinner hadn't been too good the night before Heidi and I headed out to the snack bar before it closed as it was a safer bet. We spent some time wandering around the resort again and tried to give the night show another shot with only marginally better results so we had to ditch out again. As there really wasn't much else to do (I didn't really want to head to the discoteca for dancing) we headed back to the room for a movie before bed.

We had to make our way back to San Jose today. En route we stopped in Sarchi, the artesans' town to see where they make traditional ox carts. More souvenir shopping was on the docket and I got to put my Spanish to good use helping the Durgin family buy a beautiful wood table and chairs. I will definitely furnish my house with items frm that furniture store...a family run business with beautiful pieces! Once back in San Jose we visited a coffee plantation. Although I am not a coffee drinker, it was interesting to learn more about the process...again, not something to be taken for granted. We took a group picture there as it was our last stop on the tour. Once at our hotel we had to say goodbye to our wonderful bus driver Luis. He did an amazing job of keeping us safe, taking care of our luggage and taking extra good care of us.
We dropped off our goods in the hotel and Heidi and I walked a few blocks to a grocery store to buy some candy and food items to take back to family and friends. It was a funny adventure that required two trips to try and spend the rest of our colones! We then got ready for our "fancy" farewell dinner on the top floor of the hotel. Sadly it was the worst meal I had the whole trip. We had some toasts and played a trick on our favorite oldy, C. Wayne from Texas. Then it was time for goodbyes and a few hours of sleep before we had to leave for the airport at 4:00 a.m.

Costa Rica is wonderful. I couldn't have asked for a better experience or a better tour guide. I was sad to leave but I know that I will go back someday. If you have never experienced group travel, give it a thought. You can pack a lot in for much better prices and great accommodations. Plus, group travel is like taking a little slice of America and sticking it on a bus for a week or more. A pretty interesting social experiment if you ask me! If you're interested in touring Costa Rica, drop me a line and I can answer any questions and also give you more info on our great experience with Caravan. I had issues trying to get my slideshow to post directly onto my blog so you'll have to click here to see the pics: