Puerto Viejo, San Gerardo/Chirripo, & Goodbye to Central America

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This will be my last post from Central America.

From Bastimentos, it was a quick ride back to Bocas del Toro and a switch to a second water taxi back to the mainland. Once there we angered numerous touts by ignoring their offers to arrange transportation for us to Panama and walked toward the bus station until an empty bus offered us a free ride the rest of the way to the terminal.

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A bus to near the border, then a second bus to the border, and an easy crossing of a derelict and occasionally questionable former rail bridge and we were back into Costa Rica.

We missed the next bus by less than a minute (it drove past us as we rounded the corner to the station), but after a 2 hour wait we were on our last bus and finally bound for Puerto Viejo.

Like most of the other beach towns we visited in Costa Rica, Puerto Viejo was a place to sit around, smoke pot (I didn’t, but it seemed like half our hostel did literally nothing else with their time), and occasionally go to the beach.

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SONY DSCThis is one of the hostel cats, a pitch-black, odd-eyed girl that Ainsley affectionately named Shoelace, after her penchant for sleeping on our footwear. We temporarily adopted her for the 3 nights we were there.

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The only real non-beach attraction in (or technically just outside of) Puerto Viejo is the Jaguar Rehabilitation Center. So-named after its first animal patient (no longer there), the rehabilitation center hosts a huge array of wild and formerly wild animals, most slated for release back into the forests.

SONY DSCThey had toucans, like this one who refused to go back into the wild….

SONY DSCSloths…..

SONY DSCSmart and nosey whosiwhatsits….

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A deer that saw any visitor as a walking salt lick (rightfully so in our case, since we’d walked 75 minutes in the baking sun to get there and were downright soaked in sweat)….

SONY DSCDragonflies (not being rehabilitated)….

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And monkeys (not pictured) that we actually got to play with. Which was fun until they started pooping from excitement, which made them somewhat not quite as endearing.

A one-eyed monkey tried to steal my glasses so I was involved in a temporary tug-of-war to get them back. Which of course I won. Because of my strength and determination. And also because I’m 5 times bigger than it and the monkey keeper intervened on my behalf. But mostly because of my strength.

SONY DSCWith just 5 or 6 days left on our trip, and wanting to spend the last one or two in San Jose, we searched for a non-beach area to visit and adjust to the idea of returning home.

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We found it at Casa Mariposa hostel just outside the town of San Gerardo, located at the foot of Mount Chirripo.

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I know that’s a lot of photos of the hostel, but it truly is one of the most clean and beautiful I’ve ever been to. Set above a small creek, they’ve built (and continue to build) most of their structures using recycled materials, trash-filled plastic bottles, and local stone stacked and mortared for their walkways.

The area is a tourist draw because of the mountain, Chirripo, the tallest in Central America and something like the 34th tallest in the world. Most people hike it in two days, spending a night at a ranger station located a few hours from the summit.

Having hiked enough mountains on the trip, as well as wanting to relax and certainly not aggravate my knee, I decided to skip hiking the actual mountain (as did the girls), and instead spent my time hiking around the local area. And with the hostel located  a very steep 1.5km uphill from town, there was certainly plenty of hiking to be had.

SONY DSC A beautiful house on the walk into town.

SONY DSCThe tiny town of San Gerardo.

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On our first day, Amanda and I found a swimming spot at the river. The water was freezing, and after challenging myself to spend 30seconds up to my neck in it, I spent the rest of our hour there stacking rocks and taking pictures while Amanda sunbathed. Or died. I guess it depends on how you want to interpret the photo.

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The following day Amanda didn’t feel well, so Ainsley and I hiked through the nearby Cloudbridge Preserve. Started by two South Africans who hiked the mountain some years before and were devastated by the deforestation happening along its slopes, the Preserve has about 12km of well-maintained trails for hiking. We spent the better part of the day there.

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Day 3 we called ahead to Los Jardines Secretos (The Secret Gardens) to make lunch reservation, and hiked the 3km downhill to visit them.

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SONY DSCStarted by an 80something German named Klaus, the Gardens are free to all and ask only a donation to visit. The arrowed path through the gardens took us nearly 30 minutes to walk (remember, this is just a private garden!) – and would have taken even longer had we not been so hungry.

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Our lunch, at the house next to the gardens, was great and after eating we spent some time chatting with the husband/wife chef team about the area and our travels. As the one with the most advanced Spanish in our group, it was nice to feel I could actually express myself to them, but somewhat stressful and pretty exhausting trying to do it in a language I still have a very limited grasp of.

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SONY DSCI climbed stuff on our walk back to the house…

SONY DSCWhile Ainsley and Amanda thumbed down a ride and left me in the dust. Literally. (That road is super dry, and in town the locals were watering it to keep down the dust.)

SONY DSCMost everyone who stays at the hostel hikes the mountain, but evidently the majority of those who hike the mountain are Costa Ricans (‘Ticas’) who do it as part of 30-40 person groups, with their gear carried up by horses and their meals cooked for them by porters at the ranger station.

It’s a very odd idea of ‘hiking’ to me, but to each their own I suppose.

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Our last day we hiked even further, two towns over to the village of Canaan.

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Casa Mariposa had a half coconut full of solid soap that they used with a wet sponge to wash dishes in the kitchen. In love with the idea, as well as wanting to visit the woman who sold chocolate in the same town, we arranged a meeting with “Senor Jabon” (‘Mr. Soap’) to see his factory and buy some gifts in Canaan.

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It was  a long walk down, and we busted ass to get there by 11am to meet Mr. Soap’s wife who would lead us to the not-obvious space where he worked.

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SONY DSCBy 11:25 she hadn’t showed up, though, so we proceeded to explore the town ourselves, finding interesting things….

SONY DSC(the tagging is WAY behind the times here), and eventually, with the help of a  guy from the local bar, Mr. Soap himself.

SONY DSCMr. Soap, who’s real name is Cyrille (no idea how to spell it – sorry!) is actually a half-French, half-Senegalese Costa Rican transplant who moved here 18 years ago and has been making soap for the last 12 (after apparently touring the world in a sitar/didgeridoo/djembe band).

SONY DSCHis operation was super basic, and the space was exceedingly sparse. Apparently he makes enough to support his family with just a two burner hot plate and single bread mixer. The space was empty because they’d just moved in and had their health inspection just two days before.

SONY DSCIn impressive English for a Frenchman living in a Spanish speaking country for the last two decades, Cyrille explained his history, his soap, the curing process, and how he sells them all over the country (except the airports now, because the Chinese make similar soap and for less money so he lost the contract), and then proceeded to cut and wrap all our purchases for us.

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Cyrille’s wife showed up around 12:30, surprised to see us and seemingly slightly annoyed at the sight. After some back and forth, we realized that she had waited for us at a tienda in the town of San Gerardo (much closer to the hostel), while the owner of the hostel didn’t quite understand and directed us to meet her at a tienda in the town of Canaan, 3kms down the road.

She seemed pleased though once she saw how much we bought.

SONY DSCAfter Mr. Soap it was off to Mrs. Chocolate.

SONY DSCMrs. Chocolate is an American who moved to Costa Rica 25 years ago, and now makes gourmet, organic chocolate.

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Sadly for the girls, her prices were higher than even those you’d find in the States, so they bought just one truffle each.

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Walking back we thumbed down a ride from a trio of older Americans, and during the ride we discovered that one of their daughters, now living in Costa Rica, graduated from the same tiny Quaker school I did – though back in 1993, so we definitely never met. Still, small world.

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They turned off before our hostel, so we interrupted the rest of our walk back with another swim in the freezing river which didn’t feel quite so painful this time.

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And then I took an AMAZING candid photo of Amanda squeezing her way through the gate on the way out.

That night one of the guys in the hostel cooked shakshouka for himself and the girls, and burned his finger in a grease splashback.

SONY DSCIt looked pretty gnarly the next morning as we waited for the San Isidro-to-San Jose bus (after hiking in the dark down to San Gerardo for the 5:15am bus to San Isidro).

San Jose has been nice so far. It feels very safe, I don’t have to get pissed at the disgusting and constant chauvanism directed toward the girls like in other Central American cities because it doesn’t happen, and there’s actually a large number of vegetarian restaurants in town.

Our first day we visited the Museum of Modern Art (free on Mondays!) and wandered. The girls had been here before for a day, so they tried to regain their bearings while we took in the sights.

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SONY DSCWe found a still-functioning porno theater!

SONY DSCAnd I saw this super tough guy blowing bubbles for his daughter.

SONY DSCIn the evening we realized we’d found a labeled banana that wasn’t a Chiquita banana – the first time in recent memory that any of us remember that happening.

SONY DSCDay two – the girls’ last day – we went to the Gold & Money museum (not the official name, but what it was). I like math and numbers and finance, but it was pretty boring. We did get in at the student rate though, and almost all displays were also in English, so it wasn’t a total bust.

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Then we wandered and found some musicians….

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SONY DSCAnd got lunch and bought more gifts at the central market.

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The girls left at 3:30 this morning. It’s hard to believe that we spent the last 45 days together, 24hrs a day through 3 different countries. It’s stranger still that they’re gone.

Today I woke up late (a luxury, since Ainsley and Amanda used to always get up before 8am), edited photos, and packed to switch my bags into the dorm room.

After that I just spent the morning wandering, taking photos and enjoying the weather for one last day.

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SONY DSCI can think of better business names than this….

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SONY DSCOn my wanderings I ended up at the Museum of Costa Rican Art. It was free, so I took a spin through. More interesting than the art to me was the building, which used to be both the terminal and air traffic control tower of an old airport. It’s a beautiful space that unfortunately I couldn’t photograph because I wasn’t able to bring my camera in with me.

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I lunched at a so-called “Oriental Vegetarian Food” restaurant, and have about $11 in Costa Rican colones to last me until I get to the airport tomorrow morning.

Strange to think about how drastically different everything will be in just a few days time. This trip has felt longer than my last, I think because SE Asia was a perfect fit for my while I’ve struggled a lot more here in Central America. Even still, I’m incredibly fortunate to have been able to take this trip, and have enjoyed my time immensely.

Just as importantly, I’ve met a huge number of people with non-traditional work lives. And they’ve reminded me and encouraged me to look for that in my own life.

My first tattoo was inked as a reminder not to spend my life in a cubical, as a “salary man.” I knew it was the easy path to follow, and, for the most part, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing since I graduated in 2004. It’s simple, pays well, and makes life predictable. But it also makes life boring and unfulfilling for me.

When I go home, I have a non-cubicle job prospect I’m pursuing. It may pan out. It may not. If it does, great. And if it doesn’t, that’s great too – because it means I’ll still seek out the less traditional, the less boring, and the more fulfilling. I’m going home with an emergency fund and a network of amazing and talented people doing all sorts of incredible things. They’re contacts as well as inspirations. And while it’s unsettling for a guy like me who likes plans to be going back without one, I’m really not worried. I’m excited.

You’re a love/hate place, Central America. But I love that I’ve had those chances to hate you, and would have hated to miss the chance to love you. Muchas gracias!

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