Post PC Travels: Costa Rica

Please note that I am NOT in Costa Rica right now. This story is a recap of my experience there when I was backpacking through Central America in 2013. Just want to avoid any possible confusion as I am weaving multiple stories together through one forum. I’m still in Thailand for now.

Also, heads up: this is a long one. I didn’t expect it to get so long, but I never really know how these chapters are going to turn out until each one is finished.

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It was sometime in the middle of September when I arrived in Costa Rica and nearing the end of my backpacking trip, with only 15 days left to play, I decided I would spend all 15 days in Costa Rica instead of trying to squeeze Panama into that so I could take my time with Costa Rica. But instead, my time was taken. Good thing I didn’t have an itinerary. Here is a tale of one of the downsides of traveling in the developing world and how I spent the first 9 days in Costa Rica.

As per usual, upon arrival to San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, I wanted to get out of it as soon as possible because the capital cities in Central America are busy and known for having the highest crime rates. I booked a bus ticket leaving the next day for the Monteverde region in the north, Costa Rica’s famous cloud forest destination, then found lodging for the night.

At dinner, I was feeling slightly nauseated and pretty much lost my appetite. And by the time I was boarding the bus the next day, I had broken out in fever and chills. Fever and chills are usually indicative of a bacterial infection so I prepared myself for the worst and kept an extra bag handy for the 4-hour bus ride, during which my head was pounding, my joints were aching, and my stomach was in knots. Upon arrival in Santa Elena, a town in the Monteverde region, I barely had enough energy to walk to the lodge, Pensíon Santa Elena, and when I arrived, I pretty much went straight to bed after alerting the staff that I thought I was coming down with something. I hadn’t yet purchased a SIM card for Costa Rica so I couldn’t call home and my room didn’t have an electrical outlet so I couldn’t charge my computer (and there was nothing that could get me out of bed to guard my laptop in a public space as it charged). I just lied there, weak and achy all over, trying to sleep it off.

The next day was worse. Complete loss of appetite and weaker than before. I think I took one bite of food all day. When the guy at the front desk checked on me and saw the progression of the sickness, he suggested that it might be dengue fever so I tried to get down as much liquid as I could take, knowing that the risk associated with dengue fever is low blood pressure and dehydration. Finally, partially delirious, I opened my computer and called my sister’s cell phone with Skype credit to let her know where I was and that I was really sick. (Didn’t want to freak out the parents!) I have to admit that I was scared and cried a little bit to big sis, and her response was to just make a joke to get me laughing. She had never heard of dengue fever before, as it is not very common in the developed world.

What IS dengue fever?? Dengue is a virus that is transmitted through mosquitoes that bite during the daytime (as opposed to malaria-transmitting dawn and dusk biters). From what I recall from Peace Corps health lessons, the dengue-transmitting mosquito species have black and white spotted legs–if you look closely, you really can see the leg segment coloring. Currently, there is no vaccination to prevent dengue and there is no medicine to get rid of it; treatment consists of resting, staying hydrated, and letting it run its course, which takes on average about 10 days. There is an incubation period of 1-2 weeks before the virus shows its full-blown effect; that one day that I got sick and vomited in Nicaragua was 8 days prior and very likely the onset and first sign of the sickness. Symptoms can include loss of appetite, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, body aches–especially behind the eyes and in the joints, low blood pressure, dehydration, and, in extreme cases, depending on the strength of a person’s immune system and the level of dehydration, hemorrhagic bleeding in the body which, in severe situations, can lead to death. This is a common disease in tropical, underdeveloped nations and a leading cause of disease-related mortality.

Lucky for me, I was quickly introduced to the Emergency Medical Services team in Santa Elena and also, my symptoms only included the weakness and body aches, loss of appetite for about 3 days, a decline in my blood platelet level, and eventually low blood pressure. My health insurance covered all costs, and the medical team took me under their wing and monitored me daily, checking my blood pressure and arranging for multiple trips down to the lab in the beach town, Puntarenas, on the Pacific coast side two hours away from Santa Elena. At the lab, they attempted blood samples but couldn’t get anything out of my arms so they pricked my finger instead and scraped it against a tiny vile about 100 times each time until they had enough to test the platelet count. Ouch!! Unfortunately, this was the case for all of my visits…

A normal blood platelet count for a human is between 150,000 and 500,000 units/microliter. Dengue causes a significant decrease in platelet count which is why the low blood pressure and internal bleeding can occur. If a person’s platelet count drops below 100,000 units/microliter, it is likely that he or she will be admitted to the hospital and hooked up to an IV. The lowest mine got was 109,000 units/microliter, before it started rising again. In an attempt to keep myself OUT of the hospital, I gulped down as much fluid as I could take mixed with oral rehydration packets every single day that week. I like to think it was a contributing factor to a quick recovery.

The medical team in Santa Elena, Guido, Karoline, and Andréa, was AMAZING and they practically became my best friends for the week since I hung out with them everyday. I was so grateful for the care they provided. It wasn’t anything fancy and I was subjected to many uncomfortable needle pokes, but I survived and felt like I was in great hands with them.

When I started getting my energy back and was feeling better all around, I had one last visit with them, but my insanely low blood pressure of 90/45 was not convincing enough for them to let me off and they decided to hook me up to an IV anyway. Bad idea. My veins do not liked to be poked and they tend to go into hiding as soon as they see a needle coming. And this was a fat needle. First, they tried both of my arms in the typical spots near the elbow joint. Nothing. Next was the mid-forearm on both arms. Nothing again. After that, they moved to the back of my left hand! And when that was useless, they headed to my left foot and ankle and stuck me with a huge freakin’ needle!!! Holy moly-that hurt!! It was complete torture! Trying to hold my foot still as the rest of my body was writhing in pain and my tears were flowing freely, I begged them to stop trying. I couldn’t take any more. And the needle was just not going to go in. Through wimpering and tears, I pleaded, “I’ll drink a whole gallon of fluid to get my blood pressure up, just please, no more needles!” They finally stopped, not wanting to inflict any more pain on me and also noting that was energy level was picking back up.

Needless to say, I was very glad when that whole ordeal was over. I have tiny scars from the needle pokes that serve as a reminder of that experience, and from now on, extreme vigilance regarding mosquito bite prevention is a necessity as anyone who has had dengue once can be more susceptible to the effects of it if they get it again.

Finally I was free to explore Costa Rica’s biggest treasure: its wildlife. I started with what was right down the street–a bat habitat. The educational tour followed by observing the bats was really cool and although I don’t remember everything at this point, there were a lot of fun facts relating to the anatomy and physiology of these funny-looking, big-eared, scrunchy-faced flying mammals. While people have been conditioned to be afraid of them, they are actually pretty harmless as the majority of bats eat fruit and insects and the notorious vampire bats actually prey on cow’s blood, not typically humans. And their giant wrinkly ears are perfectly designed to make the bats’ sonar radar/echo location abilities the most efficient as possible. Bats are so good at locating anything that even if you are standing in the middle of a small entrance to a cave at dusk and hundreds or thousands of bats fly out of the cave to go in search for food, if you just stand still, the probability that a bat will fly into you or even touch you is practically nonexistent. They are that good.

Most countries print their currency with images of prominent people or historical figures; Costa Rica is unique in printing images of its wildlife--the country's biggest treasure--on its money.

Most countries print their currency with images of prominent people or historical figures; Costa Rica is unique in printing images of its wildlife–the country’s biggest treasure–on its money.

Santa Elena actually had a lot of animal/creature habitat exhibits right in the middle of town so visitors could take their pick of what they wanted to observe. Some of the options included insects, snakes, reptiles, butterflies, and frogs; I selected the frog habitat as I have had a special love of frogs since I was a child and, let me tell you, I sure felt like a kid again as soon as I entered the exhibit because there were so many types of frogs, each with its own biological adaptation for survival including camouflage ability, special warning markings (like the blue and red poison dart frog), and particularly sticky feet for special climbing (like the red-eyed tree frog that spends most if its life in trees as opposed to living in/near pools of water). I felt so lucky to see Costa Rica’s famous red-eyed leaf (tree) frog, up close and personal! Isn’t he cute?

The well-known Red-Eyed Leaf/Tree Frog closes its eyes and tucks its legs close to its body, covering it's blue and yellow striped sides, to camouflage itself with leaves.

The well-known Red-Eyed Leaf/Tree Frog closes its eyes and tucks its legs close to its body, covering it’s blue and yellow striped sides, to camouflage itself to blend in with the leaves.

That night I went on an organized night hike through the jungle and we also had great luck with what we spotted. Rainforests hold so much mystery. The quiet and stillness they display during the daytime can be so deceiving in regards to how much life they hold–they come alive after dark! At the very beginning of the hike, we saw a two-toed sloth hanging around up in the branches, and that was followed by a sleeping Emerald Toucanet and several sleeping rainbow-billed toucans (like Toucan Sam of Fruit Loops!). We interrupted an orange-kneed tarantula (see photo) in the middle of her nightly shenanigans, and we also came across rats, an owl, frogs, leaf-cutter ants, insects, spiders, a giant snail, and two green vipers, a young one and an adult–one of the deadliest venomous snakes in the world. The rule of thumb in the rainforest is, “If you don’t bother it, it won’t bother you.” Of course accidents happen and instigators exist, but generally speaking, the jungle is safe if you exercise common sense and WATCH where you are going; however, it usually tends to get the best of people who are careless or disrespectful.

An Orange-Kneed Tarantula finding her sanctuary in some old piping in the jungle.

An Orange-Kneed Tarantula finding her sanctuary in some old piping in the jungle.

In addition to a bunch of other sleeping birds perched high up in the trees (which made me wonder how they stay balanced and keep from falling off the branches while they’re dreaming!), we spotted the most spectacular bird of the jungle, the bird I had been waiting to see for two and a half years: the Resplendent Quetzal. Granted he was sleeping and it was dark, but a spotting is a spotting.

The Resplendent Quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala; the national currency, a type of rum made only in Guatemala (Quetzalteca), and an entire department (equivalent to a state or county) in Guatemala, “Quetzaltenango,” are all named after this bird. The Quetzal used to be more prevalent, however, its natural habitat has been encroached upon and it has been hunted as well for its famous long bluish-green tail feathers so the birds are few and far between nowadays; even in the few Quetzal Reserve parks in the country, to spot one would be considered lucky.

I didn’t have much on my “bucket list” for being in Central America, but seeing a Resplendent Quetzal was one thing on the list. Costa Rica was pretty much the last opportunity I had to see it so when it happened, I took it as a sign that I could go home at that point. It was almost a way to honor Guatemala one last time before I left. I also took it as a secondary sign that the tables were turning on my bad luck and good things were starting to happen and would continue that way for the remainder of my trip.

The next morning, I headed out to the Curi-Cancha Reserve, one of the large, protected areas of cloud forest in the Monteverde region, to take a day hike and I was the only person who signed up for the tour so I had a personalized guide, Melvin, all to myself. We saw mostly flying things that day including belbirds, Blue Morpho butterflies, a beautiful Emerald Toucanet, and hummingbirds. (I learned that hummingbirds are only found in the Americas.) We also saw frogs, tadpoles, squirrels, tuanis, and white-nosed coatis–which are about the size of raccoons–scampering around the forest floor.

Last but not least, we spotted FOUR more Resplendent Quetzals!! Two females and two males. The females do not have the vibrant, multi-coloring or long tail feathers that that males have; instead, the teal-colored females make their selection of mate based on which male has the brightest colors and longest tail feathers, signifying evolutionary “fitness,” a.k.a. good for baby-making, indicating a higher probability that their offspring will be healthy and survive to reproduce. (Evolutionarily speaking, becoming a grandparent is the highest form of achievement; it means your work is done, that your genes will continue to live on in the world.) The male quetzals start growing their tail feathers before mating season, and at the end of the season, the tail feathers fall out naturally, and they will grow new ones the following year. We stalked these quetzals for probably a solid hour and tried to get as many photos as possible. I was jumping for joy at this organic display of bird behavior in nature. It made mine–and Melvin’s–day.

The male Resplendent Quetzal, with his growing tail feathers, perched high up in the beanches of an avocado tree. (This photo was taken through the lens of binoculars.)

The male Resplendent Quetzal, with his growing tail feathers, perched high up in the beanches of an avocado tree. (This photo was taken through the lens of binoculars.)

Costa Rica is a relatively easy country to get around in because tourism is such a large part of the economy and now, the culture as well. Many Costa Ricans speak English and are used to dealing with people who don’t speak any Spanish; they were shocked that as a very white American girl, I spoke fluent Spanish, but I have to say that speaking Spanish made it much easier for me to make friends there. On one hand, it was hard for me to be alone in Costa Rica: sometimes they wouldn’t run tours if only one person (me) had signed up, there were no single person discounts for private rooms so I basically had to pay double, and getting so sick by myself really sucked. On the other hand, September was a great time for me to be there as a single traveler because it was low season (due to the rain) and summer vacations were over so I ended up on several personalized tours and when I stayed in dorm rooms later on, I was often the only person in the room. It also gave me a great opportunity to continue my writing in peace and quiet.

In the afternoon after the morning of my nature hike, I made my next move and took jeep-boat-jeep transportation to a town called La Fortuna, arriving just before dusk. Volcano Arenal can be accessed from this town for anyone who wants a solid hike, but I was only staying the night there. I had a really cool dorm mate named Jerim, a white guy from Kenya, so we had dinner together and swapped stories; it was the first meal I had shared with anyone in the 11 days that I had been in Costa Rica so far so I was appreciative of the company. The following day I went on a white water rafting adventure that included transportation to the starting place, breakfast, all the gear, a 4-hour rafting trip through the jungle on the Rio Pacuare, lunch on the river, and transportation to another town at the end of the day. There were 4 people plus the guide on my raft and the rapids were Grades 3 and 4. It was both challenging and relaxing as we moved along the river, spotting toucans and enjoying the cloud forest canyon scenery. At one point, it even started pouring down rain, but it felt really good and, overall, the rafting trip was a cool thing to do for a day.

Crossing the lake to get to La Fortuna, Volcano Arenal can be seen in the distance.

Crossing the lake to get to La Fortuna, Volcano Arenal can be seen in the distance.

As soon as I got dropped off in Puerto Viejo, I knew I would stick around for a couple days. Puerto Viejo is the last major town on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica before you can cross the southern border into Panama and it is the epitome of a beach town–easygoing, happy, friendly, with a major “Rasta” vibe and lots of reggae. I found affordable lodging right on the beach, practically ON the water. The dorm itself was built on top of a restaurant and wasn’t anything fancy, but it was so close to the water that nothing else mattered. I stayed a total of three nights there, most of the time as the only person in the room. It was awesome.

My first full day in Peurto Viejo was eventful to say the least. I decided to rent a beach cruiser [bicycle] for the day so I could better explore the area. There was a 7 kilometer “scenic ride” along the coast going south toward the border that was highly recommended so I figured that would be my leisurely activity for the day and I could stop at any of the little beach coves along the way if I wanted or eat at the restaurant at the end of the route if I was hungry enough. Feeling satisfied with my plan, I ventured off. Ten minutes later, I passed Adam–a guy whom I had met the day before–going the opposite way on his beach cruiser. We chatted a little bit and since he had no major plan for the day, he decided to join me on my exploration so we took off again.

Five minutes later, one of my tires popped! It was a convenient location to have a tire pop because we were a short walk away from a little store so we walked there, parked our bikes, called the bike rental place to let them know what had happened, and then scrounged around the store to see what snacks we could find. As we were munching away on our snacks and cocktails-in-a-can, the guys came and replaced my tire–the whole situation taking no more than about 20 minutes or so. A quick fix and we were on our way again!

On the side of the jungle-beach road, the guys from the bike shop came to replace my beach cruiser tire as I munched on plantain ships and sipped a cocktail-in-a-can.

On the side of the jungle-beach road, the guys from the bike shop came to replace my beach cruiser tire as I munched on plantain ships and sipped a cocktail-in-a-can.

Adam was in Costa Rica working in sea turtle conservation on an island off the Caribbean coast. This trip to the mainland was like a little vacation for him, a getaway from the rustic island conditions (no chocolate on the island!!), and he had only been in Costa Rica for a short time by that point so it was a nice opportunity for him to see what else Costa Rica was about. Originally from Arizona, he had studied Zoology in Florida (I think) and had a lot of experience with marine life and animal identification. At some points during the trip, not only was I appreciative of his friendship, but I also felt like I had my very own guide when it came to wildlife! Adam has been gallivanting around Central America and Mexico for the last couple years now and is still currently living and working in Costa Rica.

Once we hit the road again, not ten minutes later, dark clouds rolled in, the wind started blowing like crazy, and it started to downpour. Not just any little rain, this was a tropical thunderstorm with buckets of water just dumping from the sky. By this point, we had a decision to make: should we turn around, should we try to take cover somewhere, or should we just keep going? Being that it was only water and we were already getting wet anyway, we decided to push forward. First we paused to take off our dry t-shirts (being that we were on the beach, we were both practically living in our bathing suits anyway) and store them with our cameras in Adam’s dry bag, then we said, “Bring it on!” to the storm and rode on. Because I was still recuperating from my run with dengue, my energy level was lower than normal; I couldn’t go as fast as Adam, but he was patient and just let me move at the pace I could handle. It was really exciting to be riding through the storm, soaking wet, and trying to keep flying trees leaves and other things from obstructing our vision or our path. To this day, I look back at that ride and savor the memory of freedom, spontaneity, and adventure that we shared.

At the end of the 7 km ride, we came upon that restaurant and parked our bikes. But before we ate, we decided to go on a jungle hike through the last stretch of rainforest at the southern tip of Costa Rica; we probably could have walked into Panama from there, and maybe we did without even realizing it. Adam was on this hunt for his favorite type of snake–a yellow eyelash pit viper. I wasn’t too sure about that endeavor, but I figured he knew what he was doing. We ended up having to take off our flip-flops while walking through the jungle because they were way too slippery to maintain balance so we continued hiking for about 45 minutes barefoot! At the end of the “path,” instead of walking back through the jungle, we decided to descend to the “beach route” which didn’t entirely exist at high tide, leaving us to essentially rock climb across sea cliffs slightly above the ocean in a couple places. (Had we fallen, it would have been maybe 5-7 feet straight down into the water so it wasn’t particularly dangerous–I wouldn’t have done it alone, though!) When we finally got back to the restaurant, we shared a meal, tried to wait out the rain which by this point was just a dreary drizzle, then headed back to town. Being that the sun was going down and I was tired and slightly cold, our ride back was definitely not as fun as the ride down had been. But the full day experience was a memorable one for sure!

That evening, the electricity all across town had gone out for several hours due to the storm. When I went searching for a place to have dinner, I settled on one where I had my meal cooked on a gas stove and ate my dinner alone by candlelight; it reminded me of my Peace Corps days where I got used to setting my table for one, lighting a candle, and occasionally having some red wine in a plastic mug to accompany my meal. I think it’s important for people to learn to make “dinner dates with themselves” special (or any time spent alone). It’s ok to be alone and I think in this day and age with so many distractions and constant stimulation, being alone and happy with it is becoming a forgotten art.

The second-story deck at my lodge was the perfect place to write as it was the epitome of serenity.

The second-story deck at my lodge was the perfect place to write as it was the epitome of serenity.

The following day, Friday, was kind of an off day for me. I was feeling anti-social and wanting to be by myself so I spent the majority of the day writing and keeping a low profile. Eventually I headed into town to stroll around the Art Festival and I ended up getting a beautiful hair wrap with bead and shell decoration at the end. (I didn’t take this out for weeks when I got back to the States, much to the opposition of expectations to conform back to “civilized society” upon my return; to me, it represented my last piece of the wild and the freedom associated with it.) I ran into Adam again during the day and he invited me to go out later with another group of friends he had been hanging out with. I told him that I wasn’t really feeling up for it, but he stopped by my hostel anyway when the group was passing by later and, although I was already winding down and in my PJs, successfully pulled me out of my shell so I got dressed again and joined the group. I am grateful to him for doing this because otherwise I would have missed out on a beautiful cultural experience. A continuation of the Art Festival, that evening was filled with a busy market scene and performances of Costa Rica’s typical dance (an integral part of most places along the Caribbean), called Punta dancing–which involves very rapid hip shaking and foot movement to the beat of mesmerizing drums. I was totally entranced by the music and all the drumming. There were so many different types of drums and standing so close to them, I could feel the reverberations just pulsing through my body. It would have been difficult to stand among a performance like that and NOT be totally engaged and consumed by it.

The next day, Saturday, was another full one. I started it with a yoga session on the beach right outside the lodge, then met up with Adam after breakfast to go do some snorkeling. After that, we took a trip down to the Jaguar Rescue Center, an animal sanctuary that started out by rescuing jaguars and has evolved into a care center for all types of animals who are injured, broken, orphaned, or otherwise incapable of surviving on their own in the wild. Whenever possible, the caretakers rehabilitate the animals and prepare them for release back into wild; however, in some cases, the animal has permanent damage and will remain in the sanctuary for the rest of its life. On our guided tour, we saw everything from snakes to rodents, small mammals to insects, and birds to larger mammals, and we learned the backstory on most of the animals and how they came into the hands of the Rescue Center. Some of the animals were interactive with us at their own will, like “Tookie Tookie,” the mischievous toucan (named after the toucan in George of the Jungle) who followed us around, making little bouncy hops as opposed to steps to watch what we were all doing; Tookie Tookie has a reputation at the sanctuary for harmlessly antagonizing the other animals there; he has a chipped beak which would make it difficult for him to eat on his own in the jungle so he’ll be a “lifer” at the Rescue Center.

The mischievous Tookie Tookie is so nicely posing for a glamour shot here at the Jaguar Rescue Center.

The mischievous Tookie Tookie is so nicely posing for a glamour shot here at the Jaguar Rescue Center.

This is a Yellow Eyelash Pit Viper at the Jaguar Rescue Center. This is the venomous snake that Adam was searching for during our jungle hike. There is a part of me that was very happy that we didn't find one while we were out there...

This is a Yellow Eyelash Pit Viper at the Jaguar Rescue Center. This is the venomous snake that Adam was searching for during our jungle hike. There is a part of me that was very happy that we didn’t find one while we were out there…

There were many orphaned babies living and being raised at the sanctuary and for many of them, we were allowed to get up close and personal, without touching them. The baby three-toed sloths were my absolute favorite! Their faces are such that they look like they are smiling all the time. We got to watch them play for a couple minutes while our guide educated us on the lifestyle of these infamously lethargic jungle-hangers. Spending the majority of their lives in tree-top canopies, three-toed sloths descend once a week to defecate, courteously digging a hole with their tails and covering the place with leaves and sticks when they are finished. Their fur is amazing in that in it exists an entire ecosystem, home to small insects, bacteria, “sloth moths,” and algae–giving the fur its greenish-brown color. This is an example of mutualism, a form of symbiosis where the moths and other creatures benefit by having a home in the sloth’s fur while the sloth benefits from the moths whose presence facilitates the algae growth which serves as camouflage high up in the trees and is also an additional food source for the sloth, supplementing the otherwise leafy diet. Sloths can live 25-30 years and, unable to support themselves on all four limbs, they get around by using their long arms and claws to drag their lightweight bodies across the forest floor (when they descend from their trees).

The cutest baby Three-Toed Sloth I have ever seen!! Usually baby sloths cling to their mothers' bellies for 9 months after birth; as this little guy is an orphan, the guides stress the importance of keeping the babies warm and wrapped in towels/blankets whenever possible.

The cutest baby Three-Toed Sloth I have ever seen!! Usually baby sloths cling to their mothers’ bellies for 9 months after birth; as this little guy is an orphan, the guides stress the importance of keeping the babies warm and wrapped in towels/blankets whenever possible.

Here is a baby Three-Toed Sloth crawling down the structure to play for a little bit.

Here is a baby Three-Toed Sloth crawling down the structure to play for a little bit.

An orphaned baby monkey has found a mother-figure in one of the workers at the Jaguar Rescue Center.

An orphaned baby monkey has found a mother-figure in one of the workers at the Jaguar Rescue Center.

That afternoon, Adam gave me a surfing lesson that resulted in me getting slammed in the face by the surf board, but I appreciated the attempt anyway. I got back on with a swollen, bleeding bottom lip and managed to get up a couple times, but I quickly turned the board back over to him so he could make proper use of it. That evening, we strolled the market and munched on street food and gelato. Later, after dark when it was low tide, we grabbed a strong flashlight and headed out to the reef to do some serious tide-pooling. Besides the barely miss of stepping on a Scorpion Fish on the reef that would’ve landed Adam in the hospital, our venture was successful as we found sea cucumbers, crabs, shrimp, a baby moray eel, sea urchins, a brittle star, and not one, but TWO agile, iridescent octopi–my favorite!! I never would’ve gone out there by myself or known where to look to spot all these creatures so having my zoologist friend leading the way was awesome. In the days I was there in Puerto Viejo, Adam was probably the most patient, adventurous, and respectful companion that I could have come across and for that friendship, I am eternally grateful.

Adam and I enjoying meat kebabs and empanadas from the street vendors in Puerto Viejo.

Adam and I enjoying meat kebabs and empanadas from the street vendors in Puerto Viejo.

While I could have stayed in Puerto Viejo for my last night in Costa Rica, there was still one more town that interested me: Tortuguero, on the northern coast (Caribbean side) of Costa Rica. Although early October was the tail end of turtle season (when the females leave the ocean and crawl up on a beach to lay their eggs), there was still a chance that I might be able to see this phenomenon in person so I decided to go for it. I left super early in the morning and was traveling pretty much the entire day on all different kinds of crazy transportation. When I settled in to my spot, it was around 4:30 in the afternoon and I headed out to the beach to take a walk.

After walking for about 30 minutes, I saw a little commotion going on–two people and their Costa Rican “beach guide” were standing around something on the sand. I walked up to them and to my delight, a “clutch” of baby sea turtles were beginning to emerge from their sandy nest and make their way to the ocean to start their marine life. (From the time they hatch, it can take the babies up to a week to dig themselves out of the deep nest and make a run for the water.) In each nest, a mother turtle lays between 100-120 eggs; several weeks later, the babies hatch and between 90-95% of them make it to the ocean. From that point on, they are on their own, and only a tiny fraction from each nest survives to adulthood. It was so cute to watch them crawl on top of each other to get out, then race to the water. From getting out of the hole to reaching the sea, it only takes each little turtle about a minute or two; the natural instinct they have to get to the ocean if unbelievable. The whole ordeal from the first to the last turtle lasted maybe 7 minutes, then it was done. What luck to be able to witness that!

After hatching from their eggs about 3 feet below the surface of the sand, these baby turtles emerged as a sibling group to make their scurrying run for the ocean.

After hatching from their eggs about 3 feet below the surface of the sand, these baby turtles emerged as a sibling group to make their scurrying run for the ocean.

Only advised to touch baby turtles in an effort to redirect them if they cannot find their way to the ocean, I was lucky that I got to help this lost little guy. Unfortunately, he seemed very weak and I was not convinced that he would survive for very long, even once he got to the water.

Only advised to touch baby turtles in an effort to redirect them if they cannot find their way to the ocean, I was lucky that I got to help this lost little guy. Unfortunately, he seemed very weak and I was not convinced that he would survive for very long, even once he got to the water.

That evening, I paid for a guided tour to go out to where the mama turtles beach and we were blessed to be able to witness that process as well. These huge turtles, some weighing between 300-350 pounds, drag themselves up the beach, dig holes with their flippers that are 2-3 feet deep, then deposit their offspring–100 to 120 eggs at a time, often fertilized by multiple males–and make their way back to the ocean. This can usually take a turtle several hours to complete, and, boy, do they get “in the zone” during this process. The mama sea turtles are in a trance as they lay and it is important not to interrupt them because if they do get scared, they may go back to the ocean without finishing their “delivery.” We used infrared lights to observe them because the white lights bother them, and no photos or flashes were allowed. They pretty much just did their thing and ignored us, and we were quiet and gave them their space. I was so glad I made this trip!

My last

My last “typical” breakfast in Costa Rica: a fried egg, rice ‘n beans, fried plantains, and “natilla,” a kind of sour cream.

In the morning, I had one last yummy Costa Rican breakfast, then went on a canoe tour through the canals before leaving Tortuguero. The canoe tour was in the morning and we spotted iguanas, poison dart frogs (for real in the wild!), howler monkeys, a crocodile, toucans, herons, and a bunch of other birds. As you can tell, there was really no place in Costa Rica to be away from the wildlife. It was accessible everywhere! By the end of this trip, I had seen so many animals that my imagination was going crazy and I would look at a log, a plant, or a cloud and see a croc, a turtle, or a bird instead. After recovering from dengue, LUCK was the theme of my trip and I was in Biology heaven!

During the canoe tour through the canals, we passed growing bean plants, which are a favorite hangout and grazing spot for young iguanas, especially because of how well they can camouflage themselves. Can you spot it? Hint: If you divide the photo into 3 vertical sections, it is in the middle section. Good luck!

During the canoe tour through the canals, we passed growing bean plants, which are a favorite hangout and grazing spot for young iguanas, especially because of how well they can camouflage themselves. Can you spot it? Hint: If you divide the photo into 3 vertical sections, it is in the middle section. (Tap photo for enlargement.) Good luck!

Costa Rica was a neat place. I didn’t get to all the places I was interested in visiting, but I did what I could with the time I had. I was originally under the impression that Costa Rica was going to be more along the lines of a developed nation from what I had heard, but it is definitely still like the rest of Central America in many ways. Rustic and wild, but ever changing and oh-so-alive!

Outside the frog habitat, posing with the giant

Outside the frog habitat, posing with the giant “blue-jeaned” poison dart frog, I was on Cloud 9 to finally get access to the beautiful wildlife in Costa Rica!

From Costa Rica, I took a bus retracing the other countries I had visited until I made it back to Guatemala City. I spent one last week in Guatemala, visiting a few special people, tying up loose ends, and saying some goodbyes before I finally went back to the United States. I was finally ready to go home, but so grateful for those three months of travel that I had to process how things had happened in Guatemala both while I was living there as well as how my service ended. I could easily say that this had been a once-in-a-lifetime trip. (But here I am again on the other side of the world with only a backpack so maybe we can call this a twice-in-a-lifetime!)

Much love,

Alexandra

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Common Peace Corps Acronyms

PC = Peace Corps (sounds like "peese kor")
PCT = Peace Corps Trainee
PCV = Peace Corps Volunteer
PST = Pre-Service Training
ET = Early Termination
COS = Close of Service
NGO = Non-Governmental Organization
HH = Healthy Homes, the PC program I am in.
YD = Youth Development, the other program in my training group.

Disclaimer

Anything that is written or views expressed on this blog are mine personally and do not represent the Peace Corps or the United States government.
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