Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Dispatch 31 Return to Costa Rica

Oct 24-Nov 30, 2007
Once again, we are back in the heat and humidity of Central America. Our “summer” in Seattle was one of those seasons that never really developed into summer. There were some nice days but all too often it was cool, cloudy and rainy and especially so in September when we often enjoy a lovely Indian summer. Oh well, we knew we would be returning to the land of sun and heat so it didn’t bother us much. Work for Betsy was intense and rewarding. She tried a new role as a hospitalist and learned a lot while being supported by a super friendly team of doctors and staff at Northwest Hospital. Richard had the opportunity to be part of a delivery on a Transpac 52 ft race boat back from Hawaii to San Francisco. He loved the experience and confirmed that blue water sailing is his love even if it was mostly to weather and on a stripped down race boat. Meanwhile we lived in an extended stay hotel at first, then in a converted garage (known as a “studio cottage” in the ad) close to Betsy’s work.

October brought Betsy’s 50th birthday and she celebrated all month. Richard was a good sport and got to eat cake with every party so didn’t complain at all. We had a Seattle party at Theo chocolate factory, a Cleveland party at Betsy’s parents’ place with brothers, high school friends, etc. then a wonderful inland trip in Costa Rica to celebrate the actual day itself. The opportunity to see so many friends again has been the highlight of this strange cruising life. We appreciate the chance to catch up, see folks and share some of our stories while padding our cruising kitty and avoiding bad seasons on the water. We feel most fortunate in our lives.

The Costa Rica return was mixed. It’s hot and so far the rain is a little less intense than when we left—less lightning. The boat bloomed mildew on every wood surface, not unexpected, and, in fact, while we were wiping down the inside of the boat, the yacht club staff was wiping down the wood rafters in their outdoor restaurant of the same mildew. So we got to go through every storage compartment and clean and sort which is a good thing. After just a couple days, we left to go inland and explore the famous cloud forest of Costa Rica—Monteverde. Our 4 hour bus ride ($4) from Puntarenas was initially on paved road but then diverged onto gravel/dirt mountain roads. The actual mileage is probably less than 40 miles; however, the roads are basically one lane—to pass one vehicle has to back to the closest wide spot—and in horrendous condition. The bus often went 5-10 MPH as it navigated the deep ruts and areas of near wash-out.

The scenery was stupendous. The rainy season here is referred to as the Green Season and it is the most glorious multi-hued green place. The hills are steep but often terraced with coffee farms. There are cows, horses, goats, small settlements along the way. The town near the Monteverde Reserve, Santa Elena, has a bunch of tourist facilities as this is a very frequently visited area, but, happy for us, we were there in the low season and had our choice of hotels and restaurants. We took a horseback ride in the country to view the landscape and ended up heading down a treacherously steep muddy trail that Betsy’s horse initially didn’t want to go on (smart horse). There was a downed tree blocking the tiny trail and we had to dismount and lead the horses around it. The whole time we were both thinking about what we would do if the horse started to slip and fall. Sounds very relaxing, doesn’t it? But it was stunningly beautiful.

The following day, we took the public bus the 4 miles from our beautiful hotel to the reserve. There we hired a guide who taught us a ton about the amazing cloud forest. To be a cloud forest, it has to have 100% humidity year round—the ground is always wet. A vast majority of the plant life lives in the tree canopy and the extra weight of the biomass on a tree can reach 1000 pounds and, when wet, lead the tree to fall over because it’s so top heavy. We saw a coatimundi eating tiny orange fruits at the top of a tree, saw howler monkeys, saw stick insects, lured a tarantula out of her hole at the base of a tree (beautiful spider with orange and black legs and a good 4 inch diameter) and viewed all kinds of flowers. Our guide showed us the “sleeping hyacinth”, a flower that never opens and he cackled as he told us it’s referred to as a Costa Rican wallet. We were buzzed by hummingbirds and butterflies as we walked, and looked in vain for a resplendent quetzal, a beautiful bird native to the forest. After the guide was done, we walked another 3 to 4 miles in the forest, watched hundreds of hummingbirds at a special area with feeders and finally, walked the 4 miles back to the hotel and were utterly thrashed.

On Betsy’s actual birthday we did ziplines over the cloud forest. The activity is adrenaline producing, but a total blast. We were fitted with helmets, climbing harnesses and given pulleys to use on the line. Then we climbed and hiked to the first of 11 wires strung up to 400 feet above the forest floor. From a platform we would be launched and fly down the line to the next platform, sometimes traveling more than a quarter mile and picking up some good speed. At the other end, a brake contraption would stop us and the guide would catch us and we would unclip and head to the next line. Wow, we were both exhilarated by the experience. Our favorite was a line that took us through the canopy itself. The last ride, the guides let us double up so we flew together to the platform. What a great birthday activity!! That night, we had our last supper and ordered, what else, chocolate cake (listed on the menu as “queque chocolate”—say it out loud, it works.) When the wait staff learned it was my birthday, the cake was written off the bill. How sweet!

We returned on the bus early the following morning and began preparations to haul the boat in the boatyard for bottom painting. When we bought the paint, we were told it was ablative paint, special for sailboats, the type we prefer. We probably should have been a little more suspicious when the paint can said black and the guy in the store told us the paint was actually red. Hmmm, it turned out not to be the ablative type we like, it was red not black. Worse case scenario, it all just peels off. Oh well. The guys in the boatyard were very helpful and nice and, other than the usual jitters about safely hauling the boat, things went OK. Well, there was the issue of not fitting on the travel lift the first time without removing the forestay and the extra two days we had to stay in the yard because the tide wasn’t high enough to re-launch, the hundreds of no-see-um bites we sustained because we had to start at 6 AM before the heat of the day got too intolerable. But, hey, it’s boatyard work in Central America. Roll with it.

We finally motored out of the estuary on a Sunday afternoon at high tide and anchored at a nearby island thrilled to be alone again. Southern Costa Rica is wetter, lusher and even more beautiful. The highlight was anchoring directly off the world famous Manuel Antonio National Park. The anchorage was stunning—we tucked in behind a few islands and some rocks which broke up most of the Pacific swell. Our backdrop was the jungle, and though there was a steady stream of tourists during the day, we were alone for the howler monkeys’ serenade at dawn and dusk. When we took the dinghy ashore, we were on the National Park trail where we saw sloths in the trees, howler and white faced capuchin monkeys. The later were utterly adapted to the huge population of tourists that walk through this park. They pose for pictures, steal food from picnic tables (“There he is, Sarah, the one who grabbed the cookies is up at the top of the tree being chased by the others, ha, ha, ha”) and generally act cheeky and insolent. The iguanas are both land and marine variety and there is a plethora of birds most of which one hears but not sees. The hike around the park was unforgettable and extremely hot and wet.

Bahia Drake gave us long trails to walk along the coast, over rickety bridges to span the many rivers. Another lovely spot was Isla del Cano, another park, where we arrived to a collection of tour boats—snorkel, dive, etc. which left about an hour after we arrived and once again we were alone. The snorkeling was pretty good, the island was densely forested and beautiful. Finally, we headed overnight to Golfito, the final town near the border of Panama. Here, United Fruit used to rule until the bananas got a blight and United Fruit pulled out and suddenly it was a town without much of a purpose. It rains 300 inches a year here—200 during the rainy season and 100 during the “dry” season. That means anytime you turn your back on a clearing or a building for a few weeks, the jungle takes over. The atmosphere is laid back, the buildings a bit run down (seedy) but the people are quite nice and it’s a pretty good place to provision. We are getting our international zarpe, shopping at the duty free zone, taking care of a few odds and ends on the boat, painting our boat name and a little art on the cruiser club wall to join the ranks of the many others we know (Alkahest for one).

And glory be, we arrived here to find that we are not the last cruisers on earth. Since Puntarenas is not a major port for most cruisers, we had started to feel we were alone in the cruising world. We arrived here to join friends and spend some social nights again comparing notes. Lovely. The collection of boats is distinctly more international than the ones we met in Mexico. A boat that left yesterday is flagged in London, the couple aboard are from Slovenia and Italy respectively and the boat itself is German. Two more boats pulled in yesterday from Japan and France.

We leave in the next few days for Panama and some pristine island cruising before we arrive in Balboa. We hope to transit the Panama Canal as line handlers on someone else’s boat as we don’t plan to take Qayaq through but would love to go through the Canal. Then on to Ecuador, or not, and still planning to hit the Galapagos and Marquesas next spring when cyclone season is over in the South Pacific.

We thank all of you who made our visits in Seattle and Cleveland wonderful rich memories and we look forward to seeing you all again. Please keep in touch when you can.