Saturday, February 4, 2012

Backpacking Costa Rica

Two years I had kept this blog without any updates even though I had travelled more than I can imagine. Each trip was special in its own way and I wish I had written them down for remembrance.  Now is the best time to update my pensive, I would feel bad if I forgot my first solo backpacking experience.

I was quite focused on getting away for this christmas break and do something interesting for more than one reason. One random day on my finals week, I decided to stop studying and search for the cheapest flight tickets to get out of San Diego. My first plan was to get to New York and see snow for the first time. Unfortunately, none of my friends were going to be in town and it seemed too expensive to stay/travel on my own in the east coast. After looking at Peru, Argentina and Chile - Costa Rica was probably the cheapest to fly internationally and they didn't require any special visa. I was little skeptical that my parents would be against it but they were more excited that I am doing a trip than me.

Pretty much everything (-) sleeping bag
Even though I had booked tickets, I was busy with finals, my PhD application and research work. Two weeks went past without any time to read the Moon's guide book I got through amazon (I had used lonely planet for India, Moon's is pretty good in terms of hostel reviews). The travel day was nearing and I turned in my PhD application on the 19th and had one day to do all the last minute shopping. Even though my 35L Jansport backpack could fit all my luggage, I decided to use two backpacks for fear of space as I travel. Considering the kind of person I am who makes plan A, B and C Costa Rica seemed perfect with no plans on my stay, travel or food. Dec 21st my flight was at 5PM and I finished my TA meeting with the professor played a few strings in my guitar to relax myself and set off to Houston. Satish a friend from Vana Vani was kind to pick me up from airport, buy me food and provide me a bed for the night at Houston. 

Flight to Costa Rica was smooth over the atlantic  with some random view of the mexican coast. Liberia, my port of entry was probably the kind of international airport you don't expect to see serving flights to/from US. A run down workshop with immigration, baggage claim, information desk and customs all under one big fan (seriously big) that kept the sweat cool. Fortunately an ATM machine at the entrance was available to get some cash in colones. One thing that was clear from the begining about this trip was to keep it within a budget. I was determined to get from airport to Liberia town by bus and waited for more than 2 hours for the bus. The bus cost just $2 and took around 30mins. Hostel Guanacaste was a decent hostel and I would recommend only for backpackers. After a quick lunch at the Soda + Restaurant nearby I decided to catch a short nap. Around 6PM, I booked a shuttle to Rincon De La Vieja at the reception for next day morning and went on a stroll around the town. Liberia is a small town but safe and interesting place to explore by walking. The Christmas day parade preparation at the central park had me glued to the curb (no park benches) for more than an hour. It reminded me of India and the kuthu performance on the streets, except for the pretty girls dancing in the back. That night at Liberia had me all excited about my Costa Rica experience. 

December 23, 7AM I was in the shuttle to Rincon de La Vieja. I was all prepared to hike the volcano but unfortunately volcano trail was closed due to gaseous activity. I was also hoping that the hike to the peak will warm me up for Chirripo. After looking at the park map, the only trails lead to waterfalls. I decided to do all the 3 waterfalls trails same day. With the trail running shoes put to good use, I did the 15km hiking trail in 6 hours. La Cangreja was probably the best falls of the three. Being the first person on the trail proved to be useful to view the wildlife and nature in its pristine form. After I had ran through the path they flew/ran away. The third trail had mud volcanoes which were interesting to watch. I was back to the park entrance by 2PM and exhausted I took a nap in the park bench. The shuttle to Liberia was to leave at 5PM. We were back in Liberia around 7PM. The night was unevenful except that I enquired around for best way to get to Monteverde by bus.

Even though my muscles were tired the next morning I knew I was prepared for Chirripo hike. After finding out there are no direct buses from Liberia to Monteverde, I took the first bus to San Jose at 5:30AM. I was dropped at Petrol station by the fork leading to Sardinal around 7:30AM.  I was advised by the guy at the gas station to sit little distance from the fork and wave at the first bus to take the road towards Sardinal. After nearly waiting for 2 hours, the bus to Monteverde arrived. It was quite exciting wait since the buses are spaced at 4 hours after each other. Missing was not an option. I used my waiting time to jot down my trip activities and names and places in my travel log. 

Santa Elena is the main town near monteverde cloud forest reserve. Pension Santa Elena is 2 buildings away from the bus stop and a good place to stay at Monteverde. At lunch I met Sylvia, Issac and Justin who were also backpacking around Costa Rica and with whom I decided to do the 12:30PM canopy tour at Selventura park. Ziplines even though look scary are fun and best way to see the cloud forest in short time. The cloud forest is spread across several mountains and as the name suggest always has the clouds passing through it. The quickest and fun way to say the forest is to take the ziplines. Cables that are connected between two trees in different hills and you just hold onto it and slide down nearly 500m-1km of cable length. The first take off was scary but after I got the hang of it, I enjoyed the view around and below me. The longest zipline was 700m and cruising at 40km/hr over the rain forest with rain beating at my face was incredible experience. Packaged with canopy ride was the tarzan swing. Its a free fall off 60 feet high platform after which you get to swing like tarzan. I just wanted to get to the top and once the door opens jump off without thinking or looking down. After the tarzan cry (I tried to go like Tarzan but ended up sounding like George of the Jungle), ziplines was a piece of cake and smooth as it can get. 

We got back to Santa Elena around 5PM and enjoyed a good dinner with fellow travelers. We then chatten by the lobby on interesting things each one had experienced in their travel around the world. I was motivated by them to do more such trips. The next day myself, Issac, Sylvia and Justin planned to see Monteverde Cloud Reserve. Syliva and Issac had rented a car and we were at the park around 8AM. I was more than happy to receive a $2 student discount. We took a 2 hour trail around the park which is apparently abundant with birds. With the rain pouring down, it wasn't the best time to view the birds. Few photos, some interesting view points and winds blowing at 80km/hr were probably all we got from the park. After the walk, we decided to try the Monteverde Cheese factory. The factory was closed for the tour due to christmas eve but I bought myself the best chocolate chip milk shake I have ever tasted in my life. As we drove back to Santa Elena, I decided to go on my own by walking along the hill road. I guessed the walk should be around 5-10Kms. It was refreshing to walk by myself and stop at all the scenic spots. I could catch a view of Puntarenas and pacific coast peninsula from a secluded spot away from the road. I had my first encounter with a pimp and drug dealer here. After saying a clear no, he walked away. A little bit of fear got into me and I rushed back to the hostel. I found that Issac, Justin and Sylvia decided to leave for Montezuma. I then caught with some fresh travelers at the lobby and found out about white water rafting at Rio Pacuare. I was scared at first thought knowing that it was a level-4 rafting. But I knew that it was only my mind that feared the water. If I had to overcome that fear, this would be the perfect oppurtunity. And doing it on Christmas was best time to place faith on God and tell Him to take care of me! :)

I set off to river rafting pick up location, Arenal, by the first shuttle. Arenal is the most famous tourist spot in Costa Rica. Until 3 years ago Arenal was constantly spewing lava that attracted attention. The view of Arenal cone from La Fortuna lake was mesmerizing. The river rafting company picked me from Arenal Backpackers at 5:30AM. I met Anikha, Adam Rossenfield in the shuttle. Adam was also going to hike chirripo after river rafting like me. After breakfast at the rafting company office we set off to meet the remaining of the group near the river bank. Dressed in our life jackets and safety helmets, we got onto to the boat. Fernando was our guide and my boat had two indian couples and two New Yorkers. Our first command from Fernando was to jump off the boat to get used to man over board maneuvers.  The rafting was 4 hours of pure exercise and fun. I went over board twice, the second time was in the white water. Life passed through my eyes in this 20 seconds in the water. I knew after coming out of it with few scratches that I am no more scared of drowning. :D (More the reason to become a good swimmer)

The rafting company drove us back to San Jose. My stay at San Jose was only for the christmas night and I was to take the bus next morning to Chirripo. Costa Rica Backpackers was a shaddy place to stay and definitely not recommended for over night stays. I then took a stroll through the Plaza Cultura. It felt really unsafe to walk through the streets of San Jose, fenced buildings and empty streets made the place uneasy. An uneasy sleep in the hostel and around 6 in the morning I was in the bus stop. The bus to San Isidro  left at 8:30AM. The bus ride was through the hills above the clouds. I got to San Isidro at 12:30PM after lunch at the "tea" shop inside the bus station, I waited for 2 hours to take the bus to San Gerardo.

Chirripo Ranger station is 1 stop before San Gerardo stop and it closes at 4:00PM. I got there in time to enquire about the availability of tickets to hike Chirripo the next day. As expected the next day tickets were sold and we were asked to come back first thing in the morning. I met Adam at the ranger station and we decided to come back around 5AM in the morning to get the tickets. The walk to hostel Casa Mariposa was tiring and made me realize how difficult it is going to be to climb chirripo. All sweaty and stinky I made it to Casa Mariposa. Jill and John were the perfect host, they took care of all the clients as guests at their house. I was lucky to get the best bed in the dorm and I knew then even if I didn't get tickets for the next day, I would spend all the remaining days at Casa Mariposa relaxing and reflecting on various happenings in my life.

A refreshing group of people were staying at Mariposa. After having dinner, I sat with my travel log and a cup of coffee enjoying the quietness of the night outside. Never have I experienced so much peace in any place before. It felt like being home. Peace of mind translated to a sound sleep only to be woken by my alarm at 4:00AM. I went down to the Ranger office around 4:45AM and waited by the door. To my surprise I was already the 5th person in the line. I felt a bit of disappointment for I knew that there were only 3 tickets available for the next day. There were Kiwi family in the front, Adam and me. After some time, a Danish family joined us in the line. I was surprised to find that the Dad was going to hike with his 10 and 12years old. Inspiring stories were shared in the morning about how a person with hip replacement surgery hiked chirripo using walking frame. Legend has it that Chirripo was sacred for the mayans and mere mortals who dared to hike it were killed. The Mayan priest performed rituals at the peak and hence it to climb it is a matter of pride for the Ticos. The interesting feature of Chirripo is that from the peak you can see both the atlantic and pacific at the same time, a sight nowhere else possible from land. All these stories only filled me with energy and enthusiasm. The ranger office opened at sharp 6:00AM and we rushed in to get our tickets. I was overjoyed when I heard the ranger say 'cinco' tickets. I spent the early morning buying food and preparing for the hike. Adam decided to do the hike in a day for he had to catch a flight on Thursday night. Shared stories, spirituality, life and Indian food with the couple who own the biggest hot tubs retail chain in Cananda. There were going to do the hike in a day despite the fact that the woman had a fractured humerus.

3:30AM on 29th I was on foot in the trail. Surprisingly there was no quotient of fear in the darkness and queer noise that surrounded me. I had packed my breakfast for the hike and knew that I would have to reach the half way mark at 7KM by 7:00AM for my food break. I paced myself at a constant speed up the inclination. The climb was pretty steep with gain of 800-1000ft/km. I could see the glittering stars whenever I was out of the canopy cover. Around 11:30AM I made it to 15Km mark base camp. Chirripo is a total of 10km roundtrip from the base camp which I planned to make it for the sunrise the next day.

After I ate the pasta I prepared for lunch, I met with the kiwis. We had a really interesting conversation on various subjects. I was surprised to see how much they were different from Americans, in some sense very close to Indians. By 4:00PM it was starting to get really cold leaving me nothing to guess about the chillness early morning. I then took a walk around the base camp. Even though I felt I might get cramps and hamstring would get twisted, I seemed perfectly fit. The kiwis and I decided to hike Chirripo for Sunrise at 2:30AM. I felt a little cocky and decided that I should be able to do the 10KM round trip with nothing but just a litre of water. I never expected to get lost you see. :D

We reached the peak at 5:10AM and waited patiently for the sun to raise above the atlantic. Once the sun started coming up, the clouds rose due to fall in chillness and covering the horizon. The view of Costa Rica valley from Arenal to Panama was splendid. I could see the Irazu and Turrialba smoking fumes at a distant. There was nothing between me and the skies and I realized how grateful I am to my parents for sponsoring my trip and having faith in me. I miss you mom.  I was back at casa mariposa by 5:00PM and I don't know any politically correct word to describe how my legs felt. A hot shower and wholesome dinner had me under the sheets by 8:00PM.

Next morning, John and Jill offered to drive me back to San Isidro as they were heading that direction. I listened to their story on what got them from San Diego,US to San Gerardo. John was displeased to know what has become of Black's beach ;). They made a wonderful couple who loved living up there. Around 4:00PM I was back in San Jose and all set to take my flight to Houston the next afternoon. I would save the bad story about how I spent New Year's at LA airport (felt like Tom Hanks from The Terminal) later.  Pura Vida


  1. Wow! I mean seriously wow! This is really mind blowing and crazy shit! I am still finding it so hard to believe that you were backpacking for 11 days all by yourself. It shows that you have that rare gift that i cant explain but can only admire. May you have a million other such amazing experiences!

  2. Great read!
    Congrats on a crazy yet successful trip !
    Would love to join you on your next expedition.. let me know..

  3. @Tito: Thank you! :)
    @Amal: Sure, I will let you know when I get another crazy idea.!