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Costa Rica: Lessons Learned and Catching Crocs, Another Day in Life of a Traveler

Even before planning the around the world trek, Costa Rica had long been on our list of places to visit.  It is internationally renowned for its natural beauty and overwhelming abundance of flora and fauna.  According to one source, Costa Rica hosts more that 5-percent of the world's biodiversity, yet its land mass represents only .03-percent of the planet's surface.  It's lush jungles, rugged mountains and pristine coasts make it one of the top tourists destinations in the world.  It also welcomes foreign investors, which is why so many people from the U.S. own homes there.

Costa Rica was both a destination and the terminus of our Central America trek before moving on to South America.  Our two weeks there was not nearly enough time to see even a faction of its .03-percent land surface.  An advantage for most Americans is that almost everyone speaks English.  However, being able to converse so easily in our native tongue caused us to become lazy, and we lost what little Spanish-language proficiency we had acquired in the proceeding six weeks.

We learned many valuable lessons throughout our trek, and one of the most important was to always tell the bus driver where we want to get off.  This is extremely important, as most of the stops between large cities are along the side of the road or at best a convenience store parking lot.  This lesson was reinforced after what should have been a three-hour bus ride was extended to nearly 10 hours.

I was under the mistaken impression that the town we planned to get off at was large enough to have a 'real' terminal.   It became painfully clear my assumption was grossly incorrect when I saw a road sign going in the opposite direction that indicated we were nearly 100 miles south of the intended destination.  At this point I did not know what was worse, missing the stop or having to break the news to my family that I had just added another seven hours to our bus ride - next stop, the capital San Jose.

They took the news surprisingly well even though we had eaten very little all day, and the onboard toilet was beginning to smell very ripe.  I was sitting directly across the isle from the baño, and it was becoming ranker by the mile.  Lesson two, don't request the seat by the toilet, as you don't know when a short bus ride may become a long one.  However, as self-proclaimed seasoned travelers my wife and I got out the guidebook and immediately began identifying hostels and restaurants in close proximity to the bus station where we would be arriving in San Jose - or so we thought.

As the large bus lumbered through the narrow streets of San Jose, I began comparing street signs to our guidebook map, and quickly realized we were going to a different location than first thought.   After gathering all of our gear, I found a taxi driver and showed him where I thought we were on the map.  He proudly stated I was pointing to the location of the old terminal and that we had arrived at the new facility, just recently commissioned.  Lesson three for the day . . . don't put too much faith in the accuracy of guidebooks.

Although our initial introduction to Costa Rica was less than ideal, the remaining two weeks were everything we had hoped.  We rented a small SUV, as we wanted the flexibility of getting around on our own.  Frankly, after our last bus ride fiasco (largely of my own doing), I decided we needed a break.  The independence also gave us a chance to stock up on food and other supplies at the Wal-Mart near the airport.  In addition, we could stop to take in the scenery, rather than watching it wiz by while riding the bus.

The currency conversion was the next major issue to overcome.  At over 500 Colones to $1 USD, it taxed our collective mathematical skills to understand exactly what everything was costing in our own currency.  The most we had dealt with so far was 20 Cordobas to $1 USD in Nicaragua, but the new conversion was considerably more challenging.  Getting rid of the two zeros and dividing by five seems easy until actually put into practice.  A meal for five costing over 16,000 Colones is a shock to the wallet until we did the conversion and realized it was only about $30 USD.

One of the major reasons for visiting Costa Rica was to help catch crocs - as in crocodiles.  Thanks to a friend of Morgan's and Zach's, we were introduced to a croc researcher who allowed us to shadow her and her colleague while they tried to capture, tag and gather other relevant data.  They are the only two croc-researchers in Costa Rica and are fearless in every sense of the word - some might even use the word crazy.  They tried many times to catch the elusive beasts using raw chicken as bait, and even got a rope around the huge reptiles' top jaw.  However, the wily animals were too clever and slipped out of the rope each time.  Crocs may have a brain the size of a walnut, but they are far from stupid. 

We were waiting at a safe distance, and once caught were ready to lend assistance if needed, but never had the opportunity.  Although disappointed, we thanked Luz and Juan for their persistent efforts.  They promised to catch crocs during the next visit, which Morgan and Zach are planning in September 2010.

We visited both coasts and the contrasts were extreme.  Manuel Antonio near Quepos on the West Coast had lush jungle, the pounding Pacific surf and an upscale atmosphere.  The views from the world famous El Avión restaurant, which features a plane used by the CIA during the war in Nicaragua, were breathtaking.  Manuel Antonio was also the name of the national park where we saw myriad animals including sloths, monkeys, deer, a large boa that had just feasted on a not-so-fortunate creature, and several raccoons.

The drive to the East Coast from San Jose reminded us of Jurassic Park.  The plunging gorges covered in dense jungle only lacked the dinosaurs to make the scene complete.  With the exception of an occasional passing lane, the road was just wide enough for two vehicles to pass.  Which would have been okay if not for the hundreds of trucks carrying bananas and palm oil to Port Limón.

Our destination on the East Coast was Chahuta, a small village on the Caribbean Sea.  Except for the national park and abundant wildlife, it was almost the exact opposite of Manuel Antonio.  Chahuta was less developed, the coastline had gently lapping surf, and by the end of the week we practically knew everyone in town.  We were fortunate to find a two-bedroom house on several acres that was adjacent to the national park.  Each morning, birds and butterflies showing off every color of the rainbow greeted us, and in the afternoon the howler monkeys moved into the trees in the backyard to relax in the branches above our heads.  It was unclear who was watching whom.

After such an extensive trek around the world, everyone asks, 'What was your favorite place?'.  Our typical response is 'That depends on what you are looking for . . .'.  However, we all agree Costa Rica is at the top of the list in every category and is bound to satisfy any tourist or traveler.   A visit to Costa Rica is guaranteed to please everyone, regardless of what they are looking for.

Next week's article will recap the trek through Central America and highlight a few previously unmentioned experiences and observations.  After leaving Costa Rica, our next destination was Peru, the land of the Incas.  It took our breath away, in more ways than one.

And remember . . . "Travel is the ultimate education."

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