Friday, July 27, 2007

Back Home!! (and tan!)

Hey! We made it back! We've returned from a fantastic week-long action-packed whirlwind trip to Costa Rica (we tried to see the entire country in 7 days, but fell just short...). There's a million stories to tell and just as many pictures to post (really- a million- I'm not exaggerating!). However, we've both been busy with work and doing laundry (I haven't created such a horrifically-smelling suitcase since that one week of summer camp when I was 11.....

Anyway, the important things are that we all had a great time, no serious injuries to speak of, and Josh and Sherry got married successfully and in full Caribbean beach fashion! We'll have the photos and narrative up (we'll be posting them as the actual dates they happened, so they'll appear below this post) as soon as we have a spare moment!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Costa Rica (Day 8) Departure

We had managed to get to bed by about 9pm the night before. So, even though Brian’s phone cum alarm clock rang at 3am, we still got about 6 hours of sleep, which seemed like an eternity for this whirlwind, action-packed trip!

We drug ourselves out of bed and finished getting ready. It was definitely a baseball cap morning for all of us. Tim went ahead to check out of the room and we called the front desk to come get our bags.

As Brian and I stumbled up the steps, we saw that our driver was Enne again! We were actually hoping it would turn out to be Enne because we had found the entire tipping situation to be so confusing that we felt later perhaps we had undertipped him on some of the earlier trips. We had planned to give him an extra big tip this time. We felt bad, though, because each time we had Enne as our driver, the three of us had either been exhausted or up at the crack of dawn and hadn't been very good company as he drove us around the countryside.

Our drive to the airport was foggy and dark, and Enne had Bob Marley music playing. It was a very surreal feeling to be riding along winding roads past places we had visited the day before, but without being able to really see where we were going until we were right on top of a sharp turn. We were competing with large trucks for the road, and if we hadn’t already driven with Enne several times, I might have been scared.

After about an hour, we arrived at the airport safely, gave Enne the tip we had planned (he was very happy), and headed in to check in. Before getting our boarding passes, we had to pay our $26 each exit fee. After this we stood in line at the ticket counter. The lines were long and moving exceedingly slow. It took an entire hour to get our tickets and get through security. That doesn’t seem like a lot until you remember it was 5am.

Once we were in the terminal, Brian set off for some last minute souvenirs and Tim and I shared a small cheese pizza for breakfast.

As we waited for the plane, we were sad our vacation was coming to an end. It was a wonderful vacation, but man, are we tired!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Costa Rica [Day 7] Heading to Villa Blanca

At 10.00 am board the Sunset Tours van for the 2 hour drive to Hotel Villa Blanca. Arrive and check into a deluxe casita. Take the rest of the day to enjoy the hotel and the area.

The next morning, we all woke up at 7:30am to get ready for the day and pack all of our stuff again for our final location. We realized that somehow all of our belongings and added gifts/souvenirs were no longer fitting as nicely into our suitcases and that the situation required some creative packing! In Brian’s case, as he tried to jam items into his fanny pack, it ripped! I told him I would sew it with the small hotel-provided mending kit after breakfast because he didn’t have any other bag to use and we had 2 days to go!

Before that, though, we headed back to the pool restaurant for breakfast. The breakfast buffet was pretty good, now that I was able to eat! We ordered omelets from the made-to-order station and had some fruit and coffee. The waiter was in a good mood and very friendly and was asking questions about my tattoos. It was a nice, relaxed morning.

[A worker at the hotel trimming the bushes with a pair of machetes]

[A shot of the water wheel from last night's restaurant]

[These cool fish were swiming around the base of the wheel]

After breakfast we returned to our room where Brian read, I sewed his bag, and Tim disappeared to try to capture the local flowers and the elusive hummingbird on camera. During this adventure, he discovered a little stream with a great view of the volcano.

[Finally! A decent shot of a hummingbird!]

At around 9:40am or so, we called for a golf cart to take us and our luggage to the lobby where we settled our bill and waited for our 10:00am pickup to Villa Blanca, which was closer to San Jose and the international airport than the Arenal area.

When our driver arrived, he introduced himself as Elfrin. He was very nice, friendly and accommodating. He told us that we had a few hours drive to the hotel and that if we wanted to stop anywhere on the way to just let him know. I told him I’d like to get some necklaces made by some local artists and that also we’d like to get some souvenirs for family/friends.

Our first stop was in a nearby town where we were brought to a little stand on the street corner. The vendor was just setting up a small table with hundreds of handmade necklaces. He told me this was all his own work. My first thought was, "Sure it is. 6 year olds who are kept home from school made these". (I know, jaded). However, I was pleasantly surprised when I realized he did make them (or at least knew how to make jewelry). He was able to easily swap out pieces of one necklace for another, customize the clasps, and change the necklaces in real time to get them how I wanted them. It was really cool to watch! Some of the tools he had for jewelry making I have myself, but I don’t use them quite as well or as quickly! I ended up getting three necklaces, although they were all so pretty I could have easily gotten many more!

After this shopping spree, we headed back on the road where Elfrin pointed out many interesting sites. We elected for the windy scenic route. We saw some beautiful scenery, although after awhile the winding was a little much. We survived though!

As we neared the turn off for the hotel, he brought us to a little food stand where we got cheese, bread, candy, and other treats! It was really cool to talk to the vendor and pick out the food and treats.

[These hanging balls of cheese would soon prove to be some of the best cheese in the world!!]

When we were done there, Elfrin brought us to a nice souvenir shop which had many options at prices much less expensive than in the places that were in the hotels or right in the city. We all picked up some gifts for our family and friends. I wish we had gotten more gifts there, actually, because things were so much more expensive everywhere else.

[This guy was showing off several 3-ring binders full of foreign currency]

After at least an hour looking around the shop, we finished and Elfrin took us to the Villa Blanca, which was at the end of a long dirt/gravel road lined with cows.

[Sometimes you just have to have your priorities in order...]

The hotel was absolutely beautiful. It contained several casitas scattered along a path with lighting along the side. The casitas were surrounded by the rain forest, and the grounds were lush and expansive. We were immediately very sorry that we had only one night here and that it was such a short night.

Upon checking in we were told we had received a complimentary upgrade to the honeymoon suite. This was kind of funny. Tim asked if it still slept three people, and we were told that it did. Additional confusion ensued when the person bringing our luggage couldn’t understand who else we were waiting for. Brian and I were outside with the luggage and Tim was purchasing a bottle of wine for us to drink with the food we bought at the roadside stand. Finally, with the help of the receptionist, we were able to convey there were three people in our party, and indeed, we were all staying in the honeymoon suite. I was a little embarrassed by the whole situation to be honest, but what can you do? It is not as though we set out to book the honeymoon suite for three people.

When we got to the room, we found it to be beautiful! We received a tour of the room by the person who brought our luggage and then Tim went around to take the initial pictures of the room. It had a large Jacuzzi bath tub with large "tub to ceiling" windows opening to the lush rain forest outside. It had a large shower and a great covered patio with 3 chairs. In the living room area it also had a great stone fireplace.

[We saw these flowers along the road during the drive in, and they looked like cauliflowers. Our room had a bunch of them growing next to it.]

Around this time, it started to pour down rain. We sat out on the patio in the pouring rain and ate our ball of cheese, the bread, and some fig/pineapple snacks, and drank the wine. It was a great lunch!

[Fantastic food, fantastic people in a fantastic environment!!]

Following lunch, I tried to take a bath only to find out the tub seemed to be unable to hold water. The boys made a fire in the fireplace during this time, so the room was very cozy as it rained outside.

[I must admit I've had very little experience building fires in foreign countries. It wouldn't seem to be that different, but this type of wood had some crazy properties that befuddled Brian and I for a while until we got it going well. No matter how many glowing coals and smoke we had, it didn't seem to light until we put a flame to the coals.]

At around 5:00pm we headed over to the lodge for happy hour. We were the only customers, so we chatted with the bartender and watched a bizarre National Geographic episode dubbed over in Spanish of a man trying to live like a submissive wolf in the pack. He was even eating raw meat from a kill. We tried a sour local drink made from sugar cane liquor.

Before eating dinner, we looked at the souvenir shop. The souvenirs were very expensive there, but they had some beautiful wood products. I got a wooden frog for my sister and bargained down the price due to some scratches on the back. I also got a set of coasters for our house. The staff was extremely friendly, but then they did outnumber us about 3 to 1. The hotel was not very busy.

[This little church down in the valley was visible from the hotel as the forest mist lifted off after the hard rain]

We headed over to dinner. I vaguely remember Shannon and Steve telling us not to eat there. But at this time of night, and considering how far away the hotel was from town, and also considering we had no rental car, we were pretty much stuck. Besides, we weren’t sure how the food could be that bad at such a nice hotel. But… it was. The food was definitely the most expensive place we had eaten so far, and I could only get down about 3 bites of my fish. It was so dry and overcooked. The boys seemed to like their food OK, though, so maybe it was just some dishes that were not very good.

After dinner, we walked back to the room. It was kind of an odd feeling as we walked back. We passed a family heading to dinner with a flashlight. The flashlight, the family, the walkway, the fact that I was with Tim and Brian, and the woods reminded me of camp. My mind had a little trouble remembering where we were exactly. I had a strange sense of many places being pretty much the same and that the people you are with is the biggest distinguishing factor. But then it was gone, and we were entering our casita to pack for the last time.

The packing went pretty easy this time. We had to be up at 4am in the morning for our 5am pickup to the airport. We tried our best to fall asleep right away.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Costa Rica [Day 6] Canopy Tour at Arenal

Official Agenda (Costa Rica Online ARENAL VOLANO

After an early breakfast the guides and staff from the Sky Tram / Trek will pick you up at the Volcano Lodge’s main lobby, approximately at 8.15 am, to start the half day adventure in the rainforest. After a 20-minute drive to the park, board the sky tram for the 10-minute aerial ride through the rainforest. Take in magnificent views of the volcano and the Arenal Lake on your back. One you reach the main platform, review the safety instructions and receive the required gear. Embark on one of Costa Rica’s top canopy adventures as you glide down 10 zip lines for a total of over 2 miles of cable.

We woke up in the morning to Brian’s phone alarm. It was a good thing he set his phone as a backup, since the scheduled wake up call never came! I found that my nausea had been replaced, but with a splitting headache. I was moving pretty slowly. I decided that I would try to go to breakfast, and if I made it past that, I would go on the canopy tour. The canopy tour wasn’t supposed to involve a lot of rigorous hiking. Rather, it had a sky tram ride to get up to the zip line platforms followed by over two miles worth of zip lines.

Breakfast went OK. I still did not have much of an appetite, but I managed to eat some rice, hot tea, and a piece of watermelon. The boys enjoyed a large breakfast from the buffet, complete with sausage, cheese, eggs, fruits and toast.

[A clear, bright morning makes for a great view of the Arenal Volcano]

On our way to meet the tour bus, we stopped to make spa appointments for later that afternoon, figuring that would help make us all feel better. Although this has been a wonderful vacation so far, we are all exhausted from the packed full schedule.

[A little more dramatic-looking volcano shot]

[And a yellow flower with morning dew that didn't look that great in color]

The tour van picked us up on time. However, upon going to the Tabacon Springs Hotel, we ended up waiting for over 30 minutes for the family that was to join us to emerge. We all had plenty of time to get extremely annoyed in this interval. When the family finally came out, the mother apologized saying, “I’m sorry! We didn’t know anyone else was coming along.” We had a rare moment of complete silence when none of us answered her. Generally, I try to take the high road even when the boys are silent, but this time we were all pretty tight lipped, and the ride there was pretty awkward. Fortunately, the family turned out to be pretty friendly and we warmed up to them more as the tour went on.

When we arrived at the location, we were all fitted with our equipment, including a harness, carabineers, helmet, etc. Our guides were very friendly and funny and took many opportunities to take pictures of each group, which was very nice, and saved us the $10 they charged for pictures of us at the end.

[The troops ready for action]

We boarded the sky trams and they slowly started up the incline, gliding high over the rain forest, to the main platform. We had great views of the canopy, and the guides pointed out some animals and other things of interest. Tim, who wasn’t sure about the whole situation, started to get a bit nervous especially when the car stopped high above the canopy and began to swing. We sat down for awhile and he looked at some other pictures on his camera to get his mind off of the situation. I was proud of him for even going this far, considering his extreme hatred for situations he feels he has no control over.

[Elevator going up!]

[The peak of the volcano coming nearer through the clouds]

[White gasses from the volcano and purple flowers on the ground]

[At the main zip line platform]

As soon as we arrived at the main platform and got out of the cable car for our first look at the cables stretching far across the valley disappearing into the jungle on the other side, Tim told the guide that he did not want to do the zip lines. The guide was very patient and told him to just take his time and that maybe he would want to do the two practice lines before heading back. Tim said he didn’t want to, but he ended up doing them anyway. I was very proud of him, and I got a photo of him on the first practice one.

[Just pretend that I'm hundreds of feet above the rainforest (I'm really about 5 feet above the ground...REAL EXTREME!!!)]

[Kendra gearing up for the real thing....]

[What it looks like before you let go...]

[...and there she goes....]

[...and goes some more.]

[Brian's on deck...]

[...and Brian's gone.]

[Hangin' out in the big sky.]

After the two practice lines, Tim took the stairs down off of the platform, and took the tram back to the headquarters. On the way, he chatted with a young employee who asked him if there were any rainforests in Philadelphia and if the main language of Philadelphia was English or Spanish. Tim answered the former question as “No” and the latter as “A little bit of both!”

[Some good views of the mountain on the ride back down]

Brian and I continued on down the zip lines. The cables went very high over the rain forest canopy and were very fast moving. It was a lot of fun, and the guides were great. It was especially cool how you could still look down and see streams flowing far below and the trees.

On the last leg, we could see the main building and I flagged down Tim. He saw us and waved and took photos of us on the last platform as we came down.

[Kendra coming down the final line]

[Brian's triumphant entry]

[A graphic portrayal of what Kendra and Brian had just completed]

On the way home, we saw some howler monkeys in the trees and the drive (Jorge) stopped to let us take some pictures. Tim got some great shots of the expressions on the monkey’s face with his zoom lens.

When we arrived back at the hotel, we had lunch at the pool restaurant. I was able to eat a little more by now and ordered a medium serving of pasta. Tim finished what I couldn’t eat. We all headed back to the room and took a nap for an hour before going to our spa appointments.

[When we arrived back at our room, our bath towels had been transformed into a shirt (on Brian's bed) and a pair of swans (on ours).]

[Dessert at the pool restaurant was definatly photo-worthy!]

I got a volcanic mud body wrap with was very warm and relaxing. Tim got a Swedish massage, and Brian got a deep tissue massage. After all of our treatments we relaxed a bit before heading off to dinner around 6:30pm. We had made reservations at the main restaurant of the hotel, which was supposed to be the best in the area. Our waiter was very precious and reminded us of Michael Dur from Tim's work. The waiter’s name was Dagoberto (“Dago”).

We ate a ton of very yummy food, included a dessert of en fuego banana prepared right by our table!

We headed back to the room, stuffed and tired, and started to pack yet again. We were leaving again in the morning for our final destination before having to leave for home.