Friday, March 2, 2007

Pura Vida!

It all began with Ann Becker, a mild-mannered consultant from the Windy City who went to Costa Rica a few years ago and fell in love -- with the country, its people, the food, the birds, the plants -- in short, everything about the place.

"I must introduce other women to this amazing country," said Ann. And so was born Wonderful Women adventures, Ann's effort to bring her women friends -- and friends-of-friends -- to Costa Rica.

Ann invited Janet, a fellow Chicago-based consultant. Janet and I used to work together in Philadelphia, and we both happened to be there in June 2006, visiting our friend Margaret.

"I'm thinking about going to Costa Rica with a group of Wonderful Women next year," said Janet, "but I can't decide if I should go or not." Hmmm...Costa Rica in February...with 15 interesting women...beach...rainforest...volcanoes... "If you go, I'll go," I cried.

Fast forward to February 2007, and San Jose, Costa Rica. Janet and I met up in Miami and flew down together (I love my frequent flyer miles), and spent a relaxing few days at the Orquideas Inn as the rest of the women trickled in from around the country -- Chicago, Boston, L.A., Pasadena, Tempe.

Once everyone arrived, we met our driver, Minor, and our guide, Alex (unrelated Alvarezes)...

...and Marvi, our bright orange bus...

...and off we went, to explore Costa Rica!

A Day at the Beach

OK, it was really three days at the beach, but who's counting? We stayed at a resort on the central Pacific coast, Punta Leona. As was true for the entire trip, we had fabulous weather -- sunny, dry, and breezy.

We spent one morning at Playa Blanca, where Janet and Jill kayaked; Ann, Debbie, and Edwenna snorkeled; Pam went boogie-boarding; and Francine and I took a stroll.

We also saw trees full of scarlet macaws -- what gorgeous birds they are! It was hard to believe that they were real, the colors were so amazing.

Topiary Gardens

Within a short drive of San Jose, we went through the town of Zacero. Looming over the town square was the main church, and in the town square is an amazing topiary garden. It's about the size of a typical U.S. city block, and on this Sunday morning was full of Costa Rican families enjoying the sunshine.

The topiary themselves varied -- from a corridor of green arches to a dinosaur and a giant mask.

Hanging Bridges

Near La Fortuna, we spent a morning at Hanging Bridges park. The 15 metal suspension bridges throughout the park provide a fabulous way to view the rainforest canopy.

Janet and Ann posed for me on the first bridge; the next shot is from one of the highest bridges; and I'm on the second or third bridge (blur caused by bridge swaying!).

See that thing that looks like a giant green bean hanging off the tree, below? It's about 4-5 feet long, and is a seed pod.

Here's a great shot (Ann's, not mine) of the tree with the pod in all 4 stages of development, from fully closed to withering and dead.

We all cracked up when we saw this sign, directing us to our next bridge, as well as the nearby waterfall. Given that there was only one trail, heading up, the sign was a bit superfluous.

The park also had an amazing view of Arenal, from a completely different perspective than from our hotel.

Francine -- no Luddite she -- used her auto setting to take a great group photo right before lunch, with Arenal smoking away in the background, then snapped a lunchtime shot as well.

Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge

The Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge is one of the most biologically diverse areas in Costa Rica. A wide variety of birds, animals and fish inhabit this tropical lowland of 24,620 acres. The best way to visit the refuge is by boat, which is exactly what we did. We traveled up the Río Frío, which flows through the heart of the preserve, in an open cockpit boat with a sun awning. (This is a stock photo, not one of mine, but it gives you a sense of the size of the boat.)

Our captain was great at spotting wildife, then maneuvering the boat as close to the riverbank as possible so that we could get a close-up view. We saw many caiman, some small, some quite large -- swimming, sunning, or just chilling on a log.

When we first boarded our boat, this Nicaraguan boat was unloading hardwood planks at the pier. It passed us later on its way back to Nicaragua.

The trees along the riverside were beautiful -- very tall, and teeming with animal and plant-life. The many different "air plants" were fascinating -- dropped as seeds onto branches by birds, they start to grow and draw sustenance from the air and from the host tree. The tree below had a whole colony of bromeliads growing on its lower branches (dead center in this pic).

We saw several groups of howler monkeys swinging through the trees. Alas, they tended to be very high up, and moved very quickly, so photographing them was difficult. Here's a close-up of one, hanging from its tail as it swung from branch to branch.

We were much luckier when it came to the white-faced capuchin monkeys -- we came upon a group fo them scampering right along the shoreline, not up in the trees. It was as if they were posing just for us!

Although I'm not a birder at heart, even I was interested in the birdlife we saw. Below, the anhinga, of which we saw many ("Oh look, another anhinga...yawn.") The male birds were larger and more magnificent than their female counterparts.

Alex, our guide, was an incredible naturalist and pointed out something we would have all missed: about 8 bats, sleeping on the side of a tree. They're lined up vertically in the crease that runs down the front of the tree:

Our captain took us as far as the Nicaraguan border, where we stopped for a photo op then turned around and headed back.