Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

April 29, 2009

Costa Rica (Around the World Trip)

April 29 - Ajahuela, Costa Rica

Since our avoidance of the swine flu in Mexico gave us a couple of unexpected days in Costa Rica, we wanted to take full advantage of them. We arrived in the early morning, saw that there were lots of rental car agencies, and decided that renting a car sounded like more fun than fighting to get anywhere on public transportation. But first we needed to talk to the airline about missing our first flight from Mexico City to Costa Rica but continuing on from there to Argentina.

The airline guys looked at us kind of funny, and it took them a half hour to figure out a weird, nasty loophole in the ticket that states if you miss the first flight in a series of flights, they are automatically all canceled, no exceptions. They told us to talk to our travel agent. So we took a bus into town, got a hotel, and started making phone calls to our travel agent.

She told us the same thing, and gave us a couple of absurd options. First, we could buy another earlier flight back to Mexico City, in order to make the original flight back to Costa Rica so our ticket wouldn`t be canceled...or we could buy a whole new ticket down to Argentina. Both of those options seemed absolutely stupid, considering we already had perfectly good tickets to Argentina, and all we wanted to do was stay out of Mexico City. The cheapest option was to buy another ticket back to Mexico City, for the day before...but during that time we were considering it, Argentina stopped allowing flights from Mexico on the chance that it could keep Swine Flu out of their country, so that was no longer a possibility.

Finally after a whole day of worrying what we were going to do, our travel agent wrote us and said that she had won the battle, that the airline had granted us a ¨waiver¨not to take that first flight from Mexico City, and instead start from Costa Rica. Whew...that of course made the most sense, since it was easy for them and free for us...but common sense doesn`t usually win many battles in this world, so we were grateful to sidestep fate.

So, we wasted our first day in the country making phone calls, and then rented a car for just two days that next morning. Which gave us just enough time to make a loop to the north to see some rainforest and a volcano.

April 30 - Arenal Volcano

Our ongoing fascination with active volcanoes made visiting another one somewhat mandatory. Volcano Arenal is supposed to be one of the most active volcanoes in the world. One can argue about just where it might fall on the Top 10 scale of scary volcanoes, but when it comes down to it...it`s active, and worth seeing. The trick to this one is that most of the time it is covered in clouds, so seeing anything is never a guarantee. Our rental vehicle was a little 4x4 jeep, necessary for the bad roads up in the mountains or so we were convinced by the rental agency. It took a couple of hours to get up to the volcano, and it was a nice drive on a paved road through some pretty deep forests and a few small villages. Sure enough, the top of the mountain was covered in clouds, but we could tell some of them were from the ash and smoke constantly rising from the crater. On a clear day, from space, you can actually see a red glow from the top of Arenal...if you are that curious to see it, go find it on Google Earth. Anyway, we spent the afternoon driving around the perfectly formed crater, and also on some lonely dirt roads along Arenal Lake with good views of the volcano. By sheer chance we found a trail manned by a lonely, talkative guide, and found our best view of the volcano yet. From a viewpoint, we could see rocks falling down from the crater, and hear them thundering down the steep slope leaving smoke puffs in their wake. His advice was to come back after dark to see the spewing rocks turn a red lava color. We drove around some more, and then were back at the viewpoint to watch the sun fall. It wasn`t a totally clear day and the top of the volcano was never visible, but as any view at all is considered lucky this time of year, we were happy to see the bottom half. Sure enough, those falling rocks, which erupted in spurts every 5 or 15 minutes, slowly became flaming, spark throwing pinwheels of color flying down the side. Our pictures don`t do it justice, lacking a tripod and timer, but the sound and color were very amazing.

May 1 - Monteverde Cloud Forest

The next morning we drove around Lake Arenal, which kind of looked like a strange version of the German countryside, and then finally let our 4x4 earn its pay. The road on the far side of the lake gave up any chance of pavement, and for a couple of hours we wound our way on bumpy, dusty, middle-of-nowhere gravel roads. Finally we ended up in Monteverde Cloud Forest, or at least near there.

It`s an odd trend in Costa Rica that almost every town has their own treetop zipline, cloudforest hike, butterfly garden, etc, etc, etc. It can make for an exciting vacation, I suppose, if you can afford to do any of it. Prices in Costa Rica are higher than anywhere we`ve seen lately, and any of the exciting offerings posted on the town billboards are likely to break a normal daily budget. Monteverde was no exception. There were so many high-adrenaline things to do in and around the area that we got lost trying to actually find the real park and not the side attractions. By the time we bumped our way up the rutted dead end road to the entrance station, there were few cars and fewer people...we concluded that most people don`t ever make it to the rainforest that they journied far to see. Their loss. So, we went for an equally overpriced hike in the park, but it was worth it for the solitude and our sightings of a quetzal and several small animals. The trails wandered for miles in a hush of a foggy, still rainforest...although in the end we still weren`t sure if the hours driving along a dusty gravel road were worth it.

To get back to civilization, we spent another couple of hours on gravel roads, and finally got back to the PanAmerican Highway. In my mind, this highway conjures images of a long stretch of good road all the way from Canada to Argentina....with a break to skip the Darien Gap in Panama. The reality wasn`t quite so nice...the PanAmerican Highway in Costa Rica is nothing more than a two-lane highway that is trying to handle all of the traffic for the entire country. As a result, we moved in a mile-long trail of slow trucks and semis, and didn`t get anywhere fast.

When the road in front of me was finally clear, I sped up for a couple of minutes, only to be pulled over by a Costa Rican Policeman for doing 38 mph in a 25 mph zone. Yup, the PanAmerican Highway has a 25 mph speed limit at times. Anyway. He started writing us a ticket, and told us that we would have to pay it at the bank in the nearby town when it opened on Monday morning. Don`t try this at home, kids. Now, this was late afternoon on a Friday, and we were due to fly out for Argentina the next morning. We flat out told him, in the politest way we could conjure up, that we were flying in 12 hours and there was no way could pay the ticket on Monday. With the locals, the policemen actually take their license until they pay their tickets, but evidently to our relief he could do no such thing to me. So we went back and forth a little bit, we asked if we could resolve it (i.e. bribe) with him immediately, and he eventually had us get back in our car, sans ticket, with the license, and drive away while his supervisor wasn`t looking. He knew that we had no way to pay it, and would have just ripped it up after leaving the country. I guess you could say we were lucky.

May 2 - Airport layover in La Paz, Peru

Yup, gotta love spending most of a day in an airport!


April 25, 2009

Mexico (Around the World Trip)

April 25-26 - San Cristobal De Las Casas

It took a couple of chicken buses to get us to the border, and then a taxi between the two immigration offices. I was happy to be done with Guatemala`s transportation system (or so I thought at the time), because the small, uncomfortable old school bus seats are not meant to fit adult-sized knees. Plus we were constantly wondering if our backpacks were going to fly off to roof rack during death-defying turns on the mountain roads. I do have to say that the Guatemalan buses are the most efficient, affordable, friendly, and well-used public transportation system we have seen yet. No matter where you want to go, during daylight hours there will be a bus leaving within minutes, and although frequent switching of buses is sometimes necessary, the next one will also leave within minutes. The buses are often very crowded, to the point of fitting 3 adults and a kid or two in each seat plus a few extras standing in the aisles, but the fares-collectors always seem to worm their way through collecting their quetzales, and willingly shimmy up to the roof like monkeys to haul up sacks, baskets, and anything else that needs to be transported. Anyway, my knees were happy to say goodbye to it all, and once across the Mexican border, we found to our relief our next ride was a plush minivan, and by late afternoon we arrived in San Cristobal de las Casas.

It is said that San Cristobal and Antigua, Guatemala should be sister-cities...indeed we found that they looked and felt very similar to each other. It was raining again when we arrived, and we found a quirky guesthouse and had some supper. The next morning, our plan was to visit a nearby canyon and then continue on our journey to Oaxaca that night and then eventually Mexico City. After buying our bus tickets, we chatted with the guesthouse owner, and she told us about the contagious swine flu spreading rapidly in Mexico City. We went and did some internet research, and decided that it would probably be better not to go there, since all schools and museums were closed, and more importantly, we didn't really want to get sick.

April 25-26 - Back to Guatemala!

So, we spent the whole day trying to figure out how to avoid Mexico City yet somehow make it to our next flight in Costa Rica. We finally found a flight out of Guatemala City in a couple of days. Which is how, the very next day, we found ourselves retracing our steps back across the border into Guatemala, in what turned into another very long day of traveling. We landed in Panajachel on Lake Atitlan for the night, and although the rains had cleared the skies and the view across the lake was beautiful, we couldn't stay long. The next day we continued on to stay a night in Antigua, where we would catch a shuttle for the airport in the early, early morning.

Although I had no real desire to travel on more chicken buses, our trip from Panajachel to Antigua included four of them, switching in each major town in-between. Even with all the switches, I think we made the trip in record time, faster than the direct shuttle, because there were always buses waiting, and more importantly, because the drivers all seemed to be practicing for the Indy 500. Once again, to our amazement, our luggage didn't fall off the bus and is still in our possession.

***From here, we spend a few days in Guatemala (again) and then Costa Rica before heading to South America***

April 8, 2009

El Salvador (Around the World Trip)

April 6-8 - EL Zonte Beach near La Libertad, El Salvador

It could seem a little silly that there is a separate section for El Salvador, considering that we only spent a couple of days there (on the beach), and didn´t see much except the road into the country and a small strip of coastline. But it is another country and deserves it´s place in our travels. Our minivan driver didn´t stop much on his quest to get to the waves, and so we don´t even have a real picture of the El Salvador flag.

Sometimes I wonder why I choose activities that have the potential for serious harm, a large amount of adrenaline, and a few moments of pure terror. I guess I can´t help myself. Anyway, bring on the surfing. The beach at El Zonte is considered a great surf break for those who live for such waves, and indeed when we arrived, the water was perfect and filled with surfers who made ruling the waves look easy. I soon found myself with a rented surfboard, paddling out to try my own moves on the monster surf. From up close it didn´t look quite so easy, and within a short time, the waves had barrel-rolled me within spitting distance of the rocks. I retreated to an easier spot down the beach with the beginners. The short surfboard that they had given me at first felt like trying to balance on a toothpick, and after one session I gladly switched to a bigger board, the same size I had used in Australia. Once on that, I felt more comfortable again, and over the next two days pitted myself against the crashing waves, while Rob body-surfed next to me. I never did make it back to the expert area of waves, but I´ve concluded that I really don´t need a few seconds of fun that might cause me a bash on the rocks and some stitches. Anyway, even the small waves gave me enough strains, sprains, contusions and abrasions to last for awhile, as a few of the curling waves rolled me around like a big washing machine. When they finally spit me back out, I invariably had a nose full of water and black lava sand ground into my ears. Hours after surfing, I leaned over to dig in my backpack, and enough sea water still ran out of my nose to make a puddle on the floor. Rob was appalled. I couldn´t wait to go back out again, barring my sore knees. By the last morning, I was almost too sore to ride, but by then I was actually standing up quite often. My last ride was my best, so I quite while I was ahead, and knew I would forget the pain and want to try it again someday!

Anyway, we had a great time in El Salvador, there was a nice beach vibe and everyone was really friendly. The hotel had a pool, a tame pair of Macaw birds, and a great little restaurant overlooking the surfing area. We were away from any town and really couldn´t go anywhere else, so it forced us to spend our time on the beach :)