We Have Visitors!

We’re back again after a brief absence but for a good reason: we had visitors! After more than two full months out of the country and away from home by ourselves, in mid-March we were finally fortunate enough to see some familiar faces; our friends Kendall and Brantlee came for a week. These two love to travel as much as we do and did not hesitate to set up a trip to come see us during our time in Costa Rica. In the lead up to their arrival we (well, Emily) mapped out a plan that mixed what they had put on their to-do list with our knowledge of Costa Rica from our trip up to that point.

After all four of us received negative Covid tests they flew to San Jose. We picked them up from the airport on Friday afternoon at which point we hopped into our little rental car and immediately headed for our first stop of the trip. Several hours and many windy, country roads later we arrived in La Fortuna, home of the Arenal Volcano. We had spent some time in La Fortuna previously so we planned to stop at some new locations and parks this time around. Our first stop after coffee and breakfast the next day was the Arenal 1968 Trail (named after a famous eruption of the volcano after being dormant for 400 years) for a simple 3 mile hike. The route offered many great views of the volcano and we even saw a toucan along the way.

Arenal Volcano

That afternoon we stopped at a cafe and began what became a near-daily tradition of playing pitch. Pitch was introduced to me through Emily’s family a few years back, who play the game during their yearly family reunion and holidays. Emily and I had introduced the game to Kendall and Brantlee last year but we really got into a rhythm on this trip. All tolled, the girls bested the guys by 1 game for the entirety of the trip. Good show ladies.

Following lunch we grabbed some drinks from the store and headed to the free hot springs just at the edge of town, a really cool little spot where you can sit in the river with a drink in hand and feel the warmth in the water from the volcano. We sat and drank and just hung out until it was dark, and then stopped at home to clean up before dinner. To wrap up our first full day in Costa Rica we stopped for dinner at a really cool place that was roasting full chickens and ribs in a big masonry oven visible from the street (great advertising, worked on us). Turns out that this was a great decision, as this food may have been the best we had all week. We stopped at a local bar for some drinks (including our first chili guaro shots in Costa Rica) and to enjoy some live music before heading home. The chili guaro tastes a bit like a mini bloody mary, with a little more kick.

In the morning we left La Fortuna and started the drive around Arenal Lake towards Monteverde, taking yet again quite a few windy roads. Emily found a convenient stop early in the drive at the La Fortuna Waterfall, where we climbed down 500 steps to the pool at the base of the waterfall. The water was super cold, but not cold enough to keep us from jumping in to complete the trip. Like all of the other waterfalls we had stopped at in Costa Rica, it was beautiful, and well worth the 1000+ total steps required to experience it.

We continued the drive around the lake and stopped again at Lake Arenal Brewing for lunch and some beer, where we also experienced some blaring club music courtesy of the DJ on the back patio… Not what we expected for a Sunday afternoon with hardly anyone there, but hey, at least the DJ was enjoying it. It was nice to have some “craft” beer since we’d been sticking to Costa Rica’s favorite cheap beer, Imperial, for most of our trip. There was also an incredible view of the lake from the brewery. After finishing our surprisingly good burgers we got back on the road and a few hours later arrived in Monteverde. Our AirBnB was perched up on a small hill at the edge of town, a small hill that nearly bested our car which, with the pedal to the floor, juuuuust barely made it. But we made it. Having spent a long time in the car on some extremely steep and windy roads, we decided to take it easy that night and relax. We grabbed some wine from the grocery store and ordered a pizza for dinner.

In the morning we left early to get to the cloud forest (Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve) in hopes of seeing some animals, specifically the elusive Quetzal. Though we didn’t see any of the large, green birds we did stop for a good 5-10 minutes at the start of the hike to stare up into the canopy as one of the birds continually produced it’s recognizable call, almost mocking us. Alas, no luck. We did, however, see a troop of Capuchin (or white-faced) monkeys later on in the hike. They have definitely been the most common type of monkey we’ve seen throughout Costa Rica. After a long stretch of trail with many clouds, trees, and leaf-cutter ants, we finished the hike and stopped at the nearby Hummingbird Cafe before leaving. In addition to the numerous hummingbirds, we also saw a Coati up close as it scavenged for food in the nearby forest floor.

Hiking through the cloud forest

We stopped for lunch at a cafe down the street and ironically, saw more tropical birds sitting on the back patio than we did throughout our entire cloud forest hike. The small metal platforms where the cafe staff would place small bits of fruit to attract animals certainly helped. The squirrels enjoyed themselves, with one in particular eating more than a full banana, but the food also attracted dozens of species of birds. Though the other three may not have been quite as interested, I (Mike) thought it was awesome.

Continuing our busy day after the awesome bird watching lunch, we returned home to wait for our ride to the Extremo Canopy Park to partake in some zip lining. To be honest, sky diving or bungee jumping or even zip lining are not the normal thrills I seek, but I figured I couldn’t come to a place like Monteverde and skip this experience. So we geared up with harnesses, pulleys, and helmets, and headed up into the canopy. The zip line park that we chose included over 4km of line distance with heights of over 100m from the forest floor.

In most cases you were set up in a seated position like the photos above. Your backhand is used as a break (with a glove) to slow you down a bit before the end of each line, though most lines had a break system as well. About mid-way through the zip line course there was also a huge “tarzan swing”, where you are dropped from a platform on a swing that shoots you out into the canopy high above the forest floor. I chose to opt out of this swing, which is a thrill I don’t need to seek, which allowed me to get a video of the other three swinging. The staff liked to mess with everyone a bit, distracting them before pulling the line and allowing you to free fall. Here’s Emily dropping as she answer the guide’s fake question of “what’s your name?”.

On the final two lines however, one of which was 1 km long across a valley with a height of over 100 m, you laid face-first with your feet behind you in a ”Superman” position. This was quite a strange feeling as you were truly at the mercy of the harness and the line, without even the ability to use your hand as a break. Looking down over the valley below with nothing else in site was surreal.

The end of the 1 km long “Superman” line

Needless to say this was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and perhaps the high point of our entire trip to Costa Rica.

Brantlee heading head first down the final line

That night we again took it easy after a full day of activities. We found a small roasted chicken stand with a few seats around an outdoor bar in town for dinner. The woman serving us laughed at us for thinking the hot sauce was too spicy (she thought it was maybe a 4 out of 10, but it was plenty hot for us). After dinner we stopped at the local sports bar for more pitch and a few beers. We all agreed that this particular bar, empty as its was during our trip (surely due to Covid) was likely an awesome place during peak tourism and with no pandemic.

The following day we stopped at Emily and my favorite coffee shop in Monteverde, Orchid Coffee. Breakfast was awesome as were all the drinks, including fresh smoothies and several coffee concoctions mixed with ice cream (a favorite of the boys). Following breakfast we said goodbye to Monteverde and head to the coast to Manuel Antonio. On the way we made a quick stop at the “crocodile bridge”, named of course for the numerous dinosaur like crocodiles that reside in the shallow part of the river just beneath the highway. We parked and saw a dozen or so crocodiles, which in turn caused Kendall to throw his credit card into the water in his excitement, while reaching to get is phone out of his pocket. In hind sight it was pretty funny to see the card fluttering helplessly, almost in slow motion, into the croc-infested water. We decided these waters were likely home to all sorts of cards, sunglasses, and other valuable items. They belong to the crocs now.

A few hours later we arrived in Manuel Antonio at our AirBnB which was located pretty centrally in town (and, most importantly, directly across from the small bodega with plenty of snacks, beer, and ice cream). Shortly after our arrival as dusk began to fall, we were treated to a troop of monkey swinging and climbing their way through the property. They seemed to show up out of nowhere, maybe a dozen or so, ran across the roofs and balconies of the buildings, and jumped into the palm trees looking for food. They had clearly been here before, and clearly knew what they were doing. It felt almost as if they had a plan and could have given us some trouble if they felt like it. Super cool to see them up close, but a bit unnerving to say the least.

We grabbed dinner at a restaurant just across the street and enjoyed one of several fantastic sunset views we would experience in Manuel Antonio. Our night cap was a few bottles of Imperial Silver, our favorite of the local brews (very similar to Corona) and more pitch.

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean

In the morning after breakfast we decided to head to the beach. We decided to walk thinking it wouldn’t be too bad despite the entirely downhill trip, and it turns out we may have underestimated the journey (foreshadowing). We set up on the beach and just hung our for a while. Kendall and Brantlee walked down the shoreline and came back with some delicious fresh drinks. We even saw a local Tico scale a palm tree, leaning at about a 45 degree angle, and harvest about 30 coconuts. He essentially straddled the tree like a horse and scooted his way to the top. Safely back on the ground he used a machete to clear the husk front the coco, and gave us a few to enjoy. And, to cap off our beach day, Kendall spotted a sloth napping in a tree on our way back home. Worth it.

The trip (hike, really) back up the hill was exhausting and confirmed that we should have driven. After some refreshing outdoor showers at home we recovered. That evening we walked down the street to El Avion, a super cool bar which included parts from several old aircrafts, including the majority of a C-123 Fairchild cargo plane, that has an interesting history if you’re into that. The plane had been mostly gutted and fit out with a bar inside, and even had the cockpit open for photos.

While enjoying happy hour we were treating to another monkey troop sighting, or really, a complete takeover. The monkeys apparently come quite frequently at dusk, knowing that food and snacks (e.g., sugar packets on tables) may be ripe for the taking. Everyone except the restaurant staff seemed to enjoy watching the monkeys hop from canopy to canopy, curiously poking their little heads down to look for snacks. Just like at our Airbnb, they clearly knew what they were doing and were pretty bold.

Enjoying sunset with the monkeys

The next day we drove 15 minutes down the coast to Manuel Antonio National Park. Nearing the park we were flagged down by what looked like some parking attendants and parked in the “official parking lot”. After parking and leaving our car we realized this was clearly not the “official parking lot” and that there were quite a few “official parking lots” monitored by locals trying to flag down tourists. Turns out we were parked about 1 km from the park entrance. Our day improved once we got inside the park, as we saw a napping sloth up in a tree and yet another troop of white-faced monkeys. This group was even less intimated by humans and was clearly used to curious tourists as they jumped from tree to tree and even ran on the path itself. We even saw one catch a live bird and eat it, head first, in a nearby tree (I got the entire thing on camera but Emily vetoed the photographic evidence; message me separately if you want to see!). Though not the first monkeys we’d seen, I think it’s safe to say this is where Kendall truly realized his dream of seeing monkeys up close.

That evening we continued our nightly routine of drinking Imperial Silver and playing pitch. It was on this night where Emily and Brantlee really laid the hammer to us, thus swinging the trip’s record in their favor. It was also at this point that the women working at the bodega probably started to recognize us, especially since every bottle of beer included a deposit that we could get back by returning the empty.

We headed back to San Jose the next morning so that Kendall and Brantlee could get Covid tests in advance of their return flight to the US. Once completed, we checked into our last Airbnb of the week, just south of downtown San Jose, and headed to a small local cafe for lunch and some fresh fruit smoothies. We ended up talking to the 3 brothers who owned and operated the place, who suggested we stop at a local bar on the other side of the block. Upon arrival we entered the empty bar and sat down, the only ones there, but what a great recommendation it turned out to be.

The bar was called La Pista Classics, which translates to “Classic Tracks”. Music videos played alongside the music coming through the speakers, and large plastic heads of famous musicians lined the bar top (including all of the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Gene Simmons of KISS). As the night continued and more locals showed up, the music slowly shifted to be less classic rock and more Latino. We of course had plenty of Imperial (no silver unfortunately) and also had our share of Chili Mango shots (similar to Chili Guaro), many of which came to a cheer of “negativo!” to celebrate Kendall and Brantlee’s negative Covid test results.

As the night continued, we were served a round of shots that had not ordered, and just then we were approached by a local from a few tables over. He explained that he was a resident of the neighborhood who had recently found this particular bar after his normal go-to closed as a result of the pandemic. He went on to express what was true joy simply over our presence in the bar; that we were here as tourists in his country, his neighborhood, to experience his culture. It was a really cool conversation to be a part of. We hung around for a bit longer and returned his favor by paying for his meal, and headed back to our AirBnB for the night.

On the final day of Kendall and Brantlee’s trip we had scheduled a coffee tour at Cafe Britt. The tour took place at their production facility and explained how the coffee was grown, cultivated, processed, and roasted, and included plenty of delicious samples. At the end of the tour, Kendall represented the USA (with a Costa Rican tourist opposite him) in a lesson on how to properly brew, smell, and taste good coffee. It was a great tour and a great conclusion to their visit. On our last night together we treated ourselves to Argentinian style steak, wine and, of course, more pitch.

And with that, the 10 day visit was over. It went so quickly but man was it great to be around other people and reconnect with some of our closest friends. Major, major thanks to Kendall and Brantlee for coming to another country to hang out with us. It was an awesome time and something we’ll remember forever when we look back on this year of travel.

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