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Penny's Peace of Paradise

A gringa and her family's adventures living in Costa Rica.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Vacation Time Again (part two)

We decided to visit Nicaragua for our second vacation. My mother was staying in Costa Rica for a while, so she would be coming with us. This meant, I had to be sure we didn't select an itinerary that would be too physically challenging, as she has problems with her lower extremities. There is one formal border crossing that can be driven through into Nicaragua, and I had heard because of that, you can spend a lot of time waiting. That was not my idea of vacation time well spent! So, back to the map and Google-ing. In the middle of the Costa Rica northern plains, there appeared to be a road that went straight up to Los Chiles, a town that looked to be not far from the border. Turns out, you must leave your car in Los Chiles, get your passport stamped and take a water taxi up the Rio Frio to San Carlos, on the southern shore of Lake Nicaragua. San Carlos sits at the confluence of Lake Nicaragua, Rio Frio and the San Juan rivers.

I'd looked for hotels in San Carlos online and found very few options. All of reviews of people traveling through San Carlos were full of horror stories...dingy eateries, dirty hotels and even a tale of swarms of insects like locusts filling the air! Really. I percivered though and learned of a unique hotel another boat ride from San Carlos up the Rio San Juan. The Rio San Juan flows out to the Caribbean. The Sabalos Lodge is a little over two hour water taxi trip from San Carlos, and boasts jungle cabins on the rivers edge. Most of the Tarzan-like bamboo and palm thatched cabins are built high up off the ground, are simply adorned, open air, but with mosquito nets for the beds and even bathrooms with showers! Each cabin is unique with names like The Jane, Tarzan, "Chita." The website said, "This is the place for the true adventurer and our goal is to give each of our visitors a genuine experience that will last for a lifetime."

At the immigration office in Los Chiles, we were told of a place we could safely park our car in a nearby yard while we would be gone. We bought our tickets for the boat ride to San Carlos and waited for the next departure. There seem to be at least three per day, so we were able to catch the one o'clock, which we hoped would allow enough time to ultimately make it to the Sabalos Lodge. The taxis are the primary mode of transportation. The long narrow taxis are old and bare bones and seem to be held together with multiple coats of paint. Everyone tries to seat themselves in the front so they will be the first in line at the immigration window on the dock in San Carlos. There are a few humble shacks built along the water's edge and the residents lives are centered around the river, fishing, swimming, washing clothes and just laying in hammocks watching the boats pass by.

Stately white egrets pose frozen on the river's edge waiting for their next meal to swim by and the branches of the huge trees bend down to brush the water's surface. It is magical! This is the jungle cruise at Disneyland on steroids!

Howler monkeys call from the dense foliage and turtles bask in the sun on logs protruding from the water. Huge bromeliads, too numerous to count, grace the tree limbs and colorful fallen blooms float on the calm brown river water.

We encountered a couple of quick downpours so we lowered the visqueen rolled up on the upper edge of the boat for just this eventuality. A few minutes later we tucked it back up so we could continue to enjoy the view. The engine droned on, and everyone seemed lost in their thoughts. My mom, never one to miss a photo op, is rapidly snapping pictures with the true trigger-finger of a grandma. We stop at a border station about 20 minutes up river and Nicaraguan soldiers in blue camouflage look over the passenger list and one comes aboard for the balance of the trip to San Carlos.

The immigration office is located on a tiny dock and once we disembark, we are herded down a narrow rickety walkway where we line up to wait our turn to get our passports stamped. Everyone has their belongings with them and it's a little tight. Locals weave their way through the herd to offer cold drinks and bags of mangoes for sale.

We eventually make our way up to the window and the officer is a very nice fellow who we have come to know since that time, and enjoy our brief visits with him each trip. We were greeted by a woman wearing a shirt with the Sabalos Lodge logo. We followed her to a small office down a cobblestone street where we would wait to be taken to the next water taxi going up the Rio San Juan. It was far too hot to sit still, so we took the opportunity to take a short walk around town and get a lay of the land. San Carlos is a small, sleepy, port town where residents of nearby isolated communities come to get supplies. It has a spectacular view of Lake Nicaragua and its' islands crowned with volcanoes. There are very few tourists, so we were greeted by quite a few "mobile retailers," as we wandered around town. We found a restaurant on a hill overlooking the lake where we grabbed a cold beer before we headed off on the next boat. This time we loaded up from a muddy, rubble covered stretch of "beach." We stopped a number of times to let off men hauling large bundles of food and supplies back to their families. Three quarters of the way to our destination, we stopped at a large cement dock which was the tiny river side village of El Castillo. We would stay here for thirty minutes to give passengers time to disembark and load. Many of those that got off, then boarded small canoes and other tiny paddle powered crafts that would take them up tiny arteries that branched off the mighty Rio San Juan. These river communities offer an amazing glimpse of a simple life in isolated jungles.

We finally set off again and before long, we saw the thatched roofs of the Sabalos cabinas. There was a white haired man and two young Nicaraguan woman waving to us as we made our way to their dock. We had arrived just before sundown, so we briefly looked around and got settled into the Family Cabin. We were given fresh squeezed grapefruit juice and asked what we would like for dinner. The proprietor, Yaro, is a gentleman who looks to be in his early seventies and he introduced us to his Nicaraguan wife, a mere twenty year old, if that. We went back to our cabin to watch the sunset from our porch on the river. It was beautiful.

The gravel walkways are lit with oil lamps and the whole scene is very rustic and was a great adventure for the kids! We were the only guests at the lodge and enjoyed an exciting dinner in an open air covered patio with bats flying overhead while we ate. The food was delicious, and not surprisingly, the service was very attentive. Our sleep was sporadic because we were so enthralled with the jungle sounds that surrounded us.

The next morning we discussed our options for activities that day with Yaro. The water of the San Juan runs much too rapidly for swimming or kayaking especially for children and seniors. Going for a hike to explore Fort El Castillo was out given my mom's physical limitations, so we opted for horseback riding. Unfortunately, our host said he had to go fix something at a business he owned in El Castillo, so it would be late afternoon before he could put a ride together for us, and he didn't know how many horses he could get. With limited activity options and WARM temperatures setting in, we reassessed our plans. We thought we might spend another night at Sabalos, but the cost of another night plus meals lost out to an explorative jaunt over to Volcan Arenal for the night. This really is a perfect place for the adult adventure traveler and is well known for the amazing fishing, but was not a great fit for this group.

We asked when the next boat would come by heading to San Carlos, and were told that we had missed the only morning boat at 5:30 am, and we'd have to wait until the afternoon for the next. The only other option would be to have Yaro take us to San Carlos on his boat, but that would be almost $200.00 because gas was so expensive at the time. We were up against a time constraint as the trip back to San Carlos was over two hours, then we needed to get back to Los Chiles before nightfall. Yaro quietly insisted there would be no boats to take us back to Los Chiles if we got there after three, which we most certainly would. I was starting to get cranky. It felt like this fellow was trying to keep us here so he could make ends meet until the next fishing derby came along at the end of the week! I decided to push and find out exactly what options we had. It turns out there was a boat coming shortly that would take us to San Carlos, but we would still miss the last boat to Los Chiles. At this point, I was ready to leave this jungle hideaway and see what awaited us on the next leg of this vacation. Yaro was a nice enough host and it sounds like he is charitably involved in the Rio San Juan area, I was just ready to go. We easily waved down the boat that came around 11:30 and when we arrived in San Carlos, found that there were actually a few boats leaving through the afternoon. We got back to Los Chiles and picked up our car then drove over to Volcan Arenal, easily making it by dusk.

We did return to the beautiful Rio Frio a few months later and found a wonderful lodge across the river from San Carlos, Hotel La Esquina Del Lago. We anxiously look forward to making this trip every few months now. It is so relaxing, and so removed from our everyday lives, it's really a treat! More on our most recent trip in a future post...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

It's A Small World After All...

The other day my husband was talking with a Tica friend in Lindora. She said, "I heard you had a birthday party for your daughter." He said, "Yes we did," and proceeded to tell her of the error of my ways, with wanting to throw a slumber party (refer to my earlier post, Trying to Party, March 22, 2008.) It turns out, his friend has family living in Grecia and they have friends that know friends, that know the family of one of the girls that attended, and my party was the talk of the town! The moms were actually taking notes of the activities and "parting gifts," and were very impressed with the whole affair. I am so pleased. I see myself as blundering around town and sticking out like a sore thumb, but apparently I did something right!
The other great news is, the principal of our children's school found out I was volunteering at the neighboring preschool, and has asked me to help them put on a big English Day celebration at their school!

I haven't met any gringa friends that I spend time with here. I wanted it that way for the first year, but now, given my limited Spanish skills, I am ready. Truly socializing, even with the parents as we wait for our children after school, is very difficult. I'm committed to practicing my Spanish more, but in my defense, I'm trying to do this at the same time the "late-forties-forgetfulness" is setting in. I have decided I am going to seek out some English speaking friends. There looks to be a number of gringas in the metro areas near the international schools, but I know there must be girlfriend candidates closer to home, and I'm sure I will connect with them before long.

I will be posting a blog about our first trip up the river into Nicaragua tomorrow, so check back then! Also, if you happen to visit my blog, let me know by becoming a follower. It's painless and you can follow anonymously..thanks!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Get Back To Work!!!!!!!!!

Vacation is over, and it's back to school and work! Actually, things started coming back to life on Saturday after Good Friday. There were parties, fireworks and even soccer games on Easter Sunday. We got our first good afternoon rain shower on Sunday, which is a harbinger of the rainy season that is headed our way! Everyone seems happy to greet the rains though, as the usually green Costa Rican landscape has turned a tad brown and crispy.

There is a Hanes Brands Inc. plant in Grecia. It employs a ton of people, who look pretty content coming and going to their job, and there are also many couples who walk into work hand in hand. A funny thing, we bought my daughter Hanes underwear at Walmart the last time we were in the states, and it turns out it was made right here in Grecia!

All the local construction folks are back to work also. One group nearby is building a warehouse. They got four shipping crates, stacked them across from each other and layed rafters across the top, they then built the front and back walls with cement blocks and pieces of corregated steel...voila!

That's all it took for some folks nearby to get it done. They definately have building codes here, but evidently they are a bit looser in certain circumstances! As I watch this structure morph, I am becoming increasingly fond of it. It seems like it will hold up in an earthquake and could actually work well as an industrial loft residence. The fun part would be trying to incorporate as much recycled material into the design as possible.

Talk about adventures in building...They are constructing a large municipal building/complex of concrete and steel rebar near our children's school. It is at least five stories with a subterranian garage. What is most amazing, is that they are mixing ALL THE CEMENT BAG BY BAG! There are cement mixer trucks here, but only in the larger metro areas, so they pour the cement one bag at a time into a large on site mixer, then pour it into wheelbarrels or a large funnel with a spout that is hauled up by a huge central crane. The workers then spend a lot of time chiseling away in spots all over the recently poured surfaces. Construction is actually progressing at a moderate clip, but it just one of those things that make you shake your head!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Semana Santa

Many businesses and schools are closed all week and beginning last Friday afternoon, the valley residents headed to the coasts in droves! Seemed like a lousy time for Tom Brady and Gisele B√ľndchen to tie the knot on the beach down here, but it sounds like they pulled it off without my help!

Today is Good Friday of Semana Santa, the holy week, and most important religious holiday here in Latin America. I've been photographing the crosses, that virtually every family has in front of their home, during lent. They came out forty days ago and they are beautiful! Please take a few moments to check out my photo collection:

Yesterday and today are the two days that most businesses are closed, but if you are open, no alcohol may be served or sold. The country sends officials around at midnight on Wednesday to make sure all alcohol is securely put away, and then they tape up the locked cabinets so they won't be opened again until midnight Friday. A restaurant my husband is familiar with, closed before the government officials arrived Wednesday night, so the officials taped up all the doors forbidding the restaurant from opening the following day. Fortunately, the owners knew they should not disturb the tape and went to the official's office to plead their case. Once they could confirm the alcohol was safely locked away, they taped up the cabinets and lifted the tape on the doors so they could open for business.

Not being a Catholic, I did some reading online to find out about the Catholic traditions, and apparently to guarantee a couple of days for quiet reflection and prayer they also discourage driving on Thursday and Friday. To be clear, it is a sin to drive on these days! This doesn't mean much in the more populated towns of the valley, but up in the hills, like here in Grecia, they are very "old school!" We ventured out mid-day yesterday, and the streets were empty with the exception of foot traffic and a couple of horses. I had not read about the, driving being a sin thing yet, so couldn't figure out why people were giving us the "hairy eyeball," but something told me to let my husband pick up the groceries, and head back home pronto! Needless to say, we are just going to take a walk today and leave the car at home, I mean, when a sin is this easy to avoid...

Many of the crosses I photographed will be draped with a white sash as of Easter Sunday morning. Easter is a religious holiday here, so there is no Easter bunny mania, which is great for me, because I actually forget he was coming until 5am on one Easter morning a few years back! As for our family, we will be celebrating time together by preparing meals, eating a little chocolate(just because) and enjoying the waning days of the dry season.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Random thoughts...

Twinkle, twinkle...

We have a miniature poodle. He is our first small dog, and I am now a convert! He doesn't destroy a new toy in a day, eats less = poops less, is easy to have in your lap/bed, and this one doesn't shed. He falls asleep on our bed until my husband comes in, and then he heads off to our daughter's room. Last night he was a good little perro bravo, or guard dog, when my husband opened the door, he alerted me to the "intruder." Unfortunately, I couldn't get back to sleep, so I went to heat up some milk. There on the kitchen floor, I saw what I assumed was a wayward firefly making his way across the floor. I flipped on the light, and lo and behold it was a centipede with a glowing green headlamp! I am enthralled with the fireflies, because I have never lived anywhere that they also called home, but a glowing centipede! After researching it this morning, I believe what I saw was a luminescent millipede.

I don't know where I'm a gonna go, when the volcano blows!

If you've read my profile, you'll see that I follow Alaska politics. Alaska is a telenovella, complete with bungling power hungry politicians, narcissictic divas, earnest citizen journalists trying to hold people accountable, rebellious children who must be bailed out of trouble constantly, and a volcano which threatens the citizens, and landscape of this troubled land. Think I'm exaggerating?
Go visit: http://www.themudflats.net
The writer is impossibly eloquent, insightful, and right on the money, as she watches the strange goings on in her home. Be warned though, one visit...and you'll be hooked!

Starry starry night...

We went to a star watching event at our children's school the other night. They brought in two high powered laboratory quality telescopes, and food and light up toys for purchase. They gathered the kids together for a little lecture on what they might see and then all the children lined up in two rows in front of the telescopes to wait for their turn to view. As fate would have it, clouds filled the sky and not even a star could be seen, so we waited... The kids sat patiently in the dark on the field, playing with their light up toys and chatting excitedly. Forty five minutes passed before the first break in the clouds appeared, hurriedly the telescopes were rotated into place to see the moon, and the children were individually hustled up to the lens. The kids were so excited, they began cheering for the moon like they were at a soccer game, oooway, oway, oway, oway...luna, luna! I've included an audio of this, it's noisy, but you can hear the kids chanting a couple of seconds in.


I see now, that Costa Rican children are introduced to flexing their patience muscle at a young age, and it is an invaluable exercise for survival in this country.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Que Linda!

I've begun teaching English to the children at the preschool/kindergarten that is a part of our children's school. I taught a similar curriculum in the states for babies, toddlers and preschoolers and their parent, like mommy and me-type classes. It seems to be a great fit, as I use puppets, finger plays, dancing, parachute play and simple repetitive songs which are very engaging. The kids are already singing along, plus, they squeal and excitedly call out my name when they see me each week, which makes me feel good!:) The school is very well appointed, clean, organized and the staff is very affectionate and loving, something you don't see in the states.

Large sinks are located in the hallways so the children can wash their hands after recesses, and brush their teeth after lunch, every single one of them line up to do this! This occurs at all of the schools here in Costa Rica, it's fantastic! The children wear uniforms, like they do at all schools here, and the ones for the little kids are incredibly cute! The girls wear little pinafores over shorts and the boys wear smart little tailored shirts over their shorts. I'm having a blast, and feel honored to be able to share my classes here, with these adorable children!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


Last Sunday was the first of two 2010 World Cup qualifiers that Costa Rica was to play in. The English language publications were calling it the Superbowl of Costa Rica. They spoke of the increase of police on the roads who would be enforcing the new less tolerant drunk driving laws, and that the country would come to a stand still once the game began. The streets are usually quiet in the smaller towns of Costa Rica on Sundays, as it is a day of religious observance, rest and time with family, but Grecia was a virtual ghost town! We had done our shopping in advance of this, and hunkered down in front of the tv at 5pm. The game was against Mexico and was being played there, so the crowd and announcers, were impossibly biased. Things went from bad to worse quickly and Mexico soundly slaughtered Costa Rica, 2-0. It was hard to watch and in the crowded restaurants and bars, I'm told, the crowds were silent. The good news is also that the Costa Rican fans didn't drink away their disappointment, and the roads stayed relatively safe. Costa Ricans tend to take losses like this in stride though, as one of their own, Maria Jose Castillo, was one of the two finalists on Latin American Idol, but unfortunatly she lost. She was, an is still, though, a huge source of pride for this country. Yes, we have Latin American Idol, and it is EXACTLY like its' American sister, with a couple of glaring differences! They have three judges, an overly emotional female "has been," a cranky middle aged music industry fellow, and an affable fellow who also has great looks,not sure what his claim to fame is. The theme music is the same, the long drawn out "suspenseful moments" and the corny host...all the same. The differences? (1) The outfits, chosen by Latin stylists are typically Latin in flavor, and would be laughed off the American stage, and (2) duh, it's all in Spanish!

Back to "football"...
Costa Rica gets another shot at qualifying tonight against El Salvador, here in the Saprissa stadium. El Salvador was ahead of the USA on Sunday, 2-0, but then USA scored two goals to tie it up by the end. Both teams are motivated to make a better showing than Sunday, so everyone is anticipating a good match up. The next qualifier will be played against USA on June 6, here in Costa Rica.

Anyone who knows me, knows I am NOT a football fan, I can't help it, I just can't stay with a football game, as it seems a like a violent human monster truck rally. The fact that I live with an avid football fan, who himself played in high school, is a challenging dynamic for us, but my husband is a very understanding and accommodating fellow! I find it unreal that men who continue to suffer physically from injuries they sustained while playing football as youths, would encourage their own kids to follow in their footsteps. I'm glad my son won't be subjected to this. I'll step off my soapbox now...

Ultimately, Latin "football" is football I can get behind, so watch the game tonight with us, and cheer on our Costa Rican boys!