"Technically, um, this might be referred to as Golden Showers," I tell Nicole, who is clutching her lower leg in pain. Our group had spent much of the afternoon on the pristine beach inside Manuel Antonio National Park, checking out three fingered sloth, white-faced monkeys, iguanas, woodpeckers, and various bugs, before resting up under the shade of coconut trees. The sea was warmer than pee in a wetsuit, and Michelle (from Canada) and Margarida (from Portugal) seemed content to wade in it all day. Dennis and I went for a jog along the crescent beach, because the scene was begging for it, and he was a little jumpy after a rare armadillo fell off a tree and nearly landed on his head. It was unlucky for Nicole that no sooner had she taken a dip than she'd been stung by something stingy. Since it was a good half-hour walk out the park, the only solution, according to an episode of Friends that everyone could remember, was to pee on the sting. Just my luck that I'd been holding one in, being too damn lazy to get off the sand and flood a shrub. Thus, on Nicole's pleading, and as the group stared on incredulously, I whizzed into an empty water bottle, and she quickly poured 100% Esrock Piss onto her wound. Naturally, the pain subsided instantly. "You need to drink more water," says Michelle, who works in a medical lab, concerned that my output was more Belgian fruit beer than Bud Light. Whatever. Besides that minor hitch, and the odd roving coati (imagine a large rabid badger), it was another day in paradise, and difficult to believe that we'd spent the previous day zip-lining through cloudforest canopy in cold rain and gale force winds.
There really is no shortage of things to do in Costa Rica. While other countries in Central America have spent decades mired in civil war, and all their wealth buying the tools to fight them with, Costa Rica is unique for disbanding its army in 1949, conserving its nature, improving its economy and standard of living, and yet somehow still managing to ensure that its road are potholed to hell as to conform to worldwide developing country standards. All this peace and pure life attracted America, which protects Costa Rica as an important trading post, a surfing paradise, and a destination for US college kids who think Spring Break in Fort Lauderdale is like, so yesterday. It's my personal belief that tourists flock to Costa Rica because they get a kick out of drinking tap water in Central America. The fact that the country is scenic, friendly, affordable and full of perfectly legal prostitutes might also contribute. After a 5am start to catch the mini-bus, ferry, taxi, and bus to the San Jose from Nicaragua (including a painful 90 minute-stop at a flake-paint border), it took forever to find a taxi driver willing to rip-off our travelling bunch of gringos at the bus stop 8 hours later. Most visitors to Costa Rica arrive in San Jose so they can get the hell out of it, missing the charm of its transsexual hookers, trash-lined streets, and suicidal drivers. We left some more of the group behind, picked up a few more, and drank the night away at a hole in the wall bar with a great jukebox, broken pool table, and cross-dressing bartender. I would have liked to explore more of the city, the way I might explore the dirt behind my fingernails, but we departed early for La Fortuna, and the perfect thimble volcano of Arenal.
Now if you're going to travel to Central America, you're going to see a lot of volcanoes. You might even get the chance to poke sticks in moving lava (Guatemala) or fly down one on a plank of wood (Nicaragua). Arenal, one of the most famous and volatile volcanoes of the Americas, was covered in cloud and all but invisible. It erupted, unexpectedly, in the1970's, killing about 80 people, and launching a tourist industry. La Fortuna, the nearest town, seems a bit too small for the many tourist agencies offering all manner of adventure/eco-tourism activities. Each day, tourists flock here to see fiery rocks fall down the slopes of Arenal at night, or better yet, explode high above the crater. Even with the thick cloud cover, I saw sparks ripple down its side, but as travel-buddy Peter remarked with typical English dryness: "The lava is nowhere near as nice as when you're standing right next to it," referring to our previous adventures at Pacaya in Guatemala. For the new folks in our group, seeing an active volcano for the first time was still a major thrill. As was smuggling in booze into the Baldi Hot Springs. Costa Rica had mayoral elections that weekend, and instituted a three-day alcohol ban across the entire country. The idea being, if you're too drunk you might vote for the wrong guy, even if you're a tourist, even if you're not voting (according to the local Tico Times a few days later, not many people did). Maybe if they get voters blind-drunk in the US, they might vote for the right guy, but this has nothing to do with the fact that I soon found myself running between a dozen thermal pools and massive, fake-rock hot tubs, seemingly imported from the Playboy Mansion. We set up a wet bar behind some bushes, and spent the night flirting in hot springs in the moonlight shadow of a volcano. It's not every day...
But the thrill of La Fortuna lay in the Lost Canyon. Former tour guide Christina, possibly the only person from Wisconsin who can say "I've done the Inca Trail 16 times" and her adventure-mad husband Suresh, have painstakingly cleared a canyon a few miles out of town, and have added this "discovered" canyon to their list of impressive activities at Desafio Adventure Company. We were one of the first groups to rappel off the 50m plus wooden platforms. The last time I did something like this was in New Zealand, where I rappelled into a cave, yelping in agony as I'd caught my left nut in the harness. This time, I just yelped at the breathtaking sight one is privy to when dangling mid-air beneath a waterfall. It took a couple hours to make our way down river, including two huge drops and a couple fun obstacles. The other group encountered a snake, which may or may not have been poisonous (the way stingrays may or may not be dangerous), but everyone had a rosy watermelon smile at the end, perfect to fit the fresh-cut watermelon waiting for us after the steep climb out. Next up I went river rafting over a long, turbulent stretch of rapids that provided three thrilling moments: firstly, when Gary of Melbourne went over the edge, requiring a quick Gonzo rescue that provided one of those few moments of pure adventure we all crave outside the movies. Secondly, when we pulled into shore to find locals having a river party, selling cold beer despite the ban (punishable by three-months in jail), serenading us with an accordion. Finally, when I left the boat to float down the rapids on my ass, catching my toe in the rocks, which, were it not for the covered toes of my Keen sandals, would surely have broken just as sure as I was, later that night, when we attacked a bottle of Nicaraguan Flor de Cana rum.
Cloudforest is different from rainforest in that misty cloud passes through the trees, as opposed to constant rain. So there was really nothing to be surprised about when I arrived in Monteverde to find it wet and cold, with howling winds and a chill that planted itself in my very bones. It was the type of weather that renders glasses useless (if they're not wet, they're fogged), and is a general affront to good time sensibilities, especially if you're on a winter-sun vacation in Costa Rica. But the old saying goes: gale force winds should never stop a night walk, and into the Monteverde Cloudforest we go, searching for sleeping birds, bugs and fat, hairy tarantulas. Our knowledgeable guide informs us that animals are wiser than humans because other than some porcupines and the odd tarantula, most creatures know better than hang around a forest during a wind storm. Besides the thick forest teeming with wildlife, people also come to Monteverde to zipline, which involves strapping oneself onto a harness and jumping off a platform to slide through the canopy. It's generally not too extreme, unless you're on ziplines spanning over 700m long, 100m high, and operating in conditions that would send most people home to board up their windows. By the time our group reached the 11th line, we had to go two at a time to avoid being blown in circles. Wet, cold, extreme wind - in terms of Gonzo, the weather conditions were just perfect.