The purpose of this road trip was threefold - resupply Alpha 2 (The new Costa Rican trek that I was on earlier in the phase), visit the other Costa Rican Alpha groups (to take photos and bring them candy and cigarettes to buy) and finally to make sure that everyone at fieldbase gets a chance to see the country.
I spent the 23rd putting together a trip plan - where we needed to go, what time we needed to be there, when we had to leave by, alternative routes etc. Took the better part of the day, but then I enjoy that sort of thing. The trip would take 9 days to complete.
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24/10/2010 - Day 1 - Fieldbase to Puriscil to meet Alpha 2
Up at 5am - still lots of planning, packing and stressing to do. The car (Toyota Hilux double cab) was very, very full - to the point that I wasn't sure we would get everything in. We did fit in.... just - bags on laps and not really much space for the person in the back, but it wasn't a long drive that day. We finally left fieldbase (A) at about 13:30, headed for Puriscil (B) via Paraiso - a bit southeast of Cartago. We met up with Alpha 2 at the back of the shop at about 3ish and had a nice little reunion before handing over their first food drop and some of their personal kit. It was really nice to see everyone again and hear about how they were doing and what they had gotten up to/been through since I had departed.
At 4pm I set the radio (as in, communications system, not car stereo) up in the car and we all gathered around for Radio Raleigh before settling in for dinner. There was a great atmosphere and we headed off for bed at about 7.
It was a tight squeeze but we all fitted into the room and got to sleep - really hot though. I woke up at 11pm absolutely freezing - decided to climb into my sleeping bag (which I was lying on - extra padding on hard floors), but this was a challenge as I lie my sleeping bag face down to use the hood as a pillow case for my clothing sack/pillow. With no real space to move I managed as much as unzipping the side and crawling in... mostly. Didn't have a great nights sleep, but used to that!
25/10/2010 - Day 2 - Puriscil to La Cangreja to meet Alpha 3
Woke up at 3:30. The floor was very, very cold, but the air was warm, so standing up and getting packing solved that. We loaded up the car (with a bit less stuff now! Yay for a tiny bit more space in the back). Ate some breakfast, said goodbye and we were on our way again. We headed through Cartago, up to San Jose then south (once we found the offramp - there was one very clearly signposted... except that the road didnt exist any more) towards to coast before arriving at La Cangreja.
The road to La Cangreja was quite precarious - very steep dropoffs and a lot of rain meant that there were a ton of landslides, but the road was well passable, if not a tad exciting.. After we arrived, I watched them work a bit - saw what they did there (Building a mirador and planting tree saplings), what the Mirador (viewing platform) was like, what their mood was like and took a bunch of pictures before helping out a bit.
While wandering around taking some scenery shots a lady in the rangers station shouted out to me about something pretty over there (in spanish), I didnt understand fully and bumbled about, literally and in trying to talk back to her before noticing a 30cm lizard dashing off into the plants - what she was trying yo draw my attention to! I decided to head down the hill to their jungle camp before lunch to get some shots while it was still sunny - I had been informed to expect rain. The walk down takes about 15 minutes, but once you reach the bottom you get to the river which is just beautiful. I crossed the bridge to their camp and was just stunned at how beautiful the area was.
But everyone was a bit miserable! The rain was getting them down as they would work in the morning then head down to camp to sit under their tarp in the rain. Later on, everyone went to bathe in the river (which no one seemed to think was quite as amazing as I did) and I sat chatting to Wellard (one of the PMs there) next to the river about what it was like there. I kept trying to remind everyone there about how beautiful a spot they were in and that they would probably never be anywhere quite like it again, but no one was really biting! Hopefully some of it sunk in. Wellard then showed me the main river, where another log USED to be, before a massive amount of rain raised the river level a meter or two...
We stood around on the bridge chatting with the 3 PMs waiting for dinner, just about everything going on with them, and while doing so had a ton of bats flying around overhead - very cool. I then scored some brownie points (which I plan to redeem!) by handing out some shoulder massages. We later on had some dinner, at which a bench collapsed in the most humorous was possible (a cracking sound, a moment of confused and anxious looks and then four pairs of feet pointing skywards) and then shortly afterwards a scorpion was caught on the table (and killed, not ideal, but too dangerous to try anything too nature friendly).
As there was no space in the camp, we trekked back up to the work area and set up our sleeping areas on a concrete pad under a tin roof, using plastic chairs to support our mosquito nets.
26/10/2010 - Day 3 - La Cangreja to Camaronal to meet Alpha 5
Woke up a lot during the night, mostly awake between 3-4am. In the light of the streetlight I could see (and hear) some sort of night bird fluttering about and calling, chasing insects.
Got up at around 4, packed a bit and sorted out car. Beautiful sunrise over La Cangreja (The Crab - the mountain after which the park is named) - amazing. The venturers really don’t know how good they have it, but they are all still in bed. Took about 1000 photos. Found the local Toucan (TOUCAN!) singing in a tree - something I had resigned myself some years ago to never seeing in my life (Why, I don’t know). Had a really cute little call. Looked back down into the valley and saw a pair of red Macaws squawking at each other. Watched them for about 15 minutes - amazing. The whole valley was just a mix of dappled morning sun, misty clouds and dramatic hills and exotic birds...
Finished packing up and headed out at about 6am - southwards to Parrita (D) at the coast and then northwards, through Jaco (E), where we stopped to pick up a few things for Alpha 4 and 5 and up to Steve and Lisa’s for brunch and to kill some time. Carried on North through Tarcoles, where we crossed a bridge with loads of wild crocodiles swimming and sunning themselves underneath, then onto Puntarenas (F) where we got onto the internet for a bit and bought a tarp before continuing northwards, then south again around the Nicoya Gulf towards Camaronal Wildlife Reserve (G).
The last couple of hours or so of road getting there were not fantastic, but we got there just after dark in the rain. Headed down to Alpha 5’s jungle camp, set up their tent, had a lovely cold shower at the rangers station then headed back for some dinner and an early night - turtle patrol tomorrow morning!
27/10/2010 - Day 4 - Camaronal with Alpha 5
Woke up at 2:45am for turtle patrol. One of Alpha 5’s tasks is to patrol the beach at night to a) collect eggs as they are laid and b) deter poachers from doing the same. The eggs are all deposited in the hatchery where they are safe from predators.
It was raining lightly and pretty warm, but very dark. The tide was in and we walked up and down the beach for a couple of hours in but didn’t have any luck, bar a few recent turtle tracks with no eggs to be found. The rain got a lot harder and and the thunder and lightning got progressively closer and heavier - each bolt would illuminate the entire beach in a rather spectacular fashion.
We saw some poachers with a dog wandering along (No one else would be on a beach in weather like that...) before heading to the hatchery to see if there were by any chance hatchlings. Indeed there were! They were all over the place so we hopped over the fence and started collecting them up and putting them into a bucket. They are really tiny - I could just fit my fingers between their front and rear flippers to pick them up - and really strong - the force of them pushing against my fingers was quite impressive. Quite a moment! We took the bucket and poured them out onto the sand a few meters from the beach and watched them scurry off into the crashing waves. Amazing.
Carried on with more beach patrol before deciding, after one particularly nasty and close crash of lightning and thunder, that it wasn’t safe to be outside any more and we started back to the rangers station. On the way a wave swept in, as many had before, alas this one was carrying a log not visible to me which very dramatically took my legs out from under me. It was great fun in all honesty, didnt really hurt and I got quite sandy and wet, though my camera bag on my back was fine and under two layers of waterproofing. Realised that my poncho was inside out back at the rangers station also, which I guess made sense as to why the inside seemed so wet. It was dark when I put it on, in my defense.
When it got a bit lighter Lou and El, the non night shift PMs came around and we headed back down to the hatchery to check again. I’m glad I did - we released probably another 50-60 babies into the ocean and I got to take some nice (and hopefully decent photos) and some videos which will be going up online once I get the chance. There are vultures hanging around the hatchery all the time, so us being there to release and look after them really was important.
The rest of the morning involved me eating breakfast and swanning about until they started work on the coastal path at about 11am, where I took a load more photos, and then on to lunch. The sun at that time of day is incredibly intense and after just taking photos I felt quite feint and pretty exhausted the rest of the day. Once it cooled down we headed down to the beach for some ‘Beach Olympics’ which involved volleyball, limbo, 3 legged and wheelbarrow races etc etc. I got about half way through before I needed a lie down, so had a nap/looked through photos in the tent and then it was dinner and bed!
No turtle patrol that night - lots of driving to do the next day!
28/10/2010 - Day 5 - Camaronal to Dragon Base with Alpha 2
Up at 4:15 to pack up the tent and car, showered, ate breakfast and once again we were on the road. We filled up the car where the road meets the coastal road heading south and had a coffee. Heard some birds calling outside so went to look, and just as I did a huge blue Macaw came flying down past me! Saw a bunch of red ones in the tree above before noticing a house that was just full of wildlife - macaws, toucans, baby deer... took a ton of photos obviously.
We then continued on our way, back south towards Parrita (D). It was around this point that I noticed that a lot of the roads in Costa Rica look very similar to New Zealand which was at timed a bit boring, but some areas are very dramatic and quite different. That was especially the case over the next few days...
From Parrita we needed to get through a date plantation with no signs, maps or proper roads, so we relied on people to point us in the right direction. They did not, and we ended up a long way off course in Bijugual, not Bajos Bijigual (obviously....). At this point it was just as long to go back as it was to go forwards, so we proceeded on north to San Ignacio (H) then south again to approach Dragon Base (I) that way.
In a phrase, the roads were a fucking nightmare. I’ve never seen roads that steep in my life - I got stuck coming down a massively steep hill behind a real plonker doing about 3kph which meant that by the bottom the brakes had well overheated and were barely functional. The good news was that it was mostly uphill from here and that the scenery was properly epic - jaw droppingly beautiful and very dramatic. The bad news was that a) these were not the kind of hills I ever want to have to drive up again in my life, that we had pretty much no idea how to get where we were going, except roughly accurate 30 year old maps and that everyone was in a pretty shitty mood after a long day.
We ended up at a cross roads where we discovered that the main road was ‘no el pase’ - unpassable - a landslide. This meant taking the secondary and much longer road, taking some educated guesses, getting lost, missing turnoffs, using GPs readings, thunderstorms building in the next valley, wondering about how much petrol was left and finally arriving in the dark, 4 hours late. Relief. Relief for Alpha 2 also, as we had their food drop! Got our stuff ready, packed up everything else into the cab for security and then James and Laurie (thank god) turned up to show us the way to where they were camping.
We took some basic supplies to them to last the night and for breakfast, and Polly and Corinne kindly set our tent up while we scarfed some dinner and fruit salad (yum) before heading to bed. The wind up there (we were very high up) was pretty cold, a nice change, and sleeping all snuggled up my sleeping bag was amazing. Had a great sleep.
29/10/2010 - Day 6 - Climbing the Dragon and on to Jaco
I woke up just before my alarm at 3:15am and packed up my stuff and the tent. I had a bit of spare time after breakfast so I took my stuff down to the car to make it quicker and easier later.
5:15am - The ascent begins - 600 vertical meters to climb! It starts off with a massive grassy hill up to a ridge which took about half an hour to get up. From there we watched the sun rise over the magnificent view of the mountains, the plains (including the plantation we went the wrong way in) and the Pacific Ocean and Playa Palo Seco - Alpha 2’s final destination. This was Alpha 2’s first glimpse of the Pacific, after seeing the Caribbean sea on the other side on day three while I was still with them which I think was a pretty special moment for them.
We carried on, along the ridge and into cloud forest - damp and tropical jungle before a bit more grass and then hitting the steep climb through more jungle to the summit. It was very beautiful, very muddy, quite challenging in places and exactly how you would expect cloud forest to be (including old dead trees having been taken over by other plants). It was surprisingly quiet though - no birds at all really.
All in all it took about 2.5 hours to get to the top where we found a massive panorama and a very steep dropoff which gives a real context to how high up you are, especially when you can see your camp site almost directly below where you are standing. We could see above all the other hills and mountains and clouds flowing through the valley below. We took it easy, sat around, had some lunch and took and posed for photos and then started back down. Once again, very pretty and a bit quicker, taking just over 1.5 hours to get down. The group at the front saw a black snake which had a go at one of their walking sticks. The rest of us made brisk moves past that spot - it was still there according to those that could see it, but I couldn't (and wasn't that keen to hang around to find it!).
I headed straight back to the car while everyone else was faffing to unload everything and get it ready to be repacked for our trip. Once that was all sorted we were on our way... once I managed to get the car going up the hill. Wouldn’t budge in first... burnt the clutch a bit trying to get it going before someone suggested perhaps going into low range. A good suggestion it was! Low range and 4wd was the name of the game the rest of the day - again, some of the hills I drove up that morning were... daunting. No drama though, just some more absolutely spectacular hills, mountains, valleys and hills. I feel very lucky to have been given the chance to see it all, because I don’t think a lot of people will ever be able to get into areas as remote, challenging and absolutely amazing as this.
Finally made it back out into the plantation near Parrita (D) - it was a big relief to see a Honda Civic after nothing but big 4wd cars for the past couple of days... Getting out of the plantation was complicated, but the compass got us out in the end - back onto the coastal road! Very happy at that moment, and in celebration we stopped at a soda for some coffee/coke, breakfast (it was 3pm but still felt very early) and to make good use of their facilities and wifi (where I heard that my Threadless.com order had arrived and that all my lens bits and pieces were in the post - yay!).
On the road again at 4 to Jaco to find a hotel for the night - the only night we would spend indoors over the course of the entire 9 days. We stopped somewhere random, near the beach and it ticked all the boxes and we settled in for the night with some faffing and showering. I took a walk down to the beach where a Jamaican looking man (“Hey, my friend!”) offered to sell me some weed, which I politely declined, if you were wondering, before standing on the beach watching an electrical storm out at sea, wondering how far lightning bolts can travel. I should explain a bit about Jaco - it is Costa Rica’s biggest tourist town and is full of foreign surfers and sun chasers and along with that comes all the dregs that such things in society stirs up. It was quite jarring after being in such remote and quiet places for so long to suddenly have the big bright lights, obnoxious sounding Australians and loud music everywhere.
After the beach I headed to the supermarket (“weed! weed! sweetie!”) for some Nougat and fruit juice to have with my re-fried beans ration, watched some TV (a real novelty these days!) - Scrubs and CNN (THE TERRORISTS ARE GONNA GET US!!!) before crashing. The air conditioning was nice also.
30/10/2010 - Day 7 - Jaco to San Lucas Island and Alpha 4
Up early again, though I didnt need to be. Not good at sleeping much past 4-5 now. Made myself some yummy breakfast (oats, sugar, chocolate + milk power and water) and then headed north to Puntarenas (F) where we had some coffee, bought some fresh fruit and veggies for Alpha 4 and got back online for a few more minutes and into the world of consumer electronics (damn you, Engadget) and on top of some more emails (ie deleting the crap).
We then rushed off to make our boat to San Lucas Island (J). Rush we did not need to do - after unloading and unlocking the car we waited another 15 minutes for the boat to turn up. Heading out from the north side of the peninsula was beautiful, but not how you would expect. It was dirty and gritty, but it was exactly as I would have imaged a 3rd world fishing port would look - and it looked amazing! Once into the relatively open water of the gulf it got a bit more choppy, and once we got closer to the island there were large patches of disturbed water which was quite curious. Once we got closer we saw hundreds of seagulls and tens of pelicans flying around and I realised that the pelicans were diving into shoals of (what the boat driver said were sardines) fish which brought them to the surface where the other birds picked them off. This was happening in about 5 different spots at once and was quite a spectacle. I kept thinking how much amazing stuff I had seen on this trip.... but was actually feeling quite homesick.
Upon our arrival we unloaded the boat and walked down past the prison (San Lucas is a now-disused prison island with a quite notorious history) and down to Playa Coco to Alpha 4’s jungle/beach camp, past a troop of howler monkeys, little blue tailed lizards as well as a big green one.
It’s a very nice spot, right on the long sandy beach with tons of coconut trees, beautiful scenery and nice waves for swimming. Sitting by the pile of wood for the bonfire I could see crabs all over the sand, heaps of Pelicans flying past and tons of driftwood, but also plastic garbage - one of their tasks was beach cleanup. We had a game of rounders (my team won easily) and ended up getting really hot and tired, so had a swim - my first in Costa Rica - and it was fantastic. Took a ton of photos of the dying light and tried some coconut juice from freshly chopped coconuts. Still don’t like it, nor the flesh.
You can see the Puntarenas peninsula lighting up as it gets darker which makes the whole place feel much less isolated (I also saw a cruise ship sliding across the horizon in the dark to Puntarenas). I sat watching that for quite a while with dragon flies buzzing about and tons of hermit crabs scuttling about. They are fun to mess with - pick them up and they go into their shell then put them down on your leg and wait for them to come out, then give them a fright causing them to ball up again and fall off. Hilarity ensues. The bonfire was excellent and really beautiful to watch for ages and dinner was great - tons of veggies + energy bombs with banana (an excellent combination). There are a huge number of crabs all over and around their camp at night, a lot of hermit and big orange ones with purple claws. I went to have a look at their long drop facilities, as I had never seen one before, and took a slow walk, dodging crabs. On the way back I was dodging more when something caught my eye and I stopped - a brown and black stripey/checked snake, around 30cm long with a small pointy head. I took a step back and in that moment it vanished and I scooted by sheepishly past, back to the camp.
Back at the beach we were watching the waves and could saw phosphorescence in the crashing waves - very cool! We headed back to the pier to sleep under the stars and I saw a barracuda like fish (which has a proper name that I don't recall) in the dark water as well as very bright phosphorescence points and expanding ringlets where fish were coming up.
31/10/2010 - Day 8 - San Lucas Island to Playa Palo Seco to wait for Alpha 2
Slept pretty badly on the pier - hot then cold, woke up a lot hearing boats coming near but then watching them stop at the offshore house/fish processing place, buzzing mozzies... Got up at 4:30 to pack up and get to the beach for the sunrise. Once again, as I was heading through the jungle to the beach there was a troop of howler monkeys with one making their loud barking noise which I got on video (will be online!). Took a ton of pics of the beautiful sunrise before heading back to the prison with Tony for our guided tour.
It really is an interesting place and I have a took bunch of photos - very dramatic and aesthetically pleasing. Back down for a scrambled eggs on bread breakfast then back up to the worksite for pictures of them toiling away. Tony also showed me the bull ring - an old circular wall which used to house all the cows/bulls back when it was run as a prison farm (for the profits of whoever was connected enough to get given the job).
Eventually the boat arrived to pick us up and we were back on our way to the mainland. Reloaded the car in the blazing heat and then headed down for our last stop at Playa Palo Seco, just south of Parrita (D). We arrived at the camp site, set up our tent then just took it easy for a few hours, wandering along the lovely beach and taking photos of the spectacular sunset (amazing sunrise + sunset in one day = win!). Mac and Cheese rations for dinner + tinned fruit for dessert was great, wandered beach some more, feeling a bit lonely then got to bed. It was hot as hell and I got mauled by mosquitos before it started pissing down at about midnight.
Awful sleep that night.
1/11/2010 - Day 9 - Alpha 2 arrive at Playa Palo Seco and back to Field base
Gave up sleeping at 4:30, went for a walk on the beach before being attacked by a swarm of bugs. Beautiful though, and enjoyed it despite the little bastards! Rained most of the morning, but cleared up at about 10am. We got word at about 11 that Alpha 2 were near, so we wandered up along the road to meet and greet. As soon as they got to us it started raining though, but they didnt care and ran straight into the ocean.
I was feeling quite jealous of how I knew they must be feeling, how hard they worked and what they had achieved. We sold the last of our shop stuff to them, gave them their food and kit then hit the road again, bound for San Jose and then Turrialba, arriving back at about 5pm.
Where from here?
I have a few more hectic days of changover, then I HOPEFULLY HOPEFULLY get my laptop on Friday, then I understand that I will be deploying immediately at the start of phase 2 for Nicaragua for about half the phase. I will post dates when I know them. Vanessa arrives tomorrow morning with my replacement lens (24mm f/2.8 prime, yay!). Finally some good news.
I’m having an amazing time, but I am tired - miss my family and friends, I loving my music though. I feel like every cent I spent to get here was well spent, but I am looking forward to home now. Maybe having my laptop will fix that a bit, I feel so disconnected and discomforted without my own personal computer space...