Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Costa Rica Trip Report

I’m back in the U.S., after a great weeklong trip to Costa Rica. I thought I’d blog a brief recap of the trip, covering each day and what we (myself and a bunch of other incoming MBA students) did to better prepare ourselves for the busy school year ahead (short answer: relax, socialize, and drink).

Every GSB student I’ve met has had nothing but good things to say about their Random Walk trip (which is what the GSB calls these, Random Walks). I’ll be no different, with one small exception.

After staying up all night and grabbing a cab to O’Hare, I met up with my new classmates and we were off to Miami where we’d board a connection to our final destination, San Jose, Costa Rica.

As we descended towards the little country down in Central America (right near Panama as it turns out) I thought about all the fun there would be basking in the warm glow of the hot Costa Rica…


Apparently in my mental picture of Costa Rica, I forgot that a country with tons of rain forest would probably have more than its fair share of rain.

And it was cool, like maybe 50-60 degrees cool as we boarded the bus that would take us from San Jose to Arenal Springs, our first hotel.

Immediately, I started mentally picturing a vacation completely ruined by constant, overpowering rain. (which still would’ve been better than the trip to Belize that got nailed by a hurricane).

But we boarded the bus and made our way towards Arenal Springs. After two ~3 hour flights, a long bus trip through the mountains of Costa Rica wasn’t exactly something I was in the mood for.

But there was no choice, and the rain continued to fall as we wound our way up and down and up and down and up and down winding Costa Rican ‘highways.’

I put the quotes on highways, because unlike the United States and other major industrialized nations, the Costa Rican transportation system leaves a lot to be desired.

They might call their roads ‘highways,’ but to me, it was just a one-lane each way road with no lighting.

Add in the darkness and the rain, and it made for one of the more harrowing bus adventures I’ve ever had (but not worse than my legendary trip to Pittsburgh, ask me about that one sometime).

Thankfully our driver was a professional, but even he couldn’t seem to make traffic disappear. So the ride took us forever, and we arrived at Arenal Springs maybe sometime after 9pm (which is actually 11pm EST and 10pm CST).

Arenal Springs turned out to be a beautiful place, of course we couldn’t tell in the dark, but there would be plenty to see tomorrow on our first full day in Costa Rica.

DAY 1: Zip Lining Away

We weren’t wasting any time on our first full day, with a scheduled trip to a zipline canopy tour for the morning. Anyone I’ve ever spoken with who’s been to Costa Rica has done one of these tours, which is a really cool way to get a decent view of some natural Costa Rican beauty.

Essentially, you climb up to a platform high in the jungle, lock yourself onto a wire suspended across the terrain, and glide across to the other side, continuing the process for multiple cables.

For something that seems so inherently dangerous, it didn’t really feel that way. And even if you did fall off a platform hundreds of feet about the forest floor, you’re wearing a shitty bike helmet. So there’s nothing to be afraid of.

Unfortunately, the one drawback of canopy touring via zipline is that while beauty is all around you, you kind of have to pay attention to make sure you don’t inadvertently go too fast (where you could kick someone on the next platform right in the face) or too slow (where you could end up without enough speed to reach the next platform, necessitating an embarrassing crawl for the final couple meters).

I had one of each during our journey. On one cable, I was enjoying the scenery a little too much, watching this river wind through the forest, when I looked up to see our guide giving me the ‘SLOW DOWN’ sign. Fortunately, I didn’t kick anyone in the face. I also had to stop towards the end of one of the cables. But this one wasn’t my fault. Typically, you set sail off your platform the moment the preceding zip-liner has arrived at your target platform. Except in one instance, our guide insisted on setting me loose while the guy in front of me was slowing crawling the last few meters of wire. I don’t know if he wanted to motivate him to go faster or what, but it’s a good thing I knew how to slow down, or I totally would’ve kicked him in the face. Better to crawl the last few feet, I figured.

Anyway, we finished up the tour, and agreed that it was a pretty cool experience. Later that day, we headed off for our second activity, a trip to volcanic hot springs.

I probably should’ve mentioned it already, but Arenal (or Mount Arenal, or whatever they call it) is an active volcano. I don’t know if it’s active in the Dante’s Peak explosive lava bombs sense, but it’s at least active enough to create some pretty warm hot springs.

The hot springs we visited were a series of pools heated by natural geothermal energy. The pools ranged up to the warmest at 108 degrees (With that said, the ad for another rival hot springs mentioned temperatures up to 152 degrees. Does that even sound remotely comfortable??? It sounds like a tourist stew to me)

So we went there, and got a nice relaxing soak. Apparently many volcanic hot springs reek of sulfur (I’m no geologist, so I can’t tell you why, but that’s what I hear). These hot springs suffered from no such smells.

Anyway, the hot springs certainly were relaxing, which was aided by their alcohol honor system. The way this place worked, they had multiple bars around the hot spring pools, but you paid nothing until you were leaving the place for good. They trusted you to be honest about how much you had to drink.

What a refreshing change of pace from the United States, but can you imagine if they tried that policy anywhere in America???

DAY 2: ATV Adventure

ATVs are like redneck golf carts. I’ve never run into them in the U.S., but I know they’re big with the outdoorsy shoot at stuff Toby Keith crowd. It’s easy to see why, they’re freaking awesome.

We spent a good couple of hours tooling around on these things, forming a giant MBA student convoy and going over some trails that led us through giant mud puddles, through the forest, and even through a river (which apparently wasn’t on our scheduled tour, but an addition thanks to a rebellious young ATV guide with little regard for safety or company property).

The only downside was when I became a victim of the numbers game. You see, we had to sit two people on each ATV (despite a big warning sign on each ATV saying not to ever put more than one person on them). Not a big deal, but there were 18 of us total, eight girls, and ten guys.

That meant two guys would have to get nice and close on their own all-male ATV. Guess who was one of the lucky ones?

I’m trying not to take it personally, plus it’s rare to get to know another guy in the biblical sense. Overall, ATVing was pretty awesome, even though we got completely covered in dirt and dust and god knows what else that came flying off the road.

After that, we went back to the hot springs, which felt pretty darn good again.

DAY 3: Another exciting bus ride

It was time to bid farewell to Arenal as we headed to our second hotel of the trip in Quepos. While we all had a good time, we also weren’t that sad to leave. Arenal Springs is a very nice and scenic place, but it’s literally off by itself in the middle of nowhere. Quepos, as we understood, was a beach town on the Pacific Ocean, and much larger in terms of things to do and accessibility.

But of course to get there, we needed to take another bus ride.

At least this one was in the daylight, so I could actually see the terrifying potential disasters as they approached.

When people say that the US desperately needs to invest in its infrastructure, I don’t think they’ve got anything on the Costa Ricans. Every bridge in the entire country, every single bridge, is at least 100 years old, one lane, and completely rusted over.

The same bridges that 100 years ago must’ve handled wagons with a couple oxen now are responsible for truck after truck loaded with god knows what (and buses filled with American tourists).

Of all the things we did in Costa Rica, I think the bridges were the closest to putting us in actual legitimate danger.

But we made it, and arrived at our hotel, La Mariposa, just in time for the skies to open up with another thunderstorm.

Oh, and the hotel didn’t have an elevator, which wouldn’t have been a problem except that the large spiral staircases were outdoors and very slick when wet.

Forget the bridges, that was the most dangerous part of the trip.

But the payoff was worth it, our room on the top floor had a sick view of the Pacific Ocean. Check my facebook for pictures, but it really was beautiful.

Since the bus trip took us a really long time, we didn’t have many options as far as things to do.

But this hotel had a swim-up bar, and rain or shine, we were going to take advantage!

Throwing caution to the wind, and disregarding the rapidly cooling temperature, a bunch of us leapt right into the pool. A pool we then discovered, was not heated.

But dammit, it was a swim-up bar, you can SWIM to it! So we persisted, ordering drinks and drinking to our satisfaction, even if it was raining.

The remainder of the night was marked with pizza Costa Rican style (no different from American, except that a vegetable pizza apparently includes cucumber down there) and plenty of Imperial (which may be Costa Rican for Budweiser). Nothing like some American-style staples to bond over for the group.

DAY 4: White Water Rafting

Early the next morning, we got together for what promised to be an exciting day. A voyage down the class 3+ rapids of some Costa Rican river (I forget the name, something in Spanish). I had never rafted before, but apparently the scale of intensity goes from 1-6, which meant I really didn’t know what to expect.

Like the zip line and the ATVs, we got outfitted with helmets that didn’t seem all the protective. We also had life preservers, which were a good thing, because one of our MBA students couldn’t swim (a fact that didn’t dissuade him from rafting, kayaking, or renting an individual jet ski).

After some brief safety instructions (as all of our safety instructions seemed to be), we were in the water. It was a pretty simple role as a paddler. Row forward when the guide tells you, row backward when he tells you, stop rowing when he tells you. Easy enough.

Oh, and don’t freak out if you get thrown from the boat into the water.

I wasn’t hoping it wouldn’t come to that.

But not 10 or 20 minutes into our trip, we lost our first crewman. Fortunately, he was promptly rescued by a tiny female MBA student. I still don’t know how the physics worked, I was too busy paddling to notice.

The rapids weren’t too bad as it turned out. While you’d get pretty soaked, it wasn’t anything even remotely close to dangerous, and it was a lot of fun paddling the boat as the water crashed around you. I’m not sure I’m ready for class 6 yet, but I’m that much closer.

Of course, no excursion would be complete without the opportunity to get physically intimate with a classmate, and rafting was no exception.

And of course, it was another dude. Score.

So as our trip was winding down, one of our crew, the same guy who can’t swim mind you, decided it would be fun to jump in the river for a quick dip. Fine, only someone had to pull him out of the water.

Guess who got to be the hero?

So I get him close to the boat, grab the shoulder straps of his life preserver, and pull.

Nothing at first, but another try…
Still nothing.

OK, I’ll put my legs into it, and do it on three.

One, two, three!

And now there’s some dude in a speedo lying on top of me across the boat.

Thank god I have a good sense of humor.

The remainder of the day featured some much needed R&R by the pool, dinner at a decent restaurant, and a lot of both freestyle and competition based dancing (none of which came from me, as I had come down with some kind of bug that day).

DAY 5: More fun with boats

Fresh off our whitewater rafting adventure, we were back with the same tour company for a kayaking trip through some Costa Rican estuaries.

I was actually pretty excited about the kayaking, and not jut because I’m an excellent paddler. I figured this would be a good time to have a low-intensity trip and maybe, just maybe, get to see some of those famous Costa Rican monkeys.

That’s exactly what we got.

Of course, most of the kayaks were two person watercrafts.

But this time, I wasn’t going to have to get anywhere near another dude’s junk. Because in the world of kayaking through still water for like three hours, being male suddenly made me at least a little desirable as a partner.

So this time I got a girl, which was a nice change of pace.

The paddling wasn’t too strenuous, and although we had on life preservers, I soon ditched mine to concentrate on something way more important than safety, a decent tan.

So we paddled around Costa Rican waters, as our guide alternated between telling us everything we needed to know about the Mangrove tree and hitting on every girl in sight.

This actually wasn’t unusual for our trip. Wherever we were, whatever we did, rest assured that if there were attractive American women around, there would be some Costa Rican dude playing the, ‘I’m a dark and handsome foreigner and you really should mess around with someone you’ll never see again on vacation’ card.

It was like that Ben Stiller movie Along Came Polly, except, you know, funny.

I can’t say I blame the tour guides. Attractive young American women who as MBA students have significant future earnings potential. That could buy a lot of Mangrove trees. Of course, they also could just be trying to fuck everything that moves. Hard to say.

But I had a lot of fun kayaking, after all, the guides weren’t hitting on me. We got to see lots of little creepy crabs, a snake or too, and a whole neighborhood of monkeys that vacillated between being happy to have our food and furious at the invasion of their monkey-town.

I would’ve taken pictures, but I didn’t want to chance bringing the digital camera on a long kayak adventure. Plus, there’s a chance one of the tour guides would’ve fucked it.

DAY 6: Free day

We had nothing on the schedule for our last day in Costa Rica. Some people wanted to be productive and take a surfing lesson, some people wanted to lounge by the hotel pools. But eventually, most of us got persuaded to cab it down to the beach, which would be my first time in the Pacific Ocean.

It was a pretty decent beach, even with all the people constantly trying to sell you stuff. Some people rented surf boards (which I tried for a little bit, and which is really really hard), some rented jet skis, but I was pretty content to just chill on the beach.

It was a pretty good activity to close up the trip.

DAY 7: Back to reality

Our last day really shouldn’t even count as a day in Costa Rica. We spent a lot of the time on the bus to San Jose to catch our flight, again passing over some shady bridges. Then we caught our flights back to Chicago, which generally went off without incident (with the notable exception of me being searched twice in San Jose).

By 9:30 we were back at O’Hare.

In summation, it was a pretty fantastic trip (as if you couldn’t have guessed based on all of the above). It was great to see a part of the world that was completely new to me, and everyone from the trip leaders to the other incoming students was really cool.

Be sure to check my facebook for all the pictures fit to publish on a social networking site. And you can always ask me for the ones that aren’t.

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