Saturday, August 10, 2013

Costa Rica Part 2: Santa Elena / Monteverde

San Jose has it's charm, but I admit that I was anxious to get out of the city and move on, back into nature. Jungles and mist-covered mountains were pulling at me to the core. When I first began dreaming of this trip years ago, Santa Elena/Monteverde were top on my list, and now here it was, 7am and the door-gate buzzer was going off again; my ride was here to take me there.

By the time that buzzer sounded, I was already bounding down the spiral stairs of the Hemingway to get out to the hilly road and into another mini-van. This time, I was greeted by Carlos, and lucky for me, I got to sit up front again. I found that traveling solo, I was often afforded these small luxuries, as I was easier to accommodate. I don't think I could ever get used to driving the roads in San Jose, they were crazy enough on foot, but I was happy to be a passenger as Carlos maneuvered the one-way maze of tight turns and wobbly cobblestoned hills. 

The road up into the beautiful mountains was another holy/righteous one for sure, but the views were so stunning that I couldn't fault the poor road. We drove through forests with branches bouncing under the weight of monkeys, past waterfalls and people who waved at us when we passed. I quickly began to realize that this country is different than what I'm used to. People there give a little wave to passing strangers, because acknowledging one another is just what you do, regardless of if you know them or not. It seemed so natural and civilized to me, and I so wish it could be more like that here. Winding our way up through the mountains, giving way down to countryside like I had never seen before, I was bowled over by how amazing everything was, and I couldn't wipe that smile off my face again.  Something started fluttering around in my heart, an inner peace that was gaining strength.

When I arrived at the place I had chosen to stay at, I just about fell out of my chair. I had booked what I thought was a rustic little cabin on a hillside outside of town...but what I found was a majestic little wooden paradise with vaulted ceilings, a porch and breezes billowing the white curtains. I couldn't believe my luck, as this was to be my home for the next five days, I was so damn happy. Modesto had told me the day before that the stars were aligning for me on this trip, and this was no exception. This property had been bought by a German couple, ten years ago, who fell in love with Costa Rica on their travels, and decided on a whim to take a chance on a dream. A decade later, here it is. I think a little idea was beginning to form in my mind...perhaps a life like that could be possible for me too.

Putting absolutely no pressure on myself, and following only the desires in my heart, I kicked back with a vengeance. I tossed everything out of my pack and washed my underwear in the sink, and before you wonder why I'm mentioning that, it's because even that task is a happy-fun one when you're in paradise! That afternoon I checked out a coffee and chocolate plantation with a nice family from New York. I made up some chocolate of my own, tried my first sticks of raw sugar cane and drank the first cup of the best coffee I've ever had (because every cup thereafter seemed better than the last) and yes, I outdid myself.

That night I wandered into town and found myself having dinner in a giant treehouse, which was where that inner-peaceful happiness I had begun to feel in the van came to a bursting point. It was a strange feeling because I so rarely feel joy quite like that. It was a certain blissful centered-ness I didn't quite know I had, but I let it wash over me, and realized that this pure happiness was coming solely from within myself. I admit that I had been a little terrified at the prospect of traveling alone, but I found just the opposite of terror there; it was the greatest thing I could have done for myself, because I could then see that I trusted myself, and that I could do it (and I loved it) I ordered a glass of wine instead of the cheque, and sat there a while longer revelling, smiling and chatting with my server (who, postscript, remembered me when he saw me the next day, and greeted me like a friend)

I went to bed that night feeling like I was exactly where I was meant to be. The cool breeze coming through my windows making me need to bundle up in extra blankets, carried with it the laughter of the drunken Russian men down the path. At home, that may have annoyed me as I tried to sleep, but out there in the rainforest, it just made me giggle (and wish I could understand Russian!) To this day I still wake up some nights and think I'm still there in my wooden cabin.

The next morning, I shared a taxi with new friends Beth and Amy to Curi-Cancha reserve rainforest, which was my first guided jungle hike. As you might expect, it was raining, but that actually added to the experience of being in a cool, damp jungle. Our guide, Melvin, had grown up in the jungles of Monteverde, can you even imagine what a wonderful playground that would be as a kid? Hanging vines and Ficus trees enveloping everything, especially the imagination.  After the hike, Beth, Amy and I decided to walk the 6km back into town, which was wonderful, as I hadn't seen the town in daylight much yet. We found a little restaurant hidden down a wooded path, behind a co-op shop. The only other customer in there (an ex-pat who had lived in CR for years) told us we'd come to the right place. The woman who ran it cooked up a huge meal for us on a wood stove, and boiled water for coffee in tin pots. 

The restaurant with the wood stove.

I took myself for a long walk that afternoon; one of the most beautiful I've ever taken. Because Santa Elena seemed to me a safe haven, I put on my headphones and trekked back up the 6km hillside road to Luna Azul listening to Chelsea Wolfe acoustic (an extended moment that sent me rushing to buy tickets to her concert when I got home...that'll be a surreal experience now) There were no sidewalks edging this road, just a little footpath in the grass passing homes (inhabited and abandoned), strange shops, farmland and the most intensely beautiful mountain views I'd ever seen. Pebbles giving way under my sandals, rolling down the hillside reminding me that I wasn't in the cookie-cutter box of a city, this was the real land; wild country. A rainbow formed in the sunny mist that began to take over the sky, and ended in the road in front of me. Who has ever seen the end of the rainbow? It was right there! I put my hand out into it's colour, and stood in it's pool; the end of the rainbow was me.  

I watched the sun go down with a beer in a bar up the hill before meeting up with friends for dinner. We talked into the evening about our lives back home, sharing stories that remained hidden to each other until that point. One of the beauties I found about traveling, is that I could open up and tell anyone anything; we were all friendly strangers in a strange land together, and there is such comfort in that. I was also shown how small the world can be, when I heard a familiar voice ring out "hey stranger!" from a passing van, it was Jen and Anthony, my travel friends from Tortuguero days before, and miles away. In fact, I ran into them again the next night, in the jungle, after dark by flashlight.

After these experiences; the blissful joy, walking alone in paradise and running into 'old' friends, my heart really opened up and the world was becoming the most beautiful place. I found myself walking along a dark jungle path on my own, the thunder was rolling in and the howler monkeys called out in the treetops. Strange noises rustled in the brush around me, and I realized just how vulnerable I was in this nature. Then I would emerge onto a treetop bridge, and I can't begin to explain the way the whole moment made me feel. I was small, but part of everything, and everything was perfect.

After many more adventures, delicious meals, conversations with locals and shots of Cacique, I really began to feel at home in Santa Elena. Alas, it's a very small town and I was becoming itchy again, ready to hit the road in search of new experiences. The prospect of a new town boiled up in me such an excitement, like a kid on Christmas morning, I couldn't wait to see what I would find around the next bend. I bought a $5 litre box of wine, as I knew it would travel well with me on my journey the next day. And when you're traveling in that state of wonder, don't all wines taste great? Beggars can't be choosers and I was budgeting my colones. Little did I know that La Fortuna would be a change of pace for me after all the serenity and nature. This poor little box of wine went to waste as I found myself out on the town with the locals for the rest of my days, but those are stories for part three...