Posts Tagged ‘snorkeling’

Flip Flop to Costa Rica

February 4, 2017

This Central American country had been on Mike’s bucket list a long time. He showed me magazine articles about traveling there in the first month we were dating, but it remained the elusive, exotic goal for a few years.Costa Rica surfing

We were there a year ago this week. Was it amazing, was it worth the wait? I’ll let you make up your own mind.

First, we had visions of dipping our toes in the Pacific as soon as we got off the flight, but that evening we were instead schlepping chicken and canned beer from a street vendor to an unanticipated overnight in a city hotel room. That’s because we’d arrived too late to make the drive to our guest house by the sea. And because the car rental agency had abandoned us when we got stuck at an airport. Travel in Costa Rica is still pretty third-world. Our hostess had warned us that the 30+ mile trip from the airport to her guest house near Manuel Antonio National Park would take two hours or so, depending on traffic. I didn’t believe her until we were zig-zagging around food vendors who walked in traffic with bags of snacks for sale. Or maybe it was when we got on the main highway and discovered it was only one lane wide.

Narrow roads are the norm in Costa Rica, and I won’t exaggerate but I need to be clear. They’re often twisting, steep lanes where it’s risky to walk or drive because cars come at you at top speed only to skid to a stop just as the Grim Reaper has his hand on your shoulder. Once we arrived in our little village we decided we wouldn’t travel far for that reason. But this location would be just what we needed for relaxation and access to what matters: great waves on a long stretch of beach on one side of the peninsula, a calm lagoon for snorkeling on the other.

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The first thing we discovered is that the calm lagoon contained very little sea life. We had hoped to snorkel to some coral or pretty fish or SOMETHING to look at,  but there was very little. The water was also MUCH warmer than expected (yeah, I know we were close to the Equator but this is the largest ocean in the world..). Swimming was barely refreshing because of the ocean temperature. Everyone told us it was a warmer than average January, but isn’t that what we’ve been hearing everywhere?

The surf side of the peninsula was pretty spectacular. Big waves rolled in across a sandy break. We could walk for miles along the beach, right to the national park entrance. We both rented surf boards and had a great time practicing that (despite the bandage-covering-stitches-and-wrapped-with-duct-tape on my hand).. until Mike caught some waves that were a little too big and got freaked out (what’s sport without near death experiences??). But the sunsets here were to die for!

[I wasn’t joking about the lines at Manuel Antonio National Park, nor the monkeys]

Our outings included a morning in the National Park (honestly my assessment was a resounding MEH because of the crowds, the heat, and the damned monkeys). It was scenic but a chore to shuffle through with a million other people looking for sloths sleeping in the trees, and much of the park was closed to hiking without a permit and a guide, which was disappointing. When we took a sanctioned hike around a not-so-crowded peninsula to see cliffs and jungle we were accosted by a couple nasty monkeys on a bridge who wanted snacks. Also had a nice conversation with a giant iguana that got between me and my stuff on the beach — those suckers look lazy but can move really fast!

Another interesting day trip was to zip lining recommended by our hostess at the guest house. It included a bus ride with a ton of other American tourists into a very scenic area of the interior of the country (about an hour each way). We weren’t disappointed by the big trees we were frequently jumping off of! My issue (and this isn’t a minor one) is that the crew here made the quickest, most cursory equipment checks I’ve ever seen. I haven’t done a lot of rappelling or rock climbing or zip lining, but I know that  the way they were slapping on the carabiners that were going to hold a person 125 feet above a river isn’t enough of a safety precaution. I was nervous much of the time on this side trip but tried to put a good face on it. Also, I couldn’t help but analyze the return on our investment: we saw a beautiful area, we can say we did zip lining, but the reality of it was a lot of driving and standing around and perusing the base camp’s butterfly exhibit with a total of about 45 minutes of actual zip lining thrown in.

One of the aspects of the trip that we revisit is that we met some great people. Our guest house had a common room with kitchen that allowed us to relax and interact with couples from Europe, Canada, and the US. We had sundowners at a bar one night and met a naturalist who works at a local hotel and was very fun and interesting to talk to. There were people on the beaches who enjoyed sharing their suggestions and travel tips. All in all, the people were friendly, unlike the monkeys who were cute for about a day then got pretty annoying.

[Monkeys were cute for the first day or so.. and grocery shopping in foreign countries is so amusing to me!]

This blog item might sound cynical — Costa Rica is beautiful, but go with your eyes open. Don’t expect American-level facilities or infrastructure. Don’t try to pack in too much.

We had fun but we’re not in a big hurry to go back unless I decide to do the cross-country MTB race… which would probably result in the Grim Reaper REALLY getting his hands on me. (Check out this story!)

 

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An exotic domestic trip you’ll remember

January 30, 2017

Winter getaways are so sinfully fabulous: you go back to the office after a week or so with a mild tan, refreshed attitude and a secret smile about “something I just thought about.” Yes, that means the absolute best part is that your coworkers wish they’d done the same rather than blowing their vacation time on an extended Labor Day weekend stuck in traffic.

Here’s one to do, and it’s incredibly simple: Puerto Rico.

Want to be out in the sun, to enjoy a tropical vacation without going broke, and not have to endure the snobbery of resorts? PR has it all, plus surfing and mountain biking and easy-to-navigate services. And, there are ways to avoid the crime that the little island was once known for.

[It took us about an hour to end up bushwhacking to a beautiful rocky overlook on Day 1.]

Jet Blue flights are pretty inexpensive to the island (you don’t need a passport!). We took a late-night flight to save a few bucks (Orlando-Ponce). The island is small enough to travel the perimeter by car in a day (but why would you?), so distances are easy to cover as long as you avoid San Juan-area traffic. Don’t expect high rise beachside resorts here (maybe in San Juan if that’s what you like) — better yet, skip them entirely! We found a lovely AirBnB accommodation that allowed us to enjoy home cooked meals on the wide veranda with other guests and offered local info from the owner.

Our route was Ponce-Guanica-Aguadilla, running from the south-central coast to the northwest coast on Route 2. If I were to go back (yes I would), I’d love to spend more time around Aguadilla, a small city with a decent airport and great beaches/surfing nearby, including the surfing hotspot Rincon.

In the south, the coast has small waves and from what we could determine, not much to look at when snorkeling. There are many mangrove islands offshore that make an interesting destination if you rent a kayak (just don’t rent a tandem, a.k.a. “Breakup boat” with your partner unless you’re prepared for all of the possible ugly ramifications). Guanica’s coastline in particular is bounded on the east and west by nature preserves, so the water was clear enough to see the sea urchins lurking on the bottom, waiting to stab bare feet!

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It only took a couple hours to drive from the Guanica area to Aguadilla on a Saturday afternoon. The main highway is 2 lanes in each direction but goes directly through several towns including mid-sized Mayaguez and Rincon. There are lots of opportunities along the way to stop and check out beaches or surfing but we were rewarded for waiting until we reached Aguadilla and Borinquen.

Weekdays were the best time to access beautiful stretches of beach, long rolling waves and some colorful snorkeling around Aguadilla’s Crash Boat Beach and Surfer’s Beach.

[Crash Boat Beach above]

[Surfer’s Beach above]

We also visited the north shore’s premiere surfing beach, Jobos, on a stormy day when the waves were crashing over offshore islands of lava rock in spectacular fashion. The beachside bars were empty and Mike’s memories of the place included being swept out past the surfers by a killer current. He learned later that more people die at Jobos than any other beach on the island due to the current. He made a joke about it at the Coast Guard gathering he spoke to but few people laughed (ahem).

Please note: Undertow and currents at these beaches aren’t funny! If you go, scout first and use caution. Crash Boat Beach had a great gradual break but the undertow would leave you at least a quarter mile south if you had a good run on a wave. Many beaches have  waves that can land you on rocks.

If you’ve read this far, I’ve got a reward: the best hike you can do in the NW of PR. Go to Surfer’s Beach and take the little bridge on the northern end to a trail. Here you’ll begin a spectacular jungle and cliffside journey to the remote, secluded Coast Guard beach, which is the sort of strand of sand and palm trees that your Caribbean dreams are made of.

The day we went, the surf was pounding the rocks. While it made for a spectacular walk, it cut off access to the beach at the end and was a little worrisome as we’d gone out with just enough time to get back during daylight (nothing new for us!).

The route was just challenging enough to make it worthwhile, the scenery was gorgeous, and there were some huge, spectacular lava rocks where the surf spume roiled and hissed. Plus, we saw a huge iguana on the trail on the way back. It was hard to keep moving as I wanted to take so many photos. If you go, you MUST try this hike.

Flip Flop Vol. 2: Cheating winter

March 13, 2015

“This is better than being drunk,” I said to Mike at the pool one day. The weather was perfect, from our perspective: a little under 80 degrees, blue skies and delicate wispy clouds passing the spiked leaves of a nearby palm tree.

“No, actually this is better than being drunk!” I decided. “I feel great every morning.”

But then we would eventually have to return north… what a hangover that could be.

We’d skipped one of the snowiest months on record back home, instead we were playing in the ocean and outdoors in the sunshine while exploring Florida. The best part of our trip was seeing the Florida we want to see – minus most of the same-as-home pavement and strip malls – who goes on vacation to spend time in stores?

Here are three ways to see Florida and really feel like you’ve been on vacation:

  • State parks and springs

If you’re intent on baking on a busy beach, go ahead. If that bores you and you get tired of paying $4 for a bottle of water from the tiki hut or are turned off by the water quality, try a state park with a spring instead. Florida has plenty of beautiful – INLAND – parks to visit.

This year we went to Mayakka State Forest, near St. Petersburg, which felt like a stroll in Jurassic Park for the palms intertwined with gnarled live oaks. In the midst of this 56 square mile preserve is a big lake (yes, get your alligator sightings here!). It looked like a great place for a short bike ride (20 mi round trip) too.

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And we found another great park with a crystal clear spring where we swam with a manatee. We’d done the more touristy springs in the past, including a dive boat that sells you photos of yourself swimming with manatees.. I prefer going solo, it’s a more authentic experience. We’ve had fabulous experiences at the 72 degree springs, including mingling underwater with schools of tilapia or carp, and getting up close and personal with manatees far from the crowded dive boats in the Crystal River. My favorite was Salt Spring near Ocala (no manatees but it’s large enough to explore for a couple hours).

me and manateemanatee swimmers

Of course there also was our heart-thumping adventure down the Ichitucknee River last winter, which flows from springs through a cypress swamp at a good clip. Only after we jumped in with nobody else in sight (wearing snorkels and wet suits) did we realize the river was full of waving grass, which spooked the hell out of us as it allowed us to float right past huge pointy-nosed gar fish, lots of turtles.. and (gulp!) whatever else was in there.. when we got out we looked at each other and said “can you believe we just did that??”

  • Go to the wild side

Right up front I’ll tell you what I’m not gonna tell you: the exact name of the fabulous “forgotten” little town we found on the east coast. Of course you can probably figure it out but that’s only if you’re paying attention. For starters, this little slice of heaven is on the Atlantic and has a sizeable National Wildlife Sanctuary on a barrier island. We never need to get in the car once we arrive with bikes, partly because there’s nothing worthwhile you can’t walk or bike to, and partly because the beach is so spectacular we don’t want to be distracted by anything as mundane as restaurants. Here you can surf cast, find eggs laid by sea turtles, body surf and wander up and down a gorgeous untouched strand of beach completely alone.We’ve only spent a couple weeks here but we talk about it year-round, it’s that good.

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Oh, there’s a state park here but it doesn’t hold a candle to the beach. I enjoyed the small section of mountain biking trails, which was surprisingly fun curvy singletrack with some roots (really!) and manmade obstacles thrown in. I was kind of cocky about it because I went in thinking I could kick ass on their wimpy flat singletrack … and I did because the cockiness gave me more confidence than usual, so I blew right over the ramps and logs – then turned around and said geez, I never do those at home but here I’m such a badass on my $100 Walmart Mongoose!

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If you don’t want to or can’t figure out where I’m talking about, go find your own little town on the coast. There has to be more than one!

  • Go by bike

It’s sunny, it’s warm, and Florida is as flat as a table, so why not bike? Even better, everything is frigging square and straight so it’s impossible to get lost. Here the wind is your only obstacle.. once you get through the 8-lane intersections full of 90-year-old drivers in their Mercedes SLKs and Mazaratis.

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Our one concession to tourism was a stop in Venice this year because my brother’s family had been there and found a beach where you can sift through the sand to uncover fossilized shark teeth. It was fun for a couple hours, but some people take it very seriously, buying specialized equipment and spending hours in the water.. we were there about 2 hours and found a half-dozen cool specimens using a basket from inside an old salad spinner! That was enough for me.

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While I really do love winter, the ability and freedom to go outside every day is so enticing.. but I could never live in Florida. It’s mostly made for vehicles, and so much of what we’ve seen (we spend time in Naples) is so prettily packaged and gated that it seems fake and unnatural.

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But I don’t regret skipping a chunk of winter and exercising my freedom to roam. I’m getting enough of the snow now — we’ll probably be snowshoeing and skiing until June.

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