Monday, September 26, 2016

Costa Rica Trip: Arenal Volcano & Hot Spring

After almost three hours of driving from San Jose, we have reached the province of Alajuela. Once the Arenal Volcano became visible from the shuttle's window, most of us were taking pictures of such magnificent view. The conically shaped volcano is 5,358 feet high. The volcano is also known as "Pan de Azucar".

Initially, it was considered as a dormant volcano but in 1968, it unexpectedly erupted destroying the small town of Tabacon. But in 2010, Arenal has become dormant. The driver stopped for 15 minutes so we can take more pictures out of the shuttle bus. It was not in the plan to go to top or hike it so picture taking was the second best that we can do from that location.

So we continued to our next destination: Baldi Hot Springs. Thanks to the geothermal activity beneath Arenal, the area surrounding the volcano is home to a number of hot springs and Baldi is one of the best.

It is also a hotel and it boasts 25 thermal water pools. Each pool offers different level of temperature or should we say "hotness". It was very relaxing and a nice way to enjoy and appreciate the nature. You know, just staying in the heat of the water felt like the best way of just chilling and sleeping for a while.

At 6 in the evening, we had a buffet dinner and the food was amazing. It had a lot of varieties and my favorite was the dessert section. I really fell in love with Costa Rica and I really hope that I could come back soon.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Costa Rica Trip: La Paz Waterfall Gardens

Less than an hour drive from Poas Volcano, we arrived in La Paz Waterfall and is located 31 kilometers north of Alajuela between Vara Blanca and Cinchona. This garden is set in the rainforest with 3.5 kilometers of walking trails and viewing platforms for the waterfalls that include El Templo, Magia Blanca and Encant.

After paying the entrance fee, an amazing view will welcome you. It is like the clouds are trying to kiss the trees and mix together that creates a beautiful sight in the eye that results to a truly magical experience.

It is not just a waterfall gardens. It is also a conservatory place where some wild animals are being kept and preserved. I actually asked the guide if it is a zoo because I have strong feeling against zoos. But he explained that it is not and that the government is doing its best to keep the animals in safe and sustainable environment.

The area is rich in bio diversity because of the altitude that varies between 4,000 and 5,000 feet that allows for both cloud forest and rainforest co-exist.

After seeing those animals, it was time to visit the waterfalls but a lunch was served first. It was literally rainforest as it started raining. Good thing they sell raincoat for 15 USD so I saved myself from a very wet afternoon.

The trails going up and down just to see the waterfalls was so tiring. But once you see and hear the flow of waters and how the nature seems like calling you, everything was worth it. It was indeed a magical place. I really loved it and the experience of walking in the middle of forest surrounded by chirping birds and echo of the waters. Never skip this tour as for sure you will definitely enjoy it!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Costa Rica Trip: Poás Volcano

Poás Volcano is Costa Rica's largest and most active volcano and is considered as one of the most breathtaking sites in the entire country. There was an eruptive activity last 2009 that resulted into small landslides.

Before reaching the crater, you have to hike at least 15 minutes and it is an uphill walk. It was a bit tiring but it was fun because I was with other tourists. The road to the top is led by beautiful site of trees and fog.

Upon reaching the crater, it was indeed an amazing site. The "water" in the crater is considered as one of the most acidic in the world. Our tour guide advised us not to spend more than 20 minutes there as the smoke coming from it is not that beneficial/safe.

We then headed to 'Lake Botos'. It is an inactive crater (last erupted in 7500 BC) within the Poás Volcano. Again, it was an uphill walk and more difficult to reach. 

The difference with this crater is that it is surrounded by cloud forest. In my future posts about Central America, you will notice that this part of the american continent has many beautiful (and active) volcanoes.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Costa Rica Trip: Coffee Tour

Coffee export serves a big role in the economy of Costa Rica. It is the number three export and this sector employed 28 percent of the labor force in 1997. That's why I made sure I didn't miss this tour. I am a coffee lover and this is one of the highlights of my trip.

Upon arriving in the Doka Estate as early as 8 in the morning, it was time for breakfast. I left in the hotel as early as 5:50 AM so breakfast is part of the tour. I ate again that rice with black beans and I would recommend you to try it once you are in Costa Rica.

After that food fest, the tour started with the introduction of how a coffee bean is developed and it actually takes a year before harvesting. The plant itself can last up to twenty five years but the taste would be different. 

Our tour guide basically showed how the beans are being harvested and processed in the specific machines. From separating the beans from the coat, cleaning and grinding, packing and distribution, it was explained to us step by step. I can't remember every details because I cannot wait to buy some beans from the gift shop.

Trust me, the room smells very good. I bought two packs (8 USD per pack) and can't wait to try it at home.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica

Walking distance from the hotel and situated along the Avenida Central, you can't miss the national theater building. The structure is considered as the country's one of the finest architectural/historical building. It still actively presents highly critical performances and the president comes here at least twice a month. The exterior design is very exquisite and will somehow "invite" you to enter.

The entrance fee is 5 USD which also includes free guided tour. The tour guide speaks both English and Spanish but sometimes they perform two separated tours. They do it every hour and the last batch is at 4 in the afternoon.

The history of the building is that during 1890s, in the midst of successful coffee export, high society people wanted a place where they can gather together and allow them to enjoy great operas same as to what they had in Europe. So using the export tax money from the coffee, they started the construction of the theater in 1891. But it encountered financial problems so the government decided to impose tax to all citizens in order to complete building it. In 1897, the theater was opened and inaugurated with the opera 'Faust' by Charles Gounod.

The tour guide mentioned that most of the structures are gold plated so the security in the building is very strict. You will see lavish furniture and beautifully designed chandeliers and light effects. There is one very specialy bleacher place for the president and he can only use it unless he authorized it to be used by others. The theater floor can also be lifted up to be same level of the stage and this is being done manually.

Beautiful paintings also surround the entire building. Most of it are created by famous Italian artists. One of the most popular is the one on the ceiling named 'Alegorio del Cafe y El Banano' by Aleardo Villa. It is considered as one of the '10 greatest ceilings in the world'. The painter haven't visited Costa Rica when he painted it so he had multiple technical errors. One error is the way the banana was handled and the second is the concept that there is no coffee harvesting near the Caribbean.

The painting was once in their cinco colones bill but is now out of circulation. Luckily, a very nice Costa Rican woman gave me one of her collections.

During the break of the performances, there is an area where people can gather and talk about anything. But during the old times, women and men are separated into two halls. Overall, the theater is very beautiful so you cannot miss this once you are in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Mi Primer Dia en Costa Rica

From the plane, I was delighted to see the San Jose neighborhood from above. The immigration process was fast and simple. As usual, I was asked with basic questions: how many days in Costa Rica and what is the purpose. As I passed the exit, a lot of taxi drivers approached me and asked where is my destination and if I wanted a private taxi. Eventually, I chose this one guy who seemed to be nice and genuine. His name is Cristian then he started to talk about the city and what to do and what to avoid.

Then I told him the hotel that I will be staying at but he said that it is a dangerous area. So he brought me to the area first so that I can assess it. Indeed, the area seemed to be out of way and a bit unusual. He said that at night, many prostitutes are standing along the street. Honestly, I just chose this hotel because it was cheap. So I asked him to bring me to a safe area and he suggested 'Hotel Vesuvio'. I think it was instinct that I trusted Cristian so I didn't care if he received any commission but I did not regret it. He left me his number just in case I need transport or something else. I would recommend you to contact him if you are in San Jose.

Hotel Vesuvio is 30 dollar more expensive but the area seemed to be safe and quiet and walking distance from the central avenue and restaurants. I checked the room first and it was okay. The staff who welcomed me was very accommodating and very nice. He assisted me to include me in the group tour for the next two days. So I put down my bag, secured some important items in the safety deposit box then headed out to walk around.

Parque Morazan is about 12 minute walk. It was good and many people were there just chilling and relaxing. I didn't spend much time as I was very hungry.

Also walking distance from the hotel is the Parque Central. I saw a lot of policemen there. Actually, it didn't look like a park, it is more of a 'plaza' atmosphere. It is surrounded by a church, government buildings and other establishments.

Finally, I found a restaurant called 'RostiPollos' and ordered a quarter chicken. I love the juicy taste of the pollo and I was curious about the beans and it tasted good especially when mixing with rice. The waiter who attended me was also very nice. He is from Peru and living in Costa Rica for 22 years now. The atmosphere is quite welcoming so I went back here on my last night in San Jose.

Amador Causeway & Cinta Costera

My last day in Panama was mostly spent in parks and famous streets. From the hotel, I took metro then bus going to Albrook terminal. From there, I asked about the exact station to wait going to Amador Causeway. Unfortunately, I didn't find a clear answer. So I just took a cab (for 10 USD) and asked the driver to bring me to 'Mi Ranchito', a well known restaurant in the causeway. Basically, the causeway (calzada) connects three little islands to the main land. When they excavated some land area to build the Panama Canal, no rocks and soil were put to waste. They used it to build the connection and eventually the causeway.

When I was there, there are still lots of construction and no much happening. For now, it is mostly residential area with some activities for the kids. 

Along the causeway, you will see an unusual building structure. It is the Bio Museum. The design of the building can't be missed as you will notice it because of its non-ordinary architecture. It is a place of exhibition of biological diversion of the country.

From the causeway, I took again a cab (for 4 USD) going to Cinta Costera. Families can have picnics and spend some quality time in here. I also saw some joggers and tourists walking along the marina. The Panama skyline can be seen from here and the view is great!

I also noticed the Panama sign displayed in a very colorful way. Panama is a progressive country and I can say, very safe to travel. Also, the public transportation is very easy to use for easy navigation of the city.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Casco Viejo: Distrito Historico de Panama

Yesterday, I went to Panama's historic district. From 'Estaction Iglesia del Carmen', I stopped at 'Estacion 5 de Mayo' then from there, I went to the bus terminal 'Estacion Maranon' and waited a bus in Bay J. Just make sure to ask the driver if he will go to Sta. Ana. As per my research, Casco Viejo was a very scary and dangerous district. But eventually, the government took control and made it a famous spot in the city. From 'Parada de Sta. Ana', you can walk and roam the place. 

First thing you will see is the 'Plaza de la Independencia' which is also known as Plaza Mayor and Plaza Catedral. When Panama got their independence from Spain and Colombia, a big celebration was held here. This is the main square in Casco Viejo.

Unfortunately, the 'Catedral Metropolitana' is under construction so I wasn't able to get inside. It is one of the biggest cathedrals in central america.

Around this plaza, you will see a lot of colorful structures. The place is also surrounded with restaurants. A local guy approached me and spoke to me in Spanish and fortunately I understood some of his words. He was surprised that I am not a Latino because he said I looked like one. He offered to give me a tour but I declined so he gave me an advise to take extra precaution in the area. I was not worried at all since there are many policemen visible that time.

Also in Casco Viejo, you will find the Plaza Bolivar. The plaza is mainly dedicated to Venezuelan general Simon Bolivar who is also known as "Liberator of Latin America". He is a respected hero and helped several countries to fight for freedom and liberation.

A special monument was built for him. The square seems to be small, maybe because it is surrounded mainly by cafes and restaurants. 

You will also see around the area is the 'Palacio Bolivar' which was originally the office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but now a museum that exhibits the political history of Panama. In Casco Viejo, you will find several souvenir shops if you want to buy some, well, souvenirs. It is a good area to just walk around and wonder in every streets and appreciate the old structures and some colorful and vibrant buildings.

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