Costa Rica: Chapter 3

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The La Fortuna waterfall is probably Costa Rica’s most famous waterfall – every tour stops here for lunch, which is why you want to get here at 8am or 9am  to enjoy your hike down the steps to the falls and go swimming before you’re interrupted by throngs of people. Six years ago, there wasn’t a park ranger, much less a life guard. You used to be able to swim behind the waterfall. Now, it appears there’s a park ranger watching over everyone.  Each time I tried to swim behind the waterfall, I got whistled at. Whistled at. You know, with a loud summer camp whistle with that dreaded hand motion to get back here NOW!  I lament.

It’s one of the few things that’s difficult to miss if you’re driving yourself, because there is signage everywhere. Follow your Costa Rican GPS.

You can bring food and I encourage you to, because it’s a nice, somewhat slippery trek down to the bottom and you’ll probably get hungry by the end of it. If you’re the planning type, you’ll bring a waterproof / water resistant bag for a change of clothes, or at the very least, shoes, because no one wants to schlep back up the side of a mountain in soggy shoes.

The thing I always forget when I get close to a waterfall is how loud it is. It’s a solid THWACK of water against water and it is thunderous. It’s windy, too. We had to coordinate our photos to make sure our tripod would stay upright in the water. Mist sprays everywhere. We’re lucky both of our cameras didn’t get obliterated with the mist. The water was chillier than I expected, with the trees and midmorning cloud cover blocking most of the sun.

Get to the waterfall before 8:30am, for a view all to yourself.

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You can climb all over the rocks, swim in the river, and have a beautiful morning to yourself. Be prepared to leave around 11am, which is when the tours start arriving for lunch. And if you decide to bring your food, please bring a bag for your wrappers. This is a beautiful place that’s existed for eons – keep your human traces to yourself.

Did we swim? Hell yes. I swam everywhere I was allowed and everywhere I wasn’t. This was my first original happy place. The first place I felt at one with the world and completely, totally at home. Waterfalls are kind of my thing. When I go again, (really early in the morning), I’ll definitely bring a dry pack and wear Teva sandals instead of the Nikes.

Next up – La Fortuna (the city) and our ziplining tour! Next on Costa Rica: Chapter 4

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Costa Rica: Chapter 1

October 2 – 6, 2014

Mark’s 26th birthday, recapped after two glasses of wine.

Highlights – Tenorio National Park / Rio Celeste, renting a car / driving in Costa Rica, Volcan Arenal, Ziplining Arenal, town of La Fortuna, ATV 4×4, La Fortuna waterfall, won free night in 5-star resort from chatting on an airplane

This was our first trip to Costa Rica together and I wanted it to be special. October’s a fine time to go because it still rains a bit but it’s shoulder season so you enjoy smaller crowds and lower prices. I also wanted to see as many waterfalls as possible because Costa Rica is rugged, volcanic and full of dramatic cliff faces – all of which are very fun to look at but less so when you’re driving your own vehicle.

Mark insisted on driving and I said that as long as we did not drive at night that I’m cool with that – it isn’t that you’re going to get taken hostage in the middle of the night – it’s that there is no signage, direction or street lights to help move you along. Add in a couple marginal passes around a mountain bend and if you so much as sneeze you’re falling 1,000 feet and abruptly ending your vacation.

So, no night driving. When we picked up our tank of an SUV we opted for full coverage because, as the salesperson put it:

You can total the car, drive it off the cliff, set it on fire, whatever, and we will come bring you a new one – no charge.

How could we argue with that? We also opted for the GPS in the car because our phone GPS could not track us as fast as we needed to veer / make turns / drive otherwise recklessly.

Our first stop was Tenorio National Park. It’s a few hours away from San Jose – it looks deceivingly close on a map but here’s a Costa Rica tip: Take whatever time Google maps tells you and multiply it by 3. 1 hour? Means it’s 3 hours. The roads are very narrow 2 lanes at best, sometimes over 1-lane rickety wooden bridges, prone to flooding and trucks breaking down.

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This was the bridge we took on our way to our hotel / cabanas, just outside Tenorio National Park.

We arrived to our humble abode about dusk, and exhausted from our day’s journey, prepared for an early rise. Food and coffee is wonderfully fresh, refreshing and well flavored. You can get either an American breakfast or go with the Tican breakfast, which we highly recommend.

Tenorio is nothing short of a natural wonder. It’s far flung which means you won’t get hordes of tourists but it’s big enough that you can spend a whole day here. The paths are well marked and you will see the water change from crystal clear to a brilliant aqua blue.

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The minerals in this pool of water give it its brilliant blue color. Due to the sensitivity of the habitat, swimming or playing in the water is not permitted, but we’re fine with that so long as it preserves this incredible view. Below is the Laguna Azul, aptly named Blue Lagoon.

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For more on Tenorio National Park and the best of La Fortuna, go

Onward to Costa Rica: Chapter 2

Week 1: Purchasing Our Bus Conversion

Many things went into our decision to purchase a bus. We considered size, space, minimum amenities, and price. We had a budget constraint of $2,000 and required a minimum 125 square feet of workable space. The vehicle had to be high enough to accommodate standing room throughout and have enough roof space for potential solar kits. The engine also had to run. It could have some problems, need a tune-up, have a leak, but it had to run. We weren’t going to pay for a trailer or for someone to bring it down from wherever it was currently sitting. Also, a bit of an odd request, we strongly preferred a vehicle that had already been gutted. A blank slate, to cut down on demolition time and disposal cost.

We scoured the internet: Ebay, Craigslist, RVTrader, and even looked at some half-complete bus conversions we thought we could make work for our needs.

We got our bus from a Craigslist ad buried among the commercial ads with a list price of $2,800. We read the ad and really liked that it was an older shuttle bus, a stoic white fiberglass exterior and a near-empty interior. The listing said it ran and it needed updated but was in otherwise good condition. We thought it was possibly too good to be true, that it had surely already sold, but saw that the listing had been posted only an hour earlier. We reached out to him immediately, requesting more pictures.

The gentleman was very kind and forthcoming with the maintenance needed to get it working properly, and sent over a dozen pictures of the interior. He was using it as storage space, and offered to empty out the bus completely and clean it before we drove the 2 hours to go see it. We made a viewing appointment the next day.

It was in better condition than expected when we arrived. It was parked toward the back of the lot in what is probably the only neighborhood of this tiny Florida town. We scoured the inside for mold, rot, mildew, leaks, rust, and damage to the engine to best estimate renovation costs. Overall we were pretty pleased and told the guy we’d mull it over the rest of the weekend and let him know during the week.

The next day, Mark gets a message from the guy who’s now offered to drop the price to below our $2,000 maximum budget. Mark tells the guy to consider it sold – we drove up against the next weekend, test-drove it, and took it home with us!

Endnote: We were told there was a power steering leak, and the bus took 5 quarts of power steering fluid to make it the 180 miles, but we did, and the demo has just begun!

 

Caribbean Islands Visa Requirements for Americans

This is information for each country regarding American visa requirements for all countries in the Caribbean. This is current from the State Department as of September 2016.

Bahamas: No visa required.

Turks and Caicos: No visa for less than 90 days. Visas required for longer stays and is renewable once.

Cuba: Visa required. Initial 30 day stay, renewable once for 30 days. Travel is only permitted for 1 of 12 reasons as listed by the US Government. We are looking for legitimate, reasonably priced Cuban travel operators and will update this page when we have found one we would use.

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Cayman Islands: No visa required.

Jamaica: No visa required.

Haiti: No visa for less than 90 days.

Dominican Republic:  No visa required, but a tourist card ($10) must be purchased before or on arrival. Tourist card covers up to 60 days.

British Virgin Islands: No visa required for less than 30 days.

Bonaire St, Eustatius, and Saba: No visa required for less than 90 days.

St Kitts and Nevis: No visa required for less than 90 days.

Anguilla: No visa required if you can show proof of accommodation, onward ticket (for some point in the future), and proof of funds.

Sint Maarten: No visa required for less than 90 days.

Antigua and Barbuda: No visa required if you can show proof of accommodation, onward ticket (for some point in the future), and proof of funds.

Montserrat: No visa required.

Guadeloupe, Barbados, Martinique (Collectively the French West Indies): No visa required for less than 90 days so long as you can show proof of accommodation, onward ticket and proof of funds.

Dominica: No visa required for less than 180 days (6 months).

St Lucia: No visa required if you can show proof of accommodation, onward ticket (for some point in the future), and proof of funds.

St Vincent and the Grenadines: No visa required.

 

 

90 Days of Schengen: Free-Travel Countries

This post contains a list of countries in the Schengen area, where you are free to move about anywhere among these countries. For Americans, this free-travel time is limited to 90 days per 180 days (3 months/ 6 months). Once you enter one of these countries by rail, plane, or foot, the 90 days starts ticking. It’s kind of like tag. Entering Austria, for example, will tag you “in” and your 90 days in Schengen starts. You won’t be tagged out so long as you travel to any of the other countries on this list, and your 90 day counter will continue to roll.

If you leave Austria and travel to the UK (a country not in Schengen), you will be tagged “out” and your 90 day Schengen counter will stop until you tag yourself back “in” by returning to another Schengen country. You will go through passport control every time you leave and re-enter the Schengen zone.

Do not test this 90-day limit and try to overstay your time in Schengen. As of this post, the following countries are in the Schengen Zone. Due to the refugee influx, some of these countries have imposed border controls regardless of prior arrangements.

Austria
Belgium
Czech Republic
Denmark
Estonia
Finland
France
Germany
Greece
Hungary
Iceland
Italy
Latvia
Liechtenstein
Lithuania
Luxembourg
Malta
Netherlands
Norway
Poland
Portugal
Slovakia
Slovenia
Spain
Sweden
Switzerland

24 Hours In: Brussels

Disclaimer: Language. Mostly because I’m into my second glass of wine and feeling passionately about this.

Hottest city I’ve ever been in, which is saying a lot coming from someone who’s lived in America’s armpit (Florida) for three years. The average temperature in Brussels in August is allegedly 22C / 72F. There’s so much bullshit in this claim I could fertilize Texas with it.

It wasn’t 22C. It was 36C (97F for the Americans). Intolerable heat. Not enough water in the city’s free water fountains to cool you off heat. Legs sticking to each other, hair matted to your face, sweat beads racing down the small of your back, kind of heat.

Are you feeling this yet? Here’s another layer of heat. The Airbnb we stayed at had “nature’s” aircon: open the windows, get the breeze, y’all be fine.

Except there wasn’t a breeze. And we weren’t fine. We were staying right in the middle of the pedestrian walkway so exploring on foot was easy. We found city hall and marveled at how old everything was, and got a postcard-perfect shot in front of the Godiva store. We did that for about 2 hours, and then found ourselves in the food district.

The food district is a place to go if you want to be aggressively guided into a restaurant. Don’t dare look at a menu because that’s your way of saying you want to eat there. I don’t remember where we wound up eating, but I do remember day drinking.

We got chatting with our servers whom were all from a country other than Belgium. I appreciated that about the city. We learned the drinking age in Belgium is 14, that it was uncharacteristically hot, and most people speak four languages which is absolutely mind-blowing. We day drank outside and people watched.

Day drinking has a way of leading into a 5 hour nap, which we took, because we were feeling a heat-induced buzz. When we woke up, it was dark, and the sheets and the bed were soaked in sweat. Hair was wet. Pillow cases were wet. The window in our room was like a prison window, a narrow horizontal opening about 6 feet up from our bed, unreachable without standing on tip-toes.

I opened it expecting healthy gusts of wind, and got nothing.

Twenty minutes into sizzling we decided it’d be cooler outside than it was in our abode. So we put new clothes on to instantly sweat in and went out night-drinking. Would you believe it, the temperature dropped to 30C/ 86F. What a fucking relief.

The rest of the night is a blur but it basically ends up at a place called ‘Delirium’ which isn’t just one bar but a  whole row of bars and each bar has its own alcoholic theme: vodka, tequila, huge ass beers, whiskey, and more.

Summary of Brussels: 2 days is enough for it, avoid August, and prepare for liver obliteration at Delirium.