Things To Do in La Fortuna

la Fortuna

La Fortuna (The Fortune) is a small city in Alajuela province of Costa Rica attracting hordes of tourists with its many natural attractions and activities: volcano hikes, crater lagoons, waterfalls, hot springs, whitewater rafting, hanging bridges, zip-lines, kayaking, caverns, and others. But the main attraction is Arenal Volcano- an active andesitic stratovolcano whose perfect cone towers over the town just 10 km to the west- one of the top 10 most active volcanoes in the world until 2010, when it stopped erupting lava and is now dormant.

Arenal Volcano

Arenal Volcano

We take the bus to La Fortuna with the idea to spend there a couple of days, but we end up staying longer, as we just fell in love with the entire place and all the FREE activities it provides, besides the many very expensive ones, which we skipped.

Street in la Fortuna

Street in la Fortuna

We get a room in a super nice hotel- Las Palmas, and after a short negotiation, we pay $25 per day (instead of $40) for a private room on the second floor, with a balcony, with nice hot water showers right in the center of the city, next to the supermarket, complete with a friendly cat who comes to visit us in the room every evening.

Pick nick in the park at La Fortuna

Pick nick in the park at La Fortuna

The city itself is the most charming, clean and tranquil little town where blond young backpackers coming from Europe make up more than half the population, and every house is a hostel or a restaurant.

El Poso

Immediately, we begin exploring. The first place we visit, is “El Poso” (The Pool) – a natural pool under a bridge just outside of town. It’s a 15 minute walk on the main road towards la Fortuna Cascades. Way before the cascades, which are a popular but expensive site, there is a bridge, and right before the bridge a small path leads us to the free-of-charge alternative. El Poso on La Fortuna River is popular with the local kids who come here in the afternoon and perfect the art of jumping in the river, or just chill in the water, or sit on the rocks and smoke marijuana. We join them, only for the jumping-in-the-river and chill-in-the-water part, as we don’t enjoy smoking anything…

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El Poso

There is a rope hanging over the river and Ivo and Maya play Tarzan. It’s scary the first time when Maya takes the rope and swings high and then lets go and drops in the river below from about ten meters with a splash, but after the fifth time it just gets more and more fun, and Maya doesn’t want to leave the place.

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Ivo performing “The Bulgarian Flying Hummer” jump

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Maya Tarzan

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One- Two

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Threeee!

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Yes, they did jump! I took a video of this one

Aguas Termales

The next day, we take the bus heading to the hot springs not far from town, and tell the driver to stop at the FREE thermal springs (Las aguas termales gratis). There are two resorts built around the hot volcanic springs with specially made pools and manicured gardens, which are probably very beautiful and super nice- we don’t know, as we didn’t visit those. Instead, the bus driver leaves us near a small path in the forest on the right side of the road and after a short walk we get to the river. It’s the same hot-water river coming from the same volcanic springs like the ones of the resorts, only this one is with free public access and there are no special pools and gardens and restaurants- just the river, completely natural and HOT! And there is no one but us in this awesome river-Jacuzzi!

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Thermal river

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Maya and Mira in the Jacuzzi

Hiking to Lake Arenal Dam

After about an hour we are all nicely soaked and marinated, ready to go to the Arenal Volcano Park, which is further down the same road. We walk on the paved street for about an hour and then a couple of tourists from the USA with a rental car pick us up and bring us to the park’s entrance, which is to the left. But instead of going in the park, which is I-don’t-know-how-much per person, we take another black road through the forest opposite the park (to the right), which leads us to the big lagoon lake- Lake Arenal Dam, about five kilometers away.

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The guys who gave us a lift

On the way we spot a sleepy coati, a crested guan (a turkey-like bird), parrots and monkeys. It’s a nice shady walk with some very rewarding views of the great lake. And is free of charge.

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A coati just waking up

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..a bit of yoga is good for you…

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Ok, ready to go now.

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DO NOT FEED WILD ANIMALS, really, it is not a good idea, it breaks the natural balance.

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Crested guan

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Arenal Volcano from another angle

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Arenal Lake Dam

The dirt road comes out on the main road just before the bridge. There we meet Wilson Sackett for the first time- a young fellow from the USA biking from Costa Rica to Nicaragua, who has some problem with his bike and Ivo tries to help him. Later, we bump into Wilson again on the streets of a small town in Nicaragua, and AGAIN on Ometepe Island! I don’t know who is following who, but meeting the same guy in three different locations in two different countries within four weeks is quite a strange coincidence, isn’t it!

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Wilsn Sackett

Hiking Cerro Chato

On the third day of our stay in La Fortuna, we hike to Cerro Chato, which is a small volcano next to Arenal Volcano with a beautiful green crater lake at the top. Visitors are supposed to go to the park’s office and pay the entrance fee (I think it is $16 per person) before taking to the trail. There are some waterfalls also within the park and it is not clear to us where to pay for the hike only. We head for the trailhead figuring there will be someone to collect the fee at the beginning, but there is no one. No one stops us, so we end up climbing Cerro Chato for free. The trail is in terrible state of neglect, extremely muddy and steep, and super challenging. There are some ancient wooden steps of which about 60-70% are completely destroyed and it looks like for many years no one has fixed any of them. Zero maintenance. We expected a short easy hike, but it ends up a super difficult, tiring, steep trek on poorly maintained trail.

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Ivo on the trail to Cerro Chato

It takes about four hours to climb to the top, often on all fours, and another hour to descend down to the crater lake- an eerie place of clouds and dark trees, where a bunch of other tourists enjoy an afternoon dip in the volcanic cold waters.

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Cerro Chato Crater Lake

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Hitchhiking With Mad Scientists

On the way back, we take a different easier but longer rout (the only alternative) that leads us, past pine and eucalyptus forests, to a private resort very far away from La Fortuna.

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Arenal Volcano from another angle

Luckily, we hitch a ride back to town with a couple of young college professors from the USA on vacation- one researching reptiles, the other specializing in parasites in frogs, who immediately identify the huge snake that terrified us earlier as “a harmless tiger rat snake”, just by hearing our confused descriptions.

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Tiger Rat Snake (not poisonous)

Also, they almost kill us. The car suddenly breaks and stops in a cloud of dust on the dirt road, and both professors jump out of it with the speed of light and no apparent reason. Before we realize what is going on, the girl is across the road grabbing a small green innocent lizard, who has no chances of escaping such a sudden, skillful, ninja attack. The scientists, then, happily identify the little fellow, take some pictures and release him unharmed and confused. We are amazed and become these guys, whose names we don’t remember, biggest fens. We love it when people are so passionate about animals and nature and the work they do! Thank you for the ride, guys, hope you are reading this and giggling!

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Mission Lizard

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Thus, we spend three unforgettable days and not much dollars in la Fortuna, Costa Rica, enjoying rivers, volcanoes, cascades and hot springs. For those who are planning to visit- there is a lot more to do around this beautiful town, especially if you are willing to pay the entrance fees, so plan to spend at least 3-4 days and a bunch of dollars. There are the Venado Caverns, the spectacular hanging bridges, the hot-water spa resorts, one of the best and longest zip-lines, a few waterfalls, butterfly gardens, and more.

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Arenal Volcano from another angle

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Arenal Volcano at sunset

Or just ask around for the free options. Enjoy!

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Pura Vida

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Ivo Gone Green in Costa Rica

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Cerro Chirripo. Conquering Costa Rica’s Highest Mountain

Cerro Chirripo. Conquering Costa Rica’s Highest Mountain

by Mira Nencheva

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Mira, Ivo and Maya at Crestones Ranger Station, park Chirripo, Costa Rica

From Rio Claro we catch the TicaBus to San Isidro de El General, the largest regional city of 45, 000 population at the crossroads between some of Costa Rica’s most important destinations. The ticket costs less than $3 per person and it takes 4 hours to get there. In the beginning, we pass through palm oil plantations and jungles. Further, as we climb higher, the road starts curving along a wide shallow river, passing through small villages and dry forests. The TicaBus is a big comfortable bus serving all Central American countries, and it’s not too expensive.

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At the bus station

Midway, we make a long bathroom stop next to a big buffet restaurant on the road and in the late afternoon we arrive in San Isidro lying in a valley at the foot of the mountains, clean, tranquil and beautiful. A large white neo-Gothic cathedral sits heavy at the eastern end of the Town Square. We eat in a small Peruvian restaurant- one of the cheapest places in town where the food is pretty decent, and sleep in a hotel. The room for the three of us is $35 per night and it is pretty basic. It has two double beds and a TV. The bathrooms and showers are shared- outside of the room. But there is hot water and we wash our dirty clothes in the shower. We have only a couple of T-shirts, shorts, underwear and socks each, so we have to wash them every time we can. We are super happy to sleep in beds, after spending the past few nights camping on the beaches of Osa Peninsula and sleeping in a tent.

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Cathedral in San Isidro

In the morning, we take another bus to a small picturesque village up in the mountains- San Gerardo de Rivas. Our main purpose in Costa Rica is to climb its highest mountain- Cerro Chirripó rising at 3820m above sea level . It is located in the Chirripó National Park and is famous for its ecological wealth and extremely high biodiversity. San Gerardo is the town from where the trail begins.

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San Gerardo

Parque Nacional Chirrpo

There, we visit the Park Service where our ordeal begins. First, we have to make a reservation. We fill forms; write down names and passport numbers. Then, with a piece of paper and a reservation number, we go to another place to do a bank transfer ($7 per person; Maya pays too for the bank transaction) and pay the park’s entrance fee. We have to write down our names and passport numbers again. The park’s entrance fee is $16 per person per day, $1 for Maya, as she is 12. We need two days minimum to hike the 40-kilometer trek up and down the mountain, so for the entrance fee we spend $65 plus 21$ for the bank transfer.. So far $86 for the three of us, just to enter in the park. Now, with the proof of the bank transaction, we walk back to the park’s office. We have to fill forms once again, and write our names and passport numbers again, and with this done, we have to walk all the way to another office on the other side of town- about 15-minute walk- to pay for the sleeping accommodations and reserve meals inside the park, which is not done by the park’s services, but by a private local organization. There, we have to fill forms, write down our names and passport numbers for a fourth time, and we have to pay $40 per person to sleep in a bunk bed up in the “Refugio” (ranger station) 5 km before the summit. The meals cost $20 for breakfast and $25 for lunch or dinner each! No thanks, we will be on canned ham and crackers diet for the next two days… Can we sleep in a tent instead of a shelter? No, there is no other option but the 40-dollar bunk bed. Tents are not allowed. Our total for a two-day trek to Cerro Chirripo is $206.00, food not included. We feel robbed. This is the most expensive mountain we ever climbed so far… We complain to every official in each of the offices we visit, and tell them that these prices are ridiculous and offending, and charging so much is not fair. We have climbed many other mountains in the Caribbean, Central and South America, many of them for free, including Pico Duarte in Dominican Republic, which is a very similar two-day one-night hike, and even with two mules and a guide, it is much less expensive. Costa Rica has by far the most expensive nature, and this unfortunately keeps many tourists away. But, as we found out, there is a cheaper way to experience Cerro Chirripo, as long as you have time and you plan it well in advance. You can sign up for the volunteer program and work in the park (office job or maintaining the trails) for a minimum of 6 days. Your accommodation will be covered. All you need to pay for is transportation to food. Kids under 18 can participate too, as long as they are accompanied by a parent. For more information you can download the PDF file of the park’s volunteer program (in Spanish) http://www.parquenacionalchirripo.com/pdf/voluntariado.pdf

Hostel Casa Chirripó

All the reservations and payments done, we are ready to find a hostel and relax for another night before the big hike tomorrow. San Gerardo is full of hostels, as many tourists from all over the world come to conquer Costa Rica’s highest peak. The one we choose is a small colorful house turned hostel at one end of town, next to a river. Hostel Casa Chirripó .

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Mira and Maya in front of the hostel

As soon as we enter, we feel like home and we don’t go looking further. This will be our “home” for the night. Our room is clean and tastefully decorated and Maya loves her cozy bed with cheerful colorful blankets. For the three of us it’s $40, breakfast and transportation to the trailhead in the morning included. Pretty awesome!

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Our room

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The Kitchen

But the best thing about the place, are the people who run it. They are the friendliest guys, especially Jose Anderson. He is the one who has painted the walls and he promises: as soon as we return from the mountain, the Bulgarian flag will be added on the wall with the flags. We will be the first Bulgarians staying at this hostel who climbed Cerro Chirripo!

Jose Anderson in Hostel Casa Chirripo

Jose Anderson in Hostel Casa Chirripo

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The Bulgarian flag on the wall!

Hiking with Jose

Jose is one of those easy-going people, who have the talent of becoming your instant friends, and a few minutes after you meet them it feels as if you have known them forever. He is also very knowledgeable about the local flora and fauna, and offers to bring us to a small cave full of bats, and to show us a local cow farm. It’s a wonderful little afternoon walk; the path is surrounded by flowers, wild orange and lemon trees.

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– This little flower there is an orchid. It is small and it doesn’t look like and orchid, but it is, Jose laughs. And these lemons are supper sweet, try one. Oh! Look at this bird! This is a type of toucan!

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orchid

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We reach the cave. It is just a small opening between two big boulders at the end of a cow pasture, but it’s full of sleeping bats! I tell Jose about our friends back in El Golfito who study bats and cave systems in Costa Rica and who inspired us to learn and respect these animals. We are very happy we finally got to see bats! Thank you , Jose, you are brilliant!

Visit Hostal Cerro Chirripo and contact them through Facebook.

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Ivo and Jose in front of the cave

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Hiking Cerro Chirripo. Day 1

4:30 the next morning we are up and ready to go. This time, we leave our heavy stuff at the hostel and only take some food, water and jackets in the smallest backpack. It’s still dark when we start walking past pastures at first and then- in the wet mysterious evergreen jungle. At dawn, a family of capuchin monkeys are jumping overhead, going somewhere.

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The trail is beautiful and well maintained, not too steep. As we move upwards, the lower montane forest gives way to the montane rainforest with giant oak trees home of epiphytic ecosystems, towering at 50 meters and more over the other trees that average 30 meters, and the understory of ferns and bamboo.

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Every kilometer is marked and the countdown begins. There are 14 kilometers of uphill before us until we reach the shelter where we will sleep. Midway, kilometer 7 marks the end of the first part of the trail as we reach refugio Llano Bonito serving super expensive coffee, hot chocolate, and other treats. We drink some water and keep going. Here, we meet some sort of wild friendly partridges completely unafraid of us.

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The forest beyond this point and altitude is dry, the trees are much shorter, surrounded by cactus and scrub. Conditions become harsher. It gets steeper and harder to walk. After kilometer 10, there is no more forest, but alpine grasses, flowers and some small very dry trees all around us. The montane forests lying above 1500 meters elevation up to approximately 3000 meters elevation, transition to the grasslands and shrublands of the Costa Rican Páramo.

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These are the Talamancan montane forests very rich in biodiversity and they are Central America’s most intact ecoregions, with 40% of the ecoregion protected by national and international parks. Scientist estimate that between 3 and 4 percent of the biodiversity in the world is found here with 136 mammal species (jaguar, cougar, tapir, deer, anteater and several species of monkeys) and 450 species of birds among which the harpy eagle and the quetzal. The Costa Rican páramo, also known as the Talamanca páramo, is a natural region of montane grassland and shrubland found above 3000 meters elevation on the summits of the highest mountains. These are also called sky islands- home of many species of plants and animals. Here, we feel like we are in a different world. It is breathtakingly serene and beautiful.

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We start seeing fat scaly lizards- some black other green-blue, sunning themselves on rocks and branches near the path. Later, we found out that these are the emerald swift or green spiny lizard (Sceloporus malachiticus)- a species of small lizard, native to Central America.

Emerald swifts

Emerald swifts are distinctly bright green in color, with males typically being more striking than females. They grow from 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) in length. Like other species in the genus Sceloporus, their scales tend to be fairly stiff and heavily keeled, giving them a spiny texture. Emerald swifts are arboreal lizards. In the early morning they forage for insects, and then spend much of the day basking in the sun. They will retreat to a burrow, or under a rock or log if the temperature becomes too high or to sleep. (from Wikipedia)

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Emerald swift (male)

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Emerald swift (female)

At Crestones Ranger Station

After 10 hours of walking, we reach kilometer 14 and the Ranger Station Los Crestones already full with other mountaineers who cheer for us as soon as we walk through the door. Maya is the youngest hiker this day and we are once again the proudest parents. It has been a beautiful sunny rainless day; we are tired and hungry and super happy to be here. For the fifth time, we have to write down our names and passport numbers in the big registry book. By now, I just invent random numbers. We are then awarded with two blankets each and a key to a room with two bunk beds- the coldest most expensive “hotel” we have ever slept in and there is not even a shower. At this altitude, it gets freezing at night. While the rest of the mountaineers eat hot meals prepared in the kitchen of the ranger station, we eat canned food and crackers. Most of the people are locals (they pay less) and Europeans: lots of German and French. In our room, we sleep with our clothes on wrapped in the blankets.

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Climbing Cerro Chirripo. Day2

The next morning, we wake up at 3:00 a.m. and start walking in the dark with little headlights on. There are 5 more kilometers to the summit, and these are the toughest ones. At this altitude, I can barely breathe. It’s freezing cold. We can hear a river, but don’t see it. All we see are billions of stars hanging above us, and contours of black mountains. We are walking through the thick grasses of the Costa Rican paramo. The path is hard to find in the dark, especially when it goes over flat rocky areas. We lose it. We have to come back and find it again. We keep walking. We want to get to the summit just before sunrise and watch the daybreak from the top of Costa Rica, but I am struggling with the altitude and am way too slow. I don’t feel good at all. I want to quit. I want to go back in the shelter and wait there. But Ivo and Maya are urging me to keep going. They stop and wait for me while I rest every couple of minutes. I need to sit down, catch my breath, and wait for my heart to calm down. The terrain gets rougher and steeper, and on top of that the cold wind picks up. After one last turn, we finally see the last peak. Cerro Chirripo is beautiful and frightening- a vertical steep pyramid of grey rocks. I give up. I will not reach this summit. It’s way too hard for me. I tell Ivo and Maya to leave me behind and hurry up to catch the sunrise. I want to start walking back and will wait for them at the shelter. Reluctant, Ivo and Maya continue without me. As they start the final ascent, I hear Maya in the distance saying- “Mama, don’t come, this is way too difficult for you, you can’t make it!”

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Alone, I sit and rest for a while but it gets too cold. I have to keep going or I will freeze to death. I get up and start walking again. Towards the summit. Slowly, I climb over the rocks on my fours. This reminds me of our ordeal going down from Volcan Baru in Panama... The sun is already out and I can see the dark crater lake and the sea of white clouds below. Ivo and Maya are already on top and when they see me struggling across the final vertical meters of the mountain like a wounded old turtle, they are super happy and surprised. In fact, I haven’t seen Ivo so happy and proud of me for a long time. This makes me feel happy too. I made it! We all made it to the top of Costa Rica, what a glorious unforgettable moment!

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Maya with Cerro Chirripo behind her

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After a few freezing cold minutes on the summit and a well-deserved chocolate, we start the long downhill walk. It’s 5 km back to the shelter plus 14km back to the village for a total of 24 km for the day. The walk down is easier on the hearth and lungs, but proves harder on the knees and legs, and I struggle again. The weather is once again perfect. We don’t get a drop of rain the entire time both days, and only when we return to San Gerardo and finally sit on the bench in front of the small grocery shop in town eating some cheap spicy sausage and drinking local beer with a young coupe form Quebec, it starts poring. But we don’t care. We are back, we are dry, and we are resting. No more hiking for today.

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Ivo, Mira and Maya on top of Cerro Chirripo 3820m

Tips for climbing Cerro Chirripo

Make reservations in advance if possible. There are only 60 people per day allowed in the park, as there are only 60 beds in the ranger station. While we were in San Gerardo, we met a guy who had to wait one more day, as the park quota was reached and he couldn’t climb the summit the same day.
Bring good mountain boots, winter jackets and hats, and flashlights. The lights at Crestones are switched off at 8:00 p.m. and the hike in the morning begins in total darkness.
Bring a bottle of water. You can refill it at kilometer 7 and once again before Crestones.
Even though we didn’t get any rain, it is highly possible that you will, so bring rain ponchos.
If you feel, like we do, that the park fees are way too expensive, you can make a complaint. Hopefully, they will lower the prices if more people express their opinion. For more information, visit the park’s website Parque Nacional Chirripo

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Free Camping in Osa Peninsula

Free Camping in Osa Peninsula

 

After spending our first three Costa Rica days in El Golfito visiting Stanimira and Angel and relaxing in the House at The Bottom of The Jungle, we prepare our backpacks and head for Puerto Jimenez- one of the main cities on Osa Peninsula and the gateway to Corcovado National Park. We get there by a small ferry that leaves every hour from El Golfito, costs $6 per person and the trip is about 40 minutes.

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El Golfito Ferry Port

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Maya waiting for the ferry

Puerto Jimenez turns out to be more of a small village with only one main paved street, full with hostels and tourist agencies offering guides and tours in Corcovado and the surrounding areas. As soon as we set foot on the main street, cars start stopping next to us offering taxi rides with hush voices. Illegal taxi rides, as these are not taxis but regular cars. It looks like every car in Puerto Jimenez is a taxi. At first, we refuse politely, then we refuse firmly, then we simply ignore them and just wish they would stop bothering us. We are here not to ride taxis or go on guided tours but to walk and to camp for free in the footsteps of two other Bulgarian adventurers before us- Tery and Ivan.

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Ivo and Maya in Puerto Jimenez. Main Street

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The typical local food consists of rice and beans and some extras around. A plate costs $6 in a local “soda” joint. Way too expensive for rice and beans…

Tery and Ivan are hitchhiking around the world and have been in hundreds of countries on most continents. Their adventures and misadventures are described in Terry’s blog Hitchhiking Around The World. Tery contacted us through our blog and we hoped to meet her and her friend somewhere in Central America, but the timing was not good and they were long gone by the time we got in Costa Rica. Nevertheless, we kept in touch and Tery gave us tons of good info and advice where to go, what to expect and how to enjoy some of the country’s natural wonders for free, which is our main objective. Thank you Tery!

The Greenest Country on Earth

Even though Costa Rica is small in territory (50 000 square kilometers), it is one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet with lush rainforests, tropical beaches and mountains, containing 4% of the total world animal species. Costa Rica enjoys the status of “The Greenest Country on Earth” and has the reputation of being eco-friendly, carbon neutral, using non-polluting hydroelectricity, and leaving one of the smallest ecological footprints in the world. This is because there is not much industry and the main income for the country is tourism.

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Green Costa Rica

All this is true and sounds very beautiful; we fell in love with the healthy green nature here, and the abundance of wildlife is truly overwhelming, but tourism being the main money-thing means that tourists are regarded as walking ATM machines, and we didn’t enjoy this at all. Unfortunately, “green” is all most Costa Ricans are about; the green of the dollar. Costa Rica, with its greedy National Park and Foreign Tourist policies has already become one extremely expensive tourist resort reserved for the rich and the privileged only. The backpacker of limited means who cannot afford to spend money for guides, for expensive Eco-lodge accommodations or illogical entrance fees, cannot survive long here and is not welcome. Nature in Costa Rica has been transformed into an expensive often private commodity and is being sold and prostituted to those who can afford it only. A bright example is Park Corcovado on the Osa Peninsula- one of the most bio-diverse spots on the planet with a variety of climates and ecosystems, ranging from lowland rainforests, to highland cloud forests, mangrove swamps, coastal marine, and beach habitats. But getting in Corcovado is complicated and ridiculously expensive. You can only enter the park if you have registered at least 1 month (31 days) in advance or more, and paid the fees by bank transfer. No cash or credit cards accepted. If you simply show up at the park’s entrance without a guide, with no registration, reservation and bank transfers in hand you will not enter, no matter what. The bank transfer itself costs between $30-60 and there are two separate transfers to be done- one for the entrance and accommodation fees and another for food reservation. Since November 2014, you can enter the park ONLY with a guide. A guide costs $80-90 per day. (Why only one year ago tourists had the option to enter the park without a guide, but today there is no longer such an option, I am asking, what changed?)

Corcovado Park fees:

Park Daily Use Fee: $15 (per person, per day)
Dorm sleeping per night: $8 (per person, per night)
Camping: $4 (per person, per night)
Breakfast: $20 (per person)
Lunch: $25 (per person)
Dinner: $25 (per person)
Guide: $90 (per day)
Bank transfer: $60

Here is a math problem for you to solve: How much it will cost a family of three to visit park Corcovado for three days, planning to camp for two nights and eat two or three meals per person per day?

I calculate an amount of over $600, even though it is still not clear to me if a guide is needed for each day and if the guide fee is per person or for the group. And even if we haul on our backs all the food that we will eat for three days, we will still spend hundreds of dollars for just two nights camping in our own tent. Oh, and getting to the park’s entrance is another big $$$ story.

But there is an alternative, as Tery told us, and we are urging every traveler of limited means to follow in our footsteps and experience the nature around park Corcovado, which is essentially similar to the nature inside the park, and meet the animals, absolutely free! Here is what we did, a few months after Tery and Ivan have passed through these same places.

Map of Osa Peninsula Free Camping Sites

In The Footsteps of Tery and Ivan

From Puerto Jimenez, we start walking on a flat gravel road direction- Park Corcovado- some 40 kilometers away. It’s December- dry season, the sky is blue, the sun is shining. Temperature is over 40 degrees Celsius, the humidity is high. On both sides of the road there are fenced pastures where cows and horses are gazing in the company of small white egrets.

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The road from Puerto Jimenez to Corcovado

Here, we spot the Scarlet (Ara) Macaws for the first time and it’s a miracle! They are like large flowers in the green of the branches, or like an unreal kid’s painting against the blue of the sky- bright red birds decorated with yellow and blue feathers.

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Scarlet Macaws, Osa Peninsula

It’s noon and the thin shade of the few trees along the road is not helping much. After an hour, we hitchhike. There is not much traffic on this road but we get lucky pretty quickly and a guy from the United States who owns property here lets us ride in the back of his pickup truck for a while. Then a local couple picks us up (what a surprise!) and we get to our first destination way earlier than we expected.

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Playa Pan Dulce

18 kilometers from Puerto Jimenez, there is an exit from the main road leading to Matapalo. Just before Matapalo, we reach a beautiful beach invaded by tiny hermit crabs- Pan Dulce (Sweet Bread).

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Hermit crab

This is the place Tery was telling me about. This is our spot. And it’s truly phenomenal. We set our tent near the sand strip in a small coconut palm grove, away from the beach, as the tides here are so big, you can wake up floating in your tent towards Australia if you camp too near to the sea.

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At low tide, the receding waters of the Pacific Ocean reveal a floor of large flat rocks wet and shining under a spectacular pink-and-purple sunset. We walk around, we bathe in the sea, we eat our canned food while watching a couple of spider-monkeys eating the white flowers of the trees above us, and the red squirrels drilling holes in the coconuts, and the tiny hermit crabs scavenging bellow for whatever falls down from the trees. Howler monkeys are suffering in the distance; we sleep disturbed only by the sudden thud of coconuts falling next to our tent.

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In the morning, we watch the sunrise in the company of Scarlet Macaws.

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I actually don’t pay much attention to the sunrise, as I cannot stop taking pictures of the birds that let me get so close to them, I can almost touch them. Their presence, since we arrived on the peninsula, has been almost constant; they are so abundant here- almost like the seagulls in other parts of the world, yet we cannot get used to them and every time we see them, we celebrate. They say, there are more Scarlet Macaws on Osa Peninsula than in the rest of the world combined. I keep thinking how lucky we are to experience such moments together as a family. I observe Maya observing the parrots, and her eyes are shining, and my heart is melting. It seems unreal to me that Maya is watching macaws in Costa Rica…

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Scarlet Macaws
This brilliantly colored, medium-sized macaw is the only macaw found on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. Macaws are the largest parrots in the Americas, and the Scarlet Macaw is distinct both in color and shape.
With strong wings, the scarlet macaw noisily flies high over the canopy. Their loud, resonant, boisterous calls can often be heard as they fly, but they are usually quiet while feeding. Pairs, trios, or small family groups are often seen, but these may sometimes merge into flocks of 25 or even 50 individuals at large roosts in tall trees or mangroves.
The Scarlet Macaw nests in large holes in tall living or dead trees; they do not dig these holes, but rely on finding cavities that are high off the ground and have vertical entrances. A macaw pair will lay 1-2 eggs per season in such a nest and raise them together. These macaws are serially monogamous, but they may change mates after several seasons.
In 1900, these parrots could still be seen in forests throughout Costa Rica; by 1950, however, due to habitat destruction, they were absent from the Caribbean slope except in the Northwest. They have also suffered from the pet trade; fortunately, today they are protected in every country in which they live. However, in Costa Rica, their populations still have been reduced by the destruction of their habitat. They are now constrained to the forests of the upper Golfo de Nicoya, such as in Palo Verde National Park, and the forests of the Osa Peninsula, such as at Corcovado National Park.
Source: Anywhere Costa Rica

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After breakfast- my favorite breakfast is fresh coconuts that fell last night, we start walking again.

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Mira having her favorite breakfast

This time, the terrain is no longer flat pastures but forested steep hills and it’s up-hill through the jungle for the next 10 kilometers, almost all the way to Rio Piro. The heat is intense; the humidity is 100%. This time, we have no luck hitchhiking. Only a few cars pass in the next 5 hours and none is interested in picking us up. But that’s fine. We came here to walk and be in the forest.

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The large blue morpho butterflies are another masterpiece of nature we cannot get used to, even though they are everywhere. We spot squirrel-monkeys and howler-monkeys and even an anteater up in a tree, using it’s tale as a hand to grab on branches while scratching the bark for termites.

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Anteater

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By noon, we reach a wide shallow river- Rio Piro. A narrow path through the forest just before the river leads us to another spectacular beach- the same one Terry and Ivan got hit by a tropical storm at and their tent almost floated away in the flooded river. They were here during rainy season. We are here in the beginning of dry season and instead of rain we experience the intense burning heat of the tropics. The beach is huge, absolutely deserted, and scorching hot. The only sign of humans here are the numerous sticks marking sea turtle nests.

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Piro Beach

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The waves are monstrous and violent, braking against the steep beach, and it is impossible to go in the water. We are tired but cannot sit in the shadow of the mangrove trees on the edge of the forest, because of some nasty ants that want to eat us, nor in the forest all covered with mud. And sitting on the beach would be suicidal; the sun will kill us for sure in less than five minutes. Even walking on the burning sand with no shoes on is impossible.

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Luckily, there is the river. Where the jungle ends and the sand dunes begin, a slow stream of crystal clear waters gently floats. We dump the tent and backpacks and jump in the cool fresh delicious waters of the river complete with a tree leaning over it for shade and a spectacular view.

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Ivo and Maya in Paradise

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This is the perfect spot- a piece of paradise just for us; our swimming pool, shower and laundry room. We spend here the rest of the day, cooling down, playing with the tiny fishes, relaxing, and washing our dirty clothes and bodies. Squirrel monkeys, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, eagles, herons and macaws come out again in the late afternoon, noisy and busy with their usual business.

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Spider-monkey

Squirrel-monkey

Squirrel-monkey

Howler-monkey

Howler-monkey

As the sun sets, the temperature drops and we can now go inside the tent, play some dominoes, have some more canned food, and sleep among sea turtle nests.

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Our tent. The Green House Effect is in effect…

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Insde the tent. Casino time.

And this is how we walked, camped and experienced the unique nature of Osa Peninsula, and saw all the animals you might see in park Corcovado without a guide, with no reservations, and absolutely free!

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In the next posts, you will find out how to enjoy some more of Costa Rica’s best nature destinations cheaply or for free.

 

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Hiking Volcan Baru

Hiking Volcan Baru

Ivo and Maya on top of Volcan Baru

Ivo and Maya on top of Volcan Baru

We wake up at 4:30 a.m. and, loaded with our huge backpacks, head for Volcan Baru- a dormant volcano and Panama’s highest peak rising at 3475m. Ivo’s backpack is as big and as heavy as a small chubby dead person who even in his desperate state of utter lifelessness hasn’t lost the ability to put on weight and grow slightly each day. We call him The Chinaman. Ivo hauls him on his back up and down mountains, in cities and villages, in jungles and across borders and we all hate him with passion. The Chinaman and the two other backpacks are our biggest enemies right now.

Maya and Ivo (and the Chinaman) hiking

Maya and Ivo (and the Chinaman) hiking

The town of Boquete is asleep. Those who told us that there is a bus to the trailhead at 5:00 a.m. must have been joking, as there is not a single car on the street; not a bus, not a soul, except for one crazy hobo singing a happy tune, telling us in Spanish that “the road is long”. Desperate, we walk up and down the empty town’s streets for a few minutes and just when we lose hope of getting to the park’s entrance on time, we spot a lone taxi. He takes us up to the trailhead for $7. It is still dark and the park’s office is still closed, which means we are on time, because we can walk right past the office building and begin the long hike without paying the entrance fee- $5 per person, charged only after 6:00 a.m.

Maya and Mira at the beginning of the trail to Volcn Baru

Maya and Mira at the beginning of the trail to Volcn Baru

We walk under the heavy weight of our backpacks loaded with sleeping bags and rolled matts, jackets and clothes for hot and cold weather, cereal bars and canned food for two days, water bottles and photo cameras- all the stuff we will need in the next one month while visiting Costa Rica and Nicaragua, where we are heading after Panama. Most of the heaviest stuff and the tent make up The Chinaman- about 30 kg. Maya’s pack is 7 kg, mine- 15 kg. Soon, our legs begin to hurt and the higher we go the harder it gets. We are not used to high altitudes and huge backpacks.

Hiking with heavy packs

Hiking with heavy packs

If we had no backpacks, the walk from Boquete to the summit would be much easier and painless, even pleasant, on a wide rocky road accessible by 4×4 all the way to the top, passing by mountainous forests, green pastures and rocky hills, so beautiful we forget about the pain of the long walk and pause often to admire Nature’s charms. Large trees dominate the lower slopes, giving way to smaller plants, bushes, scrub and alpine wildflowers as we go higher. It is uphill most of the way for 12km, not very steep, starting at around 1600m with 1900m elevation gain.

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We stop to rest frequently. At noon, we eat lunch on a huge rock in the middle of the road thinking how difficult it would be for those 4WD cars to pass through here. But they do. They suffer and roar and struggle, but those Toyotas somehow miraculously do get to the top and back in one piece (half of the time).

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Lunch on the rock

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Normally, it should take 6 to 8 hours to get to the campground area, which is just before the summit. But we barely make it in 10 hours, completely destroyed, and pitch the tent under a large roofed shelter, half burned and rotten, surrounded by low moss-covered trees. It’s just before sunset- fog and light rain- and at 3200m altitude, it’s freezing cold. We “sleep” with our hats and NorthFace jackets on inside the sleeping bags. It is incredible that just a few hours ago and at 1900 meters lower altitude it was hot tropical summer. Many people start climbing in the warm weather unprepared for the freezing temperatures. One person has died of hypothermia on top of Baru in 1995. Besides cold, it is also uncomfortable, and our legs hurt so much from the long heavy walk it’s hard to sleep. Rather, we wait for the night to end in a series of short nightmares.

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The place we slept the first night

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It’s freezing cold

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Around 4:00 a.m. we hear a group of people passing near the tent. They flash lights at us and this is a sign it is time to get up and go one and a half more kilometers steep uphill to the summit. These guys have started the hike from Boquete around midnight, walking all night in order to get to the summit before daybreak and watch the glorious sight of the sun rising over the clouds below and the sky turn from black to purple to blue, orange and pink. It is said that in clear day you can see both oceans from the top- the Atlantic to the east and the Pacific to the west, but we are not lucky that day. As we climb the last kilometer and a half wrapped in our winter jackets and hats, a strong cold wind brings clouds and rain.

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On top of Baru there are some large unromantic installations and cellphone, internet, TV and radio towers emitting constant buzzing sounds. The group of early hikers are freezing huddled next to one of the buildings’ walls; one guy is in shorts and his legs are white-blue. He starts looking for wood to make fire. We are observing him thinking that for the first time in our lives we will see a person dying of hypothermia in front of our eyes, when Jaime shows up and invites us all inside the warm cozy ranger’s station. Jaime is the summit and installations’ guard from Panama’s National Police Force. He is stationed alone on top of Baru spending 15 days per month away from his family in a small room, on top of Panama. He is a great guy and invites us for coffee and hot chocolate.

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On top of Baru

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Ivo on top of Baru

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Mira, Maya and ivo on top of Baru

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At the station, we found out that we could have slept there for free (instead of the tent a few meters below) if we had walked 30 more minutes the previous day….It’s an emergency shelter, and the guard stationed there is super welcoming and a very nice person. He loves guests!

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The Nomadiks with Jaime

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Jaime Alberto stationed on guard duty on top of Volcan Baru

We go back down after spending some time at the summit watching the sun rising underneath a thick blanket of clouds and the clouds become gold, purple and pink; we pack the tent and bring everything back up, as the trail to the other side of Baru towards the town of Volcan starts right at the peak. We decide to take this unpopular, shorter but much harder and steeper path on the western side of the volcano instead of walking back down on the eastern flank to Boquete (a medium- difficult hike), and very soon we regret this decision, but it’s too late.

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The walk down on the western flank is rated : “Muy dificil” (very difficult) going almost vertically down some unstable lava flows. Click on the image to enlarge.

The hike from the top of Baru to the town of Volcan is rated ‘very difficult’. More difficult than this would be rock climbing, and going down proves to be much harder and more dangerous than going up. Here, the volcano shows its true character. The trail follows old crumbling lava flows, huge burned boulders and extremely steep cliffs. Our heavy backpacks throw us off balance and act like sails; we are constantly “jibing” when strong puffs coming from behind push us. Yet, our biggest problem is no longer the weight of the packs but the terrain which here is not just difficult, but extremely dangerous. Ivo and Maya are much faster, but I am terrified as one wrong move here can be fatal, and sometimes it takes me forever to make even one step. Instead of covering the entire 7 km of the trail in about 3-4 hours, we cover one kilometer in 3 hours, starting at 10:00 a.m., after spending some time drinking coffee and hot chocolate and chatting with Jaime. By the time we are down from the rocky slopes and into the jungles of the lowlands, it is already late afternoon.

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In the jungle, it doesn’t get better. The path is still steep downhill and we have to jump down muddy narrow crevices and fallen trees. It has been eight hours of nightmare; my knees are shaking by now and I cannot make another step. I’m done. Ivo, with The Chinaman on his back, takes my backpack too and keeps walking like a leaf-cutter ant with almost double the load, bitching. We are by now completely miserable and just want the ordeal to be over. But the trail keeps going on and on and soon it’s dark. Night finds us in the middle of a tropical forest, exhausted, dehydrated (we finished the water around noon) and far away from civilization. We keep walking with small headlights in the darkness, thinking about snakes, jaguars and other monsters.

In this kind of extreme situations, one’s true character emerges. It turns out, I am a quitter. I just want to stop walking and sleep. I tell Ivo and Maya to leave me in the forest with my backpack and sleeping bag; I cannot continue; I’m not afraid of the jungle; I’ll find them tomorrow in the village. Ivo is a survivor, a stubborn mule with limitless strength and the exact opposite of a quitter. With the two heavy backpacks he keeps going even though he is also completely exhausted and won’t leave me alone in the jungle. He is helping me as much as possible even tough at this point in time and space, we hate each other with passion. Maya is ahead of the two of us and her true character turns out to be one of a hero. She walks without complaining and tries to cheer us up, telling us “We are almost there; don’t give up; I see the end (even though she doesn’t), we are almost out of the jungle; we can make it; come on!”

Around 8:00 p.m. we are out of the jungle, walking on a wide leveled path covered with thick tall grass. Here, we pitch the tent on the side of the path over a grassy patch and sleep. The wind is violent that night, coming down from the mountain, the tent bends and tries to fly away like a kite, but we don’t care. Thirsty and hungry, we sleep.

The next morning, we awake renewed at the bottom of a beautiful valley- a sea of purple meadows, spiky trees and enormous cacti surrounded by black hills. Thin rain clouds are slowly nearing from the north and with the sun low above the eastern horizon we walk again, under a rainbow. We discover that the end of the trail is just 100 m away from our campsite but it is not the end of the road. From here, we have to walk a few more kilometers on a black road to the first village- Paso Ancho. Luckily, a local woman dropping off tourists heading to Baru gives us a lift on her way back. And this journey is over.

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Our campsite the second night

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Mira pointing at the summit. On the right side of her finger is the trail from Boquete rater ‘medium difficult’ and on the left side of her finger is the trail to Paso Ancho rated ‘very difficult’- vertical down!

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First people we meet after our descent! These guys in the pickup truck are going to climb Baru from the very difficult western flank…. They have no idea what’s ahead of them… and are super exited

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Ivo and Maya walking hand in hand under a rainbow.

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The first house we see as we walk down toward the village. We go there to ask for water.

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At the ranch, we are greeted by indigenous Guayami kids

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Their mother comes out to see us too.

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She has the most beautiful smile in the world….

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After unloading the hikers, the pickup truck picks us up on the way back and saves us a lot of walking to the village of Paso Ancho.

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The Nomadiks with the woman who gave us a ride. The journey is over!

 

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Rocks and Cacti in Aruba

Rocks and Cacti in Aruba

Aruba was a pleasant surprise. We didn’t expect to find so many interesting places on such a small (32 km x10 km) flat desert island. After visiting California Lighthouse, the Alto Vista Chapel and the northwest rocky shores, we decided to go for a hike in the desert in the interior of the island and to check out some more of the tourist attractions.

Мира в Казибари

Casibari Rock Formations

The Casibari Rock Formations, abut 3 km from the capital Oranjestad, are brownish- reddish boulders sticking out in the middle of the desert as if they had fallen from the sky, surrounded by cacti. It is still a mystery how this pile of huge rocks smooth and strangely shaped came to be on such a flat sandy island, where the tallest elevation is a hill barely reaching 189 m. One of the theories is that their origin is in fact extraterrestrial…

Скали в Казибари

The first inhabitants from the Arawak tribe would climb on top of the boulders and stare at the eastern horizons to see if a storm is approaching. Here, hundreds of years ago, they used to pray and perform rituals for the gods of rain and lightning.

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A narrow path through cacti and heavy rocks lead us to the steep steps of wood and stone. We climbed on top of a flat boulder. Aruba was stretching in our feet, surrounded by blue waters. On a clear day one can spot the shores of Venezuela in the south.

Скални формации Казибари, Аруба

From the top of one of the cacti which had invaded the entire island, a small orange-and-black bird was watching us. The Trоupial is one of the few rare birds native of Aruba.

Трупиал от Аруба

Arikok National Park

 

The next day, we packed water and sandwiches, put on shoes good for hiking in a salty desert surrounded by sea, and went to Arikok National Park.

Мая и Иво в парк Арикок

 

The Arikok Park occupies a huge territory on the island, almost 20 percent of Aruba. It is one of the main tourist destinations offering a variety of attractions and landscapes to the visitors: caves with pertroglyphs, sandy dunes, volcanic formations, abandoned gold mines, ruins of old traditional farms, rock formations, a natural pool and many beaches.

Северните брегове на Аруба, част от парк Арикок

 

We paid 11 US$ per adult (free for kids under 17) admission fee, we got a map of the area and we were warned to watch out for snakes.  Among the most common snakes in Aruba are the boa and the casabel- a type of rattlesnake endemic to Aruba, which you will not see anywhere else in the world. We’ve been told to stay on the paths in order to avoid stepping on a cactus or a rattlesnake.

– What do we do if a snake bites us?, we asked.

– You start counting, because you have 20 min to live, was the answer.

We decided to keep to the paths…

Мая в парк Арикок

 

Yet, a few times we did step off the path, mainly to take pictures of interesting things.

кактус

 

We didn’t step on a snake, but Mira did step on a cactus…

Мира стъпа на кактус.

 

In the park there are many hiking trails, as well as roads accessible by cars and off-roads accessible only by foot or 4×4 vehicles. The off-road safaris with jeeps and buggies are activities very popular with the tourists.

Оф-роуд сафари

 

We started on foot towards the natural pool. The park rangers told us that the hike is approximately 1.5 hrs. But we got lost, even though the paths are very well marked and there are signs at every crossroad. We just took the wrong turn at the beginning and after 1 hour of walking in the heat we got to a small traditional plantation house built in the cas di torto style.

Canucu Arikok

 

We had to turn back and walk another hour almost to the park entrance and when we got to the fatal crossroad with the sign we turned right and continued on to Natural Pool or Conchi.  But the deviation was worth it, as we enjoyed the monotonous rigid nature of this part of the park. We walked through forests of cacti and met a few goat families roaming in the shadows of the big boulders. We even encountered two caracara hawks perched on a rock in the company of big brown goat.

Двойка соколи и козел

 

The time was advancing, yet we were still far from destination. The sun hung low on top of our heads as if its greatest ambition was to start a fire in our hats. We climbed one hill from where we could see the sea and the northern shores of the island and from there was just downhill on a dusty rocky road accessible by 4×4 vehicles and hikers. Maya started complaining of her shoes…

Път към естественият басейн

We decided to hitchhike. A jeep with two girls from Boston passed by and the first thing they saw must have been Ivo’s beard, as they were not sure if they wanted to pick us up, but they finally did and saved us at lest one more hour of walking on rocks in the heat of the desert. What followed was the bumpiest ride we have experienced since the beginning of our adventure two years ago, except maybe when we had to drive on the mountain roads destroyed by landslides in the Dominican Republic countryside.

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Conchi- Natural Pool

 

We finally got to the natural pool- number one destination in the park. We were lucky and got there before all the off-road safaris with jeeps and buggies unloaded hundreds of noisy visitors, whose only wish was to jump in the cool waters of the pool and quickly transformed a secluded place into a soup of tourists.

Естествен басейн в Аруба

 

Mira in the Natural Pool

Mira in the Natural Pool

The Natural Pool is surrounded by rocks and protected by the stormy sea. It is like a small lake on the shore. They say that many years ago the islanders used the pool as “a prison” for sea turtles, who couldn’t escape in the sea.

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The place is excellent for swimming and snorkeling or just for hanging out in the clear waters heated by the sun. But when the waves are too big and crush high above the rocks, it is risky to go in.

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On the way back we hitchhiked again and got a ride in the back of one of the park’s 4×4 vehicles with three guys, one of whom was the park’s manager. He complained that the goats are eating up the vegetation and all there will be left soon are cacti. And by the way, we saw one goat eating a rotting cactus too.

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Arashi Beach

 

Another beautiful place we were fortunate to visit in Aruba is Arashi Beach. it is located near palm Beach and is just 15 minutes walk from our anchorage.

Араши плаж

 

This is the most picturesque rocky shore we have ever seen. On the backdrop of limestone carved by the sea and tall cacti standing on the edge of the rocks two pirate ships had dropped anchors. They bring tourists twice a day- in the morning and in the afternoon, to snorkel in the reefs.

Пиратски кораби, Аруба

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