New Publication: Jungle, desert, and elusive spider monkeys

The Gazette
Jungle, desert and elusive spider monkeys

This season’s issue of The Gazette features an article I wrote on my solo trek up the 12,529 foot Cerro Chirripo, the highest peak in Costa Rica and second highest in Central America.

The article, Jungle, desert, and elusive spider monkeys, provides a personal account of this exciting hike and the obstacles I faced along the way, including a misleading guidebook description, a painfully heavy pack, and a lack of hot food. Interestingly enough, I felt totally at home.

Get your hands on the current issue and come and see what I learned about Costa Rica upon arriving at Crestones Base Lodge at 11,063 feet. You might be surprised, too.

© Meghan J. Ward, 2009.

Destination Review: Casa Zen in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica

7 am – beach time. 9 am – batido (or smoothie) time. 9:30 am – yoga en plain air. 11 am onwards – anything you like.

Casa Zen

A day at Casa Zen, in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica, is what you want to make of it. But, the beachside setting, the food, and the remoteness is sure to provide a relaxing and rejuvenating environment after you’ve ditched your surfboard at the end of a long day on the waves. Not a surfer? At Casa Zen you can enjoy an open-air massage, read in a hammock on the upper patio, have a light thai-inspired meal or simply lie on the beach under the shade of swaying palms.

The small, coastal village of Santa Teresa sits in a more remote area of the Nicoya Peninsula on the Pacific Ocean. This village is growing slowly, but a lack of paved roads has deterred tourists despite its incredible potential as an ocean-side oasis. In June of 2009, I had the chance to visit this area of Costa Rica, and did not find the journey to be as arduous as described. But, as there are fewer people who travel to this destination, what results is a quieter community and a beach that is nearly deserted at times.

Casa Zen was recommended by my guidebook, so I chose to spend 4 nights there at the end of my trip. The owner of Casa Zen, Kelly Lange, opened the guesthouse in December of 2004. Originally from Kansas City, Lange used to visit her father, who was living in Costa Rica, and at one time visited – and fell in love with – Santa Teresa. She encouraged him to invest in some property in this small beach-side village, and the rest is history. Casa Zen features seven private rooms or apartments and two dorm rooms, The Rancho, which is an octagonal-shaped communal sitting and eating area, a Thai restaurant serving breakfast lunch and dinner, a small outdoor spa area, and an upper patio where hammocks hang beckoning a nap or reading session and are otherwise removed for morning yoga classes (catered to any level of experience).

Lange’s philosophy for Casa Zen is “fair pricing” in order to encourage wellness and holistic healing for everyone. “Enough is enough,” she said to me, reflecting on how it is only necessary to charge so much to her guests. A wandering backpacker can pay just $12 for a dorm bed, while private rooms start at just $24, for instance. The shared bathrooms are clean and accessible, and an outdoor camper’s kitchen allows travellers on a budget to cook meals for themselves.

Thai-Inspired Decor of Casa Zen

Casa Zen is not just for the backpacker, however. Young couples, families, or any traveller with a smaller budget can enjoy the services at Casa Zen, without needing to skimp out on quality. The environment at Casa Zen is very clean, secure, and at the hands of a team who clearly care about their establishment. Two internet stations allow you to stay connected with family at home, or to make plans for your next destination. The food is exceptional and well-priced, with menu options including fresh fruit smoothies, egg dishes, sandwiches, fresh guacamole and crisps, Vietnamese Bun, green curry, and sweet banana crepes to finish.

At night, when the sun has set, paper lanterns of various colours provide splashes of colour and light throughout Casa Zen, rendering a very funky and inviting atmosphere in which to sit and converse with other travellers.

Playa Santa Teresa

What’s in the future for Casa Zen? Lange has a dream of creating packaged yoga retreats and workshops, which would include healthy meals and a holistic approach to self-discovery and healing. Future plans also include extending the yoga studio to make it larger.

When I asked Lange what the most meaningful feedback on Casa Zen was for her, she mentioned without hesitation her “guestbook,” and the fact that some of her guests returned year after year and have since become friends. Perusing her guestbook before I signed my name, I was inspired by the entries of other travellers, who said that their stay at Casa Zen helped them to find themselves again.

No doubt Casa Zen can help you find yourself again, or give you the space to think and rejuvenate. And the best part is you can pamper yourself at Casa Zen, and treat yourself like royalty without spending the royal fees.

For more information, please see www.zencostarica.com

FAST FACTS

Getting There: From San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, either rent a car and drive, taking the ferry from Puntarenas to Paquera along the way, or take a private shuttle through Montezuma Expeditions.

mal-pais-santa-teresa-map

Accommodations: Dorm $12, Private Rooms $24+

Massage: ½ Hour $30, 1 Hour $55, 1.5 Hours $80

Yoga: $7 per class, or $25 for 5 classes

Food Items: $1.50 – $10

Langauges Spoken: English and Spanish

Internet: Available (two stations)

All photos by Meghan J. Ward.

Map from: http://www.paradisecellular.com/images/mal-pais-santa-teresa-map.jpg.

© Meghan J. Ward, 2009.

Back Home and New Publications

Well, I safely returned from Costa Rica last night, and have begun the painful process of re-entry into normal life. But, summer is upon us in the Rockies and has definitely provided a warm welcome (no pun intended).

In other news, check out my latest article in the summer 2009 issue of Highline Magazine (if you live in the Bow Valley), where I have also been included as a featured contributor.

Other projects include a few gigs for Travel Alberta publications, Fresh Tracks and City Spice, and of course some great articles about Costa Rica and my time there. Busy times ahead! Definitely getting out into the mountains this weekend, though!

Zipping Through

Since I wrote about Cerro Chirripo, I have been to La Fortuna, Monteverde, and now I am in the beach-side town of Santa Teresa on the Nicoya Peninsula.

La Fortuna was the ‘Banff’ of Costa Rica for me. Nothing against my town, but it was definitely the most developed and commercial place I have been – the ‘go-to’ place for first-time backpackers who are looking for a party and a pool. It was beautiful, nonetheless, and my hostel was positioned perfectly with a great view of Volcan Arenal, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Spewing smoke at all hours, and apparently an avalanche just after  I left, it is one of those wonders of the world that you just can’t take your eyes off of.

Fast forward to Monteverde, which is quite a neat little town nestled in the cloud forest. Monteverde was established as a Quaker settlement and is now filled with conservationists, hippies, and canopy tour operators. Upon my arrival there, I did the most touristy thing I have done so far on this trip and signed up for a zipline extravaganza through and over the cloud forest. The two highlights for me were definitely the “Tarzan Swing,” which is actually just as it sounds, and the kilometre long zip-line. My other days in Monteverde took me up Cerro Amigos, which had me bushwacking through forest that hadn’t seen the light of day in…ever, and walking through the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, a reserve of protected forest that is great for wild-life watching. I had a particularly hilarious confrontation with a monkey, who clearly knew  I was watching him, so he broke off a branch of the tree he was swinging on and threw it at me! I loved Monteverde and particularly the vibe of the hostel where  I was staying, Pension Santa Elena. It was the most social I have been on the whole trip.

And that brings me to Playa Santa Teresa, where I am staying at Casa Zen, a thai-inspired guesthouse 50 metres from the Pacific Ocean. Yesterday’s morning yoga session brought me to Zen-heaven – I had never done yoga outdoors before, let alone on a roof-top patio where ocean waves crashing on the shore near-by created a natural soundtrack. My trip finishes off soon, with one more day here after today and then a trip back to San Jose.

I’m off to another yoga session in a few minutes. I’ll see you there somewhere between Om and Namaste.

© Meghan J. Ward, 2009.

Café

Transcribing this from my journal entry on June 14…

Trying yet another one of Costa Rica’s coffee shops, this time the Rainforest Café. Costa Ricans sure love their café, and I love them for that. Or perhaps they know that we North Americans love coffee, and so they make it readily available. Apparently, Americans drink more coffee than Costa Ricans, though I would have to say that, based on observation, Ticos enjoy their coffee more – not simply downing it droopy-eyed in the morning and hourly thereafter to kick start the old engine.

best coffee in the world

Made traditionally, it takes much longer to produce just a single cup of coffee (Tico-style); a whole pot would be unthinkable and time-consuming, though Ticos seem to have all the time in the world.

I take a sip of what may be the best latté I have ever had. I have said that before while I’ve been here, but this time is unmistakable. And writing and coffee go so well together, except that it take me a long time to write and only a few short minutes to see the bottom of my coffee cup.

Rumour has it, one of the sentences Ticos used to make their children read while learning to read was something along the lines of  “I drink coffee every day. Coffee is good for me.” (I am fairly sure I have also heard my mother say this by her own volition and not simply reading a school textbook). Scientists have long debated whether or not coffee is “good” for you. No doubt, though, it is good for the soul and boosts your spirits.

A magical bean, I say.

Check out http://www.cafemonteverde.com/, one of the local coffee co-ops in Monteverde, Costa Rica.

© Meghan J. Ward, 2009.

Cerro Chirripo: 12,530 Feet

If you are using this information for your own trip, please read this disclaimer and description of my abilities.

I don’t know what ‘Chirripo’ means, but based on the climb to Crestones Base Lodge, it makes me think it means “The Annihilator.”

Sitting at 12,530 feet, Cerro Chirripo is the highest peak in all of Costa Rica. I decided it would be a good idea to set my sights on hiking up the thing – a kind of ‘right of passage’ on this solo trip I have taken to Central America. Starting in San Gerardo de Rivas, which lies at the same elevation as the town of Banff, I think, I embarked at 4:45 am on Day 1 with hopeful optimism. “I’ve done this dozens of time before,” I thought to myself, trying to boost my confidence as I entered the mess of vines and trees that line the 20 km trail to the top.

Around the 7th km, I found out that the base lodge where I would spend the night was actually at 14.5 km in and not 10 km in (thank you, Lonely Planet). It ruffled my feathers a bit, but I had no choice but to keep going. The sun was coming up higher and the heat and humidity starting to produce beads of sweat all over my face…the kind you see in a Gatorade Commercial. Around the 10th km, I stopped for a rest, feeling the weight of my pack starting to bear down on my shoulders. All of a sudden I felt like I had two anvils attached to my feet, and the Empire State Building sitting between my shoulder blades. It made for a fairly painful climb for the last few kilometers to the base lodge, which is situated in a valley that was the victim of a large forest fire back in the 1990s. Skeletons of trees reach out eerily from a fairly barren landscape, with only lizards to keep them company. A dense fog rolled in, welcoming me to 11,000 feet, where the rather large hut sits in the hillside.

My 2:30 am alarm the next morning was actually music to my ears after a cold, sleepless night. I hit the trail just before 3 am, and saw that a lightning storm was attacking the earth not too far away. I waited a few minutes to see which direction it was going, and just when I decided it wasn’t coming towards me, a guy from the UK came up the trail and we hiked to the summit together. The summit lay just over 5 km from the base lodge, and involved a rather exciting scramble at the finish. Clouds were low at the top, but had they been clear, apparently I could have seen both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean waters from the this viewpoint. It was still a beautiful moment, not just because of the scenery but because I had reached the top. It was the highest I’ve ever been, in fact.

I spent the rest of the day at the base lodge, wrapped in a blanket and wearing my toque and mitts…never thought I’d be that cold in Costa Rica. Another cold night awaited me but I was prepared with the blanket, which cost me about 1000 colones, and was well worth it. The hike back down the 14.5 km the following day only took me 4.5 hours, compared to the 7 hours it took to get to the summit.

After arriving back at Albergue Uran, where I enjoyed a wee feast of fajitas, “The Annihilator” simply became “Cerro Chirripo,” and a big check-mark on my itinerary. And so did the spider monkeys that I saw along the trail shortly before I exited the park. Swinging with not a care in the world, they definitely excited the little girl in me, and lifted the weight from my shoulders for the last leg of the trail.

Coming up is Volcan Arenal in La Fortuna, the Cloud Forest in Monteverde, and the beach at Santa Teresa.

© Meghan J. Ward, 2009.