The Bon Ton animal shelter, located on the Duty-free island of Langkawi originally started in Kuala Lumpur over 20 years ago. There, a restaurant/hotel owner and animal lover began a shelter and several years later moved the operation to Langkawi. The shelter consists of several parts. One is the retirement ward where over 60 dogs spend the remainder of their lives in spacious yards or in the owners home and are tended to carefully and lovingly by full-time staff members. The second part is located at a different location near the base of the mountains of Langkawi where over 70 dogs are looked after by full-time staff. The last is also located at the Bon Ton Resort and they are the “regular” shelter dogs. Over 50 young to middle-aged (or even old dogs who think they are still young such as 16-year old Nemo) dogs call the shelter home and are walked daily by volunteers and have play-time or social time in the afternoons.
The volunteer program is organized by another avid animal lover volunteer of over 10 years, Dorothy, who is a resident of Langkawi and joins in on the morning walks daily. There are of course other staff members who assist in the cleaning and general caring of the shelter dogs and over 100 cats there as well. For with so many animals, it would be impossible not to have staff on board!! While volunteers help with walking dogs, feeding, general cleaning when needed and play time in the afternoons, the staff concentrate on deep cleaning the dog and cat shelters daily and assist in the clinic when a vet is present.
Though I’d only really had one other experience volunteering at an animal shelter, I will say that volunteering at the Bon Ton animal shelter, well it was like the gold standard or 5 star of shelters! Why do I say this? Simply because of the standards of care given by the staff to the animals and the way that volunteers are treated. Accommodations are provided for, daily meals are taken care of, and even one meal weekly from the restaurant is provided! And let me tell you, the Bon Ton restaurant food is absolutely delicious!!! To this day I’m still missing their steaks with mashed potatoes in balsamic gravy!! Accommodations included a bed, private bath with HOT water (almost fainted hearing this), TV (what???) with a DVD player (pinch me now!!).
But of course all this came with actual work. Six days a week, from 9:45am (sometimes 9am depending on need) until 6pm (lunch break of course provided) we worked with the dogs and cats. Feeding, walking, cleaning, playing, bathing, constructing new shelter bits, raking yards, putting up new fencing, etc, etc. The work in my opinion wasn’t difficult, and because I was there for the animals, it didn’t really matter to me how long the work days were. In fact, there were several times that I or other volunteers worked well past the 6pm mark, but it was all for the animals. And as animal lovers know, animals know no time! They are 24/7 responsibilities who in return offer the most amazing and purest of love.
I ended up staying at the Bon Ton Animal Shelter for about 2 months in total. During my time there I also learned about a horse stable on the island that also allowed volunteers to come help, so I ended up moving there for a couple of weeks, then returned to Bon Ton for the last few days I was on the island. Then sadly had to say my goodbyes for good and had to head to Kuala Lumpur, then out of the country as my 3 month visa was coming close to expiring.
Sarah, Lou, Luna
GD, Olive, Boy
Furball, Mr. White
Volunteering at the Bon Ton animal shelter was an amazing experience. The loving care provided to the animals by staff and volunteers made the experience so very rich. I look forward to returning there when time permits and miss the animals (and people of course who I think of as family) daily!!
I finally left Thailand via ferry from the Tammalang Port at Satun and about an hour and a half later was greeted into the Northernmost island in the Andaman sea of Malaysia, called Langkawi. After clearing customs I grabbed a cab for the T-Star hotel in Cenang.
During the 40 minute cab ride my driver informed me of some interesting facts about the island. According to him, Langkawi was barely visible on the map of tourism and tourists until the 70’s when the Prime Minister declared the island Duty Free. Since then, Langkawi has skyrocketed as a hot spot for tourism (loads of tours from feeding eagles to snorkeling are available) and shopaholics looking for the best deals on booze, makeup, chocolate, perfumes, etc.
Another tidbit he shared with me was that the population on the island was about 85% muslim, 10% Indian and the rest a mix of Chinese, Expats, and Europeans. After having been in Thailand for so long with diversity in foods only being available in larger cities, Langkawi was a breath of fresh air on that front with a large variety of cuisine choices to choose from. Of course they also had traditional Malay foods, which consist of rice, fish, chicken and lots of vegetable varieties. The foods are generally a bit spicy (though not as spicy as Thailand) and their national meal is Nasi Lemak, which is a rice dish cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf 🙂
I went to Langkawi with one specific goal in mind: to check out the animal shelter on the island and see if they needed volunteers. T-Star, my chosen hotel for the week was an absolutely delightful place and only about a 45 minute walk to the shelter. Every day, at least twice a day troops of the macaque monkeys came through the hotel leaping from balcony to balcony in search of any sort of food. There were signs everywhere to beware of things left on the balcony as they may be snatched and for good reason because those little guys were fast in snatching things!!
The day after I arrived I started my wander toward the animal shelter to check it out. I was a bit confused about it at first because online they seemed somehow located at a hotel resort, which didn’t make a ton of sense until I got there and learned the story. The Bon Ton resort, located next to The Temple Tree hotel is owned and operated by an animal lover. The owner started both hotels and the restaurants attached to them and uses moneys from the hotel and restaurant to fund an animal shelter located just in front of the resorts. There, over 100 dogs and over 100 cats find shelter and a loving home.
I arrived a little after 10am and chatted with the volunteer coordinator, Dorothy, and began the next day doing half days at first (since I was walking 5 km there and 5 back daily). Morning activities consisted of taking over 50 dogs for walks around the hotel grounds with fellow volunteers, then picking up after them and finally serving them lunch, which consisted of rice cooked in beef broth with chunks of beef and a variety of vegetables, all prepared FRESH daily by the restaurant chef!!
So for the first week I walked to and from my hotel to help walk the doggies in the morning, then spent my afternoons trying out new restaurants in the area and walking along the Cenang beach. As my week started to come to an end, it turned out that one of the Nepalese workers for the shelter had to go back home, so I was asked if I wanted to stay in one of the volunteer rooms so I could help with full-day activities along with the other 2 full-time volunteers. I agreed and moved in to my new accommodations (complete with 2 yard dogs, John and Mummy) and began full day activities. Of course, though I’d only planned at first for a month there, it quickly turned into two:)
Bathroom activities are certainly not at all among the list that many want to talk about, but I just have to talk about the “bum gun”… That phrase was actually coined by one of the first volunteers I’d met while here, Megan from Ireland, who also was the one who taught and told me its real function!
When I first arrived in Bangkok and stayed at the hotel near the airport, I noticed that while they had a Western toilet complete with a roll of toilet paper, they also had a hose connected to a water pipe with a nozzle at the end of it that when pressed would squirt out water. I thought it was a rather clever way to clean the toilet and flush out the areas under the rim when scrubbing the bowl out. I had seen this arrangement in every other hostel/hotel bathroom I had been in and continued to think how clever it was…
Then I arrived in Sangkhlaburi… And while J’s Family Homestay, where I stayed for the first couple of weeks, had a bathroom with a Western toilet with the spray nozzle attached, they didn’t have any toilet paper in the bathroom nor a bin stored in there to be able to throw away toilet paper that was brought in… Hmmmm….. That made me wonder a bit and was quite annoying really to have to bring in my own bag for used toilet paper.
A few days after being in Sangkhlaburi while drinking at Baan Job with Megan, Nyzil and Omar (a volunteer from Spain), Megan and I went to the bathroom together (as girls always do) and she made a mention how she really quite enjoys the bum gun as it made her feel so much cleaner! “I’m sorry, what?? The bum gun??”. “Yea that hose attached to the toilet”… Now I was really confused. So… That isn’t to clean the toilet but rather for… cleaning… instead of… toilet paper???
Yup. Indeed the “bum gun” is used in place of toilet paper. Several seconds of squirting water in the areas required is all it takes to get you feeling fresh and clean! Of course you had to wait a few seconds to dry a bit after using it, but it seriously does make you feel so much cleaner! Suddenly it made perfect sense as to why several places had no toilet paper but always had the hose and squirt nozzle! A word of advice that Megan also shared with me however was to always test the pressure of the nozzle before pointing it to yourself as it can sometimes be a bit strong.
So there it is. My knowledge of the bum gun. Use at your will:) Oh and I have thought to take a picture to show you all what exactly it looks like, but really don’t want to be caught walking into a bathroom with a camera… I can only imagine what people would think in seeing me do that, lol! Funnily enough the bathroom at the volunteer house doesn’t have a bum gun… Otherwise I wouldn’t mind sneaking in there for a shot of one. We have an Eastern toilet and utilize Western methods of cleaning since there isn’t a gun there. Honestly I do wish it had the nozzle as it really does make you feel cleaner than toilet paper!
From my other posts about Sangkhlaburi, it’s probably easy to tell that it is a teeny little place and while it has a lot of the necessities, it lacks quite a bit as well. We have no proper grocery store here. The market is where you go for meat, veggies and fruit (which personally I prefer anyway) but for other necessities that are generally found in a grocery store, well, we have a place called CJ’s that has the basics and believe it or not, if it’s not in CJ’s, the other “grocery store” in town is 7 Eleven… Yes, 7 Eleven!
Kanchanaburi in contrast has proper grocery stores and even stores comparable to Sam’s Club or Costco. They also have proper pet and vet stores where supplies are easily found for the shelter. As some items were starting to run out at the shelter, it was time for a run to Kanchanaburi to stock up. I went along with 2 other girls from the shelter for a weekend getaway. We drove there in a truck lent to us by another gem of Sangkhlaburi, Dr. Mays, a dentist in town and avid animal lover and made the 212km trek to Kanchanaburi mid-day a week ago on Saturday.
J, one of the three on the trip, drove. She is from the UK so was used to driving on the left and had amazingly picked up the Thai driving style as I had several mini heart attacks along the way dodging in and out of traffic along the road. Due to traffic we arrived later than anticipated and missed the vet supply office hours. So we simply headed to our hotel, took showers in warm water (there is no warm water in Sangkhlaburi for showers unless you shower in the middle of the day when the water has been heated up by the sun), put makeup on for the first time in a month and a half and headed into town.
I will say since being in Sangkhlaburi, I don’t think I’ve seen myself in a mirror except maybe two or three times. So needless to say, once in a bathroom with a mirror in it, it was almost surprising and shocking to see myself, lol!!
We headed out and first had a drink and shared a pizza at Bell’s, then went to the Lady Boy bar for some more drinks. Surprisingly the other volunteer (K) who tagged along for the weekend getaway after only 4 beers was already quite drunk! Normally she can hold her own, but for some reason not on this night. In any event, since there was more drinking to be done for myself and J, we continued on to the Monkey Bar for another drink. Then…. Well… though I had stayed away from the “get drunk for 10 baht” bars during my last time in Kanchanaburi, we ended up stumbling into there as well…
In all fairness really it wasn’t myself or J stumbling, it was only K. Jo and I had a delightful time taking shots and sipping on buckets of booze while K kept excusing herself to the bathroom to vomit… Joy!! Since J and K had been to Kanchanaburi several times before for these types of excursions, they inevitably made friends with some of the locals, including a tattoo artist with a shop in front of the Sugar Member bar, just across from the 10 baht bar. The night continued with lots of drinks, conversation, and many bathroom breaks for K. She ended up going back to the hotel early and passed out outside the room on the lounge chair (since she didn’t have the key) while J and I continued to party until 4am.
Amazingly I woke the next day feeling great! K and J, not so much… We had to move rooms around noon (they put us in the wrong room the first night) so everyone was up in semi-good spirits around 11. We jointly decided the best remedy for our hangovers was to have a yummy pizza yet again, though this time we were each getting our own to soak up the liquor, lol!! We checked out Bell’s again (they seriously have a really good pizza!!) all craving the deliciousness we had the night before but to our dismay learned it didn’t open until 5pm!!
The idea was in our heads already however, and there was nothing to change it. We were bound and determined to starve ourselves all day until Bell’s opened again!! It seriously turned into a bit of a torture game and that day was the longest day I can ever recall!! One would ask “what time is it” and learn it was 12:15… Then what seemed like forever later another would ask again the time only to learn it was 12:22 😦 The day went on like this with time slowing down just to mock us and as we didn’t have anything else to eat, the hangover symptoms started to even creep up on me!
What does one do to stave off a hangover?? You got it! Drink more! I caved around 3:30 and went to the bar at the hotel with K and proceeded to drink three White Russians. Yum!! It was definitely just what I needed to tide me over until Bell’s opened! 5pm FINALLY rolled around and we went for our indulgent meal of pizza with mushrooms and ham. After dinner, K said she wanted to get a tattoo. I, the night before, after meeting Joe the tattoo artist said I wanted to have him draw out a tattoo for me that I’d been thinking about for 7 years now. So I tagged along… J (the smart one) went back to the hotel for an easy night…
Well, of course since the tattoo shop was in front of a bar, we just had to get a bucket of booze to share! I chatted with Joe about what I wanted, describing the design that I saw in my head and he set off to work as K and I got progressively more inebriated I kept checking back in with Joe every half hour or so to see how the design was coming along, giving input where needed. About 2 hours later the design was done! I really was thinking to just pay for the design and get the tattoo later, but then I started thinking “why not get it done now??”… Or maybe it was just the booze talking, lol!! In any event, I bit the bullet and got it done!
It’s still a work in progress as I want some shading done on the moon and a Japanese word written in the space between the moon and cherry willow tree, but nothing another trip to Kanchanaburi can’t fix 😉 I will say I was quite impressed with Joe as when I said I wanted a Japanese word written in he said “I don’t speak Japanese” (he’s Thai) to which I replied “Google translate!” to which he replied “are you sure??”. He got me to thinking and I’ve decided that until I find someone who speaks fluent Japanese, and someone who is trustworthy, I won’t do the lettering. I’m not going to lie, the tattoo was quite unpleasant to get! I thought the booze would numb me up a bit, but no luck there:(
In any event, after I got my tattoo done, K got one as well even though Joe strongly advised against it since he deemed her too drunk to get one. Eventually he relented and gave her the tattoo and after a bit of drama over her paying him for his services (she only had a quarter of the money it cost and instead of going to get more money from the ATM in front of 7 Eleven, she wandered INTO 7 Eleven and proceeded to read the wording on every package of items sold in an attempt to avoid (?) having to pay… Once that was sorted out and she finally paid Joe, we wandered back toward the hotel and passed out around 4am… again… lol!!
The next day we rose (K with a hangover) and finally got the vet supplies bought. We stopped at a REAL grocery store to stock up on goodies not found in Sangkhlaburi (coconut oil, apple cider vinegar and tabasco sauce for me) then headed home.
In all honesty, I was a bit worried that when I woke that morning I would be a bit regretful about getting the tattoo. But when I thought about it, I had no regrets. No butterflies or tight feeling in the stomach when one thinks of something they wish they hadn’t done. It’s still a work in progress of course and it still has to fully heal (the wrinkles will dissipate) but I’m happy I’ve got it:)
Isola d’Elba!! Though I am half Italian, I never knew that this little archipelago off the coast of Tuscany in the Mediterranean Sea even existed!! The shame, I know!!! Thankfully my dad did as he suggested a weekend trip there to explore the little land and its numerous beaches!! From his house outside of Florence it took about 4 hours to get to the dock at Piombino where we drove on to a ferry-boat (called MOBY) and headed to the port in Portoferraio on the island of Elba. Though the weather had been very sketchy for several weeks prior to our trip, and though it even rained on the ferry ride over, we got two full days of sun on the island and only had cloudy days on the day we arrived and the day we left:) Seriously lucked out since it was toward the end of summer/early fall that we went to begin with!
Our hotel (hotel Gabbiano Azzuro- hotel Blue Seagull) was located in a town called Marciana Marina on the North Western section of the island. The town itself is a cute little quaint place with the usual shopping, restaurants, beaches, marinas and hiking trails from here to there. The hotel, while really not terribly impressive inside offered quite a delicious breakfast including some of the best brioches I’ve personally ever tasted! They were filled with Bavarian cream… YUM!!! Just looking at them however pretty much capped my daily allowance of sugar intake… lol!! I should probably clarify that the hotel itself was quite clean, the people very nice, the location an easy walk to/from the town center, but the rooms were not that big and while they boasted that each room had a private balcony, the majority of those balconies looked on to an abandoned building and you could only see a sliver of a nice view. However, we were not there for the hotel… we were there for the BEACHES!!!
As far as beaches are concerned, I seriously didn’t think the ones in San Blas could be topped but the ones on the Island of Elba sure do give them a bit of a run for their money!!! The colors of the water surrounding the island at the various spots are out of this world beautiful! I found myself literally taking the same exact picture 3 or 4 times over just to make sure I was properly capturing the colors!!
The beaches are quite different from one another and some were even different from any I had previously been on before. While I’ve mainly been used to beaches with sand, many of the beaches on Elba consisted of stones!! I wasn’t expecting this aspect at all!! The stones are like river stones, therefore not sharp in any way, but smoothed out from years of sea water sanding them out. While they weren’t that comfortable to lay out on, they weren’t completely terrible either and it was due to these stone beaches that the colors remained so crisp and lovely, even when in the water!
Needless to say, after mapping out several beaches for us to visit, the next few days were spent just going from one beach to the next, sunning and tanning, swimming and snorkeling and generally just loving the water and life! It was a great and relaxing time to be sure!! Even more of a bonus was that we were still in Italy so dinners were to die for!! I Love Italian food!! The last day was spent driving almost all the way around the island, taking several pictures along the way before heading back to the ferry and then home.
So we made it! “Smuggled” into Columbia through the San Blas Islands on a sailboat captained and crewed by what Nicki (my German companion on the sailboat) so eloquently named “modern day pirates”. That they were indeed, modern day pirates!! We actually arrived and docked in the water on the Panama side in a little inlet that had the teeniest towns nearby. From there a local took all of our things and put them in a little motor boat, squished us all in (we finally got to get our shoes back, mind you!) and motored us around the inlet bend and into the Colombian side of land and dropped us off at the dock of Capurgana, Colombia.
Panama Hut Town
En Route to Colombia
The first thing I remember thinking about this place was how colorful it was! It was so Caribbean and the vibrant colors of each building just added to that cool Caribbean vibe of “come as you are and chill, man”!! Just adorable and quaint and just the place that was needed to go and relax after the onboard adventures of the previous week on the sailboat.
Welcome to Capurgana
We all disembarked from the little motor boat on the dock and went our random ways to find hostels/hotels for the night. I chose a place not too far from the dock and stayed the first night in a room fit for several people (though I was the only one) then moved to a smaller, better suited room on the second floor for the next week. Now, one must remember that after being on the sailboat for 6 days certain things hold true… First and most important, I had to get my land legs back! Even though we had been on land for little bouts throughout the week on the sailboat, my sea legs were still well intact. Hence why I chose to stay for several days in Capurgana… Not only because it was so vibrant yet chill, but also so I could fully recover from the crazy sailboat tour we had just come from.
View from Capurgana
After getting settled in the first afternoon of our arrival (oh and of course getting our entrance stamp from immigration, which was closed for the first several hours we were on land so had to wait a while to actually be legal in the country) Nicki and I headed around town to find a cup of coffee. Now, honestly I’ve never really been a big coffee drinker in the States. Maybe because all the famous blends and roasts come from places like Costa Rica and Colombia. Or rather especially Colombia… So we thought it would be quite easy to find a place that sold coffee since we were afterall in one of the countries that was best known for their production of coffee… No. Not at all. It literally took us the better part of an hour, plus going into dozens of stores before we actually found a place that begrudgingly made us a cup of coffee!! And to boot, it wasn’t even anything that special. Apparently, as we came to learn quickly, coffee in Colombia is served only at breakfast and is really not available at any other time! Ok, now perhaps I really shouldn’t generalize for ALL of Colombia, so I will just say for sure in Capurgana:)
My Hostel Room
View of Airstrip
Anyway, all in all the time spent in Capurgana was quite nice. One day was full of hiking through the surrounding jungle, others just wandering the small town watching and experiencing life. The evenings were spent passing time with card games with friends from the sailboat. Oh and one afternoon was spent watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in England (just to give a time stamp of when I was there:)).
To be honest, though I knew I had to move on, I really wasn’t looking forward to it. The only way out of the town was either on a teeny tiny plane literally fit for two people and luggage (that could not weigh more than a certain amount) or to take a motor boat from Capurgana, across the bay to Turbo, then catch a bus to the next destination. After having spent so much time in the simplicity of life, between Puerto Viejo, the San Blas Islands and now the tiny town of Capurgana I wasn’t looking forward to getting back into the “hustle” of the faster life. Honestly, I don’t even recall vehicles in town, only horse drawn carts. That’s how isolated and simple Capurgana was. No roads actually lead into it, only a small airstrip and dock for boats connected this small Caribbean town to the rest of the world.
Alas, I did have to get back on the road again however and booked my trip out of Capurgana via the boat. Nicki, the Aussies and the British fellow had already or were soon also getting on with their travels too. We each went separate ways. Though I had wanted to go to Cartagena, Colombia, oddly enough I had gotten an email from my brother saying he was in Bogota for work. So I altered my plans to try and catch some time with him in Bogota and opted to head first to Medellin.
All the way down to Manuel Antonio I chatted up with the two fellow travelers, henceforth known as “B” and “A”. They were from the States and were traveling friends down in Costa Rica for vacation. Together we made our long journey through a long lay-over in Puntarenas and a drive through Jaco (which has been recommended to me by several people who have previously visited Costa Rica but locals have said not to travel there and frankly consider it one of the scars of the Country because of the large party and drug atmosphere there) and finally arrived late in the afternoon to our final destination of Manuel Antonio.
Upon exiting the bus (a small 15 minute and 250 colones ride from Quepos) we were instantly “attacked” by several people trying to get us to go to whichever hotel or hostel they worked for. Backpackers are targets for these workers who get commission for every person they bring to whatever hotel or hostel there is in the area. At first we were quite reluctant to follow the advice of the individuals who met us as most looked drugged out and some reeked of alcohol. Nonetheless, since it was a backpackers hostel they were recommending to take us to, we followed.
We were led to the Costa Linda Backpackers, about a 500 meter walk from the beach and a 300 meter walk to the Manuel Antonio National Park and after checking out the accommodations decided it was a nice enough place to stay for the weekend. We had also agreed on the way down that we would share a room while staying there to cut down on our costs. For the first night we were able to score a private room with a private bath for $15 per person, but as this room was reserved for the next few nights, we had to move to another private room with shared bathrooms for $10 per person per night for the remainder of our stay.
Despite the initial sketchiness of the place, this area turned out to be one of the best places I had visited so far. But I am getting ahead of myself…
As it was late in the evening with the sun already starting to set, there really wasn’t a ton to do except, well what else but get drunk!! Ok, one other little factor played into our decision to leave the exploration to the next day, and that was that within an hour or two of us arriving there a fantastic thunderstorm erupted!! So since we were bound to stay under shelter by a beautiful storm we opted to stay in the restaurant that was just at the entrance and part of the Backpackers to toast the day and the beauty around us. I really don’t recall how much beers were at this location, but I do recall them being cheap as we had several rounds that night toasting the lightning and thunder as it clapped and struck around us and chatting the night away.
As all the drinkers out there know, once you get started the inevitable million trips to the bathroom begins. I had not yet “broken the seal” but had need to at one point and borrowed the keys to our room so I could use the bathroom. I happily made my way into the room, went into the bathroom and even though I was the only one in there, I closed the door to the bathroom…
BIG MISTAKE!!! Or well, perhaps really it was much better that I did as you will soon learn… You see, behind that door on the wall was (no joke here) a spider with a leg span of about 5 inches!!! I know that as an arachnophobia our memories and stories tend to make these fearful creatures out to be much larger than they actually are, but in this case I’m not exaggerating! And this wasn’t one of those large daddy long-legs with large leg spans but teeny bodies… No sir! This one had a long but slender body!!
So there I was, one hand on the button of my pants, my eyes focused steadily on the spider, my body frozen in fear. Thoughts began to pass through my drunken brain… “What do I do?!?!?!”… “Perhaps I can just pee really, really fast then tell someone about it when I leave cause I really, REALLY need to pee!!”. The showdown continued for probably another 30 seconds like this with me staring at the spider and the spider staring back… I was about 2 seconds from just peeing really fast then leaving when the spider moved a single leg about 2 millimeters to the right. And that’s all it took, I was out of there!! I flung the door open and ran as fast as I could to the exit of our room, out the hall and back to my friends at the table who were still chatting along happily. I sat for a moment wringing my hands waiting for a moment to interrupt their conversation. Then I shyly told them that we have a HUGE spider in our room and that I need it removed immediately!!! I of course told them too that I was arachnophobic and was sorry to make such a deal out of it, but it had to go! “B” got all excited as he was quite interested to see the large arachnid (Lord only knows why!!) and he said he would go take care of it.
While he was gone, “A” and I exchanged stories of fears, which for privacy purposes I won’t reveal hers here but I will say it was quite an unusal one! We continued to chat until “B” finally came back and said “sorry it took so long, I first wanted to get some pictures of the spider, and then it took quite some time to get him out of the room as it kept trying to bite me!” Thankfully he didn’t go into too many other gross details of how he removed the spider but as my relief for knowing the spider was out of the room set in, my now even more extreme need to pee returned!! But before even thinking of returning to the room, I had to know exactly where the spider was taken too… “B” then informed me that since it was so hard to get it out, he was only able to get it as far as the hallway… “I’m sorry, WHAT?!?!?!?! You mean it’s in the HALLWAY right OUTSIDE OUR ROOM?!?!?!?!” This made me even more paranoid and though I really didn’t want to have to go back to the bathroom, my body was telling me otherwise. So I begged “B” to come with me and walk ahead of me to the room just in case the arachnid was in the hallway or on a wall of the hallway on the way to the room. Such a nice person he was as he acquiesced and allowed me safe passage back to our room so I could finally relieve my bladder:)
The night continued much happier and arachnid-free from there as we continued to fiesta the night away until we all finally crashed and slept soundly. We awoke to a stormy morning the next day and therefore opted to wait to go to the National Park until the next day when we hoped the weather would cooperate. After breakfast and taking a picture of a “cute little guest” (see below picture) we moved into our new hostel room (private room with shared communal bath), met a local lizard who was always hanging out in one area and whom I fondly named Miguel, and generally hung around waiting for the storm to recede.
“A” had to get to a bank for more money, so about mid-day when the rain finally stopped, we all headed on a walk back up toward Quepos where the only ATMs were found. Along the way we spotted several Capuchin Monkeys making their way across man-made ropes that stretched from one side of the road to the other. These ropes are part of the “Children Saving the Rainforest” project and can be found throughout Costa Rica. When electrical wires were first being erected to provide electricity to various areas, the monkeys thinking they were useful items to climb across to get to where they wanted to go, would often get electrocuted and die when they gripped them. This was quite a large problem in the beginning, but it was quickly remedied as the “Rainforest” group stepped in with their fantastic idea of providing safe and non-electrical passages for the monkeys to use.
After our walk back up into town and a nice lunch and beer, we headed back to Manuel Antonio and A and I spent the rest of our afternoon “butt surfing” in the ocean!! Now for those who don’t know what this is, Butt surfing is where you sit in shallow areas of the beach and allow the coming waves to toss you around the shallow beach as if you were simply a grain of sand. It really is quite amazing the power of the Ocean as we literally were tossed and pushed and pulled and pommelled by the tiniest of waves!! Due to the anywhere from small to large rocks and pebbles on the beach however, at times it was quite painful!! But still fun nonetheless:)
Our night was spent again with good food, good conversation and company, and of course many great beverages. If our hopes were to come true, the next day would be a sunny one so we could visit the Manuel Antonio National Park.
Early the next morning, it was “on the road again” for me. I was picked up at the tour office and shuttled from La Fortuna to Lake Arenal, across the lake in a little boat and met on the other side by another shuttle that took us to Monteverde.
Ok, technically we were taken to Santa Elena which is right next door to Monteverde. Locals insist you use the proper name of Santa Elena, but tour groups and tourists call the whole area Monteverde.
When I arrived in Santa Elena I was dropped off at a place that some people recommended to me. If memory serves correctly it was called El Toucan. The reception staff however were not very helpful as when I asked how much the rooms were (private with a private bathroom if possible) they asked how much I wanted to pay instead of telling me the price. Red flag alert! I stated no more than $10 per night and they jumped on it! Red flag alert #2… I asked to see the room first (always a good idea for any traveler) and they seemed nice enough but I did notice that the place was practically empty and the “private room” I was to stay in had 3 other beds. So I decided to move along and see what else there was.
As I hiked up a teeny hill I spotted the tour van passing me, and the tour driver spotted me giving me a look of “what is that crazy tourist doing now?!?!” as I had just left where I was dropped off and was heading in the same direction he was driving! In any event, I noticed many people being dropped off at the Monteverde Backpackers so I decided to check it out. It was $16 a night and I don’t believe there were any private rooms left, so I opted to keep going. I was told there was another hotel/hostel just down the road so I went to check it out…
Enter Cabinas Eddy… I literally get chills thinking of this place and the kind hospitality and beautiful accommodations that I was provided during my stay here. I can’t say enough good things about the place and the people!!! Cabinas Eddy is run and owned by 2 generations of “Eddy’s”, the father and his wife and his son (Eddy) and his wife and child. For $8 a night, I was offered a beautiful and cozy private room with a private bathroom and HOT water!!! I almost passed out when I found out the price for it and scrambled furiously to get money out to pay before someone else came by to snatch it up!!! Well in all reality I first had to excuse myself politely to furiously get money that was stored in my bra out to pay, as I never travel with cash easily available but rather always store it in less likely places…
After signing in and settling in, I signed up for some tours. One jungle night walk for later that evening, and after making sure the place was a good one that took care of its horses, I signed up for a horseback ride.
Monteverde/Santa Elena truly is a magnificent place! Nestled in the cloud forest of Costa Rica the biodiversity is rich and the land literally reminded me of the hills of Ireland!! Rich, lush and rolling, this area really was a beautifully magnificent sight to behold!! Now, I should mention here that I have never been to Ireland, but the land is what I would imagine Ireland to look like. Since being there I have met several people from Ireland whom have also visited Monteverde and have asked if it reminded them of home, and they have said absolutely yes! So I really don’t mind so much making that comparison even though I haven’t actually been to Ireland…
Anyway once again I’m getting off topic! I spent only 2 nights in Monteverde, which really unless you plan to do a bunch of tours is about the right amount of time. They are also quite famous in that area for zip lining and for sky walks as they are in the cloud forest. The weather while I was there was quite nice as it was sunny and warm in the day and got chilly at night! The winds even picked up for the second night I was there, which locals said was very unusual for this time of year (normal for December time). The cool mountain air at night was so refreshing and nice and made you want to bundle up making for some of the best night sleep I had had in a while. The food was fantastic as I was once again indulging in casados, and the people all very friendly! None as friendly as the Eddy family though as on my second day there they offered me a homemade tamales! It was so darn scrumptious!!
I of course did find time to do a little fiesta-ing in the town too and on my way back from one bar ran into some people whom I had noticed around town in La Fortuna. They were staying at the backpackers place which is where I ended up going and meeting a ton of other travelers. I stayed up till quite early in the morning talking and drinking and playing cards with my fellow travelers and the hostel manager. I know I’ve probably mentioned this before, but it really does still amaze me how many travelers are on the same path. There are so many who have just had enough of where they were and what they were doing and decided to simply pack it up and move on. One such case was of a guy from England I believe who was an architect there. He once loved that occupation but then just got burned out and decided to pursue his true passion: photography of primates! He has since been traveling the world in pursuit of every variety of primate! There were and are of course just your regular garden variety travelers on vacation or on a sabbatical, but quite surprisingly to me even more who left everything from their previous life behind to just travel and try something new.
The morning of leaving Monteverde I ended up on the same bus as the people I had seen in La Fortuna and in chatting some more with them realized that we were once again going to the same place: Manuel Antonio.
Arriving at the Red Lava tour office at 2:00 (they did offer to pick me up from my hostel at no extra charge but I declined) I was quickly accompanied by 3 girls from Holland, and 2 spanish speaking gentlemen. We were told by the tour group that the last part of the tour would include a dip in natural hot springs so if we wanted to have an alcoholic beverage during that time, then we should go around the corner to the grocery store to pick some up. They provided a cooler for our purchases and within a half hour we were all in the van and on our way to the Arenal volcano.
It only took about 15 minutes (including a stop for some afar pictures of the volcano and a stop to see some toucans which promptly flew away as everyone readied their cameras) to get to our destination. Now, I really wish I could recall the name of the hotel that we were taken to, but sadly cannot. The view from the hotel was amazing! We were quite literally up close and personal with the volcano! And to boot, the hotel was quite well landscaped so the views in the near vicinity were also quite spectacular. We were given a little time to wander our new surroundings and take all the views in. The hotel had a deck on the back-end of it that looked onto the volcano and a beautiful lake below. The scenery really was breathtaking! After some time spent on the deck (and several pictures later) we returned to the parking lot to officially start our tour and spotted a family of baby raccoons playing and hanging out in the trees just feet from us!! Needless to say, the next 10 minutes or so were spent cooing over the baby raccoons and taking a gazillion pictures of their every adorable move!! It was hard to tear ourselves away from them, but we were forced to leave the parking lot area soon after that… not because of the tour, but because of the storm that erupted above us raining down buckets of water on us!
Right about now is when the sensible traveler would say “Storm? No worries, I have my poncho or umbrella or rain coat with me!” I however, was not one of the sensible travelers on this day. And even though I did contemplate bringing it with me, I didn’t because the sky looked clear and showed no signs of raining at all! Lesson learned: no matter what the sky may or may not look like at the time, always bring your poncho as at any given moment the weather can shift and go from sun to pouring buckets.
It is for this next reason as well that you don’t want to be caught without a poncho when needed: none of the other travelers had a poncho with them either (except one) and as we all stood huddled under the porch shelter of the hotel, our guide suggested that we purchase a poncho so we could still walk in the rain. Reluctantly one by one we lined up at the hotel desk and purchased a poncho for $2.40 a piece. What we received in return was the thinnest, cheapest and lightest piece of plastic. Seriously it was so darn thin that a couple of people split theirs just trying to get theirs on! Once we were finally all “ponchoed” the guide said “ok, let’s go!”… Where did the guide take us first?? To an indoor room on the second floor of the hotel for a chat about the history of the volcano! By the time we were done with that discussion, the rain had stopped and none of us had any use for the ponchos at all, therefore making the purchase of them completely unnecessary! Hysterical, right?? Or perhaps ironic…
Well, ok I really shouldn’t say that the poncho purchase was completely useless as I have used it since to wrap wet or damp clothing in prior to shoving them in my bag when traveling from one destination to another… But it was useless for the specific intention it was purchased for. But I digress.
Anyway, the chat about the volcano really was quite fascinating. Apparently long ago when people were first settling in La Fortuna, they had no idea that the volcano was indeed a volcano. They lived beside the volcano lake and swam in the waters and climbed the volcano. There never was any issue with this lifestyle until, of course, the volcano erupted and wiped out a good portion of the people there. Those who settled further (and on the ¨correct¨ side of it) from the volcano survived but the majority of the town was completely wiped out. Also, there are actually 4 volcanos all in the same area. The one that is and has been active most recently actually began at the base of the original volcano. As the lava cooled from this ¨base¨ volcano it piled higher and higher until reaching and even surpassing the height of the original cone volcano structure! You can see evidence of this when viewing the volcano from some of the angles, for there seems to be a cone peak that levels off and then it climbs higher to a higher point. The lower cone is the original one, and the higher peak is actually the volcano that is erupting from the base! Pretty cool stuff!! The guide also mentioned how several people have tried to climb up to the top of the volcano since the first eruption that wiped out the original town (1968 if I recall correctly). None were successful and one even died trying.
Once the history lesson was over (and rain) we headed off on foot to our next tour destination: a waterfall! Now it was not the La Fortuna waterfall that is in the National Park, but another smaller one not too far a hike from the hotel we were driven to. Along the way we learned about indigenous plants of Costa Rica such as the citronella (which we all plucked a fruit from and rubbed all over our bodies to naturally prevent mosquitos from dining on us), a cacao plant, banana trees and the Cecropia tree that indigenous tribes used to get high! They would wait for the leaves to fall and dry them out, then smoke them to produce a high. Interestingly enough, it is the leaves of this tree that sloths prefer the most to snack on and it is somewhat of a joke that it’s because they eat these leaves that they are so slow:) Whether the leaves actually produce a high or not, I do not know but it’s certainly interesting information! We were also pointed out a banana spider, which due to my arachnophobia I steered clearly away from and couldn’t even bring myself to take a picture of it for fear it would jump on my camera even from the 10 foot radius of space I gave it.
Finally we arrived at our waterfall destination and my, oh my what a sight!! It wasn’t spectacularly tall, but the sound of the rushing water just made your spirits lift and got me very energized!! They are such simple constructions of nature, and yet the force and power of the water rushing off the edge is still awe-inspiring! Our guide promptly upon arriving stripped down to his bathing shorts and decorated his body with mud from the edges of the river, capping his head with a dead Cecropia leaf. The other two men on the tour immediately followed suit while the rest of us (all ladies) one by one surrendered to the idea of getting wet in the chilly waterfall waters. By the end of our time there (about an hour or so) we had all taken our fill of jumping into the waterfall off of nearby logs that had fallen and that now served as great jumping boards, and of taking pictures and generally wading in the river beyond the waterfall. Dark was upon us (which by the way it is pitch dark by 6pm in Costa Rica year round) as we all packed our things up and headed back up the trail to our van. But before leaving the nature hike trail entirely, our guide had one more piece of interesting information for us…
First he asked whether any of us could guess how many spiders and insects were currently in the grassy area directly in front of us. At this question, I immediately froze… My thought was ¨wait a minute, you mean to tell me that you see spiders directly in front of us?!?!?!?! WHERE??? And which way can I go to avoid them?!?!?!?!¨. My first thought was to back up very slowly away from the grass that lay ahead of us, until I realized that there was a ton of grass behind us too so surely there must be spiders in there too!! Now I know of course that there are spiders around us everyday (statistically we are no more than 5 feet from a spider at any given moment in our lives) but I would rather just not know about it! Ignorance to me in this instance is absolutely blissful!! I once again froze and decided, well, perhaps if I knew where they were I could avoid those areas specifically. As people guessed randomly how many critters we were surrounded by, our guide showed us a little trick to find out. We all had headlights with us and we were instructed to place them on our nose and look around our areas with the lights on. This positioning of the light allowed us to look directly onto the beam of light projected from our headlamps and suddenly dozens upon dozens of multiple pairs of little shiny spots all along the grass appeared… What we were in fact seeing was the eyes (sets of 8 for spiders) of insects hidden within the shelter of the grass. It had just rained though so some of those shines were due to water droplets, but I did test out several shiny objects by moving in closer to see what they were and yes, in fact they were bugs or spiders (to my stress mainly spiders!). Quite a useful trick I thought and interesting to boot, even though I again would rather just not know about a spiders presence to begin with.
Moving along, we got back to the van and headed out at breakneck speed along the dirt and stone road from which we had traveled before back to town. Speeding and seemingly reckless driving is definitely prevalent in Costa Rica (in fact they are #1 for fatal accidents involving motor vehicles) but you get somewhat accustomed and trusting of tour guides and bus drivers whose job it is to drive tourists around. In any event, at one point on our way back our driver sharply swerved and slammed on the brakes, put the van in reverse and proceeded driving backward for a little ways. When he threw the gear back into drive mode he inched slowly along the road again finally coming to a stop in the middle of the road, just in front of something. He instructed all of us to stay in the van as he got out and looked at a creature ahead of the van lit up only by the lights of the van. After several minutes he returned and stated that there was a real fer-de-lance snake on the road.
I use the word ¨real¨ not to mean that it was alive (though it was) but to mean that it was an authentic one. Apparently there is another snake species that looks very much like the fer-de-lance except that it does not have the triangular head of the real fer-de-lance, but it mimics the authentic one by triangulating its head when it feels threatened to make its predator think it’s more dangerous than it really is. Unlike it’s imposter however, the real (authentic) fer-de-lance is considered to be the most poisonous snake in Costa Rica. As told by several guides, if bitten you have 45 minutes to get anti-venom, and sadly as most hospitals take way more than 45 minutes to get to, chances are if bitten by one it will be fatal. However, upon Google searching info on these snakes myself, I have come across varying information. All do seem to say that it is considered the most dangerous snake in Costa Rica, and that this snake bite is the leading cause of death (among snake bites) but other sources (Wikipedia) state that the fatality rate is almost 0% due to the Clodomiro Picado Research Institute that is responsible for the production of snake antiphidic serums. Hmmmm….
In any event, slowly we all crept out of the van one-by-one to see the fer-de-lance and to snap a few photos (zoom was of course used as I wasn’t going to get THAT close!). Once we all got our picts it was back in the van we went and a little further down the road we once again pulled over to see the next critter spotted by our guide.
Now perhaps is a good time to say that the tour guides have the most amazing eye sight!!! They are able to spot the tiniest of creatures from the most impressive distances!! This was no exception either as the creature we stopped to see was a pair of mating Red-Eyed leaf frogs!! Chances are you have definitely at least seen a picture of these frogs as they are the most photographed of all the Costa Rica frogs. I know of people who have been here for months and still have not seen one of these frogs in person! The aren’t poisonous at all and are absolutely adorable!! We of course spent probably more time than we needed to photographing them to death (not literally folks, calm down) until resigning back to the van and heading to our final destination: a natural hot spring!
Known only to local ticans (or tourists who are clever enough to ask the locals about whether there are any free hot springs around), the natural (and free!!) hot spring we were taken to was actually a river that prior to the 1968 eruption ran cold, but after ran nice and toasting hot! Just under a bridge where the river ran also naturally formed areas where the water pooled creating a wonderfully perfect jacuzzi! Because the bridge was nearby, you could use the concrete slabs below the bridge as a hot slip and slide dunking off the edge and into the pool at the end. Or if you chose, you could duck under the small waterfall created by the edge of the concrete and the hot pool to a space under the bridge that felt like a sauna!! It did get a little claustrophobic in there for me, so I really just spent the majority of the time lounging in the pool and slip and sliding in from the bridge. We busted out our beers and toasted a wonderful evening out, finally relaxing in the massaging waters.
One funny story here, if you recall we had brought a cooler of beers and all had purchased about 3-4 beers a piece. When we arrived at the hot spring there were two tico (i.e. local) teenage boys playing in the springs already. They hung around as we enjoyed our time there drinking our beers. At one point all of us had ducked under the bridge to the sauna area and when we emerged and decided it was time for another beer, the cooler was still there, but the remaining beer was not… And the boys were gone! Lol!! The guide immediately ran up the river and searched surrounding areas to see if he could find them to no avail and some of my companions were a bit offended, but I just thought it was funny. Typical teenage boy antics- just having some fun! They really didn’t make off with that many beers, so really I didn’t consider it to be too harmful.
In any event, we left the hot spring and were dropped off around 9pm at our relative hotels/hostels. Needless to say I slept quite well that night with my body having been treated so well by the heat and motion of the spring!! Good thing too, as the next day I would once again be departing for my Jeep-Boat-Jeep tour to take me to Monteverde.
I should start by saying that I really didn’t have a plan. None of this trip was planned exactly. The farthest I ever got with “planning” was that I was going to sell everything, quit my job and travel out of the Country. But that was it. Seriously, nothing beyond there. So when I landed in the San Jose airport (located in Alajuela) I didn’t have any further idea of where I was going to even sleep that night or what my next move was…
Many would find that crazy especially since I had the time to figure it all out, but in my mind I was just interested in the experience and the challenge of having to figure it out as I went along. I have always done my best work when thrown into the deep end of the pool and in a way, planning to NOT have a plan was my own personal ocean:)
Walking out of the airport I was immediately ambushed by tons of eager faces and voices all asking “Taxi???”. I turned them down and asked someone nearby where the bus station was instead. My thoughts were to get out of San Jose immediately and get out to a more typical Costa Rica town: more nature, less city! As I made my way toward the buses I suddenly thought “well, one night wouldn’t hurt and I could use it to get my barring”. So I headed back to the taxis and met a couple of other people who were asking if I wanted to share a cab to San Jose. I took this as a sign that ok, I could stay one night in San Jose!
In retrospect, had I really understood that the airport was in Alajuela (which I did have a foggy memory of my brother telling me that, yet it somehow wasn’t solidified in my mind) I would have just gotten a taxi to downtown Alajuela…
In any event, about a half our later we were in San Jose and had dropped off my two taxi buddies at their various locations. The taxi driver then turned to me and (all in Spanish) said- “where are you off to?” I replied that I had no idea, but asked what he would suggest? I stated that I wanted somewhere cheap- the cheaper the better in my mind! He politely stated however that he would much prefer I stayed somewhere a little more pricey, but it would be in an area he considered safe for a single traveler. I acquiesced and was taken to a little B&B near the downtown area.
After settling in I spent the rest of the afternoon getting lost and trying to get directions on where downtown actually was! I ran into a few people on the street who I trusted to ask questions of and they assisted me very kindly- but each person also emphatically told me to either get back to my B&B prior to the night-time or take a taxi back. “Muy peligroso” was what I was told. Mainly because the drug addicts come out at night and petty crimes apparently aren’t unusual in San Jose. Though there are crimes everywhere, I took the locals advice to heart and made sure I was back at the B&B by 6pm (yes, it gets dark here by 6pm everyday, year round!).
San Jose was a bustling, constantly moving city! There were people everywhere!! In the markets, hanging out in the parks, moving on foot or in their cars or on bikes going to their destinations. Movement everywhere you looked! Buildings weren’t very tall but they were everywhere all squished together as far as the eye could see, thus blocking any real view of the beautiful nature that surrounds the city. McDonald’s, Quizno’s, Pizza Hut and other U.S. food chains were also everywhere! I hate to admit, but as I was getting a little tired from all the travels and walking around all afternoon, I did drift to a Quizno’s for dinner. The shame, I know!! But crowds and areas with lots of hustle and bustle tend to wear me out fast and it was nice to get a little food that I could relate to, so to speak. I knew there would be plenty of time to taste local flavors and I was certainly looking forward to that, but for the time I was happy with the Quizno’s.
After my bite to eat I did a little internet research at my B&B for Volcan Poas. My cousin, who is a “seasoned” Costa Rica traveler said it was a good day trip from San Jose, so I decided to check out what was available there (hostels and such) for a trip the next day. I found a few hostels online and took down their information so I could look them up once there. I also had to get the bus situation understood because San Jose has 4, yes 4 different bus stations all in different locations from one another. Depending on where you want to go to, that decides which bus terminal you need to show up to.
As I settled into the B&B to sleep, a huge thunderstorm settled in overhead… Now for those of you who know me, you know that I absolutely ADORE thunderstorms!!! In fact, so much that whether a place has thunderstorms on a fairly consistent basis is actually a deciding factor for me on whether I will plan to live there or not. I know, I know- sounds absolutely nuts picking a place to live based on thunderstorms, but hey, I follow my passions no matter what form they take!