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We had originally hoped to do a boat trip through Palo Verde National Park, but the tour operator called in sick at the last minute and couldn't take us out. In all fairness we had tried to schedule the trip just the day prior, but alas, it wasn't meant to be. So we decided to do something we hadn't done the whole trip -- relax. The pools at Pacifico had remained unexplored for the duration of our trip, the piña coladas weren't going to drink themselves, so we were happy to oblige. It was nice not to have an itinerary and just relax and goof around. A nice dinner and drinks with Abby from http://www.thejungleprincess.com/ capped the day. Day 10 may be a bit of a misnomer as it was really just 12 hours spent on planes. We did barely make our connection in Houston due to delays clearing immigration and customs, but all's well that ends well. What now? Well first I have to get used to the cold and rain that we met on our return to New York (a far cry from the sun and heat of Costa Rica). But it's only for a couple days of as I'm headed to Colorado and Utah on Friday for a couple weeks of climbing,skiing, and whatever other trouble I can manage to find... Happy trails!

Our trip is drawing to a close. And, although we have accomplished most of what we were hoping to do and seen much of what we had hoped to see, we seem to be getting started later into the morning. So yesterday we decided to play things sort of close to our base camp in Playa del Coco. We set out heading southeast on the Pan American Highway (highway 1) toward the northeastern edge of the Parque Nacional Palo Verde. We decided to make a stop at the Rescue Shelter Las Pumas located 5km north of Cañas.  Unless you are hiking in some of the most remote protected areas of Costa Rica, you're unlikely to see any of the large cats native to this region. So, rescue shelters like this one offer pretty much your only opportunity to see jaguars, margays, ocelots, pumas, jaguarundis, and pumas as well as gray fox, lots of parrots, toucans, and a very playful river otter, and capuchin and spider monkeys. The shelter relies on entrance fees and donations to care for these rescued animals -- all the animals have a sad story and some bear physical scars of their past abuses. It is a last resort -- releasing these animals back into the wild is simply too dangerous for them.  It was a great experience to see these magnificent animals up close but also a sobering reminder of the cruelty imposed by some and the consequences of human sprawl. Afterward, we headed to a waterfall around 2km off the Pan American Highway 3km north of Bagaces known as Llanos de Cortés. The waterfall and surrounding gold-flecked sand beach is a well-known spot to Ticos, but off the beaten tourist path. The road to Llanos de Cortés is 1.3km of unimproved dirt road leading to a large parking lot that seemed pretty full. After paying $2 to the parking lot security guards, we hiked a short, steep path down to the waterfall where we enjoyed our picnic lunch and a refreshing swim in the pool under the falls. All told, there were probably around 150 people hanging out there, but it was a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon and easily 95% of the crowd was Tico. Everyone was friendly and clearly enjoying the swimming and diving. There were a couple of barbecues set up and a generally festive atmosphere.  A short path to the left of the falls led to the top of the falls where there were  only a few people.  Great for solitude and a wholly different perspective on the falls. In the late afternoon, we packed up and returned to Playa del Coco for dinner at a local seafood joint, Papagayo, and a relaxing evening on the lanai.

We headed southwest from Playa del Coco to the town of Tamarindo to try our hand at some surfing. Tamarindo is not what I would call authentic Tico --  gringos and tourists abound, but the beach is nice and the waves are great for learning to surf.  We booked our lesson at the Iguana Surf Shop.  Iguana runs four two-hour lessons each day, starting at 9, 11, 1, and 3.  Each instructor can instruct up to four people and the cost is $45 per person (includes a souvenir tee-shirt!). Turns out surfing really is a lot more difficult than it looks, but all four of us were able to stand up on the board within about 20 minutes. I'm still not sure if my snowboarding experience helped me much, although it's probably didn't hurt. If anything it may have helped my steering and fore-aft balance, but the trickiest part is getting up to the standing position, which is unique to surfing. Our lesson left us tired and sore and with some new bumps and bruises, but we all agreed that it was all worth it for the feeling you get when ride your first wave (dude!). After surfing we did the tourist thing (...when in Tamarindo...). We hit the main drag with two goals: souvenirs and cocktails. Among the many trinket stores there are a couple of standouts.  One of our favorites, Roots Gallery, features bowls from locally sourced wood created by the shop attendant's husband, Edwardo.  Each piece is handcrafted and unique.  With gifts in hand, we headed to Le Beach Club, a beach-front, gringo-heavy bar/restaurant down the main street. Service was a little slow, but it was nice to relax with a few cocktails and take in the sunset.  As the tide went out, the surfers gave way to the pelicans diving for fish in the increasingly shallow water. Parking on the beach across from the Iguana costs ¢3,000, but it is worth paying because there is a security guard who will keep an eye on your car. I would still warn against leaving anything valuable in your car -- we received multiple warnings about how common theft is in these parts, but the guard was still vigilant when we returned to our car about 2 hours after sunset (earning our ¡Gracias! and a nice tip...). Iguana Surf Shop also rents boards for as long as a week, rents kayaks, runs shuttles to other beaches, and runs snorkeling trips.  Check out Iguana Surf Shop online at http://www.iguanasurf.net/

Ok, I admit I have been a little lax in posting updates, not to mention somewhat removed from most things electronic...  Day three involved a road-trip to La Fortuna and the Árenal Volcano.  Almost immediately upon arrival that afternoon we took a hoseback ride to view the Pino Blanco and La Fortuna waterfalls. Although recent rains and high water levels prevented us from swimming in the pool beneath the La Fortuna waterfall, the views were amazing, both from the observation deck at the top of the trail and along the trek down to the La Fortuna waterfall.  (Photo essay to follow....) We overnighted at Arenal Paraiso, where we enjoyed a soak in the therapeutic thermal mineral springs, of which the resort sports 13, one with a bar. I awoke on day four with a sore back no doubt due at least in part to my less-than-stellar equestrian form on our ride the previous day.  Nonetheless we pressed on. The agenda for the day included a combination of canyoneering (including a combination of rappelling and river hiking) in the morning followed by whitewater rafting in the afternoon organized through one of the  larger adventure tour companies in Costa Rica, Desafio.  A light breakfast and lunch were included in the 'Mambo Combo'. All in all, it was a great time -- even Elizabeth (who has a little trouble with heights) enjoyed the rappelling, thanks in large part to our friendly and reassuring guides, Elio and Ronny.  The rafting portion took us over Class II and III rapids which were strong enough to provide a great time, yet easy enough for whitewater newbies.  There were even several families with kids on the trip. And one more shout-out to our rafting guide Carlos, who gave us a thorough safety demo and then made sure we had a lot of fun on the trip down the river. On day five, the clouds finally lifted and we were offered our first opportunity to view the peak of the Árenal Volcano.We took a quick jaunt up to the Árenal  Observatory Lodge (formerly a Smithsonian observation station). There is a ¢4,000 per person entry fee to drive up to the Lodge, but the views are worth it. The lodge has a restaurant and a large deck the offer fantastic views of the peak as well as some nice viewing opportunities for birders. From Árenal, we headed back around the lake toward the Monteverde region.  Our guide book had warned that the conditions of the roads leading into Monteverde are notoriously rough and this turned out to be no understatement. If you're planning to get around by car and you're heading to Monteverde, you'd do well to reserve something with 4-wheel drive, because you can expect to encounter several kilometers of unimproved dirt road.  It's worth a stop at La Cabana bar if you're headed in on Rte 606 (about 15 kilometers outside Saint Elena), it turns out to be a welcome rest stop as well as a place to enjoy a refreshing and cheap cerveza. A late afternoon arrival didn't leave much to do outdoors, but fortunately, there is a Serpentario with a fantastic collection of snakes and other reptiles as well as the Frog Pond Ranario with an extensive collection of (as you may have guessed) frogs... all of which tend to be more active in the evening, which makes for a much more interesting viewing experience. Day six combined a canopy zipline tour over the Cloud Forest Preserve followed by a suspension bridge walk through the rain forest.  Normally, I am a big fan of clear skies but in this case it was almost a shame it was so clear... "isn't this supposed to be a cloud forest?!?".  Nonetheless, we had excellent views while zipping over the canopy, and the suspension bridge trek offered a few interesting plant and wildlife sightings including miniature orchids, coati, and the brilliantly-colored impressive quetzel, which much to our delight flew directly overhead. After lunch, we visited the Monteverde Orchid Garden (El has a thing for photographing plant life....) and the Butterfly Garden in Cerro Plano, both of which are well worth a visit. Then we grabbed a refreshing helado before packing it in for the bumpy drive back to Playa del Coco. For more information on the wide variety of tours offered through Desfio, check them out online at http://www.desafiocostarica.com/.

After a relaxing day getting settled in yesterday, it was time to get out and explore some of this beautiful country. We took to the water with Diving Safaris in Playa Hermosa. Our Divemaster Lauren and Captain Moses took us to two local dive sites -- Argentina and La Tortuga -- a short 15 minute boat ride from Playa Hermosa.  According to Lauren, the wet season was unusually dry creating good visibility to see the great amount of wildlife that inhabit these waters.  Although there is no coral to speak of in Costa Rica, the huge quantities of plankton in the water attract a large amount of aquatic life to see.  We saw puffer fish, scorpionfish, sea urchins with markings that glowed like a neon sign, eels, angelfish, triggerfish, parrotfish, huge spotted eagle rays, and a small group of white-tipped reef sharks.  We also ran across countless schools of fish which I won't name as my fish identification skills are slightly lacking.  Lauren informed us that spotting octopus, and sea turtles are not uncommon at these sites, but sadly we did not manage to catch a glimpse.  Diving Safaris provided cookies, pineapple, water, and gear rental for the trip which lasted about 5 hours and includes a great surface interval on a secluded beach.  A two tank dive cost $80 plus gear rental which runs $15. After a morning of diving be sure to check out AquaSport for lunch.  Weird name for a lunch joint, I know, but the heart of palm salad and arroz con pulpo (octopus rice) is a perfect energy boost after some great diving. Check out Diving Safaris on the internet at http://www.costaricadiving.net/

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