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Heading South to Explore North Carolina

Visiting the (Actual) Cubs

sunny 25 °C

Sample Itinerary
- Day 1: Biltmore, sunset dinner in Asheville
- Day 2: Great Smoky Mountains hiking, dinner in Waynesville
 --> Clingmans Dome (loved these views): 1 mile starting from the parking area at the end of Clingmans Dome Road, fully paved, but extremely steep (well worth it for the views) – there are restrooms available, but no water
 --> Laurel Falls: 2.6 miles roundtrip starting between the Sugarlands Visitor Center and Elkmont Campground, very popular since you can swim at the base of the falls – no restrooms or water available aside from at the visitor center
 --> Cataract Falls: starts near the Sugarlands Visitor Center, mainly flat
- Day 3: Blue Ridge Parkway hiking, dinner in Marshall
 --> Craggy Gardens and Craggy Pinnacle (loved these views): Roughly 2 miles roundtrip and 1.4 miles roundtrip respectively, both are fairly steep, forested, and lead to beautiful views (watch out for roots, and bugs) – we parked in the picnic area and hiked up then returned to our car and drove to the Craggy Pinnacle designated parking lot. The Craggy Gardens visitor center and picnic center both have restrooms.
 --> Mt. Mitchell Summit: 1 mile roundtrip starting from the highest parking lot which takes you to the highest peak east of the Mississippi; it’s very steep but paved the whole way and there are porta potties and water fountains for public use
 --> Crabtree Falls (my favourite waterfalls): about 3 miles roundtrip; you can either go back the way you came, or take a different, slightly longer more scenic route back following the river; it starts off easy but becomes increasingly difficult with uneven paths and the need to hold on to a railing to find your footing on a crumbled staircase on the return; no facilities along the trail, but there is a campground about a mile from the parking lot, en route to the trailhead
- Day 4: Asheville (try Urban Trails self-guided tour), including the North Carolina (NC) Arboretum
Optional: Drive from Asheville to Chicago through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois

Where to Stay
- Best Western Smoky Mountain Inn, Waynesville ($100 USD)
- Marshall House Inn (B&B), Marshall ($150 USD)
- Wingate by Wyndham Fletcher at Asheville Airport ($80 USD)

Where to Eat
- Asheville: Tupelo Honey Café, The Chocolate Fetish, Well-Bred Bakery and Café
- Marshall: Zuma Coffee, Star Diner
- Waynesville: Los Amigos Mexican Restaurant, Kanini’s Restaurant, Third Bay – Filling Station
- Louisville, Kentucky: Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint

My Travel Diary
North Carolina clearly hasn’t had the same publicists as Florida or California because growing up it wasn’t really on people's radar where I lived. There was no Disneyworld or Disneyland to dream of, and I’d never heard of the Great Smoky Mountains – only Smoky the Bear! But over the last few years Asheville has increasingly been the topic of travel talk; I’ve heard a lot about it being an open-minded oasis full of delicious local fare and surrounded by incredible mountain ranges. So, when deciding where to go on a five-day July getaway, my partner and I agreed on North Carolina. Full disclosure: it helped that the plane ticket prices were about $125 USD each roundtrip.

Before traveling anywhere, I always make sure to check the forecast. Once I’ve arrived, I always remember that meteorologists are fallible human beings. We were expecting three straight days of rain, including thunderstorms, so we planned accordingly; however, we only got sporadic showers. Regardless, we planned to spend our first day at Biltmore Estate because we could have a few hours indoors exploring the largest private residence in the U.S. We approached the house from the Diana Fountain at the top of a hill, such that we saw it increasing in size in contrast to the fading mountains behind it. The home, with its French Renaissance style, covers roughly four acres with 35 bedrooms, 43 washrooms, a bowling alley, and library with its own secret passageways.

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We spent roughly an hour and a half exploring the house, feeling more and more thankful by the minute that I’d never have the means to live in such a preposterously imposing house: there was a four-storey chandelier, a 90-foot room devoted entirely to tapestries (including one from the 1500s), and a 70 000-gallon indoor pool in the basement complete with underwater lighting at a time when many homes didn’t even have electricity yet. It’s well worth a visit not only to examine the architectural features (thanks to Richard Morris Hunt) and the landscape architecture (thanks to Frederick Law Olmsted), but also to reflect on the vast wealth disparity in the U.S. On the self-guided audio tour they made sure to emphasize that the estate was opened up to the public in the 1930s to try to increase tourism in the region and boost the local economy, while also being a major source of ongoing employment for locals.

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Although you could spend multiple days exploring the grounds at Biltmore, we booked our tickets for just one day and reserved a 3pm entry to the house. We started off by walking through the outdoor Library and South Terraces, savouring the shade and soaking up the stunning views of the mountains. We also happened to overhear an engagement proposal, although we were both so groggy from our flight that it didn’t register at first. The woman kept looking down at her hand and making an astonished face, so it finally clicked and I bluntly asked: “Did you just get engaged?” She shyly said yes, huge smile creeping across her face. I gushed over her ring and wished them all the best in their life ahead and then gave them some privacy.

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We strolled through the Shrub Garden, the Walled Garden, and the Rose Garden on our way to the Conservatory. I appreciated the diversity of plant life: from a bamboo forest to azalea gardens; and was incredibly impressed with the botanical model train display, fully functioning trains composed entirely of plant matter! We kept walking behind the conservatory, continuing on to the Bass Pond and Boat House with its own hidden waterfall – another prime proposal spot.

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Completed in 1895, the property included thousands of acres so it’s no surprise that the Vanderbilt family ultimately decided to start a dairy farm, winery, and now also own multiple hotels in the Antler Hill Village area. We didn't have time to hike or bike the many acres, but we did drive by the sunflower field and take in the art displays along with the educational exhibits. There’s also the adjacent Biltmore Village, which has historic cottages full of restaurants, cafes, and event spaces. We stopped there to fuel up at the Well-Bred Bakery and Café.

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We should have been more cognizant of our potential hanger when we packed for our hiking trips in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. We also hadn’t realized that it may be difficult to refuel, even with water, along the way. Driving to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I also regretted not budgeting time to explore Cherokee – a town governed by the Cherokee Nation with a nice river, cute restaurants, and the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. Instead, we ventured on to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center to get hiking early. While there, I was able to purchase water from a vending machine and use their restroom, while also picking up two paper guides: one devoted to day hikes and a Great Smoky Mountains trail map. It was only $2 for 2 of them! I’d highly recommend coming in with paper maps and guides because the internet was unsurprisingly unreliable. From there we stopped at a few of the overlooks like Morton and Carlos Campbell before doing our first hike at the Clingman’s Dome (steep but stunning!).

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I’d recommend wearing a hat, taking sunscreen, and going at your own pace – we saw a few people overheating on the way up, so it’s always important to stop when needed. We ended up spending roughly an hour there, really taking in the sights. We also had a strange delay in that we had to step in and distract some bees that were terrorizing a young girl whose mother was clearly also afraid and keeping her distance. Once the bees had buzzed off and the family had fled, we were able to continue on our way. Our eyes loved every twist and turnoff the drive (although my motion sickness definitely didn’t) and it’s clear why they’re called the Great Smoky Mountains given the clouds so stoically seated atop the summits. Our next stop was at the Newfound Gap where we learned more about the history of the national park, the region, and got to officially stand half in Tennessee and half in North Carolina.

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We couldn’t find water anywhere and the washroom had signage indicating its water wasn’t potable, so we stopped at the Sugarlands Visitor Center where they had water fountains as well as vending machines, but no food unfortunately. So that my belly growls didn’t get confused with bear growls, we diverted into Gatlinburg and grabbed lunch from Five Guys - mainly because it was cheap and easy protein. Gatlinburg itself is a tourist trap, overpriced with far too many neon signs, and I’m glad we didn’t stay there. We quickly headed back to the hills to hike more. We rounded off our day by hiking Laurel Falls, which took us roughly 90 minutes – my partner actually climbed down into the pool at the bottom for a quick dip. We found out that we had bearly missed a cub who had been spotted on the path; probably for the best because I’m sure a mama bear wouldn’t be too welcoming to tourists like us. Before leaving the park, we decided to walk the Cataract Falls trail from the Sugarlands Visitor Center, quick and easy but really pretty. If we were to do it all again, I’m not sure that I’d hike Laurel Falls – I’d consider trying Chimney Tops Trail instead, which is also popular but likely has better vantage points.

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In contrast, I’d love to revisit everything we did in the Blue Ridge Parkway. To begin with, we had the good fortune of seeing two bear cubs cross our path within about ten minutes of each other. We were in our car both times, otherwise I would have felt more like a not-so-happy meal and less like a happy observer. Fortunately, when we arrived at the Craggy Gardens Picnic Parking Lot no one was eating – bears or humans – so it was nice and quiet. We started our hike there so that we could get the ascent out of the way and have a breezier finish. The Craggy Gardens hike wasn’t overly challenging because the path was generally clear, but because it was steep at times, I took it slow. There was enough space to step to the side at times, but unfortunately, we still encountered some rude individuals. Maybe their attitude was a result of their hanger, we’ll never know. The hike itself was mainly through the forest without vantage points, but we did enjoy the rhododendrons and rock formations along the way. Once you arrive at the visitor center, the views are spectacular. Even more incredible are the views from the Craggy Pinnacle; however, I wouldn’t recommend walking to the trailhead from the visitor center – it’s much better to drive down the road, through the tunnel, and park in the Craggy Pinnacle hike parking lot.

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The highest peak we reached was Mt. Mitchell. Although it’d be more impressive to say that we hiked the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi, the truth is that we drove as far as we could in our rental car before begrudgingly huffing and puffing our way up to the 6684 ft. summit. It was a short climb, but a very, very steep one – more so than Clingmans Dome, and that’s saying something!

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A last-minute addition to our hiking agenda was Crabtree Falls. I hadn’t read about it in my research for the trip, but because I befriended a man on a motorcycle who recommended we visit Little Switzerland (long story) we changed our route and hiking plans. It turned out to be a blessing and a curse: Crabtree Falls were the most beautiful waterfalls on our trip by far, but Little Switzerland was about as authentic as Swiss Miss.

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In booking our accommodation, I chose to stay only in small towns rather than in Asheville proper. After two nights in Waynesville, about half an hour west of Asheville, we moved half an hour north of Asheville to Marshall. Between the two, I preferred Waynesville. It helped that there were more restaurants, cafes, and impressive views of the mountains. As with most small towns, we had to work around limited hours of service, which were greatly exacerbated by a labour shortage due to Covid-19. We felt that more acutely in Marshall, which only had two restaurants open for dinner when we stayed. The views from our incredible B&B (cannot recommend it highly enough) were far more appealing to us than sitting on a busy patio so we ordered take-out. We made the right decision because another guest at the B&B performed a live concert for us while we dined at dusk on the vast veranda.

Marshall:
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Waynesville:
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Surrounded by thriving small town life, we expected Asheville to be a more booming metropolis. In fact, it was bustling with tourists but had a fairly small, very walkable downtown. If you’re not in the mood to take a formal tour, then I highly recommend Asheville Urban Trail (https://www.exploreasheville.com/urban-trail/) because it outlines options for exploring Asheville with resources like a printable map, audio guide and even a scavenger hunt. I didn’t follow my own advice (typical teacher), so we ended up haphazardly wandering the town enjoying the architecture of the St. Lawrence Basilica and the Grove Arcade, chocolates at Chocolate Fetish, books at Malaprop Bookstore, vibe of Wall St. (couldn’t be more different to New York), and finally the Center for Craft on Broadway where we learned about women’s furniture and Asian-American artists (while basking in the glory of air conditioning).

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The highlight of our time in Asheville was actually meeting some of the incredible artists in the River Arts District like Andrea Kulish who makes Ukrainian pysanky eggs and Nadine Charlsen who shares my fascination with trains. There was something inspiring about not only seeing the artists at work, but also being able to safely interact with them (and Nadine’s adorable dog) at a time when connection can be harder to come by due to the pandemic. Sadly, we weren’t able to meet some of the other incredible artists whose work spoke to me like Kris Morgan for their light-hearted faraway scenes from Paris, Portugal and many other locales; and Angela Alexander, with her colourful portraits of animal life.

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Likely the safest social activity we engaged in was the socially-distant outdoor concert at the North Carolina Arboretum featuring Laura Thurston and Steve Newbrough. There was no additional cost for the live music, beyond the $16 entry fee to the arboretum. Sadly, we arrived too late to really hike the extensive grounds. But we had plenty of room to enjoy the acoustic guitar and unique vocals, and because the sound traveled so well, we were even able to walk through multiple gardens while still enjoying the sound. The Quilt Garden was an homage to the handiwork of the people in Appalachia, incorporating designs and bold colours into a patchwork garden. Nearby, a statue of the famous Frederick Law Olmsted stands approvingly.

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By the time we left Asheville we felt like we’d packed as much as possible into a very short time; we were satiated, but also excited to return in a different season for new perspectives and to learn more about the regional cultures: Appalachian and Indigenous. It turned out that it would be harder than we thought to go home. We arrived at the airport in advance of our 7 am flight only to learn that our flight was departing from Gate A12, yet the airport only held gates 1-7. Once we solved the mystery of translating North Carolina gates into Midwestern ones, we safely boarded the flight. Soon after, there was a ruckus beside us because Allegiant had overbooked and multiple people were assigned to the exact same seat. Next step? Mechanical failure. So, as quickly as we had boarded, we were told to disembark. I was drugged by this point, partially to lessen my motion sickness and partially to help my newfound anxiety, so I barely understood what was happening. All I knew was that I had taken medication to help with movement and I was suddenly shockingly still and stranded. My partner had set off to find reliable internet and search for new flights, while I tried to decipher what the airport attendant’s announcements actually meant. She had, at first, indicated that the next flight wasn’t until Monday (this was Friday) and had then listed the nearest airports in case we could find (1) private transit there; and (2) flights from there back to the Midwest. She then changed course and clarified that there was a slight possibility that the mechanical failure could be resolved by a system reset, in which case we may be able to fly out within a few hours. Unwilling to wait, I started looking for rental cars. There were none. Given that my partner had work the next day, we didn’t have much room for failure so I proposed that we go back in person to the rental car agency we had just returned a car to and see if they’d take pity on us and let us re-rent our beloved Kia. It worked.

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And thus began our unexpected thirteen-hour drive from Asheville to Chicago. Well, to be honest, our first stop was returning to our hotel for our complimentary continental breakfast. Fueled up (on multiple counts), we then set off. The mountain drives were stunning, including the Daniel Boone Forest. My favourite stops were: Berea, Kentucky which has a booming folk art culture including a visitor center right near the highway (buy the bourbon balls!) and Martin’s Bar-B-Que in Louisville, Kentucky (highly recommend the brisket tacos!). Driving through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and then Illinois was not how we planned to end our “relaxing” getaway, but it was worthwhile. I learned about Kentucky’s art and that for just $50 you can board a five-storey replica of Noah’s Ark. Personally, I’d rather spend the money on chocolate-covered bourbon, but to each their own. While driving through the region, we also saw plenty of ads for Jesus and guns (sometimes on the same billboard), but one really stood out: “gun control: buying one when you want two”. We couldn’t very well leave the South without at least a couple of stereotypes being reinforced, could we? On that note, I’ll mention too that we passed by Colonel Sander’s original Kentucky Fried Chicken Restaurant in North Corbin, Kentucky. It turns out that he was a real man, not just a cartoon conspiracy!

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We traveled with ease through the region and really enjoyed the solid infrastructure, well-maintained roads, and friendly faces we encountered along the way. Even our unexpected thirteen-hour drive home ended up being a welcome opportunity to see more of the South – especially the bumpy landscape and delicious food!

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Posted by madrugada 00:26 Archived in USA Tagged mountains churches art buildings animals chocolate rain architecture cities nature hiking vacation scenery summer rural usa tennessee forest beauty bbq eating cafes gatlinburg botanical_gardens kentucky blue_ridge_parkway american_history indiana arboretum north_carolina asheville marshall safe_travel waynesville scenic_road_trip coronavirus lush_greenery social_distance great_smoky_mountains illinoiswaterfalls Comments (0)

Colourful Costa Rica

Driving from Liberia through Central Costa Rica down the Western Pacific Coast to Manuel Antonio

all seasons in one day

Sample Itinerary
- Day 1: Fly into Liberia
- Day 2: Liberia to Arenal/La Fortuna, stopping at Rincón de la Vieja for hiking en route
- Day 3: Explore Arenal/La Fortuna - I recommend checking out Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park
- Day 4: Arenal/La Fortuna to Monteverde where you can stroll and eat well at El Trapiche tours
- Day 5: Monteverde (check out the Selvatura bridges before you leave) to Jacó
- Day 6: Jacó to Manuel Antonio - enjoy the local beach
- Day 7: Manuel Antonio - spend the day at the national park
- Day 8: Manuel Antonio to Cañas - appreciate the art, wildlife, and food
- Day 9: Cañas to Liberia, and fly away home

Where to Stay
- Hotel Javy in Liberia -- although I wouldn't necessarily recommend staying in Liberia overnight
- Volcano Lodge, Hotel & Thermal Experience in Arenal/La Fortuna -- amazing accommodation and facilities, including games area, multiple pools and delicious breakfast buffets - just watch out for the ants!
- Belcruz B&B in Monteverde -- as long as you're ok with rustic lodgings
- Rancho Capulin -- near the Rio Tarcoles crocodiles, and fairly close to Jacó; make sure to request the Mirador if you want a stunning sunset from high above the trees
- Hotel Costa Verde near the Manuel Antonio National Park and close to Quepos -- Area D is isolated from the complex, but has beautiful views since you're surrounded by nature
- Hotel Hacienda la Pacifica near Cañas -- former presidential retreat that's still secluded, but in need of some repairs

Where to Eat
- Maria Juana Restaurant in Liberia -- cool outdoor setting and hearty pasta
- Casa de Calá in Liberia for drinks
- Casa la Fortuna Restaurant in La Fortuna -- not the best beef, but an adorable setting with cute hammocks and tasty smoothies
- Volcano Lodge, Hotel & Thermal Experience in La Fortuna -- phenomenal breakfast buffet, and delicious dinner
- Sabor Tico in Santa Elena (near Monteverde) for a regional tortilla aliñada as a snack
- Soda Angel in Manuel Antonio -- cheapest and tastiest food you'll find
- Aguas Azules in Manuel Antonio -- nice, sit-down dinner place
- El Wagon and El Avion in Manuel Antonio -- affiliated with the Hotel Costa Verde, so you can request a shuttle
- Hotel Hacienda la Pacifica in Cañas for another great breakfast and dinner combo - it's also worth stopping in town for a leche dormida since that's the famous local drink

What to Bring
- Bug spray (I cannot emphasize this enough!), sunscreen, clothing for all weather (e.g. waterproof jacket, tank tops, swimsuit, etc.), hiking boots, assistive devices (and make sure to confirm accessibility of sites before you go), flip flops, hat, sunglasses, umbrella, pocket tissues, useful medicines (e.g. for bug reactions, etc.), an SUV (if you choose to drive), US and/or Costa Rican cash (this was very useful), a water bottle (most areas had potable water), and Spanish-English help through an app or pocket translator

My Travel Diary
When I first started planning our three months of travel in 2019, I knew that Costa Rica would likely be the pinnacle. I've always been curious to see the eco-tourism haven of Central America. As such, it was no surprise that when we arrived in Liberia we were met with a smaller city than anticipated and a tremendous amount of greenery. Due to its wild nature, there's a huge emphasis on conservation, and also environmental consciousness. This flies in the face of much of what is shared on social media, so it's no surprise that the airport has actual posters instructing tourists not to disturb wildlife for pictures - "sloths are not made for selfies". What if selfies were made for sloths though? Anyway, we had decided (as per usual) to rent a car, so once we had picked up our Mitsubishi Outlander from Sixt we began on the real adventure, i.e. where to park, and how not to disappear into potholes. Liberia has a unique parking system in that you need to go into an official vendor, like a pharmacy, to purchase time and a specific parking spot. There are no parking meters on the street, and not even some of the locals I spoke to could really identify how the system works. It was still cheaper than having our car stolen and replaced, so I happily paid the pharmacist. Liberia actually seemed very safe and liveable - I'm fluent in Spanish though, so I'm not sure how challenging it might be if you're not - but it's just not an ideal tourist destination either way. Apart from the downtown square and imposing white church, there wasn't much else to explore. We did enjoy watching the birds all line up on cables taking in the striking sunset - it felt like the rom-com version of Hitchcock's "The Birds".

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I very quickly learned that my favourite thing about Costa Rica was actually one specific bird: el gallo, a.k.a. the rooster. Although it wasn't the bird itself that I loved as much as their famous local breakfast dish: gallo pinto. I happily devoured the rice, beans, and special spices every morning (and even a few evenings, where I could find it). Our first morning in Liberia I ate a tremendous amount at the hotel, which prepared me well for our long hike ahead in Rincon de la Vieja. There were a number of accommodations near the volcano park, which were pricier than the hotel we stayed at in Liberia - but you're paying for the adventure retreat instead of the discounted city lodgings.

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Rincon de la Vieja is a fairly short drive from Liberia and well worth visiting. There are two main entrances and areas to explore: Sector Santa Maria, and Sector Pailas. We chose the road less traveled (and also less paved), by visiting Sector Santa Maria. The road was actually just a gathering of huge rocks assembled in a fairly straight line, basically a miniature Stone Henge. If we didn't have an SUV, there's zero chance that we would have attempted that drive. Once you actually reach the ranger's station though, you realize that it'll likely have been worth the ups and downs. The ranger was a kind older gentleman who told us we were lucky that it was a fairly dry day (just spitting rain), but didn't go into much detail beyond that. About 15 minutes into our hike, we questioned his judgement when we ran into a river. Yes, there was a literal river for us to cross at the beginning of our hike. My boyfriend and I chose to cross the river at different spots: with rocks submerged but closer together vs. rocks above the water but farther apart. Thankfully, we were calm as the current and managed to cross safely. Since we were basically river otters after that experience, the next two rivers didn't faze us - it also helped that there were cables strung across to assist with balance. With or without the cables, I felt like a brilliant explorer mapping out my rocky route across the rivers. My bravery came into question every time I heard a sound though: was that a puma? or a snake? or a scorpion? Usually it was just me scaring myself by stepping on a stick. For someone who is actually more terrified of bugs than animals, Costa Rica is a tough destination. I won't sugarcoat it: I had a very hard time managing my insect anxiety because they are everywhere - whether you're indoors or outdoors, they'll find you (dead or alive).

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The Santa Maria sector of the park is open daily at 8 am and you have to come prepared to pay a cash entrance fee of $15 USD per person. Although I've read reviews suggesting sandals I would argue that's totally misguided - if you're crossing rivers, you want tread, and I'd prefer to have waterproof boots on instead. Unless, of course, you plan to step in the rivers. My boyfriend, for example, decided to jump right into a river in order to reach some isolated hot springs. I was more hesitant. Once I finally caved and stepped in, I was eaten alive within seconds. I panicked and ran out of the river without ever making it to the hot springs, instead I had little bloody bug bites all over my legs and a weird red worm on my toe. I guess what they say is true: you can’t step in the same river twice. The river my boyfriend entered definitely treated him differently than me. For my boyfriend, the hot springs were the highlight of our trip, but my experience wasn’t so hot.

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The (live) volcano itself can't be seen from Sector Santa Maria; however, you do get to explore multiple waterfalls: bosque encantado, and the morpho waterfalls. In addition to the hot springs, there are also cold water pots and an old sugar cane processing plant. All in all, we spent about 3.5 hours hiking in the area, and ran into 4 people. If you're afraid of being alone in the woods, this is definitely the wrong part of the park for you.

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It took us about three and a half hours to drive to La Fortuna (the town beside the volcano, Arenal). Weather in Costa Rica is really unpredictable and, on our drive, it alternated between gorgeous skies and windy/rainy storms. There's a gorgeous lookout en route and we were mesmerized by the volcano itself. It's an active volcano, which last erupted in 2010. At 1633 metres high with a 140 metre diameter crater, it literally looks like a picture-perfect conic volcano. The prettiest conehead you'll ever see! From our hotel, we had a lovely view of it, made even better by the fact that we were spying on it from our thermal hot springs. In fact, our hotel had so many amenities that our first day there we spent most of the time hiding from the rain by playing pool, darts, Foosball and other games in the bar area. Finally, we decided to brave the rains and head off to the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park. To be honest, we weren’t that brave – the whole park was paved, resulting in less mud and discomfort than even walking around our own hotel’s trails. It was also fairly empty, likely due to the rains and the late hour of our arrival. We got there at about 2:30pm and it closes at 3:50pm.

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The views were spectacular because it wasn’t just the forest – it was also the volcano. The sights became more interactive as we had to follow the path and explore the 22 bridges; the highest (#9 puente la catarata) was 148 feet tall. I’m good at dispute resolution, but I can’t imagine building bridges like that. I also can’t imagine crossing those bridges daily because even an hour of it made me nauseous from the swinging motion. This discomfort was amplified by an allergic reaction to a bug bite. I’m awfully afraid of bugs, which, unlike my Spanish fluency, was not an asset in the wilderness of Costa Rica. This trip actually helped me realize that I need help addressing some of my anxieties. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with being afraid of bugs, but there is something wrong with negative thought patterns that spiral into obsessive behaviour. I had to separate fact from fiction when I saw bugs and remember that Aragog, the giant spider from Harry Potter, is not real and does not vacation in Costa Rica.

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Apart from the bugs, the weather was also a nuisance at times. I was really glad to have a raincoat with me for our time in Monteverde and La Fortuna. I was also happy that we rented an SUV for our drive from La Fortuna to Monteverde given the prevalence of potholes that sucked you in like the Bermuda Triangle. They were buffered on both sides by ditches as deep as black holes. To make the drives even more like a video game, my boyfriend (the driver) had to keep his eyes open for loose cattle, and overzealous dump trucks on these narrow, eroded roads. Another obstacle was the constant stream of cyclists that appeared around every corner. The cattle on roads was a constant theme on this trip. In fact, I’m surprised we never saw a cow-on-car collision – that would have been mooving, in all the wrong ways.

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In Monteverde, apart from the cloud forest, we really enjoyed visiting El Trapiche tours. We caught their last tour of the day at 3pm, which was fortunate because I definitely needed a mid-day snack. They supplied plentiful amounts of coffee, sugarcane and chocolate while also providing the added bonus of an informative tour of their stunning grounds. The wildest part was probably the moment when we watched a mother sloth feed her young in a tree, while we took an ox-ride down below. Our ox rode us down a path of enlightenment as we learned everything there is to know about coffee. My favourite fact was that in Costa Rica they only produce high-quality Arabica, since they actually made it illegal to grow poor quality coffee. I wish we could make it illegal to sell bad quality coffee in Canada, although that would likely undermine Tim Hortons’ entire business model. Anyway, it turns out all the volcanoes have made the soil rich in minerals, and led to an appropriate level of acidity. I’m glad the coffee isn’t as bitter as my views of politics, or we wouldn’t have enjoyed it much. We also got to see the trees that grow coffee berries/beans, and learn that the caffeine is more potent once they’re roasted. In fact, we learned all about coffee processing: peeling, sorting and roasting. In addition to coffee, we learned about cacoa, which grows in pods on trees. Once the pod is broken you see that it’s full of seeds. We got to try them raw, but also processed. My boyfriend even got to work off some of the calories by riding a bike that ground up cacao. I made him pay 35$ USD to ride a bike, but he loved it. Although he enjoyed the tour, we did not appreciate the fact that the bathroom door broke. Fortunately, neither of us was in the bathroom when the door jammed; unfortunately, we were both desperate to get in. As they say, travelling definitely brings couples closer together – especially when both people are locked out.

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Anyway, we survived a number of other disasters that day and still managed to enjoy our time at the Selvatura hanging bridges. The grounds were muddy, but they didn’t cloud our views of the lush green forests. We even spotted some wildlife from our bird’s eye view (including many types of birds). The most gorgeous views appeared seemingly out of nowhere on our drive southwest. We even stopped a few times to take photos and just stand hand-in-hand soaking up our moments together.

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Our romantic journey continued when we arrived at Rancho Capulin (bed and breakfast), our gorgeous jungle habitat for one night. The hosts are a lovely couple who moved there from France about a decade ago. They also happen to be the parents of one of my childhood friends, so our stay was not without nostalgia. It was heartwarming hearing about how their kids are doing, and also listening to their story of adapting to this new country and building both a home and business there. It’s inspiring when you see people pursuing their passions, and creating their communities. Life isn’t prescribed, no matter what social norms may exist.

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Rancho Capulin is right beside the Tarcoles River, so on our way to Manuel Antonio we managed to cross the famous Crocodile Bridge and peer down at a tremendous number of man-eaters. I like swimming, but you couldn’t pay me to plunge into those waters. We bypassed Jacó because we were more interested in arriving safely in sunlight at our Manuel Antonio hotel. Our hotel room was in an isolated part of the hotel complex, which meant additional privacy and also stunning views of the water, wildlife and jungle from our balcony. I basically felt like we became Tarzan and Jane, or Romeo and Juliet – but without the problematic underpinnings.

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Manuel Antonio has a fair number of restaurants, and also a few beaches to explore – in addition to the obvious draw, the national park. My main advice in that region is not to trust the many scammers that hang out in the parking lots, and near the park’s entrance. They will tell you they work for the government, that you need to pay them to enter the park, that there are limited spots available daily, and a number of other bold-faced lies. For better or worse, I’m a very blunt person. I was very clear with these men that their behaviour was manipulative, and that I wouldn’t give them a dime (or the Costa Rican equivalent). Needless to say, we were slightly concerned with parking our car around these men after my honest diatribe and so we mainly chose to walk – accepting instead the narrow, windy roads and lack of sidewalk. Espadilla (public) beach wasn’t far, so the walk didn’t inconvenience us.

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I also enjoyed looking down on the beach from our hotel’s helipad structure. The view from above allowed us to really soak up all the scenery, and also stay dry under the umbrellas. I couldn’t really complain about the constant drizzle though given that we made the decision to travel during the rainy season. I did try singing: “rain, rain, go away, come again another day”, but apparently my Canadian lullabies don’t translate into impacting Costa Rican weather conditions.

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The Manuel Antonio National Park is closed on Mondays, and open all other days from 7 am to 4 pm. Tickets are purchased near the entrance at the Coopealianza where it’s definitely preferable to pay the $16 USD entrance fee with cash, although they will accept credit card too for an additional fee. To save some money (and help the environment) take your water bottle with you - the park has potable water, like much of Costa Rica apparently. The park is quite large (1950 hectares), but the paths are manageable and you can see most of it within a few hours (depending on your pace, of course). Although we weren’t heading to Jurassic Park, it definitely felt wild. We saw so many animals and insects, even without having hired a guide. It wasn’t hard to spot most of the animals: from agouti to deer. The birds could be a bit trickier, but the tremendous number of guided groups made it easier because they would crowd near a spot in the forest and point their cameras in whatever direction we needed to follow. We walked all through the park, and my boyfriend even swam through parts of it. While he turned into a merman, I chose to binge on ice cream. My gluttony was punished very quickly, as I got pooed on by a monkey while walking back to the beach. Thankfully, the monkey didn’t aim at my ice cream, but it definitely splashed its lunch all over my bare shoulder. The monkey mafia targeted me again later because when we got back to the hotel, a monkey in a nearby tree ripped off some bark and whipped it at me. I’m not sure what I did to deserve that kind of violent crap, but they weren’t monkeying around with their attacks.

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It was hardest leaving our hotel room in Manuel Antonio because rain or shine, we couldn’t stop staring out into the beauty surrounding us. In fact, in a flash rainstorm, I stood on the balcony in solidarity with the toucans, monkeys, taipirs, and agoutis hiding in the jungle in front of me. I’m glad to have had the chance to see the world they still live in, and hope not to contribute to its demise. No matter how much I hate bugs, I recognize that they have as much of a right to exist as me. It’s a shared world, and without those bugs these animals couldn’t feed themselves. Life lesson from a trip to Costa Rica, or from the Lion King? Not sure, but it’s an important one either way.

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Our final stop on this Costa Rican journey was near Cañas, which is about an hour outside of Liberia. We decided last minute to stay at a hacienda there built in the 19th century by a former president of Costa Rica. It was definitely a rustic retreat: as we pulled up, we were greeted by deer. We also played hosts, as our room was visited by cockroaches and lizards. The nearby town of Cañas made for a nice visit because of its beautiful cathedral decorated with mosaic tiles. While there it’s worth trying a leche dormida, their local specialty drink. We couldn’t find an open restaurant so we spent the evening back at our hotel grounds, eating at the delicious on-site restaurant and strolling like president and first gentleman around the large grounds.

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The hotel’s neighbour is actually el centro de rescate las pumas – a conservation site for rescued animals. The entry was $12 USD and we appreciated that most of the money seemed to go toward saving and treating animals in need. Each animal had a troubled past, from the two jaguars who were rescued when their mother was poached to pumas who had been kept in chicken coops as pets. It was hard seeing the animals caged, but it seemed (and we really hope) that they're treated ethically. Most encouraging was seeing all of the children visiting and learning about the plentiful environment around them, and the importance of respecting and preserving it.

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Like those children, I think this trip was an opportunity for me to recognize the importance of my role in environmental protection too. I can choose whether to spend my money on visiting (and petting) animals in captivity for entertainment, or those that have been rescued and are being sheltered for their protection. Overall, travel creates a large carbon footprint, so it’s important to act on ways to offset that. Even at home, it’s also crucial to consider how best to reduce waste and improve recycling. I have a lot of room for growth, but I really am inspired by Costa Rica’s progress. That being said, I won’t miss its monkeys.

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Posted by madrugada 10:04 Archived in Costa Rica Tagged landscapes beaches animals chocolate rainforest rivers monteverde ocean wildlife costa_rica coffee crocodiles liberia roadtrip greenery environment central_america arenal jungles rincon_de_la_vieja la_fortuna manuel_antonio cloud_forests jaco sugarcane romantic_getaway bilingual_travel hanging_bridges _pura_vida tarcoles spanish_speaking_country cattle_traffic Comments (2)

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