Quepos

20170413_141329.jpgSo after La Fortuna we headed down to Quepos on the Pacific Coast. Since we didn’t have a lot of time, we decided to take a flight on Nature Air– a 25 minute flight to the Pacific Coast. The Arenal airport just outside of la Fortuna is super tiny – washrooms, a bar (that was closed when we were there) and two check-in desks for the two airlines that use the airport. Super easy to check-in and impossible to get lost. The 19-seat planes are as comfortable as you can expect – no a/c and not much airflow, but the air does get cooler the higher you are, so I didn’t find it too bad. (Fiancé may disagree)

Once in Quepos, we got a shared shuttle to Playa Espadilla, the beach area where our hotels (more on that in a minute) were located. Super each, about $20US total.

So, hotels. The hotel we wanted to stay in only had availability for the last three days of our planned stay, so we booked two nights at Vela Bar. Nice place, but we were a little taken aback by our room, which was one of the non-newly renovated rooms. (It turns out the room was great – although it didn’t lock very well, we had a small sitting room type area, with no a/c, and our bedroom, which did have a/c was up a short flight of stairs, a room large enough for a door to open, a double bed, and a night-stand.) The room had two patios – one off the bedroom at the back, and one at the front.

One evening, while having a beer on the front patio, reading our books, a small cat ran up the stairs and sat on the far end of the patio….viciously “playing” with a mouse. He came over for pets and cuddles afterwards. We didn’t realize that he wasn’t actually playing with the mouse, but having his dinner, until the next morning.

Our other hotel, La Posada, was right on the edge of Manuel Antonio Park. This room was much more modern, but larger so the a/c had to work to keep it cool and less humid. One of the bonuses of being on the edge of the park, besides easy access, was that occasionally wildlife would come to visit, like this deer that wandered around the fence.20170416_155039

Our first day we spent at the public beach – you can rent chairs and umbrellas for about $10US for a full day – you can leave your towels to go get food at one of the restaurants that line the street, and the people who rent the chairs will watch them for you. We arrived on a Friday (Good Friday in fact) and it was incredibly busy, the beach was packed. Lots of options of things to do – they had parasailing, surfing lessons, boogie boards to rent, or just play in the waves (our option). Lots of people hawking wares, but a simple “Non, gracias” and they would wander on to the next umbrella.

We decided to spend a day in Manuel Antonio Park, relaxing on one of the relatively secluded beaches in the park. After the security check point, where they look for contraband (such as alcohol and chips) we headed along the dirt road, past groups and guides. These guides, with their telescopes to spot hidden animals in the canopy, can be hired just outside the gates. We decided to verge off the dirt road and onto a wooden boardwalk that had been built through the forest, paralleling the road.20170416_085854

We decided not to hire a guide, as our focus was more on the beaches inside the park. We headed to Espadilla Sur. As you follow the path, you come across a long arc of a beach, that quickly fills up as people arrive. This is also prime monkey spotting territory, as the monkeys gather in the trees nearby. If you keep walking, however, you reach a slightly more secluded beach – which is where we decided to set up. The waves here are slightly larger and slightly more powerful, which was great for us.

While in the park, we did manage to catch glimpses of some wildlife – besides the lizards and monkeys, we also saw raccoons (who knew Costa Rica had raccoons?!?) and a coati-mundi. We found out afterwards that this is a great place for spotting sloths – it may well be worth it to hire a guide and wander through the trails to see the wildlife of Costa Rica.

The night walk we booked ended up being far better than the one we had done in La Fortuna. It ended up being just ourselves and another guy from Edmonton (Canadians unite!). We driven just outside of town, and along a bumpy road, then dropped off with our guide. We ended up finding quite an array of animals – a kinkajou running through the canopy, monkeys, opossums, scorpions, moths, spiders, and a wide variety of lizards. Incidentally, scorpions under UV lights are incredible. We walked for about 2 hours, at a fairly slow pace (obviously) stopping frequently to see whatever the guide had found. And yet, about 20 minutes in, we were all dripping in sweat. It was that humid.

Our last full day we signed up to do a catamaran tour. Which ok, I had to talk Fiancé into, because yeah it sounds boring. But! It included snorkelling time, which I thought would be well worth the boat cruise aspect of it.

So we headed out on the catamaran tour, with a brief stop at Manuel Antonio park (just off of Playa Espadilla Sur, where we had spent the day before), then off to find dolphins – watching them play in the waves at the bow of the boat. Then it was time to snorkel – we probably spent about a half hour to 45 minutes in the water, watching the fish swim around the rocks, and trying desperately not to be dashed upon them. (the current was a little bit strong).

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After our snorkelling excursion, it was back onto the boat for some lunch, and to terrify ourselves on the slide at the back. The slid had a near vertical drop, and you were instructed to put one hand on the back of your head, the other holding your nose, and to cross your legs….before they pushed you down, and you went skidding across the water like a human-sized, very heavy, pebble. We could also jump off the roof of the catamaran into the water below – this being only slightly less terrifying than the slide.

After our boating excursion, we had the driver drop us off at El Avion a restaurant/bar situated in and around a C-123 Fairchild cargo plane. The restaurant has an excellent view over the Pacific Ocean, and we had been planning to come for lunch or dinner during our stay. Somewhat unluckily it did end up raining while we were there, so our views weren’t as fantastic as they could have been, but the canopies hanging over the edge of the roof kept us dry, and the food wasn’t bad.

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Nature Lover’s Paradise – La Fortuna, Costa Rica

This Easter, after a not too terrible winter, we flew to Costa Rica for nearly 2 weeks of rest, relaxation….and some mildly strenuous activities.

We started off our trip in La Fortuna, a small town near the base of Arenal Volcano. Our hotel, Volcano Lodge and Springs, was about 6 km outside of town. We made the mistake on our second day of trying to walk into town – I suppose if the weather had been milder, it would have been fine, but as it was it was hot and the sun was merciless. There wasn’t near as much cover as we had planned on, so we arrived in town sore, sunburnt and exhausted. If you’re staying at any of the hotels along the road leading outside of town, definitely get a cab if you’re planning to visit the town itself.

Our first day we had booked a 3-in-1 tour with Anywhere.com– visiting a park with hanging bridges, a waterfall, as well as a volcano hike. (There is a 4-in-1 option that includes a soak at hot springs afterwards, but since our hotel had hot springs, we opted not to do that tour.) We were picked up on time (bonus!) and on the way to the Mistico Park our guide and driver suddenly stopped. There were two toucans on trees near the road, so we all trooped out of the van to peer through telescopes at the birds.

These telescopes are a routine sight in Costa Rica, as most guides carry them to help you see animals that may not be that close. Interestingly, most guides are also adept at lining up cellphone cameras with the lens of the telescope to take pictures!

Once at the park, we split into two groups – one with the families with kids, and one with the couples (a mixed group ranging in age from late 20s to late 40s). As we walked through the park, we would stop periodically to see various animals – snakes, frogs, sloths, monkeys. The park has 16 bridges, 6 of which as hanging bridges at various lengths and heights. As someone who’s nervous about heights, I did have a few moments on the first few bridges, but quickly adapted to them with no trouble.

After the nature walk at the park, we headed to the La Fortuna Waterfall. With 500 steps leading down to the waterfall, it’s not exactly accessible for people with limited mobility. (And climbing back up the steps is exhausting). At the bottom of the stairs is a small flat area with a few benches – on one side is a calm river where kids can splash around, on the other is a pool at the base of the waterfall, where those of sturdier fare can swim. The force of the water hitting the pool, plus any wind, does create a bit of a current that will try to push you towards the rocky shore. (I should note that at the entrance to the waterfall is a small shop, along with washrooms that you can get changed in.)

From there we headed back towards the volcano for a short hike up a small ridge to get a better view of the volcano. First we had a brief history of recent eruptions, and how the volcano came to the shape that it is today, and then we set off for a short 20 minute hike. The hike itself isn’t too strenuous, although there is one steep section near the top.

Our last day in La Fortuna we booked a stand-up paddle (SUP) boarding excursion on Arenal Lake. The company provided life jackets as well as the board, and drinks and fruit at the end of the paddling. We were guided around the edge of the lake, paddling for about one and half hours, before stopping and loading our boards onto the boat following us, getting to enjoy some fresh fruit and a beer, before heading back to the launching point.

That evening we went to the nearby nature reserve –Arenal Natura Ecological Park – for a night walk. While we didn’t see any mammals, or snakes, we did see a plethora of frogs, some caimans, and crocodiles. The tour itself was about 2 hours, and not very strenuous. We were in a small group with several children – I think I would have preferred if they had split up the group into families/non-families, as a lot of time was spent trying to get the kids to a) let everyone have a turn to see (insert animal here), b) keep their flashlights down and not in people’s eyes, and c) behind the guide and not out in front.

A Brief Tour of Klaipeda

One of the highlights of this trip was having it unplanned and going with the flow. We spent an evening in Kaunas deciding our next steps, and we decided on Klaipeda. From there we could visit the Curonian Spit (and see Russia) but also have an easy bus route to Riga, where we had rented an AirBnB for a week.

Because it was unplanned, we ended up last-minute booking a suite at a hotel, Friedrich Guesthouse, in Klaipeda. It turned out to be a great deal because we had a small sitting area, a small dining area, and a kitchenette! Plus for the first time on the trip, we weren’t sharing the bathroom with the rest of the rooms.

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Hotel sitting room

We did our standard walking tour of the city the first….including the walk from the bus station to the hotel, which should have been aboutt 20 minutes, but took us closer to an hour, as we walked through a sculpture park, past a war memorial, and beside a river. Our hotel was very centrally located – about 20 minutes from the bus station, and 10 from the harbour.

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Hotel sitting room

After checking in at the hotel, we dropped our bags, snagged a ‘What to do in Klaipeda’ travel guide, and headed out. We noticed that there was a blacksmith museum, and a brewery tour, of the Svyturys brewery (which had been our beer of choice throughout this leg of the trip). Alas, the brewery (once we figured out where the entrance was) didn’t look too inviting to guests, and after reading the local brochure more, we found out that tours need to be arranged in advance through the tourist office.

So we continued to wander around, trying to find the blacksmith museum, coming across a tourist market in the town square, where we loaded up on some amber souvenirs. I had previously gotten an amber necklace in Czech Republic, so I picked up a pair of earrings to match, and the Fiancé got an amber die. 20160804_185721

Of course, it rained, so we popped into a pub’s patio, before heading back to the hotel. Where we found the blacksmith’s museum across the street from the hotel. So much for paying attention!

Our evening plans were put on hold when we had a massive downpour of rain. Thankfully the hotel had a series of restaurants attached along an alleyway, with several tables covered by awnings, so we had dinner and drinks there, while watching the rain come down…..and trying to avoid getting wet.

 

 

Kaunas

Our second stop of our Baltic adventure was Kaunas, the second largest city in Lithuania. We arrived by bus, and walked to our hostel, the Monk’s Bunk. (It’s an easy 15-minute walk from the bus station to the hostel, with only one leftturn)

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Follow the backpacker to Monk’s Bunk

We had been told that the hostel could be difficult to find, and they weren’t kidding. Located on Laisves, it’s actually behind the buildings on the street. You walk through an archway, and you’ll see a hiker painted on the wall, with an arrow pointing towards the hostel. It’s located on the second floor, with their private rooms being in a separate apartment on the fourth floor. (There’s no elevator, so be prepared to carry your bags!)

During our two-day stay in Kaunas we toured the castle, as well as did our own little walking tour around the city. And we made up for not visiting any museums in Vilnius by going to a gem museum and the devil’s museum.

Our walking tour of Kaunas began at our hostel, down Laisves to Zemenhofo, where we saw a sign post pointing to a ‘Gem Museum’. So we headed down Zemenhofo to the end, went back to Laisves….no sign of a ‘Gem Museum’. It turns out that the ‘Gem Museum’ is actually a jewellery store with quite a few different types of gemstones on display. It’s located at the corner of Zemenhofo and Kurpiu.

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Relaxing on the pedestrian street, Laisves

From there we headed back to Laisves and walked on to the old town hall, which is now the city museum….and which was never a church by the way. It may look like it started life as a church but it wasn’t. For a nominal fee you can tour through the town hall, seeing the history of the city. Worth a pop in, especially if it’s a gray overcast day!20160803_034557

Our next stop was the castle, which is incredibly interesting, with a dungeon that you can explore (but it’s tiny, so there’s not much exploring.) The stairs leading down to the dungeon are on a steep angle, but it’s short. At the bottom, there is a round chamber with stocks, and chains, which you can play around with (although there is no way my head and hands are going into a set of stocks.) An archway leads you into another chamber, with a few placards that give the history of the castle and prisoners that were held there after various wars.

From the dungeon you climb up the narrow, stone, spiral staircase of the central tower (and only tower….) into various rooms that display period clothing, archaeological items, paintings…you can even step out at one point for a view of the rivers and city.20160803_102355

Walking back towards the hostel, we took a different route, taking Gertrudos and then down Daukšos, and stopping in at Hop Doc for some beer and food, before spending the evening in.

The next day, we headed in the opposite direction. We headed down Micheviciaus to the funicular, taking it to the top of the hill.

We then walked down Zemaiciu, to a set of stairs, with a fountain at the bottom, leading back up the hill, which we explored. Back at the bottom, we headed along Putvinskio to the Devils’ Museum – which started off as a private collection – consists of artwork from around the world (paintings, masks, statues) depicting various versions of the devil.

That Time I Bussed to Riga

From Vilnius to Kaunas, and Kaunas to Klaipeda, we had arrived at the bus station and just bought our tickets then and there for the next bus. And we had had no problems. The buses were coach buses, large enough to accommodate 40 to 50 people (I’m guessing) with free wifi, outlets to charge phones, and space to stretch out a little.  We envisioned no problems with our proposed Klaipeda to Riga trip – buses definitely ran the route (we had checked before deciding to visit Klaipeda).

The first bus was at 10 am, so we arrived at the bus station around 9:30 and walked up to the ticket counter.

“Hi, two tickets to Riga?”

“At 10?”

“Yes.”

“One ticket.”

“Oh, no, two tickets. We need two tickets.”

“No, one ticket. There’s one ticket for Riga. Maybe, ask the bus driver. Maybe. MAYBE.”

“Ok, I guess we’ll ask the bus driver.”

How, we thought, had the bus sold out? Is the route extra popular? Was it because it was a Saturday? Was it because it was the first trip that day? Maybe it was because it was the first trip of the day on Saturday on an extra popular route!

It turns out that it was nearly sold out because it was essentially an extended mini-van/mini-bus. Able to sit about 20 people. We waited until all the passengers with tickets had boarded, and approached the bus driver to find out if maybe, just maybe, there was enough room for the two of us.

He stood there doing calculations (If 2 people get off in the next city, but one person gets on, and if 4 people get off at the second stop, but only 1 gets on…) before deciding that yes….there was juuuuuust enough room for the two of us. So we loaded our bags onto the bus, clamored aboard, and realized……the only two seats left together were at the very back, between a very tall man, and a man with the widest shoulders I’ve ever seen. (This includes football players I’ve seen on TV).

Right after we got on, another passenger (also English speaking) asked for a seat on the bus, and (somewhat) badgered the bus driver into giving him the one open seat on the bus. When he finally boarded the bus, we headed out towards Riga, with the two of us squished in the back.

The bus stopped in Šiauliai and a few people got out to stretch their legs. We briefly changed seats (they came back, we had to move back to the squished seats), and then it happened.

Someone new got on.

And walked to the back.

And walked to the front.

And started debating with the driver.

And someone turned to us (having heard us speaking English to one another) and said “Too many tickets sold, haha.”

I have no idea what happened with the woman who had bought a ticket but had no seat…she wasn’t on our bus as we headed out towards Riga. All I know is I spent 4 hours crammed into a seat and had to unfold myself when we finally arrived.

But we made it!

 

Vilnius, Rain and Relaxing

Things were hectic for me this summer, starting a new job, and getting ready for our European vacation. After our African safari adventure, we decided to go back to Europe for a vacation focused more on relaxing than on daredevilry. So we settled on a tour of the Baltic states – starting in Vilnius Lithuania, heading up through Latvia, and ending in Tallinn, Estonia.

Our first day in Vilnius was full of errands – buying some clothing (our bags had managed to miss the flight from Toronto to Warsaw), and getting a sim card for our phone. That was definitely worth it – we paid a few euros, and had internet all the time, not having to rely on wifi (that may or may not work) at cafes and restaurants.

20160801_093723While looking for a (relatively) cheap clothing store, and place to buy a sim card, we got to wander around Old Town Vilnius, including the Republic of Uzupis. Once one of the roughest parts of the city, it’s now an artists haven, and full of quirky charm. Walking into Uzupis, you walk past their constitution which has been translated into quite a few languages. The mirrored plaques line the street as you walk towards the main square of the republic.

20160731_093842We ended up spending a lot of time in Uzupis, simply because we got a lot of rain while in Vilnius. The third day of our trip, we headed out towards the bus station, our intention being to visit Trakai, but alas, it began raining while we were halfway to the station. We ran under an arch to take a look at the weather forecast…..and it was going to rain all day. So instead we meandered through the Old Town, and then back over the bridge into Uzupis, where we sat on a (covered) patio at a pub along the river. We also conveniently looked across at an art installation of a swing under the bridge.

After some food and drinks, the rain had abated somewhat, so we headed to the main square, where we stopped into a little cafe/bar/pizzeria, which was thankfully toasty warm inside, but it wouldn’t have mattered.  Because on the patio, across every second seat, were fleece blankets. For the next three weeks of travelling, it was a sight we would get familiar with. (And it’s seriously something we need to get on here in Ottawa!)

Our last day in Vilnius we took a hike through Bernardine Park, which borders Uzupis.  We started at St. Anne’s Church (or The Spikey Church, as I called it before I googled it for the real name) and wandered along the well-tended paths along the river, before crossing over to the other side, and doing a u back in the direction we had come from. The path here was a little rougher, closer to a hiking trail than a walking path. We finally came across a little used trail heading up the hill at a steep angle, and we decided to head up back to the street. Luckily for us, we came out behind a post office, so I could pop in and send off the thousands* of post cards I had written.

20160801_095918‘Lithuanian Post’ in Lithuanian is ‘Lietuvos Pastas’ so I was going to make a joke about sending my postcards by penne….but I figured I probably shouldn’t.

When we had arrived in Vilnius we had grand plans of visiting Trakai, a small historical town close to Vilnius, that includes a castle on an island in a lake. (In fact, I saw it as we approached Vilnius on our flight) as well as Grutas Park, where Soviet-era statues have been relocated/erected.  We never ended up getting to either location, unfortunately, but I guess that just means that we’ll be going to Lithuania…perhaps on our way to Belarus?!

Road Trip to Québec City

For the Canada Day weekend, the Fiancé and I decided to go to Québec City. It was kind of a last minute thing, we decided the weekend before that it would be a good, relative cheap, weekend away. One of the benefits to staying closer to home, was saving money in airfare – even the nearly two tanks of gas that we bought was still incredibly cheaper than flying somewhere else.

We booked a room on hotwire.com, and ended up staying at the Chateau Frontenac, which has a long and storied history, that started with the Canadian Pacific railway back in 1893. Our room had an ‘interior’ view, meaning that we didn’t get a view of the city or the river, but of the interior of the hotel. This turned out to be fine, as we overlooked a small garden, complete with apiary! Our room was actually split in two – upon entering, we walked past a small bathroom and into a sitting area (complete with love seat, stuffed chair, desk and chair and tv) and then the bedroom itself opened off the right of the sitting area. (We later realised it was actually in one of the turrets of the hotel)

We arrived in the late afternoon on July 1, so our first order of business was finding some food, and a drink. We headed down the Escalier Casse-Cou (Breakneck staircase) and into the Lower Town, where we grabbed a drink at Pub Des Borgias, on their small patio (great for people watching). We were already to order in French, but it turned out that our server spoke excellent English. After our drink, we headed down along the harbour to Côte-à-Côte, again getting a seat on their patio. I highly recommend their ribs – they’re cooked for over 12 hours, and literally fall off the bone. We were again impressed with the language skills of the staff – we’d been warned not to expect much English in Québec City, but it was turning out to be  far easier than we had thought

The next day dawned grey and overcast. We had found a suggested walking tour in a magazine in our room, so we headed out to do that, winding our way through Upper Tower, crossing over into Lower Town, and getting about half way around the harbour towards the Plains of Abraham when it really started to come down. We took refuge in a little cafe on Rue du Petit-Champlain.

When the rain stopped, we headed back up to the Promenade, and over the Citadel, before heading up the Grande Allée, looking for some place to have lunch. Alas for us, most places were either closed, or offered larger dishes than we were looking for, so we ended up on Rue St-Jean (a pedestrian street) where we got lunch, and drinks, at Saint Alexandre Pub.

On Sunday, we had breakfast at a small cafe across from the Chateau, then down to the Lower Town again for a short wander. This time we took the funicular up the escarpment. It offers spectacular views as it trundles up (or down).  Then it was time to check out and drive back home.

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Riding the funicular to the top of the escarpment