Thursday, January 3, 2013

Island Princess Christmas Cruise [Day 7] - Limon, Costa Rica

Rachel had wanted to go to a beach today, but I managed to convince her that if we were in Costa Rica, we needed to see the rainforest. She saw the logic to that, but still wanted a beach, so we set out prepared for everything in search of a tour or taxi driver who would take us to the rainforest and the beach.

This was a cruise of many early nights and early mornings...

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Ready for adventure!

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We got off the ship and talked to the guys at the end of the pier holding the laminated sheets and offering excursions. We were approached by a guy named Prince. I remembered his name because he introduced himself as Prince, and I doubted that was really his name, but the ID badge around his neck said Prince. Knowledge of this uncommon name would come in handy later.

Well, Prince was offering us a package taking us to the rainforest, boat tour through the canal, banana plantation, and the beach. $180 for the four of us. Sounded like a good deal, so we took it. I was under the impression that Prince was going to be our guide, but instead he sent us with another guy, Sam. Sam was really friendly, and he led us out to his car... a crappy little red car with a taxi sign on the top that was possibly the oldest and most beat up in the lot. I wasn't phased.

Sam was very friendly and knew a lot about the island. We also learned that everyone knows everyone there as he greeted everyone he passed by name. It was about an hour drive up to the rainforest on an unpaved road in a car that really shouldn't be off-roading. He took us to Veragua Rainforest. Whatever we did there wasn't included in the price of our package. We just wanted to do the aerial tram because we wanted to get a good view of the rainforest and weren't sure if we'd be able to do that zipping through. We'd also ziplined three times before, so it wasn't something we were really itching to do.

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This little guy was very chill...

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After purchasing the aerial tram tour, we waited... and waited. We were growing impatient. Finally, our tour guide came. We were paired with another family, also known as Slowest Family On Earth.

Before boarding the aerial tram, he took us to their entomology research area. This was particularly interesting and hit close to home for me because my final project of last semester was designing and entomology center in Mongolia. In order to learn about our project, they actually took us architecture kids bug hunting in the river, and we took them into the lab to sketch.

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We boarded the tram and began our descent into the rainforest.

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We felt ripped off. We were expecting a 10-15 minute aerial tram tour, but instead we got a 2.5 minute descent. Our guide then took us on elevated walkways on a tour through the rainforest. There were two trails.

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The second trail was called the Trail of Giants. Possibly because of these giant leaves.

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At this point, Rachel was getting incredibly frustrated. We were with Slowest Family On Earth with the most annoying son who would interrupt the guide and ask questions while the guide would've answered his question, had he just waited. It was very frustrating. Not to mention, Rachel was looking at her watch and wanting to get to the beach ASAP.

Last year, I did several case studies involving ecotourism. So naturally, I couldn't help but critique the Veragua Rainforest.

There are some things they did well. It's a good idea to have guests go with a tour guide and stay on a path. With ecotourism, you want to minimize the impact you put on the natural ecosystem, so if visitors are given free roam, that's a lot of area that gets unnatural travel. However, their wooden walkways bothered me. While it's important to stay on trails, it's also important to rotate the trails so that one area doesn't receive a heavy amount of human traffic for a long period of time. That causes wildlife to migrate away from that area and over a long period of time, it can ruin the natural ecosystem in that location. The guide told me that the paths were built about five years ago, and not surprisingly, the only wildlife we saw was insects and birds. Five years is much too long to have gone to allow daily visitors without alternating paths. I was trying to ask the guide more questions about their trails, but my mother straight interrupted me with a ridiculous question, asking him if they throw away the dead leaves. Really? This is ecotourism, not landscaping.

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We couldn't go all the way to the end of the second trail because we were limited 20 minutes per trail and were with Slowest Family On Earth. So we had to turn around.

We took the 2.5 minute tram ride back to the top.

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Their bathrooms were cool. They reminded me of the bathrooms that the Rural Studio designed for the park in Alabama...

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We went to Veragua Rainforest because it was the closest to the ship. I thought they were overpriced for the "ecotourism" that they offered, and this is not something that I would do again. I think next time, since this is something I apparently care so much about, I would research ecotourism in Costa Rica to make sure that the company I choose meets my beliefs. However, I would say that since we were so close to the port, it was pretty obvious that it was going to be some sort of tourist compromise. I would assume that Costa Rica is better explored when you have more time there, and that a cruise is not the best way to get a good look at the rainforest. However, with our procrastination, this was probably the best we were going to get.

Sam was still there (thank goodness), and we began driving back down the mountain.

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Sam had the local beer for us.

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We were about halfway down when... the car broke down. We cruised to a stop on the side of the road, right in front of a little house. Sam kept cranking the car, but it wouldn't start

We were stuck.

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So FINALLY, Sam gets the car started, again. We all hop back inside and get going... down the hill and back onto the pavement... when it breaks down, again.

When we were stuck on the side of the road for a long time, he had made some phone calls and told us his brother was coming. Well, his brother caught up, but he got the car started, again. Not wanting to lose his passengers, Sam insisted we keep going. So his brother followed just in case.

And then it broke down for a third time. This time in traffic. His brother pulls up beside us - a big guy who is not smiling.

"You go with him - he's like a brother to me." Like a brother??? You really have no blood relation?

We got in the car and met "Alexander the Great." The reason this guy isn't smiling is because he's also a cab driver... from a different company. "What we'll do is you'll go back to the guy that sold you the tour, and he'll give me $70, since I'm driving you now. Do you remember who sold you the tour?" "PRINCE!!! Prince sold us the tour!" (Thank goodness for unusual names here....)

Alexander then told us about how Sam knew his car needed to go into the shop, but he wouldn't take it in because he didn't want to miss a day of making money. "I told him... I told him you need to take that car in and get it fixed. It's not right. I didn't do this for him. He knew better. I did this for you because you don't deserve to get stuck because he was careless with his car."

So Alexander the Great took us to the canal. We get to the canal, and they want us to pay. Great... we were told that the price of the canal was included in the price of our package. Well, the guy who operates this shindig only speaks Spanish, so Alexander spoke with him in Spanish, and I picked up a few words here and there.... like no... and money...

Well, it turns out that this company that we bought the tour through doesn't like to pay them very often, and they often never see the money. Alexander says he'll pay the money for now because we're going back to Prince to get our money from him, and he'll make sure that he sees his $40.

So after all of this discussion, a boat pulled up, and we were able to board immediately. Finally no wait!

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As mom said, "I feel like I'm on a real life jungle cruise."

If you squint, you can see the small crocodile sitting on this branch. I was getting rather annoyed that I couldn't get any good photos because I had decided not to bring my zoom lens, the front of the boat had glass on it, and the couple in front of us was obnoxious trying to take photos which I could tell weren't going to turn out any good.

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Iguanas. Really missing the extra focal length here...

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Really, this looks like Adventureland. Great job, Disney.

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So we get back into the cab after the canal tour, and Alexander tells us that first we'll go see Prince and then he'll take us to the beach. Rachel huffed, as she was very anxious to get to the beach and no longer enjoying this excursion. "This is the beach I'll take you to." Sensing Rachel's impatience, Mom asked if he could drop us off now and take Dad with him. "Yeah, yeah, I can do that." As much as I wanted to make Rachel happy by going to a beach, I wasn't so keen on letting our dad leave us. I decided that after 45 minutes, if he wasn't back, then I'd panic.

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Well, this beach was a public beach. And by public beach, I don't mean the lovely white sand beaches of the Caribbean islands. I mean a true local beach. As soon as we got out of the car, it was clear that we were of the minority. This was not the type of beach that we had in mind, and I remembered one of the Canadian girls we'd met who had been to Costa Rica before telling us that their private beaches were nice.

Mom clearly didn't see the many conflicts we faced being possibly the only tourists on the beach because she set her bags down, left them unattended and headed to the water. Luckily, Rachel and I were right behind her to guard our things. She also told us very loudly how much money she had in the bags so we could go get chairs or drinks if we wanted. This lady...

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As much as I like to learn about the local culture, I was not comfortable here. Maybe it's because we were already in some shady deal with the tour company. Or perhaps it's because I was wearing my obnoxious 'Merica 'Merica 'Merica tank. Either way, I felt like I stood out like a sore thumb.

Dad came out sooner than I had expected. We told him that we didn't want to stay long. He got us some drinks. Apparently, this bar was more like a venue to sell beer than an actual bar. I had requested a rum punch. "You mean you want rum in your punch?" "Uhhh... yeah something like that." It was like kool aid and rum. I'm a college student. Whatever.

After we finished our drinks, we were ready to leave. Alexander the Great was right there waiting on us.

So - back the the tour company fiasco.

They first went back to the tour company. The tour company asked to see the receipt. "I didn't get a receipt." "Then it must've been a private transaction. If you had a receipt, we could help you." Turns out Prince was pocketing our money rather than turning it into the company and sent us with a cab driver rather than a tour guide so that he wouldn't get caught. We wouldn't have known or cared, had the cab not broken down.

Well, Alexander says, "I know where Prince lives. I'll take you to him." And he drove my dad to Prince's house, but Prince wasn't there.

So we get in the cab and start driving...

But instead of taking us back to the ship, he took us to Prince's house.

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"Hey, Prince - do you recognize these people?"

Prince comes staggering over. He peers in the back seat, looking confused.

"I said do you recognize these people?"

He goes to the other side and looks at Dad. "I sold you a tour?"

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"Yeah, for $180 this morning."

"Oh, yeah. You're not happy with your tour?"

"The cab broke down. We had to get Alexander to drive us to the canal and the beach."

"But of what Sam gave you - you weren't happy?"

"We were happy with Sam, but his car broke down. He took us only to the rainforest. Now I'm having to pay him because he rescued us."

"They want their money back."

"I don't have the money."

"Give them their money back."

"It's not my fault! It's not my fault the cab broke down."

At some point, Rachel had asked if we could just leave, and Alexander had turned around and told her it was okay.

Alexander just wanted to mess with Prince. Dad had already paid him for his trouble and more. So Alexander took us back to the port.

Now this is a sight for sore eyes -

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We had an adventurous day in Costa Rica, but it was good to be back.

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Adios, Costa Rica.

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It's been real.

NEXT: Day 8 - Sea Day