San Jose to Arenal – Public/Private Transport

Gray Line Bus Service – That’s the service we used to get us into Arenal from San Jose. There are public buses and private transport that you can hire, but the Gray line service is in between the two – it’s a shared shuttle sort of service. They have buses that run all over Costa Rica and they charge around $45 pp (Dec 2011) from one town to another. The buses are super clean and are air conditioned so its quite comfortable but for the patches with bad roads.

     

The drive from San Jose to Arenal takes close to 3 hours, with a short bathroom/coffee break in between. It’s on this first drive in CR that the thriving green surroundings hit you – anywhere you look are lush, green forests. And if you’re lucky, you might spot bright colors amidst them – these belong to parrots, some of which seem to have every hue possible. They are so beautiful, it almost looks too good to be true. But trust me, they are as real as you are.

      

    

After about an hour of driving through the flourishing rain forests, we stopped at a small souvenir shop that had free bathrooms and served coffee too. Here’s the pitstop:

Before you know it, you arrive at Arenal. Arenal downtown in a small area, a criss cross of a few streets where most of the activity centers around the one main street. Like most downtowns in CR, there is a church, a park opposite the church and the downtown is built around it. A strongly catholic nation, Costa Ricans seem to love hanging around the church and its surroundings. All along the one main street you will find tour operators, souvenir stores where you can take back something home and a bunch of restaurants to choose from. To me, the looks of the street at first glance reminded me of India. The narrow roads, the hawkers, the small shops and people spilling all over the streets took me back to Bangalore. In fact, a lot of things in CR remind you of India – in my opinion, CR is somewhere between India and the United States.  Here are some pictures of downtown Arenal:

 

So after settling into our hotel, we took a walk downtown and managed to rent a car for a couple of days. It was the last available one, from one of the local rental services, not listed on any website, and they did not even have an office – they guy came down to Mapache rent-a-car and handed us the car and papers. Well, we needed a car and he was willing to rent us a perfectly good car – what the hell, we thought and signed up for a 2 day rental agreement with basic insurance. It was not a 4WD but we were told that Arenal could be managed without one. We were about to find out that ‘could be managed’ meant drive at 10 km/hr on some roads.

    

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Things to do in Arenal

Arenal is the adventure hub of Costa Rica. Not to say that other cities offer lesser opportunity but Arenal just has many options to choose from – options with the operating companies, options with activities and of course, all this set in a picturesque surroundings. Some of things you can busy yourself with in Arenal are:

Hikes:

There are of course tour companies that offer hikes – hikes around the volcano, hikes to discover animals of the rain forest and hikes to viewpoints. Some of the hikes have waterfalls along the way, lakes that you can pass by and the best one of all, a lagoon in a volcano crater. That is the Cerra Chato hike. Although I did not personally do it, I’ve heard such great things about it, I would definitely want to try it out. Another good hike is the Rio Celeste. Heard that the trails are quite hard for both but absolutely worth it in the end. If you try either of these, tell me how it went! The other option is to of course go to the National Park. Once you pay an entry fee, there are probably numerous trails that you can explore. We did the La Fortuna waterfall hike and would surely recommend it.

While these are definitely a good option, the relatively lesser expensive and more adventurous ones would probably be the trails you find on your own. Locals are great help in finding unexplored trails, hidden pathways and little known secrets that books and websites seldom talk about. Talk to the locals. Ask for their help. They are usually more than willing. Our hotel owner spoke little English and we spoke little Spanish but we ended up taking a trip to his farm, visiting a medicinal plants nursery, poultry and even purchased herbs from someone’s garden. All because we got talking and expressed an interest in seeing what the local farm is like.

ATV rides:

This is a well known option, and there are numerous companies that provide this service. We went with Original ATV only because they were the only ones that offered this service around the volcano, closest to it. The others had trails that were dry or at a distance from the volcano. Not sure how that compares, but we had a blast at Original. Augustine, our guide/instructor was a genius with the ATVs. He could glide on the slushy ground, navigate his way among bushes and finally appear from behind all the foliage like he was taking a walk in the park. The trail was brilliant – we went through big slushy pools, rode over fallen branches and struggled hard to come out of pits that had been filled to the brim with water. At one point, we even stopped at a stream where Augustine dunked in and came out with his palms full of grey colored mud. It was pure volcanic mud, the kind that spas charge you an arm a leg to get you covered in. Without much ado, the girls promptly coated themselves with this magic mud, all the while providing unlimited entertainment for the men. 🙂 The ride back was even more challenging – portions of the trail had been dotted with trenches that were overflowing – so much so Augustine had to fill it up with fallen leaves and branches to aid the ATVS to go through! It was some experience I tell you. Over all, I would surely do this in Arenal. This is link to their tripadvisor review.

Venado Caves: 

I have an entire post on this – One of the best things to do in Arenal!

Hot Springs:

So relaxing! Read the whole post here.

Other Activities that you can consider:

Canyoning, Canopy Tours, Horse rides, walking the arenal hanging bridges. Tripadvisor has a good amount of info on this and if you’re interested in booking them in advance, try anywhereincostarica.com or one of the other websites that do the online booking. Of course, the best option is to go there and book it with the local vendors – many times you get better deals and better options but depends on how comfortable you are with last minute bookings.

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Trip to a local farm

Trip to a local farm

Just like so many others, we planned to get an early start so we could compress as many activities into one day. (Of course sleep took the better of us and we got out only by 8) Since the sun sets around 5.30 – 6 pm, most activities had to completed well before that  – there weren’t too many things to do in Arenal once the sun set. Of course, volcano viewing at night was probably the best but to our misfortune, neither was it a bright day (it had been raining all day) nor was there any sign of activity – Volcano Arenal had been dormant in over ten months and did not show any signs of spewing rocks when we were there. So after a delicious Costa Rican breakfast at La Chozzo, we headed back to our hotel where our lovely hotel host, George, offered to take us to his farm. We weren’t sure what to expect except that he had mentioned a red frog so we piled on into his truck in the hopes of something unique.

And boy, was it unique or what? The highlight of the trip was a deadly little red and black frog that could fit in your fist. Before we spotted him, that we did a bunch on interesting stuff: sampled a variety of lemons, oranges, tangerines, star fruit and a couple more citrus fruits, whose names I cannot recall. George was armed with a sharp knife that he used to cut the fruit off of the tree and slice it up into small kernels for us to enjoy. The 1.25 acre stretch of land was dotted with trees of different kinds – lemon, orange, tangerine, coconut, a huge fruit that the locals used in carving, citrus fruits they used to make a variety of cocktails and what not. The property was bordered on the other end by a small brook before being covered by dense, green vegetation.

      

After sampling the various fruits, we headed out in search of the little red frog. This tiny red frog barely the size of pinky, had sufficient poison to kill two fully grown horses. I had seen this guy at the Cal Academy of Sciences, but hell, watching the amphibian in its own surroundings was something else. Finding him proved to be a challenge. The guy was barely a couple of inches in size and among all the foliage, he could have been hiding anywhere. We scrummaged through the mud, leaves, shrubs that had lined the brook but with no luck. George was persistently looking near tree roots, around the bushes, sometimes even stretching out into them and digging up some mud.

And finally, when we were ready to give up, he found it! There it was, in the palm of his hand, hiding underneath all the mud and grass probably scared for its life. Once George dusted off the mud, we could see him in broad day light. He looked wonderful – so colorful – a bright red body with black legs. Who would have thought that a creature so beautiful could be so deadly? Fact of nature, I guess. Anyway, here’s the video: I didn’t really get to hold him since he escaped back to his environs after a bit:

 

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Hot Springs in Costa Rica

Baldi Hot Springs Resort

We learnt on the day we were leaving Arenal that there is a place where you can access the hot springs for free, without having to go through a resort. We would have loved to checkout what the natural spring felt like in its purest form but unfortunately were too late. If you get a chance, don’t miss it – it is on the way to national park from downtown, well after Baldi – you can ask the locals to point you in the right direction and they will glad help you out. Some may even walk you there if you’re close enough.

Anyway, R had been to Baldi hot springs on his previous visit and he was excited about the water slides that it had, and couldn’t forget how much fun he’d had riding on them. Knowing that the wifey would be as excited if not more about this kind of stuff, we picked Baldi over the other resorts that didn’t have slides (I heard that the ‘The springs resort’ does have a water slide, but it was just one, and not as much fun). Baldi has options for entry with dinner so check if you’d like that. It cost us $35 pp for entry and dinner – we could spend as much time as we wanted in the springs.Baldi has about 25 -30 pools or so at multiple levels with varying temperatures – ranging from 90 to 152. Oftentimes, a cold pool lies adjacent to a warm pool, allowing visitors to switch between water temperatures.

Once we got there, I realized what R had been raving about all these years. It was like being in a theme park with three of the best water slides. The top most pool has 3 water slides that end right into the warm water pool. Once you get on these slides, there is literally nothing stopping you. Two of them are long winding tunnels that pick up speed through the ride and practically throw you into the water at the end , and one is an open slide meant mostly for those who don’t want to play it rough but want to play, nevertheless. It’s wild, dark and so much fun that you don’t stop.

Once you get tired of this, you can walk down a few levels to the wet bar. A cold drink could be a refreshing change form the hot water you’ve spent all evening in. Dinner is served at a dining room above the water slides from where there is a great view of the Arenal Volcano but thanks to pouring rains that night, we barely managed to drive back, leave alone catch a glimpse of the volcano. The food was just about okay – they did have some vegetarian items on the buffet.

Once you go back you realize how tired the hot springs can make you – spending so much time in the hot water exhausts you to no end. For one, it ensures that you sleep like a baby that night!

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Venado Caves

One of the things I was most excited about before coming to Costa Rica was exploring the Venado caves. I had read about this activity in a few blogs and websites and even though the detail was sparse, I had known that it was something I would thoroughly enjoy. And knowing my hubby, I was sure he would love it too. It turned out that we enjoyed this activity so much, we thought it was the best part of our trip. Of course, we hadn’t canyoned down a 130 feet waterfall or driven the ATV yet then!

So after a long drive with little to no direction, we ended up at the entrance to this cave. Tickets were priced at $20 pp, which included boots, flash lights and a helmet. Carlos, our guide said there was a likelihood we would get wet. Ideally, you would want to wear three fourth pants and maybe a light tee shirt. Make sure you wear something that dries easily. One of our friends spent an hour tucking his jeans into his boots so he could avoid getting wet. The joke was finally on him when he came out soaking. R’ber: You will get wet.

Carlos looking as we click a pic of the board outside the ticket counter:

A Map of the area:

A short hike downhill from the ticket counter and you are at the entrance of the Venado cave. You walk into a stream that is flowing from within the cave and if you are lucky you can get wet right there! The local kids in our group decided to splash around in the calf length water as the guide explained the basics. Before we knew it, we were walking into the cave, navigating in what was now knee-deep water, using flashlights to keep us from tripping over the rocks and looking for bats and bugs that could spook us.

The entrance to the cave:

      

Our first stop was a small little crevice below a huge rock that seemed to make up the cave. Guide called out and pointed his flashlight under the rock. There it was, a tarantula. This was the first time I’d ever seen one in reality and it was far smaller than all the images my mind had concocted as I imagined my CR sightings. Our guide explained that this was a baby, and like all tarantulas in CR it was not poisonous. Hmm. Never knew that tarantulas came in a non poisonous variety too.

We continued until we reached a clearing where we were saw the bats that hung from the roof. Small, feathered birds that use sound to detect objects in the dark, he kept referring to them as vampires. They were clustered in groups and hung harmlessly.

                 

From here, we proceeded to the first crevice that we would sneak into. Barely two feet wide, the only way to get through this was lying down flat and slipping through. The other thing was that this crevice was vertical and the rock on which I would land on the other side was a little bit lower than I expected – which meant that when I lowered the bottom half of my body through the crevice, I was hanging mid air holding onto the rock in front of me without knowing how high my fall would be. Oh the pleasures of being tiny! Luckily, I landed with no injuries, and it wasn’t that hard. That’s me trying to pose for the picture before taking the drop!

Right infront of where we jumped, was a vertical rock (90 degrees) about 10-12 ft tall. There did not seem to be any exit from where we were. It was only when our guide pointed out that we were to climb the rock to get out that I saw the almost invisible space in the wall, up at about 15 ft high. What made it challenging was the narrow space – not more than 3 people could stand at the base of the rock where we landed from the crevice, and exactly two persons could stand at the top – which meant we had to keep moving. After getting through it crouching, crawling and at times practically flat on the ground and slithering forward, we ended up at the main path in the cave and continued our exploration.

Our next step was a huge waterfall right in the middle of the cave: first only audible, then visible with our flashlights. Oh how refreshing it felt to stand under it! The cold, fresh water washed down all the sweat and tiredness. We played for a bit in the water and climbed all over the fall – not knowing that this was only the start of the water adventures in the cave.

     

We continued exploring, looking for anything specifically unique, finding creative ways to get through small spaces, and taking some pictures along the way as our guide explained less known facts about caves and the living creatures inside of it. After quite a while of being amazed by the whole experience, we reached another waterfall. Just when I thought this couldn’t get any better, our guide pointed to a hole in the rock a couple of feet  from the cascade, and asked if we wanted ‘mas aventura‘ (more adventure). We couldn’t wait – and we took a peak – the ‘hole’ was actually an opening where water from the cascade flowed and it was about 3 ft deep. We couldn’t see the other end of the tunnel but trusted our guide when he said ‘go ahead’. The tunnel was probably 4 ft wide – which meant that the only way to get through the tunnel was to swim through it. I had never swam in a cave, and this was a tunnel inside a cave! We managed to make our way  into it – initially slowly and as we got used to the darkness, swimming/crawling faster and splashing water on everyone in that small space. When we were done, we realized that this was the best part of the whole caving experience – swimming in a tunnel like structure inside of a cave. At this point, I was ready to declare out trip complete – so much aventura I thought – but well, I hadn’t the least clue what was lying ahead of me. We still had the canyoning to experience!

   

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La Fortuna waterfall

So we had heard about the La Fortuna waterfall ever since we got to Costa Rica and we kept postponing getting there in the hopes of doing it as part of the Cerra Chato hike. Of course, neither were we able to do the hike, nor was the waterfall part of the hike, we later learned. Finally after spending the day taking in whatever best views of the volcano the cloudy day offered us, we decided to explore this waterfall.

La Fortuna waterfall is at the base of a 450 step downhill climb. This hike has been rated as a medium hike so be prepared. The steps downward are of course amidst the rainforest so besides the fact that it can be exhausting, it’s a beautiful hike. You can hear howler monkeys, birds and maybe even catch a glimpse or two of them if you’re lucky. We didn’t see anything besides bugs but that’s probably because I kept my eyes on the ground, focusing on the narrow set of steep stairs since we were walking down in a single line.

The waterfall is huge. Its a beautiful sight to see the fall make rappels into the pond below. After much thought, R and I jumped into the green-blue waters. It was cold, and the current was pretty strong. We barely managed to swim a few ft toward the fall. It felt great to have the cold water engulf you after that steep hike. Visibility here is not great but you’re probably there more to feel the water rub against your skin than enjoy marine life so fret not.

As a safety precaution, do not go directly under the waterfall. The water is powerful and it can be rocky all around so stay on the bank or close to the bank, if in water. If you prefer to stay in calmer waters, just downstream is another pond like formation where the water is much calmer. A lot of people gather there to enjoy the water.

The hike back is probably far more challenging. Phew. At the end you’re pretty glad you made it.

Getting here:
It’s relatively easy to find this waterfall. From downtown, go toward the national park, (in the direction of Baldi hot springs, Eco thermales etc) and within less than a kilometer from downtown you will see a huge supermarket on your left. Take the left turn that borders the supermarket and just follow it until the road ends. At the dead end make a right and continue toward the waterfall. You will end up at the entrance to the waterfall trail. Here, you can buy tickets to go down to the waterfall – costs $10 pp, as of Dec 2011.

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Arenal Volcano Views

So yes, there are a whole bunch of places from where you can see the Arenal but we got to a point where we felt like we could reach out and with the help of a stick maybe even touch the volcano. This point was the deck at Arenal Observatory Lodge. As you stand on the deck, you can see the magnanimous volcano right in front of you, up close and personal. On the left is lake Arenal which is another beautiful sight. There is a restaurant right on the deck which makes your time viewing the volcano all the more pleasant. Here are some pictures: Of course, we were there on a really cloudy day so couldn’t see the cone of the volcano but if you are among the 6% that is lucky enough to see it, this a good point to view it from.

        

The way there:
Getting to Arenal observatory lodge is a long, unpaved and bumpy ride. The unpaved part is probably about ten kilometers in all but the road makes it seem longer. So you start from downtown towards the national park (in the direction of Baldi and Eco Thermales) and just before you reach it, you will see a board on your left that points to Arenal observatory lodge. This is well past Tabacon and the free hot springs. Once you make that left, just follow the bumpy road – there are various diversions in the way – small trails that have been created by private entities that charge you a fee for usage. I’m not sure how good these views are but I have heard that they may be good in a bright day. Anyway, proceed all the way and just follow signs for Arenal observatory lodge. When you are finally at the entrance, just let the guard know you are there to walk the trails or eat at the restaurant and he will let you in. There is an entrance fee of $6 per car. You might feel you need a 4wd for this ride but trust me, we managed to do it in a trembol – it’s a mid size, non 4wd automatic and we did just fine.

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Costa Rica

It has been forever since I posted on this blog and lack of material has surely not been the reason. I have a lot of stories to tell from my travels to Florida, Las Vegas, Tahoe, Yosemite, Bryce, Zion and Costa Rica but I have just not gotten around to it. Come New Year and just like so many others, I’ve vowed to be a little more regular in my posts here and my other cooking blog. I hope to have a post every month in one of the blogs, if not more. (Start small I’d say) And if I don’t make that, you certainly have the right to goad me until I give in. 🙂

When we were trying to decide our destination for the upcoming Christmas vacation, I could think of a dozen places that I would like to be at but was not sure which one would be apt. It’s only when you lay the map before you and begin to picture where you’d like to be in a few days from then, you realize how hard it could be to make the choice. After much thought, we decided on Costa Rica – R had been here before, and he was excited to go with me (or so I’d like to believe) – we love adventure and Costa Rica promised tons of it. So with less than three weeks to go, I hurriedly began my research of the area, things to do, places to stay and the little known secrets that are hard to find in travel books. We used miles to book tickets, initially booking only our way in to CR – often wondering if we really needed to come back. Of course, once this fantasy wore off and we found the right tickets, we had return tickets to CR from the bay area for about 13 days. In this post I’ve attempted to describe our path looking through the northern/central/western part of CR, the places we ate, our experiences and some of the things you can busy yourself with when you are here. I hope this post will be useful to those of you who are planning to spend a few days touring this beautiful country.

In the span of 13 days, we spent 2 nights in San Jose – one each on our way in and out, 3 nights in Arenal, 2 nights in Monteverde and finally 4 nights in Guanacaste where we were bumming on the beaches. We managed to pack a whole bunch of adventurous activities into this, some of which has given me, and R, an adrenalin rush like never before. You’ll see what I’m talking of as you read on.

We got from San Jose, California to San Jose, Costa Rica. Yes, make sure you choose the right airport while booking – we met someone in CR who had mistakenly booked his ticket to San Jose California from Canada instead of Costa Rica and spent nearly 24 hours on connecting flights trying to get to the NYE party in Costa Rica. He made it at 8 pm on 31st, needless to say completely exhausted. Most flights from the US get in at night/late evening so it makes sense to just spend the night in a hotel close to the airport rarther than driving to your next destination.

Since we did not rent a car for this trip (which was a great decision, in hindsight) we had reserved shuttles to get from one city to another. Tip 1: Most shuttles leave early – anywhere from 7am to 8.30am so make sure you get a good night’s rest if you’re using them. CR has a few companies providing shuttle services but we went with grayline, the most popular one since we were there during Christmas week and it was known to be full. Grayline was a great service – ac buses that were clean and mostly dropped and picked you up from your hotel.

Arenal is probably the adventure hub. There are a whole bunch of things to do in Arenal you might end up having to take a day or two off if you try a lot of these!

Monteverde is a higher altitude cloud forest and it can get cold there. Tip 2: Make sure you carry a jacket with you if you are planning to visit Monteverde. The nights can get pretty chilly so having a couple of layers and a jacket will surely be helpful.

Guanacaste is the town to relax and unwind. You will find a lot of the locals here, some of whom really know how to unwind and take it easy. Many people choose this part of CR when they want to settle into a more relaxed lifestyle. There are some beautiful dive spots here. Tip 3: Carry lots of sunscreen. There is a good chance you will get sunburned if you are not used to the temperatures.


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Kona, the big island

Driving across the island

One thing to r’ber about driving across the island is that there are a considerable number of scenic spots and tourist attractions that can ONLY be reached by a 4WD. It probably makes sense to rent one for a couple of days and make the most of it before switching to a regular car, if you do not want to have a 4WD for the entire length of the stay.

We drove from Kona to Hilo and back, along the coast for the most part, making pit stops on the way to take in some of the Hawaii’s most spectacular sights. There is more than one route to do this drive, but we picked the one that we found most adventurous. What follows is a brief description of the drive, the most important stops on the drive and what we saw. We broke our journey at the Volcanoes national park where we found a small little cottage to stay. There are a good amount of cottages and houses around the park entrance that rent out for visitors to the park since many times the early morning view of the volcano is best.

Take Highway 19 from Kona and head south. You can follow the road for the most part since the only turns are to be made when you want to make a stop. Hwy 19 becomes Hwy 11 and continues to the South.

1. South Point

This is the southern most point in the United States, and not the Florida keys as many people are given to understand. The turn off to South point road is located between marker 69 and 70 on Hwy 11. It is a single lane road and goes out to the end of the point which is a mooring place for boats that local fisherman use.  About 5-6 miles down if you see a host of windmills to your right and cows grazing around them, you’re in the right direction. Continue less than a mile and you will see the ocean before you.

This was one of the times when we were glad we had a 4WD. The roads are laid out upto a certain point and after that, its volcanic rock and mud that you have to wade through. What starts off as a muddy trail ends on a short cliff over the ocean and going any further would mean going off road. You can clearly see the meeting of the windward and leeward sides of the island at South point. Its almost feels like a line going through the ocean: one side is calm, peaceful and seems like a great day for a swim; the other side is choppy with huge, splashy waves. The water is azure – blue and the orange-red sky makes for a perfect background for a pic! However, do NOT swim here: currents can be swift and dangerous.

2. Punalu’u Black Sand Beach:

Punalu’u Beach Park, in the district of Ka’ū, is a delightful stop, just moments off highway 11 between the towns of Nā’ālehu and Pāhala. The county park is open 24 hours a day and there is no park fee. Get back on hwy 19 and continue south until MM 57 where you make a right and drive past the golf course and condos. The beach will be right ahead.

We were made to understand that a lot of turtles bask on the black sand beach along with the people. We got there when the sun was still out and saw a turtle – A huge one. They have signs prohibiting you from getting too close to turtles in the interest of the turtle’s well being, and it only seems fair. The water is not too cold, and this beach makes for a nice sunset walk.

3. Volcanoes national park:

Ah! The most talked about park on the island. Opportunity to watch a live volcano in eruption is something that not many people would want to miss (given of course that it safe to do so)

This park has a lot to offer and can take anything from 2 hours to 2 days to do a complete tour.

Crater: (Night view is best)

Right behind the Jagger museum inside the Volcanoes national park, you can see the vent within Halema‘uma‘u crater spewing ash and gases in its best form. Sometimes, there is red lava/fire that the vent chooses to throw out, which is what makes for picture perfect sights against a night sky. Its almost incredible that you can be so close to an open vent yet so safe. The park has an overlook right behind its museum bordered by rocks and chains and this point makes for a great view of the vent. The last eruption was in March of 2008 after a gap of nearly 26 years. It is recommended to not get too close to the crater (like walking over and past the viewing area) as such adventures have often proven fatal.

Thurston lava tube:

Lush green plants/trees, lava once flowed through this tube like structure. Part of it is lit up and cleaned for visitors. Another part of it is the tube in its natural state (no lights, no flattened ground) and park welcomes visitors to explore it. Flashlight absolutely necessary.

Chain of craters trail:

A 18 mile road where you can explore the East rift and coastal area. The road is flanked for the most part by lush green forests (initially and then lava rocks and mud, and often has scenic points overlooking the ocean. This road descends 3,700 feet in 20 miles and ends where a lava flow crossed the road in 2003. Sometimes, you can see fumes on the hillside or steam clods on the ocean as you drive down.

To see Lava flowing:

When we were here (Last week of Aug, 2010 – 1st week Sep, 2010), lava could be spotted at Kalapana. To get there, continue on Hwy 11 until the intersection of Hwy 130 & 11. Make a right and go South on 130 at the end of which you will walk on uneven terrain to reach the lava viewing sites. Just walk in the direction of the cloud of smoke and ash and you will see lava, if you’re lucky. Chances of seeing lava or a glowing flume cloud largely depends on forces of nature and is uncontrollable. Make sure you bring water, wear closed toed shoes and if you’re going at night (when the sights are the best!), a flashlight.

4. Mauna Kea Summit

At 13600 ft above sea level, this is technically the largest mountain in the world. Another of those times when a 4WD is an absolute must. You start ascending the mountain off of and follow the road for upto a few miles until you see the visitor center on your right. Most people spend about 45 minutes to an hour here to acclimatize to the elevation and the temperature (It can get cold!) You probably want to get your winter wear if you plan to drive up to the summit – it can get freezing up there! The visitor center has some exhibits, a giant screen, gift shop which has some ridiculously over priced winter wear and rest rooms.

The drive up from the visitor center requires some amount of skill. The first 5 miles are completely unpaved, full of gravel and narrow. Many points on this road do not have a barricade at the edge of the road which can sometimes be scary. Also, when I say skill I don’t mean you have to be a truck driver but that you should be able to meander through mud trails ascending at a rapid rate with every turn. One other issue we had driving up was the sun. We chose to ascend just prior to sunset, and every time the mud trail turned west, the sun would completely blind us out, ensuring that we covered that stretch very, very slowly mostly relying on on the flashes of non blinding moments, which were few, if not none. Come 5 miles and road is now completely paved, and you can see the observatory at the summit. The air gets crisper, thinner and its only moments before you reach the summit, in time for the sunset. The time up on the summit is best spent watching the horizon, and all around – its not often that we get to stay at 13700 ft and watch the sunset.

Drive down: is much, much easier than the drive up, make sure you are on 1st gear and go slow. The visitors center has hot chocolate to warm up as we wait for the star show before the moon rises. On a starry night, you can see a host of constellations, sometimes planets, all through some powerful telescopes set up by the center. They’re all free, and one of the guys there does a fantastic star show where he points out the stars through a lazer light and explains little tid-bits about the stars and the moon and space, you almost forget the freezing cold you’re standing in. Once you’re warm enough, its time to head down and back to where your next destination is.

The big island has the most diverse forms of nature to offer: it has 11 of the 13 climate zones, has active, dormant and extinct volcanoes, dive sites and marine life that is featured as the world’s top ones, beaches that come in different sand colors from powdery white to sun-kissed golden, lava-affected black to mineral-affected green. One of the most breathtaking places to be, the big island is a vacationer’s paradise.

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The Redwoods

Come long weekend and all we can think about is a getaway. The July 4th weekend of 2010 saw us visit the Redwood Parks, settle in tents and cook over a fire kindled by us. There is something so exhilarating about experiencing nature’s elements in its unadulterated form that could put a five-star vacation to shame. Having to crawl into tents and zip up so you’re not woken up by anything besides the sun, cooking fresh meals at every meal hour, and jumping into the river to feel the icy cold water rub against your skin. Aah. The pleasures of camping in the wilderness.

So here goes a detailed review of the 3 nights and 4 days:

Day 1: Friday, July 2nd.

*Journey to campsite

*Set up tents

We left the South bay at about 5.35pm. Took 101N all the way and made our first stop at Ukiah, for dinner. ‘Reun Tong’ was a house converted to a restaurant that served decent food. (http://www.yelp.com/biz/ruen-tong-thai-cuisine-ukiah)

Dinner took an hour so we reached our campsite at Myers Flat at 11.30pm. It’s a private campsite, very close to the information center for the Redwood parks. Here’s the link to their website: http://redwoods.info/showrecord.asp?id=225. Set up tent using headlights and a lantern. Super cold, but super fun. Crashed into sleeping bags inside tents. (Tip 1: Get sleeping bags that keep you warm, not the ones that lack any form of insulation. Costco has some decent bags I hear)

Day 2: Saturday, July 3rd.

*At campsite: Volleyball, plunge into river

*Founders grove

*Ferndale

This was when I was able to see our campsite in daylight for the first time. Located facing the Eel river, the water gushing coupled with the robins chirping were a pleasant sound to wake up to. Each tent site is separated from it’s neighbor by Bamboo screens. 

The restrooms were located at a stones throw from our campsite and it seemed clean on the first couple of days. Here are a couple of views.

Breakfast consisted of toast, veggie sandwiches and instant coffee all prepared on propane stoves. A group of 8 people, all trying to add their ingredients ironically did not spoil the broth! After B’fast we decided to make use of the Volleyball that K had so graciously lent us and it was a full hour of volleyball at the court facing the river. Fun! The Eel river seemed enticing by now, what with beads of sweat dripping down like a trickle of water. Little did we know how cold the waters would be. One step into the water and I felt like little needles poking every inch of my skin. This was, however short lived – I was dunked in the same cold water by my dear hubby along with the rest of our friends. It certainly helped – I was able to swim across the river and enjoy every moment of it.

After the exhilarating river escapade followed by lunch consisting of veggie masala burgers we decided to drive around and explore the redwoods. Ended up at Founders grove on Avenue of the Giants, a half-mile-long trail among the Redwoods. Its probably a quintessential redwood groove. The sheer magnificence of the giant redwood trees (taller than the statute of liberty, yea) makes you want to look up again. :) Starting at the founders tree at the very beginning of the trail, you can hike up to the fallen Dyerville Giant at the far end of the trail. Great place for pictures. 

When we read about a small Victorian town called Ferndale about 25 miles from where we were, we did not expect it to be faux Victorian. Ferndale was a disappointment to those who looked forward to some Victorian flavor. To me, it seemed more like a movie set with the frontal portion of the buildings masked with Victorian art work, and leaving the rest of the building to plain cement and paint. All this was located on Main street, which, not surprisingly, was extremely commercial with sky high prices on most items. The good thing about this visit was the homemade ice cream at Main street,http://www.yelp.com/biz/cream-city-cafe-ferndale, which was served by a very friendly staff.

That night, we lit up a fire by the campsite, cooked dinner as we warmed ourselves and played games before crashing.

Day 3: Sunday

*Lost Coast

*Dinner at Eureka

After another game of morning volleyball (this time with other campers) and lunch consisting of tofurkey/burgers and dogs we decided to drive to the much awaited lost coast only to realize that it was one of the most scenic drives. About two and a half hours of winding roads among the giant redwoods later, we reached a vista point that overlooked a black sand beach. Decided to stop and take a look. Oh what a wonderful decision! It was an absolute delight to walk on the warm black sand and dip my feet in the ice cold water every so often. However, after the first couple of dips, I decided that my eyes were sufficient to enjoy them. :) The next couple of hours were spent just chilling on the beach. Great place for pictures. After tiring from all the posing and clicking, we continued our drive alongside the lost coast and found ourselves atop a hill so windy the grass on the hills moved in rhythmic waves.  Perfect place to harness wind energy though I don’t know how they’d transport it. Oh well.

Dinner was at Chapala, a mexican restaurant at Eureka. Decent food.http://www.yelp.com/biz/chapala-cafe-eureka. This was followed by the July 4th fireworks that was visible at a point that overlooked a water body, just behind Chapala. Nice end to a long day. Couldn’t wait to get back and cuddle up in my sleeping bag which is exactly what I did that night.

Day 4: Monday

*Drive through tree

*Journey back home

Oh the trip was coming to an end! Soon after b’fast (this time ‘twas different – had corn roasted over the fire) we packed up and vacated the campsite by about noon. (This was when the restrooms had reached their worst form. Ugggh. Never mind.) The next stop from the campsite was the drive-through-tree. Its off of highway 1. http://www.drivethrutree.com/. A $5 fee and 20 minute wait later, our pathfinder managed to go through the giant opening in the tree, and it wasn’t a squeeze. Pictures. Having done most of what we had planned to over the weekend, it was now time to head back home.

It was well past 3 when we reached Fort bragg and were in desperate need of veggie food. Being July 5th, it wasn’t easy but we managed to chance upon a sushi place. http://www.yelp.com/biz/off-the-hook-sushi-fort-bragg. Oh what a pleasure it was. Yummy rolls, mouthwatering rice bowls and a veggie platter later, we were ready and rearing to go. Our next stop was coffee at flying goat coffee, Healdsburg. http://www.yelp.com/biz/flying-goat-coffee-healdsburg N says the coffee was an absolute delight. My red tea wasn’t too bad either. We drove down back home, and after a yummy dinner at chat paradise at MV, we reached home by 11.30pm.

Lessons learned:

1. Get a sleeping bag that’s warm. It can get as cold as 50 degrees at night.

2. Get pillows – it makes sleeping in a bag more comfortable.

3. Get a sleeping pad – I’ve heard it makes a ton of difference. Sleeping on hard ground can any day be made better and am sure that the sleeping pad is one of them.

4. Carry camping towels – they dry really quick and absorb a lot of water. Microfiber camping towels are available at REI.

Some pics from the trip:

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