Friday, June 29, 2012

Finding Our Way Around

We flew to Costa Rica and managed to drive ourselves to our first stop, despite the drive being 3x as long away as expected. We ate delicious steak and slept in a very non-touristy hotel (complete with a possessed TV, a "suicide shower", and a scary-giant spider.)

Costa Rica! Costa Rica Costa Rica! As Wil Wheaton would say, Costa Rica I am in you!

I'm having fun distinguishing "San Jose" (ie the Californian city) from "San José" (ie the capital of Costa Rica) purely by accent mark. `;)`

Name Games

The adventure managed to start even before we left the country. Forrest had booked the plane tickets for us. Even though I had confirmed the itinerary too, we both missed that my ticket was booked under my married name — which is a problem for international flights, since my passport is still in my unmarried name. Oops!

I called the airline days before the trip, asking if it was going to be a problem. The representative told me that yes, definitely, they could deny me from getting on the plane. He made a note on my file (did you know that you have a "file"?) but said I'd have to go to the ticket agent to get things properly changed over to my unmarried name.

I left my car at Google's long-term parking lot and took a towncar (better service than a taxi and cheaper!) to SFO. I got there early to deal with the name change business. I was glad I'd gone to the county clerk office to get an official copy of our marriage certificate, because the agent asked to see it! Luckily, the airline didn't charge anything for the ticket changes, even though I'm pretty sure their terms of service or whatever says they could have.

Throughout this, Forrest thought I was just being paranoid. I'm still unconvinced, and in any case, I'm glad I got my ticket fixed because I didn't have any trouble.

Flying to Costa Rica

Forrest arrive around 9 or 10 in the evening of the 28th. We waited around in the airport until our flight from SFO to CLT (Charlotte, North Carolina) at midnight, so technically the 29th. (I had not read the plane ticket carefully, and had thought at first that I was picking Forrest up from the airport, then driving back the next day to fly out at noon. Not so.)

I finally tried out a sleep mask for the first time, and wow does it make sleeping on a plane so much easier! I wish I had tried it before.

So I wake up in Charlotte, where we get some marginal breakfast and kill a little time before taking off for Costa Rica! :D

Landing in San José

The international airport in the capital city is... somewhat smaller than we had expected: SJO has 17 gates (compared to SFO's 102 gates, for example).

The very first order of business was getting local SIM cards for both our phones and the iPad (our "GPS device" for the trip, rather than paying by the day to add it on to the rental car). In the middle of the airport was a convenient kiosk for Kölbi, a local telco. We did the transaction 80% in Spanish — I didn't know how the payments structure was supposed to work, so when we got into the details of it, I got a little lost. Amusingly, that was the thing that Forrest had researched, and by knowing what to expect her to say, he was actually better able to follow the Spanish at that moment. :P Don't underestimate how much context can help you understand a foreign language! Luckily, the saleswoman spoken somewhat more English than I did Spanish, so we were able to clarify what the deal was.

It worked out to approximately $40 for unlimited data on all three devices for the entire trip. Plus local calls, and also calls home at 30 cents a minute. (We ended up calling home a couple times during the trip because that's not too pricey, but we didn't chat on and on either, because it's not dirt cheap either. The Goldilocks amount of calling, if you will.)

From there we went out through customs. It was as simple as running our bags through a scanner and picking them up on the other side.

Getting the rental car

Because it took us 30 minutes to get the SIM cards set up and get out of the airport, I was a little afraid that the rental car company's representative would have ditched us. Or that they weren't going to send a rep like they had said they would. Or that we didn't really have a reservation like I thought we did. (The rental car was the one thing I reserved through a travel agency, because it was $200 cheaper than booking directly. I had thought it was actually even more-cheaper, but it turns out that the agency's quote didn't include all the taxes.) All sorts of nagging worries while we were busy being overwhelmed by the crowd of people crushing up against the glass windows, looking in at the arriving passengers for the person they were supposed to meet.

But then we went out to the curb, and Forrest spotted the guy with my name on a sign (that listed like five other names). Not ditched! Success!

We (by which I mean mostly I) chatted with the guy in Spanish a little bit while waiting for the car to come around to pick us up. Turns out, the car they picked us up in was the one we would be renting. I dunno if that's a normal rental car thing, but it was nice to see that the car worked before we took over. ;)

The guy at Mapache Rent a Car was a little pushy about the optional insurance packages, but not any more than most car-related salesmen I've had to interact with.

But he did give us a map, directions, and a local's sense of how long it would take to drive to our destination — Ciudad Quesada, aka San Carlos — 3 hours, instead of the 1 hour that the TripAdvisor forums had led me to believe. This led to a bit of... strife... with the worried (and also tired and hungry) husband. You see, even though we had landed at 1:30pm, everything was taking longer than expected, and it gets dark very promptly at 6pm on the equator. And when the rental car guy told us it took 3 hours because the roads became very steep and windy 1 hour out... Well, Forrest was worried in a completely justified sort of way. But we decided to drive as far as we felt comfortable, and made room in our expectations for sleeping in one of the two towns that were on the road before Quesada.

Driving is not as bad as we were led to believe

In what became a theme for this trip, we slowly began to think that the roads in Costa Rica might not actually be as bad as everyone (including the rental car guy) would have us believe. The Pan-American Highway, for instance, is certainly smaller than we would have expected a major highway (only one lane in each direction), but it was in great condition. And sure, it was raining (because summer is the rainy season in Costa Rica), but it was just normal rain, not scary torrential monsoon rain or anything.

Between the verbal instructions the rental car guy gave us, the map he highlighted for us, and the iPad GPS (with detailed maps that Forrest had pre-downloaded before the trip), we were able to find the turn off of the Pan-American Highway and head north toward Quesada. When we hit the first town on the route, Naranjo, we felt comfortable to continue onward, so we did.

Just outside of town, there was this van with speakers mounted to its roof. They were blasting advertisements for some local business, in the same way you might get spam flyers in the mail advertising a sale at the grocery store. It was like spam, in van form. Van-spam, if you will. (Sorry, couldn't resist!)

A little further down the road, we drove through Zarcero, which is apparently "famous" for its weird topiary garden in the middle of the town. Forrest ask me if I wanted to stop and walk around, but A) I knew as well as he did that daylight was an issue, and B) I didn't especially feel the need to walk around. We sorta looked at each other, judging whether the other was more "into" the topiaries, and then we agreed we'd seen as much as either of us felt compelled to. Maybe that makes us bad tourists, but we're the same kind of bad tourist, so it makes travelling together work out. :)

Zarcero by CostaRicaPhotos.com
Zarcero
(photo courtesy CostaRicaPhotos.com)

Just beyond Zarcero was where the rental car guy had warned us the road became very steep, windy, and just generally bad. We did get stuck in a traffic jam because of a couple one-way, the-same-direction-must-always-yield bridges, it really *wasn't that bad. For instance, the breaks never failed like what happened once to Forrest when he was driving down some truly steep roads to go backpacking. And the road was always two-lane (except for those pesky bridges with the ceda el paso aka "yield" signs), unlike the part of CA-4 between Ebbetts Pass and Markleeville that we've both travelled multiple times.

If you're Friends or Family with me on Flickr, you can see Forrest's awesome "not amused" expression at being stuck in said traffic jam. :P

We checked in again with each other about how we felt on pushing on all the way to our destination vs stopping early in Zarcero. We both agreed that the roads had been fine and seemed perfectly safe to drive even past dark, if necessary. So onward we went!

Getting to the hotel

We rolled in to Ciudad Quesada at 6 o'clock, right at sunset. Our next "adventure" was locating the hotel where we (supposedly! hopefully!) had reservations for the night. In Costa Rica, no buildings have addresses. Instead, they have relative directions. For example, our hotel's location was 400 meters north and 200 east of the central plaza. A block is roughly 100 meters. So we drove to the plaza and counted blocks. There were some one-way streets which we had to dance around, which means we got slightly lost once before finally finding the hotel.

The front door had a locked gate, but ringing the doorbell promptly called the young man behind the front desk to open it. I told him (in Spanish; I'm positive he spoke no English) that we had a reservation. He looked us up in a logbook-type-thing and found us. I was so relieved; up until this point, I had been afraid we didn't really have a reservation and we'd be spending a stressful time chasing down last-minute accommodations.

I asked to see the room before paying. He said of course and took me down the tiled hallway to the last room. It had a private bathroom (which is an optional upgrade feature in most Costa Rican hotels), a queen bed, a twin bed, and a fan (but no A/C, which I hadn't thought to ask about over the phone). It seemed sparse but clean and safe.

The only questionable thing about the room (other than the lack of A/C) was the shower. Check out the photo. See the green wire coming out of the wall and connecting to the shower head? That's how the water gets heated. Our guide book said that they aren't all that uncommon, and are affectionately known as "suicide showers". The book recommended you not adjust the temperature while running the water(!). I ended up deciding I wasn't in that much need of a shower. Forrest said it was for the best, because apparently there was a giant nasty spider in the shower stall that I wouldn't have wanted to see. D:

Anyway, I went back to the front desk to pay for the room. It was ₡15,000 for the room. They didn't take credit cards, but had no trouble with American dollars. I only had twenties, so I gave him $40 and he gave me back ₡5,000.

During our entire trip, we never came across anywhere that did not as readily accept dollars as colones. What's more, all but two or three places gave us colones in charge at the actual exchange rate (₡500 for $1) without charging any fees at all. There is absolutely no reason to exchange money in Costa Rica; they either take credit cards or American dollars, and if you overpay with the latter you magically get local currency at the best possible rate. It was pretty cool.

I asked whether there was a curfew. The employee told us there wasn't; we could come and go as we pleased, we'd just have to ring the bell to get the front desk's attention. With that, we said good night and headed out to dinner.

Delicious, delicious steak

So Ciudad Quesada is in the middle of cattle country. And when in the cattle country, it's my philosophy that one should eat steak for dinner. I had researched (via Foursquare! hehe) a steakhouse with good reviews beforehand, so we headed straight for the Coca Loca Steakhouse on the western edge of the central plaza.

The restaurant looked a little hole-in-the-wall-ish and Forrest was a little reluctant to go in. But he was even less interested in searching for a new place to eat, so we went in. Like in every single restaurant during our trip, the waiter said we could sit wherever we wanted; we were never seated by a waiter.

Forrest had heard somewhere that ordering things rare or medium-rare was unusual, so we braced ourselves for getting medium or well-done steaks. But thankfully either Forrest's information was bad or the waiter knew to ask foreigners about steak done-ness, because we got into a discussion with the waiter about the Spanish words for it! Apparently it's rojo, medio, y bien cocido (IIRC).

I ordered a filet mignon and Forrest ordered a ... T-bone? (I'll have to ask him if he remembers.) But the cut of meat isn't the interesting thing; the size of the steaks was the interesting thing. They were both huge. I stuffed myself but was only able to eat half my steak, despite it being delicious. Forrest managed to eat all of his steak, which turned out to be his favorite meal of the trip, but he was very full. When a Tico* family of four sat down at the table next to us, we noticed they ordered "family style", which seemed much more sensible to us now that we'd seen the portion size.

"Tico" is the word for a Costa Rican.

Possessed TV

We walked waddled back to the hotel, counting blocks as well as double-checking landmarks. (I'd also recorded the location as a pin on my phone, just in case we somehow got turned around or lost.)

We slept well enough despite the warm evening, except for a very sudden, loud noise jerking us away in the middle of the night. We leapt out of bed, hearts pounding from the adrenaline of surprise. The noise was the TV, which had decided to turn itself on at full volume. I fumbled at the remote buttons in the dark until Forrest reached up to turn it off directly. We have no idea what possessed the TV to pull such a stunt, but we did not appreciate it.


See also my Flickr set for all my photos, and my Foursquare list of the places we visited.

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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Going to Costa Rica!

Forrest and I decided to go to Costa Rica in 2 weeks! There is a lot of stuff to decide on and reserve!

Another (backdated) blog post, another travel adventure! (Yes, yes, I know that both our Zurich/Munich and honeymoon trips aren't written up. Quiet, you.)

Why Costa Rica?

Google is very generous with its paid holidays. For the fourth of July, they not only gave us Wednesday, July 4th, but also the following Thursday and Friday. Which of course meant that pretty much everyone took Monday and Tuesday off to get nine days off for the cost of two vacation days. It's a good thing no serious bugs or outages happened then, because I'm pretty sure there were no (American) Googlers at the office to fix anything. ;)

So Forrest (also a Googler) and I had this big block of time, and we knew we wanted to go on an adventure. We thought about going to Alaska for a while, but the plane tickets were surprisingly expensive. So we started looking at Latin America. South America was expensive, presumably 'cause it's just so far away. And then we looked at the average July temperatures for Central America; Costa Rica seemed "less hot" than other Central American places, and that seemed as good a reason as any.

So we decided to just do it: we picked Costa Rica and bought the tickets on the very same day, just two weeks before we'd be leaving! That didn't leave a whole lot of time to plan a ten-day vacation to a country neither of us knew, but honestly, that was part of the excitement. (Both Forrest and I have always thought it would be exciting ... and maybe a little scary ... to do that clichéd thing of going to the airport and buying a ticket for the next plane flying to an "exotic" destination.)

Pretending to be a travel agent

I took point on doing the bulk of the research and reservations. Forrest looked up what was up with the cell phone situation and determined that we should be able to buy a local SIM card in-country to get internet. But pretty much everything else about our trip, I figured out for us. It was crazy-intense: there are so many moving parts to a ten-day trip in a foreign country! I can definitely believe that travel agents earn their fees.

So I did lots of googling, lots of travel book reading, lots of forum-reading and -posting. For pretty much the entire two weeks, I lived and breathed Costa-Rica-trip-planning. I took notes on what sounded interesting and gradually (but not too gradually! I only had two weeks!) formed an idea for what we might do while in Costa Rica. I sent the list over to Forrest for comment, and we were both pretty much on the same page. (We really travel well together, because we're both into the same sorts of things and like the same pace.)

(Here's where I'm going to plug TripIt as a great resource for not only storing your travel documents but also planning and coordinating a trip with others. It was super helpful!)

I made reservations mostly by email, but I did have to call one hotel via Skype because they only had a local Costa Rican phone number and no website or email address at all. And of course the phone call was entirely in Spanish, so that was challenging and exciting! (This was a non-tourist hotel in a non-tourist town.)

The woman on the phone at first spoke at me like I was fluent, but I quickly got her to ask simpler questions (and by simple, I mean simple: ¿Uno o dos personas?, hehe). She asked me for a local phone number, but I didn't have one yet. She didn't seemed bothered by this. Then she confirmed the date, how many people, that the room had a private bathroom, the rate, and ... hung up. Without taking any contact or payment information from me. So I was like, "Um, I think we have a reservation for the first night..." :P

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