Fish Out of Water

Musings and observations about life from an East Coast native now living on the Left Coast in the California State Capitol since 2004. This fish has made her home in Madison, WI (7 years); Portland, OR (2 years); Las Vegas, NV (7 months); Middlebury, VT (3 summers); Marne-la-Vallee, a small town east of Paris, France (6 months); Middletown, CT (3 years); and Marshfield, MA, the fish's coastal hometown 40 miles south of Boston (17 years).

Location: Sacramento, California, United States


Costa Rica Trip (Days 0-1)

Mr. E and I spent Christmas in Austin with the entire crew, including Mom and new baby M who will hopefully be joining the family officially in late spring/early summer. Lovely to spend time with everyone, although the warm-ish temperatures didn't seem to align much with the winter holiday festivities!

We then departed directly from Austin for Costa Rica for a 9-day journey with Caravan Tours from December 27-January 4. Our trip began a day and a half early, as we arrived in San Jose, CR, on December 26 in order to have some time in the capital city. We later learned that this had been a very wise decision, as several other members of our tour group who traveled through or originated in Texas experienced major flight delays due to weather!

December 26 - San Jose Arrival
Our adventure began at the Barcelo San Jose Palacio Hotel, where we reserved a special 1-night package including champagne and strawberries, dinner, breakfast, free wi-fi, and a welcome cocktail in the lounge. This is the same hotel that would host the first 2 nights of our official tour, so we just added on to that reservation and were able to stay in the same room the entire time. We left VERY early from Austin for our connecting flight through Houston and arrived in San Jose around 11:30am. I had discovered that the hotel offers a free airport shuttle, so we met our driver and another American couple at the airport, after getting some of the local currency -- colones -- from an airport ATM.

Luckily, our room was ready even though we arrived earlier than the usual check-in time, so we could unpack and settle in a bit before having lunch at the pool-side restaurant.

We had originally thought to head to downtown San Jose in the afternoon for some sight-seeing. However, we learned from the other American couple and from the concierge about the big event, El Tope, that was occupying much of the city and would make any sort of getting around on foot or taxi rather challenging (see below for description from a cultural web site), so we decided to just spend the day at the hotel instead.

A tope is a horse parade, which is a typical tradition in all local fiestas. The San Jose horse parade is the most famous and largest in Costa Rica. Thousands of riders from all over the country come to show off their beautiful horses, riding skills, fancy steps, and specially designed cowboy outfits... The tradition began in colonial times as a horse race to commence the Fiestas de San Juan, a horse-racing and bullfighting event. It was customary for everyone to come out to see who the best jockeys and the fastest horses were... It has become the most important horse show of the country, what we know today as El Tope. The tope is the National Day of the Horseman and, on December 26th, the Festejos Populares is inaugurated with this traditional event. Horse owners, farm workers, and farm owners come to the capital from all over the country to bring their best animals to the best horseman show of them all. Instead of racing, the horses are trained to take special steps, almost dancing for the spectators that line the streets... The event is all about how good you look while riding your horse and how many fancy steps your horse can maneuver to impress the crowd. The parade starts around 1 p.m. and takes over Paseo Colon and Avenida Segunda along a four-mile route. On the day of the tope, no cars can move around the narrow San Jose streets. Thousands of spectators arrive, converting the streets of San Jose into a sea of people and horses. Music is blaring throughout the day, and TV cameras focus on the beautiful people.

We did get to watch some of El Tope on the local TV stations during lunch and later in the day. And now we've learned about two different big cultural events that happen on Dec. 26th in other countries -- El Tope in Costa Rica and Boxing Day Sales in Australia!

In the afternoon, we headed out to the big pool so that I could swim and Mr. E could read. He didn't want to try the hammocks, though. I spent a bit of time in a hammock next to him but had difficulty getting into the right position to read. By late afternoon, we received our special champagne and strawberries treat from room service:

It's hard to tell from the photo, but the strawberries are both dipped in chocolate and brushed with some sort of gold dust! Very festive and a fun pre-dinner offering. Dinner was in the Anfora Restaurant, which offered a decent buffet of hot and cold items and lots of dessert options. We also purchased a bottle of wine to celebrate the beginning of our vacation.

December 27 - On Our Own in San Jose
With El Tope over, we figured it was safe to explore San Jose today. After breakfast at the hotel (another buffet), we took a taxi to the Spirogyra Jardin de Mariposas, a butterfly garden and sanctuary north of the zoo. Our driver wasn't sure exactly how to find the spot, but my limited Spanish and the map in our Lonely Planet guidebook helped us get there safely:

The staff person was very friendly and helpful, and she provided some background and an orientation in Spanish, which I was able to translate for Mr. E. I had brushed up on my Spanish during the weeks leading up to our trip, so my comprehension level was pretty high at this point. My speaking production was a bit more challenging, but I managed to hold my own for most conversations, and it was definitely helpful to have some language facility during the trip!

We wandered through the enclosed butterfly garden, admiring the delicate winged creatures along with some turtles and brilliantly-colored flowers:

Just outside the enclosed area was a path that led down to the river that runs along the northern part of downtown San Jose. Mr. E and I explored this area as well and had some close encounters with big spiders -- Mr. E's favorites -- NOT!

We used our Lonely Planet guidebook map to retrace our steps and walk back to the center of downtown San Jose, en route to the National Museum. Along the way, we passed through several parks with sculptures celebrating historic events and brightly-painted benches, not to mention some rather interesting Christmas decoration displays:

The National Museum is in a former military building, which was quite evident from the towers and fortress-like architecture:

What we didn't expect was to find another butterfly garden as part of the offerings inside! So we got a double dose of mariposas, although the setting was quite different in the National Museum, given the juxtaposition with the building's structure and materials:

Our favorite butterflies were the blue ones, some of which were Blue Morphos that are very subdued when their wings are up but brilliant when their wings are unfurled. I also like the yellow swallowtails:

In addition to the butterflies, the National Museum houses rotating exhibitions of contemporary art, so we explored the galleries that contained sculpture and installations from regional artists:

Another part of the museum focused on the history of the region and human evolution in the area. Mr. E was particularly taken with the big orbs in this area that also spilled out into the internal upper courtyard:

We also noticed some brightly painted trees across the square from the National Museum:

We're still not sure why they were decorated in this fashion, but they were quite striking! And later we realized that the building just behind them is the Jade Museum, which is closed on Sundays so we couldn't visit. We did, however, take a stroll through the Artisan's Market on the edge of the square on our way to find a taxi after lunch.

Lunch was at Nuestra Tierra, just across the street from the National Museum. We enjoyed seeing the coffee service at a neighboring table, which provided a true example of pour-over preparation (we saw small versions of these filtering stands in many souvenir shops during the rest of the trip):

Once we got back to the hotel, we bumped into our Caravan Tour Director, M, and got confirmation of our orientation meeting for later that night. I headed out to the pool again before the meeting and dinner. I think we confused the restaurant staff a bit, as they had seen us the prior evening when we were on our own but now we were part of the Caravan group!

Our tour had 44 people (the maximum) and includes a variety of folks traveling together -- couples, adult children with a parent, friends, families (including 4-year old E with his teenage sisters N and E), etc. Quite an interesting mix! And so the official tour part of the trip began...


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