Sendero Group Travel Blog

Follow Sendero travelers on their adventures using accessible GPS.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004


Costa Rica Wrap Up and Contact information

I have posted 4 other entries for our travels in Costa Rica. Skip to the next link for each posting in reverse chronological order. Find contact information for guides and hotels at the end of this posting.

The GPS coverage was "Very Good" 80 percent of the time. I really enjoyed the Bluetooth receiver, being able to put it on the dash while I sat where ever I wanted in the van.
Guido Chavez was a great guide for us because he was knowledgable and organized. Giedo pointing out the sights from the boat
He had a good sense of humor and an eagle eye for wild life and plants. Guido could speak English fine but he was very encouraging and helpful when we spoke Spanish. Marcos on the other hand spoke better English but wasn't so accommodating of our Spanish speaking.

Our accommodations were fine, the Villa having the most amenities. Pachira Lodge had lots of character. I'd return to all of these places. Costa Rica uses the same 110v ac power as the US. AS of this date, the exchange rate was 455 Colones per US dollar. Travelers Checks were a hastle to cash and not every place took credit cards. A 10 percent tip was included on most restaurant bills. There was GSM cell phone coverage in most of the medium to large towns. GPRS data did not work anywhere. Coco had cell phone coverage and an Internet cafe.

Many of the roads in Costa Rica are without signs and they have copious pot-holes. A local driver is essential. I recorded over 140 user Points of Interest during our travels in addition to over 200 commercial points, available to any BrailleNote GPS user from the SenderoGroup web site.

We added one last stop on our way back to San Jose and the trip home. Being in the rain forest, it was not unusual that we were rained out from seeing the Arenal volcano and from riding the cable zip lines on the canape tree-top tour nearby. We’ll have to come back.

Readings: Lat 10, 29, 19.056 North. Lon 84, 43, 22.818 West.

We made the most of the area nonetheless. The Tabacon Hot Springs offered a range of natural pools of many temperatures from scorching to cool. This was the first time I used my cane in the water because I didn't want to step into deep water too quickly. The biggest pool had a water slide and a bar with cement stools so you could sit half submerged while sipping a beverage and watching the children play and the babes swim by. These hot springs were definitely the cool place for young folks to hang out on a Sunday night.

When is the last time you saw a Pisote alongside the road? It is from the raccoon family and are as bold when it comes to being fed.

Pisotes on the side of the road

On the long trip home, 18 hours door to door, the highlight was meeting a wonderful seatmate on the flight from DC to San Francisco. I wrote a piece several years ago called, The People Make the Places. Melinda reminded me how true this is. Many people, some who’s names we may not even know, will be talked about for years to come as we relive the Costa Rica experience.

Check out the other Costa Rica entries including: Christmas at the beaches on the Northwest coast: Leather Back turtles in Playa Grande, beautiful dry weather and volcanic sand beaches at Vela Pez in Playa Ocotal. The travel saga getting to and from Pachira Lodge, incredible rainfall, canoeing through small channels, hearing and seeing Howler monkeys and seeing a sloth.

Contacts for touring Costa Rica: (dial 011 and the 506 area code from the US)
Guido's Tours: Phone 266-1027
Guides near Playas de Coco, Leslie 812-0355 or Ciro Marcos Ruiz cell 825-7267
Flights within Costa Rica on Sansa or Nature air toll free in the US, 800 948-3770, departs from Tobias Bolanos (Pavas) airport

Vela Pez resort in Playa Ocotal:
Reception 670-0129. No cell coverage but phones in the Villas.

Hotel Valladolid, in Heredia, near San Jose airport, in a busy downtown area.

Tortuguero, Pachira Lodge, no phone in the room but there is GSM cell coverage.

Volcano Lodge near Arenal

Liberia Dollar rent-a-car also offered cell phone rental.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004


A Blind Person's Telescope to the World

Our guide, Ciro Marcos Ruiz, picked us up at our Playa Ocotal villa at 5:30 in the evening for an excursion that could last all night. He drove me and my family 40 miles to reach a destination that was 15 miles line of sight down the West coast of Costa Rica. My POI database showed us passing through "small cities" such as Belen and Filidelfia. Notice the spelling of the latter with the letter f. I kept asking him where different cities were as I scrolled through my GPS database. He was amazed at my detailed knowledge of small Costa Rican towns. I didn't fess up. We headed East before then turning south; back West and a bit north.

Along the way, we got quite an education about Costa Rican plant and animal life. Did you know a pineapple is technically not a fruit but a flower? Marcos had a degree in these things but maybe he was pulling our legs or as they say in Spanish, "pulling our hair."

He told us to cross our fingers that we would have success on our adventure. Our destination was one of only 4 beaches in the world where the largest turtle, the Leather Back or Tortuga Baula in Spanish, nests. This time of year, they dig a nest in the sand and bury their eggs. Small groups can watch from a few feet away. They used to allow people to touch the turtles once they were engaged in their nest building but they no longer allow this and they take extraordinary measures not to disturb them.

The turtles lay about 60 fertilized eggs in the nest and then another bunch of unfertilized eggs on top in case predators find the nest. They also dig fake nests nearby to thwart predators. They live to be 60 or more years old but they don't really know for sure because they won't last more than a year in captivity. I got to feel a 3 foot tall Galapagos tortoise in 1982 on one of those islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. They live to be 150 years old but aren't as bulky as the Leather Back.

Once we reached the preserve, we had to show our passports and sign documents and then we received an orientation from the ranger. He spoke for 10 minutes in Spanish and then the English translator spoke for 30 seconds. She was really bad. I was grateful to understand enough Spanish to glean most of the information about the Leather Back. He listed all the park rules like: no talking, no cameras, stand behind the turtle not in front and don't touch the turtle. The ranger said the exception was el ciego, me, the blind guy.

At 7 pm, we had dinner and then returned to the van to wait for a turtle sighting. We stretched out, each on our own row in the van. Maybe we would get lucky, maybe not. It was all up to Mother Nature. This wasn't a Disneyland ride after all.
Readings: High tide 11:18 pm, full moon in 6 days, 74 degrees, Very Good 9 satellites, heading Southeast 137 degrees, speed 4 kph. Latitude 10 degrees, 19 minutes, 43.902 seconds North. Longitude 85 degrees, 50 minutes, 34.542 seconds West.

Marcos rousted us from our nap at 11:45 PM and we quickly formed a line to pass through the tight security on to a beautiful white sandy beach, Playa Grande, a good 100 yards across and 4 miles long. We walked briskly along the water's edge the bright moonlight lighting our way and shimmering on the waves with their edges lapping at our feet. After waiting so long, we didn't want the turtle to finish her work and return to the sea before we got there.

We walked, almost jogged, 1.1 kilometers Southeast. My heart was pounding in anticipation as was Grandma Charlotte's. This was an adventure for the young of body and heart. Not too many other people in their 70's anywhere on this trip.
And there the Leather Back was, 100 feet above the water line, digging a nest, as deep as her flippers could reach, about 2.5 feet, and 6 inches wide. She was 144 cm (5 feet) in length. A biologist took measurements and counted the eggs as she pushed them out, 44 in total. I knelt in the sand and gingerly reached out to feel her shell. It was rising and falling, like someone breathing deeply. It was actually her contractions as she pushed out the eggs. I was shown where her pelvis bone was at the back of the shell. Ridges like seams in a cushion ran along her back about 10 inches apart. Her front flippers were long and thin, sticking out about 2 feet on either side 10 inches wide. The back flippers felt very muscular. I was startled when she began scooping sand with her front flippers back over the nest. She was so focused on her work that she didn't seem to care that I was touching her all over.

Leatherback turtle

I felt so privileged to have this special and intimate moment with nature and happy that my family and I could share this experience together.

It was after 2 AM when we reached our Villa, glad that we didn't have to get up at any specific time. When we did, it was down to the beach and the boys and I molded a Leather Back out of sand. Its tactile image was vivid in my memory and it was fun to try and replicate it in sand. After admiring our work, we strolled along the beach, the boys exclaiming every few feet: little crabs, big crabs, cute birds, butterflies, lizards, animal tracks, sea slugs, pelicans and once again, Howler Monkeys, everything part of Mother Nature but nothing quite as rare as the Leather Back. That lat lon reading I gave on a beach in Costa Rica for the Leather Back is like a star is to a sighted person looking through a telescope. It is remote and yet it has an identity. Odd and exciting to think of GPS as a telescope to the world for things that cannot be seen.

Saturday, December 18, 2004


Coast to coast

We rewound our trip via boat, van, dirt road and highway from Tortuguero to San Jose. At a small air strip outside San Jose, we boarded a Nature Air flight to the town of Liberia in the Northwest of Costa Rica. It was a 19 passenger, dual engine prop plane. They didn't notice or care that I sat in the exit row next to the door. I explored it and found that famous red handle I had always heard about but never dared to touch before. I didn't test it out but I was thrilled to be for once in an exit row, not the least of reasons was the extra leg room.
The PK GPS displayed our cruising altitude at 10,000 feet flying at 190 mph. It was a little bumpy passing through the clouds but no need for my emergency services with the red handle. Maybe they didn't realize I was blind because of my make-shift bamboo cane.
Since Guido was no longer with us, we rented a car and Jennifer drove, our destination Villa Pez at the Ocotal beach. It was very difficult driving because of the unfamiliar roads, it was dark, pedestrians and bicyclists were everywhere and there were lots of pot holes. Since I didn't have street map data we had to follow marginal print directions that left out key points from time to time. It has been a while since I have been in a place where I couldn't have the BrailleNote calculate routes and it was very frustrating for me and for Jennifer trying to drive and navigate safely.
I did mark the key points and intersections so we could find our way back to the airport easily. However, there will probably be less adventure here although I am not likely to be too lazy. We'll see. I am already using GPS points to navigate my way to the restaurant and villa. The sprinklers went on, quite a world of contrast between this dryer beach climate on the Northwest Pacific coast of Costa Rica and the Eastern Caribbean coast at Tortuguero and its meters of rain fall. Current position, 10, 32, 36.726 North, 85, 43, 40.350 West, exactly 246.62 miles due East from the villa on the beach to the sloth sighting in the jungle of Tortuguero.

view of the beach

Friday, December 17, 2004


Rain or shine in the Jungle

I made it almost completely through a book on tape last night. I never slept because the rain pounded our cabin harder than I thought possible without actually floating us away. Now I understand why all these buildings are on stilts. I am told it rains 7 meters per year in this area and I am sure it rained at least a foot last night.
In the few minutes it wasn't hammering our roof, the jungle sounds were so captivating, they too kept me awake. I wished somebody could tell me what all the sounds were. At 5:30 am sharp, the howler monkeys started roaring until the rain drowned them out.
The plan for Friday was to go canoeing through some small canals off the river in search of animals like monkeys, birds and crocodiles. We might have deferred but our boys were so full of energy and wanting something active to do that we struck out on this crazy trip at the first hint of a lull in the storm. We were so optimistic that we even took off our rain gear. Wyndham and I were in a kayak, Guido and Grandma Charlotte in one canoe and Jennifer and Carson in another canoe.
At first we were crashing into each other and then headed in opposite directions. Jennifer was yelling something about the strong river current. Wyndham and I were still working out the mechanics of paddling and navigation. After all he is only ten and Carson is 12.
Mike and Wyndham in the canoe
Eventually, we all turned out of the main river and headed up a side canal that varied in width between 40 and 10 feet. It was amusing and a little frightening as we alternately dodged stumps in the middle of the canal and got hung up in the dense overhangs on the sides, all the while wondering about crocodiles and bugs among those dense banks. According to Wyndham, the spiders were "huuge." Paddling against the current made it hard to maneuver.
After being forced to turn around by impenetrable vegetation, it was even harder going downstream because we were moving much faster with the current but we were finally paddling more in sync. We had gotten a few hundred feet ahead of the canoes when a huge roar erupted very close by and Wyndham and I nearly fell out of the kayak. I thought at first it was a crocodile although I had never heard one. At the same time, I realized the sound was coming from above and Wyndham spotted a Howler monkey family in the tree we were passing under. They started throwing things at us not to happy to have us in their territory, especially with a baby monkey in their midst. They really make a fearsome roaring sound. Once we were dislodged from the branches and further downstream, we tried mimicking their roar.
Howler Monkey
howler monkey mp3
We regrouped at the mouth of the canal as the rain began to fall. Ah well, a little water wouldn't hurt us. We struck off across the river to check out a small village. By the time we got there, we might as well have stood under a shower we were so wet. When we pulled the kayak on to the dock, I discovered my folding cane was gone. It must have floated away at some point between escaping the monkeys and getting swamped by the rain. Guido handed me a paddle to use for a temporary cane and we walked a short way to the beach to feel the Caribbean. The warm water was so inviting in our drenched condition but the waves were huge and Guido said there were plenty of sharks out there.
When we finally got back to the Pachira Lodge, I added insult to injury or wet to more wet when I climbed out of the kayak on to the dock and stepped straight into the river off the other side. Good thing I didn't bring my BrailleNote on that adventure. I was however wearing my waterproof Tissot tactile watch, the first time I had put it to the test.
Back in our cabin, after a hot shower, while writing this log amongst the back drop of white noise from the incessant rain, Guido handed me a cane he fashioned from a bamboo branch. It was the right length, if not perfectly straight. It certainly was an apt souvenir of the day's adventure and I'd actually use it as there was no other place to obtain a replacement cane in Tortuguero or even Costa Rica. Pachira and vicinity sure was incredible to experience by boat-- rain or shine.
Unique GPS positions:
Crocodile sighting on river to Tortuguero, near a small island, 10, 20, 26.424 North, 83, 23, 39.33 West.
Sloth sighting on Tortuguero River, 10, 27, 42.996 North, 83, 28, 19.926 West.

Thursday, December 16, 2004


From the City to the Jungle

The satellite readings were quite often "very good" indicating that WAAS was enabled.
We traveled the East-West highway toward Tortuguero on the Caribbean side of the country, passing through an incredible rain forest on the way. From atop cliffs 200 foot waterfalls thundered right next to the road as if we were crossing through river rapids. The PK said we were traveling around 35 kilometers per hour, slow enough for me to hear things outside the van. I was marking all these neat points for the next person that came through. Our Guide, Guido, said he had another blind client recently named Thomas from Boston. Between my mediocre Spanish and Guido's English, we communicated quite nicely.
We learned that the coffee plantations must be grown at altitudes between 1000 and 2000 meters. The beans are being picked this time of year, all by hand. The workers earn about $1.00 per hour.
The PK tells me the rain forest is in the 600 meter altitude range.
I am happy when the local food is something to look forward to rather than something to endure. Our first meal of Costa Rican food was at a cafe along the highway replete with trucks honking and an air wrench at a service station. Their Spanish word for a mixed rice and beans meal is "casados" or married. You can have casados with the addition of salsa, chicken, beef or fish.
Back in the van and an hour later, I was jolted from my after-meal reverie by a familiar ringing sound at the same time that we bounced on to a dirt road. So, here we were, flying along a graveled pot-holed road at 50 kph, and I get a cell phone call from Charles to tell me that he has made a major break through in the Keysoft 6.1 GPS version. I could hardly hear him the rattling of the van was so loud. It was such a world of contrasts. We were talking about software on a mobile phone with a $6000 piece of electronics on my lap and Charles was speaking from his office in California. I was in the midst of a banana plantation in Costa Rica. Off to the left, monkeys were swinging through the tree tops and egrets were scattering in advance of out our vehicle.
Mike using the BrailleNote PK on the boat
Readings: Continuing Thursday, departing from Cano Blanco, destination Pachira Lodge, 528 pm central time, conveyance a 20 foot speed boat, very good 7 satellites, heading NW 300 degrees, altitude, sea level, 39 kph.
A friend of mine took this very same trip a year ago. As the guide pointed out a crocodile emerging from the bank a few feet away from the boat. My friend suddenly found himself in the water. The boat had struck a log and ejected him and one other person into the river. He said he wasn't too concerned, the water was warm, until he remembered the crocodile a short distance away. Although the guide insists they have a special taste for North Americans, my friend was rescued with no serious harm.
I was feeling very nervous with the PK around my neck as I thought of my friend's dunking and the distinct possibility that the heavens could open up with torrents of rain any moment.
To make things even more challenging, we were going up the river in the dark. The motor was too loud to hear crocodiles or other animals. Our speed had dropped to 15 kph. My wife said the only light to be seen was the eerie blinking of my Bluetooth receiver blue status light. A world of contrasts. She termed this adventure up the river, "spooky cool", which I would agree with as long as we kept avoiding the stumps. It was weird to picture how the GPS satellites could pinpoint one's position whether in Manhattan or up the river in Costa Rica. 10 degrees, 25 minutes, 25.252 seconds North, 83 degrees, 27 minutes, 27.414 seconds West. Because there were no tall buildings out there, only tall trees, the accuracy was around ten feet, close enough to find me if I got ejected from the boat.
After an hour and a half or so, we pulled into the dock at the Pachira Lodge. I was dry, relieved to have had no mishaps, and inspired by the adventure.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004


Off To Costa Rica by Mike May

The trip from San Francisco to San Jose Costa Rica ended up being 20 hours door-to-door, 9 hours flying time and 11 hours other transit time, such as waiting for delayed flights.
We connected through Washington Dulles and flew from there, South 198 degrees. The Blue Logger GPS worked beautifully in the window of the Bowing 757. I was amused as we flew along the North and South Carolina coast to here a number of user points from Michael Beukenkamp pop up, such as Grandma and Grandpa's house in Smyrna. I had San Jose Costa Rica set as my destination and painfully felt the hours and miles slide by, kind of like watching a pot boil.
Costa Rica from an aerial view
The only commercial points of interest in Costa Rica were in the city category. This was handy at least for getting a sense of the distance and direction to the different places we were planning to visit, especially because our guide showed my family on a print map where things were. I switched my GPS units from imperial to metric units to be in keeping with the local custom. I was unfortunately not able to switch to a Spanish synthesizer.


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