Costa Rica has rouged, mountainous, extended lands, that makes it slow to travel around because roads are built to meander along every hill, mountain and river, making short distances longer than they should be. Road-tripping along costarican roads is a wonderful experience, absorbing all of its constant changing landscapes, getting lost in towns and villages, trying out their local food, greeting its friendly folklore.
There is a feeling of emptiness in your body when you are driving, a trepidation and anxiety to arrive to your destination, quickly, you start to feel that void filling in with a cozy fondness with every mile you devour, it is the desire for freedom kicking in.
Driving through a lot of costarican “unknown” dirt roads as far as your car can reach; open windows, warm or even better; cold breeze whirling inside the car’s cabin, gives you a better feeling of what the environment along the road is like; but every time, along these road-trips you must wonder what’s beyond the side of the road. Sometimes the abundance of trees and plants cover the views leaving you with a desire to stop and roam through the undergrowth and thick vegetation.
To reach out and explore more of this addictive “call” of wonder, one needs to get into the adrenaline rush and take it off-road on a different approach; get high on picturesque peaks, challenging your physical consciousness to connect with your unconscious biases, influencing your body to new behaviors, learning how to better communicate with your body. Taking the off beaten path can take you to spectacular inspiration and the best way to experience this is through mountain biking.
Costa Rica has an extensive terrain with all kinds of mountain bike routes for the recreational and the most hardcore bikers, after all, Costa Rica has the “Ruta de los Conquistadores” – “Costa Rica’s premier mountain bike race and one of the most difficult athletic events on the planet.” I recently did a quest, a trip to “memory lane”, getting back on my old mountain bike through some old routes I used to get lost. Muscles never forget, I got back the feeling of lactic acid streaming through your leg muscles, almost a masochist sensation that makes you keep pedaling on an inertia cycle that unconsciously moves your body without even thinking about it.
First thing you need to know if you’re new in the country, is that we only have dry and rainy seasons, but it really doesn’t matter which condition we are in, costarican micro-climates don’t have any respect for you or your plans and that’s the exciting part of it; costarican weather is constantly changing, no matter where you are and the thrilling part is that you will be able to cross ways with different kinds of vegetation as you bike up a hill or a mountain, in just short distances, you will feel a change in temperature and thus plants, trees, terrain and wildlife will metamorphose up and down during the ride, so, embrace the weather and enjoy the exercise.
Jungles, mountains, green valleys, low and high forests…lakes. All of them are colorful landscapes with challenging terrains and demanding climbs that will reward you with scenic villages. Most of these available routes were old roads that connected cities and they still usually are kept by few as circuit routes for delivering, selling or collecting goods; so you’ll probably get acquainted with the old fashioned “Tico”; the “campesino” (farmer), milkmen, ranchers and few more characters that give Costa Rica that unique friendly and welcoming spirit as they wave you hello when you pass them by. You might encounter some traffic along the way; colorful oxcarts and joyful horsemen usually transit the dusty rugged trails; time stops along these tracks and most of them will occasionally greet you with the smell of burning wood, meaning there is a “Soda” nearby (small typical restaurant) where you can quickly stop to get a snack or a big meal cooked on old iron stoves to re-fuel, re-charge and continue the quiet dirt roads.
Downhill your way through loamy ridges and rocky turns where the “vistas” open up to staggering geomorphic features all in the same view. Pedaling through nature surely awakens something in you; it connects your mind and body with nature, cleans up your head of any problem or stress you’ve had and makes you focus through stamina, a vigor that drives you out of your comfort zone, making you gain confidence in yourself. There is a moment while biking when you start to feel superhuman; beating a challenge, any obstacle in the way becomes a goal to conquer. You will start to look at your surroundings in a different way and that’s when you’ve started to elevate your connection with nature, a high on inspiration through the scenery.
Live in the moment, your high heart rate will only make you feel more alive, breath in deeply the environment you’re in, sharpen your senses at the point where all your strength decides to give in…stop…feast your eyes, your whole body dissolves; as everything disappears, you’re starting to live the present in relief and gratitude. Mountain Biking reminds you that going through any forceful effort and discomfort has its rewards. The best moments in life are usually after you’ve gone through some difficult ones and that’s just part of the human experience. The important part is that any experience in life is a hill, a lake, a valley or a mountain to conquer; a hard one or a joyful one, just enjoy the ride.
Story & Photos by Juancho Otalvaro
Hiking into the Spiritual Realm
Just like our first prehistoric ancestors, our body was designed to be on our feet for most of the day; but today, most of us are sitting down in our offices all day with minimum movement; we barely walk just to get to a mechanical method of transportation were once again, we sit-down. We became sedentary and numbed to what is out there, outside in front of our eyes.
We need a physical distance from our everyday life; something that breaks our routine, life is all about balance. Let your brain relax, go out wondering, daydream and have fun! That is the only way to ease yourself and really connect with your mind.
The necessity of hiking has always been part of human evolution. Long ago, after the first settlers, we started to understand about farming and animal breeding, allowing us to produce abundance of food; at that point, hiking still was part of the everyday activities, as humans still needed to hunt and gather. Now, with all the different means we have at our disposal, hiking is seen as leisure and I think something was lost in that "process". We hike for well-being, sport or just for fun and that is very good, but we sometimes forget what being out in the nature really is. Our past relatives were nomads, they knew the importance of nature, they had to walk great distances on a regular basis to find food and specific nutrients to support their needs; they talked to nature, they communicated with plants and animals, there was more of a spiritual exchange between living things, I think we've lost that, now days everything is different and we take it for granted. Every time we go out and see a mountain, hills, a park, or just any scenic place, we should wonder; how will it be like to be on top of that mountain? What is up there? What feelings may I experience being surrounded by so much trees? Which live organisms live up there?
Our body was designed to walk and we can go out and find that out; let’s take a hike!
I started off early, waking up at 4 am and drove a bit more than 2 hours to San Carlos, one of the biggest cantons in Costa Rica and home of the Arenal Volcano, but this time I wasn't looking for the colossal grandness of the Arenal; instead I wanted to explore some of the neighbor inactive volcanoes. Luckily for me I have a friend who lives in Ciudad Quesada, San Carlos most populated city and he was going to guide me on a hike, through the mountain towards the skirts of the "Platanar" Volcano.
Without much planning or special gear, I put my cheap rubber boots on over my sand socks, a weird combination that has been proven to be the perfect fit for me during long hikes. We packed 2 litters of water each, though we knew we had to cross a couple of rivers, so water was covered. Some small snacks and peanuts to boost our energy on quick pauses; a good idea during hiking is to pace yourself and do regular quick breaks, instead of few long stops.
In no time, after a nice walk along dairy farms, we were deep inside a rainforest; the quick change of temperature was nicely welcomed, as it dropped down some degrees and a special breeze cooled the surroundings; but don't get to comfy, Costa Rican weather can change in just a few minutes, so always be prepared for anything (sun block and a raincoat at least). This time we had a perfect climate, even though it seemed to be a bit cloudy in between the treetop gaps.
We expected to see some monkeys, maybe some small reptiles; but we only managed to see rests of a weak hallucinogenic plant craved by sloths. As we went deeper, the size of the trees became impressively tall and I couldn't stop wondering how small it made me feel vs. the vast perspective of where I was hiking. It got me thinking; what is the purpose of the small insects around me? Why do plants and flowers live here? What do animals eat around here...What is our purpose here on Earth? We might not have the answers to most of those questions, but neither the rest of the living things that surround us know; we just know there are organisms living together inside a chain where everything coexists together as one and no other is more important that the other, everyone needs everyone to survive, so maybe the key for us humans is to work as one with nature so that we can have a better understanding of why we are here. All of these questions are answered by the fondling leaves up in the trees, the soft breeze that barely penetrates the dense forest, the flowing water underneath the ground, aggressively making its way through cave systems looking for a way out and become a spring that will irrigate everything outside around chirping birds who break the solitude and silence by whispering cognizance.
Nature's message is loud and clear, but one must listen and that is why I enjoy hiking so much; it keeps your body fit and your mind free, but there is another level on how we can operate during hiking besides the physical plane. There is also the spiritual realm, that can teach you how to be present in the moment; try and pay attention to your breath, center in your bodily consciousness, be completely mindful and become aware of your inner intentions to connect with something greater than yourself.
We can hear we were almost at our destination; soft sounds of small river rapids warned our arrival and though we didn’t catch a glimpse on any animals, we took our time to enjoy the ride, even though my friend warned me the destination was going to be epic. At that point I was almost in a trance on that green landscape; it was as if I could see nature's knowledge. Nature's been here before us, and it knows about the healing powers that can clear our mind of off stress and makes us focus on what it is really important; life, but not the everyday’s trivialities that we try to get a hold on our existence. Hiking is how you sharp your senses through the mighty winds way up on a mountain; it will not only give you the comfort of cooling you off after hiking all the way up. It will caress your skin with great assimilation, making you one with the environment; it will go deep through your pores, leaving an increased level of gratitude that your brain will produce high levels of serotonin, and the happiness it creates will be so intoxicating that its power and majesty will make you aware of an even greater beauty of whatever landscape you are submerged in. This is the calling of the Universe and it will give answers to any busy mind.
Hiking is not a race, it is an affair to move and what matters is to enjoy the ride, not necessarily the final destination. Take your time; remind yourself how small we are. Appreciate the landscape and try to have some perspective of where you are in the Globe. Free your creative mind by look into the tiny details of nature. Stop. Breathe, what scents do you smell around you? Close your eyes. What do you see and feel? All these are key for a spiritual breakthrough, but also you might be surprise of what you find in the way.
Story & Photos by Juancho Otalvaro
Living on the edge of Balance
Deep inside the Costa Rican province of Guanacaste, they hold the secret recipe to live an elongated life. Maybe, just maybe, the secret lies inside the dark magical "Cavernas del Venado" (Deer's Caverns or Venado Caves). Centuries ago these caves served as home to the indigenous God "Toku", worshiped by the "Maleku" Tribe. The caves were believed to be a sacred place; but most importantly, they were kept untouched because of its beauty and natural mysterious formations that still even today, scientists and geologists can't agree to how old they are.
There is something about darkness that intrigues us humans, almost as if it were an aversion that pushes us to explore incredible corners of the World, and the Venado Caves offers a hand full of adventurous emotions through its natural sculpted treasures that hide the history in plain sight of how Costa Rica was formed and created from the deepest places under the ocean.
The Venado Caves were discovered by mistake when a hunter got lost in the forest near the village of "Venado", where deer hunting was permitted decades ago. Amazed by his discovery, he mapped a way out. On his second visit he went inside the caves and deeper and deeper on every visit, until he managed to explore almost all of the vaults and corridors. Now it's a realm to the bowls of Costa Rica.
"Venado" inhabitants don't mind our intrusion inside the caves; and I’m not talking about its people, I'm talking about the cave's wildlife ecosystem, where you can see different bat species, even the bloodsucking ones! But don't be afraid, they are all busy minding they're own business, nesting on the darkest spots, pollinating and matting to help preserve the caves as an untouched place. There are huge spiders that feed from other insects, and some of the most interesting frogs I've ever seen, with completely transparent skin, a rare find as they have great camouflage.
Entering through the cave's "main entrance" is just a couple of steps through a farm like place. As soon as you step inside, you can already smell the freshness of the damped rock walls and a slight breeze sucked up by its deepest corners keeps the air flowing inside. The adventure begins, as soon as you are conscious that you have to turn on your flashlight; the darkness inside is pitch black, where at points you can't even see your own hand 10 cms away from your face. Walking inside, through the river, the architecture of the rock formations amazes its grandeur and the river’s current through out the age of ages shaped the layers on weird creepy rocky formations.
Anxiety soon enters your body as you are now further from the entrance and the sound of silence drums in your ears with nothing else but your breathing and the water splashing with your every step; follow the sound of the moving water far in the distance behind giant solid mineral materials surrounding you. You are now deep inside the earth, underlying the soil and possibly the oceans, what a magnificent feeling to be here! Anxiety turns into a rush of emotions when your guide tells you, you have to crawl inside a small hole to get into a rock vault, I can barely fit inside, but the flow of excitement in my body, pushes me to advance using my forearms against the clay tunnel, to move forward into an empty semi-dome, where I wait for my guide.
"Turn off your flashlight" he tells me with excitement.
I do so, true blackness enfolds me, and it’s even darker than closing your eyes; a whole world of dreamlike silhouettes crosses my mind, almost like hallucinating, you get lost on your thoughts, thoughts that become visually real, until my guide breaks the silence;
"Ok lets move on, shall we?"
Adrenaline now owns my body and my senses are fully awaken, I can almost feel that I can see in the dark, the sounds are now familiar, my primitive brain is now in control and my body is telling it to "survive". The best of your instincts are put to test, when all of the sudden you're facing face to face a small waterfall inside the cave. Its sound is almost deafening as your senses are sensible now, and the mist of fresh water against your skin, gives you goose bumps, refreshing the sweat after struggling inside the clay tunnel. The guide jumps rock after rock, until he steps behind the waterfall, but I want to try something different; I slowly cross between the same rocks he jumped through, until I'm right under the waterfall, I believe there is nothing more refreshing I have ever done than this. Fresh, lusty water falls right over me, invigorating and reaffirming me, that I’m underground and alive, a key word that resonates with an eco on every stonewall of the cave. Now that I know I'm alive I get back to my senses and realize what my surrounding is; smooth rocky formations with dripping water sculpting a "papaya" shaped rock placed on an unintentionally rocky altar and rock formations that seemed to be covered in glowing white minerals so strongly, that they shine with a simple light reflection of the flashlight. We take nature for granted but here you're able to see the magnificence of how life is shaped out of darkness with the aid of other natural influences acting and working between one another, no words to describe being present in this slow but perfect event.
The amazement doesn't stops here; I'm brought to another cave, where the water reaches your knees and if you're "brave" enough you can swim through a dark tunnel to reach this cave (you can reach it through another path) but once you reach it's entrance you'll be received by what looks like a dormant "waterfall" made of solid rock and minerals from top to bottom. White smooth formations caressed by water and carved in time surrounds this cavern. Its silky white floor creates a ladder to the top filled with puddles, that I like to think are the footprints of "Toku", the Maleku God who inhabited the caves and this grotto was his throne.
A couple of hours later, I'm blinded by the light; recovering from this dreamlike state I was in. The breeze gets stronger and you realize you're out of the caves; a breathtaking tour through the underground world that will leave you wanting for more.
Adrenaline can be addictive once you try it. But luckily the area around "Venado" village is filled with adventure if you drive a bit further. The small village of Venado is a small place that bases its economy on tour guides, milk and cheese. But it interested me how their main economy is based on self-sustainable trade. People grow their own products and exchange meat and milk, which are also exported, to other Costa Rican towns and cities. This system is very fascinating, specially to be able to see how it has shaped friendly, hard working people, who have earned the privilege to have the best spots around this areas. Their cozy small houses might be modest, but by midday, they all await their owners walking miles back with bags filled with fresh products, to arrive to a warm, wood-oven cooked meal, visible by the emanating smoke from the small chimneys over the rooftops. Up in small hills, their farms guard the rest of their nearer lands where they keep the cattle and enjoy the striking colors of a Guanacaste sunset.
Continuing the hunt for adrenaline I drive further to "La Fortuna" home of the "Great Colossus", the massive Arenal Volcano. Its magnitude will make you feel so small, that you will want to scream at it just to fail at trying to be heard by its impressive vastness.
There is a huge contrast between the peaceful, easygoing life of La Fortuna and their active entrepreneurship to survive in a competitive touristic place. I think there's no one in Costa Rica that knows better about adventure as the people in La Fortuna; after all they themselves are addicted to that rush of danger and adventure, they live in the outskirts of a giant volcano!!
It's La Fortuna's people unique point of view towards life how they manage to balance the perfect equilibrium between adventure and wellness. The perfect recipe to have a prolonged life is their contagious happiness, part of the ingredients in their food with local products that supports the local agriculture. But most important is how they never will give up perseverance; rainy days, hurricanes, or the menace of the Volcano's roars wont stop its people to wake up everyday and start the day hard working with a big smile in their face. Their pleasant company and kindness gets stuck with you and soon you realize that struggling for survival, makes you find passion for life and trying different (sometimes wild) things gives you the knowledge to understand what are the real important things in life.
Story & Photos by Juancho Otalvaro
The name "Costa Rica" will immediately ring the bell if you haven't already visited this rich, natural Land of wonders.
Whenever you think "Costa Rica" you picture beautiful beaches and green mountains; Roaring volcanoes and magical tropical jungles that together comprehends 5% of the Global biodiversity, considering that this land represents only 0.03% of the Earth's territory.
This colorful country has lots of treasures that are now known by thousands of tourists, but there are still a couple of secrets this paradise holds. I’m going to share a small adventure I had in a cold humid jungle and how I discovered Costa Rica's natural secret to well being.
I woke up really early a Saturday morning and my friend and neighbor was getting ready to go out in his hiking boots. I asked him where he was going. Surprised to see me out of bed so early, he told me he was going to help build an aboriginal "tipi" up in some mountains. Impressed by the idea, I told him if I could join him! 15 minutes later we were riding my car up the mountains where the Central Valley meets the Caribbean border. It was rainy season in Costa Rica, so it was a bit chilly, but nice if you're going to do some "exercise". Getting a bit off-road, the experience started before even arriving. We met some of my friend's friends who were cutting bamboo trees by the side of the road and help them carry them inside my car. From that point on, we drove for maybe a bit more than an hour through a beautiful dark green landscape covered by thin layers of fog that at points breached by the morning rays of light; for me, this exhibition already made worth the driving, I felt calm and peaceful, but most important, I felt happy for being out of my bed; being exposed to a different surrounding took away all my negative thoughts from my day to day routine.
Stress is a killer. It's not only a "state of mind" you have to battle with in your daily-basis. For me, it's like a bug that deteriorates your entire system, making you more vulnerable to diseases and sickness. On a long term, it might even shorten your life.
It's very hard to fight stress off on the daily struggle; it probably will give you more stress just to think that you're stressed out. I've been there; feeling tired, lowering my productivity; sometimes I’m angry out of nothing, affecting my family and those that surround me. It's just overwhelming how fast everything is going and how technology and communication has reached a frequency we cant keep up with and ends up consuming us.
I always try to get away from my routine, at least 30 minutes during the day, I leave everything and walk my dog out and just sit somewhere to read while he plays around. But sometimes this is not enough and luckily this one weekend I left my heavy, tired head at home and freed myself from any attachments.
By exposing yourself to new, different experiences in life you might find awakening and learn how to balance your work with things that make you happy, this was what I was about to discover. My friend told me to stop the car on a wet dirt road. He got out of the car and opened an improvised gate made with thick wire and wood sticks; it was a "stargate" to new possibilities.
There was an old lady that had a small house inside the property, so we paid her $2.00 to let us park the car there, after that, we started walking down a hill until we arrived to this magical place. A thick cloud forest with treetops so tall your eyes can't reach where they ended, an infinite green color scheme continuously changing as the fog slowly consumed the forest. On brief moments we would see an open space between trees, giving a spectacular view of what seemed to be an endless mountain range. A well-kept secret trail that soon will talk to us through its natural beauty.
Everything felt very harmonious, almost as if we were a link within Nature; I mean, we evolved from nature, shouldn't we feel more connected to it?
I think we use our brains like if it were a mechanical non-stop organ. It's true the brain is always working, but we over exceed its fast-paced energy. We should slow down and seek out surroundings that inspire us; nature sure knows how to make you feel restored! I proved this theory right. Once we entered this forest, it was time to try its healing powers.
“...the occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character…is favorable to the health and vigor of men.” - Frederick Law Olmsted
It started raining, but we didn’t mind getting wet, it was part of the experience and part of becoming one with nature. We now were literally "forest bathing" and now that we were reconnecting, we entered a sort of meditation; surrounded by the quiet sounds of trees moving with the short breezes of wind, pushing the fog, creating white veils towards our path. Different bird songs tuned a symphony on a loop, creating a mantra, quieting our mind and relaxing our bodies. At this moment we started walking slowly, taking big breathes...opening our senses.
This was like an out-of-body experience, I just went somewhere else in my head, like leaving my body; I was in some sort of trance. All of these natural elements working together to take you to a place where you felt as one with the universe, what I call my "body's energy" (or soul) found it's core and I was in total tranquility.
As we continued the path I will start to see everything with more detail; the textures in different leafs, the organic, strategic patterns of tree roots that stand out of the ground with living organisms all around them. It seemed obvious how all this eco-system worked together for the benefit of every single molecule, being there just felt right, I was energized and felt more vigorous.
We ended up at the banks of a small stream, we washed our faces in its water, and its cold temperature freshened us up. I woke up from this magical dream and I felt like in a new reality; a more relaxed -free of everything- sense that gave me goose bumps, it was almost as being reborn. All my senses were sharply awaken, feeling every drop of water caressing my skin.
That is how I discovered the natural secret of well being in Costa Rica. I learned that our minds and bodies could relax in any natural surrounding. Our senses must be adapted to them; we were once among plants and trees, not traffic and office noises. We shouldn’t think of Nature as going out for a cup of coffee or shopping; we should see it as a way to increase our health, but most importantly to be happy. Happiness is life.
Story & Photos by Juancho Otalvaro