Saturday, February 09, 2008

First week in Costa Rica – Southern Sky Fiesta

2008-02-03 – Sunday – Today is the big day – travel to Costa Rica. I'm up at 5:15am, do some last minute packing, say goodbye to everybody at home, and I'm out the door at 6:20am. I drive to the Victoria airport and park in the long term parking, and I then check in at the Horizon counter. My checked bag is overweight by 5lbs, which costs me $25 extra – not a problem, since I can't lug anymore carry-on luggage. The security guy asked me about the Astrotrac, and we then got into the inevitable discussion about astronomy. My friend John and his wife Wendy arrive a few minutes after me. Our flight to SeaTac is delayed by about a half hour, but we still arrive in plenty of time to find our bags, clear customs, and find the gate for our Continental flight to George Bush airport in Houston. Along the way, the security makes us take off our shoes. What stupid security rules they have in the USA!

Our flight to Houston is a bit late taking off, however we have a smooth flight – seeing Mount Ranier along the way. Continental has a golf cart waiting for us at the gate to take us to our connecting flight to San Jose, since we have less than a half hour between flights, and the gate for the connecting flight is way across the terminal. The nice lady driving the cart gets us there with time to spare
It is a full flight, so things are pretty stuffy in the cabin. I manage to survive by plugging into my music stored on my PocketPC. The Shure 210 in-ear earphones I bought awhile ago to use on this trip are fantastic in aircraft. They very effectively shut out the cabin sounds, so when we disembark in San Jose my ears are not ringing as they normally do (for days). The San Jose airport is controlled chaos, but we clear Costa Rican customs in short order and find our transportation representative.

The Courtyard Marriott is pretty deluxe, with North American style rooms, Internet connections, telephones, TV, wet bar, coffee maker and hair dryer. I take advantage of the free Internet connection to contact a few folks to let them know we arrived safely and will be on our way to the lodge tomorrow. I understand that La Ensenada "Star" Lodge is more primitive, so it doesn't have Internet, and even the telephone is not always working. I'm assuming my cellphone won't work there, unlike here in San Jose where it picked up the network right away.

2008-02-04 – Monday – San Jose to La Ensenada "Star" Lodge - Our Tico Guide is Diego, and our Travelquest Host is Chuck. I met Chuck and Gary Seronick (our astronomy expert) at breakfast this morning. Gary is a contributing editor for Sky and Telescope and lives in my hometown of Victoria. Rick and Susan Feinberg are also along on the trip. Rick is the Editor-in-chief for S&T.

Everyone was on the bus and ready to go on-time, with the first stop being a large mall. We had a chance to shop in a local AM/PM and also exchange money for those who needed some. Then we drove through the Central Valley towards the Pacific Ocean, passing through Palmares, San Ramon and Esparza along the way. We arrived at La Ensenada "Star" Lodge in the mid-afternoon, after the bus took us over the rough and dusty road into the place. It reminded me of the road into Blancaneaux Lodge in Belize, except it wasn't as far. The cabanas are basic, but clean. All overlook the extensive grounds and they all have ocean views. 2008.02.05 – Tuesday – We go on a Tractor Ride this afternoon, which turned out to be a very nice event. The owners of La Ensenada are Italians, and their son Giancarlo guided the hour and a half Tractor Ride all over the property. Near the end, we wound up a narrow road to the top of a hill overlooking the property and the Gulf of Nicoya. Giancarlo's Mama serves us her superb antipasto, beer and soft drinks while we take in the view. What a nice touch!

2008.02.06 – Wednesday – We go on a boat ride to see the mangrove that is located just around the point from where we are staying. Several of the group that went yesterday were soaked on the way back from the oncoming swells in the late afternoon, but we did much better. Only one member of our group was hit by the wash. It was a fascinating trip, since we cruised right up close to several birds and even a baby alligator was sunning himself on a small log and stayed around long enough for us to get some photos.

2008.02.07 – Trip to Carera National Park - Our group is taken on an all-day trip to this National Park. First stop is to see some 33 big crocodiles under a bridge along the way. After we arrived at the start of our little hike, there was some rain from the tree canopy falling on us at the start. Along the trail we saw some Leaf-cutting ants, 2 Macaws in a tree (a thrilling sight), and a Slaty-tailed trogan (red sides). We had a very nice buffet lunch at Hotel Villa Lapas, which is located along a river. We returned through Miramar and stopped for a swim at the beach at Caldera, just south of Puntarenas. Diego and our driver served us watermelon and cold water – again, a nice touch.

I have been incredibly frustrated with my astrophotography efforts so far while staying at La Ensenada "Star" Lodge. The skies are nice and dark (around mag 6.0), but Polaris is very low in the northern sky. This makes polar alignment with the Astrotrac practically impossible, leaving drift alignment as the only possible alternative. The first night I tried to just take a north line across the field from where I was setup using a GPS, but that didn't get me close enough. I ended up frustrated that first night. The second night I borrowed a telescope from the Sky and Telescope folks, so at least I could visually observe, since I hadn't brought any binoculars with me (in hindsight, a bad idea). John showed me the basics of drift alignment, and that allowed me to align my Astrotrac much better the second night, so I could take some images. I tried to capture a time lapse of the Zodiacal Light, since this is the first time I've observed this phenomenon. As I write this on our third night, it has been quite cloudy – again very frustrating!

2008.02.08 – Friday – This is our last full day at La Ensenada "Star" Lodge. Tomorrow we return to San Jose. I signed up for a horseback ride this morning. We all had a good time; especially considering none of us appeared to have ridden a horse for many years. The last time I rode a horse was when I was a teenager, but the horses were very well trained and the ride was an interesting two hours all around the property of La Ensenada. We went to the top of a hill overlooking the coastline - very scenic. Our afternoon was free of activities, which was a nice change. After dinner, I had a shower and a nice sleep. When I woke up around 7:30pm there were clear skies! This is the opportunity I have been waiting all week for, so I setup the Astrotrac and take a time lapse of the southern horizon over a 3 hour period until midnight, which will show many of the southern objects in the sky as they rise. I then image the Eta Carina region after finding a spot where I can see Polaris and finally get a good polar alignment. Now I'm cooking! After Eta Carina I move to the Southern Cross and image the whole region: Crux, the Coalsack, and the large nebula to the east. While the camera is imaging the Southern Cross region, I process the Eta Carina images, since I can see they are quite good. Finally, an image I'm happy with! Both John and I are up until 4am imaging, since this is our last chance from La Ensenada "Star" Lodge.

2008.02.09 – Saturday – "Star" Lodge to San Jose - We spend our last morning at La Ensenada "Star" Lodge comparing observing notes from the night before. Several of the group pulled all-nighters (including John and I), since the sky was so wonderful. I think it was perhaps the all-time best observing evening I've ever experienced. It was warm, the magnitude 6 sky was steady and crystal clear, and of course the temperature was very comfortable at about 25 Celsius. The bonus was virtually no mosquitoes. I don't know where they went, but it was a welcome relief. I visually observed a dozen or more southern sky objects visible from this latitude of 10 degrees north. Observing from here has driven home the point that I must travel to the southern hemisphere (South Africa, New Zealand or Australia) sometime in the near future. Observing from those locations will reveal a whole new sky to me. After my trip to New Zealand and Fiji in 2004, I'm convinced that the southern hemisphere has more than its fair share of superb celestial objects, and I must add some of them into my observing log within the next few years.

Before we all climb aboard the bus, we have a group photo taken. Then we drive from La Ensenada "Star" Lodge for the last time (on this trip anyway). It is a long drive over the mountains back to San Jose. We stop for lunch at Sarchi, and of course the tourist trap stuff is there for us: t-shirts and caps, knickknacks, and the painted ox carts Sarchi artisans are famous for. Back at the Courtyard Marriott it's nice to have a hot shower and get the dust washed off, and also to connect to the Internet and catch up on the news and post my blog. Most of the group are returning home, however some of us will continue on with the Volcanoes and Rainforest back-to-back tour.

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