Upon arriving in Puntarenas, and after being told it’s not far to the ferry, we set off walking in the hot midday sun. After a dozen or so blocks Judy informs me that she’s soaking wet, her feet hurt, her backpack straps are killing her shoulders, and the combination of wearing jeans and the heat is causing hemorrhoids. A few blocks later she stops in a spot of shade. “I’m not going any farther until you find the ferry and come back for me.”
The ferry arrives at Playa Naranjo, a village of a dozen thatched-roof huts, only to learn that no taxis service Hotel Gigante, so we hitch a ride with Vicente, a semi-retired San Jose lawyer.
The first night’s sleep is restless. Competing noises come from cicadas, howler monkeys, barking dogs, motor scooters, people chatting, kids playing, and a balky room fan.
At the boat dock the following morning, Charlo seems too happy when greeting us. After a brief time in the boat, it’s obvious that he’s still hung over from New Year’s Eve. Not only does the toothless fisherman overcharge us for the short trip to the island, but he talks me into buying him a beer when we get there.
Linda, a U.S. expatriate, the kind that Jimmy Buffet sings about, manages the resort, with the help of her 3 young kids. Also living on the island is a German with an artificial leg, a Swiss artist with a tattoo of a parrot on her arm, and a middle-aged couple from L.A., who, last April were sailing their boat in the area, stopped, and have been living here ever since. All day long they laid around, drank beer, smoked cigarettes, read books, and played with their pets.
When I ask Charlito, Linda’s 10-year-old son, if he’ll be our guide on a hike around the island, he declines, explaining that, “Today’s my day off.”
Back at the bar, Minkey, an attention-starved monkey, is the main attraction, which also includes 3 dogs, a cat, 3 painted chicks, and a nasty Chinese chicken they call Barfly. “Because he likes to roost on the bar stool at night,” Linda says.
In 90-degree heat, over bumpy dirt roads, a crowded bus takes us to Montezuma, where we are unsuccessful in finding a hotel room. So we take a taxi to Cobano, where we spend the night in the town’s only hotel.
On a hot breezeless night we are directed to a family restaurant in the middle of residential block. No cars, no foot traffic, no breeze, no jukebox. We eat in complete silence––while the cook/owner sits at the adjacent table and watches us enjoy chicken, rice, pickled vegetables and a Pepsi.
On my hands and knees, bare butt in the air, searching for a noisy cricket.
Too hot to sleep, so we sit on the balcony, read and watch the passersby. Around 11:00 p.m., from the bar below our room, a guy starts playing his guitar and singing. Judy gives me a displeased, bordering-on-disgusted look, so I go downstairs, to listen.
An hour later the manager of the bar starts closing down operations. Judy’s saved. Back in the sweltering room, just when I start to drift off, music starts up again, this time coming from a room down the hall. Around 1:30, the music, conversations, and the periodic rumblings of a mufferless moped come to a merciful end. I manage to fall asleep right away, but I’m awakened when a door slams so loud it sounds like a gunshot. No wonder––it’s the bathroom door in our own room. Judy then pounds angrily against the wall, and for the next 15 minutes it’s quiet. I fall back to sleep but keep waking to a squeaking sound. Must be the pitiful fan, I think. Again I awake, this time taking the pillow away from my ear. It’s a cricket, somewhere in the bedroom. So on comes the light and the search begins. Under another bed I find the little noisemaker. With toilet paper in hand, I corner him, poise, then pounce, then carry him to the bathroom for a proper toilet bowl burial. Carefully I unfold the paper, with the last fold I discover he has escaped. Back in bed I listen for him, but the squeaking has stopped; either I wounded his chirping mechanism or scared him speechless.
After tossing and turning some, I slip off again, only to reawaken to more squeaking. He’s right under our bed. Sensing Judy had finally fallen asleep, I don’t turn on the light; instead, with a t-shirt in hand, I take a swipe under the bed. I connect, and the cricket, wounded, worn out, or fearful, stops cricketing.
The next morning we try Montezuma again, catching the dust bus at 9:00 am. In Montezuma we wait 40 minutes before giving up on catching a ride to Cabo Blanco Reserve, so we reluctantly climb back on the bus.
We decide to return to San José to rent a car.
Our first impression of Costa Rican driving is favorable. Everyone is so friendly. Motorists and pedestrians wave when you pass them. At first I thought that we were being mistaken for someone else, but it became obvious that greeting one another is a local custom.
Walking in a cloud of dust
We stop at a private zoo despite Judy’s objection. “I hate little zoos. I feel so sorry for the animals in their little cages.”
Oscar, the curator/caretaker/gardener/zoologist, greets us, taking our 85-cent-admission fee. He then proceeds to accompany us for an hour-long visit. With the exception of the coyote and leopards, of course, he offers to take us into any cage. It fascinates me to watch Oscar cuddle and sweet-talk his favorites. He seems to have an indiscriminate love of each animal.
On the side of the roads: mothers carrying babies; brothers holding the hands of little sisters; families all dressed up, walking to a friend’s house for dinner; field workers heading home from work, their shirts stained and their hands blackened, machetes strapped to their side; boy and girlfriends, with arms draped around each other, strolling along with no apparent destination in mind. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves and one another, talking, greeting one another, as they leisurely pass the time. It strikes me as unfair to see these handsome people, especially the ones dressed so sharply, walking these dirt roads––a car, truck or bus passes and they’re walking in a cloud of dust.
We’re driving at dusk, it’s raining, and the windshield wipers aren’t helping a bit. It’s becoming likely that we’re going to have to settle for a class 3 dump, Judy won’t sleep well, and I’ll be to blame. The mostly paved road is filled with potholes. When you miscalculate, and hit one straight on, the shock to the car and bodies inside is rude. For a dozen miles or so I follow another car whose driver best knows how to avoid them.
Caught in the lights of the car, an iguana freezes in the middle of the road. We stop, Judy gets out of the car and tries to get close to take a picture. I decide to get in the photo when she gets closer. Evidently, the car lights have rendered him immobile.
A roadside sign announces the Toucan Resort Hotel. I ‘m saved.
The Toucan’s drawing card is the thermal stream that flows by the hotel. Before dinner we take a Jacuzzi. The next morning we take a walk on a path that follows the stream to an open clearing where it cascades over rocks. A huge bright blue butterfly darts overhead, disappearing upstream.
For ten minutes we peer into the forest canopy, trying to locate a bird whose song reminds me of the percussion instrument that makes that ratchet/clicking sound. Up the path we hear another group of birds that sound like squeaking wheels.
“Guaranteed, you’ll see an eruption every night, unless the clouds come, then you can’t see anything.”
Seated on a wide, long, back porch of the Arenal Lodge, Judy sits and stares, binoculars fixed on the volcano. She’s transfixed, expecting, I assume, to see the next Mt. St. Helens eruption. There is rumbling and a distant light. Shortly after dinner the clouds come, ending the show.
On the road again, we head east toward the Caribbean, and the wettest region of Costa Rica. The rain forest there is huge––the trees as tall as 10-story buildings. We try to get a room at an ecological research forest reserve, but no rooms are available. We are directed to the Ecolodge Sarapiqui, which fits the description of rustic: bunk beds, walls so thin you can hear your neighbor turn over in bed, toilet downstairs, cold shower. At dinner a bat flew across the room.
Where the research center has miles of trails, the Ecolodge offers only a spot on the Puerto Viejo River, and a muddy road to the family dairy. Victor loans rubber boots to Judy, me and Yentz, the only other guest, and we go for a slow and muddy walk. On the way to the dairy, the handyman passes on a bicycle, which, considering the state of the road, is remarkable.
The evening meal is a curious feast: salad, soup, rice, black beans, fried salted sliced plátanos, cinnamon carmel goo that is so sweet it makes your teeth ache, all washed down with a mixed drink of payaya, tamarindo and guava, I think.
On the way to the east coast we pass the fruit growing regions of Costa Rica. We stop at a roadside stand where a boy sells Palmetto (hearts of palm). “I get half, my father gets half,” he tells me. We walk across the river on a footbridge and a trio of kids playing at the water’s edge scream out, “Turistas! How are you?”
The dirt and rock road is so bumpy that going faster than 10 miles an hour is foolhardy. In the tourist book these are referred to as corduroy roads. Everyone drives on whichever side of the road is smoother. When you meet someone coming from the other direction the wrong-sided guy moves back to where he belongs.
Narrow one-and-one-half-lane roads are shared by busses, cars, bicycles and pedestrians. It strikes me that you see so many people each day. Because it’s warm, they’re usually out of the house, and, with few owning cars, most are walking or riding bicycles.
Fernando Parkinson, a handsome tall Jamaican wearing a recently pressed bright white shirt and black pants, greets us at the reception desk of the Hotel Matama. “Give me a quiet room away from any music,” I ask. “We have no music, no radio, no television, no noise––only tranquility,” he answers.
Hotel Matama is described in the tour book as being across from the ocean, having a pool and a small zoo. Sitting above the pool between a parrot and a macaw, sipping a beer and wondering if this is the extent of the zoo, Judy goes to investigate, returns, and tells me there’s only some ducks and 2 leopards. What?! Asked if the macaw is transferred to other cages for the night, Fernando answers, “No that is his prison. His only crime is being beautiful.”
It’s overcast and sultry. Good that the room is air-conditioned. We’re surrounded by forest and directly across from the Caribbean. It’s obvious from the outskirts that Limón is different from the rest of the country. It’s the center of commerce, fishing, shipping and agriculture. And it’s noisy, hot and dirty. Trash is everywhere, and the downtown buildings are in various stages of disrepair. Part of the town’s problems came in April of ’91, when the area suffered from an earthquake.
Together with a few tourists, a couple public maintenance workers and some kids, we sit in Limón Park, watching a sloth navigate a tree. Each move is calculated, seemingly made as slowly as possible. He creeps: one arm, one leg, one arm, one leg. For more than a half hour we watch him descend to the ground, pick up a nut or something, then climb back up the tree. Judy describes him as a happy, smiley animal.
On a day trip out of Limón we head south on a road that hugs the coast. Needing gas, we ask a pedestrian who directs us to a pulpería, a roadside convenience store. Where’s the pump? I wonder. A crudely painted sign on the wooden building says “Gasolina.” Two little girls play behind the counter, and when I ask for help one yells, “Pappy!” at the top of her lungs. From the adjoining lot appears a short, bearded man in a bathing suit. “Ya voy,” he answers. Dripping wet from an outdoor shower he has just taken from a suspended box, he brings the gas to the street in a 10-gallon can. We decide to split a Coke, so we take a seat at a picnic bench, where we’re accompanied by a few chickens, ducks, turkeys, dogs and cats.
Josef, the proprietor, starts a conversation with us in English. His ambition, he says, is to learn the language, so he studies from books and, whenever possible, talks with tourists. I ask if he was educated. He says he was a topographic engineer, but he was forced to retire because of a back injury when his car was forced off the road and it rolled 6 times down a ravine. “I was being a gentleman, trying to let someone pass.” His job brought him here and it was here where he met his wife. “We were looking for oil,” he says. “Did you find it?” Judy asks. “Yes, but it won’t be ready to be taken from the ground for 20 or 30 million years.”
We stop for a swim at Cahuita National Park, where we spot a toucan and a family of howler monkeys playfully jumping from tree to tree.
We stop to watch 2 boys fish from a bridge over a wide, slow-moving river. Without poles they chew on yucca root, then spit it off the bridge, letting their line drift with the chum. After 15 minutes or so we give up waiting for them to catch a fish. “Don’t leave,” I say as we get back in the car. “The fish will starve without you.”
Waking sleeping crocodiles
Tortuguero is a small village on a canal that connects Limón and Barra del Colorado, which is on the border with Nicaragua. Nowadays the villagers fish and make money off tourists, but their ancestors, who are traced back to the Mayans, trapped, fished and operated a lumber mill. Some of the old timers still live in wooden houses built high off the ground on stilts. To get to Tortuguero you take a boat, since there are no roads and no airport. The trip takes a couple of hours, but stopping to see wildlife adds another hour. Walter, the captain, and Benton, the guide, seem genuinely eager to show us as much wildlife as they can spot.
On the way to the docks the owner of the boat explains that the trip may take an extra 30 minutes because of a couple low spots in the river. He didn’t mention, however, that we’d have to get out and push the boat.
Arriving at the docks in Tortuguero, the manager of the lodge greets us, helps us with our backpacks, then, after quoting the room rate, tells us to avoid swimming in the ocean. “There are powerful currents, sharks and manta rays,” he says.
The beach is a mess. Because of the earthquake, everything from the mountains has washed ashore. It looks like the unsold merchandise from a swap meet, along with logs, tree limbs, coconuts, etc.
A high school dropout named Simón takes us on a 2-hour dugout canoe tour of the jungle. Simón seemingly gets a kick out of waking sleeping crocodiles. He kills the motor, paddles as close as possible, then with his oar, moves the water or sea grass until he awakes the croc, who then, in a flash, turns and dives under the water. With one particularly heavy sleeper, he has to lift his head up with his paddle before he awakes.
We take advice from the park ranger and climb up the cerro (mountain) to visit what he calls “the most beautiful view in Costa Rica.” The hike was straight up, which wasn’t so bad, but the combination of mud and rubber tennis shoes made it tough. Sun rarely made it to the jungle floor and it was hot and sultry. At the top we were treated to a 360-degree view of the jungles and canals.
On the way back to the lodge, Johnny, today’s guide, points to the sky, then draws our attention to an approaching storm. A perfectly clear-sky day morphed into torrential rainfall, all in the span of 15 minutes.
Boat pushing was even harder on the return. The 2 women join the 5 men to push the boat out of the mud.
Just before dawn, I stir at the first sounds of the barnyard awakenings. In addition to tropical birds, ducks, turkeys and chickens greet the day. One bird’s high pitch wail of a chirp comes with long intervals. The pitch remains the same but the interval is shortened until he/she is ch, ch, ch, ch, ch, ch, ch, chirping like crazy. Another bird takes his call from the movie The Shining, when Tony screams “Redrum! Redrum!”
Judy washes some extra heavy-duty 100 per cent cotton t-shirts, then tries to dry them in the hotel and in the car. Three days later they’re almost dry.
Trying to figure out how to photograph this Limón bar on a Sunday morning, with some hurting all-night patrons holding their heads while squinting into the low-hanging sun, Juan Mendoza walks up to me, and with a mouth partially full of broken teeth, begins a conversation in English. In 5 minutes I learn that Juan was born in Cuba, had worked the banana boats between Cuba and Miami, spent 6 years working the produce markets in New York City, and had a son who is a fisherman in Tortuguero. The bottom line, however, was that he needed some colones to buy some menudo (remedy for hangover) because his parents died 2 days ago—his mother of cancer and his father of a heart attack. In case that didn’t work, he pointed to the scars on his body that he got when a tree fell on him. I gave him 100 colones.
My neck is getting a workout
On the advice of a park ranger we drive to the Pacific Coast to visit the Carara Biological Refuge. As promised, it’s teeming with wildlife and not cluttered with tourists. There were even some ornithologists, the first I’ve seen in person. For me, they were more interesting than the birds they were watching.
Five people stare up into the forest canopy with binoculars and cameras, occasionally making reference to the Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica, and saying things like “A lot of things have their winter plumages.” And, “I’d like to know how many days it takes to incubate?” One guy sits on the ground peering into a telescope pointed at a bird net 50 feet up a tree.
“What’s there?” I ask.
“A scarlet macaw,” he answers, while checking his notebook.
“What are you recording?” I ask.
“How do you describe what she’s doing now?” I ask. The bird is sitting in a nest.
“She’s in resting alert,” he says.
I spot a row of leaf cutter ants, one carrying a flower petal. “He’s going to be the laughing stock,” says Judy.
It’s an oven in here, especially with this long-sleeve t-shirt and Levis. Off go the sunglasses and on go the clear glasses. At noon on a bright day it’s dark on the jungle floor.
A guy up ahead spots a pale-billed toucan.
A pale-billed red-headed woodpecker gets our attention by dropping bark on the ground. A 6-inch green lizard with yellow spots on his back crosses our path while foraging for bugs. He stops in to rest in the sun and I take his picture. There’s a bug in the distance that makes sounds like a motorbike with no muffler, changing gears and speed. Four birders have spotted a huge rainbow billed toucan.
When the wind blows leaves down from the trees it sounds like it’s raining.
Leathered in insect repellant, I’m trying to walk quietly, but at the same time I think I should be making noise to warn any resting snakes. My neck is getting a workout, as I hold my head back to peer into the treetops. I wonder how may animals, birds, insects are so camouflaged they sit securely watching the 2 curious intruders.
Something has broken off the top of a tree and it comes crashing 100 feet to the floor.
Ahead on the path, Judy calls for me to catch up. When I get there she points out a green and black frog the size of a quarter. While I fumble to affix my camera’s macro lens, he poses patiently. As soon as I’m ready he hops into the leaves.
Judy spots a red-tailed tree squirrel, so we sit while he plays hide and seek on the other side of a huge tree.
We’ve managed to lose the other hikers. Haven’t seen another person in the past hour.
At the end of a trail we come upon a family of white-faced monkeys. It’s not hard to miss them when they’re dropping fruit to the ground, and leaping from branch to branch. A couple inquisitive ones descend to give us a look.
On our way south, we search for a place to spend the night. After driving down a few dirt roads that lead to the beach we come across Elys Flor, a modestly appointed thatch-roof motel, run by a French Canadian couple. Covered in bug repellent, I can’t wait to jump in the ocean. The water, unfortunately, is just a few degrees cooler than the air, which seems like 90 or so at dusk. The sand is fine, the air still and the tide high. Sunset is extraordinary.
There’s no fan in the room and I’m hoping against hope that it’ll eventually cool down. Just before dawn it does.
Before the sun peaks over the adjacent forest, I go for a beach walk while Judy sleeps. For too brief a time, the sand, water and moist air are refreshingly cool. But soon after the early morning sun rises, the back of my neck is baking. It’s too hot here and we already know what the beach looks like, so we head back to the mountains.
Leaving Playa Esterillos, we pass through miles and miles of palm tree groves. We stop to watch a guy pitch the basketball-sized clusters of fruit into a truck bed. He explains that palm oil, used for cooking, is extracted from the fruit. Back in the car, Judy checks the list of ingredients in a package of galletas (cookies). There it is: aceite de palma.
From the coast we head east, up the mountain. Each half hour the temp drops 10 degrees. Then we enter the clouds, mist and light rain. It’s dropped now to the low 60s.
Motoring through the village of San Isidro we follow the sounds of what appears to be a marching band. We end up at an outdoor covered basketball court where 30 children are trying to get on the same page, musically speaking. It’s very cute and very loud. Wedged between surrounding buildings, the noise has nowhere to go. The kids are precious, and the trumpets, trombones, tubas, flutes, snare and bass drums make for music that we can almost identify, but after 20 minutes we decide that the decibel level is past the danger point.
The road back to San José goes over what is called the Mountain of Death, so- called because of the numerous fatal traffic accidents, and, in the days before automobiles, the number of travelers who perished from the frigid nighttime temperatures. And here we are. It’s 5:00 pm and we’re stuck between 2 huge trucks in the rain and fog, hoping that we find a place to stay before dark. The road signs are omnipresent: Caution. Continue Caution. Falling Rock. Road in Bad State. Dangerous. Dangerous Curves. Slow. Continue Slowly. We get behind an Izuzu diesel truck that spews clouds of smoke, which, together with the fog, makes for difficult viewing. I am hesitant to pass a truck, but I don’t want to hinder drivers behind. Eventually I learn the local method: When the truck-driver beeps his horn and turns on his left signal, that means you can safely pass. At first I wasn’t too trusting.
Professor Leo Finkbinder is an expert on the quetzal
In the tour book we had read of Cabinas Chacón in a out-of-the-way place called San Gerardo de Dota. It says in the book that it’s located 10 kilometers over a very dangerous and poorly maintained road. We decide to stop at a public phone and call to make a reservation.
The dirt road is narrow, bumpy and precariously steep, but at every turn there’s another spectacular vista. At 10 mph we navigate, two sets of eyes alternating between road and view––it’s stomach-in-your-throat exciting. Just before darkness envelopes us, we arrive at the motel.
In the dining room we pick up a magazine that includes an article about a local bird called the quetzal. We read that a professor Leo Finkbinder, of Southern Nazarene University, spent 9 months in this valley studying the bird. Each day he’d climb up a 15-foot blind to monitor, film and photograph it. We read that in both Mayan and Aztec cultures, Quetzcoatl was a god of fertility, agriculture and climate. We learn that anyone touching the quetzal was immediately sentenced to death, and that Guatemala has immortalized the bird’s influence by naming the monetary the Quetzal.
At breakfast the next morning a man introduces himself as non other than Leo Finkbinder. He’s here to teach an intersession course on tropical biology to 4 stateside coeds. He invites us to join the class for the day.
Leo stops the class on a grassy knoll and explains how to spot tropical birds. “You camp out on an observation point near the plants and flowers they feed on, and wait for the birds to come to you.”
The sun feels good after a cold night and early morning. White puffy clouds creep over the tops of the trees, but, so far, none obstruct the sun.
Under a cluster of trees we spend an hour trying to identify birds. Professor Leo describes how an adolescent waddle bell bird tries to learn his trademark song: “You’d fall in the grass laughing at his attempts,” he says.