Daily Log Writeup
Sunday March 16/03 - Halifax to San Jose
Airports suck, There must be some sort of international conspiracy to have all airports under construction and in a state of mass confusion at all times. Flying sucks too.
But I'm on vacation. Rule No. 1- "Be flexible". All other rules fall under rule number 1.
I got to San Jose about 9:30 p.m. local time ( 11:30 pm in Halifax), and spent over an hour in a line to get through customs, as two large international flights landed at the same time, and there were only 3 or 4 customs agents on duty. Rule # 1 again. I finally got outdoors and into what looked like a taxi minibus, complete with " Turistica" labels on the side, a driver with an ID card on his lapel, etc., and another couple who looked about as much like world travellers as I did. Five minutes later we pull into a fenced warehouse area, and the driver tells us in Spanish that we get out here, and we have to rent a car and driver to take us into the city. I'm not sure what the other couple did, but I wasn't in the mood to rent anything, and in very bad Spanish told the fellow that he was going to drive me to my hotel for the $15 US he had quoted or I was going to call the "policia." No problema, off we go, after he pays for the pounded out Hyundai. I would guess there is some sort of hazy intimidation deal going on with the local rental agency & some pirate cab drivers.
Latin American cities are all smelly, confusing, noisy, and full of characters that you really don't want to have to get close to. San Jose, like most, doesn't have street signs, and civic numbering hasn't been invented there yet. You either know where you're going, or you get directions to the nearest landmark...hospital, park, etc. My driver knew where the hotel was, but we must have taken the scenic route through the slums and back streets, there certainly wasn't anywhere where I would have wanted to get out and walk. Maybe it was a scare tactic, or maybe it was the shortest route. At one point we coasted to a red light, and spilling out of a bar onto the street were two drunken fellows in the middle of a half hearted knife fight. Up rolls Ron's window, and click goes his door lock button. There was a policeman with a billy club standing nearby on the corner watching, but he didn't seem too concerned about all this, probably a regular occurrence on his nightly beat.
Finally got to the hotel which was a welcoming sight despite the steel grating over all doors and windows and the coils of razor wire strung along the top of the fencing around the property. I could have stayed at the Best Western at the airport I suppose, but $30 US was more in line with my budget than the $125 US they probably charged, and I wouldn't have had the introduction to local culture. Becky was in the lobby to greet me, having bused all day from Golfito on the southwest coast.
It was really great to see her after her two months of Costa Rican backpacking, all tanned and looking almost like a local. We jabbered for a while, and as it was then 2:30 in the morning for me, we sacked out.
Monday March 17. San Jose east to Puerto Viejo/Manzanillo
We were up at 7 for breakfast in the hotel, which was buffet style served in the open courtyard. One of the wonderful things about Latin America is that you always get to eat out on a verandah, or open space with lots of wonderful flora. Hotel Aranjuez was no exception. Good food too, eggs, pancakes, tons of fresh fruit, and very strong local coffee. We left about 8 in a taxi back to the airport to pick up my rental, another interesting cab ride out, much haggling with the driver at the end who insisted that the meter showed $40 US. Well, I admit to being a bit green, but Becky has had two months to harden herself to this sort of everyday ripoff, so we harangued back as good as we took, and finally got rid of him for $20.
We got the rental without a glitch, although it took quite a while to do up the chart of existing bumps, dings and scratches. One good tip. Never buy a used car from a rental agency in Costa Rica. Our rental, a Diahatsu 4x4 SUV is a very cheaply made ( in Korea??) knock off of a Toyota Rav 4 or something like that. Supposedly it will hold 5 passengers, but the passengers have to be pre-schoolers or Korean dwarfs. However, it was the best deal I could find from home, through Thrifty, a company I know I can fight with later if I have a problem. There were a couple of other places renting the same vehicle for $20 or so less a week, but they had names like Montezuma Car Rental which I figured was not going to be too likely to provide superior customer service if I got an inflated Visa bill two weeks after I got home.
We loaded our backpacks and Becky's surfboard in....luckily it's a very short surfboard, and set off, Becky navigating. We wanted to avoid the main city, so set a course on the map to take us through Heredia and San Isidro, which would supposedly get us to Highway 32 east. No street signs, as previously stated, and very few road signs either. At the first traffic light, I inquired of Becky the navigator, " can you turn right on a red light here?" Her answer: " I think you can do pretty much what you like as long as you don't kill anybody." This became our constant and often repeated credo for driving for the next two weeks. After some backtracking and a few false turns we stopped at the edge of the street near a gas station for more map study, and the gas attendant ran out to see if we were lost. Not that we were obvious or anything. Becky explained , in her now almost fluent present tense Spanish, where we wanted to go, and he gave us very easy to follow directions to the highway. Zoom.
Highway 32 was built less that ten years ago. Prior to that, there was no road to the port city of Limon, although there was a railway. I think the railway has gone, but the new road, which bisects Parque Nacionale Braulio Carrillo is a spectacular drive. Mountainous and twisty, but very scenic. Coming from Nova Scotia in winter, the greens were magnificent, especially when combined with the huge trees, vegetation with leaves as big as our truck, flowering shrubs and bushes along the road and the occasional blue Morpho butterflies. The Morpho is brilliant iridescent blue, about 6" across, and they flitted back and forth across the highway as we ooohed and aaahed at the vistas and scenery.
As we came down out of the mountains near the town of Guapiles, we saw a sign advertising a "Canopy Ride", 3 km down a little lane to our right. Well, "lane" is not really the right word. Cart track well spattered with rocks like coconuts would be a better description. We discovered that someone had removed the rear springs and shocks from the Diahatsu, and I worried that we were going to be in big trouble trying to call "Roadside Assistance" from this location, but we persevered and soon came out into a clearing with a nice little house. A Tico (what Costa Ricans call themselves) gentleman and his son of 12 or 13 welcomed us and got us geared up. They work on the ranch here, although they don't own it, it comprises several hundred acres, bananas, cattle and some other crops. You wear what is essentially a rock climbing harness, with two lines attached. The first line has a double steel pulley attached to the one end, and the second line just has a carabineer to attach over the cable as a safety line. A leather glove on your left hand is used as a brake by clenching down on the cable. Your right hand holds onto the top of the line near the pulley. We climbed up the practice tower, about 20' off the ground for a test run, and then up the rest of the tower for our first short run to a tree, about 150 feet away. The man would set us up each time and the son would go ahead to make sure we got stopped. Every once in a while you get off at the end of the cable and climb up a rickety ladder another 30 or 40 feet to get a higher perch for your next run. There were 10 or 12 zip lines, and we were zinging through the treetops for about half an hour or more. Much as we wanted to do it again, and try out the senderas (hiking trails) on the property, we were still a long way from our day's destination, so we set off out the cart track to the highway again.
Now out of the mountains and heading more southeast, we drove through lower, flatter country past miles of banana plantations. As we got into the outskirts of Limon, I spotted a likely looking ferreteria ( hardware store) and stopped in to buy a machete and scabbard, which I felt was an absolute necessity. I got a really nice one, not the huge jobby that most of the locals use for almost everything from chopping wood to shaping concrete blocks, but a shorter, scimitar shaped baby, made in El Salvador, with a nicely tooled leather scabbard. A great deal for the equivalent of Can. $15. On into Limon, where we went to a bank machine to get some local currency. Unfortunately, only the Banco de Costa Rica ATMs accept PIN numbers more than 4 digits, and this was a Banco Nacionale. Into the lineup for a teller with my passport for a half hour, a lot of form filling out, and finally got 50,000 colones on a Visa cash advance. It's nice to be able to take out 50,000 in cash and not worry about your bank balance. I was really starting to feel wealthy, until Becky de-flated me with the math......1,000 colones is less than Can $ 4., so the fat wad of bills I had stuffed in my pocket wasn't even 200 bucks.
We turned right in Limon, still headed southeast, headed for our next stop, Cahuita. A few kilometers out of town and we were suddenly driving along with the azure blue of the Caribbean on our left. The flat, but very pot-holed road followed the coast with occasional little forays into the inland jungle..... what a welcome change from home, to drive along the ocean wearing a short sleeved T shirt, the windows down, and a view of palm trees waving in the breeze.
Cahuita is a half kilometer or so off the main road, but was well worth the short visit. This area of the country is peopled primarily by descendants of Jamaicans who came to Costa Rica in the mid 1800's to work on the sugar cane plantations. They speak a very old form of British English as well as Spanish, but with a decidedly Jamaican accent. Bob Marley is the local cultural icon, dreadlocks are predominant, and it is quite easy to imagine yourself many miles to the east on one of the Islands, mon. We strolled around the dusty streets for a while, it's an enchanting place, despite the number of Gringos who appear to have gone local and live here full time. A fair number of tourists too, but thankfully tourists on the low end of the economic scale, no plaid shorted, video camera carrying, sunburned Americanos trying to make the local people understand them by shouting louder in English.
On to our destination, Puerto Viejo, just a few kms. south of Cahuita, a great little village, a fifty- fifty mix of Blacks and Latinos, still a major Caribbean influence. There was the usual string of stalls along the beach in the main part of town, handcrafts like beaded necklaces, locally made jewellery, but everything very laid back. Puerto Viejo gets a growing number of tourists as people are discovering this side of the country. We found a beautiful little cabina, run by a man and woman from France. It had a nice sized main room with two double beds, bathroom with shower AND a toilet seat. I don't know what the whole story is in Latin America about toilet seats, but they either cost a lot to buy, or people steal them, or for some reason they don't last. You have to get into one of the better classes of "habitacione" to get a toilet with a seat. There was even a shower with an electric nozzle. Now I've had these before many times in Guatemala, so I know the "do's" and "don'ts". You set it to the temperature you think you'll get before you get in and turn the water on. You can adjust the volume of the water once you're in the shower, which will regulate the temperature somewhat, but you do not touch the shower nozzle when you're wet. If you do, you probably won't get electrocuted, but you will almost certainly get a very unpleasant little buzzing as you suddenly become the ground for the current.
We went into the village to listen to some reggae while we ate our pollo & papas ( chicken & fries) sopped up a little culture, came back to the cabina and sopped up a local cerveza on our little verandah, and had a visit with the cat and two dogs that live here. All in all, a great first day.
Tuesday March 17 - Puerto Viejo and Manzanilla
We were up with the birds, roosters and dogs by 6:30 and wandered into the village for breakfast, then went back to the cabina to go through the butterfly garden maintained by the cabina owners. There were a number of species, lots of Kodak moments and we got some really good photos of the Blue Morpho.
We then set off for Manzanillo, about 15 km of rough gravel further south, and parked where the road ends. From there, we waded a tidal brook and continued on a trail that went through the jungle with periodic detours along the beach, which was never more than a few hundred meters away. The trail goes through the Manzanilla-Gandoca Wildlife Refuge and eventually comes out at the Panama border. We went in for a couple of hours, although our total distance was probably only 7km each way - there was a lot to look at. Huge trees, flowering shrubs, vines, orchids, hermit crabs scuttling out of the way, parades of leaf cutter ants and the first large lizard family members I'd seen. These were the blackish coloured ctenosaurs, about a foot and a half long, including the tail. There had been little geckos around (and in) the cabina at night, sticking to walls and ceilings and making their little chirping noises. The leaf cutter ants are an interesting species. They are a fairly large ant, with little roads along the forest floor, frequently along hiking trails. The footpath will be covered in leaf litter and twigs, but the leaf cutter ant trails will be worn right down to the bare earth, and are an inch or more in width, so they're fairly distinctive. The "empty" ants are going in one direction, and the "loaded" ants in the other. Each "loaded " ant carries a small piece of green leaf that it has chewed off, roughly a square centimeter. They carry their leaf burden like a small green sail, and a parade of them looks like a long line of miniature windsurfers with green sails. They don't eat the leaves, but bury them in their nest, where a fungus grows on the leaf matter as it starts to compost, and the ants live on the fungus. Regular little compost machines.
We encountered two troupes of Mantled Howler Monkeys, a fairly large blackish/brown monkey that travels in family groups of 6-12 animals. We heard them before we saw them. I had heard them in Guatemala, and Becky had seen lots of them since she'd been here, but they still make the hackles on your neck rise. They're quite loud, and can be heard up to a kilometer away, their vocalizations vary, but often sound like a lion roaring. They sure get your attention. These groups had a few tiny babies clinging to their mothers backs as they swung and jumped from tree to tree. Another film gone.
After we got back to where we had parked the truck, we drove the short way into the village of Manzanillo and had lunch. I had borrowed some snorkel gear at home & brought it with me, but we went to a local snorkel/dive shop to rent some for Becky. Business wasn't too brisk, and we were a while finding an employee, they seemed to be all up on the upper verandah enjoying the local ganja weed. At least that was my impression, but Becky thought that the place was run by an association for the mentally challenged . Whatever. We walked back down the trail for a half kilometer or so where there was a coral reef just offshore. There is a bigger and better reef offshore about 300-400 meters, but we were too lazy to swim out that far, and also too lazy to try and find anyone to take us out there in a boat, although there were signs up all over the village advertising this service.
Regardless, we had a great time cruising the reef for a couple of hours, lots of coral in different colours, sea anemones, different shellfish, and a good selection of brightly coloured fish. The water temperature must have been in the mid 20's, and for most of area, the depth was only 4-10', although the water isn't nearly as clear as it is in the eastern Caribbean. We would be swimming along and suddenly come to an opening in the reef where the depth would suddenly plunge to 25-50', with a white sand bottom. There were lots of caves and openings that you could explore with scuba gear, but we were happy just watching fish and trying to photograph them with our disposable underwater camera.
We tried out the new machete on a green coconut and a pineapple, it seemed to perform to expectations, lazed around the cabina until supper, then went along the road a way to a little internet cafe to send some messages home. The internet service was run a very bright and friendly girl who seemed to be about nine years old. Becky observed that she was certainly not related to the people who ran the snorkel shop.
Wednesday March 19/03- Puerto Viejo north to Pital & Beyond
We loaded up the backpacks and surfboard....this time putting it on the roof rack to allow for more interior space, checked out of the cabina and stopped at Mommachita's soda (a soda is a cafe or diner) for breakfast. Mommachita turned out to be a very tall and spare Jamaican type who makes what is undoubtedly the world's best banana bread. He is also a pretty funny guy. Make sure to stop in if you're passing through Puerto Viejo.
We headed north back along the same roads, past Limon, where truck traffic to and from the port was very heavy. Once we were past Guapiles, the trucks were a lot fewer as the main road to San Jose cuts off there. We were now in new territory for us. In the two months or so that Becky had been travelling around the country, she had covered the entire west coast and some of the central highlands, but the whole of the east coast and the northern part of the country were new to her as well. Plus we travelled much more comfortably in our little air conditioned Diahatsu than she had been used to on crowded, noisy, and often smelly local buses.
We continued north to another, but much larger Puerto Viejo and then turned south and west to the town of Pital. One thing to watch out for when travelling in Costa Rica, you have to know which of several similar named places you want to go to. Numerous villages and towns are named after saints, and the most favoured saints often end up with two or more namesakes.
The pavement ended at Pital, which was a really nice town. Fair sized, and it obviously supports a large agriculturally based area, judging by the number of hardware and farm supply outlets. And, the best part...no tourists. Didn't see a one, although there was a very nice local handcraft outlet that doubles as a tourist bureau. The only place I had made a reservation for before I left Canada was a lodge near Pital. The area is famous around the world with birders, it is very remote, and the Laguna del Lagarto ( Lagoon of the crocodile/caiman) Lodge is the only place to stay in the vast area to the north of Pital. I knew it was near a village named Boca Tapada, and the proprietor of the gift shop pointed us on the right road. The e-mail I had from the Lodge stated that it was about 35km. to Boca Tapada on a "well maintained gravel road", and a further 8 km after that on a "firm" gravel road. Ha, ha, ha.
We literally bounced our heads on the roof of the truck at the breakneck speed of 15-20 km/hr. Becky thought we were in the Kia Sportage commercial from TV, where the alligator guide keeps yelling "Aiieee" as they bounce through the swamp, so the little rental shitbox now became the Aieemobile. Well maintained? It was rocks and potholes, followed by bigger rocks and potholes. About halfway to Boca Tapada we picked up a hitchiker, our third or fourth of the day, and he knew exactly where the Lodge was, which was lucky as there were a couple of unmarked side roads. Everybody in Costa Rica hitchhikes and picks up hitchhikers. Buses stop everywhere...literally, but they're slow, and in areas like this they only run perhaps once a day.
We let our passenger out in the village of Boca Tapada, village being something of a misnomer for the little roadside cluster of huts, made the turn and had to admit that, yes the gravel road we were now on was "firm", due mostly to the fact that it was built entirely of rocks. What was left of the Aiieeemobile's suspension protested vigourously, but we persevered to the Lodge, which is in a beautiful setting, on a hill between two lagoons, surrounded by primary rainforest. We checked in, and then discovered Becky's surfboard had escaped from the roof rack somewhere along the rocky trail. I drove back about 12 km., no sign of it, so returned to the Lodge empty handed and now with even more bruises on the top of my head from the roof. The original trip from Pital had taken almost two hours, and my surfboard search took another hour. If it wasn't for the beautiful scenery along the way, I probably (make that certainly) would have been very grouchy. As it was, we had lots of time to gawk as we bounced past cattle ranches of big soft eyed white Brahma cattle with their huge floppy ears, horses, big sandbars where the Rio San Carlos ran near the road, mountains, and huge tracts of lush green forest with monster trees.
We speculated for a while on what some Tico, wandering home from work on one of the ranches, was going to make of a surfboard lying in the middle of the road, 100 km. from the nearest ocean. Probably go home and make up some wild tale about space alien surfer dudes. Then we got one of the canoes at the Lodge and paddled silently up one of the lagoons. Green, thick looking water with all sorts of aquatic plants, insects of all shapes, colours and sizes skimming along, and birds! Several kinds of kingfishers, little green herons, a purple gallinule, and a dozen other brightly feathered things I couldn't name. We saw our first Jesus Christ lizard, the name given to the green Basilisk Lizards because they actually do walk , or rather run, across the surface of the water. Their big hind feet make little splashes, and their whole rear end and tail waves wildly side to side as they zoom across the surface. We also saw a Tayra, a large relative of the weasel family, about the size of a small fox, black with a brownish head and a fairly thick tail.
The Lodge has a number of rooms along a spacious porch, and a huge open verandah where meals are served. There were two other couples, both from Germany, and the staff, which was comprised of a young couple, both botanists, from Hungary, and a forestry graduate from upper NY state. They work here as volunteers - in return for free room and board they act as guides and wildlife interpreters, and get to do their own field work and research at the same time. The rest of the staff were local Ticos from the surrounding area......very friendly, always with a big smile. The cook, a real character with a handlebar moustache, could get a job in any fine restaurant in any city.
After supper, one of the local guides took us all down to the lagoon to feed the caimans with leftover meat scraps. Caimans are members of the alligator/crocodile family, but smaller, they grow up to a maximum of 6'. They are also shyer, and certainly supposed to be non-aggressive. The guide is shaking food in a plastic bag, calling " Charlie, Charlie....Momma, Momma", and pretty soon Momma comes up to the shore. She might be passive and only 5 ft. long, but she was still an impressive sight. Pretty soon Charlie comes along on the other bank, and the guide tells us to stay still, as Charlie is very cranky. He told me I could come a bit closer to get a photo, and in doing so I slipped on the grassy bank and almost ended up in the water. Both Charlie and I left stains in our underwear! I don't know which one of us was most surprised or scared.
The night noises are wonderful. The geckos are chirping, the bats are squeaking, birds, bugs and animals all adding to the chorus, including some large turkey-like birds in the nearby forest that sound like a 50 lb. woodpecker on speed.
Thursday March 20/03- Laguna del Lagarto
We were up before six and out on the grounds watching the birds. The staff here put bananas, papayas and other fruit in the lower limbs of trees by the side of the verandah, and obviously this is a regular thing, as the birds flock in. Montezumas, a very colourful, noisy crow-like bird, Green Parrots of several varieties, Collarded Aracaris, Keel Billed and Chestnut Mandibled Toucans, different kinds of woodpeckers, honeycreepers and dozens of other varieties of birds in basic brown, brilliant orange, yellows, greens and reds. There are over 50 species of hummingbirds alone in Costa Rica, and you could see four or five different kinds here every five minutes. Over 300 species of birds have been recorded by birders at this Lodge alone. We even saw several pairs of Great Green Macaws and Scarlet Macaws flying over, but too far away to photograph.
After breakfast we set out to hike the 12km of trails that the Lodge maintains through the primary rainforest. It was spectacular hiking, gigantic trees 6'-10' in diameter, with all sorts of vines, creepers and parasitic and symbiotic plants hanging over them. We saw only one small brown snake, but dozens of ctenosaurs, and literally hundreds of the little poison arrow frogs, brilliant red with blue and black legs, they are only about 3/4" long, and hop around on the forest floor unmolested by anything that doesn't want terminal indigestion. The hike led us to a second lagoon, and we stopped to rest for a bit ...it was HOT. There was another old canoe there, but only one paddle, but with the trusty machete, a 5' long stick, a few vines and a bit of some old fibreglass sheeting we soon had a second paddle. Off we set out into the lagoon. The jungle is very noisy to hike in. There are zillions of bugs, cicadas, birds and critters making chirps, squeaks and whistles all the time, but as we started to paddle we heard a very loud humming sound...growing louder as we went. We both saw it at the same moment... a huge swarm of bees leaving the forest and heading out over the lagoon right in our path. Well there are killer bees in Costa Rica, and there are regular garden variety bees too, but we didn't wait for identification ....we just paddled backwards as fast as we could to shore, hauled the canoe up and moved swiftly back along the trail.
When we got back to the Lodge, I checked the thermometer on the shady verandah, and it showed 42 deg. C. No wonder it seemed a tad warm back there hiking through the jungle. It was minus 11 when I left home four days ago, not much time to acclimatize to that sort of change.
After a great lunch of fresh pineapple, mango, papaya, banana and oranges, we decided to explore some back roads in air conditioned comfort. One of the staff told us we could drive down the Rio San Carlos to where it empties into the much bigger Rio San Juan, which serves as the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Off we went, down a horse trail that would have been a good testing ground for an ATV. In a couple of kilometers, we came upon a middle aged Tico,very well dresssed in a white shirt, gray trousers and carrying a briefcase, and hitchhiking. Not that he had any hope whatsoever of a vehicle coming along, but it must have been his lucky day. He was glad to get into the a/c and off we bounced, he and Becky had to get out periodically and guide me through the path of least resistance around the boulders and through the streambeds, and we worked as a trio at a couple of wooden "bridges", re-arranging the planks and logs that served as a deck. It was, to say the least, an interesting drive. We dropped the gentleman off at his very neat little house in the village (again a misnomer) of Boca San Carlos, politely refusing his offer of payment, and continued another few kms to the end of the road by the river. There, we beheld a very crude hand made sign, pointing off on a side track that said "Supermercado 300mts". Strange place for a "supermarket", but you have to investigate these things, so we jounce and bounce our way to the end of this trail, and find a little cantina perched on the side of the river, with a great view across to the forests of Nicaragua. There were three or four local men hanging out at the canteen (TV hasn't reached here yet), and a very small, very snotty faced little guy of three or four. We came to a halt in a cloud of hot gritty dust, got out and sidled up to the counter and ordered "dos coca colas, por favor". The proprietor shoved one arm into the rather ratty looking plastic cooler on the dirt floor of the store, and in among the half melted ice comes up with a couple of cokes. We off the caps, gurgle some in, remark that it's a beautiful day, and set off again in the Aieemobile.
Becky was in hysterics the whole way back to the Lodge, in between bridge and rock duty. It was pretty funny, and would have made a great Coke commercial. Everything in this area comes up the river by boat, including the ice, the coke, and probably 99% of the people. It's doubtful if there are two gringos a year get to Boca San Carlos, and they would likely be naturalists coming in via the river. I can guarantee no white person ever drove up to that canteen and bought anything before. The little boy couldn't get enough of us. His eyes were as big as saucers and his mouth was hanging open. Becky figured that not only were we his first gringos, but may well have been the only people he has ever seen that he hasn't known his entire life.
More thrashing, bumping and scraping for the hour on the way back to the Lodge, where we toured the larger lagoon again by canoe and recorded another couple of brightly feathered species.
At supper on the verandah, the sky quickly began to darken, and we could hear heavy rain coming through the forest long before it got to us. This soon turned into the most intense thunder and lightning storm any of those present had ever seen. Seen? Experienced would be a better word. The thunder was nearly drowned out by the sound of rain in the dense forest, but the lightning was almost continuous, like a strobe light at a disco. At one point I decided to go back to the room to get a shirt, and a bolt of lightning struck by the side of the lagoon, about 75-100 feet away. The noise was tremendous, and the flash was brilliant. Everyone leaped up as one, and huddled on the corner of the verandah by the kitchen with their hearts pounding for a few moments until we ensured ourselves that we were all alive and not on fire anywhere. Our ears were ringing...the noise was almost metallic and reverberating, we were all half blind from the flash, and the smell of ozone and burning was everywhere. The cook came running out with a flashlight and a huge umbrella with a chrome pole....he was going to check and make sure the buildings were all right. As a body, we dissuaded him from going out to a likely death as a lightning rod.
In the past two months, Becky has survived an earthquake in Tamarindo, a minor volcanic eruption at Arenal, a close call with a Fer-de- Lance (world's second most deadly snake) at Pavones, and now a lightning strike; life back home is going to be t pretty dull for her.
Friday March 21/03 - Laguna del Lagarto to Boca San Carlos to La Fortuna
Up again just after dawn to spend more time at the bird feeding stations, then a huge breakfast and off down the bumpy road to Boca Tapada with our guide and a newly arrived couple from New York to take a river trip. The trip was about 2 hours each way, and between our guide and the boatman, they knew every bird, tree and reptile along the banks. We ended up in a small village accessible only by boat, almost directly across the Rio San Carlos from where we did the Coke commercial the day before.
In the middle of the river at one point is a large portion of the fuselage of a fair sized plane, together with some other wreckage. Apparently about 10 years ago or so during the Nicaraguan wars (Sandanistas & CIA, etc.), a plane full of Nicaraguan refugees was trying to fly into Costa Rica by night, but was shot down by rebel soldiers. The pilot crash landed in the river, and the local version of the story has everyone surviving to swim across to freedom in Costa Rica, where they are all living happily ever after. We saw another crop of birds that were new to us, including a King Vulture...very big, very mean looking, a barn owl in a tree, a boat billed heron, etc.etc.etc.
At lunch back at the Lodge, one of the staff appeared with Becky's surfboard, it had been picked up by a farmer along the road, and he figured it must belong to a Gringo, and the only Gringos around would be at the Lodge. He was happy with the reward, and Becky was happy to get her board back, only slightly dinged up from it's perilous trip.
We left the Laguna area with regret, what a fabulous two days. Lonely Planet had described it as one of the most remote and most beautiful areas in the country, and Becky and I agreed. We stopped again in Pital on our way out to get some cash; banking is very serious business here, guards with sawed off shotguns and sidearms at every door. Once past them, there's passports, identification papers, & lots of form filling out.
Leaving Pital we took a few wrong turns but finally got on the road we were looking for and ended up in La Fortuna, a fair sized town with a goodly tourist presence, and got a nice little cabina on the outskirts run by a very outgoing local guy. He is also a bird fanatic and has fruit feeders out....yet more new species for me, at least 5 or 6 brightly coloured little critters I haven't seen before.
We walked the km or so into town for quesoburguesas and papas ( cheeseeburger & fries) and on the way home saw a couple of ticos playing with an armadillo. They said it belonged to them, but we couldn't ascertain if it was a pet, or if it was going to be tomorrow night's supper. Regardless, it was a cute little armor plated sucker. They are sort of leathery/scaly feeling, very harmless with extremely poor eyesight. It could best be described as looking like a skinny pineapple with a pink tail.
Saturday March 22 - A day at Volcan Arenal & La Fortuna
After breakfast we drove to a short trail near town which leads to a spectacular waterfall. It's probably well over 100 feet tall, but at this time of year in the dry season has a fairly small volume. It would have been more spectacular without the dozen or so loud American teenagers, so we didn't linger.
We had to vacate our cabina of the previous night as they were booked up, but we found another great little place right on the river, run by a couple from Kentucky, who are permanent residents here, doing missionary work. After doing some errands around town we drove about 20 km out of town to the Volcan Arenal Observatory and park, where the fellow told us he would let us in free (saving US$6 each) if we came back before his shift ended at 2pm. We zoomed back into town and moved our gear into our new digs and zoomed back to the park, where buddy was still on duty. I think he appreciated the fact that although we were tourists, we weren't obnoxious, and we even spoke Spanish. A little local language skill is very much appreciated by locals here.
We hiked to another great waterfall, and started up a trail called "Old Lava" which leads, funnily enough, to old lava fields. It was a tough hike, and after we had gone in for an hour and a half, we could see we had better turn around or we'd be in there after dark. Not a good place, as the footing was poor, and if you got off the trail, which was faint in some places, you could be there a long time. It was interesting though, as you could hear the constant rumbling of rocks down the side of the volcano almost continuously during the hike. Arenal is in an almost constant state of mini-eruptions, although some days it gets a little more exciting than others. In July of 1968, it underwent a major eruption, wiping out the village of Tabacon. The jungle here was different than at Laguna or Manzanillo, in that at this higher altitude (3000-4000 ft.) there were different tree species, impatiens growing in wild profusion as weeds at every open spot, and every tree was covered with vines, orchids, suckers, ivies and different forms of vegetation. Lots of leaf cutter ants, but no other visible critters.
After the hike, Becky slipped into the pool & hottub ( for hotel guests only) while the attendant went for a break, and then we went into the observatory and watched the seismograph for a while....interesting but not too exciting. By then it was good and dark, and on the drive back to town we pulled over in a couple of locations to watch the hot rocks glowing red as they rolled down the side of the crater. The top of Arenal is almost always obscured by clouds, smoke and mist, but it was still impressive, as were the local fireflies, which were out by the thousands.
Sunday March 23 - La Fortuna north to Los Chiles
We had breakfast sitting on some rocks in the middle of the river outside our cabina, loaded up and were on the road to Los Chiles by 10 a.m. Los Chiles is in the centre of the country, right at the top of the map, only 3 or 4 km from the Nicaraguan border. The Rio Frio runs through the town, out into the much larger Rio San Juan. Upriver 20 km. or so from Los Chiles is the Refugio Nacionale de Vida Silvestre Cano Negro, a wildlife refuge. I had read about Cano Negro in the Lonely Planet, and as it's one of the country's wildlife hotspots, it was high on my list of places to visit, to canoe along the river, and hike the trails in the preserve.
Los Chiles is in flat, arid (at this time of year) country, very agricultural with miles of sugar cane, orange groves and yucca. Unfortunately this was cane harvesting season, and the practice of burning the thousands of acres of cane before it's cut makes the entire area smell lke a forest fire. We drove by people working in the cane fields, as dirty as any chimney sweep would be, hacking cane with machetes in the 40 degree heat. For this they earn the princely sum of 300 Colones per hour, about C$1.10. As a result, Los Chiles is a very poor town, made to seem even poorer by the smoky residue from the burning, the heat and the dryness. It was certainly the poorest area we had seen so far, and reminded me of Guatemala or Nicaragua to the north.
We found a "motel" on the outskirts, with a pool even, after rejecting a couple of seedier looking places downtown right next to the bus stop, where it would be a lot noisier. We took a short tour through town and were harangued along the waterfront by people wanting to rent us boats or take us on a guided boat tour. Unfortunately, this was the wrong time of year to come to this area, the river was very low, and a boat trip would have been pretty short....maybe a couple of kilometers at most. We set out for Cano Negro, which was 20 odd kilometers west on another very rough gravel road.
The "village" of Cano Negro is home to probably no more than a hundred persons, but we found an outfitter set up on the main street, in fact he was the very person our first night cabina owner in La Fortuna had recommended. We arranged to meet him at 7:30 the next morning for a boat trip up the Rio Frio, and headed back to town. Sadly, there are no real hiking trails in Cano Negro. The guide said that since the water levels are so low, a lot of wildlife has been congregating along the river, so we might get lucky.
Our motel turned out to have an a/c unit that barely ran, and smelled when it did run, a toilet that only seemed to have water in it at odd intervals, a pool that hadn't seen a cleaning in many a moon, but the sheets were clean. There was a big wide open bar out in front of the place, with a wide screen TV blaring about "La Guerra en Iraq", alternating with a REALLY stupid game show.
I'm on Immodium and Pepto Bismol full time now, might have been the tomato I ate a couple of days ago ( yeah, I know...stupid!). The plan now is to do Cano Negro tomorrow, and then head off in the afternoon for the town of Jaco, about 200 km south on the Pacific Coast. I can find out from there the status of my return flight, and we'll decide where to go from there after I know how long I'm staying.
Monday March 24 - Cano Negro & south to Jaco
It was a relief to get out of Los Chiles, including the expensive but shitty motel, where the menu listed foods at a certain price, but the actual bill was always for at least 50% more...no explanation, just " things went up."
We were in Cano Negro by 7:30 and met with Ernesto, our guide and boatman. On the short walk to the boat we saw a mother caiman and her half dozen babies lying on the riverbank, so it was an auspicious start.
The boat was a fibreglass rig about 20' long, with a 20 hp outboard, quite narrow, and obviously designed for the river, not the ocean. The trip upriver was amazing. Ernesto knew every bird, reptile and bush in the area, and he knew where to look for them. He would point out a bird or monkey in the trees, and even after being shown where it was I had to strain to see it. Blue Herons, Little Green Herons, Tiger Herons, Boat Billed Herons, Anhingas, Pelicans, Roseate Spoonbills, Plovers, Purple Gallinules, four species of Kingfishers, blah, blah, blah. Another few rolls, Becky is threatening to put me on film rations.
We saw well over a hundred caimans, garfish, catfish and an uncountable number of turtles. At one point Ernesto zoomed the boat into the muddy bank and scooped up a huge river turtle so we could handle it and have a good look. Becky was thrilled, and the turtle didn't look too dsipleased either, so I guess we weren't interfering with nature too badly.
About halfway up the river was a huge sign on the delta, warning that we were now entering a crocodile area, and that they "have an aggressive nature." Just after that we watched a local cowboy on a horse swimming a group of 6 or 8 cattle across the river, but according to Ernesto, the crocodiles here get enough fish and smaller prey that they don't bother the cattle...why risk a cow kick to the head when there're plenty of catfish ? Unfortunately, we saw nary a croc, but Cano Negro is a must do for anybody going to Costa Rica to see wildlife.
On the drive back from the park we stopped along the road to pick up fresh oranges which had bounced off an overloaded produce truck. It's orange harvesting season too. These were juice oranges, not much to look at, but sweet and very juicy. They go well with the pineapples we picked off the road (there by the same reason) on the way from Boca Tapada the other day. As Becky said, if we saw a "yucca trucka" we could have tried some yucca too. As it is we call these free lunches "Ruta Fruta" ( Road Fruit). Helps out with the food budget.
Becky navigated the 100 km or so through the mountains, a job not made easier by the fact that we each have a map...but they're not quite the same. One will show a road going through a town, the other shows it in a slightly different location bypassing the town for example. Or, in some cases the towns have different names on the two maps. It's a full time job figuring out which road you should be on. Driving is a full time job as well, as I have to negotiate the very steep ups and downs, ess curves and narrow roads, maintaining an eagle eye for tractor trailers, bicycles, one lane bridges (at the bottom of every hill on a sharp curve) cows, and other impediments. If there's an especially deep hole, or a broken down truck in the road ahead, locals put a few rocks or a pile of brush out, which acts as a caution flag....but only if you happen to be familiar with the custom. A lot of the time is spent shifting gears, we never got higher than third for the 100 km.
Anyway, we made it through San Ramon, Palmares, Atenas, San Pablo, Drotina and a few other Saints to Jaco ( pronounced Hawko) where we stay tonight. Jaco is a fair sized town with all the amenities, including a Best Western hotel, and it's full of tourists, which it obviously caters to. Lots of trinket stalls, and the usual western curb appeal type of tacky shitholes. Lots of ultra cool California surf dudes too, with their big shorts hanging down past their butt cracks, all tanned and in desperate need of a haircut.
I found out by phone from here that I can get as far as Newark on Sunday March 30, and standby from there, so we have almost a week to play ! Not only that, but I'll be home in time for my root canal appointment on April 2. Wow. We went to an internet outlet, and Becky had an e-mail from her friend Jen, who is now in Mal Pais, a beach area at the southern end of the Nicoya Peninsula, so we plan to go there tomorrow for a few days of surfing, beaching and lazy stuff.
Tuesday March 25/03 - Jaco to Mal Pais
Our night in Jaco was uncomfortable. We had a small room on the outskirts of town, it was hot and very noisy, with dogs, tourists, cars and then the roosters starting before sun up. At one point in the middle of the night I got up and went outside to try & get some fresh air, and our door was being guarded by a Marine Toad...about the size of a rabbit. They're harmless, and they eat a lot of bugs, but any toad that big has a rather menacing look, especially around 3 a.m.
We left Jaco as soon as we got out of the bank, about 8:30 and stopped at a hardware store outside of town for some baling wire to do minor car repairs...the license plate was falling off, and a piece of the plastic fender liner was scraping on the front tire. No charge for the wire, the people here are wonderful, always smiling, willing to help in any way possible. I've even been told my Spanish is very good ! They lie here, too.
On the road north, we were told by some locals to stop at a bridge near the village of Tarcoles, as there is always crocodiles there. Sure enough, we spy a fairly long concrete bridge, with a few roadside stands and a bus and some cars stopped. Yup, them is crocodiles. Holy shit, they are big, and mean looking. There were two groups laying out on the riverbank, half a dozen or eight in each group, and they averaged 12' or so in length. While we were gawking at them, up under the bridge comes what looked like a submerged nuclear sub, but as it surfaced it was obviously the King or Queen of the river, this sucker was at least 16' or so; and wide! The big one was probably almost four feet wide, and had a mouth the Aiieemobile would have fit nicely into. We thought about throwing one of the American Boy Scouts from the bus over to see what happened, but settled for throwing a loaf of elderly fruity bread we had in the car. No feeding frenzy, but they did eat it. Apparently there used to be a guy here selling chickens as well as the guys who are still here selling pipas (green coconuts with the ends cut off and a straw in them) and pinas (pineapples) , but chicken man was absent the day we arrived. That might have been more interesting than the loaf of stale bread. The cows on the downstream riverbank seemed to inherently know what was a safe distance, and there wasn't any way for people to get down from the bridge...probably a good thing.
We waved goodbye to the crocs and Scouts and headed north as far as Puntarenas to get the car ferry across the Gulf to the Nicoya Peninsula. We had an hour and a half to kill waiting for the ferry, so pulled up to a hotel with an open verandah restaurant on the second storey with a nice view, plus we could watch the truck from the balcony, an important consideration in Puntarenas, or as Becky calls it, Poo-in-Your-Anus. She's been here twice before, and both times has seen people get their stuff ripped off. Besides, it does smell bad, it's a port city, fairly large, and like Halifax, discharges it's sewage into the harbour.
We start up the steps to the restaurant, and behind the latticework is the world's largest, blackest, most ferocious dog, right from the Hound of the Baskervilles, and it starts roaring and barking when I'm on the third step up, about 3 feet away from it's gaping maw....talk about heart failure! It can't get out from under the verandah, thank the Lord, but it was scarier than the crocodiles. Our waiter, a very gentlemanly, well dressed older fellow, asks us in Spanish where we're from. "Soy de Canada", we respond, & he asks what part. We tell him Halifax, on the east coast, and he beams from ear to ear and exclaims, " O Alifax, muy linda, muy linda, y Charow-town, muy linda", ( very beautiful). It turns out he used to work for a cruise line in the summer that travelled the east coast of the US and up to Halifax and Charlottetown. It is truly a very small world.
Fifteen minutes before ferry launch and there was still no one in the ticket office. Then everybody shows up at once and mayhem ensues. There are 6 or 8 fellows showing us where to park on the boat, all of them wanting us to park somewhere different, several people selling different sorts of tickets - two well organized people would have had the boat loaded in half the time. Back to Rule # 1 again. We ended up having bought two people tickets and one truck ticket, then discover the driver is included in the truck ticket. Buddy tells us we can get a refund, and he'll look after it, but gives the ticket to one of his friends who is getting on the boat, and then tells us to move ahead, we're holding up traffic. What a pecker-head. Anyway it was only about $3, but another bad blow to the reputation of Poo-in-Your-Anus.
We had a great laugh about the lifeboats on the ferry. There are 250 or more passengers and 30 or 40 vehicles on this rig, it's a fairly big ferry. There are two lifeboats, one made of delaminated fibreglass, the other of very shaky looking rusty sheet metal. Both have big signs on them "Maxima 12 personas". Ok, that's 24 people, what about the other 200 plus? Of course, you would probably have been better off taking your chances with a piece of floating debris rather than getting in a lifeboat, as they were certain to sink immediately on being released from the davits. We had a plan involving Becky's surfboard, but despite the heavy chop and the condition of the ferry overall, we didn't have to put it into action.
We off-loaded at Paquera and set off toward Mal Pais on yet another pot holed, hilly, rocky overland journey, probably only 25 km., but requiring an hour and a lot of bouncing. Mal Pais means bad country, but why it's so named I don't know, it's quite beautiful. Perhaps a name change to Mal Ruta (Bad Road) would be in order. We finally arrived about 5:00 pm and after a few false starts found a beautiful clean little cabin a couple hundred meters from the beach for $25 a night, and the family that owns it has a great little Italian restaurant right next door. Convenience or what?
Mal Pais isn't even a village, just a stretch of road about 5 km in length, a few cabinas, one small quasi-resort, a couple of sodas, an internet cafe and a couple of small supermercados. Now if you're looking for a place to hole up and spend a year writing your memoirs without interruption, this is the place for you. Absolutely gorgeous beach that continues for miles, very warm Pacific breezes, very warm Pacific water, and good surf almost every day. The people who come here are either surfers, a few beach lovers, or have come here by accident having taken a wrong road on their way somewhere else. We can hope it remains "undiscovered" for many years to come.
I just finished doing my laundry, I've discovered the best way is to put a couple of socks over the shower drain, soap all the clothes up with my "Marina Suds" then stomp on the pile for a while with the shower running. I had to get the geckos out of the shower first, they're friendly enough once you catch them, but they can climb pretty quickly, and I didn't want to harm them with the soap.
Wednesday March 26/03 - Still in Mal Pais
I could get to like Mal Pais, if I didn't have thirty other places that I want to see in Costa Rica in the next week. Becky and I spent the morning surfing at the beach just down the way from our cabina. She had her own board and I rented a huge wide sucker that even a cow could surf on. The water was sooo warm...We stayed at it for about three hours, by which time we were both exhausted and the waves had become pretty much slop anyway. We came back to the cabina, then went to the internet cafe here where we paid $2600 (C$8.50) Colones each for an hour of web access. A lot of places we've paid as little as C800/hr. (C$3.00). When you're paying for things in multiples of thousands, everything seems expensive, but when you sit down and do the conversion, most things are very reasonable.
Becky had another e-mail waitng for her from Jen, she was renting part of a house about 2km up the road from us, so we walked along & found her abode by Becky recognizing her orange swimsuit hanging out to dry. They gotta get civic numbers here!
It's very easy to get perturbed, upset and confounded by people and things in Latin America. But when I'm here, I forget how easily I get perturbed, upset, and confounded by people and things at home! Everything here is so different, and when we travel, a part of us wants everything to be the same as it is at home, a seamless transition from one culture to another, forgetting that we travel to foreign places for the very reason that we want to see and experience different things and ideas. Gotta try and always remember Rule # 1.
We collected Jen and the three of us went to another rocky beach between two headlands at the far end of the road. I thought it might be good snorkeling there, as it ws quite rocky, and decided to do a surf swim first to check it out. I made it out through the first set of breakers, then got smashed to the bottom and into the rocks in the next set, my goggles were swept out to sea, and I had a hard time swimming through the ensuing rip back to shore. Duuhh. Swimming in a cove between two rocky headlands is a really dumb thing, as that is where rips always form. Becky and Jen were on the beach watching, thinking I was just acting silly out there! Lot of good they'd be as lifeguards.
Jen went back to her place to cook up a big supper, and Becky and I went for a multi kilometer walk along the main beach....it runs for miles, and in late afternoon when there's no surf, it's almost deserted, except for a few other shell collectors and some locals who wade out to their chests to fish. We watched the sun set over the Pacific, while I thought about all the folks back home shovelling snow and freezing their lily white asses off.
We saw some more Howler Monkeys in the trees along the beach and heard both the mysterious "Alarm Clock Bird" and the even more reclusive " Car Alarm Bird". Well, that might be the name ornithologists call them, but I doubt it. We've never seen either bird, or at least seen them when they happen to be making their calls, but the Alarm Clock Bird sounds exactly like my little battery powered travel alarm, an electronic BEEP BEEP BEEP. The much louder Car Alarm Bird is an aural replica of it's name.
We had a great home cooked supper of veggies and rice at Jen's shared with Jerry the Belgian surfer who is also sharing her digs, and made plans for three of us to set off north tomorrow to the Flamingo, El Coco area, which are the nearest towwns to Parque Nacional Santa Rosa, another hiking destination. The plan is to stay there a couple of days, then I'll head back toward San Jose on Saturday, leaving Jen and Becky at the bus station in Liberia, so they can catch the next chickenbus to Nicaragua. I can't say I'm crazy about these two naive gringa chicas backpacking around Nicaragua, but are they going to take my advice and not go ?...Hell, no, I'm just a worry wart father.
Thursday March 27/03 - Mal Pais north to El Coco
We picked up Jen at 7 am and strapping both surfboards very securely to the roof rack this time, we headed back toward Paquera where we had come in on the ferry a few days ago, then swung north on yet another mass of confusing, dusty, dry, potholed and very rocky roads north toward the village of Carmona, where, at least on the map, the road is paved. The drive was beautiful, at least when I dared take my eyes from the road for a few seconds to look. The Golfo de Nicoya was often visible on our right, and the topography was a continuous moonscape of lava hills, punctuated with occasional small fertile plains, where the Brahma cattle and melon fields alternated with mango orchards. The further north we went, the drier the land became. We were now in the Province of Guanacaste, where most of the cattle ranching in the country takes place, and the forests are classified as Tropical Dry Forest. The leaves were off most of the trees on the hills, and the only green was along rivers or in the melon fields, or other low lying areas. Off in the stark brown hills were occasional brilliant yellow flashes, like bright lights in the night sky. These were some sort of tree festooned with very large bright yellow flowers, they looked something like Magnolia trees, but obviously weren't. We never did discover the name of the trees, but they were certainly gorgeous.
Lots of Ctenosaur lizards and Iguanas scampering across the roads, and a few flat ones which hadn't made it. This was the first road kill we had seen on our entire journey. In this part of the country were more birds we hadn't seen before, including some species of Trogon, about the size of a Blue Jay, multi coloured, but containing a lot of brilliant turquoise. These had a turquoise tail, then an almost invisible black "wire" about four or five inches long, which supported another tuft of bright turquoise feathers. It looked like someone had tied these little feather bunches to their rear ends with a piece of string as an afterthought.
We cruised though Flamingo, El Coco and Hermosa, and really started to wonder what the hell all the fuss is about. These areas are high on the list of "must visit" in everybody's travel guide to Costa Rica. They are brown towns, especially at this time of year, and are being "developed" in the worst way. The towns themselves are getting touristy, still poor looking, but the hills outside are filling up with gated communities of rich westerners, and there are lots of fenced in mansions springing up on the dry lava. Just outside Hermosa, there's a "Greg Norman" golf course being constructed, much to the detriment of a couple of swamps, some great forest and lava hills. The beaches at all the little towns have brown sand, made even more un-appealing by the sewage that flows over them. The worst kind of development possible, and there's even a huge five star resort open now. It defied every environmental law of the country, the Mexican Developers apparently paid off some huge bribes to the previous government, and there is a local furor and numerous lawsuits still going about it. Money is a bad thing, especially when it's all owned by assholes with no regard for anything else!
We shopped for a long time to find a place to stay. Quasi dumps that we would have paid $15 for in other areas wanted $50 for the three of us per night, and the nice places were in the $100 range. Meanwhile, the locals who work there still get $1 /hour. We finally found a really nice hotel owned by a guy from Denmark, who also runs a Spanish school on the property for Danes here on vacation. It had a beautiful clean pool, big, spotless room with a large bathroom, and since they were almost empty, after some bargaining, we got it for $55 a night with breakfast thrown in.
We went down to the beach for a while where we were entertained by a very strange scene. We drove through a small stream and along the beach, which is what we saw other people doing, and came to the end of the beach by a rocky headland, where we offloaded our pineapples, watermelon and other lunch stuff, and set about putting together a beach picnic. We had been at this for ten minutes or so when two policemen walk down from the town and approach, telling us in Spanish that it's very dangerous here, as local thieves sit in the trees up the hill, and will come down and rob you. They felt we were okay as there were three of us, and we had the trusty machete out whacking pineapples, but they said if we went in the water, someone would surely zip down and steal all our stuff. We thanked them, said we weren't going in the sewage laced water, thank you very much, and they strolled along the headland. Just after they left, a rickety old Datsun pickup rolls up behind us, and a middle aged Tico wearing only a pair of shorts and a T shirt gets out, and goes over by the tree line, where there is a cooler and two grocery bags full of something. We had seen this stuff, but figured it belonged to the few local people who were standing out in the surf fishing. Buddy goes over, looks in the bags and cooler, carries them over to his truck and gives them a good rooting through. Then he goes back to the tree line, and picks a single flip-flop out of the crotch of a tree, about 6' off the ground. We were now watching this with some interest. The two policemen have been walking back while this is going on, and they now go over to talk to Buddy at the Datsun. They too riffle through the cooler and the bags, Buddy then carries the stuff back where he found it, wearing the single flip flop, the two policemen climb into the back of the truck , and the three of them drive off. You figure it out...we couldn't. Too much like James Bond for me.
Back at the hotel, I threw some stuff in the wastebasket, then realized I had thrown some money in as well, stuck my hand in to get it and WHAM, got stung on the finger by a scorpion. Now I'm going to die! But not before I take the %$#@&% scorpion with me, I dumped the wastebasket upside down and splattered the sucker with Becky's sandal. I was jumping up and down hollering, Jen came running in from outside and Becky came tearing out of the bathroom to see what the commotion was all about. Becky assured me that the scorpions here aren't deadly, someone she knew had been stung a few weeks previously, their face went numb for half a day and the lymph nodes under their arms swelled up. Not trusting this diagnosis, I went to the hotel desk to see if the scorpions here were the same variety as had bitten her friend several hundred kms to the south. The desk clerk re-assured me that I might get sick, but wasn't likely to die unless of course, I happened to be allergic to scorpion bites, in which case she indicated doom by throwing her hands in the air.
We went downtown for pizza, me figuring I might as well die with a full belly. For about two hours or so I had a real woozy, lightheaded feeling and a very sore finger, but I had the best night's sleep I've had since I've been here. There may be medicinal value in scorpion bites just awaiting further research.
Friday March 28/03 - Parque Nacionale Santa Rosa
Up with the roosters and Howler Monkeys at daybreak, and enjoyed our wonderful fresh fruit breakfast sitting at the pool. Civilization does have it's high points. I found yet another, smaller scorpion hiding in my backpack, but splatted it immediately in total disregard for it's sleep inducing properties. Why take chances?
We stopped on the road in the city of Liberia, a big, modern bustling place and hit a large supermarket for lunch food. Food shopping here is very different. The supermarkets, most of them small, have lots of very basic stuff...rice, beans, beans, rice, pasta, more beans, more rice. Then there are aisles of cookie like items, very sugary, shortbreads, dry sweet pastry stuff, and all the bread is "Bimbo" brand, which gives you a good idea of the texture and consistency. There are really no "healthy" snacks, granola bars, fig newtons, etc, but of course, tons of fruit. Pringles chips are widely available everywhere, for some unknown reason. Chocolate bars of course don't stand up well to the non air conditioned 35 degree heat.We loaded up anyway and got to the Parque Santa Rosa about 10, where the gate keeper, again liking (or pitying) our Spanish accents, let us in free, saving us $6 each. We picked up a young Italian couple on the 10 km drive into the Park, they had backpacked down from Mexico over the past two months.
We left them at the Park Headquarters and started down the 13 km. track to Playa Naranjo, the beach at the end where the hiking trails start. After 61/2 km we decided to walk. The hills were getting steeper, and the track was nothing but a pile of watermelon sized rocks that the Aiieemobile couldn't get any grip on, even in four wheel drive. It was mostly downhill, and hot as blazes, but we took our time, watching for birds and wildlife. In a few months when rainy season is in full swing, this place must be a verdant paradise, but right now it was dry, dry, dry. The swales, swamps and brooks had all dried up, with very interesting tracks baked into the mud around the few remaining waterholes, including some VERY LARGE cat prints, which we assumed to be Jaguar, as they seemed much too large for Ocelot, the next largest of the five wild cat species here. To see a Tapir in the wild has been my dream since my first trip to Guatemala in 1998, but I guess I'll have to wait a while longer. Lots of deer tracks, there is a small Red Brocket Deer here, and also our very own Whitetail Deer, although they too are smaller here than at home. Didn't see any wild pigs, or even signs of them, to my dismay and Becky's relief.... she had a run in with a group of twenty or so in Parque Corcovado a few weeks back, and they scared the hell out of her and her friends. They circled around gnashing their tusks for a while, but wandered off without attacking. They can be pretty fierce, and travel in groups up to 200 animals, and if pissed off, which they get very easily, your best defense is to climb a tree as fast as possible and wait an hour or two 'til they forget about you. Still, I'd like to have seen a few, at least if they were in a good mood. Lots of trees to climb here too.
We finally got to the beach, by now the heat was really getting to us, and we slipped into our swim suits in the tree line. I started off first across the sand the couple of hundred feet to the water, and within a few feet got into a full sprint. The sand was literally burning the bottoms of my feet, and I think I saw steam when I finally got to the welcome relief of the water. I hollered back up the beach, waving my shoes, but Becky and Jen couldn't hear what I was saying above the surf roar, so repeated the 100 yard dash event, which was much more amusing watching it done by someone else than doing it yourself.
There was a good rip going there too, so we played in the surf for a while, and as hot as the water was, it was still refreshing. There were little bright blue jellyfish in the water, but their size wasn't indicative of their sting. Powerful little suckers. We tried several ways of getting wet sand off our feet and getting our shoes on, to no avail. Finally, feeling extremely clever, I dragged a half a log up from the waterline, sat down on it, got one shoe on, and a rogue wave came in, at least 20 ft further up the beach then the previous 5,000 waves, soaking my shoed foot, and washing my log out to sea. We finally sprinted to another log halfway to the tree line and got our footwear on for the short trail to the crocodile lagoon. Luckily for us, there were no crocodiles around, and no other wildlife either, so we started back up the trail we had come in on, making the wise decision that it was waaayyy too hot to do the remaining 10km or so of trails.
It was now well after lunch, our lunch by the way was still in the truck, we had 61/2 km to go, uphill and we were fast running out of water. It was a long, very hot, walk back. We were all getting a little strange from the heat, and tunnel vision, dry mouth and lips weren't good signs. Wherever there was a little bit of shade there was also a particularly hungry and virulent species of mosquito or some other miserable painful itchy biting little insect, so we couldn't even rest in the shade. You could almost feel yourself cooking inside your own skin. We unanimously agreed that none of us had ever felt heat like this. The little red Aiieemobile was a very welcome sight, and the a/c unit was even more welcome. We fantasized and hallucinated on the very slow drive out over the boulders about what kind of cold drinks we would get at the nearest tienda (canteen).
We finally arrived back in El Coco, re-hydrated from our several tienda stops, showered and ate what should have been our lunch sitting around the pool, Becky and Jen enjoying the shade and me enjoying all the Danish babes from the Spanish school playing in the pool in their little european bikinis. We discovered that it was a record breaking day...51 degrees Celsius. No freakin' wonder we were hot!
Saturday March 29/03 - El Coco north to Liberia, south & east to Alajuela
After our hotel breakfast we went into the village & bought Becky and Jen a Lonely Planet book for Nicaragua. I felt marginally better knowing that they would at least have some good un-biased information on the areas they would be travelling through. I did a little souvenir shopping and back at the hotel we re-packed, me getting rid of most of my first aid supplies to Becky and Jen, and Becky off loading a bunch of clothes and stuff she was sick of hauling around. My backpack was now 15 lbs heavier than when I arrived, and all I had bought was a tank top and a few bags of coffee. We loaded up the truck again and headed for the bus station in Liberia.
As a gesture toward western civilization, we splurged and had lunch at the Liberia Burger King, where apart from not being able to drink the water or fountain pop, things were pretty much the same as at any Burger King anywhere, lots of grease and lots of kids. I left my only daughter and her friend at a dirty bus station in a second world country headed for a third world country! It was a sad goodbye. Becky will be home mid May, assuming she survives Nicaragua and whatever else the cities and jungles have to challenge her. Jen leaves for home in two weeks. I slipped Becky a goodly supply of Colones so they can at least stay in as decent a place as they can find in Nicaragua, I've never been a fan of hostels, and campgrounds in Nicaragua are not the safest places on the planet. They can get the Colones changed into Cordobas or Coconuts or whatever the Nicaraguan currency is at the border. They're independent little suckers, they have a budget and an agenda and want to stick to it, but fathers can be stubborn too.
I stayed on the InterAmericana, (the highway that runs from Texas to the Panama Canal) all the way to Alajuela near San Jose, roughly 200 km from Liberia, picking up the occasional hitchhiker. The first 120 km or so were rough, potholed pavement, with fairly heavy traffic, but once past Esparza, the route got into the mountains, the road narrowed and the heavy trucks were labouring up the steep winding hills, and traffic literally went at a walking pace. Every once in a while a local "idiota" in an old rattletrap would pull out and pass a long line going uphill around a blind corner, but whether these fools were under divine protection or just plain lucky, nobody got killed. Oh sure, some squealing brakes, and cars almost being squeezed into the ditch quite often, but nothing serious.
I was looking for a small hotel I had called the night before, in the village of El Robles, which I knew was four km. north of the airport. I had decided that Alajuela was a better place for my last night than San Jose...anywhere was better than San Jose, even sleeping at the airport in the little Aiieemobile. I never did find El Robles, and the couple of people I stopped to ask near the outskirts of Alajuela had never heard of it either. I just kept on trucking, and as luck would have it as I was driving past the airport, I spotted the Thrifty Rent A Car shuttle bus at a red light, and followed it right back to the Aiieemobile's home base. The nice folks at Thrifty went over the truck looking for new dings among the many that were there to start with, and then drove me to my hotel gratis...it was only 10 minutes away.
The hotel is in a residential neighbourhood, a really nice locally owned operation. The whole family works at it. The two older sons run the hotel, Mama cooks, the daughters do the waitressing and the maid work, and a cousin runs a shuttle service to and from the airport. Great people, friendly and only too willing to do whatever you ask. They paracticed their English and I practiced my Spanish, and we had a wonderful conversation.
Sunday March 30/03 - Alajuela north to Newark and Halifax
Breakfast at 6, & off to the airport at 7, where I got sucked in on the sidewalk by an "official", uniform and all, who sold me the mandatory stamped "departure tax" card for US $16. Once in the long line at the Continental counter, one of their personnel comes along to make sure we've all bought these cards. I, and several other people, have bought them from some bogus con man who has bought a uniform of some sort from the local version of Frenchy's. Back out on the sidewalk, they to buy their card from the authorized person, who of course is in the " Departure Tax" booth (Duhhh), me to find Mr. Con Man and get my $16 back, meanwhile hauling him by the collar of his fake uniform to the nearest policia, of whom there are lots around. When I got out there, there was already a couple of airport security guys looking for him, one of whom gave me a "real" card in exchange for my bogus one, which I thought that was a pretty decent gesture, minimizing tourist displeasure.
The rest of the day was uneventful. Five and a half boring hours stuffed into a miniature seat, then the mass confusion and idiocy of customs and immigration at Newark, then a quick trip to Continental to see if there were any seats to Halifax. The agent in San Jose had booked my luggage right through and given me a standby boarding pass, so that saved me some bother. I went up to the gate, even though the flight was overbooked, and got lucky when a half dozen confirmed fliers never showed up on time. Home in Halifax at 8:30 pm, and the guy at customs who started to go through my bag gave up when his backup didn't come back from coffeee break on time, so I even got my machete through!
It was a great trip. I love the countryside, the trees, the jungle, the birds and animals, and the people are wonderful, except for the few con men and thieves. The towns and cities are depressing. The dirt poor places like Los Chiles are somehow not as bad as the tourist shitholes like Jaco, or the upscale western development around Hermosa. At least Los Chiles is genuine in its poverty and dirt. Then again, I find towns and cities everywhere pretty depressing. Been to Toronto or Glace Bay or Shelburne lately ?
Costa Rica is light years ahead of the rest of Latin America economically and environmentally. They're light years ahead of Nova Scotia and Canada environmentally in many respects. I didn't see any degree of clearcutting, just very selective logging; over 25% of the entire country is under some sort of environmental protection, be it National Park, refuge or other form of protected area, and the government is actively discouraging large scale tourist development. There are very very few big resorts, and any proposed new ones will face a strong uphill battle. The government is trying to encourage local people to run small businesses, start tour companies, open B&B's etc. Former poachers and trappers are being paid to be guides in the National Parks, it's a much safer and predictable living for them, and they know where all the game is too. There is no social safety net, which we in Canada look at as a bad thing, but not having the net means everybody is working at something because they have to earn a living, not sit around and wait for the welfare or pogey cheque to come in.
We in the west think we have the best of everything, and materialistically we do, but there are so many things in Central America that are better than here (including the climate). People aren't all tied up about money, or who owns what. They work at whatever they can, they hope for something better in many cases, but they don't sit around bemoaning how the system has let them down, or expecting society to look after their every whim. They're much more accepting and happy with their station in life. Family is more important, kids, grandparents, whoever; it's always a celebration. A two week trip to the third world should be mandatory for high school students, it would show them how most of the world has to live, and possibly help to foster a generation of gentler souls.
After two weeks and 2200 kilometers, I've had a quick look at about half the country. The other half is on my "soon" list, and there are places I want to return to, but first I have to get my gastro-intestinal tract back in operating order, stop itching, and have a little time for the welts to heal.
Emails from Costa Rica
Hola Amigos - de Costa Rica
Tuesday March 18
This message is coming to you from somewher near Manzanillo, on the
southeast coast of Costa Rica. Other than hating airports and flying in
general, I got here fine. The scariest experience I've had so far was in
pirate taxi from SJ airport to the hotel....we drove every back/slum
in town & had a front row seat with the windows down for a knife fight on
the sidewalk while we waited for a red light to change. Latin American
cities ar all noisy, overcrowded, full of diesel smoke, & unsavoury
Becky was at the hotel when I arrived, & it was getting on for 2 am
time, so we just jabbered for a while & sacked out. Her friend Jen is now
surfing in Panama, so there's just the two of us. Up at 7, breakfast,
another interesting cab ride involving much negotiation & haggling back to
the aeropuerto to pick up my rental shitbox; & then we hit the road east
toward the Caribbean coast. The rental shitbox, a Diahatsu 4x4 has seen
better days, & we have already given it a severe workout, I don't think
there are any rear springs left after some of the holes we've been
through...and Becky says the roads here are better than the west coast.
Hitting the road was the easy part, finding the right roads to hit was
somewhat more difficult due to the shortage of road signs, & un-named
villages, but we eventually got in to the mountains where the road
one of the larger national parks. Spectacular driving up & then back
down--very lush vegetation, superb lookoffs, monstrous trees. We came out
the park into miles of banana plantations, & took a diversion 3 km up a
rocky track to a private hacienda that offers hiking trails and a treetop
The ride was great, you wear a getup similar to a rock climbing harness,
climb waaay up a platform, clip on a pulley & go singing across space from
the top of one huge tree to another.Every once in a while you have to
up from your landing spot on a rickety ladder to a higher part of the tree
for your next flight segment. I could do this for days. Wow. You have a
glove on your left hand which acts as brake, should you build up too much
speed. Unfortunately, we still had miles to go before dark, so passed up
hiking trails & headed for Puerto Limon on the east coast, then south to
Cahuita, which is a very different little town--like stepping across a few
thousand kms of ocean, as the people here are all black descendants of
Jamaicans who came here to work over 100 years ago. Caribbean food, reggae
music, dreadlocks, and the languge is a mix of Spanish and old British
english with a Jamaican accent. We stayed there for a while & then drove
Puerto Viejo for the night, where we got a great little cabin.
Today we drove as far south as the road goes, to Manzanillo, where we
about 10 km into a preserve. This trail will take you to Panama, but we
decided 10 km in the 35 deg. heat was sufficient. Lots of vines, monster
trees, every kind of vegetation imaginable. Tons of little lizards
along the paths, hermit crabs everywhere...no snakes though. We
two fair sized troops of howler monkeys, and if you've never heard them,
you'll run out of the woods long before you see them. The males make a
that probably sounds much like a male african lion roaring at close range.
I'd heard them in Guatemala, but they still make your hackles rise. Got
about 100 monkey photos.
We wandered back into the small village of Manzanillo for lunch, & then
snorkeled on the coral reef there for a couple of hours. I'm hoping my
disposable waterproof camera worked as there were lots of varieties of
& coral & undersea plants. Suitably salty, thirsty & tired we drove back
Puerto Viejo where we tested out my new machete on a fresh pinapple. It
worked well in the jungle on the green coconuts, so I guess I'll keep it.
made a special stop yesterday at a hardware store in Limon to get it.
Absolute necessity here to have a machete! Used my Visa card in a bank
too....kinda neat to take out 50,000 in cash & not worry about your bank
balance. That's 50,000 colones, unfortunately, which is $300 Canadian.
Tomorrow we're heading north to Boca Tapada, where a river I've forgotten
the name of runs out into the ocean near the Nicaraguan border. We plan to
stay there for two days, hiking & canoeing. There are supposedly
in the lagoons there, lots of monkeys & other wildlife. So much to
little vacation. I'll try & write from Boca Topada, barring unforseen
incidents with the crocodiles, or losing the Diahatsu in a REALLy deep
Two thumbs up so far!
Jungle trails, rivers, toucans, heat stroke, poison frogs and lightning strikes
It´s been a VERY busy few days. We left Puerto Viejo-Manzanillo on Wed. am
and travelled north and inland through Siquirres, Guapiles, another Puerto
Viejo and eventually reached a town named Pital in the north northeast of
the country. The only reservation I had made before leaving was a Lodge
here,near a village called Boca Tapado about 35 km from Pital. The Lonely
Planet described it as being as remote a place as anywhere in the country.
Becky and I agree! Remote perhaps, but also spectacular. The road was 35
of testing ground for an ATV or 4x4. We kept pretending we were in the Kia
Sportage commercial and yelling Aieee every time out heads hit the roof of
the truck. After almost 2 hours )for35km)we reached the Lodge, and
Becky´s surfboard had escaped from the roof rack en route.
around the lodge and took a canoe out in the lagoon and saw about 2 dozen
species of birds. After supper one of the guides took us to the lagoon to
feed the caymans... throwing chicken guts to ¨Charlie¨who is about 6 ft.
long. I almost slipped in from the grassy bank, but I think it scared
Charlie at least as much as it scared me.
The next morning we got up at dawn and took a couple rolls of film of
toucans )three kinds), green parrots, scarlet macaws and great green
plus a lot of other species. There are also almost a dozen different kinds
of hummingbirds there. The lodge puts out fruit every morning to attract
birds and wow, does it work. A toucan can skin and eat a banana faster
After breakfast we trekked the 12 km. of jungle trails through
rainforest, thousands of poison dart frogs, tiny little red guys with blue
legs, lots of lizards, bazillions of different kinds of bugs, only a few
species that liked Gringo fortunately, but only one small snake. During
hike we came to another lagoon where there was a canoe but only one home
made paddle. We took a break and used my new machete and some sticks and
vines to make another paddle and started out into the lagoon. Within a few
meters of shore we both noticed a very loud persistent buzzing sound and
then saw a huge swarm of thousands of bees moving rapidly from the forest
into the path of our canoe. Engines full reverse back to shore and
ship. Resumed hiking. The rain forest is extremely loud and noisy even
without the bees. Millions of chirping, singing, sqawking insects, and
once in a while something unseen goes crashing through the underbrush,
to get your heart rate up a bit.
It seemed pretty hot in there, and when we got back to the Lodge the
thermometer on the shady verandah was reading 42.C. Minus 10 to plus 42 in
four days. I can honestly say that for once in my life I was too hot. In
afternoon we took the Aieee! mobile exploring on back roads, which were
equivalent of a rocky path. A couple of times we had to stop and adjust
broken wood planks across streams, and Becky and our elderly Tico
hitchhiking passenger would get our and guide me through the stream beds
We eventually made it to the Rio San Juan, which separates Costa
Rica from Nicaragua. Our passenger was extremely thankful for us saving
a 15 km walk in the plus 40 heat and even offered to pay us for the ride.
declined as it appeared he needed the cash more than us. At the end of the
road, there was a canteen ! This location is about as far from ANYWHERE as
you could imagine. The total population of the preceding 20 km of rock
strewn horse trail and the ¨village¨where the canteen was would probably
total less than 50 people. Sales are probably not too brisk here, even in
the week preceding Christmas. We stopped and bought a coke from the
proprietor, much to the amazement of the four or five locals and one very
young boy who were hanging out. I´m sure we were the only gringos to ever
appear in this part of the world, and certainly the first people outside
his immediate family the child had ever encountered.
pleasantries as best we could, drank our cokes and disappeared back
the dusty boulders, leaving the boys at the canteen to scratch their heads
and mutter about loco gringos. Becky was hysterical about this whole scene
all the way back. An hour and a half and 20 km later we arrived at the
Lodge and spent the remainder of the afternoon paddling the main lagoon by
the Lodge and then collapsed into a heat and single beer induced coma
supper. The Lodge main verandah is where all the guests )4 others) and the
staff have dinner, and just as we started to eat, you could hear and see a
storm coming up the river. We could hear the rain in the forest at least a
kilometer before it reached us. It was the most spectacular thunder and
lightning storm either of us has ever experienced. The sound of the
was almost drowned out by the sound of the rain in the forest, there was
mm of rain in just under two hours.
The lightning was a continuous
like a strobe light, a spectacular show. At one point I went off the
verandah to go to the room and there was the loudest metallic crash and
reverberation I´ve ever been close to. A bolt of lightning struck about 50
feet from the other side of the verandah, and everyone jumped as one and
clustered behind the corner of the kitchen until their heart rates came
to somewhere approaching normal. You could smell cordite and ozone for
a few minutes, and everyone was laughing unconvincingly and trying to
pretend they hadn´t just left bad stains in their underwear.
This morning we were up at dawn again and took another roll of film )6 so
far) and drove a couple of kms to get on a 3 hour boat ride upriver on the
Rio San Carlos to where it runs into the Rio San Juan...almost the exact
place we had driven to yesterday. Spectacular boat trip, vultures, herons,
egrets, kingfishers, owls, bats,iguanas....no crocs unfortunately,
there are lots in the river. We stopped in another little riverside
for yet another coke, looked across the San Juan into Nicaragua again and
boated back...past the wreckage of a fair sized plane that was shot down
rebels in the Nicaraguan Civil War about 10 years ago. The pilot crash
landed in the river with about 30 refugees escaping Nicaragua, apparently
they all survived the crash and swam over into Costa Rica, and hopefully
lived happily ever after.
We left the Laguna-Boca Tapada area with regret, and are now in La
where we plan to hike to a waterfall tomorrow, and hopefully see Volcano
Arenal spitting out magma tomorrow night after dark.Becky was here the
couple of days she was in the country, so she´s showing me the local
So far this whole country is enchanting. Much better off economically than
Guatemala, people are very friendly, and the scenery and wildlife are more
than I could have hoped for. Fresh pineapple, bananas, cantaloupe,
papayas, oranges, watermelon daily ! Yum. I miss my friends, but I think
might stay an extra week or two. Sorry for the super long e'mail, but it
seems like we´ve been doing a lot, and even at that I´m sure I´ve
a few things.
Pura vida, amigos.
PS A local farmer found Becky´s surfboard in the road, and figured either
someone at the Lodge must have lost it or it dropped from an alien space
ship, so we got it back, and he was happy with the reward.
Ruta Fruta & Yucca Truckas
Monday, March 24
Seems like the last e-mail was from La Fortuna. Anyway, we spent Saturday in
the La Fortuna/Volcano Arenal area, hiked to two spectacular waterfalls, the
first would have been more spectacular without the dozen or so American
teenagers, but it was still nice. The second waterfall is in the Volcano
observation area, and we also did a very demanding hike to an old lava flow,
we went in about an hour and it was getting dark so we headed back out. The
jungle gets very dark very fast, and the climbing was pretty tough...no
place to be after nightfall. The flora in this area was amazing...every tree
supports another bunch of plants, orchids, vines, suckers, fungus, and very
dense. There are leaf cutter ants everywhere, they keep little 1" -2" wide
trails clear to the earth in the main footpath, which is otherwise covered
in twigs and leaf litter. They travel in a continuous line of thousands,
each with his burden of about a square centimeter of green leaf held
upright, swaying back and forth, like a miniature army of green sailed
windsurfers. While we were hiking we could hear all the mini eruptions and
hear the rocks rolling down the side of the volcano, probably about 1km
away. When we got back to the observatory area, we looked at the seismograph
for a while, the volcano is mildly active 24/7/365, and then drove back to
the town of La Fortuna, about 20 km away. There were several spots along the
way where we stopped & watched the volcano spitting fireworks into the night
sky, the hot rocks rolling down the mountain looked like taillights of cars
climbing up. The fireflies in the fields were putting on an equally good
Sunday we got up late & headed for Los Chiles, which is where the road ends
in the north central part of the country. There is a cart track for an
additional 2 km to Nicaragua, but no point in going there. This area of the
country is very agricultural....miles of sugar cane, orange groves, and
yucca plantations. We were eating free for a couple of days, from what we
started calling Ruta Fruta (road fruit). There were dozens of pineapples on
one road for about a kilometer that had fallen off a truck, and we picked up
a half dozen oranges on another road dropped by the same means. We didn’t
see any Yucca Truckas so we only ate oranges & pineapples. (sorry, couldn’t
resist). The overloading of the produce trucks and the large potholes
provide a good bounty for us scavengers.
Los Chiles is really the end of the earth. A border town, very poor, smelly
from burning the underbrush off thousands of acres of cane, flat, boring
scenery, and a generally grubby third world sort of place. We came here to
hike in the Cano Negro wilderness and canoe on the Rio Frio, a winding river
with numerous swamps and lagoons. Cano Negro turned out to be about 25 km of
very rough rocky road from Los Chiles, and there are no hiking trails there,
unless you happen to be a heron or a muskrat. We made an arrangement late in
the afternoon to hire a guide for today & do the river by boat....no canoes
here either. One thing that was available was some sort of foreign bacteria,
which my digestive tract seemed to take exception to, but in anticipation of
jsut such situations, I have really good drugs in the handy old first aid
Anyway, we left Los Chiles at 6:30 this am & bounced our way back to Cano
Negro & met Ernesto, the guide, & on the short walk to his boat we saw a
mother caiman and a bunch of babies. It was an auspicious start, we saw more
wildlife in the next few hours than we could have hoped for. For those
unfamiliar, a caiman is a member of the crocodile family, they grow up to
about 6' long. During the 4 hours in the boat we must have seen several
hundred, all sizes, swimming in the river, lying on the banks, & generally
being lazy. We also saw hundreds of turtles, and at least 50 or 60 species
of magnificent birds....roseate spoonbills, green herons, tiger herons, 3
kinds of kingfishers, blah, blah, blah. Catfish and garfish jumping in the
water, lizards on the riverbank
I’ve now used up 10 rolls of film…Becky is threatening to put me on rations.
We got out of Cano Negro just before noon, and got as far from Los Chiles as
possible as fast as possible. Becky navigates while I drive. Neither job is
easy. We have two maps, but they don’t necessarily agree on where the roads
go…through a town or near it or even if the road is shown on one map, it may
not be on the other. The signage is pretty good, but they don’t necessarily
put them up in town., just out on the main roads. Today’s driving was only
about 200 km. total, but we were about 51/2 hours. About 100 km of it was
like repeatedly going up and down North Mountain, we never got above 3 rd
gear, lots of time in second, and occasionally into low to climb a hill
after coming to a virtual stop at a sharp turn at the bottom. A real thrill
when we met the occasional tractor trailer…there’s barely enough room to
meet, and on some turns and all the hundreds of bridges, it’s one skinny
lane. The views were spectacular, when I dared to look. Anyway, Becky got us
to where we are now…Jaco, on the Pacific Coast.
Jaco is a California surf dude/tourist shithole. Definitely a one night
stand for us. Stephanie, the world’s best travel agent has managed to
finagle the airlines into letting me arrive back home on April 3, so we have
another week and a half. Tomorrow we’re heading off across the Golfo de
Nicoya to the Nicoya Peninsula for a couple days of lazy beach stuff, swim,
snorkel, read, sleep, and plan out the rest of the trip…then probably north
again to the Santa Rosa wilderness area on the north Pacific border of
Nicaragua, and maybe a day in the Monteverde cloud forest. Who knows?
Oh yeah, heard you got some more snow at home. I’d complain about how it’s
too hot to leep at night here, but there’s probably not going to be a lot of
Crocodillos / Bad Country / Good Surf
Sorry I haven´t replied to all of you who have sent me e-mails since I´ve
been here. There´s not internet service everywhere, & it´s very slow, so I
just try & get a group e-mail out when I can.
We´re just back from a couple of hours of surfing at the beach at Mal Pais
(Bad Country). We decided to come here after Jaco, as it´s pretty secluded,
miles of beach & no souvenir shops. (Jaco is like a mini Miami Beach, enough
to make you give up travelling.) The only people who come here are hard core
surfers or people who took a wrong road on their way somewhere else. The
only excitement in Jaco was when I went out into the courtyard of our little
(operative word)motel in the middle of the night (too hot to sleep), our
door was being guarded by a toad about half the size of a rabbit. We nodded
at each other, but neither of us wanted to start anything so we contented
ourselves with mutual scrutiny for a while.
On our way from Jaco we stopped at a bridge in a little area called
Tarcoles, where some locals told us there were crocodiles in the river.
Becky has been dying to see a croc since she´s been here, and we´ve missed a
couple on our river trips, as they dove before we could get a good look.
Anyway there were 12 or 15 of them on the banks of this river, laying out in
the sun. They varied from about 8 ft to 12 or 14 ft long. The up under the
bridge comes what looks like a nuclear submarine, until it crawls up on the
bank....all the other crocs moved over for this guy, definitely the king of
the river. It had to be well over 16 ft long and four ft. wide. and you
could put a small car in his mouth when he opened it. We had a big loaf of
stale bread with us & threw hunks down to them, I think they get lots of
fish here, but they ate the bread anyway, unfortunatly no feeding frenzy.
Some local enterprising fellows had pushcarts set up by the bridge selling
coconuts, etc., but the guy who used to sell chickens to feed the crocs has
apparently been outlawed.
We motored on to Puntarenas, a port city of 50,000 on the mainand side of
the Gulf of Nicoya where we had an hour and a half to wait for the car
ferry. Dirty city. Anyway we had lunch at a bar-hotel, where our very
gentlemanly elderly waiter, when discovering where we were from, informed us
that in the summer months he works on cruise ships that come to Halifax and
There were only two lifeboats on the ferry, both with signs "maxima 12
personas"...I wouldn´t have put out into Lake Banook in either of them.
There were bout 250 people and 30-40 cars on the boat, and a hell of a chop
on. We were going to rely on Becky´s surfboard if the ship started to
sink....and there was every indication that this was well within the realm
of possibility. It was about an hour and a half trip, but all made it
The 50 odd km. from the ferry terminal to Mal Pais was almost un-driveable,
very steep, windy, loose dusty garvel with giant potholes and we needed
first gear on most hills to try & get enough traction. Anyway we landed here
about 5 pm, watched the sun set over the Pacific & settled into a nice clean
little cabin run by a local family.We´ll stay here until tomorrow but
haven´t figured where we´re off to then. Becky´s friend Jen is in Mal Pais
right now too, & we´re trying to get together with her later today. Mal Pais
itself isn´t even a village, just about 5 or 6 km of road along the beach
with a few little cabinas to rent, a soda (cafe) or two,and a little general
store. A good place to hole up & write your memoirs.
Gotta hit the surf for a while longer.
Mal Pais with "no time to lose"
I'm losng track of time, but I think we were in Mal Pais the last time I
e/mailed. Anyway, we hooked up with Becky's friend Jen there, the 3 of us
went swimming, or tried to, at a rocky beach near the end of the road...I
made it out into the swell, got smashed by a wave into some rocks, lost my
goggles and decided that walking on the beach might be a safer activity. We
later went back to our cabina to visit with Roxanne, the humunguous iguana
that hung around the cabin, and then went to Jen's for a great home cooked
supper. She had been renting half a house with a gas burner, and a
Jen decided to come north with us for a couple of days, and we all headed
out about 7 on Thurs. morning, three people, mucho backpacks and two
surfboards strapped on the roof of the Aieemobile. We headed for El Coco, it
is supposed to be very beautiful, and one of the closest place s to Parque
Nacional Santa Rosa, where we wanted to hike. The whole El Coco, Flamingo,
Panama Beach area is highly touted, but I certainly can't undersrtand why.
The beaches are small with brown sand, lots of garbage, and a lot of very
expensive US development taking place, which has driven the prices up. You
can buy an acre of land here for US $50,000, and there are many swanky homes
on the hills around. They're bulldozing some dry forest and lava hills to
make a Greg Norman golf course. Just what every place needs...a freaking
golf course and a few gated communities, while the locals can't afford to
After much hotel shopping we found a really nice place at an off season
rate, owned by a guy from Denmark, who runs a little Spanish school for
Danish people along with the hotel. It even has a pool!
I managed to get stung by a scorpion last night while trying to retrieve a
receipt from the wastebasket in our room......I guess I'll live, I was a
little woozy for an hour or so, but otherwise no ill effects. Since I've
been here I think I've missed out on being stung or bitten by only a wild
pig, a crocodile, or a snake. Otherwise, I've been sampled by a scorpion,
chiggers, ticks, a bee, and a variety of gnats, mosquitoes and other hungry
We went to Santa Rosa this morning, drove in as far as the Aieeemobile would
take us, and hiked the 6 1/2 km from the truck down to the ocean. Santa Rosa
is tropical dry forest, and dry is the operative word at this time of year.
All the streams and swamps are just baked mud and supposedly the animals
congregate around the few remaining waterholes. We discovered another form
of virulent mosquito, and one white faced monkey, a few birds and lots of
iguanas, but that was it. Some VERY large cat tracks in the mud around the
waterholes though, so probably not a good place to be at night.
The heat here today is record breaking, over 50 degrees. We went in the
ocean as soon as we got to the end of the trail, after literally burning the
bottoms of our feet on the sand running from the woods to the edge of the
water. There was a bad rip tide and little blue stinging jellyfish (more
bites( but it was refreshing. Then 6 1/2 km back to the truck...uphill.
There were times when we figured we were going to pass out from heat stroke,
I've never felt heat like this, no shade either as almost all the foliage is
off the trees. In another 4/6 weeks when rainy season is in full swing, this
area will be super lush. Even with the dryness, there is a type of large
tree scattered around the hills that has brilliant yellow blooms, they look
like bright lights in the arid brown background.
We all split up tomorrow. Jen is off to Nicaragua for a week, Becky may go
with her or head back down to the Tamarindo area for a week's surfing. She
will be going to Nicaragua later anyway with her friend Sunny who is
teaching in a little village in the north of Costa Rica quite near the
Nicaraguan border. Becky and Sunny plan to go into Nicaragua by boat up the
Rio San Juan and across Lake Nicaragua, then Becky will go on from there to
Tortuguera on the east coast of Costa Rica, again by boat, and down into
Panama for a week before she heads home around the middle of May. She's a
lot braver than I am, I wouldn't go to either Nicaragua or Panama without at
least a shotgun, but most of the backpacker types here travel these routes
all the time with no problems. I guess I'm just a worrying father. I head
for Alajuela tomorrow, near San Jose, to catch a plane Sunday morning for at
least as far as Newark. Looks like an overnight in Newark and home on
Monday, but I'm hoping for a standby seat to Halifax late Sunday.
I think I'm Central America'd out for a while. I love the natural side of
the country, the landscape, the oceans, mountains, the flora and fauna, and
the people are really friendly, but I find the towns and cities very
depressing. I don't know which is worse, places like Los Chiles where the
poverty and dirt is overwhelming, or towns like Jaco which have become the
worst kind of scuzzbag tourist holes.
Besides, I itch everywhere, am covered in welts and my digestive sytem has
certainly seen happier times. But.....it's been a hell of a trip, and really
great to spend a couple of weeks with my kid, who I just happen to be very
See you all soon.