January 01, 2012
New Years Greetings!!
January 1, 2012 in America The Free, Europe, Holidays, Magic Sauce Media, New England, New York, On Africa, On Australia, On China, On Costa Rica, On East Africa, On Fiji, On France, On Germany, On India, On Italy, On Japan, On South Africa, On Spain, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
December 25, 2011
Christmas in Every Language & Customs Around the World
Language is one of the most powerful things we have and when we can't communicate with someone because we don't know their language, we rely on hand gestures, hugs, expressions and the most universal ones: smiles when we're happy, tears when we're not.
I've spend the holidays in several countries over the years including India, Thailand, Australia, Mexico, South Africa, England, the Netherlands, Israel, France and a few places I'm sure I'm forgetting. Celebrations obviously differ even when you're celebrating within the same culture or religion. Jewish friends in New York buy a Hannukah bush, others don't honor it at all. If you've grown up in New England or northern Europe, snow often comes with Christmas and it becomes an association for you. If you live in Australia or Africa, chances are you've never had a white christmas.
Brazilians have a tradition of creating a nativity scene or Presepio, whose origins come from the Hebrew word "presepium" which means the bed of straw upon which Jesus first slept in Bethlehem. The Presepio is common in northeastern Brazil (Bahi, Sergipe, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraiba, Maranhao, Ceara, Pernambuco, Piaui and Alagoas).
In Denmark, a christmas feast was traditionally celebrated at midnight, where a special rice pudding is served. In the pudding, a single almond is hidden and whoever finds it will have good luck for the coming year. The bringer of gifts is known as Julemanden and arrives in a sleigh drawn by reindeer, a sack over his back. Sound famliar? He is asissted by Yuletide chores by elves called Juul Nisse, who are said to live in attics.
In Iraq, Christian families light candles, light a bonfire of thorn bushes and sing. If the thorns burn to ashes, good luck will be granted. When the fire dies, each person jumps over the ashes three times and make a wish.
Like in many Latin American countries, Nicaragua retains many of the customs of old Spain. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, people stroll the streets where there are many things to buy: candles, Nativity pictures, toys and foods. Children carry fragrant bouquets to the alter of the Virgin and sing carols. On Christmas Eve, church bells beckon the people to Midnight Mass.
In South America, Venezuelans attend a daily early morning church service between December 16th and 24th called Misa de Aguinaldo ("Early Morning Mass.") In Caracas, the capital city, it is customary to roller-skate to this service and many neighborhoods close the streets to cars until 8 a.m. Before bedtime children tie one end of a piece of string to their big toe and hang the other out the window. The next morning, rollerskaters give a tug to any string they see hanging.
In Japan, Christmas was apparently brought over by Christian missionaries but today, it has become very commercialized largely because gift giving is something that appeals to the culture. This is an interesting and funny story if its true, but in the scene of the Nativity when it first came to Japan, was so foreign for them because Japanese babies don't sleep in cradles. Like the states, they eat turkey on Christmas Day (ham is also common with many families) and in some places, there are community Christmas trees. Houses even have evergreens and mistletoe. They also have a god or priest known as Hoteiosho, who closely resembles Santa Claus, often depicted as an old man carrying a huge pack. He is thought to have eyes in the back of his head.
And, you've gotta love the Scots since they have so many quirky customs considering how close they live to the English. Celebration around the holidays is much bigger for New Years Eve than it is for Christmas, something they refer to as Hogmanay. This word may derive from a kind of oat cake that was traditionally given to children on New Year's Eve. The first person to set foot in a residence in a New Year is thought to profoundly affect the fortunes of the inhabitants. Generally strangers are thought to bring good luck. Depending on the area, it may be better to have a dark-haired or fair-haired stranger set foot in the house. This tradition is widely known as "first footing."
In the Czech Republic (formerly Czechoslovakia and before that known as Bohemia), they bring their traditions from the 10th century home of Good King Wenceslaus, the main character in the familiar English Christmas carol. It is said that English troops, fighting in Bohemia hundreds of years later, brought the song home with them. St. Nicholas is called Svaty Mikalas and is believed to climb to earth down from heaven on a golden rope with his companions, an angel and a whip-carrying devil.
An ancient tradition shared by the Czechs and in Poland involves cutting a branch from a cherry tree and putting it in water indoors to bloom. If the bloom opens in time for Christmas, it is considered good luck and also a sign that the winter may be short.
I'm amazed how many of these traditions involve some superficial physical ritual that somehow tells us whether good luck or bad luck will fall upon us, not unlike snapping a chicken wish bone in two I guess...or flipping a coin.
Below is a fabulous and fun list of Merry Christmas and Happy New Years in many languages from around the world. Obviously, we didn't capture them all but we did include a healthy list to get you started with practicing but you never know when you will come across someone from another culture around the holidays.
Alsatian: E güeti Wïnâchte un e gleckichs Nej Johr
Arabic: أجمل التهاني بمناسبة الميلاد و حلول السنة الجديدة (ajmil at-tihānī bimunāsabah al-mīlād wa ḥilūl as-sanah al-jadīdah)
Armenian: Շնորհաւոր Նոր Տարի եւ Սուրբ Ծնունդ: (Shnorhavor Nor Daree yev Soorp Dzuhnoont) Բարի կաղանդ և ամանոր (Paree gaghant yev amanor)
Bengali: শুভ বড়দিন (shubho bôṛodin)
Cherokee: ᏓᏂᏍᏔᏲᎯᎲ & ᎠᎵᎮᎵᏍᏗ ᎢᏤ ᎤᏕᏘᏴᎠᏌᏗᏒ - (Danistayohihv & Aliheli'sdi Itse Udetiyvasadisv)
Cheyenne: Hoesenestotse & Aa'eEmona'e
Cornish: Nadelik Lowen ha Blydhen Nowydh Da and Nadelik Looan ha Looan Blethen Noweth
Danish: Glædelig jul og godt nytår
English: Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Estonian: Rõõmsaid Jõule ja Head Uut Aastat and Häid Jõule ja Head Uut Aastat
Fijian: Me Nomuni na marau ni siga ni sucu kei na tawase ni yabaki vou
Filipino: Maligayang pasko at manigong bagong taon!
Flemish: Zalig Kerstfeest en Gelukkig Nieuwjaar
French: Joyeux Noël et bonne année
German: Frohe/Fröhliche Weihnachten - und ein gutes neues Jahr / ein gutes Neues / und ein gesundes neues Jahr / und einen guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr
German (Swiss): Schöni Fäschttäg / Schöni Wienachte -- und e guets neus Jahr / en guete Rutsch is neue Johr -- Schöni Wiehnachte und es guets Neus -- Schöni Wiänachtä, äs guets Nöis
German (Bavarian): Froue Weihnåcht'n, und a guad's nei's Joah
Haitan Creole: Jwaye Nowèl e Bònn Ane
Hawaiian: Mele Kalikimaka me ka Hauʻoli Makahiki Hou
Hebrew: חג מולד שמח ושנה טובה - Chag Molad Sameach v'Shanah Tovah
Hungarian: Kellemes karácsonyt és boldog új évet
Indonesian: Selamat hari natal dan tahun baru
Irish: Nollaig shona duit/daoibh (Happy Christmas to you). Beannachtaí na Nollag (Christmas Greetings). Beannachtaí an tSéasúir (Season's Greetings) and Athbhliain faoi mhaise duit/daoibh (Prosperous New Year). Also, Bliain úr faoi shéan is faoi mhaise duit/daoibh (Happy New Year to you)
Italian: Buon Natale e felice anno nuovo
Japanese: メリークリスマス (merī kurisumasu) -- New Year greeting - 'Western' style
新年おめでとうございます (shinnen omedetō gozaimasu)
New Year greetings - Japanese style
明けましておめでとうございます (akemashite omedetō gozaimasu)
旧年中大変お世話になりました (kyūnenjū taihen osewa ni narimashita)
本年もよろしくお願いいたします (honnen mo yoroshiku onegai itashimasu)
Klingon: QISmaS DatIvjaj 'ej DIS chu' DatIvjaj (sg) and QISmaS botIvjaj 'ej DIS chu' botIvjaj (pl)
Korean: 즐거운 성탄절 보내시고 새해 복 많이 받으세요 and (jeulgeoun seongtanjeol bonaesigo saehae bok manhi bateusaeyo)
Kurdish: Kirîsmes u ser sala we pîroz be (and) Kirîsmes u salî nwêtan lê pîroz bê
Lithuanian: Linksmų Kalėdų ir laimingų Naujųjų Metų
Maltese: Il-Milied Ħieni u s-Sena t-Tajba - Awguri għas-sena l-ġdida
Maori: Meri Kirihimete me ngā mihi o te tau hou ki a koutou katoa
Mongolian: Танд зул сарын баярын болон шинэ жилийн мэндийг хүргэе and (Tand zul sariin bayriin bolon shine jiliin mendiig hurgey)
Navajo: Ya'at'eeh Keshmish
Nepali: क्रस्मसको शुभकामना तथा नयाँ वर्षको शुभकामना - (krismas ko subhakamana tatha nayabarsha ko subhakamana)
Norweigan: God jul og godt nytt år (Bokmål) and God jol og godt nyttår (Nynorsk)
Old English: Glæd Geol and Gesælig Niw Gear
Punjabi: ਮੈਰੀ ਕ੍ਰਿਸਮਸ। / میری کرِسمس (merī krismas - not used) and ਨਵਾਂ ਸਾਲ/ਵਰਾ ਮੁਬਾਰਕ। / نواں سال، ورہا مبارک (navā̃ sāl/varā mubārak)
Raotongan: Kia orana e kia manuia rava i teia Kiritimeti e te Mataiti Ou
Romanian: Crăciun fericit şi un An Nou Fericit
Samoan: Ia manuia le Kerisimasi ma le Tausaga Fou
Sardinian: Bonu nadale e prosperu annu nou
Slovak: Veselé vianoce a Štastný nový rok
Spanish: ¡Feliz Navidad y próspero año nuevo!
Swahili: Krismasi Njema / Heri ya krismas -- Heri ya mwaka mpya
Swedish: God jul och gott nytt år
Tahitian: Ia orana no te noere and Ia orana i te matahiti api
Thai: สุขสันต์วันคริสต์มาส และสวัสดีปีใหม่ - (sùk săn wan-krít-mâat láe sà-wàt-dee bpee mài)
Tibetan: ༄༅།།ལོ་གསར་ལ་བཀྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས་ཞུ། - (Losar La Tashi Delek - Happy New Year)
Tongan: Kilisimasi fiefia mo ha ta'u fo'ou monū'ia
Ukranian: Веселого Різдва і з Новим Роком
(Veseloho Rizdva i z Novym Rokom)
Xhosa: Siniqwenelela Ikrisimesi Emnandi Nonyaka Omtsha Ozele Iintsikelelo
Yiddish: אַ פֿרײליכע ניטל און אַ גוטער נײַער יאָר - (A freylikhe nitl un a guter nayer yor)
The above list was a sample of a longer list from Omniglot, a site dedicated to languages from around the world. Visit their site for more languages including pronunciations. They also made the following note: Christmas is not universally celebrated and there are a number of different dates for Christmas and New Year depending on which calendar is used. Orthodox Christians who use the Julian calendar, for example in Russia and Serbia, celebrate Christmas on January 7. Another collection of phrases for the holidays can be found here. Also check out this link on Christmas Around the World.
December 25, 2011 in America The Free, Belize, Europe, Fiji, Holidays, Israel, New England, New York, On Africa, On Australia, On China, On Costa Rica, On East Africa, On Fiji, On France, On Germany, On Guatemala, On India, On Italy, On Japan, On People & Life, On South Africa, On Spain, Reflections, San Francisco, South America, Travel, United Kingdom, WBTW | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
August 20, 2011
The Connecting Flight, The One Following the Mad Tearing Run…
The flight is delayed and you have to make that connection….or else.
It seems to happen to me more often these days and I’m not sure if that’s the result of airlines having less planes available resulting in fewer connecting flights or the fact that systems are just breaking down.
Certainly, most of the internal systems are antiquated or ridiculously absurd and don’t have a lot of logic.
For example, recently I was on an Air France flight to Paris and had to catch a connection to Budapest. I saw the connection time on the flight itinerary and in “theory” it seemed fine. After all, it was a connecting flight and for some odd reason despite how much I’ve traveled, I thought there’d be one of those “side lanes” where you could transfer to another flight within Europe. You know, arrive at gate C and just walk down a hallway to Gate D and board your plane. Logical right?
The flight was actually on time (ish) however it took awhile to settle at the gate delaying gate arrival by 15’ish minutes. Again, in theory, I didn’t think I’d have a problem making the connection. After all, I was arriving in Gate C and I was departing out of Gate D (Gate D2 that is) from Charles de Gaulle Airport.
Sure, I knew it was massive but as I was scurrying out, the Air France agent assured me it was close, repeating the C and D twice, which certainly seemed logical to me as well.
I started with a brisk walk but not a sprinting one until I realized that D was nowhere close to C since the signs for it kept reappearing after every corner turn and after yet another walking escalator disappeared behind me, there was another one on the horizon with D2 off in the distance.
We’ve all done a short sprint but this one seemed to never end until I finally stopped to ask an Air France staffer who was lingering in a busy hallway with a clipboard pressed up against her. “Budapest D2” I gasped short of breath. “Pardon,” she replied. “BUDAPEST, DAY-EH DEUX” I said, gasping even more dying for my bottle of water which had fallen from my carry-on backpack by this point.
“Tout de doit and sortie,” she motioned. “Sortie,” I thought, NO, I don’t want Sortie, I have a connecting flight. When I heard Sortie and realized she wanted me to exit, I said to her exasperated, “I have a connecting flight, une connection a Budapest. Je ne reste pas ici a Paris.” She pointed straight ahead and repeated Sortie.
So what does a seasoned traveler do with 15 minutes to go, knowing that their flight “in theory” was supposedly already boarding. She sprints of course.
Now, I’m not a marathon runner and nor am I in the best shape of my life, but having grown up as an athlete, the muscle remains. In other words, it re-emerges when it needs to, in cases of emergency or when you know you’ve spent far too much time in front a PC monitor and your body is desperate for a little oxygen.
I was wearing out and not getting a minute of sleep on my 10 hour flight didn’t help matters. When I saw the long line through passport control, I panicked as my heart raced. “Fuck,” I thought, I really don’t want to miss this flight. It’s not that I mind getting stuck in Paris, but getting stuck at an airport waiting for a small plane heading east after a half day of travel across 4 time zones wasn’t my idea of fun. Besides, Hungary was waiting.
In fact, Hungary was calling in a loud voice, saying, “Renee, you’ve been to Paris hundreds of times, I’ve been waiting for your Gypsy spirit to come taste my wine, come eat my beef medallions and my goose pate.”
I firmly but politely grabbed another Air France rep explaining the urgency, flashing my ticket and pointing to my watch which I had just changed five minutes before the plane landed. She took pity on me and ushered me through an empty line, obviously waiting for loud, late, ill-mannered Americans like me. (after all, aren’t we all?)
Passport control man was in no hurry despite seeing me out of breath and sweating and I knew it didn’t help when I hurriedly said in my pathetic French, “Je ne reste pas ici, Je suis en retard pour mon vol de Budapest.”
Quietly I was cursing, thinking, what the hell are they giving me a stamp for when I’m going to be here for 15 minutes? I also knew that the number of pages and blocks which could be stamped was running out and I still had a few years left on this passport. Slowly and smugly, I got my stamp and flew like a bird running from a cat who hadn’t eaten in days.
Sortie was ahead of me but when I re-entered, I noticed that I was somehow standing in the middle of F. Where the hell did D go I thought? It looked like arrivals and I started to move from exasperated to pissed. What kind of connection was this I thought? 45 minutes to get through Immigration’s long line and find your way half way (no, all the way) across what should be one terminal (C to D)?
Here I could speak the language (enough anyway) and was sprinting like a failed marathon runner but one who had a reason to win, and yet boarding had already begun according to my ticket 20 minutes ago and I had not even gone through a NEW security gate.
Security found me amusing no doubt as I whipped off my belt with fury like I was ready to have quick and passionate sex with a 23 year old lover. My boots came flying off as did my jewelry and I was sweating up a storm, as if the sex was already over and it was the best I ever had.
My hair was tossled, my brow was wet, my light cover up was off which showed that I wasn’t wearing a bra.
FINALLY, a sexy polite French security agent who wasn’t 23 came to my rescue. He smiled as he assured me I would make my flight and that I was in D2. but still had to get to D70 WITHIN D2. But, he added, “it’s just around the corner. I’m trying to help.”
Carry me I thought, that’s how you can help. Show up in one of those airport mini-trucks that shuttle the handicapped and seniors and make the damn thing go faster than you think its capable of going. Whisk me away. Call them and tell them to hold the plane for 30 minutes and let’s do a driveby the Air France First Class Lounge for a Parisian cappuccino & some pate for the road and then drop me off in front of my plane.
I imagined him kissing my hand bidding me Au Revoir after he completely turned my nightmare mad dashing run across the entire Charles de Gaulle airport into a nice sweet travel memory.
Cursing under my breath but remaining focused like a good seasoned traveler always does, I made a hard “gauche” after exiting security where they confiscated my mini-bottle of Merlot from my last flight. I looked up and saw the number 58. Of course I was at 58 and of course, the Budapest flight would be 70, at the EEEENNNNNNDDD of the hall. And, so I sprinted.
Nothing about arriving in Paris felt like Paris but thankfully I had so many positive memories of Paris that it would be easy to give this one amiss.
Even if the plane didn’t screw around at the gate for 15-20 minutes, anyone would be hard pressed to make this connection with the long immigration line, the distance they had to travel, and the likelihood that they didn’t speak French if they got lost on the way…easy to do at Charles de Gaulle and easy to do if you’re not a seasoned travel.
Puffing (and huffing) and puffing, I flicked my passport and ticket at the woman standing behind the gate who was about as calm, collected and type Z as you can get.
It was 12:39 and the flight was supposed to take off (up in the air, take off) by 12:45 pm. Obviously the flight was late, so while I was catching my breathe, I asked how late it was. “It’s not late,” the woman behind her said.
Hmmm, I thought. No one was on the plane yet, I was informed they were still cleaning it, yet 6 minutes before take-off and they didn’t classify it as late. Welcome to Hungary I thought, although both agents were clearly French.
I did one of those circular paces that people do when they need to think for a minute. (clearly that is). I circled around 3 or 4 times and then made a slow-paced walk over to the coffee stand where I learned that a bottle of water with the horrific U.S. dollar exchange rate would cost me $8. Had I ever been to Europe when the U.S. dollar was weaker than the Canadian one? At a time, when there are plays, comedians and talk show hosts talking about China as the new super power and America as a third world country?
I didn’t want to think about the exchange rate or the likely $10 beers and $500 shoes that lay ahead which was unlikely to be the case in Hungary since they weren’t on the Euro and I figured I’d lay low and avoid purchases in Paris to and from until Obama fixed SOMETHING, anything, so I could return and buy those $500 shoes for $200 again.
I opted against the $8 water and flopped down on a bright pink “kitch” plastic couch that wrapped around a plant sitting in a bright pink "kitch" plastic pot. It only then occurred to me that I made my flight and as I was looking for napkins at a nearby café to wipe my sweaty body down, a 15 year old Italian girl came down and sat next to me, bumping into me twice when she did so, despite the fact that there was a ton of space on the other side of her.
As we boarded, I stripped down even more since the mad tearing sprint caught up with me and not only was I sweaty but I was baking.
As I got close to the entrance to the plane, I could see the Paris day through the open crack and feel the August sunshine and feel the warm breeze coming through, hitting my face, blowing my hair back just slightly. AHHH yes, Paris in the summer I thought.
There’s nothing like boarding a plane from a place where the weather is fabulous knowing that you’re going to a place you really want to see and knowing that the weather is fabulous there too. The last time I had been to Budapest was in the mid-eighties. Yes, really.
I flopped in my seat, which had no one next to me and the seats were slightly wider than normal with an actual place to sit two drinks to my left. Recline worked. I was in the front. The Hungarian flight attendant handed me a bottle water when she saw the way I looked and I settled in for my 2+ hour flight on Malev, an airline I had never flown before.
Budapest, I reflected as my heart rate started to finally slow down. Gypsies, artists, dreamers, foodies, lovers of wine, musicians, old souls and historians. I remembered an “old world” dining experience I had with an ex-boyfriend so many years ago, where the violin players circled around us and I thought of how young I was. A kid really. What did I know of violin players and good red wine? Or duck, liver, pork, mousse, goulash and cured ham?
And then I smiled when I remembered I was coming to meet technologists not gypsies. From Silicon Valley to Hungary because there’s a wealth of incredible engineers in Budapest I was told and knew I would soon discover. As for my host?
Look for the bald man he had said. I thought, “would there really only be one bald Hungarian at the airport?” “Some say I’m as wide as I am tall,” he had added. A little more data I thought, certainly more than Air France provided me about my connecting flight.
I drifted off curled in an arch, my last visual memory of blue sky and powdery white clouds through my window, knowing that Germany was below us by that point. Hungary is waiting for me I thought as I drifted off into my thirty minute nap. Hungary is waiting for me.
August 20, 2011 in America The Free, Europe, New England, New York, On Africa, On Australia, On China, On Costa Rica, On East Africa, On France, On Geo-Location, On Guatemala, On India, On Italy, On Japan, On People & Life, On South Africa, On Spain, Reflections, South America, Travel, WBTW | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
September 02, 2006
Buenas Dias Natural Wonder
Of all the global wonders and regions of pleasure, central and southern America is a recent discovery – the last of the continents I’ve had the fortune to explore. Asia and the Middle East were accidents, Africa and Europe were musts, and Australasia was a by-product of central Asia, as was India.
Costa Rica, which I wrote about at great length here, was so intoxicating – largely due to the wildlife, rainforests and kindness of its people, that I quickly developed a hunger for more. Africa was a bit that way too.
Have you ever felt a need to go somewhere for no particular reason, or at least not one you can readily identify? In recent years, Guatemala, Peru and Belize have been vivid daytime images and brightly illuminated movie scenes in my not quite dawn dreams.
When I would imagine a future memory, it went something like this…..
-----the early morning dew was moist, but slowly on its way out as I made my way through the rainforest, taking in every sound of early morning wildlife, particularly the birds, which were a reminder I was about to experience a natural presence like no other.
The mist remained dense, its texture heavy, so much so that you wonder if you will find your way back to camp – or even a village nearby. Then, suddenly, although the sun was not quite ready to break, the mist begins to slowly but steadily rise.
Like a soldier demanding attention, its silence, yet deliberate movement to a new-found beauty mysteriously commands your presence. I sit down at once on a nearby ridge. The magic is immediate as the entire morning jungle wakes before my eyes, the mist opening up to a lush green tropical forest on every side of me. Embraced by this natural wonder, I feel like there is nowhere to go…………nowhere I want to--------
September 10, 2004
Chrichton on Travels
Chrichton nails it. I have often referred to this quote over the years when I've "lived on the road" for months at a time or during a transition like this one. May the current direct experience last for months and months. I had forgotten just how drab the "comfort zone" really is.
"Often I go to some distant region of the world to be reminded of who I really am. There is no mystery about why this should be so. Stripped of your ordinary surroundings, your friends, your daily routines, your refrigerator full of your food, your closet full of your clothes- with all this taken away you are forced into the direct experience. Such direct experience inevitably makes you aware of who it is that is having the experience. That is not always comfortable but it is always invigorating." Michael Crichton - Travels
November 18, 1999
A Costa Rican Tale
We arrived in San Jose at the start of a 'typia' rainy season afternoon storm. The airport itself was fairly basic, with no restaurants, one coffee bar, one cambio change counter that was surprisingly open and a small shop with a limited choice of duty-free perfumes, creams, cigars and coffee. We made our way through an orderly emigration queue that flowed smoothly and quickly. Aside for the numerous Spanish signs, I would never have guessed that we had just arrived in a Central American city.
We came ill prepared in many ways. While we packed well for most occasions; all the 'necessaries' for third world travel, including numerous plastic bags, a tarp, mosquito coils and a first-aid kit, we read very little about the culture, economy and history of the place ahead of time. Through discussions with a few former American inhabitants, we learned early on that Costa Rica was a democracy and had been since 1949.
We also learned that we couldn't count on a black market for currency exchange, that U.S. dollars were excepted in most places, that ATM machines were plentiful, and that it was one of the safest countries in the region.
One European described Costa Rica as the Switzerland of Central America. It has managed to avoid regional wars, political disputes, and remain neutral on a number of sensitive controversy issues. The country also takes a strong stand on the ecological environment; we began to see the evidence of this the moment we stepped outside of San Jose.
We did not stay in San Jose for long. Much cleaner than the Dominican and some of its Latin American counterparts, the parks were well maintained, and I didn't notice any litter along the paved paths or streets. The center and outskirts were very hilly and yet condensed, so it was an easy walk to most places of interest. The National Theatre in the central square near the Banco Popular seemed to be the busiest area to people watch, observe the local business culture and generally get a good feel for the place. There is a French Cafe attached to the large Gran Hotel Costa Rica and Casino in the middle of the square were you could order coffee, beer, desserts, and Costa Rica 'typia' food. English is spoken but not well, so it's necessary to tap your brain for all of the Spanish phrases you have ever learned. It had a certain 1930s colonial style charm, with a paved and tiled patio café that faced the north side of the square. They also had a restaurant on the top and the Casino was open 24 hours.
The city wasn't particularly noisy, no more so than any other. It was Mother's Day when we arrived, so some of the shops and businesses were closed. We spent most of our time roving up and down the little side streets in search of new city smells, colors, abstractions and city adventure. The morning was sunny and bright the following day, but as the afternoon approached, the sky quickly clouded over and the anticipated afternoon downpour began. This was the first in a series of consistent rainy afternoons that followed us through the rest of our travels.
San Jose was an unfortunate example of where American capitalism had started to affect social life and local business. I spotted a Burger King, two McDonald's, and two fried chicken fast food neon signs within two blocks. On every other corner of the square was a Casino, Hotel, or a Banco. I was amazed at how many banks there were in San Jose's city center. The hotels would not change traveler’s checks for us since we were not guests so we set out on a search for the 'best rate bank.' The Costa Rican BFA Bank did not charge commission and gave us a healthy 289 to 1. We managed to get the same rate at the Holiday Inn Casino on the 17th floor. While not common practice, they decided to do a couple of harmless looking Gringoes a favor and exchanged money for us, without the usual requirement of having to buy chips.
Most of the Casinos were close to empty although a few regulars were hanging around the crap tables and watching local sport on the TV screens near the bars. One of the larger hotels had a free tourism bureau service, where we managed to find a Canadian who was bilingual and willing to research our many inquiries about nearby attractions and excursions.
Ironically, we ended up at a European style hotel. Hotel Edelweiss, a quaint European style hotel six to eight blocks from the center, was located on a quiet street at the top of a steep slope. It had a Mediterranean style tiled lobby with a couch and a desk off to the side of the reception area where the owner, a Swiss native, spent his afternoons at a computer terminal when he was not attending to guests' needs or answering the phone. This terminal was also for rent to his guests for a nominal charge, and included access to the Internet.
Butterfly Farm - Alejeula
The butterfly farm on the outskirts of Alejeula of San Jose, was the first commercial butterfly farm in Latin America and opened in 1983. It provided a fascinating overview of every stage of a butterfly's life. There was a bee garden, traditional ox cart rides and numerous tropical birds. We had an excellent local guide who joined us en route back to San Jose in a cramped minivan. The guide to the Spanish-speaking tour also joined us.
An interesting but busy conversation followed between the two guides, an American in his late 40s from Brooklyn, his 21 year old son, Jarod and I. It started with a couple 'off the beaten path' questions not answered on the tour, and moved into an ecological discussion about Costa Rica rainforests, local San Jose culture and lifestyle. The Spanish guide, who was averse to anyone who used theory and academic degrees to guide their hearts and career, was a former civil servant and now happily married to a biologist with three grown children. All of them had such a healthy carefree attitude about life -- another first in a series of consistencies on our trip -- a prevalent national attitude that is likely a key factor to why Costa Rica has one of the longest life expectancies in the world.
The guides suggested that we explore an outdoor mall area in San Jose: Centro Commercial El Pueblo. It had gift shops and slightly overpriced restaurants serving Costa Rican style seafood. Mostly full of Europeans and Americans who arrived well after 8 pm to engage in a three-hour meal, the local guides had frequently dined at these restaurants with their families. It was hard to tell if this was largely due to the fact that their worlds have merged with Westerners or whether these wealthier, more educated Costa Ricans regularly dined at these more commercial places on a regular basis.
We ended up at the Rias Bajas, a quaint restaurant with candlelight, a couple of locals playing a xylophone like instrument in the front, reasonably priced beer and homemade bread.
Most of the prices we had encountered since our arrival were much higher than we expected for the area; closer to what we would have expected from the more commercialized island of Belize. The growing tourism trade and American owned resorts cropping up around the country has slowly been stripping away the culture of the country and raising prices, creating that division as seen in so many third world hot spots. It will be increasingly more difficult to find good bargains for food, lodging and excursions if this divide between the gringo and local tico continues.
Monteverde Area and Rainforest
Despite our hassle free experience in San Jose, we were thrilled to be heading north. We decided to go to Monteverde first and then on to the Fortuna, which is usually the reverse of how most travelers visit these two towns. People tend to travel to both areas at the same time since they are close in distance and surrounded by some of the best national wildlife parks and hiking trails in the country. Considering that we had already decided to take the plunge and travel in the middle of rainy season, it only made sense to start our journey in the middle of a rainforest, so we could use our raincoats, capes, umbrellas, waterproof torch and plastic bags.
Most of the buses to major destinations depart from the Coca-Cola terminal in San Jose, so-called after a Coca-Cola bottling plant which used to exist on the site many years ago.
I first thought that the naming of a Costa Rica bus terminal after an American conglomerate was more evidence of western ‘corporate’ infiltration, which was partly true. I had no idea; however, just how prevalent Coca-Cola was, nor how many times we would see a Coca-Cola sign over the next few weeks.
There was no bus terminal to Monteverde a couple of years ago, which reflects how isolated this community remains despite the enormous increase in popularity from Westerners wanting to explore Costa Rica central rainforests. Two to three buses now depart to a few destinations in this area, including Monteverde and Fortuna, from a small bus terminal called Atlantico Norte.
Unlike a lot of third world city travel, our departure could not have been smoother. A taxi dropped us off at the station by 6 am, where I discovered a local nearby kiosk and ordered an unbelievably delicious Costa Rican coffee with hot milk for 30 cents U.S.
The road to Monteverde started out well paved, bypassing Alejeula near the airport and Heredia to the north. We decided against the eastern coastal route due to the difficulty of getting north by vehicle this time of year. We had two main choices: heading north to Torteguero in a privately hired land rover to watch sea turtles lay their eggs at night, or south to Puerto Viejo and adjacent beaches near the Panama border, which apparently had an intriguing mix of Bribri Indian and black Caribbean culture. During rainy season, the Caribbean is apparently damper, wetter, and offers limited transportation since many of the roads are washed out, even with a 4WD.
Supposedly a four-hour trip to Monteverde and Santa Elena (neighboring village), it took our cramped, overcrowded bus five and a half-hours before we were dumped on the side of a road. There was nothing to see but a sign to one of the lodges we read about in Lonely Planet. Little previous planning and lack of a detailed map of the area lead us to a curbside. A woman in an ox-like tractor passed us pushing her hotel several hundred meters up the road. Her Spanish was fast and direct; our inability to make a decision about much of anything at that point of the journey led to her departure and us continuing to sit on top of our backpacks thinking about what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go.
Not far up the bumpy road on the left was a small, very basic local bureau with a phone inside for local calls, and a handful of brochures and maps. I was amazed to even find a brochure in this area considering how remote and underdeveloped the area was at the surface, not to mention the crated roads we had to survive to get there, starting some 160 miles south.
I could smell a "commission deal" brewing as he initiated a call to El Establo, a small recommended inn run by a Quaker and her Costa Rican husband, Arnaldo. It was described as a charming old fashioned place with black & white photos and a fireplace. I also thought that we might learn more about the history and culture of the area from two very unique perspectives. They quoted $40 a night and while we agreed to have a truck sent down the mountain to pick us up, we did not commit to staying there when we left. I have been through too many commission scandals in third world destinations in the past; it doesn't take long to sense one even if you can't understand a word of the local language, which Jarod could and I was struggling to learn.
It turned out to be the only sunny afternoon they had seen in several weeks, so we took advantage of what clear blue sky we had left and rented two horses for a couple of hours. We rode past a few farms, cow pastures, hills and through some rainforest terrain -- our first exposure to the vegetation of the area. The sounds were even more enriching, spectacular and inspiring than the view around us. Between the tropical birds, the insects, butterflies, red squirrels, horses, owls, vultures, hawks, raccoons, mantled howler monkeys, anteaters, kinkajous and white nosed coatis, every step had such a 'primal' feeling to it. Even when we were just sitting at a cafe or in the front of our balcony at the lodge, we could acutely hear the energizing sounds of the rainforest.
We quickly found the local nearby village restaurant - actually there were two nestled fairly closely together on one strip adjacent to a very small market that sold a few of the basics, canned goods, rice, bread, selected fruit and vegetables, and a cooler with ice cream pops, yogi-sip drinks and juices. The one Arnaldo and his American wife Ruth recommended sat on the left as you faced both of them. While the other one apparently specialized in seafood, it never appeared to be open except for limited dinner hours and it was not possible to sit outside.
Ruth, while of American descent, is a fully integrated, born and bred Costa Rican. She was raised in the Monteverde area and grew up with other Costa Rican families and some of the remaining Quakers who settled here over the past few decades. She grew up in the community of local schools. The Quakers apparently had originally founded this area in 1951. They originally came from Alabama and four of them were jailed in 1949 for refusing to register for the draft in the U.S. They decided to emigrate after their release from jail and began a search for a place to settle where they could live peacefully. After searching for land in Canada, Mexico and Central America, they decided on Costa Rica; the peaceful political policies and lack of an army matched their own philosophies. It made me think of the European who referred to Costa Rica as the Switzerland of the area.
Apparently there were 44 original settlers (men, women and children from 11 families), who arrived in the area in 1951. Some flew to San Jose, while others drove down from Alabama in trucks. It is hard to imagine driving the treacherous roads at that time considering how rough the roads are today. Ruth was the daughter of one of the original Quaker founders, and spoke fluent Spanish and English with a slight American twang. She was soft spoken, friendly, warm and giving, making it a pleasure to stay there. They helped us find a local horse farm, local hikes and guides, restaurants and the stop where buses left for other destinations. Arnaldo also steered us away from the overpriced Canopy Tour, which apparently had drawn an influx of wealthy Americans and Europeans to the area for a less invigorating 'jungle' experience than the newer Sky Trek and Sky Walk.
The Sky Trek
The Sky Trek is not for the very old or non-adventurous. It starts with a local guide harnessing up to eight people in ropes and straps to allow you to hang freely from the cables. You are then asked to choose a helmet, pair of gloves and a pulley to carry through the three and a half to four hour trek through the forest.
We first had to walk over an aerial tram platform bridge, which hung between two large trees some 2-300 feet overlooking dense rainforest. You could view birds and monkeys from the bridge and watch the vegetation and unusual formations of the trees, not found in North America. The trek included nine cables; crossings are done by placing the pulley on the cable and swinging from tree to tree some 200-500 feet above the rainforest. The cables ranged from 300-2000 feet in length.
It is as exhilarating if not more so, than a sail on a small cat in rough rocky swells of the ocean, flying off a ski ramp for the very first time, hand gliding or a parachute jump. We joined an interesting group who was not only adventurous in nature, but also friendly. Father, two grown sons and mother we met on the trip, gave us a lift back to the village in their hired land rover, which allowed us to beat the afternoon rain.
We also met three Dutch guys and a German whom we developed a connection with the first day. We later hooked up with them for dinner at the local Italian restaurant, the only real tourist restaurant in the area outside of a couple in the high-end lodges for the ‘fly in, fly out,’ western tourist. We decided to try this restaurant more out of laziness; with an early morning start the next day, both of us were craving an alternative over the ‘typia’ food, which we had been regularly eating since our arrival.
As the local typia food doesn’t really change much (chicken, fish or meat (carnes) with rice and beans and sometimes egg or salad), we desperately wanted something with spices and sauce. We spent hours talking to our new friends until we were finally ousted as the place was ready to shut down. We shared travel stories and learned that we were all heading in the direction of Montezuma on the south coast; however, they were leaving on the 5 am bus the next morning and we were heading north to Fortuna the day after before heading south to the coast.
Sarah Dowell Folk Gallery & Local Art
Before we left, we discovered an interesting folk gallery at the top of a densely wooded path through trees. When you first spot the tiny sign slightly off the back of the road, it was not immediately apparent that the walk to the top will take a good twenty to thirty minutes up a steep path through a wooded forest. Once you reach the top, there is a small multi-pastel colored house that is built into a tree trump, which was barren when we arrived. Around the corner, you spot another house even further up a hill, with a front porch full of hanging plants and two very worn rocking chairs. As you enter, there is a futon on one side and a bookshelf of paperback novels on the other, a few stray cats and a half kitchen, which was difficult to tell in the dim light if it was a working kitchen or not. A very short room with a fridge, two shelves and a stack of old dusty record albums led you to a small room where they set up the gallery.
The gallery belonged to Sarah Dowell, who is fairly known in the area for her bold and distinctive work. We saw a few of her watercolors and acrylics in another gallery in the area. To my surprise, the prices were steep. When she is on the road, an Arizona native manages her gallery part time, painting and designing in his spare time below the studio. Some of his work was displayed, which was also bold and distinctive, but without a lot of color. He used a lot of natural warm earth tones; woods, stone carved squares and sandstone with somewhat of a southwestern flare to it.
We ended up talking to him for awhile after the only other two people there at the time, left – one ironically had a PriceWaterhouse/Coopers logo on the back of her shirt, which gave us both somewhat of an eerie feeling. Despite our effort to escape from corporate life into the middle of the Costa Rican rainforest, it managed to find us in one of the more remote places in the country.
During our discussion, we learned quite a bit about our Arizonan friend’s life and experience in the tropical jungle as an artist. Apparently Costa Rica is one of the best choices for a western artist trying to develop a market for their work in the third world. Mexico is probably a close second; however he claims that it is getting much harder to do business in Mexico in addition to the complexity around its politics and poverty. He regularly flies back to the states for supplies, which are neither cheap nor light and ships them to San Jose where he picks them up. He then arranges transportation to Monteverde and taxis them to the bottom of the gallery road where he carries the supplies up the mountain to his “under the gallery,” workshop. Not an easy life.
As the sun began to set, we talked about living in this remote house in the middle of tropical rainforest. He told us of his encounters with snakes, insects, birds, spider monkeys, kinkajous and agoutis. He has also apparently spotted several quetzals, parrots and toucans while drinking a morning tea on his front porch.
As I looked around the open beams and open nooks of the little wooden house, the stories continued as the sky started to lose daylight.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and The Quetzal
The next morning, we headed off to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve on motorcycle with Elaimar, a local guide. We met up with another American couple who joined us and had already spent the previous day bird watching in the ecological reserve, another forest in the area. We started out early hoping to catch a glimpse of rare birds and other wildlife. The best time of day to spot rare and abundant birds is apparently between six and nine in the morning. Jarod was glued to his binoculars from the moment we entered the reserve.
The two Americans had been bird watching since the early 1970s. It was their mission to see the hard to find, rare quetzal, before they left Costa Rica. I joked with Jarod that they ‘had the gift of good bird spotting.’ It took us awhile to get accustomed to using the binoculars, so at first, we missed a few worthwhile bird and animal sightings.
Following several hours of hiking through the dense and vivid rainforest full of howler monkey sounds, insects, bird calls and hundreds of large blue morpho butterflies, Elaimar decided to take us to a couple of avocado trees, which quetzals apparently love to eat. There were a couple of large avocado trees in front of a school on the road back to Monteverde. We waited silently and patiently until he finally pointed to a beautifully colored resting quetzal sitting with his rear to us on a branch half way up the way up the tree.
We carefully moved to the back of the tree to get a better side and frontal view of this amazing creature. Although he had his head buried in his wings, we stared through the binoculars in amazement for a good twenty minutes before the downpour forced us to retreat to the land rover, where we hitched a ride with them back to our lodge.
Before we headed in to get dry, we followed the sound of beating drums down a muddy path in the center of the village only to discover the local grammar school marching band practicing in the pouring rain. We started to dance to the beat and stomp our feet to the rhythmic patterns of the drums. No doubt as much as we were shrugging our shoulders wondering why they were practicing in the pouring rain, they must have been thinking, “who are these Gringoes dancing around in circles in those bright red jackets in the mud?”
Soccer is also a favorite past time and popular local sport. As we were dancing and stomping around in the mud, a teenager with cleats and a number on his shirt passed us – apparently he had played earlier that day and was heading into the village to watch a late afternoon game at one of the local bars.
Fortuna and Volcan Arenal
After hearing the horror stories of the eight to ten hour local bus ride on crated roads to Fortuna and having just completed a similar journey to Monteverde, we decided to splurge on a $75 for a two people ‘taxi, boat, taxi,’ journey that would get us to our destination in just over three and a half hours.
A taxi picked us up from the hotel and drove us a little over an hour through a few bare villages with no more than four small farmhouses, a few grazing cattle and the odd rooster crossing the road. We had originally hoped to find two more people to share the cost of the trip – a Californian woman who we met on the bus from San Jose expressed interest and later let us down.
In the end, it was less complicated not having to cater to someone else’s schedule or needs; when we wanted to stop for a photo, we were able to and as it turned out, it was a much more relaxing and efficient way to get from Monteverde to Fortuna.
The driver, who looked like a young cattle farmer, pulled the 4WD truck into his family’s backyard in a small village near the lake and turned off the engine. It was the only house around and with the exception of an elderly man and an old frail woman who ended up jumping into the truck with us, we were the only people in sight for miles and it was starting to rain. As the skies grew darker and I noticed that he was hooking us up to a very old, very dirty small motorboat with a 55 horsepower engine and no roof or tarp, I started getting nervous. We began to hear thunder and knowing that the journey across the lake was over an hour, and the boy did not speak a word of English or appear to understand our growing anxiety, the lightening was a growing concern.
We backed the boat into the lake and the four of us jumped aboard for a one hour fast boat ride across the lake to a somewhat bare shoreline, with a small dock and two people waiting to return to the other side. While nothing close to what we imagined, the rain held off and we managed to get across the lake safely and with dry clothes and bags. We were greeted by a one toothed rough looking character who was our taxi driver from the lake into the town of Fortuna.
The roads were suddenly well paved and the gardens on the sides of the roads were well groomed, green and bountiful. It felt as if we had just crossed the border from Mexico to southern California. We passed the Tabacon Resort, well known for its natural Hot Springs. While Volcano Arenal was supposedly in front of us, we managed to only see a quarter of it since the clouds were creeping further and further down the mountain.
We headed towards the recommended Hotel San Bosco for $30 a night including tax after a short period bargaining. It was an upstairs room that included air conditioning with a double bed, one single bed and hot water. We found that many of the rooms catered to families and they were priced accordingly. The place was apparently known for its balcony views of the volcano however apparently Fortuna only views the volcano from one angle and this was not the angle where you could see the lava and rocks spewing from the top after dark.
The sky began to darken quickly as we approached Fortuna for the first time. No more than five minutes before we closed the door to our room, the heavy rains began. It was probably the hardest, most intense rainfall we had experienced since our arrival. We spent the next two hours doing laundry by hand until the rain finally softened to a light to medium trickle; enough to venture into the town to grab a bite to eat before crashing for the night. We discovered Restaurant Nene, apparently a local recommended hang-out on a side road off the main drag. Mostly Costa Rican ‘typia’ food, it had no atmosphere and was fairly noisy and sparse.
At around 4 am the next morning, I felt the room shake. The bed was moving and the sink in the bathroom was clanking loudly. I immediately grabbed for Jarod before either one of us were conscious enough to realize that we had either just experienced an earthquake or extreme activity from the volcano.
The rain had stopped but the night was extremely dark; once the movement stopped, we scrambled upstairs to the balcony to see if we could see any volcanic activity or people roaming the streets. With the exception of a couple wandering around the garden, the streets were bare.
A few hours later, we learned that it was in an earthquake, which apparently had originated in the Nicoya area – a region south of Fortuna where we were heading to shortly. 5.5 on the Richter scale, it was Jarod’s first earthquake and my second, although my first was about as intense as this one – a shaking room, noise from the furniture moving around and then seconds later, silence.
The next day, we took a taxi from a one legged driver who had been waiting for a trip in the square since early morning, which by Costa Rican standards is 4 am, not 6 or 7 am. He dropped us off at the base of a set of cabanas with a few swimming pools. A two to three hour hike from the base brought you to the bottom of the first of two lakes. We managed to hitch a ride in a 4WD from three Costa Ricans – all of them in the travel business. Two women ran a travel agency in San Jose and were investigating the area to update their own information for their clients and one man, who was in the travel business and lived in Fortuna. The younger girl was in her early twenties, and had spent three months studying English as a foreign language in Boston a few years ago, so we were able to communicate with them fairly and had some common references to share in the car.
We stopped at the observation point for a view of the lake before, then headed around the lake until we reached the bottom. There were about a dozen or so huts where people could pitch a tent, a couple of picnic tables and a restroom. There was only one other vehicle and no people around. We jumped out at this point and decided to hike to the base of the volcano where you could view hot lava and hard lava rocks erupting from the volcano.
Volcan Arenal By Day
The hike was like many of the other hikes in Costa Rica – steep, muddy, dense, rainy and full of tropical wildlife sounds. It started to rain on our way up the hill, so it was difficult to move quickly since the roads were slippery and the mud was deep. It was not clear which path we should take and there were no cars or people at the base nor was there any kind of official national park office or map.
According to the books we read on the area, rangers would tell us where to go and how far was safe to hike. With no guidance as the book suggested, and not much time before dark, we hiked the two kilometers up the steep rocky path as quickly as we could in the pouring rain. This route gets you as close to the volcano as you can safely go without climbing to the crater rim itself, which apparently is extremely dangerous. A few have attempted it and for the most part, died before they made it to the top. It also puts people on a local rescue team at risk so is highly not recommended.
In the U.S. and likely the rest of the first world, regulations would prohibit anyone climbing anywhere near an active volcano; the major difference in experience between Niagara Falls and Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, where there is only one small guard rail. The rest is vast open space between you, the slippery ground beneath you and the glorious falls in front of you.
When we reached the top, albeit a little disconcerted from the rain and darkness, we felt a broadening invigorating ‘head rush,’ the feeling one gets when they reach a significant summit.
There was an “intensity” from this majestic, roaring volcano immediately in front of us. The air was different and the clouds were thick and sinking around us. We were amidst large hard lava rocks, which had been spewed from the top. We could also see the hot glowing lava sliding down the side of the volcano; apparently this happens almost daily at Volcan Arenal.
By the time we made it down to the bottom of the mountain and into the park grounds, the rain had slowed down, but there were still no people to be found. We had hoped to catch a lift to the top before the heavy afternoon rains began.
Both exhausted at this point and not in an hurry to hike the eight kilometers back to the top or the two-hour hike in the other direction, we sat and rested at a stone table for twenty minutes or so. Jarod then spotted a man in a nearby beaten up blue station wagon and ran over to see if the man spoke English and if he would be heading out of the park anytime soon. Apparently he was waiting for two women who were hiking around the lake….daughters of good friends so he said.
American Ray, who had been living in Costa Rica for nearly a dozen years, offered us a lift to the top of the lake. On the way, we found his friends along the side of the road and picked them up only to learn that they were heading to the same place we were – The Tabacon Resort and Spa. After having spent several days doing adventurous excursions, tough hikes and trekking through muddy wet rainforests, we were ready for an intense afternoon of luxury.
Volcan Arenal by Night and Tabacon Resort, Spa & Hot Springs
While costly in comparison to other typical excursions, we ended up buying an entire package for $50+ each. This included a wondrous selection of thirty one hot springs, pools and rivers, a large hot swimming pool with a slide and stools in front of a bar serving exotic drinks, hot tubs, a sauna, a massage, mud pack and dinner. I told the Maitre D that we were on our honeymoon and as Jarod and I exchanged winks, so did the Maitre D; our goal was obviously to get the best seat in the house after spending hours in the hot springs, to view the erupting volcano by night. He made a note as we left for our hot spring experience and told us in broken English that ‘he would see what he could do.’
After a muddy, wet and steep hike, three hitched lifts and a 4 am earthquake, our bodies were ready to soak. We started with a frozen daiquiri at the ‘swim up’ bar, before we hit the water slide.
Like two twelve year old children, we did handstands, a few swing outs in the pool and then put on a west coast dance performance on the side of the pool to the beat of 1980s Reggae music. This was followed by one soak after another in the numerous hot springs, all of which were nestled between a series of colorful vivacious flowering gardens.
A few quaint bridges crossed the flowing natural streams, which led to small and medium sized pools, where people found their own private space to relax. There were enough pools to find one of your own if you chose; more often than not, completely surrounded by bright tropical flowers in bright purples, pinks and yellows.
By the time our fingers were pruned, our pores were tight and we felt like drowned rats, we went for an hour long massage and face mudpack. The latter was a natural mudpack that they pasted to your face and neck with a brush. After twenty minutes of drying time, you re-entered the hot springs for a cleanse. By this time, not only had the rain resurfaced, but so did heavy thunder and lightening.
The lightening was close; however, this did not deter at least a hundred people from staying pool bound, children included. To my surprise, people continued to sit under the powerfully strong hot waterfalls over the main streaming river as the lightening intensified.
We changed and headed to the restaurant, to discover that our Maitre D friend had arranged the best table in the house for us. Although somewhat misty and cloudy, we were able to get an excellent view of the erupting volcano by night. Through the binoculars, you could clearly see the burning hot lava and tumbling rocks spilling from the crater down the side of the crater. It was a splendid sight and one of the more memorable experiences we shared on the trip.
We took a 6 am bus out of Fortuna heading south to San Ramon, where we would make a connection to harboring town Punteranas, on the west side of the peninsula. We met up with four other Gringoes on the way; two Germans and two Dutch guys; one of whom was robbed at the San Ramon bus station, the same bus station where we lounged for two hours waiting for our connection. The two Dutch guys were forced to remain behind in order to head over to the police station and report the incident. The upside was that the police took action immediately and told them that they would have police check at every stop, suggesting that the person who stole his wallet was probably on one of the buses. More promising than the outcome of Joanne and I’s theft experience on the east side of Kenya several years ago.
I spent an hour walking around in the rain, in search of a phone that actually worked, some local ‘typia’ snacks, a good strong Costa Rican coffee with hot milk, and anything new and interesting I had not discovered yet. My Spanish vocabulary was very limited so I re-discovered all of the interesting ways of communicating using sign language and gestures. In all situations, it seemed to work and I found myself wanting to hang around the little village a little longer just to explore the little shops and people watch. While not a terribly interesting or unusual little village, I found the people extremely friendly, curious, honest and forthcoming. Both sides have so much to learn.
Noisy and hot like most harbor cities and towns, Punteranas was formally Costa Rica’s most important port. Apparently, coffee was exported to Europe during the last century from this port. The name means “sandy point;” it sits on the edge of a sandy peninsula that is nearly eight kilometers long and about 600 meters wide. There are only two ferry choices from this port – to Paquera or Playa Narajoe, slightly to the north. On our way to hail a taxi, a woman showed us the front page of the local Tico Times, which showed the Paquera area in a state of despair – no water and no electricity. According to her, it was due to flooding and possibly some after effects from the recent earthquake. Someone else seemed to suggest it was due to the recent heavy rains only and not quite as severe as she originally suggested.
We met up with a Canadian, who apparently had been living in Costa Rica for close to ten years. He drove an old blue truck and was traveling with his Costa Rican wife and daughter who were waiting inside the nearby restaurant. He was stubborn and bizarre; however despite his oddity, we engaged in discussion with him, partly to learn from his experience in the country and partly to see if we could hitch a ride with him on the other end to Tambor, which was the direction they were heading. Tambor is a small town roughly half way to Montezuma on the coast, our final destination.
We were told by several people that the ‘rough to travel’ 25-27 kilometer road between Playa Narayo to the north and Paquera were closed and even more reliable 4WD taxis were refusing to take the risk due to the broken dams and muddy unstable roads. The Canadian refused to listen to anyone else’s advice, so we opted for the ferry to Paquera instead and hoped to find a taxi or bus service on the other end that would take us through to Montezuma that night.
While waiting for the Paquera boat ferry to arrive ($2.50 one way), we began to discuss our options once we reached the other side. Since it was quickly approaching nightfall (i.e., 10 pm by the time we would arrive), we realized that a bus was unlikely and in order to afford a taxi all the way to Montezuma, we would need to share the cost of a taxi with a few others.
There were only five other Gringoes in sight at that point; a Dutch couple, a German woman Andrea, an American woman in her mid-40s originally from Oregon, Lea, and her 11 year old son, Jason. Andrea, Lea and Jason were open to sharing a taxi and from the moment we engaged in conversation with them, we “clicked.” We started with an intense philosophical discussion and a political debate, and then moved on to the controversial topic of American television…… and television in general.
Lea, while more recently from Oregon, has lived in Arizona, California, Belize, Guatemala and more recently Chilapos Mexico. We later learned from Jason that she was 46, a single mom and that they had been out of the U.S. for a little more than three years. We later learned from Lea that she also had a 16 year old son who lived with her first husband in northern California. As Lea put it, “my first son has a great father and my other one has none.”
We did not pry for more details at this stage of the relationship; however, she did go on to talk about father figures they had encountered over the years who have made a significant impact on Jason’s life. We didn’t realize at the time of meeting them, that they would both become a more influential part of our lives over the next couple of weeks.
The taxi was a long hour and a half in a 4WD, over extremely harsh, bumpy roads, through muddy trenches and small dense wooded towns. We passed a few chickens and cows before we hit Tambor, and Cobano, the closest main town some twenty minutes north of Montezuma.
We arrived shortly after 11 pm and were surprised to hear live reggae music blaring loudly from one of the small seaside bars, as well as a few lights on along the main drag. Everything else was closed however, so we walked up the main road to the north of the beach and found two Cabanas, including El Caraco, a very basic hotel with small cramped rooms, shared bath and cold water for about $10-12 per person a night. Up the hill with ocean views was where we ended up – El Jardin. A young man in his early twenties who spoke no English, showed us an apartment at the top of the hill overlooking the ocean for $30 U.S. including tax. I checked for hot water, cockroaches, towels and amenities while Jarod paid for the first night.
Jarod created an extremely well organized financial log in the back of our journal, so we could easily figure out who owed what at the end of the trip. Traveling with an accountant dramatically decreases the chance of incorrect bills, gringo prices and scandals. Paranoid and untrusting myself, the two of us made a “hard to bargain with” team and as a result, found a number of decent deals along the way. We even managed to avoid a few standard costs, such as transportation in some places where we ended up catching a lift or hitching.
In this case, we did not manage to bargain a lower cost for the room despite the fact that we would be staying a few nights. At $30, however, the place was a steal. It was a straw bamboo and wooden bungalow with wooden panels that opened on all sides of all rooms to either a tropical flower and plant garden or at the top to a beautiful ocean view in the near distance.
A two-story hut, it came with a funky red tiled bathroom, kitchen and wooden floored living room downstairs and extremely large bedroom upstairs, complete with king sized bed with mosquito net, dresser, a wide closet, two nightstands, a wooden couch and coffee table and an oriental rug. They even added a few small but pleasant details, such as a hand carved tree truck table downstairs, a few pictures and tapestries on the wall, a traditional blue and white painted ox cart and beautiful tiling throughout. The bathroom also had a colorful tropical stained class door with parrots on one side of the shower and an unusually shaped stone wall on the other.
It was the first night we broke out the mosquito coils, although with the harsh rains and windy breeze, we encountered more cockroaches, ants and other small bugs than we did mosquitoes.
The next morning, we headed to the beach early and combed the shores for another wide selection of beautifully shaded and unusually shaped rocks. Some were similar to the colors found in the southwestern region of the U.S.; a lot of earthy tones, deep reds not unlike the wild Nevada and New Mexican desert -- mustard yellows, and solid white with crystal, grays and browns with bold white stripes and holes in unusual places.
I felt as if I was Charlie entering the chocolate factory for the first time; with every new set of crashing waves came a new selection of rocks in various sizes and colors to choose from, in addition to a handful of smaller seashells.
The shells in this area were less profound and dramatic than the rocks. Together we combed the beach and scouted for new variations while a couple of vultures combed the same area looking for ‘prey.’
Part of our first afternoon was spent researching our options and trying to get a line on one of the four pay phones in the town. Two didn’t work, one was a phone card machine only and the other one usually had a long que. We found this to be standard in most of the villages we visited during our stay. The local phones were located just outside the local grocery store, with a local souvenir store on one side and a postcard and seashell shop on the other. Both were incredibly bare with the grocer offering only a few fruit selections, bottled water, yogurt, canned goods, a basket of vegetables, pasta, rice and garlic. The souvenir shop was also small and limited, offering a few multi-colored bikinis, men’s shorts, sarongs, and a collection of locally made beaded necklaces.
The rest of the beachfront was also scarce – two bars, poorly maintained cabanas and a four-table pizzeria run by Art, and his partner. It was a very basic ‘hole in the wall,’ however it had an interesting, eclectic flare to it, enough of one to draw you in for a closer look. Art looked like a cross between a younger Bob Dylan, Jesus Christ and an Australian surfer from the 1960s. He had shoulder length blonde hair with a bandana and wore an open vest and a pair of torn and discolored shorts with no shoes. His skin was weathered and darkly tanned. He also had high distinct cheekbones and a gently trustworthy looking face. His female partner also had weathered skin, wore a ponytail with a braid and loosely fit colored trousers and a free flowing shirt. Both were very much part of the Montezuma culture, which after a few days, reminded me of a cross between Goa, India on the west coast and a Southeast Asian unspoiled beach town from the 1960s.
Extremely young Americans and Europeans have recently pounced on the area, looking for a cheap beachside village to drink, dance and have sex far away from home. The facilities in the area were too underdeveloped to attract the wealthier western tourist, although we ran into an older Canadian and British couple while we were there. The roads were still not paved and they just brought phones into the area for the first time in 1997.
Needless to say, it took us two days before we finally got one of the phones to work, so I managed to check a very static voice mail one day and called American Airlines to see if we could extend our flight the next day. We also left word for Jack Busta, Jarod’s friend from college, who was apparently in San Jose for a couple of weeks for a dance camp and would soon to be joined by Helen, his fiancée. Since Jarod just left PriceWater Coopers and did not have an email account with his new firm yet, he opened a free account with Yahoo.
We were hoping to use his Yahoo account to access the Internet and check for messages from Jack during the trip, so we could join them for a day and evening somewhere along the way.
The oddest thing was that this non-symbiotic mix of third world culture offered limited basic services and ill-equipped communications facilities on one hand and two little shops offering email, fax service and a restaurant showing DVD movies on the other.
The rest of Montezuma was sprawled out on two other main roads. One trailed the rest of the beach and two simple travel bureaus, a gift shop, two hotels, two restaurants and an outside open air souvenir stand run by a French couple, were sprawled along a 200 yard strip through the center of the village.
The French woman was much more versatile and engaging than her male partner, also French. Attractive and tan, she wore a crocheted bikini top, a tropical short skirt and walked around with a monkey around her neck most of the time. She spoke fluent Spanish, French and English. When they were not glued to their shop, I frequently saw her on the back of a beat up old pick-up truck with her monkey and other Costa Ricans, who either worked with them or for them. Their shop had beaded hand-made jewelry, wooden trinkets, leather hand painted barrettes, wooden toucans and parrots, funky beach clothing and brightly colored hammocks from Guatemala and Nicaragua. Jarod managed to find two off the wall zany colored beach shorts for around $10; both made a statement. He also found some interesting jewelry for Fern and Ali.
We both engaged in a twenty minute friendly bargaining session over the hammocks, managing to get them down to close to $35 each. The fun part was unfolding all of them, rolling them out and closely investigating the crochet work before we finally settled on two choices, vibrant purple and bold red. It became a fun jaunt to hang out on the main strip, browse and people watch.
It was also conveniently cushioned between another funky shop on the second floor, where they burned incense, sold tie die paraphernalia and stained glass jewelry and the infamous El Sano Banana Cafe.
El Sano Banana became our local hangout and meeting place for the next four days. It was a meeting haven for travelers; the atmosphere inviting, the food healthy and they offered a different DVD movie every night. The back stone patio area had six or so round tiled stone tables and chairs that circled a large tropical plant which rose through the roof. The front was full of a dozen or so wooden tables under a hard plastic and wooden roof, which picked up every loud raindrop when the heavy afternoon rains hit. They prided themselves on organic natural food and everything on the menu was true to their philosophy. They served natural frozen yogurt, exotic fruit shakes, and homemade bread, biscuits, muffins, salads and sandwiches.
Some of the more natural selections included a humus vegetable sandwich, avocado and garlic, scrambled tofu, dorado (mahi mahi) in pineapple garlic sauce, spaghetti with fresh tomato, basil and pesto, granola and fresh blackberry. The menu was limited to only five main dinner specials a night; however, the main draw was the friendly atmosphere, healthy menu choices and the regular evening movies.
Like every other Costa Rican town, the place was empty by 10 pm, more common during low season. People rose early to take advantage of the morning sunshine, clear blue skies and low tide.
We met up with Andrea, Lea and Jason for some herbal tea, and shared our plans while watching the iguanas in the neighboring yard, the red squirrels in the trees and the beautiful blue jays. Andrea was extremely quiet most of the time and listened more than offered opinion; part of it was obviously her limited knowledge of the English language.
Lea, Jason, Jarod and I decided to embark on an all day trip to Tortuga – Isle Tortuga, which in Spanish means turtle. Italian suave Fabio, our boat driver and guide for the day, was a natural ‘Indiana Jones of the Sea.’ He had lived in a number of fishing ports around the world, including Koh Pakhet Thailand.
Fabio noticed the Thai symbol on my T-shirt immediately and asked in his broken English if I bought it in Bangkok. Now over ten years old, my Chiang Mai T-shirt was old and worn, but Fabio recognized it immediately as he spoke with passion of his time in Thailand, which brought back my own beautiful memories of the unspoiled paradise.
It was difficult to understand Fabio at the best of times, whether it was Italian, Spanish or English; however when he did speak up, it was with energy and passion. His accent was strong, his physique was slim and lean and his skin darkly tanned, which only made his brightly white teeth stand out. It was obvious that he had not spent much time, if any, in a well developed western city. We later learned that he had a wife and child living in San Jose; however his love for the sea prevented him from being able to live in a city and her need to be close to her family and a city civilization prevented her from being with him at sea. His face showed sadness when he spoke of them; however, he also acknowledged that if he were forced to move to a city, his soul would die.
I combed the beach again for more rocks and shells before we left on a ninety-minute boat ride at full speed to Isle Tortuga. We passed a beautiful waterfall and swimming hole and herds of seagulls and other ocean birds on the way. The trip was rough, as the boat sped along over the large swells and surf. As we approached Isle Tortuga, we realized just how remote it was. Not far from Bahia Gigante, the island was uninhabited, although we heard rumors that a man was in the process of building a house.
It had a beautiful wide open sandy beach cushioned in between a protected cove directly across from small rocky island, where we later swam around and dove for oysters.
Apparently the island received ticos on weekends and there were open areas where visitors could grill and picnic nestled in between palm trees and hammocks.
We were fortunate to be on the only ones on the island and it was hard to imagine having to share it with anyone else. There were too many indicators; however, that this tiny little island could develop into a developed resort in the next five years. Since the drive for wealth and development is not a top priority for the local ticos as it is in many other third world hot spots, there is hope that the widespread importance to preserve the environment and the desire for a peaceful healthy life, will slow down this inevitable progression.
The beach was sandy, the water was warm and the sky was clear blue. We jumped off the boat and let the tide wash us to shore. A couple of hours later, Fabio took us to the outskirts of a neighboring island. Visible from Tortuga, the small rocky island’s vegetation was dense and the cliffs were intense. With no one in sight for miles, we snorkeled around the point for a few hours, diving for coral, sand dollars, starfish, oysters and crabs. It was Jarod’s first time snorkeling and with the waves as rough and untamed as they were around the point, it was not a good or safe time for anyone to get acclimated to using a snorkel and mask for the first time.
On top of this, motion sickness took over so Fabio ran him back to the island, where he found a comfortable rope hammock cushioned between two beautiful palm trees looking out over the ocean. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
Fabio, alias ‘Indiana Jones of the Sea’ pulled up lobster, clams and oysters from the bottom and brought them onto the boat to share. Using an old rusty knife, he tore them open, grabbed the clambering live shrimp swimming in the natural juices of the shell and ate them live.
Apparently, this is a symbiotic relationship between the two; the shrimp apparently clean the inner shell. Because we did not have better means of cleaning the shell, we only ate the fleshy heart of the oyster before opening a couple of Cervezas and heading to shore.
As we passed an old fishing boat on the way back to the island, Fabio waved and exchanged a few Italian phrases. He then turned to us, grinned and explained that he would exchange three beers and one of our coconuts for a freshly caught red snapper, which turned out to be over two feet in length.
I found Jarod sprawled out in a hammock reading a book and watching birds and other interesting wildlife through his binoculars. Together, we went to gaze at a beautifully colored parrot he had spotted earlier. We were able to get extremely close to him and watch him eat since one of his wings was damaged and he was unable to fly.
There were a few other tropical parrots, bright yellow hummingbirds and a couple of magpie bluejays.
We disappeared for a couple of hours into a corner cove searching for colorful oddly shaped rocks and shells, not found in such abundance on the mainland. Later, Jarod, Jason and I joined in a game of “Monkey in the Middle,” and various other water games that 11 year olds play. Worn out after a couple of hours of sand, sun and salt water, we crashed in the nearby hammocks and watched the active wildlife of the island in front of us. At one point, I felt as if I was on a funny farm. As I lounged on a hammock, I watched Jason chase a herd of chickens back and forth and up and down the beach, the cheeky parrot who couldn’t fly, and the numerous stray dogs, monkeys and iguanas in the immediate distance.
We watched Fabio prepare the fire and the fish, using basic sticks and materials. He borrowed a little garlic and onions from his fisherman friends on the boat and used a natural smoking technique to grill the fish over the hot flames.
He served it to us on a banana leaf and we ate it wildly with our hands, drinking Cerveza and enjoying the “isolation” of the island. We were lucky to have so much beauty and peacefulness to ourselves and didn’t at one moment, take this for granted. Nor did we take for granted the fact that it didn’t rain or cloud over the entire afternoon, incredibly rare during rainy season.
Leaving the island was somewhat depressing. While we were exhausted, waterlogged and pruned from having spent so much time in the sea, I felt as if I could still have romped around in the water for hours, until the darkness forced us to return to shore. It was a rough trip back; however on the way, we spotted a flock of playful dolphins that jumped in and out of the water, above the large swells as they swam along side our boat.
We headed to El Sano Banana that night for another fish dinner, fresh fruit shakes and their evening movie, A Life Less Ordinary, which if it wasn’t a Quentin Tarantino movie, it was trying to be. Following the movie, Andrea, Lea, Jarod, Jason and I were discussing the movie when I suddenly felt flushed and feverish, as if I had picked up an infection.
The gracious El Sano Banana staff tried to reach a couple of doctors in neighboring Cobano, some twenty minutes away and called a taxi so we could get a diagnosis and an antibiotic the same night.
Lea became motherly and instructional and since I was not in any shape to argue, Jarod, Lea and I piled into a taxi and twenty five minutes later, arrived in a very dark and very quiet Cobano. The clinic was closed, one doctor was not at home and while the only other one was at home, she would not see me. She gave Lea, who translated the symptoms, some Ibuprofen and Motrin for pain.
The next morning, we headed back to Cobano early in the morning and reached the clinic by 7 am. The doctor, a young woman in her thirties, listened to Lea as she once again translated the symptoms.
She concurred that it was likely a bladder infection and went on to explain that this was extremely common in young women, particularly American women visiting the area.
There was a pharmacy attached to the clinic, so we picked up the Motrin and prescribed Cefalexina and headed back to Montezuma for some morning yogurt, fruit juice and avocado toast.
We didn’t have to pay for the visit or the antibiotics due to poor organization and record keeping. The doctor finally shrugged after we had been waiting for thirty minutes, saying that the paperwork had not been completed and that I should not be forced to wait as a result of their poor record keeping and filing system. Although Jarod attempted to offer her a $5 donation, she would not accept it.
The day before, we had booked a 4WD with four others to go to Playa Samara along the coast, directly through the center of the country opposed to the long route, back to Pochara and across the channel. This would involve returning to Punteranas on the mainland, catching another ferry to Playa Narajo and then hope for a bus or taxi north to Jicaral, where we would have to change for Nicoya and then connect in Nicoya for a bus to Samara.
While transportation is fairly good in Costa Rica in general, the roads on the south coast this time of year are often treacherous, and the buses infrequent. This option would have taken us twelve hours to get to the coast, losing an entire day. We tried to extend our reservation to the next day; however they did not have another truck leaving the area for day, possibly two. They informed us that they would only give us a 50% refund or $20 in colonas at an extremely bad exchange rate.
We opted for a long six hour hike through a nearby reserve, full of long windy paths, long dense trees with a wide variety of monkeys, interesting foliage and muddy slopes.
Before we left the Montezuma coast, we spent our first truly lazy afternoon reading, lounging, soaking, laughing, telling stories, looking at the colorful rocks and shells and drinking fresh shakes from El Sano Banana.
That evening, we shared two scrumptious dorado dinners and saw a better film than the previous night. Since the bureau was unable to find anyone else to share the cost of a 4WD to Samara or Nicoya, we decided to forfeit our 50% rather than hang out in Montezuma another day.
We left the next morning on an early 5 am bus to Punteranas knowing that it would be a long and exhausting day. Jarod turned into a male trooper, heading up the mission of getting the heavy bags from Point A to Point B. Once in Punteranas, with 95 degrees and even higher humidity by 8 am, we decided to re-investigate our options of getting to Samara. The flood warning was over for the Playa Narajo area; however, there were only a limited number of buses on poor roads heading north through the center of the country towards Nicoya and Santa Cruz.
Our other option was a shorter ferry crossing some 25 kilometers north of Punteranas; however, no buses ran this route since it turned out to be more of a local commuter crossing for local ticos than a commercial or tourist driven crossing.
We spent the next hour or so bargaining with three local taxi drivers, all of them fairly humorous. We watched the exchange between them as they discussed the pros and cons of driving two Gringoes three hours all the way to Samara at 20% off the “book list” price, which was apparently a fairly accepted rate by Costa Rican standards. We agreed to a hefty $70, which while it well exceeded our budget, was worth it given the intense humidity and saving us eight hours of travel time.
The route we took was a non-traditional route; the crossing was on a large platform that roughly fit ten cars with two smaller raised platforms on each side for passengers. The view, while not breathtaking, was tranquil; the sky almost florescent blue with hardly no clouds. A couple of young boys came on board to sell flavored ice sticks. It was amusing to watch the two compete for sales as they walked up and down the platform, shouting “Helados” at the hot and tired pedestrians. Their clothing and their haircuts were old fashioned; made me think of what Thoo must have looked like as a small boy, with Uncle Ed selling ice from a 1930s ice cart in Gloversville.
We arrived at Playa Samara in the pouring rain. To avoid a potential taxi/hotel commission deal, we asked to be dropped off at the Marisqueria Colochos on the main drag, a restaurant apparently well known for its seafood. Empty and damp, two women sat at a far end table crocheting white tablecloths. We ordered a basic typia dish waiting for the rain to subside before setting off under umbrella and poncho to find a hotel for the night.
The nearby Hotel Giada is where we ended up at $30 including tax and breakfast. Before we decided on the quaint Italian owned villa, we walked down a back road heading towards the German run Hotel Las Brisas Del Pacifico, a higher end resort on the beach. Along the way, there were a string of smaller pensions amidst stunningly beautiful tropical gardens.
Hotel Belvedere, would have been an excellent second choice. Set up on a hill with tiled stairs leading up to the main stone balcony overlooking the village and sea in the distance, it was managed by a French woman who spoke English well. The balcony had tables with white tablecloths and an excellent view - $28 a night including tax if you paid in cash, including breakfast. The rooms were in T-pee like straw huts so were very small and cramped; however the rooms included a mosquito net and a tiny balcony with a hammock.
Across the road from the sprawled out hillside T-pee huts sat a large cow that made extremely loud deep noises every few minutes. His ‘moos’ were so loud and so deep that on one hand, we couldn’t help but laugh. On the other hand, however, we imagined frequent doses of his outbursts throughout the night.
A couple of the other nearby cabanas had extremely basic rooms, shared bath with cold water and were not very clean. After we checked into Giada, we did a pile of hand laundry until the water dried up. We quickly discovered that the cow a few blocks away, was loud enough to be heard from the Giada back row rooms. For the next three days, we dealt with the cows frequent outbursts, 4 am roosters and a unreliable water supply. The day would start with no water, change to brown water, then onto no hot water and eventually to scorching hot water. The people were extremely friendly and responsive; however, and did their best to fix the situation quickly. It was also one of the cleanest places we had discovered to-date.
The next few days in Samara were glorious – full of sunny days and breezy nights and very few people regardless of which direction on the beach you walked. We spent our mornings walking up and down the beaches.
The first morning we took a longer trek around the point and over the rocky cliffs, which had sharp jagged tops and clear rock pools. Here we discovered fish and beautifully colored coral. We eagerly filled a third bag full of exquisite coral and rock samples and spent the remainder of the day exploring the beach and body surfing in the crashing waves.
We quickly discovered that the Las Brisas Del Pacifico Resort not only had reasonably priced off-season rates for rooms, but $15 an hour massages and an extremely well priced dinner menu with a diverse variety of scrumptious dishes.
We succumbed to pescado tropical style, squid with garlic, shrimp on a brochette and the infamous Mariscada for 3000 colonas or $10 including tax and tip. This amazingly memorable dish included a large piece of grilled mahi mahi, a full squid with tentacles and tail stuffed with bread crumbs, mussels, clams and jumbo shrimp. In addition to our gluttonous in-take of Las Brisas ‘especiales,’ we drank several fresh fruit shakes daily. You could create your own creative blends for roughly $1, including melon, watermelon, blackberry, pineapple, coconut, banana, papaya and mango.
The pool was clean and empty most of the day and a ten second walk lead you to the nearly bare sandy beachfront, where we lazily lounged in beach chairs in between frequent dunks in the sea. We also discovered that the top of an attached building to the main complex, had another pool and hot tub, which provided a breathtaking view of the ocean and nearby islands.
It was also an excellent place to spy birds and other interesting wildlife. We secretly engaged in a quiet afternoon on the top of the roof and surrounding area; swimming nude, feeling as if there were no one else in the universe. In one of the upper balcony rooms at Las Brisas, a local woman gave $15 an hour massages, We decided to finish one of our sunbathed days with a relaxing massage before bringing in the evening.
On Friday night, we discovered a local tico hangout with live music; the small open air bar at the Aquaria. The atmosphere was extremely relaxed and the festive evening that followed was refreshingly Costa Rican.
Dogs came in, weaned their way through the dancers, waiters were dancing with customers, groups of people shared large tables, men lined the bar smoking cigarettes and watching the dancers. People also brought their own hand made wooden musical instruments, including a tambourine, a pair of shakers and an unusually shaped piece made of wood with an attached utensil that was used to strum back and forth to create the desired sound. They laughed, smiled, drank Cervezas and howled to rowdy songs, as they welcomed us into their community bar.
We scored several brownie points after we doing a Lindy number to a Rock & Roll medley the band played, starting with Rock Around The Clock in Spanish. It was one of those ten minute long medleys that you thought would never end. Nothing could make us leave the dance floor until the end despite the duration of the tune, the heat, humidity and lack of ventilation. The ticos were cheering us and clapping while they ‘gave us the floor,’ to shine.
Following our Lindy number, one of the more gregarious characters of the bar, Flanco, came over to our table and introduced himself. Dressed in a short sleeve blue Hawaiian like shirt and casual plastic Birkenstock like shoes, he explained in broken English that he lived in the apartment outside the bar.
It was obvious that he was a central integral part of this community since he seemed to know all the ticos at the table and everyone seemed to know him. He danced with all of the women, whom he also seemed to know fairly well and ended up dancing every number without a break.
He reminded Jarod and I of Lou or Eli from the Boston swing dance community; two elderly gentlemen who continue to pine for the younger more attractive ladies. Silver haired Lou in particular, prides himself on keeping up with younger women and having the stamina to outdo the younger men on the dance floor. We smiled at the odd but fun filled circus environment around us while we watched and engaged in Salsa, Meringue, Cha-Cha and west coast swing, dodging the dogs in the process. While I never got an opportunity to dance with Flanco (skinny in Spanish, although it was not obvious why he would have this as a nickname), another young tico asked me to dance. He had a dark moustache and wore a T-shirt and jeans. He could have been from any one of the numerous Marlboro cigarette magazine ads. His English was almost non-existent except for “I love you, I love you, I’m in love with you,” with a strong Costa Rican Spanish accent.
I felt as if I were in some cheap Spanish movie and couldn’t help but laugh hysterically through the entire number and grin at Jarod who found the entire incident rather amusing. He then proceeded to grab one of his bar buddy’s hats and place it on my head while he waltzed me around the floor and Jarod took my photograph in the midst of this friendly and fun filled circus event.
My next dance was with the owner of the ‘hat.’ The women at the table gave me that universal ‘female’ look that all women give each other when they are put into that kind of awkward situation.
The following evening was not quite as eventful. The band was more of a low key Latino group who set up at the local Dorado Restaurant on the same road to the other slightly higher priced hotel and resort, the Isla Chora Inn. While more renown for its La Chora Discotheque and its genuine Italian ice cream parlor, the grounds were well maintained as was the dark blue painted swimming pool cushioned nicely between coconut palms and a cobblestone path to the bar. It was a disappointment after our active evening with the local ticos of the town the previous night, not to mention the engaging and diverse live music.
We decided it was time to leave Samara, so after another early morning long stroll to the far end cliffs of the beach, we prepared ourselves for a 1 pm bus to Nicoya, where we would change for Santa Cruz on a bus heading north to Liberia. It was Sunday so the bus connections were infrequent. After a quick calculation of bus schedules and estimated times, we realized it would take the better half of the day to get to the northern coast.
While I was sitting on the side of the road on top of our backpacks waiting for the local bus to come and Jarod was investigating the tickets for the bus, I started talking to an Australian who was trying to hitch a lift a few hundred yards from me.
Jarod later had a discussion with him as well while I was negotiating with a taxi driver who whizzed by. The Australian had plenty of time to hitch for a lift up the coast along the rough underdeveloped road to Nosara.
He had long hair, a strong accent and a long knife in his hand with a ripe tomato and some bread; his presence reminded me of the 1970s third world travel scene and how dramatically different his world was to our own at this point in our lives. It also reminded me of myself after college, hitching from European town to town, plotting out the next adventure on a moment’s notice.
He ended up getting a lift from a vehicle towing a car – Jarod saw him climb into the towed vehicle and pull away together. His adventure made us reflect on our own interesting experiences so far.
Playa Hermosa Via Nicoya (with Harry Connick Jr.)
As Jarod ran down the block to check on bus tickets, a Nicoya based taxi drove by asking where we were heading to that afternoon. I indicated that we were planning to take a bus to Nicoya, then onto Playa Hermosa on the northern coast and pointed to the parked bus some 600 feet away. Since he had to drive back to Nicoya regardless of whether he had a passenger or not, he gave us a 50% discount to the city center, where we would be able to catch an earlier bus to the coast.
We then embarked on a negotiation exchange for a reduced rate all the way to the coast. Jarod came back in the middle of the bargaining process and together, we agreed on 7000 colonas or roughly $26 non-stop all the way to Playa Hermosa. This turned out to be another lucky break considering the poor connections on Sunday and the rainstorm that hit later that afternoon. We also had a significant amount of luggage at that point; not only were the hammocks awkward to carry, but the piles of heavy stones, shells and coral had more than doubled by the time we left Samara.
As soon as we threw our luggage into the air-conditioned taxi, he turned to us and asked if we had any music to play. Jarod pulled out a Harry Connick Jr. cassette and we spent the next few hours whizzing down the highway in comfort listening to brilliant jazz selections. We passed through the quaint and interesting cultural center of Nicoya en route before he dumped us at the end of a dirt road literally on the beach edge.
With out luggage piled on top of each other and the hammocks propped up against the mass of bags, we must have looked like vagabonds in search for shelter. This time, Jarod stayed with the luggage and I trekked down the beach looking for cabanas to rent.
Lea and Jason had recommended the beachfront Hermosa Inn, which had a nice veranda, a small pool and a ton of iguanas roaming around the garden. The woman at the hotel showed me a dingy, dark backroom for $39 a night, excluding taxes and didn’t seem to want to budge on price. I continued up the beach to discover only one more basic cabanas a few yards from the white beach sand, with cold water, shared bath and dingy rooms for $20.
Moving down the beach in the opposite direction was a fairly sprawled out cabanas for $30, with basic fans on the ground floor that faced the beach. While it would have been nice to hear the crashing waves, it was also attached to the adjoined fairly noisy Italian restaurant. There were a couple of hammocks, a few spider monkeys running around, iguanas on the grounds amidst a mass of palm trees, not to mention a handful of red crabs running up and down the paved path.
After I returned, Jarod took over and headed up the paved road towards the main road. Moments later, he returned in a van with an English speaking Canadian Mark in his late 40s. Mark has co-owned and managed the nearby Villas Del Sueno with his Montreal partner for the past six years. The off-season room rates without tax were $40, or including tax if you paid in cash. Nestled in a quiet location in the hills five minutes from the beach, it was further away from the early morning roosters and beachside bars.
With virtually no night life off season, the evenings were quiet and dark and most of the ticos turned in by 9 pm. The nearby villages of Playa Del Coco and Flamingo offered more restaurants, discotheques and bars for visiting Gringoes and tour companies for daily excursions. The area was apparently also more commercialized, westernized and by default, expensive.
Villas Del Sueno, while only five minutes to the beachfront itself, felt extremely remote since there wasn’t must else around the eight or so rooms located on two levels. Apparently there is a law that prohibits people from building and expanding commercial property too high, which may be one of the few graces that could save the area from turning into an overdeveloped Daytona Beach for wealthy college aged Gringoes in years to come.
The hotel, while Mediterranean in feel, actually had a number of southern African momentos, including Zimbabwean batiks on the walls of the rooms. The two Montreal partners (of about six) that we met, were both musicians and had a drum set, microphones, speakers and other equipment set up on a stage area that faced the restaurant and pool area. They frequently played Johnny Clegg and Savuka CDs when they weren’t playing other classic 1960s Jazz, Blues and Rock tunes.
We were on the beach moments after arriving, exploring other hotels and restaurants in the area in more depth, including El Velero on the beach. El Velero had a café with a colorful toucan (not tamed so we were told), a swimming pool, beachfront chairs, a great menu albeit more expensive and two large trees in the front, full of exotic tropical birds.
Next to the Hermosa Inn was the recommended Aqua Sport Restaurant, where we had dinner and played Game 5 of Rummy. During rainy spells or during odd holes in our day or evening, we would whip out the deck of cards and engage in an intense competitive game of Rummy, counting the number of losses, wins and total score for each game. The bet was a free movie ticket and until Game 5, I had been winning. While I was still ahead after Game 5, Jarod managed to beat me by over 200 points, cleaning up the table.
Our first night, we enjoyed a night swim in the ocean and Del Sueno pool, while Savuka and other ethnic classics from around the world were playing in the background. For the first night since we had landed in Costa Rica, we were not awaken to 4 am roosters. This resulted in an early morning start the next day. We eagerly filled the bag full of the usual daily items….binoculars, suntan lotion, sunglasses, towels, water bottle, beach mat, waterproof windbreaker, books, money belts and the coconut we had picked up on Isle Tortuga.
More on Jason and Lea
As we were strolling along the beach just after 8 am, Lea spotted us through her binoculars. She was standing behind a gate in a long flowing dress looking through her binoculars towards the sea. Soon thereafter, we ended up on the veranda of Hermosa Inn, sharing morning dark roast Costa Rican Café Britt with hot milk. She introduced us to the current tico owner and manager, a woman who spoke no English but graciously welcomed us. We sat in comfortable wicker chairs watching birds, iguanas and exchanging stories from the past three to four days until Jason rolled out of bed and joined us.
Since our hotel did not include breakfast, I pulled out the coconut we had been lugging around for the past week or so. Jarod and Jason took turns trying to crack it open using a sharp stone on the side of the villa until the woman brought them an iron machete. It was a lovely reunion and the connection between them was as strong and dynamic as it was when we first met them. We spent the morning discussing the untruth of the JFK case, the manipulation of the American press and corruption of U.S. politics, ill conveyed history, recommended books and authors, Scottish, Irish and English wars and American movies, TV and pop culture.
While Jarod engaged Jason in an hour or more discussion on comic books and super hero stories, I listened to Lea tell me about her life. Married twice, her second husband (Jason’s father), suffered brain damage from a car accident a few years ago. His personality apparently turned aggressive, which poisoned their relationship between them, to such an extent that Lea issued a restraining order and moved out of the state. It was at that point that she decided to start a new, healthier life outside the U.S., now over three years ago. Since then, they have lived and managed hotels and resorts in Guatemala, Belize and most recently Mexico, after a six-month experience in Hawaii.
Her first husband, a ‘corporate’ man worked twelve-hour days, growing further and further away from his family. By the time he realized that he was ready to lose his wife and child, it was too late. Sadly, a common familiar story in the U.S. over the past decade.
Her first born, now 16 years old, lives in the Bay Area and spends most of his time on a computer hacking and coding. She claims that both of her children are non-conformists but extremely bright; something I could relate to myself. This was apparent from watching Jason interact with his environment over the past couple of weeks.
Jarod, Jason and I spent long afternoon hours body surfing and diving into the large oncoming swells until sunset. I watched Lea look on from shore occasionally through her binoculars with glowing approval. A woman who ‘watches for signs and lives her life following those signs,’ spoke of their travels and how fortunate they were to meet up with solid, inspiring male role models along the way. It was evident to me that Jarod was one of those role models who could provide a unique perspective, quite different than many other shoestring travelers they were likely to encounter along the way.
Beach Sand Crabs
We left them at sunset promising to return an hour later after a shower and a change. As we made our way down the dark road towards the beach and set foot on the sand, our small rubber waterproof torch provided a guiding light in the total darkness ahead of us. Even the moonlight and thousands of stars didn’t help pave our way.
We found ourselves surrounded by foot long lobster red colored crabs. As we dodged left to avoid a group on the right, more appeared on the left. Blinded by the light of the torch, they either froze or ran towards us, unable to fathom which direction they should move or what to do next. Wearing Birkenstocks and Teevas with open toes, I grew from disconcerted to panic stricken.
To avoid the stress of dealing with my fear and yelps all the way down the beach, Jarod headed back alone with torch in hand, to fetch Lea and Jason. He brought them back to our hotel restaurant where we decided to hang for the night given the incoming storm. My discomfort with any and all of the creatures of the tropics is likely a similar discomfort that Lea feels when she is in a city – fear of the unknown; what is unfamiliar to us, alien.
Feeling somewhat lame and pathetic, I recalled the numerous days and nights as a child growing up in Caroga Lake where I played with all male cousins in the lake and woods. We would pull snails out of their shells, chop of legs of Daddy Long Leg spiders with the rest of the neighborhood kids and collect lightening bugs, caterpillars, worms and toads. This fear has obviously developed from living a corporate lifestyle in a city over the past several years.
Costa Rica, renown for its enlightened approach to conservation, is full of a variety of species, which are frequently easy to see in their natural habitat. We were fortunate to see our first Costa Rican toucan that day. The downside was our encounter with the sand crabs the same evening. Apparently local tico children chase the crabs with a stick, knock off their shell, throw them in a bag and bring them home to their mothers to make crab soup.
In Montezuma, Jarod had picked up the nickname Indiana Bloom and Jason was given two alias’ - the J-Man and “The Chosen One.” Both of them were relentless when they returned. They reminded me that I would ‘never live this one down.’
We all enjoyed a candlelight dinner at the Del Sueno, joked and chatted through the night until we closed the restaurant down close to midnight, very late by Costa Rican standards. Knowing that they were Nicaragua bound the next day and that it was our last evening to exchange stories, discuss philosophies, books, authors and politics, it was difficult to end the evening.
Later, we used their reception phone to call the states. It was a novelty to actually get a line the first time, so quickly and with a clear connection. The reality of this hit me with sadness as I realized that we were only a couple of days away from facing the first world energy and reality. Jarod commented how quickly my demeanor had changed, from quiet and tranquil to more corporate and stressful.
Lea, Jarod and I discussed the pros and cons of this society over our ‘corporate’ western lifestyle in the U.S., the life Lea and Jason chose to leave behind. We spoke of the false sense of security that Americans create for themselves; with the media and the politicians helping to reinforce these thoughts and fears through the ‘power’ of their fabricated messages.
Our last day at Playa Hermosa was one of reflection – we jumped in the waves, doing side flips and dives to the bottom of the ocean floor, digging for seashells and interesting rocks. We played in the sea and Jason would come to my rescue when Jarod splashed me and vice versa; a game of good vs evil, protector vs villain.
There was a strong sense of freedom on this trip and neither one of us wanted the frolicking days in the ocean to come to an end.
It was interesting how many people – both ticos and Gringoes – referred to Costa Rica as either having no culture, limited culture or borrowed culture, from the Aztecs, Olmecs, Mayas and the Spanish. This influence was evident from their jewelry, woodcraft, pottery and paintings, which nationwide, were not as plentiful as many other third world countries. While they speak of a history of jade and stonework, we found little stonework on our travels and no jade.
On Culture & History
Costa Rica is famous for its natural beauty and friendliness of the people, rather than its culture. There is very little indigenous cultural influence, particularly when compared to its neighboring countries. Coffee and birds seem to be the most ‘symbolic’ and both, in one form or another, can be found in every town. Decaffeinated coffee was harder to find and slightly more expensive as were whole beans. Café Britt is considered to be one of the finer choices and in most supermarkets, ranged from 900 to 1200 colonas, or $3-4. It was possible to find cheaper choices, particularly smaller bags of ‘local to the area’ ground coffee grain.
We found a good selection in the Monteverde area, with both dark and light roast as options. Apparently the increase of coffee exports in the latter half of the 19th century was one of the main reasons for Costa Rican’s growth and transition from a small poor Central American country to a wealthier, more powerful one.
Its history is interesting and speaks of a struggle between the Spanish in the 1500s, independence in the 1800s, the conquest between Nicaragua in the latter half of the same history, and the turn to democracy, which was an obvious hallmark of Costa Rican politics. One was between 1917 and 1919, when the Minister of War, Frederico Timoco overthrew the democratically elected president and formed a dictatorship. This ended in Tinoco’s exile and after opposition from the rest of Costa Rica and the U.S. government.
Socialists were in power in the early 1940s until fraud and other scandalous issues resulted in the formation of the Costa Rican constitution, which is still in effect today. The reference to Costa Rica as the Switzerland of Central America, is heavily influenced by the constitutional dissolution of the armed forces and its continued democracy.
The passive, friendly and trustworthy attitude we encountered throughout our trip is partially due to their strong, peaceful, anti-army ecological and non-monetary driven beliefs. Nearly three weeks later, the history, culture and religion make sense.
While I haven’t made a single reference to religion in any of my entries, we did notice a strong Catholicism sentiment in the many churches we saw in the villages, and the well-recognized photograph of Jesus Christ in the buses, restaurants and hotels.
Costa Rica in general, does not appear to be as religious as many other Latin American countries, although most natives would consider themselves Catholics. There is a small Jewish community as well as a few fundamentalists, evangelists and Mormons, however we did not encounter any during our stay.
The overall main reflection I had was the overwhelming friendliness and simplicity of the people, as well as a general healthy and positive attitude towards life in general. We discussed this with Canadian Mark, who has lived here for six plus years and while he agreed with this sentiment that practically every visitor feels, he also brought up their lack of long term thinking, particularly related to business acumen.
The topic came up as we were waiting along the road in drizzling rain for the bus to Liberia and a Liberian based taxi en route back stopped to see if we wanted a lift for half his normal rate or 2000 colonas. When we offered him 1000 colonas, he drove off without a single passenger, forfeiting any profit on the trip back. According to Mark, a Costa Rican would rather rent a beachfront house at $1000 per month for three months rather than $500 for twelve months.
The shorter view of economic gain is more likely attributed to a cultural attitude than it is through lack of education. With the highest literacy rate in Latin America and compulsory education through ninth grade, the education system appears to be in good shape. The children also seem to take pride in their appearance at school; we frequently noticed the crisp, cleanly pressed white uniform shirts and pleated skirts and trousers, even in the smaller, more rural towns and villages.
Despite Mark’s slightly negative comment towards Costa Ricans in business, he would never trade his decision to move his life here. He and his five other partners appear to have a relaxed, yet thriving and lucrative hotel and restaurant business with a lot of free time for traveling and playing music. Mark dropped us off in a 1976 Suzuki jeep, which he more frequently used for shorter distances on some of the tougher coastal roads.
It was a third hand, old American school bus with torn seats and broken windows that finally picked us up for an hour journey to Liberia, where we would change buses for San Jose, our final destination. The bus station was typical of many we had been to; a few eateries with typia food – fried chicken, rice, beans and a form of fried dough, the brightly colored dolls with shiny faces and stuffed toys and a mass of wooden benches. The ‘banos’ were closed so I found myself running behind a stone wall where I thought I would find some privacy, but ended up sharing my space with a noisy hen.
A couple of hours later, the bus came to an abrupt stop. When we jumped out, we noticed the back-to-back cars, trucks and flatbeds full of cattle, crops and soon thereafter heard sirens, and saw flashing lights. We assumed we either just hit an accident on this winding curvy two lane road or something was blocking the road. It turned out to be the latter as Jarod discovered from a local, who explained that a herd of large boulders had fallen across the road blocking the way.
Since we were held up for the next two hours on this rainy dark road, we split our time between standing outside the bus next to the flatbed of cattle, reading and sleeping. We realized that with such a late arrival, we would likely have to either camp out at the airport in Alejeula if it was even possible or ‘taxi it’ to a more expensive hotel in the suburbs.
When we arrived, we taxied it to Alejuela, approximately two kilometers away, where I checked out the dingy, dark rooms at Hotel Alejuela. Although it was approaching midnight and we were tired and ready to introduce head to pillow as quickly as possible, we both opted for a more slightly longer ride to the U.S. owned Hotel Orquideas, an additional six kilometers west of the city. After we spoke on the phone, he agreed to leave the key with the guard for us, so as we approached the Spanish-style mansion on the side of a hill in the suburbs, we were not only greeted but welcomed, as the guard with a black ‘policia’ hat grabbed our luggage and escorted us to our room.
I negotiated a 20% discount from $64 to $48, including tax and a full American breakfast for paying in cash. The room was clean and beautifully painted with a patchy ragged Italian look.
I woke up before 6 am and although a voice inside told me to walk outside and investigate this mansion setting we had only seen in darkness, I forced myself to sleep for another hour.
I was up, showered and ready to move when the 8 am alarm went off; the latest we had started our day since we arrived in the country. Anxious, both negatively and positively about the trip back to the U.S., I secretly wanted to prolong the journey for as long as possible.
I walked around the villa through the attached door, which led to another room. There were four locals immediately outside our door plastering cement to a domed open walkway, which connected the two story building of rooms to the restaurant, bar and reception area. Our surroundings were very tropical, which was an odd parody considering that we were in the suburbs of Alejuela and had already mentally prepared ourselves for a city environment once we left Playa Hermosa.
I heard an American voice shout ‘breakfast’ just after 8 am. As I peered out the window at the top of our natural wooden door, I saw a gray bearded man with a pony tail in his early fifties sipping a cup of coffee while talking to the work crew who were in the process of rebuilding his wall.
As we approached the breakfast outdoor patio area, Jarod spotted a toucan bird on the tiled surface and as soon as I noticed it, we spotted another one. As he ran back to grab the camera, I looked above me to see a brightly colored macaw parrot. The setting was absolutely stunning; cushioned in the middle of beautiful tropical gardens, the patio had umbrellas and faced a large Marilyn Monroe paraphernalia room with a tiled bar full of over a dozen dishes.
We eagerly filled our plates with fresh fruit, eggs, scrambled curry flavored potatoes, onions, meats, bagels, crumpets and jam. There was also freshly made Costa Rican coffee and tomato juice on hand; a perfect transition from Costa Rican life to our journey to Miami and onto Boston later that day.
The owner and his wife were welcoming, funny and hospitable and offered us both toucans and parrot to hold, at our own risk of course. The smaller toucans were apparently not a pair and fought for attention. While they jumped onto our arms and hands, they nibbled at our skin with their long beaks. While I expected one of them to remove one of my fingers, they focused more on pinching the skin of our forearms.
Jarod, who had just finished the powerful novels, Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London, jokingly made reference to himself as being “one with nature.” We shared holding the toucans and then Jarod decided to hold the large macaw for a photo despite their warning that if the bird sensed fear or uncertainty, he bird was likely to bite.
Before the bird ever made it over to Jarod’s arm, he bit him. I couldn’t help but laugh since only moments earlier, we were making satirical references to Indiana Bloom and Jarod feeling “one with nature.” Apparently the macaw was also extremely jealous of the other birds and became a pest the remainder of the our time, trying to draw us away from the toucans so we would focus our attention on him. It was amusing until he aggressively moved between us and the toucans, both the smaller ones and the two larger chestnut ones, who were apparently mating. It made it difficult at first to get a constant uninterrupted photo or view of toucans. As a result, I ended up shooting nearly a roll of film on them.
We spent the morning walking through the garden, playing with the toucans, observing the jealous social behavior of the parrot who kept saying ‘hello’ over and over again when he felt he needed more attention. We also looked at a small aquarium where they housed several small shiny black and florescent green frogs, which were apparently poisonous. They also had a pond full of beautifully bright orange fish in the back garden.
The front reception area was connected to an open sitting area with a comfortable cream colored American modern style couch, a square glass coffee table, a large TV set, a couple of mobile phones, an insignificant looking side table and a few tropical paintings on the wall. While a nice transition to our departure that day, the serene view, the sounds of the birds and the numerous tropical colors of the macaw and toucans were also reminders of our glorious time in Costa Rica, which made it even more difficult to feel positive about leaving when the taxi arrived.
I hummed ‘over the tropics and through the suburbs’ half way to the Alejuela airport…..’over the tropics and through the rainforest we go, the taxi knows the way……..’
As we waited for our flight to Miami with peeling backs and arms from the hot tropical sun, we smiled a happy adios to a beautiful memory of this unspoiled Central American paradise.
October 31, 1999
Costa Rica Early Thoughts
The idea of exploring Costa Rica originally entered my head through a few people who had spent some time in the area, particularly Guatemala, Mexico, Haiti and Panama. While the latter few never had much appeal, the stories of Costa Rica and Guatemala drew me in, enough to start reading and exploring the region.
I had read of the volcanoes and rainforests in Guatemala, and the hikes to the top of the mountains before sunrise, were you could sit peacefully amidst the dense clouds, mist and morning fog. As the sun would rise and the morning rolled in, a rich and vibrant jungle would be exposed before your eyes.
Those who spoke passionately of their experiences in Guatemala and Costa Rica were the same people who marveled over the experiences in Thailand, Indonesia and India over a decade ago. Sharing these experiences and this passion and not yet having the opportunity to explore the Central and Latin American region, I had always wondered what a tropical rainforest would 'feel like,' how it would engulf you, sweep you away and bring you closer to nature. The stories that we had heard about Costa Rica prior to our arrival, never truly revealed its culture or lack thereof, the friendliness of its people, and ease of travel despite the underdeveloped roads, or the carefree healthy attitude towards family, food and life in general.
I suppose if anything was revealed so apparently to us prior to our departure, was the richness of its tropical rainforests and an inherent belief in preserving them and the rest of the environment. While a little rest and relaxation on a quiet remote beach was in the back of both of our minds, adventure and an increased exposure to and a greater appreciation of nature and the region was a higher priority. I don't think we really understood the magnitude of the latter until we arrived, and San Jose, like most third world cities, didn't give us the feeling of what we were about to experience in the country’s interior over the next few weeks.