Let's Get Lost: Notes on Costa Rica
 

    In 1996 I took a 9-day paid vacation to sunny Costa Rica. Like any vacation, it
was a great week with some wonderful moments of relaxation and tranquility
sprinkled throughout and separated by some arduous, somewhat stressful travel
experiences.  Since I was on holiday, I didn't do any note-taking during the trip, so
this is all pieced together after the fact.  Instead of trying to assemble my thoughts
chronologically, I just kind of let the memories flow in the order I recalled them.

    I hope to have some pictures to accompany this text very soon. We have some lovely
photos that we took with a couple of disposable cameras, and I planned to have a
scanner as soon as I got some money, but I blew a lot of that on the trip. It was worth
it though.

    Strangely, we were generally up by 7 am every morning and in bed by 10 or 11.
Something about traveling that throws me off, even though it is in the same time
zone.

Here is a rough itinerary of the trip:
 

Mon. Oct. 15th- Arrived San Jose 8 pm.  Stayed at Hotel Loy Loy.

Tue. Oct. 16th- Bank and Market in San Jose, Bus to Puerto Viejo 3 pm,

Arrived Puerto Viejo 8:30 pm. Stayed at Cabinas Royale

Wed. Oct 17th- Moved to less expensive Cabinas Yucca. Explored village and beach on
foot.

Thurs. Oct 18th- Rented bikes, got lost.

Fri. Oct. 19th- Fishing & Snorkeling trip. Dinner on beach with fishermen.

Sat. Oct. 20th- Hiked to Punto Cocles. Picniced and swam.

Sun. Oct 21st- Took bus to Cahuita.  Hiked in National Park. Returned to

Puerto Viejo 2 p.m. Relaxed on beach

Mon. Oct 22nd- Took bus to San Jose, arrived 1 p.m., bank, rented car downtown,
drove through Cartago, Saw Basilica, arrived Paraiso 8 p.m. , Stayed Sanchiri Lodge.

Tue. Oct 23rd- Drove through Orosi Valley, Hiked Tapanti National Park, Swam
 in Mineral Pools, toured coffee plant & orchid garden, drove to airport in Alajuela

Wed. Oct 24th - Airport 7 am. Arrived Austin 1:45. At work at 3.
 

Highlights:
 

#6.     We rented some rusty old mountain bikes from a tall, old Caribbean gentleman
with a strong, stout, sweet little grandson who was just learning to say "con
permiso." We took off in search of the perfect beach, but ended up making a wrong
turn down a road that gradually became narrower and narrower until the trail
dead-ended into a little homestead where some small kids in underwear and some
little puppies greeted us warily. The vegetation was beautiful and verdant, and ripe
little mangos were dropping out of the trees at our feet as we pedaled slowly back to
main road. Huge cypress trees stretched into the canopy and the ride was shady and
cool. We stopped on the beach in front of the Vista Verde hotel and had a picnic.
 

#5.     After a great night's sleep at the Sanchiri Lodge in Paraiso, aided by a surprise
after-dinner coffee liqueur aperetif, we woke to a breathtaking view of the Orosi
vailedoff the balcony of our cabin. We had a relaxing drive through the coffee-rich
valley, a spectacular, long and muddy rainforest hike in Tapanti national park, a
tour of a top-quality coffee plant, a refreshing swim in a warm spring-fed mineral
water pool, and a quick tour of a beautiful orchid garden, all on the last day of our
trip.
 

#4.     We stopped outside a little baptist church and heard some fine moving spiritual
singing by a small but earnest group of local folks in Puerto Viejo. A crab crossed the
road and hung out with us for awhile, claws outstretched.
 

#3.     A big family of spider monkeys came out of the forest to feast on leaves in a tree
right above our heads on the return leg of an afternoon hike through the Cahuita
beachfront national park.
 

#2.     We hiked several miles down the beach trail from Puerto Viejo to a place called
Punta Cocles, where there is nothing but a big long tranquil beach and a small,
beautifully landscaped resort hotel. It is much more private and peaceful than the
tourist trappings of Viejo, and we found the perfect spot for a relaxing, romantic
afternoon in the hammock and in the surf, where the water had big spaces between
the coral perfect for dipping. The sunset was magnificent as we walked back.
 

#1.     Perhaps the best day I have had in a long time began with an early morning
wake-up, and a quick walk to the tourist info shack in Puerto Viejo with the big "?"
sign. For 10,000 colones, or 25 dollars each person, you can hire a couple of local
guys to take you out on their homemade dugout canoe, which they carve themselves
out of the large cypress-type trees that are scattered throughout the rainforests that
line the beaches. They will cruise around two or three points on the map and hand
you a big sturdy rod and reel with a lure that drags behind the boat.

    It was a splendorous, mild morning, and we were drinking in the air and shooting the
breeze, when the fishing pole was nearly jerked out of my hand. I reeled furiously as
the hombres pescado cheered me on. I said "En Tejas, Dice 'Yee-Haw!' and everyone
did. The resistance on the line was pretty mild, so I knew it wasn't a Moby Dick, but
when it came out of the water, everyone gasped in delight.

    It was a sleek, aerodynamic, shining fish about 20 inches long with scales like a
marlin with effervescent and luminous blue, silver, and purple colors in multiple
shades. I held it up for a picture, and it was so awe-inspiring I wanted to throw it
back, but the driver grabbed it from me and clubbed it to death before I could
object. It bled slowly in the bed of the boa at my feet and I had a hard-time not
staring at it and grinning for the whole rest of the trip. One of the fishermen said, "es
'bonito' and I agreed that it was a beautiful creature, but then he clarified, "El
hombre de eso pescado es bonito."

    After a few more miles, El Capitan asked "?Desea swim ahora or comer?" and we
decided to have lunch in Manzanillo. It was too early to get most of the items on their
menu, but I had a perfectly cooked fried egg while the chicken in the yard of the soda
walked around with two little chicks. The hombres Pescado were visiting with some
friends, and by-and-by we all leisurely reconvened at the boat. We stopped in front
of the first point and they handed us the snorkel gear. We looked down and realized
they had dropped anchor over an expansive coral reef that we had only glimpsed for
a moment on the way out.

    I flipped backwards into the water like Jacques Cousteau and my mask immediately
filled with water. After a few minutes I remembered some of the techniques for
regulating the air pressure in your sinuses, and started cruising around a spectacular
brown coral reef that was mostly within 4 or 5 feet of the surface. There were
lunminous blue angel fish about a foot long swimming in small schools directly under
us. Larger orange and yellow species ducked in and out of holes in the reef. Tiny
Jellyfish grazed my shoulders and stung momentarily. I ventured down into the
depth a couple of times but coidn't stay submerged for long. One of the larger brown
colored camoflauged fish had a little tag-along eel attached to him. It was a real nice
variety of undersea life, not a spectacular photography day, but everything I saw
made a vivid impression in my mind's eye.

    When we got back into the boat, the fishermen were reeling in little sea perch and
speckled fish like crazy. About a dozen of them were flopping around the boat. They
were reeling them in on a little stick and some line like a kite string. One of the
fishermen asked for my mask. His line was stuck and he was venturing down to free
it. He stayed underwater for a couple minutes, and then came up with the line in
hand. He then started reeling in the line and out came a beautiful brightly colored
yellowtail tuna. He and his friend were visibly excited about the days haul. We
headed back for home after a quick stop at Punta Uva for the driver to look at a
surfboard for sale.

    I carried my fish around town for awhile and we stopped at the stand for some
garlic, butter, onions, and a ripe shiny red pepper. I borrowed a big skillet from the
friendly Frau and set out for the beach to prepare a fire. After building a carefully
constructed boy scout style bonfire, I had no luck getting it lit. The kindling was too
moist and the beach was too wipdy. I finally went and sought the help of one of the
friendly fishermen, who was hanging out by the info shack. I gave him a pre-ro!led,
and he came and rebuilt the fire between a couple of rocks. With the help of some
paper and some serious lung power he had it going in no time. I cleaned and the
vegetables and he cut the tuna broadside into thick steaks. I told him I could take
over if he needed to split, but he stuck around to patiently stir the vegetables until
they were sauteed soft and succulent. We didn't throw the fish in until the last five
minutes or so, and I was glad to have him there.

    He told us about his immigration troubles in broken English. He had one parent in
the West Indies and one in England and maybe some family somewhere else, and as
a result of his dark complexion and complicated passport papers, he was denied
entry to the Estados Unidos. I forget his name, but I was compelled to wonder if I
could help him find an immigration lawyer or something, because without him I
would have been trying to filet that sucker and cook it for 20 minutes. The fire came
on strong and had that brew bubbling intensely.
 

Adventures:

    Tuesday we got up early, checked out of the Yucca Cabinas, bought a couple of
Jorny Cakes from the stand, and caught the 9 o'clock bus for San Jose. We were
relieved to see a newish model direct line bus pull up, but once we got in line it
became apparent many of us would be standing. I paid the driver 2200 colones for
two tickets, leaving us with 500 to our name ($2.00 us).

    I got the last available seat next to a Tico lady and her healthy bouncing baby girl,
who slept most of the way and played with our fingers and toes the rest of the time.
Except for a short delay in between Puerto Viejo and Cahuita for the national guard
to search the bus, and a quick snack break in Limon where a counter lady had some
trouble processing my credit card, the trip went pretty quick and it was nice to see
the scenery on the way back, since we had traveled in the evening on the way there.
We arrived in San Jose and went immediately back to the Bienvenidos bar where the
locals had laughed at me the week before when 1 couldn't grasp the floor urinal
concept. With our new knowledge that the "bocas" were free with the cerveza, we
ordered up "dos pilsens" and within 10 minutes I was swaggering to the men's water
closet to show them how it's done.
 

An aside on urinals:

    Earlier in the week, when we first stepped out of the taxi from the San Jose airport,
we ducked into the first establishment we encountered to take a load off and enjoy a
refreshing beverage. I looked around for the facilities and they pointed me in the
direction of a broom closet-sized room with a swinging half-door. 1 walked inside and
thought for sure I was missing something. When I walked back out bewildered, the
kind bartender took some keys off the wall and showed me to a fully equipped
restroom in the back.

    Amy told me when I returned that the locals had had a good laugh over my
confusion. Moments later 1 witnessed the cultural norm that I had been ignorant of,
when a caballero walked into the little closet, talking over his shoulder to his
companeros at the bar the whole time, and wizzed in the general direction of a small,
rusty drain in the corner.

     I soon grasped the concept and became quite handy at relieving myself in these little
stalls with no visible fixtures whatsoever at fine Costa Rican businesses across the
country.

    One in particular stands out in my mind. A large bar & grill type diner in downtown
San Jose served us up some mediocre huevos rancheros and tortilia soup. In the rear
of the diner were two doors to the facilities. I opened the door marked caballeros and
tepped inside a dank, cramped, stall lined with decaying, dingy tile. In the murky
half-light creeping in through the holes in the door behind me I peered for the hole to
aim at, and saw a small opening in the tile at about knee level, where a pipe may have
once been attached. There was a three or four inch string of something hanging out
of the hole in the wall, and when I aimed a stream at it, it began to squirm and slowly
disappeared. I think it was either a rodent tail or some kind of worm. I got back to
the table and tried to put it out of my mind as ! finished my papaya juice.
 

On food:

    The worst meal I had by far was the taco bell with the jacked up prices in the
Houston airport. The best was the tuna that I caught and cooked over a fire on the
beach in Puerto Viejo. For the most part, Costa Rican cuisine is very good. I was
particularly impressed with the rice & beans "casado" plates, which is basically a
combination platter with steak, fish, chicken, or my favorite "the chuleta," a
garlic-smothered pork chop. I had a great one at "Poas" in San Jose and another
equally satisfying one at the reggae bar in Puerto Viejo. The caribbean flavor that
insinuates itself into the coastal food is good but overly salty for this gringo. I bought
a 500 colone plate of pescado casado from a vendor outside the big beach disco that
had a savory rice and beans but the over salted fish and the super-greasy sauce had
me running for a liquid quencher. The "margarita" garlic and mushroom pizza at
the Coral restaurant in Puerto Viejo was delicious but not real filling, and that place
is so upright they made me put my feet down off the bench. I tasted an amazing red
snapper caught fresh that afternoon at the upscale Italian restaurant by the bus stop
in Puerto Viejo. They have decent bruschetta appetizers and and arezing chicken
breast with mushroom sauce. I think it's called Amodino. Every soda has free
appetizers with beer orders. The little dish of rice & beans that came with our piisens
at Poas was just a little teaser, but the "tacos rico" at the Bienvenidos bar were quite
satsfying.

    Other culinary highlights were the fish cocktail at the Sanchiri lodge served by the
oldest of the five generations of the family that runs the place, and the steak at the
mineral poolside care in Orosi. Overall, my belly had a good trip and came back
about a pant-size broader.
 

On prices:

    Everything seemed to be reasonably priced in the tourist areas. 1000 colones, a red
printed bill, is equal to 5 dollars. You could generally expect this to cover any decent
meal you could want. Things got somewhat cheaper in the working class areas like
downtown Cartago and the diner where the bus takes a break in Limon.

    The room in San Jose was about 7 dollars, and the Cabinas Yucca In Puerto Viejo
was 15 dollars a night. The gracious German couple who ran the place were very
kind about refunding us for one night's rent when we decided to head back a day
early.

    Beers were generally 150 to 200 colones, and often came with a substantial appetizer
(bocas). Overall, everything seemed priced fairly. There were no inflated,
opportunistic tourism type prices, but also no incredible deals.
 

On transportation:

    The bus rides were brutal. The muddy, pothole-ridden back roads made the scenery
seem to crawl by. They stopped seemingly every 3 kilometers, and never attained a
speed of higher than 40 mph. Often we were crawling along behind a banana truck at
a snails pace for half an hour or more. We learned the hard way that the seats are
often oversold and many people arrive early to claim their seats to avoid having to
stand the whole trip. On the first ride I ended up paying a guy 1000 colones to switch
seats with me so Amy and I could sit together.

    I drank a quick beer right before getting on the bus from San Jose to Puerto Viejo,
and for the first hour of the trip, I had to whiz worse than I have ever in my whole
life. I was in absolute agony to where the surface of my entire body seemed sensitive
and burning. I finally asked the driver to stop and no-one seemed to notice or care.
People got on and off constantly anyway. Later in the trip the driver stopped at a
little jungle-style restaurant by a river and every woman on the bus went inside for
relief.

    You can rent bikes in the coastal towns, but they are often in disrepair and generally
uncomfortable. I had to fix the chain and tighten the handlebars on the mountain
bike I rented before I could even drive it out of the lot in Viejo. We could only ride
about 3 km on the bumpy roads until we had to give it up, or else risk not being able
to sit down for the rest of the trip. The wooden bench on the dugout canoe felt pretty
hard the next day.

    The traffic in San Jose is horrible. There are these traffic circles where you play
roulette with your life every time you jump in. There is no such thing as
comprehensive insurance coverage on rental cars, so every time we got in one of
those vortexes of maniacal taxi drivers and huge buses hurtling around, I was scared
shitless and ended up spinning around two or three extra times before feeling
courageous enough to take one of the exits, which were poorly marked and randomly
attached.

    The airport was kind of disorganized, and we ended up having quite a difficult time
returning the rental car, getting the airport tax paid, and finding our gate. 1 got the
impression that one mano never knew what the other was doing. People would send
us from one place to another to find assistance and they were often wrong. The
airport tax guy sent me outside the terminal to a bank that wasn't open yet. A
parking lot attendant charged me for parking when I mistakenly drove into his !or
looking for the rental return area. He actually ran across the lot and lowered the gate
before we could escape. A San Jose Continental employee was very helpful when our
plane was boarding and we found ourselves in the terminal without boarding passes.
It made us nervous when she disappeared with our papers and passports for a good
ten minutes, but she got back right in time. You never feel farther from home than
when you're in the airport trying to make a plane.
 

On trees:

    They have these amazing canopy-like trees on the beach there. The slender trunk
grows up a few feet and then the branches stretch out real wide like the top of an
umbrella, except they extend extremely far out to the sides, intertwining extensively,
somehow remaining perfectly parallel to the ground. They are called Almedras or
something like that. I brought home a couple little sprouts to try to grow. They make
for a great hammock spot. There are also these gourd trees everywhere, and the ripe
ones can be hollowed out and made into bowls that dry hard and sturdy. They carve
and poke holes in them when they are green, and then when they are dry they use
them as chandeliers.
 

On critters:
 

    We saw some amazing animals. The fish in the coral reef were spectacular. The
monkeys and sloths in the rainforests were friendly, and in the village of Viejo there
were little crabs and lizards crossing the paths. There are also these trails of noble
little leaf cutter ants everywhere that spend their whole lives carrying green pieces of
vegetation back to the nest from high up in the trees. The swallows and bats come out
at night to eat the bugs.

    The skeeters come out at dark, and you really have to wage war on them at night
before you go to bed, or they will keep you awake swatting and itching. Those little
green burning cinder repellent deals work pretty well, but there's no deterrent better
than swift manual pulverization.

    There are friendly stray dogs roaming the coastal villages and beaches, and they
seem content and well-fed on scraps and wildlife.

    A family guard dog bit me on the back of the leg when we were shortcutting from the
road to the beach trail in San Jose. I was trying to calm the angry mutt down as it
came barking out of the cabin, but I should have just run like hell. He hit me with a
great deal of force, and the bruise from the impact was worse than the teethwounds,
which barely broke the skin. I have been foaming at the mouth and howling at the
moon ever since we got back.
 

On music:

    It seemed like every radio played cheesy 70s pop ballads, like "Candida" and "All
by Myself." They also had some interesting latin adaptations of songs like Boston's
"More than a Feeling." On the coast at the dance clubs, we heard a lot of American
rock that had an island feel, like "Hotel California" and "It's a Wild World."

    For live music experiences, I can't possibly top the little reggae skiffie combo that
seemed to move from cantina to cantina with banjo, bongos, and washtub bass. They
switched instruments constantly and sang soulful, unamplified melodies and scruffy
harmonies on reggae and calypso classics. They always had the crowd dancing and
singling along, especially in this one breezy little bamboo place down on the main
beach.

    There was also a guy with an acoustic electric and a tiny digital beatbox that had
some swinging drums, keys, and bass stuff pre-programmed while he played jazzy
leads. Every night he would serenade the little group of tables set up outside the
general store where they exchanged dollars and sold toiletties and groceries. His
sound was kind of a smooth jazz latin lounge deal, but it was amazing how pleasant a
mood it evoked, especially as the breeze blew in off the gently lapping waves.
 

Returning:

    On the last night of our stay in Costa Rica, we were ready to get the car back to the
airport and settle in for a restful stay in a normal hotel. The trip from Cartago to the
Airport in Alajuela took us through a stressful blur of intense gridlocked San Jose
traffic, and several confused traffic circles where we just played auto roulette and
took our chances trying to find the right route. At one point, we were trying to find
the entry ramp for the main highway but a huge dead tree trunk was blocking the
onramp. We followed the truck ahead of us as it squeezed through a small space to
gain access to the overpass, but we soon realized we were the only cars on a dark,
spooky stretch of unfinished highway with no streetlights. It dead-ended into an
industrial area and we had to backtrack.

    Once we made it to the airport we tunrd into the wrong parking lot and a guy ran
to lock the gate behind us and stick us for 150 colones to get out.  Then we had to stop at
3 different rental car places before we found a guy at  the terminal who would take us to the correct place,
which turned out to be creepy fly-by-night operation down yet another decrepit back road.
The guys doing the  intakes seemed real sleazy and anxious to find something wrong with the car so they
could make me pay that huge deductible. They were also trying to hustle eachother
out of a commission on our room reservations. I just wanted to get rid of the car and
get back to the hotel. That king-size bed felt really good that night, and the world
series and "remains of the day" on the tube was a welcome reminder of the comforts
of home that awaited us the next day.

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