|The recipe for Costa Rica:
1 part Vermont (for it's green mountains, rivers, and cows)
1 part Hawaii (for it's beaches, volcano's, and it's tropical flora and fauna)
1 part southern California (for it's arid hills and infrastructure)
Add some indigenous people and wildlife, bananas and coffee, mix well, and place in the middle of Central America between two oceans. Let it bake in the hot sun just long enough for the tourists and north american landowners to rise.
When the comedian Yakoff Smirnoff first came to America from communist Russia he was driving from the airport and saw a billboard advertisement that said "Welcome To Smirnoff."
He said: "What a country!"
I said the same thing as I walked into the gratis internet community center in Los Chiles, Costa Rica. The young woman had just told me that use of the computer is free. I wasn't surprised because it was expensive to use a computer in Nicaragua. It wasn't at about ¢50 or less an hour. But after just spending three hours on the immigration boat from Nicaragua, the landscape was noticably cleaner here, and a passport stamp had come quickly and effortlessly after walking off the boat and the few hundred yards to the immigration office. This free computer access was just a bonus. It was getting dark outside and I wanted to research some information about the country I was just dropped into like an illegal alien boat from Cuba to Miami. Like most places where I arrive I have no plans or a booking for a room for the night nor do I know much about the town except for it's name and place on the map. It's a small town and the people stare as I walk down the street toward the city center with my backpack. It feels like a swampy river town, not only because I was walking close to the river in which I had just come from, but a mugginess permeates the air and various insects chatter from the wetlands.
I'm not saying it was better here than Nicaragua, just that it was a good change. And I hadn't even tasted the coffee yet!
I asked the internet attendant where the hotels were. I didn't quite understand all that she said but I had a general direction so I started that way. Up and down the streets I walked, trying to look like I knew what I was doing and where I was going and after asking two more people an older woman and who I presumed to be her granddaughter walked me to a cheap hotel. All the places I have slept in my travels has given me a quick eye for a good hotel deal fast. This night was not one of them. It was almost dark and I was hungry which meant I didn't want to look at other places to compare. This hotel only had ground floor rooms and although the room was big it was not the cleanest. I went through my usual routine of saying I could only pay a smaller amount than what they are charging and asked the woman if I could have it for less. This works about twenty percent of the time but not tonight. She didn't budge. For this small non-touristed town $20 was a lot. I guessed it was due to the fact that it was a border crossing town and thus got a stream of travelers only passing through and arrived here too late coming or going and were forced to stay like me. It looked like a potential bed bug hotel so I would sleep on top of the sheets. It was too hot anyway. The type of place where you don't want your belongings touching anything and the walls are dirty with splatterings of dirt and unidentifiable dried-up liquids. Then my routine continued with the unloading of the backpack, walking up and down the foreign streets looking for a place to eat and a grocery store in which to get a few supplies.
In Costa Rica there are tiny restaurants everywhere called a "soda". It could be any name followed by the word "soda". They serve quick, hot, and reasonably healthy meals. And if you ask for something they don't have they'll go to the small tienda sure to be next door and get it. Tonight the owner of the soda went next door to get me an Imperial lager, the Budweiser of Costa Rica but much better.
The roadside cafe's are nice too and I enjoy a fresh cup of coffee the next morning before boarding my first bus here. I am instantly impressed with the beauty of this country. One of the greenest tropical places I have ever seen. Fields of green plants and trees and hills lead to mountain ranges, steep passes, and the occasional volcano. In fact there are nearly 120 volcano's in Costa Rica. We drive through fields and fields of fruit plantations owned by the largest grower in the country. Costa Rica also claims the largest percentage of protected parkland of any country in the world. My goal in my 2 - 3 weeks here is to visit a few of these national parks and view the immense wildlife it is famous for. I decide on two national parks, Tortuguero and Corcovado, which are located on opposite ends of the country and oceans. Tortuguero is located on the Carribean Ocean near the Nicaraguan border, a few days travel from where I crossed. There had just been a devastating earthquake not far from where I was now traveling and I saw one of the effects from it in the town of Puerto Viejo where I stopped for a few nights. A major river that snakes past this town had dried in its higher plains as a result of it's water displacement from the earthquake. I walked there and looked out over the large concrete boat taxi platform that now stood unusually high over the calm, shallow river. Some boats remained grounded on the sides and a private airplane continued to make passes back and forth over the river above me, so close I thought it could graze the top of the trees. But the mood at the river felt sad and quiet like a funeral. What was surely a strong river before now looked lifeless, and others came down to the platform and watched without talking.
The dirt road from Ciari to Tortuga is banana country. Beautiful groves of rows upon rows of bushels of bananas hung from the small trees, wrapped in what appeared to be thin cloth or plastic. I guessed that they were wrapped because they were organic bananas and, since pesticides are not used, this protected them from insects. In between the rows of trees is a system of pullies and cables extending the long distances which I also guessed were for hanging the bushels of picked bananas and transporting them down the rows instead of hauling them.
From the last bus stop on land you need to take a boat through the winding, swamp-colored river for over a half an hour to get to Tortuga. Tortuga is situated on a long, narrow peninsula with the river on one side and the Carribean ocean on the other. As the boat docked in the tiny village I could already see the hotel and restaurant and tour guide touts waiting to pounce on the newly arrived tourists. They surrounded me immediately and offered their services:
"You need a hotel"?
"I own restaurant just over there"
"You want to go on a tour"?
I brushed them off and again acted like I knew what I was doing and started my walk to check out the hostals. One of the touts persisted and walked with me. I said to him politely:
"I just want to look around on my own, thank you. I know where your restaurant is. I'll check it out later"
And he left me on my own. Tortuga was cheesey, neglected, and slightly trashed and I felt disappointed. The only thing keeping this tiny village alive was tourism. From June to October thousands of sea turtles swim up onto the endless, brown fine-sand beach to lay their eggs. There are signs all along the beach in english and spanish telling you to not disturb the turtle nests. I would not see turtles or nests as it was January. But it seemed that the few locals there were either so consumed by trying to earn tourist money or just lazed around town or went to the bars that they are not concerned about the asthetic upkeep of the place. Expat hippies loitered, small shops sold overpriced beach items and Bob Marley t-shirts, and reggae music blasted from within. Boardwalks ran on top of the swampy areas so the people could get to the raised, modest little homes and shack dwellings. Most of them had hand-made signs in front offering guide services in the park, hikes up the hill and turtle tours, boat tours, etc. Some of the people had jobs working at the expensive vacation lodges further up the peninsula and they walked or biked the long path along the beach each day.
I decided after my previous rip-off experience in the river boat tour in Nicaragua that I would just walk around the peninsula and national park on my own and explore. I walked the vast, lonely beach on the mushy, coffee ground-like fine brown sand. The ocean is rough and unswimmable and there are various signs warning you not to.
Tortugeuro National Park was almost empty of visitors and I paid the attendant my ten dollars and started on the trail that ran parallel to the beach in the jungle. I felt the fee was a bit steep to walk through a jungle trail on my own without the service of a guide to point out the wildlife or inject me with anti-venom in case I encountered a snake. Actually I didn't think about the snake but little did I know that I would soon meet one of them.
Looking for uncommon wildlife in the jungle is almost like trying to spot the Predator: they blend in real well. Monkeys, many birds, and small lizards are easy because they are either loud or so numerous that you encounter them all the time. On my list of more exotic spottings was the Toucan and the various parrot species but they are non-existent or not common in this park. My goal here were the reptiles: snakes, frogs, and large lizards and iguana's. Any snake, and bright-colored frogs like the Poison Dart or the Harlequin, are hard to spot.
I walked the path slowly and stepped lightly, perusing the jungle back and forth on each side of the path and sometimes stopping at places that these creatures might be more likely to be: moss-covered logs and trees, around rocks, up on the tree branches or in the petals of large plants. I even walked off the path and into the thick green and often damp terrain. But I only spotted spider monkeys too high in the trees and the many tiny lizards scurrying on the ground. It's tiring to look slowly and intensely at the jungle, like trying to complete a large jigsaw puzzle with tiny pieces. I reached the end of the park trail and rested on a dead tree trunk lying on the vast beach and watched the powerful surf in the blinding sun. I had enough trying to find reptiles and I started back on the path, returning at a fast walking pace from where I had come in order to leave the park. Soon after, happening so quickly, I saw something stretched three or four feet across the wide path and stopped short about two walking paces from it. At the time I only knew it was a snake. My first reaction was panic and disbelief because I was so close to stepping on it. I now know it was a Fer-de-lance snake, one of the most venomous in the world and the most feared and problematic in Costa Rica. Being alone and with very few other people on the trail, if this snake bit me I didn't have much of a chance. I remembered reading recently that if you are now bitten by a snake you should be as still as possible and get anti-venom as soon as possible. I couldn't do both. Relieved that I wasn't a statistic I moved into picture-taking mode. I snapped off two photos and by the time I brought my camera down and looked down the snake was gone. I didn't even see it slither into the bush.
The privately-owned jungle tram 30 miles from the capitol, San Jose, and down the road from Braulio Carrillo National Park, is probably the biggest tourist rip-off I have ever seen. Firstly, although I don't use their books, the Lonely Planet recommended it. Secondly, after jumping off the bus on the busy mountain highway next to the park, the first employee said it was well worth the $55. He said it was a canopy tour and then a walk with a guide and in total would last three hours.
"$55!!" I said in disbelief. "I don't want to buy the park, just take a jungle tour"
I paid the money.
After taking the shuttle further into the park we stopped at the tram entrance. My first hint of this scam was the restaurant and gift shop. Any time you see a restaurant/coffee shop and cheesey gift shop it's a tourist trap. There were four other people put in my group for the tour, a family of three from Seattle and one English guy who looked serious about seeing wildlife. Although we spent the day together I forgot his name - I will call him John. John is tall, pudgy and wears glasses, and not in the best shape but he was ready to take photos as the sweat already dripped from him. He wore a large photography backpack and an expensive SLR camera hung from his neck. In one hand was a large tripod and a cigarette in the other.
We were outside but when our guide saw John smoking the cigarette he quickly told him to put it out and that there was no smoking with an urgency as if John was smoking next to a leaking gas tanker.
We all boarded the small tram with the guide in the back and our cameras in ready mode and our eyes already scanning the jungle for wildlife. Soon after the tram started gliding through the forest our camera's were off and we were listening to our guide talk about trees. And that's pretty much it for forty minutes. Names of tree's, shapes of tree's, growth and age principal´s of tree's, indigenous and english names of tree's. We saw zero wildlife. I can't even remember seeing a bird. I could sense, like me, that the others were wondering were the wildlife was. Before I knew it the tram ride was over and we started a walk in the park down a cement path. This lasted 15 minutes and John, not the guide, was the only one able to spot anything - an Eyelash Pit Viper snake. The tour ended then and the group mingled together and talked about how much of a joke this was for the price. John was shooting pictures for a book on reptiles and was obviously pissed. I couldn't believe what a joke this was. We joked about all the tour buses lined up and counted all the people in line at the trams at $55 per head and quickly figured what this place must be taking in. There was a serpentine museum and John and I shook our heads in disbelief when the guide said we had to pay an extra $10 to see it. We both decided to break out on our own and started down the path to walk in the jungle. Of course all the guides with the other groups stopped and asked us where our group was like we needed a guide to walk down this lame, 100 yard tourist path. I told John that there was a national park just up the road and we could hike there and look for wildlife.
The stench of dirty laundry and musty body odor hit me when I opened the door to John's rented Suzuki. Damp clothes hung all over the dashboard and seats and equipment, and luggage lay everywhere. John quickly cleared my seat by throwing everything in the back and sat down in near exhaustion and lit a butt. I silently begged him to get moving, held my breath, and rolled down my window for a gulp of fresh air. John told me he had been traveling for a month in order to take photos of reptiles for his book. We talked about the places he had already been in Costa Rica and the reptiles he had seen. He had not seen that many and was really hoping the tram ride through the forest would offer good shots.
We drove ten minutes down the road toward San Jose through the steep mountain passes and turned into the ranger station at Braulio Carrillo National Park. We were the only ones there. It was raining but we opted for the three hour loop hike. John hauled all his photography gear and started down the trail at a snail's pace intent on finding reptiles for his research. We searched carefully for hours and came up with nothing, but the landscape was interesting and we searched for a path down to the River Sucio (dirty river) after marveling from afar it's bright orange color swirls in the water and on the rocks. The river color was so unique that we jumped down into the sand along the river and began snapping photos. I got a running start to leap over a small stream to get to a beautiful colored-rock area and landed in what felt like quicksand. I quickly sunk to just below my knees and feared I was stuck. John ran over and before he reached me I had struggled out of the sand and stood there soaked. Being the nerdy explorer John looked over at me in surprise at what had just happened and said in a cool voice:
"Whoa, you almost got fossilized!"
The park was closing soon and we had to hurry back. John was feebly bouncing down the trail with huge pack on his back and camera bobbing on the professional tripod. He was sweating profusely now and he soon yelled that his shoes were coming apart.
"What?" I called back.
He caught up and showed me the rubber soles of his shoes splitting apart, revealing his socks. He was almost running on sock now.
"I just bought these for $10 off the street in Costa Rica", he said as though they were supposed to last longer.
Knowing him well enough now I didn't bother to ask him why he flew all the way to Costa Rica for a jungle research project without hiking boots.
There is no other way I can sum up downtown San Jose, the capitol of Costa Rica, but to say that I did not have the urge to take one photograph. It's neither crazy interesting enough like a third world country city nor is it pretty or picturesque or architecturally interesting enough to warrant a photo. It's just there, one of those places you only go to transfer to another place. But it is surrounded by mountain ranges on each side as a small consolation.
Costa Rica is very popular today as a tourist destination and retirement place for North Americans. It is all you hear about back in the states. At home I continued to meet friends and stranges that had either vacationed there or looked at or bought land. So far I was impressed with the country but I wanted to see for myself what everyone was talking about. I needed to travel close to the resort areas and see what land and property were being eaten up by the foreigner's. My last area of interest in this country was Corcovado National Park in the southwest corner of the country next to the border with Panama. To get there I could go straight south from San Jose but I decided to go directly west to the Pacific coast first, then meander down the coast south and look at the extent of the tourist buildup. I would miss the bustling resort coast of the northwest peninsula.
The bus ride to the coast was different and equally beautiful as the rest of Costa Rica I had seen previously. The landscape was now drier and mountainous and not as green, and when the bus reached the coast it circled an ocean bay high above and soon descended into flatlands, leaving the mountains just inland. Then the tourist signs began to appear: billboards advertising resorts and land and farms for sale littered the roadside. And smaller signs for resorts, restaurants, surf shops, etc could be seen. When you see an advertisement for a sushi restaurant here you know it's not for the locals. And all ads were in english. It wasn't overbearing though, and the coast was impressive. It was just strange to see local poverty along the roads and, in between the locals, new gated communities and condo developments that have been built among them. I wondered if the locals are welcoming of the jobs provided by the influx of foreigner's or if it has been an imposition on their land and culture and how much it has effected their lives. Among the development were small, local villages with groups of modest homes with weathered wood and metal roofs like you might see in a less developed nation, and always a soccer field somewhere at the center of it all. Locals walked along the steets or waited by the side of the road for the bus. Some men carried machetes for their jobs on the tree farms or the pineapple fields that stretched along the road between the large farms and resort areas. On my second day traveling on the coast the resorts ended and with the road unpaved my bus bumped along for two hours, stopping to pickup locals on their way to work. I had seen enough and now felt I could discuss the tourist situation in Costa Rica.
National Geographic called the Osa Peninsula "one of the most biologically intense place on earth." This area and accompanying Corcovado National Park lies in the southwest corner of the country. I had also been told by many traveler's I met that this was the best place to see wildlife here. This would be my last-ditch effort to experience the "real" Costa Rica wildlife before my rush to cross the border and pickup my next flight from Panama City, Panama. From San Isidro it would be another day and a half bus ride to the end of the Osa Peninsula but it was worth the effort. The Osa Peninsula is true mountainous jungle meets turbulent, endless beach. I had to wait a night in the port town of Puerto Jimenez before taking the community taxi truck to the end of the Osa but already in this town I walked and viewed alligators in the marshes and numerous scarlet macaws "screeching" endlessly in the trees and dropping discarded nut shells. If you didn't hear them you could tell they were there by the shells falling on the ground and ricocheting off cars.
The park is difficult to get to from this town and day trips would be too expensive to take.
I was running out of time and quickly called a few eco-lodges at the end of the Peninsula. I didn't want to pay the exorbitant prices of the rooms but most lodges also had permanent tents as an alternative to stay.
Luna Lodge had $95 dollar/night tents available and included three meals.
The collective taxi to the end of the Osa was the cheapest option at $8. It is just a covered box truck with padded benches on the back. I bought my ticket and climbed on the back with the other locals and backpack traveler's. All other classes of traveler's either pay the $80 private taxi fee or fly into the peninsula from San Jose.
The ride in the box truck would take three hours on uneven dirt road but it was spectacular. There are no towns out there, just farms and livestock and native trees, and fields stretching to the sea and vistas of the bay and the mountains beyond. The truck constantly slowed and shifted gears to climb the hills through the jungle or cross the several clear rivers interrupting the road. Along the way there were expensive-looking eco-lodge signs but the lodges were too far in to view. Most backpackers would not be staying at these lodges but either camping in the park or opting for one of the few, less expensive lodges at the beach at the end of the road. It was great to see nothing at the end of the road on this beautiful peninsula. Just a small store where the bus stops to let us out and a few well-blended hotels and lodges just on the other side of the road from the empty beach. No cheesey tourist stores or over-priced restaurants. No touts hounding you to take tours or sell you crap. This is not the place if you want to sit on a beach and sip sweet umbrella drinks, oil your body every hour and take little dips in the ocean as in the mega resorts of the Nicoya Peninsula in northwest Costa Rica. Here you come out to walk in the jungle or the endless beach and sit in the lodge at night and listen to the explosion of wildlife as the sun goes down, like I imagine a lot of beautiful places used to be. I feared that the dirt road to the end of the peninsula would be paved one day soon and thus make it that much more accessible, and how this place would change. Come to this place before it happens but don't tell anyone before you go.
The Luna Lodge was not situated on the beach but uniquely set high above the coast and in the jungle among the rivers and impressive old-growth trees. My new Land Rover and driver was waiting for me at the collective taxi stop when I arrived. As the other backpacker's started walking for the beach I settled into the plush vehicle after being greeted by the driver in the clean polo shirt with the lodge logo. I knew I would be in for a different experience here. The lodge was situated so steep in the hills there were signs posted encouraging you and joking that you didn't have far to go and that you are almost there. We had to stop at one point and bang the Land Rover into 4x4 low and even stalled on a steep incline. The thick jungle road finally opened up into an immaculately maintained parking area and lodge and I could see the stone steps leading to the first tier of beautifully built bungalows. The staff descended on the vehicle before I could get out, one man holding a tray of cold water and a greeting smile. The host took me to the lodge and we sat on the deck and I took in the great view with the ocean far away in the distance. The waiter brought snacks and I wondered what they thought of me with my backpack. They are probably not used to seeing this type of traveler and asked me if that was my only luggage. Just the previous week the lodge had been full with a large yoga group. They can accommodate about 45 people but now there were only about seven of us there. My tent was the furthest up the hill away from the lodge and the bartender grabbed my backpack and led me up the steps. It took nearly 180 steps and over 10 minutes to climb to the tent platforms, past the expensive thatched-roof bungalows and amazing wood-crafted yoga studio and platform overlooking the jungle. The bartender was sweating from the climb and my tent was even the highest of the tent platforms, abutting the jungle and far removed from the bungalows and lodge from where we had come. But I could not call them tents in the camping sense, but luxury tents instead. They are updated with nice teak beds in them and newer shower and bathroom nicer than all the hotel rooms I stayed in Central America. The sides of the large tent unzipped completely to netting so you can get good exposure to the jungle elements. And a porch in front afforded great contemplating views high up and across the far ridge where the sun sets.
Since it was so far to walk to the lodge I only wanted to climb the steps no more than twice a day. In the morning I gathered all my things for the day and left the tent without planning to return until the evening.
I was the only one staying high up on the tent platforms and I sat on the deck each night alone and watched the sun go down and the jungle sounds transfer from the birds to the secada bugs, and the bats flying back in forth in the dusk. When the secada's stop the jungle is open for any creature to speak. I listened all alone.
I had only three nights and two full days on the peninsula so I booked two forest hikes with the lodge guide, the first day a 4 hour ridge hike behind the lodge, and my final day in Corcovado National Park. The resident lodge guide was really good but his name I cannot remember. A local with incredible jungle and wildlife-spotting senses and knowledge of the animals and the trees and plants, he could spot birds from 50 or more yards away through the thick trees. He stopped periodically and listened, or approached spots carefully where he had previously seen wildlife. We marvelled at his ability to spot wildlife. He pointed out dung on the ground with fur in it and told us what it was and what animal ate it. He showed us wildlife we would surely never have seen on our own: a toucan in the far distant trees or a giant toad far away in the camouflaged leaves. He knew the routes the monkeys would take through the trees and the exact moment that they would jump to another so we could ready our camera's.
When it seemed it was starting to drizzle a mist of rain all over us he said it was actually the tens of thousands of secada bugs pissing down on us all at once.
I told the guide that my goal was to see a colorful frog like the Poison Dart that you see advertised all over the country, or the clown-like Harlequin. He stopped in probable places and uncovered mossy logs and leaves but without any luck. Not even a snake. But we saw so much else and the area was so unique that I didn't mind.
To reach Corcovado from our lodge we had to drive to the ocean and walk thirty minutes along the mostly deserted beach to the park entrance. Our guide told us that the coastline around the Osa Peninsula is one of the few places in the world where you can walk a beach for three or four days straight without seeing any human inhabitants.
The lodge was great but I found it is not a place I want to spend a lot of time alone. Three nights was just enough and it re-enforced my belief that I don't like too much comfort or pampering. I am turned off by what I percieve to be staff simply sucking up more for tips at these expensive lodges. The feeling that the hospitality is not genuine. I asked to connect to their wireless internet one night and a person on the staff said I would have to pay $10 per hour, a ridiculous and unnecessary charge. It costs them no extra to have me attach. Right after saying that I was ok and didn't need to connect he said:
"Let me know if there is anything I can do for you"
I wanted to say: "Yeah, I just did"
Everywhere I have traveled I have picked up free, open wireless internet connections in most towns. If the connection is locked all hotels and restaurants have given me the key for free if I was staying or eating there.
I finally met the owner of the lodge and yoga instructor: a true story of making your dream come true. A woman from Colorado packed a trailer with tools in the early 90's intent on driving to Costa Rica to build an eco-lodge. A cheap 200-300 acres (compared to now) later on the Osa Peninsula she broke ground and hasn't looked back.
On the third morning I had to leave this place and ready for the 2-day overland route to Panama. As I sat on the water taxi to the mainland I watched the Osa Peninsula slowly disappear and thought about how much Costa Rica has spoiled me and how much I would probably miss it.
Traveler's general tip for my three countries visited in Central America:
It is amazing how diverse each central american country is considering how small and compact the area is.
Guatemala: go if you want a cultural experience. 75% of people are indigenous and speak nearly 25 languages. You are certain to see women in traditional clothing in all places and the food more creative than the other Latin American countries I visited. Or you want to learn spanish.
Nicaragua: go if you want a raw, cheaper travel experience and don't want any creature comforts. If the insanity of India or Africa is too far to travel go here instead. Or if you want to gamble on buying property hoping it will turn into the next Costa Rica.
Costa Rica: if you need a good cup of coffee in the morning and comfortable travel and transportation that runs on time. Don't mind following the tourist crowd or paying a now-premium for property in exchange for a stable government and infrastructure, and more cosmopolitan and literate society.