Travelmag Banner

Clambering Round Costa Rica

Ola!  Como esta? 
Yes, Senor McIntyre has returned to his gringo digs and is writing to tell you all about his trip to spectacularly beautiful Costa Rica.  For those of you who don’t much care, I’ll tell you that my journey was MAGNIFICO!  Now you can stop reading if you wish.
False start 

I had big trouble even getting out of town.  I was trying to get to Buffalo to meet my friend (Larry) and his son (Larry) so that we could take off from Toronto the next day (the airfare was cheaper in Loonies…Canadian currency).  Buffalo airport was snowed in (quite a meteorological feat), and after traveling amongst and between (and eventually giving up at) the three airports in NYC, I went home to White Plains to try again the next day.  I arrived in Buffalo just in time to drive with the Larrys to Toronto for the 5 hour direct flight to C.R.

We’re not in Kansas anymore

Under the Volcano

Upon getting our passports stamped in San Jose, the capital, we were accosted by various money changers, trinket sellers, bag carriers, and hundreds of taxi drivers.  We chose the driver with the best English (3 words…”Hello”, “Thank you” and “Dollars”) and in my best toddler Spanish, I told him to take us to our rent-a-car agency office.  My continued exhortations to “Ponga la maria” (turn on the meter) were countered by his claims of “No entiendo” (I don’t understand).  We then had to argue out the fee at the end of the drive.  Luckily, the Costa Ricans, while clever, are a non-confrontational people.  They have no armed forces, and you never see arguments or children fighting over possessions, etc.  I really like these people although, as you will later see, Americans and the “Ticos” are very different in their ways.

We hopped into our rent-a-jeep, after discovering that the taxi driver had driven off with our tent.  We would now be restricted to sleeping on beaches only.  We didn’t want to become meals for jungle insects, poisonous snakes, and jaguars.

Off we went and quickly discovered that Costa Ricans don’t bother putting up road signs.  Lost in the first five minutes, we stopped off at a familiar and comfortable place…McDonald’s.  But this Mickey D’s was quite different from those we have come to love when short of cash and craving fat molecules to clog our arteries.  This one had two armed guards.  After obtaining Big Macs (Mac Grande) at exorbitant exchange rates for our dollars, we communicated in our best international sign language and pig-Spanish to get directions to Turrialtico, a “hotel” high in the mountains above the sugar cane fields. What a spectacular view…the first of thousands we would witness.  Our hotel can best be described as an open air building with wooden-walled sleeping quarters topped by tin roofs.  We enjoyed some great rafting the next day on class 4 rapids and performed so well that we were invited by the guide to go on a part of the river that is not run by the public—class 5+ monster rapids (for four hours).

What an incredible rush!  Near-death experiences all along the course of this wild and scenic river lined with lush vegetation, exotic birds, and towering cascading waterfalls.  In one tricky incident, I was pulled back in the raft shortly before being smashed against a rock cliff face after finding myself mostly overboard with one foot still stuck in the raft floor’s stirrup.  Larry Jr. fell out twice and swallowed most of the river before being pulled up by our safety kayaker.  He would shortly thereafter become sick for four days with “Colon’s Revenge”, a water-borne bacteria (In the mid 1800’s, a Texan and a hundred of his men attempted to take over Costa Rica to set up a slave state.  He was backed unofficially by the U.S. Government.  General Colon beat the Americans back into Nicaragua where the Nicaraguans killed the invaders.)

The bus driver for our river trip got the directions wrong and never arrived at the put-out spot.  Soggy, tired, and hungry we walked down dirt roads until we came upon a small town with one-room houses made of cement with corrugated steel roofs and no windows (not really necessary in their warm climate).  We talked an open-air tavern owner into providing us with Imperial beer and “guarro” (a sugar cane based liquor reminiscent of rotgut Vodka mixed with paint thinner), with Wimpy’s promise of “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday…”.  We got a chance to drink with the natives, learned how to plant banana trees, watched mile long armies of ants, and tried out our basic conversational Spanish. 

Where is that cloudforest?

After about 6 hours, our rafting guide who had earlier convinced a passing truck to take him back to the Turrialtico hotel in the back of a truckbed, arrived in a mini-taxi and packed us in it (we looked like those clowns in the circus who stuff themselves into those mini-cars) for the long ride back on what are known as “corduroy roads” (rippled gravel roads).  Costa Rica has few paved roads.  We traveled almost exclusively on gravel roads with massive potholes.  It was rare to get into 3rd gear (about 25 mph/30 kph).  Roads would often be washed away from torrential rains.  We would come over a rise and find a lane missing!  YOW!!   We would soon learn that the tree branches in the middle of the road were placed there by the natives to indicate road trouble ahead.

After a night in the small town near the hotel, watching the teenaged boys in town prance their horses past the girls sitting on the park benches, and a long drive with Larry Jr. starting to feel a bit queasy, we arrived on the Caribbean coast.  Rasta Land!  Jamaicans everywhere.  We (Larry Sr. & I) enjoyed the wonderful food (a welcome break from rice & beans and eggs cooked in bacon fat), snorkeling, and walking on miles and miles of deserted beach rimmed by coconut palms.  Robinson Crusoe sort of stuff.  Larry Jr. did rally enough one day to join us on a horseback ride through the rain forest and a long gallop along deserted beaches.  Incredible experience.  We saw Blue Morpho butterflies the size of two hands spread out, howler monkeys (small tree-dwelling beasts that have such loud and strong voices that you believe a gorilla attack to be imminent), cranes, tropical birds, etc.  We emerged again on the beach to snorkel an offshore reef, and had lunch courtesy of our guide Fernando, who used his machete to cut off the top of coconuts so we could drink the liquid before eating the meat inside (slippery and flexible in its right-off-the-tree state). 

After struggling with my mount-from-hell on the outbound trip (an ornery, cantankerous beast who disagreed with me on routes, jumped over fallen trees, and attempted to knock me off its back on low branches), I let it loose on the way back, hanging on for dear life as it ran like a beast possessed for miles along the isolated beaches.  My butt still has scabs from those saddle sores.  I had to sleep on my stomach on the beautiful beach, rolling over only to watch the gorgeous sunrise. The armpit of Costa Rica 

Yeah! A jungle river cruise to see exotic animals.  What a great idea!  After 5 more hours of dodging moon craters in the ripple road, we arrive in a small town called Puerto Viejo (there are two in C.R., and this one is nowhere near a major body of water).  No one speaks English and few have seen Gringos.  Thank goodness we’re tall and big, especially when Larry Sr. decided to confront workers building something outside our hotel room door at 6 in the morning.  As is typical (thank goodness), the Ticos avoided confrontation and went off to engage in some other activity.  We were staying in a “hotel” similar to the one described earlier and resuming our diet of “gallo” (rice and beans) and “huevos” (eggs) fried in lard.  I always thought that the English were the worst cooks in the world.  However, they rank a distant second to the Costa Ricans.

Friends who travel with me know that I sleep with ear plugs in and blindfold on.  Nothing short of a cannon shot disturbs my sleep.  However, I was jolted out of my sound sleep (just as Heather Locklear was about to plant a kiss on my pursed lips) by Larry Sr. yanking on my leg.  After throwing a few errant punches at my dream world foilers, I re-entered this world.  Larry Sr. told me that the lights in the town were out (no big deal in Costa Rica where electricity and water are catch-as-you-can commodities) and the beeping that we could hear outside was probably our jeep’s alarm warning us that our possessions were being stolen.  We armed ourselves with cans of warm coke and bottles of room temperature beer and ventured forth into the darkness.  Suddenly, our flashlight beam crossed that of our drunken and just-awaked hotel security guard and scared the hell out of both sides.  Being unable to communicate, we left him confused in the open-air lobby and moved toward the parking lot with our liquid weapons.  Confused thieves probably wouldn’t have known if we wanted to hurt them or serve them drinks.  Anyhow, false alarm and back to sleep we (and the guard) went.

After another breakfast of gallo and huevos, we met our river guide and ventured upstream, seeing iguana, crocodile, cayman, monkeys, pea fowl, boar, toucan, macaw, cranes, etc.  Upon our return, we got the heck out of that one horse (excuse me, I meant to say 12 horse) town and headed for Arenal Volcano.  Due to the presence of no road signs, we again became lost in the dark on a foggy, winding mountain-pass road.  I drove in horror and disbelief as I witnessed a Tico (the term Costa Ricans use to describe themselves) trait: passing other cars on blind curves.  Even bus drivers with a full load of people engage in this death wish experience!  After a one-hour ride through the mountains, we were told by natives we quieried in my incomprehendible Spanish that we had to turn around and go back.  Death was twice cheated, but my friends had to pry my shaking, white-knuckled frozen hands from their death grip on the steering wheel.  However, we had finally arrived in a small town near the volcano.  A few beers helped me to blink again. Great Balls of Fire!

What a lovely village and what an impressive feature.  Imagine it…An active volcano periodically shattering the air with a crashing boom, shaking the ground, and spewing forth a massive cloud of sulfur-smelling dust that floats across the 30 mile-long lake that now covers two former villages destroyed in the 1967 eruption.  Unfortunately, the weather was cloudy after dark and we missed the firestorm seen on clear nights while we soaked ourselves in the paradise environment’s hot springs that emanate from the volcano.

We also found a pizza & pasta restaurant in the nearby town run by a Tico (Costa Rican) who was raised by Quakers who settled there.  We ate at his place for two days, and drank flaming “volcanos” late into the night with him, his buddies, two American flight attendants, and anyone else who happened by.  I again flirted with death as I wore a T-shirt that said (in Spanish) “Nicaraguan by the grace of God”.  I had to give the shirt to the angered barflies to be burned once we got kicked out of the bar at closing time.  The Nicaraguans are not popular among many Ticos due to job-seeking illegal immigration, national competitiveness, etc.  The next day, we hiked on the volcano and swam in a natural pool under a 120-foot waterfall  before bargaining with the Ticos for fresh-grown ginger root and bananas, and making our mud-caked jeep ford the three streams on the return trip to the hotel. 

On the Volcano

We arrived at the Monteverde Cloud forest, so high and humid that clouds regularly move across and cover the forested mountains for as far as the eye can see (which often isn’t too far).  Distant visions of the Ocean sometimes peaked out.  We hiked and saw the “airplants”, butterflies, tropical birds (e.g., mot mots, toucans, hummingbirds whizzing right by one’s ears…although I couldn’t make out the tune they were humming…, and woodpeckers), and various other flora and fauna (e.g., coyotes) in this amazing array of biospheres.  Larry Jr. and I returned for a flashlight night hike and saw tarantulas, frogs, sleeping hummingbirds and Quetzals, etc. Wild ride

The Larry’s wanted to visit the Pacific Coast beaches with their high cliffs, but I still wanted to see the nighttime show at the volcano, so we parted ways.  I had seen a flyer in a restaurant advertising a 4-hour trip to the volcano.  It beat the ride on the bus filled with chickens and pigs by over three hours.  My partners dropped me off at the place mentioned in the ad, a small motel in the hills, where the non-English speaking 16 year-old in charge billed me about $70.  It got stranger from there.  He and I hopped into a 20 year old Land Rover complete with holes in the floorboards, springs emanating from my seat, cracks in the windshield, a lack of interior knobs or levers, and as I soon found out, no shock absorbers.  We drove in silence to a car garage of sorts.  I figured we were going to board a better vehicle.  No luck.  The garage attendant came out with five gallon cans of gas and proceeded to fill up our vehicle with petrol.  We were off, shooting down gravel roads that led to rutted dirt roads with grass down the middle of the ruts, past curious farm people…cutting across their fields while dodging long horned, floppy eared (and surprised) cows!!!…and hours later descended down a hillside to the lake by the volcano.  There the youngster hooked up the Land Rover to an old wooden boat on a trailer.  He backed the boat (with me in it…wearing an old orange life preserver made of wooden blocks) into the lake, and the ancient 25 horse power motor chugged us across water in about 45 minutes to a waiting taxi at the base of the volcano (there isn’t much taxi business, so the driver just waits for us to arrive at the prearranged time…or thereabouts).  From there, I went to the hot springs again and was fortunate to catch lava flows and bounding red hot boulders rolling down the sides of the fire-belching monster.  Even though the clouds again covered the top of the mountain and prevented me from seeing the boulders and lava being tossed high into the air with each eruption, it was an impressive display.

Riding the `hound 

Well actually its nothing like riding Greyhound.  I managed to determine the location of the little town’s bus stop for the trip to San Jose where I would meet the Larrys for a burger in an American expatriate bar showing the Super Bowl game.  The following day we would return to North America (No!  I don’t wanna go home!).

The bus driver stopped the refugee from a 1950’s school route, loaded us on and proceeded to add fluids to the engine.  We would stop often at gas stations to replenish the fluids (about once an hour).  Other than the quick pit stops, the ramshackle bus only stopped once during the 6 hour trip…in a part of a small town that reminded me of the bar scene from Star Wars.  Nasty characters roamed threateningly about the streets, and peered menacingly from its alleys.  I needed to take a whiz badly, and ventured through swinging half-doors of an open air bar resembling an old-west tavern.  I was charged 15 colones to use the hole in the floor behind a standing refrigerator carton box.  I had my free hand on the knife in my waistband…ready to slash my way out of this hell hole if necessary.  Again, I think my size and “tough guy” walk came to my aid.  I gave direct eye contact to the predatory bar flies as I sauntered out, trying my best to look like John Wayne.

Count the horses asses..

Back on the bus for a few more hours, waiting for the pliers to be passed back to me so that I could fight with what remained of the latches that open the windows.  I arrived in San Jose where two Americans I had met on the last leg of the journey joined me in a cab ride to our hotels that, to us, seemed to be near each other on the map.  My commands of “Ponga la maria.” were again ignored by the taxi jockey.  It cost about seven bucks to get to their hotel.  The cab driver told me it was another seven dollars to my hotel (The Ticos like American money because each day their Colone’ gets weaker against it.  They can hold it a few weeks and get even more Colones for it.)  Worn out from the long bus ride, angered at his circular route through town, and fed up with his manipulative crap, I became an ugly American and uttered the only offensive phrase (and it’s a really good one) in Spanish.  He left without remark and I would find my hotel less than one block away.  I checked in, and after showering the C.R. roadgravel dust off my aching body, I left a note for the Larrys saying I was at “Roger’s American Bar” watching the pre game show.

   [Top of Page]  
 Latest Headlines