A travelling lifestyle is a dream for many and exotic locations like Costa Rica are on most people’s bucket list. What most people don’t dream of is finding themselves stranded on a beach, walking miles in the blistering heat to find a cashpoint, or being lectured about the virtues of cocaine by a taxi driver.
This is the story of a Costa Rican day I still can’t believe I’ve lived through. This is the story of what happens when you decide to just go off on the road by yourself.
On this (un)usual day, after an early-morning surfing session at Playa Avellanas, I decided to head off to Tamarindo, the closest town to my remote, by-the-beach base. It needs to be understood, however, that I don’t drive and strongly believe walking is the best way to discover a place. The prospect of walking the many miles to Tamarindo did not faze me.
Tamarindo, in the Guanacaste Province, is the type of town everyone thinks of when dreaming of a tropical holiday: bars and cafés on the beach, surf and souvenir shops, clear waters, and small waves to test a beginner surfer’s equilibrium. This is also a town with banks, a massive lure for someone staying by a beach where cash is king.
It’s 12 miles to drive from Playa Avellanas to Tamarindo, but as I was walking, I decided to follow the beach. Aware it was probably a longer route, I mistakenly thought it would be nicer and give me less chances of getting lost. How hard could it be?
It all started so well, following the beach and happily thinking about what a fantastic workout I was getting. Reaching Playa Mansita and the JW Marriott, I realised I’d have to go inland and after checking my phone, it didn’t seem like much of an issue. I went through the resort and tried to find a way back to the beach, to no avail.
Following the route planned out by an app that shall remain nameless, I had a fabulous couple of hours looking at horses, navigating dead ends which so tentatively let me just about glimpse the beach, and trusting to the fact that I’d eventually end up “somewhere.”
For hours, I did not see another soul. There were buildings, but no humans. It started to get to me: where, exactly, was I? I knew I was going in the right direction, but the eerie feeling didn’t go away. I was too hot, my legs were chafing and I’d run out of water. At no point, however, did it cross my mind to go back.
On my way to Playa Avellanas days earlier, I’d seen, from the road, a very big, very impressive “private property” resort-type area that seemed to go on for miles. I then promptly forgot the place existed… my mistake.
A car! There’s a car! I probably did not actually exclaim out loud about the wonders of seeing a moving vehicle, but after hours alone in the heat, my brains were addled. Which probably explains what followed.
The car stopped. A man came out. He was, he said, a security guard. And I, addled-brained as I had become, did not question it. Neither did I question getting in the car and being driven off to god knows where.
A lot of questions were asked, in both English and Spanish. I’d made the mistake of proving I understood Spanish early on, which led to more questions. The disbelief that I was not, in fact, a local did not go away. For a while, this “guard” refused to speak English. Eventually, I got annoyed.
He wanted to see a passport, but who takes a passport to the beach? “Why are you here? Where are you going?” The bank, obviously. “You need a passport to go to the bank.” This was not going well. All the while, we were driving, and all the while, the back of my legs were sticking to the leather seat of this strange man’s car. “This is private property.” Cue my showing him my app which very much did not mention a private property or that I could not go through.
While I’d seen no one, people had, it seemed, seen me. I was informed that security had been called to check out on a strange woman in board shorts walking seemingly aimlessly around the estate. “It’s not safe for a woman to walk alone. Are you afraid?” This, of course, gave me pause. I bravely said “nah.” I also very much started wondering whether I could overpower this big man on my own. Interestingly, until this point, I was not afraid in the slightest. How remarkable that such a small sentence as “are you afraid” can trigger so much fear.
Thankfully, we soon reached our “destination,” and a look at my phone told me I was in Las Baulas National Park. By the side of a wooden building, we stopped, and I don’t believe I’ve ever gotten out of a car so fast, or that I will ever do so again. “Through here.” Pointing and walking with me through lush vegetation, we reached “a” beach in less than five minutes. The beach, which turned out to be Playa Langosta, was also deserted, but I felt safer already. I was out in the open and on a beach: my goal all along. Kind of.
Pointing down again, the security guard stopped. “Good riddance” I thought, and started walking away quickly while not rushing, I did not want to show this man I was afraid. At a safe distance, I turned around to see him in his shirtsleeve, smiling while he watched me go off. I should have known this adventure was not over, he looked too happy.
And so, I walked on the beach. I talked out loud, berating myself for my stupidity, and I reached an estuary. Tamarindo, the entire point of this “walk,” was just on the other side. Great. I watched the tide, in, out, I tested the current, too strong. I squinted at the other side: something about crocs. Fantastic.
As I’m writing this you already know I was not eaten by a Costa Rican crocodile, even if it would have been a good story too. Instead, I spent too long putting one foot in the water and retreating. I dawdled, walked up and down the side of the river trying to figure out a safe passage. I saw a couple of people get in their kayaks and row away. I watched the waves come in and out and counted under my breath. One, two… and I cried. “This is where I die,” I sobbed. This. Is. Where. I. Die. I looked at my phone wondering whether I should call my mum. After all, this is the good and proper thing to do before dying, I think.
Eventually, I put both my cross-body bag and my tote over my head and hopped like a madwoman from one bit of sand to another, not looking up from the swirling water around my ankles, counting and swearing (probably quite loudly now that I think of it). I looked back from the other bank to see if security guard was still there, but he probably had other tourists to go and scare senseless, so he’d gone.
I walked, now with a spring in my steps, having almost reached my goal. I was sweaty and felt disgusting. This was a good time for a swim. “Watch out!” one half of a Canadian couple had warned me in time, I was about to step on a sea snake. I gave up on my dream of a swim and instead sat down and told this lovely lady all about my day so far. We tried to save the beached sea snake, but it didn’t work. This was not a good day for him either.
And so, I reached Tamarindo. You would have thought this was the Promised Land for how happy and relieved I was. I did get cash out and I bought water. I did not, unsurprisingly, think of walking back. I’m mad, but not that mad.
In Avellanas, I’d heard of a shuttle that regularly ran between Tamarindo and the beach. This, I thought, was going to be my ride. How wrong I was. After locating the surf shop where the shuttle was supposed to leave from, I was promptly informed it was not running. Frankly, I did not listen long enough to figure out whether this was just a “today” kind of thing or if the shuttle didn’t exist anymore.
I lit a cigarette – if ever there’s a time to smoke, this day was it – and decided that no price would be too high to go back to Playa Avellanas.
Finding a taxi wasn’t hard, and I happily settled back thinking this day was over. “Smoking isn’t good for you, you know.” I nodded, sure, I know… “you should do like me, only cocaine and weed. You know, it’s better for you.”
I sat up. “What?” While my taxi driver babbled on about the benefits of ditching my smokes for some coke, I wondered whether he was on drugs, whether he was trying to sell me some, and whether I could safely get off and just walk back.
As we drove along on the bumpy road, I seriously analysed every swerves and little chuckles of this man. For the second time in one day, I’d gotten into a car with a lunatic. I asked to be stopped as soon as I recognised the small local shop marking the start of Playa Avellanas, not wanting the driver to know where I stayed.
This day had turned me paranoiac and I was not about to take any chances. I pretended to go off to the beach and waited for the cab to disappear before, once again, walking.