I “landed in Costa Rica”:http://juniorbird.com/archive/002159.php on Christmas Day. One of my “2005 New Year’s Resolutions”:http://juniorbird.com/archive/001004.php was to travel more, and part of that turned into a holiday trip down South, with friends from Marshall. After hours of flight over water in a Delta plane stragely filled with vacationers from Italy, we wheeled over mountains rising directly from the beach and swooped low over small farming fields and jungle.
Stepping off the airplane, I was of course hit by the heat and the humidity, but that’s a little too stereotypcial of a description of the tropics for me to be happy leading with. Better, maybe, was the wonderfully tropical runway, flanked by palms, and the even more wonderfully tropical airline terminal, with one gate and one luggage carousel and a tremendously relaxed customs that waved everybody through, except for two people who. Following came a two-hour bumpy ride across badly deteriorated paved roads, ending at Playa Tamarindo, the first of our two four-day stops.
Playa Tamarindo is (obviously) a beach town, on the Pacific side of a peninsula on the north-west side of Costa Rica. Built up the side of a shallow, red-dust hill, Tamarindo’s main drag is a series of hotels, restaurants, and bars, separated by a dirt road whose dust is kept down by periodic sprayings of molasses, a procedure which makes the whole town smell like a cookie. Up the hill were our hotels, a short hike from the beach, past a supermarket and past a surfer bar and past an out-of-place cream-colored two-story shopping gallery in the midst of dust and gravel and brightly-painted buildings.
The food by the beach was everything I expected from a coastal town, with grilled fresh fish and ceviche and some kind of spiny lobster everywhere, plus fresh fruit juice at breakfast. Then, away from the restaurants, the beach was broad and golden, with seabirds and surfers paddling out to the breaking waves and colorful hotels and cafes along its border. And, in the evening, the sun set over the water and lit the place pink.
After dark, we headed out to one of the many nightclubs; every night, there was one hot spot where everyone came to drink and dance, and the key was to keep abreast of that. Drinks were strong but didn’t make any particular use of the local “guaro”:http://www.guaroliquor.com/home/index.php — and you know how much I like “strong local liquors”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caipirinha. At least there were a lot of 16-year-olds hitting on me, and crabs crawling a couple of blocks up off the beach to attack my friends.
After settling in, we took a day-long field trip to the volcano at Arenal. A beefier minivan, built on a truck body with a big diesel engine, got us over the broken roads in a hurry, and up the mountain which was shrouded in mist and rain that hid the top of the volcano, even as the volcano itself vented gasses with rumbles that clearly showed the origin of the mythic, evil roaring beasts of old.
On the way up, we ran into some Coatimundi, adorable rodents who had clearly learned to manipulate the tourists for food:
The trip was capped off with a hike through the dense rainforest, featuring pouring rain and so much humidity that I developed a thick layer of condensation inside my rain shell (but silica gel kept my camera and lenses dry enough to shoot). The moisture and the tough terrain tore the soles from our guide’s snazzy Timberland knock-offs, but his descriptions of the jungle — and ability to keep his mouth shut when we just wanted to gaze out into the mist — could not be replaced. We came in from the rain to spend an hour relaxing in natural hot springs, fed by the gases we’d heard roaring on our earlier hike.
Finally, we took a night tour that crossed a small sound in a boat and walked us down a long sandy beach, where the guides clustered us around a female leatherback turtle about three-quarters of the way to the treeline. In what must have been a trancelike state (at least, she wasn’t disturbed by the tourists around her), this giant turtle was working her rear flippers into the sand, digging a deep hole beneath her which she filled, slowly, with dozens of eggs. We formed a half-circle around the back part of her, watching the show, until she scared us off by flinging enormous gouts of sand into the air as she buried her eggs. While in the past, apparently, this beach was covered with hundreds of leatherbacks during the breeding season, now tour groups go out and don’t see any turtles some nights, even after waiting for hours. We were lucky to see the beautiful and serene scene that our guides found for us.
After another day relaxing on the beach, we decamped to the other side of the peninsula, a small town called Montezuma. If Playa Tamarindo catered to a more mid-priced European market, Montezuma attracts more young North Americans and camping-oriented Europeans. The town is also known as “Montefuma.” Montezuma is also known for its beauty and we were not disappointed. When in Playa Tamarindo, we (well, one of my traveling companions) had booked our Arenal tour with an adventure tour agency; we walked to the adventure tours in Montezuma and got blank looks when we asked them where we could go to see wildlife. Finally, we understood that they thought we could see it in town, so, the next morning, some of us woke up at the ungodly hour of 6 to get out and see the animals. We walked down the road and about a half mile out of town, and were rewarded for our adventuresome spirit:
In mid-day, walking to our hotel, I saw even more of the local fauna; the trees were infested with monkeys! Big “Howler monkeys”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howler_Monkey made their strange, deep howls at each other, while smaller “White-faced Capuchins”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White-headed_Capuchin leapt from branch to branch.
Later that afternoon, we walked back up the hills behind town to see a three-level waterfall mentioned in all of the guide books (warning: only dive into the top level). We clambered over rocks (I tried to chicken out once!) and made our way up to the second level of the falls. Foiled by a path to the top that was either well-hidden or insanely dangerous, we stopped there; the walls of the small canyon were close and covered with vegetation, while a close, short bush covered much of the ground.
The next day we crossed over the same ground again, this time higher; I gave in to peer pressure and took a canopy tour over the canyon cut by the waterfall. Nine platforms, separated by zip lines, more than forty-five minutes, quite some distance up in the air, over the treetops; not what you’d expect from me. The first platform, I hardly made it through; the second platform, I told the guide “no puedo,” right before he pushed me off the platform and down the zip wire; the third platform, when they hooked my harness to the line, I was excited to speed off into the air. Six platforms later, I could’ve kept going for a couple of hours more.
I channeled that energy into my photography, and, despite the sweltering heat, I walked the length of the town twice, shooting off a roll and a half of Velvia (and nearly flooring myself with heat prostration — thank goodness Coke is made with sugar, south of the border, and I was able to cool down with a few sodas).
Yes, that’s right, the beach was absolutely filled with pelicans of various types. But I went back the next day, anyway, to chill out on the sand and float in the warm Pacific and relax with “a book”:http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/0104061jamesfrey1.html. A full day’s relaxation in the sun was wonderful and just what I needed (except for the bright red lobster back I contracted).
(Of course, I needed the day’s relaxation, after staying up ’til 4am on New Year’s Day. In typical “_tico_”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tico fashion, the Costa Ricans waited until about 12:15 to start counting down and then start spraying beer in the air in celebration. I staked out a nice spot on the curb, raised about 6 inches over the crowd, and looked down on the masses celebrating.)
And that was it. We left Montezuma the next day, split up along the way to head to two different airports, and I took another little diesel minibus back to the town near the airport I flew into. An afternoon by the pool, a few taxi rides around town, and I was back on a plane and to a remarkably unrelaxing arrival in the ol’ States. Ahh, vacation over.
Check out more Costa Rica pictures at “my Smugmug site”:http://juniorbird.smugmug.com/Travel/148846.