My (Non-surfing) Trip to Costa Rica

Every surfer it seems has been to Costa Rica. Everyone knows how awesome the surf can be there and what a slice of paradise it is, minus all the American influence that has infiltrated. So, with the plethora of Costa Rican surf correspondance out there, I thought, why not write a dispatch that didn’t talk at all about how amazing the surf was… Arrival

My parents and I arrive late at night in San Jose. We take a shuttle to the Hotel Alta about 20 minutes from San Jose in the Escazu/Santa Ana area. It’s a beautiful hotel, but we won’t be here for long. Tomorrow, we’re getting picked up by bus at 5:45 a.m. for the transfer to catch the boat to Tortuguero. My first cultural experience in Costa Rica: Watching the Simpsons in Spanish in my hotel room.

My parents are hungry, so we take a cab ride to the closest town that still has a restaurant open at 10 at night. The restaurant is in a strip mall. It looks very inviting so I take a seat in the restaurant and tell the waiter that it will be three of us.

My parents tell me not so fast; they want to see the menu first. They still haven’t entered the restaurant. I walk over to them and try to convince them that the menu is solid and the place looks nice, not authentic Costa Rican, but nothing else is open.

I go in shock when my parents tell me they are considering walking to another restaurant that looks open on the other side of the strip mall. The restaurant: Hooters.

I tell my parents that if they go to Hooters, I’m taking the first plane out of Costa Rica in the morning.

My parents accept my ultimatum. The meal turned out to be superb. Our waiter was very congenial and looked like the wrestler/actor The Rock. He’s our first of many experiences with unpretentious, very warm and peace-loving Costa Ricans.

Tortuguero National Park

The alarm goes off at 5:15. I wish I were an accountant in Akron, Ohio working from 9-5 so I can sleep in. But as I open the blinds and hear the tropical birds (it’s interesting to hear different bird calls than those you are accustomed to hearing) and seeing the day already taking shape, I snap into traveler mode and am energized to take on the day.

Tour bus picks us up, we have a 30-minute comedic and neurotic episode as we try to find our travel vouchers, which will serve as our entitlements to free breakfasts, boat tours and private van for transfers. Without them, we will be bitter tourists.

About an hour into the bus ride, we begin our wind through the central volcanic valley.

Thus far, every tree, plant and bird is interesting to look at. We really haven’t seen anything yet and already we feel like it’s a feast on the eyes, a buffet of beauty.

There are ferns lined up along the roadside the size of Volkswagens. We have breakfast in an open-air, wooden A-frame restaurant in a town called Guapeles. The buffet consists of strong Costa Rican coffee, eggs, fried plantains, beans and rice and fruit. This will be my breakfast every day in Costa Rica.

Before we reach the boat pier for departure, we stop at a Del Monte banana plantation. Sipping fresh coconut juice right from the fruit, we check out the banana trees and their flowers. Many Nicaraguans are employed here. They are like the Mexicans in the U.S., performing manual labor that Costa Ricans don’t want to do.

We finally arrive and unload from the bus and make the queue for our 2 ½ hour boat ride to Tortuguero, on the northern edge of the country’s Caribbean side and home of a National Park that serves as a protected breeding ground for green sea turtles.

The boat ride through the rivers and canals and tributaries is like being on a mini-Amazon tour. Along the way we see caimans (smaller version of crocodile), toucans, turtles and brilliantly floating islands of hyacinths.

When we reach the pier of the lodge we are staying at, Pachira Lodge, located on a lagoon five minutes away and on the other side of the national park, we are greeted by reggae music and a complimentary daiquiri. This feels like Fantasy Island, but with muggy humidity.

Our lodge accommodations lack air conditioning. There’s a fan that’s not working so well. The furniture is bamboo. This is brilliant! No TV, no phone. Yeah, it would be nice to have air conditioning, but it’ll be good to have an authentic, toughen-it-out experience.

The resort is on the east bank of the Tortuguero River. There are no towns here, nowhere to go. We are stuck with the Howler Monkeys, who, we are told, will start howling and pounding on our roofs at 4 a.m. like clockwork. With the heat, humidity and threat of an imminent primate-sonic attack, sleep seems impossible.

After lunch, I want to doze off, but the heat makes sleep seem as unlikely as a snowstorm here.

We visit the National Park, which is 47,000 acres of canals, rivers, volcanic black sand beach, freshwater lagoons, swamps and thick, dense, Vietnam-like foliage. There are thick palm groves all over the park. We take a hike through a section of the park. We have to wear thick, rubber boots because of the muddy trail.

Part of the trail extends right up to the black sand beach. We walk to the water’s edge and feel the warmth. Supposedly, the Carribean is actually colder than the Pacific side. Nobody is swimming here due to strong currents. This is no Miami Beach; Tortuguero is pristine and remote.

Getting back from the park, I’m lounging at the pool. I feel refreshed from the sweaty hike, but I can’t help but feel unsatisfied. I really don’t want to be in a pool in Costa Rica. I want to be in the ocean or swimming in a lake, but I guess I can’t complain.

We take the boat to the other side of the river. This is Tortugeuro village. It’s small; there are no cars, only canoes. Most of the people who live here are black Jamaican. The Caribbean influence here is palpable. This remote village has a dirt path that you can walk in 5 minutes to get from one end of the village to the other. There are brightly colored casitas on both sides of the path. There are lots of little bodegas selling trinkets.

I buy homemade ice cream from a sweet lady named Darling, a Nicaraguan who asks me if I’m Israeli. Turns out she studied the Holocaust and lived in Germany. Her father was killed when she was 7. He was a pilot who was murdered, she says, because the paranoid Nicaraguan government thought he was helping the Sandinistas or something to that effect. Anyway, it was unexpected that along the banks of this tiny, remote Caribbean outpost, a Nicaraguan who is serving me the best vanilla ice cream I’ve ever had, pegged me for an Israeli(I’m half-Israeli).

Waiting for the boat that will return us to our lodge, we see children diving and splashing, wisely staying close to the pier, respecting the caiman’s turf.

We eat a buffet dinner in the dining hall packed with other guests. I eat tons of veggies, especially beets and red cabbage. I invite a man who is solo to sit at our table. He is a retired Costa Rican exploring Tortuguero for the first time. He speaks no English; a perfect opportunity for me to practicar mi espanol. I tell him, “Despues como remolajas, mis negocios en los banos en la manana la dia proximo son rojos.”

Loose translation: When I do my business in the bathroom (#2) the morning after I eat beets, it’s red.

No response whatsoever from the guy. Either he didn’t get it or didn’t think what I said was funny; probably the latter.

Back in my lodge by 8:30 p.m. It’s stifling. It’s so hot that the mosquitos seem to be napping. After reading three pages of my novel my elbow crease makes a suctioning noise, as the sweat prevents me from straightening my arm.

The chirping of the insects is deafening. This helps to drown out the cheesy loud Latino disco music that’s blaring from the open-air lodge bar. (It’s cheesy but I like it because I’m in Costa Rica.)

Assault of the Howler Monkeys

The next morning, right on cue, about a half-hour before the sun rises, the monkeys start shrieking. The noise is something you’d hear in a Steven King movie. Before our walk through the lodge compound to the dining hall, I tell my mom that even though the sun is not out yet, she should carry her umbrella and shield us so we don’t get bombarded with feces that the howler monkeys like to throw on tourists as a way of welcoming them to Costa Rica.

(Costa Rica does not switch their clocks, so the sun rises around 5:30 and sets around that time as well; the country is a mere 9 degrees north of the equator.)

After breakfast, we take a two-hour boat tour of the Tortuguero River and its many tributaries. We see several caimans, some napping on muddy riverbank terraces, others submerged with only their eyes above water. We spot a couple of baby caimans, perhaps only a foot long, displaying no fear, chomping their snouts as our boat captain splashes water in their direction.

We also see river otters carrying sticks in their mouths, getting ready to build a damn perhaps; spider monkeys playing in their jungle-gym habitat, swinging from branch to branch, mother carrying baby on back. (Spider monkeys supposedly don’t throw poop at tourists.)

Kingfishers and other exotic birds are here, as well as the Jesus Lizard, so named because it can walk on water. (But probably not with the same grace that Jesus supposedly had when he walked on water; the Jesus Lizard runs like a spaz across water.) Our boat ride reminds me and my father of our favorite Vietnam War movie, Apocalypse Now. If there were a tailgunner on board we’d be convinced that Charlie would start attacking, ambushing us on this Mekong Delta-like waterway.

The humidity here probably is similar to Vietnam’s. I realize once again how spoiled I am by San Diego weather.

When we return to the lodge, we have a round of Imperial beer (Costa Rica’s native brew) at the dockside bar. As sunset approaches, the view of the river and the Afro-Caribbean village on the other side is worth the threat of fecal bombardment by howler monkeys.

Leaving Tortuguero, Onwards to Monte Verde Cloud Forest

At around the same time the howler monkeys start acting up, it starts raining hard. It’s very peaceful listening to the rain. This is a quintessential tropical travel experience: torrential downpour with the eerie chorus of the howler monkeys.

We get up at 5 a.m. to catch a 10-seater prop plane for the 25-minute flight back to San Jose. The flight provides an amazing aerial view of the northeastern Costa Rican waterways. Everything is verdant and lush.

As we approach San Jose, the divide between rich and poor in the capital city is evident from the air. There are opulent houses on one side of San Jose and a small shantytown of corrugated tin roof shacks on the other. Many of these belong to the illegal Nicaraguans.

Our driver greets us at the airport and tells us that it will be a four-hour drive to Monte Verde Rainforest, where the forest meets the clouds. Half of the drive will be on the Pan American Highway, the other half on unpaved bumpy roads.

People with bad hemorrhoids would be wise to avoid Costa Rica at all costs.

Monte Verde, we’re told by our laid-back driver, Jose, was settled by, of all people, Quakers from Alabama. After Costa Rica’s civil war came to an end in 1948, then-President José Figueres Ferrer abolished the Costa Rican army. The Quakers, like modern Costa Ricans, are peace-loving people and were conscientious objectors to the military draft for the Korean War. They settled the Monte Verde area and were taught by the locals how to dairy farm and breed cattle. The Quakers are still making cheese here. The ice cream at the Cheese factory near town is supposed to be heavenly.

After a stunning drive going through a series of bucolic and lush green scenery with quaint Costa Rican farming hamlets, we reach our next two night’s accommodations: El Sapo Dorado, located a quadriceps-burning 15-minute uphill walk away from the three-square block town of Santa Elena, a short drive from Monte Verde.

The hotels’ property reminds me of an off-the-beaten path New England cottage, but with thicker vegetation. Our lodges are roomy with a cabin-like feel, with A-frame high wooden ceilings and homey, pastel-colored bedspreads. No TV again, thankfully. The weather here feels more like San Diego. It’s cool up here. No need for AC. This is such a relief considering the last couple days in Tortuguero.

After a nice siesta, we walk into the center of Santa Elena, which reminds me of a mini-Ensanada, in Baja.

Despite the town’s small size, there are plenty of quality places to eat, as well as bars and kitschy souvenir shops. For dinner we eat at a place called Morphos (butterfly themed murals and mobiles fill the restaurant). We eat a typical platter of beans, rice, plantains and salad. The Grilled seabass is cooked perfectly. Throw in some homemade squash soup, Imperials and red wine, and we enjoy a feast, all for $30.

Monte Verde Cloud Forest Sky Tour and Zip Line

By far the highlight of the trip is the zipline canopy sky tour. I was apprehensive that my parents wouldn’t be able to handle the adrenaline; I thought they wouldn’t be able to hang, literally. What a rush! Being strapped to a zip line way above the tree canopy line, and then being pushed into the unknown, holding on for life, zipping across a suspended rope, disappearing into the clouds, mud slapping and caking your face, adrenaline pumping, howling wind trying to knock you off your center of gravity. You fear being stuck in the middle of the zip line with the person behind you unable to see if you are stuck. Thwack right in your back!

We got to do this 12 times! I think my parents had no clue what they were getting themselves into. Had they known, they would have probably opted for the tour of the Quaker Cheese Factory instead.

We started off climbing a steep-angled spiral staircase. By the time we reached the first zip line our hearts were pounding due to the last few days of being mostly sedentary.

The guides showed us how to negotiate the zipline: hold on, cross feet and pull knees up to chest and lean back. They also showed us what to do if we got stuck before making it to the other side of the zip line: pray!

I’m so proud of my parents for tackling every zipline with determination and not chickening out.

For the last two runs, we had to partner up with somebody. One person in front, one person in back. The person in back has to wrap their legs around the person in front. By process of elimination, I was partnered with a guy, a shy, homely-looking bloke. I try to break the ice with him by saying: “What happens in Costa Rica stays in Costa Rica!” I keep going with the immature homoerotic theme: “Should we flip a coin to see who’s in the rear (bad pun) … I usually like to have a couple of glasses of wine before I do something like this and I should at least know your first name….”

He’s not amused.

On a few of the runs, I thought decapitation was imminent; there’s no way, it seemed that you could get to the other side of the line without slamming into one of the bulbous tree branches.

I feel like a dumb gringo for having worn my favorite shirt, which happens to be white. By the end of the zipline adventure, my shirt is brown. I have flashbacks to when I was a kid playing tackle football in the mud.

After the euphoria of the zipline, we do the SkyWalk, crossing several suspended bridges way up high in the canopy. The weather is cool and overcast, much like San Diego in winter. Up in this elevation, with the massive amount of rain it gets here, everything grows big. Even basic insects look like they’re on steroids.

Back in the town of Santa Elena, we eat at an authentic Costa Rican restaurant popular with locals. The walls of the restaurant are lined with tourists’ artistic and patriotic drawings, most of which are home flags of their countries of origin with praise for the restaurant’s food.

A lunch of three grilled fish entrees with mashed potatoes, veggies, salad, black bean and egg soup, red wine, fruit juice and a side of fruit costs $20, or about $7 per person.

Back at our lodge, I take a siesta and then awaken to whimsical cloud formations and weather. The sun is shining, yet it’s raining. The high clouds are stationary but low-lying clouds zoom by. The silence except for sweet chirping birds is golden.

At night we take yet another tour of the rainforest. The tour guide is young and inexperienced. My parents and I start cracking up after he points out yet another cricket. Despite the lack of exciting wildlife seen on this hike, walking through the rainforest at night is a great experience. We do see some interesting creatures such as tarantulas, giant toads, gutis, which are like giant guinea pigs. Openings in the canopy reveal a sky almost completely covered in stars.

For dinner we eat at a local seafood restaurant. It’s Saturday night and the streets and restaurants are empty. The locals are all home watching the Costa Rican national soccer championship. We watch the first half and yell GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOALLL when someone scores.

We catch a cab back home and the driver in Spanish tells me he’s bummed his favorite team lost; but he’s excited for this summer’s World Cup and the match between Costa Rica and Germany.

Arenal Volcano

There are over 100 volcanoes in Costa Rica and five of them are active, including the popular tourist destination Arenal.

We take another private van for the four-hour ride to Arenal. The first half of the drive is unpaved and bumpy. The landscape reminds me of Bali with terraced fields, but these are plots of coffee; not rice. There’s also a resemblance to the upcountry on Maui. We pass several little rancheros.

Though the ride is bumpy, the ride is anything but torturously monotonous. The beauty of the rolling verdant landscape and the conversational Spanish session I had with our driver Orlando made the ride go by fast. I feel confident knowing that I was able to hold a conversation for four hours in Spanish. Orlando is my age and super friendly. I feel a brotherly kinship to him.

Lake Arenal is now in view. We drive around the entire lake, the largest one in Costa Rica. The lake is choppy, surely stoking some of the windsurfers we see. This is a recreational paradise if you’re into sportfishing, kayaking and biking. Orlando tells me that last month he met a group of people biking from Alaska down to Tierra del Fuego at the bottom of South America.

Americans are starting to buy land here. There are Century 21 ads all over. We are now coming within view of Arenal Volcano. It’s often cloudy here so we won’t be able to see, at least now, the perfectly coned shape of Arenal Volcano.

Arenal, after a 400-year nap, erupted in 1968 and continues to be active. It’s one of the 10-most active volcanoes in the world. It seems like most coastal Californians come to Costa Rica to surf; all other gringos come here to see Arenal.

We stay at the swanky Tabacon lodge, complete with Cable TV and A/C. I don’t mind the A/C; memories of sweltering Tortuguero nights are still fresh. But in a way, I’d rather be in a smaller lodge for more of an authentic experience. But again, who’s complaining?

The lobby of the Tabacon has a plasma screen TV showing video of lava flows down Arenal.

We take a cab ride 20 minutes to the town of Fortuna, where we eat at an open-air restaurant with 30 long picnic tables and a terrific view of a foreground of a horse ranch and the perfectly-placed backdrop of the volcano.

After lunch, a bus picks us up and brings us to the Areanl Volcano National Park. We stop at a crater, a result of the the 1968 eruption, which killed 85 people. The boulder that created the crater disintegrated immediately; there was never a trace of the impact; not even a pebble.

Our guide, Giovanni, is part comedian, part naturalist. He leads us across a rock-strewn stream and onto a trail. Giovanni perfectly mimics the call of several animals including the howler monkey. Several times we hear loud gurgling, the sound of boulders tipping over and rolling down the side of the volcano. The sound is so loud you think for sure one of the boulders will come barreling down, crushing the dense jungle and then us. Giovanni tells us that one of his co-workers was killed by volcano debris a few years ago.

After an hour and a half of hiking, we come to a clearing and take a rest on a bed of sharp lava rocks. The scene is breathtaking. To the west of us is Lake Arenal, getting ready to receive the setting sun. This is a photographer’s dream, with Arenal Volcano to the east.

We’re close enough to see clouds of smoke cascade down the mountain, the result of the volcano’s rumbling belly. We feel like members of an ancient tribe, worshipping this mountain God. It’s easy to see why the ancients bowed down to the deities. Our group is contemplatively and reverentially silent. The sky begins to envelop with darkness. We finally see the moment that we’ve been promised by Giovanni: lava flowing down the mountain.

Although the flow isn’t nearly as thick and productive as Mauna Loa, the contrast between the night sky and the neon red lava is stunning. (Scientists say Arenal is slowly starting to go back into hibernation.)

We start to make our way back, taking a different route. We use flashlights to guide us around unstable rocks and stone steps and the occasional wild creature. We descend stone steps into complete darkness, except for the lightning bugs that remind me of my youth collecting these bugs in jars on the East Coast.

Our guide keeps the pace rapid, rarely glancing back to see if the whole group is keeping up. Thank God both my parents exercise religiously and are in terrific shape, often leading the pack.

The hike comes to an end and we get back on the bus some five hours after we were picked up.

Back in Fortuna, a town on the dormant side of the Volcano, Giovanni recommends a restaurant located off the main road in an alley. It’s called Nenes (The Kids’). My dad and I down a margarita; mom drinks wine. Sunday night church service has just let out and the restaurant quickly fills up with locals. The mood is festive and light.

Getting back to the Tabacon lodge, I relent to the conveniences of my hotel and watch some TV. I decide that I might as well make it an educational experience: I try to learn more Spanish by watching a subtitled version of the Sopranos.

Hanging Out with the Maleku Tribe

We are picked up early in the morning for the one and a half hour drive to the indigenous reservation of the Malekus.

There is a 1:1 tourist to guide ratio; three of us and three of them. In the van, I can’t help but feel apprehensive that this tour will be a bust. My heart is set on whitewater rafting or horseback riding.

One of our tour guides informs us that not many people visit the tribes. In fact, the Malekus haven’t had any visitors in over a month.

We reach the isolated reservation, home to a rather small tribe, which maintains lots of old traditions, including their language which they still teach in school. They have accumulated lots of knowledge about plants. Some of these plants are used for local anesthesia or to treat maladies, others to color their garb, and still others, to cook with.

The tribe still produces and wears their traditional cloths made of the bark from heart palms during their ceremonies. Their main-source of income is the sale of their crafts, such as masks, bows, rainmakers and other musical instruments.

Our indigenous guide is named Majito, 35, and one of the 250 Maleku members. He has perfect brown skin and pure and gentle eyes, which match his spirit.

The Costa Rican government has been slow to grant rights and identity to the indigenous. It was only 15 years ago that officials in San Jose gave them ID cards, thus acknowledging their existence as Costa Ricans.

It was only 100 years ago that the Malekus started using money; it’s only been a couple decades that schools were built here.

Majito leads us on a nature walk through the jungle. He stops at a tree, rips off a few chunks of bark and tells us to eat it. It’s a heart-of-palm tree and it tastes better than any I’ve ever eaten before in a salad. Further down the path, he picks off a leaf of the “Hombre Grande” tree, used for stomach aches. The achiote seed is used as a natural red paint for ceremonies. Crushed, it becomes a spice for food.

We take the shell of a curcuma tree, which smells like ginger and produces a natural yellow paint. Unfortunately, the paint has to be mixed by the natives with acrylic because many of these trees are endangered species.

Majito tells us to take a small piece of anise and rub it on our tongues. After 20 seconds, our tongues tingle, becoming completely numb. It tasted like licorice and is used as an anesthetic for toothaches. It’s a member of the black pepper family.

We also come across the deadly-if-ingested dieffenbachia tree; the Jamaica tree is friendlier and smells like cinnamon.

Majito shows us the rubber tree, which was the cause of land wars between the indigenous and the colonizing Costa Ricans. Many indigenous died near the trail we are walking, their blood having flowed into the local river, which is named Rio de la Muerte (river of the dead).

Other plants that Majito shows us: the Zorrillo which has a skunk-like smell and is used for sinusitis cures; Mexican mahogany eradicates athlete’s foot. Costa Rican fishermen use this bitter-tasting wood as bait. Western doctors have come here looking to buy Kukumeca (sp?) to combat anemia. It has long spiky thorns and its blood-red roots are filled with iron.

Majito then takes a long stick, and like an ape fishing for termites, inserts the stick and wiggles it around an opening in the ground. After a few seconds, an army of Central America’s largest ant–The Bullet Ant–creep up the stick and start swarming around the colony’s entrance. A few bites from this insect has the potential to kill a man, we are told.

Leaving the ants behind, we come across a rock with a petroglyph. It’s a spiral signifying the eternal cycle of life. The rock is a marker notifying that a cemetery is nearby. A couple of meters away from the rock, an unmarked grave houses the remains and possessions of an important Maleku.

After the medicinal plant hike, we eat lunch cooked by a handful of Maleku women. We drink a sweet corn concoction which re-hydrates us after the sweaty hike. Fried plantains, cabbage salad, and of course, rice and beans are served. Everything is homemade and super fresh.

We then enter the palm-thatched roof/balsa-wood bodied A-frame tribal art gallery. Everyone in the tribe is an artist of some sort. Brilliantly painted handcrafted totemistic goods are on display for sale, though there is no pressure or pushiness about buying anything, unlike in Bali.

We take a seat on wood benches. A group of a half dozen Maleku youth enter wearing traditional clothes, which look like hula skirts made of balsa wood shavings, covering the hips and privates. One corpulent Maleku, a boy of about 17 with thick shoulder-length, jet-black hair beats a homemade drum with a repetitive staccato beat. In front of him is the ringleader of the ceremony who carries a bow.

The leader kneels on the hard-caked mud floor next to an open-pit fire. He chants, prays, sings and calls to the Great Spirit in native Maleku tongue. Majito translates into Spanish (and our affable guide Paolo translates into English). The gist of the leader’s soliloquy is a conversation with God.

He asks the Great Spirit, “What has become of the once-bountiful animals, and of the land and culture of the Malekus?”

He lifts up his arrow to the Great Spirit and raises his voice asking the spirit if he’s not praying loud enough.

“Is this why we haven’t seen the mighty Jaguar in a long time?” he asks. “Is this why our water is no longer pure?”

The Maleku youth walk in a circle and then proceed with a simple dance in call and response form. At the end of the ceremony, they ask us to join in the dance. They also teach us a brotherly greeting: tapping each other on opposite shoulders with closed fists. We are taught two Maleku phrases: Capi-Capi (hello) and Afa Pakiyan (Thank You).

Those in the tribe lack Western ego. I feel shallow thinking about my life compared to the Malekus, tanning in the sun and lifting weights just so I can feel good about myself physically and appeal to the opposite sex. I feel so disconnected with nature. I wish I were Maleku.

But then I see the houses in which they live and feel grateful for what I have. The only technical innovation the Malekus have in their domiciles are single lightbulbs. Flimsy curtains separate three generations of the same family.

The next time I go to a 7-11 in the States and grab an artificial protein bar and scan the vapid gossip magazines, I will think of the Malekus and their connection to nature, the way it was meant to be.

I still don’t know the difference between an oak and maple tree, but the tour with the Malekus is a trip highlight for sure. So far, I don’t care that I haven’t surfed and I no longer care that today, I didn’t go whitewater rafting.

Our stay at the hotel includes the famous hot springs and pools at Tabacon. Even travelers on tight budgets splurge here to heal sore traveling bodies. The spas and pools feel therapeutic but the vibe is cheesy with smoking tourists crowding around a swim up bar.

After hanging out with the Malekus just a couple hours ago, being in a resort is anticlimactic and antithetical to the real-life National Geographic experience we just had. But who’s complaining?

Manuel Antonio

If we would have flown from Arenal to our final destination, Manuel Antonio National Park, this leg of the trip would have taken a half-hour. Instead, we take a five-hour drive. Even though my butt cheeks go numb after a couple hours, passing by little villages and towns is a worth-it experience that you can’t get from a plane. Every school kid, wearing basic navy-blue trousers and short-sleeved white buttoned-down shirt, smiling at us also makes the drive worth it.

Every free-roaming horse, cow and chicken is worth it as well. Our driver is absolutely silent and speaks little English, so we are stoked and surprised when he picks up Paolo, one of our guides yesterday for the Maleku tribe tour.

Paolo is another comedian/naturalist. He shares with us some naughty words in Hebrew he learned from Israeli tourists. He points out interesting natural tidbits along the way, such as trees that shed their bark to rid themselves of parasites.

For much of this drive and all others we’ve taken, the road is enveloped on all sides by tropical green.

One-hour away from Manuel Antonio, we see the Pacific for the first time on the trip. I ask the driver to stop when I see the first restaurant with a beach view. The restaurant is a Bob Marley-themed open-air café. Immediately after ordering a fresh watermelon juice, I sprint 100 yards to the water’s edge, watching some surfers negotiate pounding, closing out beach break. I probably wouldn’t surf these conditions in San Diego, but still, I’m envious that they are in the water but I’m not. But who’s complaining?

There are few sandy white beaches on the Pacific side of Costa Rica and this isn’t one of them. The sand is faded black.

After lunch and back in the van, our driver pulls over. Paolo tells us to get out and walk across the bridge, where our driver will wait for us.

We walk along the concrete sidewalk of the bridge and look down, our backs flexed over the railing. Below is a muddy river. There are about six, 12-15 foot long crocodiles in the water. The bridge railings are waist high at most. When big trucks pass by, I’m scared a gust of wind will blow me over the railing and land me right on top of a croc.

Finally, after six hours, we reach the Hotel Parador, located down a long, twisting, pot-holed filled road, perched high up on a cliff. It’s got elegant Mediterranean style architecture in traditional Spanish mode.

Although I’m not a fan of swimming pools, the three pools here at Hotel Parador are awesome. The view from the pools and the rooms are amazing, with giant stone monolithic rocks in the crystal-blue Pacific.

Conquistador-themed sculptures adorn the expansive hotel. We can’t understand why in Latin America, where many people have obvious indigenous features, why Spanish culture (i.e. its language and religion), is celebrated. After all, the Spanish killed and forced conversion on the indigenous. Seeing a statue celebrating a Spanish conquistador and his valiant horse is like seeing a statue of Hitler in downtown Jerusalem.

But with a gorgeous isolated boutique hotel on 12 acres of pristine jungle, no one seems to care about this cultural paradox.

Three-foot-long iguanas and red tropical crabs make their home at Hotel Parador. The crabs, usually in groups of a few, walk comically and frenetically, scurrying out of our way. They don’t seem real; they look like wind-up toys.

I meet several Israelis at the hotel. It was fun switching from English, Spanish and then Hebrew. I also meet a Quebecoise, someone with whom I can practice my rusty French.

We end up taking two different tours in Manuel Antonio. At the National Park, the smallest in Costa Rica, but many think the most spectacular, I shoot some amazing photos of the white-faced capuchin monkeys, the three-toed sloth, boa constrictors, ibis birds and many iguanas.

Playa Manuel Antonio has a reputation for being one of the nicest beaches in Costa Rica and it definitely lives up to that billing. A mere 20 yards from the white-faced monkey-filled trees is the warm, placid and clear water.

We also take a boat tour through a mangrove-lined river, where we observe rare squirrel monkeys wrestling with each other. (This is one of the few areas in the world that has a sizable squirrel monkey population.) We also are blessed with a glimpse of a rare pygmy anteater curled up on a branch in the fetal position. How our boat captain spotted the small stuffed-animal like creature through dense brush I’ll never figure out.

The boat ride ends at the rivermouth, which empties into the Pacific. The current is strong. Pounding waves are in the distance. Brackish water turns into clear turquoise salt water. We are floating in a channel that was created only nine years ago by El Nino, its effects so strong it created a new island.

After hitching a ride with an eccentric and probably liquored-up American couple, we head to the beaches of Quepos, the small town where I enjoy, for a few hours, bodysurfing without a wetsuit.

Tomorrow we have to wake up early once again for the three hour ride back to San Jose.

Thinking About Coming Back

I want to return here and truly experience Pura Vida (pure life), the catchphrase that Costa Ricans use, sort of like the Hawaiians’ “hang loose”. Costa Ricans are not disingenuous when they use this phrase; they really mean it and live it.

With all the Americans that have moved here and the ones that will move here, I’m not sure I’d want to live here. But there are still slices of the country that have been unspoiled by the gringo influence.

Still, it will be sad if Costa Rica turns into a Cabo San Lucas.

Sadly, there are few countries in the world that welcome Americans with open arms. Costa Rica is one of them. It will be interesting to see, however, how long it will take until Costa Ricans resent Americans.

Costa Ricans are among the friendliest people on Earth and the fact that they treat loud and gluttonous Americans with respect says a lot about these people, namely how laid back they seem.

I do plan on returning here and surfing. Next time I come to Costa Rica, it’ll be for a lot longer than a week and a half.


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