We chose Costa Rica after hearing friends rave about its climate, natural beauty, neat wildlife and friendly people. We had envisioned a Mexico-like destination with sprawling, ocean-side resorts and a touristy infrastructure, complete with local people peddling their wares with aggression at every turn. The wildlife and natural beauty part was right on. But what we found instead was a pristine and relatively untouched nation of simple, welcoming folk living in mostly third-world conditions with sparse infrastructure.
After enduring what was probably the most grueling airplane trip of our entire six-month journey -- the one from Tonga to Costa Rica (five flights, two red-eyes and one broken down aircraft in Tongatapu for a total of three days travel time) - we were faced with a rugged, three-hour drive on bumpy, pothole-ridden, gravel and dirt roads to our destination on Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula. Since Chris had done literally all the camper-van driving in New Zealand, we had made a deal that I would do it all in Costa Rica, where I could at least drive a normal-sized vehicle on the right-hand side of the road. That was all fine and dandy, but the roads here are so under-built and in such disrepair that the average speed is about 15 kph. I felt lucky on the rare occasion I got the SUV past second gear as I dodged giant trenches, yielded to cows, navigated one-lane, rickety, guardrail-less bridges, and actually drove through a few rivers! To our amusement, after following our directions to a tee without incident, we found ourselves dead-ended at the Pacific Ocean in the dark within a couple hundred meters of our rented house -- but with no road to get there. Chris hopped out of the car to check things out. It was then, after maneuvering the car so that the headlights caught some tire tracks continuing onto the beach, we realized the beach WAS the road, and after plowing through another little stream, it led directly to the house's driveway.
At any rate, once settled into our little, rustic beach house on Playa Guiones in the Guanacaste Province, we began to get the lay of the land. We were greeted by Flor, the house's caretaker and cook, and quickly learned that here we were classified as "gringos" - white people from the US or Europe -- while the Costa Ricans proudly nickname themselves "ticos." Thus began the tico/gringo banter. The Playa Guiones area had very few gringos save a handful of surfers - lucky for us, as we weren't here to mingle with Americans. We wanted to see what tico life was all about.
For me it was probably the easiest to get a true cultural fix. I found that I really do have a handle on the Spanish language, and realized one of my long-term dreams -- to be immersed in it, even if only for a few weeks. Some of you know that over the last couple of years I have had a weekly Spanish tutor to build on the five-year foundation of Spanish studies from my school days. To our surprise, when we arrived in Costa Rica, we quickly found that no one off the beaten track speaks English -- so my Spanish served as the chief method of communication. Flor didn't speak a word of English, but I could actually have a decent conversation with her. I be-friended her as she showed me around the nearby village of Nosara. On our first day, we shopped together at the local "Mini Super" (grocery store) and "Carneceria" (butcher shop), planned meals and did laundry, all the while chatting. One day Flor invited me to see her house, or group of houses as it turned out - one for each of her siblings and their families, all built on the same plot of land in the jungle, a short walk in from the beach. I was introduced to many members of her family, who were all warm and welcoming. I was thrilled with the forced, daily language practice, but it was exhausting for the brain! What "helped" the most was the inability to revert back to English when I didn't know the word or phrase for something - instead I had to figure out an alternative way to say it in Spanish. During those few short weeks, my vocabulary expanded exponentially and all those horrible verb conjugations that were such a chore in class suddenly and miraculously began to flow.
Getting back to our little beach house, it was no luxury resort! With walls of raw cinderblocks, bedrooms filled with bunk beds, no screens, an open-air kitchen and an army of swooping bats, scurrying iguanas, hermit crabs, large spiders and even larger toads, it would be classified more like camping. The location, however, was exquisite - a sweeping, private beach as the front yard, complete with tidal pools and vivid sunsets on the Pacific horizon.
Our rustic surroundings WERE luxurious, however, in comparison to the locals' homes. Dirt floors are the norm, with structures built from whatever the ticos can get their hands on - random lumber, plywood, cement blocks and corrugated metal for roofs. Many children live under these roofs. In touring the house of a lovely woman named Alinson, whose husband had died of cancer, I noticed two bedrooms with three sets of ramshackle bunk beds crammed into each - that's six children sharing each tiny space for a total of twelve. But that wasn't all - two more "niños" (kids) lived there also, sleeping either on the floor or with Alinson in her bed. She explained to me that not only was she raising her own children, she was also caring for eight nieces and nephews, whose mother "se fue" - literal translation is "went away", meaning she bailed. I had to give Alinson credit...fourteen children and still smiling. Situations like this seemed commonplace. What sounds appalling to us nuclear-family-valuing Americans is not nearly as dreadful here. Caring for their extended family's young is part of their culture. Everyone pitches in, takes turns cooking meals of fish and rice and beans for the whole lot, and looks out for each other. The family values I felt in Costa Rica may be different than ours, but they were just as strong.
In speaking with other local ticos, we learned that the country doesn't have a military, and they consider themselves a very peaceful nation. The money that would have gone toward a military could have been allocated toward its roads - but instead it is funneled directly into their educational system. Schools are prevalent all over Costa Rica, always with colorful murals painted on the exterior walls and lively classrooms within. Their roads suffer terribly, but the value they place on education has paid off - as a nation, Costa Rica now boasts the highest literacy rate in the world!
We could see young children on their way home from school around noontime each day, clad in full uniform (required in public schools) and lugging heavy backpacks. Apparently they start classes at the crack of dawn to avoid trying to teach during the hottest part of the day in the un-air-conditioned classrooms. Mothers and tias (aunts) wake their kids up at 4:30 each morning, feed them breakfast and send them off by themselves, supervised only by older siblings and cousins, normally for about an hour's walk in the dark, to begin school at 6:00 am sharp. Most people in Costa Rica are quite poor and don't have cars, so they learn at a very young age to get around, even great distances, on their feet.
We were told that during the rainy season, which runs about five months of the year, children get various illnesses brought on by the relentless dampness and the molds and spores that proliferate from their dirt floors and leaky roofs. Even in these living conditions, however, the people seemed very happy. Perhaps it's because they just don't know anything different - a theme we've encountered in so many places along our global journey. But because they are so well-educated here, many young ticos I spoke with voiced their dreams of learning to speak English and traveling to the United States someday. To put this in perspective, only a rare tico has ever been on an airplane; most that I met had never been to their capital of San Jose, and had never even been further from home than the city of Liberia, which to us is a mere three-hour drive. But remember, these people don't have cars.
We were able to see some of Costa Rica's most notable animals - black Howler Monkeys - frequently in the wild, hanging out in the trees near the beach house. "Congos" (the local word for these mischievous creatures) are a lively and industrious sort with tails that are so coordinated, they act almost as a third arm. They hang out in packs and are most active in the late afternoon/early evening, when they can be seen swinging from the branches by their tails and toting their young on their backs, all the while foraging for green leaf food. We spotted them several times in the foliage directly above the roads and would stop the car for a few minutes to spectate. Always amusing! One night we were visited by a bunch of congos who were apparently having a party outside our bedrooms. The howling, trampling on the roof, shaking of trees and dragging of branches was a bit disconcerting at 4:00 a.m! Other Costa Rican wildlife we enjoyed were iguanas and a huge array of tropical birds, including gorgeous toucans. We were told by several ticos that "serpientes venomosos" (poisonous snakes) are plentiful here - but luckily, the only serpientes we saw were in a local serpentarium, along with one dead coral snake on the side of the road.
We were thrilled to welcome our great friends Nancy and Todd Fitchen and their three kids Peter, Scottie and Megan, who joined us at the beach house for a few days of vacation. Devon and Kassidy were overjoyed to see their buddies after so many months away. Together our two families beach-combed, snorkeled, boogie-boarded, went on a night-time turtle expedition, rode horses on the beach and through the jungle, monkey-watched, met local families and visited their houses, and naturally enjoyed a few "frosty" beverages prepared in "la liquidora" - my favorite new Spanish vocabulary word which means "blender." The guys even managed an afternoon of deep-sea fishing during which they successfully caught a yummy yellow-fin tuna dinner!
Speaking of turtles, once a month in conjunction with the full moon comes "la flota" - the local name for an incredible, one-day nesting phenomenon at specific beaches where literally thousands upon thousands of "tortugas" (turtles) come up to lay their eggs. What is so remarkable about this is that sea turtles always return to the same beach they were hatched on to lay their own eggs - thus, once a dense nesting site, always a dense nesting site. Playa Ostionál, a few kilometers north of our beach, is one of these sites, and is apparently so packed with turtles during nesting time that it is hard to walk without stepping all over them! While the Fitchens were with us, we gathered up the flashlights, loaded all five kids into the car and hit the dusty road to Ostionál after nightfall to look for "tortugas." Unfortunately, as we discovered when we stumbled upon an American researcher digging up a nest there, we had missed the actual "flota" by only two days! Our disappointment was short-lived, however, when we saw the kids marveling at the millions of eggshells littering the beach and crunching under their feet - proof that the last massive batch had hatched here. We didn't see a single live turtle that night, but we did find full-size turtle bones which awed the kids for a while. Most of all, we delighted in the balmy darkness, the glowing plankton at the surf line, the sound of crashing waves, the sky absolutely flooded with stars, and the pure excitement of the kids to be on this kind of remote expedition for the first time in their lives.
A few days after the Fitchens left, my dad arrived from Florida to spend our last week in Costa Rica with us. It was intriguing to see his shocked reaction to the road conditions and the third-world atmosphere, as we had become so accustomed to it not only here but in many previous destinations. He was a good sport at the beach house, which he had envisioned to offer more simple luxuries and modern conveniences, such as brighter lights and hot water, and admitted that he had not realized how many adverse conditions we had lived in for the past six months. Somehow this gave us a feeling of pride. Our intention was never to go on a luxurious extended vacation. Our mission was of a more educational sort -- to see the world and experience it for what it really is.
Our last few days in Costa Rica were spent excursioning to the Monteverde Rainforest and the Arenal Volcano in the central part of the country. With Dad along for the ride of his life (literally!), we hit the bumpy, dusty roads again for what we believed to be a four-hour trek to Monteverde. With "luck" on our side, however, that estimate was not anticipating that we would happen to get stuck behind one stage of the "Tour de Costa Rica" - a professional bike race meandering for 12 stages throughout the country. At any rate, six hours later we found ourselves in a lovely mountainside hotel in the cool, brisk weather of the altitude - a far cry from the heat at the beach house.
The next morning we enjoyed one of Costa Rica's biggest thrill-seeker draws - zip-lining through and above the rainforest. Even dad partook. It's a network of cables strewn between trees - sometimes as long as 600 meters - down which one is catapulted using full harness and pulley gear. The kids absolutely loved it - and it was equally exciting (and exhausting, as Dad will attest to) for us adults. For anyone traveling to Costa Rica, this is a must do.
Next it was on to Central America's most active volcano - Volcán Arenal. As the crow flies, it's a short distance and visible from Monteverde. But as per the norm in Costa Rica, we were again road-challenged. Four hours later we had endured the long, bouncy route around Lake Arenal and finally arrived at Tabacón Resort - an absolute oasis near the base of the volcano, complete with magnificent natural hot springs and close-up views of Arenal's explosive action. Here we enjoyed a late afternoon hike to the actual base, where we climbed on lava rock to the closest safe point and then parked ourselves for 30 minutes to enjoy the volcano's continual show of tumbling, molton rocks, escaping bursts of steam and audible booms. As the sky darkened it became all the more awesome and impressive as we watched avalanches of glowing, red rocks tumble and spark from the summit all the way down the volcano's face. Nature's greatest firework display!
You may ask, how is it safe for people to be hanging out near an active volcano? Arenal last erupted in 1968 - only the blink of an eye back in history - when it buried several nearby villages in ash and killed numerous people. It is still amazingly active and a bit intimidating - but as one of our guides explained, there are certain signs which enable people to predict another major eruption. The most tell-tale sign is when the normal, daily, benign, explosive activity suddenly ceases - this means the pressure that is continuously building under the ground no longer has a way to escape, and a large eruption is imminent within two or three days. We kept a close eye on the volcano while there, and yes, it continued to spurt and hiss and hurl its molton rocks every few minutes - we were safe.
We had a glimmer of hope as we were departing the volcano area for San Jose Airport that we may actually see what we were all hoping for - a real, live sloth in the wild. Sloths are indigenous to Costa Rica, and some locals told us about a spot in the woods near the volcano where there is almost always a female sloth hanging out in one of three trees - a sure siting, so we thought. The key word was "almost" always. She must have been out to a slow, sloth lunch as we passed through! Oh well, a disappointment we can certainly live with.
Let me end this entry with my most heart-warming story from Costa Rica. I have already mentioned Flor, the caretaker and cook at our beach house. A woman the same age as me and a mother like me, Flor became quite endeared to us. She took wonderful care of us, not only cooking and cleaning, but also watching Devon and Kassidy from time to time so Chris and I could go running together on the beach, and arranging various excursions for us (horseback riding, fishing, etc.) through her local contacts. All this for only $7 a day, so the landlord told me are her earnings. She was so willing to please that we felt she deserved a nice gratuity. Flor had been talking about Christmas coming up, and how she had so many mouths to feed that there wouldn't be enough money for Christmas presents to go all around. So, instead of giving her a cash tip, I drove her and her eldest daughter, Daniela (16), an hour away to Nicoya for a Christmas shopping spree. With no cars at their disposal, providing the ride to a town with decent stores in itself made me happy. There we made a list of Flor's sons, daughters, nieces and nephews - 18 in all -- along with their ages. My heart grew two sizes that day as we spent a joyous morning choosing a small Christmas gift for each child - toys for the younger ones and clothes or shoes for the older ones. When all were wrapped and labeled, we loaded them into big sacks and laughed as we lugged them down the streets of Nicoya like Santa's elves. As we drove back to Playa Guiones, Flor told me with tears in her eyes that the children would be overjoyed - and she would tell them that this year, Santa Claus was the nice gringa lady who stayed in the beach house. That's all I needed for Christmas.