Three-Score-and-Ten-in-Costa-Rica
More than you'd ever want to know about my  
70th birthday, but the pictures are cool.       
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  Email:drrock2k@yahoo.com
 
     
  First, some context. In 1999, a pleasant young man from Costa Rica enrolled in our Master's degree program at SIU-Carbondale. He extolled the virtues and beauty of his home country and I put it on my list of places to visit some day. This past summer, when the question arose of how to celebrate my having somehow survived seven decades, a trip to Costa Rica seemed the best answer. Li jumped on the internet for the best airline deal and booked our tickets, preventing my reneging. In late summer, my father became critically ill and I spent much of autumn assisting in his care. By Thanksgiving, thankfully, his condition stabilized and after the Christmas frenzy, we began planning the details of our trip. Li shopped every rental car agency in Costa Rica, settling on Thrifty. And she booked our first few nights in Marriott resorts, thanks to my daughter, an executive in the Ritz-Carleton/Marriott corporation, who can get us sizable family discounts. My job was to plan our itinerary and travel routes. I spent many hours with guidebooks and Google maps, and got helpful email advice from Edgar, my former student.

The week before we were to leave was about as stressful as it could be short of an IRS audit. My son, who had graduated last May, finally received confirmation of a long-awaited job and had a week to complete an encyclopedia of paperwork, pack up his video games, and move to Virginia. Li wanted to rush out with him immediately to find an apartment, and began poring over Craigslist in search of places and roommates.Max dinner Fortunately, my Ritzy daughter lives in the area and invited him to stay at her place while he got settled. Li reluctantly accepted this bit of sanity. Meanwhile, my youngest daughter took off for her second semester of college. A couple days later she called in a muddle of existential/educational crisis (boyfriend being the major factor) and I spent a whole day packing her up and moving her home. At least we'd have someone to feed the cats. We had a farewell dinner for my son. He was worried about stepping into the unknown, Li was distraught over his leaving, and daughter was embroiled with boyfriend - indeed, we were up most of the night calming her down. Friday morning, my actual birthday, despite little sleep, I went to lift weights with friends, my major form of stress management for more than a half century. The guys presented me with a small cake, appropriately 'Rocky Road' flavor, with seven candles to blow out. I was touched. I returned home to bid my son farewell and began packing for the trip.

A word about the principal characters. I'm generally a quiet person, bookish, reluctant to impose myself on others. The year of my birth, 1940, makes me a Dragon in the Chinese Zodiac. As in any Zodiac sign, there is a mix of descriptors so that one can always find something that seems to fit while ignoring those that don't. From the Dragon list, I'd select: eccentric, intellectual, artistic, strong, loyal, tactless. Li born in 1956, is a Monkey: improviser, quick-witted, inquisitive, flexible, innovative, self-assured, sociable, artistic, competitive. Supposedly, Dragons and Monkeys are well suited for each other and our Yin and Yang makes for a generally complementary relationship, though the potential for friction is obvious. A major difference is our diurnal cycles. I awaken early and my best time for working is morning (after a cup of coffee). I retire correspondingly early, though the Franklinesque benefits of health, wealth, and wisdom have yet to accrue. Li has the gift of somnolence, sleeping til the sun is past its zenith, able to nap any time, but staying up to the Sinatraesque hours of wee and small. (I needn't have worried; throughout the trip she got up without complaint when there were places to go and things to do.) We share an affection for a bargain; paying more than something is worth is abhorrent while a 'good deal' brings great delight. I probably inherited this from my Depression-era parents, who followed the eleventh commandment, 'Thou shalt not waste a penny,' as assiduously as they did the other ten. For Li, I think it’s a matter of competition between her and the seller.

Saturday, Jan. 16. The Flight from Little Egypt (aka Southern Illinois)
I woke Li about 1p.m., wanting to leave for St. Louis about 2:30 so we'd have plenty of time to get to the airport and go thru security before our 7p.m. flight. At 2:30, she was watering plants, changing cat litter, and going over instructions with youngest daughter. We got away a little after 3:00 and arrived at her mother's before 5p.m., close to record driving time. We rendezvoused with her sister for a ride to the airport. STL was practically deserted. We had no problem checking in or going thru security, except I found hiking boots a bitch to unlace and re-lace for the shoe-bomb inspection. Li had a plastic bag of Gator-Ade powder that aroused suspicion, as well as a water bottle she forgot she had in her backpack. She offered to drink the water right there but the TSA agent, an imposing woman, said she’d have to escort her out of the area, where she could drink it, and then go thru security again. I felt immensely relieved that the hydrogen-dioxide threat was thwarted.

Our flight was a little delayed. A small commuter aircraft, we left our carry-ons to be stowed in the hold. And shivered with cold on the gangway when we arrived at O'Hare, waiting for them to be returned. We took the train to the international terminal, also almost deserted. After going thru security we found there were no places to eat. We both were very hungry, so back we went to select from the few eateries still open. Li got a chicken salad while I had a hummus on pita and a polish sausage with mustard, onion and pickle, but alas, no sauerkraut. Very tasty. In fact, I continued to taste it for hours afterward. At the gate, we contorted ourselves around the metal armrests on hard plastic benches in an attempt to get some sleep before our 1a.m. flight, Li more successfully than I.

Sunday, Jan. 17. We Arrive in Costa Rica
Our plane left on time for Guatemala City. Li had selected our seats, she by the window and I by the aisle, in hopes the middle seat would be vacant and we’d have some extra room. The middle seat was occupied by a friendly Hispanic woman who filled the vacancy and then some. Breakfast was served around 2a.m. I declined, still tasting hummus and polish sausage, but Li ate her scrambled egg-like substance plus my waffles. I managed to doze and felt refreshed when we landed.

Other than spilling coffee on myself, waiting for the flight to Costa Rica was uneventful. Our seatmate was a young boy in a scout uniform, part of a troop chattering like monkeys as they filed down the aisle and dispersed throughout the aircraft. Throughout the flight, they laughed and called to each other. I was thrilled to be going on this trip but nothing can match the excitement of youth on their first airplane ride.

Plane to Costa Rica Kid on Plane

We landed at SJO about 9:30a.m. Customs went smoothly and we found the guy with the Thrifty sign, a pleasant young man who called the shuttle to take us to the rental car agency. The young man at the desk also was friendly and as efficient as a car rental clerk can be, going thru the sheaf of forms and explaining the insurance options, which we declined since American Express covers such things. Except for TPL (Third Party Liability) which, at $25/day, nearly doubled the cost of the rental. Li rose to the challenge. She had verified the price, even phoning AmEx and Thrifty to make sure everything was covered in the quote they gave us. The clerk was unmoved. Li commandeered their computer to review her correspondence and found a better deal with Service car rental. She needed to talk to them to complete the arrangements but the global connection for her cell wouldn't work. So she used Thrifty's phone to close the deal. I watched with great satisfaction. If it had been me, I'd have given them the credit card and said take what you want, just to be done with it. One problem - the car we wanted was not available until the next day. The solution - the agent would pick us up at the hotel in the morning, all the better since it meant one less day rental cost. Thrifty called a taxi for us and sighs of relief were heaved all around as the battered red Hundai took us away.

Li at Marriot San Jose
The San Jose Marriott (not actually in San Jose) was as gorgeous as their website promised. The open air lobby was like a sauna but that's why we'd traveled to the tropics. Our room was not ready so we decided to wait by the pool. I went to the bar to get a beer for myself and a glass of water for Li, a simple transaction that nonetheless took about fifteen or twenty minutes. I suppose this unhurried approach was meant to be relaxing, but not after a redeye flight and a morning of hassling with car rental. Li was not by the pool when I returned. I found a shaded table with a good view of a young woman in a green bikini working on her skin cancer. I figured Li was off exploring the grounds and would show up soon. I finished the beer, and the green bikini got into the pool, so I headed back to the bar for a refill. I met Li coming up the stairs from a second pool at a lower level where she'd been waiting for me. A not unusual miscommunication. Once our room was ready, Li tackled Verizon on why her cell was not working. The Marriott, like all other places we stayed, had free wi-fi near the office but not in the rooms. I called Edgar on the hotel phone to let him know we'd arrived, then settled in to watch Superbike racing on the Speed channel. Life was good. For me, anyway. Li found the sheets had 'roly polys,' miniscule tufts unworthy of a Marriott. She could give the Princess lessons about peas under the mattress.

After a while, the taste of hummus and polish sausage having finally diminished, I was ready to eat again. The hotel menu made up in price for what it lacked in variety so Li inquired at the front desk if there were any restaurants that were: a) reasonably priced; b) had good food; c) within walking distance (since we had no rental car). There was one, Kianti’s (which I heard as Chianti’s - an Italian restaurant?). We asked the concierge for directions. Although polite, she seemed unfamiliar with the area and went to talk to the gift shop clerk. She returned with a sketchy map: go left from the hotel to a souvenir shop on a corner, turn right and go 800 meters to a church on a corner, turn left about a block and Kianti's was on the left.

This was our introduction to place-finding in Costa Rica. There are no street names or numbers; all directions are in terms of distance, in meters, from various landmarks familiar to the residents but ambiguous to outsiders. It makes for great sport, especially for an easily disoriented person such as myself. In fact, one of our travel strategies is called 'the 180-degree rule' - a short while after starting out, turn 180 degrees and go the other way. The Google maps I'd downloaded had assigned names and numbers to streets and highways. While these designations may have existed in some file cabinet in a dusty corner of the Costa Rican DOT, they were unknown to the populace. Fortunately, I'd also purchased a map of the country that included the relevant landmarks, like Pizza Hut, Burger King, KFC and McDonalds, along with a sprinkling of churches and parks. This was immense help in our future travels. Also, Ticos are very friendly and helpful in aiding lost travelers.

Li on Street of San Jose

We set off, left, then right at a store that appeared to sell souvenirs. We walked thru a pleasant residential neighborhood: small, brightly colored one-story houses with neat, manicured lawns and flower gardens, set behind tall iron fences and gates, some topped with barbed wire, looking like tiny prison compounds. Doors and windows also were barred and I wondered what sort of marauders necessitated such fortification. The streets were clean and litter-free, and the few passers-by appeared harmless enough. The street came to a dead-end. Had it been 800 meters? Where was the church? A bus stopped and two men got off. Li knew a little Spanish from a time 35 years ago when she'd traveled through Central America with an adventuresome boyfriend and was happy and care-free and life seemed full of possibilities. But her Spanish, like the rest, had dwindled to a faded memory. The men seemed to know about Kianti's: back two blocks, turn right, so many meters, something, something. We went back, turned right, and Li flagged down a young man on a bicycle. Continue down the street, something, something. Next we met a woman emerging from an iron-barred gate. She knew about as much English as Li knew Spanish, but said she was going that direction and would show us. She and Li carried on a lively if fractured conversation. We came to the landmark church, a pale green edifice with crowds of people on the steps and spilling out into the street, sonorous sounds of some kind of ceremony echoing from within. The people did not seem solemn enough for a funeral, nor joyous as at a wedding. But I thought no more about it because there, across the street, was Kianti’s.

The restaurant had a pyramid roof of wooden shingles with open-air walls surrounded by tropical foliage. Very pleasant. Not yet supper time, we were the only customers and were well attended by hostess and waitress - young, pretty girls of which Costa Rica has many. I had mariscos, which, after adding lemon juice and Tabasco, was quite good. Li had fish with shrimp sauce, pronouncing it, Okay. The walk back to the hotel was more direct. The houses along the main road were a bit tackier, many with dogs behind the barred fences ranging from surly Rottweilers to baleful Pugs.
Kianti Sign Kianti Resturant
Monday, Jan. 18, Volcan Poas
The guy from Service car rental picked us up in front of the hotel at 8:30. Route 1, the Pan-American Highway, the closest thing to a freeway in Costa Rica, was constipated with barely moving cars and trucks, motorcycles weaving between lanes. Fortunately, the rental office was not far and the agent hauled out a stack of forms. We were relieved to find no extra charges from the price we'd been quoted. Li charged it on her AmEx, which provides international insurance coverage. Rental companies also require a $1500 deposit, to be voided when the car is safely returned. Something in the computersphere balked at this charge; the agent and Li spent about two hours by email and phone trying to set matters right. Finally, to avoid further delay, she put the deposit on Discover, even though this risked voiding the AmEx insurance. At last we were introduced to our vehicle, a bright red Daihatsu Terios we promptly dubbed the little red wagon (LRW). Little Red Wagon
We closely examined it for dings with the non-English speaking check-out guy, so we wouldn’t be charged for pre-existing conditions. The agent went over the alarm system, a tricky affair with a sequence of buttons to push when doors were opened or shut in various ways that I never quite mastered.

We headed northwest on the Pan-Am highway, turning off at the town with the mellifluous name of Alajuela. We stopped at a bank to change USD for Colones. For everyday commerce, the exchange rate is 500 Colones per dollar, though the bank exchange rate is about 550. The colorful bills come in 10, 5, 2, and 1 thousand denominations, with coins in 500, 100, and on down to miniscule amounts. Most places accept either USD or colones and often use a calculator to make conversions, usually in the seller's favor.

With Li's navigation, we got thru the crowded streets and out into the cbn ountryside. The countryside consisted of mountains with serpentine two-lane roads chiseled into the sides. Roads were paved with crumbling, potholed tarmac, and filled with lumbering trucks busses and little kamikaze cars buzzing past on blind curves and hills. Pedestrians and bicyclists meandered along the narrow shoulders. If you left a space more than a car's length behind the vehicle ahead, it seemed to be a rule of the road that someone was entitled to fill it. But you could not be timid, else you'd spend all day creeping along at 25kph behind some big-ass truck. I got into the spirit of things, stirring the gearbox and winding out the LRW to pass the slower vehicles, if not keep up with the true loco Ticos. I discovered my triple-E hiking boots were a bit wide for the tiny pedals and sometimes tapped the brake when going for the clutch or accelerator, causing a discomfiting lurch. Li uttered an occasional admonishment but for the most part hung on in grim silence, sometimes dozing and sometimes looking at the scenery.

The vistas were gorgeous, in the moments I could take my eyes off the road. Rows of coffee bushes filled the lower elevations. Cattle grazed in steep meadows and walked along knife-edge ridges, tawny Jerseys, black-and-white Holsteins, and Brahmas in shades of grey. I'd heard of bighorn sheep and mountain goats, but this was the first I'd seen mountain cows. Along some stretches, you could look over extended valleys, with mountains in the far distance snagging low-hanging clouds in the clear sky, a palette of greens and blues.

coffee bush
cows Vista2

Poas was a well-maintained park and we were happy to pay the entry fee to support ecotourism. We hiked up a wide, paved pathway, past tropical foliage with hidden animals making jungle noises like some Disney scene. Except with Disney animatronics the beasties would make an appearance at some point. At the summit, an elevated stand offered great views of the huge crater. The circular basin was several hundred feet deep, filled with aquamarine water giving off clouds of steam that drifted off to form clouds in the bright blue sky. The surrounding dirt and rocks were streaked brick red, ash gray, and carbon black.

Not the Grand Canyon, but a sufficient spectacle to elicit considerable effort to see it by this species of curious, clothed apes. I thought this as I trudged up a steep and twisted path thru the jungle to a nearby lake in an ancient crater. Corpulent women and rickety old men passed us on their way back down, and I determined that if they could make it, so could I. The spectacle did not seem worth the effort, cognitive dissonance notwithstanding. But I was pleased my arthritic knees and back, and sometimes erratic heart, passed the test and felt confident about the treks that lay ahead.

poas1 poas2
poas3 Lpoas
lrpoas4 Rogerpoas6

The Vera Blanca Waterfall Gardens sounded like an attractive place and was only a few km from Poas. A few km of very rough road; in some places huge yellow digging and grading machines were carving new routes in the red dirt hillsides. An attractive newly-constructed building in a modern/rustic style welcomed us. Inside, we learned that much of the area had been damaged by an earthquake last year (explaining the road construction). Even the remaining trail was too much for us to hike and get back to the hotel before dark. Mountain roads at night were definitely past my limits of courage. And the price of admission was much higher than Poas, this being private enterprise rather than a state operation. So we turned around and left.

vb road entrance vb road

The drive back went well and we stopped to eat at the Princess restaurant in Alejuela. I had the pescadero entiro and Li ordered the lobster tail special – with NO garlic. My fish arrived, crispy brown, head, tail and fins intact and bones removed. Li’s lobster was smothered in butter and garlic. The waiter apologized and took the lobster back to the kitchen. In a few minutes it was returned, sans garlic chunks but retaining the garlicky flavor. Li decided that was as good as they could do and ate it without further complaint – to the waiter, anyway.

Roger at PrincessLi at Princess

Driving from the restaurant we saw a sign saying we were headed toward Poas Volcan rather than away from it. Jammed in traffic, we had no hope of stopping to consult our map. Spotting a gas station, I fought our way across an intersection, parrying and thrusting like a fencer, pulled in the driveway and headed for the store to ask directions. I heard a shout and saw a guy by the pumps waving at me. Apparently one was supposed to follow some arrows painted on the ground. The man was very helpful and told us how to get back on the correct road - go so many blocks, turn right at the Shell station, etc. The highway past SJO was, as usual, congested; at the intersection with another major highway two cars were crunched against the guard rail. I stuck to the tail of a big truck and let him run interference as we inched around the accident. Before going to the hotel, we stopped at a little market to buy stuff for a light supper and a six-pack of Imperial, La Cerveza de Costa Rica. Back in our room, Li had unfinished business with AmEx and spent a good while trying to access their international toll-free number. A futile effort. At dusk, a delightful interlude in the huge hot tub capped off our first day of adventure. Later, Li finally got thru to AmEx and worked out a solution for the rental car deposit. A very successful day.

Tuesday, Jan. 19. The Southern Pacific Coast
The solution for the rental car required the agent to meet us at the hotel in the morning to sign more papers. By noon, we were able to get on our way to Herridura. More corkscrew roads through mountains with lumbering trucks and kamikaze drivers. Little towns squeezed in wherever the terrain flattened a bit, so it was impossible to make up time on the relatively straight stretches. Closer to the coast, we came upon a modern freeway and after paying a small toll, got the LRW whirring in top gear. We saw our first highway patrol cops, like lions waiting for zebras on the plain, and slowed to the 90kph speed limit. I saw a BMW M3, this being one of the few places one could drive such a car. The divided highway soon ended and we were back on a two-lane road, but out of the mountains. We stopped for lunch at Steve & Lisa’s, a small, open-air place beside the ocean where we could watch pelicans while we ate.

The Los Suenos Marriott was a huge operation, with condo developments on the hillsides surrounding the hotel and a large marina for gazillion dollar yachts. After checking in, we put on our swimsuits and checked out the beach. Very disappointing. It consisted of small rocks and dirty gray sand, and the water was murky with mud stirred up by small waves washing ashore. We took a short walk, then I stretched out in a seaside hammock to read while Li continued up the beach to look for rocks and shells.

Roger Hammock

The place didn’t even have a hot tub. Back in the room, Li called the front desk to ask about waterfalls and other things to do in the area. Los Suenos caters to golfers, deep-sea fishermen, and yachtsmen. There are tours available to surrounding scenic spots but little for the do-it-yourself types like us.

After a dinner of tuna sandwiches in our room, Li went to the casino. I have at times accompanied her to casinos but find them very unpleasant, not having the capacity to imagine beating the immense odds. I stayed in the room and watched the Australian Open on TV while Li took her $100 stake to try her luck. She was back in less than two hours, and of that, very little time playing. The games were expensive – no nickel slots like Vegas – and she was quickly cleaned out. She was, she said, up $50 early on, but like all true gamblers, pressed on until all was gone. She did get a complimentary cappuccino. And the sheets did not have roly-polys.

Wednesday, Jan. 20. A Day at the Resort
Los Suenos has gorgeous swimming pools, a series of canal-like intersecting lagoons in blue tile said to be modeled after Venice. At the edge of one pool, middle-aged man stood motionless facing the sun, his arms slightly away from his sides, eyes closed and chin uplifted. He wore a black Speedo and his skin was the color of brick. A practitioner of vertical sunbathing! Sure enough, a while later he turned his back to the sun and stood baking his dorsal side. We stuck with the old fashioned horizontal method on reclining chairs. Iguanas also followed this practice, lazing on the tile roof of the buildings around the pools. Li wore her new red bikini, not as skimpy as in the good old days but still pleasing to my aged eyes. She tried her new prescription mask and investigated the bottoms of the pools, finding amusement in the underwater view of overly fleshy people doing water aerobics.

Roger Pool Iguana
Li Pool

Before lunch, we checked out the surrounding area. At the small beach south of the hotel, people were much the opposite of the Marriotteers. Parabolic pop tents nestled beneath coconut palms and bicycles fitted for long-distance travel leaned against the trees. Tico families sat on the shore with fishing poles and children frolicked in the surf. Two restaurants sat next to the beach but we opted to see what the town of Jaco had to offer.

Jaco offered souvenir shops, ATV rental stores, tour sign-up kiosks, and the ever popular KFC. We found an unassuming restaurant on a side street. Li tried to order huevos rancheros, which turned out to be fried eggs on soft tacos covered with ketchup and sprinkled with cheese. In a change from fish, I had a pork chop with rice and beans. The TV showed an erupting volcano and two men at an adjoining table, a Tico and an Anglo, seemed alarmed about potential damage. I asked where the volcano was located on my map. The white guy turned out to be from NC. He told us his problems of running a pizza shop in a foreign land but hadn’t been back home in 15 years. The volcano seemed to be well away from any place on our itinerary. We went over the best route to Cahuita, our destination the next day. The guys recommended going thru San Jose, which I'd planned to avoid. They said the road signs were much better than the seemingly shorter route thru Herrida, a maze of unmarked streets.

Leaving the restaurant, we ambled about, looking at souvenirs and other tourist attractions. We were unattracted. Li urged me to get a pair of sandals to cure the lurching problem of driving in my hiking boots. We looked in several stores; men’s sandals ran about $40, too much for the our taste. The highlight of Jacos was a BMW HP-2 Adventure, outfitted for serious cross-country travel, parked at the curb. It's the latest version of my previous bike, the R1100GS Paris/Dakar. And a reminder that I'd never make the trip to Tierra del Fuego.]

Speaking of unattainable, we drove to the Los Suenos Marina to look at the mega-buck yachts and high-end restaurants and shops that catered to the overly-wealthy resort patrons. We wandered thru a boutique art gallery, looking at brightly colored paintings, both abstract and figurative, and sculptures consisting of squares of acrylic with painted faces and streaks of color. A Teutonic-looking fellow cheerily waved us in and joined us on the second floor gallery to tell us, in a German accent, about the artists and paintings, priced in the thousands to tens of thousands of dollars. We obviously were not customers but he seemed pleased to have someone to talk to.

At a little confectionary, I got an ice cream cone and Li a pineapple-banana smoothie. It tasted strange, she said, too sour, so I asked the counter girl to sweeten it. She poured in more syrup and remixed it; this was a little better but still not to Li’s liking so I finished it. Smoothies made with syrup rather than real fruit were disappointing, especially for this neighborhood. Back at the hotel, Li felt nauseous; maybe they had used milk in the smoothie (she is lactose intolerant) and, thinking back to its peculiar taste, sour milk at that?

She felt better later and we went to supper at the beach where we’d gone earlier. We arbitrarily picked one of the two restaurants, were shown to a table and given menus. Very pricey. Li wanted to check out the one next door but I was too embarrassed to leave. So she got up and returned shortly to say the prices were more reasonable. So we walked out. She always has been helpful in overcoming my inhibitions.

Thursday, Jan. 21. The Drive to the Caribbean Coast
We got underway early for the long drive to the Cahuita. Li cashed a check at the front desk and the clerk warned us to be very careful in that region. This is an area of Afro-Caribbean culture and we wondered about friction between the Hispanic and African heritages. We retraced our route toward San Jose with only one brief off-course excursion in a small town when the main road veered left and we went straight. We figured something was wrong when it led to a dead-end and were grateful the road had not gone on for miles and miles into the hinterlands

We were relieved to get on the Pan-Am Hwy and drive past SJO, the crossroads of Costa Rica. If you picture the main roads of the country as an X, canted northwest to southeast, SJO is at the center. Traffic into San Jose moved briskly but coming toward us was almost motionless. Maneuvering thru the city was no problem; the landmark hospital, Burger King, and National Theatre were just as shown on our map. Out of town, the highway to Limon was very good, well-marked and well-paved.

Road Roger Driving

Thru the mountains of Braulio Carrillo National Park, the long upgrades were dual lane so one could pass the slow-grinding trucks. There were some sharp turns but not of the double-back corkscrew kind we’d been thru earlier. The mountain walls were almost vertical tangles of deep green shrubbery, and magnificent vistas of mountains and valleys opened all around, reminding me of the paintings we’d seen at the art gallery. Further on, we were back to two lanes and trying to pass lines of trucks and busses with Tico drivers on my rear bumper. At one point, a huge blue wall filled my side window. A tour bus decided I wasn't tailgating the semi in front closely enough and nosed into the space, forcing me to brake or run off the road.

As we neared the Caribbean coast, the land leveled and banana plantations lined the road, the hanging fruit covered in blue plastic bags.

bananna tree Every few km we crossed a river, some wide with gray rocky banks and islands, some like wooded creeks. Traffic thinned and the road ran straight, but a frustrating 60kph (a lousy 35mph) speed limit was posted. I would gladly follow someone else at a higher rate but, remembering that cops lurked along the few straightaways, was unwilling to risk it by myself.

Limon was a major port where goods are offloaded and trucked to the interior. Huge yards crammed with shipping containers, parking lots with hundreds of trucks, and truck-repair shops, lined the road. Limon is a skuzzy place, with trash in the streets and run-down shacks. We’d been warned it was dangerous and not a place to linger. We turned south toward Cahuita and sped along a deserted road surrounded by underbrush, catching glimpses of the Caribbean to the left. We came upon some orange cones blocking the road and a man in a black uniform signaled us to stop. Three or four policia wearing bulletproof vests stood around while a portly policewoman packing a pistol approached Li’s window and asked for our passports. Li tried to ask what was going on but no one admitted speaking English. They wrote down her passport and license plate numbers, peered inside the car, and waved us on.

We found the turn-off for Cahuita, suggesting it was a very relaxed place. Its main street was paved, but the rest were rough and rocky, lined with small restaurants and bars, tour guides and souvenir shops.The aptly named Hotel National Park, a two-story white masonry building was at the far end of the main street, a short distance from the entrance to the Cahuita National Park. The lobby/restaurant featured some interesting sculptures. Our ‘standard’ room was not available so the manager, a grizzled-looking black man, gave us the ‘deluxe’ at no extra charge, and offered it for the following nights at $10 extra so we wouldn’t have to change rooms. We said we’d think about it. Our room was on the second floor overlooking the beach, the waves ceaselessly sloshing ashore. What made the room ‘deluxe’ was a small single bed in addition to the double, that took up whatever space the larger room provided.

Cahutia Sign 1 Cahuita Sign 2
Chauita1 Roger NPark Hotel
NPark Hotel Cahuita Hotel Beach
Cahuita Hotel Chauita Room

The beach was nicer than the Pacific, with soft sand and medium-size swells that a few kids were surfing. Signs warned of a dangerous undertow and Li said the water was too rough and murky for snorkeling. Returning from the beach, a crowd of turistas stood staring up into a large tree next to the hotel. A large sloth hung, making his way from branch to branch at a rate that seemed unseemly for a sloth. Our first 'wild' animal.

sloth Chauita Shower

Our shower was a spacious tiled cubicle. When Li tried to pull up the little plunger on the faucet to turn on the shower, the whole thing came off and water squirted straight out from the wall. She managed to shove the faucet back in place, directing the water downward, but we were forced to ‘shower’ by squatting next to the faucet. The water was tepid, with no difference between the 'hot' and 'cold settings. Li gave me a plastic bucket, telling me to wash it out and rinse my back. Now, other than places such as Marriotts, toilets are equipped with a bucket containing a plastic bag into which you drop your used toilet paper rather than flushing it down the commode. Li had removed the bag and given me the bucket - which I filled and dumped over myself immediately, without thinking about where she got it. We had a big laugh about that later.

That evening, we joined other turistas shuffling along the streets, looking into the restaurants and bars. We chose one and were greeted effusively by the owner who let us know he had nine children, the youngest of whom, a shyly smiling girl about ten years old, was our waitress. We had a long wait but were entertained by the other customers. A small tour bus stopped and a dozen or so middle-aged white men got off. The owner quickly moved some tables together and they filled the dining area. We wondered what a bunch of guys were doing traveling together - maybe some sort of sex tourists? A thin guy in a white ball cap seemed to be the leader, making arrangements with the owner in fluent Spanish. He sat at the head of the table, close to Li, who overheard snippets of conversation. It seems it was white cap’s birthday, a surprise to the group, who decided each was to give an impromptu speech of what he meant to them. They droned on earnestly, as if giving a eulogy. One guy said something about his sharing his wife with him, but street noise prevented Li from hearing clearly. Alas, there was probably a good story in there.

Friday, Jan. 22. Cahuita National Park
We woke early to the sound of metallic scraping noises coming from the roof or outside on the balcony. It sounded like a bunch of monkeys playing kick-the-can. But perhaps it was just the vultures doing their morning garbage collection in back of the hotel. Li went back to sleep and I got up to write. Unfortunately, there was no coffee maker in the room and the restaurant downstairs was not open until noon. Bummer. This definitely was not the Marriott. Later, Li and I walked to a place that had crepes, pretty good, and coffee, very good. The day seemed brighter. We moved our stuff into a 'regular' room which, at least, had a working shower.

vultures crepe breakfast

Li got her snorkeling gear and we drove a few km to the other entrance to the National Park, nearer the punta where there were reefs and calmer water. Entry fees were modest and, again, we were glad to support the conservation efforts. From the parking lot, we had to walk a couple km on a path between the sea and the jungle. Li startled when a lizard ran across her path, and then another, but within a short period, her startle response exhibited a classic habituation curve. A great many hermit crabs, in shells ranging from teeny to tiny, scuttled through the rocks and trodden leaves of the trail. We came across a row of leaf-cutter ants busily on the job. And then I saw a white-faced monkey, standing upright on the trail in back of Li. I motioned for her to turn around and slowly removed the camera from its case, afraid the monkey would scamper off at any sudden movement. Instead, it approached us and began pawing at Li’s snorkel bag, obviously looking for food. There were many signs warning against feeding the animals, but clearly the monkey had not read them. Li squatted down and let the monkey touch her, but when he started to gnaw on the bag, she stood and it went on its way, climbing a tree and swinging off into the jungle.

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Cahuita NP enterance Li Cahuita National Park
Cahuita NPark1 Leaf Ants
monkey Li monkey

We met a few other folks coming toward us on the path but the punta was deserted when we reached it. I found a spot to sit and read; Li put on her snorkel and waded in. Tour boats took groups of snorkelers and divers to the reefs, but Li said she preferred to paddle around by herself. There had been a time, maybe twenty years ago, when I took the plunge and went snorkeling with her in the Caribbean. I sort of got the hang of it and found it enjoyable. But I hadn't done it in the ensuing years and my rudimentary swimming skills vanished. I splashed around a bit in the lukewarm water. Later, we walked along the beach looking for interesting shells and rocks.

Li Snorkeling Li Shells

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a market to pick up a few things for supper. They are called 'ferreterias,' though they do not appear to sell ferrets. We drove around the rocky side streets of Cahuita looking at the cabanas and restaurants. We stopped for lunch at a place painted in Jamaican colors with recorded reggae blaring over a loudspeaker. Li opted for a hamberguesa and I went for the usual grilled fish.

ferreteria cahuita back road
Reggie resturant The proprietoress told us there was live music that night at Coco's, a bar just up the street from our hotel. We returned to the hotel and napped so we (I) could stay awake for some evening entertainment. Alas, the music was not live but a recorded techno/disco/whumpa-whumpa, very annoying, and the place was crowded with hoards of kids (well, people a lot younger than me). Young black men hung around outside the bar for who knew what purpose. One approached us, a wide gap-toothed smile on his round copper-colored face, his half-closed eyes seeming to look in different directions. His yellowish hair was braided in mini-dreads and he wore dirty white overalls held up by one strap across his bare chest. One gram for 10,000 colones, he offered. Very good; I bring it here and you try it, no charge. I immediately said No, gracias, but Li hesitated. We'll think about it, she offered. No, I repeated, and eased her away. Good old Mr. Conservative. No way was I going to try a drug buy on a street corner. Li agreed, sadly, another reminder that the good old days were long gone. There was nothing left to do but walk up the street and back. One bar was playing what sounded like a Latino Bing Crosby, but Coco's seemed to be the only happening place. Disappointed, we went back to the hotel and watched more of the Australian Open.

Saturday, Jan. 23. Another Day in Cahuita
We ate breakfast at a little café across from the hotel; excellent coffee and reasonable prices. In a dusty souvenir shop next door, I found a pair of $2 sandals. My kind of deal. But I discovered one of the little plastic buckles was broken when we got back to the hotel. Li whipped out her handy dandy sewing kit, and all was right with the world. We put on our swimming gear and walked down the National Forest trail to the beach. The surf was rolling in about chest high and I invented a new water sport, butt surfing. The way it works is you stand facing a wave and let it hit you in the chest, knocking you down so you scoot backward on your butt several meters through the sandy gravel. The only problem is, sitting becomes painful for the rest of the day. A picturesque palm hung over the water; Li tried out her monkey imitation and ended up doing her own version of butt surfing.

Li Cahuita Beach Li Cahuita beach 2

Later in the afternoon, we drove north looking for thebutterfly farm sign Li thought she saw, but to no avail.
Cahuita Gym The ‘Tree of Life’ animal refuge looked interesting, but it had closed about a half hour before we got there. So much for unplanned, spontaneous activity. We spent more time driving the bumpy back roads of Cahuita, looking at the little cabanas and restaurants. There must have been dozens of them, some quite nice and others like tropical refugee camps. We found a gym and I recalled a time when I regarded vacations as an interruption of my training schedule and would not go anywhere unless there was a place nearby to work out. And not a wussy place, like a Gold's Gym, but a real gym with a lifting platform and Olympic barbells. Now, I didn't even look inside..

After dark, we walked the length of the main street to Miss Edith’s restaurant, a place highly touted in the travel guides for authentic Caribbean food and atmosphere. Also for taking a long time for your food to arrive. The guides were correct on the latter point. As for atmosphere, the place was deserted except for ourselves and one other table. The black lady who waited on us said she was Miss Edith’s sister, a pleasant enough person but nowhere near the Caribbean Mary Lou we were expecting. (You have to be from Carbondale to know about Mary Lou’s restaurant). The food was good but not outstanding. And it was priced a couple thousand colones more than comparable fare elsewhere. After dinner, we walked past Coco’s, which advertised live music later. We planned to rest at the hotel then return for the festivities. However, Miss Edith’s Jamaican-style smoked chicken had, shall we say, unfortunate gastro-intestinal consequences. I wasn’t going anywhere except to the bano. Miss Edith's was the definite low point of the trip.

Miss Ediths Resturant Roger tired

Sunday, Jan 23. The Drive to Monteverde
I felt much better in the morning. I woke very early and sat on the balcony outside our room to write and watch the sun rise over the Caribbean. The middle-aged couple in the next room were loading their car in preparation to leave and I, uncharacteristically, said hello and asked the traveler’s questions of where they were from and going. They were friendly and readily shared a slice of life: they were from Florida where it had snowed last week; their son had married a Costa Rican girl and was living the pura vida - surfing, snorkeling, spear-fishing, and doing some construction with his father-in-law. They seemed both a little disappointed and a little envious.

100 percent coffee

When Li got up, we packed the LRW for the long drive to Monteverde. I wanted to grab a cup of coffee at the place we’d gone yesterday but Li insisted on someplace different. Also on driving around the rocky streets of Cahuita we hadn’t yet covered. We ended up a block from where we’d started, at a place that billed itself ‘100% Natural Coffee,’ making me wonder if they sold unnatural coffee elsewhere. They had fresh-baked goods and I ordered a cinnamon roll with my 100% natural coffee. Li perused the menu, asking the waiter about the waffles and how to say scrambled eggs in Spanish. She finally ordered a 100% natural coffee to go.

Gas station Roger

Only a few km down the road, I stopped to fill up, not wanting to stop in ill-reputed Limon. When restarting the car, I somehow set off the alarm. This had happened before but I'd been quick enough and lucky enough to punch the right buttons to turn it off. This time, not. The alarm progressed in intensity from chirps and tweets to sirens and whoops, and the engine died and would not restart. I'm sure the Ticos got a chuckle over El Stupido Gringo. Finally, I stumbled on the right combination and we were able to continue.

Orange cones in the road slowed us for a policia roadblock. A truck had been pulled over but we were waved past. We'd been told that the region was a channel for Paraguayans fleeing north. Or maybe it was Panamanians. I wondered what they’d found in that truck. Down the road, I stopped so could photograph a sign warning of sloths crossing the road. Given their reputation, that could impose quite a delay. Just past Limon, we ran into a real delay. Traffic stopped for about half an hour while a road crew worked to remove a huge tree that had fallen across the road.

roadblock sloth crossing

Li wanted to stop for bananas at one of the roadside fruit stands but once I got going I didn't want to stop again. Then I got to feeling bad; we were on vacation and stopping for bananas was not a big thing to ask. So I stopped at a large outdoor fruit market, fearing we’d run out of little roadside stands. By this time, Li had fallen asleep and groggily told me to buy them myself. Bananas hung in huge bunches, green and yellow; also plantains. An entire bunch of bananas seemed unreasonable, so I selected four from the individual bin, hoping they were not plantains. I saw some nice looking grapes and picked up a bunch. After a garbled Spanglish conversation with the seller, a short man with a creased, sun-worn face, a thin moustache, and no front teeth, I learned he wanted 2500 colones – nearly five bucks. Turista prices, I thought, but being the sort of guy I am, I was unable to haggle or put the produce back and turn away. Feeling defeated, I started the car – and immediately set off the alarm. After much button-pushing and cursing, we were on our way again.

San Jose Coming into San Jose, we felt confident we could find our way; we’d gone over the city map before leaving and selected a route and the requisite landmarks. But when the time came when Li said turn right, I was in the wrong lane and blocked by a pack of bicyclists in brightly-colored spandex and aerodynamic helmets, red taxis honking behind me. Most streets in San Jose are one-way, or if they are two-way, abruptly become one-way in the direction you are not going, so we took a nice tour of the crowded streets. We eventually got on the Pan-Am Hwy and wound up the LRW to 100kph.

After a few kms, we were into the mountains with the usual line of trucks, busses, and impatient Tico drivers. We ran into heavy rain for a while, but traffic hardly slowed.Out of the mountains, I began looking for the landmark Rancho Grande Texaco station pictured in one of the guidebooks that was the landmark for the turnoff to Monteverde. Instead, I came to the iron truss bridge across Rio Salida, also pictured in a guidebook, that marked the second, much rougher route. Oh, Li said, she’d seen a fancy restaurant called the 'Monteverde' some ways back, with lots of tour busses around it. We debated going back, but I'd been itching to use the four-wheel-drive and here was my chance.

mtverde road

The gravel/rocky road wasn’t bad. We saw only a few cars, pickups, and motorcycles, coming or going, and there were stretches where I could even shift into third and hit 40kph. Little houses and barns clung to the hillsides, and far up or down the sides of the hills, mountain cows grazed. We pulled into Guacimal, which we could have reached by paved road if we’d turned off soon enough, but I had no regrets. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant with beautiful wood floors, railings and roof beams. Prices were reasonable for such a gorgeous place and I ordered bistec in honor of the mountain cows.

 

 

mtverde road 2 guacimal resturant

Then it was on to the famed ‘road to Monteverde.’ It started out relatively smooth but soon became very rough, with pot holes, boulders bulging up from the roadway, and loose rocks ranging from potato size to melons. On one side was an almost vertical mountainside of grass, scrub vegetation, and rock, that continued its downward plunge on the right. Li could look out her window to the valley far below; she kept urging me to drive closer to the center of the road. But there were vehicles coming down the mountain and one never knew what lay around the next blind turn. Once it was a bus, a full-size freakin’ bus, coming toward us on a road no wider than your living-room couch. At another point, a small tour bus had stopped on the far edge of the road on a left-hand curve, surrounded by a gaggle of bicyclists (those people are truly nuts!) and other onlookers. I chugged past, thankful nothing was coming toward us around the bend, with Li saying stop, I want to take a picture. I didn’t see anything particularly picturesque, and there was no place to pull over, so I kept going. Later she told me a car had gone off the road, its rear wheels clinging to the roadside and its nose pointed into the abyss. I hadn’t noticed a thing, so focused on the road ahead my peripheral vision was practically non-existent. I wish we had gotten a picture, though.

Buildings and signs became more frequent as we approached the outskirts of Santa Elena and we stopped at an info center to ask where Cabanas Los Pinos was located. (Santa Elena is the main town, Monteverde the cloud forest region beyond). The info guy gave us a little map and sketched in the location, about 2 km further. As we set off, two dirt bikes passed us, two-stroke engines screeching, riders in full motocross regalia, standing on the pegs while the bikes bucked over the rocks. Arriving in Santa Elena itself was like stepping out of the jungle into Shangri-La. Suddenly there were smoothly paved streets lined by neat little shops and restaurants, boutiques and tour centers, people of all sorts moving like leaf-cutter ants back and forth along the sidewalks. It reminded me a bit of Telluride (not the current tarted-up Aspenized one, but the Telluride I’d visited by motorcycle in the ‘70s - but that’s another story).

We ascended a hill that San Francisco would be proud to claim, passed a posh hotel, and found the sign for Cabanas Los Pinos, and checked in at the office. The cabanas were good-sized wooden buildings scattered on hillsides among beautifully landscaped flower gardens and trees. We had a small kitchen with all accoutrements needed for cooking, a spacious dining and living area, a bedroom with a double and a single bed, a spacious shower with hot water (if you showered very quickly), and large windows looking out on the gorgeous grounds.

St. Elna Los Pinos sign
Los Pinos office Los Pinos yard
Roger Los Pinos yard Los Pinos Kitchen
Los Pinos bedroom Los Pinos window

After stowing our stuff, we drove back to town, stopping at a gallery featuring work of local artisans, visited various shops, and went to a supermercado to pick up some provisions. It was dark when we returned and I had trouble opening the front door. Li saw I was trying to use the car key and decided I’d had enough for one day. Four-hundred km from Cahuita, the last 30 on the fearsome ‘road to Monteverde,’ had taken its toll. She drove in later for some take-out food, then went down to office to do internet. I had a couple rum and cokes, my first of the trip, and crashed.

Li Gallery St. Elena
Roger Shop Li Treehouse

Monday, Jan. 25. Sky Trek Zip-lines
It was great to fix coffee in our kitchen in the morning. I sent an email to Edgar, realizing I hadn’t given him my Yahoo address. I awakened Li in time to get ready for the 11a.m. pickup, and made French toast. Li cleaned up the dishes and we got stuff together for the trek. At 10:30, she decided to pick vegetables at the free garden available just up the hill; I stayed behind to watch for the tour bus. She got back a few minutes before 11 and was showing off her veggies when the girl from the office drove up in the golf cart to tell us the tour bus was waiting. I got our things and headed out the door but Li felt the call of nature and headed to the head. We were all relieved when we got under way to pick up the other zip-liners.

We were joined by two other couples, a pair of lean, twentyish Korean-Americans from L.A., who admitted to being on their honeymoon, and a thirty-something, considerably huskier pair from Canada. Li and I probably had all four beat on combined age. Outside Santa Elena, the roads reverted to the usual rocky, rutted mountain tracks but that didn't slow the driver of our 12-passenger Toyota van and we soon arrived at Sky Trek Central. Another young man joined us there; his girlfriend had cut her wrist on a zip-line at Arenal the previous day and decided to sit this one out.

We were fitted with harnesses, gloves, and helmets. One of the guides gave us a demonstration: lay back, knees tucked, arms straight holding onto the pulley handles that could be twisted from side-to-side for braking in case we came in too fast, as signaled by the guide shaking the cable. The first line was relatively short, across a small valley, and we all zipped across. Then it was on to longer and higher cables.

skytrek Roger harness
Li harness Roger Li harness
Zip demo Roger zip

We rode in a gondola on an aerial tram to the highest point, from which we'd rely on gravity to get us down. We proceeded by clambering up metal towers maybe forty feet high, zipping across a valley, to the landing tower, going down the stairs and walking along steep trails to the next tower. Standing atop the platform, you could look around at the breathtaking bosky green mountains and valleys, the sky bright blue with wispy white clouds blowing rapidly over the horizon. And think about dangling from a wire several hundred feet above the valley floor. Weight determines speed and there was some concern the slight Korean girl would not have enough momentum to reach the opposite tower. In which case, you were supposed to swivel around, grasp the cable, and pull yourself hand over hand to safety. This happened to her once. It happened to me three times. Zipping along, the wind would cause my body to twist slightly and I could hear the pulley grind on the cable, slowing me down. Rats! On a couple of lines, couples went in tandem for more weight and speed. By the tenth and last cable, my forearms were exhausted and I was glad it was over. Exhilarating, but I'd had enough.

Tower Gondola start
Li Roger gondola zip tower
Li Zip2 zip 4
zip vista Li zip 3
zip vista 2 Roger zip 5

After lunch, we drove around some of the back roads and checked out the cheese factory, a famous Monteverde enterprise that uses milk from mountain cows. We arrived just at closing and only got to see white-clad workers hosing down long metal tables. They made all kinds of cheese but the prices were outrageous - $10 to $15 for the smallest wedges – so we left, cheeseless. We looked around town for a while, and decided to have pizza at a little place a guy on the zip trek said was the best in the world. We ordered one topped with hearts of palm, asparagus and mushrooms. I thought it was good, though far from the best; Li pronounced it Okay – she didn’t like the cheese.

Li felt a yen for cocoanut flan. We found a couple flanless restaurants before being directed to Morpho's. This second floor eatery was easy to spot - a huge painting of a blue butterfly covered the outside wall. The morpho motif continued inside, a very pleasant place, with white linen tablecloths and candles. The menu looked inviting and the prices not too outrageous. But we were there only for dessert; Li got her flan and I ordered a Café Morpho, consisting of coffee liqueur and coffee ice cream mixed in a large cup of coffee. With whipped cream on top. Yum.

Li pizza Roger morpho resturant

Tuesday, Jan. 26. The Cloud Forest and Hidden Valley
I did my morning coffee/writing/check the internet routine, and confirmed plans to have dinner with Edgar at the Marriott Friday night before we left. When Li got up, we went to the hydroponic garden to pick more veggies. An amazing place: row upon row of tomatoes, all kinds of lettuce, spinach, strawberries, herbs, etc. Plants grow in pots or rows of gravelly red dirt, with drip irrigation lines. For breakfast, I made omelets with local cheese, fresh-picked tomatoes and green onion.

Roger garden Los Pinos garden
Li gardenThus fortified, we set out for the Cloud Forest. We needed gas Li and said she’d seen a station on the road to the Forest. Sure enough, there was a large gas-station-looking building, its lot filled with dismantled vehicles and a group of men sitting around. But no gas pumps. So we turned and headed back into town. We consulted the info map that listed all the local businesses. Number 50 was a ‘gas station’ but no ‘50’ appeared on the map. Li went into a nearby store to ask and was given directions in the usual manner: 500m this way, turn someplace, etc. After an approximation, we stopped at another store to ask: continue down the road so many meters, turn at so and so. By now we were in a maze of rocky trails outside the business district. Shabby houses crowded the base of steep hills. We reached the spot the directions indicated and found a tin building containing trucks and cars in need of repair. Li asked and sure enough, this was the place. We were directed to a steep driveway leading to the rear of the building, and found more tin garages. But no gas pumps. A young woman waved us into an empty space in one of the buildings. There, large plastic containers of gas (maybe 10 gallons each) stood ready to be poured into thirsty vehicles. An obliging young man, using a funnel constructed from a plastic coke bottle, did the job and we were on our way.
Mont Verde gas1 Mont Verde gas2

The entrance to the Cloud Forest comprises an info center (closed) and a restaurant/souvenir store in the rustic/modern style, fronted by a strikingly clean plaza with benches and a fountain. We purchased tickets and the man in the entry booth gave us a trail map and helpfully showed us the route: 2km to a vista point on the continental divide, estimated two hours total time. The trail choice points were well-marked; the trail itself was about a meter wide, paved with cross-hatched cinder blocks that provided good traction. For a while, the grades were gentle, but deeper into the jungle they became steeper and narrower. The blocks formed stairs of various heights and lengths, so one had always to watch one’s feet and could not get into an regular rhythm. We paused frequently to look around, towering trees, hanging vines like in a Tarzan movie, exotic foliage in all possible shades of green. Most interesting was a tree we later learned is called the ‘strangler fig.’ These had roots shaped like twisted blades and skeins and lattices that extended above ground for several meters, eventually forming a more or less solid trunk that continued to rise, in the larger trees, for a hundred feet or more, huge branches spreading out to form the canopy. One tree had fallen and Li could easily stand inside the hollow trunk - well, maybe not too easily.

Cloud store Cloud For entry
Li Cloud For trail Cloud For scene 2
spacerCloud For scene Roger fig tree
figtree1 Li fallen fig

We looked in vain for jungle fauna. I found a beetle trudging along, and birds twittered in the branches but few could be seen. As we approached a suspension bridge over a deep valley, we heard deep coughing/hooting noises. In the center of the bridge, a group of touristas and their guide stood pointing at the treetops off to the right. Walking along the gently swaying metal mesh floor, we joined them. Intermittently, hoots emanated from the trees and the guide barked in imitation. Howler monkeys, we were told. The tree branches were silhouetted black against the silver sky, waving in the ever present wind, and we bugged our eyes trying to catch movement that distinguished monkey from branch. Several times we saw an arm or body or head, or thought we did

beetle suspension bridge
Li suspension bridge monkey

As we pressed on toward the continental divide, the name ‘Cloud Forest’ became obvious. The wind roared and dark gray clouds swirled immediately overhead. Fortunately, we had packed rain gear against the sudden showers the guide books warned about. Unfortunately, we’d left it in the car. Fortunately, the sun broke thru as we reached the observation platform. Clouds continued to race overhead, forever dutiful to their namesake jungle. To the east, all water flowed into the Atlantic, to the west, the Pacific. We ate our lunch of cold pizza and sandwiches, then started back.

Roger cont divide Li cont divide
Cloud forest vista Roger cont divide pizzaspacer
Roger Li cont divide

The return trail consisted of parallel boards of synthetic wood, about a meter apart, filled with dirt and gravel, making for easier footing than the block steps. Also, the changes in elevation did not seem as steep. A good thing, as I became increasingly tired and had to stop frequently to rest. It had taken about two hours to reach the observation platform, including the time we stopped to watch the monkeys, but we made it back in an hour. I had scheduled a guided night hike, which promised to show us animals which remained so well hidden during the day. By the time we got back to our cabanas we had only an hour before pickup time. I lay down to rest and actually fell asleep. We were almost ready when the van arrived.

 

Li return Roger Cloud Forest tired

The Hidden Valley site was formerly banana and coffee plantations, now left to grow wild to promote ecotourism. We were glad to contribute to the cause. We watched the red ball of the sun settle into the distant Pacific, or the Golfo de Nicoya to be accurate, then split into three groups. Our guide was a good-looking kid in his early twenties with a fair command of English. He distributed flashlights and described what lay ahead.

Hidden Valley enterance Nite Hike sunset
Nite hike guide spacer

We set off in the gathering dusk, each group taking a different trail, though we could see lights and hear their voices from time to time. Right away, the guide shone his flashlight on a cotamundi ambling through the underbrush. Black, with a tapering snout and bushy tail, eyes like mirrors, it was unfazed by the crowd of observers and the guide’s recitation of its mating and other personal habits. Then he spotted an agouti, a brown rodent the size of a cocker spaniel. Flashlights and camera flashes were hardly up to the task of getting a good picture. He pointed out some sleeping birds and a few insects, which were easier to photograph. Another group was making a commotion so we joined them, shining our lights into the branches overhead. Howler monkeys we were told, but if it was difficult to distinguish monkey from branch in the daylight, it was purely a matter of faith at night.

cotomundi agouti
sleeping bird sleeping bird 2
bug 2 hollow fig tree

Our guide showed us a huge strangler fig tree and gave us a natural history of the species. A strangler fig begins as seeds, deposited in bird poop on the branches of a tree, that send tentacles down to the ground. The fig slowly engulfs the host tree, eventually killing it, leaving the hollow interior. The fig continues on its own for centuries, immense, monstrous things. You could stand inside this one and peer up like a chimney. Next, he led us to a hole in a low earthen bank; inside was a ‘orange kneed’ tarantula, as big as your hand. He vibrated a stick and got the spider to emerge part way so everyone could get a good view.

Roger in figtree tarantula
We trekked on for a while but found little else. I was glad. Six hours of hiking that day thru mountainous terrain had done me in. Back at our cabanas, I made fried fresh green tomatoes and Li fried fish filets; with some tortillas this made a delicious a delicious way to end our stay.

Wednesday, Jan. 27. The Northern Pacific Coast
By 8:30 were in 4wd and headed down the road from Monteverde. The trip down did not seem as arduous as coming up. Having done it once, and taking it at the beginning of a day rather than the end, probably made it easier. We looked for the curve where the car had gone off the road but couldn’t be sure. At Guacimal, we took the paved road rather than the rocky one we’d taken before. A lovely road, smooth with painted lines and signs, sharp turns and changes of elevation but not white knuckle inducing, and little traffic. It was the first road I'd seen where I wished I had my motorcycle. At the intersection with the Pan-Am Hwy was a huge modern gas station and store with a large sign proclaiming Rancho Grande. I don’t know how we’d missed it. But I was glad we had.

montr verde vista Monte Verde road
Monte Verde view The road to Liberia was relatively straight and smooth, with little traffic. As we got further north, I could cruise at 100kph for long stretches. The terrain reminded me of California in the summer, with dry yellow grass and blue outlines of mountains in the distance. A steady wind blew from the mountains to the east toward the Pacific. We reached the turnoff in Liberia with signs for the airport and Playa Hermosa, our destination. Past the airport we came to an intersection with signs for several playas not listed on our map, but none for Hermosa. We picked a road heading for the coast and hoped for the best. Of course, we ended up in the wrong town, but found a sign for Playa Hermosa and got back on track. The Guanacoste region as this area is known, like the southern Pacific coast, is undergoing rapid development, with a large influx of foreign residents on a full or part-time basis. Upscale condos perched on the hillsides like watchtowers and hotels filled the lower regions. Billboards advertised homes in the $300,000 range. However I was glad to see that the entire area had not been taken over. We passed a place were a cow carcass was strung up for butchering, its skin peeled away, hanging like a gross beadsheet. cow butcher

We found our hotel, the Villa del Sueno, and checked in. The room was only slightly larger than the bed, with no TV, but it did have air conditioning and hot water. Our first order of business was food. The hotel restaurant did not serve lunch (and was too expensive, anyway), but the desk clerk told us of a good place on the beach and gave directions. We changed into our beachwear and walked down the road. Some neatly dressed young men were standing around at the end of the road and we asked one where the restaurant was. He said he’d show us; we thought he meant to point it out. Instead, he accompanied us, very politely explaining he was a college student in the tourist industry doing an internship in this area. It turned out his internship involved persuading likely touristas to attend a condo/time-share presentation, only one hour, a free meal included, for which he would receive points toward class credit. Li took the ticket with his name on it and said we’d think about it. Prices at the restaurant were hardly less than at the hotel. At least the portions were sizable. A thermometer on the restaurant wall read 100 degrees F. After eating, we found a semi-shady spot under a tree and spread out the beach cloth where I lolled and read while Li swam around. The sand was brown and soft, the surf gentle, the water cool and fairly clear. But not good for snorkeling she reported. I got in and splashed around a bit.

Roger check in Villa Suena
Roger Villa Suena Playa Hermosa
Roger Beach

Walking back to the hotel we heard the barking cough of the howler monkey. A short way up a side street, a troop of monkeys climbed the branches of a tree in someone’s front yard, picking and eating what looked like green olives. Oh look at the cute baby monkey, Li exclaimed. Overhead, several monkeys made their way along the power lines, as squirrels do at home. This vantage point (or perhaps disadvantage point, as I feared they could easily poop on our heads) provided a view of a pair of white billiard balls one big guy carried beneath his tail. Obviously the bull monkey of the group, he sat atop a power pole, filled his throat pouch and hooted toward the Pacific, not deigning to look down on his camera-snapping cousins below. Nearby, another guy hung by his tail from a tree branch in the classic monkey pose.

 

monkeys monkeys wire
monkey balls monkey tail

Tired from the day’s drive and sleepy from the food, we returned to the TV-less hotel room to rest and read. Later that evening, Li said she was hungry and went downstairs to ask a waitress if she knew of an inexpensive place to eat close by – you gotta love her chutzpah. ‘Ginger’s’ was the place to go; she got the usual directions – turn left and go 500m, etc. I said I’d go with her though I wasn’t hungry myself. As usual, we set off in the wrong direction; after a few km into a darkening countryside, we turned around and headed back into town. A small pizza place was open, but Li disliked the cheese on Costa Rican pizza. There were other items on the menu but the prices were exorbitant for such a cheesy-looking place. Li asked if they know where Ginger’s was. Go 500m, turn right, etc. No luck. I recognized a street we’d been on earlier that ran past a little bar and restaurant. A group of teen-agers was gathered in front of the place; a skeletally thin girl in impossibly tight jeans, legs like blue pencils, seemed to be the center of attention. The kitchen was closed. Backing up to turn around, we felt a thump, but drove away without investigating. Back on the main road, Li noticed a sign in front of poorly lit building set back from the street – Ginger’s. We pulled into the parking lot. A guard approached and said the place closed at ten. Our dashboard clock read 10:03. We went back to the pizza place and Li ordered some chicken and rice to go. I looked at the back of the car and found nothing; if we’d hit anything it must have been cushioned by the spare tire mounted on the rear hatch.

Thursday, Jan. 28. A Day at the Beaches
We decided to check out the other beaches that lined the coast to the south. First, Playa Coco. The town was a bustling turista haven; souvenir shops and restaurants lined the street and crowds spilled off the sidewalks to mingle with cars, trucks, busses and motorcycles. We found a 'soda' - a small informal eatery - that provided an excellent breakfast at a reasonable price. Afterwards, I gallantly offered to go shopping with Li; we plunged into the bazaar to look for gifts for friends and family. Jewelry, carved figures, tee shirts, hammocks, tschlotkes numbered as the stars in heaven awaited her careful examination. The custom in Costa Rica is for a salesgirl to hover while a potential customer examines the wares, pointing out what she thinks might be of further interest. It was great to watch a world-class shopper give the salesgirl a workout. In one place, we went thru two large cardboard boxes of discount tee-shirts, opening plastic packages to examine them for size and stains while the salesgirl’s eyes glazed over.

playa coco Playa coco 2
Roger breakfast

Shopping concluded, we went to the beach where a squadron of brown pelicans entertained us with their aqua-aerobatics. Gliding upward, a pelican would look over its shoulder, then veer around, its wings forming a W, and plunge beak-first into the water to spear a bit of sushi. We spread our beach cloth and I stretched out to read while Li did a bit of snorkeling. Some trash was strewn about – an unusual occurrence. A steady breeze blew from north to south along the beach, turning sunbathing into grit-bathing, so we returned to the car and drove further down the coast.

 

 

Pelican beach Li coco beach

Playa Ocotal was not a town, just a beach with a few vendors. A group of young boys advanced as we parked beside the road, offering to watch our car for a fee. We agreed, figuring the main threat came from the boys themselves. Always good to support free enterprise. The beach consisted of black sand packed down quite firmly, making blowing grit less of a problem. Li said the snorkeling was great, reporting several large pufferfish half-buried in the sand, groups of smaller, brightly colored fish, sea urchins, and interesting underwater rock formations. However, waves were a bit heavy, washing over her snorkel, and she swam into a herd of jelly fish, lucky to receive only a small sting.

At the head of the beach, where a side of a hill jutted into the water, there appeared to be two large caves. We made our way over uneven black rock, congealed lava no doubt, to the mouth of the first cave. Many Ticos were gathered on this rocky shoal and children splashed in shallow tide pools. One large pool, maybe two meters across and who know how many deep, would fill with frothing water as a wave washed in, then empty with a whoosh like a giant toilet bowl as the wave receded. This effect was repeated in the cave, where waves kept surging and retreating in endless rhythm. A couple boisterous young men jumped clumsily into the lagoon in front of the cave, careful not to go close to the water smashing against the rocks. At the bottom of this lagoon, about three meters feet deep in the clear water, we spotted a bright yellow disk that looked like a plastic pan. Li put on her snorkel, and to everyone’s entertainment, swam toward the mouth of the cave. She dove to have a look at the yellow thing. A fat, yellow fish, she reported, just lazing around on the bottom. She pronounced this the best beach yet.

Roger cave Roger hole
flush yellow fish
Li snorkel Li snorkel 2

We stopped at a beachfront restaurant for a coke but, after looking at their menu, decided to go back to Playa Coco to find more reasonable fare. We ended up at a very informal collection of tables painted in bright Jamaican green, red and yellow, at the far end of the street next to the beach. I ordered jerked pork and, after insisting on no picante, Li ordered grilled fish. After a long wait, perhaps a Jamaican tradition as at Miss Edith's, the food arrived. They brought chicken instead of pork but I was too hungry to send it back. It was very good, cost about half what it did at Miss Edith’s, and didn’t make me sick. All in all, a satisfying penultimate day of vacation.

Li Roger beach

Friday, Jan. 29. Back to Square One
We checked out of Villa Los Suenos and were on the road by 8:30 for the final lap. We took the correct road to Liberia with no turnarounds, got gas without setting off the alarm, and did the usual dodge-em with other vehicles. At one point, after creeping up hills and around curves behind a truck, a long straightaway opened up and I floored the LRW. As we drew alongside the truck, we spotted the policia beside the road with radar gun in hand. There was nothing to do but keep going and complete the pass. I watched the rearview mirrors with rocks in my stomach. After a few kilometers, we were able to breathe normally and laugh about it.

We stopped at a modern shopping mall where there was a bank to get some colones to complete our journey, and go to the bathroom, having refrained from peeing our pants when we saw the policia. Returning to the car, Li said, did you see this? What? I said. She pointed to the plastic lens of the backup light on the bottom of the right rear bumper. A hairline crack. Stones returned to my stomach. Had it been overlooked when we checked out the car. Or was it from the thump I heard the other night in our futile quest for Ginger’s? It’s barely noticeable, I said, perhaps the check-in guy won’t see it. I'd been concerned about the scuffmark on the left front fender that, while noted when we'd picked up the car, seemed to have gotten bigger. Now this. We gloomily considered the expense and insurance hassles that could arise from a cracked lens. Li suggested looking for a Daihatsu dealer to get a new one. I felt suddenly deflated, like getting jab in the solar plexus. I just wanted to hold on until the bell, not go another round searching for a backup light lens . No, I said, let's take our chances at check-in.

That evening, we finally got to see Edgar and his beautiful daughter, Priscila, who had been a toddler when last I saw her. His wife worked too far away to get thru the traffic clog and was unable to join us. They were suitably impressed with the magnificent Marriott but agreed its restaurant was too pricey for us academics. I know a couple places nearby, Edgar suggested, and I was relieved to ride with someone who knew the area. I also was relieved to see a native become confused by the streets and unable to find the restaurant, though he defended the system of nameless, numberless roads. We were able to direct him to Kianti's and we had a last supper at the same place we'd had the first one. Edgar has done well professionally, vice-provost at a private university. I was pleased to see another successful graduate of our program, however long-ago and far-away it seemed. It was the night of the biggest, brightest full moon of the year, a fitting conclusion to our stay in this beautiful country.

Li Roger Edgar Roger Edger daughter

Saturday, Jan. 30. Homeward Bound
Except it wasn't the end. We had to return the car and begin our 24-hr return journey. The car check-in guy met us at the airport - a very convenient arrangement. Service Car Rental is great; if you ever need to rent a car in Costa Rica, they have my highest recommendation. We held our breath while he inspected the LRW. Okay, he said. We exhaled, signed the forms, and scurried into the terminal like cockroaches fleeing the light. The flight to Guatemala City was uneventful. We then had eight hours to wander around, doze, read, write. Thankfully the airport had wi-fi so life could go on almost normally.

At the security gate, we got to witness a drug bust. A little old lady in a wheel-chair was caught with some blister-packs of medications. She claimed they were samples given by her doctor, but could not produce a prescription. Guatemalan security was unmoved by her story and confiscated the meds, leaving her to roll away comforted by the knowledge that, whatever disease ravaged her body, she was on the right side of the law.

The flight to Chicago was not fully packed and we had the luxury of an empty middle seat to stretch out and nap, Li more successfully than I. We arrived after midnight, got stuck behind a young woman whom the passport inspector took unending interest in. When no one was looking, we sidled over to the next booth. Clearing customs, we set out to find the hotel shuttle pick-up site. Since our flight to STL wasn't until eight the next morning, Li had booked a room at a nearby Marriott. Amazingly, we managed to follow the signs through the labyrinth that is O'Hare without getting lost, Li leading the way and I, zombie-like with fatigue, stumbling after. Still, it was after 2a.m. when we reached the hotel, giving us a scant four hours sleep before catching the first shuttle in the morning. Sunday morning, I thought, the airport should be empty. We'd have almost an hour and a half. Plenty of time.

Sunday, Jan. 31. Anticlimax
The crowd scene that greeted us at O'Hare was something out of DeMille's Ten Commandments. Since we had paper tickets we had to check in at the counter for boarding passes. An imperious agent herded us into a queue that snaked back and forth thru those ribbon barriers that prevent milling about. There were two lines. Ours was full of folks who must have been emigrating, laden with huge cases that could have contained household furnishings and provisions for months in the wilderness. One fellow had a large, poorly-taped cardboard box that required lengthy examination and re-taping. Indeed, each customer seemed to have some problem that necessitated a conference, checking and rechecking the computer, closely examining each bag placed on the scales. Besides which, our line had only one, sometimes two agents. Meanwhile, the other line march steadily past us, having little baggage and three or four agents to check them in. We were forbidden to join the other line. Sand flowed steadily through the hourglass; only a few grains remained before our scheduled departure time when it was our turn to present our credentials. The agent seemed disappointed that we had no bags to peruse. We asked the likelihood of making our flight. I could put you on standby for the next flight, she said, but I think you can make it. Security examination at the far end of the terminal went smoothly, and Li set off at a rapid pace for the distant departure gate. I did not stop to lace my hiking boots and went galumphing after her. It was impossible to run, even if my boots had not been falling off. Two weeks of hiking cloud forests and walking sandy beaches and driving treacherous roads and four hours sleep the previous night had taken its toll. I felt my 70 years. If I had to go on a later flight, so be it. But if anyone could get them to hold the plane, it was Li. I arrived at the gate sweating and panting. The door was closed and two agents were chatting. Is the plane still here? I asked. Can I get on board? The plane's late, I was told. A half hour wait, at least.

Li's sister met us at the gate in STL. A light dusting of snow covered the ground. It got thicker as we drove south and accumulated to about five inches in our front yard. It was good to be home.