What does one do when the visa process is interminably slow, with the prospect of applying for a “safe conduct” every three weeks for an unknown time period? (Which means 8 hours plus of travel to Bucaramanga on winding roads for each application, and hoping the officials at Migracion will be kind…)
One answer is to cross a border and come back; this automatically gives you three months on your passport. That’s why I decided to head off to Costa Rica for two weeks! Yes, it’s expensive; but nowhere near as expensive as going to the U.S. (Many places rent rooms for $25–40 per night.) And what’s not to like? Remembering the beaches and triple waterfall of laid-back Montezuma, and tantalized by meeting other Earth Regenerators in the Osa Peninsula, I made up my mind to go. On the long bus ride down the edge of the Chicamocha Canyon, with intermittent drizzle, I was treated to a dazzling and huge rainbow! And I noticed, not for the first time, how the river seems to flow uphill for a long way as the bus is descending. How can this happen? I guess the water must fall from a great height somewhere along its origin.
I woke up early and got to the airport by 6:30 am, in vain. Heavy fog socked in the city, and my flight to Bogota was delayed by 2 hours, meaning I missed my convenient 1-hour flight to San Jose, Costa Rica. I managed to get a later flight that left Bogota at 2pm and stopped in Panama City for 5 hours! But uncertainty and surprise are part of any travel adventure.
It’s a big city, a long cab ride from the airport, with lots of noise and traffic like any other capital city. Loads of KFC, McDonald’s, Subway, and Starbucks stores everywhere. I enjoyed a nice older hotel the first night, with paintings on the walls, a comfy bed in a quiet room, and a hearty breakfast: Tico-style, with eggs, beans & rice, plantains, white cheese, and fruit salad. I didn’t get up early enough to do a tour, but I had a quiet day with a couple of hours at a butterfly nursery. There I saw huge blue morphos, the beautiful transparent green butterflies I had first met in Barichara, some bright orange the color of a California poppy, and many others scintillating and floating. The garden was luxurious with a small artificial waterfall and lovely flowering plants: a welcome oasis from the noisy, gritty city.
As Tricia drove me from San Jose to the Osa peninsula, we passed many miles of palm oil plantations and processing factories. The loss of biodiversity due to this cash crop is devastating. There were also endless fields of cattle grazing. Tricia is a fascinating person, a member of Earth Regenerators who has lived on the Osa Peninsula with her husband for the last 22 years. She is devoted to helping Osa residents, among the most impoverished in Costa Rica, to thrive. The cooperative has goals of revitalizing the local economy, mutual aid, and supporting biodiversity.
We chatted nonstop for the whole ride, about Earth Regenerators, Joe Brewer, the failed attempt at conflict resolution between Joe and Dan, life in Costa Rica, sacred plant medicine… We got a delicious lunch on the way — not typical food for the region. I had a panini of grilled vegetables, goat cheese, and pesto, with salad. We stopped and bought some momitas, an interesting fruit that looks like a reddish-pink round strawberry with white whiskers; you remove that outer soft shell to find a firm, sweet white fruit that looks exactly like a small hardboiled egg, with a pit in the middle.
At the guest house, I met Iris, another Earth Regenerator who had been active in the conflict resolution sessions. She is a beautiful young blond woman from Holland who has decided to make Costa Rica her home. I also met Spencer, a young man from the U.S., and Wenzel, a young German. When my computer abruptly died, Spencer gently strummed his guitar and sang to me, “Don’t you worry ‘bout a ting” to help me lighten up!
Tricia told me that Golfo Dulce is a place where humpback whales from North and South come to have their babies. She helped me get signed up for a whale watching tour with Phoebe, a wonderful guide who has an underwater microphone to amplify whale songs. It was a cloudy overcast day, and almost immediately we saw dolphins swimming near the boat, arcing gracefully, often in groups of 3 to 5. As the boat moved further out, we could see the spray of humpback whales spouting through their blowholes. Phoebe pointed out to us some mothers swimming with their young right alongside them. She told us that when a boat gets too close, the whales become stressed, so we kept a respectful distance. Far away, we saw one whale who repeatedly slapped the water with its tail; this, she told us, is aggressive behavior, possibly provoked by another boat that was closer by. As on many other tours, we were given a wonderful snack of fresh pineapple. Dropping a microphone down into the sea, Phoebe treated us to some whale songs.
Los Higuerones guest house usually hosts a weekly local market, except that on this Saturday, the market moved over to the grounds of the public library, where there was a film festival going on that weekend.
The day was hot and humid. For breakfast, I went to a restaurant for an iced coffee and a smoothie of strawberries, passionfruit, and papaya, delicious and refreshing. Then at the market I got a corn tortilla topped with mixed vegetables, and a bagel with creamy goat cheese mozzarella.
At the market, Tricia led a little tour for a Canadian family and myself. She introduced us to Eida, an indigenous Boruca woman whose family was evicted from Corcovado when the government made the region into a national park…supposedly to protect wildlife. Eida was busy in the outdoor kitchen, preparing food to sell at the market. Tricia told us stories about each of the colorful murals along the wall, depicting Sir Francis Drake and Drake’s Bay, and the history of the people. Each of us got a small, young coconut from one of the vendors; he poked a hole in it and stuck in a handmade straw made from a woody plant, so we could sip the sweet coconut water. I saved that straw!
I bought a jar of homemade pickled bamboo shoots with carrots, red bell pepper and cauliflower, to share. Later, I watched one of the films (in Spanish), but without subtitles I was not able to understand much of the story. During the film, the rain came down loud and hard, and I started wondering whether it was folly to have signed myself up for a sunset kayaking trip the next day at 4:30. What if it poured rain? After all, it’s the rainy season!
Back at Los Higuerones, Tricia had picked a volunteer squash and harvested some sweet potato leaves, which we started to prepare for dinner, when the power went out. With a solar lantern, we chopped and cooked and sang songs from “Singing Alive” gatherings, finding some Laurence Cole songs that we both knew. The lights finally came on as we ate.
The next day’s kayak trip was lovely. It was just me and the guide, and although it was cloudy we did get a peek at the sunset. We paddled leisurely as my guide pointed out the mangrove trees, home to a great diversity of species including many fish, crabs and shrimp. Mangroves also shelter the land from the impact of storm surges. Despite their many benefits, mangroves are still endangered, as people clear them away to build boat docks or other developments. He told me how mangoves alchemize seawater so that pure water goes to their leaves. We beached the kayaks, snacked on pineapple and after it got dark enough, we got in the water and my guide showed me the bioluminescent bacteria. They gather in little clumps and he caught them on a piece of black mesh for a closer look. A magical experience, being in the warm water of the gulf, swirling my arms in the water and looking at the tiny sparks of bioluminescence, remembering my high school science fair project when I combined ground up firefly tails and liquid ATP to create a flash of light.
The Osa Cooperative has 108 members, mostly farmers seeking to diversify and practice regenerative agriculture. They are promoting cacao, banana, vanilla, and other species instead of just oil palms. La Cotinga is another biodiversity and eco-restoration project, of 40 hectares. Expert guidance is provided by a local ethnobotanist. The RegenerOsa collective promotes food security.
How green is Costa Rica, really?
It’s quite wonderful that Costa Rica has no army; the funds that most countries pour into their military have gone into forming a great number of national parks that support biodiversity and are a boon to tourism. Their electric power grid is “99.8% renewable,” but mostly comes from hydroelectric dams, not all that benign to the environment. I’m glad to say that all tap water is drinkable; that is rare in Central and South American countries. San Jose’s streets were surprisingly full of trash, and many beaches had a great deal of plastic trash. And there are homeless people sleeping on the streets of San Jose.
Though I’d thought to visit the small, highly acclaimed national park, the weather was wet so it wasn’t ideal for a tour. I did have one nice afternoon at the lovely beach just outside the park, enjoying getting in the cooler water there, a little body surfing (getting tumbled by a playful wave), and watching high waves dashing on volcanic rocks. Above the water, a paraglider sailed. Later I indulged in a refreshing pineapple-cucumber-celery smoothie and a fine dinner of grilled red snapper.
Adventure on the high seas
To cut down on bus time, I booked myself a boat trip from Jaco straight to Montezuma. Little did I know that it would be a tiny boat on a very rough sea in a driving rain! Fortunately, the crew put our backpacks and suitcases into plastic bags, and I had a rainjacket. But we had to wade out to the boat, getting wet up to the thighs, and though the boat was somewhat covered, the wind and rain and ocean spray got everyone soaked to the skin. Each time the boat hit the trough of a wave, the jolt gave a good thump to my tailbone. I was amazed and grateful when we were able to come ashore in Montezuma. It took several tries, however, before the big waves subsided enough to unload our gear. At one moment, a giant wave threatened to capsize the boat, standing it up nearly vertical, and I had visions of losing everything in my suitcase!
Stunned, shivering and soaked, I struggled up the beach and was relieved that the hotel I had booked was exactly next door to our landing site. Hotel Susen had a comfortable room with big windows and a porch looking out over the ocean, and the sound of the surf ever present. Hours later, I crawled out of bed. Skulked around the little hippie town in grumpy tourist mode, wanting better weather. Good old Sano Banano, a restaurant I remembered from 10 years ago, was still there, serving up delicious and vegetarian friendly meals, as well as decadent homemade chocolates.
The Nicoya Peninsula is on the north Pacific coast and is famous for its surf. Montezuma has a beautiful white sand beach and there were wild white-faced monkeys raiding garbage cans nearby. With their lithe bodies and curled tails, they loped along and played with one another, a delightful sight! Nearby was a sea-turtle protection site where turtle eggs had been carefully gathered each night by volunteers and buried in sand in a fenced off area. Each mother turtle lays about 100 eggs at a time. The unprotected eggs are tasty to many predators, including humans, thus endangering the species. One of the volunteers showed me a video on her phone, of a flurry of adorable baby turtles that had hatched, making their way down the beach and into the ocean. This one site has released thousands of them.
For fun, I decided to try to locate Nazareno, the man with a face like Rumi and deeply spiritual eyes, whom I had met at the bus stop in Montezuma 10 years before, and shared a ferry ride and bus to San Jose. For at least 5 hours, we had talked and got to know each other. I remember how he kindly carried my bulging daypack for me on his slight shoulders, and I shared my peanuts with him. He’d told me his dream of starting a community. And gave me a little kiss as he got off the bus.
Not surprisingly, everyone knew him, and I learned he lived in the next town up the coast. My cab driver to that town turned out to be his next-door neighbor; he casually remarked that Nazareno has four girlfriends, and I must be the fifth! It was sad to see how he had changed: wearing a dirty old shirt, with long unkempt white hair and beard, and a bulging hiatal hernia, he was obviously not well off financially. Of course he was not expecting me, but kindly made me a cup of coffee and took me for a birdwatching walk along the plastic-littered shore, where he pointed out pelicans and sanderlings. There I found one nearly intact seashell, though battered by rough waves and probably by plastic trash as well. That was the one souvenir I brought home.
We reminisced about the dream he had shared with me years ago, of starting a community, which had never come to fruition; he spoke of how health care would be free there. I learned that he has two daughters and two grandsons. You might say I saw other dimensions of the man, including his shadow.
The biggest disappointment of the trip was discovering that the Montezuma River flowing out to the sea was muddy and brown from the heavy rains, meaning that the triple waterfalls up above would be dirty and not great for swimming; and that the trail and rocks would be dangerously slippery. So I never did go back to those favorite waterfalls. Instead, I did some research to find a region with a swimmable option, and that was La Fortuna — near the famous Arenal Volcano.
The ferry boat ride across from Nicoya to Puntarenas was as calm as the previous crossing was rough. Enjoying the clear day with a cool breeze, I met a delightful young German backpacker named Till, who regaled me with stories of the dark side of volunteer projects in Costa Rica (including sea turtle protection), and with his philosophy of life.
The tour I took in La Fortuna was the best day of my whole trip! It started with a bright sunny morning drive to the La Fortuna park, and Eric, our expert guide, adeptly spotted howler monkeys and a sloth, even from a moving vehicle. He carried a scope and tripod which he set up to help us look high into the trees, and even take photos. We saw them both eating a large palmate leaf, which he told us was high in protein. Eric was fluent in both Spanish and English, kind and attentive, full of naturalist knowledge, and quite the acrobat! He balanced expertly on a narrow railing, walking backward, standing on one leg, joking all the while; and balanced one hiking pole atop another. He told us how a hollow old volcanic cone nearby would fill with water, which fed two giant waterfalls.
We crossed a hanging bridge, swaying and looking down at tree tops. Then down about a million stone stairs with a rope railing. La Fortuna falls was huge and powerful, so much so that the pool below had serious waves! The water was cold, clean and refreshing. I enjoyed it all the more, having waited so long for a freshwater swim.
After a delicious lunch with plenty of vegetables, plantains, black beans and rice, we were taken to a little hut displaying indigenous Maleku handcrafts, mostly made from balsa wood. There were brightly painted masks portraying the parrots, toucans, jaguars, sloths, the blue morpho butterfly, and other animals, as well as rattles and jewelry. The indigenous women, wearing their traditional dresses made of a soft bark, gave a little presentation about their artisanry, and served us some chicha (slightly fermented corn drink). I wish I had purchased something, but I was afraid it might break and I had not allowed space in my suitcase.
On my final day in San Jose, I visited the zoo, which was quite well managed; signs informed us that many of the animals and birds were rescued, including the lone female jaguar. Her mother had been killed by a car when she was barely months old, and she was fed and cared for, now mature. Her habitat looked very natural, albeit too small. White-faced monkeys were in the adjoining area, and came right up to a glass panel to stare curiously at the people who were staring back at them! Green parrots preened one another. In a large lagoon, turtles sunned themselves on logs and a crocodile slid lazily into the algae-covered water.
Looking back over my trip, I could see how water was ever-present… First in the rainstorm and subsequent huge rainbow over the canyon, then in the heavy fog the next day delaying flights. The ocean in its many moods, the fascinating perfect waves, bioluminescence, the “sweet gulf” where whales gave birth. Experiencing rough or calm seas from boat, ferry, and kayak. The many rainy days, the Montezuma mud. Listening to the Sea Symphony by Vaughan Williams. The beauty of pure, clean water, descending in white torrential waterfalls. Gratitude for it all!