The Leda Trader has docked in Limon. We don’t know what this means in terms of when our stuff will be here in Quepos, and after five weeks at the dock we still can’t get the marina to fix the fiberglass and install the new lifeline stanchions, but we will have a new mast onsite, if not installed, within a week.
Yes, dear Escapees. Long rumored, often derided, maybe even occasionally forgotten. Our container is on the good ship Leda Trader, filled with our future, all kinds of sailing goodies, and swimming it’s way toward us in Pez Vela, Quepos, Costa Rica.
In the meantime we are trying to maintain proper decorum befitting the shiny pants marina where we find ourselves, but understandably failing utterly. After all one mustn’t invite the malocchio.
The shipper, in whose care our container rests, insists that ten to fourteen days, door to door, ought to do it. Let’s just say mañana and leave it at that. Now the real work begins.
We’d been warned not to stay overnight at a motel in Costa Rica because they usually rent rooms by the hour, have lots of mirrors, and feature hidden parking, you know, around back, behind a fence or in a garage so your car can’t be seen. Michael’s Surfside Motel in Puntarenas had the whole trifecta but he also had an all-night special deal and at 30,000 colones the number was right. We’d traveled further out the peninsula on the beachfront than we thought we would have to and it was so late that our standards may have slipped a little. After parking our bucking bronco behind the high corral fence we tried to sleep on the lumpy bed.
We both awoke in less than generous moods with a deep-seated tension. We’d heard nothing about our customs situation and it was crunch time for Bonzo. Even though we’re in mañanaland, Marce and I still keep “film production time” which meant that we would be at our 8:00am Customs appointment at 7:45am, no excuses. Our Cinderella rental car had to be back in Quepos at 9:30. Yes, I know this can’t be done but I felt the closer to 9:30 the easier it would be to talk my way out of late fees. Hey, mañana.
A quick breakfast with eggs and gallo pinto, in the lazy, thoroughly deserted early Sunday morning sunlight (insert your favorite On the Beach metaphor) had us slowly heading towards the Customs office with a Presbyterian safety cushion. A cheerful greeting from the now familiar armed guard and with a quick check of our passports we were soon enjoying the well air-conditioned waiting room. Time passes slowly when you’re tense. If our Customs agent Iriam somehow determined Escape Velocity seaworthy then we were out of there and we really didn’t have a plan D or E or whatever we’re up to. We have a big box of stuff in Florida that won’t have a destination, but then neither will we.
It was after a good long wait that Iriam called the office and said she needed another twenty minutes. We paced. I tried to smile when I noticed Marce looking at me, but our hearts weren’t in it. Finally she sauntered in and again seemed to want to hug it out but the desk was still there. Everything is ok but only for another thirty days, she pouted, but next time you’ll come up and stay with me at my house in the mountains, it is very beautiful!
What can you say? Thirty days. Thank you.
On the drive back to Quepos we called the marina manager and he said, “I don’t know if I should tell you this because it’ll either make you mad or make you laugh but it was kind of just a drive by. She never got out of the car.”
We try to never let a victory, no matter how small, pass without a celebration so it was off to the marina bar happy hour with fish sliders and a sunset.
Jack was thrilled to discover that the Singapore Formula 1 was carried on cable TV in our cabina. The commentary was in Spanish, of course, and while we didn’t have wifi I fired up a London VPN on my phone and dialed in the BBC 5 live commentary, streaming over cell. It amazes me how often we manage to watch the races no matter where we are.
The race was over by 8am local time and we walked across the street for our Tico breakfast. Once again Jack opted for Americano, which just meant he didn’t get gallo pinto or fried plantains. During breakfast we met Robin, a solo vacationer from Maryland, and invited her to join us on our planned touring for the day. The weather looked iffy so we opted to hike the Arenal Volcano first before the clouds move in and obscure the view.
It was about a three mile hike mostly through a pretty wooded area, then up the lava field to the overlook that gave us a view of the volcano on one side and the lake on the other.
I was pretty bummed that the volcano stopped its constant erupting just before we got to Costa Rica. I’m wondering what will become of all the cute little hotels and cabinas where tourists would come and sit outside at night watching the show. The show is over, at least for now. Chalk up another dormant volcano for the Schulzes. One of these days we’ll get to a live one.
From the volcano we drove back through town and stopped for lunch at a place offering $4 set lunches, just like in the Galapagos. We thought it would be a quick lunch but it took over an hour for the rice and beans and fish that Jack and Robin had, and for the patacones and beans that I had. No matter, Robin is good company and we enjoyed comparing notes on where to go and what to do.
By the time we finished eating the daily rain started but we drove to the LaFortuna waterfall anyway. As long as it wasn’t a deluge and we felt the footing was secure we decided to go for it. And we’re glad we did.
The hike back up was 550 steps, not quite three times the distance of the New River Gorge but less than half what we do on a StepTrek on the Pittsburgh Southside Slopes. We all made it with no problems, and enjoyed the view as much as we did going down.
We took Robin back to town and said a reluctant goodbye. We enjoyed sharing the experiences with another person and remembered how much fun it is when we have friends along.
As soon as we turned the car down the mountain our stress level rose again. We needed to be at the customs office when they opened at 8am, then get our rental car back to Quepos before we get charged for another day. While Jack negotiated the switchback road in the gathering dark, I tried to find us lodging for the night by searching the Internet on my phone. After a while I had to give up because the unpaved road made it impossible to read the tiny screen as we bounced along. We got hungrier and sleepier and eventually we rolled into Puntarenas without a plan. Jack pulled over so I could look for a hotel and we finally settled on the marginal Michael’s Surfside Motel. The price was right, we were pooped, and worried about our date at Customs. It was not a restful night.
What a disappointment that the cheese factory and cheese shop turned out to be a bust. We really thought we were going to get some awesome washed-rind lovelies, perhaps some nutty, buttery sheep’s cheese, or a tangy blue. But no, just the usual faux Gouda and a few other mild cheeses we see everywhere, and at the same insanely high prices. We’re saving our cheese palates for our trip to Pittsburgh and will camp out at the cheese counter in Penn Mac, maybe work our way through the Pyrenees section, or the aged goat cheeses. For you stateside readers, they ship.
So now what? The mountainside village of Monteverde is the gateway to hundreds of adventure activities, rafting, zip lines, hanging bridges, hikes, all centered around the various cloud forest preserves. The main one is the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, so we drove a little further on the bumpy road and parked at the entrance. Then we hemmed and hawed about whether we wanted to go in. All of the Costa Rica parks have hefty entrance fees, and a guided tour triples the cost. We learned from experience that without a guide it’s just an expensive lovely walk in the woods because we’re not so good at spotting the wildlife on our own. What we really wanted to do was a zipline or hanging bridge walk, and we chose to spend our limited touring dollars there.
With a plan in place we got back in the car but not before checking out the Hummingbird Cafe, where our guidebook said we could observe dozens of the little guys up close and personal.
After a while we gave up trying to photograph them because they circled and buzzed so fast, swarming around the ten or twelve feeders lined up along the cafe. We were amazed at the variety of size and color and just sat enjoying the show.
As we drove back toward town we couldn’t pass up Stella’s bakery, and even though we’d had breakfast not too long ago, a couple of cinnamon buns called Jack’s name and we enjoyed our second coffee shop in as many days. It’s funny, here we are in an exotic place people spend big bucks and precious vacation time to travel to, and we pass up the cloud forest to sit in a cafe with frou-frou coffee drinks and pastry. Cafe culture is the part of our former life we miss the most and we indulge whenever we can.
More bumpy roads brought us to Sky Adventure where we opted out of the zipline — way too high above the forest so we wouldn’t really see anything — and plunked down $23 each for the Sky Walk. This involves a hike up the mountain then a trail over five hanging bridges of increasing height and length, level with the canopy. Again we were offered a tour guide option but we declined and took off on our own.
It turned out to be an expensive lovely walk above the woods but with the added fear of plummeting 150 feet into the dense forest below and no small amount of palm sweat.
On our way out we saw these smaller versions of the ubiquitous Costa Rican mystery spheres.
We had a long way to go before nightfall so we drove the switchbacked road out of the mountains toward Arenal Lake.
Finally we saw our destination looming ahead, the majestic and perfect Arenal Volcano. Sadly, it stopped erupting just before we got to Costa Rica but we’re excited to see it anyway.
Our lodging for the night was a darling little cabin at Rancho Cerro Azul, a beautiful capper to a magnificent drive.
In my mind the fix was in. I mean the kindly customs lady in Puntarenas knew that our mastil for the barco would not be in evidence at Quepos for a few more weeks so it was with a certain confidence that we planned our return to the customs office for another extension to our permit and turned our check in with the authorities into a kind of mini vacation. What could go wrong my dear Escapees? What could go wrong?
We planned to visit the cheese factory in the funky but charming Quaker town of Monteverde, the awesome volcano at Arenal with the tony lake in its shadow, and the waterfall at La Fortuna. But first, business.
Business took us to the Aduana Caldera, a modern building tastefully set behind a full Monty of steel cage and razor wire, complete with the usual bullet proof vested armed guard. I can only surmise that at some point, they pissed off the wrong crew. Holas all around, we are well known at several customs offices. Our very own custom officer greets us with a lovely smile and stands as though she wants to hug it out. A little awkward, what with that official desk between her and us. I make a mental note that she has not worn her red four inch spiked high heels or her leopard print low scoop blouse today. Everybody sits.
We are ready for our two month extension please. Well first I must visit the barco. What today? No no, tomorrow. That’s two and a half hours each way and there’s that volcano, and the lake not to mention the cheese factory! Marce and I confer. You can visit the barco without us, it’s ok. Oh no the fuel and it’s such a long drive no no. You’re kidding, right? She wants us to spend our precious rental car time ferrying her to the boat and back. There goes our planned trip to the mountains.
An hour or so of frantic phone calls later and with the help of our marina’s yacht agent, Ernesto, a plan was hatched. They would send the marina driver two and a half hours up to Puntarenas, pick up the customs lady first thing Saturday, drive her two and a half hours back to Escape Velocity in Quepos, examine the barco or whatever, then drive her two and a half hours back to Puntarenas and then simply reverse the process two and a half hours back to Quepos, taking time out for meals of course. I don’t want to even know what this is going to cost. But at least we were free to go.
So as I was saying, we were determined to have a damn vacation, mini or otherwise, and come hell or high water we were going to effing enjoy it!
Upon leaving Puntarenas the basic lumpy macadam lane and a half road quickly morphed into a half lane of what can only be described as railroad ballast and we shuddered and bounced up a switch back trail.
Marce showed great prescience suggesting we rent an SUV for the “vacation” instead of the usual Escape Velocity two-door Speck, which by this point would look like a crushed beer can at an NFL game, and an unheard-of full insurance.
Tico driving style can only be called super aggressive with foolhardy tendencies. So with Marce keeping up a steady chant, demanding that I move over further away from the steep drop off cliffside into any oncoming traffic, we bounced back and forth rattling up the mountain toward Monteverde.
It became too embarrassing to try to talk, it sounded like a billy goat in heat, like trying to talk while strapped into one of those reducing machines with a big belt around your middle.
In near dark and a rising damp we quickly found a promising cafe while circling Monteverde’s triangular main square. Let’s give it a surprising B plus, with New York cheesecake and cappuccino mocha which warmed our hearts after a long day of overcast rain. Something called the Rustic Lodge brought the long day to a close.
The morning brought the sun and the usual eggs with beans and rice. They love their gallo pinto, and so do I but they say the only way to tell that it’s dinner is if the beans and the rice are separate. I opted for the Americano breakfast expecting two eggs, bacon, and home-fries with maybe a slice of tomato but they simply left off the beans and rice leaving just egg. We lingered long enough to watch Formula 1 qualifying live from Singapore on the iPad. Yep, too rustic to have a television but with a decent WIFi signal good enough to watch F1 qualifying live streaming from Singapore on an iPad with a Chicago VPN. Marce gave me all those words.
We were in danger of missing our appointment for the cheese factory tour so we quickly packed and headed out hoping for a little asphalt paving. The asphalt gave out as soon as the last souvenir shop sank out of sight in our rear view mirror. It grew quiet in the little SUV, but the scenery was just as beautiful but with a kind of double vision, what with all the jiggling, pitching, and bouncing off the headliner.
Finally we saw what had to be the cheese factory, just minus any signage. After looking through the full length viewing windows we passed on the cheese tour, reasoning that once you’ve seen a couple of large vats of curds and whey stirred with big stainless paddles…well you know.
It’s been a long time since we’ve been at sea and I really miss it. Not just the sailing, although that’s a large part of it. I miss the feeling of voyaging in our self contained habitat, moving under the power we create by cooperating with the forces of nature, experiencing how our senses are tuned to minute changes in sound, motion, light, color. A streak of texture in the water can occupy us for an hour as we watch and wait and speculate what it might be until it passes behind us still a mystery. Or a small bird might suddenly circle the boat at night hundreds of miles from land, its wings flashing each time it passes the running lights. I miss the routine of scanning the horizon for ships, of marveling how empty the sea is once we’re out of sight of land.
It’s been a long time. What once seemed normal now seems alien and foreboding. In some ways getting rerigged is a trip back to the beginning. And it can’t come soon enough.
Costa Rican Independence Day is the 15th of September but each year the marina hosts a local school to share their celebration on site a few days before the town event. It was a good preview for us of what’s to come and we had ringside seats at the bar above the grand staircase that functions as an amphitheater overlooking the marina.
Our waitress answered our questions about what was happening, which cleared up a few mysteries, like what are all the songs they sang, standing, and with great reverence. Of course one was the national anthem, but there were more. They were traditional patriotic songs and they were mostly of the same late 19th century vintage that most national anthems seem to be.
The program consisted of various readings and poems and some dance numbers by groups of students in traditional costume. One routine seemed to involve a sacred athletic shoe, but I’m sure we misunderstood.
The climax of the evening was a parade of lights, as the students followed the band along the malecon holding their elaborate and charming homemade lanterns symbolizing the torch carried by Maria Dolores Bedoya, who walked through the streets of Guatemala on the night of September 14th, 1821, inviting people to meet at the plaza opposite to the town hall where the provincial councils of Guatemala gathered. The crowd persuaded the council to sign the Declaration of Independence.
Throughout the country there will be a lantern parade starting at 6pm on Sunday. We look forward to it!
Manuel Antonio. Doesn’t sound like one of the most biodiverse national parques on the planet but it turns out it is and as luck would have it, just over the mountain from Pez Vela marina. The pitch for hiring certified guides starts as you clear the last step of the bus and goes something like without a guide you’ll walk right by all the biodiversity. The guides know where the animals hang out and they have spotter scopes which get you up close, eyeball to eyeball with some pretty rare animals and it only costs 10,111.99 colons each. It’s early, so for you let’s make it $20 US. I think I once bought an old MGB from this guy.
It seems you can’t take the old path along the beach to access the park anymore because you would have to cross a stream in which an enterprising crocodile had begun to terrorize a few guests so some enterprising Ticos started charging exorbitant rates to whisk you away in their boats and deposit you safely at the entrance. Now one enters using a circuitous route through a back alley filled with vendor shack after vendor shack of expensive cheap souvenirs. After running that gauntlet one meets one’s certified guide with spotter scope, and without further ado he turns and heads off with an all day lope. Rodrigo isn’t a dour Hungarian like our Golfito mechanic but he might as well be.
Let’s just say he’s not your more chatty type of guide, and soon I sense that he has lost all respect for our powers of observation when time after time we’d keep walking when he’d stop and set up his spotter scope and he’d wait for us to walk back. At first it was a bat or two and I think I disappointed Rodrigo when I showed little interest in looking eyeball to eyeball with a bat, but his scope got you up close alright.
Quickly we learned to just follow behind and stop when he stopped. Turns out that Rodrigo is an expert with an iPhone, taking picture after picture through the eyepiece of his scope.
The trees were magnificent and so tall that my neck began to ache in a futile search of the tree tops but I never spotted anything unless Rodrigo stopped to set up the scope. We startled a sloth hanging in a low branch and it started to run away but…who has the time?
As we neared Manuel Antonio beach we started to notice movement in the trees which usually means monkeys and sure enough we had howlers above us. I suspect these were males.
White…seriously white? Can’t tell me nature doesn’t have a sense of humor.
Soon we spotted a teeny tiny palm pit viper, that grabs humming birds as they hover near flowers, sounds crazy but who am I to judge? Squirrel monkeys, a boa constrictor , a hummingbird, more sloths and finally a skinny raccoon that kept trying to steal stuff from beachcombers’ bags. The last raccoon I saw was in our kitchen in Pennsylvania calmly eating the cats’ food and a Snickers bar.
We marveled at the remarkable beaches contained within the park, each one different than the next and you could spend a day at each.
After another perusal of the souvenirs on the way out, Marce started walking in the general direction of the mountain that El Avion sits atop. It worries me when she gets that look in her eyes. Shouldn’t we grab a taxi, Honey? “You can take a taxi if you want to.” It’s a long steep climb up to Manuel Antonio proper. But that’s when the Tica magic struck. They call it Pura Vida, the Pure Life.
My face is red, my tee shirt is soaked through seemingly glued to my body, I’m sucking air like a 350 pound marathon runner at mile marker 26, when I look up, don’t know why, might’ve heard something, and as my eyes tried to focus I thought there are these magnificent trees next to the heavily traveled road but it’s so steep that we are actually in the tree top canopy and wouldn’t it be funny to see a monkey right next to the main road. Wait…what was that? It’s somehow a familiar soft popping sound. Howlers! Just a few feet away relaxing. Junior is right above our heads.
We stood there panting, traffic whizzing past, watching an extended family of howlers having a nosh while they nonchalantly watched us. No park, no guide, no fees.