In Search of the Pure Life (Part 1)

"In a couple years we're going to own this whole f'ing country!" I wasn't in Costa Rica for more than an hour and I already wanted to punch someone. The loudmouth sitting next to me at the hotel bar was from the United States -- no surprise there -- and in no uncertain terms he made it clear to everyone within shouting distance that yes indeed, Americans were buying up much of the available land in Costa Rica. He made his statement at an impolite volume and with impolite words, but it was his enthusiasm that raised my ire. He was in real estate and saw dollar signs where I saw nature; he saw quote-unquote progress where I saw adventures lost; and he saw retirement communities where I saw unkept secrets. I needed a drink.

The Costa Rican people, affectionately referred to as Ticos, have a slogan: It's "pura vida" and it basically means to live a pure life. When prodded to elaborate, the Ticos will refer to the opportunities to experience the natural beauty and vibrant energy of their country. They point to the lush rainforests, the thunderous surf, and the mystical volcanoes that made their country one of the world's first premier eco-destinations. It's been just three years since my last trip to Costa Rica and already I'm fearing that I'm not going to recognize the place. To many savvy travelers, Costa Rica already has the unfortunate reputation of being spoiled by development and has long ago been saddled with a been-there-done-that status. Did I miss my window? This was what I was here to find out.

It was Easter week, not only a prime travel time for American families but also for Costa Rican families as well, and I was in for a challenge. All of my inquiries into accommodations in the days leading up to my trip showed few vacancies and overwhelming demand. In fact, not only does much of the country take the week off, but the Ticos take Holy Week so seriously that the government prohibits the sale of alcohol for a 36-hour period straddling Holy Thursday and Good Friday. I was here at the worst possible time and I had no reservations. Just me, my backpack, and the Hyundai Tucson I rented at the airport in Liberia. I had a mental list of places I wanted to see and things I wanted to do and the vibe I was already getting was that doing so was going to be near-impossible. But I wasn't worried. I had a tent with me and if worse came to worse, I could always sleep in the truck.

I downed my second bottle of Imperial, settled my tab, and strolled over to what passed for the hotel casino. There were a dozen or so slot machines, and a Roulette table in which the game's trademark wheel and lone silver ball was replaced with a large bingo-style basket and dozens of red and black balls. The place was empty save for a couple of locals playing Blackjack so I took a seat in front of a television and tried to decipher the scroll on the bottom of ESPN Deportes. I soon noticed a vacant Three-Card Poker table to my left with an impossibly low table minimum of 1,000 colones (roughly two dollars) so I sauntered over. Before long I was the only one gambling and lucked into a couple of good hands which won me about 60,000 colones ($120). It had been a long flight, I was ready for some sleep, and I certainly didn't want to lose any money so I cashed out in under an hour. Before heading upstairs, I threw the dealer a few thousand colones and was treated to an ovation from a number of attractive Costa Rican women in light-blue polo shirts and skin-tight polyester pants. Not the nicest uniform in the world, but they certainly wore it well. I would repeat this sentiment in my mind countless times during my trip -- there's little wonder why Costa Rica's original tourist attraction was its legalized sex-for-hire industry (it still exists today but is primarily confined to the capital, San Jose). Time for sleep.

Liberia to Playa Hermosa

Come morning, I woke hours earlier than I do back in Washington, gobbled down what would be my first of many servings of gallo pinto (black beans and rice) and hit the road. The dry season was in its waning throes but you couldn't tell it from the bright azure sky, searing heat, and dusty brown fields of this cattle-raising region of Costa Rica. I followed the Pan-American Highway southeast out of Liberia in the direction of San Jose and exited near Puntarenas, my first time off the Nicoya Peninsula and out of Guanacaste. I would head south along the coast from here.

Driving in Costa Rica has a reputation that precedes itself. There are few paved roads in the country outside of the main highway that angles through the country from the Caribbean coast in the southeast to the Nicaraguan border in the northwest, and even they are in notoriously bad shape. The country is famous for its car-swallowing potholes, miles of washboard roads, one-lane dilapidated bridges, and the forced river crossings due to the collapse of older bridges. But as bad as the road conditions are, its the Tico driving habits that will really keep you on your toes. They think nothing of crossing the centerline to pass while climbing a hill, rounding a turn, or when driving in fog and rain. It's really quite astounding how aggressive these otherwise laid back people become when behind the wheel. As I explained to my friends during the second week of my trip, speed limits, road lines, and other basic driving laws are essentially optional here. Rely on your instincts and enjoy the ride.

My route took me south along Highway 34 across a bridge over the Rio Tarcoles where dozens of tourists had gotten out of their cars to photograph the many crocodiles sunning themselves on the riverbank below. This was one of the many roadside attractions that used to be a hotspot for petty thieves, but the Costa Ricans can be pretty clever at times. As I returned to my car after snapping my own obligatory crocodile photos a man in an orange vest with the word "security" emblazoned on it approached. He wanted a tip for watching over my car while I was gone. Rather than breaking into the car and stealing my belongings, they were now accepting gratuity for not breaking in. I couldn't help but smile at the ingenuity of such a proposition and happily tossed him 200 colones (forty cents), to which he smiled and expressed his gratitude.

My first destination, Carrara Biological Reserve, was only a few miles up the road. Carrara is one of the world's major nesting grounds for scarlet macaws and has a number of hiking trails in two separate areas. The English-speaking attendant at the ranger station suggested first hiking the dirt road that roughly parallels the sinuous Rio Tarcoles before retreating to the denser rainforest trails when the sun is higher in the sky. I wasn't a quarter mile into my hike before I spotted a small gathering of white-face monkeys in the trees to my right. Further up the road I noticed a seldom-used trail leading off into the forest. It wasn't on the map, but I was curious so I followed it. It wasn't easy striking the balance between craning my neck in hopes of spotting a scarlet macaw overhead while simultaneously making sure I didn't tread on a snake or lizard underfoot. The trail twisted and turned and forked several times but my inner compass was in fine working order and after a half-hour of tiptoeing through the brush I reemerged further up the dirt road right alongside a couple that had passed me earlier. The woman couldn't contain her bewilderment. "Where did you come from?" she asked, mouth slightly agape. I explained that I was just curious as to where the trail went and thought it would give me a better chance at seeing some wildlife (it didn't), but couldn't help but smile to myself. Act like you know what you're doing and have been there before: so far so good.

My hike in Carrara netted me several good photos of white-face monkeys (they were everywhere), along with plenty of encounters with iguanas of all shapes and colors, numerous birds (including a few scarlet macaws that soared overhead), and a large coati that crossed the dirt road in front of me. Mostly, though, this was just a side-trip and a chance to stretch my legs after several hours in the car.

As I continued south along the coast I noticed several hand-painted signs advertising a nearby waterfall hike. I confirmed on my National Geographic Adventure Map that the Rio Turrabaritos did indeed take a nice plunge down the fall line in the mountains to my east so when the sign with the arrow directing me to the left came, I was ready to turn. I was finally giving the Tucson a chance to prove itself off-road. The gravel and cobble road bucked and jostled my car as I climbed over two-thousand feet into the mountains, but I soon came to a small shack near a trailhead. The trail to the waterfalls was about two miles long and was on private property. For the equivalent of ten dollars American, I was handed a hand-drawn map and given a brief rundown of the wildlife unique to this area. I was shown a photo of a green and black dart frog, a species unique to Costa Rica, and told to keep an eye out for them. My cynicism kicked in and I immediately doubted to myself that I would ever see them during my hike.

I wasn't a hundred yards down the trail before spotting my first green and black dart frog. They're very small and have a green and black tiger-esque striped pattern on them. They're beautiful, but unfortunately very afraid of humans and quite speedy -- as a result I have no really good photos of them, despite having seen dozens of them hopping around.

The first few waterfalls marked on the map were bone dry, but they were just tributaries and dry season or not, the main river had to be flowing. Halfway to the spur trail leading to the viewpoint the sky opened and I was in the midst of a tropical downpour. I stopped hiking, found a spot between the trees, and soaked it all in. I was alone in the rainforest, getting drenched by an afternoon shower, and my senses were alive. The smells of the forest, the sounds of the birds and the rain, and the warmth of the water washing over my head and body combined for a euphoric feeling, but also one that seemed wholly private. It was a welcoming just for me, an introduction to solo exploration. It was baptism by nature and I felt completely alive and utterly sure of my belonging in this place.

I re-shouldered my daypack and continued up the trail, slipping and sliding in the slick clay. The rain was still falling (and rumbles of distant thunder echoed through the canyon) when I reached the upper viewpoint of the waterfall. The falls were truly worth the hike. They were a lengthy ribbon of white turbulence sliding down the face of the mountains, easily 600 feet in height, and probably closer to 1,000. The rain began to let up as I slipped and slided back to the lower trail and after a few narrow rock-shimmies and a small rope ladder, I reached the trail's terminus. The lighting conditions were harsh, so I settled for some photos of myself in front of the falls with my camera set on timer mode. I'll never hike again without my six-inch tripod.

The hike back up out of the valley was exhausting. The rain stopped and the humidity and temperature rose nearly as steeply as the trail. Outfitted in my new Merrel hiking sandles and sans-socks, I was rapidly accumulating an impressive collection of blisters on each foot from the mud and water. But I was still in good spirits (despite one mud-induced faceplant) and I did the entire hike without encountering anyone until the final half mile of the return trip. Once at the car, I made a deal with myself to not stop anymore until I reached Playa Hermosa. I had already driven several hours and hiked for nearly twice that long. I was exhausted and needed to rest.

I arrived in Playa Hermosa at three o'clock in the afternoon and found the surf cabinas that I reserved a room at (I lied when I said I had no reservations, I did have one for Wednesday night). The Playa Hermosa Cabinas is a popular stay for surfers as the four-to-a-room cabinas are cheap to rent and the property sits on the beach, just feet from one of Costa Rica's better breaks. The surf was big, sloppy, and treacherously windblown when I arrived and the selection of boards for rent (I didn't bring my own) was depressing to say the least. I knew there would be plenty of time for surfing later in the week and definitely next week when my friends arrived, so I showered up and took a nap.

I woke over an hour later to the unmistakable sound of waves crashing. I sprang to my feet and ran outside to find that the wind had shifted offshore, the storm-chop had been smoothed into a silvery sheen of polished glass, and the chest-high waves were breaking in perfect A-frame shape with astonishing consistency... right in front of my room. The only problem was that the board rental place had already closed for the night and there was probably only about an hour or so of daylight left. At the time I worried that I may have missed out on the best surf conditions of the two weeks I'd be down there (I didn't) and was starting to get a bit bummed out. I watched others enjoy the waves from atop a rock on the beach till dusk and then went about getting dressed. My buzz had been sufficiently killed and I was starting to feel a bit lonely.

Playa Hermosa is a true surf town and like all good surf towns, there is the obligatory bar/restaurant/discotheque (their spelling) that everyone congregates to on a nightly basis. In Playa Hermosa, this spot is called The Backyard. It's there over a plate full of mahi-mahi burritos and a bottle of Imperial where I met Ben from Brazil. He was in Costa Rica visiting a friend and his friend had to ditch him for the evening to take his girlfriend out on a date. Ben, a native Brit, was instantly likeable and, like me, happy to have someone to talk to who spoke fluent English. He was working in Brazil -- another realtor type -- but had traveled quite extensively throughout Central America. At six-foot eight inches tall with a Casper-like complexion, he stuck out in a crowd as much as anyone ever could. Hearing he lived in Rio de Janeiro and upon seeing his height and obvious fitness, I couldn't help but ask if he played professional beach volleyball. He didn't, but it turned out (or so he says) that he was England's #2 ranked tennis player when he was younger. He had a lot of interesting tennis stories and some not-so-nice words for the way in which the UK fosters young talent: they don't. My favorite tale was that of him beating tennis-phenom Tim Henman when they were both college-aged and how, in the process, my bar-buddy Ben cursed out Henman's mom who was arguing calls from the bleachers.

Eventually, the night wore on, my collection of empty Imperial bottles grew larger, and I made my way over to the dancefloor. It was ladies night at The Backyard and the place was hopping. There I met another fellow named Ben (a California transplant who now lives with his parents in Quepos, CR at the hotel they built) and a couple of women with as pasty a complexion as Ben #1. One was from Australia, the other from England. The Aussie was visiting the Brit who was living in Costa Rica while learning Spanish, but that's all I could tell you about them. The four of us talked about surfing, but we mostly just drank our beers and people-watched. I told Ben #2 my plans for the upcoming days and he warned me about the roads and recommended a particular place to stay that he and his father stayed at once. Oddly enough, it was the same place that Ben #1 recommended too, a small yoga-retreat hotel near the trailhead for Cerro Chirripo in San Gerardo de Rivas. Climbing Chirripo, my main goal for the week, was already starting to sound like a pipe-dream so I didn't give their suggestion much thought.

Come midnight the bar was legally forced to cut off alcohol sales in honor of Holy Thursday, but that didn't stop them from selling truckloads of beer, vodka, and tequila in the minutes leading up the deadline. The laws don't curtail drinking; they simply force people to stock up. I fought through the crowd to settle my bill and walked slowly down the road back to my cabina. I missed Kristin. Not so much in a lonely, depressed kind of way, but more that it just wasn't as much fun to be there without her. So I called her collect and we talked for far too long and although she would be arriving on Monday afternoon with my friends, it seemed an eternity. Could she come down early? After all, it would be nice to have a day to go hiking just the two of us. I felt better having talked to her (again, for far too long) and went to my room, spirits lifted. I reminded myself that I was here this week to gain confidence so that she and I would travel better in the future. That it was okay for her not to be there experiencing these things alongside me this time, because there is still a lifetime of experiences to have together later.

Tomorrow would be a long day in the car, so I unfolded my map and studied the route to Cerro Chirripo until I had it memorized. Sleep came uneasily, but eventually it came nonetheless...

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