Archive for January, 2010

Tapas 2

Cloud Forest, Monteverde.

After following the coast road west (again, for me) we took a sharp turn north to the old port city of Puntarenas to head north and east for about an hour and a half. Suddenly the paved road stops and the last twenty-some miles is over rocks and dirt to reach the outskirts of the main little village up here, Santa Elena. Then the road is paved again until it literally stops a few meters beyond the site of our school. Our apartment, about a five minute walk up hill to get to campus, is on a “traditional, natural” road: dirt and boulders.

     It’s a wonderfully mixed area, with some super fancy hotels and restaurants catering to rich international travelers, more modest local homes, and some way more modest than that. We are about mile from the edge of the Monteverde Reserve, and will go into it the first time this weekend. Meanwhile, we are awed by how beautiful it is here: from our road we can look over ranges of hills, green with magical skies everywhere, and when it’s clear enough to the west, see the huge Gulf of Nicoya. Behind us, of course, is the mountain with its famous clouds, and the lush rain forest with its burst of flowers, high winds, rain, and sunshine, sometimes all at once.

Our school, Centro Panamericano des Idiomas (CPI) is set on a gorgeous, spacious campus, with gardens, fountains, vistas, hammocks for the convenience of those inclined toward siestas, and, ahem, an outdoor enclosure with  jacuzzi. They did advertise this place as close to heaven.

We had a half-day to organize ourselves in our lovely little apartment, Casa del Toro, which also has a small garden, patio, and fountains, and to walk to town and get supplies to wash and cook. Then classes started at 7:00 Monday morning, and it’s been intense Spanish for the week and what seems a very good program. More of that anon, when I can actually put together a sentence without tripping over myself. But lots of studying has also been interpersed with activities, such as a movie (Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Jim Carey dubbed in Spanish — I went for it), cooking class — Doug went for it, and salsa lessons. We both loved that one. I also have got a tutoring gig with a local girl from the village. She’s 12, and her English is even worse than my Spanish, so it’s a go!

Tomorrow we walk into town early for the farmer’s market, then to the Children’s Eternal Rain Forest,about which I hope to write a piece, and then Sunday a walk in the forest canopy, a thing I’ve always wanted to do.


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Tapas 1

San Jose

Only a week ago, we were leaving the steamy, exotic low-lying jungle to fly into San Jose for the weekend. Arriving in our little turbo-prop and flying in low gave us a really good sense of the layout of the city. A sea of tin-roofed shanty towns surrounding some “modern” and older, more attractive quarters in the heart of the capital. The Ticos will tell you that the shantytowns all belong to Nicaraguans, and they are the cause of the city’s well-publicized crime, too.  The journalist in me listens with one ear cocked.

     Happily Doug had made reservations in a hotel, the San Tomas, which he had already discovered. The private home of a former coffee baron, it was built over 100 years ago and had the high-ceilinged, antique-laden charm of a similar home in New Orleans, that is, BK, Before Katrina. The manager was a very affable, hip young guy with excellent English who was most excited that we were from the Bay Area, the home of his favorite band. He’d waited a dozen years to hear them live, and they are playing in San Jose in February. Metallica. He was over the moon.

   It was lovely to have great weather, a shower with actual hot water, a swimming pool, and a nice restaurant attached to the hotel so we didn’t have to be on the streets at night, an activity strongly frowned upon. As it was, a guy tried to grab my purse a block from the hotel during daylight, but I proved to be a tougher mama than he bargained for, and also let out a growl in several languages.

  Despite that incident, we thoroughly enjoyed walking alot: through the charming, artsy Aron district filled with charming old hotels (The Hemingway!) similar to ours, and tree-lined streets; to the town center and the very Baroque National Theater Building; to the great pedestrian shopping street in the center of town, where we found book stores and great ice cream; and finally to the National Museum. It is essentially the Costa Rican history museum, situated in the house of the former “Commadore,” and sporting a sort of Moorish tower. I loved the displays of pre-Columbian times especially, and the array of indigenous art, much of it in beautiful gold work.

     We also hit parks, an exceedingly seedy section of town near the Coca Cola Bus Station, the great transportation hub of the country, and one of the best restaurants we’ve ever found…a French, Latin, fusion place, Kalu, attached to an art gallery and very near our hotel. It was another incomparable recommendation of our friend Lenny, who among other things is a food writer, restaurant critic and great raconteur. 

After endless confusion about getting a van to take us to Monteverde, one arrived early Sunday morning, and we were off. Four and a half hours on national highways and other, more rustic, roads, and we again reached a different world.

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click me

Sooner or later, the Osa experience had to end and we had to make the return trip to the airport, and had to have a final adventure which turned out to be Thanasis nearly getting knocked down when a big wave hit the boat broadside while he was trying to disembark. But that is another story.

For the last Osa afternoon, I opted for a walk on a quiet beach and a search for Scarlet Macaws while Doug went off on foot with his flyrod. I joined Laurie, Jim, and Thanasis and some other folks from the midwest for a last bumper-car boat ride across the water to the reportedly “Best beach, best beach in the Osa,” San Jocesito, according to Carlos. And as we dropped into one of the most idyllic palm-lined beaches I’ve ever seen, following a fringe of curving white sand, I needed no further convincing.  “Best beach,” said Carlos, “Mel Gibson beach.”

And so it is. It seems three years ago, Gibson bought a private tract of virgin forest and coastline, 20 acres for $4 million. But with caveats. In Costa Rica you can’t actually buy the beach. That, they say, belongs to the people. Private property can only begin 100 meters further than the highest tide. So local fishermen and mangy tourists and backpacker — anybody at all– can swim and camp and picnic on “Gibson’s” beach. Right in front of his house, a one-story, modest affair with a hammock in front and a window unit a.c. and a “Privado” sign tacked on a low wooden fence. It seems the Costa Rican gov’t. also discourages building McVillas these days, too.

We found no Scarlet Macaws that afternoon, but did see a pair of rare, flaming red Trogons, relatives of the mystical Quetzals. And after a final swim in that amazing, clear, bath-warm water, we all piled into the boat for the ride back and our last delicious open-air meal.

Before going up the path to the lodge, though, we did stop at one of the low-walled gardens to check for the rainbow boa. All 6 feet of him was happily coiled up, resting, and he appeared to be in a better mood than the last time we’d seen him. That would have been before lunch, when one of the staff arrived with a big white sack, and announced he’d caught something in the forest behind our rooms. We all went to look, and sure enough, there was the snake, who seemed to be getting agitated. An angry boa constrictor in a bag, “not so good,” the fellow proclaimed, whereupon he let it go in the front garden.

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A quiet day followed a quiet night of tripping, literally, up and down a trail filled with roots and stems, through the private reserve, aka, jungle behind our lodgings. We were issued headlamps and for two and a half hours slumped through the thick, hot forest full of bugs, reptiles, spiders and moths as big as a man’s hand. And there was ever Carlos, like a cheerful barker, “Scorpion spider, ladies and gentlemen, scorpion spider, step right up.” Actually, I was just as happy with what we did not see, and after my third and final cold shower of the day, was more than ready for a dreamless sleep.

For our third day, we decided against anything heroic.  Read mountain hikes and scaling waterfalls, scuba diving, horseback riding, etc. At about 85 F. and 90% humidity, you get the drift. In the morning we took a leisurely stroll to the village of Drake, where we had landed on the beach from the airport, and where Sir Francis had reputedly crash-landed a few centuries before. Evidently, I caught the spirit. As we followed a wooded path to the beach, we stepped up on a wooden plank covering a small stream. Just before reaching the end, I looked up to see none other than Surfer Dude, who clearly had not gone diving. Surprised, I stepped off the plank one moment too soon and lost a shoe in a deep sink of mud before doing a swan dive myself.

Embarrassed that he might expect such greetings from members of my gender, I tried extracating myself quickly. But he seemed rather other-planetary and appeared not to notice. Everything was “cool,” he said. “Hey, my B&B has A.C.” Doug and I looked at each other in wonder at the mention of a technology we’d not encountered in Costa Rica. And Surfer Dude drifted on, only to make a guest appearance at out lodge the next day, trying to hitch a boat ride.

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Peninsula de Osa

Lunch in Sierpe

Along these river banks and even into the swamp channels, we saw scattered houses. Some more like lean-tos  with tin roofs and crooked wooden docks, some more substantial with brilliant paint jobs and splashes of flowers. One, a sort of listing pink box above an embankment where a none-too-friendly looking caymen was lounging sported a sign saying “Casa Cozy Massage… ” and a few other services.  But all types of these houses clustered together at about the mid-point of the sixty-mile river in”400 families” the town of Sierpe. We got off there to have lunch in what is billed as a Tico-Mex restaurant — Mexican with a Costa Rican flavor. To get there we walked from the water front with the requisite rusty-bottomed leaky boats, into the central plaza with well-appointed trees, benches and some play equipment, and one of the round stones of mysterious origin local to the Osa and made by ancient people for reasons nobody knows. We also passed by the schools — one elementary, one high school — which every town and village has and of which the Ticos are justifiably proud. Other landmarks of every town: church, cafes, soccer field.

The Las Vegas Restaurant, where we ate was painted bright yellow inside, had blue trim, red plastic coca cola tables and chairs, a large plant growing in a crooked tin drum, and proverbs in little squares plastered all over the ceiling. My Spanish was hardly up to the task, so I have a tangible goal for improvement. And our tacos and quesidillas were soon interrupted by the sounds of a helicopter which got closer and closer, until it landed on the soccer field next to us. Great excitement and people, especially kids, came out from everywhere to watch the spectacle. Three men got out and walked away somewhere. Somebody suggested maybe this was a drug deal. As far as we knew, it could have been anything.

More interesting revelations followed too. It seems that Carlos had a little girl of about 8 in that town, and obviously a relationship with the girl’s mother. He also has two grown sons in some other town, and who knows what other arrangements. He is very high energy guy who says he’s 61. Meanwhile, when we got back on the boat to boogey back down the river, a pretty young woman, an enchanting little girl of three, and a grandmother all got on with us. That turned out to be Didier’s family, and he looked as if he could still be in school himself.


What clock?

They seemed somewhat interested in the crocodile and large turtles we encountered, but not at all interested in joining us for a swim along the sandy beach where the Sierpe runs into the sea. The water was lovely, if warm, and I wonder if they just all thought we were mad for plunging into it. Certainly, I have to say, the grandmother must have viewed me, her contemporary, as partially deranged.

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Peninsula de Osa

Day 2

We all agreed the trip we’d been automatically booked to take, a hike through the National Park, wasn’t nearly as promising as a trip up the Sierpe (Serpent) River and into the mangrove swamps. With the incomparable Carlos, the inn manager and our personal guide, “captain” Didier who drove the boat and was also a terrific spotter, and Eduardo, the handsome young architect from San Jose who was moonlighting as assistant manager and official photographer, we had a crew to assure we’d made the right choice.

We were probably seven hours on those muddy waters in the motor boat with the blue canvas “roof,” listening to Carlos call out the wonders we were seeing as if he were a carnival barker. “Blue heron,” “blue heron,” he’d say about fifty times making sure we got it until we moved on to the next wonder. Mangrove tree crabs, stick birds, river hyacinths, owl moths, hawks, caymen nestled in the mud so you could hardly see them, crocs floating by like logs or baring their huge teeth on the banks, and on and on until something unexpected happened. Like Didier suddenly slowing the boat and wheeling it around to pursue what he had spotted — like the green parrot snake, a slim green beauty wrapped around a tree limb. Then there was the red mangrove boa, found only in those swamps, and all six or so feet of him sleeping off whatever he’d been up to the night before. Happily.

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Peninsula de Osa

Day 1

Pulling up to the dock, climbing the path to the open-air reception/dining room of Aquila de Osa Inn and being handed a tropical drink wasn’t a bad way to start. Also the open view to the bay, framed by a thicket of tropical vines, flowers, trees wasn’t bad either. Nor were the antics of the capuchin monkeys running over the roof, trying to gain entrance to the kitchen to steal bananas, nor the dances of the over-sized iguanas running up and down the trees. Then the climb to our room was the reality check. A real climb. Later I read in a tourist book that people who aren’t fit weren’t advised to stay there.  Even our pal Thanasis, who claims to be part Greek mountain goat, figured out ways to avoid unnecessary trips.

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Peninsula del Osa

2. The Rest of the Journey

The road from the airport was at least a road in theory. It was carved, like everything here, through the jungle and through swaths of the particularly persistenbt hibiscus, that dot the green with red everywhere. Eventually the other passengers get dropped off, the young European backpackers at Eco-Camp sites (and I don’t envy anyone camping in this 80+ and 90+ humidity), and we continued to bump along the “road” with only those in our party left, and one gent I called Surfer Dude, from, wouldn’t you know it, So. Cal.

I was surprised he seemed to be going with us all the way (more…)

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Peninsula de Osa

1.How We Got Here

Companions Thanasis, the Greek poet, Laurie &

Jim (both accomplished photographers) and Doug

and I, piled into two red taxis to leave the glories

of Lenny’s finca to head for the outskirts of  San

Jose and the “other” airport.  Happily early, we had

plenty of time for the essentials — coffee- and

checking in, which consisted of no bag checks, but

much bag weighing (30 lbs. max), then passenger

weighing with bags to determine who should sit

where in order to assist the plane in actually flying


The plane itself was a turbo-prop, 15 seater that

flew low and sweet over the towns, green green

forested hills, some cultivated with coffee plantations

until we crested the mountains to see the familiar

sweep of the endless Pacific, its breakers rolling

onto long, sandy curves of empty beach. I’ve not

had such a low-flying thrilling flight since the one

long ago, flying over the Niger River. But this time

I didn’t feel as if I needed to flap my wings and keep

my feet up to keep from getting wet in the river.

Soon enough we left the coast to fly briefly over open

sea to cut down to Drake’s Bay, our destination.

After sweeping in over a beach, the pilot executed

a fine landing on a mostly paved landing strip, wherer

only the edges gave way to sand. We piled out to the airport

such as it was, a tin shack advertising cold drinks,

and a windsock, and prepared for the road ahead:

in a van with two inside banquets and a luggage

rack atop for our alloted 30 lbs.

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After the initial few dazzling impressions, I have to say I have settled well into paradise. Even with a few bumps on the road. That literally was the case on the lovely day trip we took to the coast, a little piece of tropical beach with white sands (well, it was named la Playa Blanca) and warm Pacific waves. The road there took us through forested hills, thick with flowers and, it was said, howler monkeys and other creatures whom we did not personally meet, and a stop at a river infested with huge crocodiles. (River swimming is ill-advised here). We did cross the bridge by foot though, to admire them, all mud slathered though they were, and remembered generally (more…)

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