For our honeymoon, Michael and I went to Costa Rica for a week, a small Central American country very near the equator. We stayed at a resort called Pueblo Real, on the Pacific Coast near the island of Damas. Below is a pictorial account of our experiences and encounters.
Costa Rica is tourist heaven, and the locals are always on the lookout for us, like hawks--particularly the taxi drivers. A man in an airport jersey quickly scouted us out, saw our panic, and spoke to us in broken English (far, far better than our Spanish, though!). Within a matter of seconds, he had us extricated from the crowd and hooked up with a taxi driver who would take us to Hotel Balmoral, where we would stay the night. Of course, he requested a tip, which we gladly gave him.
We quickly discovered our next cultural difference--people in Costa Rica drive like maniacs. Well, they did at least to our initial perceptions. They seemed to pay little mind to trivial things like street signs and stop lights, preferring instead to make their own rules, weaving in and around each other at a frantic pace. In fact, as Michael later noted, Costa Ricans drive more by common consensus than by "rules of the road". They pay attention to what other drivers are doing and change their actions accordingly. They rarely get into "pissing fights", and the only accident we saw during our vacation was someone who had gone off an old bridge (it had no railing, not even much of a curb) on his bike.
I was in a scared daze throughout this trip. Everything was happening too fast, and even though the man who had directed us to this taxi wore an official airport jersey, I was still afraid that the driver was really a psycho who was going to leave us in a ditch somewhere. Michael, having been in several foreign countries before, held up a little better.
I calmed down a bit as I relaxed in our hotel room. Eventually, he coaxed me to go walking through San Jose, and we ate at a comfortably familiar Taco Bell (albeit one where we had to use a Spanish Berlitz to make ourselves understood).
The next day, we took a taxi to the Sansa terminal at the airport--Sansa being the only airline that flies to Quépos, which is the closest town to our resort. I can safely say this is the ricketiest-looking airline I have ever dared to patronize. The waiting area was a small, slightly run-down, open-air room (we later learned that almost everything in Costa Rica is open-air: there's no reason for it to be otherwise, as far as the locals are concerned). The low seats looked like coolers with backs attached. Flies were everywhere. There were no carpeted passages leading out to planes, just a single open door. Of course, the flight was only $35 US per person.
The inside of the airplane looked and felt like a flying van. But the pilots seemed professional enough, and we made it safely to Quépos. The Quépos "airport" consisted of a single, narrow, bumpy, slightly overgrown runway, a small parking lot for planes (I do mean small--I've seen convenience store parking lots that were larger), and a rustic, one-room building. Almost as soon as we were off the plane, one of the tourist-hawks spotted the gringos (don't be misled by my flippancy--I was quite grateful for them!) and connected us with a taxi driver, who took our luggage and drove us to the resort. This drive was a quieter, less nervewracking version of riding in San Jose. Quépos is a small town and the area around it is sparsely populated, so there isn't much traffic. When two cars meet, they act by common consensus. There were a number of bridges between the airport and Pueblo Real where only one car could safely cross at a time (and even then one had better be careful). This rarely caused conflicts.
At last we arrived safely At Pueblo Real, a beautiful place surrounded with exotic plants. A picture perfect swimming pool lay in back (of course, we later learned it was less than perfect, but that's okay--we found other places to swim :-), and an equally picture perfect fountain in front. The owner/manager greeted us in Spanish and seemed not to know a word of English, but we soon learned that he was just fooling with us, and coaxing us to try out our Spanish. In fact, he spoke the best English of almost anyone we met there.
Our suite had air conditioning! This was my first delighted discovery. And it was damned near the only place in all Quépos where we could go for air conditioning, even in the muggy heat of the afternoon.
The resort was a few minutes walk away from the coast of the Sound, a body of
tranquil salt water between the mainland and the island Damas. On the other
side of Damas (which you can get to in about a 10 minutes walk) was the Pacific
Ocean in all its glory. The waves and the currents were quite
powerful--threatening enough that we decided not to go out past waist-deep
(surfers loved it, though). A coconut tree plantation was nearby, and we
actually saw a whole dead tree being washed around in the surf, by those
The exchange rate between US dollars and Costa Rican "Colones" is about 280 Colones/$, which makes a 1000 bill roughly equivalent to 4 US dollars. Like Canadian money, it's color coded. It felt somewhat like funny money to me, at first, because of the ridiculously large numbers. Prices on many things are surprisingly inexpensive, though, when you take into account the exchange rate.
Quépos is a brief taxi ride from the resort, which costs 1000 Colones (about 4 dollars). It is a quite small town--of the "you blink, you miss it" variety. Red taxis are everpresent along the few main roads. There is a much more...er..."relaxed" attitude about sanitation in Quépos than in the US and Canada, as there is, I'm guessing, in most of the country. Dogs, some strays, some pets, and some in between (communal pets?), roam the streets freely, sometimes even wandering through the restaurants, which appear to have no health code that forbids such things. By and large, these aren't "cutesy", sentimental dogs like poodles and cocker spaniels. They consist of larger and less hairy breeds. The occasional cat is also seen in shops and restaurants. I love animals, so I didn't mind this a bit, but some other aspects of Quépos's sanitation, or lack thereof, disturbed me a little. The washrooms tended to be less than clean, open sewers were common on the roadside, and insects were *everywhere*. At one supermarket, I noticed a host of tiny ants crawling over one of the deli offerings. No one else seemed to find this unusual.
The sidewalks in Quépos are generally several feet higher than the streets, with only a few stairways going between them here and there, and almost no ramps. Not very wheelchair-friendly! Fortunately, we're both able-bodied and just leapt between the two.
Despite being a small town, and hours away from San Jose, Quépos is very tourist-friendly. It's packed to the brim with tourist shops, and we saw many other gringos wandering the streets clutching their Berlitzes. Many of the waiters and proprietors of shops speak at least a little English (though the locals speak only Spanish amongst themselves). There is, however, no McDonalds in sight (unlike in San Jose).
Costa Rican food is not that similar to Mexican (although there was a good Mexican place in downtown Quépos, Dos Locos, where we ate often), though it uses some similar themes. It is perhaps more akin to Spanish food than Mexican food. Corn tortillas, frequently homemade, are served alongside the meal as commonly as bread in US/Canada. Being near the coast, there is lots of seafood to be had in Quépos--almost every restaurant can do a passable job of cooking fish. One tasty fish we ran into several times was Snook. And of course, there is the ever-present Gallo Pinto: seasoned rice and black beans. It was quite tasty, but we had had enough of it by the time we left :-)
Fried food is quite popular. Baking or broiling is much less common. The switch to low-fat vegetable oil that has happened in the States and Canada, must have never caught on in Quépos. Animal fat is still, by the taste of things, the most common shortening.
Restaurants in Quépos are often entirely open in the front, sometimes cooled inside by ceiling fans. They simply close a gate over the front at night.
As I mentioned, the restaurant Dos Locos served excellent Mexican food. There were two restaurants that served good pizza--not greasy take-out pizza, but classy pizza with weird toppings (one offering was the "Pizza Quépos", which sported such toppings as squid and octopus), cooked in wood-fired ovens so that they were crispy and the tomato sauce was well-baked into the crust. One was El Bolognese, the other was a highly informal restaurant whose name I forget. "La Isabella" served good fish and octopus (the latter was cooked until it was somewhat crispy, and I was surprised by how good it was). They'll also feed you a *large* (about 1/2 pound), freshly made cheeseburger with fries for the equivalent of about $2 US.
All this aside, I think the most downright tasty meal we had in Quépos was at a small, very informal restaurant right across from the resort, La Isla. This place followed a common theme of local restaurants: completely open-air, structured like a large porch. It felt more like eating in a friend's backyard than eating at a restaurant. Payment--if payment is taken at all--goes straight into the proprietor's wallet. Michael imagined they must fudge their taxes a lot :-)
Anyway, the waitress here was very friendly, spoke almost no English, and made the absolute best french fries we've ever had. We realized there were two fairly simply reasons for this. 1. They were homemade. 2. They were cooked in lard. That's right, lard. They still use that in Quépos! It created crispy fries with a rich, full taste the likes of which even New York Fries can't beat. Besides that, we had fried fish fillet, salad (all fresh veggies), and rice. Even the rice had a wonderful rich taste, and was slightly crispy. It seemed to have been briefly fried, after being cooked the usual way. This meal may have been exorbitantly fattening, but we didn't really care :-) All for the equivalent of about $10 US.
We shopped around at the local supermarkets to gather lunch and snack food. There, we found such offerings as "yuca chips"--snack chips made from cassava root that taste roughly like potato chips, but have a different texture. Milk was sold in sealed cardboard containers, and had been treated by a super-high-temperature process that kills all the bacteria, so that the milk stays good for months, unrefrigerated, until it is unsealed. I had never encountered this, but Michael said it is done in places where refrigeration is less common.
There is a carbonated lemon-lime drink called Fresca that is as common as Coke in Costa Rica. It's very refreshing, less sickly sweet than Sprite or 7-up. For some strange reason, only its diet variety is sold up in Canada, sweetened with (ugh) aspartame. Michael and I have considered smuggling jugs of it back to Canada.
Coke and other such drinks are still served in tall glass bottles here--the kind you need a bottle opener to get open. Cans and plastic bottles, which have taken over in the States and Canada, are much less common. In fact, every restaurant we went to served pop this way.
"Boisterous" is the first word that comes to mind. Costa Ricans, especially in San Jose, are a loud, uninhibited people. They communicate regularly by shouting. On the other hand, San Jose is where we met the least friendly people, at least to tourists: people who never seemed to smile at us, even when they were behind a service counter. Michael was somewhat put off by the number of 10-foot and barbed wire fences he saw in that city. Quépos was both friendlier and more relaxed, while the best place of all was in the relatively rural area around the resort. There, the people truly seemed to be enjoying life, and were truly welcoming to outsiders. Within a few days, they were waving at us and smiling whenever we passed by.
Almost everything about Costa Rican life is informal, it seems, especially in and around the small town of Quépos: everything from service to driving to conversation to sanitation. Even the nicest restaurant didn't measure up to the level of formality that Michael and I regularly encounter in Ottawa (we're avid restaurant-goers). While this had its charm, after awhile, I missed the excellent service we get at our regular haunts back home.
Costa Rican men don't seem particularly homophobic or scared of closeness. I would regularly see two guys sharing a bike, hunched together, one driving and the other sitting alongside the center bar (lots of people use bikes--more people drive bikes than cars, in fact). The females show similar lack of inhibition. The younger and shapelier ones have no qualms about dressing revealingly, and this does not seem to be frowned upon, or taken as an excuse for guys to act like jerks.
There are really only two seasons in Costa Rica: dry season and rainy season. It is warm all year round. During rainy season, there is a light rain for a few hours in the afternoon every day, like clockwork. We visited in the transition from dry to rainy season, so the weather was a bit odd -- there were some nighttime thunderstorms and the like. But the mornings were consistently beautiful, and that's when we went on most of our expeditions and tours. At midday and afternoon the weather would become increasingly hot and humid, almost unbearable to us, though the locals didn't seem to mind it much (almost no one used air conditioning--even the few taxi drivers who turned it on, seemed to do so only as a concession to us). In late evening, after the rain, it would start becoming bearable again.
To give you an idea: a glass of pop, filled to the bottom with ice, would, in a restaurant in early evening, melt down to pure liquid within 10 minutes.
Being so close to the equator, the days in Costa Rica are almost perfect 12 hour days -- the sun rises around 6 am and goes down around 6 pm. This was quite a change from the 10pm nightfalls we were accustomed to in Canadian summer. Because of this, and because the mornings were so beautiful, we quickly settled into a habit of rising and retiring early.
Plants of Interest:
These fruit-bearing trees foster many of the rainforest's most exotic species--capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, and toucans, to name a few. There are several different species of mangroves, but in general, their leaves are dark green (sometimes yellow in the dry season) elongated ovals, shiny and waxy in appearance.
In some species of mangroves, notably red mangroves, a seedling can float along in the water for up to a year and survive. It will start to grow when it is washed up on suitable ground.
Animals of Interest:
But the strangest creature we saw in this vein was the Jesus Christ Lizard. This is a small lizard which is so named because it can "walk on water", running along the surface paddling furiously with its hind legs, with its head craned up in the air. It was one of the most comical sights we experienced. We never saw one lying still; we only caught glimpses of them splashing across the water in front of our boat.
We later saw more of them on the rainforest tour, and our guide explained how they work: back in the colony, they chew up the leaf-bits, excreting an enzyme that causes a fungus to grow from the remains. This fungus feeds the entire colony. They're insect farmers.
Mosquitoes liked to get into our suite and relax. For whatever reason, they almost never bit me indoors. Outdoors, they seem to have perfected a method of biting unnoticed. I never caught one biting me, but I certainly felt the aftereffects.
On Thursday, we went on a tour sailing over the Pacific off the coast of Quépos. It was my first time in a boat on the open sea, and the sea was fairly rough that day, so unfortunately I got quite seasick, and had to lie down several times throughout the trip to recover (hint for the unaware: if you feel seasick on a sailboat, do not, do not, DO NOT go down below deck for any reason! I made this mistake just as I was beginning to feel better). But the sight of dolphins always brought me back to my feet to get a better look: they would follow quite close alongside, under, behind, and in front of the boat, as if they enjoyed the company. We also saw lots of pelicans (some of the most absurd-looking birds in the world) and the aforementioned fregatas.
The captain was quite friendly, and turned on sappy music for us as soon as he realized we were newleyweds. :-) I think he felt a bit guilty that I got sick. He and his first mate fixed fish (snook), seasoned rice, and salad for us.
On Friday, we went for a tour of the mangrove forests on Damas island, in a small motorboat, with a man calling himself "Rafa, Father of the Monkeys". A network of narrow channels break off from the Sound/Estuary and wind through the trees, feeding the water-hungry mangroves. When the ocean tide is high, the channels are about 3 meters deep; at low tide, there's almost nothing in them.
The mangroves house families of capuchin (white-faced) monkeys, and these were the high point of the trip. They came at Rafa's call and climbed right into the boat, some from the side, others leaping onto the canopy and coming down from there. We fed them pieces of banana which they took right out of our hands, but my favorite part was when one monkey stole the grand prize: he crept into the bottom of the boat while Rafa wasn't looking, ruffled through the bag, grabbed the extra banana lying there, and took off! The monkeys didn't seem overly trusting of us, or even entirely trusting of Rafa, but they were quite happy to take the food :-)
This was the first time I'd ever seen any primates up close, and I was spellbound by how humanlike they looked and acted. Their faces and hands, the way they grasped and manipulated things like human beings, and the way they looked at us like shy, curious primitives. The agility with which they leapt from tree to tree was amazing.
We first saw the monkeys on our own, in the trees by a restaurant (right beside one of the channels) where we stopped to eat. They wouldn't come too close to us without Rafa around. I was especially enchanted by one who came to get a fruit lying on the ground near us. He sidled towards it, looking at us nervously, then tentatively reached out, grabbed it--and scampered off as fast as he could. It seemed so much like the way a human primitive might act around strange outsiders.
There was a dog at this place--he didn't like the monkeys and they didn't like him. He tried to catch them, but he was outfoxed: they simply scampered up to the higher branches and screeched at him derisively. I found it ironic that "man's best friend" should be so hostile to some of our closest relatives!
The monkeys weren't overly charitable with one another. They fought tooth and nail for the pieces of banana we fed them, baring their teeth and growling at one another to defend their prizes. Rafa pointed out one monkey, Charley, whose face was wounded from a fight for dominance of the family. He said that Charley fought almost constantly with the current alpha, "Muhammed Ali" (these are Rafa's names for them). On the softer side, we spotted a mother with a small child on her back. She wouldn't get too close to us.
And we saw many other interesting things: a swiss cheese of crab holes along
the muddy banks of the channels, visible especially around low tide, tiger
crabs, small fish, minnows with glowing white eyes, tadpoles, termite mounds,
birds, iguanas, Jesus Christ Lizards, etc. The guide pointed out a nest of
beautiful newborn green herons, covered in downy white feathers. And we saw
what is definitely the hugest wasp's nest I've ever encountered--built along
the trunk of a tree, and 11 tiers high. Rafa said they complete a new
tier about once every month.
Horseback Riding in the Rainforest:
On Saturday, we went horseback riding in the mountains near Manuel Antonio. We rode through lush rainforest, seeing the odd point of interest along the way (processions of leaf-cutter ants, a translucent blue butterfly, many red and black butterflies, and various birds). Several people caught sight of a toucan, but unfortunately I never saw it. Our guide introduced us to guava: one of the many fruits that grow wild in Costa Rica. Its pulpy, almost fuzzy white fruit was sweet, but strange enough that I opted to discreetly throw it away after a few small bites.
Our horses had personality, to say the least. My horse, Palamino, was in somewhat of a dominance battle with my husband's horse, Pepper. Pepper was a powerful horse, much more imposing than Palamino, but Palamino had been around a lot longer, and so thought he should be in charge. One was constantly striving to get or stay ahead of the other. If Pepper started getting too far ahead, Palamino would trot up alongside him and send him a quick, threatening glare. This dance kept Michael and I close together, and provided ample laughs :-)
The high point of the day was swimming in a natural pool near the bottom of a 90-foot waterfall. It was pleasantly cool, cooler than the resort swimming pool (which was really too warm to be refreshing), and a wonderful break from the heat. Since it came from an underground spring, the water was quite pure, and since it was right below a very active waterfall, there were no bugs or water-snakes to disturb us.
We were well-fed: scrambled eggs, beans&rice, and toast with Guayaba jelly for
breakfast; for lunch, tomato/oregano soup (fresh oregano--it grows wild in the
forests), homemade corn tortillas, chicken breasts, and more beans&rice.
Finally, it came time to say farewell. We were happy to get back to civilization, but sorry to leave the sunlight, the monkeys, the people, the food, and the abundant life of the tropics behind.
Nifty banner by Michael Britton, my better (or at least more artistic) half.
And many thanks to Starlight Gallery for the equally nifty background.
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