Here in Costa Rica there is so abrupt and striking a difference between the rainy season and the dry season that we could have been in two entirely different places this past month and a half. For three long weeks we were chained to the dock in Golfito, forced to wait for the delivery of things wed had shipped in, then delayed further by a sequence of computer problems. For those three long weeks the rainy season worked itself up to a frenzied finale. During the day showers cycled on and off, and, by late afternoon when all beleaguered life forms would assemble for the communal 2-for-1 happy hour in the marina restaurant, the heavens would really open up with a full-fledged downpour, thrumming on the corrugated roof, blanking out from view all the anchored boats, and turning the water a muddy brown. Dont get us wrong, Banana Bay was a nice place to be stuck if you had to be stuck, and we made many new friendships (unfortunately, mostly with people going the other way) and watched a lot of CNN on cable TV, but as the days ticked off, the Two Captains became obsessed with getting under way.
The very day we left the dock was the first day of no rain. It was still overcast and muggy, but as Tackless II eased out the channel into the Golfo Dulce, there was enough of a breeze to set all the lines and halyards not properly secured aflutter and enough of a chop to produce a chorus of bangs and crashes from below. Although it kept us scurrying, to our ears it was just the theme song of our condo finding its sea legs once again. We survived the two-hour crossing to Puerto Jimenez where the captains and their craft breathed a huge sigh of relief!
Two mornings later, shipshape once again, we raised anchor at 0500 and sailed er motor-sailed out of the Golfo Dulce to a crystal clear sky and one of the most fabulous sunrises weve ever seen. The 57nm trip took us around Cabo Matapelo (where wed hiked with monkeys and macaws back in August) and northwest along the Osa Peninsulas Pacific Coast. We had a dozen hits on the fishing line, the second of which was a huge dorado (mahi mahi) that leapt clear of the water repeatedly before and after breaking our line and making off with our lure. Boy, they are spectacular to see! But, despite all that adrenaline and we only boated one fish, which turned out to be another of the feed the cat variety of skipjack. Still, it felt good to be out in the sea, sun and breeze.
We spent two nights at Drakes Bay on the north end of Osa where our old friends from the Caribbean Mac and Sam of Sandi Lee caught up with us. Drakes Bay is rimmed by a series of wilderness camps, reached by boat only. There are no roads. We checked a few out by foot, and theres no doubt any of the places would be great for getting away from it all. Although known for some good diving, conditions were green and murky from all the rain so we passed.
From Drakes Bay, both boats took off on an overnight passage of 84 miles to the Gulf of Nicoya. Traveling with another boat you know is comforting, especially when caught in a cloudburst. You figure out quickly just how far away they can be and still see their nav lights. This may have been a false sense of assurance as most Costa Rican fishing boats dont show proper running lights, making it anyones guess which way they are going let alone that they are there at all! We got so confused by the movements of one boat that we all three passed within yards of one another!
Our anchorage at Punta Leona had eight boats in it when we dropped the hook the next morning, a rare assemblage on this Pacific Coast. All of them were cruisers heading south from California, and a great and social group they were, too, welcoming in the two odd ducks flying against the stream. Punta Leona is on the southern shore of the Gulf of Nicoya. The area is just south of the dividing line between the wet tropical forests of the south and the drier climate of the north. The land embracing the anchorage (and as far as one could see) belongs to the Punta Leona Beach Club and Resort, a relatively middle-aged facility nestled in a pocket of primary rainforest. The club facilities -- including two beaches, several pools, a putt-putt golf course, playground, bars, night club, several restaurants and a half dozen hiking trails -- are immaculately maintained for the use of their members who flock in from San Jose for R&R mostly on the weekends. We lost count, as we hiked around, of the clumps of accommodations, scattered through the woods and hills, not one cluster bearing any architectural similarity to the others! New condos and houses were under construction in several remote spots while the oldest villas, close in on the club grounds, were actually dressed up mobile homes! So far the cruisers anchored in the bay have been welcome to use the facilities, even to participating in the free daily guided nature tours, in exchange for the purchase of a beer or dinner or two! As you might guess this makes it a pretty popular spot for cruisers to linger, especially ones meeting holiday visitors.
The 2Cs, somewhat suckered by this first burst of good weather, conceived the idea of daughter Tiffany and her boyfriend Derek coming to visit for Thanksgiving. They jumped on the idea, and, despite the short notice, despite the crash of the American Airlines jetliner in NYC, got themselves to Punta Leona (with a little help from the folks) just in the nick of time to experience the experimental cooking of a 6 kilo Butterball on the BBQ grill. (Our oven was out and T&D had the crucial part in their luggage!) Cut in two halves to fit, the bird cooked very fast! So fast, in fact, that Thanksgiving dinner was moved up to mid-afternoon, barely four hours after we got them aboard! It was a great meal, nonetheless, with all the expected trimmings, and for sure this year we all felt most aware of the things we had to feel thankful for, not the least of which was being together.
The weather, of course, chose the day after Thanksgiving to revert to the rainy season. Undaunted, our crew bustled ashore in sneakers to check out pretty much every hiking trail Punta Leona had to offer, one after the other. After all, whats a rainforest without a little rain? The greenery is lush and primeval, with gnarled tree trunks, huge roots, tangled vines and scattered flowers. Although we were never early enough for real good birding, we managed to see at least some wildlife courting butterflies, endless columns of industrious leaf-cutter ants, toucans, a dozing python, and a pack of thieving coatis. The coati is an elongated relative of the raccoon with much the same gastronomic tastes. We watched one pair work a huge group beach picnic, walking on their hind legs like fat dwarfs while crooning in birdlike tones!
Neither Tiffany nor Derek are natural sailors, and from their point of view life at Punta Leona seemed pretty good. However, the 2Cs had now been at Punta Leona for nearly two weeks, and we were starting to feel as tied down as we had in Golfito! Clearly it was time to get the anchor up and give Derek a more proper taste of life aboard a cruising boat. Besides, the sun was making a valiant try! So we motored across the Gulf of Nicoya to a small cluster of islands known as the Tortugas, where there were some pretty beaches and blue water .and a bunch of day tour boats. These all cleared out by evening and we were left alone to enjoy our first noodle hour in the Pacific with a flaming sunset. The next day, Don and the kids tried their best to catch us a fish, but our Osa luck hung with us despite new lures. We just couldnt get anything aboard, so we cheated we bought a dorado from a fisherman!
On Tuesday, we motored west to Bahia Ballena, a wide south-facing bay on Peninsula Nicoya. Several rivers feed into the bay and the rain clouds back in the hills had sent down such a flood of mud and silt that the bay was as brown and earthy as a mud puddle! However it was flat calm (anchorages in this part of the world are often quite rolly!) and there were howler monkeys in the hills, plus there was an actual pier to which we could tie the dinghy (rather than our usual dragging it up the beach.) We took to the place immediately. Ashore, we strolled around the spread-out community of Tambor, (pretty quiet given the time of year and the drought of tourists), signed up for a trail ride the next day, and enjoyed a wonderful meal of ceviche and snapper at the Bahia Ballena Yacht Club (what yachts?)
We were ashore for our trail ride on time at 0800. Doris, of the Swiss restaurant Perle was the coordinator. Knowing how Tico time works, shed called for the horses to show up at 0730, and in fact they arrived in a head-to-tail line up promptly at 0830. Not bad. As in the Galapagos, the horses were quite small, but the tack was better, i.e. real saddles. Tiffany is quite the animal rights champion and she was quite worried that at $5/pp/hr the horses might not be well cared for. We were all relieved to see that the horses were healthy, in good shape and relatively willing to carry these four tall gringos around for the day. Doris had her own horse and came along to assist 10-year-old Lavar, evidently playing a little hooky from school, as our guides for the day. Lavar, like his father, who apparently had other things to do, was clearly born in the saddle, and he took his role as the man very seriously, climbing down repeatedly to rescue hats plucked from our heads by passing bushes, opening gates, taking care of the horses at rest stops. At about 3 ½ tall, Lavar made his horse look big! We rode out along the coastline, enjoying spectacular beach and rock views, a rest break with a large family of howler monkeys overhead (making Dereks day, but impossible to photograph) and, for a finale, a waterfall making a 40 drop to the ocean.
It was a great day, and yes, after five hours, we could barely walk! So, we sailed back to Punta Leona, finally catching our own dorado on the way, and the next day rented a nice upholstered Suzuki Gran Vitara and went land touring.
Our first outing took us south to Quepos, passing out of the cattle ranching area around Punta Leona into acres and acres of palm oil groves. From sugar cane to bananas to hillside corn crops (not to mention corn and soybeans in the Midwest!) weve seen a lot of different kinds of agriculture in our travels. These oil palms are handsome trees, planted in orderly avenues, extending for miles and miles. The trees grow to about 50 feet tall with thicker trunks than coconut palms and much bushier crowns. Each palm produce clusters of 70-90 nuts about the size and color of red plums, which are taken by great wagon loads to the processor where they are ground up and boiled to produce oil used in cosmetics and baked goods. Palm oil is the crop much of Central America has turned to to replace bananas, but the paranoia over cholesterol may crimp the style of this export, too. A palm oil tree produces for about 60 years. It is then given an injection to kill the tree. Meanwhile the next generation is already on its way up in the rows between the oldsters. Made for an interesting landscape.
On a gamble we took the barely-marked turn for The Rainmaker, a private park highly touted in the Lonely Planet Guide for its river canyon boardwalk and rainforest canopy bridges, but usually only opened for organized tours. Our gamble paid off. Although there were no tours there, and therefor no guides, we were welcomed in for half price and put in the care of Carlos, a park worker whod grown up there. Carlos gave us a great tour, and although Im quite sure my Spanish wasnt quite up to all the detailed medical applications of this plant or that, we got the gist. The river and the forest floor was beautiful, with cascading waterfalls here and there, reminiscent of Cocos, but the true highlight were the suspension bridges constructed from treetop to treetop across the gorge. Wow! Of course, it did start to rain while we were up on the bridges, which at first actually made it even more mystical. Then, just as we left the bridges, the rain notched up to a downpour! We were very wet campers when we left, but we added poison arrow frogs, more ants, a sloth and a fer de lance snake to our animal roster.
The next day, we packed our bags, locked up TII, and drove to north to Monteverde, one of Costa Ricas most famous tourist destinations. Monteverde was founded by American Quakers from Alabama in 1951.. Upon arrival they bought 1500 hundred hectares in this mountaintop region and set up the dairy farming and cheese production community that defines the area today. What attracts tourists to this area are the cloud forest reserves, which are a haven for much of the special animal and bird life of Costa Rica. In recent years many elaborate tourist projects have sprung up to exploit that interest. Monteverde is the birthplace of the canopy tour, essentially an amusement park ride disguised as an ecological experience, and there are several of these available in the area, plus a Skywalk tour somewhat like Rainmaker, a butterfly farm, a serpent farm, as well as old fashioned hiking.
The ambivalence of the locals to this development is evident in the condition of the roads to get there. Notoriously bad, they were worse than wed imagined, and we were there in absolutely perfect weather. Yes, finally the weather was on our side, with crisp clear skies and not a drop of humidity in sight! From the Interamericana Highway it was thirty-three kilometers of dirt, rock and potholes that took us, in our four-wheel-drive, two hours and forty minutes to climb!
I have to admit up front, that the Monteverde we found was NOTHING like what Id imagined. When I picture a cloudforest, I picture something like Sabas misty mountaintop, with moisture dripping from dense primeval vegetation (see Logbook #1), which, to be fair, might be how it can be in normal weather conditions. What we found were steep hillsides of golden grass, dotted with cows and scattered clumps of trees, and spectacular vistas to the north and south of mountain ridges and to the west of the glittering Gulf of Nicoya. It was so clear that I believe, if wed really tried, we could have seen TII at anchor!
Almost there, we fell in behind the bus from San Jose, throwing up a choking cloud of dust. This proved serendipitous as it forced up to turn off the road where we fell into the hands of Eduardo. Eduardo runs one of those tourist information places you are sure is going to hoodwink you into their sponsors only, but it turned out to be a stroke of luck for us as we had only 24 hours to spend. Eduardo had our schedule whipped into shape within ten minutes. We had a hotel at which to drop off our stuff and tickets for the Monteverde Canopy tour in less than an hour! Eduardo did well by us. The Sunset Hotel was clean, charming and reasonable with an awesome and it was on the way to the Canopy Tour, which, given the condition of the roads which if anything got worse! was an important consideration.
We got to the Tour on time, found ourselves the only ones there for the 1230 run, and put ourselves into the hands of our three young guides. Now, earlier I called the canopy tour an amusement park ride, which it is, but you should know it is an amusement park ride the two captains had been looking forward to for nine months since our taste of it back in Panama. Heres how it works: you are fitted into a butt harness replete with pulley, given a hard hat and a pair of gloves. You follow a short path, climb to platform in a tree, where your guide hooks your pulley onto a cable. Then, pick up your feet and wheeeeeeee you whiz through the air across and through the treetops to the next platform. Dont kid yourself like the brochures do that theres any time or attention to actually study nature. Hah! Just catch your breath and go again!
The Monteverde Canopy tour (which is actually in Santa Elena) appears to us to be one of the best such tours available (there are a half dozen now throughout Costa Ricas forests!). It had a dozen platforms with ten rides, all of them long enough to actually look around a bit, and each getting slightly more thrilling than the last. We all had a ball! And if we hadnt been starving, we might have done it all over again.
You might guess that there are no snack bars lining these poor excuses for roads, so Don, following his gut instinct , took a right down a side road that had a sign with a knife and fork on it. Yep, you guessed it, the road got even WORSE, and after probably a half hour of wrenching jolts, Dons crew was close to mutiny when the most incredible view opened up on our right. Crisp across the valley about 12 kilometers away was Vulcan Arenal, Costa Rica signature volcano, smoking slightly just the way a volcano should, with Lake Fortuna laid out at its feet like the ultimate picture postcard. I had been pouting just a bit because it had come clear that a visit to Arenal was not going to fit into our schedule, so this really capped off the day! Things got even better when we actually found a little Tico restaurant and inn at the end of that road, whose hostess, Rosie, served us up a wonderful Tico meal (chicken or pork chops, gallo pinto (aka rice and beans), sweet plaintain and salad), all with this awesome view laid out before us. We were in heaven.
After all this we blew off the last of Eduardos schedule and opted for a quiet sunset and supper at the hotel. The next morning we did the local hike through the woods (Tiffany and Derek did it twice) before breakfast, after which we headed back down the mountain in time to get Tiff and Derek back to San Jose. We left them off at their hotel, after a mid-afternoon feast and slightly teary farewells, in time to get back to the boat about sunset.
Oh, yeah, one more animal to add to our list. Just before the turnoff to Punta Leona a bridge crosses the Tarcoles River, where there is often a crowd of tourists scanning in vain for crocodiles. After four or five previous strikeouts, his time we saw four!