Archive for July, 2009

July 9-12, 2009

I took a Friday off and we got up at 3:30 AM and went to get a rental car we had reserved. We got a Toyota Yaris, very nice and new. I opted for full coverage insurance, since I’ve never driven a long distance in Costa Rica.

The sky was just getting light in the east as we set out westward for the coast. Our first stop was at the top of the grade at San Ramon. We had breakfast at Las Tinajitas, a place Ily has always gone in her long history of taking early morning road trips here. We ate the typical breakfast, gallo pinto with eggs and sausage for Ily; fried cheese, platano maduro and gallo pinto for me. And two or three cups of good strong coffee for each.

We looked out the glass window at the green hills beyond, muted by the patchy mountain fog of winter. They call this winter here even though it is technically summer everywhere else in the northern hemisphere. Ticos don’t care about scientific technicalities. If it’s the “Green Season,” it’s winter. Even so, it is not cold. Wind blew through a screen at the side of the dining area prompting Ily to remember when the windows had no glass in them and it was in fact pretty cold at 5 or 6 AM. In the corner was a bizarre little hand-carved statue of a campesino with a hat on, about three and a half feet tall.

Fortified, we continued on. Already the traffic was pretty busy. We passed through Esparza and got some gas. The rental place had given us one with only a three-eighths full tank. The digital readout made it easy to judge. Eight little bars each representing a fraction. It was an automatic and drove great, plenty of power to pass and go up hills. It navigated the twists and turns of the Aguacate (Costa Rica’s version of the Grapevine) without problems and we arrived on the coastal plain unscathed.

Clary and Lalo

Clary and Lalo

Zipping along between 60 and 90 kph through a vivid green tunnel of trees, we arrived in Cañas by about 8:30 for a visit with Ily’s mom Clary, and Clary’s partner Lalo. Lalo looked good despite some recent health issues. Clary seemed happy and upbeat as usual. We sat in their front room and chatted as a mild breeze blew. Clary said the last few days had been really hot with no wind at all. But today we had clouds and it looked like a possibility of rain. This early in the morning it was probably too soon to tell, but it seemed like it might not be too hot, unusual for this area.
I tried to ask Lalo about the miniature beehive he had shown me on a previous visit, but everything in the backyard looked kind of cleaned up and different. There was a box larger than the one I remember, but no tiny bees went in and out. We weren’t able to communicate about it very effectively.
Their mango tree was in full fruit, and they gave us a huge box tied with twine. When stored in the hot trunk of the car for the next few days, it gave off a nice ripe aroma. We were also presented with a couple of the squashes that are used to make loofahs, growing on a vine next to the front door. Lalo cut two of them down with a machete.

Lalo and loofah vine

Lalo harvesting a loofah

Ileana and I took a five minute nap and then we had some strong coffee with special Guanacaste pastries, circles of dry sweet bread with vivid red frosting. The orange and white cat begged for some, but only wanted to be fed by hand. Earlier this cat had tried to suckle my shirt leaving a little wet spot.

We took some pictures and got ready to continue the trip, loading up the mango box and fresh green loofahs (I don’t think they are actually called loofahs in Spanish. I referred to them to Lalo as “ayotes para lavar [squash for washing]” and he accepted that). He peeled back some of the dark green skin with his thumbnail to reveal the signature loofah texture beneath.

We got in, waved goodbye and hit the Carretera Interamericana, heading north to Liberia, the White City. It’s called that because of a white mineral that they build and pave with there.

Liberia is the biggest city in Guanacaste. It has an International Airport, Earth University, and Franklin Diaz Chang, the Costa Rican astronaut who flew on the space shuttle and is now in the final testing phase of his plasma rocket engine that will revolutionize space travel.

We turned right and went into the town center, 3 or 4 blocks off the highway. It was pretty dry and dusty, lots of people around this Friday morning. We looked at the town square, drove past an impressive old fort, and went back out to the highway crossroads where we would be turning toward the coast. Burger King and Papa John’s dominated the intersection, followed by Subway and a forest of others too numerous to distinguish. We headed down past the airport, a few jetliners parked in a wide green field. We passed through Filadelfia and Belén, then turned again and went through yet more stunningly green savannahs dotted with magnificent trees and humpbacked white Brahma cattle.

At the top of a hill I got a glimpse of the ocean. We stopped to consult our map, a blown-up color photocopied section of an old version of the only map available in Costa Rica, kind of low on details. It was hard to tell where we were on the map. Ily says Ticos don’t use maps, they just ask directions of people by the roadside.

She came out of an ice cream store (in Huacas, I believe) where a girl told her something, and we turned off on an unpaved road through Playa Brasilito, where I saw the open Pacific for the first time since I’ve been here. For me, Puntarenas doesn’t count as the open ocean since it is blocked by Nicoya Peninsula. Now as we were on the western side of the peninsula, the glorious Pacific sparkled under a lightly cloudy sky. The temperature was warm, but bearable, a lucky thing for this delicate gringo.

Ileana called ahead to the hotel where she had reserved a room. It was run by Italians, like many places in the area. They said follow the signs to “El Diablo,” kind of a bad omen for Ily. We saw it and it didn’t look good. They had lied to us about their proximity to the beach, a long dusty walk away. A couple of little kids hitchhiked by the road, holding their tiny thumbs out as if they’d never heard of an Amber Alert. The hotel looked like it was still under construction. The finished portions were painted a vibrant screaming crimson. We figured if they lied about the beach-front location, they’d probably try to mess with us in other ways, so Ily called another place, Hotel Bahia del Sol, right on the beach, that we had passed on the way in. Ily told them we were in Filadelfia and we would be there in a couple of hours, right at 2:00 check-in.

We went to Pueblo Potrero and asked a kid where the best (más rico) place to eat lunch was. He said Las Brisas, so we went and had a good lunch in a little place right on the beach under some big shady trees. Ileana asked the waiter if he knew of a lot owned by her friends in the U.S. Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled, but no rain fell. Ily was certain the waiter would tell a few people, then everyone would know that Ily was here to look after her friend’s interests, and any squatters would be on notice to leave.

We drove over to the hotel and checked in. It was very nice and they gave us pink daiquiris with the Costa Rican liquor called Cacique, your basic clear firewater. The guy held up the bottle enticingly and gestured toward the glasses. For kids they just offered just the smoothie with no liquor. Nice touch. The next day I had a mango daiquiri at the swim-up pool bar, and Ily had a drink invented by the bartender with coconut milk and ground up lime peel. Chewy but good. The daiquiri was made with mango concentrate and didn’t have enough fresh lime so I squeezed in some more. For seven bucks it was pretty ordinary, except for the location. But we didn’t come here to drink anyway.

The room was super nice, the best we’ve had so far (a little better than the fancy place in Puntarenas, with a much better location), and also the most expensive. The bathroom was all modern and glassy, with a big glass bowl for a wash basin, a funny looking ancient-modern spigot reminiscent of a Japanese chrome bamboo, and a push-button drain stop, but no overflow drain, which seemed like taking a small chance. The shower enclosure was glass-brick, and from the shower we could see the walled-garden with palm trees. The toilet was the good kind with the extra long seat.

There were two twin beds and a really good TV with a working remote and cable, a hidden mini-bar fridge stocked with expensive water, sodas and beer; a coffee machine and a free pack of Rey Café. A ceiling fan kept us cool. It did tend to be a little dark, however.

We went over to a covered rancho area to read on comfy wicker chairs next to a life-size wood sculpture of a nude female. Thousands of dragonflies (libélulas) hovered and darted over the grounds and beach. After awhile we realized it was time for coffee, so we wandered over to the deserted dining area. Ticos always have coffee with something to eat in the late afternoon.

Ily asked if they had coffee, and the guys said they had coffee, but nothing to eat with it. That sounded fine to us in our near sleepwalking daze. Ily ordered café con leche, and I decided on a cappuccino, just to see if there was any difference. Hers arrived first. It looked like coffee, dark brown with milk, but on first taste, it seemed to entirely lacking in coffee flavor. It tasted like someone had tried to make coffee out of leftover grounds from breakfast. Ileana watched one of the guys fumble with an espresso machine as if it was his first time. The cappuccino arrived with the same sad watery debility as Ileana’s drink. We thought of asking for more flavor, or another shot, but ended up just leaving the coffee on the table untouched. They didn’t charge us for it and we all forgot the episode as quickly as possible.

Hotel Bahia del Sol

Hotel Bahia del Sol

We went to the room, changed into swimwear and went to walk on the beach. First we walked south, toward the towering mansions and fancy hotels of Playa Flamingo, a mile or so down the beach and out on a small peninsula. Ily stopped to talk to a couple in their yard enjoying the afternoon, inquiring again about the location of a certain lot. They talked for awhile as I picked up small scallop shells and felt the warm ocean with my feet. Yes, the ocean was actually warm. The people told Ileana that this beach wasn’t as popular as some others since it is bounded at each end by a small river, and that makes the surf quite dark with silt. He said some think Potrero is “dirty,” but assured us it’s only river silt. We continued down the beach, stopped at a piece of driftwood, sat for a moment or two, then headed back. We walked past the hotel going north this time, toward the Las Brisas Bar Restaurant where we’d had lunch.

We saw some people fishing in the surf, an old Gringo with a younger Tico, while a woman watched from the yard. Ily asked the old guy something, but he wasn’t too friendly. Ily walked down a lane leading away from the beach while I sat on a concrete bench. She wanted to look at some more lots. After quite awhile, I started to wonder where she’d gone, so I walked that way too. After a block or so an SUV came out a driveway heading toward me. Ily was in the passenger seat calling to me out the window to get in. She had made some friends. Jenny was driving and another girl and a baby were in the back seat. I got in the back and we took a short tour of the neighborhood. Jenny gave us the web address of the local homeowners’ association. She was on her way to church. We had seen quite a few billboards with white Times New Roman letters on a black background, signed “-God,” sponsored by a local church. One of them said something like “You know that thing about loving your neighbor? I meant that. -God”

Jenny was very nice, a true Christian. She and Ily chatted in the front seat as we drove around for a bit, then she dropped us off at the hotel. When we went back to our room, I discovered I had lost the key at some point, probably in Jenny’s car. I got another one from the desk, and then we walked back to Jenny’s. Ily told me she had heard howler monkeys while at Jenny’s, and had seen crabs coming out of holes in the ground, plus Jenny’s pet macaw. As usual, I had missed all the good stuff. But then I saw some crabs, and we heard some monkeys later, so it was okay. Jenny wasn’t home, but we talked to a kid and a man who said they would tell her about the key. I ran down the beach just before the sun went down, to look at the other places we had stopped, but it wasn’t there. It turned out it was in Jenny’s car and she returned it to the front desk a day or two later.

On our way back to the hotel we stopped at a café with a big white sign out front. A hand-lettered scrawl read “FAST, CHEAP AND GOOD.” Another small sign announced free coffee. We went in and found the young gringo proprietors lounging at the counter. They didn’t have any coffee, just some cold from the morning. The main guy said “This is Costa Rica, coffee should be free.” He said they had home-made bagels too, and that tonight was margarita night, with $2 margaritas until 10. We thought we might come back next morning for free coffee, but we didn’t.

We went to sleep early that night, completely exhausted. In the morning, outside our window in a little walled garden area surmounted by concertina wire, the crabs came out among the palm trees, dodging and feinting back into the shallow sandy holes as they played their cangrejo games.

Saturday, after an awesome breakfast (fresh pineapple, watermelon, and papaya, along with all the other regular Tico things: gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, potatoes, little sausages called salchichas and really good coffee), we took our car and went to see some other beach towns. We headed out to Playa Brasilito and got on the paved road. We took some wrong turns figuring out where we wanted to go, puzzling over the map, then saw signs pointing to Tamarindo not too far away. It was pretty busy there, lots of chickens along the sides of the road, lots of people on bikes.

We saw a fancy new AutoMercado, my favorite grocery store, and went in. It was freezing inside, too cold, with nothing we wanted, not even my bank’s ATM like in Heredia. Ily asked directions to the bank and we went to get some cash and find lunch.

The streets of downtown Tamarindo are mostly dirt, with dirt gutters, fortunately dry at the moment. We had to drive through a deep one to get up on to the bank parking lot. Seems like with all this fancy development going on someone could invest in a little infrastructure. I guess if people are making money, then who needs infrastructure? Wouldn’t want to waste pavement and gutters on people who don’t have any money. And the people who do have money don’t live here year-round, so they won’t really miss anything. I guess the poor residents are lucky to have jobs parking cars and serving food and selling trinkets on the street to the tourists. They don’t need infrastructure. Their chickens probably like the dirt better anyway.

At the end of the downtown, there is a little stretch of blessed pavement, maybe 300 feet in all, a circle about 100 feet in diameter. We drove down it and immediately got into a small traffic jam. Cars were parked on both sides, with a small channel to navigate through. A delivery truck was in front of us. People behind us honked. A guachiman (watchman) gestured us through the tiny channel and we inched through. The man guided us into a perfect parking spot and asked for $2 or 1200 colones. When Ily asked, he told us the best restaurant was the one right in front of us, so we went there. It was like an old house, right in front of the beach. We could almost see the car from our table too.

The place was pretty crowded, lots of tourists, lots of gringos. Lunch was pretty good, $27. Two different guys came around trying to sell Cuban cigars. A guy on a bicycle bought 2 or 3 boxes. Another guy on a beach cruiser bike had blond hair down his back and a faded t-shirt that said “Rock and Roll Never Forgets.”

We went back to the car and opened it up to the sweet scent of mangos ripening in the hot trunk. Driving out of Tamarindo back toward our hotel, we took a detour to the wealthy enclave of Playa Flamingo. From the peninsula we could see back along Playa Potrero, then we were on the other side, under the towering hotels and mansions, next to the long white beach where lots of people enjoyed the sun and sea. Cars lined the road and continued to arrive. We crawled along behind a mini-suv police vehicle, looking at possible shady spots to park. Loud music thundered from one little car, partiers. The trees were the kind with small, sparse leaves, making a scant shade. We drove past the beach and into the walled mansion area, past guarded condos where workers arrived in a company bus from nearby inland cities like Santa Cruz and Nicoya.

Playa Flamingo beachfront road

Playa Flamingo beachfront road

Up we climbed past the bases of mighty walls, in the shade of even mightier trees. At one point the pavement ended and the road got all rutted and rocky, but it was only 100 meters or so until it was paved again. Our Yaris handled it quite well. The automatic transmission was smooth and positive. The road wound back and forth up the hill past opulent houses, then past a place that was either a local police outpost or a big bust in progress, probably the former. The police all looked very relaxed as they chatted in the driveway of a less-fancy house. They gave us a cursory glance. Ileana said she went to a party here years ago, supposedly at Liz Taylor’s house, with a bunch of her fabulous gay friends. She says several other gringo movie stars live in Flamingo too. I don’t doubt it a bit. I would live here.

At the top of the hill we came to the end of the semi-public paved road. One way switchbacked into the driveway of the palace sitting up there like a crown, and the other way turned to dirt and plunged steeply into a green valley dark with trees. In the distance a bigger dirt road was visible, with the appearance of a major improvement underway, grading and such.

We turned around and went back to the beach. We found the perfect parking spot next to some people who were just leaving. They even left us their sunglasses. I changed into my trunks in the car and ran out onto the sunny beach and into the surf. This felt just like the quintessential Costa Rican experience I had imagined for years.

The lovely Ileana at Playa Flamingo

The lovely Ileana at Playa Flamingo

Warm water, mellow sun, white sand, happy people. Guao.* A big wave hit me in the face, then I was beyond the breakers. I actually swam in the ocean, completely comfortable in mostly just my skin. What a total revelation. I let the waves lift me up and carry me. Others body-surfed, but I quickly realized it required a certain sense of the sea together with patience and timing I hadn’t yet developed. I ran back to the trees where Ily waited. I couldn’t wait to do it again.

* Guao: Wow – My favorite Spanish word.

We hung out, took a few pictures, took the abandoned sunglasses off the tree, swam a little more, then drove away to find coffee. Parking next to the patio of a big hotel, we inquired about the dress code. Our state of disarray was fine. We sat down on the patio and the waiter said the kitchen was closed. I was ready to leave on hearing this, but Ily discovered we could have coffee, but no food, strange for Ticos in the afternoon. We got cappuccinos, and they were absolutely perfect and delicious.

Playa Flamingo

Playa Flamingo

Back at our hotel, we showered and went into the pool. We swam up to the pool bar and ordered some drinks. I drank mine and part of Ily’s pretty fast and got a little buzz. Ily talked to a waitress about other beaches, and she told us there was a really nice one not far away, called Playa La Penca. We went over to the lawn to sit under the dragonflies and watch the sun go down. We took some pictures and got bitten by insects, even though Ily was liberal with her “repelente.”

Playa Potrero

Playa Potrero



We watched TV that night, the old Jennifer Garner movie “13 Going On 30.” We made the free coffee in our room, and it didn’t come out well. This was our second and last night here.

In the morning we had another great breakfast then drove over to find Playa La Penca. There was some new construction in Pueblo Potrero, some condos with a fancy new coffee shop called Café Arabica, with a Sanskrit, batik and wicker theme. We drove past it and up into the hills, finally stopping at a place that looked down on a faraway beach back the way we had come. We could see people playing on the beach, families with adults and kids. It was about 8:30.

We headed back down there and made the turn at the new coffee house. The road was rough in spots and went for a few hundred meters past small houses with chickens in the yards. At the end was a Guachiman who guided us into a parking spot in the shade. There was a lot of shade this early in the morning.

We walked south a little ways down the beach. The water was much clearer here than at Playa Potrero and the waves were smaller than at Flamingo. It was just as warm and felt even better. At one point a school of fish swam past and touched my leg. I swam on my back and felt like it was an absolutely perfect day on the beach. A wave broke and water went right up my nose. After a little while, we went back to the hotel.

We got packed and ready to check out. Our plan was to drive back a slightly different way, over the Puente de Amistad de Taiwan (Taiwan Friendship Bridge) that crosses Rio Tempisque. This route would take us through Santa Cruz and Nicoya to the south. It looked shorter on the map and we wouldn’t go through Liberia or Cañas.

We turned off into the small town of Portegolpe, which looked like a shortcut to Santa Cruz, but the road turned quickly to dirt, so we decided not to take a chance on unfordable rivers or other hazards.

In Belén we turned south. The countryside was still brilliant green, like always here in the rainy season, even thought we hadn’t had more than a drop of rain, if that. After half an hour or so we came to Santa Cruz, a little community of mostly one and two-story buildings on a grid of alternating one-way streets, like most Tico cities. We toured the downtown, looking for a place for lunch, then continued to Nicoya, another half hour or so.

Nicoya was much like Santa Cruz, maybe a little bigger, with a hospital in the middle of town. We stopped at a place on the edge and asked the guy if they were open but he said no. He said there was a good place on the other side of the Amistad Bridge, an hour away.

We found a place a few minutes down the highway and stopped. We were the only people there. They didn’t have pineapple for a batido, so I ordered cas, and Ily had Coke. Ily had a lomito and I had beef fajitas. Soon after we ordered, a bunch of gringos arrived, maybe Europeans. One blond kid had a Hollister shirt and played pool by himself. It looked like he was pretty good. A herd of brahma cattle wandered past on the other side of the highway as we ate. The hills were so intensely green, and the little trees that grew on them reminded me of California, like near Gilroy, but 50 times more green and warm. If it was this warm in California everything would be brown.

The Amistad Bridge was pretty impressive, with lots of people crossing on foot and taking pictures.

The road was narrow and lined with trees that made a tunnel, also much like the old highway near Gilroy, California.

Soon it connected with the Interamericana and we stopped for coffee. In the trees over the café were a bunch of big macaws, at least ten of them, a couple of the blue and yellow ones, and a bunch of red and green ones. Across the highway some kids played under an immense cement statue of a bull, with testicles almost as big as the kids’ heads.

We had good coffee and desserts: cherry cheesecake and tamal asado, baked nice and dark. Ily said it was a real authentic Guanacaste tamal asado. I got one for the road.

At this point the road was full of vacationers on their way back to the city. A couple of times someone ahead of us wasn’t paying attention and had to lock up their brakes. The traffic got slower and slower as we got closer to Barranca, where we would start up the Aguacate grade. We stopped in Esparza for gas and fruit. Ileana said the fruit here would be really sweet. She was right, the papaya we got there was the best one I’ve ever had in my life. We got a pineapple too, and a piece of watermelon. We drank plastic bags of cold pipa juice, biting holes in the corners and squirting it into our mouths bota bag style.

We crawled over the Aguacate, breathing fumes. My throat was feeling sore where the wave had gone up my nose that morning on La Penca. I was feeling pretty miserable actually, but good too. It took three hours to get to Alajuela from that point, stop and go all the way. Every once in a while the road would widen to two lanes, setting off a competitive clamor to get ahead, making the semi-gridlock even worse. Big buses muscled their way to the front, spewing diesel smoke from their side pipes into our faces.

Finally, it was fully dark and we arrived in Alajuela, returned the car, unloaded our luggage, fresh loofahs and mangos, and called a taxi. The traffic thinned out somewhat coming into Heredia, and we were home.


Read Full Post »