April 24, 1997, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
The first time I landed in Costa Rica, I stepped off the plane and stood around in the musty airport at San Jose, feeling doubtful, waiting for the customs guy to stamp my passport. Everywhere were signs welcoming me to “El Jardin de Paz,” and indeed it was all that Garden-of-Peace propaganda and Costa Rica’s reputation as “The Switzerland of Central America” that made me want to see the place for myself.
That, and the enthusiasm of a friend who had just come back from Manuel Antonio, on the Pacific coast. “The most beautiful beaches in the world,” he said. “Go. See if I’m wrong.”
“Have a good time in Puerto Rico,” my mother said.
I explained that Costa Rica is not a Caribbean island, but a country about the size of West Virginia, tucked between Nicaragua and Panama on the skinniest part of the American isthmus. Great beaches, no army, universal education and health care, the Garden of Peace and the Switzerland of etc.
“That’s nice,” said my mother. “Have a good time anyway.”
I spent the first night in San Jose, which I had pictured as a leafy old city full of old men dozing on park benches, and faded examples of Spanish colonial architectural glory. There are a few glories remaining, among them the small, perfect Teatro Nacional in the city’s central plaza, but it’s hard to appreciate them when you’re standing beside six lanes of smoking, honking traffic. The old men are too busy hawking lottery tickets and dodging taxis to doze. I found it all very foreign and interesting. The next morning I rented a car and got out.
Driving south on the Pan American Highway, I felt the country spreading out around me, the air growing sweeter. San Jose sprawls through a broad highland valley, surrounded by ranges of jungle-covered mountains. The country beyond the city is green, green in profusion, a million different kinds of green. I turned off the highway on the road to Orotina and entered a series of different worlds, each greener and more lush than the last. The foothills are scattered with modest estates beautified by generations of gardeners. Huge sprays of bougainvillea spill over white walls. The road climbs into coffee country, where green shrubs in waves describe the contours of the mountains.
Cresting the ridge, I pulled over to drink in the view: behind me the valley, spread before me the hills marching down to the blue shining Pacific in the distance. A pale mist drifted up between forks in the mountains. A man on an oxcart clopped by, with a wave and a grin. It didn’t look a bit like Switzerland, but it was lovely.
Three hours later I was bumping along a rutted road, dodging my thousandth pothole, surrounded on all sides by vast plantations of African palms, and wondering why I hadn’t just stayed on that mountain. Right off I’d learned the most important lesson of traveling in Costa Rica: getting around is not as easy as it seems. The condition of the roads ranges from okay to awful, and just because a place looks close by on the map does not mean it will not take forever to get there.
I was sweaty and tired when I pulled into Quepos, the ramshackle port town that serves as a tourist gateway for the beaches of Manuel Antonio. The sight of fishing boats on a placid inlet lifted my spirits, as did my first taste of Imperial cerveza, the national brew.
Manuel Antonio is a geological oddity, a string of high hills rising from a stretch of low coastline. Land meets ocean in a dramatic confrontation, densely forested hills plunging to the sea -- rather like the coast of northern California, if western Marin County were covered with tropical jungle. The folds in these hills are lined by rocky coves and perfect white beaches. Three of the best beaches are protected within the boundaries of a 464-acre national park. The road from Quepos to the park runs along the summit of the hills, and most of the small hotels and open-air restaurants are arranged to take advantage of the views.
Within ten minutes I was stretched out in a hammock, gazing fifty miles out over the Pacific at a sky full of drifting pink clouds. The swell of the ocean was audible, far below. A mild breeze carried the scent of jasmine and ylang-ylang. A dozen squirrel monkeys were making a noisy feast of the berries in a huge deciduous tree just beyond my balcony. The air was full of butterflies and pink light.
I thought: this is the place.
I drove down to the beach. Just at sunset I stepped out onto a wide stretch of white sand fringed by coconut palms and mangroves, a mile of beach-lover’s heaven. A gathering of rock islets stood offshore, like whales with backs of jagged gray stone. The warm blue Pacific rolled in even white lines, a long rolling curl crashing around the ears of surfers. The támbalo in the national park -- a former island connected to the mainland by a thread of jungle-covered sand -- and the range of hills behind me gave the beach a sculptured shapeliness, a dramatic Bali Hai dimensionality that took my breath away. I thought it was the most beautiful beach in the world.
Seven years later, I’m still here, and I still think so. I built a kind of treehouse on one of those hills, just above a rocky cove. If your idea of heaven is standing on a high hill in the jungle, looking out across the Pacific with a breeze and good surf and a year-round water temperature of 82 degrees, you might find it agreeable here.
The weather is always warm and humid, in the range of 80 to 90 degrees, occasionally hotter, but generally there’s a breeze from the sea. Costa Rica has two seasons, rainy and dry. Dry is the high season, verano or “summer,” December to April, when tourists from the U.S. and Europe come to broil themselves in the all-day tropical sun. (A local term for a scorched tourist is langosta, or lobster.) The rest of the year is the rainy, or “green season,” as the hoteliers like to call it. Tourists are fewer, beaches emptier, prices lower. Usually the sun will shine hot all morning. After midday the clouds stack up over the inland mountains, and bring a gullywasher before sunset. Five inches of rain in one night is not uncommon, and the lightning storms can be spectacular.
All this sunshine and rain and humidity makes for the astounding diversity of life in a coastal-zone tropical rainforest. On this land bridge between the Americas, the variety is too rich to count. Manuel Antonio is famous for monkeys, which abound in three species: the mono titi, or squirrel monkeys, the carablancas, or white-faced, and the congo, or howlers. The forest teems with coatimundis, three-toed sloths, raccoons and opossums and armadillos, iguanas and lizards, frogs, iridescent butterflies and some of the largest, strangest insects in the world. I’ve seen a firefly with high beams and low beams, and beetles as big as my hand. I have done battle with ants of every description, among them the leaf-cutters that can strip a whole tree in one day. My yard is a stopping-place for toucans, hawks, macaws, parakeets, pelicans, innumerable hummingbirds. We have a bird that makes a sound like an old-fashioned manual typewriter, complete with the ching! of the bell.
I have never ceased to be amazed by all this fecundity. In March of last year, I scraped some papaya seeds off a plate onto the ground. By June, the papaya tree that grew from the seed was five feet tall, and in September I picked the first ripe fruit from that tree.
A hummingbird is nesting right now in the lime tree beyond my kitchen window. In a nest the size of a doll’s teacup she has laid two minuscule eggs, perfect white lozenges. This morning I glanced in the nest, and saw one tiny egg and a brown thing the size of a bean, with some prickly hairs on one side. Leaning close, I saw its tiny heart beating. The world now has one more hummingbird. On mornings like this I feel lucky.
In the years since I came here, I’ve explored other parts of Costa Rica. As Columbus observed, it is a rich coast, big for its size and incredibly gifted by nature. I’ve spent unforgettable days paddling down whitewater rivers through mountain rainforest. Riding a rickety bus through endless banana plantations on the Atlantic slope. Sitting, steaming, in a natural volcanic spring while Mount Arenal spews lava into the night sky. Witnessing the miracle of two dozen newly-hatched sea turtles making their first triumphal waddle down the sand to the sea. Dancing to electric reggae on the beach at Cahuita. Watching the fireworks marking the peaceful ascension of a new president in Central America’s longest-lived democracy, where election day means a wild party.
Slowly I am coming to know the Ticos, as the Costa Ricans call themselves. They are a beautiful, prideful, hard-working, warm, slightly cryptic people, intensely proud of their country, friendly to strangers but hard to know well. Inherently peaceful, they seek to avoid conflict and anxiety, a national trait expressed in the all-purpose phrase for “good morning” or “terrific!” or “see you later”: Pura vida. It means “pure life,” and is more a thing to be wished for than a statement of present reality.
The philosophy of pura vida has served the Ticos well in leading other Central American countries down the path of peace. It also means that everyone will cheerfully offer directions to where you’re going, whether or not they have the slightest clue, and they’ll say anything to keep from disappointing you. Friends and I once sat in a restaurant for thirty minutes, studying the menus we’d been graciously offered, before the waiter worked up the nerve to tell us they were all out of food.
Keep in mind that in Costa Rica, as in many Latin countries, mañana does not mean “tomorrow,” it just means “not today.”
The Tico approach to preserving their country’s natural wealth is an impressive and fairly recent development. In the days before ecology mattered, many of the country’s virgin forests were clearcut, with American encouragement, to make way for banana plantations and cattle pasture. On a bus through the breathtaking mountain passes of Braulio Carrillo National Park, I noticed a sign that asked riders to please maintain the cleanliness of the bus by throwing their trash out the window. And yet Costa Rica has done more to preserve its natural heritage than any other developing nation, with very little outside help. The chain of national parks and reserves that grew in the 1960s and 70s now covers twelve percent of the nation’s land mass, and is the pride of the people, the heritage they will hand to their children. I am hardly the first gringo to have discovered Costa Rica. The first wave of surfers and backpackers came in the 1960s, followed by retirees in the 70s, ecotourists in the 80s, and now, in the 90s, a new species of visitor: the movie star. Marlon Brando and Woody Harrelson spend time here. Ditto Michael Keaton, Charlie Sheen, Michael Douglas, and Jimmy Buffett, all of whom breezed through Manuel Antonio recently. Costa Rica seems to attract stars who like macho vacations: sportfishing, sea kayaking, and whitewater rafting are the preferred diversions.
If you’d like to be join in, you’ll find yourself welcome. Ticos are famously hospitable, and kind to gringos with little Spanish. It’s easy to wander off the tourist track and make yourself at home. You can get lost on a beach, or in a cloud forest. Don’t come expecting a great deal of luxury; many first-time visitors think they’re coming to a kind of Central American Hawaii with fancy cuisine, fine roads, lots of swanky hotels. If you're looking for great archeological ruins, stick to Mexico or Guatemala. If you don’t like rice and beans, if potholes annoy you excessively, you won’t care for Costa Rica. But if you’d like to see what a beach looks like when it’s completely alive, you might like it a lot.
P.S. Just checked the nest. Make that two hummingbirds. Pura vida!
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