Journey to Costa Rica, July, 1995

Part II

We arrived at some low, rustic, buildings that was the Buena Vista Lodge. The view of the surrounding mountains was spectacular. We had already heard that this was a very different lodge, as they generated their own electricity and water supplies and cooked on a wooden stove. About 25 cowboys and cooks worked on this 3,000 hectare ranch. Stepping off the bus we were each handed a nice glass of red punch! Immediately a small black monkey named Pancho descended and started to jump on us. It would sample punch right out of your glass if you weren't careful. Later, we learned that the monkey had a penchant for stealing hats and glasses and hiding them under the bushes! The grounds of the lodge were covered with plants of various colors and had giant trees, one of which had fallen down near the stables, a few hundred feet away from the lodge. The lodge did have a radio telephone but the journey to reach this place was so harrowing that I felt as though we were on the moon! This strange feeling was enhanced by the fact that the clouds came right across the grounds producing fog everywhere.

That afternoon we went hiking down a series of paths starting in back of the lodge. We were accompanied by a tame gray peccary named Gregory. We saw giant Kapok trees with buttresses; a few trees had succumbed to the strangler figs and were either dead or dying. In several places, Army ants had laid paths that went across the path. Each ant carried its own fragment of leaf that it had cut from the forest like foragers. These bits of vegetation would be chewed by other ants later to make their food. We found a circular ant nest, which was indicated mostly by the lack of foliage around it -- something unusual in the rainforest where every inch is usually covered with vegetation. This area was said to be dry rain forest, but it seemed very moist to us -- but relatively dry compared to some other venues we had seen. We found many types of birds, a monarch butterfly, but no monkeys on this walk. The monarch butterfly is interesting; it has a very dull appearance when its wings are closed but it iridescent blue when its wings are open. We were really looking forward to the next day, which was supposed to be pure fun!

This morning we got up for a breakfast of more beans and rice and the promised horseback riding -- with more docile and obedient horses! We were asked to wear our bathing suits under our riding clothes and hiking boots. Our destination was to be the famous mud baths, hence the bathing suits. Once away from the main lodge, we came upon deep paths cut into the terrain by the horses hooves. These paths could be 1 to 3 feet below ground level, so deep that your feet would almost touch the ground as the horse traversed the trails. The paths led up and down very steep hills and across streams, but the horses had few problems with footing. One hill, however, was so steep and slippery that we dismounted and let the horses charge down the path in groups. We started them down the hill by clapping our hands. After an hour or so [Latino time] we could see steam rising from a depression in the forest and came upon a small shed that proved to be a changing room. We tied our horses to a high wooden fence and walked up a path to strange terrain containing hot, gray, liquid mud with jets of spouting steam. After stripping down to our bathing suits, we crossed a bridge over a huge plume of steam. The steam was warm but sometimes so hot that you had get out of it immediately, otherwise you would be burned to a crisp. Some of our group went into the steambath. After this, we lobsters went back to the hot-tub. Here, we found our bus driver, Coco, adorned with a thick coat of gray mud! The idea was that the mud had healing properties, therefore you were expected to take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity and get completely dirty! Everyone but one person in our group then proceeded to take hot gray mud from a bucket and smear themselves. But to liven things up, there was also red mud. The combination of gray and red mud made us look like Indian braves on the warpath! After a liberal round of picture taking, the OAT photographer Mark joined in. Once the mud had dried on our bodies, we entered the hot tub and scrubbed off the mud. It began to rain then and we all put on ponchos for the ride back. But as soon as we mounted the horses, the rain stopped! We rode back to the lodge in high spirits. Some of us opted for a high-speed gallop which the horses enjoyed greatly. Nearing the lodge my horse took a violent right turn and I barely stayed on. It had decided not to follow the leader and took a short cut the barn and food!

After lunch we were promised a real treat -- an authentic Costa Rican bull riding contest. We had passed several stadiums on the trip and asked about bull fighting. They don't have the usual bull fighting where the bull is killed here. What they do is to put the bulls in the ring after several folks are already there -- the bulls chase the participants who presumably jump out or perhaps the bulls are finally exhausted. In our case there was a high circular wooden-rail fence perhaps 150 feet in diameter. this formed the main arena. A very small entrance pen with a lead-in chute was the entryway for the bull and his rider. The rider would get on the bull in the small pen, the door would be opened, and the bull would come charging out -- in theory! The exit consisted of a moderate sized pen with a gate from the central arena, this exit would hold perhaps a dozen animals. The bulls were kept in another holding pen that connected to the entry pen via a chute. The beasts would be roped, pulled through the chute, and dragged into the entrance pen for mounting by the rider. The riders would have spurs attached to their boots, this was about the only preparation for them. After the bull was in the holding pen, a rope would tied around its belly for the rider to hold. The secret of bull riding is to grip the bull's belly with your legs and spurs, then lean back as much as possible so you can avoid being thrown over the bull's head. If you're thrown in front of the bull, he can easily gore you with those wicked horns.

First up was a local girl who had never ridden a bull . She got on the bull and at this point we discovered a major problem with this exercise -- the bull laid down in the pen and refused to get up! A judicious twist of the tail forced the bull to rise, however. After the gate was pulled open, the bull bounded out of the pen. One cowboy had his tail and he was jumping wildly, the girl stayed on for only a few seconds. Next up was our guide Adrian, he too had never ridden a bull so we were seeing real amateur bull riding! Adrian however, managed to stay on his bull for perhaps 15 seconds. We also found that Mark, our OAT photographer was good at bull riding! I was videotaping all these events perched atop the high fence.

Then I decided to go over the entry pen to get a close-up view of the action. There was tremendous tension among the cowboys in pulling the bull into the pen, tying the rope around his midsection, and keeping him standing!. One cowboy had a rope around the bull's neck and was pulling for life to keep the bull steady. Standing atop the animal was the rope-tying cowboy, he, unfortunately, had been mauled by a bull earlier and had a plate in his face but there was no sign of the injury and repair. When a bull laid down, there was a real problem as the rider could be injured, so they made every attempt to get the bull up. Bending his tail was the choice stimulus, but it didn't always work. So in several cases, the gate was opened when the bull was laying down with rider on his back. Then the bull would quickly stand and charge out the gate with the rider aboard. In all, about eight riders tried their luck. In one case, the rider stayed on until the bull gave up. In another case, the bull was laying down at startup, but he meekly walked out of the pen and gave the rider no problems at all. The rider jumped off his back, outwardly disgusted at the lack of a challenge but perhaps inwardly happy for the easy ride! There was a huge white and black bull in the holding pen that no one ever rode, when I asked about him, they said that he had a nasty habit of throwing one of his horns at the rider and they were afraid to ride him.

During this entire afternoon episode of bull riding, clouds had drifted over the ranch and we found ourselves in a thick fog. We walked over to the pavilion and watched the setting sun. The light filtered through the fog producing a pink glow in the sky. We anxiously awaited dinner and the promised Costa Rican band. A tame armadillo was brought onto the pavilion. It had a hard time walking on the polished concrete floor, his feet were very fast but they could get no traction. The animal kept trying to find a way out but didn't seem to recognize the obvious exits because of his poor eyesight.

That evening we did not eat in the small dining hall adjoining the rooms and office but we ate in the covered pavilion. About 7:30 the band showed up and began to play. All the songs were in Spanish and they were quite good at playing a variety of Latin music. The cowboys started asking all the women to dance. There was one cowboy with no or few teeth that kept asking women to dance but no one would ever dance with him. Another tall cowboy who looked as if he had stepped off a ranch of the late 1800's got a little tipsy. He must have danced with a dozen women prior to retiring from exhaustion and too much drink.

Next morning Anne and I got up early and decided to walk to the waterfall before breakfast. It was a nice walk and well worth the time and effort to see and hear the waterfall and the wildlife. Gregory the Peccary saw us but he did not follow us. We supposed that he must need about a dozen hikers before coming on a walk! After breakfast we started down the abominable 18 kilometer dirt road again. We had all made a vow not to stay on the bus when we reached the precarious wooden bridge. So upon approaching the bridge, we mutinied and got off the bus. I walked across and videotaped the action. As the wheels moved over the bridge, the rails were moving up and down by an inch or more. We felt lucky to have made it across successfully. On the way back to the main road, we encountered an entire herd of cows. They would not leave the road so we just kept them in front of the bus for a mile or so. We felt as though we were on a modern cattle drive!

We finally reached the paved road and drove through Liberia and then down the Pan American highway toward the pacific coast and our destination, Playa Hermosa. We were anticipating the highly touted "crocodile hunt" down the Rio Tarcoles. The area of Tarcoles has been heavily polluted by dumping debris into the river upstream. This debris, consisting of pieces of plastic and paper, piled up on the banks and especially on grass and trees. The area leading up the small boat dock appeared to be heavily flooded and we saw abandoned buildings and swimming pools. Adrian said that the environmentally poor condition of the area was well known and native Costa Ricans had stopped coming there. Regardless, the Rio Tarcoles was a wildlife haven. Pulling up to the dock, we saw a small boat missing a substantial portion of one side. Everyone joked that this was our transportation, just bring bailing cans.

Our "real" boathad a top cover and room for perhaps 20 people. Our guide was a native Costa Rican with a permanent grin on his weathered face and a cowboy hat. He had a small boy helping him at the dock. We pulled away and motored up the river towards the distant sandbanks supposedly with man-eating crocodiles. Along the way, we saw lots of birds in the marsh-like flatland. As our destination drew near, we eagerly looked for the crocks. Out guide told us that three crocks were large, in particular: Saddam Hussein, Mike Tyson, and Maggie, named for Margaret Thatcher. Maggie was first thought to be female, but after being stolen and retrieved, they discovered their mistake. We began to spot a few eyes on top of the water. After we landed on the sandbank our guide jumped into shallow water with a dead chicken which he began beating upon the surface of the water. After a couple of minutes, Maggie appeared. from the depths. He followed the guide as he retreated up the sandbank. Maggie grabbed the chicken from the guide as he came further away from the river. Our guide told us that the local folks did not like feeding the crocks because they thought that this would lead to them taking their cows. So, they had biologists explain that they did not feed the crocks a lot, just enough to attract them for the tourists. Later, the giant Mike Tyson appeared for his lunch and he scared off the other crocks.

After the crock hunt, we motored out through the mangroves nearer the ocean. We saw huge numbers of pelicans and other sea birds. In the background one could see low hills and forests. Adrian remarked that this is what Christopher Columbus must have seen 500 years earlier. We were looking forward to the last day and the great sea kayaking experience.

That evening we stayed at the Terrazo Pacifico right on the beach of Playa Hermosa. It was our first hotel with air conditioning, which by now seemed strange to us, after all, we had just come from a ranch with a wooden stove and limited lighting! This area was famous for surfing and the hotel was full of teens and their boards. The beaches here are of black volcanic sand, they have a large surf and lots of noise.

Next morning we were to go on the sea kayaks. We drove through miles and miles of palm tree plantations which were established in the 1940's. Interestingly, the road was a four lane road (with potholes) but where it crossed a stream, it narrowed to two lanes and a tiny bridge, barely large enough for one vehicle. The bridges were made of rail road rails and ties. [Note that in Costa Rica, almost no railroads are running so apparently they removed all the ties and rails and are using them for bridges!] We saw many wooden row houses set on squares, these houses are company housing for the plantation workers. Some houses are set on stilts, they are usually painted dull blue or green.

We left the main paved road and drove through a small village to a narrow stream channel. A wooden house protruded partially over the stream, a couple of natives were perched on the porch staring at the gringos and no doubt joking that we would not be able to successfully maneuver the kayaks! The entire area looked in disarray with abandoned rusting equipment laying everywhere. Our yellow and blue kayaks were laid out by the bank of the stream. One of our local guides was an expatriate from the US. It looked like he would never get back to the US based on the length of his beard. After a 30 second safety briefing, we grabbed our double oars and set off. Anne and Katey went in a two person kayak and I took a single. Unfortunately, Anne's kayak had lost its rudder, so they were unable to guide it successfully. After a while, I circled back to them and we put Katey in a single, the local guide got in Anne's kayak. But Katey was not able to steer her kayak, so they tied hers to Anne's and started over. By this time we had navigated several channels and were coming to open water. It threatened rain, then rained, then it began to really pour with very high winds. We were in a storm! It became very hard to row because with the double paddles, your upper paddle got caught in the wind when your lower paddle was in the water. The rain beat down so hard that you could hardly see. Our boats were scattered over perhaps a half-mile of open water. We made little progress against the high wind but finally the wind abated somewhat and we reached the shore and docks. It began raining again fiercely and we took a motorboat to a small restaurant built on an old moored tug. This was the Tortuga -- I'd recommend not going to the restroom there unless you really need to. We had lunch and rested from the exertion against the wind. Later, we motored back to the dock and the bus. It was still raining hard and everyone boarded the bus totally wet and exhausted.

This was to be our last day in Costa Rica, we were planning to get up at 3:00 a.m. and head back to San Jose for the 10:00 flight to Miami. However, we had heard of hurricane Erin approaching Miami and were afraid that we might not be able to leave on Lacsa Air as planned. Regardless, we had our farewell dinner and gave tips to Adrian and Coco. Then we packed and went to bed early. Next morning we left the Terrazo Pacifico as planned and drove towards the capital. The landscape was hilly and beautiful. Everyone was tired after the sea kayaking so many of us dozed during the trip to San Jose. We arrived at the airport about 6:30 and learned from the other OAT personnel that indeed, our flight was canceled. So they arranged for us to stay at the Irazu hotel. Adrian volunteered to give us a tour of San Jose at 10:00 a.m. We drove through several nice neighborhoods and even saw the residence of Oscar Arias. Then we visited the National Museum of Costa Rica at an old fort. This museum shows many early native artifacts. Some of the most interesting are giant granite balls, up to about 6-9 feet in diameter. No one knows the true purpose of these, but they may have served as markers. There are also some very exquisite and detailed native carvings in the museum that represent various animals such as eagles and crocodiles.. These were probably used as important ceremonial items.

After the tour, several of us took a bus ride into the center of San Jose and visited the ornate Opera House, which was built before 1900. We tested the acoustics and found them fine. Then Katey spotted a McDonalds and was dying to eat there, so we went and ordered hamburgers, our first American mean in Costa Rica.

That evening we ate in a small seafood restaurant in a shopping center outside our hotel. They specialized in preparing fish by many different methods, such as with various sauces, or condiments, etc. I have never seen so many ways to prepare a fish to eat! Anne and Katey had shrimp, while I had a delicious fish.

That night everyone said goodbye again and prepared to depart. We were scheduled on a 1:00 p.m. Lacsa flight - -we were very lucky because the airport was in total disarray due to many canceled flights. We were told that OAT had somehow managed to bump some folks to get us on the flight. Nevertheless, there was still some uncertainty as to whether the Miami airport would open, so we might even have to go through this again.

About 10:00 everyone attempted to check out of the Irazu at the same time and get on the bus. We soon learned that checking out of this hotel was not easy. Several forms had to be completed, the amounts had to added up by different clerks - it was chaos. Our local OAT guide was getting worried about our delayed departure to the airport and went behind the counter to speed things up. This didn't seem to help much so we left late and sped to the airport as fast as possible. The airport was not quite as chaotic as I expected, perhaps everyone had given up on getting out of the country. We had no trouble getting tickets and checking our luggage. This left one task - -get rid of our last Colones. Anne bought more t-shirts, I had 150 Colones left and bought Katey a can of peanuts. Thus, our last tourist "dollars" were spent.

The trip back to Atlanta was uneventful but we were very tired from traveling. This had been a really spectacular vacation with many unusual activities, river rafting, horseback riding, kayaking, crocodile hunting, and spotting abundant wildlife, not to forget seeing a live volcano erupt at night!

Jay Smith, August, 1995

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