Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from “Talking Tico.”
The Osa Peninsula is one of the least-traveled corners of the country. It’s probably a good idea in the grand scheme of things that the Osa Peninsula remains fairly untraveled, because it’s one of the most biologically diverse places in the world; half of Costa Rica’s living species call it home. This is on top of the fact that Costa Rica itself is one of the most biologically active countries in the world. Some 500,000 species live over the country’s 51,000 square kilometers. Estimates say four percent of the world’s living species are in Costa Rica, some of which are endemic to the country.
Think about that for a moment. Five hundred thousand. It’s impossible for a novice on the topic, such as myself, to truly comprehend such a large number in terms of living species.
I should clarify that not all of Costa Rica’s species are all that exciting. Most think of the various monkeys, whales, and reptilian predators when hearing the word “species,” but it’s a term that accounts for just about everything—700 species of trees, more than 365 species of birds (you’ll find your endemic crowd here), 117 reptiles, and here’s where some may need a wastebasket—over 10,000 species of insects.
Not all that sexy, I grant you, but biodiversity accounts for all living things from microorganisms to their ecosystems. In this crazy circle of life, the less exciting trees and nightmarish insects make the more attractive elements of life possible. In other words, you don’t get that cute picture of the monkey without everything else coming together just right. And that’s why people have been, in increasingly greater numbers, finding their way to the southwestern peninsula several hours drive or bus from San José.
Melanie and I, however, found our way to Osa using a combination of bus and car. Helen and Patrick landed in San José, rented a car, and went directly to Manuel Antonio. We offered to catch up, because we didn’t necessarily feel like we needed another overnight at Manuel Antonio.
Since we just visited two months prior, the return to Manuel Antonio was my first time traveling in years where I didn’t feel the incessant need to constantly click away on my camera and turn the trip into work.
Tourist numbers had clearly increased since our first visit. The beaches were more crowded and traffic was steady, though it was hardly the likes of an MTV spring break vacation, where sons and daughters go to disappoint their parents.
We spotted Patrick on the beach enjoying the shade of an umbrella and an ice cold beer. They were happy, so we were happy. It was also the rare instance in which Melanie and I went running into the ocean waters together. Typically we would take turns, not wanting to leave my camera behind unguarded. This time we could frolic like a normal couple.
With larger crowds, more entrepreneurial Ticos were out with everything from cheap knickknacks to mindlessly entertain the four and under crowd to menus for nearby restaurants to feed hungry adults. One of the latter roped us in, delivering various lunch items to the beach for us to fill up before the drive down to Dominical where Patrick and Helen were staying.
Before making it to the hotel, we made a stop for a short walk around Dominical. Melanie and I hadn’t made it down there before, and based on its reputation as a stoner-surfer party town, we knew it wasn’t anyplace we’d make a significant effort to see on its own trip. Seeing it on the way to something else made sense.
Patrick and Helen had already visited the night before for dinner. Granted neither of Melanie’s parents are the typical Dominical clientele, but its reputation seemed to match their initial impression.
“Not exactly the high rent district,” Patrick joked.
Like Santa Teresa, Dominical was once upon a time a small fishing village before turning into a surfer mecca. The drive down is lined with African oil palm plantations that look spectacularly out of place, but it does at least change the scenery.
Dominical is tiny and easy to miss off the highway if you’re not looking for it. We came in with Patrick following a mixture of GPS commands and recent memory. Again, like Santa Teresa, roads are more of a mixture of concrete and dirt here. A collection of restaurants made of wood and tin lined the road heading toward the beach where Patrick parked. Untouched trees separated civilization from the Pacific Ocean; a number of tents were planted within the woods on the edge of the sand. Some went completely minimalist, opting to camp by hammock.
It was still the afternoon, so things were rather quiet. Those among the camping crowd we did see looked exactly as you’d expect. Men and women sported equally thin frames with the kind of unkempt hair one gets after days of saltwater, sand and sun. I imagined flashing a peace symbol would be all that was required for acceptance into the crowd. They’re the kind most across the political spectrum enjoy mocking—what with their free-spirited nature and complete disregard for how one is supposed to live their life. That is: graduate college, get a job, get married, vomit offspring, get a house and die. They appear to find enjoyment in experiences, not accumulated wealth and buying things to go with their things.
For as much as I feel right at home teasing the likes of this crowd, I can likely relate with them far better than I can with those who do live a “normal life.” But dammit, knock it off with the drum circles!
Playa Dominical felt like more of the same in terms of Costa Rican beaches. It was flat, though notably rockier than others. Nearby, a local was selling handcrafted jewelry. Melanie purchased a bracelet, and I got to impress someone with my Gringo Spanish. Admittedly, the bar probably isn’t that high in a Gringo-populated surfer town.
Ultimately, Dominical served its purpose as a way to break up the drive and allow us to stretch our legs before getting to the hotel.
Melanie and I travel a bit differently than her parents. They’re okay with driving, whereas we’re unlikely to visit someplace that requires us renting a car. They’re also less afraid of certain price tags. That’s not to say we strictly prefer cheaper lodging. We just haven’t been working long enough to afford such luxuries without my heart beating out of my chest when the bill comes.
Our first hotel, for instance, a short drive outside of Dominical, practically required a vehicle to enter. There was no signage explicitly forbidding pedestrians, of course, but the driveway—possibly a quarter-mile long—was without exaggeration at least a forty-five degree grade. Driving instructions noted that a four by four vehicle would be necessary to make it up to the hotel. As we neared the top, we couldn’t see over the final hill. That’s how dramatic the angle was.
Once we crawled over the final hump, requiring a quick slam of the breaks and changing back to a lower gear, the hotel was right in front of us. The term “hotel” might be misleading. By appearances, it was just another property. Clearly the inhabitants had some money behind their investment, but it wasn’t like there was a flickering “Vacancy” sign out front.
The room Patrick and Helen had rented out would suffice for most as an apartment. There was a bedroom, kitchen, living room, and outdoor patio with plenty of seating and dining space overlooking the ocean and jungle. Melanie and I were to stay on a pullout bed that came out of the wall into the living room. Even with that, there was still plenty of space.
The property made good use of the topography. It was a steep decline from the entrance down to our room, and even further to the pool; additional grounds with overlooks and a relaxing hammock awaited. In some respects, it felt like M.C. Escher’s famous Relativity print with the staircases that defy gravity, except, y’know, in Costa Rica.
The indoor bar, where our host Gary served us up welcoming cocktails, had a rustic jungle theme. The Michigan native shared stories of the hells of constructing the property. Storms can be brutal off the coast and add unexpected costs and repairs to the budget. He also shared that he doesn’t list or actively publicize the hotel. Referrals are his only business by design.
That night we followed his recommendation for dinner. It was a long drive down a dark road that required close attention to directions. It was obvious when we found it. There wasn’t much else around, so it naturally stuck out, but left us wondering why the restaurateurs selected this location.
Sitting outside on the front patio, enjoying the cozy decor and dim lighting that made for a relaxing atmosphere, our French hostess came by on several occasions to check in on us, though really my only question was, “why French?” I badly wanted to ask who she was, why they were there, and why this location, but we had all but melted into individual puddles by the time our plates were empty thanks to coastal Costa Rica’s infamous and punishing humidity. While I usually prefer the eco-friendly option, I was happy to slide into the rental, bask in the refreshing glow of air conditioning and drift off over the drive back to the hotel.
Content with spending most of our day relaxing, we made just one quick trip out and over to Marino Ballena National Park before heading to the Osa Peninsula. Sitting about ten miles south of Dominical, Ballena gets its name from the sandbar stretching out to the Pacific Ocean that looks exactly like a whale’s tail from the sky (ballena means whale). It’s a popular destination for whale tours, but on this day it was just a day at the beach.
Onward to the Osa Peninsula, Helen and Patrick had reserved a few days at Bosque del Cabo Rainforest Lodge on the southern tip of the peninsula. A four by four vehicle was, again, a necessity to finish the drive over rocky terrain, a rickety bridge and a couple of shallow creeks en route to the lodge after any semblance of a modern road disappeared past Puerto Jimenez.
As remote as we were, it was immediately crystal clear upon our arrival to Bosque del Cabo that we wouldn’t exactly be roughing it. Though there was no air conditioning, keeping in line with the eco mission, this was an all inclusive resort that came with all the amenities and fine dining one would expect in such a place.
Usually as a rule, Melanie and I never travel to resorts for a few reasons. First, resorts are often exclusively accessible to motorists. The last thing we want to do for a relaxing vacation is get into a multi-thousand pound climate controlled weapon and navigate roads we’ve never seen, least of all in a foreign country. Second, there’s the concern, especially in foreign countries, that the resort is exploiting or stealing land once made public to local communities for the exclusive use of tourists. Neither sit well with me. Besides, if you want a private slice of beach to drink a bunch of silly island drinks on, seriously, just go to Florida.
Bosque del Cabo, however, appeared to be a different kind of resort. There was a 765-plus acre forest reserve that promised to keep me plenty occupied, coupled with a roster of activities guests could sign up for every morning. The undisputedly gorgeous overlook of the Pacific Ocean from our room’s patio never got old. Dinners were served in a communal setting under a solar-powered roof. Not too shabby, to say the least, but I personally could’ve done without meeting someone new at almost every dinner.
Stranger: Hey, there! I’m Blah-Blah and this is my wife, Blah-Blah. What do you do? How do you like it here?
Me: Hi. Joe. Stuff. It’s nice. And since we’re never going to see each other again and we’ve already forgotten each other’s name, I’m going to pretend you’re not here and just enjoy my family, if it’s all the same to you. Cheers!
Point is, I like to meet people under my own terms. Familial speed dating isn’t my thing.
Of all things, I started with an early morning birding tour. Admittedly it was merely an excuse to get outside with the sunrise. The trails of the forest reserve were by far what made the trip worthwhile. All told, I covered twelve miles hiking the trails. Some were easy, meandering treks in the woods. Others were long with steep climbs that had me descend to the shoreline below, admire the crashing waves that would kill any soul foolish enough to try a swim, and back up to retrace my steps.
Despite the busy schedule Bosque del Cabo could offer, I was adamant about making a return to Puerto Jimenez for kayaking. Truth be told, I had it set in my head to visit Osa’s Corcovado National Park for the very simple reason that it was Ugalde’s most cherished and we were right-freaking-there. Unfortunately the resort was at least a thirty-minute drive to Puerto Jimenez and the park even further on top of that. Nobody wanted to spend time in a car while in the pristine jungle and rainforest of the Osa Peninsula. Not that I of all people needed to be convinced against car travel, but it felt weird not to see Corcovado, like looking the other way when passing by Egypt’s pyramids.
My consolation was to at least go kayaking. That was something we definitely couldn’t do at the lodge, and I had read rave reviews of kayaking in Golfo Dulce, the body of water separating Osa from Puntarenas on the mainland. With Corcovado no longer a possibility, I decided to remind myself that a few UPEACE friends had recently told me that Corcovado was a bit of a let down and instead focused on the kayaking.
After discussing our options at dinner, I appeared to get everyone on board with kayaking. Melanie and I decided we would make her parents cash in the “Costa Rican adventure!” coupon we gave them for Christmas. With everyone in agreement, we left the dinner table and started to make our way to our respective rooms when we bumped into the chef. She had a manic smile, probably in her forties if not early fifties, and was clearly an eccentric. This lady had no problem sharing her opinions.
“So what do you guys have planned for tomorrow?”
“We’re probably going kayaking in Golfo Dulce,” Helen responded.
“Really? No horseback riding?” Helen had a bad experience horseback riding years ago, so I knew I didn’t need to argue my way out of that one.
“No, I think we’re going to start with the kayaking.”
“You know, it’s really not that exciting,” she continued. “Besides, I just always thought it silly to leave the resort.” My heart began to flutter in rage. Gee, wonder why the resort employee thinks it’s silly to leave the resort.
Helen and Patrick appeared to be rethinking. I was fuming at the chef.
“I mean, I’m sure you’ll have fun if you go. But you’re already at the resort!” The woman just would not shut up. I tried telepathy.
Shut it! Quiet! Silencio!
Nothing worked. Instead, we endured her insistence that we stay at the resort until she finally let us go to bed. Luckily, it appeared both Patrick and Helen were also put off by the chef’s overt opinions and agreed to give kayaking a shot. I must admit that I was a bit nervous, though. I stood to take all the blame should kayaking prove to be a bust.
Thankfully, kayaking the mangroves of Golfo Dulce proved to be a highlight in my rolodex of Costa Rican experiences. It was both relaxing and a bit of exercise, meandering down mangroves overflowing with wildlife (mostly birds) and dense rainforest. Plus there was the constant entertainment of listening to Melanie and Helen continuously crash into each other while navigating narrow passageways.
To cap our adventure streak, Melanie and I opted to sign up for a waterfall rappelling tour, something neither of us had ever done. So why not now?
I could sense that Costa Rica had made me bolder. Throwing on a harness and jumping off a waterfall would not typically be high on my list a year ago. After seven months of living in Costa Rica, jumping off a waterfall absolutely made sense. Besides, I couldn’t imagine that a luxurious resort would offer waterfall rappelling if they had a streak of losing customers in the fall. It had to be perfectly safe. I was sure of it.
When the moment of truth came, after a quarter-mile hike through a stream, I was surprised to discover I had no fear. That could also be because one of the gentlemen in our group appeared plenty afraid for all of us. There was an increasing tremble in his voice and reassuring whispers from his boyfriend. When I joked that he should go first, he nervously laughed and declined as he took a couple steps back. Melanie, still not a huge fan of leaping off cliffs, was happy to wait as well.
Since nobody else was eager, I opted to go first. Ever since my college trip to India, where we regularly traveled in shuttles up and down mountains out of a Looney Tunes cartoon along roads wide enough for just one vehicle but with two-way traffic and no guard rail, I’ve generally adhered to a philosophy that everything’s going to be just fine. I won’t actively try to get myself in situations that’ll get me killed, but I’m not going to get in a panic at every opportunity. The Ticos leading our group were shuttling customers several times a day to go waterfall rappelling. They knew what they were doing. Ticos in tourism are by all important measures experts in making sure idiot Gringos don’t off themselves on their watch. This idiot Gringo had nothing to fear.
Without hesitation, I turned my back toward the waterfall to get ready for my first leap. The guide offered quick instruction on how to safely (and with control) rappel down the waterfall using the ropes attached to my harness. With his thumbs up, I made my first bound off the cliff toward a twenty-foot drop where another guide waited. The way the cliffs worked out, I was able to get something of a practice round before making the largest and final descent down a 200-foot-plus drop.
I reached the break after just a few bounds off the waterfall. Besides some uncomfortable tightening in the groin (which we were warned about), all was well and I was eager to continue. The second leap was, of course, much more enjoyable. It was easy to slip into my cinematic imagination once I could no longer see the guide as I dipped deeper into the waterfall and the pounding water made it uncomfortable (if not impossible) to look up for an extended period of time.
After getting about halfway, the guide on the ground started shouting instructions.
“Right! Go right! Aim for that rock. Now a little left!” and so on until my feet hit solid ground.
It was a great thrill, but I wish it were longer. All of my Costa Rican adventures (if I can even call them that) had been short and sweet. Waterfall rappelling left me longing for a true jungle adventure, at least a week long, that mixes long hikes with kayaking and waterfall rappelling. What I just did was a cruel tease. Not counting the short hike to the waterfall, it was probably about five minutes of actual activity. I’ve now spent more time writing about it than it took to rappel down the damn thing.
Melanie followed second and worked her way down the waterfall with relative ease. She appeared to do quite well, if I (in my novice opinion) may say so, and despite my wanting more, it was an excellent cap to the Osa Peninsula.