Doug Firby and Lisa Monforton’s time in Costa Rica comes to a melancholy conclusion, but not before a big misadventure.
DAYS 17 and 18 – Samara
Eyewitness to environmental loss
This country is world famous as an eco-destination, and there is plenty of evidence that the population has embraced the notion with enthusiasm. Costa Rica was an early adopter of the idea that the best use of land is to let it revert to the wild and then invite people to come visit.
Yet even here, in what many consider “paradise”, there are also signs that the full ecological vision has not been realized and that there is much work to do. The starkest evidence, perhaps, lies just under the surface of the coastal waters in its dying coral reefs.
The numbers are truly jolting: According to the Costa Rica Times, in the past 20 years the Tempisque area between Guanacaste (the area we are staying in) south to Puntarenas has lost 98 per cent of its vibrant coral cover. The Osa region at the southern end of the country has 16 per cent live coral, Cocos has 18 per cent and Culebra Bay went from 50 per cent live coral to three per cent in 14 years.
Living coral and calcareous algae is one of the best indicators of a healthy ecosystem, and provide a vital habitat for fish reproduction.
It is fashionable to blame the warming waters on climate change – and indeed the water is bath warm – but that is not the only cause of the decline. Authorities also blame over-fishing, poor watershed management, high levels of algae and seaweed. In short, the reefs have not been getting the love that the more visible land-based forests have.
We saw the destruction during a snorkelling trip to Isla Chora, a small island on the southern edge of Playa Samara. A 45-minute paddle from the shore, it provides an ideal spot to survey the underwater wonders of the country.
With a few small exceptions, the vivid colours of the coral reef have disappeared, replaced by dead, brown remnants. In spite of that, there is an abundance of colourful fish, water snakes and other underwater wildlife that could keep a visitor busy for hours.
Taking a break on the island after our snorkelling, our guide tossed aside remnants of our pineapple and banana snacks to raccoons who eagerly snapped up the bounty. Another guide came by a few minutes later and scolded us for feeding the animals – it’s actually as verboten as feeding bears in Canada’s national parks.
It seems the eco-message hasn’t quite gotten through to everyone in the tourism industry.
Is there hope for Costa Rica’s coral reefs? It appears saving them will be a long haul. There are reports of small-scale initiatives to encourage regeneration. One academic article stated that the government of Costa Rica is aware of the importance of coral reefs and marine environments in general, and in recent years decrees have been implemented (or are coming) to protect them. As always, limited resources impede the ability to introduce proper management and conservation, including outreach to reef users.
It is clearly the next frontier in this country’s quest to be an eco-model for the world.
Day 19 – Samara (Written by Lisa Monforton)
6:00 a.m. ‘Hola!, Buenas Dias. Hola! Buenas Dias!’
The locals – and some early rising visitors like myself – are bike riding or walking down a dusty stretch of a rutted gravel road on the edge of the hamlet of Samara.
The Spanish greetings are like a sing-song that join the chorus around us: twittering birds, roosters crowing, horses whinnying in the pasture, dogs barking and the sound of porches being swept. Around the next corner the sound of the waves meld into this tropical symphony.
Another day in Samara is unfurling like the flutter of a beach blanket being spread out on the sand. The sun has been up for about half an hour and skies above are yet again an ultramarine blue. Clouds seem just seem like an afterthought.
Some people are on their way to work, or to fish, opening tiny cafes and breakfast counters (called sodas). The kids will soon be heading to school in their crisply ironed white shirts.
The cacophony of wild sounds all around demand that you get up early. The howler monkeys are the ones who are most ambitious to greet the day at around 4:30 a.m. You may try to slumber for another hour, but good luck with that.
The best time to be outside is early, before the heat of the day settles in.
8:00 a.m. I’m headed to check out yoga on the beach, advertised on a hand-painted sign hanging from a palm tree that says Mind, Body, Soul. I wait by the trees, where a man sleeps in a hammock, oblivious to the waking day around him, and the low rumble of an ATV that rolls up.
In the wire basket on the front vehicle is a mutt, who I quickly learn is named Gus. His friendly owner Danni Mares unloads a duffle bag and colourful blankets. She will be my yoga instructor for the next 90 minutes.
Gus finds his favourite spot on the beach and an hour-and-a-half of yoga amid swaying palms and rolling waves gets underway. Like many people in Samara, Danni is not from here. She escaped Detroit for a new life in this little slice of paradise. Her story is becoming a familiar one.
10 a.m. – The arid-looking mound that is Isla Chora stands off in the distance to the end of Playa Samara, and begs to be visited. Some days it looks close enough to swim (or stand-up-paddleboard) to. Other days, depending on the light and the tides, it looks farther away. We opt for a kayak and snorkeling tour to check out the island which was designated a wildlife preserve in 2002.
After a 45-minute paddle, avoiding the massive waves breaking off rocks and coral, we pull up to a white sand beach – only to see what I at first think is a cat. It turns out to be a raccoon cheekily checking out the kayaks and people on the beach. It’s the only mammal that lives on the 12-acre preserve that is also home to about a dozen bird species, a couple more dozen kinds of fish, crustaceans, and other marine creatures. Our guide pulls out a couple of starfish for us to pet and then we go exploring some of the multi-coloured coral (much of Costa Rica’s coral is dead for a number of reasons surprisingly rife with rainbow-coloured fish.
Our guide expertly slices up a whole pineapple as a sweet treat on the beach as a family of raccoons boldly sidles up for handouts. Clearly, they have been trained by the tourists.
1 p.m. The Natural Centre seems to be a hub for expats and ticos (the locals) in the centre of Samara’s main drag, directly across from the beach. It’s a cheerful mix of eateries, serving everything from home-made gelato and ice cream to falafel, or you can pick up a bottle of locally made kambucha and more healthy goodies in the grocery store. You can even get your hair cut and a pedicure at a cute salon, or a massage at a studio tucked in the back of the semi-open air space.
We’d heard from a couple from upstate New York who’ve been coming here for seven years that you can get a super fresh salad of any kind for about $10 – big enough for two and fresh fruit smoothies.
So, that’s what we did.
On Tuesdays and Friday afternoons, the Natural Centre becomes a boutique market, largely populated with French, Italians and Americans. A French woman sells her homemade – and delicious – baguettes, the Italian couple get locals addicted to their rustic homemade sweets like tiramisu and custard-filled confections (they are gone in 15 minutes) while others sell hand-made jewelry or other artsy crafts.
This is where you can also book a tour – everything from deep-sea fishing to snorkelling and kayaking.
Our visit ended with the to-die-for mojito gelato.
3 p.m. Which made us think it was time for a cold beverage. We opted to do that at our rustic little cabina down the dusty road. As has become custom, we stop at the Iguana Verde grocery market, a quick bike ride from our place, where we have been stocking up on lots of fluids – including the locally made spirit called Cacique (Guaro). It’s clear and kind of like vodka in that it can be made into just about any cocktail. Our custom has been to splash it into a blender with some fresh fruit that you can buy anywhere at a roadside stand. Whole pineapples go for about C$1.
Cocktail hour has never been so fresh or simple. Of course, followed by a siesta.
5 p.m. The sun sets early here, around 5:45. We’ve been spoiled for choice for sunset perches. A restaurant on the beach? Or something with a little more local flavour? We opt for a place known as Secret Beach. (OK, maybe it’s not so secret.) It’s a bit of an uphill slog, but the howler monkeys are the diversionary entertainment along the way. We get to the top, beneath a canopy of trees only to find out it’s high tide and we can’t walk out to see past the cliffs to the west. It’s still pretty lovely and gives us an excuse to make the hump up here again. Next time we’ll check the Samara Tide Guide website to make sure our timing is right
6:30 p.m. It’s gets dark early here, and without a car, our bikes have been our mode of transportation. So off we go, headlamps strapped on. We hear there’s live music down at La Dolce Vita on Saturday nights. The place is run by a young mother from Italy who came here for a new kind of life. She turned a disco into what is now a cocktail bar, restaurant, and B&B with a prime spot tucked away down on the far end of the beach from some of the noisier establishments. In between playing with her infant son, she kibitzes with the patrons. She looks like she’s living a perfect life, and I’m a bit envious. A stand of palm trees is strung with rope lights, the tables are set in the sand and the musician playing dreamy Spanish guitar music sets a sublime scene. We sink into our chairs, with our drinks get into what I can only call a Samara state of mind.
DAY 20 – Samara
Even paradise can have a day from Hell
OSTIONAL, Costa Rica – For every trip, there is one day you wish you could take back. A day when absolutely nothing seems to go right. Ours was Monday.
We rented a motorcycle and headed north along the coast toward Playa Nosara, a town about an hour – remarkably just 27 kilometres – from our base. We also planned to hit the Ostional beach, world famous as a wildlife refuge for sea turtles.
The going was exceptionally slow, as we picked our way along the pitted gravel roads that beat humans and machines into teeth-chattering pieces of pulp. To our surprise, we found that the off-road motorcycle had the sort of suspension that made the bumps a little less punishing.
We met Ana at a roadside stand at the turnoff for Nosara. She grows organic fruits and vegetables and sells them fresh, or in marmalades, hot sauces and juices.
We decided to push on to Ostional, another 10 to 15 minutes north on the road. When we got there, we found no turtles (they reportedly only come out during a full moon) but a stunning black-sand beach. It was the height of the afternoon heat, so we decided to take a dip in the inviting and slightly cooler waves.
Lisa was the first back out of the water and she dashed over the black sand towards what she thought was a cool shower to wash her feet.
It proved to be an unfortunate decision. Within seconds she was crying out in pain as the intense black sand ravaged the soles of her feet. Finally, in a panic, she threw her towel on the ground and sat on it so she could get her feet off the searing sand.
I caught up with her and saw blisters forming on every toe and the souls of her feet. In just seconds, the blazing sand had wounded her badly.
A neighbour brought over a garden hose which enabled us to cool her feet off. A family from Idaho who witnessed this disaster helped us lift Lisa into their car so we could drive her to a clinic in Nosara.
This was another lesson in emergency preparedness in such a remote area. Nosara lists two medical clinics. Unfortunately, both were closed. Finally, we found a farmacia that was open. We went in, bought gauze, antibiotic cream and enough pain killers to sedate a horse. We wrapped up Lisa’s feet as she sat on the pharmacy’s sofa, squeezed her running shoes back on and then grimly mounted the motorcycle for the trip back to our cabin.
We didn’t know it yet, but the day had more misfortune in store for us.
DAY 20 Near Samara – part 2
A river of back luck flows our way
With Lisa’s burned feed bound up, we gingerly picked our way back towards our home in Samara. The going was particularly slow because I was doing my best to avoid the bone-jarring potholes. On many of the gravel roads in Guanacaste Province, avoiding jarring bumps is a next-to-impossible task.
We took a different route back than when we came and found ourselves at a shallow river that we needed to ford. For a moment, I contemplated turning back to take the other route but it would have added an hour to our travel. We were tired, the sun was low in the sky, Lisa was still in pain and we just wanted to get back to our place as quickly as possible.
Some days, you should listen to your instincts …
We agreed that I would test the river bed first on the motorcycle. I navigated it successfully and then turned around to pick up Lisa. That was the day’s unfortunate decision No. 2. On my way back across the river, the front tire mired into a rut and the motorcycle threw me off and became submerged in the water.
By the time I could get it back upright, the engine was done for the foreseeable future.
This is another moment when the kindness of strangers is so deeply appreciated. A jovial couple from Montreal happened along in one of the ubiquitous compact 4X4 SUVs in this region. When they learned of our dilemma they invited us to hop into the back seat. We pushed the bike off the road and hopped in.
… and just turn back
The SUV charged in, water washing up onto the hood, making me wonder if we would once again be stuck mid-stream. But it kept running and we managed to get across. The driver was laughing at the absurdity of it all.
On the bank in front of us sat another car that had just driven through the stream and then conked out because water got into the engine. More evidence of a road that should be less travelled.
The couple dropped us at our casa, where we cleaned and rebandaged Lisa’s feet, poured ourselves stiff drinks and paused to reflect on that fact that, in spite of a day of mishaps, this vacation was not dead yet. We popped the back off our soaking smartphones, put them in front of fans and prayed to the Android gods to deliver a miracle.
By the next morning, they had. Both phones powered back up. It was a welcome sign that our disasters weren’t as complete as we feared they might be. The sun did indeed rise that morning, allowing up to regroup and renew our quest for a relaxing, unplugged vacation.
DAY 21 and 22 – Samara
Back in the zen again
It forecast rain again today for the sixth day in a row and, as in all the previous days, the closest it came was a few afternoon wisps of clouds providing brief respite from the relentless sun.
We, however, have found a new kind of cool. Inspired by her beach-side yoga teacher, Lisa is streaming Kirtan music, a kind of hip, hypnotic style of laid-back tunes that just makes you want to drift away. It’s great for the rambling sort of contemplation that it is so easy to fall into here. Often, that contemplation is about not much in particular.
Mostly we are contemplating our sense of melancholy because this is our last full day at this hamlet of hippies, hipsters, ticos and tourists. It really is the kind of place you could settle into for a long, long time.
We have fallen into a pattern of loafing around all morning, doing some writing and editing, followed by a trip downtown for a late breakfast or lunch, followed by a trip to the beach. By the time we reached the beach yesterday, the tall palm trees were providing shade from the afternoon sun. We laid down in the shade, read a bit and then drifted off for nearly an hour.
You can look at this as the power of pura vida. The worries of the previous days had evaporated – the broken motorcycle was in the shop (an expensive repair) and Lisa’s blisters had subsided to the point that she could once again walk on sand. Whatever setbacks that had stressed us out just a couple days earlier had evaporated like an afternoon squall on a hot sidewalk.
I asked Lisa if she wanted to take on the ocean waves. A week earlier, the challenge would have been met without question; today, she hesitated. It just didn’t seem that urgent. Eventually, we decided that since time is running down beside this glorious ocean with its inviting warmth, we just had to go in.
Back at the casa, we just had a drink, read, took a dip in the pool – feeling like we had nothing waiting for us that had to be done.
We have one more day at this beachside town and then head inland to visit two of Costa Rica’s most famous tourist destinations: the Monteverde cloud forest and then Arenal, the country’s most active volcano. A few more adventures away us as time runs out on our little experiment.
DAY 25-26 – Monteverde
The Monteverde Cloud Forest’s fifty shades of green is erotic in its own way
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve may not quite qualify as the Garden of Eden. Guests, for example, are expected to remain fully clothed as they wander through its 13 kilometres of trails.
Yet this mystical place has a dizzying, almost erotic, quality to it. Moist, green, enveloped by a constant mist, it is also mercifully cool, and almost free of biting bugs. Yet it is also teeming with hundreds of bird species, mammals, dragonflies and … spiders.
We spotted our awe-inspiring spider about halfway through a three-hour trek through this magical place (which, by the way, terminates at the top of the Continental Divide). There, beside the trail, an Orange-kneed Tarantuala was crawling up the bank. We stopped and watched in wonder at this massive creature, which Google tells us has a nasty – but not lethal – bite. We even came in tight for a closeup. It didn’t seem to mind.
These creatures are about 10 centimetres long with a leg span of 15 centimetres. Taken for pets (for the market primarily in China) and hunted by those who fear them, these spiders have been on the endangered species list since 1985. Females can live for up to 30 years, although the poor males don’t typically make it past five.
It is but one of many, many creatures in this enchanted forest. As a bio-resource, it reaches well beyond its footprint, housing 2.5 per cent of the world’s biodiversity. Ten per cent of its flora is found only within the preserve.
It was secured through a land grant in 1972 from the Guacimal Land Co., which had planned to use it as a mine. Scientist George Powell worked with local Quaker Wildford Guindon to make this a place for biological research and education. It is now the best known private reserve on the isthmus of Central America.
It also wired in a way the defies would-be off-the-gridders. You can download an app at the entrance and then use QR codes along the trail to get a running commentary of what you see. It’s a bit like being unplugged and plugged in at the same time.
The Quaker factor is yet another curious footnote in the history of this tiny country. Guidon and fellow Quakers arrived here in the early 1950s when they fled the United States to avoid being enlisted in the Korean conflict.
How they got here is a wonder, because even today getting up the hills to Monteverde and the town of Santa Elena is an endurance test for both humans and machines. For us, the three-hour trip from the Pacific coast seemed to be going well ahead of schedule. We were just an hour-and-a-half into the trip when Lisa remarked, “It’s just 38 kilometres to Santa Elena.”
“It’s 38 Costa Rican kilometres,” I joked. In Canada, on a good day you can cover 38 kilometres in 20 minutes. These 38 kilometres, however, ended up taking 90 minutes. The steep roads in the Costa Rican mountains are harsh, laying a vicious beating on our rental 4X4. No wonder cars with less than 20,000 kilometres rattle like a set of loose dentures. At times, we had to slow to crawl in first gear, inching over rocks that could put a hole in the oil pan of a passenger car.
Like all such ordeals, the efforts are rewarded multiple times over.
DAY 27 – La Fortuna
Steamy days in the shadow of a smoking volcano
This modest little town about two hours north of the capital city of San Jose is a place packed with surprises, most of them good.
It does not live up to its reputation as a tourist town, for example. Before our arrival, we heard stories of U.S.-style fast food outlets and other American influences. In reality, there’s not a KFC and McDonald’s to be found anywhere, no outlet malls and no “we speak American” signs. Of course, there are the almost mandatory zip-line rides and ATV tours that are ubiquitous in much of the country. Mostly, though, are local “sodas” (lunch spots featuring local food) and CR-style steak houses.
And yet the tainted reputation persists. From all the advance hype, “I pictured it like Cancun,” said a Chicago resident we ran into today. “This is refreshing.”
Equally refreshing for those of us who have been beating around the car-busting paths of the Nicoya Peninsula were the smooth-as-silk, freshly paved roads.
And, of course, the one feature we were not surprised to find – the towering Arenal Volcano, the most recently active volcano in the country. At 5,479 feet, it is not the highest volcano in the country – that honour goes to Irazu, at 11,260 feet – yet, Arenal can be spotted across Lake Arenal an hour before you roll into town.
Arenal dominates the skyline and the conversation. It is visible from everywhere, including the front deck of our edge-of-town hotel room. Arenal was last active around 2010, when red-hot lava could be seen flowing down its sides. No lava flows today.
The mystique with Arenal is rooted in the surprise it played on the people of Costa Rica in 1968. After sitting idle for more than 400 years, it erupted with little warning. Over several days, it buried more than 15 square kilometres with rocks, lava and ash. Eighty-seven people died and three small villages were buried.
That’s one of the reasons why you can walk “around” Arenal but you can’t legally walk up it (the state recently imposed heavy fines for trespassers). In fact, the poisonous gases at the peak have killed several curious tourists until visits were banned.
All that canned heat makes for some impressive hot springs. We visited a stunning resort called Tabacon which has a rambling complex of volcano-fed hot streams in a garden setting. The temperatures are just short of being too hot to step into. The complex puts many of Canada’s vaunted hot springs to shame.
This little Garden of Eden seemed a fitting way to close out our penultimate day in this eco-mecca. Now, finally, here is a place where you couldn’t care less about being plugged in.
DAY 29 and 30
Relaxed, for sure, but not unplugged
CALGARY, Alta. A friend gently teased me a few days ago that this blog about getting “unplugged” in Costa Rica was misnamed. As we wrap up our little experiment in working in a vacation paradise, I have to admit there is a lot of truth to the observation.
Lisa and I were indeed off the grid, in the sense that we were away from many of the typical distractions that come with working from home. No dog demanding walks (thanks friends!), no unwelcome phone calls, nobody knocking on our front door. Yet, we were far from unplugged.
Like many tourist destinations, Costa Rica has had a reputation of being not fully wired. That is no longer true. It seemed even the most obscure “sodas” (breakfast and lunch spots) in out-of-the-way locations advertised they had “wifi”. And, for the most part, those signals worked pretty well. Cell phone coverage, too, is much more extensive than it was even a few short years ago.
If we were jonesin’ for our constant online fix, then Costa Rica was our enabler in this codependent relationship. There were very few places, in fact, that didn’t provide some means to stay connected.
This is one of those truths that we have come to accept. We live in a world in which being disconnected – truly, madly, deeply out of touch – is not really what we want. We have family we want to be in touch with, business that shouldn’t go untended for more than a couple of days, and an ongoing appetite to be aware of what’s going on in the world.
A construction worker from Muskoka we met on the return flight summed it up simply: Being out of touch is no longer an option. We all have to be in touch.
Lisa challenged that thought. Perhaps, she argued, we’ve inflated our worth in a wired world. We know of friends who take digital-free weekends, just because. I countered that they seem to be the exception that proves the rule. We shouldn’t feel guilty about staying digitally active, even in a place as relaxed and beautiful as Costa Rica.
Technology is rapidly shrinking the number of places where we can authentically unplug. We are now left to wonder whether this is a healthy thing or just another way in which technology flourishes at the expense of the human spirit.
For us, technology was actually a liberator. The money we earned while on the road, after all, allowed us a month in a summery paradise. That, in itself, was good for our winter weary state of mind.
Doug Firby and Lisa Monforton are partners in Big Tree Communications. Firby is also President of Troy Media Digital Solutions and Publisher of Troy Media.