Northern Nicoya 'ncounters

Thursday, January 07, 2010

They stood in an unordered mass of over a thousand bodies, swaying like palms in the wretched sun as wave upon wave of hot malice fought to rip any remaining moisture from their parched, barky skin. An occasional gust of wind brought both relief and clouds of dust that settled on them like a powder. Slowly, the mass of humanity shifted and one ponderous step forward was taken before stillness again ruled. They were at the border of Costa Rica and Nicaragua, it was January 2, 2010, and the sheer number of people was staggering. There was no order, just swirls winding inward toward the passport control booth from all directions. It was 35 degrees on a cloudless day, they were in a dirt field, and each had no less than 30 kg on their backs, willing their bodies to crumple to the ground. This, my friends, is the worst border I have crossed in all my travels. It took almost two hours to get our exit stamp for Nicaragua before walking to the Costa Rica entry office and discovering a single line snaking like an Amazonian Anaconda, frightening and deadly. There was no shade or comfort to be found in this winding menace either, and we probably should have taken our chances bribing one of the shady characters to expedite our way but then what kind of a story would it be? I was still feeling sick with mild fever and lightheadedness/dizziness but just about 5 hours after we left that morning we were officially welcomed into Costa Rica.

Now as I said, I was still feeling ill, but it came and went in waves and I was hoping to feel better and as well to get in some SCUBA diving with manta rays at Playa del Coco. Jez, Phil, Andrea, and myself were still together on the bus to Liberia where we would fracture once more into pieces and go our separate ways; Andrea to Monteverde, Phil to Tamaringo, and Jez beyond though our slow passage through the border meant that Andrea would be spending the night in Liberia and Jez wouldn’t make it further than Tamaringo. Andrea took off first and the three of us had a pricey but tasty dinner at the bus station (welcome to Costa Rica) while we waited for our 6:00 busses. I knew I’d see Phil again but who knows if Jez and I will cross paths, and breaking up the team sucked but such is life. I got on my bus. Like in El Salvador, I had the good fortune to have a friendly and pretty local named Maria sitting next to me. We talked in Spanish for a while and I found out that she was studying to be a nurse and also that she was going to Playa del Coco to visit a friend for a day or two before going back to school. We covered quite a bit given my barely passable Spanish and she offered to walk around with me and look for a place to stay until she had to meet her friend.

Unfortunately, that was an ordeal. Almost everywhere was still full from New Years and they were charging high season prices. The diviest dive was charging $30/night and I kept looking, determined, though it was a bit more difficult in the dark as you don’t want to blunder into any seedy areas with all your gear on your back. Maria’s friend eventually met up with her and also helped me look for a bit but they were discouraged and hungry and though I appreciated their help they thankfully left me alone. I hate dragging people around with me and I also like to do my own talking/negotiating, though they did it faster than I could have. Eventually, another friendly local who saw me walking on the streets brought me to this woman’s house (also named Maria) where she gave me a private house for $10/night. At last, I collapsed coughing and feverish onto the bed and though it was not even 9 PM, to sleep.

I won’t spend a lot of time talking about Playa del Coco. It’s so full of tourists and gringos that you pretty much never need to use a word of Spanish if you don’t want to. In fact, you can have full conversations in English with waiters and pretty much anyone. This is not exactly cultural immersion, but I was here to dive, if and when I felt better. The town and the beach didn’t have much charm at all and it was the perfect place to do nothing whatsoever while I recovered. I’d only go out to get water, food, and escape the midday heat in my room. I left finally without doing the sole thing I’d meant to: SCUBA diving. Though I’d never dove the Pacific, this was not going to be the place I started, especially as the manta rays had not arrived and there were no other big animals in season aside from reef sharks which I’ve seen plenty of. Maybe my first taste will be the Galapagos islands, which probably doesn’t qualify but it would be a heck of a start. I took a bus to Liberia to get the bus to Tamarindo, my next beach of call. We passed the Tamarindo bus picking up passengers on the highway and I hopped off and ran to catch it but it took off leaving me stranded on the highway. Eventually I caught a bus to Filadelfia, which renewed my hopes that there was still a real Costa Rica to see even if I hadn’t yet, and half an hour later was on a bus from there to Tamarindo.

Tamarindo is more developed than Playa del Coco but I liked it better because it at least was developed well and there was enough there to hold interest for a few days. I actually passed by Phil and Jez on the bus in which was another pleasant surprise (I thought Jez would be gone for sure) and grabbed a room in a loud hostel with a Canadian couple I’d met on the bus. They were quite nice but the hostel was really loud as a result of being central. I moved the next morning to La Pura Vida hostel, the one that had the best vibe as far as I was concerned, and sure enough there were Phil and Jez. I met some pretty cool people there and we went to the beach (though I had to go solo because I couldn't risk fording the river with my camera) and all went out that night to Club Pacifico. I wasn’t drinking however because I was on some antibiotics, or at least on expired ones from my Australian trip so I went home around 1. I’d actually met some pretty cool people at the hostel including Sloane, Johnny, and Shaun, and the four of us plus Jez left the next day inland – in Sloane’s rented “Green Machine” – for Monteverde.

We were able to miraculously navigate using the Lonely Planet, which is even more risky than it sounds, though not without a snag. As we crossed the friendship bridge we came down into an area where the speed limit on the highway drops to 40 km/h for 500m. Sloane, like everybody else on the highway, did not slow down (or even see it, I think). But unlike the others on the highway, Sloane is a gringo. So the cop waved us in and we pulled over. We all stayed in the car but Sloane had to get his passport out of the back, leaving the trunk open. The cop showed Sloane the radar gun and all we heard was Sloane say “wow”. Then back to the cop car while the rest of us wondered if this was a country where you had to bribe the cops or not. Sloane answered by opening the trunk, grabbing his wallet, and saying, “I’m bribing him” then shutting it again. Apparently, the ticket – for going 104 in a 40 zone – is $340 US. Alternatively, you could “Pay now” for less. The cop initiated the bribing by offering the "Pay now and forget" option and asking how much money Sloane had and Sloane said $50, and then he asked “What about your friends?” “They’re all poor, I’m the rich one!,” Sloane replied. And we managed to leave paying $10 each. When in Rome, I guess. Otherwise, the drive up to Monteverde was beautiful, scenic, and rough. You would NOT want to do this by bus, or if you tried, you’d need to do so pretty early in the morning to get there on time. But we had arrived, largely unscathed, to our new very chilly home among the clouds.

Northern Nicoya Photos

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