The Great Mango Run – Costa Rica from Papagayo to Golfito
After Gus and Lyle left for home, Rebecca and I decided to rent a car and see the country. Cars here are expensive: one week for a small Korean car was $215, but with taxes and insurance it came to $450 plus fuel. Fuel is also expensive. It is a government monopoly and they now charge about $4.49 per gallon plus a 13.5% sales tax plus $.29 per gallon environmental impact tax. Everything is subject to 13.5% except hotels; they get a 24% sales tax. Anyway, we got the car and took off for Arenal Volcano about 150 miles away from Liberia, a sizable city where we picked up the car (we have some great pictures of this area posted on the website). The first part of the trip was via Route 1, the Pan American Highway. It runs from Alaska to Chile. Here in Costa Rica it is a two lane, nicely paved road that is patrolled by traffic police on motorcycles and cars. Driving south, one can see the Talamanca Mountain Range that bisects the country. This time of year is the dry season and the prevailing northerly winds and the moisture they bring are blocked by these mountains. During the wet season, the winds shift from the south and rain falls all over the country. However on the northern Pacific side of the country things are now dry and the country is brown, the trees have shed their leaves, and the arroyos are dry and dusty. This is called a dry forest. There are a few trees in bloom that display beautiful pink (pori tree), purple (jacaranda tree) or orange (poro tree) flowers, but other than that, vegetation here is sparse and waiting for the seven month dry season to end. This is cattle country and, where irrigated, sugar cane and pineapple are grown.
We drove along Route 1 for about 40 miles and then turned left at the bullfight ring in Canas. (I didn’t realize it, but bullfighting is popular here). We made the turn and then began our gradual ascent up the long sloping side of the volcanic mountains until we reached the little town of Tilaran. Along the way, we noticed that the fields became greener and crops such as corn were grown at different elevations. At Tilaran we drove to the center of the little town and found a very pleasant inn and had lunch. When we left we lost our bearings and turned the wrong way despite directions from local passersby. After about an hour and a half, we found ourselves high in the mountains south of Lake Arenal on roads with ruts so deep that we wondered if we would be able to proceed without damaging the car. The farther we went, the worse the road got, but the more beautiful the scenery became. This area is among the most beautiful places I have ever seen. The grass is so thick and lush it is hard to believe, the hillsides are covered with cedar and pine forests, and the farmers take advantage of it all by tending fat, seemingly contented cows. The mountain vistas were beyond description. As the minutes ticked by, we became concerned about being caught out there in the dark. We stopped to ask directions from a man who was fixing his fence by the side of the road. He directed us, in Spanish, to a crossroad ahead and we followed what we thought were his instructions, concerned, however, that we may have misunderstood and were now traveling in exactly the wrong direction. We made the suggested turn and drove a ways further until we reached an electric utility truck with several men onboard. They confirmed the directions and after about an hour we made it back to where we had lunch and made the correct turn toward Arenal and our hotel. All-in-all, it was the best wrong turn we ever made.
Now on the correct route, we rounded the southern end of Laguna de Arenal, a reservoir that stretches about 20 miles below the base of the Arenal volcano. At the end of the lake was the volcano, and a more beautiful vista cannot be imagined. The area around the lake is a botanical wonderland, with beautiful farms and pastures on the northern side, and eco sensitive rain forest resorts on the other side. The farm land is fenced with trees that grow straight like a fence post should, and can apparently be cut to the desired length and then planted and the tree regrows. The effect is to see a fence row of straight fence post trees with branches and shoots growing out of the tops.
This area of Costa Rica is a very big tourist attraction and hotels and inns abound. The hotel we chose, The Royal Corrin, was at the base of Arenal and offered about ten geothermal bathing pools of varying temperatures all filled with waters from the volcano. The hotel was quite nice and offered a great massage package and a splendid view of the volcano. The Arenal area has all the things that tourists look for: canopy bridge walks, zip-lining, eco tours, horseback riding tours, hiking to the top of the volcano, etc. Since we had done most of this at Rincon de la Vieja, we elected for the hot springs. Besides, the hordes of tourists make so much noise screaming as they zip-line and tramping about that there is little hope of seeing any animals. When checked out of the hotel, we found that someone had tried to break into our rental car, and, of course, we had visions of the rental car company ripping us off since they required a $950 security deposit. The hotel manager was pleasant but of no help and essentially denied that it happened on his property, so I called the police. They came a few minutes later, looked things over, behaved in an official manner and asked us to accompanying them to the police station. We wanted a police report so that whatever insurance company we wound up dealing with couldn’t deny the claim for lack of a police report. So, after an hour or so we got a report and were treated very well by the local constabulary. At that point, we departed via the town of La Fortuna for San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica.
As we traveled from La Fortuna toward San Jose, we were now on the eastern slope of the mountains. Here rain is plentiful, temperatures are nearly perfect, and the flora and fauna are clearly those of a tropical rain forest. At higher elevations coffee is grown, and down near the road were fields of tropical plants cultivated for the household and office plant market of North America. We stopped at a little restaurant that had posted road signs for at least five miles letting every interested party know it was an Israeli restaurant. We learned from the waitress that it was indeed run by Israeli immigrants, they apparently ran it like a kibbutz, and that Costa Rica attracted many Israeli immigrants. I didn’t realize that people emigrated from Israel; I thought it was the other way around.
We drove along and made San Jose about 6 PM. San Jose is not a very nice city and it certainly isn’t user friendly, particularly in the dark. For one thing there are very few road signs, so it is hard to tell what street you are on. As you get closer to the center of the city the streets are very narrow and for the most part are one way. The city is full of dilapidated buses blowing sooty smoke, driving on crowded streets wide enough for only one vehicle at a time, but since nobody is going to be last, everything is chaos. Dense pedestrian traffic is part of the mix as people run to catch a bus after work, or clog the meager sidewalks as they carry home their bag of groceries while pulling their child by the hand. In the midst of this, Rebecca was trying to wield our little Kia while I read the map and offered helpful tips on how best to navigate the situation. After a frustrating hour or so, making two or three loops through the rat maze, we finally found our hotel, the El Presidente, complete with gated security for our car. It was the best hotel in town, but that isn’t saying much.
Our room was sparse but clean. We were hungry and set off to find a vegan friendly restaurant. We settled on the lobby bar and grill. Here we struck up a conversation with a fellow American traveler of Irish decent hailing from Boston. He was probably in his 70’s, white skin, red faced, drinking a hardy tumbler of Buschmills and sporting a very large bay window. A couple of middle aged Costa Rican women were buzzing around him and his friend, who was half in the bag and in no better physical shape. A few minutes later the friend headed for the elevator with two of the ladies in tow. At this point, your imagination can complete the tale!
The next morning we rose early and set off on a walking tour of the city. Most of the city center is relatively dirty and devoted to government buildings, many of which were built in the 60’s or 70’s in a modern design and are now showing their age. They are not attractive. The key architectural jewel is the Teatro Nacional located on the central square. It was built by the rich coffee growers of the late 19th century and is modeled after the Paris Opera House. It is a Neo Baroque structure and pictures of it are on the website, along with pictures of the Cathedral Metropolitana and the Gold Museum, which were also interesting. The streets are full of people out for a walk or selling something. The central square is seedy. The Hard Rock Café and MacDonald’s seem to be favorite clustering points. People were friendly and helpful everywhere we went.
We left the city about noon and planned to drive the Pan American Highway north to the Papagayo region and Odyssey, about a 3 hour drive. After we passed the airport we decided to take a side trip to Sarchi, the furniture making center of the country. During the first part of the trip we must have passed 100 car dealers, mostly used car lots. It reminded me of Livernois Ave. in Detroit when I was growing up. Next came mile after mile of furniture stores and craft shops. The countryside was beautiful, but there wasn’t anything of architectural significance. We passed through a few small towns and stopped in the central square of one where a band concert was in progress. We have posted pictures on the web of the church and the local goings on.
As we proceeded back toward Highway 1, we entered a very hilly area with tortuous winding roads. Here we faced utter frustration. As we were driving along, the traffic stopped and then proceeded at a crawl. From a side road a few cars ahead of us, a funeral procession entered the highway and began the deceased’s final journey. For at least an hour we followed this procession, led by an old 70’s black Cadillac hearse followed by a dozen or so mourners walking behind it in the blazing hot sun. Up and down the hills we went, turn by turn, hill by hill for over an hour. I was tormented and offered Rebecca driving tips, but she wasn’t very receptive and pointed out that it was probably illegal to pass, even if the opportunity presented itself. So there we were, crawling along, contemplating the futility and tentativeness of life. There was no way to pass; we could only wait and hope the cemetery was just round the next corner.
Eventually we passed the funeral procession and made it to Highway 1. After about an hour of traveling at normal speeds, traffic again came to a standstill. This time vendors appeared selling water and junk food. It was a bad omen. After about 90 minutes of bumper-to-bumper movement we reached the nexus of this gargantuan traffic jam, which must have been at least 10 miles long; a bridge was being rebuilt and only one lane was open. After we passed over the temporary bridge things speeded up, but for the next 30 or 40 minutes we saw the traffic jam coming up the other side of the mountain, trucks over-heating, drivers fuming, an endless wait in a line that no one knew how long it would take to negotiate. Two hours later we reached Papagayo, Bahia Culebra, and Odyssey.
Back on Odyssey we had a few days to prepare for our next guests. We managed to get in a round of golf at the fabulous Four Seasons’ course. The heat here is very intense in the midafternoon, but the fee for play is substantially reduced if you choose to start your play at 2 PM or later. With cart, good clubs and shoes if you want them, the fee was only $130. Normally I would expect to pay $300 or more to play on such a spectacular Arnold Palmer designed course. No one was on the course. Rebecca and I played together and we have never enjoyed the game more. During the round we saw Howler Monkeys and Coatis on the course. (I posted pictures on the website). The next few days were spent taking the tender to far away beaches, cleaning Odyssey, and swimming in the pool in late afternoons at the harbor center or at the Four Seasons. A few days later our friends, Charlie Bright and Susan Crowell, joined us.
Charlie and Susan spent four days with us, and they had never been on a boat like Odyssey. We planned a cruise north along the coast first to Bahia Brasililto, then back to Playa del Coco and then to the marina. The trip up the coast was fantastic; we put out the fishing gear and surprise, surprise …Charlie caught his first fish! As we pulled into the Bahia Brasililto the Papagayo winds picked up and blew around 25 knots. We anchored, but judged that it was too windy to put out the tender so we stayed aboard and enjoyed the sights. All of a sudden the generator stopped. This was bad news as a generator is critical to running the air conditioner. I restarted the generator, but it ran for only a few minutes. I went below into the hot engine room to check things out and thought to change the fuel filters since they have the most obvious potential for problems. Proud of my little accomplishment, I returned to the wheelhouse and fired it up again. It ran for about 5 minutes and then stopped. At this point I remembered seeing jellyfish in the water and wondered if they might have clogged the water intake to the cooling system. Back down I went, opened the sea strainer and there it was: a mass of jellyfish clogging the strainer like a Jell-O mold. Rebecca, being a surgeon, performed the operation. After cleaning the strainer we fired it up and it ran about 20 minutes. I went back below, repeated the inspection-yep, more jellyfish. After cleaning the strainer again, we moved the boat to the other side of the harbor, away from where the jellyfish were being blown by the wind and current.
The next day the wind had died down and we decided to deploy the tender and go to the beach for a walk and a swim. After lowering the tender, we cruised around the harbor then tied the dingy to a buoy and jumped into the 80 degree water. We swam ashore and enjoyed a lovely walk. While walking back to the boat we decided that Rebecca and I would swim out to the tender and struggle aboard, and then bring it to the beach, since getting on the boat on the beach is much easier than trying to climb aboard in open water. We swam out to the tender, got aboard, and tried to start the engine. It wouldn’t start. I fiddled with everything, but it wouldn’t start. First I thought of using the paddles and paddling ashore, but the specter of being blown out to sea negated this option. So we hailed our friends ashore and after 30 minutes or so they managed to get a fishing boat to tow us to Odyssey. (Later I found out that ethanol in gasoline dissolves a part in the fuel injector pump. Yamaha sent a replacement part to us when we were home in Ann Arbor). We enjoyed a wonderful lunch on the boat, and then put out for Playa Del Coco, about 15 miles south. While on our cruise Charlie mentioned that he had received a traffic citation for crossing the double yellow line while driving to the boat, a practice many drivers engage in on Costa Rican highways. We were a little concerned for him, since we had heard from others that traffic tickets can be very expensive here. Later we learned that he had to pay a $400 fine. The fine could only be paid through the rental car company. Apparently when he went to pay it, he learned that they charge a 35% processing fee on top of the fine!
We enjoyed having Charlie and Susan aboard. Susan coined the term stupefication for the feeling she got aboard the boat. What with the breeze, the sea motion, the sun, a late afternoon cocktail – stupefication pretty well sums it up. As the sun set on their last evening aboard, she seemed very relaxed as she set about conjugating the verb to stupefy. What else is an academic to do?
The day after Susan and Charlie left, Don and Eileen Paneck came aboard to babysit Odyssey while we went home for a month. They own a 35 foot Nordhavn and moor it near their Coronado home in southern California. Don has plenty of experience with a boat like ours, so having them aboard while we went home gave us a heightened sense of security, and a welcomed vacation opportunity for them.
After almost three months onboard Odyssey, we were ready to go home for a while. Being among our family and friends and in a familiar setting is very comforting. We had such a great time. It was perhaps our best and most productive visit home yet.
We came back to Odyssey on April 3. Buddy and Kathleen Dore, our friends from Alaska, were already onboard and preparing the boat for our next leg of the trip. Rebecca had stuffed our suitcases with over 50 lbs. of vegan food, so at least we could set off with some vegan cheese and ersatz mayonnaise. I brought boat parts, in particular the injector pump for the Yamaha outboard. On April 6 we shoved off for a trip around the Nicoya Peninsula to Los Suenos Marina. We stopped for the first night at Puerto Carrillo on the Pacific coast. We got there just after sunset and anchored in 35 feet of water. The ocean’s swell was pretty bad and we rolled through the night. I couldn’t sleep and finally gave in and got up at 4 AM and started the engines. Before I knew it everyone was up and we took off in the dark and cruised about 6 hours to our next stop, Tambor. Although other boaters had suggested the place, it wasn’t much. While we were debating what to do a surfer paddled up and offered us suggestions. He was an American x-pat who moved to Costa Rica 20 years ago. He said he liked it better when he first moved there as there was less activity and no electricity. In the meantime he has had two children. He complimented us on our boat and mentioned that he had been cruising with his dad and his dad’s girlfriend aboard their 240 foot yacht! The yacht had 22 employees, an $8 million annual budget, cruised all over the world, but his dad’s girlfriend didn’t like “boating” so he sold it last year and took a $40 million hit. His dad made his money in the auction business. His name was Ritchie(?) of Ritchie Brothers (?). Anyway, he gave us a few suggestions on places to go and see, so we departed and moved Odyssey to Isla Cedros a few miles away. What’s amazing is the amount of information people will give up in a ten minute conversation.
Isla Cedros was surrounded by smaller islands and looked secure as an anchorage. We put the tender in the water and took it for a spin. It worked better than ever, having put the new fuel pump in a few days before. The island however was part of a dry forest, so it wasn’t very interesting. Buddy went ashore and retrieved a coconut from beneath a tree. Later we enjoyed fresh coconut milk and chips from the nut. We didn’t see any animals, but we did see a lot of refuse. It probably blew in from Puntarenas, a town of about 100,000 a few miles away. The water looked a little murky, too. So, the next day we moved about 20 miles south to Los Suenos.
Los Suenos is the most famous marina in Costa Rica. It is home to about 300 sport fishing boats and it is almost always full to capacity. We had made reservations, so a slip was available to us at $3.50 a foot plus sales tax. This is a very expensive place. There are no amenities included in the dock fee, but there is a beach club and Marriott Hotel, which charges about $100/day/pp for a day pass. We were told there was a Happy Hour from 4 PM to 6 PM. We went up for a drink and hoped to stay for dinner. We ordered some drinks and then around 6 PM I asked when Happy Hour ended. The bartender said it ended at 6 PM. Rebecca asked for a Corona. The bartender said OK, but then said that it wasn’t a drink covered by Happy Hour. That’s when we found out about the scam: only local drinks are included. What are those drinks? Almost nothing. We left Los Suenos the next day and headed 50 miles down the coast to Marina PezVella at Quepos.
This is also a brand new multimillion dollar investment gone badly. The bank now runs the place and it is about half complete with no apparent plan to move further toward completion. The reason so many of these places in Costa Rica fail is because sport fishing is down and travel by yacht is diminishing, the economic downturn and high cost of fuel has undoubtedly affected a lot of people. Costa Rica’s tedious bureaucracy certainly doesn’t help.
Quepos is the site of the Manuel Antonio National Park. The park is about 4,000 acres and we planned a tour for the next morning. Unfortunately, when the time came we were all a little tired. The night before, about 1 AM, we heard a loud startling sound that woke us from our sleep. Odyssey had been tied to a dock that was experiencing a lot of turbulence. We were rolling and banging around like crazy and two of our lines (rated at 10,000 lb.) snapped and the ship was gyrating widely. As the ship pounded against the dock, two of our fenders also ruptured. After we got control of things, we moved the boat to another dock and things settled down to near normal.
Although tired, we set off on our morning tour of the park. It was conducted by a guide and consisted of a 3 mile walk through the forest. We enjoyed it immensely. I have put several pictures on the web, but the highlights were the Firebilled Toucan, both Two and Three Toed Sloths (the guidebook said sluts, but I am sure they meant sloths), the Red Eyed Green Frog, and a few bats and lizards. The beaches of the park were among the most beautiful we have seen. After the park tour we shopped at the local vegetable market. Wow! Do they have great fruits and vegetables. We had a lot of fun shopping and Odyssey was now ready for us vegans.
The next day we took off for Drakes Bay, about 65 miles southwest and on the Peninsula De Osa. It was a beautiful, calm run. This part of Costa Rica has an eight month rainy season, so things are very green and tropical. Everything is green and lush. Drakes Bay is a small but colorful town. When we arrived we were looking forward to experiencing the little town and 13 room hotel and gourmet restaurant. We put the skiff in the water and Rebecca and I started for town. Our first stop was the sail boat next door to get the lowdown on things. They had arrived shortly before us, and told us that they had recently come through the canal and were on their way north after spending the last four years in the Caribbean. At that point it started to rain, and by the time we turned the boat around and made it to Odyssey, it was pouring buckets. We tied up and got inside, thinking it would be over in a few minutes, but it kept raining and after an hour or so the skiff began to fill with water to the point I thought it could either sink or roll over if the waves kept building. The dingy was rolling up and down with the increasing size of the waves, and it was starting to hit Odyssey hard. So, we decided to bring it aboard. Rebecca went out and climbed into the tender to connect the hoist cables, lower the Bimini, and pull the drain plug while it was pitching several feet as each wave rolled under it. It weighs over 1200 LBS. and when it starts swinging, it gets dangerous. Anyway, we got it put away in fine style, but I was a little worried about Rebecca.
The next day we took off for Gofito, having lost our interest in Drakes Bay. Golfito is located about 65 miles around the peninsula in the Golfo Dulce. It is the last port in Costa Rica and the only place that we can check out of the country and get a zarpe. The zarpe is a form required to get into the next country. It proves that you left the last country on good terms. Golfito was the banana exporting center of Costa Rica. It has an old dock that was originally built by United Fruit Company, and still dominates the waterfront. Nothing much goes on here now, except for yachting. We stayed at Fishhook Marina, which looks like a classic Hemingway sort of place. Next morning we went for a boat trip to a botanical garden that features orchids. On the way we saw a flock of Scarlet Macaws. They are the most fantastic bird I have ever seen: red, blue, yellow and white. The flowers and tropical plants were too beautiful and numerous to write about, but I have put lots of pictures on the web, but I couldn’t take a picture of the fabulous Papillion butterfly. It was about the size of a salad plate, with the most beautiful silver/blue wings. It was very shy, and could fly very quickly. I chased it around for a while, but to no avail. I am glad to have seen such a wonderful creature at least once in my life.
On the way back we stopped by a couple of small grottos in the cliff wall that border the gulf. The cliffs are covered by beautiful jungle; all manner of tropical plants flourish. Once back in the marina and aboard Odyssey, we took a siesta during the hot afternoon. Around 6 PM we went to Fishhook and had a wonderful fresh tuna dinner, then back to the boat for our nightly ritual of watching an installment of Madmen, of which we have all become quite fond. Soon season two disks will run out and we will switch our attention to the serial killer Dexter.
We began our final day in Costa Rica by arranging with the marina manager to get us checked out of the country. It cost a total of $150, and should have taken about three hours. In the meantime, we took a tour of the giant mangrove forest not far from Golfito. The mangrove trees were the largest I have ever seen, perhaps 150 feet or more in height, with giant contorted roots that anchor them against summer storms and protect the mainland. We were fortunate to see another variety of toucan, the Yellow-billed Toucan, an Osprey, a Pink Spoonbill, and a variety of other birds and reptiles. (I put lots of pictures on the web.) We went back to Odyssey around noon, and then to the super market to provision for our eight day trip to Balboa and the Panama Canal. We decided to walk the half mile or so, but wow! Was it hot. Around 5 PM Rebecca checked on our papers. We got some of them, but not the zarpe. We talked with a few people on the dock: Too-Tall-Willy, who, in the process of trying to pick up Rebecca wound up with me. It must have been a disappointment. Anyway, Too-Tall has been through the Panama canal several times and gave us a lot of helpful advice, as well as tips on negotiating the waters around Turks and Cacaos. He was interesting. He and a buddy run a sport fishing boat and have taken it all over the Caribbean and are now on their way to Ecuador. They chase fish and other things. Sport fish guys are real cowboys, sort of a throwback to a time when people didn’t think about the consequences of how much they drank or smoked. The other fellow I talked with was a different sort. He was taking his wife, son and a friend of the son’s across the Pacific on an old wooden yawl, complete with wooden blocks. Everything was nicely varnished and it looked pretty good for an old gal. The first stop is the Marquesas’ Islands, about 3000 miles west or 30 days at sea for them. The old boat had few amenities– for example, no refrigeration. The missus was off to the store to get the frozen meat she orders to but in her ice chest. I hope those boys like Spam! Around 10:30 PM we finally got our zarpe, and prepared to shove off for Panama’s Isla Parida the next morning at 5:30AM.
Today’s cruise to Isla Parida in Panama has been delightful; clear, blue sky, calm warm ocean water, beautiful music in the pilot house, and a good current to make the voyage an hour less than expected. Rebecca’s making cookies in the galley. I am sure you have had enough of this tome, so I will close and take it up again when we have passed through the canal.
Thanks for looking in on us.
Randy and Rebecca