Under a tin roof

Cahuita – Costa Rica

So, before I launch into a tirade about Costa Rica, lets get one thing straight; I’m very grateful that the country allowed the Argie Ferrari and I to enter as it is one of the few countries right now that the two of us can see each other in person relatively easily. After eight months apart yet again, this is important. Costa Rica is small – only five million people – and is heavily reliant on tourism thus their borders have been open since November but, that’s not to say they’re not taking worldwide events seriously. Every restaurant and bar has a hand washing station at the door, in fact most public buildings do and their owners are relatively insistent that the rules be followed. Face masks are also enthusiastically worn in public. Otherwise, travel is relatively normal and in a change from the norm I’m even travelling independently of a tour group for the majority of this month long trip. It began in San Jose, the capital, and a completely unremarkable city with almost no colonial architecture (or any architecture of any merit) that one would expect to see in Latin America. There is also little indigenous culture; this plus the fact that there is no mineral wealth in Cost Rica meant that the Spanish had little to do with the place as there were no locals to force into work and no gold and silver to pilfer. With that in mind, San Jose’s sprawl of nada is actually a good thing in a historical sense. The main points to note is that the coffee was delicious at the hotel, eating out is as expensive as any European capital city and the place is flooded with American fast food restaurants, and so coffee aside, I was more than ready to move on to our next destination.

Cahuita is little more than a village on the south east coast, met by the beautiful Caribbean Sea, only it didn’t feel very Caribbean when first taking a walk along the muddy black beach as murky waves crashed ashore. Sometimes first impressions are deciving and a walk to the other side of town delivered us to the entrance of Cahuita NP where we could see a stunning golden beach running off into the distance. The only problem was that the park – the main reason for visiting Cahuita – was closed and no one knew why. My first impressions of the town itself were mixed. One main street, flanked by open sided restaurants with the two biggest in the centre; two story, large local beer signs and locals and backpackers in bikinis and singlets sat at wooden tables glued to their phones. In truth, it wasn’t very busy at all and I got the impression it was full of people patiently waiting out a return to the good old days when the world was more accessible. Cahuita is a five hour drive from the capital, very much a place for Aussie, British and Scandinavian backpackers as opposed to the middle class American families that stayed in the more accessible north. Yet, the reduction in visitors is a beautiful thing for those of us lucky enough to travel, with the town uncrowded and tranquil in the fuzzy warmth of skies constantly threatening to drown all that lies below. We had splashed out a little more for the hotel which sat a few minutes away from the town and featured a beautiful pool surrounded by the grounds of an equally beautiful garden. As we would come to learn, sit anywhere in Costa Rica and nature will soon appear. Lizards of all sizes ran about the bushes and trees, little toxic-looking frogs patrolled the lawns in pairs, toads filled the evening air with their chants and birds of various bright colours came and went. All of this and we almost had the whole place to ourselves.

With the local park closed we hopped on the local bus and down the road to Puerto Viejo where we discovered a significantly greater number of tourists. The majority of which were hippies and surfers keeping the humid, dusty, loud and smelly town alive, and we immediately craved a return to Cahuita. Luckily the town wasn’t our objective and we jumped into a tuk tuk that delivered us to Manzanillo NP which virtually borders Panama, was open and interestingly, made us wash our hands and wear a face mask before paying the voluntary entry fee, after which we were free to do as we liked. We felt a bit stupid in our hiking boots as everyone else walked by in flip-flops along the freshly groomed sandy trail, and we arrived at the first lookout point to be greeted by a mighty fine beach fringed with tropical forest and and kissed by clear blue sea. Unfortunately, time didn’t allow us to enjoy a swim because we had been told the walk only took an hour and although we had told the tuk tuk driver we would be two hours, there was still plenty to explore. The trail soon turned into extreme mud and we now felt rather smug as we cruised along past intrepid flip-flop enthusiasts, not that the boots made the heat any less bearable as we soon became drenched in sweat as the tropical heat began to eat into our enthusiasm. An hour into the park saw us arrive at a more remote yet equally stunning beach, only accessible by a steep muddy track through the dense forest. Yet, all we could do was take a photo, turn on our heels and march back to the entrance so not to miss our ride back to town. As a first taste of Costa Rica’s national parks, it wasn’t half bad. On the way back to town we stopped for lunch with the intention of visiting a jaguar rescue centre afterwards. Lunch is worth a mention because it was the best feed we had had in Costa Rica to date and ironically it was an Argentine restaurant. The food was excellent, as was the price. Almost everywhere we have eaten so far has been average at best and overpriced. I thought it was just San Jose but no, it seems to be everywhere. It’s actually quite shocking for a country with such a well developed tourism industry. One (I think the only one!) restaurant in Cahuita looked quite flashy, served average food and didn’t accept card. Another, didn’t sell local beer but could offer a range of Belgian beer. Another charged us more for ordering less. I’m happy to get what you pay for but it appears that Costa Rica doesn’t quite work like that and I’m yet to know why. It’s worth noting that the locals themselves are lovely. And further evidence to support my case that Costa Rica is a little odd is that when we arrived at the jaguar rescue centre just after lunch, they told us they were closed and to go away, with the only times to visit being 9.30 and 11.30am. Now I’m sure there’s a logical reason but it seems odd to be turning away people prepared to spend some cash at an animal rescue centre. Maybe this is all just a reflection of me being used to travelling on an organised tour and not having to worry about finding good places to eat and arranging the correct times to do stuff? Anyway, after a disappointing, small and expensive ice cream, we jumped back on the bus and happily made our way back to the mini paradise of Cahuita where we did actually find a very good restaurant that night which was worth the price.

Our final day in Cahuita blessed us with an open national park and sunny skies. It was worth the wait although we were disappointed not to have been able to spend more days in the park. The trail was easy enough, walking through the trees and bushes with the sea crashing on the golden beaches only metres away. The further on we walked, the less people there were, not that it mattered as it was easy to find your own bit of paradise on the miles of sandy coastline. At any point we were free to crash out on the beach and swim in the clear blue waters before continuing on with the walk. In all we walked 8.3km with leaf cutter ants, butterflies, lizards and crabs of varying and ammusing appearances, and numerous birds here, there and everywhere. The last kilometre along the coast saw the forest open up, allowing the sun to fry my moulting head before we were thankfully plunged into dense mangrove and forest walking along a raised boardwalk above a wet undergrowth that stretched, impressively, for over another kilometre until we popped out the other end of the park. It was time for a cold beer and an average lunch.

We had experienced a bit of wet weather since arriving in the country but our final night in Cahuita was something special. Every building here is blessed with a tin roof that is excellent at letting the occupants know when there is a deluge in process. I’m a damn good sleeper and although I gave it my best go, the sheer volume of rain hitting our chalet roof and the power of the thunder and lightening was something I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before. On occasion the thunder literally shakes the whole room like a mini earthquake. I have experienced that once or twice in my life but in Costa Rica it’s already happened on several occasions. The lightening also is something I’ve never experienced before. It’s ferocious, beautiful yet absolutely terrifying. It feels like you can stick your hand up into the clouds and pull out a fork of lighting, the storms are that low to the ground. As it turns out, this would just be a taster of what was to come. As for now, our early morning bus back to San Jose was delayed a few hours because of local flooding but luckily, the bridge that had been damaged in heavy rain a few weeks ago and had hindered our journey to Cahuita had finally been repaired. Next up, the Osa Peninsula.

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