Thursday, November 15, 2012

central america journal, part 1

Jesse and I fly over the turquoise and azure sweep of the Belize coast, heading south for Costa Rica – the “rich coast,” one of the most biodiverse places on earth. Bouncing through the sky, it seems that everyone carries an iPhone, laptop or tablet, and though I feel somewhat lost without the internet at my fingers, it is freeing to travel with no electronics besides my camera. I will be unreachable by phone or email. I will not be blogging or posting or tweeting or texting. I will get lost in the world. The customs form requires us to list the hotel or street address where we'll be staying, but we don't have one – nothing has been booked, no plans made. Just 18 days and some money in the bank and a guidebook in hand. 

We arrive in San Jose and bungle our way through a car rental, realizing that even in a country well-adapted to tourism, our limited Spanish is going to be a stumbling block. Realization number two: navigation skills are useless when roads aren't identified, and of course, being map junkies, we've decided to forego the GPS rental.

“There are two types of people on these roads who don't know what they're doing,” Jesse says, narrowly avoiding yet another accident. “Drunk people, and white people.”

When we finally get our bearings, Jesse drives through a torrential downpour and avoids hitting pedestrians while I marvel at the banana plantations, the clouds rising from thickly forested mountains, the men on the roadsides selling fruit. We stop at our first soda and order rice and beans with gallo pinto from a young woman who watches with wry patience as we figure out currency and menu translations. Then we turn off the highway and, around dusk, find ourselves passing through a town not named on our shoddy map, high in the cloudforest and curving around a single, sinuous road above a green valley. It's Monday evening, following a storm that cleared the day's heat, and everyone in the village seems to be out, gathering in groups on doorsteps and at the ends of driveways, mothers with babies on their hips, men clustered around the counter of the store drinking beers. There is a feeling that this mountainside village could exist nowhere but Central America. We've made it. 

As the sun sets, we pass out of the mountains and into the town of La Fortuna, newly emerging as a tourist gateway to Costa Rica's outdoorsy region, full of ads for rafting, ziplining and canopy tours. We ignore the signs, find a cheap room and fall asleep splayed across the threadbare mattress, a long way from home. Alaska feels like a different world, a different lifetime. 

Day 2. Wake up hot and sticky, with creaky fan overhead doing little. Skip breakfast and gun it out of La Fortuna, quickly turning onto a rocky backroad that we think will take us to an off-grid ranch we want to stay at. The hills are green and rolling, flecked with livestock and horses, and the red-dirt roads intersect broad fields and farms of wind turbines. It is lovely. But soon the roads get sketchier and I get tired of driving. We've been traveling for three days now and I just want to be somewhere. Grouchiness, lostness and incomprehensible conversations in Spanish ensue. Then Jesse spots a paved road in the distance, and finally, after three hours of serious four-wheel driving, we spot a sign for La Carolina lodge, 28k away. It might as well be a sign for heaven. 

Day 3. A different morning entirely. We wake up shrouded in mosquito netting, curled in a soft blanket after sleeping to the sound of rain beating against the metal roof. Breakfast is at 7:30, so I throw on a pair of shorts and wander barefoot to the open-air kitchen, where the cookstove, stone oven and huge wooden table are. I pause to study the surreal tropical botany exploding all around. Then – a tin mug of rich coffee with steamed milk, fried eggs, rice and beans, homemade bread and slabs of homemade cheese, some kind of tangerine-like fruit and a pitcher of fresh squeezed juice magically appear. Later, when Alejandro takes us on a horseback ride around the ranch, we learn that everything served is produced right on this land, from the coffee beans to the butter. 

Because it's the rainy season, we had our choice of cabinas, and chose one so high on a hill it's practically in the trees. From our wraparound porch, we see (and hear) howler monkeys, bats and hummingbirds. The river flows just below, and the sound of rushing water mixes with tree frogs and cicadas to create our evening serenade. At dusk, someone comes around and lights hundreds of slender white candles along the paths and by our bedsides. There is no electricity. It's part jungle lodge, part ranch, part monastery. And it's a short drive from Parque Nacionale Tenorio, home of the Rio Celeste. No words needed. See below. 

Day 5 starts off unpromising. Being travelers with more time than money, our explorations are hit or miss: some fantastic gems, like La Carolina, and some duds, like the Rancho Leona in the tiny town of La Virgen, famed among multiple guidebooks as a hotspot for whitewater kayakers. Waking up in our cockroach-infested room at Rancho Leona, we find it just as dreary and deserted in the daylight as it was when we arrived the night before. Vestiges of its past lie dusty and abandoned in the morning light: a 2009 NRS paddling catalogue, a cobwebbed stack of board games, the dried-out tiles of what was once a hot tub on the banks of one of the premier kayaking rivers in Central America. Driving here late the night before, Jesse and I expected a colonial river town in the middle of a jungle. I went so far as to envision a hybrid of Mark Twain's Mississippi and a remote Amazonian lodge, imagining we'd stumble out of the dark, push open heavy double doors and be greeted by a ragtag group of international kayakers throwing back shots of rum.

Instead – a long drive through what might count as suburban sprawl in this region, except seedier and more rundown – one town melting into the next, streetlights, small stucco houses, girls squeezed into mini skirts walking the roadsides toward a disco. Sodas with bright, fluorescent signs. Nothing quaint or charming about any of it – although, to be fair, it was probably more “authentic” than many of our more idealistic stops, typical of a Costa Rica transitioning from rural to urban. It was interesting to see but also left us wondering, as we pulled into the dark, empty parking lot of Rancho Leona, if we'd be able to find anywhere to sleep in this tourist-free area.

I stayed in the car while Jesse gave a tentative knock on the door. A light came on, and a bored-looking young man tore himself away from his TV and offered us a room for $12. Despite it being the rainy season – a time when the Rio Sarapiqui should have been running high – we were clearly the only visitors. We dropped our bags and went to the soda next door to eat frozen french fries and watch a Latin American game show on mute. Thankfully they had beer.

In the morning, the mighty Sarapiqui River behind the inn (“its prime riverside location allows for easy launches,” raves the latest Lonely Planet about the inn) turns out to be a muddy trickle guarded by a pitbull. The hearty breakfasts and onsite kayak rentals are non-existent.

Later, we meet up with Alex Martinez, a guide and environmental activist who tells us over glasses of freshly-squeezed soursop juice how the 2009 earthquake shifted the path of the Rio Sarapiqui, the owners of Rancho Leona split up and three upriver government-owned dams dealt the final blow to the burgeoning community of kayakers setting up shop in La Virgen. It became a recurring theme on our trip. Though Costa Rica is known as a nature-lovers paradise, its nature is becoming ever more regulated by a government dedicated to ecotourism, which means, ultimately, economic growth.

Thankfully, there are still people like Alex's son Kevin, a strikingly good-looking kid with green eyes and curly hair who is equally well-connected with the outdoor adventure crowd and environmental activist groups in Costa Rica. While he pours us more juice, juggles calls on his iPhone and points out obscure birds, he also makes plans to transport a boa constrictor captured by a farmer to a nearby wildlife refuge and, along the way, introduce us to a friend of his trying to set up a campground on family land.

Camping in most of Costa Rica is rarer than the endangered resplendent quetzal. Throughout our travels, Jesse and I met a number of DIY backpackers who'd come to Costa Rica with a tent, sleeping bag and hiking boots and, like us, planned to dirtbag around the country camping on beaches and in jungles. We didn't want facilities or running water or platforms, just an uninhabited place where we wouldn't get in trouble for pitching a tent. Costa Rica is known for its national parks and wildlife refuges, so surely, backcountry hiking and camping would abound. Right?

Ticos told us that camping was a bad idea due to poisonous snakes and bugs. Foreigners told us it was a bad idea due to crime and theft. Most national parks are so over-visited that they don't allow camping at all, and when they do, you need to hire a local guide to sleep anywhere beyond the ranger station. As we continued to explore by foot and car, we found virtually nowhere that catered to the kind of DIY backpacking we were used to. Even if we'd snuck into a national park with backpacking gear, rangers scoured the trails well before dusk to ensure that all tourists were returning to their vehicles. There were a few “deluxe camping experiences” for $80 a night, where linens and food were provided in a safari-style tent, but we quickly came to realize that the kind of nature lovers catered to in Costa Rica tend to be more take-a-week-off-of-work-and-sign-up-for-a-guided-tour types than sleep-on-the-side-of-the-road-and-eat-canned-beans-for-months types.

Which is why, on Day 5, we were so thrilled to learn that Kevin Martinez and his friends are trying to start a kayaking business, build a riverside campground and protest against government dam building on the last free-flowing rivers in the country. Jesse and I officially became the first guests to camp at an unnamed campsite on an unnamed branch of the Rio Sarapiqui, and the experience stands out as one of our best in the country. We followed Kevin down a dirt road, walked down a path behind his friend's mom's house (no one was home) and set up our tent and hammock in a sandy clearing on the banks of the river. And then, miraculously, we were left alone. No one was trying to sell us a guided nature walk. No one was making us sign a waiver to use the rope swing at our campsite. We had no company except a yellow dog and a little boy fishing from an inner tube. For the entire afternoon, we wandered up-river, through farms and pastureland, over braided cobbles and deep pools, along steep walls of rainforest vegetation. It was marvelous. 

In the evening, we realized how incredible the fledgling campground really was: while it seemed remote and pastoral, it was within a ten-minute drive of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui, a seedy banana town on the Nicaraguan border. While our camping gear sat unmolested on the tranquil river, we walked the main drag in town with our mouths slightly agape at the colorful storefronts selling everything from chickens and piles of rambutans to washing machines and high-heels. Couples cleaned up for Saturday night came in from the fields on old motorbikes, families ate fried chicken and drank liters of Pepsi, teenagers giggled into cell phones, men hawked cheap plastic goods and the entire town seemed to pulse with colorful, sweaty, vibrant life. We walked up and down the street taking it in, while unbeknownst to us, our host at the campground had come home from work and was busy lighting the path to our tent with white votive candles. 

Day 6: A several hour drive to the coast takes us to the rough, corrugated metal and shipping barge town of Puerto Limon, hillsides crammed with shacks, drunk men yelling at our car as we pass. Further south, we stop at a sloth sanctuary, where two- and three-toed sloths hit by cars or shocked by power lines are rehabilitated to live in captivity or be released to the wild. There is a canoe ride through lazy sloughs, where we see wild sloths, howler monkeys, bats, lizards and birds. Despite being somewhat wary of tours, I have to admit that it was well worth it. Our guide spotted more wildlife than we ever would have on our own, and I learn a ton about sloths. Such as this: contrary to popular belief, sloths only sleep about eight hours a day. They come down from the treetops once a week to defecate and urinate; they are descendents of giant prehistoric sloths and they have nine cerebral vertebrae, allowing them to practically swivel their heads. Even giraffes only have seven.

Day 7: The Caribbean town of Cahuita is picture perfect, and after a dinner of fresh fish and cocktails with guaro, a local cane liquor, we wander into an open air bar where a group of a dozen or so people sit on chairs and couches watching a so-awful-it's-good 1960s B-movie on a projector. Soon it's evident that the guy who played the sleazy sidekick to the villain is sitting on the couch celebrating his birthday. Long gray hair, board shorts, rum cocktail in hand, he's a typical expat who tried his hand in Hollywood but found this remote surfing outpost more to his liking. Whenever his character makes advances on the female lead, the Tico men roar and cheer and slap his arm. The movie is about a violent motorcycle gang wreaking havoc on a poor bean picker's family in the Florida everglades, and Jesse and I sit and watch it with its co-star in slight disbelief that we've stumbled upon this. 

The next morning, we chase storms and howler monkeys down the trail in Cahuita National Park. The storms never materialize into more than distant lightning and a steady rain, and Jesse and I retreat into the warm, aquamarine water while raindrops pattern the sand. It's lovely, until a couple of rangers come to kick us out of the park because the weather is bad. I grumble again about the over-regulation of the outdoors here, wishing I could be left alone to float on the waves or camp on the beach or even, god forbid, snorkel without a local guide, which signs everywhere forbid. I understand that to maintain an environmentally-friendly economy based on ecotourism, local people need to find work in the industry, and that to keep the rainforest looking pristine, strict regulations are needed to prevent tourists from trashing and over-tramping it, but to be honest, it doesn't feel like there's a waterfall left in the entire country that you don't have to pay an admission to visit. Plus, I hate being told no. I am willing to accept limitations and act responsibly, but a week into this trip, I'm sick to death of the prohibitive signs. No swimming. No jumping. No walking off the path. No snorkeling without local guide. No camping. I'm reminded of an essay I read recently by David Sobel in which he laments the fact that for environmental education to conserve and protect while catering to ever-growing numbers of people, it has become decreasingly hands-on, turning the natural world into a look-don't-touch experience. I want to climb trees, dive under waterfalls, catch frogs. And increasingly, Jesse and I do. Just not when there's a ranger around.

Day 8: Breakfast at our small hotel, a spread of white china while classical violins and tropical birds play off each other in the background. The table is on a breezy veranda shaded by flowering bushes alongside a creek. The owner sits for hours looking at the ocean, smoking, and painting bowls of fruit and Afro-Caribbean women onto canvases that he later hangs on the walls. 

We leave Cahuita and continue south down the coast to the party town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, a backpackers paradise with more $3 breakfasts and two-for-one drinks and food specials than you could ever eat, more cheap funky hostels and huts than you could ever sleep in, and enough locals and unpaved roads to make it still feel a bit off the beaten path. For $9 a night, we rent one hammock strung in a row with about 50 others under a metal roof.

Now, I lie belly-down in the sand on the beach, entirely captivated by this place, entertaining notions of staying for a few months, working at a hostel, learning Spanish, surfing every day. By this point, we've realized that our ambitious plan to road trip the entire country is unrealistic, and we decide to focus the rest of our trip here on the Caribbean coast, eventually making our way down to Panama. Memories of the B-movie from two nights ago flavor my perception of this place, making it feel like one giant B-movie set: blurry around the edges, tinged with a nostalgic feeling that you've stumbled upon something that no longer really exists. You hope that dirtbag backpacking destinations like this, cliched though they might be, will hang on despite the ever-growing pressure of a sleek, copyrighted world intent on monetizing and regulating and growing with cancerous efficiency. You hope that there will always be places that rebel against all of that.

The hollow thump of the ocean pounds the sand, ghost crabs scuttle into their holes, and white foam from the waves slips backs to the sea like oil on a piece of glass. I close my eyes and dream.

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