After spending 12 hours on planes and sleeping on airport benches, we emerged into the blazing sun on a Tuesday afternoon in San Jose, the capitol of Costa Rica. We jumped on the local bus, which took us to the center of the city, where we stayed one night before heading down to Panama. After another night at our hostel on the main shopping street (and a significant amount of time getting lost in all the market side alleys), we hopped yet another bus…this time the four hour ride took us on roads that wound through a gorgeous landscape of rainforest that stretched as far as the eye could see. A rain shower as we started to descend toward the coast made hundreds of little waterfalls on the cliff walls next to the road. Finally, we arrived in Puerto Viejo, a surfing paradise that sits quietly on the southeastern coast.
Coming from the icy Minnesota winter, then the chilly mountain nights of Boquete in Panama, the heat and humidity of the Caribbean coast was a welcome change of pace and chance to ditch our jackets. On our first afternoon, we went exploring for the best beaches, found cacao pods and Tico beer, and watched the kamikaze surfers take on the legendary Salsa Brava. There were just as many random spectators sitting on the sand as riders trying to catch the wave without also wiping out on the nasty reef just beneath the surface. I was happy to just sip my drink under the palm trees and remind myself it was mid-January and I was already done with winter for the year. The next morning, we hit the beach…not the crazy Salsa Brava beach with all the sharp rocks and riptides, but the gentler Playa Negra just a five minute walk across town. And yes, the sand really was dark gray that looked black when wet. There were pockets of golden sand there, too, making a very cool zebra effect as the waves washed out. Puerto Viejo is connected to the next town, Cocles, by a slim road for cars…and a well-trodden path through the jungle, populated with howler monkeys, sloths, lizards, and all kinds of fun plants and fungi. Cocles also has its fair share of good surf…over the weekend, there was even a surf competition going on! We watched a couple rounds of the junior division before retreating once again to the quiet of the jungle.
Mostly, we did our own cooking off the fresh provisions we bought at the local shop and the market, but we did stumble across a tasty cafe that sold vegan cakes and shakes. Those, along with the coconuts I sipped daily, kept us well fueled for our daily rounds of beach, jungle, and town. All told, we spent six nights in Puerto Viejo, but I can completely understand the bronzed, shirtless travelers who say, “Ya…I got here two months ago and only planned to stay a week, but…”
Rising with the sun, we left Puerto Viejo and struck out on a daylong journey which took us through the rainforest, coffee plantations, sugarcane plantations, banana plantations, and up into the dusty central north area of the country where fewer tourists tread. The bus dropped us off in Los Chiles well after dark, but the streets were still full of local kids biking around and adults out strolling in the evening air. Friendly faces guided us to our hotel and we thankfully tucked into big plates of rice and beans at the next door restaurant. We woke the next morning to explore the tiny town, in all its dusty side street glory. A few large tourist buses roll up daily to drop people at the docks for the river cruises and whisk them away again…and that’s really a shame, because we found wandering the town and the country lanes just outside of it. We found a Rastafarian community out in the fields, along with old-fashioned ranches, flocks of parrots, and people who invariably greeted us as we walked by.
On our second day in town, we also took a river cruise, but by negotiating with the guys at the dock, we got our own private boat that went out not long after sunrise, when the animals and birds are still far more active. And hours before any of the noisier tourist boats arrive. The Rio Frio, which runs along the edge of Los Chiles, heads north a few miles to Nicaragua, but if you turn south, you pass into a nature reserve that hosts millions of birds that migrate here from the north for the winter. Therefore, a visit in late January is prime time to see a huge variety of local and migratory birds. Of course, there were plenty of other flora and fauna to keep us entertained. Our guide was very keen-eyed and informative (and he did an amazing spider monkey impression that made the shy monkeys hiding in the trees jump around and go crazy!). One of the most common birds that we saw was the snake bird (or piano bird), that sits with wings outstretched on logs and looks like a snake swimming with its head out of the water after it dives in. We saw many “Jesus Christ” lizards, so named because they can run short distances over the water…we saw them do it many times! Lots of iguanas were sunning themselves in the trees, and, as it was mating season, all of the males were orange-tinted. We also got very lucky and spotted a very rare type of tanager hiding in the foliage.
The reserve is called the Cano Negro, due to the marshy lowland area where the river breaks into a huge network of little streams that appear very dark…thus “black canals.” In a small private boat, we could explore these tiny canals and streams in a way that bigger boats could not. This way, we got to see tiger herons, storks, cormorants, and many others…plus a very cute herd of cows munching away. We traded greeting with local fishermen and then whizzed all the way back to the docks at Los Chiles, where we disembarked and treated ourselves to a hardy breakfast.
The next day, we slathered on mosquito repellent and explored the banks of the river. Families were spread out under the thick trees, fishing and chatting, and they eagerly showed us their catches when Sangbyeong asked. Making our last rounds of the town, we admired the gardens…almost every house had an impeccably manicured and well-loved garden out front…and enjoyed the sounds of bachata and salsa music pouring from all the doors and windows.
The next morning, we walked through the very relaxed border procedure, which involved buying tickets from a couple sitting on buckets across from Immigration, carrying playing cards with holes punched in them, and lining up on the dock along with a washing machine and several bundles of clothing. This time, we were heading north on the river…to Nicaragua!