A week ago today, on February 1, we arrived in San José, Costa Rica, on an American Airlines flight via Dallas, Texas. It was more or less an even four hours from San Francisco to Dallas, and then another four hours from Dallas to San José, and both flights were pleasant.
A flight attendant on the last flight was wearing his wings upside down, and when I asked him about it he launched into a bitter explanation about “corporate greed” of the airline’s management. It was an illustration of the problems that creep in with large employers and their long time employees. It’s certainly an aspect of the success, or so I concluded, of the younger, non-unionized airlines like Virgin or JetBlue. Their day will come, no doubt, but for now the older airlines like American seem to struggle with unhappy employees and an “us versus them” mentality that realistically seems impossible to overcome. But I listened sympathetically and the flight attendant did not charge for the red wine I ordered for Brian and me, so we came out ahead.
Our one night in San José we spent at a Courtyard Marriott hotel at the airport, after arriving late. We enjoyed our first meal in Costa Rica there — chicken tortilla soup for me (delicious flavor but not quite hot enough) and a chicken quesadilla for Brian. Here is a photo of me that night with my margarita. We slept well, exhausted not so much by the pleasant day of travel but by the ordeal of packing everything out of our house before leaving San Rafael.
We awoke on Tuesday morning and took a walk outside the hotel, to see whether there were any café or restaurant nearby for breakfast. Finding none (the Hooter’s across the road was closed), we ended up having nice breakfast sandwiches back at the hotel.
Perhaps the first of many good impressions of Costa Rica is the flavorful coffee. It has been a treat every morning, starting with that first morning a week ago in San José.
We rented a car from Budget at the San José airport on Tuesday morning. We had not made a reservation in advance, which was probably a mistake, but they had cars available. The transaction at the counter was a cultural experience, especially concerning insurance, which turned out to be more expensive than the car itself.
I suppose I should say the second of our good impressions about Costa Rica is the warmth and friendliness of the people, beginning with the counter clerk at the Marriott on Monday evening, and including the two or three guys we met at the rental car counter on Tuesday morning (where we were the only customers).
The drive from San José to Quepos and Manual Antonio (our first destination, which I will describe below) was longer than expected, well over three hours of driving time, but pleasant. I think it’s a simple truth for most of us as human beings that our senses are more keenly felt, and that sights, smells and sounds leave a more pronounced and lasting effect, when we first arrive at a new and unfamiliar place, especially a foreign country where they speak a different language.
Certainly for me the images of that drive down to the Pacific Coast from San José are like scenes from a movie. In fact, the particular movie the experience brought to mind was “Ÿ Tu Mama También” a story about three young people, filmed in Mexico, on a similar journey down to the sea. In their case, it was a story of death and dying and youthful self-exploration — in ours two semi-retired married gay partners beginning the adventure of a year abroad.
We crossed a river where huge crocodiles live. We had seen this same river from the same bridge last fall, on an excursion from a cruise ship. We felt so happy to rediscover a place where our tour guide on that earlier occasion had taken us. The crocodiles are awesome, fascinating and utterly fearsome — huge and primordial and deadly swift both on foot and in the water.
After encountering the first few coastal towns, on the stretch of road between Jaco (a beach town where we stopped for lunch) and Quepos (our destination), we passed what seemed like miles of orderly beautiful palm orchards, with tens of thousands of mature palm trees in the kinds of rows typical of orchards everywhere. We later inquired and were told the product they produce from these orchards is palm oil.
We passed through the town of Quepos after a brief detour down along the harbor, after missing the turn toward Manuel Antonio.
The town of Manuel Antonio is really just a stretch of road up in the hills above the beach, and of course miles of beachfront, located just to the south of Quepos, on the edge of the famous Manuel Antonio National Park. The town culminates at the entrance to the National Park, just off the beach. The National Park consists of a peninsula on the sea, a most wonderful rain forest nature preserve featuring beautiful beaches and coves.
We now have been in Manual Antonio for a week, and are scheduled to leave tomorrow. It has been very relaxing and enjoyable and a great beginning to our year abroad. In my case, I needed a day or two to get over the fatigue and a bit of grumpiness but by now I can assure you I am a delight to all who encounter me.
We are staying at a gay men’s resort owned by two German men, from Cologne or so we are told. Only one of them has appeared n the premises, however, and he is not at all engaging. But the place is beautiful, a hillside garden cleared from the rain forest dropping down from the road, with a view of the Pacific Ocean and some of the islands just off the beach. At the front desk is a delightful young guy named Marcos. He calls me “Frankie!” in the friendliest way. He and other Costa Rican people remind me of the Irish in Ireland — just naturally warm and receptive, curious about outsiders and not at all shy about joking with them.
On Saturday we went into Quepos for haircuts, to a barbershop Marcos recommended. Strangely enough, the place had a Rastafarian vibe and a big photo of Bob Marley on the wall. The young men who cut our hair had a sort of severe manner and were impatient with our lack of Spanish but they worked efficiently and were kind to us. Here’s how we looked just afterward.
Surely the greatest charm of Costa Rica is her people, as important to the weary visitor (at least to this weary visitor) as the country’s natural beauty and amazing biodiversity.
These are the top three things I feel I should record about this first week here on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica:
(1) We spent the better part of one day touring Manuel Antonio National Park with a great tour guide we met at the gate, named Nathan. The guides there carry telescopes and are very knowledgeable about how to spot the animals, and without them (as Marcos told us here at the hotel) the visitor would miss virtually all the animals hidden in the forest. Below is a link to an article about Manuel Antonio National Park, with a great deal more information than I can provide, along with photos borrowed from the Internet showing the animals we saw and the rain forest itself. This wonderful park is only a short distance south along the same hillside where our resort is located. A bus service runs back and forth along the road all day. Besides the amazing proliferation of flora and fauna in the National Park — Costa Rica is among the most bio-diverse places on Earth — the National Park also offered a opportunity to see a huge variety of people from many nations who were there touring the park along with us. The mood there was festive, happy and carefree.
(2) We have met and befriended several American expats who live here in Costa Rica (mostly U.S. nationals and one or two Canadians). They are representative of a large community of foreigners who are attracted to this place by the climate, the comparatively low cost of living and the seemingly stable and peaceful political environment. Theft is a problem, we learned last night at the home of one such friend, especially when the foreigners leave their homes unoccupied while traveling or visiting their home countries.
One guy we met, Rob, was grafting old growth cacao sprouts onto root stock cacao plants developed at the university for resistance to various fungi, insects, etc. He explained he was taking techniques from viticulture and applying them to cacao plants, and expects to know in about five years whether his efforts, as he hopes, will lead to an explosion in productivity and variety of cacao plants in this region where cacao is thought to have originated.
Another expat friend we made is a colorful guy named Mike from Baltimore. He owns and manages residential rental properties in the Baltimore area and spends five or six months a year here. When he comes to Central America, he brings a crate of soccer balls that he passes out to poor children here. He had lots of stories about women in his life and was a classic Baltimore type of character that you might see in a John Waters film.
Yet another expat we met here at the gay resort is a retired builder from Denver named Dennis. He has what I think of as a 1970’s sensibility. He has a small custom designed house on a hilltop near here with an ocean view. We went there yesterday to watch the Super Bowl game, Denver Broncos vs. Carolina Panthers. Dennis and his house guest from San José, a sweet guy named Luis, were rooting for Denver, while I (out of loyalty to Andrew, my nephew who grew up in Charlotte) was rooting for Carolina. Dallas pretty much dominated the whole game, although both were (of course) excellent teams. Also at Dennis’s last night was yet another temporary (6-month) expat from British Columbia, Canada, an intelligent and delightful younger guy named Mario, whose native language is Hungarian. We all played cards and dice games after the football game was over, sitting at a table on Dennis’s desk, surrounded by beautiful tropical trees and shrubbery. I thought to myself, I should preserve this moment!
(3) The wildlife here is prolific and features many unusual species. I will include photos, borrowed from the Internet, of the ones we have seen in particular. Our guest room has two mature iguanas living outside, one large male and a smaller female. They are primordial and menacing in appearance but pretty much harmless toward humans, and helpful at pest control as they eat insects. We visited some Americans who are developing a 100-acre property between here and Jaco, a few miles inland from the coast, and saw bats sleeping in a doorway of the house where they were staying. One of the bats brushed Brian one head as Brian walked through the doorway, panicked or so it seemed by Brian’s tall height. (The same bat sat motionless a moment earlier when I walked through the doorway; I am more then four inches shorter than Brian.) Besides the massive iguanas, we also have seen lots of smaller lizards. Some of them make a clicking sound at night, reminiscent of someone smacking a new package of cigarettes on the palm of a hand to tamp down the tobacco before opening the package. I would be remiss if I did not mention the adorable white-face monkeys who live in large numbers in the woods here. They are almost as prolific here as the squirrels are at home. But even more impressive, though more rarely seen, are the “howling” monkey (which our tour guide in the National Park said are known here as “Congo” monkeys because their faces look like gorillas). At night and in the early morning — last night in particular — we can hear them howling nearby. It is a strange but somehow unmistakably ape-like sound, as loud as a pack of dogs. We have grown somewhat accustomed to it in only a week’s time, but I need to remind myself we may never hear such a sound again in our lives after leaving here, at least in a natural environment as distinct from a zoo. Humans and monkeys coexisting — what a rare and memorable experience for us!