From Colones to Cordobas

MonkeyI left La Fortuna at 615am. Yes, that early. I took the bus from La Fortuna to Penas Blancas, a small frontier town along the Costa Rican-Nicaraguan border. It was a slow bus ride, taking about six hours. I arrived in Penas Blancas about noon.

From La Fortuna down the mountains to Guanacaste the flora was a uniform, high canopy, interspersed with small farms of guayavas, papayas, carrots, onions, peppers and the like. But as I entered the flatlands, high semi-dry grasses proliferated. It was dryer too. Still lush by Texas standards, but the grasses had a golden edge to them and the trees looked windblown. The bus stopped frequently, crawling north between parallel mountain ranges. Cool highland breezes gave way to lowland humidity and stifling heat.

The people changed in the lowlands too. Where they had been more Spanish looking in the highlands and along the Pacific Coast, here their looks took a decisive turn to the indigenous. Lean body frames, thin noses, light eyes and wavy hair were replaced by by thick straight tresses of black hair, coal eyes, short globular frames and flat noses with flaring nostrils.

Where the Costa Rican side of the border was well organized, minimally bureaucratic and efficient–as borders go, that is–the Nicaraguan side was chaos, long lines of people wandering with little sign of purpose, hawkers and border officials stamping everything in triplicate. I managed to find the bank and exchange my Colones for Cordobas, walked out of Customs, naught but a shed with a corrugated iron roof into a classic Central American scene.

Dilapidated, small sheds sold unnameable foods at unspeakably expensive prices, better to gouge the few tourists around. The buses were at least thirty year old Lady Bird body-style models, painted in gaudy Latin American patterns and colors. A cacaphonous medley of Latin music blared away from three different boom boxes. It could have been East Austin or the barrio in San Antonio.

The ride from the border to Rivas, the local hub, sped mostly along the Lago De Nicaragua. Two extinct volcanoes hunched in the waters off shore forming the Isla de Ometepe. For one five mile stretch of road the wind swept fields were filled with thousands of swallows careening and caroming about in an amazing aerial symphony. The trees bent over by the persistent southerly winds where a $71 million wind farm churned out energy for this resource poor nation.

An African influence shows up int he faces of the Nicaraguans. Curly hair, bigger lips and notably darker skin relax in the bus seats all around me. And the fit prosperity of Costa Rica has given way to heavier frames, well worn teeth and broader smiles.

Why is it, I wonder, that those who live closer to the edge of life smile more? And those of us who have so much more to be grateful for have faces flawed with frown lines? Is it that those with less are more likely to be grateful for what they have versus those of us who are consumed with worry about what we could lose?

The road north goes on. I’m dropped off at the Rivas bus station, a ramshackle, ad hoc congregation of cinder block buildings, food sheds and vegetable stands. It’s poor here, but everyone is well fed. A buddy of mine suggested I check out the beach at Popoyo, north of San Juan del Sur. So, I hop aboard the bus to Salinas, pay $1 and sit.

Forty five minutes later down a dirt road, nestled between wind blown hills, small farmsteads filled with pigs, chickens and vegetable gardens I begin to see baseball fields. Children are playing ‘our’ game. I think back to the news yesterday, the Yankees have won the AL East. Will a Nicaraguan child be so lucky as to play for the world’s greatest baseball team?

The bus continues its twisting journey. Night begins to fall. I’m filthy, hungry and tired. The driver drops me at a junction, points down the road and says, “Popoyo is two kilometers that way.”

Five kilometers later it’s even darker. I’m dodging the halo of mud-puddles in the moonlight. The only sign of human life I see is an hacienda up the hill, a generator echoing like so many gunshots in the hot tropical night. A cow lows in the distance. A black shade approaches me in the night.

“Buenas noches,” he says.

“Buenas,” I reply, too tired and too pissed off to ask for directions.

Ten minutes late a car stops.

“Where you go?” comes an Italian accent from the window.

“Popoyo,” I answer.

“Get in,” he says.

He’s got slick-backed gray hair and a slight beer slur. We chit-chat for a few minutes in the black night.

“Not a good time to be out walking,” he says. “The electricity is off here tonight.”

“I’ll be sure to check out the electric tables when I get to my hotel,” I struggle NOT to say, instead, mumbling, “That explains a lot.”

He drops me a Cabinas Rest Tica #2. The owner, Alfonso, shows me my room by candlelight. It’s a good thing, too. In the light of day I’d probably have chosen the beach.

I sit on the veranda and eat Nicaraguan tamales by candlelight. Unlike any tamales I’ve ever had, they are like corned-beef and hash without the corned beef. A mushy pile of semi-boiled masa, with veggies. While I ponder the mystery meat in the tamales a troop of monkeys crash and howl in the branches behind me. Waves roar in front. Frogs croak in an unseen lagoon behind.

The cool beer goes straight to my head. It’s only 730pm and within minutes I am sound asleep.

Waiting For Motmot

My latest Texas Monthly story is up, here. Enjoy!

Arenal Photo Dump

LizardLots of photos today. Hopefully I’ll get a story done as well.

My favorites?

I’d be lying if I said the one above of the lizard wasn’t one of ‘em. By the way, all the animals in the subsequent photos are from the wild. None, except the kitty, are in captivity.

This one of the Arenal Volcano is nice.

And this one is for Don Henry Ford, Jr. Horses!

I love Vermillion Flycatchers. And this one of the Broad-billed Mot Mot? Probably the finest bird I’ve ever seen in the wild. I wish the colors weren’t so washed out in the photo.

No photo collection is complete without food, this of a fine anti-pasto overlooking the Lago De Arenal, taken from The Country Store, owned by ex-pats from Arizona.


Finally, the hot springs at the foot of the volcano, known as Tabacon de los pobres.


La Fortuna Diario: September 25 2009

Montezuma DreamingA year ago today I was in Kuala Lumpur. It was day two of what turned out to be the second leg of my year long journey from Singapore to Amsterdam and then home. Day one was spent in the old spice trading town of Malacca. Much has changed in that year, but then again, not so much. I’m in a town tonight that’s not to terribly different from a hundred other towns I visited over the last year. Although, I confess, the view of the Arenal Volcano is pretty impressive. As a matter of fact, it’s the first active volcano I’ve ever seen. And a big, beefy strato-volcano it is. Tropical jungle gives way to evergreen forests about half way up. After the evergreens it’s pretty much a slush of ash and smoke. I hate to keep speaking in platitudes, but there is something even more impressive seeing it smoke. When a breeze rolls in at night and sends the tropical rains scurrying away the light show is like a giant Fourth of July sparkler several thousand feet up.

I’m feeling a little guilty today. I’d planned, upon waking, to head off to the jungle, do some bird-watching, take some photos and maybe end the day bathing in hot springs. Just your typical work-a-day life. But I got sidetracked and ended up doing a whole lot of nothing except a little Friday Cat Blogging. That just won’t do.

I sure do like the Ticos, as the Costa Ricans call themselves. And I’ve figured out one of the main differences between Costa Rica and Mexico. As I wrote a few days ago, I tend to see all Spanish speakers through the prism of growing up in South Texas and the fact that I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Mexico. One major difference is this: when I arrive in Mexico there is no question where I am. Mexico is in your face. Not aggressive-like, just matter of fact. Mexico is a special place in that regard. Some countries don’t wear their national character as well as the Mexicans do. Often national character is a mixed-blessing. But in Mexico? Not so much. It’s hard to imagine a people more laid back than the Mexicans–actually laid back isn’t the best way of describing Mexicans, but I’m not in Mexico–but the Costa Ricans? Laid back suits them to a tee. Almost Australian in their nonchalance and unpretentious manner. Aplomb is a excellent single word descriptor. They have the benefit of being calm and easy going, friendly and effusive, an effusion that quickly gives way to an open loquacity I’ve seldom encountered. The only people more likely to talk to you on and on about life, in my judgment are the Vietnamese. Now there is a people that like to talk.

When I say, “gracias,” the Ticos reply, “con gusto!”

How can one go wrong with a reply like that?

The Ticos are quick with a compliment and super-smart, perceptive would be a good way of describing them. Not surprising in a country that has a male literacy rate of 97% and a female literacy rate of 96%. Of course, that’s a function of the fact that they have no army. Imagine what we could do if we just cut our defense establishment in half?

There is little in the way of poverty here in Costa Rica, either. Sure, it isn’t a rich nation like Western Europe or America. I’ve seen a few lean-tos and some of the coastal towns have a decidedly dilapidated look to them, all mold on the walls, corrugated iron roofs and the like. Aren’t all coastal towns like that, however?

The people are healthy–and healthy looking. Not too much obesity either. And most of the country, thus far, has, if not a prosperous air to it, one no where near the edge of desperation I’ve seen in other developing and Third World countries. Here the houses are neat and orderly, well-kept, lots of small farm-steads full of papayas, bananas, assorted veggies, rice. Horses fill the pastures and goats gambol up an down the hillsides.

It’s lush too. As I drove in from Punta Arenas on the Golfo De Nicoya yesterday inland to La Fortuna I took to comparing Costa Rica to other tropical places I’ve been. It’s inevitable that we compare something new to what we’ve experienced before. I looked at the hillsides blanketed with green grass. Mountains swell and fall filled with Malinche and Tamarindo trees, multi-hued shrubs and variegated fruits. It doesn’t remind me of any place I’ve yet seen. Perhaps it’s the volcanic soil, permeating the light. Or the water–thick in the air, rich on the ground and always oozing from pores. The villages are Latin, but there is an element of whimsical joy in the civil engineering here. Or maybe it’s the clouds, which are ever obscuring and always revealing some new feature of the countryside, some hidden jewel, or minor flaw that adds much character to the place.

Costa Rica was never high on my list of places to see. It should have been. And I’m glad I’m here now.

I was feeling guilty a little while ago about doing nothing today. But now? As I watch the young families of this little tourist town on the side of volcano walk next to the manicured park, or see the young Latino males cruising the main street in the not-quite-dragsters I can’t help but to smile. How can one feel guilty about that?

Montezuma Dreaming

WoodpeckerMy first story in Texas Monthly is now up and running.


And I have some new photos up, here.

If anyone can identify the woodpecker in the attached photo I would be very grateful!

Montezuma Diario, September 21 2009

Montezuma DreamingNew photos here.

From the travel journal:

I feel like a wimp. The waves were huge in Santa Theresa and I didn’t surf much. Then again, I am not a big fan of the feel of a cement truck’s worth of water crashing atop me. No worries.

Lots of clouds, lots of waves. Not so much sun. But there is coffee and coffee is good. I woke up to the screech of parakeets in the treetops and the whisking of a broom on the porch below me. It’s nine in the morning and already the humidity and heat are tearing sweat from my pores. And although the Ticos (Costa Ricans) are Latin Americans, they aren’t like the Mexican’s at all. I don’t know why this surprises me, but it does. Growing up in Texas I usually associate Spanish speakers with Mexicans. The Ticos are much more laid back than the Mexicans. They also don’t have much indigenous blood in them, very Spanish looking. I asked someone if there was much of an native population left here. She said, “nope. Not much at all.”

The ferry collected me in a small bay beach, a bare-bones fiberglass fishing boat that sits eight. Three young Israeli surfers and a thirty-something couple from England are headed, like me, to Montezuma. The sky cleared for the entire journey. Clouds jogging along Pacific horizons, serrated mountains a pale emerald green in the distance. It’s the rainy season and I am grateful for the sun. I did get to chase an iguana the other day!

As I rode the ferry across the Gulfo De Nicoya to Montezuma Chris Cornell’s screeches were barely audible over the crashing of the waves and the din of the motor.

“You like Costa Rica,” the ferry man asked.

“Primero tiempo acqui,” I replied. “But I like what I see so far.”

It took about an hour to cross and the jarring of the boat left my back in a very unpleasant state.

“All in a days work,” I told myself.

And then I heard Lemmy of Motorhead wailing away over the ferryman’s voice. (Yes, I listen to Motorhead, you can listen to Jimmy Buffet on your own trip!) I should have worn more sunscreen. I’m burnt to a crisp.

Mangroves and palms creep up along the beach we ferry into. Silvery clouds dart across the skies, waves crash and the fine gauzy spray gets over everything.

Everything is so green here. Greener than Mexico. Again, I don’t know why I am surprised, but I am. Perhaps it’s the mangroves lining the beach that make it so much more tropical here. And the sunsets? The quality of light–orange and crimsony, the dark silhouettes of surfers racing across the waves, the crash of surf and spray refracting iridescent blue and green?

Montezuma is a sleepy village filled with pastel-colored haciendas, sketchy locals and a nice, if small, cobbled main street. This will be my base for the next few days as I explore the tip of the Nicoya Pensinsula, the Reserva Nicolas Wessberg and possibly the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Curu.I don’t think it’s turtle season, although I would love to see some. Never have before.


Parrots chatter like schoolgirls in a hallway recess. The dogs are chilling. I want to be a Costa Rican dog when I come back for my next life. They have it good. They’re all fed and lackadaisical. They lack even the energy to sniff each others butts.

I stop to smell a gorgeous peachy pink flower. How often do we live that particular cliche? And of course, the flower didn’t smell at all. But the hills are lined with blues and reds, whites and yellows, fiery crimson bunches hanging like grapes and spider webs span across the canopy.

The waves are coming in and the locals are out surfing. How they surf the nasty point break with a reef of wicked looking black rocks is beyond me, but they do it well.

Then I sink into a moment of nostalgia. Two years ago today I wrote, “In that golden sunlight, on an Istanbul September day I grieved once more the life I left behind.”

Sometimes I thought my new life would end up a mirage, but it hasn’t.

Santa Theresa Diario, September 20 2009

PalmsThe surf part of the trip is over for the time being. There is not much of a story here and I do have work to do, insofar as what you can call what I’m doing work.

And while I do enjoy surfing, it’s just not the same without Reyes’ tequila-sodden antics. (I’m not a big fan of rum.) Hell, I’m exhausted at the end of the day and wonder how in the world Reyes and I carried on for a week and a half down in Mexico. Besides, I can’t hardly tell a surfing tale to one of the magazine’s I’m down there writing for. Really, what do middle-aged housefraus from Dallas really care about a divorced, late-thirty something man on the tail-end of his early mid-life crisis, down in Costa Rica surfing and drinking, chasing iguanas across the beach and monkeys through the jungle? Said hausfrau would probably be more interested in me writing an expository essay on the prostitutes in Costa Rica, better to understand why her husband is spending so much time in here.

Tongue planted firmly in cheek, folks.

No really, today I’m headed off to Montezuma, which sits on the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, a boot looking spit of land kicking its way into the Pacific Ocean. I’m planning on a hike through the national park there, waterfalls, howler monkeys and lots and lots of birds.

If any of you have been down here before and have suggestions feel free to chime in in the comments section. I’m always game for something off the map, beaten trail, or whatever you want to call it.

More soon.

It’s Good Work, When You Can Find It

Just Another Day At The Office
Just another day at the old office.

Santa Theresa Diario, September 19 2009

War PaintPhotos can be found here.

Last night was a riot. Sleeping in the jungle always is. There were at least 10 different animals howling, cackling, wailing, chirping and singing in the night. Two different kinds of frogs, howler monkeys, birds, dogs barking, crickets, and a pool full of big bullfrogs who’s croaks rose and fell like the crescendo of a Beethoven symphony.

Don’t cry for me Costa Rica. Although I do have an all over, generalized body ache. The waves down here make those in Mexico look tame in comparison. I spent the day surfing in the whitewash, that area of the surf between the big waves (3 meter swells today) and the beach. It is a nice long beach break here.

It’s a strange little town. One long strip down a dirt road. And it’s full of Israelis. Last night was Rosh Hoshanna and I saw a few Hasidim walking the streets. Talk about an incongruity. Of course, most of the tourists here are young Israeli men at the height of fitness, post-military service. It’s hard to be out in the surf with ‘em sometimes. I’m not in the worst shape in the world, but not like that. And then yesterday as I was paddling out a girl, and I mean a pre-pubescent girl, less than 12 years old paddled out past me, turned, got up on a wave and surfed it like she owned it. Me? I just generally flail about in the water. But I am having fun–which I kind of feel guilty about because I am actually down here on assignment. So, the surfing will end in a day or so and I’ll head inland to investigate and write a few stories on eco-tourism here. Expect lots of photos!

Speaking of, yesterday I attempted to upload some photos and about five in the connection for the village died. But I did manage to get them up today.

Activity is the enemy of reflection, but I’ve dedicated some time to writing today so I’ll do my best to conjure up a post or two here shortly.

Travel Tropes, Old And New

I really dislike this kind of travel writing. You have to read the whole article to get a sense of the kind of snarky criticism she’s making. But it’s basically, I’m too old and don’t have enough time to travel properly and so I am going to travel around the world in 29 days and slam those hippie backpackers and all their immersing in cultures bullshit.

Look, I applaud people who go out into the world, but if you’re going to come back and get up on your high-horse about how Teh awesome you are don’t do it in the pages of the Washington Post.. There is nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with being a tourist. Just don’t be an asshole, don’t build up a strawman, like this:

There is an accepted template for what’s called RTW travel. You must do it slowly — say, at least six months or a year. You must get off the beaten path, disdaining all those things that regular tourists are there to see, such as renowned museums or the Great Pyramids. You should probably carry a backpack, stay in the cheapest place in town and wash your clothes in the sink.

I met lots of people doing the RTW first class. That’s cool! Hell, if I’d the money I would have stayed in better hotels on semi-regular basis, just to decompress. But sheesh, don’t ‘dis the whole ‘off the beaten path’ thing. As a matter of fact, you can get off the beaten path even when you are on the well-trudged one. But that’s a whole nuther post. Bottom line: getting off the beaten path is about a mind-set first and foremost, not about a destination.

More importantly, the point of getting off the beaten bath, at least to me, is to avoid propagating bullshit memes like this one:

I can’t imagine that the idea was new to him, living as he does in a nation synonymous with high-tech. But he acted as though it was. The helpful hotel concierge who had accompanied us to the airport showed him our passports and explained over and over that we didn’t have paper plane tickets, just electronic ones. That wasn’t enough. The guard wanted a ticket.

Key word: synonymous. It’s synonymous because she didn’t investigate the truth of the matter, instead she took the Friedman-way-out. It’s just lazy. Period. Repeat after me: there is absolutely nothing high-tech about India. It’s propaganda put out by executives who hope to make the whole wage-arbitrage, job shifting thing more palatable to folks back home. Had she gotten off the ‘beaten path’ she would have observed this.

I guess in the end I just didn’t like the tone of smug, self-satisfaction of the article.