Memories of Costa Rica. Jan 1991

In the fall of 1990, our travel agent, Barbara, called to offer us a trip to Costa Rica at a good price. 

On January 15th, 1991 we flew from Miami to San Jose. It was also the opening day of the Persian Gulf War to help Kuwait, which had been invaded by Iraqi Dictator Salaam Hussein.

Our package tour included several days at the new Palacio San Jose, a four-star hotel that had just opened a few months earlier.

After we unpacked we headed for the bar for afternoon refreshment. There was only one person at the bar, an older gentleman watching CNN. The soon-to-be-famous Wolf Blitzer was on the screen with the latest on the US attack on Iraq to get Salaam out of Kuwait.

I asked the man next to me how long he thought the war would last.

He turned and recited a day by day account of what would happen; where US forces would successfully attack and the day the whole think would end. He seemed to know a lot so I asked how he could be so sure. He introduced himself as a retired colonel who had served in Vietnam as General William Westmoreland's intelligence adviser. He had just retired as a member of the National Security Council, the group that advises the President on things like war. We stayed in Costa Rica for about 2 weeks, watching CNN and Wolf Blitzer in every hotel bar as we traveled the country and it turns out the prediction by the retired colonel was so accurate it was scary. Everything he outlined at the bar that evening came true even down to the day the war would end. 

Tortuguerro National Forest

Part of our tour package took us to the jungle in Western C/R on the Caribbean Coast just north of Panama.

Early one morning we were picked up at the hotel by a white van. We were bound for the port city of Limon. It was a pleasant drive over the mountains from the Central Valley to the plain leading east to the sea. Along the way we stopped for a picnic lunch along the banks of a river.

We were to stay overnight at a hotel and then board a small ferry for a ride north along an inland canal to a remote Eco-resort where we would explore the tropical jungle before flying back to San Jose the following day.

The hotel was an old collection of small, one-room cottages with lumpy beds, dribbling, tepid water in the shower and dishtowels to dry your clammy body. Anna marched off to the desk and found us some towels. This was not the highlight of the trip.

After "dinner" we took a cab to explore the "exotic" seaport city.

Puerto Limon reminded us of one of those grungy Asian Seaports you see in old black-and-white movies with Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet. Dangerous, angry people roamed the streets at night looking for victims to rob or kidnap. Homeless men lounged on the sidewalks begging for the price of some cheap wine. We imagined gun-toting drug dealers behind the dingy doors plotting murder and mayhem. We grabbed a cab and headed back for the hotel.

The next morning were treated to the national breakfast of Costa Rica. Red beans and rice. No matter where you eat in the country the menu is the same. Gallo Pinto (guy-oh peen-toe) Red Beans and Rice. At the Palacio San Jose it was interesting and one of many items offered including eggs, bacon and assorted fruits. In Limon the menu was hardly as as varied.

Then, it was time for our walking-tour of Limon. A cheery guide showed up to lead us through the streets of the city pointing out forgettable historic sites in an obvious attempt to take up time before we boarded the boat for the trip up the canal. I rebelled and abandoned the group and we marched off to a local bar where I brought a case of iced-down beer for the two-hour trip to the jungle resort. Later we met the rest of the walkers for the bus ride to the boat. We had met a honeymoon couple from California, with whom we shared the beer.

The ride was fun and very interesting. We passed little homes and settlements picking up and dropping off various passengers along the way. The canal was about 50 yards wide and boat traffic included barges loaded with produce, livestock and other tourists who wanted to know where we got the beer.

About lunchtime we arrived at the lodge. It was a main house surrounded by several small wooden cottages. We carried our bags to our assigned cottage and walked to the main house for lunch. There were no locks or keys. Outside out door sat a huge tortoise that I thought at first was a doorstop. But when he blinked at me.

They had an "honor-system" bar. You poured your own drinks and jotted down your purchase and room number on a little pad. The other guests were mostly bird-watchers with their khaki jackets, pith helmets and binoculars who avoided the bar.

After lunch we took the jungle tour. Just the two of us in a small wooden boat polled along by a guide who showed us the tropical flora and fauna. Birds sang, hawked and chirped above as moneys jabbered and swung from over-hanging trees. Alligators slithered off logs and swam by the boat. We saw a sloth hanging from a tree and colorful fish in the water as we imaged ourselves alone on the African Queen.

Dinner was surprisingly tasty for a remote jungle lodge, which we learned, was quite a destination for wealthy nature-lovers and was accessible only by boat and plane. Our return by plane was another adventure.

The next morning after breakfast we carried our bags to the edge of the water and were ferried across to the other side of a fog-shrouded canal. We walked through the fog to discover a single engine Cessna 210 parked on a grass strip. It's a dependable 6-passenger plane I'd flown before. The pilot sized up the passengers and seated us to best distribute the weight. One of the passengers was a geologist who had a rock collected with looked very heavy. The pilot correctly placed the rocks just behind the front seats where they would be close to the center of gravity. I told him I was a pilot and we assigned me to the co-pilot's right seat.

 When we were belted down he cranked up the engine and went through his pre-flight list. The grass landing strip was shrouded in fog so I had no idea how long it was. I was thinking about the mound of rocks under my seat and hoping the captain's weight and balance estimate was within the envelope. He poured on the coal and we started rolling into the fog. I help my eye on the airspeed indicator and as it crept above 50 MPH I saw a wall of tall trees coming at us.

The captain lifted off and we cleared the trees by about 50 feet as the stall warning buzzed and I felt drops of moisture dripping from under my arms. The passengers heaved a collective sigh as we climbing into the fog.

As soon as we were airborne the captain contacted the San Jose tower and selected a compass settling on his RDF. (radio direction finder)

I noticed the RDF come to life after we had climbed high enough to receive the signal from the tower. When we reached about 1000 feet he turned to the right to a westerly heading and we continued to climb into the fog. I felt the side of my shirt getting wetter. After a few minutes we were suddenly out of the fog and surrounded by clear blue sky. I looked out and saw that we were between two towering volcanoes about 5 miles to our north and south. Thank-you RDF.

A few minutes later I spotted the airport where we landed and headed to the Palacio for a shower and a cold beer.

Tortuga Island

One of our side trips took up to the Pacific Coast of C/R.

We arrived by bus along with about 20 other travelers to a small marina near Puntarenas. We boarded a 36-foot tour boat with a covered deck and seats along the sides. We managed to get two seats forward just starboard of the helm where the Captain stood behind a vintage wheel. The hull was wood and the decking well-varnished mahogany that shone in the morning sun. 

After everyone was seated the crew helped an elderly man on board. He looked about 80-something and was our entertainment for the voyage to the island. The crew carried a marimba and set it up in from of the old man. The marimba is a sounding-board with small wooden pieces strung on cords suspended from left to right. He struck the wooden pieces with two wooden mallets and produced beautiful music as we traveled along the sound just inside the peninsula between the mainland and the Pacific Ocean. 

As we rounded the southern end of the sound the waves of the ocean started swaying the vessel and while some passengers held on to their seats the old man swayed with the motion and remained standing playing his music. We were told that the marimba is a traditional Costa Rican instrument and the musician was 85 years old and had been entertaining on various boats for more than 50 years. 

After we rounded the southern tip of the peninsula we approached our destination, Tortuga Island. The crew dropped anchor in shallow water about 200 feet from the beach and a small boat was used to ferry the passengers to the beach. Along with the passengers were loaded boxes of food, charcoal, ice and the old man and his marimba carefully helped on a trip hed made almost every day for many years.

While we explored the beautiful beach the crew set up BBQ cookers started the fires and prepared the lunch. The old man and his marimba set up under a palm tree and played his mellow music as one crewmember with a machete chopped off the tops of coconuts, poured some rum inside and placed a straws inside handing them to the guests. 

While the music played we enjoyed a delicious BBQ of fish, fruits and vegetables while the palms swayed to the gentle ocean breeze. It was like living a dream.

After lunch we reversed the procedure, motoring back to the marina listening to the marimba music of the amazing old man.

Coming up: whitewater rafting