Costa Rica – 2015

The new year finds me assigned to a new market, Latin America, a world region to which I, despite speaking fluent Spanish since college, have never traveled–unless one counts Houston.  And so, at 6:00 AM on a blustery, 12 F, January morning, I and my faithful 1.5 bags of luggage board a flight to San Jose, Costa Rica and prepare for the always illuminating first impressions of a new country.

If an eerie cleanliness characterizes the airports of Hong Kong and Singapore and a breezy urbanity that of Melbourne, then a jovial mayhem is the mark of San Jose International.  After clearing customs and immigration services, where bilingual signs proudly welcome tourists to the “Happiest Country in the World,” I proceed to the arrivals bay, a dingy and clamorous hall where hundreds of locals–or ticos, as native Costa Ricans are known–gather to await loved ones; many hold up name placards, some wave flags, all vociferate, and I even hear an air horn at one point.  The bored faces of nearby police officers suggest that the scene is neither unusual nor disruptive; and indeed, though the noise of the place is deafening, the prevailing mood is not intimidating but, consistent with the earlier signage, buoyant and cheerful.  I wend my way through the lively throngs to the outside street, where I am met by swaying palm trees, cerulean sky, a rush of balmy 75ºF wind, and no fewer than sixty-five excited, gesticulating cabbies speaking in friendly but incomprehensibly rapid Spanish.

My appeals for the cabbies to speak more slowly–más despacio, por favor–go unheeded, yet I remain confident as I turn to survey the taxi queue.  According to the US State Department website, which I dutifully consulted prior to my arrival, official city cabs are red with yellow triangles on the doors but are not permitted to pick up at the airport; instead, travelers should utilize only official airport transport, which will be a uniform “orange.”  Upon my first glance at the three-lanes-wide horde of waiting curbside vehicles, I realize immediately that no one from the State Department has ever actually obtained a cab at the San Jose airport.  The scene bursts with more varieties of orange than a Halloween-edition Crayola box.  Plain; bright; dull; burnt; tawny; bronze; fluorescent; copper; ocher; tangerine; some sort of stark yellow that clearly is fooling no one; and a jaundiced shade that reminds me of the skin of a psych patient I encountered in med school who had eaten nothing but carrots for two weeks.  “You need a damn color wheel for this,” I mutter as I continue to fend off the unstinting, ever-smiling swarm of drivers.

Rather than guessing at which citrus cab represents the official hue, the prudent course seems to me to hail one of the easily recognizable city cabs and bribe the driver for a ride.  I surreptitiously flag down one of the red, triangle-spangled chariots that has just finished dropping off passengers in the departures lane.  In my not-as-fluent-as-I-had-imagined Spanish, I attempt to explain my request and to give my hotel address to the driver–a squatty, middle-aged, tico male who listens patiently as I emit unintelligible sentence fragments.  After several minutes, he interjects softly in flawless, Ohioan English, “Sir, pardon my interruption, but if you would prefer, you may proceed in what I imagine is your native tongue of English.”  Upon saying this, he glances up into the rearview mirror, and wry crinkles appear around his eyes as he observes my shocked expression.  Laughing, he explains, “I lived in Cleveland for nine years, my surprised friend.  Now, let’s take you downtown.”

The airport lies a considerable distance from the urban core, and the consequently lengthy taxi ride gives me ample opportunity to study the surroundings.  San Jose and its sprawling metropolitan penumbra fill a large fertile basin known as the “Central Valley.” Coffee and pineapple plantations abound in the hinterlands through which we pass.  In the distance, the encompassing ring of lush, mountainous terrain reminds me faintly of Hong Kong, except that the hills here are taller with more diverse vegetation and that I’m riding in a circa-1980s Honda Accord with no seat belts and a missing hubcap instead of a pristine futuristic bullet train.  In addition, dilapidation, filth, and poverty are rampant and overt.  The same triad exists in HK, but one must look to sketchy back alleyways on the Kowloon Peninsula to find it.  On the road into San Jose, it lies exposed and raw.  Thin, dusty, poorly clad children play with tree branches in dirt lawns outside of tin-roofed huts that have corrugated, sheet metal walls.  Rough, pockmarked roads–including the major highway my cabbie takes–lack pavement stripes and shoulders; we pass several traffic accidents, which remind me uncomfortably of the sans seat belt status of my own conveyance.  At remote bus stops, long queues of locals wait to board overloaded buses that, evidenced by all of the open windows, must lack A/C.  In spite of these conditions, the ticos remain amiable.  The dusty children in the dirt yards grin and laugh hysterically at some ineffable, youthful game; the owners of the wrecked cars converse civilly with the on-site police; and, the passengers in the bus smile warmly at the gringo in his taxi.

As we enter into the city proper, the natural beauty of the landscape gives way to stately colonial architecture, cobblestone avenues, and tasteful public parks, and the poverty changes from the genial squalor of the countryside to the cramped, embittered, and crime-riddled despair of urban ghettos.  Which is exactly where my downtown hotel is located.  Though the building itself is luxurious, a white monolithic highrise with blue-paned windows, the surrounding neighborhood has some rough edges.  E.g., the hotel concierge, in response to my query about a restaurant for supper, kindly gives me some suggestions and then ends the dialogue by saying, loosely translated, “Enjoy dinner, there are many good options; just don’t stay out after dark.  They’ll never find your body.”  A local doctor with whom I speak on the phone the next day corroborates this message, saying, “Eh, Señor T, that area is, how do you say, no bueno for you.”

Later, after moving to a hotel located in the upscale San Jose suburb of Escazú, I learn that the inner-city is not quite as dangerous as portrayed, although tourists certainly should not tarry there alone after nightfall.  Ensconced among modern shopping malls, Moe’s Southwestern Grill, Outback Steakhouse, and Starbucks of Escazú, I find myself missing the gritty authenticity of the urban heart.  During my short two days there, I encountered true San Jose: narrow streets built for oxcarts; cheap, spicy food; exquisite local coffee; historic buildings; uncovered drainage ditches into which I lost a shoe at one point; knife fights; and of course, kind-hearted ticos.  As my first week in Costa Rica comes to its end, I vow to return downtown during the upcoming weekend, just not at night.

Costa Rica’s particularly stout national rum, guaro, and an equally stout car door, puerta del auto, combine to make my first weekend in San Jose a memorable–or, rather, difficult to remember–experience.

As I had vowed earlier in the week, after vacating the gritty urban center for the sterile, drab suburb of Escazú, I join a city tour on Saturday in order to return to downtown San Jose.  Mid-morning, a stark white minibus, henceforward referred to as “Moby,” pulls up to my hotel, and I join my fellow tourists: a pair of elderly couples from San Antonio who are on a three-month trek through Central America; a middle-aged Seattle man and his twenty-something Nicaraguan wife; a lively group of five gay Colombian college students on holiday; an obese Latino man from L.A. whose T-shirt reads simply “U.S.A.;” and a European family with two children, a polite five-year-old boy and his incessantly screaming infant brother.  Together with our guide, a bilingual tico named Oliver, we set off in Moby towards the metropolitan core.

We spend the afternoon variably driving and walking around the city and visiting important landmarks.  The National Theater: an ornate neoclassical structure built in 1890 during the height of Costa Rica’s coffee boom.  The National Cathedral: a small but tastefully designed temple adjacent to a central plaza; Mass is in session when we visit, but Oliver assures me it is okay to take photos of the worshipers as they sing “Jesus, nuestro Padre.”  The ecclesiastic moment apparently moves to spiritual action the anal sphincter of the European infant, who defecates in and around his diaper shortly after we reboard Moby.  An unpleasant few minutes thus ensue until we reach the next stop: various civic offices and the National Gold Museum, which houses much of the central bank’s hard gold reserves and a baby-changing station.  Overall, the buildings and parks are lovely and are a testament to the country’s relative wealth and governmental stability, but they fail to leave visitors breathless.  The infant’s bowel output does, however.

Possibly as recompense for the miasmatic diaper experience, Oliver ends the tour by taking us to a jewelry shop / pub.  An odd combination of enterprises elsewhere in the world; unremarkable in San Jose.  In a laughably stereotypical segregation of the sexes, the women of the group congregate by the shelves of shiny objects, the men by the shelves of shiny bottles.  I begin to order my usual, a menacing club soda, when Oliver recommends that we all try the national rum, known as guaro.  The LA man gives a resoundingly American “hell yeah,” and even the two codgers from San Antonio order glasses of the stuff.  “My liver’s shot anyway,” croaks the older of the two.  Not to be outdone by a couple of centenarians, I try a small sample of the poison, which tastes terrible.

As we return to our hotels, I am the final passenger to disembark, at roughly 9 p.m.  Attempting simultaneously to bid adieu to Oliver and to step down from Moby, I crash my forehead on a jagged edge of the bus door frame.  “Too much guaro for you, eh amigo?” Oliver laughs as he closes the door and drives away before I can explain that excess altitude, not alcohol, has caused my condition.  Clutching my now bleeding scalp and not wanting to answer awkward questions from the front desk staff, I rush up to my room and attempt to dress the wound.  The laceration sits neatly on a stress line over my right superior orbital bridge, and though I assiduously stanch the bleeding, the site reopens every time I raise my eyebrows.  At midnight, after yet another episode of bleeding, I finally allow myself to walk across the street to the ER at the hospital where I’ve been working for the past week.  I discuss my case with the on-call physician, who kindly bandages my wound without charge and who makes a few snide comments about gringos and guaro.

Nursing a substantial headache on Sunday morning, I elect for a leisurely day.  I stroll through San Jose’s largest park, Parque Sabana, and through the pedestrian-only shopping and restaurant lane known as Avenida Central.  Later in the evening, at a Peruvian restaurant nearby my hotel, the waiter points to my bandaged head and asks, “Qué hiciste?” – What did you do?

“Well, it started with a divinely inspired diaper…”

For my second weekend in Costa Rica, I follow the recommendations of several physician clients I’ve met and arrange a weekend trip to Monteverde: a remote mountain town–originally founded by agrarian Quakers–and nearby nature preserve set in the unique “cloud forest” region of the country’s northern highlands.  Though the area lies several hours from San Jose, the doctors assure me the trip is a leisurely bus ride with excellent vistas en route, and so early Saturday morning, I eagerly await the charter bus that will pick me up from my hotel.

It becomes quickly apparent that the Costa Rican notion of “leisurely” bus ride and mine do not align.  The charter bus that arrives at my hotel is an overcrowded, chrome-detailed, tan and white VW minivan pulled straight from the ’60s; I half-expect surfboards to be tied to the luggage rack.  The driver, Fernando, speaks no English and answers even Spanish inquiries with a furious scowl and an increase in the vehicle’s speed.  As we move northward, the vistas of surrounding plantations and distant coastlines are indeed lovely, but difficult to appreciate at a constant speed of 175 mph.  Once we arrive at the steep mountain road by which one ascends to Monteverde, the ride moves from unsettling to alarming to harrowing to white-knuckle, soiled undergarments terrifying.  The road is unpaved, one lane wide, studded with house-sized boulders, and utterly bereft of anything resembling a guardrail; Fernando, however, considers none of these features a sufficient reason to reduce his speed.  Seated on the “outer” side of the bus as it circles the mountain, I have an excellent vantage of the sheer precipice down which we will fall several hundred feet to our collective demise should Fernando’s concentration lapse even for a moment; in some places, our wheels come within mere inches of this edge.  Prayers, in the multiple languages spoken by our bus’s diverse collection of riders, fill the air.  By the time we reach the town of Monteverde, I understand fully why it boasts such a large religious element; grateful genuflection seems the only appropriate response upon one’s safe arrival.

In a cloud of gravel and Spanish swearwords, Fernando leaves me outside the door of the small B&B where I will stay the weekend.  An edentulous, kyphotic, 900-year-old native tico woman greets me warmly in Spanish and ushers me inside.  The facility has four cozy guest rooms, which branch outward from the main family room / kitchen / dining hall / reception area.  The ancient matriarch and her family manage the property.  Her spry, 450-year-old daughters are busily preparing the midday meal when I arrive; after allowing a respectful interval of time for me to settle in to my quarters, one of them softly knocks on my door and invites me to almuerzo.  The fare is simple–rice, beans, tortillas, and home-grown vegetables–but good and filling, and the atmosphere is even more wholesome.  The only other boarders, a middle-aged Swiss couple, and I eat alongside the family; and through a combination of Spanish, German, pidgin English, and universal laughter a lively conversation takes place.  After lunch, I have an hour to spare before my zip line tour begins.  I lie down to rest, only to awaken moments later due to shrill, Spanish shrieking, “Aye, aye, aye!  Afuera, afuera!  Mi Dios!  Mi Dios!  Monos!”  Wondering if Fernando has returned with a vengeance, I rush to the main room.  There I find one of the daughters brandishing a broom and driving from the kitchen three silver-faced monkeys that had opened the windows, sneaked in, and begun stealing bananas.  They hastily retreat to some nearby rubber trees, where they proceed to enjoy the spoils of their sortie.  After snapping some photos, I return to my room to prepare for the zip line.

This zip line tour at Monteverde will ultimately prove worthy of joining Melbourne’s Great Ocean Road and Hong Kong’s Big Buddha on my Life Tally of experiences that have added inimitable substance and meaning to my existence.  However, the afternoon begins on an unpromising note.  As a solo traveler, I am added to a large group of undergraduate business students who are in Costa Rica for a three-week international finance “course.”  (As an Honors biochemistry major in college, I often wondered what the business majors actually studied; now I know.)   The students’ obnoxious frivolity generates exasperated eye-rolling among the tico guides, who no doubt lump me with these gringos.  Once we reach the forest canopy, everything changes.  I allow the future politicians and bankers to speed ahead, while I discuss with the guides various details of the zipping technique: how to control my speed and orientation; which zip routes offer the best views; how to avoid crushing my meter-long legs against a tree trunk; etc.  Nothing in the guides’ friendly advice, though, prepares me for the first moment of sliding out into the abyss.

Hanging a hundred feet above the canopy, which itself is one hundred fifty feet above the forest floor, I speed forward into an all-consuming fog.  I can see neither sky nor surrounding hillsides; only a formless, grey void broken at odd intervals by sable-green silhouettes of the tallest ficus trees and by transient shadows of flying birds.  I am soaring in the clouds of the cloud forest.  Moisture quickly condenses on my face and hands, and I can taste the pure rain droplets.  No sound, save the soft zzz-zzz-zzz of the zip cable, breaks the primordial stillness of the air.  The scene has a Jurassic Park quality to it; I expect a pterodactyl to break abruptly, screeching, through the thick sheets of mist.  Some of the zip lines are nearly a kilometer in length, allowing for prolonged intervals of gliding through the magical ether, before ending in a sudden, jangling halt at a treetop platform where a friendly tico guide switches the rider to a different line to continue the journey.  The entire run of lines takes roughly two hours to complete, but feels timeless.

With my head still–yes, I’ll say it–in the clouds after the zip line experience, the remainder of my stay in Monteverde passes in an enjoyable blur.  Later in the evening on Saturday, I participate in a “night tour,” which involves walking at midnight into unmarked jungle, accompanied by a bilingual guide and a dim flashlight.  Sensing, perhaps, my mild trepidation, the guide assures me that the jaguars, though highly efficient and strictly nocturnal killing machines, rarely attack tourists.  “They no like gringo meat, you see?” he grins.  Thankfully, we encounter no big cats, but an abundance of other jungle fauna: sloths, a raccoon relative known as the coati, leaf-cutter ants, sleeping toucans, and a highly venomous side-striped pit viper.  The latter we spot clinging to a low hanging branch, roughly at head level.  “Ooh, this way,” my guide gasps excitedly, beckoning me closer to the fluorescent green snake, “Isn’t she beautiful?  Look at that color.  Look how the neck is poised, set to strike.  Get closer so you get a good picture.”  Just as I begin to pull out my camera, the guide adds, as an afterthought, “She’s crazy deadly, too.  One bite, and you’re muerto in minutes.”  I decide that a blurry photo from fifteen feet away is perfectly acceptable.

On Sunday morning, the jungle hikes continue, this time principally focused on birds.  After a brief visit to the hummingbird gardens, where the tiny avian sprites are so numerous and bold they frequently alight on visitors’ hands, I join a tour group led by a slightly saner guide than the one from the night tour.  We walk for several hours through the rich undergrowth of the forest, and spot several species of rare birds, though one outshines them all.  The quetzal.  A vanishingly rare and unbelievably beautiful bird, the quetzal was worshipped by ancient Mayans, and for good reason; it is large, nearly three feet in total length, and has brilliant green, blue, and red plumage with long and often white tail feathers.  Our guide descries one perched two hundred feet overhead, in the thinning, upper reaches of the canopy.  Through his telephoto zoom lens, we catch a fleeting glimpse of the resplendent creature before, with a flash of its broad wings, it disappears into the misty heavens.

Sunday afternoon arrives, and with it, my departure from Monteverde.  I wish to extend, if just for a few minutes, my stay in that mystical world, but Fernando brooks no compromise on the time schedule.  As he impatiently revs the bus engine outside my B&B, I say goodbye to the partly fossilized proprietress and pause to take in one last view of the cloud forests, earning in doing so a volley of angry honking and obscene gestures from Fernando.  As we careen down the mountainside back towards San Jose, my mind remains in the canopy, zipping along with the quetzals.

Work obligations during my third and final weekend in Costa Rica limit my sightseeing activities to a single day, but I make the most of it with a Sunday tripartite tour to Poas Volcano, Doka coffee plantation, and La Paz waterfalls.

Still reeling from Fernando’s driving of the previous weekend, I book this Sunday’s tour with a different company and am grateful to find that the vehicle arriving at my hotel is a spacious, modern van driven by a stately, grey-haired gentleman named Roberto.  The final passenger in the group, I join the other tourists already on board: a retired banker and his wife from Michigan; three elderly spinsters from Florida who have come to San Jose for dental implants; a pair of sultry Colombian strumpets; and a family of five Italians who are–predictably–vivacious, vocal, and effusive in praise of each and every sight we encounter.  I learn of their Italian heritage after conversing for several minutes in Spanish with the husband, only to realize slowly that his speech is difficult to understand not because it’s an obscure Hispanic dialect but because it’s a different language.  By this point in the drive, Roberto has conveyed us out of the central valley, and we ascend the switchbacking road up Poas, stopping first at the Doka coffee farm.

Set among several thousand idyllic acres of rich mountain soil fertilized by volcanic ash, the Doka plantation has operated for more than 70 years, across three generations of the same family, and produces truly superb coffee.  The guided tour takes us through the entire production process: from planting, cultivation, and harvest to shelling, drying, and roasting to packaging and export.  The experience is quite educational, though only a couple of highlights warrant mention.  I learn that 75% of the plantation’s coffee goes directly to Starbucks USA, and I immediately wonder how one obtains the job of Starbucks source researcher who travels to exotic locales to procure fine coffee.  During the roasting section of the tour, the guide explains that light roast may taste weaker than dark roast but, contrary to common belief, actually contains more caffeine per gram.  This information utterly dumbfounds most of the Americans present.  Indeed, the banker responds with an indignant, “Unbelievable!  All these years, I’ve been drinking the wrong brew.”  I smile, because this news is no news to me.  As part of the medical student indoctrination process, upperclassmen mentor the first-years on various survival strategies, one of the more crucial being how to obtain the most stimulant possible per student loan dollar.  Cocaine is highly effective, but regrettably illicit.  Purified caffeine extracts work well, but are expensive.  Coffee, that sweet nectar of life, meets most needs, but only a light roast can carry one through an all-night anatomy review of the brachial plexus.  Thinking of my mother, the only person I’ve ever met who drinks more coffee than a medical student, I purchase a couple of bags of beans at the Doka gift shop, and hasten back to the bus for our continued journey to the top of Poas.

The apex of Poas is an anticlimax, for heavy clouds and mist enshroud the mountaintop and completely obscure what I’m told is a stunning view of the volcanic crater.  Rather disappointed and nursing a severe headache from the heavy sulfur fumes in the air, I hasten back to the bus, where I converse with Roberto for several minutes while awaiting the return of the remainder of our group.  Roberto, in the characteristic optimism of the ticos, points out that the failed Poas attempt simply gives me an excuse to return one day to San Jose.  I like his perspective.  Once the group assembles, we depart for the day’s final destination: the La Paz Waterfalls.

Or, in Spanish, La Paz cataratas.  The place is a nature preserve similar to Monteverde but, owing to a lower elevation, falls under the “rain forest” rather than “cloud forest” designation and boasts waterfalls rather than zip-lines as its principal attraction.  These waterfalls consist of a series of four separate cascades, ranging from 30 to 120 feet in height, coursing through several kilometers of lush tropical growth, which is continuously dripping wet from the overspray of the falls.  The noise is thundering, a physical manifestation of the sheer energy behind the masses of flowing water.  Wrapped in a tattered green poncho that began disintegrating the moment I withdrew it from its packaging, I stand awestruck at the falls, and shivering from incipient hypothermia.  At the terminus of the hike, Roberto and his chariot wait for the now bedraggled passengers, and mercifully, he has prepared hot coffee for us.  Over said coffee, Roberto informs me that just five years ago, the entire La Paz region was destroyed in a tremendous earthquake, though one would never suspect it from the seamless beauty of the refuge.  I gaze with new respect upon the dense jungle from which I’ve just emerged.  Nature has an incredible resiliency, and I wonder for a moment if humanity will prove as enduring.

Metaphysical musings aside, the weekend forms a strong conclusion to my month in Costa Rica and to my short stint as a globe-trotting salesman.  My immediate path henceforward is as obscured as the caldera of Poas, but channeling Roberto’s optimism, great wonders may lie just beyond the mist.