© 1992, 2023 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
[Originally, this diary was written by hand in a spiral notebook during the trip, in October 1992. Nearly 30 years later, I transcribed and edited it. I'd glued all kinds of things into the paper version: bus tickets, receipts, and so forth. It's quite likely that I hadn't read the diary since I first wrote it.]
Preparation and Departure
It was Adventure Time again! This trip, I'd visit Central America for the first time by going to Costa Rica. [In Spanish, Costa Rica literally means "Rich Coast." In that language, adjectives are written after the nouns to which they refer.] I had two weeks and a round-trip airline ticket plus a list of contacts with whom I might be able to stay. Basically, there was no grand plan; I'd make it up as I went.
I'd purchased a new, internal-frame backpack. It had one main compartment, another small one that zipped to the bottom, a zippered compartment on the top, and two side pockets. It had all kinds of adjustable straps and when I was wearing it, I looked a bit like a decorated Christmas tree! It was a medium shade of blue with black trim. By the time I got all the gear in, there was still quite a bit of room. My empty daypack folded up and fit just nicely into the small compartment, so everything went on my back keeping my hands free, something I very much like to have. Around my waist I'd wear a large fanny pack that contained my valuables, pen, paper, candy, and, of course, my good old Swiss Army knife, complete with blades, a screwdriver, and a toothpick, I kid you not!
Here's what I packed for the 2-week trip:
- 1 all-weather coat with zip-out liner and numerous pockets
- 1 pair of khaki hiking trousers and 1 pair of shorts
- 1 pair of hiking boots
- 6 pairs of hand-knitted woolen socks
- 6 pairs of underpants
- 2 long-sleeve shirts
- 2 T-shirts
- 1 Army-style jungle hat
- 1 woolen cap
- First-aid kit, malaria pills, diarrhea tablets, iodine tables
- Emergency-rations of granola bars
- Guidebook and maps
- Spanish language dictionary and phrase book
- Miscellaneous: Flashlight, matches, whistle, small roll of toilet paper, basic mess kit, washing powder, and toiletries
That was it; no kitchen sink; not even a plug for one! Each time I travel I seem to take less, so at this rate, in another 10 years, I'll be traveling naked and empty-handed!
[Next day] As I'd organized my gear a few days earlier, on Travel Day, it didn't take long to pack. Around 3:30 pm, Jenny drove me to Washington Dulles International airport (IAD). I waited in line at the United Airlines international desk for a half hour, and when I eventually got to the front of the line, I was told that I had to go to another counter to get my ticket reissued after which I could come back and check-in. After 10 minutes in the other line, a pleasant lady agent apologized for the other agent's behavior and said that the first agent could have handled the issue himself. I rewarded her with a United employee certificate that frequent flyers get to hand out to airline employees who "go the extra mile."
Passing Through Mexico City
After security, I rode the bus to the mid-field Terminal C and walked to Gate 11. Flight UA1003 was going to San Jose, Costa Rica, via Mexico City, Mexico. The Boeing 737 was nearly full, and I sat at a window with the middle seat next to me empty. Although there wasn't much room for my long legs, the seat in front of me was occupied by a small child who slept the whole way without putting the seat back.
The first leg was uneventful, as one likes flights to be. The cabin crew were very light-hearted, and the co-pilot was a young woman. We were served supper, for which I chose the chicken on rice (pollo con arroz) with some sort of Mexican sauce, a salad, and a slice of cake. After I read a newspaper, I perused my Costa Rica guidebook, primarily to figure out where I might stay the first night.
It took about five hours to get to Mexico City (MEX), and it was raining when we arrived. With some 20 million people, it was one of the world's biggest cities. As we approached, I started to think about the 1968 Summer Olympics that were held there, during which athletes had to adjust to the high-altitude (7,350 feet/2,240 meters). Most of all, I thought about the 8.1-magnitude earthquake they had in 1985, and I hoped the ground would stay still for the short time I'd be on it. Fortunately, it did!
Ground time was short and I and only five or six other passengers stayed on board for the next leg. Seventy-odd others boarded at MEX. During the 2.5-hour flight, we were served a snack, but having eaten a bit earlier, I put most of that in my pack. Besides, I'm a great hoarder when I travel, picking up all kinds of things I figure might be useful, from airline cups, containers, salt/pepper/ketchup packs, and nuts.
Arrival in Costa Rica
We landed at San José airport (SJO), some 20 km west of downtown, around 11:45 pm, local time (two hours behind my home time, including Daylight Savings-Time adjustment). Although I was one of the first passengers off the plane, my luggage was one of the last pieces to arrive at the baggage carousel. Don't you just hate that when that happens! Immigration was a formality, and then I got in the long line for customs inspection. As the staff seemed to have nothing else to do at that hour, they decided to check nearly everyone's bags! However, since I stuck out in the crowd—being two feet taller than everyone else and wearing a blue backpack—it was obvious that I was not a Tico (a person from Costa Rica) returning home. The agents were only interested in natives bringing home stuff and trying to avoid paying import duty. So, I was pulled out of line and told to go straight through (or something like that, in Spanish!) I smiled and said "Muchas gracias! (Many thanks!)"
By then, it was after midnight and the airport bank was long closed leaving me with US$ travelers checks and cash only. As I left the restricted area, about 10 different people approached me asking if I wanted a taxi. After a short exchange in Spanish, I chose one of the guys, and we set off in his cab for the capital. And, "Si," he would be happy to take US$ cash, and the ride would cost $10, which according to my guidebook was the going rate. (As nobody uses meters, you have to negotiate the fare in advance.)
I had picked out a hotel from the "better class" of cheap places, and my driver soon found it. I asked him if I could buy some local currency from him. He agreed, and for US$20, I got CRC 2,500 (Costa Rican colones, which have the symbol ₡), which at 125/$, was decent compared to the official rate. According to my guidebook, the Hotel Rialto was "reasonable and cheap, has hot water, $4 a double room and $5 with private washbasin and toilet." My book was 18 months old, so not completely up to date, but I got a room with two beds at the single rate of $5/night. I got another Spanish workout while checking in during which time I was told the basic rules and regulations only a few of which I understood.
Both beds were OK, but one was better than the other, and by 1 am, I "hit the hay." Now while Ticos are short—you could easily fit two of them in my single bed—you could only fit two thirds of me! So, my feet alternated between hanging out at the end or being tucked up to my chest. I eventually got to sleep despite the street noise and bright lights outside.
[Next day] After an intermittent sleep, I was wide awake at 8 o'clock. And after I splashed some cold water on my face, I started writing this diary. Let's start by describing my room. What should one expect for $5 in this part of the world? It was about 10 feet by 10 feet (3 meters square) with two single beds and a small dresser/table with two drawers. Mounted on the wall above my bed was a place to hang clothes. The walls and ceiling were painted a cream/yellow color and were completely bare. A fluorescent light was fixed to the ceiling. The door was solid with two locks. The four sheets, two pillowcases, and two quilts were all different colors, mostly with floral patterns. And while they clashed with my "designer" hiking clothes, I thought, "What the heck; I'm on an adventure!"
The floor was cement tile with a pattern of maroon, yellow, and black squares. Using that, if you moved the beds up against the wall, you could play chess! One whole wall was windows, none of which opened. From them I had a wonderful view of the narrow street below, called "Calle 2" (Street Number 2, or maybe Second Street). To the right was a power pole with two large transformers and lots of wires. Down on the corner was a Burger King fast-food place, and opposite me was a zapateria (shoe shop) and some places selling fried chicken. From my vantage point I could see lots of rusty galvanized-iron roofs and walls well into the distance. In fact, surprise, it looked exactly like a Latin American city; everything pretty much worked, but had a general run-down appearance!
Looking at the receipt stuck in my paper diary, I see that I was in Room 6 and that my address was "Australia," as that was the country of my passport even though I no longer lived there.
I checked out around 9:30 am and headed outside to see what I could see. I started at the Central Market, which had many small stores under a big roof. They sold everything from shoes and clothes; to flowers; fruit; vegetables; and meat; to a pet store selling dogs, cats, birds, chickens, and ducks; to quite a few eating places, one of which was right next door to the pet shop! Most things were cheaper than back at home, but not always by a lot. The streets were narrow and crowded, and with my backpack on it was easier if I walked in the gutter rather than the sidewalk. Even though I towered over everyone, not too many people stared at the Gringo Gigantico.
I stopped at a bank and changed $100, getting a rate of 135 colones per dollar. All the staff were friendly and helpful. I love street musicians and I stopped to listen to a blind, young man playing a keyboard, and to a group of four not-so-young men really "getting it on" with their instruments. Street vendors were all around selling everything from newspapers, the ever-present lottery tickets, ice creams, and fruit.
I found the tourist office and got a good map of the capital and the whole country. I also got a schedule for all long-distance buses. I learned that the "Jungle Train" that used to run to Puerto Limon on the Caribbean coast stopped running several years earlier. While there, I met an American from Seattle. He'd been in-country for six weeks and gave me some good tips. He was staying at a youth hostel. I also met a Danish guy who'd arrived the day before, like me.
As a member of Servas International, a peace-based hosting organization, I'd gotten its host list for Costa Rica. I phoned one host, a retired journalist. She currently had guests, but she invited me to stay for my final two nights of the trip. I tried contacting a second host, but the number I had for them did not have the correct number of digits. I finally resorted to the paper directory next to the phone, but couldn't find any of the names on my list. Eventually, a young lady came along who spoke some English, and she helped me. Apparently, in the Spanish-speaking world people have two last names, one from their mother and one from their father. I still couldn't find any of the names, and my helper even called Information for me. Finally, I called the local Servas coordinator, but she didn't have a better number of that one host, and I had great difficulty understanding her Spanish.
After that ordeal–trying to use a foreign language on a telephone can be very intimidating/frustrating—what to do but have some comfort food! So, I headed back to the central market, to the Golden Café, where waitress Maria escorted me to a booth upstairs. She practiced her minimal English and me my introductory Spanish. I ordered soup, which was served in a broad, flat dish. It came with two large carrots, large pieces of potato and sweet potato, pieces of beef, and broth. It was quite good, perhaps even "as good as Grandma used to make!" I also had a side-order of rice with vegetables, and a glass of iced-cold pineapple drink. All up it cost me $2.50, including a generous tip. Maria thanked me and told me to come back, and she'd take good care of me, and to have a good trip.
I headed back out on the street where I saw a man pedaling a stationary bicycle. The back wheel was mounted on a frame, and it drove a grinding wheel near the handlebars. He was using the wheel to sharpen knives and scissors.
As best as I could figure out, I could catch a bus to the youth hostel on Avenida 2. I found the street and asked various people for directions to the bus stop, and each one told me to go a few hundred meters and I'd see it. After three times following that advice, I found it. I paid about 10 cents for a ticket and a friendly passenger helped me determine my stop, just before the Kentucky Fried Chicken place! Apparently, the locals give directions using landmarks rather than street numbers. (As some streets don't have signs, at times I walked several blocks in the wrong direction before I discovered where I was.)
At 3:30 pm, I was checked-in for the night at the youth hostel. I sat outdoors in the afternoon sunshine writing. I was assigned a dorm room with beds for seven others. My mattress was decent and came with a pillow, one sheet, and one blanket. The lounge had a TV and plenty of books and magazines in English, which could be exchanged. Breakfast was included. There was a daytime curfew, from 10–2, during which all guests had to leave. I made a plan to head out of the city the next morning. I was quite happy with my Spanish thus far. I was communicating, but clearly had a long way to go to understand others. The recent effort I'd made to increase my vocabulary had already paid off, and I could read lots of signs in shops and public places.
I found a convenience store and laid-in some cold milk, bread, juice, cheese, and ham, and back in the hostel lounge I ate sandwiches while reading a Robert Ludlum novel, "The Scarlatti Inheritance."
The American and Dane I'd met earlier were my room mates! There was also another American and an English architect. They were traveling in Central and South America for several months. Other guests and I talked into the night. Several spoke German as well as Spanish, and most spoke fluent English. A young Panamanian arrived.
Before bedtime, I took a shower, but the hot water gave out before I was done. Don't you just hate that when that happens! Like good roommates, the others did not turn on the main room light when they came home. In any event, there were people "coming and going" in the hostel until very late and then again from early the next morning. My bed was comfortable, and I slept reasonably well. I set my alarm for 8 am, intending to catch a 10-o'clock bus.
East to the Caribbean Coast
[Next day] Although my alarm wasn't due to go off until 8, I woke before 6 o'clock, but managed to lie in until 7:15. Don't you just hate that when that happens! By 7:30, I was packed and checked out, and I walked to a restaurant nearby, located in the old hostel. There I was joined by several other guys from my room. I had huevos revueltos (scrambled eggs), toast, and a mug of hot chocolate.
I was going east to the Caribbean coast, and the bus station for that region was only a 10-minute walk. I set out from the restaurant right about the time my alarm was originally going to wake me, so I was quite a bit ahead of schedule. At 8:25 I bought a ticket (for $2.25) to find it was for the 8:30 bus, which was just about to leave, and that put me even further ahead. The long-distance coach was comfortable and reasonably full. The young guy sitting next to me slept the whole way, so I was denied a Spanish workout. (Perhaps he was just pretending to sleep, to avoid having to speak to the foreigner!) Instead, I watched the countryside go by out the window. The 170 km trip took 2½ hours. First, there were mountains with fog and rain, and coffee and banana plantations, the mainstay of the economy. The road was in poor condition and there was quite some traffic with each driver seemingly following their own set of road rules. Out on the slopes I could see quite a few cattle grazing. Then in the tropical lowlands it was all bananas and coconuts. As we approached the coast, the humidity increased significantly although it wasn't especially hot.
We arrived at Puerto Limón ("Lemon Port"), a regional capital. I walked to the park a few blocks away to see the famous sloths that lived there, but didn't see any although a worker could see some and he tried to point them out to me. They are nocturnal critters and during the day they curl up and sleep on branches making it difficult to see them.
My original plan gave me a half hour free there, but with my early start I had two hours until my 1 o'clock bus south towards the Panamanian border. After a stroll along the waterfront, I was back at the park under the shade of some huge tropical, vine-covered trees. Nearby, a young mother was sitting on a bench breastfeeding a baby, and a few other people sat chatting. An old man who looked rather worse for wear, and with only a few teeth in his mouth, asked me for something to eat, and I gave him four slices of bread, some cheese, and sliced meat. I wondered if I should have lent him my dentures as well! He was very happy and thanked me.
The ancestors of many people living on the coast originally came as slaves from Jamaica and other Caribbean islands. As such their descendants were quite dark skinned and spoke a flavor of English with some Spanish mixed in.
There wasn't much to see or do around the town, so I sat and read my novel before walking to a different bus station for the next leg. There, I and many passengers boarded a contraption that in a previous life might have been a bus! It was run-down with torn or missing seats, badly cracked windows, and numerous holes rusted through the floor. There was a baggage area in the back, so I dumped my pack there and settled into the backseat next to the back door. Near me were two American women, one of whom (Toni) managed the very place at which I was planning to stay, Cabañas Black Sands. (She was originally from the Washington DC area.)
The bus was quite full and with the seats so close together, turned sideways to accommodate my long legs, I took up most of a whole bench seat. A young Italian lady managed to find space next to me. She and her husband and 3-year-old daughter were going to Cahuita, a town just before my destination. They were from Turin, Italy, and had been traveling since January. Her English was passable and certainly much better than my 30-odd words of Italian. We talked and shared candy and fruit.
Soon after we started, the road as such seemed to disappear! There were potholes everywhere and the going was slow. It took two hours to go 50 kms! And then disaster struck! We stopped in the middle of nowhere opposite a lone house where a young mother and child stood waiting for their family to arrive on the bus. The father and small girl got off the bus, and seeing her mother waiting, the girl raced across the road in front of the bus just as a fast-driving idiot passed the stationary bus in his pickup truck. We all heard the THUMP as the vehicle hit the girl and came to a screeching halt with the girl underneath. Most passengers on the bus knew immediately what happened and started crying. Some people got the girl out from under, and while she was alive, she had severe head injuries. They loaded her onto the back of the pickup and raced off to the nearest hospital, some 40 minutes away. I didn't give her much chance of surviving.
The Town of Viejo
My destination was Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, known simply as Puerto Viejo ("Old Port"), and just outside the town, Toni and I got off and walked the 300 meters to her cabins. Unfortunately, I was told that they were completely full for the next four days, by which time, I'd have left the area. It was a popular place with American backpackers, and they were happy to have the copy of the US National newspaper, USA Today, that I gave them. So, I sat in the shade and thought about a Plan B. Then someone suggested I try an elderly widow just down the path, as she sometimes rented a room.
I set out for her place and had been told that I couldn't miss it, as her front fence was painted in very bright colors. And there it was! I met the owner, Señora Julia, who I guessed was well into her 70's. She spoke Spanish and some English. Her house was built on high stilts underneath which was a spare bedroom with shower and toilet. The room came with an electric fan, some chairs, and mosquito screens, but only on most of the windows! Well, she looked me up and down, and decided to take a chance on me, and I paid her $7/night for two nights, in advance. Her place was located outside of (what I found was a very noisy) town, and that was just fine with me. One hundred meters away through a coconut grove was the beach.
I visited the "corner store" nearby where I bought a liter of leche frio (cold milk) and two liters of jugo de naranja (orange juice). I drank some of that with leftover food and called that "supper!"
It got dark early, around 5 pm, and I read until I couldn't see any more. Then without any invitation, the mosquitos arrived, so I put on some heavy-duty repellant. I also had started taking anti-malaria tables, just in case.
My double bed came with two sheets only, but given the climate, I wouldn't need a blanket. The bed was quite comfortable, and for that I was very grateful. I was dog-tired, and put out the light at 6:30. I left the fan on low all night to keep away the mosquitos who managed to find the holes in the screens.
[Next day] Dawn broke around 5 am and it rained quite heavily for several hours. Apparently, at that time of the year that happened every morning. (Having been raised in an area with a 10-inch annual rainfall, this was quite unusual for me.) By 9 o'clock, the weather was clear, the sun was out, and it was getting quite hot. However, a gentle breeze blew, so it wasn't oppressive heat. As to where all that water drained away, I had no idea, but the ground must surely be saturated! I ate some leftovers and continued reading my gripping novel. Outside on the verandah, a sink was mounted on some wobbly wooden planks. There, I handwashed socks, underwear, and a T-shirt.
As I sat in my room, my host came out of her upstairs rooms and called out "Rex" several times. Of course, that got my attention until it occurred to me that I didn't think I'd told her my name. Well, don't you know, she had a Jack Russell terrier called Rex. And when I explained to her that my name was Rex, she didn't believe me, "'cos that's a dog's name!"
Mid-morning, I headed out for the 20-minute walk into town. I had to decide whether to stay two or four nights, to coordinate with the reduced bus service over the weekend, but that could wait until later. I walked out the back yard where the chickens were pecking for food, stepped over the low galvanized-iron fence, went through a grove of coconut palms, and came out on a black lava-sand beach. I spied a long piece of sturdy bamboo partly buried in the mud, and I dug it out, washed it off in the sea while hanging down over the water from a coconut tree, and used it as a walking stick.
The beach sand was so fine it was like powder. The surf was quite strong, and it pounded loudly all day (and night) long, but that's a sound I'm happy to have in the background. In fact, I'd felt its crashing vibrations up through the floor of my room the night before, some 100 meters away. I walked into town, which was quite small with two large shops and several smaller ones selling T-shirts, among other things. There were a number of places to eat and to rent rooms. I bought some pineapple-flavored ice cream and ate that while walking further along the beach stopping occasionally to watch the people and the surf, and then to read my novel. Beyond the town the beach was brown and white and not so powder-like. Eventually, the way became impassable as it was completely blocked by huge tree trunks and large pieces of wood of every shape and size. Apparently, this was a result of a sizeable earthquake from the previous year. The trees were flushed out to sea and then washed up on beaches along the coast, depending on the current and tide.
Lunch consisted of the last piece of cheese and two slices of bread. Once I finished my novel, I sat outside the store opposite the bus stop. Waiting at the stop were two young European women, and in my best Spanish I struck up a conversation with one of them. It was clear to both of us that Spanish was not our first language. Uta and Stephanie were German, and they had come down from Cahuita on a daytrip, and were waiting for the return bus, which, of course, came whenever the driver felt like it! In fact, we talked for 90-odd minutes before it arrived. As one of the women spoke only German, I said in Spanish that I spoke some German, with the idea that all three of us could chat. However, I discovered that when I'm in one foreign language mode, I can't even begin to think in another, and I tried to explain in Spanish and English that although I did in fact speak some German, right then I couldn't remember any. Really!
After their bus departed, I spoke to another couple. He was from Venezuela, but had been living in Italy for 12 years, and she was from Lucerne, Switzerland. He spoke Spanish and Italian, and she spoke German, Spanish, and some English. For the next hour, my Spanish got a good work out! I also met some Americans and an Aussie from Canberra. At that time of the year, tourism was slow, but apparently during the surfing season, it was very busy with international beach bums!
From 4–7, it rained steadily, and at times heavily.
For supper, I went to a local soda (diner), where I actually ordered breakfast. I had gallo pinto, which literally means "spotted rooster!" It was a popular meal consisting of rice and speckled kidney beans and came with a side order of scrambled egg. My drink was a blend of fruit and milk, which while disgusting looking, tasted pretty darned good. The only other patron was a young guy from Switzerland. I ate slowly while reading a book and waiting for the rain to stop.
At 7:15, I stepped out in light drizzle for the walk home. A young guy offered me a sheet of plastic, but I declined. I went back via the road, which wound around and had very few streetlights. To avoid the many potholes filled with water, I broke out my trusty flashlight. At one point, I had to cross a large wooden bridge, which I did with care, as I'd found out earlier how slippery the soles of my boots could be when I did an impromptu "dance" on muddy beach sand. It definitely was not the night to break a leg! With all the rain, the grass was waterlogged, and parts of the road were flooded.
Back home, I had an early night as I'd been yawning since mid-afternoon. After studying my Spanish books for a bit, I went off to sleep.
[Next day] The rain started about 5 am, and six hours later, it was still coming down. And that after three hours of rain the previous evening! When Señora Julia surfaced I paid for two more nights. Breakfast consisted of orange juice and potato chips! My laundry was reasonably dry, but with the humidity I wanted to make sure the clothes didn't get moldy. While it rained, I rested up and worked on my Spanish vocabulary. The resident rooster and his harem of hens were sheltering under the verandah next to my room, but eventually they wandered out into the rain. (If you know the story of Henny Penny, you'll know about "the sky is falling!") As I learned, they were in the habit of leaving deposits of fresh manure near my door.
I put on my rain poncho, long pants, and long sleeve shirt, and headed to the beach and on to town. The weather soon cleared, and it got rather warm. I met a young American woman, Corrine, and asked her if she had any reading material to swap. She didn't, but we sat and chatted a good while. She was an Education and Anthropology Professor at the University of Vermont in Burlington. She was on a 1-year sabbatical, and would be in this town for six months volunteering with a preservation and ecotourism organization. She'd just completed four weeks of intensive Spanish having had no exposure to that language beforehand. So, we talked in Spanish to give both of us practice. I took her to Cabañas Black Sands, as she was looking for places for her parents to stay when they came to visit. While there, I managed to swap a novel and we were given fresh fruit to take with us. I went with her back to her place where we made a jug of punch from the fruit. I helped her resolve some problems on her portable computer.
By the time I left Corinne's place, it was dark, and I went in search of a place to eat, and I came across a Chinese restaurant where I ordered Chicken chop suey, Costa Rican-style. The serving was large, but the meat was a bit raw; however, it went down with the aid of a bottle of Pepsi. Midway through my meal, a young guy arrived, and I invited him to join me. He was a postman from Germany, and he spoke some English.
I walked around the town and came upon an open-air Catholic Church having a Saturday-night singalong with guitar and keyboards. It was a nice evening with enough breeze to keep away the insects. From the many pools left behind after all the rain, frogs croaked, and once I found my flashlight, I watched some swimming. I was back home by 8 o'clock, but as I was wide awake, I started a new novel, "Murder at the Kennedy Center," by Margaret Truman (President Harry's daughter). It was a page-turner, and I read until late. The night was cool and breezy, so I left the fan switched off.
[Next day] I was pleasantly surprised to find no rain in the early morning, but then, the previous morning it had rained enough for several days! As soon as I woke up, I started reading my novel, which I finished before noon. I then worked on Spanish vocabulary, mostly on opposites: hard/soft, strong/weak, heavy/light, and rough/smooth. When I'm in the mood to learn, it all goes very easily, but when I'm not, no amount of repetition works.
I showered and dressed, and as it felt like a storm was coming, I took my rain gear. As I was going to town, I met three Frenchmen who were heading out to the main road to catch a bus. Downtown was very quiet with the main stores closed; however, the eating places were open. I sat and read a good while and then around 2:30 I decided it was time to eat, so I went to the small soda I'd visited several days earlier, and I had the same meal again. I spoke at length with a young guy who worked there. Throughout I managed to drink several nice cups of café con leche. When I mentioned that I collected coins and small banknotes when I traveled, he gave me an out-of-circulation 10 colones note. In exchange, I gave him some US coins.
I walked around town a bit, but rain started, and it got heavier, and I made my way to some cover near the main bus stop where I spoke to some tourists. One lived near me in the US; the other was from Norway. I also met an American woman who was driving back to the capital, and she offered me a ride. However, I'd already paid for the night at my place, so I declined. Besides, riding the local buses would be much more interesting. The rain eased off and I went back to my restaurant for dessert: pineapple, avocado, watermelon, and orange ice cream. Afterwards, I read some more.
On the walk home it drizzled, but otherwise was pleasant. A very sad-looking stray dog followed me all the way, as it wanted a friend, and preferably one who had food. Back at my place, I obliged with a can of tuna and vegetables. Within minutes, he'd licked clean the dish and wanted to join me in my room. However, I declined to invite him in, and he laid down outside to guard my door. It was still early, and it was time to start my new book, "The Dream Merchants," by Harold Robbins.
Tomorrow, I'd head back to the capital via Puerto Limon on a new adventure.
Back to Puerto Limon and the Capital
[Next day] I was wide awake at 5:30 am, which was not my plan. I quickly decided to get up and pack, so I could catch the 6:10 bus to Puerto Limon. Miss Julia was already up and outside sweeping the verandah, so we said our "Goodbyes." It was a fine morning out as I walked the 150 meters to the bus stop. Two people arrived soon after me and we chatted a bit. The bus arrived and filled up rather quickly with many of the passengers being school kids headed off to Cahuita, the nearest town to the north. Then when they all got off at the school, more people got on with some standing the whole two-hour trip. I offered a piece of my seat to a young woman, which she accepted, but she was very shy, and we rode in silence.
At Puerto Limon I stopped by a bakery to "rescue" a few things. Then it was on to the 9-am bus to San Jose, which actually left 10 minutes early. I managed to get two seats to myself, so I could stretch out a bit. Having gotten up way too early, I was fading, but there was no way to lie back and rest. The trip took 2½ hours, the same as when I left, and on arrival, I decided to go back to the youth hostel, as it was close, predictable, and it had hot water!
After I dumped my pack, I set out into the city. I changed some money and bought a nice 100%-cotton T-shirt. By 2 pm, my body was asleep, but my eyes wouldn't close, so I kept strolling around. To stay awake, I went to a 3-o'clock movie, which when I arrived, I discovered was not playing until 4. Don't you just hate that when that happens! By then it was raining, so I found a dry spot and read for an hour before going back to the movie. It was an action movie in English with Spanish subtitles, but I'm certain a lot was lost in the translation. I got out at 5:45, by which time I was wide awake.
Nearby a restaurant beckoned me, so I stopped in for a ham and cheese roll with two cups of café con leche, which I consumed while reading. An hour later, I was back at the hostel enjoying a hot shower. I made up my bed and started making a plan for the next day. That involved heading up into the mountains after sleeping late, hopefully! Then I swapped two novels and read some more. I was sharing with three others, including the Norwegian I'd shared with the previous week. (Like me, he'd been off to some other part of the country in the meantime.)
[Next day] Two of my room mates were Germans, and they got in at 3:30 am, but only made a bit of noise. Fortunately, I went back to sleep. I went down to breakfast with Harald, the Norwegian, and soon after, two other guys joined us.
Arenal and Active-Volcano Country!
I planned to catch an 11:30 bus that left from the old Coca Cola terminal across town, and having plenty of time, I decided to walk there. It was a nice morning and I browsed in shops and markets along the way, and took some photos. My bus was decent, and I got a seat up front with plenty of legroom. We pulled out on schedule and headed north. An hour out we had to transfer to a smaller and less comfortable bus, although no reason I could understand was given. I managed to stand my backpack between my legs for the continuation. I invited a woman to take the window seat next to me and she gladly accepted, and then proceeded to give me a good workout in Spanish. She had six children and two grandchildren, and her husband worked in a dairy. I asked her questions about things we saw along the way, and about her life, in general.
The old bus climbed and climbed and then climbed some more until we were up over 2,000 meters. Everywhere I looked there was agriculture. First it was bananas and sugar cane, then coffee and cattle. I also saw some horses. The towns along the way were quite crowded. The bus stopped to let people on and off, pretty much on demand; there were no stops, as such. So, the first leg of 110 kms took three hours along winding mountain roads. My seatmate got off, and her replacement was shy, but later another talkative woman sat by me. We stopped in Cuidad Quesada for 30 minutes and I bought some interesting and tasty food, but I really couldn't figure out just what it was! Then it was on to my destination at the breakneck speed of one hour for 52 kms!
In the town of La Fortuna, the bus stopped right outside Hotel Fortuna. A young man, who introduced himself as Adrian, was soliciting guests for the hotel and he persuaded me to go inside and "check it out." His English was quite good, which was no surprise, as people came from all over the world to hike to the waterfalls and to see the nearby volcano erupt. I had a look at a room and agreed to stay. My room had three beds and a private bathroom, and I had it all to myself for only $6/night. It was insect-proof, it had hot water, and it had a ceiling fan. (A room without a bathroom cost only $3, so I was living high!)
Around 4:30, while I was registering, someone called out my name. So, who would recognize me here in the wilds but the two German women I'd spoken with on the Caribbean coast some days earlier. I joined them for a chat. Grace, the receptionist and daughter of the owner, and Adrian and his cousin, Oldemar, also joined us. I'd bought some Spanish-language music tapes but had nothing to play them on, so Grace fetched a player and then wrote out the words for me as the songs played.
Heavy rain started falling around 6 o'clock, and we decided to stay in and eat something, and I asked Grace if her mother could provide us with some food. Thirty minutes later, we all sat down to a supper of beans, rice, egg, steak, onions, and chips, plus a jug of lemonade. The total cost was only $2 each! We talked into the night switching from Spanish to English to German when any of us ran out of vocabulary in one language, and we even resorted to drawing pictures for some things. The good news was that we communicated and had a great time! When the rain stopped, several of us went out to buy some emergency rations. I started to fade around 11 o'clock, and I said goodnight, and goodbye to the Germans, as they were leaving the next morning.
[Next day] I was up at 8 o'clock and sipped a café con leche while reading a novel. I had signed up for a guided horse ride to the waterfall at 9 am. The season was slow, and I was the only person going. The guide was a nice guy, and we talked along the way. My horse's name was Platero (literally "Silversmith"), and while he was docile, he insisted on keeping up with the lead horse. A couple of times we got behind, and he started to gallop. Now I've never quite gotten the hang of riding faster than a walk, and I started to bounce more than I wanted to. Don't you just hate that when that happens! Now while cars can drive to within several kilometers of the falls, we took a trail the whole way.
At the falls, I hiked down a primitive, steep path holding on to tree roots as I went, all the way down to the pool at the base of the rushing water coming over the cliff high up. Some Canadians were swimming. It took us an hour to ride there and then 15 minutes to get down to the bottom. We'd tied our horses to a guava tree whose fruit tasted mighty fine. I took it easy on the ride home, as my backside was getting a bit sore. And while I got a little sunburned, the falls were very much worth the effort.
During the ride out and back, the Arenal volcano nearby rumbled loudly at least five times. However, the top was covered in clouds. There was one especially large explosion, and a huge cloud of steam and ash blew out and was clearly visible above the clouds. What I'd really come to see was a clear view of an eruption. Stay tuned.
Back in my room, I drank a whole liter of ice-cold milk and then rested up for the afternoon; this tourist business can be hard work! As I sat in the expansive lobby, two young Norwegian women and a Swede arrived and checked in. Later, a Dutchman (Peter) came. It rained again, for 5–6 hours. I ate supper with Peter, and in the process discovered the local pineapple milkshakes.
[Next day] After a very good sleep, I had a long, hot shower. Two bare electric wires ran into the shower head and heated the water "on demand." Of course, being so tall my head was quite near the shower head, and I had visions of having a "shocking" experience. Fortunately, I was standing on a cement floor. Mid-morning, I decided to have some breakfast, so I went across the street to a restaurant with a garden. I consumed a nice ham-and-cheese omelet with toast and coffee. Throughout, I wrote a bunch of postcards. Afterwards, I walked around the town. Back at the hotel, after my rough riding from the day before, I got a pillow from my room to sit on. I spent the afternoon giving English lessons to Grace and Adrian, and getting Spanish lessons from them in return.
There was only a little rain and that ended late evening, so I joined the 7-pm volcano tour. It was a clear and cool night. As we rode the Jeep up a dirt track, the volcano blew, and we all got out and watched the lava flowing several kms away. Then we drove some more and walked to within a kilometer of the lava. Throughout, we saw one very big eruption and three smaller ones, all against the dark sky. For the big blast, it took quite a while for the solid material that was blown into the air to hit the ground, and as we were downwind, we felt a light blast of coarse sand. On the way back, we stopped off at a small stream that ran from under the volcano. It was about 30-degrees C and we all sat in and splashed around. We got back to the hotel around 10 o'clock. After a nearly 3-day wait for the weather to clear, we had been rewarded!
West to Puntarenas
[Next day] I was up early ready to catch an 8-am bus, which was 20 minutes late arriving. I got a prime seat right up front with a clear view out the front window. For the first 20 kms, the road was mud and rocks, and there had been recent mudslides from all the rain. At one place, a third of the road had collapsed and fallen away. We twisted and turned continually as well as going up and down. I chatted with the driver who shared some fruit with me. I changed buses along the way and headed south for the Pacific coast. The second bus was completely full, and I had to stand for about 10 minutes until enough people got off. I could see the ocean in the distance as we came down out of the mountains. The Nicoya Peninsular was also visible.
We arrived in Puntarenas, a city of around 35,000. It used to be a busy port, but now, most shipping goes from the Caribbean coast instead. The downtown area sits on a long and narrow peninsular. I checked out one hotel, but it was too primitive, even for me, and I found a better place nearby for $4 with a ceiling fan. It was still quite basic, however. I ventured out into the market and the surrounds, and sat in a park reading before I ate supper. In the evening, I took in a movie called "Body Parts" in which a mass murderer was executed, and his arms and legs were transplanted onto other people, with the new limbs taking over! Separately, the head had been transplanted to yet another person, and it was killing the other people to get back its body parts. Very heavy! I paid $1 for the privilege.
Back in my room, I stayed up late reading my novel. The bed was comfortable and even came with two sheets!
Back to San Jose
[Next day] As soon as I woke, I picked up my gripping book and didn't put it down until two hours later, when I finished it. It turned out that there really wasn't anything to see or do in that city, so I packed and headed to the bus station where a bus was about to leave for the capital. It was an uneventful trip through mountains, and I looked out the window and daydreamed throughout the 2-hour trip.
The terminal was way across town from where I wanted to be, but I decided to walk and to take in the sounds and sights of the bustling city. I came across a large group of school bands parading down Avenida Central towards a large plaza. They beat their drums so hard that I could feel the pressure of it in the air. I decided to forgo the youth hostel and instead headed for the Quaker-run Peace Center. They had five rooms for rent, some private, and some dormitories. I got a small, private room for $9 with access to a shared kitchen and a small garden off the terrace. I swapped a book at the exchange and lounged around reading.
Mid-afternoon, I went to a supermarket and then, back home, I cooked my big meal of the day: sausages, fried tomato, melted cheese, a small salad, and lots of milk. The two people running the place were live-in volunteers, one from Texas, the other from Arizona. They had been there five and 18 months, respectively. I spent the afternoon talking, reading, and listening to music.
I caught the 7 o'clock showing of "Medicine Man," starring Sean Connery, and found it interesting and entertaining. The theater was filled to capacity. I strolled home in light rain, had a mug of hot chocolate, and read a while until lights-out at 10 o'clock.
[Next day] My bed was a bit short, but only at one end! Despite that, I had a good sleep. As there was only one other guest, noise was at a minimum. I woke early, but managed to get back to sleep and then to lie in reading. I had a light breakfast in my room and then studied my Spanish books for a couple of hours until I checked out.
I found the house of my Servas host without any problem. It was middle-to-upper class and nicely furnished. My host, Señora Ovares, was a 76-year-old widow and a retired journalist. Of her eight children, six were married. Her youngest, Andres, still lived at home. She was a very nice lady and had been a member of Servas for four years. (This was my very first time using that organization.) She'd travelled to the US twice that year. Her English was about like my Spanish, but we managed to communicate except when she spoke very long sentences and lost me along the way.
I arrived in time for lunch–the largest meal of the day–which consisted of chicken, potato with onion and cheese, salad, fried banana, bread, and drinks. It was enough food for a small army! After lunch, rain set in for the rest of the afternoon. I read and then listened to a number of CDs in Spanish. The power went off a few times, but only for a few minutes. Around 9:15 pm, we ate a light supper of leftovers. I stayed up late reading.
[Next day] I started the day with pineapple and banana, along with coffee; after all, this was Costa Rica, a major producer! Andres headed out to a class at university and along the way, he dropped me at a private Spanish immersion school, something quite popular in San Jose. I was there to check out the place to see if I might like to make a return trip for some classes. I met the director, and he gave me a tour. The students were taking a break and I spoke with them about their classes. When they restarted, I was invited to sit in on an intermediate-level class, which I did for 20 minutes. There were no more than three students per instructor, and it was very interactive. Afterwards, I visited another school.
On the walk home, I bought some groceries. Maria, the part-time housekeeper, was cleaning, washing dishes, and cooking up a storm. As I sat at the kitchen table bringing this diary up to date, it sure smelled good! I'd reconfirmed my flight home, and as I'd have a very early start the next day, I took it really easy. Mid-afternoon, I went out for a walk, taking in the new Christopher Columbus movie "1492," which was partly filmed in Costa Rica. It was quite long, but enjoyable. I walked home in light rain, which got quite heavy as I neared my place.
After a nice supper, I asked my host to book me a taxi for the airport at 5 am; I didn't trust my Spanish to do that myself, especially for such an important task! After I packed my gear and had a shower, I read in bed until lights-out at 9:15.
[Next day] Travel Day! I woke at 3 o'clock and lay there quite a while before getting a bit more sleep until my 4:45-am alarm sounded. I was up and ready and out-front waiting at 5. However, the taxi didn't arrive until 5:20, but still got me to the airport by 5:30, the time I'd wanted to be there. As the bank was not yet open, an arriving passenger asked if she could buy my excess colones, and I obliged. Check-in was straightforward, but I had to buy an exit tax stamp. I met a very interesting elderly man from California, and we talked at length until I boarded my plane.
We took off a bit early, and the plane had few passengers. Breakfast was served, and it consisted of a decent omelet with sausage, juice, and fruit. The weather was clear as we flew up to Mexico City, and I started a new novel along the way. Just before Mexico City, I saw three snow-capped extinct volcanoes and then some very dry flatlands, a real change from the tropical area in which I'd just spent two weeks. The smog over Mexico City was unbelievable! It was a thick, yellow/brown cloud, and I took photos of it.
We were on the ground for an hour with no plane change. Soon after we took off, lunch was served. I read and looked out the window much of the flight home. Each row on each side of the aisle had a phone one could use with a credit card, so I called home once we were inside US airspace letting Jenny know my ETA. We touched down at IAD on-time, but had to wait a bit until a mobile lounge came to take us off the plane. In my haste to get off the plane, I left my good feather pillow behind; don't you just hate that when that happens! After an easy run through immigration and customs, Jenny and Scott picked me up, and we drove home to Reston. By then, I was back to my old life, and the trip was becoming a fading memory.
The total cost of my 2-week trip was around $1,000, which included my airline ticket, accommodation, meals, transportation, and personal things like movies.
[Postscript: The Danish guy with whom I stayed in the youth hostel had just come from some weeks of intensive, immersion Spanish-language training in Antigua, Guatemala. (At that time, it was the cheapest place for international backpackers to learn the language before they headed out around Latin America.) He gave me the name and address of the woman from whom he'd rented a room there, and with whom he'd taken private lessons. At that time, Guatemala was not at all on my travel radar, but I filed away the contact info. Well, don't you know, exactly a year later, I was knocking on that woman's door, and I stayed with her and took private lessons for two weeks, which spanned the Halloween/All Saints Day weekend. Stay tuned for the diary from that trip.]