Travel Talks – Mike Reflects on Being a Fish Out of Water in Costa Rica

Park in the centre of La Fortuna, Costa Rica. Arenal volcano rises in the background.

This weekend I will be hosting friends for “Travel Talks” – a presentation event. I will present on Costa Rica and my pal Paul will talk about Hong Kong. Our loose theme is “Fish Out of Water” – and this is my first effort at articulating some feelings I’ve had about my trips to the Latin American paradise.

Here’s the official write-up as send with my invites (we are hosting a small group of friends):

Travel Talks – Costa Rica

Travel to the south, aka Mexico, Cuba or the Caribbean is a ritual enjoyed by North American and European travellers. Costa Rica is a bit different from the typical sun and fun destinations most travellers are accustomed to. Interestingly, Mike Simpson who grew up loving snow sports and life in the big city, has found himself in the sunny-rainy beach and rainforest of Costa Rica on three different occasions. 

Costa Rica is an eco-tourism star that is walking a balance between over-development and sensitive sustainability. How are they succeeding? Where could they improve? As an educator, designer and urban/social thinker Mike will share insights into the current state of affairs in Costa Rica, with an acknowledgement that he uses the lens of the foreigner. Slowly Mike has come to the conclusion that Costa Rica is a near-perfect fit. Says Mike, “Like the feeling of the womb-like volcanic thermal waters in the spa – the whole experience makes me feel a bit like a fish returning to water. I discovered a little more of my soul, my inner sun.”

The most touristy area is Fortuna / Arenal, where the legendary volcano rises up amongst the agricultural north. The most remote and idyllic area is the Caribbean Coast, populated with foreign hippies and surfers, dark skinned descendants of Caribbean migrants, and a cast of colourful Ticos (Costa Ricans) with Spanish or Indigenous background. Mike will discuss and contrast both but share photos and video focused on a recent trip to Manzanillo / Talamanca –  the gem of Caribbean Costa Rica.

Here we go with an introduction to my experiences in Costa Rica. My theme will be “Fish Out of Water.” How does that tie in exactly? Well, I’m a city kid. I love Toronto. I like to get outside the city and do some camping, hiking or cycling, but at my core I live and breathe urban culture. I am not a hot weather guy, I don’t like the sun, and traditional fantasy vacation places have been snow-covered mountains or European cities. Vancouver and Berlin fit the bill quite nicely in my imagination.

Irina, my wife, is an ardent nature lover. I admit that my instinct for travel isn’t quite as exotic as hers. Combine the two aspects and you get the result that Costa Rica popped up on our radar about a year after we met, as the possibility for our first major trip (2007).

One of the things that stood out for me was that I really thought we were headed somewhere super exotic – it would be a trip unlike anything I had ever experienced. About that time I had an encounter with an acquaintance that sticks in my mind. This friend of a friend, who was a bit of a cooler-than-thou punk type, openly derided my vacation choice. “Costa Rica is for wimps!” he cried. He then explained that Mexico would be a much better destination. He reminisced about the crazy experience he had had in Mexico City. He was sick from food poisoning from eating street foods and said getting shots was a ridiculous idea. I calmly explained that I was happy to be headed to a safe, reliable country and that Mexico held very little appeal. Irina and I wouldn’t regret our choice, though there were some scary moments along the way.

San Carlos, La Fortuna – Central Highlands

So, in 2007 we booked ourselves on our first trip to Costa Rica. We arrived in December – the end of the so-called “green season” (aka the rainy season). We would learn however that the mountainous highlands of central CR can experience cloud and rain throughout much of the year. It is a constant of the region much like Vancouver or London can experience consistent downpours. Instead of rainy grey you might call it rainy green. Our hotel, the El Tucano, was in the heart of the central highlands. We had an amazing time – most of it spent either at the hotel, or traveling around the central region with our guide Frank. (Coincidentally in most of these photos they sky is grey – though I can assure you there is plenty of sun on the coasts).

Frank was a bit crazy. He took this photo. He insisted we walk the rainy wet path around the churning water under the waterfall. There is another much safer photo of us posed on the road, but this one is much more demonstrative. Costa Rica has some wicked waterfalls!

This is the La Paz waterfall – the walk from the road to get to where we are standing was wet, slippery and quite truthfully terrifying. This is a valley on the north-east side of “Poas” – one of the world’s biggest volcanoes. Good thing there was no earthquake that day!

One further note on this particular area of the country. The mountainous area north of the central valley and the capital, San Jose, is chock full of real live volcanoes. In this exact place, on the road around Poás volcano, there was a massive earthquake a year after we took this photo.

According to Wikipedia: “Poás was near the epicenter of a 6.1-magnitude earthquake in January 2009 that killed at least forty people and affected Fraijanes, Vara Blanca, Cinchona (the most affected area), the capital San José, and the Central Valley region of Costa Rica.”

Frank, the same guide who took our photograph at the waterfall above, told us the gripping story of his own experience with the earthquake. Frank and daughter were caught on the mountain road and stranded for three days, until a helicopter could rescue them. Real life craziness in the exact place we were just a year before! And who says Costa Rica is “too safe” for any fun! Active volcanoes in an earthquake zone add some drama to any vacation. But on a serious note, peace be with those who lost their lives to mother nature in this wondrous, beautiful place. It gives us pause and strikes some serious awe and respect into the Costa Rican traveler.

Quepos – Pacific Coast

In 2009 we returned. This time however we decided to broaden our experience, so in addition to travelling to the north central region we loved so much on our first trip, we also booked a few days on the Pacific coast in a town called Quepos- famous for its national park, Manuel Antonio.

I had read a book called “Green Dreams” by Stephen Benz (Lonely Planet), about the rise of eco-tourism. There is a chapter in the book dedicated to discussing Manuel Antonio/Quepos. Published in 1998, it is described as: “Investigating the “green dreams” – those well-intentioned but often misguided visions – that inspire tourism in Central America, Steve Benz travels from the Mosquito Coast to Costa Rica and along the Ruta Maya. His encounters with foreigners, including “New Agers” at Mayan ruins, North American retirees in Costa Rica, and eco-tourists in the rainforest, lead him to question the impact that visitors are having on the region and its people.”

I had never given the concept of eco-tourism much thought. Most of us would assume the positives would outweigh the negatives. What Benz wrote about Manuel Antonio shocked me, but when I arrived the memory of the book was firmly in the past. It was indeed a busy park, and full of tourists. But there were lots of nooks and the beaches weren’t very crowded. The monkeys were tame but kept a distance, playfully scampering among the trees. Benz had described it as paradise lost, literally a park strewn with garbage from thoughtless visitors, animals begging or stealing, and an overall state of decay. I saw nothing of the sort. But perhaps it had changed since Benz wrote his book? Perhaps Costa Rica’s is increasingly working to improve its image and environmental record? Could be. In 2007, Costa Rica announced it would become the world’s first carbon-neutral country (projected for 2021). In 2012 they took an even more meaningful step and declared that recreational hunting would be banned. Will these initiatives come to pass? What will their impact be on the country?

Manzanillo – Caribbean Coast

In 2012 we were back for our third trip. We were more adventurous this time. We determined the last great unexplored region for us was the Caribbean. We zeroed in on some small towns and villages at the south-east of the country. Our guide Frank was pleased we’d be returning, and he suggested we check out a place called El Arbol. This place looked fantastic and we pretty much booked it straight away.

We stayed at El Arbol (Spanish for “The Tree”) which is inside the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge. The driveway was a couple hundred metre jungle walk. Check out this huge sandbox tree!

The small village of Manzanillo lies at the northern edge of the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge. It is one of the poorest and most under-developed areas of the country. It is thus an uncrowded, unspoiled, nature and beach lover’s paradise! Christopher Baker, Moon Travel writer, describes Manzanillo and area thusly: “Electricity arrived in 1989, four years after the first dirt road linked it to the rest of the world. The hamlet has since become a darling of the offbeat, alternative-travel set.” This is a greatly inspiring and non-touristy place, so much so that I’m half-reluctant to describe its charms and merits in too much detail. But I will… read on…

Main street Manzanillo. Directly behind me is “Maxi’s” – reggae bar at night, soda service by day, with Caribbean cuisine on the menu (the snapper rocked!).

The Talamanca region, south of historic port city Limon, hosts a string of coastal towns, including Cahuita, Puerto Viejo (Old Harbour), Cocles, Punta Uva (Grape Point), Manzanillo and Punta Mona (Monky Point). It is a wild “off the beaten track” kind of region, populated by locals of mixed Caribbean/Spanish/Indian descent, and a wide variety of foreign hippies, retirees, and animal lovers (who come from North America and Europe primarily). Inhabitants have supported themselves over the years with a combination of hunting, fishing, farming, and more recently, tourism. According to the department of statistics (via Wikipedia), “Since 1999, tourism earns more foreign exchange than the combined exports of the country’s three main cash crops: bananas, pineapples and coffee.” A combination of other manufacturing and hi-tech industries supply the bulk of other foreign investment and the largest amount of export income (from Procter and Gamble and Intel among others).

Lone fishing boat rests under the stormy skies of Manzanillo. We took a boat like this as transportation from the south end of the wildlife refuge, after an extraordinary hike.

Presently I’m reading “What Happen: A Folk-History of Costa Rica’s Talamanca Coast” – which details the influence of Caribbean island folk on south-eastern Costa Rica. In the 1800s a number of Jamaicans settled in the region, and became important founding members of the little towns that sprang up along the coast.

It’s an interesting “folk history” – which means that there are liberal sprinklings of first-person accounts of the regional history, obtained via interview by the author, Paula Palmer. Reading her book offers insight into historical perspectives on Costa Rica.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

“In “What Happen” the people of Costa Rica’s Talamanca Coast talk about everything important to them – how they came from the islands of the Caribbean to the unpopulated shores where they founded the communities of Cahuita and Old Harbour (Puerto Viejo); the survival skills, values and customs that sustained them; shipwrecks, snake doctors, cricket, and cocoa farming; and the uncertain future of their communities as tourism develops on the lovely coast that is their home.”

Palmer discusses the importance of turtling – turtle fishing – which also brought early migrants to the region from the north (Nicaragua) and the south (Panama). Hunting and fishing were very important in the region, as was agriculture. Up until 1967 there was no highway connecting Talamanca’s coastal towns so trade outside the region was conducted by sea. The trips would involve boats loaded down in both directions. Some craftsman built dugout canoes and other kinds of vessels.

One of the primary things about the region, and it’s true for the rest of the country as well, is that these people were very hardy and self-sufficient, building their own houses, gardening and farming, hunting, fishing and otherwise “living off the land.”

Our guide on an epic walk across the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge was Abel. He was highly knowledgeable. I suspect he’s a typical local in many ways. He makes a living guiding, his wife works in a souvenir shop by the beach, and other local members of his family operate a small accommodation (“cabinas” aka a small 6-8 room motel). Abel told us stories on our jungle walk of his father, who was a farmer in the area. For people of his generation, clearing the forest was paramount. Land was needed for housing and farming. Cacao was an important crop until the Monilia fungus wiped it out in 1979. Animals were regarded primarily as either a pest or meal ticket (and on occasion totally unsuitable creatures have become household pets – sloths for one example). Abel remarked that there was a lot of resistance to the establishment of the refuge, but that now, most locals recognize the importance of conservation and the beneficial role it plays in luring foreign tourist dollars.

Like a lot of Talamancans, Abel is of mixed heritage. On his mother’s side there is some Indian but primarily he is of Spanish descent. All over the small coastal towns you see the diversity in the people of the region. Locals are Afro-Caribbean blacks, Spanish-descended, or an Indian mix with the above (13% of Costa Ricans are mixed – known as “Mestizo”). Of course, as is true elsewhere, there are an enormous number of foreigners, many of them white Europeans or North Americans. Our hosts at the El Arbol lodge were from Netherlands, and one of the kindly folks who helped us with reservations around town was a masseuse from Pennsylvania. On our epic walk through the refugee we bought patties from  a black Nicaraguan, chatted with a young latino couple who were bush-wacking and got lost on the trail, watched top-notch surfers including the Swiss owner of a local chocolate business called “Chocoart,” and finally ended up at Punta Mona, where a rag-tag collective of locals of mixed descent live, work and play.

From left: Our guide Abel and the Swiss owner of Chocoart, a cacao farm.

Our arrival in Punta Mona was welcome. We had walked for 5 hours through the jungle and along the coast. We saw howler monkeys, giant termite colonies, wasps and other insects, and an incredible array of flowers and plant life. We ate beach grapes and fresh coconut. We got soaked navigating the coral-lined shore when we broke away from the jungle path, and generally had the walk of a lifetime. At the end of it was Punta Mona or “Monkey Point,” a sparsely populated hamlet that probably had only a dozen residents. We rested and enjoyed fresh juice at the eco-centre, while the boat captain napped. After a half-hour we hopped in the boat and headed up the coast, high-speed across giant rolling sea swells. It was an amazing boat ride – and an amazing punctuation mark on one of the most unforgettable journeys of my life. The Talamanca / Caribbean coast is a terrific Costa Rican gem.

The boat captain and family picked us up in Punta Mona and ferried us back to Manzanillo. (Captain rear left, Abel the guide front right).


Bonus: One of my all-time favourite experiences in Costa Rica – relaxing in the waters at Termales del Bosque in San Carlos. Perhaps this is the defining image of all my trips. Clearly somewhere in the primal scheme of things I  felt some kind of profound deep soul-satisfaction in that moment.

Like the feeling of the womb-like volcanic thermal waters in the spa – the whole experience of travel in Costa Rica makes me feel a bit like a fish returning to water. I discovered a little more of my soul, my inner sun.

I’m in a state of bliss as I float around the hot spa waters – it was one of the most profoundly powerful experiences of my life. Total relaxation. Total immersion in the moment. Termales del Bosque in San Carlos.

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