Monday, March 04, 2013

The Pure Life in the Rich Coast


I went to Cyprus in September, with the girlfriend; after failing to get the American visa, she was more than a little flustered about the future. The main Plan B that I offered her was to move to Cyprus, or any other country she could get a visa to, but she was concerned at the idea of going there without a firm job offer or a ring on her finger. The nomadic, devil-may-care lifestyle does not appeal to her.

"After Christmas I'll decide," she told me.

So I decided to go to Costa Rica in November. 

I hadn't backpacked anywhere in a long time. I've been on record to my friends recently as saying things like, "I never again want to go anywhere I don't have a good fucking reason to be." 

But I don't know, I have a friend living down there and as fall descended on small-town America, the idea of some tropical adventures began to appeal to me. Costa Rica of course is probably the second most popular destination for backpackers after Thailand, and I'd never been south of Mexico. 

I went for five weeks. A bit of an odd number? Well yeah, but my mother was diagnosed with cervical cancer right before I left, so I decided to come back to be around for her recuperation. (She's doing well by the way.) 

Here's a little write-up on my middle-aged backpacking adventures in Costa Rica.


The capital has a few impressive plazas but looks pretty down-at-the-heels and shabby, with lots of dangerous holes in the sloping streets and gaping gutters that seem designed to trap and kill drunken tourists.  

I went for a few drinks at the Hotel Del Rey, considering perhaps that I had a hall pass to get drunk and bang a bunch of whores; they were so bizarrely-proportioned with all their silicon, that I didn't really see any that I liked. Some of them had the builds of Jessica Rabbit. 

But as a rule they also had bad skin, paunches, bad teeth, bad breath, and glazed dull eyes.

The going rate seemed to be $100 a night; but they all seemed to expect me to be staying at that hotel, which I wasn't.

I idly discussed life with a couple of them, asking them about their breast implants. 

"I paid $5000 for mine, but now they're much cheaper," said one. 

Good news for guys who like beach balls. I'm not one of them. 


My friend and his wife were traveling to Puerto Viejo, on the Caribbean coast, with his wife's sister and her husband; I tagged along. 

It's a cool Caribbean little surfer / backpacker town, but this being November, it was all but deserted, and soaked in rain. A few Europeans tourists, a few crazy old American retirees.

The huge amounts of rain kind of put the damper a lot of my activities, but I did quite a bit of exploring on the seemingly endless stretches of beach there. The waves were too high to enjoy swimming much, and I didn't get around to trying any surfing. 

The local bar was amazingly sinister looking, for it being a backpacker hangout. There were some genuinely scary-looking locals hanging around the street selling drugs and eyeing the tourists.

 My Costa Rican friend had nothing but words of warning about going out in the evening. There was a crazy Vietnam-vet American retiree there who supported that sentiment. He warned me to wear boots, not sandals when I came in, because fights broke out often. 

Sadly, I have no reports of violent confrontation or robbery to share with you. I spent a  good amount of time in the hammock reading, actually, in my amazingly comfortable $25 a night hotel. (That's one of the main dangers of getting an accommodation that's too pleasant -- you'll spend too much time there.)

I did manage to go to an animal rescue place, where I saw baby sloths, jaguars, falcons and owls, and of course monkeys, one of which refused to let go of the big-breasted Spanish guide's hair.  


The weather was so rainy in Puerto Viejo that i checked and then left to the Pacific side, to the upmarket beach town of Samara. (Fans of my Russian adventures will probably know why I chose to visit THAT town.)

I stayed in a backpacker hostel, in a private room with bath that was $30 a night. The hostel owner was a cheerful Canadian guy, and it was nice to see an older guy abroad who wasn't a miserable bastard - his daughter was visiting him and he seemed to enjoy his life.

He did tell me, however, that being the proprietor of a seaside hotel wasn't as idyllic as it sounded. He said the salt air pretty much destroyed everything, especially paint and electronics, so they were constantly doing repairs.

Like my Costa Rican friend, and other foreign business-owners I met, he was bitter about the recent turns of the government; all the tax breaks and stuff designed to lure foreign investors and residents were being cancelled and even reversed; they even said there was some talk of retroactively taxing foreigners. He didn't even have permanent residence; he continued to go back and forth on three-month tourist visas. 

Samara's long stretch of beach was lovely; disappointingly I discovered that the coral reef system was pretty much all dead and bleached. Sometimes I'm glad I'm old. In fact sometimes I wish I was about ten years older. It would have been awesome to be 18 in 1978, I bet that year rocked. 


After Samara, I took off to Montezuma, another backpacker / surfer place, also pretty much deserted in November. I got a $10 a night cubicle on the beach with shared bathroom.

Now here's the Costa Rica I imagined. The village is kind of in a crevice in the jungle, so it's pretty much teaming with monkeys and iguanas; there's a national park at one end of the town.

The first hotel I stayed at had an open hallway where the shared toilet was; apparently monkeys kept climbing in on the telephone wire, and one took a shit on the floor. 

So I spent a lot of time hiking through the jungle parks nearby; still didn't quite get around to trying surfing or anything but I did a couple of silly tourist things like zip-lining. (South Park summed that one up pretty well.)

There didn't seem to be much going on at night; the bars seemed mostly empty by 10:00 pm. Everybody always seemed to be getting up early the next day to go surfing or hiking or whatever. Maybe it was just the time of year. 


Then I went up into the mountains; first, the strange little Quaker colony and ecotourism destination of Monteverde, where all the tourists seemed to be Canadian couples in their 50s. I can offer you this money-saving tip about the place - there are about three different cloud-forest parks there, but unless you're a biologist, one pretty much looks the same as the others. 


So I wrapped it all up with a week in the shadow of Mount Arenal in La Fortuna, where I went on a flurry of tours. 

I'd always avoided stuff like that in the past, but I figured, well, I'm middle-aged now, it's okay. And how are you going to know you think ziplining is stupid, until you do it? So I did a bunch of them -- river wildlife trips, guided hikes, hot springs, nocturnal wildlife-spotting expeditions, and even whitewater rafting.

It's amazing how boring something like whitewater rafting becomes when you've got a few fellow tourists and guides around you. I mean, it's relatively dangerous - one guy fell out of the raft and gashed his leg open pretty badly. 

But as far as that goes, it was a lot scarier walking around San Jose by myself looking for the west coast bus terminal. 

Sadly Mount Arenal isn't spitting lava anymore. Never seen an active volcano.

I climbed to the peak of its sister volcano, Rincon de la Viejo -- 

I badly underestimated this climb, which took about five hours of gruelling ascent damn near straight up. There are steps and such put in, you don't need ropes or anything, but's it damn near killed my 43-year-old ass. (Internet tells me it's over 6000 feet up.) I nearly gave up several times as the day wore on; but I forced myself to push on, stopping every few minutes, completely exhausted.

And I got to the top just in time for cloud cover to completely obscure the view of the town and the lake in the bottom of the crater. Then by the time I got down I was so dehydrated and jock-rashed I pretty much couldn't get too far out of bed that next day. 

Let this be a lesson, kids. Sometimes giving up is the right decision. 


Costs in Costa Rica seemed oddly skewed; as I said, you could get a hotel for $10 - $30 ($40 + in the capital) but it seemed like the simplest rice-and-beans kind of meal ended up costing $6 and up, and with a beer, closer to $10.

The tours are where they get you - $40 or $60 for the average tour, $10 - $30 for many of the national park admissions. 


I didn't find Costa Ricans over friendly, though they certainly weren't unfriendly; they seem to look right through tourists, for the most part. They don't bug the tourists, at least. (That's usually the sign of a well-organized, corrupt, violent Tourist Police. God bless 'em.) 


As for usual non-whore Costa Rican babes, I didn't get the impression it would be easy pickings. All the young ones I saw seemed to be pregnant, and the older ones were ... er ... built for comfort rather than for speed, as they say. 


I was surprised by how many old people I saw backpacking -- in their 50s and 60s. Again that aging population. Plenty of older middle-aged guys wandering around, and of course those frumpy women toting dog-eared copies of EAT PRAY LOVE. 

The "Milllenial" backpackers I talked to actually kind of impressed me. They were usually polite, friendly, and well-spoken. (Something my generation did not excel at - Generation X backpackers back in the 90s were sarcastic, obnoxious and surly, in my experience.) 

Most of the ones I met in November seemed to be professionals who had part-time schedules -- that is, they'd work until they finished a contract or a project, and then take a few weeks or months off. I didn't ask too many details, but met a geological engineer, a couple of lawyers, a guy in investment and securities consulting, etc. 

I guess they could have been unemployed bullshitters, for all I know, but it seems a much better life-model than scrounging along as an underpaid English teacher. 

So! Costa Rica. Not bad. Like it. They got SLOTHS down there. And I didn't even get diarrhea.


Tim said...

It should be "La Vida Pura De Costa Rica", if I remember my High School Spanish correctly. Adjectives always follow nouns, or something like that. Good post, btw, very informative. You'll have some awesome stories for any mini-Xes that you might end up with.

brian said...

@Tim: Please stop scaring our itinerant ESL teacher with talk of kids! You'll give him a heart attack, and we'll be left without tales of Russian whores.

English Teacher X said...

My three semesters of Spanish in college has not left me with much, but they do say "la pura vida" down there for whatever non-grammatical reasons of their own. You can google it ...

Anonymous said...

Twenty said...

As I recall, the adjective-noun order has some weird-ass dependency on whether or not the quality described is physical, or more, err, "spiritual"?

So, hombre grande: big dude. grande hombre: great man.

But, who really knows.

Anonymous said...

You should have gone to Cahuita which is Soouth of Limon. I used to be married to a Costa Rican honey. She looked like she walked out of a fashion magazine but mean as a pissed off Rattle Snake.