2000 Expedition Journals
“Que estas haciendo, vos?”
(Yo, what are you doing?)
”Que puta guia eres tu? Indica me lo que debo que hacer, no solo me digas!”
(What the hell kind of guide are you? Show me what I need to do, don’t just tell me!)
”Vete erecto, erecto, a la officina de migracion.” (Go straight, straight, to the immigration office.)
”Okay, Okay, ten prisa. Paga lo la maldita porqueria y deja me salir!” (OK, OK, hurry up. Pay him the damn bribe and let me go!)
My Spanish has improved greatly. I now know enough that when people are rude to me, I am capable of being equally rude in return. I remain stalwart in the belief that the ability to trade insults like a local is a sign of true fluency in a language.
That exchange took place four days ago on the border of Mexico and Guatemala. I had to hire one of the dozens of young locals who hover around the frontera, “helping” tourists grease their way through the bureaucracy. To be fair, he was well connected, and with a judicious application of bribe money, my car was waved to the front of an incredibly long line of traffic; Otherwise, I might have waited all day; I was at his mercy and he knew it. I had to pay him, and bribe a traffic cop and the customs agent before being allowed to move on.
My car had taken a beating. The asphalt all through southern Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras was laced with potholes the size of bomb craters, most of which seemed to be found on the blind backside of long turns. Smooth straight-aways lured me into cruising speeds then, halfway through curves with plenty of on-coming traffic, series of holes appeared, nearly ripping the wheels off the axles. Chunks of tire tread and sections of mufflers and undercarriage, the wreckage of others before me, littered the roadsides.
In less than a week, I had driven from San Francisco, California, through Mexico to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Averaging 16 hours per day in the car, generally at an excessive rate of speed, I must have set the solo, cross-Mexico driving record. Along the way, I had to bribe a dirty cop in Puerto Vallarta to get my license back. I slept for five hours in a love hotel in Mazatlan, with the 18-foot kayaks on the roof of my SUV indiscreetly but lustily pushing out the curtain of the “secret” car bay designed to hide the vehicles of the clientel. In the remote hills of Oaxaca bandit country, I grabbed some shut-eye in the middle of the night on a dirt turn-off. To stay alert during the long, hot days on the road, I drank coffee and countless cans of Red Bull and Coke. By the time I reached Guatemala, I was so dehydrated that my neck and shoulder blade were locked up so tight with muscle spasms that I had to turn my whole upper body to the side just to look in the rear view mirror. I was a wreck.
The first four days after meeting up with Jean-Philippe, he drove through Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, while I lay in a haze in the passenger seat, alternately sleeping, chugging water and popping Advil to escape the pain of my muscle cramps. I remember little until we reached the Costa Rican border.
Costa Rica is supposed to be the most enlightened, developed and wealthiest country in Central America. I had expected its infrastructure to reflect that but the border crossing was extremely inefficient, confusing and overwhelmingly bureaucratic. Even with little traffic and no lines, we were there for over three hours. Once across the border, the roads were shockingly worse than those of its much poorer, recently war-torn neighbor, Nicaragua. On the last 100-mile stretch into San Jose, over crowded, mountainous , two-lane roads, my shocks went on strike, the engine overheated and we bottomed out and burned oil the whole way. We had to turn the heater on to pull heat away from the engine, which was clicking and thunking loudly, badly in need of an oil change. In all, it’s been over 5000 miles of driving with our two kayaks lying wrapped, unseen and untouched, atop the car.
Pacific Waves, Deceptive Power: Ostional, Nicoya Peninsula - 10/2000
When Balboa discovered and named the Pacific Ocean, he must not have gone for a swim in the waves. although out beyond the surf zone, the gently undulating surface looks quiet, an average day’s surf on Costa Rica’s western beaches is relatively violent. Waves are usually formed by wind, yet even on calm days, there can be huge surf rumbling through the shore break.
The Pacific swell is generated far away and travels great distances before breaking on Central America’s shores. Wind swell from hundreds of miles away moves, quick and unimpeded, as it builds incredible energy. The result is that, even on calm days, there are eight-footers pounding Costa Rican beaches like Tamarindo, Playa Hermosa and Guillones, all famous in surfing circles for that very reason. On days when local, offshore winds push against the arriving swell, the surf rises higher to become the stuff of legend.
Due to characteristics of the Caribbean basin, the waves that hit Central America’s Atlantic shore are much different from those of the Pacific. During our 2000-kilometer paddle of the coastline from Belize to Costa Rica, we rarely encountered waves with the speed and power of those on an average day on the Pacific. The Caribbean is broken up by many islands and. the water is much shallower, however, the winds tend to be more violent and localized. It wasn’t uncommon to encounter six foot waves breaking on shore and eight-foot swell out beyond the surf zone on windy days, yet on still ones, the surf merely lapped at the shore. My perception was that the Caribbean waves were slower and gentler than these on the Pacific.
Over the past few weeks, our forays into the Pacific waves have been lessons in humility. We were unprepared for the speed at which the sets of waves arrived. We thought we had honed our timing to a science on the Caribbean: wait for the gap between sets and go. Here on the Pacific, there is no room for hesitation or waiting. The waves move faster and break in a much longer zone. We must already be paddling through the foam of the last wave of a set to make it out far enough to not be crushed by the next one.
My first two attempts, waves caught me in no-man’s-land, much to the amusement of a skeptical group of locals. Coming back in, it was more of the same. After these ignominious failures, I leaned all the way in and buried my upper body into the wave as it broke over me and surfed me sideways into shore, narrowly avoiding capsizing on my third try. Jean-Philippe was not so lucky. A large wave picked him up and pushed him broadside; as he leaned in and stuck his paddle into the foam to brace, the wave snapped his paddle. After putting him through a series of rolls and cartwheels, it dumped him back on the beach.
From what people tell us, there is much more in store for us. Most surfers don’t even bother to go out now because the six-footers are not worth their time. In January, when the offshore winds return, occasional storms will further heighten the swell and surfers will flock to Costa Rica. Our plan is to paddle all the way down to Panama in one, long, two-month leg so we can be off the water before that happens. I am both scared and excited.
The budget traveler lives for the daytime. He wakes with a bad taste in his mouth from the squalid accommodations and spends the waking hours packing in savory experience and activity. When done right, the entire 24 hour period can be remembered as a satisfying meal. Late to bed, early to rise may not make one healthy, wealthy and wise, but never underestimate the power of contentment, of the full-belly feeling of a full-course day. Manuel Antonio National Park is a feast.
We got out of bed at 5:30 AM. To say that we awoke at that hour would be incorrect. I had tossed and turned all night, sleeping little and was already up and itchy. The $5 per night hotel is located in a working-class barrio of the coastal town Quepos. The stuffy, tin-roofed, cement block structure is just next to a couple of marshy undeveloped lots. Mosquitoes, born just next door, bit my ankles, knees, hips, and shoulders through the bed sheet all night.
The budget traveler does not stay in the high-end hotels that line the jungle-coated access road to Manuel Antonio. The inconvenience of the six-mile ride to the park entrance from Quepos is more than compensated for by the $70 in savings. Excited and filled with anticipation, we packed up all our camera and video gear and arrived at the park at 6:30, half an hour before opening. We wanted undisturbed shots of the wildlife. We had to be first on the trails.
The entrance is right on the beach at the confluence of a small patch of mangrove swamp and tidal pools. High tide was scheduled for 8:00 and the incoming water filled up the tidal pools and spilled over the low-side bank, flooding a 100-foot wide section of beach flanking the entrance. There once was a walking bridge. Efforts to complete the repairs have been halted by a beach vendor mafia who make 30 cents per person, ferrying visitors across to the park entrance in a row-boat during high tide. Loaded with camera gear, we were captive consumers. The boatsman arrived just before 7:00 and looked at us with greedy eyes. We were his first victims of the day. Manuel Antonio is the most visited national park in Central America and even during the rainy low-season, the boatsman does well.
The 680 hectare park is small but a complete gem. It is situated on a point of land with craggy spits of rock that wrap around four separate bays in which lie four stunning beaches, think white sand and shade trees. The narrow trails that wind through thick forest guarantee intimate contact with the wildlife. In three hours of filming we captured all three species of monkey (howler, white-faced capuchin, and squirrel) iguanas, coatimundis, raccoons, tucans, scarlet macaws, paca (a guinea-pig like rodent) and those were only the ones we could get close enough to photo. The canopy, wherever you walk, is awash in movement and noise.
We had skipped breakfast to get there early and became so engrossed in our camera work we forgot about hunger or fatigue. On the Mirador trail, troupes of capuchin and squirrel monkeys swinging from branches and feeding on nuts in the canopy lured us into the thick margins of the trail. We stumbled over decomposing logs, through low hanging vines and mossy humps of peaty ground in our attempts to get them on film. We tromped through the fecund bog off of the beachside trail near the entrance in pursuit of a coatimundi and a raccoon. We waded through the stream below the waterfall on the cascade trail to catch the elusive, bright blue crayfish. And at one point I saw Jean-Philippe half-way up a tree perched in the crook of a branch trying to get some shots of a coatimundi feeding on fruit in the canopy.
Much of the wildlife has become remarkably tame, even bold in its contact with humans. Raccoons, coatimundi and reptiles walk languidly in the brush alongside the trail or sun themselves on tree trunks within feet of passing tourists. The birds, normally very skittish, flit around in trees feeding and chattering nearly oblivious to gawking groups. Yet the most engaging are the monkey troupes, especially the white-faced capuchins. Every day a troupe of 20 makes its way down to the beach near the refreshment stand. Mischievous and entertaining, they ham it up for the camera and will steal your lunch if left unattended. We saw groups of two or three swing through the branches of the shade trees flanking the beach scouting for scavenging opportunities. They would wait until sunbathers got up to go for a swim and then descend quickly to rifle through their bags.
We spent five hours in the park that passed in the blink of an eye. Feelings of hunger and dehydration eventually overcame us and we made our way out through the throngs of late-arriving tourists. On the ride back to Quepos we compared notes about the great pictures we thought we got and the ones that got away. Rounding a sharp turn on the access road, Manuel Antonio gave us a fitting parting shot. Dangling inverted from a power line that crossed the road 20 feet off the ground was a furry, light-brown sloth. Buses, trucks and cars passed beneath him and he slept peacefully, unmolested by the activity.
The budget traveler is unlike the sloth and must be truly fatigued to fall asleep in an uncomfortable room. I spent the afternoon writing and reviewing digital photos. We searched for a Laundromat for our foul-smelling clothes. And I spent my evening in a bar. Money saved on accommodations should be spent on more soulful things like cold beer and good food.
The bar had Direct TV. The presidential debates came on. The sparring on the screen reminded me of two capuchin monkeys I had seen earlier in the day fighting over a scrap of fruit scavenged from a garbage can. I smiled in private amusement. The budget traveler makes a journey last longer and with a bounty of experience is blessed with perspective and the knowledge that there is always a place to escape to. That kind of beauty is always free.
Far and Away, Accident on the remote Osa Peninsula (11/20/2000)
No Way Out of Paradise (11/21/2000)
1 km = 0.62 statute miles
1 Nautical Mile = 1.85 km
1 Nautical Mile = 1.15 miles
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