Eating Dust in Guanacaste Northernwestern Costa Rica, May 99

29/4/99 - Leaving Nicaragua

After spending a full month loitering with intent in Nicaragua I pedalled south over the Costa Rican border and headed south for the outwardly unexciting town of La Cruz, 20 km away. I was now in the far north western corner of Costa Rica. It was hot, hot, hot. I could have taken the bus and been in Liberia in two hours - but that's just not what we crazy bike  riders do, is it? I rolled up to the local police station where there appeared to be a seat in the shade and was immediately approached by one of the many camouflage-trousered hombres strutting their stuff in the name of public safety.  He seemed helpful, and teed me up with a restaurant next door where I could camp in a scorched-earth courtyard for 1000 colones or retire to a small dark room for 1500. They really saw me coming. Too weary to think, I opted for the room, and gratefully accepted an overpriced fish lunch. The helpful but somewhat forceful policeman offered to take me out to a local fiesta and pay for my meal. Here's where inadequate Spanish creates problems. I said, "Muchas gracias, pero no es necessario" which I think must have translated to "thank you, but that won't be necessary " rather than "Thank you, but it is not necessary that you pay", because he left pretty suddenly and never reappeared.
La Cruz's big secret is a spectacular lookout over the northernmost bay and peninsula of Costa Rica (Bahia Salinas) right across to the southernmost coastline of Nicaragua. As I watched, storm clouds rolled across this panorama like a leaden curtain yet it was a while before I had to run for cover. It's one of the best views in my living memory.
My room turned out to be a nightmare. Far from treating me as the amply paying guest that I was, my hosts continued to use my room as their general staff drop-in-and-powder-your-nose centre. The toilet looked dangerously unclean, thank god for the dim light. The bed was like sleeping on a railway track. I woke tired and frustrated and got the hell out of there as fast as possible. "Te gusta?" (You like it?) enquired the senora as I charged out the door pushing my hurriedly-loaded bicycle, wet bike clothes dangling from the handlebars. My Spanish wasn't eloquent enough to let fly with what I really thought. The last time I had a nightmarish accomodation experience was in Ireland two years ago, and the circumstances were similar - I had rolled in tired and hungry so everything grated. I remember reading bicycle gal Josie Dew's alarming account of rolling up somewhere desperately tired and hungry, and landing up locked in the house - and violently amorous embrace - of a drunk opportunist before managing to escape through a window.  Things could have been worse for me. Feeling like getting the hell out of La Cruz pronto but realising this was just a neuro-association to my bad night I took refuge in Soda Paty, a squeaky clean little eaterie with refresco naturales rather than just Coke, Coke, Coke. There, I studied my Lonely Planet and my maps long enough to make it unpractical to set off down the Intraamericana because I wouldn't make it to the next reasonable destination, Liberia (60 km), before the heatstroke hour. Instead I found the place I should have stayed in last night, the squeaky clean Cabinas Santa Rita, and got a great room for less than $US4 including soap and towel and a large screened window. I unpacked my stuff and noticed my mood change. I've found you cannot underestimate the importance of your immediate environment on your state of mind, and ultimately, your life. I put a few things in my pannier and took the bike for a spin down the winding gravel road to Puerto Soley, the northernmost beach on Costa Rica's Pacific coast. It was just my kind of beach - late breaking waves so one can paddle about close to the shore as if in a swimming pool. The only marring feature was a line of very attractive trees that bore echnida-like spines. These fall into the sand and can easily drive into one's foot, in my case, my little toe. The handful of locals assured me that everyone is aware of this menace when I pointed out that there should be a warning sign. And as you will see later, this menace was to bring my meanderings to a screeching halt. I spoke to a fisherman in a boat. He pointed to where he lived, Playa Ostinal Nicaragua, a mere 20 minutes across international waters by boat. Every day he made the short journey to sell fish. I immediately formulated a cool but illegal way to visit Nicaragua - bus it to La Cruz, bus down to Puerto Soley, wait for the fisherman, get a ride in his boat to the other side, then take the daily bus from Ostinal to San Juan del Sur to visit Claudio, the handsome guitar-strummin' crooner I gazed upon for several days prior.  Of course, it would be necessary to return the same way, because your passport would be out of order for the border police.

Sat 1/5/99 - To Liberia.

Today was a long, straight-as-a-die phang (a term used by and old boyfriend of mine with a big motorbike) down the Interamericana to Costa Rica’s largest northern town, Liberia. I had planned to stop en route at either of the Santa Rosa or Guanacaste National Parks but one look at that dry-as-a-bone, Aussie-outback-like scrub baking in the heat and I kept pedalling. Liberia is a small, sleepy place. I found a good soda (Soda Sandra) serving olla de carne (meat stew) and a good five dollar hotel (La Posada del Tope) so I was happy. In the evening a bingo game took place in the central park where people stood around tensely pushing red beans on bingo cards. I studied my maps and bought food for a couple of nights camping at my next destination, Playa Hermosa.

Sun 3/5/99 - To Playa Hermosa

An easy 30km pedal brought me to this small, gently curved beach where I was immediately deluged by local children from the shacks oddly squeezed between a garden hotel and a couple of restaurants. Bent on helping, the oldest of the swarm made me a lantern for my candle out of a beer can with the top cup off and punctured around the sides, which she strung from a tree with my dental floss. Thus imbued with a romantic glow, I prepared a spaghetti and salsa meal in my stove backlit by the rapidly setting sun. I paid a dollar to use the locals’ shower and passed the night uneventfully.

Mon 4/5/99 - To Playa Tamarindo

This morning I went in search of a toilet spot and promptly stood on a fallen spike from a Pochote (Mahogany) tree, the same kind of spike that I’d encountered in Puerto Soley a few days before. This time, it drove about a centimetre into the ball of my foot, right through my thong. I later discovered that this kind of tree is found all along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, and although the locals say they know about it, a warning should really be issued in guidebooks, because the consequences can be significant. Thinking nothing of it, I packed, waited for a lift up the steep rise out of Hermosa, then
Turtles coming... Turtles going...

stopped in village of Sardinal to swab it with alcohol and bandage it. The allergic reaction that ensued didn’t fully manifest itself until I’d gotten halfway to Tamarindo, around 60 km from Hermosa. By 2pm the pain was so bad I had to hitch a 35km ride on a passing pickup to Huacas. By the time I rolled into Tamarindo a few bumpy and dusty km later, I could barely walk. I stumbled literally into the cheapest accomodations in trendy Tamarindo, Cabinas Rodamar, where the owners fell about themselves (albeit in a relaxed Tico way) to find me a doctor and a stick to hobble with. My foot had swollen to twice the size, and I had to borrow the doc’s crutches. I couldn’t believe it. First, I am laid up for ten days in San Juan del Sur, now this. What was the universe trying to tell me? Oh of course, I was now into my rent money… nonetheless, I hobbled down to the beach to witness a fantastic purple and pink sunset, befitting of such a beautiful name, Tamarindo …

Tue 4/5/99 - Convalescing in Tamarindo

My foot was no better this morning, even just swinging my leg out of bed sent an unbelievable, searing pain to the ball of my foot which brought tears to my eyes. Doctor Hermes, a curiously handsome, bird-like little man from Argentina, put me onto a course of expensive antibiotics, which meant I would be cooking in my little stove rather than blowing out on the swank eateries Tamarindo is famous for. Unfortunately his crutches were made for persons a foot taller than 5-foot-nothing me, which meant that instead of being able to support my weight in my armpits the arm rests were uselessly over my shoulders and made for an unplanned bicep (or is it tricep?) workout every time I wanted to move. For the next few days my life consisted of waking up, hobbling to the toilet and shower, both of which resembled bombed bomb shelters and were about as difficult to negotiate on one leg, hobbling back to my room, cooking breakfast lunch and dinner in my little stove, flogging my small repertoire to death on a guitar an Argentinian lad lent me, and otherwise staring at the crumbling ceiling. When it rained the hotel grounds became a quagmire, so I had to develop special cornering-in-the-wet skills or end up horizontal in 6 inches of mud. Now and then I’d get adventurous and hobble down to the beach for a one-legged dip, but have you ever used oversized crutches in sand? After a few days spent like the movie Groundhog Day, I woke up one morning and was treated to a sight to end all sights - Doctor Hermes, attired in a crisp, striped shirt, white jeans, and shiny boots, rolled up astride a handsome white horse resplendent in tooled leather riding tack a la the folkloric Guanacaste sabanero (cowboy). Even his mumbling about his car breaking down did not tarnish this immaculate vision of a house call par excellence. "You feeling better?" he enquired, dismounting, upon which his horse bolted for the juicy grass yonder. "I’m feeling better now!" I grinned while Bambi, the Canadian gal sitting beside me, also took in the spectacle with shining eyes. He prodded my foot and announced he would bring more expensive drugs in the afternoon. Then went to look for his wayward steed. "He’s kinda cute," said Cybele, another Canadian gal with a Special-K cereal kinda bod. "I think you should give him a big kiss". I explained that with his gorgeous, blond and leggy South African wife I’d met on my first visit, the good doctor probably didn’t need any alternative medication. However, this little episode was enough to put a spring in my other step for the rest of the day, and I decided to venture out to where no crutches had probably been before, to the End of Town (about 500 metres), where all the cool bars and restaurants were. For this, I needed to hitch a ride. I stood, and stood, and stood in amazement at the number of Oakley-clad, 4x4-driving gringos that roared straight past me or worse, slowed down to take a good look then sped up, electric windows whirring shut. I was experiencing first hand what it was like to be handicapped. Invisible. Eventually a Tico stopped, but not before several cars slowed to gawp at this Oriental pygmy propped up between two goalposts. I could just hear them: "I don’t wanna get involved, Mavis" … The Tico dropped me to probably the best located open air diner in Tamarindo, where I gazed across at the surf while eating a dish of rice and beans, salad, friend banana and eggs for around three dollars. Later, and several "eat my dust" 4Wdrive-bys later, an English couple from London gave me a ride back, which made me remember how polite they are in that country.

Sat 8/5/99 - Recovering in Tamarindo

After 6 days the drugs showed signs of working. I was able, albeit gingerly - to walk on my heel. The swelling had subsided and somewhat disturbingly the skin on both sides was flaking off as if stretched by the swelling of the past few days. I got the lowdown on Guatemala and Mexico from Ian, an intrepid Brit bumming around the world. He’d stopped by in a Mexican mountain village where rarely a paleface had landed a Birkinstock and the entire populace had come out to watch him eat. One village had the distinction of possessing the worse hotel he’d stayed in for less than a dollar. In this village there was a legend of how a paleface had turned up and the locals, curious to prove whether he was Jesus Christ or not, killed him to se if he’d rise from the dead. Unfortunately he didn’t, and the tale had Ian somewhat perturbed for the duration of his stay there. I hopped to the bank and changed my rent money into colones. In 40 days I’d spent just over $400, not bad. I paid the doctor even though he insisted I not pay.

Tue 11/5/99 - Easy Does It …

Today I took the bold step of discarding the crutches and got on my bike to check out some of Tamarindo's back lanes. Now I was able to walk, but my foot would get tired after 10 minutes walking. The bike was no problem. I stopped at a cute house to ask directions and met Pierre, and Frenchman who'd abandoned his life in Bordeaux where he said people where working harder and harder for less and less. He'd fled with his nubile blonde Argentinian wife to Costa Rica where they'd built this dream house set in a clearing with monkeys cavorting in the forest canopy overhead.  Now, ten years later, the dream had fallen apart, she'd met someone else, they were at loggerheads over splitting assets and now slept in opposite corners of this tiny, divine little home. War in paradise, he said. I pedalled 2km south to Playa Langosta (Lobster Beach) where some new and incredibly ugly condo developments were in progress, literally strangling the beachscape. Horrible tubular metal railings painted blue, you get the picture. I got the hell outta there. That night I chatted again to the handsome kayak instructor from Madrid who I'd noticed in the room two doors down from mine. I don't know what happened, but somehow Kayak Boy ended up in my clutches and after 3 nights in captivity he finally escaped to Playa El Coco and I decided that no matter what, I would marry a bloke from Spain. Much later I found out that Kayak Boy had actually been making a bee line for Cybele and I had simply come along and annexed him without having a clue as to what was going on. "That's because you are too direct", he admonished. "When you want something you just go for it without looking around to see what else is going on, without considering other people's sensitivities ...". Maybe he was complaining, but it didn't seem so at the time.

Sat 15/5/99 - Rescued from Certain Death

I ventured even further today, to the more desolate Playa Grande, a short boat ride across a fast-moving esturary at the north end of the beach. However, I missed the last boat back and sat watching the fast moving river and thinking about the heavy bag on my back and concrete feet all in the same thoughtwave. Eventually, as it was getting dark, a man emerged on the opposite bank and after much frantic hand gestures suggesting that no, I should not jump in, returned with a surfboard hooked to a one-man surf ski. He slowly made it across in the strong current. The ski was ostensibly to return my bag, I had to paddle on the surfboard, and it was indeed the first time I’d ever been on a surfboard. For me, the most beautiful thing about Tamarindo beach is the way the river meeting the surf creates a sandbank a little way off the shore, which in turn creates divine natural swimming-pool. As I was picking my way back I noticed a girl beaming at me. Her name was Amy and she was a stripper from Miami, but this only came out later. This gal was a scream. "YOU CREEZY FURKS!" she screeched at the hunky Redondo Beach firemen whose party we crashed. The fireboys bought us both Margaritas poolside at the swank Hotel Diria, and we sat where the woman who played Maryanne in Gilligan’s Island was sunning herself. Unaccustomed as I am to alcohol (double shots of Bushmills Whisky are now but a fading memory of Ireland) I was soon giggling behind my sarong and singing the theme from that ancient series ("Now sit right back and you’ll hear a tale/a tale of a fateful trip …") before being rightfully gagged by the hunky paramedic on my right.

Wed 19/5/99 - To Nicoya.

I’d arranged to get a ride to Puntarenes with Amy and her friend Bob who were catching a flight to Miami, but somehow our wires got crossed and they drove off at 8am without me. Thus, I set off for the town of Nicoya 36 kilometres away, through lush green fields, hills, and a little village called 27th of April.  Thankfully the going was mostly flat but since I hadn’t ridden seriously in two and a half weeks I found the going tough after the first 20km.  I ate Olle de Carne at Santa Cruz, and ugly little town, and rolled into Nicoya at 4pm. The last 23 km were a real grind. On spotting a grassy pot I flopped down with the Lonely Planet to look for a hotel. Mario, a fellow cyclist and nurse from the nearby hospital came and sat beside me and started chatting. He offered that I come to his house. I didn’t pay much attention because a lone female gets a lot of that, but when he asked me to meet his wife and sons, I adjusted my danger readout and agreed. He invited me to stay the night because "mucha hente ayudarme" (many people help me). I was served a delicious casado prepared by his wife Pila and a true cyclist’s brekky the next morning.

Thur 20/5/99 - To Paquera

I made it to Jicaral some 30 miles away, mostly paved, but a couple of sections diabolically unpaved. In Australia, they take out the rocks, Not here. I’m told they add them for more traction. After 2 puzzling ‘punctures’ (I couldn’t find the hole) in a row I got a ride to Playa Naranjo on a banana truck. Then, after another couple of puzzling punctures, a rapidly sinking sun and an impossibly rocky uphill track in front of me, I got another ride 25km to Paquera, a truly horrible stretch and not recommended for cars let alone loaded touring bikes. Up until now the riding had been pretty well paved and easy, from Nicaragua to here. I found a room for the night and tried to figure out why my tyre was flat again. It soon dawned on me ? the old patches were leaking. It just didn’t occur to me. I had been riding for 2 years as if nothing would ever go wrong with my gear but of course, things wear out. I bought a new repair kit and went over all my tyres. It explained my flat tyres in Nicaragua and I’d blamed the guards for having a joke at my expense.

Fri 21/5/99 - To Montezuma (and a Major Mishap)

Today I set out for the final destination of my 2-month Nicaragua/Guanacaste trip - Montezuma, 43 km away on the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. The paved road from Paquera to Tambor is one of the prettiest bike rides I have ever done. Whilst cycling through Nicaragua and Guanacaste, I could have been in any hot place, but now, I felt like I was truly in Costa Rica. I’m not sure why, but it’s something about the palm trees in the fields … the 13km from Tambor to Cobano things got rocky, hot and hilly, so short a stretch has never felt so long and hard; it brought back memories of Isla Ometepe in Nicaragua. The final killer was the 7km descent to Montezuma at sea level. 500 meters before the actual village I lost it completely on the steep, hilly, gravelly road and tore my left knee open. I couldn’t believe it. First, 15 days convalescing in Tamarindo, now this. The same leg too. Sitting in the dirt, I could see my kneebone sliding about through the blood. Fabio, an Italian diving instructor, peeled me off the road and took me and my gear to his friend’s hotel, which fortunately, was one of the cheaper places at $5 per night. One of the 14 sons and daughters connected to the hotel whizzed me back up to Cobano on his motorbike where the local young doctor stitched me up and instructed me to simply wash the would with soap and water twice a day, nothing more.  My rescuer generously bought me a meal in the family restaurant. Maybe he could see that I wasn’t going anywhere for quite some time.

Sat 22/5/99 - Convalescing in Montezuma

Despite my new injury I was happy to be in one of the most beautiful spots in Costa Rica. I met Ken, a slow-talkin’ ex merchant marine who lived in Costa Rica for 2 years and played the internet stock market to fund his retired lifestyle. He took me in his jeep to Mal Pais, on the opposite side of the peninsula, a beautiful, wild and remote beach, long and windswept, favoured almost exclusively by surfers.  I wanted to pitch my tent there immediately and stay for two weeks. We ate lunch at the Surf Camp Resort which wasn’t too shabby at all, with prices to match, forget the image of surfies in a clapped out van sleeping under a tarp, this is real class. A couple of guys enquired about my limping. One said that a friend had "lost a wheel" on that very corner where I came unstuck.

Sat 29/5/99 - Camping in Montezuma

After 3 nights in my miniscule, mosquito-friendly room with the bendy bed I decided to camp. My knee was getting better - at least I could walk, unlike my complete incapacitation in Tamarindo. The son of the hotel owner pointed to a priceless spot a few paces away from the hotel right in front of the sea, shaded by a canopy of palm trees. I pitched the tent and somewhat presumptuously appropriated a couple of tree slices that were being used for tables and chairs elsewhere. I stayed there a good week, waking every morning at 5.30am to the sound of the boiling Montezuma surf. The son took me on his motorbike to the nearby beaches Playas Manzanillo (not to be confused with the Manzanillo on the Caribbean side, home of Jungle Boy), Hermosa (ditto) and the ominously named Pochote. In the afternoons I would sit in the inky blue tide pool a little way down the road and watch the tropical fish flitting around my legs. A 20 minute walk south led to Playa los Colorados, a very beautiful spot where a freshwater river meets the sea at the edge of a reserve. Some nights I would watch a movie in the Sano Banano restaurant or talk about the Taoism with Ernesto, author, ex-Sandanista and a teacher of that ancient Chinese philosophy. He lived in a cabina set back in the jungle surrounded by naturally-occurring mango, platano, avocado and starfruit trees. Every day the monkeys would throw giant green mangoes which would roll down against his door to be ripened. I lived on the fruits of his garden almost exclusively for several days. Eventually, I got the stitches taken out, and it was time leave. I was back in San Jose by 5pm. Just like that. The hammock I bought in Tamarindo is still sitting in a corner. Somehow, it just doesn’t seem the same hanging in San Jose …

Copyright 2003 Lynette Chiang All Rights Reserved