Costa Rican Quest
The old highway was really old. It was dusty and rocky. Worst of all, it climbed up toward the searing sun. For two days I sat hypnotized by my left knee's rise and fall, showered with dust and dizzied by heat. Mercifully it ended, but not before Peter conked out over his lunch in the coastal town of Parrita, which sits at the edge of a sweltering plain planted with rows of African palm trees. He fainted very slowly. Or he fell asleep very fast. Either way, he was slumped on the table next to his arroz con pollo, taking a definitive nap. I dragged him to a rectangle of shade next to the bank. He slept for two hours.
Manuel Antonio National Park has three beaches. They curve discreetly around their respective turquoise bays, which heave little waves onto the white sand. They are backed by groves of trees and troops of white-faced monkeys. It is gentle, shady; a lovely place. Right next door there is a bigger, rowdier public beach lined with hotels, restaurants, fresh-squeezed orange juice vendors.
On weekends and holidays, Manuel Antonio is mobbed. Hordes of families from San José arrive by bus to camp. Family camping Costa Rican style differs greatly from its gringo counterpart. Gone is the designer outdoor gear, the freeze-dried food, the admonishments to children to be quiet and not to litter. Costa Ricans are here to have fun. They stream off the buses with plastic bags full of food, big flapping tents, musical instruments, soap. They lounge in the shade, eat fruit, play radios, and make an incredible mess. You want to hate them, but they're having such a good time that you can't. They sit on the beach at sunset, singing a cappella with their families, and you love them.
From the map, the Osa Peninsula is a nearly trackless jut of land poking into the Pacific Ocean. It is near Panama, and home to Corcovado National Park, biologically the richest tract of rainforest in the country. Less than 600 miles from the equator and deluged with nearly 20 feet of rain each year, the place surges with life. So much life, in fact, that I didn't really want to go there. Of the very few people we knew who had been to Corcovado, one had been gored in the leg and nearly trampled by 80 wild pigs before he leapt into a tree; another had grabbed a Fer-de-lance snake while climbing an embankment. If you're lucky, its venom will merely turn your flesh into a sack of mush. If you're not, it will kill you.
Corcovado terrified me. Every photograph I'd seen of the place involved an algae-covered freshwater lagoon and an enormous crocodile. I had, I argued, no desire to visit an oversized petri dish. Especially not on my bicycle.
The prospect, of course, excited Peter. The same way he liked to kayak off waterfalls. The same way he considered stoplights optional. I knew that I would lose the argument. Corcovado didn't just sit there. It loomed, as inevitable as piano lessons.
We were still arguing while we were eating dinner in a cafe in Dominical. On the map, the coastal road seemed to end just South of there. The only other customer, it turned out, was a cartographer. In compliance with some Divine Plan, he told us his specialty was the Osa Peninsula. Peter quickly slid a beer in front of him. He finished it, set down his mug, and proclaimed: Yes, you can get there.
Down the road we found Santiago, a slow-moving river pilot, tanned almost black from years on the water. He took us in a dugout canoe down the slack, brown Sierpe River through mangrove swamps and along the coast of the Osa Peninsula, and deposited us in the town of Drake.
Then we stashed our bikes and walked into the most astounding place I have ever been. The rainforest is dark, cool, alive with butterflies. We jumped over cold streams, we listened to birds and to the distant cry of howler monkeys. We saw orchids clinging to the trees, vines, bromeliads. A tiny snake moved demurely away from us through the leaves. Yes. The gods were on our side. We washed our clothes under a waterfall that blasted onto the sand. We walked up an estuary, finding nothing more ominous than a heron. We used the machete to hack coconuts out of trees.
Just a few miles from the park boundary, bulldozers were cutting into the wall of jungle between the towns of Drake and Rancho Quemado, making it vulnerable to loggers and squatters. A three-day hike in the other direction, gold panners were at work, occasionally sneaking into the park to work the rivers there. Beyond that, a government agency was distributing land to campesinos on the condition that they "improve" it, which meant now what it had meant for centuries: clearing the forest to plant rice and beans. Slowly, persistently, humans were threading their way into the jungle, trying to make a living, heading toward Corcovado. On our ride back to San José, we'd pass smoldering piles of slash and logs, only part of some 100,000 acres of forest Costa Rica would lose that year.
But this timeworn view of the jungle as an impediment to making a living was being met with an increasing number of innovative schemes to provide a living for poor farmers without sacrificing the forest. Sustainable development projects and ecotourism were rapidly gaining a foothold all over the country, in a race to the death for Costa Rica's remaining unprotected forest.
We didn't know any of this. Absolutely alone on miles of beach, backed by the booming forest, we got down to the serious business of life: Body surfing. Lying under showers of stars singing every song we could remember. Arguing about the rotation of the planets, using coconut shells as a model. Watching red crabs work the beach, making their way down to the water's edge and then gliding back up in front of the tide on their delicate legs, as smooth as the ball on an electric typewriter.
"The biologists, a lot of them are gringos," said Marlene, a ranger at the Corcovado ranger station. "A long time ago, one wanted to marry me, take me back to the States. Now, why would I want to go there?"
We looked at each other. Neither of us could think of an answer. Swallowing our coffee, we looked out at the lines of white surf inscribing themselves on the deep blue Pacific.
How to Get There
Bikes can be rented in some seaside towns in Costa Rica, but for a long trip it is recommended to bring your own. Mountain bikes are perfect for Costa Rica's rutted roads, and work well on hard-packed sand. Most airlines will carry them for a fee. Most of the places described in this story are accessible by four-wheel-drive vehicle, or a combination of bus, boat, and hiking. It is not necessary to bring much gear, but a tent is a good idea. Because of warm weather, lightweight sleeping bags or a blanket are adequate.
U.S. citizens with passports can stay in Costa Rica for up to 90 days without a visa. For longer visits, contact a Costa Rican Consulate for a visa (see: http://www.costarica.com/embassy/ for more). See list of selected consulates below.
Costa Rican Consulate
1870 The Exchange, Suite 100
Atlanta, GA 30339
Phone: (770) 951-7025
Fax: (770) 951-7075
185 North Wabash Avenue, Suite 1123
Chicago, IL 60601
Phone: (312) 263-2772
Fax: (312) 263-5807
3000 Wilcrest, Suite 112
Houston, TX 77042
Phone: (713) 266-0484
Fax: (713) 266-1527
(Includes Washington, Idaho, Montana, Colorado,Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and Hawaii)
1605 West Olympic Blvd., Suite 400
Los Angeles, CA 90015
Phone: (213) 380-7915
(Includes Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maine, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New England, Vermont, New Hampshire)
80 Wall St., Suite 718-19
New York, NY 10005
Phone: (212) 425-2620
Those without a passport can obtain a tourist card at the airport ticket counter with two kinds of ID (a driver's license and birth certificate) for $4.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication