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Friday, 22 January 2010

Wings, Wheels and Waves: An Exploration of Costa Rica's South

Written by Stephanie Hartka
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The flaps go down, the wheels descend out of the body of the aircraft and suddenly the tiny plane shudders to a halt. The light is golden and I am surrounded by palm trees as far as the eye can see.

 

“Welcome to Quepos Manuel Antonio!” exclaims the handsome young pilot over his shoulder. It’s the first leg of my five-day excursion into Costa Rica’s southern and less-explored villages and jungles; a vagabond’s dream come true. I arrive in Quepos Manuel Antonio not as a tourist, but as a chronic itinerant. I’ve come to look at this place as bit of an obsession; it is as if some vortex constantly pulls me back.

 

With a long history of massive banana production run by the mega United Fruit Co., the Quepos area has long attracted foreigners traveling for business and for pleasure.  After nearly fifty years of prosperity, labor strikes, fungal diseases, and a general upheaval in the banana industry caused the United Fruit Company to shut down all operations, leaving the vast majority of townspeople suddenly unemployed. The abandoned banana plantations were then converted into the palm oil plantations one can find there today, covering the majority of the land surrounding Quepos.

 

What most attracts tourists, homeowners, and young backpackers to Costa Rica, however, is its incredible bio-diversity. Just over the hill into Manuel Antonio, you are guaranteed to see at least two types of monkeys, if not three, as well as sloths, anteaters and scads of iguanas fleeing into the sand. For this reason, the national park of Manuel Wings, Wheels and Waves: An Exploration of Costa Rica’s South, Quepos Manuel Antonio, the Costanera, Dominical, Costa Rica’s surfing meccas, Palmar Sur, Sierpe launching dock, the Osa peninsula, Sierpe Mangroves, travel Central America, Drake Bay, La Paloma Lodge, Corcovado National Park, Puerto Jimenez, Golfito, Bosque del Cabo, backpacking Costa Rica, travel Costa Rica, Stephanie HartkaAntonio, founded in 1972, is the second most frequented location in the country. And, while some might find it overly touristy, others sacrifice rubbing elbows with fellow camera-clad foreigners for the opportunity to observe an abundance of wildlife.

 

The snaking road connecting the flat and bustling sport-fishing town of Quepos, to the lush and thriving Manuel Antonio beach and national park is flanked with restaurants, language schools and hotels, each boasting their own private mini reserves, sunset views, and secret margarita recipes. Prices and comfort-levels range from backpackers’ hostels, to private house rentals and high rise condos. Want Indian food? Tacos? Chinese? Sushi? It’s all there. How about just a good old “casado”? Done. In fact, you could spend days wining and dining in the abundance of restaurants and bars, which crowd with relaxed tourists and bronzed surfer boys every night.

 

Some suggestions: Visit the “chicken lady” right on the wooden picnic tables at the Espadilla public beach. She prepares the best traditional casado in the area, hands down. “Chicken lady” Doña Cecilia and her flock of sun-capped, gold-toothed girls flip crispy chicken legs and shish kabobs over a charcoal fire grill. Sit down, dig your toes in the sand, and don’t forget to try her homemade bbq sauce; it is mouthwatering. Looking for something a little more chi-chi and a little less sandy? Try Kapi Kapi or the Barba Roja for sunset mojitos, or my personal local favorite, a michelada - beer with lime and salt.

 

 


 

 

Sitting in the roots of a giant almond tree, a young couple are cutting up a juicy pineapple and handing the round slices to their two children who nibble around the heart, their fingers dripping with juice, pigtails dripping with salty ocean water. While Manuel Antonio may seem overrun with tourists, you still feel a strong sense of the surrounding community. Looking for more wildlife and less people, I decide to head further south.

Wings, Wheels and Waves: An Exploration of Costa Rica’s South, Quepos Manuel Antonio, the Costanera, Dominical, Costa Rica’s surfing meccas, Palmar Sur, Sierpe launching dock, the Osa peninsula, Sierpe Mangroves, travel Central America, Drake Bay, La Paloma Lodge, Corcovado National Park, Puerto Jimenez, Golfito, Bosque del Cabo, backpacking Costa Rica, travel Costa Rica, Stephanie Hartka

A few years beforehand, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias promised the Costanera, the long stretch of road to Dominical, to be paved by the end of 2009. Still a work in progress, the ride from Quepos to Dominical is jarring, dusty, and if traveling by bus, includes frequent stops. As a result, Dominical has remained substantially undeveloped in comparison to neighboring towns, attracting those who don’t mind a little dust with their welcome to the wild South.

 

As the bus pulls slowly into the town of Dominical, it passes children in school uniforms of clean white socks and light collared shirts. I watch them skillfully knocking green mangoes out of a shading tree with poles twice their size.

 

Slipping my arms through my backpack straps, I step off the bus and head down the dusty road toward the roaring sea. Looking for a place to overnight, I follow the road that parallels the beach. In the shade of the beach’s almond trees, surfers wax their boards, while tanned artisans loiter on cement tables, weaving colorful wraps into the salty hair of tourists. Everyone’s origin is unclear and it’s hard to tell the foreigners from the locals.

 

This long stretch of beach in the quiet town of Dominical is where the seemingly young and free come to surf massive waves. Costa Rica is a surfer’s dream, and one of the most visited towns, for both the ambitious surfer and the amateur, is most certainly Dominical. This beach is for wave riders only, and is not for leisurely swimming, unless you desire a mouth full of sand and matted hair.

 

At sunset, I count over forty surfers competing for the day’s last perfect wave. Others stroll the quiet beach, throwing driftwood for dogs, tossing Frisbees and sipping warm beer.  Surfers, waiting for waves, bob like buoys until a swell manifests, simultaneously spin around, paddle frantically, and stand up on beefy legs, gliding their way atop prize-winning waves. As the sun drops juicily behind the horizon, they head to the shore for cold showers and hot dinners, like a herd of sea warriors, boards held at their sides like shields.

 

While visitors and locals alike spend the majority of their time in the water during the day, Dominical boasts a great nightlife and will give you a genuine glimpse into one of Costa Rica’s most popular surfing meccas. In fact, don’t even bother coming here if you’re not into the sport.

 

 


 

 

One powdery guava breakfast pastry later, I decide to jump on the bus and head south again. As the bus lurches out of Dominical, a young Tica (Costa Rican) with thick lashes rests her combed head on her mother’s lap. I wonder how their lives will change once the road is paved, and if Dominical will even have enough wave space and Imperial beer for the growing number of surfers who flock to this famous and foamy seaside.

 

While the bus is stifling, the Costanera road is paved from Dominical to Palmar and the route is incredibly beautiful. Snaking along the coastline, the bus follows craggy shorelines, passing giant ferns and cecropias.  A good four hours out of Dominical, I arrive at Palmar Sur, grab a cab, and head straight to the Sierpe launching dock. This is the portal to the Osa peninsula, a southern gem less ventured through by tourists who are disenchanted by the reputation of the roads in the area, said to have gaping potholes big enough to swallow cars. However, while snacking on the freshest ceviche, I notice the launching dock bow with the weight of well prepared tourists sporting multi-pocketed khakis, eager to make their way further south no matter the consequences.

 

Wings, Wheels and Waves: An Exploration of Costa Rica’s South, Quepos Manuel Antonio, the Costanera, Dominical, Costa Rica’s surfing meccas, Palmar Sur, Sierpe launching dock, the Osa peninsula, Sierpe Mangroves, travel Central America, Drake Bay, La Paloma Lodge, Corcovado National Park, Puerto Jimenez, Golfito, Bosque del Cabo, backpacking Costa Rica, travel Costa Rica, Stephanie HartkaThe trip through the Sierpe Mangroves, the biggest in all of Central America, to Drake Bay is exhilarating. White, red and black mangroves fly by as the boat careens through hundreds of canals at breakneck speed. Finally, we spill out into the open sea of a crescent cove, Drake Bay. The wind is high, the cerulean waves are rough, and I notice that I’m not the only one clenching the boat’s edge with white knuckles.

 

Trundling into a calm inlet, I am dropped off, alone, with my bags at a dock overflowing with fragrant blossoms. After a short hike, I arrive at La Paloma Lodge, and I am immediately greeted by a troop of white-faced monkeys, who will wake me at daybreak as they thunder across the roof of my gorgeous cabina.

 

Wings, Wheels and Waves: An Exploration of Costa Rica’s South, Quepos Manuel Antonio, the Costanera, Dominical, Costa Rica’s surfing meccas, Palmar Sur, Sierpe launching dock, the Osa peninsula, Sierpe Mangroves, travel Central America, Drake Bay, La Paloma Lodge, Corcovado National Park, Puerto Jimenez, Golfito, Bosque del Cabo, backpacking Costa Rica, travel Costa Rica, Stephanie HartkaLa Paloma eco-lodge is simple, relaxed and tastefully groomed, offering a truly private and very magical experience of Drake Bay. With Corcovado National Park only twelve miles to the south, the ranchos of La Paloma Lodge rest on a high bluff overlooking the sea. The backdrop of rain-soaked primary and secondary jungle, as well as constant sea breezes, lends to a fresher atmosphere and is a treat to all five senses. Here, guests sit on their rancho balconies amongst the trees, inhaling the luscious scent of dewy ylang ylang flowers, and observe a multitude of butterflies and birds, including the much sought after scarlet macaw. A maze of stone walkways snake through thick foliage, connecting the ranchos to the “clubhouse” where guests can enjoy family style meals. La Paloma is extremely private. Each rancho, with tiled washrooms and waxed tropical hardwood floors, is so completely surrounded with the sounds and sights of the buzzing jungle, that human civilization and all that goes along with it, feels years away.

 

 


 

 

When I converse with other guests over dinner, most of them have been coming to La Paloma Lodge for years. I meet a Swiss couple, who first arrived in Costa Rica in the 1960’s to start a coffee roasting company, who claim that these days they eschew the rest of the country, returning only to the remote Osa peninsula as if it’s “their little secret.”

 

Wings, Wheels and Waves: An Exploration of Costa Rica’s South, Quepos Manuel Antonio, the Costanera, Dominical, Costa Rica’s surfing meccas, Palmar Sur, Sierpe launching dock, the Osa peninsula, Sierpe Mangroves, travel Central America, Drake Bay, La Paloma Lodge, Corcovado National Park, Puerto Jimenez, Golfito, Bosque del Cabo, backpacking Costa Rica, travel Costa Rica, Stephanie HartkaFalling asleep in my Tempur-pedic bed, I drift off conjuring images of Sir Francis Drake, a British sea captain who first explored the bay’s whale thronged waters and fabled treasure-filled coves in the 16th century. I wonder how it must have felt to have “discovered” such lush coastline and abundant waters, and for how long he kept Drake Bay, “his little secret”.

 

In the morning I fly from Drake Bay to Puerto Jimenez, eager to see the very tip of the Osa. The short flight provides an absolutely stunning view of the peninsula over teeming, green misted mountains. On either side of the Gulfo Dulce’s water, sit Puerto Jimenez and Golfito, two distinctive port towns.  Located 193 miles southwest of San Jose and 20 miles north of Panama, these twin hubs were once laden with gold, poachers, loggers, and banana plantations. Only recently have these illegal activities been somewhat monitored and a sudden influx of explorers looking for unspoiled and biologically diverse rainforest, have given the local residents a more positive alternative.

 

In the 1930s, Golfito was the official headquarters for the United Fruit Company and nearly all exports were sent off through this practically located port. This flurry of trade provided numerous jobs, education and medical facilities for Golfito’s residents for it’s nearly fifty years of operation. The remains of this booming banana era are not only apparent in the crippled economy of the south, but also in the authentic plantation-style wooden houses, which once housed affluent members of the banana business.

 

In attempt to give Golfito’s economy a good strong boost, the government christened this floundering town as the official free trade zone.  While no longer the center of the fruit trade, Golfito continues to yield a great deal of commerce, as Ticos come from all over the country to load up on discounted appliances and electronics in this duty free zone.  While general tourism is still in it’s infancy in this deep southern region, serious sport-fishers looking for trophies have discovered Golfito’s “Sweet Gulf” as the best place to drop bait in the entire country.

 

Sharing this gulf with Golfito, is the neighboring town Puerto Jiminez, which appears to have a better grip on tourism. Colorful and quaint, it is located about an hour and a half south of Corcovado National park — Costa Rica’s largest stretch of virgin rainforest. A good handful of surfers can also be spotted transitioning through Puerto Jiminez, heading towards Pavones, another nearly deserted yet famous surfing haven.

 


 

 

Wings, Wheels and Waves: An Exploration of Costa Rica’s South, Quepos Manuel Antonio, the Costanera, Dominical, Costa Rica’s surfing meccas, Palmar Sur, Sierpe launching dock, the Osa peninsula, Sierpe Mangroves, travel Central America, Drake Bay, La Paloma Lodge, Corcovado National Park, Puerto Jimenez, Golfito, Bosque del Cabo, backpacking Costa Rica, travel Costa Rica, Stephanie HartkaAfter a bumpy twenty-minute ride from the thriving port town of Puerto Jimenez, I check into Bosque del Cabo, a rainforest lodge perched on an ocean side cliff at the very tip of the peninsula. Aside from the breezy rooms, spectacular food, stunning views and outdoor showers, the best part about Bosque del Cabo, is the protected 600 acre forest – the ultimate Costa Rican wildlife experience. While hiking to a deserted beach in search of a waterfall, I came across fuzzy agouties, stealthy wild hens, emerald poison dart frogs, and a pack of wild peccaries, all sure signs of a healthy ecosystem.

 

My last hours in the deep south I found myself on a deserted beach feeling infatuated with this country and all it has shown me. Utterly alone I relax, hypnotized by the waves and the section of existence between the water and the land. I think about the many explorers and developers who have come upon little Costa Rica, each finding something unique and worth returning for. Despite its size, Costa Rica holds secrets for everyone, many of which, like the luscious southern region, wait undiscovered for those who do not judge by the quantity of land mass and coast line, rather the undeniable quality.

 

A few days later I am back in a New York airport, standing in front of an official in his homeland security booth. He’s flipping through the extra pages I recently had added to my stamp-filled passport. “An addiction to Costa Rica I see,” he says.

 

“I prefer the word infatuation,” I say with a smile. He gives me a funny look as if to say, “I’ve seen your kind” and thuds a brand new stamp onto a blank page.

 

“Welcome home” he says, and I walk off beaming, believing infatuation could be much worse, and knowing there are many more secrets to be discovered.

© Stephanie Hartka

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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