I have been jonesing to get to get to the Caribbean since Mexico and I have been thwarted every time. For reasons including cost, access, weather, and timing, we have not been able to make it to any of those sun-soaked, aqua-colored beaches that I have had in my imagination since we were still freezing our asses off in New York. Finally, we made it to the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, which boasted the additional draw of having Caribbean-style food in addition to Caribbean style beaches. I was maybe as sick of rice and beans as I was excited to get to the beach and the promise of steel drums, white sand, and jerk chicken sounded as close to heaven as I could get.
The reality was a bit less spectacular: Caribbean style food just meant rice and beans with coconut milk and we had arrived at the beach in the middle of the rainy season (not the same as the rainy season on the Pacific side, which had already finished). So the water was grey and cloudy and the food was only marginally better, but it is hard to complain when sitting on a hammock about 500 yards from the sounds of crashing surf and even closer to the reggae music that floated through the streets like a perfect cliché. I didn’t have my postcard-perfect beach, but I still had the Caribbean.
Cahuita beach. Tropical, but grey….
We spent the first morning walking through the nature reserve, which was the reason we had chosen this beach, Cahuita. Known for the vibrant jungle that grows right up to the perfect, clear-water beach (in the dry season), as well as some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in Central America (it has the only living coral reef in all of Costa Rica), all within a 10 minute walk from our hotel room. We strolled for a while, stopping at the visitor’s center to be frightened by signs detailing all of the different poisonous animals that could bite us in the park, we spotted an iguana, a gaggle of howler monkeys, and our very first sloth. We also encountered a ton of mosquitoes and sandflies, which worked us up to a frenzy that had us practically trotting out of the park with hands swatting every which way. The rest of our stay in Cahuita was marked by the heavy, heavy rain that fell the rest of the day. It wasn’t how I imagined, but it did manage to force us into a leisurely pace that was befitting of the beach.
The next morning, we gathered up our luggage and headed out to one of the places we were looking forward to visiting the most: the Sloth Sanctuary. We had just seen our first sloth in the wild the prior afternoon, but we wanted to get up close and personal, take photos, make faces, buy key chains and coffee mugs to commemorate our visit.
Welcome to the Sloth Sanctuary!
We arrived by public bus and wandered past the dinosaur-sized model of a sloth (left unexplained on the subsequent tour), into the gift-shop, where we were ushered immediately into a small auditorium to watch an oddly soundtracked short film about sloths. The film told us how little is actually known about sloths, as this center is the only place in the world dedicated to sloth rescue and research. We would be left with questions about what exactly this meant, but shortly after the film started, Larry walked into our lives.
The four of us were ushered into a small rowboat that was paddled by a mostly silent Garafuna man through a small creek that ran through the sanctuary. The ride was more scenic than informative, although the peace was disturbed by several bouts of monkey poo being hurled at us from overhead. Thus, the ice was broken and we became very chatty with Larry. We arrived back at the sanctuary for the second half of the tour, where we were introduced to individual sloths and got to ask questions. Things reached a bit of a fever pitch when we began to exhibit the kind of snark typically seen in junior-high class field trips. Eyes were rolled, laughs were stifled, and I was told that I became almost confrontational in my line of questioning about sloth research and rehabilitation. By the time the tour was over, we had fallen for Larry and, we think, Larry had fallen for us.
Buttercup, the first sloth in the sanctuary
Nuri, communing with the baby sloths
We were headed a ways down the road, back past Cahuita to Manzanillo beach. We had chosen this destination almost solely based on the fact that it was home to a highly regarded seafood restaurant. There was little in town besides that. Larry generously offered us a ride in his rental car and by the time we got there, a date had been made for him to join us that night for dinner, which turned out to be a gut-busting seafood bonanza. By desert (artisanal chocolate smuggled into the restaurant by Larry), we were smitten and we made plans to see him the very next day.
I spent the next morning walking along the choppy, grey beach on driftwood dotted sand. There was a break in the clouds when we got up and I had hopes that I’d be able to indulge in my Caribbean fantasy for at least an hour before Larry was coming to meet us, but the sliver of sunshine was not enough to transform the recently storm-ravaged beach into my tropical idyll. No matter, we had another date with Larry and we were looking forward to checking out of our hotel and spending our last day in Puerto Viejo.
We had initially avoided Puerto Viejo because of it’s party town reputation and our quest for Caribbean relaxation. What we got was a very sleepy off-season beach town with most of it’s charms hidden by the gloomy weather. In comparison, Puerto Viejo was a vibrant little town, also in low season and, therefore maybe a little less hectic than it might be in the height of the high season. So Larry came to swoop us up and take us out for a day on the town.
First up: another animal sanctuary. I know, it sounded kind of dumb to me too- another animal sanctuary? What was going to be so much better about this one? Hadn’t we seen enough cuteness and rehabilitation to tide us over? The obvious answer was that there were other animals here besides just sloths. It was called the Jaguar Center and had zero jaguars. Despite the misleading name and subsequent disappointment, we had a rocking good time. There were birds that ate live mice right before your eyes, cool-looking frogs that posed for pictures, monkeys that climbed on your head and pooped on people in other groups. There was even a tame dear that nuzzled us and licked the bug spray off my hand (is that okay in an animal sanctuary?). We laughed, we frolicked, then Larry took us back to his place.
We were all ready for some lunch, but first we had to figure out where Nuri, R and I were going to stay for the night. There was no shortage of hostels in town, but I think Larry was beginning to like us, too, because he ended up offering to let us stay in the spare room at his rental house. It was awesome, like a slumber party. We went out for lunch, then headed back to play with our toys (ipods, ipads, and macbooks). We promised to cook Larry a deluxe dinner in return for inviting us to his place, but we kind of bit it and fed him some kind of prison-style gruel that he ate with a pretty good attitude, considering he totally got the short end of the stick. But we had a great time. Really, better than we would have had on our own in another hotel room in a different beach town. We like to meet people when we travel, but we often find it hard to connect to backpackers, especially when we are on the bikes, Hostels are often full of a much younger crowd whose interests center on drinking beer… hmm, maybe we’re not so different afterall. In any case, we had been on a whirlwind tour of Costa Rica in the few short days that Nuri had been out to visit us and this was the first time that we just sat down and chilled out like normal people on vacation. Larry came to us at the right place at the right time and we had an absolute blast at the end of our Caribbean coast adventure.
The next morning, after an underwhelming breakfast at an overwhelmingly recommended restaurant, we said goodbye to Larry and boarded a bus back to Alajuela. We still had another day and a half before Nuri’s flight, but we wanted to make sure that we didn’t get stuck in any crazy missed-flight scenarios, so we headed back with a day to spare and some plans for a last little visit to an artisanal town outside of Alajuela. That’s when Nuri came down with Dengue Fever.