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2000 Expedition Journals
There is no such thing as a tight schedule in Central America. Spend any time there and you learn the meaning of flexibility. We had hoped to be on the water by the 6th or 7th. Three days late, we were en route to the coast and to the put-in, and from the looks of it we’d be even later.
The northernmost section of Pacific coast in Costa Rica is wild. It doesn’t take long before you hit the big resorts of Playa Flamingo, Playa del Coco and Tamarindo, but for the first 50 miles the majority of the shoreline is in its natural state. We wanted to go to Playa Blanca on the Santa Elena peninsula, the remote end of the Santa Rosa National Park. What we realized is that there is a reason these beaches are so quiet and pristine; you really, really have to want to go there, especially during the rainy season!
You leave the paved road and drive 8 K’s on a dirt road to the town of Cuajiniquil. From there, it no longer deserves classification as a road. A few mud bogs, two river crossings and 7 K’s later, you drive up the gate of the national park. It’s hard to believe, but the road gets worse from there. The last section out to Playa Blanca is actually closed during the rainy season. We amended our goal and aimed for a closer cove and its beach instead. Only 15 K’s away, we never made it.
We were initially optimistic. Even with two kayaks strapped to the roof and a mountain of gear piled in back, we were confident that we had ample clearance on top and bottom to make it. As soon as we crossed through the gate and started up the road, the view smothered our confidence. The canopy closed in and down. A two-foot deep gorge off to the right, caused by runoff, forced us to the left side. Our speed was a fast walk at best. We had conned a friend into driving us out and then driving the car back, and in order to give her a thrill we let her drive this section. It turned out to be a mistake, as less than a mile in, she got spooked when the car slid to the side and hit the accelerator instead of the brake. We hit a tree and bent the fender and quickly switched drivers. Yet even with JP driving, the progress remained slow. I had to get out and try to lift overhanging branches above the kayaks every few hundred yards, and on every bump the shocks bottomed out.
Some sections required tricky maneuvers. The road was badly eroded and often canted down to the right. Steady rain began to fall and created a slippery layer of mud on the surface. The gorge on the right was always a worry. So, we would have to build up a little speed, hit the canted section and slide, skid, spin and counter-steer to stay as high and as left as possible. Even so, the rear end often came within inches of dropping off the lip.
After 45 minutes and five miles, with only three more to go to the beach, we turned a corner and were stopped in our tracks. A large tree had snapped off halfway up and had fallen across the road in a steep angle. On the high side, the car with the kayaks was clear. On the low side, even without the boats on top we couldn’t pass. I got out and tried to push the truck high enough to allow the car to pass; no go.
Foiled by nature, we turned around. Just as we did, the elements decided to toy with us as well. What had been a steady, light rain erupted into a downpour. We closed the windows and they fogged. We turned on the heater and we sweltered. To turn around I had to get out and yell directions to JP as there was little clearance and no visibility.
JP drove looking down at the road for holes, rocks, ruts and slippery patches of clay. I sat pressed up against the windshield, gripping the dashboard and looked for overhanging branches that might interfere with the boats. Every few minutes I’d hop out to direct, lift branches or check the depth of a stream crossing, suddenly engorged with brown waters from flash flooding.
When we returned to the ranger station at the park gate, nothing about us or the car was recognizable. Leaves, sticks and bark were twisted in and around the boats and roof rack, and littered the hood. On the lower half of the car, not a bit of the white or tan paint was visible through the red-gray-brown spackle of mud. Smears of clay, scratches, streaks of blood and odd little green Velcro balls, the rainforest equivalent of burdock, covered my legs. We got out, gave the car an appreciative pat on the hood for its performance, high-fived and chanted its name, “Mon-te-ro! Mon-te-ro!” in front of the confused park ranger.
The jungle forced us to abandon a small section of our itinerary, yet we were ecstatic. If only misadventure could always be so entertaining. Onward and southward to a new put-in.
We had yet to unwrap the boats, let alone get in them and paddle. It was our mission for the day. We reached Playa Flamingo later in the afternoon and, undeterred by the hour, we hurriedly unloaded. We ripped the layers of plastic, brown paper and foam packing sheets in a frenzy. Even under rainy dark skies, the glossy paint jobs on the boats shone. We paddled around for an hour in the encroaching darkness, paying no attention to the sunset.
At 6:15 it was totally dark and began to rain strongly again. We loaded up quickly and drove off to find a place to stay. After half and hour of wandering around narrow driveways in the dark trying to read the guide book, with the windows closed and fogging, we gave up and decided to head to the larger town 10 miles away. Driving up a steep hill out of Playa Flamingo, the car once again failed us.
A loud snap and a tinkling of metal startled us. The engine still ran and the car moved but all the dash-board lights flipped on and the power steering was gone. Looking under the hood in the dark revealed nothing. Crestfallen, we abandoned our plan to stay on the coast, and headed inland, 40 miles to the nearest city. The chances of finding a garage in a resort town were slim. I drove conservatively at 45 mph the whole way, listening to something bounce and ping.
To our disappointment, the current stage of CASKE 2000 has become one in which mechanics and their tools, rather than us, our kayaks and the elements have featured strongly. Preoccupied with the expense and wasted time the car was costing us, I slept little that night.
Development tends to sweep through Costa Rican coastal communities like tidal waves. A discovery of some sort of natural phenomenon or the zoning of a large hotel in a rugged, scenic place is the tectonic event that triggers the swell of followers. They blow through a tract of undeveloped land, pulling down trees and eroding the beach and leave behind hulking detritus in the form of resort hotels and bungalows. Some of them are beautifully designed and a few are even “environmentally integrated”, but none of them are as lovely as virgin beach. Playa Grande is not exempt from the trend that is altering the landscape of Costa Rica’s beaches; the irony in this case is that the main attraction may disappear before the next wave of development.
When they nest, the endangered leatherback turtles are habitual but very choosy. The population that arrives at Playa Grande year by year, originally chose the spot for a variety of environmental reasons. They are sensitive to the shape of the beach, the composition of the sand and the water. Those are the few that biologists have been able to determine with any certainty. 30 years of study of the turtles’ behavior and habits has revealed a few other patterns that remain unexplained. You will hear talk about the turtles’ sensitivity to lunar cycles, tides and water temperatures, but it is mere postulation. All will agree however, that they react strongly to light and to humans. The emergence of more hotels only increases both.
The Playa Grande area was supposed to be a no-development zone. According to the Ministry of Forestry that was the original law. In a compromise typical of Costa Rica, the allure of the tourist dollar caused policy makers to reconsider (read lucrative kick-backs), and now only the beach itself is a no-development zone. Lots set back from the beach are selling quickly, and hotels are springing up every season.
In the past few years, the numbers of nesting turtles has decreased dramatically. Over 100 per night used to be a common sight. Now, on a good night, you may see 20 and most of those are repeat visitors, as each turtle will revisit the beach to lay eggs up to 12 times during the five month nesting season. Biologists speculate that the overall population may now be less than 100. There can only be one explanation for the drop off.
Fortunately, the poor land-use practices are somewhat compensated for by the management of the refuge by rangers and police. So as not to frighten or disturb the turtles, beach access is strictly limited. No more than 60 people may be on the beach at a time and groups are limited to 15. At the peak of the high season, you may wait up to two hours to be admitted. A ranger/guide accompanies each group; and don’t even think about flash photography. We were accosted by a vigilant policeman who yelled at us for using a low-emission, infra-red flash. Initially taken aback, we realized later that he was right to have made his point so strongly. It is not just the hotels that affect the landscape and the rhythms of Mother Nature, the tourists themselves can do more harm.
Historically, the biggest threat to turtles has been egg poachers. The “hueveros”, the egg collectors, have a long history of stealing turtle eggs. The traditional market for the eggs are the bars and restaurants where they are considered to be a powerful aphrodisiac and are swallowed raw with a dash of Tabasco and/or steak sauce. Most bars now serve legally harvested Ridley turtle eggs from the managed, sustainable harvest program in Ostional further south. However, leatherback eggs are still found on the black market. The owner of the hotel/bar where we stayed at Playa Grande told us that illegal vendors approach him every week. He kicks all of them out in an attempt to make a statement but others always arrive in their place.
For an intimate and moving experience with the leatherbacks, the only time to go is the end of the low-season in October and November. The rangers tell of overwhelming Christmas and January crowds. In October, the refuge is not even officially open, yet the friendly rangers, unmolested by the hordes, are relaxed and will happily engage in long discussions as they lead you along the beach on a personal tour.
We stumbled out onto the beach at 10:00 PM to the main entrance. During the high season there are drink stands, a holding corral and ticket booth to keep crowds under control. On this night, we walked right onto the beach past the empty parking lot. Down the beach we saw the faint glow of red lights. The only lights they allow on the beach are infra-red, in most cases a flashlight wrapped with a piece of red cellophane.
There is no way to accurately describe the feeling of having intimate contact with a massive animal at its most vulnerable and revealing moment. We approached the small group of people surrounding the turtle and could only see the dark mound of its body in the blackness. Less than ten feet away, I was taken aback by a sound, a geyser-like gasp of exhalation. Standing next to it I was able to see its dimensions clearly. Six feet long and every bit of 1000 lbs. it dwarfed me. The shell was not like any I had ever seen. Unlike the hard, chitinous shells of other turtles, the leatherback has an interior frame of bony, longitudinal ribs covered by a thick leathery skin. It is protective but not rigid, with an elongated, cylindrical shape. The pliability of the body allows it to dive to incredible depths of over three thousand feet and withstand water pressure that would cave in and crush other marine life. Yet by far, the most striking characteristics were the sheer size of its head, the three ridges running down its back and a gelatinous, fluid hindquarters, like the skin of some alien from another age and planet. We saw six in a four-hour period; I was overcome with awe. It was unforgettable and as a memory it will have to remain. Due to the rapid decline in population, the chances are that I may not ever have the opportunity to see one again.
The leatherbacks are on the verge of extinction and biologists are in a frenzy. 20 years ago the estimated world population was over 115,000. That figure has decreased by more than 70%. Healthy numbers remain in French Guiana and Suriname but large populations in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and some parts of Mexico have disappeared in the span of two decades. Playa Grande is considered one of the top five nesting sites in the world. Numbers in the 1980’s were estimated at over 1,600 females. Two years ago the figure dropped to less than 220 and this year it may dip below 100.
Fishing, development of nesting sites and egg poaching are the major factors affecting mortality rates. Gill nets without turtle-exclusion devices are still used by most of the industry. These are the leading killers, taking over 1500 turtles a year. Egg poachers continue to supply an underground market for the legendary aphrodisiac, even in Eco-enlightened Costa Rica. Development of beaches that serve as nesting sites scares away the leatherbacks who are wary of humans and extremely sensitive to light. The decline in the numbers at Playa Grande may be directly attributable to the lights from the wave of newly constructed hotels and restaurants there and at neighbor Playa Tamarindo.
Serious studies and preservation efforts are underway but it may be too late. In Playa Grande, Drexel University coordinates with other efforts around the world to track females and protect eggs. I witnessed a group of students and researchers inject females with a tiny tracking device and excavate their nests and relocate the eggs to managed hatcheries. The studies are producing excellent data on migratory habits and mortality rates. The managed hatcheries produce a much higher yield and the infant young have a higher chance of survival. However, numbers continue a steady decline.
We may be witnessing the last gasp of a species that has survived from the age of dinosaurs. All of its prehistoric peers were killed by the Ice Age or by massive tidal waves, epic natural disasters. The leatherbacks may be swept into extinction by an epic disaster created by man. I would like to believe that what I saw on the beach was the birth of a new consciousness, of a conservation ethic. Yet even the fact that I was there made me part of the problem. The leatherbacks want a quiet, dark beach lit only by the stars and marked with only the footprints of other animals. We want the same when we go on vacation. That kind of real estate is a limited resource. When it comes to leatherbacks versus greenbacks we all know which wins.
When Balboa discovered and named the Pacific Ocean, he must not have gone for a swim in the waves. An average day on Central America’s western shores is deceptively calm. You can look out beyond the surf zone and all you see is a gently undulating surface. Even on windy days, whitecaps are few. Yet how is it that from calm waters arise 8-10 foot curling tubes that make surfer’s eyes sparkle?
On a scouting mission along the Costa Rican coast earlier this Summer, I learned very quickly about wave dynamics. From high in the hills, driving down to the beach near Manuel Antonio National Park, I looked out onto the expanse of deep blue beyond the bay and it looked placid and flat. Yet once down on shore, the swiftly moving swell, imperceptible from afar, piled up on the gradual incline into shore to form six foot faces. A dozen local youths romped in the waves on surfboards and boogie boards. Although full of practical wisdom from much time spent on the Caribbean coast, I had little knowledge of the physics of waves and to me it seemed like magic.
Waves are usually formed by wind. On a smaller scale, you can watch the phenomenon happen on a lake or in a bay. As the wind builds and blows across the water, the chop picks up. The length of the body of water across which the wind is blowing, relative to your position on that body of water, is called the fetch. The length of the fetch determines the size of the waves. On a small lake with strong 30-knot winds blowing east to west, the waves on the eastern shore will be negligible as the fetch distance is nearly zero. On the opposite shore the waves may be upwards of three feet.
Depth of water affects the speed and size of waves. Swell generated by wind slows and is pushed upwards into a breaking wave upon reaching shallow water. By the same token, swell will not travel quickly or great distances in shallow depths. Thus in lakes where the fetch is relatively short and depths are usually less, the waves are smaller than on the ocean.
Due to the characteristics of the Caribbean basin, the waves that hit Central America’s Atlantic shore are much different than the Pacific. We paddled more than 2000 k’s of coastline, from the Yucatan to Costa Rica and very rarely encountered waves with the speed and power of those on an average day on the Pacific. Broken up by many islands, the Caribbean fetch is shorter. As well, the water is much shallower. However the winds tend to be more consistently strong and it was not uncommon to encounter six foot waves breaking on shore and eight foot swell out beyond the surf zone. All those conditions are caused by local wind patterns. On days with no wind, the surf merely laps at the shore. Conversely, when a Norte storm blows through—or during hurricanes I imagine—the surf is massive. Even so, my perception was that Caribbean waves had less speed and inertia than here on the Pacific.
Pacific swell is generated far away and travels great distances before breaking on Central America’s shores. The fetch is much longer and water depths are much more profound. Thus, swell generated by winds hundreds of miles away moves quickly and unimpeded and builds incredible inertia. The result is that even on a calm day with gentle breezes, with nearly imperceptible undulations out in the depths beyond the surf zone, you may have eight-foot faces curling up and pounding the shoreline. Beaches such as Tamarindo, Playa Hermosa and Guillones, among others in Costa Rica have become famous in surfing circles for that very reason. And on days when local, offshore winds augment the arriving swell, the surf becomes the stuff of legend.
Our first foray into the Pacific waves of Costa Rica was a lesson in humility. We were often surprised by the speed at which the sets of waves arrived. We had honed our timing to a science on the Caribbean: wait for the gap between sets and go. On the Pacific, there is no room for hesitation or waiting. The waves arrive with more velocity and break in a much longer zone. You must be already paddling through the foam of the last wave of a set to make it out before the next set crushes you. On my first two attempts our first day out, waves caught me, much to the amusement of a group of skeptical locals. Coming back in, it was more of the same. After ignominious failures on my first two attempts, I narrowly avoided capsize on my third try by leaning all the way in and burying my upper body into the wave as it surfed me sideways into shore. JP was not so lucky. A large breaker picked him up and pushed him broadside. He leaned in and stuck his paddle into the foam to brace, like I had just done, and the power of the wave snapped his paddle. After a series of rolls and cartwheels, it dumped him on shore.
From what people tell us, we have much more to look forward to, or be afraid of depending how you look at it. It is now the end of the rainy season and calm conditions prevail. Most surfers don’t even bother to go out this time of year, as the five to six footers are not worth their time. In January the offshore winds return. The occasional storm may roll through and surfer’s flock to Costa Rica. Our plan is to paddle all the way down to southern Panama in one, long, three-month leg. I am both scared and excited. It’s the best attitude for learning though, to approach a challenge with respect and anticipation. If our bodies and equipment survive the journey intact, we should have some excellent stories and photos for the website. We’ll keep you posted. Surf on!
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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