On my first trip to Costa Rica, I remember looking out the airplane window as we flew over. I was totally amazed at the terrain of this little country. Mountains, hills, valleys, volcanoes, lakes and rivers, as far as the eye could see. There were oceans in both directions, and there didn’t seem to be any large towns, just Mother Nature. It was gorgeous. And then out of no where, the plane started to descend. Rapidly. This monstrous city appeared and it was a stark contrast to the open beauty of the rest of the country. I knew right then, San Jose was not where I was going to be buying property, but I imagined the nightlife of a large Central American city was definitely going to be something I wanted to taste. As the plane touched down, I kept asking myself, “where is the airport?” We came to a stop on the runway, and the doors opened, and we had to walk down the stairs out on to the tarmac.
There was no jet way, no concourse, no air conditioned building. We walked through the customs and picked up our luggage and headed out onto the street. San Jose airport back then was just a smidgen of what it is now, similar to the same growth we have seen at the Liberia airport. When our local airport (Liberia International LIR) finally opened in 2004, the custom agents would set up card tables on the run way, stamp your passport and welcome you to paradise as you entered through a large barn. Now, both of them are state of the art, with the expected restaurants, bars, shopping and duty free, and also the high price for a beer or sandwich, like every other airport in the world.
We had no plan for our trip to Costa Rica–no reservations of any kind, neither hotel nor car rental– and we didn’t really even care. We were just going to wing it, and let fate take me where it wanted me to go. I felt a little like an explorer, except for the Platinum American Express Card. We weren’t quite Louis and Clark, but we weren’t your usual tourists either, and the excitement was overwhelming. I couldn’t wait for the journey to begin.
As we exited the airport, it was like something out of a movie, as this mob of uniformed Ticos seemed to come at us from all angles. “TAXI” they would yell, and hundreds of hands seemed to be waving in the air at the same time. There were literally dozens of buses, cars, taxis and tour buses, with everyone holding up a sign of some sort, trying to get the gringos business. One thing I did notice right away is there was absolutely no one begging for money, unlike every other country I ever traveled too, and the policeman didn’t have machine guns. I felt safe and at ease, even though there were hundreds of people around. We fought our way through the crowd and I spotted a Best Western Sign, held in the air by a driver. Thank Goodness, a name I recognize. Soon we were in the van, headed into downtown San Jose, and my first lesson in Latin American driving began.
By the time we arrived, I was ready for that first cocktail, and I don’t even remember checking in. I was in paradise, and we were going to try out the local moonshine RIGHT NOW. Costa Rica has some of the most amazing rum, called Centenario, and personally I love their beer. Pilsen is my favorite, although Imperial is the most popular, it’s the Budweiser of the country. There are 5 or 6 others and we were determined to try them all. Nicaragua also has some very tasty rum, Flor de Caña, and we cracked into some of that as well. I tell people though, that I could never live in Nicaragua and not for the obvious reasons either. Bad infrastructure, lots of crime, incredible poverty and a very corrupt government that borders on Communist. No, their beer sucks, and I can’t live in a country that doesn’t have good beer. Personally my favorite beer is Moosehead, from Canada, but I can’t live where it snows either, so I guess I will never set up shop in Toronto.
I remember when I first met my friend Travis about 17 years ago; I was going home to Colorado for the holidays. He asked me what I did for a living. “I spend my entire life living out of a suitcase, traveling the USA. I chase women and watch sporting events, and I do whatever and whenever I want” I was a traveling salesman, selling electronics, and it’s a fact. I have been to every single Baseball, Football and Hockey stadium in America, and at that time I didn’t even have a permanent address. I was truly a gypsy. “If you ever have a job opening, call me” was Travis’ reply. So when that time came, and he joined me on the road, I needed to break him in softly.
You see, you can’t take a brand new sales guy, and expose him to a big city like New York or Chicago, right out of gun. Those city slickers will eat him alive and spit him out for lunch. So we set out for a more tranquil beginning. I can still see the panicked look on his face when I told him where we were going. What the hell is in Louisville, he cried. It’s like taking candy from a baby, I told him, easiest selling on the planet, and there is nothing in the world, like Southern women. God Bless em. I remember making Travis a bet that within 30 minutes of arriving in the South, some woman, in her sexy Southern Drawl, would say to us “Ya’all ain’t from around here, are ya?” Well I won that bet, as we weren’t in our hotel for 15 minutes when some Kentucky sweetie spurted out that reliable line, and the start of a lifelong friendship began. This young woman was right out of Gone with the Wind, and if I was the marrying type, probably, I would still be in Kentucky.
As Travis and I took the taxi from our hotel in San Jose, we laughed about that first encounter, and wondered how the Latinas would respond to a couple of gringos, obviously fresh off the boat. Later that night, I saw Travis talking to this Tica at one of the bars we visited. You could tell he was totally lost, as he doesn’t know a lick of Spanish. I came over to assist, and the young lady politely said “Usted no es de aqui, Verdad?” (Ya’all ain’t from around here, are ya?) I knew right then and there, everything was going to be just fine. LOL
There is something about this country that makes you rise at the crack of dawn, and my first morning in Costa Rica was no different. I couldn’t wait to get started on our little journey, as I knew my piece of paradise was somewhere out there, waiting for me. The only real estate I knew anything about was the packet I got in the mail, from the classified ad in the USA today. The project was located in a little southern town, which meant nothing to me, as I didn’t know North from South, East from West. I called the number on the flyer and spoke with a very nice woman, the wife of the developer. I told them we would be arriving sometime later that day and they said they would have a room waiting for us. We arrived at the counter for the little puddle jumper airline, SANSA, and asked the attendee if there were any flights going to Palmar Sur that day or anywhere near by. We don’t have anything scheduled there Senor, it is pretty remote, he said to me. I told him I had to get there, no matter what, and please tell me my options.
After discussing it with his manager, he came back with a plan. The mail plane was going to be heading that way, and if we didn’t mind squeezing in, they would let us tag along. Why not, I thought, let’s start writing this novel. When I saw the airplane I almost changed my mind. It had 2 seats, and one propeller, and wasn’t much bigger than a VW. They actually weighed us, along with our luggage, and all the mail, I guess to make sure the plane could handle it. My first thought as they cranked up the engine, was that I was going to die on my first trip to Costa Rica.
As this little Radio Shack battery operated toy took off, I seriously questioned my decision making, but I didn’t have a choice, there was no turning back. As we flew over the cloud forest, you could not see 50 yards in front of you. The little plane bounced, dipped and shook with the wind, and it didn’t seem like the pilot had much control. I asked him about the radar, and he chuckled. Radar, what radar? I fly by site he said, which was a scary thought, since you couldn’t see squat. I had visions of that 1970 movie Airport, where the little prop plane slams into a 747 and everyone is instantly killed, and I started asking myself if I remembered seeing a parachute anywhere. But before I had a heart attack, we started to descend. There was absolutely nothing below, except jungle, and I had no idea how or where he was going to land this puppy. But then, I saw it, and when I did, I got even more nervous. This was NOT a runway, it was a dirt strip, and it wasn’t much longer than my driveway. It was covered in cows and mud, and surely didn’t look like a safe place to touch down. He proceeded to buzz the farm animals, back and forth, two or three times, until finally the mud patch was clear, and he landed. When it finally came to a stop, all I wanted to do was open the door and vomit, but I kept my manhood, and sucked it up. Solid ground never felt better.
As I scanned the so called “town” I had this feeling that I was in the TV show, the Twilight Zone. There was absolutely NOTHING and NO ONE around. This was not a town. It was an existence. There were a handful of shacks, and an array of chickens and pigs running through the street. Everything was mud, and it was blazing hot. It was so humid, I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and it was only 9 o’clock in the morning. Having lived in Miami I thought I knew humidity, but this reinvented the whole concept. I need a beer, I thought, and I headed to the corner market.
Obviously, Safeway hadn’t made it down to Palmar Sur yet, because the entire store had maybe 75 products TOTAL, and none of them were anything I had ever recognized in my life. “How on God’s green earth could anyone live here?” seemed to be the only thought going through my head. A beer never tasted better, and I think we hammered through the 6 pack in a matter of minutes. If I could have gotten back on the plane and left I would have, but he took off before we knew what hit us. I felt like Michael Douglas in Romancing the Stone except my friend is no Kathleen Turner, and he is way too tall to be Danny DeVito. So the adventure begins quickly on my first trip to Costa Rica. Thank God for alcohol, was my second thought.
Within a few minutes this old Jeep appeared over the hill, rumbling and tumbling down the dirt road. There was a man named Diego behind the wheel, and the developer sent him down the mountain to pick us up. “Pura Vida! Welcome to paradise” he said, and we climbed in the back seat. As we bounced our way back up the mountain, I didn’t seem to care any more about the surroundings; they actually started to grow on me. Maybe the beer was kicking in or maybe it was the smell of the jungle, but all the stress from home had seemed to disappear. I was in Costa Rica baby!!!! I found myself singing the Guns and Roses song, Welcome to the Jungle. I knew that this was definitely NOT somewhere I was going to buy a property, but I was looking forward to the ride, wherever it took me and the story I would tell when I got back home.
There is something cool about cruising in a Jeep with no top, no doors and a beer in your lap. You can’t do that in Newport Beach. We continued to go deeper and deeper into the abyss, and I half expected Tyrannosaurus Rex to chomp down on our vehicle at any moment, just like in the movies. By the way, Jurassic Park was filmed in Costa Rica – now I know why. There are parts of this country that look exactly like it must have back when the Dinosaurs roamed the earth, and the Southern Pacific is one of those places. I had a pretty good feeling this was going to be one of those “Great place to visit but you don’t want to live there” environments, but again, I was smiling with anticipation of the unknown. After about 30 minutes we arrived at our destination. Before me stood the most amazing Hacienda house you have ever seen, a sprawling mansion with a Botanical Garden for a yard, and about a half a dozen casitas spread out throughout the property. It had a Rock Star view of the ocean, and I remember thinking that if I could find this property, a little closer to some sort of reality, I might move there tomorrow. I also realized that if this property was located in Hawaii or Malibu California it would probably cost $10 to $20 Million. There was this incredible swimming pool, a waterfall, a huge outdoor rancho party area and 3 or 4 employees wandering around. A maid, a cook, a caretaker, you name it and my next thought was; now we are talking baby! I am going to like living in Costa Rica. All I needed was a Chica.
As a courtesy, we did the development tour. We looked at their lots and listened to their pitch, but there was no way I was living in the jungle like Jumanji. This was Raiders of the Lost Ark, man. I would have gone and gotten a hotel room, if there was a hotel, but I didn’t even see a restaurant in town, not even a pizza place. I actually asked them, where do you eat, and they told me they cook every single night, fresh vegetables grown in their garden and fish that they buy from the locals. Where do you shop, I asked, and what is there to do? They said the closest store was about an hour away, and that they just relaxed at home, enjoying each others company, listening to music, looking at the stars. It was right then and there that I understood how someone can just completely lose it, go Postal, and kill their whole family in the middle of the night. Lizzie Borden style. No one likes their spouse enough to spend 24 hours a day with them. Nobody!
I was outta there at first light, I told myself, just play it cool. Stay Frosty Mike, Stay Frosty. They served us an incredible dinner, home grown veggies and all, and I went to my casita as soon as it didn’t appear rude. I couldn’t wait for the sun to rise and get on with the next phase of our trip to Costa Rica. I giggled as I climbed into bed, “if my friends could see me now” I thought and I turned the lights off. Not 15 minutes later, with my mind racing about, lying on top of the sheets, there comes that sound that everyone hopes they never hear. Tick Tick Tick Tick Tick. Click Click Click Click Click. Tap Tap Tap Tap Tap. I knew what it was but was way too scared to turn on the light. As I reached for the lamp, I became very religious, very quickly, and prayed that I was imagining something that wasn’t there, holding my breath. When the room lit up, there were dozens of little bugs, spiders, crickets and scorpions scurrying across my floor, trying to find cover from the unexpected surprise. It was the longest night of my life. I found myself questioning whether or not this was a good idea, coming to Central America, but I still knew in my heart that something was pulling me here, it was my destiny. I also knew I was very much in the rain forest, and from what I had heard from other travelers to this country, there were many more places to visit.
This was just the start of my trip to Costa Rica, and I figured it could only get better. I was in the Southern zone of Costa Rica so it was obvious my next move was to travel north. I always hated the cold, and my whole life I kept moving further and further south, trying to find that perfect spot. New York, Denver, Los Angeles, Texas, and finally Boca Raton Florida, each time getting closer and closer to the equator, and now I was in Costa Rica. But obviously, I went a little too far south, so it was time to back track a few Latitude degrees North.
The next morning over breakfast, I asked the nice couple if they could help us locate a rental car. It had to come from a couple hours away, they said, as there was no location this far south. We decided to go back and wait near the “town” as I figured some cold beers would help the time go by a little quicker. When the rental guy finally showed up, he had this little snack box Suzuki Jimny. We could barely fit and I was glad we packed light, because if we had anything other than a back pack, we were screwed. We bought a Styrofoam cooler, loaded it with Pilsen, and we were ready to rock. The agent actually told me that we should head to Manual Antonio, which is located in a National Park a few hours north, so up the dirt road we went.
Now, you know those stories about how bad the roads are in Costa Rica? Trust me – they are dead on in that part of the world. It was like driving up a river bed, for the next 4 or 5 hours. I have a bad back, mostly from the stupid stuff I did when I was younger, but I can assure you this road trip didn’t help my overall situation. I have never in my life, been beaten and abused like I was on this patch of highway. Brutal. When we finally arrived in Manual Antonio, I needed about 20 minutes of stretching to get the kinks out of my body. Between the size of the vehicle, and the bouncing on the road, I felt like I just finished the Baja Desert Race, and we were also out of beer. Just in time, baby, just in time.
We checked into a place called Costa Verde Hotel. Their motto was “More Monkeys than People” and they were not kidding around. There were hundreds of monkeys, everywhere you looked, and signs warning you not to feed them. It was like a Robinson Crusoe tree house as all the rooms were built in amongst the jungle. REALLY COOL. There was no A/C and the décor was pretty basic, but what a fantastic spot to hang out for a couple days. We had a gorgeous view of the Pacifico Ocean, but unfortunately, it was not an easy trek to get to. You had to walk about 2,000 steps down to get to the beach, which is always the easy part. The walk back was murder. I felt like I just finished walking across the Great Wall of China and I couldn’t even fire up the A/C to cool off once I returned. Again, Thank God for Pilsen.
But without a doubt, Manual Antonio is one of the most gorgeous places on earth, a real majestic feel, total tranquility. It has one of the sexiest beaches in Costa Rica, and the southern part of the horseshoe bay is a national park. It is a great place to spend a day, relaxing in the sand: but be very careful if you go into the ocean. There are many signs warning you about rip tides as the waves can be pretty big, but of course I am not the kind of guy to pay attention to that. I remember once a few years ago, I went down there with my girlfriend. We were in the ocean, doing the lovey dovey huggy kissy thing, not really paying attention. Before we knew it, we were almost half a mile out to sea, slowly being sucked around the peninsula. Had we been pulled around that corner, the next stop is Chile. Very scary. It took about 45 minutes to work our way back to the shore, trying to remember to stay calm and swim parallel to the shore. All the stuff you read about, but never think you will need to know. We made it obviously, as I am writing to you today, but trust me when I tell you; I have a new appreciation for currents. I won’t be sailing around the world solo anytime soon.
My friend and I stayed for a couple days, and had an absolute blast. We white water rafted on one of the hairiest rivers I have ever been on in my life, went zip lining through the canopy, visited a snake farm and did some fishing, but the place was still way too remote for my personal taste. I need a little more variety and some familiar faces, before I can call a place home, as I was really looking more for a community feel, and less of a tourist place. Being in the rain forest, it was still very hot and humid, but not quite as devastating as the Osa Peninsula where I started this trip.
There is a little town down the hill called Quepos. It was an armpit then and it’s still an armpit now, but what a great place to consume a boat load of beer. There are two amazing restaurants though, situated on the hillside near the hotel. The first one is an old train car from the 1800’s that they have converted with tables, chairs and a bar, and they have live music regularly playing the local tunes. The second is a retired Military cargo plane that supposedly was used by Oliver North when we “weren’t” running guns to the Nicaraguans. The Liberia airport was also built by the CIA but that’s for another Newsletter as well, so stay tuned and check back later. Although this trip to Costa Rica only lasted a few days, I felt totally relaxed. It seemed like the stress had just been completely sucked out of my body, and I hadn’t even ordered my first massage yet. Maybe it was a combination of the booze and the physical exertion from all the tour stuff we had done, but I have never slept better in my life.
Since there were no shades or curtains on our tree house room, we awoke at the first crack of light, sometime around 5 am. As I lay in bed, slowly coming out of my rum induced fog, I had this strange feeling I was being watched. You know what I am talking about; the hair on your neck seems to be standing up. I whipped around, and sure enough, there were about a dozen squirrel monkeys sitting on the railing, checking me out in my underwear. As I got up to start my day, I realized that everything we had left outside, overnight, was gone. My bathing suit, towel and T-shirt, that I hung over the railing, along with my new flip flops I had bought just before coming down, had all been pilfered in the middle of the night.
There are 3 types of monkeys in Costa Rica. The Howler monkeys are the most common; they are actually one of the loudest animals on the planet. Other than hooting and hollering all day, they pretty much mind their own business and never come out of the trees. The second type is the white faced monkeys. You almost never see these guys because they are very timid and scared of humans. So they run away as soon as you get anywhere near. The third type, are these little bastards called Squirrel monkeys, and you only find them in the rain forest areas of the country. They are sneaky little pricks and will steal everything and anything they can get their hands on. Many a cell phone has disappeared when you aren’t paying attention, and I learned about these creatures for the first time that day. I never made that mistake again, I promise you.
We had breakfast that morning, your typical Costa Rica feast. Local fruits and cheeses, and the best eggs you will ever taste in your life. Fresh squeezed juice and a cup of Java; it will wake a dead horse. Home baked breads and muffins and real butter like we had when we were kids. And of course a Bloody Mary, I mean I am on vacation. We met the owner of the hotel and asked him about real estate in the area. He confirmed what I had seen, that this was more of a hotel and B&B area, and he encouraged us to keep moving north. Since we were two young single guys, he told us that Jaco was probably more our style, and if nothing else, he guaranteed us that the party would be rocking and there would be no shortage of babes. Tica Lindas as they call them. We loaded up our roller skate of a 4×4 and stocked the cooler with more suds, and got ready to shove off.
I heard that some of the biggest surfing in the world is in that town of Jaco, so I imagined it would be one heck of a party spot, if nothing else. I was about a fourth of the way up the country, and this tour had just begun, but I knew in my heart, that I would find that perfect spot. You gotta wait for Part 3, you know the drill. We thanked the owner for his hospitality and promised to be back. I have held up my end of the bargain all these years, as this is one of my favorite weekend vacation spots in the entire country. I have sent hundreds of friends and clients there and I encourage you to go visit it too, on your next trip to Costa Rica. It is really more of a couple’s destination, not a single guy place, so bring your better half and you can really revive the romance in your life. Tell him I sent you, but look out for the monkeys. Guard your property or those little SOBs will steal everything you got!
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