Big Words from the Back Seat (The Caribbean Part 1)

Written by Michael Simons on . Posted in Costa Rica Living, Newsletters, Vacation in Costa Rica

Tank Tops Flip Flops Newsletter edition no. 58

When I was 13 years old I was in my first band, called Eternity.  I was the lead singer and my best friend Kent wreaked havoc on the guitar, as we tore up Dream On by Aerosmith at the Junior High School talent show.  We had dry ice, and colored lights, and even a few flames we rigged with magician’s flash paper, and we looked Oh So Cool in our bell bottom pants, Saturday Night Fever silk shirts and patent leather shoes; it was 1978.  So when Kent called me this year and said he wanted to spend his 50th birthday back in Costa Rica, I knew I had to plan something special.  I have never been to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, as it is very remote, and not necessarily the safest place as I have been told.  Potential Danger: perfect! Let’s see how much trouble we can get into.  Another good buddy of mine, David, just happened to be coming to Costa Rica for a visit the same weekend so I invited him along, and had them both fly into San Jose and I drove to pick them up.


We left the city the next day at about 7 am and started our trek east.  There is only ONE Road heading out of San Jose to the port city of Limon, and it ranks as one of the most dangerous in Costa Rica.  It goes over the Braulio Carrillo National Park, and past some of the biggest mountains in the country.  The passengers get to enjoy flashes of the greatest scenery imaginable, from the highest volcano there is, to incredible gorge and canyon views; rolling hills and spectacular rivers; small Tico towns and wildlife; but not the driver.  I spent the entire first 90 minutes with my eyes glued to the road, white knuckles on the steering wheel, sweaty palms and fear in my eyes.  You see the road is basically a two lane suicide path, as it S-turns back and forth, never a straight away for more than a few hundred meters.  There is a cliff on one side, hundreds of feet down, and the sheer rock face on the other, with a culvert that is at least 6 feet wide and 4 feet deep made of concrete.

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Buses and trucks are flying the other way, usually half in our lane, forcing my pick-up to ride the edge of the road, inches from death, while barreling down the highway; pushed to unsafe speeds by the crazy drivers behind me, that will risk their lives and pass you on a double yellow, just to save a couple of minutes in time.  It was like something out of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.  The city of Limon is the largest port of entry into Costa Rica, and just about every single item that we purchase and use, is brought there by ship on a container.  They load these metal monsters on the back of 18 wheelers who then have to navigate this one crazy road to get to the city.  Like most truck drivers, they get paid when they deliver, so time is of the essence, and the cars coming the other way have very little value, in their minds.  Trust me when I tell you, this is not a road you want to commute on every single day.  Having lived in Southern California for a decade, and drove some of the busiest freeways on the earth, I thought I was a pro, but nothing prepared me for this puppy.

Road to Limon

Finally, we dropped down out of the mountains, and hit the plains of the Caribbean side of Costa Rica; this is not like the other side.  It is flat, and hot, and you cannot see anything but banana plantations as far as your eyes can view.  Dole and Chiquita have been exporting bananas from this region since the 1870’s as the perfect growing conditions exist on this side of the country.  They need heat and humidity, and let me tell you, the Caribbean side of Costa Rica has lots of both.  It is basically one giant rain forest, and we were pretty excited to check it out, but very thankful for Air Conditioning.  A couple banana facts; if all the bananas grown in the world were placed end-to-end, the banana chain would circle the Earth 1,400 times.  The world’s record for the longest banana split is 4.55 miles; Cool.  Wanna Banana young lady?

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Since I first came here in 1999, people have always told me to avoid the city of Limon, and within a few minutes of arriving, I completely understood why.  It’s a dump; and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize it is not very safe either.  It makes the city of Compton in South Central Los Angeles and downtown Detroit, look like resort towns, as it was nothing but burned out buildings and container shipping yards.  I thanked God I had filled up with gas before we left, because I wouldn’t stop and get out of my car in this city for all the tea in China, and we were very relieved when we finally came out the other side, and made a right turn heading south. Again, there is only ONE road, so you have no choice but to follow it and it is impossible to get lost.  “Is this the only thoroughfare?” my friend David hollered out.  “Big words from the back seat” Kent barked back, and we all chuckled.  We decided to open the windows, and turn off the A/C and within seconds we felt the humidity like dead weight on our shoulders; you could literally cut it with a knife.As we worked our way towards Puerto Viejo, the Atlantic Ocean appeared on our left.  I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but it was not this.  Having also lived in Boca Raton, I was used to the calm, flat, ocean that exists off of Florida, but this was nothing like that. The waves were monstrous, and the crashing sound over took the CD we were playing in the truck, I am not kidding you.  Boom!! Smash!! Kablam!!!  It was thunderous, and quite a site to see.  “Wow, those waves are tumultuous!” David declared, and Kent fired back again “More big words from the back seat” and the title to this Newsletter was born.

Big Waves

We drove for about another hour or so, passing through the Cahuita National Park, before finally arriving at our hotel, the Cariblue Beach and Jungle Resort.  Start to finish it took about 4 hours from San Jose, a total of about 8 hours from Guanacaste.  What a cool hotel!

It is kind of like a Robinson Crusoe tree house theme, with rustic little Cabinas and open air bars and restaurants. There is a wonderful swimming pool, with a swim up bar, and our favorite hot bartender Kariin.  The hotel meanders through the jungle, with massive trees towering over the pathways, and you realize very quickly, not to venture off the “yellow brick road.” You see, in between the trunks are the most enormous spider webs you have ever witnessed, and each one of them is stalked by a five inch beast, that still gives me the Willie’s as I sit down to write this.  I am talking HUGE spiders! May lightning strike me dead if I am exaggerating, but there were thousands of them.  It was at this exact moment, that I realized why I moved to the dry side of the country in Playa Hermosa Guanacaste.  Of course they weren’t going to jump off the web and latch themselves on to me, but don’t think for one second I got close enough to test it.  I was in the exact center of each path, every single time. I let the other guests go around me, and get within striking distance of these frightening creatures as I wasn’t taking any chances; I didn’t move from the middle.  Call me a wimp, I don’t care.  We dropped off our bags, grabbed a couple of Pilsens and set out to explore the local Cantinas.

Caribe blue

When you drive through Guanacaste, you immediately feel that you are in Central America.  It just has that Latin taste.  But when you drive through the Caribbean towns, you would swear that you were in Jamaica or Haiti, not Costa Rica.  It is very poor, and a total jungle and you really don’t see any residential at all.  There is the occasional house or two, but mostly it is an overgrown rain forest, where you can’t see in more than 50 feet, as the vegetation is so thick you would need a chain saw just to go for a walk.  The beaches are gorgeous, mostly black sand, but every single one of them had signs warning of the dangers to swimmers from the undertow.  The hotel is located just across the street from Playa Cocles, and a couple miles up the road from Playa Negra and Puerto Viejos, all of them popular surf destinations.  As we pulled up in front of a stretch of beach bars, we parked the truck and locked the doors.  We were not out of the vehicle for 15 seconds when that famous sales pitch, that we would be hearing over and over, was thrown our way.  “Heh Mon! What’chu need Mon?  I got heevereeyting Mon!  Mota, Coca, Chicas.  I got it all Mon” as this Rastafarian looking; dread locked wearing; bloodshot eyed individual approached us on the street offering drugs and women.  Welcome to the Caribbean Mon!


All my Tico friends have always talked about the east side of the country, like it was the unwanted step child.  They would always say, “That’s not Costa Rica” as if they were embarrassed by that part of their heritage, and after landing there I could immediately see why. We heard nothing but Bob Marley, and Reggae music; no Latin songs, or Jimmy Buffet; and I was offered marijuana, probably 75 times in 3 days.  Now don’t get me wrong; I don’t personally have anything against anyone smoking a joint, not in this day and age, and I really like Bobby and the Wailers.  Even the state I grew up in now has it legalized, and don’t forget, I was a teenager in the 80’s so I have just about seen and done it all.  But that doesn’t mean I want to be offered it for sale every 25 feet, nor do I want to smell it or see it why I am trying to enjoy a Mahi Mahi sandwich on the beach.  In the 11 years I have been living in Guanacaste, I can honestly say that I can count on one hand how many times someone has come up to me in a bar in Coco and offered to sell me drugs.  It’s just not out in the open here, but there, it is everywhere.  I guess they found it confusing, that three white guys would come all the way over to the other coast and not have any interest in tasting the local flavors, but as is always the case, we were there to drink the beer.


Over the next couple days, we proceeded to rate the temperature of every bar’s bottle of Pilsen, try each bartender’s personal blend of Mojitos and knock back a few dozen Pina Coladas and Margaritas while tasting the various local fish sandwiches, quesadillas and ceviche’s.  We explored every beach they had, although due to the high risk of drowning, I chose to enjoy them from the sand and not venture in to the waves.  We actually found our way to the “end of the line” at this one little spot, off the beaten path, where a dozen or so surfers were sitting at this restaurant, boards stuck into the sand.  “Why aren’t you surfing?” I asked them, as they shook their heads in disbelief.  “Tiger Sharks Mon. Big Ass Tiger Sharks.”  Enough said: and we headed on back.

Cocles Beach

And then, there she was; this adorable little Asian woman, standing in the middle of the road, flagging me down and telling me to stop. “Can you help us please? We lost the key to our bike lock, and we need a ride back to the hotel. We are staying at the Cariblue resort, and there are 3 of us.”  This was where I started to Thank God.  What are the odds, of three HOT Asian women, being stranded on a remote beach, with their bicycles all locked together in one big clump; I and my two buddies just happened to be driving by in a pickup truck, staying at the same resort?  Of course, we can help, I told her and we jumped out of the truck and walked over to load her bikes into the back.  It was then that the reality sunk in; she was with her husband and her son, and they were still arguing over who lost the key and where.  “You lost it. No you lost it.”  And this continued all the way back to the lodge.  Oh well, chalk it up to another good story, and we jumped in the pool and ordered more beers from the Guapa; Kariin.

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After all this stress, we voted that a massage was in order, and we worked our way over to the Jungle Spa. Of course, it would be called the Jungle Spa, since EVERYTHING over there is called Jungle something or other. Jungle Hotel; Jungle Bar; Jungle Market; Jungle Gym; but this really was a very relaxing environment, with lots of good energy. For the next 90 minutes, we were treated to a fantastic deep tissue work out, complete with burning candles and cucumber water, smelly oils and feet rub. My girl Roe was right out of Yoga Is Us, an old hippie from northern California, who threw in the towel of responsibility and headed to the rainforest, and let me tell you Roe ROCKED!  When I told her I was from Guanacaste, she said “Oh, the dry side” and I thought to myself EXACTLY.  Pura Vida.  She went on to explain to me, that during the months of June and July, they had 6 weeks of rain, without one day off.  Imagine, 42 straight days of torrential down pouring thunder showers!!!  Not one hour of sunshine; Unbelievable.  No wonder spiders are as big as dogs, and everyone smokes dope all day.  Heh Mon, it’s the Caribbean Mon.  What’chu need Mon?  I got heevereeyting Mon!


The next day, we headed up to the town of Cahuita, a quaint little village with some really cold beer. Like most Caribbean areas, this part of Costa Rica was formed during the slave trading days, of the Spanish Conquistadors. But one of the really unique facts of this amazing country is that they gradually moved away from slavery on their own, completely abolishing it in 1823. You can read more about this here. Check it out, it’s pretty neat.

Cahuita was actually formed in the 19th century by English speaking turtle hunters, and they were given their piece of land by the President of Costa Rica in 1915 for helping to save him from a shipwreck.  Amazing what you can find out, pounding back 15 cocktails a day.  This side of Costa Rica also grows a tremendous amount of Cacao and there are dozens of cool Chocolate tours that you can take as well, but we chose to save our calories for more Pilsens.  But the tour we were really pumped up for was the famous Sloth Sanctuary, as seen on Discovery Channel, and we got up early the last day to check it out.


The tour consists of two parts, one educational, and one searching in the wild for sleeping Sloths.  The first hour is spent learning everything about these amazing creatures, from their eating and sleeping habits to mating and digestive timelines.  You will learn more about this shortly, I promise, so don’t go anywhere.  They have hundreds of these little furry dudes, that have been injured or abused, and they are brought here for rehabilitation.  Those that can survive in the wild are released into the Sanctuary property, to continue on with their lives, while those that cannot, get to spend the rest of their time, hanging out in hammocks and hob knobbing with tourists.  The most famous one is named Buttercup, and she is 22 years old.  They are not sure how long Sloths live, because she is the oldest ever known, so until she bites the bullet, that fact will not be available.  They even had one named Millie.  

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The young man that gave us the tour has got to be voted Mr. Sloth Dude of the Year, because there wasn’t anything that he didn’t know: Quite impressive.  They then loaded us into these small canoes, where a “driver”, similar to a gondola in Venice Italy, except you are deep in the jungles of Latin America, navigated us through these small canals. The idea is to look way up in to the tops of the trees, and see if you can find a sleeping sloth, since they only move and come out at night.  Hellloooooooo.  Talk about almost impossible. We saw a monkey and a raccoon, one armed crabs and thousands of birds, BUT NO SLOTHS.  I did get a nice sunburn though, and a few dozen mosquito bites.  If you ever take this tour, skip the boat ride, but the actual sanctuary itself is really quite enjoyable.  One fun bit of info; when Costa Rica was slapping the other countries around in in the World Cup, the Sloth Kong became a national hero, fueling this little paradises hopes and dreams.  Here it is in case you missed it.

There is also the famous Jaguar Sanctuary, located a few miles down the road, but we were “tourist out” and as you can guess, ready for more booze.

sloth boat

That evening we went to the Koki Beach Restaurant, which is the only really nice joint around, the rest are just little shacks and burger joints, but this place is incredible. They had hundreds of Tiki torches burning, great music jamming, and a massive menu. We ordered a bowl of the Peruvian Ceviche, and the three of us were completely blown away.  I can truthfully call myself a connoisseur of ceviche, as I have had it all over the tropics, as has David and Kent, but we all agreed that this was quite possibly the best we have ever had, and ended up ordering two more buckets. It had mango and corn and just about everything else in it as well, and we were fighting to load up the last fried plantain when we got to the bottom. “I have never had a bad meal in Costa Rica, in the ten years I have been coming” David proclaimed, and I would definitely have to agree with him.


And then there were these screams! Everyone in the restaurant jumped up out of their seats and ran to the middle of the building. Cameras were flashing, cell phones were clicking, and little kids were pointing, as this Sloth came down the center pole of the overhang, headed right into the middle of the bar. Go figure. I just spent an hour in a canoe, getting bit to hell by bugs, burned to a crisp by the sun, BORED OUT OF MY MIND, looking for a Sloth and all I had to do was go to dinner and order some appetizers.  This is my life. Pura Vida.


Now, it was at this exact second that I remembered a tidbit of information that was now very important, from my Sloth Class earlier that day.  You see these animals never leave the trees, ever, except one time a week for a couple of minutes.  This is so they can come down to the ground, relieve themselves, and return to the safety of the canopy.  Professor Sloth told us, that they poop about 10 lbs. and urinate about a gallon, and here he was headed right into the middle of a packed house of tourists and surfers chomping down on fishburgers.  This is gonna be great, I thought, and grabbed my iPhone and turned on the camera mode.  Boy, are these kids in for a real surprise!  The poor little dude got about 3 feet from the ground, reefed his head completely around, and realized he was on Candid Camera or Funniest Animal home movies, and then turned and went back up into the trees.  Guess he has to hold it for another week. You see sloths can pull an Exorcist and rotate their heads 270 degrees in a circle, without moving their bodies.  This is so they can look for potential predators, without making any movement and giving up their location.  Hence, my newest man comment was born; ways to check out girls without letting them know.  Just tell your buddy, “Sloth 45 degrees” and he knows a cutie is heading in from the right; “Sloth 6 o’clock” and he has the heads up that a hottie is coming up behind him.  I love being a man.

Sloth Crossing

We woke up the next morning at the crack of dawn, even before the sun rose, and loaded up our bags for the ride back to San Jose. Although Kent was staying for another 10 days, David had to get home to the real world.  We put all the suitcases in the back seat, since we didn’t want to take a chance on it raining, and the 3 of us jumped in the Hilux and started our return.  We rolled through Limon just as the first rays of light were shooting over the horizon, made a left turn and headed west towards the city.  Now, any of you who have ever driven across this country, know that the police don’t pull you over from behind, like they do in the USA or Canada.  They are usually hiding in a tree, a half a kilometer up the road, and step out in front of your vehicle, with their hands in the air, to pull you over for speeding.  So after 11 years of living here, I don’t check my rear view mirrors anymore, as I did every 45 seconds back in North America.  So you can imagine how shocked I was, when a police van pulled up next to me, lights flashing, siren screaming, and some really pissed off police officers, pointing for me to stop.   As they approached the vehicle on opposite sides, I could see in my mirrors that their hands were on their guns, ready to draw and fire if necessary.  What would my mother think if I was shot dead in Limon on the side of the road?  I politely spoke to the officers, and handed them my residency card.  I told them we had been vacationing in Puerto Viejo, and were headed back to the airport for my friend David’s flight.  They had me exit the vehicle and remove our entire luggage, and put it on the tailgate of my truck, asking me over and over “Any drugs?  Guns?  Anything we need to know about?”   After a 5 minute search, they apologized for the inconvenience and let us continue on our way.  He told me that seeing three white guys in Limon, this early in the morning, with suitcases piled 4 feet high in the back seat of the truck, flying down the freeway like I stole it,  just looked a little suspicious and they had to check it out.  I guess with my long blonde hair flowing in the wind; Kent, bald, tattooed and two earrings; and David, clean cut in a sport coat; we definitely looked like the type of guys to be carrying a load of blow: Dave the boss, me the driver and Kent the muscle.


As we got back on the “thoroughfare”, ready to take on the “tumultuous” highway to hell, we could only laugh at how it must have looked.  We surely had some adventures this long weekend, but I had this gut feeling that the danger was only going to increase as Kent and I prepared to take on one of the top 5 white water rafting rivers in the world.  Great to see you David, thanks for joining us; see you next trip, hurry back; have a safe flight home.

To everyone else: Stay tuned; more to come; to be continued.

big flip flop



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