Barf Bags and Howler Monkeys in Costa Rica

Too much monkey business: howler monkeys taking a break.

In June 2008, I took a 13-day trip to Costa Rica. It was my first international trip in a year and a half, so I wanted to make it as relaxing as possible. Normally, when I travel to a foreign country, I choose a destination with a bustling, historic metropolis: Barcelona, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Rome.

This time, I was sufficiently burned out on city life in New York that I decided as long as it had warm temperatures, a coastline, and a favorable exchange rate, I could do my museum-ing and what-not when I got back to the Big Apple. I was tempted to take the less-beaten path and check out Nicaragua, but I wasn’t exactly in a pioneering mood, so I went with Costa Rica, the country famous for tourism and little else.

To paraphrase that ancient knight in the Indiana Jones flick, I chose wisely. It was one of the most relaxing vacations I have ever taken. In fact, it may have been a little TOO relaxing; by the final days I was anxious to get back to New York and resume my place in the rat race for which I had previously had so much contempt. (I guess that’s what vacations are for.) [And how’s that for proper placement of a preposition followed by improper placement?]

There is definitely no glimmering world capital in Costa Rica. The closest you’ll get is San Jose, its capital and major port of entry (by air, anyway). Like most travelers, I did my best to minimize my time spent in this city. For one thing, it’s in the middle of the country, near the mountains, so it’s generally rainier and cooler than the coasts. It’s also one of the least impressive cities I have ever seen. Pretty much every part of San Jose looks like the worst parts of Los Angeles, only packed in twice as tightly. It’s a lot of one- and two-story Spanish-derivative architecture by way of the ‘50s and ‘60s. There is no skyline to behold. In fact, San Jose doesn’t even have the charm of an old Mexican town, though this is probably due to the fact that anything built more than 100 years ago has been destroyed by volcanoes or earthquakes.

Having spent one rain-soaked night in San Jose, I immediately booked passage to the Caribbean coast. I had planned on visiting both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, but after arriving and soaking in the lazy lifestyle of one shore, what, I reasoned, was the point of killing a day on buses to get to the other? Buses suck. Choosing the Caribbean was sort of a coin-toss, though it seemed like the lesser-traveled of the two, which appealed to my mindset.

This brought me to Cahuita, a small crossroads town that caters to tourists but maintains a local flavor with a heavy Afro-Caribbean influence. It is flanked by two beaches: Playa Negra (black sand), and the white sand beach of Parque Nacional Cahuita. I booked a room at the cheerily-named Hotel Sunshine ($20 per night for a very clean bed and bath), and was in fact its sole guest during my four-day stay there. Except, that is, for its caretaker, a 16-year-old native girl named Rebeca (yes, one ‘c’). And so it was that after a full day of swimming and relaxing, I would return at sundown to my hotel, crack open a bottle of Imperial beer, and shoot the breeze with young Rebeca. She would tell me about her home life (not dirt poor, but definitely more cornbread than caviar), and I would tell her about New York. Rebeca asked me how much I paid a month in rent, and when I told her, she looked at me like I was a little green man who had just walked off of a spaceship. Sometimes we would just sit quietly as the evening rain fell, watching the frogs, geckos, and crabs scurry about the terrace, listening to the crashing of the ocean waves nearby and the call of the howler monkeys from the trees. I realized during those moments that I was almost completely disconnected, in the middle of nowhere, with an amazing abundance of time on my hand – time that I was more than happy to while away drinking cheap Costa Rican beer and watching the tropical menagerie in front of me. And with no other guests at the hotel, it was almost as if I had my own private villa, just a few hundred yards from the ocean. You don’t need a lot of money to live like a prince.

*            *            *

After Cahuita, it was on to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, a larger beach town just a half an hour south. Though it’s still relatively small, in Puerto Viejo you’ll find more of everything: More bars, more restaurants, more tourists, more internet cafes. Prices are a little higher, but good deals can still be found. I ate almost every lunch at Miss Lidia’s Place, a “soda” (café or deli) set back a few blocks from the main drag. Six dollars can get you a plate of Caribbean chicken, rice, yuca, a little spaghetti, and some greens.

(Avoid the French toast. In fact, avoid French toast wherever you go in Costa Rica, unless you want to put yourself on the fast track for diabetes. Seriously, it’s doused in sugar. I ordered French toast at one restaurant and they brought it out with a bottle of chocolate syrup.)

There is a Playa Negra in Puerto Viejo, although I wouldn’t recommend it (it’s dirty, and I was nearly mauled by a pit bull there). Instead, take the 20-minute walk to magnificent Playa Cocles. The walk itself is either down a dusty unpaved road, or through a lush rainforest that borders an enormous reef. I generally prefer the woods, where the road is easier on the feet and thousands of orange crabs peek out from the ground like Tolkeinesque somethings-or-other.

Puerto Viejo’s Playa Negra; beware the leashless pit bulls.

The beach itself (after the reef) is violently alluring. Waves crash down on surfers and swimmers unrepentantly and swiftly and – to the annoyance of surfers – close to the shore.

It had been a while since I swum in waves so high (Long Beach in Long Island isn’t quite as treacherous), so my first foray resulted in some serious ass-kickings…not just being knocked down and toward shore, but I’m talking serious, down in the sand, arms- and legs-flailing, which-way-is-up battles with death. After learning to respect my furious adversary, I went back in with a more cerebral and graceful approach, diving into the base of the wave and enduring a little bit of force underwater while the tide crashed down above the surface.

I found a rhythm and mastered the technique, like a swift and tiny point guard slashing through the big men on the way to the basket. However, the sea being the sea and not as rhythmic or orderly as, say, a person, some variations in time and space eventually kicked my sunburned ass back to shore anyway. But, since that’s what makes it exciting, I kept at it until my lungs needed rest.

*            *            *

Costa Rica is a haven for the eco tourist. I am not an eco tourist. After a few minutes in the jungle, despite its exoticism, the fact remains that I’m just in the woods amongst the mosquitoes. I’m not ashamed to admit that during my stay in Costa Rica, I didn’t do a jungle canopy tour, or snorkeling, or even surfing. During my stay on the Caribbean coast (during which I heard Bob Marley’s Legend CD more times than throughout my entire five years of college), I was so relaxed from my routine of sunbathing, swimming, drinking, and eating, I felt no need for anything rugged. (I did venture into the rainforest a couple of times – but not too far.)

After a week on the coast, I was ready for civilization again. I took the bus to Heredia, a university town a few minutes outside San Jose.

When the bus picked up passengers in the next town, two girls got on. One sat in the aisle seat next to me, the other sat across the aisle. A male friend of theirs also sat down nearby.

Bus rides in Costa Rica are a game of death. Whereas in the U.S., passenger buses are generally slow, lumbering behemoths famous for shifting into low gear at crucial junctures and occupying whatever lane you’re trying to get into, in Costa Rica the buses are the fastest and most reckless machinery on the highway. Whether careening at 90 mph over a dilapidated thoroughfare that’s pockmarked with craters, or playing chicken with an oncoming bus while trying to pass a much a slower compact car on a two-lane highway, your bus odyssey in and out of San Jose will feel more like one of those old, wooden roller coasters at Six Flags that should have been shut down in the ‘30s. Queasiness is just one of the risks, especially after a day in the sun.

Luckily, I didn’t suffer from any motion sickness. As we departed Cahuita, I was reading my book about the Bill Russell-Wilt Chamberlain rivalry (“The Rivalry”) when I glanced back at the lass next to me. She was fishing through her day pack for what turned out to be a plastic shopping bag. Opening the shopping bag, she pulled out one of those large Ziploc bags – the kind you might use for keeping a few pork chops in the freezer. However, instead of pork chops, her baggie contained some sort of tannish-colored soup.

“Odd,” I thought to myself, focusing my attention back on whatever Red Auerbach was telling Bob Cousy in 1962. Why pack soup?

The girl then held the bag, which was now concealed again by the white shopping bag, up to her mouth and breathed into it. She appeared to be hyperventilating. Into the soup bag.

Over the course of five, 10, 15 seconds, like one of those “Twilight Zone” heroes who is suddenly learning what the audience has known all along, I realize that she is not breathing into the bags, but vomiting into them.

“Oh, no. No. No! NO!” were my next thoughts. I imagined the camera pulling in to my horrified face, extra tight, my clenched fist at my teeth as my jowls trembled and beads of sweat trickled down my forehead. Cut to camera two, from outside the bus as it pulls away, as I press my hands and face against the window. “Stop the bus!! For the love of all humanity, please, somebody stop the bus!!!”

We submit to you one Adam Underhill, stranger in a strange land. He left New York for the lush jungles and luxurious sunshine of Central America to find rest and relaxation. What he found was his own version of hell, traveling on two axles and four wheels, reeking of bile, and headed for…the Twilight Zone.

This woman pretty much barfed her way back to San Jose. I actually rather nonchalantly went back to my book, pretending not to notice. Ha ha, Elgin Baylor did WHAT? At a rest stop about an hour into the trip, her friend asked if I’d mind switching seats. “My friend is sick and I think I should take care of her.” The words hadn’t even fallen out of her mouth before I grabbed my things and plopped into her seat. She had me at “my friend.” The girl next to me there was clutching not a bag of puke but of pretzels. “Pretzel?” my new seat mate, a cute blond, offered, but I did not feel like noshing. Occasionally, I’d glance over at the poor, sick girl and she’d have her bag at her face, heaving away. Remarkably, she didn’t make any sound, or whatever sound she did make was absorbed by her leftovers. I’m not even sure that many people knew what was going on; it was dark and most of the passengers were either asleep or listening to their iPods.

At one point, the two females’ male friend approached the bus driver, then came back and told the girls that the bus driver could make an unscheduled stop in the next town and let them off. “We can get a room, and you can rest and recover,” he suggested. “No, no,” was her reply. “I want to get back to San Jose.” I suppose, why give up now?

*            *            *

My remaining few days in the small town of Heredia were anticlimactic. My guidebook made it sound like a middle-class, suburban university town nestled in the mountains, a Tico version of Boulder, Colorado. What I found was an unremarkable little burg with a modest town square and a small college campus located off a business strip containing a KFC, a Burger King, and a Taco Bell. In a way, this wasn’t such a bad thing; I was sick of Caribbean chicken, and I have a guilty pleasure for Taco Bell (for more, read my account in Boston). In fact, it turned out to be an amazing presentation of fast food, as if the workers truly cared that your nachos resemble nachos, and not a Jackson Pollack painting. I went there three times, I kid you not. My guidebook also listed an aquarium as one of the tourist sites, but when I went to the neighborhood it was supposed to be in, it was nowhere to be found. Employees at a convenience store told me they had been asked about it many times, but in fact no such aquarium had ever been in Heredia, so far as they knew.

There are a few bars near the campus, with some decent nightlife. During the day, I ran into a French Canadian named Marc, whom I had previously met in Puerto Viejo. There, I was in solo mode and politely brushed him off. Now, starving for conversation, I eagerly made plans with him. We saw a few sights during the day and grabbed some beers that night. I figured I had a partner in crime for possibly meeting some local Ticas.

“I have a girlfriend back in Montreal, and I would never cheat on her or anything like that,” Marc said. Ah, fair enough. At least I had a wingman.

“Well, it is almost 8 o’clock,” he said after two beers. “I am getting very tired, I’ll probably fall asleep soon. I should go back to the hotel.” Gggghhh.

In fact, I stayed out for a round or two after Marc left, but my heart wasn’t in it. I realized that the day before I had eaten at Taco Bell and watched a Lakers-Celtics game in my room, among other things. I had even walked by a cinema that was showing The Incredible Hulk, starring Edward Norton, and considered going in to see it. In short, I was burned out on Costa Rica and ready to be on an airplane again, headed back to my home in New York. In a few hours, I’d be sitting in the middle seat, the whole row to myself, watching an in-flight movie, being served terrible food and wine, falling in and out of sleep and thinking about the trip that was. ¡Pura Vida!

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This entry was posted in Americas, Central America & the Caribbean, Costa Rica, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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