Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Playa Tamarindo Is A Ghost Town - Tuesday 3-31-2009

I’m paying $30 per night to stay at Hostel Botelle de Leche, a social hostel about half a mile from the beach with couches, bean bags, hammocks, a big TV, wireless Internet access, and a spotless communal kitchen. My room has a double bed, private bathroom, air conditioning, and windows that look out onto the small courtyard where I saw this boxing match today. Shortly after I took this picture, the girl crumpled the bald guy with a low kick to his groin. Tough chick. Anyway, Hostel Botelle de Leche is full. It’s the only place in Playa Tamarindo that can say so.

This is Playa Tamarindo a bit after noon today:

Missing anything? It’s high season. Where are the tourists? I walk to Cabina Marielos which is just across the street from the beach. Cabina Marielos ($35 per night for a clean but Spartan private room with double bed, private bathroom, and air conditioning. Five rooms look out onto a peaceful garden with colorful tables and chairs. There is an Adirondack-style chair on the porch of each room) is the other place in Playa Tamarindo my guidebook really liked, after Hostel Botella de Leche. Hostel Botella de Leche was loud last night and workmen spend the day noisily repairing the area right in front of my window, so I want to check out someplace else. I speak with the woman at Cabina Marielos’ office who tells me she has five private rooms available out of a possible ten or so, and all but one of her cabins are empty. In past high seasons, she would be booked solid right now with people lining up to snap up rooms as current residents check out. She tells me point blank this is the worst high season ever and that “it’s not just here, it’s the same story in Paris, Rome, England, all over.” I walk around the property and Cabina Marielos is quiet except for a gregarious French Canadian I meet named Nicolas. He's been down here for four months and prefers the silence.

It kind of hit me when I walked through town yesterday, but I completely realize it today -- Playa Tamarindo is a ghost town compared to what is should be this time of year. I eat a hamburger and fries at El Corcel Negro for 2,800 colones. I have nearly the entire courtyard to myself.

Global Economic Crisis Hits Costa Rica Tourism - Monday 3-30-2009

It’s a four hour ride on the Greyline shuttle from Monteverde to the transfer at Limonal, and then from Limonal to Playa Tamarindo through dusty, dry hills that look like California’s Santa Ynez valley. On the shuttle bus, I briefly talk with a woman who says her husband is the “CEO of Ocotal.” He’s responsible for tourism development and real estate development and she tells me that both activities are down all over Costa Rica. In addition, she says, this high season has been disappointing. Past high season crowds in Tamarindo were so large that people had difficulty walking down the street and hotels were booked weeks in advance. I tell her that I booked my stay in Tamarindo only four days ago. She informs me the new JW Marriott near Tamarindo is only 25 percent full. It should be nearly 75 percent full.

I arrive at my hostel, Hostel Botelle de Leche, amid blazing heat and wicked humidity. I sit in my room doing nothing and I sweat. I explore Tamarindo briefly in the mid-afternoon heat. The town seems dead. Souvenir stores are full of flip-flops, t-shirts, ceramic pots, and other knick knacks but there are so few tourists. Beach side restaurants and bars are similarly empty, one table full for every ten or more that are empty. I go swimming in the late afternoon. Dozens of surfers enjoy the steady, gentle swells and there are maybe one hundred people on the beach, but there is still plenty of empty water and empty sand. I put my gear down and go wading. The Pacific is bathwater warm. This is why I came to Costa Rica, to swim in warm water under sapphire blue skies while palm trees wave in a gentle breeze on shore. I splash around for an hour, then walk south along the beach for several kilometers. Fewer surfers down this way and even fewer sunbathers – I’ll come back here tomorrow. After I turn back and head north, I pass a middle-aged couple speaking English. I ask where they’re from and they say Pennsylvania. I tell them I spent two years in Pittsburgh and that breaks the ice. They are family of the people who own Iguana Surf, a local surfing school and retailer, and Aqua, a local dance club. This is the sixth consecutive high-season they have visited Tamarindo. They tell me that past high season crowds were so thick they could barely walk down the street. Their relatives have told them that this high season is the worst in recent memory.

After returning to the hostel, I look for dinner. There are plenty of restaurants in Tamrindo, and they all serve similar food for similar prices. I see plenty of $15 penne pasta, $8 pizzas and $20 steaks. But they aren’t crowded. I walk through town around 7:00PM and each restaurant has maybe 10 people, enough to fill two or three tables. More searching, though, and I find a steal – El Corcel Negro (The Black Warhorse) at Plaza Conchal serves 2,800 colones hamburgers, a plate of nachos for 2,300 colones, and two taquitos for 1,500 colones – it’s the cheapest place I find and so I have four taquitos and then call it a night.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Karmic Backlash Fixed - Sunday 3-29-2009

About 3:45PM, I leave to rectify a small injustice. I did not pay the $8 entrance fee when I visited Monteverde waterfall yesterday. When my camera switch broke off at the falls, I immediately thought “karmic backlash.” I walk back to Monteverde Waterfall and find Simon sitting in the information shack. He recognizes me from two nights ago. I say hello and explain to him that I came yesterday and didn’t pay because there wasn’t anyone to pay but now I’m here to pay. Simon grins and thanks me for coming back as he happily accepts my money. We talk and I learn that the Monteverde waterfall is on his parent’s property. His dad is a local expert on bats and bought the property around the waterfall to preserve it from development. Their house is down the dirt road a bit. I tell him that it must be nice to live amid such beauty. “For sure,” he says with a smile. Simon asks where I am from. “Los Angleles, California, which is not as beautiful, not as green, not as peaceful, and not as quiet as Monteverde,” I say. I tell him how my camera switch broke off yesterday at the falls and how it was karmic backlash for not paying. Simon laughs. I take his picture for my blog. “Pura Vida!” Simon shouts as I wave and head up the dirt road back to the gravel road. Pura Vida, Simon.

I walk east toward the Monteverde Preserve. I pass a woman walking to dogs and say hello. Half a mile east of Monteverde’s center, I pass the Quaker cheese factory and marvel at how modern it looks. I go as far as Rio Shanti, a yoga, massage and day spa past a half mile past the Quaker cheese factory and turn back. Not far along, I pass the woman and dogs again. This time, she asks if I am looking for something in particular. After I tell how I wanted to walk to the Monteverde Preserve but decided against it because it was too far, she asks if I want to at least look into the preserve. I say yes. She quickly walks us back to Rio Shanti, and then into the forest behind it. She finds a barely marked trail and she leads me through the forest.

I introduce myself and she does the same. Her name is Annie and she teaches at the Quaker school. School enrollment is 50 percent Costa Rican children and 50 percent expatriate children. This year’s high season has been so disappointing that Costa Rican families are openly concerned about paying for next year’s tuition, she tells me. I ask about the expatriate families in Monteverde and she says that they do nothing to support themselves because they are so rich, which is noteworthy because she also tells me that living in Monteverde is not much cheaper than living in the US. I ask Annie if she is Quaker. She describes herself as “kind of Quaker and kind of Universalist” in that she likes some tenants of the Quaker religion but hangs on to some things she learned as a Universalist while in college. When I tell her how modern the Quaker cheese factory looks, she laughs and says Quakers embrace modern technology and that I’m thinking of the Amish. After a fast-paced ten minute walk through thick forest, the trees open up to a deep valley and countless trees. “Here we are,” she says. I snap some pictures. Annie leads me back to the gravel road connecting Santa Elena with the Monteverde Preserve. I thank her and walk back to Manakin Lodge.

Upon my arrival at Manakin Lodge, the owner's daughter tells me that they need my Family Room for some guests and asks if I could move into the Superior Room I was unable to move into during my week here because it was always booked. I immediately agree. I move my gear and spend the evening sitting on my balcony, gazing into the darkening rainforest, listening to the crickets, cicadas, and monkeys call in the night. Karmic backlashed fixed.

Career Options and Monkeys - Sunday 3-29-2009

I eat breakfast with Rose and Ann. They ask me about my journey. I am hoping this trip will spark some hidden career aspiration, I tell them. So far, I love traveling and writing so perhaps I can survive as a travel writer. I also tell them that freelance work or entrepreneurship appeals to me. They ask about my previous career path. I tell them it was interesting work that I did mostly for the money, but that now the money no longer compensates for the stress or the overpowering feeling that I should be doing something else with my life. Rose starts suggesting alternative careers. “Are you interested in teaching English,” she asks. I tell her no. “How about teaching economics workshops?” I tell her that I think Austrian School economics would be worth teaching, but who today remembers them? She suggests I could write an article, or perhaps self-publish a book about my experience traveling. She further suggests that I could tailor my blog towards people who are either traveling alone or traveling cheaply. Now there’s an idea, and I have always wanted to be a published writer.

Rose asks me if I enjoy cooking, because cooking is a great way to connect with a foreign culture. I say cooking is more hobby than career interest. “How about the Peace Corps or volunteering,” Rose inquires I lack that certain personality that would love the Peace Corps lifestyle, but economic development work in a foreign country might be a better fit; ecological volunteer work interests me, too I tell her. Then I tell Rose and Ann about how my afternoon in San Jose with Laura got me thinking about development work.

Rose tells me about a high-strung body builder from her hometown who took a summer to drive across the US, sleeping where he could and talking to everyone he met. In the end, he moved to Boston and is now a happier, mellower yoga master who credits his summer long trip with prompting his transition. Rose says my trip might lead to a similar transition. I tell her that I brought a couple books to help me formulate this new path, but I have enjoyed talking to people so much that I have been doing that instead of reading my books. She tells me talking to people is better. I agree. The conversation pauses. “Have you had much time for romance,” she asks. I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t, that my jobs have been all-consuming, and that I was married to my career but we’re divorced now. That last part gets a good laugh.

Just past noon, Tiffany calls everyone over to her balcony because the monkeys are in the trees right outside her room. Rose has some cut bananas in her hand. The monkeys eye the food carefully, creep in from the trees, grab the food from Rose’s hand, and then jump back into the trees to eat their fruit.

About 1:15PM, I accompany Rose and Ann to Sabores, (100 yards down a dirt road leading west from Manakin Lodge; can also follow for 50 yards the dirt road that runs south from Atmosphere CafĂ© on the road to Santa Elena) the local ice cream shop from where they will catch their cab to Santa Elena and then their bus to San Jose. Sabores offers cones in local flavors like banana or condensed milk with figs, as well as familiar classics like chocolate and vanilla starting from 540 colones (about $1) and sundaes and banana splits from 1,250 colones ($2.50). They also sell sandwiches starting from 1,725 colones ($3.50) if you’re looking for real food.

Rose tells me about her Turkish dad, how he swears that olives keep his skin young and soft, how he won’t let her date until she’s 35 and then how he’ll just arrange a marriage for her anyway. She won’t have any of it and has a boyfriend back in Maryland, but I laugh because Mom used to tell me similar things when I was young. We exchange emails and Rose graciously tells me to email her about my travels or even just to talk. Rose and Ann’s taxi arrives five minutes early. I walk them to the taxi, hug them both, and wish them a fine stay in Costa Rica. They wish the same to me. Turning, I walk back to Manakin Lodge. Constantly saying goodbye is the hardest part of my trip.

The door to the Superior Room next to my Family Room is open. I could never move into this room because it was booked during much of my stay. It is empty now, though, and so I sit on the balcony to write and enjoy the afternoon. The balcony faces the rainforest. The family of monkeys I photographed earlier are in the trees mere feet from me. A baby monkey, no longer than a foot and a half, jumps from its tree to the wooden balcony, and then climbs the railing and walks on the railing a foot from me. I smile and say hello. He runs off without returning my greeting.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Monteverde Waterfall - Saturday 3-28-2009

I eat pancakes for lunch (from last night's batter) with Rose from Maryland and Ann from Wisconsin. They are college students back in the States who are in Costa Rica for a semester doing social work. They work in soup kitchen. Ann also works a couple days a week at a local program similar to Headstart back home. Rose's soup kitchen operates out of a priest’s house in San Jose, serving people who are so hungry they dig in San Jose’s landfill for food. Both women love their work, and are in Monteverde for a weekend getaway.

After lunch, I walk east on the paved road that to the Monteverde Preserve. Retracing yesterday’s steps, I walk about one mile to the Monteverde Waterfall (opens at 8AM, closes irregularly, $8 per person, night tours available; from Manakin Lodge, walk east along the paved road towards the Monteverde Preserve until the paved road turns to gravel and then walk another half a mile down the gravel road; it will be on your right) just off the gravel road that leads to the Monteverde Preserve, but before the Monteverde’s town center. I walk down the dirt path to the information shack. A note advises me that the attendant is away and to pay when I leave. A yellow sign points towards the trail and says the waterfall is one kilometer away. The trail leads steeply down and I have to hang onto the climbing ropes several times to keep my footing. The ten minute walk to the river valley passes quickly. I follow the trail along a brook, and then past several shallow, wide pools. I continue until a rope originating from the opposite river bank and strung across the river blocks my path. I turn back and rest a while, soaking my feet in the cold water. Feeling adventurous, I go back to the roped off trail. Taking a closer look, I can see that the trail continues along the other bank and that this rope does not block my path. Rather it is a guide rope for me to hold as I cross the slippery rocks leading to the opposite bank. I grab hold of the rope and cross easily. I follow the trail and walk right up to the waterfall. One small pool and one larger, deeper pool separate me from the waterfall. I stop to take pictures, then drop my gear except for my camera and wade into the cool water. I climb on a rock and take several pictures of the waterfall and surrounding valley. The valley walls are nearly perfectly vertical. Strangler vines and tree roots descend the cliff walls. I notice that no direct sunlight reaches this hidden spot. I wade across the pool to a log and climb on it for a better shot of the waterfall. Satisfied, I cross back to shore, but then I try to jam my camera into the waterproof pocket of my swim trunks. The switch that toggles picture taking mode and picture reviewing mode breaks off. I search the leaves and muck for the switch in vain but come up empty. I put my camera down on shore and wade back out to the deeper pool. It’s peaceful here. Even the roar of the falls is calming. The water flows around me. I hang onto a log and test how deep the deeper pool is. The water is nearly up to my waist and I still I can’t touch the bottom. I’m cold. I hang on a few seconds in the cold water, then pull myself up onto the log. I linger a few more minutes to admire this beautiful waterfall and its pools. Finally, I gather my things and leave.