COSTA RICA UNPLUGGED
Can a fully wired couple go somewhere and unplug for a month? Troy Media Publisher, Doug Firby and his wife, travel writer Lisa Monforton, picked Costa Rica, a tropical mecca for many Canadians, to rediscover life without constant distractions.
Doug will be updating his travel diary daily.
Let’s see how it goes!
DAYS 17 and 18 – Samara
Eyewitness to environmental loss
This country is world famous as an eco-destination, and there is plenty of evidence that the population has embraced the notion with enthusiasm. Costa Rica was an early adopter of the idea that the best use of land is to let it revert to the wild and then invite people to come visit.
Yet even here, in what many consider “paradise”, there are also signs that the full ecological vision has not been realized and that there is much work to do. The starkest evidence, perhaps, lies just under the surface of the coastal waters in its dying coral reefs.
The numbers are truly jolting: According to the Costa Rica Times, in the past 20 years the Tempisque area between Guanacaste (the area we are staying in) south to Puntarenas has lost 98 per cent of its vibrant coral cover. The Osa region at the southern end of the country has 16 per cent live coral, Cocos has 18 per cent and Culebra Bay went from 50 per cent live coral to three per cent in 14 years.
Living coral and calcareous algae is one of the best indicators of a healthy ecosystem, and provide a vital habitat for fish reproduction.
It is fashionable to blame the warming waters on climate change – and indeed the water is bath warm – but that is not the only cause of the decline. Authorities also blame over-fishing, poor watershed management, high levels of algae and seaweed. In short, the reefs have not been getting the love that the more visible land-based forests have.
We saw the destruction during a snorkelling trip to Isla Chora, a small island on the southern edge of Playa Samara. A 45-minute paddle from the shore, it provides an ideal spot to survey the underwater wonders of the country.
With a few small exceptions, the vivid colours of the coral reef have disappeared, replaced by dead, brown remnants. In spite of that, there is an abundance of colourful fish, water snakes and other underwater wildlife that could keep a visitor busy for hours.
Taking a break on the island after our snorkelling, our guide tossed aside remnants of our pineapple and banana snacks to raccoons who eagerly snapped up the bounty. Another guide came by a few minutes later and scolded us for feeding the animals – it’s actually as verboten as feeding bears in Canada’s national parks.
It seems the eco-message hasn’t quite gotten through to everyone in the tourism industry.
Is there hope for Costa Rica’s coral reefs? It appears saving them will be a long haul. There are reports of small-scale initiatives to encourage regeneration. One academic article stated that the government of Costa Rica is aware of the importance of coral reefs and marine environments in general, and in recent years decrees have been implemented (or are coming) to protect them. As always, limited resources impede the ability to introduce proper management and conservation, including outreach to reef users.
It is clearly the next frontier in this country’s quest to be an eco-model for the world.
Day 19 – Samara (Written by Lisa Monforton)
24 happy hours in a Samara state of mind
6:00 a.m. ‘Hola!, Buenas Dias. Hola! Buenas Dias!’
The locals – and some early rising visitors like myself – are bike riding or walking down a dusty stretch of a rutted gravel road on the edge of the hamlet of Samara.
The Spanish greetings are like a sing-song that join the chorus around us: twittering birds, roosters crowing, horses whinnying in the pasture, dogs barking and the sound of porches being swept. Around the next corner the sound of the waves meld into this tropical symphony.
Another day in Samara is unfurling like the flutter of a beach blanket being spread out on the sand. The sun has been up for about half an hour and skies above are yet again an ultramarine blue. Clouds seem just seem like an afterthought.
Some people are on their way to work, or to fish, opening tiny cafes and breakfast counters (called sodas). The kids will soon be heading to school in their crisply ironed white shirts.
The cacophony of wild sounds all around demand that you get up early. The howler monkeys are the ones who are most ambitious to greet the day at around 4:30 a.m. You may try to slumber for another hour, but good luck with that.
The best time to be outside is early, before the heat of the day settles in.
8:00 a.m. I’m headed to check out yoga on the beach, advertised on a hand-painted sign hanging from a palm tree that says Mind, Body, Soul. I wait by the trees, where a man sleeps in a hammock, oblivious to the waking day around him, and the low rumble of an ATV that rolls up.
In the wire basket on the front vehicle is a mutt, who I quickly learn is named Gus. His friendly owner Danni Mares unloads a duffle bag and colourful blankets. She will be my yoga instructor for the next 90 minutes.
Gus finds his favourite spot on the beach and an hour-and-a-half of yoga amid swaying palms and rolling waves gets underway. Like many people in Samara, Danni is not from here. She escaped Detroit for a new life in this little slice of paradise. Her story is becoming a familiar one.
10 a.m. – The arid-looking mound that is Isla Chora stands off in the distance to the end of Playa Samara, and begs to be visited. Some days it looks close enough to swim (or stand-up-paddleboard) to. Other days, depending on the light and the tides, it looks farther away. We opt for a kayak and snorkeling tour to check out the island which was designated a wildlife preserve in 2002.
After a 45-minute paddle, avoiding the massive waves breaking off rocks and coral, we pull up to a white sand beach – only to see what I at first think is a cat. It turns out to be a raccoon cheekily checking out the kayaks and people on the beach. It’s the only mammal that lives on the 12-acre preserve that is also home to about a dozen bird species, a couple more dozen kinds of fish, crustaceans, and other marine creatures. Our guide pulls out a couple of starfish for us to pet and then we go exploring some of the multi-coloured coral (much of Costa Rica’s coral is dead for a number of reasons surprisingly rife with rainbow-coloured fish.
Our guide expertly slices up a whole pineapple as a sweet treat on the beach as a family of raccoons boldly sidles up for handouts. Clearly, they have been trained by the tourists.
1 p.m. The Natural Centre seems to be a hub for expats and ticos (the locals) in the centre of Samara’s main drag, directly across from the beach. It’s a cheerful mix of eateries, serving everything from home-made gelato and ice cream to falafel, or you can pick up a bottle of locally made kambucha and more healthy goodies in the grocery store. You can even get your hair cut and a pedicure at a cute salon, or a massage at a studio tucked in the back of the semi-open air space.
We’d heard from a couple from upstate New York who’ve been coming here for seven years that you can get a super fresh salad of any kind for about $10 – big enough for two and fresh fruit smoothies.
So, that’s what we did.
On Tuesdays and Friday afternoons, the Natural Centre becomes a boutique market, seemingly made up of French, Italians and Americans. A French woman sells her homemade – and delicious – baguettes, the Italian couple get locals addicted to their rustic homemade sweets like tiramisu and custard-filled confections (they are gone in 15 minutes) while others sell hand-made jewelry or other artsy crafts.
This is where you can also book a tour – everything from deep-sea fishing to snorkelling and kayaking.
Our visit ended with the to-die-for mojito gelato.
3 p.m. Which made us think it was time for a cold beverage. We opted to do that at our rustic little cabina down the dusty road. As has become custom, we stop at the Iguana Verde grocery market, a quick bike ride from our place, where we have been stocking up on lots of fluids – including the locally made spirit called Cacique (Guaro). It’s clear and kind of like vodka in that it can be made into just about any cocktail. Our custom has been to splash it into a blender with some fresh fruit that you can buy anywhere at a roadside stand. Whole pineapples go for about C$1.
Cocktail hour has never been so fresh or simple. Of course, followed by a siesta.
5 p.m. The sun sets early here, around 5:45. We’ve been spoiled for choice for sunset perches. A restaurant on the beach? Or something with a little more local flavour? We opt for a place known as Secret Beach. (OK, maybe it’s not so secret.) It’s a bit of an uphill slog, but the howler monkeys are the diversionary entertainment along the way. We get to the top, beneath a canopy of trees only to find out it’s high tide and we can’t walk out to see past the cliffs to the west. It’s still pretty lovely and gives us an excuse to make the hump up here again. Next time we’ll check the Samara Tide Guide website to make sure our timing is right.
6:30 p.m. It’s gets dark early here, and without a car, our bikes have been our mode of transportation. So off we go, headlamps strapped on. We hear there’s live music down at La Dolce Vita on Saturday nights. The place is run by a young mother from Italy who came here for a new kind of life. She turned a disco into what is now a cocktail bar, restaurant, and B&B with a prime spot tucked away down on the far end of the beach from some of the noisier establishments. In between playing with her infant son, she kibitzes with the patrons. She looks like she’s living a perfect life, and I’m a bit envious. A stand of palm trees is strung with rope lights, the tables are set in the sand and the musician playing dreamy Spanish guitar music sets a sublime scene. We sink into our chairs, with our drinks get into what I can only call a Samara state of mind.
DAY 20 – Samara
Even paradise can have a day from Hell
OSTIONAL, Costa Rica – For every trip, there is one day you wish you could take back. A day when absolutely nothing seems to go right. Ours was Monday.
We rented a motorcycle and headed north along the coast toward Playa Nosara, a town about an hour – remarkably just 27 kilometres – from our base. We also planned to hit the Ostional beach, world famous as a wildlife refuge for sea turtles.
The going was exceptionally slow, as we picked our way along the pitted gravel roads that beat humans and machines into teeth-chattering pieces of pulp. To our surprise, we found that the off-road motorcycle had the sort of suspension that made the bumps a little less punishing.
We met Ana at a roadside stand at the turnoff for Nosara. She grows organic fruits and vegetables and sells them fresh, or in marmalades, hot sauces and juices.
We decided to push on to Ostional, another 10 to 15 minutes north on the road. When we got there, we found no turtles (they reportedly only come out during a full moon) but a stunning black-sand beach. It was the height of the afternoon heat, so we decided to take a dip in the inviting and slightly cooler waves.
Lisa was the first back out of the water and she dashed over the black sand towards what she thought was a cool shower to wash her feet.
It proved to be an unfortunate decision. Within seconds she was crying out in pain as the intense black sand ravaged the soles of her feet. Finally, in a panic, she threw her towel on the ground and sat on it so she could get her feet off the searing sand.
I caught up with her and saw blisters forming on every toe and the souls of her feet. In just seconds, the blazing sand had wounded her badly.
A neighbour brought over a garden hose which enabled us to cool her feet off. A family from Idaho who witnessed this disaster helped us lift Lisa into their car so we could drive her to a clinic in Nosara.
This was another lesson in emergency preparedness in such a remote area. Nosara lists two medical clinics. Unfortunately, both were closed. Finally, we found a farmacia that was open. We went in, bought gauze, antibiotic cream and enough pain killers to sedate a horse. We wrapped up Lisa’s feet as she sat on the pharmacy’s sofa, squeezed her running shoes back on and then grimly mounted the motorcycle for the trip back to our cabin.
We didn’t know it yet, but the day had more misfortune in store for us.
Tomorrow: A flood of troubles ends the day.
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