Bear Grylls and the piña colada
The cows swim upstream and eat my flowers.
Says Sue matter of factly.
My mouth drops open. Cows can swim? Cows can swim upstream to eat your flowers? Our Canadian host sits on the end of the jetty with us overlooking the wide, brown river that divides Tortuguero village from the mainland at all but one slim point and tells us that she tries to stop the cows but this has proven difficult. We all turn to stare at the lone cow chewing grass on a little green island in the middle of the river. Sometimes the cows aren’t so cunning and drown in the water to be pursued by Sue’s two enormous, smelly labradors downstream. They only want a little chomp on some waterborne topside but the crocodiles in the river aren’t fussy. Dog or cow, they’ll take a sample. We look nervously at the thick, gravy brown waters scanning for beady amphibian eyes.
You can take my canoe out tomorrow, you might see some crocodiles! Then you can go turtle spotting in the evening.
Sue adds and we all nod and smile and imagine being eaten by crocodiles.
I feel a renewed passion for this exuberant, bursting country where a simple walk to the shop can have you tripping over a small zoo of exotic animals deamed up by David Attenborough. Having picked up Anika from the airport to big hugs and smiles, we ditch Robin in the guest house garden for two weeks and pick up a car then head straight to Tortuguero. The car is one of those pretend 4x4s designed for those people who like to off road to the supermarket. It squarks and chatters over every piece of loose gravel and hefts us up in the air with wearied oophs. When we press the magic ‘4×4’ button, the suspension lowers a little and our oophing increases a little in volume. Nonetheless it gets us to the embarkation point by a river in the middle of nowhere where we are shown to a little boat half full of Tortuguerans.
The river is thick with orange mud and submerged tree trunks. The forest crowds around us singing with crickets and cicadas. Vines drape themselves logingly in the water and little, fleshy green plants sail past us apparently living quite happily afloat. There are numerous offshoots from the river, canals snaking out of sight through the dense greenery which we explore the next morning in a big plastic canoe. Between us we have one plastic ‘proper’ paddle and two lumpy pieces of wood which we dip in the cool, soupy water and veer in wide arcs and into trees. Jamie and Michael bicker in the back and Anika and I exchange glances and rolled eyes.
We head slowly towards Tortuguero National Park entrance which ends up being a semi constructed building with a man on it. I listen really hard, I do but it seems he is telling me that we cannot go in because the park is closed between 11 and 11.30am. It is 9am but I have learnt never to question Latin American logic or rules. Acceptance is happiness here so we roll the boat round in a wavering circle and paddle ineffectively across the wide river towards a little canal gulped out of sight by a myriad of rooty looking trees and plants.
We follow the little, hidden waterway in to a tranquil silence broken only by Michael and Jamie disagreeing on the correct way to do almost everything. Anika lies across the boat gazing at the shadowy canopy above us and I steer us into submerged obstacles, a little wary of crocodiles. The canal snakes in to the forest, the water flowing turgidly against us and the space on either side of our boat becomes narrower and narrower. Unseen birds rustle in the trees above us and quiet showers of leaves descend from above to kiss at the lazy river and float slowly downstream. We are adventurers charting never before seen backwaters. We are a BBC film crew rowing quietly in to film the extremely rare Tortuguero crocodiles for your viewing pleasure. We are Christopher Columbus, Marco Polo, Ranulph Fiennes. We are Bear Grylls! We round a corner and come face to face with someone’s washing on the line. A dog comes to look at us. We stop and have to concede that someone may have been here before. The river has become a mere stream and we are in danger of getting stuck so we three point turn the canoe, something I rather doubt Bear Grylls could achieve so niftily and head back to have a cocktail. This is, of course, standard adventurer behaviour.
The rain is sleeting down turning the wide, jungle fringed river in to a watery blur by the time we locate the barman and settle in for our piña coladas. We sit happily in borrowed wellies and waterproofs supping the sweet, icy beverages and chewing on glowing red maraschino cherries. We discuss options and decide that we should book a nighttime turtle spotting tour with a man called Castor who Sue has recommended. Cocktails downed, we sludge back to our cabins through the jungle in the pouring rain making delicious slurping noises as our wellies get stuck in the deep mud. Michael and Anika are forced to hop over the enormous puddles and shimmy along fallen branches in their clean walking boots but eventually we are land safely back in the stuffy cocoon of our cabins pasted in mud.
That evening as dark is falling, we catch a water taxi across the river to the cozy village and dine at Castor’s wife’s restaurant. The meal is a basic affair to say the least but finally, when Castor appears, the rain has lifted and our bellies are full. We follow him and a quiet group of tourists through the puddled darkness along a path that edges the beach. Torch beams swing in the darkness and Castor briefly points out a large toad with his light. The toad looks astonished to have been spotted and throws all it’s acting experience in to becoming a stone. I have to run to catch up with the group such is my admiration for his act. When I find them, Castor is arranging people on a wall to give a heavily accented speech about turtles which I barely follow. We nod thoughtfully and Castor gives us a severe look.
Torchbeams stay off.
He says firmly. The turtles, who come to this beach to lay their eggs will spot the white light, turn back to the sea and, if unable to return, lay them in the waves where they will be gobbled by anything and everyone. If they were hatched here, they return here to lay and will not lay anywhere else. In short, if we cock it up by lighting our torches, they have nowhere to lay and we are put on a list of people that includes Donald Trump, Goebbels and that man who shot that lion.
Castor harrumphs off in the direction of the beach and we follow. He switches on a red torch so nobody can disgrace themselves by falling over and then we stand about for a bit in the dark. It is explained to us that they have a scout on the beach who looks for laying turtles and that we are waiting to hear from him. It is 8pm, the air is warm and damp and the sea washes on to the sand hidden in the brown darkness that stretches in every direction. I begin to feel extraordinarily sleepily. I am just about to join two bored teenagers in lying on the sand when Castor beckons us to join three other groups and we gather next to a bush expectantly. When red torchlight hits the turtle’s shell, the size of it momentarily confounds me. It is huge. These creatures reach approximately 160kg and this on is at least a metre and a half long. She is half submerged in the damp sand and kicks great flipperfuls at us as she tries to dig deeper. The red beam momentarily lights her head and I see her blink once, twice and it is only then that I can believe she isn’t a large animatronic set on the beach by the tour guides.
Castor shines his red torch in to a deep hole in the sand underneath the turtle. The hole appears to be full of ping pong balls covered in goo and I am mildly eulsed and then ashamed of myself. As the group murmur quietly another ping pong balls is loosed from the turtle. It drops in to the hole and lands on the pile which quivers slightly and is then topped with a rather unpleasant gush of slime.
We say, a bit amazed, a bit disgusted. I begin to feel like we really shouldn’t be intruding on this turtles privacy. Anika later agrees that she feels the same and yet we remain arranged around the back of the turtle gaping at the hole filling with eggs. Eventually fire ants start to bite my hands mistaking me for competition in the race to eat the eggs first and I back away and stare in to the misty darkness. I’m not completely sure I feel like we have done a good thing in paying to see this. We all feel this a little and discuss it on the way back after the last water taxi in sight overcharges us for the pleasure of paying large sums of money to Castor to stay out until 10pm.
We all agree we have never seen anything like it. So huge! So weird! So ping pongy! But something doesn’t sit quite right and I go to bed feeling a bit like one those tourists who pretend to climb the Berlin wall for photographs; essentially, a bit off and should know better. I go to sleep closed in by the velvety darkness, the sounds of the jungle reverberating around the walls and feel ready to move on in the morning.
The water taxi comes at 8.30am to take us back along the serpentine river which is swollen with rain and flowing steadily. Jamie and I are tetchy with one another after I rudely hushed his bickerings with Michael the day before and we ignore each other for a while on the boat, both searching pointedly for crocodiles. After fifteen minutes passes, Jamie spots a slippery looking crocodile on the muddy beach and momentarily forgets his indignation to excitedly shake my knee,
Just a log. But the damage is done, the argument abates and tensions thaw. By the time we reach our car we are nearly friends again and after ten minutes driving, the banana train seals the deal.
Costa Rican bananas are big business and came to be so by fairly complicated means. The mid 1800’s saw Costa Rica kindly donated its independence by theSpaniards but what to do with all this freedom? The Government thought about it for a bit before realising that the rest of the world was having a right old time with caffeinated beverages. London couldn’t get enough of the stuff and it seemed that Costa Rica had exactly what the coffee houses needed. The glossy beaded beans grow in dreamy abundance in the rich soils of the country and the government began by handing out seedlings to local growers. Despite the outrageously decent crop the land dollops out each year though, they faced a problem; exportation. There was no easy way of getting the beans to the sea and so, marred with death, worker shortages and money shortages, a railway to the Caribbean was built. By the end, the man in charge, Minor Keith was in a desperate position. To solve the problem he looked to the banana trees he had grown which provided his unlucky workers with a cheap food source. Why not? He thought and bundled a great haul of bananas in with a shipment of coffee and sent it to New Orleans. Fortunately for Keith, the world went bananas for his fruity exports and by the early 1900s the wealth brought in by his last ditch cargo outstripped that of the coffee.
We drive past a huge Dole plantation which is flanked on one side by an equally enormous Chiquita farm. We are peering in to the densely planted trees when Michael shouts
And I find that I am also saying
Just because it sounds brilliant. Indeed, as Michael points out, the word banana in front of almost anything sounds brilliant. We all jostle out of the car to stare at the great bunches of green bananas trundling along the rails and take photos. On one side the rails follow a long path through a corridor of banana palms before disappearing round a corner in to the plantation. I want to jump on the train and ride around but I fear I might be exported home by mistake so we bundle back in to the car and Anika reads us the history of bananas to distract us from shouting ‘banana train’ again.
There are railtracks through the streets of Puerto Limon which we decide must be the original tracks. We have no proof but the four of us agree which makes it so. We lean out of the car windows to get a better look as we spot a tumbledown wreck of ironwork crossing a river and point keenly at the pitted metal set in the road surface. Puerto Limon is a dump. A ‘tropical port town’ always sounds like it will be wonderfully full of sailors dressed in white drinking Cuba Libres under swaying palms but unfortunately, this is never the case. Industrial buildings slop about in the streets streaked with rust and the stink of fish momentarily overpowers the car. I promise the others that Puerto Viejo, our destination, is much nicer but I’m not convinced they believe me so I distract them by telling them that the weather station in a field to our left is an international conference centre built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1976. It seems to work and before long we are scudding through the sunny air listening to unbearable bursts of crap music on a local radio station with smiles on our faces.
Puerto Viejo thrums with overlapping Bob Marley classics and enormous numbers of expats from all over the world. It is easy to see why. Crystal clear waters, laidback, easy going vibe and enough Piña Coladas to inebriate an elephant. Unfortunately this isn’t quite enough to stave off a stupid, mid street argument between the four of us on day two. We have all had a bit too much together time and are tired and overwrought like children at a sleepover. We stomp about for a bit and do some dramatic arm waving and it feels for a while like the sky is falling in.
Fortunately Lord Of The Flies comes to the rescue. A few hours of snorkeling for Michael and Anika and some time with our feet in the sea calms us all down a bit. We meet in a cafe and Anika paves the way for world peace by giving us each a chance to metaphorically hold the conch for a few minutes. Everyone gets a little time to reflect on the momentary loss of control and, rather spectacularly it seems to do the job. Everyone looks a little coyly at each other and Anika nods, pleased with our effort. Small smiles bloom quietly on our faces again. Thanks Piggy, thanks Ralph.
And the peace really does hold quite wonderfully. We drive on to the Nicoya Peninsula to bliss out in tiny Montezuma where Jamie and I have already spent a week but cannot resist showing to Michael and Anika. Fortunately they are immediately as happy there as we have been and to improve things even more, we pop them in the posh hotel with the swanky garden and let them have a wander about.
Oh we’re perfectly happy with the hotel you guys stay in.
Really, we don’t mind….
Then they see our place and scurry back to the beautiful carved seats, fragrant bathrooms and immaculate lawn at the posh hotel and we survey our sweaty little box room for a moment.
At least there won’t be so many cockroaches upstairs!
I say cheerily and Jamie turns the fan on high and sits in his pants.
We take them through the jumbled collection of little beaches to a wide stretch of sand some half an hours walk along the ‘Green Path’ heading north from Montezuma. We take turns to body board in the surf though are more often knocked silly by the pounding waves. Novice surfers attending the nearby surf chool whoop and cheer in the distance as they stand triumpantly for the first time atop their boards. Michael goes off to shake coconut palms and is soon joined by Jamie. Anika and I lie in the shade dozing, listening to the waves. I look up after a while from my well thumbed crime thriller to find a small, guilty looking monkey standing on a log right beside Anika. In a minute, he is going to stand on her head and I feel it my duty to inform her.
I whisper. She opens her eyes and looks at me. I point and the monkey looks at me. But I was just about to stand on her head! the look seems to say. Anika’s eyes widen in surprise and she sits up. The monkey takes stock of the situation quickly, grabs a bag of crisps and thunders off up the tree where he sits and pushes great handfuls of crisps in to his greedy little face. We stand under the tree admonishing the monkey and hoping to retrieve the bag. I can’t imagine chilli and lime flavour Doritos are an ordinary part of a capuchin monkey’s diet but the little creature looks down at me and bares his teeth as if to say you know absolutely nothing of my digestive tract and I suggest you step away before I jump on your head. So I do. Quite quickly.
Excitement over, Anika strolls off to locate the Elkin gaggle and I quietly sit down to resume reading. Minutes go by and I am captivated. Oh my god! Is he going to kill her? Has she found the body? Is he right behind her? What is she going to….OY YOU BASTARD GIVE ME THAT PIZZA BACK! The monkey has returned, snuck silently to my side and grabbed a whole carrier bag of food before leaping back up the tree and grinning at me. He turns the bag upside down and watches as empty crisp packets fall to the ground then sorts through the pile until he locates Jamie’s pizza.
Oy! That’s Jamie’s lunch you little….he’s going be so mad with you…
I shout. The monkey takes a second to appraise me before climbing a little higher and delicately unwrapping the pizza from it’s clingfilm. The greasy plastic floats to the ground and the monkey begins to carefully tear mouthfuls of cheesey bread off with his little fingers and stuff them in to his greasy mouth. Jamie and Michael choose this moment to return. Michael is holding two coconuts aloft and shouting,
Man! Man get coconut!
And Jamie is following behind bleeding slightly and grinning with two more coconuts. They juggle the shiny, green weights between them for a minutes and make some manly grunting noises before I break the news to Jamie. I point in to the tree at the rapidly disappearing pizza and Jamie drops the coconuts.
I want that monkey dead! You hear me monkey! I’m going to kill you!!
He hollers in to the trees. The monkey ignores him and posts another lump of bread in to its mouth. We stare up at it for a while but it’s futile, the pizza is a lost cause. Fortunately Jamie is so stoked by their hunter gathering that he doesn’t dwell too long on murdering the capuchin and instead joins Michael in an excited lecture about the use of bamboo tools in the extraction of coconuts from trees. Jamie goes off to bash one of the coconuts on a rock for a while and comes back bleeding more but smiling and holding in front of him a small, naked coconut cracked open a little from which we drink thirstily. The juice inside is sweet and salty, Costa Rican perfect. Once we have drained the shell, I lever the fruit from the shell and we stand around eating the beautiful, moonwhite flesh and feeling happy with ourselves. Anika finally stands and stretches then, after packing the towels away, leads a shambling proecession back across the beaches as the first clouds roll in. I stop to poke land crabs with twigs from time to time and as I round a corner trying to catch up, i find Jamie and Anika quietly watching Michael as he squats on the ground and thumps his hunter gathered coconut on stones, rocks and tree stumps.
He continues all the way back, the path scattered with little blonde slivers of husk and rocks drizzled in green pulp. He hammers and rattles, chucks and bashes the poor nut until finally, finally he tears away the last pieces of stringy husk and cracks the shell on a nearby rock. A little disc of shell and fruit comes neatly away and we suddenly have a lovely goblet to drink from. Michael stands up holding the little nut out for us to see then shouts,
Man open coconut!
And we all cheer.