Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
It was the sound of birds and other animals that awoke me. Having come from the concrete jungle otherwise known as San José, the capital of Costa Rica, it took me a moment to remember where I was, especially after hearing monkeys scuttling up the trees outside of my window and birds gloriously chirping. (The only sounds I heard in my host family’s house in San José were usually people walking by on the street and someone’s rooster crowing each and every morning). Although the hotel was not directly on the beach, the views that the room’s open windows and doors offered of the piercingly bright blue sky and the green tree tops were simply magnificent. I was in Manuel Antonio, one of the country’s premiere destination spots.
The previous night was spent getting well acquainted with the bathroom, thanks in part to the food I had gotten from the roadside stand where the bus stopped on its way here that I had rapidly consumed. (Lesson number one-when in doubt always stick with the wrapped junk food for nourishment and lesson number 2-if you were the only macha [Costa Rican slang for a foreigner] amongst an entire group of machas to get sick, your stomach really is that woefully pathetic). However, I was hoping that today would go a lot better, and that I would actually get to see some of the beach and not be holed up in the hotel room’s bathroom of all places. I was in a desperate need of a relaxing getaway. Grueling doesn’t even begin to describe the mental torture my mind and body had been experiencing the last two weeks during the intensive 10 hour class days, all of it en español. When opportunity came knocking to spend the weekend at the Pacific coast, I jumped at the chance.
Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio (Manuel Antonio National Park) was established in 1972 and its 4000 acres make it the smallest of Costa Rica’s numerous national parks. I eschewed the eggs and gallo pinto (Costa Rica’s national dish which is essentially nothing more than rice and beans) the hotel’s restaurant served for fear of retribution from my stomach once again, but did eat the plate of fresh fruit which almost resembled an artist’s palate from the vast assortment of brightly colored fruits that lay on it. Only the yellow (la piña-pineapple) remained untouched, as my host mother had told me that it is one of the worst things you can eat while contending with a stomachache.
It didn’t surprise me that after waiting in vain for 10 minutes for taxis that never came, one of the fly by night guys in the program hailed a small pickup truck that was passing by on the road outside of our hotel. After conferring with the driver, he told the rest of us that the driver would take us in the flatbed to the entrance of the park for x amount of colones (Costa Rica’s currency). In Costa Rica, a native must constantly make lemonade out of lemons, and this goes for students studying abroad there as well, especially those studying through a program whose whole focus is sustainable development, i.e. living as rough a life as some of the locals. So if there are no taxis to be found, essentially hitchhike in the back of a truck for less than a dollar.
As the truck raced down the hilly road, the wind was blowing in my hair, and all thoughts of my nerve-wracking life back in San José were momentarily forgotten. No longer was I upset over an incident that had happened earlier in the week when my Spanish literature professor (who, if Costa Rica ever reinstated its army, could be for sure be a general in it due to her lack of smiling) had called on me and I had frozen, unable to translate the question she had rapidly fired out, let alone provide an intelligent answer to it. I also pushed aside my feelings of inadequacy I had when compared with the three fluent people in the program, including one girl who had spent part of her childhood in El Salvador during the height of its civil war. Needless to say, she always provided the most insightful and astute answers in our political science class.
I had only been to the Pacific Ocean once before when I was five, so my memories of it are not clear. I just know whenever my parents reminisce about our California family adventure, the coldness of the ocean is always brought up (contrary to the idea that everything in southern California is warm). But coming from the northeast section of the United States where the temperature of the water at the Jersey shore is considered warm if it makes it to the upper 60s, walking into the surf that day in Costa Rica was like walking into a prepared warm bath. It was that idyllic and luxurious of a feeling, that much on par with how paradise must feel.
After growing tired of frolicking in the water, I set out on the hour-long hike that goes from Espadilla (one of the four beaches at Manuel Antonio National Park) to the top of Punta Catedral. Wearing nothing but a pair of shorts over my swimsuit and my cockroach killing flip-flops (I often needed a weapon to kill unwelcome visitors at my host family’s house), I most likely made every sort of hiking and nature enthusiast cringe with my get-up. (In my defense I was dressed appropriately for one of the day’s activities, which always had been a day at the beach). Although there were a couple of points on the trail in which sturdier footwear (and possibly closed as well after something rustle over my big toe that left me feeling a cross between spooked and grossed out) would have been greatly appreciated, I made do. I certainly can’t have been the only person to have ever gone hiking in flip-flops when it’s right at the beach.
As I ascended farther up the hiking trail, I still saw no signs of wildlife. Although I heard the rustlings of trees and branches, monkeys perhaps jumping from tree to tree, birds leaving their perch upon spotting their next meal off in the distance, I never made contact with any wildlife save for the oso perezoso, which in English is more commonly known as the sloth. When someone called out saying they had spotted one, I eagerly became excited, even though I didn’t quite know what I was looking for, sloths not exactly a hot viewing item at zoos back home. As people around me started to take pictures of “lazy bear,” I thought to myself that how typical that I was the only one who couldn’t see it. Just as I was about to walk away to continue on the hike, I noticed something large and dark colored slowly start to move from one tree limb to another. It was then that I realized I was looking at the “lazy bear.” I would later discover that sloths’ extremely slow movements are related to their low metabolism. Although the daily life of one sounded quite tempting to me at first, it also seemed somewhat of a sad existence, moving only when necessary. I knew that my restless and vagabond spirit wouldn’t mesh well with the whole sloth DNA. Looking back I suppose it was fortuitous I had seen one at all, given how their movements are far and few between.
There are no words to describe the range of emotions I felt upon making it to the top of Punta Catedral. Slightly exhausted yet exhilarated over what I had just accomplished (hiking for an hour is quite the feat for a tried and true city girl in flip flops), I gazed out at the gorgeous scenery in front of me, having never seen anything like it before. Europe may have its majestic monuments, but Costa Rica has an ethereal beauty both here and in other areas of the country.
Before leaving the park, I happened upon a vendor selling fresh coconut water, so fresh that it was literally still in the green coconut. Anxious to try the agua de pipa, I quickly retrieved a couple of colones from my backpack and gave them to the guy selling. I was amazed at how fast he whipped out his machete type knife and proceeded to cut the coconut. It was almost acrobatic. Later on in the semester one of my professors told me that coconuts are cut in front of the customer to ensure their freshness. As the vendor handed me the coconut which was now ready for drinking, complete with the flimsy looking straw sticking out of it, he said with a big smile, “aquí está el más sabroso agua de pipa en toda de Costa Rica.” Never having tried it before, I wasn’t sure if I could believe him that what I was drinking was the most delicious coconut water in all of Costa Rica. Judging from the first sip though, it would be a top contender in future samplings.