Travel: Costa Rica
Take it easy in tranquil Tamarindo, Costa Rica
The humidity hits me like a wet blanket as I step out of the air-conditioned plane into the blinding Costa Rican sun. I make my way from runway to the Liberia airport -- an open-air, oversized tool shed -- and take in the scene. People with varying shades of tan and tender-looking sunburns scoot about as I score an empty spot by the baggage claim. A very unofficial-looking dog wanders by, sniffing himself more than any luggage coming down the ramp.
Through the chaos of screaming cabbies I spot my hotel's driver, Jorge, and settle in for the hour's drive to Playa Tamarindo, my home for the next four days. We drive past small farms with chickens, cows, and horses, many also growing sugar cane. The homes on the sides of the road are small but neatly kept, with colorful gardens and lots of kids in plaid school uniforms playing and riding bikes. Tamarindo, Jorge tells me, is a tiny coast town, with a two-mile main beach with shops, bars, a few small hotels, and restaurants. Where I'm staying, he says, is up a slight winding hill to a more secluded area, surrounded by million-dollar private estates and a few high-end, smaller hotels.
So why this part of Costa Rica? Since the Pacific side of this small Central American country doesn't get hurricanes, that choice was simple. A quick chat with a travel agent, a little Internet surfing, and two travel books later, I decided on the Gold Coast, a group of beach towns in the northwest province of Guanacaste. With the help of a weather site with two-week predictions, I chose Tamarindo. But as my departure date drew near, those predictions change from sunny to cloudy to menacing thunderstorms. I prayed for a weather miracle. May through November is the region's rainy season, after all.
I called several hotels before picking one that now seems perfect. It's small, quiet, and the grounds are gorgeous, as are the rooms, but mostly, I chose it because of Tui.
Today, as I open an arched wooden door with a hand-painted sun dipping into the ocean, and step into a private oasis called the Sueño del Mar (dreams by the sea), I'm greeted by Tui Frye, whose warm replies to my emails were full of helpful advice long before I'd booked a reservation. If Tui was that nice before I was a customer, I figured, this was the place to be.
I'm pretty surprised when a petite gringa (white girl) with a cute freckled face greets me. From the name on the emails, I'd pictured this good-natured Tui to be a Tico (native of Costa Rica), a big, suntanned guy happily emailing in a floral-print shirt and flip-flops.
"It happens all the time." Tui smiles. "I was born in Costa Rica, but was raised in the U.S. Come on, I'll show you your room."
The carved wooden nameplate on the door announces that I'm in the Gecko room -- each of the six rooms (a honeymoon suite, two casitas sleeping four, and three rooms sleeping two) has a private, outdoor shower with hand-painted tile mosaic walls, remote-controlled air-conditioning units, and four-poster beds made from driftwood. Wooden shutters hide screened windows overlooking gardens, and the sound of the Pacific 100 yards away provides nature's most perfect white noise.
I unpack and head down the dirt road lined on either side by lush palm trees and colorful blooming vines to the Cala Luna hotel for a very overpriced vegetable chimichanga ($14!). Since the Sueño (as all the locals call it) is strictly a B & B, guests are on their own for lunch and dinner. Save for the bartender and the waiter, I'm the only one dining at their poolside eatery that afternoon, though hotel patrons do pass by occasionally on their way to the beach. I think about my quiet little room, and for the first time it hits me -- I'm on my own in a strange country. I pretend to be engrossed in my book as I eat, noting the irony of reading the Lonely Planet's Costa Rica Guide by myself.
I head back over to the Sueño, past the empty wooden chairs in front of the property and walk about a mile, watching the sun move across the sky, and vow not to be lonely. I begin the trek back to the hotel, where I'll figure out something to do that night.
"Are you the writer?" a male voice booms out of nowhere. I look up to see two couples seated in the wooden chairs that an hour ago sat empty. "Tui said there was a writer here doing a travel piece. That you?" The voice belongs to Brian, who with best pal Ali is a new Sueño arrival fresh from the nearby rainforest. When not traveling, they live in San Francisco, and have important-sounding jobs that clearly allot them plenty of free time. The other couple are honeymooners from Boston, Leigh Ann and Robin.
"Sit down, hang out," they insist, and I happily comply. Brian and Ali finish a story about their recent adventures at the Burning Man, an experimental arts festival in the Nevada desert. Next, they regale us with tales of hiking along mile after mile of glacier in Alaska. These two get around.
A tequila bottle makes its way down the line to me. As I take a grateful gulp, Brian leans forward, motioning for us to be quiet.
"The moment the sun meets the sea in Costa Rica, you're supposed to clap and shout 'Salud!' and toast one another. Supposedly you can hear it all along the coast." We clap and cheer, then listen intently. All we hear is our own raucous echoes bounding off nearby rocks.
Dinner plans are made. After cleaning up a bit, we meet in the dining area, a comfy space where guests eat each morning and apparently, drink each night. Fans whir above our heads and the blue aqua pool glows next to it. Geckos cling easily to the walls, screeching lizard messages to one another.
At the recommendation of Sueño's general manager, Kentucky native Kris Betz, we're heading about a mile or so down the road and around the bend to Taboo, one of Tamarindo's best restaurants. Betz, the younger half of a father-son managing team, gives us directions, then suggests we walk. "No big rain tonight," he says. "Not until later."
During our excellent dinner of incredibly fresh mahi mahi, lobster, spicy beef salads, and filet (we all share plates) at the open-air Taboo, I discover these four arrived at Sueño yesterday, and Leigh Ann and Robin have taken surfing lessons at Iguana Surf, where I'm scheduled for lessons the next day.
"Have you ever surfed before?" asks Leigh Ann. "It's not easy." She pulls up her sleeve, revealing a nasty case of what's known as "board rash," then points out an angry looking bruise the size of a baseball on her thigh. "It's fun once you get up on the board, but it hurts to fall."
After a lingering two-hour feast, we walk back to the hotel and talk for another hour or so until I'm practically falling off my chair from exhaustion. The foursome are still going when I turn in for the night.
I climb under the sheets, click on the air conditioner, and sleep peacefully till sunrise.
I wake at 7, stay in bed 'til 9, then make my way to the dining area, helping myself to coffee. Osita (Little Bear), the cute pooch that lives at Sueño, makes her way over to see if I'm quick with a handout from my plate, which has just arrived out of nowhere. A beautiful young woman disappears back into the kitchen. I nibble at the first of three courses served each morning, homemade nut bread with fresh-squeezed juice. Next comes fruit, followed by a hearty egg, black bean, and green pepper combo. Lucinda Williams sings softly over the speakers as I refill my coffee cup and head down the path to the beach, past the scarlet ginger plants and green bananas hanging from the trees, past hammocks blowing lazily at the edge of the property and out to the shore, with Osita padding closely behind me. I stay here, focused on nothing but the crash of the waves on the rocks at the shoreline for an hour.
Later, I regroup with the gang and we're off for surfing lessons. Sueño takes care of all travel and tour planning, so all we have to do is wait for the little red school bus to drive us into town and to the main beach, where surfers from around the globe flock for some world-renowned waves.
We suit up at Iguana, grab surfboards, and head across the street, down the beach, and into the water with Juan, our instructor for the next two hours.
His advice is helpful, if simple.
"When you see the wave, paddle. Then, stand up. I can't help you until I see you try."
Four waves, three falls, and one near miss later, I'm up on the board, hesitant but steady, and ride it to the shore. My confidence boosted, I run back for another go. Juan makes a few observations and pushes me into the next wave, which throws me from the board onto the sharp broken shells on the ocean floor. Blood trickles down my right arm.
"Oops. Too big for you," I hear Juan's melodic lilt somewhere in the distance. "Sorry!"
An hour and half later I'm getting pretty good when I have the mother of all wipeouts, the board, spray, and sand all hitting me in the face simultaneously. When the sharp metal fin of the surfboard makes contact with the back of my head as I struggle up for air, I've had enough. Exhausted, I sprawl on the sand and wait for the rest of the gang to make their way back.
I can't say with a straight face that I'm a surfer, but I have surfed, and I'm too bad at it.
Back at Sueño, we grab drinks from the "honor bar" (guests mark a dry-erase board each time they take a beer, water, or bottle of wine) and head to the wooden chairs at the edge of the property for another stellar Tamarindo sunset. More dinner plans are made.
Ali, Brian and I hop into their SUV and take off to Nogui, a popular spot in town for both locals and tourists. Leigh Ann and Robin are finishing up as we arrive (it is their honeymoon, after all), and recommend various menu items. Though Tamarindo isn't as inexpensive asMexico, we're still able to get a couple of cocktails, salad, and a surf-and-turf special for about $30 each. A mariachi band serenades us as we feed leftovers to a dog and cat wandering about. Another day over.
That night, I'm awakened by a tremendous rumble of thunder, and hard rain beats the roof relentlessly. The thunderstorm is still raging as I slip back into sleep, praying that the sun is miraculously out again by morning.
After another amazing breakfast (with Norah Jones playing) and walk along the beach, I grab a ride into town with Ali and Brian, who are having another surfing lesson. I beg off with the "research" excuse and explore the town while they get pummeled by waves.
After last night's storm, the dirt roads of Tamarindo are a muddy mess. I trek carefully to tiki bars serving fresh fruit smoothies, bakeries, and a few gift and antique shops. The town, for the most part, is quiet during the rainy season. Many shops are closed for a few months until the tourists return.
After a few hours of wandering, it's time to head back. We've got a date with a 40-foot catamaran courtesy of Blue Dolphin Sailing. Again, all arrangements have been taken care of by the Sueño staff, so we simply hop into a waiting van, bound for the gorgeous boat, complete with four-person crew, to take us to a nearby island that resembles the setting of Lost. The three of us, plus another couple, have the boat to ourselves. It's going to be a quiet ride -- we're all pretty wiped out from the swimming, surfing, beach combing, and late nights. We spot dolphins in the distance as the music of surfer-turned-rocker Jack Johnson plays at the perfect volume. I have to give it to the folks in Tamarindo, they've got the music we gringos love down to an art.
Once anchored, we suit up for snorkeling and head to the island's reefs to take in some sea life. The water is murky thanks to last night's storm depositing silt from two connecting estuaries, but we're determined to make the best of it. Visibility is low, so when I come face to face with a huge fish with a nasty underbite staring directly into my mask, it catches both of us by surprise. I see floating starfish, snakes, and larger fish closer to the bottom. A few more tropical fish sightings and a few more cuts courtesy of the razor-sharp reef, and I head back to the boat.
As the sun begins its descent, I'm back in my prime spot at the catamaran's bow, warmly wrapped in a towel. Boat staff come around with snacks and glasses of wine as we head to shore, the sun melting into gold, pinks, and blues. The dolphins are back, and we watch in quiet awe as they easily keep up with our boat, then disappear. It's time for another night on the town.
A quick drive lands us at Kahike, where we have the best meal of the trip. Incredible mango margaritas and other tropical cocktails so full of garnish they resemble tiny sputniks fill our table. Crispy shrimp spring rolls, followed by thick, juicy pork chops with fruit salsas and some secret heat sources hiding within, impress us all. The chef, Steven, pops out from the kitchen to meet us, and we discover he's a native New Yorker who traded his business suits after 9/11 for the slower pace of Costa Rica. Like so many other expats wandering the region (travel books estimate 50,000 former U.S. citizens living here) they all seem to have a great story, and without fail, they love it here.
Back at Sueño, as we sit under the humming fans sipping cocktails, the sky over us is a deep purple and the waves crash furiously onto the rocks ahead. The wooden song of wind chimes sing backup to the screeching geckos, and the pool casts a quivering blue light over us. I close my eyes and breathe in the smell of this place, the salt air, and the sounds of wildlife.
After a few hours of laughing and storytelling, the night's coming to an end. Tomorrow, Brian and Ali are headed south to Nicaragua, and Robin and Leigh Ann departed yesterday for the rainforest. Jorge will be waiting for me at 10 in the morning. I exchange info with Brian and Ali, hug them goodbye, and turn in.
Later, the air is still. No rain pounds the roof and no thunder shakes the small room. I put off sleep as long I can, knowing when I wake, my trip will be over. I jump out of bed to open the wooden shutters so I will rise with the sun.
It works. At sunrise, I grab coffee and head for my favorite rock on the shore. I think about how lucky I've been to pick this amazing hotel, to meet strangers who became friends within minutes, and have enjoyed nothing but sunny days during the rainy season.
The wind picks up as I look out at the gray clouds rolling over the sea toward the beach, and I whisper a silent goodbye to Tamarindo. I'm answered with an impressive clap of thunder, and then, the rains came.
It was time to go home.
If You Go
Most upscale hotels, stores, and restaurants take credit cards and US dollars, but it's a good idea to have Costa Rican colones on-hand for emergencies and tipping.
Vaccinations needed depend on how adventurous you plan to be. All travelers need a tetanus shot, and those visiting remote areas are urged to get both hepatitis A and B vaccinations. If you will be camping, malaria pills are also highly recommended. DEET bug repellant is a must, with a concentration of at least 20 percent.
Dry season is December through April, when tourists flock to the area. Reservations need to be made in advance during these months, as walk-in availability at hotels gets dicey. Rainy season is May through November, and many of the smaller shops and businesses close. You might get wet, but rates are considerably lower.
The tropical sun can cook you even on a cloudy day. Always wear a sunscreen with at least SPF 30.
Unlike in Mexico, haggling with storeowners or even street vendors in Costa Rica is considered rude. Be prepared to pay what they ask or live without it.
Get ready to do some traveling if you plan to surf and do a rainforest tour in the same trip. While Costa Rica has volcanoes, hot springs, jungles, and great places for scuba diving, none are located in the same area.
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