Back to Home Page

Seduced by Costa Rica!

How a two week visit to northern Costa Rica grew to a four month adventure!

First, though, we had some trials and tribulations just getting here. When we left Puesta del Sol, Nicaragua it was turbulent water crossing the bar and things stayed turbulent and unsettled for the next 3 days.

For three days we had steady 25-28 knot winds on the nose and gigantic swells that made anchorages unsafe. We had no options but to keep tacking back and forth and keep going as best we could until things settled down.

And even as we rounded Punta Santa Elena at dawn on the home stretch into Bahia del Coco, we were hit with a sudden chubascoe: pounding rain, 35 knot winds and 10 foot seas.

The final tally: 72 hours of travel in pounding seas, 241 nautical miles through the water for a distance gain of 160 nautical miles. By the end, we were all a bit frayed . . .

What a relief to hit our first port of call in Costa Rica.

El Coco is the northernmost port of entry for Costa Rica. It’s a funky little tourist town.

Checking in was easy. We first took our paperwork to the Oficina de Capitán del Puerto (the Port Captain’s office).

We then walked our passports up the road a few blocks to the Oficina de Migración (Immigration office).

After that it was a quick return to the Oficina de Capitán del Puerto to see the Aduana (customs) officials who had driven in from the airport while we were at the Oficina de Migración. With our paperwork from the three government agencies, we were now legal in Costa Rica and could begin the more important tasks: catch up on sleep, enjoy some long walks and swims with the pups and familiarize ourselves with local offerings.

And then we decided to do something we vary rarely do: backtrack to see what we had missed on our way down!

Our trip back up was so much calmer we were able to do some fishing.

Good thing we had the extra food, because we were boat bound for close to 10 days in Bahia de Salinas. Just after we set anchor, the winds and storms came up. It was great holding, but a very shallow bay. We were in 20 feet of water and ¾ mile offshore. The wind would blow up to 38 knots for an hour or so and then back down for 15 knots for a short while then pipe back up to the mid 20s. No rhyme or reason. No pattern. Our only company were various pelicans who dropped by to ride the wind waves with us.

Day after day, the winds blew and one storm after another passed over us. A few times we were lucky, being right at the edge of the worst weather.

Every time the weather let up just a little bit, we made a quick run to shore. One day, we had a great hike around Isla Bolanos, a small island in the center of the bay.

Isla Bolanos is one of the few nesting sites for brown pelicans. Also frigates and oyster catchers.

Most of the birds stayed well clear of us so we amused ourselves with the cool local geology.

Finally, the weather appeared to break a bit. The winds were down to a steady 15 knots, low enough so that Paul could pull the anchor up by hand (YUP! The windlass had crapped out on us again!) so we made a dash around the point and up into the next bay: Bahia Junquillal (“hoon-key-all”).

What a difference a mere 5 miles (as the frigate flies) can make. Because of the setting of this bay, it was both calmer, less windy and much drier. Made for much more quality beach time!

We loved the long sandy beach and took many a walk along it. And the whole time we were there, we were the only boat in the bay and our foot prints were usually the only ones on the beach.

This bay also had a small island with neat weather worn rock formations.

We still got rain, of course . . .

And those were the times we took care of boat chores,

or just had a good old nap.

We spent a week in Bahia Junquillal and we would have stayed longer but for the need to get water, food and diesel. The next bay down, Cuajiniqiol (“kwa-he-knee-quill”), had a small fishing community. So, we decided to see what we could scare up there.

What we discovered about diesel is that diesel for fishermen is subsidized in Costa Rica, by 30%. And to readily idenitfy the subsidized diesel, it is tinted blue. We were not eligible to purchase blue diesel. The only non-blue diesel available was at a regular gas station in the town of La Cruz 20 miles away. But, not to worry, one of the fishermen pulled out his cell phone and called Tonio who tossed his 50 gallon drum in the back of his truck, picked us up at the dock and drove us to town.

At an exchange rate of 515 colones to $1US, you see some mighty big numbers at the diesel and gas pumps.

Back at the dock, we had to get that 50 gallon drum down to water level.

A little nerve racking for the man down in the dinghy looking up. But all went well. We got the drum out to Serenity at anchor in the bay. Then we siphoned diesel from the 50 gallon drum into our 5 gallon jug, lifted the 5 gallon jug to the deck, poured the diesel into the tank and repeated the process until we had full tanks (and a very stinky dinghy).

The next day we returned the drum to Tonio and he took us back into La Cruz for a day of provisioning at the grocery store.

While we were anchored off Cuajiniquil, we were able to find out more about these offshore fishermen. Four to five men take off to sea for one month at a time, traveling from northern Costa Rica to the Galapagos islands (a round trip of about 1,800 nautical miles). They fish the entire time, using long lines baited with squid to catch tuna, dorado, bill fish, etc. In the days of their fathers and grandfathers, they did not need to go such long distances. But the world fish stock is slowly being depleted and now they must travel further out to stay economically feasible.

Full of diesel and food (we never were able to locate a easy plentiful source of water for the tanks), we said good bye to the fishermen and headed down to the next bay – Bahia Santa Elena. Along the way, we even managed to catch ourselves a very tasty 36 inch Dorado (Mahi Mahi).

Bahia Santa Elena is an oval shaped bay, about two miles long and one mile wide; fully enclosed except for a ½ mile opening between two rocky points with offshore islands. This makes it an exceptionally calm place to anchor. At one time, the land on the southern side was owned by Enrique Somoza, the former Nicaraguan dictator and was reportedly used as a US training facility site for Contra rebels. Now, the entire peninsula is part of the massive Santa Rosa National Park.

Santa Rosa is the oldest of Costa Rica’s national parks. It is named for the 1856 Battle of Santa Rosa, in which a hastily formed Costa Rican army beat back the invading forces of the American Filibuster, William Walker, in a brief 15 minute battle. (Costa Rica has no standing army; one of the reasons it has such well developed infrastructure and social services.)

Although the bay is mostly lined with mangroves, there is one beautiful white sand beach that we really enjoyed.

There was so much to do, that we found ourselves staying here for over a week. We hiked in the jungle surrounding the bay. We looked for monkeys, parrots and any one of the 5 species of cats that reside here (jaguar, margay, ocelot, puma, and jaguarondi).

We never saw a cat up close, but we did find many large cat paw prints around the fresh water streams.

Following one stream up, we came to a wonderful fresh water swimming pool. Fresh water swimming! What luxury!

We took several trips in the dinghy back along mangrove swamp rivers.

We were hoping to find monkeys and parrots up close. We saw them, but only at a distance. Up close we saw this family of bats on the bottom of a branch we rowed under.

Leaving Bahia Santa Elena, we tossed the line in the water again and replenished the food stock with another three foot tuna.

That was the last fishing we were able to do for several weeks because, once we passed south of Punta Santa Elena we were in the marine park portion of Santa Rosa National Park. No fishing allowed!

While in the park, we anchored in Bahia Ensueño in the Islas Murcielagos (Bat Islands). We were charged a fee of $6US per person per night to anchor in the park.

What a stunning place. Snorkling, we saw spotted snake eels, tiger reef eels, green moray eels, giant damsel fish and reef cornetfish, spotted rays, turtles, and more. We also hiked to the top of the ridges for panoramic views of the waters around us. There went another week in the blink of an eye!

Our next stop: Bahia Huevos. So named for a series of small islands that looked to someone like eggs.

Beautiful white sand beaches. Before we knew it, another week had passed on by!

But finally, after 2 months exploring the bays of the Papagayo region, we had to return back to El Coco. Back to where we started. Time to get some work done. First project: installation of new house batteries. The batteries were ordered over the phone from Costa Rica Electric Car Company. We paid for them by walking to the bank and making a cash deposit in the company’s bank account. Two days later the batteries were sent down, on the bus ($15US shipping fee), to one of their other customers, an apartment owner, in El Coco. He held the batteries for us until we arrived to pick them up. CR Electric Car Company even made up all new battery cables for us. Paul just had to “plug and play.” [Easy for Debi to say as she stayed on the beach to play with the pups while Paul wired the new batteries in.]

Many thanks go to Armando, Señor Taxi Privado, (a private taxi driver) who helped get the 4 new batteries (75 lbs. each) on board and the 2 old batteries (120 lbs. each) off. He has become a good friend and we have called on him on numerous occasions to get around town and to help us locate needed items. It is amazing how he is able to get through our "Spanglish" to figure out what is needed or what we are looking for.

Another day, we took a bus trip into Liberia (the capital of the state, or canton, of “Guanacaste”).

The public transportation system is incredible.

But why is it that bus depos always look the same, no matter where in the world you are?

We hate to say it, but one reason for going to Liberia was to have the windlass motor (the device that pulls the anchor up) rebuilt again (and then again another week later). We are now saving our pennies to buy the first new windlass we cast our eyes on!

While in Liberia, we hired a taxi to drive us around town to find different things we needed. Our negotiated rate was $6US per hour. And cheap at twice the price, we say. We would have had a devil of a time trying to find "Taller Electrico" for the windlass motor repair from their business card which gives the address as "500 Mts. Sur, 30 mts. Este de la Farmacia Lux, Liberia, Guanacaste." This is the capital of the region and they don't have street addresses!

It wasn't all work in Liberia. Each time we went to town, we really enjoyed sightseeing around the town.

It took a couple of trips to resolve the windlass motor and, truth to tell, it still isn't as it should be. But we decided it was getting on time to head south.

So, back at El Coco, we got ourselves provisioned up again.

And just as we were getting all ready to start heading south again, Debi stepped into it! The only small patch of slime on the Playa del Coco sea wall and she hit it dead on . . giving us a first hand introduction to the Costa Rica medical system.

The closest X-Ray machine was 45 miles away back in Liberia. Our taxi driver (Armando's friend Carlos) insisted on taking us to a private clinic. Within 1½ hours the x-rays were taken and the cast was on. Full cost for X-rays, cast, crutches, and two exams: $225 US. (Good thing he took us to a private clinic. Headline in Gringo rag “The Journal” two weeks later: “Elderly Man Must Wait Until 2009 for Medical Appointment at country hospital!”)

For the 3 weeks the cast was on, Debi was boat bound. She couldn’t easily maneuver the swim ladder with one leg to get from the boat to the dinghy. Then we had the problem of getting her in and out of the dinghy on the shore without getting the cast wet. And the doctor had put the fear of the Almighty in us about getting salt water under the cast. So, for 3 very, very, very long weeks, Debi read and relaxed with her leg elevated. Thank you Mark and Diane of Con Te Partiro for delivering books and Richelle of Amarita for baking brownies!

And while Debi was playing the lady of leisure, Paul practiced being a single hander doing all the cooking, cleaning, washing, puppy playing, etc., etc. And because Debi couldn’t assist in getting the 125 pound Honda motor on the dinghy, Paul rowed to and from shore.

We spent this time up anchored off Playa Panama in Bahia de Culebra (Bay of Snakes, but we never saw one) because it was more protected and experienced fewer swells from the open ocean than Bahia del Coco.

By the end of the 3 weeks, though, we were only sharing the waters with the fisherman. All of the other cruisers had gone either north or south.

Also by the time the 3 weeks were up, we had used up all but 2 days of our 90 day visa. So, on the day we returned to Liberia to get Debi’s cast off, we also drove another hour further to “La Frontera” – the Costa Rica/Nicaragua border. This was our experience:

So, once again we are ready to head south. But now we need to wait for a package to arrive from the US. Knowing we were staying because of Debi's leg, we went ahead and ordered some boat parts. And Debi's Mom took care of collecting them and getting them shipped on down. (What a sweatheart!) Who was to know that it would take so long? In fact, as we post this, we are still waiting for the package to arrive.

Don't worry Mom! It'll get here!

In the meantime, what about the weather you ask. Well, Costa Rica has two seasons: The “Dry” season (December through April) and the “Wet” (or “Green” season as it is called in travel brochures, June through October). May and November are the “transition months” and not typically assigned to one of the two seasons. During our stay, we have been in the wet season which can be rainy and stormy.

Air Temperature:
80°F in the night and morning
90° to 100°F in the mid-afternoon
(we saw it as low as 75°F one night and put on sweaters!)

Usually 85% relative humidity,
gets as low as 80% and as high as 90%

Water Temperature:
Usually around 85°F

Every 3-4 days we usually get a good 1 hour rainfall.
We understand this is an exceptionally dry year.

Most evenings and during most rain storms.
Usually at a distance.
The closest lightening bolt we saw landed right in front of the bow.
The depth instrument (mounted on the hull below the water line) stopped working for about ½ hour.

Rain Caught:
Don't ask. We are woefully inefficient at catching rain.

None! At 10° North latitude we are south of the hurricane belt.

We've hd to sharpen our weather prediction skills so we know when to duck! We start off every morning listening to the SSB radio and using our onboard email system to download text and fax weather files from the National Weather Service. We’re checking for 2 things: where is the ITCZ (inter-tropical convergence zone) today and when will the next tropical wave be here?

Here's what a typical text email from the National Weather Service looks like:

And here's a typical weather fax which comes to us as a TIF file. Lou, Did you ever think we would really be using this stuff?

When the conditions are ripe for rain, it can rain like you wouldn’t believe! (Of course, we are so busy securing the ports and hatches, etc., we never manage to get the rain catcher up!)

And the food? The food has been great. The national dish is called “casado” (meaning “marriage” in Spanish). The dish is the marriage of rice with beans topped with either chicken, fish or beef. Casado is Debi's favorite and usually only about $5US.

On the down side, the biggest disappointment has been how hard it is to get fresh shrimp. Costa Rica harvests thousands of tons of shrimp each year, but most of it is exported to Miami!

Our favorite drink? Lemonada from the Hotel Coco Palms. Lime juice mixed with ice and mineral water. YUM!

One sad note for us has been the level of gringo development for resorts, timeshares and homes for North Americans and Canadians. The character of this area is changing dramatically and rapidly. This area is being promoted by developers who are trying to change its name from Bahia de Culebra (Bay of Snakes) to “The Papagayo." To quote Charlie Woods “The Papagayo Project is an environmentalist’s nightmare and a greedy developer’s disgrace.” To quote Carlos the taxi driver "We Ticos now call Playa Tamarindo, Playa Gringo." ("Tico" or "Tica" is what Costa Ricans call themselves.)

We cut short our stay at Mata de Cana because the jackhammers were running both day and night.

Its not all obstrusive, however, some projects try very hard to blend in with the local surroundings.

And the people are wonderful. The taxi drivers who go out of their way to help us find what we need. Betsy at the grocery store who translates for us. The girls at the meat counter who take our order and then freeze it for us overnight so that we don't have to tax our refrigeration system. The guys at the internet cafe who make phone calls for us. Everyone has been helpful and giving.

One day we invited the Port Captain out to share a drink with us. He told us all about his family and his favorite pass time: Karaoke!

So, with all these good friends to share time with, we patiently await the arrival of our package from the U.S. When it arrives, you'll be the first to know Mom! And then we will be on our way south for more adventures.

Not all who wander are lost.

Copyright © 2006 Shaimas. All rights reserved. Last updated 7 October 2006