Costa Rica Journal: A night out in San Jose and five bests and worsts about Costa Rica

Goodbye, lovely Samara

Goodbye, lovely Samara


It’s 4:30 in the morning, and I’ve been up since midnight. Costa Rica’s Centenario rum has a big plus going for it in it’s so smooth, you don’t get hangovers. The downside is it’s so sweet, you wake up in the middle of the night and have more shakes than a kindergarten class. The scary thing is I could’ve pulled an all-nighter. I found a great bar near my hotel and only a lack of funds and pending lack of sleep kept me staying there past 9.

It was Bar Morazan, a dark, local hangout and total opposite of the sports bar next door. Chubbs has all the trappings of an American sports bar: big screen TVs, half of which were showing MMA on a Monday night, greasy menu, lots of white guys. Chubbs is where the mass expat population of San Jose gets into Tico culture by watching the Red Sox play.

The only difference is Chubbs’ waitresses are all buxom, curvy Ticas, most of whom worked down the street at Il Re. Il Re is the one bar in the world that combines two of man’s evenings out: sports and prostitution. Yes, Il Re is a sports brothel. I went last year ONLY – emphasis ONLY – because Il Re also has the only ATM in the area. I was watching the NFL Playoffs at Chubbs and went to Il Re to get cash. I noticed the screens were bigger, the bar was shinier and the women were cuter. I sat down to watch a quarter when a drop-dead gorgeous Colombian sits down and starts rubbing my leg. I looked around and realized this may be the only sports bar in the world at that moment where none of the men were watching the games.

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Costa Rica Journal: Trip down Tempisque an eye-to-eye look at big league crocodiles

A crocodile near our boat in the River Tempisque.

A crocodile near our boat in the River Tempisque.

A green iguana on the banks of the Tempisque.

A green iguana on the banks of the Tempisque.


The Costa Rica coast is steaming. I’m sitting in the tiny gravel waiting area of the Alfaro bus company and sweat is pouring down me like the gutters in Bangladesh. I just walked 10 minutes to the ATM and a postcard shop and I look like I just stepped out of the ocean. My lower legs are nothing but red polka dots interspersed with bits of tanned flesh.

This is not a pretty picture.

It’s the “rainy” season here. Even though it’s the Northern Hemisphere, the Ticos call this their winter. All the locals tell me in December and January it’s “hot.” Tell that to my drenched ass.
I beat the heat yesterday. I joined all the locals: the crocodiles, iguanas, birds, monkeys and coatis on one of the great wildlife trips of my life. I’ve been through the Amazon, Galapagos Islands and Tanzania and yesterday’s trip down the River Tempisque ranks right up there with them.

Or have you been close enough to a crocodile to see the number of teeth he’s missing from his last feast?

The tour was nearly private. I got picked up in a van carrying a young honeymoon couple from Connecticut on their first overseas trip.

“I went to Holland once when I was 16,” the woman said.

Our guide and truck driver was Alex, a portly, constantly smiling man in his 30s with a big, unruly mop of black curly hair. He was big and husky and worked security for the Japanese ambassador to Costa Rica until life in San Jose got to him. That’s another recurring theme. Even the Ticos hate their capital. Picture our nation’s capital in Indianapolis and you’ll understand locals’ attitude toward San Jose.

The drive was two hours to the river but a tour in itself. We went through a string of true Costa Rican villages that looked nearly identical.

“Notice every town in Costa Rica has the same thing: a soccer field, a church, a school and police station,” Alex said. “The most important part of town? The bar?”

Sure enough, in each town we passed a beautifully manicured soccer field, with grass as green as any in American suburbs. And they were empty. I’ve been here 10 days and I’ve only seen one pickup soccer game. But at least the local government believes in fitness and football. Some of the soccer fields in Nicaragua I saw last year had so many holes they could double as a 54-hole golf course.

But the quality of life here seems remarkably high. The houses are all brightly painted, single-story cement blocks with corrugated roofing. Couples sit on their porch as the morning awakens. Workers in tanktops build houses and offices. Healthy dogs play in the streets. In the town of Oriente, I saw a man give another shirtless man a haircut in his front lawn. In Bolson, an old man walked down the street holding his pet Loro, which looked like a prehistoric ancestor of the green parakeet. It was big as a falcon.

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Skin is crawling but kayak down Rio Ora is a cure that doesn’t bite

Iguana on the Rio Ora.

Iguana on the Rio Ora.


I have to make this fast. I’m leaving in an hour for a long boat ride through a national park. Crocs. Macaws. Monkeys. The breadth of Costa Rican wildlife. The problem is I need more than an hour to document the breadth of Costa Rican wildlife I saw yesterday on a kayak trip. Hell, I need an hour to itch.

My lower legs look like an aerial view of strawberry fields. I’m itching like a $20 whore. I walk outside and going from A-C to humidity is like sending millions of red ants under my skin. I can barely walk without bending over and digging into my flesh for 20 minutes. Yeah, I know. Don’t do it. Tell that to a heroin addict. It causes infection. I’ve learned how to spell dengue fever without looking it up. But itching does feel good. The switch between pain and pleasure is the Costa Rican call of the Sirens. Now they’re on my arms. After every sentence, I stop typing to dig my nails into my reddening flesh.

I don’t know if they’re mosquito bites, the sand fleas that seem to be Central America’s continental bird or little pests called No See ‘Ems. I’ve never seen one. Never heard one. And I’ve never felt one bite. But every few hours another part of my skin is on fire.

Fortunately, water seems to appease it. Nothing like a two-hour kayak ride to keep you from itching.
The Samara Adventure Company picked me up in a open-bed truck with kayaks stacked on the top. I joined five others as we took the road south through Carrillo. On a Saturday, this lovely beach finally burst with life. Tico families had picnics on tables further down from where I was, down where the sentry of palm trees was thicker and sand a bit more barren of driftwood. The waves were crashing. If this had been a public bus I would’ve buzzed to get out.

Instead we wound our way up the hill through the pleasant town of Carrillo, then through thick overgrown vegetation that seemed to engulf the road. We forded a couple of shallow streams until we reached the Rio Ora. If rivers truly can be lazy, the Ora is a 16-year-old unemployed runaway. It was shallow and as green as an emerald. It meandered through a thick jungle with massive trees hundreds of years of old on one side. We could hear birds of a dozen species.

We put three boats in the water and I settled in, leaning back on the portable back rest that didn’t rest my back much. It’s not a comfortable fit but kayak paddles are very powerful. Just a couple of strokes and you fly through the water.

Our guide was Alex, a short, mustachioed kid in his early 20s who cursed when he realized the camera he took didn’t have a memory card. Still, he was able to point out all kinds of wildlife I’m not good enough to photograph. After only a few minutes, he pointed out a blue kingfisher. His head looks just like the Blue Jay on Toronto’s uniforms. We paddled a little longer then he yelled, “Iguana!” He pointed up and on a branch in front of me a meter-long iguana was resting.

“Careful,” one person said. “They shit on you.”

The paddling was as pleasant as the wildlife. The river had no current and each bend revealed another thicket of jungle. They filmed part of “After Earth” in Costa Rica. I can see why. It was seven kayakers and wildlife. That’s all that survived a nuclear war. Iguanas, I’m convinced, could survive anything, even boredom.

Alex pointed again at a low-lying branch. A bright pink Rosette Spoonbill was perched, looking like a giant pink candle. Of course, by the time I got my camera out, he flew away but to watch a giant pink bird much prettier than a flamingo fly overhead was worth the trip itself.

We paddled all the way to the ocean. We found a beach filled with random driftwood and ate pineapple and watermelon and chatted. One Hispanic couple from Rialto, Calif., just became empty nesters and he had tons of vacation time. He had never traveled. Costa Rica is perfect for him. It’s adventurous yet with modern conveniences. And he’s fluent in Spanish. Next they can’t decide between Africa and Panama. Go figure.

The ride back was arduous. My legs were cramping from sitting up in these flimsy seat backs. I finally said screw it and laid back as if in a chaise lounge chair and paddled that way. It looked bush. I looked like an old man but then again, I am. And it was very comfortable.

We passed some long boarders. They stand on extra-large surfboards with a tether around their ankle and paddle slowly down the river.

“Is it fun?” I asked one.

“Yes,” said one guy with a European accent. “It’s zen. It’s like yoga.”

When we reached the truck, we didn’t go a half mile home before we heard this scream similar to a small child being tortured. It was a howler monkey. We got out and a whole family was hanging out in the trees above us. A mother, a father, a teen and a baby.

I noticed they were itching.

Costa Rica Journal: Samara is one Costa Rican town where ex-patriotism works

Samara is a peaceful village where expats and Ticos live peacefully but a shadowy drug culture threatens the climate.

Samara is a peaceful village where expats and Ticos live peacefully but a shadowy drug culture threatens the climate.


For a change of scenery I decided to upgrade beaches. Samara’s beach is idyllic, something out of a travel posture or off a bottle of suntan lotion. But all the Ticos say it’s nothing compared to others north and south of it.

The prettiest, most desolate beach in the area is called Barrigona. To get there you need a taxi, some good hiking boots and suicidal tendencies. Constant undertows. Lots of drownings. No one there to help.

Instead I went to a place called Playa Carrillo. It’s about five miles south of Samara and the public bus took me through part of the real Costa Rica that’s so hard to find in these expat towns. We passed a school where all the kids wore white shirts and blue skirts and pants. Nice single-story houses with bright paint and acceptable yards. Some big gated houses with archways leading to long driveways. You can tell the expats from the Ticos but the disparity of wealth here is nothing like you’d find in Jakarta or Rio or, well, Chicago.

Playa Carrillo is a town but you see none of it when you pull into the city limits. Playa Carrillo’s landmark is a wall of palm trees, so identical they look like sentries guarding the green forest behind it. In front is a swath of gray sand beach with great surf and no people.

They say Costa Rica’s beaches are white sand. They’re not. They’re gray. It’s not as palatable to the eye as the white sands of the Caribbean islands or South Pacific but the texture is so fine here you don’t mind the drab color. Playa Carrillo and Samara’s beaches aren’t manicured yet the sand is as consistent as the sand traps of Augusta. Fine, granulated sand that squishes under your soles. In the ocean, I could run into the surf and dive straight into a wave without worrying about rocks or coral carving up my legs in an underwater knife fight.

There’s just enough driftwood swept up from the sea to remind you that you’re not at a five-star resort. At Playa Carrillo you don’t need much of a reminder. There’s not a single structure in sight, sans for the remains of a concrete picnic table next to the road.

I laid down my striped, worn beach towel, laid down and read “Rolling Thunder,” my latest John Varley science fiction book. It’s a weird dichotomy reading science fiction in paradise. I’m reading about a society on Mars where mankind has taken refuge after the mother of all tsunamis wipes out a fifth of earth’s population and ruined nearly the entire planet. Yet here I am laying on a beach I normally only see in my dreams. Earth … it still has some gas left in the tank.

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Costa Rica journal: Mosquitos are Costa Rica’s first line of defense


You can see one problem with Costa Rica by taking one peek at my ankles. Mosquitos are deadly here. I haven’t been typing much this morning because it’s hard to type when your hands are too busy furiously scratching bites. They’ve all broken and my feet are a canvas of red op-art. It looks like I spent the night getting pecked by rabid roosters. I brought Jungle Juice which I’ve sprayed daily and nightly. Note to travelers: Don’t miss an inch. I must’ve skipped over a couple inches of flesh as an entire squadron of deadly mosquitos have bored in. If Costa Rica ever starts a military, those suckers will be the first ones deployed.

Now I’m hearing this isn’t just a passing itch. It can be deadly. Dengue fever is an epidemic in Costa Rica. More than 12,000 cases have been reported. What is Dengue fever? High temps, pain in the back of the eyes, rash, severe headaches and pain so bad they call it “bone-breaking fever.” The symptoms hit six-10 days after your bite. Hmmm. That means I should be doubled over in pain sometime while I’m in L.A. next weekend for the Pac-12 Media Day. “Excuse me, Coach MacIntyre, while I throw up on this buffet table.”

I’m not susceptible to tropical illness. In 1978 I contracted typhoid in Northern Thailand. Where were you that New Year’s Eve? I was throwing up all night in a bamboo outhouse. Nothing can be worse than typhoid. Migraine. 104-degree temperature. Severe dehydration. Vomiting attacks. Diarrhea. Dizziness. It’s like your entire digestive tract wakes up one morning and just says, “FUCK IT!” and stops working. I was two days hike from the nearest road. I lost 20 pounds in eight days. I’m 6-foot-3 and I was down to 138 pounds. My arms looked like garter snakes.

The good thing is Bangkok had a medical clinic on nearly every corner. The bad thing is, in the late ‘70s, those medical clinics mainly treated venereal diseases. Tourists came on sex vacations or backpackers would shack up with some Thai girl for the weekend after six months of celibacy in India. So I walked into a clinic looking like a gang leader in “Night of the Living Dead.” My hair has strung out. My skin was orange. My eyes were bloodshot. My tongue was swollen. I stumbled into the lobby and some Swede sitting there looked at me and said, “MY God! Who were YOU with?”

The benefits of typhoid are that it builds up an immunity system to fight off any bacteria known to man. That was 1978 and I haven’t been sick since. Yeah, I get colds and twice I had traveler’s flu for 24 hours but that’s it. I haven’t missed a day of work due to illness in 34 years in the business.
I don’t want to end my streak now.

Oh, to finish the disgusting Thai story: My mother grew up in a time when entire villages in the U.S. were wiped out by typhoid. I placed a call telling her I was going to a hospital in Bangkok the next day. She sent me $300, but the next day was the first day in five I hadn’t woken up to violent vomiting attacks. I even got enough energy to leave the squalor of my dive hotel room to walk around the block. I ate some plain rice and, shockingly, kept it down.

The next day I ate more and walked more. I didn’t go to the hospital. Instead, I took a long bus ride to the gorgeous, unspoiled island of Phuket (pre-tsunami, pre-airport, pre-resorts). For a week I swam in the Indian Ocean and ate curry shark. I sent Mom a postcard saying I was OK.

She never got it.

She thought I was dead. She had Portland’s Associated Press bureau, for which I worked part time in college, send a bulletin to the AP bureau in Bangkok, where I did some part-time work. They sent memos to every bureau in Southeast Asia. I’m surprised my picture didn’t land on the back of a carton of chai. No one could find me.

All the time I was drinking beer on Phuket or hiking a volcano in Sumatra or hitchhiking up and down both coasts of Malaysia. When I finally walked into the AP office in Bangkok, the bureau chief said, “John, you’d better call home.”

So please, folks, don’t take the Internet for granted. I sure could’ve used email in 1978.