Costa Rica Journal: Surfing lesson at 57 is no day at the beach

No, this isn't me. He's actually standing. But this is another beginner surfer in Samara.

No, this isn’t me. He’s actually standing. But this is another beginner surfer in Samara.

THURSDAY, JULY 18 – SAMARA, COSTA RICA

You’re not too old to take up a new sport at 57. Billiards. Bowling. Bocce ball. They all come to mind. Surfing, however, is not one of them.

Before coming down to one of the great surfing nations in the world, I’d surfed before. That was 1976. I was 20, had just broken up with my high school sweetheart and was subconsciously suicidal. My fraternity brother was a Hawaiian and invited me over to sail, snorkel and surf. I remember on Maui getting up twice, just long enough to feel the rush of standing on cascading water and that I, too, could be a slacker dude.

That was 37 years ago. Six presidents have come into office and I’ve lived in landlocked states for 33 years. But I have never married and some accuse me of still living out of a backpack.

Slackerville could still be a destination.

I took my first surfing lesson yesterday and if you’re going to take your first at 57, Samara is the ideal spot. First, the waves are small. Of the 47 surfing spots listed on my map, for a country smaller than West Virginia, Samara isn’t listed anywhere. Two, the beach is very safe. The gentle half-moon bay always has a current going to shore. If you fall off, you’re guaranteed to spill onto a soft, sandy beach and not onto an atoll in the middle of the Pacific or get a piece of fire coral up your ass. Three, the beach has few people. Thus, there are few hecklers. And yesterday I was definitely worth heckling. You’ve heard of Eddie the Eagle and Ernie the Eel?

Introducing Johnny the Jetski.

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Costa Rica Journal: Language school gives Samara a special bond with expats

The lovely beach in Samara

The lovely beach in Samara

WEDNESDAY, JULY 17 – SAMARA, COSTA RICA

Central America is a huge center for language schools and Samara seems to be one of the epicenters. Every non Tico I meet seems to be learning Spanish here. It’s a nice idea. You go to school for four hours a day and then use what you’ve learned on the beaches, bars and dusty streets of the village.

In Guatamala and Honduras I’ve known people who stay with families who don’t speak English. That’s ideal. The problem in Samara is the ones who put up students apparently barely have running water. The students all stay in hotels, apartments or, in one case, above one of the best restaurants in town, the Esmerelda.

Spanish is such a useful language. Since the U.S. has more Hispanics than any other minority, it seems natural that Americans can learn Spanish easily. I can turn on one of a half dozen radio stations in Denver and listen to Spanish all day.

People ask me why in the world I’d want to learn Italian when the only place you can speak it is in Italy.

“That’s not true,” I say. “I’m BIG in rural Libya.”

Seriously, no place in Latin America matches Italy in terms of food, pace, people. Even the beaches in Sardinia and Puglia can almost match those in Costa Rica. Just add a string of palm trees, surf, rice and beans.

The language schools seem to be the perfect buffer between Yanks and Ticos. It’s easy for locals to accept expats when they’re paying good money to indoctrinate themselves into their culture. I see a lot of white women with Ticos. Katie, who works at the surf school, is a former Montana State University golfer who came down for massage school and wound up staying. She’s been dating a Tico and, without taking a lesson, is fluent in Spanish.

Not all of Costa Rica is this peaceful. Expats have turned Costa Rica into one giant American suburb. I remember sitting in a bar in San Jose during a layover on my way to Nicaragua last year. An American said crime has gotten so bad in the capital that Americans have moved into these all-American suburbs. I say “All-American” only as a compound adjective. It’s like they want to live in a bubble and only come out when they want to take something of Costa Rica. The beach. A hooker. A bottle of rum. But don’t let anyone in. One expat living in Samara said she got a bottle thrown at her at an ATM. The guy yelled, “We don’t want you here!” ironically, in perfect English.

Also, I’ve read that Mexican drug lords discovered Costa Rica has no military. Why it took them this long makes me wonder how they could ever run a billion-dollar drug business. But they’re now using Costa Rica as a transportation hub between Colombia and the U.S. markets. Throw in some drug addiction with hostility toward white people and Costa Rica isn’t the little paradise it was advertised as in the ‘90s.

Then there are the Italians. Hundreds live here. After being here a few days and eating at some of the Italian restaurants, I now know why they left Italy. They can’t cook. I went back to Gusto Beach for dinner. I figured the Roman guy I met must have some authentic dishes.

I keep forgetting that you can’t get Italian ingredients anywhere but in Italy. In Denver I can’t repeat the same meals I made in Rome. The tomatoes aren’t as flavorful. They parmigiana doesn’t have the bite. The garlic isn’t as strong.

I had their pescado combination. The bruschetta was a limp piece of white bread with cold marinara sauce. It wasn’t even toasted. The fish was about an 8-ounce fillet with no seasonings exept a lime laying limply on top. With a mound of plain rice, the meal would’ve been tossed to the crabs by any Italian worth his spatula.

But I’ve got a great tan again. I laid on the near-empty beach in front of a palm tree. The beach here isn’t spotless. Just enough driftwood is scattered about to remind you you’re not in a five-star hotel. I finished my book, “The Only Game in Town,” a collection of sports essays through the decades in The New Yorker, a magazine my parents subscribed to their entire lives. It was about 90 degrees, not a cloud in the sky. Occasionally, a Tico would walk along the beach to his job as a surfing instructor or dishwasher. A couple would ride along on horses following a guide.

Every 15 minutes I’d dive into a sea that’s warmer than my swimming pool. Not a pebble scraped my feet. Not a boat was in sight. I looked back at Samara and saw a sleepy little Central American village in one of the most god-given corners on earth.

No language could describe this.

Costa Rica Journal: Kayaking to deserted island an exercise in ocean spray

The brand new Zen Den in Samara, Costa Rica

The brand new Zen Den in Samara, Costa Rica

TUESDAY, JULY 16 – SAMARA, COSTA RICA

I’m sitting on the apartment’s tiny balcony looking out over a Pacific Ocean that’s as flat as a pane of blue glass. The only white water I see consists of a few small breaks near the shore where I thought I’d try surfing for the first time as an old man. However, when I went to the surf shop, Katie, the ex-pat working there, told me, “You’re in luck. We have a kayak tour going out at noon.” Kayaking is one of the great exercises you can do on vacation. If scuba diving opens up the world under water, kayaking opens up the world over water. I’ve done it a few times. New Zealand, La Jolla and, yes, in Costa Rica in 1996. It’s great vistas to the land you left behind, terrific exercise and the perfect way to beat the heat. Every paddle you get a face full of water. It’s like lifting weights in the shower.

Joining me was a Danish family of four. All blonds as if they hopped off a package of Danish pastry, they were all famously fit. The man was in his late 40s and had a washboard stomach. The mother was curvy and a smile as wide as the beach where we gathered. The teens both looked like fledgling athletes. I was the old man that seemed to tag along.

Memo was our guide. He was a Tico in his 20s with the long, flowing black hair of a guy who’d spent more time in the water than out of it. He was raised in Samara and surfs, scuba dives and free dives to 70 feet. We were in very good hands.

Kayaking is as easy as it looks. You sit in a boat with a hard seat back and put your feet up. It’s like watching a ballgame from your living room couch except that you have your arms in the air the whole time. The paddling motion is similar to riding a hand-operated bicycle. You merely hold the paddle and twist and turn each wrist while dipping it into the water. It’s shocking how fast they can fly through an ocean, particularly one as placid as it is here.

The six of us took off in three boats and headed toward Cherga, a small deserted island that teases me when I view its pristine beach from my living room. If a vacation has a Kodak moment, kayaking provides it. Here I was, churning through the Pacific in brilliant 90-degree sunshine, the ocean spray in my face and a deserted island approaching. If there’s a better definition of bliss, I’m not a good enough writer to express it.

Leaning back and cutting through the water, I asked Memo about his life here. He says Samara has changed since he was a kid. He can actually make money with visitors. But it is nothing like the rest of Nicoya Peninsula. He says Ticos avoid Tamarindo like a prison colony. I make a note to do the same. Even Samara feels like one-third expats. But they seem like the right kind. They respect the environment, mix with the locals, learn the language. The North Americans and Ticos co-exist here very peacefully. In San Jose, I hear locals throw bottles at tourists. That’s one way to protest rising housing costs.

We reached Cherga in 33 minutes. The Dane kept time. It’s a terrific time, Memo said. It usually takes 40-45. My arms were tired but nothing like lifting weights for 33 minutes. And unlike sitting on the beach, I wasn’t hot. My face felt glistened with ocean spray.

What I don’t see on Cherga from the mainland is it is absolutely crawling with critters. Iguanas and crabs seemed to have taken over the place like slum dwellers. As we pulled our refreshment buckets to the tall rock formation in the middle of the island, I heard a rustling. I looked at the rocks and iguanas starting pouring down toward us like spiky lava. Small. Medium. Large. Gray. Green. Red. They came stalking down the rocks. If you had a real small camera, you could make a helluva science fiction scene right here.

Memo threw a piece of banana on the rocks and two went after it like T-Rexes.

“They like fruit,” he said.

I looked at one four-foot monster and he looked at me like a hungry puppy. Suddenly his scaly eyes looked soft. He appeared to plead. I threw him a piece of pineapple and he swallowed it in one gulp.

We all cooled off with an hour of snorkeling. This is the worst time to snorkel or dive in Costa Rica and I could tell by the snorkeling. The visibility was no more than 20 feet and while I could see plenty of angelfish, wrasses and one tiny moray eel, I could barely see the other snorkelers without popping my head above the surface. The reef was all but dead. Still, something about the weightlessness of water will never get old on vacation.

We made it back in 28 minutes. The current always comes toward shore in Samara and I told Katie I’d be back for surfing Thursday.
That night I went to an Italian restaurant with the way dubious name of Pasta and Pizza A Go Go. My rule of thumb is the dumber the Italian name, the worse the Italian food. Never eat at a place called Bella Vista or Ciao or Buon Gusto or Mangia Bene. The cook is probably from New Jersey.

Actually, the cerviche misto was fantastic. Big hunks of octopus, squid, fish and crab in lime juice. Absolutely scrumptious. That made up for the Hawaiian pizza that tasted no different than a pile of dough with a can of Dole pineapple thrown on it. Second note to self: Scrap previous custom of trying a pizza in every country. After living in Rome, the pluses of discovery are outweighed by the minus of a complete waste of money and massive disappointment.

Afterward, I went to a funky little bar called the Zen Den. It’s about the only indoor bar in Samara. It’s a small doorway leading into a big, airy room with a definite Asian theme. A painting of a giant sleeping Buddha is on the far wall overlooking overstuffed couches with satin pillows. Overhead fans cool the room featuring bamboo bookcases and a long wooden bar. Evelyn is a tall, curvy blonde from Lyon, France, who opened the bar two weeks ago. She loved the Buddha Bars in France and wanted to bring the vibe to Costa Rica.

“I wanted someplace quiet,” she said. “Everyplace here is so loud. Boom! Boom! Boom!”

As I left I could hear the thumping rhythm of an upstairs club called Arribe. I saw only one person in it.

Like Samara, it has yet to be discovered.

Costa Rica Journal: A jungle hike through a Tico’s family biological reserve

MONDAY, JULY 15 – SAMARA, COSTA RICA

A jungle with a view: Playa Samara from the edge of the Werner Biological Reserve.

A jungle with a view: Playa Samara from the edge of the Werner Biological Reserve.

Here’s one way to get away from ex-pats even in a place without many: Dive into a jungle. Costa Rica is lousy with rain forests. Jaguars still roam the dense growth throughout the country which, from the air, looks like the Amazon with beaches.

The jungle in Samara, the Werner Biological Reserve, is a private jungle. Named after the descendent of Alvaro Teran, my guide and supreme defender of Samara. Tall and tan with black parted hair and the youthful face of a young man in love with nature, Teran is the grandson of German immigrants, the Werners, who came to Costa Rica 100 years ago. They opened an office supply store in Costa Rica but would started coming to Samara 50 years ago to get out of boring, ugly San Jose. (In three trips to Costa Rica, I have yet to hear anything good said about San Jose. It’s the Indianapolis of Central America.) Back then, Samara had two or three houses.

Twenty years ago his parents bought 246 acres outside Samara. It was once dry, tropical land used by cattle farmers. Instead of using the land for profit, his parents turned it into a biological reserve. Two years ago, Alvaro cleared a walking path through the jungle and started tours. TripAdvisor rates it the No. 1 activity in Samara. Even with a glistening beach beckoning me like the Sirens and the infinity pool just below my breakfast table, I woke at 6 a.m. to meet Alvaro.

I hopped in the back of his pickup for a 15-minute drive to the trailhead. It was 7:30 a.m. and already 80 degrees. But the humidity was even higher. I don’t sweat much. I can run a 5K, and it looks like I’m going to work. But in this humidity I sweat like a pig being led to slaughter. Fortunately, the jungle’s canopy is 100 feet high. Sun only occasionally leaked through and a weak breeze was just enough to keep me from melting into the bushes.

Alvaro was a walking Encyclopedia of ecotourism. Nearly everything in the jungle had a controversy. This jungle is full of teak wood. It’s one of the prettiest woods you can put in your home yet it apparently destroys the environment. Alvaro explained that because the teakwood trees’ leaves are so thick, the sun can’t break through at all. Thus, the ground below it rots. It’s eating away at the jungle yet manufacturers keep planting more trees.

We wandered the narrow dirt path just muddy enough from the evenings rains to turn my Tevas into ice skates. Luckily the trail only went to 780 feet which is about the highest point in all of Nicoya Peninsula. You could live in this jungle. There’s that much food. Most of it tastes like shit, but you could live here. Take termites. I did. Alvaro laid his hand on a tree branch connected to a termite nest the size of a beehive. He let about a dozen little specks crawl over the back of his hand. Then he licked it.

“Here,” he said, pointing to the branch. “You try. They’re good.”

So I put my finger up and I pulled away when just a few hopped aboard and I didn’t get engulfed in a black swarm. I flicked my finger with my tongue.

“Now bite,” he said.

I crushed the little critters with my teeth and, believe it or not, a sweet fluid leaked onto my tongue. It wasn’t bad, tasted a little like weak nectar.

“Put a few thousand on your hand and you can get filled up,” he said.

Alvaro Teran leads us through his family's jungle.

Alvaro Teran leads us through his family’s jungle.

To be honest, it tasted better than the bitter leaves I ate or the thick, gooey nut I cracked open and tried to eat like a kiwi.
What did taste good was the carao plant. Alvaro cracked open a lime-sized nut and inside was the gooey brown goodness of what tasted just like dark chocolate. It was like stumbling onto a tree of Godiva.

Actually, this area has one of the highest average life expectancies in the world. Alvaro said sociologists have come to Nicoya to study why and they have made three conclusions: One, people avoid the heat. They wake before sunrise and work until about 11. Then they quit. They have a coffee, eat lunch, sleep, visit with friends. When the sun starts to go down they finish their work. It’s low stress, low fatigue. It’s a direct opposite of what Americans do. Two, there are no chemicals in the food. Everything is natural. Costa Rican cuisine is one of the blandest in the Western Hemisphere. Pinto gallo (rice and beans) is the national staple. It’s tasty and filling but eat it seven days in a row and you start dreaming of clones at Starbucks. However, Costa Rica is crawling with fantastic fresh fruit and fish. How many people get fat and have heart disease eating fruit and fish? Three, they drink rain water. Costa Rica has one of the healthiest water systems in Latin America. Alvaro said the rain water has more magnesium and calcium than regular tap water. Costa Ricans have very strong bones because of it.

“Go to the town of Tanto Domingo,” he said. “You see people 87, 93, 97, 100 years old. My grandfather is 75 years old and still keeps up with me here. And he has a machete.”

After a while I started asking Alvaro questions. He grew up in San Jose and came here every summer with his parents. He went to college on the Caribbean side to study agricultural biology and returned here to work. I asked why Samara hasn’t become overrun with expats and tourists.

“We have the example of Tamarindo,” he said.

Tamarindo, 17 years after my visit, has turned into the punch line of Costa Rican ex-pat jokes. It’s as if the country conceded that beautiful corner of their country to North Americans, kind of like an ex-pat zoo where they locked them in and threw away the key.
The government of Samara put their mouth where their money is. It controls the valuable water source but has refused to allow any prospective hotel to use the water. No water. No hotel. Thus, as I look out over the beach from this spectacular living room vista, I don’t see a single multi-story building.

The Ticos resent the growth. Sure, Tamarindo has supplied thousands of jobs for locals but expats have driven up housing costs to the point where locals can’t even buy in their own country.

“Costa Ricans live outside Tamarindo because it’s too expensive,” Alvaro said. “In town they make good money or they sell drugs.”

I asked other towns he said have been overrun.

“Flamingto, Brazito, Langosto, Port Rios, Monezuma, El Coco …”

He went on and on. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so sweaty in the jungle anymore. I felt especially in tune to nature with so much wildlife around me. Nearly every 10 minutes we saw a chachlaca, the largest bird in the jungle. It’s the size of a hawk with beautiful plumage and a squawk that could be heard in Nicaragua. In one clearing we looked up and saw howler monkeys hanging out on precariously thin tree branches. One seemed to be holding paws with its baby.

“Be careful when you look up,” Alvaro said.

“Why? Do they make branches break over us? I asked.

“No. They pee on you.”

At the end of the three-hour tour I gave him $40 instead of $35 and then soaked in the infinity pool. Few feelings are better for the skin and soul than swimming to the edge of a pool and looking out over a jungle I just explored. It’s full of life and brings so much life to all of us.

Costa Rica Journal: Arriving in expat heaven on the Denver-San Jose Red-Eye Express

Man in Bolson holds his pet Loro bird, Camille.

Man in Bolson, Costa Rica, holds his pet Loro bird, Camille.

SUNDAY, JULY 14 – SAMARA, COSTA RICA

Apartment living is a great way to see Third World countries. Or, maybe this apartment is a great way to see Costa Rica. I’m sitting in a spacious, tiled living room with wrap-around windows that perfectly frame the Pacific Ocean. Yes, it seems like it’s the whole Pacific Ocean. The windows are that big. A hillside of palm trees and fruit trees cascade down from the languid infinity pool all the way to the sandy beach. This morning I could hear monkeys in the trees going “ka-ka-ka-ka.” It sounded as if they were tapping on the window. I’m in Samara, a small, lazy beach town of 2,200 laid-back, friendly souls on the Nicoya Peninsula.

The Nicoya Peninsula is shaped like a muscular forearm and fist and represents the northern half of Costa Rica’s long Pacific Coast. Lined with golden beaches, small towns and adequate infrastructure, it has been the trendy retirement destination for Americans since the 1990s. Real estate was cheaper than anywhere livable in the United States and a peaceful political climate made it a safe respite in between the occasional power kegs of Panama and Nicaragua. More than 50,000 Americans live in Costa Rica, according to the State Department, and the vast majority made beelines to this coast or the boring, ugly capital of San Jose.

The U.S. exodus began in the ’90s when they discovered the numerous long, sandy beaches, cheap prices and peaceful political climate. When I first came here in 1996, I spent my first four days in Tamarindo, a prototype backpacker beach town with a half-moon bay surrounded by sandy, palm trees and a few cheap hotels. I spent my days sunning on an empty beach, eating fresh seafood in one of the three restaurants, none of which I recall having a real floor, and sleeping in a simple bungalow next door. The closest thing I saw to package tourists was a VW van full of Canadians doing a tour of – and I’m not making this up – Latin American brothels. I couldn’t believe I actually shook their hands when I met them.

The view of the Pacific Ocean from the apartment in Samara.

The view of the Pacific Ocean from the apartment in Samara.

Today, the list of Tamarindo’s hotels in Lonely Planet fills two pages. It has resorts. It has a casino. It has a lot of Americans who can’t pronounce “Gracias.” It has been renamed Tamagringo. Or Scamagringo, depending on what Costa Rican, or Tico, you talk to.

Samara (pronounced (SAM-ara) is different. Walking along the beach for the first time, it brought memories of the Tamarindo I loved and the image I won’t let go away. Samara’s beach is a long, arcing stretch of gray sand with just enough beached driftwood to remind you that you’re nowhere near a five-star resort. Yeah, the sand is gray. You want white sugar sand, go to the Caribbean or Cuba. This is the Pacific, Jack. It’s a little more rugged over here but not under your feet. With virtually no maintenance, I saw hardly any stones. You could jog barefoot for miles and never suffer a cut.

The beach is spotted with the kind of laid-back beach bars you see in beer commercials. A few wooden tables in front of small wooden shacks. Some padded chairs under an umbrella, all facing out to the sea with dark-skinned, young, smiling waitresses serving ice-cold beers and ceviche. The biggest businesses on the beach are a couple surf shops with surfboards hanging like shingles outside a law office. In front of each one, a woman in a bikini or a long-haired surf instructor is half comatose in a comfy chair or hammock, waiting for the next customer or wave.

My kind of town, my friends. My kind of town.

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