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

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.