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.

More than 20 percent of Costa Rica’s population is below the poverty line but I have yet to see any homeless or beggars.

It isn’t just tourism, either. Around each town were fields of mangoes, corn and rice.
It looked like a nice place to live, not only for burned-out Wall Street investment bankers but for a Costa Rican farmer, too.

We picked up our boat at the Charco River, a big stream that’s as brown as mushroom soup. If you dipped your finger in the water, you could lose the tip. The only thing that could live in that river would kill you.

However, on the river banks, Costa Rica wildlife exploded. The captain, a wise-cracking, fit youthful man in his 50s named Roberto, floated the boat just to the other side. There, standing on a branch was a little blue heron. I could hear the guttural roar of howler monkeys over it in the jungle’s thicket. We passed a black-crowned night heron and a groove-billed ani, it’s black beak nearly as big as its tiny head.

And we hadn’t even reached the national park yet.

Officially called the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Cipanci, Palo Verde is a protected national park where it’s illegal to hunt or cut down trees. The only thing allowed is fishing and watching. That’s it. The wildlife know it and are as tame and as curious as we are.

The Tempisque is a big, wide river surrounded by thick jungle on both sides. This being the “off” season, no other boats were on the water. As we entered the Charco, which runs into the Tempisque, a buxom tourist with her son was getting out.

“How was it?” I said.

“Unbelievable,” she said. “You’re going to love it.”

The first thing I loved was the temperature. A cloud cover had come over the North Pacific Coast and just a few knots down the river produced a breeze similar to the air-conditioning in my apartment. The wildlife wasn’t hiding from the sun.

Well, some were. Roberto drove to a big thick tree and under the tree trunk were hundreds of black-gray spolotches. They were long-nose bats, sleeping the day away like lazy sailors.

Then came wildlife like highlights from the old “Wild Kingdom” series. The smallest iguana was a little eight-inch, green number whose stomach rubbed against the tree bark as it walked. Alex says it’s called a Jesus Christ iguana because it can actually skirt along water. I asked if Jesus Christ could make my mosquito bites disappear but the little lizard just swallowed and slithered away.

Then came the great kiskadee and the boat-billed heron sleeping on one leg atop a tree branch.
A few hundred meters later we heard a rustling from behind the river bank. The captain pulled the boat into a thicket of branches. We saw more branches moving. Then we saw a big pile of white and brown fur bouncing around atop the river bank. I pulled up my binoculars and I saw about a half dozen monkeys. They were juveniles and we’re wrestling around like frisky kittens. They’re white-throated capuchin monkeys, named for the cappuccino-colored fur below their white faces.

As the three of us stood taking pictures, our photo clicking was drowned out by one collective, “AWWWWWWWW!”

So much for kid’s stuff. It was time to find the baddest rat on the river, the one geological eras couldn’t kill. Costa Rica has the third largest crocodiles in the world behind Australia and Africa. I’ve seen the big ones here before. On my bathroom wall is a shot from my frist trip here in ’96. There’s the captain of our boat trip down the Tarcoles River farther south near the Gulf of Nicoya. He’s about 5-foot-4. He’s on a muddy river bank holding a skinned dead chicken by its feet. No more than two feet away is a crocodile just emerging from the river. The crocodile is estimated to be 13 feet long.

We all estimated the captain needed serious, SERIOUS drug counseling.

But apparently he’s been doing it for years and crocodiles become used to man’s presence and his generous gifts. They hear the boat come and start gathering like puppies hearing their name called.

The crocs we saw weren’t this attentive. We had no food – except for a few arms and legs. We saw the first one when its left eye emerged from the water and eyed us from about 30 feet away. Crocs aren’t hard to find. Their snouts form a kind of breaker through the water. You merely look where the water isn’t flat, where there’s a break in the pattern. Then you can see a long, scaly snout slowly moving through the inky river.

As we approached it, it didn’t move. It just sat there, floating. We came right up next to it, snapped a couple of dozen pictures. It was almost posing.

“Swim, amigo!” the captain yelled. “It’s plastic!”

Not far away, we approached another that must’ve been about seven feet. We couldn’t tell as it immediately submerged under the surface. The captain tore a branch off the tree and did what I always try to do on any tropical vacation.

Piss off a crocodile.

He started thrashing the water and suddenly the croc thrashed back. It tore up through the surface and starting swinging around its tail. It didn’t jump into the boat as you hear some do but it made the kind of splashing sound you associate with crocodile deaths. You know. Heavy splashing, a slight struggle, some last air bubbles and silence. You’re being dragged under a submerged mud bank to soften up.

These crocodiles are tough. We later saw one about eight feet long. We noticed something different. It was uglier than the rest which, for crocodiles, is quite a feat. We looked closer and he was missing three teeth off a lower jaw lined with razor sharp molars. This one started rubbing against the boat, feeling either frisky, angry or hungry. Either way the woman from Connecticut, with as much calm as she could muster, politely asked if we could drive away.

We went across the river to an elevated area where four huge iguanas postured. On the ugly meter, iguanas make crocodiles look like baby huskies. Iguanas have scales upon scales. Their eyes are lazy. They look as if one pat on the head and your hand would rot and fall off like last week’s hamburger. But their colors were brilliant. Green. Black. Blue.

They looked like Janet Reno dressed up for a White House party.

After a wonderful lunch in a rural diner of rice and beans, roasted chicken, shredded beef and delicious ice-cold fresh pineapple-mango juice, we went back to Samara where I had no time to crash.
I was meeting one of Samara’s original ex-pats at 7. I met Franz Werkstetter at La Vela Latina, one of the classier beach bars in town. Boy, did I pick the wrong night. Costa Rica was playing Honduras in the Gold Cup soccer tournament and the place was packed with young Ticos.

Jehu, my surfing instructor, came over and gave me soul shake I hadn’t seen since 1984. Some young European Spanish students were flirting with local surfers who just had a competition earlier in the day. It was like any other surf bar in Southern California but I needed some quiet.

Franz is a big husky guy with a stylish, black haircut and a full moustache. He looked like an ex-pat who came for an Imperial beer and stayed 30 years. He wore a short-sleeved white Polo shirt, shorts and stylish sandals. Glasses hung from around his neck.

He used to work in the organic fertilizer business outside Munich. He came here in 1983 during his off season and saw Costa Ricans were into the environment. Back then Samara had two TVs on the entire beach. There were two bars. There was one phone and it never worked when it rained.

To send a fax you had to go to Nicoya.

“One guy came in from San Jose once a week to sell fresh vegetables,” Franz said. “It was an adventurous place behind the end of the world.”

Franz said this area was settled in the 1940s by cattle farmers from the central valley. They started out small but immediately were environmentally conscious before their time.

“The pioneers here were very very decent,” Franz said in a heavy German accent. “Nobody said anything. It was just common sense. They knew if they cut the forest, the land would die out.”

Franz was in the reforestation business in Bavaria and felt he could do the same thing here. He has since been married twice to Tica women and has two daughters studying in Berlin. He has a small farm a few miles outside of town.

“I can pick up in a moment from a noisy place like this and in 10 minutes I’m in a jungle,” he said as the bar went into a collective moan as Honduras scored the only goal of the game. “At 4 o’clock in the morning, I can hear howler monkeys. I can live very, very tranquill and in three minutes be in a bar.”

He said Samarans get along with ex-pats because it attracts expats like him. I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t speak any Spanish. No one looks like an ugly American – although my bite-covered legs make me, literally, pass for one.

“People here are more tranquill,” he said. “You come to a tranquill place you’ll act tranquill. You want to go to Tamarindo, where it’s all business, and you’ll act this way.”

After a fourth Cuba libre, I don’t know if my comprehension of his accented English was worse or my penmanship. But he gave me a hearty handshake and a big smile and he went back to his farm.

Costa Rica lost 1-0 and the Vela emptied. The sounds of chirping birds finally returned to the beach.