Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Three Days and Change at Sámara

Maddie and I landed in Liberia, Costa Rica, a bit after noon on Friday 8/20, and we left almost exactly a week later, after noon on Friday 8/27. The dividing line in the middle of that week was Tuesday, when we drove from the Pacific coast at Sámara over to the Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal, which is more or less in the middle of the country.

Friday evening to Tuesday morning struck us as exactly the right amount of time to spend at Sámara: enough time for the activities we had in mind, without rushing the beach-vacation schedule. I think it's good to attain a balance in this way. You get your day at the beach, and later you get your walk in the park.

The drive from Liberia to Sámara is about 70 miles, and we covered that in a couple of hours. The idea of driving in Costa Rica had begun to freak me out shortly before we left. After my customary procrastination (which affects everything I do, including vacation plans) I'd finally gotten around to reading the practical advice in the guidebooks about travel. The guidebooks give you advice on how to ford shallow rivers in a 4x4, and generally tell you that driving is not for the faint of heart. So I was imagining scary things. The 4x4 thing is good advice, but really, sticking to the major roads isn't all that nerve-wracking. (Also, with a GPS, you can thwart Costa Rica's issues with inadequately signed routes.) The Pan-American Highway is more or less like a state route here, and the secondary roads we were on were like hilly local roads, albeit with no shoulders, monster potholes, and frequent one-lane bridges over creeks. Driving in the afternoon in August means you'll drive through some thick showers.

We stayed in a marvelous B&B in Sámara called Entre Dos Aguas, run by a youngish couple of expats from New York, Brendon and Lilah. The place nestles into the hills right inland from Sámara, with treetops surrounding the property. There's a pool, a couple of pavilion structures sheltering the breakfast area and a patio with hammocks. There are butterflies and leafcutter ants. The bathrooms have stone shower nooks. The owners' pets lend a distinct personality: an old, gray-brown dog with a lame back leg, a retired-small-town-sheriff expression, and a pervading aroma of old wet dog; a small, visibly curious orange and white kitten; a somewhat older gray cat, which the kitten would bother and play with whenever it had a chance; and one other less distinctive dog and I think one other cat, which mostly kept to itself. Breakfasts were eggs, good coffee, and a plate with pineapple, papaya, and melon.

Beach bar.

Sámara has a good pace as a beach spot. There's enough tourism so that there are restaurants, beach bars, and surfboard rentals, but it's fairly quiet. (We were there off-season, of course, which would have something to do with this impression.) Friday night it was rainy, so we walked down the hill into town and had dinner. A small population of untended horses was hanging out in a grassy lot there, and from one stand of trees emanated a noise of what must have been frogs, a truly alien-sounding cacophony of quickly rising "mwwoy-OYP" noises.

Most of the other rainy parts of days we spent chilling or napping at the B&B.

Saturday morning broke from a drizzle into beautiful beach weather around 8:30 in the morning, so we took a long walk up and down the beach, which is a wide and flat crescent. The sun is surprisingly intense, even early in the morning. In the sand, hundreds of two-inch-long, red-orange crabs dig burrows at low tide and scurry around. (There are no seagulls: good for beachgoers, and good for crabs.) We waded into the warm Pacific until we'd had enough fun getting knocked around by the waves. We'd staked out a place in the shade, but I still sunburned my shoulders by letting my guard down for maybe 10 minutes on another walk down the beach. Later I had an impressively satisfying hamburger for lunch at one of the beach bars. We swam at the B&B pool while a variegated squirrel gnawed (surprisingly loudly) through a coconut in the tree above us. We napped in the two patio hammocks.

In the hammocks is where we were first acquainted with the howler monkeys that hang around the B&B. There's a mama monkey with a 2-month-old baby and an adolescent son. The owners of the adjacent property apparently had left food out for mama, and so the monkeys hang around the area a lot. None of them howled while we were there. The son is the least shy one. He'd showed up alone on Saturday afternoon, hung above Maddie's hammock for a minute, then went ahead and dropped into it before she could go anywhere. (Maddie: "I'm not sure why my instinct would be to close my eyes and curl into the fetal position, but . . .") He play-gnawed at her knee for a second, which I think was when the decision to exit the hammock occurred, and then he sort of prowled around getting a sense of us, while we tried to keep a little bit more distance than he wanted to. Brendon was there before too long, filling us in that the monkey was a frequent guest and also harmless.

I hadn't ever considered whether there was a test for boyfriends on "will he defend you from monkeys," and I did not acquit myself very well. I tried to get the big ol' dog to distract the monkey, but the big ol' dog just looked at me with his ol' tired eyes. The kitten and the monkey, both very curious and very wary of each other, tended to have a precious interaction. Later on we saw mama monkey and the baby, who mostly hung on mama's back but would cutely try out his climbing skills on the second-floor B&B railings.

Sunday was pretty similar to Saturday, to my memory. Somewhere Maddie wrote down what we did each day; I must be forgetting something more specific already. Sunday was when I noticed the leafcutter ants at the B&B -- not too many of them, strolling individually along a 40-yard stretch of walkway carrying their bits of leaves. As you may recall, I'm fascinated by ants, and I'd really hoped to see some leafcutters in Costa Rica (they're agriculturalists! fascinating!), and it turns out you'll find them pretty readily if you're someplace at least partly forested and you keep your eyes open. Later in the week, near Arenal, we saw some impressive chains of leafcutters: they keep very tight trails, and when they have a big operation going it looks like an engineering project to move an entire treetop underground piece by piece. Anyway, so I happily watched individual ants scissoring off pieces of leaf on the ground for 20 or 30 minutes.

Monday morning we did a guided kayak paddle (with one other vacationing American couple, who were visiting Costa Rica for six weeks before moving to Montana, lucky bastards) over to Isla Chora, a small island about 45 minutes out from the beach. Once there we snorkeled for a good half-hour in moderately choppy conditions -- there were some tropical fish to see, which are always interesting, but nothing too wild. The island has a little beach in front of a rock cliff. Both the beach and the rocks are crawling with tiny hermit crabs, and the rocks are additionally populated by a number of iguanas, which we threw bits of banana to. On the paddle back the guide, Marco, noticed and steered us to a pair of mating sea turtles. Apparently they just float out there in the water, oblivious to the world, for a half hour or so.

Jack & Maddie on Isla Chora.

The B&B had a connection with a massage guy, so we called him in and spent the lazy (and eventually downpouring) part of Monday afternoon getting our respective tensions worked out.

And I guess that's pretty much that! Tuesday morning we got an early start, so we really just packed, showered, ate breakfast, and distracted the adolescent monkey away from the second-floor bedroom door so that the Brooklynites staying inside could leave their room. And from there we were on the road to el Volcán Arenal. Which is a story for another day! Like tomorrow.


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