Costa Rica June 2001

The trip to Costa Rica

Leaving Vancouver airport at a disgustingly early time I layover at Houston International airport to then get on a plane going to San Jose (the capital city of Costa Rica). The name of the Houston airport is the George Bush airport. I am not making this up. It's named in honour of the elder Bush who apparently is someone that Texas is proud of. Normally I thought someone had to be dead first before anything gets named in their honour but hey, this is Texas which is always a bit different. There's a statue of Bush senior looking very determined carrying a suitcase with his tie flying behind him and taking a firm stride forward. It's a very dramatic and heroic pose.

On the flight over to Costa Rica there's a group of teenagers on the plane all wearing identical T-shirts, saying "Score!". It turns out they are a bunch of sports missionaries. They'll be travelling around in Costa Rica playing various games like soccer, basketball and volleyball. Afterwards they'll then talk about Jesus...

Costa Rica Arrival

For the first two days in Costa Rica I spend them at a 3 star hotel located in downtown San Jose. I find the traffic and smog in San Jose to not be as bad Bangkok (thankfully) but worse than Montreal. If not an outright war there's at least a police action going on between pedestrians and drivers. The sidewalks are also cluttered with people selling various knick knacks and in general just getting in the way.

All the homes in San Jose have rebar bars around all their windows which reminds me of some parts of LA. But there's even more overt security than your standard American inner city. Banks are protected by armed guards standing outside with shotguns. Motorcycle cops are driving around with Uzzi sub-machine guns strapped to them. Even parking lots have uniformed security guards armed with clubs. All in all it makes a Canadian guy like me uneasy.

Walking around a bit in San Jose I discover that there are various rules enforced by the "powers that be". At one public square full of pigeons the guys selling corn to feed them are all grouped at one end and not allowed to pester people in the square, that's OK but also some cop tells me I can't sit on a ledge in this same park. Mindlessly enforcing moronic rules reminds me of Van-no-fun-couver.

There's some kind of taxi strike and demonstration by the Legislature buildings (which is right by the hotel I'm at) where someone with a megaphone is chanting something and then is repeated by the crowd. They are blocking all cabs carrying passengers and forcing them to pull over to protest the low fares they can charge on their meters. One cab didn't want to stop so it was surrounded by 50 hostile striking cab drivers rocking the car until finally the passenger gets out and the car is forced off to the side with the other cabs. The police are out there observing but not getting involved. Overhead a traffic/police helicopter is circling around. This is probably not one of the interesting events mentioned in Costa Rica's tourist propaganda but it does make for good street theatre.

The hotel I'm at is only a short walk away from where Rob Bell lives. (a former Nortle, who has escaped the mother ship and is now working full time for Youth Challenge at their San Jose office). He's just returned from a field trip to Nicaragua where he's trying to initiate some YCI projects in that country and is living a life of luxury, using all those embezzled FOG funds, living in a not too run down rental house, surrounded with rebar over all the windows. He's living with 3 Canadian women (all from Ontario) who also work/volunteer for Youth Challenge. Note that there are two bathrooms in this house. There's a glassless window connecting the outside back yard (which is all blocked up so it's not open to the world in general) to the inside of the house. The current home improvement project is to put up a net to keep the bats and bugs out.

Quepos and Manuel Antonio Park

After a few days of seeing the sights and delights of San Jose, I go for my first trip out of the city on the weekend with Rob. We had bought bus tickets in advance but after a late supper we end up with not much time to get to the bus station so I end up running after eating a big meal with a big heavy backpack in the rain, just barging down the busy crowded sidewalk and running sometimes on the road in traffic. We make the bus in time but it was not a fun way to start the trip out of the city.

We're off to visit Quepos which is a small town on the Pacific coast near a place where YCI had built some trails where Rob had been the group leader. On the long ride there we discuss a number of topics and I even manage to run out of things to say and stop going on in my standard scripted manner but actually have to stop and think a bit. Desirable traits in females, desirable traits in managers, desirable traits in female managers... The recent layoffs at Nortel are of course one major conversational topic, in particular the difference between the publicly crafted story and the rumours on the real reasons why this person was laid off while that one wasn't at our Richmond site. Rob admits to the role he has played in causing various people to be let go at the different organizations he's worked at. He's got a guilty conscience at the damage he has caused to various former co-workers. :-)

The next day is only a short bus ride to the Manuel Antonio park which is only 7 km away and has some nice beaches. As well there are trails going off to various locations. We take one to a waterfall which was quite refreshing since it was a hot day. There's lots of wild life at this park including an iguana which was stalking us at the beach, as well as some howler monkeys in the trees. It's unnerving to have a big lizard stalking you. It would go slowly and then freeze. It was probably interested in some mangos which we had to eat and would creep closer and closer to us from different directions but generally circling in from behind. We went down the trails to visit all the beaches, including the furthest one and we end up caught in in the afternoon monsoon rains which come down fairly heavy.

That night in Quepos we run into some people Rob knows from the time he was working on a local YCI project. Rob had called them up before and we were going to visit them next day. They live out of town but are in town to see a circus. We go to see the circus with Rob's friends and a good time was had, although I had an overdose of Ricky Martin music.

The next day we visit the same family at their home. Waiting at the bus station we run into some more people who Rob knows from his time working in the area. Rural bus service is different from what I'm used to. There's not much of a timetable, and if the bus needs to get more diesel fuel then it just stops in the middle of a run to fill up at a gas station.

I am not feeling too well, having lost appetite and the long bus ride back to San Jose through all the steep switch backs descending down made me nauseous. Driving in Costa Rica requires a strong stomach with the bus passing slow vehicles regardless of double yellow lines. Then after stopping to load/unload up some passengers the bus needs to re-pass the same vehicle as before...

Lake Arenal

The next day I travel on my own to the Lake Arenal area. This is a man made lake behind a hydro-electric dam near the Arenal volcano which is quite an active volcano. It regularly emits steam and ash and periodically has lava flowing down. This lake is suppossed to be one of the best places in the world to go windsurfing since it is nearly always windy at one particular section. On the ride out there I see a few windmill farms generating electricity which reminds me of parts of northern Germany by the Baltic Sea where I've seen the same sort of thing. I manage to change buses and ultimately take a taxi to a hotel called "La Ceiba" or "The Tree Lodge". A decent accomplishment since my Spanish is non-existent.

For the next 3 nights I just lounge around at this lodge. The highlight of this place is a 500 year old Ceiba tree. It's 60 meters high and I would estimate the radius of it's branches at 40 meters. It's on the side of a ridge and just dominates the surrounding area. There are a number of vines and whole other eco-system living in this tree. The old world has cathedrals while the new world has a few old growth trees that serve a similar purpose of being both spiritually uplifting and of such a scale it makes a person feel insignificant. There's no view of the volcano but there's a good lake view and a private little wildlife preserve with supposedly 80 different types of orchids. I just lie in a hammock near the tree and watch hummingbirds feed themselves on the various flowers while in some other trees howler monkeys are capering around. I rent a mountain bike and also did some jogging early in the morning but generally spend most of my time just reading in a hammock.

On the bus ride back to San Jose I had an "interesting" experience. My backpack was stored in the storage area of the bus. Rob has had 2 packs of his stolen and I know I should always keep an eye on my pack, but I feel a bit paranoid for doing so. Regardless though I move to where I can keep an eye on the storage area. Coming into San Jose (a 4 hour trip from Tilaran, which was about 2 hours from the lodge I was at, so I was tired and zoned out) some people get off the bus and the bus porter (not the driver but the guy who acts like a gopher collecting money from passengers and helping with loading/unloading) passes some cardboard boxes to a little old lady who just left the bus. Some other guy asks for a bag and the bus porter passes him a black bag. I'm not 100% alert but there was only one black bag stowed on the bus and it was mine. For about 2 seconds I'm just thinking, hmmm... that looks a lot like my pack.


I'm screaming and pointing at the bag. Even though I don't speak Spanish I get my message across. The bus porter chases the thief and I run to the front of the bus and get off to help with the chase. The miscreant runs behind the bus and across 6 lanes of traffic but decides that my bag is too heavy so he drops it. The chase lasted for all of 10 seconds and the porter returns the bag to me. One advantage to overpacking and carrying a bunch of heavy books around is to give a hernia to any jerk who steals my pack.

Corcovado National Park

After spending another night at Rob's place we travel that weekend out to Corcovado national park. It's again on the Pacific coast but further south almost at the border of Costa Rica and Panama. To take a bus out there would take 15 hours (distance is only 345 KM or so but you can't go fast on the roads) so we flew by small plane to a town called Puerto Jimenez. The plane can carry 14 people and it is full. We're right behind the pilot and co-pilot and can hear all the various alarms and warning beeps going off. They are spending a lot of time fiddling around with their GPS navigation system while we are descending rapidly to what looks like a tiny runway. The landing is a bit more aggressive than what I'm used to. For some reason they have a bunch of trees on both ends of the runway so we need to come in steep and deep.

From Puerto Jimenez it's 40 KM over a rural road in the back of a 4x4 pickup truck towards the park entrance. There are a few cattle ranches on this road but as we get closer to the park the more unused land there is and fewer signs of human development.

The end of the road is a small place called Carate. There's nothing there other than a small store. It's about another hour and half walk to the park entrance walking along the beach and the ranger station called "La Leona" where we will be setting up my tent for the first night. On the way to the park we see some Scarlet Macaw parrots flying which is a dramatic sight.

The next day we hike along the beach to the next ranger station called Sirena which is further along the coast. It's a 16 KM slog carrying some non-light backpacks. Walking in the sand can get tiring. Part of the way there's a trail off the beach in parallel to get past obstacles such as rock cliffs at the ocean. We only see 3 hikers coming back. As it is the rainy season there are not many people in the park. There are some streams and small rivers which we need to cross. There's very little garbage or signs of human activity in the park. Rob demonstrates how to remove the top of a coconut which was quite refreshing since otherwise all we have to drink is iodine purified water which we collect from the streams/rivers along the way. Trudging along the trail and beach with a heavy pack I periodically hear Heather's voice (a fitness instructor at Nortel) saying "Belly in, shoulders back!" and try not to slouch and have a good posture, but invariably I revert back to my standard slouch with the pack.

The wildlife is fantastic. I'm getting blase about seeing monkeys. As well we see anteaters and various tropical birds including hawks and pelicans as well as other colorful small birds. There's a snake on the trail. It slithers off so I didn't get a good look at it but it was a dark snake. There is a poisonous black snake which can leap for 1 1/2 times it's length Rob tells me. They're also territorial so try not to annoy it. Oh joy. From that point one I get a paranoid and periodically freeze when I suspect there's a snake ahead.

We get to the Sirena ranger station and there's a bunch of gringos camping there. There's a group of biologists doing research in the area and there's a collection of various fossils and bones. There are showers at this place which is quite welcome, however while in the shower another snake slithered in from above to take a look and then slithered away. I'm rather tense in taking a shower continually looking up to see if it will come back. At Sirena there is more wildlife including some agouti which is like a giant hamster. We take a little hike with no packs (it feels like I'm flying after taking off the heavy pack) to a nearby large river which we were warned has sharks and alligators at the mouth so take care when you cross.

We slog back the next day back to the park entrance and spend another night at La Leona. We had got caught along a cliff on the coast and waited an hour for the high tide to go down and let us get through without getting bashed in by a wave. In the opposite direction a crowd of people come through making us look like wimps so we chance it and get soaked feet but past the obstacle.

The next day is easy, we just need to catch the 8:30 "bus" (4x4 pickup) at Carate back to Puerto Jimenez and sunrise is at 5:00 AM so we have lots of time. We get up at 4:00 AM with the sun and have a leisurely hot breakfast at the ranger station (which we need to pay for). Pack up the tent and just lounge around since otherwise we will need to just wait at Carate which has very limited charm. At 6:30 a park ranger comes by and asks us why we're lounging around and whether we knew what time it was. My watch says 6:30. He says it's actually 7:30. Merde! No wonder the sun came up at 4:00 AM. Somehow I must have changed the time on my watch, probably at night when I fiddled around with its night light. We quickly finish packing up what's left and head off to Carate at a fast pace. It took us 40 minutes and we get there with about 10 minutes to spare. I'm not fond of running in a panic to meet some deadline because of a late start and this is the second time this trip. It's not good for your digestion worrying whether or not you'll make your connection. We get back to Puerto Jimenez and have a decent lunch and then catch our return flight back to San Jose.

Returning back

My final few days in Costa Rica were spent in San Jose. Rob and I had dinner with another former Nortle, Marcello "Demon" Vemon who now lives in San Jose. Marcello was originally from Costa Rica but had gone to school in BC. While working at Nortel he had been out at Birmingham in jolly olde England with me for a few weeks during the netWORKS 3.0 install at MCL (now known as Cable & Wireless). The people on that install have a bond together just as any grizzled old war veterans have a bond after surviving a traumatic battle... We catch up on gossip about who's still left at Nortel and where various people have gone. Marcello has gone over to the dark side and despite having a Computer Science degree has now almost completed his studies for an MBA specializing in finance. He's working looking after finances at his family's factory in San Jose. Things are going well for him and he is an exception to the rule that all BMW owners are jerks. :-)

Latest news from Nortel is another 10,000 layoffs on top of the earlier 20,000. I'm glad I'm not at work now since these kinds of announcements are never fun.

On the plane ride back to Houston I run into the same group of "sports missionaries". At Houston I see a passenger put a small dog in their carry on bag. They dog is whimpering and whining and trying to get out of the bag. They're on the same flight as me going back to Vancouver and had stowed their bag in the overhead compartment. Returning at Vancouver airport all the passengers need to pass their luggage through X-rays at customs after collecting it from the baggage carousel but I was called aside for "special attention". Basically a re-interview of what did you bring back (some coffee and a T-shirt) and where do I live/work etc. I pass the test and end up getting through quicker than the bulk of the passengers who weren't called aside since I don't even have my bags searched or X-rayed. I hope the person smuggling in her dog gets caught.

I was hoping the bus strike was over but found out it is still on so I took a cab home. My parents had looked after my place while I was gone and they had done some cleaning so I came home to a place that was cleaner than I had left it.

Further Reading


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