This week Costa Rica celebrates Dia de las Culturas, Cultural Day or Columbus Day as it is called in North America, marking the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ first journey to the Americas. It is a National Holiday.

It is a wonderful time to be in this little paradise, as every town has its own flair of celebration. Parades and people line the streets and centers of every pueblo, with marching bands, colored costumes and the local “beauty queen”.  Good times for all, and I highly recommend you stick around next year for it. As I have told you before, they LOVE to party in Latin America.

As with most of the New World, the Conquistadors brought pain and suffering, violence and disrespect, imprisonment and torture to the Native population along with an entire moving van full of diseases. Many of the local Indians succumbed to Measles and Small Pox as they had no natural immunity against them.  Sometimes I wonder if it is still going on LOL.

Costa Rica is one of the healthiest countries in the world. They actually have entire regions known as Blue Zones where many of the locals live to be well over 100 years old; Ten Times the average rate to be exact and the country has a higher life expectancy than most developed countries on the planet. Personally, I have never felt better in my life. I am eating better, breathing clean air, I have very little stress, no cold, no snow and I find myself walking more than I ever did back in the USA.

I am almost never sick and neither are any of my Tico friends. If I would quit drinking Pilsen I would lose that last 6 pounds and be fitter. Life is awesome. Yet every September and October, the North American Conquistadors, known as Gringo Tourists, from the Mason Dixon line all the way up through Canada, pile into the metal petri dishes known as airplanes, and bring down their bacteria.

They exit the flying lab containers coughing and sneezing, hacking and wheezing, passing their germs along to the locals. It seems like all of a sudden, everyone I know has a cold, and they are all thinking the same thing. STOP KILLING THE INDIANS! LOL.  I was just in New York City and Chicago, for a couple conferences. Almost every agent I talked to looked like death had warmed over, and I found myself wanting to wear a surgical mask to protect myself; I have never used so much hand sanitizer in my life.

It was hilarious, because dozens of people all seemed to be concerned about whether or not Costa Rica had Zika, while they stood their barking up a lung, sniffling back their stopped up noses, and wiping their red puffy eyes. So I did a little research on line.

New York has 858 cases of Zika at this exact moment.

Florida has 826.

Even Chicago Illinois has 75.

There are almost 4,000 cases in the United States and 26,000 YES 26 THOUSAND in Puerto Rico.

Costa Rica just now exceeded 100. I was way more concerned with catching the flu while visiting the USA than I am about getting Zika in paradise. By the way, Canada had 44,000 confirmed cases of flu last year, and 3,000 West Nile viruses reported in the last decade. Man, it was great to get back home to the warm sun and the crashing waves and NO WEST NILE LOL.

So many people come to Costa Rica to relax, as it truly is a stress free environment.  I hear all the time that my clients are tired of hanging on so tight, fighting the daily fight, killing themselves to get by. I recently had a client in my car, who told me he was just doing some fact gathering as he planned to retire and buy in 10 years. TEN YEARS ???? There will be nothing left in 5 at the rate we are going, and if there is it will be so expensive you might not be able to own it.

I am here to tell you my friends; you have to pick yourself up off the ground, and get your act together!  Do you really want to live in that meat grinder for that many more years?  You only live once people, Dear God.  When are you going to wake up and smell the Costa Rican coffee?  Make a plan, and get the hell out of dodge. Pura Vida is calling. Come join the thousands of us that figured it out. Just leave your strep throats, watery eyes and bronchitis behind.

When I first opened my office, I had a secretary named Liliana. Her boyfriend at the time Bernal, now her husband, was just starting his tour company TICO TOURS. It was just him, and his one van, and he personally drove the clients on their daily excursions. A decade later, he has one of the largest companies in Guanacaste, with a half a dozen brand new air conditioned vans and a dozen drivers. I love a success story.

Check out their website, they are the ONLY Company I refer people to. Tico Tours Guanacate

Many afternoons, back in the day, Bernal would come to the office to pick up Liliana and he would always come up to my desk to say hello. One day, he sticks his head in. “Mike. You have to go on the Palo Verde River Tour with me; it is the coolest trip ever.” What makes it so cool? “You go on this boat, out into the jungle and see all kinds of Crocodiles and birds.” How fast does the boat go? “It goes really slow, and just creeps along the river.”

Now this is where the adrenaline junkie in me kicks in, as I used to race boats for a hobby at over 90 mph. Why on God’s green earth would I want to go on a slow boat Bernal? I would rather eat glass than float down a river. “Well the food they serve at lunch, is the best food you will EVER eat” he declares. Bernal; I have lived in some of the finest cities in North America, New York, LA, Miami, Dallas; and I have traveled all over the world. I promise you this cannot be the best food I have ever eaten.  

This conversation continued for a couple years, until finally, after being beaten down to the ground, I gave in. Go ahead and mark this date in your memory bank, as you will rarely hear me admit it; I was wrong; Dead Wrong. It was, and still is, one of my all-time favorite ways to spend a day. Bernal was SO RIGHT! Let me tell you how it goes.

We set out at about 8 am and headed east through the little town of Filadelphia, Guanacaste. As you exit the town, you come to a dirt road that seems to just go on forever. The day before, I had bought my brand new 2017 Toyota Hilux Pick-up Truck, and the best way to break in a vehicle with less than 50 km on the odometer is to beat the living crap out of it for 45 minutes on a muddy, pot holed road.

Every time I find myself bouncing down a river bed, I think of an old 80s Swedish rock band called D.A.D. They had a swinging tune called, Down the Dusty Third World Road, and that is exactly where we found ourselves this fabulous Monday morning. Google them, they are still touring Europe and have some fantastic shows and songs.

The drive there is very scenic, as you meander through miles of Sugar Cane fields and pineapple farms, and the occasional 2 horse town, both tied to the front of the local watering hole. The entire trip you can see the Costa Rican mountain range in the distance, with half a dozen of our iconic volcanoes. One of the more common landmarks in this part of the country, are Monstrously Huge Guanacaste trees, many times smack dab in the middle of the road.

There is no Bing Translation for Guanacaste, as it isn’t a Spanish word. It is an old Indian word, meaning Elephant Ear Tree. You see these incredible creatures grow to be 100-150 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter and their fruit is a brown hard pod object, which is shaped exactly like a large elephant ear; Hence the name. It is the National Tree of Costa Rica, so it is protected. It is a crime to cut one down, which is why they build the road AROUND the tree, but when they die of natural causes, their wood is a very valuable commodity. Many a gorgeous door or table has been crafted from their trunks.

We stopped at the Palo Verde Boat Tour office to pay for our rides, and then proceeded deeper into the Cipanci National Wildlife Refuge. Palo Verde Boat Tours

As you get further and further into the jungle, you find yourself thinking of the original Conquistadors and wondering what they must have had to endure as they traveled through this part of the world, staking claim to the land. Incredible! It is hard to explain in words, how dense and completely overgrown this area is, and many times my truck had water up to its doors as we worked our way to the river. The Refuge is 3500 Hectares or approximately 9000 acres, and is home to over 750 species of plants, and hundreds, maybe thousands, of birds, animals, fish and reptiles. This is one SERIOUS jungle people and we are still only a short driving distance from the beach.

As you come to the gathering area, you must pay a small fee to the Park Ranger to be allowed on to the river. By the way, since I am a Permanent Resident of Costa Rica, in other words a Tico, I paid substantially less for my river trip and park entrance, than the nice couple from California who rode along with us on the boat; Reason number 347 to get serious about getting your residency.

We had experienced some torrential rain the couple days before, as this is October, and the river was at maximum height. Huge trees and all kinds of flotsam and jetsam were lined up like a Denver traffic jam, working their way down stream and out to the sea. The Tempisque River starts at the Orosi Volcano and is 144 km long. It empties out into the Gulf of Nicoya at the bottom of the Guanacaste peninsula and was historically used to float logs down to the sea. The indigenous Indians coined the name TWO WAY RIVER, as it actually flows backwards, when the ocean experiences high tide.

There was a little floating dock with a shallow bottom boat at the end, as the river is famous for sand bars and other obstacles that can beach a normal craft. You do NOT want to have to swim to the shore of this river, as you will find out shortly. We boarded the barge and it slowly started plodding up the river. It reminded me of an old movie I used to watch with my dad, African Queen, with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Grrrr ruggg gugg gugg chugga lugg gugg gugg. Brrr runggg gunggg gungg guggga lunggg gungg gungg. We crept along the shores, dodging trees the size of school buses as they floated past.

“There!!!” the driver shouted out. “See it? Right there!!!” he pointed somewhere in the distance. Now, I couldn’t see a thing but bushes and jungle, trees and plants, it all looked like one big green oil painting to me. “OVER THERE” he yelled, and he grabbed a little mirror from his pocket. As he reflected the sun into a spot in the jungle, you could just barely make out some kind of bird, way off in the distance. “It is a Blue Heron” he tells us, and the entire boat stares at each other in total disbelief. How the hell did he see that thing, while still driving the boat through a mind field of debris?

“Look, over here” he yells pointing the other way, and our heads turn on a swivel like a bobble head doll. It was some other kind of bird, half way around the earth, and he shined his magic light again. It might as well have been on the moon it was so far away, yet he spotted it with ease. I am telling you, this went on for half an hour. I was desperately trying to see something BEFORE Mr. Hawk Eyes did, but I didn’t have a prayer. This guy could spot an iguana at 100 meters, even though it can change colors to blend in with its surroundings. Obviously, the Blue Zone also means Bionic Vision.

Every couple of minutes he would scope out another bird or animal. Certain times of year, you can even see the famous Scarlett Macaws, the colorful parrots that might appear on the shoulder of a pirate. One time he pulled the boat right into a mangrove and walked to the front of the bow. He snapped off a piece of a plant, and gave it to everyone to smell; Cinnamon; Crazy. Then he took his rope and threw it up in the air, and about 40 bats start whipping through the boat, freaking everybody out. They were sound asleep on the dark side of a tree limb, again, only to be seen by Colonel Steve Austin, the $6 Million man.

On one of my other trips, we saw the largest Boa Constrictor just hanging from a tree, waiting for its prey. The captain told us that there are of course, hundreds of snakes in this jungle, many of them deathly poisonous, and I found myself really glad I was floating on this slow boat, and not hiking through the forest on a walking expedition.

Out of nowhere, they were on us. There must have been 12 or 15 of them, and they just literally consumed the boat. Little white faced monkeys were everywhere, hanging from the rafters, swinging from the beams, checking out the invaders. They are actually very friendly little dudes, and sometimes if you are lucky enough they will sit on your shoulder long enough to take a photo. They stayed around for only a minute or so, and then POOF:  back to the darkness they went. It was like something out of an explorer movie. SO COOL!!!

We then proceeded to go down a small finger in the river to a very quiet little cove and he turned the motor off. Within minutes, you could see the eyes. Two at a time, plopping up out of the muck, as the eyelids rolled back into their heads. As you scanned the water behind them, you could finally make out the end of their tails, 15-20 feet away; CROCODILES dude; serious man eating crocodiles. Costa Rica has some of the largest crocs in the Western hemisphere and these guys are massive, weighing up to 880 lbs and unfortunately, they have attacked and killed people.

A good general rule; stay out of the river, and don’t surf or swim where the mouth meets the ocean. We floated for about 15 minutes, just sitting and staring in awe. You can’t begin to really understand how massive these guys are, until you are in a hull just a few feet away. It was at this time, that I was really glad that we had a boat, that WOULDN’T get stuck in the sand bar, as I had no desire to get out and push. We started up once again, and moved further down the river, and into another mangrove.

 
Our captain again reached out into the bush, and cupped his hand around something. “Abra su mano” he told a gal on the boat, and she opened her hand for the man. He placed this small grasshopper into her palm and you have never heard a screech quite like this as she threw the beast back into the marsh. That is, unless you were with me a few years earlier.

Costa Rica has these VERY large grasshoppers called locusts. They are about 6 inches long, and have the wing span of a small bird and probably weigh about half a pound. They have these horribly ugly eyes on the top of their head, and this funky mouth thing going on that makes them look like something out of a horror movie. They are uglier than sin, but harmless to anything that isn’t a plant.

My friend and I were having lunch at this little beach side restaurant many years ago, when one landed on my shoulder. Of course, I had no idea it was there and continued with my fish tacos. Now, what do you think my buddy did? Did he reach over and shoe it away? No. Did he say “Mike, don’t freak out, but there is a big grasshopper on your shoulder?” NO. He just pointed at my shoulder, and obviously I had no idea what he was looking at. So I turned my head to the side. And there, right in front of my face, was this diabolical alien creature about ready to eat my ear. I COMPLETELY FREAKED! Scream like a little girl FREAKED! Every bottle, and every plate as well as the table went flying, and every person for half a block saw me. Aren’t friends great? Who needs enemies when you have pals like this?

When we returned to the dock, it wasn’t there anymore. It seems a mammoth tree came barreling down the river, and took it out, like the New York Giants defensive line against the Patriots in the Super Bowls. HMMMMM. Remember the crocs? I was definitely not up for a swim nor a waist deep wade, but our captain came through again. He found a small clearing in the jungle where he could pull the front of the boat right up to the shore. We had to move quickly and scamper from the bow but we all jumped and made it alive, no one falling back into the abyss.

We returned to the base camp office, and cleaned up for lunch. You could smell the aroma before you even got to the restaurant, as it seemed to float down the street, torturing the neighbors. We were served one of the most amazing meals you could ever imagine. The fajita style beef and chicken, had been grilled over an open fire, and you could taste the smoky meat before it even got to your mouth; so tender.

The black beans had probably been stewing in a pot for days, hanging above a wood log fire in a big black kettle pot, and they were served over white rice: positively delicious as the flavor exploded onto your taste buds. There were bowls of plantains and yucca, and homemade tortillas that literally just fell apart in your hands, they were so fresh. I washed it all back with a cold Pilsen and I sat there rubbing my belly in bliss. Bernal was totally right: this is the greatest food on the earth, just as I had remembered it from the last time. Sorry Paris France, you ain’t got nothing on this chef.

Hope to see you soon.

Pura Vida!

Michael

P.S. If you want a little extracurricular activity after the tour, drive to a little town called Guatil. Every person in the town is a pottery maker, and you can watch them spin their magic right in front of your eyes. They have some of the most gorgeous pots and bowls; they make excellent gifts or decorations. There is even a UPS location there to make it easy to ship home. Support your local Indians; just don’t sneeze on them.

 

Crocodile Rock Costa Rica Style

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