La Palma is a small settlement about 40 minutes north of Puerto Jimenez. Another public bus got us there – we are like old hands now! We were met at the bus stop outside the Panaderia and taken to the church where we were welcomed by “El Pastor” and a host of other members of the community. Our accommodation was so much better than we had expected – well, we hadn’t really known what to expect as communication on the phone had been so difficult! In fact, we had been all ready to camp for a week and cook on our trangias. In the end we had the use of a kitchen with pots, pans, plates etc and the girls slept in the school room albeit on a concrete floor, but it was relatively cool. Howie and I, on the other hand, had to sleep in our tents! The hard baked grass was just as hard as the concrete and we had no shade so the heat was almost unbearable!
Nobody in the community really spoke any English so it was great for me to practise my Spanish but that also meant that it took away some of the ownership from the girls. However, they tried hard and certainly improved their Spanish as the week went on. We were a little surprised at first when we had a meeting with “El Pastor” (he remained “El Pastor” as we never found out his real name – everyone in the community calls him “Pastor” even his family!) and the ladies who were the organisers of the community. They asked us what we wanted to do! We said that we were here to do whatever they wanted. They were very keen to take us places, meet the rest of the community, join in with community events and share their culture. It didn’t seem to leave a lot of room for working! We stressed that we felt our first priority was to complete the work they wanted us to do but we were also very happy to join in with community events.
It was ridiculously hot in La Palma – it doesn’t have the protection of the jungle around it like Puerto Jimenez and it is dead flat so the sun burns down and there is little in the way of shade. At 4pm in the afternoon it was starting to cool down but it was still over 30C. The pattern of the days was set – rise early, start work at 7am, work until midday and then rest until 4pm before doing another couple of hours. Except that New Year’s Day was a public holiday so it was suggested we didn’t work at all, and Sunday was a day of rest so definitely no work! In the event we did work New Year’s Day because we were awake and had nothing else to do! It was definitely too hot to stay in the tents and the girls were hungry so they emerged at 6am despite being up late the night before. Work started at 7am the sun was too hot to work in by 9am so we left the walls that were in full sun and went back to them later!
New Year’s Eve – our first day of work. Our aim was to paint the Sunday School Classroom outside and inside. It was a concrete building with metal bars on the upper half and metal sliding doors. We had anti-corrosive paint for the metal parts, sealant for the walls and then coloured paint to go over the top. The plan was to do two coats of sealant and anti-corrosive paint and then two coats of colour. It was a big building so it was no mean feat. We also had four picnic tables to assemble and paint. However, there were 13 of us. The girls had decided to have two people each day on kitchen duty who would focus on planning and cooking meals and then clearing up afterwards. They also needed to go shopping for extra supplies. So eleven people working for 7 hours a day = 77 man (or girl) hours per day times by 4 and that is a lot of time. It didn’t take long for the first coat to be done – about three hours! Dio girls are fast and efficient workers! And they did a good job too. Fortunately, the paint was water based so it was relatively easy to paint with and easy to clean the brushes too after each session.
We had been invited to the New Year’s Eve festivities in the church. It was to be a sharing of gifts and “El Pastor” asked us if we would like to share something with the community. Of course we would! Kick off at 7pm – seemed a little early but we were cleaned up and ready by the appointed time. All day there had been music blaring out of the boom boxes in the church and a host of teenagers had been in and out of the church practising something! We hoped that our chapel songs, waiata and the national anthem, would be okay!
New Year’s Eve in La Palma is an evening we will not forget in a long time! I don’t think I have seen such passion to such an extent before. “El Pastor” is a showman, but he is clearly well-loved and respected in the community. The congregation responded enthusiastically to his cries of “Who welcomes The Lord into their hearts?”, “Say yes if you welcome the Lord!”. He spoke directly to individuals, making everyone feel special. It reminded me of the American evangelists we used to see on the TV back in the 80s. After that warm up, there were prayers and a bible reading. He had asked if one of our girls would like to read and Charlotte was keen. She did really well reading from her very small pocket bible in English as he read the equivalent in Spanish especially since he had chosen a reading that had some quite complicated names of biblical places!
Then he picked up his electric guitar and the singing commenced. The happiest, clappiest songs you have ever heard. Everyone danced, clapped and sang along with gusto. The whole church was alive to “Halleluias”, you just couldn’t help but get pulled along with the joy and celebration. It has been widely suggested that singing and especially singing in a group leads to the release of serotonin and dopamine which are associated with pleasure and satisfaction. The joy that we witnessed in that little church in La Palma was surely evidence of that. The singing and the praying and the dancing went on. One after another members of the congregation came up to pray or to read. The ladies of the community sang, the men sang, the young people sang. They also performed some interpretive dance – enacting the temptations the devil puts in the way of us to keep us from God but how God’s love is strong enough to withstand and keep us strong. All very powerful stuff! One of the things the girls reflected on later was that nobody seemed embarrassed about their faith as they might be in New Zealand. All were happy to express their beliefs and celebrate with each other. Then it was our turn. We had prepared 8 songs, we had no accompaniment, just 12 females singing so for a few minutes the noise level came right down. We felt very nervous but once we started singing we were fine. We started with the National Anthem for which everyone stood then we sang a few of the girls’ favourite songs from chapel at school. There was some recognition when we started Amazing Grace and on the more upbeat songs they clapped along with us. It was but a small offering in the five hours we were in the church that evening but it was well-received and we felt that we had done our bit.
Despite the passion we did start to flag – we had been up since 5am and there were more than a few of us fighting to keep our eyes open! At 11pm, El Pastor started counting down – prayer by prayer! He started on a prayer of thanks that went on for 25 minutes and included pretty much everything he could possibly think of to give thanks for including practically all parts of his body! Members of the community were invited again to come up and pray. Finally in the last five minutes family groups came together and held hands, we stood together as a family that we had become over the last 3 weeks and more thanks were given for families and the events of 2014 and a blessing for 2015. At midnight fireworks rang out all around and everyone embraced. We were warmly included in the hugs and best wishes.
We camped on this stunning beach after our trek. Camp fire and roast marshmallows were the highlight. So picturesque I couldn’t help taking photos so that’s all you’re getting!
It is 5am on Christmas Day and I have been awoken, partly because I need to go to the loo, but the sky is lightening and the birds are singing. The Howler monkeys are not so loud here as they were in Puerto Jimenez but maybe they are just drowned out by the medley of birdsong. I have tried to record it on my phone but the result doesn’t really do justice to the beauty and clarity of the sounds that are all around me. Apparently more than 100 birds have been recorded in this small peninsula in Costa Rica and judging by the myriad calls I am listening to I think they are all singing now!
I am staying in a tent hung in a wooden platform which I hope is snake proof but suspect is not. Snakes are my only real fear. Insects are a nuisance especially in the evening as the sun goes down but apart from reacting to the bites with large red weals as I do, they are mostly harmless. The mosquitos here do not carry malaria and we have seen little sign of any anyway. Javier told us that Costa Rica has only just recently been declared malaria free. There are bats in the toilet behind my sleeping quarters which fly hurriedly out of the window when I unzip the door. I have to wipe the guano from the toilet seat before sitting down (TMI, sorry!)
I am looking out immediately onto shrubs and with brightly coloured leaves and flowers in what seems to be a well planted garden surrounded by the tall trees of the jungle. A hint of steam rising from the tops of the trees gives an ethereal feel and, at this time of day, the temperature is deliciously cool. As the birds awake a new song joins the throng and others fade away. Few birds can be seen but every now and then tiny little yellow and green birds flit across my vision, then a flash of brilliant red and high up I see the silhouette of macaws accompanied by their raucous screech. A pair of brilliant red, green and b;lack birds have just flown noisily across right in front of me and landed in a tree opposite, and then a pair of black with almost fluorescent red wings birds whizzed by too!
Christmas Day is the hump day on our trip – the exact midpoint and it could be a difficult one for some who are more than a little homesick. However, they are pulling together and supporting each other and all very excited for Secret Santa and the prospects of the day.
Today’s walk gave us the opportunity to look around us and enjoy the scenery and learn about the plants and animals we could see. It was a 10km circular walk around the lodge, just a day pack, some snacks and water. This evening I tried to write down as much as I could remember of what Randall told us but couldn’t get all of it. So, for our reflection I asked the girls to all tell us something that they learned today. What a wondrous thing crowdsourcing memories is! Here are the facts in no particular order. This website gives some additional information.
The Ceiba Tree – this is a sacred tree to the Mayans who believe that the Gods live high up in the branches and the long vines that hang down to the ground are the connection to the underworld. The roots are deep and give life to the tree and to the people. The sharp spines that cover the trunk help protect the tree from the Strangulator trees as do the colonies of fire ants that seemed to be hosted by the tree that we saw. They can grow up to 200ft tall and are often the only trees to be spared when a forest is cut down. The canopy of the tree is home to epiphytes which also provide space for myriad animals, insects and other plants to exist.
The Surá Tree – this tree is tall and has very smooth bark. Randall told us that it is a special tree for the Mayans and mythology says that in the beginning there was only land. When the tree grew too tall the monkeys chewed the trunk until it fell over. It created such a large space in the forest that the ocean formed in the space it created. I can find no literature about this on the internet but it is clear that many civilisations believe that trees are the givers of life and connect heaven and earth or the spirits and the people.
Strangulator Tree (Higueron) – this actually starts life out as an epiphyte and is a member of the fig family. The seeds are dropped by birds in the tops of trees and the vines that grow from them reach down to the ground where they take root and thicken. As they thicken the light is taken away from the host tree and it gradually dies.
The “Naked Indian” Tree – this tree obviously has a botanical name but because of its red peeling bark Ticos call it the Naked Indian tree. Randall told us that the it is the bark where photosynthesis occurs in this tree. The blog to which I have linked the name of this tree also describes the multiplicity of uses this tree has.
The Walking Tree – so the story goes that the mini trunks that look like splayed roots on these trees actually “walk” in search of light to help the tree grow. But this could easily be a popular story that guides tell trekkers just because…well, they can! Who knows?
Waramu Tree – well, I can’t find this tree on the internet using this name so maybe I misunderstood the name. Anyway, there is a photo so someone may recognise it. He said that this is a tree that the sloths like as the leaves are tasty. It is hollow and so when the trees are young they were young they were used by the Mayans to make pipes. It also has a symbiosis with ants – they live in the hollow part and if the tree is attacked they swarm out and defend the tree.
Vaco Tree – this tree is called the milk tree or the cow tree and produces a white milk like sap that seems to be high in iron. It is used in medicines to treat anaemia. Randall also told us that the wood is used for building and so many of these trees were cut down by the Conquistadors.
A plant the name of which I can’t remember but which Randall called the jungle man’s friend. Just like the New Zealand Bushman’s friend, this large soft leaf can be used when you are caught short in the jungle. But its uses don’t stop there; it can also be used as sun shade if draped over your head, folded over the back of your neck it has cooling properties, if you break the stem and chew on it, it will numb your mouth so it has been used as an anaelgesic and crushed and rubbed onto the skin it acts as an insect repellent.
Havillo – this tree can grow tall like the Ceiba but when small it has sharp thorns all over it. These were used by the Mayans as poison darts; once they took them off the tree they would stick them in poison dart frog to get the poison. The sap of the tree is also poisonous.
Golden Orb Spider – the female is much larger than the male which is to the left in the image. They are not harmful to humans and the webs are so strong that research is going on to see if scientists can reproduce the silk to use to make bullet proof vests.
- If you kick an anthill, the warrior ants come out to protect the queen.
- Big ants were used by Mayans as sutures on wounds.
- Leaf cutter ants release an acid that kills the vegetation in their path to clear the way.
Butterflies – we saw so many beautiful butterflies while we were in Costa Rica. The beautiful Blue Morpho flashed by often, rarely settling long enough to get a photo, brilliant green and gold and red butterflies and the stunning Owl Butterfly.
Our trek was to take us from Puerto Jimenez on one side of the Peninsula del Osa to Carate on the other. 42km in 4 days. Doesn’t sound too bad, eh? Add in temperatures at around 30C and humidity of 90% and “Costa Rican flat” (aka up and down – just look at the contour lines!) through jungle and rivers and you start to get an idea. Oh! And we were carrying tents, stoves, safety gear and food for 5 days for 13 people. This was meant to be a challenge and a challenge it was. For me, it wasn’t so much the walking with a pack. I have done that plenty of times and for much further. It was the heat and the humidity that I found hard. Constantly sweating, constantly having to replace fluid and trying to keep cool. The many river crossings were, in fact, a blessing as it gave us a chance to cool our feet down and splash our faces with water. Although we had wet feet for 5 days which wasn’t so great.
But I wouldn’t swap the experience for anything. The wildlife we saw, the shared challenges, the sense of fulfilment and just being in such amazing surroundings – the sights, the smells, the sounds.
Day one was our entrance walk, mainly on 4WD track from Puerto Jimenez and crossing the Rio Nuevo several times, we walked 13.5km into a lodge situated at the confluence of two rivers at the edge of the jungle. Someone, I think, had had the bright idea a few years ago, probably a few years too early for the tourist boom, to build a “jungle paradise” with a central cabin with a wood stove and space to hang out, and a range of cabins that sleep between 2 and 6 people on wooden bunks. It never really took off but the cabins remain, a little dilapidated but still functional and a warden still manages the site and keeps the place maintained. For us it was a haven. The river provided us with a great swimming spot to cool off and we didn’t have to get out our tents or trangias. Having a fire to cook on was a luxury.
The high note of the day was seeing squirrel monkeys in the trees. These were our 4th species of monkey this trip. They are very cute and surprisingly happy to sit as we took photos. We also met our first (of many) leaf cutter ants which are everywhere! These amazing ants carry more than their body weight in leaf to their colonies where it moulds and then is broken down as food. The acid that the deposit as they walk kills all other vegetation and leaves empty brown pathways that, according to Randal, can get so big that trekkers follow them thinking they are trails!
Christmas Day saw Secret Santa visit and we excitedly opened the presents we had been given and watched as the presents we had bought were opened. It was a time of reflection and I know there had been a few tears shed in the privacy of dorm rooms as the girls thought about what their families were doing. But it was also a time of excitement of what was to come. We had an easy day ahead of us; a 10km circular walk without our huge packs to explore the immediate environs of the lodge. Randal is a biologist and today was a real treat as we had time to stop and appreciate the world around us. He told us all about the different trees, animals and insects as we climbed to a high point where we could see across the jungle canopy. In one direction was the gulf and in the other the peak we would climb the next day to get across to the Pacific Ocean. (see next blog for details of the wildlife)
Day 3 was our big day; only a short 10km walk but the steepest climb and as we headed deeper into the jungle the terrain was more unforgiving. The “hill” was advertised as being “hard”. It was only just over 400m high but one group had allegedly taken 12 hours to complete the 10km with 3 hours spent climbing the hill! Randall was confident that we were better than that and could do it in around 8 hours but we still had an early start at 6am – just in case! Challenge on! There was lots of “Costa Rican flat” which meant “up, up, down, up, down, down, up…….” We ended up doing the big hill in half an hour! Result!
Lunch was at a small waterfall and getting there after the hill seemed like forever as we made our way over the seemingly never-ending, undulating “Costa Rican flat”. I think we had been so hyped up for the hill and after making it to the top with relative ease we thought it was all over and were a little low on moral and energy! Never mind, only 2 hours after lunch and we were at the goldminers’ camp in the Quebrada Piedras Blancas. All in we had made it in seven and a half hours. Not bad at all!
Day 4 was supposed to be an easy one. A 7.30am start and we would be at the beach by lunchtime. It was not to be. We had a medical crisis to start off with: Randal had fallen into a low blood sugar unconsciousness in the early morning. We had thought he was just asleep and then that he was fooling around pretending to be asleep and that when the girls were all ready to go and that he would just jump up. Leidy, the assistant guide had seen him up and about at 5am so thought the same thing. At 7.30am he was still snoring, we got all the girls to shout from below the balcony to wake him but there was no response. We then called his name and shook him but there was still no response.
Nor did he respond to pain.
Something was wrong.
Leidy suddenly realised what it was and went to get some sugar sweets from his bag. I had been going through the possibilities of why a seemingly very fit and healthy man would be unresponsive and was just coming to the conclusion that diabetes might be the problem. Leidy reaching for sweets confirmed that. However, she said that he wasn’t diabetic he was just susceptible to low blood sugar. Same thing, I thought, but he didn’t have insulin. To cut a long story short, we started trying to get sugar into his system and after about half an hour he started to respond, we could open his mouth and his swallow reflex returned. It took another hour before we could have any sort of intelligible conversation with him and it was clear that he was not going to be able to lead us out of the jungle. Interestingly, the first words he said were in English and so I had to translate for Leidy! He said afterwards that as soon as he came round he felt that he had full brain functionality, recognised that Leidy and I were treating him and knew exactly what he wanted to say but just couldn’t make his mouth work!
After consultation with Javier, the trekking company owner, Roy, one of the goldminers who was also an experienced trekker and knew the way out well, was to lead us out and Javier would send in some more trekking guides to meet us, assist us on a steep downhill section and then help Randall out. In the meantime, Lisbet, Roy’s wife stayed and continued to feed Randall carbohydrate and sugar until he stabilised.
It was 9.30am before we set off. The girls had been extremely patient and understanding as we had kept them informed with what was going on. Howie had also contacted the World Challenge Ops room. The first part of the trek was along the river, criss-crossing as we went.
The goldminers’ basic shelters of wooden poles and a tarpaulin were dotted along the river where they had cleared the bank of vegetation and flattened out the ground. The river beds too had been modified to encourage the flow of water and the washing down of the gold deposits after the rainy season. Goldmining was a booming trade of Costa Rica (the name means “Rich Coast”) but nowadays the gold is pretty much all gone and there are only a few Oreros (Goldminers) grinding out a living. They are there, according to Randall and Javier, because their families have always been there and they don’t really know anything else. Mining in the Corcovado National Park is illegal but these guys roam the rivers just outside the Park and if they do venture just inside they are more or less ignored. Their eco-footprint is small compared to ours; they may alter the river bed and leave some waste behind by burying or burning plastic, tin cans and bottles but they live a very simple life – no electricity, wood fires, travel by horse, kill the meat they need and use edible plants from the forest to supplement the monthly trips to “civilisation” for basic supplies.
There was some suggestion that the oreros were to be feared or at least people of whom we should be wary. People who live their lives away from the civilised norms of society, in the past criminals and people on the wrong side of the law would make their way to remote areas to seek their fortunes. Often the men stay in the jungle for weeks on end whilst the women live in the villages so the camps do not have the calming influence of females. However, Randal and Javier have a good relationship with the oreros at the camp/village where we stayed and certainly Roy and Lisbet who we met were very friendly and the half dozen other men we saw panning for gold in the shallow rivers waved hello and smiled in response to our greetings.
Roy cleared away the overhanging branches so we could walk under the fallen trees that balanced precariously across the river and cut back the undergrowth to reveal the path beneath. We had crossed into the Corcovado National Park and this was rainforest as you imagine it to be. Lush, green, thickly overgrown. The path had clearly not been walked for a while; it was very overgrown, fallen trees and vines and deep mud made the going slow and awkward. Roy cut footholds in the fallen tree trunks slippery with moss with his machete as we headed upwards. It seems that Lava Tours are the only group that do this trek and it is one specially designed for World Challenge Groups so it really was a path less travelled. Leidy took up Randal’s calls of “watch out for snakes” as we went. Snakes were the one thing that Randal feared in the jungle and since he was an experienced jungle man we could only respect his fear and advice to watch where we put our feet and be careful about what we grabbed hold of!
Once we left the river we climbed quite steeply until we reached the highest point of our trek at 510m. We paused for a few minutes to catch our breath and peer through the thick trees at the view. More trees! We could just make out that we were on a summit, we could see other ridge lines and there was a sense that we were high up but the vegetation was so dense and the steam rising from the ground as the rain fell steadily made visibility poor. There was a stillness in the air and when the rain started and the mist rose it was all quite ethereal with the vines draped over the trees and the calls of the birds seemed to echo through the stillness. Even the happy chatter of the girls had fallen silent. Anticipating our trek back in NZ I had worried about being wet the whole time in a rain forest and how I would cope with that. It had rained in the evenings and during the night but this was the first rain that we had come across whilst walking. It was actually quite refreshing although I am sure that we might not have thought so if it had rained the whole time!
On a more open stretch walking along a ridge we heard a commotion high above us in the trees and a huge branch came falling onto the path right in front of us. Looking up at the noise we could see cappuccino monkeys having a rare old time. “Angry monkeys”, said Roy, “keep walking fast”. Apparently when the monkeys are angry they are very violent and will break off branches and throw them down as well as throwing pooh and sticks and fruit! Maybe it was the rain and the wind that was disturbing them or maybe it was us but they certainly seemed agitated bouncing on the branches and screeching and running and swinging between the trees.
Suddenly there was a cry of “Randal’s here!”. And sure enough, there he was as right as rain! He came through the group to greet Leidy who was delighted to see him. He gave us both a big hug and said thank you for saving his life. There were an emotional few minutes, the girls too were delighted to see him and spirits rose considerably. We had just been joined from the other end by another of the trekking guides and soon after Javier arrived with another. So we had ample assistance as we made our way down the quite treacherous downhill section that was a slippery web of roots, thick mud and steep steps.
Lunch was at another waterfall but this one was amazing. Only short but a fearful force dropping into a pool about waist deep. Perfect for pounding sore shoulders. We were all happy by this stage to just stand under the water fully clothed to cool ourselves down knowing that a) it wasn’t far now to the end and b) it was so hot that clothes dried quickly and wet clothes helped to keep us cool.
The last section was beautiful. We came out of the jungle and into the steep sided gorge of the Rio Carate with tumbling waters and mini rapids. None more than knee deep so we picked our way down the river, hopping over the stone strewn river bed or wading through the water. All too soon we arrived at Carate and the Pacific Ocean. Final group photos and (tearful) goodbyes. It had been an emotional day, we were all tired and there had been some low moments when it had been hard to keep spirits up as we plodded through mud and slipped on roots and clambered over huge tree trunks, trudged uphill and negotiated the downs. However, there was a huge sense of achievement and huge relief at making it all together with Randal with us at the end.
Puerto Jimenez is an interesting little place. We arrived around 4pm and were immediately pounced upon by locals trying to lure us to their accommodation, treks, tours, lodges. We managed to send one packing when we realised that his accommodation was way out of town but took up the offer of another who had hung back initially. If we hadn’t been so travel weary we might have had greater presence of mind to ignore his offers too and head into town to explore further. However, there were thirteen of us with large packs and we were hot and tired and the only place to sit and wait while a team went off to scope the place out was the side of the road. Javier, the in-country agent had suggested that there were some hostels just round the corner from the bus station and that seemed to be where the old guy was taking us so we succumbed. A hostel was found that would accommodate all 13 of us together for a price that fitted our budget. The Hospedaje Fanny Lu was basic. That’s it. Basic but clean. And there was wifi.
Our very first impressions were that PJ is a launching pad for adventurers in search of wildlife and a taste of the jungle; there seemed to be little there but guest houses and Jungle tour offices. But as we walked out to eat we saw that there was more and as we explored this morning the bustling little town grew on me. It reminds me a bit of small settlements along Golden Bay or up in the Coromandel where the young and hip made their home 30 years ago looking for an escape from city living and never left. Squeezed in amongst the everyday shops that provide the necessities for living and the offices advertising the best, the most adventurous, the chance to see the most wildlife jungle tours are shops selling arts and crafts, jewellery and hair braiding, all locally made and run by aforesaid ageing hippies.
There are also heaps of places to eat all sorts of food. Of course, the staple is Gallo Pinto and always the cheapest and most filling option. But the restaurants that line the waterfront offer fresh fish which I for one could not resist, as well as nachos, quesadillas, spaghetti and real Italian pizzas. The port of Puerto Jimenez used to be a busy one before the road took the place of the ship as a means of getting produce across the gulf. Boats still head over to Golfito where the nearest hospital is but it is more of a leisure marina now with yachts berthed in the harbour. Families bathe in the shallow, warm water, flying fish are flashes of silver as they skim the surface and small seabirds dive and swoop to catch the flying fish as they jump. On the day after our trek we cooled off in the water before eating in one of the seaside restaurants, treating ourselves as a reward for our efforts.
PJ is also the stomping ground of the goldminers who pan for gold in the rivers in the Osa Peninsula. Not in the Corcovado National Park as that is forbidden but very close to the edge of it! They come into town every month to sell their gleanings and swap it for a different sort of gold! The numerous bars are a testament to their presence.
Reactions to San Jose were mixed. Some of the girls loved the excitement and the bustle of a big city others found the Americanisation too much. Personally, I dislike the overarching control that global organisations like Coca Cola and MacDonald’s have in developing countries such as Costa Rica. However, that is not the fault of the Costa Ricans; they are sucked into the promises and the glitz that these companies bring in just the same way as the rest of the world. Scratch beneath the veneer of the main streets – La Avenida Central and La Calle Central – walk a few blocks away, and the poverty is evident. The homeless litter the doorways amidst the rubbish and the decay of the buildings. The smell of the sewers and the waste is pungent and, as we walked through the streets to get to the bus station to pay for our tickets to Puerto Jimenez, the girls that were with us were visibly upset. Not so different from other big cities around the world – the wealth and shininess is but a mask for what lies beneath. However, when most of us visit Auckland it is for the shopping or the theatre and we see no more than the surface of the city, the part that wants to show itself off to the world. The poverty is there if you look for it.
But the central part of San Jose is vibrant, the parks and the squares hum with people shopping, working, eating, drinking, socialising. The centre is pedestrianised so the challenge of dodging cars in a city centre is minimised. There is smile and an “Hola” (or “Pura Vida”) on everyone’s lips and although I held on tight to my bag and was conscious of keeping myself safe, I didn’t feel threatened at all as I walked around. What we did notice was the very strong police presence; there were towers on most of the corners with police manning them and pairs of police either walked or cycled around the city.
Our plan for the day changed when the white water rafting company failed to pick us up at 6am as arranged. Some miscommunication and incorrect information meant that they had cancelled our booking. We were disappointed but looked for the silver lining in the cloud and made the most of a day to explore a Central American capital city. We also managed to change our dollars into Colones and buy Costa Rican sim cards so that we could communicate with each other and safely let the girls explore in small groups.
I have noted over the years of taking students away that their comfort zones are a factor in keeping themselves safe. Rarely do they go far from where they feel comfortable. Those who felt totally overwhelmed by the size and noise and bustle of the city stayed to the main street we had walked along together from the hostel. Others ventured a little further afield exploring down the side streets for a little way before turning back to familiar ground. Once they had eaten, they made their way back to the hostel and then went the other way to a large park we had discussed visiting earlier. They were prompt at checking in regularly via text message to assure us that they were all fine and tell us where they were going next.
It was the girls who were most unnerved by the city centre who made their way to the park. It marked a turning point in their impression of San Jose. Whereas the centre for them was alien, impersonal and scary, the park which was full of families playing football together on a sunny Sunday afternoon, or riding horses or feeding the ducks or going on pedalos around the lake, provided them with the reassurance that this was a city with real people who had real lives. I too enjoyed a walk around the park which was littered with interesting sculptures. Some were a little the worse for wear but indicative of a city’s desire to develop cultural heritage.
They also visited the museum of Costa Rican life that I disappointingly arrived too late for and loved it. One girl said that she had thought that San Jose was devoid of any culture until she went to the museum and learned the history of the country and the city.
But our stay was short and the next day we were up bright and early and on a bus bound for Puerto Jimenez. Eight hours to gaze at the magnificent scenery, doze, and gaze again. We climbed high in the hills surrounding San Jose and then seemed to follow the range which forms the backbone of Costa Rica southwards before cutting across westwards to the Osa Peninsula.