Tamarindo, Costa Rica
We were lucky to be in Tamarindo actually. It landed on the map because of it’s proximity to a variety of locations where upon various species of sea turtle would land, lay their eggs and return to the ocean. It would be a pretty special thing to see, so it was on our travel path for that reason. I’m diving obsessed at the moment so I’d marked Playa Samara, south of Tamarindo and Playa del Coco, north of Tamarindo due to their apparent great diving. Sure, turtles are great but .. I dunno, they look better underwater. Anyway so our process of elimination/rationalisation went something like this:
Tamarindo was called ‘Tamagringo’ for a reason. Theres some decent tourist infrastructure set up there. The Catalina Islands, renown for their diving are accessible from both Tamarindo and Playa del Coco. There’s not a lot in Play del Coco and the beach is **** (not my words). Samara’s ‘okay’. Beach is better in Tamarindo.
Another shuttle and we’re hurtling along the rough as bones roads along, up and down the landscape of the Pacific coast. It’s typically explosive green and full of wildlife and it’s only some 5 or so hours before we’re rolling past the hotels outside of town with giant Buddha’s out the front. ‘This must be it’ I thought. But soon enough we turned off the main drag and hit the dusty dirt road that lead 300m or so up to Pura Vida Hostel. A sweaty Slovakian bloke named ‘Thomas’ greets us in the common area, seated under the roof of what looks like a giant teepee, and shows us to our room. It’s pretty tiny, a bit claustrophobic and there’s simply a bit of cloth separating the room from the bathroom.
There’s a couple of things you start to look for regarding accommodation after traveling this long. Generally the amount of space and ventilation is important; but even more so in tropical climates; ‘do the windows have fly-screens?’ for example. But bathrooms are of particular concern and there’s a few notable elements that define this. Everywhere, and I mean everywhere in South and Central America you’re constantly reminded to use the basura .. bin .. for used toilet paper. It’s generally in very close proximity to the bowl and the sort of things you want to see here are; regularity of emptying.. we’ve had anywhere from daily to per 3 diam. The other thing you want is a lid on the top, this is to prevent unnecessary visual and olfactory perception. We had a 2 day rating here with no lid. Bearable but not ideal. In fact the only time in both South and Central America we haven’t seen the basura is at fincas .. or farms .. where they use naturally absorbent sawdust instead. Anyway enough of the bathroom speak.
All of sudden on the streets of Tamarindo we’re seeing these funky surfer types. Guys with oversized hats with glistening golden stickers on the peaks. Height of fashion singlets and boardies. I felt like a total poofer with my half length speedo shorts because there’s a definite surfer culture, both foreign and local. There’s your older vacationing types as well. The rent-a-beachchair-and-haggle-for-a-coco nut types. We’re more the scabby backpacker type; laying out filthy sarongs over hot sand, squeezing the very last drips out of our sunscreen bottles, reading books from hostel book exchanges. We unexpectedly don’t get hassled much by the tour operators. The tours are expensive here, our type probably don’t get on them much. And for the most part, we’re happy; the beach here is clean and broad, there’s a nice long, rolling beginners break and it’s nice to swim at. Of course there’s a drug culture here as well, and many of the local ‘surf instructors’ spend most of the days under their surf huts on the beach, passing joints and coughing.
The one tour we did get on was to see the Ridleys turtles at Playa Ostinal, some 2 and a half hours away by mini-van. ‘I like turtles!!’ this guys blurts out while getting on the bus, (open up YouTube if you’re not sure) and it’s funny; I’d forgotten about that. Some 20 minutes into the drive and the road changes to a rocky, dirty road and it stays like that for some 2 hours more. There’s a lot of complaints from the back despite the drivers over conservative effort to keep the bus as stationary as possible. The vans really comfortable, A/C climate controlled with a high-ceiling and ergo seats; so I can’t see what there is to complain about. Considering we left at 2:30pm odd, it’s near 5 by the time we get there. There’s a small coastal road and a small community it looks like, though hard to tell, through all the tourist vans.
We get out and gather around, people adjust their photographic equipment and theres a dozen or so people lining up to use the single bathroom that we need to wait for before we can get down to the beach. And by the time some people take, they must be bombing battleships if you know what I mean. Anyway, enough of the bathroom speak.
As we made our way over the black sand to the beach, there’s an stinky ‘cooking in the sun’ type smell and we nearly step right on top of one of 4 or so turtles in the immediate area that’s hopelessly flapping it’s fins around, trying to dig a pit in which it can lay it’s eggs. Our guide hustles everyone around to the the turtles rear where it’s plopping out globe shaped eggs. Everyone goes crazy, jostling for position, trying to get the best angle. Some wander over to other turtles that have yet to grab the attention of the hoards. A Venezuelan couple has one to themselves. The guy picks up an egg and holds it up next to his face with this awed clown expression. I look up and along the beach and theres probably a kilometer or so of this frivolity going on. There’s literally thousands of turtles coming in from the dusky waters to the beach, and a handful returning. But there’s also busloads of tourists behaving badly and nary a guide to stop them. It was heartbreaking to see turtles land on the shore, get their first glimpse of land, and the natives; pause for a second, then turn around and head back into the ocean.
‘Here, here… babies’ the guide says. In the disappearing light our group is lead over to 3 or 4 hatchlings flapping their way towards the water. People go crazy again and form a moving, hovering circle over the hatchlings, taking photos, stumbling over each other for the best shot. The hatchlings are the same colour as the sand, which in any other circumstance given the (actual) vultures circling overhead, would act to their advantage. But I’m just terrified given the lack of governance that the poor things are going to be trodden on, I can’t imagine how it hasn’t happened already.
So there we were, jaded travelers on a dusky beach, in awe at the magnitude of number of turtles emerging from the ocean to lay precious eggs to the sand, some 80 to 120. Of which only 1% will survive. But the magic and seemingly the chances of this species is squandered by the relentless and uncontrolled tourism in a country that promotes itself as eco-friendly. I wouldn’t believe it. So the experience is bitter sweet.
The ride home feels much longer but we did see a boa constrictor curled up in the middle of the road.
The next day, I go diving. A bus picks me up early, and I’m happy to find I’m going to diving with two German blokes; Ollie and Ullie (I know right…) we’d met the night before, with their Belgian friend whose name escapes me, let’s call him Ludolf.
‘Get much sleep?’ I asked. It had been a rowdy night, I hadn’t slept much as a result and these guys were staying the dorm so it can’t have been better.
‘Did you not hear our dorm’s story?’ Ollie asks me. So apparently one of the newly
checked-in Canadian guys staggers in at 2:30 or so in the morning and starts fumbling around the beds trying to find a vacant one. Then his starts ******* on it. Ollie reckon’s it’s his mate Ludolf and asks him what he’s doing, to no reply. The guys now ******* on this poor Swiss girls backpack and some other guys hiking shoes. No-ones doing anything in the dorm, and in fact the Swiss girl is saying to everyone ‘Don’t worry about it guys, let’s not bother the owners with it’. By now it’s apparent that it’s not Ludolf so the German guys reluctantly but not knowing otherwise what to do, take the Swiss girls advice. Some half an hour later Ludolf returns from the pub and goes to lay down on the now wet bed. Ullie screams at him not to from his bunk and there’s now an unavoidable issue. The Canadian guy is woken up and much to his horror, faces realisation. His friend tries to control his reaction. Soothing him, telling him to muster up, but the perpetrator is in tears, apologetic and insisting to the others that he’ll go to the doctor in the morning and ‘make sure everythings okay’. So the end result is there’s a clean-up operation, that now involves the delightful Slovakian owners. So the guys got no sleep. But enough of the bathroom speak.
Pacific Dive Center operates out of Playa Flamingo which is up the road 20 minutes or so on a much nicer, quieter beach front. We pick up some breakfast from a Panaderia .. bread shop .. along the way. I chose an extraordinary apricot strudel (in honor of my new friends). At the dive shop we run through the usual fittings, credential and experience check and we’re soon boarding the beautiful dive boat, a 20 something footer, with the head on the second deck and a huge amount of space on deck for divers. We motor out in the early morning sun into the Pacific and toward the rocky outcrops of the Isla Catalina’s in the distance. We get a dive briefing from the instructor and are told to expect a bit of a swell. 10 minutes later we’re rocking around like a cork in a washing machine.
It settles somewhat as we arrive at the islands, enough so that we can gear up and get in. The German guys and I descend with the Instructor, but there’s a guy finishing up his Open Water today and his partner who go down with a Dive Master to complete their exercises. The water is really murky, like you can’t see much more beyond your arm. It’s cold as well, and because I insisted on using a shorty wetsuit (based on the DM’s advice) I’m already feeling it. We hit the bottom at some 13 or so meters and the visibility has improved to 10 or so meters, but it’s washy, there’s a surge, it’s colder and darker. It’s mostly rocky as well, a bit of sand and some rock walls but that’s about it. There’s schools of jacks around and we ‘Ok’ check before following the instructor. Conditions don’t change much and I spend most of the first dive hugging myself to keep warm. But we do spot a juvenile white-tip reef shark, and then later an adult, agitatedly circling a sandy cove. It really is beautiful to see them like that, unprotected, in their environment. We see schools of whip rays as well as a speckled eagle ray which looks like a Manta ray as it flaps through the water. It’s tougher managing your air under the colder conditions, but I’m generally on par with everyone else as we ascend, make a safety stop and then hit the turbulent surface conditions suddenly.
I pack a fair bit of air into my BCD to keep me buoyant but I need to use the regulator to keep water out of my mouth. Thing is, the boats not there. The instructor looks around and puts up a float up, but we can’t see the boat beyond the swell. But then, a few minutes later, like a white stallion on the horizon, the boat crests some swell and plops down next to us. We stagger on board and some minutes later, the Open Water student, his partner and their DM surface. But he’s face down. Not sure why, the DM doesn’t seem too concerned but they throw him the life ring and she directs him to it. He puts his head above the water, they drag him in and he staggers on board, exhausted. He looks pale and seconds later is throwing his digested breakfast into the Pacific.
The next dive was along the lines, but less eventful, far less swell but also far less marine life. I spent the time between dives under the sun to warm up again (and work on my glistening tan).
Playa Tamarindo would be our last stop in Costa Rica, we’d tackle the border to Nicaragua the next day; throwing off the shackles of shuttle buses, we’d use local transport to take us. We were excited at the prospect of kind of hitting the ‘real’ Central America.