Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Searching for Turtles in Playa Grande - Travels in Costa Rica (Part 5)

March 12, 2012
The 7:00am bus to Tamarindo pulls into the Liberia station at 8:03. Oh well, at least we didn’t miss it or get on the wrong bus. We get off when the bus stops near Witch’s Rock Surf Camp, mainly because I remember Matt and Jessica telling us about it. I have no idea where in Tamarindo I am, but at least I know I’m there. (I’m getting tired of these bus stop guessing games. In Liberia I learned, one stop too late, that the stop before the bus station would have been a much shorter walk to our hotel.) We decide to walk in the same direction that the bus drove away. Tamarindo has a strong tourist feel - the streets are lined with souvenir shops, hotels, restaurants, and foreigners. It’s not as crowded as I expected, though, so that’s good. We’re starving, so we grab lunch at a restaurant on the edge of the beach. And that’s about all the time we feel like spending in this town.

The quickest and cheapest way to reach Playa Grande is by water taxi, so of course this is how we travel. It’s a ten second ride in a tiny boat from one beach to another (they are separated by a narrow ribbon of water too deep to just walk across). 

Once on the other side of the estuary, it’s about a 1.5 kilometer walk along the beach to Las Tortugas Hotel. There are bunches of pretty shells strewn along the shore, and we’re constantly stooping down to pick one up (there nothing graceful about bending down with a heavy pack strapped to your back). I poke one of the shells I notice with my toe, ready to add it to my growing collection, only to find a snail attached! Of course, I leave the snail on the beach; there are plenty of other shells to find. Upon closer inspection, I notice many shells moving slowly through the sand, a snail hidden beneath each one. There are lots - LOTS - of spiral shells (I unofficially name them unicorn horns) scattered across the sand. Collecting shells is a nice way to pass the time and keep my mind off the increasingly heavier backpack I’m lugging. We eventually reach the hotel, and it’s amazing. It’s literally right on the beach, separated only by a thin line of trees.

We spend the remaining daylight on the beach. Walking along, we get to see our first wild monkey! It’s a black howler monkey hanging out in a tree growing in the yard of one of the vacation homes lining the beach. It, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to care much about us, barely even glancing in our direction. Still, I’m excited. 

Sitting on the sand, we watch a gorgeous sunset, see the sky turn pink across the horizon as the sun slowly dips lower and lower until it can’t be seen. In the dusky light, we walk into town, only to discover there isn’t much of a town: a few restaurants, a bar, a tiny convenience store, and a surf shop, that’s it. I’m told that the nearest grocery store is a thirty minute walk away. This is truly a sleepy beach town.

March 13, 2012
At 4:40am the alarm jolts me awake, and I wipe sleep from my bleary eyes. The Playa Grande beach is a nesting site for the giant leatherback sea turtles. It’s past the most active part of the season, but there’s a chance we’ll see a hatchling making the journey to its ocean home. We walk along in near darkness, the moon our only light. The air is warm and carries a sweet scent, almost like fresh hay. The sky is a faded blue, with just a hint of dawn on the eastern horizon. I scan the beach. Dark holes and rocks and driftwood take on the shape of a tiny turtle, but I know they’re not. Even though my mind wants to believe. The sky behind the brush grows lighter and whiter. The stars disappear, and only the moon remains. It is silent except for the collapsing of waves. We turn around and retrace our steps. We walk until the birds take wing and call out that it’s morning. No turtle, but a sunrise walk along an empty beach doesn’t need a turtle sighting to make it good. It’s more than good enough on its own. A turtle would only make it better. :)
We walk to the grocery store along a dirt road bordered on both sides by undeveloped land. This is much better, I think, than a sidewalk lined with shops, as it would be in Tamarindo. Some people like to travel to places that feel like home, I guess. Maybe they feel safe and comfortable surrounded by people and places they understand (and understand them, their language). Or maybe they just like home that much. To me, that lacks the essence, the reason, for being somewhere else. It’s missing the point. Yes, at times it’s confusing, and frustrating, and even to your disliking, but it’s worth it. It’s worth the struggle to experience a completely different reality, to be somewhere wholly new. To be a part of other’s lives, not just a bystander. Not a little bite - a whole mouthful. At least, that’s how I feel. Unfortunately, that’s proving to be a little tricky in Costa Rica, where the main industry is tourism. There are places I wanted to see in Costa Rica, like this beautiful coastline along the Nicoya Peninsula, where it’s difficult to completely escape home, the familiar, but I’m sure going to try. And Playa Grande is definitely more of an escape than Tamarindo, even though they’re only minutes apart.
The grocery store turns out to be a tiny convenience store in Palm Beach Estates, full of hotels and vacation homes. Where do these people buy food? I wonder. (I later learn that if you have a car, it’s not a far drive to another town with a grocery store.) Instead of taking the street, we walk back on the beach, barefoot and with a cool breeze. Snails are out and about, too, drawing squiggly lines in the sand. I can’t resist collecting more shells. 

Back at our hotel, we change into our swimsuits and lay on the beach, where we discover the cool breeze also blows sand into your ears and mouth. Not so relaxing. Chairs by the pool are better, and we bake in the intense, tropical sun (slathered in sunscreen, of course).
In the late afternoon, we return to the beach. I carry a towel and book; Nick carries a surfboard. Other than the sea turtles, we also came to Playa Grande for the surf. Travelers and locals alike descend upon the beach at dawn and dusk, when the waves are bigger here due to the tide. I watch Nick paddle out, watch him duck under the breaking waves, then ride the gentle swells further out. He is a little black dot, disappearing and reappearing as the water rises and falls. I keep a close eye on him, track his movement, his point of entry on the surf. Then I lose him. I don’t know which head bobbing in the distance is his. What if one of the head’s isn’t his? The question grips me suddenly. What if one of the strong rip tides I keep hearing about pulled him out to sea, what if he is gone? My questions are irrational, fears based in the unknown. But I wonder why I didn’t kiss him and tell him I love him before he left. Why I treated his leaving so casually, when life is so fragile and anything can happen, accidents happen all the time, moments change everything. I try to reason my way through panicky emotions, calm myself with logic, but the worry sits in me, and I stare intently, desperately, at the silhouetted surfers and try to find him. It’s not until I see his broad shoulders, recognize the line of his back, that I’m able to relax. He is safe, he is here. I watch Nick float on the waves, and a renewed appreciation for life, and the people in my life, floats in me.

March 14, 2012
We are on the beach even earlier this morning. The air is cool and smells like sea salt today. White crabs scuttle across the sand on their spindly legs. “Poco tortuga,” I call out in a sing-song voice, but no baby turtles emerge. The walk is so nice sometimes I even forget I’m supposed to be looking for turtles.Clouds the color of pink cotton candy announce the arrival of morning. 

Out at the pool, a howler monkey comes to play. Actually, I think he really comes to eat. He is friends with the man that sits in the parking lot; I assume this friendship is based solely on the fact that the man feeds him mangos. I know I shouldn’t reach out to a wild animal, but I do anyway. He grabs onto my hand with his two little black hands, long fingers wrapping around my fingers. It is a gentle but firm grip, and I’m careful not to let him tug my hand too close to the rows of sharp teeth he displays. I feed him pieces of mango and watch him tear away the flesh with his teeth, then daintily wipe his mouth and face when his is finished. He releases his tail’s grip on the branch and is on the ground, and we are looking at each other. Suddenly, he is coming toward me! With all four paws, he takes a couple steps toward me, then stops. Then another couple quick steps. I am not about to fully engage with a wild monkey. Shaking hands is one thing; grappling is another. He is making growling sounds now, and I am backing up more quickly. Abandoning any bond we may have shared, I don’t hesitate to tattle to his friend, who sternly tells him, “No,” and I make a hasty escape. I think I am done playing with monkeys for today.

We go to the beach and see another beautiful sunset, then clean up for dinner. Mmmm, it is our first really good meal in Costa Rica, enjoyed in a lovely outdoor dining area surrounded by twinkling lights. A very nice end to the day. In fact, today is my favorite day in Costa Rica so far (and quite possibly may be my favorite of all). On the walk back the sky is the blackest black, distant stars bright pricks in the night, even further stars a glowing smudge.

March 15, 2012
I’m up before dawn for my last turtle search. The beach is empty, calm, peaceful. Morning advances slowly, patiently. The sight of sea birds flying low over the water, with a hazy pink and purple sky behind them, is gorgeous. I find three little sand dollars today. I walk until the sun is fully above the horizon and the crabs have gone to wait for twilight in their murky little holes. No turtles. But it’s hard to be disappointed when the walk itself is otherwise perfect. I have a little time before catching the bus, and I spend it in the hammock, enjoying every last moment in this lovely place.

Las Tortugas Hotel
If traveling by water taxi from Tamarindo, walk about 1.5 km on Playa Grande beach to marker #7. There is a little pathway to a gate that is the entrance to the hotel property. The path is maybe ten feet; you are that close to the beach! You walk into the backyard, and it’s a tropical oasis. There’s a large shade structure with hammocks hanging from the edges and tables and chairs in the middle. A sunny pool is surrounded by lounge chairs, and it has a small, shallow area (probably intended for kids, but I thought it was great for sitting). Separate in its own corner, there is a jacuzzi. Everywhere is lush trees and hibiscus plants. It’s a gorgeous outdoor area; in fact, it’s my favorite of everywhere we stayed. Our room had a comfortable bed, warm showers, and air conditioning (a great amenity on the hot coast). I loved staying here, but a couple things would have made it even better: a hotel restaurant that had better food and prices, and a grocery store within walking distance. If you’re interested in surfing, the hotel has some surfboards for rent.

El Vaquero (Tamarindo)
The restaurant is right next to Witch’s Rock Surf Camp (it’s actually owned by the same expatriates). It’s all outdoor seating, at wooden tables with thatched umbrellas that are right at the beach’s edge (which is mainly why we chose to eat here). We share nachos (they forgot the cheese, but we didn’t bother asking for any), grilled sweet corn on the cob, and pork ribs that come with salad and mashed potatos. The food’s good and reasonably priced. The service is good, too. FYI: They don’t start serving their lunch menu until noon.

Las Tortugas Hotel Restaurant
We eat dinner at the hotel’s restaurant one night, on a deck overlooking the beach, a candle on our table. It’s rather romantic, actually. We get a salad with grilled chicken, a cheeseburger, and two margaritas each. The food is good - our plates are empty at the end of dinner - but nothing special. The cost of our meal is $42.00. Food is definitely not any cheaper in Costa Rica. (We did pay $18 for just the drinks. They have Happy Hour every night from 5:00 - 6:30, two margaritas for the price of one, but they are over $9 each.)

El Huerto Mediterranean Restaurante and Pizzeria
This restaurant is a short walk from the Las Tortugas Hotel, and it’s where we eat our first really good meal in Costa Rica. As a bonus, it’s also reasonably priced! We’re served a complimentary plate of potato omelet in a tasty sauce. We share a huge salad of lettuce wedges covered in fried garlic and shredded parmesan, with a balsamic reduction drizzled on top - it’s my favorite part of dinner. Then we have a Hawaiian pizza cooked in a wood oven; it was good, but I thought the cheese had a rubbery consistency. Not one to pass up homemade dessert, we share a delicious bread pudding with pistachio sauce. A complimentary shot of limoncello liqueur is also brought to our table. It is a good meal in a lovely outdoor dining area, with wooden tables and chairs and twinkling lights. 

The only place to buy food within walking distance of the hotel is a tiny convenience store that sells drinks and packaged snacks. So, pick up groceries in Tamarindo, unless you’re okay eating only at restaurants and/or snacks from the convenience store. If you have a car, I heard there’s a town with a grocery store not too far away.

Surfing & Lessons (Tamarindo)
I had no desire to take surf lessons, or to stay in Tamarindo, but I heard this is a great place to learn because of the small, consistent breaks. If you’re just looking to surf some good waves, they can take you by boat to the famous Witch’s Rock.

Go sightseeing for giant leatherback turtles laying eggs or the babies crawling to the ocean
The beach of Playa Grande forms part of the National Park Las Baulas which protects Costa Rica's most important nesting site of leatherback sea turtles. Nesting season for the leatherbacks is from October to March. For a chance to view the turtles at night, you must take a tour with a guide. The tours are offered October 20th - February 15th. Speak to the hotel staff for reservations. When I visited in March, there’s a possibility you might see a hatchling at dawn (you aren’t allowed on the beach until 5:00am), but I didn’t see one.

A water taxi is the quickest and cheapest way to travel between Tamarindo and Playa Grande. (There are no buses between the two places, so your only other option is a car taxi.) For $1 one way, you get a ten-second boat ride from one side of the estuary to the other. The water taxis run from about 8am to 4pm, and they wait at the river’s mouth (travel right from Witch’s Rock Surf Camp). You can’t see the boats from the top of the beach, but you’ll see them once you get closer to the water. If you don’t want to take the bus all the way to Tamarindo, another option is to get off in Huacas (coming from Liberia) and take a taxi to your hotel for about $14. From the Liberia airport, you also might be able to get shuttle service for a reasonable price.

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