domingo, 21 de junio de 2009

South through Paradise

Quepos. Manuel Antonio. Drake’s Bay. Puerto Jiminez. Golfito. The names rolled off my tongue as I contemplated our next stops. Only Puerto Jiminez would be new to me, yet I looked forward to every one in its own way. But, lurking above the rest, was the paradise of Drake’s Bay. Though I had only visited it for a short time previous I looked upon it as my favorite place in Costa Rica, if not the world. Before arriving there we had a couple stops to make—warm-ups to the beauty we would surely experience once more.
Quepos is a dirty little town that seems to be stuck in a transitional phase. The once bustling banana export port has yet to turn herself into a tourist Mecca, so for the moment poverty reigns and all appears decrepit and worn out. On my previous visit here the first person I’d met ashore was the local gun-toting drug dealer, and while watching a splendid sunset he’d told me all about the ins and outs of the local drug trade, and how abundant drug use was in the town. It wasn’t the greatest introduction to a new port, and I kept this in mind as Avventura came to anchor in the rolly roadstead north of the old wharf.
My previous experiences in Quepos kept me aboard Avventura through the first night and into the next morning. With the arrival of daylight I was up and loaded into the dinghy to explore the vast expanse of beaching leading northwest from town in search of surf. When I realized there were nothing but beachbreak peaks spread along the shore I returned to the boat, grabbed my board, and paddled in to the tiny waves forming off the rivermouth fronting Quepos. Here, with the patch of anchored boats just offshore, a little left reeled through with as perfect form as a wave can get. It was a longboarders heaven, and I spent a few hours surfing the miniature version of perfection with nobody else out.
Aside from this fun little wave there is little of attraction in Quepos for the cruiser. The anchorage is wide open to the elements and rolly in the best of conditions, and the main use of the town these days is as a jumping-off point to the Manuel Antonio National Park, but for the cruiser there is a vastly superior anchorage in Manuel Antonio itself. Quepos does have its share of modern conveniences such as grocery stores to provision, internet cafes, and ample restaurants and souvenir stands; but during my visit I spent but a couple hours ashore and that was more than enough to chase me on to Manuel Antonio.
On approach to Manuel Antonio I couldn’t help but think of the mythical Garden of Eden. The hillsides surrounding the bay are covered in dense green vegetation and a long swath of sand separates the deep green from the sapphire sea. Offshore a few islets dot the scene ranging from guano-covered rocks to miniature forested paradises. The islets force one to be cautious on approach, but once you have tucked in behind the southeast point of the bay you feel like you’re on another planet compared to Quepos. All is quiet but for the sounds of nature. Bird calls mingle together with the cries of monkeys and the rumble of surf ashore. The cacophony of sounds blends with the sweet perfume of the forest and sweeps you off into another world.
Manuel Antonio if one of the more popular of Costa Rica’s many national parks. Numerous trails wind through the dense forest of the area and wildlife is abundant. Just a couple hours ashore brings you face to face with two different species of monkeys, a handful of sloths hanging from tree limbs high above, and if you’re lucky you may spot a toucan or two in addition to the scarlet macaws gliding through the air. Tour guides lead their busloads of foreigners through the park each day, and only by tagging along with one of the group was I able to spot my first sloth. The animals looked nothing like I had imagined, hanging from their tail and appearing to be big balls of fur with mean black faces. Once I had been shown my first sloth I prided myself in being able to spot them easily, and after a couple hours ashore I’d spotted half a dozen, all dangling from high limbs and appearing at one with the tree. At one point a troop of monkeys descended low in the trees overhanging a path, and seemed to be mocking the tourists below. People would back away in fear as the monkeys cried out and threatened advance, but they never left their tree limbs, and hung above our heads in perfect photo range. All the while the scent of the forest was thick in the air. A sweet, musty perfume of indefinable scent found in rainforests throughout the world which immediately thrust you into the beauty of the scene.
The anchorage at Manuel Antonio, though far superior to Quepos, was squite uncomfortable. In the corner of the bay the swells seemed to bounce off the point and create a backwash that set Avventura to constantly rocking. But during daylight hours I was rarely on board, and after months of travel I was well used to a rough night’s sleep. With dawn came the time to surf, and the beach at the base of the bay provided the perfect place for the beginner to learn. The water was clear and inviting and the waves rolled through consistently and, after a steep drop, crumbled into your typical beachbreak.
My stay at Manuel Antonio was made all the more enjoyable by the presence of another boat, the gorgeous Hylas 49 Creola. Her owners, Bill and Linda, were a couple fantastic people and our first night at the anchorage they invited Ryan and I over for dinner. We accepted and I was thrilled at the prospect of a good home-cooked meal for a change. Linda is quite the chef and turned out a gourmet pesto pasta dish served alongside a nice salad and some tasty homemade bread. It was clear the couple cruised in a manner far above my means, and I was grateful they’d invited us over for a night of their way of life. Over wine at dinner we exchanged stories and afterwards they taught us how to play “Mexican Train” dominoes. Before we knew it the clock struck eleven and an enjoyable evening came to a close.
I could spend a month and more anchored in the pristine setting of Manuel Antonio, but Drake’s Bay loomed large on the horizon and I could hardly wait to return to that paradise. Thus, after two short nights at anchor, Ryan and I determined to carry on southward, motoring along the pristine pacific coastline full of rainforest and lacking in people or places to anchor. Just after noon I was standing in the cockpit, watching and cursing our fishless lures when I saw a fin break the surface and strike the lure. Dorado dinner! We had finally broken our Costa Rican curse and caught our first edible fish in her placid waters.
Ten hours of motoring was needed to cover the fifty miles between anchorages, but with the late afternoon sun pounding down and beads of sweat dripping from me, I guided us into Bahia Drake and dropped anchor far offshore in twenty-five feet of a sand bottom. After an absence of three and a half years I had returned to paradise. With the engine off the sounds of nature filled the air and the cries of the jungles beckoned me ashore.

How does one describe paradise? That certain place of pristine beauty; of nature unadulterated where the pura vida spirit flows and fills all that visit it. This has oft been the curse of the writer. Pure beauty doesn’t lend itself to mere words. Our language isn’t colorful enough or rich enough to capture the essence of nature. So when I say Drake’s Bay was indescribably beautiful you, my dear reader, will have to take my word for it and thing of that certain special place of yours and how hard it would be to describe to a soul far removed from it.
On my previous visit to Drake’s Bay I had a mere hours to explore my environs before Captain Blye ordered his crew back to the ship. Thus, in the back of my mind, I wondered whether the bay would live up to the place I remembered so fondly. Would the wildlife be as abundant? Would the beaches be as deserted? Would people be as scarce? I was skeptical, for a place never lives up to the hype the second time around, but still I was determined to find out. Ryan and I quickly launched the dinghy and landed it towards the west end of the long beach.
In minutes we were traversing the same path I had followed years earlier, past the quaint cottage I remembered, over a small bridge once covered by a roof of palm fronds but not open to the elements, and on down by the first “wilderness resort.” Vibrant flowers ignited the ground and the scent of the forest began to fill the air. We circled around the wilderness resort and soon came to the old drawbridge spanning the Rio Agujas. The river’s banks were swelling with the fruits of the rainy season, and the gentle trickle of before was transformed into a steady flow. The same dull green water led upstream, piercing the thick rainforest. Towering trees shot up from its banks and the call of birds pierced the still air.
Across the drawbridge the forest closed in around us and the path became narrow. The air grew heavy and you could feel the humidity start to climb. A familiar squeal broke through the monotonous hum of insects. Up in the trees above a troop of white-faced monos leaped about, hopping from tree to tree and crying out with glee. A short walk brought us to a paved path leading off in two directions. We turned left and passed La Paloma Lodge, a new wilderness resort with surveillance cameras trained on the path. Beyond the beautiful lodge a small wooden sign pointed down a cinderblock staircase to the “Beach,” so Ryan and I followed it. The cinderblock stairs gave way to the damp earth once more, and at the base of the hills we emerged through a familiar shading of trees onto the gorgeous Playa Cocolito.
If you were to be dropped from the sky in the middle of Playa Cocolito you likely wouldn’t appreciate its beauty. The tiny beach is guarded by dense forest and a small stream marks its western boundary. The sand is an unspectacular light brown color and is coarse like sandpaper underfoot. But when approached from the land via the forest path, the beach is like a little oasis, perfect in every way. Her sands lead out to the inviting blue of the Pacific where small waves crash ashore in bitchin shorebreak. A few sparse coco palms jet out from the sand in the west corner, behind which snakes the gentle stream. And up on a grassy area behind the beach a little shack has been built and a couple Ticos were in the process of welding together a steel panga. I threw a wave to the boatbuilders and bolted for the sea. The water was the perfect temperature, and peering shoreward, the land transformed into a mass of thick forest. Scarlet macaws soared in the blue skies above the trees, and the Ticos watched as I swam for and plunged down the face of my first wave. Paradise!

Later that afternoon, after having returned to Avventura, I grabbed my surfboard and paddled to the west point of the bay. Entering the Rio Agujas, I stroked upstream past the two wilderness resorts, plowed on past the drawbridge, and carried on against the quickening current. The forest closed in around me and the cacophony of sounds filled in—insects, monkeys and macaws and the flowing river all meshed together with the heavy-scented air and I was transported to another world. Nature was at her finest, and the cares of the world were faraway, like a bad dream from a couple days before. A pair of scarlet macaws followed the stream overhead and disappeared around a bend. I paused to watch a troop of monkeys n the trees bordering the north bank, but the current swept me downstream and forced me to carry on.
When I reached the next bend in the river a series of rapids began, forcing me to leave my board on the rivers bank and carry on by foot. The rapids continued, slowly ascending into the forest and the sound of the rushing water drowned out all else. When the bank became impassable I leaped into the rapids and slid downstream, feeling my way across the rocky stretches and eventually washing up beside my board. I retrieved it, laid on my back, and floated downstream watching the activity of the forest overhead. I couldn’t help but think of Disneyland’s Jungle River Cruise in the days of my youth. As a kid that felt like the real thing; but now I was learning what a far cry it truly was.
By the time I reached the drawbridge I was paddling once more. A Tico was standing on the dock of one wilderness resort and wave me over. He asked if I had seen the crocodile yet. Crocodile? Here? No! “Oh yes, he lives here and usually hangs out near the entrance. I thought for sure you must know of him.”
“A dios mio!” I exclaimed, and paddled like mad back to Avventura. The next day I returned to the wilderness resort on foot and, sure enough, a crowd of people was watching the crocodile stalk the banks at the river entrance.

Bahia Drake is a long daysail from the nearest safe anchorage in the rainy season. To the south extends the big hulk of the sparsely-populated Peninsula de Osa, over 100,000 acres of which form Costa Rica’s second largest national park, Corcovado National Park. The trip to the south and east around the peninsula takes you along miles of endless uninhabited and unexplored coastline. At times the forest terminates right at the waters edge, other times white sand beaches run for miles without a soul on them, and then again there are stretches of steep cliffs bordering the sea, off which plunge little waterfalls into the sea. Wind is a rarity in this area, and aside from the possibility of a seabreeze the route is often undertaken by powering—a grim prospect under the heat of the sub-tropic sun.
Nine hours after leaving Drake’s Bay in the predawn silence Avventura rounded Cabo Matapalo and entered the Golfo Dulce (Sweet Gulf). The entrance to the gulf is lined on either shoreline by famous surfbreaks (Cabo Matapalo has a series of right-hand pointbreaks while Pavones, on the east shore of the gulf has a world-famous left-hand pointbreak), and the gulf itself is teeming with life. Whales can oft be spotted spouting in its calm waters, dolphins cruise the surface searching for food, and fish are plentiful. The shorelines are lined with more thick vegetation held away from the gulf by long swaths of sandy beaches.
Ten miles up the west coast of the Sweet Gulf lies Puerto Jiminez. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more strange, out-of-place town than this. It all starts with the roadstead anchorage offshore where a shelf plunges down from twenty feet to over seventy-five feet deep. When you do make it ashore you feel as though you’ve been transported into an early twentieth century western. Dusty dirt roads separate drab rows of low houses. The main street is lined with shops and restaurants all with the same dull appearance. And on the soccer field at the beginning of town a handful of horses pass the day grazing. Meanwhile a continuous procession of scarlet macaws circle overhead squawking and bickering amongst themselves. But perhaps most out-of-place of all is the delicious Mexican food restaurant in town.
Puerto Jiminez mostly serves as a jumping-off point for travelers bound for the Cocovado, and thus sports a number of hostels and cheap hotels, and boasts a small airstrip. For me it was a jumping-off anchorage for the surf town of Pavones. Leaving at dawn the next day, Ryan and I motored across the Sweet Gulf, landing a twenty pound dorado in the process, and dropped anchor in the channel beside the lefts of Pavones. The seafloor was strewn with rocks and finding a spot where the anchor would hold was difficult, but once it was set I was quick to grab my board and paddle for the lineup. The surf was small, but my first wave cleared my mind of all dryrot and waves of ecstasy swept over me. A handful of fun waves followed before the southwest seabreeze started affecting the surf and Ryan and I returned to Avventura.
The anchorage beside Pavones was too exposed to the elements for me to trust, so we soon picked up anchor and set sail with the breeze, bound for Golfito, up the east side of the gulf. Moments after setting sail I spotted a whale spout off to starboard about a half mile away. I pointed it out to Ryan and watched as it moved progressively closer. We seemed to be on a collision course. When it was a hundred yards away I could see the shape of the baby whale cruising through the water, still heading right for us. My heart sank in my chest as I worried about what would happen if he rammed us. Thoughts of what to grab first in case we had to abandon ship crossed my mind when finally, just thirty feet off our starboard side, the baby whale dove and I watched him pass safely beneath our hull and continue down and out of sight. I breathed a sigh of relief, and was glad I didn’t see another spout the rest of the day.

Golfito, like Quepos, was once a bustling banana export port. Dole had set up a major operation in the bay and its environs and shipped the bananas off to places around the world from here. Then, in the 1980s, disease ravaged the banana crops and Dole moved their operations elsewhere. Since then Golfito has been forced to reshape her image and recast her lot as a tourist town. The local economy has yet to recover, but the inhabitants are upbeat and happy, and the forest-clad bay provides a beautiful, land-locked anchorage.
Three and a half years after my previous visit to the bay I anchored just a stone’s throw away from that very spot, off the big yellow home of the Banana Bay Marina. Though there are a couple different marinas where you can pull alongside a dock, the anchorage is so calm that I had no problem making the short dinghy ride in to Tim and Katy’s Land and Sea Services each day. Tim and Katy are former cruisers who stopped to anchor in Golfito and never left. They have been providing a place for cruisers to leave their dinghy (for a few dollars a day) and gather for years now and are a great source of information on the entire region of Central America.
The town of Golfito basically extends along the shore of the bay in a single main street. Downtown a side street parallels the main one lined with restaurants and clothing stores, and in places a series of roads extend into the hillsides denoting the residential areas. The hills all around are densely covered in tropical forest, concealing the numerous waterfalls which surround the town. At the north end of town lies the “Duty Free Zone,” a massive shopping complex filled with booze, electronics, furniture and appliances—all of which can be purchased duty-free; though beware, foreigners can only shop there one day a year.
Aside from the convenient location of all things from hardware stores and grocery stores to internet cafes and fuel docks Golfito doesn’t lend much to the cruiser. Safe anchorage and modern conveniences are his main attraction to the bay, which is quite polluted and discourages swimming in. Nonetheless I was destined to spend a god deal of time here spread out over the course of a month as Ryan flew home for a break, my father flew in and out, and my cousin John came down for a visit. While in the landlocked bay I made the most of my time, wandering around town and discovering a vast array of cascades on the forest-clad hillsides. I went for long walks in the forest, explored the bay and its mangrove-laden shores by dinghy, and made a couple excursions to nearby Playa Zancudo to catch a couple waves.
At sunset the cruisers gathered on the deck of Land and Sea Services for a beer and some chatter. Familiar faces arrived and left, stories brought laughter and joy to the scene, and the horrors of a day of boatwork were recalled and cursed. Engine and electrical problems were discussed and possible solutions bandied about, and by the time darkness set in all returned to their boats for a hearty meal and a good night’s rest. The community of sailors worldwide is unlike any group of people I’ve ever met. No matter were you are or what type of situation you find yourself in if there’s another sailor around you can be sure he’ll do all he can to help you, and come the end of the day there’ll be beers to cheers and stories to tell. Friendships are fast made and often long lasting. Truly one of the best parts of cruising under sail is the people you meet along the way.

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