Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Cahuita, Costa Rica

In Cahuita, Costa Rica, we’ve never had a need for an alarm clock. You can rely on the Howler monkeys to wake you every morning at dawn. Cahuita’s national park and the forest that surrounds it are filled with large families of howler and white-faced monkeys, like the one above, whose deep guttural sounds are intimidating the first morning you awake to them. When you finally spot the source of it - these cute, and even friendly little buggers - you are amazed that they can emit such deep, gorilla-like sounds. The howler monkeys are just one of the many reasons we keep coming back to Cahuita, rich in multiculturalism and biodiversity.

Earthy, crunchy….natural, charming, quaint and Caribbean, are all good words to describe Cahuita, which is a nice blend of Latino, rasta-fari and European culture. Its popular among surfers and big on ecotourism. The region has its own distinct Caribbean flavor, influenced by an influx of Jamaican laborers who worked the banana fields at the beginning of the 20th century, following the construction of the Atlantic Railroad. The dependency on the unreliable, if not exploitative banana trade has recently been overcome by government investment in sustainable tourism.

The main village of Cahuita consists of two main dirt roads without a town center – the main road ending at the National Park. The atmosphere is relaxed, with a great mix of tourists and locals of all ages, and the lingering scent of ganja in the air. There are coffee shops, a handful of small grocery stores and restaurants. There’s also a European influence seen and felt in the Italian and international gourmet eateries, surf shops and cabanas.

The local flavor is a blend of Latino and Caribbean influences – where rice, beans and plantains meet Caribbean curries. When you first glance at a menu, the choices seem overwhelming, but have no fear - you’ll eat whatever meat or seafood is available. My favorite dish was the pulpo (octopus) in coconut curry, served up on New Year’s Eve with a funny story.

A cute frog hopped along the edge of the wall next to our table in a packed restaurant. He came from the roof, and it seemed he was quite lost, high atop this balcony eatery. He was no small frog – wide-mouthed, tan & green and four inches in length. Stephen dared me to try to catch him and carry him to safety. I couldn’t resist, and almost had him in my grip before the slippery little sucker launched forward and landed smack in the middle of a lady’s back, seated at the next table.

I let out a gasp before covering my mouth in hysterics. Stephen thought this scene was terrific, but also felt the need to inform the lady which initiated a string of events. He tapped her on the shoulder, and upon receiving the news, jumped, causing the frog to jump into her hair. As she began flailing around, the rest of her party jumped to her aid, knocking over beer bottles. The frog leaped to the next table, which subsequently jumped and shrieked and now the whole restaurant was involved, including the servers who were trying to capture the frog. We couldn’t stop laughing at the mayhem I started, if only they knew.

The main attraction is Parque Nacional Cahuita, a huge expanse of both natural rainforest (2,711 acres) and the adjacent shoreline that includes 600 acres of coral reefs. Preserved by the government. It’s well-maintained, with beautiful sand, boardwalk and a 4 mile forest trail that winds right along the beach.

In the forest, you can spot sloths sleeping in the trees. During our second trip to Cahuita, we visited the Avarios Sloth Reserve, where we saw many cuties like the one above, who were rescued when they fell prey to disease or development. One had lost an arm when electrocuted on some telephone wires. A baby born with a central nervous disorder, was unable to cling to its mother and abandoned at the base of the tree. Avarios was featured on Jack Hannah’s Animal Kingdom, which spurred our second trip to Cahuita in 2006.

While sloths spend most of their lives in the tree tops and are harder to spot, the 4 mile long park trail is teeming with monkeys, iguanas, raccoons, birds, butterflies and other reptiles. We’ve seen the occasional armadillo or anteater scurry across the paths. The raccoons tend to linger, knowing that where there are humans, there is also junkfood.

Birdlife abounds in the canopies and tropical streams: herons, toucans, parrots, and macaws. All kinds of sea turtles nest near Punta Vargas, where according to our National Geographic Costa Rica guide, “the waves help bring them in at high tide.”

In past trips, Stephen and I have walked right into spider webs spanning less traveled parts of the trail, deep into the forest. It was the first time I’ve ever seen anything startle Stephen as he forged ahead, smack into a web stretching from one side of the path to the other. In the middle of these huge webs were gnarly looking spiders that span the length of an adult hand. This enduring image combined with my malaria medication, invoked vivid dreams in which the mosquito net above our bed became the web I found myself entangled in. The dark shadows of the room turned into long, hairy spindly legs that startled me right out of my sleep. I flew out of that bed like a bolt of lightning, screaming, “spider, spider!” as Stephen flicked on the lights and began searching under the bed for the monster that was about to eat me.

On this trip, we packed a lunch one day and hiked to a more remote part of the beach, where we spread out our blanket and dozed off. We awoke to a masked bandit, far more plump (and apparently more skillful) than the one above, attempting to open our bag of goodies. He was so damn cute, it was hard to be cross with him, and he casually strolled away (obviously a Caribbean raccoon) when Stephen yelled at him to get lost.

Costa Rica abounds with reptiles, including over 160 types of snakes. We found this little guy, whom we think is either a common arboreal snake or the “chunk-headed” snake that preys on amphibians. He was casually hanging out in full view, along the edge of the trail. Stephen, being a snake lover, had no problem getting up close and personal for a photo. While the shape of his head looks threatening, we believe he is one of the more harmless types. We once passed a huge boa, crushed when attempting to cross the highway. Reminded of Lucy, who couldn’t come on the boat, but is finally living a fulfilled life as a new mama, Stephen immediately turned the car around to try to help him along, but it was too late.

Before leaving the park, we encountered un mono loco who was both engaging and frightening trail walkers. He was exceptionally friendly until the moment you wanted to walk away. He walked upright far more than scampering along on all fours, as though he believed himself to be human too. There are signs in the park that forbid the feeding of monkeys, and I wondered if he had landed some sugary junk food. As I snapped away with the camera, he walked right over to a spider web, plucked the gangly thing right out of the center, popped it in his mouth and crunched away. As Stephen began to turn his back on him, he crinkled up his little forehead and bared his teeth to show his displeasure. Unsure as to whether he might pounce, we slowly slinked away until we saw a new group of tourists approaching. Then we made a break for it to leave them discover just how cute this monkey was.

Stephen and I continue to stay at Siami Lodge at the quiet end of town. Sia Tami is down a dirt road, and is teeming with wildlife, since the property is at the edge of the park. There are several identical houses – all two bedroom, that go for $50 a night. The houses are cozy and airy, with beautifully landscaped yards: banana plants, coconut trees, huge fan palms, wildflowers and tropical plants that line the walkways. I could spend a month renting a place on this tranquilo property, where we had a howler monkey living amongst the trees in our front yard.

A French pastry chef and his children were actually renting the house across from us on a long term basis. We got well-acquainted with them the first night we made dinner and our kitchen utensils started breaking. I made my introduction with a half opened can and a second visit when our wine opener broke off mid-cork. When the final instrument broke, I told Stephen it was his turn, and he returned with a full box of éclairs for dessert!

We bought a lot of groceries in town to make use of the huge kitchen, but had sticker shock when we discovered the high taxes factored into the cost of everything, particularly wine and beer. After reading about how much Costa Rica typically invests in education, healthcare and the preservation of its climate, I wanted to believe that high taxes resulted in an improved state of well-being for all. But a local businessman shared his viewpoint on a top-heavy government, rife with corruption. Hmm….wherever you go, there you are. Or, same shit, different country.

Just the same, we were enjoying a vacation away from the boat and made good use of the house with hours spent on the front porch. Since we had seen much of Cahuita in the previous two years, I enjoyed doing a lot of nothing, like: rocking in a hammock with a good book, watching the sporadic rain fall and add color to all the landscaping, and sipping on coffee while observing our resident monkey in his tree.

One evening, I took a stroll down the lane, and encountered the monkey on the ground. He had just come down from the tree, and the family dog from across the way came galloping towards him. The monkey froze, upright in mid-stride. The dog froze too, and they locked eyes for a second before the monkey took off to join his family in the big tree at the end of the drive. For a moment, I worried what might happen if the dog caught him, but as the monkey reached the base of the next tree, the dog had a clear shot and let him get ahead before nipping playfully at his tail. The dog clearly just wanted to play.

On New Year’s Eve, the most popular local reggae and latino bar was overflowing with gringos, latinos and rastas, and was playing music for everyone. Up until midnight, locals paired off – some of the Latino men grabbing gringas to show them how to salsa. Then came the fireworks. Rewind the tape to early that afternoon, when Stephen wondered aloud what kind of a homegrown display we were in for. “I’m sure it will be somewhat official,” I answered, adding something about “Costa Rica seems especially interested in the safety of its people.” Fast forward to midnight: locals are launching small rockets of TNT in the middle of the street.

As they exploded just above our heads, I was trying to admire them while also ducking for cover. The embers and debris were raining down on the tin roofs and in the street around us, with a sound akin to hail. Less than 15 feet from where we stood, a man lit a firework while holding a baby on his hip. A band of rastas began a serious drumming session inside the bar to commence the mayhem. The fireworks were never ending, sporadically erupting well into the following afternoon. The walk home was precarious, like walking through a landmine of explosives combusting at street level.

The climate is so diverse, that within hours you can travel from tropical beaches to dense cloud forest in the Central highlands where most of the population lives. There’s a volcanic chain of mountains, including the still active Arenal, where resorts have been set up around the resulting hot springs. The entire landscape spans 12 “ecological zones” that include: “tidal mangroves, dry deciduous forest, tropical rain forest, subalpine grassland, and cactus covered, desert-dry savanna, (National Geographic guide).” Of all the places we’ve been thus far, Cahuita remains at the top of our favorite places to escape to. At every turn, there is amazing vegetation and wildlife. The beach is gorgeous. The culture respects the land, with 25 percent protected in wildlife reserves or national parks.”

The free and relaxed atmosphere of this town is the reason we keep coming back and even fantasizing about buying a plot later in life. The main highway was recently paved and we’ve noticed a huge difference in traffic just over the past few years. The increased accessibility is both good and concerning, but so far the growth seems positive and controlled. We love it here because it’s unpretentious and has a colorful populatin with virtually no class distinction or animosity between races. The people are good-natured and the whole town has a raw, natural beauty – but is developed with enough creature comforts that you don’t have to feel like you’re roughing it to enjoy it.

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