Date: by the pool, San Bosco Inn, La Fortuna, Costa Rica.
Location: 20 December 2020
Fun fact. I started this blog for an Intrepid trip, all that time ago in 2014. Before 5G, before Baby Shark, before TikTok, before Influencers Were A Thing. Before I moved to London. Before Zoom. Before even could conceptualise ‘pandemic’ beyond it as an apocalypse movie’s far- fetched plot device (as if they could shut down London lol). I’ve been a patchy correspondent since. Sometimes there’s just not much to report — would you like to hear me bitch about work and rabble on about how much I love my boyfriend and yet can simultaneously wonder how easy/difficult it would be to dispose of a body?). But I’ve been a loyal one.
And here I am starting another Intrepid tour. Last time I devoted a significant number of column inches to gossiping about my travel companions. I won’t be doing that this time — not because I don’t want to, nor because I lack hilarious insights to share. I simply feel like I have less desire to spend time on my iPad to write this time around. Yes, shockingly, spending 3 months unemployed in India affords one a significant amount of time for self reflection and scrawling scathing commentary. Instead, I’ll try to keep this on topic.
First topic, our first night of the Intrepid tour. A home stay at ecological communal farm, Juanilama at Santa Rosa.
Intrepid bloody loves to do home stays. They farm you out to lovely locals — sometimes those living without electricity, signal or even a roof — to expose you to a region’s unfiltered culture, yes, sure, there’s some of that, but also to scare the bejesus out of you and really sharpen your appreciation for what comes on your adventure. Every hotel room is the Shangri-La after that. This trip is no exception.
The seven of us on this Intrepid trip — plus one guide and one driver — pile into our little bus and drive from San José (definitely a hole), via a series of rustic roadside service stops, to Juanilama. There’s a dirt road rambling over little hills and little rivers, twisting into the jungle. The houses are squat, colourful little blocks with satellite dishes sticking out at odd angles like robot arms. There are chickens and dogs running about, dodging the roaming cows. We are greeted by a line of Costa Rican women of varying shapes and sizes in a communal covered outdoor space, a kitchen at one end, long tables around the edges, the jungle rearing up threateningly behind. They introduce themselves in Spanish. We all try to do the same. Then we (try to) help them make tortillas over hot coals for lunch and, finally, tuck into those, along with some truly great chicken, rice and salads.
We then troop around a section of the farm for two hours (yes, it’s cute to see, but two hours in the sun in a mask would scorch even Heston’s enthusiasm for local produce). The only things I now remember are that (a) citronella is a plant (I had no idea, I genuinely thought it was made at Bunnings or something) and (b) that Juanilama is a type of peppermint. Then we “help” grind cocoa beans to make a paste which, when mixed with the milk of the cow just over there, makes the most incredible hot chocolate. We also try the local moonshine, guaro, for the first time. My mood improves.
We are then each assigned to a matriarch and pile into cars to settle in for the night. We are with Guiselle. She doesn’t speak a word of English, and nor does her husband. We join them in the car and drive ten minutes up winding hills in the dark. As our travel companions disappear in the rear view mirror I feel a bit like a Ronald Dahl character, taken away from my cozy familiar life by a villainous aunt and uncle to scrub floors for my dinner…
My dramatic reaction is utterly unfounded. (As per usual, yes, I know.)
Home for the night is a little cabin, across the garden from Guiselle’s little main house. In the middle is a packed dirt courtyard, the outdoor kitchen. There are sheep and an obnoxious goat. There are three cats and we have a little private bathroom. I am charmed.
We attempt to help with dinner — we are only allowed to assist with the salad — and then sit down to a lovely meal of home made tortillas, frijoles, chicken (I have this awful feeling there is one less chicken dodging those cows now) and salad. I don’t speak Spanish beyond my coffee and drinks orders but this did not for one second stop Guiselle’s husband from speaking to me in rapid fire Spanish for an hour. I probably gleamed about 10% of it. However, it was enough to learn about his Major League Baseball team, to learn that the village hosts many tourists (over 2000 a year) and about how hard this year has hit them, and to talk about Christmas traditions in Costa Rica (the whole family, lamb, cervezas and then river swimming) and Aussie ones (seafood and maybe the beach).
After I fail to lure one of the lovely cats into our cabin, we’re in bed, utterly exhausted, by 8pm.
The next morning — after a simple, early breakfast of the ubiquitous gallo pinto, eggs and ham (the best breakfast I’ve had here yet) — we’re back on the road and headed for Las Chicas, by the Nicaraguan border. Wealthy Costa Rica soon gives way to the fringes of its poorer neighbour. The dwellings become more humble, the roadside advertising very basic, the ‘sodas’ (tiny local diners) modest one-room affairs.
At Las Chicas, we board a long, tin boat to cruise the waterways of Caña Negra. We’re the only boat on the waterways. And there are only seven of us on a boat made for thirty. Our boat’s clones lay empty and rusting by the dock. It’s the first time I’ve really seen the impact of COVID on the country whose primary export is tourism. I feel, briefly, very sad indeed, and try to focus on what our guide is telling us as we cruise along some very average-looking jungle canals. They are actually not average at all. In the space of a few hours we see caimans and capuchins, howler monkeys and the Jesus Christ Lizard (it walks on water.) I actually howl with delight when we see our first sloth. This, too, is a magical place and I hope that, soon, other sloth-loving tourists can come howl at its delights.