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We arrived in the dark. That’s not unusual in Costa Rica which is close to the equator and while we were there, would start to get dark about 6 pm and be completely dark by 7. It does make it tricky in a place, such as Cocles which has lots of properties off the main roads, up rubble roads with only the occasional street light (if you’re lucky). I’d tried to suss out as much in advance as possible where our shuttle could drop us so that we could easily find our Airbnb, but once again, my studying of the map didn’t help much. As we turned onto the road our property was on, I realised it was not the main road I had expected but more of a rubble lane. There were no lights and all the buildings were set back from the road so no distinguishing features. Our shuttle dumped us off at the one place that had lights and disappeared into the night. That is the downside with the shuttles, they are really for drop off/pickup at known hotels. We had all our worldly goods with us and it was really dark and seemed really remote. We made our way down the road and felt relief as we spotted the gate to our accommodation and made our way up the dark slope to the house. We were welcomed by our host, his partner and his dogs – one old boy and one excitable young lady. He then said the most magic words – ‘I’ve cooked some dinner if you would like some?”. We had bought some random food at the terrible supermarket in La Fortuna, but we didn’t really have the inclination or energy to sort anything out ourselves so this was such a relief. It also turned out a great opportunity to get to know our host and find out some things about the area.
We were already awe-struck by the property itself. Surrounded by jungle, this wooden, hand built, rustic wooden house had a completely open downstairs.
Open stairs leading up to the floor above, brought you to a deck with a couple of hammocks and then the bedroom which had a door so was private, but only enclosed if you shut the huge wooden shutters on the windows. There was a bathroom out the back and up a wooden spiral staircase in the middle, a small mezzanine used for storage, but which gave an interesting viewpoint out of the various windows, into the jungle. Our on the deck and also downstairs on the ground floor, there were built in bench seat, which you could sit out positioning you looking out into the jungle. A great spot for sitting and waiting and watching. If you stayed long enough your patience always paid off. We saw everything from butterflies to iguanas to howlers to sloths to pelicans. See more of the animal wildlife we encountered here. There was a pair of binoculars we could use and some books on the native wildlife for cross-checking. The only downside was when I once dropped a teaspoon which, despite much searching in the undergrowth, we never recovered. The jungle takes things you see. Just have to be careful the jungle doesn’t take you!!
The wood used on the house was a hardwood that they are no longer allowed to cut down and use. It really lives up to its title of hardwood. So strong and solid that it’s a struggle even for them to put up hooks and hang things. When they bought it, the jungle had taken it over. The whole structure was covered in moss and blackness. Even now it’s constant work for them to wipe down the wood and prevent the take-back.
At first, we shut the four huge side shutters up at night, but very soon we got accustomed to them being open which made you feel like you were part of the jungle. I’m actually a bit of an outdoors wuss. I’m scared of the dark, I don’t camp. I easily jump at things that go bump in the night. For some reason here though, the only thing I was ever worried about was humans. Potentially there were things that could have come into the room while we slept but I can’t imagine anything would be particularly interested in us. To our utter surprise, this was all, of course, possible because there were virtually no mosquitoes. I had expected nothing but in the jungle. We did use spray most of the time in the day, but the main thing you got bitten by were sand flies and things like that. We were there just before the rainy season was due, so I’m not sure if they are much more of a problem then. If we left the light on to read for long, or even if one of us was left reading a kindle paperwhite with all the other lights off, we would get a bit of a bombardment of moths and bugs. More irritating than anything else. On the upside, in the daytime, we occasionally got a butterfly fluttering through the room. The absolute best, most magical part of having the shutters open was that lightning bugs would come into the room and glow up like little stars around the room. It’s probably one of the most treasured experiences of my life and such a simple little thing. The other joy was you could very clearly hear the jungle wake up in the morning. The howlers often started at around 5.30 am. I’d sometimes get up and listen to them. Other times I’d drift back to sleep – somehow – considering the racket they make (loudest land mammal don’t forget), especially when they’d moved about and were just feet from your window. It has become one of my favourite noises in the world and I should probably try to get some recording to place at bedtime as I’m normally such a terrible sleeper, it’s strange I slept through them so easily. A bit later in the morning, you could hear if the capuchins had decided to venture down for some breakfast bananas. They are quite quiet as they are properly wild and quite nervous, so you’d hear their little noise (which I can’t think how the life of me to describe) intermittently as they tentatively approached. With it being higher pitch, Mark couldn’t hear them as well as me so I’d always announce while half asleep, without even opening my eyes, that the “capuchins are here!”.
The view from bed:
Just below the window you see above, was a vine-like plant that grew on top of the entrance porch to the house. Occasionally you would get a single vine creeping out of the mass. A couple of times I woke in the morning to find that a vine had grown overnight from just sticking out, to almost at the weekend. Again I began to ponder if the jungle was coming for us.
The other more subtle way the jungle gets you is that your clothes quickly start to deteriorate. They become damper and in the three weeks we were there I think things wore out way more quickly than usual. The clothes themselves become a different consistency and texture. I’d forgotten this from being in the tropics before, but it was that little bit extra here. And it gets closer to home. Your skin can start to go a little weird. In this kind of environment, wounds don’t heal as well, but we also started to get mysterious lumps and bumps. In particular, a couple of week in, I started to get these strange bumps across my hand which got harder and multiplied with every day. I was more curious than worried but my one tip would be to never google about getting mysterious bumps in the jungle. You will see and hear things from which you will never recover. I didn’t want to think about how wrapping my hand in bacon or peanut butter would be the only way to lure out what is living under your skin!!!! One of our hosts also had a worst case type scenario after a fly bite down the beach which culminating in some time in a military hospital in Germany under quarantine. Suffice to say, within a few weeks of leaving, things had completely cleared up. I did wonder what would have happened if I’d stayed longer. Was this the jungles way of getting me?!?!? In all seriousness though, weird shit happens to you physically in these environments. The other host said at one point he actually had some mould growing on him. It’s not just sloths!
Food and Drink
The food experience on the Caribbean coast was very different to the Pacific coast, as we experienced it. This is partly as this area is less developed. There was less variety and food generally had a more Caribbean flavour. There wasn’t even much gallo pinto to be had – the local rice and beans was a different entity, often cooked in coconut milk. Eating was generally more rustic and as we were often back before dark, we did a bit of cooking ourselves and were insanely lucky that just down the road a new, quite fancy supermarket had just opened the month before. Although quite small, this was quite a high-end supermarket – a lot of the non-perishable goods in there I was familiar from shopping in Brighton’s nicer food shops – or from Whole Foods. Though the fresh produce was more of a challenge. We learned to buy the local vegetables which would be really cheap and really tasty. But cooking in someone else’s kitchen is always a challenge, so we tended to keep it quite simple. I was delighted to find English Muffins so sometimes dinner would just be grilled cheese on toasted muffins.
Personal Chef and Fruitmaster
When we weren’t eating out, or scraping some kind of meal together, we were incredibly lucky to be able to have meals cooked by our host – a chef by profession, as long as we gave him a bit of notice, he’d cook us up something wonderful. Such skill in the kitchen, but also to turn what he can get his hands on into top quality 3-course meals. I still dream about his schnitzel (that sounds rude I know). Being originally from Germany, he knew how it should be and it was something I wasn’t too enthusiastic about before but am now a complete Schnitzel convert. I’m sure it has something to do with the amount of butter, but so worth any clogged arteries. Even the side dishes were conversation pieces – plantain and cauliflower mash was a revelation. We had a delicious curry another night (so many levels of flavours), Fettucini Alfredo, a Guatemalan night (this was our host’s partner’s speciality – also a trained chef, though his job now is circus performer and teacher). We also had a couple of amazing breakfasts – particularly handy when we’d had an unexpectedly heavy night. Most days, alongside the freshest, most delectable fruit, we’d often get home-made muffins. Sometimes he would have found one of the more unusual fruits for us to try. I loved this. It’s funny how much is out there you don’t know about. This one below, which looks like a brain or some kind of innards, was an unexpected flavour that Mark wasn’t sure about. It was almost nutty. Quite creamy. Water apples tasted just so – like watery apples. My favourite had to be guanábana, also known as soursop. The flesh of this fruit, which looked liked a giant green strawberry, tasted like a smoothie made up of strawberry, banana and lychee.
Our fruit would also often be decorated. What a lovely start to a day that is. I would generally sit with my legs dangling off the side of the house, in our special viewing seat, eating my breakfast and watching the morning goings on in the jungle.
The house was home to two gorgeous specimens, Sammy and Pipa. Pretty much everyone with a property round there has at least one dog. The dog’s job being to protect the house from intruders of the four-legged or more importantly two-legged kind. I think this is why we were so chilled out having the bedroom opened up – a dog really is the best alarm system going. Sammy was the old man of the house and Pipa was the young whippersnapper with a penchant for chasing racoons and wild horses. We spent more than one evening watching a racoon, oh so slowly, make it’s way down the tree branches towards the bananas that are put out for the Capuchins. Forty or so minutes in, it’d almost be there and Pipa would get wind of it and come tearing out of the house, sending the racoon scuttling back into the bushes. The stupid thing was that Pipa had no way of getting to the racoon so he could have just gotten a banana and sat eating it while blowing raspberries down at her on the ground. Poor old racoon.
Sammy was old and a little stinky and scratchy, but you could not not fall in love with him and his gorgeous bear-like face. We called him Sammy bear. We even got used to his late night scratching sessions, which on the wooden deck made a right racket and at first you’d wonder what the hell was going on. Noises are loud around wood and especially at night.
Water, wifi and weeping
As expected our bathroom had a suicide shower which was a little temperamental on the hot water front but we don’t generally worry about such things. What we weren’t expecting. Nobody was expecting was a fault in the mains water which cut off much of the village. They’d only actually got mains water a couple of years before, so it wasn’t a very sophisticated system and I believe they only get it for a portion of the year anyhow. Everyone generally had water backup solutions – massive tanks they could fill. But there were two problems with this. First of all, although by mid-February the rainy season should have started to kick in, it had barely rained (lucky for us, or so we thought), so the backup tanks weren’t full. So you order in your water, which is a completely normal thing to do in these parts, but with so many people unexpectedly cut off, these water delivery services were well in demand. They’d promise to be turning up that afternoon and turn up day or two later. We got savvy to this and stocked up on large water bottles whenever we were getting a taxi home (couldn’t carry it all that way back up that hill). We did end up being unkempt and unsavoury for part of the time, but hey, that’s jungle living. Our hosts proved to us, once again, that we would not be cut out for such a lifestyle when they would head off with a wheelbarrow to pick up huge, heavy water dispensing bottles. It definitely reminds you what precious resource water is when you have to eke it out. There’s no need to discuss rationing toilet flushing here – I’m sure your imaginations can see that could be an interesting scenario. Once again we learned the joy in the simple things. Oh, it was surely time to celebrate when the water truck finally turned up!!!
During the day, the downstairs was open to the young German volunteers from the Jaguar Rescue Center to hang out as they were staying in dorms across the road. They would also for a fee get their laundry done and buy home-made cakes and treats in an honesty bar style. Let’s be honest. They were mainly there for the wifi. The wifi in general in Costa Rica was really good and even up in this out of the way spot – we had better wifi than we do at home in Spain. You generally didn’t hear a pip out of the young’uns, as they were mostly glued to their phones. They did start to get a little cheeky and stretch the hours they were turning up later and later. I think someone had cottoned on to the fact that our host went to bed really early and was a soft touch anyhow. There was one night when they were really late and really noisy and we had to be grumpy grown-ups and complain. But that was just a one-off. Most evenings we had the evenings and nights to ourselves. We wanted less and less to go out and often ate out early so we could get home and enjoy our hammock time. Luckily we were interspersing our hammock time with some long walks or we could have ended up completely sloth like ourselves.
It was very, very hard to leave this house when it was time to go. We loved the house, we love the surroundings, we loved our hosts, we loved their food, we loved the dogs and we loved all the critters and creatures that had visited while we had been there. We were both a little choked up as we said our goodbyes. Would definitely love to go back and although not a retreat, it was our retreat and definitely somewhere really special and rather enchanting. But our bodies and our clothes needed to escape before the jungle took us for good and we were looking forward to a good long shower in our bland San Jose airport hotel.