As the rainy season starts to draw back and its healing powers have restored the earth; the smell of wet soil is replaced by the smell of warm salty sand, captivating the city by drawing signals in the skies with colourful sunsets, confirming the arrival of the dry season.
The beach is once again ready to receive thousands of local and foreign thirsty tourists that want to squeeze the vitamin D out of the sunlight rays that are revitalized by the fresh waters of the Costarican Pacific coast. Year after year it feels like there are fewer spots to visit on the Pacific coast, that avoids the constant migration of people, making vacation looks like an overwhelming feeling of rushing in to get the best spot at the beach, finding a table at the restaurant with a sunset view or getting the best sunbed by the pool. You end up racing to relax.
I went out to find new frontiers and discovered the freedom in doing micro-adventures without going against the flow of people entering my favourite destinations. There is nothing wrong with sharing the beach with other tourists, but you can always find a balance that will revitalize your lost energy and bring back the radiance in the essence of being deeply satisfied and joyous while on holidays. The key is to step out of the normal routine and leave room to change.
I packed light early that morning, without really knowing where I was heading. I just knew I wanted something different from the hotel-beach-hotel routine, so I asked one of the hotel's staff if he knew where I could rent a small boat with a captain to take me around the Golfo de Nicoya. Once I had some "tico directions" I drove to the "Puerto" (Puntarenas Port Town) and with some references I had from the "address", I asked some fishermen who were preparing a fishing net if they knew where I could find someone that could take me to Chira Island, a place recommended by the guy at the hotel. They all stared at me like if I said something wrong, but luckily I soon realized the "Puerto" people are friendly and welcoming; so they explained to me that taking that boat ride from "El Puerto" will be extremely expensive; as close as it might look on a map, the island was very far from there.
They recommended I should take a small ferryboat from a village about an hour from where I met the fishermen, there I could leave my car at a "Soda" (small typical restaurant) and take the boat that would finally take me to Chira Island.
I arrived at the village where the small ferry was supposed to dock. The place didn't seem to be very inviting at all. I left my car at the "Soda" a bit insecure, but after talking to the owner I felt safer, he seemed liked a very nice, humble man. I asked him about the ferry and he told me:
"It should be docking in about 40 minutes, in the meantime, you can try some ceviche at the bar right in front of us". It proved me wrong about how the small town seemed, it might not be the most inviting of all places, but once again, people showed me that they make the most part of the warmth of a destiny. Soon, the bartender brought me an ice-cold beer and free ceviche, the old fashion Costa Rican way (Costa Rica used to have a bar system; you ordered a beer and they'll give a small appetizer for free).
I was now sitting inside the small boat with very few people that I guessed worked or lived on the Island. I was excited to finally arrive at a new destination where I was eager to explore and meet new people.
The movement of the waves hypnotized me and made me think about how islands are created? And how do people or/and animals end up in these isolated seamounts? My mind started to ramble and all I could see were angry volcanoes, millions of years ago; almost on an apocalyptic red landscape where lava steamed up the same waters I was captivated with, creating layers and layers until they break the water's surface...and then I saw land. We had arrived at the shore and a funny-looking bus stop welcomed the small boat in front of an empty, big bar over the rocky shore.
I asked how I could get around the island and a lady suggested me to wait for the bus and ask the driver; he obviously knows everyone and everywhere on the island. When the bus arrived, I told the driver if he knew somewhere I could spend the night. He recommended a place on the extreme opposite side of the island from where I was, so the ride felt a bit long, but that way I managed to see the landscape and the people hopping in and off the bus.
I arrived at a street where there was just a "pulpería" (very small mini-super), and the house next to it was my "cabina", where a family rented a room on the second floor of their house. Lucky for me, there was no one else, so I got the room and with it, the nice lady who was in charge prepared a delicious "casado" (typical Costa Rican dish) with fried fish.
I rested for a while on a hammock hanging on the porch of the house and my mind started rumbling about how one usually thinks that having freedom is when you manage to have everything under your control, but freedom actually should be the opposite as circumstances will take over you; thus end up controlling you. Freedom is that feeling when there's nothing under your control and you're left with nothing but your ability to re-invent yourself under new environments, to find out who you really are. I woke up from that thought and decided I should get a bike to ride around the island. The warmth of the family I was living with, lent me one of their own bikes. I got lost without any worries at all, riding through dirt roads shadowed by green trees and dry land on the sides, until I arrived at a white sandy beach. I took a break from the heat in the isolated shore, took my shoes off, and felt the cold floor on my feet while scrubbing them under the warm sand layers. Until I fully relaxed lying in the sand, I didn't realize there was a family doing a BBQ some meters from where I was relaxing. I was so thirsty I didn’t mind going to them and ask them to sell me a spare beer; they not only gave me a beer, they shared with me some of their BBQ, which was great!
Going back to my "cabina" I felt that freedom of moving at my own pace and whim, so I made one last stop at another beach, a really weird one, as it was covered with climbing plants and trees, I tried to go through it on my bike, but it just got thicker and heavier to move around, so I turned back until I reached small sheds by the beach, where I guess fishermen kept their tools and boats. I was later told that Chira Island contains the most intact flora biodiversity of tropical dry forest. What I love about dry forests are the smells; the fresh breeze brought up that beach freshness of vacation scent, but it also brought some awareness of the smells there have might been when on a busy day for fishermen. I was feeling deep gratification and joy, which somehow made my senses sharper.
Islands have a unique setting for biodiversity as I learned; it’s due to how they have a self-conservation system and different evolution and natural selection of both flora and fauna compared to the one we have on the mainland.
I was told that El Golfo de Nicoya wasn't a gulf, it was part of the mainland at one point, but due to a geological fault, it caused the land to submerge, leaving exposed many hills, which are now islands; Chira is the second largest in Costa Rica. This is impressive and very interesting, I thought of it as a land similar to Atlantis or those ancient underwater civilizations, but this one left some evidence of its existence and I wanted to know more about these formations that managed to stay out of the water.
The next day I didn't wake up with the sense of a hurry, so I took things slowly; I had a typical Costa Rican breakfast and asked my lovely hosts to please drive me to the small ferry back to the mainland. This micro-adventure had ended, but I wanted more! We humans have branded in our DNA the prerequisite of living outdoors and like the first humans, they lived in contact with nature; every day was an adventure for them and that urge was driving me to exploit that sense of belonging.
I got back to the mainland and managed to find my way to another dock, where this time a captain would drive me to another smaller island, a place that holds a dark chapter of Costa Rica and its penitentiary system. The island is infamously known in a book as "The Island of Lost Souls" (loosely translated from its original title in Spanish: "La Isla de Los Hombres solos) sometimes compared as to the Latin-American "Papillon". The book takes you through the tragedy and suffering the author lived while in prison, a detention center built in San Lucas Island.
Getting near the dock in San Lucas, you start to breathe its mystery, and as soon as the boat's engine stops...silence...complete silence, not even the sound of the breeze moving the leaves. I'm now walking on a path that leads to the main entrance when horrifying deep growls suddenly interrupt the stillness. As the screaming sounds get closer and closer I manage to see the source, two howling monkeys up on a tree, welcoming the captain and me to the island. The whole place is pure creepiness and if you like dark tourism this is a great spot. The captain told me stories about what went on in there; prisoners trying to escape and getting eaten by sharks, torture, murder, and more, it's hard to believe this Island was shut down until the early '90s.
"...it is old and has many memories, there are bad dreams for those who sleep unwisely." - Dracula
It's amazing how long it takes nature to creepy crawl around and inside the abandoned infrastructures. Bats sleep inside the darkest corners of the empty rooms, waiting for the night. Howler monkeys warn every other species about an intrusion and large insects drone all around you, patrolling and inspecting from the sky. Light leaks from the wooden cracks, unveiling small stories on the walls told by large graffiti left behind, evidence of "the miserable life in prison" ("Qué miseria se ve en prisión" - saw it written on one of the walls). There is a rumor that says some of the graffiti is painted with blood, the stories are a bit gruesome to share here, but their statement on the walls shows us how deprivation of liberty can be so toxic, even in a beautiful natural place surrounded by white sand beaches.
There is nothing like to feel freedom, just like the exploding volcanoes that millions of years ago created this land, releasing its energy to break through the water and breath the exuberant passion for life! Don't take this for granted, I compare it with the unique biodiversity you can find on these islands; you too can create opportunities to find a unique individual essence in sync with a busy balanced life.
Story & Photos by: Juancho Otalvaro
Apdo 799 – 1007
San José, Costa Rica
Licenced by the Costa Rican Tourist Board: Lic ICT OT 294
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