Destination: sweet, verdant, diminutive, demilitarized Costa Rica. I hadn’t been for more than 30 years, when being an independent traveller meant a toughened bum from endless bumps on jarring, ramshackle buses. But the sight of a storied DC-3 drifting over the hills and swooping down on the tiny, deserted runway of Quepos to carry us back to San José was worth every ache and pain. I felt like Errol Flynn in one of those jungle movies. That was then.
There were no DC-3’s or local buses on this trip. Since some friends were coming along, we opted for a package tour, organized by a British adventure tour company. It was far from luxury, but it exacted a good chunk of change, nevertheless, and promised access to top sites, exotic birds, and beach. Not everything went well. I like a good whine when I know about. (Rest assured i loved the trip, just having fun with the stuff that went wrong. Not to be taken too seriously.…)
- Black Top cab to the airport didn’t arrive for 25 minutes. When unapologetic driver finally showed up, he refused to take us to the airport! “It’s the end of my shift,” he said. Unbelievable. We called another taxi and still made our flight. But never again, Black Top.
- We were booked into the Tournon Hotel, on the fringes of a dodgy area of San José. I soon thought of it as the Tournoff Hotel. Cheerless. Sad, intermittent shower. Far worse was the din after dark. Just outside our room, cars and motorcycles roared by all night. Sleep, perchance to toss and turn.
- On night number two, the wee small hours were even noisier. Traffic streaming by. Then the sound of an accident. Bang! Angry voices. Arguments. Shouting. Not long afterwards: “Pow!” Gunshot? Blown tire? We didn’t check. More yelling. The overnight symphony was capped by earsplitting music from someone’s “ghetto blaster” at 4 a.m. At least we had something to talk about over our pretty-awful breakfast of ice-cold camembert served with broken crackers.
- As we gathered to board our mini-bus for the outlying charms of Costa Rica, we discovered the tour company couldn’t count. There weren’t the 12 voyagers on the company’s list, but 16 of us. Head-scratching by the tour guide, delays, repacking of luggage on the roof instead of inside the mini-bus. Full-up seating. Oh well, they were only out by 33 per cent. Math is hard.
- By the time we left, it was raining. Hard. Off we went to Poas Volcano, still active and featuring one of the largest craters in the world, plus a pristine crater lake. This is what we saw.
Here’s our happy group, actually chilled, besides being wet and miserable. The tropics, you say? 6. Overnight at La Fortuna. Because of the numbers snafu, our room was at the back of the rather nice motel, our only view one of whitewashed walls. Because chairs were put outside all those rooms facing the lush, tropical vegetation fronting the motel, we had chairs, too, for a delightful view of the wall, 10 feet away. 7. Next day we hiked a trail for a view of the spectacular, coned Arenal Volcano, which erupted in 1968 after hundreds of years of dormancy, destroying three villages and killing 87 people. One of Costa Rica’s most iconic images was enshrouded in thick clouds. This was as much of it as we saw.
- 8. After a long, afternoon drive over some devilish, “oh my god” roads, we crawled into the marvellous rainforest area of Monteverde. The rain stopped. There was even a rainbow. Our reward? Demotion from the two-star lodgings listed on our agenda into the rustic, one star, Jardines Hotel. No explanation. The sign was not encouraging.
Ours was fine, but rooms for some others in our group were so bad – windowless, containing bunk beds and not much else –alternative accommodation had to be found for them in town. Forceful, overnight winds rattled the more rickety rooms, blowing one person’s medical bag, complete with her diabetes kit, off the sink counter into the toilet bowl.
- Still tired, still grumpy, we travelled to our morning destination, the justly-celebrated Monteverde Rainforest. The tour company’s local agents failed to forward our pre-paid entrance fees, forcing us to fork out $17 from our own pockets. We did get the money back – the morning of our departure.
- Foregoing the adventuresome Zip Line, we opted for the more sedate Cloud Walk featuring hanging bridges through the tops of the rain forest. By the end, we were drenched by the driving, persistent rain. “Well, they do call it a rain forest,” a sodden somebody said. (Disclosure: despite the downpour, we loved every moment of it. Really a marvellous part of the world.)
- Despite all the ballyhoo and those hundreds of postcards of colourful amphibians, we saw no frogs. Not one.
Oh, all right. Even I can’t winge forever about a trip to a place as beautiful as Costa Rica. We saw many, truly wonderful birds, lots of wild monkeys, a three-toed sloth, an anteater, iguanas, crocodiles and a zillion vultures. The beaches, which we hit after the rainforest, were fabulous, and the living was easy. It’s always nice to be in a country with a national public health system and no army. “Pura Vida.” But next time, no tour company. Our way home was eased by the magical appearance of the world’s first rock video: Bob Dylan doing Subterranean Homesick Blues (with Allan Ginsberg in the background), amid the humdrum dining atmosphere of the LA International Airport. “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows…”